Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Nature's New Year & Beginnings

This Sunday we celebrated the winter solstice or the darkest night of the year which heralds the return of the light. We are also inching upon the New Year, a time when many of us create resolutions, intentions, new goals, and action plans for the year ahead. This practice has always puzzled me and in looking at the history of the Yule, I can see why.

The pre-Christian Germanic peoples celebrated the winter through a three month celebration called the "Yule-Tide", a tidal wave of customs that include the Yule log, Yule goat, Yule boar, Yule singing, and the celebration of the "Wild Hunt", a ghostly procession of stars in the sky. This period of time where darkness reigned was revered and feared as a time of increased supernatural activity and sacrifices were made to keep the gods happy. It was a time of community activity, feasts, ale drinking, song and merriment. It was a time of keeping the light alive within the darkness and also honoring the darkness with offerings.

In a culture that is overly obsessed with quick fixes and baptismal fresh starts I wonder if we as yoga teachers are perpetuating this simplistic view of the solstice and the new year. To "resolve to evolve" or to "set an intention" seems to bypass the process that our ancestors understood. We forget that this time of year is a gradual descent into the darkness and a slow walk back toward the light. On December 21st or January 1st nothing in nature is asking us to make a resolution. There is no bird song calling us to rebirth. Nature is still, cold, and quiet and in this space it appears that she is asking us to listen.
I recently researched the word "beginning" to get a better sense of what it is we are trying emulate during these symbolic moments of change. What I found was fascinating. The word "begin" is comprised of "be" which is a prefix that derives from the old English word "bi" which can be translated as "about, by, on all sides, thoroughly" and the West Germanic word "ginnan" which means "to open, to open up, to cut open." So we could say that what we are trying to do when we begin in the New Year is really a movement toward "opening up and viewing thoroughly the contents that are inside." If this is the case then we should view this opening as a process and not a moment that is willed into action by force.

So, this New Years, let's gather together and eat, drink, and celebrate the yule-tide, the waters of the winter. Let us find the patience to slowly unwrap the contents that are inside and thoroughly examine them from all angles under the dark starry skies. May we refrain from quick fixes and remind each other that the process of re-discovery takes time, and we have plenty of time.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Follow The Darkness: A Winter Solstice Reflection

If we are being honest, then we can each say that we have bad days. Days where it feels like the darkness is swallowing us whole or days when the weight of the the worlds sadness is resting upon our brow. In many yoga circles we are taught to make these dark thoughts and feelings go away. We are told to "plug in a mantra", "twist it out", "send light to these sad thoughts" or to meditate." But what if we are averting one of the most powerful forces that exists within our psyche? The power of darkness.

Darkness is the space of germination it is the womb and the chrysalis. Darkness is the cave we enter to rest, to sleep, and to dream. These powerful dark forces pull us into their grip to show us what is dying and give us a peek at what we've been missing or glossing over. Darkness is real and if we let ourselves be enveloped by dark nights of the soul there is tremendous potential for deeper insight. Many of our mythic heroes and heroines must go into the dark earth or black waters in order to realize a critical piece of their journey.
Nature has within its intelligent design specific periods where the darkness reigns over the light. During the months leading to the winter solstice (Dec 21st) the darkness trumps and the portal to sadness, grief, anger, and deep inner processing opens. Each new moon period is also a time when the dark night skies remind us of our smallness. If we honor these natural periods of darkness we give the soul a chance to suffer. The word suffer comes from the Latin "sufferre", sub- ‘from below’ + ferre ‘to bear', or to "bear what is below."
As yoga teachers and students we can do a great service to our community by allowing ourselves to feel and express our suffering. We can let go of guilt and shame for feeling "depressed" and see it as a period of "deep rest". The darkness is here and we can fight it or we can curl up under its night skies and hear the stories it has to share and maybe, just maybe, we will awaken changed.

(from Teaching Tip Tuesdays, posted each Tuesday on Facebook by Sky House owner, Ashley Litecky Elenbaas)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Movement, Health, and Community


Last weekend I attended an herbal conference in Georgia. It was a wonderful four days of herbal study, plant walks, and fellowship. Each morning I would wake up, go for a run, do a little yoga, and then get ready for classes. One morning I decided to sleep in. We had been up late and my body needed the extra sleep. The entire next day I was uncomfortable, tight, and irritable. Why had I skipped the one thing that makes me a better student, listener, and all around nicer person?

It was ironic that on this day I would sit through a few lectures on circulation, detoxification, and mood disorders. As I listened to the teachers I found myself fidgeting and shifting in my chair. I was uncomfortable, anxious, and found myself drinking caffeine to stay awake despite the interesting information that was being presented.

In one lecture I learned about the circulatory system. Our circulatory system is our life blood. Literally. Every system in our body depends on the movement of oxygenated blood and nutrients to our tissues, and the removal of wastes. While our heart does a wonderful job at moving blood around the body, it is the lymphatic system that is responsible for the removal of dead cells, toxins, and metabolic wastes. The lymphatic system doesn't contain a pump of its own so it depends on us to move, bend, and twist to keep lymph circulation going. In the old times, people knew that movement was critical to health and if a person was still for too long their body systems began to fail and their mood would likely become melancholy and depressed.

The importance of regular movement is often overlooked. It plays a critical role in our physical, mental, and emotional well-being as it moves blood, supports detoxification, and facilitates the release of endorphins (feel good chemicals),and increases confidence. Simple movements like sun salutations are a wonderful way we can move our body fluids and keep the body healthy. In one study of 40 participants, researchers found that after 10 days of practicing yoga the baseline levels of cortisol (our stress hormone) decreased, inflammation markers decreased, and in another study of schizophrenics, one yoga class decreased anxiety and increased feelings of well-being. (http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/acm.2011.0265)
(http://informahealthcare.com/…/abs/10.…/09638288.2010.509458)

The yoga world also contains a built in community. This weekend herbalist James Snow spoke of the biopsychosocial model of health and how important it is to have a strong social network. He explained the relationship between inflammation, mood disorders, and anti-social behaviors and the negative feedback loop this creates. It made me think about the amazing trifecta of benefts that yoga provides. Yoga is a place where we move the body (detoxify & reduce inflammation), increase our mood (endorphins), and connect with a social network (reduce inflammation & increase endorphins). Pretty cool stuff!

So, if you thought all you were doing was exercising your body during your weekly yoga class, think again! Your yoga is creating a positive feedback loop between your mind, body, and your community! How cool is that!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Recipe for a Handstand: How A Handstand is Like Baking A Cake

Recipe for a Handstand. Attempting a handstand is like baking a multi-layered cake. We can think about the individual layers of cake, the frosting, atmospheric conditions, construction, and finally, the unique decoration of your masterpiece. Like baking your first cake, your first handstand may fall short of your expectations. They may be uneven, taste a bit starchy, and perhaps look like something a three year old constructed out of play dough.

For many people, the handstand is something that terrifies, eludes, and challenges even the most dedicated of yogis. Why? Because it takes everything you've learned in yoga, everything you've practiced on your mat and during meditation, and puts it to the test by, turning it upside down.
The first ingredient of the handstand recipe is Tadasana, good ole mountain pose. In mountain pose we study our bodies an anatomically neutral position and look for the weak links in our posture. Does our lower back sway causing our abdominal muscles to disengage? Does our body weight tend to shift toward the balls of our feet? We study each piece to feel the nuances of our bodies and practice holding a strong and supported standing position while remaining soft enough to relax and breathe.
Once we have studied Tadasana we add in Urdhva Hastasana, upward lifted hand pose, the second posture of the Sun Salutation series. When we move our arms overhead we look to see how the rest of our bodies respond. Do the ribs poke forward? Does the abdominal wall disengage? What is needed to maintain the lessons of tadasana while we add this second layer?
When this has been rectified we are ready to add the third ingredient, the sweet layers of frosting.This is made from tapas and amritas, the disciplined mind and the ambrosia of the gods. This tasty layer is also one of the trickiest to apply. If the consistency is too sticky or tacky, it will peel off the top layer of the cake. If it is too thin it won't do its job of holding the layers together. The perfect thickness can be achieved through a careful combination of self-discipline, determination, and method with surrender, playfulness, and listening.
Now that we have the three basic components of a handstand we can begin to practice:
1) Stand about 3 feet from a wall and practice the transition from Tadasana to Urdhva Hastasana while maintaining core integration.
 

2) Reach your hands to the floor and come into downward dog with your fingers 3 inches from the wall.

3) Re-establish urdva hastasana from your hands to your hips.


4) Walk you feet toward your hands and shift your shoulders over your wrists while looking between your hands.


5) Fire up your tapas while connecting to the soft flow of amrita.

6) Lift one leg toward the ceiling and use your lower leg as a spring. 
Practice keeping your core engaged while floating your lifted leg toward the sky.

7) Smile.

8) Keep practicing. Think about stacking your hips over your shoulders, over your wrists, like a multi-tiered cake.


9). Enjoy. Embellish your handstand with sound-effects, leg variations, and laughter!


10) Remember that some days will be more conducive to practicing handstands than others. The atmospheric conditions and the accessibility of the gods may be more generous on certain days. So, don't be discouraged. Just like baking a cake, be firm, know the quality of your ingredients, leave room for magic and whimsy, and when your practice is over, take a big ole bite and savor this delicious experience 


xoxo!
~Ashley Litecky Elenbaas

Thursday, September 18, 2014

40 Days of Seva: No Minimum Donation for 40 Days

There are many ways an organization can give back to their community. In December of 2013 Sky House launched its Seva (a Sanskrit word meaning self-less service) Sunday program, opening all Sunday yoga classes to the public with no minimum donation. Over the last nine months we've seen such a positive response that our team of teachers and staff have decided to open the donation scale for all our yoga classes for 40 days!

This means that there is no minimum donation to take any Sky House yoga class from September 8 - October 17th.  We hope this opens the door for more people to take yoga, and for our current students to take more classes.

We love our donation model which holds space for each individual to contribute what they can. Those with more can donate more, and those with less can donate less. In the end, things always seem to balance out :)

Also, with our wedding coming up in less than 30 days (Eek! We are so excited!) we thought it would be a nice way to give back while we are receiving so much.

Class registration details are listed below. We expect classes to fill pretty early so please register early. We thank you for standing by us over the years and we hope this 40 Day gift will inspire more yoga practice and community!

Much Love,
Ashley

Visit www.skyhouseyoga.com and click on our Yoga page to find the class schedule.



Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Value and Currency

Yesterday I had a wonderful conversation with Risa Garon, founder of the National Family Resiliency Center. We are working to put together a grant to bring yoga and meditation to young women who have experienced family trauma like the loss of a loved one, divorce, moving, or personal afflictions like depression, eating disorders, or anxiety. During our conversation it became evident at the heart, we are interested in helping young women re-assign value to themselves and identify their value within the context of their community.

For many young women it is a challenge to identify their value outside of what they own, and their physical features. It is our hope to help them discover their value in terms of what they can give.

The term currency comes from the Latin word "currens" which means,'a state of flowing.' On its own, gold has no value. It is only valuable when it is being traded or 'moved' from one person to another. So, to know our own value, we need to move and be moved. We must find our gifts and do something with them.

I remember many years ago during an herb walk with David Winston, he mentioned that in the Cherokee tradition, if a person was depressed it was called 'spirit sickness.' This was a very serious condition and was treated within the tribe by giving that person to an elder or a medicine man as a helper or caretaker. The spirit would get stronger through the act of service. This fed the flame of spirit until the persons light was restored.

In my eyes, yoga is another way to feed the flame and get our currency moving. It can move us outside of the small locus of 'self' where we get stuck. In a yoga practice we can face our insecurities, our fears of failure and success, rise to the challenge, and sit quietly with our hearts and listen to the voice inside can tell us where to go. When done in the right spirit, yoga can provide us with the right questions needed to identify our soul work and the communities that can be served by this work.

It is my hope that yoga is valued by its ability to bring people together in a safe place and for its ability to move energy THROUGH its practitioners. That a yoga classroom is a space where deeper questions are asked, tears are shed, frustrations expressed, changes are made, and learning can happen. 

It is my hope that every person that walks out of a yoga class thinking, 'what can I contribute?' And that contribution is made with a smiling heart.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Plant Teachings of Yarrow - A Shepherd and Warriors Best Friend

Today's plant choice was inspired by my obsession with sheep. As an earth sheep in the Chinese zodiac and with my sun and moon in the sign of Taurus (about as earthy as it gets) I feel a particular resonance with slow moving, vegetarian, and peace-loving herd animals. Lately I have also been drawn to stories of warfare and battle. So, in honor of these last days of the Taurean season and the stationing of the war-loving planet, Mars, today in the sky, I decided to write about a plant that is favored among animal caretakers and warriors, Yarrow.

I first learned about Yarrow, Achillea millefolium while on an herb walk with David Winston at the Medicines From The Earth Conference in 2003. David showed us its "thousand leaves" which translate to "millefolium" in its Latin binomial. It was amazing to see these feathery soft leaves which in the language of plant signatures look like the aerating spread of capillaries in the lungs.  David shared the plants association with the Greek god Achilles who used this plant to heal his solider's wounds. This ability of Yarrow to stop bleeding makes it a valuable herb among farmers, shepherds, and soldiers.

Along with its styptic and vulnerary properties, this Old World plant is antiviral and antibacterial making it a wonderful plant to apply to a wound. I can imagine my great grandfather, Francesco Parinnello, who lived as a shepherd in Sicily, keeping a little yarrow in his medicine bag as he traveled through the hills with his sheep. It would be the ideal medicine to apply to a small jagged cut on a lambs leg from running into a barbed wire fence or to a wound received while chopping firewood.

Yarrow is also regarded as a talisman, or protector plant. It is believed to protect one from evil or negative influences, especially those who are more sensitive to outside energies. It was used over babies cradles, in wedding flower arrangements, folded into solider's handkerchiefs, and is used in divination with the I -Ching. Whenever I come across a patch of Yarrow, it is like a familiar and powerful ally has joined me. I know that if Yarrow is around, no matter what happens, I will be protected. Whether this is because of the multiple uses of this plant as a medicine or because of its magical properties, I am not sure. I have a set of yarrow sticks that I gathered, dried, and polished with beeswax to use with the I-Ching and they do hold a very special and clear energy. I trust Yarrow, whole-heartedly, and when it comes to making big decisions or healing a wound I have no doubt in its power and healing capacity.

I would not be a good herbalist if I didn't also mention that yarrow is one of the best overall blood tonics.

Herbalist Matthew Wood includes Yarrow in his top ten herbs to have on hand and says, "Yarrow is one of the primal remedies of the Western herbal tradition. It can
be called the ‘master of the blood.’ Through numerous devices – clotting, unclotting, neurovascular control, flavonoids, etc. – it regulates the flow of blood to and from the surface, in and out of the capillaries and venules, thickening and thinning. Through this it cures all manner of wounds, bruises, hemorrhaging, and clotting. The same property, combined with its diaphoretic capacity, makes it a ‘master of fever,’ moving blood to or from the surface to release or preserve heat and regulate fluids."

Yarrow is amphoteric, complicated, and has so many uses. It is warming AND cooling and is both astringent AND stimulates blood flow. When I see plants that contain contradictory actions it makes me think of a multi-faceted being that can help us when we are feeling polarized or stuck on one side of the pond.

To me, yarrow helps us to keep things moving in just the right way. Not too much, and not too little. I’ve used this plant with a number of clients recently.  One client has been feeling ‘unsafe’ in her home and was suffering from feelings of irritation alternating with stagnation. After taking Yarrow for a few weeks she noticed a significant shift in her feelings of security and her emotional stability. Another client was having circulation issues and had fears about leaving her ‘secure’ job to pursue a more soulful path. Within a few weeks her circulation and digestion improved and she was offered a new job that would allow her to do more of the work she loves.

Astrologer and medical herbalist, Nicholas Culpepper places Yarrow under the rulership of Venus (kidneys, female reproductive tract) and some medical astrologers place it under the rulership of Mars (blood, fever, immunity). With these two energetics we could say that yarrow also helps to balance the feminine and masculine aspects of our being. Time and time again I have seen Yarrow balance out extremes so perhaps it would be better to say it points back to a healthy sense of androgyny from which all impulses arise.  In this way yarrow is a truly alchemical plant.

Yarrow grows just about everywhere and it is an easy plant to identify by its leaf shape and camphorous scent. I will be leading an herb walk on the Summer Solstice, on June 21st from 11 - 5 in Silver Spring, MD if you'd like to join me and the Herbal Apprentices for a day with the plants. I know a nice patch I would be happy to share with you!


Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Nature Abhors the Square -- Bringing Nature To Our Mat

If you take a walk outside rarely will you find plants, shrubs, and trees growing at exact 90 degree angles. Most plants make soft angles toward the sun or down toward a water source. There are a few strange plants whose roots grow at 90 degrees (like werewolf root) but they are seen to exist outside the normal laws of nature and contain abnormal personalities and shocking medicinal powers (I will talk more about this in my Plant Teaching Thursday post). My favorite buildings are those with arches, steeples, and buttresses and my favorite yoga postures contain soft edges and rounded lines. 

I was just looking at some old photographs of Krishnamacharya doing yoga asanas and I was sweetly surprised to see that many of his postures also contain soft shapes. As a founding father of yoga, Krishnamacharya was the primary teacher of Pattabhi Jois, BKS Iyengar, Indra Devi, and his son, DKV Desikachar. I was expecting to see many right angles and stiff wrists but this was not the case. Instead I saw many photos of a smiling man, with his feet at 60 degrees, his wrist angled upward like a leaf, opening his body, mind, and heart. 

In my own yoga practice I enjoy finding small pulsations, little eddies and tidal pools to play in. My feet rarely land in the right place and sometimes I'll go deeper into a pose by changing my alignment. Some days I'll find myself rolling my wrists, shifting my hips, and moving my rib cage back and forth. This is not a pulsation like a scripted flow, but rather a subtle undulation like a plant being moved by its inner fluids and reorganizing its position so it can experience more of itself. 

My early years of yoga practice found me in many alignment based studios with teachers who had the answers and the exact angles for where my body should be. I had the books which contained pictures of the "perfect pose" and I would study myself in the mirror trying to achieve these precise angles. While I learned a lot in these classes I always felt like something was missing. In those days I was a perfectionist and these scripted classes fed by obsession with obtaining the perfect body and the perfect pose.


These days the way I practice has become a lot softer and as a result, so has my teaching. I am less concerned with my students bringing their knee "directly" over their ankle and I am learning to trust the wisdom inherent in each of our bodies. I smile when I see a student's arms expressing their heart in angles of 30 and 60 degrees. It brings me joy to see the slight curves in a student's spine and to watch them find their footing in a way that makes them feel grounded.

In a world with so many hard lines, sharp angles, and right ways, our yoga practice can be a place where we soften, bend, flow, and breathe in accordance with the laws of nature. And not just the nature that lives outside our walls, but in accordance with the nature that lives inside us every moment we are here.

Top of Form
Top of Form

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Be Human. Be Real. A Reflection On Teaching Yoga

Be Human. Be Real. I find nothing more confusing than being in a yoga class with a teacher who is not really there. I've seen this many times, a teacher will sit down, open their mouth, and all of a sudden a voice that is not their own starts to pour out of their mouth. It is as if they feel that they are not good enough, or their yoga is not real enough to be shared. To me, what makes a teacher real is that they can stub their toe and cry, occasionally fart at inopportune times, and they allow their vulnerabilities to be seen. They are not concerned with upholding some archetypal version of the yoga teacher but they show up as themselves in real live human form.


My favorite yoga teachers are real people. They come into class and share what is on their minds and hearts even if the story doesn't have a tidy and neat ending. They teach from their experience and help students into poses and leave out the clever line, "do what ever is a part of your practice" and teach them how to do the pose. My favorite teachers get into the trenches with their students. They leave the safety of their mats and offer support and move blankets. They watch their students, offer kind words of encouragement, give advice based on their experience, and are there to help.


Being a real human yoga teacher is liberating. As a real human you can make mistakes, you can crack a joke when something funny happens in the classroom, you can wear what you want, and you can stop obsessing about that little bit of belly or thigh fat that the industry says is non-yogic. Screw that. As a human yoga teacher you can relax a bit, slouch on the couch, and best of all you can release the facade that you are somehow better than all of the people who don't do yoga.


In the last year my teaching has evolved. My teaching has simplified and is becoming more grounded in classical sequences and meditation techniques. My personal practice is driven by what I am interested in, and not what I think I should be working on or what I should be teaching. I still love reading and studying yoga texts and I'm now adding the study of my own ancestry to compare and contrast perspectives. Yoga is becoming more grounded for me and is helping me clarify who I am, and who I am not.


So this week's yoga teaching tip is simple. Be human and be real. Try taking a look at the imperfections in your practice and the sometimes messy nature of your life and embrace it. Get into the trenches with your students and let them know that you are human too. Most importantly, be yourself.

As Emerson once wrote, "To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment."

Falling out of firefly pose

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Happy Easter! The Medicinal Teachings of Easter Lily

Happy Easter! In honor of this spring holiday I thought I would write about one of my all time favorite plants, Easter Lily, or Lilium longiflorum. While many of us know this plant from its debut in grocery stores and florist shops in April, many of us might not know that it is also a highly prized medicinal plant.

I was first introduced to Easter Lily through Matthew Wood's, “Seven Herbs: Plants as Teachers.” This book takes the reader through a journey of seven plant teachers as they relate to symbols and myths contained within the bible. I was so impressed and captured by this book that I immediate told two of my closest girlfriends. Together we embarked on a journey and set out to take each of the herbs in order as we studied their teachings.


Of all of the seven plants, Easter Lily seemed to have the greatest impact on each of us. Many of our “female” symptoms seemed to clear and we noticed a distinct difference in our psyches after working with the plant.


Easter Lily is a low dose plant used to help cleanse the female reproductive organs. It cleanses the uterus after the menstrual cycle, miscarriage, or stillbirth. The spirit teaching relates to the bible story of Adam and Eve. Often we see Eve depicted as fallen. She was once pure, and is now sullied. It was her flawed nature that led to her eating the forbidden fruit. In this story there is also the opportunity to see Eve’s act separate from the judgment of it. That is, Eve simply acted and that act had consequences, but it does not made her dirty, bad, or broken.


Easter Lily shows us that we can detach from these polarizations of good and evil, clean and dirty, wrong and right.

The plant itself contains pure white petals surrounding a messy phallic stamen covered in pollen. These two exist together within one plant. Matthew writes about the teaching of Easter Lily to help us break down these polarities within our psyches and within our physiology, which are interconnected. That is, if we mentally separate things into good and bad and have feelings of shame or righteousness attached to them, then physiologically, we may have a tendency to compartmentalize “bad” things into cysts or tidy containers hidden beneath the surface of otherwise “good health.”

Easter Lily, or Madonna Lily is also associated with the archetype of Virgo, the virgin. A Virgoan tendency is to see oneself as the virgin, proper, and in complete control. When we fall short then we are instantly the whore, the misfit, or a total disaster. For many Virgo’s, life is a constant dance from one extreme to another. Easter Lily helps us find the soft center the place where the virgin and whore can hold hands, laugh, and sip hot tea.

Physiologically Easter Lily breaks things down. It softens cysts and fibroids in the uterus or breasts. It breaks down old congested menses and can promote fertility due to this deep cleansing. It essentially helps us to break down the boundaries that we create to wall out the things we perceive as wrong or impure. Yet, the point is to recognize that we are both dirty and clean at the same time. That we cannot separate the two.

I’ve seen Easter Lily work wonders. As a low dose plant you only need to take 1 – 3 drops daily. The medicine is made from the root and has a sweet and slightly warming taste. I searched far and wide for a tincture of this plant and was so happy to find it atBear Wallow Herbs.

So, in the spirit of Easter we may want to take a look at gray areas between life, death, and resurrection. Perhaps we can summon the spirit of Easter Lily to help us soften our own hard lines and judgments. A good practice for this weekend would be to re-look at the things that we perceive as dirty or impure and explore why we have this perception. Through this initiation into the world of Easter Lily we see that chaos lives inside everyone who seems to ‘have it together,’ and that the dirt we wash from our foods contains vital minerals we need to be healthy. And if you are feeling really bold, try dropping your food on the ground and override your '5-second' rule. Who knows, you may find peace and serenity in the form of a dust fairy. There is so much more magic alive in these gray spaces than we realize. Thank you, Easter Lily for helping us to embrace life in its pure raw form.

Thank you: Matthew WoodSEVEN HERBS Plants as Teachers & Bear Wallow Herbs for introducing me to this fine plant :)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Iris Versicolor - From Stagnation to Circulation

Plant Teaching Thursday - Blue Iris, Iris versicolor, the rainbow bridge, Blue Flag. These are the many names of a
wonderful plant dear to my heart. The first time I learned about Iris my teacher James Snow commented on how it is indicated for the "Pilsbury Doughboy" type. I had a big chuckle and envisioned a large puffy white creature with a sailor cap walking into my office, sitting down in a cloud of flour, giggling to himself.

However, if we get to know the indications for this plant, we are more likely to see this puffy archetype collapse into our chair with a sigh and tell us about the nature of sadness as they reach into a bag of sweet candies or treats.

When working with Iris, I've noticed that it seems to work best for people with stagnation. This can be physical stagnation, creative stagnation, emotional stagnation, or psychic stagnation. Iris is cathartic, a blood cleanser, and has a powerful effect on the liver, gallbladder, pancreas, and colon. It is commonly used when there are symptoms of toxicity or a slowing down of the organs of detoxification. A few things that can tip me off to using Iris is when there is constipation, edema, hypoglycemia, a dullness of spirit, and a lack of motivation. Other physical symptoms include skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis, and what Matthew Wood describes as a "sugar glaze" on the skin. Especially on the cheeks. Matthew speaks about Iris as a deep cleanser and mentions in his, "Book of Herbal Wisdom" how the Creek Indians cultivated this plant alongside ponds presumably to help filter the water and keep the ponds clean. 





A few years ago when we opened our first Sky House Yoga location Silver Spring, we were lucky enough to have some Irises growing in the front yard. I have always admired their beauty yet never really had the chance to study their growing patterns. I was blown away when I noticed how the Iris flowers bloom!! They unfold in a very natural way, their petals extend out and fall open with such generosity. But the shocking part, was that AFTER they bloom, they start to pull their petals back inward, until the entire flower is absorbed back into the plant!!

I reflected on this and after much research on its use for melancholy and spirit sickness, it dawned on me that the plant is able to recycle its own creativity. If we see the flower as the final expression of a plants creative process then this makes great sense! I've since used Iris for artists who have experienced success in their lives and yet feel exhausted, depressed, or void of inspiration for the next project. Like they just don't have it "in them." I think that Iris can teach us how to share our work, bloom, and experience success, AND THEN bring those resources BACK IN to fuel the next expression. It can free us from the melancholy and nostalgia of living in the past and can get our energy moving again physically and mentally.

Iris is a strong medicine so you don't need very much. I recommend starting with 1 - 3 drops a day. If you really resonate with the plant, then try growing it! Watch how she beautifully displays and unfolds her petals, and then gathers them back up as she leaves the stage 

Here is a time lapse video of a brown-orange Iris doing her thing....


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Want to dive into the study of herbs?  Join our upcoming Herbal Apprenticeship program starting May 1st. Learn how to identify plants, make medicines, and use herbal wisdom to enhance your life and connect you to the wisdom of the plant world.  Visit our Herbal Apprenticeship webpage for details: http://www.skyhouseyoga.com/herbal-apprenticeship-program.html



Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Beauty & Happiness

Yesterday I had the most extraordinary experience with a group of local teenage girls.

We gathered in a classroom at Eleanor Roosevelt High School to talk about beauty, values,
and yoga as part of my work with The Body Love Yoga Project.  As many of you know, this is a subject very close to my heart, as I struggled with body image issues and eating disorders throughout my late teens and early twenties.

As they gazed upon the images of black, white, old, young, conservative, edgy, and modern women, they chose one image and wrote all of the qualities that they liked about this woman.  Then they chose a second image, one that they didn't like as much, and wrote what they didn't like.

The results were incredible.

The majority of the girls liked the images of women who were smiling and relaxed. They attributed the beauty of these women to their self-confidence and an inner happiness. One girl said that she liked the image of a woman in a baggy sweater and hat because she seemed comfortable in her own skin. Another liked the plus size model because she seemed happy and set a good example for other curvy women. A quiet younger teen said she liked the mother and baby because there is something beautiful about being able to nurture and love another being.

When asked to describe the image of a woman that they didn't like, many of them pointed to the image of a business woman on the telephone. They said she looked distracted, tired, and there was a harshness in her face they thought showed her unhappiness. Another pointed to the image of a woman who seemed to be taking her top off. She said the woman would be much more beautiful if she wasn't trying so hard to be sexy.

After a nice full discussion I asked the girls to consider these qualities as their own. Which qualities did they link to beauty? Which qualities distract from beauty?  I explained that there are no right or wrong answers here. We can simply use this exercise to show us what we value, and when we are aligned with our values, we are happy, and happiness makes a person beautiful.

As cliched as it sounds, our take away from the afternoon was that beauty comes from connecting with what makes us happy. Whether it is nurturing others, owning our curves, traveling, resting, or having fun, it is this commitment to our values that will lead us to happiness. The girls were able to pick out which women were confident and happy and which seemed unhappy, distracted, or disconnected. Beauty had nothing to do with body shape, age, race, or clothing. It was the recognition that these women had connected deeply to their own inner values and were wearing them proudly. 










      

The afternoon ended with a playful yoga session where all twenty-seven of us lined up in the high school hallway and practiced embodying the positive qualities we wrote down.  Through warrior poses, balancing poses, and partner practices, we let our inner focus, resolve, and confidence shine through.  At the end, a few of the skeptics were asking how they could find more yoga.

I hope this little story inspires you to connect in your own way to the radiant confidence that lives inside you. If you have a few minutes, jot down some of the words that come to mind when you see a beautiful woman. My guess is that it will have nothing to do with the cost of her shoes, the size of her waist, or the color of her skin.

Then write what comes to mind when you see a woman who irritates you, upsets or disturbs you. If you want to go even deeper you can think about how these qualities may be parts of your own shadow lurking under the surface. How does the woman speaking loudly on her phone, pacing the aisles in the grocery store reflect back to you the images of ugliness that you carry with you.

To me, this exercise can show us both our strengths and our blind spots. It can help us locate our core values so we can and dress, live, eat, do our yoga, and walk in a way that radiates self-love and self-understanding. It can help us LIVE in accordance with our deepest values so no matter where we are, or what we are doing, or what kind of hair day we are having, we are presenting a congruent image of beauty that starts from the inside....and works its way out.


With Heart,
Ashley
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Interested in learning more about our work with teen girls?  Visit  The Body Love Yoga Project website and help us spread the word!

Yoga Blossoms: Yoga and Herbs for Girls 10 - 14
with Ashley Litecky & Amy Dixon

Sundays  July 13th -  27th
 12:15 pm - 1:45 pm

The heart, mind and body of a girl is full of delight and magic yet she can sometimes feel uncertain. This three week session, co-taught by Ashley Litecky and Amy Dixon, will focus on using yoga and the plant medicines to celebrate and support the pure beauty, strength and joy of the 10-14 year old girl.

Each session will include 45 minutes of a physical yoga practice, time in Ashley's healing herbal apothecary, and an introduction to the Indian medicinal practices of Ayurveda. In the Ayurveda session, we will do our yoga and then learn skin and self care practices to keep our bodies and skin healthy and bright. We will close the session with fun partner yoga and then ornament ourselves with henna and art.

July 13th - Yoga & Plant Medicine
July 20th - Ayurveda & Skin Care
July 27th - Yoga & Henna Body Art

Suggested Donation
3 -week session - $45 - $60 (recommended)
Single session - $15 - $25



Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Yoga Teacher Spotlight: Rick Kowalewski on Yin Yoga

What is Yin Yoga? Why might we try this slow and restorative yoga practice? Join Sky House founder, Ashley Litecky and yin yoga teacher, Rick Kowalewski in this interview as they take a deeper look into the benefits and healing capacity of yin yoga.



Saturday, March 15, 2014

Plant Teacher Spotlight: Hawkweed


Over the last few weeks I've been inspired to write about plants. The largest push came from a conversation I had with my grandfather about our Lithuanian heritage. As my grandfather shared his stories about the farmers and herbalists in my family who grew their own food, made their own clothing, worshiped trees, engaged in ceremonies, and kept bees, it inspired me to share some of my stories and the plants that I know. I've decided to combine my love of the tarot and plants and pull a plant card from "The Flower Speaks" tarot deck each Thursday and write about the plant, its signatures, personality, teachings, and medicinal qualities.


Today I drew the card for Hawkweed, Hieracium pilosella, also known as mouse-ear. This tough and hairy plant prefers to grow in sunny, sandy, and less fertile areas. Just in looking at you can tell she has a story. Her leaves grow close to the earth, are covered in fine white hairs in a rosette shape, and her stalks are hard and dry. Above her tall spindly stalk is a bright explosion of yellow and below her yellow head are reddish ligules, which at one time acted like a shield for her developing flower bud. Many times I have mistaken her for a dandelion but she is no dandelion. She is hawk medicine, a warrior, ruled by Aries, and unlike dandelion, she sends out chemicals from her roots to limit her own growth.


One teaching from Hawkweed is about honesty. In "The Flower Speaks" tarot, Marlene writes about it's connection to the planet Mars, the sign of Aries, the Justice card, and the quest for truth. She likens the plant to the great horned owl, also called a night hawk and it's ability to "see through" brush and obscurities to peer into the truth of what is below.


Medicinally, her fuzzy lung-like leaves are used for lung conditions like asthma, bronchitis, and whooping cough. Nicholas Culpepper, an herbalist and medical astrologer from the 17th century used mouse-ear hawkweed juice to ease the pains of kidney stones and the gripping discomforts of the bowels. He also recommended a syrup made from this plant for coughs and a poultice to be made from its astringent leaves for wounds.


Last August when I was visiting Adam's family land, the large open fields were covered with the tall waving heads of hawkweed. I sat with the plant and could feel its strength. I kept thinking to myself, "how can you grow so tall on such a thin stalk?" As I spent time with the plant I realized it was the strength of its spirit and its desire to grow toward the light that was holding it up. If we believe that matter organizes itself around energy, then we can see how this works. It's like when we really desire clarity in some area of our lives and we keep focusing on it, reaching for it, and in that process we can feel more deeply who we are, what we honestly need, and before we know it, we are there!


When you stand above the plant it looks like a bright eye gazing into your soul. I wonder if Hawkweed was pulled from the deck today as a reminder of the warrior energy of spring headed our way. Perhaps she is circling us like a hawk, asking us to survey our lives, to look at ourselves with the piercing eyes of truth and honesty. Maybe it is time to get real, get honest, and to face the truths that we might have been avoiding.


As the energy of spring starts to build now is the time to get to work. It is time to survey our lives with grace and honesty. It is time to ask ourselves the tough questions and start making small decisions to clear away the brush and brambles.

Like hawkweed, let us put on our fuzzy coats and reach toward the warm light of truth and start the journey. The process may be long and arduous but if we know where our arrow is pointed, we can trust that the path will follow.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Finding My Religious Roots

This morning I sat down to practice some new songs on my harmonium, a beautiful instrument that you can find at most kirtan or yoga music events. Contrary to what most people think, the harmonium, or pump organ is not native to India. Rather, it was developed by Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein (1723–1795), a professor of physiology at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. When the British missionaries 'took over' India, they brought French manufactured harmoniums to teach their new captive audience Christian hymns.

Perhaps the twisted history of this instrument spurred by own mini-existential crisis.

As I was playing one of my favorite Kundalini chants, "Prithvi hai, Akash hai, Guru Ram Das Hai" which means, "The Earth Is, Heaven Is, Guru Ram Das Is," I started thinking about this Guru Ram Das guy. Who was he really?  I have no ancestral memory of him. I can't ask my parents to tell me the old stories of Guru Ram Das and how he used his beard to dust the dirt from his teachers feet.  I started feeling sad...and lost.

I stopped playing and asked myself the question, "what spiritual songs did MY ancestors sing?"

This is an immediately tricky question because I am an American mutt. My mother's father is from Lithuania and my mother's mother is from Sicily. My father's mother's line is thought to have come over on one of the first ships to the US and is a mix of English, Welsh, and French. My father's father is from the Czech Republic (formerly Czechoslovakia). So what does that make me? Where do I look to find the source of my pagan proclivities?

I am guessing I am not the only white American yoga teacher to ask these questions and to have these feelings. In my heart I love the stories from Hinduism, the Gods and their many faces, the yoga poses that help us to embody these great qualities and attributes. I only wish that I had the same familiarity with these Gods as do my Indian and Hindu students. I wish my family celebrated Shivraratri and Ganesh Chaturthi. I wish these faces and stories were ingrained into my DNA from generations of worship and celebration. Instead, I have a broken Catholic chain on one side and a failed Protestant attempt on the other.

So, I began to research songs from my own ancestry. I thought there might be a song from my own ancestral roots, perhaps an old Latin, Greek or Latvian song similar to my favorite Sikh chant. One that calls to the Earth, Heavens, and to a saint, sage, plant, or tree spirit, who I could connect with, sing to, feel.

After hours of research and time listening to some very strange YouTube music videos, I came
across an ancestral religion that instantly spoke to me. On my Lithuanian grandfather's side, they practiced a nature and ancestor focused religion called "Romuva." Romuva was practiced and celebrated throughout the Lithuanian region until 1199 AD when the Roman Catholic Church declared it pagan and attempted to wipe it out. "Romuva" which means "temple" and "sanctuary", also "abode of inner peace."  It includes songs to the trees, plants, seasons, sun, moon, wedding songs and dances, gardening songs, funeral songs, and songs for feasting.

I was overwhelmed by happiness and grief as I read about this beautiful religion. It was so familiar. As familiar as the plant Rue that is used in many Romuvan ceremonies. As an herbalist, I've had a deep connection with this plant ever since it first came to me in a dream. Every time I see, smell, touch Rue, I feel like I "know" the plant, and even more importantly, that it KNOWS me.

After many hours of searching and listening to Lithuanian folk songs I realized that I wasn't going to find what I was looking for. There weren't any simple mantra-like songs that I could whip up and play on my harmonium. The Lithuanians didn't have mantras or even a concept of a mantra. Their songs are long, celebratory, and include detailed accounts of bird songs, flower buds, berry gathering, and accompanying dances performed in circles. 

As a practitioner of yoga and meditation I pride myself on my ability to detach and observe my emotions. This is a very helpful skill especially when you live in a busy city like DC and need to detach from the large amount of stimulation that is a part of your daily life. However, if you are sad, like really sad, and sad for a good reason, detachment might actually be more like avoidance. Today I went into my sadness, probably much like my ancestors would have.  I let myself feel sad and cry. I mourned for my heritage, for my ancestral songs, plants, and rituals. I mourned for the God that my ancestors knew and prayed to. 

Yes, I can sit, meditate, and forgive them, but that doesn't change the fact that I feel like I've been robbed from a childhood that would have validated my love of nature, animals, plant spirits, and my ancestors. No amount of meditation will bring back the stories of great-great grandmother  and how she gathered berries and mushrooms, and celebrated the victory of spring over winter with song and ritual fires for her omni-present ancestors.

I'm not sure what to do with all of the the information I've found.  Do I try to learn revive these old Lithuanian songs? Do I plan a trip to visit my remaining family living in the Lithuanian country side on the land my ancestors have farmed for ten generations? Do I try to incorporate the plant and ancestral traditions of my relatives into my life here in the United States? Do I keep looking for my ancestral God?



Or do I say goodbye to this part of my heritage and pick up my hybrid-harmonium and play hybrid-songs to my hybrid-gods?

Perhaps it's not so black and white. It is conceivable that my ancestors have been speaking to me all along. Perhaps they were the ones who led me to wash and decorate the trees in my suburban backyard. Maybe they led me to study plant medicine and helped me name my first cat "Mishka" which my grandfather later told me means "forest" in Lithuanian. Perhaps they are alive and with me now as I plan my spring medicinal herbal garden and design a primitive skills retreat to the mountains of Georgia in July. 

I've decided to set up an altar in honor of my ancestors just as they do in the Romuva tradition. My mom said she will send me some old photos of my great grandparents. I will call my grandfather today and will listen to his stories. I will pray that my ancestors continue to guide me as I practice my yoga, study my plants, and search for my own authentic songs.  I will continue to ask tough questions, live modestly, incorporate nature-based rituals into my life, and I will wait patiently for the answers. 

As the Lithuanian proverb goes, "Kaip senieji giedojo, taip jaunieji dainuoja" or, "Just as one calls into the forest, so it echoes back".



UPDATE::

Just got off the phone with my 91 year old grandfather. My grandpa Al was a first generation American whose parents were brought together by a matchmaker in 1913. They escaped the Russian occupied Lithuania by sneaking out one night, crossed a babbling creek carrying a bag of feathers on their head (to trade) and crossed the border to Germany. From there they bought a ticket to America and landed in Massachusetts where they set up their first home.

I told my grandpa about the questions that came up for me today around God and my struggle with religion. I shared my feelings of being displaced from my ancestors and their stories and their gods. He told me story after story of his parents and grandparent's lives in Lithuania. He said that God, in Lithuania, is an old oak tree. Along the highways and village roads you will see metal barrier surrounding all of the old oaks (usually with a diameter or 5 -6 feet) to preserve them. The oak tree gods are honored throughout the country along with the old forests. He told me about the Lithuanian Thunder god and the history of serfdom and war from in the country from 1100 to 1830.

My grandfather is a scientist. He has a PhD in chemistry and worked for General Mills for over 50 years. He's never said it outright but I think he is an atheist. He married my grandmother who is Sicilian and a strong Catholic. As we spoke about the nature beings he told me about his grandfather, Jougas, who ran a small farm, kept bees, sold honey, and made herbal medicines for the village. He gave me the names of the villages and told me stories about visiting large clearings in the forest where people would gather for ceremonies. He said he happened to be visiting during an ancestral ceremony of his own line, the Milunitis family, and people gathered and spread picnic blankets across and old ceremonial clearing, shared food and drink while his cousin dressed in the traditional costume performed a ceremony to honor the deceased. Although he didn't say it, I think he was moved.

I am so grateful for my grandfather. He has a sharp and open mind even when I was going through some challenging times as a teenager, he has always treated me with openness and respect. I am grateful for him and his strong memory. It makes me feel so good to know that I have ancestors who were land-dwellers, lived and acknowledged nature spirits, worked with bees, and made plant medicines. It is a part of my history that I never knew. I know I am not alone and if you have elders who are still with you, reach out, ask them questions. There is something nourishing to the soul in hearing these old family stories.

At the end of our conversation he was almost in tears and said, "God bless you, Ashley. You are the first grandchild to ask these questions and I am glad to know that our history is living on." I know that my cousins care, yet as the oldest grandchild, it just happened that my existential crisis came first 

Monday, February 17, 2014

The "Teaching Tips" Project

After several months of practice, and many hours of false starts, I finally made it into the illusive Pinchamayurasana, WITHOUT the wall. Hurray! This was a huge moment for me and I wanted to share it with my Facebook friends who were following me as I attempted to perfect this pose. One day during our yoga teacher training program at Sky House the students pulled out their cameras and we all started filming each other practicing our favorite challenging postures.

That evening I had an idea. What if I film some of my favorite yoga teaching tips and share this with my facebook and online community? I am pretty sure that most people are not interested in seeing me "do" the pose. They are interested in seeing if THEY can do the pose and many teachers out there are interested in learning new tips for helping their students.

So my "Teaching Tips" project was born! Every Tuesday will be posting a new teaching tip related to yoga and herbal medicine. The hope is that these short 3 - 5 minute clips will give teachers and students a new nugget of information to consider when teaching. So far my teaching tips have been specific to a single yoga asana (posture) and I plan to expand this to general teaching tips for wellness practitioners. Coming up I have a few episodes on mudras, assisting, meditation, and plant spirit herbs I often work with, and tips for keeping your teaching fresh!

If you are interested in following these teaching tips you can subscribe to my YouTube station, follow me on facebook, or subscribe to this blog.


Here are a few of my previous Teaching Tip Posts. Let me know what you think and anything else you would like to see!


With Love,
Ashley