Opening to Grace

I spent the weekend in Montclair attending my first-ever workshop with John Friend, the founder of Anusara yoga. I had no idea what to expect. I came away delighted. Far from being your typical stereotypical “guru,” he was amazingly — normal. Down to earth. Funny. Smart. So smart. This is the guy who came up with the Universal Principles of Alignment. And though they map on to emotional and spiritual freedom, far from being loosey-goosey spiritual babble, they are based on decades of scientific observation and study by John himself. I was impressed, and grateful for the opportunity to learn firsthand from him.

In Anusara, the Universal Principles of Alignment are applied physically to every pose. If you learn to do this, you’ll always be aligned properly — and not just with your skeleton. Mentally, emotionally, energetically. Tiny little adjustments can make amazing differences to how a pose feels, to your body and to your spirit. When it all comes together, when you find that sweet spot, it almost seems too easy.

The idea is to align with the flow of nature, with the rest of the universe. And it’s not at all passive. Far from it. You need to actively work your muscles, to engage, and then you get to experience bliss, to shine.

To be open to doing so is the first and perhaps most important principle, because none of it is possible without this: Opening to grace. This means setting your foundation and your intention to align your mind and heart with the energy of the universe. You soften your boundaries, stay present, and become more aware and receptive. Anusara teachers like to say “outer body soft, inner body bright.”

Grace is something I’ve been thinking about lately. Being graceful, going through life with grace — those are things I aspire to, that I work toward. One definition of the word grace is “ease and suppleness of movement or bearing.” That goes deeper than just looking nice or being attractive. It goes beyond physical suppleness and ease, though I’ve come to believe that having those things physically is necessary before you can have them in any other way. There’s a comfort with oneself involved, a center that’s strong and free simultaneously. There’s a mastery of doing something else that got mentioned this weekend: facing uncertainty with certainty. Coming at everything from a place of security and surety, even if you have no idea what’s going on outside or around you.

Of course, grace also has major spiritual and religious connotations. Several other definitions: “divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification”; a state of sanctification enjoyed through divine grace”;  and also “a virtue coming from God.” Depending on how you define the Divine, grace can be something sacred that’s inherent in yourself, not just something granted to you by a deity. I like to think about the energy all around us and in us as being the Divine, and in that sense, we really are in the flow of grace, all the time. We get to choose whether to engage with it or not. And it feels really, really good to engage with it.

There are also the Graces, three sister goddesses in Greek mythology who are the givers of charm and beauty. That makes me think of our lovely teacher Emma Magenta, our hostess for the weekend and an all-around amazing yogi and person. If anyone I know epitomizes grace, it’s her.


Fully Immersed

Our Anusara immersion ended yesterday. Sixteen of us came together with our exceptional teacher Emma Magenta for nine weekends over the course of a year. Altogether, it was 108 hours. It was a big, serious committment of time, money and effort, but one we all felt was important and managed to convince our loved ones was important.

We were all there because Anusara struck a chord with each of us, and we wanted to go deeper. It was a lot more than just a class where we took notes, or a workshop to improve our poses. Though we did learn all about the Universal Principles of Alignment that our style of yoga is based upon and did many hours of tough asana, we also studied the Tantric philosophy that makes Anusara unique. We read and discussed the Bhagavad Gita. We practiced pranayama, meditation, and kirtan. And we got to better understand how yoga touches all parts of our lives — physically, mentally, spiritually. If you’ve been a regular reader of my blog, you know that two of the Universal Principles in particular have made a major emotional impression on me: muscular energy, or creating a strong foundation by contracting and pulling in, and organic energy, or extending and shining out.

We created a kula. We went from a group of strangers — or, at most, people who’d seen one another once or twice in class — to a cohesive community, a circle of love, trust, and safety. We established strong bonds of friendship.

When I started going to South Mountain Yoga about three years ago, I knew almost immediately that Anusara was going to be significant for me. I was feeling so battered and lost, completely foundation-less. I walked in there and it felt like a haven. What I got out of it was just what I needed.

It still feels that way, and I’m a completely different person — because of all kinds of work I’ve done since then, but in large part because of my yoga. I’m as strong as I’ve ever been, physically and emotionally. I’m more comfortable in and confident about my body. I’ve found a language to understand the spiritual ideas that I already had.

It’s hard to articulate what Anusara is and why it’s special without sounding like some sort of cult member, so I try not to proselytize when my friends show an interest. I tell them that yoga is like anything else — you find the studio, teacher, and style that work for you. Of course I want them all to come do Anusara with me. But I’d love for them to come to it organically, like I did.

There’s the possibility of teacher training in the fall, and though I’ve never considered myself teacher material, I’m starting to rethink that. Good teachers are passionate about their subject. I don’t think I have the amazing gift that Emma does (that’s her front and center in the picture, in the bright blue jacket). But I’d love to help other people see what I see in Anusara, to get what I’ve gotten out of it. Whether I’m a good prospect for such an important job remains to be seen. But I’d love to learn more. So I’m thinking about it.

But I’m really going to miss having immersion weekend to look forward to. It was always so nice to know one was coming up, that I’d get to spend the weekend talking and thinking about something I love, with people I love, and doing something soothing and healing for myself. This last one was a week after my father’s memorial service, and the timing could not have been better.

One of my classmates put it this way: When we began, it was like we were in the lobby of a museum, and we were there to see an exhibit we were interested in. But it turned out the museum was huge, cavernous in fact, and there was more and more to explore. So now we’re wandering through the infinite museum of Anusara yoga.

The nicest thing about this metaphor is that even if we’re in different rooms or focusing on different exhibits, we can still meet up in the cafe. See you all there.