Finding Your Edge: Ahimsa and Tapas

by Enid Spitz
originally published by Street Yoga

At Street Yoga we’ve been talking a lot about preventing injury and promoting self-care as we prepare to host the practice of 108 Sun Salutations in Seattle June 7th, 2014.  We want this challenging, sweat-filled, energizing morning to be every bit as safe as it is fun.  So we reached out to Enid Spitz– one of the event’s nine fabulous yoga teachers– to reflect on the ways ahimsa and tapas have manifested in her life, and asked for some practical advice for how to approach the practice of 108 Sun Salutes.

Screen Shot 2014-05-11 at 1.51.55 PM108 is considered sacred; it’s the only toll-free area code in India and the number of stitches on a baseball. And some claim 108 degrees is the temperature threshold for healthy internal organ function. In the world of yoga, a full Mala of 108 sun salutations is all this: sacred, sporting and physical. But the Mala especially relates to two foundational ideas too: Ahimsa and Tapas.

Flowing the sun salutations, we dance between respectful non-violence (Ahimsa) and fiery self-discipline (Tapas). 

If you see these two Niyamas (moral observances) as opposites and a full Mala practice as torturous, you’re not alone.

It’s easy to see this practice as tapas-centric, all challenge and heat and power. But a full Mala is not about burning yourself out and Ahimsa and Tapas are not so opposite as they seem.

In 2010, overwhelmed with too many jobs, finishing a degree and attempting some ideal social life, I found myself instead hospitalised with an irregular heartbeat. My life had reached such a powerful peak, even in my yoga practice, that it burnt out. Suddenly, without the options of work or activity or stress, I found tranquility in their place. But accepting rest was challenging too.

“Ahimsa,” from the root word “hims” or harm, goes beyond the physical to include a mentality of acceptance and a lifestyle of care. Far from passive, ahimsa requires great courage. On your mat, this might mean the courage to skip a posture even when everyone else practices it. It might mean challenging yourself to eliminate judgemental thoughts about yourself or others.  For me, it was the courage to let go of control and accept my limits. Approaching a challenge on the mat, I’m often reminded of just how vital, and difficult, Ahimsa can be.

It takes as much dedication to practice mindful care in a society so focused on achievement as it does to sustain the fiery self-discipline of Tapas when challenges seem insurmountable.

When cultivating Tapas, extremism tends to creep up on us. Discipline and internal fire (“tap” means “to burn”) are powerful concepts, but power doesn’t always mean pushing beyond your edge. Instead, Tapas in an asana practice might mean committing yourself to move at the pace of your breath, or challenging your tendency to skip backbends.

Undertaking 108 sun salutations, your body temperature will rise. You will undoubtedly flow through cycles of inspired energy and fatigue. And just maybe, somewhere between Virabhadrasana and Chaturanga you might discover that Tapas and Ahimsa are actually a good pair. Maybe in the float between cycles 80 and 81 you’ll find that it all comes back to mindfulness. You will need to use a strong intention to sustain your internal fire and careful awareness to protect your body.  As you flow, fly, float and falter, keep in mind: yoga is about balance. A flame with too much oxygen will be blown out, too little and it’s smothered.

Whether you are challenging your self-discipline or granting yourself rest in the spirit of Ahimsa, the point is mindfulness. What you do with intention, that’s your yoga!

How to practice Ahimsa and Tapas on the mat:

Ahimsa

  • If something hurts physically, modify or skip it
  • Take breaks when your body, brain or breath get strained
  • Try not to judge the yogis around you or yourself in relation to them
  • Smile! It releases neurotransmitters in your brain that make you feel happy
  • Remember why you are here, your goal is to use yoga to prevent harm

Tapas

  • Ujayi breath! It builds internal heat, fast
  • Set a practical intention and check in every 10 salutations or so if you lose it
  • Think about your own goals and ethics and stick with them, even if it’s tough or someone else’s ideas seem better
  • Challenge yourself to try something new, whether it’s taking a break or breaking out a new breath technique

 

Enid Spitz is a yoga instructor and writer who pairs Vinyasa and Ashtanga practices with her studies in neuroscience and yoga therapy. She leads brain+body workshops and flowing classes with fun playlists throughout the Pacific Northwest. In Seattle you can find her at shefayoga Roosevelt, CorePower Yoga and Urban Yoga Spa. Connect online @enidrosalynenidspitz.wordpress.com or Enid R. Spitz Yoga on Facebook. 

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Where There is Joy, There Can Be Growth

By Enid Spitz
originally published by MeFitness Studios

On the sidewalk, Bill is a graying man in dark jeans who stands about 5 foot 4. He looks mundane until yoga class begins, and then Bill is a master teacher; easily jumping (yes, jumping soundlessly) into headstands, hopping into crow pose and resting with a foot behind his head. If anything, Bill is a lesson in not judging by appearance. But as my Ashtanga Yoga teacher for the past two years, Bill also taught me an unforgettable lesson about joy.

I notice in my students and myself how easy it is to be overly serious and intense when exercising. It is too enticing to clench and grimace and push. But I have found that nothing opens my own yoga practice more than levity. Smiling with ourselves not only makes routine more enjoyable, it allows us the opportunity to explore our abilities further, without judgment.

When Bill first recommended I try lotus (Padmasana) with my legs while in shoulder stand, I laughed at the impossible request. “How about it? We can just try today,” he joked. With this lighthearted tone, he made the difficult pose seem like no big deal. This approach took all the intimidation out of it and allowed me to try without feeling any pressure. And to my surprise, it worked!

Over the next two years I was consistently surprised by the capabilities of my body. While physicality is important of course, I really improved because of joy. Lightheartedness has allowed me to try the most difficult postures with a sense of playfulness instead of self-punishment and Joy instead of judgment.

This lesson of joy inspires me on and off my mat. I seek to incorporate a sense of play into parts of my class, welcoming exploration and enjoyment. Maybe Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana is easier with a smile. Joy in no way makes your yoga practice or workout less sincere or powerful, it simply removes the severity that is detrimental long-term. As Thich Nhat Hanh’s words suggest, bringing a smile to your activity can become a source of joy. And where there is joy, there can be growth.

“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” 
~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Breathing Techniques to Help with Claustrophobia

Enid’s note: in 2015 I collaborated with the Center for Diagnostic Imaging to teach breathing techniques for patients undergoing MRI scans. I didn’t know then that my uncle would end up using this when he underwent MRI tests during cancer treatment. In the days before his death, I sat by his bed and simply breathed with him. We practiced this square breathing until his last breath.

Breathing Through MRI Claustrophobia

by Center for Diagnostic Imaging

Staying very still for 45 minutes in an MRI scanner can be too much for someone with claustrophobia. Center for Diagnostic Imaging (CDI) patient Stuart George described his experience as, “Too tight, too claustrophobic. It wasn’t good for me. I couldn’t handle it.” Desiree Rocovich, CDI’s Renton Center manager, calls claustrophobia a common issue and estimates that 40% of her patients mention it during the screening phone call before their first appointment. While some use sedatives to cope, others are looking for help without medication.

 

Yoga Tips for Your Next Exam

If you’ve ever taken a deep breath before tackling something that makes you fearful, you’ve experienced the power of the inhale and the exhale. “Breathing is everything in yoga,” explains Seattle yoga instructor Enid Spitz. At the heart of her teachings is one of life’s basics: Breathing.

“It’s really important because it can control your central nervous system. It can calm you down or it can amp you up. It has an effect on everything from your heart rate, to your pulse rate, to the thoughts in your mind.”

 

How to Practice Square Breathing

Some breathing styles used in yoga are very advanced, but Spitz recommends a basic technique called square breathing. You start with an inhale to the count of four, then you hold your breath for four counts, next exhale for four counts, then hold empty for a final four counts. When you’re finished start over, using your belly and focusing on where the breath goes in your body. “When you take an inhale, focus on expanding your ribs in all four directions,” Spitz explains. “Most of the breathing we do is really shallow in the top of our lungs. But we’ll get more air to our brain, which will calm us down if we breathe really deeply into the low part of our lungs.”  Here’s her square breathing how-to:

The more you practice square breathing, the longer you can make the count, building from a count of 4 up to 8 or 10. And Spitz says if, for some reason, the retaining of your breath makes you anxious or uncomfortable, you can just focus on counting the inhales and the exhales and skip trying to retain the air.

 

Uses for Square Breathing

While you might be considering square breathing for an upcoming MRI exam, the technique can come in handy in other situations. The NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine says breathing techniques are used to help with anxiety, pain, depression, stress, insomnia and chronic illness. So whether you are stuck in traffic while running late for work or in the midst of a fight between your kids over who gets to go first, square breathing is always available.

“Absolutely anywhere,” says Spitz. “You can do it seated, you can do it laying, you can do it standing, you can do it in traffic. Wherever you would like.” All it takes is counting the inhales, counting the retentions, and counting the exhales. Anywhere. Anytime. Once you get the hang of it, you might just find yourself breathing a sigh of relief.

The Portland Podcast Interviewed Me About Yoga, Writing and Art

I left teaching yoga full time in Seattle to work as an Arts & Culture editor at Portland’s alt-weekly, Willamette Week. The change was drastic, to say the very least. It took me almost a year to reach the point where I felt I could teach again—teaching takes a ton of energy and all mine was going to the newspaper or my own practice whenever I could manage it.

But teaching has my heart and soul. It was only a matter of time before I went back to it.

Two years later, as I prepared to make another huge life change, The Portland Podcast interviewed me about yoga and being an arts editor.

I met with Podcast creator Greg and his crew after teaching one of my last classes at The Grinning Yogi on Division Street. I was preparing to move across the country, this time to be with the person I love. As we talked about yoga, changes in Portland and teaching in different cities, it’s obvious: this yoga thing will always be in my life.

Listen Here:

 

In Portland? Interested? Here’s more about The Portland Podcast.

Here’s to finding our yoga, wherever we are.

Get Lost: Mapping Your Yoga Practice

by Enid Spitz
originally published in Elephant Journal

We are all lost, and most of us too stubborn to ask for directions.

Living in Europe a few years ago, I resolved to explore my practice by visiting a studio in every new city I visited. Without the tech comfort of wifi and GPS, I would draw myself maps in a ruby red Moleskine pocket notebook. By the end of three months the tattered book held secret pathways through Belgian back roads and routes along the Champs Élysées, all leading to my international home base: the yoga mat.

No matter the unknown country or wrong turns along the way, arriving at my yoga practice felt like “x marks the spot.”

But that’s really where the journey just begins.

On the mat we literally take the trip of a lifetime, or lifeline, often moving from child’s pose through warriors into Savasana, “corpse pose.” Along the way we navigate a physical journey from warming large muscles (getting the lay of the land) to tiny, intricate tendons (adding detail to our map); in the first up-dog your trapezius wakes up and in a later dancer’s pose you’ll feel it intimately connect to your shoulder.

Beyond the physical asana, a yoga practice explores emotional topography too. The highs and lows of various poses can be hill climbs, tear-inducing peaks and blissful downhill rides. In Balasana: comfort, in Virabhadrasana II: empowerment, in Ustrasana: fear or exhalation, in Savasana…

Both physical and emotional journeys are vital for your body and brain development.

Like a cartographer, your brain builds neural pathways into a map that will tell your body how to behave. These different “body maps” are housed in different brain regions because they have different functions. The “motor map” and “sensory map,” separate in the physical brain, combine as you launch into Dakasana to keep you balanced.

The whole purpose of this mapping—emotion or physical, on the mat or off—is proprioception, a neuroscientific term for how you perceive yourself in your environment.

One of my teachers would coach the class: “yoga is just making shapes in space.” Sometimes this body awareness is simply felt, a sensation scientifically known as “body schema.” And sometimes it is the more controversial version: “body image,” constructed by memory and learned assumptions. It’s the difference between navigating by instinct or by gps.

As we triangulate, fold, weave and twist, the studio offers a world to be explored and the practice becomes our map. To me, the beauty of yoga is it’s simultaneous transience and permanence. In any country and any language, the practice is the same; it has the stability of bedrock. At the same time, our breath and bodies constantly change, so each practice is as fluid as the tides.

Three days in Belgium took me to a top floor banquet hall where a batik-clad yogi from Mauritius led class simultaneously in English, French and Dutch. But Trikonasana doesn’t need translation. No matter what winding back-ways I wandered to find the quirky space; no matter what emotional crossroads the tri-lingual instruction passed me through, the practice would always guide me home.

I recently rediscovered that ruby red Moleskine pocket notebook. Its penned pathways reminded me: we are all lost. But yoga taught me to embrace exploration.

In yoga we map out our bodies, navigating intuitively or by the books. We traverse an all-terrain emotional landscape and build body maps that stay relevant beyond the four corners of a mat.

Maybe somewhere in between the flat plains of Chaturanga and the peak of down dog you get your bearing, guided by breath. Or maybe you realise being lost is better. Because in those imperfect wanderings the real mapping takes place.

You’re free to explore, knowing the practice will always be there as a guide back home. X marks the spot.

Seattle Yoga News Interviewed me for a Teacher Spotlight

Enid-Spitz

Seattle Yoga News

Yoga teacher spotlight: Enid R. Spitz

 

Seattle Yoga News is on a mission to find and highlight all of the hidden, and maybe not so hidden, gems in the Seattle yoga community and beyond. We want you to learn about their experiences and perspectives, but also a bit more about their personalities, so we have a few fun questions for them. All spotlights are based on your peer’s personal recommendation. First on our list is Enid Spitz.

My yoga life began as an exploration of movement and a way to connect with friends in my community. Soon it became a lifestyle.Enid Spitz

SYN: What inspired you to become a yoga teacher?

Spitz: I want everyone to feel inspired to live fully! It seems so stereotypical: but I had a transcendent moment in savasana. The casual yoga practice I started as a social hobby after high school classes developed into a physical and mental passion during college; yoga became my “thing.” And when I moved to London, it was my way to explore, finding a class to experience in every city I traveled to. In that transcendent post-savasana moment, sitting cross-legged in a carpeted conference room turned studio, the reality struck that yoga is my lifestyle, all-encompassing  and that I want to share that experience. Every day/class/practice since has reaffirmed my passion and my influential teachers (including my 70-year-old Ashtanga mentor who jumps into his headstands) constantly re-inspire me.

SYN: What is one piece of advice you always give your students? 

Spitz: Always explore! Stillness can serve us if we’re mindful, but stagnation turns off our brains and bodies. So I always encourage “yogi playtime.”

SYN: Describe your yoga philosophy?

Spitz: My yoga philosophy is “explore.” I believe yoga is a complete integration of body, brain and breath into something bigger than the sum of its parts.

SYN: If you could practice with anyone dead or alive, who would that be and why?

Spitz: I want to practice with my grandpa. Truly practicing with another person is such a close experience and he shaped my life in many ways but never got to see me become an instructor.

SYN: How lucky are you and why?

Spitz: I’m unlucky, or maybe just very clumsy, but infinitely blessed.

SYN: If you could be an animal, a plant or an ingredient, which one would you be and why?

Spitz: My mom’s pet name for me was “little bird,” and I think it’s fitting – I love reveling in open space and enjoying my freedom and voice. But I would like to be basil because it is fresh and grounding and those are the things I most aspire to.

SYN: What is your latest favorite thing about humanity?

Spitz: Our never ending ability to start again, re-explore and regenerate. Even if a pose, place or person gets mundane, there’s always the chance for change. (The invention of microwaves are a close second as my new addiction is Trader Joe’s instant popcorn!)

SYN: Who would you like to nominate next for the next yoga teacher spotlight?

Spitz: Vanessa Lee Garibaldi

Enid Spitz’s bio:

“After beginning my practice in California, I traveled to Europe and studied at London’s Power Yoga Co. while exploring yoga around Germany, England, Spain, France and Belgium. Back in the States, I completed my 200-hr Yoga Alliance Certification through Portland’s NW CorePower Yoga and have since graduated their Extensions Program, Level two  and YogaSculpt trainings. I continually attend workshops and trainings (including Leslie Kaminoff’s anatomy training, intensives with Brian Kest and master classes with Ana Forrest) and I am currently working toward a 500-hr YA certification. Some of my most influential teachers include Tiffany Cruikshank, Jennifer Chiemingo & Liz Doyle in Seattle, Jill Allen in Portland Ore., and Bill Counter of Sacramento Ashtanga.

Classes I teach draw heavily on the Ashtanga and Vinyasa traditions. They include dynamic “flows” with a strong focus on alignment and breath. My goal is always for students to explore in their practice, so I also incorporate traditional themes, pranayama (breath), and many variations.

My passion is connecting neuroscience and yoga, drawing on current psychological research to strengthen the ancient practice and increase understanding on both sides. I lead workshops on the brain/body connection and am working towards a certification in yoga therapy for psychological trauma.”

A Guide to the Types of Yoga in Portland

by Enid Spitz
originally published in Willamette Week
Kick Your Asana 

How to spot it: You arrive in a lobby with all the charm of a Starbucks location and need a scan card to get into class. Two or three simple class types, like “slow” or “flow,” align with corporate schedules and soccer practices. In the studio, ripped young instructors dictate postures—in English, not Sanksrit—at a quick clip, and walls of mirrors reflect your scrawny biceps. The rows are mat-to-mat, with lots of sweat-drenched 20-somethings doing extra chaturanga pushups.

Expect to: Sweat any lingering alcohol or garlic out of your system to the soundtrack of sitar-infused Top 40 hits or John Mayer. Avoid the already dripping shower line and locker-room chatter by dislodging your shoes from the lobby’s mountain of Uggs and sitting on your towel to drive home. Do not—do not—forget your towel.Try: Some yoga/boot camp hybrid because it’ll be the hardest workout you ever do without socks on.

Try: Some yoga/boot camp hybrid because it’ll be the hardest workout you ever do without socks on.

Average Joega

How to spot it: Sandwich boards out front welcome groups and hesitant couples with new-student specials. Your instructor works at the tea shop next door and is happy to explain why purvottanasana is practical.

Expect to: Match half the class with your Target yoga mat and share meaningful glances with some PSU students if things get too new age-y.

Try: An intro workshop because it’ll explain utthita hasta padangusthasana in plain English and prevent future embarrassments.

The Sacred Space

How to spot it: Your future guru buzzes you through the nondescript door to begin a class series—inconsistent students taking the occasional drop-in classes are frowned upon in this sacred practice. Any instruction over the hum of enlightening breath techniques sounds like a Sanskrit immersion course. There’s probably a harmonium.

Expect to: Practice daily before dawn with the same group of mature yogis. This is your new tribe.

Try: A funky chakra or mythology series because these yogis know the real ancient stories and can relay them while standing on their heads.

Bhagavad Gucci

How to spot it: Welcome to a Zenned-out urban spa. There’s polished bamboo, calming sage walls, an acupuncture menu and leggings priced as if Lycra was semiprecious. Your instructor moonlights as a yogi-philanthropist, spokesmodel or fashion designer, and classes fill with perfectly manicured West Hills moms seeking sanity midday in the middle of the Pearl…hence the massage and steam rooms.

Expect to: Discover the true price of enlightenment.

Try: A benefit class or event, if only for the raffle, plush goodie bags and opportunity to sweat on local yogalebrities. Giving back in a yoga studio counts as double karma points, right?

Not unlike: Yoga PearlYoYoYogiRoot Whole Body.

The Hippie Haven

How to spot it: The aroma of sandalwood and a dreadlocked volunteer in hemp gauchos welcome you into a lobby that’s part arboretum, part kombucha lounge and entirely compostable. Classes are less uniform, at the mercy of each instructor’s free spirit. Post-practice, community garden potlucks are not unheard of.

Expect to: Encounter everything from an hour of seated chanting to circus acrobatics. Instructors may suggest sparking your inner Shakti flames toward the waning moon (translation: reach up).

Try: Laughter yoga or acro-yoga, or join the monthly kirtan circle to chant your way to enlightenment. And ditch the Lululemon for some organic fibers.