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How to Manage Your Fears and Face Them Head On

November 2, 2017

When I needed a wall behind me for the Sirsasana.

Halloween got me thinking about fear.  As a society we value fearlessness.  As people we take pride in saying, “I’m fearless.”

But I’ve never met anyone who is fearless.  Some fear pain, some fear solitude, some fear poverty, some fear for the safety of their near and dear ones, aging.  Over the years I’ve heard of the fear of pigeons, fear of sprouts, fear of going bald.

A strategy that used to work for me was to avoid the cause of my fear.  But, it turns out, there are some fears you can’t avoid.

When I was ill I wasn’t able to practice for what felt like a very long time.  My teacher once told us that if you don’t practice for a day, it’s equivalent to putting your practice back by seven whole days.  As each day passed, I thought of all I learned in Pune.  With so much time on my hands I became increasingly anxious, nervous and fearful.

In the path of Yoga there are inevitable roadblocks and problems.  But Yoga is a holistic practice so the solution also lies in the practice.  The first limb of the Ashtanga (8 Limb) yoga practice is Yama.  The Yamas are  set of 5 ethical principles that practitioners must adhere to.  One of the Yamas is aparigraha or ‘non-attachment’.  As yogis we become too attached to the practice.  Some of us feel guilty if we are unable to practice.  Others push themselves too hard.  Some pride themselves on the asanas that they can do.  We stop enjoying the journey, we focus only on the destination.  And in the process become attached to the destination.

I am very attached to my asana practice. I spend a lot of time trying variations, reading, watching and experimenting.  When I can finally do an asana I feel a sense of accomplishment.  There is nothing wrong with feeling good about finally attaining something that you’ve worked hard for.  But if you beat yourself for not attaining the final asana despite a rigorous practice; or start to lose faith in the path because your goal seems far, far away; then you need to take a fresh look at your attitude and approach.

I was fearful of discovering the state of my yoga practice post illness. If you’ve read this blog, then you know that I was significantly weakened by the illness.  Waking up every day to practice felt like an exercise in futility.  It was scary to try asanas and not know if I would be able to do them.  Asanas which I ‘owned’ before.  But I guess by force of habit I kept on returning every morning…to fail.  Until one day I started improving.

And that’s when I realized that fear can’t be ignored.  You can’t not think about the object of your fears.  It doesn’t help to face fear head on.  Fear can only be managed, one day at a time.  You don’t have to look at the entire marathon, you need to look at the Majaa run first.  You don’t have to dwell on whether you’re going to get the job, you only need to work on giving the best interview ever.  You don’t have to worry about the Sirsasana (Headstand), you just have to work on doing a very good Adhomukha Svanasana (Downward Dog).

BKS Iyengar once told Patricia Walden (who was struggling with a heavy case of depression) to ‘Take one step no matter how small.’  I realize this is what I have been doing ever since I’ve gotten back on the mat.

Do you have a strategy to deal with fear?

 

 

 

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Getting My Asanas Back

October 29, 2017

The Lake as the sun comes up. Notice the little boat in the water.

I think just a little bit of effort towards health can ensure that we prevent most ailments.  But what do you do if you get attacked by a virus in those rare moments of low immunity?  I’ve already done a blog on what to do if you have Dengue fever.

My only concern after I started to feel better was my yoga practice.  I spoke to a few friends who had experience with Dengue and realized that it will take me some more time to get my strength back.  Until then I had to work with where I was and do what I could.

So I practiced a lot of patience.  I took it easy and experimented in equal measure and made some progress.  Here’s a snapshot of the week.  I’m writing this after a delicious lunch of rice and kala channa; satisfied with how this week has been for my practice.

I started Tabata workouts on Monday.  I didn’t expect myself to be able to do it, and I didn’t.  I had to take breaks, but I didn’t give up.  I wanted to focus on stretching my lower body so I did the Janu Sirsasana and Paschimottanasana.  The Adhomukha Svanasana had my legs shaking and I decided to stick to the seated postures.  Interesting enough, the Hanumanasana came to me!!!  I took classes on Monday but rested for the rest of the day.

It’s difficult to get out of bed, but this view makes it worth it.

On Tuesday my legs and shoulders ached like never before.  From the Ashtangis and the Kalari practitioners I learned the benefits of massaging sesame oil on achy muscles and creaky joints.  Before I went to sleep I tried to rub the aches away, knowing full well that they would still be there tomorrow.  I tried to do as much Tabata as I could and focused only on seated asanas.  I ended with the Hanumanasana again.  Any kind of inversion was out of the question.

Things started to improve on Wednesday.  I felt stronger and decided to practice a few standing asanas.  I did the Tadasana, Uttanasana, Trikonasana, Parsvakonasana, Virbhadra 2 and felt my energy levels flagging.  I tried the Downward Dog and sure enough, my legs started shaking.  I closed the practice.

However, by Friday I felt markedly stronger.  I did standing poses and the seated ones after Tabata and felt energized instead of drained.  I registered for the Go Heritage Run Srirangapatnam run and decided I would test my stamina over the weekend.

Saturday – did Tabata and headed to the lake to do a 5 km walk.  Legs were a bit shaky, but overall I felt good.  I also felt encouraged to head out for a 5km run at Cubbon Park with a friend.

Sunday(Today) – Tabata is becoming easier and the aches are almost gone.  Did the 5 km with no problem.  Very thrilled and determined to get all my strength, flexibility and asanas back!

Next week is to build strength for the Go Heritage Run and to experiment carefully with handstands.  I’m also focusing on good wholesome meals since I have a tendency to be a bit lax about that.  All in all, a great weak.

Hope you guys are having a great day too!

Waking up early isn’t just about the exercise, it’s about the serenity and beauty that you can see in nature.

 

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The Diwali Detox – What I Do

October 23, 2017

I ate a lot of these while recovering from Dengue fever. In fact, one of my favorite fruits.

I’m not one for crash dieting or diet fads.  And the buzzword right now is ‘post Diwali detox’.  Everyone is on one.  Except for those who are actually healthy.

Fasting-feasting and binge eating does more harm to your body than you can imagine.  Depriving your body and then forcing it to consume more than it needs or can handle is the perfect way to confuse your hormones.  That’s when a lot of women start to complain about hair fall, premature greying, wrinkles or other changes in skin tone/quality, and even an irregular period.

Right now everyone is dreading their plate…or looking at it fearfully and suspiciously.  Except, I’m happy to report, my students.  They have a healthy relationship with food and a holistic outlook to life.  Diwali is about celebrating and indulging and now it’s about cleaning up your diet.

Gigantic cucumber. Spotted it in a dhaba at the foothills of Singhagadh Fort. But I would be hesitant to eat it as I feel this size can only be achieved artificially.

Like I said, I don’t follow a ‘diet’.  But here are five guidelines that work for me.

  1. I try and follow an Ayurvedic diet.  So use your food as medicine.  Use lots of ginger, garlic and spices during the winter and eat lighter food in the summers.  Bangalore is neither too cold nor too hot, so I eat a moderate diet.
  2. Eat a largely clean diet.  Adding a lot of vegetables to your Maggie doesn’t count.  If you use a good quality oil, use organic veggies and whole wheat pasta – that is clean and healthy.
  3. No white sugar.  No sugar (any kind) in my tea/coffee.  There was a time when I used jaggery, but I have a sweet tooth.  And when you have  a sweet tooth you can go a bit overboard with even jaggery.  So I just don’t keep it in my kitchen.
  4. No dairy.  So only black coffee or black/green tea for me.  In my experience even small amounts of milk in tea causes a lot of bloating.  I notice a difference within just a week of having milk tea.  Curd however, behaves differently.  And sometimes I allow myself a little bit of curd.  But again, sparingly.
  5. Fruits – in moderation.  Sugar contents in fruits is very high.  So if you overdo fruit and have the traditional Indian carby diet – then it’s just extra sugar.

 

I love this picture of tiny mushrooms growing on a tree trunk at Amrapalli Farms about an hour and a half away from Pune. I use a lot of mushrooms in my salads.

Every body is different and what works for me may not work for you.  The above list is something that I put together after many years of observing myself.  That said, it’s always a good idea to be aware of what others have tried and tested.  You might be able to incorporate some of their learnings into your life.

What dietary guidelines work for you?  Let me know.

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Yoga is a light…A Yogi’s Diwali

October 19, 2017

pc: Geetanjali Joshi

From ignorance, lead me to truth;
From darkness, lead me to light;
From death, lead me to immortality
Om peace, peace, peace

I learned the above shloka in the year 2009 when I went to SVYASA to do my Teacher’s Training Course.  I found that I was the only one unfamiliar with it.  When I went on to star teaching yoga myself, I learned from my students that this is a shloka taught widely in schools here in India.  This shloka is found in the Upanishads and is a prayer to Light.

If you look at this shloka closely, you can see the definition of the word ‘guru’ in the second line.  ‘Gu’ means darkness and ‘ru’ means light.  A guru is someone who enlightens you; takes you from the darkness to the light.  A guru gives you the strength to recognize your own ignorance and guides you towards your truth.

Diwali is then, perhaps, also a celebration of moving towards the light of truth and peace.  We celebrate the triumph of good over evil, but we should also reflect on the inner darkness that exists in all of us and pray for it to be illuminated.

During Diwali we perform the Lakshmi puja, and many people also worship Ganesha and Saraswati during this puja.  Ganesha is worshipped at the beginning of any puja and symbolizes that which clears the way to our goal.  Saraswati is the goddess of books and learning.

A yogi carries the light (deep) of yoga within.  As yogis we are on the path to truth, to the light, to peace in every moment of every day.  When we unroll our mats we are lighting a diya to a practice that is our path to a higher truth.  When we practice we are paying tribute to goddess Saraswati because the practice is a study of ourselves and humanity.  And when we resolve that we will continue the practice no matter what, it is an invocation to Ganesha to clear the hurdles that may stand in our way.

For a yogi, every day is Diwali.

The colors of the Festival of Lights.

Happy Diwali!

 

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What Pune’s Weather Taught Me

September 15, 2017

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pc: Joel Koechlin

 

Until today I had been lucky to avoid getting drenched in Pune’s sudden downpours.  Today I went out for lunch with another and on our walk home the pleasant drizzle steadily and surely grew into a monstrous torrent.  Too much for my little umbrella to handle.  My capris were all wet as I pulled the umbrella low over my head and waded through the veritable rivers that the streets had become.  As I walked I noticed the cobbler who was calmly trying to prevent his entire business being washed away in the rain.  I noticed the fruit and vegetable wallahs covering their carts with waterproof sheets.  I noticed the coconut bhaiyya had shut shop.  I crossed the road and got on the sidewalk of the Agriculture college.

When I have the 7 am class I walk across someone sleeping on this sidewalk.  This person is always wrapped head to toe in a blanket.  I’ve never seen him stirring in his sleep.  The early morning traffic doesn’t seem to bother him.  When it rains he props an umbrella up and hopefully it keeps (at least) his torso dry.  Once when I was walking to class (in the middle of the day) a yellow snake slithered out from the bushes and, perhaps realizing that it had lost it’s way, slithered back into the bushes.  Slimy serpents don’t seem to bother this person.  I’ve seen him there after a night of nonstop torrential rain, after a hot and humid night, after the Ganpati celebrations, on a Monday morning, on a Saturday morning…

To renounce everything and find peace in a remote cave in the Himalayas is easy.  To stay ethical and honourable in the absence of temptation is no big deal.  If we want to quieten the chitta, we must accept the noise that is creating the vrittis.  If we want some rest, we must get it despite the traffic, fear of snakes, the rain or the heat.  If we need to find peace, we must do so in the midst of chaos.  Wrapped in a threadbare blanket under a tattered umbrella.  Because that’s where we need it the most.

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Finally some progress…

September 11, 2017

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Our goals form the blue print for our lives.  As kids we think of  growing up and becoming so and so.  Once we become so and so our goals change to the kind of cars or houses we want.  The kind of person we want to be with.  More common goals are to lose 10 kgs before year end, learn how to swim, run a marathon, travel the world, complete a reading challenge.

My first ever goal in life was to be Nancy Drew when I grew up.  As I grew up I became more laid back and wanted to spend all my time reading and writing.  My only goal in life was to spend as much time as possible reading as many books as possible.  I also wanted to write books for a living.  I finally ended up writing code for a living and that period of my life is conspicuous by a total lack of goals to aspire to.  Everyone else wanted promotions, raises, onsite trips.  People were flaunting cars, homes and eligible marital prospects.  One day I realized that if I didn’t start working out I would have nothing to wear since I had steadily outgrown many things in my closet.  That led me to the gym and then to yoga class.

As with most yoga students my first goal was to touch my toes.  I remember that I was elated when I first did that.  Even more when I touched my forehead to my knee.  Today I cringe at how bad my form was then.  Lots of people want to do the headstand and handstand.  Studying at RIMYI has made a lot of my goals accessible to me (Kurmasana for one).

As an Intermediate 2 practitioner you are expected to be comfortable in many variations of sirsasana.  You’re upside down in all classes (unless you’re menstruating), so headbalancing is crucial for an Iyengar practitioner.  There are bound to be many who topple over or come down for a little break.  When this happens you hear everything from ‘Shouldn’t have had so many modaks’ to ‘You call yourself teachers!!!’ to ‘In Intermediate 2 for so long and still not able to sustain?!’  Usually accompanied by a barrage of Marathi.

When I was here last year I used to fantasize about holding the headstand for 10 minutes.  I knew that was a prerequisite for the next level.  I’d heard of classes where students have been upside down for 20 minutes at a stretch.  All of last month I’ve worked on steadily increasing the amount of time I stay up.  I started with 5 minutes and then held it for 8 minutes for a while.  Then this morning I decided to be a little more adventurous and see if I could hold on for 10 minutes.  And I did!!!

Needless to say, it felt amazing!!!  Achieving these goals only prove that with only a little bit of discipline and smart work you are closer to your goals than you think.  Even goals that are mere fantasies for you right now.

 

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Aga Khan Palace

 

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A New Vrkshasana

September 6, 2017

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I love the basics.  Even though advanced yoga poses can be exciting, there is still something lovely about the simplicity of the basics.  Basic asanas are like the comfort food of yoga.

My schedule has changed a little bit for this month, so I now have Devki’s class on Wednesdays from 7.45-9 am.

In today’s class we focused on the groin.  I’ve been here for a month and so far I haven’t done a blog on any class I’ve attended, but today’s class was different from any so far.  We focused on the spine and the root of the spine (moola).  We were supposed to grip the spine and the root throughout the sequence.  We started with the Swastikasana and went on to the Baddhakonasana. 

 

 

The class had a pleasant tempo.  It didn’t feel like I was struggling in the asanas and pushing my limits.  Yet, as the class progressed I could clearly feel that I was settling into the asanas rather than fighting my way into them.  As though my limbs were moulding and unfolding effortlessly.  I feel I was discovering what the body can do when the mind is quiet and the ego recedes.  By the time we got to the Trikonasana I felt light and lithe and it was the best Trikonasana I’ve done while here in Pune.

I always learn something new in Devki’s class.  And it’s always something fascinating.POMELO_20170906094836_save  The Vrkshasana/Tree Pose is perhaps the first balancing posture that we learn in yoga class.  Over the years I’ve heard a lot about the symbolism associated with this pose.  The more common ones are to be rooted and strong and to find balance despite what is happening around you.  But today Devki said be like a tree and provide shade and protection to all that come to you.  A tree doesn’t judge a good person or bad, an animal or a human.  It provides shade, protection and relief to one and all.

Although as human beings we are constantly evolving and growing (as we should), we can also be like the tree and ensure that external factors don’t diminish our light or detract us from the work that we are meant to do.  We should be compassionate towards all who we come in contact with and see the larger picture even in the midst of the most sticky situations.  The tree that provides protection is larger than those that come to it for relief and has a greater purpose.  Think about this when practicing your Vrkshasana next time.

Towards the end of the class we went into Baddhakonasana once again and performed it like the Savasana – with the intent of relaxing the body.  I couldn’t help but smile when I realized my spine, the root (moola) of the spine and the posture had all come together effortlessly in the Baddhakonasana.

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Paying Homage

August 24, 2017

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Last Sunday was BKS Iyengar’s punyatithi (death anniversary).  There was a function organised by the institute in which Abhijata spoke.

When I got to the institute (half an hour early), it was buzzing with activity.  Students were helping to arrange mats on the floor for all of us to sit on and technicians were taking care of the audio/video system.  The program started with the invocation to Patanjali and then Abhijata took the stage.

Her speech was a combination of personal memories of her grandfather, his approach to yoga, his method of teaching, his commitment to the subject and his belief system.  A nice little addition was the re-enactment of scenes from BKS Iyegnar’s classes, where the rest of the teachers went up on stage and pretended to be students as Guruji taught.  Abhijata did her best impersonation of the disciplinarian Guru while we tried to imagine our teachers in the plight that we so often find ourselves in.

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What I really liked about Abhijata’s speech was how she wove the lessons learned with personal anecdotes.  When talking about how Iyengar yoga helps us in cultivating a sense of peace or understanding who we really are, she said the Guruji had once said ‘My sole and soul is the same.’  Meaning that it is through the understanding and awareness of the gross body that he was able to cultivate insight.  You need to work so hard, make your body so potent that you can escape gravity.  Although anatomy is a rigid structure, you can’t pinpoint where the body ends and mind begins.  Your inner working has to be revealed through your outer self.

She also said that yoga is a living art.  Asana is a metaphor for life.  Yoga teaches you how to navigate through problems in life.    Chitta vritti has to come so that you can learn how to deal with it.  Action can’t guide, reflection does.  The prakriti has infinite potential, so it is possible to change our lives.  As an analogy think of a farmer laying the groundwork for his crops.  He does his best without thinking of the mechanics of how the seeds will sprout.  He lays the groundwork and the seeds sprout on their own.  Similarly, we must put in the practice, and everything else will also fall in place.

Life is to live.  Your sensitivity to yourself and the world around you increases through the practice of yoga, and this heightened sensitivity helps you to solve your problems.  For this your tapas has to have fire.  Your practice should have drive, passion and zeal.

It was fitting then that Abhijata ended her speech a little teary eyed and saying ‘He taught me how to live.’

 

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Recounting experiences with BKS Iyengar

 

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Notes From Pranayama Class

August 17, 2017

A valuable addition to my schedule this year are the Pranayama classes.  To the masses Pranayama consists of vigorous breathing patterns to be done for 10 minutes daily and designed to keep your skin glowing, hair shiny and body young.  Unlike the heavy panting/wheezing breathing we see recommended on many a popular TV show, here Pranayama is all about subtlety.

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I had my third pranayama class last night and so far all the classes have followed a fixed pattern.  We’ve spent most of the class in the Supta Swastikasana/Savasana and almost played with the breath.  While we try to gently ‘tame’ and understand the breath, Devki reiterates why it is important to build a solid foundation for pranayama practice.

Yesterday she used the example of a clay pot.  If the pot isn’t properly baked, then anyIMG_20170728_205903_201 amount of water you put into it won’t stay in it.  Similarly our bodies have to be ready for Pranayama for it to be effective and not harm us.  Devki said that many times students ask her why we aren’t doing seated pranayama.  The reason is that most of us aren’t able to maintain a straight spine throughout the practice.  With a crooked spine the breath is constricted and the organs of breath are uncomfortable.  (BKS Iyengar has said:  Crooked body crooked mind.)  The organs of breath need to be disciplined before we can start to control the breath.  For this reason we spend almost 90% of the class in a supine position using bolsters and blankets.

POMELO_20170817210148_saveAs we are settled in our positions with bolsters and blankets, Devki talks us through what we are doing and the importance of it.  In yesterday’s class she said something relevant to what I wrote about in my previous blog.  I received a comment on that blog about the relationship of backbends to emotions.  (Incidentally, backbends are also invigorating and energizing.  I missed practicing them today and I’m yawning despite the cup of coffee that I’ve fixed for myself.  On the bright side, not in tears or any other depressing mood.)  She said that there are emotional granthis (knots) in our thoracic spine.  The aim of asana and pranayama is to remove these granthis from our bodies.  Whether these granthis are in the brain or in the heart, we need to eliminate them to move forward in our yogic journeys.  These granthis are not just of memories accumulated in this lifetime, but memories of several lifetimes.  There are many who believe that we inherit these memories from our parents and ancestors, and the practice of yoga digs deep to rid us of these blocks.  Granthis are also called samskaras.)

When we practice backbends, it is these granthis that we are confronting.  By opening upPOMELO_20170817205505_save the chest, we allow a metaphorical ‘airing out’ of stale and painful emotions.  Everything that happens to us results in shaping our world view and behaviour.  Sometimes what happens to us is painful and unfair.  Unfortunately, these events make an imprint in our minds and effect our behaviour.  We sometimes never let go of painful memories and they fester in our subconscious brain and almost always result in psychosomatic pain.

In the study of yoga, backbends come after a certain level of proficiency and practice.  I feel this is for two reasons.  The first reason is that our body has to have a certain level of strength and flexibility before we can start more challenging body work.  The other reason is that we need a certain amount of mental clarity and maturity to deal with the emotions that will surface.

‘Bending backward’ also means going out of your way to accommodate a person or a situation.  It implies putting yourself on the backburner.  If you analyse the quality of your backbends, it might give you insight into how much you allow others to influence your life, or how assertive/aggressive you are about yourself and your opinions.

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The Use of Props

July 28, 2017

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Blocks and ropes have become a permanent fixture in most yoga classes.  If you are into this practice for the long term it might be helpful to invest in a few props right now.  For me props are indispensable and I use them daily.  Some I use more than others.

Mat – There are many different kinds of mats I use depending on what I’m practicing.  I have a thick mat for when I need to practice the Halasana or any other pose where I feel I need some cushioning.

Most Iyengar teachers call your regular yoga mat the ‘sticky mat’.  I own two sticky mats and I’ve had them forever.  One stays in my car and the other one I use for my personal practice.  And I’ve had these mats for over 5 years now.  I think the best thing to do for your yoga mat is to wash it regularly and hang it out to dry.  The stickiness somehow gets replenished and they are as good as new. Someone gave me this tip during my teacher’s training and I’ve recommended this to others.  I haven’t heard any complaints from anyone (yet).

Floor – I think it was in a Manouso Manos workshop that I heard that the floor is your first prop.  It gives you a solid foundation.  It stays strong during your standing, seated, prone or inverted asanas.  A clean, uncluttered surface looks inviting.  In my teacher’s class it’s a clay floor.  When it’s really hot I sometimes practice on the cool bare floor.  In my house I get the floor cleaned every day so that I have a fresh palette to play on daily.

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Wall – I started practicing the Adhomukha Vrikshasana in Pune last year.  I continued to practice it at home and have steadily moved away from the wall.  When it comes to some asanas – like handstand or the headstand – you need to determine when you are ready to move away from the wall.  In this way, the wall helps you in exploring yourself and taking risks, but at the same time staying available for you always, should you need it.

Blocks – My first blocks were foam ones that I got as part of a ‘yoga set’.  Foam blocks work well when you’re just using them for minimal support.  However, when I’m working on chest opening or the Setubandhasana, I prefer the sturdier wooden variety.

Chair – during my last retreat I shared a personal story about the Viprita Dandasana.  Basically, I would have a horrible reaction to this pose.  I would feel queasy, my heart would start racing and I would start sweating profusely in only 20 seconds.  When I went to RIMYI last year the dreaded asanas was part of a the women’s only class.  I resigned myself to 2 minutes of queasiness.  But I was pleasantly surprised.  The way Gulnaz explained the asana was so clear and concise and it opened up the asana for me.  It was one of my biggest takeaways from my time there last year.  An asana (or a problem) can seem unsurmountable until someone guides you correctly.

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Blanket – When I think of blankets I think of softness.  I use my blanket under me when I do forward folds.

Ropes – I use these daily.  Because I do traction for my back daily.  Because you should do traction for your back daily.  Because everyone should do traction for their back daily.

Belt – I use belts mainly when I need to work on shoulder opening in various asanas.  In fact, watch this video  illustrating an easy shoulder opening trick using the belt.  Also, as most of my students know, I almost always use belts in the final relaxation.

Props ALWAYS enhance your practice.  I know a lot of people think that they don’t ‘need’ props.  I used to think so too, but I now feel that if you utilize your props well then you uncover nuances of the asanas that you wouldn’t otherwise.

Leave me a question if you have one!