Spring and silence

By Jana Hill
Yoga Instructor

Ice, snow, frost, and chill are a usual part of this season, and instead we’ve seen days that undulate between almost-winter, and a blustering and warming spring. Pollen mingles with March-like air in trace amounts, as if it is time for the crocuses to rise and sneezing to begin. 

The lack of winter weather is almost unsettling, leaving a frenetic energy lingering that needs to crack open, burn off.

A remedy unveiled itself for me on one of those almost-winter days, where the cold outside bit at my skin, and sent me back inside, running shoes cast to dry by the pellet stove. Instead of a morning of running-style yoga, I decided on the more traditional yoga-route. I rolled out my small, black, rectangular home to work out the angst, and found my way into a series of poses.

Somewhere in the middle of it, things progressed to lengthier-than-usual visits, with some old friends, not necessarily in this order. Instead, they flowed like a connective energy string: The Warriors, Dancer, Triangle, Side Angle. Some of my nostalgic transitions came in, to invoke practices with my yoga instructors: I DownDogged to Side Plank. I spiderwalked to Lizard. 

I often invoke when I practice, channeling my favorite yogic moments and people. Spiderwalks and Lizard have a specific friend, close and dear to me. She gifted me with the anatomy knowledge from her doctorate in archaeology, and a deep love for yoga and all-things-rigorous. When I had pain, she taught me how to heal it. When I invoke her practices, I recall that some people lift you up and heal you when you need more than what you can do on your own.

Flying my Warrior or moving into Side Plank from Downdog brings a male yogi’s healing voice to mind, with his Zenny sound-healing and his tougher-than-average practice that wrings me out, and lets me float for the day.  

Yoga and running are where I go when my mind is spinning. When the mind spins, it loses its way; when the body moves, we can reign it in. I have found memories in poses, reflecting my simplest and most joyful times: when yoga was not about anything but itself. When I was in the room with people who were willing to find the practice and stare it down, owning the fact that we are only here now, and the most we can do is to live it out. Move through it with grace and strength.

Spinning mind frets over little things; brings big things into now when they are, in fact, in the past. It mourns losses too completely, too deeply, and with detail that gives that puzzle piece of life too much glare. And it is a puzzle. The parts are many, and only the fashioning of every single puzzle-piece communicates a life, in all its fullness and grace. It’s harder, I think, to stay out of spinning mind in this particular generation. Information is heavy and prolific. Problems and decisions are unending and many prioritize themselves all at once. We live in complicated and frenetic times. Our problems are real, and it seems like a placating statement to say we can move and breathe and it will all go away. Of course, it won’t. 

But that is why we practice again.

On this day, spinning mind was dominating, chattering of things that might happen, things that never will, and things that are out of my grasp in spite of a manifesting heart that cannot stop beating so loudly at times. It always seems that action should predate result; that reason should always rule; that now is all that matters. But that can’t always be. I keep insisting it can, and I will continue, because that is who I am.

And that is why we practice the type of movement that we love: because it honors the exact energy we are burning, and the exact energy we need to access.

Years ago, my yoga instructor took our practice to the outdoor deck. There, I could see my to-do list of grass and dandelions. The open blue sky had no home for a drishti. I was apprehensive. She coaxed, and we complied. Midway through the practice, we found our way into Half Moon, and, nearly tipping over, she stood behind me as a support. By this stage, we had more than two years of yoga-practice together, so as she finessed my pose with adaptations to one hand, one shoulder, I could settle in. If she had been a yogi I had not yet bonded with, that touch would have tensed my muscles, and it would be “just” a pose. In “just” a pose, muscles engage and stretch, but no home is found. On this day, with this trust between us, my Ardha Chandrasana aligned to its purest state, and my heart felt as if it was open and full of light. I had slipped into an invisible bubble of peace and thoughtless internal silence. What my yoga instructor had imparted on this moment is sometimes described by my trainer: she calls this “wide brain.” It is physiological and real — a wealth from the ancient yogis.

The poses can be a home. That safe place that opens the heart and cleans it, moves the limbs and celebrates their vigor. Poses can pull on the puzzle-lines of life, and sometimes even make them feel straightened, ironed out, as if this puzzle is not so complicated after all.  As we move through an era that is sometimes cold and sometimes springlike at the wrong time, we can find a place to let the mind process it. I find it on the mat, in the eyes of my rapidly changing kids, in the actions of my husband, in the thousands of steps that occur in a road-run.

We live in the bodies and minds we are given — and you cannot be anyone else. You must “dance with the date who brought you.” When you see the reflection of who you are and insist on action that won’t fit into that, you suffer. Don’t force yourself down a road you don’t belong. Don’t allow a life that douses love.

Do you. Your practice will show you how.

Jana Hill is a writer and editor since fourth-grade, a yogi since 1998, and a yoga instructor since 2012. More than all that, she is an Island Mom. If you can’t find her class, it’s because she is busy working in physical therapy these days.

How to flow, in two steps

By Jana Hill
Yoga Instructor

It was one of those sunny days. I was in that process of accepting change: it is slow, methodical, but without surprise.

It’s the purpose of internal yoga, that acceptance of change; because we live in our bodies, and all change resides in movement. Lack of movement sends messages that are ominous. Activity tells the brain that things are steady. Keep flowing on the mat and flowing in life, and your brain-chemistry will respond by lifting your mood, healing your heart, and opening your mind.

It is odd when the usual in life plays out, and simultaneously doesn’t work anymore. It’s a sweet time, if you let it be that. Recently, I gave up something and took on something else. I let go of my “now,” in all of its predictability and with all of its plans and expectations.  In that loss and gain, I let every disappointment-sensation fly.

I took a chance. We prepare for these times, in our yoga practice.

In the wake of that change, I opened up to motherhood in a new way, eyes opening to what has already been playing out — kids that drive, kids becoming adults. I have looked out at sunsets and seen them differently. I have stood on beaches, and been unimpressed. I am usually overtaken by nature, but not now. In this phase of life, it just gives me pause to look at rolling waves. It doesn’t sweep me away like it used to. I find myself wondering, “What’s next?”

That’s step one in any flow: that “what’s next?” In a yoga practice, the skillful pause can lay out decisions in a meandering, meditative movement: bend the knee, hold longer, come out, flow to the next pose. Stop. Start. Breathe. Life is no different. The decisions just hold more facets, more shades, and more of a need to pause and reflect, before acting. On the mat, we prepare for what we’ll do when we step off of it, and into life.

I am in step two: the set of moments. The flow. The step-by-step vinyasa of life. Here is the moment. Where to go next? What to do. When to be silent. When to back out. When to forge ahead. Does the moment call for an energy that’s fierce? Always. Does it require action or a nonreactive silence? When to breathe into it, and when to back out. Endure a pose and hold it? Endure a moment; rather than move through it?

When to accept a limit, and favor ease — on the mat or off.

We all live our yoga, whether we know it or not.

Jana Hill is a writer, editor, yoga instructor and an Island Mom. 

Mock palm trees & mocktails

By Jana Hill
Yoga Instructor

It is nearing spring but it feels like winter. A mix of snow and rain are dropping heavily on newly emerged crocus petals, causing them to droop. It is as if the sky is writing a poem about the year: rain mixed with snow, chilling a sometimes sunny season, in a year full of unraveled ends and new beginnings.

Life has categories. Home. Family. Friends. Work. Mental endeavors. Memories. Hopes. Plans. Events. Politics. Problems. Those categories create a mental buzz that is at times hard to slow, and harder to pause. I work sometimes to meld it all into a singular, continuous set of moments. At times, one category is up, one is down. One part is running smoothly, the other is in need of action.

Often, I stand solidly in the middle of it all, panning with an inventory-gaze then a nod, before moving on to the next to-do. Sometimes I apply effort to parse it, and figure out what is next, because intention shapes the moments to-come.

Sometimes I just take a moment to gaze at the “palm trees.” On my Island, there are mock palm trees outside of the studio where I teach yoga. I suppose they have some technical name, but I don’t really care what that name is — they look like palm trees. It is Sunday, and today I taught a combination flow-and-Yin to my most joyous student, who I once held in my arms as she played tug-o-war with my hair, then attempted to bite my nose. In the background I can hear a booming voice that sounds much like a grown man, but isn’t. I recall his first kick, issued at the interior of my bellybutton.

Today, I made the day a pause.

At times, my roles spin and I get that sensation of perpetual motion, without a pause. Other times one, a pause within a moment can be so intense it creates a bubble; as if an invisible circle is being drawn around my “now,” just to demonstrate how imperative that moment truly is.

There will never be another “now.”

On this Sunday, I sipped a mocktail of apple cider and ginger ale, that the joyous student has made, just for me. It is a day full of nothing remarkable, and remarkable in just that: its silence and its calm, all playing out on an Island with “palm trees.” It is cold, snowing, and muddy outside. But that really doesn’t matter. Unremarkable days can parallel a tropical paradise, if you just give that “now” your full attention.

In my yoga classes, we have been working the pause: in the breath, and in the poses. In one moment, then the next, we watch a freeze-frame of “now.” Partial entry to DownDog. Pause. One more phase into the pose. Pause. In the pose fully, scan, pause. Inhabit it. Live it. Breathe.

Practice pauses on the mat and your brain chemistry and body-memory will react off-the-mat. Living now-by-now, one-moment-by-one. Pausing as a punctuated end of a moment; parsing out a section of life that is palpable and more finely viewed. Better defined. A beginning to a breath. An end to a breath. Some sort of order to the chaos of life.

My past  year has been full of pauses — some that I saw, others I missed. The human mind is dismissive and racing — we apply steadiness and calm, with practice. My past decade had even more moments that raced by and filled the world I perceive. Not all moments were invited and embraced — some were ones I would have liked to avoid. I have, like many other people, watched both moments and people come and go. Tried to experience more than mourn. Tried to solve more than fret. It has led me to a revelation of what I am doing in yoga: We are handed a myriad of choices — we flow with life or we fight it. No one answer is right for every moment. Courage is defined by knowing which choice to make, at which moment.

Life cannot always be calm. We practice so that we’re steady, knowing when to surrender and when to fight.

I can’t always see the moments with pristine clarity, like I did this Sunday. But I come back to  yoga again and again, knowing that The Practice is fierce: a daily cultivation toward a mind that lives every moment to its fullest. Yoga switches on intuition and satya (truthfulness), with every practice.

I find my moments both louder and more quiet, with yoga as my constant passenger. I hope you do too. Now go find your pause, in your moment and in your pose. Go on vacation today — sip a “cocktail” and live among the “palm trees.”

Ripples of stillness & strength

By Jana
Yoga Instructor

It’s nearly October, and I’m so glad. September — there was something about it, this time around. There is summer. There is fall. And there is another season that happened within me — that season where things pull your interior life apart, then piece it back together, slowly and without permission or control.

That’s my season, and I feel as if I have come to the eye of the storm, or to the end of it. Not sure which. It’s a sweet space that I am in now. I’m grateful for the abundance September has offered.

Given the state of the world at present, I feel like I’m not the only one experiencing this season of deep change. My go-to when things fall apart is body-movement: when I was a teenager, I ran. Three miles. Always, at least three. It is a number that is spiritual and predictable, and in my control. When I was a young adult, I also ran. Heart and mind pounding as the angst of the world swirled all around me. Each meditative step was a chance to bring in breath and let it out, tuning my body and mind into a space that said, “stop and think, then act.” At the end of my run, there was a quiet space. That space was my yoga.

In 1998, my yoga was named. It held a philosophy that was analyzed, shared, pre-determined. A recipe for calm. Now my go-to was not only running and breathing, but an act of rolling out a mat and holding my body in one shape, then another, uttering Sanskrit monikers and letting the rigor of one pose, and then the next, turn the waters of my mind into smooth glass.

It was all yoga then, and it’s all yoga now. After every unsettling event created a ripple, I had a place to go. That’s what yoga gives: a preparation for the fact that those ripples will come. That sometimes they are not ripples but tall waves, crashing with a power that can turn rock to sand.

Yoga is the poses. Each asana is an offering and a metaphor, a chance to show resilience and faith for the truth of that precise moment. The whole moment, exactly as it is — not how we may revise it, mentally, to fit a cause or a theory, or to please the ego. But it’s own actual paint-on-canvas reality. It’s own snapshot. As is, and without polish. Each practice is satya, truth — a physiological reset that clears out the muck, and makes room for freedom and grace.

Yoga is the breath. Each inbreath and outbreath an anatomy of life, and a focus that, when respected, can transform, cleanse, heal.

Yoga is fluid movement — a poem of the body. Each practice it’s own artistic piece, if approached with a sense of openness and acceptance.

Yoga is love. It is life. It is grace, happiness and union. It is every complete moment, in its most honest space, with nothing missed. Nothing taken for granted.

Yoga is everything, everywhere, all the time. It is not just a means to a fit body, but it is that. It’s not just a coping mechanism, but it is also that. It’s not just any one thing or any of all things. It is the thing. Where we are, where we once were, and where we are all are headed. All at once.

In my nation, things are fitfully playing out, and reforming into something else. In my local community, things are fitfully playing out, and reforming into something else. In my own life, the same. The symmetry I now see is so odd and beautiful, at times terrifying, and at times just like ripples on water. As I stop and watch all this rapid change, with absolute awe, I find the pace stunning. Hard to grasp.

Yoga is for that. When the pace is too much — too hard to grasp. When we move, flow, breathe, and focus on only that movement and breath, for just an hour or two, we give ourselves over to something greater: an energy of fierce calm, of total immovable stillness. In that way, we create a peaceful space within ourselves, and give the moment within us a chance to ripple outward.

Hate spreads, but love does too. Make your ripples calm, sweet, still. In doing that, make others calmer, more still, and strong enough to endure change, and face it with strength. To avoid the urge to lash out or withdraw — to create a space within all of us that is so strong, it can be steady in the midst of chaos.

What if everyone did that? What if everyone did yoga?

Jana Hill is a yoga instructor and writer. She practices and teaches on Camano Island, and in Stanwood.


Tapas, anyone?

By Jana Hill
Yoga Instructor

Okay, now you’re expecting a recipe — and I’ll admit when I hear the word it kind of makes me hungry. Mmmmm — tapas. It also makes me want to travel to Spain, because I saw an Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown episode on tapas, and bar-hopping. (I’d like to doll this up, but I’ve watched enough of his shows that I think he’d be most comfortable with the term “bar hopping.”) The whole things sounded quite elegant — he bought a nice glass of wine everywhere he went, and was billed for the wine but the food was free. Carefully prepared, whole-food appetizers were free. Wow, right? For those of us used to the best, cleanest whole-food options at three-times the price, or more — well, that looked pretty amazing. Possibly worth a plane ticket. But I will rant and rave about the cost of a clean diet later on.

Anyway — where was I? Big tangent there. Um, tapas, yoga-style. In yoga, tapas is the practice of burning off impurities. Generally, it is an attempt to cleanse the body and mind.

In my classes, we practiced tapas by changing small things. We moved our mats and played completely different music. We also used a wall in one class, because I had never taught a class using the wall. And, that’s it. It sounds oddly simple, but like many yoga practices, it’s simplicity is the point.

As the New Year rolls out, and month-two of 2016 rolls in, most people are looking at their resolutions and finding out that brain-chemistry and body-memory are powerful forces. We code our brains. Most of the time, we don’t even realize we’re doing it. But as we move, breathe, live life, we tell the brain “I do this thing, this way.” It’s body memory, muscle memory, and brain-coding all combined, preparing to quickly and easily recreate the day that happened before — it’s a snap-to-it action that favors stasis.

Our bodies like stasis.

Your body remembers your experiences, your movements, and your tendencies. The mind-body connection is coded to protect you, and to make your day easier by remembering what to do and when. One person’s body says, “this is safe,” while another person’s body says, “I am in serious danger.”

Consider that mind-body connection in a practical way. When you’re in a Child’s Pose in yoga, many people find it comforting — it’s the fetal position. You’re mimicking that place and time when you were enveloped and safe, where it was quiet and controlled, and you had a general idea that everything would stay that way. Some trauma victims may end up feeling the opposite: the fetal position may be one they curled into to protect themselves, during an attack. Both people are drawing on body-memory — the brain’s understanding of what to do, when the body is in “this shape” or “this environment.”

State-dependent memory is further proof of the mind-body connection — if you learn something while standing in a pool or smelling the scent of vanilla, that same information will be easier to recall if you are in the pool, or smelling the vanilla.

Tapas practice takes advantage of that mind-body coding, by changing the norm, and disrupting that sense of comfort and familiarity.

In yoga, the goal is to be “present” with that experience, and notice what happens in you. In your body. In your mind. In your breathing. Just move and watch, watch and move. Yoga is like that. You practice, move, breath, then you watch what unfolds, in you. In your body and mind.

I didn’t ask my students what happened, because if they want to tell me, they will.

In me, the tapas practice allowed me to notice things I did not see before — I experienced a sense of audiovisual presence that was more objective, more detailed. When you undo your norm, you smooth out your rut, and the brain stops telling the story before it happens. You see things more clearly and accurately. A different act disrupts what the brain expects.

The sky and mountains were beautiful today. They don’t move. I could notice them daily. Often, I don’t.

Try it. Take a different route, on the way home. If you usually start your day with oatmeal, try something else. Anything, really. If you end your day with red wine, drink cran-raspberry juice from that same wine glass, and pay attention to what happens.

If you usually growl at the first person you see at work, soften your tone and see how that changes the day. If you usually cower at the first growling person you see at work, stare that person straight in the eye, and check out what that does. Find your opposite act, and try it on for size.

Try a mindful change. Then another. Then another. And just watch what happens.