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Five years ago on this day, I felt something that I haven’t felt for the past five days during my YTT: anger, impatience, and a hearty helping of STFU.
It all began with our morning sadhana, led by “R”. You either love this guy or hate him. His style is this: S……..L………..O………W. Everything is aahhhhhhh. How do you feel in thissssss?
It is not good. You know what? I am tired. I had five hours of sleep for the past four nights after moving from 6:30 a.m. to 9 at night. I close my eyes, I sleep. Why do you do a savasana-based practice at 6:30 in the morning? You have put me back to sleep. I don’t want to listen to your aaahhs over and over and over again. I don’t want to listen to your stereotypical Kripalu-isms like How and Why and Feel and See and Realize and Notice. I am lying on my back, falling asleep again. That’s how I FEEL. Tired. Pooped. Cold. We lie still for 15 minutes, lift our legs. There is a Cobra, Boat, and then, oh! It’s bedtime again. You make me so angry. I am tired, I need to MOVE and WAKE the [bleep] up. I want to take the microphone out of your hand, Mr. High and Mighty Kripalu, and beat you. Stop talking like a freaking hypnotherapist. You are trapping me, suffocating me. I want to break off this mat and do sun salutations, downdog…anything! I make faces, I grit my teeth, I make fists. I keep my eyes open during savasana because I’m a rebel and I need to WAKE UP. I don’t Om very loud or enthusiastically, and the room is weak, our Oms are pathetic and tired. Good. No swelling, sensual Om for you, Mr. Every Kripalu-ism in the book. Feeeeel that. Notice that. How does that feel?!?!?!?!?!
I realize this is the first time here at Kripalu I am angry and pissed. At Kripalu, the land of peace and harmony and happiness, I had been tired, sad, scared, happy, nervous, but never MAD. These emotions feel new to me, strange. Out of place here. Thank gosh the morning lesson begins with some harmonium and chanting. We chant So Hum So Hum, So Hum Shivo Hum, which translates to “I am that I am.” It is a pleasant melody and calms me down. During our anatomy lesson, we learn about moving with the spine in mind, the four types of tissue (connective, muscle, nervous, epithelial), and the importance of moving (inactivity shrink-wraps the muscles).
Later in the day, we have a chance to partner up and practice teach Cobra, Sphinx, Child’s Pose, Half Locust, and Boat. I pair with M and forget how to talk. I make up words like “clitch.” I have no idea how to get someone up in Cobra. When I did my mini-practice teach with M, I somehow lead her through tadasana–mountain–using all tree analogies. It was stressful but still good; M is already a teacher, and I liked working with someone who could give me tips.
THE FIRST WEEK (dah-dah-DUM!) is wrapping up. It’s Friday night, our off night. Some people did a yoga and art workshop; I opted to test my aparigraha at the Kripalu Shop but ended up getting two Kripalu shirts and a chocolate chip cookie. I have suddenly developed one hell of an appetite. I think I’m actually gaining weight, a mix of constipation, delicious buffet meals 3x per day, no intense cardio, no 3x/week strength training, and me constantly stuffing my face. For example, after dinner tonight, I indulged in a Kripalu cookie but then scarfed down leftover pretzels in our dorm room. I have a few bites of a protein bar before morning sadhana, breakfast, lunch, after-lunch pretzel stuffing, etc, etc. I have no energy to go to the gym anymore before lunch; today, I napped instead.
Roger’s class tonight was hyped-out fun. We danced around like it was dance night at Adelphia and then made fun of Jane Fonda workouts. Lots of downdog variations, killer utkatasanas, and some exhilarating spinal twists. Yoga is great with Moby and dance music.
Everyone in this program looks so amazingly young. I am delighted at how youthful the group is. L is 31 but looks 27 or 28. We are all yoga youth. I bet Megha is 85. Helga is actually 120.
R&R people are here for the weekend. It’s so weird. Suddenly our little nest of peace, love, and happiness is broken as these new people stop in. Well-dressed people with make-up and designer yoga gear. People who got just a little too pushy in the buffet line. They’re roaming the lobby, planning out their activities and hikes and massages. It’s reverse culture shock, new things coming into MY world.
There are new presenters here, too. Yoganand’s pranayama class is over, and now Cameron Shayne is in the corner room. There’s a Women of Color conference going on. It’s like living in the Hollywood of yoga.
After dinner, I plod around, eventually talking to Bryan and then calling my Kripalu “sponsor,” Yogamama (Kath). We share “Planet K” stories, and she makes me feel so much better. We talked Kripalian and discussed our intense dislike of s-l-o-w R–ugh! And crazy Roger and amazing Megha. BRFWA. Our little language.
My language has changed. I say things like, “I haven’t had a hot water experience with that faucet yet.” My words are slowly changing, my speech becoming more deliberate. I hear myself talk to Bryan and notice I sound different. How long will this last once I get home?
As I wrote in this post, my morning routine starts with the 6 movements of the spine…but it doesn’t end there!
What I’m finding is that starting my day with those movements really gets me in touch with my body and gently coaxes me into other movement, such as yoga, dance, pranayama, or meditation. When I’m pressed for time, I stick with the “Big 6”; when I have more flexibility in the mornings (which I usually do, because I wake up early specifically to do these kinds of things), I listen to my body and see what it wants to do next.
Time and time again, I return to the good ol’ seated sun salutation sequence, introduced to me by one of my very first yoga teachers. I love traditional sun salutes as well, but sometimes in the morning my hamstrings and hips just aren’t ready to bend down from a standing position.
Here, you start in dandasana and raise your arms on an inhalation, just as you would in a traditional sun salute.
Next, leading with your heart, fold your upper body over the legs into a simplified paschimottanasana as you exhale. Don’t feel the need to grip your toes or ankles or whatever. Just let the hands fall naturally, without hunching the back. Stay here for 2 or 3 deep breaths.
Inhale, and come up the way you came, arms overhead. Place hands in prayer position and draw them down to heart. Repeat this modified sun salutation 2 more times.
After the third set, proceed as though you are going into a fourth salute, but when you lower down–instead of resting in paschimottanasana–take hold of your right foot, drag it up near your knee, and cross it over the left leg into matsyendrasana. Place your right arm behind you, raise left arm overhead on inhale, and on exhale cross left arm over right knee into a gentle twist.
Take several breaths here, making micro-movements into the twist. Be sure to start the twist from your core and work your up; don’t just crank your head and neck to one side!
After exhaling out of the twist, uncross leg and slide right foot to a spot on the floor between your foot and knee. Place both arms behind you, fingers facing toward body, and, pressing into the floor with both your hands and feet, lift up into a modified upward plank pose, purvottanasana.
Drop you head back slightly if you wish and let your mouth fall open to release any tension. Take a deep inhale, and on exhalation, bend arms and lower yourself back to the ground, extending right foot out to meet the left, both legs straight.
Now, repeat the matsyendrasana/purvottanasana sequence on the other side.
When complete, return to Step 1 and do one last seated sun salute into paschimottanasana.
Do you feel any different in this pose than when you first started? Do you sense slightly more flexibility or more warmth?
I almost always sink just a little deeper at the end of this sequence and feel a little looser in my hamstrings. The focus on inhalations and exhalations calms my mind and primes me for some breathwork.
Stay tuned for a description of the final part of my morning movement–pranayama!
This past year I’ve really struggled with establishing a solid morning routine. Between waking up and leaving the house for work–with a shower/hair/makeup routine somewhere in the middle–I’ve experimented with doing hip-strengthening PT exercises, practicing therapeutic yoga DVDs, sitting in meditation for at least 10 minutes, committing to 10 sun salutations (5 A, 5 B), reading books while walking around the park, meditating with alternating mudras, and dancing around the living room in my pajamas.
Regardless of which activity I choose, the key is that I warm up as soon as I wake up. Even on my wedding day more than 7 years ago, I woke up at 6 a.m. and, before I headed off to the hairdresser, rolled around in my underwear, stretching and loosening up my limbs. I don’t consider myself “creaky” yet, but as I move into my 30s I am more aware of that car-in-the-winter feel that sets in overnight. Starting a day without stretching is like heading off to work without brushing my teeth–terribly icky and not recommended.
After doing the Kripalu yoga video the other day and being reacquainted with pratapana (Kripalu’s version of “warming up”), I was also reminded about the importance of going through the 6 movements of the spine before engaging in any other movement. The spine is that what holds us all together, and giving it the proper warm up will enable all other limbs to kick in gear.
The great thing about these movements is that they can be adapted for people comfortable being on the floor, those who wish to stay seated, and for others who prefer standing. Whatever variation I choose, I do about 5 to 10 of each movement.
Seated variation (can be done in easy/hero pose or in a sturdy chair)
Part A. Extension/flexion
Part B. Lateral (side-to-side) movement
Part C. Twists
Floor variation (for those comfortable on hands and knees)
Part A. Extension/flexion
Part B. Lateral movement
Part C. Twists
Standing variation (great for adding hara breaths)
Part A. Extension/flexion
Part B. Lateral movement
Part C. Twists
Since last week, I’ve been mindful of starting each morning with those 6 movements, and the end results feel pretty darn good. Most mornings I do all three sets, starting with the floor exercises and working my way up to standing. Incorporating the deep hara breaths really gets things warmed up and opens up my chest, throat, nose, and mouth, clearing the path for the pranayama practice that follows. The spinal movements open up the space between each vertabra, thus opening the pathways for greater energy/prana flow.
I’ll show you the remainder of my morning routine in a future post. Until then, remember to brush your teeth, wash your face, and move your spine!
My coworker/5Rhythms classmate left yesterday for a yoga nidra workshop at Kripalu. A whole week of savasana…now that’s a relaxing retreat!
Instead of being insanely jealous about her vacation, I decided to bring a little bit of Kripalu into my own Sunday morning. About a week ago, Kripalu uploaded a video of a full-length moderate yoga class to its YouTube channel. This was a wonderful surprise, because up until then most of the videos were just short yoga breaks or interviews with staff/experts. This class was an hour long; led by one of Kripalu’s leading men, Devarshi (Steven Hartman); and had all the elements of an authentic Kripalu yoga class offered at the actual center. I spread out my yoga mat on the living room floor, opened the blinds to let in the sunlight, and began.
The class started with one of my favorite pranayama exercises: alternate nostril breath. Sadly, not many classes I attend at home dedicate time solely to breathwork, so I was thrilled to sit and focus on my inhalations and exhalations. I honestly believe that starting practice with focused breathing brings everything to center and really gets the mind, body, and spirit connected before moving on. I don’t think I’ve ever attended a Kripalu yoga class that doesn’t start with pranayama, and some end with it as well!
Many of the pratapana (warm-up) movements involved hara breaths, which means taking deep inhalations through the nose and strong, forceful exhalations through the mouth, while saying “Ha!” We did this during the “empty coat sleeves” twist, monkey arms side bends, and while sweeping the arms overhead (inhale) and then collapsing down (Ha!). The breath, the vocals, and the invigorating movement warmed me up instantaneously, and I felt a nice, warm juiced-up vibe flowing within me. At one point, I even remember thinking, “Man, I feel good!”
Another Kripalu trademark is long posture holds, which made its appearance during a simple standing position. Devarshi instructed us to hold our arms to the side in a T, palms facing out. Sounds simple, right? But then we held it. And held it. And continued holding our arms out. We made small circles going one way. Small circle in the other direction. Devarshi encouraged us to think positive thoughts (“My arms are strong!”) rather than the negative thoughts that first come to mind (“This is haarrrrddd!”). We breathed through it, relaxing and smiling into the stretch. There is such a fine line between wanting to give up and finally getting over that mental block of a hump and being OK with the warm sensations running through the chest, shoulders, arms, and hands, maybe actually enjoying it.
One of my favorite postures of the practice turned out to be one of most dreaded poses: utkatasana, chair pose. But the way Devarshi eased us into it–first just a slight bend at the knee, add a little bounce, arms loose, wrists relaxed–felt natural and tolerable. The best part was when he adding a little “snap” to the pose, guiding us to snap our fingers and sway our hips side to side, like a number in a Bob Fosse show. Holy crap, was I actually enjoying this rather long hold of utkatasana?!
There were no fancy poses, not even a single downdog, but the sequencing, languaging, and contemplative/meditative nature of the Kripalu practice made me remember why I trained in this style in the first place and that a yoga practice doesn’t need 25 sun salutations to feel “real.” After savasana, an om, and a triple shanti, Devarshi closed the class with a “jai bhagwan,” which totally brought a smile to my lips because it reminded me of every single yoga class at Kripalu, where “jai bhagwan” totally trumps “namaste.”
So if you’re ever stuck at home and don’t have time for a studio class, I wholeheartedly recommended this little gem of a YouTube video, especially if you’re familiar with the Kripalu style or curious about what a typical Kripalu class is like. The only thing missing was being able to roll up my mat; step outside for a deep breath of that cool, crisp Berkshire Mountain air; and enjoy my silent breakfast surrounded by other blissed-out yogis.
Instead, I poured my morning coffee in the black Kripalu mug that got me through all 28 days of training and enjoyed my breakfast next to the sunflowers from this weekend’s farmers market. Not quite a mountain retreat but I felt just a little closer to home.
So it’s been about one week since I left my happy place.
Not gonna lie…it hasn’t been easy. Despite this being my 12th trip to Walt Disney World (and 13th Disney trip, if you count last year’s Disneyland), I still come home with a bad case of PDD (post-Disney depression) that leaves me unable to watch Disney commercials or listen to Disney music for a solid month without immediately tearing up. Coming home from vacation is hard enough, but when you’re going from a land of pixie dust and parades and nightly fireworks to, well, New Jersey, it’s slightly more difficult than just returning from a week down the shore.
Because it’s geographically and financially unfeasible to visit my #1 happy place on a regular basis, I’ve spent the past week trying to figure out where my closer-to-home happy places are, places that don’t require airline tickets and a week off from work. They may not include all the bells and whistles (and parades and fireworks) of Disney World, but they make me smile and are my go-to places when I need some everyday magic.
Happy Place #1: My Living Room Floor
Although I absolutely loved our rustic-feeling hotel room at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, it was very tight on space and I had little room to do my morning/evening stretches and wake-up routine. Sun salutations took place in the narrow entrance way between the bathroom and the closet, and to do viparita karani (legs on the wall) at night (a necessity after days of walking anywhere from 8 to 16 miles), I had to squeeze myself between the TV cabinet and table, the only wall space available.
At home, the living room floor is my stretching oasis, the place I go to every morning to twist and stretch and rock and roll. I can do downdogs and warriors without banging my hands into the wall or on the ceiling lamp, and I can lie on the floor in cobra without being skeeved out about who (or what) was on the carpet before me.
In addition, my living room allows me the space to DANCE! 🙂
Happy Place #2: Poang Chairs
When I’m not dancing or rolling around in my living room, I’m seated comfortably in one of our IKEA Poang chairs, in front of the TV.
I’m not particularly a fan of the boob-tube, but I do love our Netflix subscription that allows us to watch streaming shows and movies via our Nintendo Wii system.
Instead of watching TV shows in real-time, Bryan and I have instead been plowing through entire series of shows through Netflix streaming. That way we don’t have to wait weeks in-between episodes or feel like we lost 6 years of our life if a show ends badly (::coughcoughLOSTcoughcough::). Most recently, we completed the 202 episodes of 24, a series that had us glued to the Poangs for months. I became very attached to the characters and screamed, shouted, and cried along with them. It was a very emotional ending, almost as heart-wrenching as leaving Disney World! Mickey Mouse, Jack Bauer…I love you both!
Netflix is also my source for rare, hard-to-find movies and documentaries. Sure, I’ll watch Tangled the week I return from the World (gotta catch up on my Disney princess knowledge), but this same week I’ve also watched Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead (Christmas is less than 100 days away…juicer, please?!), half of the PBS special Doctors’ Diaries, and–OMG, the cutest movie in the world–Gotta Dance.
Remember that documentary a few years ago, Young @ Heart, the one about the group of seniors who sing contemporary music? Well, this is the same thing…but with DANCE. The movie documents the inaugural season of the NETsationals dance team, a group of 13 seniors ages 59 to 83 who dance hip hip for the New Jersey Nets (in the photo above, their jersey numbers indicate their age). A few had amateur dancing experience (ballroom, tap), some had danced recreationally, and none had ever done hip hop before. These folks are living proof that age is just a number and old dogs CAN learn new tricks. Heartwarming, uplifting, inspirational…this movie a shot of the warm and fuzzy feel-goods without the overly sappy chicken noodle soup for the soul. I stood on my feet and applauded the TV during their first live performance! I could watch this again and again–and probably will.
Happy Place #3: Red Bank Battlefield
I am fortunate to live near several parks (all very nice, too!), but my favorite by far is Red Bank. It’s a national park, so it’s well kept and clean; it attracts a lot of cute older couples (I once witnessed an older husband and wife unwrap a particularly challenging Werther’s Original candy together); and, being directly across the Delaware River from the Philly airport, there are PLANES! Lots of them! As I’ve written again and again, I am obsessed with plane watching. I will say I don’t care, but then I’ll hear the roar of a jet engine, and immediately my eyes go to the sky. I’m particularly fond of Southwest jets (one, they represent our transportation to Florida; two, they are the most colorful of the liveries), cargo jets (HUUUUGE!), and planes that are taking off in my direction.
Sometimes I’ll go to the park before work (quiet and peaceful), other times after work (more traffic but interesting characters), and sometimes on the weekend with Bryan for reading-under-a-tree time. A loop around the park is a little over a mile, and nowadays you can almost always spot a deer or three, which have become acclimated to human beings and don’t even bat an eyelash when you’re walking their way. The other morning I walked past six deer (including two males with giant antlers), one only inches from me!
It’s a good thing I appreciate the solitude of the park in the morning, because soon that’s the only time I’ll be able to go; the park closes at sunset, and as I much as I pray that it won’t happen, there will come a time this year that I leave work and it’s dark out. Where to go when my Disney World closes at dusk?!
So those are my non-Disney World happy places, accessible within minutes. If I’m willing to drive a little longer and pack a few more things, next on the list are (a) my gym, for a solo swimming session; (b) the yoga studio, for a 5Rhythms class; and (c) the Jersey shore!
What places do you return to when you need some magic?
Back in June, as I entered the yoga studio in which my monthly 5Rhythms classes take place, the studio owner–also a yoga teacher–asked how I was doing.
“Well, to tell you the truth,” I said, “I feel uncharacteristically impatient. A bit on edge. Like I have all this unchecked rage bubbling inside of me.” I went on to explain that little things were easily irritating me, from traffic to aisle-blocking supermarket patrons to emo Facebook status updates. By nature these are all annoying things, but the problem was that they stayed with me, and I couldn’t brush them off. I could feel my heart beat faster, my chest tighten, my jaw clench any time I was faced with an obstacle.
The following is a loose transcript of the dialogue that followed:
“I don’t understand,” I said. “I do all the things you’re supposed to do to prevent these kind of feelings. I do yoga. I do 5Rhythms. I start my day with meditation and pranayama.”
“What kind of pranayama?”
“Hmm. What about ujayii?”
“No, never ujayii.”
“I think you should try ujayii to start your day. It’s a good, deep cleansing breath. Try some supported savasana, too.”
“Really, in the morning? And how can savasana be supported?”
“Oh, yes. Prop your legs up on a chair so your shins are parallel to the floor. Supported savasana is incredibly relaxing. Also–may I ask–do you have compassion for yourself?”
“Um, yes. I think?”
“Perhaps you should try some metta meditation in the morning. Especially if you’re feeling angry toward others. Perhaps extending compassion toward others through metta will help.”
Although I haven’t gotten around to trying all of the teacher’s suggestions, I found the conversation utterly fascinating. Here we were, two women: me, describing my symptoms; her, offering guidance in the form of breathing, meditation, and yoga. What makes this even more interesting is the fact that this yoga teacher is also an RN; she could have easily offered more “medical” suggestions: therapy, pills, a psychiatric evaluation. But instead of tossing around words like “Valium” and “Cymbalta,” we discussed ujayii, savasana, and metta.
I am a firm believer in integrative medicine (using conventional treatments when warranted but integrating alternative therapies when appropriate). I am not opposed to taking 200 mg of ibuprofen when my hip acts up or when I have a pounding headache. However, the conversation reminded me about all the ways yoga and its individual components (asana, meditation, pranayama, compassion) can help with day-to-day ailments and complaints. For example:
When I am bloated…
…I do intestine-wringing twists like ardha matsyendrasana/supta matsyendrasana, or the classic “wind-relieving” pose, pavanamuktasana.
When I need some “regularity” in the morning…
…I do bhunaman vajrasana, the abdominal massage I learned during my YTT at Kripalu, after several classmates complained of “blockages” from too many beans and fiber-filled dinners. (Have a toilet on standby!) 🙂
When I’ve been on my feet all day…
…I prop my legs against the wall for a few minutes of viparita karani, to get the blood from my legs flowing back into my core.
When I feel my energy waning…
…I power up for a few rounds of kapalabhati pranayama.
When I feel like I need a boost of clarity or to clear a mental block…
…I rise into headstand or handstand and spend a few minutes directing my energies toward my brain.
The above are all very specific asanas/pranayamas for specific symptoms, and I think by now it’s common knowledge that a regular yoga practice in general can lower blood pressure, improve posture and balance, and calm the nervous system, to name a few whole-body benefits.
What pose/breathing practice/meditation do you do for your everyday ailments? I’m still trying to find one that eases my PMS of doom–other than an all-day savasana!
One of the things a consistent yoga practice has helped me with is understanding the difference between responding to versus reacting to a struggle, especially on the physical level. How far I’ve come from those first months of yoga, when I’d approach Natarajasana with my brow furrowed, teeth grinding, and muscles tensed. And heaven forbid I fall out of the pose, when I’d curse under my breath, roll my eyes at myself, and immediately jolt right back into the pose without taking a moment to compose myself, regroup, and take a breath.
Balancing poses are no less easier today than they were 8 years ago, but the manner in which I approach them now certainly gives them a sense of effortlessness. I keep my face soft, my eyes focused but not burning an angry hole through the wall in front of me. I am mindful of every movement that goes into getting into the pose, aware of my foot planted into the ground, the leg muscles wrapping around the bone, the breath that carries me from rootedness to flying. I feel my wobbles before I tumble, so when I fall out of the pose, I do it with an air of grace, as though it’s all part of some yoga choreography. There is no cursing, self-berating. I inhale, exhale, and start the pose from the beginning.
This isn’t to say that I’m not struggling or being challenged. Just because I’m not gnashing my teeth doesn’t mean I’m not battling with a physical or mental conflict. I have simply chosen to respond with mindfulness and self-compassion rather than react with groans or frustrated, heavy sighs. (It’s also one of the reasons why Loud Yoga Guy grates my nerves so much.)
However, this response to struggle did not seem to be appreciated during a recent yoga class with a substitute teacher. Thirty minutes into the class, with the studio temperature just decimals away from three digits and several rounds of sweaty sun salutations under our belt, the teacher wondered aloud why the class wasn’t making any noise. “I’m worried—it’s too quiet in here,” she said. “Is the class not challenging enough? Do I have to make it harder?” She gave a snarky grin and made us squat into another Uttkatasana. As a joking kind of response, several people in the class groaned loudly as if to say “We get it! We’re feeling the burn!”
Why does it have to be that way? Why did the teacher need us to cry uncle for her class to feel validated? We were all bending low in our Warriors, keeping our arms tight to our sides during Chaturanga. We weren’t checking ourselves out in the mirror or letting our elbows droop in Warrior II. We were just focused yogis, ujayiing our way through the class…like you’re supposed to (well, except if your name is Loud Yoga Guy).
And believe me, my brain was crying uncle throughout most of the class. She was leading us through a wickedly intense standing series (the following postures were completed all on one leg before repeating the entire combination on the other leg): Warrior II > Reverse Warrior > Extended Side Angle > Triangle > Revolved Triangle > Half Moon > Revolved Half Moon > Standing Head-to-Knee prep > Shiva Twist > Tree > Eagle > Dancer > Warrior III. This is a challenging series for anyone, even without hip issues. I found the combination a bit ridiculous; I mean, by Standing Posture #8 the leg has pretty much gone numb and anything from there on is going to be compromised, lack form, and get plain sloppy.
I had to stop several times and shake out my leg so my hip didn’t lock up, even though the instructor kept reminding us not to drop the lifted leg, and if we had to rest to do so in any form of one-legged pose. Well, I broke the “rules” over and over again and stood in Tadasana to regroup. The Old Me, guilt-ridden about not executing a perfect yoga sequence, would have apologized after class: “Oh, I’m soooo sorry I couldn’t stay standing on one leg for all 13 poses (!!!). I have this hip thing, and I tried, honestly, but I’m just so sorry!”
I didn’t apologize this time, though, not because I was being smug or selfish, but because I had nothing to apologize for. I gave the class my all, breathing through the hard spots, and listening to my body when it was telling me that it needed a little break. I didn’t flippantly cross my arms over my chest and roll my eyes when pose #10 approached; I stood calmly in Tadasana, eyes closed, and re-centered.
I’m not sure if that’s what the teacher wanted; maybe she was hoping for more curses under my breath or a frustrated stomp of the foot on my yoga mat. But in yoga, when the going gets tough, sometimes the best way to move two steps forward is to first take one (mindful) step back.
Last week I posted about getting back in the flow of the universe, which for me is evident when I start experience a lot of coincidences/moments of synchronicity. The three I mentioned were all positive moments, like dreaming about iced coffee and then it manifesting in real life on my desk at work. Another uplifting moment of feeling “plugged in” happened this weekend, starting when my friend Carrol’s e-mail went haywire and sent out a bunch of old messages, so that on Friday night I opened my inbox and found an e-mail from her dated October 2010. I was perplexed but shrugged it off as an accident…and then the very next morning, Carrol calls me and asks if we can get together, because she has a gift for me!
The gift was awesome–it was a metal spiral pendant Carrol bought at Kripalu during her recent R&R. It’s made by Allison (http://www.prasadaspirit.com) from the KDZ drum ensemble at Kripalu, so Carrol noted that it’s nice to wear something made from the hands that play a djembe all day. The sounds of a drumbeat will play along with our heartbeats whenever we wear our pendants!
The next moment of synchronicity happened as Carrol and I were chatting about her training as an art therapist. I was trying to describe to her a drawing that I had made at the end of my yoga teacher training (the result of being asked “Draw what your future looks like”), when suddenly it dawned on me that one of the recurring elements of the artwork were spirals. As soon as I got home, I texted Carrol a photo of a portion of my drawing and the spiral pendant she had just brought home from Kripalu for me.
It’s really wild when stuff like that happens, but not all synchronicities are necessarily ones that you want to acknowledge. For example, when I wake up on Thursday and my hip feels weird and wonky, I do not want to come into work, pass my coworker’s computer, and see a medical photo of a torn hip labrum displayed all big-ass on her monitor for an assignment she was working on. It could have stopped there, but no! Then I find out this particular coworker’s brother is having hip surgery the following week for his busted cartilage. And then–oh yeah, there’s more!–I read the latest posting from The Happiness Project blog on my Google Reader, and it’s an interview with author Meghan O’Rourke. What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?, the interviewer asks. “Taking a walk,” Meghan replies. “I used to run a lot, and that always made me happier (even if I was unhappy lacing up my shoes to do it). But I tore the cartilage in my right hip and need surgery – so I can’t run anymore.” Womp-womp. So it didn’t surprise me later that night when, during hot yoga class, the teacher decides to lead us through upavistha konasana, which, after pigeon, is one of the most painful and nearly impossible poses for me to do with my hip issues.
What made this super-weird was that, on top of all the hip stuff I had been encountering earlier in the day, I had just been thinking to myself, “Man, I’m so glad the teacher never does upavistha konasana in class!” Because seriously, for the past nine months I’ve been taking her class, never–NEVER!–has she done this pose. We’ve done prasarita padottanasana (difficult, but easier than sitting poses)…
I struggled during the pose. I used to be able to flatten my chest to the ground, stick my arms out in front of me, and slide through a straddle position, ending with my legs straight out behind me. Now I was barely able to lean forward. Sometimes I like that it’s a hot yoga class I go to, so when I feel my lips start to tremble I can grab my hand towel and wipe the
tears sweat from my eyes. After what felt like 20 minutes in the pose, the teacher guided us into the next pose.
Pigeon, of course.
I was thisclose to leaving the studio for a
crying bathroom break. I have struggled many times in class but never to the point where I used the bathroom as an escape. I thought back to Kripalu and the whole Breathe-Relax-Feel-Watch-Allow prescription, and here I was, totally attempting to bail out of the Watch and Allow elements. So I stayed, lying on my back for my substitute pose for pigeon, draping my ankle over the other bent knee and drawing the legs toward the chest. I took deep belly breaths, focusing all of my efforts on inhaling and exhaling, trying not to let the mind take over. Living in the moment, even if the present is an uncomfortable asana that punctuates a day full of sucky synchronicity.
You are easily irritated when you see other people working out in such a way that is inefficient or potentially injurious. For example, that young girl at the gym whose idea of crunches was to lie on her back and flail every part of her body except her abs? Not cool. And the teenager who took up space in the stretching area to catch up on her texting and Facebook status surfing? Please take your social networking elsewhere.
But perhaps the most jarring image was that of the middle-aged woman who sat down on a mat, extended her legs straight out in front, and collapsed into a forward fold, bending somewhere between the thoracic and lumbar spine, forming the letter C with her back in an effort to touch her toes.
In yoga, the stretch is called paschimottanasana. It’s done in almost every class, and it’s a posture that nearly every beginning yogi is corrected on. Everyone wants to show off and touch their toes, and in doing so compromises the integrity of the stretch by bending from their back instead of their hips. The goal of the pose isn’t to see how curved you can make your spine; it’s to feel a stretch in the hamstrings, which for many can be felt waaay before the hands reach the feet.
As a once very naturally very flexible person, I understand how you may one day unintentionally creep into that curved spine position just so you can revisit the good ol’ days, your hands bound around your feet and your chin inching toward the shins.
But when that happens, Jen, please look at your profile in the mirror. When your back no longer looks like a see-saw–when instead of being a straight line from your head to your hips your back looks like that of a hunched-over mad scientist–back off. Return to dandasana, regroup, and then fold from the hip creases. Even if your hands only reach your ankles, your knees–maybe you’ll even have to use a strap!–keep the back flat and enjoy the stretch. It will probably feel just as good at 45 degrees as it did in your youth when your back was nearly parallel with your legs.
I know it’s hard not to yearn for the past, that desire to be a 20-year-old Gumby again, but the intensity of yoga postures can be experienced at any stage of the stretch, just as you felt last night in hot vinyasa class when you closed your eyes during your halfway-there paschimottanasana and sunk deep into a state of pseudo-bliss, your breaths expanding and contracting your belly and back like a slow-motion dance.
There is no need for grimacing and struggling and hunching in yoga. Stop where it feels right, breathe into the stretch, use all the props you need to feel openness, lightness, and expansion. Despite what everyone says about yoga, you know well enough that it’s not about “touching your toes.” Stay true to your form, and don’t cave in–figuratively (to an ideal) or literally (your back!).
Your 30-year-old self,
Despite the elation I felt last night after finally getting up into forearm balance, I left the studio in a bit of a slump due to something the teacher said after class. It was such an innocent, meaningless, trying-to-be supportive comment, but it took me from 10 to zero in a matter of seconds.
“This was the first time in years I got up into forearm balance!” I said to her. “Practicing dolphin all this time has really helped me, and I can totally feel the difference form when I first started!”
::beam beam beam::
“That’s awesome!” she said. “I’ve been noticing you experimenting with lifting you feet off the ground while in dolphin.”
::beam beam beam::
She continued. “I just wish we could get those hips of yours to open.”
I went from experiencing a major victory in my yoga practice to being reminded that I still can’t do pigeon. Or baddha konasana without blocks or blankets under my knees. The teacher doesn’t know it, but my hip was one of things holding me back from doing forearm balance. You gotta swing those legs up there somehow, and months ago I was terrified something would snap if I did so. So last night’s inversion was technically a hip-related accomplishment, but the teacher’s little “hope for more” was such a killjoy.
What’s frustrating is that my hips are open. In reality, I’m very flexible in the hip area, and that’s how this whole mess started. I hyperextend; as a result, everything gets loosey goosey and tendons start to move out of place. I don’t NOT do pigeon because I have tight hips; I refrain from the pose because I can do it too well, and the moment my front leg drops down, the tip of my femur jams into the loose cartilage in my hip socket, and there is pain.
I know the teacher meant no harm, and I’m not mad at her in any way. Just observing how sometimes a comment can be so innocuous yet so loaded.