The Efficient Practice

It is a challenge to get good mat time these days. I pine for the days when I would have back-to-back teaching/practices or when I could look at studio schedules and think, “Well, if I miss the 4:30 I can always just hit up the 6:15. No big deal..”

Time is a precious commodity, managed and coordinated in ways I never thought I would have to manage and coordinate. When my baby is awake, I am chasing after her. When she is asleep, I have a long list of things that I need to do for my home, work and family. I also have to balance time for my husband – time for us to be together and give him space.

When I do throw my mat down in the house, I am often interrupted by either the baby waking up, the dog wanting my attention or the cat knocking something off the kitchen counter. Somewhere on these lists of priorities, there can be the briefest moments that are truly to myself that don’t include working on teaching/festival/writing or cleaning/cooking. (Cooking, ha! that’s funny!) Those moments are like gold.

I have become incredibly efficient with my home practice.

One of the best things I learned as a classical musician was how to practice. I was taught how to practice efficiently with consistency – that it was not about how many hours I spent in the practice room but how I used the hours spent in the practice room. Sometimes, the most effective practice technique was to simply sit in front of the piece of music, internalize/visualize, sing it and then pick up the horn to play.

I have brought this practice into yoga. I think about sequencing and poses all the time. For example, whenever my baby gets a bottle, I am usually thinking through a sequence (how could I open the body up to get to this pose? What happens on the way to the pose?) while kissing her sweet little head. Sometimes, while she is crawling around, I take a moment to explore a pose with a long hold to target a specific area.

When I have my asana practice, I am usually figuring out how a series I envision is going to really feel on the body and working out the kinks I feel from carrying around a little 15 pound wiggle worm. A lot of times I am practicing with YogaGlo. (Thank god for YogaGlo!)

Right now, the magic number is 45 minutes. More often than not, when I plan it just right and allow myself to really explore the possibility of movement and opening in asana, my efficient practice brings more opening than I used to get in longer, open-ended practices.

Seal Pose - Nicholas Wray Photography

“Planning it just right” doesn’t mean that each moment is clearly planned. It is the opposite of restrictive. With a destination in mind, I explore different ways to arrive. If something comes up on the way to the pose that seems interesting, I follow it. I prepare my body for what comes next and stay open to the question: what comes next? Knowing I don’t have time for a lot of repetition that defines some vinyasa styles, I play with the balance of long holds and movement.

I play. I create. I feel great.

Then I show up four times a week and share, knowing full well that time is a precious commodity to the people who have come to class. They have likely had to manage and coordinate time in ways they never thought they would have to manage and coordinate.  Time to themselves that does not involved cleaning, cooking, working or putting someone else first is like gold. I understand this and am constantly humbled and inspired by people who are able to come to a studio class.

Yes, I wish I could go to class every day and have unlimited time to play. For now, that is not my reality. From this, I have found a gift. I am grateful for all I am learning from the efficient practice.

Simply Sitting

I generally open up my basics classes with an explanation that the basics class will be simple – simple meaning it is entirely up to each student whether it will be hard or easy. It’s the simple things that tend to eff us up if we let them because we think “Oh, it’s so simple, I can do this without much thought. No sweat.”

Case in point: sitting.

My teacher training concluded with a retreat at Lake Tahoe. I drove a car full of people up the hill to the retreat center. It was winter, we had a lot of gear, and my Honda Element was absolutely packed. After we unloaded and went to our bunks, I realized my meditation cushion was nowhere to be found. I kind of freaked out inside and hopefully maintained an appearance of being cool about the whole prospect of sitting for hours on a yoga block. I picked up every purple Hugger Mugger in the center looking for the pink embroidery I had lovingly stitched along the handle. Finally, I realized I must have left it behind and resigned myself to the fact there was nothing I could do about it.

Non-attachment, right?

I sat for hours on a mash-up of yoga blocks and blankets over the weekend as I tried to find something that would give me the support I have from my beloved cushion. I finally found it, but it was after hours of bad sitting that wrecked my body for the following week.

If you are interested in meditation or consider yourself a pro at sitting for days, check out this video from Amy Ippoliti. This is a really fantastic breakdown of how to sit.

On Chanting

Once upon a time, priests conducted services in Latin to multitudes of people who did not understand the language. Bibles were printed for select few while the majority of people did not know how to read. Yet the multitudes still went, faithfully, to hear these men speak to them in a language they would never understand.

Some truly beautiful works and devotional pieces came from this tradition. In fact, composers like Palestrina, Dufay and others would use popular (often political) songs like L’homme Arme as the melody for Masses for the masses who may not understand the words but surely knew the melody:

I’ve been thinking about this recently because chanting has been popping up in my teaching and in conversations I have with other teachers. I’ve been chanting a little in some of my classes when I can provide context, translation, and tie it in to the class.

I take time to do this because most of my experiences with chanting have happened with a teacher leading a call and response with absolutely no explanation of what we’re doing or why we’re doing it. I always feel a little left out when this happens and go straight home to type things like “Govinda Jai” into google to find out what the heck I just did at yoga class. On the other hand, when a teacher has taken time to provide context for the chant, it has always been a powerful experience.

And, sigh, there is some ugly: I’ve heard some teachers make small yet slighting remarks about other teachers/studios not chanting enough or at all.

It’s my opinion that chanting for the sake of chanting doesn’t make any one class more spiritual or authentic than another one. People have been singing together as long as we have been people in every language, which is why singing hymns

or kirtan

or rocking the #@%& out at live shows

are all equally powerful and beautiful.

I love music and I love to sing – especially with other people. I also like to know what I’m singing and why. Language is communication, no matter what the tongue. Just because Sanskrit is old doesn’t mean it is inherently or exclusively magic. Case in point – the clips above are pretty magical. But so is this:

We are *so lucky* to have so many resources (books, internet, podcasts, albums) to help us dig deeper into this stuff and provide context to students about what we are doing as a community. I’m really enjoying adding this element to my teaching. I have a blast rocking a little Shiva Shambo at the beginning of a class. I feel much more connection to my students when I know that they know why I’m asking them to close their eyes and sing their hearts wide open.

Vinyasa: Putting Things in a Certain Order

I am in power vinyasa yoga teacher training. I have three more weekends, a seva (community service) project, and dvd/critique to go in order to complete my 200-hour yoga-alliance approved training. I know power vinyasa yoga gets some flak, often categorized with things like super-sized xyz or extreme sports/makeovers – so let me break it down:

Power: Acting on your own behalf
Vinyasa: Putting things in a certain order
Yoga: Skill in action

Overall, I’ve been experiencing vinyasa off the mat. My second week of teacher training, I likened the experience of moving into a beautiful new apartment after months of anticipation. In this new space, surrounded by boxes without labels, I realize not everything is going to fit. The bookshelf that fit perfectly in the old place and held so many books is too wide, the kitchen does not have room for all the fancy appliances, and half of what I’ve been carrying and carefully packaging isn’t necessary. Writing yay is one of those metaphorical boxes that made it to the “to be unpacked” pile, but was low on the priority list.

It is intense and life-changing. Intense introspection like I have never experienced – getting behind my thoughts and really looking honestly at the ways I have chosen to present myself and live my life. I am emotionally and physically exhausted by the end of each weekend I have training. My homework is equally intense, designed to train my mind to look at life through different lenses (a.k.a. yamas and niyamas). I have come to truly appreciate the word “weary” and understand why this particular word (as opposed to “tired” or “exhausted”) is used in hymns and poems. I am pushed to tap into my inner power (see above definition) and learn how to speak powerfully from a place of stillness. Over and over, I ask myself the exhilarating yet frightening questions: “How did I get here, to this point in my life?” and “Where to next?”

Waltzing on the edge of beauty and terror, embracing the complexities of simply being human, I have often thought about one of my favorite Rilke passages:

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?
and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:
I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Every angel is terrifying.

My celebration of being human is not inspired by Michael Franti. (I feel it is important to make this distinction, despite fear of being excommunicated from the yoga community.) For me, it is inspired by Beethoven (Dresden playing the 7th to be exact), Walt Whitman, Bach, Patanjali, Kabir, the unconditional love of my dog, listening to Madeline Albright talk about diplomacy and Jonah Lehrer talk about the mind, watching the changing leaves, listening to falling rain, slowing down on the highway to see birds in the wetlands, pausing to feel the rumble of trains rattle the windows of my little house as many other have since 1916, smiling at strangers. With the community of training, I have felt the supportive experience of breathing in time with 31 people and been able to laugh, cry, succeed, and fail without judgment in front of others.

My celebration of being human is inspired by slowing down and living namaste. I want to always really mean it when I say namaste and bring it to each moment: recognizing that we are all the same by seeing the same fears, hopes, and joys in others that I feel so sharply and deeply.

I realize I love pranayama (breath work) and want to go deeper outside of teacher training. I remind myself to remind myself that each breath, each moment, is a gift and that it is my choice to accept or ignore these gifts. (No, there is not a typo in that sentence.)

It has been painful in many ways. One of my friend’s mother told her that she is feeling pain because part of her is dying and part of her is being born – both are painful processes. Relationships and perspectives change. My body aches after Sundays of 7:45 a.m. ashtanga (which my inner I-don’t-wanna calls asstanga when it is roused to get out of bed at 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday and is subsequently chided for being so childish) followed by back-to-back practice teaching/practicing. But, as one of the seven axioms we learn in our training reminds us: Fear and Pain are Life’s Greatest Teachers.

In short, yoga teacher training is one mind@#$% after another in the process of metamorphosis. I am grateful, humble, and inspired.