May 7, 2014

Going With the Flow: Beginning a Yoga Practice in Mid-Life. ~ Kali Sampson & Akello Stone


Initiation by fire!

Three days a week, sweat drips profusely off my forehead, into my eyes, down my face, into my nostrils, and then lands, in perfectly-formed round droplets, on the gloss wood floor below me.

I am in downward dog, but I call it “hot dog” because within the first seven minutes into each class, steam rolls off my body like a wet paper towel inside a microwave and I am the personification of heat.

This has been my experience over the last 120 days, a yoga newbie, jumping head first into a Vinyasa ‘Flow’ Level 2/3 Yoga class. The fact is, I think I have gone to the dentist just slightly more than the number of yoga classes I have taken in my lifetime prior to starting this class 120 days ago.

Oh wait, there was that 16-week Hatha Yoga class I took in college in the 90s for 16 weeks—the early 90s—damn that was a long time ago come to think of it.

However, until now, I considered myself a yoga “virgin.” Sure, I dabbled with classes of all kinds—Hatha, Bikram, Kundalini—but never once did I stick with it.

As with anything, if we don’t fully commit we will, most often, fail to reach the potential we possess.

This story starts much earlier than a mere 120 days ago. In fact, it is more than a story about a middle aged man, tattooed with shaven head, who has been compelled to share his experience in a yoga class. It is a story about an unlikely friendship and creative partnership that developed over time between two people whose paths serendipitously crossed in the name of personal growth.

After suffering with lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbows) for over two years, and after numerous treatments of painful, temporarily effective cortisone injections, physical therapy and chiropractic, I sought out acupuncture as my next move. I found Kali’s clinic, “Lotus of the Nile”, just a few miles from my home. After nine treatments, the relief I experienced was phenomenal—I wanted to share my experience, and Kali’s exceptional knowledge and amicable personality, with the world.

We produced several videos demonstrating both the procedural aspects and the benefits of acupuncture and continued our joint work with the creation of numerous instructional videos about yoga. Over time, our work together culminated into a web series called “Yoga Intervention.”

Yoga Intervention Is Born

The show’s concept was simple, the production straightforward and the subject matter, personal. Several questions guided the development of the show’s core concept:

How can an everyday person, like myself, develop a yoga practice and utilize that knowledge to deal with everyday issues – both in the physical sense of movement and pain management, but dually in the broader sense of the application of those teachings into our everyday lives? How can people be reached – through “new media,” a web series in this case – and empowered them to take control of things they felt helpless towards?

Kali had the juice, the knowledge, the personality; I had the cameras, the editing savvy and the firm belief that if I could be influenced for my own betterment, anyone, and I mean anyone else could be as well. So the mission began and the mantra we adopted to describe it, “So much more than what happens on the mat.” Interestingly enough, I am realizing the mantra on a personal level, firsthand—the elixir we co-created was now my own panacea!

The Fruits of My Effort

While my initial motivation for taking yoga was to increase my physical health through a committed, rigorous practice, to my satisfaction, the result has been much more than I realized possible.

For starters, the 70-minutes of concentrated effort that the class I take with Kali has allowed me to “tune in” in a way that, other than through mediation, has allowed me to get to know myself much more than I did before.

I’ve gained confidence by committing myself to a regular practice that initially felt extremely unfamiliar, at times uncomfortable and still other times impossible. However I have persisted and find myself reflecting on some of the key lessons I have gained:

On the Mat. Breathing is critical to yoga practice—in the physical sense, it ensures an optimum oxygen absorption in the body as you take on postures and move from one to the next. In the metaphysical sense, the breath offers the potential for increased focus in being “present” and mindfulness that is active and engaging.
Off the Mat. In tense situations, I now realize how much I hold my breath! I tense up, inhibit my own breathing, which only adds to whatever challenge lies before me. Yoga has made me much more aware of the significance and importance of the breath—a necessary key to life that is often taken for granted.

On the Mat. Awareness of the “physicality” of ones own body—how we move, bend, balance, flex and compress. These key teachings, without the aid of a mere, are felt much more than they are seen.
Off the Mat. This awareness has translated into everyday life for me—the way I stand, the way that move, the consciousness I now experience through my tactile senses have been observably heightened.

On the Mat. Through modification of asanas and vinyasas, yoga becomes a customized practice where one is able to find, for themselves, what is accessible to them. It is not a practice of comparison, especially when the person next to you is in full bird of paradise while you can barely stand on one leg.
Off the Mat. I am much more cognizant of the way in which I compare myself to others are it relates to levels of success attained, how someone does this or that versus how I do it. This knowledge creates more self-love and less critical self talk, and ultimately, confidence as well as calm, begin to manifest deep within.

It is probably clear that I compartmentalize our friendship, our creative partnership and our respective roles of teacher and student.

The reason being that I want to be completely immersed in the practice without any “special attention,” in fact, Kali, treats all her students equally regardless if they are “beginners” or “experts,” known or unknown to her. This creates a very welcome and inviting setting for everyone who attends her classes, especially for people, like myself, who have shied away from group exercises classes in general where there are seasoned “yoga pros” in attendance. Secretly, however, I relish a public acknowledgement, every so often, of something I did well.

Hey, I am human, and I admit that I sometimes need some external positive reinforcement in the form of low-level ego stroking.

An Honest Dialogue: Teacher and Student

In writing this article, I wanted to not only share my experience from my perspective, but also have a dialogue with Kali about her experience bringing me, and others like me, along in developing their practice, and thus, this article became co-authored, just like that.

Akello: So, Kali, did you think I would last 120 days?!

Kali: Absolutely! There was a point about midway through that I believe you had a “come to Jesus” moment!

Akello: I carry extra “meat” in my mid-section (and I am sure many others do as well). I even asked you ‘what should I do and you said, without missing a beat, “Suck it in” (ha ha). But honestly, does this affect the ability to do yoga?

Kali: “Extra meat” in the midsection, is absolutely not an uncommon concern for folks entering the yoga practice. In terms of yoga postures, everyone’s unique body type will bring them face-to-face with challenges.For Stiff Stanley, it may be tight hamstrings and a stiff low back. For Bendy Wendy, it may be flexibility without the necessary stability and strength to be steady in poses.

With a thicker midsection, poses that require twists and spinal rotations will be challenging, but are precisely what are needed to target the abdominals, build core strength, and detoxify the digestive organs. With continued consistent practice, your eating patterns will start to shift to be more aligned with your healthy lifestyle, as I’m sure you have experienced.

As Sri K. Pattahbi Jois is noted for saying, “Practice and all is coming.”

Akello: From your observations of my ‘progress,’ what key insights has this provided you in working with beginners?

Kali: In some areas you were a bit of an unconventional beginner. Namely, jumping right into a Vinyasa 2/3 class. Generally, I wouldn’t recommend that a new student start here. What becomes tricky in starting in a higher-level class is the temptation to not take the modifications and jump right in to the fancier poses and variations that can take years of practice to approach mastery. Of course, safety is the most important issue here. With that said, you being in my class has been awesome!

The beginner’s mind is beautiful as it’s ripe with curiosity and enthusiasm, and taking the modification is not like being sent to the detention room.

Modifications are an excellent place to develop physically and build the mental fortitude to deepen a beginner’s practice.

A beginner advancing their practice is characterized by a deeper movement towards contemplation and inquiry. Obviously, I’m speaking of the yoga practice as one that includes far more than a fancy sequence of gravity defying postures, but rather one of fluidity of body and most importantly, mind, where the approach is breath-centered and initiated.

You come from a background of meditation and have a good amount of physical agility prior to entering the yoga studio. What working with you underscores is that when working with beginners, the emphasis on creating a space where the breath leads the way is essential. The breathwork is truly where the party is! In class you’ve heard me say this over and over. Each lead-up to a posture has a “party” embedded in it. It’s the space where foundational structural alignment points are observed, the breath is fluid, such that the mind has an anchor upon which to make and inward turn. This is where the fruits of mindfulness grow.

Who of the following students would you say is the more evolved? The student who rolls out their mat four times a week and is able to toss her/his leg behind the head then leaves the practice room being enraged during interactions with loved ones and strangers. Or, the student who rolls out their mat four times a week, tosses her/his leg behind the head then leaves the practice room ungrounded, spacey, and sticking their head in the sand on important matters. I suggest they’re both a mess! Perhaps we all are in some way.

The promise of the practice, a true breath-centered practice, is mindfulness — mindfulness with how you move in space, awareness with how your mind fluctuates and responds to internal and external stimuli, and how your maneuver in your world beyond the confines of the yoga studio.

This is when we begin to touch on yoga’s promised transformative potential. I tell beginners as well as more advanced practitioners that when you practice in this way your weaknesses will be revealed. And the gift, should you decide to take it, is that you have an opportunity right here to evolve.

The way you approach your practice is the way you approach everything.

If you “muscle and strong-arm” through situations in your day-to-day, your tendency will be to do the same in yoga. My question to that student is, “How is that working for you?” If you want to refine your approach to how you handle situations in your life, the yoga practice is a available as a safe playground to do so. If a student muscles her/his way through life, then my encouragement to that student is to back off just five per cent and see what happens.

Akello: The women in the class greatly outnumber the men—and, from my experience thus far, this is a seriously physically demanding class. Why is yoga so gendered?

Kali: These classes are no joke! Part of the mythology around the mainstream yoga practice is that it is somehow effeminate for men to practice yoga. Which is so untrue. As a woman, I find it very attractive for men to roll out their yoga mat, breathe, and work on themselves in the name of self-improvement. That is so sexy. And I am definitely seeing more men attending class, if only to share space with the beautiful women who show up!

We are socialized to think that men are stronger, better competitors, and the like.

Well, first, yoga is not a competition. This can be a hard mentality to break.

But the tendency for some is to size oneself up against the other folks in the room. So it can be quite humbling to see a woman who may be stronger or more advanced. The thought of that alone can keep some men away. But that’s totally a way of thinking that does nothing towards helping folks who practice accept the view that yoga is a self-healing practice. But the more that I see that view accepted, the more I see men show up and show out.

Akello: In class, you push us to “find our edge”—how does someone know they are really putting in work versus staying on that area of comfort we seem to always chase?

Kali: First and foremost I look at taking students into a safe journey into a pose, offering points of alignment that supports a student’s particular full expression of a pose. Playing your edge is that sweet spot where there is a good amount of work while keeping a focused mind and a steady breath. The poses do bring up sensation. The key is taking your approach mindfully to a place such that the physical body opens and the mental body is responsive yet calm.

A beginner can tend to do one of two things: either push too hard or not enough. For those who push too hard, the emphasis is to return to the dictates of the breath. For those who do too little the focus is on paying attention to the feedback the body is giving to the poses. You should feel the work of the pose, but not of course to a point of sharp, shooting, or throbbing pain. Awareness around this is a lifelong journey for sure.

The Evolution of Yoga Intervention

Yoga Intervention’s evolution is grounded in reality and emerged from the summation of the original concept + the culmination of my personal yoga journey + the positive results of the private instruction.

This trio has resulted in a web series concept that capitalizes on the motivational aspects of personal transformation as facilitated by a knowledgeable practitioner who uses yoga as a life-coaching vehicle.

It’s a fresh angle to solving age-old struggles and reaches people in a new way. I have agreed to share my story, our story, on camera throughout the developmental process—vulnerabilities, struggles and successes. We want to make a difference in the lives of others and agree on the approach, which truly allows the ‘participant’ to carve his or her own path towards a new sense of health, happiness and well being.

I know that people will have the courage to focus, if given the tools, and when they come to their own motivation. What I never expected was that I, too, a man in my early forties, with a high degree of resistance to certain new experiences, would arrive at my own incredible transformation.

As a result I’m learning, more and more each day, to breath, surrender and just go with the flow.


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Apprentice Editor: Guenevere Neufeld / Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Flickr / Thomas’s Pics

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Kali Sampson and Akello Stone