(Last week, I spent 5 days at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Massachusetts. This is the first of what will probably be several posts documenting the experience.)
A week before my planned trip to Kripalu, I received a phone call from the reservations department, reluctantly informing me that the program I had registered for, “Dive Deep and Play,” was being cancelled due to low enrollment. I had looked forward to dancing, playing, and getting serious with two of Kripalu’s most luminous women—Jurian Hughes and Jovinna Chan—and quickly had to come up with a back-up plan. I could have opted to just make my entire stay an R+R, but I was genuinely interested in some structure for the first half of my stay (and as a consolation, Kripalu offered me an enticing 25% discount on an alternative program, plus my room and board for that period).
After some catalog perusal, I decided on taking the women-only “Embodied Meditation with Live Music for Women: Awakening Feminine Rhythm” with Bobbie Ellis and her musician husband John Bianculli. “It’s a technique that explores the moment-to-moment dance between breath and body, heart and mind,” the description stated. “Awaken sacred feminine wisdom at your own pace, developing the skills and trust you need to let the mystery itself be your deepest teacher.”
I don’t know how I missed the listing the first time around—everything about the program sounded like exactly what I needed, and the notion of having live music and ambient sounds to “evoke and entice deeper unfoldings” was a huge draw.
Yet, as I set out on the road late Friday morning to drive from New Jersey to Massachusetts, I began to fear that the last-minute change of plans was a sign that perhaps this wasn’t my time to return to Kripalu. Most of my 5-hour drive felt like some kind of metaphor: Inexplicable traffic on the NJ Turnpike, orange construction cones and barrels everywhere, shifting lanes, some form of roadwork being done on every main highway, the fact that I was feet away from taking the wrong exit and nearly turned toward Newark Airport, getting stuck in not one but two separate downpours and thunderstorms, and then making two wrong turns in West Stockbridge before finally slapping the GPS onto my dashboard, driving down Interlaken Road…and nearly blasting right by the Kripalu entrance. Oops.
However, once I rolled my luggage into the lobby, things began to feel right. The sun was back out; everyone I passed had that trademark Kripalu chillaxed look on their face. While checking in, I squealed, “I’m so excited to be back!” to the staff member, who gave me a big smile and handed me my name tag and room key (that’s relatively new; last time I was there in 2008, dorms were still unlocked). Before heading to my room, I peered at the program board, curious and anxious about who would be teaching live-drumming YogaDance the next day. Please let it be, please let it be, please let it be…MEGHA!! Sweet! I did a happy dance for the older woman volunteering at the front desk, as she knew and understood why I was eager to see Megha again.
I had arrived too late to take the 4:15 yoga class, but I was excited to see another offered at 5:15. Before class, I unpacked in my dorm room. I was pleased to claim a bottom bunk, especially because my first night—the last evening of a heat wave—was uncomfortably hot. Rooms aren’t air-conditioned at Kripalu; I knew that, but in hindsight, I should have toted a cold washcloth into bed with me. See that plush pug on the bed? That’s what I looked like on Friday night, except with a tank top and underwear. It was too warm for even the paper-thin sheet to rest on top of me.
After yoga, I ate dinner outside, taking in the fresh air and stunning views of the Berkshires. My program was set to begin at 7:30, and although the description said to “eat lightly” beforehand, I couldn’t resist a big plate of everything from the buffet: tofu topped with salsa and mango chutney, chard, eggplant, asparagus risotto, creamy bean soup, and banana bread.
My program took place in the Lakeview Room, which, unfortunately, is one of the least desirable rooms on campus. It’s in the basement of the building, which means you have to walk down a concrete corridor—past loud HVAC equipment and such—the entire time feeling like you most certainly have to be in the wrong part of the building because what yoga program would take place steps away from the laundry room and hot tub maintenance closet? The room itself is not terrible, but it doesn’t get a lot of sunlight and is one of the only rooms on campus with air-conditioning, which may sound desirable but was actually not necessary and would kick on at all the wrong times, being loud when we were trying to be soft and making us cool when we were trying to warm up.
However, when I walked into the Lakeview Room on Friday night, B Tribe’s Spiritual Spiritual album was playing, and—being that I am currently enamored with that very CD—took it as a sign that despite my original program’s cancellation, the hairy drive to Massachusetts, and the weird basement room, I was supposed to be here.
We sat in a circle, settling in, breathing, introducing ourselves by intuiting what was resonating inside of us and describing it in a word(s) and movement. We did this three times, and for most people, by Level 3, we were getting to the meat of things. Some people had very loving, exuberant expressions; others were clearly here to help heal wounds or find the strength to move through a challenge.
From the circle, we then spread out and stretched out on the floor, our first opportunity to play with gravity. This is one of the main tenants of Bobbie’s program, to get people to give in to gravity, allowing yourself to be pulled into the earth, releasing everything to the ground below. We are so accustomed to the “onward and upward” direction of life that we rarely give ourselves permission to return to our roots. We spent a lot of time here on the floor, using John’s live music and our own sounds to release downward: shhhhhhh, sa-sa-sa-sa-sa-sa, chi-chi-chi-chi. “Direct the sound into the area that needs attention,” Bobbie said. “Let the sound come into that spot and then out through the ground.”
I focused on my heart, and the visualization of the vibrations filling my chest and then swimming downward through that basement floor into the soil gave me a new sense of receptivity. I felt openness in my hips, my fingers danced their own mudras, my palms felt hot and unconsciously began stroking each other. At Bobbie’s request, I imagined myself falling into the ground while at the same time imagining the ground coming up to meet me. It reminded me very much of the Florence and the Machine song “Never Let Me Go”; both the earth and I were depending on each other and pleading for the other not to let go of her.
And it’s over,
And I’m going under,
But I’m not giving up!
I’m just giving in.
Bobbie encouraged us to always return to this “giving in” when stuck, rather than resort to predetermined or contrived movement. I saw this lesson as important for both dance (take time to stand still and sink in when movement isn’t occurring naturally instead of wasting energy on some token movement) and life in general (when you’re not sure what to do next, hunker down and feel your roots, your body wisdom, instead of just plowing ahead through the motions of what you think is right).
Move Like a Cell
She reminded us that, as humans, we’re mainly composed of water; thus, that is how we should move! Water is our composition, so we need to remember to move like a cell. Bring some flow into life, stop being so straight and rigid. She wrote the word “Success” on the board in front of us, followed by two drawings: a very long and loopy squiggly line and then a straight arrow. Our culture tends to see the second as the depiction of “success,” Bobbie said, but the long and loopy line can be just as effective. Take a magnifying glass to a portion of that squiggle and you’ll see focused direction of attention. Sure, it may look all over the place from far away, but as long as you’re going all over the place fully grounded and focused, then that is what matters.
Feminine vs. Masculine Energies
It’s not to say that the straightforwardness of masculine energy is bad, she noted. Feminine energy is openness, being able to hold; masculine energy is direction. Just look at the sexual organs. They are complementary, and it is this marriage of energies that makes us whole.
Femininity, Bobbie said, is receptivity and openness, an awareness to what’s going around us. Sensuality: open to feeling. The body’s language is not words. So often we stop the exploration because we have already defined it. This was our opportunity to suspend the conclusion, to stop emoting—mixing story with the feeling. Just feel.
She shared a quote from Lynn Andrews: “Power is the strength and ability to see yourself through your own eyes and not through the eyes of another. Being able to place a circle around your own feet and take not the power from someone else’s circle.”
“What I love about some of the closest people in my life,” Bobbie said, “is their ability to get out of my way. If I have an urge, they say ‘go.'”
Exploring the Urges
We worked with the notion of urges through movement, using John’s music as a lovely soundtrack. Some movement was primal, some playful, some done by sinking into gravity with the help of soft, pliable rubber balls.
We were all doing our own thing, exploring what felt right to us, but Bobbie reminded us to use sound, open our mouths, let the air move through our mouth like wind in a cave. We moved slowly—“Go too fast and you might miss something,” Bobbie said. “One small feeling could shift your entire being.” We ended the practice lying in savasana, our hands resting below the navel in a triangle.
When we sat up, John continued playing the piano, and we opened our notebooks to journal. I found it very interesting that up until that point, I had been journaling in print, yet when my pen touched the paper after that particular exercise, the words flowed forth in cursive, penmanship I rarely use unless signing my name. My feminine nature was emerging through the pen!
One of things I wrote was a list of the 5Rhythms and how this program was making me focus primarily on the rhythms of Flowing and Stillness. I circled the two words and drew lines connecting them. Later, I realized I had pretty much subconsciously sketched the female reproductive system.
Playing with Sound
Saturday afternoon’s class was John-less, so we made our own music, primarily through chanting the sounds of the chakras, starting with the root: O, Ooo, Ahh, A, Eee, Mmm, and then silence. We chanted them in order and were then encouraged to mix and match the sounds, maybe moving from O to Mmmm or hovering between two and going back and forth. I worked on the sounds of the heart and throat chakras, and I soon realized that combining “E” and “A” sounded a bit like saying “Yay!” over and over again. 🙂
We also talked a bit about inhalations, because I had expressed that I often feel like I can never get a full breath and I’m puffing my chest to no avail. Bobbie suggested directing the inhalation in other directions—maybe even down!—instead of trying so hard to push it upward (“There’s enough of that in society!”). However, I did like experimenting with circular breathing, imagining the air coming up through the spine, out through the forehead, and then down the front of the body.
Pranayama & Asana
Sunday morning we did even more breath work, beginning with color pranayama, in which we breathed in a color that appealed to us then exhaled a color we wanted to expel. I breathed in orange and exhaled gray, the color (or lack of) of cubicle walls. Next up was a pituitary pranayama, in which we envisioned breathing in two slivers of ribbon through the nostrils, up to the space between the eyes and under the brain, and then exhaling in that pituitary space as well.
Well, pranayama is powerful, man, because when I eventually rose to standing, I felt like I was ten times taller, like my head was touching the ceiling and I was towering above everyone else. I had such a sense of largeness and presence. I remember once feeling this same way after a particularly intense massage, and my therapist said it was the feeling and awareness of my consciousness expanding.
From there, we moved right into a very slow but powerful asana practice, sinking into Goddess with some noise, an exalted Warrior on each side during which my back felt so free and my chest so open, a deep squat that my hip didn’t allow me to do, but Bobbie came to the rescue by stacking six blocks under my butt. I had never even thought of this modification, and I was so grateful to be supported, both by Bobbie (realizing I could use some assistance) and the blocks (I could do the pose without straining!).
Near the end of the practice, we were encouraged to do any final movement that felt right, and my body was asking for supported bridge pose. We had done this pose the day before with the support of the rubber balls, but I reached out for a yoga block this time. Even when Bobbie came around and asked if I’d rather use the ball, I firmly turned down the offer, sticking to the block. Maybe it was the height I craved, maybe the steady firmness of the prop, but either way, when I turned that brick to its highest level, it was as though the scales tipped and all emotion cascaded from my root straight down into my solar plexus, flooding my heart, and releasing through my throat and eyes. Big emotion, big tears.
This release was a moment of extreme clarity for me; it was brief, but it was a physical and emotional sensation tied to the quote that Bobbie had shared earlier: “Power is the strength and ability to see yourself through your own eyes and not through the eyes of another.”
After our final sharing circle and goodbyes, I tried to find time to let everything from the past day and a half sink in. I felt a bit vulnerable but incredibly open, as though the program were timed just as so, waiting precisely until 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning for the big A-ha! moment to occur. One of my favorite places to reflect at Kripalu is the second-floor lounge, directly across from the Main Hall and overlooking the front lawn and the mountains.
I thought more about this concept of embodied meditation, not putting words to the sensation. I realized that recently I’ve had trouble journaling about some of my most intense dance/5Rhythms experiences; I feel absolutely exhilarated/raw/blissed out during class but then struggle (and get mad at myself) when I sit down and try to write about the experience here. Maybe I don’t want to assign words, I don’t want definitions, I don’t want the upper chakras to talk and explain and dialogue and dissect these very deep lower chakra experiences. I want to sing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” not “Can You Discuss the Matter of Love Tonight?” I just want to feel. Suspend the conclusion.
Shortly after that, I made my way to the Healing Arts center on the fourth floor for a reflexology appointment. If femininity is being receptive and open, then my feet are very feminine, because for me, reflexology work is like transcendental hypnosis from the toes upward. I saw colors, I saw very light and white objects in my mind’s eye (bathroom tile, steam, soap), I felt an incredibly warmth in the ball of my right foot. Fifty minutes later, when the therapist concluded and left the room, I sat up and immediately burst into tears, not sad, no emotion tied to it—just a very welcome release.
My feet had never felt so fixed and firm on the ground; it was as though electricity was buzzing from my soles straight into the earth. I looked in the mirror, and my eyes were fierce and open, dilated, the kind of wildness that I remember shining from Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa’s eyes when she visited Kripalu. Kundalini eyes. Shakti eyes.
Cleaned, massaged, stroked, and set ablaze, my feet somehow managed to carry my noodle-like legs out of the room, down four flights of stairs, and outside on the grass of the front lawn for my first steps into openness and abandon.