Self-improvement

It’s this time of the year again, when everyone takes new resolutions to better themselves in the coming year. It’s been many years since I have taken new year’s resolutions, and this year is no different. I see self-improvement as something I do continuously, so I don’t generally have something specific on my resolutions list.

It’s funny that these good resolutions are so ingrained in our culture, yet most people do not think about self-improvement on a daily basis. Worse, most people are resistant to change, not only for themselves, but also for others. “Oh, you changed” is rarely a compliment (unless you’re back from the hairdresser… and sometimes not even). I personally get a lot of resistance to my changing of certain things, even from family members or friends (though I do feel quite lucky to have a generally very open-minded support group, which I attribute to having met most of them in an academic setting). One obvious point of contention is my veganism, but I’ve also experienced it with my journey of reducing waste, weightlifting, or even my yoga practice.

I think part of it comes from the fact that I’m trying something new, which often doesn’t fit with the idea they have of who I am. And they might be right sometimes, and I won’t stick with what I’m doing (looking at you, pole dancing – I have way too slippery hands). Other times it does stick, and funnily sometimes people who met me later in life cannot imagine me without it: for instance people who met me during my PhD have always known me as “the yoga girl with the allergies”. People who will meet me during my postdoc will likely have a hard time imagining me eating meat.

Conflict also comes when I do (or start doing) something others feel like they should be doing but don’t. I also have this, for exemple when it comes to zero-waste lifestyles, but I try to see it as inspiration instead of judgement. Because I cannot commit to a fully zero-waste lifestyle now does not mean that I cannot do anything. I can do research, I can change some things, I can limit my waste, I can talk to other people about the simple changes I am doing and how they can implement them too. And maybe one day I’ll be able to be fully zero-waste, but meanwhile I’ll be reducing-waste.

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I try to keep in mind that even though every little thing helps, in the grand scheme of things most people are not gonna become fully vegan or zero-waste. However, most people might become flexitarians or reducetarians. By striving in a lifestyle that is more compassionate and better for the environment, while still being relatable as fully part of society rather than an outcast (and hopefully a useful contributor to society as both a researcher and a yoga teacher), I hope and aim to inspire people to make small changes in their own lives. Even in France, I do see that things are changing, even for veganism, as usual slower than anywhere else (how dare you touch upon French Cuisine!), but at least in Paris, and in supermarkets, vegan products are becoming more broadly available.

I’ll still be taking the plane to move to NYC. I am convinced that we can live a modern lifestyle while being more respectful of our surroundings, and I don’t see flying stopping any time soon. However, I will not take the plane when it isn’t necessary: for exemple I went to Berlin by train a few weeks ago. The inconvenience+price VS ecological impact wasn’t enough to convince me to get a plane ticket. I would also like to see more initiatives limiting flying for science conferences for exemple, with all the options that new technologies such as Skype (and who knows, soon holograms?) offer.

’tis a complicated time to be alive, that’s for sure. Even when you want to make the right choice, and you do some research, there is so much conflicting information on ze internet that I cannot blame people who do not take the time to go through dozens of article, without any scientific training, and synthesize the information to make an educated choice. This is why I believe that we have to push for more certifications -even though there are already so many. I realize that more labeling might confuse consumers even more, but I am rarely as annoyed as when I am looking for information on a product and cannot find it. At least if it is there, you might or might not look at it, or spend much time comparing products, but you can do it. And there are often great people on the internet who will take upon themselves of making comparisons and come up with the best choice depending on both your budget and your values.

Anyways, are you readers taking new resolutions? Why / why not? And if so, what are they?

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Gratitude

As 2017 closes, I try and reflect on my blessings. 2017 was a special year, full of closures: I obtained my Introductory II certificate, my PhD, published my first first-author article, got a postdoctoral position at NYU and the corresponding visa, and saw many friends graduate.

A year full of events, which also lets me much room for growth in 2018, as I will be moving to a new continent, thus realizing my childhood dream of living in the USA, and also moving in with my boyfriend, a much awaited step after more than a year of long-distance.

It’s thus with mixed feeling that I start 2018, the excitement of my new life that is going to start soon, but also the small ping in the heart of leaving the nurturing environment of Utrecht where I lived for the past five years. I have learned so much here, met amazing people who became great friends, and have definitely made myself at home. While I am looking forward to the challenge of both living together as a couple and living in NYC, I am sad to leave this comfy life I created here. And of course, I am trying to finish as many things as possible before I leave, which makes things a tad hectic.

A bad surprise I got when I came back from Christmas break in France was to find that the house I am subletting until I leave not only did not have the new kitchen installed as it should (and there is thus a hole instead of a kitchen), but the heating does not seem to be working. Which also means no warm water as the hot water is controlled by the same system.

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Not sure who I should credit for this illustration, please let me know if you do 🙂

It’s been almost four days as nothing would happen in the weekend or on January 1st, and I don’t know when the situation will change. Luckily for me, this year is the hottest “oud en nieuw” recorded since records exist, with around 12C at the hottest moment of the day (thanks global warming?!). The house thus stays between 10 and 12C, which while cold, is sustainable for sleeping if covered by two warm duvets.

While this is obviously annoying, this makes me reflect on how lucky I am in my “misery”. First, I do have a house. I’m not sleeping on the street, which means I don’t get wind or rain, and generally the house isn’t humid so I’ve not been cold and managed to fall asleep quite rapidly. Secondly, I can (and have been) go to the gym or the yoga studio to shower with hot water. I also have a key of the yoga studio, which is heated up, so on January 1st, I spent most of my time there. I practiced, took a shower, made some tea and browsed the internet in a warm and comfy environment until it was dinner time and I headed home to use the microwave I managed to plug in. Thinking of which: I do have a working fridge and microwave, cold water, and general electricity. So I was able to store some food in advance for New Year’s, when everything is closed (and I did take some leftovers from NYE home). Furthermore, I was at a friend’s for NYE and had a great evening. I am incredibly grateful for their like-mindedness. So it’s not that bad, and makes me see how many things I use daily and take for granted. And it’s great for the environment!

In any case, I hope it gets fixed soon. Meanwhile, I am grateful for all the things I take for granted, such as utilities, but also health, a great support system, a loving family and partner, and all the opportunities that have been offered to me up to now and in the future. I hope I can keep on working hard, loving hard, taking care of as many people as I can to make this Earth a slightly better place than I found it.

Happy 2018!

 

 

Alignment in the koshas – with Eyal Shifroni

This workshop is a hard one to write about. I wonder if others attending had the same feeling as I did; that it was quite special.

I remember going to my first yoga workshop, and being impressed, and learning so much. I also remember being a bit anxious going to my first “out-of-studio” workshop. Now, as you’ve probably noticed, I regularly go to workshops and study all over the place, so this feeling has evaporated a bit. While I always learn some new things during workshops, I also have learned a lot in the past years, and I often have already used props or touched upon concepts the workshop is about, so I am already familiar with the practice. And while I did feel a bit of that this weekend, I also felt that I could go one layer further with Eyal’s teaching. The depth of his teaching made me think whether I would have gotten as much if I had attended a couple of years ago. I also realize that other senior teachers might have spoken about things that flew way over my head at the time, and so I only remember my own “haha” moments, and others might have gotten something very different from the practice than I did at the time.

The theme of the weekend was alignment and the five koshas. If anything, the workshop really made me want to study philosophy more and reread the yoga sutras, though my copy with Guruji’s commentary is back home and I’ll have to wait until the Christmas break to get it back.

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Anyways. Where to start?

How about with the fact that after eluding me for the whole time of teacher training, the only thing I can feel in any pose now seems to be my hips. I can’t believe I’m only now getting all of these feelings and brush upon some kind of understanding. Maybe I needed my hamstring injury to start feeling the hips? Guess I’ll never know. I could go through all the poses and the props we used, but I would rather focus on the philosophical aspect in this article, so I’ll just mention that Eyal is amazingly ingenious with prop use. If you haven’t already, you can check out his books for more information.

But more broadly, the weekend’s practice was based on a lot of this article (You might want to read it first before going on with this article). On Friday, we worked on concentration (focusing on one point), taking the foot as the base and object of our concentration. The idea was that our foot should stay as if in Tadasana no matter what pose we would be practicing, so that there would be an even weight on each eight of feet (quarter of each of the two feet) at all time. This focus in observation led to everyone being quite slow while getting into the pose, paying attention to any subtle change in weight distribution and immediate correction if possible.

On Saturday, we moved onto the diffusion of the manas (mind) to the whole body, starting from the chest.  Think of  a cork block (the ones we use in yoga class). We were instructed to move into different asanas as if the cork clock was our chest and we were trying to keep this block as even as possible. So in Trikonasana for exemple, the block would simply be titled to the side, but both sides of the block (aka chest) would be evenly elongated. Thinking about creating an even length in the torso was very helpful for me, especially in Eka Padanghustasana, as it prevented hanging in the hip of the standing leg. We started talking about the heart being the center of a tranquil consciousness (citta), as buddhi (intelligence) origins from the heart. This was then explored by (trying) radiating our awareness from the heart to the rest of the chest (and eventually the rest of the body, we stayed mainly within the chest).

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Our beloved cork blocks. So even!

Sunday was all about backbends, and a natural continuation of Saturday’s theme from diffusion of the manas to the radiation of buddhi (intelligence) from the heart to the rest of the body. I was on my period the whole weekend, but it was mainly on Sunday that I felt like I was missing out, as there were intense backbends and a lot of inversions. Even in the not-so-intense backbends I could practice, I found it way harder to go through the concentration-diffusion-radiation (Dharana-Dyana-Samadhi) triad (or even touch upon the radiation to be honest). Even though I was trying to create space within my backbends, I still find it physically taxing and difficult to breathe (not that I get out of breath, I can stay in poses for a while, but it is simply harder to create sufficient breathing space).

I thoroughly enjoyed studying with Eyal, and I hope our paths cross again. I’m sorry this article is actually so short and I feel like I’m barely going over the surface of things, but these are difficult concepts I still need time ton digest and work on. I figured it is still better for me to write a little about it than nothing. I’ll leave you with our “homework” question. Eyal asked us on Friday, what does alignment in all of the koshas mean for you? He mentioned that alignment in the Annamaya (body) and Pranamaya (energy) koshas were easy to understand conceptually, but for the innermost koshas this is more difficult to grasp. We discussed it briefly on Sunday, and there are no bad answers, so I would be curious to hear your opinions.

 

So I’m a doctor now

This year has been a year of graduations. After getting my Introductory certificate, last week I finally concluded five years of graduate school by (successfully) defending my thesis and officially becoming a PhD.

I genuinely enjoyed the day, as I wasn’t too stressed before the defense (maybe all this yoga was paying off?!) and I found most questions interesting.  My PI’s laudatio was great, and both the reception and the party were amazing. It was very emotional to see all of my friends and family together to celebrate my achievement.

And now what, you ask? Well, I’m in Utrecht for two more months, working as a postdoctoral researcher in the group I did my PhD in, before I move on to a new adventure in NYC next February. Exciting times!

Finding my inner teacher

I’m currently in California, away from my usual, well-organized life. “On holidays” before my thesis defense, though actually still arranging things for the defense and writing my second first-author article.

It’s the first time in a very long time that I not only keep an hour-long daily practice minimum, and probably the first time ever when I’m not going to or following classes. And it’s definitely an interesting experience.

This week is the third of the month, so I’m practicing sitting poses. I think it’s the first time I’m spending so much time sitting on my mat. In a way it’s not as difficult as I expected (for beginners – which I’m still somewhat part of, at least in the Iyengar system – sitting poses are the most difficult to stay in). On the other hand, it is sometimes very confronting to be only with yourself.

I was thinking how incredibly hard it must have been for Guruji to keep on practicing and exploring in the beginning after he moved to Pune. I do realize that his relationship with his Guru was very different from the one I have with mine, however he learned so much from Krishnamacharya. It must have been so challenging to move to a town where he didn’t know anyone to teach something that was considered “stupid” at the time, notwithstanding continuing his own practice and exploration of all that yoga has to offer.

In a way we have it so easy, being able to regularly follow classes and learn from amazing teachers who sometime travel from a different continent to get to us! If one feels a bit down, unmotivated or uninspired, it is very easy to just go to class and get energy from the “flow” of the class. Of course on the other side, I’ve noticed that I can be pretty drained energy-wise after teaching a class.

Anyways, this is a good lesson which I hope to keep with me for a while. I feel that we humans are often attracted to the opposite of what we need. For example people who would benefit most from staying longer in poses will be attracted to more flowy styles of yoga. Self-practice, though very beneficial, is rarely done by students. It’s actually really hard for many people to get started with a home practice, yet it is where there is most room for growth.

Do you practice at home? What have you learned from yourself-practice? And how do you keep practicing when you can’t go to class?

A parisian adventure

I spent last week in Paris, visiting my brother and sister in law. And as the obvious Iyengar-fanatic I am, I found a way to go to the Iyengar institute in Paris. I have to say it was quite the adventure. First, it was my first Iyengar class in French, ever. Second, my own teacher had told me that she was a little “impressed” by Corine Biria, one of the senior French Iyengar yoga teachers who teaches at the institute, so I was a little apprehensive – for Hiske is not one to be easily impressed.

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Corine Biria in Sheffield in 2002

Actually getting to one of the “high” level classes requires calling or dropping by the Institute beforehand, to check on your level. Even though they are clearly advertised as being tough classes on the website, I guess they had bad surprises beforehand. The class I ended up going to was a Level 4-5 2 hour class on Thursday morning. On the website they require that the practitioner is able to hold head- and shoulderstand easily for 15 minutes before attending. They have a Level 5-6 class for which the requirement is 20 minutes. While I felt relatively confident I would be able to hold a 15 minutes headstand (though probably not easily), I thought 20 minutes might be an overshot so I applied for the Level 4-5. When I called, the secretary asked for my level and I was like “huh, I have the Introductory certificate” – secretary: “I or II?” -me “huh, I-II?” -secretary “ok, are you aware this is an intense class?” – me, nervously laughing “huh, yeah?!” -secretary “alright well send me your name and birth date by email and I’m checking you in”.

 

Even though I had gone through the prescreening, when I actually got to the studio, I had to wait until Corine actually OK-ed me before I was in – a couple of minutes waiting that seemed very long… So I was a bit apprehensive about the class, as you can imagine.

 

If you’ve never been to the Institute in Paris, it’s in the XVIth arrondissement, aka the most expensive and chic part of Paris. It is located in a Haussmanian building, with amazingly beautiful wooden floors and murals. However, the practice room is small, even for Paris. Especially now that I am used to the immensity of the studio in Utrecht, it was a real change. I don’t know exactly how many people were attending the class, but I guess around 30, and every single inch of the floor was used. Mats were all touching and almost overlapping. I have to say that during balancing work I was quite afraid of falling over my neighbor and ending up in a domino effect.

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The practice room of the parisian institute

It was the first week of the month, so we practiced standing poses. Starting with wide stand Utthanasana, focusing on activating the feet and legs, especially the inner knee, then Urdhva Prasarita Ekapadasana, another Utthanasana this time with feet together. From there, classical sequencing of Trikonasana, Parvritta Trikonasana, Utthita Parsvokonasana via Virabhradasana II, Parvritta Parsvokonasana, Ardha Chandrasana and Parvritta Ardha Chandrasana. We did most poses twice, especially the Parvrittas, with what seemed like very long timings. The main focus was the buttocks, and we especially spent some time on the buttock use in Ardha Chandrasana and Parvritta Ardha Chandrasana.

 

NB: practice note for myself: I was corrected in Uttanasana because my right leg was not working as much as the left one.

 

I’ll try to describe the different actions. First, there are two planes of actions, which I will describe as being perpendicular or alongside the spine. In the perpendicular plane, the buttocks action can be separated into three components:

  • The lower part of the buttocks should go downwards and connect to the hamstrings. Corine insisted that many of us didn’t learn how to use our hamstrings yet (and I have to say I am having a hard time with this; since I injured my left hamstring I have realized how much I wasn’t using my hamstrings, which are long, but not strong. Working on it since, but it’s on and off).
  • The middle part should go inwards (towards the tailbone). This I find relatively easy / have learned to do during YTT.
  • The top part should lengthen upwards. Now, this I also sort of learned to do in teacher training, and it helped correcting my anterior pelvic tilt – but old habits die hard, and if I don’t pay attention or if the pose is a not-so-often practiced (thinking of you, vrikchikasana!), I end up losing the control on my abs and start crunching up my lower back again.

I think I have already referenced this article before, but there are some more details about these three components here.

Now for the spinal plane, I had never heard the instructions before. We looked at the pelvis of different people performing the pose and Corine pointed out which parts were open and which weren’t, after which we had to work on our own “issues”, with the instruction of getting both buttocks laterally away from the spine, so that the left buttock and the right buttock were both evenly giving space to the spine to stretch. We also practiced this with the help of the wall in the Chandrasanas, for more stability but ease of movement due to the wide angles between the legs and the trunk.

 

Thinking back, it was a very lateralized class, as I (and my side ribs) also remember the instructions of moving the breasts away from the sternum, and the right breast away from the left breast (with even more detailed instructions during the parvrittas).

 

Anyways, after all these we went on with Virabradhasana I and III, before Sirsasana finally got called up (we did have a couple of Utthanasanas and Prasaritta Padottanasana to recover in between some standing poses, and there was one Downward Dog at some point early on). I don’t know if Sirsasana was genuinely 15 minutes, but I stayed up the whole time and it didn’t feel so long; I think it is because 10 minutes without instructions is mentally exhausting whereas I most likely have the strength to hold longer headstands. Anyways, Corine said something incredibly poetic which I hope to translate properly: “In Sirsasana, think of the shoulder blades as of the wings of a bird beginning to fly”. Beautiful way to describe the outward rotation of the shoulderblades, isn’t it?

 

Finally, the class ended with Shoulderstand / Halasana, followed by Chatuspadasana before the final Savasana. I have to say I was surprised to hear the class was over; as often with great teachers, time flies (and yoga happens; it was two hours of living in the present moment).

 

In any case a very interesting experience, would definitely recommend going if you get the chance. I did have few vocabulary issues, but if I really didn’t get it Corine would point out what she was talking about on my body. And I gotta say that everyone in the class was incredibly nice and welcoming; they even gently made fun when I said I lacked some vocabulary after class and let me know that it was also “Corine words”.

Post-certification practice

I was recently reading this article from Fanny and her doubts about the “after” of certification. My own “after” brought a lot of change into my life, since I did not only graduate from YTT, but I am also getting my PhD soon, and leaving Utrecht. I actually already have left Utrecht and will only get back there for my PhD defense in November.

So it’s not only a question of maintaining a practice, but maintaining a practice away from my routine. I’m gonna be on the road a lot in the next few weeks, with little space to practice, and no classes to give or follow (except for one exception on which a post is coming soon).

In the first few weeks after the exam, I started practicing a lot “for fun”. Poses which were not in the syllabus, different ways of practicing, finding the initial “wow” again. The training to become a certified Iyengar teacher is hard and very regulated, and I needed this breath of fresh air, outdoor practice and arm balances.

After that, I moved to a new place where I couldn’t practice at home, and I was very busy, so my practice suffered a little. I still managed to go to classes about twice a week, but didn’t do any home practice. But now that I’m “on the road”, I’ve funnily managed to get back into a structured daily home practice. I’ve been working on building up strength and time in inversions. At this point, I practice headstand and shoulderstand/halasana for ten minutes each, but I want to build up to 15 minutes and ideally 20 minutes. I don’t think I will ever manage to go longer than that, not physically but simply because I don’t think I can spare more time than that during my day (it’s 40 minutes of headstand + shoulderstand without any other practice), especially since I would like to further my pranayama practice as well.

Anyways, I don’t really know where I’m going with this, and it’s probably different for many people, but I think that after getting certified, it’s perfectly normal to practice a bit less or a bit less seriously for a while – but it’s highly unlikely that you will stop practicing altogether. If only because you know what practice brings to you, and even without the guidance of a teacher, there is inspiration everywhere, in books, the internet, and your own body.

I don’t know whose credit this is… But I often feel like the Hulk!