The end.

And so, it’s over. My year (plus 2 months) of Yoga Teacher Training is officially finished. I’m now a legitimate, ‘credentialed’ yoga instructor. Some people won’t even think twice about trusting me with their bodies, and will do exactly what I say because I presumably ‘know’ what I’m talking about. And, some people will trust me with their fears, and their goals, and their hearts (as these things tend to come to the surface as a person begins to open to and grow in a yoga practice) – and these individuals may not even realize that they are trusting their entire selves to me. Being a yoga teacher is perhaps one of the most intimate (and therefore one of the most responsibility-filled) educator roles I could enter – and I’ve served in the capacity of “teacher” in a multitude of different ways, in a variety of different venues. Professionally in the world of business, academically in the realm of public education (from second grade children all the way through high school students), as a volunteer in the mental health field, informally among various friends…I’m no stranger to being a mentor, a counselor, a guide. But the world of yoga is just, different. It’s truly the deepest, most personal, most profound level of advising and offering and sharing I have engaged in thus far. It’s…indescribable. It’s to be honored, respected, and treated as both an immense responsibility and a beautiful gift. Every time I teach, advise, coach or counsel, I receive as much from the exchange as the other person (if not more); I hope I always retain this sense of appreciation and gratitude for the opportunities I am given to teach, to share, to serve.

At our official Yoga Study graduation ceremony, we were asked to reflect on the past year, and write down what we have learned, how we have changed, who has inspired us, and what we have gained. Here is my response:

To every wise and compassionate teacher who took any amount of time and energy to share their knowledge with me, I thank you.

Over these past twelve months I’ve been frustrated, and amazed, and challenged; I’ve felt elated, and annoyed, and delighted; I’ve learned about ethics and asana, breath and energy.

I’ve gained comfort in my own skin, confidence in my own voice, compassion in my own heart.

I peered into myself, and I met my own soul – and I have been genuinely, deeply surprised by the beautiful heart that returned my curious gaze.

I have learned a lot this past year – about my body, my character, and my heart. And yoga has been a large support in that process. But I know I have so much more to learn. And I know that this ending is actually only a beginning; that life is not linear, but circular. That one ‘completion’ simply leads to another new start; and the new start will expand, grow, peak, decline, and yield to something else new…. and so it goes, on and on, forevermore. Like waves that continue to roll into the shore, unceasing, unending, and unyielding, so too do the events of life.

This journey has arrived at its’ end. The water has reached the sand, and has settled between my toes as I stand on the shore. A little girl rushes past me, scoops a big bucket full of water and sand and shells, and scrambles back some distance to continue building her masterpiece…until her mom calls her for lunch and, once unattended, the ocean tide reclaims the castle, bringing it back out to the vast sea.

And so it goes. Ebb and flow. Start and end and start again. Here’s to whatever the next beginning may be.

Hoping to travel in peace, joy, laughter, and love,

Stef

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Taking a seat

Well, this is it – my last yoga class. Actually, let me be more specific (and more accurate): this is my last class for my RYT 200 Yoga Teacher Training Program. This is by no means my last yoga class, and likely not even my last yoga class for the purposes of training. This is my last yoga class for this phase of my yoga journey – but true yoga is never actually ‘finished’. Yoga can be a life journey if one chooses to make it so. (And I would actually assert that nothing is ever finished, that everything can be a life journey [or a multi-life journey if you believe in that concept]; but that’s probably a discussion for another time…) So while I cannot say if I will engage in yoga forever and ever, I can say with some measure of confidence that I will continue to practice yoga for some time. But, today marks the end of one segment of the odyssey.

The topic of this last tech session was Chair Yoga. As with last week’s session, I’m not entirely sure why I signed up for this class. From a personal practice perspective, I enjoy pretty difficult styles of yoga (ashtanga, advanced vinyasa, etc.). But from a teaching perspective, I seem to be drawn to more gentle, physically compassionate forms of yoga. Maybe it’s because they are generally slower-moving, and therefore easier to teach? Maybe I recognize that much of the general population isn’t physically suited to do really advanced forms of yoga practice? Maybe I’m more patient with and compassionate towards other people than I am with myself? Whatever the reason(s), I felt like it would be a good idea for me to learn more about this method of yoga instruction.

When I arrived to the studio, I promptly dropped my equipment bag to the floor, knelt down, and unfurled my yoga mat. Only then did the teacher notice what I was doing, approached me, smiled, and said, “You won’t need your yoga mat today. We have chairs along the back wall; you can just take one of those and have a seat.”

In the 14 months I have been coming to this studio, I have never (literally never) sat on a chair for a class. Not even for classes that were four or six hours long. I have always been on the floor. So today, as I leaned back into the padded folding chair, the experience felt weird; but also a little nice, too.

In fact, that’s how this whole ‘last class’ experience felt; a little weird, a little strange, but also a little pleasant. I have deeply enjoyed this year of study; but it has taken a lot of time, and a lot of energy, and a lot of effort. (And I have added to all of that time/energy/effort by choosing to write about the experience all along the way; I have easily invested an additional 200-400 hours of writing time on top of the nearly 250 hours of class time…) So while I will miss the learning, study, discipline, and reflection, I will also be relieved to have some open, unscheduled time back in my life.

But anyway – back to today’s class.

The teacher began by stating that for all yoga classes, one of the main jobs of an instructor is to create an inviting, welcoming, safe space for people to engage with yoga – and that this intention is even more important for a chair yoga-type class (or any class where the population might 1) feel more intimidated, or 2) be more limited [physically, mentally, emotionally, or any combination thereof]). Various actions a teacher can take to help establish and encourage a safe, welcoming environment is to overtly give people ‘permission’ to have their own experience; to honor the body they have today; to remind them that all yoga poses should feel ‘steady and comfortable’ (in Sanskrit, the phrase is “sthira sukham asanam”); to help students learn/remember that if they can’t breathe freely in a pose, they probably shouldn’t be in it as deeply or intensely as they currently are (or perhaps they shouldn’t be in the pose at all, at least not for today)… These recommendations are very good for all yoga classes, taught to all students; but they are even more critical for ‘special-needs’ populations (such as brand-new beginners, people who are injured or who are healing from an injury, people who are older, pregnant, disabled, significantly over- or under-weight, etc. etc. etc. And actually, in looking over this list, haven’t most people fallen into one of these categories at one time or another? Perhaps even more importantly, don’t people flex in and out of these categories from time to time? Just last week I was injured [I had some pretty wicked shin splints going on], so I really needed to take care of myself, and not do some advanced poses that I have been able to do with relative ease in the past… and I needed a teacher who didn’t look at what I was able to do last week, but instead recognized what I was able to do [and what I wasn’t able to do] on that specific day…)

After leading us through a grounding and centering practice (three-part breathing where we placed our hands on our abdomen-and-heart, then side body [ribs/intercoastals], then on the tops of our shoulders), the instructor stated that yoga is really a path to higher consciousness. Yes, asanas (poses) can help a body prepare to settle and relax into stillness (which then supports deeper states of meditation), but the asanas are not the end goal; the end goal of yoga is union with the divine. Asanas are an aid (asanas support the body to settle; a settled body can then support the mind to be steady; a steady mind can then do the hard work of establishing the spiritual connection with the cosmic OM, but asanas are not required for divine union. The breath can also be an effective tool to lead the mind to the state of connection; and for people who might not be able to do intense asanas, they absolutely can still do ‘yoga’. Instead of doing certain poses, those people can stay with their breath (and the intention of their breath) in lieu of any difficult body position, and/or through the practice as a whole. So no matter how many (or how few) physical asanas a person can do, they can always breathe into various parts of their body; they can always mentally direct the intention of their breath into various parts of their body. [So, if a person is experiencing stomach issues and therefore can’t do inversions, that individual can still direct breath and energy to their head and shoulders, and therefore experience some of the benefits that an inversion pose would yield. Similarly, the person can send breath directly to the stomach area, and use the energy flow to help soothe {sometimes even heal} their ailment.] Breathing into various places within the body is deeply healing, soothing, and valuable for all people, but especially for individuals who are older, injured, chair-bound, or otherwise physically limited in some way. [The next time I get sick, instead of bemoaning how my malady is keeping me from exercise/work/socializing/etc., I hope I remember this yoga ‘trick’, and send soothing breath and healing energy into the areas of my body that are affected by the illness.] But breathing need not be limited to any specific asana; indeed, today’s teacher told us that a nice reminder we can offer to our students in every class (and even many times in a single class) can be a simple statement along the lines of, “Send your breath, your prana, to every area we work during the class.”

Okay. After all of this discussion about breath, and energy, and the ‘real’ meaning/spirit of yoga (union), the teacher then led us through a full 45-minute chair-yoga class. As with last week’s class, the teacher instructed us on only a handful of possible poses one could do while remaining seated in a chair. There are a variety of books that offer pages and pages of possible chair-yoga asanas, so I won’t laundry-list what we did in this class; instead, I’ll focus on two key awarenesses I had during the chair-yoga session:

  1. As a teacher leading a chair-yoga class, the focus should be on the students – and specifically on helping them connect with their physical bodies and their own intuitive knowledge. Many people in general are incredibly disconnected from their own bodies; if I were to ask a student, “What would feel good for your body to do right now?” many people would look at me blankly. (I’ve witnessed this in many yoga classes I have attended as a student, as well as some moving meditation sessions I’ve led at my workplace.) So one of my ‘jobs’ as the teacher (in addition to keeping the students physically safe and helping them feel emotionally secure) is to help guide students to a better awareness and understanding of their own bodies; helping students genuinely *connect* to their own bodies.
  2. Teachers who instruct ‘special needs’ populations [and again, I use this term in a very broad way; ‘special needs’ can include athletes who are currently injured, women who are pregnant, people recovering from surgery or an accident or some other trauma…{I was ‘special needs’ last week due to my shin splints}] need to let go of what a specific pose ‘should’ look like, and instead allow each student to express and embody the pose in the way he/she needs to. The focus of a yoga class shouldn’t be trying to make a picture-perfect physical posture, but instead should be supporting the body/mind to establish union with each other and with the divine.

As I was participating in the chair yoga experience, I realized that the poses the teacher was leading us through were moves I intuitively do all the time… the ways I stretch my body while at my desk, the ways I move when in the car…I really have learned how to ‘read’ my body, how to ‘hear’ what it is asking for. Over the past year, I have genuinely opened to the innate, intuitive wisdom that is inside of me; and I’ve been accessing it and applying it and really using it, without even fully knowing that I was doing so. Wow. I am trustworthy! My body is trustworthy! Holy crap!

After the 45 minutes of chair yoga had elapsed, I sat in my padded folding chair feeling very mentally relaxed, decently physically stretched, and quite emotionally liberated. As my weeks of training had been coming to an end, I had wondered what I might do when this experience was finished; would I still grow in my yoga practice (i.e., physically, emotionally, and spiritually) without the formal weekly instruction? Through today’s class, I got to see that yes, I really do have the tools, skills, knowledge, and awareness all within myself (and via additional supportive resources like teachers and books) that I can continue on my path without a structured program, and still do well. I don’t have to master Eka Pada Koundiyanasana and push my body to exhaustion, nor do I have to memorize every passage of the Yoga Sutras and become a Sanskrit scholar; I don’t have to be able to speak to every possible anatomical structure in the human body, and I don’t have to chant or visualize deities in my chakras…I can take a “middle way” kind of path, and allow my own intuitive wisdom be my guide. And if I tune in to the real, authentic me, and if I honestly listen to what is expressed, and if I genuinely honor the messages I receive; well, all will be well. Indeed, all will be perfect.

What a fantastic ending to this experience.

Stef

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Living Your Yoga

One of the requirements of this yoga teacher training program is to read 4 different yoga books, then submit a brief report/reflection on each one.  I have finished my final required text: Living Your Yoga by Judith Lasater.  So, I now get to post my last reflective report.  Yay!  :)

Stef

Living Your Yoga by Judith Lasater addresses 21 spiritual concepts in three main realms: intrapersonal (“Yoga within Yourself”), interpersonal (“Yoga and Relationships”), and social/societal (“Yoga in the World”). For each concept, Lasater cites a few lines of text from either the Yoga Sutras or the Bhagavad Gita as the way to establish the relevance of the concept to the total book; she then shares a few stories about her personal experience with the concept.  Lasater ends each section by offering a few ideas of how readers can explore the concept quickly and easily in their daily lives.  (Indeed, on page 126 of the book, Lasater asserts what I believe to be the ‘thesis’ upon which the entire text rests: “It is in the nitty-gritty details of your life that what I call ‘living your yoga’ is all about.”)

To me, it feels like Lasater intentionally wrote this text for a very “Western” culture – which is perhaps one of the reasons why this book resonated so strongly with me. It feels like this book understands my current culture and speaks my current language; as such, this text can then relay deep insights and wisdom using words and concepts I can immediately identify with and relate to.

While I struggled to extract meaning from much of the Yoga Sutras (and I haven’t bothered to begin to tackle the Bhagavad Gita) I gleamed so much goodness from this book.  I highlighted, underlined, and starred snippets of text on nearly every page.  I can see a lot of value in reading this book again (and perhaps even several more times), seeing what speaks to me at later readings, working with each of the practice suggestions Lasater offers, revisiting the wisdom shared within the pages, and gaining new insights of my own as I continue to travel along my path.

Here are just a few segments of Lasater’s text that I found to be simple-yet-wise:

  • (From the chapter on “Self-Judgement”, p. 25): “Learning to live in a way that is comfortable…begins when you can bring a sense of the comfortable to your inner life, to your thoughts, and to how you frame your reality by how you speak to yourself.”
  • (From the chapter on “Faith”, p. 30): “Belief is a preconception about the way reality should be; faith is the willingness to experience reality as it is, including the acceptance of the unknown… Faith is a recipe made up of part trust in ourselves, part experience of life working out, and part intuitive connection with the Divine…I have faith in my willingness to have faith.”
  • (From the chapter on “Control”, p. 57): “The more we try to control our world, the less control we have.  The more we are willing to let go of control and simply stay present with what is, the more control we have.”
  • (From the chapter on “Suffering”, p. 90): “The suffering of the past cannot be wiped out, and the suffering of this moment is what I am experiencing right now.  But the suffering that exists in the future can be avoided by the choices that I make now.”
  • (From the chapter on “Greed”, p. 107): “Sometimes we temporarily lose our way, becoming convinced that if we acquire this thing or that skill, we will finally become acceptable to ourselves and to the world.  In our fear, we have forgotten that we are already whole.”
  • (From the chapter on “Success”, p. 130): “The only real success in life is living with an open, loving heart.”

I offer these passages as a bit of a ‘teaser’; if any of these excerpts spoke to you, perhaps consider this an invitation to read the book.  See if any parts of it resonate with you.  See if there are small actions you might want to consider taking to explore your ‘yoga’ practice – that is, the practice that supports you in living a more fulfilling life.  I am.  :)

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Meeting mudras somewhere in the middle

Today I had my second-to-last yoga class. Just one more, and I’m done with this training program. I’ll be a ‘real-live’ yoga teacher…on paper, anyway. It’s kind of strange to think about, actually. But, I’m not done yet – so on with today’s class.

This tech session was about mudras, which are various hand positions that are usually used to enhance the energetic quality of an asana (pose). Translated, “mudra” means ‘lock’ or ‘seal’ – as in, a mudra locks in or seals in the energy of one’s own body, thereby intensifying it. Mudras can also be used to re-direct energy. So how does a mudra actually ‘work’? Well…let’s say I have some sort of illness. I could have a common cold, or an injury, or a disease… just some physical malady. Yoga says that the right mudra can direct energy to the place in the body that is ailing; and that specific energetic concentration can help with the healing process. It’s like getting a fresh, increased supply of bone marrow, or blood platelets, or stem cells – but all originating from one’s own body, and without requiring any external interventions (like transfusions or injections). Mudras can also be used as a spiritual aid; in that application, a person uses the external force of a specific hand position or body position to help individual energy connect with the larger cosmic energy all around, and/or to help physical human energy connect with spiritual divine energy – thus, helping the person awaken to their real, true, already perfect and enlightened Self.

If you’ve traveled with me on this year-long training journey, you may recall that I have struggled with the whole notion of energy, chakras, mantras, and the like. So, I’m not entirely sure why I signed up for this specific tech session…. I mean, I didn’t have to take this class – there were certainly other options I could have chosen. And yet, I found myself in this specific session…so I have to assume there is some ‘reason’ as to why I arrived here. After a bit of reflection, I think I landed in this class in part because of logistics: I’m ready to close this training process, and move on to something else – and this tech was offered at a good day and time to help me accomplish that goal. But, I think that reason is a relatively small one; I think a larger reason why I signed up for this class is because I feel ready to explore yoga at a deeper level. Six months ago, I completely shut down/shut out any hints of ideas around energy bodies, koshas, nadis, and the like; but after my recent experiences with Yoga Nidra, and Restorative Yoga, and yogic meditation, I felt my mind and my spirit open up a bit more, and be willing to at least listen to instruction about these topics; and so, here I am. They say when the student is ready…. I guess I’m at a spot where I’m at least a little bit ready.

So, anyway… I’m in today’s class. Sitting on my yoga mat, pen and paper in hand, ready to receive whatever instruction might be offered about mudras. Energy. Hand positions that supposedly have the power to change my life. Okay, bring it.

Then the instructor says that she has never taught this topic before. Uh-oh. But, Stef, stay open – this teacher has been teaching yoga for many, many years; I’ve taken a few classes from her before and trust her knowledge; so, let’s give this a fair shake. Okay, ready to receive.

Then, the instructor says that she has learned most of what she will be teaching us today through reading books; that’s she’s still quite a novice when it comes to mudras, that she’s never studied this topic with a real-live teacher before. Uh-oh number two. I can read a book, and learn via the written word; I don’t need to spend 90 minutes in a classroom setting to get that kind of an experience… But Stef, wait; the teacher will probably add more examples and personal stories than what I might get from a book, so just stay cool. Breathe. Focus. Okay, I’m back to being ready to hear whatever will be shared. Bring on mudras.

Then, the instructor said that mudras have a strong alignment with Kundalini Yoga… Uh-Oh Number Three. (Click on the link if you want to read about my past experiences and thoughts regarding Kundalini Yoga. The one-sentence summary of them is that they aren’t overly-positive.) Seriously… seriously? At this point in the class (which was all of about 10 minutes in), I felt like I was being tested. I ‘claim’ I’m ready to learn about mudras, but am I really ready? Really? I felt resistance pop up again and again in a matter of minutes; the question then became what was I going to do with it, about it?

Without even really ‘thinking’, I made the (semi-conscious, semi-intuitive) decision to keep an open mind during this tech session. As each nagging concern, doubt, and experience of displeasure or annoyance surfaced, I saw it, acknowledged it, and then gently set it aside. I repeatedly turned my attention back to the instructor, and listened and participated as fully as I could in the task at hand, with as few judgments clouding my mind/heart as possible. And I’m pleased to report that after a few minutes of this active back-and-forth, acknowledging-and-releasing, seeing-and-setting-aside, I found a space where I could settle in, and allow the information to come instead of keep pushing against it. It felt like an internal pendulum eventually slowed to a very tiny rocking at the center.

And from that place of moderate openness, I learned some helpful things. I learned that mudras are just tools, just aids to enhance and deepen the yoga practice. Mudras don’t replace yoga, they just help focus and hone intention; and it’s through intention, the sincere desire and earnest application of effort towards experiencing union of breath/body and mind/heart, that the transformative power of yoga is released. Mudras can just help establish and deepen that connection. I also learned that deities (Hindu deities were mentioned specifically, but the concept applies to all deities) are just tangible representations of classical archetypal energies. So Ganesh in-and-of-himself isn’t to be respected or revered, so much as the energy he represents – the power of new beginnings, and of cleared obstacles. The Incas had their sun god, and Native Americans prayed to the rain god; and all of it is just a way for humans to try and understand something that is beyond us; something that is so profound and vast and powerful and omnipotent that we have to somehow try to contain it, label it, name it, in order to even begin to understand it. And I was reminded that yoga is as much an ancient wisdom as it is an ancient science. As such, we may not always know how or why yoga techniques work – but that doesn’t change the fact that they do work. Just because we can’t ‘prove’ everything from a purely scientific perspective doesn’t mean certain practices aren’t valuable – if something yields beneficial results, do we really have to understand the how or why of it? Just look at acupuncture, meditation, other non-Western healing modalities; ‘modern science’ (as we like to define it) only very recently began to be able to ‘prove’ the value and genuine physiological benefits of these practices, yet they have yielded very real benefits for literally thousands of years… So who’s to say that mudras aren’t also in this same category of ‘helpful-but-not-fully-provable-at-this-moment’ tools? If they help, shouldn’t they be used? They can’t really do harm, can they?

And so, the message of the session became: Just try. Stay open, and experience, and see what happens. Then make a decision. But no need to dismiss outright, based on nothing but prejudice or skepticism… just, pause. Wait. Try.

So I did. In the remaining 60 minutes of class, we sampled about a dozen mudras (of the over 500 that are available to be used). We tried mudras for grounding, and for receiving; for facing fear, and for deepening trust; for reducing anxiety, and for increasing love…. and at the end of the experimentation period, I did feel that some of the mudras had an impact on me. Granted, some of them didn’t feel like anything special; but I did feel some energy begin to shift inside of me with a few of them. I’ll be darned – perhaps there is something ‘valid’ to this whole mudra/chakra/energy thing after all. ;)

Stef

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Balances

This afternoon I had a pretty amazing tech session on Yoga Nidra; it was completely new and novel, strange and wild, profoundly unique. And all of that can be very, very good (indeed, it really was), but it can also be a lot to take in, a lot to process. So while I was very pleased to have been able to experience yoga nidra, I also found some comfort in spending this evening focused on a topic that felt a bit more familiar, more conventional, more “known”. This evening’s tech session was about balance; specifically, about physical balance in a variety of yoga asanas (poses).

Tonight’s teacher began by explaining the various ways a person’s balance might be hindered. Most of them I already knew (issues with the inner ear, issues with the visual system as a whole, issues with the sensory system [things like muscle weakness, high/low blood pressure], even the affect lack of sleep can have), but a few potential causes of physical imbalance surprised me a bit (like the real impact diet and hydration can have on balance; and the true physiological impact of stress on the body; and the importance of the internal drishti as well as the external gaze….). They all make sense, but I guess I just never really thought about them too deeply, or for too long. Now when it feels like it’s extra-difficult for me to get and/or maintain my balance in a yoga class, I’ll have some more insight as to why. :)

But even if a person has really crummy balance, there are still things that can be done to help them 1) achieve better balance immediately, and 2) learn how to develop more balance in their own bodies over the longer-term. Immediate solutions for poor balance are pretty easy to come by: use props (like a block, a chair, a wall), and use the correct drishti (gaze) for a pose. Other measures require a little more attention and practice (things like engage the bandhas, use the mind properly [so, increase the awareness of where one’s body *really* is in space, and engage in positive, helpful self-talk]), but these ‘interventions’ are more helpful over the longer-term (and are more portable than using a wall or block for balance support).

After we talked about how balance can be hindered, then helped, we dug into a whole smattering of yoga asanas (poses) that have a balance component to them. Now, technically, one could argue that every yoga pose as a balance element to it (and that would be correct); but for the sake of time, the teacher chose to focus on the poses that are more challenging from a balance perspective – and I fully support her decision. ;)

Interestingly, the first pose the instructor did discuss was tadasana (mountain pose) – which actually seems like it is the most obvious choice to not include in a class like this. I mean, you’re just standing on your feet, right? People do that every day, all the time – so why the big fuss? Poor, misunderstood tadasana… Tadasana seems easy – until a person actually tries to do it as a yoga pose instead of as “just standing around”. Aligning knees above ankles, and hips above knees, and shoulders above hips, and head above shoulders, and THEN standing even and still – suddenly, ‘just standing’ ain’t so easy. Many beginning yoga students are shocked (shocked!) to learn that they have absolutely no balance when they hold their body in proper alignment. I know I was shocked as all heck when I had my lesson in tadasana (when I took my very first yoga class several years ago) – I knew my balance was crap, but I didn’t realize it was such crap. So in this tech we talked about the shocker that is tadasana; and then we moved on to more “challenging” poses like chair pose, tree pose, dancer’s pose…(all feet balances); then explored crow pose and side plank (hand balances); then boat pose (a seated balance). The common element that every single balance pose has in common is that the pose should consist of a lifting more than a sinking. When in tree pose, for example, the focus should be on lifting up in the hips and the chest, not sinking down on the leg. In side plank, one should feel a true lifting up in the arm that is extended in the air, not sinking into the arm that is on the floor. In every balance pose, the intention and the action should be a LIFT – not a sink.

Even just having this mindset of lift-versus-sink helps me achieve and sustain my balance in some pretty difficult poses. Again, the amazing power of the mind…

At the end of class tonight, I reviewed my notes – and realized I hadn’t taken very many. Why? Because I already knew a lot of the information the instructor shared with us. And this is in no way a slight on the instructor – she did a fabulous job! Rather, it’s a reflection of the quality of my year of yoga study; I actually really do know so much more than I did just 11 months ago. Wow. I think I might actually be ready to begin teaching some of this stuff….

Wow…

Stef

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Yoga of the mind

Today I had a yoga double-header: a tech in the early afternoon, and another tech in the evening. The mid-day session was a class on Yoga Nidra – also known as “yogic sleep”. Considering I was rather fatigued when I arrived at the class, I wasn’t sure if this topic would be enjoyable or frustrating. If the content and structure of the session just helped me mellow and relax, it would likely be very enjoyable. But if the information or format knocked me out cold, I would feel probably feel pretty frustrated – after all, I attend these sessions to learn, not to nap.

As it turned out, the tech had a little bit of both elements to it – but, it was definitely more pleasant and soothing than annoying or irritating. Whew.

The teacher began this class by explaining that Yoga Nidra is a form of tantric yoga meditation. Yoga nidra is also known as “yogic sleep” because it is said to provide the yogi who performs it the benefits usually reserved for sleep; that is, physical and mental repair, restoration, and regulation. However, the practitioner remains fully conscious during yoga nidra; indeed, as it is a meditation technique, it actually deepens and improves consciousness, not diminishes or dulls it. Our teacher described yoga nidra as “a deep listening, a profound allowing, and a radical accepting”; which I found to be beautifully descriptive. However, despite the “best” language available, a person really needs to experience yoga nidra in order to fully “get” it. (This has been my experience with other forms of meditation as well, so I wasn’t surprised by this insight much at all.)

The instructor continued with the class by speaking a bit more about some of the benefits of yoga nidra (increased energy, improved concentration and memory, pain reduction, healing of personal problems and emotional traumas, neutralizing stress/anxiety/fear/anger/depression/insomnia, experiencing deep meditative states without struggle or strain, and ultimately, attaining enlightenment [um, wow, quite the list…]), then talked at a very high level about how yoga nidra is performed. However, since the best way to learn about a topic like meditation is to actually experience it, the teacher was brief in his lecture. Just 10 minutes into the session, the instructor asked us to lay on our backs, settle in, and open to our experience. Here we go.

Like other forms of meditation, yoga nidra is all about welcoming everything that arises in one’s experience. There’s no need to resist, avoid, push away, or refuse anything. It’s all just information – and who knows what one tiny piece of information might lead to an insight, which might have the power to liberate, or perhaps even enlighten… So just breathe, surrender deeply and fully, and accept everything.

The instructor also made clear that in yoga nidra we’re not creating anything “new” – because everything we need is within us already. All we are doing is getting to a place of stillness where we can simply allow things to be uncovered. So our job isn’t to “make” anything (including effort); instead, our ‘responsibility’ is to relax, let go, and just let the things inside be revealed – in their own space, their own time, and their own way.

Sounds easy, eh? Yeah, right… ;)

Yoga nidra practice begins with a “san culpa” – a heartfelt intention. This seed is planted at the beginning of the meditation session; and the actions of the meditation serve to water and nurture the seed. As with any seed, with enough nourishment and time, the tiny, hard little nugget will sprout, and will bloom into the flower, plant, or fruit that it was always meant to become. So our job is simply to plant the seed (set the intention), and then provide the nourishment (meditation) and time. If we are willing to do those things, we will receive the bloom, in all its beautiful glory.

Unfortunately, at the beginning of the meditation session, I was napping more than I was cultivating. The first phase of this meditation style is to become physically relaxed – and I think I did that part “too” well. As I said at the beginning of this post, I was quite tired at the start of this tech session; so then asking me to lay down and close my eyes is pretty much the invitation for sleep. While I missed out on the majority of the body scan (step 1 of this meditation process), I did resume consciousness as the instructor was around the ankle area. Good timing.

From there, the teacher guided us through exploration of opposites, particularly as the opposites relate to the koshas. [Here’s a nice, quick article explaining what the koshas are; and here’s a quick visual of the koshas.]  For example, the teacher would say something like, “Sense the lightness of your body….. now feel the heaviness of your body…… now return to the lightness of your body…… and now the heaviness….” But after a few rounds of this back-and-forth, the instructor would do something really amazing: he would say, “Now feel both the lightness and the heaviness of your body occurring at the same time.” It sounds like it would be impossible to do – and yet, I totally could. Wild.

So yoga nidra is about exploring and experiencing opposites, but then (ultimately) experiencing the integration of the opposites. Yoga is about wholeness and union; and yoga nidra supports a person in experiencing the union that is truly inherent in all things – even (especially?) what we usually perceive to be as ‘opposites’. I suspect this may all be a little difficult to understand as I’m attempting to explain it here (in fact, it might even sound a little kooky or ‘crazy’), and so that’s where the ‘experiencing’ part of meditation comes in. People have tried to explain yoga nidra to me before; but I just didn’t ‘get it’. (“What do you mean there is an experience that is both light and heavy – how is that even possible??”) But there is such an experience; I know, because I had it. And it’s weird, and cool, and strange, and amazing.

In today’s meditation session we were guided to experience the contrasts of an inhale and an exhale; of the desert and the ocean; of war and peace. But the one that hit me the hardest was the contrast of joy and sadness. The instructor told us to feel joy within our bodies; what does it physically feel like? After a few minutes of being in that space, the teacher then had us feel, really feel, sadness within our physical bodies – and we stayed in that space for a few minutes. And we went back and forth a few times, until he gave us the cue, “Now, feel both joy and sadness at the same time” – and holy crap, it was…. unreal. I FELT an integrated, melded, non-dual experience of these two emotions; and I felt it not in my mind, but in my actual, physical body. (Mostly my chest area.) Oh. Wow. It was, it was…. wow.

At the end of the meditation session, the teacher gently transitioned us back into easy movements, and eventually into an upright, seated position. After a few moments of silence, then a very brief sharing of our individual experiences, our class ended. But this experience is still very much with me. And it’s good.

Stef

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Getting warmer…

After work today I attended a tech session on warm-ups and savasana – though the class was primarily focused on warm-ups. Which was actually nice for me, in that I feel like the class I had just two days ago was full of content that could largely be applied to savasana. So personally (perhaps ‘selfishly’), having tonight’s tech be skewed towards the warm-up side of things was good by me.

The instructor began this evening’s class with a brief discussion of why warm-ups are important, and why we should do them in every class we teach. Rather predictably, most of this content was ‘common sense’ (though I am learning that what I think of as ‘common sense’ isn’t always so ‘common’). At any rate, some of the primary purposes for warm ups in yoga include: heating the body/stretching the muscles, opening the joints and spine, getting blood flowing…. But there were also a few warm-up purposes the teacher stated that are perhaps a bit more subtle, including: helping students become more aware of their bodies, bringing students into the present moment, awakening the nadis/energy centers of the body…

After discussing why we should do warm-ups, the teacher then made a few comments about how we should lead the warm up session of a yoga class. I was reminded of several good teaching practices, including:

  • Helping students understand that yoga (and especially warm-ups) is about “a slow exploration; an allowing rather than forcing”.
  • Giving students permission to listen to their bodies, to do what feels steady & comfortable to them, and to not be concerned with ‘needing’ to do what anyone else in the class is doing (including the teacher!)
  • Supporting students in becoming more aware of their own bodies. (A nice way to offer some guidance on this point can be to say something along the lines of, “As we warm up, notice if there are any differences from one side of your body to the other…”)

From this discussion, the teacher then led us all into the main section of the tech session; namely, experiencing a whole variety of warm-ups. We did warm-ups on our back (including knees to chest, rocking from side to side, spinal twists, whole body stretches, directing breath into specific parts of our body, body scans, face stretches, eye stretches, and on and on…), warm-ups while seated (some of these were sun breaths, figure 4 hip openers, hand and foot massages, neck and shoulder rolls…), and warm-ups while standing (including twisting the trunk and ‘flopping’ the arms from side to side, chest and hip rolls, sun salutations, roll-up in rag doll…)

All in all, I think we performed probably close to 20 or 30 different warm-ups; and we barely scratched the surface of what is possible. Truly, there are hundreds (thousands?) of different warm ups that can be done in a yoga class; a teacher is only limited by his/her own imagination, and willingness to explore and experiment. And I find that concept to be incredibly empowering and freeing. I have spent one full year learning the right way to perform various asanas (as well as developing understanding around how a pose can impact a person at not only the gross physical level, but also the subtle energy level, and the even more refined emotional and spiritual levels…); being able to now apply that knowledge in new, novel ways is, well, the ‘art’ of being a teacher. Composing, creating, inventing – that’s all part of the fun of being a teacher.

Just before ending the tech session, the instructor then briefly discussed how to successfully (and safely) transition from the warm-up section of a yoga class to the more vigorous/intense ‘main section’ of a class. And at this point in the discussion, the teacher made a comment that really resonated with me: “Take care to have your students transition as mindfully as possible; it’s in the transitions where people hurt themselves.” Yes, the time between leaving one pose and entering another (i.e., the transition) is the time where a yoga practitioner is most vulnerable to injury; holding a pose is relatively safe, it’s the “pushing into” or “falling out of” a pose where people can get hurt. However, I think this concept of being mindful and careful during times of transition holds very true in overall life as well – as it’s the big life transitions where people are more susceptible to getting hurt. If I’m well-established in my every day routine, life hums along… It’s when I look to make a change (any sort of change, even a positive change [like a new job, new relationship, move to a new home, heck, even a new hobby!]) that I’m more likely to over-exert towards the new, and/or just ‘fall out’ of the old, and increase my chances of hurting myself somewhere in the midst of all that change. Once again, I can see how the messages of yoga apply so much more broadly to my life at large; and I’m happy to learn various lessons in the relative safety of the studio, as opposed to the much messier, complicated, precarious world-at-large.

Stef

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