Lift Your Ankles!
Expand Your Heart
I decided to spend today’s holiday at my office even though it was closed. I have been very anxious about my workload as I more enthusiastically embrace a strategic role that involves interacting with high level decision-makers, not easy for an INFJ who would really be very happy quietly thinking by myself, at least most of the time. It was a good decision. The office was empty and I was able to concentrate and prepare for an upcoming meeting. After 4 hours, which was the equivalent of about 104 hours of a regular day filled with meetings and distracting emails, I decided to balance the day with a yoga class at The Inyengar Institute, a studio that is not particularly convenient so I don’t go very often. It is not my “home” studio and I don’t know the students nor the teachers. It took some coaxing to get myself there.
It was a Level 2 class. You’d think by now, after all these years of practicing yoga and teaching yoga, I’d have advanced to at least a Level 3. But it seems that the more yoga I do, the more I’m aware of how much I can still learn from a Level 1 or Level 2 class. And how unwilling I now am to overdo it in a more advanced class and get hurt.
The class was filled with Manhattan yogi’s. But that doesn’t mean what you might think. They weren’t young, athletic, competitive, flexible. They were Iyengar yogi’s, which are a slightly different breed, mainly older. Perhaps wiser, because they’ve dealt with injury. There were a variety of body types and abilities. What struck me was that everyone stood straight, looked you in the eye, and was welcoming. Iyengar yogi’s. A good bunch.
The teacher, a thoughtful and inspiring Matt Dreyfus, greeted me, listened to me share my physical ailments and quietly observed my anxiety and tension and physical pain. He made sure I was safe the entire class, all while keeping track of about 30 other students.
Class began. A completely normal Iyengar class. Who knows when the completely normal class that might be ho hum for one person feels transformational for another? We chanted. So slowly that the OM reverberated through my body. We started working on poses. In Iyengar Yoga, (unlike Vinyasa where you move and flow dance-like from pose to pose with the breath), you hold poses, using props, and building toward a peak pose. It is perhaps boring. The endless and precise instruction. Or it can be exhilarating. Today it was exhilarating. Matt implored us to lift our ankles! We explored the subtle movements that this entailed. We watched him lift his ankles. We laughed at the absurdity of lifting your ankles. And then we felt how different we felt when we lifted our ankles. How our legs became longer. How our spine became longer. How our chest, our heart, expanded. How our breath moved more freely. Wow.
Then we worked on back-bends, those heart-openers that alleviate depression and remind you that it’s good to be alive. Helpful when so many are dying. We worked with the chair. I found myself slightly panicking. Worried about my neck. Worried I might fall. I breathed into my fear. And felt my neck relax. Exhilarated that I did it.
It reminded me of the power of yoga. When you change your body – Stand up straight! Lift your ankles! Stretch you armpits! Expand your chest! Feel your heart! Soften you eyes and your tongue! – you change your mind. The worries of the day-to-day seem petty when compared to the vastness, the divinity of humanity.
Matt spoke about the purpose of yoga. Most of us are so absorbed in our thoughts and attach great importance to them: worrying, fantasizing, planning, hoping, regretting, wanting. Always wanting. With yoga, we focus on the breath and bring attention to the poses which allows us to take a break from all that chatter in our minds. When we can pause and find stillness, we can begin to observe all those crazy thoughts and begin to realize that they are just thoughts. They are not real. They are biased by our experiences.
He encouraged us to feel spacious. Larger than ourselves, larger than our thoughts. When you feel spacious and larger than just you, you feel connected to others and are more able to stand straight, make eye contact, and be welcoming to all. You take your yoga off the mat and into your world. A little bit closer to Martin Luther King’s dream of freedom for all.