Sunday, November 20, 2016


I love chaturanga.  I really do.  It's one of my favorite poses, right next to upward facing dog.  What I love also is the space between these two key elements of the Sun Salutation, sometimes called vinyasa.  If you do a vinyasa style of yoga, then you are probably very familiar with these poses.  You've done them somewhere between ten and ten thousand times -- but who's counting?  What I wonder, though, is do you love them, as I do?  Do you even like them?  Do you think about them at all?

Not twenty minutes ago, I was on my mat, taking an absolutely lovely class taught by my dear friend Kate.  Kate and I did our 200-Hour Teacher Training together at O2 Yoga in the spring of 2012.  Ever since our graduation, she's been one of my favorite teachers -- she's creative, she's precise, she's calming, she's silly, she's quietly in command of the room.  She's the kind of teacher -- like so many of our fabulous instructors at O2 -- that gives students the space to experience the poses while reminding them of the nuances that lie therein.  When she asks me to straighten into the back knee and draw back on my right hip or when she asks me to take a deep inhale to lift through the spine and then twist on the exhale, I listen carefully -- I do as she says.  It doesn't matter that this is my two thousandth time on my mat -- I listen.  I treat every moment, every breath, every word spoken by my teacher with the respect it deserves.  It doesn't matter to me that I've already done three vinyasas in this class, let alone all the vinyasas I've done over the years -- they all are important to me.

In class (tonight and many other times -- if not most other times), other students seem to be in a hurry, ready to push through, let's get to the pose and ignore the set up.  We set up to do Prasarita Padottanasana C and once Kate said which of the four versions we were doing, I watched students in front of me immediately reach to clasp their hands at the small of their back, despite the fact that Kate was gently cuing to extend arms out to the sides and to draw them back, clasping hands together.  The extra seven seconds spent setting up the pose were skipped by those students who heard it was the "C" version and went into it as if to beat the bell.  Well, there's no contest element in our classes -- there's no reason to rush on through.  I thought about that on the inhale as I extended and then on the exhale as I folded forward and then I thought only of my breath and what Kate was saying from that moment on so as not to distract myself from the practice.  

Earlier today, I was chatting with a few of our other senior teachers about the importance of transitions, of how "game changing" it can be to focus in on the precise execution of the "simple" or the "mundane."  La di da, another vinyasa.  Let's hurry up to down dog, shall we?  I mean, sure, I get it -- downward facing dog is also a pretty awesome pose.  But I challenge you to stay bright and alert even during those frequently occurring transitions.  I promise you it will strengthen and heighten the value of your practice and your time on your mat.

I also challenge you to spend the class doing exactly as the teacher says (unless what the teacher is saying seems dangerous or otherwise unsafe to you).  If you do a practice, cue by cue, you will almost definitely come away with some hot knew knowledge and/or awareness of how or why this yoga thing works for you.  New students sometimes nervously ask me what they should bring to class and almost always I say, with the straightest possible face, "Your sense of humor."  Beyond that, bring some humility and maybe even some curiosity.  Turn off your autopilot.  You are here voluntarily -- you might as well get the most bang for your buck, am I right?

I find my practice in the transitions, in the moments between the postures.  Getting an arm balance or achieving a "yoga first" of any variety can be quite exhilarating and fun, but that's not the meat of the practice.  That's dessert -- that's pie with an extra scoop of ice cream.  Awesome.  But appreciating the movement of your body by half-breaths (inhale/do this....exhale/do that....) -- that is what it's all about.  

Love the transitions.  Celebrate them.  Treat them with respect and believe in their importance.  Doing so will bolster your time on your mat and any of us with a regular practice knows how a positive experience in practice will translate into life in the "real world."  

Every moment of the day has its own degree of importance -- waking up to the promise that how I move through those moments matters has changed my life for the better, breath by breath.

To wit:

I come to stand at the top of my mat, hands pressed in equal standing.

On the inhale, I sweep my arms back and up, gaze follows as my finger tips press together above my head.

On the exhale, I fold forward, pressing my palms into the mat.

On the inhale, I step back to my plank pose.

On the exhale, I lower into my chaturanga (pushup).

On the inhale, I roll over my toes into my upward facing dog.

On the exhale, my hips pull back to my downward facing dog.

I hold here for five breaths, pressing my hands evenly into the mat, using this time to check the distance and position of my feet.  

On an inhale, I hop my feet to the top of the mat.

On the exhale, I fold down and press my palms into the mat.

On the inhale, I sweep back up to standing.

On the exhale, my hands press back at heart center, my return to equal standing pose now complete.

That is the precision of a Sun Salutation A.  My body in cooperation with my mind carries me through each of those half-breaths.  Sun A's are among my closest friends and I value my time spent with them and all of the other repeated yoga commonalities.  I'm thankful for them -- they've taught me to slow down and understand how and why I'm spending my moments as I am.  I'm in no hurry to abandon them, these pillars of my practice.

Thank you, yoga, for these lessons and these opportunities to learn them.

Thank you, transitions, for being the very thing to bind this all together.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Second Series

 Camel Pose.  Or, casually hanging out at home.

The first time I ever did the Astanga Second Series (or Intermediate Series) was back in March 2012.   I was in my second week of teacher training at O2 Yoga, a time that is loving referred to as "Astangaland" and after slugging through Primary Series the weekend before, I was intrigued to try the next phase.  How different could it be??   At first, it was pretty comfortable, familiar territory -- those five Sun A's and five Sun B's were becoming old hat.  Then the next set of opening postures -- Warriors and Angles and Standing Forward Folds and, of course, a couple of standing balances.  Yeah, I got this.

And then the wheels came off the wagon.

Once we'd completed the "warm up" and moved into the actual Second Series postures, I was like a fish out of water, floppin' around and gasping for air.  There was twisting and back bending and feet being jammed behind the head.  There were exotic animals that told a story -- a peacock that is startled by a crocodile that chases a horse that jumps over a fence and lands on a cowface...  Something something something.  There's rolling and jumping and utter chaos around every corner.  And then -- seven headstands?  Good lord.  By the time we made our way into the familiar closing sequence, I was beyond rattled.  I thought to myself, "I suck at yoga.  What the hell am I doing in teacher training??"

Luckily, I wasn't alone in this overwhelming feeling and, after talking with my TT group, we all hashed out our Second Series demons and kept the momentum forward-moving.  I wondered if I'd ever do the sequence again in my yoga-lifetime, fairly certain that answer was no.  And maybe that answer would have remained a no except that when it became a yes, it truly changed my life.

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post -- "The Accidental Astangi" -- that chronicles what happened to get me to roll out my mat in Primary Series, let alone Second.  The short version of the story is my friends started teaching it and so I came to be supportive -- but what I learned was trying this practice was valuable to my growth as a yogi and, quite frankly, as a person.  Doing Second Series again after taking a three year break from it was incredibly rewarding.  While it was still hard and totally insane, I also could see how far my practice had come in the years between attempts and it was seeing this progress that allowed me to decide quite effortlessly to give this Astanga-business the ol' college try.  I set -- and have achieved -- a goal to attend a minimum of two Astanga classes a month -- one Primary and one Second.  It's a manageable and reasonable goal.  And what I'm pleasantly surprised to report is that I am being outed as a fan of Astanga.  ME!  Liking Astanga.  Those are just not words I thought I'd ever say and my friends at the studio just shake their head and chuckle at me as I nerd out about the "correct" order of the final three lotus postures in the series or options for modifying horse pose or how I challenge myself to do just a "tap down" during the three wheels at the end of class.  "I've been working on my nakrasana," is a phrase I've said as recently as last week.  A year and one month ago, I would have just given up if the teacher suggested a single hopping crocodile -- now I'm going for it with all I gots.

Who is this yogi??  Is this me now??  Man, it's just so great to report that it is!!  Having new challenges and goals and fine tuning what I have already learned or achieved means a lot to me and the concreteness of Astanga gives me such an easy yard stick to measure the distance from here to there.  It gives me a way to discuss it and a vernacular that can be easily understood.  Doing Astanga has pulled me out of my comfort zone and kicked my ass and humbled me and made me feel more proud than maybe is reasonable.  I honestly love it.  Second Series, especially, feels like an Everest to climb and the fact that I have done it twelve months in succession is a serious point of pride for me.  I'm 12 for 12, baby!!  That doesn't mean that I have nailed every pose and can do it all flawlessly -- there are quite a few flaws, actually -- but I am learning how to modify.  I am figuring out what I can reasonably approach and learn and improve upon and what I may have to modify for the rest of this lifetime.  That's what's so awesome about yoga (well, one of the million awesome things about yoga) -- there is always more to learn, to examine, to think about.  My Astanga Goal has been so easy to keep and achieve because it's such an instantaneous teachable moment.  Always.  Recently, one of the teachers at O2 joked about having a "how to do a vinyasa" workshop and my honest response was, "OK, great idea.  I'd love that."  In fact, the more "routine" a posture is, the more questions I have about it.  Astanga gives you five breaths in a lot of postures that serve as the foundation for O2 Yoga and thus gives me exactly the right amount of time to think about them before moving on to the next pose.  How cool is that??  So cool, so cool.  My yoga nerd brain just lights right up even thinking about it.

It's good to invest your time in learning experiences.  It's good to learn, period.  Yoga is something that teaches me a lot and doing it someplace like O2, where the motto is "Up Dogs, Down Dogs, No Dogma," gives me the space and the opportunity to learn what I am ready to learn as I'm ready to learn it.  No one is telling me the moral of the story -- I am left to figure that out on my own.  And what I've learned this last year during my Astanga Quest is I am just beginning to understand anything at all.  How exciting!  How rewarding!  How can it be that Astanga is part of this process at all?  Some day, my bafflement over this will dissipate and I will be better able to see how clear the path was from one point to the other.  Of course it makes sense -- five Sun A's, five Sun B's, let's go...  No reason to quit if it doesn't go well the first time -- keep putting in the work and when the time is right, you'll get the chance to try again.

What I learned is that doing Second Series the first time was hard because I didn't know what I needed to know to battle my way through it.  It wasn't that I "sucked at yoga" -- Second Series is just really hard!  In order to learn how to do it, you really have to put in the work.  The harder you have to work at something, the better it feels when you can see evidence of progress.

I still have miles to go on this journey, but there's a little spring in my step as I make my way through the wild and wacky world of Astangaland.  I'm having fun, people. Come visit me here sometime -- you'll see how pretty the sunrise and sunsets truly are.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Too Much of a Good Thing is a Good Thing

When you walk into my office at O2 Yoga in Cambridge, Massachusetts, you will see one of my most highly held beliefs written in the middle of a whiteboard:  "No matter what kind of day I'm having, yoga makes it better."  One of our regular students Jesse asked me once, "Who said that -- Pattabhi Jois?"  No, Jesse.  It wasn't the founder of Astanga Yoga.  It was I, Wolfstar, Yoga Studio Manager & Practioner Extraordinaire.  It's my saying because it is something I hold true in my experience.  Whenever a student or workstudy member or cafe staff personnel or teacher comes into the office to sit on the World's Most Comfortable Couch to ask whether or not they should practice that day, I simply point at the board:

End of discussion.

Recently, my own motto was put to the test during the studio's annual 31 Day Challenge.  We offer a $31 January deal that allows students to practice every day for that amount and for every day they do so, they earn a discount for February.  Now, as the studio manager, my yoga membership is part of my paycheck so there is absolutely no reason for me to be competitive about this Challenge.  But I was determined to do all 31 days.  I have an almost-daily practice, as is, but occasionally life happens and I skip a day here or there.  Not in January, though.  I was going to do it.  And everything was going great until the last week when I got a horrible cough that chicken/egg'd with complete exhaustion.  Any sane, rational person would have taken this as a sign to go home, yoga will be there for you another day.

Say what you will about me, but I did not listen to sane/rational and I went to class anyway.

The thing about doing yoga when you're not feeling 100% -- be it wellness, be it an injury, but it exhaustion, hangover, or emotional what-have-you -- is you won't know if it's a good idea until that first downward facing dog.  I don't drink much anymore and can't remember the last time I was hungover, but back in the day, I went to a class once after a night of pretty terrific drinking -- at noon on a Saturday, mind you -- and realized in the first seated twist that I was still drunk.  Class was maybe not the best idea that day.  It was also a January Basics class and I was all the way in the front corner, trapped with fifty other people all just trying to enjoy their weekend and I could not leave the class.  I made it through -- I even give it credit for sobering me up and eliminating my hangover -- but it was definitely not the best idea I ever had.

But a lot of the time, yoga helps work injuries and illness out.  Lots of poses are designed to aid in healing.  The key is to do the postures correctly and safely, of course, but when you have a handle on that, there is nothing better than that good yoga glow you get after a stellar practice.  I feel very fortunate to be trained in a style of yoga that emphasizes safety in postures so I can feel confident that what I'm doing is productive.  

So, yes, I did all 31 Days in January -- today is actually the first day I am taking off from my mat since, oh, December 29th.  Yoga is part of my daily life, my daily ritual, my daily reminder to be here now.  Nothing grounds me more in this moment than the focus and precision that goes along with an athletic and sometimes complicated practice that, at the time, is the simple linking of breath and movement.  I do it every day because I love it -- because it makes me happy -- because it gives me an excuse to do one thing at a time.  Writing this makes me almost want to cancel my dinner plans, throw on my yoga gear, and scoot to the studio, but I won't.  I will take a day off, only knowing how sweet it will be to get back on my mat again tomorrow.

Must be love, kids.  Must be love.

Friday, December 18, 2015

No Dogma

for Mimi

One of my favorite parts of my job as the manager of O2 Yoga/Cambridge is working with the Teacher Training Program.  My role is largely administrative -- sign here, approve this, yes, no, maybe so -- but it feels anything but rote.  I did the training myself back in 2012 and it changed my life in profound and ever-expanding ways, so I thoroughly enjoy sitting down with those thinking about taking that magical leap and enrolling. When we were in the process of recruiting for our fall training, one of our potential "TTs" who was also a studio regular, came to lean in the doorway of my office one afternoon with a question I think she thought would have a quick answer.  Her question was, "What's the spiritual component of the training?"

I could tell by the look on her face that she wanted the answer to be a sweeping, "We spend an entire day each weekend just talking about this -- you're in luck."  What my answer was, though, was, "There isn't one."  She looked at me oddly and furrowed her brow.  I had definitely confused her.  But I went on, undeterred by her body language.  "Our motto is 'Up Dogs, Down Dogs, No Dogma," I reminded her.  I explained to her that Mimi, the studio owner, was very clear on this point -- students who came to the studio would not be expected to prescribe to a specific set of values or be subjected to emotional suggestion or counseling.  Students were to be lead through a yoga class that was athletic in nature and focused on the safe execution of the postures and nothing more -- more or less.  "All of that said," I continued, "there is something spiritual that attracts people to yoga if they practice it long enough -- and there will certainly be conversations amongst those in your TT group -- but they'll be things that come up over lunch or during different class discussions." At no point will Mimi ask you to recite chapter & verse outside of the correct way to cue a posture safely -- there is nothing we can teach you about spirituality that you can't teach yourself.  You will have those conversations and they will be an important side effect of the training -- but is 'spirituality' on our syllabus?  It is not.

In fact, one of the main reasons why Mimi doesn't want her teachers to talk about the kinds of emotions locked in hips or long speeches about opening yourself up to the practice is "you're a yoga teacher, not a trained therapist or social worker."  If you touch a nerve or what you say results in an emotional outburst or response from students, you have to know how to handle that responsibly -- that's not something 200 hours of yoga teacher training allows time to prepare you for.  So what our teachers-in-training learn to do is sequence a class.  They learn how to say the Sanskrit words out loud.  They learn about anatomy related to modification and safety in postures.  They learn how to do hands on adjustments.  They learn how to stand up and teach.  That's plenty for 200 hours.  Plenty.

Yet, still, this studio, this training, this space allows so much room for spiritual conversations – for discussions of the intangible.  This physical practice is the gateway for something so much more than muscles, bones, sweat, and skin.  Those who are called to do a teacher training or have a daily or weekly practice will experience so much more than a change in the exterior of their bodies – their minds start to change.  There’s an openness inherent in the practice.  In a teacher training, you find yourself in conversation after conversation about what brought you to this decision, this leap of faith to learn this skill set.  You talk about your physical limitations and injuries you may have had or lessons you gleaned from routinely getting on your mat.  You’d be surprised how long you could be in a truly fascinating conversation about alignment in down dog – and how those conversations very nearly turn into true-life parables. 

This student and I talked about this for a long time -- twenty minutes, half an hour.  And by the time we parted ways, I could see that the reply she had first been disappointed in hearing turned out to be exactly what she wanted to hear.  And if you want to know all about it, she did enroll in our program and graduated last weekend, likely moving on to do our teaching internship program, probably eventually getting her own classes.  I asked her near the end of the training, "So did I oversell it?" And she grinned at me with a faraway look in her eyes.  "No, no you didn't," she said as she gave me a big hug.  

It's one of the things I love about O2 Yoga -- our motto, our "approach" to the spiritual side of yoga.  Many teachers and studios have different ideas about incorporating emotional triggers in their classes and there are lots of students who respond to that kind of teaching and love it.  As a student who also considers herself to be a spiritual person, I like O2's choice to focus on "moving with the breath" aspect of yoga, leaving the rest to me to decide.  If I wanted to look at my yoga practice as strictly for fitness purposes, I could do that.  If I wanted to look at my yoga practice as a moving meditation, I could do that, too.  Different people are attracted to yoga for different reasons.  I appreciate that we can all be in the same space taking the same class and being free to take from it what we want.  Mimi's motto essentially boils down to "be your own guru."

Recently, I was listening to my favorite podcast, You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes, and stumbled across an episode where Pete was interviewing Vikram Gandhi -- my eyes lit right up.  Back in 2012, the same year I did teacher training, Gandhi's documentary Kumare was being screened at the Boston Museum of Fine Art and I went to see it with a friend of mine who'd done the O2 training with me.  It had a profound impact on me, perhaps because of the 200-hour long experience I'd just had, but maybe also because it was an on-point examination of the importance of teachers.

For those of you who haven't seen it, the documentary is Gandhi's exploration in to the "truth" behind gurus.  Do they have mystical powers -- or aren't all the positive effects people experience with a guru's "help and guidance" really just things being manifested internally?  Gandhi decided to find out by turning himself into a "fake guru," with a costume and a backstory and a made up school of thought, complete with ritual -- and a name:  Kumare.  And then he went out in the world and cultivated a following.

Boy, did he ever!

Documentary audiences are in on the experiment from the beginning so it's interesting to watch Gandhi-as-Kumare blow his cover over and over and over again while his "followers" don't quite hear what he is saying.  And what he is saying is that he is no one -- just a man, a liar, a regular joe -- and that the power, the voice, the essence of being a guru is right there in the core of every single person's being.  They didn't need him or anyone else to tell them what to do or how to be or what was the right path or anything else.  All they needed to do was listen to their own heart, their own mind, their own body, their own soul.  That is all the guru any of them will ever need.

I highly recommend watching Kumare and then listening to Vikram Gandhi's You Made It Weird where they discuss the making of the movie, the motivation, and the multi-faceted response after the fact, both from Kumare's followers and those who have seen the film.  And -- spoiler -- at the end of the podcast, Pete convinces Vikram to lead a "blue light meditation" as Kumare and it is, wow, fantastic.  But before they get to that, they delve deeply into the impact of this tough life lesson Kumare's people learned -- if they were duped -- and what that all means.  I remember watching the film the first time and thinking, "This dude is a total sociopath."  I thought it was an elaborate maybe even mean-spirited prank that preyed on the emotionally vulnerable.  Watching it a second time, though, all I could see was how often Kumare told his people he was a just a man, no one any more special than any of them, they didn't need him, they only needed themselves.  

It made me think about O2's motto:  "Up Dogs, Down Dogs, No Dogma."  None of the teaching staff pretends to be a guru or will entertain that notion -- it's right there in black and white.  We are here to give you the tools, to teach you this practice, and the rest is up to you.  Some people are more comfortable letting someone else set the table and they merely sit down to enjoy a meal prepared by anyone but themselves -- some people like to do the hosting and the cooking.  Challenge yourself to meet in the metaphoric middle -- to be humble, to be thinking, to be present.  Those are all the ingredients you need to take ownership of your life, to learn, to grow.  It doesn't need to be more elaborate than that.

This has been a year where I've learned a great deal about myself, my ability to cope, my ability to thrive even in unpleasant or complicated circumstances.  My personal life took a completely new direction as a decade long relationship came to an end and with it, so ended the relationships I had with so many others.  Watch this house of cards tumble -- it's not so hard to make it fall.  But the thing that got me through it was the O2 community, it was time on my mat, it was time learning to be my own guru -- I didn't even know I was doing it until I woke up one day and discovered my life looked nothing like it did a year ago when I thought everything was just over.  I am so thankful to have discovered this studio, this yoga, this place where I could take the time to work out how I fit in here and be accepted and loved for being me.  Mimi and I had many conversations that started with me near tears and ending with me feeling uplifted and all she did was listen, share relatable stories, and give me a hug.  Transitions are just as important as the actual poses, to use a yoga metaphor, that's what this year has taught me.  And I was able to learn that by having a place to feel OK being vulnerable without judgment.  

O2 is home to me because it welcomes me as me, end of story.  The yoga is great, too, of course, wink wink.  So much more than a place where people practice yoga, this studio is a total credit to Mimi's vision, her passion, her respect for herself and others.  It's a haven for so many people of all different backgrounds and skill levels and ages.  There's no cookie cutter for our studio -- it's a place where you can be the shape you are and all that we ask in return is you follow the teacher's cues as he or she leads you through a series of postures -- what you dream about in savasana is totally up to you.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Accidental Astangi

Last night, I had to choose between seeing not one but TWO bands I really dig and doing the full Astanga Primary Series at the yoga studio I manage.  A year ago, this would have been a no brainer, no question -- the bands would certainly win.  But tonight, it was ninety minutes of rigorous yoga that won the day -- and not just any yoga, astanga yoga.  The old me would have run screaming in the opposite direction, happy to be doing anything but primary series.  I mean, it's really hard.  It's relentless and grueling and maybe even arguably monotonous.  The only time I'd ever really done Primary Series was during my teacher training back in '12 when we'd use the sequence as our touchstone for learning how to cue and adjust.  Astanga is the foundational practice at O2 Yoga where I did my training and, as Elliott likes to say, Astanga is like learning your musical scales -- it's classical music -- O2 Yoga is jazz.  But you have to learn the foundations before you can start to break them down and spin them into variations.  One of my TT highlights was at the end of the second weekend when I taught a partner successfully through the entire sequence.  What a rush!  It's a lot to memorize, it's a lot to do and I did it!  Wahoo!  But after we moved out of "Astangaland" in TT, I never looked back, leaving the joy of teaching primary series to dwindle into a spec in my rearview mirror.

So what changed.  Certainly not my tight calves that make all those forward folds so difficult for me.  Definitely not my lack of arm balancing skills.  In a non-Astanga class, these sorts of limitations were easy enough to find modifications or variations that worked for me in a way that didn't make me feel inadequate -- in fact, my limitations helped me learn how to work around them and still develop a strong practice.  Even so, I was never tempted to return to Astanga.

And then the one thing that would bring me back happened:  my friends started teaching it.

When the regular Astanga teacher went away for a couple of weeks, my friend and fellow TT Kristen volunteered to sub the class, but since she hadn't taught it since teacher training, she asked a couple of us if she could practice on us.  So I said OK.  I mean, Kristen's one of my favorite people and I wanted to be supportive, so it was easy to agree to her request, especially since it wasn't a real Astanga class -- just a practice class.  What I learned was that my own practice had grown by leaps and bounds since the last time I'd done the series -- I was shocked how little I hated it, to be perfectly honest.  So I went to one of the weeks Kristen taught it during the regular Astanga class time and left the class feeling better than I thought I would.

But even then I wasn't sold.

What happened next was a month or so later, another fellow TT and dear friend Rebecca made a special guest return to O2 (she has her own studio in Newburyport) to teach the dreaded Second Series (aka Intermediate Series).  I had only ever done Second Series once in my life and at the end, my only thought was, "I am terrible at yoga."  Second Series has a lot of backbends and foot behind the head and a host of other bizarre literal twists and turns -- not to mention seven headstands.  Seven!  I had practically vowed never to do Second Series again but when Rebecca came back to teach it, she said, "I'm teaching a class at O2 and you're thinking of not coming to it?"  Damn.  She had me there.  So I came to class and had a very similar experience to my return to Primary Series with Kristen:  this isn't as hard as I remember it.  I mean, it's hard, don't get me wrong, but I wasn't intimidated by it.  Its complexity wasn't overwhelming anymore.  This was something I could work on.

So after that, I set a goal for myself:  Do Astanga a minimum twice a month -- at least one Primary Series, one Second Series -- and I have stuck to it.  Not only have I stuck to it, I have learned to love it.  I still can't do all of the poses -- some of them I may never be able to do -- but none of that matters.  I have learned to modify, I have learned when to push myself and when to find compassion for myself, and I have learned that this Astanga business is fun!  That's right -- I said it's FUN!  Many of my friends and co-workers at the studio are still shocked how much I have gotten into Astanga over the last year -- and I get that.  But I also recognize the need for new challenges and having a regular Astanga routine has served as such for me.  It's given me a new perspective both on and off my mat -- it's given me new goals to achieve.  

It's funny to look back over my yoga path and see the trajectory:
1.  Be dragged to a yoga class by a friend, certain never to return again.
2.  OK, be dragged to one more class.
3.  Fine, one more.
4.  Wait, this teacher is really great!
5.  Buy yoga mat from Target for $12.  Go to that teacher's class once a week or so.
6.  Maybe try another teacher...  Other teacher OK!
7.  Regularly attend four to six classes a week.
8.  Become a member at the studio.
9.  Do teacher training & get a real mat.
10.  Manage the yoga studio and make it the center of your beautiful life.

I mean, that's it!  In the details there, though, is the fact that I stayed almost solely a Basics student for the first several years of practice, only occasionally attending an Intermediate level class, despite the encouragement from my trusted teachers.  There were "basic" postures I couldn't do -- like crane pose -- and I needed props for so many things -- a strap to reach my big toe in forward folds, blocks under my hands for half moon and so on -- and I thought I needed to be able to do all of these things perfectly and without props before "graduating" to a Power class.  What finally got me there was a crowded January at the studio where I quickly learned that capacity crowds for Basics on a Saturday morning wasn't my jam and maybe, just maybe, the Power class before it would be a little less packed.  Plus, Ann, one of my favorite teachers, taught that class.  Certainly, she'd forgive my blocks in half moon...  What I learned was that my fears were unfounded -- that it was not required to be able to do everything in order to be a "Power Student."  Lots of people had limitations and everyone used props for something.  So that stuff wasn't a big deal.  What was important was understanding the intention of the pose and knowing how to modify as needed.  That's not to say that I don't still -- to this very day -- attend Power classes and feel a little sheepish about my limitations, but I also am confident enough in my overall practice to push forward, to try, even if I'm almost certainly going to fail this time around.  

It took years after embracing Power to turn the corner where I was surprised to find myself fitting in nicely with the astangis.  Hey, accidents happen -- sometimes they are happy ones.  This is certainly a case of that.  Doing Astanga now shows me how much my practice has changed, developed, grown stronger.  It's a point of pride to have this unit of measure for me to see how all my hard work has paid off.  The investment, totally worthwhile.

The last three hundred sixty-five days have been full of exponential spiritual, emotional, and compassionate growth for me.  In my life off my mat, outside of my wonderful "yoga bubble," I lost a very significant relationship and with that came the loss of my entire way of life.  So many friends, so many standards of living that had to shift, change, or disappear all together in order for me to move on from what had become an unhealthy and destructive cornerstone friendship and I don't know how I would have gotten through any of it without my yoga community.  I have said often over the last couple of months that I lost seventy-five percent of my way of life this past year but the twenty-five percent that I kept is, god, the best of the good stuff.  All of that is a way of explaining why when Kristen and Rebecca asked me to do Astanga with them, I said yes and in doing so I put my trust, faith, hope, sweat, and tears into this practice that asks you only to move and breathe at the same time in return.  

It's a healing thing, friends.  I am humbled and thankful for it every single solitary day.  

I am an Astangi, even if just by accident.

And, p.s., it doesn't hurt that Lynne, the regular Wednesday night teacher is extremely hilarious and awesome.  Elliott is also hilarious and awesome, but he teaches Astanga at the Somerville studio on Tuesdays, which is not my regular gig.  They're both great and they're both so knowledgable and they care about not only the integrity of the practice but making it as accessible as possible to their students.  So if you've been thinking about trying it, do.  The end.  Namaste.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Brush Up Your Sanskrit

I had the best phone conversation recently with a student calling to ask what the difference was between a Basics-level and Intermediate-level (and beyond) class.  Now, this is a fairly standard question -- I answer it all the time and was going through the usual checklist (boiled down: "as long as you know how to do a Sun A, you are going to be fine in any of our more advanced classes") when the student said something unexpected:  "What I'm actually most nervous is about is the Sanskrit -- I don't know all the postures by name."  My yoga nerd brain lit up -- no one had ever offered this as a potential reason to wait to advance beyond Basics.  

Now, I am a language person, so learning the Sanskrit names for yoga postures was deceptively easy for me when I was beginning.  I actually had no idea how easy it was for me until I did teacher training and was shocked when some of my fellow TTs -- some of whom had been practicing yoga for years longer than me -- didn't know the traditional posture names and struggled immensely with Sanskrit pronunciations.  This dead language was a piece of cake for me because I learned all the cheats -- I learned the root words.  I sleuthed it all together.

So when this student nervously asked about Sanskrit, I got pretty excited (much to the amusement of the teacher and desk staff signing in students for the next class) as I explained that learning the Sanskrit would never be required of our students but it would sure make her life easier if she knew some of the basics -- "Allow me to elaborate..." I said.

And to my good fortune, she did.

"Let's take my favorite Sanskrit posture name: Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana," I began.

"Whoa, what's that??" the student asked.

"I'll break it down for you," I said.  "Eka is the Sanskrit word for one, Pada is foot, Raja is king, and Kapotasana is pigeon pose.  Put it all together and you get One Foot (or leg) King Pigeon Pose."  

I went on to explain to her that anything ending in asana is a posture (Asanas being the physical practice associated with the eight limbs of yoga), which actually simplifies a lot of things, theoretically.  There are also Frequently Used Words, like ardha which means half or supta which means reclining or baddha which means bound.  Hasta means hands, pada (as previously stated) means feet.  Urdvha means upward and adho means downward.  Muka means face.  Konasana is angle.  Etc. etc. etc.  Many of these words are used repeatedly in Sankrit postures so learning a few of them will make Sanskrit, as a whole, less daunting.  Right?

The phone call ended with the student thanking me and saying she was going to make flashcards to study on the T.  Dear Student, whoever you are, will you be my best friend?  My yoga nerd heart beat with joy as I hung up the phone.

Meanwhile, Carly and Sara (the teacher and desk staff, respectively) were still laughing at me from outside the office.  Carly came immediately to the doorway.  "What," she sputtered, "was that?"

So I explained the entire conversation to the two of them, which only lead to Carly and me breaking down other complicated Sanskrit posture names.  To wit:

Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottansana

Ardha = half
Baddha = bound
Padma = Lotus
Paschimottanasana = seated forward fold


After a few more rounds of nerdom, I took it another level and mentioned a Sanskrit-nerdy conversation I'd had with Mimi (founder of O2 Yoga, my Teacher Training and yoga home) about Supta Kormasana.  We had been taught that supta meant reclining (i.e. poses lying down), but Supta Kormasana was a forward fold -- what gives?  "So what explanation did Mimi have?" Carly asked.  "She said, in this case, it meant sleeping."  While Carly gave an affirming nod, Sara stared at us wide-eyed -- "What's Kormasana?" she asked.  "Tortoise pose!" I said, demonstrating it to the best of my ability right there at the sign in desk.

God, this conversation made me so happy.

Yoga is its own language, its own culture, its own proudly held piece of nebulous land.  Understanding this spoken aspect of the practice connects you more deeply with the postures because learning each poses' Sanskrit name is adding a layer of respect for your time spent on your mat.  Plus, it's good, nerdy fun to understand what the teacher is asking you to do and to know that you could go to any yoga studio anywhere in the world and understand what formation your body should assume when the teacher cues, "Vrikasana."  ((That's tree pose, yo))  So brush up your Sanskrit -- let the language be something you pay attention to as you practice -- and you'll be ready for Power in no time.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The 31 Day Challenge

2012 was one of the best years of my life.  2011 very nearly burst at the seam with personal and professional challenges and the year ended with a series of flukey things that left me unemployed for the first time since I was a teenager.  Right around the time of my layoff, O2 Yoga, the studio where I'd been a member for about four years, announced it was closing one location to open another and I, on a whim, emailed Mimi, the studio owner, to offer my expertise.  Mimi said she'd be in touch down the line, but it was clear the new studio was a big project in the making and so I didn't anticipate any further action for awhile.

So there I was, unemployed, the job huntress, thankful for my stacks of writing projects and my yoga practice when something magical happened:  my yoga studio was offering a one-month membership for only $31.  All I had to do was show up January 1st!  I did one better by attending the New Year's Eve class and purchased my $31 prize just after the stroke of midnight.  

This 31 Day Challenge became significant to me in so many ways.  First, in an effort to avoid the over-crowded Basics classes, it pushed me to take more Power classes, something I was typically a little too chicken to try.  Instead, I learned these classes were just fifteen bonus minutes of awesome with some of my favorite teachers.  Fear conquered.  Second, part of the 31 Day Challenge involved a punch card that would translate into a discount on my February membership.  So instead of practicing my usually five days a week, I practiced six or seven, only missing the full thirty-one days by maybe two or three.  And this heightened routine led to the third significance:  since I was now practicing on Fridays (something I never did in the past), I ran into Mimi when she returned from her annual trip to Mexico and she told me she was almost ready to consult with me about the new studio location.

What happened next was me coming to tour the new site of O2 Yoga Cambridge with Mimi and her husband Steven and after we dreamed a little dream about how to use the massive space, it became clear that we made a good team and Mimi asked me to stick with them as a consultant and help get the doors of the new studio open, an offer I gladly accepted.

What happened next is even more unbelievable.  It's kind of like walking into a room only to find out there's a false wall with a whole other world on the other side.  Maybe two weeks later, I had another series of fortunate events sneak up on me.  It started on a Monday when Katherine, one of my favorite teachers, stopped me before class to suggest I consider enrolling in the 200-Hour Teacher Training program being offered at the studio starting just a few weeks away in March.  I was flattered by the suggestion, but wasn't sure it was the right thing for me.  Two days later, my dear friend Lauren and I went to one of Karen's classes at O2 and as we were leaving, Lauren asked me, "Have you ever considered doing Teacher Training?"  But the kicker came a few days later when Mimi herself called me on a Saturday afternoon to say, "I really think you should do this Teacher Training."  The magic of threes.  I was sold.  I wasn't entirely sure what I was getting myself into, but no amount of anything in the world could compare to experience I had in the "yoga bubble."  I made friendships that will undoubtably last a lifetime, learned things I never thought I would learn, achieved goals I never knew I could even set.  Teacher Training changed my life completely, positively, wonderfully.  Signing up for the program may prove to be the single best decision of my entire life.  Since completing Teacher Training, my bond with the O2 community has only continued to grow, both personally and professionally.  I feel very lucky to call O2 home.

And in a weird way, I have The 31 Day Challenge to thank.  It's the thing that set these series of events in motion, which makes those $31 the best I ever spent.  

What will The 31 Day Challenge do for you?  I guess you won't know until you give it a shot.  

The Deets:
The offer is $31 for a January membership.  For every time you come to class, you earn a percentage off your February membership (Example:  if you come to class 10 times in January, you get 10% off your February membership).  Because it's such an incredible deal, the only "catch" is you must come, in person, to one of the studios on January 1st.  You do NOT have to practice on January 1st in order to purchase the deal.  Both Somerville and Cambridge will be open all day, even in between classes, for your to stop by.

Somerville:  288 Highland Avenue (near Porter/Davis)
Cambridge: 1001 Mass Ave (between Central and Harvard)