Shift. The word came into my head this morning as I was contemplating names for a new blog. But then I realized (okay, after fighting with WordPress for domain names for a while) that perhaps I don’t need a new space. I can simply shift my thinking about this one.
(Also, the word shift is one of those that if you look at it for too long, it looks like nonsense. And there’s the inevitable misread, which is kind of the exact opposite of what I want to get at.)
It was in yoga, not surprisingly, that the idea arrived. The poses ask you to constantly shift — your balance, your breath, your focus. To make those shifts safely, you need to slow down and be intentional. But then you need to act as well — move into the next pose.
And I’ve been feeling a deep shift in my yoga practice lately. I can’t quite articulate it yet, but it feels like I’ve reached a new threshold and I’m about to cross it.
Yesterday I was on the train into the city and this thought came into my head: “I want to be a writer.”
It’s something I call myself professionally, along with “editor” — I am paid to work with words. But am I “a writer”? I’ve spent a lot of time lately doubting my ability to form words into stories, or to say anything useful or meaningful with them. It’s one thing to write a sentence correctly, or write a “pretty” one using “beautiful” language; it’s another thing completely to be able to put those sentences together to tell a story that conveys emotion, that makes the person reading it feel something.
That’s the place where I’m hovering in uncertainty. It’s a threshold that I’m unsure about.
It’s not that I don’t think I have the ability to do it. I know I do. But I want to create something bigger. And, well — sometimes it feels like words fail me.
For me, stories are everything. They are everywhere. Everyone, every thing, every place has a story. Hearing, watching, and reading these stories feels like what I’m supposed to be doing, what I want to be doing. But when it comes down to sitting with a blank page and writing my own, I get muddled. What is it I want to say? Is it worth saying? I’ve got this idea, these emotions I want to get across — how to do that? What is the story? Where’s the plot? (Is there one?)
I’m trying to shift myself out of this mind-set and just do it. Just write. See what happens. It’s a practice, like anything else, and I’ve grown better and better at understanding that in the rest of my life. Everything is in process, and all you can do is show up, again and again. Some days it will all fall into place and be practically perfect. Other days you will literally fall on your face. Most days will be somewhere in between.
As I said to a friend this morning, during those practically perfect times, everything feels aligned. The vibration is right, like the sound of a harmonic on a guitar. That’s the place you strive to get to and stay in for as long as possible. But you have to follow the path that leads you there; it’s not in plain sight. (And I suppose it wouldn’t feel so satisfying to arrive and linger there if it was.)
And here’s the thing: Writing gets me there. I’ve just written this piece about how I’m trying to write, and I’ve written myself into that feeling, that high. I’m there.
Another friend recently wrote this line: “In order to write, I need to write.” Circular and true. It’s the harmonic.
So. I’m going to consider this post a shift, and I’m going to come here more often. And write.
I’ve been teaching my yoga class at the studio where I practice, and where I trained to teach, for about three months now. Usually I enjoy it — I always love the creative challenge of coming up with a sequence and embellishing the asana with some thoughts and ideas that make it more significant than just exercise. Often, it works. Often it works really well, and I feel it as we’re going along, and I can tell the students feel it, too.
It isn’t always related to the amount of time I’ve put into preparing the class; sometimes a sequence I jotted down quickly and taught on the fly (or at least it feels that way) really connects. Other times the ideas I felt strongly about and the sequence I thought was effective falls flat. Or at least it feels like it does to me.
The upside is that I don’t get particularly frustrated when I have a “bad” week. I know that there are all sorts of variables that might make things go not as well as I’d like, and that I won’t always be able to put my finger on them — just as there are all sorts of reasons why a class really works, and it’s impossible to pinpoint all of them, either. So I try not to linger there too long.
Also, good or bad, effective or just so-so, it is all experience.
I was talking about this to my sister, who’s been a yoga teacher for more than a decade, and who is also a dance/movement therapist and a Ph.D candidate — i.e., she has a ton more experience than I do. I was telling her about a particular class I’d just taught that I really felt kind of, well, sucked. The sequence didn’t really fall together, and there was also the issue of wildly varying levels of experience among the students, from a mom who hadn’t been to yoga in more than five years to a teacher who’d actually taught at the studio (I had not yet met her and didn’t figure out who she was until about halfway through the class, when it was obvious she was a far more advanced yogi than I). I left feeling a bit discouraged.
“But you don’t have any idea what the students’ experience was,” my sister said. “Think about when you take a yoga class — you have your own experience of it, on that day, no matter who the teacher is or how ‘good’ the class is, right?”
She also told me about how she’d had the college students she taught yoga to at a university in the city keep journals about their experience with the asana, and how what they wrote about always blew her away — that she never could have predicted their experience.
It’s one of those concepts that should be obvious but isn’t, always — everyone has their own experience of everything. Even things as simple as tasting a flavor — vanilla, say. I taste vanilla and I have my experience of tasting vanilla, and you taste it and have your experience of it. I can never have your experience of that flavor. I can only have mine.
I don’t know about you, but I find that idea incredibly comforting.
Last weekend I attended a series of lectures on the Bhagavad Gita by Douglas Brooks, who is a noted scholar of the text and a teacher several of my own yoga teachers revere. It was an interesting and complicated weekend, with lots of ideas flying around. Many of them really aligned with my own thoughts about yoga and the nature of the universe and how to live. Which was comforting, in itself.
He talked about the idea that we are all the same “stuff”: that everything in the universe is made of the same thing, that DNA — the very evidence of the Self — is present in everything.
But, the sameness is just where we begin, in the Tantric/Hindu line of thinking. We take shape in different ways — different inanimate things, different living things, different animals, different people.
Your Self is your experience, and your Self is your experience.
The gift of life, of being embodied, is that you get to have your own experience of the world, and that no one else can truly touch that, at its core. The Self cannot be violated — no one can steal you from you.
Intimacy, then, is that the people who love you most can come right up to that boundary of your Self and savor the difference that is You — they recognize that they are not you, and they love who you are. They honor and protect your Self; that is their job as your loved ones. And you do the same for them.
Some may find this concept incredibly depressing, alienating, even scary. But I find it beautiful, freeing — frankly, a relief.
Our task in life is to have our own experience of it. To savor that experience — to revel in it. And to support others in that endeavor.
Well, it’s April, and I’ve finally come up with my word/concept/idea for 2013: gratitude.
It seems like such a simple little thing, practically a cliché. Why exactly did it take me so long to come to it? I sat with a few other things: softness, stillness, here-ness. I’ll come back to those again in the coming months.
But something about the spring sun and some purple crocuses I saw blooming in an ordinary suburban strip-mall parking lot this morning made me think: I’m grateful.
I’m grateful for the health and happiness of my loved ones–especially my daughters, who are smart and funny and thriving and simply glorious creatures. I’m grateful that I get to have something to do with their lives and their upbringing.
I’m grateful that my husband likes his new job, enjoys being a part of community theater, and just seems more content lately than he has in quite a while.
I’m grateful for the amazing community I live in, full of some of the smartest, coolest, most interesting, talented, engaged and committed people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. I’m especially grateful for the network of fellow parents–if ever there was a village, SOMA is it.
I’m grateful for friends who let me be myself, who truly get me, and allow me to give the same gift back to them.
I’m grateful for my self-awareness, which I’ve cultivated with a lot of blood, sweat and tears over the past five years or so. I’m especially grateful for the realization that physical awareness and wellness makes a huge impact on psychological, emotional and spiritual awareness and wellness.
I’m grateful that I have a beautiful, natural place where I go to run and enjoy the weather (good or bad) and the quiet and the light and the stillness and the familiar faces I pass regularly each time I’m there.
I’m grateful for yoga and all the ways it’s helped me to fall into place.
I’m grateful for words to read and write and for music to hear and sing and dance to.
I’m grateful to be more clear than I’ve ever been about what’s important.
The quieter you become, the more you are able to hear.
A friend posted that on Facebook this morning, and it is sticking with me as I move through the day.
This is the time of the year when everything starts to move faster, and gets crazier. Every year around December 1 I try to consciously shut that down for myself.
We celebrate a secular Christmas (tree, gifts) and Hanukkah (lighting the menorah). What I love about both tree and menorah is the lights. As much as Christmas is not my favorite holiday (my parents worked in retail when I was growing up, so December was synonymous with stress), I’ve always liked the lights. I love decorating the tree and then darkening the room to watch it glow. I like that about the Hanukkah candles as well (that and the sound of my girls reciting the prayers, which they learned in preschool at a temple, and which I think my dad, who was Jewish, would appreciate).
If I focus on that glow and the quiet, and let that be the central idea of the December holidays, I’m able to stay with the peaceful part of it, and not get caught up in the low roar that starts now and goes on for the next five weeks. I’m able to better consider what it means to celebrate the end of another year.
In fact, I’ve found that being still is a great way to handle any stressful or negative situation. It goes against my nature — or what I’ve always assumed my nature to be — not to have an instant, passionate emotional reaction when something intense is going on. With practice, I’m learning to rein in the reactive part — even if I feel the emotion like a punch in the stomach. As it turns out, being still and letting others react instead, or letting situations come untangled on their own, actually works — just about every single time.
It’s not that you’re being passive or avoiding things. You just don’t have to jump on a feeling of anger or frustration or desperation right then and there. In fact, it’s often a really bad idea to do so. When I look back at the moments in my life where I did something I wish I hadn’t, I see that it’s because I reacted in a knee-jerk way, when it would have been smarter to take a step back, pause, breathe, and take time to get some perspective on what was happening and how I felt about it.
The times I’ve reacted in the heat of the moment, I did so because I had some sort of need that I imagined must be satisfied right then. I wanted the other person to justify what I was feeling, or I wanted them to feel as bad as I did. Or maybe I just didn’t want to feel it at all, so by trying to connect, I was attempting to get rid of it. Either way, I didn’t give myself time to really get a handle on the situation. I didn’t hear all I needed to hear.
Lots of emotions feel bad to sit with, but pushing them away doesn’t make them go away. Letting myself be uncomfortable often results in my moving through whatever it is, hearing its truth, and leaving it behind.
So. This is a good time of year to practice being still, to imagine a nice, porous boundary around you, one that gives you a little breathing space. It doesn’t shut people or feelings out — it lets in what’s useful and what serves you. It allows you to maintain the stillness needed to engage with everything, and everyone, in a more graceful way.
Two Sundays ago I taught my first class at the studio where I did my teacher training. We’re all taking turns teaching this free community class, now that we’re done with the training process. I was excited. I was prepared. My husband came, my yoga-teacher sister came, some of my fellow trainees were there. And friends. That room was full. And hot — it was 90 degrees outside, and the air conditioning felt like a cynical nod to coolness.
And wow, was I — overwhelmed. I felt like my energy was all over the place, bouncing off the ceilings and the walls and the students. I felt like I had so much to say and no time to say it — Surya Namaskar B and I was already a half hour into the class? I’d been concerned about going too short, and instead it became clear pretty quickly that I had far too much written into my sequence. I had to start editing on my feet.
I was so thrilled and grateful for the outpouring of support, that so many people showed up — and grateful for the six or seven friends who couldn’t make it at the last minute, too — but it meant there was no way I could focus for very long on any individual student. I felt backed up against the windows! I focused on giving good alignment instructions and hoped it would make a difference for those who might be less experienced.
Things I did right:
My theme rocked (see below). The whole engagement and expansion, boundaries and freedom, muscular and organic energy, spanda (pulsation) concept is one that really resonates with me, the thing that really made me fall in love with this yoga. And I know my strength is here, in the ideas. I think it was clear and effective.
I really thought out my sequence. It was a full-on standing poses class — I included every major standing pose. I love standing poses, and I felt like they really demonstrated my theme. I had good, resonant poses to prepare the class for the apexes — ardha chandrasana and warrior 3.
I was willing to deviate from my plan. I was able to improvise when I realized my hour-long class was going to be an hour and 15 even with some cuts. I was sort of impressed with myself.
I was funny. I didn’t feel super comfortable up there, but I still managed to say a few witty things.
What I learned:
Teach what you love. Ideas and poses. I did this, and I plan to do it next time I teach at South Mountain Yoga in October, and in the class I’m teaching at the local park district starting in September (more on that later). If I’m enthusiastic about it, the students will pick up on that. And that’s the whole reason I’m interested in teaching yoga.
Keep it simple. It’s good to be prepared, but I really ended up packing stuff into my sequence because I was afraid of having too little. Between the fact that I talk a lot (which I need to try to temper, but hey, it takes up minutes) and the fact that you need to give the students time to actually get into the poses and experience them, I’ll have plenty for the hour I’ll teach in the fall. And hey — no one ever complained about an extra-long savasana.
Keep it short. I tend to write long and speak long. I need to really refine and distill my ideas into a few sentences at the beginning and get things moving.
I can do this. Although I felt like a crazy person up there — I was literally thinking, Oh my god, did I really sign up to do this every week?? — the feedback I got from the students was good. They thought the pace was good, the class was challenging yet accessible, and that I sounded totally on top of it. Even my sister, from whom I asked for unvarnished criticism, said it was an effective class.
In all, it was more challenging than I expected it be. But I handled it gracefully, and I didn’t leave in despair that it wasn’t perfect. I took it, and take it, for what it was — a first time, a learning experience.
My theme and sequence notes, if you’re interested:
Apex: Ardha chandrasana/Warrior 3
Virtues: Engage and Expand
Actions: ME and OE
Passage from the book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
“I think you should learn, of course, and some days you should learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them.”
Experience, allowing yourself to be moved by something, what we take in/soak up from it. More than just knowledge. Like reading about a place versus visiting it, or trying a delicious morsel of food instead of just hearing a description of what it tastes like. Really having an all-encompassing, sensory experience. Feeling it. And the idea of what is already in you – instead of accumulating more and more and more, look inside and see what’s already there, and let that fill you up.
That’s what yoga does – it allows you that access, to have a deeper experience of yourself. The physical poses are one way to do that. We don’t just check all the poses off the list – we engage in each one, we move into it in order to have a deep experience of it. The poses don’t exist except in our bodies, when we do them. So today we’re going to focus on standing poses, working on engaging our muscles in each pose and then stretching and expanding from that, filling up, so that each of you can have your deepest experience of every pose.
Close your eyes.
The first thing you need to do to experience something, whether it’s trying a new food or bungee-jumping, or deciding to have a child, is to be open to it, receptive. That’s how we begin in yoga – we sit down and open. We try on the idea of being in this moment, of being present. A great way to be in the moment? Listen to your breath.
Press your palms together in front of your heart. Doing this isn’t a gesture of prayer, but a reminder that your deepest self resides in your heart. That’s where yoga allows you to go. Even touch your sternum with your thumbs as a reminder that this is about your heart.
We’re going to open our practice by chanting three Oms. “Om” isn’t a prayer, either. It’s the sound of the universe, the hum of everything there is. We chant it to align ourselves with the energy of everything, and also to align with one another, so we can begin this important endeavor together. See if you can really feel the vibration in your chest when you chant – experience it.
BEND KNEES, DOWNHILL SKIIER
TOUCH GROUND, STRAIGHTEN LEGS, LIFT SPINE FORWARD, FOLD
REACH UP TO SKY, ARM STRETCHES, CRESCENTS TO SIDES
SUN BREATHS/DOWNWARD FACING DOG/UTTANASANA
SURYA NAMASKAR A (4 times, low lunge, low lunge twist, then high lunge, high lunge twist)
Feel how your body feels different, something is awakening and filling inside
SURYA NAMASKAR B (3-4 times)
Stand and breathe.
CHAIR POSE AT WALL
(stay there to feel the difference between enduring something uncomfortable and engaging with it)
PARSVAKONASANA, BOTH SIDES
WARRIOR 2, BOTH SIDES
PARSVA K INTO WARRIOR 2, BOTH SIDES (cut this out)
PRASARITA PADOTTANASANA WITH TWIST – ARM STRAIGHT UP TO SKY
PRASARITA PADOTTANASANA ON OTHER SIDE, PARSVA K LEGS AND DOWNDOG ARMS ON ANGLE
PARSVA K INTO WARRIOR II,REVERSE WARRIOR, BOTH SIDES WITH DOWN DOG IN BETWEEN
ANJALIASANA/THIGH STRETCH (ELBOWS DOWN ON GROUND INSIDE KNEE, BACK KNEE DOWN OR UP)
PARSVA K LEGS INTO TRIANGLE
TRIANGLE AGAIN; TAKE HAND OFF GROUND AND ENGAGE LEGS (cut this out)
ARDHA CHANDRASANA W/ASSIST (PARTNER HOLDING FOOT)
DOWN DOG INTO
PARSVOTTANASANA/STANDING SPLIT/WARRIOR III, BOTH SIDES
PARTNER STRETCH — DOWNDOG W/PUSH ON LOWER BACK (cut this)
CIRCLE OF VRKSASANA (engage and then expand into the support of your friends) (cut this)
DOWNWARD FACING DOG
PIGEON – ENGAGE AND THEN REST ON FOREARMS
ON BACK — SURCIRANDRASANA
SUPINE TWIST, BOTH LEGS GOING SAME WAY FOR SIDE STRETCH
HAPPY BABY (cut)
HUG KNEES TO CHEST
(talk about how important this pose is b/c all the experience you’ve just had is sinking into your body, and it will be there the next time you come to the mat; “corpse” pose is not a nothing pose, there’s a lot going on; just let your bones sink into the ground and let go. All the engagement you did in class generated all this energy, or prana, that is filling you up right now. Your only job in this final pose is to let go, let your body sink down into the ground, and enjoy it.)
You should have days where you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything.
Be not afraid of growing slowly; be only afraid of standing still. — Chinese proverb
I’ve reached a new place with running. I’m back down to about a 10.5-minute mile, and when I’ve gone a few miles I just start to feel…good. I’m in the flow of the thing, my breath feels steady and consistent, and my posture feels upright and aligned. The energy feels like it’s streaming upward. I’m moving from my center, using my core to keep my legs going forward.
It’s always most difficult getting started, and now I know that. I know that after three quarters of a mile or so, I’ll start to settle into a rhythm. I usually run the same course, so I know where the downhills are, and the uphills don’t feel so horrible anymore, maybe because they’re expected, or maybe because I’m fitter, or I’ve simply hit a kind of stride.
I’m never going to be a fast runner. But I think I can run farther. I can tell that my body can handle it, and my lungs can, and my head seems to be on board too. Summer is challenging — I need to figure out the humidity and hydration part. But the idea of running a half marathon in November in Princeton does not seem quite as crazy anymore.
We worked on the bandhas in yoga this week. Bandha means lock in Sanskrit, and the bandhas are places in the body where you can tighten and hold in an intense, continuous way. They feel to me like a deeper layer of engagement and alignment, below muscular energy and loops — a more refined way of holding yourself and therefore holding a pose. They are challenging, but they can make maintenance of a challenging pose easier.
As always, awareness and engagement help things fall into place.
I was familiar with mula bandha — that’s the root lock (mula means root), the one in the pelvis, at the base of the body. Female yogis often approach it by comparing it to a Kegel exercise — the muscles you tighten to stop the flow of urine, and something our ob-gyns, midwives and doulas encourage us to do around pregnancy and childbirth. My teacher Emma, however, asked us to think of it as a larger space than that — when you engage mula bandha, everything in the square between your two sitbones and your tailbone and pubic bone should lift, come deeper up into the body. Emma compared it to gathering up a piece of fabric from the middle with your fist, but holding onto it relatively loosely; you’re not clenching, but you are lifting. Coupled with the pulling to the midline that muscular energy gives you, mula bandha creates quite the foundation upon which to place any pose. It can actually make you feel lighter on your mat, because the energy you’re concentrating at your base takes some of the pressure and weight out of your legs or arms (in an inversion).
Then comes uddiyana bandha, centered in the upper abdomen — and my new favorite thing.
Uddiyana means to fly up, or rise up, and what you do here is pull the lower ribs up, back, and then down into the back of the body. You’re rounding your lower and mid back, but you’re doing it by using your upper stomach muscles. It’s related to kidney loop, which in Anusara means a puffing up of the back body. I’d done this kind of movement before but hadn’t thought about it in quite this way — the idea of making it a lock helps you to do it more forcefully and with more intent than you might otherwise. I don’t think I’d engaged kidney loop quite as soundly before.
Uddiyana bandha is kind of amazing, in my humble opinion. It not only tones and works your abs (something I certainly need) but also gives you a different kind of awareness in the core of your body, which is not only a good thing in general, but something that can be hugely beneficial in all sorts of asana.
Here’s something I found on a site called MindBodyGreen:
“Uddiyana bandha can be one of the most transformative aspects of your yoga practice, especially as you get more advanced. It moves the energy upwards with much more force than mula bandha, thus allowing you to invert and jump more easily, as well as float forward and back more lightly and twist more deeply.”
I don’t want to say this could be a magic bullet, but…my handstand needs this.
Today we did assisted inversions — handstand, pincha and headstand — and I’m telling you, when I activated this bandha in those poses, I literally felt something slide into place. It was incredibly satisfying and very encouraging.
Emma said uddiyana bandha is associated with the third chakra and the idea of your will. I’m planning to will it to continue to help me in inversions.
(There’s one more lock: jalandhara bandha, in the throat. Since this is a strange place for me — I tend to tuck my chin — I can’t wait to see what engaging this bandha might do.)