Friday, November 16, 2012

Spirals Out of Touch, Back in Touch

Today I went to NIA class.  Moving, dancing, swirling, rolling.  Usually I would include in that list:  breathing, sensing.  And yet, today, the breathing and sensing did not come easily.  When the teacher asked us to sense our spines, I (the very yoga teacher who asked my students to sense their spines yesterday), had trouble feeling the tiny articulation of bones in my back that I have felt before.

What is going on?  I am feeling kind of out of touch with my body.  And, the very coolest thing about it, is:  That is okay.

When I was 14, my first experience of aerobics made me feel awkward and clumsy.  Later, at age 21, yoga made me feel subtly exhilarated---coming home to myself in a way I had never known possible.  And now, at the age of 44, I realize that I have revisited both places many times. 

After having discovered the feeling of being “in touch” with my body, the first time that next I felt out of touch with it, I was unnerved.  Scared.  Where had the mother ship gone?  Was I a failure for not being centered? And then, eventually, somehow (probably through dance, rest, hiking in nature, laughing with friends, hugging, eating good food), I found myself “in touch” again.  This process has occurred enough times now that I see I am comfortable with this uncomfortable spiral. 

The past few weeks I have needed to push myself professionally and personally beyond my comfort zone.  I knew there was a cost.  Whenever we push, something else usually contracts or recedes or atrophies.  If we go too long without returning to attend to it, then our bodies/beings get way out of whack.  But, if we make time to return and check in with that part, then we can restabilize our health.  I realize that that was happening in my Nia dancing this morning.  It was a slow returning, and is not yet a complete restabilization.  That is okay.  That is the spiral we live in.

A decade or so ago, I thought that a yogic lifestyle meant that I should never push or stress myself.  Yet, I discovered that this resulted in a kind of bland life.  Now I am seeing that a well-lived life means choosing our pushes wisely and tending to the costs.

This principle is true of organizations and families also.  A professor of medical ethics once explained to our class that whenever a difficult ethical choice is made in the hospital by the doctors and family, that one must later return and attend to the members of the medical team and family whose choice was not chosen.  For surely, all voices were lifting up crucial values!  But only one choice could be acted upon.  If the family and medical teams are to stay cohesive in the future, there must to time to tend to what was not chosen, for it is also part of the values that feed and anchor them. 

If I am to keep living out my values, I need time like Nia and yoga and walking in the woods to return to the places that I wasn’t listening to when I was pushing myself.  And then, from this integrated place, all sorts of creativity and power can blossom forth to surprise me (and the world!).

---Alex McGee, Nov 15, 2012.  Thanks to Susan McCulley for sharing her Nia teaching gifts with our world!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Many Meanings of Tapas

What does tapas mean?
  • to accept without causing pain
  • self mortification
  • to heat
  • discipline
These are just a few of the meanings. At my Yoga Philosophy and Gentle Movement class at the Unitarian Universalist church, we compared six translations of sutra II.32. Here, the niyamas are listed, and tapas is the middle one.

"Discipline" has come to be a bit of a bad word in some parts of our society, especially among liberals and youth. For people who seek freedom and self-discovery, any idea of limitation or rigidness might appear antithetical.

Yet, Patanjali says in this sutra that we need tapas if we are to journey on the path to freedom (samadhi).

Many years ago I heard Gary Kraftsow describe a certain delicious fruit near his home in Hawaii. But, this fruit was not digestible until cooked. The heating process made it possible for nourishment to occur. He used this as a metaphor for tapas.

Does discipline need to involve pain?  I don't think so.  Perhaps it involves discomfort.  But, if we don't choose a healthy discipline for growth, we are likely to bump into more painful experiences that will teach us the lesson in a more difficult way.  This is why the doctor tells us to exercise:  because the other option is to have health problems resulting from lack of exercise. 

The good news about discipline is that it eventually starts to feel good to know that we are taking care of ourselves and investing in a healthy future.  This is why people who have a routine of yoga look forward to their regular practice. 

I invite you to consider what discipline means to you.  And ask some of your loved does discpline help in their lives?

Friday, July 2, 2010

"...He Restores my Soul"

Fight or flight? Or, rest?

As I have heard friends and students discussing surgeries and illnesses this week, I am keenly aware of the importance of evangelizing "restorative yoga."

Perhaps you are in a period when you know that you long for the calm and renewal of yoga, but don't have the energy or ability to do vigorous, moving poses. This is why restorative yoga exists. Sometimes we need constructive rest. Each poses aligns the spine and supports the joints in a way that allows the inner systems of the body to do their natural processing. Digestion gets flowing again. Lungs oxygenate. Lymph moves. The immune system refills its well.

In the teachings of Judith Lasater, a yoga teacher and physical therapist focusing on restorative yoga, I have heard the term "Rest and digest" as an option to "fight or flight." This might mean to digest our food, or it might mean to digest life issues---joys, griefs, mysteries.

When I consider the time to digest mysteries, I am reminded of the prayer practice lectio divina.  In this method, a passage of sacred text is read multiple times.  I have heard the metaphor of taking a bite, tasting it, savoring it, digesting it, allowing nourishment.  This is what makes lectio divina different than prayer that is vigorous or heated, like some kinds of yoga.

In Psalm 23, the author says that his shepherd leads him beside still waters and restores his soul.  Restoring.  Restoring the soul.

Isn't that what we all need time for?  I wish for you to find restoration through prayer and yoga---to digest what life has brought you.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The stream of thought: tumbling or lethargic?

During these hot days of June in Central Virginia, I have been walking my dog by the cool stream as often as possible.  I notice how sometimes the water moves in fast, energetic turbulence.  Sometimes it sits in muddy stagnation.  Other times it flows in gentle clearness.

As risk of oversimplification, we can think of the gunas this way.  The fast moving water is like the trait of rajas, which is energetic.  The slow moving water is like the trait of tamas, which is sluggish.  The flowing water is like the trait of sattva, which is clear.

These qualities of nature (the gunas) are the foothold of Samkhya philosophy, and are often referred to in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.  Patanjali assumed that the student would already know these basic constituents of nature, and builds many of his arguments on this foundation.  If you want to see more, check out:  Book II Sutras18-19 and Book IV Sutras 13-14; 32-34.
I see these qualities in students as they arrive at class.  After class, they often report that they have a renewed sense of balance and clarity.  It often comes out like this: "I'm so glad I came, even though I was tired.  Now I have some energy!"  Or, "I was so amped up before class.  Now, I still have energy, but I feel calm at the same time."

Sometimes, during class, I ask students to observe their minds.  Are their thoughts tumbling like the rapids in a stream?  Or is their mind lethargic?  Ideally, by the end of an appropriate asana and pranayama practice, their minds feel clear and flowing.

And what better way to approach life?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Ongoing Sanskrit Classes - open for drop-in basis

The Sanskrit workshop in April brought smiles, wide eyes, courage, timidity, laughter and serenity.  I discovered that people are ready to hop on the Sanskrit bus at many levels, and the language enchants and confuses people with compelling force.  I learned that I can actually teach it to others, and have new ideas about how to make it work for a multi-level class in the future.  So, mark you calendar for our next one on June 27. 

Sanskrit workshop with Alex McGee
Sunday June 27, 4 – 6 pm at Polarity Barn in Batesville through
To register, contact me, or Kate Hallahan at Guerilla Yoga Project. 
Donation basis.

Depending on your goals, you can gain:
* more confidence saying the Sanskrit words in front of your class;
* the pleasure of sharing in a chant;
* greater understanding of how the rules of Sanskrit show up in the verses that you already know.
We will review Sanskrit letters, grammar, and pronunciation, and apply this to a chant or verse.

This class will follow a similar format to the April workshop, and we will repeat this format in coming months.  By repeating this standard format, we hope to provide a place for new folks to be exposed to Sanskrit and experienced folks to have review.  If you have questions, bring them to class or e-mail Alex beforehand (alexandramcgee(AT)gmail).  We hope to be an ongoing local resource.

Here's a little bio in case your friends are wondering who this teacher is...Alexandra McGee has been studying Asian languages since 1989, and Sanskrit since 2002.  Alex studied Sanskrit for two years at UC Berkeley with Sally Goldman.  She also learned from Cynthia Snodgrass, using the methods of Vyaas Huston, of the American Sanskrit Institute. She is eager to help others apply Sanskrit for yoga teaching, for sacred settings, and studying ancient texts.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

April 11 Workshop on Sanskrit

I love Sanskrit.
What can I say?  It seems that some of us just have a hankering to know more.  Maybe because the sacred sounds nourish us and we yearn for more.  Maybe because we'd like to pronounce the names of the poses.  Maybe because the more we learn, the more we see the rich complexity of yogic theory. are invited to come to a workshop on April 11 at 4 pm in Batesville, Virginia, where we'll explore all these things.  If you are a visual learner, an auditory learner, an extorverted learner, or introverted learner---there will be something for you.

To register, contact the Guerilla Yoga Project.  I look forward to playing in Sanskrit with you!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Time to Feel your Inner Compass

One of my colleagues is taking a semester abroad, and so I am teaching some her classes while she is gone. In my attempt to get to know her students, I invited them to come chat with me after class and let me know what motivates them to do yoga.

One of them said, “Well, I just know myself better when I do yoga.”

Another said, “When I do the poses, I feel things in my body that I didn’t feel before. And, I feel feelings that I might not take the time to feel otherwise.”

Ah. What treasure.

I, myself, have valued my yoga journey because of how it helps me feel things inside. I believe that each of us has an inner compass. Some of us can read this compass through thinking, some through images that come to our minds, and some through how we feel inside.

Once, my teacher, Sandra Pleasants, suggested that we imagine a garden hose. If there are kinks in the hose, the water can’t flow. So, she said for us to get in triangle pose, then see if each arm and each leg felt like a garden hose flowing. Or were there kinks? What did we need to adjust to get the flow going? Sometimes it was to rotate a joint, soften a joint, engage a muscle, or breathe differently.

Similarly, when we find ourselves in situations in life, we can ask ourselves: are there kinks in the garden hose right now? Perhaps you can recall a time when you made an adjustment in your life and suddenly everything flowed better?

Yoga helps us practice feeling this flow on a more and more subtle level, so that eventually, hopefully… whether in a yoga pose, a work decision, or family communication … we can be in touch with it, and it can guide our actions whenever we need.