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The Yoga Report

Mantra Five: Concentrate

My students accuse me of focus-obsession, that I badger them mercilessly about the central quest, the meaning of their essays and stories. So fatigued by my efforts to get him to rein in his narrative meanderings, one undergrad offered in his weekly conference to inscribe the F-word on my tombstone. “I’ll mention that in my will,” I said.

How delighted my literary offspring would be to learn of my desperation to focus during yoga. If this exercise blending the physical, mental, and spiritual is the path to enlightenment, as the ancient men in their flowing robes and scraggly beards insisted, and absolute concentration is the pulse, I’m doomed. Or at least a laggard on the path to awareness.

At the root of yoga is breath. Inhale long and deep. Fill the rib cage with air. Exhale long and deep. Focus, focus, focus on that breath. Focused breathing will center you in the present. Focused breathing will connect mind, body, and soul. Focused breathing will calm.

Until enter thoughts of tomorrow’s meeting, a looming deadline, the afternoon grocery run. Tilapia or haddock?

Balance, too, requires focus. As your weight settles on one arm and one leg in side plank, remembering to pick up the CVS prescription will cause the wrist to quake, the ankle to tremble. Eagle pose – arms and legs twisted – demands total, 100 percent, don’t-even-think-a-thought, concentration. Little wonder that at Sunday morning’s Slow Flow class at Repose, my foot kept tapping the floor to stabilize. I couldn’t stop dreaming about breakfast. Oatmeal or eggs?

This morning I tried really, really hard to blank the mind. As we moved from High Lunge to Half Moon with one leg out and one arm up, I visualized white space. Then a brass gong like the one in the front of the room. When we grabbed our right foot and sent it up and out – Extended Hand to Big Toe Pose -- I teetered. Couldn’t help it. How could I not wonder if son #1 would find steady employment?

We grabbed the left food. I breathed. I envisioned the brass gong.

Steady she was.

Concentration, of course, is a highly transferable skill. How much more engaged would we be in conversation if we focused on what others were saying, not what we were thinking? How much more would we absorb of our novels and newspapers if we zeroed in only on the words on the page? How much quicker would I finish reading student writing if I didn’t grab the Penzeys spice catalogue? How much quicker would I finish my own writing if I didn’t grab the Penzeys spice catalogue?

How much more productive would we all be if we focused only on the task at hand? If we sunk into the moment rather than dwell on the past or future?

Wait! Could that be a sliver of enlightenment?  Read More 
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Mantra Four: Consistency is Good

Dolphin-challenged am I.

On the page, in demonstrations, dolphin pose doesn’t look that hard. Lower to your forearms, clasp your hands together lightly, shoot your butt up in the air keeping your legs straight. Inch your feet up the mat as far as you can. Not sure why, but my back is never straight, my legs want to bend, and as far as the feet go -- forget it. They are Gorilla-glued to the back of the mat. Perhaps the problem is psychosomatic: dolphin is a launch pose for … a headstand.

The dreaded inversion.

I have read all the tales of the power of turning oneself upside down. That we spend so much time sitting and standing that we need to upend our perspective. Inversions improve blood flow and help bodily systems connect more efficiently. Some even claim that inversions decrease anxiety and increase self-confidence.

I’d argue the opposite.

As other yogis gracefully raise their feet towards the ceiling, I kick like a donkey. Even against the wall, where inversion novices rehearse, I can’t get one foot above my waist, let alone two. With assistance, I once did a handstand but neglected to announce my return to earth and kicked my poor assistant in the nose. Stress reducer? Hardly.

During Saturday’s vinyasa class, one of the week’s hardest at Repose, we worked our way to dolphin. I tried. Briefly. But the feet wouldn’t move and the neck hurt and the arms screamed, “Stop!” And so I took Option 1: child pose. As others viewed the world upside down, I lay curled up, legs and head tucked safely underneath.

Ordinarily, I’m happy to opt out of inversions. Yet this choice felt cowardly. My yoga experiment – one month of daily classes – is only a week long but I do feel braver, more confident. The sequences are becoming routine. Reverse swan dive, hand to heart, forward bend. I can flow from Warrior One to Two to Three. I don’t have to check with my neighbor about triangle or side plank alignment. Even the Hindi terms – Utkatasana, Tadasana, Balasana – are beginning to stick. No longer do I think Chattanooga when I hear Chatauranga. I’ve even popped into wheel and held it for a few breaths.

I shouldn’t be surprised that yoga, like everything, becomes easier with repetition, that what once seemed foreign and unmanageable can become familiar and possible. Elizabeth Bennet wasn’t wrong when she told Mr. Darcy that to better his social skills all he need do was practice.

As I head into Week Two of this yoga journey, perhaps all I, like Jane Austen’s indomitable hero, need do is practice. Who knows? Some day my feet might even leave the floor.  Read More 
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Mantra Three: Month Passes Can Be Liberating

Yoga is expensive. Maybe not as costly as a day of skiing at Killington, but at $15 a class, it adds up. Multi-class packages offer a slight discount but the real savings come with a month pass of unlimited classes.

For me, just like for you, a dizzying array of commitments fill the days – work, commute, family crises, coffee with friends. Wine with friends. A little volunteering. It’s hard to figure out how to squeeze in enough classes to make a month’s pass worthwhile. I could trade my aerobic workouts – spinning, walking, biking, x-c skiing – for yoga but I need that jolt of adrenalin. As my husband likes to say, “My wife needs to be exercised.” And so I take a yoga class here and there, sticking to the ones I know – Slow Flow on Tuesday mornings and maybe the Vinyasa on Saturday – and call it a week.

But with my son’s gift of a month’s pass – and the added bonus of the semester break – I can not only take more Slow Flow and Vinyasa classes, but I can also try other forms. Vinyasa + Yin (long holds). Focused Flow (yoga with a targeted purpose). Ashtanga (a series of postures synchronized with breathing – I think). Last night at Repose Yoga I tried Restorative Yoga, billed as a practice that combines long-held passive stretches and hands-on assists. A little massage? I’m in.
Lights are dim. Votives are lit. We grab bolsters, blocks, and blankets. And we spend the next hour splayed across the bolster in five positions, each one held for many, many minutes. But since the mission is relaxation, the stretch is comfortable, a welcome length to tired IT bands and glutes. Best of all, the instructor massages briefly each student -- during every pose. No surprise that the neighboring yogi fell asleep.

If one goal of this month-long intensive yoga journey is to see if practice can quiet my restless brain, I’d say that restorative yoga did the trick. I returned home, mind emptied, so relaxed that I voted to delay watching the next episode of “Making a Murder.” Even the most restorative of yoga can’t calm the blood pressure while weighing the possible guilt of Steven Avery vs. the malfeasance of the criminal justice system.

I’ll save that for tonight. Read More 
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Mantra Two: Children Can Surprise You

Son #2 was born to play competitive sports. Whatever synapse connects brain and ball and moves the feet forward – fast – was included in his packaging and we have spent the better part of his 20 years cheering him on the court, the field, the cross-country trail. I’m afraid to estimate how much we have contributed to the construction of the new Tappan Zee Bridge driving to his college soccer games in Pennsylvania and Maryland. But let’s just say that they should name a span after us.

Like most athletes, he stretches. A little. Most of his efforts go to skills and drills and sprints and weightlifting. He’s read about soccer stars practicing yoga to increase flexibility and focus, but it wasn’t until this winter break that he suggested attending a class. So last night I took him to a beginner session at Repose Yoga.

My track record with yoga and my family isn’t good. A few years ago, I gave my husband a mat and four classes for a Christmas gift. At the beginning of the first class we bickered so much about the proper alignment for plank that I sent him to the other side of the room for the second, third, and fourth class. He hasn’t been back.

Son #2 has his father’s sense of humor and I feared that he’d crack up during prayer, or, worse, grow so frustrated by unbending joints that he’d collapse on his mat.
Instead, he swung into sport mode. He was an athlete listening to his coach. Intent on the instructions. Focused on his positions. Unafraid to realign himself and grateful when adjusted. If he couldn’t touch his toes, no worries. He folded as far as he could.

Funny how he accepted what he could and couldn’t do immediately. He’s the competitor. Why, then, has it taken me so long to not compete, or at least compare, on the mat? Why is it so hard for some of us to accept that we can’t always be proficient?

Perhaps it’s age. We truck along, become professionals and parents, grow adept at the work we do, the sports we play. When our bodies, like cars, wear out in parts ("Knees are like tires,” an orthopedic surgeon once told me. “You get only so many miles out of them.”), we often give up. If we can’t run, we watch the Patriots storm the field. If we fear falling on an icy ski slope, we hit the spa. We know that we should be active, but it’s just too easy to wallow in our past accomplishments rather than seek alternatives.

Son #2 is still in his prime; he has lots of physical feats yet to list. But listening to him share his delight at trying something new, and his drive to become more flexible, to get more out of a yoga practice that he can bring to the field, I’m keenly aware that we all, regardless of age, need an open mind. That it's okay to flounder. How else do we learn? Read More 
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Mantra One: Yoga is Non-Competitive

“I was never very good at following directions,” says Gin, walking between the mats of her Repose Yoga Slow Flow class. “And if you’re having a hard time following my instructions, don’t worry. Trust your body. Rest if you have to.”

For anyone who has competed on the field or court or road, this concept of slow down, enjoy, focus on your body, your spirit, your mind is as foreign as Sanskrit. What about beating the guy next to you, heaving into high gear to charge ahead? To be the best? Or at the very least, to receive the instructor’s approving nod? I’d played team sports in high school – not particularly well but I absorbed enough of the win! win! mantra to later run 10Ks as fast as I could and finish a marathon before the sun set. I played tennis to score and skied fast enough to race my male companions. How could I not notice that my neighbor flowed effortlessly through her sun salutations, her back straight as a roof line, her swan dive as fluid as a dancer’s? How could I not feel discouraged when I misplaced a foot, swayed in the wrong direction, tipped over?

The reason I started yoga in the first place was Gin. Friends for decades, we have shared many of life’s big events – parents’ deaths, children’s births – and minor events – countless potluck dinners and dance parties. When we first met, Gin was a graphic artist in business with her husband. She designed my wedding invitations. I can’t remember when she discovered yoga, only that she became so enamored with the Hindi practice that she left one career to share her new skills and insights with the rest of us. Because I love Gin, her southern drawl, her gentle demeanor, her quick laugh, I showed up for an occasional class when she first started teaching more as a show of support than downward dog drive. Besides, lots of our mutual friends had the same idea and we always followed class with a coffee or glass of Shiraz, a sure way to forget the humiliation on the mat.

I was more of a yoga drop-out than drop-in. We all like to be good at things and I felt mat-challenged. Inadequate compared to the lithe lululemon-clad and their perfect pigeon poses. But then I started shrinking and at 5’2” I couldn’t afford to lose a centimeter. I’d always been a sloucher, which is not recommended for anyone but especially someone who doesn’t have any height to begin with, and I envisioned my future as one of those hunch-backed hags in a Grimms’ fairy tale. I had a choice: find a stretching rack or hit the mat with purpose.

Finally, after attending a class at least once a week, I heard the message that was there all along. This is your practice. Each body is different. Not all poses are possible. Focus lies within, not out.
Well, that’s the theory at least. Honoring that theory is dicey -- especially when teamwork is required. In today’s slow flow class, Gin suggests that we move into Dolphin pose, head down, butt up, feet as close to the bent arms as possible and with a partner try to do an arm stand. Oh no… The woman in front of me turns and nods. She’s small like me but really strong. She can hold a wheel pose for a week. I grimace and offer to spot her. I screw up. Instead of simply holding up one leg, I hoist the first leg and then the second. She’s confused. She’s done this before. Gin arrives, clarifies the instructions, and, poof, up my partner goes, more or less on her own. “Your turn,” she says. But time is up! Saved!

“If you didn’t get a chance,” Gin says to the class, “you can stay after and I’ll work with you.”
Gin has never pushed, never buried me in the bounties yoga offers. Instead, like a wise Buddha, she lets me – and all of her students – find our own path. She’s there if we need her, but it’s up to us to seek her out. And so I swallow my pride, my fear that I just don’t measure up, and ask her help with the Dolphin arm stand. And what do you know? By focusing on my arm position – not my neighbor’s – and with her help, I do it.

But I can’t ignore that little voice. Assisted doesn’t count. Must do one on my own. Read More 
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The Yoga Report

This quest to practice yoga every day, preferably in a class with an instructor who inspires and adjusts, is less a New Year’s resolution and more a matter of timing – semester break – and a very generous Christmas present – a gift card to Repose Yoga, my favorite studio – from son #2. More of a runner, biker, x-c skier, swimmer, aerobic-kind-of exerciser, I have come to terms with a body’s need to do more than sweat, pant, and release endorphins. Just ask my knees, my back, and, today, my aching left foot. A body needs to move not just forward but in all directions. A body needs a healthy heart rate, but it also needs strength, flexibility. Balance.

Yoga, of course, provides all of the above – and more if practiced with consistency and concentration. By definition, it is an ancient art that blends the physical, the mental, and the spiritual. In my sporadic practice – you could call me a yoga dabbler – I’ve become less of a flailing distraction to my neighboring yogis, but grace and total focus have yet to touch my mat. And we won’t even talk about the dreaded inversions. A headstand? Really?

Yet I always feel lighter, happier after a yoga class, regardless if my tree pose toppled. Who knows what magic might befall me with a steady diet of “oms” and upward facing dogs and eagle poses. Will my racing mind quiet at night? Will my posture improve? Will I gain focus? And will I ever master a headstand?

For the next month, I aspire to attend a yoga class a day and, in this blog. chronicle what I learn. Stay tuned.  Read More 
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