Getting to Know You

A curious student asks is Kumari’s flow class hard? Donna replies, “No, it’s not.” Then she qualifies, “It can be hard. You get out of yoga what you put in.” She means I can stand. Or I can stand in Tadasana. There’s nothing inherently difficult about standing. We do it all the time. Women stand, men stand. Little kids stand. How is Tadasana unique from standing? Body engagement. Body awareness. Enlightenment. A properly executed Tadasana asks the muscles to hug the bones. Arches lift. Kneecaps lift. Weight spreads evenly across the sole. The chest lifts subtlety not grossly like a solider at attention. The chest lifts with poise imbued by uddiyyana bandha. I instruct this sort of fine tuning in a level one class. In a “flow” there isn’t time. We’re moving too quickly from pose to pose to break ’em apart and run commentary.

A flow class gets billed as advanced because?  Knowing this stuff already enables the practice.

Except not everyone in class does know this stuff already. Some people wander in because the class time is convenient or because their friend is taking the class. Or because they haven’t a clue what “flow” means and would like to know. Or because they self-identify as “Advanced.” That’s fine. Truth is, if you are young or fit or reasonably flexible, if you enjoy Zumba, Pilates, aerobics, calisthenics, gymnastics or dance – flow-style yogas are appealing. Ye olde static pose style seems so 70s. Yin yoga doesn’t seem like it’s going to burn off baby fat. (Maybe it will or maybe it won’t.) My point is, and I do have one: People can learn by doing.

In my first flow class the teacher says, “Do Downward Facing Dog.”

That is literally the sum total of the instruction. I have no idea what she means so I glance around. Looks like everyone is in a triangle shape: butts up in the air, palms flat on the ground. I approximate the pose. Because I am relatively loose in my hamstrings I don’t strain. For about 5 months I wonder what all the fuss is about. Why do people moan and groan about D-dog? How come everyone chuckles when Misty calls it a “resting pose”? Frankly I could be there 5 minutes or I could be there an hour without discomfort. That is, of course, because I’m doing it wrong. If I keep doing what I’m doing: hyperextending my elbows and knees, locking my joints, hunching my shoulders – I’ll do more damage than good.

So no, the class wasn’t “hard” because I don’t know I’m doing it wrong.

I don’t blame the teacher. She does what she can in the fifteen to thirty seconds that she has to explain what. Then we’re off to the next pose, warrior one. I’m collapsing my arches by lack of alignment. Then we open up to warrior two. All sorts of standing poses make up a vinyasa flow. Standard, basic level one poses. Everyone knows them and no one knows them. Maybe the only way to get to know them is to perform them over and over and over again. Let them situate in the body. Four hundred forty-four repetitions have a way of introducing the body to the brain. Little by little I start to notice that effective alignment frees energy to (wait for it. . . ) toruncourseglidedriftcirculatetrickleseepoozedribbledripdrizzlespillstreamswirlsurgesweepgushcascadepourrollrush essentially to flow.

Successful flow is a graceful movement – dance at the speed of icicles melting.

The idea of open channels is not news to anyone who started yoga in the 1970s. We all heard about it. We all strive through our meditation, our pranayama and asana to remain receptive, amenable, spacious, uncluttered, open-minded and the like. Nonetheless, before flow yoga the philosophy rests more in my head than my heart. The only time I experience truly unfurled, unfettered freedom in my limbs in is other endeavors: writing, reading, running. The vinyasa action is educating and liberating. I find the inspiration uplifting in flow. A single forward fold, or even three, found in a Iyengar style sequence should permit joint freeing supplication, unfortunately sometimes my exit strategy is too stiff, too clunky, too disassociated with the pose to permit lubrication.

I taught myself a lot of yoga from flow sequences.

The granddaddy of all flow might be the Primary Series. I start by huffing and puffing, crying, whining and moaning through the sun salutes. Then my arm starts to tweak. Of course it does. Remember the time I told you I was hyperextending my elbows? A mere few weeks of daily Primary Series reveals my mistake. I’m forced to take a break from my project until my ligaments heal. I’m relieved; glad I learn in a matter of weeks what could have taken years to notice. There’s power in repetition. Power in getting interested, involved, fascinated with the process that is yoga. After my arm heals I practice with stacked bones, using muscle to draw my arm into my socket, my head towards the ground.
You probably won’t find a full ten sun salutes in an average flow class.
As a teacher I tend to move on to the next thing when more than half the class is lapsing into exhaustion. As a practitioner consider this: you’ll have more fun if your sun salutes are a warm-up than if they remain the Holy Grail of ability. If I can do ’em you can do ’em. Seriously. Just take ten minutes of your life once a day to try. If you can’t do ten do one. Do one perfectly. Then three, then five and so on. But don’t cheat. Don’t skip ahead. You won’t be sorry. You’ll start to notice for yourself what makes sense. This is hard to notice if every time you go to a class a different thing is happening. Yes, even if the teacher goes back for three triangle poses, it’s hard to feel what’s going on with the other people around, the music blaring, the uncertainty of what will happen next. . .
In the primary series Triangle is the third pose.
At first I really didn’t understand the transition. What did Triangle have to do with the sun salutes? Why the heck is there so much forward folding through the series? I took a long time to become sold on Primary Series, mostly because I wasn’t instantly good at it. Reflectively speaking, it’s the things that we suck at, that we work hard to accomplish, that took practice, patience and ingenuity to perfect, that teach us the most. Therefore, if primary series is a breeze for you – congratulations! Move on up to the secondary series. Or the joint freeing series. Or moon salutes. Pick something, anything, to do religiously – for the purpose of teaching yourself fine-tuning points. You’ll get out of it what you put in, as Donna said. Get yourself first to a point where the sequence is memorized, then relax and pay attention.
Triangle is a perfect counter pose to sun salutes.
In the grand tradition of point/counterpoint, kinesthetically it makes sense to move from one plane to another for thoughtful reassessment and thorough flexibility. If Triangle is a challenging pose, don’t go further than that in the series until you’ve fully mastered the pose. I’m not saying you can’t go to class and enjoy other sequences. I’m suggesting you do both: have an engaged, illuminating personal practice. A personal practice peppered with projects and goals and meditations. Have all that in addition to enjoying flow, yin, restorative, etc. etc. etc. classes at the gym. The combination will surely make yoga more enjoyable. More accessible. More stimulating.
Now Y’all play nice!
Sat Nam