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“This is hard, and I need help.”
Those are the words that were speaking deep in my solar plexus on December 21 this past year as I stood in Warrior I during a special winter solstice yoga/dance class combo, my wonky hip feeling especially out of sorts, my heart racing from the frustration of not being able to glide effortlessly through asanas, my monkey mind blasting full volume about how I have fallen hard off the yoga bandwagon.
I kept envisioning the 5-yoga-classes-per-week Jennifer circa 2006, the one with smooth, in tact cartilage in her hip joints and hamstrings that stretched like rubber bands. This 2012 body didn’t match up, partially because of injury, partially due to neglect.
Either way, the frustration that was stemming from being aware of how critical my lack-of-yoga situation had become—the frustration that had me “feeling seconds away from bursting into tears and running out into the hallway”—was both screaming between my ears (“WAHHHHH!!! I hate yoga anyway, it’s stupid to stand in one posture when I could be dancing instead!!”) and whispering to my heart:
“This is an important practice, Jennifer. It has gotten hard. It is time to ask for help.”
As if on cue, as I discussed my frustration after class with the yoga instructor, she embraced me with her soft and nurturing eyes (yes, I did just say that her eyes embraced me; that is how comforting her gaze is, like a thick and woolly winter sweater) and said, well, Why don’t you come to me some time for a private lesson, and I’ll help you through some of those physical and emotional blocks?
The polite person in me nodded thoughtfully, smiled in agreement: Sure, Yeah, Good Idea, Why Not? But the stubborn and scared person—the one who had JUST privately acknowledged her need for help—shook with resistance internally: No way! How could I allow someone to see me so vulnerable?!
And it wasn’t just anyone. The instructor, Lana Jaclyn, was my dance buddy. We see each other all the time. We had actually crossed paths several years ago practicing yoga at a small-town studio. I didn’t want someone who saw me do straddles and splits and stuff see me in this new tight and wobbly state.
Also, um, I’m technically a certified yoga instructor myself! I went to Kripalu for a month! I have a training manual and certificate! Shouldn’t I be able to help myself? Shouldn’t I instinctively know the tools to recover from this state of yoga desperation?
I sat on Lana’s offer for almost two months. I would like to say that Brené Brown’s TED Talk about vulnerability was what finally pushed me into scheduling an appointment, but the truth is I didn’t see her presentation until just recently, but boy, can I relate!
Living in a state of shame would get me nowhere. “Courage” wasn’t about pulling myself up by the bootstraps, busting out my yoga teacher training notes, and fighting through it myself; courage was embracing imperfection. Being seen, struggles and all.
I had grown to prefer bigger yoga classes recently because I could “hide,” disappear in the crowd if I had to stop and jiggle my leg or take a moment to lie on my back and let my sacrum pop, and now here is I was, in Lana’s home studio, just her and me.
There was nowhere to hide.
However, within moments, as I settled into the session with my legs on the wall in viparita karani, I began to realize this wasn’t such a bad thing. When Lana suggested I slide my legs outward into a V position and I could only go so far before my hip started to hurt … that’s where we stopped. She didn’t make me hold it for a long time.
And when I stepped out of a lunge and felt the usual twinge in my hip joint, I could stop, do my trademark leg jiggle, and continue where we left off. I didn’t feel like I was breaking the flow of someone else’s class. I wasn’t distracting my neighbor. I didn’t have to worry about being three poses behind what the teacher was leading.
Best of all, I was beginning to notice that good ol’ zen feeling emerge, something that yoga hadn’t brought me in a long time. Instead of grinding my teeth, I was enjoying each moment of somatic exploration. I was breeeeeeathing instead of feeling like my lungs were going to pop.
(Confession: I have never been able to properly do ujayii breath until now [yes, even at Kripalu I faked my way through it]—Lana wouldn’t give up on me until I got it right. Man, now I finally know why that pranayama is so calming!)
Of course, with a private class, all of the movements are going to be tailored to the individual. Not having to worry “OMG, I hope she doesn’t do pigeon, please don’t do hip-based stuff for the next 10 minutes!” took a LOAD off my mind.
And even with postures that put minimal stress on my hip, such as a low lunge, Lana had my back. Literally. She straddled me with her knees pressed against my hips, rolled my shoulders back, and molded her body into mine in a way that gave me full experience of the posture.
She did this assist in bow pose … lord, it almost brought me to tears. I haven’t been able to rise that high in years, and the stretch in my back felt like some kind of spinal orgasm. If my back could speak, it would have been squealing “Yes, yes, YES!!!”
During my downdogs, Lana noticed I was sinking into my shoulders and worked with me again and again until I kept a flat back. (This work helped IMMENSELY with the trapezius pain I had been experiencing.)
To build my core strength (and thus help my hip), we worked with a sphinx-based core lift that looked super easy but was a struggle for me (thus showing how badly I needed it). I now believe the solution to all of life’s problems is to simply tuck the tailbone.
Tears flowed freely from my eyes during savasana. The warmth I was experiencing from head to toe was so strong and comforting that I was certain Lana was hovering over me doing some kind of specialized aura healing. The truth was, she was sitting in a corner of the room, simply just being there with me during my relaxation. She commented later that she gets lots of comments about how Reiki flows so naturally from her.
Well, I felt it. Maybe it was her Reiki, maybe it was just the feeling of being reacquainted with my lover, my body, remembering the sensations lying within those nooks and crannies, the curves and hollows of my back, shoulders, knees, hips, neck.
But damn, it felt good.
In her TED Talk, Brené Brown commented on the complexity of vulnerability: “I know that vulnerability is kind of the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, and creativity, of belong, of love.”
Being vulnerable—the certified yoga teacher needing to reach out for help—indeed initially caused shame. In the end, however, that vulnerability filled me with a long-lost sense of love: for my body, my breath, and the individuals like Lana who see me even when I work so hard to remain hidden.
My fourth-grade teacher had a saying when she wanted her students to take her words seriously:
“That’s a requirement, not a request.”
Back then, it referred to remaining quiet during a test, putting the classroom hermit crab back in its cage, or ending the latest battle of spitball warfare. When you heard that phrase, you shut up and did what Mrs. Goettelmann said.
Lately, however, I’m hearing those words echo through my head about something greater: yoga and meditation.
And it’s not my fourth-grade teacher talking, either. It’s my aching, stiff body. My deprived lungs, which never seem to get enough oxygen. My heavy, scatterbrained, impatient mind:
“Do yoga. Meditate. This is a requirement, not a request, Jennifer.”
Yoga and meditation used to be a very integral part of my life. I had the schedules of every local yoga studio stuffed into the side pockets of my car door so I knew exactly where I could ashtanga, kundalini, or yin on any given day of the week. If I wasn’t at a studio, I was upstairs in my yoga room, following along to a podcast or simply cobbling together my own practice.
Group classes became more challenging once I hurt my hip, but I persisted, knowing my limits, modifying as necessary, simply enjoying the hour or so set aside for nothing other than focused movement and breath.
But—once a dancer, always a dancer—as soon as I discovered 5Rhythms and YogaDance and Nia and all other forms of conscious dance, my appreciation for traditional yoga and seated meditation dwindled. After all, 5Rhythms is described as “movement meditation.” I’ve never liked sitting still. I’ve always walked around on my toes. You mean I don’t have to stay perfectly poised on my little rectangular rubber mat to get a decent mind-body-soul workout? I can leap and stomp and glide and dive into dubstep and still consider that meditation?
It felt so right, too. My hip rarely ached after a 2-hour 5Rhythms class, and I usually walked away with a pretty clear mind, too. Over time, my collection of yoga mats became like old world maps, tightly rolled up and tucked away in a corner, collecting dust.
Dancing was my new yoga, my new meditation.
What I was failing to realize, though, was that the clarity and comfort attained through dancing is just simply NOT the same as that achieved through yoga and seated meditation.
Yes, there are incredibly deep meditative moments in 5Rhythms—Stillness is almost always a time of prayer and revelation for me—but it only appears after a vigorous Wave of dancing all over the room like a lunatic. Flowing, Staccato, Chaos…they shake things up. Move the gunk and junk through the trunk. It’s a relatively active process, like water boiling on the range.
Don’t get me wrong—I love the simmering, the vibrating H2O molecules, the hot and foamy water cascading over the side of the pot and sizzling on the stove top. That kind of transformation is necessary, changing from solid to liquid to vapor. The things I’ve learned through moving would have never presented themselves through tree pose or 20 minutes of alternate-nostril breathing.
But there’s a reason it was so easy for me to “leave” yoga and meditation: It’s hard! Remaining still, sinking into a pose, practicing patience and concentration is not easy. Because really, who actually wants to follow someone else’s direction about how long to stand on one foot when you could be dancing to the beat of your own drummer?
And that is precisely why yoga is so important: It forces us to pay attention. Be still. Listen.
When you stop doing that, things go haywire.
– You become irritable, complaining about the weather, work, anything and everything out of your control. Coworkers, who once you saw you as the “perpetual optimist,” are perplexed at these out-of-character sentiments.
– You become impatient, especially on the road, so much so that you need to squeeze a few drops of impatiens flower essence into your water bottle before hitting the highway so that you don’t grit your teeth to the gum line as you drive from Point A to Point B.
– You seethe when things don’t go your way, usually about stupid things, like a car pulling out of a driveway during your morning walk. (“God, it’s 6:30 a.m., why does THIS car have to leave RIGHT now and make me STOP?!”)
– You realize your flexibility in a simple seated forward bend is diminishing, that holding onto your ankles may be more reasonable than grasping for the toes.
At first, I requested myself to get back into yoga. Which at the time meant nothing more than doing a few paschimottanasanas and spinal twists after my morning walks.
Then, two things occurred that made me think of Mrs. Goettelmann, shifting the request into a requirement.
First, during a yoga/5Rhythms combo class to celebrate the winter solstice, I mentally fuh-reaked out during the yoga portion. I hadn’t done a group yoga class in months, and I was frustrated with the way my wonky hips wouldn’t let me shift from one pose into another. In the past, I would’ve found my own way to work through it without any problem, but that night I was so acutely aware of the discomfort and difficulty, and I HATED that everyone else was able to sit like little cross-legged Buddhas while I struggled to find a comfortable seated posture. I was angry and sad and basically lost all mental composure, feeling seconds away from bursting into tears and running out into the hallway.
As a result, I didn’t start the dancing portion on a very balanced note. In fact, I may have cried during almost all of Flowing.
Second, I got blood drawn last week. I take thyroid medication, so labwork is routine. A regular yoga practice has always helped me through these kinds of medical procedures, but this time no signs of yoga were evident. I had trouble taking deep breaths. I could feel my body temperature rise. I got panicky, feeling the need to escape. I kind of wanted to throw up. My sympathetic nervous system kicked into overdrive, despite having very easy veins and an experienced phlebotomist.
In short, the nickname my friend Carrol had once bestowed on me—ZenJen—is losing all meaning.
You know, I was a teacher’s pet back in elementary school, and I always listened to Mrs. Goettelmann. Now I realize it’s time to listen to a different kind of teacher: my body.
Jennifer, it’s time to do some yoga and meditate. That’s a requirement, not a request.
I am usually gung-ho about attending any form of yoga-like dance classes, but I found myself growing nervous and nauseous as I drove to my local yoga studio this past Friday for a Nia class.
I have nothing against Nia. My first class was in 2008, when I danced in a large room with a beautiful Black woman at the front, leading a group of various bodies and abilities through expressive movements ranging from yoga to dance to tai chi to tae kwon do. I danced with a woman who was 8.5 months pregnant, a man in a motorized wheelchair, a focused 12-year-old with the desire to dance in her blood, and an older woman in her 70s.
I danced Nia weekly that summer and the next, when the teacher was in town. I bought some of the Nia-issued CDs and Nia’ed in my living room.
I loved Nia until 2010. I had signed up for another summer series, but then life threw me a curveball.
It was that summer—after months of hobbling around in pain—that I found out I had a cartilage tear in my hip joint. And not just that; x-rays that I had gotten as part of all my diagnostic tests had shown a mysterious “thing” in my femur. I’ll never forget the look on my sports medicine doctor’s face as he placed the black x-ray film against the lightbox.
“That’s not normal?” I asked, completely clueless about the streak of white shooting from mid-femur to my knee.
“No,” he replied, eyes wide. “I suggest you see an orthopedist as soon as possible.”
And like that, no amount of yoga or meditation or expressive dance could console me. My brain completely took over, convincing me that my leg was dying, that even though I had never experienced pain in that area before, I was now in pain. In my heart, I knew I was being brainwashed by my overactive neurons, the power of suggestion consuming me. I’d constantly fight with myself, telling me this was all in my head, but my memory kept returning to that x-ray, and just like that, I’d feel stiffness, aching, throbbing. I considered seeing a hypnotherapist to delete the thought from my mind or at least tone down my fears of my leg having to be amputated.
It would be months before the “thing” was deemed by a bone specialist as a harmless entity, but in the meantime, my dance suffered. Nia, the outlet that once brought me so much joy, began to become burdensome. Of course, the labral tear in my hip caused some pain, but with each plié and kick I did in class, I imagined my femur further breaking down, the alien inside on the verge of spreading outside the bone and inhabiting my blood and muscles.
I left class one evening crying to my teacher and then never returned for the remainder of the series. She’d e-mail me periodically to check in or to tell me about an upcoming series, but even after I got the all-clear by my doctor, I never wanted to see Nia again.
The power of association is just wild. I mean, I’ve been dancing 5Rhythms now for two years, but when I finally talked myself into attending this most recent Nia class, I felt sick to my stomach. It didn’t help that I had to look up something in an orthopedics journal for work, and that—coupled with the thought of having to go to Nia that night—made those 2-year-old feelings of soreness and discomfort bubble up in my leg again. So much for time healing all wounds. It is both frightening and fascinating just how much the body holds onto memories and traumas.
Fortunately, the Nia class this past week took place in my “homebase” 5Rhythms venue, the yoga studio in which I discovered, fell in love with, and was healed by 5Rhythms. The power of association worked in my favor this time, as it was just a few weeks ago I stood on the very same floor and danced one of the most soul-stirring dances my body has ever moved.
I saw that polished wooden floor, and my heart softened, relaxed, and opened to this return to Nia.
Once the music started, the only thing that became (slightly) uncomfortable was the notion of choreography, something that 5Rhythms does not have. For the past 2 years, I’ve been following the lead of my heart, not an instructor. However, that feeling quickly subsided as the teacher reminded us to make adjustments for our body, put our own feeling into the moves, to move the way our muscles craved to move. It was satisfying to have a foundation but also the freedom to build my vision on top of it. There were plenty of breaks for free dancing, and I sunk into familiar, delicious territory, my eyes closed, my arms spinning. (Later, after class, a woman described my movement as “distractingly graceful.” “You just looked so happy,” she complimented.)
In fact, I fell so in love with the movement that during a martial arts-like kick when the instructor encouraged us to shout “NO!” along with the choreography, I almost could not speak the word. I didn’t want to say “no”! I was having a good time; I was enjoying this. I wanted to shout “YES!” (Fortunately, that was the next part of the routine.)
Even when the kick-shout exercise ended, my body continued dancing “Yes!” throughout class.
I was back in business.
My work week ended on a not-so-good note this past Friday, and I knew that if I drove straight home from the office I’d end up eating my feelings and drinking too much beer. In fact, on my way home, Bryan texted me to ask what I wanted for dinner.
“Stromboliiiii!” I wrote back, because that is what I crave when I am overwhelmed. I mean, stromboli is the perfect food representation of feeling out of control. You’re just a shell stuffed to the brim with crap, ready to expel your guts the moment someone pokes you the wrong way.
Fortunately, instead of listening to the little stromboli devil sitting on my one shoulder, I gave attention to the angel of yoga sitting on the other. She whispered in my ear over and over again on my drive home that I needed to drive to the local yoga studio, change into the spandex pants sitting in my car, and do some yoga.
I was a bit hesitant because I have not taken a studio class in a very long time. I am very self-conscious about my hip situation and generally prefer to move about my own way in the privacy of my home, where I can jostle my leg and pop my sacrum without feeling like I’m disobeying the teacher. But I knew that I needed guidance that night, so I paid the $15 drop-in fee to try a new class and new teacher. Before class, I gave her the whole spiel about my hip and the poses I have to modify and how I sometimes have to stomp like a zebra between postures to get my leg feeling normal again.
As I sat there on my mat during the opening mantra, I realized that I was actually nervous. It has been so long since practicing yoga in public, and I was just deathly afraid that I’d get caught in a sequence of hip-centric postures that I would struggle with. It was such a different perspective than my old days of yoga, when I’d plop down on my mat without the need for a block or strap and just do pose after pose ever-so-effortlessly. But now I felt like a total newbie, not sure what was going to lie ahead and whether I’d be able to do it.
However, once we began our ujjayi breathing, warming up the spine, and eventually rising into easy Warrior sequences, I was in The Zone. I had had work on the brain since 8 a.m., and for once, I was blessed with 75 minutes of just me and my movement. We plastered ourselves against the wall for a supported half-moon pose, and instead of poo-pooing the notion of using the wall for a balancing pose, I allowed my back and head to nestle against the surface like it was a luxurious mattress. How great it felt to be upheld without struggle.
The class felt like it zipped by, and before I knew it I was wrapped in a blanket, doing nadi shodhana before settling down into savasana. The instructor came around and dabbed essential oil on my temples, gently rocking my head side to side before letting to relax in the center. (<—–THIS is why going to a physical class is SO MUCH BETTER than practicing at home. Ahhh, those soothing savasana touches.)
The class was everything I could have asked for—meditation, asana, pranayama, and a few chaturangas but not so many that my scapula ached—but unfortunately the studio was a little cooler than I would have liked for a class titled “Inner Fire.” Studio temperature is often a deal breaker for me, because, seriously, I should not have visible goosebumps on my arms while covered in a blanket during savasana. I may give the class another chance, but this is the same place I broke up with during the summer because they ran the air conditioner whenever the temperature rose above 80. And then this is why I began practicing at home, in my upstairs yoga room, where it gets deliciously hot and humid.
But for someone in need of a quick fix, soaking in 75 minutes of yoga was so much more satisfying than throwing back a shot. In fact, by the time I got back to my car, I wasn’t craving stromboli anymore and instead ended the evening with a delicious mushroom/pea masala from our favorite Indian place and a glass of red wine.
When was the last time you ignored the “stromboli devil” and said yes to yoga instead?
While the rest of the fitness blogging world is out there worshiping the almighty CrossFit (“Forging Elite Fitness!”), I’m going to be a black sheep and sing a little praise for my weekly $3-a-pop, 45-minute circuit training class.
I found out about the class through a little trifold community education brochure delivered in our neighborhood. Along with circuit training, one can also sign up for Living Wills 101, crocheting, and boater safety education. A yoga class takes place in the high school gymnasium; my class takes places in the cafeteria of a local elementary school (where the smell of tater tots somehow always eclipses our body odor).
I belong to a gym, but its group classes either don’t jive with my work schedule or just don’t pique my interest. So when I found out I could take an 8-week circuit training class once per week for a grand total of $24, I did not hesitate to send in the check.
I just completed the sixth week of the program, and I come home from each session with an affirmatory “I love this class!”
Each session includes a quick warm-up/cool-down, with the circuits sandwiched in-between. The instructor demonstrates three exercises, most of which include a handweight(s) or lightweight medicine ball.
The majority of the moves are compound exercises–so we’re working both our upper and lower body simultaneously and getting quite the cardio workout–or they’re core-focused moves, such as planks or crunches while holding a weight. We do each of the three exercises for about a minute, take a super-quick breather, and then repeat them again–and then again–for a total of three sets. We learn three different routines in each class, for a total of nine different exercises.
I usually break a satisfactory sweat by the end but know I could take it up a notch. The problem is that we have to bring our own weights to class, and I really can’t carry more than the 16 pounds I already haul into the cafeteria. If I were start toting my 10- or 12-pound weights, I’d need a baby stroller to transport them.
Still, I <3 circuit training and was super-happy to learn this week that the instructor is offering an extension period in April and May. Here are the top five reasons I’ll be there:
1. Everything is super-quick. I have a 5-minute commute each way, and the class itself is 45 minutes. BOOM. The class is packed with local working moms, because it’s the perfect time allotment when you have little ones at home.
2. No crap, no chit-chit. One of my biggest fears of going to my gym is being accosted by The Chatty Guy or being forced to listen to the high school jocks curse up a storm while grunting on the weight floor. In my circuit training class, I walk into the cafeteria, set up, work out, and leave. Another class begins immediately after ours, and there is no time for talky talky. And since the class is so fast-paced, there is no room for chatter. I HATE CHATTER DURING CLASSES.
3. Everything is modifiable. The instructor always makes a point to demonstrate the alternative ways of completing the exercise. Use 3-pound dumbbells, 5 pounds. Don’t use the weights at all. Lift your leg to the front if you can’t lift it to the side (<— my hip appreciates this one). Do side plank on your knee or up on your toes. Can’t do the complete Turkish get-up? Just do the first half. Need to keep it low impact? Squat instead of jump. Bottom line: The teacher gives us the opportunity to modify the exercise until its do-able, but pushes us to still DO it. As someone with a chronic injury, this approach is what draws me so much to the teacher/class!
4. I can do everything I learn at home. After each class, I scribble down all of the nine exercises we did so I can do the same routine at home at some other point during the week. (The class is offered twice a week, but I only signed up for the Wednesday class.) Having these routines on hand is also important for the times the instructor is on vacation for two weeks and I don’t want to fall behind on my circuit training!
5. Again, it doesn’t break the bank. 8 classes for $24. BOOM. A great workout for less than the cost of a latte.
Have you recently discovered any cost-effective or time-saving fitness programs?
Ever since the day in February 2010 when I returned from a weekend run hobbling in pain, not a day goes by that I don’t obsess about my hips. This past weekend was no different, but instead of thinking about all the anatomical components of a labral tear, I was focusing more on the girly-girl aspect of my hips; specifically, how to move and groove them!
Thanks to a dance-related group I recently joined on Meetup.com, I was motivated to join some new friends on Saturday in Center City for a dancehall class. Shamefully, I had never heard about the style until I read the description on the instructor’s website:
“…a Caribbean street dance that is all about confidence and attitude. This style of dance includes elements of African, Hip-Hop, House, Zouk, Salsa, and Jamaican Folklore. The Flava style is creative, expressive, fun, and the music takes you away. Dancehall Flava dance can be seen in videos by artists such as Beyonce, Rihanna, M.I.A., and Sean Paul.”
In short: You shake your hips. A lot.
My closest friends know that even though I am a contender for the Nerdiest White Girl of 2012 award, I have this unexplainable attraction to African-rooted dance forms and music. I love gospel music. African drumming. African dance. I think I love The Lion King on Broadway more for its African chorus than its association with Disney. I love reading African travelogues. I think I was the only one in my circle of childhood friends who so desperately wanted a black Barbie doll at age 8.
I am still very white in many ways, but I’d like to think that I’ve come a long way honing my movement since my high school days studying the standard ballet, tap, and jazz at Cute Little Suburban Dance School. There was a time where I was the whitest of white girls, always on my toes, my gangly arms awkwardly akimbo, but somewhere between college and now, things changed, and I finally feel the earth when I dance. Maybe it’s all the yoga, the fact that I’ve been practicing “being grounded” for the past nine years. Maybe all that root chakra stuff, the countless tadasanas with my feet nestling into the earth, being in tune with the body’s own music (the breath) finally got me away from always wanting to be in releve, balancing on my toes. There was a time when lifting my foot in the flexed position gave me the heebie-jeebies. If it was pointed, it wasn’t right.
But now, I love being barefoot. I can flex my feet when I dance, and point them when I have to. Instead of constantly being in releve, most of my movement is in plie. My arms aren’t gangly anymore, and I can control their movement. I’m not afraid to throw back my head or swing my entire body side to side.
All that said…the dancehall class was still a bit of a challenge for me. But a fun challenge! First off, my bum hip doesn’t like to roll to the left. Everyone agrees on having a “bad” side of doing a certain move, but seriously, that is my honest-to-god bad side. I roll too much to the left, and things could get out of whack. My Shakira days are over.
Second, it’s been a while since I’ve had choreography. And not even a full-blown combination, but just someone at the head of the studio saying, “Do this move, with the arms like this and the legs like this.” The technical side of my brain needs to learn the move first before the creative side is allowed to take over and add my own flair. When that technical side of my brain is working, the creative side just shuts off. That’s when the nerdy white girl emerges, so eager to get the form right, trying to get the counts. The flow shuts off, and I am more concerned about where all my body parts are supposed to be rather than just feeling the move from the inside out.
Fortunately, the instructor was very down-to-earth, all smiles, and just there to provide us with a good sweat, a good time, and a good variety of moves to whip out at the club. At some points we just followed along with her and mirrored her movement; for the latter half of class we worked on a combination. By the end of the hour-long class, I was feeling more comfortable with the choreography and finally got a chance to feel the movement and really let myself loose. I am still very self-conscious of my balletic upper body and envied the others girls in the room whose shoulders rolled effortlessly like butter. Even though I was the minority race in the class, there was never any notion of competition or snobbery or discrimination. I was probably less nervous in this class than some of the group classes at my gym. (Ever been the newbie at a Body Pump class?!)
The few girls from the Meetup group gathered briefly afterward for a chat, and we discussed ideas for future dance events. Looks like I’ll be getting in touch with my African roots yet again next weekend for what else but…an African dance class!
It feels like it was forever and a day ago, but last month I had the opportunity to take a 2-day yoga workshop with one of my main facilitators from my Kripalu yoga teacher training, Rudy Peirce.
During my month at Kripalu, we were introduced to a wide range of teachers and variations on the Kripalu style, but it was always after Rudy’s classes that I felt the most content, still, and focused. We meditated a lot during those 28 days, but I felt like I always sunk just a little deeper when Rudy was at the front of the room. Rudy is also a master at offering modifications and adjustments, and although I jotted them down in my notebook during my training, their importance was never a great as they are now, when I am constantly looking for ways to make certain postures accessible in light of my hip limitations.
Five years after my training, I consulted with the universe in perhaps meeting up again with Rudy, and the universe answered by bringing Rudy to a yoga studio 45 minutes from my house.
It was a Big Deal for me to attend the workshop, because it meant I’d have to drive–by myself–out of my comfort zone, on unfamiliar roads and highways that kind of scare me (for no reason). This is usually the dealbreaker for me and out-of-town events, but there was no way I could ignore this awesome act of synchronicity. I printed out directions from Google Maps, slapped my husband’s GPS on my dashboard, and set out on the road. My first commute on Saturday was a bit hairy, because my directions led me through a not-so-nice part of Philadelphia. Fortunately, before I went home that evening, the ever-so-gracious owner of The Yoga Garden studio sat down with me and mapped out a way-friendlier route, which I used the following day and arrived without a hitch. Thank you x 1,000,000, Mark!
(By the way? The Yoga Garden is such a fantastic place! I wish I lived closer because I would love to have it as my “home base” studio. Everything from the entranceway to the bathrooms to the lobby was so perfectly zen and aesthetically pleasing. It definitely helped to walk into such a pleasant environment after sweating through a nervewracking drive.)
I saw Rudy in the lobby before class, and he swore that he remembered me from back in 2006 (apparently my last name runs in his family as well). In case he forgot what cohort I was with, I brought along this photo of all the teachers/assistants from Fall 2006:
I didn’t know it coming in, but Saturday’s class was a backbend workshop. I thought it was going to be a general yoga class, and when I found out I got nervous–but for all the reasons why such a class would benefit me: I feel stiffness in my thoracic region, standing backbends don’t come so easily to me anymore, my lumbar spine aches at times. But Rudy’s approach to exploring backbends is slow, simple, and mindful, meaning no Wheel or anything crazy within the first hour of class. We did a lot of warm-ups, several forward bends followed by rising to standing via a straight spine, rather than rolling up. Rudy’s instruction was to “bend the knees, take the curve out of the spine, and come up straight,” as he noted that “rolling up” and stacking the vertebrae can cause strain over time and sometimes is just plain old dangerous for older people with aging spines.
We rose up from every forward bend by either rising the arms overhead or elongating them in a T position out to our sides, palms up, lifting sternum, pressing pubic bone forward, and tilting the head back while gazing to the ceiling in a slight backbend. The first time I did this I felt so stiff, but after several rounds, this move felt delicious. I found myself wanting to hold the backbend for just a little longer, plus I was actually breathing in the bend, something that is usually difficult for me. No longer did my inhalations stop once I dropped the head back.
We did some work with Eagle arms too, which I think really helped work some kinks out of my trapezius and neck. Even though most of us could wrap the arms in Eagle without assistance, we used a yoga strap to hold the arms, which took away any excess strain and helped us focus on our backbends. Pressing the hands to forehead, we went from a backbend to a forward bend, while still holding the arms in Eagle. Have I ever done a forward bend with Eagle arms?? I don’t even know, but it felt great. (Side note: Since this workshop, I’ve incorporated some Eagle arm stretches into my post-swim workouts.)
I knew Camel was coming eventually. When I think of Camel, my mind goes back to Bikram class, when Camel kinda feels like sh*t. But here, we did a lot of prep work leading up to the full pose, including a “Camel dance” (bring right hand to right heel, rise, left hand to left heel, rocking back and forth with breath) and then a one-sided Camel during which the right hand comes to right heel, opposite arm extended up, pubic bone pressing forward, slight backbend. Repeat on opposite side, and continue side to side in your own flow. I tried some prop assistance during this pose, including placing a cushion on my calves instead of reaching all the way down to my heels and then placing a blanket under my feet to raise the heels closer to my hands. Of course, there’s also the option of placing blocks between your feet, but I really liked the cushion-on-the-calves modification. By the time we got to the full expression of the pose, I was fully alive. Gone are my visions of puke-inducing Camel!
Some other modification pointers I took home with me were really, really simple (like, Why didn’t I think of that on my own?!). One is placing a folded blanket under the hands during table pose. I’ve seen the folded-mat variation of this before, but I like this option because it doesn’t shorten your mat. Another was placing a rolled-up yoga mat long-ways across your knees during seated meditation to allow the hands to rest comfortably on the knees. I especially liked this one because I generally sit in hero pose for meditation, and I’ve found it difficult to find a comfortable/natural place for my hands to lie. The yoga-mat option allows my hands to rest beyond my knees as though I were sitting in sukhasana.
As expected with any Kripalu class, we ended with pranayama. I was so excited to be led through kapalabhati with retention, something I learned at Kripalu and never saw after that. Yet it is so invigorating! Rudy also led single-nostril kapalabhati, in which we did 20 expulsions on one side, 20 on the other, and then alternating-nostril kapalabhati. Yowzas! My brain felt cleared of any junk, and my body tingled with oxygenation.
Rudy closed class with his usual “Hari Om, shanti, shanti, peace, peace,” which brought a smile to my lips. I hadn’t heard his voice utter those words since 2006, and it reminded me of Kripalu and the time when one of my classmates asked him what “hari” meant, to which Rudy had replied, “It means Yay!”
After class, I hung around to talk with Rudy’s wife, Joyce, who had tagged along as his assistant/sidekick. She is a dancer herself, and we spent some time talking about the challenges of being trained in dance/flexibility yet never in strength, as well as the challenges of carrying the “teacher” label and finding a balance between being a student and leader. It was comforting to learn that Joyce also struggled in adapting to being a “teacher” and how it tarnished the innocent love and fascination of yoga that came along with just being a student. And why is there always a tug to become a teacher? Can’t one just be a lifelong student? Why is there a guilt that comes along with practicing yoga for oneself? My husband runs four times a week but is not going out to become a track coach or personal trainer. Is it something about being a woman that makes us feel guilty for being just a tad selfish? Or perhaps it’s the huge sense of responsibility that Kripalu places on its trainees, that Here is this gift. Now it’s your mission to spread it to others. It is something Joyce and I both still struggle with, but it was so reassuring to talk with someone who understands. (This all reminds me of a woman who led belly dance classes at my gym. She always said, “I don’t like to say that I ‘teach.’ I’m not a guru or anything. I prefer to say that I ‘share.’ I just take what I love to do and share it with others.” I love that mentality! It feels so much less burdensome to say “I’m going to share some yoga with others” rather than “teach.”)
Yogas Citta Vritti Nirodhah
(Yoga is the cessation of the modifications of the mind; yoga is the cessation of thought forms in the field on consciousness; yoga is to still the patterns of consciouness) ~Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, 1.2
I returned to The Yoga Garden on Sunday for Rudy’s meditation workshop. The first half of class was a lot of yoga philosophy and talk, much of which I learned at Kripalu. However, Rudy has such a mellow voice that just listening to him induces a peaceful, meditative state. I swear, he could be talking about burgers and I could drift into a wonderful meditation.
Rudy summed up the act of meditation like this: The mind is a media center–movies, slides, songs, photos, memories, books–more channels than cable. Meditation is stepping back and seeing that it’s all just a movie, that you don’t have to be actively engaged in all these media swirling around your neural circuits.
We reviewed the three main components of meditation:
- Dharana: Concentration on one point.
- Dhyana: Witnessing (dropping preferences, evaluation, and identification with thoughts).
- Samadhi: No differentiation of pain and pleasure (non-dual awareness).
Unfortunately, Samadhi was nowhere to be found for me that afternoon. I made the mistake of starting my meditation sit in sukhasana, which my hips were not pleased with. By the time I made the effort to shift positions, my entire left leg from my sacrum down to the toes was asleep and tingling in pain. I tried to breathe through the discomfort, and by the time I settled into a space of ease, our time was up and we emerged out of meditation. Needless to say, my mind never really escaped the “media center” mentality; however, I did learn that just because everyone else in the class is sitting in one position does not mean I have to do the same, especially when I know that it will eventually cause pain! I totally, totally knew this going into the sit, but I succumbed to “peer pressure,” just wanting to be like everyone else.
So, not the best meditation ever, but I still left the studio feeling pretty mellow and chill, a perfect way to commemorate the anniversary of my training with Rudy on the same weekend I graduated from the program 5 years ago.
(And yes, the head scarf I’m wearing in 2006 is the one I’m wearing around my neck in 2011. I bought it during my YTT, so I consider it my “Kripalu scarf”!)
By the time this is posted on Saturday, I will be in Pennsylvania for what is shaping up to be one of the most coincidental full circles of my life.
On this weekend back in 2006, as I have been documenting so fastidiously, I was saying goodbye to Kripalu and my yoga teacher training family, which included facilitator Rudy Peirce. Today, I will be returning to Rudy, exactly five years after he pressed sandalwood on my forehead and acknowledged me as certified yoga instructor.
The way this all unfolded tickled my soul and reinforced my belief in universal connectedness, that somewhere under all the muck and distraction and chaos of everyday life there is an energetic hum that we all sing and dance to.
One month ago, when I started the process of transcribing my notes from Kripalu, the more and more I re-visited that time and place, the more my respect and admiration for Rudy grew. He was one of the two main facilitators for my program; Megha Buttenheim was the other. As a pair, they have been described as yin and yang, Tigger (Megha) and Eeyore (Rudy), due to their opposing personalities. When Megha bounced, Rudy sat still in meditation. When Megha belted out songs and chants, Rudy sang with a simple, subtle voice.
With Megha being a dancer, I naturally gravitated toward her as my “favorite” of the two, although looking back at my journal notes now it’s obvious that every asana practice, meditation, and pranayama exercise that Rudy led affected me deeply. My consciousness soared to new heights with Rudy leading a meditation, and my lungs danced to his breathwork instruction.
Rudy is known for his gentle approach to yoga; in fact, his nickname is “The Gentle Yogi.” Kripalu yoga in general stresses the importance of adapting or modifying poses to be accessible for all bodies, abilities, and limitations. I feel that Rudy, however, goes the extra mile to make sure that even if you’re using two blocks, a blanket, and a bolster to get into a pose that you’re experiencing and living the pose, not just struggling with some props while everyone else around you has some amazing transformation while in folded picture-perfectly in pigeon. Transformation is for everyone, and there are all different routes to get there. Rudy makes sure that happens, not only through his words and instruction but simply his overall demeanor of compassion and reverence.
I didn’t realize how important this was until my hips started to get all funky two years ago due to some torn cartilage and an unstable sacrum. Poses that were once “regulars” in my yoga repertoire suddenly became painful, uncomfortable, or simply inaccessible. It was at this point I understood why I had gone to Kripalu; if not to teach yoga to others, then to teach myself. To be able to go to classes and find other routes into a pose or alternatives altogether. To create a home practice with modifications and poses that may not look “normal” but still allow me to sink into satisfaction. To remember that when my body doesn’t want to flow, I can still achieve peace of mind through meditation and breathing. My Kripalu training has always served me well, but it wasn’t until I recently began re-reading my journal from that time that it finally dawned on me just how important Rudy was in the overall picture.
I would love to take class with Rudy again, I thought to myself a few weeks ago after transcribing a journal entry. I don’t think I gave him my full appreciation at the time. I thumbed through the most recent Kripalu catalog to see if he’d be leading any workshops in the winter. He was, but I don’t even know why I looked in the first place. Kripalu costs money. Kripalu in the winter may require 4-wheel drive. Kripalu requires vacation days that I don’t have right now.
Two days later, I logged into my long-abandoned Yahoo! account to resolve a pestering e-mail issue. There, among the 200+ e-mails (mostly spam) was a newsletter from Rudy I had signed up long ago to receive. It announced his workshops at Kripalu ($$), a special yoga retreat in Italy ($$$$), and…wait, what? A weekend workshop in suburban Philadelphia, the Philadelphia that lies 30 minutes from my house?? A studio I can access simply by car and $5 for the bridge toll, not a 5-hour road trip into the potentially snowy Berkshire Mountains or a trans-Atlantic flight to Europe?
Needless to say, the universe was speaking to me, and I signed up. It was only recently I realized the workshop coincides with the 5-year anniversary of me saying goodbye to Kripalu. Today, I will return—not to the physical structure of Kripalu, but rather the spirit within its walls and the energy that emanates outward. Today, the circle becomes complete.
Thursday was my office birthday celebration, which meant my manager brought in the treat of my choice (brownies!) and decorated my cubicle with the “Happy Birthday” confetti.
This time last year I felt anything but happy. I had never associated turning 30 with “getting old,” but then right before my birthday my hip situation worsened and an MRI revealed a torn labrum. At the same time, an x-ray of my leg revealed a mysterious “thing” in my femur, and I went for three agonizing months not knowing for sure what it was. Before I had a specialist deem it a harmless “bone island” (a true medical term, not the next FOX reality show, I swear), I spent my days making orthopedist and bone scan appointments, experimenting with antidepressants (which lasted for a week; I couldn’t stand the side effects), and having to take anxiety medication to go to sleep. The timing was awful, and I felt like my body was a cruel prankster, making everything break down at such a milestone year of my life.
Yet, even with those setbacks, being 30 turned out OK. The hip thing makes my body slightly more fragile, but I have learned to cope with it, taking my time getting in and out of cars, avoiding pigeon and related yoga poses, and always toting around an ice pack to strap on my side after a long day of walking or a cycling session at the gym.
I know I look older; I can no longer mask a night without sleep–the dark circles under my eyes give it away. I have a few more wrinkles on my face, and I am oh-so-crotchety. I am a 30-something, female version of the “Get off my lawn!”-yelling grandpa. Or a cuter version of Larry David. Either would be correct. Just ask my husband.
But, before I go grab a frying pan and yell at the local youth walking across my grass, here’s a look back at the high points of Year 30:
• I celebrated the big 3-0 down the shore with my sis. It was a great lil’ getaway; we went to Wildwood, a shore town we used to frequent annually as kids but then hadn’t been in years. We did some rides, strolled the boards, took goofy pictures, scared ourselves silly riding ducks suspended on an overhead track, took the “back roads”-way home to avoid an accident that left us thinking we accidentally drove into Kansas, and then sat our sandy and sweaty beach butts down at IndeBlue back home for dinner.
• 30th birthday celebration II: Surprise Riversharks baseball game with friends. Bryan coordinated the event with a respectable number of guests; any more and I would have cried. I made it very clear to him that I did not want any big birthday surprise parties!
• Birthday celebration III: Another outing with my sis, which included mango mimosas and omelets for brunch, a random African flea market, and a friend’s production of the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, during which I was asked to be a part of the cast!
• Birthday celebration IV: A trip to Atlantic City, to redeem Bryan’s birthday gift to me: Tickets to the Season 7 So You Think You Can Dance tour!
• One of the greatest moments of my 30-year-old life was visiting a Disneyphile’s Mecca: Disneyland! Walt Disney World in Florida is my home base, but our trip to California last September allowed us the opportunity to walk in Walt’s footsteps.
As an East Coaster my heart will always belong to WDW, but the trip allowed us to see lots of cool things original to Disneyland:
• Being in California also meant seeing some really cool sights in the LA area:
• My 30th New Year’s celebration included some awesome rooftop fireworks over Philly, which we may never see again now that our friends who lived in the high-rise apartment complex have moved.
• After maintaining a fairly private blog since 2003, I started this here Flowtation Devices in March!
• After being without a “yoga home” for more than a year, I find a studio right by my office–and a teacher whose classes I love!
• I took time to polish up my resume, reminding myself that I done good.
• I put on my big-girl shoes and drove to Philly by myself so I could start attending 5Rhythms classes in the city.
• 30 became the year of fanatic plane watching:
• My dad won tickets to a Phillies game–my first time at Citizens Bank Park, and some SWEET seats, too!
• I finally got to bang on my djembe a little more at some rockin’ drum circles:
• Bryan and I spend the evening with fellow NPR nerds at a live recording of Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me at the Academy of Music. Things get even better after Christmas, when Bryan gets me a shiny red iPod Nano and I can finally listen to the podcasts!
• I enter my first sporty competition and complete the swimming portion of a team duathlon.
• A railroad crossing near our house that has been closed since the dawn of time OPENS, meaning we can drive from one side of town to the other without having to make a giant u-turn. I consider this 30th Birthday Celebration V; it was a huge victory in our town!
• Bryan gets a new job that allows him to work from home–more husband time! And weeknight dinners together, too–a brand new concept for the wife of a former newspaper photographer!
• I supervise some kick-ass interns at work. It feels good to work with young, intelligent minds…and even help one score a full-time gig!
• Round II of physical therapy for my hip includes some odd moments (nothing like having a male PT assistant glue electric nodes to my “underwear” area), but I walk away from the 2-month endeavor feeling better and armed with some incredibly useful hip and back exercises.
• I take blogging to the next level by joining an online community. Ahhh, commitment!
• While delving into all kinds creative movement, I fall head-over-heels in love with Biodanza during an introductory workshop. (It’s returning to Philly in August!)
…So there you have it, kiddos. 30 was such an odd year for me, because I do the pee-pee dance when I see Donald Duck dressed as a pumpkin (and break down in tears when he walks away before I get a picture), yet I grumble and scowl like an old lady when kids go splashy-splash in the pool during my lap time at the gym. How one can be so much like Dora the Explorer and Dorothy Zbornak at the same time is a mystery…but–yes, thank you Lady Gaga–dammit, I was born this way!
Last week I posted about getting back in the flow of the universe, which for me is evident when I start experience a lot of coincidences/moments of synchronicity. The three I mentioned were all positive moments, like dreaming about iced coffee and then it manifesting in real life on my desk at work. Another uplifting moment of feeling “plugged in” happened this weekend, starting when my friend Carrol’s e-mail went haywire and sent out a bunch of old messages, so that on Friday night I opened my inbox and found an e-mail from her dated October 2010. I was perplexed but shrugged it off as an accident…and then the very next morning, Carrol calls me and asks if we can get together, because she has a gift for me!
The gift was awesome–it was a metal spiral pendant Carrol bought at Kripalu during her recent R&R. It’s made by Allison (http://www.prasadaspirit.com) from the KDZ drum ensemble at Kripalu, so Carrol noted that it’s nice to wear something made from the hands that play a djembe all day. The sounds of a drumbeat will play along with our heartbeats whenever we wear our pendants!
The next moment of synchronicity happened as Carrol and I were chatting about her training as an art therapist. I was trying to describe to her a drawing that I had made at the end of my yoga teacher training (the result of being asked “Draw what your future looks like”), when suddenly it dawned on me that one of the recurring elements of the artwork were spirals. As soon as I got home, I texted Carrol a photo of a portion of my drawing and the spiral pendant she had just brought home from Kripalu for me.
It’s really wild when stuff like that happens, but not all synchronicities are necessarily ones that you want to acknowledge. For example, when I wake up on Thursday and my hip feels weird and wonky, I do not want to come into work, pass my coworker’s computer, and see a medical photo of a torn hip labrum displayed all big-ass on her monitor for an assignment she was working on. It could have stopped there, but no! Then I find out this particular coworker’s brother is having hip surgery the following week for his busted cartilage. And then–oh yeah, there’s more!–I read the latest posting from The Happiness Project blog on my Google Reader, and it’s an interview with author Meghan O’Rourke. What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?, the interviewer asks. “Taking a walk,” Meghan replies. “I used to run a lot, and that always made me happier (even if I was unhappy lacing up my shoes to do it). But I tore the cartilage in my right hip and need surgery – so I can’t run anymore.” Womp-womp. So it didn’t surprise me later that night when, during hot yoga class, the teacher decides to lead us through upavistha konasana, which, after pigeon, is one of the most painful and nearly impossible poses for me to do with my hip issues.
What made this super-weird was that, on top of all the hip stuff I had been encountering earlier in the day, I had just been thinking to myself, “Man, I’m so glad the teacher never does upavistha konasana in class!” Because seriously, for the past nine months I’ve been taking her class, never–NEVER!–has she done this pose. We’ve done prasarita padottanasana (difficult, but easier than sitting poses)…
I struggled during the pose. I used to be able to flatten my chest to the ground, stick my arms out in front of me, and slide through a straddle position, ending with my legs straight out behind me. Now I was barely able to lean forward. Sometimes I like that it’s a hot yoga class I go to, so when I feel my lips start to tremble I can grab my hand towel and wipe the
tears sweat from my eyes. After what felt like 20 minutes in the pose, the teacher guided us into the next pose.
Pigeon, of course.
I was thisclose to leaving the studio for a
crying bathroom break. I have struggled many times in class but never to the point where I used the bathroom as an escape. I thought back to Kripalu and the whole Breathe-Relax-Feel-Watch-Allow prescription, and here I was, totally attempting to bail out of the Watch and Allow elements. So I stayed, lying on my back for my substitute pose for pigeon, draping my ankle over the other bent knee and drawing the legs toward the chest. I took deep belly breaths, focusing all of my efforts on inhaling and exhaling, trying not to let the mind take over. Living in the moment, even if the present is an uncomfortable asana that punctuates a day full of sucky synchronicity.