Falling Down

May 16, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Posted in compassion and connection, coworkers and colleagues, holding myself accountable, observations, poses and asana | Leave a comment

WOW.  How long has it been since I’ve been HERE?!  Is anyone still following?

Regardless, I was inspired to come back and write in this space when my friend Liv posted this article on facebook.  Go ahead; read it.  I’ll wait.

This part stood out to me:

“Because if you don’t practice it, how can you teach it?!”

While a part of me honors those who leave out certain poses because they’re simply not in their own practice, I find that I use this principle as inspiration for moving outside of my proverbial “comfort zone.” I WANT to try new things so that I can share them with my participants, and I think that there’s a LOT of under-appreciated value in having participants watch an instructor wrestle with a pose.

I think that too many people come to yoga class thinking that they’ll NEVER be as good as the instructor. Hell, I’ve been practicing for going on 13 years now, and I STILL think that every time I walk into someone else’s class.  Despite my exhortation that students NOT compare themselves to other people (or judge themselves too harshly), I find myself doing just that.  Every teacher is more graceful and flexible than I am, and I’m particularly bothered by the fact that I can’t (yet) execute a full bind and that my standing straddle is, in my estimation, wholly insufficient.

Letting that go is still a deliberate practice for me.  Someday, maybe, I’ll get past it, but for now it’s still something that I’m actively working on.

I think, though, that letting my participants see me fall out of half moon – sometimes spectacularly – or fight for a bind that I can only maintain for one breath gives them permission to fall down and fight, too.  Watching me struggle, seeing me shake and sweat, and listening to me talk about the places where it doesn’t just flow demonstrates to them that this yoga thing really IS a process.

Though it sounds counter-intuitive, falling down makes us better.

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Pose Study: Mountain Pose / Tadasana

March 29, 2009 at 8:34 am | Posted in poses and asana | 1 Comment

I’ve been bothered lately that I haven’t been posting with any kind of regularity here.  Yoga is a really big part of my life, but one wouldn’t know it by glancing at the frequency of my posts.

Since it’s bugging me, I decided this morning that I would start a feature here in which I do an in-depth investigation of individual poses.  I spend a fair bit of time in my classes trying to teach good (and safe) form; having some of those studies here might be a good way of clarifying the postures in my mind – not to mention helping others get them right, too.  Here, then, is one of the foundational poses; mountain stance or tadasana (ta•DAH•sah•nah).

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Begin by finding a comfortable position with your feet.  Traditionally, this pose is taught with the insides of the feet touching and the insides of the legs zipped together, but I don’t find that a comfortable way to stand, so I go with a hip-width stance.  Having said that, though, most people have no realistic concept of how wide their hips actually are, so I teach them to put two fists together at the thumbs and try to fit them between their feet; if the fists just barely fit – so much the better if they have to squeeze in a little too tightly – then the stance is just about right.

Begin by focusing just on the feet.  Imagine looking at yourself from underneath the floor; you should see a nice, even footprint on the mat.  Lift all your toes up as high as you can, spread them out, then set them back on the mat.  Try to make your feet even toes to heels, inside of foot to outside of foot, and left to right.  Make the outside edges of your feet parallel to one another, then wiggle around until your feet feel “right.”

Once you’ve settled your feet, bring your attention through your ankles, then put a soft little bend in your knees and put them underneath your hips; this will tilt your tailbone under just a bit, which is good.  Imagine putting a big space between every bone in your back – start at your tailbone and open up all the way to the bone tucked under your skull at the top of your neck.

Pull your belly button in and up toward your heart (even if it doesn’t actually move very much), then push your heart out just a bit and lift it toward the ceiling.  Square your shoulders and let them slide down your spine away from your ears.  Check to make sure that the points of your hip bones are parallel to the floor.  Release your arms down and relax your hands.

People generally lead with their faces.  Don’t believe me?  Next time you’re at a stop light, look at the guy in the car next to you; his face will be well in front of his neck, I practically guarantee it.  Check out the woman at the table next to you in the restaurant.  Watch the way people walk and you’ll see what I mean; people’s noses get there before they do.  In order to counter this tendency, tuck your chin very gently toward your spine and imagine pushing all your energy out though the center of the top of your head.  Think of a charging bull – always lead with the middle of the top of your brain, not with your nose or your chin.  It’s not important how close you can get your face to the floor in yoga; what’s important is how long you can make your spine.

From here, I invite people to relax into the pose.  You shouldn’t feel like you’re a soldier on review; you’re strong and straight, certainly, but you shouldn’t be tense.

Here is also where I invite people to close their eyes.  Doing this accomplishes three things: one, it keeps people from comparing themselves to anyone else; two, it helps people get inside their skin to feel what’s happening in there and to make sure that their bones are properly lined up and that the right muscles are working and the rest of them are relaxed; and three, it helps to bring people back to a consciousness of their breath.

Begin to be aware of your breath here.  Just observe it at first; don’t try to change or influence it.  Notice everything you can about the breath; how it feels, how it sounds, how you actually physically breathe – through your  mouth or your nose or a combination of each – how it tastes or smells, how your body changes as you breathe in and out, and what happens between the breaths.  Then, using six or seven or however many you need to get there, begin to deepen the breath.  Try to work from bottom to top; every time you breathe in, take the air deeper into your body with the goal of breathing all the way into your hip pockets and, eventually, all the way into the sinuses behind your eyebrows.  Every time you breathe out, start by emptying the bottom part of your breath first, eventually emptying all the way to behind your eyebrows.  Don’t force the breath, mind you – only breathe to your own capacity – but do be mindful fo reaching that capacity, and of maintaining it through your practice.

I often do a little visualization work here, as well.  I ask my students to imagine a little ball of light between heart and breastbone, and ask them to use their breath to power it up so that it’s strong enough to send a beam of light to the bone that lives right behind their heart and, from there, to illuminate their spine such that a beam of light shines from their tailbone and from the crown center of their head.  I use this image through the class to keep their attention on making their spines long and of reaching through poses rather than simply just standing there.

So, that’s mountain pose. It’s a lot more than “just standing there,” huh?

I generally use this posture at the beginning of class as a centering pose, and between rounds of forward folds, sun salutations, and series of warriors or standing stretches.  After certain rigorous series, if one stands quietly in mountain pose, one can often feel one’s fingers and face tingling – I love the delight that people express when they realize that they can feel that in themselves, and I sometimes have a hard time getting people to leave mountain because they’re so enjoying being present.

Namaste, y’all.

Twice in One Day

February 1, 2009 at 3:32 pm | Posted in compassion and connection, observations, philosophy, poses and asana, practice off the mat | 2 Comments

Today was a GREAT yoga day for me.

For starters, I had 38 people in my Sunday morning class.  Yep, you read that right; THIRTY EIGHT.  I’m more than a little surprised that my numbers are still that high, frankly; I’m used to a surge in attendance after the new year – resolutions and all – but the herd usually thins substantially by now.  I am heartened and humbled that so many people are willing to leave their warm beds on Sunday mornings to come and play with me.

I had a couple of brand-new, never-been-to-a-yoga-class-ever folks in class today.  I LOVE it when new people come to my class; I feel like it’s an opportunity to hold open a door for them.  So many of them come in nervous and apprehensive, and most of them leave feeling like this yoga stuff isn’t so scary after all.  I love that.

Anyway, we had a great class.  I worked ’em a little harder than usual, though don’t ask me why because I have no idea where the energy for a warrior series AND a sun salutation came from.  Through it all, though, I was mindful of my new folks and made sure that my directions were very clear.  I reminded people, again and again, to only do what they could – that their best was, and always is, good enough.  When it was all over, I laid them all out for a little rest, settled into a seated posture myself, and waited for the Universe to tell me what today’s lesson was.

What I got was an impression of Thich Nhat Hanh eating a tangerine.  In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Hanh tells the story of eating a tangerine – really EATING it – to remind us that we can receive so much more of life’s wonders and blessings if we just stop long enough to actually NOTICE them.

“So much of our lives,” I said, “feel like riptides.  We’re so focused on keeping our heads above water – on just keeping UP – that we often look around and realize that days and weeks have gone by without our ever feeling like we were present in our lives.  As you take your practice off the mat and into your world this week, try to be mindful of the opportunities that the Universe offers you to BE here.  When you’re walking somewhere, be aware of all the wondrous things that happen to keep you upright and moving forward.  Really TALK.  Really LISTEN.  Be where you are.”

I woke everyone up and started rolling up my mat when Gail came to talk to me.  She’s an accomplished practitioner and rarely comes to talk, so I was concerned that perhaps she’s acquired an injury or wanted to express a concern about something that happened in the class (why do we always go to the negative first?!).  Instead, she wanted to tell me that the closing thoughts I shared with the class were exactly what she needed to hear.  She told me that she’s dating again after more than a decade, and that she’s finding it difficult to let go and trust.  “Being where I am – being mindful right now – is exactly what I need to do.”  It brought goosebumps to my skin to hear her say that – and it’s bringing them up again now as I retell the story.

After Gail left, one of my brand-new folks came and introduced himself.  HE had something to say, too, and he touched on something that I occasionally worry about as a yoga teacher.  “I know that some people, especially people who come to your class all the time, might find it repetitive, but it was great that you kept telling us to only do what we could.  I can’t do much, and the only reason I stayed for the whole class was because you told me that what I could do was good enough.”

More goosebumps.  I love my job.

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Registration… and Resignation

June 27, 2008 at 6:56 am | Posted in learning and growing, poses and asana, questions and conundrums | 2 Comments

First, the “registration” part:

I’m officially registered with Yoga Alliance. In the big picture, I’m not entirely sure what that gets me, exactly, except a cool sticker like the one you see here. I also know I can get decent (and cheap) liability insurance through the alliance, and it’s something fun to put on my resume and business cards, but beyond that, I’m not sure what else it’s good for.

Now, on to the “resignation” part.

I was going to try to keep this an entirely positive place – to not use this space to vent or complain – but when I thought about it, I realized that the Universe craves balance and that, sometimes, a little venting is a healthy thing. Here, then, is my current frustration which I am trying, with varying degrees of success, to resign myself to:

I taught three yoga classes yesterday for three different colleagues at my health club. It started with a class at 5:45 (which, despite the obscenity of the hour, was actually kind of fun), continued through a 9:30 a.m. class, then finished up with a 5:30 class that I’ve subbed several times before. Well, in the evening class, there was someone I’ve not yet encountered, and he frustrated the CRAP out of me.

I don’t mind working with people who are totally “into” yoga. I like their dedication and I think it’s fun to compare notes about our respective practices.

What I DON’T like, however, are people who are SO into yoga that they think they know more than the instructor – especially when they don’t.

Here’s the thing – if I’m giving a corrective cue, PLEASE assume I’m talking to YOU, especially if I keep giving the SAME corrective cue over and over.

Dude over by the windows kept putting himself in the ugliest lunges I’ve seen in a long time. I reminded everyone – over and over again – to make sure their hips were under their shoulders (“don’t hang out over your front knee”) and that their knees were BEHIND their toes. Dude kept leaning out over his knee, which was WELL forward of his toes. Exactly what he thought he was stretching, I do not know, but I do know that he was putting that knee at pretty substantial risk by leaving it out there.

Don’t even get me STARTED on his upward dog.

When I started wandering around the room, offering adjustments, he yanked himself right out of the pose we were doing, so it was pretty obvious he didn’t want my help.

It took me a while to disengage from this. Part of me – the teacher part who cares about the well-being and success of my students – wanted to get right into it with this guy and explain to him that I wasn’t just talking to hear my own voice. There are a lot of good reasons why I’m instructing the class to do these poses in this particular way. The other part of me – the yogini part who understands that I can’t walk anyone else’s path for them – wanted to honor Dude’s right to (ab)use his body in whatever way he saw fit.

I’ll tell you what, though – teacher and yogini? They can really duke it out sometimes.

Still and Quiet

June 23, 2008 at 10:05 pm | Posted in learning and growing, observations, poses and asana, practice off the mat | Leave a comment

I did an experiment with my Friday morning yoga class last week.

The gas crunch has inspired me to coast as often as possible. Whenever I’m on a hill (and it’s safe to do so), I engage the clutch, pull the car out of gear and let Sir Issac Newton power me along. I’m telling you this because it’s a metaphor for a big idea I’m circling around lately as a part of my yoga practice; the idea of releasing oneself to the flow and taking advantage of the energy that’s available to us all. I don’t need to power my car down hills – the Earth will do that for me (and, it turns out, just this act of coasting has increased my gas mileage by almost six miles to the gallon!). Coasting isn’t just a behavior; it’s an attitude, and I wanted to see if I could get my yoga class to step back from themselves and disengage for a few minutes.

I warned them the week before that I’d be adding a single restorative pose to the practice for the coming week. For those of you who don’t know, restorative yoga is a practice which puts practitioners into supported poses and leaves them there for long stretches of time – up to 20 minutes in some cases. The idea is to reach a state where the sympathetic nervous system – the fight or flight response – is shut down and the parasympathetic system – the relaxation and restoration responses – are turned on. The student is given an opportunity to be completely still, to relax completely into the pose, and to experience the sensations of the quiet of body and mind that ensues, with the added benefits of healing and a little bit of rest thrown in for good measure.

What I’ve learned about the population of student who frequents my class is that, for the most part, they are all profoundly uncomfortable with still and quiet. I habitually put students in savasana (the final relaxation at the end of a class) for little more than about 6 or 7 minutes, and even THAT is too much for most of them; they fidget, they sniffle, they wiggle and roll around. Has society gotten so frenetic that we’re unable to lie still for 5 minutes? It seems so.

A few weeks ago, I experienced an epiphany in a restorative yoga class, and I wanted to offer my students an opportunity to play in the quiet spaces of their own inner selves. I explained to them that, for some people, this was going to be the hardest part of the class – some of them, I said, wouldn’t be able to be still for the 10 minutes I was going to leave them in this pose, and that was okay. All I asked was that they do the best they could.

True to my expectations, in a class of 11 people, only 2 of them were able to fully engage in the practice. There was the usual sniffling and shuffling that I hear in savasana (I hear it because I sit in easy pose with my eyes closed, trying to steal a little still-and-quiet for myself, even though my classes aren’t MY practice). I was neither surprised nor disappointed – I had a pretty realistic expectation going in. All I was looking for was exposure, really, and I got it.

When I called them back to themselves and up to a seated position, I asked them to debrief. The 9 who were fidgety said that I was right – it WAS hard (well, two of them said so – the other 7 nodded agreement). The two who were able to sink into the pose echoed my praise of the practice – while they’d never done restorative yoga before, they could certainly see the value in it. Everyone agreed that it might be a good thing to include in the practice on a fairly regular (though not weekly) basis.

I’m pleased by the experiment. It’s often difficult to introduce new elements into established classes – students come to the sessions expecting certain things and can be quite resistant to anything that messes with their comfort levels. My aim as a yoga instructor, though, is to stretch my participants’ experiences so that they’re willing to at least ENTERTAIN a new idea every once in a while. I’m pretty sure they’re not ready to OM just yet, but my teaching them to coast a little more often will certainly do them some good.

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