November 27, 2013

Thunder-Road: A Yogi’s Musings on Transition. ~ Caitlin Mulhall

So often people ask me what I like about yoga (sometimes I correct their question to say “What do I love about yoga.”)

It’s a fair question and one I have learned to gracefully dance around by  giving an evasive answer as I could never name only one thing I love about the practice. My response touches on asana, its philosophy, the community, and most people are satisfied with this all-encompassing reply or are quickly distracted as we trade stories of our personal journey.

I too have seen my all-encompassing answer as to what I love about yoga as acceptable until I was at the neighborhood bar with my Dad last weekend.

Stone Pony, a local Bruce Springsteen and the E. Street Band cover group was taking a break between sets preparing to play the “Born to Run” album cover to cover. Needless to say, the excitement was mounting and my Dad and I were speaking of our passions. His of horse racing and baseball, mine of yoga and Bruce Springsteen.

We weren’t so much sharing stories of them or the experiences we’ve had but instead, talking about what they do for us and how they came to be so central to our lives.

It was then, in “Glory Daze” Bar in my hometown that I spit out the answer I’d been secretly searching for, “Ya know what I love about yoga, Dad? The transitions.”

The movement between the movement. That is what I love about yoga. That space when you are stepping from where you have been and what you know into new territory. Once I began paying attention to the space between each pose, the emotional ups and downs of practice lessened.

When I hear “Utkatasana” (Chair Pose), I do not cringe at the prospect of burning thighs nor do I feel excitement at the mention of “Ardha Chandrasana” (Half Moon Pose). While some may claim that makes for a boring practice, I profess the opposite.

How exciting to know there is a time and place you can be solid. You can observe without judgment and move free of anxiety from one asana to the next.

Stories live in the transition. Life is a constant state of transition. One foot in front of the other, Inhales gliding to exhales, cells shifting, oxygen exchanging with carbon. All an intricate and unending dance. To be passive towards transition is to miss the story.

Believing there lies a static space in any asana is a fallacy. For every inhale there is a lengthening of the spine and expansion in the muscles, each exhale holds a deepening of the pose and a new edge.

Where I see beauty in asana practice is not landing in a handstand or Warrior One, but  rather in how we get there: is it with humility and grace, confidence, and power, holding on or letting go?

I do not propose there is a correct way in which to approach transitions; in one practice, I may fall towards my mat in Chaturanga (Low Plank) with my muscles engaged, fire in the eyes and earth in the body, another practice I may trickle into Chaturanga with water in the soft bend of the elbows and air in the heart.

Transition cannot be avoided. To take the movement with observation and care though is a choice one has every power to make. As a 20-something, I have been in a state of transition for a solid 10years: out of high school, into college, new jobs, friendships lost and gained, yet the greatest transition I have experienced occurred as my father and I danced together at the local bar, listening to Bruce Springsteen songs.

I realized I had begun a transition from dancing on my grave to dancing into life.

There are moments on my mat I could be flowing completely uninhibited and then out of nowhere will come a flashback. Sometimes I feel myself lying in a hospital bed with tubes in my arms and electric leads monitoring a faint heart beat, other times guilt, shame, and embarrassment riddle my balance and it is in these moments that I find comfort and acceptance in transition. I am no longer in that space—those harsh memories solidify into building blocks and transition to a new way of being.

Until I began to truly appreciate transitions and take ownership for how I make them, I felt abrupt and unsettled. The more mindful I become of the space between each pose, the more empowered I am. Whether I drag my feet or leap in faith, I will move. Why not do so intentionally so I will know exactly how I got to where I am, after all, sometimes you need to turn around.

While a practice mindful of transition can bring freedom to practitioners of life and yoga alike, it is important to take transitioning seriously and gently. One cannot move from “Natarajasana” (Dancer’s Pose) to “Garudasana” (Bound Eagle Pose) without a gentle release, strong muscles, and a solid drishti.

Once I discovered this concept, I began to slowly yet certainly learning to apply this philosophy to life. Learning to move on from one event and gracefully making my way to the next without judgment or expectation. While the transition from Garudasana to Natarajasana may be an extreme example of transitioning, the concept of mindful transition holds strong in the often overlooked, yet extreme transition form Adho Mukha Svanasana (Down Dog) to Virabhadrasana I (Warrior One).

Moving from an inversion to a standing posture. To consider how the shift occurs is truly mind boggling. Drishti rises from the naval, to the top of the mat, to the tip of the horizon, weight shifts from the shoulders and triceps to the legs and core. All the while ensuring that the hips face forward despite the fact that the feet are split to the front and back of the mat,  the ribs held in while the upper thoracic arches, and your entire perception is changed.

During asana practice, I look to how I take transition as a reflection of myself. This reflection is far more accurate than any I could find in a mirror. Am I moving slowly and gently, quickly and determined, or choppy and labored?

Times I find myself bursting into Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand) and toppling over to Urdhvaa Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose) are the days I realize I am longing to feel loved. It is my way of spreading love to those around me, so much so that my energy runs in every direction in hopes someone will feel my love and send it back.

Other days, I slowly contract my abdomen, tighten the hip flexors, followed by the thighs, and I shift the shoulders and drag the legs above the head. These are the days I feel so much love and so comfortable that I feel I must move carefully so things do not fall into destruction around me.

However I make the transition from feet to hands is neither right or wrong, simply a reflection and a guide.

The capacity to build union and create a flow in a practice using so many different and sometimes opposing muscles and physical commands is made possible through transitions. These seemingly small and often overlooked movements bear evidence to the fact that a series of small and intentional movements can create possibility in the improbable.

The most “advanced” variation of an asana is perhaps impressive,  yet there is a qualitative difference in the pose itself not only in how one gets into it, but also in how one transitions out of the pose. Pincha Mayurasana (Forearm Balance) can be empowering and refreshing when taken with the appropriate balance of ease and effort or painful if one comes crashing down.

So too can a posture be changed from an “asana” to an “ego pose” when pride inhibits the benefits of the pose and rather than empowering those around you, brings forth inferiority and competition among one’s peers. Moderation, humility, and gentility are of the utmost importance
when transitioning into and out of asana.

That moment between sets, as the band made its transition from one set to the next, I too began a transition. I could see it in the green eyes of a wise, loving, and well worn father.  A man who has had the loyalty to root for the Cleveland Indians year after year, loss after loss. A man who has had the courage to put his money toward a racehorse few others saw potential in. A man who has had the strength to hold  faith in his daughter when the odds of her finding her way out of a dismal dis-ease were against her. I

n the moment I shared my ideas of transition with my dear old Dad, I saw what he has known all along: that  the “Promised Land” is not at the end of “Thunder Road.” The “Promised Land” is the very land that “Thunder Road” is comprised of, a method of transportation and transformation.

While the whole of yoga, all eight limbs, inspire me to live a life I can feel proud of, I must admit the transitions are what I love most. The humility, the ease, the tension and release, and the building blocks that enable me to leave the past gracefully and step into the future with intention.

Yoga has helped me to find inspiration in every facet of my life so that I will live life as a beautiful transition,  and for that I am blessed.

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Asst. Editor: Edith Lazenby/Editor: Bryonie Wise

(Photo: Flickr)


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Caitlin Mulhall