30 Days of Yoga


The East Mountain Retreat Center had set up shop in a corner of my brain and stuck it out throughout two national tours, several weddings, and my honeymoon.  I finally made a reservation last April, when all I knew was that I needed to get away.  Several  Mondays ago, after jamming two auditions into two hours, I rented a car from New Jersey and drove to Barrington, Massachusetts, where, incidentally, I had met my husband six years earlier.  The retreat center was on the outskirts of town.

The drive should’ve taken three hours.  It took five.  (Thank you, New Jersey.)  Finally I turned off the main highway and onto a dirt road riddled with potholes.  After driving about a mile and a half through a canopy of trees, I pulled up beside a cluster of wooden buildings overlooking the rolling hills of the Berkshires.  The Reverend Lois greeted me at my car, gave me a quick tour of the property, and, after warning me to watch out for ticks, left me to my own (silent) devices.

The view from the meditation hall. Buddha is represented alongside Christ, Ganesh, something Jewish, and various items from nature. They make a commitment to being non-denominational.

I made my way to my dormitory-style room.  Located off the meditation hall, it had enough room for a single bed, a nightstand, a shelf, and a two-seater couch. and opened onto a shared deck.  It would be considered a decent-sized bedroom in New York City, but a closet anywhere else.  I had all sorts of plans for the evening:  books to crack open, letters to write, journaling to do, etc, but instead I plopped onto the couch and listened to the silence.  It was the most mesmerizing, calming and unexpectedly delightful sound that I had heard in a long time.  It was as if I had slipped into a meditative state without needing to actually meditate.

Meditation is fairly new to me, and I don’t try to set a goal or an intention while meditating.  (As some guru said, “There is tension in intention.”  Which my husband pointed out is technically inaccurate, but you get the drift.)  The goal of meditation, if there is one, is to relax, let go, and let be.  To turn off the thinking mind.  It’s the awareness that a separate, loving entity is watching us, and cultivating that throughout the day.  (Since meditation is new to me, I’m not very good at finding words to describe why I do it or to what end.)  However,  meditating made perfect sense to me as I sat there on that cozy sofa, listening to the wind in the trees, the birds singing, and the occasional snap of a twig breaking.  I was to learn that silent retreats are anything but silent.  I sat there, transfixed, awed by the ease and depth of my own spiritual connectedness.

The wizened, cynical part of me wishes I would write, “And then I tried the food, and it all went to hell,” but it just got deeper and better through the course of my stay.  I was never bored.  I spent my time taking walks through the woods, reading spiritual books, reading not spiritual books, writing letters, meditating, doing yoga.  Time slowed down, and I noticed things I hadn’t for years.  The particular satisfaction of gravel crunching underfoot, for example.  Blowing the blossoms off dandelions.  Starting at a frog pond until their camouflage wears off and millions of little frogs appear.  Reading outdoors in a screened-in gazebo as rain poured down and I snuggled under blankets.

It was heavenly.  My only regret was that I couldn’t stay longer.  Over the course of my stay the silence was relaxing, companionable.  In a short while I’m sure it would have become intrusive, possibly demanding.  I ran this theory by Rev. Lois right before I left.  She nodded.

“And then there’s another layer after that, where you accept the silence and go even deeper,” she explained.

I could only imagine what she meant.  I guess I’ll have to wait until next time– and I hope to go once yearly– to experience it for myself.

Advertisements

1.  I like when yoga teachers rub me.  That sounds pervy.  What I’m actually referring to is when teachers come around with scented oils or lotions and give a gentle neck or face massage at the end of class.  I fully admit that if I had to do it to other people I would be disgusted.  I wouldn’t want to touch anyone’s sweaty, nasty hairline.  But I love love love when it’s done to me.

2.  I no longer fall asleep in savasana.  (Even when massaged.)  It could be that I’m simply getting enough sleep at night, but I like to think I know how to achieve total relaxation and total awareness.  Or maybe just total relaxation without falling asleep.  These days I finish class refreshed, not wishing for a longer nap.  I’ve also learned that visualizing a pose really does help me execute it.  I’ve improved my technique, which of course allows me to grow stronger and practice safely, but in yoga better technique leads to greater awareness.  As one of my teachers said, yoga is what takes place between the heavens and the earth.  Awareness is key.

3.  It is hard to take time for myself.  With my wacky schedule it would have been impossible to take class every day at an actual yoga studio.  Fortunately I have yoga podcasts and my own mat at home.  But even carving out 20 to 30 minutes became difficult.  I had to prioritize, committing to my practice before I would commit to anything else.  And then even if I could only carve out 20 minutes, I would feel guilty for having so little time.  Eventually I learned to let that go and be grateful for the time I was able to spend on my mat, however limited.

However, from this commitment to yoga came a commitment to myself.  I was not only carving out time for yoga, but time for inner reflection and renewal.  I found time to write and things to write about.  (Well, mostly about yoga, but oh well.)  I began to notice when I replaced yoga with a Pilates or ballet class, as I didn’t feel as calm or as centered.  (Although I did start to wonder what improvements could be made to my ballet technique if I committed to that for 30 days.)

From time to time a teacher would suggest that we dedicate that day’s class to someone so that our practice wouldn’t be “merely selfish.”  I tried this once, then let it go.  No one needed my yoga more than I did.  There is no virtue in selfishness, as in the promulgation of the ego above all else, but there is great value in loving oneself.  And that’s what May was for me:  a month-long journey, aided by each asana, until I found myself a calmer, more centered version of myself.

On day 23 of my 30-day challenge, I made it to Iyengar at Yoga People.   I had never tried this style of yoga before, but it fit into my schedule, and I’d hadn’t been able to make it to the studio in so long that I was doubting the wisdom of my 30-day pass.  So even though Wikipedia basically described Iyengar as Hatha with props, I thought I would give it a try.

I emerged with mixed feelings.  Hatha is Grandma yoga.  Do 28 asanas of it in 106 degree heat, and you have Bikram.  Use various accouterments and extreme attention to detail, and you have Iyengar.  If you are a yoga practitioner who is unfamiliar with this style, here’s the good and the bad:

The Good

Iyengar teachers know their stuff.  They are required to take two additional years of intense training to get their certification.  I definitely learned new things.  However, the structure of the class is different from a flow class, which is what I’m used to.  Rachel, the teacher, would demonstrate a pose, and we would perform it three times, holding it for about a minute.  In between she would give us very, very, very specific corrections.  No one is going to get hurt in Iyengar!  No one’s going to work up a sweat, either… but the class felt good.  And as a ballet person, I respond well to technical instruction.  Iyengar is ideal for beginners, as the student is actually taught how to do everything.

The Bad

God, it’s slow.  And there’s no emphasis on breath, just alignment.  With the exception of one random ‘om’ at the beginning of class, there was no mention of anything spiritual.  Yoga was initially developed as a way for people to be able to sit in meditative poses for longer periods of time.  Obviously, we’ve gotten away from that in the 21st century, but it still feels odd not to connect breath with movement.  In fact, I’m trying to incorporate breath into dance class and auditions and the very fabric of my life.  I don’t really want to be in a yoga class just to imitate movement.

So while Iyengar serves as an excellent foundation for a more rigorous practice, I doubt I’ll go back again.  It wasn’t too easy so much as too boring.

Not me, my gorgeous friend Claire.

An account of my self-imposed 30-day yoga(ish) challenge.  

Day 7:  Pilates at BAE

Due to scheduling conflicts I have to replace one day of yoga with a day of Pilates.  I’m not going to sweat this minor detail.  However, given that I was up at 6 AM, Charis’ slow, therapeutic class almost puts me  to sleep.  Pilates does not invite reflection the way yoga does, so I do spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out if I think Charis is pretty or not, which is a pointless waste of mental energy.

Day 8:  Vinyasa @ Yoga People

Class progresses unremarkably until somebody rips one right in the middle of shoulder stand.  I’m immature, so I start giggling.  It’s very hard to suppress one’s laughter upside down, so I go into plow to cover my face until I collect myself.

Day 9:  Vinyasa @ Yoga People

I barely make it to the studio by 9:30 AM, but I’m glad I did.  Serena, a svelte Canadian (“turn your toes in and your heels ‘owt'”) of mixed heritage (Japanese/Filipina/white?) gave the most intense, ass-kicking class I’ve ever had.  I emerged with a little bit of a girl crush.  She encouraged me to push my limits and made me go deeper in poses than I’ve ever gone before.  I almost had a panic attack when I realized that, under her tutelage, I was about to do a handstand.  (Headstands I’m comfortable with.  Handstands?  Terrifying.)  I had to go into child’s pose to calm my beating heart.  It seems silly now, but I was so frightened of falling and hurting myself.  My yoga challenges have always been with balancing on my arms and being upside down.  But Serena was an amazing teacher.  I leave class resolved to return the next week, but 9:30 AM is a tall order for me.

Day 10:  Yoga Sculpt at home (Yoga Download)

I took it relatively easy on myself after the workout I’d had the day before.  I haven’t lost any weight since starting this challenge, but I do think I’m improving tone.  Besides, losing weight isn’t the point.  Mental clarity is.  I do think I’ve become better about listening to my instincts, and I’d become brave enough to try some new things.  I was learning to accept the path my life was taking, even though I didn’t know where it would lead.   Each day when I stepped off my mat, I was stepping into the unknown.  And I was becoming okay with that, day by day.

These posts are a combination of journal entries and notes I made after class in order to turn them into a (belated) blog entry.

Day 4:  Gentle Hatha Yoga at home

After two days of antibiotics and one steroid shot, my voice is still noticeably absent.  My husband begs me to stop going to yoga.  “It’s wearing you out,” he tells me.  I admit he could have a point, plus I’m tired of being sick.  So I take his advice and skip power vinyasa in favor of hatha, courtesy of www.yogadownload.com.   I leave my mat inspired to sit down and write about this 30-day experiment.  Finally I am inspired to write about something…

Day 5:  Lunchtime Yoga @ Yoga People

It’s May 3rd, and I have been dreading this date because it marked a year to the date that I started the Mary Poppins tour.  I had been anticipating the “woe-is-me, a-year-ago-I-had-it-together” doldrums, but actually I feel sort of fine.  I even wrote that in my journal:  “I feel fine.”

Yoga was unremarkable except that the Bikram funk has finally, mercifully worked its way out of my mat.  No amount of scrubbing can work the wonders of time.

Day 6:  Power Vinyasa Flow (Podcast done at home)

As sweat dripped from my face onto my mat I realized that while I’ve been waiting for answers to prayers, most of which revolve around getting a job, maybe God actually wants me to move to Los Angeles.  Maybe that’s what Andre and I are Supposed To Do.  The jury is still out for me on things being Meant To Be.  “Our truest dream for ourselves is always God’s will for us,” reads one of my New Age-y mantras that I scribble in my journal (most) mornings.  But how many stories in the Bible are about conforming to God’s will, even if it isn’t what they had in mind?  Moses sure didn’t want to spend 40 days in the desert, but it beat slavery, and it worked out for the Jews in the end.  Lot’s wife didn’t want to leave Sodom or wherever.  At least I can be pretty sure I won’t turn to salt if I look back at New York City.

As I maneuvered into half-moon, I thought about how sometimes having needs met is different from having prayers answered.  But for most of us, except for Lot’s wife, it usually works out in the end.

Day 1:  April 29th, Power Vinyasa Flow @ Yoga People.

Thirty-day practice will hopefully put some tone into my arms, which have somehow become flabby.  Waiting for enlightenment.  There is none.  Enjoy the class nonetheless.  Remind self that change is subtle.

Day 2:  May 1

Plants to attend class at Yoga People disrupted by husband’s insistence that I see a doctor regarding my total lack of voice.  Emergency appointment made with one Dr. Dahl, who scopes me and diagnoses me with laryngitis on top of a sinus infection.  I get a picture of my vocal chords to take home.  They bear a strange resemblance to a vagina.  (Everyone says so!)  I do 45 minutes of power yoga at home in addition to a three-minute affirmative meditation.  Don’t feel empowered particularly.  Thoughts keep wandering to the remarkable resemblance between my vocal chords and my… well, never mind.

Day 3:  May 2

Manage to make it to 8:15 core yoga class taught by a genius named Killian.  Twenty minutes in I am covered in sweat.  Unfortunately, I will weight myself the next day to discover I’ve gained four pounds in a week.  (How?  How?!!!  I really don’t know.)

However, during the course of the class, my pride swells for a minute when I am able to a.) do a handstand (thanks to Killian) and b.) transition through several challenging sequences without forgetting to breathe.

I realize suddenly that I am good at yoga.  Usually, when I find myself getting good at something, I push myself harder.  I may be good, but I need to get better.  Inside my neurotic head, I am painfully aware of my shortcomings instead of my strengths.  When it comes to things I love, I have always believed in humbling myself and finding new areas to improve.

But just for a moment I let the warm flush of pride overwhelm me.  There are a lot of uncertainties in my life these days, and it was good to know that during that time on my mat, I loved what I was doing and I was good at it.  “Ballet class is work,” my dancer/teacher/yogi friend Becca Woods said to me once.  “Yoga is dessert.”  It occurred to me that maybe the real reason I sought out a month’s worth of yoga is because I simply needed 30 days of dessert.  Thirty days of being really nice to myself.  Thirty days of saying, “Yes, it sucks to be back on the audition heap and it sucks and your agent sucks and life was so great last year and now it’s hard again.  Okay.  But for right now, you’re good.  You’re happy.”

And so the yoga challenge has shifted into a way to actively indulge myself.  I’m indulging in something I love that I’m good at, that I can be proud of, and that is good for me, too.  I may gain another four pounds before the end of the month.  But I’ll have created the mental space for good, positive change within my life.

Despite my frustrations with the Bikram practice in particular, I had become enamored with the idea of doing a 30-day yoga challenge.  I’m not sure why the idea appealed to me so much, but it nestled  into my subconscious and made periodic appearances.  If I felt sad or despondent, it announced itself.  “Hey, you should just do yoga for a month.  And meditate.  See what happens.”   I began to get very busy and overwhelmed by Life.  “Hey, you should slow down.  Try practicing yoga every day in May.  Maybe you’ll feel better.”  Somewhere deep within me I sensed that I needed to make time and space to process all of the changes that are happening in my life.  I wanted to be open to new opportunities.  I wanted to stop working so hard and start allowing good things to happen to me.  I was tired of feeling like I had to hustle all the time.  I needed calm.  I needed space.  And it just so happened that Yoga People was offering 30 days for $30.  I took it as a sign.