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The Alchemy of gentle Yoga by Lisa Z. Hughes, PT, RYT500

I was born with boxing gloves. An early baby and a sick baby in the early 1960s meant I fought alone in a tiny chamber of isolation. Such were the times. I was 10 days old when my parents finally got to hold me. They brought me home to a full house where competing for time, food and attention became lesson #2. I was glad to have the boxing gloves.

Lisa Hughes baby pic

It’s no surprise I would find myself drawn to performing and competing throughout my childhood. Dance performances and then competitive gymnastics filled my days until I started kickboxing and running. I excelled at individual sports and academics.
Perfectionism ruled in my chamber of isolation. It wasn’t until my body started to rebel at the age of 49 that I began a 21 day experiment with Yoga. I liked practicing Ashtanga and vigorous Power Vinyasa in my bigger chamber of isolation (home) because I could allow myself to let go, to fall over, to practice. I tried to like class, but I was aware of my desire to excel. I enjoyed the challenge of advanced asana and was drawn only to classes where I could practice in the most advanced way in the most intense heat.My first experience with Gentle Yoga came as part of my 200 hour Teacher Training. I heard the long exhales and audible sighs of my fellow students and I wanted to punch them. Seriously. Did I hear someone moaning? Nothing made me want my boxing gloves more than Gentle Yoga. As someone who could spend 10 minutes in plank, THIS was torture! I would describe the silence like the deafening sound of fingernails on a chalkboard and the feeling it evoked in me was anger. I wondered when we would get back to the “real yoga.” I wondered who would ever sign up for this type of Yoga. I
wondered why I was unable to enjoy this type of Yoga. I secretly wished I could feel what a sigh felt like. I wanted to run. I wasn’t good at this. I looked for the door. In order for me to be able to teach this Gentle Yoga, I HAD to practice and I practiced every day. I offered my body and my mind to the experiment. I taught Gentle Yoga to anyone who would let me and in giving myself and my students the gift of Gentle Yoga, I found an ability to relax, to let go and to open to receive the gifts in each posture. I learned to listen to the wisdom of my own body. I learned to nurture myself. I learned I didn’t need to fill the space with anything. In teaching others, I taught myself. The gift of Gentle Yoga is a blessing of the Self. No boxing gloves are required.
“To reteach a thing its loveliness” is the nature of metta. Through lovingkindness,
everyone and everything can flower again from within. When we recover
knowledge of our own loveliness and that of others, self-blessing happens
naturally and beautifully.
                                                                               – Sharon Salzberg

FINDING ALCHEMY IN GENTLE YOGA:

1. Go Easy On Yourself:
Our society’s conditioned idea of moving our body is deluded by calorie burning, productivity, distorted body image, torture. You are learning something new, something out of your comfort zone. You are learning to love yourself from the inside out, rather than the other way around. You deserve every moment of this practice. Meditative and Gentle Yoga time is mind-FULL time. Laziness is mind-LESS time. There is nothing outside of YOU than can do this work for you. There is no pill, no mind altering substance, no amount of sex, no runner’s “high”…nothing outside of you that will bring you to this eventual state of bliss.

2. Let go of Doing:
Let go of analysis (I’m not moving enough. This isn’t exercise), expectation (should I be sighing too?), and outcome of any kind (maybe I’ll lose weight). With every exhale, let go of all of that and inhale where you are, the energy of the people around you, the feeling of the floor under you, the support of your teacher and of all those present.

3. Bring in the natural attraction to happiness:
As an intention for your Gentle Yoga practice it can be helpful to bring to mind something you have done or said that was caring, gentle or kind. Bring in something that you honestly feel was a good action. It could be a time where you were generous or a time where you were fully clear and present for a friend. Take your time and with the memory, allow the happiness to come in. Notice your comfort level with allowing that most intrinsic and fundamental drive toward happiness. Notice how beautiful that is.

4. Every Posture has a Gift. We must be open to the gift if we are to truly receive it. As you begin to flow and move, connect to the places in the body that we receive from as if you were receiving the most beautiful gift of this class. Soften to the incoming
breath. Open the palms and touch the pinky fingers together, hands soft and reaching out to receive. Connect to the ability to receive through the crown of the head and through the back door to the heart (the space between the shoulder blades). As you
inhale, receive the breath through these places. In every posture and with every breath, connect to happiness of your original intention, receive that happiness through these places (palms, crown, heart). Give yourself the time in each posture to fully receive it’s gifts.

5. Stay with the feeling that receiving evokes.
The mind will wander. It will make up stories of things you have to do, places you have to be. It will distract you with promises of Gelato and cake. It will do ANYTHING for you not to feel this. Feel it anyway. Just bring the wandering mind back. Even if you have to do that countless times, know that there is no great skill in bringing back our attention to our original intention (that happy memory of you doing that gentle, caring thing…remember?). Know that you haven’t failed just because the mind wandered. There is no duration of wandering that is impossible to begin again from. Leave the judgement behind and just come on back. We ALL leave the practice many times. Just remember to come back.

6. Gather Your Props for Savasana:
Make your Savasana delicious! Pause to reflect on what your body would most enjoy as it’s final restorative posture. Maybe you work on your feet all day and Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall) would feel best. Maybe you want to stay with your open heart space and Salamba Matsyasana (Supported Fish) would feel nice. Bring back your original intention and rest in that feeling.

Ajna

Gentle Yoga is the ultimate gift to myself. It is also the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve learned to open to receive the gift the teacher has prepared just for me in a group class setting – from a place of truth, sincerity and authenticity. I have received beautiful, kind and gentle assists, well placed props, lavender eye pillows, essential oils applied to my temples, warm towels on my head and the unison of my breath merging with that of my teacher. I sleep well. I eat well. I care about what goes in my body. My blood pressure is lovingly low. My heart rate rests at 54 beats per minute. In befriending myself, I’ve
opened to new and meaningful friendships, I’ve left my tiny chamber of isolation and I’ve opened to a deeper sense of belonging in my family, in my community and in the world. In bringing attention and focus to the feeling of happiness that comes from extending kindness, I’ve learned to extend further in sharing my time and my gifts with not-for profit organizations that serve our community. In being fully present with my clients, constant in the happy times but also in times of struggle, I am aware that they are able to leave their burdens at the door. Most of them forget them on the way out.

I’ve learned to be a bud that chooses to flower. Knowing my days in this state are vulnerable and limited, I open anyway…to LOVE! I couldn’t imagine life in any other state than this. I’ve located a happiness that has transformed me from within. In locating that, I seem to have misplaced my boxing gloves.

Lotus

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of
self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing it’s loveliness,
to put a hand on the brow
of the flower,
and retell it in words and in touch,
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing
                                                – Galaway Kinnel

Lisa Hughes

Understanding Lower Crossed Syndrome, Hip Anatomy and Essentials to Becoming a True “Hipster”.

There is a magical place in the body where Physical Therapy and Yoga Therapy meet. It’s called the hip. It’s a wonderful and amazing system of articulation as long as all systems are go. Because it is a closed system, any small leak (Labrum tears, bursitis, osteoarthritis) create a cascade of effect on the entire lower kinetic chain.

Imagine the sacroiliac joint, for example. You start having pain there so off you go to the orthopedic surgeon who diagnoses you with Sacroiliac Joint Dysfunction. It sounds really fancy, but think about it. You already knew there was abnormal function there. Before you go dashing off for cortisone injections or endless trips to the Chiropractor, let’s consider WHY this might be happening. If we are to really understand this, we must dig for the roots. Don’t just mow the grass! To continuously mobilize an unstable sacroiliac joint (SIJ) or inject it with anti-inflammatory agents is just putting a temporary band aid on the problem. It’s just mowing the grass. Look above and look below and find what isn’t moving well. When we do that, we often find the true problem in the hip.

We are a society of sitters. We don’t sit on the floor as some cultures do and as a result there are patterns of tightness unique to chair sitters. When you consider the myriad of diagnoses in the lower quarter (back pain, SIJ pain, osteoarthritis, tendonitis, bursitis, hip labral tears, knee problems, etc., etc.), it’s easy to discount the role of hip function.

If I am going to sit in the car, I’m going to need at least 100 degrees of pure hip flexion (bending), but if I sit most of the day in my office chair and my psoas and hip flexors are even slightly tight, this will cause the ball of the hip ball and socket joint to translate forward to the front part of the socket. Over time, this can cause impingement or pinching in the front of the hip. To avoid that discomfort, I might move my leg out to the side (abduction and external rotation) to find comfort. I might also hike the hip a bit to avoid coming into true hip flexion. If I habitually move the leg to the side, the piriformis muscle and abductors will become shortened. If I habitually hike the hip in an effort to create false hip flexion, the quadratus lumborum will become shortened. Now in addition to an unstable SIJ, someone tells you about your Piriformis Syndrome or spasm of the Quadratus Lumborum and the domino effect begins to take shape. Over time and then maybe in combination with loading and rotation (golf, soccer, gymnastics, ballet, revolved weight bearing Yoga postures) the anterior translation of the head of the femur in the acetabulum (socket) can lead to tears in the acetabular labrum that runs all the way around the acetabulum, increasing the weight bearing surface of the hip and acting as a major shock absorber. Any disruption like this in the internal system of the hip will lead to less lubrication of the joint, osteoarthritis of the hip and, if severe enough, this is just one of the ways we become a candidate for total hip replacement. So we can see it is almost never just one of these things. The unstable SIJ will usually co-exist with piriformis syndrome, a tight quadratus lumborum (QL), lumbar rotation toward the side of the tight QL and most importantly decreased true free hip flexion!

When we look at this client posturally, we see what is known as a Lower Crossed Syndrome. It is characterized by tight hip flexors and lumbar errector spinae (lower back muscles) and weak, inhibited gluteal and abdominal muscles. The imbalance leads to anterior pelvic tilt, increased hip flexion and hyperlordosis of the lumbar spine. See images below:

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In the image on the left, note the lines of weakness and lines of tightness and in the image on the right, you can appreciate how gravity acting on that would cause an enormous load on the anterior structures of the hip itself. What’s missing on the model on the right is the role of the hamstrings as they insert on the ischia (sit bones)!  The client may come to you swearing they injured the hamstring. They are going to FEEL it there because the hamstrings are strained, the hamstrings are trying desperately to right the anterior tilt of the pelvis! If you stretch the hamstrings early in this process, you will likely make the problem worse because now the pelvis can come even more anterior.

In treatment with Yoga Therapy, I find this sequence to be most effective:

**IGNORE STRETCHING THE HAMSTRINGS! That’s right. Ignore them. They are overstretched already and guarding to protect further anterior movement of the pelvis.

First create a relaxation or parasympathetic response of the nervous system by having the client use the 3-part diaphragmatic or dirgha breath in Supta Bhadda Konasana ( you are getting a nice psoas and pectoral release at the same time). You can add ujayi and bandha locks as the client understands and progresses.

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Secondly, you’ll want to use a method for creating space in the hip joint itself. Traction with the strap in ardha Pavanamuktasana works very well. It’s especially nice to have someone do this for you. Understanding the hip anatomy will give you the correct direction of pull in order to create space in the hip.

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Thirdly, you’ll utilize your creative knowledge of asana to Stretch the anterior musculature of the hip. If the client can tolerate it, you can prop the back shin on a blanket and have them explore the edge of sensation, where they stay with ujayi breath and focus on the parts of the body that feel good here (can be intense). The intention will be one of steadiness and ease, an internal exploration rather than an external push. As the client progresses, add supta virasana or supported reclined hero pose (single or double leg). Use LOTS of props to make this a comfortable exploration.

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Follow with cat/cow and hip circles in tabletop to free the tight errector spinae. Add Setubandasana (supported is also quite nice) for gluteal strength with the new length of the anterior hip musculature. Ardha shalabasana and full shalabasana also work quite well AFTER the hips are open at the front. In time the guarding in the hamstrings will go away because the client is bearing weight over a neutral pelvis. Always incorporate Child’s Pose so the client has moments to restore during the process.

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It’s important to keep the thinking cap on. Because the adductors also act as hip flexors, adding creative modifications of mandukasana (frog) are always a welcome addition.

If you’ve put together a sequence that teaches the client to empty to psoas, to create space in the hips and to address the patterns of tightness and weakness, your client will be able to completely change the angle of the bucket of the pelvis, creating relief after even the first session. Over time, you will be able to visualize the change in posture and the relief in the hips, back, knees and SI Joints.

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Don’t just mow the grass by giving endless pigeon variations to address the tight piriformis. Dig deeper. Understanding the Lower Crossed Syndrome will make you the hippest Yoga Therapist on the block!

 

I’ve Got Your Back!

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This week I’ve been studying all of the amazing support systems of the human body. Not just the physical ones that seem so obvious, like our spines, but the more subtle support systems of our breath, our emotional and our energetic body. From a physical “anatomy-only” perspective, the causes of back pain can be many. We have loading injuries to the bones and discs themselves, age-related degeneration, extra bone growth where we don’t need it, disc pathology, facet joint dysfunction, instability, immobility and the list goes on. But what about what’s happening inside the emotional body and the energetic body? Where else in our lives do we feel unsupported? Guess what happens when the root system of our body becomes undernourished?

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How many times have you come up with a great idea at work only to get shot down? Maybe you talked to your family about a new business venture and you were met with negativity and doubt from those you love or even yourself? Life is full of disappointments and  to feel let down by the very people in our lives we thought would always be there for us can be a frequent event. When the emotion lingers long enough to become a thought, and longer still to become a belief, the physical body can, and often does, begin to match that belief system.

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Everyone wants to feel the support of family, friends, teammates and co-workers and sadly, it isn’t always there. But what if you had the ability to change the environment inside your body whenever you felt unsupported, let down by those you love and let down by your own spine? How can you cultivate support in EVERY aspect of your life?

In Yoga, we often hear some version of the phrase, “Get grounded.”, but what does that really mean? Am I really ungrounded? Think of the floor, your mat or the ground as your never yielding support system. Unless you live in an earthquake prone area of the country, you can be fairly certain that it will always be there. When I’m working with a client, this connection is vital, not just in an obvious posture where balance is required like Vrikshasana (tree), but I’m helping them cultivate that connection in every pose leading up to Vrikshasana. Sitting in simple cross-legged is a nice example of how you can integrate this concept not just in the physical body, but in the subtle body (emotions, energy, breath) as well.  As you sit in this posture, notice your sit bones supporting you. Notice how much of your legs are touching the ground. If you sit on the edge of a folded blanket, perhaps more of the legs can touch something, helping you to relax more and feel safer. Maybe even touch your fingertips to the floor and feel that as well. Close your eyes and imagine that all of the places touching down represent the people in your life. Breathe.

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Now begin to imagine roots extending from your sit bones into the ground beneath you, firm and solid. Imagine these roots emanating from your shins as well into the ground and from your fingertips as well. Imagine these roots extending to all the people in class with you today or to the very ends of the floor in all directions. Connecting even further to this gigantic earth, can you spread the root system even further? Imagine you, this small person, can have a root system the size of the earth! Can you even imagine placing the person whom you most need support from right now in the room with you? Feel that. Notice what changes in your body..in your energy and in your emotions.

It’s easy for us to reach those roots and tendrils out to those we love. It’s not so easy though, to do that for those that have harmed us in some way. I say, “Do it anyway.” I’m a firm believer in the “Fake it ‘Til You Make It” program. If you can learn to extend the roots when sitting or lying down, imagining that support from the floor that has always been there; that support that will never, ever leave you. Guess what? Things start to shift.

This can be a really tough exercise for many people. We spend so much time up in our heads, constantly thinking, analyzing, figuring. It’s easy to see how we could lose our connection to earth and to our support system. We walk around all day in shoes in a paved world and our poor feet have not only lost sensation, but they have lost the strength of the musculature and the support of the plantar fascia. The foot is this marvelous system of 26 bones, 33 articulations and over 100 muscles! We have dumbed all of that down and essentially casted the foot. So many of my clients tell me they have bony feet or that their feet are too small to support them. What we have is an epidemic of dumb feet! They don’t know what to do! They’ve been fired and they want their job back. Only you can educate them and the way we learn this all over again is to take off the shoes and the socks and re-discover your feet again on your Yoga mat. Once you start to develop the musculature, you can begin some short walks around the house barefoot. Eventually take your bare feet out to the grass and wake up your roots! Take yourself on a hike where you can take your shoes off and let the feet swim in the cool river while your palms touch the earth as well.

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If you can go about your Yoga practice with that same idea in EVERY pose (building them from the ground up, cultivating the support from the parts of you that are touching, sending roots emanating to the earth from the parts that are almost touching…reaching), you can change the internal environment and as you practice this regularly there are some things that you will begin to notice. That support that was always there, the support that you forgot to ask for or that you may have been pushing away for years…it starts to emerge. We create in the world what we put out there. I say put down some more roots.

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In every posture, you are the tree setting down your roots first. Notice the expansion from that grounded place. How far can you reach while still feeling connected to the earth? Inhale and feel the expansion. Exhale into the ground. When you close your practice in Shavasana (corpse pose), take inventory again. Notice the heels, the backs of the shins and thighs, the hips, the back of the heart as an everlasting shelf for your heart and lastly the back of the head. Continue to scan all the way back down as well before dissolving into the earth. Can you melt all the way in to allow the entire earth to support you?

Go ahead and enjoy that. I’ve got your back.

Ooops!! Your PLL is showing!

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In our anatomy segment this week, let’s take a closer look at my favorite ligament, the PLL (Posterior Longitudinal Ligament) and why you should take responsibility for it’s integrity before major spinal problems arise.

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I see an interesting array of posture in my profession. I also hear interesting stories of people who work from home..on their Laptops, in bed, slumped and propped with pillows for 10 hours a day.

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In the above image, we are looking at you from the front. The posterior longitudinal ligament is situated inside the vertebral canal, and runs along the entire posterior surfaces of the bodies(the chunky part) of the vertebræ, from the body of C2 (axis), where it is continuous with the membrana tectoria, all the way down to the sacrum. In the lumbar spine, it gets nice and thick and broadens just behind each intervertebral disc.

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When you flex your spine to touch your toes, the nucleus of the intervertebral disc acts like the bubble in your Leveler tool. It moves posteriorly and hopefully bumps into a nice, healthy, broad PLL. The PLL acts as a block to the posteriorly moving nucleus of that disc and you get to get up the next day!

Let’s consider the integrity of Mr. Couch Potato’s PLL (above) or that of the dude working from bed or slumped at his desk. That PLL is no longer nice and broad and taught. It’s overstretched and slack! Maybe our poor example is the weekend warrior at the gym rushing through hamstring stretches like these:

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In each of these examples, the only thing being over stretched is the PLL!  Add to these above positions the unnatural effort of bearing down and holding the breath and…well…just call the EMTs because that disc is going to blow right through the slack PLL and into the spinal canal or laterally into the nerve root. Maybe you actually make it home from the gym and later just reach across the table for something. That’s usually the story I hear, “I don’t know what I did! I just reached for my Coke!” If our postural habits and lack of good Wellness Education (WE) continue long enough, eventually we tip the scale. The absolute key  here is prevention and education. Once that PLL is overstretched, we have a problem and 23 discs to protect!

It is vital that you keep your spine erect and long in all forward bends. As PTs, Pilates and Yoga Teachers and Yoga Therapists, we must insist.

When you stretch the hamstrings with this in mind, you probably won’t go anywhere near as far as you are used to…and that’s wonderful!

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Most of us will never enjoy this full expression of Janushirshasana in our bodies, however between sitting at your desk and the above posture is a whole range of exploration! All of the forward bends in Yoga can be fully adapted by your Yoga Therapist to meet your needs. It is not even a requirement to be able to get down on the floor! The forward bends facilitate introspection. In addition you are stretching all the musculature in the posterior leg and spine (gastrocnemius, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, erector spinae, quadratus lumborum and latisimus dorsi). Far from a passive event, you will be strengthening the quadriceps, the abdominals, lower and middle trapezius as well as the erector spinae to hold the proper alignment.

Janushirshasana with Props (blanket under hips and small bolster under knee). The Bolster creates slack in the hamstrings, allowing me to elongate the spine. The blanket tips my pelvis forward a bit taking out any slump. The strap helps me engage my middle and lower trapezius to further elongate tailbone to crown with an open chest.

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Janushirshasana without props:

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Paschimottanasana with props:Image

If it is your regular practice to push through an overly flexed spine in Janushirshasana or Paschimotanasana, try backing off a bit and use the props to help you go deeper into reflection instead of deeper into pain and resistance.

Preserve the integrity of the PLL and of your intervertebral discs. They will thank you for many years and you won’t have to walk around with your PLL showing!

 

Fearlessness

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     This week on my mat, I’ve been exploring what being fearless means to me. I’m willing to dive head on into a challenging pose just so I can see what’s there. It’s different almost every day, but the poses that I think about when someone asks me to get into a pose that is challenging for me almost always involve balancing on my left leg or maneuvering myself into Kapotasana (Pidgeon). I want to know what’s there. I cannot wait to find out what I discover.

    Being fearless on the Yoga mat doesn’t mean diving into pain. It means making friends with sensation. It means finding a modification or a level of engagement that creates the comfort and safety to explore in a non-harming way. The Yamas and Niyamas are always with us, both on the mat and off and self exploration (svadhyaya) requires us to use all of them. 

     We all have poses we avoid for a variety of reasons. Most of those reasons involve some level of fear. Perhaps we attempted the pose once without experienced instruction and experienced pain or uncomfortable emotion. Perhaps we allowed someone else who doesn’t have any Yoga training to tell us to avoid this posture. Perhaps a past trauma remains deeply held in our bodies and has confined us to small box living. An experienced Yoga Therapist will not only be able to help you understand the anatomy, but will be able to teach, model and assist you with posture (asana) so you can safely explore within yourself what is true.

     Last weekend I went on my first backpacking adventure and after hiking for 3 hours, carrying 35 pound packs (the Beasts), we arrived right back where we started, having gone South, instead of North! It then began to rain… a cold, steady reminder of sensation. As we finally got ourselves oriented to the proper direction, civilization began to fall away and the trail became quite remote, the sound of the water faded away and elevation loomed. My legs ached and I had no idea what kind of campsite we would find since I knew we would not make it to our original destination, 8 miles away. I sat down for what seemed like a long time. I was in the woods. I was cold and wet and tired. I sat with the knowledge that although we were not lost, we had no idea where we were going. I was imagining my warm home and a cup of tea. My husband then asked if I wanted to go home. There was only one answer, “That’s not why I’m here.” I said. “I’m here to find out what’s on the other side of all this.” I began to think about all of my lessons on the Yoga mat, of Tapas (zeal or challenges in practice), of being in the moment without attachment to outcome. I knew that the other side of the present moment discomfort was unimaginable to me.  Why I came was to get there! So I hoisted the Beast onto my back and went exploring. I became fearless and the Beast felt lighter to me. My hiking poles moved through the wet leaves with zeal…with the excitement of a child holding a Cracker Jack box. I couldn’t wait to see what was there.

We came to a clearing at the top of the mountain and continued onward through an open field. When we re-entered the dense forest to descend, there it was! The luxury condo of all campsites! A fire pit, a beautiful flat area for the new tent, which set up in 2 minutes, a prime ENO location and the brilliant decision to remove “the Beast” from my back. I felt weightless. We left the Beasts in the tent and continued to explore returning hours later to make a fire and cook dinner. When we awoke at 5:00am to the sound of a large pack of wolves howling nearby, I sat with that beautiful sound of oneness and I cried…because they sounded fearless… because I too, was fearless.

I imagine the Beast symbolizes all that holds us back in life; our fears, our baggage, and all of life’s disappointments. I imagine if I stayed longer in the woods, the Beast would get lighter and lighter until all I needed to survive could fit on my back with safety and comfort. 

What holds you back from exploring that fearful asana in Yoga? Can you abandon fear and old stories, knowing the emotion will come? Can you be with the discomfort, the emotion, the color, the texture? Can you explore the jewels of your practice knowing that what’s on the other side is unimaginable to you now? Can you be fearless?