13 poses to relieve tension headaches

by Ellen Serber | originally posted here in Yoga Journal

When it comes to preventing or curing a headache, there is no substitute for a thorough, daily yoga program. The following sequence offers poses that are helpful for opening the chest and stretching and relaxing the upper back and neck. Include them in your regular practice if you are prone to headaches and see if they help bring some relief and new awareness. Breathe deeply and slowly during all the postures and remember to relax the forehead, eyes, jaw, and tongue. The first part of the program is prevention, practiced when you do not have a headache. The second part, beginning with Supta Baddha Konasana, may be helpful in relieving a headache when it first begins. You will have better results if you start stretching and releasing at the first sign of a headache, before the muscles go into spasm.

1. Tadasana (Mountain Pose):

Discovering Alignment and Finding the Center
TadasanaStanding upright with awareness is one basic way to discover your own unique posture. It is difficult to correct something until you have found out what is really there. Use the wall to identify your alignment, and then practice standing in the center of the room.

Stand with your back to the wall, with your feet together. If that is uncomfortable, separate the feet three or four inches. Plant the feet firmly, feeling the ground with the soles of the feet. Check the distribution of weight between the right foot and the left. Move front, back, and side-to-side on your feet to find the most balanced stance. Make sure that the arch of each foot is lifted, the toes spread apart. The placement of your feet becomes the foundation of your awareness of your whole body. Give yourself enough time to explore and discover how you are actually standing.

When you are ready to move on, firm and straighten the legs. Bring the tailbone and pubic bone towards each other, but do not suck in the abdominals: Lift them. There should be space between the wall and your lower back; do not flatten the lumbar curve. With your “mind’s eye,” go into the area below the navel, inside the belly, in front of the sacrum. Locate this “center” point. Extend the side torso up, lift the sternum without sticking out the ribs, and drop the shoulders. Take the tips of the shoulder blades and move them into the torso, opening the chest. Let the back of the head reach up. If the chin is raised, let it drop slightly, without tightening your throat; focus your eyes on the horizon. Make sure that the shoulders and back of the head both touch the wall. Relax any tension in the face and neck. Remember that your “center” resides in the area below the navel and in the belly, not in the neck and head. This exercise may feel very constricted if your head is normally forward of your shoulders. Use the wall to inform you, so that you know the relationship of your head to your shoulders, but try not to create more stress as you adjust your alignment.

On an exhalation, raise the arms up to the ceiling, bringing the elbows back by the ears. Let the arms grow from the shoulder blades. Stretch the little finger side of the hand and connect that stretch all the way down to the little toe and into the ground. Remember to keep the feet grounded, the legs strong, and the center of your pose in the area below the navel. Observe whether the movement of the arms has caused tension in the neck area. As you stretch up with the hands, bring the tips of the shoulder blades more deeply into the torso. Hold for a few breaths and then release on an exhalation.

2. Parsvottanasana Arms: Opening the Chest

Move a little away from the wall and roll the shoulders back. Clasp your elbows with your hands behind your back. If you have more flexibility you may join your palms behind your back, with the fingers pointing upward. On the exhalation, roll the upper arms back toward the wall, opening the chest between the sternum and shoulder. As you open, keep the ribs relaxed; make sure they don’t jut forward. Remember to stay grounded in your feet and center the movement below the navel. Relax the eyes, jaw, and tongue. Release on the exhalation. Change the arm on top, if you are clasping your elbows, and repeat.

3. Garudasana Arms: Opening Between the Shoulder Blades

This pose is helpful for relieving pain between the shoulder blades. It reminds us to keep that area open in the process of stretching the upper back. Wrap your arms around your torso, right arm under the left arm, hugging yourself. Exhale and bring the hands up, the left elbow resting in the right elbow, with the hands rotated palms towards each other. Breathe and feel the stretch; after a few breaths, raise the elbows up higher, to the level of the shoulder. Remain grounded in the feet, centered in the area below the navel. Relax the eyes, jaw, and tongue. Feel the expansion of the inhalation between the shoulder blades and the release on the exhalation. Lower the arms on the exhalation and repeat with the left arm under the right.

4. Gomukhasana Arms: Stretching the Shoulders

This pose opens and facilitates movement in the shoulders, which helps correct the rounded upper back and forward head position. Plant your feet firmly in a parallel position and extend the sides of the torso up, pressing down through the sitting bones. The shoulders drop down, and the head rests on the body’s midline. Lift the right arm into the air (with a belt in your hand if you have tight shoulders), stretching from the little finger side. Bend the right elbow and reach down between the shoulder blades. Bring your left arm behind your back and swing the left hand up to meet the right, clasping the hands or taking hold of a belt. Relax the ribs. Lift the right elbow into the air and drop the left elbow down. Make sure that the spine stays extended and is not leaning left or right to compensate for tightness in the shoulders. Release on an exhalation and reverse the arm positions.

5. Simple Seated Twist:

Relieving Strain in the Back, Rotating and Stretching the Neck
Sit on the chair, feet firmly on the ground, sitting bones pressing down, sides of the torso extended. On the exhalation, reach around and take your right arm to the back of the chair and your left hand to your right knee. Extend the back of your head up and make sure the head is on the midline. Turn on the exhalation, breathing low into the belly, then into the chest. Lastly, turn the head and eyes. Remember to keep the shoulders down, the chest open, and the shoulder blade tips in. Center the movement below the navel and in the belly; relax the eyes, jaw, and tongue.

6. Setu Bandha (Bridge Pose): Actively Opening the Chest

Lie down on your back with your knees bent and feet hip-width apart. Roll the shoulders under and reach the hands towards the feet, keeping the little finger side of the hands on the floor. On the exhalation, raise the buttocks, lifting the sternum towards the chin. Elongate the back of the neck without pushing it into the floor; you want the neck to stretch, not flatten. Interlocking the fingers on the ground under the back helps to roll the shoulder blades under and is an interesting variation. Relax the facial muscles and jaw, breathe deeply, and come down on an exhalation. This pose is not appropriate during the second half of pregnancy, or if you have been diagnosed with spondylolysis or spondylolisthesis.

7. Supta Baddha Konasana:

Passively Opening the Chest, Releasing Tension From the Neck
SuptaBaddhaKonasanaThis pose can be done when you first feel signs of a headache. It opens the chest, and with the head resting, encourages the neck to relax. It is best done with the eyes closed and covered with an eye bag, a wrap, or a blanket. Lie back on a bolster or a narrow stack of three blankets, with your head supported on an additional blanket. The lower edge of the blankets should come directly into contact with the buttocks to support the lower back. The chin should drop down so that there is an elongation of the neck muscles, particularly the ones at the base of the skull.

Bring the soles of the feet together and spread the knees apart, supported by an additional blanket roll, or if this is uncomfortable, straighten the legs and support the knees with a blanket roll. Experiment with the height of the support to find the most comfortable position for your body. Breathe deeply and slowly, relaxing the forehead, eyes, jaw, and tongue. To come out of the pose, put the soles of the feet on the ground with the knees bent and roll to the side. Do not do this pose if you have been diagnosed with spondylolysis or spondylolisthesis.

8. Supported Child’s Pose: Resting the Upper Back and Releasing the Neck

Sit on a folded blanket with your knees bent and your feet under your buttocks. Separate your knees more than hip-width apart and bring your feet together. Bring your torso forward, resting it on a stair-stepped arrangement of blankets or a bolster, adjusted to a comfortable height. Pull the support into your belly. Drop your chin towards your chest as you rest your head. You may want an additional blanket to support your forehead, but continue to lengthen the neck. Dropping the chin to the chest provides a gentle stretch to the back of the neck, right below the skull. The arms should rest on the floor, palms down, elbows bent, hands near the head.

9. Supported Forward Bend: Releasing and Relaxing the Neck

Sit on the floor in front of a chair with your legs crossed, with enough blankets on the seat so your forehead can rest on the blankets without strain, or if this is difficult, sit with the legs straight under the chair. Rest your head on the chair seat or blankets with your arms under your forehead. If your legs are straight, pull the chair over your legs towards your belly. Drop the chin towards the chest to gently stretch the neck muscles. Let the weight of the head fall down onto the chair seat. Breathe deeply and slowly.

10. Supported Ardha Uttanasana (Half Forward Bend): Stretching the Lower Back, Relaxing the Upper Back and Neck

Stand in front of a table stacked with blankets high enough so that when you bend over and rest your torso on them, you are forming a right angle. Extend the spine and rest the arms straight forward or crossed, whichever is more comfortable. Drop the chin towards the chest and let the neck gently stretch. Breathe deeply and slowly.

At this point, if the headache has improved, do the next two poses. If the pain has continued, go to Viparita Karani, or rest flat on the ground in Savasana with the eyes covered and a blanket under the head.

11. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Dog): Deeply Stretching the Back, Shoulders, and Legs

downdogThis position should be done with the head resting on a support and the chin moving towards the chest to elongate the neck. If possible, use the resistance of a belt secured to door handles, or a partner and a belt at the top of the thighs to bring the spine into more release. Begin on hands and knees; as you exhale, turn the toes under and lift the sit bones, straightening the legs and arms. Press your hands into the ground as the base of the spine moves diagonally up. The weight of the head will create a stretch in the neck. Watch that the ribs do not sink down; lift them to create a space between the shoulder blades and to avoid jamming the spine. Come down on an exhalation.

12. Viparita Karani: Inverting the Blood Flow and Calming the Mind

restorative_legs-up-the-wallSince this pose increases blood flow to the head, it is excellent in the beginning stage of a headache. But if you are having migraine symptoms, indicating that the blood vessels are dilated, and if the pain increases, skip this pose and rest in savasana. Do not do this pose if you have hiatal hernia, eye pressure, retinal problems, heart problems, or disc problems in the neck, or during menstruation or pregnancy.

Lying on the floor with a blanket or bolster under your lower back, place your legs up against the wall. Remember to drop the chin down, creating length in the neck. Cover your eyes with an eye bag or wrap. Some people find headache relief in this pose when they place a weight, such as a sand bag, on the head, with one end on the forehead and the other draped over the top of the head onto the floor. This additional pressure helps to drop the head further into the ground, releasing the strain in the neck muscles.

13. Savasana (Corpse Pose): Relaxing Completely

eyepillowLie on your back on the floor with your eyes covered and a blanket under your neck and head. You may put an additional blanket under your knees. If you are pregnant, lie on the left side, extending the bottom leg and bending the top one, with a blanket under the top knee. Relax completely, breathe deeply, and let go.

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Make Peace With Perfectionism + Make Mistakes

By Sally Kempton  |  originally posted here on Yoga Journal

almostperfectIn Sanskrit, one of the words for perfection is purna, usually translated as fullness or wholeness. Indian yogic texts tell us that everything in this world arises from and is contained inside one single energy, or shakti. This energy is always full, intrinsically complete, perfect, and joyful. What’s more, it is present in all forms, thoughts, and states of being. That one energy is as much in the dirty dishes in your sink as in the notes of a Mozart violin concerto or the violet eyes of 19-year-old Elizabeth Taylor. When we are in touch with that energy, all dichotomies—light and dark, good and bad, male and female—are resolved, and all apparent imperfections are revealed as part of the whole. To celebrate this amazing fact, in India, a “fullness” mantra is frequently sung after auspicious events. Translated into English, it’s “That is perfect. This is perfect. From the perfect springs the perfect. If the perfect is taken from the perfect, the perfect remains.”

Contrast that to our ordinary idea of perfection. In our everyday speech, the word perfect means flawless. An A+ grade. The arc of a perfectly calibrated swan dive. In this particular view, perfection is a human achievement or (as in the case of Kathleen Battle’s voice) a genetic gift. We live in a society in which every billboard, magazine, and TV show insists that we can and should pay the price to achieve perfection. If our teeth aren’t perfect, we should get braces. If our bodies aren’t perfect, we should diet or lift weights or have liposuction. If our relationship isn’t perfect, we should fix it or look for another one. When we can’t make things perfect, then there must be something wrong with us or the world.

The irony is that our ideal of perfection—which arises from the ego’s need to explain and control—inevitably keeps us from the experience of perfection. Like any construct, it clamps the lid on the bursting, chaotic, joyous mess of reality, substituting a rigid, artificial notion of what is appropriate or beautiful. Conditioned as we are by our upbringing and culture, most of us can’t help living under the tyranny of perfection. Yet perfection itself is not the tyrant. It’s our notions about perfection that tyrannize us. When we’re outside the experience of perfection, we long for perfection while idolizing a standard that separates us from it. When we’re inside it, the question “How can I keep this great feeling?” instantly removes us from the feeling we’re trying to hold onto.

A good place to learn about perfectionism is in my friend Vicki’s yoga class. Vicki studied with one of the great twentieth-century hatha yoga gurus, a man so terrifyingly precise that he has been known to throw students out of class because their arm muscles weren’t sufficiently firmed in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). She internalized her teacher’s style and sharpened it with her own gift for precise analysis and acerbic wit. I’ve seen Vicki stride between lines of students in Utthita Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), kicking their back legs to test their firmness, barking out commands like “Lift! Lift! You look like spaghetti.” Her classes are dynamic and scary, and her students trade stories of their encounters with her like war tales. I’ve never heard her compliment anyone, even when the pose looked…perfect. Instead, it’s “Turn your hand out two degrees.” Vicki’s students stretch themselves beyond their limits, do their best to achieve perfect lunges and impeccable headstands—and often limp out of class.

But the real casualty of Vicki’s perfectionism is Vicki herself. She confessed to me a few months ago that she no longer feels she knows what yoga is. “I spent 23 years trying to become my teacher’s perfect student,” she said. “It was all about driving myself. I wanted to be in control of every muscle in my body. But recently I realized that I never relax. There’s never a real release. Oh, I release in the pose. Sort of. But inside, I’m always tight.”

Perfectionism makes us tight. It creates a pervasive wash of anxiety even when we’re practicing relaxation. In fact, the quickest way you can test yourself for perfectionism in your practice—or in anything else you do—is to gauge your anxiety level. Does your stomach contract when you aren’t sure that you’re doing a practice “right”? Do you feel obligated to push yourself one more notch into the most lifted Headstand in order to feel that you’ve really practiced? Do you bring yourself out of a meditative state wondering whether the state you’re in is actually the witness or just another level of discursive mind? Do you feel that if you don’t have time to meditate for half an hour, you might as well not meditate at all? Are you afraid of making mistakes, of not being a good enough person, of your own thoughts or the manifestations of your dark side? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re probably a perfectionist.

At this point, you might be thinking: Wait a minute. Perfectionism isn’t always bad, is it? What about the musician who practices until his fingering is flawless, until he can forget about technique and let the notes come out of his guitar like honey? What about the scientist who finds a new anti-cancer drug by doing the same experiment over and over? What about the pursuit of excellence? What about the drive for mastery?

Positive and Negative Perfectionism

It’s true: just as we have good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, we can have positive perfectionism and negative perfectionism. Not surprisingly, what makes the difference is how we feel about ourselves. In Perfectionism: Theory, Research, and Treatment, psychologist D. E. Hamacheck defines normal perfectionism as “striving for reasonable and realistic standards that leads to a sense of self-satisfaction and enhanced self-esteem,” whereas “neurotic perfectionism is a tendency to strive for excessively high standards and is motivated by fears of failure and concern about disappointing others.” Carl Jung went further—he said that healthy perfectionism comes out of the desire for wholeness and fullness, the fundamental human need for individuation and spiritual growth.

According to University of British Columbia, Vancouver clinical psychologists Jennifer D. Campbell and Adam Di Paula, a healthy perfectionist tends to be “self-oriented.” She measures herself against herself, not against others. She sees perfection as the fulfillment of her own inherent potential. She sets goals that she believes she can reach, throws herself totally into whatever she’s doing, and usually enjoys the process (though even healthy perfectionists get bummed out when they fail). Healthy perfectionists frequently may be more conscientious than other people, but they also feel better about themselves. When they finish something, they can pat themselves on the back—unlike “unhealthy” perfectionists, who tend to discount their successes and remember their failures.

Unhealthy perfectionists, it appears, are driven less by the pursuit of excellence than by the fear of what might happen if they fail. They measure their performance by the approval and validation they get from external authority figures. And even though perfectionists can be quite tyrannical toward other people, they nitpick and micromanage not because they feel they know what’s right, but because they are afraid they don’t. Negative perfectionism can go along with hidden (or not so hidden) feelings of inadequacy or incompetence.

Some clinicians feel that unhealthy perfectionism is often the result of what they call “conditional acceptance” from parents or childhood authority figures. A perfectionist parent gives her kids the message that they have to perform to be loved. Then the child internalizes that parental judgment, which becomes indistinguishable from his own inner voice. Many of us live with that nagging inner critic all our lives without ever realizing that it is a foreign installation and not the voice of Truth. When we begin doing yoga as a spiritual practice, or sadhana, the inner judge latches on to spiritual teachings as a new set of rules. Now, in addition to pointing out how lacking we are in charm, parenting skills, and musical talent, he begins to nag us about our inability to get our knees to touch the floor in Padmasana (Lotus Pose) or to quiet the mind. Anyone who’s ever spent time in a spiritual community has met victims of yogic perfectionism. When I first began going on retreats, in the 1970s, I used to notice two distinct types of perfection seekers.

Type A’s were compulsive about their sitting and asana practice. You could identify a type A by his extreme thinness, his unfocused, indrawn eyes, and by the fact that he was always the first person to arrive in the meditation hall and the last to get up from his prostrations. One man confessed to me that he liked to pick out the most dedicated meditator at a retreat and make sure he beat him to the meditation hall. “At one retreat, there was this Japanese yogini who always managed to be in her seat five minutes ahead of me,” he told me. “I had to get up earlier and earlier, until one morning I found myself on my cushion at 1 a.m.—and she was there first! That was when I realized there had to be an easier way to realization.”

Then there was Type B—usually just as skinny, but noticeably more sharp-eyed and alert. Type B’s were generally karma yogis, and they practiced their karma yoga as though they had no “off” button. I knew a Type B who could work 18 hours a day, day after day, rooting out every weed from the garden or every spot from the linen, even staying up late into the night to sift beans or sew. She was also an oppressive supervisor, masterful at inducing guilt in the rest of us. “Go to sleep; it’s fine,” she’d say, when she caught someone yawning in the midst of a sewing project. “Not everyone has the kind of devotion it takes to work all night.”

Neither of these types of yogic perfectionists ever seemed to know when to stop—even when the guru of the ashram asked them to ease up. No matter how often the guru suggested they rest more, meditate less, or eat in a more balanced way, no matter how often he talked about balance, moderation and the importance of the middle way, they just went on pushing themselves and everyone else, getting skinnier and more spacy, or skinnier and more irritable, until the inevitable day of burnout arrived—the day they couldn’t get out of bed for one more round of meditation or one more task. Often that was the end of their yoga sadhana.

Permission to Be Imperfect

Of course, like many extremists, these perfectionists were not totally off base. Transformation doesn’t happen without effort, and many of us could benefit from a bit more yogic rigor. Ancient yogic texts recommend tapas, the heat created by rigorous effort, as a remedy for resistances, blocks, and negative tendencies. At the same time, the most venerable teachers, even those who have spent years practicing classical yogic austerities, often tell their students that the kind, not the amount, of efforts they make is what matters. They say intention and understanding are even more important than sweat.

Breakthroughs in practice do not always come as a result of sitting through aching knees or holding a pose until you’re exhausted. They come just as often through subtle and delicate effort—the effort that it takes to be the witness through a storm of thoughts, or to notice the space between one breath and another, or to let your center of attention drop down into the heart. Sometimes the only effort that counts is effort that seems like no effort at all. Ramana Maharshi, the great modern Advaita master, used to give his students the cryptic, profoundly anti-perfectionist instruction: “Just be as you are.” Swami Muktananda, my teacher, said something very similar: “When you get to the end of your sadhana, you will realize that everything you were looking for was already inside yourself,” he would chuckle. “So why not start out by meditating with that understanding and save yourself all the trouble?”

There is no better antidote to perfectionism than the knowledge that you already have what you’re looking for. Just reminding yourself that perfection is inside of you—even if you do not happen to be feeling it just at the moment—can tip the scales and help you move out of a negative perfectionist spiral. Every time you make the effort to accept yourself and your situation, you loosen the grip of your addiction to making your practice, your body, or your life more perfect. This acceptance, though, has to be real. It does not work to say, “I accept myself as I am” when a part of you is resentful or grief-stricken about your perceived imperfections or the flaws in your particular circumstances. All that does is to impose a slightly different model of perfection upon yourself.

The first step toward changing any habit is to see where you are under its thumb. There are many different ways of being a perfectionist, and some are less obvious than others. Are you a neatnik? Do you compare yourself unfavorably to other people, or are you always noticing other people’s faults? Do you do everything over four or five times, or are you the kind of perfectionist who is so afraid of failure that you won’t even start? Once you’ve observed where perfectionism manifests in your life, explore the way your body feels when your inner perfectionist has the floor. Where in your body does perfectionism reside?

Perfectionism is a deeply ingrained way of being. And since it affects our thoughts, our emotions, and our actions, getting rid of negative perfectionism requires work on all these levels. It helps to have a quiver of strategies, so you can experiment and work with the one that works for you in the moment. Negative perfectionists nearly always hold themselves to unreachable standards. Then, when they fail to meet them, they beat themselves up. So remember, the first line of defense against perfectionism is to learn how to give yourself permission to be who you are and where you are. That level of permission, ironically enough, is often the best platform for change.

Retrain Your Inner Critic

This is a variation on Patanjali’s “Practice the Opposite” sutra (II.33). When the inner critic begins his negative litany, talk back to him. If he tells you, “You will never get this right,” you can say, “On the contrary, I often get things right and I’ll get this one right.” If he tells you, “No one wants to hear what you have to say, so don’t even bother saying it,” remind him that people often find your remarks interesting and illuminating. Find a positive counterstatement for every negative statement the inner critic makes. It may take a little time, but in the end you’ll retrain him.

Allow Yourself Not to Be the Best

A college student I know recently stunned his family by announcing that he had decided to settle for Bs in certain courses rather than making the extra effort required to go for the A. He had discovered that it took him an average of three hours to produce a B paper for these classes, but in order to produce a paper that rated an A, he often had to work an extra three hours. He reasoned that he could be spending those three hours doing something he enjoyed more, and that a B grade was good enough. For him, this was appropriate and profoundly liberating.

But, if you are one of those people who feels driven to push yourself beyond the point where the effort is enjoyable, this approach can help you ease up on yourself. As a Japanese Zen master said, there are times when “80 percent is enough.”

A most misleading notion is that if we can’t do something thoroughly, there’s no point in doing it at all. In yoga (as in housekeeping!) the truth is just the opposite. It is much better to plan five minutes of Pranayama and actually do it than to plan 30 minutes and feel so daunted by your program that you spend the evening watching re-runs of Friends. If you can’t do your full hatha yoga practice, you can at least do one pose. If you can’t meditate for a full 20 minutes, meditate for 10. Or seven. Or three. If you can’t meditate sitting up, you can meditate lying down.

Instead of beating yourself up for not making a perfect score or the maximum effort, thank yourself for doing what you did. Every effort is worthy of self-acknowledgement. If you read just a few pages of an uplifting book, thank yourself. If you spent a few minutes practicing mindfulness while you drove to work, thank yourself. If you realize that you have spaced out during meditation or yoga practice, before you bring your awareness back, be sure to thank yourself for noticing. If you do something nice for someone, thank yourself. Even if you think your motives were suspect, thank yourself.

Acknowledge Your Mistakes and Failures

Many perfectionists are so afraid of making mistakes that they spend a great deal of energy denying mistakes and pushing away any suspicion that things aren’t going as well as they’d like. “Maybe my relationship isn’t going to work out…No, it can’t be true, that would be too terrible!” Or “Maybe I just don’t have the flexibility to get my thighs parallel to the floor!…No, it’s just that I’m not trying hard enough.” Acknowledging a failure doesn’t mean that your whole life is a failure. On the contrary, it’s often the first step toward freedom.

In my experience, the moment you truly surrender your hope that a situation will turn out perfectly or acknowledge a failure or fault you’ve been afraid to look at, you open up the channel to your essential self. When we give up holding onto the idealized reality, we make room for that elusive experience called True Perfection to reveal itself.

Keep Your Attention in the Moment

Perfectionism is a product of the grasping mind, the same part of us that compulsively looks for more of everything and also imagines that what we need is somewhere else. The best remedy for seeking is to consent to being where you are and to practice embracing your present experience just as it is.

Anchor yourself in the breath. Feel the energy moving in your body. Each time your mind wanders off, bring it back to your awareness of this moment. Then, welcome yourself and your experience, just as it is. As with all types of mindfulness practice, it helps to do this formally. Say to yourself (silently or even out loud), “I welcome you.” Say to your thoughts, “I welcome you.” Say to the fly hovering around your nose, “I welcome you.”

You can also practice offering loving-kindness: “I offer love to myself. May I experience happiness. I offer love to the floor, to the walls, to my ex-wife, to my neighbor with the noisy TV. May they all experience happiness.” Or remember the words of the Sanskrit prayer: “It is perfect here; it is perfect there. If perfection be taken from perfection, only perfection remains.”

Practice tuning in to your awareness as the container inside which you hold your whole experience of each moment—your sensations, your breath, your thoughts and feelings, everything that is going on around you and all your reactions to it. When I practice like this, I become hyper-aware of everything that I do not like about my circumstances—everything from the temperature of the room to the state of my heart-energy. Be with your whole awareness. Stay with your experience until you start to feel the release that lets you know that you’ve really arrived here, inside this present moment.

imperfect image

Work With the Energy of Your Perfectionist Anxiety, Compulsive Striving, or Judgmental Resentment

This is the Hindu Tantric approach, which maintains that every feeling and thought is made of energy and that behind even the most negative manifestation of energy is the core energy of love. One way to get to that core energy is to get inside whatever feeling or emotion you are experiencing—in this case, the intense anxiety or dissatisfaction of perfectionistic striving—and stay with it until it dissolves back into its essence. Even the most uncomfortable feeling will do that if you give it time.

Every emotion—fear, anger, excitement, or peace-has its unique energy signature as it pulsates inside your body. Next time you feel frustration around your desire for perfection, zero in on that energy as you feel it in the moment. Stay with the feeling, and after a while you will notice it shift, dissolve, or otherwise transform. When it does, you’ll be on the edge of—or deep inside—the experience of perfection itself.

Open to the Truth

The good news about all neuroses and obstacles, even the most stubborn, is that each of them contains the energy that takes us beyond the obstacle. Our striving for perfection blocks our view of the very perfection we are searching so hard to find—yet that striving brings a gift. When our perfectionism exhausts itself, even for a moment, it can leave us suddenly open to the startling truth of what we already have.

A young woman came to a friend’s yoga class last year. He knew the moment she walked in that she was a striver. She listened carefully to each instruction on alignment, and he could see her eyeballs nearly crossing with the effort of getting it right. At one point, he walked over to look at her as she held a twist. She saw him watching and looked up inquiringly, waiting for a correction. Instead, he said, “Sweet pose,” and walked on. A few minutes later, he looked back at her and saw that she was sobbing. Later she told him that his words had brought up a storm of remembrances: her parents scolding her for a bad report card, teachers who constantly corrected and adjusted yet never told her when she was doing fine. The bad memories rose up, then faded, and when they did, a love welled up inside her. Somehow, she’d seen the pattern of her perfectionism, and seeing it had released it. For that moment, at least, she was inside the perfection that no striving can reach and that no judgment can destroy. For the moment, she knew that she herself, just as she was, was enough.

Sally Kempton is a California-based meditation teacher and workshop leader. Formerly known as Swami Durgananda, she is the author of The Heart of Meditation.

Live More Intentionally

A NEW YEAR. A FRESH START.

By Jillian Pransky | originally posted here on JillianPransky.com

Resolutions? Intentions? Aspirations? Rituals? Ceremonies? These only carry the power and importance that we, ourselves, attribute to them.

Having said, that let’s consider some historic and modern sutras (aphorisms) regarding ‘thinking’ and how they impact our actions and what we manifest.

The Maītri Upanishad states,

“As is one’s thought, so one becomes.”

Aristotle then said,

“We are what we repeatedly do… Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Marcus Aurelius concurred,

“The soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts.”

And, most palpable to me, Wayne Dyer’s teaching:

“You become what you think about all day and those days become your lifetime.”

I’ve long thought of New Year’s ‘Resolutions’ more as ‘Intentions’. The full definition of “intention,” from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is quite interesting. It defines intention as, “a determination to act in a certain way: resolve. Significance; what one intends to do or bring about.’ but also as: ‘a process or manner of healing of wounds.”

CREATING AND HEALING

When you set an intention, you become clearer about why you’re doing something; what kind of attitude you want to commit to having, and what you hope to cultivate from the experience. In addition, when you are clear about your intention, you can more easily recognize any self-talk that doesn’t support you. When you are more in tune to creating a life that is a reflection of your heart and deeper needs, you organically wind up addressing what is no longer serving or supporting you, brining you wholeness and wellbeing. A we pause to re-start, begin again, we naturally are in the process of shifting towards the balance needed in the moment.

I, in fact, practice an intention setting ritual every New Years. But I also do this same ritual every birthday, every solstice, every equinox. That’s 6 big pauses a year! I also pause and set an intention before a big events, a special project, a family gathering. On top of that, I set an intention before and after every yoga practice and every class I teach.

In short, I set an intention for how I would like to enter a particular moment and participate in it. Doing this also helps me remember that I can ‘come back’ and start again when I lose my connection to myself in this way. This is essential. Since, like most of us, I can be carried away in any moment by disappointment, anger, or fear. Or, get sucked up into busy-ness, routine  (or my iPhone).

With regular intention setting, I’m only days, hours, or minutes away from being reminded to pause and reconnect, so I am less overwhelmed or controlled by these harder experiences and feelings. My intentional awareness returns me to my breath, which returns me to a sense of spaciousness, freshness, optimism, grace…

I begin again.
In fact, this sentiment is at the heart of all my resolutions. And, to keep myself remembering it, I carry Wayne Dyer’s quote on a post-it in my wallet.

“You become what you think about all day and those days become your lifetime.”

It wakes me up every time. Lovingly, urgently, reminding me to keep my head close to my heart. So that my ‘actions’ and non actions are a reflection or my deeper intentions.

So In honor if the Fresh New Year, today’s newsletter and each blog I offer this month will be filled with ideas, tools, practices to help you live more intentional days (and ultimately a lifetime).

Happy New Year to you and all your loved ones.

May your actions be the art, your intentions create!

Learn the Power of Spiritual Surrender

By Sally Kempton | Originally posted here in Yoga Journal

Practice Makes Possible

The great paradox about surrender—as with other qualities of awakened consciousness, such as love, compassion, and detachment—is that though we can practice it, invoke it, or open up to it, we can’t actually make it happen. In other words, just as the practice of being loving is different from being in love, so the practice of surrendering is not the same as the state of being surrendered.

girl meditating and doing yoga at sunset

As a practice, surrender is a way of unclenching your psychic and physical muscles. It is an antidote to the frustration that shows up whenever you try to control the uncontrollable. There are any number of ways to practice surrender—from softening your belly, to consciously opening yourself to grace, turning over a situation to the universe or to God, or deliberately letting go of your attachment to an outcome. (I often do this by imagining a fire and imagining myself dropping the issue or thing I’m holding on to into that fire.)

When the attachment or the sense of being stuck is really strong, it often helps to pray for surrender. It doesn’t matter who or what you pray to, it matters only that you are willing to ask. At the very least, the intention to surrender will allow you to release some of the invisible tension caused by fear and desire.

However, the state of surrender is always a spontaneous arising, which you can allow to occur but never force. Someone I know describes his experiences of the state of surrender like this: “I feel as if a bigger presence, or energy, pushes aside my limited agendas. When I feel it coming, I have a choice to allow it or resist it, but it definitely comes from a place beyond what I think of as me, and it always brings a huge sense of relief.”

This is not something you can make happen, because the small self, the individual “me,” is literally not capable of dropping its own sense of ego boundary.

Early in my practice, I had a dream in which I was dropped into an ocean of light. I was “told” that I should dissolve my boundaries and merge into it, that if I could, I would be free. In the dream, I struggled and struggled to dissolve the boundaries. I couldn’t. Not because I was afraid, but because the “me” who was trying to dissolve itself was like a person trying to jump over her own shadow. Just as the ego can’t dissolve itself, so too the inner control freak can’t make itself disappear. It can only, as it were, give the deeper will permission to emerge in the forefront of consciousness.

Many of us first experience spontaneous surrender during an encounter with some great natural force—the ocean, the process of childbirth, or one of those incomprehensible and irresistible waves of change that sweep through our lives and carry away a relationship we’ve counted on, a career, or our normal good health. For me, opening into the surrendered state typically comes when I’m pushed beyond my personal capacities. In fact, I’ve noticed that one of the most powerful invitations to the state of surrender happens in a state of impasse.

Here’s what I mean by impasse: You are trying as best you can to make something happen, and you’re failing. You realize that you simply cannot do whatever it is you want to do, cannot win the battle you’re in, cannot complete the task, cannot change the dynamics of the situation. At the same time, you recognize that the task must be completed, the situation must change. In that moment of impasse, something gives in you, and you enter either a state of despair or a state of trust. Or sometimes both: One of the great roads to the recognition of grace leads through the heart of despair itself.

Trust the Force Within

But—and here is the great benefit of spiritual training, of having devoted yourself to practice—it’s also possible, like Luke Skywalker confronting the Empire in Star Wars, to move straight from the realization of your helplessness into a state of trusting the Force. In either case, what you’ve done is opened to grace.

Most transformational moments—spiritual, creative, or personal—involve this sequence of intense effort, frustration, and then letting go. The effort, the slamming against walls, the intensity and the exhaustion, the fear of failure balanced against the recognition that it is not OK to fail—all these are part of the process by which a human being breaks out of the cocoon of human limitation and becomes willing on the deepest level to open to the infinite power that we all have in our core. It’s the same process whether we’re mystics, artists, or people trying to solve a difficult life problem. You’ve probably heard the story of how Einstein, after years of doing the math, had the special theory of relativity downloaded into his consciousness in a moment of stillness. Or of Zen students, who struggle with a koan, give up, and then find themselves insatori.

And then there’s you and me, who, when faced with an insoluble problem, bang against the walls, go for a walk, and have a brilliant insight—the book’s structure, the company’s organizing principles, the way out of the emotional tangle. These epiphanies arise seemingly out of nowhere, as if your mind were a slow computer and you had been entering your data and waiting for it to self-organize.

When the great will opens inside you, it’s like going through the door that leads beyond limitation. The power you discover in such moments has an easeful inevitability about it, and your moves and words are natural and right. You wonder why you didn’t just let go in the first place. Then, like a surfer on a wave, you let the energy take you where it knows you’re meant to go.

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Complete article here in Yoga Journal