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.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


If you’ve ever been in a yoga class where the teacher asked you to “find the yoga between the poses,” you may have wondered just where that yoga was hiding. With so much to think about—breath, alignment, gravity—while listening for directions about what to do next, it somehow doesn’t seem fair or feasible to add hide and seek to the flow.

Think of it as a cue that’s more about journey than destination. In a vinyasa practice, it’s the action that links Trikonasana (Triangle) and Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon). It’s the inhale that guides the step forward, the sense of the supporting foot receiving balance and energy, the fingertips lightly meeting the floor or block, the exhale as the body unfurls into the pose. It’s pause, prep, transition and grounding.

In a Sun Salutation, it’s the fold to Uttanasana, the step-back to Plank; the descend through Chaturanga Dandasana to Upward Dog; the elegant sweep from Up to Down Dog; the step or jump forward. Like a dance within a dance, these essential links are themselves a practice even while informing and enriching the whole.

The word link is of course both noun (something that enables communication between two people, things or situations) and verb (connect or join physically), but my favorite definition has historical roots. In the early 16th century, link referred to a torch of pitch for lighting the way on dark streets.

There’s a lot of yoga hidden between poses. Find that link to brighten the journey and illuminate the destination.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Ragged Island is at the very tip of the Jumentos Cays, a crescent moon shaped island chain in the far southwest Bahamas. It has a population of sixty hearty souls who share nine square miles of sand, salt ponds, coconut palms and one DC-10 airplane wreck that for years was a bar but is now a family home.

It may be smack in the middle of the middle of nowhere, but there is nothing ragged about Ragged. The landing strip is being extended, a new harbor dug and Duncan Town, the island’s only settlement, has a clean and hopeful look. Every day nine children report to the All-Age Primary School dressed in crisp white shirts and plaid skirts (girls) or black pants (boys). The teachers, a married couple from Guyana, are responsible for preparing these students for secondary school available only on other, more populated islands.

Despite the fact that Ragged Island is nothing more than a tiny dot in a vast ocean, as is far away from rules, regulations and watchful eyes, school starts on time. The kids are respectful, neat and polite. There is a schedule and it is followed. Lots of learning takes place.

Several days ago during a morning yoga practice, I found myself hurried and distracted. I cut short my warm-up and pieced together poses without much thought or intention. When I heard the beep of an incoming e-mail I left the mat to see who it was. Ten minutes later, I left again to answer the phone.

Later, resting in an unearned Savasana, I made a pledge: When I step onto this rectangular island I will show it the respect it deserves. I will start with a plan, and maintain a focused practice even as it evolves and changes. I will close with my palms together in a seal of gratitude. And if the computer beeps or the phone rings, I’ll think of nine children in uniforms sitting in a classroom in the middle of the middle of nowhere, and stay right where I am.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

In Season. Organic. Locally Grown.

In standing postures, once the feet are awake and sending energy up the leg, a natural current of power is created between the heel and the sitting bones of the pelvis. “Sitting bones” is a much friendlier way to refer to the ischial tuberosities, which sounds like something a beet would sprout if left too long in the ground.

Whatever you call it, this sit-bone to heel connection has everything to do with how well the energy you’ve generated ultimately transmits from the pelvis into the spine. When you line up the sitting bone with the same-side heel you’ll immediately feel a change in your base of support. It’s one of the best ways I know to self-adjust postures like Virabhadrasana I & II (Warrior I & II), Trikonasana (Triangle) and Parsvakonasana (Extended Side-Angle).

Why is this important? Because if your ischial tuberosities have drifted away from the line of energy your foot is so cheerfully delivering, you start working really hard at a poses that should make you feel glad you’re alive, not wish you were doing something else, like digging beets.

Here’s how to plug into that powerful energy stream: Step into a Warrior II stance with the right leg leading. Before you bend the knee, imagine a straight line running from the heel of the right foot to the instep of the back (left) foot. Now as you bend the right knee towards 90º, bring the center of the knee and the right sit-bone onto that line extending from the right heel. Widen the stance if you need to; when you look down you should only see the big toe of the right foot.

Now, take a breath, let the soles of both feet dance in place then feel for a zing of happy as it rockets to the top of your noble and deserving head. Smile. Eat your beets.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Magic Afoot

It’s one thing to try and stay relaxed while learning or practicing a standing pose, and often another to actually do it. We’d like it to feel easier, more natural, and there are those magic moments when it does. You’re balanced, you’re breathing, on the fast track to bliss. The only thing missing is the assurance you’ll be able to find that happy place the next time you practice.

But even David Copperfield would say the most elegant, transcending magic starts with a few basic tricks. He might tell an aspiring magician to practice his illusions; I’d say masterful sleight of hand for standing yoga poses starts with the feet.

“Ladies and Gentlemen! May I have a volunteer from the audience? How about you, madam? Please come forward. Now, pick a pose, any pose, as long as at least one foot is on the ground. Ah, nice choice. May I present Virabhadrasana II, ladies and gentlemen, otherwise known as Warrior II.

First notice our volunteer’s alignment: front knee over the ankle and bent near or to 90º; center of knee points the same direction as the center of the foot; front sit bone is tucked under; back thigh pressed back, front pelvis slightly lifted off the thigh. Observe her shoulders aligned above the hips, her spine lightly lengthened, chest open to the side, arms extended at shoulder height as she gazes beyond the leading hand's fingertips.

Now watch closely! This pose is about to change before your very eyes! Madam, please bring your attention to your feet. Spread the toes and liven the arches. Feel for even contact under the soles then gently press them into the earth. Think yield. Imagine that the more you yield, the more your feet conduct the energy surrounding you from air and earth, pulsing prana (chi), into every cell of your body. Ladies and gentlemen, please observe: she no longer holds the pose, the pose holds her.

I’m going to walk all around our volunteer. There are no props, no strings, no gimmicks. But there is magic afoot.