How (not) to practice yoga with your dog… lessons from a first-time “dog sitter”

How (not) to practice yoga with your dog… lessons from a first-time “dog sitter”

Raf

The beautiful creature that you see in this picture is the dog that I’ve been “dog sitting” for the last weeks. And to be honest, I’m quite new to this. But if you can handle a 600 kilogram horse, why not a German Shepherd? That’s what I thought… Until I took my dear Raf out for the first time and, following the advise that I was given, let him run free in the dog park. Now I’ve been watching a lot of episodes of The Dog Whisperer in the past and Cesar Millan is definitely my hero. So theoretically I know how to handle dogs and I could endlessly repeat all of Cesar his mantra’s:

  • “You have to be calm and assertive.”
  • “You have to set rules, boundaries, and limitations.”
  • “No touch, no talk, no eye contact.”

And so on and so forth… But the most important thing that I took away from watching his show is that whatever a dog does is a reflection of your energy and how you behave. So again I know, in theory…

But as I was about to learn, theory is not the same as practice

Coming back to our first walk in the park, as soon as I let Raf go he starts running ahead of me and I see how he approaches an elderly lady who’s holding a dog, a bit smaller than Raf, on a leash. As I come closer she tells me that she has to go, so unfortunately they cannot play together this time. Her comment leads me to assume that they sometimes do so. Therefore, I ask her if they usually play in a friendly way. This definitely looks a bit wild to me! I’m quite relieved when she confirms they do, but immediately after that Raf takes a sprint towards the other side of the field and, wanting to play, her dog obviously follows him. To my surprise the elderly lady, who looks quite fragile, also starts to run after the two dogs, while still holding onto the leash. From a distance I hear her screaming for her dog to stop and I think to myself: “just let go of the leash!” As her dog accelerates she cannot keep up with the pace so she goes flat onto her face. Ouch… You might think that she would have let go by now but she doesn’t and her dog pulls her even further along, while she is face down on the grass. Luckily she then manages to let go of the leash and the screaming turns into loud crying… I’m in shock…

Given that sprinting is definitely not one of my talents it takes me several seconds to come close and find out that she has a big cut in her finger. She shows me the metal part that was wrapped around it. No wonder she couldn’t let go! Her crying turns into sobbing as she reaches for her back so I ask her if she is in pain. She says yes and I think to myself that there must have been a better – not so obvious – question to ask.  My inner critic is interrupted when she asks me for a tissue to stop the bleeding, which I don’t have. I notice that more and more blood is flowing out, so I kind of start panicking at this point, looking around to see if there is anyone who can help us. Why didn’t I take my cellphone with me now that I really need it? Pokemon Go is obviously not my thing… Fortunately, I then notice two teenagers on a scooter, on the road nearby, who stopped to stare at us, so I ask them to go get help and a bandage to stop the bleeding.

In the meantime the two dogs were running loose, happily enjoying their freedom. The elderly lady seems to be a bit panicky about this so she asks me to fetch her dog and hold the leash. For Raf this is a sign to start playing with her dog again. However, this time it doesn’t seem that friendly anymore and I wonder if her dog is a female and if Raf is maybe trying to hump her. Is he castrated anyway? I have no clue… So I call him by his name and tell him to stop, increasingly panicking because the elderly lady needs help, but here I am trying to keep two dogs apart. It should come as no surprise that he doesn’t listen to me. After what seems like ages, more people approach and a strong guy with huge biceps takes over the elderly lady her dog so that I can put a leash on Raf. At this point he is so hyped up that next thing I know he takes another sprint for his “playmate” and I have to let go of the leash. Now I’m really under the impression that they are fighting, but luckily my “biceps guy” comes to the rescue again. He takes the two apart and hands me Raf his leash. As much as I want to help this elderly lady, there is nothing I can do because I have to manage a hyperactive dog. Therefore, all I can do is watch as the people who have now gathered take her away to go see a doctor, while my legs are still shaking. As I hesitantly continue our walk, every dog that we approach now seems to be a target, so I decide to call it a day and turn around to go home.

Turning a stressful experience into something positive

Sounds like a stressful situation? Yep! My first walk in the park with Raf felt like a complete failure. But after I had given myself some time to calm down I realized that what had just happened in the dog park was a reflection of how I felt. I was stressed out so Raf picked up on this and behaved accordingly. He definitely did not see me as his pack leader at that point… 😉 Afterwards I also remembered something else that Cesar had said about going for a walk with your dog, which is to focus your gaze at where you are going instead of focusing on the dog, walking confidently and making sure there is no tension on the leash. So I decided to try again that same afternoon but this time make sure to be in the moment, be as relaxed as I could be and turn it into a sort of walking meditation. What followed was a successful stroll along the dyke (okay, I have to admit I didn’t go back to the dog park that day) where Raf walked next to me without pulling on the leash or trying to go after the dogs or birds that we passed by. I was amazed to find out that this stuff really works… Conclusion: mission accomplished!

The analogy with yoga

So what is the analogy with yoga? Whenever we do yoga we try to become as relaxed as possible. We watch our breath and turn our attention inwards, which can be very soothing. When people meditate at a certain spot, animals often prefer to sit there afterwards or be around the person who meditates because they like the energy it creates. This is something my yoga teacher told us during a teacher training. While “dog sitting” I experienced it first hand when at some point, while I was meditating in the garden, Raf approached me and rested his head on my leg. He lay there very still for some time. This implies that whenever you go for a walk with your dog, it makes sense to check how calm and relaxed you are just because whenever you are in such a state your dog will like to be around you and respond to your much better. Besides, you will be able to handle seemingly stressful situations in a much more calm and assertive way (thanks for putting the words in my mouth Cesar!). So next time, see if you can do a walking meditation with your dog and notice the affect that it has on you and your dog. Good luck! 🙂

PS: after a few days we went back to the dog park and since then Raf enjoyed playing with the other dogs in a friendly way. No more accidents to report here… I guess my regained self-confidence and relaxed attitude made a big difference!

What to do before, during, and after you practice yoga

What to do before, during, and after you practice yoga

Water Lily

Have you ever asked yourself the question what to do before, during and after you practice yoga? The video at the bottom of this post shows a beautiful interview with Simon Borg-Olivier where he answers this question. He does so on a physical and philosophical level. Below I provide a short summary though his passionate speech is definitely worth 11 minutes of your time… 😉

How to practice yoga on a physical level

Simon Borg-Olivier explains how important it is to lengthen your body and stay relaxed while doing yoga:

“It is like Bruce Lee, he used to say “be like water“. As soon as you are hard you cannot fight anyone. If you are like water, they hit you and you just flow away. And I love Astanga Vinyasa yoga but many of the practitioners I know are too tense (…) It has to be soft while being strong. Like Bruce Lee, be like water… Lengthen and relax, before, during and after. That’s the first stage.”

How to practice yoga in your daily life

In the video Simon Borg-Olivier also talks about this question on a more philosophical level and how you can apply the first two stages of yoga, Yamas and Niyamas, to your daily life. He explains how the translation of Yamas (Universal Morality) into English does not work for him and how Yamas could also be phrased positively so that it tells you what to do instead of what not to do:

  • Ahimsa: Being gentle instead of Non-violence
  • Satya: Being balanced instead of Truthfulness (which is not phrased negatively but it can be quite hurtful)
  • Asteya: Giving instead of Non-stealing
  • Brahmacharya: Nourishing relationships instead of No sex
  • Aparigraha: Freedom instead of Non-attachment

“So when I look at yoga, before my practice, after my practice, during my practice, I think (…) yoga in the expression of Yama is to approach yoga, physical practice, life, the way you treat yourself and other people in a peaceful, gentle, balanced way of giving nourishment and freedom. Gentle, balanced giving of nourishment and freedom. And you do that to yourself and the people around you, before you practice. You do it to yourself during your practice and you take it to the rest of the world after your practice. Hopefully in a better way because you have taught it to yourself first.”

Simon Borg-Olivier goes on to explain how you can apply the same principles when you work with Niyamas (Personal Observances). He talks about three things you have to do to get yoga:

  1. Unblock the blockages
  2. Make energy move
  3. Sit back and enjoy the natural state of paradise we have inside ourselves (like babies do!)

According to him, the blockages that make us unyogic are: over-tensing, over-stretching, over-breathing, over-thinking (like a thousand monkeys in the head) and over-eating. He also explains how Niyamas could be interpreted differently:

  • Sauca: Unblock the blockages inside and not just Cleanliness in an exterior sense
  • Santosa: Choose your attitude (often happiness) and not just Contentment
  • Tapas: Passion and not just Ardour
  • Svadhyaya: The quest for self-knowledge and not just Self-study
  • Isvarapranidhana: Love instead of something Religious

“So for me when I approach my yoga, during my practice, before my practice, after my practice, what I try and take to the world and wake up with in the morning is yoga in terms of Niyama (…) the passionate quest to remove the obstacles of happiness and loving connection. This is what I look for before, during and after.”

 

Photo credit: Morguefile – Lauramusikanski

 

 

 

 

Three strikes and you’re out!

Three strikes and you’re out!

Baseball

This week I was confronted with a situation that made me think about what it is that I stand for with respect to friendships. A relatively new friend of mine – let’s call him “The Greek” – sent me a last-minute cancellation message for a get-together that we had arranged several days before that. He did so because he had gotten really drunk the night before. It wasn’t “the best day” to quote him. Your first thought might be that this can happen. Most people are quite forgiving when it comes to these things. Knowing what it feels like to drink too much and have a hangover the next day. I was wondering if there is another side to this. So I thought about it in the perspective of the five Yamas (Universal Morality) as defined by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. If you look at it from the perspective of Asteya, which means Non-Stealing, you might argue that a last-minute cancellation almost always implies a form of stealing someone else’s time. Of course there are situations that you don’t control, which are the obvious exceptions to the rule. But is not feeling well from drinking too much such an exception? I would like to argue that it isn’t. Because whenever you drink too much you consciously choose to do so and therefore you will have to face the consequences at a later point in time. One such consequence might be going for a prearranged lunch with your friend even though you’ve experienced better days in the past.

But it wasn’t the first time…

Now let’s go back to “The Greek”. As a matter of fact, this wasn’t the first time that he had cancelled one of our get-togethers in a short time-frame of about two weeks. The first time was when we talked about meeting up a certain night but he had forgotten about it and then made other arrangements that he didn’t want to cancel. The second time was when he had expressed the wish to join me for an event, but then decided not to because he would go to the office instead (we are talking Sunday morning/afternoon). And the drunken night out was the third time. He asked me if we could postpone and proposed the day after where he would probably (was that room for another escape?) not stay in the office too late. Given his previous behavior and my gut feeling, I wasn’t quite sure that he wouldn’t cancel again, so I responded by asking him how many times he expected me to be okay with postponing/cancelling? I also told him that I had the feeling that next time there would be something else. His response to that was that we didn’t have a contract, it is also normal, and he cannot make plans with me because I stick too much with them. Where I actually expected something like: I’m sorry, I won’t cancel next time (yes, expectations!). Therefore, my first reaction was to become quite upset and this showed in what I wrote to him, namely, that we did have a deal and that in my perception he wasn’t a man of his word (where did my Ahimsa* (Non-Violence) go when I needed it?).

Was it a case of cultural misunderstanding? And what do I stand for? 

But later on it crossed my mind that our misunderstanding was perhaps due to cultural differences. Most Southern European cultures have a certain “go with the flow” type of element, being on time is relatively less important and meetings often happen quite spontaneous. Besides, “The Greek” sees himself as a hippie. So add some more “go with the flow” and there you have our problem. When I looked back at what he had written me each time I thought we had an arrangement, it was actually quite loosely defined. At least the first and the second time. As an example: “I think Wednesday would be an option, for you too?” (…) “Let’s look for Wednesday.” So what I had seen as an arrangement to meet up, actually provided some room for interpretation. Was that intentional? It does make life quite easy if you can just decide last-minute which plan suits you best. And the other person has no right to be upset because there was no real arrangement, right? But now I’m filling it in.

So how does the concept of cultural differences relate to my previous argument that a last-minute cancellation almost always implies a form of stealing someone else’s time? Seen from a Southern European (yes, I’m generalizing) point of view it perhaps isn’t such a big deal. Especially when meetings happen in groups, one person cancelling doesn’t chance much for the group. In one-on-one meetings, however, the dynamics are different. Though some people might argue that even in that case you should be flexible. Just take it easy Michelle, as “The Greek” would say. Then again, we all get to choose what we stand for. So in this case I choose to stand for that I would like my friends to deal with my time in a respectful way, just as I try to deal with their time in a respectful way. Where I define respectful as not stealing each other’s time and being true to your word. Mistakes happen, and it is okay to cancel every now and then, but it shouldn’t happen too often. Let me put it differently: three strikes and you’re out! Just to be a bit bold and use a baseball metaphor. What does “out” mean for “The Greek” in this case? That we won’t meet up again, I guess. I wrote him that I don’t want to be around him if he doesn’t take my time seriously. No response… Maybe I should just take it easy. 😉

*Ahimsa (Non-Violence) is another Yama and is characterized, among others, by compassion, love, understanding, respect, and patience. It means that you cultivate awareness in all of your actions, thoughts and in speech. So it for instance implies not having any negative thoughts or causing verbal injury.

Photo credit: Morguefile – thelesleyshow

A stroke of insight

A stroke of insight

the-brain

Have you ever wondered about that continuous voice inside your head? That voice that is talking to you non-stop about what you still have to do, what you did wrong and what you did really well. That voice that likes to reminisce and repeat past conversations, or perhaps prefers to daydream and play out conversations that you might have in some imagined future. That voice that can take on multiple personalities by playing you, your best friend, mother, and next door neighbor all at the same time. Personally I can have these conversations non-stop. Sometimes I really need to snap out of it because it can leave me feeling exhausted and disconnected.

With this in mind I was thinking about my own meditation practice and how it allows me to decrease or even fully stop that constant brain chatter, which leaves me feeling very peaceful and satisfied. And then I wondered in which way my left and right brain are involved in all of this. So I searched the internet and discovered a TED-talk by Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist who suffered from a stroke due to a blood vessel that exploded in the left half of her brain, and watched as her brain functions (including motion, speech and self-awareness) shut down one by one. Even though she does not talk about meditation, the story is very interesting as it gives a great insight into the functioning of the brain. If you are curious, you can watch the video below:

Photo credit: Morguefile – markgraf

Beginner’s Mind

Beginner’s Mind

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki

This is a popular quote by Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki from his book Zend Mind, Beginner’s Mind. He argues that it is important to always keep a Beginner’s Mind, which means to always keep an open mind, stay eager and without any preconceptions even if you are an advanced student. I read this book about a year ago and today it crossed my mind again when I was thinking about my own yoga practice. Recently I have been following quite some yoga classes with different teachers because I think it is important that I continue learning from others. But increasingly I found myself feeling frustrated during these classes, often taught by young people who seemed to come straight out of their yoga teacher training. Now mind you, neither am I old nor super experienced myself. So what was so frustrating then? I think my frustration had to do with, what seemed to be, their lack of knowledge about how to teach poses in a safe way.

A few weeks ago, for example, I experienced some discomfort in my neck. My physiotherapist told me something I had also learned during my teacher training, which is not to take the head too far backwards under any circumstance. So when I went to a yoga class that week I told the girl who taught the class that I had a neck issue so that she could keep this in mind. When we reached Camel pose her instruction was to drop the head completely backwards. She soon realized that I was not following her instruction and quickly added: “or not.” This is exemplary for situations that I often encounter in yoga classes. For me this is not really a problem, because I know about proper alignment and I also know what my body can and cannot do, but a beginner who suffers from an injury might actually be worse off after such a class.

Let me give you another example. Many yoga teachers instruct their students to turn the back foot out almost 90 degrees in Warrior I pose and then rotate the hip so that both hipbones are squared forward and are parallel to the front of the mat. Even though for a few individuals this might work, most people are in danger of causing damage to their back knee giving that they have to twist the knee in order to square both hips forward. This actually happened to me once. Thankfully there was a lot of focus on alignment during my teacher training, so I now know that for most people it works better to turn the toes more inwards to face the corner of the mat and decrease the distance between the two feet until they are ready to take a wider stance.

This morning when I was driving to an Ashtanga yoga class, I reminded myself to just do my own practice if necessary, having the preconceived idea – based on prior experiences – that the yoga teacher was probably going to tell me to do something that I did not want to do. So at some point during the class everyone was in Warrior I pose while I did a high lunge on the ball of my back foot. We were then instructed to face the other short side of the mat, and I turned to do my high lunge on the other side, now facing the wall. The yoga teacher, a man in his late thirties, suddenly stood next to me and told me to place my back foot on the mat along with some other instructions that I did not quite get. I was probably not listening because I thought he was trying to make me do Warrior I his way. Determined as I was I told him, with slight frustration, that I could not do that because I would twist my knee. To which he responded very openly saying: “okay, we should talk afterwards.” And then he gave me some further instructions and it turned out he was trying to make me do Warrior II pose instead, where you do turn the back foot out almost 90 degrees. So in this case my “expert mind” had reached the wrong conclusion and it was blocking me from truly enjoying this yoga class and focusing on what is most important, namely the breath and turning the focus inwards.

Eager to challenge my preconceived ideas, I had a talk with this yoga instructor after the class and it turned out that we largely had the same ideas about how to perform a safe Warrior I pose. This made me feel relieved but even if it weren’t the case, there should not have been a problem. In yoga it is very important to listen to your own body and your inner voice or instructor for that matter. What works for me does not necessarily have to work for someone else, so if it does not feel right in your body to perform the pose the way the instructor tells you to, adjust the pose, but make sure you keep an open mind (neither condemn the teacher nor yourself), stay calm and focus on your breath. Then the magic will happen… Or not, because part of the Beginner’s Mind is to expect nothing and to accept whatever happens once you get on the mat.

 

 

How to develop a personal yoga practice

How to develop a personal yoga practice

Have you ever wondered how some people manage to get up before dawn and go through their personal yoga practice at home, even before drinking their first cup of tea or coffee and then manage to arrive at work at, let’s say, 9am? Ha, well I have! How to develop a personal yoga practice is probably one of the most written about topics at various yoga blogs and websites. And that has to be for a reason. Before establishing a personal practice there are several hurdles that have to be overcome, such as, finding the time, finding the space, actually knowing what to do, how to do it and in which order. This can all be very overwhelming.

Finding the time – or better – finding your time
For a long time I’ve been telling myself that I need to practice at least one hour of yoga before starting my day. And preferably as early as possible because that leaves a lot of time for other things. The truth is, however, that I’m more of an evening person. Hence, I’m more drawn to sunsets than to sunrises, just to name something.  And getting up before dawn unfortunately doesn’t come easy to me. So do you necessarily have to be an early riser in order to be able to have a steady home practice? Of course not! There is plenty of time during the day that provides opportunities for doing yoga. I’ve gradually learned to accept that I’m not going to rise at 6am every day in order to get on my mat. Though on some occasions I might. Letting go of this ideal that I forced onto myself was very liberating. These days I just find a time that suits me best and have more realistic expectations. So if it’s not more than one hour? That’s fine, even 10 minutes can work magic (calming the breath, doing some downward facing dogs to stretch the spine).

Finding the space
Do you find it difficult to find an appropriate spot in your house, where you can withdraw for some time without being interrupted? This seems to be a common problem. Doing yoga in your tiny computer room that has just enough space for a desk and a yoga mat is probably not as appealing as this…

Yoga studio CR2 Yoga studio CR1

But reality for most people might be that tiny computer room. I personally do not have a spare room that I can use for yoga purposes only. So I have to make do with my bedroom and practice in between all the furniture. What definitely helps is to keep the room tidy so that I cannot be distracted by it being messy. Another aspect is to choose a focal point that is nice to watch. So in my bedroom I prefer facing the garden rather than facing the wall. Maybe for you it would be something completely different, like your favorite picture on the wall or a little shrine that you’ve created. And whenever the weather is good, there is a great opportunity to go outside and enjoy doing yoga in the garden or a park!

While researching this topic I found an article on Yogi Times with tips for a daily yoga practice. The author stressed the point that every time of the day and every place offers an opportunity to do yoga: yoga on the beach, yoga while cooking, yoga at work, etc.  So if you cannot fit your daily asana (physical yoga posture) practice into your schedule for whatever reason, there’s no need to feel discouraged. Maybe you can do a walking meditation while getting from  your desk to the printer. I sometimes do yoga exercises at the gym, which often results in strange looks (but I don’t care). Recently I even had a guy coming up to me, asking: “do you maybe have an injury, or uhhh handicap…? Because I see you move so mindfully and precise, really taking your time to get each pose right?” I found that rather amusing.

What to do, how to do it and in which order
Before I did a yoga teacher training last summer I had no idea how to develop a personal yoga practice. Next to the yoga classes I followed, I wanted to do yoga at home but I always ended up watching the same dvd over and over again, until I grew completely bored with it. Now I do know that there are quite some free videos on YouTube but somehow I just never found a really good one. Another “problem” was that my laptop had to be in such a position that I could still see the screen while lying down on the floor instead of standing up straight. Now this is definitely something that can be overcome, but all in all it much easier to have your own personal practice.

So where do you start? The sun salutations are definitely a good basis. From there you can start adding more and more postures. You could try to bring a notebook to your yoga class next time and write down some of the poses that your teacher is using in his or her sequence after the class is done, along with the points of alignment that are being offered because it is important to practice in a safe way. You can then incorporate these poses into your personal practice. And as you do this more often, you’ll find that your repertoire starts to grow. Besides, there is a basic setup that you could follow to structure your sequence in a logical way:

  • Exercises to warm you up, lying on your back or sitting up straight
  • Exercises on hands and knees
  • Sun salutations (with or without lunges)
  • Standing sequences
  • Balancing sequences
  • Back bends/ inversions/ twists/ hip openers
  • Cooling down sequence incorporating forward bends

Take into account that once you come down to the mat again after standing up, it is usually nice to stay down. I personally don’t like to switch between lying/ sitting down and standing the entire time. Downward facing dog and child’s pose, however, are great to do in between and to transition from one pose to the next. You could also do a vinyasa (from tadasana – to high plank – to low plank – to upward facing dog – to downward facing dog) when transitioning, thereby turning your practice into a vinyasa flow sequence. Thinking about your personal practice in terms of sequencing may help. For me it certainly did!