Category Archives: yoga

Adventures in Teaching: The Endless Chapter

I had two new students in my Level 1-2 class the other day, a young man and a woman who arrived together. It was their first yoga class ever. I welcomed them, got them situated and took them to the upstairs studio. I showed them the props and helped them get set up for class. “This is a little intimidating,” the woman said, as I handed her a strap. I asked her why. “Because I’m not sure what I’m doing.”

Her frank honesty reminded me of what it can be like for a total beginner to step into a yoga studio. I didn’t tell her that I often feel just as intimidated as a teacher and am often not sure what I’m doing, either. I reassured her that she would be fine and that we’d take good care of her.

Donna Farhi says that teaching yoga is like “holding a heart in our hands.” If I thought about this too long, I’d probably never teach. But students like this young woman remind me why I do. I’m grateful to receive the grace of her bravery and trust, and hope to live up to them.

hands-holding-a-heart

The art of adjustments

My nine surya namaskars for Day 25 of the Kiss My Asana yogathon for Mind Body Solutions are dedicated to the art of adjustments. The fundraiser ends April 30, and although my fundraising goal of $1,000 has been exceeded, more is always welcome. Read more about why here.

“You reveal the inner body, you don’t fix it.” ~ Matthew Sanford

This simple profundity is one of the keys to understanding the role of adjustments in yoga, particularly for adaptive students, those with substantial mobility impairments.

As I move this year through a 300-hour teacher training course in Purna Yoga, I’m realizing just how much I’ve learned from Matthew about the art of touching and assisting students. In the first four years of my teaching, I’ve not been hugely confident about giving strong hands-on adjustments, mostly because I don’t have much experience, and I have been taught that firm adjustments are last resorts if a student isn’t quite “getting” it. When you move in to touch someone who is trying to figure out a pose for himself, you better know what you’re doing and why. Intention is everything. But, like anything else, the practice gets better with practice.

As I start to write this while sitting at my desk, our 1-year-old kitten is clamoring for my attention, my touch. He is clawing at my leg and climbing up into my lap. I can’t type like this, however, so I have to pick him up and let him go. He pulls one of the cat beds closer to my chair, turns it over and settles himself onto it. He sleeps.

Last month, during the first of three two-week TT stints I’ll attend at the Alive and Shine Center near Seattle, we learned a five-part adjustment for shavasana, the corpse pose of final relaxation. I have been practicing it in my classes back home, with nice results. Students have told me that they really appreciate the extra sensations, which allowed them to relax even more. One student asked me after class if she was crooked and needed adjusting (certainly one reason to do the movements) ~ in other words, why did I do it? No, I said. There was nothing to fix, nothing wrong with her. I just wanted to help her get more out of shavasana, from within her own body.

Aadil said this last month during a discussion about integrity and respect for the practice and each other and our duty as teachers to cultivate a vigilant sense of awareness: Remember that “what is in front of you is a whole life, not just a body full of pain.”

Matthew’s teachings helped me greatly when I taught young people (ages 10 to early twenties) in treatment for eating disorders. Almost all of them loved receiving adjustments in shavasana (their favorite pose anyway) and frequently asked me for them. I was surprised that they wanted to be touched at all, so this was a huge lesson for me in how a fractured mind-body connection often wants to heal: by being seen, heard, acknowledged, cared for, held. They loved simple leg traction and neck massages, along with just being allowed to lie still and quiet in the dark for a while. Since this was not a typical yoga teaching situation, I would ask if anyone didn’t want to be touched. The one time ~ the one time! ~ during a class (not in shavasana) that I didn’t ask a patient before offering a light adjustment in child’s pose, she turned out to not want to be touched. She very politely told me so the next time I saw her. I have to say, I was really proud of her. Mortified for myself, but proud of her for voicing her needs and creating a boundary.

Yoga teachers don’t ~ or shouldn’t ~ give instructions or offer props and adjustments to fix anyone or force a movement or a cookie-cutter shape. In alignment-based yoga, yes: For able folks, we work to align bones and joints through the use of muscular actions. This creates vitality in the spine and, by extension (literally and figuratively), throughout the whole body. Bringing the spine into the body brings us into the present moment and more into our true ourselves. It pushes our heart forward and up and out. If we can learn how to reveal our personal Self to ourself, then we can share it with others. This is a deeply healing approach to profound trauma and, as the Buddhists call it, the trauma of everyday life.

Mind Body Solutions photo.

Mind Body Solutions photo.

Several adjustments that I’ve learned from Matthew emphasize that point. One is in tadasana, the basic standing or mountain pose: The “giver” places her right hand between the “receiver’s” shoulder blades, the back of the energetic heart center. This helps to teach awareness of the back body ~ which we can’t really see or access very well ourselves ~ with a sense of deep support. With help, we can let go. This translates into a softening of the upper shoulders (the trapezius muscles) and a lift in the front chest ~ the heart center. The release of unnecessary tension frees up energy for creative and constructive use elsewhere. At a workshop with Matthew in August 2014, he gave these instructions for tadasana:

“Balance rolling the traps back and down. Lift the chest. Lengthen the neck. Charge the legs. Reveal who you are.”

The techniques that Matthew teaches for adaptive yoga are tectonically subtle, more subtle than adjustments common in traditional classes. Sometimes a nail just needs a hammer. But for folks with disabilities, it’s crucial to “move in to move out,” he says, because that layer of subtlety is more accessible for them. I would say that is a key element of yoga, for anyone who practices, regardless of ability. Work in, not out.

Matthew talks about teaching the experience of a pose, not simply the shape. Because how would you teach triangle pose to someone who is paralyzed from the chest down? We assist people ~ and sometimes each other, student to student ~ to uncover sensations, to cultivate attention and awareness, not to fix or force. To feel and to heal. However, although adjustments from other human hands and bodies can leave marvelous imprints and uncover long-buried truths,  the real work is still personal and individual.

Matthew also talks a lot about not making an adjustment about you, the giver ~ don’t whip around and bore into the receiver’s eyes, asking, “How’d I do, huh-huh-huh?” Of course, both parties need to communicate to some degree. But adjusting is “about the universe, not ego,” Matthew says. An adjustment or an assist is an energetic exchange. There may be a doer or a giver and a somewhat passive receiver, but there’s nothing passive about the dynamic. If the student is receptive to the touch ~ which is more often than not offered without words ~ the giver receives the sensation of release as well.

One way to feel this is to sit spine to spine in sukhasana (cross-legged) or dandasana (staff pose). Work the basic actions of the poses, but feel the warmth and support coming from your partner’s back while letting the groins soften. Then move away from each other and feel the effects of gravity. Parting is such sweet sorrow! Keep doing the actions but try to re-create the sense of relief. Then try to translate this into every pose, into any challenging situation in your life in which you feel unsupported or ungrounded. A supported spine, Matthew says, helps the mind open and relax. “Support the spine, ease the mind.” With that sense of relief and focus can come even more expansion into a pose, into yourself, the space around you and your life. Safe structure creates freedom.

“The spine is more connected to the universe than your mind.” ~ MS

Whether an adjustment is energetically asymmetrical (one person’s hand to another’s back) or symmetrical (two people sit spine to spine), the main ingredient for “success” is safety. Props and assists can help create physical boundaries that help us locate ourselves in space. Boundaries create structure and add to our foundation or base in a pose, connecting us more deeply to the essential sense of grounding, to the Earth ~ to the silence that reveals the deep inner hum shared by all humanity, as Matthew describes it. From that sense of security, we can feel safe to be vulnerable.

“Our minds are afraid of how connected we are. It only sees absence.” ~ MS

At the heart of the matter, as yoga teachers it’s our job to cultivate and create conditions of safety so that students can explore themselves, not to impose a system of shapes, especially shapes that some folks will never achieve. As such, all yoga is fundamentally about adaptability, about being open to transformational, sometimes painful but liberating and hearth-opening truths.

“Yoga brings hope at an unspoken level that precedes all trauma, loss and disability. At this level, yoga is not taught, but only shared.” ~ MS

Kiss My Surya Namaskar

Today, April 1, is the first day of the Kiss My Asana yogathon to raise money for Mind Body Solutions, a nonprofit that seeks to heal trauma, loss and disability through yoga. I am participating by bumping up my yoga practice to include nine rounds of sun salutations (surya namaskar, in Sanskrit) each day.

I just did my first round, dedicated to all of my amazing donors. Here is my fundraising page: http://bit.ly/19e9cdk.

I love it when I get a clearer answer about the choices I’ve made in retrospect. I had decided when I set up my fundraising page a few weeks ago to fire up my home practice with more sun salutations, knowing that they would tie in nicely with an intense 300-hour training course in Purna Yoga with Aadil Palkhivala that I have since begun. Two bumps in one! Yesterday in class, Aadil went over surya namaskar in some detail. I am so grateful for the refinements that this course is bringing, along with tons of new information.

So here is what Aadil had to say about the classical surya namaskar that we practice in Purna Yoga (no chaturanga dandasana!):

* “It is the most important yoga sequence in the human race.”

* It is the only such series that has stood the test of time: It’s about 5,000 years old.

* Research is being done on how the brain entrains with the body during this sequence. It takes nine daily rounds, practiced consistently for quite some time, to shift into this alignment. (And nine is a cosmically magic number for reasons I can’t explain here just now.)

* With mastery of surya namaskar, the ability to move forward in life becomes easier and clearer.

* Surya namaskar helps us move from the past and the future into the present. The movement throughout ~ in the temporal plane ~ is simply up and down, backward and forward, and always back to the center. Never out to the sides. The linking element between the parts in the sequence is the breath.

Who doesn’t want more of all that?

And here is why the work that MBS founder Matthew Sanford dovetails so nicely with my plans for surya namaskar and my bumped-up training in Purna Yoga. Words from Matthew, during the All Humanity Class that he led on March 22 in Minneapolis to kick off the yogathon (thanks for the video, MBS!)

* “In life, in yoga, you are rising and falling in every moment of every day of your life. An asana is a reflection of this existential truth.”

* “Our work is humanity disguised as yoga. It’s humanity connecting.” And: “You share yoga, you don’t do yoga as much as you think.”

* Surya namaskar incorporates the four principles that Mind Body Solutions focuses on in teaching adaptive yoga: Grounding, Balance, Expansion (or Extension, in sun salutations) and Rhythm.

* In terms of our temporal and spatial relationships to ourselves and each other: “This is the fundamental insight of yoga: That you’re supposed to complicate your movement and stay connected to the greater whole.”

BUT!

* “Complexity is worthless if the simplicity that’s inside of complexity isn’t realized. That’s why more complicated yoga poses don’t mean more yoga.”

Yay, yoga. More anon.

Namaste and thank you.

That time I met B.K.S. Iyengar …

Happy 95th birthday to B.K.S. Iyengar, born Dec. 14, 1918, in Bellur, India.

I met B.K.S. Iyengar in October 2005. “Met” might be a stretch, although I did stand in front of him for a few seconds, and I’m pretty sure he touched my forehead.

B.K.S. Iyengar, the "lion of Pune."

B.K.S. Iyengar, the “lion of Pune.”

My brush with yoga greatness occurred at a Barnes & Noble in downtown Washington, D.C., just a few blocks from the arena where I would see U2 a few hours later. (Sorry, Bono, but B.K.S. was ~ and still is ~ the bigger rock star.) I lived near Raleigh at the time. I was in D.C. not only for the concert but also for final interviews for a copy-editing job with the Washington Post, which I would later be offered and accept. Mr. Iyengar was touring the United States and making an appearance at the store in conjunction with the release of his book “Light on Life,” so I went and stood in line with others of my tribe, some of whom I recognized from other workshops, even my own home state. (For a WaPo article on Mr. Iyengar’s appearance, click here.)

Ground to extend.

The several dozen of us who had gathered well ahead of the appointed hour, in typical D.C.~Type A~Iyengar fashion, quietly and calmly formed a line that went around the block and up a slight hill outside the bookstore. It was a crisp and clear afternoon, and we were on the shady side of the building. We had to get a (free) ticket to stand in line to be able to meet and greet Mr. Iyengar, although he had already signed a bunch of books ahead of time. In typical Iyengar fashion, this made efficient and businesslike sense, although it created a somewhat awkward situation. Since he wouldn’t be signing each book individually, how could we fawn without that built-in ritual? With what would we prostrate ourselves?

As the line began to move, we snaked our way inside the warm store. Mr. Iyengar, then 86, was sitting in a chair off to the left as we came in, near the children’s section. As best I remember, he was wearing a flowing, linen-like ivory outfit. His silver hair draped down to his shoulders, and his bristly salt-and-pepper eyebrows poked out every which way. To his right stood John Schumacher, his local host, longtime student, hugely influential teacher in his own right and owner of the Unity Woods studio where I would take classes and workshops after moving to the area. (To read a Yoga Journal interview that John did with B.K.S., click here.)

Root to rise.

When it was my turn, I walked into the clearing around B.K.S. and John as if to kneel for Communion. I approached Mr. Iyengar and mumbled something incomprehensible that was meant to sound like “Thank you for being such an inspiration.” I think I might have actually chirped. I smiled at him, and he smiled back, very broadly, with his whole face. He rubbed the center of my forehead with his thumb, like a priest marking me on Ash Wednesday, or perhaps as if to give me a Hindu bindi dot. We had a moment, or at least I did. I felt a surge, a warmth, as if I’d received his blessing ~ but for what, I didn’t know. And then it was over. I exited stage right to make way for the next devotee and to buy my signed book. On to U2’s “Vertigo” show, with “Light on Life” in my hands.

That’s how I remember coming face to face with Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, the man credited with bringing yoga to the Western world five decades ago.

I’ve never taken a class with B.K.S., but over the years I have studied with many senior Iyengar teachers, several of whom earned their certifications in the early 1970s. Many continue to make pilgrimages to his thriving institute in Pune (which has a waiting list for students) and bring back the latest teachings from the oracle and his family (Mr. Iyengar’s children and grandchildren are also teachers). Such is his global influence that a documentary film about him is in the works, and there is a movement to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Becoming Iyengar-certified is anything but trivial: It takes years of study and mastery of a hierarchical assessment process, a system that is both prohibitive and excellent. According to the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States, there are just seven Iyengar-certified teachers in North Carolina. SEVEN.

I have no intention of going down that rigorous path, but I implicitly have a baseline of trust in any Iyengar-certified teacher. Mr. Iyengar’s individualized and inherently therapeutic approach to the ancient art of yoga (some of which is not so ancient) is the bedrock of my practice and teachings and always will be. And if you have ever used a block, a strap or even a wall in a yoga class, you have Mr. Iyengar to thank. The attention to detail, to alignment, to paying attention simply to what is happening ~ that is what yoga is all about: yoking, uniting.

Press down to go up.

Iyengar yoga has been hugely influential for me as a student and teacher, although I have taken classes in many other styles. Starting in January 2014, I will be continuing my unofficial doctoral studies in yoga with a 200-hour teacher training at Purna Yoga East, a sweet studio in Clayton, N.C., where I have been fortunate to teach for the past year.

Aadil Palkhivala

Aadil Palkhivala

Purna Yoga is the tradition of Aadil Palkhivala, who began studying with Mr. Iyengar at the age of 7 and continued to do so for three decades. Aadil still clearly honors B.K.S. in his asana instruction, and he credits Mr. Iyengar for his very existence. In his book “Fire of Love,” Aadil writes:

“His powerful and authoritative teaching, balanced by his compassionate caring when I had crippling spinal injuries, taught me that love has many forms. With his teaching, he laid not only the foundation for the physical aspect of Purna Yoga, but also the physical foundation of me! His guidance enabled my parents to conceive after seven years of unsuccessful attempts. … Yoga gave me life, and I am blessed to be able to pass on this gift.”

I am grateful to be able to continue studying the endlessly educational practice that is yoga and to have found a style that incorporates but also expands on the revolutionary approach that Mr. Iyengar developed. The Sanskrit word “purna” means complete or whole, and the method is based on the integral yoga taught by Sri Aurobindo. As Aadil says, by incorporating instruction in asana/anatomy/pranayama, meditation, applied philosophy and nutrition (and poetry!!! yes, poetry!!!), Purna Yoga is designed partly to help students “surrender the intellectual and analytical abilities of their brain to the inner quest that takes place in the heart.”

I’ve studied with Aadil twice and am excited that one of our TT weekends will be a workshop with him at Purna Yoga East. He is magical teacher, a savant in many fields, and genuinely hilarious. On his center’s Web site, this is how he describes his approach:

“Through disciplined exploration of the mind-body connection, heart-centered meditation and a focus on abundant living, Purna Yoga students magnify the power of yoga in their lives and achieve more of the life-changing benefits that they are seeking.”

(Plus, in workshops he quotes Wordsworth and any number of other poets. I mean, how can I NOT study more of this stuff?!)

The lineage ~ so important, so crucial to understand and respect in any classical tradition ~ is essentially this: from Sri T. Krishnamacharya to B.K.S. Iyengar to Aadil Palkhivala to Catharine Eberhart and Bob Maiers and the community at Purna Yoga East. I’m excited to delve more deeply into the parts of yoga that have nothing to do (yet everything to do) with what happens on a mat and to learn how to share them. As Aadil says, “Yoga helps us discover our life purpose and then grow into it. The more comprehensive our approach, the more we can heal and grow.”

Can’t wait.

Sprawling on a pin

I’m taking a photography course. My third in about 20 years. I continue to be a beginner at a lot of things, partly because of my scattered attention span, which I like to think of as Endless Curiosity and the Enduring Lure of Shiny Objects. I am a chronic dilettante, and my brain functions more like a kaleidoscope than telescope.

Starting in the early 1990s, I took beginning pottery three times. I always felt like a newbie each time I sat down behind the wheel, daunted by the attempt to make art out of mud. Every lump of clay is different; every moment of wedging, of trying to keep the lumps centered and pliable (but not too smooshy) on the wheel, of glazing, firing and waiting ~ is a lesson in patience, concentration and stick-to-it-iveness. It’s like the old joke “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice.” You get better at something by … doing that thing.

“Do your practice, and all is coming.” ~  Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

Bringing beginner’s mind to tasks that might seem intimidating or overwhelming or otherwise unpalatable is useful, even for an experienced practitioner. It can ward off boredom and burnout, for starters. (Speaking of Zen, one of my pottery teachers encouraged us to kill our uglier babies, to smash our less successful pots against the cement-block wall of the kiln building. This I could not do. My lessons in nonattachment remain ongoing.)

Shape clay into a vessel; it is the space within that gives it value.” ~ Master Po in the TV series “Kung Fu” (paraphrasing the Tao Te Ching, chapter 11)

I try to remember to keep beginner’s mind in yoga, and I try with varying degrees of success to take my yoga off my mat into the realm of All Life Is Yoga. Every day is different, every downward-facing dog is different, even if it’s my thousandth. And my practice and teaching are no good if I’m an asshole to the Kroger checkout lady or my husband. The point is, as I tell my students, to notice what you notice as you practice. You don’t have to necessarily change the situation or even make a decision about it (unless acute pain is involved, of course) or, god forbid, strive for perfection; just neutrally take stock, file the thought or feeling away and move on without getting attached to your: Oh, tight shoulder or: Yay, loose hamstrings or: What’s for dinner?

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” ~ Ferris Bueller

Polaroid from "March 23, 1981." I remember trying to capture the cool clouds. Trying, anyway. At our house in Hominy Valley, N.C.

Polaroid from “March 23, 1981.” I remember trying to capture the cool clouds. Trying, anyway. At our house in Hominy Valley, N.C.

Photography, like yoga, writing and so much else, is also about paying attention, about noticing what you notice. I’ve enjoyed taking pictures since I was a kid, especially with the nearly-instant-gratification Polaroid. I loved the View Master, with its cardboard wheels of images that came fully to life inside the machine. Click. Click. Click. I’ve especially grown to like “macro” photography, trying to capture close-up images ~ mostly of things that don’t move, like flowers, leaves, shells, sand, patterns. The minute details of life ~ Still Life.

Some of my favorite toys as a kid (besides my Johnny West cowboy set ~ yes, that barbed-wire fence in the 1981 Polaroid is for the horses we had) were Magic Windows, those clear-plastic ovals filled with colored crystals, and Lite-Brites and Colorforms. Somewhat passive “toys,” I suppose, but soothing and pretty. I love color ~ I used to just stare at a new box of Crayola 64s, opening the top to draw in the smell of the wax, feeling sad about messing up the pristine points of the crayons (OCD much?). But as our photography class instructor, Ted Salamone, is showing us, our cameras don’t “see” color, so we need to train ourselves to see shadows, gradations of black and white. Color distracts from detail, he says. I find that kind of tragic, but I can see what he means.

“Forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” ~ Leonard Cohen

No, I didn't go on eBay a few years ago to try to recapture my childhood. That was someone else.

No, I didn’t go on eBay a few years ago to try to recapture my childhood. That was someone else.

When taking pictures, I often find that while concentrating intently on the metaphorical trees, or one tree in particular, I miss the larger forest. I know it’s there; it’s just not as interesting to me. Everyone knows what a forest looks like, but what about the veins on the underside of leaf? The striations in color, the endless shades of green that are possible for a human eye to behold? But I sometimes feel weird sticking my nose and lens where they have not been invited, even in an otherwise public place. (This is probably one of many reasons I became an editor instead of a reporter, but that’s another story.) Gently trespassing, I figure I can ask for forgiveness later rather than permission first. Do I dare disturb a rose, a cotton field, a neighbor’s yard?

“Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all;
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?”

~ From T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Yes, I dare, to try to get the shot I want with my limited technical skills and often over-caffeinated limbs while not leaving too much of a disturbing mark: I want to capture a moment, not to create it or affect it. My feet, my knees might leave impressions in the grass or mud. I might stir something to life under its begrudging awareness of me. At the same time, while hoping that I remain invisible, I try to remain aware of the metaphorical forest around me and possible dangers to me and my camera ~ traffic, runners, slippery slopes, rain, seaspray, spiders, snakes. I try to follow the Hippocratic oath, the ahimsa of first-do-no-harm, while wondering how much my observing affects the observed.

Raleigh Little Theatre rose garden.

Raleigh Little Theatre rose garden.

For last week’s class assignment, I stopped by one of my favorite places to photograph, the rose garden at the Raleigh Little Theatre. I’d been there one rainy day the week before, in between light showers, and got a few auto-mode shots of beads of water on the many vibrant, intoxicatingly sweet blooms still on offer in early October, so I figured some worthy subjects would still be there. Our assignment this week was to play only with the ISO settings for indoor (400) and outdoor (100) shots, changing nothing else. Ted wants us to see how different settings affect exposure, how we can learn to control the computer in the camera to get the shots we want.

Baby steps. Wedge the air out of the clay. Play scales on the black and white keys. Learn to see the world, your subjects in black and white. Snap the shutter. Fall short, fail upward. Repeat. Try to kick up into a handstand. Fall short, fail upward. Repeat. Rest, study and try again. Explore the gray areas, the pauses between expenditures of willful effort. Study the results. Adjust. 

Surprise!

Surprise!

So, per Ted’s directions, with my husband’s Canon PowerShot G12 on “P” for program and the flash off, I set the ISO on 100 and went for a wander among the rows of towering rose bushes ~ the red, fuschia, pink, violet, lavender, yellow, orange, peach, cream and white flowers luring me in. It was again a cloudy day, about 4:30 in the afternoon. As I began to wrap up my visit, I noticed a tiny spider under a petal in a pale pink rose at the end of a row. I tried to focus the lens on it, which is hard, given my granny eyesight and the limitations of the LCD screen, even on a cloudy day. I looked at the first shot I took and noticed two skinny green triangles poking up on the other side of the petal.

Huh. Look at that. A dumpster-diving grasshopper, its head and most of its body burrowed deeply into the center of the flower. My eyes had zoomed in on one thing; the camera showed me what I’d missed ~ the bigger picture.

“Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer It has chosen.” ~ Minor White

Rest area.

Don’t mind me.

In my first photography class, back in the pre-digital Dark Ages, the instructor said that our eyes can see far more than any camera. I continue to prove him wrong. I was the only one (person) in the garden the entire time I was there, about a half-hour. As I saw the green legs sticking up, I caught my breath. Excited with my ~ or the camera’s ~ discovery, I tried to sneak up on the insect, raising the lens up and over the flower, since it was as tall as I. After a few shots, the grasshopper rose up out of the rose. I thought, Oh, now I’ve done it, he’ll hop off with whatever “Eff You” a grasshopper can manage, probably in French. But no, he slowly and deliberately ambled down a petal and perched on the edge. I don’t know if he even saw me. If he did, he clearly didn’t care. It was funny to have this relatively little but exquisite bug tower over me.

“And I have known the eyes already, known them all —
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?” ~ “Prufrock

Down under.

Down under.

I took a few more snaps, not really able to tell if any were truly in focus. Eventually the bright-green thing made its way down the flower and burrowed underneath a lower petal. I took a few more snaps and made my way out of the garden, exhilarated by the unexpected gift. The shots are meh (unlike like these here) ~ the color isn’t totally true, and the overall effect is flat. But I felt such a mix of things when I saw the grasshopper ~ surprise and delight, but also the sense that a decision needed to be made: I could passively enjoy the experience as it was unfolding, or actively document it. Plus, it was as if I was twice invading the insect’s privacy ~ by sticking my nose in its face and then the camera’s nose. It was not a difficult call to make.

What’s so alluring and magical to me about photography is the evanescence of it. It’s about the attempt to freeze a moment in time, a singular instant that has never happened before and will never happen again, because Now never happens again. It’s about the perhaps sometimes misguided but nonetheless heartfelt attempt to make the impermanent permanent, to record and preserve something meaningful.

See, look: I stopped time, and this is what I saw. Do you see it too?

Arrogant as it may be, it’s thrilling to try to capture more than my eyes can see, or more than I think they are seeing ~ to try to shape and capture an image, an irretrievable moment that occurs during an irretrievable second of light, preferably one that looks better and truer than what my own rods and cones show me. If I can just learn how to use the tools, to take the time to become still and focused, I may become more skilled at being able to receive and perhaps share moments of pure grace. Even if they come in the form of a grasshopper.

Master Po: “You are the new student. Come closer.”
Boy: “You cannot see.”
“You think I cannot see.”
“Of all things, to live in darkness must be the worst.”

“Fear is the only darkness.”
….
“Never assume that because a man has no eyes he cannot see. Close your eyes. What do you hear?”
“I hear the water. I hear the birds.”
“Do you hear your own heartbeat?”
“No.”
“Do you hear the grasshopper which is at your feet?”
“Old man, how is it that you hear these things?”
“Young man, how is it that you do not?” ~ “Kung Fu

This grasshopper was snapped at a rest area along I-40 in September. With an iPhone, which picked ISO 50, f/2.4 and a shutter speed of 1/1022. Someday my brain will be able to make those decisions that apparently a monkey can make.

This grasshopper was snapped on a sunny day at a rest area along I-40 in September ~ with an iPhone, which picked ISO 50, f/2.4 and a shutter speed of 1/1022. Someday maybe my brain will be able to make the decisions that an Apple monkey can make.

Yoga and poetry: A not-so-abridged (haha) version

Random, yoga-high and Mucinex-fueled thoughts and questions after another inspirational teacher training weekend with Matthew Sanford, which was set in snowy Minnesota against the backdrop of a great time spent with friends old and new.

April is national poetry month. I found a new favorite poem in a most unlikely yet perfect place.

Place: Minneapolis.

Atha yoganusasanam. Now begins the exposition of yoga. (Sutra I.1)

If yoga meets you where you are, where are you? More to the point, who are you, and who is with you? Do you know when to fill a space and when to leave it alone? Can you appreciate the gifts of the world’s many places, and the people in it? Know that a moment in time, brief acquaintances ~ especially those that leave a lasting mark, even in an instant ~ can have a ripple effect for the rest of time. Can we try to be good stewards of such gifts and return them?

Motion: On and under the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge.

Yogas citta vrtti …

What are bridges for? Where are you trying to go? What’s ahead, what are you leaving behind, what’s in the middle? What is this particular bridge made of, and why? What is in the space between the steel and pavement? What is in between the steel girders? What is your place on the bridge? What is the bridge between asana and real yoga?

nirodhah.

Stillness: Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. (Sutra I.2)

Get grounded. Stop. Look. Listen. To yourself, then others. To paraphrase Matthew: Can you sit in the presence of suffering without trying to fix it? Can you listen someone into speech? Can you discern when to move and when to just observe from the inside? Can you come home, to yourself, your body, your spirit, so that you can help others do the same? As a teacher, do you know that how you show up is part of what you are teaching?

Like yoga, poetry can live anywhere. It’s like the new-car phenomenon, if your antennae are up. While in Minneapolis last week, I found a poem on the inner overhead beams of a footbridge across a major highway. I’d probably read about it in my guidebook, but I didn’t make a point to find it. I’d budgeted a free tourist day before settling in for what I knew would be a weekend of intense teacher training in adaptive yoga with Matthew and the staff and students of Mind Body Solutions. I was staying with a friend I’d met in Costa Rica when I was a 16-year-old exchange student. I’d not seen him in 29 years, nor had I met his lovely wife. Their open-ended hospitality was truly the cherry on the cake of my weekend. They showed me around the “water city” and beyond, giving me glimpses of the ice-covered Chain of Lakes and stately surrounding neighborhoods, the old mills downtown and many of the bridges that cross the Mississippi, and St. Paul and their old neighborhood. This was my first trip to Minnesota, but I hope it’s not my last.

I’d decided to check out the Walker Art Center. On a snowy Thursday morning, I made my way across Loring Park. I asked the only other person I encountered if he could point out the gallery in the gray mist. He told me to take the bridge. I took my time walking along the slippery wood and taking in the view. As I got about halfway across, I noticed words up inside the high beams, the carved all-caps letters a dull gold. I realized I was catching the middle of something, so I walked to the end of the span to find the beginning. (The poem also runs down the other side of the bridge, in the other direction.) There was no title. Simply the first line:

“And now I cannot remember” …

I followed these words of John Ashbery ~ which were commissioned for the bridge project in 1988 ~ and photographed them. Honestly, finding this poem was worth my whole trek out that day. It was more stimulating and satisfying than anything I saw at the Walker (sorry, no offense to those artists). The poem set the stage for the yoga workshop, and for any journey. After crossing the bridge (over and back), spending a second weekend with Matthew and bridging a link to my teenage years, I am still trying to make some sense of it all. But it’s okay to just let it all be, for now, as well.

“… how I would have had it.”

Does it matter? You can make a plan, outline a vacation, build a class sequence, but in the end, you have to show up for Now, for whoever else shows up and whatever occurs. But in yoga, at least, the practice is the preparation. Embodying the poses and all the other stuff leads to responsive improvisation. I hope. And in Iyengar yoga, through props and adjustments, we learn and teach how to create and use correct memory: how to feel the energy of a pose ~ not necessarily the shape ~ and re-create it for ourselves and others. As Matthew so poetically illustrates, we create and explore boundaries and containment not to restrict per se, but to ground, extend and expand more fully into who we already are. Not to become anyone else. In his words: We give adjustments to reveal, not to fix.

“It is not a conduit (confluence?)
but a place.”

A conduit is a channel throw which something flows ~ water, motion, knowledge. And the space we try to reveal and explore in yoga “is the conduit of the inner body,” Matthew said. A confluence is a junction, where two things come together. Yoga. Yoke. Union. The body is the ultimate channel through which to practice achieving a confluence with the mind, and teachers are also conduits. Yet, as Matthew said, knowledge is not the answer for everything. Don’t just throw your knowledge around, he said ~ that’s just information; “meet me spine to spine,” with confidence, not overcompensation. Have you ever sat with someone, spine to spine? Try it in sukhasana or dandasana. Or just sit back to back; you don’t have to call it a yoga pose. Know that you can have someone else’s back, and that that person can have yours. We can be conduits for confluence.

The Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge (any bridge) is neither just a conduit nor a confluence; it’s both, and as those two aspects come together, it becomes something else entirely, transformed. Conduit + Confluence = Passage.

Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge
(image “borrowed” from the Walker Web site)

Funny how the bridge looks like a spine doing cat-cow, incorporating the energies of flexion and extension. One half, the suspension part, is bowed like cow pose, or the backbend of dhanurasana. The other half, the arch, is rounded like cat or balasana, child’s pose (and both look like bridge pose, depending on your point of view). The suspension part is painted yellow ~ sunny. The arch is a pale sky blue ~ more sedate. The two halves are yoked and supported underneath by a trestle and beams. A little Googling shows that the designer of the bridge, Iranian-born Siah Armajani, intends through his pieces to “reflect the ideals of a democratic society and to foster discourse and learning in the communities they inhabit.” The footbridge connects Loring Park to the Walker’s sculpture garden (home of the famous cherry and spoon sculpture by Claes Oldenburg, in which the spoon serves as a bridge across a pond).

The Walker bio of Armajani says that he has explored bridges as a metaphor for passage in much of his work. It’s interesting that he’s an immigrant: I wonder if he feels or has felt any of the sense of dislocation common to people who are or just feel out of place, who have voluntarily or not willingly left their home, their bodies, who have sustained trauma of any kind? How do we heal? Where do immigrants find a home? Where do those of us with chronic wanderlust in our DNA find home? There is this from a 2010 Star Tribune article: “Asked if [Armajani] felt himself to be in exile, even after half a century in an adopted country he deeply loves, he said, simply: ‘Right.’ ”

On the first afternoon of the teacher training workshop, as we settled into a passive chest opener after introducing ourselves, Matthew asked us to consider: Who or what ~ or even a period in our life ~ are we trying to heal? After we came out of this restorative pose, we got into groups of two and shared our answers. Have you ever told a deep, painful truth to a total stranger? It’s amazing what people may share when they feel safe.

“The place of movement and an order.
The place of old order.
But the tail end of the movement
is new.”

 “Allow for a new truth,” Matthew said during the Raleigh workshop I attended in October. “Go into the silence.” In his memoir “Waking,” (What’s that? You haven’t read it? Do it now!!!) he talks about healing stories ~ those that harm and conceal truth, and those that help or heal. Through his traumatic injury (he was paralyzed in a car accident at 13 in which his father and sister were killed) and intensely painful recovery, he figured out a way to make his life stories new, and he encourages others to do the same. Trauma, whether physical or psychic, causes a profound mind-body disconnection; to try to heal, we search for the bridges back to wholeness. Adaptive yoga (and all yoga) aims to meet people where they are, in the bodies they have. Matthew said that he once had a transformative moment while studying with senior Iyengar teacher Manouso Manos. Matthew asked Manouso how he’d known what to tell him to do in a certain pose. Matthew said Manouso’s answer was: I don’t know. Just let it be different. You don’t always know why an adjustment works. At the close of the workshop last weekend, Matthew made that point again, knowing that for a lot of us, he is turning yoga inside out and spinning it on its head (no pun intended). “Be strong enough to let it be different.” It = everything. Your experience of yoga as a student or teacher. Life. Let go of stories that aren’t working. Find new ones.

“Driving us to say what we are thinking.”

Words are nice, but communication takes many forms. A touch, a look, attentive listening. (Was Ashbery punning on “driving”? I wondered as cars rushed below me while I read his words.) And thoughts are just thoughts. They can be changed. The brain loves itself, Matthew said in October, and is parasitic to the spine. One of my new year’s resolutions was to try more to live in the pause, in the space between thinking and doing. That is a practice, too.

“It is so much like a beach after all, where you stand
and think of going no further.
And it is good when you get to no further.
It is like a reason that picks you up and
places you where you always wanted to be.”

On that bridge, in the moment of reading these words, it felt as if I was where I’d always wanted to be. The moment found me, not vice versa. And how interesting to think of “no further” ~ the middle of the bridge ~ itself as a place, a destination, although the Walker was my ultimate destination. And, oh, beaches. The home deep inside me is a beach. This is possibly partly a result of early childhood experiences in Florida, but being around water always makes me happy, or at least calm. In my geographic ignorance, I was surprised by how much water is around Minneapolis, not just the Mississippi but the lakes, so many lakes. In this most recent workshop, one of the MBS teachers described a restorative pose using water as a metaphor. Before the 35 or so of us trainees did the pose, we watched how the adaptive students ~ paralyzed or otherwise living with limited mobility ~ were being set up in a variation of viparita karani, with calves on a chair instead of up the wall. Props abounded ~ a belt around the chair seat and calves, a sandbag on the shins, a low block under the sacrum ~ such that the body was set up like a cascading waterfall from feet to head.

“This far, it is fair to be crossing, to have crossed.
Then there is no promise in the other.”

Fair. What an interesting choice of words. What’s fair? Does the poet mean that it is just, an earned thing, to be crossing, or that conditions are fair for crossing? What’s on the other side of the crossing? Are you even allowed to expect anything? Who knows. Yourself? That’s pretty much all you can count on, although sometimes, even that seems doubtful. Before going to Costa Rica as an exchange student with the American Field Service in 1984, I went through a pretty thorough interview and orientation process. I remember being told in so many words not to forget that, as the cliché goes, wherever you go, there you are. The point was that we were being warned not to take the experience of leaving the country as a way to escape any problems we might be having at home, because they would just come with us. This was far from my personal situation, but I did know of at least one person for whom this turned out to be true, and he went home early. All these years later, I know it’s true: You have to work out your own stuff first to be clear about what you are trying to share with others and certainly to try to avoid inflicting the worst of it on anyone else.

There is no promise on the other side. But if you don’t cross, you’ll never know. As Matthew said as we began on Friday: “Trust what you feel in your body. Don’t be afraid of your heart.” Through the practice of yoga ~ and it is a practice, not a destination ~ we work, as Matthew said in October, to get our bodies “congruent with the corridor.”

“Here it is. Steel and air, a mottled presence,
small panacea and lucky for us.”

Steel and air, heavy and light. Ground to expand. Make more space for the breath. A mottled presence, full of dualities. A suspension and an arch, grounded by a base of beams. Yet: Small panacea ~ can a cure-all really be small? Don’t be fooled into thinking there is even a cure-all for anything, although yoga offers plenty of questions and answers. And lucky for us, because otherwise: What’s the point? We are lucky to be offered crossings. Do we dare take them?

While I was in the corridor contained by the ribs and fascia of the bridge, I felt safe and exposed at the same time. Raw and warm. Comforted by the stirring words and a sense of adventure, yet a little woozy from being held over fast-moving traffic. Stilled yet moving in place, vibrating and feeling a certain hum. Two days later, I felt a blessed hum and a joyous release during a partner-assisted Warrior II. We worked in pairs, using our hands to gently support the undersides of our partner’s extended upper arms. Zing. As I felt the work dissipating in my triceps, my shoulders softened, my legs kicked in and relaxed at the same time. I felt more supported throughout my whole body, tingly pins and needles spreading up through my spine and out through my fingertips and the crown of my head. Such a simple pose with a profound adjustment. When I gave the adjustment, I could feel my partner’s shoulders relax. I don’t know if she felt the rest of what I felt. But imagine trying to feel a hum ~ or anything ~ if you are paralyzed and can’t “feel” your legs.

“Hum” was the word that Tiffiny Carlson, one of the MBS adaptive students (who has a fabulous blog at beautyability.com), used to describe what she feels when she grounds her feet ~ on her wheelchair footrest, or the floor or blocks. She is paralyzed from the upper chest down and can’t “feel” her legs.

“And then it got very cool.”

Such a funny way to end this poem, almost as abruptly as it began. As if the poet is saying, I’m done now. I’ve led you over the bridge; it’s time for you to get off. And cool? It was freezing ~ literally about 32 degrees, April 11, 2013. When I had finished with the poem, fingers nearly numb from gloveless photo-taking, I went down the steps and into the Walker garden, taking some snaps of the cherry sculpture before heading into the gallery and quiet warmth. Speaking of dualities, I love how the blood-red cherry suggests a luscious and sweet, juicy kind of warmth, quite out of reach; the steel spoon, a cold and impersonal utilitarianism. (All sorts of puns and cliches came to mind as I walked around the sculpture. I’m sure you’ll be glad I’ve kept them to myself.)

“Spoonbridge and Cherry” by Claes Oldenburg
(Walker sculpture garden, Minneapolis)

Matthew encourages us to teach the inner experience of a pose, to translate its energy for people who can’t move in traditional ways. (This method of course applies to able-bodied folks, but there are very real and important distinctions and differences between the two populations.)

Poetry also aims to translate what exists beyond words. And, perhaps like poetry and all art, yoga, as Matthew said, is not taught so much as it is shared. He said he suspected that Patanjali, the sage of the sutras, felt the wordless truth first and then found a way to try to convey it. In that sense, poetry and yoga both live close to the bone, our marrow.

For a few years, maybe forever, I have, in Rilke’s words, been trying to live with questions for which there may never be answers. In October and again last weekend, Matthew quoted from Galway Kinnell’s fantastic poem “Wait”:

 Trust the hours. Haven’t they carried you everywhere, up to now?”

I thank Matthew, the MBS staff and students, my fellow teachers and my Minneapolis hosts, Olman and Faith, for a spectacular and humbling experience. Words cannot pay what I owe, so I will borrow these from Rumi:

“Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.”

I made a collage of my photos of the Ashbery poem. And you can listen to the poet read it here: http://www.walkerart.org/real/audio/armajani3.ra.mp3.

 

Big stone

Playa Guiones

Funny how after writing (or trying to write) small stones every day in January my big stone of an article is published. At least it feels like a big stone, getting back into mining and shaping my own words into something reasonably coherent. I had such a fabulous time in Costa Rica in December ~ my third trip to the country ~ that I wanted to write about it. Publicly. Gulp. I pitched the idea to the Washington Post’s Travel editor, and she went for it.

I wrote twice as much to begin with, of course, and the first drafts were more about yoga than travel. “Love it. Rewrite it.” After working as an editor for eons, I found it interesting, stimulating, challenging, thrilling and terrifying to be wearing the other shoe. Or hat. I had to cut a lot of quotes, so some folks who kindly took the time to thoughtfully answer my questions do not appear. They might appear in the yoga version of the story. But, for now, here is this one: http://wapo.st/12kMfP4

~~~~~~

And a follow-up: A woman who lives in France who is in an online writing course that I’m taking (at WritingOurWayHome.com) alerted me to this ~ the article was picked up by a newspaper in Lisbon. Hee hee.

 

My Un-Do List

(Expanded from a shorter Facebook post.)

Yogah cittavrtti nirodhah. Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.
~ Patanjali’s yoga sutra 1.2.

“Hello darkness, my old friend / I’ve come to talk with you again.”
~ “Sounds of Silence,” Simon and Garfunkel

So, I’m taking not one but two meditation courses. Finding inner peace is hard work, ya’ll. One is a free online 21-day deal with Deepak Chopra. The other is a four-week meditation “snack” course at a studio near me in Clayton, N.C. The courses are quite different, and not just because one is online and the other “live.”

Deepak’s course ~ I like to call him Deepak, because I like saying “Deepak,” even quietly, to myself ~ has a specific theme each day, with an accompanying Sanskrit mantra. A link to the day’s lesson is delivered via e-mail, and I have been listening to them right after I get up in the morning ~ after drinking my gut-cleansing ayurvedic warm lemon water, which is probably stripping the enamel off what few natural teeth I have left in my head, but before my cuppa PG Tips, which is probably stripping the lining of my stomach. Once seated, either cross-legged or on my heels, I’m usually interrupted by the need to pee. Or a cat casually saunters up and rubs or claws a knee. Purring or snoring ensues. So many obstacles on the road to sitting still! In silence!

Each lesson takes about 15 minutes. Deepak’s voice is lovely, and how appropriate to be guided to yogic bliss by an Indian voice! Cliches are useful, ya’ll. I could listen to him read the phone book ~ not that they exist anymore. Ironic to be guided to relax through digital media, a form that has enhanced modern life yet killed so many industries and livelihoods. Bitter much? But I digress. See why I need more centering?

I try to carry Deepak’s daily mantra with me off my blanket and out of my office and into the world ~ heck, even down to the kitchen ~ but by noon each day, I’ve usually forgotten what sort of prayer or abundance-manifesting mantra I’m supposed to be reminding myself of all day. The idea that meditation is yet one more thing to add to my To-Do list makes me want to scream, and that is pretty much the opposite of silence. That I find the need to make relaxation a task is a sign that something is way off-track, no? When I feel so scattered, I get flashes of images from the 1982 documentary “Koyaanisqatsi” (“Life Out of Balance”). It’s a dialogue-free pastiche of images that show progress as entropy and self-destruction and vice versa, not unlike “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” a sort of satire of National Geographic and its ilk. (“Does the noise in my head bother you?”)

The studio meditation course is very sweet, offering guided visualizations and breathing techniques, some of which involve subtle movements. It comes from the tradition of Purna Yoga, a Washington state-based school created by Aadil and Savitri Palkhivala. This course is less verbal than Deepak’s and tunes into more of a heart channel than a brain channel. It’s also different simply because it’s not practiced in solitude. It’s nice to be in a warm, cozy room with other folks who share the desire to relax into their true self, whatever that is. Honestly, I think we all just want to shed what’s not serving us and find what does serve us so that we can more fully serve others. It’s that simple. And yet so difficult.

The Purna Yoga course offers some simple techniques ~ “snacks” ~ that you can use any time you feel the need to gather yourself, depending on your immediate location and comfort level with exhibitionism. One trick is to simply put your middle finger on your sternum, the heart center (although the heart is to the left of center, which is how I lean anyway), and breathe. Another snack is a centering breath in which you:

Sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Place your cupped hands by your ears with the fingers sealed together and pointing straight up to the ceiling. Hands are close to but not touching the head. Inhale there. As you exhale, draw the hands together in front of the face, as if closing a curtain, ending in prayer position in front of the third eye, with the palms sealed. Inhale there. Exhale as you draw your sealed prayer hands down to the heart center. Repeat a few times. The idea is to gather your thoughts and draw them down from the monkey mind to your true self.

But quieting the monkey mind is hard, ya’ll.

During a recent week of strange occurrences, I tried to draw on both courses to center and ground myself and open my heart space and be more mindful and grateful and compassionate and yadda yadda. But I don’t think I tried hard enough. Fair warning: Wildlife and common sense do not fare well in this tale, as I:

1) Ran over a squirrel on the way to a yoga class. He zigged, I zagged. And I wasn’t even looking at my phone! Thunk. RIP. After class, he was still there, in the road, flattened.

2) Accidentally voted for a few people of the “wrong” party. But they were judges, so who cares. Outside the polling place, I’d been handed a voters guide for the “wrong” party and crumpled it up, not thinking to use it as a how-to guide for whom not to vote. Maybe I hadn’t had enough caffeine. Oh well. Perhaps a better use of my citizenship would have been to not vote at all …

3) Ditched a yoga class (as a student, not teacher) after getting thwarted by backed-up traffic at not one but two interstate exits. Colorful, non-yogic language ensued. I thought I’d left that nonsense behind in Washington, D.C. Heart-centering breaths didn’t cut it.

4) Took a break from a long walk around the lake near my house to lie on a picnic table to rest my back and enjoy the stillness and silence, which was pleasantly peppered by crickets. Or grasshoppers. Do grasshoppers chirp? Whatever. Once I felt revived, or was no longer able to lie still, I sat up and opened my eyes to see a huge granddaddy longlegs crawling up my right arm. I squealed and squashed the poor creature in my frenzied attempt to brush it off my arm. Spider guts were mashed into my white T-shirt. Blarf. RIP. You can Google granddaddy longlegs, but for the uninitiated, they are really barely spiders ~ they have tiny oval bodies and the longest, skinniest legs ever. They’re practically pets, they’re so harmless.

5) Watched my car keys slide off the top of an apparently slanted tank and into a toilet full of yellow water — not mine — at a Chinese restaurant. Probably karma’s way of telling me that I should have made a better choice than pork fried rice. I fished the keys out, bare-handed, grateful that whatever was in the water dulled the smell of the gasoline that I’d sprayed on my hand at the pump a few minutes earlier. My husband was just worried that the remote lock on the keychain wouldn’t work. It still does.

6) Locked our gimpy arthritic cat in the garage for … a good while. She loves to hunt and explore dead leaves and whatever else is out there. She didn’t meow at all (unlike our other cat) and, once rescued, didn’t seem to hold it against me. I tried to make it up to her with cuddles, but she just looked confused.

7) Earned myself a bonus visit to the chiropractor after mentioning the words “ice pick” in ways that apparently scared him. I’ve been on once-monthly “maintenance” visits for a while, but he scheduled me for a follow-up two business days later.

And so I went “back to the loving place,” as Ellen Degeneres says.

There are so many simple tools with which to try to disengage from life’s silliness, to get off that useless and exhausting mental hamster wheel, to shed unhelpful patterns and life’s pointless annoyances ~ never mind learning how to cope with the irritations and traumas that really matter. What I’m finding is that it will take practice ~ surprise! actually doing instead of thinking and writing about doing ~ to become familiar with the tools such that I reach for them as naturally as I now reach for my habits to fly off the handle or get needlessly upset at stuff I can’t control and stuff that has absolutely nothing to do with me.

During my yoga teacher training, I found meditation to be the most elusive subject. Asana, ok, got it. Take your right hip back, left hip forward. Philosophy? Sort of got that. Patanjali and his sutras, ok, I have a filing cabinet in my mind where I can put that and come back to it. Anatomy? I’m not a scientist, but I’ve at least heard of the rotator cuff. I can now maybe name its four muscles, but I can’t tell you what they do. But meditation? I kept waiting to learn how to do it successfully. Give me an assignment, I’ll do it. Give me structure, I can try to follow it. But maybe I’m asking too much. One of our teachers finally just said: Meditation can’t be taught. Ok, then! Bye! Yet it makes sense. It’s such a personal practice. But there are so many techniques, how do you choose? I know folks who swear by Transcendental Meditation, but I don’t feel like shelling out yet more dough to try to solve the same mysteries over and over again. Shouldn’t inner peace be priceless?

What it probably comes down to is just to sit. No agenda, no map, no words. Sit and breathe. Just like I tell my students. We teach what we most need to learn, no? Notice what you notice, and let it go. Oh, and zazen. Isn’t that just sitting? How hard could that be? I should Google that. Maybe I’ll try to find an ashram or a Buddhist meditation group. Maybe I’ll add that to my To-Do list.

Better yet: to an Un-Do list.

Can I buy a semivowel?

Have you ever traced the outline of your feet when you stand with the legs together? Neither had I, until I decided to try keeping them together in sun salutations. “Let’s play Twister!” I’ve never actually played Twister, the Hokey Pokey for swingin’ singles, but the cheesy 1960s commercials often pop into my head while moving through some of the goofier poses. Looking at the outline of my feet, I thought, hmm, that looks like a heart. Sweet. Then it turned into a molar. Then the gluteal region. Anyway, I measured out my distance from tadasana to adho mukha svanasana, tried a few lunges and thought, I am not going to like this. Plus, I had fuschia-colored Sharpie ink around my feet.

Home base for my feet

Sagittal plane (what’s that again?), internal rotation, adduction. Moving through spinal extension and flexion, backward and forward, feet together when appropriate. There are many variations of surya namaskar. I prefer to keep my feet hip-width apart, which seems natural and more hip- and sacrum-friendly. However. I was curious to find out whether this is my habit simply because it is easier or whether it is valid for my body. The Iyengars and, I suppose, teachers in other traditions say that tadasana, or mountain pose, can be done classically, with the feet together, or hip-width apart, for those of us with uteruses or contraindications. For folks who are knock-kneed, for example, their thighs are already beyond normal internal rotation, so “feet together” is not an appropriate route for them to take.

I wanted to try moving through this dynamic, flowing sequence in a focused and compact way rather than spreading energy out to the sides, which is also a valid way to practice. I was in a class this week in which the teacher emphasized doing the salutations with front-to-back motion — arms out in front and up, not out to the sides and up. I know that’s a common variation, but it’s not my thing, so when she said *why* she was teaching it that way — to contain the energy — aha. Of course. That made sense. So on my own, I was curious to see whether it would be grounding: Will sweeping my arms out in front and not in a “swan dive” make me feel more centered, or claustrophobic and irritated? Will I be able to keep my feet together through plank, chaturanga and cobra, back to downward-facing dog, and then — this is the really hard part — stepping forward into the lunge?

Hence the feet tracings, like the paper turkeys that kids, at least American kids, make at Thanksgiving by tracing their hands.

I also wanted to play around with a mind-blowing concept presented in an online yoga anatomy course I’m taking led by Leslie Kaminoff. Week 9 is about the vocal diaphragm and the anatomy of sound. He explained that in Sanskrit, the language of yoga, there are five kinds of consonants and that they can be mapped inside the mouth, based on where their sounds originate (guttural ones come from the throat, etc., and labial ones from the lips). Here is the mind-blowing part: semivowels as vinyasas, or connecting movements between the asanas of the root vowels (which are steady, unchanging, continuous sounds, like AA, EE, OO). Semivowels are the sounds that have to be made when moving from one vowel to another, the in-betweens. He compared this to what has to happen in a vinyasa such as a sun salutation: There are movements that have to fill the spaces between the fixed, firm poses of, for example, tadasana and chaturanga. They aren’t poses in themselves but are still necessary.

Mind. Blown.

So which came first: The Sanskrit chicken or the asana egg?

Furthermore, the sounds that are created by combining the root vowels and semivowels are diphthongs (as in any language, presumably — just because I took a linguistics class in college doesn’t mean I remember a lick of it). So diphthongs are like the breath, the necessary bridges between poses. They are links that fill the empty spaces, connective phonic tissue that brings and holds two sounds together — eliminating duality! and creating a whole new sound, propelling a word or a sun salutation forward. An interesting idea, as opposed to the notion of not rushing to fill in the gaps between poses, or the breathing practice of waiting at the bottom of an exhalation for a few beats before inhaling. It’s nice to be able to take the sense of calm that comes with stillness and ease in a held pose into an energetic, flowing sun salutation, mindfully filling the pauses and creating the supportive net as you go.

My landing strip

Back to the mat. My experience in about 20 minutes of these flows was … interesting. I didn’t always neatly fill my footprints in front and back, but it was nice to have them there as a guide, like markers on runway. I felt wobbly at times, which is not unusual. I felt my asymmetries become more pronounced, especially how “out” and recessed my left hip is. My diphthongy breath grew louder as I began to sweat (and also to realize that maybe I should not forgo deodorant just because my husband is out of town for the week). I sometimes lost track of which side I was on, also not unusual. I caught myself taking my arms out to the sides while inhaling up into the low lunge. Oops. None of these are critical errors, but as I caught myself flubbing I just tried to refocus and start over from wherever I was. This was an experiment in going against my grain, after all, so no big deal. As Kaminoff also says in a handout accompanying the Week 9 lesson: “Either the goal of yoga is to be free, or the goal of yoga is to get it right — choose now, because you can’t have it both ways.”

So the sagittal sun salutations were an interesting experiment in energy, how to move in a linear, non-scattered way with the breath, my own breath. Noticing what I noticed. Trying to find tricks (there aren’t any) to help me stay on track, and then not worrying about it.

Just playing with the language of yoga.


Body language

Communication is a funny thing. I’ve been thinking about its various forms lately, as a relatively new yoga teacher (hmm, how much longer can I use that excuse?!) and in a writing exercise in which I explored the subjectivity of language — in conversational styles and interpretations of words spoken and written. We can’t control what others manufacture in their minds about what they hear and read, no matter how many facts are provided; we can’t control perceptions based on the life experiences, filters and biases that we all carry with us. Perception is reality. Hemingway couldn’t control what people thought his books were about, and plenty of academic discussions have tediously tried to decipher Author Intent. What did Mark Rothko mean by his color field paintings? Who knows. There’s no way to get around the subjective richness and complexity of being human. Heck, I can’t even keep the various ways we communicate straight. Some of my friends prefer texting (sometimes in paragraphs), others rely on e-mail and still others are more likely to use the old-fashioned telephone, not to mention Facebook and Twitter. (Sometimes I wish we had only tin cans and string.) But we can try to control what we say or write and how we say it.

In going from a fairly solitary, very sedentary desk job to teaching yoga, I’m finding that two of the biggest Not Me aspects of my personality are becoming Oh, Crap, I Have to Do This Now aspects: public speaking and leading a group. I’m the girl who used to nearly pass out while delivering oral book reports in high school, trying to get all the words out in one breath (Anne Frank deserved better, really). I’m the follower, not the take-charge Queen of the Castle, and I cringe at being the center of attention. But having to stand up in front of a group of yoga students and tell them what to do with their bodies, using words and my own body, which throughout my life has been a source of much disgust (blog fodder for another day and plenty of therapy, people), has been quite an experience. I’ve noticed some funny things in learning how to verbalize a practice that I have enjoyed for years from the other, quieter side of the mat.

Simon Says …
Students are far more likely to do what I do than what I say. I don’t think this is because they aren’t listening to my words, but sometimes I wonder. A fundamental aspect of yoga is the art of paying attention — it’s just funny that students often seem to be paying more attention to how I move, regardless of what I say, especially if I’m not clear about what I’m doing or why. If I’ve demonstrated a prop set-up, for example, and I go to move it to show them a better angle, they will do the same unless I explicitly say something like, “Keep your props there; I’m just moving this so you can see what I’m talking about.” The same goes for demonstrating a pose and leading them into it. If I come out of it to walk around the room without saying “stay there,” they’ll pop right out. By the same token, I have to be careful that my poses are worth demonstrating. If someone’s arm is bent when it should be straight, is it because my arm is bent? Am I being sloppy? I don’t generally like to practice in front of a mirror, but as a teacher there are times it’s been helpful. Dear god, my arm does THAT in half-handstand? If I’m a little “off,” I have to decide: Is this a pose I can refine enough to teach; do I say, “Ha, ha, do as I say, not as I do, since those who can’t do, teach” (that’s rhetorical, by the way); or do I find another way into the pose? Sometimes I think the body speaks in ways that words never will.

Do the Hokey Pokey
One of the biggest challenges I found when I first started teaching poses was how to verbalize body movements to get someone else into a pose I’ve done a thousand times. Sometimes my brain and tongue go on separate journeys in class, as I’m looking around at legs and hips and pelvises and lower backs and trying to figure out how to make the right noises come out of my mouth to get people to do what I want. I’m pretty sure I recently said “bring your nose to your knee” when of course I meant the reverse. I’ve internalized so much from so many teachers over the years, but it was a shock to have to go back to the basics and figure out how to tell people to move — firm this, externally rotate that, lift that, soften there, just breathe — without overwhelming them with details. In my first teacher training course, I took too long with up-front explication. “Just get them into the pose!” the instructor yelled. She was right. The layers can be added after the initial movements. People want to move without over-intellectualizing in the moment, myself included.

Find your asana
Using Sanskrit, the language of yoga, adds another level of complexity, at least in teaching a mixed-level class that might include beginners. In trying to focus on getting students into poses by calling out anatomical instructions in plain English, I find I have little time to tell them what the pose is or means in Sanskrit. Then sometimes when I do give the Indian name, it feels oddly like I’m showing off or filling the air with white noise. As if, By god! I learned this stuff, and I’m going to dump it on you! After years of taking Iyengar classes, I came to be able to recognize a pose in Sanskrit, but I didn’t necessarily know what the words meant. For example, adho mukha svanasana means downward facing dog. But at least in the early days, I didn’t know which word in Sanskrit meant what (adho=downward, mukha=face, svana=-dog — that one happens to be a linear translation).

Is this the party to whom I am speaking?
I also find that I sometimes when instructing I feel like a broken record and get a bit lazy. There are times I’ve said to do “downward facing dog” and thought to myself, “You know, blah blah blah, just do it! Downward facing dog! Get in there!” Interestingly, this is one of my many pet peeves when I take class — I can’t stand for a teacher not to give at least basic alignment instructions or to hear her say something like, “Whatever, you know, just do what you feel like.” Well, what I feel like doing is lying on a beach in Hawaii, but that’s not likely to happen, now, is it? There’s a line between encouraging students to pay attention to their bodies, to assure them that it’s ok to take things at their own pace and rest when they need to, and letting them just flop around as if you aren’t even there. They can do that at home. It’s a teacher’s responsibility to be the students’ guide: to be clear, to ensure their safety and to be mindful of what the bodies in the room are doing and adjust or correct as necessary, even in a pose as common as down dog. Above all, it’s my goal to make sure students have a good experience in class, whatever that means for them. There is infinite space for refinement in every pose, no matter how long someone has been practicing. And in my own practice, the only way I’ve come to be able to internalize poses is through repetition. Lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of repetition. “Put your left foot in, take your left foot out … that’s what it’s all about.” Here’s hoping that teaching will become smoother with repetition as well.

This is not a recital
To that end, I have a lousy memory in many ways. Although I’m a visual person, I could never memorize poems or my piano music. (I cheated at my recital and had my sheet music propped up in front of me. Was that because of a lack of practice or confidence? Maybe both, but I digress.) At some point, I hope to be able to lead a class in a more freestyle way, being responsive to the energy in the room and individuals’ needs, but for now I plan my sequences carefully and write them out in a notebook I keep by my mat while teaching. There’s always room for editing in the moment, if I’m running out of time or need to pad a class, or if I see someone is not going to be able to do something. But my process for now is to have a script, and I’m enjoying the unexpected creativity in planning classes.

During my teacher training in D.C., I ran across something that Erich Schiffmann had to say about building a home practice: “The idea is to start calmly wherever you are. … The idea is to increase your sensitivity to the inner feeling of your body and let it guide you into the appropriate action for that particular moment,” he wrote in “Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness.” Also, he said, “The key is interest, and the trick is to be attentive in the moment to that which elicits your fullest enthusiasm and response.” This really made a huge difference for me and got me over a lot of hang-ups, and it was essential to becoming a teacher. Basically, he advised, just sit on your mat and wait for poses to come. You wait for your body to tell you what it wants to do, and then you guide it. Just show up; trust the process. So that’s how planning classes goes for me. I think of a pose I want to work on, such as the horrific (for me) camel pose (ustrasana), and then I play with how to get there and how to explain what to do. The process is not unlike writing into a journal and then refining parts of it into a poem or prose for public consumption. First comes the exorcising, the unedited, creative purge; then the editing, the refining, trying to make it make sense for other people.

Don’t be a Debbie Downer
Negative language. It’s a drag, like the Debbie Downer character on “Saturday Night Live,” who always sees the glass half-empty. Wah wahhhh wahhhhhh. During a class, especially depending on a teacher’s tone and attitude, negative language can fill a room with a heavy, gray, Pigpen type of cloud. In giving asana instructions, I try to be careful about how much I use words and phrases such as “don’t” or “bad” or “you want to avoid x, y and z.” But sometimes it’s necessary to show and tell what not to do for safety reasons and also so that people can compare it with the proper way. You can learn what to do by learning what not to do. And another thing: I also try to catch myself before saying that a pose sucks. Then why do it?! I was in a class recently in which the teacher said as much about a pose that was indeed truly horrible, at least for my many-sprained ankles (it involved standing with the legs sort of scissored apart and rolling to the outside of each foot). I immediately checked out of it and did something else. As a teacher, what I try to say instead during a challenging pose, like, say warrior III, is that yes, it’s challenging. Take it in stages. Build from the ground up. Work where you need to. If yoga is about paying attention, pay attention to what your body parts are telling you, especially if you have injuries. Try this and that to stabilize this and that. I don’t want students to get too discouraged, and I don’t want to psych them out from trying in the first place. On the other hand, I wonder if sometimes I’m being too soft or pandering. Where does my need to say “Good!” or “Great job!” come from? Because I like to hear it? (Hello, ego.) Why do I think students need or want to hear attaboys and attagirls? Do they? I want to be encouraging without tipping over into condescension. It’s a fine line.

How are you feeling? No, really. I want to know.
The flip side of trying to figure out the best way to verbalize body language is that I never really know how my words are being received in terms of how students feel in a pose. I try to read their faces, their bodies, and wonder: Am I making any sense? Are they feeling what I mean, what I feel, in the shoulder blades? Those furrowed brows, is that pain, confusion, curiosity, indigestion? I realize that grown-ups can take care of themselves, and most people aren’t going to do something that causes them pain, but I’m mystified by the unspoken transmissions between teacher and student. I welcome questions, whether out of curiosity or for clarification. But sometimes if the class is quiet for a long time, I start to get a little paranoid. Are they still with me? Were they ever? Do they wish they’d never come? Do they love this pose as much as I do? Are they thinking about lunch instead of their hamstrings? I know what my internal running commentary is like when I’m a student and what it’s like to try to concentrate on what a teacher is saying and put it into my body. I know what it’s like to receive verbal and physical adjustments, sometimes to the point of excess. It’s really weird being on the other side, trying to be a mind-reader. Or a body-reader.

There will not a be a quiz, I promise.
To that end, I welcome any kind of feedback. I’ve appreciated any compliments I’ve received from students, but I try not to get too attached to either end of the spectrum. I had a sweet girl leave one of my classes last summer while I was teaching half-handstand. I’d stopped to explain something about it, and she said she just couldn’t sit still for that long. And it was just a minute or so! She was apologetic and said that she liked my classes but that she had to keep moving (I guess she was part shark?), so she moved on out the door. You never know how you are going to be seen or received, whether appreciated or rejected, and I could relate to her in a way — I also have a low threshold for boredom. I’m not going to gel with everyone I teach, and that’s fine. I know that from my own experience as a student. But I do wonder what goes on in students’ heads sometimes. At the end of class, I usually ask if there are any questions. Invariably, I get blank stares and head shakes. Like, huh? There’s a test? You didn’t say there’d be a test. So if there aren’t any questions, does that mean I was totally clear and complete? Or so boring they weren’t paying attention after a certain point? I don’t know. I hope to create a class environment that welcomes a certain amount of dialogue without alienating anyone. But there’s only so much of another person’s experience that I can be responsible for. This is all new for me, the role of being the one responsible for controlling a room. Ah, control. But I digress again.

I’m not fluent in body language; I’m just now learning the alphabet. But I’m finding that teaching is the greatest teacher of all.