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In an effort to feel more radiant and inspired—trying to get my attitude to match the brilliant blue-sky perfectly springlike weather we’ve been having here in the Northeast recently—I’ve begun incorporating daily doses of kundalini yoga into my routine.

I became fascinated with kundalini several years ago, before Gabrielle Bernstein and all of her spirit junkies thrust it into the spotlight.

(Note: I am proud of this, very much the same way I am about having read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible before it popped up on Oprah’s Book Club. It’s like, Yeah, I knew this was something before it was actually something! I’m sure green smoothie people feel the same way about Kris Carr.)

Anyway, my relationship history with kundalini is described in detail here. After that class series in 2011 ended, however, I no longer kept up with a regular practice. I find it difficult to follow a solo kundalini practice, mainly because all of the kriyas are to be done for a specific amount of time and it’s a nuisance and interferes with my concentration to continually set/turn off a timer.

Also, some of the kriyas in kundalini are exhausting. If there isn’t someone at the front of the room or on an iPad screen, I will probably not commit to 3 minutes of frog squats while chanting something-or-other in Sanskrit and doing breath of fire.

It is amazing how far a simple “You’re almost there!” or “Keep up and you’ll be kept up” will go. I need that encouragement in kundalini.

I’ve had luck here and there finding decent full-length classes on YouTube. Here are my current go-tos (please share any of your recommendations!):

YogaVision 30 Minute Kundalini Yoga Class
Introduction to Kundalini Yoga
Renewing Our Rhythms

However, although I crave and enjoy a deep, long practice, I’m beginning to find that just a few simple kundalini warm-ups and meditations interspersed throughout my day offer just as much. I’ll do a few spinal flex exercises, Sufi grinds, neck rolls, and spinal twists, making sure to silently chant Sat on the inhale and Nam on the exhale.

This is one of the key elements of kundalini, the chanting of Sat Nam, along with keeping the eyes closed and focusing on the spot above and between the two eyes as an internal drishti (eye gaze). I find that sticking to this silent chant helps me greatly with concentration; otherwise, I feel like my mind is prone to wandering.

Sat Nam has several translations, but in essence it refers to acknowledging and being our inner truth.

My first kundalini teacher encouraged us to use Sat Nam when stuck in traffic: Vocalize a sharp “sat” (pronounced more like “sut”) that draws in the belly, followed by a relaxed and soft “nam” during which the belly relaxes. Repeat until traffic clears and you feel cool as a cucumber.

I’ve started using it while walking: left foot (Sat), right foot (Nam), left foot (Sat), right foot (Nam). And so on.

Yesterday, I found a great way to incorporate this simple kundalini mantra/meditation into my day: Swinging Sat Nam!

Swing

I am always so excited when I find a playground with adult-sized swings. As my coworker commented, “I find it’s impossible to feel sad on a swing.” Seriously!

As my legs pumped back and forth and my face greeted the sun with every boost upward, I realized that this back-and-forth motion felt very similar to spinal rocks along the floor, except now I was flying.

Soon I found myself inhaling Sat as I was propelled skyward, exhaling Nam as I swooshed backward.

I kept my eyes open for a bit then closed them, the outline of the trees illuminated behind my eyelids.

Sat… toes pointed upward. Nam… hair flying in my face.

Sat… heart center expanding. Nam… surrendering to the momentum.

SwingingFeet

Who knew kundalini would find a place on the playground? My hips ached a little afterward (turns out I no longer have the skeletal structure of a 5-year-old), but I had such calmness and clarity for the remainder of my walk around the park, a sensation I’ve been trying to re-attain for some time.

Give it a try sometime and let me know how you feel.

(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.

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?

Five years ago (or so) on this day, Friday dawns and I am exhausted after only 3.5 hours of sleep. It’s off to 6:30 a.m. yoga–another round robin sadhana–but I feel pretty crappy. I have no energy, and my body shuts down at 7:40; I steadily fall asleep in a fetal position. Sleep is a great way to make the last sadhana ever more bearable, with less tears.

***

The doors to Shadowbrook are closed at 9, and we congregate outside before the ceremony. It is beautiful, sunny, perfect. People are dressed up again, this time even more glitzier than last night. I have nothing fancy or flowy to wear, so I wear black yoga pants, a maroon shirt, a silk scarf in my hair, and jewelry–Om jewelry–the symbol that dances in my head every time I close my eyes.

After being very secretive, Rudy finally opens the doors to Shadowbrook:

and there lies an aisle of candles, 62 votives lining the floor, an airport runway extending from the entrance to the stage.

Jurian, Helga, Roger, and Lila are there to greet us, with Megha and Rudy at the front, ringing bells. We enter solemnly, pick a spot to stand, and let the crying begin.

Our names are called out individually, first names only, and we go to the start of the runway. Jurian blesses my forehead with water, Roger sprinkles me with rice, Lila places flower petals on my head, and Helga blows bubbles. Then…The Walk. The longest walk of my life, more difficult than walking down the wedding aisle, because there are the EYES, 61 people not just looking at me but SEEING me, the windows of the soul all gazing in my direction.

I try to look in everyone’s eyes, my hands in anjali mudra, my head bowed. Tears flow freely on all sides. Music plays. The YamaMamas give each other the “Nadi Shodhana” gesture we created as our “gang sign.” I tell myself to Remember. Remember the way I stepped on the crushed rice and petals as I began my walk, the way Roger embraced me in a way I never knew he was capable, the way Helga tried unsuccessfully to blow a bubble in my direction. F.’s eyes first. H. B. J. D. J. Feeling so loved, so appreciated. Rudy at the front, his slow, deliberate application of the red sandalwood to my forehead, so thick, so loving.

The hug, embrace. So slow, slow motion, remembering. Megha. Smile. Certificate. Hug. I squeeze her arm.

The ceremony is long but never dull. Each person brings a new set of eyes. D. is overly dramatic and God Blesses us all. R. does her energy-grabbing mudras down the aisle, S. dances, A. cries, A. looks into each of our souls, J. takes everyone’s hands, J. crawls. Until I look at my certificate, I forget what this ceremony is all about. I simply felt loved.

With our eyes and foreheads red, we gather outside to take in the warmth. We chant Om three times, the sun emerging from behind the clouds only during our chorus. Inside, we dance. We do the Shiva dance, the eye contact/giving-your-heart dance to Om Namah Shivaya. A. leads a Universal Peace dance. The Garden of Grace, to which we all moan. We know this will make us cry yet again, and it does. Where am I needed? How can I support? During my upward dog pose, three people come to my support. I break down.

We gather in a circle, a group huddle. Tight, swaying, warm, close, hand on hand, hand on shoulder.

What qualities did you learn here?, they ask us. We call out our answers: Surrender. Peace. Community. Freedom. Love. Release. Joy. Happiness. Consciousness. Respect. The chorus of words swells. You can only have that which you give away, we are reminded. Love. Compassion. Respect. Devotion. R. is next to me, and his deep voice calls out “Freedom” over and over again. We know this is the end. There’s no pep talk about the Real World, just a very deep understanding that what we learned this month needs to reach beyond these walls. We are yoga teachers; it is our responsibility to extend out and above and beyond. Our circle slowly breaks apart, first dropping arms, then taking small steps backward. Separating. Expanding. Going away to our own place, to spread that love all around.

***

I am utterly, completely, madly exhausted by the time the ceremony ends at 11:30, but I still muster up the energy to get upstairs to DansKinetics with Megha. I feel depleted on so many levels. I don’t even know if I’ll be able to move. My eyes are swollen.

Drained.

But then Megha enters, and I instantly feel a jolt of power. She is a conduit of energy and somehow gets me moving. A few times I have to just stand there in awe, looking at the people around me, looking at Megha, who’s probably more exhausted than me, vigorously leading all kinds of crazy dance steps. So f***ing tired but so wanting to move. (Later, I tell Megha that I had no energy, felt drained, to which she replied, “Well, if that was you dancing with no energy I can’t imagine what you’re like with full energy!”)

We end with a dance prayer to Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel.” I got so into my movement that I forgot where I was. I felt all alone, like I was in the Main Hall by myself. I cried afterward, of course, ending the class in tears. Now I was really drained, on so many levels.

***

I go up to Healing Arts for my deep tissue massage at 2, during which I cry extensively. It is the first time in a while that I was permitted space to just relax and get professionally pampered. My therapist, Elizabeth, puts on the “Mother Divine” CD that is played in all our classes, and that just opens the dam. I just lie there and cry, tears rolling down my cheeks as she massages my scalp and rubs my neck. I feel like she is releasing all the memories I’ve stored from the past month, because all sorts of visions dance through my mind: everyone’s faces, those snapshot images I had earlier this month but now so vivid, REAL faces of the real people I met and fell in love with. I hear Megha’s voice, Rudy’s voice, the harmonium, chanting. I cry, I drift into yoga nidra, I fall into a different kind of Stage 3. Physically, I’ve had better deep tissue massages, but emotionally, this was the best I’ve ever had. Elizabeth knew I was fragile and not to get too deep. It could have gotten a lot worse!

I am so dazed and confused after those 90 minutes that I get lost on the way back to my room–lost!–after a full month of living here. Dorm 129. New people. New women surrounding me, strangers. The safe place that gave me such comfort now feels violated. Reverse culture shock. After a month of such a strict schedule and routine, I have no clue what to do or where to go. Where am I? I have a new nametag now, I’m Jennifer, here at Kripalu for an R+R. The badge doesn’t even say KYTA. I feel unspecial suddenly. I am just an average woman here for rest and relaxation. My last month of being an overworked, drained, spiritually fulfilled YTT student is now gone and forgotten. I walk outside, call Bryan, sob.

I head to to whirlpool next, which is desperately needed. I am alone, no “Roman bath” this time. The minute my naked body sinks into that nurturing, warm water, I break down again. I feel safe in the bubbly water, my womb, but terrified to step out again. It feels so very good, but I cry. Someone steps in briefly and turns off all the lights, and so I chant the student-teacher mantra in the dark, the yoga sutras chants. I swear I hear other voices with me. The water is so loud, but I feel like I can hear the harmonies, 61 other voices joining my one lonesome voice. I smile.

***

I see J. in the hall, nearly smiling my head off. Seeing a familiar face is so refreshing. We share sob stories. K. is still in 129, and I smile again. The last remaining sisters, the final crew of Kickasana geese. Their presence here alone is gratifying.

I overeat at dinner, because I am empty otherwise. I keep hearing voices in the dining hall that sound like my classmates’. At one point, I swear D. is sitting somewhere. But I look around and see only strangers.

Writing, gift shop, bed. I make a fort out of my bunk bed like K. did when she first arrived,

What a Kripalu dorm fort looks like.

cry a little, plug earplugs into my ears, and fall asleep very, very easily, 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.

(In honor of the 5-year anniversary of my monthlong yoga teacher training at Kripalu, I am documenting the experience as it unfolded in my handwritten journal. Day 1 can be found here. Fun fact: I just realized today that somewhere along the way I must have messed up the dates, because the events below actually happened on November 16, and now everything is off by one day. HOWEVER! Now the actual days of the week match up, and my graduation will be on a Friday, as it was in real life.)

Five years (or so) ago on this day, it is the Final Full Day. I have no sentences, no complete phrases–just raw, intense emotion.

In Shadowbrook, we do a beautiful “dance” routine to a Cherokee version of “Amazing Grace,” a circular formation with gentle hand gestures and welcoming new partners. We cry, of course. Later, the recording crew comes into the room to record and film us again, this time chanting “Ganesha Sharanam.” The product is sweaty, exhilarating, exhausting, lively, energizing. There are more people standing than ever, instruments, twirls and whirls, stomping, clapping. E. and I hold hands and twirl each other around the dancing room, our faces standing still as the world unfurls madly behind us. It’s a perfect example of my practice teach, finding the stillness among the chaos. We are spinning wildly within a crowd of wild people, but I feel so still, frozen in time. At one point, H. grooves on a cowbell, and I tune into his rhythm, just me and the cowbell–no chanting, no clapping, no harmonium. I am able to look closely.

Someone finds a box of colorful silk scarves, and they erupt into the air like a theatrical volcano explosion. Everyone rushes to grab one, and we dance with our new toys. Mine is indigo, the crown chakra. I fan it around the space, leaping through the cushions, showering the seated chanters with my silken touch. I swirl around them, fanning A., who is off to the side playing a drum. When the music slows and eventually ends, I intuitively fold my indigo scarf into a little square and hold it tight in my hands, a single tear rolling down my cheek.

Megha cranks up “Bootylicious,” and we all rub out buttocks and form a “soul train” line, each taking turns in pairs, grooving among our friends. My brain goes on slo-mo, and I immerse myself in the activity, my eyes zeroing in on each person, each face, each smile, as it parades down the line. I look at each person singularly and feel a deep connection to everyone who wiggles, shakes, and glissades past me.

We start a chanting/sadhana/out-of-this-world experience, starting with “So Hum Shivo Hum,” my affirmation. The passion I hear at the front of the room, both Megha and Rudy chanting, is sweet and beautiful and enchanting. I literally roll in it, coming to my mat and spreading my limbs in sound. I sway, crawl, squirm on my mat, the tears and snot and pain and delight coming out everywhere. It is almost torturous, like someone is dying in front of me. I am dying in front of me. The chants change, Rudy and Megha singing almost a lullaby of sorts. A dirge, a prayer, a worship celebration, a funeral, a birthday…everything. My movement just rolls and stops and rolls and pauses. Why do I continue to move, in spite of the agony? BRFWA to its extent. Roger begins leading us through asana, and I try to follow him, but I end up first just sitting, then curling into a fetal position. Sobbing, breaking, dying. Someone comes up from behind me, brushes my hair back, and props a pillow under my head. To this day I have no idea who the witness was.

Savasana. What a wild ride that becomes. My eyes are filled with pools of tears, and I ever-so-slightly crack open my eyelids to have slits of light come through. The effect is something incredible, a swirling, glowing, lake of light–all in my head! It was so brilliant, so fluid and heavenly and golden that I thought maybe I had reached samadhi. I felt crazy. I felt like I was high on drugs. Glowing swirls of liquid light, in my eyes, in my brain. I saw several visions: a Buddha figure, then a vivid image of the Dalai Lama. A mental image of F. and L. standing by the ocean, looking out at the beach from the boardwalk. I got the sensation I was sinking into the ground as the ground rose under my heavy limbs. How many times have I lay in savasana, and this is the first time I get this wild sensation of simultaneous rising and falling, the soft earth greeting my back with a gentle nudge. I sink and the whole class sinks with me, my friends, all gently sliding into the ground, kind of like the wave vision I had weeks ago. At the end of meditation, we chant Om, and I envision our entire class in white clothing. As the sound swells, I so briefly and vividly feel like we’re back in the ashram, our gurus at the front. It’s very beautiful.

All of the above is labeled as “Completions” on our schedule. Before it had started, I asked Rudy what exactly “Completions” meant, to which he responded, “We’re going to be exploring some unearthly terrain.” Huh. Touché. I emerge from the experience in a complete daze, unable to make eye contact or speak.

We end with what Megha calls a stereophonic affirmation exercise, where one person sits in the “Hot Seat,” one person serves as the Witness, and the two other people whisper into the “chosen one’s” ears good things about them. It’s jarring and reassuring, so many words and concepts. My brain went on overload trying to process the affirmations I received from my third aditham group, C. and B., as K. watched. The one moment I recall from this exercise is when all I heard was mumblemumblemumble in each ear, and then the word “grace” came out of both C.’s and B.’s lips simultaneously. K. noticed it too, and B. got overly excited, exclaiming, “Oh wow!!! That’s your new name!! Grace! Jennifer Grace!!” [Author’s note: Coincidentally, my cousin’s first child, born only a few months ago, was named Jennifer Grace.]

***

During lunch I take a leisurely stroll outside, but it feels very lonely and sad. It’s extremely mild, but the effects of late fall are evident, with most vegetation browning or dead. The difference even in one week since our silent nature walk is huge. Almost no yellow anymore. Dead trees, fallen limbs, fallen trees scatter the road I walk along. It reminds me of the Elephant Graveyard from The Lion King, but with bare tree limbs instead of elephant bones.

But I witness it all–a fallen evergreen or spruce, maybe–looks like a rejected Christmas tree. I walk behind Kripalu, on the hillside visible from the dining hall. It’s my first time seeing the place from behind. There’s the Main Hall, Shadowbrook, Marketing and Development, the dining hall windows, so small-looking from here. I stand by the trickling waterfall and fall in love again with the soft sound of dripping water. I am thrilled to be outside, in Massachusetts, in November, hardly needing a coat and not wearing socks.

I come inside and make a deep tissue massage appointment for tomorrow morning.

***

Our Celebration party kicks off at 7:30 p.m.; everyone is dressed up (jeans, blouses, makeup, jewelry) or DRESSED UP (saris, flowing ensembles). There is awesome drumming, almost KDZ-like, that gets me energized (and keeps me dancing through the night, lured onto the floor by such earthy, deep sounds. I end up dancing till 11:15, even though I’m utterly exhausted).

There is a giant (real) chocolate cake, to which we sing the birthday song, replacing “our dear friend ____” with “our dear tribe Kickasana.”

Cookies from the Kripalu Cafe (like, the real cookies), dark chocolate Hershey’s Kisses, and hot cider. A talent show of music and poetry follows, some humorous, some serious.

A. leads a chant, L. sings the Awesome Song, G. reads poetry, a group sings together, D. belts out a stunning “Amazing Grace,” L. sings a teary song from Wicked–a cappella–that gets everyone crying, and M. shows a DVD from her Cirque du Soleil show, Quidam. M. and I perform our Stage 1-Stage 3 yoga dance, which we choreographed in about 15-20 minutes the night before.

It’s amazing how well it is received, with loud hoots and hollers. Megha pulls me aside and tells me that the performer persona in me needs to “play” some time. M. and I get so many compliments, so many people approach me and tell me that I am amazing, that my movement is beautiful–so many compliments that I feel awkward a bit. M. was just talking about this, how it’s nice to hear people praise what comes naturally to you. All I did was dance my heart out, do what I do when I hear music, and so many people were blown away. I had a difficult task of accepting praise with grace and not belittling my talents.

And now, without a doubt, I know I have to move more. Everything here has pointed me to dance, to movement, to standing on my own two feet and expressing myself through my body. Even Jurian comments about the wild movement, and I am flattered. I feel like I am being praised by a professional Rockette.

We present Om mandalas to our teachers, and so then we gather around all six of them and chant Om, a continuous loop.

Rudy looks intensely serious, and I wonder what goes on in his curious, quiet mind.

The event ends with us all in a circle, singing “We Are the World,” led by A. He sings his heart out in his thick Japanese accent, and we sway while holding candles.

***

Back in the dorm, people begin packing, except me. We are hyper from all the sugar at the party, we are all friends now. We talk like we’ve known each other for years. We compliment each other, ask each other if everything’s OK, joke about snoring, burping, pooping, and D.’s expanding closet of doom. Tomorrow night I will among a new set of strangers.

***

It is so late–so late–but after I shower, I head to the second floor and dance alone in the Main Chapel because the doors were open and the carpeted floor and vastness called my name. I am beyond tired, but I soak in the old carpet scent of the hall and find myself leaping and crying and anjali mudra-ing. I feel so at home, so peaceful, so hum Shivo hum. The wind is intensely wicked, and I swear a tornado is going to bust through this place. Being in the chapel during a whirlwind is pretty scary, and it’s probably been the scariest and most blessed moments of my time here. The lights are not on, but there is illumination from outside and I can see shadows from the trees dance like ghosts. The wind creeps in this silent chapel so intensely that it sounds like someone is snoring in the corner. I’m reminded of Egypt and the way people would sleep in the mosques. I roll around a bit on the floor, my eyes on that wood-paneled ceiling. I leap, I cry. I imagine myself with a headset on, leading a DansKinetics class. I wonder how many people have rolled around on this very floor in ecstatic movement. I stand in the chapel, awed at “Wow, here I am.” This “foreign” place with the giant Om symbol and vaulted ceiling, the place I only once knew from pictures in the catalog, here I am. I am here.

When my body says that I am done, I head to the second floor lobby to write. A security guard named Dave W. checks out my little nook across from the chapel, and suddenly we’re talking for 30 minutes about his dragon tattoos, the howling wind, the animals outside (bobcats, owls, deer, coyotes), campfires, tattoo bias, the safety of Kripalu, the nice people at Kripalu, the stars, the darkness, the silence, and how many people from the cities are frightened by Kripalu’s darkness and silence. He describes to me a thunderstorm that once passed over the grounds, the rolling, low clouds flickering with lightning. I am fascinated, hungry for more stories about this place, but so achingly tired. He comes back to tell me that I am welcome to write in the silent dining room because there are newer windows in there and it’s not so noisy.

But I am too tired to continue staying awake any longer, and I head back to the dorm around 2 a.m. for a nice 3.5 hours of sleep.

I feel like this year has been a bit of a yoga re-awakening for me, a time for me to not only return to a regular practice but to delve into other endeavors such as Laughter Yoga, kundalini, YogaDance, Biodanza, Dharma Dance, and even a woo-woo crystal workshop. I feel like having this blog keeps me in check and from settling into a stale routine, and although I’ve always been open to trying out all these new things, being able to blog about it and having a receptive audience has definitely given me that final “push” into just signing up for the workshop/class/session already.

Which is why I headed to a local yoga studio last weekend for a kirtan, led by David Newman (Durga Das) and his wife Mira. I don’t follow David’s music, but I have heard of his name via Kripalu catalogs.

Kirtan is kind of like a “yoga concert,” a way of settling into the mind, body, and spirit through music and repetition of chants. Most kirtans include Sanskrit mantras, performed in a call-and-response manner, with the leader singing a line, and then the audience singing it back in return. Each mantra can be performed for several minutes, chanting over and over and over again until there is no longer a divide between you and the music, kind of like the Whirling Dervishes of Sufism, who spin and spin until they are connected with a higher power. Not only is kirtan a great way to exercise your voice, lungs, and throat, but it is an opportunity to connect with others and find your voice melding with everyone’s around you.

Kirtan is also known as a branch of “bhakti yoga,” the yoga of fostering devotion and love with yourself, others, and perhaps even a higher being. Asana (physical) yoga is just one blip in the grand scheme of yoga; aside from bhakti yoga, there is also jnana yoga (yoga of knowledge) and karma yoga (yoga of service and action). Bhakti yoga is not only creating community but supporting it and being fully participatory in it.

As I’ve written about here in my yoga teacher training recaps, “mini-kirtans” were a regular occurrence during my month at Kripalu. I’ve never attended a formal pay-for-admission, organized kirtan, but several times during my YTT our facilitator Megha would bust out a harmonium and lead us in Ganesha Sharanam or So Hum Shivo Hum for what always felt like a blissful lifetime. My class of 60-something students would sing along, dance, twirl, join in with tambourines or maracas. I went from the girl who lip synched most of her way through her high school musicals to a Sanskrit-chanting lunatic. I loved it all.

I was looking for that same feeling when I signed up for David Newman’s kirtan. I wanted to sing in that mysterious Sanskrit language until I felt compelled to rise to my feet and sway, twirl, and get lost in a sea of sound.

Unfortunately, that did not happen.

It’s not to say the concert was bad in any way. But each kirtan artist has his/her style, and David Newman’s style just so happens to be more mellow and a bit on the contemporary side; meaning, more of a English/Sanskrit blend, more guitar than harmonium. Kind of like kirtan for the modern age.

Maybe it was the environment as well that kept things on the low-key side. The yoga studio was set up beautifully, but with the blankets arranged in straight lines and rows, things felt a bit too confined, like guests were kindergarten students instructed to stay put on their “magic carpets” during the school assembly.

Maybe having Kripalu kirtans as a “baseline” was a detriment, because everything I craved and anticipated (harmonium! loud! dancing!) was not present at this particular event. I thought for sure that a group of almost 70 people in this small, low-ceiling yoga studio would blast through the walls with our singing, but the sound was a bit underwhelming and not as magical to my ears as our YTT group singing in Shadowbrook Hall. Sadly, I think David’s wife Mira contributed to this reservation: Her voice was so soft and mouse-like (at times I wasn’t even sure she was singing) that as the “response leader,” she just didn’t have the powerhouse vocals to guide the group into our full, rousing potential.

Of course there were guests who wanted and loved this environment. It was no doubt a safe, warm, secure setting. Those looking for a relaxing way to wind down their day I’m sure settled into a blissful state of mind. At times, I found myself closing my eyes, repeating the mantras, and sinking into meditation. It was nice, and I’ll admit I said that to myself several times throughout the event: Ahhh. This feels good. This is nice.

That only happened during the Sanskrit chants, though. David does a lot of English stuff too (“Love, peace, and freedom for us all”), which just isn’t my cup of Yogi Tea. Never has been (As much as I love kundalini yoga, the “Long-Time Sun” closing song gives me the heebie-jeebies). I’m such an old-school chanter, I suppose. I was thoroughly disappointed “Om Namah Shivaya” wasn’t on the playlist (isn’t that, like, a requisite in kirtan?), but we did get some “Jai Sita Ram,” and the “He Ma Durga Maharani Ma Durga / He Ma Durga Maharani Bhavani Ma Durga” melody has been haunting my mind for the past week.

When David started playing “Ganesha Sharanam,” my heart leaped. Here we go!, I thought. The mantra from Kripalu that made me whirl and twirl and rise and fall was on the playlist, and I was ready to chant my way to ecstasy. But…. it fell flat. It never reached the lively tempo we achieved at Kripalu, where we started slow and worked our way up into a maddening pace, and then settled down again. It was steady and easy, and the desire to dance just never hit me. I sang along, of course, but to be standing among 70 people and not be hit in the solar plexus with that urge to move felt odd and unsettling.

When it was all said and done, I left the studio feeling content. If David Newman’s goal is to transport people into a state of serene meditation, then he succeeded for me. However, just like yoga classes come in all different shapes and sizes and styles, so does kirtan, and as much as I appreciate contentment, I also seek a bit of auditory “explosion” from kirtan, which just isn’t David’s style. I was happy for getting my butt to something rather new to me, and now I’m ready to explore what else is out there.

Five years ago on this day, we begin our day of silence, the Noble Retreat. So far, nothing really seems different. Everyone’s too tired to talk in the morning, and breakfast is already silent. However, now that I’m sitting here at breakfast, although everything is the same and nothing has changed, I am more aware of the silence. Maybe it’s the sunlight trying to peak through the clouds. Maybe it’s because Grace just led a very silent-based awareness class, but everything feels illuminated right now. Colors are more vibrant, the small sounds of clinking spoons, water gurgling, clunking bowls, whispers, and the music playing softly from the stereo are extremely titillating, arousing. Especially the music. “Amazing Grace” was just playing; now it’s a beautiful chant. The few sounds around me buoy me, lift my heart. Trying to find the stillness, the silence among noise is a challenge, but a gentle one.

I’m not sure whether to look super-serious as I do this silent endeavor or be happy and smile. I feel like smiling could inadvertently engage conversation, but just because I’m silent doesn’t mean I can’t communicate. I speak through my body; perhaps that affirmation will be strengthened today.

***

Grace’s sadhana was delicious as she helped us explore the marriage of movement and breath, since our breath is our only speaking friend today. A fun experiment was asking the class to do either sun breaths or bhastrika–but once you started, you had to stay in your chosen breath, trying to tune out the quick or slow breaths around you. It was definitely a challenge doing the slow and deliberate sun breaths as others noisily did bhastrika. Even vice versa was hard. There was a certain softness in the room I wanted to capture during my loud bhastrika.

After class, we are asked to journal on the following question: What does yoga mean to me now?

Yoga is breaking the barriers between mind, body, and spirit, not treating them as separate entities but seeing and living them as One. Yoga is acknowledging the Oneness in the world around me–I am not separate from these beings around me; they are all part of me, as I am part of them. Yoga is touching your true Self, touching it, observing it, playing with it, doing all these things before you embrace the Self. Finding your essence, your core, finding out that you–no, I–speak through movement. That is me, finding grace. Finding the light and the shadow and embracing them–honoring them, working your way through the light and darkness, breathing through the unknown, tip-toeing, jumping, leaping, into the wave, riding, riding, riding the wave.

***

Our student-teacher mantra is whole and strong, our Oms filled with a deep-rooted urge to make sound. We are permitted to chant Ganesha Sharanam again, loud, with instruments. It goes on forever, 15 minutes? So vibrant and delicious. I whirl and twirl to the chanting and drumming, the harmonium, the maracas, the sticks. I bow to the remover of all obstacles, I dance to the remover of all obstacles. I lose control, I gain control, a delicate dance of will and surrender. As the music slows, I fall to the floor on my knees and relish the stillness in my body. For once, I appreciate non-movement, inquiry, breath.

That is when we go outside for a silent nature walk; the natural stillness of the Berkshires such a maddening polarity of the noise we had just created.

Each crunch of a single leaf sounds like a tree falling in the forest. Standing on rocks sounds like icy snow under my shoes. Birds, cars, airplanes are the music. Engines humming. People sighing. People praying. People walking. People crying. Stuffy noses. Twigs snapping. My pen clicking. The gong ringing. A small waterfall’s trickle, reminding me of Tibet, the mountains, the waterfalls. The non-stop trickling of water. Bright moss, florescent green, yellow leaves among brown and bare. J.’s blue-green jacket near yellow leaves.

Pinecones and red berries. Small, miniature pinecones on the ground of the woods–makes me think of the holidays, home, warmth, love, family. No gifts, just warmth. Music, warmth, love, pinecones, and red berries.

***

We come inside from the late fall’s chill and do a blood-pumping vinyasa practice with Roger, earthy, primal root music vibrating off the walls and floor. I feel the flow before we even start, Mother Earth aching to erupt from my root, my bones. Ooooh, I want to mooooove. I feel the prana before Roger leads, and the incredible heat within only gets more intense as he goes along. Sun salutation after sun salutation, uttansana, utkatasana, burning, flowing, fire and water. My monkey mind slowly starts to disappear as prana resides in my circuits. We go into a side plank with the top leg up (something that’s always challenged me), but it comes naturally today: no mind, no will, just prana. Everything is illuminated; I feel like I’m looking at a Magic Eye book, my eyes drawn into the minute squares on my blue yoga mat. The throbbing, pulsing music becomes ingrained in my body. And then, meditation in motion:

Downdog splits, so high and wide, a camel so deep I thought my head was going to drop to the floor. I allowed my heart to reach up, my head to drop, for will to let the f*** go. A lunging Warrior that danced, a backbend that I’ve never done before, my spine fluid, my spine prana. A snake with no inhibitions. Hanumasana, rolling over into upavistha konasana, all flow, so deep. Up into that leg-on-the-upper-arm balance, no holding back, no deep preparation, just down and up. So much warmth, but not a hot “Oh my god, I just ran a mile” hot, but a deep, internal flame hot, the sweat that emerged from my pores was energy, passion, not overheated sweat. Gold. I felt illuminated.

We then move into pranayama, a difficult transition. I still had prana shaking in my ribs. I sat on my mat, dazed and woozy with santosha, as Roger handed out cushions. Kapalabhati, nadi shodhana, dirgha. The heat subsided. The energy dispersed from my center all over my body. No more kundalini, no more shakti. Contentment. Peace. We sat in meditation and my third eye pulsed, shapes swam in my third eye until all the gold and black movement cleared and made way for an expanse of dark blue, like a curtain opening to a beautiful stage of a royal blue backdrop. The stage was empty, and it was time to watch the show. I felt like I had entered another dimension until Rudy awakened us.

Afterwards, we are allowed to make noise again. We Om in a chorus, so loud and present. We do a round of the Birthday Song for L., and I am taken aback at my own voice, how strong, confident, and melodic it is. I am there, man. I am speaking from my roots, I am present. Gradually I am letting go and returning to me. I am Jennifer. I am Jennifer.

***

The afternoon session with Devarshi stars off with, as always, music. We all enter and dance, this time it being more meaningful because we have been silent with our voices. It was a slow, mellow, soul-bearing melody, folksy, full of sways and spins. Devarshi danced along with us–he was definitely cool in my book. His talk about The Bhagavad Gita was profound and provocative, that life is a battle, the reason for fighting lies within ourselves, and that the only way to find god is just to look a little closer. Look! Look! Look! Experience everything fully, good or bad. See the world like a baby, like an alien. Be curious. Live in the inquiry.

In yoga, Devarshi says, the postures are just the chip (versus the dip, the deeper stuff). When something is fully experienced, no matter how bad/big, there is bliss. “‘Is that so (lofty)’ versus ‘Is.That.So’ (wow, here’s an experience).” Babies have no filters; they experience everything at the present, devour everything as it comes. What is happening now? Living in the inquiry, the mystery. Book. Bird. They fly with the bird, not just label it.

To emphasize that point, we are asked to go outside and explore our surroundings as if we are aliens landing on a new planet, to experience life as it is. So there we are, 65 of us crawling on the asphalt, picking at the grass, squinting curiously into the sun. I play with ivy and find a ladybug. I play with some pine needles as though I am a cat. Even feeling the movement of air around me becomes a different experience.

***

Jurian leads the afternoon sadhana, an intense class of emotional sweat and vigor. A bunch of hara pratapana and postures like Bird of Paradise, bakasana, and side crane– whew! I was totally into the class, loving the release. I found myself crying during a warrior/goddess kumbhaka pratapana, just because stuff needed to get out.

***

Tonight is our free night, but a lot of us end up back in Shadowbrook anyway for an open mic jam, starring S. and L. L. did back-up vocals, and random people popped in to listen or participate. L. sang “What a Night,” S. did “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” and then J. and I danced to “Building a Mystery.” A fun, spontaneous evening.

***

Observations:

• G. does his own sh** during every sadhana, and that is annoying and disrespectful. I know Kripalu yoga is very open about exploring your body and listening to what movement you need, but he just goes off into LaLa Land all the time. I must stop setting up my mat next to his.

• My jaw doesn’t hurt so much anymore now that I’m talking again.

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, I woke up for a 6:30 a.m. yoga class led by one of our Kripalu YTT assistants, Roger.

Silly Roger, with the braids

He’s on the silly side, and during spinal rocks along the floor, he tells us, “[This movement] is only called ‘advanced’ because you have to have the mentality of a 5-year-old.” Another quote that makes us chuckle: “Lift your front toes…(pauses)…as opposed to your back toes, that is.” Roger shares some yoga wisdom with us:

• “We tend to tell ourselves that standing on one leg is natural, the easiest thing to do…. When you fall out of a balance posture, explore. Go into a different pose before coming back into balance.”

• Instead of hold utkatasana in its normal form, we do the “utkatasana dance,” holding the intense leg posture but being free in the upper body, moving freely, dancing the arms. It gives the pose a paradoxical feel: the intense, demanding base, but liquid, flowing upper body.

• “Blossom the buttocks” during downdog.

***

Morning. Outside is gorgeous. I feel like I’m in another country. How can I go back home, to light pollution, suburban sprawl, theft, crime, hatred, paranoia? Kripalu is starting the reversal of the mental asylum. The people here aren’t mental–we’re sharing, kind, conservative, conscious, honest, compassionate, yet we’re the ones locked inside this former monastery. The NEW mental asylum is the one OUTSIDE, on the streets, the people outside our enclosed little world. Yes, we’re shuffling around in slippers and wearing our little nametags, but we’re not insane. We’re sane, lucid, in touch with ourselves and others.

Breakfast, to the sounds of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Cereal with walnuts, raisins, and banana; frittata with broccoli, spinach, cheese, egg, potato. Brown rice. Raspberry gluten-free cake.

***

We chant Ganesha Sharanam, “I bow to the remover of obstacles.”

Ganesh, remover of obstacles

We move from slow to fast to hyper to slower to slow and then to profound. After the smiling and laughing, we put on blindfolds and explore our “sacred space,” walking through the room, using only touch to lead us past our classmates. We reach out for the first person we feel, and then we talk with our hands. So intimate, such an experiment in touch as a tool, learning when to touch longer and deeper, when to withdrawal and pull back, determining whether the person responds with “invitation or aversion.”

***

At night, we do japa meditation with our mala beads. Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya. I honor/make myself receptive to light/great spirit. 108 times.

***

Our teachers demonstrate a Stage 3 posture flow. It is too intimate for words. At times, I feel like I am invading someone’s privacy. It’s sensual, sexual, almost. I watch the loss of control into ecstasy. I cannot write. I cannot sit here like a news reporter and take notes on such a sacred and profane moment. I watched Megha, Rudy, Jurian, and Roger in their posture flow and was nearly moved to tears. It was like watching someone make love. At times I had to look away because I didn’t want to intrude on such a private moment.

When I do the posture flow, I am somewhat inhibited. I allow myself to listen to my body, but I know there is still resistance, the need for others’ approval. Before I even started my own posture flow, I had the intention of pleasing the teachers. So I ended up doing the flow at 98%, doing what my body prompted me to do, but also 2% aware that others were watching and that I had to be conscious of performing for them in the process. However, my experience was exhilarating. I remember lunging into a low warrior–very deep–and doing something cool with my arms. I remember forgetting.

When I finish the flow and become still, something hits me. I feel alone, like a spotlight is shining only on me.

A bit of a background first: Ever since I came here, I’ve had very vivid images dance in my head when I close my eyes. For example, when in a flowing posture, like standing forward bend or bridge, I’d close my eyes and see random snapshots of people–all Kripalu people. I’ll close my eyes at night or during savasana and see quick flashes of people in bandanas, people with shawls, smiling, happy, introspective, compassionate Kripalu people, like I’m looking in a photo album (in fast forward) of all the residents here. However, there are times (usually during chanting, centering, pranayama, and sometimes during certain poses) that I close my eyes and see us all as a unified group. Amazingly synchronized. Holding hands, or arms raised, our mouths open in Om. I see our group, our tribe, together. So tight, as One.

So, that said, at the conclusion of the posture flow, I was aware that I had cheated myself out of the full experience. But my wisdom reminded me of my mistake, because as I rolled up into thunderbolt pose and sat to integrate the moment, a new image came to my head. I didn’t see the group so beautiful as a whole. I didn’t see random Kripalu faces. I suddenly saw (mostly felt, though) ME and only me. My vision was this:

Me in the Shadowbrook studio, under a harsh spotlight, everyone else lost in the shadows, not even there. The perimeter was dark, shadows, cold, and then me, under this judging light. I tried to push it away at first (I wanted my group!), but I Watched and Allowed and explored. The image stayed with me, and suddenly the feeling hit me: You need to work for yourself. You need to stop performing, being on stage. Stop working for approval.

I started to cry lightly. I put my hands to my face and cried more. I went into child’s pose and sobbed. The group chanted Om three times and I sobbed more and more, audible now. Tissue-needing crying. The sound comforted me; it helped me. I saw warm light, a pulsing “movement”in my head. It felt very warm and nice. I felt like everyone was Om’ing just for me. Stop performing. Start being, Jen.

***

J and I were co-listening partners. We were both moved and crying. J talked first about her experiences, and I was not a very neutral listener. I kept crying and wanted to reach out and hug her. When I spoke to J, although internally my feelings were muddled, I spoke very clearly about my experiences. So cathartic. We shared a long, deep hug afterward. (However, now I’m wondering whether the vision I had was a positive one, maybe affirming that my posture flow was for myself and not a group act. Is that why the group vanished? Was my flow an act/show, or a breakthrough?)

***

We all observe that we smell like food all the time. The cafeteria is everywhere, in our hair, on our shirts, in our pants. We are frittatas, we are miso soup and tofu. We are bloated and gassy. Whole grains and roughage and legumes have made us heavy and uncomfortable. We hurt during twists. We are afraid to fart when our classmates faces’ are inches from out butts.

Ever since having to give up running last year, I’ve turned to swimming as my main workout. My gym has an indoor, heated, salt-water pool with 25-yard lanes, and there I do my laps. In the year and a half I’ve been swimming, I have definitely progressed. I don’t fatigue as easily, my lap times have improved, and I feel more “in the flow” when I move, rather than just chopping furiously through the water.

I see my husband and friends competing in all these 5Ks and races and stuff and have been bummed that there’s nothing like that for swimming. (Typical triathlon relays don’t count, because swimming in the open water is nothing–NOTHING–like doing solo laps in heated, aquamarine pool.) So when I saw an advertisement for a duathlon (swimming and running) (a) with a relay option and (b) that took place in a pool, I felt like I couldn’t turn it down. My husband Bryan agreed to be my running teammate, but then once it came time to send in the entry form, I got cold feet and let it sit for a while. I don’t consider myself a competitive swimmer! I may swim faster than the 50-year-old man in the lane next to me, but then along comes a 17-year-old girl from her high school’s swim team, and she butterflies my ass out of the water. I swim because it’s a good workout. Because it doesn’t bother my hip. Because on 90 degree days it just feels darn good to leave the hot car and jump into the cool water.

Finally, I talked myself back into doing the event, mostly because I didn’t want to be a hypocrite for whining about there not being any pool-related competitions, and then when the opportunity arises, for me to turn it down. Also, Bryan sent in the check and kind of bypassed me in the process. 🙂

After a week of above-average temperatures extending into the 90s, Saturday, duathlon day, started out a chilly 56 degrees with only a high of 79 predicted. I reached into the back of my dresser to pull out the sweatpants and hoodie I thought I had tucked away for good until at least September. Even though the swim event was taking place in a pool, the pool was outside. Outside, unheated, and chlorinated.

This picture pretty much sums up my feelings about how things went:

That’s me, after my 500 meters, panting like a dog, dubious that I had really only swam 10 complete laps and not the 25 like it had felt, and way disappointed at my time. In my practice runs at the gym, I clocked in between 7:12 and 7:38 for 10 laps; however, the lengths between the two pools are not exactly equal. My time for this 500m was 11:02.

It started off the moment I jumped in the water–it was COLD. Not Atlantic Ocean cold, but much colder than what I was used to. I instantly felt my chest tighten, and I bobbed up and down trying to warm up. Once I started swimming, I felt OK for the first half of my first lap…and then I looked to see how close I was to the wall, and there was a lot more space to go. My body was so used to hitting the wall after so many strokes, and in this bizarro pool everything was just a tad longer. The gap in between where my mind said “wall” and where the actual wall was felt like miles, and with that thought my brain went into full-blown panic mode.

The sensation that resulted was probably akin to a panic attack…not being able to breathe, feeling like you’re going to die, just wanting someone to end your misery. It wasn’t exhaustion or panting, just more like someone flipping an “off” button in my lungs. I attempted to keep swimming at this time, but it didn’t last very long. I had stop several times in the middle of the pool, stand in place, and regain my composure. Then I’d swim, swim, swim, STOP AND BREATHE FOR DEAR LIFE. I heard Bryan on the side of the pool shout my name for motivation, and that made me feel worse, because I just could not get my act together, not even for my husband.

The first five laps were a mess. At the gym, I normally follow a stroke-stroke-stroke-breathe pattern; now it was stroke-breathe, stroke-breathe. Just focus on your breathing, my yoga mind told my floundering body. Visualize that oxygen pumping throughout your body, and the rest will fall into place. I could have done an hour of pranayama practice before this event; none of it would have made a difference. (Also, it’s a bit hard to do alternate nostril breathing while swimming.) I totally lost count of what lap I was on, and because I had my mondo earplugs in, I couldn’t hear what the timers on the side were saying. I could have been on lap five, maybe lap 15. I had no idea. I just keep on swimming.

Things began feeling slightly better somewhere between Lap 6 and 7. I frantically thought of a mantra I could repeat, and I stuck with Om Namah Shivaya, the only one that came into my head at the time. It would work for a few strokes, my mind would drift off, and then I’d have to corral it back in again. I also tried to focus on fluidity–You’re dancing! I told myself. Just move with grace through the water, approach it like the Flowing portion of 5Rhythms.

It was some of the crappiest dancing I’ve ever done, but the pep talks and visualizations helped me complete all 10 laps without dying, giving up, or requesting to finish the race in the baby pool.

As I said, my time was 11:02. I pouted and moped, but then I saw someone swim without once putting her head in the water, and I felt a little better.

An hour later, it was time for the 5K portion. Bryan started off strong, but the less-than-ideal road conditions (being forced to run on the sidewalk and dodge yard sale-goers) slowed him down and flattened him out mentally. He still ran a relatively fast 23-something, but it wasn’t his normal time.

We both sulked back to the clubhouse with little gray clouds over our heads and the Charlie Brown Christmas Song playing in the background (sorry, had to throw in an Arrested Development reference there!).

However, despite our mediocre times, we came in first place for the team category of the event! Alone, our times wouldn’t have gotten us any prizes, but together we took home a $20 gift certificate for the local running/sports store.

There’s no “I” in duathlon…teamwork rocks!

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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