Sunday, March 27, 2011

My Baba & the Lineage of our Teachers


In Ashtanga yoga, we say a Sanskrit chant before each class to pay respect to the lineage of yoga teachers dating back to Patanjali, the 'divine descendant', who, as legend has it, wrote the Yoga Sutras. 

My take on this tradition is that since yoga teachers have many forms and anyone who has touched our heart is a yoga teacher, the chant honors all the people who have guided us and contributed to our lives. In the prayer, we recognize the wisdom of our teachers, but we also recognize that the wisdom of our teachers comes from their teachers, so we also honor our teachers' teachers'  and teachers teachers' teachers'... And with this humbling intention, we begin our practice.

It's in these tender moments that I always acknowledge my maternal grandmother, who in many ways influenced my path as a yoga teacher. She died ten years ago this weekend. She wasn't a yoga instructor per se, and as far as I know, she never practiced asana, but my grandmother was a guru, my guru. We called her "Baba" or "Babs." This was easier for us three grand-kids to say than 'Babcia', the Polish word for grandmother. (Ironically, "Baba" is also an honorific term used in Hindi and mark of respect to refer to Sufi saints.)  Nevertheless, my Baba's real name was Krystyna. 

My mom and grandmother Baba
To mark this significant anniversary of my Baba's passing, we are currently hosting an art retrospective of more than 60 of her paintings, graphics, and weavings at my yoga studio. It's was my mom's idea to transform Om West into a gallery, and the exhibit is incredible. Her talent is remarkable, and I am proud and honored to be able to present my grandmother's work to our community of yogis and friends.

Born in Białystok, Poland on August 21, 1919, my grandmother was fiercely courageous, strong willed and direct.  She and my grandfather (who passed away in 1974) immigrated to Canada shortly after World War II and settled in Sherbrooke, two hours south east of Montreal, where they raised my mother and her two siblings. Baba loved her garden, her art, her cat, her family and coveted her independence and freedom.

My grandmother taught me about nature, energy, creativity, intuition, and spirituality. Curiously, Baba was a clairvoyant. Although she would rarely talk about it, she did say that strong intuition was  a  gift that many of the women in her family shared.  Deeply spiritual, Baba was devoted to the teachings of Jesus. However, in later years, Baba was also interested in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, and became a follower of Sathya Sai Baba, an Indian guru. As a kid, she exposed me to various meditation temples and ashrams, which was the ideal preparation for me as a teacher of yoga and meditation.

Thinking of Baba now and observing her powerful artwork on the walls of my studio,  I'm overcome with emotion, which is hard for me to express. I wish I had asked her more questions when she was alive, but I am making up for it now. I talk to her in thought and prayer and I occasionally feel as though she is really close to me particularly when I'm sitting alone about practice, and oddly, when I taste dill, because she used to put it on everything.  

As mentioned, at beginning of the Ashtanga chant, I usually invoke her memory, and sometimes I get so caught up in thoughts about her, I actually forget the words to the Sanskrit  ashtanga chant! Thankfully, my students understand that I'm a bit quirky when it comes to the order of things and discerning my rights and lefts, so someone is always quick to fill my long awkward pause.

Me posing with Baba's abstract work from the 60s & 70s
My brother Stefan, my mother Marta and cousin Kalil
My cousin and I keep checking who owns what so we know
who we have to negotiate with to acquire the pieces we want.
Studio 2 features Baba's landscapes, which she switched to in the early 80s.
Baba's landscapes from the 80s & 90s

A portrait of my grandmother with a letter from Quebec Premier Jean Charest,
expressing his condolences upon Baba's death.

Kocham cie, Babs.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Day 27: alignment vs flow

Today marks the midpoint of my 54 day moon salutation project. It's definitely a lot more relaxed than last year's 108 sun salutations for 108 days. Obviously, this 54 lunar flow practice is a lot shorter than the 108 surya namaskar practice and the fact that I'm not blogging everyday about the practice makes the whole thing seem a lot less intense. I'm certainly not analyzing the process as much. Well, at least not outwardly.

But this practice still has it's challenges. It can be very difficult to find motivation to roll out the mat and do a personal practice, especially after teaching and demonstrating asana all day. However, that is honestly the best time for me to practice. Often when I'm tired, sore and don't feel like practicing, I end up surrendering my calculating mind to the flow of postures and let postures unfold organically. I stop trying to do things "properly" and I just let go. Sure, my alignment gets a little sloppy, but I've decided that too much alignment blah, blah can be tedious and sometimes even counterproductive.  Western yogis (myself included) have become super alignment obsessed, and although I agree, it's important to make sure the joints are in the right place to avoid injury, I also believe that if we focus too much on that stuff, we can missed the point of the practice. We can over think the pose and under experience the moment.

This weekend, I taught a 16 hour workshop called "Essentials of Modern Ashtanga Yoga." The course was about how to adapt the traditional ashtanga primary and second series to modern urban lifestyles. Now, I'm an ashtangi by yogic birth-- my first teacher at age 14 was the then very strict Mark Darby, the first officially certified ashtanga teacher in Canada-- but I've since dabbled in various other yoga styles and even did a teacher training with a senior Iyengar instructor. So suffice it to say, I feel fairly confident in my alignment techniques and I usually inflict these principles on unsuspecting type-A, ashtanga students, who often prefer to plow through the sequence then listen to instructions about sustainable postures and foundational stability.

Nevertheless, I had an 'ah ha' moment this weekend. I elected to play Sharath's led primary series on CD for the students to practice. (Sharath is the grandson of Asthanga guru Pattabhi Jois.) Sharath's teaching pace is much faster than mine because he offers no instructional details. He just says the name of the pose and then counts the breaths. There are no alignment cues whatsoever. Normally, this would concern me, but I was right there to adjust when needed and I knew it was important to give the students the chance to just move with the postures and breath. Although their postures weren't super calibrated, the energy in the practice room was a bit different. It was concentrated, excited and simultaneously, peaceful and quiet.

Is that not what we ultimately search for?

Perhaps alignment techniques are those things that train us to focus at first. They help us learn about ourselves, but after a while, it's time to let go of all that instruction (inward and outward) and allow the yoga to happen to us, one beautifully messy posture at a time.

After all, yoga isn't all about making perfectly aligned asanas of ourselves. There are seven other equally important branches of the eight-limbed Ashtanga yoga tree. (More on that later.) Above is an artwork by Bruce Chase-Dunn, my teacher trainee, of the eight limbs of the ashtanga (meaning 'eight limbs') yoga system. Note that there is no hierarchy to the limbs. Everything can be experienced all at the same time.

Here's a link to an interesting interview with Sharath: Click here

I like what Sharath said when asked what consititutes a good yoga student:
"Students who understand yoga, that is very important. Their body might be very flexible, they can perform all the asanas but they are not able to understand what is yoga. The student who understands what it is, who understands what is parampara, the lineage, that is very important. Lineage, and who are able to understand what is yamas and niyamas and try to perform them in their daily life - I think that is a good student. Many people they don’t understand what is yama, niyama, ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, aparigraha. Not all yoga practitioners, asana practitioners I should say, are able to perform these or to understand what these are."

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Relationships & yoga

Photo by C. Bannerman
"Oh Yeah, I blog," is the sentiment my boyfriend Craig expressed on his blog after being away for awhile. I can relate.

Sometimes I make blogging into this big thing in my mind, so I just don't always get to it. I think it needs several hours of thoughtful expression neatly laid out on a page in order to be published, and often, surprise surprise, I don't have time. It's that "what am I going to write about?" issue that leaves me somewhat paralyzed at times.

In other excuses for not writing in over a week, I'm 23 days into my new 54 days of 54 moon salutations and I'm in the thick of a new wave of inner transformation. All these questions about my direction and personal happiness have all but totally engulfed me. Poor Craig. I suspect, or rather I know, he is getting the brunt of my mental meanderings: "I need space. Now, please hug me. Now, go away and let me work..." I can't be an easy person to live with right now. Luckily, I'm with probably the most patient man on earth. He just adapts. He ebbs when I flow, and flows when I ebb. It's this little dance we do in order to accommodate the creative minds of one another, but more recently, it's the little dance he does in order to accommodate my creative mind. We definitely need our own place to work, but we also need to be fairly close, because we need to bounce ideas off each other as we create. I ask to read stuff aloud to him all the time and he asks my opinion about the images his working on, although lately, my sharp critiques about the political views he reflects in his photography have been uninvited.

Recognizing each others expertise, we do ok when we work together. I do words and he does photos. Sometimes our sureness over the end result conflicts, but generally, this gets sorted fairly quickly once we each produce our necessary components and we take a moment to be objective about the project.  

Speaking of joint ventures, we are now working on a collection of images from the 1008 asanas I practiced during the Guinness marathon in August.  Here's a sample. (Craig really is a master of lighting, and my six week gaffer course I took in film school really should stay out of his way.)

Photo by C. Bannerman

And in other news, the Montreal Gazette interviewed me for an article about men and yoga. It was published last Thursday. Check it out, and note the gentleman on the right, my Craig...

Photo by Peter McCabe, The Gazette

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Surprise Party

Let me tell you about some fabulous people I know: My mom, Marta and my dad, Gord.

They are turning 60-years-old this week. Yes, both of them. They were born a day apart on March 8th and 9th respectively.  They are the most youthful 60-year-olds I have ever seen. Active, energetic and still visibly in love even after spending 30+ years together, my parents are something else.

Last night, their ski friends threw them a surprise party, but not just any surprise party. It was themed, because their parties are always themed and a Jay Peak party is not a party without a theme, I was told when I asked why I must were "gym/sports attire" to the chalet. You see, my parents are recently retired physical education teachers and belong to a wild and vivacious group of close knit friends that weekend in Vermont, tearing up the slopes of Jay Peak ski resort. Most have cottages in an area called Alpine Haven, all walking distance from one another, which mean apres-ski festivities are always in close range and held regularly.

I'm a bit of an outsider. Yes, I can ski, but, having concluded that winter is just not my season at age 10, I am rarely seen at the cottage, much less the hill. The running joke among my parents' friends is that they have a talented freestyle skier for a son, who is always around, and make believe daughter, whom few have met. Of course, I do show my face down there from time to time, so the joke is getting a little old. Anyway, this surprise party was an important event and there was no way I was going to miss it. 

Craig and I picked out some great costumes-- Craig, a competitive swimmer and me, an eager aerobics instructor-- and as my brother drove, we worked on decorating the pinata he had carefully papier-mâchéd earlier that day. 

It was hands down the best party I've been to in long time.  To say my folks were surprised is an understatement. They were told they were being taken to a restaurant by the people they share a cottage with, but after cocktails at another friend's house, they returned home to "pick something up before dinner". We waited inside the doorway and then popped out screaming "surprise". Both mom and dad began crying almost immediately. It was very sweet.

The evening progressed nicely. Those people really know how to have a good time. The chalet was decorated with a basket ball hoop, streamers, countless balloons and a giant blow up snowman named "Buddy." (Apparently, a party isn't party without Buddy.) The "Alpine Haven Glee Club" performed several songs dedicated to my parents' aging and the pinata was a hit, litterally. There was tons of food and lots of dancing.  Mid-Lady Gaga, my dad turned to me and said, "I wanna dance like this at your 60th, ok?"
The party only ended because the organizer slipped outside and cracked her head open on the ice. Although clearly concussed, she'll be ok.

As mentioned in my last blog posting, I'm hardly a party animal, but I really did enjoy myself. It was  special to see how beloved and supported my parents are by such a great group of people. 

Despite the fun, I did manage to slip upstairs unnoticed and complete my 11th day of 54 moon salutations. Although this may seem a bit unsocial, no one seemed to mind and it was pretty cool for me to practice amongst all that lively energy.

Speaking of practice, it's near midnight, I am eager to roll out my mat, so good night, my friends.