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RavenFeather

THE END.

It’s an interesting phrase to start off a new blog post, isn’t it? But endings are all about beginnings, and this is the time of year where that becomes most apparent. When 2012 faded into the archives, 2013 made its way onto wall calendars and desktops. Old, unhealthy habits were cast aside, making way for new resolutions. The dying Christmas trees lining the curbsides around my neighborhood will find new life within the earth soon, and with their removal comes newfound space in people’s living rooms—room for the new toys Santa delivered, perhaps.

Even what are considered “endings” in yoga and dance—savasana and Stillness—are really just gentle transitions into beginnings. When I wake up from savasana, it may be the end of class or asana practice, but it feels more like the beginning of something awesome. My body and mind are re-charged, as though those 5 minutes lying on my back were the final moments my smartphone needed in the electrical outlet before clicking over to 100% battery power.

And 5Rhythms-speaking, Stillness may mark the conclusion of a class, but internally it’s only the beginning. Great insights come from the meditative nature of Stillness, making way for new frames of mind, new awareness. It’s one of the reasons I dislike having to go to work the next day after a 5Rhythms intensive—the workshop may have ended, but my mind is just starting to process all the beginnings, all the possibilities thrown at me.

This blog post is about three recent 5Rhythms events that began with endings and ended with beginnings…and so it begins (or ends?):

Plunge to Soar

A week before Christmas, a group of dancers gathered in an elementary school all-purpose room to get unstuck from the personal lies that plagued their souls.

“Our personal lie is our most negative thought about ourselves,” read the e-mail that confirmed our attendance. “This lie was a decision we made most likely based on a reaction we had to something. Due to circumstance, this most commonly comes from our very first surroundings—typically something our parents did, felt, or said about us, anywhere from conception, to birth, to early childhood.”

Plunge-to-Soar Installation

We wrote these personal lies on squares of paper, taping them to the wall. Blank paper and markers were left out to encourage us to continue exploring these demons as we danced. Every other minute, someone would run over to the wall, furiously scribbling, emphatically taping. By the end of the first Wave, the wall looked like some kind of twisted billboard advertising self-doubt and defeat, a haphazard shower of angry black ink. How appropriate was it that the children who used our space during the week were studying the work of Jackson Pollock—they seemed to have decorated the room so fittingly for us:

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Along with dance (led by teacher Nancy Genatt), breath (led by our New Jersey 5Rhythms producer Stavros Vrahnos) was used to explore these dark, dormant places, to set them in motion. It was the first time I had ever used pranayama during 5Rhythms, instructed to stop dancing, find a place of emotional restriction, add a dimension of physical restriction to it by tightening the muscles around that area, and then begin Breath of Fire (kapalabhati breath). This breath rid me of stagnation and propelled me to move forward. One of my lies was “The need to be perpetually clenched,” and breathing in this fashion would not allow that lie to hold true in the moment. My rigidity melted, and a smile may have crossed my lips.

Halfway during class, we lay down for a session of integrative breathwork, a very intense form of breathing meant to increase energy in the body and access suppressed feelings (read about another experience with this breathwork here). The process used to be termed “rebirthing,” and I can see why—tingling and vibrating sensations started in my scalp and gradually moved down into my throat, my chest, my solar plexus, and finally my legs and feet, like I was being pushed head-first out of the womb. I didn’t experience any overwhelming outbursts of emotion, but I did feel an intense urge to move, my fingers dancing in mudras, at one point sitting straight up.

The process marked the destruction of our wall of self-loathing and the birth of new positive, affirmations. Sitting in a circle, we shuffled through the depressing pile of papers inscribed with our personal lies, reading aloud ones that spoke to us—some ours, borrowing others from our classmates. It was both comforting and disheartening to see that we all feel so very flawed and so very similarly, even in times we think we’re alone in our self-doubt.

Reading these statements took courage, caused a few tears to fall. But as we read, we also ripped and teared the paper, symbolizing the end of such thinking. In its place, our classmates wrote truths for each other, replacing the negative with positive.

Highly ritualistic but ultimately freeing, we took the scraps of ripped paper outside to burn, sprinkling rose petals in the fire as a way of adding lightness to the darkness we were shedding.

Personal lies

And then came the beginning: Learning to breathe in and fully receive my new beautiful truths, so graciously offered by my classmates.

Personal truths

Dance Out the Old

My original 5Rhythms teacher Richard’s workshop between Christmas and New Years couldn’t have been a more literal dance of endings and beginnings. Titled “Dance Out the Old,” the day included not just movement but ritualistic sharing of mementos that represented saying goodbye to one year and introducing new aspirations and dreams for 2013.

The centerpiece of the altar at the edge of the room was a raven, symbolic of 5Rhythms founder Gabrielle Roth, whose death in October was perhaps the dance world’s greatest loss (yet presented so many new beginnings—see the section below for more about this).

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Some people spoke fondly of the past year; others placed objects on the table representing grief or loss, feelings they wanted to transform in the new year. During the second round of presentations, we offered objects symbolizing what we wanted to reach toward and achieve in 2013.

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I brought in a photo of Jeanne Ruddy, the Philadelphia choreographer/dancer whose work last year moved me to my core. I saw her perform the role of Middle Age in May’s production of Out of the Mist, Above the Real, a time when I was just beginning to explore dance’s role in my growth from girl to woman. In that performance, Jeanne represented poise, both feminine/masculine confidence, and aching resilience, attributes I don’t necessarily want all at once and jammed into this new year but that I feel are necessary for me to develop and cultivate.

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One of the most powerful movement exercises during this workshop was dancing from one end of the (very long) studio to the other…while blindfolded. At first, those of us who were masked had a designated companion to ensure we didn’t bump into walls or people, but then Richard presented double the number of blindfolds so we could all move without sight.

It doesn’t really get more metaphorical than this—moving with caution and grace down an unseen path; not really seeing your way but feeling it, using intuition and the senses as a guide; bumping into a table or person and having to adjust your movement around it; ending up on the left side of the room when you swore you were headed toward the right.

Where are we going, and how can our body wisdom guide us?

Which brings us finally to…

Gabrielle Roth’s Memorial

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In this blog post from January 9, I was anxiously on my way to New York City, hoping to gain admittance to what was undoubtedly one of the most powerful 5Rhythms events of all time. I had never met Gabrielle Roth in person, yet her death in October coincided with a kind of birth for me, the emergence of a woman who’s got not just rhythm…but 5 of them.

My fellow tribe members and I sat in the lobby of the Prince George Ballroom well before the memorial started, amazed at how many people stepped through the doors to “celebrate the funky elegance of [Gabrielle’s] indomitable spirit.”

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Because a teachers’ refresher course had just ended and a Cycles workshop was about to begin that week, dancers from all over the world crammed side by side. I was able to connect with some of my international readers (Hi Caroline! Hi Deborah!), as well as spend time with my own community.

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NYC dancer Joella and me.

Tribeholder Christina and dancer friend Val.

Philly tribeholder Christina and dancer friend Val.

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Philadelphia tribeholder (and road trip planner extraordinaire) Christina and I exchange loving looks.

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Me and Richard Jerram, my first 5Rhythms instructor, without whom this blog probably wouldn’t even exist.

As you can see from the photo above, I got into the ballroom. But it was nerve-wracking! Everyone who entered the lobby had to give their names, which were eventually called in groups of 25 before the ballroom reached capacity. It was like waiting for a callback at an audition.

The ballroom itself was so fitting for Gabrielle’s memorial. It was ornate but in a colorful, funky way—somewhere between Versailles and Versace.

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Being in that ballroom was like standing on the red carpet at the Oscars—so many notable teachers and friends of 5Rhythms made their way across the floor, flaunting an array of fashion from flamboyant to fancy to free-and-fabulous. Julia Wolfermann, who teaches regularly for our Philadelphia tribe, managed to Staccato in a stunning red gown, whereas Douglas Drummond sweat his prayers in a dress shirt and pants with suspenders. Others wore Spandex, some men took off their shirts, women came dressed to the nines, others came in street clothes. Just like the practice of 5Rhythms, individuality reigns supreme.

Off to the side of the room were two tables—one with slips of paper on which we were invited to write down memories of Gabrielle and the practice she brought into our lives, and another displaying hundreds of black feather necklaces, a part of the Raven for each of us. Receiving that simple black feather and placing it over my hair and around my neck felt so symbolic, like an Olympian bowing down to receive her gold medal. It wasn’t the object itself that carried weight but what it stood for.

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The Raven has flown, but her spirit lives on.

At the front of the room, an installation by 5Rhythms’ artistic maven, Martha Peabody:

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As this event was being held in memory of someone who had died, I wasn’t sure the tone it would take on. The workshop I took part in back in October—as Gabrielle was actively dying—had very somber moments, understandably, almost feeling like a funeral at times.

However, this was a celebration, inspiration, a call to move. After Gabrielle’s husband, Robert Ansell, and her son Jonathan A. Horan (now the executive director of 5Rhythms Global) spoke, Gabrielle’s face flashed onto a large movie screen at the front of the room. It was footage from one of her last public events, recorded on Mother’s Day 2012.

It would be a disservice to try and recreate here what she was discussing on screen. But in a typical workshop format, she talked frankly about the practice, applying it to all facets of life, that after Stillness there comes Flowing, because when one Wave ends, another begins, and that’s just how it is.

And so we danced, over 300 of us, moving from a moment of prayerful Stillness to finding our feet again in Flowing, Robert and long-time drumming sidekick Sangha on percussion, Jonathan offering occasional verbal guidance that ranged from pleading passion to friendly ferocity.

My movement felt celebratory that night, hardly an ounce of heaviness in my limbs. We switched rapidly from partner to partner to partner during Staccato; during Lyrical, Jonathan encouraged us to dance with our hearts open. Just that one little suggestion instantly changed my movement, my face lighting up, my shoulders rolling back and deepening the heart-to-heart connection with whomever I was partnered with at the time.

I danced with some people for no more than 45 seconds—complete strangers!—yet our intertwined energies felt like lifelong friends. I danced with myself, closing my eyes and going inside. I witnessed others’ movements and reshaped their movement to become my own.

It was the essence of 5Rhythms, finding relationship within the movement and movement within a relationship, which Gabrielle spoke of during another round of the movie screen discussion. Again, I had never met Gabrielle, but the largeness of her face on that screen, the passion and intensity with which she spoke, and the respectful silence among all 300-some of my fellow dancers made it feel like she was really in that room.

The night ended with Jonathan waving his hand like a raven flying toward the heavens: up, up, and away. Black feathers looped around our necks, we all followed along, silently sending our raven on her way.

It was an ending, but everything about the evening felt so very strongly like a new start to me. In some respect, I felt like I was back at my very first 5Rhythms class, remembering that I was just a beginner to this practice. I think others felt similarly about the memorial—and Gabrielle’s passing in general: not to sit in Stillness too long, to find the flow once again, to make a promise to seek out and be receptive to new perspectives and pathways.

THE BEGINNING.

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When I scribbled “Laughing lunch” into the January 16th square on my calendar last week, I had no idea how valuable 40 minutes of chuckling in my office’s courtyard conference room would be. I had done Laughter Yoga before in a studio setting, and now one of my classmates—also a coworker!—was certified to teach. And what better place to start than an office building, where the majority of our daily smiles are actually just e-mail emoticons proceeding sarcastic sentences?

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Talk about perfect timing, too. Although I normally walk for 30 minutes during my lunch break, today was Day 6 or something of a streak of grim Seattle-like sun-lessness, and you can just tell everyone is losing their sanity from the depressing sequence of little gray clouds pictured on The Weather Channel app. The opportunity to laugh with others seemed so much more appealing than sitting at my desk and trying to laugh at random YouTube videos of puppies descending stairs or the latest crime eyewitness-cum-autotune star.

In less than an hour, our facilitator Karen had done the work of a personal trainer: Getting us to exercise muscles—most noticeably our facial muscles—that are severely underused and in need of some strengthening. How sad is it that smiling and laughing actually began to hurt after just 10 minutes? Do we really spend that much time with clenched jaws and pursed lips that a few minutes of lightheartedness feels foreign to our faces?

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Now, none of the exercises actually felt like work—they were silly and fun! What I love about Laughter Yoga is that it’s not about comedy or trying to be funny. No knock-knock jokes allowed! Laughter Yoga is more about awareness of breath, using fun and engaging exercises to initiate the physical act of laughing and, as a result, experience the joy that comes from full, belly-deep breathing; getting heavy doses of fresh oxygen; and soaking up the endorphins that flood the brain after letting the lungs, throat, and lips loosen up.

(Read about my previous Laughter Yoga experiences here and here.)

For example, in one exercise we scrambled around the room shaking hands with our classmates as fast as we could, laughing with each connection. In another, we navigated the room, bowing to each person we encountered—a deep and intentional bow complemented with a laugh, of course. Between each exercise was the standard Laughter Yoga clapping/vocalization pattern: Ho, Ho, Ha-Ha-Ha!

The class was non-stop action, and Karen did a great job keeping a comfortable pace—no awkward down time or pauses for anyone to slip back into “serious” mode.

The only time I felt it grow slightly serious (for me) was at the end, when we sat with our eyes closed and began a laughing meditation (i.e., laugh and then laugh some more and then just keep laughing until eventually it becomes genuine because the person sitting next to you sounds so stinkin’ cute when she laughs that it’s infectious). Halfway through this exercise, I could feel the laughter take a turn, and suddenly I had an overwhelming urge to cry. And not crying from laughing so hard but that deep, solar-plexus-based Oh God, Clearly All This Laughing Has Unlocked Something in Me kind of cry. Luckily the meditation ended before any sobbing commenced, but what a testament to how emotion can move freely once breath comes into the picture.

After sitting in stillness for a bit, I realized the class was very much like a massage, working muscles that really need to be worked but making me painfully aware of how stiff and rigid I am. Every time I let out a guffaw, I could feel it not just in my face but my neck, my chest, my back. It was uncomfortable at times, but I imagined myself a giant slab of stone in front of a sculptor, exercise by exercise chipping away at the hard edges.

I wasn’t exactly Venus de Milo by the end of class, but I definitely felt softer and just a little more human.

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The idiom “going around in circles” doesn’t usually carry a positive connotation, but that’s the shape our movement took during a recent “Dancing Mandala” 5Rhythms workshop. If it’s hip to be square, then it sure is satisfying being a circle.

A combination of dance, breathwork, and artistic expression, the event was touted as a three-part journey into our soul, using the five rhythms, five elements, and five points on the mandala (four around the perimeter, one in the center) as gateways into our essence. From the website:

While bridging the five elements—Earth (Flowing), Fire (Staccato), Water (Chaos), Air (Lyrical), Ether (Stillness)—with the 5Rhythms, we will subconsciously create a moving mandala. As a culmination of this experience, we will pause in the last rhythm of Stillness for a breathing meditation, then conclude and refine the energies by creating a visual mandala you will then take with you.

Woah. I registered for the workshop before reading this heavy-duty description, eager for any kind of dance and art combo. Meditative movement opens up all kinds of creative portals in me; I kept thinking back to my yoga teacher training at Kripalu, when, after days and days of nothing but yoga, meditation, and pranayama, we were handed large sheets of paper and crayons and asked to draw what our future looked like. Everyone was in some other realm of consciousness at the time, so the artwork that came forth probably contains about 12 layers of psychological interpretation. Six years later, I still don’t know what mine means but yet somehow I feel like I’ve been living in the middle of it the whole time:

Hands, feet, arrows, footprints, hearts, spirals…. Makes sense, right?

Well, the event was way more than a little dancing, a little painting. The workshop’s organizers—Nancy, Stavros, and Johanna—created such a sacred space that I was reluctant to even bring my cheap plastic water bottle into the transformed grade-school auditorium. Ivy-like garland lined the room’s perimeter, each corner containing an altar dedicated to one of the elements. Fellow dancer Phil consecrated our quarters by offering a fragile, authentic, handmade mandala thangka from India as decoration with a purpose:

Before class, we were asked to bring in a small object that represented one of the elements; as we walked into the space, we were encouraged to visit each of the elemental altars and find one on which to place our object. My object (a polished heart-shaped stone) represented earth, but I was very attracted to the second altar, accented with a tall glass vase filled with water. I kept thinking back to the Rilke quote that “chose me” during my recent Kripalu workshop: “May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children.” So it was there next to the water that I lay my earthen heart.

I fell effortlessly into the dance once the music began, but I noticed one thing was really bugging me:

Yes, this beautiful centerpiece—which so perfectly represented the fifth circle of a mandala, the ether—was making me anxious. Now, at the time of our dancing it did not have the candles or paintings, but it was still a giant piece of real estate on which we could not dance.

Or could we? Now that I think about it, I honestly don’t recall the instructor telling us whether we could or could not dance within the circle. I think we all just assumed that this ring was revered, and it would be an act of profanity to step over the white line. Many times I caught myself wanting so badly to leap into the circle; I flirted with the ether, every now and then allowing one leg to hover over the edge during a spin. I wasn’t even fully sure whether there were rules, but I seemed to have imposed my own…and then challenge them.

Fortunately, we had an opportunity to work with these restrictions and challenges. Working in pairs, one person faced the center circle as the partner stood facing back, acting much like a gatekeeper to the treasures and freedom that the flowing white ring represented. One person danced her struggles, falling into a repetitive movement that the partner, serving as a witness, eventually copied.

Then came the uncomfortable part—the mover stood still and watched her dance being played out, a mirror image come to life. What a surprise to step back and see your movement through your own eyes, like reading an old journal entry. There was a bit more to this exercise, a transformation element that involved breaking through the struggle, and for most people the end result was a feeling of relief, like we had just crawled through a long and dark cave and finally stumbled on a pocket of light. Nancy’s next choice of music following this exercise was Michael Franti’s upbeat “I Know I’m Not Alone,” and with it came a dance of celebration. The energy among the entire group had shifted profoundly, and I remember bopping along, smiling like a goofball, feeling like we had all survived something big together, we made it through, so let’s just dance and have fun.

This partnering exercise was the pinnacle of the dance portion of class, a time that I could energetically and emotionally feel my individual self merge with my classmates. We had started as separate circles, our own little individual planets, and then BOOM! Suddenly we were not just stand-alone celestial circles anymore but part of a massive universe, everyone joining the same orbit, a cohesive, spinning mandala.

This mandala only tightened over time, especially during Stillness, as everyone stood around the circle’s edge. Even those I stood across from—separated by a ring of cloth and stones and other small objects—our dance was together. I was engaged in an intimate pas de deux with my stone heart yet at the same time participating in a much larger group dance prayer.

At the very end of class, each of us was given the chance to step inside the circle and do our own personal dance. It was an intensely moving moment, and many people’s expressions brought me to tears. I bit my lip and gripped hard onto those hands I held on either side of me.

The breathwork that proceeded the dancing was anything but your typical belly-breath pranayama—more like 20 minutes of non-stop kundalini breath of fire. Good thing we were lying down, otherwise I may have toppled over! Stavros had warned us beforehand of the effects of such breathing—heaviness/tingling in the extremities, a panicky feeling in the gut that can lead to an emotional release. He was spot-on: The hyperventilating rocked my body, and I vacillated between wanting to sob and laugh hysterically. My hands and feet felt like they were all individual centrifuges, spinning spinning spinning with such intensity. At times they went from feeling like each finger and toe weighed 10 pounds to me not feeling them at all. Nancy (bless her!), feeling the need to support me but not entirely sure what to do, rubbed my feet, held my stomach, and placed a rock in my palm, which I swore was going to levitate from the energy pulsing in my hand. The vibration coming from my palm was so strong that I watched in amazement as the stone ever-so-subtly slid from the center of my hand out toward the edge.

The whole time we were panting and buzzing and crying and laughing, Johanna was secretly setting up individual painting stations for each of us, so that by the time we rolled up off the ground and opened our eyes, there, like magic, were canvases and brushes and a rainbow of paint blobs for us to experiment with. The original intention was for everyone to paint their own mandala, given the subject of the workshop; however, we were all in such a state of woo-woo after that wild breathing that everyone just started doing their own thing and Johanna was reluctant to interfere with the creative process. I tried hard to stay in the semi-hypnotic state and let my heart and gut do the painting rather than my head.

The results (displayed in the previous photo) were still beautiful, a tangible extension of the deep emotional work we had done on the dance floor. It was nice to have a “take-home” element by which to remember the event, although I’m not planning on hanging my creation on my walls anytime soon. My art therapist friend would have a field day with this one:

It was a long afternoon—nearly 4 hours of delving deep into our minds and bodies. In a sense, we were a bit like the monks who spend days, even weeks creating the most intricate sand mandalas, grain by grain. When their elaborate creation is completed, the monks essentially destroy it, brushing the sand together and letting it run off into the air or water, a symbolic act representing impermanence while also spreading forth the blessings and energy of the artwork to which they had committed so much attention and mindfulness.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user waltarrrrr

Each of us was a grain of sand, the workshop a means of coming together into one brilliantly colorful circle. During that final moment of Stillness, as we stood close and held hands, we were that completed mandala. And breath by breath, brushstroke by brushstroke, we gradually separated from each other—the monk’s hand sweeping over our collaborative art—becoming individuals again, yet with a new sense of spirit, energy, and wisdom.

Like the mandala’s sand flowing back into the river, we each went our separate ways after class but yet somehow feeling like we were now part of a much larger picture.

(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.

The Program

Setting

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.

Introductions

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.

Gravity

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. 🙂

Re-Directing Inhalations

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!).

Supported Bridge

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.”

Reflection

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.

Last Friday, I posted this message on Facebook and Twitter:

I’m getting my semi-annual “I’m losing control of my life” panicky feeling where a million things happen at once & I start to withdrawal 😦

Now, realistically, things aren’t that out of control. I have friends who are doing a ton more than me or who are going through some huge life issues, and I should just be counting my blessings that I’m not in grad school or caring for an insomniac toddler or having to approach HR about taking family medical leave (all real-life instances among my circle of friends). For the most part, the panic is just all in my head, and I’m letting stupid things get to me. I’m sweating the small stuff.

That’s why when I found out that Laughter Yoga leader Bob Pileggi was coming to town again, I knew I had to attend his class. I took one of his classes back in October, and the effects were immediate. It’s no secret that taking in more oxygen makes you feel good, and that’s the whole point of Laughter Yoga: to loosen up, open the lungs, work the diaphragm, and BREATHE! Suck in the air, let it out, and feel the ripple effects of all those sweet inhalations and exhalations. Everyone’s heard of a runner’s high, and it’s not that far off from the feeling one gets after Laughter Yoga. You get that same oxygen-induced buzz–almost a giddiness–minus the disgusting sweat and painful shinsplints.

I’m not going to go into too much detail about the class this time around; most of the exercises and my reaction to them are described here.

This particular class, however, had significantly more people, which certainly added to the experience. There were more eyes to connect with, more bellies to watch shaking. I even joked that one man had to have been the paid “decoy” because he was just so committed to the practice, his eyes twinkling, his laugh so hearty that every time I heard it I couldn’t help but double over myself.

We closed class by lying on our backs, our legs propped up comfortably on several folded yoga blankets, with just one instruction from Bob: “When I say ‘start,’ begin laughing and don’t stop until I say so.” What usually happens is that the first few seconds are a bit forced, simply a physical practice of vocalizing and pumping the belly. Then comes that tipping point, the moment at which something–usually someone’s cute little giggle or a bowl-full-of-jelly Santa Claus rumble–just sets everyone off, and the scale tips toward the truly authentic, gut-busting laughter. And I don’t mean a texting “LOL,” I’m talking about LOLFR–laughing out loud fer realz. Head thrown back/back arched/eyes crinkled laughing, the kind you get when it’s late at night, you’re a bit slap-happy, and you and a friend decide to apply Transformers tattoos on each other:

Bob always starts class by asking us to check in with our bodies and mind, to list on a scale of 0 to 10 how present and open we feel. I came into class as a 3 and just an hour and 15 minutes later was boosted to an 8. To tell you the truth, I’m always pretty resistant at the start of any kind of class, but I kind of see these endeavors as “therapy,” and know that by the end I will usually feel a million bucks better. Actually, even just a few minutes into class–after some simple deep-breathing exercises and a bit of meditation–I was already shedding my armor.

I used the lessons from the class later in the evening, when I was forced to park blocks away from the take-out restaurant where I was picking up my dinner. The walk I didn’t mind; it was the frigid wind chill that initially had me shouting expletives in the wind. I tried trading a f*** for a chuckle, and you know what? It made me feel better. Not warmer or less windblown, but just a little better.

Ever think of just laughing off a particularly annoying situation?

I could probably do this every morning on my drive to work, when I’m almost always stuck behind a slow-moving school bus/garbage truck/oil tanker.

I went to a drum circle this past weekend and was really looking forward to sitting down at the computer and writing about what an awesome time it was, how I was transformed, how I sweated the afternoon away dancing around the room from djembe to djembe.

But instead of BOOM POW BAM BASS TONE SLAP WAHOO!, all I’ve got is: meh.

I’ve been to drum circles that had me hooting and hollering, throwing my head back and forth, and shaking my shekere till the cows came home (read: My First Drum Circle). When I left this particular event, I kind of felt like I wanted to take a nap.

But who am I to judge a drumming class? I’ve been calling my doumbek a djembe for the past several years. So I did come home slightly more enlightened.

And truthfully, I am no expert. I don’t have any formal education in percussion (aside from a hula dancing stint during which I mastered the ipu and pu’ili), and I attend maybe 3 to 4 drumming events at most per year. But my Old Lady Friend Carrol and I like to think of ourselves as drumming enthusiasts, and we are usually in agreement about whether an event was asi-asi or que bueno!

That said, here are my top 7 qualities that make for a rockin’ drum circle:

1. A play buffet.

Although drums are the pulse of a drum circle, having an assortment of percussive and other complementary instruments lying around can really liven up an event. A bass sound gets the feet stomping, but shake a shakere or maraca in my face and my hips won’t sit still.

When your hands need a break from drumming, you can still chime in by playing a cowbell, wooden block, or dancing around with foot bells. At the most recent event, someone had brought along the simplest of instruments: a set of spoons for clicking and a plastic bag, which when rubbed back and forth makes a light “scratchy” sound. The key, however, is to make it known that these instruments are here for everyone to experiment with and maybe give a quick lesson in how to use them. I saw the plastic bag lying around, but until the owner used it during the last song, I had no idea it could be used as “music.”

An assortment of drums themselves also switches up the sound and provides a range of percussion. Most people bring along their own personal djembe (or doumbek), but having additional drums available gives students a chance to try a different model or size.

Carrol tries out the djun djun

For example, when Carrol and I attended a workshop with Rusted Root founder Jim Donovan, we borrowed some of his impressive djembes with intricate carvings and awesome sound. They were for sale, too!

In addition, frame drums, congas, and bongos are all super-fun. (Especially congas. Oh man, the congas!)

2. Nontraditional sounds.

Every now and then at a drum circle, someone brings along an nontraditional instrument that adds a new kind of aural energy to the atmosphere.

For example, the Australian didgeridoo. This instrument has such an intense, haunting sound, such a primal noise that feels like it encompasses the heaviest, hardest, most indigestible and raw emotions that lie in our gut. What a treat when someone brings it along!

I’ve also been to circles that involved a flute, a guitar (which led a stirring acoustic version of “Let It Be”), and the simplest of unique instruments: the human voice. Jim Donovan’s workshop involved a drumming/chanting combo, where we did things like chant the vowels of the alphabet (A-E-I-O-U) and exploring where we felt each sound’s vibration the most (i.e., chest, head, throat). We split the universal sound (“Om, “Aum”) into four parts and chanted that over and over (A-O-U-M). We also worked with the kundalini mantra Ra-Ma-Da-Sa/Sa-Say-So-Hum. For most of the chants, we’d start with just our voices, gradually add some light drumming, and then allow the drumming to get louder as we also chanted louder.

A word of caution:  If you bring an instrument that is likely to drown out everything else in the room (e.g., snare drum), just be courteous and play it at 50% rather than its full roof-blowing volume.

3. Strong leadership.

Sometimes even a large crowd of eager drummers will fall flat as a pancake with no one at the helm. Having at least one person in the leader role is essential to get things going (and then calm them down when things get out of control), otherwise (a) cacophony ensues, or (b) the rhythm just keeps falling like a plane unable to lift off the runway.

One of the regular circles I used to attend was wicked cool month after month…until the day the two conga-playing men who had assumed the leadership role weren’t there. We were essentially the same group of people with the same instruments in hand, but we just could not get our act together.

Offering a little lesson in technique is a great way to corral a group. At one circle, the facilitator reviewed with us the bass, tone, and slap; we then experimented with various rhythms, learning to play one thing while the rest of the group played another. We worked a lot with repetition–bass, bass, tone, tone, bass, bass, slapslap–trying to get our brains and hands in sync.

As I detailed in this review of a past drumming workshop, one of the leaders was a grandmotherly figure who preached about the importance of self-healing, connection to spirit, and being in tune with the universe. She was a vibrant being from head to toe: poised, passionate, and provocative.

4. Integration of mind, body, and soul.

Like yoga or dance or singing, drumming can be a deeply personal and meditative experience. For me, a good drum circle is one where my mind gets out of my hands and the division between the music and my soul reduces to nothing. When I am compelled to get up from my chair and dance, getting lost in the music, stamping, rocking, swaying, spinning, I have found seamless integration between mind, body, and spirit.

Movement is such an important part of drumming; I get nervous if I see someone playing a drum while sitting perfectly still. The drum sound is our heartbeat; how can it not stir you?! At one summer evening event, our class took some time to walk outside, soaking up the good vibes of the earth, feeling the grass beneath our feet, the full moon glowing on our faces, and eventually coming back indoors for a Mother Earth-related tribal beat.

Even something as simple as breathing can create a deep mind-body connection. At Jim Donovan’s workshop, we started every activity by taking a deep breath and centering ourselves. Even more important, after playing for several minutes, Jim would signal us to stop and then have us sit in silence for a few moments to soak up the lingering vibrations we created. Jim’s workshops also tend to lean a bit on the philosophical side, much like a yoga intensive. Who knew that how one approached drumming could relate to life off the mat outside the drum circle?

Finally, if drumming makes you feel good, express it! During a “Healing, Feeling” drumming event I attended, the leaders infused the class with lots of self-respect, self-care talk. The one woman, Marcy, reminds me of a gospel singer and will just bust out singing things like, “Feeeeel the love!” after a vigorous round of drumming. It’s hard not to throw your hands in the air and follow along with her.

5. Time to train the brain.

I don’t want every drumming event I attend to be a rigid formal lesson in technique, but a good drum circle is one that provides an opportunity for a mental workout. The brain is “plastic” and has the ability to re-wire itself as it absorbs new knowledge, and what better way to get the neurons firing than by learning an unfamiliar pattern and then playing it as part of a three-part round? Bonus points if you don’t hold your breath and/or grimace as you go along. 🙂

Other mentally challenging exercises I’ve done were trying to sing and drum at the same time and being part of a call-and-response during which we were instructed to keep our eyes closed and use our ears—not our eyes—to pick up the rhythm.

6. Inspiring environment.

A cramped conference room with metal folding chairs is not an ideal location for drumming. Although I’m sure it’s very possible to conduct an energetic drumming event in such a spot, people will feel more comfortable busting out in a open and airy environment.

The yoga studio I used to attend was situated on the main road in town, and during the summer we’d draw back the curtains, open the front door, and play as the sun was setting, the overhead fan creating a peaceful breeze. Our music attracted curious stares and smiles from dozens of passersby strolling along the avenue. Drivers stopped at the red light on the corner rolled down their windows and craned their necks to see what kind of craziness was brewing inside.

Even locations off the beaten path can be turned into welcoming ones by making sure the lighting isn’t too harsh or too dim, that chairs and blankets are cozy but not on top of each other, and that people have enough space to get up and move around a bit.

7. A rumble!

Every drum circle should end with a rumble; basically, a time for everyone to frenetically pound on their drums and scream. It is loud and obnoxious and infectious and absolutely exhilarating!

Have you ever been to a drum circle? What was your favorite part?

How long has it been since you learned a brand new skill?

I am still gloating a little after recently overcoming a big fear of mine that required a bit of bravery and a lot of practice.

I’m talking about the FLIP TURN.

I swim about three times a week, and while I am always trying to improve my speed or technique or endurance, there are few new NEW tricks to learn. Once you master the act of learning how to swim (which for me was, oh, early elementary school?), you’re pretty much set. Skill acquired.

The last big pool accomplishment that had me smiling in my Speedo was honing the backstroke. Before that, I could certainly swim on my back…but it probably couldn’t technically be termed a “stroke” by any means. But with some time, practice, and patience, suddenly it all clicked and I could get from one end of the pool to the other, on my back, in a straight line.

One thing I’ve always wanted to do but was always too afraid to try was the flip turn.

Image source: Instructables.com

While I am proud of myself for being able to swim 40+ laps without stopping at the wall and putting my feet down, changing direction without the flip turn is a bit choppy and adds just the slightest little time-suck to an otherwise fluid and flowing workout.

I tried a flip once, back when I first started a regular swimming routine. I hit my head on the wall, swallowed a mouthful of water, and knocked my goggles off. Never again, I thought. I’ll just leave that to the pros.

But now it’s been more than two years since I took up swimming, and I’ve been spending my down time in the hot tub eying the “pros” as the do their laps–swoosh, swoosh, swoosh, FLIP! It looks so fun! So elegant! And man, it gets you off the wall FAST!

A few weeks ago, I had the rare opportunity of having the gym pool all to myself. I finished my normal workout and spent a few minutes afterward stretching out my back against the wall.

The wall. Hmmm…

With the place all to myself, I figured What the heck? If I flubbed up, at least I would be spared any embarrassment.

And I did flub up. I flipped too early and missed the wall, I flailed my arms around too much, I angled myself way too low and pushed my body not straight out but straight DOWN, into the pool floor. Ow.

I got water up my nose, in my mouth, in my goggles. But the place was all still mine, so I kept going. Flip, cough, adjust goggles. Flip, cough, adjust goggles. Over and over again. I kept at it until the pool taste in my mouth was overbearing and my nose felt swollen with saltwater.

Between that and my next attempt, I consulted the King of Consultants for Acquiring New Skills: YouTube.

(No, not to watch airplane videos but to watch people demonstrating the flip turn!)

Miraculously, I had the lap lanes all to myself again during my next visit to the gym pool (it was a sign; this NEVER happens). There was a couple in the regular section, but it was evening and the interior lights still hadn’t been turned on yet, so it was quite dark and mysterious, a perfect time to practice in the shadows. I dedicated about 20 minutes post-workout to flipping, starting a few yards away from the wall, swimming toward it, and turning upside down.


My two biggest problems were (a) getting water up my nose, and (b) getting water in my goggles. With time, I realized that this was happening because I was being too aggressive with the action. Yes, it’s important to forcefully exhale through your nose when turning, but not with such gusto that you end up inhaling on the upswing. I toned down the breathing and approached it like a yoga breath, and less and less water got in my brain. The goggles situation improved after I stopped grimacing my face so much when flipping. By keeping my face relaxed and not getting it all in a nervous bunch when flipping, my goggles stayed in place–no water in my eyes.

By Swim #4, I was ready to incorporate the turns into my laps, even though the thought of doing so seemed exhausting. I didn’t understand how so many people say the flip turns makes swimming “easier.” At the beginning of my workout, it was not. I became out of breath wayyy earlier than normal and was still dealing with some water up my nose and in my eyes. But I stopped, adjusted everything, and went about with my laps, trying not to pause for too long to regroup.

Just last night was my first full lap workout with real-looking/feeling flip turns. I finally found the rhythm, that sweet spot right before the wall when to stick my arm out in front of me and flip myself over. I had to stop only a few times when my breath didn’t quite synchronize with the location of the wall, but for the most part, I was swimming like one of the “pros” I envied just a few weeks ago.


I was utterly exhausted when I got in my car, but the thrill of learning something new gave me enough energy to smile during the drive home.

What’s the last new skill that you acquired?

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:


He kept the photo alongside his notes for the whole class, which I found so endearing!

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.

2006

2011, Super Serious

2011, Smiles!

(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”!)

Five years ago on this day, I am “trying hard to be yogic but failing.” Low energy. Feeling pathetic.

We started the morning with a round-robin sadhana, and I had no desire to be up there on that platform. I’m a teacher-in-training who’s afraid to teach. I try to be happy for my classmates but instead I envy their ambition and motivation. I am lowwwwww. I didn’t get to impress myself or others. I could have done it if I went up there, but I didn’t go up and I didn’t even try.

Yesterday, Atma talked to us about Swami Kripalu and the deep history of this place.

The session started off kind of weird, with Atma attempting to play the harmonium and chant, except she had trouble both playing and singing. The whole ordeal was very awkward. She then talked about being part of the initial Kripalu ashram, bowing to Swami Kripalu and Amrit Desai, choosing her guru over her mother, and not understanding one-on-one relationships and marriage. However, I did pick up two things: “Community is stronger than willpower” and the fact that we are part of the Kripalu lineage, a deep mystical past (Shiva > Swami Kripalu’s teacher, supposedly a reincarnate of Lord Shiva > Swami Kripalu himself > Amrit Desai > Megha/Rudy > us). Wow! What a cool thought.

***

Heard at Kripalu:

“She kept telling us to engage our perineum. I had no idea what it was or where to find it. Was it in me heart or somewhere else?!” ~Classmate Y (who’s Irish), on Angela Farmer’s class.

Roger: “Don’t worry, you’re all in the same boat.”

L: “In the same NAVASANA??”

LS (pretending to be impressed): “Oh wow, you speak Sanskrit?!”.

***

I felt so crappy this morning after that round robin. So full of doubt, so disappointed. I didn’t even rise to the challenge. I went into the morning session pretty bummed out, even when I walked into Shadowbrook and heard Sarah McLachlan’s beautiful rendition of “Rainbow Connection” playing. Dance music, lyrical dance music, graceful lyrical movement. It was so touching, but I wasn’t even there. I felt so low, like I’d been hit with a ton of bricks. I couldn’t even sing the student-teacher chant, and my Oms were pathetic.

But the mood lightened because we all got to put on theatrical skits about our experience here thus far, which were SO NEEDED and SO HILARIOUS. Skits about “roll up your mats, get cushions, put everything away, get everything out, relax, breathe, triangle, eat consciously for 5 minutes.” M and E did a fabulous Rudy and Megha impression, and others did a great job emphasizing the challenges here about relaxing, breathing, releasing, grounding, breakfast, lunch, dinner, bathroom breaks, etc. We all laughed hysterically, and for a Friday it was a very much-needed release. I laughed so hard my cheeks and chest hurt.

***

The day didn’t get much better, though. Posture clinic in downdog, and I was not there. I kept breaking out into mini tear sessions while learning about downdog. Practicing the dog tilt prep was really hard because my heart was so open and exposed. It actually hurt. It was maddening at what I had been reduced to.

We ended the posture clinic by an a cappella chanting of So Hum Shivo Hum, which was just so stirring, so soft, but so magnificent. It put me at ease for a few moments.

***

Cried to Bryan during lunch, then went for a walk outside as it began to snow. It snows all the time here–never enough to stick (not yet), but there’s usually light flakes falling around the clock. Maybe just for 10 minutes, maybe for an hour.

***

Our afternoon session was another anatomy and physiology class with Peggy, during which we stuck stickers all over our 22 major muscles. D and I were partners and were both ridiculously exhausted and unenthusiastic. Peggy wrapped cold spaghetti noodles in Saran wrap to demonstrate muscles and how they work. The skeleton fell off its stand and collapsed in her arms. We went into savasana as Peggy recited the names of our muscles.

***

Afternoon sadhana was with Roger, and we worked extensively with the bandhas, especially during kapalabhati and bhastrika pranayama. Wow–what a natural high! I could feel my chest light up with warmth and fire. Slowly, my foul mood began to lift. We did a lot of core work, intense stuff that actually raised my spirits. I did savasana in meditation-mode and felt pretty good afterward.

***

It’s Friday, so K, D, K, and I ate together, stuffing ourselves and discussing the Real World, wondering if we should extend our stays here to take some time to digest our 4 weeks of learning and have some time to ourselves. We lingered in the dining hall till almost 8, after which I called the Real World–[my yoga teacher from home]–for almost an hour. I did most of the talking, but it felt good to expel some of these Kripalu confusions. But after an hour of talking to the Real World, I emerged from the phonebooth feeling very out of place, like I had left Kripalu for an hour and just returned. It was strange; I felt like I had just returned to my childhood home, kind of awkward but so grateful to be back. I returned to the dorm, where a few of us chatted till 10, discussing Ayurveda, our Kripalu non-epiphanies, and the possibility of getting group yoga teacher tattoos. I went to bed late–11 p.m.!

Five years ago on this day, the first week of my Kripalu YTT ended. Week 2 begins.

I am tired today. Emotionally, mentally not with it. My head feels stuffed with clouds and cotton balls. Slightly irritable. Morning sadhana with Kimberly. I do Warrior III for the first time in weeks and feel kind of heavy.

***

I eat a lot at lunch, trying to fill myself with food, since I’m not full otherwise. Baked squash. Salad. Mac and cheese. Soup, bread, rice cake and jam, coffee. Still hungry.

***

Our nametags are used constantly. One day I came into the cafeteria and I hear, “Here you go, Jennifer.” One of the volunteers hands me a tray. I walk to the front desk and the woman says, “How can I help you, Jennifer?” I feel known. Special. Acknowledged. It’s kooky but nice. Like the Seinfeld episode.

***

The effects of yoga mudra in a forward bend are intense after coming back up. My arms feel as though they have a life of their own; they want to swirl, dance, undulate, sway. There is a magic propulsion under and around them. The effects of belly-down postures are, um, titillating. Yoga practice has definitely ignited my fire, and pressing my pelvis in the floor causes quite an energy. My Locusts and Boats are getting much higher, due to that mula bandha fire.

***

I came into the afternoon session very, very sluggish. So tired. Confused. Spacey. When they tell us we’d be doing pranayama for the afternoon, I cringed. Blah. But after 90 minutes of dirgha, ujayii, kapalabhati, and nadi shodhana breathing…wow. Instant revitalization. I resisted and silently protested pranayama so much, but I left that room floating on air. My bowels even moved a little. I started Jurian’s sadhana on an ecstatic note. I entered Stage 3 several times, floating back into Warrior I, twisting into Triangle, dancing into Half Moon, sinking into janu sirsanana and coming up from Plough without even thinking. During savasana, I see the cafeteria buffet–lasagna. Me scooping up lasagna. Near the end of savasana, I see all of my classmates and teaches get sucked into my heart center, like a reverse parting of the Red Sea. So many faces and personalities getting sucked into my core. All this wonderful energy.

About the Author

Name: Jennifer

Location: Greater Philadelphia Area

Blog Mission:
SHARE my practice experience in conscious dance and yoga,

EXPAND my network of like-minded individuals,

FULFILL my desire to work with words in a more creative and community-building capacity;

FLOW and GROW with the world around me!

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