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.