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.