The Babbling Lotus

Jacqui Nash's Musings on Yoga, Food & Parenthood

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The Case for the Ashtanga Supplement

Mondays for me have recently become Ashtanga Mondays. It’s a relief, a sense of supreme joy to know that I can come to the mat, get an amazing practice in, become immersed in a deep meditation through my own personal practice, without having to think about what posture should come next. The sequences are ingrained in my mind and my body and breath flows fluidly through the postures, from the opening prayer and first sun salutation to the closing prayer and then the blessed savasana. (Click here to read more about Ashtanga Yoga.)

Me in Virabhadrasana A during the third trimester of my first pregnancy.

Me in Virabhadrasana A during the third trimester of my first pregnancy.

My relationship with Ashtanga has not always been this ecstatic. I did practice Ashtanga maybe once weekly, or every other week, for about a year (or maybe more accurately on and off once weekly for about a year) until I became pregnant with my first child. As soon I became pregnant, reflecting back, I’m thinking that I probably used the pregnancy as an excuse to remove this physically and mentally demanding practice from my routine. I mean, how can you do all those up-dogs, all those chaturangas, all those half-lotus and lotus forward folds with a growing human in your abdomen? It’s not physically possible, right?

Sri Pattabhi Jois in Padmasana, lotus pose.

Sri Pattabhi Jois in Padmasana, lotus pose.

The interesting thing is that while I started Ashtanga Mondays in January this year, I found it even more comforting to continue once I found out I was pregnant with our second child (big pregnancy bomb drop there) in early March. What a relief to know that during my daughter’s afternoon nap time, I am guaranteed a quieter time to myself than most of my other Vinyasa home practices can grant me. During my Ashtanga practice, I don’t play music, except every so often a repetitive chant that continues the length of the practice, I’m not mentally preparing sequences for body, I’m not focusing on a particular posture or body part. Every inch of me is involved meditatively, which, I’m assuming, is exactly what Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois would want from their students.

Ashtanga can often be thought of as an unforgiving practice. A demanding practice for the body known to cause injury to the shoulders, knees and hips. But what has brought me closer and deeper to this practice has been practicing with this “limitation” of pregnancy. There are strict Ashtanga teachers who might lean deeply on the backs of their students or crank their arms into binds to bring them fully into the posture, but now more so than ever I have learned that being kind to our bodies each time we step on the mat should always be more important than tackling and pretzeling into the deepest of twists and binds.

This doesn’t sound like mind-blowing, original yoga fodder, here. I realize that. But even we as teachers can say this to our students until we are blue in the face, but I’m not sure how many of us heed our own advice 100% of the time. I know I am guilty of pushing myself beyond my limits. In a Vinyasa practice, since there is that element of the unknown, not knowing which posture is about to come next, which is so seductive about that style, a posture might seem like a good thing to attempt, but because it might be new to us or our bodies might not be warmed up enough, we enter incorrectly, or go in too deeply which could potentially cause some crankiness or worse.

Again, not super-authentic writing going on, but I will make the case that Ashtanga Yoga has brought me to a new level of understanding my body and my practice that I had yet to discover in my regular Vinyasa practice. Because the posture progression and sequences are so methodically thought out, and because it’s the same postures every time I step to the mat, I’ve been able to better gauge how tight or strong my muscles feel that day and work within the parameters of modifications so I can complete the practice in its entirety. It has helped me hear my breath as a louder mantra than in any other practice. It has more effectively erased the the sporadic babbling in my mind.

BKS Iyengar in Kukkutasana

BKS Iyengar in Kukkutasana

And this not to say I can’t get to these blissful places in my Vinyasa practice, but the stronger connection between my mind and my body that arose during my weekly Ashtanga supplement have translated quickly to my Vinyasa practice, making each session even more valuable than it was before. I’m not sure if I could have experienced Ashtanga so euphorically without the feeling as if I was practicing for two (that statement works here, unlike the phrase, “eating for two”). Unlike those practicing for one who feel stronger and more flexible as he or she practices Ashtanga, the humbleness I feel as I cut out some vinyasas, or loose a bind one week or kukkutasana another week because of my changing body, has made me appreciate the entire practice of yoga, all styles and on and off the mat, at a new level.


Who Are We Teaching For?

At The Yoga House, my studio in Kingston, NY, I teach the Beginners Yoga classes, which I love because I get to expose people to this amazing practice that I’ve chosen to dedicate my life to. I have a wonderful relationship with many of my students and for the ones that are new to my class and to yoga, I find so much joy in introducing them to this practice that is grander than what we see on the mat.

One recent evening at the Beginners class I had an experience that I’m sure I’ve had before, but this time seemed particularly troubling to me. There was a gentleman there that had never practiced yoga and was coming along because a friend asked him to. I could tell from my first interaction with him that he was very skeptical about being at our studio. His overt skepticism made me question, does he have those stereotypical notions about yoga? A lot of flighty people, omming, meditating, and contorting their bodies into unreasonable postures for no specific reason? (Side note: we are omming, meditating, and sometimes contorting, but there is purpose to it all.)

Hands in jnana mudra during meditation.

Hands in jnana mudra during meditation.

The class began as many of my them do, with meditation and pranayama. Eyes closed, sitting tall, breathing deeply. I opened my eyes to glance at postures and to check in with students. All had eyes closed, and here was this newcomer in the back of the room, also with eyes closed, and sat in the “stereotypical” yogi seat with crossed legs, hands in what he probably did not know was jnana mudra, and although his eyes were closed, his brow was raised as he held in his laughter. I tried not to take his gestures personally, but my mission for this class was clear: Convert this man into a yoga lover.

I tried to make the class fun, which they often are, but the pressure was on. I tried to show that this practice was a physical challenge that had its very sweet moments. I found myself forcing jokes, forcing sequences, forcing everything. I had stopped teaching to the class and was teaching to this one individual who had become my focus of attention for the duration of the class. I knew it was a lost cause when we came into ardha matsayendrasana, or seated twist, and this student was struggling. With forcible niceness, I offered modifications and he wanted none of my “expertise.” I knew at that moment he wasn’t converting and wanted nothing to do with the thing that I held most sacred. I was deflated and, to me, the class was a total failure.

After class, the man rushed out and waited for his friend on the back stoop. I didn’t chat with the newbie, as I usually do. And it was confirmed: I’m not good at my job. I had failed to turn this person into a yogi.

The evening left me feeling very empty. Not only had I been unsuccessful at making this person love yoga, I had also let my other students down by concentrating so much on this one student’s experience in my class; in other words, not checking my ego at the door. Bottom line, the class was off, and even if the other students didn’t noticed, I recognized that it just didn’t feel like a good or true yoga class.

When we teach we have the responsibility to help ALL students to self-discovery.

When we teach we have the responsibility to help ALL students to self-discovery.

I will mention here that it is ok to have off days for teaching, or whatever your job may be. It happens to us all and we need to forgive ourselves and recognize that we’re human beings, not perfect beings. But with this class, what felt wrong was my intention for teaching. At the beginning of many yoga classes, the teacher has the students set an intention for practicing yoga that day and the teacher should join in with the intention-setting, reminding himself/herself why we’ve chosen to share this spiritual practice disguised in a an exercise regimen. We’ve gone through our trainings and discovered that through this practice, we’re unlocking a divine presence as we learn more about and connect deeper with ourselves, and it is the teachers responsibility to remind students that this is most important when we roll out our mats.

At the yoga studio where I truly “found” yoga, (and when I say “yoga” I mean union with something bigger) Ashtanga of New Paltz, and where I eventually received my  teaching certification, there is a quote on the wall that has stayed with me almost every time I come to the mat. It reads, “When we do yoga for ourselves, it is good for us. When we do yoga for God, it is good for everyone.” This statement no doubt extends to teaching as well, because teaching is part of our yoga practice. I’m not saying that everyone needs to get on the God train, but we must recognize the greater power behind the teachings that we’ve chosen to share.

You might hear teachers often tell students to “check your ego at the door,” and that is as useful advice for the teacher. We are not teaching to convert or to convince people that we’re the best yoga teacher, and while, sure, we do want people to like our class, that should not be the reason that we stand at the front of the studio. We need to extend our hearts, the deepest part of who we are where the external factors of ego play no roll, to the hearts of the practitioners in the room so we can all communally connect with the divine presence within.

The experience that I had with the newcomer is going to happen to all of us teachers once in a while. And we might react the way I did, or we may choose to understand that this person isn’t ready to accept the practice of yoga. Whether we’re able to stay true to our intention of teaching or bring our ego into the studio is up to us. However we respond to the situation, I hope we can get back to the thought that if we teach yoga for the higher being, the divine presence of peace, love, and knowledge, that it will be good for everyone, even those potential future converts.

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Parenthood: Devotional Yoga at Its Finest

Early this month I taught a yoga class based on Love and Yoga. We can basically say that love and yoga are synonymous and that yoga without love is, flat out, not yoga. As I do for most classes when preparing, I grabbed my books and searched through the pages to find a thought that resonated with me to share with the class.

In the wonderful read, Erich Schiffmann’s Yoga: Moving Into Stillness, he says about love and yoga, “It’s the willingness to let go of what you think something is in order to see it clearly–as it really is…You welcome love–that is, you become able to see that which is Real in each and everything–by clearing your mind of prejudice and beliefs and then being with things as they are.” Perfectly stated, I couldn’t help but equate this not only to the practice of yoga, but to the divine and unconditional love as a mother/father. Parenthood is a selfless life where expectations of the journey and the child fly out the door the minute we hold our child for the first time, and we say, “We love you and will always love you no matter what.”
family for parenthood yoga

Very shortly after I had my daughter is 2013, the relationship between parenthood and yoga was pretty apparent to me, most specifically the aspects of patience, understanding, and breathing. When people would ask me how things were going as a new mom, I’d usually reply that this new adventure had become another component of my yoga practice in addition to my years of twisting, stretching, balancing, and studying.

However, it wasn’t until after my daughter was one that I was able to truly see how profound the journey as a mother would be to my ongoing practice. The first and only time that I’ve been away from my family was last summer at yoga retreat, specifically centered around Bhakti (devotional) yoga. While a beautiful practice, I hadn’t considered myself as a practitioner of this type of yoga, and this weekend was an exploration of something that was unfamiliar to me. As I sat at lunch one afternoon with a new friend, I was sharing some stories about my daughter and I began to cry. This didn’t usually happen when I talked about my daughter, and, flustered with embarrassment, I quickly wiped my tears and apologized. She quickly dismissed my excuses and said, “This is beautiful. This is complete love and devotion. This. Your apparent love truly is Bhakti.” She couldn’t have said anything more prefect, and her words shone an even greater light on the idea that my experiences as a mother will forever be one of the most influential teachers on my yogic path.

Most parents are not “yogis” or yoga practitioners in the terms of the strict definition, but I’d say all selfless and devoted parents embody a yogi more than he or she would ever know. Yoga is a practice of complete love and devotion, selflessness and giving, patience and understanding, non-judgement and acceptance. Sound like something else? According to the words laid out by Schiffmann, I’d say having  a child skyrockets all parents on a yogic journey, whether they perceive it or not.