Jul 062016
Now that’s a carpool! The sun was shining today, a rarity during India’s rainy season of July and August, so my kidsIMG_6994 and I took a rickshaw to a swimming pool. Our driver, Loki let us know that he’d need to be back in time to pick up nine children when school let out. The school happened to be directly across the street from our apartment, so I asked if I could meet him there to meet the children and take a photo of them in his rickshaw, to which he happily obliged.
After listening to the schoolchildren recite their closing prayer they emerged from the school and one by one made their way to the rickshaw. They happily climbed in with sparkling eyes and bright smiles, and were very eager to meet me and tell me about their day, studies, names and ages.  Their ages ranged from six to twelve and they studied English, the local language of Kannada, math, science, and drawing. The older ones had a test on nutrients in food, which made their day a little less positive, but they were all still so joyous. I found them bringing out a smile, a sing-song tone in my voice, and a warm feeling of goodness in my heart.
This reminded me of an incredible experience I had on my first trip to India in 2003. It was my very first day in Mysore and I took a rickshaw from my hotel to the yoga shala to register. On my return trip, I took my wallet out to pay, and left the entire thing, including $500 cash, my credit cards and passport on the seat, which I didn’t realize until the driver pulled out of the parking lot and into busy traffic. My heart began to race as I considered all the possible outcomes. I frantically ran into the hotel and explained to the manager what had happened. He told me to come with him and we ran outside. He jumped onto his motorbike, and I threw myself over the back of it.
He asked where I had gotten into the rickshaw and when I told him we quickly made our way to the stop by the yoga shala. Talk about riveting. It’s enough to drive slowly through the busy streets of Mysore, and another completely to speed through them on the back of a motorcycle without a helmet. I held on for dear life.
We arrived at the rickshaw stop and the manager told the other drivers that we were looking for a driver who might have my wallet. That’s all the information I had. A few of them excitedly answered and the manager simply translated, “wait, he’s picking up children from school and is coming.” Sure enough, about 15 excruciatingly long minutes later, the rickshaw pulled up full of smiling, laughing children. He unlocked a special compartment, reached inside and pulled out my wallet completely in tact. Overwhelmed with emotions of joy, gratitude, and humbleness, I actually started crying.
This has been my experience with the locals in India. Yes, I have had a couple of not-so-positive moments, which of course I’ve had in other countries as well, including my own. But overall I have found the people here to be welcoming, kindhearted, and honest. Being in the presence of these beautifully spirited children today uplifted me, and it was a nice reminder of the goodness and kindness we’re all born with in our hearts, here in India, and around the world. It is always there. We just have to remember to practice it.
Aug 262015

IMG_4907I recently read a thread in a Facebook discussion group insinuating that yoga teachers who post photos of themselves in difficult poses online weren’t examples of good yoga teachers or examples of good role models. And another colleague recently posted that they were taking a break from posting yoga selfies because they just didn’t feel authentic. It seems photos of yogis in poses can be misconstrued as “yoga posing.”

From the inception of the first book on Hatha yoga, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, yogis have been demonstrating poses and other “special powers” in public in order to drive an interest in yoga practice and studies. It is well known that as recent as the 1930’s and 1940’s the great guru, Sri T. Krishnamacharya gained many of his students through public demonstrations, including Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the guru of Ashtanga Yoga. In Ashtanga Yoga there are six sequences, each building in difficulty. During a conference I had the honor of attending with Jois at his shala in Mysore, India, a student asked if advanced postures were necessary to be considered an advanced yogi. He responded, “First series is for everyone, second is for teachers only, and anything more is for demonstration only.” Clearly, he supported demonstration, and millions of people can thank the power of yoga demonstration for introducing them to, or heightening their interest in the practice.

Of course, with the advent of the Internet and social media yoga demonstration is now being delivered through a much more readily available means, affecting a greater number of people. And it’s not only modern day yogis who are using this method. You’ll find many videos and photos of more traditional gurus and yoga teachers online as well.

So I ask, what’s the harm? I have personally always found it inspiring when a yoga teacher or student demonstrates an advanced yoga posture, and a beautiful example of what could be possible with consistent, safe practice under the watchful eye of a teacher. And, while I didn’t understand this in the beginning, I now realize that these advanced postures are not necessary to be a good yoga practitioner. Some people in the discussion group expressed fear that those with no yoga experience may attempt these difficult postures upon simply seeing a photo and injure themselves. While this could happen, I don’t feel it’s a strong argument to edit the posting of yoga poses to simple or foundational postures. Once, my seven-year-old swallowed a fishing weight we found on the beach trying to reenact a trick he saw in a magic show where the magician made a playing card come out of his mouth. But I’m not going to stop taking him to magic shows, or demand that magicians stop doing tricks that others may try to copy. Frankly, anyone could get injured performing a simple yoga pose or mimicking a stunt or trying any number of other physical activities they see anywhere.

I haven’t taken a poll but I’m sure if I did I’d find that a vast majority of people are actually drawn to yoga through online photos and videos. To me, this is a wonderful thing because I believe the more people who practice yoga the better, even if they do begin with a more physically focused interest. My yoga journey started as a purely physical one 16 years ago when I was really inspired by a strong practitioner who lifted their body off the ground with ease. But as my experience deepened, I became interested in the broader philosophy, namely the study of the eight limbs including the Yamas, which are ethical codes of standard for how we treat others. I’m constantly trying to invite these into my life and I know many other practitioners are doing the same, making the world a more gentle, loving, connected place.

For those who are concerned that the individuals in these photos are not setting a good example, my question is how do you know? I think that if you did some research on many of the popular online yoga teachers today you’ll find that they are very dedicated individuals not only to Yoga but to mindfulness, clean eating, developing a positive self-image through self-love and acceptance, and Karma Yoga through philanthropy for others and our environment. I’d be happy for either of my children to find a role model with those attributes.

There was a time in my life when I wasted energy on judging the actions of others. But yoga practice is helping me turn the lens on myself and become more aware of how I am conducting myself in the world. The first Yama is ahimsa (non-violence or non-harming) through thought, word and deed, and from experience I am acutely aware of how harmful negative thoughts and especially words can be, how redirecting negative energy into positive energy is profoundly healing, and how these yogic practices help me break down the barriers between myself and others to experience the ultimate Yoga (Union).

So the next time I see a photo of fellow practitioner demonstrating a pose in a yoga selfie, rather than judge, I’ll delight in the fact that more people are diving into this life-changing, healing, connecting practice. And if you are the yoga practitioner judging others, fostering or perpetuating negativity, rumor, or gossip, I ask you who’s the “poser?”

Post away my brothers and sisters! In fact, I’m going to post a yoga pose selfie right now.

Dec 022014

The Happy Jar – Fostering Mindfulness And Gratitude With Children
By Ally Ford

The Happy Jar, Gratitude and MIndfulnes With Children

The Happy Jar, Gratitude and MIndfulnes With Children

Each night when my family sits down together for dinner we end with a lovely mindfulness tradition, “The Happy Jar.” My children named it, I like to think, for the way it makes them feel. We each write a little note about something for which were grateful and at that moment, regardless of what’s happening with any of us, whether there are tears over the healthy dinner mommy cooked that nobody wants to eat, or endless begging for dessert, all worries fall away, the table quiets, and hearts open.

It’s always a fun team project. My six-year-old daughter gathers pens and paper for all and hands them out. Together, in silence, we reflect upon something that made us feel happy and for which we’re grateful, write it down, date it, and fold up our notes. Then, and this is the really fun part, we try to guess what everyone wrote down. Though, as much as we want to tell each other, we do our best to keep it a secret (well, sometimes we just can’t hold it in, which of course is totally awesome). My eight-year-old son then collects the notes and deposits them into the happy jar, which is a vase on the buffet next to the dinner table.

It’s funny, I actually had the vase for years before I was married or had children and just used it for decorative purposes. But it just so happens to have the Chinese symbol for happiness on it, which makes me feel like it must have known it was destined for a more important use. At the end of the year on or around New Year’s Eve, based on party plans and family gatherings, the four of us sit down and one by one draw the notes out of the jar to read at random. It’s a special way to end one year and enter the next with the frame of mind of gratitude, positivity, and love.

Many experts recommend keeping a gratitude journal or adopting a gratitude practice because it’s been scientifically shown to lift spirits and help manage stress and anxiety. Writing it down is certainly poignant, but it can be just as effective to pause and simply think of something for which you’re grateful and notice the sensations it brings to your heart and your entire being. Pause and try it now!

I find that when I think of one thing for which I’m grateful, it plants a seed which then flowers into the recognition of numerous wonderful things I have in my life. It can be a powerful practice which can transform a day of challenge, pain or hardship into one of calm surrender. So I invite you to try The Happy Jar with your family and make it a fun family event. Let the children choose the jar, paper, writing utensils and the special place you’ll store all of these materials. Have them name it anything they’d like, make it their own, and make it perfect for your family. May it bring as many smiles and as much laughter and love to your family as it has to mine.

Let the gratitude flow, and may your Happy Jar runneth over.photo (15)

Sep 282011
 Comments Off on Pain During Yoga Practice? Know When to Back Off!

A student of mine with a recent back injury asked me how to know the difference between pain related to her injury versus tightness or soreness she needed to push through in her yoga practice. The key word that stood out for me was “push.” After almost 14 years of yoga practice, 11 of which have been Ashtanga, and having managed several injuries myself, my advice is to never push through anything- soreness or pain. If you push a sore or tight muscle it might tear. If you push an injury you’ll exacerbate it. It may sound cliche but “listen to your body.”

Whether or not pain is ok during asana practice is a subject up for debate depending on your interpretation of “tapas” from the Yoga Sutras, and surely you’ll get differing opinions from different yoga teachers. But my wonderful teachers always taught the no pain, no pain method and this approach has worked for me.

Yoga asks that we tune into a deeper, more subtle state of ourselves. This process begins when we step out of our thinking mind and into our feeling body. We develop awareness through conscious listening to our body’s innate wisdom and language, and part of that language is pain. Consider it a gift as our body’s natural means of communication. Hear it, pay attention to it, and honor it. If you do, it will also educate you on how to make it better. If you don’t, it grows from a  whisper, to a nudge, from a shout to a shriek!

There is a big difference between intensity in practice and pain. You can be challenged and work hard, but you must also work intelligently. Intensity usually feels like you’re exploring new territory. It’s difficult and requires you to deepen your breath. Pain on the other hand, whether mild or strong, usually feels like something’s just not right.

Find a way to practice pain-free. This might mean you need to modify certain poses or even omit them until your body tells you it is safe to return. And trust that it will tell you. Why not back off and practice gently for a few days, perhaps even weeks or months? At least you can keep practicing! If it is an injury you’re managing then it will heal. If it is soreness, then gentle movement will work it out.  Conservative? Yes, but it is a smart approach that will help keep you healthy and keep you returning to your yoga mat safely.

Find this post interesting, want to start a conversation or ask a question? Please, email me at ally@allyford.com.
In peace.

Sep 072011
 Comments Off on Yoga for Insomnia

Insomnia involves difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or both. Over 60 million Americans suffer from insomnia. There are two main types: primary insomnia, in which the insomnia is not associated with another health problem; and secondary insomnia, in which the insomnia is the result of another health problem, medication, or substance, like alcohol consumption (which interrupts the ability to enter the deeper stages of sleep). Most people with insomnia experience secondary insomnia.

Yoga had been found to be beneficial for people with insomnia. Specifically, a regular practice combining pranayama, asana, meditation, relaxation techniques, and even yoga philosophy teachings, can help reduce what are known as cognitive and physiological arousal-states of mental and sensory stimulation, or excitability. Think about the last time you had trouble falling asleep. Likely, your mind was thinking, thinking, thinking-about anything but the present moment (except for those random moments of anguish upon realizing that you are still awake).

In one study funded by the National Institutes of Health and published in 2004, 20 young adults were randomized into one of three groups-yoga practice, relaxation technique, and sleep hygiene practice groups. Participants followed their practice for eight weeks, recording their sleep habits in a sleep-wake diary. At the end of eight weeks, significant improvements in sleep efficiency, total sleep time, total wake time, sleep onset latency (having trouble falling asleep) and wake time after falling asleep were noted in those participants practicing yoga, but not the other two groups.

These findings are telling. Sleep hygiene practices and relaxation techniques are regularly recommended for people with insomnia, but this study found that yoga was more effective than both techniques. Yoga practice helps to address many facets of insomnia-the racing mind, an uncomfortable body, unchecked emotions and even poor health.

Other studies on yoga for insomnia have been done, including one investigating yoga practice for insomnia in elderly participants. With age, sleep patterns change, making it more difficult to sleep well. A regular yoga practice (60 minutes per day, six days per week for three to six months) was found to increase total hours slept, and the feeling upon waking of being well-rested in 120 residents in a home for the aged.

These recent Western studies only highlight in modern science terms what yogis have known for thousands of years-yoga benefits health. If you find yourself tossing and turning from time to time, take up a regular yoga practice. You will find that it calms the areas of your brain and body that tend to shift into overdrive come bedtime. The following asana, pranayama and relaxation techniques will be helpful for insomnia:

Tadasana (Mountain pose)

Padangustasana (Hand-to-big toe, standing forward fold)

Padahastasana (Hand-to-foot pose, standing forward fold)

Ardhakatichakrasana (Lateral arch pose)

Ardhachakrasana (Half wheel pose)

Paschimottanasana (Seated forward fold)

Salamba Sarvangasana (Shoulder stand)

Halasana (Plow pose)

Matsyasana (Fish pose)

Sirsasana (Head stand)

Balasana (Child´s Pose)

Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-wall pose)

Savasana (Corpse pose)

Pranayama (Nadi shuddhi – alternate nostril breathing)

Guided relaxation

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