With open hips and an open(ing) heart

YTT

I’m excited to announce that I just completed yoga teacher training with the lovely people pictured here. Prana Yoga of La Jolla proved to be a phenomenal place to learn and I am incredibly grateful for the knowledge, insight, and experience gained.

On one of our last days together, we worked on heart openers (aka back bends).

For those of you who read the term heart opener with raised eyebrows, there is an anatomical reason for talking about back bends as such. When we place emphasis on creating expansion through the chest, we tend to create a greater and higher arch in our back, taking the pressure off of our lumbar (lower) spine. People often dump into this area when they jump into a back bend; thus, the visual of a ‘heart opener’ is a movement toward a safer and healthier practice.

In our workshop, we learned this and a variety of tools to support people in protecting their spines while finding deep bends (or not so deep depending on the day, the person, and the body). After receiving all of the instructions on alignment and verbal cues to get into the postures, we spent time practicing adjustments on one another. When working on urdva dhanurasana, wheel pose, my partner placed his hand between my shoulder blades and gently lifted in and up. My reaction was immediate. Before I even processed what was happening, I exclaimed, “I don’t like that!”

Concerned that he moved my body out of alignment, he withdrew his hand quickly and asked, “did I hurt you?”

Coming out of the pose, I thought about it. “No.” I replied. “I just didn’t like it.”

Eager to learn, he pressed. “Okay… what did you feel in your body?”

I closed my eyes to consider the question. With dismay, it hit me just as suddenly as my reaction had: it opened my heart.

In asana- the physical practice of yoga- we recognize that we store memories, emotions, and experiences in our bodies. Hip openers are where this is most frequently realized, as we hold suppressed or unaddressed emotions in our pelvic area. This energy can resurface as we lean into lizard’s pose or breathe through pigeon. It is quite common for people to experience intense feelings after a class with several hip openers, or even one hip-opening posture that was particularly powerful that day.

When we do body work, there are mental and emotional processes happening which allow for breakthroughs to occur on all of these levels. We are literally able to release past trauma and emotional experiences through physical movement and alignment with our breath and life force. With three weeks of daily yoga, I am continually surfacing new insights and emotions- and my hips flexors are subsequently finding more and more flexibility.

Just as the hips invite emotions to resurface, heart openers bring vulnerability and trust.

Enter my visceral reaction to my partner’s adjustment. This moment forces me to look at the extent to which I am resistant to vulnerability. With his adjustment, I experienced the loss of my usual protection: shoulders hunched over my chest creating a cloak that veils my heart from the world’s touch.

The next day in an asana class, we were invited to hold camel pose (an intense heart and hip opener) for an extended period of time. My sympathetic nervous system went crazy as my flight response kicked in urging me to avoid such openness. Instead I took long, deep breathes. I closed my eyes. I visualized the space just behind my heart, and I crawled inside.

I found a little girl there. I told her she was beautiful. Worth loving. Strong.

You see, what prevents me from leaning into vulnerability is not only my fear of pain. It is my lack of belief in the beauty of the unfiltered me. When I see the power and divinity within, I cannot help but share her. It is when this belief dwindles and my relationship to self suffers that I close myself off to others.

It seems like no coincidence that these are my current lessons when I have not blogged for four months and my last post was an emotionally raw poem exploring relational loss. Peeling back the layers of insulation I’ve carefully woven, I returned to that heart-space after class. I reminded the little girl that she has a powerful voice that should be heard.

She smiled. The brightness in her radiated outward, luminous and warm. Body heated and chest still open, I decided to write. About open hips and open hearts… or at least the journey toward them.

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Magic

In leadership studies, we borrow psychology’s notion of a “holding environment”. With this, we talk about creating a container for learning and growth to occur.

These images greatly inform my understanding of my professional work. As an educator, I don’t ‘grow’ my students; I don’t ‘empower’ them. In fact, I offer that you can never actually empower another, as it is antithetical of the word itself. I rarely even impart a specific fact/idea/opinion. Okay, I might give my opinions, but never as “the way” to think about something.

Instead, I create space. I help build the conditions for students– and myself– to engage in deeper levels of understanding. I ask questions. A lot of questions. And I encourage people to consider their stories in light of the larger backdrop of values, culture, and the world.

My understanding of my work harkens back to the mission of the Women’s Center with whom I worked previously: to invite women [people] to find voice, develop skills for transformation, and understand who they are called to be.

And when this holding environment is just right, when the conditions fostered are ones that provide safety and trust, and students boldly step into the container accepting the invitation extended, magic happens. I use the word magic intentionally here, for nothing else captures the power of these moments.

Do you know what I am talking about? When there is a shift in the air and suddenly what is being offered speaks to the human experience in a way that we often glaze over? The feeling of looking around a circle (it’s always in circles, isn’t it?) and knowing that you are being allowed to see– really see­– the people around you.

I am talking about the experience of watching as someone unfolds into their own Immensity.

To me, the significance of this work does not end in the moment itself, nor does the impact remain on a personal level. When we feel the transformative power of community, we ourselves are transformed. We experience healing. And in that healing, are able to engage in our lives from a place of greater wholeness. We gaze out into the world with new eyes for what it could be and with a new sense of agency in our role in making it so.

These are all things so desperately needed in the face of our changing, uncertain, and suffering world. In many ways, these are the moments that define and affirm my work.

Our last full day in Thailand was simply full of these moments for me.

Throughout every unit, students work on a media project where they choose a question or area of interest that they want to explore further. With limited access to the Internet and electricity, the projects in Thailand took an inward focus and creative forms.

As a part of their study of Sustainable Agriculture, a prominent theme was our relationship to food. A group of women looked at cultural messages around food and the body with spoken word poetry to share their reflections. Another group used personal interviews to develop monologues illuminating the notion you are what you eat. Others shared poems about big agriculture and short stories about a growing openness to organic practices.

The other core theme was one that looked at how life in Huay Thong Ko changed our perception and ways of being. One brave woman did an interpretive dance contrasting the life of her mother in the States with the life of her mooga in her Karen homestay. Three of our men wrote personal pieces on how their experience in the village changed their perspectives of rural living and constructs of “developing” (links to the projects coming soon).

The power in all of this was in the way that the students stepped into a vulnerable space, bringing their personal journeys into their learning and evolving ideas. There was a clear movement from previous media projects, which had been largely an academic exercise, to a practice of using lived experience in the pursuit of change efforts.

The students stepped away from disembodied questions of “what do I think?” and took up the more challenging inquiry of “how does this inform the way that I live?”

I cried throughout the entire thing.

Because, in their courageous acts of sharing themselves, they affirmed their own worth and potential. And they invited others to consider the same.

To me, at the root of social injustice is a neglect to honor the Light and dignity within all living things. To counter this, I believe that we need spaces where we can be ourselves, discover ourselves. And we need people who will find the strength within to look in the mirror and share what they see. I feel so humbled to accompany students on the journey of doing precisely this– it really is nothing short of magical.