On Saturday morning the stars aligned and for the first time in much too long I was present on my mat.
Sometimes it’s tough to know what it means to be present when our lives and our minds are so busy with me, me, me.
But for an hour on Saturday I was able to find presence and defy judgement through breath and flow; freedom while working limbs and trunk into shapes not usually made in the span of a normal day.
When you find that elevated place of spiritual liftedness it’s a a lot like the illusive runner’s high. Not until you meet it do you recognize it’s been there all along, but you have been the thing standing in its way.
I stood on my right leg with my shoulder tucked under my left knee, arm wrapped underneath my left calf, hand holding the outer edge of my foot. To make the bind, I needed to wrap my right arm around my back to meet the left hand, while pressing through the right foot to find leverage; to stand up, lifting the knee, while pretzel wrapped around myself.
I worked to the point where my loose right arm met its resistance (so far from where it would have liked to have gone), but instead of feeling any negativity toward myself or the pose, my spirit was set free in the act of the trying. I laughed, and standing in mountain with hands in prayer, smiled under thumbs at the site of my fellow yogis “going for it.” Twisted and bound and strong and upright, many of them even straightened the lifted leg.
Like breathing flesh and bone statues, working their bodies into the shapes of birds, I felt profound pride.
The moment had nothing to do with what I could not achieve or never have been able to or how I felt about my differences from others or how I stood alone.
And there it was….
Gratefulness in a moment, in an experience far beyond the boundaries of my own vida loca.
Have you ever had an experience like this on or off the mat? Do you lose gratefulness sometimes and have difficulty locating it again?
The sun salutations were plenty. One legged chaturangas, too. So many utkatasanas (chair pose), core cultivation, crescent lunging, crow (side crow is beyond me; watch superstar Kathryn Budig’s unbelievable video below) and twists.
My arms, back and sides were awaken. They are sleeping again now, but will probably scream at me tomorrow morning after a long night’s rest.
I walked out knowing that the addition of weekly guided vinyasa is going to help me build strength in areas that running alone can’t provide.
Will I have the stamina for both? This remains to be seen.
On the schedule tomorrow is any easy 6-8 miles. Compared to this morning’s yoga class it will be like a good old walk in the park!
Tell me running friends…. Do you incorporate yoga and/or strength training to improve performance?
I have been tired and there is a great list of possible culprits; the heat, the running, my kids early rising, allergies, my rough food week, hormones?
Whatever it is I’ve being plagued by exhaustion.
After an energetic run on Saturday morning, my laziness took hold. It was hard to sit at the computer, so I took it with me to work horizontally on the sofa. When the girls needed milk I dragged my body to the fridge only to plop back down after handing over their sippy’s.
It was gross.
I decided to roll out my mat.
Knowing that I wasn’t ready to start standing, I lay flat on my back in savasana. I yawned and stretched there for a minute and then reached for my blocks.
For my friends who don’t practice, blocks are also known as props. They are helpful additions to poses when the body needs assistance getting there. They aid in alignment, too.
Certain poses and I always require blocks.
If, for example, I am going from warrior into half moon, I recognize that a block must be waiting by my front foot to give my hand a lift and to keep my spine from crunching down.
In triangle, it is more important to keep the spine straight that to be able to reach the floor. I’m not a yoga instructor and I try not to judge, but when I see a student pulled forward into triangle and bent over to reach the floor causing a U shape to their form, it takes everything in me not to march over and readjust their positioning.
Caring for the spine is more important than deepening a pose for the sake of the ego.
As I stared at the dining room ceiling deciding where to start, I made the call to stack two blocks and tuck them under my sacrum for a gentle assisted bridge pose.
By lifting the pelvis up off the floor a stretch is created along the spine. With the tail bone hanging over the edge of the blocks, the shoulders roll back, the chest is forced to lift and open, and the arms roll out to the side causing the lungs to fill with fresh air (prana).
I hung out there for a while. It felt good.
When I was ready I played with leg and foot positioning.
With bent knees and one foot planted on the floor, I pointed the toes of the other foot and curled them back toward my rear end, palm of hand to sole of foot and pressed into the mat causing a delicious front quad stretch. For balance I repeated with the other foot.
With legs straight and high, toes splayed and pointed down (yoga feet) I imagined a string being pulled through my heels.
I made a wide legged V and then froggy legs with the balls of my feet pushing together for resistance.
Coming down I eased the blocks out from below me and slowly curled my back flat to the floor. I rocked my knees back and forth until they fell all the way to the right, arms folding over me to the left; an unscheduled supine twist. As always to keep balance, I rolled my knees to the left and arms to the right. Breathing and resting, it felt like a great big body yawn.
The pose I had just exited (supported bridge) led perfectly into a shoulder stand cycle. Without planning or thinking about it I allowed my body to go there.
From an unsupported bridge to a shoulder stand and then to one of my most difficult poses, the plow.
Plow is difficult for girls with DD’s and despite my best efforts I often find myself with a crunchy spine, so instead of pressing my feet entirely overhead, I eased back into shoulder stand before returning to the floor.
The entire cycle was slow and just what I needed; restful and energizing at the same time.
This is the beauty of a home practice. Go with your flow and you get what you need.
Rejuvenated, I turned over and cat-cowed until I was ready for a dog, legs pressed into the floor and walking. One at a time I raised each leg high to the ceiling and then bent over into a hip stretch.
Surprisingly, I had generated enough energy that a few slow and deliberate salutations to the sun came pouring forth (a few breaths per movement).
Before I knew it I was in that zone. I popped up, turned on music and grabbed the incense out of my desk drawer. I struck a match and lit the fire igniting my home practice companion.
The energy that I’d created spread through my house and before I knew it my quietly playing kids wanted in on the action. Just like that my solitary yoga play was done.
A full home practice is is not as easy with kids around and because of them it rarely ends in savasana.
Still, that time on my mat was enough to give me what I needed to be more productive and present in my own life.
With newfound energy I cleaned up the kitchen, gathered cut up paper from around the children’s art table, went outside to water the garden and folded every last piece of clothing from the laundry bed. That alone was a miracle!
If it weren’t for those blocks I would have become one with the sofa; a blob of a mom with a messy house and a sadly wasted day.
So props to the props (in this instance the blocks) and to the home practice that pulled my being out of Lazyland and back to Mommyland where I belonged.
I rarely take my hair out of its place atop my head. Always in a knot, put there when it’s wet, it’s easy and it works.
Today it was tied as it always is, but came down during yoga and the dance that ensued.
I used to dance.
I used to rave and club and watch strobe lights turn the faces of my friends the most beautiful shades of blue and green and red; yellow, orange, and pink.
The early nineties in San Francisco were a playground for a free bird like me.
I pierced my nose, danced all night, had cocktails at the End Up for breakfast and wore platform shoes with mini skirts and knee socks. I drove around in a small white Mercedes and cut my hair as short as Mia Farrow with long whispy pieces by my ears.
Life is different today and that time of my youth is a long distant memory. In between play dates and pre-school pick-up, there’s not much opportunity to dance anymore, other than the occasional kitchen pajama party with the iPhone on full blast.
Unless I can manage to attend Carson‘s springtime fire generating vinyasa class, which I did this morning, my dancing feet don’t get much time to do their thing in the presence of people above the age of four.
The class was packed with wall to wall mats. The chatter of eager and waiting yogis was like cheerful music and I tried to record the sound with my phone, though when I played it back the energy that had felt palpable was missing. The waft of incense welcomed me and I found a spot in the center of the room.
I had a feeling there would be some dancing. Fire practices generate heat and the best way to do so is to move. The faster you move the more heat you produce. It’s not a rocket science, really.
The class itself was filled with lots of chaturangas and forward folds, utkatasanas, a few inversions, and a good bit of chanting.
The final movement was a dance called tandava kriya (Shiva’s dance).
Shifting from leg to leg to beats times two, elbow to opposite knee and back, twisting slightly at the waist to the thumping of drums, my pony started to fall.
I pulled out the elastic and my mess of a mop fell down in front of my face.
Back and forth I hopped from foot to foot, elbow to knee and so on. I closed my eyes tuning out anything but the drums. One, two, switch. Back and forth.
After a minute, my pounding heart insisted on slowing, which gave me a chance to look around. I brushed my hair out of my face and opened my eyes to find the entire space filled with dancing yoginis; heated hearts pounding together, lots of free pony tails, tendrils falling around shoulders.
It was freedom. A moving meditation. Letting go.
For a moment on my mat the young, wild, and free twenty-something me had a chance to escape.
I recognized her underneath all that flying hair.
We were connected and time was suspended.
I didn’t realize how much that girl had been missed.
When I first began yoga it was simply out of curiosity. I started slowly and only went to classes that were labeled as beginner.
After a few years and upon my move to Maine where I was back in college for an Elementary Teacher Certification I started to practice more on my own. With Coldplay and David Gray on constant rotation and a good amount of incense burned, yoga became as important to me as the other most loved parts of my life.
My knowledge base had grown enough to comfortably engage in a fulfilling home practice, but I continued to learn through the wonderful teachings of June at Nataraja Yoga, in the old building on Route 1.
I heard June’s voice come to me yesterday. I still hear her voice when I need to slow down in my life and on my mat. It’s funny, because I never made a connection with her outside of class. I’m not sure she’d recognize me if we bumped into each other on the street. Good teachers stay with you always. It’s a part of their gift.
I was asked recently by someone who has never tried the ancient practice where they should start. My advice is always the same.
Start slowly. Begin with teachers whose goal is non-judgement and never ever push into anything that doesn’t feel right. That’s how you end up getting hurt and I know plenty of people whose type A led them down that road. They quit without discovering the powerful centeredness that yoga creates within one’s being.
It’s a terrible shame.
As I embark on a weekend of Easter Bunny goodies and in an effort to locate the balance (missing as of late) I wanted to share one of the easiest yet often passed over poses; Mountain.
Often in yoga Mountain Pose is used as a resting point before venturing into the next flow. Its like hitting the pause button to catch ones breath before diving in to another round of sun salutations or triangles or any other sort of asana that the body is calling for.
Really, though, it is the beginning. The place where we should start.
With toes pressed evenly into the ground, heels cemented and teetering back and forth for a moment, find your balance.
Let the arms fall straight at your sides. Bend them a little, shake them out until they settle with fingers facing toward the ground. The hands should feel a charge. “Yoga hands,” they’re called, not wimpy or lax. Upper arms and shoulders can roll back and hands can open to the front of the room. I find more energy inhabits the arms when I open them, but I think it’s a personal preference.
Visualize the knee caps raised to the sky, the inner thighs rotate inward. Rock back and forth a little to check your feet. Really check them out. Are they solid? Are you grounded?
Gently tuck your pelvis and tighten the belly as you roll back your shoulders. Feel your chest raise and your neck lengthen. Legs and arms should still be strong.
Belly is still tightened, but soft. This can seem contradictory, but it’s not. You can feel the power deep in your belly, while thinking about softening it. It takes practice, but can be done.
The neck begins to straighten more, the shoulders drop, and by imagining a string being lifted straight from the crown of your head, the tip of your being is pulled to the sky.
Your face should be soft. Imagine the tongue resting in your mouth. Your cheeks are soft; your face looking straight ahead.
You can close your eyes.
In through the nose and out through nose.
In through the nose and out through the mouth if big energy needs to escape.
Continue to stand like a mountain and check in with your body for subtle adjustments to make yourself tall and strong. The challenge is to stay there. Still, yet strong. Fired up, yet calm.
The challenge is to see if you can find your mountain while off the mat; while standing in the grocery store or listening to the screaming of a four-year old whose every pair of pants are tickling her (OCD?).
As I mentioned earlier, my certification was in Elementary School teaching. It was never a certification in yoga. Since I’m not a certified teacher, please take this lesson with a grain of salt and most certainly don’t try this at home unless you are sure you won’t hurt yourself.
If you do think you’d hurt yourself in mountain pose, I would strongly suggest you get yourself to a class where you can be monitored by a professional.
You won’t regret it if you follow a plan that is similar to my own careful and richly rewarding beginning.
Before you know it you’ll be standing taller and breathing easier and singing “Om” without a giggle.
When that day comes you’ll understand all the fuss!
Om shanti shanti and namaste (with hands folded at heart center).