Practice makes practice

Week 1 – Asana: Creating Ease in Body

We use bear breath in the gorilla pose, then transition into curved dolphins. Our summer camp cool-down activity is yoga. My 9-year-old camper with an autism spectrum disorder has a fixation with animals — mostly underwater creatures. When he’s elevated, we spend at least a half hour writing out facts about dolphins. His file says: high anxiety; can get angry; low muscle tone; might wander. Sounds like a nine-year-old me.

We’re lions now, on our hands and knees. We contract our spines into an angry cat, then arch and roar like Simba. My camper is standing, bouncing around and roaring so loud that it’s difficult to hear my co-worker who’s facilitating the class. I ask him if he’d like to go outside for a moment and do a few of our own exercises. He agrees, eyes darting in figure eights.

Once outside he says, “I need deep pressure. My engine is running high. Squeeze my hands.” Someone, his parents I assume, taught him this vocabulary. I squeeze his hands for three big breaths, then release as he tells me that in the wild, lions rest for about 20 hours per day. We do 10 squeezes, and his eyes begin to focus on mine.

An instructor named Patanjali developed the Yoga Sutras around the second century AD, a sort of “bible for yoga.” Boiled down, they became the Eight Limbs of Classical Yoga. Patanjali defines yoga as the realization (in direct experience) of the union between the individual consciousness and the universal consciousness.

These are big concepts to digest, especially when we think about the instructor wearing a full-fledged $500 Lululemon outfit to help wick away moisture. Asanas, or physical postures, are only one element of the Eight Limbs.

I’m guilty of owning a couple Lulu leggings (they’re just too darn comfy), but I also wear the same loose-fitting tank to every meditation class because it makes me feel like . . . me.

Week 2 – Niyama: Personal Observances

This week’s camper has left hemisphere cerebral palsy, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, nonverbal learning disorder, sensory processing disorder, anxiety disorder, seizure protocol, and a severe case of shingles that were cleared as “non-contagious” only a day ago. She’s also a 13-year-old girl who loves Selena Gomez and who lives her life by the line, “You do you, and I’ll do me.”

She tells me her friend’s dog Pekoe (just like the tea!) has a red collar. As a result of her combined CP and anxiety, it takes her eight minutes to say this. A verbal or physical lash-out is guaranteed if she’s pushed or prompted in any way.

We’re playing a Wii-simulated dance-off game. Selena’s,“Fly to Your Heart” comes on, and she takes to the dance floor. I give her a thumbs up, but I’m shifting in my chair.

Someone elbows her stomach by accident, and I imagine a shingles sore reopening. I’m there in a heartbeat, placing my body between her and the naïve bouncing boy. I look at her and say as loudly as I can with my eyes, “I am so sorry that happened to you.” There isn’t time to speak. Usually she would try to punch him, but she funnels her hurt and anger into striding away — a brave decision. Then she trips over her pant leg, and I’m too late.  Her tiny arms with limited mobility fail to break the fall. She crumples on her side, then her shoulder, then her head. I imagine more sores opening. I run and kneel beside her, at the mercy of whatever she needs. Her feisty anger has completely evaporated, and all that’s left are tears.

“I’m just so tired of having a disability,” she sobs. “I’m tired of hurting everywhere, all the time.” This takes her seven minutes to say. I want to cry with her, hold her, give her a body and a voice that will let her be loved, and love herself in return.

After work, I choose the top left corner of Moksha Yoga’s cramped studio. Britt Buntain sits everyone up and welcomes the group with an inviting smile. She likes to make eye contact with the entire class before teaching.

Before becoming an instructor, Britt found herself in a great hole of anxiety, and yoga provided an “out.” After learning and practicing for years, she thought, “Do enough people know about this?” and voila, a passionate instructor popped into the world.

Britt weaves between each person’s mat, each energy, each story. Perspiration seeps into the spaces separating our squares. I realize that although we’ve decided to be here together, it’s okay to simply be with ourselves.

Hips, shoulders, noggin, and responsibility are granted permission to sink into the floor. I allow Britt to lift me up.

Week 3 – The Yamas: Universal Morality

My camper has been looking into the pop fridge at Hot House Pizza for five minutes. It’s our first field trip this week. She’s a 15-year-old in a 20-something-year-old’s body, stronger and taller than me with an extensive anger management plan. I ask if she’s ready to learn how to decorate her own personal pizza, and she says no, she wants a ginger ale. I explain to her that the pizza is our free gift — the pop is a display, and we have our water from home to drink. She’s not having it.

She takes the can out of the fridge and throws it at me. It hits my arm, then bounces off the counter and fizzes like a volcano on the floor. I say, “I see that you’re very upset right now, and that makes me sad. How can I help you?” She grabs my arm and pulls me across the floor, screaming mixtures of “I hate help! I hate you! I just want it!” I let my body be dragged this way and that, aware of her autism and epilepsy protocol, hoping a seizure isn’t in the cards.  Her behaviour plan suggests that I remain positive, perhaps offer a mental barter system to de-escalate, but I fear she won’t buy anything I have to say.

She shouts, “Why won’t you listen to me?” grabbing my binder and throwing it at my feet. Suddenly, she’s clutching my arm, her forehead resting on my bicep. The gesture is almost tender, like she needs to tell me something but can’t find the words. She then yanks away once more, perhaps remembering that she’s angry. I can’t help it: tears brim then flood my eyelids. Although I know this is her avenue to communicate, I’m taking it personal, and need to bow out.

I hold a pigeon pose in Pilar Munoz’s Yin class, another yoga instructor at Moksha Yoga Victoria. Right leg is “C”-curved in front, the left snaked straight behind. I’m learning that my ego initially pushes the stretch too far, and I fear pulling out of the pose — someone might be watching. At this point, I tell myself to allow restraint and ease into a place that’s both comfortable and challenging. Only then does my mind sit with the posture.

“I’m playing with what it is to be ‘soft’ lately,” Pilar says. “Slowing down is something that’s missing from society — people don’t think it’s wise to be slow and soft. They tend to use words like ‘weak’ instead of soft, and I’m trying to explore the strength we can all find in being soft.”

I feel Pilar’s hand rest a ‘hello’ atop my sacrum, gently guiding my pelvis to find its full weight. I think of my camper’s forehead, and how it softened against my bicep. I imagine my hips are melting or drowning into a puddle on the studio floor. Only when Pilar cues us to transition out of the pose, when I don’t want to move, do I realize that I’ve simultaneously restrained and let myself go.    

Week 4 – Pratayahara: Control of the Senses

One of the kids belts Frozen’s “Let It Go”. The summer camp crowd goes wild. I’m giving the usual play-by-play: “Oh, now she’s walking to stage right, and my, what a beautiful dress she has on — lots of shoulder padding. And a pirate hat!” My 7-year-old blind camper giggles. A pirate hat. How silly that would look with such a poufy dress.

As we watch, my blind camper teaches another 7-year-old nonverbal camper how to make sand castles. We’ve brought our own bin and Dixie cups.

“How do I say, ‘Do you love the sand?’” says my blind camper.

I gently cup her hands in my own. We point them at the nonverbal girl.

“Do you,” I say, “love . . . ” I cross my blind camper’s arms in an X-marks-the-spot across her chest, then unfold them and tell her to rub the right fingers and thumb together like she’s feeling velvet.

“ . . . the sand?” I say.

My nonverbal camper grins and bounces as her thumb and pinky finger bunny-ear-lift from a fist; she shakes her hand from side to side — American Sign Language for “YES!”

 . . . Can’t hold back anymore! Let it go, let it goooooo!

My blind camper asks me what the other girl “has.” I gather my thoughts for a moment, and decide to use the big words. I tell her it’s called Global Developmental Delay, and sometimes one of the symptoms is not being able to talk.

“Huh,” she says, turning to the other girl. “I think you have a lot to say.”

With all my might I wish I could communicate this sentiment to my nonverbal camper. Instead, I sign to her that she’s beautiful and smart, a half-moon face smudge and a tap to the temple. YES! She smiles.

I think my girls just had a conversation.

Patanjali describes this Pratayahara stage as “consciously moving our attention away from the input of the senses.” We close our eyes; shut out the non-stop stream of visual stimuli; say nothing. We are, more importantly, taking time to sense ourselves.

“One time, when I was showering, I couldn’t remember if I’d washed my face or not, so I just washed it again,” says Heidi Fox, another instructor at Moksha Yoga Victoria. “Then a few minutes later, I found myself with soap in my hands, ready to wash it again — interesting, after I’d already had that moment of recognition.”

I’m lying on my back in savasana. Heidi’s voice hums above the studio air vents, a melody of Sanskrit lyrics I don’t understand, but that sounds like sandy beaches and giggles and grasping fingers, which I think I know something about. She tells me later it’s a lullaby she made up for her daughter.

“I want people to know that it’s totally normal to wash your face three times,” says Heidi. “That’s what practice is all about — to keep checking in.”

I let the room’s warmth envelop my mat and allow myself to wonder what this complete darkness might feel like indefinitely; how I might speak without words; whether I might be able to teach these lessons to another one day. For now, I allow Heidi to teach me with her melody alone. All other sensations fade into the background.

“You know what they say, practice makes perfect,” Heidi tells me later. “I’d take that further and say practice makes practice.”

Week 5 – Pranayama: Breathing Exercises; Controlling the Life Force

Britt uses visual imagery for breath: spread your breath out, all the way up to your fingertips, and down to your toes.

Pilar loves to simply watch people breathe. There’s something about a room full of people filling their lungs to the brim then exhaling together that brings you back to the simple aspects of being human.

Heidi believes that although music can be calming, it must be secondary to breath. Otherwise, it’s a distraction.

I think of each class I’ve taken with these teachers, and how breath seems to be the common thread. Stepping outside the studio, the smell of pungent leaves or ocean spray fills my nostrils. I inhale a second longer during foggy bus stop waits, while brewing coffee, or while roaming a seaweed beach with campers — consuming each moment. Who would think we need reminders to breathe, and to breathe fully?

Week 6 – Dharana: Cultivating Inner Perceptual Awareness

Mat in the living room. Mat in the studio. Mat in the grass. No mat? Invisible mat in the laundromat. I try to take yoga with me wherever I go: balancing on one leg while reaching for a peanut butter jar in the kitchen; lying on my welcome mat in savasana; breathing my body into a topping tree in the living room while my rice boils. Moving, being still, learning, teaching myself so I can teach others, exploring, playing . . . practising. As Patanjali would say, “creating a fertile field for the evolution of the spirit.”

Week 7 –  Dhyana: Devotion, Meditation on the Divine

Mat in my mind: How to involve a young, wheelchair-bound man in a cooking class? Let him serve guests with his tray. How will she catch a ball without being able to see? Tape a bell to that ball. Gain the respect of a nonverbal, sport-crazy boy with Down syndrome? Pass him a football, and be (genuinely) horrible so that he can teach you his skills. Gain an anxious camper’s trust? Listen. Help a young girl with arthrogryposis, whose right leg is an inch shorter than the other? Treat her like one leg isn’t shorter than the other. Play hide-and-seek. Watch her shriek and run.

Week 8 –  Samadhi: Union with the Divine

Patanjali relates personal observances to Santosha, or contentment: “willingness to be at peace with whatever is,” even if it’s the fact that we’re not content. I’m not sure if I’m content just yet, but I think I’m allowing the idea of contentment to seep into my mind. I cannot always save everyone, help everyone, give everything of myself. I can do my best — simply be — and allow myself to accept that this is enough.

To be a leader, I must be a student. I must watch and enable each child, and myself, to become a teacher. I must learn from these teachers once more. Only then, might my conscious unite. Only then might I figure out this “self” and what it can offer to a universal conscious surrounding us all.

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