What my salsa teacher wants my hips to do

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Salsa dress

My hips were not cooperating during my salsa lesson today. My instructor reminded me that my hips need to be set back from the center line — to a point where I feel like I am sticking my butt way out. I’ve spent so much time working with yoga instructors on finding a neutral space in my pelvic girdle that this adjustment feels tremendously exaggerated, awkward and basically awful.

But this is salsa, and it looks fantastic.

My boyfriend and I love salsa dancing. We had our first impromptu salsa lesson in, of all places, a winery in Traverse City. We paid a visit to the very cool Left Foot Charley tasting room (if you haven’t been, you should) on a night that happened to feature a great latin band. There were competitive dancers there who were moving so beautifully together. They clearly sensed that we were itching to move to that music too, but had no idea where to start. So they came over and pretty much forced us up and gave us our first “quick-quick-slow” lesson. I was wearing a pair of beat-up Vans that one of my sisters had given me, and my boyfriend was wearing hiking boots.

We figured if we could manage to dance that night while essentially wearing blocks on our feet — and enjoy it that much — we should get into this salsa thing.

Since then, we’ve been to a few salsa nights here and there, and we spent New Year’s Eve dancing at the Global Pachanga held at the JW Marriott in Grand Rapids. While we had a fantastic time doing our thing, it seemed everyone around us glided over that dance floor differently. That’s a lot of people who know what they’re doing, and they must have made the effort to learn somehow. So I made my commitment then and there that I would learn to move like that.

Making the transition from looking like you’re trying to salsa and looking like you’ve spent your whole life dancing this way starts, like so many things, with the hips.

“You know, it’s like if you’re running, you wouldn’t run like this,” my teacher said, pushing his pelvis forward and doing a mock run.

“I don’t run,” I interrupted. “But I see what you’re saying.”

“Ah, yes, I remember you told me that last time that you don’t run.” (I really don’t like running, and hope to never have to do it again for as long as I live.)

Yoga is only concerned with the body’s structure, and what’s going on with the alignment of bones and joints. Every now and then I need to tell my yoga students — especially students who are new to the mat — that they don’t need to look around to see how everyone else is doing it. That it doesn’t matter what they look like, because what matters is propriceptive awareness — gaining an understanding of how to set the body in space by feeling it.

How the body looks obviously matters in any type of dance. In salsa, when the hips slide back and that back leg straightens, you’ve won half the battle because you look the part. It goes against the grain for me to place my hips somewhere because it looks better that way, but it’s a fun challenge to switch gears that way.

My one and only resolution this year is to learn how to salsa — not how to move my feet, but how to get my body to mirror the exhilaration of what I already feel when there’s latin music playing and I’m on the dance floor.

And I learned today that with salsa, as with so many things, you won’t make progress until you start to become awareness of what your hips are doing with every movement.

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Not living life through the rearview mirror

An abandoned baseball

Armando Galarraga was traded today from the Detroit Tigers to the Arizona Diamondbacks. If you’re a baseball fan, I don’t need to include a boilerplate. But the journalist in me will provide one anyway: On June 2, 2010, Galarraga would have become the 21st pitcher in history to pitch a perfect game had it not been for an umpire’s lousy — and it was truly lousy — call.

I wrote a blog post about it at the time. I was angry. I still am — though more than anything else, my disgust is more directed toward Bud Selig refusing to overturn the call.

In a USA Today story, Galarraga is quoted as saying:

Everybody knows what happened. Sometimes, I want to be myself. I want it to be over. Nobody’s perfect. Let’s turn the page.

Even as he’s being traded, Galarraga is showing his yogic sensibilities.

Moving on — that’s a hard thing, and something that consistent yoga practice can help us achieve. It’s hard to forge ahead when you can’t take your eyes off the rearview mirror. Whether it’s a memory, a past relationship, or a regret, I’ve found that trying to brute force that process of letting go rarely ever works. And I know I’m not alone. Most of us have a tape that plays in our head — a tape that we wish we could turn off, or at the very least quiet down.

So how does coming to the mat day after day help us let go? In yoga, we use the body to get beyond the body, as I often say. During a yoga practice, we are seeking to open and expand — on the level of the body, the mind and the spirit. Linking breath to movement through yoga postures can, when the frequency is right, make us emotionally accessible enough to let something fall away. Or, if that thought or memory or feeling is lodged in pretty deep, the difficult work of a yoga practice can at least loosen that something.

B.K.S. Iyenger writes in his gorgeous book Light on Life:

Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutras, chose to make the workings of mind and consciousness, both in success and in failure, the central theme of yoga philosophy and practice. In fact, from the yogi’s point of view, practice and philosophy are inseparable. Patanjali’s first sutra says, ‘Now I’m going to present the disciplined code of ethical conduct, which is yoga.’ In other words, yoga is something you do. So what do you do? The second sutra tells us, ‘Yoga is the process of stilling the movements and fluctuations of the mind that disturb our consciousness.’ Everything we do in yoga is concerned with achieving this incredibly difficult task (p. 108).

“Incredibly difficult” — talk about an understatement. But that’s what it takes to start the long journey of separating from a memory or a script that we’ve written for ourselves.

Galarraga’s right once again to say that it’s time to move on and keep the focus on the road ahead, not the one left behind in the dust.

Good luck in Arizona, Armando. Thanks for being such a good sport.

(Photo credit: Marcus McCurdy)

What yogis can learn from the NFL

Geen Bay Packer fanIs it just me, or has there been hours and hours of football — college and pro — pretty much daily since Christmas? I don’t even live in an apartment inhabited by hardcore football fans, and still, somehow, football seems to always be on the TV.

From baseball to music concerts, I always manage to see analogies to yoga and symbolism fit for the yogic lifestyle. So, as the Packers and the Bears battle it out this afternoon, I’m wondering what parallels I can draw between the helmet-crunching world of football to the spine-lenghtening world of yoga.

I’ve thought all afternoon about this (OK, that is also hyperbole), and now that I’ve gotten out of the shower and am getting ready to go back to the yoga studio and teach my second class today, I’ve come to my conclusion.

What can yogis learn from the National Football League?

Not a damn thing.

To all you football fans out there, I’m happy that you’re happy (if you’re happy based on how your team’s done, that is). Enjoy the Super Bowl, and I’ll talk to you in February.

(Photo credit: GreenBayPackerNation.com)

Music for the people — via their yoga mats

Gaiam audio yoga mat

It's a mat. It's a speaker. Too bad it can't give you a massage too.

I was at Best Buy yesterday looking for a birthday present and walked past a short aisle full of yoga and Pilates equipment. A boxed mat by Gaiam caught my eye because it was billed as a audio mat.

What?

My first thought was that maybe this mat spoke to you every now and then. “Breathe.” “Send your shoulder blades away from your ears.” “Inhale, reach tall. Exhale, fold forward.”

I stepped closer to the box — not too close, though, because this whole talking yoga mat thing seemed a little creepy to me — and had reason for relief. Turned out this mat doesn’t actually talk to you, because that would be pretty creepy. What makes it an audio mat is that  you can connect an mp3 player to a little speaker that’s built in.

From Gaiam.com:

Find bliss at home or on the road with this first-of-its-kind Audio Yoga Mat. Designed with a small built-in speaker so you can work out or meditate while listening to your MP3 player or iPod® player. Or download our free instructional yoga program featuring world-renowned yoga expert Rodney Yee as he takes you through an at-home private yoga session. It is like having your own personal yoga instructor in the privacy of your home or when on the road.

What do you think?

My reactionary response to this mat was, “Seriously? Is this how commercialized yoga has become? Does anyone need a built-in speaker in their yoga mat?” But the practice of yoga is supposed us to teach us to be less reactionary, so that’s what this blog post is attempting to do. Am I missing something about the usefulness of this mat? Are there people whose practice would be helped by being able to pipe in music or an audio yoga class? I am open to hearing arguments in favor of this mat.

Seeing this mat made me think about the yoga of music or the music of yoga, depending on how you think about it. I’ll be the first to tell you that I love music. The sounds that come from a Radiohead song, for example, massage my brain and spirit in a way that nothing else in this world can (not even yoga).

Yoga and music is a murkier issue for me. I usually enjoy vinyasa (flow-style) yoga classes where music is played — even if it’s not necessarily music that I like. (I specifically say vinyasa classes because I’m more of a traditionalist when it comes to Ashtanga classes, and prefer to not have music.) I feel as if I get some energy from the beat and the passion coming through the speakers. When the music that’s played is music I like, the energy boost can be helpful to the practice. Music can turn a heavy class into a light-heartened one.

Yet as a teacher, I’ve opted to not use music in my classes. For one thing, I don’t want to assume that my music tastes would work for everyone. If I were to play music, it would probably be albums by artists like Krishna Das and Annie Pace because I’d want to avoid songs in English where a student’s attention might be taken away by the lyrics.

Basically, I am in the school of thought that the music and rhythm found in a yoga class comes from the breath of those who are practicing. And from the Sanskrit counts of a led Ashtanga class: “Ekam, inhale. Dwi, exhale. Trini, inhale.” (“One, inhale. Two, exhale.”)

Yeah, those Sanskrit counts are something else. They massage my brain in a way that nothing else in this world could. Not even Radiohead.

(Photo credit: Bestbuy.com)

More from YogaRose.net:

>>”How do you turn the world right-side up?” — my post about Radiohead.

>>”Vande gurūṇāṃ caraṇāravinde” — my post about chanting and Madonna.


More evidence that Ashtanga yoga is for me: Sharath is a Mac user!

My MacBook Pro and the Ashtanga practice sheet featuring R. Sharath Jois

Claudia
over at ClaudiaYoga.com is in Mysore right now, and I’m loving her blog posts and tweets about her experience. For the non-Ashtangis reading this blog, it’s necessary to know that Mysore — which is located in the southern Indian state of Karnataka — is to the Ashtanga devotee what Asbury Park, N.J. is to Springsteen fans or Cooperstown, N.Y., is to baseball fans. It is the place that you are drawn to and know that you have to visit before you die. (I haven’t been yet, and the place is calling me — but more on that in another post.)

I could make this post longer than necessary, but I’m not going to because I want you to head over and read Claudia’s observations and tales. But before I go, I will say one thing: Claudia has reported that R. Sharath Jois — who is the grandson of the late K. Patthabhi Jois and the new director of the  Shri K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Instituteuses a Mac.

As if I needed more evidence that Ashtanga is for me. 😉

It’s a calendar. A datebook. A fundraiser. And it’s a…flip book?!

I recently wrote a post about a fundraising calendar put out by some artistic and generous yogis at the Carlsbad, Calif.-based Ashtanga Yoga Center. My calendar has arrived in the mail, and to my surprise, it’s much more than a calendar. (Drumroll, please…)

That’s right. This calendar is, as promised, a calendar. It’s a datebook. It’s a photo album. And it’s also — a flip book! Not  just any flip book. For Tim Miller fans out there, it’s a Tim Miller flip book. Check out the video above to see Tim doing some cool arm balances.

What’s not to love? For less than $20, you’d be getting a beautiful keepsake calendar that doubles as a fun little flip book. More than anything, you’d get the satisfaction knowing that you’re contributing to an effort to help one yogi pay down his mounting medical bills.

Vande gurūṇāṃ caraṇāravinde

If you saw the title of this post and it sparked an emotional reaction, you’re more than likely an Ashtangi. That is the first line of the traditional opening invocation that begins an Ashtanga practice. (To be precise, an “aum” is chanted first. For more on “aum,” often written as “om,” see this handy little YogaJournal.com beginner’s guide on yoga chants.)

For various reasons, the invocation has been the topic of a few conversations I’ve had with yogis in the last couple of weeks — some because they are relatively new to the practice, and some by way of discussing personal philosophy. As a teacher, for example, should you always include the chant, no matter what the setting for a class?

To me, the Ashtanga opening invocation is about honoring the teachers who came before our teachers — about honoring those who have helped clear the path before us. We have to walk this journey of life ourselves, but the teachings of history’s gurus can provide us with invaluable wisdom and comfort. I think chanting this invocation changes the quality and the intention of a practice. Sounds and the stories told in lyrics can change our moods and perception in other aspects of our lives — why not in a yoga practice? On my resources page, I link to this translation and recording of the invocation, as chanted by Pattabhi Jois himself. It’s beautiful in the depth and starkness of its simplicity.

This brings me to Madonna.

Unless you’re so young that you make me feel even older than I am (in which case, please don’t remind me), you probably sort of remember Madonna’s album Ray of Light. It came out in 1998, when I was finishing up journalism grad school. This was about a year before I set foot in my first yoga studio, and probably a couple years before I discovered Ashtanga yoga. So while I’m sure I’ve heard this song before — because one of my suitemates bought this album when it was released — I didn’t know what I was listening to at the time.

Ray of Light album coverMadonna, as you can imagine, does not go for simplicity. She sets this invocation to a trance-ish beat. Watch her live performance of this song at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1998 — all garbed up in an Indian-inspired look to boot — or listen to the Dubtronic Cosmos Trance Remix, if you can’t get enough. There are other remixes as well, but you get the point.

For the record, I have this rather cool Tumblr blog to thank for reminding me that this song exists.

Does it drive you crazy that Madonna took the invocation and made a pop track out of it? Or do you think there’s something to be said for her reimagining tradition?

By the way, I know that this is the second blog post in as many months in which I’ve written about Madonna. (I posted “How to lose a practice in 10 days (or, what Madonna can teach us all about maintaining a yoga practice during the most hectic travel time of year)” over the holidays.) I promise not to make this habit. 😉 It’s just that as a former reporter, I am trained to follow news pegs. Madonna just seems to be flitting across my radar screen lately, and both as a journalist by training and a yogi by practice, I have learned to go with the flow.

‘Rarely do we clench just one thing.’

 

X-ray of a mouth

Clenched teeth, clenched mind?

Pattabhi Jois apparently used to say, “Clenched toes, clenched mind.” Especially in standing balancing postures such as utthita hasta padangustasana (extended hand-to-big-toe posture), the toes of our grounded foot may be clawing into our mats without us realizing it — as if digging in will help us balance. It’s quite the opposite, right? It takes strength to believe that letting go of a tightening action will be liberating. It takes strength to trust that if we let go of what we believe is anchoring us, another source of stability — a more genuine source of stability — will present itself.

In his beautiful book The Heart of Yoga, T.K.V. Desikachar tells us:

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra describes an asana as having two important qualities: sthira and sukha. Sthira is steadiness and alertness. Sukha refers to the ability to remain comfortable in a posture. Both qualities should be present to the same degree when practicing any posture. (p. 17)

Whether we’re dealing with a career or personal passions, family or friendships, there are times when nothing could be harder to achieve than this feeling of sthira sukha. What seems to happen far more frequently than the perfect balance between strength and surrender is tightening up or drilling down.

Hilltop Yoga owner Hilaire Lockwood has for years worked on helping me release the tension in my shoulders and trapezius, the muscle starting at the base of the occipital bone. Even after an adjustment, when I think I have let go, she points out how much more I have held on to, and coaxes my body and mind to let go of just a little more. (For the record, I also clench my butt in postures such as setu bandha (bridge posture).) During very stressful times, my muscles tighten so much I worry if they’ll ever loosen again. But even during less stressful times of my life, those muscles are so trained that they don’t seem to ever truly release. I’m pretty sure it will take still more years for me to relinquish the hold I have over my holds.

I was recently telling Sue Forbes, co-owner of Mindful Movement and Physical Therapy in East Lansing, about all my clenching habits. It’s not shoulders or the gluteus maximus we’re talking about here. I recounted how, at 31, I was told I had so eroded my gums through grinding my teeth that I had the gums of someone twice my age, which required surgery to graft tissue to my gums. (The surgery is about as fun as it sounds.) Sue smiled and nodded. “Rarely do we clench just one thing,” she said.

Yoga is premised on the concept that there is a natural and profound connection between the body, mind and spirit. The clenching that we habitualize — is it only physical? In yoga, we use the body to get beyond the body. We use the body as a way to still the fluctuations of the mind and to tap into what keeps our spirit going. I find it fascinating to start with the clenching I feel in my own body and work inward. Can I trace the tightening of this part of my body to a particular work project that I’m stressed about? Or maybe I can follow the tracing the other way — if I let go of a particular memory about a past relationship, what, if anything, might let go in my body?

And what about beliefs? Is that a type of clenching? The Ashtanga series present posture after posture that seem impossible when we first start to practice. But we learn, over time, that through the guidance of an experienced teacher and through consistent practice, we eventually melt into those postures when the time is right.

Maybe telling yourself, “I’ll never be able to do this posture” is just another form of clenching. If that’s the case, consistently practicing Ashtanga can be considered a counterpose of sorts — what we do to counterbalance a previous pose in order to bring the body, mind and spirit into balance.

(Photo credit: The Full Wiki)