Prenatal yoga … with an empty womb

I attended my first prenatal yoga class today, and I’m not pregnant.

The motivation was to experience and to learn, as I’m drawn to exploring this special niche within yoga.  In fact, this weekend I scheduled some practice teaching with four pregnant girlfriends.  Tonight’s prenatal yoga experience, however, triggered emotions that go deeper than the joys and anxieties of learning something new.

First, I felt slightly guilty, like I was some sort of “fraud” invading a sacred feminine space — even though I got permission ahead of time from the teacher, Teresa, to attend.  These women purposely chose a prenatal yoga class, versus a regular yoga class, for a reason: They wanted a practice tailored specifically for them.  I am not part of this “them.”  So I felt guilty.  Couldn’t help it.

It was an intimate group, just seven of us.  At the top of class, we were asked to share how this particular week of pregnancy was going.  I remember thinking to myself, “Crap, there goes being the unassuming woman in the back row.”  I loved the fostering of community and shared experience that the question inspired; but again, I was not a part of the “them.”  So I confessed to being at the practice to learn, in order to transmit the teachings to other women.  I realized, while telling the women this, that I was cradling my belly.  I didn’t get any judging looks, just a sweet smile from the teacher.

Second, it was a little surreal to be the only student not carrying child — and that in itself pried open complex feelings of maternal desire and longing.  Teresa would cue us to “Snuggle baby” or “Bring the attention back to your little one.”  I would do so to an imaginary fetus in my womb.  I began directing my intentions to a yet-to-be-born child, pretending that he or she was physically inside of me, not just within my head and heart.  This act of conjuring opened up Pandora’s Box, prompting me to toggle back and forth between various degrees of sadness and elation.  All the while, I was trying to keep these unanticipated emotions in check so that I could concentrate on the sequencing of the practice.  I wanted to embrace the emotions and recognize them, explore them — but first and foremost, I was there to learn.

I’m so glad I attended, as I did learn a lot in this single class.  Teresa was a wonderful guide.  Her class embraced beautiful flow, linking breath to movement, and female empowerment.  It wasn’t a static “Let’s sit and breathe” sort of class.  For instance, we did lots of bended knee push-ups and held asanas such as Goddess pose for lengthy amounts of time.  It was empowering, without being too straining.

Key things that I plan to integrate into practice teaching with my pregnant girlfriends:

  • Feet are never together when standing.  Always encourage a wide stance for stability.
  • Don’t be scared of movement.  Encourage a woman to move, but paying attention to her body.  If something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.  Female intuition comes in handy on the mat.
  • Bolsters are great.  For a wonderful heart opener, place it long-ways behind the hips, lay back on it, and extend the arms into goal post.  For restless legs, place it near a wall and rest the hips on it while extending the legs up the wall.
  • In table, while doing cat/dog, don’t encourage arching or sinking of the belly in dog.  Instead, lengthen in the spine straight and gaze up.
  • The core can be worked while pregnant, according to Teresa.  She said while 99% of the abdominal muscles cannot be worked, you are encouraging core strength with many of the asanas.
  • No closed twists.
  • Open twists are great.  You just want to create space for baby.
  • Be mindful that students don’t compress the belly.
  • No laying on the back after 24 weeks without a bolster.
  • Avoid Malasana after 37 week *if* the baby’s head is NOT turned down yet.  Before this time, it isn’t problematic — because the baby is still moving around.
  • No crow pose.
  • Avoid inversions.
  • Poses I thought would work well into practice teaching with my pregnant girlfriends: cat/cow; lifting alternate arms/legs in table; Goddess pose; Warrior II; Side Angle; Triangle; Malasana; straddle, double pigeon; push ups on the knees; leveraging the bolster in savasana.  And I think I’ll encourage them to close the eyes as much as possible, balance permitting, to plug into their bodies and listen to their babies.
  • I also really liked this act: taking the right hand to the heart, and the left hand to the belly, while in sukhasana, at the top of class.  Then, encouraging the mother to reaffirm her commitment to the little one growing inside of her, by taking time for herself, and listening to her body.

Hmmm.  It’s a full moon tonight.  Maybe that has something to do with the emotions that bubbled up in class.  Yes, I’ll blame it on the lunar cycle.

Yoga in the makeup chair

My brother and I at the Waldorf-Astoria wedding. Yoga organically wove itself into the “glamorizing” process.

My bourgeois-inspired guilty pleasure: getting dressed up for black-tie affairs.  Ask me to one of these events, and I’ll usually say “Absolutely!”  Pulling together the hair, the makeup and the dress always thrills the little girl inside of me – the one who used to dream of being a princess at fairytale ball.

Disclaimer: I’ve since come to terms with not being a real princess and that “fairytale” balls are themes reserved for high school proms.  Regardless, I still try to capture the essence of that fairytale fantasy whenever I can.

Last night, I attended a posh wedding at the Waldorf-Astoria, which meant time in the hair and makeup chair.  Fun!  On the surface, this hair/makeup ritual couldn’t be any more different from yoga.  It is a process of primping outer beauty, while yoga practice is a time to dive inward.  Staring at a mirror for a few hours triggers fixation on the ego, while yoga practice seeks to strip away the ego.  These practices don’t really complement each other.

However, yoga can be found in the most unlikely of places – the makeup chair included.

Here are two interesting observations from this appointment:

  • The stylist told me to relax before she got to work on my hair.  I relaxed.  She looked at me funny and said, “No, really relax, sit back.”  Then I realized: I was relaxed sitting completely upright.  My pelvis was in neutral, sternum was lifted, collarbones were wide, shoulders were down.  I was putting yoga posture to work at the salon, unconsciously.  She immediately began peppering me with questions about yoga, perhaps inspired by a form of “relaxation” she hadn’t seen with other clients.
  • The makeup artist spent a lot of time designing my eyes with a 60’s-inspired look.  It was a tedious process to get the eyeliner just right.  In order to apply it properly, she instructed me to keep my face forward and only move my eyes in the direction she requested.  “Look down and to the left” … “Look up and to the right” … “Look to the right” … “Look to the left.”  With my eyes darting all over the place, I realized that this was an unplanned opportunity to explore drishti exercises!

Class Notes, Week 6: Emerging comfort + confidence

The Moksha yoga teacher training program requires me to journal once each week about my experience with the poses and assignments + my practice and progress. This is part of that weekly assignment.

Several people in my class have compared teaching yoga to learning a new language.  It’s true.

As first-year Spanish student in middle-school, I trained my tongue to r-r-r-roll and spent hours memorizing nouns and conjugation structures.  Years later, after continuous studying and practicing, the hard work paid off: I found myself speaking, thinking and dreaming in Spanish, with relative ease.  (Today, unfortunately, my Spanish is incredibly rusty, due to lack of use.)

I see this same path opening up for me with yoga teacher training.  Not only does teaching yoga literally come with a new way of speaking — Sanskrit included — but it comes with a new way of listening, observing, thinking and preparing.

Just as I wasn’t speaking conversational Spanish after one month, teaching yoga isn’t going to come that quickly either.  But I’m finding a rhythm amidst all of this “newness” and how to best process it into my personal practice (both guided and at home) and practice teaching.  I’m getting more comfortable, and with that emerging comfort comes a growing confidence.

One of my fellow teacher trainees pointed something out during the homework review last night: Yoga teachers aren’t perfect.  We’ve all taken classes with teachers who don’t use every cue that Daren teachers us; some even forget things mid-practice, and fumble for the right words and explanations.  I’ve noticed this over the past few weeks, too, and it’s put me more at ease about my progress, my growing abilities.  We’re human, after all.  What we’re doing through teacher training is building a library of yoga from which to pull, as needed.  Perfection isn’t the ultimate goal.

I’m also starting to find my voice as a yoga teacher.  Slowly.  A few practice sessions with friends and family … practicing on Sunday with my classmates … teaching colleagues simple arm poses … teaching to a mirror … it’s all helping.  And next Saturday, I have two private teaching sessions lined up with four of my pregnant girlfriends.  (Lots of pranayama and gentle asanas!)

Which leads me to my next curious observation: I’m developing a growing curiosity about working with pregnant women.  As the daughter of two obstetricians, people who’ve brought thousands and thousands of babies into this world, I find a sweet coincidence in this.  I didn’t plan it this way!  The curiosity just … emerged.

The origins likely stem from being surrounded by girlfriends who have recently given birth, including my own sister, Kelly.  The intimacy that comes with being involved in that process, and the desire to nurture these women into happy and healthy states of mind so that their little ones could benefit while in the womb — well, it just fills me with so much joy.  I’m not only helping the mom, but I’m helping her unborn, still-developing baby.

Plus, who knows if I’ll be lucky enough to give birth to a child of my own in this lifetime.  While it pains me to think about that — I find happiness in knowing that I could use my skills to help other women bring positively charged children into this world.  Why dwell on something you don’t have when you can embrace those who do, and share in that feeling of love and nurturing?

It will be interesting to see how next Saturday’s practice sessions go.  Since our classes don’t emphasize pregnancy modifications much, I am seeking out information independently — books, yoga journals, questioning seasoned yogis.  I plan to attend a prenatal class this coming week, too.  I have time to safely architect an effective class for my pregnant girlfriends.  Who knows, if after those practice sessions this path feels right, perhaps I could contact my dad’s office and offer my gratis services to patients there …

But, one step at a time.  I’ll begin exploring, and see what happens.

Quote: Oct. 24, 2012

“hey, sorry i didn’t get your text sooner.  today was a wretched day in the work world of erica bray.  i am thinking much more seriously about studying yoga in india.”
~ My email to a friend on Wednesday, June 1, 2011 @ 9:24 p.m.

I stumbled upon this gem while doing a search in my archive email for something completely unrelated.  Discovering it floored me.

Although this was written in a state of frustration and stress, and half sarcastically, it was an unconscious truth.  Or intention.  Or premonition.  Why?  Just one month after writing this email, I met Nianna Bray when I randomly popped into her yoga class in Venice Beach, Calif.  And then six months later, I was studying yoga under her guidance … in India.

The universe has a beautiful way of nudging me.

Today, on the eve of my annual review at work, I’m juggling double the responsibility versus last year, just channeling the stress differently.  While I don’t need to “flee” back to India, as I joked in my June 2011 email, I hope that I find the calm resolve I uncovered in Rishikesh to help me navigate tomorrow’s review with wisdom and integrity.  I don’t want to say the “wrong” thing; but I do want to be honest about my feelings toward the company, and my role.  Right now, they are mixed.  Very mixed.  I feel like I’m being pushed into a business-money-management role that just doesn’t mesh with my heart, with my dharma.  The increased amount of meditation I’ve been practicing lately has reinforced this awareness.

The woes of juggling an Eastern-oriented heart with a Western-oriented brain.

Update: The review was really positive, and I was 100-percent honest with my supervisor.  There was, however, one area where I did not get an A+ … communication.  It was humbling and upsetting.  But instead of getting super defensive, I recalled one of the key qualities of a yogi, “Receptiveness to appropriate feedback.”  I’ll use this to transform into a better communicator.  Guess I need to work a bit on the throat chakra.

My voodoo doll

No, I haven’t given him a name.

I picked up this voodoo doll on a trip to New Orleans last summer.  It was a whimsical purchase at a creepy voodoo shop in the heart of the French Quarter.  The shop’s sign read that these dolls were “authentic” and “blessed by a local practioner.”  The dolls on display carried a price tag that helped to justify the exclusivity — and possibly take advantage of tourists who stumbled upon the shop and were willing to splurge.  (Guilty.)

This one caught my eye.  Not just because of its design, but because of its intention: “to provide spiritual strength.”  This was no evil voodoo.  This doll was invoking something positive (if you believed in voodoo, anyway).  I paid the creepy man behind the counter a ridiculous amount of money and ducked out of the store, believing I had scored a pretty cool novelty — nothing more.

Over the past month, however, this voodoo doll has transformed into something more.  It once sat in my living room alongside other travel treasures, undisturbed — until a mountain of yoga books, Yoga Sutra flashcards and class notes began sprouting up around it.

The tools of my spiritual journey are manifesting itself around a voodoo doll meant to invoke spiritual strength?  That’s eerie and awesome at the same time.  The whimsical purchase suddenly had new meaning.

I now look at this voodoo doll, not as some cool travel trinket, but as a reminder of the spiritual strength required as I forge this yogic path.  The doll may not be casting any specific charms — I think? — but what it helps to reinforce it wonderful.

Just as long as it doesn’t start casting evil spells on me.

First private lesson

After moving a few things around, my loft was transformed into a yoga studio.

This morning I guided my good friend Emilie through a yoga practice.  It was my first private session.  While I’ve worked with my teacher trainee peers and my parents, this one-on-one scenario was a new challenge for me.  Usually challenges come with butterflies.  But I didn’t feel those flittery-fluttery butterflies that I usually get when I’m about to embark on something new and untested.  I was very calm-yet-excited to be working with Emilie.  It was an interesting yin-yang happening within me, the juxtaposition of calm and excitement.  I felt positive, confident and ready share yoga.  That was a good sign, this uplifting feeling versus the nerves (aka “butterflies”) I had anticipated.

Emilie, like me, is embracing a lot of change in her life.  She recently quit her job to follow her culinary and journalistic passions — and is charting an exciting path forged by her intuition and dedication.  I knew I could be more “yogi” and less “Xsport Fitness” with her.  Emilie is also training for her first 5K, so her legs have been put to work in recent weeks.  Having this background on my student helped me determine how I would slowly navigate the practice — keeping in mind that I am a beginner and it needn’t get too “fancy.”

Our practice included:

  • Long Anapanasati
    (to help her plug deeper into her body, tune into her breath)
  • Cat/dog in table
  • Table with alternating arms/legs lifted
  • Downward facing dog
    (working on the alignment of the pose)
  • Tadasana
    (emphasizing the alignment, from the ground up)
  • Slow breakdown of Sun Salute A
  • Short flow of Sun Salute A
  • Warrior II
  • Triangle
  • Eagle
  • Twists (skipping backbends)
  • Savasana

I found myself really embracing the “painting” that comes when guiding a yoga class.  We spent the first 10-15 minutes on meditation and the breath, and I enjoyed guiding this, also allowing for silence to fill the room so that Emilie could focus on her breath.  Toward the end of this intro meditation, I read a poem from “Fire of Love.”  It’s one about following the heart rather than the intellect.  I thought it might resonate given her current life phase/transition.

When it came to the asana and vinyasa cueing, I chucked my notes and bullet points on alignment … and did the best I could.  I already know that I cannot give every single cue at once, so I focused on the ones I felt were important.  In Monkey pose: “Lift up half way, keep a flat back.”  In Downward Dog: “Push down to lift up.”  In Warrior II: “Ground the back outer arch, keep the knee above the ankle, sink forward a little deeper.”  And cueing the breath with the vinyasa bits came relatively easily.  Perhaps it’s just habit from all of my years of classes.

I also kept my eye on Emilie.  In retrospect, I probably could have come out of my own poses a bit more to help with alignment and just observe how my cues worked on her.  Next time.  A part of me was hesitant to do that, so she wouldn’t feel overwhelmed by my attention.  Again, I should have ignored that.  Next time.

After the practice, I asked Emilie to be honest with me — was there anything that she found too rushed or confusing?  “I am a teacher trainee, now it’s your turn to be my teacher.”  She complimented my pacing and instruction, which was gratifying to hear since I thought perhaps I was going too slow.  I am still very much discovering my yoga voice and pace, after all.  She said one of the Downward facing dog cues confused her: “Wrap the shoulder blades toward the armpits.”  I gave her a mini-lesson to explain that concept.  I admitted to her that this cue had always confused me, too.  Perhaps I consider always breaking this one down moving forward since it took me some time to comprehend …

Overall, it was a rewarding morning.  I sent Emilie back into the world a little calmer, her body a little more limber.  And she gifted me with my first private yoga session and some anecdotes that should improve my next teaching session.

Class Notes, Week 5: Key qualities of a yogi

The Moksha yoga teacher training program requires me to journal once each week about my experience with the poses and assignments + my practice and progress. This is part of that weekly assignment.

According to Aadil Palkivala, these are the key qualities of a yogi:

  • Desire to grow
  • Willingness to change
  • Receptive to appropriate feedback
  • Persistence
  • Patience (time)

My intention aligns with all of these qualities … so that’s a relief!  But each quality doesn’t exist in a vacuum; they are interconnected.  A desire for growth cannot be separate from a willingness to change, for instance — as I evolve, change inevitably happens.  And being receptive to “appropriate” feedback will require patience, with myself and the person prodding my ego.

Patience is the quality I really want to hone above the others.  Patience with myself would certainly improve my patience with others — and make me a more effective messenger for yoga.  I notice those moments when my inner self gets rattled and restless and begins shouting expletives that would make my parents blush.  Every so often it manifests in the spoken word, but less and less so over the last few years.  I am grateful for this awareness.  It’s something that didn’t use to exist.  My impatience and temper often used to dictate my actions, and were 100-percent self-centered.  Now I have an easier time recognizing that when stuff bubbles up, it would be a waste of energy to throw into the world — and let it go.  Not all of the time, mind you — I’m far from perfect! — but I’ve gotten better at it.

I re-read my last post and chuckle at my impatience, thrown into the written word.  I want to coddle it like a naughty child I love unconditionally.  It’s a good reminder to not get ahead of myself, to evolve at the “appropriate” pace and just let these lessons marinate a while.  I have the rest of my life to improve, grow, evolve.  I might live life and travel like I’m going to die tomorrow … but my yoga education will take this lifetime (and beyond).

Class Notes, Week 5: Feeling like a student

The Moksha yoga teacher training program requires me to journal once each week about my experience with the poses and assignments + my practice and progress. This is part of that weekly assignment.

Grrr.  I spent the past hour trying to work through a take-home quiz on the pelvic tilt.  Take-home quizzes are supposed to be “easy.”  Full access to your notes, your books, the Google search engine.  Easy, right?

Not this quiz.  It has me second-guessing all of my answers.  It has me scouring my notes and handouts.  It has me slipping into poses to determine if indeed I am stretching or strengthening my quads, gluts, hamstrings, abdominals, etc.  I suppose that’s the point of this exercise.  I just wish I knew the answers right now.  (Inner voice says: “Patience, Erica.”)

Perhaps if I had paid more attention in high school anatomy, this part of the program would come more naturally.  I am determined to understand the anatomy of yoga by the end of this program.  I recently picked up a fancy yoga anatomy book to help me conquer this.

For now, I have to accept that I will be challenged.  It’s humbling to really feel like a student — that feeling of lacking immediate intelligence and longing for it to be filled.

Investigating the chakras

I used to roll my eyes at the notion of chakras.  It was New Age mumbo jumbo to me as a teenager and twenty-something — those colored dots lining the spine of a person sitting in lotus position.  I’d see it illustrated on posters at “hippie” bookstores, as well as within books in my dad’s library.  I just chuckled.  I wasn’t open to understanding the chakras then, didn’t care to, didn’t “need” to.

Fast-forward 15-plus years later …

In the past several months, I’ve attended a yoga chakra workshop in Mexico and Seane Corn’s chakra workshop in Chicago.  I’m also signed up to attend Tias Little’s chakra anatomy workshop in November.

An openness to investigate, combined with a natural curiosity, changed things.  I now see value in this ancient anatomy of energy — because I’ve learned how it manifests itself in my own body.

* * *   * * *   * * *

“Your chakras are all thrown off.  We’d all be enlightened if they weren’t.”

This came from yogi Seane Corn, during this weekend’s workshop.  I laughed.  Not only because she peppered this statement with some additional colorful language — that lady loves the “F” bomb — but because it’s true.  So true.  Everyone’s got issues, even those serene prophets living atop a mountain in the Himalayas.  Think about it: What drove that mountain zen master away from society in the first place?  He clearly feels the need to relocate to a remote mountain to work on something, undisturbed.  Perhaps he’s got a blocked second chakra, like me.

* * *   * * *   * * *

Hip opening poses have always caused me discomfort.  I never knew why, I just avoided doing them whenever possible.  When it came time for pigeon pose or — yikes! — double pigeon, I’d groan silently.  Then a few years ago, I learned that tension is stored in the hips and that it’s a place of sacred sexuality, the second chakra.  The pieces started coming together.  I grew up conditioned to repress my sexuality, it wasn’t something I was ever encouraged to explore in my Sandra Dee-like hometown.  I also repressed my emotions; again, a part of my conditioning, growing up in a family that didn’t express itself so openly.  If what yogis were telling me was true, then all of those years of sexual and emotional repression … built up in my hips.

Damn it, mom, for not being more provocative and sexual.

While I’ve spent the past several years really working on this part of my body, and forcing myself to spend a longer time in hip opening poses, and recognizing the benefits beyond the yoga mat … I knew Seane was going to challenge me when it came time to exploring this chakra.  I was kind of scared.

* * *   * * *   * * *

Seane didn’t teach at the front of the room, on a pedestal.  She penetrated the room, weaving between mats, cueing us with a precise and knowing authority.  But this was a chakra workshop — so it didn’t stop there.  She talked the entire time, something that would normally annoy the crap out of me.  But she wasn’t talking to hear herself talk or fill an uncomfortable silence.  There was purpose.  She meant to trigger something in us.  Before we slipped into that first practice (one of several over the weekend), she told us to notice, to feel, to ponder, to stay curious to her words.  She warned us, in other words.

When it came to the practice that focused on the first and second chakra, Seane peppered the room with thought-provoking, open-ended questions.  All the while, we were holding asanas for insanely long periods of time.  I was trying to concentrate on alignment and breath, and simultaneously process these questions about love and life and family and politics and sex that she was tossing into the room like Mardi Gras beads.

The hip openers, as I anticipated, were killer.  At one point, we were in a deep lunge and holding our ankles — an “easy” action if you do it for a few seconds.  For five minutes, not so much.  Not for me anyway.  And to be in that pose, listening to Seane ask questions as deeply personal as how you orgasm … well, the mind and the body were collectively on overdrive.

That single practice, when stripped to the asanas, wasn’t so challenging.  But add in the layers of questions — that added a new element that left me feeling more exhausted than I would have felt otherwise.  Others I surveyed agreed.  Was this the “processing” she referred to?  Was something within me becoming unhinged, for the better, as a result?  I’m still not sure.  Perhaps in more time, it will be revealed.  What was immediately revealed: I could sweat in a place I didn’t think capable of producing giant drops of sweat.  My cheeks.  (For those of you with your mind in the gutter, I’m talking about the cheeks on my face.)

* * *   * * *   * * *

Something new that resonated with me during Seane’s discussion of the chakras: how each chakra’s “shadow,” or negative manifestation, is not something to run away from or repress.  They are teachers, too.  Yes, it’s a real challenge to acknowledge the stuff that isn’t pretty, isn’t flattering or doesn’t make us feel good about ourselves.  I know it is for me.  Very much so.  When the negative stuff bubbles into my brain or out of my mouth, the part of my looking outside in (or is it inside out?) wants to put police tape around it.  But without confronting these “shadows,” layers of their negative “residue” builds up … and builds up … and builds up.  Like plaque on a tooth, it needs to be brushed before it hardens.  If not, this “residue” will block our chakras — our energy wheels — causing varying degrees of difficulty in life.

* * *   * * *   * * *

Just because I need to get this down, the seven chakras are:

  • 1 — Muladhara: root/support/family/foundation
    shadow = fear
  • 2 — Swadhisthana: sacral/sweetness/sexuality/pleasure
    shadow = guilt
  • 3 — Manipura: Solar Plexus/lustrous gem/self-value
    shadow = shame
  • 4 — Anahata: heart/unstruck
    shadow = grief
  • 5 — Vishuddha: throat/purification/communication
    shadow = lies
  • 6 — Ajna: brow/to perceive/intuition/the third eye
    shadow = illusion
  • 7 — Sahasrara: crown/thousand fold
    shadow = attachment

* * *   * * *   * * *

My practice space

After snapping this picture, I realized that my mat needed a good scrubbing. This is how it looked after nearly 20 hours of yoga workshops and training this weekend.

I wish that I had a separate room to practice yoga.  A private space, where I could shut the world out to retreat inward.  Someday.  I’m making a mental note for when I purchase my first house …

Until then, I unroll my mat in a space squeezed between my kitchen, living area and home office.  It’s a little cramped.  It gets a little drafty.  It doesn’t face east.

But, it does face an “altar” of sorts — something I just realized tonight while snapping pictures for a teacher training homework assignment.

I practice in front of a built-in bookcase housing a mosaic of what’s important in my life: photos of family and friends, artifacts from astounding travel adventures, treasured books … and a gentle reminder scribbled on a piece of painted wood.

Of all the other spots in my loft-style condo where I could be placing my mat, this is where I place it for my personal practice.  I didn’t plan it this way.  It just happened organically.