Story Time: My First Yoga Class (Alexander)

The last school bell tolled signaling the end of the day. Itching to leave building and ready to mentally wind down after another exhausting school day, I walked down the hall to the exit preparing to depart. As I walked down the hall, my ears became fixed to the sounds of mystic foreign music spilling from my high school auditorium. This music was unlike anything I had ever heard, it lured me into the auditorium as sirens would a sea crew hopelessly lost at sea. Upon entering the auditorium, I noticed technicolored stage lights shining down on a group of people contorting their bodies into strange poses on stage. What struck me as bizarre was how immensely at ease everyone seemed, considering they were twisted into shapes my mind told me was humanly impossible, what I imagined to be excruciating.

Intrigued, I sat down in the third row next to a one of the high school teacher, sitting just as transfixed and bewildered as I was. I asked her, “What are they doing?” To which she reply, “Yoga.” I thought to myself, “Oh, this is Yoga!” For years, I had gathered fragmented information about the practice but had never been formally introduced. Invested, I sat and watched the whole practice. On stage were 5 students being lead by two instructors. The teachers calmly instructed the group to perform the next yoga series; announcing “Sūryanamaskara A” series. The teachers commanded the first pose- “Samasthitih”; the students stood at the tip of their mats. Next, “Urdhva Vrikshasana”- the students brought their hands above their head. Then, “Uttanasana A”- They bent forward; “Uttanasana B”- looked up with a flat back in a standing tabletop position. “Chaturanga Dandasana”- folded forward (this time they bent their knees), planted their hands to the ground and placed their feet behind them into a plank; The next pose the teachers instructed was “Urdhva Mukha Shvanasana”- the group lowered down to a push up then they curled their feet out from under them (pointing their toes behind them), resting their lower half on the ground and rose up from their torso from the ground, their gaze rested on the stage lights above them. They rested in this pose, breathing for five breathes. The next posed shifted them into “Adho Mukha Shvanasana”- they tucked their toes back underneath them, pushing back up, lifted their hips (creating an inversed “V”); and straightened their arms. They completed the series, folding back into “Uttanasana A”; “Uttanasana B”; “Urdhva Vrikshasana” and finally, “Samasthith”. The instructors used the traditional Sanskrit phrases for the practice. I believe this was to not dilute the traditional practice of Ashtanga Yoga. They strived to keep the practice as authentic as it could be, the instructor utilized yogic phrases that are over 2000 years old. I appreciated how sincere there attempts were to provide an impartial yogic experience I was impressed that, that was just one series.

The instructors commanded the group with a rhetoric that was completely foreign to me but it was inspirational that the students accustomed to the practice understood and followed the sequence. They went on to performed the next series of poses (flows), which in yoga are called “Vinyasas”. As the group went through these flows of vinsayas, they isolated different poses for several breaths, this helped to deepen the stretch and build endurance. As the group lingered in these poses the teachers would say affirming words such as, “As you breathe feed the fire in your heart, feel how powerful you are becoming as your breath deepens.” or “Use your breath to tap into your awareness and consciously bring yourself to the present.” These phrases of inspiration in yoga are called “Mantras”. Mantras (or mantrams) are words, phrases, or syllables that are chanted thoughtfully and with growing attention until the mind and emotions are transcended; ; and the purpose of this discourse is to tap into a superconscious state allowing your mind to be at peace. The incorporation of these mantras is a cornerstone to the practice.

Remembering the eight founding principals of the Ashtanga practice, the mantras are equally as inspirational and alluring as the poses. Enamored by the idea of everything Yoga encompassed, I join the next class. My first class, I was a proverbial, “fish out of water.” This was partly because I was not very flexible and I was not breathing properly. The most important part of Yoga is, Yogic breaths, learning to breathe through every pose. Particularly in Ashtanga Yoga, “Ujjayi” breathing (the Ocean breath) is very important. This exercise helps enhance your focus and energy levels. I stopped breathing about 90% of the practice, making the practice exponentially harder. I could not hold the poses very long, balance very well or bend very far because I was not breathing properly, this caused my body to be disaligned and rendered my practice ineffective- I lost the meditation. My yoga teacher offered me a mantra of encouragement, “In Yoga, it is all a practice, no one is perfect. Just keep practicing.” And I did. My practice started slowly, every week I looked forward to the class. I looked forward learning more, stretching more, and testing my limits in my Yoga practice. The practice began to become second nature, my breath became yogic and the rhetoric became more explicit every week. To increase my practice, I started to practice Yoga at home, utilizing the layman terms for the poses. For example, instead of using the term “Sūryanamaskara A” I simply told myself “Sun Salutation A” or instead of saying “Urdhva Mukha Shvanasana” I told myself “Upward Facing Dog”. This made the practice more accessible to me, independent of the constructs of instruction. The year came to a close and I had improved drastically. At the end of the year, as a graduation present, one of my Yoga teachers I’d developed a strong relationship with invited me to her Yoga class, where she participated in as a student.

I dedicated myself to this deeper practice of Ashtanga yoga, week after week. Slowly, the yogic breaths came back to me. Slowly, my body yield to these more advanced poses. Slowly, I regained my meditative state using this more advance practice to deepen my conscious state of being. I started my yogic journey about 10 years ago, I have solidified my practice and now, I have began teaching my friends and family in a home yoga practice I have entitled, “Yoga for the Soul”. Through repeated discourse, rhetoric becomes more simplified and obtainable to the untrained mind. A part of discourse, I believe, is understanding origins of words and environments that surrounds the communicative exchange. The term "Ashtanga" comes from the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, where it refers to classic Yoga's eight (ashta)-limb (anga) practice. The eight limbs are symbolic of restraint, observance, posture, breath control, sense withdrawal, concentration, meditative absorption, and "enstasy." This last word can be interpreted as "standing inside of," or it literally means to "put together" or "bring into harmony." In Samadhi- a state of intense concentration achieved through meditation, at which union with the divine is reached. We "stand inside of" our true self in preparation for the ultimate state of classic Yoga, the eternal "aloneness" (kaivalya) of that Self in the purity and joy of simply being. The more knowledgeable you becoming in any given subject the easier it is to understand and retain. Yoga is such a mystic practice that when you are engaged in the practice it becomes spiritual. The ability to find stillness in everything you do is a message that is taught throughout many religious doctrines. Yoga can be used in conjunction religion to help you to become more grounded in any spiritual path you choose. That has been my experience with the discourse that surrounds Yoga. Like Yoga, discourse is a practice, no one is perfect but you have to continue to practice to achieve enlightenment.

Radical Friendship: Jasmine & Alexander's Story

Radical Friendship(n): A friendship characterized by shared investment in transformational change.

It's been said that it takes 10 years to look like an "overnight success," and it's no different for us. We met in September of 2006 in our junior year of high school.  The school year had recently started and it was time for me to add more extra curricular to my resume. I remember walking into the Melrose branch YMCA in Walnut Hills for my first meeting for Black Achievers and there he was. This tall lanky guy who was pretty annoying. We bonded over Gym Class Heroes and Panic! At the Disco. Until Alex, I never had any real friends. My social life pretty much consisted of my mom, the friends I hang out with at school, and the friends I made  in some of the programs I was in. I never really talked to anybody outside of school and didn't have much of a reason. If it wasn't Girl Scouts or school, I wasn't really interested.

 It wasn't until I started college when I realized that Alex was my friend. There was one phone conversation while I was away at school and Alex asked me to open up about something. No one had ever asked that of me and it was a vulnerability I had never felt before. Suddenly, I knew that I had a for real fried. Like, a real friend that I could call and talk to about anything. 

Fast forward a few years and I moved back home to Cincinnati in summer of 2011. Alex invited me to a yoga class led by the amazing Jen Painter, yoga teacher and energy healer. Jen was Alex's yoga teacher in high school. I went and I kept going back every Wednesday. Yoga was fun and it came easily to me as I've always been naturally flexible and ... went through yoga teacher training... our friendship goes in cycles. Sometimes, we're always in communication other times we stay away for a bit.  We've even fake broken up a couple times!

Yoga keeps us together. Alex has his interests and I have mine. He'd be off with sustianablity club, doing social justice work, or political organizing and I'd be off running some youth program and doing other things. Sometimes they overlap and lately they have grown to overlap beautifully.