June 2003 -- Namasté, Char
Even before I moved to Boise fall 1997, when I mentioned "yoga", several Boiseans had said, "You'll want to meet Char". Since I landed after community ed classes started, worked up courage to "cold call" Char directly to introduce self as rookie instructor, and ask if I might visit her (I soon learned, always sold out) classes. Although her voice was sometimes hard to understand, there was no mistaking her warm "Welcome". Evidently, with my beginner's mind, I'd done the right thing, phoning the senior teacher (I learned later) in the region. "In all my years teaching in Boise, no one has ever phoned", she said; she sounded pleased. I learned Char moved from Denver where she'd taught for 20 some years, was a respected senior teacher and founder of the Colorado Yoga Alliance. We chatted, Char acting like I was the most important person in the world. I was to witness this gift again and again. (The next few years, the more I learned about her studies, the more humbled I was.)
When I visited one of Char's classes, I was startled to find an elegant, "turbaned", mature, strong woman draped in jewelry and make up, Á la Cleopatra!, with a stack of neckties and towels as props, and a large class! Took a place behind rows of clearly attentive students. She started from the beginning with each class, each pose; with relief, I sensed I'd found the teacher I'd looked for since leaving Seattle in 1992. Boise--of all places! "Never get so good you don't check your alignment in every pose", I remember Char saying, again and again. Pretty much love at first sight.
Each new community ed class series Char began by introducing her credentials to work with our bodies; then telling of her love of animals and grandchildren--so we'd know who she was. She'd explain her voice was challenged with spastic dysphonia, but was getting better. Then she'd go around to all 20 some students and ask who they were and what brought them to class. It was "time consuming"; spoke volumes about Char and her students. (I now do much the same.)
By spring I knew I wanted to learn more from this master; began attending additional, regular weekly private/small group classes, first at Wild Hare Books, then in Char's sister's home. Humbling myself to a private teacher was a new, awkward experience for this ever independent, thrifty spirit. I have notes from that first private class at the Wild Hare, June 8, 1998--half a page about hamstrings, proper neck and head movement, twists, forward bends, dog, relaxation--what a class! I distinctly recall feeling so good after class I could have signed a blank check. Char understood something about my body no one else ever had. I loved the way her body moved; she never struggled when she stood up or sat down. Wow! That was the end of hesitation about paying for private classes. A couple years later I worked up the nerve to ask if I could officially apprentice as one of her students she might someday qualify.
Although Char admitted only to having "spastic dysphonia", her health weakened--heart and lungs. The plot of her life thickened, as it were. Yoga (and dogs) were her life; she fought to continue teaching. Eventually she was unable to continue classes. Private class notes from January 5, 2001 say: Char high on drugs (meaning she was taking more and more medications, oxygen count alarmingly low). After that her sister called to say she was too weak to teach; I knew it was true. Somehow, however, she taught community education that spring. I have class notes from June 8, 2001 (possibly her final private class), following heart shunt surgery March 2001. I wrote in frustration: I simply cannot isolate bones/muscles/ anything the way she can. 'Char, I can't feel my tailbone, you know'. Also noted: Sitting forward bend. Released better than I ever recall. No doubt, her presence (and having hips more balanced). More frustration and confusion as I tried to understand chataranga [still don't!]. Then: Relaxation. Super long rest, both conked out. Came to when hips and feet began to ache... Char slept on, (twitching strongly) on her belly... Well over a half-hour.
Having such a willful, misaligned student (not to mention mismatched clothes and unkempt hair!) unable to feel energy or body, must have frustrated Char to pieces! While Char saw and felt energy, her most constant student remained clue less. Char qualified for multiple PhDs--her learning was ceaseless--but, as it turned out, the answer to why things were happening to her own body remained elusive!
Char had rallied so often, little did I know this was her last private class. I'd seen Char's body go from strong, balanced and sturdy to thin, weak and trembling. Her sharp mind seemed to cross wires more and more often. It was always especially hard for me to follow Char's thinking--many things never made sense to me. She was strongly connected to unseen worlds. However, with Char, I wasn't there to listen. Instead I watched like a hawk the subtle movements and alignment of, the free-est, flowing-est body I'd seen since Seattle. I savored the simple wisdom she spoke with such precision and effort. I respected a teacher who practiced what she taught right along with us. The profile of Char's long, open body relaxing, knees bent, feet on floor, savasana after savasana, is indelibly imprinted on the lens of my memory. I knew relaxation, ease and love when I found them. Her demonstrations spoke a thousand words. Saved my questions (which grew) and observed.
I think Char taught one last community ed series. Then I took over one session "until she could return"; other students took others. Meanwhile, my yoga lessons shifted to another personal favorite--living and dying. (Might be fair to say this didn't turn out to be one of Char's favorites!) For something like 2 years I followed Char from her home, to the emergency room, to intensive care, onto nursing and long term care centers, back home. (Look for upcoming Hospice stories!)
Char died May 5th, 2003 after some of the most difficult ordeals I ever hope to witness. I'm filled with her yoga lessons as well as memories of her final dance with death. We learned Char requested no funeral. In spite of decades as a professional model in Denver, the girl from Idaho Falls, kept her later Idaho life and stories private. I was disappointed how my beloved teacher avoided photos--I have just one blurry snapshot of her with several students, outside her home studio.
May 15th a small group students and her visiting Colorado daughter and grandson held a good-bye circle in my home yoga space. Julie brought her mom's ashes. Char always talked about getting a group together to talk; it took her death. She would have been pleased. I think we agreed her most memorable and infamous teaching was, "Sternum up". She'd tap her sternum and wait as we tried. Time held still as we asked questions, laughed, expressed regrets, shared stories, lit candles, munched and drank tea.
"Char is always with me when I teach", Johnnie said. I've said the exact words. As I share how Char taught us to use our bodies correctly I sometimes ask myself, "What would Char do here?" Folks who watch a few videos, go to a workshop and decide to teach--don't get me started--might ask, "What happens when a new person comes to class and we're already doing shoulderstand?" I'm grateful to know what Char would do. She honored everyone--never ignoring anyone. By being a student in her own class, she modeled teaching and gave me the confidence to continue sharing, just as I am. She badly wanted her message carried on. I so do.
"Let's sit in chairs today", I said last week to a woman who struggles proudly and painfully to sit on the floor, one leg extended.
Char never wrote that "How to Use Your Body" book or made that video; they're in my mind, though. Her teaching is carried by many of us. I'm one grateful student.
STERNUM UP--Char said so!!!
June 2002 -- Whatever it takes... I guess.
I've been thinking of confessing to some of the props I've acquired over the years "in the name of yoga". The latest is an orange, rather life sized, foam brain.
Whenever someone suggests they've lost their mind, it comes to mind. I'm in dire need myself, I apologize. I understand palm sized replicas exist--perfect for hand exercises. I spied one sitting on a librarian's computer. Alas, the owner appeared humor free, only shrugging his already uptight shoulders higher and looking blank when I asked excitedly where he'd got it. "They'd be great for class", I explained, anticipating at least a raised eyebrow or speck of curiosity. None that I noticed.
My yoga blocks are children's yellow, red, green and blue cardboard blocks duct taped together. No designer ultra foam or wood set in this studio! "Straps" are a colorful assortment of neck and bathrobe ties with martial arts belts and scarves thrown in. Bolsters and eye pillows are hand made, pillows covered in silk from favorite men's shorts once used for swimming. Towels are much recycled, each unique. The favorite blankets are a camouflage nylon quilt and a gray fleece BMW lap cover.
My props amuse me. I especially love the feel of the foam brain, knowing there's a spare.
Nevertheless, what has tickled me the most lately is what I learned from men in last week's classes. Longtime friend Carl and wife recently visited my new home, with class space, en route to Denver. I was a bit startled by Carl's willingness to try yoga--he asked before I offered! As long as class was "on the house" and in the house where they were spending the night in, both were game. The next surprise came just after the final Namaste. Carl, a huge television fan from LA, blurted out that he found himself wanting to say The Man's Prayer from the Red Green Show [immed. dashed to Net to research]:
"I am a man... But I can change... If I want to. I guess,"
I was delighted! Couldn't have put it better. How true for all of us.
The very next day, as my noon class Namastéd, one of the Mike's got a big smile on his face. "I keep wanting to say The Man's Prayer", he apologized. I nodded, startled, but knowingly. First he recited pseudo Latin-- quando omni flunkus moritati (when all else fails, play dead)--Carl hadn't mentioned that! Then, "I am a man... But I can change... If I want to." I joined the, "I guess". How'd you learn that Latin, the second Mike exclaimed! Two recitations of The Man's Prayer in less than 24 hours! Head's up, Jeannie! [The web posts The Man's Prayer on a yellow diamond shaped warning sign on the gate to Possum Lodge.]
Several wives have mentioned their husbands maybe-just might-could possibly be interested in yoga classes. Their backs hurt. Flashing before my eyes I saw the plumber, the builder, the stay at home dad/handyman, all learning to bow formerly aching backs from hips newly released in The Man's Yoga Class, reciting The Man's Prayer. Hang on, World!
I can change... If I want to... I guess
March 2002 -- Theirs, Mine and Ours: of Sunsets and Study Halls
Last week as we began class in my home studio and were cat-cowing, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a strange light on the hills from the setting sun. Swung my cow head toward the sliding glass door and before I could catch myself, exclaimed "Look!" I was a bit embarrassed at having done it again--stepped aside from traditional teaching. At least I don't recall my teachers ever interrupting class like that! Reinforced by Lasater and Remen philosophies, I breathed and trusted the process. I was relieved and surprised by the sudden response and enthusiasm that joined me, as if we'd never seen a sunset before. In less than a minute, the unusual pink light that had caught my eye, became copper then faded to gray before our very eyes. Collectively we were stunned. We resumed practice in awe.
We're still talking about our sunset moment.
I'm beginning to feel like Sibyl with multiple personalities, yoga-wise. I inherited a Friday afternoon class at the fitness center. When I came in last week, a woman I hadn't seen for months (her first classes were with me; she's since studied elsewhere) was resting with legs up the wall. A retired man I hadn't seen for a number of weeks, struggled to put his legs up in the far corner. I sat buddha like (I wish!) on my double bolster, knees dropped, focus on lifting crown and sternum, releasing tight shoulders, observing a couple more folks drifting in, on their own time. As I noted the age range (high school through retired), and array of experience, I thought: Why Me? Instead of struggling to bring this end of the week class together, suggesting they come into sitting as I usually do, I kept my eyes shut and talked to myself, pretending people were paying attention, looking out only occasionally.
“I start with meditation”, I said can't speak for others—“going within, observing, breathing”. At one point, the woman up the wall came to sitting. About the same time, a man who'd been sitting upright, lay back and began active stretching exercises. Whatever, I thought. Their class as well as mine. "Ours" doesn't seem to be a Friday afternoon concept. Suddenly, the far-off image of a junior high school teacher struggling to control a study hall floated by and I got it. Exactly.
Since I was comfortable sitting, I shifted to neck and shoulder stretches before lowering onto my back. Feeling from within I talked about stretching arms overhead, hugging knees, sinking lower back, extending leg in arc, and so on. Occasionally I opened an eye and looked around room, only to find next to no one with me. I would have felt silly saying "Good!" like I usually do! so I was quiet. I wasn't concerned about the woman from the morning class who listens, follows, pacing herself carefully. In the morning, what feels right to me, seems to fit class reasonably well. Not so, this Friday afternoon assortment. I'd lost them to their own drummers, before I started.
Sensing if nothing else, a common thread of exhaustion, I made sure to end with sufficient relaxation time. While others quickly came to rest as soon as I said
"Ready to relax?", the man in the corner, following his own teacher, struggled to lift into bridge. Had to check my this-is-really- too much reaction.
Since I generally suggest resting on the floor with knees supported, I always wince as folks build various rigs and platforms, torquing necks and spines per memory of some long ago video or guru. As I took blankets around and contemplated salvaging heads and necks, I asked the bridgeman, "How ya doin', Charles?" "Waiting for relaxation", he grumbled from bridge.
Stifled an incredulous, 'cudda fooled me', as I let him know he was in luck!
I've gained another level of understand of the difference between practice in my home studio, home practice and Friday afternoon at the club. I will fight no more!
February 2002 -- Thoughts on d-d-d-discipline - Part 1
The principle of discipline haunts me more than ever lately. Discipline twins with guilt and makes me flinch. In some circles, discipline is referred to as “character”, a term that conjures up roadrunner and coyote for me, but is meaningful to others. Intellectually I know discipline is the missing link: key to happiness and inner peace. This winter I've taken a step back to study it from the humbling angle of yoga instructor; perhaps a new look will help. As with counsel to pray, not share, feel I should be doing, rather than ruminating….
I've always tried to dodge discipline--like everso many of us, I like having things my way! The last few years my understanding of discipline has deepened; it's linked to a freedom that appeals to me. I'm contemplating those connections. Discipline makes happy kids, dogs, people; omission, like willfulness, leads to restlessness, rebellion and frustration. I'm beginning to understand the discontinuity in my life and have more insight into others.
I don't think discipline in my yoga practice is notable. However, yoga is one of the longest running, strongest and most beneficial threads through my life. It could exceed my old passion for skiing, and has outlived many friendships and relocations. Like tortoise (and hare), my commitment has remained slow and steady for some 13 years. Not a long time in the big picture of a life—but four decades were behind before I was in the right class. I've never taken my yoga practice entirely off the stove, though it was on a back burner while I searched for a new master. As I begin to claim my own discipline in yoga, and perhaps elsewhere in my life, it's starting to change how I teach.
Recently I was reminded that “all” Judith Lasater asks of students is to show up, pay attention and be willing to change. Hallelujah, I nodded! I've never devoted the hours to yoga that many do but neither have I drifted away as I have with so much else in my life, the way we serially monogamous Americans tend to do. I am still showing up! As Judith teaches so ably, yoga goes far beyond physical practice. I may not be in warrior, but I might be waiting in line with compassion for others. This week I was happy to reread Judith's article reminding us discipline too is much more than holding a pose in class. It could be holding a pose in life with integrity.
My path to being a student/teacher (of yoga) feels particularly dynamic. I never intended to teach; I was “forced to” by not having a teacher for awhile. Which figures--I've never been good with structure, following the leader, exact sequences, tests, speeches. My masters don't teach a precise a-b-c formula; I've apprenticed with Char now—for years--watching and doing. What I've needed the most from yoga wasn't the physical postures per se, but to learn to feel and know my alienated body, without which physical postures were empty. As important as alignment is, the major teaching I carry is the importance of letting go and listening. Most often I express as “Listen to Your Body”.
Lately I'm being challenged to learn how this fits with discipline as well as the current popular demand for rigorous yoga.
Since I feel strongly about educating and empowering ordinary, non athletic folks (like me) to enjoy the benefits yoga, I've emphasized the softer sides of my teachers, offering a “user friendly” yoga, as it were. No locking the door, forbidding water bottles, insisting on neat rows of shoes or sitting in perfect rows. I save precision for awareness and alignment. I want people to feel welcome, be comfortable, and I want to have fun doing it. I'm certain yoga doesn't have to be
all headstands, sweat, suffering and designer leotards. Overly serious yoga doesn't work for me. Surely I'm not alone!
Lately, though, I'm asking questions like: Can you come late and still be a yogi? (Uhhh... students ...teachers can do anything and get away with it--or can they!) Or, if students don't attend regularly, are they really students and are you really a teacher? And, what if you can't quantify what yoga is doing for you, you just know you feel better or like it, but your inner thighs or hamstrings aren't sore, is it still yoga?
I'm starting to reassess messages I've been putting out. No doubt this is a reflection of my own changing dance with discipline, with life.
August 2001 - Who Learns?!
The other evening after class at Glencrest, the studio in my new home, a new student asked if I could recommend a video. I shared my favorite by a long shot and said there were 2 at the library. "No video I've seen yet works at the deep level of a live class", I explained, "but I've gotten good ideas from videos and that one is as much like my master's teaching as I've found on video". I turned to the woman who has come regularly the past year and a half; we've been through a variety of classroom spaces together. "Do you have a favorite, Vera?" I asked. "I've never used videos", she explained. "I was told you really need a teacher." Then she went on, "If you don't do the meditation and relaxation and have the guidance of a teacher it's just like exercise or aerobics."
I was stunned. For sometime now I've visited every class I could, reviewed videos and books and even woke before dawn to watch yoga on tv.
For some time now I've felt a bit like the Supreme Court Justice who said he knew pornography when he saw it. I know yoga when I see it, but I don't know exactly why what I think isn't yoga, isn't! There straight from the mouth of a wise Mormon grandmother came a large key to the puzzle--is it exercise or is it yoga? Is there mind-body-spirit unity or is there not? If you can double-time your practice, it's probably not yoga in my book.
Of course I know the importance of having a teacher. I wouldn't be able to share if I didn't have my master with me at all times, her posture, philosophy, love, words, empowerment. As I sit or relax, in silence or in conversation, with each question I hear her answer first.
I'm also reminded of the fuzzy line in folk dance (one my my former lifetimes) between performance dance and village dance. The more frustrated I became, straining to learn complicated choreographed steps, the more I preferred relaxing into simple eastern European circle dances. Everyone can do them, I can do them and breathe. Performance dance is, well, entertainment, for performer and audience. There's a big difference and room for both.
If you don't spend time centering, connecting with breath, at beginning of practice and end by relaxing in some type of savasana, I'm not sure it's yoga. I may change my mind about this. In the meantime, once again the simple clarity of a student demonstrated who learns from whom!
July 2001 -- Yoga Moves! -- More on Foundation!
Not long into winter my body threatened, dance or else! Midst winter blues, I knew it to be true: nothin' wrong with body-mind-spirit that movin' couldn't take care of. Get up and start dancin'... gently! "Dance is all you'll ever need!" said body wisdom. Strong medicine, powerful truth. I didn't quit yoga, but I started putting on dance music at the end of class, inviting folks to stay and move. (Now and then a brave soul did!) After "class" I let music and dance lead me deeper into yoga.
With the right-for-me music I'm blessed to know what to do, how to move, without much wondering from the mind (as I might with somebody else's choice of music). I just move. I've collected music I simply cannot not dance to. Irresistible rhythms, largely without lyrics to distract the mind, Gabrielle Roth style. That's what works for me. Oh, I could dance to "Cheatin' Heart", but I'd rather not. Give me a compelling drum rhythm and away I go, heart safe and open, no memories, save perhaps a wild moonlit night once upon a time.
After several years of preaching Listen to Your Body! I'm tuning in. The body never lies. It may have the volume turned down, wires may need reconnecting or fine tuning, but wisdom is there, in our cells. This time when mind-body said "Dance", I started dancing! I don't have the body awareness and sensitivity of many folks, especially those who've been in body work for decades, but I'm deeping my "in" body awareness at my own speed. Area by area, I'm getting in touch.
I can't specifically feel, say, my liver, like a wild old buddy does, my yoga master, many folks for that matter. But I sure can feel my feet changing. I knew when they got tender last year, I was tuning in and they were beginning to soften and ground. I was starting to listen to the earth, a teaching I first "heard" via qigong, though it's yoga too. If one can feel one's feet, one can stand like a mountain to receive the power of the earth.
I'm also starting to connect with the imbalance in my hips that I "know" is there (because right and left hips and sides of my body are “different". Now and then I can clearly feel, when I sit or lay down, hip bones resting unevenly. Ah HA!
I'm on my way, listening, bit by bit. This past year I've been learning to walk the balance between rest and exercise. In a literally way, I'm learning to walk the mid line of the foot, shift weight onto inner foot. It's a deliberate practice. "How do you change your feet?" I've been asked.
By coming back to them, again and again, correcting one's walk. When I dance, I stop and roll through the center of the foot and sometimes dance on tiptoes. It's a whole new way of using legs, knees, hips, shoulders.... Ah HA!
Dancing my yoga,
January 2001 -- When it comes to FEET - Wide is Wonderful!
The first thing I remember about feet is hearing “She'll need special shoes.” (Anyone else remember that?) “Sturdy tie shoes for support.”
U-g-l-y. In my teens, I had the infamous narrow family triple and quad A, flat feet, just like my unsteady aunt. Penny loafers were a fantasy.
Looking back, feet were almost always an issue.
As kids, we begged to ice skate during those cold arctic fronts that settled in the Midwest now and then, turning the local reservoir into a dark green playground, inset with fish—endless fascination to my young scientific mind. Usually, however, an untimely thaw turned the surface into frosting. But when ice and nights were clear and dark, magic was afoot, though I dreaded the bitter cold, knowing the only relief was crowding around an open lake shore fire (where we burned our wool socks and leather skates). Over the years I developed a place on one heel that quickly turned white and numb and stayed that way anytime I got cold. Later I heard this referred to as chilblains.
In college I learned what shin splints were, while dashing vast distances between classes. When I became a backpacker and moved to Colorado, my knees roared, my hips moaned, and it seemed like my feet were always first to blister and ache! Hiking downhill became a nightmare.
All the while, folks “admired” my delicate narrow feet, ankles and knees that I didn't realize at the time, were the source and an indication of ever so much misalignment, weakness and pain that kept me complaining. Still, it was the only body I’d ever known.
Then, a few years ago, when I was absolutely clear jogging did my knees no favor, I found the right yoga teacher. (Former attempts at yoga classes had left me lying paralyzed and puzzled on the floor, with a frustrated teacher standing over, saying don't do “that” and me wondering what “that” was!)
This year, I've learned perhaps more than I wanted to know about feet and am wiser for it. Luckily one doesn't have to be well grounded one's self to notice that quality in others--it stands out. For years, I've observed, fascinated, the occasional person who stood comfortably, effortlessly, on sturdy feet and legs. I simply could not get over the ease with which I observed one Tibetan lama stand hour after hour, at a workshop. No way could I have done that! Before I understood, I recognized grounding.
A few years ago I finally heard my qigong master when he spoke about softening feet, listening to the earth. While I couldn't imagine what he meant, being an earth muffin, the image stuck.
I've got a friend who's embarrassed to have wide feet; she says it's from growing up barefoot. She may not have the feet of a high fashion model—I think hers are super--but then I never wanted to be a model—but she has no hip or back problems. She's sturdily grounded on highly functional feet and legs. Here, take these skinny ankles, wanna swap?
When I lived in Seattle one medical phenomena after another swept the northwest, slowing a number of my old dance community acquaintances.
First everyone, especially fiddlers, had tendonitis. Then a cluster of MS cases erupted and remised. Then, chronic fatigue came and went. Then plantar fasciatis. I was a bit relieved to get out of the fast lane: I too once danced night after night after night on narrow feet!
Fortunately, before leaving the city, I successfully found a mature yoga teacher with profound understanding of anatomy. For the first time, my body was in good hands and I began learning to listen. Rather, I realized I simply could not hear it.
This past summer, when I heard my feet howl, I took it as a sign they were waking up, rather than in crisis. They were in crisis, but I wasn't. I shook my head firmly when told to go to a doctor or I was offered various diagnoses and dire predictions. Painful, for sure, but when I paused, as I now had to, I began to hear something like,
Feet: Feet to head, anyone home? This is your feet talking. Remember us? Summertime or not, we need a rest. Now. Listen to your feet: No extra walking. None.
Me: Uhh, not even down to the river.
Feet: Not even. Fix those flat tires on the bike. All this yoga (and qigong) has changed us, the way you stand on us. We're bruised. Pamper
us--warm soaks, warm hands, lotion and oils. More! Yumm, then, stay off.
Me: Good! Thanks. Right away.
My identity as a walker, albeit notoriously slow and short distance, had to go. By the time I met a California woman at the end of the summer who confided that her feet absolutely killed her, I had heard so many people confess they wanted and did crawl to the bathroom at night because of painful feet, I burst out laughing! What an epidemic! Not to fear, I began sharing!! All is well!! Our feet are just trying to get our attention!!
One summer weekend I headed to the hills, put up the tent and hung the hammock by a meadow and for 2 days did next to nothing. Lo, the second morning I stepped out of the tent nearly pain free. The message was undeniable. While taking walks wasn't painful as I walked, shortly afterwards I was miserable, my feet became unbearably tender, even without weight on them. Plantar fasciatis to some, stop and listen to me. The message to back off continued, month after month. As I hobbled, folks around me were upset and alarmed; but I was only mildly concerned. I knew I was listening and patient, awaiting intelligent nature to heal decades of misalignment.
Gingerly, I continued my teacher's yoga class, as well as my own. Sometimes in standing postures in Char's classes before I knew it, pain shot up my left leg. Too late, I came out of the pose. In my own classes, I backed off on standing poses, padded my feet, or talked through postures.
During relaxation, I put my legs through a chair whenever possible. Even resting on heels or flats of feet was painful. Tenderfoot indeed!
I understand that with yoga I continually shift towards better alignment. I stand slightly differently, increasingly aware of the difference in how weight falls on each foot. Why should I be surprised that my feet became tender as weight shifted onto new bones and tendons and I shifted into new awareness! As weeks rolled by I couldn't quantify changes but knew the pain moved, my feet were changing.
Can't say that my feet are now soft and listening fully, but I have new and wondrous respect for them. I'm walking moderately, listening intently.
I stand and walk more fully on my own two feet. After a lifetime of severe misalignment, I'm "getting it"!
All is well, when I listen to my body!
December 2001 -- The Gift of Teachability
The other evening a friend whose uneven feet I've been observing, was testing me, as folks frequently do. "Did your teachers study with Iyengar?", he asked.
I can't fault his suspicion. (At the risk of dishonoring my sacred temple, it's a huge understatement to say no Madonna am I!) Occasionally, over coffee and tea, when someone brings up a physical complaint, I can't resist evangelizing yoga. Once, I pushed too far and was told sharply 'I already know and do yoga'. No mistaking the message to butt out. The following week, I did my best to apologize. Vowed never to mention my passion again. But it's hard!
"It's hard to find a teacher who hasn't been influenced by Iyengar", I began holding forth. "My major teachers studied extensively with his senior students, although not Iyengar himself." (The thought of studying with BKS chills me.) "There are only a couple other major teachers out there, the hot room man, the flow one. Iyengar's influence is huge, major. His alignment teaching, brilliant."
My friend told me he does yoga at home--every day. I admire his all-American independent style and envy his discipline! Still, having once observed him in headstand, I yearn to blurt out, "You may do yoga everyday you, but you do it wrong", but I don't. I'm an independent cuss too who believes in doing things myself. Last night, defying terror of electrocution in my own home, I replaced the outside light switch by the front door when the electrician didn't call back (for that, and other projects), and the cover had been off a week.
My friend wanted to tell me how he learned to fix his back from reading Schulz' grand book and he wanted me to listen. He didn't want advice and evidently I didn't want to listen! "You ought to read it", he advised. I bristled, but nodded and said the book is almost like being in my teacher's class. (I really wanted to snap: Of course I know the book! Good for you, right- left--voila! My path is really different!) Neither of us was listening!
I wanted to philosophize about East West spirituality, talk about our respective journeys. And ponder, why the West seems to have produced fine dharma teachers, translators of Eastern religions, but few yoga masters? Is this because when it comes to yoga, physical obsession overrides spirituality here? I didn't.
Earlier my independent friend shared how, after all these years, he still likes to get a check up from his meditation teacher. Still not just listening, still groping for conversation, common ground, I interjected, "I like to see my teacher every year, for the very same reason." It was the "Me too!" of an adult kid that think's she's not heard.
I awoke during the night, reliving our non conversation. A while back I heard a pastor talk about the quality of teachability. Immediately I recalled the fellow doing headstand during savasana. (After that I made sure to cover him with blankets.) Surrendering to a teacher, minor or major, is strong, ego softening practice. How well I know. I guess there are areas where we are open to teaching and areas where we're not. Bless us. I'm grateful to have had fine yoga
teachers and to continue to learn from new ones. I'm not so open to learning in other areas of my life, however! I honor my friend's open mind for meditation.
It's not my job to try to change his yoga, anyone's who doesn't ask, much as I yearn to. My job is to accept others as is and know they are perfect as is.
I wrestled with what I could have said, might say another time. "If you'd ever like a yoga check up, you'd be welcome. I've had wonderful teachers." It's the best I've come up with!
Lord! Teach me to Listen!
November 2001 -- The Blessing of Stiffness: thoughts post - Richard Freeman
Perhaps more than anything else he shared, "blessed with stiffness" rattled 'round my head followed my encounter with ashtanga teacher Richard Freeman this fall. I'm not certain what Richard meant, but he got me thinking. My own master has mentioned how, as teacher or student, it's much easier to work with stiffness than over flexibility. I wince to think of the bored faces I've seen on over stretched bodies with loose joints who come to gentle yoga just once. I yearn for my master's profound understanding of bodies-- I believe over flexibility was her path. While I have my share of over stretched muscles, I've always thought my major challenge is decompressing/lengthening. (Wonder if that's so!)
Folks with the "blessing of stiffness" moan, while bodies of overly flexible folks often "flop" uncontrolled into poses, rather than "move" into them. "It's all yoga", Richard reminded us, sitting down, standing up, rolling over... at least I thought that's what he meant! The overly flexible are already "there"--no obvious path or journey necessary. With faces blank or puzzled, knees rest impatiently on the floor in cobbler/baddha konasana while others strain, knees high, backs rounded. Often, rather than holding a pose, listening, breathing, those who are over stretched twist or strain their backs in boredom or discomfort.
Those "blessed with stiffness" painfully learn to strengthen and balance back muscles while practicing sitting tall and still. I often observe those "cursed with flexibility" as Richard put it "doing their own thing", trying poses that they feel are challenging, where they're "doing something", while the "stiff" sit uncomfortably. The over flexible move onto "more interesting", athletic classes, without awareness of mind-body-spiritual union where they're prone to injury.
Freeman may have been obliquely referring to the blessing of the ability to feel. I know because, unaware at the time of just what was missing, I spent decades physically feeling very little. When, for the first time I felt my lower back crackle--after 7 or 8 years of yoga classes--it was like Eureka! I'd never felt much of anything there, good or bad. Had always been clue less what my teachers were talking about. Blind faith, not feeling, kept me going. One of the biggest surprises of this new experience teaching is that so many students do feel what I'm talking about. I didn't have that experience for years!
Each of us is our own unique combination of tight and over stretched muscles and joints. Where one muscle is short, its partner is likely over stretched, whether we know it or not. A common example is: if we walk on the outsides of our feet, muscles and tendons on the outsides of legs lengthen; inner, shorten.
After all these years, incredible as it may sound, my mind is still not clear whether my hamstrings need to lengthen or shorten! Lately I'm in the camp believing they need to stretch and coordinate with weak quads. In forward bends, I honor the blessing of stiffness: bend knees deeply to move femur heads back, draw chest to thighs, lift sternum, broaden back, soften shoulders. A subtle combination of both letting go of stiffness and lassoing and strengthening my particular wild horses is required. Slow to feel as I've been, this feels right, as though spine is lengthening. This, I believe, is the underrated, misunderstood, blessing of stiffness: the ability to know by feel what's beneficial (and what isn't). When you're "blessed with stiff", the goal is immediate, obvious. When you're over stretched you have the challenge of reining in, bringing strength and balance back into both joints and muscles. Same, same, but different. Both take exquisite patience and self acceptance.
Enjoy the Blessing! Namasté!
September 2001 -- The Yoga of Laughter!
One thing for sure about the label “yoga teacher” is I know that I don't know. I will never stop learning, being awed by the sensitivity and wisdom of those I yoke with. Especially the week of the bombings of the World Trade Center and Pentagon I couldn't guess what individuals would need, say or do. I also knew for a few hours that week, I was in the humbling position of leader (as most of us are in our roles as parents, friends and teachers). And, we don't know where our fingerprints reach, Rachel Naomi Remen reminds us.
Truthfully I don't remember much about the small class that met the morning of the bombings. I learned the news as I walked into class. I'm sure we breathed and grounded more than usual.
By Thursday more students were back. Road rage too was back, everyone processing their own way. Knew to follow the class as it led. Sensed connecting with each other was valuable. Finding the common ground among a pregnant gal, a restless fellow, a body builder, a recent widow, an uneasy church go-er, a bent senior, a tired young mom seemed important. As I shared that the night before we focused on peace as we breathed, a woman announced she's sick and tired of it all, didn't want to hear another word. Right. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself today; we're each different, every day, body, mind and spirit. How to walk the balance between stillness and movement in times of tension?
I rarely hear sharing in yoga classes I visit. So be it. We do it. Don't know how I could work with such diversity if we didn't get to know each other!
We breathed and breathed, sat and grounded, released hips, worked with feet, twisted. As much as my mind yearns for peace and happiness, my body yearns for stronger roots, to strengthen legs. I've learned I'm usually not alone in my desires. Too late to work in triangle. Instead we stood in mountain, aligning, feeling, rooting, rooting, rooting… and breathing before relaxing in savasana.
That evening in class in my home studio, again I listened to the group. They work together, asked for class, chose time and I said, thank you!
Before class I searched for the right article to share. Quickly realized it wasn't a week for information. The one article that caught my attention was about the historical link of asana and breathing that separated when yoga came to the West. Ah ha!
Listened and waited for group to shift into class. Shall we start sitting upright, maybe look at an article on breathing later? What an opportunity, this class, to learn and share breathing practices! “We'll do alternate nostril breathing sometime”, I said; “It's neat. I've just read an article that reversed the way I'd learned it. Happens a lot, contradicting information. All the techniques are simply tools to help us breath”, I said, adding, “I always go for the simplest method I can find, like in the healthy breathing tape I love: allow your breath to become deep, even, slow, soft.”
Lowered backs onto floor and focused on rise and fall of belly with breath. Explored hips in bridge and revolved belly twist; more hip and groin openers before relaxation.
I'd just announced time to relax when a voice hesitantly said, “I've got to tell you that last week when you said listen for the bell to end relaxation, but the music was all bells, I couldn't relax. I kept jumping, trying to watch you to see if it was the end!”. “Oh, no”, I said embarrassed, as I relived my blunder of choosing music filled with bells. “I'm incredibly sorry”, I stammered, mortified at having violated making a safe place for relaxation. Suddenly a muffled snicker slipped out of a co-worker (who later asked to be described a voluptuous blond. “Of course”, I said, relieved to still be spoken to.)
“What if you fell asleep, what would we do?”, voice number one went on, igniting more laughter. Vividly recalled excruciating times over the years when my teachers fell into deep sleeps, the "leader" fell without a fight and began to giggle. Never miss an opportunity to laugh, no matter how inappropriate, could be my motto. Although it's gossip, it might be helpful to mention I heard the "ring leader" of the first comments once snatched a kids scooter and raced around the work place.
Ever since seeing the Indian documentary film, “The Laughing Club” in Seattle last May, I've been wondering how to start a Boise chapter; I was very interested in this moment. “Laugh or cry”, one woman choked. We chose helpless, spontaneous, joke-free, you-had-to-be-there laughter. When I realized I couldn't fully enjoy the moment unless I emptied my bladder, I excused myself, causing another round of hilarity. Snickering as I crossed the room, I told myself a true leader listens to her body. Still laughing when I returned, they blamed my muffled giggles. “We were going to stop, but you didn't”, they pointed the finger. I grabbed the blame enthusiastically. How I needed this unrestrained, gasping for breath, after the last tense three days. I grew hotter and sweatier with each round. Lying on our backs we laughed ourselves into exhaustion with every comment, the ultimate letting go session we agreed, between peals and snorts. Best ab work I've ever done, I mused.
Suddenly remembering how serious yoga teachers seem to be, I blurted out the obvious, “I've lost control of class! This would never happen with my teacher! (Or would it!) Wait'll I write about this, folks!” I coughed violently as I laughed harder, alternately feeling lucky and guilty. What release! Several of us sat up to breath. No better breathing exercise on earth than laughter! I was startled by how much better and lighter I felt, the more I laughed! Not wanting to cut the precious, healing moment short, I wasn't sure when or how to wind down. Trust the group process, Remen teaches. Finally I rubbed my tight laugh muscles, jaw and eyes and wiped back the sweat. Maybe laying on my stomach would calm me down.
Eventually we lay in a variety of heaps. I was utterly spent.
There was a twinge of sheepishness as we namasted. We couldn't help it we silently agreed; hadn't had much fun lately. “Never underestimate our gifts” was all I could think to end with. There was sparkle in our eyes as we said goodnight.
The next morning I covered my face as I asked to renew my book. “We've been laughing all morning”, the scooter snatcher said, her face pale, but alive.
JULY 2000 -- Breathe!
J J J J J J J Namasté! J J J J J J J
As I drive across town to facilitate my basic and gentle yoga classes at fitness clubs, I calm and open my mind to whatever unfolds in the hours ahead. While my own body and mind suggest poses, more and more I learn best laid plans end up tossed aside as I watch folks come into class, rolling shoulders, or outright bring up concerns. For months now most folks have come in and collapsed on the floor, assuring me relaxation is first order of priority!
One day, however, rather than unfolding blankets and mats to begin sitting, folks stood. Hmm, I thought, Let's try beginning class with mountain pose? Use tadasana as a standing meditation. Powerful pose— tadasana--in my book! Following Tadasana/Mountain, we moved into Tree, then Triangle poses, then came to the floor, where we often spend the majority of our time in these basic classes. As we stood I watched a student I know well come to the floor early. Our eyes met; she communicated she was ok but needed to rest.
"If I do nothing else", I sometimes tell my class of student/teachers (as I refer to all of us), "I want to give us permission to honor our bodies.
Always feel free to come to the floor while others stand; lie down while others sit; change or extend legs. Listen to your body."
Where else can we learn and experience body-mind awareness, I wonder to myself, except here, in this safe space! Having heard and affirmed this through my yoga therapist master, I repeatedly pass this essential wisdom onward, gratified on occasion to hear someone remark, “I'm listening to my body!”
Afterwards I spoke with the woman who came to the floor early. She blamed her age for feeling dizzy. Having almost entirely unplugged from myths and collective beliefs about aging, I flinched. Then a light went on in my mind and I offered, "Lately I've been reminded most of us need to breathe more fully in standing poses. Another student had a similar experience last week." I silently thanked the other student/teacher who'd shared what seemed like the very same experience the week before for the powerful teaching.
Recently I subbed for an instructor who focuses on standing and strengthening asanas. Honoring her list of suggested sanskrit asanas (took some doing to match my names with her names and photos), and believing I needed to challenge her class, we worked in standing poses for some time. I swapped a couple of her suggestions for similar poses I'm more familiar with and understand better. That way I was more free to keep an eye on students new to me, in addition to expose them slightly different material. And yes, that way I didn't have to do poses I'm less at home with in front of her class!
The sense of effort and struggle in the room was palpable. Suddenly one of the students asked why she was feeling dizzy! As an apprentice—the primary way I deal with individual inquiries is to empower others to listen to his or her own body--I'm uneasy with personal questions!
Feeling like I was in the hot seat, I quickly reflected on how my own breathing had grown shallower in the wall poses and my strong awareness that this group of students was pushing, their breathing straining. Out of my mouth flew, “I can't speak for your body; however, I've been watching our breathing become shallower in these standing poses. My best guess is you probably just need more oxygen, to breathe more fully”. (Gulp.)
The woman left the room and returned shortly, visibly relieved, announcing “That was it!” Then it was my turn to breathe more easily!
Now, more than ever, I remind classes to back off in a pose when their breathing tightens. Back off until the breath is smooth and easy, so muscles and all systems can expand, balance and restore.
Always and forever, my own best student.
JUNE 2000 -- Magical Master
The other evening I watched in awe as Char facilitated our Friday evening class as only a true master can. We were: a young dad with a “bad” back and his self conscious, gangly teenage son; a white headed woman; a graying one (yours truly); a gymnast; and a long time student working with whiplash.
I'd'a thrown up my hands (at least as far as my thawing shoulders would allow) and run out the back door! Not Char; she was in her element. I think of her as a pony trainer, the way she often lightly touches a pair of our backs as we work in cat-cow or dog, the way I might touch a small pony to let it know I was beside it. (Although Char favors dogs, it's I don't feel like I'm in dog obedience school!)
She kept our minds focused on what we were feeling, continuously challenging each of us to describe where we felt the pose, then listening without judgment. “How's the back?” she monitored regularly. Somehow, although our outward skill levels appeared dramatically different, she united us in the common purpose of observing, feeling and balancing. Ah, the master at work.
Together, we did the basics. Backbends while lying on our bellies, lifting one leg at a time. Classic hamstring balancers, Janu Shirshasana and Baddha Konasana. Sitting behind I watched the men go for distance, round their backs to compensate for tight hips, as Char gently reminded us “Never force, keep spine long”. No holding them ponies back! Standing, we practiced poses for balance and strength. Finally, blessed relaxation!
Exhausted, I sawed logs with the teen. Rarely, do I let go that completely.
Yet another delightful, magical evening together.
(Heart to heart greetings)