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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.

When I first sat down to write this post, the phrase that initially came to mind was a variation of the classic line from The Sixth Sense:

“I see dead people.”

Except in my case, the unusual phenomenon I experience is nowhere near as spooky as Haley Joel Osment’s, only occurs during highly meditative experiences (usually moving/dancing), and the people I see are bursting with life.

Skelton_DanceFloor2

In short, when I am immersed for long stretches of time in meditative activity with other people (e.g., a 3-day 5Rhythms workshop), the faces of those with whom I am moving/dancing/flowing/growing begin to fill my mind whenever I close my eyes. Sometimes it happens when I’m dancing, sometimes during meditation, and almost always occurs in those few moments before falling asleep at night.

It’s a bit like watching a movie but feels more personal, that I am not just an observer but a participant as well. It’s not intrusive at all; in fact, it feels comforting, like I have bits and pieces of each and every one of my classmates downloaded inside of me.

However, before I continue, let me refer you to some previous posts in which I describe these experiences.

Last summer, during a day-long workshop with 5Rhythms teacher Rivi Diamond, this happened near the end of the class:

“I experienced a brief sensation of aloneness as I walked through a ‘graveyard’ of bodies, people spread out in various shapes of savasana. It was as though everyone’s old self was dying, melting into the earth, and I was joining them in this passage. It was a bit sad, but when I closed my eyes I saw all of my classmates’ faces so vividly, each of them crying along with me. It may sound mournful to have that kind of vision, but it was actually an uplifting one, a bit of an energetic reminder that everyone hurts, everyone cries, everyone needs each other.”

During my month at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health for the 200-hour yoga teacher training, I had all kinds of intense visualizations during savasana and meditation:

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

“How many times have I lay in savasana, and this is the first time I get this wild sensation of simultaneous rising and falling, the soft earth greeting my back with a gentle nudge. I sink and the whole class sinks with me, my friends, all gently sliding into the ground…. At the end of meditation, we chant Om, and I envision our entire class in white clothing. As the sound swells, I so briefly and vividly feel like we’re back in the ashram, our gurus at the front. It’s very beautiful.” (source)

Now, I am a writer and have been told I have a very vivid imagination, but I honestly believe these are more than simply illustrations I have consciously planted in my mind. I don’t “conjure up” these experiences; they just happen. I don’t rest my head on my pillow at night and actively direct my brain to recount all the people I have danced with. I close my eyes, and—like a flip book—I see Christina shaking in Chaos, Rebekah swinging her hair around in Flowing, Lana lying in Stillness.

It’s almost as though my brain has been “uploading” media files all day; closing my eyes is the time for the files to play back.

Very often, I can feel this “uploading” process take place. It usually takes a few hours of movement and almost always happens during the Lyrical portion of a 5Rhythms class. I go from feeling me to feeling everyone. My eyes lift from the floor, and suddenly the people I’ve been dancing with are no longer bodies with names but rather energy with faces, and I feel amazingly connected to everyone in the room, even people who might otherwise rub me the wrong way.

It’s usually at this point I stop dancing and begin weaving in and out of the group or around the room, my eyes locking on every face I pass, my arms instinctively rising upward, my palms widening as though to collect every morsel of electric energy that is crackling in the air.

Each time my eyes gaze into another pair, there’s a little energetic camera shutter-like “snap,” that person’s image and energy being stored in my circuitry. Shortly after that, the images go from sharp to blurry, almost as if to say, “There is no separation between us. We are all one.”

Sometimes I’ll even feel like I’m embodying others. I remember one time I swung my loose hair around but “saw” my classmate’s face instead of my own underneath all that hair.

Other times my classmates become hybrids of each other. I specifically remember one moment in Stillness—I was in such a deep meditation—that in my mind’s eye the person I was dancing with had the face of one man but the clothes and mannerisms of another.

And here’s an even more curious phenomenon: There have been times after class when I see the silhouette of a classmate but the “face” my brain is trying to pin on the shadow keeps morphing. I logically know I am looking at Person A, but the face my eyes keep trying to see in the dark changes from Person A to Person B to Person C, almost like Person A is embodying everyone else, too!

The one thing I’ve noticed is that for these experiences to occur, I must be engaging in some kind of prolonged meditative work. And that’s why these “visions” don’t freak me out or make me question my sanity, because they only happen when I am in a heightened state of consciousness. Believe me, I don’t go home every day and see my coworkers’ faces behind my eyelids, although it would be nice to experience my colleagues on that kind of universal level.

Another thing that reassures me that I’m not nuts is Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk. Taylor is a neuroanatomist who suffered a stroke and—because of her insight and knowledge about the brain—was able to track as much of the experience as possible, as it was unfolding. In her talk, she describes the two hemispheres of the brain. The left, whose purpose is to function in the “I” voice, and then the right, which is focused on the “we”:

“Our right hemisphere, it thinks in pictures and it learns kinesthetically through the movement of our bodies. Information in the form of energy streams in simultaneously through all of our sensory systems. And then it explodes into this enormous collage of what this present moment looks like…. I am an energy being connected to the energy all around me through the consciousness of my right hemisphere. We are energy beings connected to one another through the consciousness of our right hemispheres as one human family. And right here, right now, all we are brothers and sisters on this planet, here to make the world a better place. And in this moment we are perfect. We are whole. And we are beautiful.”

When I heard her describe this, I nearly burst into tears. I felt like she was describing all of my dance/yoga/meditation experiences!

Taylor’s stroke was a huge physical setback, but those hours in which her left brain shut off and her right hemisphere took over contributed to a monumental spiritual and emotional awakening that set the course for her recovery:

“I realized ‘But I’m still alive! I’m still alive and I have found Nirvana. And if I have found Nirvana and I’m still alive, then everyone who is alive can find Nirvana.’ I picture a world filled with beautiful, peaceful, compassionate, loving people who knew that they could come to this space at any time. And that they could purposely choose to step to the right of their left hemispheres and find this peace. And then I realized what a tremendous gift this experience could be, what a stroke of insight this could be to how we live our lives. And it motivated me to recover.”

My faces, my visions, my “uploads,” my video montages are all small reminders that we don’t need to have a stroke to experience at least a little part of what Taylor was describing.

How fortunate that I can understand this Nirvana that she speaks of, and that I can get halfway there through the right combination of movement, mindfulness, and meditation.

Sky mosaic

I’d love to hear from people who experience similar (or totally different!) visions during this kind of work. Please share your stories in the comments!

“This is hard, and I need help.”

Those are the words that were speaking deep in my solar plexus on December 21 this past year as I stood in Warrior I during a special winter solstice yoga/dance class combo, my wonky hip feeling especially out of sorts, my heart racing from the frustration of not being able to glide effortlessly through asanas, my monkey mind blasting full volume about how I have fallen hard off the yoga bandwagon.

I kept envisioning the 5-yoga-classes-per-week Jennifer circa 2006, the one with smooth, in tact cartilage in her hip joints and hamstrings that stretched like rubber bands. This 2012 body didn’t match up, partially because of injury, partially due to neglect.

Either way, the frustration that was stemming from being aware of how critical my lack-of-yoga situation had become—the frustration that had me “feeling seconds away from bursting into tears and running out into the hallway”—was both screaming between my ears (“WAHHHHH!!! I hate yoga anyway, it’s stupid to stand in one posture when I could be dancing instead!!”) and whispering to my heart:

“This is an important practice, Jennifer. It has gotten hard. It is time to ask for help.”

As if on cue, as I discussed my frustration after class with the yoga instructor, she embraced me with her soft and nurturing eyes (yes, I did just say that her eyes embraced me; that is how comforting her gaze is, like a thick and woolly winter sweater) and said, well, Why don’t you come to me some time for a private lesson, and I’ll help you through some of those physical and emotional blocks?

The polite person in me nodded thoughtfully, smiled in agreement: Sure, Yeah, Good Idea, Why Not? But the stubborn and scared person—the one who had JUST privately acknowledged her need for help—shook with resistance internally: No way! How could I allow someone to see me so vulnerable?!

And it wasn’t just anyone. The instructor, Lana Jaclyn, was my dance buddy. We see each other all the time. We had actually crossed paths several years ago practicing yoga at a small-town studio. I didn’t want someone who saw me do straddles and splits and stuff see me in this new tight and wobbly state.

Also, um, I’m technically a certified yoga instructor myself! I went to Kripalu for a month! I have a training manual and certificate! Shouldn’t I be able to help myself? Shouldn’t I instinctively know the tools to recover from this state of yoga desperation?

I sat on Lana’s offer for almost two months. I would like to say that Brené Brown’s TED Talk about vulnerability was what finally pushed me into scheduling an appointment, but the truth is I didn’t see her presentation until just recently, but boy, can I relate!

Living in a state of shame would get me nowhere. “Courage” wasn’t about pulling myself up by the bootstraps, busting out my yoga teacher training notes, and fighting through it myself; courage was embracing imperfection. Being seen, struggles and all.

I had grown to prefer bigger yoga classes recently because I could “hide,” disappear in the crowd if I had to stop and jiggle my leg or take a moment to lie on my back and let my sacrum pop, and now here is I was, in Lana’s home studio, just her and me.

There was nowhere to hide.

However, within moments, as I settled into the session with my legs on the wall in viparita karani, I began to realize this wasn’t such a bad thing. When Lana suggested I slide my legs outward into a V position and I could only go so far before my hip started to hurt … that’s where we stopped. She didn’t make me hold it for a long time.

And when I stepped out of a lunge and felt the usual twinge in my hip joint, I could stop, do my trademark leg jiggle, and continue where we left off. I didn’t feel like I was breaking the flow of someone else’s class. I wasn’t distracting my neighbor. I didn’t have to worry about being three poses behind what the teacher was leading.

Best of all, I was beginning to notice that good ol’ zen feeling emerge, something that yoga hadn’t brought me in a long time. Instead of grinding my teeth, I was enjoying each moment of somatic exploration. I was breeeeeeathing instead of feeling like my lungs were going to pop.

(Confession: I have never been able to properly do ujayii breath until now [yes, even at Kripalu I faked my way through it]—Lana wouldn’t give up on me until I got it right. Man, now I finally know why that pranayama is so calming!)

Of course, with a private class, all of the movements are going to be tailored to the individual. Not having to worry “OMG, I hope she doesn’t do pigeon, please don’t do hip-based stuff for the next 10 minutes!” took a LOAD off my mind.

And even with postures that put minimal stress on my hip, such as a low lunge, Lana had my back. Literally. She straddled me with her knees pressed against my hips, rolled my shoulders back, and molded her body into mine in a way that gave me full experience of the posture.

She did this assist in bow pose … lord, it almost brought me to tears. I haven’t been able to rise that high in years, and the stretch in my back felt like some kind of spinal orgasm. If my back could speak, it would have been squealing “Yes, yes, YES!!!”

During my downdogs, Lana noticed I was sinking into my shoulders and worked with me again and again until I kept a flat back. (This work helped IMMENSELY with the trapezius pain I had been experiencing.)

To build my core strength (and thus help my hip), we worked with a sphinx-based core lift that looked super easy but was a struggle for me (thus showing how badly I needed it). I now believe the solution to all of life’s problems is to simply tuck the tailbone.

Tears flowed freely from my eyes during savasana. The warmth I was experiencing from head to toe was so strong and comforting that I was certain Lana was hovering over me doing some kind of specialized aura healing. The truth was, she was sitting in a corner of the room, simply just being there with me during my relaxation. She commented later that she gets lots of comments about how Reiki flows so naturally from her.

Well, I felt it. Maybe it was her Reiki, maybe it was just the feeling of being reacquainted with my lover, my body, remembering the sensations lying within those nooks and crannies, the curves and hollows of my back, shoulders, knees, hips, neck.

But damn, it felt good.

In her TED Talk, Brené Brown commented on the complexity of vulnerability: “I know that vulnerability is kind of the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, and creativity, of belong, of love.”

Being vulnerable—the certified yoga teacher needing to reach out for help—indeed initially caused shame. In the end, however, that vulnerability filled me with a long-lost sense of love: for my body, my breath, and the individuals like Lana who see me even when I work so hard to remain hidden.

Lana love!

Lana love!

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

🙂

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

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

😦

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GettySculpture

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.

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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

(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.

Today I am reuniting with two sacred spaces: Kripalu, and myself.

It’s no secret that Kripalu means a lot to me: I was there in 2006 for my monthlong yoga teacher training and then returned in 2008 for a Let Your Yoga Dance weekend. When I checked in during the latter program, the woman at the front desk smiled, handed me my name tag, and said, “Welcome home.”

Kripalu is home because it brings me back to my foundation, strips off all the mumbo jumbo of everyday life, and allows me some time to see what’s going on deep inside this 31-almost-32-year-old body. It’s a bit of an anthropological endeavor, taking this corporeal being, dusting it off, peeling away layers of guck and grime, and examining the raw treasure that has always resided within me.

Last time I was at Kripalu, I tried to reconstruct my prior experience there, wanting so badly to trace my old footsteps and routines, but quickly realized that who I was in 2006 was not who I was in 2008, and Kripalu itself had changed dramatically in those two years.

This time, I come in ready to breathe in the old recollections of how I was in 2006/2008, how I grew while there, and how much I’ve grown since then.

I have a new skin, a richer self, and I am ready to live in the inquiry of yoga.

Atha Yoga Nushasanam~
And now, the inquiry of yoga.

(Also, this is what I’ll be doing there.)

Back in the fall, to commemorate my 5-year anniversary of graduating from the 200-hour Kripalu Yoga Teacher Training Program, I took on a very extensive and revealing blogging endeavor of transcribing and posting (most of) my journal notes from the experience. The posts were well received, and—judging by my WordPress site stats—I can see that they are being read by others out there interested in learning more about the Kripalu experience.

At the end of the month-long documentation, I promised I’d do a reflection post about YTT at Kripalu to summarize the pros and cons of the program. I loved my experience and wouldn’t trade it for the world, but there are certainly some things about the program to consider if you’re on the fence about where to study.

(Background: I completed the month-long, 200-hour YTT program in October-November 2006, led by Megha [Nancy Buttenheim] and Rudy Peirce.)

PROS

Exposure to a variety of teachers and styles. Our curriculum included twice-daily 90-minute yoga classes, which meant we had a lot of guest teachers who specialized in a variety of styles. Kripalu yoga can be gentle, moderate, or vigorous; we had mornings where we’d be squatting in utkatasana for a minute and others where we’d be nearly drifting off to sleep during a 6:30 a.m. yoga nidra practice. Where else does your day start with a playful and fun vinyasa class led by a grown man with pigtails and then conclude with a sensual and deep journey into asana and meditation led by a tantric master? Our classes were led by both senior and newly minted teachers, meaning we got to see where we hoped to be ourselves in the near and distant future.

Nothing to do but focus on yourself. When living in a yoga community in the mountains for a month, all of life’s everyday routines are removed: washing the dishes, feeding the cat, changing diapers, commuting to and from work, deciding what to make for breakfast/lunch/dinner, checking your e-mail, putting on makeup, changing the burned-out lightbulb. When the mundane necessities of life are no longer in the picture, the only thing remaining is…you. This can be scary but oh-so therapeutic. After a few days, the void normally filled by these little distractions fills with time for honest self-reflection. It is why every room at Kripalu contains a box of tissues: When deep issues are unearthed, they have nowhere to go but out; no running off to vacuum the living room or rearrange the condiment shelf in the refrigerator. Opportunities like this don’t happen often: Take the time away from “real life” to get to know the soul inhabiting that often-frenzied body you carry around.

It’s the yoga of life. Kripalu yoga teacher training goes beyond the asanas, the pranayama, and the meditation (all great thing, though!): You learn and apply the yoga of life, taking time to engage in conscious listening/communication, find and strengthen your voice, and practice compassion and lovingkindness. Several small group discussions in YTT went well beyond just mat-talk; people talked openly and honestly about past experiences, traumas, current struggles, and fears of the future. Everything you learn at Kripalu will follow you home and constantly remind you to live in the inquiry.

The food. It’s fresh. It’s natural. It’s chopped and diced and prepped lovingly by volunteers. Best of all, it’s there for you three times a day, along with a 24-hour tea stash. I could have my usual bowl of high-fiber cereal with walnuts and raisins and rice milk, or I could have a slice of frittata with a rosemary biscuit (or all of the above). If you’re there in the fall, THE SOUPS. A simple slice of toast with peanut butter and jelly becomes a special treat when your realize dessert is only served once or twice a week. Warning: It’s easy to go overboard, especially when you’re all vulnerable and shit. Let me eat my feelings along with this third helping of country-fried tofu, why don’t I?

Modifications a’plenty. Kripalu yoga is all about making yoga right for you. Kripalu teacher trainees are taught numerous variations on a pose, including different stances, prop usage, or just plain substitutes for certain asanas. What works for your body? Do you need a rolled-up blanket? A cushion? How about a block with a blanket and an eye pillow? I was super flexible 5 years ago and didn’t really consider limitations, but now that I have a hip thing, I am ever-so-grateful for my Kripalu training and the assurance that it is 100% completely OK to modify a pose or just not do it when something hurts. My training gave me the gift of creativity, so in my own practice I have the knowledge to play around with props or different forms of a pose when my body just doesn’t feel quite right. The “perfect pose” is the one that offers you openness and joy without pain.

Daily dance parties. Most of our daily sessions began with music thumping and bodies moving freely into the open space. Hey, if you’re going to be sitting for 3 hours straight learning about the yamas and niyamas, best to start the classes by getting the blood flowing and endorphins rushing. How I would love to start each work day with 5 minutes of booty shaking in the hallway!

Integration. After each session, we’d close with pranayama, meditation, or a round of co-listening with a partner. It was a way to take all the huge concepts we just learned and give them time to settle into our bodies, complete the download, so to speak. We crammed a lot into those 28 days, and it would have been easy to get overwhelmed. Even mini deep-breathing pauses in the middle of a class helped ground us and bring us all back to the same wavelength.

Quick turnaround. One of the main reasons I chose Kripalu was because I knew I’d be certified in a month. I was so gung ho on becoming a teacher that I was just too impatient to enroll in a program that only met one weekend a month and took 8 months to a year to complete.

International flavor. Studying yoga at a nationally renowned center attracts people from all over the country…and the world. My class included students from Hawaii, California, Florida, Ireland, Japan, Australia, and even a woman who lived just two towns over from me. The diversity at Kripalu is much greater than anything you’d get at a local YTT program, and even people’s backgrounds were simply fascinating: I mean, I shared a dorm room with a Cirque du Soleil aerialist!

CONS

An insular utopia. Yes, I mentioned above that being holed away in a retreat center allows your true self to emerge, but this can also be problematic once you try to leave the bubble. Kripalu tends to attract only kind, compassionate, mindful folks; step outside into the real world, and no one’s wearing nametags and giving you a silent Namaste when you pass them in the street. I only left the campus once or twice during my month there, and so even things like the sound of cars on the road and Christmas music piped into stores jarred my senses and made me feel very uneasy. If feasible, I suggest a day or two of re-integration, maybe getting a hotel room off-site and gently easing yourself back into reality instead of just hopping directly onto the Greyhound bus and heading straight into Manhattan.

All conditions are ideal. Ideal, not necessarily real. It’s why people get upset at shows like The Biggest Loser, where contestants live on a ranch, have world-class trainers by their side, eat only the best foods prepared by the best chefs, and work out 4 hours a day without having to worry about jobs or kids or mowing the lawn. Yeah, it’s great, but then it comes time to return home and try to apply everything you just learned in a shitstorm of deadlines, bills, morning gridlock, and insomniac toddlers. I went from doing at least 3 hours of yoga each day to maybe 1 hour three times per week…and consequently went through honest-to-god yoga withdrawal, my brain craving the biochemical reactions that daily yoga provided. Although it’s not always financially do-able, the 2-part monthlong program (split into two 12-day sessions) may be more realistic in terms of taking what you learn and applying it to real life.

Lack of post-graduation support/community. You eat, sleep, and study with a wonderful group of people for a month, share with them your deepest and darkest secrets, cry on their shoulder, massage their calves, declare that This Group is the circle of friends you’ve been seeking your whole life…and then after 28 days, *poof* Everyone boards their plane, train, bus, or car and heads home, back to Ireland, back to Australia, back across the country. Of course, technology makes it easy to stay in touch with a group, but it’s simply not the same as studying in a local yoga studio and being able to take class with a core group of mates from your YTT class. People who stay closer to home and do a local YTT have such a greater opportunity to keep that bond alive by, for example, meeting up for coffee or registering for a weekend workshop together.

Leaving your YTT teachers is also difficult, as they just don’t have the time to keep in touch with every student under their tutelage. With a local YTT, you may get to see your teachers weekly and rely on them for advice, suggestions, and support; at Kripalu, once your group of 60 graduates, the next group is waiting at the door. Kripalu teachers are generally fairly busy folks with rigid teaching/training/travel schedules and simply cannot offer the personal support you may need post-graduation.

Heavy responsibility. You’re training not just to be a yoga teacher but a Kripalu yoga teacher. The name carries a lot of weight; Kripalu has a history, a reputation, and prestige. This freaked me the hell out—people would expect me to be a Super Awesome Compassionate Yoga Teacher, but what if I couldn’t pull that off? In addition, the premise of Kripalu YTT is that you can change the world. Be the change! Spread the love! Take this knowledge we’re imparting on you and do something with it. Man, talk about pressure! I got home not knowing whether I should teach yoga, join the Peace Corps, or live in a leper colony in India. For me, I was so overwhelmed that I just sat in a relatively catatonic state for about a week afterwards, trying to process everything.

Practice-teach fail. Personally, I think this is one of the biggest downfalls of the Kripalu YTT: No opportunities to practice-teach real-world students. Many local YTTs have “practice-teach” weeks, a stretch of free or discounted classes—open to the public—where trainees can get guided experience in working with a variety of bodies, abilities, and personalities before they go solo. At Kripalu, the only students you teach are your fellow classmates…who, ahem, are already pretty adept at yoga. Try going from that to teaching a class with mixed abilities, where one woman has trouble sitting on the floor and the other is a seasoned yogi with ripped chaturanga arms. During our training, we had one opportunity to assist with a public class, but that was maybe 15 of us assisting all at once as a senior teacher led the class. We did our best to take on “beginner’s” minds for our fellow classmates during each of our three practice-teach sessions, but this is still minimal preparation for the task of leading actual beginners.

If you completed the Kripalu YTT, I’d love to hear your take!
And good luck to all the trainees headed out there this summer (::coughcoughLiberezVouscoughcough::). 🙂

In an effort to explore some of the things “stirring” me lately, I have done what all people do when they are petrified of looking to the future: Look at the past, of course.

Source: Allie Brosh (hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com)

Right about this time 5 years ago, I was grappling with the decision to “retire” from teaching yoga after doing it for only half a year, as documented in my old journal:

“My personal practice has suffered greatly because of this new role I’ve placed upon myself. Before I was ‘teacher,’ I was a sponge. I voluntarily soaked up every ounce of yoga knowledge I could find, and I loved it. I loved reading Yoga Journal, I loved reading Iyengar’s books, I loved taking class from master teachers and learning just to learn. But now that I’m ‘teacher,’ doing all of those things feel like work, like I’m preparing from some huge exam.

“I can’t sit back and read Yoga Journal just because…. I read it like I have to download every article into my brain and remember the key points so I can recall them back to future students. It’s like required reading in high school. Remember all those great books we were forced to read that weren’t so ‘great’ at the time because it was required? And then in college, maybe you picked up The Scarlet Letter just for the heck of it, read it at leisure, and then were like, ‘WOW! What a great book! I didn’t want to put it down!’ The practice of reading is wholly different when there are expectations vs. no expectations. And that’s kind of how I feel, in a nutshell.

“Yoga is very complicated… it’s not just about teaching down dog and savasana. There are so many facets of yoga, very deep concepts that even I can’t into words sometimes. I just feel it. I can’t recite it back to anyone. And I had only been practicing yoga for about two years—seriously practicing it—before becoming a teacher. When I signed up for the teacher training, I thought two years was enough. Yoga had changed my life in two years, so obviously I got it and was ready to spread the love. But…I don’t think it’s turning out how I expected.

“I feel so inexperienced, not just compared with other teachers, but I feel like I’m a little girl trying flop around the house in daddy’s huge work boots. I haven’t grown into this role yet.”

However, just days after I declared that I was done with teaching and requested my name be taken off the teacher list at the studio where I worked, I taught one final, last-hurrah Friday night “happy hour” class. It is the class that has haunted me since, not because it marked the poignant end of an era or that it flat-out sucked.

No, quite the contrary. It haunts me because it was possibly one of the best classes I ever taught, and one in which—possibly because I knew it was my last one and all pressure was off—I stood at the front of the room as Me, Jennifer, Lover of Yoga/Movement/Dance, and not a lofty mental fabrication of what I thought a yoga teacher should be. I took what I loved about Kripalu yoga, blended in some of the things I learned during all the DansKinetics classes I took during my month at Kripalu, and topped it off with my own personal touch.

For once, the shoes on my feet were no longer “daddy’s huge work boots”; I was wearing Cinderella’s glass slippers.

Here’s what I wrote after the class:

“I led a really great yoga class tonight for Yoga Happy Hour. It’s after classes like this when I wonder why I ever doubted my abilities and passion. I planned the class last night as I was listening to some tribal drumming music. I was all set to teach one of my regular gentle classes, but then I thought, Hmm, this is Happy Hour yoga! I need to develop something upbeat, incredibly fun, and rockin’!

“So I based my class around specific songs and music styles, using the tribal drumming, of course (KDZ for all you Kripalu folks out there), trippy Peter Gabriel music from Birdy, and hula songs by Iz. I even managed to incorporate some Stage 3 Meditation in Motion elements in there. I found a really hypnotic song, led everyone through some basic sun salutes, and then opened the floor for some prana response. Man, what fun to watch! They did it!

“I think my plan of integrating several dance elements throughout the practice really helped, too, because I work really well with good music. I had everyone rolling their shoulders and hips and doing some intense hara moves like Breath of Joy and Pulling Prana. I even threw in a few minutes of walking meditation! I was on a roll!

“The best was hearing some feedback from Joe, a guy from Tuesday night Kundalini, who said the class snapped him out of the depressed/withdrawn funk he’s been in for the past week. And he really appreciated the chance to just sway to the music and hop around to the tribal drums and just get in tune with himself. Dude! That’s my main objective. I just want people to feel free.”

I guess what I’m getting at is that these feelings of “wanting people to feel free” are creeping up on me again, becoming especially intense nowadays since all I do in my spare time is dance. I dance before work, after work, every weekend, even in my dreams. I hardly go to the gym anymore; I wear myself out enough doing a self-led 5Rhythms practice in my living room.

The question is: Does this passion need to be a career? How formal do we need to be about something we love for it to feel validated? I remember back in 2007, I was all set to attend a YogaDance program at Kripalu, but I ended up having to cancel due to my husband’s 10-year high school reunion being the same weekend. At first, I was utterly devastated to miss out on this Very Important Dance Program, but as it turned out, going to the reunion gave me the opportunity to be a dance teacher in a different, real-world context:

“What I loved about this event is that I actually DID, truly, let my yoga dance. The music was pulsing all night and stirring the dancer inside to get up and move. Absolutely no one else, though, was on the dance floor, and I withheld. But the second I saw some random guy approach the floor, bopping with a beer in his hand, I leaped on the opportunity and bounded up there to draw him on the dance floor. It worked, and soon D., D., and I were dancing like crazybirds, just the three of us, in front of a group of classmates.

“It was fabulous music, the stuff I love, so I was totally into the flow. Before I knew it, I really was kicking off my shoes and letting my hair down. The wife of one of Bryan’s friends said that I looked like I was having so much fun that she couldn’t help joining me on the dance floor. She looked like an otherwise stiff person, and I was happy to see her moving and flailing and sweating and shaking. At one point we were even slow dancing together to some R&B song, because everyone else had left the floor. We twirled each other, tangoed, waltzed, me guiding her along the entire time.

“It dawned on me then that what I was doing there was what I would have been doing at Kripalu: dancing with others, being free, helping others let go and let their bodies take over. I didn’t have to be 5 hours away in a Massachusetts yoga ashram to let my yoga dance. I had brought Kripalu here, in the real world. I was exhausted, sweaty, smelly, and had incredibly dirty feet, but I felt so content and happy for following the call of music and dancing. Just dancing.

One of my favorite “in the moment” dance floor photos.

Oprah always made “aha!” moments sound so inspiring and colorful and uplifting, but sometimes an “aha!” moment makes you feel like crap.

My depressing “aha!” moment happened the other day, as I was expressing to a friend my great interest in airplanes:

“The funny thing is, I am obsessed with big planes but I’m actually afraid of flying.”

The enormity of this sentence hit me as soon as the words escaped my mouth. Was I actually talking about Lufthansa and FedEx jets, or was I just exposing a deep, shameful layer of my inner being, that I am obsessed with grand ideas but too much of a scaredy cat to get them off the ground?

After all, “planes” is “plans” with just one extra letter.

The parallels are almost frightening. Take the airplane thing. I love the structure of planes, their sleek design, the technology that allows them to take off and land, to straighten themselves out on a windy day. The choreography of flight patterns, the ballet of metal birds in the clouds, a giant football play sheet in which the Xs and Os are instead 737s and DC-10s.

I learn the lingo, expand my vocabulary, noting that the call sign for U.S. Air is “Cactus” and how the final three steps of an airplane’s arrival are termed “downwind,” “base,” and “final.” My Netflix history shows that I’ve watched documentaries about American Airlines and Air Force One, and I’ve confessed to hiding in a corner in Barnes & Noble, a magazine about commercial airliners between my legs.

But when it comes time for me to fly, I clutch Bryan’s hand as we barrel down the runway and dare not breathe when the plane’s wheels leave the ground. I don’t get sick over flying, but I don’t necessarily enjoy it, either.

I wish I could say I plaster myself against the window and spend every moment in the sky being utterly amazed that, well, I’m in the mother f****n’ sky, but the truth is that I peek out the window with trepidation, afraid that me shifting a few inches to the right will somehow cause the whole aircraft to lurch, and soon we’ll be spiraling out of control through the clouds, all because of my natural desire to fully enjoy the moment of being in flight.

My real-life planes plans are not much different. I think of yoga, how when I was first introduced to it in 2005, I fully immersed myself in all things asana. I subscribed to Yoga Journal, reading each article several times in an effort to memorize the lingo, the Sanskrit that holds the practice together. I attended workshops and master classes, admiring the instructors and their effortless poses, taking notes, itching to become an expert.

I was in love with the details, the schematics. I went to flight school (yoga teacher training). How I loved being around all these seasoned pilots! My fellow students and I talked the talk, stayed up late into the night to share notes and fantasies of flight. We doodled our own flight plans, imaging how one day we’d soar to new heights.

But then when it came time for my test flights, I always felt like I was sputtering and swinging aimlessly between clouds. The feeling of ascending was not as gratifying as I had envisioned. The moment I got my pilot’s license, I already knew deep inside that I didn’t want to fly.

It’s not much different today. I think, I could organize a lunch-hour dance party at my office, I could learn to teach dance to older adults, I could do this training and make movement my second career.

I have surrounded myself with books and blogs and images of dancing, scurrying off to class after class, fascinated with the details, colors, and nuances of movement, painting pictures in my mind of my body as an airplane, a bird, an angel far above this earth. Sometimes during a class I rush across the studio floor and take off, but the flight is never more than an out-and-back.

I feel like somewhere in my notes and doodles and vocabulary there is a flight plan for a trans-Atlantic journey, but the question is whether I’ll ever work up the courage to sit down in the cabin with courage and allow myself to look out that window without fear of falling out of the sky.

Descending into Lhasa, 2006

It’s time to trust my instincts
Close my eyes
And leap…

It’s time to try defying gravity
I think I’ll try defying gravity
And you can’t pull me down.

~ “Defying Gravity,” Wicked

(Note. This post is dedicated to Meg from Spirit Moves Dance, who is already on her way to 35,000 feet and has no intention of lowering her landing gear anytime soon. :-))

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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