“You are very grounded lately!” my friend Jennie remarked while we were texting about something mutually frustrating. It was nice to hear. I feel it, but it’s always good when someone else notices it, too.
I am grounded. Even with lots of complicated stuff going on in my life that could easily knock me off balance — and sometimes does — I feel pretty solid. I know that no matter what happens, I can handle it. I’ll be okay. Maybe even more than okay.
Here’s the thing I’ve learned about being grounded: It’s not as much of an effort as you think. Some effort and engagement are required, sure. But more than that, you just have to let it happen. It’s counterintuitive (like so much of life): You actually need to do some opening up and letting go in order to root down and find your grounding.
Here’s the best way I can describe it, courtesy of my yoga practice today and every day. When I lie on my back at the end of class in that final resting pose we call savasana, I always take note of my lower back, which more often than not is curved slightly up and away from the floor. I take note of it, and then I forget about it. I concentrate on my breath, noticing as it enters and leaves my chest. I feel the up and down motion, and I feel the support of the floor underneath me.
A few minutes later, when we start to come back to ourselves, I take note of my lower back again. Always, it has moved gently down to the floor, nice and flat against it. It doesn’t feel like an effort, and there’s no arching or straining at all. My breath and the support of the ground (gravity!) have helped it to release.
That’s being grounded. It doesn’t have to be forced: If you just slow down, let go, and breathe, it can happen.
Easier said than done? Yes. But still easier than you’d expect. And how comforting to know that just by breathing you can support yourself.
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.
In yoga, the front of the body is associated with the individual, and the back of the body is associated with the universal. When we curl into ourselves, we tend to hunch our shoulders forward, cross our arms and bow our head, protecting the heart. When we’re able to open up, we melt our heart forward, pull our shoulders back, and lean back, unafraid.
It’s a tall order. It can be a hugely emotional undertaking. It takes strength, courage, and trust.
My shoulder blades move more easily and smoothly down my back; I’m more conscious of keeping the sides of my body long. I can melt my heart down toward the floor or out toward the front of the room. I’ve never really been afraid of the leaning back part (how I adore ustrasana!), but it feels a lot better when you’ve got everything else aligned properly.
And I suspect — no, I know — that staying in my back body is the key to being able to kick up into a handstand (the Holy Grail of my practice). What happens, I’ve realized, is that when I get scared, I pull into myself, into my front body, and all the lengthening of my sides and melting of my heart and muscular energy I’ve cultivated in my arms comes with me. If I could just keep all that, I could get up. I need to trust in the fact that I can keep all that, and that it will keep me safe.
But I see now that all the back body work I’ve been doing lately — the way I’ve been feeling it differently — is work on the way to that goal. Today we did some binds and they felt better to me than ever before: so much more open, because I’m lengthening, and my shoulders and blades are in the right place. So much freer. (I love the contradictions in yoga — you get yourself into a bound pose and experience freedom. How crazy is that?)
I’m finding that I can lean back into poses more deeply now. I can keep my foundation strong, put my shoulders in the right place, and go. It’s very exciting, perhaps because the letting go part has always been difficult for me. I’m choosing to take this as a sign that I’m feeling confident enough in my center that I’m willing to trust myself and the universe more and lean into it.
I’ve got support — my family, my friends, my kula, the universe. It’s good.
There is a lot to be said for being deliberate. For making decisions from a calm, collected place. So many times we (or at least I) make the most critical choices from a place of panic and stress and heightened emotion, whether it’s warranted or not. But I’ve realized this: Aside from snap decisions made in an emergency, there’s next to nothing that can’t wait for you to gather yourself, consider, and then decide rationally.
I find that I can trust my instincts better if I first take some time to listen to them.
Most of the time when I just react, it turns out to be a mistake. We all have those moments etched in our mind, those situations we think back on and wish we’d waited — a day, an hour, even a second — before we acted a certain way or said a certain thing. There can be a lot of regret and guilt associated with reacting without thinking first.
My mother, a new widow, is feeling overwhelmed by all the things she’s had to do since my father passed away, only about six weeks ago. All the paperwork, thank-you notes, visits to the social security office. Then there are the larger decisions she has yet to make, actions she has yet to take, such as packing up his things, deciding whether she’ll move out of our house, deciding whether she’ll move out of the Chicago area. She can’t bring herself to go there yet, which I completely understand and support. She shouldn’t, yet. But I do keep reminding her that even the littler things (like the thank-you notes) don’t all need to happen right this minute.
Of course, the details keep her occupied, which obviously helps her right now, so there’s that. But to address that overwhelmed-ness a bit, at least, I always suggest to her that she slow down and take her time.
This is easier said than done, I realize. I used to be horrible at it. I was one big ball of reaction. It wasn’t always a total disaster, but I often felt like I hadn’t reacted in the best way I could, or the way I truly wanted to. It takes practice to take the time you need — and to let others know you need it, sometimes. It’s like learning to say no when you’re a “yes” girl. Ultimately, though, creating these boundaries for yourself gives you the space to make the choices that are right for you, and you’ll be more satisfied with the outcomes and even with your interactions.
This works on not completely critical moments too — on annoying little snafus, problems and disagreements that crop up in your daily activities. Recently a small setback in a project had me lying awake at night stressing out. I was trying to think of alternatives, and none of them seemed right. The issue wasn’t a big deal, but it was sort of the icing on a project I’d worked hard on and that I’m proud of. I wanted it to be great, not just good enough.
There wasn’t much I could do, so I didn’t really do anything but stew a bit — and then it all worked out. A friend’s brother had the solution, fixed the file, and just like that, the problem evaporated.
Sometimes, if you don’t do anything, obstacles just give up on their own.
It’s pretty great to think there’s power in slowing things down, in taking time and space. In actually doing nothing. If you enjoy being in control, you could actually look at this as a way of maintaining control, instead of feeling out of control in your premature reaction. By doing nothing, you are doing something.
It’s also a relief to realize you don’t have to instantly know the right answer or have the right comeback or have an inside line on exactly which action is right. I used to consider it my own personal failing that I couldn’t do that. But now I know I don’t have to. Really, that I shouldn’t.