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Lauren Maslen

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Yoga & Meditation

I DON’T REALLY HATE THE WORLD AND SEVERAL OTHER REASONS I NEED TO MEDITATE DAILY

The following article was published on  oregonsportsnews.com on 3 June 2013.

 

Yoga

There’s a saying in yoga that “the pose begins when you want to leave it.”

As a yogi, I’m supposed to be patient in order to achieve the ultimate benefits of my practice. Conversely, “supposed to” isn’t in the yogic dictionary and what can I say? I’m flawed.

Patience is something I’ve been working on for years, but what I believe is more necessary for yoga practice and can help in numerous facets of day to day life is meditation.

Life can be hard. People can suck. Sometimes, the two can merge so conveniently that you may just want to call it a day and flee to a jungle island in Thailand.

Maybe that’s not really an option, but the truth is, we all have struggles and we all need a way to decompress.

While meditation may sound like a daunting practice to some, it can take on many different forms, immediately showing positive and powerful effects on the body and mind.

Guided, silent meditation is one of the forms I practice. I began silently meditating at the same time I started my asana practice. I decided to focus my practice by recognizing abundance in my life and by practicing compassion. I meditated on these words by Deepak Chopra: the more you give, the more you receive.

This had a profound impact on my day to day. I was a full-time kindergarten teacher living abroad, applying for graduate school, and studying for the GRE. I exercised every morning, attended yoga class nightly, and kept up with an active social life. I was extremely busy, productive, but most of all, I was happy.

Meditation proved to me that life can be beautiful. People can be amazing. Sometimes, the two can merge so elegantly that you want to love the world and everything in it, rather than focusing on its flaws.

Sounds nice, right? So how does one reach such Zen?

I mentioned that silent meditation is not the only kind of meditation. I’m taking the liberty here of calling anything that calms and clears your mind “meditation.” Running is one of my favorite forms, as is practicing yoga with music.

Whether you find calm through cardio, weight lifting, playing sports, or sitting silently, discover your meditation and use it to your advantage. It’s a tool to improve your life – both inside and out – which you will never regret.

Om shanti and namaste.

Ready to get started? Check out these events in the Portland area:

Portland’s Living Yoga is a non-profit which brings the practice of yoga and meditation to “prisons, drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, and populations that would otherwise not have it” (http://living-yoga.org).

Living Yoga’s annual Yogathon has asked new and seasoned yogis alike to fundraise through their own practice to benefit their community. The event began in April, but you can still join in on their closing celebration on Saturday, June 1st at Ecotrust in the Pearl (living-yoga.org).

Not quite ready to make the leap into yoga this weekend? Think ahead to July 13th when the annual Yoga Rocks the Park comes to Portland. Every Saturday until September 14th, Laurelhurst Park will be filled with music, world renowned yoga teachers, yoga for kids, demos, vendors, and a great community to let go and feel a bit more shanti with. Tickets can be bought in advance from yogarocksthepark.com or at the door.

THE POWER OF PRANAYAMA – BREATHING TO FIND CALM WITHIN THE CHAOS

The following article was published on oregonsportsnews.com on 24 May, 2013.

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Whether you’re new to yoga or you’ve practiced for years, you may notice that your mental state can easily affect your physical performance. Good thing for us yogis, though. It’s our belief that our practice can train our mental state and vice versa. The two can work together to create a balance. Asanas, or yoga poses, are designed to keep the body functioning to their best ability. They’re designed to both physically and mentally prepare us for the more difficult challenges of the mind.

After an intense and surreal month of hot, sweaty asanas, lectures about Kundalini energy and chakras, spiders as big as my face, and geckos crawling above my head on a jungle island in Thailand, I completed my Yoga Teacher’s Training. I became a certified yoga instructor with a plan: I was going to live in the northwest. I moved to Portland to become a yoga teacher. It was a leap of faith, a commitment I wholeheartedly believed in.
I’m now once again on an airplane. This is my ninth flight in just over a month. I’m headed back home to Colorado.
Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned; however, I hold strong to one of the valuable lessons from my teachers in Thailand: everything happens for a reason. My weeks in Oregon were spent preparing and memorizing yoga flows, attending auditions across the city, applying for more jobs, and finding myself constantly disappointed. It was a stressful three weeks, but yoga helped me keep my cool.
A difficult day at work, some off-putting words from a friend, or even getting sick is enough to throw the best of us off in trikonasana or Warrior 2. It doesn’t take a major life transition to fall off balance.
While it may be trickier to balance in a pose if you’re feeling mentally lopsided, finding stillness can calm both the body and mind. While mental clarity was hard for me to find on Indeed.com, finding balance in a pose follows the same protocol no matter what kind of battle one is fighting. Pranayama and meditation are key.
Pranayama techniques are a way to control the breath. They will not only help to focus breathing patterns, but will slow the heart rate and blood pressure, positively affect metabolic and nervous system function, and will help to calm the mind. The first step of any pranayama technique is to remember to inhale and exhale through the nose. The Ujjayi breath is a technique that can be used by anyone at any time.
Ujjayi breath
Ujjayi breathing is a technique which constricts the glottis muscle in the back of the throat. This may make you sound like you’ve turned into Darth Vader when you breath, but don’t worry, that’s totally normal.
With a long and straight spine, inhale slowly through the nose, expanding the ribcage and belly. Hold for several comfortable counts, then slowly exhale through the nose, drawing the ribcage in and tightening the core.
Close your eyes and count your breaths, trying to lengthen the count of your inhales to even those of your exhales. Got that? Now try to double the length of your exhales.
Give Ujjayi a try. Play around with your technique. Stop thinking and focus solely on your inhales and exhales.
Pranayama is an essential aspect of yoga. If you’re struggling to find balance within a pose or otherwise, remember the simplistic beauty of yoga: it’s simply about being. And what’s more vital to being than breathing?
Breathe on, beautiful people. Namaste.

DON’T THINK YOU CAN DO YOGA? THINK AGAIN.

The following article was published on  oregonsportsnews.com on May 16, 2013.
 
 

 

 

Yoga

I’m in love with yoga. I’ll admit it, I’m biased. I adore standing on my head. I have a complete crush on backbends. I tend to stand in tree pose and at any given moment, you can find me sitting in the lotus position or attempting bakasana. Adho mukha svanasana? Don’t mind if I do. Vrschikasana has been my own personal challenge pose since January. Confused yet? Oh, well you must be new to yoga. Welcome!

The physical and mental benefits of yoga are numerous and can be life-changing. I’m not going to try to convince you of those, however; not yet, at least. The first step to believing is trying it yourself. If you’re one of the many who claim to “not be able to do yoga” but find yourself in a yoga class, the following five tips may help your yoga experience to be a little less stress and a touch more Zen.

Breathe.

Don’t hold your breath. You’ll only make things harder on yourself. Remember to breathe!

Stop thinking.

Once you stop telling yourself you can’t do it and just allow your body to be in the pose, you’ll benefit from it most. Yoga is about being. It’s that simple. Let go, have fun, and take a moment to find calm within the chaos of the everyday.

You don’t have to be the most flexible person in the room, and you don’t have to compete with the person who is.

One reason people choose not to do yoga is because they don’t feel flexible enough. You have to start somewhere, though, so why not forward bend into uttanasana and start stretching those hamstrings? Flexibility doesn’t come from sitting still. It doesn’t come from comparing yourself to the super bendy girl on the mat next to you either.

Yoga is self-practice. Yogis attend class for many reasons, but competition usually isn’t one of them.

You can’t touch your toes? Oh well, maybe one day you’ll be able to. Lost your balance and fell out of a pose? It’s okay. Laugh it off. We all fall. One of the best things about yoga is that it’s okay not to be the best, as long as you’re putting forth your utmost effort.

When the teacher corrects you – and he or she probably will – embrace it.

Your yoga teacher is not correcting you to make you feel bad. Yoga teachers love their art and they want you to achieve the greatest possible benefit from your practice. That might mean relaxing your shoulders, bending your knees, or simply moving your fingers a centimeter to the left. Tame that ego and squat a little deeper, feel the burn and get the most out of your practice. Teachers are there to remind us to breathe and to guide us.

No one is judging you.

One of the many excuses I’ve heard from people avoiding yoga is that they’re not good at it; they think everyone else in class is watching them and judging. Stop right there! I’m going to sound like your mother right now, but I’m okay with that. No one is judging you but yourself, and I’m completely serious. Anyone else who is new to class is worried about the exact same thing and any experienced yogi is too tuned into their own practice to pay attention to you. So stop worrying and if anyone is watching you, who cares? It’s just yoga. If all else fails, just remember tips one and two. Inhale, exhale, repeat. Namaste.

“How you perceive reality is how reality will bounce back.”

With my eyes closed, I chant my aums and sing the mantras. After pranayama breathing exercises, one of two things will happen. Either I will think about what I’m going to eat for lunch, or my mind will clear and I will see myself free falling head-first into darkness.

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“People are afraid to go upside down. You need to give them all of the options.”

 

Lily is instructing us on how to teach headstands. I love headstands, but I haven’t done one in weeks. Suffice it to say, I’m feeling slightly uneasy in this pose.

 

It’s okay, though. Apparently my subconscious is feeling it, too.

 

I’ve been at Yoga Camp for two weeks now. The past couple weeks have been filled with moments of struggle, but time has started to move quicker. Lessons have become more enjoyable. I’ve found myself with little free time to do anything much more than feel exhausted. Meditation has even become less difficult(sometimes).

 

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After a few hours respite in civilization on the mainland last Sunday, I felt like I wasn’t stuck in the Bermuda triangle anymore. I came to a realization while standing on the beach, staring at the stars and waiting for a taxi boat.

 

 

I can take everything I’m learning right now with a grain of salt. Although that may sound simple enough, being inundated with information for twelve hours a day amid a complete life transition can sometimes feel a bit daunting.

 

 

I can choose to learn as much as I possibly can, internally process it, and enjoy it in the moment. I have always believed some of what I’m learning in this course to a small extent; however, I have the choice every day to take the good, the ridiculous, and the absolutely insane, and I believe what I want. I can laugh along the way. I can open my mind and heart and just choose to love the whole experience.

 

 

 

Lily told us we were all meant to be here; it’s our karma. In the end, I know why I’m here. I know it was no one else’s ideas, influences, or hard work that got me here but my own. Maybe it was written in the stars; perhaps I am meant to be here. Any way around it, I know my own reasons for doing yoga, and I know I don’t need to follow anyone else’s agenda.

 

 

There are no rules to yoga. I can make up my own rules along the way. Heck, I can make up my own dang asanas if I want! I’m doing this because I love it and as long as what I’m doing makes me feel good, then that is what is right.

 

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I stumbled through the past week, half zombie-like, with this realization. It wasn’t until Thursday when, in a bout of sweat-drenched exhaustion, another great moment of awareness washed over me.

 

 

I had locked my keys in my hut.

 

 

There’s a window that has refused to close in my hut for the past two weeks. I stopped trying to shut it and shoved the curtains in the cracks to prevent mosquitos from coming in. I was by no means a disbeliever in any of this karma stuff that my teachers have been going on about; however, everything seemed to make sense in this very moment.

 

 

Reception gave me an extra key that didn’t work in my padlocked front door. In my mind, there was only one option: I was going through that window.

 

 

In class over the past couple weeks, we’ve been talking about this “zipping up” feeling in our core, or central channels. Your central channel needs to “snap in,” giving you structure; balance. In order to get into a headstand, your energy needs to be in line. Your toes reach up to the cosmos and your hands, head, and the trunk of your body root you into the earth. This is how you feel grounded. Unyielding.

 

 

Maybe it was the ayurvedic herbs I had taken that morning; maybe it was the serotonin being released from standing on my head all day; maybe it was just an adrenaline rush; but I felt that internal zip when I pulled myself through that window.

 

 

My window refused to close until that moment for a reason. Perhaps it just needed to be pried open in order to shut properly again. Or maybe – just maybe – it was karma (yeah… karma). Maybe the Universe knew that I would be completely mentally and physically exhausted and I’d lock my keys in the hut at some point. That I’d need to jump up, grab on, and use all my strength to hoist my leg through and pull myself into the only window that refused to lock in my little wooden box. Whatever it was, I said a little prayer of gratitude to the universe after the ordeal and I truly felt it.

 

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The window in question, to the left of the door. Yuuup… that one waaay up there.

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And the aftermath.

 

 

I’m taking everything day by day – and some days are harder than others – but that afternoon, it all seemed to come together. A feeling of this is where I’m supposed to be washed over me. I was able to simply be and enjoy that moment.

 

 

I realized while lying in savasana today after asana class and another round of meditation: perhaps what I’m seeing when I close my eyes is not myself falling. Maybe I’m giving into gravity – letting go – and I need to just trust that the Earth will be there to catch me, whichever way I land.

 

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If Running Is My Aum, Then I Don’t Wanna Be Right

My yoga teacher training manual notes that the purpose of asanas is to “allow the body to sit still for long periods of time in meditation.” I do believe there are great benefits physically, mentally, and spiritually to meditation; however, I have some personal moral qualms about sitting still for “long periods of time” in any state and expecting the world to heal itself through positive vibes or energy. That’s topic for another day, though.

 

 

 

We were not put in these physical bodies to disregard them. As humans, we were made to use them. Our bodies are capable of so much and it seems like a very selfish notion to only use our bodies to sit still for “elongated periods of time” and say that all our highest potential is within our minds. Can’t I use my body and mind to do other activities and still gain these mental and spiritual rewards which the yogic tradition speaks of?

 

Lately, I’ve been using my second two-hour break mid-way through the day to run. I’ve very quickly realized a few things this does for me both mentally and physically.

 

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Sometimes a rooster gets in your way along the path.

 

My body was extraordinarily sore for over a week after arriving in Thailand. I wasn’t sure if this was from so much traveling, the humidity, my body’s way of acclimating, or just some kind of internal resistance to being here. I summed it up to a combination of all of the above until last Thursday when I finally decided I needed to just move. All this sitting on the floor, attempting to meditate for hours a day business was just hurting.

 

 

I’m a very active person in my normal life. I work out in the morning, run around teaching kindergarten all day, and go to yoga class at night. When I came to Thailand, I thought I’d be practicing asanas all day; that it’d be the most grueling thing I’d ever physically done to my body. I was not prepared to simply not move here. The hour and a half of asana class each day was not cutting it. My body was hurting because I was simply not using it. Not only was this inactivity affecting me physically, but mentally, and to a huge extent.

 

 

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Did you know? Coconut husks are good for traction on steep hills. Fact.

 

I’ve been having a big problem with meditation since starting my teacher training program. Although I’m going through a huge life transition at the moment, I’m supposed to be able to drain everything from of my mind and simply think of nothing. Be in the moment. “That is yoga,” say both of my yoga teachers. Well, my knee-jerk reaction is resistance and I’ve had a hard time doing anything but. I close my eyes, “aum” with the group, hear the man next to me pass gas several times, or I inhale a bug, and everything goes to hell. Suddenly my to-do list creeps in; I think about my student loan bills; I wonder about my future after Thailand; my friends; my family; if I’ll ever be able to find a real job; the petting zoo in my room (probably crawling through my bed at this moment); what I’m going to eat for dinner. This is my meditation time, twice a day, every day.

 

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Good practice for trail running in Colorado.

 

Running is different. It’s just me, my music in my ears, and the road in front of me (except in the case of today, in which two dogs ran alongside me half the time and then a monkey ran by).

 

I’ve discovered, rediscovered, and found solace in running when I feel a need to escape from life. I don’t need to think about anything except going. If my path starts getting too difficult or I reach a steep hill and don’t know if I can make it any farther, I push myself that little bit more, and once I feel accomplished – triumphant – I just stop and I dance to my music. Yeah, I do that. Then I keep going.

 

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One of my break-it-down spots.

 

Running is my meditation. If yoga is “just being,” then running with music drowning out the world must be my yoga. My body feels lighter, my thoughts seem clearer, and I am more at peace with myself and the world. In Sanskrit, So Humor I am. This is one of the purposes of silent, seated meditation.  At the present, neither my body nor mind have reached this point of passive strength and devotion. That’s not to say that one day this won’t be the case. In fact, I hope for my own sake that I get this whole meditation thing real soon. For now, though, it’ll just be me and the road on a daily respite – despite what my yoga teachers say about the “physical body.”

 

imageIn England I ran along a highway. In Thailand I run on an uneven dirt road in a coconut grove.

 

With all that said, I’m not running today. At least not yet. My body is finally the good kind of sore I’ve been looking forward to for weeks. Instead, I’m sitting on a log, staring at the ocean, with my feet buried in the sand. The waves are washing over the music in my headphones. I’m feeling completely content with my iced coffee and coconut milk. Life is good in this moment. This is my lunch break on a Saturday in Thailand.

 

Anatomy, Aliens, and Canadian Tree Huggers! Oh My!

This story is all about how Lauren got used to living with ants in her bed, dirt under her finger nails, a lack of easily accessible internet, fresh produce, or contact solution, and was forced to drink instant coffee. She was required to stop thinking, going, and doing, and just “be”. You can imagine especially how hard that last bit must be for this young padawan.

I’m currently chilling out on my bed, covered in Tiger Balm. My eyes are stinging from the mosquito-repelling coconut incense burning across the room. I’m sipping on a bottle of hibiscus tea while the sounds of blasting fireworks and techno music blare in the distance past the slow, creaking rotations of the fan above my head. Crickets are chirping outside, completely out of sync with the blaring electronic drum beats. On Saturday I went to sleep and woke up to techno beats. At 4pm on Sunday, they finally stopped. This is supposed to happen twice a week, every week. It must be my new meditation music.

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My new porch pet. I named her Shiva. We chill out while I eat fruit.

It’s not even halfway through the first week of my yoga course, but it has been quite the experience so far. My “school” days start at 7:30am and typically end around 7:30pm.

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To give an idea of what the course has been like so far:

The first day was full of disappointment, shock, and mental struggle. I tried to wrap my head around the fact that I had chosen a yoga school – after months of research and preparation – that was hounding on the fact that anatomy was completely irrelevant and asanas [yoga poses] were not going to be our focus. Instead, I’d be focusing on my energy. Over the past few months, “exchanging energy” is something I’ve joked with my friends about, while asanas and anatomy are things I’ve put an extreme amount of focus on. You can imagine my disappointment at this news. Oh, and aliens from another galaxy had passed their knowledge of yoga onto Hindus 10,000 years ago. This was going to be my life for the next month. What had I gotten myself into?

Since this particular day was a certain celebration in the Hindu calendar in which “vibrations were high,” the class performed a special ritual. We placed personal prayers in Hibiscus flowers which were then collected, laid in front of a statue of Shiva, then lit on fire. One of the teachers, Ramananda, put bracelets on each of our wrists, uniting us for the month. We then chanted several mantras together as a group.

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The biggest spider I have ever seen in my life. He lives in my bathroom.

The next day’s curriculum was more promising. Each day starts with meditation and pranayama [breathing] practice. Ramanananananadada was instructing, so I felt a bit at ease. I knew I would like this skirt wearing, beard-toting yogi the moment he gave me a new bracelet to put around my wrist (I frickin’ love bracelets, if you didn’t know). I knew I liked Ramanadadadadabababa even more when, during a lecture on deities and symbology, he mentioned how much he loved ice cream, then joked, “Canadians love to hug trees! They love them like a God!”

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We practiced Breath of Fire – something the other teacher, Lily, said we would not be learning for “safety reasons” the day before. During asana class, our poses were corrected – also something Lily had told us she would not be doing the previous day. We were focusing on the spine on this particular day, and had a workshop with demonstrations, lots of corrections, and lo and behold – an anatomy discussion (because oh hey – go figure – anatomy is actually very important when teaching a class using the body).

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Today’s class was much the same, but with a focus on balancing postures (some of my favorites). I’ve been learning the Sanskrit names for each pose and how to both perform and cue them correctly while teaching. We focused on more anatomy today with Lily harping on the fact that the “subtle body” and “energy” is what is important, not “anatomy.”

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There’s a lot to say about the course and quite a lot I can nitpick about. Many of my own mental blockages are things I simply need to work through during the month in order to “just be,” as the entire focus of the course promotes. I’ve gone through my entire life so far working against simply being and trying to always be busy. I’m finding it quite difficult on my breaks from class to simply go to the beach, color mandalas and meditate, or even learn how to play my ukulele. I use the time instead to read, write, and be busy. While the whole reason I came here was to improve my asanas and gain teaching credentials, I am aware that my challenge lies mentally and “spiritually”. I know it will be difficult, but I am willing (albeit begrudgingly) to try by not trying. Although, y’know, I’m not quite sure if that whole alien theory will ever mesh well with me.

And you thought Korean-style showers and kimchi would take some getting used to…

While I could lie through my teeth and tell you that life is 100% amazing and beautiful now that I’ve quit my job and live in an island paradise, that’s not really my style. I’m more of a realist; I’m well-versed in the fact that major life changes take some time adapting to. With that in mind, here is my completely honest, vulnerable truth of my first twenty-four hours in Haad Yuan, Koh Phangan.

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It took eighteen hours of sleepless travel to get here. I’m semi-settled into my new home for the month after one tuk tuk; two airplanes; a bus; a boat ride sitting next to a crowing rooster; a side car (at the insistence of a graying-haired man and his half-naked, body-painted girlfriend); a taxi bus; a truck; and a trek across the beach with some help from an extremely nice new barefooted yogi friend who I will forever be grateful for for carrying my thirty kilo suitcase on his head.

To give you a mental picture of my new home, imagine that really bad Leo movie, The Beach, but with several dozen tourists and a bamboo tattoo shop. Now imagine my mental state after calling one of the biggest mega-cities in the world home for the past fourteen months and moving to said beach. Half of me is feeling completely grateful sitting here listening to Jimi Hendrix on the porch of my bungalow in a coconut grove. The other tired and dehydrated half of me that has not gotten any physical activity besides hauling heavy luggage around Asia for days and slapping mosquitos off every inch of my body is wondering what the heck I’m doing. I clearly need to meditate more before my first yoga class tomorrow.

 

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At the moment, I’m sitting with my feet in a hammock on my front porch, overlooking coconut trees and Buddhist statues. I’ve been daydreaming about this moment since August – the point at which I was questioning whether or not to extend my contract in Korea for another two months. So why am I having to stifle that voice inside my mind questioning whether or not I made a mistake?

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It might be all the ants I’m squishing on my computer screen right now. It might be the spider and cockroach as big as my face that greeted me on my bed when I turned on the light of my bungalow yesterday. Maybe it’s the army of giant ants, egg-laying mosquitos, and the hornet’s nest filling the bathroom. It could even be the foot-long lizard that stared me down while I ate pad thai last night and then came back to bark at me like a watchdog-style alarm clock this morning (as a returning visitor, he needs a name, by the way. Suggestions are welcome).

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   Why did I leave my cushy heated floors and subway seats, flushing toilets, paid-for apartment, readily-available internet and grocery stores, and amazing friends in Korea for this? Responsible Me is yelling at Other Me. While I’m anxiously awaiting my yoga course to start tomorrow and bumming out around this secluded, bug-infested jungle island, all Other Me can reply is, “Well… at least my hair looks dang good.”

I know the real answer for me coming here, and I know it was not a mistake. However, like any mentally stable person who quits a perfectly good job and leaves behind their family, friends, and the comforts of home to take on the adventures of life, I am temporarily questioning my actions and sanity.

I do believe in my heart that this was the right decision. After all, I’ve been waiting for this moment for seven months, preparing my body and mind like it’s my job. For today, I will do my best to yogi out, be in the here and now, and stop stress-eating M&Ms.

 

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