November 10, 2013

My Dirty Little Yoga Secret. ~ Yoli Ramazzina

I teach a vinyasa style flow class, and I cannot do chaturanga dandasana.

There, I said it. Call the yoga police and have the confiscate my Yoga Alliance registration card as I hang my head in shame.

Ok, maybe I’m being a bit melodramatic. But this is something that has plagued me for quite awhile now. It haunted me as I considered signing up for yoga teacher training. “But, I can’t do chaturanga, how can I possibly teach yoga? Well, maybe I could just teach a basic class…”

So why can’t I do it? Am I just a bad yogi? I’d like to think not.

Okay, you want to know my dirty little secret? I have weak arms. I’ve never been particularly sporty-spice. There was a year in high school that I got straight As, except for a big fat C in Physical Education.

I do like to swim. And I love yoga. I severely lack upper body strength. It’s just one of those things—the way I’m built, or whatever.

I have been practicing yoga (on and off) for eight years. But I have become much more serious about my practice the last couple years.  You know what else I was never able to do (until about 5 months ago)? Vasisthasana (side-plank). I always had to drop a knee—always.

Whenever I attempted to just give it a go without dropping a knee, my arm would quiver for about half a second and then I’d collapse. I didn’t want to injure (or embarrass) myself, so I gave myself permission to modify, and dropped my knee with dignity when vasisthasana was called out in class.

As yogis, it is extremely important to remember to listen to our bodies as we practice. Of course, we always want to strive to deepen our practice and work on improving and achieving various poses. But, if there is an asana (posture) that is not working for us, then we need to give ourselves permission to either modify or take a rest in child’s pose.

Yes, its great to challenge ourselves and dig deep, but we must remember to work at our “intelligent edge” (one of my teachers’ words) so we don’t harm ourselves.

Getting back to my weak arms, I suppose I could I could get a personal trainer or go to the gym everyday to lift weights and build up my arm strength. But who has the cash for a personal trainer? Not me. And lifting weights at the gym every day…who has the time? Again, not me.

I work full time (not teaching yoga, that’s just a bonus), I have a family, and to be honest, I just don’t want to. Don’t get me wrong, I love going to the gym when I (rarely) have a day off to myself.  I like to do a little cardio, take a yoga class, and then have a nice long steam or hot tub session. However, my day-to-day? I thank my lucky stars when I make it to the mat!

As much as I love my yoga practice, I have to make time for it, which I am happy to do. But trying to beef up my arms on top of it? Much easier said than done. Still, I wanted to be able to vasisthasana, and I want to be able to chaturanga. So what’s a gal to do?

Well, I decided to try focusing on my arms during my home practice. My home practice is spotty. I never had a home practice until I entered yoga teacher training, and even now it’s not a daily thing. I know a home practice is important, especially as a teacher, but I’m doing the best I can.

Anyway, at home my practice incorporates a lot of plank holding and dolphin pose. I also like to do handstand prep, where you start in a short down dog, with heels against the wall and then walk your feet up the wall to form a right-angle with your body. These asanas are all great for building strength in the arms. I can’t hold them very long, but I do what I can, and you know what? It’s made a difference.

After a few weeks of really focusing on these arm strengtheners, I gave side-plank another go, and I could hold it. Just for a few seconds—but still. Now I can hold it on each side for about 5 long, slow breaths. This feels so amazingly empowering.

It even makes me feel like maybe, someday I’ll be able to lower down (via chaturanga dandasana). Only time will tell—but hey, if side-plank is possible, who knows what I’m capable of?

So ok, I’ll keep on with the plank and the dolphin poses and all that. But, what about all those poor yogis who come to my class and must be taught by a teacher who can’t do chaturanga? I mean seriously, how dare I teach right? Actually, I hope you’re not thinking that about me, but in case you are, this is what I do: I teach ashtang pranam.

Instead of chaturanga, the four-limbed staff pose, ashtanga pranam is the eight-limbed alternative way to lower down when moving through a vinyasa (that link that connect the asanas in your practice into a “flow”).

You essentially drop your knees and lower down using your knees, chest and chin. This is a great option or modification for yogis (like me) that just haven’t attained the level of arm strength required to safely lower down via chaturanga.

So I teach and model ashtanga pranam. Depending on who is in my class that day, I might offer them the option to lower down using chaturanga, if they know it. If not, just stick to ashtanga pranam, I’ll suggest.

But what if there is someone who is strong enough, but they don’t know how to do it? Aren’t you depriving them of learning this pose?

Well, I have a solution for this too. Again, it depends on who the students are in class that day, but if there is someone present that knows chaturanga I may ask them to model the pose as I verbally explain it to anyone new to a vinyasa class. (Yes, I learned and understand the mechanics of it, even though I lack the strength to perform it.)

Nonetheless, I continue to have the internal struggle of, “You’re telling your students to take their vinyasa, and you can’t even do a proper chaturanga.” Yes, I am my own worse critic. If I’m modeling or moving through a vinyasa using ashtanga pranam, while the rest of my class performs chaturanga with ease, I feel twinges of inadequacy in the pit of my stomach. When I catch myself doing it, I try to remember to breathe and let it go.

My students aren’t there to judge me, they simply want someone to guide them through their practice—I can do that.

Maybe they need someone to offer modifications and give them permission to modify and rest when they need to—I can do that, too.

In fact, I strive to do that, because I recall the gratitude I felt when my teachers did such things.

It’s all good. Yoga is a journey. It’s a practice. It’s about forgiving yourself and accepting yourself, just as you are, without judgment.

I am a teacher now, but I will always be, first and foremost, a student at heart. I can’t do everything and I certainly don’t know everything. But I do have a great deal of passion for my practice, and I feel extremely blessed to have the opportunity to share it with others.

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Assist Editor: Melissa Petty/Ed: Bryonie Wise

{Photo: Emily Raun Yoga}

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