Thursday, February 25, 2010

Yoga Unplugged

I guess it’s just my week to giggle.

First dolphins played hide and seek in my front yard. Then a bright-eyed seven-year-old came to class with her mom this morning, rolling out a mat to do yoga for the first time.

I met Melina when she was a month old. At seven, she beams and bounces and radiates pure energy. I think she must swallow sparklers for breakfast. Recently she spread bubble wrap down an aisle in her family’s Landrail Point market and talked me into hopping from one end to the other. (It might actually be fun to sneak bubble wrap underneath someone’s yoga mat, but you didn’t hear that from me).

Let me tell you, this little girl could teach Flipper a thing or two about fun. For over an hour she infused our class with her own brand of stretch. Not that she didn’t listen and follow along. She even sat quietly to center-in as we started, and ended with a truly impressive, dead-looking corpse pose. In between, she improvised. Each pose was adorned with a skip or topped with wiggle. Most were somehow accomplished on tippy-toes. Think Yoga Unplugged.

Melina’s mom is Crooked Island’s nurse. One day while I waited for a friend at the clinic, Melina made a sign to keep me entertained. It now hangs on my refrigerator door: “Do Not Feel Sad. I Will Help You. Come To The Doctor Now And Feel Better. My Birthday Is April The 5th 2002.”

Melina + dolphins × giggle = my kind of yoga.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Dolphin Salute

“If you want to swim with dolphins, they’re headed your way,” my neighbor called to tell me. I grabbed sunglasses on my way out the door. From the bluff I could already see them, four dark shapes moving sometimes in unison, sometimes in sequence but always in perfect energetic flow.

I was tempted to grab a swimsuit and camera, but these wild ones don’t especially like company. Instead I sat on the wood bench perched on the bluff’s edge and watched them swim by.

It’s like a breath, the way they move, first arcing above, then disappearing beneath the water’s rippled surface. One minute they look like a polished quartet of Sea World stars, then one dolphin nudges another and choreography dissolves into play. Through it all, they’re probably chattering, that clicking rap that lands somewhere between whistle and R2D2. Blink again and four dorsal fins are lined up as one before diving deep this time, and out of sight.

Next time you do a sun salutation, try channeling the gentle miracle of dolphin. Let your breath find full expression in movement linked with play, fluidity and some silliness. Imagine you’re underwater and feel its cooling support. Shiver. Swan dive into standing forward bend. Undulate between down and up dog. Flick some water onto your mat.

Listen for the sound of nearby dolphins and your own laughter.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Between A Prop and Hard Place

If you practice yoga in a studio, chances are it’s equipped with all manner of props: blocks, blankets, straps, bolsters. Instructors love looking for prop candidates, inserting blocks beneath hands, blankets under hips, straps around soles. Props are great. Like modifications, they can make the difference between comfort and safety versus tension or strain, especially if it’s a new or challenging pose. And what’s better than closing your eyes and fully relaxing into a restorative nest of blankets and bolster topped with an eye pillow?

But looking around our ‘studio’ this morning—a spacious neighborhood living room with furniture shoved to the side—it occurs to me that equally important to the physical benefit of a prop or modified pose, is the decision to use it.

I watch a student bring her hands to her hips instead of reaching overhead in Warrior I. She might be tired. Or sore. Or today a more relaxed arm position just feels better. Regardless, she’s tuned into her body. With one simple adjustment she has taken the strive out of the pose. The result? She’s replaced reach with receive. She’s practicing serenity, not struggle. She’s added the less to effort.

Our prop supply is pretty thin on Crooked Island. The nearest Target is 450 miles away and ordering online would produce nothing more than a chuckle. You want this sent where? Until we beef up our inventory, I knot kerchiefs together in place of straps. (This gives students the added option of lowering themselves out a window should the class disappoint). I’m on the lookout for 4x4’s washed up on the beach. Wooden blocks, as long as not used on a slippery surface, are sturdy and dependable.

Props and modifications are great. Even better is your decision to use them.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Fantasy Island

I wish I’d been taught yoga in high school instead of field hockey. I wish I’d begun learning to breathe and balance and move and sit and sweat and smile and release when I was sixteen. Or twelve.

Imagine if there had been no teams to be chosen, no competition, no winners, no losers. Imagine if I’d put my energy into arm balances and inversions instead of pom-pom squad tryouts. If I’d learned to be present, to relax, to not know.

What if before parent's night, we’d all brought home notes inviting mom and dad to wear clothes they could move in. Then when everyone gathered in the gymnasium, the principal said something like, “Welcome. Each young person in this room is gifted. Each student’s gifts manifest in different ways - our job is to support their uniqueness with a strong base, so when they leave this school for whatever they next choose it is with an open heart and a spirit of exploration. Now ladies and gentlemen, set aside your chairs, bring your hands to your heart and prepare to flow.”

Many would argue that a team sports experience is good, even necessary for success in adult life and work. Teams can lift moods and rally individuals. Team performance can either inspire or disappoint entire cities and nations. But ultimately a team is nothing more than a structure that defines individual roles to achieve a certain end. Cooperation can be won by many things, like the promise of money, fame, power, or a giant gold ring engraved with roman numerals.

The willingness to set aside one’s ego to work on behalf of a partner, group or community comes from the heart, from a shared sense of the human experience. At its best, it is free of personal expectation, and (usually) jewelry.

My Third Island team fantasy?

Develop effective structures with clearly defined roles.

Fill them with people who learned yoga in high school.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

More Ebb, Less Flow

A Third Island follower was recently sidelined by a hamstring injury sustained in a yoga class being taught by sub. He asked me to write about injury and yoga. Here (with some minor edits) is what I sent him, and thanks E., for the question.

I look at the student/teacher relationship as a partnership. Every time a student gets (more than normally) sore, tweaked or (bliss forbid) injured, it's information that both student and teacher can use to strengthen not only that particular partnership, but those formed between that student and other teachers, also that teacher and other students.*

The teacher gets to reflect:
  • If I'm subbing, did I take the time to query the class about level of experience and query the absent teacher (if possible) about the same thing?
  • Did I ask at beginning of class if anyone had anything I should know about? (tired, sore, injured, crabby)
  • Did I allow for enough warmup given the general make-up of the class (age, experience), and was it specific enough to the focus of the class?
  • Did I suggest pose modifications, like keep slightly bent knees in forward bends if hamstrings are tight?
  • Were my cues direct and clear?
  • Did I offer an assist if I noticed a student’s alignment could be improved?
The student gets to reflect:
  • Did I allow myself to go beyond my intelligent edge? If so, why? What could I do differently next time?
  • What did I learn about the muscle I tweaked or pulled and the pose I was attempting when it happened?
  • What modifications could I practice until the full pose is available to me, if ever?
  • What's my relationship with competition and how good am I at letting go of striving in a class situation?
Then again, whether student or teacher, sometimes it's all going along famously: you're breathing, balanced, strong and twang! you're no longer a celebrity.

Remember that sometimes sidelines appear for a reason. Find a pranayama class or dust off a copy of your favorite meditation guide. Or a novel. It may be time to ebb, not flow, for awhile.

*Of course, if the injury feels serious, immediately seek professional medical advice and postpone all the above reflecting. You’ll have plenty of time for that in the waiting room.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Spaces Between

My first guru was an architect from Berkeley, California, I’ve never met. He isn’t a yogi. In fact, I don’t know if he has ever practiced yoga.

Christopher Alexander wrote two books over thirty years ago. In The Timeless Way of Building he explains why some physical environments—homes, workspaces, gardens, cities—have ‘the quality of being alive’. In A Pattern Language, he tells how to build them.

Buildings and spaces that are alive invite one’s inner nature to flourish openly and with freedom. (Imagine a clapboard cottage with wood floors and french doors opening to the beach. Or the town square in a centuries-old village where retirees gather to play chess). For some, the sensation of aliveness manifests as energy, creativity or contentment. For others it’s a feeling of ‘rightness’. For me, it’s a tingly awakening to presence: “OMG! Here I am in this moment, alive.”

But what of the inevitable spaces between? A harshly lit supermarket. The airport. A traffic snarl. Deadlines. Yoga gives us the means to cultivate the ‘quality of being alive’ no matter where or in what situation we find ourselves. Even though launching into a sun salutation isn’t usually a satisfying option in a public place (even Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s), we can take presence into the board room, classroom or hospital. We can practice relaxation on the road and in crisis. We can breathe.

Thirty years ago Christopher Alexander wrote about creating external spaces that allow us to be fully alive. The practice of yoga creates internal spaces for the same reason.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Pincha Me, I'm Flying

There’s been a small plane circling around the neighborhood the last couple of days. While we’re used to small plane traffic (it’s how we keep track of who’s coming and going), this plane has been circling, circling and circling some more. Turns out it’s being flown by student pilots using the nearby strip for landing and take-off practice, otherwise known as touch and go’s.

After months of preparation, imagine the pilot’s sensation as the plane leaves the earth, banks and soars over turquoise water. Soloing, perhaps for the first time, she'd be scanning her instruments, accepting cues and encouragement from her instructor on the ground. I wonder if anyone reminds her to breathe.

Pincha Mayurasana, elbow balance, is like handstand on the forearms. Those who include it as part of their yoga practice enjoy the freedom of full body expression that inversions offer. It’s like flying. But I don’t know anyone who climbs into their body, starts the engine, accelerates down the runway and gets airborne the first time. Instead there’s groundwork: building strength, gaining confidence, getting used to seeing all the living room furniture upside-down.

These days, I’m practicing Pincha touch and go’s—sometimes airborne, sometimes returning for more groundwork before going wheels up again. It’s been important to release the idea that learning elbow balance, or any other pose, is a linear process. That only by allowing the practice to be a fluid, respectful body-mind partnership will it soar, free of expectation.

Then, unlike the student pilot, I can fly without leaving the ground.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Tide Chart

Living on the ocean, we pay attention to tides. At low tide the tops of coral heads are often visible above water. In some areas, normally passable channels must be navigated with more care to avoid ‘polishing’ a boat’s propeller. As the tide goes out and the water recedes more beach is exposed. Walking is easier and (yippee) beach-combing often more productive.

Low tide is the smooth jazz station on your radio.

Wait a few hours, then plug in the amps and electric guitars. At high tide, the ocean jams with energy. Waves roar, sand shifts and (sorry) rocks roll. It can get risky out there—last week our dinghy was wrenched off its mooring and dropped undamaged on the beach a hundred yards away—but it’s never boring. (Grab a lifejacket, Kenny G.)

The Maori people of New Zealand have long followed the rhythm of the ocean, respecting the natural ebb and flow of life’s energy. Times of reflection, whether voluntary or due to illness, setbacks or crises allow us to rest, become quiet and heal. Then, crank up the volume. We’re once again ready to dance—sometimes wildly!—fully awake, revived and restored.

Yin yoga is a beautiful way to embody your low-tide cycles. Deep, gentle stretches held for longer periods of time honor your need to move slowly and thoughtfully. An energetic vinyasa flow sequence encourages, and then celebrates your return to lively living with heat and power.

We can’t change the tides. But we can pay attention, matching our practice of yoga to the rhythm of our lives.