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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Contentment Realized, But Often Forgotten

Well, hello there! I guess it’s been quite a while, since my last post in September, 2014. My, oh my! Talk about not keeping up with the things.

The truth is, this blog has been on my mind, if not every day, then at least every other day since then.

Look at me looking all Carrie Bradshaw-like. If you don't know that reference, probably for the better

Look at me looking all Carrie Bradshaw-like. If you don’t know that reference, probably for the better

And if you’re anything like me, with commitments galore, then you know that finding time is incredibly challenging and it seems virtually impossible to concentrate on yourself, especially as a mom. I’m a mother of one amazing toddler, and also a mother of a wonderful yoga studio, but with these obligations always put first on my plate, I often see my “wants,” my “desires” as last on the list of things to do.

Using the words “wants” and “desires” are a big no-no in the yoga community. The Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras both tell us desire causes suffering. But as a non-enlightened yogi (can’t claim to be somethin’ I ain’t) and as a regular human being (which I definitely am, hopefully on the path to reach enlightenment in one of these life times) I cannot deny that I have things that I want for myself.

I want to devote more time to this blog. I want to devote more time to my asana practice. I want to further my yoga education in some way. I want to learn Italian and live in Italy. I want to buy a house. I want. I want. I want.

Pretty gluttonous of me, huh? But these are desires, and these thoughts and hungers do, occasionally, keep me up at night leaving me feeling incredibly lousy and unrested the next day. So this chain of events can be described as causing suffering, proving that as innocuous as these yearnings may sound, it is doing me no service to get anxious and worked up over these details in my life. The Gita and the Sutras are right again!

What does help slow down the winding wheels at night is remembering that accomplishing these things for myself, in the big picture, really doesn’t matter. And even if speaking Italian sounds like beautiful concept, I have all the time in the world to do it. Getting another training under my belt may not happen tomorrow. It probably won’t even happen this year. But I eventually come back to the point that it could potentially happen at some point in this life time, and if it doesn’t, who cares? I’m doing the best that I can with the time that is given to me (only 24 hours a day!) so I should be content.

Patanjali reminds us of the concept of samtosa, or contentment, which is one of the niyamas, or self disciplines. He says,”By contentment, supreme joy is gained” (Yoga Sutras, II-42). For those of us who have so much to be grateful for already but keep striving, and wanting, and staying up thinking about how we can better or change ourselves and our lives in many different ways, this is a perfect sentiment to return to. How can a yogi meditate and achieve liberation, mukta, if the mind is wrestling with these thoughts? “The yogi feels the lack of nothing and so he is naturally content,” Iyengar tells us. How can you argue with that?

So here I am tonight, having a little extra time, and I’ve decided to open the door back up to blog. Partially because I WANT to. I am human, after all, but it’s also mind clearing, babbling here, unloading some thoughts to clear up my mind to enter the next day. Does that make me an undeserving yogi? I don’t think so, and thankfully, I’ve committed my life to a very forgiving practice.

Write to you soon! I promise.