Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The practice of Yoga and the Art of riding Classical Spanish Dressage

This is a good follow up to the previous blog that spoke of the 8 limbs of yoga and how they relate to riding. 

Recently I began riding in a formal arena again after more than 10 years and after swearing I would never do another 20 meter circle ever again.  In the past I had trained with some wonderful teachers here in Costa Rica.  They were and are skilled riders and teachers.  I purposefully left the life of arena riding and formal dressage lessons so many years ago because I felt something was missing from my riding.  That something was a true and honest connection to my horse.  This was not the fault of my teachers.  I was not ready to understand and reach out for that connection at the time.
After many years of trail riding, mostly bareback and bridle less, I experienced that joyful and trusting connection true horse people have with their equine partners.  I could not articulate that special relationship I developed with my horse but instinctively I knew this was what had been lacking in my previous arena training.
A true connection with your horse is simply an honest two-way conversation between you and your horse.  It doesn't have to be mystical or magical, although sometimes it certainly feels like it is!  It is the product of learning about general horse behavior and physiology.  It is the natural result of becoming more aware and sensitive to one's own energy and how that is transmitted to and reacted to by your horse.
The practice of Yoga offers us daily opportunities to learn and experience lessons that we take to our horse training sessions.  In yoga, as in dressage riding, mental preparation, soft mindful breath, mental conviction, and a gentle approach are the foundation to achieve union in Yoga and in Riding.
That is the attitude I  bring to my yoga practice and now to my riding lessons. Every 20 meter circle, diagonal , or transition is an opportunity to forge and enhance my connection and communication with my horse.   Knowing that my breath, mental resolve, and gentle manner are positively and constructively received by my horse has improved my riding.

Combining yogic principals to your classical dressage training

        The beauty of Yoga is in its timelessness.  It is as applicable now as it was 6000 years ago.
The practice of Yoga is to find harmony and oneness.

       Yoga is a light, which once lit, will never dim. The better your practice, the brighter the flame.
B.K.S. Iyengar
A yoga practice gives us the tools to experience ourselves this blissful union and bright light.

     Classical riding is a type of Yoga.  It is a true expression of two souls not only communicating but dancing as one.

         “Equestrian art is the perfect understanding and harmony between horse and rider”
                                                                                                                                                   – Nuno Oliviera

     We strive to approach both practices with an open heart and mind.  Just as we use our intellect to help quiet our mind during our yoga asana practice we take that same calm and quiet mind to help us "hear" what our horse is saying to us.  When our bodies are still and our mind is quiet then only can we hear and understand what our horse is communicating and respond accordingly.  When our own emotions are controlled yet open and aware; it is in that moment that we are ready to communicate in an honest fashion with our horse.  It is in that perfect moment that we can ask our horse to learn or perform a particular movement.

   A yoga practice shows us how to be masters of our levels of energy.  We can control whether the type of energy we put out into the world is soft, calm, determined, or chaotic, frenetic, angry, or sad, frustrated and anxious.  When we work with horses we constantly monitor their energy output and adjust ours.   Sometimes it is just the opposite, we first adjust our energy level and persuade our equine partner to mirror it.

   The 8 limbs of Yoga as espoused by Pantanjali more than 5000 years ago is a blueprint to achieving this perfect harmony and union within ourselves and with our horses.  We follow the Yamas and Niyamas in order to learn and perfect our moral behavior , personally, and within society.  The Yamas and Niyamas are a list of do's and don'ts, much like the 10 commandments.  As we perfect these behaviors we begin to practice yoga postures, yoga breathing, and the first steps leading to meditation.  These are, yoga asanas, yoga pranayama, and yoga pratyahara.  Through these practices we condition the physical body  and begin to gain control over the mind.  The last three limbs are dharana, dhyana, and samadhi.  Dharana and Dhyana are stepping stones to achieve self-realization or samadhi.  Dharana is one-point focuss, a type of mind exercise to help steady and quiet the thoughts.  Dhyana is comtemplation;  finding the union in your thoughts and in meditation.  

     The observance of the 8 limbs helps prepare us physically and emotionally to work with and ride our horses.  We become masters of our mind and masters of the type and intensity of energy we expend.  We communicate with our horses more with our mind and levels of energy than we do with our physical aids.  Classical dressage training and riding are founded on this precept.

     "The apex of perfection in equestrian art is not an exhibition of a great deal of different airs and movements by the same horse, but rather the conservation of the horse's enjoyment, suppleness and finesse during the performance, which calls for comparison with the finest ballet, or performance of an orchestra, or seeing a play by Racine, so moving is the sight of perfectly unisoned movements." ~ Nuno Oliveira


Monday, July 6, 2015

Which YTT is right for you?

I can only tell you my personal experience and hope it helps you make your decision.  I already knew my priority was to go the source and that meant traveling to India.  I wanted to be as close to the culture and origins of Yoga as possible.  Second, I wanted knowledge.  I felt pretty comfortable with the whole teaching part of the course, I wanted the content, and not just the physical anatomy of each asana, I wanted to know the philosophy behind each pose.
I was bound by the time of year I could travel to India, so that was an easy parameter for me to plug into the equation.  For my second YTT I wanted to learn more about Yoga Therapy;  aha!  My second parameter.  And thirdly I wanted to go to a working Yoga clinic to learn and see yoga therapy in play.  I chose Andiappan YTT in Chenai.  Guruji runs a school and clinic and offers 200 and 300 hour YTT for teachers and therapists.  To this day I remember my time there fondly and refer often to my notes taken in class.  The training I received has been invaluable to me in my personal practice and in my teaching career.
My third training ,which completed my 500 hours in YTT, had to be in the mountains of India, again near the source of Yoga, and I wanted more yoga philosophy and literature to be part of the training.  I researched several schools until I came across a review of Association for Meditation and Yoga in Rishikesh that praised the teacher and the course content. All my criteria were met.  Rishikesh is a holy city in the foothills of the Himalayas, the Ganges run through the city, and the YTT offered the topics I wanted to learn. As with my first and second training, this course further deepened my own practice and has given me the skills and knowledge to better guide the yoga students that share yoga with me.

Knowing how I researched my own YTT training I want to be as clear as I can when describing the YTT our school offers.  I planned the curriculum to reflect my priorities in teaching and in content.  My hope was and is to offer students an opportunity to live a yoga life style for those 2 to 3 weeks they attend the YTT course. 

 I firmly believe that  Yoga must  be experienced.  Side by side with each lecture class we offer real learning demonstrations, practicums and student teaching opportunities, from Day one of the course.

As Patanjali in the Sutras states one needs " right knowledge, right wisdom to practice yoga."  And, an often quoted adage by BKS Iyengar, "Words cannot convey the value of yoga – it has to be experienced."

Why do we share yoga with our  friends and horses?
Because it is so much fun!

The yogic path to connecting with your horse
The practice of yoga is like our relationship to horses, both require us to harken back to or childhood days of endless curiosity, spontaneity, and complete lack of self-consciousness.
Our young rider and yogi comes to class each week with a ready smile and an air of joyful eagerness.  He gently reaches out to the horses to kiss and pet them.  He doesn't think first and act later.  He trusts his own feelings and  acts out of  joy and instinct.  He is only 4 years old and probably cannot articulate the concept, but as his teacher and guide, I can see that his relationship with our horses and his own sense of self-confidence and self-awareness has grown steadily as he spends more and more time with the horses, mounted and on the ground. 
Horses respond  to emotions of happiness, contentment, acceptance, and peace.  These are all emotions we strive to cultivate through our yoga practice, on and off the mat. Just like this young student,  we will find a greater depth of connection to ourselves and to our horses when we let go of our "adult" ego and become like children again.
Can we approach the challenge of our yoga asana practice with endless curiosity?  Not  to find out if we can do the more advanced  asana but to explore how we feel as we challenge ourselves .  Can we use our curiosity to open ourselves up to undiscovered possibilities?  Will that curiosity be ego driven or selfless?
Can we allow ourselves to be open to the learning of the moment?  to revel in the spontaneity of our efforts?  Will we see the moment as an opportunity to change direction all together;  the challenge we thought we were addressing now becomes unimportant as we allow ourselves to be aware of other subtle actions at play.
 As we lose our ego can we look at  this asana differently?  Perhaps we can approach the asana from a perspective of our breath?  Can we view this asana more holistically? Will our efforts become  guided by our instincts now instead of our ego consciousness?
When we delve deeper into our Yoga practice we allow ourselves to remember our childhood's love to explore, to act with intuition, and to lose ourselves completely in the moment. That is YOGA.
Horses are always experiencing that "moment."  They are always in a state of Yoga, or oneness.  They freely offer us the  opportunity to share this experience with them, we just have to be aware of the invitation. As we do on our yoga mat, when we approach a training objective with our horse, let us try to be curious and open, let us let go of any set rules and trust our intuition, and let us try to merge our ego with that of the horse and become one with him.
For example:  When teaching a young horse to move in a straight line and gently round his body in a turn, sometimes the lesson becomes not  about the horse's body position and balance but more about our ability to initiate and maintain a two way dialogue with our horse. 
 As riders we are constantly communicating and listening to our horse.  We develop the skills to listen, understand and react, all in a timely manner, to what are horse is signalling to us.  To do this we must practice Yoga, the art of oneness and union.  We consciously allow our inner child to run free.  Our sense of curiosity becomes a willingness and openness to explore.  We let go of preconceived notions and welcome spontaneous moments of learning to enter our raining sessions.
I don't know why, but horses are generous and will give back more than two fold what you give to them.  So let yourself go.   Let your ego fly away.   Let your sub-conscious merge with your horse and experience the joy of oneness with this beautiful and noble creature.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Yoga, Horses, and Young Kids:  a Winning Combination

Today we had a major breakthrough in our yoga and horseback riding class.  Our youngest rider came today for his one hour class.  He arrived eager with a smile on his face and, as usual, a million questions;  porque?...  This young boy is curious about everything!

When he first came to us he was afraid of the horses, the dogs, and the cats.  He would cling to his Poppi and shy away from the horses.  The first time he actually rode one of our horses was a great feat for all of us.  Today, after just 3 classes of riding solo in the arena he asked if he could trot.  Previously he was adamantly opposed to doing anything more than a slow shuffle with the horses.

With a smile, and of course many questions, we rode together on Centella, our 18  year old mare, in a trot around and around our arena.  What a joy! and then he even cantered for a short time.

Usually after riding in the arena we take a walk around our garden, with one of us walking beside him at all times.  Today we did something special;  with his riding helmet on and on a lead rein we walked down our driveway and onto our small country lane.  This was his first trail ride!  He asked if we going far or near.  He asked why he had to wear a helmet.  He asked why Centella was walking close to my horse, Half-Pint.  He asked why and when he could go further.  He asked why the road was hard.  He asked why we had to turn around and head home.  He asked and asked and asked.  This kid has an insatiable curiosity about life.

Afterwards he happily helped take off the riding pads and halters and lead the horses to the pasture after saying "muchas gracias" to both of them.  

This young rider has come a long way.  In our yoga and horse back riding classes he is learning confidence in himself and his own actions and he is learning how to communicate and bond with another animal.

Congratulations Matty, good job!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

What is meditation and how to do it?  Oftentimes just the word "meditation" is intimidating.  We have images of  either ascetic and skinny Indian men sitting motionless in a cave or we have beatific images of a rotund Buddha sitting contentedly under a tree.

For me, as I travel my own yoga journey, meditation has come to mean true mindfullness in every moment.  That moment can be during a sunset dance meditation on the beach, or a quiet moment with my horse.
Being aware of each breath I take and  being sensitive to my own emotions  for me defines a large part of my  yoga practice.  Meditation is part of the practice and the goal of the practice.

Just as yoga is the practice and the goal.  The observance of Yoga and of Meditation give us the tools to go further into our practice and deeper into our meditation but these observances are complete in themselves and as such are the goal.  Your practice is your achievement.

There is no sudden arrival at your Yoga, or Union.  You experience it every day.  As BKS Iyengar said, yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory, do it and all will come.