Tag Archives: yoga

Thank you, B.K.S. Iyengar

A gratitude map:

Thank you, Jane Barrett, for firmly grounding me in detailed alignment and for giving me an early teaching nest.

Thank you, Jan Campbell, for your cheerfulness and eureka! instructions in urdhva hastasana.

Thank you, Rodney Yee, for your mystical exploration of padmasana.

Thank you, Erich Schiffmann, for a groovy partner foot adjustment in ustrasana, for hosting my first adult attempt at a handstand, and for the invitation to cultivate interest with passionate calm.

Thank you, Roger Cole, for cradling and adjusting my neck in utthita trikonasana.

Thank you, Cindy Dollar, for the rolled-up mat behind the knees and under the feet in virasana and for being so welcoming when I randomly drop in to your studio.

Thank you, Julie Gudmestad, for your humor, unhurried instruction and fun tricks with shoulder straps.

Thank you, Bryan Legere, for the Great Yoga Wall and your love of the sutras.

Thank you, Manouso Manos, for your five layers of instructions for lower-back therapeutics in a chair version of ardha chandrasana.

Thank you, Ray Long, for an introduction to the popliteus muscle and for your willingness to explain why it’s worth going deeper.

Thank you, John Schumacher and Unity Woods teachers, for sharing your collective decades of wisdom and reverence for your beloved Guruji.

Thank you, Kim Weeks, for cittavrtti nirodhah on Day One and for holding the spaces for my first 200-hour training.

Thank you, Kristen Krash, for your spunky dedication and for telling us to move our skin.

Thank you, Liana Brooks-Rubin, for your warm kindness and encouragement.

Thank you, Lois Steinberg, for your frequent laughter and engaged and engaging presence.

Thank you, Patricia Walden, for your crisp and joyful guidance in standing poses.

Thank you, Joan White, for having eyes in the back of your head and seeing my wonky hip in upavishta konasana from 50 feet away in a crowded room.

Thank you, Bobby Goldin, for suggesting that I take your teacher training course, for your book about perky groins and jokes about jewels, for Raleigh and Sanibel, for bhramari, for helping me find a non-bug-eyed setup for salamba sarvangasana, and for telling me to just keep doing what I’m doing.

Thank you, Aadil Palkhivala, for sharing your three decades of study with Mr. Iyengar and for developing and transmitting Purna Yoga. Thank you, Catharine Eberhart and Bob Maiers, for growing Purna Yoga in North Carolina.

Thank you, Matthew Sanford, for sharing your huge heart, your embracing wingspan, your self and your stories, and for adapting Mr. Iyengar’s teachings in a transcendent, transformational way. You have seismically changed my life.

♥ ♥ ♥

bksiyengarThese are some of the clearest moments and feelings I cherish from years of studying with people close to the teachings B.K.S. Iyengar, who died August 20, 2014. Yoga can be a lonely and isolating pursuit ~ but of course, it is meant to be shared. Yoga is an endeavor that connects us and shows us that we are already connected. Thank you to all of my teachers for sharing and connecting many dots for me. In doing so, they embody, honor and sustain an indelible lineage.

♥ ♥ ♥

That time I met B.K.S. Iyengar … 






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. 



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?”
“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.

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.

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.

Small stone 1-23-12

I sweep my arms behind me
offering the cross
formed by the axis
of sternum
and collar bones
ready to leap with no net
my palms come together
pinkies press into my spine
felt but unseen
as I fold forward
the public part of my heart recedes
as the back chambers
bend and lift
in invisible supplication

Small stone 1-17-12

At the bottom of my breath
black space
hangs over the precipice
of the choice
to let in new air
and loosen the ancient knot
just as waves roll in and glide out
the wind laps at the soul
channeling currents of possibility

Small stone 1-15-12

If what is beyond the edge
is a ledge
do you approach cautiously
or leap into the unknown
you can’t find your limits
till you test them
but if you go too far
can you ever come back
recovery and forgiveness are never guaranteed

Small stone 1-2-12

In the body’s celestial symmetry
the power of aligned pairs is revealed
along the nervous universe of the spine:
in the occipital points around the atlas
that holds up the world in my solar-hot head
two knobs floating above the sitting bones
that lie under the pelvic receptacle
which roots the backbone
the poetic source of courage
and reaches for the scooped crescents of my heels
slivers of a luminous moon cooling off the sun.

The vinyasa of home decorating

Yin and yangI’ve been practicing and teaching more vinyasa-style yoga lately, which has dovetailed with a move from a two-bedroom 13th-floor apartment in the congested D.C. burbs into a light, airy three-bedroom house (with a “finished” bonus room!) back on our home turf in North Carolina. My husband and I tried to downsize and declutter before heading south, making several trips to a thrift store to let go of things that had gone unpacked or unused from our last move six years ago. We’re finding it challenging to arrange our stuff in our new-to-us space. It’s a nice “problem” to have, of course, but one irony of streamlining is that we need to get more furniture to organize and store what we do have in the different configuration.

Vinyasa is known as “flow” yoga, although “vinyasa” simply means to link poses in a thoughtful way. The idea is to create harmonious and sensible sequences, and movements are done with the breath — generally inhaling on an expansion, exhaling on a contraction. In flow yoga, unlike in, say, Iyengar yoga, poses are typically not held for great lengths of time. (Although I promise there is nothing static about Iyengar yoga.) So in decorating our house, we’re trying to figure out how to create the best dynamic flow, within rooms and also from room to room. The interior itself has a nice “flow,” with an open kitchen and living area. The upstairs area has its quirks, but the overall space is efficiently designed. And we’re still purging — I took bags of books (*gasp* oh, the horror) to Goodwill this week, finally releasing most of my college comp lit collection. I brushed aside those little stabby pains of nostalgia, because really, Carlos Fuentes? Just a guy I read once upon a tiempo. But Gabriel Garcia Marquez? He stays. A girl is allowed certain inviolate standards, after all.

It turns out that decorating a house is a lot like building a vinyasa sequence, and organizing a room is a lot like breaking down a pose. Think about the anatomy of a house, with its foundation (feet), beams (legs), walls (spiny bits, ribs), hallways and windows (circulatory and nervous systems). The heart and soul, well, those are more ethereal. Our house is nearly 19 years old, so it has had time to “breathe” and settle, and it’s showing normal wear-and-tear signs of aging (a new roof is in our future). As I play with certain poses to figure out how best to teach them, I break them down as if building a moving puzzle with body parts. As I arrange objects in our house, I’m doing much the same thing — adding details here and there, excising what we don’t need.

I get stuck frequently in both processes: How can I bend more in my front knee in Warrior I? Where the heck am I going to put the linens? Ooh! I forgot I even had that hip trick/trinket. How do I thoughtfully remove obstacles along those paths? Houses are built from the ground up. They’re also furnished that way: Matthew and I put the big things in place first, like the couch and bed, and will worry about non-essentials later. So, too, with yoga: You have to build the foundation of a pose or a sequence from the ground up, literally and figuratively.

The private, backstage work I do for teaching resembles the process of organizing the house and trying to get it comfortable for us and presentable for guests. The point of both exercises is to achieve clarity — of design, intention and use. In vinyasa yoga, with enough practice, the breath can become as natural as it usually is off the mat. Through yoga of any kind, you can come learn how to move mindfully and naturally from one action to another, from one pose to another, as if gliding effortlessly from one pleasing room to the next. In theory.