Monthly Archives: July 2011

Yoga dancing!

Yoga is the union of breath and body, the balance of stillness and movement. So is dancing, if you pay attention.

A lovely yoga studio in my vicinity held an open house party last night to celebrate its new space, a dance hall. I went with a friend and we weren’t quite sure what to expect from a dance party at a yoga studio. I didn’t think it would be as focused and spiritual as a kirtan, and I knew a DJ would be present. I assumed the energy would be fantastic. But I usually associate dancing with drinking, and (presumably) no one would be drunk since alcohol wasn’t being served. Unless you count kombucha, of which there was a keg.

The original studio space was filled with people who mingled like typical partygoers, though instead of cocktails there was hand-shaved ice, and most guests were dressed in stretchy yoga attire.

Across the hall in the new addition, dancedancedancedance LOVE. I don’t know how else to describe the infectious enthusiasm and joy. The beats were slamming and I quickly spotted the studio owner getting down with another friendly familiar face–Anya Porter, whose Breakti class I took a few weeks ago.

Shaved ice and getting to see Anya bust some moves? As if that weren’t enough to delight me, before long I had polished off my red plum and rhubarb frozen treat and found myself tossing out a few of the break dancing steps I’ve learned.

As someone who has been uncomfortably self-conscious on dance floors for many years, it was a tremendous relief to feel confident releasing energy in a welcoming space. Over time I’ve learned to hold my own and even enjoy myself dancing at a bar or club, but getting down with a crowd of yogis brings “nonjudgment” to a whole new level.

Especially when they’re filling a space where one wall is covered in graffitied words like “peace” and “om” and “laughing” and another features a modernized mural of Ganesh. And when the music is ranging from Kanye and Gaga to “100% Pure Love” and “Do You Love Me”.

Moving fast but breathing slow, I realized I was doing supersonic vinyasa, flailing my arms with subconsciously calculated control. Later, I was jumping up and down, spreading my fingers wide in a bouncing tadasana, acutely aware of my body’s ability to rise up and reach out. Absolutely exhilarated, I felt flooded with gratitude and a grin filled my face.

Sometimes dancing is definitely yoga….Bring on the bhakti!

A glimpse of the modernized Ganesh getting his groove on!

Staying steady

I’ve been doing a lot of balancing lately. Not so much in asana–I think tree pose with a tree is the last time I really tried standing on one foot–but definitely with my breath and in my mind and heart.

I’ve been wanting to write about loss. The disruption of peace in Norway, the death of Amy Winehouse. The pain of a damaged relationship, the memory of a teenage friend who was killed.

These realities have brought me sincere sorrow in recent days, but alongside my upset has been a persistent sense of security–there is just not enough that is wrong in my life; I have too much good to dwell in despair.

It is not this way for everyone always: If I were in Norway, or a loved one of Amy’s, I would be suffering more right now. If I were the parents of my killed classmate, whose birthday is today, I would be hurting more.

But tonight, at least, I am not immediately enveloped in anything too awful, and I have love to spare. I am able to balance my concerns with my joys. Loss has a hollow way of clawing at my heart, but hope has me firmly in its grip.

I told my dear friend from Oslo that I was holding on to the knowledge that there is more light than darkness, and she affirmed that her nation has united with a comforting sense of togetherness and unity.

There is balance in feeling sadness fully and also allowing for comfort. In appreciating pain without allowing it to consume; leaving space for optimism, however muted. Balance is a core concept of yoga, off the mat as much as on, and I appreciate the slow and steady breaths that bring me to it.

I don’t know what good is meant to come from innocent deaths or the effects of addiction, nor do I understand why love is not always understood. But I do know I am grateful, for the bad as much as the good, because all of it teaches me. And I am happy to count my blessings: time with my family, a steady workflow and a bright future, the opportunity to share yoga with young people. (More on that later!)

I doubt I’ll ever reach a perfect state of emotional equilibrium; feelings rarely stay still and require frequent attention. But in the same way that a calm gaze can help me stick a yoga pose, finding internal focus–even for just the space of an inhale and exhale–helps me stay steady as I try.

 

My inner light shines to your inner light

Namaste. It’s spoken at nearly every yoga class I’ve taken, but what does it mean? According to Yoga Journal, “Namaste literally means ‘bow me you’ or ‘I bow to you’.”

According to Wikipedia, similar translations like “‘The spirit in me respects the spirit in you,’ ‘the divinity in me bows to the divinity in you,’ and others, are relatively modern interpretations”, but since they’re based on the Sanskrit roots, I don’t see how I can think of them as anything but ancient.

According to me, sometimes Namaste means “thank you” and sometimes “I respect you”. Usually both. On the About page of this site, I define it as “The light within me honors the light within you.” It can also mean “hello” or “good-bye”, particularly when no words are spoken. And when I share Namaste with young people, we sing a song that begins, “My inner light shines to your inner light.”

I learned the song with different words, and they concerned me. I grew up singing “This Little Light of Mine” and still appreciate its message. But it bothers me that I’m told to proclaim my light as little. My light is large, and bright–and yes, I will let it shine. But I don’t want to hear that it’s small. Which is why I was dismayed to learn the lyrics to “The Namaste Song” as follows:

“My little light shines to your little light, your little light, your little light. My little light shines to your little light, Namaste.”

There it was again, that little. I didn’t like it. I believe in success-based teaching and relentless, but honest, positivity. I know in my heart that we all do have lights inside of us, and some of those lights may indeed be small. But in order for them to grow they must be acknowledged so that they may shine.

I think that general message–that we all have shining lights worth sharing–is conveyed in the original version of “The Namaste Song.” But I tend to take things literally, and in particular am a stickler with words. And because I am a teacher now, I get to change the words.

I recently had the privilege of sharing yoga with some kids aged five to twelve, and at the end of class, I led my edited rendition of “The Namaste Song,” which for the sake of clarity I now refer to as “The Inner Light Song.”

It’s exhausting, working with kids. I love it very much, but the energy is much more frenetic than with adults, in my experience. My attention is constantly shifting and the kids are moving all the time, not necessarily in any way I am instructing. I especially enjoy leading the end of class, when we all try to be still, and later, say thank you to ourselves and our friends by acknowledging our inner lights.

It’s subtle, but by never telling anyone their light is little, and by always affirming that their light is inner, and thus everpresent, I feel like I am spreading a message worth absorbing–which is a good thing, because “The Inner Light Song” is pretty darn catchy.

I picked the most New Agey illustration I could find on Google Image...and it turns out to be from a juice bar website.

Bikram backup

I can’t vouch for his morality or spirituality, but I sure do appreciate his sequence, and his yoga changed my life. These are facts, as far as I know.

I talked with a friend tonight who has never tried Bikram yoga. I think we’ll take a class together, and I asked her to commit to taking three classes in one week’s time.

Since I have no intention of going that often I feel like a hypocrite asking my friend to undertake the challenge. But then, I’ve got years of Bikram under my belt. I know 3x a week is doable. And also, two years ago I encouraged another friend to take three Bikram classes in three days, and she did, and she felt amazing, and she’s been a devoted practitioner ever since.

Bikram himself asks newcomers to take thirty classes in thirty days, at least. I would say forty is even better. But I don’t have much room to talk, my personal record being two days back-to-back. Bikram is not always best for my body, but oh how much good it can do.

My friend asked why the heat was helpful so I told her–it loosens muscles and joints (so be careful and listen to your body), it provokes sweat (which is said to detoxify), and it challenges you mentally and emotionally. She said the benefits reminded her of what she gets from running.

I told her she needs Bikram even more then, if she runs. I don’t begrudge runners their joy or their torture, but a natural complement is some time in the hot room for focused strength and stretching. Show those hardworking muscles and joints some love!

This heart, which to me represents both Bikram's heat and our most important muscle, was titled "heart-lou" by the artist, who reserves all rights. Click image to see where I found it.

Tree yoga

I took a teacher training this weekend with Street Yoga, and today I did yoga on the street. Coincidence? Definitely not.

In fact, it’s the second time I’ve done spontaneous public yoga since training ended, the first being in a park last night. (Turns out sun salutations feel pretty good even when there is no sun.) But today was the first time I practiced casually, in street clothes, and also the first time I practiced with a tree.

Do tree with a tree–that’s one of the assignments given to some students of Street Yoga. I love the idea of reinforcing the connections between our bodies and nature, but that isn’t why I ended up still on the sidewalk today. No, that happened because my heart was hurting, and the tree helped.

I learned about a lot of trauma this weekend, and while we didn’t delve too deeply into our personal struggles, they were silent shadows in the background: No one shows up at a training that promotes healing unless they understand the need firsthand.

On top of confronting my familiar fears and insecurities, I’ve also been coping with the theft of personal property and the resulting emotions–vulnerability, frustration, confusion. I’ve been as positive as possible, downplaying the impact of the loss, even suggesting that it’s a blessing in disguise–maybe I don’t need a phone at all.

But I do need a phone. I crave connection, not just technologically but with my whole body. It was my stomach that was knotted today on my way home from work, when I noticed the tree. I was aware of the tension in my gut but unsure of its origins. Logically, I could think of no reason for my feeling uneasy.

But logic is an optional part of yoga. Breath is what buoys me. So instead of further analysis, I started breathing, slow and steady as I walked. And, as sometimes happens, the intensity of my emotion increased as I breathed. I wanted the twinge in my belly to disappear instead of grow, but I also knew better than to push the process–sometimes things get worse before they get better, that’s all.

I became aware of a distinct sense of loneliness, of loss and longing. The hurt spread to my heart. I desired comfort. I wanted a hug. And then I took notice of the trees that lined the sidewalk, and a sarcastic thought– “Go hug a tree”–came into my mind. And then chasing it, a recalled snippet of dialogue from the weekend’s training, an exchange that followed the lesson on pairing tree pose with the real thing.

“But there are no trees in the Bronx,” someone said.

“Yes there are!” I responded before I could stop myself.

I didn’t even know if I was right, I just knew that I wanted to be. Of course people have access to nature! I couldn’t bear to think otherwise. But I know it’s true that not everyone can touch trees. And today on the sidewalk, I knew that I could.

I’m glad I had the courage to risk being perceived as a weirdo, because standing with that tree gave me strength in the space of a few breaths, and though I didn’t challenge my balance too much–I kept my foot on my calve, not on my thigh–I felt pretty darn balanced by the time I was finished. I knew people were walking by, but I don’t know if they stared. I kept my eyes closed, honing my focus and care.

I’ve noted before that practicing yoga can be considered community service. And after working with Mark Lilly and other members of the Street Yoga family, I understand the concept even more clearly: When I do yoga, I nourish myself. When I am nourished, I create abundance. And I when I have abundance, I have something to give.

Tree pose

Surrendering to theft

So, my phone was stolen last night. Not a very yoga topic, I know, but I’m struggling with attachment and surrender, two things yoga helps me with, so, close enough for a blog post.

Plus, writing almost always makes me feel better, and I really want to shake off the negative vibe that’s rattling me before I head off to the final day of an absolutely incredible teacher training.

Thanks to a fantastic organization called Street Yoga, I’m learning all about working with underserved populations and I’m feeling energized, inspired, and ready to make a difference in my world. I’m more aware than ever before of the suffering of others and the inequalities at play in our society, and more convinced than ever before that yoga can make a difference.

Last night I left training full of enthusiasm and gratitude for life. I met some friends at a party, where I gushed about possibly working with juvenile delinquents–a scenario that previously seemed impossibly intimidating but, now that I better understand how to prepare, might be a challenge I am willing to take on.

I stayed out late but didn’t get drunk, which somehow makes it more frustrating that my phone is gone. Because if I had been drunk and irresponsible, the theft would be “my fault.” Instead, the loss was an honest accident–it must have fallen out of my purse either in the cab or immediately afterward.

I realized right away that my phone was missing and as soon as I got back to my apartment I sent texts via email to my phone and to a friend. I also found some really cool software that I remotely installed. It used GPS to tell me my phone was across the street.

Across the street! But when I went back down and looked, nothing. I even went into the diner closest to the GPS pinpoint and inquired, but, nothing. Once the sun came out, I went back down and checked the street. Again, nothing. And then a new GPS scan this morning informed me that my phone had left the neighborhood. It is in the Bronx now. I can even tell in what building. But there is nothing I can do.

Which brings me to my struggle with attachment and surrender. It’s certainly a first-world problem, the theft of a smartphone. I know I’m fortunate to even have one in the first place. And yet its loss is still a problem. I love my phone. It connects me to the world and I am pretty dang dependent on it. You could certainly say I’m attached. But now it is gone, and I have to let it go.

I have to convince myself that the loss of my privacy–the knowledge that a stranger can read my email and my texts and has access to my contacts–is not going to crush me. (With the help of more cool software, I’m working on wiping the data remotely right now, so hopefully that pans out.)

I also have to confront the fact that another human being is willfully taking what is not theirs. I have to acknowledge that a person who would do this is part of the very population I am learning about this weekend and looking to help by sharing yoga.

So, given that irony–that I am spending my time and money working to help the kind of people who might steal from me–I can’t help but suspect there is a lesson to be had from this theft. What that lesson may be, I am still waiting to understand.

I am feeling sad and violated, and mostly, helpless. I have taken all the action that I can, so control is no longer an illusion. Surrender seems the only option, and yet it’s painful. I want there to be something else I can do.

But there isn’t. This is out of my hands now. So, calmed by my yoga breath, I will sit with what is, keep faith in what’s good, and do my best to trust that I will get what I need….if not my phone back, then something better.

The bhakti of breakti

“Bhakti” is a Sanskrit word that in yoga means “devotion.” So, for example, the act of loving fully is sometimes described as bhakti yoga. Yesterday I took a yoga class born from the teacher’s love and devotion for break dancing. She calls her style “breakti.” I call it a blast!

Keep it real, come correct, and open the space. Those were Anya Porter’s requests of me and the fifteen or so students who joined me in taking one of her specialized classes that blends break dancing (along with other street styles) with traditional asana. I was really excited to be in the room, because I have a secret love for street dancing: Once when I had a gym membership I got really into taking classes, including a hip-hop aerobics class in which I may or may not have learned a full Cali-style routine set to Justin Timberlake’s “I’m Bringing Sexy Back.”

However, much as I enjoy hip hop and attempting to move to the beats, skilled I am not. I believe I have potential–I sort of did a headstand just last week. But then again, I am not yet able to balance on my arms in crow pose. Still, even though I was only moderately confident in my abilities, Anya had me feeling right at home, reminding me that I can find my own rhythm if I can find my breath.

Nonetheless, dance doesn’t come as easily to me as it does for others, and it can take me a while to pick up new moves. Which is why I gathered up the courage to put my mat in the front row: I decided it was more important for me to see the teacher’s demonstration than it was for me to avoid embarrassment. Embarrassment was not avoided.

First I felt awkward having my picture taken while I was sweating heavily. (I understand the studio wanted to document their awesome event, but that doesn’t mean I’m okay with a camera in my face during practice.) Then more unwanted attention came my way about the time we started learning the six-step.

Using the first few steps of the move, it’s possible to sort of bear-walk your way across a room. At least, it was possible for everyone else in my class. Anya had us try out our new skillz in sets of three, and I ended up in the last group to go. I was doing my best, kicking a leg forward at the same time as I lifted a hand off the ground and then somehow twisting and then reversing my position. But I wasn’t progressing across the room.

“Why am I not moving?” I wondered aloud. “That’s a really good question,” said Anya, to a soundtrack of good-natured laughter, and I looked up to realize I was alone on the floor. Everyone else was already gathered at the end of the room, waiting. But no pressure.

I did my best to follow Anya’s patient instructions and before long I was moving forward, however clumsily. When I reached the cluster of my patiently observing classmates, I stood up with relief–and to applause. I then understood that lingering wisps of self-consciousness could safely dissolve. Embarrassment was pointless.

And so I had fun. We learned a short routine that was a pleasure to perform, and as we moved and grooved to songs like “Push It”, “I’ve Got the Power”, and “No Diggity”, I felt my guards fall and my smile spread.  Some people around me were doing awesome renditions of a six-step; I was kicking one foot with the other and laughing as I fell. And we were all sharing the love–bringing the bhakti, breakti style.

Lean in, with love

I have recently been twice inspired by Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook. She took me by surprise because, while I am a devoted (read: addicted) user of Facebook, I’ve never been particularly trusting of its leadership. But when a friend forwarded me Sandberg’s commencement address at Barnard University, I knew right away that I was reading words of wisdom. And a few days later, when I read a story about her in The New Yorker, I was further convinced I’d discovered a voice worth listening to.

Oh, how I wish I’d been encouraged to lean in when I was eighteen or twenty-two. Even then, I was already starting to gently opt out, so casually certain was I that I’d marry my high school boyfriend, or, later, that I’d find a husband before I graduated college. I will never be one of the lawyers who doesn’t push to make partner because she knows she wants kids down the road–I am the girl who didn’t bother taking the LSATs, since I preemptively concluded a law career wouldn’t blend with my family plans.

Which may well be true. And I’m not sorry I’m not a lawyer—I’m a writer and a journalist, always have been. But I cringe a little bit when I consider my previous willingness to sacrifice my own dreams for the good of my future family. I cringe more when I realize I didn’t even think much about what those dreams were. I simply assumed I’d be kept busy in other ways and, when I found myself single after graduation, snagged an acceptable job for the time being. Sandberg points out that women like me have sought to find balance for responsibilities we don’t yet have. And it’s true: I have spent some prime post-college years “quietly leaning back.”

But no more. I have found yoga, which, along with my writing, fills me with passion, real passion that I can act on today. I don’t need to lean back because there is nothing to wait for–maybe someday I will have to choose between my career and my family, but then again, maybe not, and at any rate, if I don’t build something for myself now, there will be nothing to decide, nothing worth returning to (or sticking with).

I am a little sad that I didn’t entirely absorb this concept sooner, but I do trust that my life’s journey is unique and that I am exactly where I need to be. So I must have required the lost years of my twenties to fully get my bearings. However, I am ready now. Ready to give what I have to offer, and to seriously consider a question of Sandberg’s: “What in the world needs to change, and what part do [I] plan on playing in changing it?”

I believe that what needs to change is our society’s tolerance for blame, greed, and hate. Citizens of the world must become unwilling to allow unnecessary suffering, and willing to choose love over fear, again and again. This kind of change cannot be externally implemented–it must come from within, one person at a time. But I do think I can help.

Sandberg is right when she says that “It is the ultimate luxury to combine passion and contribution. It’s also a very clear path to happiness.” That path is one I have been on for at least a year or two, but definitely since January, when I started this blog and publicly professed my desire to make a difference in the world by expressing myself and sharing my yoga. By setting an example of internal exploration and encouraging others to do the same, I am allowing myself to emerge as a leader, someone who can have a concrete impact on my community.

So sincere thanks to Sheryl Sandberg and her well-intentioned wise words. Sure, it might have been helpful to hear them sooner, but what matters is that I am leaning in now–and I am doing it with love.

Minding meditation

Art by Carol Buchman, ©2006, CarolBuchman.net

So, this would have been the day I wrote about my second successful thirty-day challenge, the one where I not only meditated for ten minutes each day, but also refrained from going on Facebook more than three times a day. But, even though I reported my progress halfway through the month and all seemed to be going well, I’m not writing today about my success. Because a few days after that glowing status update, I blew it.

The Facebook part of the slip-up was a simple accident; I’d already been on three times that day and was very conscious of doing so. But when a friend and I showed up at a venue for a comedy show later that night and weren’t sure we had the right place, I instinctively flicked onto my phone’s Facebook app to check the invite. I suppose I could have overlooked the mistake, since my intention was the equivalent of checking email, but my thirty-day challenge was two-fold, and Saturday was also the day I failed to meditate. I hadn’t felt like it after sleeping in, and didn’t get around to it during the day, and by the time I accidentally checked Facebook my evening was underway. It’s true I could have somehow found the time and space before midnight, but at that point I didn’t even care. I gave up.

I meant to write about my abandoned efforts sooner, but I’ve had a lot going on and it’s not like I was exactly eager to flaunt my failure. I know I’m not supposed to consider it failure so much as a learning opportunity, but, whatever the label, I’m not really bothered. Nor have I started another challenge. And as another month starts, I’m unsure whether I want to.

I really do love the idea of a guided retreat and an exploration into compassionate self-discipline, and maybe the problem is that I need to have a hard copy of Cheri Huber’s Making a Change for Good on hand instead of holding vague memories from reading it two months ago. But in my current day-to-day, sitting for ten minutes each morning seems like a drag. There. I said it. I’d rather hit snooze.

I’m not sure why I’m going through this rebellious streak; I know I benefit from meditation, and it’s not like ten minutes will make or break my morning. But for the last week or two, I’ve been harboring the childish notion of “don’t wanna.” And, since it’s summer, and I’m not going to beat myself up over it, I haven’t pushed the issue.

But it is the beginning of another month, and also the day of the new moon, and I believe in fresh starts. So I will contemplate my resistance and reevaluate my choices. Maybe there is a middle ground, somewhere between rigid adherence to Cheri Huber’s instructions and careless dismissal of discipline. Maybe I’ll commit to meditating five minutes each day instead of ten. Yes, it’d be a step backward from where I was, but it’d still be a step forward from where I am….