Posted by: Bruce Black | January 1, 2020

What pose will you choose this year?

As you step
onto your mat,
feeling your way
into a new year,
what pose will you
choose to begin?

Will it be
a pose of fear
or a pose of courage,
a pose of anger or
of love, of doubt or
commitment?

Will you set a new
intention
or remain trapped
by old patterns just
because they’re the way
you’ve always
practiced or
lived your life?

Will you say yes
to new ideas
and no
to things
you don’t want to do
or don’t believe in
any more?

Will you allow yourself
to soften, to let go,
to listen to what
the universe
and your heart
are telling you?

What difference does
a pose make,
after all,
if you can’t take it
off your mat
into the world,
if it doesn’t help
you see the world
and yourself
more clearly,
if it doesn’t inspire
you to become kinder
and more compassionate,
more thoughtful and
more sensitive
to life unfolding
around you?

Whatever pose
you choose,
may it deepen
your understanding
of your practice
and your life.

May it reveal
new ways
for you to
grow more fully
into your self.

And, most of all
may it help you
remember in this
moment and in all
the moments
waiting for you
in the year ahead
who you truly are.

Posted by: Bruce Black | December 1, 2019

Be Like Water

It’s taken years for me to feel comfortable meditating, to sit still without doing anything except to watch thoughts pass like clouds overhead, to observe emotions rise and fall like the tide, to stop wondering why I am sitting still instead of moving, doing.

I admit that I’m not entirely at ease when I meditate, but yoga has helped me find a stillness that I never thought I’d find. 

It usually happens after my home practice session is nearing its end, when I’m done with all the poses—the standing poses and reclining poses, the balance poses and restorative poses—and I sit for the last few minutes of my practice to meditate. 

One day, as I was sitting, still wrestling with my frustration, still unable to let go of thoughts that are like sticky tape, still caught in the web of emotions, I found the key. 

Three words came into my head: be like water. 

And these words caught my attention, distracting me from my frustrations and thoughts and worries. 

Of course, my first response was to ask myself “what do these words mean—to be like water?”

Did the words mean that I should be like a glass of water, that I should overflow the rim, or view myself as half-full or half-empty or what?

Then I thought, no, perhaps they meant that I should be like a running brook, or like a still pond, or like the waves rushing toward the shore.

I tried to quiet my thoughts, to stop thinking about what the words might mean—you know how hard it is to stop thinking, right?—and focused on my breath, as my teachers have taught me, first exhaling, then inhaling, and I found a space of calmness in the repetition of my breath.

After a few more breaths, I found something else: the lock that the key fit. It came in the form of a memory.

Years ago our family used to spend summer vacations at the Jersey shore. We stayed at a beach house on Long Beach Island, in a town called Ship Bottom, and from the porch I loved listening to the sea drumming on the sand, the waves inhaling and exhaling, as if the sea itself was breathing. 

Each afternoon my father liked to go swimming as the sun sank lower in the sky and the shadows lengthened and the light turned golden. Together we would walk down to the water’s edge and wade into the waves until we were hip deep.

My father could always find a magic spot where we could stay in one place, floating on the surface of the sea as the waves rolled in and out, and we were taken back and forth with each wave as it came into shore and then rolled back again. 

I remember how Dad and I floated in that magic space together within arm’s reach of each other, the sea surrounding us, lifting us up so our feet didn’t touch the ocean bed, then lowering us so that we were rooted again on the sandy bottom. 

I don’t remember how long we stayed in the water—fifteen minutes, a half hour, longer?—or feeling cold. Even so, I always came out chilled, with goosebumps on my skin, and my lips turning blue, and I’d stand shivering, wrapped in a beach towel, and gaze at the waves wishing I could have stayed in that magic spot a little longer. 

Be like water. 

These three words were the clue that I needed to find my way back to that magic spot where I used to float in the sea with my father. 

Now I can sit on my mat, legs crossed, eyes closed, breathing in, breathing out, and feel as if I’m floating in the sea again, rising and falling with my breath the way I used to rise and fall with the waves, letting go of everything except the sensation of floating.

Only now it’s not the sea that I’m floating in but the sound of my breath and what I hear is the expanse of the universe, inhaling and exhaling, that’s all, just inhaling and exhaling as I breathe in and breathe out, noticing how everything and everyone in life is connected, flowing into each other’s lives like water.

The words came to me one day on my mat. Ever since then I’ve found myself comfortable meditating, doing nothing, sitting with my eyes closed, listening to the sound of my breath, remembering the sound of the sea, that sensation of floating. 

Be like water. 

May your yoga practice help you find your own place of magic in the days ahead as this year comes to a close and a new year—a new door—opens for you.

Posted by: Bruce Black | November 1, 2019

Where Are You Now?

What do you think about when practicing yoga?

Are you conscious of your thoughts? Do you try not to think, and, rather, immerse yourself in the poses, in the sensations of your body moving from one pose to another?

Do you stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and think about what you’re going to make for dinner? Do you stretch in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Dog) and worry about picking up your daughter from after-school care?

Do you follow these thoughts and let them go? Or do they preoccupy your mind–do you cling to them?–so that you don’t notice the pose you’re in? You’re moving on your mat, but your mind is somewhere else–on the drop in the stock market, say, or on the driver who cut you off on your way to yoga class?

Are you present on your mat noticing how your body moves, where your muscles are tight, how if you shift your pose slightly, you can find your balance more easily?

Or are you somewhere else, thinking of a problem you have yet to solve, worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet, anxious about something you did but can’t let go of?

Where are you when you step on your mat?

How do you let go of fear and anxiety and thought itself and become pure movement, pure breath, each inhale deepening your experience of — and immersion — in the present?

Letting go is key, but how do you learn to let go?

What holds you back? What are you afraid of? Why are you afraid?

Yoga is like meditation in motion. The movement of your body can bring you into stillness.

Each breath–if you are aware of it, if you can become aware of it–helps you let go of your fears and anxieties and brings you into the moment.

Each inhalation reminds you that you are alive.

And if you forget where you are now, yoga can help you remember.

To begin, inhale.

Notice your inhalation.

Follow your breath as you draw in another breath and then release it.

Again.

Then again.

And with each exhalation watch how the past melts away and you find yourself in the present.

Savoring each breath.

Each moment.

Journal practice: Spend a few minutes warming up on your mat with a few of your favorite poses. Notice how your breathing changes after a couple of minutes. Watch how your thoughts change as you move from pose to pose and depending on the pose, on your attitude to the pose, on your perspective. Let each thought go, return to your breath. Where does that bring you? Write: 15 min.

Posted by: Bruce Black | October 1, 2019

Aging Gratefully

Aging is built into our DNA.

We’re born and enter the world as infants, and we grow up, and then one day we notice our youth has passed by and we are old.

Yoga, as odd as it may sound, while helping to keep me limber and strong, reminds me that I am aging, that each time I step on my mat I am growing older.

All of us who are lucky enough to be alive in our fifties, sixties, and beyond will have to deal with issues of aging. So, it’s good that we’re trying to keep our bodies healthy and strong, even as we watch our bodies change.

These changes are inevitable, of course, as much as we might struggle against them, trying to preserve our bodies, trying to keep ourselves young, to age gracefully (as some yogis encourage us to think of aging).

Each time we step on our mat, yoga takes us on a journey through the stages of life.

There’s the Happy Baby pose to remind us of the joy of rolling on the floor and holding our tiny baby feet. There’s the Mountain Pose to remind us of the strength of our youth and middle age. And there’s Savasana, the Corpse Pose, to remind us that there is a time to let go, to sigh with pleasure at all of the experiences that have come before.

All of us know there will be days ahead when we dread the changes taking place in our bodies and miss the days of our youth.

But we know there will be days, too, when we will utter sighs of gratitude for having reached this stage of life.

Yoga gives us the ability to express (with our bodies) our appreciation for the richness and beauty of nature around us, to pause, in gratitude, for the simple pleasure of being alive.

Aging gratefully, with gratitude for the gift of life–and not for how far we can bend our bodies– is what it means, I think, to age gracefully.

How we age, and whether we enjoy aging, depends on how our bodies cope with age, as well as on how we understand what it means to grow old.

Do we view ourselves as old rather than young?

Are we dismissive of the elderly? Disapproving? Disrespectful?

Do we fear getting older?

If we’re unable to accept the changes that occur as we age, then it will be impossible for us to age gracefully–or gratefully–and enjoy our remaining time here.

That’s one of the reasons why I’m grateful for my yoga practice and my teacher’s encouragement to live in the moment, not in the past or the future.

Yoga can teach us how to look at our self in the mirror and give thanks for whatever we see in our reflection: gray hair, wrinkles, dry skin.

Yoga reminds us to be grateful in this moment, even for aching joints and stiff muscles.

It teaches us to savor each moment of life–moments that only come once and never again–and to give thanks for each breath.

Each pose reminds us to age with gratitude for what we are capable of doing in the moment.

As we age, all our memories–our joys and sadness, our hopes and fears–are bound together in our bodies, and yoga reminds us that we are constantly changing, growing, evolving into something new, never seen or experienced before.

Each day, no matter our age, is a new day!

We are alive in this moment. 

Yoga reminds us of this.

And it reminds us, too, of what connects us, and how, together, we’re part of a flowing stream of energy that will carry us, eventually, to its source.

Practice Journal: How does yoga help you cope with the challenges of aging? And how does each pose remind you of the beauty of growing older? Write: 15 minutes.

Posted by: Bruce Black | September 1, 2019

When A Teacher Leaves

Last month I learned my teacher had left the studio where I’ve taken classes with him for the past dozen years to open a studio of his own.

When I entered the yoga studio that day and didn’t see him, I found myself missing the sound of his voice, the smile and hug he used to greet me with, the flowers he would bring from his garden to adorn the puja and hand out to us after class, the boundless energy he infused each class with.

Of course, I wish him well on his new path, but, still, I feel a sense of loss. 

The odd thing, though, is that as I followed the instructions offered by our new teacher, I heard my old teacher’s voice still guiding me through the poses.

I heard him remind me to spread my fingers in Downward Dog, to keep the metatarsal knuckles on the mat, to press my fingers down in order to take the pressure off my wrists. 

I remembered him saying how each pose is like a building block, and how we don’t have to believe anything he says, and how there’s nowhere we have to go, nothing we have to do in the next ninety minutes.

I realized my teacher may have left the yoga studio, yet I could still feel his spirit guiding me in each pose.

Maybe that’s what teachers do: they leave a part of their hearts in our hearts each time they teach a class, sharing a part of themselves with their students, gifts that we find days or months or years later.

Over the years my teacher helped me learn how to accept change and how to plug into the flow of life and enjoy the ride. And although he was gone, here he was offering another lesson. This time, though, it wasn’t on the mat. It was on the path of life itself.

Life keeps changing, doesn’t it? 

And one of the many lessons my teacher taught me over the years was not only that life will change—it has to change, that’s the nature of life—but that I need to learn how to accept life’s changes. 

How each of us deal with life’s changes—resisting or welcoming change—is part of what our yoga practice teaches us.

And it’s what a good teacher helps us learn about ourselves and our life. 

Practice Journal: What change or changes have occurred in your life recently? How has your yoga practice (and your yoga teacher) helped you deal with these changes? Write 10 min

Posted by: Bruce Black | August 1, 2019

Looking for a panacea?

Ever since I started taking yoga classes, I’ve heard people talk about yoga as a cure-all for every ailment, a solution for every problem, a panacea for the ills of modern-day life.

I’ve heard folks say that yoga can cure anything from asthma and diabetes to thyroid disorders, arthritis, and depression.

Some yoga practitioners suggest if only you can find the appropriate pose and do it properly and often enough, you’ll be cured.

Any day now I’m expecting to find a headline in the National Inquirer claiming that yoga cures hair loss!

What I’ve learned after years of practice is that the same pose that can heal you can also cause you harm.

And I’ve learned, too, that yoga–not surprisingly– isn’t a panacea. It can’t cure all diseases or all troubles. 

But here’s the thing. Yoga can help you understand your body (and in some cases your emotions and psychological state) in deeper ways so that your body might carry you further and sustain you longer as you grow older.

It can help you better align your body with your internal compass and the things that you care deeply about, and in many cases it can help you re-remember that internal compass (which is easy to lose sight of), and respect the things you care deeply about  (which are easy to dismiss as unimportant).

In some cases it can bring more meaning to your life and deepen your appreciation for each day, each moment, and for the people who you share your life with, though, again, it depends on so many factors, including your own ability to let go of preconceived notions and to see the world from a different angle.

One of the great benefits of yoga, I’ve found, is that it can help you slow down during a fast-paced day so you can examine your thoughts (which slow down, too) with greater care and confidence.

It can also help you notice when you’re feeling frightened or depressed, and, in some situations, it can help you realign your perspective so that instead of feeling fearful you can feel courageous, and instead of feeling depressed you can return to a joyful state of being. Sometimes you may need more than yoga–a trained therapist, for instance, or psychiatrist–but sometimes yoga can be enough.

I first began to understand the curative effects of yoga shortly after I moved to southwest Florida and had to drive over the Skyway Bridge, a long, high, arching bridge that stretches high over the glittering water of Tampa Bay. 

That first sight of the bridge sent my heart into my throat. I was shocked by its height and its length.  I could feel panic rising in my chest each time I drove to Tampa. It’s the kind of bridge that makes you feel like you are defying death (and gravity) by driving across it. 

On that first drive over the bridge, and on frequent drives afterward, I found myself gripping the steering wheel as tightly as possible and praying that I would make it safely to the other side. I don’t know why I was suddenly afraid of heights, of falling, of crashing into the water below, but my fear nearly paralyzed me. 

But, thanks to my yoga practice, I was able to focus on my breath, to breathe deeply, to chant words and sing to distract my mind from the height of the bridge and from my fear of falling.

Instead, I focused on just one thing: inhaling, then exhaling. I forced myself to look at the panels used to construct the bridge’s road surface, the tension wires holding the parts together, and avoided looking at the wide bay unfolding beyond the side railings and the sight of the opposite shore.

I observed my fear and kept breathing as I made my way over the bridge. It was a lot like practicing yoga–breathing in, breathing out–except I was practicing in my car instead of on my mat.

Yes, some people say that yoga can help with arthritis, diabetes, thyroid disorders, depression and other maladies. Maybe it can even help with hair loss! 

But I’m not looking for a panacea. I prefer, instead, to look for a way to see life more clearly, and my yoga practice helps me do this.

May your practice help you see life more clearly, too.

Practice Journal: How does your practice help you slow down so you can see life more clearly? Write: 15 minutes.

Posted by: Bruce Black | July 1, 2019

Listen to your breath

Listen to your breath
and release the tension
in your gut,
the tightness
beneath your ribs,
the worry and fear
and doubts.

Listen to your breath
and let go of expectations
of what you think
you should be doing,
of voices telling you
to do this
not that.

Listen to your breath
and sit listening for
just a minute,
then another,
and peel away
the layers of uncertainty
that keep you from
listening closely
to your heart.

And when you exhale,
breath out the
sadness and loneliness
and disappointment.

And when you inhale,
breathe in the joy and
thrill of being alive
in this moment.

Exhale–
selfishness
greed
and jealousy.

Inhale–
gratitude
wonder
and love.

Listen to your breath.
Breathe.

Posted by: Bruce Black | June 1, 2019

Waiting

Sometimes you just have to wait for a wound to heal, a line at the post office to move, or a traffic light to change.

Sometimes you just have to wait, and you can’t help becoming frustrated or feeling as if you are being ignored or that your time isn’t being taken seriously.

Sometimes you just have to wait, and you worry something might have happened to the friend who you are waiting to meet, or you grow anxious that you’ll never get in to see the doctor, or you feel rage rising when it seems like your car, stuck in traffic, will never move again.

Sometimes you just have to wait, and you might wonder: Why do I have to wait???

But waiting is an inevitable part of life, and …

If you can accept it and are able to let go of frustration and anger and disappointment…

If you are able to look around at the blessings surrounding you and choose gratitude for the time you’re given rather than feeling frustrated…

If you can see the abundance your life is filled with and appreciate the hundreds of miracles your life is composed of … 

If you can see the kindness and care your doctor gives her patients and the years of training and sacrifice and hard work it took her to become a skilled physician instead of getting upset by the long wait at her office… 

If you can see the friendship that you built over the years with a special person and the love and care and trust that you’ve shared with each other instead of becoming annoyed by the wait that you have to endure for your friend to show up…

If you can shift your perspective, you can deepen your understanding of each moment.

Sure, sometimes you just have to wait, but how you spend the time waiting makes all the difference in how you experience each moment.

It’s what our yoga practice teaches us, isn’t it?

How to wait with patience as we learn a new pose or practice a challenging flow.

How to let go of frustration and impatience and not take falling out of a pose too seriously (or personally).

How to notice each moment without judging it, and how to savor the joy of each moment as we come into a pose and then leave the pose behind with grace and gratitude and try a new pose.

Yoga teaches us to see ourselves as we are in the present.

Not where we might want to be or where we think we should be.

But where we are now.

PS – Written while waiting twenty minutes for an acquaintance who never showed up.

Posted by: Bruce Black | May 1, 2019

Yoga at Thirty Thousand Feet

No matter how many times I sit on a plane as it taxis to the end of the runway for take-off, I am still nervous about flying.

I tend to worry about things that might go wrong—what if this, what if that, a kind of what if loop that keeps running through my head— so it’s no wonder that I tend to get anxious before a flight.

But since starting a yoga practice, I’ve found ways to short-circuit that loop and relax before and during airplane travels.

One of the secrets is to focus on my breath. 

Whether I’m sitting in the gate area waiting for my section to be called, or walking down the jetway, or taking that last step from the jetway onto the plane, I notice how following my breath—the magical act of inhaling and the equally magical act of exhaling—can help alleviate anxiety.

My breath reminds me that I am rooted in the present, the future has yet to unfold, and the past is already history.  Mindful breathing helps me remember that I am alive, in this moment, and each breath helps me enjoy each moment more fully, even when I’m sitting on a plane.

After I’ve boarded the plane, buckled my seatbelt, and we’ve left the ground, I’ll monitor how I’m feeling as we zoom across the sky at thirty thousand feet.

If I notice my neck is stiff when I turn to look out the window, I’ll acknowledge the stiffness and then begin doing gentle twists, turning my head in one direction and then the other, tilting my left ear toward my left shoulder, then tilting my right ear toward the right shoulder.

Or I might carefully draw circles in the air with my chin until I begin to feel the muscles on the side of my neck and the back of my head relax and loosen.

If my legs feel tight or cramped during the flight, I’ll stand in the aisle and, after making sure the aisle is clear, I’ll try to balance on one leg, then the other, raising my foot an inch or so off the floor in a modified Tree Pose.

Even though I’m tall and the ceiling is too low for me to lift my hands over my head, I can move my shoulders, lifting them up and down, sideways and backwards, to relieve some of the tension in my upper back.

If the flight is smooth, I might try (while still standing) to bend slightly from side to side at the hip, or even try to do a modified Air Chair Pose to stretch the back of my calves and relax my lower back.

When the seat belt sign is illuminated and I can’t stand up in Mountain Pose because the flight is too bumpy, I’ll stay seated and begin exploring the muscles in my lower back, abdomen, quads, and hamstrings. 

With a slight adjustment in my posture, I’ll sit up straight so that I can feel the muscles in my abdomen begin to work. 

Another helpful exercise is clenching and unclenching my toes (inside my shoes or in my socks if I’ve removed my shoes) so that I can feel the muscles working in my toes, along my arches, and all the way up the front of my shins to the back of my calves. 

While sitting, I hug my leg muscles to the bone and can feel a surge of energy moving up the legs from my feet through my shins and knees all the way to my thigh bone and hips.

It’s energizing to feel these muscles contracting and relaxing, and I’ll repeat the sequence a number of times until I feel tired or the muscles feel relaxed sufficiently or else the steward or stewardess arrive with the cart of snacks and drinks.

Wherever you happen to find yourself—whether it’s on your mat in a new hotel room or thirty thousand feet above the ground—traveling can take its toll on your body, and a little yoga on route to your destination, or once you’ve arrived, can help you remain calm and relaxed and restore your equilibrium. 

And if you’re lucky, as I was last week when I stayed a few days in a Chicago hotel, you might even find a yoga mat rolled up in the closet waiting for you.

Practice Journal: What part of your yoga practice do you take with you on your travels? How does yoga help you relax in stressful situations? How do you find equanimity when away from home? Write: 15 minutes. 

Posted by: Bruce Black | April 1, 2019

Working with partners

Whenever my yoga teacher suggests that we work with partners in class, I feel my throat tighten and my hands start to sweat.

Yoga is a solitary activity for me most of the time. Rarely do I talk to anybody after I step onto my mat to practice. Part of what I love about yoga is how it lets me ease into myself without having to worry about other people or their needs.

When I’m with people, I notice that I tend to put their needs ahead of my own. I’ll worry if I’m talking too fast or too softly. Or I might worry if I’m listening closely enough or if there is anything they might need.

On my mat, alone, however, whether at home or in the yoga studio, I can leave behind the worries of my everyday life and simply be myself. I can be curious about who I am. I can stretch and move in ways that meet my needs rather than someone else’s. I can listen to my heart and hear my thoughts without any outside interference.

So on the days when my teacher tells us we’ll be working with partners, my sense of self–that private self, which I usually find on my mat–changes, pulls back, and draws inward into silence. In its place appears my public self, the self that I show to the world.

It’s this self that reminds me to be attentive to the needs of my partner, but not in a worried or anxious way. I try to help them figure out if they’re comfortable in a pose, and, if that pose eludes them, I try to help them find that position.

As their partner, I want to make sure they don’t hurt themselves. (Speaking of injuries: It’s interesting to reflect on the injuries that I’ve sustained in yoga and to note that they’ve occurred most often when I worked with a partner, and my partner didn’t pay close enough attention to what I needed in that moment.)

I’ll try to examine their pose and suggest ways that they might gain better alignment or I might offer an idea to help them relax deeper into the pose.

And then we’ll switch places, and they’ll do the same for me: reciprocating kindness,

It always surprises me how much I enjoy working with partners after I overcome my initial resistance.

There’s a harmony that I find when I work with someone else. It’s a deeper connection than I expected, and in that connection I’ll discover something else.

It happens when my teacher asks each of us in class to take a few moments to look into our partner’s eyes.

And what I find there, reflected in their eyes, is a sliver of my own humanity.

This moment of inter-connection, of gazing into another person’s eyes, is in many ways the hardest part of working with partners; it’s the most challenging pose of all.

We’ll stand opposite each other, separated by less than a foot, unsure where to look, uncertain if we might be intruding in our partner’s privacy or stepping too far into his or her personal space.

After a few minutes of mild embarrassment, though, we’ll gaze steadily into our partner’s eyes, and, once we’ve taken a few deep breaths, we’ll find that we have discovered a new way of understanding each other.

It’s a kind of magical experience. A stranger, a person who we might not have known before the start of class, becomes our teacher, and we find ourselves having gained a new way of understanding trust and gratitude.

In the end, working with a partner can teach us how to be sensitive to another person’s needs and our own so that each of us can stay safe, avoid injury (although, admittedly, it doesn’t always work out that way), and more fully experience each pose.

Practice Journal: Have you worked with a partner in your yoga class? If so, how did practicing yoga with a partner differ from practicing on your own? What did you discover about yourself when you worked with a partner? What new skills did you learn? And how did you feel about your practice (and yourself) after you finished? Write: 15 minutes.

 

 

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