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The other day as Bryan and I sat in the new local frozen yogurt shop eating our toppings-heavy desserts, I observed that every one of the employees in the brightly colored building looked to be 18 or younger, which for some reason made me think back to my pre-career days and the ups and downs of working as a teenager/young adult in retail.

With a B.A. in Communications/Writing under my belt since 2002, I’m an editor at a medical publishing company now, and my primary job is transforming peer-reviewed manuscripts into copyedited/proofread/presentable articles worthy of publication. But long before I resided in a cubicle from 8:30 to 5, M to F, I wore several different hats, “uniforms,” and almost never had to sit for 8 hours straight.

First Paid Gig: Choreographer

The summer before my freshman year of high school, the local community children’s summer theater sent out a notice asking for citizens to volunteer with various duties, such as supervision, costume-making, set design, and choreography. I had been choreographing fake shows and recitals in my living room since I was 8, so I jumped on the opportunity to work with live human beings. The show was Annie the Orphan, and not only was I co-choreographer but I was asked to be in the show as an extra orphan. I loved wearing ratty clothes and keeping my hair messy!

I worked with those kids 5 days per week for about a month and a half during the summer, and it was so rewarding to see them memorize the steps and then execute the routines together as a group. I was flattered when the show’s director paid me something like $100 at the end, even when I thought I was solely volunteering. I continued working with the group for a few more years until it was time for the torch to be passed to another eager freshman longing to be a choreographer.

Hanging out with my favorite mice from "Cinderella."

The cutest trio of boys performing the Lollipop Guild routine in "Oz."

Still, I held the title of “choreographer” for several years after leaving the children’s theater. I was asked to choreograph my first high school musical my sophomore year (Pirates of Penzance) and continued until I graduated (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) and then came back a few years after to choreograph Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat for a different high school.

One of my favorite dances, "Coffee Break," from "How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying." That's me on the right.

Every choreography gig I took on had its challenges (people who just couldn’t memorize steps, the difference between recorded music and a live orchestra), but the end result always gave me the goosebumps. I just loved seeing everything come together; no longer were there individual “steps”…everything was a performance.

I got to wear The Best Costume Ever during "Pippin."

First Retail Job: Eckerd Pharmacy

During the latter half of my high school years, I began working after-school/weekend hours as a navy-blue-shirt/khaki-pants-wearing sales associate at the local pharmacy. My primary responsibilities were working the cash register, stocking shelves, and changing price tags. Despite the minimum wage pay and the occasional wacakdoo coming in and kind of scaring me, I actually enjoyed the job, especially when I had a constant stream of customers.

I loved organizing, and beautifying the cold medicine aisle was one of my favorite duties; those skinny little Sudafed and Advil Cold & Sinus and Tylenol boxes were always tipping over like dominoes. A nice night for me was pulling up a plastic tote, sitting in front of the shelf, and getting each and every one of those little boxes on its feet again, stacked straight like soldiers on duty.

Every now and then, I’d work at the back register in the pharmacy department. This became one of my favorite assignments; it was certainly hectic at times, but I enjoyed answering the phone, getting people their prescriptions, and, at times, counting pills. The pharmacists were funny, easy-going, and good people all around. For me, the pharmacy was the VIP club of the store, and it was always my secret desire to get assigned back there.

Retail Experience #2: Old Navy

By the time I started college, I was interested in expanding my retail horizons. I was getting tired of stocking pill bottles and cigarettes, and I sought to work somewhere “cool.” With its pulsing store-wide music, bright colors, and relatively young clientele, Old Navy became my home-for-the-summer employer.

I wore a navy blue company t-shirt and got to sport a headset, which we used mostly to crack jokes about other employees or customers. I was too new to work the register, so I rotated between greeting people at the door, assisting in the fitting room, and maintaining general organization.

The job was kind of like a big party, but gradually it grew a little too big for me. I often felt like the managers were so concerned about pushing sales that the general appearance of the store was being ignored. I liked things spic-and-span, but a few items out of place were nothing if the dollars were rolling in.

That said, my favorite part of the job became “truck night,” those Friday nights when the store closed at 9 and a giant tractor trailer with new inventory rolled up and deposited boxes and boxes of new clothes. We’d lock the front doors, blast the radio, and go to our assigned spots to open boxes, tear off the protective plastic, slide hangers under every shirt collar, and begin the art of organization, arranging by style, color, size.

My OCD tendencies were pleased. Just like stacking those cold medicine boxes, I was happily engaged in the comforting repetition of organization.

Retail Experience #3: Store of Knowledge

Yet another summer between college years, and I did not want to return to the chaos that was Old Navy. My friend had been working at the Store of Knowledge at a different mall, so I applied to one at my local mall. The Store of Knowledge (now bankrupt) was the official retail store of public broadcasting stations across the country; I called it “the channel 12” store. It sold science and dinosaur toys, mind games and puzzles, and merchandise tied to all those PBS specials like The Three Tenors, Riverdance, and the Donny Osmond version of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Dressed in my khaki pants and store-assigned denim shirt (::shudder::) and black apron, I worked the register here and there but mostly helped customers as they browsed the store. My favorite assignment was working as the greeter; I’d stand at the front of the store and demonstrate some wacky new toy or gadget to passersby, being generally goofy and silly.

At one point, the store starting selling all of this “princess” merchandise, so I dolled myself up in a tiara, boa, and a magic wand and took on a whole new princess persona, complete with British accent and an air of royalty. I’d guide customers around the store as though they were visiting my kingdom; the kids (and parents!) loved it. It was the closest I’d ever get to being a Disney face character (one of my life-long dreams). (And no pictures from that gig, unfortunately.) 😦

***

After the Store of Knowledge closed, I returned to Eckerd Pharmacy for another semester or two to fill in the gaps before real-life began. I tried never to work during the school season, mostly because I had a pseudo-job as an editor on the university newspaper (we got paid a stipend at the end of the year) and participated in theater and dance events, which took up a lot of my time. I also found a seasonal internship at a local newspaper, which was a great stepping stone to my career.

I got my first big-girl job the day after I graduated from college. Knowing what today’s college kids face, I feel especially lucky that I was hired for a full-time editing/writing position less than 24 hours after being handed my diploma.

What made the job even better was that the office was directly across the street from a birthday party center, and I was hired on an on-call basis to serve as the “Super Cool Dance Teacher” for children’s parties. Sometimes I’d leave the office during my lunch break, dart across the street, teach 8 to 12 kids a fun dance, put on a mock recital for the parents, and then return to the office by 1 to resume writing.

I worked at that office for 5 years before moving on to where I am now. I can’t skip across the street to be an on-call dance teacher anymore, but hey, at least I don’t have to wear a denim shirt.

What did you do before finding your first big-girl/big-boy job?

Crap, I lost my head again.

My lack of sleep over the past several days is catching up with me big time today, and I have no mental energy to write creatively. I was all set to replace Flashback Friday with The Friday Five and concoct some list of tid-bitty yoga things, but I only got to three bullet points before my brain gave me an out-of-office message and just checked out. That said, I searched my old journal’s archives for something fun to post and came across this hilarious entry about one of craziest yoga classes I’ve ever taken

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Because I’m still in the throes of my personal yoga crisis and deciding what yoga to practice and where, I apprehensively drove to the yoga studio this past Thursday for the vinyasa flow class. And, as if being tested, the minute I entered the studio, there stood two of the “orgasm” ladies, the women who have toothy smiles permanently plastered on their faces, who speak in breathy sighs, and who feel the need to throw in 3 “thank yous” for every door you hold open for them. I walked in as they were discussing macrobiotics, and instantly I felt my blood pressure rise. I actually stood in place for a few seconds, contemplating whether to take off my coat or to just open the door and walk back outside. ::deep breaths:: OK, I’ll stay.

The class turned out to be a lesson in humor and humbleness, because by the end of those 90 minutes, the two women were the last thing on my mind. Here’s a rundown of what happens in a yoga studio on the eve of a full moon:

1. The class, which normally draws in a crowd of 6 to 8 students, suddenly grows to 15. For a small studio, this is a huge surge. Most of the floor is covered in mats, sun salutations have to be modified so our arms don’t clash, and there aren’t enough yoga bricks for everyone.

2. Fifteen minutes into the class, just as we’re emerging from a peaceful meditation, there is commotion at the (locked) front door, which also happens to lead right into the studio. The handle jiggles furiously, a body pushes on the door, and then impatient knocking commences.

3. The teacher unlocks the door and cautiously opens it a sliver, an invitation for a frantic, bundled woman to come barging inside, very loudly exclaiming, “Ohmigod, I thought I’d never get here! The traffic! Whew! Glad I made it!” in the middle of our class. It is 35 degrees outside, and the cold air rushes through the room like a frosty demon.

4. Realizing her faux pas, the woman gasps and apologizes for interrupting. The teacher graciously takes her belongings and fetches her a mat, but then we learn the woman had never even been to the studio before, which means she needs to sign a waiver before participating. Now the teacher needs to fetch the right form and sign the woman in. Oh, and still conduct a class, because class started 15 minutes ago.

5. As soon as the woman gets settled, a car alarm goes off in all its glory outside, like right outside the building. It doesn’t help that the studio is located on the corner of a busy throughway and is already subject to idling trucks, beeping horns, and pedestrian chatter outside. The alarm wails for 2 or 3 minutes, pauses (whew!), but then starts right back up again. This pattern continued for the next hour and 10 minutes.

6. At 6:15, now half an hour into the class, as we’re all sweating our way through sun salutations, a woman, who must’ve silently entered the building from the back door, emerges from the back of the room, yoga mat in hand, and tiptoes through the maze of mats to spread herself out in a cramped corner up front. I think the teacher was so befuddled at this point that she just told the lady to please warm up before doing anything. If things hadn’t been so weird, I’m sure the teacher would have said, “Um, class started 30 minutes ago. I’m sorry, you’ll have to wait for the next class.”

Everything was so obnoxious at that point that it actually became funny. Every time the car alarm paused and then started up again, I couldn’t help chuckling. What could you do at that point? The cool thing, though, was that the SECOND the teacher dimmed the lights for savasana, the car alarm STOPPED. For good. The pure coincidence of it all was enough to make me think that there really is someone up there pulling the strings, having a good time with humanity.

In honor of it being Earth Day, today’s flashback takes us to 2007, when Bryan and I went on our first real kayaking outing together. It was beautiful! Kind of scary! And because I drank a whole lotta coffee before our 4-hour adventure, the excursion was not without plenty of stops to use nature’s toilet–the earth, of course.

(Originally written in 2007.)

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Do you know that until today I have never peed in the woods?

I’ve squatted before — in China — so I was prepared for the act, just not for the surroundings. Bryan and I were in the boonies of Burlington County, celebrating his 28th birthday with a surprise kayaking trip along the Batsto River. It’s a 4-hour journey through the Pinelands, so I knew ahead of time that would be urinating on God’s green earth. And several times, in fact.

But I digress. Let me start from the beginning. Ever since our little paddle experience a couple of months ago along the Maurice River in Cumberland County, Bryan has been obsessed with kayaks. As in, he wants one. So for his birthday, I booked this kayaking trip with this little canoe/kayak outfitter in Shamong Township. You drive to their headquarters, hop in their van, and they drive you through the woods to the launch site, where they give you your kayak, paddle, life vest, and a “goodbye, we’ll see you in 4 hours.” When you arrive at the endpoint, there’s someone there to drive you back to the headquarters.

For two people whose only kayaking experience had been a 30-minute “test drive” on a wide and straight river, we truly learned by trial and error this time around. The river we were on today was in the middle of the woods, in the middle of nowhere. It was narrow, it was twisty. Fallen trees formed natural archways and road blocks. Our paddles got tangled in seaweed. The sun was so bright at times that you couldn’t see anything in your path and it felt like we were paddling into a big, black hole. We plowed into muddy banks, got wedged against submerged tree trunks, and scraped against low-hanging branches (and I have a scratched-up arm to prove it!).

We didn’t know the route, and we didn’t know precisely how long it would take us. The entire journey was an adventure into the Unknown, each turn a surprise. Every time we rounded a corner, I felt like I was entering a new mythical territory. The collapsed trees–and those near collapsing–looked like giant butresses, and sometimes I felt like I was a character in Lord of the Rings, Neverending Story, Narnia.

It was Quiet. Absolute seclusion. Whenever we took a break from paddling and just let the current carry us along, the absence of sound around us was chilling. And then when you dunked your paddle in the water again, the noise sounded like breaking glass.

We passed several small beaches, stopping for water, food, and bathroom breaks. I had to pee so badly on our first stop that when I finally did let loose, it was like that scene from Austin Powers where it. just. never. stops. The grass brushed up against my ass, and I feared spiders would get in my butt and start making a web.

Running to the "bathroom"

As far as scenery, it wasn’t spectacular. The changing of the leaves will probably start next week, so today was mostly fading green and lots and lots of pine trees. Sometimes the reflection of the clouds and trees in the water was pretty, and we did pass a few turtles. (One was doing yoga, I swear, maybe Warrior III? Its back leg was extended straight out behind him.) The few white lily pad flowers we saw were diamonds in the rough, and one beach we passed had some people on horseback mosying along. We couldn’t have asked for a better day weatherwise, though. I mean, the last day of September, almost 80 degrees, and perfectly sunny with a super-slight breeze.

Our final leg was through some marshy waters, and I got a little panicky here because it was all out in the open, as opposed to the tiny narrow wooded path we had been following. The area was so wide and expansive, and it was difficult to tell which way to go. I didn’t know where the endpoint was for sure, and, sure enough, we paddled right instead of left and ended up going totally out of our way before we got on course again. Seeing that “Canoe Landing” sign was a relief, and my hands, arms, shoulders, back, and chest screamed out, “Don’t you dare do any upper body work at the gym for the next 3 days, AT LEAST!”

Ain't no one gonna mess with a woman with a paddle.

I ate an apple during the return trip and it was the most wonderful fruit ever. It’s amazing how famished one gets while kayaking. Bryan and I rewarded ourselves with frappuccinos from Starbucks, and ohmigod the sugar and the cold and the sweet was deliiiiiiicious.

I don’t know what made me think of it, but last week I was reminiscing about my junior year of college and my balls-to-the-wall attitude; specifically, the time I decided to enter my university’s Lip Sync contest—by myself, on my own, with no backup support or motivation.

The concept was as simple as it sounds: Pick a song and lip sync to it in front of a crowd of many. Winner takes home $300 cash, with $200 and $100 prizes available for the second the third place winner.

Without giving it much thought, I decided, “Sure, what the hell?” I grew up performing solo dance routines in my elementary and high school talent shows, so I was used to any potential mockery or ridiculing (as is what happens when one, wearing a sparkly green and black sequin/spandex costume, does a jazz dance number to a 2-Unlimited techno song in front of an audience of quick-to-judge “cool kids”). Besides, I kind of looked forward to showing off my “other side” to a student population who only knew me as the bookish journalism student who once actually wrote a letter to the head of residence life because the other students in her dorm were a bit on the “raucous” side and blasted music past her bedtime. This was my opportunity to say “Watch out, kiddos! I may look like a librarian in the making, but I will dance those Dewey decimals into the ground!”

So there I was, ready to make an appearance and show the campus who’s hot stuff….so naturally, I picked a Broadway.showtune. as my song of choice. I had performed in my university’s production of Cabaret the year before, so I was quite familiar with the music.

Me backstage as Kit Kat girl Lulu (third from left). Or maybe this picture was from "28 Days Later: The Musical." Yikes!

I thought the song “Don’t Tell Mama” was a great choice for my debut in the Lip Sync scene: It was slightly scandalous, focused around the innocent-looking-but-not-really theme, and was a much better showtune for this type of event than, say, “Send in the Clowns.” I was taking my audience into consideration: late-teen, 20-something, mostly frat guys and sorority girls. I needed a number where I could look sexy and end in a split.

If my memory serves me correctly, I was the only person who entered the contest alone. The remaining contestants were either part of a pair or a giant group, mostly Greeks representing their letters. There was money to win, but I definitely had everything to lose, including my self-esteem, reputation, and ability to walk around campus without being laughed at.

What I did have going for me was that I was in this for myself, by myself. No one had encouraged me to enter the contest, and no one was in the audience rooting me on. I had downplayed the entire thing to my friends (“Ehh, come if you want, but it’s really no big deal.”) and preferred going into this potentially humiliating mess alone. That’s the balls-to-the-wall attitude I’m talking about; the initiative to just get up and DO something, even if it’s scary, maybe embarrassing, with no support system waving in the wings. And I think that’s what allowed me to shine that evening—I just did it. I put myself out there, in front of a massive hootin’-and-hollerin’ crowd that looked like this:

Actual crowd shot from the contest.

The other groups got whoop-whoops and cheers and homemade posters held up in their honor. I got applause, but none of the extra bells and whistles of support.

At the end of the night, however, I DID get $200.

Yup, I won second place. “Singing” and dancing to a freakin’ Broadway showtune. Beating out fraternity groups who performed to rap songs, placing ahead of sorority sisters who acted like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. I was shocked. Stunned. And pretty damn proud of myself!

My balls-to-the-wall endeavors since then haven’t been as dramatic, and unfortunately they occur less often. It’s a shame, because things usually end up better than I anticipate, like when I auditioned for a state-wide dance festival a month after returning from yoga teacher training and was actually accepted into a piece, despite doubts about my abilities; or the time I stood in front of a group at a leaderless drum circle and suddenly became the “teacher” who attendees looked to for guidance. That’s kind of the way I am; I stand quietly in the corner, silently observing the world around me, and then without much thought just launch into an entirely different person and take the reins.

But is it really “an entirely different person”? Or is that who I really am, and this bookish Tina Fey/Liz Lemon-wannabe character is really just a façade, my layer of protection from potential humiliation and defeat?

Would a librarian in training really audition for her school’s production of Cabaret by singing “Mein Herr” while stripping down to nothing but black velour pants and a strapless bra??

(Sorry, dudes. No photo for that one!) 🙂

Tomorrow afternoon I’m attending a “Healing and Feeling” drum circle at a local yoga studio, so in honor of the event, today’s flashback will rewind to my very first drum circle in June 2007.

I fell in love with the sound of African drums back at Kripalu, when every Saturday the in-house ensemble KDZ would play live for the noon-time YogaDance class. There’s something about a drumbeat that is so human and primal, and my body reacts to the sound the way a moth does to light: It’s just mesmerized, completely sucked into the beauty. Other than a brief violin stint in 4th grade, two years of clarinet practice in elementary school, and a year or so learning how to play Hawaiian percussion instruments while trying to hula at the same time (“I Was a Hula Dancer,” coming soon to Flashback Friday), I do not have any musical training, but that didn’t stop me from buying an African djembe and bongo. I had been eyeing the instruments at Target’s Global Marketplace (man, I miss that!), and every week I’d hem and haw over whether to buy them. Then they went on clearance, and so they were mine. I’ve since upgraded to a better-sounding djembe with a fancy silver finish, and although I don’t get to drum circles as often as I’d like, I do bust out my djem-baby every so often to play along with an Alanis song or just take out my frustrations on a giant metallic goblet.

"Rock-a-bye djembaby..."

 

The following is an account of my very first drum circle, taken from my old journal:

Back in February, I bought my first set of djembes, and last night was my first opportunity to bust them out of the house and jam with others.

My yoga studio hosted a drum circle to celebrate the summer solstice, and I even got my Old Job friend, Carrol, to come with me. There were a few guys with drumming/percussion backgrounds who kicked off the music and helped sustain the rhythm, and they were wild to watch. Carrol and I dubbed the one guy “the Flatley of fingers,” because his hands were slapping off that drum as rapidly as Michael Flatley’s Irish feet flap on the stage. Everyone had a djembe or bongos, but there were also cowbells, wooden blocks, chimes, maracas, and foot bells to go around. We spread out all over the floor, left the front and back doors wide open, and let loose.

It was mad fun, and our music attracted curious stares and smiles from dozens of passersby strolling along the main road after their fancy dinners. One guy with his family stepped in, sat on the floor for a few minutes and his baby daughter bounced in the doorway, and then just got up and left. People 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. For once, we were making the noise. At the yoga studio, there’s always some kind of “distracting” noises around us–the open mic night at the coffee shop next door, car horns, idling Wawa delivery trucks, gunning motorcycles, people who stand right outside the studio doors and have a 10-minute long cell phone conversation–so it felt awesome to be the “distractors” last night and make so much commotion that all of those things above could have been going on, and we would have never even realized it.

Halfway through, I felt compelled to get up and dance (of course), and I did my thing, getting lost in the music, stamping, rocking, swaying, spinning. Before they guys started the next jam, I suggested that we sit in silence for a minute, just to appreciate the sound by sitting without it for a while. It was a different kind of silence, because our ears were still buzzing from the last song. Our feet were still bouncing, our hands still moving as though there was still music. At my request, the guys started the next song r-e-a-l-l-y slowly, first just one guy playing a heartbeat rhythm, and then, one-by-one everyone delicately chiming in, bit by bit, until the fire began to grow, and an explosion of sound eventually shot out.

I couldn’t resist dancing again, so up I went. This time it was trance dance, and I allowed the music to do whatever it wanted with my body; I was keeping the mind out of it. I felt like I was a spectator of my own dancing, amazed at how my movements flowed along from one beat to the next, changing patterns and shifting directions without me calling any of the shots. I was integrated, man!

Some guy from the street starting jamming in the doorway. He put down his backpack and then started grooving in the entrance, until he came all the way inside and was dancing with the rest of us. (By now, at least three other people had joined me on the dance floor!) At first I thought Street Guy was a musician or something, because he seemed to be doing these weird moves like he was understanding every iota of sound. But then as he started to dance more, I realized, no, This guy is actually crazy. He started getting really close to me, so one of the yoga teachers, god bless her soul, started dancing like a wild woman between us, her limbs flying all over the place to break us up. He stayed for the remaining 10 minutes, and Carrol and I swear he was on ‘shrooms.

I was a flaming ball of sweat afterwards, and then Carrol, who publishes an art magazine, told me I should do a story about the event. Before I knew it, I had her reporter’s notebook and pen in my hand and was firing questions at the drummers and participants. I know I’m still a journalist at heart when awesome quotes send chills down my spine and get the pen running across the paper at 100 miles per hour.

One of my favorite lines from that article: The sound in a drum circle is never static–it’s more like the ocean: still at times, raging at others. An unseen force of nature quickens the tempo and changes the rhythm, and without thinking too much about it, your hands and fingers follow the flow to keep up.

Bass! Tone! Slap!

In the summer of 2006, my husband Bryan and I went on a nearly 3-week trip to China and Tibet with a group led by a geography professor from our alma mater. As I mentioned in this post, the trip was certainly life changing, and coming home introduced a whole new set of feelings about my lifestyle, along with a very deep appreciation for my yoga practice. Below is a journal entry I wrote shortly after returning to the States.

Achingly hollow. That’s how I feel right now.

For the past three weeks, I’ve woken up to a day full of new experiences: visual, emotional, and spiritual. Even though some mornings we had to be up at 4:30 or some nights we slept on a 1.5-inch mattress over plywood over eight stools, the days never failed to stimulate, amaze, and captivate my mind, body, and spirit.


For 19 days, we stuck together in our group of 15, becoming closer each day, despite our differences. By the final day, we felt like family. But last night at 8:30 as our families arrived, picked us up, and drove us away in separate vehicles, it felt like everything had dissolved. My family treated Bryan and me to a late-night meal at the diner and we ate like beasts; at home, Bryan and I melted into our uber-soft mattress and slept for 14 hours; this morning, I was able to shower without flip-flops for the first time since June 20th, but none of these coming-home experiences compare to the dirty, grueling, tiring, sweaty, wonderful, enlightening moments I had in China.

I think back to the day we landed in Beijing and, on our measly 3 hours of sleep, were suddenly thrown into a cramped bus decorated with hanging plastic fruit, flew around the crowded roads, and were greeted with steaming pots of beef, lamb, chicken, tofu, and cabbage in a tiny, smoky restaurant where no one spoke English. I struggled with my chopsticks, could hardly get anything into my mouth, and wanted to cry.


Why did I come here? I thought. Why did I leave behind my perfect daily routine of healthy food, the gym, smoke-free buildings, and a normal sleep schedule for this? Why did I have to come all the way to China for a wordly experience? Why not England? Or even Canada, for crying out loud? I’ve never been to Canada, a mere day’s drive from New Jersey, and yet I leave all the comforts of home behind for a weird country all the way around the world?!?!?!

But yesterday, as our plane landed on the Newark runway, Bryan jokingly said, “And now it’s going to turn around and take off again for China.” And I said, “That’s fine with me.” I’m back in my so-called “comfort zone” — a soft bed, clean shower, organic foods, my gym bag, the internet, the daily newspaper on our doorstep — but none of it feels right. My house feels like a movie set, a perfect little playworld where nothing is real and it’s all just for show.

What I do know is this: Yoga helped me greatly through this trip. I didn’t touch a yoga mat for 3 weeks and never once had the floor space to even get into Down dog, but the emotional aspect of yoga, pranayama, and lovingkindness meditation completely enriched the adventure. There were so many times I could’ve gone ape shit, cried hysterically, or lost it completely, but I’m certain that the mental clarity and focus I have cultivated from my last 2 years of asana yoga practice got me through it all and let me go with the flow. Even our 3 days on the pirate ship.

Yes, a pirate ship. OK, it was actually a garbage barge with stowaways sleeping in the hallways, a cockroach infestation, dirty communal squat toilets with no toilet paper, inedible food, minimal air conditioning, half-naked Chinese men who spat on the cigarette-butt littered carpets, and meat locker showers, but we lived like filthy pirates for 3 days, so, therefore, we call it a pirate ship. Yar.

What doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger. I had to repeat that several times throughout this trip, but yeah, it’s true. And Starbucks always helps.

I completed my yoga teacher training (YTT) at Kripalu in 2006, but I returned in the summer of 2008 for a weekend “Let Your Yoga Dance” program led by Megha Nancy Buttenheim.

 

Striving to shine like the Megha-watt!

It was my first time returning to Kripalu since my monthlong training, and I was filled with nervous excitement about going back to the place where so much transformation occurred. My former coworker Carrol tagged along with me, making the 4.5-hour drive to and from an estrogen-filled, nonstop fun car ride. 🙂

 

"Old lady friend" Carrol

Below are some random thoughts and observations from my journal.

• So, it’s weird, but when Carrol and I finally found Kripalu (after aimlessly driving around West Stockbridge and Lenox, cursing at the GPS lady), I was scared. I saw the contemplative guests walking, the shiny happy hippies smiling, the YTTers’ yoga mats lined up all perfectly through the open doors of the Shadowbrook room and got kind of panicked.

Maybe I shouldn’t have returned. What am I trying to return to?

I felt a lump in my throat for about an hour after arriving, but eventually it dissipated, and I was totally at home again.

When I was in the YTT program, I always hated the “weekend” people who crowded the halls Friday through Sunday and marred the sacred serenity of the place. Now I was one of those people. I listened into some of the YTTers deep, intense conversations and felt like I was eavesdropping on aliens. Man, did we really sound so spacey? Oh, yeah, we did.

• How often do I have afternoons when my biggest decision is whether to sit in the second floor lounge and stare at the gray clouds and approaching thunderstorm or escape into the Main Hall a few steps away from me and dance to the strains of piano music that someone is playing?

• A recap of my Saturday, June 14:
6-7:15 am, Gentle Yoga
9:30-11:30 am, YogaDance program
12 to 1 pm, Yoga Dance class with live drumming
2:30 to 5:30 pm, YogaDance program
7:30 to 9 pm, KDZ drum concert, during which I danced the entire time.
That was one really sweaty day.

 

Glowing.

• Our group from the Let Your Yoga Dance program heads out to the Labyrinth to plant sunflower seeds and do a walking meditation around the grassy circle. As soon as the last of us reaches the entrance/exit, a clap of thunder breaks the silence.

To the labyrinth!


•  Silent breakfast observations: Blue, yellow, and salmon-colored bowls greet guests, with matching plates as well. Cling-clang of silverware. “Moonlight Sonata” in the morning as the sun struggles to break through the misty veil that shrouds our monastery. The crackle of ice falling into plastic mugs, dirty plates stacked in the dish return queue, leftover food sliding into the compost bins.

• Carrol and I walk around the Labyrinth, and then as she sits under a tree to read as I dance and cartwheel on the front lawn. I twirl and twirl and twirl, and no one passing by me gives me a second glance. If only wild-woman dancing could be so normal everywhere.

Open space is my playground!

• A noontime YogaDance class led by Jurian sets off every circuit in my body, and then reduces me to (good) tears by the end. I watch a lumpy, amorphous, goofy-looking man turn into a big ball of smiles and enthusiasm. An employee, her face was filled with so much gratitude, and she held her hands to her heart, and I could see the love brimming from her eyes.

• As a gentle yoga class takes place inside the Main Hall, I sit in the lounge, eyes fixed on the ominous gray/black clouds rolling this way. Thunder sounds, a flash of lightning, and then … HAIL! Hail the size of mothballs, setting off car alarms, collecting on top of the picnic table canopies, collecting in the pools in the valleys on the front lawn. Crazy folk run outside to do handstands on the ice and make “hail angels.” The echoes of thunder sound like a giant celestial, threatening hand breaking planets, crushing entire forests of redwoods in one fell swoop, drawing out the destruction bone by bone, trunk by trunk. Bits of planet falling to Earth. Lightning that sounds like a shotgun, the brightness!, wondering just how safe my little comfy second-floor lounge seat really is. I sit and watch a thunderstorm for nearly an hour: 60 minutes of nothing but staring out a window.

Hail to the headstand!

• On my final day at Kripalu, I rise in time to get to 6:30 moderate yoga, led by Danny. We’re in the Forest Room, and I pick a spot in the front, where the sunlight creeps onto my mat and greets my face as I rise up into belly-down navasana. My last breakfast is nutty flax cereal with almonds, raisins, bananas, and rice milk. Poached egg and herbs too, because it’s there and it’s gooood. I feel bad having to turn around and politely tell the couple behind me that this is a silent breakfast and they aren’t supposed to be carrying on a conversation.

I sit outside the main entrance, eyes scanning the flourishing green mountains, amazed that just slightly more than 12 hours ago, hail was bombarding this very spot and it felt like the world was ending. And now, birds chirp, sun shines, nervous YTTers pace the grounds, eyes on their notes, lips muttering their carefully chosen words, rehearsing the motions of their second practice teach. I wish them well silently through metta, understanding their stomach knots and shaking hands.

My final moments are spent all over the grounds, walking the same route near the Ganesh statue that we took during our silent nature walk during YTT. I find Bapuji’s meditation garden, ring the bell, stand on rocks and balance on one foot, doing variations of Warrior III and Garudasana as a kind of moving meditation. After holding the postures and stepping off the rocks, the sun breaks through the clouds and cuts through a small opening in the treetops, a single spotlight. I stand in the center like I’m an alien being called up to the mother ship, arms raised. I am weird, wonderful, overwhelmed, grateful, mournful, and happy.

Embrace your inner crustacean.

Carrol and I load up my car out back, the pulsing sounds of Toni’s noontime JourneyDance providing an exuberant end to this journey. She has the headset on, and her voice comes out of those Main Hall windows so loud, it’s as if she’s standing right next to my car. I break out into one final, uninhibited dance to the music, I smile, and then we’re off, back on the road.

***

QUESTION: Have you ever been to Kripalu? If so, what’s one of your favorite memories?

I’ll never forget the “Eau de Kripalu,” the smell of cumin and other natural seasonings that greets everyone’s nostrils the second they exit the stairwell and enter the second floor. 🙂

OK, here’s the deal: Technically, I am certified to teach yoga. But I haven’t taught a class since 2007.

There are no caps and gowns at Kripalu, just sandalwood on my forehead to represent the earth, to which we are all connected. I had also been blessed with rice and flower petals on my head, but they fell off as I walked down the aisle.

I am a graduate of the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health‘s 200-hour yoga teacher training program. I attended the certification program in October-November 2006. At the time, I was working as an editor at a local newspaper group, and I was fortunate enough to be granted a monthlong, unpaid leave of absence so I could skitter north to Massachusetts, where I’d wear spandex pants from morning through night, spend most of my days inverted in downdog, and experience meditation sits so deep that I’d leave the room feeling like a helium balloon ready to lift off into space.

I enrolled in the program after developing a pretty intense yoga practice at home and through various studio classes, which I was taking about 5 days per week. I loved when my teachers spoke Sanskrit. I studied Yoga Journal magazine like I was cramming for a final exam. As my practice intensified, I’d be in class, thinking of ways I’d approach a sequence differently. Or I’d watch new students struggling in a pose and would mentally go through ways I’d help that person if I were at the front of class. I also felt somewhat guilty for “just” being a student: How selfish I was to devote 75 minutes a day to myself, my mind, and my body? Maybe if I taught yoga, it would validate my passion?

I struggled with the decision for months: to teach or not to teach? But then in the summer of 2006, my husband and I went on a group trip to China, which included a few days in Tibet. That’s a whole other post, but let’s just say that if you have any kind of spiritual practice, going to Tibet will blow.your.mind. Lhasa was a spiritual powerhouse, and there was all kinds of energy flowing every which way around us, between the devout monks, pilgrims, and the towering statues of Buddha we encountered in every nook and cranny of the most sacred monasteries. I came home from that trip on fire, ready for something. I wanted change, I wanted to learn, I wanted to spread love and peace. I wanted to meditate and breathe and open myself to the universal energy that hit me so hard on the roof of the Jokhang Temple.

View from the roof of the Jokhang Temple. That’s Potala Palace, former residence of the Dalai Lama.

I was ready to DO THIS!

The minute we pulled up to Kripalu, my month’s worth of black yoga pants and tank tops in the trunk, I started bawling. I was leaving my husband for a month! My job! Starbucks, computers, private bathroom experiences! But then that afternoon I took a gentle yoga class, ate an amazing fresh and all-natural dinner, and met the 2 facilitators, 4 assistants, and 59 classmates who would help make the next 28 days awesome.

During our end-of-program party, we presented our teachers and assistants with hand-crafted Om mandalas. To honor their gifts, they led a continuous Om chant, which always sounds beautiful. And that’s me and Akira, a fellow student.

To write here about my whole Kripalu experience would take way too long and would instantly be tagged as TLDR (“teal deer”: too long, didn’t read!) But there was lots of yoga, electrifying pranayama and meditation work (seriously, floating), and powerful, deep classes after which I felt like a live wire, so much that my handwriting in my journal changed dramatically and was all jagged and stuff. We chanted together, we danced together, we shared stories of love and loss and fear and strength, we joked about being constipated from too much tofu and beans. We watched yoga “superstars” come and go in and out of the facility for their weekend workshops: Shiva Rea, kundalini guru Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa (she is INTENSE, man–her eyes!!), satsang leader Mooji (we snuck into one of his lessons), Budokon creator Cameron Shayne and his ninja posse. We learned how to teach a basic seated pose; we learned how to teach headstand. I spent my weekends working up the courage to dip into the “bathing suit optional” jacuzzi. Dancing with the live KDZ drummers during noon DansKinetics (YogaDance). Taking long walks outside and talking to myself. I sweated over practice-teach lesson plans; I got sick during my final, hour-long lesson and had to lead my little group of four with a scratchy voice and hacking cough. I was enlightened. I was confused. I loved everyone. I hated everyone. I gorged on blueberry crumble at breakfast time; I snuck a rosemary and thyme roll in my bag at dinner. At times I danced more than I did yoga, and I began to fear that I signed up for the wrong program and should have been studying DansKinetics instead.

Me with YTT facilitator/YogaDance teacher Megha, just a wildly sweet, crazy, passionate, ecstatic, and delightful woman.

Doing yoga, pranayama, and meditation consistently day in and day out, plus being sheltered from the world outside (seriously, as a mostly “cellphone-free” facility, I had to call my husband every night holed up in a smelly pay phone booth) CHANGES YOUR BRAIN. Stuff gets re-wired. Different neurons fire. You think longer and deeper. You process things more clearly. Everything you thought you knew is now something completely different. A lot of my classmates had PROFOUND experiences after returning home from Kripalu. We’re talking affairs, divorce, moving across the globe, new jobs. I didn’t have quite as dramatic epiphanies, but I didn’t return from YTT feeling like a ball of sunshine either.

I came home in such a state of WHA??!?!?!?! that I didn’t quite know how to function at times. It wasn’t quite depression, but I didn’t feel too happy, either. I felt drained. Empty. Like I had been so stuffed with knowledge over such a short period of time that it all just fizzled out of me when I got home. I didn’t want to return to my newspaper job, but I wasn’t sure what to do next. I didn’t even call my boss until a week after I returned, because I just didn’t know what to say. “Hi, I’ll be back Monday”? “Hi, give me another two weeks to get my life straightened out”? “Hi, I quit”? I was completely empty, mute, nearly apathetic. It was miserable, because many of my YTT friends kept sending e-mails saying things like, “Wow, I love life so much more now. Everything is illuminated. My life is shiny and perfect and I’m gonna make some world peace now.”

It was hard to digest because I was not feeling that way at all. I loved everything I learned at Kripalu and had an incredible time there, but that did not carry over immediately after I got home. It bounced in the opposite direction, sending me down, down, confused, sad, ambivalent. I wanted to save the world, but MAN, what an incredible responsibility! I kept thinking too big too soon, and it hurt. I cried a lot. I felt like I was letting down my Kripalu teachers for not jumping at the front of a yoga class the day I got home. Plus, I was sad about leaving that world behind, the freakishly utopian Kripalu community. I left behind friends, mentors, good food, constant yoga, peace, love, and live drumming and dancing on Saturdays. I was going through a mourning, a time of loss and grief. Additionally, I was going through a biochemical withdrawal! My body had become hooked on the physical effects of a strenuous yoga practice that I honestly think my brain went kaput shortly after it realized it wasn’t getting “high” anymore. Yoga totally is a drug!

I eventually went back to my editing job and found ways to ease back into comfort. I was given the opportunity to teach a Christmas Eve class at the local yoga studio, and 7 students showed up! Soon, I had my own class on the studio calendar. I was super-excited at the opportunity but nearly barfed before every class. The class was scheduled at an off time and didn’t attract many students. Those who did come said they enjoyed the class, but I never felt like myself. I put too much time into planning. If my class started at 6, I began planning at noon and would surround myself with index cards and books and YTT notes and would make myself sick trying to develop the “perfect” class. All the things I once enjoyed for fun–reading yoga books, taking yoga classes–became work. I took them way too seriously now, and that innocent passion that made me fall in love with yoga so much was gone.

By the end of 2007, I had declared myself retired from teaching and decided to step down into just-student status again. Around Christmas 2007, as I was writing out a check to Kripalu for their Scholarship Fund, I journaled about the decision:

I cannot and do not want to teach traditional (hatha) yoga. I think I have come to accept this. I tried it, and I felt like I was wearing the wrong size shoes. I love practicing yoga, I love living yoga, and I love reading, writing, and talking about yoga. But teaching yoga is not my bag right now.

So why am I writing out a check to a place that led me down the wrong path, you ask? Ahh, but it was not the wrong path. Although I may have studied yoga, anatomy, breathing, and meditation for 28 days at Kripalu, I now know that all of that yoga helped me tap into the knowledge of what truly excites and holds my passion: dancing.

The signs were obvious, starting from Day One. We were asked to call out three words that define yoga for you. My first word was “dance.”

When we sat around in a circle chanting “Ganesha sharanam,” I opted to scurry to the back of the room and danced to the chanting instead.

Sometimes the teachers put on music before class, and I loved walking into the empty room, throwing down my books, and dancing barefoot along the bamboo floor. I’d dance to slow songs like “The Rainbow Connection” and fast songs like “Bootylicious.” I hated it when the music stopped and it was time to study asana.

On my first day off, instead of sleeping in and relaxing in the sauna, I became one with the drums during a live drumming DansKinetics class. I whirled and spun and leaped and collapsed on the floor for a blissful savasana. After class, the dance instructor took a hold of my glistening arm and said, “Woah, I think you’re in the wrong training!”

On nights when I was so tired, so exhausted from practicing yoga all day, I’d still find the energy to sneak back into our now-empty program room, put on my headphones, and dance in the dark to my MP3s as the huge Shiva statue stared curiously at me.

One of my favorite memories of Kripalu was hanging out after hours with Meghan, another student, hooking her iPod to the stereo, and dancing like ecstatic lunatics, overwhelmed at all the magnificent square footage we had all to ourselves. During one of my final nights at Kripalu, I snuck into the empty Main Hall (a chapel converted into a giant yoga room) and danced some more. And more. On the night when Linda Worster came and sang her folk songs as she played her guitar, I again curried off to the back of the room and danced in my own little world as Megha, my dance-trained program leader, danced in her own little world.

But for some reason, I always felt like this was wrong, you know, caring more about dancing when I was paying big bucks for a yoga program. I expressed this to Megha. She, aware of my dance background and desire, told me that it’s OK for my “performer persona to shine.” In fact, “she [the performer persona] needs to shine!”

And I think sometimes you need to do the wrong thing to figure out what is the right thing. I entered a yoga teacher training program and emerged a more confident dancer. I loved being on my mat for 12 hours a day, but I also loved the way I felt when I was moving to music. I admired dance teacher Megha so much and vowed to take her spirit home with me and apply it to my own practice/teaching/life.

And my god, I have. Whether it’s a wedding, company Christmas party, high school reunion, or the bar, if there’s good music, I want to dance. I need to dance. Hesitation no longer has a grip on me, and I’ll bust out there on that dance floor and let my soul collide with the vibrations.

I tried to think back to a time where I felt really comfortable teaching yoga. It was the last class I taught, an open style class on a Friday night. And it just so happened to include more dancing and music than asana. I pumped up the volume on the stereo and instructed the students to get lost in the music, to do sun salutations on their own breath, with each rise and fall of the music. It was definitely more DansKinetics-based than traditional yoga-based. But that was it. That was my favorite class. I can execute downdogs and triangles and janu sirsasanas and get lost in my breath, but–at this time–I just cannot teach it.

Sure, I would love to do the DansKinetics teacher training program at Kripalu, but it’s a huge financial and time commitment. And the thing is, I think I learned what I needed to during my yoga training. I don’t necessarily have to lead a formal class to be content. If dancing–just doing what I love to do–helps get other people moving, smiling, and stepping out on that dance floor, than I am happy. In reality, I have fulfilled my role as a yoga teacher because yoga is joy and mindfulness and breathing and moving and union and bliss.

And that is why I wrote out the check to Kripalu. That place did a lot for me. It may not have been what I expected, but it was a learning experience. And I trust Kripalu’s staff, faculty, and guest teachers to help others, whether it’s in yoga, dance, hiking, weight loss, weight gain, love, knowledge, and compassion.

I returned to Kripalu in the summer of 2008 for a “Let Your Yoga Dance” weekend workshop and long to go back sometime soon…to dance, of course!

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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