• How Injury Brought Me Closer to the Purpose of Yoga

    I attribute yoga taking over my life to the moment I started practicing Ashtanga yoga mysore style at Miami Life Center. It affected everything, not just the 90 minutes in class. I fell hard (still falling) for this practice and mysore style was a gateway to a whole new world. That is, until about 4 months into my new found high. I fell off my bike. Nothing too serious, but enough for me to determine I couldn’t practice yoga until I was fully healed. I fell on my right arm and hurt my elbow so it was difficult to put weight on it, like in downward facing dog. I thought if I can’t downward dog I have no business walking into a mysore room.

    I took about 3 months off, more than I probably needed to. Losing the momentum of practicing 3 times a week made it really hard for me to get back to the mat. I’ve come across students with similar experiences. Getting back on the mat after stepping away for the first time is sometimes harder than coming to the mat in the first place. You would think the opposite, especially after experiencing the life shifting results from a regular practice, that you’d come running back.

    If you want to know the benefits of practicing yoga, stop practicing. I’m pretty sure I got that one from David Swenson. But its so true! It points to the slow subtle shifts that yoga creates on a deep level, which then slowly work their way to the surface. You won’t notice how much has changed from one day to the next, but if all of a sudden you stop practicing and those yoga benefits stop making an appearance in your life, the sharp contrast in how you feel and show up in the world will tell you. Yoga works in quiet sometimes mysterious ways.

    When I was off the mat those months, I felt the tamas, apathy and heaviness coming back into my body and mind. I was more emotional, getting lost in sadness and doubt (my go to’s). The crazy part was that before yoga I never thought of these things as the lack of yoga, but as my nature, a part of who I was and never considered living without them. It was a big shift for me. I now saw those physical, mental and emotional states as changeable by a yoga practice.

    My practice had become a space for me to tune in, which I soon realized allowed me to show up as a better and more present person for the rest of my day. I didn’t realize at the time that I didn’t need to do a downward facing dog in order to have that. But the mysore room and the teacher provided me with a clearly defined space and time to tune in. And most importantly a method and path to support me through that process. I didn’t know how to move through this process alone, much less that I was so eagerly searching for a path most of my life. When I found this path, I sank into it without fully realizing that I had finally found what I was searching for. Having a teacher, a class holding me accountable, expecting me to show up for that space was really important for me at the beginning. Which makes this less about blaming myself for stepping away when I was hurt, and more about understanding and compassion for my journey as a beginner.

    When I got back into the mysore room 3 months after I fell off my bike, I felt like I had taken 2 steps back. Starting up again took so much effort, so much tapas and fire to burn through the stagnation that had taken over. It was an important part of my journey, going through that physical, mental and emotional effort and discomfort. Once I got through it, the daily ritual of this practice and tuning in was further ingrained in me. Since then I’ve had unbroken regular practice, nowadays 6 days a week for asana.

    Fast forward 4 years and I run into a shoulder injury. There was pain when I lifted my arms over my head. I couldn’t do the first movement in Ashtanga yoga! Which of course brought on all the reactions – sadness, frustration, doubt whether I would even practice yoga again. But this time I knew better. I wasn’t going to stop coming to the mat. My practice needed to drastically change from intermediate and part of third series, to heavily modified standing postures. I went from practicing asana for 90 minutes to 20. At this point I realized those 90 minutes were really useful as it took me some time of being on the mat to drop down to the undercurrent. So I looked for other tools to keep me on the mat each day a bit longer than 20 minutes.

    I found pranayama (the practice of controlling the breath) through one of my teachers, Mark Linksman. It become my main practice while my shoulder was healing. It was such a beautiful time for me as a yoga practitioner. I continued healing the body through minimal movement, not allowing stagnation to take over and I opened up to a new pathway into the practice of yoga, into focusing inwards. Pranayama is incorporated in the Ashtanga system, but to practice it on its own gave me a closer look into the self-transformational power of the breath. I explored more precise ways of working with it that could be translated to deepen an asana practice.

    It’s so interesting to notice how as I spend more time on the mat, my ideas about what I think is right or wrong changes. The context of my practice changes because my perspective gets a bit broader. It’s as if I can look in from a further stance and get a more complete view of Ashtanga Yoga, or yoga in general for that matter. I imagine it’ll be like this for the long haul of this path – I’ll keep taking another step back, and keep seeing pieces I was blind to before because they weren’t yet in my view.

    This time, as soon as my shoulder healed I was there, present and ready to slowly move back into a longer asana practice. This time without the heaviness I had the first time coming back from an injury. I had maintained a practice so I never really left. Creating a practice with a different form allowed me to better understand through firsthand experience the purpose of yoga, regardless of the tools used. It wasn’t to perfectly execute a shape with our bodies but to create a space to observe ourselves, to sit in awareness. Lucky for us we’ve been given more than one way of doing this, teachings that have been passed down through many generations, through lineage.

    I was also given an opportunity to witness the healing potential of the primary series of Ashtanga yoga. Moving slowly through heavily modified standing postures and then into primary series little by little facilitated my healing process, coupled with some physical therapy exercises. I wasn’t doing the traditional full expression of primary series, but to me is was complete and perfect. I had the opportunity to revisit the foundations and refine basic technique. It’s since then become a big focus in my practice – continuously going back to the basics. While I was healing it helped me establish movement patterns that more efficiently built strength and flexibility while doing a very beginner practice. Mentally, I learned to tap into a beginner’s mind, looking at something for the hundredth time with a unbiased perspective. As I moved back into a more advanced practice, my body felt good and strong because of the time I spent more intimately understanding basic movements.

    I often see students get caught up in the external conditions set for the sequence, holding on to them as truth, thinking if it weren’t followed perfectly it meant they weren’t practicing Ashtanga yoga. The context of Ashtanga yoga is much broader than the postures – another lesson I picked up from these experiences with injury. The postures are there as tools for a more holistic and spiritual purpose. They bring us into our bodies, something tangible to feel what’s present. They give us a single point to focus on, and they give us a mirror to observe ourselves by. And yes the conditions set to execute an asana are important, such as place your hand here, breath in here, but they can be accommodated to work with a student’s situation, like a physical limitation for example, and still maintain the intention of yoga.

    We can expand the context of yoga by modifying a posture, incorporating seated breathing or seated meditation, staying in one posture for 10 minutes, the list goes on. There are different doorways into yoga and therefore the pathways along the way may look different, in the same way that my personal journey through this practice will look different than yours.

    I had two different experiences with injury and came out with my own lessons and conclusions, which I get to share with you here. Not to tell you what to do but to let you know that there are different paths within this path and it’s important to find your own way. I’ve used the experiences and knowledge of others to help inform what and how I choose to explore. To then evaluate and integrate the lessons learned from my own personal experience. The result is as many expressions of yoga as there are humans, and that’s a beautiful thing.

    By Monica Arellano

    Practice LIVE on Omstars with Monica Arellano

    Monica Arellano is a Level 2 Authorized teacher in the Ashtanga Yoga Method; a formal blessing received by her teacher R. Sharath Jois in Mysore, India. She first connected to the practice of yoga in 2010, looking for a more peaceful way of being. When she found her way to Miami Life Center in 2014 she began a regular Ashtanga Yoga practice and soon after completed a 2 year apprenticeship program under Tim Feldmann. Today she continues to practice, teach and travel regularly to Mysore, India to learn yoga directly from the source. Monica’s teachings are informed by the knowledge carried on from her teachers and the first-hand experience from her daily asana and meditation practice. Her classes emphasize the breath, alignment, and methods of concentration; in hopes of exploring the deeper experience of asana and the resulting expression in each student’s unique and mind. In this space, she believes we can deconstruct unhealthy patterns, facilitate healing on many levels, and find our way back to the most honest version of ourselves.

    This blog was originally posted on monicarellano.com

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  • An Unmoving Mountain: Reflections from a 10 Day Vipassana Course

    I felt the need to run away, away from the work they were asking me to put in. I was looking for distractions in conversations, emails, planning, doing. I quickly realized I wouldn’t have access to any of them for 10 full days. At first, being there sitting from moment to moment, I wanted to do anything else.

    Reintegrating into daily life is easier than I thought it would be. 

    It’s the day after I completed my first 10 day vipassana course and reintegrating into daily life is easier than I thought it would be, because going from no talking, only sitting with yourself to interacting with the outside world and answering emails should feel abrupt. Or at least I thought it would. For the time being I’ve undone my knee jerk reaction of reaching for my phone, because I feel more settled in my own skin, and somehow that makes being in the world simpler.

    The happiness of liberation. 

    I was given the opportunity to participate in a vipassana course, ten days of silence learning one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. Vipassana was rediscovered by Gotama Buddha more than 2500 years ago and passed down to the present day by an unbroken line of teachers. It is taught as a ‘universal remedy for universal ills’ aiming for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resulting happiness of liberation.

    I was looking for distractions. 

    Nestled in the Rocky Mountains with not a town or neighbor in sight, I was asked not to communicate in any way. I sat with myself, in silence, alongside 50 others. Initially, I felt the need to run away, away from the work they were asking me to put in. I was looking for distractions in conversations, emails, planning, doing. I quickly realized I wouldn’t have access to any of them for 10 full days. At first, being there sitting from moment to moment, I wanted to do anything else. But what? Why?

    Before external action there’s an internal sensation. 

    With the Vipassana technique we work with felt sensation in the body. Before external action there’s an internal sensation, and according to the technique it’s at this level we need to think about transformation. Our subconscious experiences a sensation it’s come to associate with pleasure, and we automatically act towards it (cravings), it experiences another sensation associated with pain and we act to avoid it (aversions). We are asked to observe and dissect these subtle and gross sensations by observing the moment before the automatic reaction towards or against the sensation and re-route.

    A sensation in the body that will eventually pass. 

    We re-route to simply being there with the sensation and thereby break its association with pleasure or pain. We observe it for what it is – a sensation in the body that will eventually pass. Before bringing our awareness there, our actions and the way we are in the world, seem to only be interfaced with experiences outside us, which leads us to believe it’s someone or something else dictating our reality. That notion that its me, it’s always been me—or rather my unconscious mind calling the shots by reacting to those sensations – flooded my understanding.

    Our subconscious mind has come to associate the sensations. 

    An example to paint a picture – you have a big presentation coming up and you get anxious. Our subconscious mind has come to associate the sensations that come with anxiety with something to push away, so the usual avoidance strategy kicks in. We spin out, go over in our heads the worst possible outcomes, maybe figure out a way to bail, or we say something to bring someone else down. With vipassana, we are asked to observe the anxiety and bring the discomfort to our conscious mind. Feel the tension and how it actually feels in the body. For me, it’s a knot in the throat, shallow breathing, tightness in the chest.

    They are just energy vibrating without our awareness. Until they aren’t. 

    The pleasures and discomforts are merely sensations felt in the body that shouldn’t be labeled. They shouldn’t be considered good or bad, right or wrong, craving or aversion. They are just energy vibrating without our awareness. Until they aren’t. Until we become aware and discover the mind body connection and how that determines our external world. The process put forth by this technique seemed almost scientific to me. We feel the sensations and retrain our bodies and minds to not react by our deeply rooted patterns of attachment and aversion, patterns ingrained internally by past experiences. We do this by observing objectively. From this space we can retrain our actions to be less reactive and therefore less tainted and more connected to our authenticity. If all our reactions and unconscious patterns were to be erased, there would be nothing fogging our view of the present moment, and we could experience the world as it is.

    You can consciously choose your next set of actions. 

    Back to the example – by observing the anxiety, you settle the mind on the body, into the present. Maybe you watch the anxiety pass soon after, or it remains until after the presentation is over. Either way, the anxiety is there but it’s not taking hold of you dictating your actions. You can consciously choose your next set of actions from a clearer state of mind. It’s not easy and it’s something that takes practice. It takes doing it consistently in a daily seated meditation practice, when your effort is focused on objectively observing the sensations in the body, for it to be a new way of operating out in the world, when the attention is mostly outwards.

    The work needs to start beneath the surface. 

    Changing external circumstances is useless because the method of perceiving and interacting with the world would remain the same. In other words, you’d be looking at something different on the outside, but the lens through which you’re looking would be the same, with that same warped tint. There would be the same unconscious reactions to things feeling good or getting tough, so from where you’re standing the world would look the same. The work needs to start beneath the surface for real change to happen. You don’t change the presentation, you change your reaction to the anxiety that comes up because of the presentation.

    Around the 4th day the staying got bearable. 

    The first 3 days were mentally challenging. Getting through an hour of just sitting in the same room, never mind not changing positions just yet, was hard. Really. Hard. I had to come up against all the reasons why that was so difficult and find the mental determination to overcome them. I had to tell myself to just wait it out and no matter what I wasn’t going to run back to my room (sometimes we had the option of meditating in our rooms but I knew I would just take a nap or start stretching to distract myself). So I stayed, and stayed and stayed. At some point, I think around the 4th day the staying got bearable, and I was able to face the next challenge—staying without moving. That’s when the pain came. To some extent the physical pain was easier for me to deal with: there were moments it was excruciating, but it felt like something tangible to work with, whereas the mental discomforts of restlessness were so hard to pinpoint in my body. But the sharp precise pain was a clear place to rest my mind. The challenge at this point came from observing objectively, removing the mental anguish from the physical pain and simply witnessing the sensation within the body. I went in.

    There was one particular experience during the 10 days. 

    When there was discomfort there was pain, uneasiness, anxiety, more pain, sadness, a scattered mind and then more pain. And then there was the other side of ease, calm and glimpses of peace. I watched and trusted that what I was told was true—there’s always another side, and it’s worth going through the pain to get to the other side. There was one particular experience during the 10 days where I was able to observe the pain without reacting and see through to the other side of pain. I watched as the intense pain in my left shoulder was broken down into vibrations moving faster and stronger, taking all my attention. I studied it long enough to eventually watch it dissolve into the sea of vibrations contained in the rest of the physical, energetic body.

    I couldn’t let this experience inform future ones. 

    There’s a catch though, in this process of looking through to the other side of pain. After moving through the pain in my left shoulder, I felt good. The vibrations dissolving into the rest of the body felt ecstatic. It felt so good that I wanted more of it and just like that I was again caught up in the cycle of craving. I faced another challenge—continuing with objective awareness even as the gross sensation passed and the other side was sensed. Moreover, I couldn’t let this experience inform future ones. I needed (and still do) to develop the capacity to observe for the sake of observation, not for the promise of a particular sensation arriving or disappearing. Instead there should be genuine objective observation, without the expectation of a particular outcome.

    I was with myself and that’s it. 

    Another profound part of this course was the silence. No talking, no communicating in any way with anyone (unless you had an emergency you could talk to the course administrators). Since I wasn’t communicating externally all my attention was internal for 10 full days. I was with myself and that’s it. The first couple days I realized just how much actually goes on in my head. With no other noise to cover it up, it was all I could hear. Then to watch as these thoughts slowly faded as the days went by felt so settling. It was a relief to know that all the thoughts, conversations and stories created in there aren’t really necessary. I had this deeply rooted idea that I needed to keep these thoughts active to maintain a valuable identity.

    Who am I without these stories?

    Who am I without these stories? Who am I without the person that comes up to interact with others? Who am I without people around me I know and share a common life with? Who am I without a job to do and people around me telling me that I am doing it well? Who am I without my parents and family showing me where I came from and those who came before me? Who am I without all the distractions covering up who I really am underneath all that? I think these are all questions that will take a lifetime (probably more) to discover and definitely a 10 day course didn’t answer for me. But what it did do was offer a path to understand that the labels we give ourselves can’t define who we truly are because they are always changing, in the same way the sensations in our bodies are always changing.

    I knew I just wanted out to distract myself from the work. 

    There were moments I wanted to run after the next car that passed and beg them to take me with them. There were moments I grew so restless and agitated knowing I needed to be there for another day and another… but the bigger picture of getting through day by day (rather than getting through one sit) put things in perspective for me yet again. Why did I need to get out of the course? To be who? To do what? I would continue being the same person out there that I was in the course. No matter where I go, I’ll be there, with the same reactions, cravings, aversions, with my insides reflected on the outside. I knew I just wanted out to distract myself from the work. Wholeheartedly coming to terms with all this gave me the determination about halfway through to really get down to work. To look in and keep looking in and keep looking in. I found the determination to put in the work. And that’s something I wasn’t prepared for—just how much effort this would require.

    What first meets the eye isn’t the whole story. 

    It was amazing to me, and still is that I experienced this whole process through the means of looking inside, by my own effort! Every sensation I experienced, whether mental or physical, came and went. To experience the reality of impermanence inside myself was a sort of paradigm shift in the way I see myself, but also beyond that – how I see the way events and people unfold before me. What first meets the eye isn’t the whole story. It’s just a glimpse of a moment in time. There is so much more. There’s the inner world, the whole story of the entire universe. To think we understand someone or something fully by only perceiving the superficial external aspect in a particular moment is misleading. Because that will change and therefore we must look deeper. What we’ll find is true for everything—nothing lasts forever. People aren’t set as the person you see or think they are. Events aren’t set in one condition. I think it’s important to re-learn the people we think we know and to look at situations with a new perspective. Refusing to accept the truth of impermanence will only lead to suffering, because contrary to what the subconscious is trained to believe, nothing lasts forever, so we might as well surrender.

    There’s nothing about us that remains the same. 

    The mountains surrounding the center helped me get through the course and understand the process I was going through. They hovered over me, strong, stable and unmoving throughout the entire 10 days; yet their external appearance never the same as the sun rose and set, the shadows and the way the sun rested on their sides was always changing. Likewise, we are always changing—our minds, bodies, ideas, everything. There’s nothing about us that remains the same, yet we act like we are this one unchanging being with a perfectly constructed image. An image that can so easily be shattered at any moment. Only awareness is always there looking out— the unmoving mountain.

    This course is truly accessible to anyone. 

    To learn more about Vipassana 10 day courses taking place all over the world, visit https://www.dhamma.org/ This course is truly accessible to anyone! No prior meditation experience is necessary, although having a daily practice of even 10 minutes a day is helpful. They even give the option to sit in a chair, if sitting on the floor is uncomfortable. I highly recommend participating in one and I’d be happy to answer any questions you have about the course, just reach out. For some guided meditations of varying lengths, check out my YouTube channel.

    By Monica Arellano

    Meditate with Monica Arellano

    Monica’s teachings are informed by the knowledge carried on from her teachers and the first-hand experience from her daily asana and meditation practice. Her classes emphasize the breath, alignment, proper foundations and methods of concentration; in hopes of exploring the deeper intention of Asana and the resulting expression in each student’s unique body and mind. In this space, she believes we can deconstruct unhealthy patterns, facilitate healing on many levels, and find our way back to the most honest version of ourselves.

  • Yoga Pose Tips: Upward Facing Dog

    Upward facing dog is the first posture where you start to establish the patterns for back bending.  It’s the patterns that are going to eventually help you get into the deeper and more advanced back bends.

    When I’m stuck in an advanced posture I always go back to its building blocks in basic postures, which are conveniently placed at the beginning of every Ashtanga yoga sequence. I imagine this will be a lifelong process of going back to the foundations and finding more subtler experiences of them. Which is why I think an intro class can serve any level. It’s intended for beginners but there’s something to learn for any level practitioner when slowing things down and allowing ourselves the space to rediscover the inner workings of a basic posture.

    Establish the patterns for back bending.

    It’s important to create the right foundation right from the beginning with upward facing dog. In order to do that, we’re going to come into a sphinx position, to start to understand some of the movement mechanics involved in upward facing dog. Where your forearms are on the ground, and your elbows are underneath your shoulders.  First thing, you’re going to point the toes, and press the tops of the feet into the mat.  Engaging the legs, and lifting the knee caps. And then you’re going to pull the lower belly in, towards the spine.

     

    Create space in the front side of the body, a main objective of back bending.

    And this part is really important. You’re going to press the elbows down. Shoulders down.  You are going to sort of like drag the elbows back towards your ribs.  You’re pushing the elbows back towards the ribs.  That gives you the leverage to push the ribcage forward, and up, away from the hips. This helps to create space in the front side of the body, which is one of the main objectives in back bending.  Pressing the tops of the feet into the mat, engaging through the legs, and then moving the elbows back.  Ribcage forward, stretching the front side of the body.

    Translate the principles of Sphinx into Upward Facing Dog.

    Translating these same principles into upward facing dog, you bring your hands underneath the shoulders.  Straighten the arms. Press the shoulders down.  Tops of the feet on the mat.  Press into the tops of the feet.  Engage through the legs.  Drag the hands back.  Ribcage forward, as you pull the lower belly in towards the ribs. Shoulders down, and breathe.

    Practice with Monica Arellano

    By Monica Arellano

    Monica Arellano is a Level 2 Authorized teacher in the Ashtanga Yoga Method; a formal blessing received by her teacher R. Sharath Jois in Mysore, India. She first connected with the practice of yoga in 2010, looking for a more peaceful way of being. When she found her way to Miami Life Center in 2014 she began a regular Ashtanga Yoga practice and soon after completed a 2 year apprenticeship program under Tim Feldmann. Today she continues to practice, teach and travel regularly to Mysore, India to learn yoga directly from the source. 

    Monica’s teachings are informed by the knowledge carried on from her teachers and the first-hand experience from her daily asana and meditation practice. Her classes emphasize the breath, alignment, proper foundations and methods of concentration; in hopes of exploring the deeper intention of Asana and the resulting expression in each student’s unique body and mind. In this space, she believes we can deconstruct unhealthy patterns, facilitate healing on many levels, and find our way back to the most honest version of ourselves.