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RavenFeather

THE END.

It’s an interesting phrase to start off a new blog post, isn’t it? But endings are all about beginnings, and this is the time of year where that becomes most apparent. When 2012 faded into the archives, 2013 made its way onto wall calendars and desktops. Old, unhealthy habits were cast aside, making way for new resolutions. The dying Christmas trees lining the curbsides around my neighborhood will find new life within the earth soon, and with their removal comes newfound space in people’s living rooms—room for the new toys Santa delivered, perhaps.

Even what are considered “endings” in yoga and dance—savasana and Stillness—are really just gentle transitions into beginnings. When I wake up from savasana, it may be the end of class or asana practice, but it feels more like the beginning of something awesome. My body and mind are re-charged, as though those 5 minutes lying on my back were the final moments my smartphone needed in the electrical outlet before clicking over to 100% battery power.

And 5Rhythms-speaking, Stillness may mark the conclusion of a class, but internally it’s only the beginning. Great insights come from the meditative nature of Stillness, making way for new frames of mind, new awareness. It’s one of the reasons I dislike having to go to work the next day after a 5Rhythms intensive—the workshop may have ended, but my mind is just starting to process all the beginnings, all the possibilities thrown at me.

This blog post is about three recent 5Rhythms events that began with endings and ended with beginnings…and so it begins (or ends?):

Plunge to Soar

A week before Christmas, a group of dancers gathered in an elementary school all-purpose room to get unstuck from the personal lies that plagued their souls.

“Our personal lie is our most negative thought about ourselves,” read the e-mail that confirmed our attendance. “This lie was a decision we made most likely based on a reaction we had to something. Due to circumstance, this most commonly comes from our very first surroundings—typically something our parents did, felt, or said about us, anywhere from conception, to birth, to early childhood.”

Plunge-to-Soar Installation

We wrote these personal lies on squares of paper, taping them to the wall. Blank paper and markers were left out to encourage us to continue exploring these demons as we danced. Every other minute, someone would run over to the wall, furiously scribbling, emphatically taping. By the end of the first Wave, the wall looked like some kind of twisted billboard advertising self-doubt and defeat, a haphazard shower of angry black ink. How appropriate was it that the children who used our space during the week were studying the work of Jackson Pollock—they seemed to have decorated the room so fittingly for us:

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Along with dance (led by teacher Nancy Genatt), breath (led by our New Jersey 5Rhythms producer Stavros Vrahnos) was used to explore these dark, dormant places, to set them in motion. It was the first time I had ever used pranayama during 5Rhythms, instructed to stop dancing, find a place of emotional restriction, add a dimension of physical restriction to it by tightening the muscles around that area, and then begin Breath of Fire (kapalabhati breath). This breath rid me of stagnation and propelled me to move forward. One of my lies was “The need to be perpetually clenched,” and breathing in this fashion would not allow that lie to hold true in the moment. My rigidity melted, and a smile may have crossed my lips.

Halfway during class, we lay down for a session of integrative breathwork, a very intense form of breathing meant to increase energy in the body and access suppressed feelings (read about another experience with this breathwork here). The process used to be termed “rebirthing,” and I can see why—tingling and vibrating sensations started in my scalp and gradually moved down into my throat, my chest, my solar plexus, and finally my legs and feet, like I was being pushed head-first out of the womb. I didn’t experience any overwhelming outbursts of emotion, but I did feel an intense urge to move, my fingers dancing in mudras, at one point sitting straight up.

The process marked the destruction of our wall of self-loathing and the birth of new positive, affirmations. Sitting in a circle, we shuffled through the depressing pile of papers inscribed with our personal lies, reading aloud ones that spoke to us—some ours, borrowing others from our classmates. It was both comforting and disheartening to see that we all feel so very flawed and so very similarly, even in times we think we’re alone in our self-doubt.

Reading these statements took courage, caused a few tears to fall. But as we read, we also ripped and teared the paper, symbolizing the end of such thinking. In its place, our classmates wrote truths for each other, replacing the negative with positive.

Highly ritualistic but ultimately freeing, we took the scraps of ripped paper outside to burn, sprinkling rose petals in the fire as a way of adding lightness to the darkness we were shedding.

Personal lies

And then came the beginning: Learning to breathe in and fully receive my new beautiful truths, so graciously offered by my classmates.

Personal truths

Dance Out the Old

My original 5Rhythms teacher Richard’s workshop between Christmas and New Years couldn’t have been a more literal dance of endings and beginnings. Titled “Dance Out the Old,” the day included not just movement but ritualistic sharing of mementos that represented saying goodbye to one year and introducing new aspirations and dreams for 2013.

The centerpiece of the altar at the edge of the room was a raven, symbolic of 5Rhythms founder Gabrielle Roth, whose death in October was perhaps the dance world’s greatest loss (yet presented so many new beginnings—see the section below for more about this).

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Some people spoke fondly of the past year; others placed objects on the table representing grief or loss, feelings they wanted to transform in the new year. During the second round of presentations, we offered objects symbolizing what we wanted to reach toward and achieve in 2013.

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I brought in a photo of Jeanne Ruddy, the Philadelphia choreographer/dancer whose work last year moved me to my core. I saw her perform the role of Middle Age in May’s production of Out of the Mist, Above the Real, a time when I was just beginning to explore dance’s role in my growth from girl to woman. In that performance, Jeanne represented poise, both feminine/masculine confidence, and aching resilience, attributes I don’t necessarily want all at once and jammed into this new year but that I feel are necessary for me to develop and cultivate.

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One of the most powerful movement exercises during this workshop was dancing from one end of the (very long) studio to the other…while blindfolded. At first, those of us who were masked had a designated companion to ensure we didn’t bump into walls or people, but then Richard presented double the number of blindfolds so we could all move without sight.

It doesn’t really get more metaphorical than this—moving with caution and grace down an unseen path; not really seeing your way but feeling it, using intuition and the senses as a guide; bumping into a table or person and having to adjust your movement around it; ending up on the left side of the room when you swore you were headed toward the right.

Where are we going, and how can our body wisdom guide us?

Which brings us finally to…

Gabrielle Roth’s Memorial

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In this blog post from January 9, I was anxiously on my way to New York City, hoping to gain admittance to what was undoubtedly one of the most powerful 5Rhythms events of all time. I had never met Gabrielle Roth in person, yet her death in October coincided with a kind of birth for me, the emergence of a woman who’s got not just rhythm…but 5 of them.

My fellow tribe members and I sat in the lobby of the Prince George Ballroom well before the memorial started, amazed at how many people stepped through the doors to “celebrate the funky elegance of [Gabrielle’s] indomitable spirit.”

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Because a teachers’ refresher course had just ended and a Cycles workshop was about to begin that week, dancers from all over the world crammed side by side. I was able to connect with some of my international readers (Hi Caroline! Hi Deborah!), as well as spend time with my own community.

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NYC dancer Joella and me.

Tribeholder Christina and dancer friend Val.

Philly tribeholder Christina and dancer friend Val.

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Philadelphia tribeholder (and road trip planner extraordinaire) Christina and I exchange loving looks.

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Me and Richard Jerram, my first 5Rhythms instructor, without whom this blog probably wouldn’t even exist.

As you can see from the photo above, I got into the ballroom. But it was nerve-wracking! Everyone who entered the lobby had to give their names, which were eventually called in groups of 25 before the ballroom reached capacity. It was like waiting for a callback at an audition.

The ballroom itself was so fitting for Gabrielle’s memorial. It was ornate but in a colorful, funky way—somewhere between Versailles and Versace.

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Being in that ballroom was like standing on the red carpet at the Oscars—so many notable teachers and friends of 5Rhythms made their way across the floor, flaunting an array of fashion from flamboyant to fancy to free-and-fabulous. Julia Wolfermann, who teaches regularly for our Philadelphia tribe, managed to Staccato in a stunning red gown, whereas Douglas Drummond sweat his prayers in a dress shirt and pants with suspenders. Others wore Spandex, some men took off their shirts, women came dressed to the nines, others came in street clothes. Just like the practice of 5Rhythms, individuality reigns supreme.

Off to the side of the room were two tables—one with slips of paper on which we were invited to write down memories of Gabrielle and the practice she brought into our lives, and another displaying hundreds of black feather necklaces, a part of the Raven for each of us. Receiving that simple black feather and placing it over my hair and around my neck felt so symbolic, like an Olympian bowing down to receive her gold medal. It wasn’t the object itself that carried weight but what it stood for.

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The Raven has flown, but her spirit lives on.

At the front of the room, an installation by 5Rhythms’ artistic maven, Martha Peabody:

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As this event was being held in memory of someone who had died, I wasn’t sure the tone it would take on. The workshop I took part in back in October—as Gabrielle was actively dying—had very somber moments, understandably, almost feeling like a funeral at times.

However, this was a celebration, inspiration, a call to move. After Gabrielle’s husband, Robert Ansell, and her son Jonathan A. Horan (now the executive director of 5Rhythms Global) spoke, Gabrielle’s face flashed onto a large movie screen at the front of the room. It was footage from one of her last public events, recorded on Mother’s Day 2012.

It would be a disservice to try and recreate here what she was discussing on screen. But in a typical workshop format, she talked frankly about the practice, applying it to all facets of life, that after Stillness there comes Flowing, because when one Wave ends, another begins, and that’s just how it is.

And so we danced, over 300 of us, moving from a moment of prayerful Stillness to finding our feet again in Flowing, Robert and long-time drumming sidekick Sangha on percussion, Jonathan offering occasional verbal guidance that ranged from pleading passion to friendly ferocity.

My movement felt celebratory that night, hardly an ounce of heaviness in my limbs. We switched rapidly from partner to partner to partner during Staccato; during Lyrical, Jonathan encouraged us to dance with our hearts open. Just that one little suggestion instantly changed my movement, my face lighting up, my shoulders rolling back and deepening the heart-to-heart connection with whomever I was partnered with at the time.

I danced with some people for no more than 45 seconds—complete strangers!—yet our intertwined energies felt like lifelong friends. I danced with myself, closing my eyes and going inside. I witnessed others’ movements and reshaped their movement to become my own.

It was the essence of 5Rhythms, finding relationship within the movement and movement within a relationship, which Gabrielle spoke of during another round of the movie screen discussion. Again, I had never met Gabrielle, but the largeness of her face on that screen, the passion and intensity with which she spoke, and the respectful silence among all 300-some of my fellow dancers made it feel like she was really in that room.

The night ended with Jonathan waving his hand like a raven flying toward the heavens: up, up, and away. Black feathers looped around our necks, we all followed along, silently sending our raven on her way.

It was an ending, but everything about the evening felt so very strongly like a new start to me. In some respect, I felt like I was back at my very first 5Rhythms class, remembering that I was just a beginner to this practice. I think others felt similarly about the memorial—and Gabrielle’s passing in general: not to sit in Stillness too long, to find the flow once again, to make a promise to seek out and be receptive to new perspectives and pathways.

THE BEGINNING.

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The idiom “going around in circles” doesn’t usually carry a positive connotation, but that’s the shape our movement took during a recent “Dancing Mandala” 5Rhythms workshop. If it’s hip to be square, then it sure is satisfying being a circle.

A combination of dance, breathwork, and artistic expression, the event was touted as a three-part journey into our soul, using the five rhythms, five elements, and five points on the mandala (four around the perimeter, one in the center) as gateways into our essence. From the website:

While bridging the five elements—Earth (Flowing), Fire (Staccato), Water (Chaos), Air (Lyrical), Ether (Stillness)—with the 5Rhythms, we will subconsciously create a moving mandala. As a culmination of this experience, we will pause in the last rhythm of Stillness for a breathing meditation, then conclude and refine the energies by creating a visual mandala you will then take with you.

Woah. I registered for the workshop before reading this heavy-duty description, eager for any kind of dance and art combo. Meditative movement opens up all kinds of creative portals in me; I kept thinking back to my yoga teacher training at Kripalu, when, after days and days of nothing but yoga, meditation, and pranayama, we were handed large sheets of paper and crayons and asked to draw what our future looked like. Everyone was in some other realm of consciousness at the time, so the artwork that came forth probably contains about 12 layers of psychological interpretation. Six years later, I still don’t know what mine means but yet somehow I feel like I’ve been living in the middle of it the whole time:

Hands, feet, arrows, footprints, hearts, spirals…. Makes sense, right?

Well, the event was way more than a little dancing, a little painting. The workshop’s organizers—Nancy, Stavros, and Johanna—created such a sacred space that I was reluctant to even bring my cheap plastic water bottle into the transformed grade-school auditorium. Ivy-like garland lined the room’s perimeter, each corner containing an altar dedicated to one of the elements. Fellow dancer Phil consecrated our quarters by offering a fragile, authentic, handmade mandala thangka from India as decoration with a purpose:

Before class, we were asked to bring in a small object that represented one of the elements; as we walked into the space, we were encouraged to visit each of the elemental altars and find one on which to place our object. My object (a polished heart-shaped stone) represented earth, but I was very attracted to the second altar, accented with a tall glass vase filled with water. I kept thinking back to the Rilke quote that “chose me” during my recent Kripalu workshop: “May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children.” So it was there next to the water that I lay my earthen heart.

I fell effortlessly into the dance once the music began, but I noticed one thing was really bugging me:

Yes, this beautiful centerpiece—which so perfectly represented the fifth circle of a mandala, the ether—was making me anxious. Now, at the time of our dancing it did not have the candles or paintings, but it was still a giant piece of real estate on which we could not dance.

Or could we? Now that I think about it, I honestly don’t recall the instructor telling us whether we could or could not dance within the circle. I think we all just assumed that this ring was revered, and it would be an act of profanity to step over the white line. Many times I caught myself wanting so badly to leap into the circle; I flirted with the ether, every now and then allowing one leg to hover over the edge during a spin. I wasn’t even fully sure whether there were rules, but I seemed to have imposed my own…and then challenge them.

Fortunately, we had an opportunity to work with these restrictions and challenges. Working in pairs, one person faced the center circle as the partner stood facing back, acting much like a gatekeeper to the treasures and freedom that the flowing white ring represented. One person danced her struggles, falling into a repetitive movement that the partner, serving as a witness, eventually copied.

Then came the uncomfortable part—the mover stood still and watched her dance being played out, a mirror image come to life. What a surprise to step back and see your movement through your own eyes, like reading an old journal entry. There was a bit more to this exercise, a transformation element that involved breaking through the struggle, and for most people the end result was a feeling of relief, like we had just crawled through a long and dark cave and finally stumbled on a pocket of light. Nancy’s next choice of music following this exercise was Michael Franti’s upbeat “I Know I’m Not Alone,” and with it came a dance of celebration. The energy among the entire group had shifted profoundly, and I remember bopping along, smiling like a goofball, feeling like we had all survived something big together, we made it through, so let’s just dance and have fun.

This partnering exercise was the pinnacle of the dance portion of class, a time that I could energetically and emotionally feel my individual self merge with my classmates. We had started as separate circles, our own little individual planets, and then BOOM! Suddenly we were not just stand-alone celestial circles anymore but part of a massive universe, everyone joining the same orbit, a cohesive, spinning mandala.

This mandala only tightened over time, especially during Stillness, as everyone stood around the circle’s edge. Even those I stood across from—separated by a ring of cloth and stones and other small objects—our dance was together. I was engaged in an intimate pas de deux with my stone heart yet at the same time participating in a much larger group dance prayer.

At the very end of class, each of us was given the chance to step inside the circle and do our own personal dance. It was an intensely moving moment, and many people’s expressions brought me to tears. I bit my lip and gripped hard onto those hands I held on either side of me.

The breathwork that proceeded the dancing was anything but your typical belly-breath pranayama—more like 20 minutes of non-stop kundalini breath of fire. Good thing we were lying down, otherwise I may have toppled over! Stavros had warned us beforehand of the effects of such breathing—heaviness/tingling in the extremities, a panicky feeling in the gut that can lead to an emotional release. He was spot-on: The hyperventilating rocked my body, and I vacillated between wanting to sob and laugh hysterically. My hands and feet felt like they were all individual centrifuges, spinning spinning spinning with such intensity. At times they went from feeling like each finger and toe weighed 10 pounds to me not feeling them at all. Nancy (bless her!), feeling the need to support me but not entirely sure what to do, rubbed my feet, held my stomach, and placed a rock in my palm, which I swore was going to levitate from the energy pulsing in my hand. The vibration coming from my palm was so strong that I watched in amazement as the stone ever-so-subtly slid from the center of my hand out toward the edge.

The whole time we were panting and buzzing and crying and laughing, Johanna was secretly setting up individual painting stations for each of us, so that by the time we rolled up off the ground and opened our eyes, there, like magic, were canvases and brushes and a rainbow of paint blobs for us to experiment with. The original intention was for everyone to paint their own mandala, given the subject of the workshop; however, we were all in such a state of woo-woo after that wild breathing that everyone just started doing their own thing and Johanna was reluctant to interfere with the creative process. I tried hard to stay in the semi-hypnotic state and let my heart and gut do the painting rather than my head.

The results (displayed in the previous photo) were still beautiful, a tangible extension of the deep emotional work we had done on the dance floor. It was nice to have a “take-home” element by which to remember the event, although I’m not planning on hanging my creation on my walls anytime soon. My art therapist friend would have a field day with this one:

It was a long afternoon—nearly 4 hours of delving deep into our minds and bodies. In a sense, we were a bit like the monks who spend days, even weeks creating the most intricate sand mandalas, grain by grain. When their elaborate creation is completed, the monks essentially destroy it, brushing the sand together and letting it run off into the air or water, a symbolic act representing impermanence while also spreading forth the blessings and energy of the artwork to which they had committed so much attention and mindfulness.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user waltarrrrr

Each of us was a grain of sand, the workshop a means of coming together into one brilliantly colorful circle. During that final moment of Stillness, as we stood close and held hands, we were that completed mandala. And breath by breath, brushstroke by brushstroke, we gradually separated from each other—the monk’s hand sweeping over our collaborative art—becoming individuals again, yet with a new sense of spirit, energy, and wisdom.

Like the mandala’s sand flowing back into the river, we each went our separate ways after class but yet somehow feeling like we were now part of a much larger picture.

(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.

Five years ago on this day, the first week of my Kripalu YTT ended. Week 2 begins.

I am tired today. Emotionally, mentally not with it. My head feels stuffed with clouds and cotton balls. Slightly irritable. Morning sadhana with Kimberly. I do Warrior III for the first time in weeks and feel kind of heavy.

***

I eat a lot at lunch, trying to fill myself with food, since I’m not full otherwise. Baked squash. Salad. Mac and cheese. Soup, bread, rice cake and jam, coffee. Still hungry.

***

Our nametags are used constantly. One day I came into the cafeteria and I hear, “Here you go, Jennifer.” One of the volunteers hands me a tray. I walk to the front desk and the woman says, “How can I help you, Jennifer?” I feel known. Special. Acknowledged. It’s kooky but nice. Like the Seinfeld episode.

***

The effects of yoga mudra in a forward bend are intense after coming back up. My arms feel as though they have a life of their own; they want to swirl, dance, undulate, sway. There is a magic propulsion under and around them. The effects of belly-down postures are, um, titillating. Yoga practice has definitely ignited my fire, and pressing my pelvis in the floor causes quite an energy. My Locusts and Boats are getting much higher, due to that mula bandha fire.

***

I came into the afternoon session very, very sluggish. So tired. Confused. Spacey. When they tell us we’d be doing pranayama for the afternoon, I cringed. Blah. But after 90 minutes of dirgha, ujayii, kapalabhati, and nadi shodhana breathing…wow. Instant revitalization. I resisted and silently protested pranayama so much, but I left that room floating on air. My bowels even moved a little. I started Jurian’s sadhana on an ecstatic note. I entered Stage 3 several times, floating back into Warrior I, twisting into Triangle, dancing into Half Moon, sinking into janu sirsanana and coming up from Plough without even thinking. During savasana, I see the cafeteria buffet–lasagna. Me scooping up lasagna. Near the end of savasana, I see all of my classmates and teaches get sucked into my heart center, like a reverse parting of the Red Sea. So many faces and personalities getting sucked into my core. All this wonderful energy.

I had a lot to smile about yesterday–a fresh pumpkin raisin muffin from the farmers market, getting to pet a black pug, and a long mid-afternoon walk through town with Bryan–but the thing that got me smiling the most was an hour of Laughter Yoga!

Laughing with Buddha (Lhasa, Tibet)

A local yoga studio offered the hour-long class, led by Bob Pileggi. I was interested in the class because it seemed to be more about the physiological/psychological aspects of laughter and smiling, not about telling funny jokes or being silly for the sake of being silly. And just having written about the importance of breathing and opening up the lungs, I thought this would be a great way to experiment more with just that. Another reason I went was to figure out how to lighten up a bit. A lot of times when I’m doing the 5Rhythms, I feel like everything but my face dances, that there is so much emotion in my hands, my fingers, my torso…everything but my face. Even when I feel joy inside, my jaw clenches. It takes a lot of build-up for me to break out into a genuine smile or to laugh when I dance. I hoped that Laughter Yoga would teach me how to be more comfortable turning up those two corners of my lips. 🙂

I was a bit anxious when only three other students showed up for the class; would it be possible to bust a gut laughing with such a small group? (Answer: YES!) Bob instructed us to commit ourselves 100% to the exercises, like little children playing princesses or pirates. Immerse ourselves completely, don’t hold back. I vowed to do just that; I mean, I had paid for the class so I might as well dive right in.

We started standing with some simple warm-up exercises to loosen the spine and hips, then moved on to conscious breathing, very much like dirgha pranayama in yoga, raising the arms during inhale, lowering the arms during exhale. We picked up the pace by breathing as though we were blowing out a candle on a birthday cake, very sharp exhales, a bit like kapalabhati breath. Already, I could feel my lungs opening up, my cells dancing with oxygen.

Then came the vocalizations, which we used for much of the class: Ho, ho, ha-ha-ha, done while clapping to the rhythm. We did this standing in a circle, exchanging eye contact with others. This continued for a while, getting louder, softer, faster, slower. Bob encouraged us to change the pitch of our voices, the direction of our clapping. Soon, this exercise continued with us walking around the studio instead of standing in place, still making eye contact with those we passed. Things lightened up at this point, and we shifted in and out of different “characters,” maybe ha-ha-ha’ing haughtily like a snobby debutante or ha-ha-ha’ing demonically like a monster. Before we knew it, unconscious giggles slowly began to escape our lips.

Once the beginnings of true laughter began to appear, we got back in our circle and…laughed. It felt a bit forced at first, just a tad uneasy. But the longer we continued, the more real it became. Each person’s laughter took on a different tone; one woman had a cute giggly sound to hers, another had a spirited ebullience to hers. Hearing all the different kinds of laughter was, well, kind of funny and contagious, and eventually I felt the shift from “I’m doing this because the instructor said so” to “I’m doing this because it’s coming naturally to my body!” It was a bit like babies crying–when one starts, they all start.

Next, we connected laughter to emotions. Standing in the circle, we took turns shouting out things that brought joy to our lives. After each person made their exclamation, we all laughed. It went a bit like this: “My baby nephew falling asleep on my chest.” (::laughter::) “Walking down Main Street, USA in Disney World!” (::laughter::) “Little curly puppy dogs!” (::laughter::) Then came the trickier part: doing the same thing, but shouting out things that caused us stress: “Sitting in traffic!” (::laughter::) “Sallie Mae loans!” (::laughter::) “Getting into a fight with your boyfriend!” (::laughter::) As Bob explained, if something stressful has happened and there’s nothing you can do about it, why cause yourself more stress by stewing and steaming? By choosing to laugh at something, you’re guiding your body into a more optimistic response and not harming your health in the process.

One of my favorite exercises was the three-part’er: (a) Cover your mouth and give a small, polite, demure little giggle; (b) Relax and give a medium-sized chuckle; and (c) Let loose and give a full belly laugh. I found this to be a bit like 5Rhythms–a little wave of laughing–from flowing to staccato to chaos. By the time we got to chaos (full belly laugh), we were ready to erupt. For a while, it sounded like the five of us were old college chums meeting up for the first time in years, cracking up about the good ol’ days. The funny thing is that I only knew one person in the class.

Before a final savasana, we lay on our mats and went through a final breathing-to-laughter exercise. Maybe it was because we were all spread out across the room and couldn’t see each other, but I found my most authentic laughter during this part. I heard one woman’s delightful giggle and just lost it, the full back-arching, throaty laughter you get when someone tickles you mercilessly. It eventually winded down naturally, and soon I was sinking into my yoga mat for a very peaceful savasana.

Sure, the class felt a bit silly at times, but just an hour of ho, ho, ha-ha-ha’ing and laughing without reason opened me up from my core to my head. That area of my body that always feels so neglected during 5Rhythms had a chance to dance, and I felt all kinds of wonderful pops and cracks throughout my spine and neck as the muscles around them relaxed and warmed up. For someone so intrigued by pranayama practice, I was thrilled to work with the breath in such a unique way–standing and moving and laughing–not necessarily sitting in lotus pose and doing ujayii breath for 20 minutes straight.

Also, on a more biopsychosocial-spiritual level, the actions of laughing and vocalizing are centered around the chest (anahata chakra) and throat (vishuddha chakra). Since finding out I have hypothyroidism, I am especially interested in the vishuddha chakra, and that maybe perhaps I don’t give it enough attention. Maybe introducing more laughter and throat-opening exercises will help my thyroid?

Playground version of simhasana (Lion's pose)

What did you laugh about this weekend?

OK, so it’s become evident that my morning routine is a bit extensive. As my husband noted the other night as I set my alarm clock:

Me: I’m sleeping in tomorrow!

Bryan: So, you’re getting up at what, 5:45?

Me: 6!

Bryan: Well, I guess you won’t be able to do all 17 of your morning exercises then.

And I didn’t. That morning, I had time for one set of the 6 movements of the spine, a downdog or two, and finally–pranayama.

Pranayama is the practice of breathwork. It’s breathing but with control, focus, and mindfulness. Yes, we breathe involuntarily all day, but when you take a few moments to do nothing but concentrate on your inhalations and exhalations, the benefits can be felt almost immediately. A greater sense of calm. More energy. Vitality. Like you’re really alive, that you are not numb to the world around you. You feel. After all, inhalations increase sensation.

During my yoga teacher training at Kripalu, we did A LOT of pranayama. It was one of foundations of the style and was incorporated into every class. I think I breathed more during that month than I did the 26 years of my life leading up to the program. The results were intense, especially after one session where we did nothing but different styles of pranayama for an hour and a half. I’m 99% sure I floated out of the classroom that day. I left Kripalu with a new appreciation for the practice and a fondness for oxygen.

One of my favorite pranayama techniques is nadi shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing (also called “anulom vilom” at Kripalu). I try to do it every morning, because it focuses my mind and helps clear both nasal passages.

Most people sit cross-legged; I sit in hero with a blanket between my butt and feet.

The right hand (active hand) goes into Vishnu mudra: index and middle fingers tucked into palm; thumb will close off right nostril; ring finger and pinky, acting as a unit, will close off the left nostril. The left hand (resting hand) can rest gently on your knee or lap.

1. Gently press right nostril shut with thumb. Inhale slowly through left nostril.

2. Close off left nostril with ring/pinky fingers and exhale slowly through right nostril.

3. Keep right nostril open, inhaling slowly.

4. Shut off right nostril and exhale through left.

5. Keep left nostril open, inhaling.

6. Close off left nostril and exhale through right.

So on and so forth. There are several variations of this technique, including adjusting the ratio of inhalation/exhalation counts, retaining your breath at the top of every inhale and bottom of every exhale for a few moments, breathing only through one nostril, so on and so forth. I usually stick to the basics for about 5 minutes. One thing I’ve heard in kundalini classes is that finishing your last exhalation through the left nostril (lunar side) will promote peace and calmness, whereas ending with an exhale through the right nostril (solar side) will promote increased energy; hence, the side I finish on in the mornings!

Another note: You don’t need to be sitting peacefully on a yoga mat or blanket to reap the benefits of nadi shodhana. Sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic is a great time and place to do this, and you may arrive at your destination with blood pressure that’s not off the charts!

My final pranayama of the morning is kapalabhati breath. This is very intense, rapid breathing that involves a quick, involuntary inhalation through the nose followed by a sharp exhalation through the nose while simultaneously contracting the belly. It’s also called “Breath of Fire,” and rightfully so. It will warm you up in seconds! It’s a bit tricky to teach through words and it usually takes people a few tries to get it right. When executed properly, you won’t even be aware of your inhalations, and during your exhalations, your belly will look like it’s being punched by an invisible hand.

Here’s one of my favorite add-ons to kapalabhati, which I learned at Kripalu. It makes a juicer practice even juicier!

After your final exhalation, continue drawing out the exhale as you bend your upper half over your legs. Open your mouth and expel as much air as possible, like you’re vomiting oxygen/carbon dioxide.

Keeping the body empty of air, roll up through the spine and retain the exhale while sitting peacefully. When done correctly (and it takes a few tries), you’ll feel a “vacuum” effect from the belly up through the throat. Keep your pelvic floor engaged and lifted, the belly pulled in, and a slight lock in the throat (this throat lock is called jalandhara bandha).

Stay in this exhalation retention for as long as you can, concentrating on the belly as your mental focal point. Learn how to respond, not react to the desire to inhale. Panic mode will set in quickly, but the lesson is to work beyond the initial “OMG I’m gonna diiiie!” reaction. You will not die, and you may even find that moving beyond that initial fear will feel quite empowering and peaceful.

When the time is right, take a deep inhale through the nose…but only inhale to 2/3 of your capacity, so you’re not stuffed to the brim with air. At this time, shift your focus to the third eye (the space between your eyes, but just a hair higher) and retain the partial inhalation, allowing the oxygen to swirl throughout your body, feeling it dance from your head to your toes. I always feel a gentle, warm “hum” in my head at this point and a faint golden glowing sensation between my eyes, like all the rest of the world has shut off and I am just here. I tend to hold my hands out, palms up during this part, because I feel open to receiving energy.

Again, hold this inhalation until it’s absolutely necessary to finish the other 1/3 and then exhale into normal breathing. I do this sequence about three times and then finally–FINALLY!–end my 47538923893-step morning routine with a big, fat Om!

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?”

“Nadi shodhana.”

“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!

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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