Yoga After A Year's Absence: Back To My Future
"Do not stop trying just because perfection eludes you." -- B.K.S. Iyengar
"Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured." -- B.K.S. Iyengar
"When I practice, I am a philosopher. When I teach, I am a scientist. When I demonstrate, I am an artist." -- B.K.S. Iyengar
As my never-alas-met, always-kept-in-mind, and ever-inspiring late master-Yoga-teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar, said: "Your body exists in the past and your mind exists in the future. In Yoga, they come together in the present." Like every good koan, Mr. Iyengar's seemingly simple statement requires more than a little time to unpack. In my own case, that unpacking has now gone on for the 32 years I have spent mostly on but sometimes (due to illness, injury, or the wild, fey vicissitudes of life) off my Yoga mat. My most recent hiatus from my chosen discipline, my favorite art-form, has lasted a full calendar year, and I have just returned to my practice (but not, yet, teaching) at Teaneck, New Jersey's Stone Center for Yoga & Health, the very first studio I found when I moved north from South Carolina in 2001. In fact, Charlotte Chandler Stone, the studio's founder, had moved about a block from her original location near Teaneck's Queen Anne Road, and I had simply thought she'd closed, like so many other businesses in Bergen County, during our Great Economic Depression. Not so: She'd enlarged her space, and had thrived... three blocks from my home.
For me, the studio where I choose to practice (and its teachers, students, and physical and spiritual space) comprises "my Yoga home," its composite elements as important as family members and friends, treasured paintings and recordings, books, long-used pots and pans, clothes, and the skin on my back. For me, a studio has always been a chapel, a temple, a dojo, a pilgrimage site, a constellation of altars. If it is not all those things, and most Yoga studios in America are not, it isn't a place I want to spend time, remove my street-armor, and lay open my body, mind, and spirit to the contemplation-in-motion that is Yoga. Anywhere I hang my hat is patently not home; and anywhere I may lay down a mat is not, either. If a studio isn't a sacred community, the practice within it will not accomplish Mr. Iyengar's goal: to bring body, mind, and soul together in the present. One must choose well and mindfully when one chooses a studio, and here, at the very, very end of my time in Teaneck, as I prepare for a move to another part of the country altogether, I have chosen to return to Stone Yoga, and to Charlotte, Ellen, Nancy, and Sue, the four teachers who have all, very, very gently and lovingly, brought me back to my mat, exactly as I find myself today.
Begin where you are.
Where I was, after a year of serious family illness, multiple surgeries, and various and sundry economic blows, was depressed, de-conditioned, and completely derailed, as far as my Yoga practice went (and as far as living in the present tense, as well).
At the very end of 2013, as I stopped teaching Yoga at various gyms and studios in northern New Jersey, and prepared for the coming physical and financial siege, I had neither the free time nor the disposable income to take class in Bergen County.
I took several Gentle Yoga classes in Englewood, and looked into studios farther afield, but lacked all motivation to commit to my mat, either at home or in any of the places I investigated.
Like Goldilocks and Cinderella, I was looking for a perfect "fit"... or none at all.
As well as a Yoga-home, I needed other like-minded Yoginis and Yogis as much as I needed Yoga. I required well-seasoned teachers who had never bought into the smorgasbord of "Show-Biz Yogas," fad sub-genres of the grand old Sub-Continental vernacular which have taken on the coloring of America's culture, and which feature competition, commercialism, and crass gimmickry.
I needed the opposite of Hot Yoga and Ashtanga-one-sequence-for-all. Cinderella here needed a bespoke glass slipper, and a group of fellow travelers wearing comfortable, well-worn duds.
I needed less, not more. I needed eyes-closed Yoga. I needed someone to keep this old racehorse from bolting out of the gate at full gallop. I needed... the real deal.
Finally, informed by my friend and fellow-Huffington-Post-blogger, Kathryn Livingston (Yin, Yang, Yogini: A Woman's Quest for Balance, Strength, and Inner Peace), that Stone Yoga was still very much a thing, I called Charlotte, and told her about my fallow year, disheveled psyche, and rusty joints. She welcomed me back to the discipline, but insisted I start slow and easy, taking class with only her, herself, Ellen, Nancy, and Sue. I was happy to put myself in her hands, and theirs.
Nancy Fader, like me, a Usui Reiki Master/Teacher, is also a certified Vedic Thai-Yoga Massage Bodyworker, a Middle Eastern dance performer, choreographer, and teacher, a professional Tarot reader and teacher, and a Yogini specializing in Yin and gentle/restorative Yoga. Nancy and I hit it off right off the bat, and, if she's not teaching, she's usually next to me on her mat. Woman's a fool for Yoga. Sue Pearly, in addition to practicing Yoga (most particularly, Structural Yoga) for 23 years, has studied shamanism for the past seven years and has become a Medicine Woman and a Reiki practitioner. Sue also begins every class with a poetry reading (her latest included a line from one of Dana Faulds' poems: "Leave something somewhere," and says she has only two speeds: slow and slower, which suits her students just fine. (By the way, I can attest to the fact that Sue has yet another speed: infinite.) Ellen Mendelsohn, at 72 my only elder on the Stone Center faculty, and 40 years a music educator, began studying Yoga a year before I did, in 1981, and teaches without a shred of self-consciousness or drama. She focuses on proper alignment which I, long-accustomed to Iyengar's rigor, settled into as second nature, but she also teaches to the student, not the asana: before her, we are all individuals, all individually-abled, and she focuses an eagle eye on each of us, tailoring her instruction for the Yogini with poor lymphatic drainage in one arm, the Yogini with osteopenia, the Yogini back on her mat after a year's absence. Charlotte Chandler Stone, founder and director of the Stone Center for Yoga & Health, began her practice in 1973 while a student at the University of Zurich. Charlotte holds many, many certifications in Structural Yoga Therapy, Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, Cardiac Yoga, Wellness Coaching, the clinical management of osteoporosis, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, and teaches both students and Yoga-teachers-in-training, and Yoga therapists, blending the techniques and wisdom of Structural Yoga, Viniyoga, Ayurveda, and Feldenkrais. Passionate about teaching the person, not the pose, she boils it all down to one mantra, however: "Love. Only love." Charlotte expands a bit as regards that special mantra. The words were those of her primary teacher, Mukunda Stiles, who developed Structural Yoga Therapy. His student and assistant, Charlotte attended Mukunda wherever he went over the course of the '90s and 2000s. "He was very powerful," she says, softly, "and he empowered me, calling on me to find what my own purpose was on this earth, and to go and fulfill that dharma." Says Charlotte, "Every morning, I wake up and know what I'm supposed to do that day... and go and do it." As I speak with her, and take class with her now, at the end of my sojourn in New Jersey, I can attest firsthand to Charlotte's remarkable growth and blossoming as a teacher and mentor since first we met, back in 2001. A charismatic and vivid presence in the classroom -- I like to think of her as a "maternal warrior of Yoga" -- Charlotte is surrounded by other strong students who have morphed into teachers in her presence and under her tutelage. But as highly-qualified as my three new (and one re-found) teachers are, they are first and foremost humble-at-the-head-of-the-class, and all display great good humor and joy in Yoga. There is no judgment here, no emphasis on rigid conformity to the perfect asana. There is, in fact, no past or future in their classes, just lots and lots of the present.
I am precisely where I need to be, right here and right now, and it feels -- as I leave New Jersey for good -- as though I've come full circle, and home.
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