Category Archives: Events

Giving Thanks: Feeding NYC

Last years assembly crew; this year was packed!
Last year's assembly crew; this year it was packed!

I’ll finish the meditation posts later; I just wanted to comment on a great experience I had today with Feeding NYC, an organization that provides free Thanksgiving dinners to families in shelters around NYC. This year over 2,000 families were served ($70,000 worth of food), with over 200 volunteers showing up to pack, load, and deliver the boxes.

Right now I feel so energized and happy, after a day waking at 5:45 to drive around the Bronx in the rain with a hole in my boot and no food since nine. This was my third year doing the drive, and probably the sweetest (not just cause I didn’t have to go into work after my shift). Our vanload of volunteers was just really sweet a mix of teenagers, college students, parents, and professionals and the people running the shelters were really wonderful. They said the residents had been asking all week about the turkey deliveries: “Are you SURE they’re going to bring them? Are you SURE?” and that it would really mean a lot. We did a few deliveries face-to-face, handing boxes to shy (or brusque) residents through apartment doorways, and at the end of the day gave the extras to strangers on the street.

Now, I’ve volunteered in many capacities, but I always have trouble with the execution of charity there’s sometimes too much self-congratulation and pride going around. It’s awkward to put yourself in a sudden giver / recipient relationship with a stranger. I am more comfortable doing anonymous work than demanding that some stranger show gratitude on demand.

But this year, the program directors and case workers gave us tours around some of the buildings, and told us a little more about their residents and organizations. One place was filled with New Yorkers who had lost everything in apartment fires. Several buildings housed battered women and their children. The centers help their clients rebuild and repattern their lives with job training, financial education, and personal support. Seeing and hearing how these communities work, socially and politically, brought the experience out of my head and more into my heart. Walking into someone’s apartment, or daycare, you feel like a part of their community. They become a face in your life as much as the clerk at the video store or the second cousin you once met. The feeling was not of giving, but of expansion. Not “their gratitude makes me feel good about myself,” but “I am part of this community, too.”

So, it was just a good reminder that the best way to improve yourself is not always self-improvement. I can be such a foodie that I thought the act of physically giving away food might be good for me, and remind me how grateful I am to have ANY food, but the feeling post-participation was much more friendly and less self-concerned. The event was wonderfully organized, but beautifully real.

Yoga Anatomy with Leslie Kaminoff at the Breathing Project

Leslie Kaminoff at the Breathing Project
Leslie Kaminoff at the Breathing Project

I just had to make a quick post about the open house I attended Wednesday at The Breathing Project. Leslie Kaminoff gave an amazing lecture on breathing and anatomy in yoga, I’m seriously considering signing up for his anatomy classes instead of heading for the Iyengar Institute. His approach is less detail-oriented than Iyengar’s; he says it’s “impossible” to manage a laundry list of alignment instructions while you’re doing a pose. “As soon as you’re focused on your right pinky, your left eyelid goes out of alignment.” So at the end, he says the guidelines for each pose have to come from inside. After all, “There’s no such thing as an asana where are they right now? where are they stored? there’s only people. Individuals. There’s Amy’s Down Dog, or John’s Down Dog, but there is no universal Down Dog.”

I think this approach is much more in line with the book I’m working on with Sabina Stahl, which is called Intuitive Lifestyle. It’s more about finding your intuition in asana practice, eating, and general life. So I’ve been reviewing a lot of anatomy notes, but wondering how precise and thorough we’re going to get. Also, in the four years since I did my teacher training, I’ve encountered some conflicting directions on anatomy, so I’ve been wondering how we’re going to reconcile those.

Leslie has a really interesting background. He started out at Sivananda in the seventies, when his father invited him to a class over on 25th Street. He ended up becoming a swami and heading up the LA center. “The early eighties were an interesting time to be a swami on the Sunset Strip.” Jane Fonda had her studio just down the road, it was the birth of the aerobics and body building movements, and the Nautilus machines allowed people to weight-train safely for the first time. He ended up leaving the ashram and working at a Sports Medicine center. There, they treated all the injuries associated with the exploding popularity of high-impact aerobics etc.; they treated Jane Fonda herself. He saw hundreds of x-rays of spines, and was startled to realized most spines don’t look anything like the nice straight columns we see in the books. The idea of asking these spines to do these yoga poses was terrifying, and he stopped teaching yoga for a few years. Eventually he went back to New York, to work for a famous osteopath, and then to the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in India. He would ask Desikachar WHY these poses had such profound effects, but no one there could answer his questions. So he began researching the anatomical basis for yoga’s benefits, and that study culminated in his book with Amy Matthews, Yoga Anatomy. The book is in its fifth printing in one year; there was “a real hunger” for this type of information.

It was also interesting to hear “you know, the study of yoga anatomy is only 30 years old. At Sivananda, it was ‘Now we will do Shoulder Stand. Do it.’ Maybe they would say ‘work the hands towards the middle back’ but that was it. Only when Mr. Iyengar landed in Ann Arbor did we start to get details.” Likewise, “the study of Bandhas is only 12 years old. Ashtanga was the first system to really make a big deal out of them,” so the precise study is still young.

One last nugget: “As a teacher, you can focus someone on a spatial goal, or on a spinal goal.” The former is trying to push them into a particular shape, the latter is more about the relationship between the parts.

Or one more: “Either we’re doing these postures to get them right, or to be free.” Eventually, we will lose any pose we’ve achieved (to age or infirmity), so we should aim for freedom and not achievement in the asanas.

Amy Matthews also taught a wonderful class about anatomy according to the Body-Mind Centering principles of Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, and Jill Satterfield led us through a deliciously slow, mindfulness-meditation-oriented hatha class. Is New York City finally slowing down?

PS All quotes are approximate.

Free Classes at The Breathing Project

There is an open house this Wednesday at The Breathing Project in the Flatiron District. I’ve heard some good things about the teachers there, so I’m excited to check it out. I love anatomy classes! Schedule of events:

The Breathing Project studio
The Breathing Project studio
  • 12:30-1:30pm Lunchtime Yoga Flow Melissa Elstein
  • 2:00-3:00pm Yoga Anatomy Talk Leslie Kaminoff
  • 3:15-4:15pm ABC’s clinic Leslie Kaminoff
  • 4:30-5:30pm Embodied Anatomy Amy Matthews
  • 5:45-6:15pm MELT Foot Class Edya Kalev
  • 6:30-7:45 pm Vajra Yoga Jill Satterfield
  • 8:00-9:15pm Embodied Yoga Judy Feldman

Classes are free and open to all, and no preregistration is required (first-come, first-served).

All for a Hug

Today I went to see Amma. She’s “the hugging saint” from India, supposedly a true vessel / archetype of the Universal Mother / Love. Someone gave me a bio a couple years ago. She has a huge following of fervent devotees; most of the anecdotes involve the teller falling into her arms in tears, crying “Ma, Ma, Ma” (which means “mother” in all languages). Others lead monthly gatherings to sing her chants. My friend, a yoga teacher, says she had never seen anyone so radiant, she burst into tears when she saw her, and felt like a tiny speck next to her. I have little or no response to devotional yoga practices, I do better with books or physical forms, but I was curious to see and/or experience a living saint.

I arrived at the Manhattan Ballroom at noon, and was too late to get a token guaranteeing a visit. The volunteers (all in white, all glowing with happiness) said to wait until about 2pm, when they would announce extra slots. I sat around and waited for the next four hours. It was such a pleasant vibe light flowers or incense drifting in the air, unobtrusive Indian music being played behind her that I mostly sat quietly, without any desire to read or browse the things for sale. I was just so so so curious to see her. Occasionally I would move, to get a better view. As she hugged one man, and patted his back, I felt tears well at the cuteness of it. But I cried at the Sex in the City movie.

Towards 3:00, when she was supposed to stop, and they still hadn’t called my group, I felt surprisingly upset that I would not get to see her. I decided I would wait until 3:00, and eventually got called and queued.

As I neared her, I kept staring, wishing I could see auras or something spectacular. She’s just a small, round woman, with a joyous smile, surrounded by volunteers with videocameras and flowers. You kneel and shuffle forward. Then she grabs you, pulls your head to her shoulder, and murmurs “MRDMRDMRD” or something Sanskrit into your ear. She pulls back at arm’s length, laughs and smiles and says something in Hindi, then hugs again. The volunteers press a chocolate kiss and a flower petal into your palm, and help you up and out of the way.

Walking away, I could not wipe the smile off my face. I felt giddy, light, and tingly through my heart, shoulders, arms, hands, and head. I felt like I was walking on my tiptoes, being pulled up to the sky. (These were all very light sensations, like when you laugh, not strong pleasure like when you eat pie.)

I sat slowly in a chair, still near the front, to feel out any other sensations. That was it. I let the chocolate kiss dissolve in my mouth. I had planned to get lunch after seeing her, but I wasn’t hungry. Until I went away.

Postscript: In retrospect, it’s basically the feeling of infatuation I think. I’ve never understood the phrase “walking on air” but that is exactly the lightness I felt in the feet. We are all physically capable of feeling infatuation or love. I think Amma is just able to stir up that energy as she wishes.