August 1 & 2, 2009
Mary Paffard and Maggie Norton: Safety and Ease in Backbends
Ann Dyer: Ease in Backbends continued, and Chanting 101
Yoga Mendocino, Ukiah, California
I had pretty much decided I wasn’t going to go to this year’s summer intensive at YOMO. The full weekend with Marta Mahou from Madrid was sounding too rigorously Iyengar and I just didn’t want to be gone for two nights or do only part of the workshop. So when an email came saying Marta had canceled and would be replaced by Mary Paffard and Maggie Norton and an expanded offering from Ann Dyer I decided it sounded more what I was geared for and I decided to go for it.
Mary and Maggie started the Saturday morning with a three hour partner session for backbends. My shyness and discomfort in partner work needs a shift, so I welcomed this opportunity and cast my usual apprehension aside. With only 14 students Mary and Maggie were able to work with virtually every duo or trio in every pose, really making sure both the pose doer and the assistant were guided skillfully. Maggie opened by reading a beautiful Rumi poem “Birdwings” to set the tone. Mary warmed us up with a bouncy sun salutation, rhythmically bending the joints through the moves….imagine doing a sun sal on a train. It was quite fun and certainly got everyone smiling.
The partner and trio work were designed to give the pose doer gentle guidance rather than mind-blowing revelations, and as such took on a somewhat luxurious feeling rather than causing me my usual anxiety. It was a very nurturing atmosphere, but not at all cloyingly so. In twos we did revolved triangle, elbow balance, and thigh stretch at the wall all with a belly assist. Also in pairs we did camel with the partner’s feet pressing opposite directions on the back (this was excellent) as well as down dog with partner pressing her head into the thoracic as she rotated the upper arms out; and bridge with a mat folded in to fourths the long way in place of the usual strap on the scapulas. In threes we did supine mountain releasing rib cage and scapulas with downward pressure. We also did wheel with those same folded mats under the blades held by one partner and under the pelvis by the other. The blades person pulled in her direction and the pelvis person pulled in hers and then they rocked the pose doer hammock style. It was a very comfortable wheel. The grand finale was Mary assisting anyone who wanted into a handstand into eka pada wheel at the wall stunt. First you did a wheel with toes at the wall, Mary marking where your hands were. Then you turned around to go up into handstand at your wheel’s distance from the wall. Mary leveled your pelvis as you came over, pressing one foot into the wall and walking the other one down so you ended up in eka pada with top leg on the wall. Then you brought the down foot back up and pushed off as Mary guided you back up and over to your feet.
Mary and Maggie complement each other wonderfully. They both revel in the subtle, yet don’t lose the fun. Maggie exudes compassion and Mary’s a little tough. Both are funny, experimental and they really listen and observe keenly. A lot of my partner baggage fell away during those three hours. The group of students were almost all teachers or trainees under Mary and Maggie’s tutelage, so they practice the same patience and care exhibited by their mentors. What a treat.
Ann Dyer’s afternoon session was a more easeful practice, and was mostly focused on the role of the lats in backbends. She opened her session by having us lie in savasana while she sang a raga. Her voice is beyond my powers of description. Ethereal, sweet, profound, heartfelt just don’t quite measure up, but it is all these rolled into one and more. The sound lingered in the room vibrationally as we began asana practice. We did some bolster work and some dog work showing how to extend the lats at their opposite ends: the upper arm and the low back. We did partner work in bow where the partner pressed the sacrum down and broadened it, leaning in from the pose doer’s head, facilitating the most pain free bow I’ve ever done. Everyone’s sternum was lifting off the floor with so much freedom.
Ann is a wonderful teacher. Tall and statuesque with a calming presence she has a vaguely Erich Schiffman quality to her physically. She is a little sharp, betraying her Iyengar underpinnings, but is also very verbal and articulate, as well as funny. During her more active backbending practice the next day as she had us all probing for some subtle shift in our hind ends to ease entry into backbends she put the perplexed roomful into laughter as she announced we were “bifurcating the buttocks”. The session explored the roll of the hamstrings in lengthening the thighs and lifting the pelvis without clamping down through the glutes. The detail and subtlety of the work (she called it tedious a couple times, but I find it fascinating) reminded me of Mary Lou Weprin.
The afternoon was Ann’s “Chanting 101” workshop and it was everything I had hoped for. I have long shied away from kirtans because of my aversion to crowds of blissed out people, and from formal chanting because of my sense that I couldn’t possibly do justice to such a sophisticated practice. Ann made kirtan joyful but mindful and chanting accessible. She introduced Indian classical music with words and sound, speaking of it as devotional rather than performance oriented. Something to be felt within the body rather than projected away from it. She taught us how to breathe into the “pubic belly” to deepen the sound and the feeling of it. We did an exercise showing how each vowel sound has a resonance with a different chakra. She talked about om a lot, as a sound practice and philosophically. We explored its beginning (Brahma), middle (Vishnu) and end (Shiva). We did the Gayatri Mantra and Jai Jai Bhavani Mata (a Shiva chant).
She interspersed instruction with relaxed story telling, threads of sound from her own amazing instrument, and openly answering questions. When someone is so passionate and knowledgeable about what they’re teaching it is truly inspirational, and when it happens to be music it is also so moving on our very most primal level. The session crescendoed with kirtan. Now that I know that kirtan evolved as chanting for the masses about a thousand years ago when chanting had formerly been restricted to male Brahmins I have a new “power to the people” tude about it. I’m not rushing out to buy every Krishna Das album, but I have new found and complete respect for the practice. We did a couple kirtans, and then Ann got us into doing one part while she accompanied with another, and then divided the room so one section was doing one part as the second group did the other. I have truly not felt that kind of pure joy since I was little kid singing unselfconsciously in grade school music class, one of my favorite early school experiences (and one that was ruined in an instant by a teacher once telling me to “just mouth the words”). When the class was over Ann genuinely complimented the group saying that we were especially open and receptive to the practices. I have to think it was all the easeful backbends, taught in such a liberating and decompressed way by three excellent teachers that made us such open-hearted music students.
The weekend was a brilliant synthesis of asana and sound, making real for me once again the way yoga illuminates connection, insists on presence, and tunes one in to the omnipresent and all encompassing vibration of life.