Saturday, December 31, 2016

Jaya Ganesha, Lord of New Beginnings!

As we stand poised on the threshold of a new year, we can all take a deep breath, exhale all that the past year has brought us, and breathe in all the possibility that awaits us in 2017.
It is customary in the Hindu/yogic tradition to invoke Ganesha, the Lord of beginnings, of success, and the remover of obstacles, at the start of any new endeavor. He is also honored at the beginning of rituals and ceremonies, and kirtan (Hindu call and response devotional chanting) typically begins with a chant to Ganesha.

Ganesha is one of the most beloved Hindu gods. He is also known by the name Ganapati, as well as many other epithets. He is the child of Shiva and Parvati (who were the very first yogis). He has an elephant head with huge ears, and a pot-bellied body of a human. He is often depicted riding on a mouse. Volumes have been written about the rich symbolism of the images, and there are many colorful stories about how he came to have an elephant’s head. If you have an interest in delving into the mythology, here are a few sites you can visit:
Encyclopedia Mythica

Ganesha is also associated with the Muladhara Chakra, the energy center at the base of the spine. It is said that he guards the gate of the Kundalini (spiritual energy) that lies coiled there.

Here is a mantra that is typically chanted to call upon the power of Ganesha (Ganapati) at the beginning of a new undertaking:


OM: The primordial sound of the universe. 
GAM: the bija, or “seed” mantra of Ganesha (pronounced somewhat like the English word “gum”). Bijas hold the vibrational/energetic power of particular deities.
GANAPATAYE: “unto Ganapati”
NAMAHA: “I bow to; I honor; I offer myself to”

So, this mantra can be translated as:

I offer myself to Ganesha, the Lord of beginnings and the remover of obstacles.

Mantras can be sung, spoken aloud, or repeated silently to oneself. It is helpful to use a mala (string of prayer beads) to count repetitions and help keep awareness on the mantra.

I want to emphasize that one does not need to believe in a literal deity in order to sing and benefit from mantra practice. There are many ways we can relate to the sacred Names. Some people find that the mythology, stories, and images associated with the various gods and goddesses help them connect with the Divine Energy by providing concrete forms. Others can better relate to the deities as representations of qualities or energies that are within us. So, as we chant to Ganesha, we are invoking the ability to embrace the new, and to clear away any stale energy, negative thinking, or unhealthy habits that have become hindrances to becoming our best self.

There are many recordings of chants to Ganesha. Some of my favorites are by MC Yogi, who creatively blends hip-hop rhythms with traditional Sanskrit chants, and cleverly weaves in the symbolism and mythology into a rap song with a danceable beat. Check out his songs “Elephant Power “ and “Ganesh is Fresh” (available on iTunes) if you want to learn more about and celebrate Ganesha in a fun way.

And, if I may toot my own horn a bit, here a link to a chant to Ganesha by my band, One Love:

May the coming year be a wonderful discovery, with just the right balance of joy and challenge, giving and receiving, solitude and companionship, activity and stillness. May we dance lightly with all those polarities, always returning to the peaceful center.  May your new beginnings be auspicious and your path be clear as you move in the direction of your dreams. Jai Ganesha!

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Roots and Wings: Extended Hand-to-Toe Pose

I love the wonderful juxtaposition of expansion and rootedness that is called forth in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana. Extended Hand-to-Big Toe Pose is an intermediate yoga posture that stretches the backs of your legs while challenging your balance.

First, let’s break down the the Sanskrit name for this pose, to fully understand it’s meaning:
Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana comes from five words:
“Utthita” — meaning “extended”
“Hasta”— meaning “hand”
“Pada” — meaning “foot”
“Angusta” — meaning “big toe”
“Asana” — meaning “pose”

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana strengthens and stretches the legs and ankles. It deeply stretches the hamstrings while gently opening the hips, shoulders, and arms. This pose challenges and improves your balance, while developing greater concentration and focus.

Warm up and prepare for this pose by starting with Supta Hasta Padangustasana (essentially the same pose, lying on your back). The supine version allows you to assimilate the mechanics of the pose into your mind and body.  By first practicing the pose on the floor with the pull of gravity working in your favor, you can open the hamstrings and the work with the hip flexion and neutralization of the pelvis in a more easeful way.  There are three main variations of this asana as well as its standing counterpart. 

The first directs simply the lift and extension of one leg while the other acts to strengthen and stabilize:

The second version abducts and externally rotates the lifted leg:

The final version realigns the lifted leg at the midline then revolves the torso:

All of the above can be performed with straps placed around the instep of the raised foot. This allows you to keep your shoulder relaxed while reaching for your foot:

To perform standing:

Begin standing in Mountain Pose with your feet together and arms at your sides. Breathe deeply and draw your awareness to the present moment. Let your mind be calm.

Shift your weight to your left foot. Very slowly, draw your right knee up toward your chest. Bring your right arm to the inside of your right thigh. Then loop your index and middle fingers around your right foot’s big toe. Place your left hand on your left hip.

Straighten your spine. Strongly engage your abdominal muscles and the muscles of your left leg. Straighten your left leg, but do not lock your knee. On an exhalation, extend your right leg forward. Straighten your right leg as much as possible, perpendicular to the body and parallel to the floor.

Keep both hips squared forward and keep your spine straight. Do not scrunch your neck or shoulders; keep them soft and relaxed. Drop your right hip slightly so it is in line with your left hip. Bring your awareness to your midline — the line that runs directly down the center of your body.

Hold for 5-20 breaths. To release, draw your knee back into your chest, then slowly lower your foot to the floor. Come back to Mountain Pose. Then repeat on the opposite side for the same amount of time.

Remember: It’s more important to keep your spine straight and your shoulders relaxed than it is to straighten your lifted leg. You can keep your lifted leg bent, or use a strap if you need to, but be sure your spine stays tall and upright throughout the pose.

For help with balance, try this pose with your free hand against a wall, or stand with your back close to the wall.

If you cannot straighten your lifted leg while keeping your spine straight, try using a strap instead of your fingers. Wrap a yoga strap around the ball of your foot. Hold the strap in your same-side hand and then straighten your leg.

If you cannot reach the toes of your raised leg, another option is to practice Standing Knee Hug until you have gained more flexibility.


Once you are comfortable with this first stage of the practice, you can begin adding an external rotation of the extended leg for a deeper hip and thigh stretch.  Allow your opposite arm to extend to the side for balance, and enjoy the openness and expansion. This is where you really get to grow your roots and spread your wings!

For a more advanced practice you can move into Parivrtta Hasta Padangusthasana:

Inhale your left foot back to center, grab the outer edge of the foot with the right hand, bring your left hand to your hip, and exhale as you twist to gaze back over your left shoulder.  If you feel steady, extend the left hand.

These standing balance poses invite us to dig in deep, rooting into our core, our center. The more deeply we root both femurs into their hip sockets, them more we ask our standing leg, our spine, our pelvis and our core to support us.  In reaching for the fullest expression in any variation of this pose, we are met with multiple observances of our own weaknesses and an opportunity to gain more and more strength the more we willingly stay steady with what we uncover.  

May you enjoy the many gifts of balance and rootedness, expansion and core strength, power and grace as you explore Utthita Hasta Padangustasana and its beautiful variations. 

Friday, March 4, 2016

Trikonasana--Triangle Pose

Triangle pose is known as Trikonasana in Sanskrit—tri meaning three and kona meaning corner. Triangle is a therapeutic pose that provides many benefits including strengthening of the core and legs.

Starting from standing mountain pose, turn sideways on your mat and come into 5-pointed star pose. Spread your feet apart approximately the length of one of your legs--this usually works out to be about three or four feet apart. Look down at your feet, your left big toe should line up exactly with your right big toe to ensure your hips are in perfect alignment.

Turn your right toe out 90 degrees and turn your left foot in about 45 degrees. Make sure you have a full external rotation of the right thigh so your right knee is aligned directly over the right foot. This means the rotation of your right leg comes from the hip joint, not the ankle joint. Lift your arms up and extend them out directly from your shoulders, arms parallel to the floor and palms facing the floor. Inhale deeply and drop your shoulders away from your ears.

Extend your torso to the right directly over the right leg. You’re your torso in the same plane as your hips and legs (imagine your body is between two panes of glass). Bend from the hip, not the waist. Keep activating and pressing down through the outer left foot to secure your pose and lengthen your body. Imagine that the right side of your body is just as long as the left—don’t crunch up the right side to go deeper. Slide the back of the right hand down the inner right shin until you feel resistance, then stop and hold. Do not hold on to your ankle, doing that deactivates your abdominal muscles, causing you to sink your right shoulder into your right ear.

You want to maintain a feeling of pressing the back of your hand against the inner right leg and at the same time pressing back against the hand with the right shin. Drop the right side of your body (shoulder and torso) and open your left body. Your head should be held neutral, making sure not to drop it out of alignment. If you want to go deeper, you can turn your head and gaze at your left hand. The goal is to feel long and extended and still be able to breathe.

Alignment target (when doing pose to the right side)
  • right heel is in line with arch of left foot
  • right foot, right knee, right hip/buttock, right shoulder, crown of the head, right arm, left arm should be in the same plane.
Common alignment fault
  • right buttock protruding back behind the line of the feet
  • head and torso in front of the front leg.
Instructions for improving alignment

    • roll right buttock under the right thigh
    • line up side ribs on right side above the right thigh
    • line up right ear with right thigh (when eyes are looking forward).

    To release: inhale and reach the raised hand up towards the ceiling (you can imagine you are grabbing a hanging vine to help pull you up) as you press down into the feet using the whole body to lift back into 5- pointed star.

    Repeat on the other side.

    Benefits of Triangle Pose

       Strengthens Triangle pose engages every part of the body. It strengthens the core, opens     the hips and shoulders and stretches the legs, including the muscles around the knee, ankle joints, groin muscles, hamstrings, calves, shoulders, chest and spine
                    Stimulates function of abdominal organs
                    Relieves stress
                    Improves digestion and constipation
                    Helps to alleviate back pain and symptoms of menopause
                    Used therapeutically for anxiety, infertility, neck pain and sciatica

    Modifications: Use a yoga block on the floor to support the lower hand.

    Variations: A) Bring the raised arm over the ear parallel to the floor. B) The lower hand can rest on the floor on the inside or outside of the leg, or the 
    lower hand can grasp the big toe with the middle and index fingers.

    Sunday, January 31, 2016

    Opening the Heart with Ustrasana, the Camel Pose

    The Camel Pose is an invigorating backbend, heart opener, and throat opener.  It invites a deep extension of the entire spine and expansion in the chest. On an energetic level, this pose opens the heart chakra (anahata), and the throat chakra (vishuddha).  If you are feeling fearful and guarded in your heart center, or holding back from your full self-expression, try this posture to open up those energetic and psychological blocks. What we invite into our bodies has a transformative effect on our brain chemistry.

    Please note that the full-on version of Ustrasana, with the head dropping back toward the feet, may not be appropriate for you if you have any neck pain or injuries of the cervical spine, or if you experience dizziness. Read on to learn how you can modify to accommodate sensitivity in the neck. First and foremost, listen to your body!

    Prepare for the pose by warming up the spine with increasingly deeper backbends. Start with Cat/Cow, cobra, bridge, and bow pose.  If those feel comfortable, you can then proceed to camel.





    1. From Child or Hero pose, come up onto both knees, placing them hip width apart. Place the palms of the hands on the sacrum with the fingers pointed down.
    2. Inhale and press the knees down reaching the crown of the head up to lengthen the spine. Exhale and press the hips forward, squeezing the buttocks and thighs and supporting your weight with the arms as you bend backwards. Point elbows back behind you.
    3. Very carefully reach one hand down to the heel at a time, if you cannot reach the heels keep the hands on the sacrum. If it feels safe drop the head all the way back.
    4. Holding tightly on to the heels with each hand, actively press the hips forward, lifting the chest up towards the ceiling. Keep the hips stacked over the knees, with your thigh bones vertical.
    5. Breathe and hold for 3-6 breaths.
    6. To release: slowly bring one hand at a time back to the sacrum. With both hands on the sacrum, slowly inhale up, letting the head and neck be the last to come vertical.

    7. After resting for a few breaths in child’s pose, follow up with the rabbit pose for a delicious counter stretch.

    Suggestions for Modifying:

    --If your hips tend to fall back toward your heels rather than staying stacked over your knees, try practicing with the front of the pelvis pressed into a wall:

    --If allowing the head to drop back is not appropriate for you, try folding a blanket like a long scarf and wrapping it around the neck. It should fit snugly, crossing at the heart:

    --Or, refrain completely from letting the neck bend backwards:

    --If your heels are too far to reach, try flexing the feet and tucking the toes to lift your heels:

    --Or, place blocks beside the ankles to support you:

    --It is also fine to stay with the hands on the sacrum, simply focusing on lifting the spine and gently opening the front of the body. This preparatory pose is quite beneficial in an of itself!

    Contraindications: Hernia, or recent abdominal surgery. Recent or chronic knee, shoulder, neck or back injury or inflammation.

     Benefits: Camel Pose stretches the entire front of the body, the ankles, thighs and groins, opens the chest and throat, stretches the deep hip flexors (psoas), tonifies the kidneys and stimulates the respiratory, circulatory, nervous and endocrine systems. Camel pose makes you feel good all over!

    On an energetic and spiritual level, the practice of Camel pose cultivates the ability to give and receive love, and to live our lives in full expression of our creativity and inner truth.  May we be fearless and authentic in our loving and our expression of that love.

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