As someone who teaches a lot, it is a blessing to be a student.  This past weekend, I was the student of Todd Norian, an Anusara yoga teacher from Massachusetts.  He offered a workshop called “Creating a Radiant Heart, Sharp Mind, and Vibrant Body” at Cityoga in Indianapolis.  The workshop consisted of four 3-hour segments, each with their own focus.  Todd is a gifted and intelligent teacher, capable of sticking to his agenda, creating a balance between seriousness and laughter, and connecting personally with everyone in the room.

It was a wonderful event and I wish I were able to convey the entire experience in this short post.  In lieu of this impossibility I will share three snippets—three learnings that have stuck with me since coming home (and soaking in a hot, epsom filled tub. It was 12-hours of asana after all).

  • #1 – The Helping Hand of a Friend

Todd raised the idea that the best teachers are great students.  Using the metaphor of a ladder he talked about the fact that we have to both reach down and up.  We have to both give and accept help.  We have to lead and be led.

Throughout the workshop we modeled this idea by continually partnering up.  In these partnerships we either practiced a pose with help or we offered help to a practitioner.  We observed each other’s backs and helped each other find correct spinal alignment, which will allow us to better feel correct spinal alignment on our own.  We also practiced poses that we cannot yet do by ourselves, but can better build toward with help.

Yoga practice is often thought of as a solitary affair, but our personal practice can be helped through the efforts of a good teacher or fellow practitioner.  I hope to add more partner work to my regular practice.

  • #2 – The Hyperextended Knee

Hello, my name is Summer Cushman and I am a hyperextender.

Hyperextending your joints, often the elbows and knees, might not feel painful.  In fact, it might feel good sometimes.  But hyperextension causes misalignment and can form habits that lead to injury.  When I was in teacher training, my teachers were always telling me to soften my knees and elbows.  I was able to get better about the elbows, because I can see them in Downward Facing Dog and Plank and because this hyperextension was directly related to pain I experienced in my wrists.  My knees, however, are something I continue to hyperextend even though I can see them in postures like Standing Forward Fold.

Todd had two local Indianapolis teachers assisting him during the workshop.  The assistant working my side of the room was named Ahna.  It was a gift to have her there.  In almost every pose, she walked up and lightly tapped the back of my knees.  Eventually I was making the correction whenever I saw her walking toward me.  They say it takes 21 days to build a habit.  I say it takes 12 hours of constantly being corrected to change one.  I told Ahna that I was going to put a picture of her face on my mat to remind me to soften my knees.  Even without a picture, I haven’t done a posture since the workshop without thinking about them.  Thank you Ahna for your consistent care.  My students will benefit as well; I’ve been lightly tapping the hyperextended knees I see all week!

Wondering if you’re a hyperextender?  Check out this great article for more information.

  • #3 – Doing One Thing

I have been pondering the idea of running a half marathon for a couple years.  My husband and quite a few good friends are runners and I have cheered them on through several races.  I’ve tried to become a runner more than once.  It seems to fit with asana so nicely.  It’s a form of exercise that connects mind, body and breath.  It’s something that can engage our internal focus and offers the potential for meditative action.  I love these qualities, but I hate running.

If I hate running, why would I sign up for a half marathon?  Good question.  Somewhere in my brain I have the nagging thought that I need more cardiovascular exercise.  I know that cardio work is a must in terms of overall fitness.  I know cardiovascular health is important, but I have allowed myself to believe that running is the only way to get it.  Why?

At the end of the second session of Todd’s workshop, after 3 hours of challenging postures –including intense backbends—we laid down in Corpse Pose for a final rest before our lunch break.  Todd is a musician and as he filled the room with the sounds of his meditation CD, rain started to pour down on the ceiling above us.  I relaxed more deeply into my mat than I ever have in Savasana.  I felt the weight of my body sinking downward and soft tears running down my cheeks toward my ears, but I wasn’t crying.  I was completely in tune with my body.  I was fully present in the moment.  The tears were simply a witness.

Do you know what came to my mind during this glorious state of relaxation and meditative absorption?  The fact that I do not need to run.  A quote from Swami Vivekananda—one that I have been meditating on during my home practice—pulsed through my body:

Those who really want to be yogis must give up, once and for all, this nibbling at things.  Take up one idea; make that one idea your life.  Think of it, dream of it, live on that idea.  Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave other ideas alone.

I need to focus on one idea.  The one idea can be broad—love or beauty for example—and doesn’t have to limit my exercise to yoga.  What is does limit is my tossing about.  It can help to limit my attempts to force myself in directions I don’t need to be moving.  In order to focus on one idea, one must first determine their idea.  Once the idea is known we are provided with a barometer, a way of focusing every action and decision.  Focusing on one idea means that we slow down before jumping in.  It means that we take the time to listen inward.

While lying on my mat, releasing my weight downward, I came to the realization that continuing to contemplate a half marathon was a distraction.  It was taking space in my head, space that could be better spent.

What have you learned in yoga class lately?