My first Ashtanga practice

Truthfulness isn’t safe, but it is good.

— Deborah Adele, Yamas and Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice

I woke up this morning before sunrise in search for truth. I climbed the stairs up to the rooftop, put on Ashtanga Master Sri K Pattabhi Jois’ (Guruji) instruction of the Primary Series back in 1993 (which looked more like the ’70s to me…was VHS that long ago?) and started following along.  As I warmed up with Surya Namaskars (Sun Salutations), the sun rose, turning the black sky deep orange, then light blue, revealing the Atlantic Ocean and other rooftops of Asilah, Morocco’s Medina before me. I got through about a third of the seated sequence and decided to skip to the finishing sequence.

First impressions:

1. So many jump throughs!

2.  There’s more to this than the poses. Drishtis (gazing point) and bandhas (“locks/gates”), for example.

I’ve decided to explore Ashtanga Yoga. It’s known as a physically challenging practice with 6 total sequences. Practitioners spend years, decades even, on the first one (called the Primary Series) and most people don’t move past the second series. What does an Ashtanga yogi’s practice look like? For 6 days a week, it’s the same 90-120 minute sequence. Moon days (new moon and full moon) are off. So are the first few days of a woman’s menstrual cycle. Practices are best done in the morning, according to Guruji.

As me and M’s round-the-world trip draws to a close, I’m looking to what’s next. In my professional life, I’m planning to apply for a physiotherapy degree in Italy next fall. In my yoga practice, I realized I was craving discipline and consistency. I wanted a practice that that would strengthen me physically, mentally, and emotionally. Well how about doing the same practice 6 days a week in the early morning?

When I looked into what Ashtanga Yoga was, I was intrigued. There’s the gross practice; that is, the physical challenge of expanding what I believe is physically possible for my body. But underneath that is the subtle practice: the drishti, which is the visual focus point of each pose, the bandhas, or energetic “locks” which direct the energy of the pose, and the moving meditation aspect of an Ashtanga practice: once I learn the sequence, I can focus on breath and energy flow rather than being distracted by what the next pose is. Not to mention the mental challenge of coming back to the same sequence each time and practicing mindfully, adapting to how I feel each day. The challenge of practicing safely, listening to my body rather than my ego. Of coming back to a pose that I feel stuck in. Or moving on to a pose that brings up fear, and rising to the challenge of gazing at the fear and releasing it This is what I’ve been looking for.

I believe my Ashtanga practice will help me reveal my truth. It will give me courage to look the tiger in the eye and pursue the next steps in this nonlinear life. The truth is not safe, but it is good.

Bonus: the practice also travels well. No matter where I am, the sequence is the same, and it seems like the Ashtanga community is a supportive and accessible group. This is a big plus because I’m not sure where I’ll be in the next few years.

So I’m going for it. Once we are stateside again, I’ll attend class to learn more about technique and how to direct my subtle body. For now, it’s me, Guruji, and the Moroccan sunrise 🙂

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Music! Moby’s 4 hour yoga & meditation album

Moby’s 4 hour album has been out for awhile, but I wanted to cook it in my practice for a couple weeks before saying anything about it.

First, it’s an ambient album, so it was best on days I wanted to be really focused (sorry Drake, Views is great but my booty needs a break). It doesn’t have a sweet beat or an energy building flow, which means I used it to work on my alignment and pay attention to energetic lines and breath rather than to let creative movement flow.

Second, even though it’s good background music, I didn’t like it for meditation. It didn’t add to my mindfulness-based practice, and it didn’t take anything away either. I prefer to listen to the sounds around me or do a guided meditation session.

Overall, I recommend that you give his album a try (it’s free to download from the link above). It’s great for introspective or technical days and provides a seamless quality to your personal practice, especially if you want to study-jam for a couple hours.

Common cues: “pull your shoulder blades down”

You hear it all the time. “Pull the shoulder blades down the spine”. For years I did this, but I felt like I was missing out on some range of motion. Then I watched this video by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen (love her!), who developed physiologically-informed movement dubbed Body-Mind Centering. She explains the anatomy of shoulder blade movement and with one sentence changed how I approach lifting and reaching my arms.

Here it is: think of your shoulder blades as a wheel rotating around a pivot point.

Wow. *mind blown*

Here’s a comparison. Shoulder blades pulled down:

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Notice the curve in my arms and the width of my upper back as I try to pull down the lateral (outer) part of my shoulder blades down along with the medial part (towards the spine).

Now if I rotate my shoulder blades:

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The lateral edge of my shoulder blades are allowed to rotate upwards (to me it feels like a wrapping upward motion towards my front ribs) as the medial part of the shoulder blades come down. My arms are straighter and overall it feels like I’m working with my body, not against it.

Try it! Stand in tadasana (mountain pose) with a neutral pelvis (your ASIS and pubic bone are approximately on a vertical plane) and feet hip width apart. Take an inhale and swing both arms in front of you, then up and overhead. Now try the common cue and pull your shoulders down your back as if you had imaginary strings attached to the inferior (bottom) edge of your shoulder blade. Notice how this feels in your shoulders and upper back. Soften the front ribs (i.e. resist the urge to arch your back and puff out your chest), then on an exhale release your arms down by your sides.

Then try it with rotation. Check in with your tadasana. Imagine that your shoulder blade as a rotating piece about a “center of gravity” or pivot point. Then inhale and swing your arms overhead, allowing the the lateral edges of your shoulder blades to swing upwards. Notice how the medial part of the blades naturally glide down. Soften the front ribs. Stay for a few breaths and notice how this feels different than the first way. If you’ve got a full length mirror handy, try both ways again and see the difference.

This perspective shift was a game changer for me; I can’t count how many times I reach my arms overhead or away from by body even in one practice. It’s even helped my handstand practice, taking the forcing out of the tops of my shoulders and gliding into alignment instead.

 

 

Teaching my first yoga class

Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.

— Margaret J. Wheatley

Happy International Women’s Day!

I’ve learned in my life that reflecting back helps me appreciate my journey and recognize what I’ve learned. Today I’m honoring the first yoga class I taught a year and a half ago.

It was for a practice group with a fellow teacher trainee and two of his friends. Both of his friends were new at yoga and eager to learn. I’d prepared a 60ish minute flow and carefully selected one of Shiva Rea’s flow mixes to play in the background: introspective but not distracting. I was really nervous about what they would think of my class.

As we settled onto our mats to begin, I felt my heart pounding and all (three pairs) of eyes on me. It was thrilling and scary. I asked them to bring their attention to their breath and begin to go within. As their eyes closed, I gazed at my *very first* students with nervous excitement and remembered this: it’s all about them right now. I had a Matrix moment. Time slowed down and I let go of my ego, instead scanning the energy of the room. What did they need today, and how can I help them find it? After they finished setting their intention and we Ommmmmed, we started moving together. My cues were basic and direct and I confused the left side and right side a few times, but it didn’t faze me. I had clicked with them, and I was guiding their energy through the practice. It’s such a high, being connected to my students and feeling their trust in me, trust that I could and would serve them by being their guide. It’s this connection and exchange of energy that I chase. It pushes me to be a better yogi, a better teacher. It motivates me to practice creatively, try new perspectives, read more do more be more. It forces me to say “not now, ego” and listen to the needs of myself and my students.

Here are some reflections from other yoga teachers about teaching their first class. Happy yoga-ing!

 

What makes a good yoga teacher?

What makes a good yoga teacher?  I’ve learned a lot in my first year as a yoga teacher, and in order to keep improving, I check in with a short list of things I believe are necessary to be a good yoga teacher. I’ve created this list from my experience as a yoga student practicing on the East Coast, Midwest, in Mongolia and South East Asia and also as a yoga teacher in the Midwest and in Vietnam and Laos.

Being prepared, but also listening to the room

The best yoga classes that I’ve attended or taught are ones where the teacher had a plan for the class and also read and incorporated the energy of the room into the class. Sometimes that meant checking in with the students at the beginning of class, other times it meant sensing the energy levels/flow of the room. If the students were expressing a need for something other than what was planned, the teacher adjusted their plan to meet the students’ needs.

Making it about the students, not the teacher

As a student, I notice when the teacher is focused on themselves, trying to impress the class and exude “good yoga teacher” energy. As a teacher, I notice when I am thinking about how I look or come off to the students, or whether they will think this is a good class. But when the focus is on the teacher, the students aren’t able to go inside to their deeper koshas and the teacher isn’t able to hear or sense what the students need in the moment. In these cases, the teacher is probably feeling nervous (trust me, I would know), which is a natural reaction to caring about bringing forth a great class. When this happens  to me as a teacher, I take a deep breath and remind myself that I’m here for the students and become more connected and in-tune to their needs.

Putting safety first

This one is really important to me. Providing a safe environment for students to explore is paramount to being a good teacher. For me, this means understanding the physiology of yoga and understanding that every body is different and has had different experiences. This means that poses will inevitably look different on different people. This means it’s important to understand the intent of the pose (e.g. opening the inner legs) beyond superficial cues (e.g. straighten the knee). When students feel safe and supported in class, they can do more exploring and gain a better understanding of their own bodies. They will also appreciate more the quirks of their own bodies and tailor the practice to what they need.

Keeping up your personal practice

As a teacher, maintaining your personal practice means you won’t be tempted to practice along with the class you’re teaching. That’s not your time; that time is for your students (see point 2).  It also means you will continue to develop a better understanding of the physical yoga practice. It means you will have experience in the pranayama (breathwork) and meditation that you lead in class. It means you are focused and ready to teach come class time.

Being a lifelong learner

Finally, being a good yoga teacher (or any teacher) means you don’t stop learning. For me, this means keeping up my personal practice (point 4), attending other classes and studying yoga materials: books, articles, workshops, and trainings. These things build on existing knowledge and sometimes offer a new perspective on yoga.

As my yoga journey continues, this list will evolve. I encourage all the yogis out there to create a list of their own. Knowing what qualities are important to you will help you find your dream yoga teacher or become a better one 🙂

Bakasana breakthrough

Arm balances can be intimidating. They require building strength in your core, shoulders, and arms. Many poses require flexibility in the hips, glutes, and lower back. They all require trust in your upper body to hold you up and also being open to (literally) change your perspective while you’re in the pose.

Bakasana (crow pose) is a pose I’ve been working on for awhile. There were two classes where I popped up into it without hesitation at the teacher’s cue and thought “wow, I could hold this pose forever!” But most times I tentitively hop onto the toes of  one foot, then the other. I realized I was doing this out of fear: what if my arms give out? What if I fall on my face? What if I hurt my neck? While all these things could happen, focusing on them has prevented me from progress. Until yesterday.

During some downtime in my hotel room in Hanoi, I rolled out my mat and placed a big fluffy pillow on it and began practicing coming into the pose. The first few attempts didn’t work. My knees slipped off my upper arms and fell to the mat, my face hitting the pillow. So I tried again. And again. I felt the familiarity of not being able to do it, and then I realized I was expecting failure. I was expecting that my arms would not be able to hold me up, expecting that I would hit my face against the pillow and that my knees would slip from my upper arms. So I took a few slow breaths and reset my expectations. This time, I didn’t expect to fail, nor was I eagerly wishing for success. I just wanted to try it. Up I went, and for 2.5 seconds, it felt great! I was in balance, on my hands, feeling weightless! Then disbelief and fear crept in and I came down with a thump.

I practiced for a while longer, one more time catching that weightless effortless feeling. It was awesome.

Yeah, yoga is about more than achieving difficult poses. But what goes into practicing a challenging pose is exactly what yoga is about: using strength without forcing, using flexibility with stability, and staying curious with the process. Oh, and going for gold 🙂

One week in Japan

Japan is…amazing. I didn’t expect to like it so much. The nature, the food, the people, the architecture, it feels like I’m discovering something that was carefully crafted and maintained with pride and love.

Our first stop was Haneda, a small fishing town close to the airport:

I really enjoyed this first stop. It gave me a taste of everyday life in Japan: quiet, clean, and efficiently beautiful.

Our next stop was Tokyo. Here we used M’s Hilton points to treat ourselves to a two night stay in the Hilton Tokyo. It was a fun two days; we had some down time and enjoyed a nice dinner to celebrate our anniversary, and we met up with a childhood friend of mine who lives in the city.

Though sometimes crowded, Tokyo is really quiet! There was no honking, no loud conversations. Not even a loud sneeze! As a former New Yorker, this was baffling.

Then we took our first Shinkansen (bullet train) ride up to Nikko National Park. A small mountain town where almost all the food shuts down by 5 pm. Still, we saw some pretty awesome shrines, temples, and mountain views.

Hiroshima was our next stop. M really wanted to visit, and I’m glad we went. The memorial was beautiful and inspiring. It paid respect to those that died, those that sacrificed for the better of others, and those that will go on to make a better future. I wonder if the US would be able to memorialize a tragedy this way.

Finally, Kyoto. Old Japan. There were plenty of tourists and Western restaurants along Pontocho district, the iconic narrow streets next to Kamo River. We enjoyed a stroll down those streets and ended up grabbing a beer and a simple meal at the end of the night. Gion was also filled with tourists, but it was still nice to see some of the architecture and participate in a tea ceremony!

On our last night in Kyoto, we stopped by Hachimonjiya, a small 3rd story bar/gathering place for artists, writers, and locals owned by photographer Kai Fusayoshi. We had great conversation with Kai and our bartender V, who was from Lebanon and here for her PhD. I highly recommend for anyone who enjoys tucked away local dive bars and street photography. Finally, our last bullet train from Kyoto to Osaka to catch our flight to Taipei:

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All in all, it was a great if not busy week. We walked an average of 7 miles a day, which just about balanced out all the yummy food we ate!

Morning Yoga

This week, I’m in NYC visiting friends in the city I called home for 5 years. The neighborhood I lived in, Hamilton Heights, is growing quickly: new coffee shops and cafes have popped up every time I’ve visited this year. Columbia University continues to buy up property close to the Hudson River, inching their reach further uptown from the main campus on 116th to the medical campus on 168th. In this neighborhood and this city where people move quickly, where things change and places change and 8 minutes is a long time to wait for the next train, it’s even more important to find groundedness within.

That’s what I love about New York:  it challenges you and also gives you the freedom to be you — if you’ve got the conviction to. Yeah, anyone can find peace when meditating in a quiet candlelit room with incense burning, or at a retreat in the great outdoors. But what about finding it on the uptown D train at 59th st. when you’ve just heard someone yell “it’s showtime!” What about finding it at a crowded deli counter while you’re waiting for your turkey and egg on a hero? Even finding it on the mat in the city is something else. You might hear trucks downshifting to brake at the red light, ambulance and police sirens passing through, animated conversations in Spanish, Russian, Mandarin…all while you’re being told to move with your breath, not to rush from one pose to another.

That is precisely what I’ve learned to do. Only after I moved away from the city, spent a year going deeper into yoga, meditation and connecting with my breath was I able to come back and notice a change in my yoga practice. Besides being more confident in alignment, transitioning from one asana to another, and feeling the energy created by those around me, devoting time to look within myself this past year has uncovered a stillness and groundedness that I couldn’t see before. It was covered up by voices around me that I had internalized throughout life, telling me what I should be doing, who I should be in profession, in appearance, in having-my-shit-together.

So, when the yoga teacher this morning said “don’t rush”, I didn’t. I savored being in each pose, sensing how my body was feeling and what it needed today. I heard a semi drive by outside, noticed the toned back muscles of the guy behind me in adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog), and felt the muted vibrations from the floor as someone below us climbed up the stairs. I wasn’t fazed. I was here. Exactly where I needed to be.

Compassion course: week 4

Happy Friday! This is the third installment of a weekly svadjaja (self study) series I’m doing on a year long online Non-Violent Communication (NVC) course that I’m taking. I’m tracking my progress as I go through each week’s lessons. Check out last week’s post on feelings here!

Needs. The root of compassionate thinking. This week was a revisit of needs. Why do they matter? Are there good and bad needs? What about needs vs. strategies (i.e. how we try to meet our needs)?

The idea that the things people do are their attempts to meet their needs is new to me. I think this course will be the beginning of a new way of thinking, and of improving communication and relationships by maintaining connection during times it’s easier to just disengage. How many times have I written someone off based on something they said, their actions, or how they look that day? It’s tempting to disconnect, especially with something I feel strongly about (like during an argument…*cough cough*) because it’s easier for me to think about right vs wrong or fundamental differences than to consider that I might be wrong or that the other person has their story and their needs too.

The biggest takeaway I got from this week was the idea of strategies vs needs. Our needs are universal, but the strategies we use to meet them can differ. So the next time I get into a conflict with someone else, I’ll try to think less of “why the hell would they say that to me??” and ask myself “what universal need are they trying to meet?” I think this is a step in the right direction 🙂

Pose anatomy: asana database

Happy International Yoga Day!

How cool! Wolfram|Alpha, a curated search engine, compiles and displays overviews of 216 yoga asanas — at the curious yogi’s fingertips! Info includes an illustration of the pose, muscles stretched/strengthened, joints used, modifications, as well as contraindications (who should not do this pose) and props used.

The basic instructions will get you into the pose, but go to a qualified instructor to properly explore the actions (stretching, reaching, drawing in, pressing down) of each pose — and to find out how to use the props listed! The database won’t replace going to a yoga class, but I love the idea of compiling an asana database for yogis that want to go deeper into their physical understanding of each pose. More info here.