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I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I came home from work last Wednesday utterly drained and so blah-diddy-blah, I was actually in the throes of PMS. Once a month, usually a few days before my period arrives, there is “Tired Day,” usually in the middle of “Rage [I Hate Everyone] Day” and “Hungry [Eat All the Things!] Day.” No matter how much coffee I consume or how many hours of sleep I get, if it’s Tired Day, I will be on zombie mode.
My first instinct when I came home that day was to immediately put on my pajamas and go to bed. Screw dinner. After all, Hungry Day wouldn’t arrive for another 12 hours! But something inside of me persisted, urged me to at least try to do something physical. I knew better than to push it, and I had no intention of even lifting a dumbbell or holding myself in a chaturanga. Then I remembered the CD I had purchased at Rudy Peirce’s yoga workshop last month, an 80-minute beginner-friendly gentle yoga class. I had yet to try it out, waiting for the perfect moment when such a practice would be appropriate.
That moment had arrived.
The practice is s-l-o-w. Circa-2004 Jennifer would probably hate the CD and throw it out the window in favor of a hot and sweaty ashtanga class. The postures are nothing new, nothing crazy. There are many moments of stillness to allow for integration. We bend to the right. We hold. We breathe. We release. Repeat on the left.
I don’t know if it’s because I know Rudy from Kripalu, whether it’s because I swear his voice alters your brainwaves into a meditative state, or (shocker!) maybe I just needed this type of practice, but man, I felt goood throughout the entire CD, like I was giving myself some kind of yogic massage. Each breath, each stretch, each hold seemed to release a “stickiness” in me, sometimes a physical stickiness in the back or shoulders or an emotional stickiness. The more I followed Rudy, the clearer my foggy head felt, as though each posture were plucking a cotton ball from my brain.
How could it be that I came into this practice so tired, and yet the more I moved the more full of energy I felt? Not an “I’m-gonna-dance-all-night energy,” but just a “Wow, I-feel-alive!” kind of energy? I was moving from zombie to human with each asana, and I loved the feeling so much that when the first 40-minute segment ended (my original self-imposed endpoint), I let the CD keep spinning and continued into the next 40 minutes to complete the entire practice. I even sat in meditation for a few minutes after the CD slowed to stillness, compelled to work with this newfound energy for as long as I could.
Slowing down is difficult for me, and most of my life I always feel like I’m running late to something. For example, last night I went into Philly with my friend to see a show. The second we got off the train in the city, I began booking it to the theater. Now, give me some credit, it was mighty chilly outside and walking fast helped keep me warm, but for some reason I felt like we were running late to the show. The performance started at 7; we walked through the theater doors at 5:58. The box office hadn’t even opened yet. Oops!
I just have a tendency to want to be fast. I drove past a girl running through the park yesterday morning, and for a split-second I really, really missed running. It was cold outside, and the girl was dressed in her black running tights, an Under Armor mock turtleneck, and her winter running hat. I recalled running in the cold-weather months, how I loved that feeling of warming up by running fast on a chilly December morning. Man, to be fast again, I thought.
However, as much as it sucks to have hip issues, maybe not running is some kind of life lesson for me, an invitation to just slow down. Maybe my walking practice is supposed to be the Rudy Peirce version of running, a meditative practice in enjoying the breaths between each step.
Actually, were it not for my long walks, I would never have the time to listen to some of my favorite iPod selections. Through walking, I am given the opportunity to listen to Christmas carols as I stroll through neighborhoods lit up for the holidays and some of the most intriguing/hilarious/inspiring podcasts. Right now, I’m addicted to NPR’s Radiolab, where each episode covers some mind-blowing aspect of science that leaves your jaw on the floor. For instance, the other day I listened to a story on the origin of AIDS and its spillover into the human race, a frightening account of a woman with transient global amnesia who couldn’t form new memories beyond 90 seconds, and a poignant story of a young man named Kohn whose voice was significantly altered after a childhood accident.
Coincidentally, the title of that last episode?
It feels like it was forever and a day ago, but last month I had the opportunity to take a 2-day yoga workshop with one of my main facilitators from my Kripalu yoga teacher training, Rudy Peirce.
During my month at Kripalu, we were introduced to a wide range of teachers and variations on the Kripalu style, but it was always after Rudy’s classes that I felt the most content, still, and focused. We meditated a lot during those 28 days, but I felt like I always sunk just a little deeper when Rudy was at the front of the room. Rudy is also a master at offering modifications and adjustments, and although I jotted them down in my notebook during my training, their importance was never a great as they are now, when I am constantly looking for ways to make certain postures accessible in light of my hip limitations.
Five years after my training, I consulted with the universe in perhaps meeting up again with Rudy, and the universe answered by bringing Rudy to a yoga studio 45 minutes from my house.
It was a Big Deal for me to attend the workshop, because it meant I’d have to drive–by myself–out of my comfort zone, on unfamiliar roads and highways that kind of scare me (for no reason). This is usually the dealbreaker for me and out-of-town events, but there was no way I could ignore this awesome act of synchronicity. I printed out directions from Google Maps, slapped my husband’s GPS on my dashboard, and set out on the road. My first commute on Saturday was a bit hairy, because my directions led me through a not-so-nice part of Philadelphia. Fortunately, before I went home that evening, the ever-so-gracious owner of The Yoga Garden studio sat down with me and mapped out a way-friendlier route, which I used the following day and arrived without a hitch. Thank you x 1,000,000, Mark!
(By the way? The Yoga Garden is such a fantastic place! I wish I lived closer because I would love to have it as my “home base” studio. Everything from the entranceway to the bathrooms to the lobby was so perfectly zen and aesthetically pleasing. It definitely helped to walk into such a pleasant environment after sweating through a nervewracking drive.)
I saw Rudy in the lobby before class, and he swore that he remembered me from back in 2006 (apparently my last name runs in his family as well). In case he forgot what cohort I was with, I brought along this photo of all the teachers/assistants from Fall 2006:
I didn’t know it coming in, but Saturday’s class was a backbend workshop. I thought it was going to be a general yoga class, and when I found out I got nervous–but for all the reasons why such a class would benefit me: I feel stiffness in my thoracic region, standing backbends don’t come so easily to me anymore, my lumbar spine aches at times. But Rudy’s approach to exploring backbends is slow, simple, and mindful, meaning no Wheel or anything crazy within the first hour of class. We did a lot of warm-ups, several forward bends followed by rising to standing via a straight spine, rather than rolling up. Rudy’s instruction was to “bend the knees, take the curve out of the spine, and come up straight,” as he noted that “rolling up” and stacking the vertebrae can cause strain over time and sometimes is just plain old dangerous for older people with aging spines.
We rose up from every forward bend by either rising the arms overhead or elongating them in a T position out to our sides, palms up, lifting sternum, pressing pubic bone forward, and tilting the head back while gazing to the ceiling in a slight backbend. The first time I did this I felt so stiff, but after several rounds, this move felt delicious. I found myself wanting to hold the backbend for just a little longer, plus I was actually breathing in the bend, something that is usually difficult for me. No longer did my inhalations stop once I dropped the head back.
We did some work with Eagle arms too, which I think really helped work some kinks out of my trapezius and neck. Even though most of us could wrap the arms in Eagle without assistance, we used a yoga strap to hold the arms, which took away any excess strain and helped us focus on our backbends. Pressing the hands to forehead, we went from a backbend to a forward bend, while still holding the arms in Eagle. Have I ever done a forward bend with Eagle arms?? I don’t even know, but it felt great. (Side note: Since this workshop, I’ve incorporated some Eagle arm stretches into my post-swim workouts.)
I knew Camel was coming eventually. When I think of Camel, my mind goes back to Bikram class, when Camel kinda feels like sh*t. But here, we did a lot of prep work leading up to the full pose, including a “Camel dance” (bring right hand to right heel, rise, left hand to left heel, rocking back and forth with breath) and then a one-sided Camel during which the right hand comes to right heel, opposite arm extended up, pubic bone pressing forward, slight backbend. Repeat on opposite side, and continue side to side in your own flow. I tried some prop assistance during this pose, including placing a cushion on my calves instead of reaching all the way down to my heels and then placing a blanket under my feet to raise the heels closer to my hands. Of course, there’s also the option of placing blocks between your feet, but I really liked the cushion-on-the-calves modification. By the time we got to the full expression of the pose, I was fully alive. Gone are my visions of puke-inducing Camel!
Some other modification pointers I took home with me were really, really simple (like, Why didn’t I think of that on my own?!). One is placing a folded blanket under the hands during table pose. I’ve seen the folded-mat variation of this before, but I like this option because it doesn’t shorten your mat. Another was placing a rolled-up yoga mat long-ways across your knees during seated meditation to allow the hands to rest comfortably on the knees. I especially liked this one because I generally sit in hero pose for meditation, and I’ve found it difficult to find a comfortable/natural place for my hands to lie. The yoga-mat option allows my hands to rest beyond my knees as though I were sitting in sukhasana.
As expected with any Kripalu class, we ended with pranayama. I was so excited to be led through kapalabhati with retention, something I learned at Kripalu and never saw after that. Yet it is so invigorating! Rudy also led single-nostril kapalabhati, in which we did 20 expulsions on one side, 20 on the other, and then alternating-nostril kapalabhati. Yowzas! My brain felt cleared of any junk, and my body tingled with oxygenation.
Rudy closed class with his usual “Hari Om, shanti, shanti, peace, peace,” which brought a smile to my lips. I hadn’t heard his voice utter those words since 2006, and it reminded me of Kripalu and the time when one of my classmates asked him what “hari” meant, to which Rudy had replied, “It means Yay!” 🙂
After class, I hung around to talk with Rudy’s wife, Joyce, who had tagged along as his assistant/sidekick. She is a dancer herself, and we spent some time talking about the challenges of being trained in dance/flexibility yet never in strength, as well as the challenges of carrying the “teacher” label and finding a balance between being a student and leader. It was comforting to learn that Joyce also struggled in adapting to being a “teacher” and how it tarnished the innocent love and fascination of yoga that came along with just being a student. And why is there always a tug to become a teacher? Can’t one just be a lifelong student? Why is there a guilt that comes along with practicing yoga for oneself? My husband runs four times a week but is not going out to become a track coach or personal trainer. Is it something about being a woman that makes us feel guilty for being just a tad selfish? Or perhaps it’s the huge sense of responsibility that Kripalu places on its trainees, that Here is this gift. Now it’s your mission to spread it to others. It is something Joyce and I both still struggle with, but it was so reassuring to talk with someone who understands. (This all reminds me of a woman who led belly dance classes at my gym. She always said, “I don’t like to say that I ‘teach.’ I’m not a guru or anything. I prefer to say that I ‘share.’ I just take what I love to do and share it with others.” I love that mentality! It feels so much less burdensome to say “I’m going to share some yoga with others” rather than “teach.”)
Yogas Citta Vritti Nirodhah
(Yoga is the cessation of the modifications of the mind; yoga is the cessation of thought forms in the field on consciousness; yoga is to still the patterns of consciouness) ~Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, 1.2
I returned to The Yoga Garden on Sunday for Rudy’s meditation workshop. The first half of class was a lot of yoga philosophy and talk, much of which I learned at Kripalu. However, Rudy has such a mellow voice that just listening to him induces a peaceful, meditative state. I swear, he could be talking about burgers and I could drift into a wonderful meditation.
Rudy summed up the act of meditation like this: The mind is a media center–movies, slides, songs, photos, memories, books–more channels than cable. Meditation is stepping back and seeing that it’s all just a movie, that you don’t have to be actively engaged in all these media swirling around your neural circuits.
We reviewed the three main components of meditation:
– Dharana: Concentration on one point.
– Dhyana: Witnessing (dropping preferences, evaluation, and identification with thoughts).
– Samadhi: No differentiation of pain and pleasure (non-dual awareness).
Unfortunately, Samadhi was nowhere to be found for me that afternoon. I made the mistake of starting my meditation sit in sukhasana, which my hips were not pleased with. By the time I made the effort to shift positions, my entire left leg from my sacrum down to the toes was asleep and tingling in pain. I tried to breathe through the discomfort, and by the time I settled into a space of ease, our time was up and we emerged out of meditation. Needless to say, my mind never really escaped the “media center” mentality; however, I did learn that just because everyone else in the class is sitting in one position does not mean I have to do the same, especially when I know that it will eventually cause pain! I totally, totally knew this going into the sit, but I succumbed to “peer pressure,” just wanting to be like everyone else.
So, not the best meditation ever, but I still left the studio feeling pretty mellow and chill, a perfect way to commemorate the anniversary of my training with Rudy on the same weekend I graduated from the program 5 years ago.
(And yes, the head scarf I’m wearing in 2006 is the one I’m wearing around my neck in 2011. I bought it during my YTT, so I consider it my “Kripalu scarf”!)
By the time this is posted on Saturday, I will be in Pennsylvania for what is shaping up to be one of the most coincidental full circles of my life.
On this weekend back in 2006, as I have been documenting so fastidiously, I was saying goodbye to Kripalu and my yoga teacher training family, which included facilitator Rudy Peirce. Today, I will be returning to Rudy, exactly five years after he pressed sandalwood on my forehead and acknowledged me as certified yoga instructor.
The way this all unfolded tickled my soul and reinforced my belief in universal connectedness, that somewhere under all the muck and distraction and chaos of everyday life there is an energetic hum that we all sing and dance to.
One month ago, when I started the process of transcribing my notes from Kripalu, the more and more I re-visited that time and place, the more my respect and admiration for Rudy grew. He was one of the two main facilitators for my program; Megha Buttenheim was the other. As a pair, they have been described as yin and yang, Tigger (Megha) and Eeyore (Rudy), due to their opposing personalities. When Megha bounced, Rudy sat still in meditation. When Megha belted out songs and chants, Rudy sang with a simple, subtle voice.
With Megha being a dancer, I naturally gravitated toward her as my “favorite” of the two, although looking back at my journal notes now it’s obvious that every asana practice, meditation, and pranayama exercise that Rudy led affected me deeply. My consciousness soared to new heights with Rudy leading a meditation, and my lungs danced to his breathwork instruction.
Rudy is known for his gentle approach to yoga; in fact, his nickname is “The Gentle Yogi.” Kripalu yoga in general stresses the importance of adapting or modifying poses to be accessible for all bodies, abilities, and limitations. I feel that Rudy, however, goes the extra mile to make sure that even if you’re using two blocks, a blanket, and a bolster to get into a pose that you’re experiencing and living the pose, not just struggling with some props while everyone else around you has some amazing transformation while in folded picture-perfectly in pigeon. Transformation is for everyone, and there are all different routes to get there. Rudy makes sure that happens, not only through his words and instruction but simply his overall demeanor of compassion and reverence.
I didn’t realize how important this was until my hips started to get all funky two years ago due to some torn cartilage and an unstable sacrum. Poses that were once “regulars” in my yoga repertoire suddenly became painful, uncomfortable, or simply inaccessible. It was at this point I understood why I had gone to Kripalu; if not to teach yoga to others, then to teach myself. To be able to go to classes and find other routes into a pose or alternatives altogether. To create a home practice with modifications and poses that may not look “normal” but still allow me to sink into satisfaction. To remember that when my body doesn’t want to flow, I can still achieve peace of mind through meditation and breathing. My Kripalu training has always served me well, but it wasn’t until I recently began re-reading my journal from that time that it finally dawned on me just how important Rudy was in the overall picture.
I would love to take class with Rudy again, I thought to myself a few weeks ago after transcribing a journal entry. I don’t think I gave him my full appreciation at the time. I thumbed through the most recent Kripalu catalog to see if he’d be leading any workshops in the winter. He was, but I don’t even know why I looked in the first place. Kripalu costs money. Kripalu in the winter may require 4-wheel drive. Kripalu requires vacation days that I don’t have right now.
Two days later, I logged into my long-abandoned Yahoo! account to resolve a pestering e-mail issue. There, among the 200+ e-mails (mostly spam) was a newsletter from Rudy I had signed up long ago to receive. It announced his workshops at Kripalu ($$), a special yoga retreat in Italy ($$$$), and…wait, what? A weekend workshop in suburban Philadelphia, the Philadelphia that lies 30 minutes from my house?? A studio I can access simply by car and $5 for the bridge toll, not a 5-hour road trip into the potentially snowy Berkshire Mountains or a trans-Atlantic flight to Europe?
Needless to say, the universe was speaking to me, and I signed up. It was only recently I realized the workshop coincides with the 5-year anniversary of me saying goodbye to Kripalu. Today, I will return—not to the physical structure of Kripalu, but rather the spirit within its walls and the energy that emanates outward. Today, the circle becomes complete.