Don’t Try Hard; Try Easy

“Trying hard invites strain and struggle. Trying easy gives you the levity and freedom to fly. When you try hard, you are using willpower. But willpower never works and will always fail you. That is because willpower is based on brute force as opposed to soul force. Brute force is like trying to lift a Chevy truck with your bare hands. Soul force is having a pulley to raise it right up. Willpower comes from your intellect, but soul force is powered by your connection to the infinite universe.” –  Baron Baptiste

Annie Adamson bound low lunge.

Annie Adamson yoga poses

I’m working on softening my yoga practice and it’s not easy. A lot of us guys struggle with muscles that get in the way. Big shoulders, tight hip flexors, football quads. Not only does this make the physical practice of asana challenging, the mental side is not tipped in our favor either. Many of us grew up in an athletic culture that values pushing your self to extremes to maximize physical ability, capture a league title, or make an all-star team. Digging into yoga philosophy over the past seven years has exposed me to very different values.

Selfless effort. Let go of the clinging. Chill out. Breathe. While you’re at it, contort your body into seemingly absurdist shapes. Literally and figuratively turned upside down, I have learned that to expand my asana practice and access some of yoga’s fruits – less fear, anxiety, judgment, I need to slow down and soften the struggle. Anusara Yoga calls this process – Open to Grace.

When I over-effort in class my friends hear me grunting and my teacher sees me staring intensely. I squeeze my muscles as if trying to choke the pose from my body. I am always determined to give the poses everything I have, undoubtedly a positive trait. After all, I grew up pushing my body through intensity. However, “open to grace” is revolutionary for a guy like me. Venturing into foreign territory, I am scared to surrender control.

My teacher, Annie Adamson of Portland, Oregon’s Yoga Union, recently asked me to demonstrate Handstand to Uttanasana in front of class. Immediately I felt desire, and the need to force myself upon the pose. It was as if John Cafferty plugged his guitar into my head and started singing his song from the training montage in Rocky IV, “Hearts on Fire”. I wanted to go big, rely on the passion that helped me succeed in sports. Kicking up into handstand, I was fairly steady, no easy feat for me, one that took months of dedication to approach. As I began to lower my legs sweat poured from my face.

“Slowly”, Annie said.

I began to exert more. Grunting deep breaths and firmly hugging my arms toward each other, I fought to complete the challenging transition. Landing with a thud, I felt relieved. I accomplished my task. I “stuck it” to use gymnastics parlance.

“Now do it softly, without grunting.”

I laughed. The most vibrant part of asana practice, and yoga in general, is the daily reminder of how much I have to learn. When recently my Anusara Immersion teacher, Sianna Sherman, asked me to breath like “soft moonlight” during practice it became abundantly clear. Open to Grace, Chris. Trust there is support. You don’t have to struggle and do it alone.

Anusara Yoga’s first principle asks that we surrender the effort of ego and have faith in the power of a buoyant and compassionate spirit that surrounds us. Open to Grace requests we literally trust that the universe is inherently good and begin every posture, and in turn every day, with an open heart. I recognize that trust this deep is hard to come by. A lot of terrible things happen in a world supposedly so supportive. It is challenging to fully dive into a heart-centered practice like Anusara but this choice is ours to make. We can see each moment and all experiences as opportunities to expand consciousness or we can try to push through with a single-minded focus using our individualized determination. Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of moments that call for forceful and decisive action. Moments when you’d better act and skillfully navigate real danger. Nonetheless, can burning passion alone, that “heart on fire”, access “yoga”, state of integration between mind, body, and soul? Can I will myself to God?

The trait I never want to lose seems like the one I need to transform the most. I will not dissolve or decrease my passion but rather radically expand it by infusing a soft and agile flexibility that supports a dance with life rather than a struggle against it. If I am not mindful, the same fire with which I aim intensely at handstand will entangle me in hardening and contracting mental habits of ego like judgment, impulsivity and craving. These traits confine perspective to a limited view that is too often reinforced by culturally appropriate achievements in education, employment and financial gain. In the name of more holistic growth, I am learning to notice these moments where ego drives experience and consciously breath into their intensity. The power of a single full breath, of opening to grace, is astounding. These moments soften my tendency to over effort and offer unparalleled support in shifting from tense and rigid to fluid and open.

“…Don’t try to control [the] energy experience, we’re free to surrender to the wave of sensation, of feeling, and of energy. In these remarkable moments of freedom, we can let life touch us as it is, because at our core we know everything is already OK.” –  Stephen Cope Yoga and the Quest for the True Self

It’s simply a hell of a practice. The hardest thing I have ever done. I am asked not to “try” less but to try differently. I can grow the most radically when trusting the vast sweetness of grace instead of ignoring it by charging headlong into the next challenge. Small glimpses of grace tell me that when we strip away the anxiety and ego that permeates our day to day functioning, human experience is rooted in a universally connected web of pure love so potent its impossible to fathom.

Article by: Chris Calarco

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Rushing to Relax

Every sane person recognizes the ridiculous contradiction involved with rushing to relax, and yet the contradiction can ensnare us all. We know the hazards of stress, and we have experienced great relief through practicing yoga, and so we often spend some portion of our day blitzing toward our hour and a half of tranquility on the safe haven of our yoga mat. We know stress is unhealthy and we know that yoga helps, but in today’s rat race how can we attune ourselves at work, or in the car, or when communicating with our family, so that we don’t end up rushing tired and anxious to the mat for relief?

I recently found myself caught in this contradiction while driving to the Wanderllust Festival for ten days of yoga bliss in Squaw Valley, Northern California. We left a day early in an attempt to reduce potential stressors­– two tweens and an eighteen-month-old baby were sure to provide enough of that. In spite of our efforts, however, a drive that map-quested at 11.5 hours and started out as a conscious act of tranquility ended 38 blood-boiling hours later.

Somewhere between fixing a flat tire in 100 degrees on the I5 shoulder and breaking the bad news to the family that I’d driven us 2.5 hours in the wrong direction, I became acutely aware of my biggest folly yet. I had been rushing to relax! I started wondering: How did this happen? Why is it happening to me? When did I loose mindfulness? Although I had become aware of my contradiction, how could I pull myself out now? My body ached for the harmonious mat moments, which felt like they would never come.

Stress is a dense fog that clouds your head. It stuffs your brain with life’s dirty laundry; it fires your eyes with mirages like heat evaporating on a desert road; you contract and suffocate as if encoiled by a python. Your breath shortens, your blood pressure rises, your palms sweat, your vision fogs, your thoughts dull–the tension engulfs you, chokes you in its deadly grip. How can you ever escape? I credit my all my teachers of both yoga and life for honing my consciousness to a degree that lets me sometimes find my way to a pinhole of clarity in the haze of stress.

The asana practice is essential for attuning to a sense of self free from the drama of circumstances that life throws at us. Each of us is composed of layer upon layer of identity. On the surface, we are sensitive, vulnerable, and reactive to all that occurs around and inside us. This is good, as it allows us to engage fully in relationships. And although it’s often intense, it is always good to be alive.

Deeper into the core of our being there is an observer, a self that can even witness our own reactions. Times of stress offer a blessing in disguise–a potent moment of opportunity to experience a deep sense of self and a radical opening to the world. Imagine coming home to see your house empty of all your belongings–your T.V., stereo, couch, everything! Right before you freak out, there will be a sacred moment of tranquility. You will look around in absolute disbelief, in awe! This is the blessing. Hold to it, stay with it. Steady yourself for the rush. Observe your blood pressure and body temperature rising, listen to your ears ring, and watch your vision narrow. The emotion of stress floods your experience, and you can watch it all happen. What a wild ride!

Here’s another exercise: In meditation, you will have thoughts. If you want to acquaint yourself with these deeper layers of identity, try observing yourself having your thought. If you really want to venture deep into the nature of your consciousness, try observing the observer of your thought. This exercise of consciousness will expand your mind and help you become more aware amidst the whirlwind of life. The object is not to create an inner shelter for worldly withdrawal, but to learn to open fully into any given experience while holding steady to a deeper sense of identity; one that is actually free of the haze and pain that it brings. We don’t want to thicken our skin and we don’t want to lose our consciousness. We want to be sensitive and aware.

In a challenging yoga pose, the intensity will swell just as it does in life. We actually do this to ourselves on purpose! We create these moments of inflated stress on the yoga mat because they are pregnant with opportunity to rehearse our reactions. Each pose is a question: freak out and withdraw, or open fully into the experience? Say yes to life, or say no? We are so free that we even get this choice.

Usually, with stress, we feel we have good cause to give up and lose control. Look on the bright side. The essence of Tantra says ,”It’s good to be alive.” It’s literally out of goodness that we’re having this human experience even when it appears bad. To remember that we’re lucky to be alive, even when we’re going through a tough time, puts things in the proper context. The ego loves drama, and it will take something very small and turn it into an edge-of-your-seat emotional thrill ride if we allow it. Think of your death, and seriously weigh the gravity of this situation against the weight of that inevitable drama. Thus, you will give your ego a reality-check and help prepare yourself for a beautiful surrender in the end.

The mystery of life unfolding is too complex to understand from our limited individual perspective. Who knows what events the delay may have saved from. Had we arrived earlier, maybe an earthquake, a tsunami, a bomb… We may never know, and our fates are too interconnected ever to tease apart into us individual cause and effect. I will say this, however: with time comes a larger perspective on events unfolding. Our final breakdown occurred thirty minutes south of Truckee. Thankfully we had a couple of good friends there who came to our rescue. They gladly picked us up and, after some good conversation, delivered us to our destination one hour before our first class. Now, as I write this, it gives me chills to say that this meeting was the last time I will ever see one of these good friends. He drowned in a kayaking accident two days ago. My memories of his vibrant face smiling in the sun on the day he came to our rescue are vivid. I am grateful to the universe for the delay and for delivering us to this final moment and memory. I am grateful for the practice of yoga for delivering me from the fog of stress so that I could be present for it.

SourceURL:file://localhost/Users/toddvogt/Desktop/STRETCH%20YOUR%20BODY/Blogs/Rushing%20to%20Relax%20revised%20ending.doc

To open ourselves to whatever the universe is throwing at us in the way of circumstance, emotion, and even difficulty; this is the practice. Doing yoga is surrendering to spirit as it manifests itself in any given moment and skillfully merging our individual intentions with the larger intention of the universe. When we are in the flow of the larger energy of spirit, it pulls into places more magical and joyful than we could ever have imagined. It is frightening and requires an effort that is not commonly considered effort – an effort of surrender, an effort of opening. This is what is meant by Open to Grace.

-Todd Vogt

The 3 A’s of Handstand!

Adho Mukha Vrksasana (handstand) requires grace, commitment, strength, and playfulness. This pose has become a common goal within the Yoga Union community. At home and in the studio, students are navigating the new sensations of standing upside down, finding joy in working with the pose.  Their persistent practice is now bearing fruit: walk into the studio for an Anusara Inspired 2 or a Prana Vinyasa class and, if your timing is right, you may see more than half the room up on their hands!


For those who aspire to stick handstand in the middle of the room,  this sight can be misleading. In my early years of yoga I would look around and think, “Most of these people don’t look like tremendous athletes. Why can they do it and I can’t?” After several years of consistent practice, my answer is that a successful asana practice can come from following the three A’s of Anusara Yoga.

1. Attitude – This is by far the most important part of the practice. As John Friend says, “Attitude comes first.” In practicing a positive mental approach, yoga transcends and includes the physical realm, and the poses become an inside-out practice, a practice of self-expression. Much of what holds us back in the poses is unnecessary mental baggage. Only when we’re conscious of our mental chatter and our attitudinal alignment can any heavy self-talk be alchemized into the lightness of laughter. When we learn to laugh at our self-diminishing narrator, we lighten the burden of our mind and then we can float up into handstand. Without lightening this burden, we feel too heavy to support the weight. Before you attempt handstand, always check in with your attitude to see if it will serve you. More often than not, your awareness alone will transform a diminishing mindset into one that opens the possibilities of your pose.

2. Alignment – There is a skillful technology of aligning the outer body that makes the poses accessible. After checking in with your attitude, bring your awareness to your physical form. The following is an offering from the Universal Principles of Alignment of Anusara Yoga.

To go into handstand, first come into downward facing dog with your hands five inches from a wall. Be sure that your fingers are spread wide and the creases of your wrist are both parallel to the wall. Take a deep breath and lengthen your side body by sliding your shoulders toward your ears. Ground through your index finger mounds and draw your forearms toward one another; then contract the shoulder blades on your back by softening your heart. Keep the kidneys full, up away from the earth. Keep breathing your waistline back. Keep your arms strong and your heart soft as you step one foot halfway toward your hands. Extend the other leg to the sky. The skyward leg is the straight leg. Keep it straight as you kick up to the wall. Remember, the arms must also stay straight here as well.

Once you’re upside down, bring both heels to the wall and squeeze your legs together.   Lengthen your tailbone toward the ceiling, so that your stomach tucks slightly.  Keeping your arms strong, exhale and soften your heart again to contract your shoulder blades into the back of your heart. Keep your gaze forward rather than dropping your head and looking back toward the center of the room. Hold for as long as you can maintain the alignment, and then come down to rest. Lowering one leg while keeping the other high, gently descend. After resting, repeat: each handstand in a practice-set will become more familiar due to muscle-memory.

3. Action – The pose is always playfully expansive. Extend your pose once it has been aligned inwardly and outwardly. Keep your legs hugging, arms squeezing in, and shoulder blades muscularly contracting on the back. From this place of muscular contraction, focused at your heart, expand energetically in all directions. Press your arms more deeply into the earth. Stretch up and out through your legs into your toes toward the sky. Actively spread your toes.

Handstand is a wonderful pose for partner-work.  I don’t know anybody who has achieved proficiency without help from friends. Surely it is possible, but only with far more time and effort. In any case, the real question is not “Can I do it by myself?” but “Why not work together at this?” Many people at Yoga Union, working on handstand together, are improving their poses while enjoying the teaching and the learning and the friendship of working with peers. Working together reinforces our commitment. Together we are stronger and more supported, our practice more interconnected and more playful. By sharing our practice and integrating it into a community we also help others in their endeavor, so we all grow together, as individuals and as a community.

Yoga Groove: Spanda Flow!

July 23rd is coming up fast- have you been practicing your dance moves in anticipation of Yoga Union’s first ever Yoga Groove?

Chris Calarco will be leading a class set to the powerful sounds of improvised music by DJ HyFi (check him out here: http//www.yogadjhyfi.com)

-Ian traves all around the U.S. bringing with him a fusion of sound and music). These jams will match and inspire the energetic aligned flow of the class, allowing us all to “go deep into our hearts” and rock it out while we stretch it out.

After the 2 hour spanda flow (spanda is a Sanskrit term for the divine vibration, or, the creative pulse of the universe as it manifests into the dynamism of living form), the fun really begins with a hoppin’ dance party and adult beverages including organic Sokol Blosser wines (http://www.sokolblosser.com) and local favorite beers.

It’s also a great opportunity to get to know your fellow yogis you see practicing next to you everyday! And for just 20 bucks, can you really ask for anything else?

Check out http://yogaunion.com for or additional information, or Chris’s own website at http://chriscalarcoyoga.com/

We hope to see you there!

Yoga Groove Spanda Flow with Chris Calarco and DJ Hyfi:

Additional information from:                                              Http://www.spandaflow.com and Http://www.yogajournal.com

Pose of the Month: Setu Bandha Sarvangasana

July brings us a new pose of the month- Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, or, Bridge Pose (setu = dam, dike or bridge, bandha = lock). This is a great pose for yogis in all stages of practice, and the benefits are extensive. Anatomically, Bridge focuses on the neck and shoulders and in women, the uterus. The chest, neck and spine are stretched, while the abdominal organs, lungs and thyroid are stimulated. The pose can also alleviate stress, improve digestion and rejuvenate tired legs. Here are some tips to help you get into Bridge:

  • Lie on your back, and if necessary, use a blanket under your shoulders to support the neck. Bend your knees with your feet on the floor, keeping the heels close to the sitting bones
  • As you exhale, actively press your inner feet and arms into the floor, pull the tailbone up toward the pubic bone, and lift the buttocks until the things are about parallel to the floor. Engage your thighs and inner feet to keep them parallel
  • Keep the knees over the heels and press them forward away from the head, lengthening the tailbone
  • Keep your arms on the floor or clasp the hands below your pelvis and extend, allowing you to rest on the top of the shoulders
  • Lift your chin slightly away from the sternum and firm and broaden the shoulder blades against your back. You should feel the space between them lift up into the torso
  • Stay in the pose anywhere from 30 seconds to 1 minute. Release with an exhalation, rolling the spine slowly down onto the floor.

For an added challenge, try lifting a leg until perpendicular to the torso and repeat on the opposite side. Sliding a block under the sacrum can provided added support and increase the restorative properties of the pose. Use caution if you have a neck injury and if you have any questions, be sure to ask an instructor.

Photo Source: http://yogajournal.com


Happy Independence Day

Happy 4th of July weekend fellow Yogis! Do you have plans to BBQ, enjoy the sunshine or watch the fireworks? In case you’re still wondering what to do with all this nice weather, here are some holiday happenings in the Portland area:

• Waterfront Blues Festival: Take a blanket, pack a picnic and groove to some live tunes at this year’s Waterfront Blues Festival! Shows will be happening on the grass all weekend, so check out http://www.waterfrontbluesfest.com/
for details on who’s playing and when. Channel your yoga spirit and show the City of Roses your moves! This is also a great spot to watch fireworks- starting at 10:00 pm, this display at Tom McCall 
Waterfront Park is the largest fireworks show in Oregon

• Independence Day at Fort Vancouver: An all-day extravaganza, this festival has something for everyone. Bring the whole family and enjoy food, drinks, games and entertainment. Finish the night off watching an amazing fireworks show synchronized to music. Check out http://www.fortvan.org/pages/fourth-home
 for the full scoop

• Oaks Park Fireworks Spectacular: Music, fireworks and everyone’s favorite- carnival rides! Let the kids play while you enjoy the sunshine and friends. Check http://oakspark.com/upcoming3.html for prices and details

If the crowds are to much for you, why not have your favorite people over and grill in your yard? Here’s a great link with 4th of July themed snacks and drinks http://allrecipes.com/Info/holidays-events-and-occasions/july-4th/main.asp

Can’t see any fireworks from your yard? Try theses spots to chill out and watch the shows:

  • Hawthorne Bridge
  • Mount Tabor
  • Rose Test Gardens
  • Pittock Mansion
  • Top of PSU parking garage on 6th and Harrison
  • Portland City Grill
  • Sellwood Park (you can see both Oaks Park and downtown from here!)
  • West Hills: Terwilliger near OHSU has many spots.

Be safe, be happy, have fun!

Picture from: http://www.pdxpipeline.com/2011/06/30/where-to-watch-fireworks-on-july-fourth/

Inner Spiral -with Chris Calarco

Sunday  was Father’s Day and even though some of us were not able to spend it with our dads, we were lucky enough to set our intentions for them in the Anusara class led by Chris Calarco. The practice felt particularly special that morning- maybe it was because we were getting to share our gratitude for life with a room full of yogis who also have fathers that helped them get to where they are today. Or maybe it was because Chris’s parents were visiting from the East Coast and were in class with us, beaming with obvious pride and love for their son. Or perhaps it was the deeply personal and insightful guidance given by Chris himself. Using the principle of Inner Spiral as a theme, he led us through an inspiring physical practice while sharing his struggles and triumphs with his own Inner Spiral. This principle has had such an effect on Chris he wrote a piece about it and graciously shared some of his writing in class.

(Picture from http://chriscalarcoyoga.com/)

His message has become widely popular (!Go Chris!), and can be read on the Wanderlust Blog page  among others.

So for those who were in Chris’s class yesterday and want to be inspired by the whole article, or those curious about Anusaras 3rd principle of alignment,  please enjoy Chris’s story below 🙂

And take a minute to check out his website (http://chriscalarcoyoga.com/) which has details about the upcoming July 23rd Yoga Groove- a class that unites yoga and music, with a dance party to follow. Mark your calendars, you won’t want to miss this party!

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I had been practicing yoga regularly for about 5 years…

I was certified to teach Vinyasa and loved the feeling in body and mind yoga produced. I thought of this feeling as a combination of exhaustion and exhilaration. I sought it out whenever I could fit my practice into life as a child psychotherapist. However, without warning, my motivation to practice fell off the face of the earth as I lost my way. For almost 9 months my whole being shifted and I lost touch with my body, my friends and my practice. Even before yoga came to an abrupt halt I had gradually, and unconsciously, migrated away my first teachers and their studio. I hadn’t found a new studio per se but lived as more of a yoga vagabond, wandering from studio to studio with my head down, practicing hard and then quickly getting out the door. I wasn’t a very social yogi. Around the time I became a nomad, my teacher’s, Annie Adamson and Todd Vogt of Yoga Union in Portland, Oregon, were beginning to integrate Anusara Yoga’s 5 Universal Principles of Alignment into their classes during their process of training.

Upon deep self-reflection, a hefty dose of depression, and a lot of help I finally returned to the mat, making a massively liberating decision to commit myself fully to the practice and teaching of yoga. As I became reacquainted with my body I soon found myself bound and stuck in common poses like Trikonasana (Triangle) and Utthitha Parsvokonasa (Extended Side Angle). I was disappointed that after 5 years, even given the layoff, I remained shallow in my Triangle with bottom hand just below my knee. Athletic but never super flexible I felt a sense of resignation, as if I had reached my edge in asana practice and I would not grow. I knew I could always access the good feeling after a class but deep inside this was not enough, I longed for much more. I wanted access to advanced poses, I wanted to increase my strength and flexibility but most of all I yearned to change my habits of mind and magnify my life from within. I left yoga because of depression and was determined to make a resonant and permanent change.

I scheduled a private lesson with Annie and expressed my frustration with Triangle and Extended Side Angle. Quickly, I found Anusara’s third principle of alignment was going to be my new intimate dance partner. Inner Spiral is an “energy spiral” thought of as a refinement of the body’s alignment in all yoga postures. The spiral begins on the inner edges of the feet and widens as it moves upward toward the pelvis and outer edges of the waistline. Inner Spiral turns the front of the legs and pelvis inward, towards the midline. It moves the inner edges of the feet, legs, and pelvis backward as the inner heels, inner knees, and inner thighs flow back. These actions also broaden the legs and pelvis apart. Inner Spiral’s key words are “In”, “Back”, and “Wide”. Physically, this manifests an increased healthy curve in the lower lumbar spine and the sitting bones press out. Renowned teacher Sianna Sherman often half-jokes that one of Anusara’s secret principals is “when in doubt, stick it out”.

Importantly, Inner Spiral requires the engagement of its partner principle, Muscle Energy (Anusara’s second principle), to be radically transformative. When the muscles of the legs are engaged and we actively make them flow “In”, “Back”, and “Wide” there is integration throughout the entire lower body that creates vibrantly new ripples of freedom in the groins, hamstrings, and lower back. Within the first ten minutes of my private with Annie I looked into the mirror and was astounded. I did not recognize the person in Triangle pose. My stance was wider and more stable, my bottom hand was on the floor (Hallelujah!), and I felt a lusciously deep stretch in my groins and lower back. Now I had to begin working with Inner Spiral and all five principles in every pose! The work had beautifully just begun.

In Anusara’s methodology, each Universal Principle of Alignment is associated with one of earth’s natural elements. Inner Spiral is like water. Just as rivers flow naturally, nurturing the surrounding land, Inner Spiral watered the seed of each asana inside my body. With active engagement, Inner Spiral created a new sense of liquid depth in me and in turn granted access to the freedom and revelation l longed for. I no longer am a yoga vagabond as I have found a home inside my body and with Annie and Todd at Yoga Union. I am expanding my limits, working at my edge, and nailing postures I never imagined. Inner Spiral has literally blasted me open to the new possibilities that are always available if we align heart, body, and mind. For me, the body came first, and the others soon followed suit. Feeling extraordinarily liberated and full of deep gratitude for my fellow yogis, teachers and this system of yoga, the journey continues. Inner Spiral changed my life and it can change yours.

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A little about the author….

Chris has been practicing yoga for the past six years and has recently begun teaching in Portland, Oregon. He has been listening to music since Poison overtook his heart at age 12. Yoga and music, yoga and music, yoga and music! Jai!