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This has been a horrible week for the thousands of people who lost so much in hurricane Sandy on the East Coast.  And while I’ve been extremely lucky to have not lost power or belongings, it’s still been a very stressful week. And as I donate money and blood and sign up for volunteer opportunities, and work from home, I have maintained my yoga practice. Practicing yoga can seem really self-indulgent when there are people in need of life’s basics who have lost everything in your city, truly doing most things that weren’t directly helping others this week felt a little pointless.

(photo via. MindBodyGreen)

But here’s why I think practicing yoga in times of crisis is important:

1. When you feel helpless it’s a good reminder to breathe. It’s irresponsible that some gyms and yoga studios stayed open during the hurricane, putting the lives of their customers and staff at risk. But when you are stuck at home, hearing the wind whipping outside as trees fall and smash cars and building outside (as was the case here on Monday night).

You can either sit in front of Internet/TV/radio listening to all of the horrible news pouring in and be scared and worried, or you can move your body or be still and connect to your breath. It’s much more useful to you, your mind and body, and your loved ones to try to cultivate a sense of peace admit such a stressful event.

2. It’s important to your health. In times of stress, yoga and breathing practices are important to your nervous system and mental state. But when many of us were forced to stay in our homes for several days or more, we were moving much less and eating much more. After pulling 9-10 hours sitting at my desk, going though even just a few sun salutations felt like exactly what I needed.

3. It can provide a much needed sense of community. Last night I went to my first class of the week, the Prospect Park YMCA had re-opened (the Armory Y is still being used as a shelter). The class was bigger than normal and you could feel the gratitude in the room. We were all lucky here in Park Slope–no flooding, no fires, no power lost. But we were all shaken too by how narrowly we had escaped the fate that so many so close to us had suffered. That hour and a half with people breathing and being grateful made gave me the space to start to process rather than just consume the events of the week.

So is practicing yoga in a time of crisis indulgent or healing? It’s both. And for many people it maybe just what they need to start to repair the less tangible damage of the storm.

It’s easy (especially in New York City) to get image wrapped up with yoga. Yoga has for many, become associated with upper-middle class skinny white women, and can seem from the outside to be very elitist.   Beyond even the comparisons of body types and ability, there is so much consumerism tied into yoga–so many cool yoga mats and props, so many pretty $180 stretchy pants. On one hand I get it, there’s a lot of opportunity to make money and a lot of people willing to spend it. On the other hand though it’s the thing that bothers me the most about yoga.

I truly believe that anyone from any background,  with any body type, at any age, wearing any clothes, standing on any piece of ground can not only do yoga, but benefit from and enjoy it. Which is why I found this blog post on Yoga Journal (by Erica Rodefer). Here’s the outline of the article, click the link to read the whole thing:

The 5 things that yoga does require:

1. An open mind.

2. The willingness to look silly.

3. An adventurous spirit.

4. A sense of humor.

5. Body, breath, and spirit.

I found this list and the entire post very refreshing, and I wholeheartedly agree– I espically love this line:

“It’s a comforting thought that you were born with everything you need to do yoga.”

I would add to the list though the following two items:

6. Patience. I’ve talked about it some already, but it’s really so relevant in all aspects of life and especially in yoga. My wonderful fiance only does yoga because he wants to support my teaching endeavors, and he gets frustrated with himself for not being able to get into some of the poses. He’ll say his body isn’t capable of doing those things, but it is– he’s only done yoga a handful of times, he (and all beginners) just have to keep trying, keep practicing, be patient.

7. A Teacher. This one could be argued, you can certainly learn yoga and pratice yoga all by yourself– and as many people in the “yoga world” will tell you, a good solo pratice is important. But I’d say it’s essential to have as least periodicity practice with a teacher. There’s only so much you can learn from reading or DVDs, and even if you’re practicing in front of a mirror, without a teacher you could have the wrong alignment and never know it. Tiny adjustments, guidance, someone to ask questions to and encourage you, I’d say those things are pretty essential to yoga too. (but of course I would say that, I’m a yoga teacher..)

I was annoyed and generally in a pretty un-yogi mindset this morning, and when that happens it’s always really difficult to keep my mind from wandering when I’m practicing. So I decided to challenge myself with something different, I decided to go through my morning flow with my eyes closed.

I’ve read and been intrigued with the idea of yoga classes preformed while blindfolded, but have never tried to do more than a few poses without opening my eyes. Clearly this isn’t something a newbie should try, you need to be really familiar with the poses and how your body should be aligned.

It’s often said that where the breath (prana) goes the body follows and  vice versa — if you are on edge or upset, your breathing will be quick and shallow, to relax and calm the body, breath slow and deep. There are so many breathing exercises that we bring into yoga classes to calm or build heat.

But it’s also true that where your eyes go your mind follows–eyes wandering around the room looking at other people and objects? Your mind if probably wandering too. So then, with your eyes closed, your mind is drawn more inward and without the visual information to help you in the poses you are forced to focus more on your body and depend on your muscle memory –your mind is forced to be with your body in the present moment–there’s too much for it to do to wander or worry.

Aside from helping to focus my mind on my body and breathing, I found that doing 45 mins of yoga with my eyes closed helped me to take it less seriously. When you’ve been doing yoga for a long time you always want to go for the fullest expression of the pose, but I fell all over the place in tree with my foot on my inner thigh, so I rediscovered the pose with my foot on my calf, a version I haven’t done for years. Half moon pose? With my eyes open I feel steady and open, with my eyes closed I could barely stay up, but I enjoyed the falling and trying again, because I cut myself slack that I normally wouldn’t (“I should be able to do this”, “I’m not strong”, etc were all gone since I knew I was doing a wacky version)

I felt much better after my blind yoga, and I’m interested to try it again (perhaps with a blindfold so I really can’t peek). I think an whole other layer would be added in a blind yoga class–trust in the teacher and in the other students, and freedom to look silly in front of other people.

There’s a lot to learn when you close your eyes.

There’s so much to life. So many directions to go in. So many thoughts to think.

Which is something I love about yoga, not only is it a way to connect my mind, breath, and awareness to the movement of my body, but when I’m really in it, when I’m just doing yoga, it’s practice for for life–it’s practice for being only where you are, doing only what you are doing. Then my mind wanders again. But in there are these perfect peaceful moments where I’m not reliving something that’s in the past, or worrying or anticipating what’s in the future.

Which is a good place to start this blog. I’ve just finished my Yoga Teacher Training at Joschi Yoga Institute, I feel so inspired to start a million things, I have so many ideas, so much anticpation, and yes, some worries. But I keep coming back to a quote I read just before I started my training:  “A relaxed mind, is a creative mind.”  You can’t create until you quiet and clear everything you don’t need at that moment. You can only think one thought at a time. You can only preform one action before you move on to the next. Your body is always in the present moment, join it.