Sunday, August 1, 2010

Love - Love

My new favorite yoga prop is yellow, fuzzy and bounces. It goes from lively to dead pretty fast, but for our purposes that’s just fine. A tennis ball's primary purpose in life may be submitting to repeated thwacking over (or into) a net by racket wielding aficionados, but, given the chance, they have another purpose even higher than a world-class lob.

Yin yoga enthusiasts learn the benefits of gently stretching connective tissue, the framework of fibers that form the support structure for the body’s tissues and organs. The rationale that supports the value of stretching connective tissue, particularly around the joints, is the same as that for muscles: mild, sensibly-delivered stress makes connective tissue stronger. And whether we’re talking house, relationship or body, strong framework is good.

However, connective tissue doesn’t respond well to rhythmic contraction like muscles do. It’s the patiently held posture that does the trick, allowing the tissue to slowly respond and eventually begin to release.

Here’s where the tennis ball comes in. Before you begin your next yoga practice, or anytime you feel tight, sore or underloved, try these three moves:

Love - Foot: From seated (on a chair) or standing (on a mat or other non-slippery surface), step on the tennis ball and roll it around beneath one foot, pausing at any spot that says “ooo-aaah”. Gently press into the ooo-ahh spot for 15 to 30 seconds, then release, switch feet and repeat.

Love - Glute: From sitting in a chair, place the ball underneath one glute or the other. Schooch around until you find a you-know-what spot then lean into to it, exhale and smile stupidly for 15 to 30 seconds.

Love - Back: Position the tennis ball between your back and a wall, anywhere from between the shoulders to on or above the glutes, then start channeling your inner bear scratching its back against a tree. When you come across the by now familiar “ooo-ahh” spot, pause, press, exhale, release.

And that’s it. Game. Set. Match. You win.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

And Never the Twain Shall Meet

There’s a man on Washington Island, my summer home, who does an amazing impersonation of Mark Twain. He’s got the hair, the mustache, the voice and the humor. He wears a custom-made white suit and riffs Twain-isms for a few hours in a solo show that, unfortunately, started about ten minutes ago.

I fully intended to go. I knew I’d enjoy it. But it rained off and on all day today before gradually stopping, and now the setting sun is shooting gold through the few drops still falling to the field behind my house. So here I sit, pausing every few words to look out at garden beds tipsy with water and overflowing with arugula, lettuces, basil, beans, peas, tomato and cucumber plants.

Wild grapes vine over the wooden framework of an ice-fishing shanty pressed into service as an arbor. In the distance sandhill cranes practice their throaty gargles. And the light. It’s Midwestern, mid-summer evening, otherworldly kind of light and nothing short of a tornado—and maybe not even that—will get me off the screen porch tonight.

There’s a lot going on around here in the summer. It can be hard to fit it all in, even the good stuff like a one-man-show or a yoga class. There are gardens to weed and children to hug; bald eagles to spot and cherry pies to bake. If the reason we miss an activity is because a moment in our lives is too sweet, just then, to leave it,

I think Mark Twain would agree.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Conversation Starter

Listening to my husband read a poem to me just now, it occurred to me how much poetry is like yoga. Or is yoga. Yoga initiates a conversation with the body while patiently seeking access to the mind and spirit; poetry sequences words for the mind to mull while its meaning melts directly into the heart.

Yoga may feel like a neatly organized parade of postures; we move this way and that, we stretch, we balance, we manipulate one side and then the other. We may wonder why some postures feel difficult for us and seem so easy for others. And as much as we try to leave our normal-life commentary off the mat, it often finds way to snuggle in next to us.

Unless. Unless the poetry of our movement succeeds in tapping into what lies beneath (and above, around) our well-entrenched, orderly consciousness.

Last Monday, Third Island Yoga students celebrated the summer solstice with the traditional practice of 108 Sun Salutations. Not exactly 108, but, after employing a sort of yoga-handicapping system, we got close enough—28, actually.

In each class, after the first fifteen or so repetitions, I saw the transition from prose to poetry begin to evolve. Even for those modifying with a chair, as the movement became intuitive, flowing grace replaced “reach the arms overhead, fold forward, lengthen, step back...”

Bodies were quietly conversing, minds were quiet, spirits engaged. The movements of individuals synched energetically to create a seamless whole.

It was poetic.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Please Be Seated

Two of the six weekly classes I lead are called Chair Yoga, and I’ll admit that when we’re all seated together at the beginning of class, it looks a bit like an adult version of Musical Chairs. (For those of you who didn’t grow up playing Musical Chairs,—what are you, from Mars?—it’s a game where there’s a circle of chairs, music playing and a bunch of players who walk around them, then sit really fast once the music stops. All well and good except there are less chairs than players, so hilarity ensues when frantic people wind up in other people’s laps and are instantly expelled from the game. This rarely happens in Chair Yoga.)

I expected practicing yoga with the support of a chair to be good for people for whom “regular” yoga presented too many challenges to joints, hearts or balance. What I didn’t expect was how rich and authentic the practice can feel.

One student, an experienced practitioner whose mobility is compromised by an argumentative knee, worried that yoga with a chair wouldn’t be “real.” But as we moved through modified Sun Salutations and pose flows, finding our way into the same nooks and crannies more traditional practices invite access to, her outlook began to change.

Consider what the chair represents; the ability to connect with breath, movement and awareness while being held in a safe, accessible and supportive space. It doesn’t get more authentic than that.

Will someone start the music, please?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Have Your Race and Eat it Too

If age was like a speed limit and I was clocked in a 55mph zone, I might still get a warning instead of a ticket, but not for long. Like me, I suspect many of my friends are still surprised to be old enough to qualify for training-level senior discounts. Or to notice when the newest issue of AARP Magazine has a celebrity on the cover who’s younger than us. While no one I know dreams of turning back the clock, aging does float a boatload of interesting food for thought.

My richest friendships have always been nourished by activity: horseback riding, biking, running, swimming, skiing, yoga. Competing or not, our adventure dial has been happily cranked to “high” for over thirty years. So I’m not one bit surprised that people who’ve been consistently active can stay fast, fit and strong despite the increasing density of their (old growth) forest of birthday cake candles. What’s interesting is what sometimes happens to the desire to ignite them.

Last weekend a friend of mine competed in a half-ironman distance triathlon after somewhat reluctantly training for several months. She’s a half-iron veteran, this one, so the distances—1.2m swim, 56m bike, 13.1m run—were no surprise. Despite getting kicked in the head in the swim and having to scramble to retrieve her cap and goggles, she rallied to cut her previous best finish time by 22 minutes. She stroked, she pedaled, she flew, she celebrated—and then she retired from racing. Give the kid a break, after all, she’s 61.

I love riding (bikes or horses), swimming or, especially, practicing yoga with friends. But these days, like the Reluctant Triathlete, if there’s less combustion before the cake gets cut, it’s usually okay. Of course we’re all different—ask any 80-year-old marathoner or the 70-something nun who can’t wait for the Ironman Championship in Kona, Hawaii, every year.

Can an older athlete eat up a race course and order dessert? Yeah, baby. My friend didn’t retire because she can no longer do it. She retired because she’s ready to find other ways to feel full.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Fill 'Er Up

Nothing like a fiery Argentinian M.D. yoga master to rock your practice. During extended trips to India, Ranjani Cobo studied with Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar, Sri Desikachar, and Indra Devi. In Calcutta, she treated leprosy patients alongside Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Charity. Worldwide, she championed the healing power of food long before the term “integrative nutrition" was coined.

Ranjani is one of very few women whose practice includes the advanced series of Ashtanga Yoga. Last Tuesday evening she was at Junction Center Yoga—a beautiful barn-turned-studio in Egg Harbor, Wisconsin—to share some wisdom with eight spellbound students, including (yippee!) me.

For nearly three hours we listened, flowed and learned while she performed adjustment wizardry on poses from Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle) to Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand). Think winged chiropractic asana. Ranjani’s postural assists were precise, confident and liberating. Her physical mastery breathtaking. But, days later, it’s the sound and effect of her breath that still echoes.

Her breath sounded primal, an amplified audible energy that lifted her body through poses more airborne than earthbound. Imagine Darth Vader as a chuckling, mewing, dancing force for good. It wasn’t enough just to listen, we all started to breathe, really breathe. Each inhale opened space between grounding and freedom; each exhale unlocked tension and expelled inhibition.

She’s physically diminutive, Ranjani. But when she breathed, she outgrew the studio, then the whole barn. Next time you practice, picture rafters, a far-away ceiling, a well-worn wood floor. Then feel what happens when you fill the space with the sound of your breath.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Bearable Lightness of Being

Growing up, the best part about being stuck at Camp Lutherdale the first two weeks of August each summer was getting to watch the movie The Red Balloon. It’s French, won all kinds of awards and was filmed in 1956. So yes, my younger friends, it was a hot new release when I first saw it.

I suspect The Red Balloon has pretty obvious Protestant overtones (persecution, redemption, ascension, etc.); it was, after all, Lutheran Camp Approved. But as a kid, all that registered was that tragedy can be followed by magic. Also, that sadness is heavy and happiness is weightless.

Training with a new teacher last week, I sensed the airy pause in her jump forward from Down Dog as we warmed up side by side through rounds of Surya Namaskar, Sun Salutation. We paused to go deeper into the move—not a jump, after all, but a fluid, flying arm balance—to find and hone the essence of its weightless quality.

While she stood with her back against the wall, I faced her in Down Dog and practiced sending my sit bones up, toward the ceiling, instead of forward. Each time, she caught my hips against her torso until I trusted the shift onto my arms and could quietly, lightly touch my feet to the floor between my hands. I began to have the sense of being barely tethered to earth, and in that balanced hesitation, a weightless, timeless blink of happiness.

Feel for lightness the next time you practice. Find enough space between flesh and mat for electricity to arc from one to the other. Leave a whisper between your palms in Namaste. Converse with treetops as if you held a thousand balloons.