Posted by: Bruce Black | July 1, 2014

The Sharp Twinge of Pain

The sharp twinge of pain that I feel suddenly in my left hip is the red flag, the warning sign.

I am taking a class with a teacher who I’ve never studied with before, and she invites us to start the class with seated hip openers so that we can prepare for Flying Crow.

For almost 30 minutes, I sit on my mat and follow her instructions as she leads us from intense seated twists to seated forward bends and back to seated twists.

And then, all at once, I feel a sharp twinge of pain, an intense burning sensation, in my left hip.

It feels as if someone has lit a large match and is holding the flame directly against my left hip bone. The bone feels like it’s on fire.

I keep the pain private, embarrassed that my body doesn’t possess the same flexibility as the bodies of the other students bending and twisting on their mats next to mine.

The teacher has no way of knowing that I feel any pain as I sit motionless on my mat, afraid to move, slightly stunned, waiting for the pain to pass.

Meanwhile, the teacher continues giving instructions to the class and encourages each of us to bend further and twist deeper.

But I remain still and notice that the pain in my hip is not like the mild discomfort that I might have been able to push through without hurting myself.

No, the pain feels like  a sharp needle digging into my hip, and, as soon as I feel it, I back off, and, luckily, the moment that I back off the pain abates.

From then on each pose that the teacher leads us through, with the intention of helping us open our hips, brings me back to a point of pain. After a while, the pain becomes so uncomfortable—so painful—that I can no longer sit on my mat and do any more bending or twisting.

So, while the class continues following the teacher’s instructions, I get to my knees and bow forward into Child’s Pose, breathing a sigh of relief when the pain goes away as soon as I come out of the intense forward bend.

When I do rejoin the class and resume the seated poses, the pain returns and is too intense to continue. I have to stand up and step off my mat, something I’ve never had to do in class before. I walk slowly to one side of the room and balance against the wall and breathe deeply and wait until the pain melts away.

Only after resting a few minutes do I return to my mat. By then the pain has made me mindful of what I can do and what I can’t do. When the teacher invites us to do a side plank and lift our hips high, I choose to do a modified version with my knee on the mat.

By the time we reach the pinnacle pose—the Flying Crow—I am able to put my right ankle over my left knee in Utkatasana (Chair Pose) and squat down without pain. But I don’t try to go all the way to the floor, just enough of a squat to feel a gentle stretch.

And that’s ok. My goal is no longer trying to do the pinnacle pose but rather to explore the steps leading up to the pinnacle pose at my own pace without feeling any pain, without noticing any red flag.

Pain, it turns out, is a useful tool. It reminds me that no matter what the rest of the class is doing, no matter what the teacher is saying, I don’t have to go as far or push myself farther than I am comfortable going or pushing.

Practice Journal: Have you ever felt pain during your yoga practice? How do you respond to it? Are you someone who believes that you don’t gain anything without pain? Or do you interpret pain as a signal to slow down and stop pushing? Write: 10 minutes

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: Bruce Black | June 1, 2014

The Way That We Breathe

Something magical happens when I start my yoga practice. I can feel a change in the way that I breathe.

As I inhale, I’ll raise my arms slowly—“as if lifting them through the thickest oil or the sweetest honey,” says my teacher, Jaye—and then I’ll lower them at the same pace and repeat the movement.

In moments I’ll notice how my shoulders loosen, how the muscles around my lower ribs let go, and how my upper chest relaxes and my breathing slows.

With each breath I’ll feel a sense of peace fill my body.

As long as I follow my breath, as long as I move with care through the poses of our class or in my home practice, I can feel this sense of peace filling each muscle, each pore of skin.

But the moment that I become distracted and forget my breath, I’ll lose track of the connection between movement and breath, and I’ll feel a sense of isolation and disconnection, even dislocation. In the blink of an eye the peaceful quality of my practice will disappear.

Only when I am able to match my movements so that my breath mirrors each forward bend, each lunge, each stretch and twist do I notice peace fill me again.

With each breath I’ll notice how this sense of peace expands beyond each pose into the space between each pose, into the pause between breathing in and breathing out, inhaling and exhaling.

With each coordinated dance of movement and breath, I notice how this sense of peace keeps expanding and helps me expand so I can move with more ease and more comfort.

And I’ll notice, too, how this expansive sense of peace connects me with the other people practicing in the room, as well as with all those outside our classroom—practicing, moving, breathing, being.

Our breath is like an invisible bridge. It leads us from one moment to the next, and it helps us find our way through the most challenging poses, poses that can feel like we’re balancing on a high wire or crossing a narrow bridge from a place that no longer exists to a place that does not yet exist.

If we can follow our breath in each pose, we can learn to let go of the previous pose while simultaneously summoning the courage to cross that narrow bridge and enter a new pose.

And for a miraculous moment, we can feel suspended in thin air, held there by our breath and by our faith in the next pose, the next breath.

Practice Journal: Describe how your breathing changes when you step onto your mat. Does noticing your breath change the way you enter and leave a pose? Do you find it hard or easy to coordinate your movements with your breath? What happens when you move in rhythm to your breath? Do you think your breath guides your movements, or do your movements guide your breath? Write: 15 minutes.

Posted by: Bruce Black | May 1, 2014

The Space To Be

Amidst the tumult and rush of our lives, each of us searches for a space to be.

It doesn’t matter if we are single or married, if we’ve just found romance or just lost it, if we prefer being alone or if we’re addicted to groups, each of us needs a space to be ourselves.

In this space we can find freedom from expectations, whether our own expectations or those that other people might place on our shoulders.

In this space we can rest for a moment, undistracted by fear or worry or anxiety.

We can take a breath and listen to our heart beating its unique rhythm, and we can remember who we truly are.

When I step onto my mat or open my journal before beginning my practice, I find this space and breathe a sigh of relief.

It’s still here, I tell myself, inhaling the sense of freedom and gratitude that I feel when I find myself in this space again.

Sometimes, as I rush around town on errands or find myself impatiently stuck in traffic or waiting on line at the grocery store or in an unexpected argument with a friend or colleague, I forget this space exists, or I fear that I’ve lost it and will never be able to find it again.

But then I’ll pick up my pen and open my journal and begin writing, and the act of writing will bring me back to my breath.

Or I’ll unfurl my mat and move into my asana practice, and the stretches and twists will bring me back to the pulse of my heart.

Each practice—writing, yoga—reveals the place where I need to be.

A page in my journal can offer a doorway into this space, just as an asana pose can show me a pathway into it.

Downward Dog, Lunge, Plank, Tree Pose, Savasanna—these aren’t just poses.

They are gateways into an interior space, a space that I can always find within myself if I’m mindful and pay attention and notice the space opening up to welcome me whenever I’m ready to step into it.

This is the beauty of yoga, as well as its mystery.

It offers us the space—this magical, mysterious, miraculous space—to be.

Practice Journal: How does your yoga practice help you find the space where you can be yourself, unfettered by the expectations of others or by the voices that attempt to diminish your faith in yourself? How does keeping a journal help you find this space and sense the power, confidence, and faith that is at the core of your existence? How does your practice of writing and yoga help you hear your true voice? Write: 10 minutes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: Bruce Black | April 1, 2014

My Yoga Mat

The mat that I carry to my yoga class each week is falling apart.

It was my wife’s mat originally. She bought it when she started taking classes, and then found a thicker, sturdier mat when she became serious about yoga.

Using her old mat, I feel close to her when I practice, even if she’s not beside me.

I take it to class even though it’s a pale purple, the color of lilacs, because it’s lighter and smaller than the mat that I use for my home practice.

I know that I could trade it in and get a new mat, a mat of a different color, but I hold onto it, as if the mat itself holds much of what I’ve learned from my practice over the past decade–insights gained from various poses; banished fears and anxieties; restored hopes and faith.

The mat is almost ten years old, with pockmarks and divots up and down its length, and each time I draw my foot back going from Lunge to Plank, I notice how its rubber surface wears away a little more, and yet the sight of it beneath my feet gives me a sense of peace and security.

Its erosion reminds me of the passage of time, the spilling of sand in an hourglass, the moments that I’ve spent on it learning something new, moments that I treasure even as they melt into the past, replaced by new moments.

The mat is so pliable that the rubber holds the imprint of each toe, as well as the heel of each foot, for a few seconds after I move out of one pose into another. It’s almost like magic the way I move my foot yet can see its imprint remain, evidence that I am here, on the mat, in this body.

Practicing on this mat helps me remember all the years that I’ve spent moving into different poses, and the memories fortify me (like a multivitamin) during class as we practice the poses again.

I know the mat won’t last forever. Every day the lilac color seems to fade, and more and more of its surface erodes away.

If I’ve learned anything while practicing on my mat, it’s that nothing lasts forever.

But I’ve also learned to treasure what we are given in this life for as long as we have it.

So, I’ll keep carrying the mat to class for as long as I can.

I want to feel it beneath my feet and breathe in the scent of its mysteries for as long as possible.

The mat that I carry to class helps me stay rooted in the present, even as it offers me the chance to see where I’ve been and where I might be going.

Practice Journal: Is your mat a prop that you forget about once you begin your practice or does it help you notice where you are and what you’re thinking as you move from pose to pose? Take a few minutes to notice the mat that you carry to class or unfurl at home. Describe the color, the thickness, the way your toes feel when you step on it. Then contrast that feeling with the way it feels to walk across a hardwood floor or along a forest path strewn with pine needles or on a sandy beach. Write: 10 min.

Posted by: Bruce Black | March 1, 2014

Sitting With Sadness

“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.” – Carl Jung

“Sadness is but a wall between two gardens.” – Khalil Gibran

Even my practice of yoga, as wonderful as it is, isn’t always enough to send the sadness that I feel at times scurrying away.

But the gentle twists and forward bends, the breath work and mindful attention to the way my body feels in each pose, can help me sit with sadness.

This sadness has a way of worming its way into my heart on some days. It’s not just fatigue, the kind of tiredness that comes after a hard day of work or the morning after a restless night, nor is it the byproduct of the major surgery that I underwent almost a year ago (though at times I think it is related).

I’m talking about a feeling of sadness that’s deeper and darker than fatigue, a feeling that reminds me of life’s fragility, finitude, and imperfection. The missed opportunities. The mistakes. The resistance to change. The reluctance to opening up. The days of stubbornness and frustration and pain.

This kind of sadness brings with it a deep sense of powerlessness and loneliness, an excruciating awareness of my mortality and how much of life is out of my control. It makes me feel as if life itself is like a steamroller, preparing the inevitable crushing experience that has the power to steal away the very breath of life.

It’s a sadness that is pervasive. It is everywhere—in the kitchen, the office, the backyard, the yoga studio—and it can siphon all the air and joy out of a room in the blink of an eye.

It’s numbing, paralyzing, perplexing.

In the midst of such sadness, though, I can step onto my mat and begin my home practice, and the sound of my breath or the movement of my body can help dissipate the feeling of sadness and remind me of my connection to something larger than myself, a river of energy flowing not just through me but through everyone and through all of life.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of waiting patiently for the sadness to leave on its own. Like the fog. Like storm clouds that gather overhead obscuring the sun and then float away to reveal a bright blue sky.

My practice can help me sit with sadness rather than run from it, and, in sitting with it–actually exploring it in my poses–I may be able to find a way to accept what is with gratitude and bid sadness goodbye.

On my mat, if I lean forward in Child’s Pose or recline in Bound Angle, I may gain the ability to see through the fog to a distant memory, a person who I love deeply or someone who is no longer alive but whose life once touched mine and whose spirit can still inspire a sense of worth (and worthiness) that I seem to have forgotten.

If I listen closely to the sound of my breath and feel the beat of my heart, the pulse like the rhythm of the sea, I may notice how the fog has tiny fissures in it, cracks through which I can catch a glimpse of a bright blue sky.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of closing my eyes while lying in Savassana and finding the courage to let go of sadness, and then rising refreshed, the sadness only a memory.

There are different levels of sadness, of course, some deeper and darker levels than others (and in some extreme cases life-threatening). Sometimes you can’t sit with sadness alone. You need help.

The thing that yoga has taught me is this: I may not be able to avoid sadness, but if I sit with it in my practice, I can remind myself that sadness is simply another part of life, impermanent, like darkness or clouds or fog, another way to experience the full variety and depth of life’s always changing offerings.

If I learn to sit with sadness, rather than seek ways to avoid it, I may find a path that will lift me out of sadness back to gratitude and joy.

Practice Journal: How do you deal with feelings of sadness on and off your mat? Do you try to run from these feelings? Or do you attempt to understand them? How does your yoga practice help you sit with these feelings. And how do the poses help alleviate sadness? Write: 10 min.

Posted by: Bruce Black | February 1, 2014

The Gift of Time

During an ordinary day—though, really, who can say a day is ever ordinary?—I often forget that time is a gift that is given to us. 

So much of my day is spent rushing to perform a set of seemingly endless tasks. Pushing a cart through the supermarket, driving a car, folding laundry, typing at my desk, putting up a pot of coffee, washing dishes. I may be aware of the simplest movements required to accomplish these tasks but I lose sight of the time—the gift of minutes or hours—that it takes to do these things.

For moments, if not hours, of a day—even when I’m talking on the phone with my brother, or when I’m sitting in a coffee shop with friends enjoying a conversation—I can forget that time is passing, the seconds slipping through my inattentive grasp.

This isn’t about memory issues or being forgetful. It’s not about forgetting my name or where I live or what I do for a living. No, it’s not that kind of amnesia or dementia, thank goodness. It’s about being unaware of the moment-to-moment ecstasy of living. How is it possible to be unconscious of the joy that each moment brings? And yet that’s exactly what happens.

Every day, it seems, I can fall into the trap of seeing each day as “ordinary” instead of extraordinary. And seeing each day as “ordinary” —losing sight of the gift of time— leads to other traps, as well, such as the trap of telling myself that I’m not working hard enough or earning enough or caring enough. Or the trap of believing that I should be reading more books, composing more letters, writing more blog posts, meeting more people, learning more things, making more friends on Facebook, doing more than I’m doing.

Only when I step on my mat do I remember the gift of time, the moment-to-moment ecstasy of life, and savor the opportunity to stop doing and simply be.

On the mat I can hear my breath for the first time all day and remember that the seconds of life are passing through me right now.

I can stop berating myself for not doing enough, for not doing what others (including myself) think I “should” be doing. In each pose I can remember to slow down and let myself feel each heartbeat, each breath.

I can stop grasping for a foothold on my climb up an invisible mountain, and, instead, I can let my feet sink into the level earth and stand still in Mountain Pose, just breathing.

The sound of my breath restores the memory of the gift of time, the wonder of the moment. By listening closely to my own inhalation and exhalation, and to the breath of other yogis on the mats beside mine, I can experience life’s moment-to-moment ecstasy of living again and again.

Yoga offers us this gift of time. It helps us learn how to slow down long enough to hear our breath so we can catch a glimpse of the moment-to-moment ecstasy of life.

Practice Journal: How does your yoga practice remind you that time is passing, that each moment is precious, that time is a gift? Write: 10 min.

Posted by: Bruce Black | January 1, 2014

The Gifts of a New Year

Today is the first day of the New Year, a fresh page in our journals, an empty mat inviting our bodies to explore new poses, new ways of being.

On this day of the year, as on each day of the year, we are the recipients of many gifts, if only we take a moment to notice them.

Look around as you open your journal or step on your mat today. What gifts do you see?

Each time we move and stretch, twist and bend—even the simple act of stepping on our mat to begin our practice—we are receiving gifts.

The muscles and bones that support us, even when we are unaware of the foundation they provide, are gifts.

The gift of our practice, which helps us strengthen our foundation and gives us the gift of strong, healthy muscles.

Mindfulness, too, is a gift, a skill that practice helps us cultivate so we can appreciate our lives more deeply, and feel gratitude for all the gifts that come our way.

The days themselves, each hour, each moment, are gifts, offering us the opportunity to choose how to live our lives or simply listen to our breath (another gift).

All of these choices—the simple ability to make choices—are gifts.

Each breath, a gift.

Our senses—the ability to feel, taste, hear, smell, and see—gifts.

The ability to move our toes, blink open and close our eyes—gifts.

The ability to use our mouth and tongue to speak, to kiss, our hands to hold a pen, to touch and express love, our fingers to type—gifts.

The chance to meet new people or find the courage to say hello, to break through the wall of isolation and step outside our own solitude, to make a new friend or study with a new teacher—gifts.

Even changes in your life—both the changes that you desire and those that you wish didn’t have to happen—are gifts, bringing awareness and gratitude to each moment for what you experience now.

Your practice can help you learn to change, to let go and welcome change rather than resist it. What changes will you choose to make in your life today and in the year ahead?

What gifts will you give yourself, as well as those you love and the strangers who you’ll meet, this year?

What will you give yourself in this moment so you can fully enjoy the gift of your life?

New Year’s Day is a gift, a blank page waiting for your first words to appear.

May your words—and the days ahead—bring you the gift of awareness to experience your life and your practice more fully in this moment and in all the moments yet to come.

Practice Journal: Close your eyes, inhale deeply to welcome the New Year, and exhale slowly. Then open your eyes and let your pen dance across the page, taking you to a place that you hadn’t expected to go. Give yourself the gift of a surprise as the New Year begins. Start writing and see where your pen takes you as the year unfolds. (If you’re stuck, think about a time when a surprise opened your eyes to the beauty in your life.) Write: 15 min.

Posted by: Bruce Black | December 1, 2013

What Comes Next?

As the year comes to a close, I sit on my mat between poses wondering what will come next.

It’s an impossible question to answer, I know, yet as I move from pose to pose I keep wondering.

What new poses will I learn? Who will enter my life unexpectedly and become a friend, and who will leave it without saying goodbye?

How will my life change in the months ahead? What new books will I read? What new words will I add to my journals?

Who will be my teacher? And will he or she be able to help me grow as a yogi and as a human being, expanding into a new version of myself?

As the year comes to a close, I shut my eyes in Savasana and gather in my mind all the teachers who helped me reach this stage in my practice.

Their faces hover near mine, their voices whispering in my ear, encouraging me to have faith in a future that I can’t yet see.

They urge me to explore new poses, new ways of being, and inspire me to push a little farther past where I think I can go.

They tell me to keep practicing, to listen to my own voice, and to become my own teacher.

Without their support, I doubt I’d have been able to come to the mat after surgery earlier this year with the same enthusiasm, curiosity, and wonder that I felt before the surgery.

With their help, I learned how to recognize little miracles: how when I fall out of a pose, I can enjoy falling; how when I bend forward without reaching my toes, I can take pleasure in the experience of bending forward; and how when I sit and breathe, I can release my breath and watch it return, and remember the miracle of life.

As the year comes to a close, I realize no one can know what comes next. But we can offer heartfelt thanks to our teachers for encouraging us to keep looking for miracles.

I hope you’ll discover miracles on your mat and in your life at this season and throughout the year.

Practice Journal: What miracles have your teachers taught you to look for in your life? Write: 10 min.

Posted by: Bruce Black | November 1, 2013

Twists (and Bumps) in the Road

Over time life’s path can get bumpy and twist in unexpected directions, and it’s easy to lose your balance, as well as your sense of direction, as you try to get through that bumpy patch of twisty road.

Surgery a few months ago was one of those unexpected twists and bumps in the road. Sending our daughter off to college this past August was another sharp turn. Turning the page soon on a new decade is yet another bump ahead.

These kinds of transitions and changes in life can be unsettling and disruptive of the routines that we so treasure and cling to in our daily lives. But transitions and change—the bumps and twists in the road—can serve as life’s way of awakening us to the moment-to-moment beauty surrounding us and can remind us to be grateful for each moment.

I came to realize how transitions and change aren’t so much problems or “bumps” but rather gifts comprising the fiber of life itself as I took a road trip with my wife this past month.

We travelled through thirteen states—from Florida to Michigan and back again—as a way of coming to terms with a new stage of our life that seems full of transitions and change.

In the back seat of our car we threw our yoga mat, the pale lavender mat that my wife had purchased a decade ago when she first started taking yoga classes.

Each night we took the mat into the hotel room along with our suitcases so that in the morning my wife or I could use it to practice.

Some of the hotel rooms were cramped and narrow, others spacious with lots of room to unfurl the mat. But once I sat down on the mat, I didn’t notice the hotel room’s features. My practice drew me inward, each pose revealing a new perspective, just as each twist and bend in the road on our way north through Tennessee, Kentucky, and Indiana revealed a new perspective on the landscape as we steered toward a new destination each night.

As I moved from one pose to another, I could see something that I hadn’t seen before—how I stayed longer in Downward Dog than a month ago, how I recovered my balance in Tree Pose more easily while moving my arms as if they were branches, how I bent my knees and opened my hips a little more in Happy Baby—and I began to understand how the road that I was on since my surgery in April keeps changing… and will continue to change.

Each time I set foot on the mat, I felt as if I was venturing into new territory, not just into a new state like Missouri, Arkansas, or Mississippi, where I’d never been before, but into new emotional territory as we traveled through the countryside without our daughter for the first time in eighteen years, a couple again.

Stepping onto my mat and practicing yoga helped me enter this new landscape, as bumpy as it might feel, with a greater sense of security, a sense of confidence that my center could hold, that I could find what I needed and help my wife find what she needed, just as we used to help each other before our daughter was born, regardless of the bumps or twists in the road ahead.

Each morning, our travel mat, the mat that has seen so many changes in our lives, reminded me that the changes and transitions that we encounter in our life aren’t “bumps” in the road but the road itself, and that, as we practice and live our life each day, we become the mat, just as we become the road that we journey on.

Each choice that we make, each action, creates a trail of our moment-to-moment adventure. It’s a trail that serves as a bridge connecting us to our past, even as it points to an unknown future—in our practice, in our lives—that we can discover only by taking the next step.

Practice Journal: Have you faced a change in your life recently, a transition that shook your balance, your confidence? Did the change involve you alone or someone close to you, as well? How does your yoga practice help you keep your balance and find your way on roads that feel bumpy and may twist in unexpected directions? Write: 15 minutes.

Posted by: Bruce Black | October 1, 2013

The Smallest of Changes

This is the time of year in Florida when the air loses its heaviness and becomes lighter, drier, and the clouds float higher, and the sky turns a deeper shade of blue, more intense, cooler than the sweat-stained, pale blue of summer.

Lately I find myself noticing the smallest of changes—the caress of cooler air each morning when I go on my walk; the playful wave of palm fronds turning yellow at the tips and fading to gray; the subtle shift in the light’s color as each day the sun moves lower in the sky.

Flocks of birds are flying overhead in elegant, long V’s that unfurl like scarves across the sky, the birds calling to each other—“We’re back! We’re back!”—and soon snowbirds, Florida’s part-time residents, will return, too, clogging roads and beaches.

I notice the slight changes in my body—the way my head no longer throbs from surgery five months ago, and how the feeling of pins-and-needles, though still present, has subsided to a dull ache, no longer so intense a pressure behind my ear.

In the mirror I notice new wrinkles on my face, tiny lines etched beneath my eyes, signs of aging that I never saw before, eye close upand I can feel the dry patches of skin that have formed on the back of my legs.

I notice how I can twist a little further when I sit in Marichi’s Pose and bend a little lower, almost touching my toes, in Uttanasana, Standing Forward Bend. I notice, too, that I can turn my head toward the sky with less strain in Utthita Trikonasana, the Extended Triangle Pose, and that my hips feel more open than a few months ago.

These changes may seem slight but they are the stuff of life, the essence of our days, if only we take the time to notice them.

As daylight fades and the nights begin to cool, I am grateful for the ability to notice these small changes and to feel life’s fullness in them.

I’m grateful, too, for the ability to practice yoga—to touch my toes, to bend, to twist—and to keep a journal.

My practice invites me to stay alert, to notice these things, and to take pleasure in recording these small gifts in the pages of my journal.

From day to day, I never know what I’ll find there after I finish writing. Its pages are an ongoing reminder of the possibilities that life can offers us if we give it our full attention.

Practice Journal: What are some of the small changes that you notice at this time of year as the seasons flow like poses, one into another? Write: 15 minutes.

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