Half Moons and Flying Dragons

I remember the evening twenty-five years ago when our teacher led us into Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose).  I had been attending Karl’s class for just a few weeks and it was my first Half Moon.  It wasn’t pretty. I distinctly remember thinking that night would be my last night at Yoga.  My standing leg was shaking, my extended leg’s hip was screaming and my brain was telling me “This is nuts. You can’t do this.  Just go home.”

But I didn’t go home.

To this day Ardha Chandrasana ranks as one of my favorite poses.  Several classes after that first attempt, when I smoothly transitioned into the pose from Triangle and felt the strength in my balancing leg and the openness in my hip, I was free.  I felt like a soaring bird.

And when I introduce Half Moon to a new class for the first time, teaching in the same studio where I was taught, I always stand in the spot where I attempted the pose for the first time and tell the class “Things change.”

These days I’m adding modifications to my Half Moon.  Sometimes, with limited success, I bring my fingers up from the floor to rest the hand on my heart chakra.  More often I’ll take the ankle of my extended leg and pull myself into something I’m certain has a proper name but I call Sideways Bow.

We grow.  We learn.  We fall down. We try again.  We grow.

It took a lot of prying to open my mind to a new way of thinking about Yoga.  My practice was firmly rooted in Iyengar.  There was no other way.

But things change.

While I will probably never, ever understand how I can further my Yoga practice while listening to rock music (please, someone, explain this trend to me), a few years ago I was encouraged to explore the possibility of a fluid, non-alignment based practice.

Enter Flying Dragon. Wait a minute, wasn’t that a Bruce Lee movie?

The truth is, I can be a little bit…ahem…rigid in my thinking.  I like having a place for everything and everything in its place.  Just like an Iyengar practice. I’m not saying Iyengar theory is rigid, only that it might appeal to someone with rigid thinking.

When Suzee Grilley introduced the Flying Dragon sequence to us on a summer morning at teacher training my brain was telling me, “You can’t do this.  This isn’t Yoga.  Give Up.  You’re too out of shape.”  My brain even said this, “You’re too old.”

Several mornings later and I was flying my dragon with joy.

Flying Dragon is the cure for my rigid thinking.  I can feel my soul open to the universe when I practice Flying Dragon.  It lifts my spirit.  It is a balm for the type of depression that feels heavy and leaden.

Different approaches to Yoga fill different needs. Right now I need less formal alignment and more fluid movement.

And for the past few weeks I’ve had this idea in my head that I can’t shake.  There’s a local park not far from my home, and I see myself there, teaching Flying Dragon to anyone who wants to learn.  When I mentioned this to a friend he suggested I was ‘giddy’.  I probably am.  But the thought of a Flying Dragon Flash Mob puts a big smile on my face.

So that’s what I’m going to do.  If you’d like to free your rigid mind – or just feel like flying your dragon – join me for a morning of Flying Dragon (with a few Golden Seeds thrown in for a nice warm up) this Saturday at 11:00 in the park on Homer Street in Palo Alto.

Update:  Four hours after I posted Half Moons and Flying Dragons the August (August?  Seriously?) issue of Yoga Journal arrived.  My “Sideways Bow” variation of Half Moon has a name:  Ardha Chandra Chapasana.  Whew.  Now I can sleep tonight.


I was the first one home.  I had to be – it was only a ninety-minute drive.  And so while I was unpacking, Anke and Emrik were leaving for Europe.  While I did laundry, Steph was waiting for the floatplane that would bring her home and Jaymie and her husband were enjoying one last day in Santa Cruz.  As I washed my car, Kristen and Mel were driving up the coast. Michael headed to Sonoma.   As I cruised the aisles of my local Safeway, Janet was cruising at 35,000 feet somewhere over the Pacific. We were all someplace else.  We were all returning to family and friends.

There were hugs and tears, of course.  That’s what sent me away in the first place – I didn’t want everyone to see me cry, although they already had.

By the time Dave reunited with his wife I was enjoying a late lunch that did not involve lentils, quinoa or green salad (although I wish it had).  I was in my beloved green leather chair, with the remote control in my hand.

Only hours later and the old comforts were nipping at my heels.

Habits shut us down and prevent us from living the life we are meant to live.  They are like choke holds.  We struggle to wrestle free from them.

Establishing a new rhythm to my life – abandoning the patterns that hold me down – will require persistence and strong belief in my ability to make it so.

Talking to friends about the last two weeks at Land of Medicine Buddha will be a difficult thing.  I can talk about the great food, the lovely people I met, the schedule we kept – but I won’t be able to talk about how it felt.  But that’s all right.  It’s my hope I won’t have to explain anything.  My actions will speak for themselves.

Day Om…Land of Medicine Buddha

Do you remember that Superbowl commercial from 1984?  The one with the sledgehammer?  I feel a bit like that.

It turns out that somewhere along our yoga journey we became stuck on alignment.  How it happened doesn’t really matter.

For the past twenty years I’ve been turning my right foot out ninety degrees and turning my left foot in thirty for every triangle.  And so has each one of my students.   I believed the same alignment worked for everyone.  And I appreciated having rules to follow.  It felt good to know that if my feet were in set in one direction and my hands in another I was ‘doing it right’.  It didn’t hurt my average proportioned body – why would it hurt anyone else?

Besides, it’s nice putting poses into compartments: this is what Triangle looks like.  This is Half Moon.  Warrior goes like this.  And if our poses weren’t identical it wasn’t because we were breaking the Laws of Alignment – it was because we had a tight hip or a tense hamstring.  As soon as those muscles loosened up we’d be just fine.  Because we’re all the same.  Just like in that Superbowl commercial.

Well guess what?  Paul and Suzee Grilley have taken a sledgehammer to everything I thought I knew about yoga.

Here’s the thing:  It turns out we’re not all the same.

Sure, differences on the outside are easy to note:  hair color, eye color, body weight – they’re different on everyone.  But we forgot to consider the inside.  The closest most of us come to looking at bones are the plastic skeletons in high school biology class.  But those familiar plastic femurs drop off an assembly line, one after another. We don’t.  As the saying goes, “When God made you he broke the mold.” We’re one of kind.  Literally.

If you don’t believe me, look at this: bone photos

These past two weeks – which are coming to an end far too soon – have made me reconsider everything I thought I knew about yoga, about movement, about teaching.

I have loved my time here but I’m looking forward to coming home and being with all my students.  I’m looking forward to our transition – a slow unwinding – a letting go of the rules.  You won’t believe how liberating it feels.

Day Six – Land of Medicine Buddha. No – Make that ‘Home Sweet Home’

We have today off. My roommate invited me to drive down the coast with her but I’m a homebody.  After Friday’s last ‘Namaste’ I made my way ‘over the hill’ and came home.  Being home grounds me.  I can confirm the apartment is still here, my houseplants are still alive and the upstairs neighbors are still loud. The bottom line?  There’s a week of laundry to do and a DVR locked, loaded and ready for viewing.

So I’m here in my little studio processing the last six days and anticipating the next seven.  What I’m really trying to say is this:

Teacher training has been a colossal mind-bender (and you can feel free to replace ‘bender’ with slightly saltier language).

  • One moment I’m certain I’m a good yoga teacher – my teaching philosophy runs parallel to Paul and Suzee’s.
  • In the next moment I’m a failure because I’ve never seriously considered introducing yogic philosophy to my classes.
  • Before I arrived my yogic path was an Iyengar path – I believed his system of alignment meant my students were safe.
  • Now I’m asking myself, ‘how do I tell my students I’ve been wrong for the past sixteen years?’.
  • I convince myself that I can teach a hybrid of Iyengar and Yin (I call it I-YIN-Gar!).
  • But then I see that beautiful photo of Iyengar and his curiously long eyebrows in the studio where I teach.  He looks at me.  His brows are knit together in disapproval.

It’s a delicate balancing act, integrating two disparate schools of thought.

If you asked me, “What are you enjoying the most about teacher training?” I think the answer would change moment by moment.  But I have to admit I believe the most meaningful part of the day is the thirty-minute morning meditation.  I believe that continuing the practice when I return to “real life” will go a long way toward discovering where this new yoga path will lead.

Day Five and Counting at LMB

We learned a Yang sequence yesterday that I can’t wait to teach and this morning explored deepening stretches for the hip and lower back.  With twenty minutes to spare Paul said,  “Ok, do whatever you want.”  I couldn’t help it – I slipped in about ten minutes of Iyengar. Integrating Yin with Iyengar continues to be challenging but I don’t believe it is impossible.  During my Iyengar practice I was able to assimilate a little of Suzee’s Yang Flow with my favorite “slow flow” (triangle, half-moon, warrior one and back to standing forward bend) and if felt incredible.

I don’t believe it’s right of me to completely abandon the Iyengar way, even as I embrace Yin.  Just like everything, there is a balance.  It’s important to know what works about Iyengar (the props and the pace) and what doesn’t (the insistence on exact alignment).  And it’s important to know what works in Yin (the targeting of the fascia) and what doesn’t (the lack of precise answers that can frustrate a beginner).  I believe that in my teaching and in my practice, the two might gently learn to accommodate one another.

It’s a good day.  I can’t wait to return and share what I’m learning.

Land of Medicine Buddha – Day 2

Day 2 August 16th

After a light meal of soup and salad we met for the first time as a group last night in the Pine Room. After introductions, Suzee and Paul distributed a hand out and the director of LMB gave a brief talk about the trails, our accommodations, and how to fend off mountain lions.

My roommate is Kristen Butero.  She and her husband Bob own a yoga studio in Devon, Pennsylvania:  www.yogalifeinstitute.com.  They publish a monthly magazine called Yoga LivingBob Butero’s written a book The Pure Heart of Yoga. It’s a guide to help us apply yogic philosophy to everyday living.

Kristen has a great depth of yoga knowledge and I’m grateful to have her as a roommate.

For instance, she was a great help last night.  For the past two decades my yoga experience has been Iyengar influenced.  The yoga I am here to study – yin yoga – is the anti-thesis of Iyengar.  I’m not being asked to unlearn everything I’ve been taught, but to be open to the possibility that there is another way.  Even so, I’m finding the task difficult.  It’s not that I considered Mr. Iyengar’s method perfect.  But it has been close to perfect for me.  Maybe that’s because I like everything to have a place, and I want everything in its place.  A foot here, an arm there, look this way, breath that way. That would be easy if we were all the same.  But we’re not.  We’re not the same physically nor are we the same energetically.

I took on board all this information yesterday.  It’s basically contrary to everything I’ve been taught and – I’ll admit it – I got a little rattled.  Here’s how Kristen talked me down from the ledge last night:  In her opinion, over the last several thousand years, as the sages moved their bodies and the asanas were evolving into the yoga poses we know today, yogi’s were seeking the position where they felt their energy move without inhibition.  The position where their energy – their prana – flowed freely.

And that’s why my nice, neat little yoga wall is coming apart one brick at a time.  And if I’m honest, it hurts, but I like it.  I’m confused but I’ll be all right.  Right now I’m fairly confident I’ll still be a yoga teacher when this is all over.  Fingers crossed.

But seriously, in a group of students, why should we strive to make poses seem identical?  Why should they remain static?  What I learned from Paul and Suzee today is that poses are organic.  They can shift.  They have a functional aspect that we often sacrifice for the aesthetic (read that again – go on – read it – it’s a big deal, and I learned it today).  Furthermore, everyone in the room experiences the pose differently.  Not only does every person in the room experience the pose differently, but I believe we experience the pose differently each time we practice.  It is not be the same experience.

A bit about our schedule.  The day begins at 7:00 with thirty minutes of meditation followed by breakfast.  We meet for two hours of yoga at 9:00 and then a one-hour lecture.  Following lunch we have a further three hours of lecture, theory and practice.  Practice is when we work in groups and analyze structural differences, work on modifying poses for different situations and study anatomy.

And if you’re wondering, the vegetarian food is great.  I was hoping to leave a few pounds lighter.  If they keep serving thick lentil soup with warm bread and butter I don’t think that’s going to happen.

Can You Go Home Again?

When I began to consider self-care – what it meant and how I could care for myself more without caring for others less – I really believed it was just a matter of reduced screen time, more quiet time and a few walks around the block.  I believed it was that easy.

As it happens, self-care manifests differently depending on who you are and where you are in your life.  Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that we deserve to be cared for just as much as anyone else.  That’s a big one for me, believing I deserve it.  Believing I’m worthy of care.

Thomas Wolff wrote: “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

And yet, if I want to connect the dots of my rambling life, if I want to heal and move forward, then I must take a huge step back and look at the past I abandoned so many years ago. I’ve booked my ticket, hotel and rental car and in September I’m going home for the first time in twenty-eight years.

This won’t be easy but I’m going to embrace every good, bad, ugly and thrilling moment.

Fortunately, before I go East I’m headed to the Land of Medicine Buddha on the Pacific coast in Soquel, California.  I’ll be attending Paul Grilley’s Yin Yoga Workshop.  Fourteen days of meditation, yoga, instruction and vegetarian food with no internet access.

I’ve wanted to attend Grilley’s teacher training since 2008 but each year I managed to talk myself out of it.  I’m glad that I’ve finally overcome (or at least set aside) the fear and insecurity I had about attending.

I suppose you’re wondering about the fear and insecurity. Let’s not go there.  I’ll just say my fears walk a fine line between the rational and irrational.

On a final, practical note:  if you attend my classes either at California Yoga Center in Palo Alto or at Avenidas, you can find details on who is subbing for me while I’m gone and important dates regarding the summer and fall quarters by clicking on the Classes page.