My First Time

10155130_10202801431890214_1296151678_nTwo 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.

TADASANA

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

CHILD’S POSE

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

UTTANASANA/DD/CHILD’SPOSE

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

SAVASANA

(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.

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Engaging the Will

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.)


Means to an End

teachers“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” — Joan Didion, Goodbye to All That

It is easy and obvious to see a beginning — you feel nervous, excited, awkward, sometimes downright terrified. It’s a new year, a new relationship, a new school, a new home, a new career. It’s huge and momentous and heavy with meaning and the thrill of the unknown. You’re embarking on something new and different and potentially life-changing. You’re putting something out there. You’re taking a risk.

It’s not that beginnings are necessarily easy, but they’re easy to see, to mark. They’re black and white. Endings are harder, hazy, often grey. Sometimes things end abruptly, when you don’t expect them to, before you’re ready, and you’re surprised by how difficult the change is, how much it feels like a loss. Sometimes they end organically and sweetly and it all seems right and good. Often an ending is hard to see — and hard to accept — because something you don’t want to end is coming to a close, so it’s difficult to witness. And beyond the ending lies the unknown, again — that space where something new can begin.

I’ve never been particularly good at beginnings or endings. Growing up I was generally afraid to venture outside my comfort zone, so there were probably many things I never tried or experienced because I was actually scared to attempt them (how I regret that now!). Change always threw me for a loop — I think I came home and sobbed on the first day of school every single year, even years that ended up being fantastic, like my senior year of high school. When things were different, new, when I didn’t feel completely and absolultely comfortable (as if you ever can), it threw me, in a major way. It upended me every time.

As I get older and wiser and more experienced, more self-aware, I’m able to handle change — beginnings and endings — more gracefully. I’m also more willing now to embark on new things, which means I also encounter more endings.

Almost four years ago I first stepped foot into South Mountain Yoga. It was 30 seconds from my daughters’ preschool, and my younger one was starting her first year. I could finally go back to yoga. I was a mess in just about every way. I desperately needed a new beginning; I didn’t even have the energy to be unnerved by that fact. There was nowhere to go but forward.

I thought I simply wanted to stretch and de-stress. Instead I found a life-changing method of moving my body and healing my mind and heart. It was like the teachers were speaking expressly to me in those first classes, and I felt all the wisdom course through me as I learned to move into the poses in such a way that I created boundaries and freedom for myself in ways I’d never even known I could. I can remember lying in savasana that first week plotting out how I could get myself back into that room again as soon as possible, as often as possible.

So, about two and a half years ago, I signed up for an immersion at the studio. I did it all on my own, without knowing whether there would be a familiar face in the room. Now my fellow immersion-ers are some of my dearest friends (see Dharma Dinner), and we’ve just finished teacher training.

These past few days were our final weekend together, and it was sad and wonderful at once. Over the past several weeks we all taught one another, and it was really fantastic to witness the way all these wonderful people had transformed into wise, masterful yoga teachers. All the trauma in the yoga community over the past several months did something for our group — it bound us together in a unique way. I think that’s actually been a gift.

It’s hard to see this ending, because my weekends in my yoga studio have been a steady part of my life for almost three years. I’ve looked forward to them, to spending time with my fellow trainees, to the way yoga and learning more about it makes me feel: strong, centered, content. Though this ending is really a beginning — now we can go out and actually teach yoga to other people, which is a bit mind-blowing, honestly. I didn’t go into this thinking I’d actually teach. But amazingly, I’m feeling like I want to. I want my friends and loved ones and people I haven’t met yet to feel this way too.

Perhaps it’s hard to see this ending because it’s really a beginning. I know there’s a lot of promise in that, however scary it might feel. So I’ll try to flow gracefully into whatever’s next.


A Meditation on Meditation

305983_4473619951943_132189164_nOne of the things I love the most about the style of yoga I do — that I’m now trained in — is the alignment principles upon which it’s based. They are amazingly simple when you break them down, and they make perfect sense in the body. They make every pose feel better, deeper, even easier. The best thing about them, however, is that they are more than just physical actions; they also translate mentally, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.

I urge you to check them out or ask me more about them. They truly changed my life.

It’s been a tough few months for the Anusara community, to put it mildly. Much has been abruptly changed, knocked off-balance, destroyed. In such a situation, the only thing to do is find the center again — to focus on the practice.

I’m somehow in a place where I’m really in love with my practice and deepening it in new ways. I’ve made a few breakthroughs lately that are really exciting. I’ve been practicing more consistently with a few new teachers, even while I miss the influence of a teacher whose schedule changed and whom I don’t get to see as often. I feel like I’m kind of riding things out right now, and it actually feels good. But there’s more, and I think I’m ready to focus on something that it’s taken me a while to really look at — meditation.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and paging through Sally Kempton’s book Meditation for the Love of It, which my yogi sister lent me. I found an amazing and inspiring section about madhya, or the space between the breaths. I’m going to sit down with this book and take notes on it in my own meditation journal, and then see how I can translate what I learn into a meditation practice.

I just finished reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which, despite its reputation as an “obscene” book with shockingly dirty words in it, turns out to be pretty interesting and relevant. D.H. Lawrence feels it’s vital for men and women to find the balance between their body and mind — when it comes to sex, yes, but also in general. The society of 1928 is diseased, out of touch, and “counterfeit,” he says in his notes on the book. People are getting away from what’s important, which is connecting with themselves so that they can truly connect with others. “Life is only bearable when the mind and body are in harmony, and there is a natural balance between them, and each has a natural respect for the other,” he writes. (It reminds me of the mantra of another of my favorite writers, E.M. Forster: “Only connect.”)

Now that I’m fairly adept at finding my calm, quiet, steady center through asana, I’d like to focus on being there in meditation and really finding that balance in a new way. I’m open to advice and encouragement. And I’ll let you know how it goes.


Still

These past few weeks, as things have sort of exploded into chaos in the Anusara yoga world, I’ve been thinking a lot about being still.

My pattern my whole life, when things got painful or uncomfortable or crazy, was to freak out. Just fall apart. Respond immediately in a rush of whatever emotion was present. To grasp on desperately if something was ending or someone was leaving, without stopping to take a breath, to think, to get my head around what was going on.

This didn’t serve me well.

So finally, in my late 30s and early 40s, I’ve learned to take that breath. To feel my emotions without giving in to the intense need to do something about them, or about the situation — which I’ve realized really amounts to trying to avoid sitting with the feelings. Because it’s not fun to sit with icky feelings.

But what it comes down to is that if you don’t take the time to be still, to fortify, to find your bearings, you’ll just make the chaos worse. You might think an unbridled emotional outburst will make you feel better. Sometimes it does, I suppose, but my experience has largely been that in the long term, it really won’t.

Being still doesn’t mean doing nothing. It’s a conscious decision. It also doesn’t mean you’re not engaging; it is a boundary you create to protect yourself, to give yourself the space you need to think clearly, and to show other parties that there’s a line you’re not letting them cross just now. But it’s a line that protects them, too, because you’re going to be able to have an authentic response if you slow down and become still. You’re changing the quality of the energy between you and the other person, or you and the situation.

And ironically, though it might feel, look and seem like you’re building a wall (which perhaps, temporarily, you are), this is what will allow you to maintain your connection, if you choose. It will let you become more receptive. Instead of lashing out blindly or desperately, possibly with pain and anger, you’ll be able to process, sit with the emotions, and then reach out voluntarily, with clarity.

Though the organization called Anusara is in a period of intense upheaval right now, I would bet that all the yogis involved are still holding to their midline, the Universal Principles of Alignment. And there it is: First be still. Then you can be receptive to what comes next.


Alone

It’s been a relatively quiet beginning of 2012 for me. Especially in the last six weeks, I’ve had time for silence. To be with myself.

Yes, I’ve spent plenty of that time online, and on my new obsession, Pinterest (don’t get me going; even now, I’m tempted to click over and do some pinning to my boards). I’ve watched Downton Abbey from the beginning — which I can tell you is an outstanding and honorable way to spend one’s time. I’ve read a lot of books and listened to a lot of music. I even spent a few days nursing a cold.

I’ve done some work, driven my kids around, and played my role on the PTA. But I’ve also enjoyed being alone.

I’m someone who loves being around people and craves connection (if we’re Facebook friends, or friends at all, you know this well). But I’ve also always been able to hang out by myself quite happily. I’m rarely lonely or bored when on my own. Of course, as the mother of small children who are now not quite as small (and so are in school all day), I feel I’ve earned the exquisiteness of alone time. But even before I had them, I liked it. I became a freelancer in 1998 with no qualms whatsoever about my ability to work at home all by myself. I can manage blocks of hours on end and get done what I need to while also appreciating the silence. I know that about myself.

So it seems my center has always been there, even in those recent years when I couldn’t find it, thought I’d lost it, didn’t even remember what it felt like to be in it.

This week my yoga teachers Emma and Julie talked a lot about the “teacher within.” Your inner teacher is sovereign, the one with the most wisdom and knowledge about you. Even if you don’t know it or trust it — even if you’re in denial about it — you are the one who knows yourself best.

The first line of the Anusara invocation, which we sing at the beginning of every practice, is

Om Namah Shivaya Gurave

Which means

I offer myself to the Light, the Auspicious One, who is the True Teacher within and without.

We all have teachers, and we all are teachers, my teachers said. But your true teacher is you.

To reap the benefits your inner teacher can offer you, you need to listen to her or him. Which means having a clear connection to yourself. It means being able to sit in that inner silence and hear what you have to say — your thoughts, feelings, fears, defense mechanisms, arguments, justifications. The idea of doing this can be downright frightening. But if you try it, you find that it’s ultimately empowering. It’s really the source of all your power as a human being, to know yourself and be connected with yourself. It’s the only place from which you’ll be able to create genuine bonds with the people around you.

It’s possible — it’s necessary — to really luxuriate in aloneness.


Stand

One thing (among many) that yoga does for you is make you aware of your feet. You see them in class year-round. Instead of saying farewell to them once it gets cold and you’re wearing layers of socks and boots every day, you make even more sure to keep yourself in pedicures so that you can look at pretty toes and smooth skin.

I like my feet. Along with my hands, they are slim and delicate. My toes are long but cutely pudgy, and my arches are elegantly curved. I enjoy examining them each time I settle into a parallel stance at the front of my mat.

But they weren’t always so awake and aware. These days I can spread all five toes just by willing it — by lifting them and broadening across the top of my feet. I can pull my pinkie toe and its neighbor up and back toward my knee, toning the muscles on the outside of my calf. I can press down through all four corners of each foot and really make contact with the ground. I can push into my big toes and really get the muscles of my legs to wrap around the bones in the process. I can feel the tightness in my Achilles tendons, and I know to lift up onto my heel to stretch them out.

What’s more important than being able to really feel the ground under your feet? Really being able to stand tall, out of a firm foundation? Being groundless, on shaky ground, makes it hard to do anything particularly well, or with any focus or confidence, or with any feeling of comfort or intention.

Learning to stand on your own two feet is a gift that you can actually give yourself.