My first Ashtanga workshop!

Angela
Me and Angela Jamison. Angela, what a beautiful soul. I’m so grateful that she represented my first Ashtanga workshop. 

I finished my 200-hour RYT training in June. As the training wrapped up, I knew my next move was to devote more of myself to Ashtanga. To me, this involves four aspects:

* Cultivating a home practice, seeing as the nearest shala is a 90-minute drive away.

* Self-study of Ashtanga and yogic principles through reading of classic and modern texts.

* Continued self-evaluation and self-improvement. In the words of Angela Jamison (see below), what’s my stuff?

* Learning through face-to-face transmission through workshops and teachers.

I’ve been working on the first one and second one since June. I’ve been working on the third one for almost two years, but seriously and consistently for about a year. And the last one is very new — I’m coming off a weekend workshop with Angela Jamison, hosted by Ellie of Ashtanga Yoga Minneapolis.

I took pages of notes, practiced alongside 15 other ashtangis, and in general had a transformative and uplifting experience over the 10 hours. Plenty of blog posts will come from this experience! But for now, let me list some quick impressions:

* Angela Jamison is a beautiful soul. She is warm and empathic and encouraging.

* I just finished teaching a five-week summer session class at MSU-Mankato. That was an intense experience like none other, giving instruction day after day. How great it felt to sit quietly and absorb instruction, to be on the other side of the desk, so to speak!

* Ellie at AYM has a great shala space. The building is a former convent, and I could feel the sacred power of sanctuary lingering in the room. From where I sat, I could see the church across the street, which offered a symbol for quiet contemplation.

Church

Chapel

* I soaked up the “tribe” aspect of Ashtanga. Back when I was practicing at Sun Moon, back when I thought it was only a physical practice, I still felt the power of the tribe and it was that I missed the most when Mona stopped offering Ashtanga. So to be back in a group of people committed to this practice felt like I was at “home.”

* I’ve been on this path for far longer than I had imagined. Angela said something about figuring out your stuff before you could fully embrace the practice. I have been drawn to self-study for the past year, for reasons that weren’t quite clear to me (or for reasons that seemed clear at the time, but now I see those weren’t the real reasons). The real reason was to prepare a clean heart for a commitment to the Ashtanga practice.

Have you attended yoga workshops? What has your experience been like?

Trust yourself. Question your habits. Find the reward in trying something new.

For about 13 years, I had taken Ashtanga classes at only one place — Sun Moon Yoga in Mankato. That changed on Thursday when I drove to Minneapolis to take a Mysore-style class at Minneapolis Yoga.

When Mona took Ashtanga off the schedule at Sun Moon, I really missed it, though I understand that it was hard for her to find qualified teachers. It’s true that I didn’t practice regularly at the studio, but there were times when I attended nearly weekly for 3-4 month stretches. So when it completely disappeared from the schedule, I missed it more than I thought I would.

The absence of an Ashtanga class, combined with my resistance to cultivating a home practice, meant that Ashtanga was absent from my life for the last couple of years save for a shortened practice every once in a while at home. But during my yoga teacher training, I felt strongly pulled to taking up Ashtanga again.

So if I was going to be serious about this, I knew I would have to make a commitment to attending a class. Ashtanga is a very specialized style of yoga, so classes aren’t easy to find. In addition, you want to put yourself in the hands of a capable teacher with whom you’re compatible.

I had some reservations going into Thursday. Mostly, would I be doing it right? What would this teacher think of my practice? David Rogers looked nice and kind when I did my research about him, but what if he was going to be one of those hard and critical teachers you sometimes hear about?

But in general I looked forward to the adventure. If things didn’t go well, then I just wouldn’t go back. But if things did go well, this had the potential for cracking something open for me.

In short, it went very well. Two days later, my mind is still spinning. I gained an entirely new perspective on Ashtanga and I feel newly motivated to practice.

Some of my main takeaways:

* Wow, it was warm in the studio! The class before mine was a Bikram class. David opened the doors and windows, but it didn’t really cool off. So there’s me, the yoga practitioner who had always been resistant to a hot practice, on my mat with sweat rolling off my face, down my back, my arms, my legs, etc. And I loved it. In all those years of practicing Ashtanga in relative coolness and comfort, I realized I was not getting the maximum detoxifying benefits. Let the sweat drip!

* I have some habits to break. David pointed out a couple of things with a gentle, “Why are you doing it like that?” One thing that will take a lot of work is doing a chaturanga with my elbows slightly out instead of squeezed into my ribs. He also showed me some poses in which a flat back was not the primary goal — lengthening the spine could come later.

* This was my first true Mysore experience. In traditional Mysore, a teacher will stop you when he or she feels you have had enough. I didn’t quite get through all the forward folds when David stopped me from progressing further into the sequence. I was grateful — I had so much new information to digest and I was getting tired.

* I had the confidence to do things I had never done before. I explained to David that I didn’t do jump backs. He simply said, “Why not?” And I realized that I didn’t have a good answer. So I gave a weak excuse about worrying that I wouldn’t do them correctly or that I would lose form. He went into a speech about how much we worry about something “looking right” that we don’t even want to try. Mind. Blown. I couldn’t see something so simple for myself.

* I also got the feel for chakrasana (the backward roll in Ashtanga to get from one pose to another in the seated sequence). David helped me — I will need some work to get it on my own — but it felt great to go through the motion. Again — Mind. Blown.

* I had a chance to explain Ashtanga to a group of people unfamiliar with it. As I was waiting for class to start, the sweaty Bikram students came out to join me on the patio. Since Ashtanga is fairly new to Minneapolis Yoga, a lot of them didn’t know about it so they were asking me all sorts of questions. They also liked my dedication to the class for driving a total of three hours for one hour of class 🙂 The three hours in the car offered a wonderful opportunity to listen to books!

* I love the built-in community at a yoga studio. That community is evident at Sun Moon, but it’s also a community where I know a lot of people. Even though I didn’t know anyone at Minneapolis Yoga, we all sat around the patio for a few minutes smiling and talking and sharing our experiences.

There’s so much I’m forgetting. Each moment during class was a special one where my brain was working overtime in digesting the information and also soaking in the experience. I look forward to going back! In the meantime, you will find me on my mat practicing chaturangas and chakrasana at home or in the Fitness for 10 studio after teaching my Tuesday/Thursday classes.

That special yoga glow, lol!

Primary-Series-sequence

Sometimes the universe is just trying to tell you something, right?

My last weekend of RYT 200-Hour training featured the Ashtanga primary series practice. On Saturday morning, we did the complete series, led by Crystal Born — we took Ashtanga class together for years with Melanie Williams at Sun Moon. It was so nice to see Crystal again, and Emily S. also showed up, so it was a mini-tribe reunion.

I hadn’t practiced the entire series in, I don’t know, about two years? Whenever the last offering was at SunMoon. I’ve done bits and pieces of the practice, like a 30-minute or 45-minute version that David Swenson developed, and I’ve worked separately on some of the more challenging poses, like shoulder stand and headstand. But still, I feel a little like a loser…how can I call myself an Ashtangi if it had been that long since I’ve done the entire series?

(More on this later…I have LOTS to say about why I took that time off).

Dare I call this past weekend life-changing? I understood Ashtanga in a way that I had not understood it before, even in 15 years of on-and-off practicing. Something just CLICKED. Things CHANGED. I hadn’t been very kind to myself in the past two years and when I got home on Sunday, I viewed myself in a totally different light. Bad habits that had become a part of my life over the past two years just went away.

I came home and just started reading a couple of great Ashtanga books (The Power of Ashtanga Yoga and Yoga Mala). I had already booked a weekend workshop at Ashtanga Minneapolis in July and now I’m about to book another workshop. I’m motivated and obsessed about this practice in a way that I had never been before.

After 15 years, I feel ready to devote myself to this practice rather than simply dabbling, which is what I had been doing.

As Kino MacGregor says in The Power of Ashtanga Yoga, “…only after many years of practice have I begun to realize just how powerful the practice really is.”

The 13-year process of writing my memoir and getting it published taught me a lot about patience and also the idea that things take the time they’re going to take. My book came out in 2013 rather than 2010 or 2005 for a reason. I don’t really know the reason, but I trust that there was a reason. The universe wanted me to practice Ashtanga for 15 years before I did anything more with it. That’s an encapsulation of life in general, isn’t it? We have a timetable, but the universe has its own timetable.

200-hour teacher training done! Now on to the next thing…

TeacherTraining 2018
The lovely women affiliated with yoga teacher training at SunMoon Yoga Studios. I will miss them! 

I finished my 200-hour RYT (registered yoga teacher) training! Starting last September, I devoted one weekend a month for eight months to this training. This was something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and 2017 was finally the right time to do it. I was nearly finished with a Ph.D. program, I was settling into my job, and I thought I could clear my schedule enough to fit in the weekend training at SunMoon Yoga Studios.

Obviously I have learned things that will help me with teaching yoga — things like sequencing, how to modify poses, learning about fascia and connective tissue, setting up a welcoming environment for class, different styles of yoga, etc.

But what I didn’t expect going into this was how much I would learn about myself. This was absolutely a self-development program. You can’t teach yoga as a purely physical act (well, I suppose you could, but that’s not the intent). So if yoga requires attention to thought and emotion and inner harmony in order to achieve a rewarding physical practice, a yoga teacher will have to be attuned to that in his/her own life before teaching.

Yoga is an eight-limbed path (“ashtanga”). The physical practice, asana, is just one of the eight limbs. The first two are yama and niyama — things to avoid in your life and things to embrace. Avoid violence, untruth, and greediness. Embrace purity, contentment, and self-discipline. Only then can you begin to work on the physical practice.

My other major takeaways from training:

* Keep an open mind. In September, I was all like, “I love Ashtanga! I only want to practice and teach Ashtanga! Ashtanga is the best! I dislike other styles of yoga!” But had I ever tried other styles of yoga? In small doses here and there, but I had no experience with yin, Bikram, restorative, etc. And what did I discover? I like those styles, too! Will I become a devotee of those styles? Probably not, because I still feel called toward Ashtanga. But I had the exposure to different styles and learned to appreciate them for what they are and how they serve the body and mind.

* “Let the sweat drip.” Wow, this was a mind-changer. I think of this all the time now. When I regularly practiced Ashtanga, I wanted to be cool. I thought if I got warm that I would feel sick or pass out. But heat and sweat are a necessary component of the detoxifying process and I was trying to avoid that because I wasn’t “comfortable.” Well, is life always comfortable? Those uncomfortable moments are the ones we need to get us to where we’re going.

* I now see yoga as a holistic practice. Up until teacher training, it was purely a physical practice for me. That served me well for what I was using it for. I basically used it as cross-training for my other activities like cycling and running. Yoga kept me flexible and for the most part injury-free. But this is like using a car only because it has a nice stereo system. You’re ignoring all the other things the car can do, especially the major things, like getting you from Point A to Point B. The other seven limbs besides asana have opened new possibilities for me.

I highly recommend a yoga teacher training program even if you’re not planning to become a teacher. Several women in my group do not have plans to teach. And even if think you want to teach someday, begin the training knowing that is only going to be a small aspect of what you learn.

I’m excited to continue this journey of yoga education. I have a couple of things planned for the summer that I’m excited about!

The seeds for my practice were planted long ago

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Photo Credit: CIMMYT Flickr via Compfight cc

Have you ever been drawn to something in your life, only to see it blossom many years later?

Do you wonder what was the purpose behind those seeds being planted?

I checked out classes at SunMoon Yoga Studios in Mankato almost immediately when Mona opened it in 2001.

I had never done yoga before.

I didn’t really know what yoga was.

I was just curious.

So I went to a few classes. Classes had titles with names that were new to me — hatha, vinyasa. I quickly discovered that I enjoyed more of a flow practice. I was a runner and used to motion. At the time I didn’t understand the benefits of slow movement and paying close attention to breath. I will admit, I was “bored” in those slower classes at the time. (Oh, how things have changed thanks to teacher training!).

Around 2002, Mona offered an Ashtanga class. Almost immediately I thought, “this is the class for me.” Ashtanga offered me a major challenge physically. For the first few classes, I was wiped out after the sun salutations. Keep in mind, this is only about 10 minutes into a 90-minute practice! I couldn’t complete all the chaturangas in the sun salutations and was modifying on my knees.

But here’s what kept me coming back: I started to see my strength improve.

Ashtanga is a style of yoga with a set sequence that never changes. One of the things I loved about it right away was how I could see improvement. Week to week, I found myself being able to do more. Soon, I could do all the chaturangas in the sun salutations. Then, all the chaturangas in the standing poses. Then, most of them in the seated poses.

Over the years, my consistency with practicing Ashtanga has waxed and waned. But there was a brief moment of time when I could complete all the chaturangas in the entire series.

And a pose like headstand? For 15 years I had to opt for dolphin pose. Then, one day, I decided to try to get my knees up, and they floated right up. Today I am really, really close to completing a full headstand.

I have much more to say about my Ashtanga journey. Right now it’s poised to go in new directions, and I’m ready to make a serious commitment to study of the practice. In June, I will be completing my 200-RYT training and from there, I want to begin a self-directed study of Ashtanga. I’m starting with a weekend workshop in July at Ashtanga Minneapolis with Angela Jamison.

When I’m on the cusp of something new, I often look to my past to see if there have been signs there all along. I use the past to guide my decisions. I’m convinced my body and spirit knew this in 2002. It led me to Mona’s studio and then to the Ashtanga class.

Can you think of a similar circumstance in your life, when you learned something new but didn’t realize it’s impact until months or years later?

Let the sweat drip

Let the sweat drip

I’m a few minutes into a Bikram-style hot yoga class. I can feel the sweat start to bead on my forehead. We come into mountain pose and I reflexively reach my hand to my forehead and wipe away the sweat.

Almost immediately, Mary, the instructor, says, “Let the sweat drip.”

She went on: “Don’t wipe your forehead. Don’t adjust your clothes. Just be in the moment. If you want to wipe away sweat, ask yourself if that’s a want or a need.”

In a yoga class I’m continually adjusting my clothes and my body — pulling down a tank top that’s ridden up, moving back into place a strap that fell down my shoulder, sweeping hair off my forehead. If I feel warm, my instinct is to get the sweat off my face. Mary made me think about why I’m doing that. Am I concerned with how I look? Am I uncomfortable? Is it really necessary to be comfortable in a yoga class? In life?

It was hard for me to let the sweat drip. I’m not used to that. It’s not part of my routine. It’s a new way of thinking.

But as class went on, I saw it as a way to relinquish control. Here’s something that was happening in my body that was entirely natural. Sure, it feels a little uncomfortable, both physically and mentally. In our society, a perfectly polished, made-up face is valued more than a sweaty face.

But by the end of class, what had happened? I saw how the sweat was necessary for my body. In God’s glorious wisdom, he gave our bodies ways to regulate our temperature and keep us safe. And when I looked in the mirror and saw the sheen on my face, I felt radiant. I felt healthy and confident, more so than I had for several weeks.

“Let the sweat drip.” How applicable to many parts of my life, inside and outside of the yoga studio.

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Immense gratitude and a heart full of thanks to Mary Margaret Anderson Fay who led the hot class during a yoga teacher training weekend at Sun Moon Yoga Studios. Mary owns Yoga Studio in Plymouth, Minnesota.

The value of yoga props

Sometimes I get strange looks when I hand students blocks at the beginning of class. Perhaps they haven’t used props before, or perhaps they were in a class where the attitude was, “If you can’t achieve the ‘perfect’ pose, here’s a block for those of you who can’t do it.”

I admit that for a long time I only used blocks when I couldn’t achieve “perfection.” If I couldn’t reach the floor with my hand during triangle pose and used a block, I felt that I had failed. This was a judgment entirely on my part; no one made me feel that way and no teacher had ever suggested that to me.

But this year, the more I learn about yoga in teacher training, the more I see the benefits of props. A few months ago we did a yin yoga session which is all about using props to support the body so you can achieve a more restful and comfortable pose.

Now, I like using props all the time. I CAN reach the floor in triangle or side angle, but I feel like I can get a deeper stretch and more benefits if I use the blocks.

And I’m a huge fan of the strap. I love the feel of that deep hamstring and hip stretch when the strap supports the leg.

How about you? Do you use props regularly in your practice? If you teach, do you guide students in using props?