A lot has been going on lately. I think everyone’s feeling it, too — it seems not just me, but everyone I know, is perpetually Busy with a capital “B.” Our to-do lists and calendars are morphing and growing, and by the time we slam on the brakes and skid into the weekend, we barely enjoy our back-to-back schedule of personal work and play because we’re already penciling in what’s happening next week, and the week after.
Last year I went to the incredible Wanderlust Festival on Stratton Mountain in Vermont, and while it rained for three-days straight, I still remember how the entire weekend shook me up inside, clearing out all the cobwebs and sending me home with a smiling heart and renewed love for my practice.
I decided then that no matter what it took, I had to return in 2012!
When I arrived this past Friday morning, the mountain air was warm and clear, the sun was sparkling, and all was quiet as yogis of all ages, decked out in yoga pants of all colors, lengths and patterns, milled about with their coffees and kombuchas. Immediately I had a sense that what was to come would heal me at a level I didn’t even realize needed healing.
FRIDAY: Dance, Glitter, and Rolling in the Grass
The music morphed into a pulsing beat as Amanda Giacomini announced, “Now comes my favorite part of the class….” inviting us all to dance around the tent in a giant circle. Somewhere inside, I felt jarred off-center.
My first class of the weekend was Ganesh: Remover of Obstacles with Mr. Elephant Power himself, MC Yogi, and his adorable wife, Amanda. There’s something alluring and fun about MC Yogi’s hip-hop yoga music, which uses dance-worthy beats and rap lyricism to translate the stories of Hindu deities to an American audience. The songs tap into the little girl in me that used to choreograph dances with my cousins to Paula Abdul — and it was a desire to return to that playful, free spirit that drew me to sign up for the class.
But as the groove train got moving, I met my own obstacle: I felt silly, and couldn’t just let loose and… dance. I noticed my edges harden, I sensed a hesitation to leave my sacred space, and then I watched from afar as hundreds of other yogis danced across my precious mat, leaving behind their dirty, prancing footprints…
Really? Is this what I’m thinking about now?
Suddenly, I saw a good-intentioned yogi that’s been way to wound up and way too safe inside her pristine apartment for one too many to-do lists of time. Slowly, my rigid lurches turned into swooping hips, my arms moved farther out and wider into the sky. I looked away from the stampede of dancers on my mat, and instead looked up at the blue expanse above me and the wiggling form of Amanda smiling and swirling in the circle. At that moment, something was knocked loose and I felt a wave of freedom and excitement light me up.
There was a clear lightness in my step as I made my way to Here Comes the Sun, which was a continuation on the theme of Letting Go. Dana Flynn, a tattooed, glitter-dusting pixie and founder of Laughing Lotus in New York, didn’t flinch an inch when the sound system at the Dome (a giant, spherical tent with a bare grass “floor”) went dead. Instead, she asked a friend to jam out on his bongo, and moments later we were leaving the “safety of our mats” and moving where the music took us. This time, I stopped worrying so much about all the grass, glitter, and feet trampling my Manduka and instead circled the Dome, dancing like it was 1999.
Dana’s “liquid vinyasa” was so fluid and fun — we moved up, down, and around in circles, lifting our hearts to the sky, then bowing down low to kiss the Earth. It was freeing and soothing and when I was lifted from savasana, the drumming began again and everyone soared out of the Dome in a tizzy.
My final class of the day was with the Yoga Slackers: Redefining Balance. Somehow, intuitively, when I created my schedule months ago I must have known that I would desperately need a change of perspective, and to venture farther and farther from the control and structure of my mat. In this class, the mats were all tossed aside and instead, we climbed onto each other and the slack-lines, learning AcroYoga basics and attempting to balance and hover above ground on the yoga-equivalent of a tightrope.
Like a little kid transported to the elementary school playground, I rolled around in the grass, tumbled and fell, and ended up with a proud bruise or two. It was so much fun, that I totally lost track of time and wandered away in a daze, vaguely remembering that Oh Yeah, I should probably get some food and, Oh Right, I have to check in to my hotel soon… I felt so open and bubbly that when the sky opened up for an afternoon thunderstorm, I was rained inside the Brooklyn Kombucha tent because I’d been chatting and not my usually attentive self. It was perfect… I needed a dose of spontaneous joy, and between the cranking 80’s music and the growler of Jasmine “booch”, the rain seemed somehow momentous.
Back at my room, I took a cool shower and reluctantly washed away the glitter, grass, sweat and sunblock from the day. For the first time in months, I wasn’t planning. I wasn’t worrying. I wasn’t checking my email constantly. And I realized that even though my body was tired and achy, my knee was oddly bruised, and I had little patches of sunburn where I’d missed with the lotion — I hadn’t felt this purely, sweetly alive in quite some time….
It didn’t really matter that I wasn’t much of a fan of Ani DiFranco, who rocked the stage that night… because really, I was already dancing.
SATURDAY: Kula and Beyond
The lightness in my step from Friday woke me bright and early, and I was psyched for a day of more traditional asana classes with three different teachers from the Kula Yoga Project in New York.
What I love most about Kula Flow yoga is also what makes it very difficult to write about: the creativity of the sequencing and the depth of the experience makes it totally involving and transformational. It enables me to be so lost in each individual breath and movement, that in retrospect, I can’t entirely recall the details of the experience — I can only feel them, deep in my core.
Stephanie Sandleben‘s Twisting and the Fluid Body was a beautifully cleansing class and the perfect way to get blood churning and the juices flowing early in the morning. We thoroughly wrung out the entire body, twisting into every direction and stoking the digestive fires. But for me, Saturday was all about pushing beyond boundaries: how far can I really go? How strong do I believe I am? What happens when I surpass my own expectations?
These concepts were sparked in Stephanie’s class during a particularly long hold in parivrrta parsvakonasana (revolved side angle). The flow had us working our quads and glutes for an extended length of time, and as I reached this final posture, I remember feeling a furnace of heat in my thighs… thinking, I can’t hold this! and I need to pace myself for the rest of the day. But then, reaching somewhere inside, the thought, No, I can do this! — and a rising of energy and new breeze of strength. As I exited the pose on cue, I felt a surge of power and pride in my own capabilities.
High Altitude followed, with Schuyler Grant‘s signature blend of wildly inventive and devilishly challenging vinyasa. As the owner of Kula Yoga Project and one of the Festival’s founders, Schuyler’s no-bullshit style of teaching is softened by the layers of self it uncovers. Her classes always push me, but in such careful, systematic ways that my own body’s strength is revealed to me in both surprising and humbling revelations. At one point in the class, she directed us into a version of standing splits, where our arm, shoulder, and side-body was actually behind the standing leg. I’m not sure how I got there, but as I found myself solid and grounded in this unusual position, all preconceived notions about my own abilities were totally shattered.
My Kula yoga adventures culminated with Yoga Soundscape, a mish-mash of vinyasa flow and Kundalini kriyas — repetitive movements said to clear blocked energy channels and purify the body. Set to live DJs orchestrating electronic bliss and led by the spunky Aarona Pichinson, the class took me to the last level of boundary-busting: the mind. Holding your arms level for 3 minutes, sweat dripping from your brow, and breathing slowly as you turn your head from side to side over, and over, wrenches you to new levels of intensity and self-dialogue: “I can’t. Do. This. Any. Longer….” and then, “Yes. I. CAN!”
Dropping into savasana, totally spent, I saw a new version of myself I hadn’t seen before: one that was stronger, more open, and able to ease beyond the ceiling, into the sky, and beyond.
Ziggy Marley headlined the Mainstage that night, and by then, my fellow yogini, Zosha Pierse had arrived and brought my third wind…. I pushed beyond fatigue, and found myself dancing yet again. This time, I was celebrating all that this festival had opened for me, and all that it was: a surging, dynamic crowd of babies, kids, and adults; hipsters, jocks, and hippies; all colors, all sizes, and all nationalities… but mostly, no one that conveniently fit into any one label. But we all had one thing in common: whether it was swaying side to side of leaping up and down, we dug the reggae groove and raised our voices in synchronicity every time Ziggy sang, “Looooo-ove is my religion….”
SUNDAY: Farther Horizons
Anyone that’s been practicing yoga for awhile knows that every now and then you hit a wall, finding yourself in a yoga rut. It’s not that the practice isn’t providing its usual benefits, it’s just that you need to peel back another layer of depth to explore and experience.
Sunday was a day of discovery: widening my vantage point so that everything I know of the practice was deepened and broadened.
It began with The Art of Hands-on Enhancements, a class for teachers that was more about connecting with and expanding a student’s experience of a pose, rather than correcting or adjusting. The teacher, Twee Merrigan, had me immediately entranced as she shared a story about her Mother’s Vietnamese prayer ritual. With a profound respect and appreciation, we all bowed our heads and pretended to light incense as she guided us through this opening “ceremony.”
A Prana Flow teacher, Twee credits Shiva Rea as her primary teacher, and while I’m not usually one to talk about energy or auras, there was a definitive sense of vastness, wisdom and profound sensitivity in her presence. She was a tiny thing, but radiated with love and a desire to engage and share. When a student walked in very late, within the last half-hour of the class, she not only welcomed the woman but brought her right to the front of the class and included her in a demo so that we could all benefit from her fresh perspective on the enhancements she was teaching. There wasn’t the slightest hint of irritation that this woman had missed more than half the class — it was simply her nature to see the beauty in the moment.
Twee’s innate compassion and brilliant techniques opened my eyes to new ways of teaching and reminded me of the incredibly dynamic relationship between teacher and student.
Love, Light and Flight: AcroYoga Therapeutics, followed — and to be honest, I really had no idea what to expect. Since it was the last day of the festival, teachers Jenny Sauer-Klein and Adam Rinder ingenuously offered the class to soothe everyone’s tired muscles through Thai massage and partner acrobatics. The concept totally blew my mind and was like nothing I’ve ever experienced in a yoga class.
We partnered up after a brief and gentle flow, and were led through a Thai massage sequence that covered every major muscle in the body, rocking and kneading us into putty. Then, we took turns basing (the name for the person on the bottom) and flying (naturally, the person lifted off the ground) in a passive forward bend that simultaneously massaged the flyer’s hips while opening and grounding the base’s sacral muscles. Not only did I feel fantastic afterward, I was excited by this whole new dimension to yoga and how to connect with a partner in a mutually satisfying way.
Since both of my morning classes were pretty low-key physically, I was ready for some physicality by the time I rolled out my mat for the climactic class of the weekend: Let it Flow with Schuyler Grant and Elena Brower, two of my favorite teachers. Before the class began, Schuyler joked that a student told her to “kick our asses,” and that if we weren’t happy with what was about to ensue, we should talk to “the lady in the turquoise tank top.” She certainly wasn’t kidding! Fortunately, I was ready for a challenge because the vinyasa flow that followed was super-strong, building towards mayurasana (peacock) pose — an arm balance that, as Elena explained, we’d be “happy to leave until next year.”
While I can’t say that I nailed mayurasana, what I can say is that in that class, I rediscovered my groove. In my home practice, I’ve been struggling with forcefulness that’s resulted from having little time for practice and feeling uninspired and overwhelmed. But as we shifted into arm balances, backbends, and deep hip openers with little time to pause in-between, I felt at peace with my body, clear about where to push and where to ease off, and a poetic conversation between mind and body that left me reeling with joy. I remembered where yoga can take you when you listen, and remembered why I’ve been traveling this path.
As Zosha and I parted ways, ready to make the 3-hour trek back home, we daydreamed about next year… Maybe this time we’ll go out to California, too? There’s a Wanderlust in Lake Tahoe, after all, and I’m quite certain, many more eye-opening experiences to be had. But as I made my way down the mountain one last time, I knew one thing was for certain: I wasn’t the same yogini that arrived three days earlier. I had learned to walk outside the confines of my mat, dance under the sky — rain or shine, realize the depth of possibility yoga would always offer, and stand firm alongside my wanderlust heart.