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.
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.)
I am absolutely and completely a details person. This may well be why I ended up as an editor. It may also be why I appreciate the principles of Anusara yoga so much. It’s not that I can’t see the big picture, but I am more of a process person, I think, than the one with the grand vision. Not that I don’t have grand visions. I do. But. You know what I’m saying.
Details might seem tiresome or annoying, and paying attention to them might earn you a reputation as a nit-picker. (Or a copy editor.) But what it comes down to is that the details are what create the whole of something, and make it better and stronger. If you’re a reporter and you get an amazing scoop and write an incredible story, but you get a critical detail wrong — even (especially) if you spell a name wrong — your credibility is shot. They drilled this into our heads in journalism school, and I’m glad they did. It always upsets me when an educator or pr person or someone else who calls themself a writer or communicator gets something basic wrong. Typos are inevitable, but re-reading (and spell-checking) anything you send out is mandatory. So is knowing the rules of grammar and punctuation.
Okay, editorial rant over. What made me think about all this was (you guessed it) a recent yoga class. Emma had us focusing on one small refinement of muscular energy: shins in. You need to always press your shins energetically in, toward the midline of your body. You also push down through the balls of your feet, particularly on the big-toe side. And then you actually spread out your toes and press your pinkie toes back toward the outside of your knees. This is proper alignment. And it lets you do everything else correctly.
This might sound wacky, but it really works. It allows your hips and pelvis to align properly. Your tailbone tucks, your spine lengthens, and your upper body falls into place practically on its own. It’s kind of amazing how, if you actually focus on this one small thing, you can feel your body move naturally into alignment.
Think about how a ripple in the ocean can cause a tsunami in a country a thousand miles away. If you slightly alter one thing, or react in a slightly different way — or even just pay more attention to one small thing — it can radically change the outcome or the tone of a situation or relationship.
Major change can happen this way, with small steps and adjustments. It doesn’t have to be a grand sweeping motion. Examining the details can help you transform your big picture.
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.