Sunday, March 14, 2010

What's Your Vibe?

Please accept my apologies for the delay between postings.  This week was busier than usual, with a busy work week, subbing two yoga classes in addition to my regular two classes, and some (amazing!) yoga workshops.  Free Soul Yoga hosted a "Weekend with David Swenson," which included five separate workshops, and I was able to attend two of them.

David Swenson is one of the foremost experts on Ashtanga Yoga, which is one of the yoga styles that provide the foundation for power vinyasa yoga, the style I practice most.  I own Swenson's book, Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual, and I've been wowed by photos of him demonstrating incredible yoga poses.  Swenson began practicing in 1969, before yoga was well known or accepted in the West, and he studied under K. Pattabhi Jois (!).  To have Swenson in Denver leading a yoga workshop of this kind was an amazing gift - I'm so grateful to have had the opportunity to attend.

Swenson truly seems to live his yoga.  He is caring, humble, thoughtful, and, most of all, present.  He seemed genuinely to care about each person in the room as an individual, and this was clear both when he lectured and when he instructed a yoga practice.  I had planned to attend only the Friday night workshop, "Ashtanga: An Introduction," but I found myself registering for a second workshop within minutes of finishing the first!  And I'm very glad I attended that second session, which was called "The Physics of Flight and Flowing through Practice."

During the first session, Swenson discussed what he calls the "five elements of Ashtanga practice."  These elements are ujjayi breathing; Drishti; the bandhas; asanas; and vinyasa (he explained that "vinyasa" means that every movement has a prescribed breath attached to it).  He talked about each of these elements in some detail, illustrating difficult concepts with personal anecdotes and a sense of humor, and he encouraged us to keep these technical details in perspective. 

Perspective is necessary because, as Swenson explained, the real goal of yoga is "to increase prana in our bodies," and the real test for our yoga is, "What do you do with that energy the rest of the day?"  He said, "We are each pulsing energy all day long - what is your vibe?  Is it positive, or is it negative?" 

This is what yoga is really about.  Swenson added that lots of mean people can put their bodies into perfect yoga poses; yoga is not about a perfect pose or having a perfect body. 

He expanded on this point during the second workshop, explaining that alignment in yoga postures is about avoiding injury, and it doesn't actually matter what your body looks like in a yoga posture.  The big picture is about staying present and focused; how we look in our yoga poses or whether we can do a certain pose are both irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

This doesn't mean alignment has no place in a yoga class, and it doesn't mean we shouldn't strive to improve our yoga practice.  But, as Swenson explained, most of the time we "live on the plateau" with regard to our yoga practice.  Sometimes we progress and sometimes we feel like we've taken two steps back, but usually we just live on the plateau.  As a result, Swenson went on to say, yoga means making every effort you can towards something and then detaching from the outcome. 

I shared a lot of this with my beginner-level classes today, and I think it resonated with them.  I reminded them to let go of expectations on the yoga mat (which is a practice we can try to take off the mat as well).  Swenson reminded us that every day on the mat is different, and, when you first step onto your mat for the day, you really have no idea what you're going to get.  We shouldn't measure our yoga practice by how balanced or flexible or strong we are on a given day.

If you look at Swenson's Practice Manual, you'll see that he offers alternatives for many Ashtanga poses.  He seems to want yoga to be accessible to everyone, and providing modifications for the postures is a way to do this.  For many reasons, I'm grateful to him for this philosophy of inclusiveness, and, on a purely physical level, I was very grateful for some of those alternatives!  I'd only taken two Ashtanga classes before this weekend, and I was definitely a beginner.  That, too, was a great experience for me - it reminded me how my beginner students probably feel, which further deepened my compassion and respect for them.

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