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Reflections on the First Hayloft Yoga Practice of 2013

Hayloft

We could not have dreamed up a more springlike and lovely first day of Hayloft Yoga!  The sun was warm, the frogs were cheeping, the birds singing, and of course, the horses were peacefully munching their dinner beneath us as we practiced.

There were some new faces in the Hayloft last evening ~ welcome! ~ and with their presence a reminder that you don’t have to own horses (or even have ridden a horse before!) to enjoy and benefit from Hayloft Yoga.

THE PRACTICE
We opened practice in Supta Baddha Konasana (supported reclined bound angle pose), belly-breathing and releasing tension.  In the space of openness, I read this Barbara Marciniak quote:

“Imagine Yourself unbounded, with an opportunity at every turn, and this is what you will create.  Set up limitations, and you will find them.  Remember, you effortlessly attract the energies that support your version of life.”

In life and in asana (yoga poses), we can work toward manifesting whatever we imagine.  When we find tightness in the body, instead of pushing through it or becoming frustrated, we instead honor that this is where the body is today, and continue to breathe.  We can imagine going deeper, staying conscious of our breath.  In this way, we patiently and persistently begin to energetically move the body in the right direction, through the power of intention.  With practice (this is why Yoga is referred to as a practice and not an exercise), we begin to find that our tightness opens, the body becomes strong yet supple, and perhaps after weeks, months, or even years, we find ourselves an embodiment of what we imagined.

IT TAKES TIME
One of my teachers told me the story of a yoga master:  One of the master’s students was having difficulty sitting in sukhasana (easy seated pose).   The master instructed him: “Each day, sit in sukhasana for one hour.  Place a large phone book under each knee.  Each day, you may tear off one sheet from the phone book.”  Eventually, after many years of practice, the student was able to sit with ease in this pose.

It takes loving kindness, patience, and persistence.  If your intention is there, if your imagination is activated, the rest will follow.

TRY IT
The same goes for our lives.  If we take the time to imagine our most ideal life, full of ease and abundance, if we dedicate some time and energy toward creating a strong enough intention, we will see that eventually it becomes manifest.  There are dozens of books and teachings supporting this concept.  You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay is a great start.  Try it for yourself: click here for a simple exercise you can do on your own.  If you are uncertain where to start, try setting an intention of Becoming Whole.

As we practice yoga, we take steps toward reaching our highest potential.  I am honored to share this practice with you.

SunsetThe magnificent sunset over the San Juans was the perfect night cap.  Thank you to all who joined me in Hayloft Yoga!  I am already looking forward to next Tuesday!

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Benefits of Yoga for Equine Enthusiasts

The practice of yoga benefits riders and their horses both subtly and obviously.  Here are some things we can watch for and celebrate as we learn and grow in our practice.

FLEXIBILITY

This benefit is perhaps the first one we recognize.  After a well-rounded practice, our bodies have moved in all directions, we have created space and heated the body through conscious breathing, and we have stretched comfortably within our limits.  Over time, flexibility increases and we notice our physical limitations expanding.

I can’t recount how many times I have heard, “Oh I can’t do yoga–I’m not flexible enough!”  Yoga isn’t about showing off how flexible you are; it’s about gently coaxing your body toward suppleness and gaining flexibility over time.  It is a practice, and it may not happen overnight.

Flexibility is beneficial in the saddle.  Even though we aren’t exactly riding in a specific yoga position (though some–myself included–would point out that sitting on a horse is yoga), a flexible body has fluidity: it moves efficiently and gracefully with the dynamic movements of the horse.  Try sitting a trot with your shoulders scrunched toward your ears and you will feel a dramatic example of how a lack of flexibility impacts your riding (then be sure to pat your horse afterward and thank him for letting you experiment).

With flexibility comes ease: notice the difference between a limber horse who has warmed up and a stiff horse who has just stepped out of its stall, or a horse who will bend easily to slight pressure and a horse who resists the bridle.  Visible grace arises out of flexibility, and this concept applies to both horses and humans.

BALANCE

Physically, as we age or through lack of practice, we lose our balance more easily.  This can be remedied simply by engaging in balancing activities.  All Hayloft Yoga classes have a balance component, with modifications that are accessible to anyone.

Physical balance translates to staying centered in the saddle through every gait and transition.  Yoga develops muscles that aid in balancing through seated, standing, and moving postures.  In the saddle, we find greater ease and stability as a result of the yoga practice.  Our horses will appreciate our integrity and ability to support their movements through our heightened sense of balance.

BODY AWARENESS & COMMUNICATION

Unlike humans, who primarily use words and tone of voice to express ideas, horses rely on what we consider subtle physical cues.  As a prey species, horses are far more sensitive to physical messages.

As we practice yoga, we heighten our awareness of the messages we send through our bodies.  We become more intentional in how we move.  We begin to notice the impact of posture, the energy in our seat, and the awareness of our breath.  In these ways, we learn to communicate with our horses with more clarity and effectiveness.

CLARITY & A HEALTHY MENTAL FRAMEWORK

By focusing our attention on the physical body and the breath, a yoga practice clears the mind of distractions and makes this mental state more readily accessible.  We gradually realize that mental clarity is a choice: it is a matter of taking a moment to breathe rather than getting wrapped up in external circumstances.

Yoga can teach us patience, persistence, grace, humility, courage … the list goes on.  When we’ve had a rough day and arrive at the barn frazzled, we often find after just a few minutes of grooming or riding, our troubles have melted away and we’ve gained a healthy perspective again.

Yoga empowers us to create the same impact: no matter how busy or chaotic the day has been, a few minutes of breathing deeply brings us to center.  It only takes a moment.

This mental clarity can benefit us before we enter the show ring, as we get prepare to mount a nervous horse, on the trail, in the arena–virtually every circumstance we encounter.

AN INVITATION

I invite you to share some of the benefits you have found in  your practice in the form of a Comment or Reply, below.

Thank you and Namaste.

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Yee-Haw, Namaste Part I

Written by Jessie Tierney, Certified Yoga Instructor and Summer 2011 Wrangler at Sanborn Western Camps.

HorseYoga2By far the most gratifying part of my third summer at Sanborn has been the opportunity I’ve been offered to teach girls yoga on (and off) horses.

On our four-day pack trip, seven ladies and two counselors joined me in a quest to find a deeper connection to Horse and Self through yogic principles.

Many people associate yoga with postures and flexibility (the asanas), which, while an important part of this practice (and especially photogenic), is not the entire picture. Through four days of waking up early to let the horses out to graze, practicing breathing, long rides on and off-trail, technical riding practice and games in the arena, discussing qualities of exceptional humans and horses, practicing patience and persistence, we began to explore some of the more subtle aspects of Yoga and how Yoga can apply to our lives on and off the horses.

I was inspired by this group of ladies–they were eager to learn more about their mounts and had a deep commitment to strengthening their bond with their horse over a short four days. They all succeeded. One of the horses who was often skiddish and would often pull back on the lead rope, shying away when approached by a human, seemed to settle into his skin, so to speak, and actually watched for his rider, following her with calmer eyes than I had seen on him since I met him. Another horse who is known for prancing on the trail and rarely flat-walking seemed to melt under his rider as she practiced slow, long breaths. The sweet mule on our trip who did have a mule-like stubbron tendency when she was away from her buddy in the herd seemed to replace that horse-partner with her human-partner, nickering when her rider walked near. These were subtle differences that might not be noticed if we weren’t watching for them, but the nature of this long trip allowed for us the extra time and space for observation and reflection.

HorseYoga3

Not only the horses benefited from this trip. Each girl in turn seemed to more willingly take on the responsibility for her horse than I have seen in my years of leading horse trips. Her investment in the welfare of her horse was great, and I heard not one single “are we done yet?” while we let the horses graze for four hours (instead of three) each morning and each evening, under steady watch of their riders. Girls willingly volunteered to contribute to our small community’s well being–”Should I take down these tents?” “Do you want me to collect the dishes?” “Can I let my horse graze some more?” “Do you need to borrow my headlamp?” The counselors and I honored these qualities in the girls by awarding them aspen leaves, a GROW STRONG tradition at Sanborn, naming qualities like LeadershipHelpfulnessOptimismGreat Attitude in each girl and writing the instance down on a leaf. The ladies cheered for one another in our evening circles, and we discussed ideas like Community, Leadership, and Integration.

The entire feeling of this long trip was serene. I don’t remember ever feeling over-tired or stressed (common sentiments Grazingon any typical long trip). Yet it was not any small feat; this four-day trip that took the ladies and their mounts off-campus. I think what made the difference between this trip and others I have led was our strong, unified Intention that we took the time to set at the beginning of our journey. I think it helped that we practiced yoga in various forms throughout the trip: Meditation, an active Asana Practice, Partner Yoga, “Hawking Yoga” (in the field next to a grazing horse), Bareback Yoga. We had an excellent discussion on GRATITUDE, and how the simple act of waking up in the morning and listing off five things we are grateful for can totally set the stage for the day or pull us out of any funk. We spoke about how attitude is a choice and that we can choose, literally, to be joyful. HorseYoga1One of the girls started out the trip rolling her eyes at a lot of these ideas, but after our Attitude discussion, she was all smiles and seemed to get a lot out of the activities she’d previously felt were juvenile.

I am so proud of these girls. They trusted one another, they slowed down and allowed themselves time for reflection, they became vulnerable to one another and shared their inner and outer observations. These are all things that our culture rarely allows time for. Even camp, which is meant to provide for these opportunities, can feel cramped for time and space when we have so many objectives and goals in mind. I am so grateful to the folks “in charge” at Sanborn for allowing such a trip to happen, for their encouragement!, and for trusting that it is truly not the destination but the journey that matters.

YEE-HAW, NAMASTE!

Click here for more Tails from the Barn.

 

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Yee-Haw Namaste, Part II

By Jessie Tierney, Certified Yoga Instructor and Sanborn Wrangler for the Sanborn Western Camps Blog, 2011.

Sugar, a typically grumpy horse, transformed throughout the week into a pleasant, happy mare!

Sugar, a typically grumpy horse, transformed throughout the week into a pleasant, happy mare!

After such a successful first Horse Yoga Long Trip, I could not imagine it getting even better.

With a new group of 9 campers, two staff and a total of 14 horses, we set out this time on a 5-day trek to unite with ourselves, our equine partners and each other . . . and this exceptional group of ladies made our 5-day trip an experience I’ll never forget.

One especially important element of this Horse Yoga trip was providing journals to campers at the start of the week. We sat on the front porch at the barn and talked about the power of Intention. With ideas of manifesting our dreams in mind, we made them concrete by writing them down in our small journals. The girls were asked to keep track of their intention throughout the trip, taking the time during Hawking (watching the horses graze for 6 hours each day) to answer some of the prompts I included in the pages, and also writing whatever came to mind on the blank sheets. This week was punctuated by torrential rain on each of the five nights, but this did not stop the girls from pulling their journals and pens from their cantle packs to huddle inside their ponchos and write. We made sure to “debrief” each evening, sharing some of the insights they came up with in the presence of their munching horses and the sound of rain. We woke up each morning with sloshy boots and soaked jeans, but thanks to the Colorado morning sun, we were dry before heading back out on the trail.

We talked about the girls’ answer to the prompt: “What is your Dream for the Future?” Answers were as varied as the ladies in the group, and we learned one girl’s dream to become a vet despite her allergies to animals. Another girl spoke of working with an organization to end child trafficking. A third hoped to overcome her anxiety and nervousness around competition, and said that she was looking forward to using the breathing exercises we had learned in one of the yoga practices. As we shared our dreams with one another to the backdrop of our horses grazing in a hay field, we became vulnerable–together–and provided support that felt tangible. It was like etching our dreams in stone, solidifying these intentions and banding together to make them manifest, our horses and one another as witnesses. It felt powerful.

Happy CamperOne Happy Camper!

This trip’s destinations allowed for us to do more bareback yoga on the trail–3 of our 4 camping spots had arena setups which allowed the girls to ride without a saddle. Something profound happened here, too. One evening, we un-tacked the horses, hung their bridles on a tree branch and stacked their saddles below. After we’d allowed the horses to eat for three hours, we led them into a fenced-in section of pasture.

“Okay girls,” I said, “this is going to be an exercise in trust for your horse,” as I began tying a hobble knot on one of the horses’ lead ropes so it did not drag on the ground. “Tie your knots and I’ll give you a leg up.”

“How are we going to steer?” one of the girls asked. I smiled.

“You’re not. You are going to breathe deep and trust where your horse takes you.” There was a ripple of nervous excitement, and I breathed deep to release a bit of my own uncertainty about the exercise. “Who’s ready?”

SavasanaHorseback Savasana

As I walked around the herd of 11, hoisting each girl onto the back of her mount, I silently prayed that no one would get hurt. These horses could potentially cause a ruckus, but part of me had a good feeling about the Trust exercise, and I focused on the good potential rather than the bad. It will be okay, I thought, especially with this group of girls, who picked up on the power of their breath easily. I expected that the horses would take advantage of the opportunity to graze, and that they wouldn’t venture too far.

“Deep breaths, ladies. See if you can get your horse to lick his lips or sigh with you,” I coached. Some of the mounted girls had already turned their bodies around to lay their heads on their horses’ rumps. Once everyone was on, I led them in some collective breathing and a few horseback asanas (poses).

To my surprise, not one horse moved. None of the horses even lowered their heads to graze. They had complete freedom: every opportunity to find a good patch of grass to munch or even trot around the pen if they pleased, yet each horse stood stock-still, ears gently turned toward the rider on its back. In fact, the horses seemed to relax deeply, standing in a group with their riders lounging on their backs, eyes drooping with one leg relaxed. These horses were doing yoga, too.

I nearly cried. There was something happening that I had not anticipated. Even Sugar, a horse known for kicking any horse who got near to her, stood nearly drooling with what I would normally deem “uncomfortably close spacing” to the horse by her side. Even more than on the last trip, these horses were actively participating in the yoga practice. They transformed as soon as their riders shifted their awareness to the breath.

Horseback Savasana in the FieldBridleless & Bareback Pasture Meditation

I have personally experienced the power of breath awareness in horseback riding innumerable times since I was a kid–calming a nervous horse by slowing my breathing and feeling my seat sink deep into the saddle–but it was always something I took for granted that felt difficult to articulate to others. Now, so visibly in front of me, it was made obvious: horses respond to breathing. Bigtime. Suddenly applications of this teaching flooded into my mind: we can make riding infinitely more safe by teaching this simple technique. The horses trusted their mounts because their mounts became wholly present in the moment through watching, listening to, and lengthening their inhales and exhales. So simple! Yet so profound!

Taken seriously, these breathing exercises allowed for the campers to “get away with” doing poses even I would have deemed impossible before the start of this trip. Girls were sitting backward on their horse’s rump in Sukhasana in meditation. Some did partner poses on horseback, nearly hanging upside-down off their mounts. Ekha Pada Kapotasana–Pigeon Pose on horseback–impossible? Hardly! I stood by laughing nearly the entire trip. It was miraculous!

Fly_asanaThis camper made up a pose she dubbed “Fly-Asana,” sitting like a fly on her horse’s back.

There was one element whose absence I think made possible much of what these ladies and their horses accomplished: Fear. Likely because of their youth and my (at times feigned) confidence that they could accomplish whatever they set out to try, these girls were fearless. The absence of fear in the girls gave their horses confidence, and the equines embraced these new, foreign activities as though they’d been waiting to do yoga all their lives. Or, perhaps the horses had been doing yoga all their lives, and the girls finally got up to speed. After all, horses as prey animal depend on the awareness and presence of the other members of their herd for survival. This makes horses the ultimate yoga practitioners: wholly present every moment. Once the girls caught on to how to be wholly present through their breathing, the horses felt they could trust them completely (thank you Linda Kohanov!).

The trip was magical. The girls loved it; the horses loved it; I loved every second of it–okay, perhaps not the moments when I woke up at 6am to put on a pair of soaked jeans and puddle-filled boots. But the attitudes of the ladies and the transformations that took place are memories I will cherish forever and that will surely fuel me to continue doing this work.

Horseback Yoga Pack TripHappy Trails!

I have a feeling this is the start of something very big. Thank you, Sanborn, for making it possible.

Yee-Haw! Namaste.

Click here for more Tails from the Barn.

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