Swimming milestone: one minute of treading water!

Hey guess what?  You know I did in swimming yesterday?  I treaded water, in the deep end, for a whole minute!  You swimmers may think a minute isn’t long, but for me it was ages!

Treading water is essentially the thing that makes you sink or swim, so being able to do it feels like a pretty big deal.  I’m definitely still trying to get the hang of breathing properly while swimming freestyle – I keep lifting my head up rather than turning my head to the side – but what I feel best about is not panicking while treading in deep water.

The philosophical concept from my yoga practice that I have been thinking about as I’ve worked on treading water is

tapas: the willingness to pursue intensity for the sake of transformation

What is learning to swim as an adult if not tapas?  The key word for me here is willingness; this is a project I took on of my own volition and with the hope that by the end of the summer I would have undergone some sort of transformation.

There was a moment, soon after I first made it back and forth across the pool in deep water, where I realized that I could no longer say “I can’t swim.”  That sounds great, right?  If I’m honest, though, I have to acknowledge that there was a small, brief moment where I panicked at that thought.  Because in some ways we cling to our afflictions, don’t we?  Saying “I can’t swim” is something I’ve been doing for, you know, the better part of three decades.  So it’s kind of a crazy to have to let go of that, and swim out into unknown territory.

There is one other phrase I hear my teachers say often in yoga.  It’s a companion to tapas, and it’s one I take deep comfort in:

all moments of intensity eventually end

Look at me swimming!

In swimming lessons on Tuesday, a crazy thing happened: I swam!  In deep water!  And not only did I swim in deep water, I treaded water, in the middle of the pool, far away from the safety of the wall!

One of the women in my class asked the teacher if we could practice in deep water that day.  The rest of us looked at her like she was nuts.  But as it turns out, we had been swimming back and forth across the pool successfully for the last several weeks, so what difference did it make when the water was deep?  It reminded me a bit of first learning to ride a bike – you’re a bit wobbly at first, but before you know it, you’re off riding down the street with the other kids.

At the end of the lesson, I had a strong urge to shout “look at me swimming!” to anyone who would listen.  That’s a quote from Piglet, of course, in Chapter 8 of Winnie-the-Pooh:

Look at me swimming!

“Look at me swimming!” squeaked Roo from the middle of his pool…  ”Did you see me swimming?” squeaked Roo excitedly, while Kanga scolded him and rubbed him down.

“Pooh, did you see me swimming? That’s called swimming, what I was doing. Rabbit, did you see what I was doing? Swimming. Hallo, Piglet! I say, Piglet! What do you think I was doing! Swimming! Christopher Robin, did you see me–”

I think I need to repeat this performance at least once before I get too confident, but still!  Swimming!

Conquering a fear: adult swimming lessons begin

Yesterday I did something I’ve been meaning to do for a good long while: I took the first step in learning how to swim.  Though I had some lessons at the lake near my house growing up, I never got very far.  (Due to my water-logged swim shoes, I couldn’t kick my feet hard enough to propel myself forward.  The reason I was wearing the swim shoes to begin with?  I didn’t want to get my feet dirty from the bottom of the lake, of course.)  At some point I stopped taking lessons and my summers were consumed by other activities.  Now, at 27, I feel like I ought to make an effort.

I have some incentive.  You may know that Guy and I are getting married next April (hooray!).  We are planning to go to Australia for our honeymoon, and I would love to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef.  I don’t think panicking in deep water is going to serve that goal.  So this summer, I’ve decided that my Personal Improvement Project is learning to swim.

I’m taking an adult immersion swim class at Asphalt Green which is designed to make non-swimmers independent in deep water.  It meets Tuesdays and Thursdays through the end of August – 15 sessions in all.  I am pleased to report that I did not drown during my first class, so I can only assume it will be onward and upward from here!

I’m already finding some parallels between my yoga teacher training and swimming, and I hope to share more of those thoughts with you as the summer progresses.  For now, I can say that although I definitely have some fear and aversion (two of the klesas, or obstacles, if you’re following along in Sanskrit), learning to swim is something I know I can do.  It may be challenging, but most worthwhile goals are.  Like a wise teacher once told me, all moments of intensity eventually end.  We just don’t always know how long the moment will be.

The definition of practice

What do you think of when you hear the words “yoga practice”?  Sutras 1.13 and 1.14 explain the yogic philosophical definition of practice.

1.13 Practice is any effort toward quieting the mind.

1.14 Practice goes on for a long time, without break and with full devotion.

It’s a good thing about sutra 1.14, because my 200-hour teacher training program has officially reached its conclusion.  But that doesn’t mean practice stops!  No, practice goes on for a looooong time.  (Incidentally, the yoga sages didn’t define what exactly a “long” time is, so I think that is up for interpretation.)

It’s challenging to write about the end of TT because it is frankly kind of overwhelming.  I struggled a bit with the initial decision to do the training, but I am so glad that I eventually took the leap.  To do this program with my teacher Jenny (in the center, doing a twist) who I have looked up to, learned from and respected for so many years was such a privilege.  The things I came away learning turned out to be so different than the things I thought I would learn.  It was intense, but it was so, so worth the effort.

Coming down the mountain

“Coming down the mountain” is what teachers sometimes say when the class is heading towards its conclusion. Well, we are coming down the mountain of teacher training. We finished our penultimate weekend, and it was a long one. The previous weekend’s training was cancelled due to repercussions from Hurricane Sandy, so we had training for eight hours each day instead of the usual six. Woah.

Tomorrow will start the final weekend of our training, and I can’t decide whether I think it went quickly or slowly.  Going into the training, I thought my practice might change significantly: poses that I struggled with would somehow magically become accessible to me.  (Last night I dreamed that I could lift my leg up behind my head from an upright standing position, which, I’ll be honest, is not happening anytime soon.)  Certainly there has been some of that.  I came in focused on asana, the physical shapes you make with your body that most people think of as synonymous with yoga.  I know now that asana is the third of the eight limbs of yoga.  Did you even know yoga had limbs?!  The limbs are sort of, priorities, in terms of the aspects of a complete practice.  If you’re curious, I’ll tell you what they are.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

  1. Abstentions (Yama) – there are five yamas, and they are the things we should abstain from, or not do (non-violence, truth, non-stealing, faithfulness, and non-grasping or coveting)
  2. Observances (Niyama) – there are also five niyamas, and they are things we should observe, or do (cleanliness, contentment, tapas, self-study and surrender)
  3. Postures (Asana) – I think you get this one!
  4. Breath control (Pranayama) – regulation of the breath helps to balance the mind and body
  5. Sense withdrawal (Pratiyahara) - withdrawal of the senses of perception from their objects
  6. Concentration (Dharana) – focusing the mind on one thing
  7. Meditation (Diyana) – clearing the mind of thoughts
  8. Equanimity (Samadhi) – a state of blissful awareness

Though each limb is as important as every other limb, it is worth noting that asana is third and not first or even second. For many people in the Western world, asana and yoga have become synonymous, even though according to yogic philosophy they are not. Nevertheless, asana can be accessible and very beneficial to virtually anyone who engages with it. The postures can be modified and varied in level of intensity and difficulty to meet the needs of anyone’s body, whether the practitioner is flexible or stiff, injured or healthy, young or old. Simply taking a full and complete breath can lift and brighten someone’s outlook, which is frankly amazing when you think about it. It can take just a small change to make a big difference in how someone feels, and asana is a tool that draws many people in.

Certainly it is a big part of what drew me to yoga about ten years ago, when I was still in high school.  Over the course of the training, though, I found what changed about my practice was not so much the shapes I could make with my body, though I’d like to that think I’m stronger and a bit more flexible now than when I started.  I also thoroughly understand the correct positioning of the poses in a way that I didn’t before, which makes them more accessible.  What has changed for me the most is my perception.

Through our study of the sutras, my outlook on my ability to do or not do certain poses, or do them "perfectly," has really shifted.  In case this is all sounding kind of hippie-ish to you, let me take a step back and explain what a sutra really is.  A sutra is a short aphorism or statement. I think about the word suture, to sew together, as a way to relate to the sutras, which sew together themes or concepts. The sutras are separated into four padas, or books, and each has a different theme. In this training and in many of the classes I have taken, we focus on the sutras that relate to the physical practice and how that relates to quieting the mind. Each sutra is short and acts as an accessible tool for examining life both on and off the yoga mat. One of my favorite sutras is 2.1, which talks about tapas as an integral part of the practice. When I think about tapas, the willingness to endure intensity for the sake of transformation, it is a useful concept to me both in holding a challenging pose and in so many experiences in my day-to-day life. Moments of intensity eventually pass, and learning to see those moments as potentially beneficial instead of harmful has really helped to change my outlook on life in a positive way.

Warm chocolate cake and a teaching moment

During our lunch break at teacher training today, several of us went to Balthazar Bakery to get something to eat.  It’s been a pretty hectic few weeks, and I saw a chocolate donut on display that was just calling my name.  I decided to treat myself, but lo!  The display donut was the last one they had, and it wasn’t for sale.  Woe is me!

A “Virtuous Meal”

Flash forward to after dinner.  We had leftover provençal zucchini, kale and spinach tart, complete with homemade whole wheat yeasted olive oil pastry dough that I had made the other day.  It was what Guy and I like to call a Virtuous Meal.  Listen, people, there wasn’t even any butter in that tart, and it was de.li.cious.  (Never mind about the Gruyere!)  After dinner we were both feeling like something sweet, especially since I had been thwarted in my efforts to treat myself earlier.

Divide and conquer

We decided to make little individual ramekins of warm chocolate cake – you know, the kind where the center is slightly underdone and still runny?  Mmm.  It’s surprisingly easy and quick to make these if you have the right equipment (most importantly, ramekins) and the ingredients on hand (there are only five ingredients anyway).  We decided to divide and conquer to make the process go a little faster, and I asked Guy if he would melt the butter and chocolate together while I separated the eggs and beat them with the sugar.  I noticed that he had half a stick of butter in one large chunk in a bowl, about to go into the microwave.

A teaching moment

“Wait!” I said.  ”The butter will melt quicker and more uniformly if you cut it up into smaller chunks.”  Oh, he said, and proceeded to cut the butter.  I got distracted doing something else, and next thing I knew, I saw the bowl again, with the butter completely melted and a gigantic hunk of chocolate floating in it.  Perhaps you have inferred (Sutra 1.7) that the same principle about smaller pieces melting faster would apply to the chocolate as well.  I said as much to Guy, and as he worked on belatedly cutting the chocolate in its slightly melty state, I realized I had found myself in a teaching moment.  A teaching moment for myself, of course – not for Guy, who was only following instructions.  I realized that if Guy didn’t know how to handle the chocolate, it was because I had not been clear or specific enough in my explanation.

When we do practice teaching in class, it can be challenging to know whether our instructions make sense because our “students” are fellow teachers-in-training and sort of auto-correct their own poses regardless of what the practice teacher says.  This was a situation where I was, in some capacity at least, teaching someone how to do something and it was obvious that I had left important information out.  It was pretty cool just to notice that and make a mental note for next time.

And in case you were wondering, the chocolate cakes turned out yummy regardless of how evenly the chocolate melted!

The obstacles to my yoga practice

The klesas, or obstacles, are most obvious in challenging and risky poses.  I find them tied closely to insecurity or a lack of self-confidence.  I think I can’t do a handstand (there’s my avidya, misapprehension – I’ve done handstands, I know I am physically capable of doing them) but I also feel that I have been practicing a long time and that I ought to be able do it effortlessly by now (that’s asmita, ego).  I would rather practice headstand, since that’s a pose I feel confident in (ragas, attachment) than a handstand where I struggle (devesha, aversion).  Ultimately, I know what’s holding me back is abinivesha, fear, and frankly, expectation.  I hold tightly to my expectations and generally get what I expect.  If I expect, even for one small moment, somewhere deep within my subconscious, that I won’t be able to get up – the deal is sealed.  It’s not happening.  The physical body is not where the obstacle resides; it’s in the mind.

What’s most frustrating about the klesas is that simply identifying them isn’t enough to conquer them.  In fact, yoga philosophy teaches us that these obstacles are always present; it is my reactions and state of being that are variable.  The obstacles aren’t going to magically disappear one day.  Here is where the gunas, qualities of nature, come into play.  If I’ve had a long day before getting to class, I might feel tired and sluggish (tamasic), which already plants that small seed of “I can’t” in the back of my mind.  Maybe I’m feeling very energetic and having a strong practice (rajastic) – these are the days when I feel most likely to tackle challenging poses.  But too much of that fiery energy can lead from a few tries quickly into frustration and disappointment.  What I’m searching for is sattva, luminosity and equilibrium.  What I haven’t figured out yet is whether sattva leads to doing the pose effortlessly, or not worrying about whether I can or can’t do the pose.  Or whether not worrying about it leads to doing it.  It all comes back to sutra 1.12: to quiet the mind, we must practice and detach.

It's a marathon, not a sprint: halfway through teacher training

It’s the end of weekend six, and there are 11 weekends in my 200-hour teacher certification process… this means I am just over halfway through the program!  Though I did come in with a pretty good yoga foundation, (taking class for 10 years will do that, by osmosis if nothing else!) it has been a very dense and intense (and joyful!) learning experience.  A few highlights:

  • Anatomy!  I am by no means an anatomy expert, but what we have learned about the spine, our joints and the pelvis have been downright fascinating.  I am pretty amazed at how easy it is to feel disconnected from one’s own body, even while practicing a lot of yoga.  I mean, did you know that there are four curves to the spine?  Because I thought there were only three, and I would venture to guess that most people would sort of say, uh, my spine is curved?
  • Extended side angle!  This is one pose I have never been very friendly with.  I always used a block under my bottom hand, and preferably on the inside of the front foot, thank you very much.  It just felt inaccessible and impossible.  With a few simple adjustments, I found that I am able to put my palm flat on the outside of my front foot in the classical position.  It just goes to show that sometimes a simple change of perspective is all it takes to make a big change.
  • Philosophy!  For me, studying the yoga sutras has been a big part of this training.  I have become more interested in the philosophical aspects of yoga as I’ve gone on in my practice, and I appreciate the sutras as a framework for looking at one’s life and actions.  Some of the ideas about detachment and the willingness to endure intensity for the sake of transformation really resonate with me and have really helped me through rough patches in everyday life.  I love talking about the sutras in class and hearing perspectives from the other students.

The path of least resistance

I’ve been thinking in the last week or two about the yogic law of compensation, or the path of least resistance.  In the physical body, this basically means that when you’re tight or weak in one place, your body automatically compensates by going into another (usually less safe) place.  For example, think about doing a standing forward bend.  Most humans are tight in the hamstrings and many may have trouble touching the toes.  If you have tight hamstrings (those are in the backs of your legs), you are likely to round the back and scrunch your shoulders down by your ears, creating tension in the neck and putting your spinal discs at risk.

But we do this in life, too, right?  When something comes up that makes us uncomfortable, fearful, anxious or unstable, do we confront it head on?  Maybe sometimes.  But more often than not, I think we tend to push that stress into other areas, avoiding the real issue at hand.  (Help a sister out.  I’m not the only one, am I?!)  If we’re lucky and we have the tools and wherewithal we can identify these obstacles before they cause too much damage.  (Having a great mirror, that is, person to reflect your thoughts and feelings off of, in a partner, friend, roommate, sibling, parent, etc, doesn’t hurt either!)  Yogic philosophy tells us that the root of most of our obstacles comes from ignorance, misapprehension or confusion about our own selves.

If we could only see ourselves clearly, we’d know that we were picking fights about trivial things because we were really avoiding what was really bothering us.

Sutra 2 gives it to us:  Why do we practice yoga?  Because yoga helps us still the fluctuations of the mind.  Sutra 3: When the mind is calm, we can see ourselves more clearly.

Effort is enough

It is Sunday evening.  I am exhausted.

Each weekend of our training has a theme, and this weekend’s theme was inversions.  For the uninitiated, that means poses that are upside-down: handstand, headstand, forearm stand, shoulder stand.  Not only did we practice these effortful and energetic poses, but we practiced for three hours both Saturday and Sunday.  That’s six hours of yoga in two days!  Like I said… exhausted.

As part of our training, we are learning about yoga philosophy and how certain ways of thinking about the physical asana practice can relate to our lives “off the mat” as well.  We talked about one concept in particular this weekend that I think really applied to inversions: “practice dispassion.”

Dispassion is not indifference

What does it mean to practice dispassion?  What does “practice” even mean?  In yoga, practice is simply steadfast effort toward quieting the mind.  I find that pretty comforting.  Just the effort is enough; it’s not about the result, metrics, value creation, bottom line, or any of those other business-y terms that we find cropping up in all aspects of life.  Practicing dispassion means not attaching to your results.  Let’s say you’re working on handstand but having trouble getting up into the pose.  You try to kick up several times, and when the teacher says it’s time to move on to the next pose, you still haven’t made it up.  You could justify it every which way (I’m strong enough but it’s just a mental block, or, if I could only do such-and-such, or, if I had just tried a bit harder…) and agonize over the fact that the pose didn’t happen the way you had hoped.  Detaching from the result means that you don’t continue thinking about it and replaying it in your mind over and over.  You accept it and move on.  The same goes for the opposite scenario: you feel strong and confident in your handstand, and you fly up into the pose with no problems.  Instead of congratulating yourself or comparing your pose to others, you accept it and move on.  It’s kind of a relief, really, to be able to let go of some of the constant analyzing and questioning and agonizing that it’s easy to spiral down into.

This is not the same as not caring or trying; it is not indifference.  Ultimately, the physical asana practice is a means of using the body as a tool to meditate and quiet the mind.

Right now, though, I am going to make my mind very quiet by getting some sleep!

A meditation on perfection

Tonight was the first night I got really excited about anatomy. How many of us out there have more than a vague realization that we have a spine somewhere back there? Out of sight, out of mind, right? Paula really made it clear to me that most people (myself included!) are very disconnected from their bodies. We don’t know much about how our bodies work, what’s inside of them or how that relates in any way to our daily lives. How can we expect to make very specific shapes in asana practice when we have no idea how our bodies work?

I have been thinking about how body image relates to yoga during the course of the training thus far. (Ok, actually practically forever, but who’s counting?) I think tonight is a good time to write about it for the first time, though I’m sure not the last.

Practice makes perfect, but what is perfect?

Many of you probably know that I very much admire Debora Spar, the president of Barnard College. She has a piece in Newsweek/The Daily Beast this week called Why Women Should Stop Trying to be Perfect. If you haven’t read it yet, what are you waiting for? Go now and read it, then come back here and finish reading my blog post (please)!

I was thinking about the idea of perfection tonight while Paula was explaining to us that there are no straight lines in the body. Yea, you heard me. None. Our bones are spirals on the inside, we are birthed in a spiral, our spine is curved. So when your teacher says “bend your knee to 90 degrees” or admonishes you to make that right angle with your arms in chaturanga, it’s never going to be a perfect 90 degrees. Never. Our bodies aren’t perfect and neither are our poses. Not even our teachers’ poses. What?!

I seem to be having a lot of these “what?!” moments in TT.

Paula said tonight that our bodies are “supposed to have curves” and that we should not try to flatten them out. We have to have these curves in order to bear weight. Now, granted, she was talking about the curves of the spine. But I would argue that one could say the same about the other curves in the body – for women, the breasts, waist, hips and thighs that constitute the “figure,” whatever that is.

In a conventional yoga class, especially in New York, there is a lot of flesh on display. We wear tight clothing, ostensibly, to see the position and alignment of the body. But also to show off our hot yoga bodies. Let’s be real. I’m just asking – how many curvaceous, indeed, how many anyhing-other-than-thin – yoga teachers do you know or have you seen in ads and posters? What stereotypes come to mind when you hear the phrase “yoga teacher”? Uh huh.

This brings me back around to Debora Spar and her article. Perfection is not possible.

Let me just say that again. Perfection. Is. Not. Possible.

She writes,

We have become a generation desperate to be perfect wives, mothers, and professionals—Tiger Moms who prepare organic quinoa each evening after waltzing home from the IPO in our Manolo Blahnik heels. Even worse, we somehow believe that we need to do all of this at once, and without any help.

For me and many of my extremely smart, high achieving female friends, well, I’m just going to say it. That is exactly what we aspire to. I do it too. I wear heels, I make quinoa, and I also have a Master’s degree. I am a feminine woman but also a strident feminist. I feel like I have a lot to prove.

(Feminine) perfection is a fallacy. And we are striving to make it happen at the expense of inner satisfaction.

I don’t have a neat bow to tie around this post because life, unfortunately, isn’t always neat and tidy.  But for me, just beginning to think about these issues from a new angle is pretty incredible.

When something goes up, something goes down

What a week!  Not only did I have my regular schedule of yoga class Monday and Wednesday and anatomy class Tuesday, but we had a dinner party Thursday, birthday drinks with friends Friday after work, and a very lovely birthday dinner at Hearth on Saturday evening after a full day of teacher training!  Now it is Sunday night, Guy is making a batch of chili since the weather has turned chilly (har!) and I finally have a moment to recap some of the things I learned in TT this week.

This weekend we focused on the sun salutes.  A sun salutation comes from the ashtanga method of yoga, typically practiced early in the morning and facing east, towards the rising sun.  It is a series of poses (nine in variation A and 17 in variation B) that link together breath and movement.  The sun salute is often used in class as a warm up since it incorporates many elements of a well-rounded practice: standing poses (Warrior 1), arm balance (chaturanga), inversion (downward dog and standing forward bend).

There are many, many variations on the classic versions and I have done what feels like endless, eternal amounts of sun salutations.  I have gone to class an average of two to three times per week (or more, depending on the week) for nearly 10 years, and each class has probably at least five sun salutes.  So, if you were the math-doing type, you would know that that is… about 5,000 sun salutes in my life thus far.

What should we make of this?  Well, for one thing, I KNOW the poses in a sun salute inside, outside, backward, forward.  I could do it in my sleep.  But more importantly – for me (and anyone who practices yoga regularly) it is so very important to practice this series of postures in a safe way that will not cause repetitive stress to my joints.  And it is far easier than one might think to practice in a way that could cause injury.

Root and rebound

We have been talking a lot about the concepts of “root and rebound” – when something goes down, something goes up.  There are endless examples of this in the yoga practice, but one that springs to mind is in a handstand.  The more you push down through your hands, the more you can lift out of your shoulders and up through the tops of your feet.  Put another way, teachers often instruct “counter actions” to help students be evenly balanced in their poses.  Press the outer edges of your feet down as you lift your inner arches up.  As Jenny put it on Saturday, counter actions “don’t just happen, you need to make them happen.”

This is a principle I strive to practice off the mat.  It’s the same in life: you have a great job but a crappy apartment.  Or you live in an amazing neighborhood but your significant other lives in another borough.  Or you hate your job but you have friends who give you a support system.  Something’s always up 0r down relative to something else.  How do you deal?  You have to take action and make change happen for yourself.

Sun salutes as a mirror

The beauty (and the ugliness) of the sun salutations is that they are a mirror that can help you see yourself.  The series doesn’t change, only we do.  Whether I feel strong today or out of breath, whether I have the energy to jump back into chaturanga or I linger in downward-facing dog, whether I take extra breaths or I maintain one breath per movement – these fluctuations show me not only how I am feeling on any given day, but what my habits are.  Do I rush through one pose to get to another?  Do I hold the breath during challenging moments?

Sutra 1.3 says that when we calm the fluctuations of the mind, we can see our true selves more clearly.  Practicing the sun salutes, perhaps another 5,000 times, is one way to work toward this goal.

Wherever you go, there you are

Today’s practice was intense.  I doubt a majority of the class feels the same way, but for me, it was intense.  For today’s post, I’m going to focus on just two poses we worked on and why they were notable for me.

Fear of commitment

We worked on extended side angle as part of our externally rotated standing pose series.  This is a pose that I have never found particularly accessible – it’s really hard to get the hand down on the outside of the front shin.  Most teachers will instruct you (or let you, depending on your perspective) to use a block to raise the ground up to you if you have trouble reaching the floor.  I almost always reach for a block because I “know” that I need one in this pose.  This is another one of those yoga paradigms, where sometimes the teacher tells you not to judge yourself for using props, as if you know that using a block somehow cheapens your effort, and other times the teacher asks why you are always reaching for a prop without trying to do the pose first.

In teacher training, we’re not really given a choice.  We’re learning both to do the classical poses and to teach it.  So we were essentially told to put the hand outside the front foot and like it.  As I was silently cursing to myself for not being “able” to do the pose, one of our assistants came over and gave me a hands-on adjustment that completely changed my understanding of the pose.

The secret to extended side angle is commitment.  You have to really go all in.  You can’t hold anything back.  The front knee has to bend deeply and you have to let your hips open to really get down in there.  It seems like it would be harder to bend the knee more, because now it takes more effort to hold yourself up; perversely, it’s actually easier!  All of a sudden, voila, I had my hand down and I knew I was not going to collapse.  Remarkable.

Tapas: beyond Spanish snacks

You may know tapas as the appetizers you order at a Spanish restaurant to go with your sangria.  It is also a sanskrit word that, as I understand it, means  ”the willingness to endure intensity for the sake of transformation.”  I experienced this form of tapas today while practicing plow pose, leading into shoulder stand.  I should start by saying that plow pose is, in the general case, no big deal for most people.  It’s not a “hard” pose that people work towards, agonize over, fall out of, etc.  For some reason, I find it terrifying.  I worry that I’ll keep rolling backwards and snap my neck.  This is, of course, impossible.  My legs would get in the way (if I would let them!) and keep me from going too far backwards.

Our assistant knew that I have trouble in this pose, so she came over to help me.  And she did something that I’m fairly sure no teacher has ever done with me before.  She did exactly what Julie told us to do yesterday – made her words so clear that she didn’t need to gesture or physically adjust me to get me to do the pose properly.  Usually I get about halfway into the pose and start to freak out.  Inevitably, the teacher will help me or let me come out of the pose.  But Dani didn’t do that.  She made sure I knew that she wouldn’t let me fall, and then she just let me freak out.  She reminded me to take deep breaths, and kept talking me through it until I got my feet to touch the ground behind my head, and eventually, up into shoulder stand.

Part of me was feeling indignant, like, I shouldn’t be forced into doing this pose that I don’t want to do!  But this is teacher training, not regular class.  We are supposed to be learning to teach others, and that means we have to be able to do the poses ourselves.  And you know what?  I did the pose all by myself, and I found that I could actually do it.  I didn’t really like it, but I proved to myself that I could do it.  And I bet next time it will be easier.  (At least I really hope it will be!)

As Jenny and Julie say, “wherever you go, there you are.”  What I take this to mean is, even in moments of chaos (i.e., plow pose, among others) the work of yoga is to find your true and consistent self and abide in it.

What not to say

Yesterday it hit me: teaching yoga is hard!  Duh, right?  It’s a pretty fascinating new perspective, though – as a student, it’s really easy to have lots of opinions about your instructors and their style of teaching.  It’s so easy to judge when you’re not in the hot seat!  I have been going to the same (excellent, in my view) teachers for years now, and when there is a sub or I take a new teacher’s class, I often note what my regular teacher would have done or said that is “better” – perhaps more accurately, different.  In many ways it’s a great privilege to learn from some of the best in the field.  What it has also done is make me into a yoga snob.  When the tables are turned and me and my fellow students/aspiring teachers are asked to teach, it’s a whole different ball game.  As some of you know, I taught a bit (amateur that I was!) for a few summers at camp.  It’s not totally foreign to me, but I have so much more information now that the experience of teaching feels very different.

Now that we’ve learned what feels like every possible alignment point in a number of poses, the challenge becomes what to leave out rather than what to include.  Imagine if you have a beginner student and you’re talking about some fairly esoteric point about pressing down all four corners of your feet.  Probably, your student would think to him or herself, “Uh, my feet don’t have corners?” and tune you out.  So you have to dial back all your assumptions and look at each pose with a fresh perspective: what does my student need to know to do this pose safely, and what is TMI?  Trust me, it’s harder than it sounds.

There is a systematic way to approach teaching a pose, and it makes perfect sense in my head.  The thing is, getting words to come out of my mouth in the right order is probably going to take some practice.  Align, stabilize, elongate.  Instruct the pose from the ground up.  Use counteractions to avoid your student “over doing” your instruction.  OK, sure.  But when you look at a group of students and see a lot of different things going on, it’s tempting to just address what you see in any random order it comes into your head.  But is that what’s going to be most clear to your student?  As Julie said yesterday, you want your words to be so clear that the student can do the pose properly just by listening, without the teacher necessarily having to demonstrate or hands-on assist the student.

Here’s what all this is getting to: by deciding what information to leave out, you have to focus on the few actions necessary to meet your goal.  In the case of yoga, your goal is your student doing any given pose in the safest way possible.  In chair pose, for example, you might tell your student to tuck their tailbone but also lift the breastbone.

When you take this principle off the mat – focus on what is necessary to meet your goal – the examples are infinite.  And that’s another thing I love about practicing yoga.

Anatomy and arm balances

I can now officially say I’ve made it through the first week of TT!  That’s because I went to our first anatomy class on Tuesday evening, and I’m counting that as part of the week.  I also went to my regular class on Monday and today, Wednesday.  I’ve practiced for five days in a row, and I must say, I feel pretty great.  A little tired, sure, but nothing major.  At the risk of sounding too new-agey, it is really such a privilege to spend time each day being conscious of the breath and movement in my body.  I mean, nothing is stopping any one of us from taking a moment to fill our lungs or move or stretch.  But it’s easy to get caught up in the business of daily life and forget to do that.  One of the many things I love about practicing yoga is that it gives me an opportunity to take (and sometimes, make!) that time for my mental and physical health.

Head, shoulders, knees and toes!  Knees and toes!

Anatomy is the part of the training that I have been sort of excited by and intimidated by it all at the same time.  I always wanted to be one of those students who could answer the teacher when she asked, “so in this pose the foot is in…?” and some of the other teachers or trainees in the room would say “plantarflexion!” or “dorsiflexion!” and I would just sort of look at them and have no idea what was going on.  But now I know the difference!  To be honest, it’s not even so hard to remember.  Plantarflexion is when you pointthe foot, dorsiflexion is when you flex the foot (think of the dorsal fin on a shark!  It sticks up, like a flexed foot.)  We also learned about the three planes of motion – think of the three dimensions in, say, one of those Pixar films where you have to wear funny glasses.  Or the x, y and z axes from math class.  Paula Liberis is an anatomy ninja, and she is leading our Tuesday night sessions.  I’ve taken many of her classes over the years, and I’m excited to get to learn from her.

Arm balances and the tension of opposites

Tonight’s class brought up one of my most confounding and yet recurring yoga questions.  Tonight’s peak pose was this crazy arm balance.  I’m just going to be honest here: that is not within the realm of possibility for me right now.  I’m not a bad person because I can’t do this pose, and happily, I know it.  But what happened in class tonight has happened in a lot of classes I’ve been to, and if you’ve been to more than a few yoga classes I’m sure it will sound familiar to you:

Teacher, leading the class into some extremely complicated pose: “Be with your own practice.  It’s not a competition.  Don’t look around; it doesn’t matter what other students are doing.”

Student, thinking to herself that she knows this isn’t happening today: “Uh…”

Student tries to appear busy and hopes the teacher doesn’t look at her.

Teacher, noticing students who are not attempting said Hard Pose: “Do your own work.  Just because you’re not doing the hard pose doesn’t mean you aren’t doing anything.”

Student, thinking to herself that she wasn’t given any other accessible options: “Uh…”

I know that yoga is supposed to be about tension of opposites – press down to go up, and so forth – but this is tension I haven’t figured out how to deal with.  Am I supposed to not compete with others, or am I supposed to try and smush myself into the pose so that I look busy, even though I know that right now I am not ready or able to do the pose, and as a matter of fact, I am at peace with that?

I always wonder what teachers are thinking when they give instructions like this.  And now I am studying to be a teacher.  Do you think the light bulb will go off at some point and I will know the answer?

TT, day 2: Making shapes and compromises

Wow, there was a lot to digest from today’s training!  We began with a two and a half hour practice.  (For comparison, a typical class is usually an hour and thirty minutes, so this is significantly longer than usual.)  Even after so many years of yoga, that peaceful feeling I get when I first walk into a studio for class never gets old!  There is this element of the possibility and excitement of what will happen in class, and yet at the same time, a sense of looking inward and implicit calm.  There’s the yoga – tension of opposites.

Continuing our theme of neutral and externally rotated standing poses, today we focused on Warrior 1ChairWarrior 3High Lunge and Plank.  What is really cool about these poses is that they are all very similar in shape; what makes them distinct is your relationship to gravity.  If that’s confusing and you’re curious about what I mean, check out the pictures of the poses in the links above and it will probably make more sense!  We did a cool exercise today where five of us all made what was essentially the same shape in different relationships to the floor and wall, and I think it was a big light bulb moment for the class.

We talked about two themes today which really resonate with me.  Ostensibly they were in relationship to the pose we were doing (Warrior 1 and High Lunge, which is the modification) but I have found these to be pretty useful in every day life.  In doing both poses, Jenny asked us:

What do you gain, what do you lose?

High Lunge is essentially Warrior 1, but with the back heel off the ground.  In classical Warrior 1, you gain stability (because your entire back foot is on the ground) but it makes it more challenging to square your hips (also because your entire back foot is on the ground).  The opposite is true for High Lunge; it’s easier to square the hips, which is the classical version of the pose, but now you have to deal with balancing on the ball of the back foot.  Basically what this pose is telling us is, you can’t eat your cake and have it, too.

What?!

Give up something to get something

Let me repeat… what?!  If you know me, you know that I pretty much like to get what I want.  (OK, who doesn’t?)  I’m not saying it’s the best quality, but I’m facing up to reality here so just go with me.  Jenny was demonstrating in class today how to transition between Plank and High Lunge.  It’s tempting to swing out the hip of the leg that’s coming forward and then readjust yourself like 17 times.  But if you caught my drift earlier about the two poses being essentially the same shape, you know that Plank is legs straight and High Lunge is front knee bent, but they’re otherwise identical.  This means you, you know, ideally, shouldn’t have to move a single thing in your body other than the leg that’s coming up into the lunge.  I assure you, this is harder than it sounds.  Jenny said she lifts the hand on the side of the leg that’s coming forward just a bit (normally your palms would be flat on the floor) in order to make space for that foot to step all the way up.  She’s giving up the consistency of both palms flat, but getting the leg in the proper position becomes more accessible with that small adjustment.

The bottom line with both of these themes is… compromise is a necessity for overall success.  I could go on to qualify what “success” means in a yogic context, but I have a feeling you already know what I mean.  It’s a metaphor for life.  One of the qualities I most appreciate yoga is the way it translates “off the mat.”  It’s not that I don’t already know that compromise is important, it’s that yoga gives me a means to practice it in a controlled environment, and then when I need to do it in real life, it already feels safe and familiar.

Now we begin the practice of yoga…

That’s a loose translation of the first sutra, which I mentioned briefly yesterday.  We only discussed the first three today, but I kind of like the way they lead into one another:

Sutra 1: Now we begin the practice of yoga
Why would we want to practice yoga?

Sutra 2: Yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind
I’m not convinced… why should I do that?

Sutra 3: The true nature of the practitioner is revealed
That’s because when the mind is still, perception is clear and undistorted

I’m running out of steam, though, and if you’ve read this far I bet you have too!

Teacher Training, day 1: Familiar faces, new ways of thinking

I have officially survived the first day of teacher training!  The day met my (admittedly loose) expectations and I’m excited to continue on with the program.  Me and 27 other trainees started our day at the SoHo TT center.  I was surprised and pleased to see a few familiar faces from the retreat I went to last year with Jenny and Chrissy at Heathen Hill – specifically Maya and Jess, who assist with the training program.

We spent roughly the first half of the day practicing the poses we would focus our discussion on later in the afternoon.  This weekend’s theme is neutrally and externally rotated standing poses, and we focused our efforts on just three postures: Warrior 2Extended Side Angle and Triangle.

I feel confident in the sanskrit words as well as the physical placement of the body for these (and I would venture to say most) postures, so some of what we talked about today felt like review for me.  What I found really interesting was something we did towards the end of the day – observing people’s bodies in a particular pose and talking about what we saw.  Though looking at the teacher is a pretty standard part of any class, what was new about this for me was taking a systematic approach to looking at bodies.  We looked first at the feet, then the pelvis, then the shoulders – and identified the potential risk factors in corresponding body parts if something is off with one of those areas – the knees, the low back and the neck.  This makes a lot of sense to me, and I had never really thought about analyzing a pose in that particular way.  See, I’m learning already!

Tomorrow we’ll start talking about some of the yoga sutras, and I’m looking forward to that. 

Yoga homework: What is yoga?

Teacher Training (or, TT as I’ll refer to it) starts tomorrow!  My anatomy book came from Amazon yesterday, and today I discovered that a friend of a friend (hi, Amy!) just finished Jenny’s August intensive and really loved it.  I actually spoke with this friend, Shoshanna, at Jenny’s recommendation as part of my own decision making process about whether to do TT, but I hadn’t made the connection until I spoke with Amy and we discovered the coincidence.  Cool, huh?

Our pre-homework assignment was to answer the question, what is yoga?  I’ll share part of my response here, in case you’re interested:

I think of yoga as union, and primarily as the union between mind and body, breath and movement.  The physical asana postures are the most obvious and also what most people think of when they hear the word “yoga,” but the meditation, pranayama and philosophy are perhaps more important and subtle aspects of the practice.  There are different disciplines within yoga (ashtanga, iyengar, bikram and so on) but I think that the overarching goal of any yoga practice is to be still and clear the mind of thoughts.
This is not to minimize the importance of a safe and mindful physical practice.  There are a number of different types of poses, which can be categorized loosely as standing, seated, backbends, twists, arm balances and inversions.  Though there is what could be considered a “correct” or “full” way to do a pose, conscious yogis can modify poses by using props or practicing a slight variation on the full pose as they build strength, flexibility and confidence.  Poses that are routinely practiced improperly can be unsafe and ultimately cause injury.  In yoga, the process is as important (arguably, more important) as the result.
Yoga philosophy, as explained through the sutras, guides practitioners away from suffering.  These short aphorisms can be combined with asana, meditation and breathing techniques to form a well-rounded practice that seeks to balance mind and body.  For me, the most intense and satisfying moments in class come when I surprise myself by my ability to hold a pose longer than I expected or get into a pose that I thought was impossible for me.  These experiences on the mat remind me over and over that all moments of intensity eventually end, and that it is possible to sit with that intensity and be fully present in it until the moment passes, however long it may be.  I have found this mantra immeasurably valuable in my personal and professional life.