There are endings in life that come with parties, leaving-dos and good-bye toasts and roasts. Then there are those endings that slip through the cracks of life unnoticed, unmentioned, uncelebrated.
There was a last time you pushed one of your kids or nieces or godchildren in a swing. When was that? Or took your pre-teen nephews down to the park to play frisbee? What was the very last book you read to your kids before bed? The last lullaby your mom sung to you? The last time you put a cartoon-charactered band-aid on a booboo? What ended your teenage friendships? Is it in the nature of dis-solutions that our memories fail us? Dissolving in a miasma of mixed emotions and mental pre-occupations, it's easy to lose the contours of a moment. What about your adult relationships? Some people fade in forcing others to just...fade. Fade: to gradually grow faint and disappear; the process of becoming less bright. The process of disappearing down the pinprick of a drain or through those old-fashioned analogue TVs that you shut off with a thud.
What was the last meal your grandmother prepared for you? What was the last thing a parent told you? What was the last thing you bought from that Greek grocer at the Continental provisions store before you moved neighborhoods? I remember the last movie I saw with my father (that fab pic on Edith Piaf starring Marion Cotillard). I cried and cried, because Edith's music is swollen with love and loss, just like her life. I wasn't in tears knowing this would be the last movie of a lifetime of movie-watching with my dad. There was no special announcement or champagne flutes raised like "Hey, this is our last movie together - Forever!"
I mentioned parks because they were the fabric of my life when I lived in London with my babies. London was an idyllic place to have babies. I say 'was' because things have changed there so much, and not for the better. But in the 2000s, it felt like the last vestiges of Edwardian Mary-Poppinsesque child-rearing: nannies and Regent Park, red double-deckers that you could hop on and off, the zoo, neighborhood walled gardens only a few could access through secret paths, loads of children's activities, and the beauty of socialist-city governments: a plethora of collectivized mom-and-baby groups to join for tea and sympathy. Embedded in London was a deep recognition of the need for mother and baby to bond with others. But when was the last time I saw those women who were so integral during those early childhood years? I went to Antrim Gardens nearly every afternoon, me and dozens of other Belsize Park moms, filling the dead-zone between post-nap and supper. Again, they were an essential part of my life, and yet? The last time I was there did I blow a tasseled trumpet and yell: "Hear ye, hear ye! Stephania, mother of Michael and Nicholas, is moving across the heath to West Hampstead. She shall not be seeing you lovelies ever again." No. Just one day I stopped going. Unmentioned. Uncelebrated. Gone.
This is where melancholia envelops us, knowing the sweetest moments of our life will end and perhaps we won't even notice. There won't be good-byes or bells-and-whistles to some endings that we know will just gone like the wind. Summer can feel like this. Summer is like being on Bittersweet Lane. On our annual Great Family Trek up to Michigan my sister wasn't just melancholic, but in a full-blown depression almost the entire time, the bitter overcoming the sweet. It would be over. We would be gone. This was so perfect, but it wouldn't last. The boys would be bigger next summer, there would be fewer games with them. This meal, this sunset, this time together laughing, this game of Pictionary, well, that would be the last in the sunshine near the lake this summer of 2019.
Many people go to the other extreme of my sister, barely noticing the above-mentioned examples and refusing to feel the melancholia of the bittersweet. Instead of sleep-walkers we are Think-Walkers. Our plotting, planning and calculating over-rides and is almost dismissive of these very delicate encounters and interactions. Instead of Bittersweet Lane, it is Revolutionary Road with our mind's non-stop comparisons, measurements, and survival tactics running roughshod, stirring discontent, unsatisfied, questing for more, distracting ourselves. The movies in our heads dominate instead of just looking out at precisely these encounters that offer so much in terms of energy and challenges, and point the way ever-so-beautifully to what we are meant to see and hear, and to our purpose on the path.
Partner poses are popular in kids' yoga. Kids of all ages love the choice of picking the pose and then picking a partner. Lizard-on-a-Rock, Rainbow Bridge and Dancing Goddesses are just a few of the almost endless combinations of poses to do in pairs.
As the kids get older, certainly in early teenage-hood, these poses come with lessons on what it means to be in a partnership: Equality, support, encouragement, and interacting with the other; becoming more attuned to the other, "reading" them so to speak and witnessing the interaction on many levels -- physically, emotionally, mentally and the Grand-Daddy of them all, energetically. Witnessing energetic interactions with the other, without judgment, as we follow the geometry of our incarnation on Earth is the cornerstone of my life and work.
The kids also learn about the beauty of resistance stretching techniques this way, too. If one pulls your arms, you must pull back to strengthen your body and maintain the integrity of the shape. Imagine a real-life metal bridge with only one side anchored down. The whole thing would collapse.
Adults like partnership poses, too. Remember our weight-lifting duo a few blogs back? But sometimes we're just too inhibited, ego-bound, convenience-bound, task-oriented and thinking we know everything to admit it, let alone do much about this most of the time in our fitness regimes. When I started teaching, I taught friends (Future Face, remember The Rooms Above?) and they were more like partners in those early days than students. We exchanged support and help in equal measure.
Much of my own work is done solo now, but the value of getting another perspective and set of perceptions as you embark on challenging situations cannot be overstated. Recently, I was forced into admitting this to myself. I had decided to participate in a Guinness Book of World Records' attempt at the most people doing a handstand in NYC's Summer Streets festival. I set the alarm for 4:00 AM and when I woke up in pitch-darkness, the threat of rain nowhere in sight (damn! as that would've been the greatest excuse to not get out of bed), I said out loud: "I wish I had a friend going with me." Because I knew if I had a friend or group to meet, I would've had no choice but to get up out of that bed - the decision would've been made. Instead I equivocated and debated in the dark, wrestling with the doubts in my head: this is stupid and cheesy, there probably won't be enough people, this is a waste of time. Blah blah.
I ended up going because I could not not go, and met a partner, a stranger, who also could not not participate in such a stunt. Monica "Buff Mango" and I met on our way to the Foley Square, and became official handstand buddies for the next few hours. It was like the universe answered my wish, not with a friend, but a partner. I definitely felt better, worked harder and had so much more fun and laughs than I had had I been alone.
Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote recently about the importance of partners in achieving our fitness goals and keeping us on the path to better health. Love him or hate him, there is no question the Terminator has devoted his life to the body.
"A healthier future is every tiny step we take, or every little rep that ultimately leads us to our goal," Schwarzenegger said. "We all think we can do it alone, but no one does anything alone. As I always say, no one is self-made. We all need support - even the Terminator.
"I'm simply asking you to...inspire someone you care about to join you. It's a simple resolution and it's not as sexy as having a six-pack, but it's the key to fulfilling the unfulfilled promise of our fitness crusade and repairing this broken industry. Don't chase the next big thing. Be better. Today. If you and your training partner walked 5,000 steps yesterday, walk 5,001 today. If you did a pushup for the first time today, do two tomorrow."
Downard-facing triangle has to be one of the most popular poses of the social media age. Otherwise known as Down Dog, it's a core part of many styles of yoga and is treated almost as a 'resting' pause in more vigorous vinyasa sequences.
In Move Within Yoga, all our poses are 'resting' to some extent. By adopting poses for a period of time, blockages in our physical body are released. By observing the free flow of breath and actively guiding our body into further openness, we also release congestion in our prana, or etheric body - the invisible sheath around our physical being that belongs to nature and is interwoven with our thoughts. Prana literally means life-energy.
Downward triangle looks like a triangle and, just like any other triangle pose, is a representation of the three planes of human existence: our body, our soul and spirit. On a more physical level, all triangle poses consist of the Big Three: light head and neck, stable legs and hips, and an active dynamic middle or solar plexus chakra. The mid-area corresponds to the apex of our triangle. The more we guide the middle, the more perception we develop about this chakra. The more we can gather attention to the solar plexus, the more force is concentrated here and the more dynamic the pose becomes.
To get more of an expansion out of this rather closed-in-on-itself pose, slowly lift one leg up until it meets natural resistance. Don't push the leg up higher than it's naturally able to move. Instead, continue to build focus in the solar plex, straighten the standing leg and then test the raised leg. I say test because it's a checking in with the raised leg: has the body softened and opened to allow a further gradual guiding up? Usually, the student finds it can indeed raise the leg a little higher without force or strain. Return back to the solar plexus and again test the leg. No matter how high you manage to raise the leg, observe the expansionary quality of the solar plexus and the triangle pose.
What gets overlooked in the practice of yoga is developing rhythm in our practice. In dance, rhythm is essential and built-into the movement, the musical beats informing the patterns with our bodies. In yoga, the rhythm is subtler. When practicing in silence, as I often do in classes and in my own practice, it's incumbent upon the individual to develop a rhythm in its patterns of movement, as well as sequence of poses and the relationship between spirit and the body's more vital energies.
Musical rhythms are based on patterns between sounds and silences, notes and pauses, allegros and adagios. In yoga, we can move to music to help get into the groove. Music is fun to move to for this reason - we can let the rhythm carry us away. There is no question music aids practice on those days when we're overtired or weary. But without music, we're forced to 'move within'. We're forced to go within one's being, beneath the skin, and it's discipline that spills into every aspect of life. To develop rhythm in yoga means going within, observing the natural rhythms and patterns between our thoughts and feelings, our feelings and willpower, our willpower and thoughts.
The larger rhythm of our daily practice is also cultivated from within, listening to our body's calls and needs and noticing our mental demands and pressures. Sometimes the body and mind are truly aligned, sometimes there is a tug-of-war, but observing what goes on within determines a frequency to our movement -- a frequency and tempo between stillness and exercise we can actively cultivate. What also arises in a rhythm in working on asanas that we struggle with and need a bit of tender loving care and those that we already have accomplished.
The dove or kapotasana represents rhythm, a rhythm between upper body and pelvis and legs, and a rhythm between the "holy dimension of the spirit" with the world of visible creation. Physically entering into the final pose, which I'm trying to do here, is alternatively working with the hips and legs and the upper body, the upper body and the pelvis. Once the tension in the legs start to dissolve, I shift to the spine. Once the spine elongates, I shift attention back to the lower half of the body and so on. The rhythm itself softens the body like sand.
When you're feeling low, or feeling old, or thinking it's just too late to start moving or exercising, you need to have weight-lifting duo John and Johnnie in mind.
The brothers-in-law were winners in their respective age brackets at the 2019 Pan-American Masters weight-lifting Championship held earlier in the summer in Orlando, Florida. Both are over the age of 60, with John aged 72 and a medical history that includes open-heart quadruple-bypass surgery, hernia repair and a knee replacement.
They were recent front-page feature items in a local weekly Michiana newspaper, "The Beacher" and in another coincidence, echoed what I had been thinking about for weeks, if not months: that you're never too old to move, the importance in having a fitness buddy and the importance in continuing some form of movement as you age, because if you have a hard time walking ten miles at 50, you'll have a tougher time aged 70. If you have a hard time finding a half an hour in an average day to move at age 40, how will you even be able when you're older?
"At our age, you really do have workouts that are just not good, but you need those, too, to sustain your strength," Johnnie said. "At our age, if we skip two weeks, it would really set you back."
“You’ve got to be willing to work out on the bad nights. At our age, there are bad nights, but you do the best you can so you sustain what you built up. Some-times, we push each other through a bad workout to keep things going," he said. "There are nights, you go down there and you say, ‘Oh, I feel terrible,’ and you do an OK workout.
"And even though we know we will be able to lift less next year, we train like we’re going to lift more.”
The full story of duo Johnnie Hudson and John Seppyes (by Andrew Tallackson in The Beacher):
As a kid, I loved "Ripley's Believe It or Not" and was fascinated by the Guinness Book of World Records, but never thought I'd participate in any of these contests and challenges. It was never an aspiration. I've never even played on a sports team, ever. I've never even participated in the most basic of competitions and contests: those "challenges" on social media. The idea of starting a seven-day challenge on say doing the Scorpion might sound cool on the first day but by the third it's likely I've lost all motivation with Life tugging my attention onto other poses, interests and quite honestly demands. Life dangles its carrots or sticks, and gets in the way of the best-laid plans of this particular mouse.
But here I was on an early Saturday morning heading into NYC to participate in the Guinness Book of World Records official attempt at the "Most People Doing a Handstand". Life held out this big, fat, juicy colorful carrot and off I was to Foley Square, and the experience was positively positive, hilarious and I couldn't stop smiling and laughing. The contrast of the physical, cardiovascular and muscular demands - extremely high - with the stunt-like, attention-grabbing nature of butts in the air along Lafayette Street struck me funny and made me happy.
The questions during the event by my follow participants and that followed were interesting. How many people are here? Will we get the much-coveted 400 people to beat the old record? How many were there? Did we succeed? Did you succeed? How long did I personally stand on my hands? How long did everyone else stand on their hands? Did we all need to hold the handstand at the exact same time? When will we find out?
It's so interesting to observe the human mind at work, constantly measuring and weighing, looking for the weak link or chink. And of course that's exactly what the Guinness Book of Records people will be doing when they replay the video of the several hundred of us out there, jumping up to catch a pocket of air, and even fewer of us being able to hold that advanced pose.
But whether we succeeded seems beside the point. People who couldn't stand on their hands were there, people of all ages and abilities turned out, people were willing to take a chance, try and participate in this group endeavor. I was next to a woman who could barely get a leg up and I almost fell on top of her during one attempt of mine, legs akimbo and giggling through promises not to hurt her. In return I asked if she needed a "leg up" so to speak and held her legs while she experienced being upside down for a few seconds. As she tumbled out of it, she had the biggest smile on her face.
I have a hunch we didn't succeed in our quest, but I learned something about this pose: you cannot help but be happy getting on those hands. The best experiences don't often match our Earthly gauges of success.
Our society is in the habit of all-or-nothing. We "binge-watch", devouring season after season of episodes of our favorite show. We're either on "intermittent fasts" or feasting. We're workaholics during the week, sitting for hours on end and then recover - by sitting even more! Or some turn into weekend warriors, running for miles on end after biking in their favorite charity race and training for their summer hike up Kilimanjaro. But our all-or-nothing habits are not helping us at all when it comes to fitness and health. In our '20s, with youth on our side and few life demands, daily workouts of sweat and ache were the "all" that has been followed by the "nothing" of middle-latter years when for many there is no time, or "energy", for trips to gyms, let alone the motivation to do much once there.
All-or-nothing is the binary of our Fitness Industrial Complex, or the FIC; the duality for the muscle-heads running these corporate cost-centers. This isn't the first time I've written about the FIC, but now I see signs its all-or-nothing approach is infecting the well-being and mindfulness movement. The rules grow daily in the hot-house of social media, a never-ending litany of rituals that block the very thing it's meant to cultivate: awareness, calmness, flow. Do we drink our celery juice before or after meditating? As one former colleague said: "By the time I've practiced my mindfulness-on-tape, exercised, done a few yoga stretches, showered, shaved, dressed and had my coffee, it's nearly 10 in the morning - and that's a morning after the luck of having a good night's sleep." The quest for balance can become an obsession and compulsion, leading to imbalance. You can't task your way to inner peace, or health.
Is there a place and space for those maturing adults who want to stay active, but who don't have "success" or "recognition" - what I call the "applause factor" - as their motives? There's nothing wrong with success or looking good, but both motives merely feed the all-or-nothing approach of training for that triathlon, working on that six-pack or getting ready for bikini season. Instead, I meet many who are so sincere about losing weight, recovering from illness, injury or surgery, or who desire to simply feel better in their bodies. They really don't care if they can stand on their heads, bench 500 lbs or walk the length of the Appalachian Trail. There's nothing wrong with these goals, but I'm trying to stress that the majority of folk out there have much more modest aims and needs than the FIC wants to cater to. These are people who just want their health back. They want to have fun with the activities they love. They want to have fun with the people they love. They want the grace and mobility of their younger years. They want to push a trolley of groceries around without lower back pain. It's so heart-breaking that they then do nothing because they can't commit to what they've been conditioned to believe by the FIC: that massive amounts of time, money and sweat are requirements for health and happiness.
I don't agree. Movement is a luxury that has no time or place. Movement is freedom. You can move any time of the day or night. You can do isometrics and breathing exercises in economy seats. You can do resistance stretching on planes, trains or automobiles. You can turn up the music in your house and dance like it's nobody's business - and it's not. You can decide to stretch your arms up and down just because you feel like it. I'm a believer, practitioner and advocate of small incremental movement woven through the day, everyday, in any damn place you feel like. Ten minutes here, five minutes there, another ten minutes in the garden by the hydrangeas and by the end of the day, you've exercised a half an hour.
Do what you love and what's fun for YOU. Do what makes you feel better after you've done it. If you're feeling rusty and haven't moved much, than the best thing you can do is begin with a few minutes anyway and gradually increase your time. Throw out any rules you're harboring on what you need to do first or what you need to wear or eat before you can do an activity. You can't believe the rules I hear before people come to my class: I want to lose a few pounds first, my feet are so ugly and I need a pedicure, I want to fast first, I want to wait until the next blue moon and when Mercury isn't in retrograde. I used to think these were lame excuses until I saw my own made-up rules for engaging in the most ordinary of activities. Put down the rules and just move. You'll make your own fitness path by walking it.
"It is not the body that should dominate, not the energy of the body that should be the measure of success, but rather it is individuals who should also give meaning to an exercise through the agile activity of their thoughts, perceptions and consciousness." - Heinz Grill.
It's not just the vital, unconscious forces of the body that gets the body to move. In Move Within Yoga, we experience other forces and tap into the energy body (not purely the physical body) to move and lengthen into poses, and into life itself. It's not something our logical brains can understand or will understand no matter how much you study; you have to go into the poses or the experience for yourself.
I appreciate learning about the body, and it's inspiring to hear about discoveries and developments in physical health that have evolved the study beyond 1950s' anatomical books and diagrams.
However, even with the latest upgrades into body awareness, we're still very much bound - at least in the industrial West - to a materialistic view and relationship with the body. Yes, it's working with matter, but as long as we're breathing, spirit infuses this matter in mysterious ways.
Flowers are a great inspiration. They are an integral part of our natural world and have the vital power and energy to form themselves in unity, harmony, strength, dynamism and coordination. Some flowers have more of these qualities than others. Part of my yoga studies was observing these very qualities in different plants and plant life.
The peony is the crown prince of flowers for harmony, strength and coordination. They are outrageous in their beauty, which they fully and joyfully give in an extremely short bloom season. Flowers have no regard for time or for gain. Peonies give and give, with those blossoming heads that smell fragrant and look luscious whether in buds or with petals wide open. They hold nothing back in their blooming cycle. Peak bloom happens in the northern hemisphere between late May and the first week of June - they were the flower of choice back in 1868 when the first US Memorial Day holiday was honored on May 30th. Sometimes a heavy rain is enough to trim peak bloom season to just a few days. They not only symbolize how fleeting and short our lives are, but how temporal the sweet spots are in those lives.
I had the privilege and luck of catching acres and acres of peonies in peak bloom at the display gardens of Peony's Envy in Bernardsville, NJ. There are 700 varieties and cultivars here. It's a mecca for peony lovers. You've never seen pastel colors look so dramatic and glorious than in rows and rows, bunches and clusters of peonies in borders, beds, under woodland, or tumbled together in a bouquet. Cut peonies are the bouquet-equivalent of jumping out of bed and looking stylish and put together without effort.
This year's peak bloom has now passed. It's over for another year. Many bloomingheads are now brown and shriveled. While there are a few cultivars blooming, Peony's Envy makes clear that the party is over; there's not much left to clip in its cutting fields. It's so contrary to any other business or organization in its brutality, but so typical of the peony and nature. Once it's over, it's over. No clinging, no attachment, no pretending, no denial, no striving or pushing the truth. no fake flowers here. But while the flowers are now gone, their bushy green foliage will remain all summer and then there's autumn - the best time to plant them, according to "The Old Farmer's Almanac."
Yoga in Blue Jeans
"To communicate is to connect, yoga in its truest sense."