I first encountered yoga in the early 1970’s with my mother, watching Lilias, Yoga and You on our local PBS channel (she has a website now, and a series of online classes). She had a wonderful spare studio, and a leotard with a line on the side to emphasize her alignment.
My second exposure to yoga was when I signed up for a yoga class as my Phys Ed choice at the University of California, Santa Cruz. This class was my first experience with the yoga practice as taught by Mr. B. K. S. Iyengar, of blessed memory. I loved the precision, the attention to alignment, the introspection and commitment to getting the poses right for the individual body. Ever since, I have sought out Iyengar teachers to learn from. I respect other approaches to yoga, but Iyengar works best for me. One lesson from my teacher there (I can’t remember her name, but she had tremendous energy!) was that “You do yoga the way you do life.” At the moment that she was saying it, I was acutely aware that I was measuring my pose and flexibility against the others in the class. Was I bending as far? Was I in perfect alignment? I remember smiling at myself and thinking, “Yes, I do both yoga and life competitively.”
After graduating from UCSC, I started taking classes at the Palo Alto Yoga Center (I think that was what it was called). It doesn’t seem to exist anymore – at least, I can’t find it online. It was a lovely little studio, that hosted Sufi discussions in the evenings. I don’t remember paying a lot for classes – I think it was a drop-in rate of $15 per class.
When I came to the Washington DC area, I heard about the Unity Woods studio early on, but it took me a few years before I was able to start taking classes there. When I was doing my fellowship at the NIH in Bethesda, I was just a short distance from the studio, and I started taking classes there regularly, and got fairly strong in my practice. Balance and standing poses have always been a challenge for me, and I remember vividly when I got comfortable with Arda Chandrasana – Half Moon Pose. It looks like this:
The entire body is in a single plane, and the trick, if there is a trick, that I discovered when I finally felt I had begun to get the hang of it, was that the joy of the pose was in stretching all four limbs in their fullest extension. The feeling is a bit like being a starfish – you achieve balance by committing to the pose fully, not by trying to control it, or pulling inwards. So, it became my favorite pose, after struggling with it for years.
But, then I started working in Baltimore – a 45-60 minute commute from home – and getting to Bethesda for classes became a challenge. I looked around in Baltimore for Iyengar classes, but didn’t find anything that seemed to work for me. Last summer, I signed up for Sunday morning classes at Unity Woods, and have been humbled by the recognition that I have a long way to go to get back to my joyful and exuberant expression of Arda Chandrasana. And it’s an interesting experience – to know what to do, and how it feels to do it, but not to be able to (yet).
That feeling of letting go of control, of achieving full expression by relaxing and committing to the expression. It works in yoga, it works in singing, it works in swimming – probably in most activities of life. So, again, I face the idea that you do yoga as you do life. And relearn the lesson that to approach the goal, you have to let go.