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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.

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My fourth-grade teacher had a saying when she wanted her students to take her words seriously:

“That’s a requirement, not a request.”

Back then, it referred to remaining quiet during a test, putting the classroom hermit crab back in its cage, or ending the latest battle of spitball warfare. When you heard that phrase, you shut up and did what Mrs. Goettelmann said.

Lately, however, I’m hearing those words echo through my head about something greater: yoga and meditation.

And it’s not my fourth-grade teacher talking, either. It’s my aching, stiff body. My deprived lungs, which never seem to get enough oxygen. My heavy, scatterbrained, impatient mind:

“Do yoga. Meditate. This is a requirement, not a request, Jennifer.”

Yoga and meditation used to be a very integral part of my life. I had the schedules of every local yoga studio stuffed into the side pockets of my car door so I knew exactly where I could ashtanga, kundalini, or yin on any given day of the week. If I wasn’t at a studio, I was upstairs in my yoga room, following along to a podcast or simply cobbling together my own practice.

Group classes became more challenging once I hurt my hip, but I persisted, knowing my limits, modifying as necessary, simply enjoying the hour or so set aside for nothing other than focused movement and breath.

But—once a dancer, always a dancer—as soon as I discovered 5Rhythms and YogaDance and Nia and all other forms of conscious dance, my appreciation for traditional yoga and seated meditation dwindled. After all, 5Rhythms is described as “movement meditation.” I’ve never liked sitting still. I’ve always walked around on my toes. You mean I don’t have to stay perfectly poised on my little rectangular rubber mat to get a decent mind-body-soul workout? I can leap and stomp and glide and dive into dubstep and still consider that meditation?

It felt so right, too. My hip rarely ached after a 2-hour 5Rhythms class, and I usually walked away with a pretty clear mind, too. Over time, my collection of yoga mats became like old world maps, tightly rolled up and tucked away in a corner, collecting dust.

Yoga Garden-mats

Dancing was my new yoga, my new meditation.

What I was failing to realize, though, was that the clarity and comfort attained through dancing is just simply NOT the same as that achieved through yoga and seated meditation.

Spine3

Yes, there are incredibly deep meditative moments in 5Rhythms—Stillness is almost always a time of prayer and revelation for me—but it only appears after a vigorous Wave of dancing all over the room like a lunatic. Flowing, Staccato, Chaos…they shake things up. Move the gunk and junk through the trunk. It’s a relatively active process, like water boiling on the range.

Skelton_DanceFloor3

Don’t get me wrong—I love the simmering, the vibrating H2O molecules, the hot and foamy water cascading over the side of the pot and sizzling on the stove top. That kind of transformation is necessary, changing from solid to liquid to vapor. The things I’ve learned through moving would have never presented themselves through tree pose or 20 minutes of alternate-nostril breathing.

But there’s a reason it was so easy for me to “leave” yoga and meditation: It’s hard! Remaining still, sinking into a pose, practicing patience and concentration is not easy. Because really, who actually wants to follow someone else’s direction about how long to stand on one foot when you could be dancing to the beat of your own drummer?

And that is precisely why yoga is so important: It forces us to pay attention. Be still. Listen.

When you stop doing that, things go haywire.

— You become irritable, complaining about the weather, work, anything and everything out of your control. Coworkers, who once you saw you as the “perpetual optimist,” are perplexed at these out-of-character sentiments.

— You become impatient, especially on the road, so much so that you need to squeeze a few drops of impatiens flower essence into your water bottle before hitting the highway so that you don’t grit your teeth to the gum line as you drive from Point A to Point B.

— You seethe when things don’t go your way, usually about stupid things, like a car pulling out of a driveway during your morning walk. (“God, it’s 6:30 a.m., why does THIS car have to leave RIGHT now and make me STOP?!”)

— You realize your flexibility in a simple seated forward bend is diminishing, that holding onto your ankles may be more reasonable than grasping for the toes.

At first, I requested myself to get back into yoga. Which at the time meant nothing more than doing a few paschimottanasanas and spinal twists after my morning walks.

Then, two things occurred that made me think of Mrs. Goettelmann, shifting the request into a requirement.

First, during a yoga/5Rhythms combo class to celebrate the winter solstice, I mentally fuh-reaked out during the yoga portion. I hadn’t done a group yoga class in months, and I was frustrated with the way my wonky hips wouldn’t let me shift from one pose into another. In the past, I would’ve found my own way to work through it without any problem, but that night I was so acutely aware of the discomfort and difficulty, and I HATED that everyone else was able to sit like little cross-legged Buddhas while I struggled to find a comfortable seated posture. I was angry and sad and basically lost all mental composure, feeling seconds away from bursting into tears and running out into the hallway.

As a result, I didn’t start the dancing portion on a very balanced note. In fact, I may have cried during almost all of Flowing.

Second, I got blood drawn last week. I take thyroid medication, so labwork is routine. A regular yoga practice has always helped me through these kinds of medical procedures, but this time no signs of yoga were evident. I had trouble taking deep breaths. I could feel my body temperature rise. I got panicky, feeling the need to escape. I kind of wanted to throw up. My sympathetic nervous system kicked into overdrive, despite having very easy veins and an experienced phlebotomist.

In short, the nickname my friend Carrol had once bestowed on me—ZenJen—is losing all meaning.

You know, I was a teacher’s pet back in elementary school, and I always listened to Mrs. Goettelmann. Now I realize it’s time to listen to a different kind of teacher: my body.

Jennifer, it’s time to do some yoga and meditate. That’s a requirement, not a request.

yogaart

During the 10-week tai chi series I participated in earlier this year, there were times in between practicing the previous week’s moves and learning the next one that I would ever-so-briefly slip into ballerina mode and turn the form into a dance, secretly wishing the instructor would dim the lights a bit, turn up the volume on the pan flute music, and not care that I was giving these martial arts moves a bit of rhythm and sensuality.

Tai chi is a practice of stillness, and yet the movements moved me: The extreme attention to detail, the microscopic focus, and the repetitive nature of the practice brought my mind to such a stillpoint that it became keenly aware of all the chi (energy) moving within. At times it was difficult to contain this flow of energy. It simply wanted to dance!

That’s why when I heard about a relatively new “dance meditation system” called Wu Tao—a blend of Chinese medicine, dance, and music—I agreed to go to the introductory workshop before I even really investigated what the practice was all about. A brief video on YouTube showed a medley of free-form movement and tai chi-like choreography, and that’s all I needed.

I felt very fortunate to be a part of the class, as it was one of the first offerings of Wu Tao in the United States; the practice originated in Australia, the brainchild of former ballerina Michelle Locke, who, after a back injury, went on to study Chinese medicine and healing. Wu Tao is the marriage of her two strongest passions, complemented by a third element: music to accompany the movement, composed by her husband.

Michelle described Wu Tao as a way to restore inner peace, balance, and energy (qi) in the body, and clearly the practice has had an effect on her: She came into the studio late after being gridlocked in horrendous turnpike traffic, yet somehow remained remarkably cool, calm, and collected. I couldn’t believe how such a soft and soothing voice could emerge from someone stuck behind a steering wheel for 2+ hours.

Michelle, me, and a move from the “Wood” element dance.

What makes Wu Tao stand out from other dance meditation practices is its connection to the visceral body, specifically the body’s meridian channels, pathways that run through our bodies bringing energy—qi—to our internal organs. (These meridians are the basis of acupuncture; you know, how a needle in your back can heal pain in your toe.) Each set of movements stimulates specific meridians, but in a subtle way, so you’re never really consciously thinking “large intestine, large intestine, large intestine.” You move, you breathe, and the energy transforms naturally.

Wu Tao’s movements are based on the five elements: Air, Water, Wood, Fire, and Earth; what a magic number in dance, as it reminded me so much of the energy behind 5Rhythms. The major difference, though, is that in Wu Tao each element has choreography—a “routine” so to speak—to learn, practice, and then execute with the music. It really was like a dance version of tai chi (or qi gong)—specific moves designed to keep the life force flowing, all while adding the element of music and personality.

Because it was our first time experiencing Wu Tao, we spent a lot of time learning the moves and practicing them, but experienced practitioners can complete a series in about 30 minutes, much like going through a tai chi form or surya namaskars. During the workshop, we learned and practiced the elements of:

Air: Several upward sweeping arm movements to stimulate the lungs and large intestine, all with a theme of letting go, casting away grief, shedding fear.
Water: Performed on the floor, mostly side-to-side rocking, rolling, and forward bends, all meant to stimulate the bladder and kidneys, as well as to honor our energy, rest, and allow the natural current of the water to carry us.
Wood: A dynamic set of movements to stimulate the liver and gall bladder, starting from grounding the body like tree roots to growing tall, a feeling of moving forward, direction, and purpose.

We didn’t have time to learn the final elements of Fire and Earth, but I imagine them to be very much like the rhythms of Lyrical and Stillness, respectively: Fire, a chance to come home to the heart; and Earth, a moment of being still, receptive, and finding grace.

We ended class with a guided “river” meditation, Michelle playing soothing music in the background as she encouraged us to imagine ourselves floating down a river. I have to say, this was the most vivid portion of class for me, probably because of all the work going on inside of my body after such a powerful practice. I envisioned myself dressed all in white, a kind of water-based angel flowing effortlessly down a river that twisted through snow-capped mountains and luscious green landscapes. I saw this from both a bird’s-eye view and a first-person perspective, changing focus with each bend of the waterway. It was absolutely stunning, like I was watching a painting unfold in my mind and body.

I realized after I sat up that the essence of Wu Tao emerges after the practice. Although I enjoyed doing the moves in the moment, I didn’t actually feel their full effect until I had given the newly transformed energy time to circuit through my body during the relaxation/meditation portion. It’s very much like how I feel during tai chi: sometimes not fully appreciating what I’m doing until it’s done, and then WHOOSH. A sudden feeling of inner peace.

The practice is accessible for all skill levels; moves can be modified, and Michelle even offers special classes for adults with dementia and a chair-based class for those with physical limitations. Wu Tao for Two is a specialized practice designed for couples as a way of deepening connection and spirit:

In fact, Michelle and her husband will be offering a Wu Tao for Two class this weekend at Jaya Healing Arts in Lambertville, New Jersey. It’s a sweet spot above an antiques store in a super-cutesy central Jersey town, right across the Delaware River from New Hope, Pennsylvania. (The coffee shop a few doors down offers almondmilk for your lattes…HUGE selling point, in my book!) She’s also teaching regular Wu Tao classes Monday and Wednesday July 23 and 25 at Lucky Lotus Yoga Studio in Brooklyn before heading back to Australia.

Would I do Wu Tao again? Absolutely. It requires the attention of tai chi/qi gong but with the added element of freedom to flow and infuse your own individuality, a perfect blend of healing and moving arts. And anything that can allow me to sink into such a blissful state of relaxation afterward is definitely worth pursuing.

(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 don’t meditate as much as I’d like, especially because there used to be a time when I’d allow myself a solid 15 to 30 minutes almost every night to sit. Nowadays, my meditation is much more spontaneous than it is planned, and it usually occurs after a particularly satisfying home yoga practice or dance session.

As was the case last week.

As the clock struck 5, the evening felt like anything but a time to sit still and meditate.

I stayed at work way too late–I had finished “working” at the usual time but stayed glued to my computer for an extra hour, trying to catch up on everyone’s Twitter, blogs, and Facebook. I got sucked into the social media time warp and was disgusted with myself as I drove home in the cold and darkness. When I got home, all I wanted to do was Eat All the Things! I was especially craving a big, fat vegetarian stromboli, thanks to perusing a take-out menu that had come with the day’s stash of mail. I was already in a funk; I imagined myself just caving fully into that funk, devouring my sloppy stromboli cocooned in a nest made of blankets and soft pajamas and slipper socks, an episode of my latest Netflix guilty pleasure playing on the TV screen.

For a few seconds, that vision felt wonderful. But then I got realistic.

Really? You’re going to feel better after reading stupid Facebook posts all night and then stuffing your face with a greasy pocket of cheese? Really, Jen?

Image source: Flickr, willieabrams

I actually said aloud, “Do some yoga, Jen. Just go upstairs, do some yoga, and after an hour of some deep breathing see if you really still want that stromboli.” If the desire to be a sloth for the rest of the evening was still present after yoga, I knew it was meant to be. Yoga always sets me straight.

I opted to do one of my favorite Kripalu-at-Home yoga classes, an hour of moderate vinyasa flow with Coby Kozlowski.

Coby does these beautiful arm movements during one of the most intense poses, utkatasana, and I find that throwing a bit of upper body flow into the pose makes it much softer. Also, the last time I did this class, I remember feeling a bit uncomfortable during Warrior I, which she does in traditional Kripalu fashion, with the foot facing forward, ball of the foot pressed into the mat and the heel up. This time, I moved into the more well-known Warrior I, with the entire foot pressed firmly into the mat, turned out on an angle. What a difference! I felt so much more steady and enjoyed the sequence more than I ever have. Duhhhh. Listen to your body, Jen. Just because Coby does it one way doesn’t mean you have to do exactly the same.

By the time we were on our backs for bridge pose, I was feeling pretty good. I felt present, and I was fully aware of my shoulder blades pressing evenly into the floor. I sunk easily into savasana, and when the video ended and the room became silent…

…I allowed the silence to continue.

I wanted to prolong this feeling of contentment and stillness. I felt cocooned, but not in a pajamas/blanket/pizza kind of way, but a cocoon of connection. My mind, body, breath, and brain were all connected, and, damn, it felt pretty good. Strombolis were the furthest thing from my mind.

And like that, without planning it out or setting up bolsters or timers or exotic music, I began to meditate.

I didn’t think too hard about it, and I tried not to force myself into getting into “the zone.” Many of my meditations result in me seeing a beautiful indigo glow that keeps growing and growing until I am immersed in a bubble of bluish-purple behind my closed eyes, but I didn’t want to force an outcome. I just wanted to be. I focused on my breathing, the physical sensation of air entering and leaving my nostrils.

For most of the sit, that’s all it was. My inhales and exhales. There were no colors or indigo pulses. I was OK with this. There was no chatter, and that’s all that mattered.

Then, out of nowhere, a very vivid image of an acquaintance flashed before my eyes. I rarely converse with this person, and our lives hardly intersect. But now this person was suddenly right there, in my face.

This person lives a simple, frills-free life. I know this person does not go home and stare at the computer screen, eyes glazing over from too many hours watching a Twitter feed continue to refresh. This person doesn’t get caught up in celebrity drama, fashion dos and don’ts, and all the mumbo jumbo that bombards our TV screens and radio waves. I’m pretty sure this person keeps work at work and doesn’t mentally carry home the petty woes and whining associated with a day on the job. I sometimes find myself questioning this person’s life because it just seems so…empty? Or maybe that’s MY definition of it, because my life has all these silly distractions and unnecessary, First-World mental dilemmas, like, Oh my god, I already had a Chobani at lunch; I can’t possibly get frozen yogurt later after dinner!!!!

Yet this person has the kindest smile, the softest voice, and always seems under control. Things get done, but not with teeth gritting or exasperated sighs or excessive eye-rolling. That evening as I meditated, it hit me that this person has many Buddhist qualities, a presence and peacefulness that says, “Everything is as it should be.”

Without warning, tears stung my eyes, yet before I could respond to this sudden punch of emotion, they were gone. Images of the person lingered in my brain, and for a moment I found myself wanting to embrace the qualities of this person that I so often dismiss and raise my eyebrow at. In my meditation, this person was a bodhisattva, an enlightened being, and I felt far from ever being considered the same. It gave me a new respect for this person but also disappointment in myself, and yet hope for self-improvement.

When I had first escaped upstairs to do some yoga, I never imagined I’d be coming back downstairs with a satisfying yoga and meditation session completed, a newfound and oddly deep appreciation for a semi-stranger, and a stirring connection with the elements of Buddhism.

The desire for the stromboli and a TV date with Netflix had passed, and instead I made myself a simple egg and cheese sandwich with a side of clementines, and sat down at the kitchen table to read the newspaper.

I feel like I should have a little check-in with myself every month to review where I am with my yoga practice; in short, Am I doing it?

I rarely go to studio classes anymore, for many reasons: (a) I feel like I know enough to guide myself through a practice; (b) sometimes class times don’t jive well with my work/commute schedule; (c) I’m annoyingly picky about studio temperature/teachers’ voices/teachers’ word choices (i.e., “goddess,” “divine,” and any talk of angels will have me squirming in my savasana); and (d) I’m self-conscious about my hip and the fact that sometimes I have to stop what I’m doing and jostle my leg around to snap it back into place…and sometimes that takes quite a few jostles.

The one exception I made, starting back in October, was to sign up for a 5-week kundalini yoga series. I knew the teacher from a tai chi series I took two years ago, and she is very accommodating to injuries/limitations/modifications, as she herself has faced several physical challenges. I told her straight off about my hip and how I’d be using blankets to prop me up and may have to stop every so often for the jostling, all of which she was totally cool with. I was so happy when she guided us through frog squats but made a point to demonstrate that one doesn’t have to go all the way down to the floor and can simply hold onto their calves.

I was glad that I had registered and paid for the class beforehand, which kept me from bailing out. The class didn’t start until 7:30 p.m., and at times I struggled leaving the house after it was dark outside and I felt settled in for the night. Fortunately, the studio is less than 10 minutes from home, so I never felt like it was a burden to drive to class. Another plus: I always, always, ALWAYS left class feeling a million times better than when I started. I’m sure my husband noticed that the cool-as-a-cucumber woman who entered the front door at 9 p.m. was not the same as the one who trudged out at 7:15.

We started every class with an aura-strengthening kriya, which the teacher recommended doing every day, not only to keep our physical self healthy but our energetic body as well. I took her words to heart and have started every morning with the set, especially because I find there is a lot of negative energy floating around this time of year, with harried holiday shoppers, disgruntled cashiers, and many meet-ups with friends and family who may be energy vampires. Also, on a physical level, ’tis the season for unwanted germs!

Over the course of the 5 weeks, we also practiced the “Sa Ta Na Ma” meditation for 12 minutes; the “Breath to do when you don’t know what to do” (inhale thru nose, exhale thru nose; inhale thru mouth, exhale thru mouth; inhale thru nose, exhale thru mouth; inhale thru mouth, exhale thru nose); a Celtic energy clearing (while standing, wave hands above head, over heart, over stomach, in front of knees, behind knees); and a gong meditation, first to a recording of a gong, then later to an actual gong. I found that the gong meditation really stirred up some stuff inside of me, because at times it was really, really loud, maddening, almost. It was chaos in my mind, and I found myself wanting to scream along with the jarring sounds, not because it bothered me but because it was just stirring up some residual emotions. But then when the gong slowed and became soft, so did I. It was interesting to fluctuate between the two very different sounds.

I loved everything about the series and only wished it were a permanent class. I was really bummed when the 5 weeks were over, but I try to do a little kundalini every morning after waking up.

***

During the process of writing about my Kripalu experience, I began to crave more Kripalu-based classes. I wrote about finding a Kripalu class on YouTube, and then shortly after that I found the actual Kripalu-at-Home website, which offers videos of 7 different, full-length yoga classes.

I had done Devarshi’s moderate/vigorous one previously, and I’ve since tried Megha’s gentle class (a little too introductory for me, but probably great for beginners; also just wonderful to hear Megha’s voice again!); Jurian’s moderate class (her theatrical voice is perfect for leading class; fun practice, but so glad I was in my living room because there was a lot of hip-jostling going on); and Coby’s moderate vinyasa flow (REALLY loved this one, especially her utkatasana series). Others available but that I haven’t tried yet are Sudha’s restorative class and two vigorous classes, one from Danny and the other by Jovinna. Coby’s class is my go-to video when I’ve looking for a flowing practice, and if I crave a little more power, I just throw in my own chaturangas in between the planks and downdogs.

In fact, I practiced with Coby this morning, when, after waking up late and doing some stretching in the living room, out of nowhere I felt the urge to do a full practice. I actually put off from drinking my morning coffee for an hour so I could take class! That says something!

***

As I wrote previously, November also marked a yoga workshop with Rudy Peirce. I’ll admit, it was nice to be in a studio setting and work with others, especially a workshop setting where things are more hands-on and instructive. Even better was meditating with others, because otherwise it’s so hard to sit still! I bought one of Rudy’s gentle yoga CDs so I could take home the experience, and I also bought a new yoga mat to replace the Gaiam one that I keep slipping and sliding on. Several months ago I had posted about the quest for a new mat, and several people commented about the wonders of Jade. This studio happened to specialize in them, so I picked out my favorite color (red) and brought the new guy home with me.

The studio owner warned me that it would need to “air out” for a while to get rid of the rubbery (not chemical) smell. Boy, was he right! I’ve been airing it out for about 3 weeks and it finally seems ready to use. Not that I couldn’t have used it earlier, but the thing made the entire living room smell like new tires.

***

Finally, although this type of yoga doesn’t require a mat, I spent two Thursdays in November participating in the final two practice teach classes of YogaDance teacher-in-training, Nikki (who actually is now a full-fledged Let Your Yoga Dance teacher; she graduated this past Friday!). Nikki deviated from her prescribed class outline during the final class and taught something she created herself instead, and the authenticity showed! I didn’t realize that her previous classes were not her own (the outline was chosen for her), because she did so well leading them. However, when she taught a class full of music and choreography that was her own, her true spirit emerged, and it was so fun to be a part of this creative awakening. She has plans to eventually teach a weekly YogaDance class at a nearby studio, and I hope I can be a part of it. YogaDance reminds us that yoga doesn’t always have to be about sun salutations and downdogs; it’s about taking time to connect body and breath, movement and spirit.

…That said, I do like the way that hatha yoga stretches and strengthens, and I would like to incorporate that a little more into my life. We’ll see during the next yoga update if I managed to do that in December!

It feels like it was forever and a day ago, but last month I had the opportunity to take a 2-day yoga workshop with one of my main facilitators from my Kripalu yoga teacher training, Rudy Peirce.

During my month at Kripalu, we were introduced to a wide range of teachers and variations on the Kripalu style, but it was always after Rudy’s classes that I felt the most content, still, and focused. We meditated a lot during those 28 days, but I felt like I always sunk just a little deeper when Rudy was at the front of the room. Rudy is also a master at offering modifications and adjustments, and although I jotted them down in my notebook during my training, their importance was never a great as they are now, when I am constantly looking for ways to make certain postures accessible in light of my hip limitations.

Five years after my training, I consulted with the universe in perhaps meeting up again with Rudy, and the universe answered by bringing Rudy to a yoga studio 45 minutes from my house.

It was a Big Deal for me to attend the workshop, because it meant I’d have to drive–by myself–out of my comfort zone, on unfamiliar roads and highways that kind of scare me (for no reason). This is usually the dealbreaker for me and out-of-town events, but there was no way I could ignore this awesome act of synchronicity. I printed out directions from Google Maps, slapped my husband’s GPS on my dashboard, and set out on the road. My first commute on Saturday was a bit hairy, because my directions led me through a not-so-nice part of Philadelphia. Fortunately, before I went home that evening, the ever-so-gracious owner of The Yoga Garden studio sat down with me and mapped out a way-friendlier route, which I used the following day and arrived without a hitch. Thank you x 1,000,000, Mark!

(By the way? The Yoga Garden is such a fantastic place! I wish I lived closer because I would love to have it as my “home base” studio. Everything from the entranceway to the bathrooms to the lobby was so perfectly zen and aesthetically pleasing. It definitely helped to walk into such a pleasant environment after sweating through a nervewracking drive.)

I saw Rudy in the lobby before class, and he swore that he remembered me from back in 2006 (apparently my last name runs in his family as well). In case he forgot what cohort I was with, I brought along this photo of all the teachers/assistants from Fall 2006:


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

I didn’t know it coming in, but Saturday’s class was a backbend workshop. I thought it was going to be a general yoga class, and when I found out I got nervous–but for all the reasons why such a class would benefit me: I feel stiffness in my thoracic region, standing backbends don’t come so easily to me anymore, my lumbar spine aches at times. But Rudy’s approach to exploring backbends is slow, simple, and mindful, meaning no Wheel or anything crazy within the first hour of class. We did a lot of warm-ups, several forward bends followed by rising to standing via a straight spine, rather than rolling up. Rudy’s instruction was to “bend the knees, take the curve out of the spine, and come up straight,” as he noted that “rolling up” and stacking the vertebrae can cause strain over time and sometimes is just plain old dangerous for older people with aging spines.

We rose up from every forward bend by either rising the arms overhead or elongating them in a T position out to our sides, palms up, lifting sternum, pressing pubic bone forward, and tilting the head back while gazing to the ceiling in a slight backbend. The first time I did this I felt so stiff, but after several rounds, this move felt delicious. I found myself wanting to hold the backbend for just a little longer, plus I was actually breathing in the bend, something that is usually difficult for me. No longer did my inhalations stop once I dropped the head back.

We did some work with Eagle arms too, which I think really helped work some kinks out of my trapezius and neck. Even though most of us could wrap the arms in Eagle without assistance, we used a yoga strap to hold the arms, which took away any excess strain and helped us focus on our backbends. Pressing the hands to forehead, we went from a backbend to a forward bend, while still holding the arms in Eagle. Have I ever done a forward bend with Eagle arms?? I don’t even know, but it felt great. (Side note: Since this workshop, I’ve incorporated some Eagle arm stretches into my post-swim workouts.)

I knew Camel was coming eventually. When I think of Camel, my mind goes back to Bikram class, when Camel kinda feels like sh*t. But here, we did a lot of prep work leading up to the full pose, including a “Camel dance” (bring right hand to right heel, rise, left hand to left heel, rocking back and forth with breath) and then a one-sided Camel during which the right hand comes to right heel, opposite arm extended up, pubic bone pressing forward, slight backbend. Repeat on opposite side, and continue side to side in your own flow. I tried some prop assistance during this pose, including placing a cushion on my calves instead of reaching all the way down to my heels and then placing a blanket under my feet to raise the heels closer to my hands. Of course, there’s also the option of placing blocks between your feet, but I really liked the cushion-on-the-calves modification. By the time we got to the full expression of the pose, I was fully alive. Gone are my visions of puke-inducing Camel!

Some other modification pointers I took home with me were really, really simple (like, Why didn’t I think of that on my own?!). One is placing a folded blanket under the hands during table pose. I’ve seen the folded-mat variation of this before, but I like this option because it doesn’t shorten your mat. Another was placing a rolled-up yoga mat long-ways across your knees during seated meditation to allow the hands to rest comfortably on the knees. I especially liked this one because I generally sit in hero pose for meditation, and I’ve found it difficult to find a comfortable/natural place for my hands to lie. The yoga-mat option allows my hands to rest beyond my knees as though I were sitting in sukhasana.

As expected with any Kripalu class, we ended with pranayama. I was so excited to be led through kapalabhati with retention, something I learned at Kripalu and never saw after that. Yet it is so invigorating! Rudy also led single-nostril kapalabhati, in which we did 20 expulsions on one side, 20 on the other, and then alternating-nostril kapalabhati. Yowzas! My brain felt cleared of any junk, and my body tingled with oxygenation.

Rudy closed class with his usual “Hari Om, shanti, shanti, peace, peace,” which brought a smile to my lips. I hadn’t heard his voice utter those words since 2006, and it reminded me of Kripalu and the time when one of my classmates asked him what “hari” meant, to which Rudy had replied, “It means Yay!” 🙂

After class, I hung around to talk with Rudy’s wife, Joyce, who had tagged along as his assistant/sidekick. She is a dancer herself, and we spent some time talking about the challenges of being trained in dance/flexibility yet never in strength, as well as the challenges of carrying the “teacher” label and finding a balance between being a student and leader. It was comforting to learn that Joyce also struggled in adapting to being a “teacher” and how it tarnished the innocent love and fascination of yoga that came along with just being a student. And why is there always a tug to become a teacher? Can’t one just be a lifelong student? Why is there a guilt that comes along with practicing yoga for oneself? My husband runs four times a week but is not going out to become a track coach or personal trainer. Is it something about being a woman that makes us feel guilty for being just a tad selfish? Or perhaps it’s the huge sense of responsibility that Kripalu places on its trainees, that Here is this gift. Now it’s your mission to spread it to others. It is something Joyce and I both still struggle with, but it was so reassuring to talk with someone who understands. (This all reminds me of a woman who led belly dance classes at my gym. She always said, “I don’t like to say that I ‘teach.’ I’m not a guru or anything. I prefer to say that I ‘share.’ I just take what I love to do and share it with others.” I love that mentality! It feels so much less burdensome to say “I’m going to share some yoga with others” rather than “teach.”)

Yogas Citta Vritti Nirodhah

(Yoga is the cessation of the modifications of the mind; yoga is the cessation of thought forms in the field on consciousness; yoga is to still the patterns of consciouness) ~Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, 1.2

I returned to The Yoga Garden on Sunday for Rudy’s meditation workshop. The first half of class was a lot of yoga philosophy and talk, much of which I learned at Kripalu. However, Rudy has such a mellow voice that just listening to him induces a peaceful, meditative state. I swear, he could be talking about burgers and I could drift into a wonderful meditation.

Rudy summed up the act of meditation like this: The mind is a media center–movies, slides, songs, photos, memories, books–more channels than cable. Meditation is stepping back and seeing that it’s all just a movie, that you don’t have to be actively engaged in all these media swirling around your neural circuits.

We reviewed the three main components of meditation:
Dharana: Concentration on one point.
Dhyana: Witnessing (dropping preferences, evaluation, and identification with thoughts).
Samadhi: No differentiation of pain and pleasure (non-dual awareness).

Unfortunately, Samadhi was nowhere to be found for me that afternoon. I made the mistake of starting my meditation sit in sukhasana, which my hips were not pleased with. By the time I made the effort to shift positions, my entire left leg from my sacrum down to the toes was asleep and tingling in pain. I tried to breathe through the discomfort, and by the time I settled into a space of ease, our time was up and we emerged out of meditation. Needless to say, my mind never really escaped the “media center” mentality; however, I did learn that just because everyone else in the class is sitting in one position does not mean I have to do the same, especially when I know that it will eventually cause pain! I totally, totally knew this going into the sit, but I succumbed to “peer pressure,” just wanting to be like everyone else.

So, not the best meditation ever, but I still left the studio feeling pretty mellow and chill, a perfect way to commemorate the anniversary of my training with Rudy on the same weekend I graduated from the program 5 years ago.

2006

2011, Super Serious

2011, Smiles!

(And yes, the head scarf I’m wearing in 2006 is the one I’m wearing around my neck in 2011. I bought it during my YTT, so I consider it my “Kripalu scarf”!)

By the time this is posted on Saturday, I will be in Pennsylvania for what is shaping up to be one of the most coincidental full circles of my life.

On this weekend back in 2006, as I have been documenting so fastidiously, I was saying goodbye to Kripalu and my yoga teacher training family, which included facilitator Rudy Peirce. Today, I will be returning to Rudy, exactly five years after he pressed sandalwood on my forehead and acknowledged me as certified yoga instructor.

The way this all unfolded tickled my soul and reinforced my belief in universal connectedness, that somewhere under all the muck and distraction and chaos of everyday life there is an energetic hum that we all sing and dance to.

One month ago, when I started the process of transcribing my notes from Kripalu, the more and more I re-visited that time and place, the more my respect and admiration for Rudy grew. He was one of the two main facilitators for my program; Megha Buttenheim was the other. As a pair, they have been described as yin and yang, Tigger (Megha) and Eeyore (Rudy), due to their opposing personalities. When Megha bounced, Rudy sat still in meditation. When Megha belted out songs and chants, Rudy sang with a simple, subtle voice.

Megha (Tigger)

Rudy (Eeyore)

With Megha being a dancer, I naturally gravitated toward her as my “favorite” of the two, although looking back at my journal notes now it’s obvious that every asana practice, meditation, and pranayama exercise that Rudy led affected me deeply. My consciousness soared to new heights with Rudy leading a meditation, and my lungs danced to his breathwork instruction.

Rudy is known for his gentle approach to yoga; in fact, his nickname is “The Gentle Yogi.” Kripalu yoga in general stresses the importance of adapting or modifying poses to be accessible for all bodies, abilities, and limitations. I feel that Rudy, however, goes the extra mile to make sure that even if you’re using two blocks, a blanket, and a bolster to get into a pose that you’re experiencing and living the pose, not just struggling with some props while everyone else around you has some amazing transformation while in folded picture-perfectly in pigeon. Transformation is for everyone, and there are all different routes to get there. Rudy makes sure that happens, not only through his words and instruction but simply his overall demeanor of compassion and reverence.

I didn’t realize how important this was until my hips started to get all funky two years ago due to some torn cartilage and an unstable sacrum. Poses that were once “regulars” in my yoga repertoire suddenly became painful, uncomfortable, or simply inaccessible. It was at this point I understood why I had gone to Kripalu; if not to teach yoga to others, then to teach myself. To be able to go to classes and find other routes into a pose or alternatives altogether. To create a home practice with modifications and poses that may not look “normal” but still allow me to sink into satisfaction. To remember that when my body doesn’t want to flow, I can still achieve peace of mind through meditation and breathing. My Kripalu training has always served me well, but it wasn’t until I recently began re-reading my journal from that time that it finally dawned on me just how important Rudy was in the overall picture.

I would love to take class with Rudy again, I thought to myself a few weeks ago after transcribing a journal entry. I don’t think I gave him my full appreciation at the time. I thumbed through the most recent Kripalu catalog to see if he’d be leading any workshops in the winter. He was, but I don’t even know why I looked in the first place. Kripalu costs money. Kripalu in the winter may require 4-wheel drive. Kripalu requires vacation days that I don’t have right now.

Two days later, I logged into my long-abandoned Yahoo! account to resolve a pestering e-mail issue. There, among the 200+ e-mails (mostly spam) was a newsletter from Rudy I had signed up long ago to receive. It announced his workshops at Kripalu ($$), a special yoga retreat in Italy ($$$$), and…wait, what? A weekend workshop in suburban Philadelphia, the Philadelphia that lies 30 minutes from my house?? A studio I can access simply by car and $5 for the bridge toll, not a 5-hour road trip into the potentially snowy Berkshire Mountains or a trans-Atlantic flight to Europe?

Needless to say, the universe was speaking to me, and I signed up. It was only recently I realized the workshop coincides with the 5-year anniversary of me saying goodbye to Kripalu. Today, I will return—not to the physical structure of Kripalu, but rather the spirit within its walls and the energy that emanates outward. Today, the circle becomes complete.

Five years ago on this day, I stare at a flickering votive candle during meditation, my mind becoming absorbed in this tiny flame’s uncontrolled, wild, uninhibited dance. I mourn for the flame–boundless, quick, graceful, chaotic, yet attached to its umbilical wick, a prisoner. I know this is its natural state, that a flame cannot exist without a source, but I keep staring at the yellow gypsy, wishing it freedom, wishing to see it break away from its tether and whirl off into space. Perhaps, though, it’s OK to be wild, elegant, chaotic, and uninhibited while still holding on–but holding onto the Source, the Self, the wax and wick, the divine. It’s OK to dance with a partner and to still dance freely with your own breath. I look to that tiny flame for inspiration, for understanding. I don’t need to detach myself completely from everything and everyone–I just need to find the proper wick, the connection that allows the heat, the burn, the dance to continue.

***

The above journaling came as a result of morning sadhana with Larissa, a class that ended up being very, very peaceful and meditative. We enter the room to find Larissa, dressed all in white, surrounded by 60-some votive candles, flickering in the morning darkness and illuminating Shiva more than ever. Each of us takes a candle back to our mats, and there we meditate on the flame. When I close my eyes and go inward, the bright flame turns to a deep purple button, throbbing in my third eye. I love watching its dance externally and then seeing its shadow as I closed my eyes.

We do minimal asana, but Larissa has us go into utkatasana for about 3 minutes, being still, doing kapalabhati, bouncing lightly, and finally releasing the pose inch by inch. We immediately go into tadasana, holding our arms overhead for what feels like 5 minutes. She reminds us that we aren’t hurting ourselves–our circulatory system will still be able to bring blood back into our arms. Find our edge and inch our way beyond. Inner exploration isn’t about staying where you are, but testing the waters. Invite these new sensations into our body, breathe into them, find an inner stillness even among all the heat and chaos.

The prana effect of that holding is delicious, and Stage 3 could not come quick enough. After that, everything feels incredible. It’s 7:15 a.m. and I am ON, I think. We do a variation of nadi shodhana (fingers on third eye and breathe in and out of one nostril only, switching halfway through), which balanced me wonderfully, and I floated down into meditation without hesitation.

***

It looks like rain today, but right now the clouds linger over the mountains, cool air (not cold), the trees really naked now, a giant black crow squawking on a tree on the patio. It’s hard to believe that right now, 8:40 a.m. on Thursday morning, November 16, I am essentially a certified yoga teacher. That I just embarked on and survived a month away from everything familiar, a brand new learning experience, a whole new course of living and learning. I studied, practiced, dreamed, wept, had fun, had frustration and somehow got rewarded for it all. If only all learning and education could be as fulfilling and hearty. I am getting a certificate for learning to be myself and find safety and security within myself and community. I get a certificate for taking what I love, wanting to spread it out to the world, and learning how to do so. I am so blessed to be rewarded for just wanting to be.

***

We are told not to come into Shadowbrook until instructed, and a colorful sign on the closed doors tells us to have either clean feet or a pair of socks, two cushions, a blanket, and a partner. R. asks to be my partner, and I say yes. Megha sneaks out the door, giddy as a child, telling us that she feels like a kid on Christmas Day, eager to share that one present with that one special person. Inside our room is a circle of purple yoga blocks, an elegant Stonehenge of sorts, different levels of towering blocks, each tower with a votive candle on top, each stack dressed up with a colorful scarf.

We set ourselves up around the “alter,” foot massages with the receiver on her back, feet draped over the  giver’s crossed legs, a cushion between back and root chakra. Tenderness. Face and neck massage, a candle swirled around the receiver’s supine body, the warmth and light penetrating the koshas, delving deep into the intuitive and mental bodies. We are asked to speak…What does yoga mean to me?

It’s the same question we were asked on our first day here, the question that seemed to definite and easy and black and white. I realize now that asking me to define yoga is like asking a Christian to define God, a spouse to define love. I can give examples (“Love is snugging in bed”), but the true, the black-and-white dictionary definition is impossible for me to discover. Yoga is moving from the inside out. Once, I used to dance from the outside in. The costumes, the lights, the audience–they were my stimuli, and I reacted. The external is what fueled the internal. Now, the opposite is the case. I feel my heart and soul quake; therefore, I move, I dance.

Yoga is union, connectedness, oneness. I am that I am, but I am also that of him, and her, and them, and they. I studied creative writing for four years, yet yoga has no words to describe fully. I write, but I have no words. I am empty, full, so full, bursting, but so empty and vast.

We engage in meditation-in-motion, one person acting as the Witness Consciousness, as the other sinks into dance and movement. R. is beautiful, dancing with nature, playing and pulsing with the earth and sky, vibrating with the Earth. I feel intrusive again, being involved in such a profound, personal movement. I feel choked up. In the distance, someone cries, loudly. Sobbing. It is a gorgeous soundtrack. I don’t recall my meditation-in-motion too much, but I didn’t use a mat, and it felt great. I rolled on the ground, caressed, stroked, flowed here and there, in and out, up and down. I recall lots of pelvis motion into the ground, lots of finger twirling, fingers and feet flexing and pointing. I have a deep connection to m hips and knees, and I find myself hugging them close quote often during Stage 3 experiences. The moment is elegant, soft, loud, and pulsing. Always a paradox, always a dance of polarities.

R. looks me in the eye afterward and tells me: “You are grace.”

To close the experience, we sing our student-teacher mantra, and it is both filmed and recorded. I can’t hold back the emotion. We are not loud, but we are strong. Our voices are buoyant, heavenly, beyond this world. Our final Om is _______. No words. Its sound fills me up like a helium balloon. I feel expanded, full, ready to float to the sky.

***

In the cafeteria, I witness one of the control/operations employees embrace an individual with what looks like retardation and maybe cancer. He/she (it’s hard to tell) is bald. The embrace this man gives is so sincere, so intentional. I watch his fingers wrap around this person, each finger’s motion a slow and tender touch. His one hand just danced a dance of a thousand words.

Five years ago on this day, I wake up from a dream about spiders and Kripalu. Morning sadhana is with Roger, a slow but stretchy class. Delicious, very spine-soaking. It felt like it was a 2-hour class, but I could have gone on forever.

Posture clinic with shoulderstand and fish. After Rudy demonstrates sarvangasana, Megha put on some “upside down” song, and we did a pantomime dance on our mats. “I spend more time planning goofball things to do in between sessions rather than the program itself,” she jokes.

Megha, the goofball guru

***

We do a 15-minute meditation with Rudy, during which I have a sudden flash of that icky spider dream. I hadn’t remembered it until then. A huge, black tarantula dangling off my hand. Aside from that, meditation felt great. I need that still time. I hear my cracks and pops as I settle and calm down. It is sunny and warm today. In the sun it feels like 65 degrees. Feeling better.

I eat lunch outside, soaking up the sun and warmth, eating my Asian tofu stir-fry with J. Amazing. The trees are almost bare, but it is spring weather. I didn’t even need a jacket. Afterward, I call Reservations and extend my stay by a day. I’m now leaving November 18, a Saturday, which means I can do one final DansKinetics! I figured that instead of losing both my friends and surroundings at once, I’ll take it in steps. I think making that decision put me in much better spirits.

***

Jurian’s birthday is today, the third during the program. We sing the Birthday Song in a round: “We wish you a happy birthday; A joyous and celebrated birthday; Our dear friend Jurian, May you have a long, long life!”

Jen 'n' Jurian, birds of paradise

We also find out that the Marketing and Development department, whose office is right behind our program room, loves our singing and has expressed interest in recording us to make a CD!

During posture clinic in the afternoon, Megha lets us go outside to soak up the sun. Sometimes we feel like little kids, being let loose, recess. It was only five minutes, but what a relief from gomukhasana and paripuna navasana.

***

Evening sadhana is with Larissa, who kicked our asses and got a lot of us fuming about what is Kripalu yoga and what is boot camp yoga. Her bhastrika breath nearly blew us away…and kind of scared us, too.

***

Angela Farmer is still here–still very royally intimidating. She just owns this place. If she looks at you, you feel like she’s looking through your soul. Every move is deliberate.

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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