Finding Balance from the Center of Four Perspectives

This is a graphic from a workshop I presented at Heart of the Village Yoga Studio on the Four Directions. We went into the woods, walked by streams and ponds, and paused to reflect on what we were experiencing together. We discussed finding balance in our lives when we see from the center of our consciousness and look at four aspects of our being, integrity (virtue - respecting purity of life) and kindness (compassion - loving all of life), truth (being true to life purpose) and contentment (being open to life learning).

2019-06-15 Four Directions Graphic.jpg

A Beginning Sequence to Develop Core Awareness

As a yoga teacher, I’m often using postures at the beginning of class to assess each student’s body-awareness and to determine appropriate postures for the rest of class and appropriate modifications. Many of my classes are focused on activating the body’s core so that postures can be performed more effectively to promote spine health and reduce back pain. I like to think of the core area as our power center, our center of balance, our energy center from which we have the courage to express our true nature. An unstable power center manifests itself at all aspects of one’s being.

This 20-minute video explains some of the preliminary movements that I usually include in classes as a means to assess physical bodies from a strength / flexibility perspective as well as from a pure awareness perspective. I usually include these postures (or movements) into a class before performing Sun Salutations, certainly before performing low planks, upward-facing dog, downward-facing dog or even forward bends.

I made this video for the benefit of some of my clients (and I narrated it as I did it, so it is somewhat rough around the edges), but others of you might find it beneficial as you work towards understanding your own movements (and areas of body physical strength or weakness).

Remember to utilize your breath as a tool to enhance your physical awareness, your focus, and your present power!

A 35 Minute Basic Core-Focused Practice for Athletes

Here is a video of a short practice focusing on core, hips, and lower back. It is intended for athletes who are just beginning a yoga practice. In the video, I attempted to make breathing practice audible (there is no music), as a reminder to work towards keeping ujjaya breathing active throughout practice. That is, breathe deeply through the noise, keeping pelvic floor lifted, lower abdominal muscles lifted up and in, and work towards maintaining a neutral spine (in most postures) through the engagement of a stable trunk. In this video, I also emphasize some hip hinging movements to activate glutes and hamstrings.

A basic yoga sequence focusing on core strength and stability, hip mobility, focused breathing, and postures intended to ease potential lower back pain (for athletes new to yoga practice).

Bringing Yoga Practice to Life

Last week at Heart of the Village Yoga Center, we started a new class entitled Yoga Philosophy: Bringing Yoga to Life. Formerly a subject presented largely in our Advanced Studies and Teacher Training programs, our hope is that these ongoing classes might help open the door through which yoga practitioners deepen their practice on and off the mat. We begin and end each class with guided meditations: opening with some Yin Yoga postures to help us settle into a place of presence, safety and ease; ending with an intentions-focused meditation to help us bring insights and teachings into our daily lives. For most of the class, we discuss some of the teachings of yoga through the vehicle of a weekly reading. We attempt to see our daily lives through the eyes of yoga philosophy.

This month, we are reading “The Untethered Soul” by Michael A. Singer. Last week, we discussed Part One (Chapters 1-4); this week we will discuss Part Two (Chapters 5-7). From the teachings of Patanjali’s Yoga-sutra, we learn that yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind. That is, through yoga practice, we systematically learn to still the mind and find peace of mind and focused awareness. First, however, we must acknowledge that our thoughts are indeed busy – that there is a constant dialogue of thoughts! Our senses are constantly taking in what is going on in our lives and our mind is constantly working to organize this information in a manner that makes us feel “safe” or “in control”. It’s a constant dialogue of voices.

In Part One of the book, the author does a wonderful job helping us observe the “busy-ness” of our thoughts, these voices! He helps us see that the beginning of a happy and more satisfying life begins with our ability to observe these thoughts and not get lost in them. Certainly, just as we intend to do as we practice yoga, we are taking our first steps towards awakening consciousness!

In Part Two, we will explore how we can open ourselves up to the ongoing flow modern world information that we take in through our senses, so that we do not close ourselves (and hold on to) the changing circumstances and experiences of life. The author helps us understand these concepts by explaining how everything is energy, energy that flows through us, or energy that gets locked up within us. Here, we learn how to open our “spiritual” hearts and to empower ourselves to choose a life of openness and unconditional happiness.

Each week, we will use the readings as a basis to dive a little more deeply into various yoga topics. As is our mission at Heart of the Village Yoga, each discussion is facilitated in a manner that respects the integrity and heart of each individual, and in a way that acknowledges our enhanced power of understanding (and intention) of the group through the diverse shared perspectives (and questions) of multiple individuals. Each discussion is also facilitated in a manner that drop-in students who have not done any of the reading will still find a class atmosphere that will invite them to be engaged.

Through our weekly discussions, it is our hope that our yoga and daily-life practices evolve and help us each find sustaining happiness. And, of course, through our yoga and daily-life practices, we hope that our weekly discussions evolve too in a manner that spark interest, and become more and more relevant to each participant and their daily lives.

For future months, we will continue to choose books that will continue to weave together the fabric of the many schools of yoga philosophy and practice, all in a manner that helps make our yoga practices come alive, and helps bring our yoga practices more deeply into our daily lives.

A Cycling Race Not Forgotten

It was 1992. Spring. I was recently divorced and living by myself in Troy, NY. I decided to enter a 24-hour time trial, an ultra-marathon event in which I would pedal for as many miles as I could over 24 hours. The course consisted of a 45-mile loop of rural roads, all of which were open to the public.

I really didn’t tell many people at the time. For me, it was just a chance to see what I could do. I was hoping to pedal 300 miles that day.

I parked my car at the pit stop area, gathered a bunch of energy bars and rode my bike to the start area in town 10 miles away. I noticed that many participants were decked out in expensive bicycles and professional-looking clothing. Many had support crews who were tuning bicycles and reviewing programmed food and drink for their athletes. The race was part of a series for serious ultra-marathon bicyclists. I felt a bit over my head… but, no worries, no one knew me there.

At noon, the race started. And I just started pedaling. I kept to myself. I don’t think I spoke a work to anyone the whole day. Everyone was pedaling faster than me, so it was a quiet day, especially on the first lap or two.

I’d stop at the rest area every 45 miles, get a few more energy bars, replenish my water, go pee, and get back on my bike. It looked like the experienced riders would only stop quickly to replenish food prepared for them by their support crews.

The roads consisted of two-lane paved roads that meandered around small hills, fields, forests, and small towns. After a couple laps, riders were lapping me. I was doing all that I could do to keep going, hoping to average 12 to 15 mph. I think many riders were averaging over 20 mph.

I don’t remember much of the afternoon riding, except for the experiences of dehydration, a sore body, bloating from an energy bar diet, and the unimaginable willpower to keep going.

As darkness approached, I encountered less and less riders. Were people taking naps? Were people riding in groups? Around midnight, 12 hours into the ride, it seemed like there was no one on the pitch-black rural roads. My headlight kept a steady stream of light in front of me, but I started to feel all alone.

The next part of the race I remember like it happened last week.

I had been riding about 12 or 13 hours, and I was about halfway around the course loop on my 5th lap… I had ridden about 200 miles at that time… Exhausted, I remember thinking that maybe dawn would occur on my next lap. That kept me feeling positive. I felt like I could possibly reach my goal of 300 miles. Maybe more?

But my mind was going a little crazy. I remember feeling very afraid, like I could be in danger with no one around. Someone could jump out of the woods on my slow uphill climbs and tackle me! No other bikes in sight…

I moved to the center line of the road, away from the shoulders.

I thought that I heard rustling in the trees as I rode slowly up a hill, eyes fixed on the center line of the road.

Out of the corner of my eye, along the shoulder of the road where my headlight barely reached, I saw some bicycle parts… bike pump, some accessories… like someone had crashed earlier. I kept riding, afraid of my safety. Should I have stopped? That’s the question that still haunts me.

As I crested the hill and started to glide downhill, I saw headlights of a car approaching. I remember thinking that the entire world was not asleep. There were some people still around!

As the car approached, it slowed down. I sped up. The car stopped as I approached. The driver asked me to stop. Afraid of what the driver might do to me, I said, “No!” I kept riding. Faster. The driver put the car in reverse to catch up to me and shouted, “Stop!” I said, “No. Why should I?”

The driver turned on his interior car light to illuminate two other bicyclists in the back seat. I words still etched in my memory, he said, “The race has been canceled. There has been a tragic accident up ahead of you.” The two riders in the back seat nodded. I stopped.

He told me that two people up ahead had been killed in a car-bike accident.

“What should I do?”

The driver said his car was full, so why don’t I turn around and head back to the pit stop area about 20 miles behind me. In a bit of a daze, I turned around proceeded back up the hill.

As I crested the hill, there were flashing lights, ambulances, police cars. The driver of the car with whom I had just spoken, approached me as I approached the site and asked me to stop again.

“What should I do?”

He asked me to wait off the road in a small parking area and he’d send for someone to come pick me up. I waited, not sure of what was going on…

Eventually, a van came to pick me up, and we proceeded to the site of the tragic bike-car accident that had canceled the race. We picked up another rider, then headed back past the place where the more recent accident scene was happening. I saw a car upside down. I saw a mangled bike… a covered body… and bike parts along the shoulder of the road. The same bicycle parts that I had seen earlier.

I was brought back to my car in the pit area. It was quiet. I got in my car, put the seat down, and tried to sleep. At dawn, a few people milled around slowly. I remember the somber mist. My brother-in-law, an ex-Navy SEAL who lived in the area, visited and told me that he heard on the news that 3 people were killed in two separate accidents, both by drunk drivers, one under-age.

Not sure what to do, I left. Still somewhat in a daze. Confused.

I found out the next day some of the details on the news. How the first accident killed the driver and one biker. How the second accident involved under-age drinkers who tried to escape through the woods along the roadside and were apprehended the next day. Was that the rustling in the woods that I heard?

I learned later about the two bicyclists that were killed, one having had a science and engineering background very similar to mine. He was a volunteer president of the Boston Chapter of the International Youth Hostel Association, an organization that I had recently joined as I prepared for my planned bicycling trip to New Zealand later that year.

I felt very close to these two people, even though I didn’t know them. We had shared the road together. We were alike. It could have been me.

I understand that laws in New York State changed after the accident to allow prosecution of those who sell alcohol to minors.

I later received a commendatory plaque for the event recognizing my participation and honoring the two riders. The plaque is still on the wall next to my desk.

It reminds me daily to always to live each day fully. Anything can happen. Today, could be my last day. I was the lucky one… then.

But, in that moment, I didn’t stop. Reflecting back, I wonder if I really sensed an energy that something had gone wrong. Or, was I was too immersed in my own fear and and need for safety.

A few years later, I left my engineering practice in New York. I think this event planted a seed in me that eventually told me that it was time to live my life more fully while I was still “young” (I was 34 at the time). I knew there was something more that I was supposed to do in my life. In 1995, I moved to Vermont.

All these years later, now as a yoga teacher, I tend to not spend much time thinking back unless I’m appreciating a previous teaching moment that had prepared me for a later-in-life experience. With the plaque as a reminder for that day, I do question what I would have done differently if I had a clearer mind and if I would have been more present in that moment when I saw some broken bicycle pieces along the side of the road. Would I have been able to help? Would I have responded differently?

The plaque reminds me that in any moment, someone might need my help. It reminds me to pay attention… to not ride away from something that doesn’t feel right.

In many respects, this is indeed a race not forgotten. Maybe it did indeed plant deeper seeds in me… seeds that still guide my way today. To pay attention. To see what’s really going on. To help others. To persevere. To do what’s right. To be responsible. To live each day fully. And to feel grateful… and humble… that I am alive today.