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 🙂

Don’t forget the little joys

Hello from Torino, Italy!

I took some time off blogging as we transitioned from Asia to Europe to soak in the new lifestyle and surroundings and to gather info/make decisions about what comes after this round-the-world trip. Decisions, decisions…

Anyway, I read this thoughtful piece about taking time each day to appreciate what’s around you, specifically the pieces of nature, big or small. I found it relevant and grounding as both M and I are looking to the future, beyond this amazing trip that we’ve taken. As we think about what and where our next step will be, we’ve both found stillness in meditation and walks through Italian streets.

The pace of life here in Europe is one we both appreciate; work to live, don’t live to work. Even though our next year may take us back to the US, this year has given us invaluable insight into being present, appreciating what we have, and enjoying what’s in front of us.

As Herman Hesse writes,

All things have their vivid aspects, even the uninteresting or ugly; one must only want to see.


Image Credit: Sydney Smith

Traveling yogi: planning ahead while staying present (on a budget)

The last couple days M and I have spent about 3 hours each morning to plan for our upcoming travel: our journey from Luang Prabang, Laos to Singapore in two weeks, our first week in Europe (Amsterdam+London/Essex+Bruges) coming up in a month (!!) and now our month in Morocco in March (post-Italy, pre-NOLA for my friend’s wedding)…this shit takes time! Doing all this on a $50/day ($75/day in Europe) budget can be challenging.

But it leads to finding gems, such as staying in a small artsy town outside of the big city for less than $500 a month and renting a motorbike to explore more of the region — and local life.

What brought me here to Luang Prabang was yoga teaching. What this opportunity has brought to me so far is a Gorgeous 2-day boat ride down the Mekong River, an unforgettable teaching experience at Luang Prabang Yoga, and a long weekend  of trekking and chilling in the luscious and local mountain town of Nong Khiaw.

Sometimes my soul is pulled forward: where will we be next year? What if my plan of applying to grad school in Italy falls through? What will we do if we run out of money? Or, on the flip side, look at all the possibilities! I could teach here, or there, or gain knowledge studying at this center, with that teacher…And sometimes my soul is so content exactly where it is: absorbing my surroundings with a good book and a cup of tea. Going to bed when I’m sleepy and waking up when I’m rested. Being in the moment, connected with my students during class. This is where the yoga practice comes in for me: understanding that life is about balancing and flowing with opposing forces. Prana and Apana. Drawing the outer left heel back but rotating the left hip forward. Letting there be “good” days and “bad” days, productive days and unproductive days, hard days and easy ones.

The bottom line is, whether I’m flying or falling, it’s all part of the yoga practice. It’s all part of life.

Look ma! It’s my ego (again)

“When we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something … but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen.”

— Joan  Didion

What is success?

This video about Hayao Miyazaki’s work came up as I was browsing YouTube today. I’ve been a huge fan of his movies for years; they speak to me as deeply as they did when I was 10 years old, but in different ways.

As I travel, I’ve been trying to figure out how I define success as a yoga teacher. What I’ve seen is: marketability + popularity –> success. And that frustrates me because that’s not how I define it.

But as I watched the video, it inspired me to define success for myself, much like Hayao Miyazaki did as he told his stories. Maybe success isn’t a rigid definition at all, but a journey carving out bit by bit as I go.

Training for Vipassana

I am doing my first Vipassana (silent meditation) retreat this January! I’ll be at the Dhamma Simanta retreat center in Lamphun, Thailand for 10 days to practice this ancient form of meditation passed down from the Buddha. It’s a pretty intense schedule: 4 am wake up and 10 hours of meditation a day. Silence is part of the practice, so that means no talking to co-meditators. Furthermore, no reading or writing, much less surfing the web. Phew. Dress code is loose, comfortable clothing and light meals and accommodation are provided. Oh, and it’s free!

But far from a free vacation, I’m looking forward to this time of deep reflection. I mean, there will literally be no distractions. No alcohol, drugs, sex, or even exercise beyond taking a stroll on the grounds.

I started training for the retreat this morning by meditating for 45 minutes, a good 20 minutes than my usual. It wasn’t that bad. Actually, knowing I’d be in it for awhile allowed me to relax into it and not think about whether I was getting close to finishing. Confidence boosted 🙂

I’d been pretty terrified of the idea of being stuck with my thoughts nonstop for 10 days, but as the days draw closer the fear is not so daunting and there’s excitement and hope for the experience that I’ll have.