Posts by: Leslie Waugh
Ah, August, when a not-so-young woman’s fancy turns to thoughts of school supplies.
I can’t help it. More than two decades after graduating from college, I still feel the pull of the fall-to-spring academic year and pine to be a returning student. I was in Staples the other day for I don’t remember what and got caught up in the racks of notebooks. Ah, so much blank paper — at once a writer’s worst nightmare, but also a symbol of promise and possibility. Should I get college-ruled or regular? Spiral-bound, or those old-timey black and white notebooks with an inflexible spine? Wait … I don’t need these, I thought. Ooooh, look, a shiny 3-D cover with unicorns and rainbows! I don’t even like unicorns! They freak me out! I try to pull myself out of my reverie but then get a glance of all the unused pens and pencils, ripe with ink and lead, and feel sad and empty.
The beginning of a new school year means a fresh start, and don’t we all need one from time to time? The problem is, most of us don’t get to take summers off. The rhythm of the traditional U.S. school year is still in my DNA, though, and I find myself thinking as March rolls around, where’s my spring break? Or at Christmas, where are my two weeks off? I don’t think the 180-day academic year prepares us for the real world of full-time work and adult responsibilities, but that’s another matter. It is important for kids (and grown-ups) to have down time, both constructive and restorative. How else could we greet new challenges and a new set of, let’s say, classes and opportunities to learn?
I consider myself a chronic student. I have a master’s degree and take classes in other fields here and there. I salivate over course catalogs and wish I could be signing up for a nice buffet of subjects. I miss libraries and the smell and heft of books, the simpler, less digital and ADD-addled world organized by the Dewey Decimal System. (I don’t, however, miss statistics class, blue books, footnotes or the financial aid office.)
But instead of being forced by state laws to regenerate every fall, when much of the natural world begins to shed and prepare for hibernation, I find that I need to create fresh starts for myself. And what better way to explore new beginnings than through yoga? We can shed old skins any time. Press on those boundless boundaries. You can take sessions of classes, sample from different studios and styles — experiment with the extra-curriculars that can help build and feed a home practice. Yoga teaches us that every day, every practice, every pose, every breath can be a fresh start. Even if you’ve done downward-facing dog a thousand times, you can try to approach each one as if it’s your first. Be open to new possibilities and exploring your body, mind, heart and soul. And don’t worry about being graded! No one cares. Through yoga, we can revise and reinvent ourselves all the time. As one of my guided meditations suggests, inhale possibility and awareness; exhale extraneous caca and rigidity.
And we can take the lessons of yoga into our lives. I’m not saying that’s easy: On the contrary, it can be very hard to, let’s say, wave and smile at drivers who cut you off instead of giving them a special hand gesture. But we have choices. We can stop in between the inhalations and exhalations and evaluate. Reassess. So each yoga practice can be like homework, not just for yoga, but for life. We encounter tests large and small all the time, and the truth is that we do get graded in various areas of our lives, long after we leave school. Yoga can help us be prepared for such challenges, if we pay attention. Let me repeat: Based on personal experience, this is not easy. But it’s an option. And it gets somewhat more natural with practice.
And although I’ve had some fantastic teachers in school, yoga and life over the years, I think the most profound lessons are those we learn for and teach ourselves.
A new, empty notebook is a lot like an unoccupied mat: full of possibility. Although I don’t think our minds can ever be totally empty, it’s nice to think we can try to wipe away what we no longer need and build on past lessons, as in algebra. A clean blackboard. Solve for X. Get unstuck. Open your mind and heart, get on your mat.
P.S.: I lied. There will be a quiz later. A really big one.
From dawn to dusk
Paschimottanasana, the Boundless pose of this month, is a fun asana to explore as a way to cool down — from hot weather, a vigorous asana practice or, in any season, our stressful lives. Forward folds are inherently soothing, reflective and restorative, though this one can be challenging for those with back issues or tight hamstrings. More on that later.
I wrote about this pose on this blog nearly exactly a year ago as my teacher training course was ending. We were studying the forward folds about at the point they are typically introduced in a yoga class, two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through. I began to wonder about the name: stretch of the western aspect of the body, the back side. And its companion pose, if you like, purvottanasana, stretch of the eastern or front body — also known as upward-facing plank or “my shoulders are screaming.” I don’t know the Sanskrit etymology of the two poses, but I like to think that the extroverted purvo is the “hello, world!” sunrise pose — the sun rises in the east, and we greet the day with our front body, so I think this heart-opening move can get us charged up to do so (and certainly the bent-knee version is a good option). That would make paschimo the sunset pose. After living in our front body all day, moving into various face-to-face encounters with others and having perhaps a sense of constant forward motion, the forward fold gives us the chance to unwind and greet the dusk of the day — or an asana class. Reflecting and letting go at the same time. Turning our backs to the world in a thoughtful way.
With these compass-point poses, you might be wondering where north and south are on the body. In the “Light on Yoga” description of paschimo (pose #67), Mr. Iyengar says the crown of the head is the northern point; the feet, the southern part. But that leaves out the left and right sides of the body. So for my class this week, I am planning to emphasize side-body actions and poses with a purvo (pose #72) and a paschimo in there for good measure. To get deeper benefits out of paschimo and take any stress out of it for those with lower-back or hamstring issues, we will rest the head on a generous stack of blankets. And hold. And cool. And unspool.
Don’t rock the boat, baby
East meets West
In reading a book on yin yoga for our next TT session, I was struck by the descriptions of yin and yang as they apply to exercise, yoga and the body, not to mention Chinese medicine. The two aspects work as complementary and symbiotic opposites, but they also imply paradoxes. It’s interesting, for example, that the front body is considered yin, the “stable unmoving, hidden aspect of things,” and the back body is yang, the “moving, changing, revealing” aspect. In yoga, the front body is also the eastern side; the back body, the western side. To the degree that you accept duality and a black-and-white world, fine.
So this made me think of the sunrise and sunset. (It also made me think of a Shakespeare passage I had to memorize in high school: “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, who is already sick and pale with grief that thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.” Oh! And the “Fiddler on the Roof” dirge. “Sunrise, sunset // Sunrise, sunset // Swiftly flow the days // Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers // Blossoming even as we gaze.” Then there’s “Annie,” but I’m not going there.)
Anyhoo, back to paradox. The sun “rises” in the east and “sets” in the west. Yet we greet the day, and the world, with our seemingly exposed front body. How can it then be considered hidden? Because we naturally seek to protect it — well, really, what we’re talking about is the heart here — at the same time? It is the side of the body we present, the side that we ourselves can most easily see. The sun “sets” in the west, when day is done, and yet the back body is largely invisible to us, even repressed or ignored, in daily life. We don’t walk backward, after all. I’m not sure what to make of this duality. In asanas, paschimottanasana (seated forward fold) in Sanskrit means a stretch of the western (paschima) or back body. So as we fold into our front, hidden(?) selves, we stretch the largely unseen and yet, according to yang descriptions, exposed side. Maybe exposed here could also mean vulnerable. I guess this explains why backbends, which call upon our yang/western bodies and stretch our yin/eastern bodies, are exposed, look-at-me, heart-opening poses. Then there’s the horrible (for me) purvottanasana (upward facing plank), a stretch of the eastern (purva) body. Stretching the hidden side. Hmm.
I guess what it comes down to is that I still wonder what it means if one is naturally drawn to forward folds vs. backbends. Are you a sunrise or a sunset kind of person? A morning person, or a night owl? I think one goal of yoga, or at least one major point to it, is to unite and eradicate dualities and create a third, pure channel (the spine, hello?). Absolute balance and alignment. Fleeting though it may be.
I hope this makes sense. Still trying to work it out.
In the middle of a yoga class Monday, there I was, lying on the ground doing I can’t remember what, when I heard music. But it was all in my head: The hare rama/hare krishna chant that we teacher trainees did in class with Leah B. Saturday had bubbled up during a moment of peace and relaxation, like a silent lullaby. The funny thing is, it also bubbled up a day later at work during, shall we say, a not so peaceful and relaxing moment. It helped calm me down, as if the mantra was knocking on some sort of door to say, Remember me? Get a grip. It was nice that it popped up spontaneously, but I wondered: What if I can call it up whenever I want? Wherever I am? Sweet.
So you think you can pose
Why are yoga asanas, by and large, discrete? Why are they meant to be held? Who designed and named them and figured out that holding them is a good thing? More than asking what yoga is, I wonder why we do it at all. If you’re drawn to the spiritual aspects, what do you make of the asanas? Why does the larger practice have a physical component, aside from the obvious mind-body aspirations?
What does it all mean?
I was wondering about this while watching the Mark Morris dance company Saturday at George Mason. After the first of the three numbers, I said to my husband, Well, that was nice and all, but did it mean anything? He said, Does it have to?
I imagine the dances mean something to their creator and the performers, but like any art form, dance is subjective and open to interpretation. Morris is known for grounding his works in music, which is its own art form, but in watching the second piece Saturday, I had to scratch my head in wondering how the movement fit with the music (which I wasn’t familiar with) and what the two parts, music and dance, meant together. What were the dancers trying to tell us? Their bright costumes reminded me of a psychedelic marching band that ran off to join the circus … during the Civil War? My husband said it reminded him of Chinese guards (and the piece was called “Empire Garden,” so he might’ve been on to something).
I don’t have the stomach to get all post-modern about anything anymore, so I decided to just let the sounds and movement wash over me, which was easier in the third piece, a lovely and flowing number with blue and green costumes and lighting that made me think of the ocean. Or of flying through the sky, looking down at the earth. I watched as the bodies formed shapes and then joined other bodies to make bigger shapes, using an alphabet of steps and gestures, some of which were repeated in patterns that formed a larger narrative. I’ve no idea what the narrative was supposed to be in any of the pieces (there were no Cliffs notes in the program!), and it doesn’t really matter.
Art, and yoga, can certainly be transcendental, but sometimes a grand jete is just a grand jete, and a down dog is just a down dog. And that’s okay.
Asana, the gateway drug
At the end of our teacher training program this summer, we have to write a paper on: What Is Yoga? Just a bite-size topic, really.
Over the course of the past several months, I’ve thought a lot about why I started doing yoga. I saw it on TV while I was a stressed-out high school student, feeling ill most of the time for no medical reason, and something about it drew me in. I was never an athlete by any stretch of the imagination, but the poses looked inviting. So I bought a paperback at the B. Dalton’s bookstore at my local mall, “Richard Hittleman’s Yoga: 28-Day Exercise Plan.” Subtitled: “A dramatically different four-week exercise plan that unlocks the secrets of a lifetime of health, beauty and profound peace of mind.” It looks like it was first published in 1969. I did some of the poses (illustrated by a slim blond white chick) but was intimidated by many of them. I took a class in college, and it went from there over the years.
The spiritual side was always in the background, depending on the teacher, but usually diffuse. Even today, while learning more about the sutras and other elements that have contributed to what we think of as yoga, it seems that the practice is a real smorgasbord, for better and worse. If and when I get around to a new book I recently bought called “Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice” by Mark Singleton, I’ll read about, the cover says, how there is no evidence in the Indian tradition for the fitness-oriented asana practice we know today. The thesis is that modern yoga is rooted in Indian nationalism, bodybuilding and Western gymnastics. *Discuss.*
I’ve known some folks who came to asana practice only after exploring the spiritual side, such as through meditation, and I wonder whether this is an increasing trend. Or do most Westerners start exploring yoga first through the body, then the mind and heart? Or is it an even split?
Which brings me to body issues. I’m just winding down (or winding back up?) after a week of vacation. One of the books I read is a funny memoir about hypochondria, “Well Enough Alone” by Jennifer Traig. While describing her OCD-like fixations with diseases real and imagined, she gives an interesting history of not just hypochondria but also dentistry and, to a degree, the medical field. As someone who does yoga, experiencing my body on a visceral level and learning about how it works, trying to come to terms with everything I hate about it (I was put on a diet by my pediatrician in about the 6th grade — is it any wonder why I have self-esteem issues?), I can relate to how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. The book posits that people have been trying to come to terms with the mind-body connection for centuries, with the word “hypochondria” dating to Hippocrates in the 4th century BCE. (It’s also interesting to me that ahimsa is a lot like part of the Hippocratic oath, first do no harm.) Anyway, hypochondria was at first associated with mood-related stomach trouble, then later with sleeplessness, irritability and malaise. I could reach for a metaphor about the gut, but you get the idea. If only these people had yoga! Or did they? One could also argue that such issues are problems of more privileged classes, rather than, say, hunter-gatherers, but that’s another story.
So as my husband and I drove back home from the beach, I tried to loosen the vise that was tightening around my chest and the knot that was forming in my stomach in anticipation of returning to real life and its more stressful obligations. A teacher with whom I’ve done a few workshops calls asana the “bait” that lures many of us to yoga, the practice of which is ultimately (he says) about the revelation of the self and fulfillment of dharma. Mostly, I just want to feel better — in my body and about my body, but also on a deeper level that allows me to live more fully and truthfully. Nearly 30 years ago, when I bought that cheesy paperback, I must’ve known that yoga held this promise.
On the application for the Boundless TT program, we were asked about previous non-academic courses we’d taken. In the early 1990s, not long out of college, I took a beginning pottery class. Three times.
You can find yoga in just about anything, including pottery. Certain steps must be taken in making a pot, and each step is discrete — essential unto itself. Wedging, throwing, drying, bisque firing, glazing, the final firing.
Wedging looks like kneading (incorporating air) but is actually un-kneading (eliminating air). Then there is the throwing, a process that begins with centering (ding ding ding!) the clay on the wheel. But centering doesn’t just happen in an instant (plunk) — it’s a constant process that must be attended to as your hands form the clay into a bowl or mug or whatever. The potter’s hands work against the centrifugal force of the spinning clay to contain and mold it. As in asana or meditation, we are constantly working to find the center of the pose, or the center of ourself, despite the physical and mental forces that work against us. Call them kleshas, samskaras, really irritating people, etc. Balance and poise are fleeting, but when you find the sweet spot on the wheel or on the mat, you know it. That’s the feeling that keeps drawing us back to practice, I think, despite limitations and frustrations. At least that’s what I’m telling myself, rather than walking away from it altogether sometimes.
One of my pottery teachers took a very Zen approach to the process. She encouraged us to smash “imperfect” completed pots, despite the work that went into them — to let go of the result. I don’t think she was saying that each pot had to be perfect; rather, she was trying to cultivate a healthy attitude of nonattachment. So it’s ok to let go of an imperfect pose. The sweet spot is there, somewhere, hidden in the practice.
(P.S. The song “Spinning Wheel” is by Blood, Sweat & Tears. Just sayin’.)
Leaves of Yoga
Being saturated with yoga philosophy in the BTT program is like buying a new car: You start seeing it everywhere.
I recently heard an interview on NPR with a Walt Whitman scholar, who read a portion of “Song of Myself” (not to be confused with “I Sing the Body Electric” from “Fame”). I’m no Whitman scholar, but I found my copy of “Leaves of Grass,” which contains that poem. I really like this passage, and, not being able to sum up my thoughts on what yoga is just yet, I’ll borrow it for now:
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
Have a great fall
I’ve been thinking a lot about walls, real and imaginary. In yoga, a wall can be used as a prop — for restorative poses such as viparita karani — and as a tool for teaching alignment and balance in standing poses and inversions. (Triangle and half-moon with your back body against the wall? Delicious.)
Walls can also be used for defensive purposes. (See: China, Berlin.) As such, they can become self-defeating blockades, keeping out as much good stuff as they contain. In yoga, a wall can be a tool of support — or a needless crutch.
So when is time to move away from the wall, particularly when learning inversions such as headstand, handstand and pincha mayurasana? After much practice, of course. How do you build confidence in these poses? With much practice, of course. But as a teacher trainee, I wonder about walking the edge between progress and safety.
(Digression: I’m reminded of a Far Side cartoon. Humpty Dumpty is sitting on a wall, smiling and waving at his mother as she walks away. She says something like: “As always, Hump, you be careful!”)
In the past year I took classes with a teacher who taught preps for headstand, handstand and pincha on the mat, away from the wall. He wanted us to cultivate core awareness, among other things, and not rely on muscling or hopping up into inversions with our legs. His theory is that it is actually harder to find the right alignment and balance by swinging up into a wall, just for the satisfaction of getting up, and then trying to balance.
This approach really turned my experience of learning inversions upside down, no pun intended, and it goes against everything I’ve been taught in Iyengar classes and the instructions on “Light on Yoga,” which are very beginner-friendly. In one class, this teacher had us all try cartwheeling across the floor to learn a safe way of falling out of handstand. But it occurred to me that I’ve never been in a class in which a teacher has demonstrated how to fall out of headstand or pincha (granted, it’s harder to fall out of pincha). Maybe because I’m not practicing away from the wall, it doesn’t matter yet. In headstand instructions in “LoY,” Mr. Iyengar says to keep the hands loose if and when this happens and just roll out with a smile. Sounds easy enough. But my fear is greater than my confidence. Not fear of falling per se, but of getting hurt.
Have you ever been taught how to fall out of an inversion? For teachers, is this something you teach? Or is this like saying, “Go sit in the corner, and don’t think about elephants”?
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