July 22, 2014
Ithaca, NY 75°F | Clouds

News

How the mighty haven’t fallen

Yoga
Courtesy of Liz Falk

Her left leg violently shakes from bearing the full weight of her slender body. Her right leg raises to waist level with her foot flexed and her toes pointed toward the floor. Slivers of shiny hardwood peek out from beneath sticky rubber rectangles. The studio is a sea of colored mats. Today, most are shades of blue and purple — some brought, some borrowed.

She straightens her arms, reaching forward to white-paned windows and the Mighty Yoga sign. Beads of sweat drop to her yoga mat, which won’t be peeled off the floor for at least an hour.

As she slowly lowers her right leg, which was raised for warrior three, her foot lands near the back of the mat. The right leg stays straight while the left bends at the knee. Her arms reach to the ceiling. Warrior one. Virabhadrasana. She is one of 30 students in Liz Falk’s Thursday afternoon all-levels class.

Liz stands near the middle window at the front of the room, watching carefully as 30 bodies shift at her gentle commands. Her black curls are captured at the nape of her neck. A purple racerback clings to her tiny, toned body, her bottom half concealed by calf-length leggings and a stretchy black skirt.

Liz has been teaching workshops and weekly classes at Mighty Yoga for about three years, and her specialty is progressive vinyasa flow. Just as it sounds, this style of yoga focuses on flow, with each sequence — called namaskars — adding more poses as the practice progresses.

“Yoga is the union of movements and breath,” Liz reminds her students, urging them to move at their own pace.

Liz approaches each class with a plan, which typically includes a theme, perhaps a focus on one of the Chakras, and several namaskars from warming flows to peak flows to cooling flows.

But she often adjusts her sequences mid-practice, gauging the skill level of her students or “the energy of the room.” A few poses are always a part of the practice.

“Breathe in for upward dog. Urdhva Mukha Svanasana.”

For some who are new to yoga, the foreign language can be off-putting. Because the studio emphasizes accessibility, instructors always use the poses’ English names too. Liz says learning the Sanskrit names was an important aspect of learning yoga and in her classes she tries to “balance accessibility and respecting the tradition of the practice.”

The student on the coral mat can’t quite make sense of the Sanskrit, but she mimics the movements of the students in front of her. Arching her back, she pushes her upper body off the mat, supported by stiff, straight arms and hands that press into the floor.

“Exhale. Shift to downward dog.”

Bottoms up and bent over, staring facedown at the

ornate pattern on her mat, the student tries to equally distribute her weight. Her arms and legs are steady.

Liz delivers more instructions in her relaxed, encouraging tone.

“Inhale and move to plank. Push through the heels.”

The balls of her feet press into the mat, her back flat. Her straight, stiff arms begin to shake as she holds in her breath.

“Breathe out and slowly lower to a low push up — Chaturanga.”

Chat-oo-run-ga.

Unlike warrior three, which requires strong leg muscles and quite a bit of balance, these key movements come naturally to most. But even with the easiest of poses, students usually need a friendly reminder: “Don’t forget to breathe.”

 

On a shelf against the window rests a black sign with intentionally distressed white lettering: BE YOURSELF. EVERYONE ELSE IS TAKEN.

The lounge, a somewhat new addition to Mighty Yoga, is sprinkled with colorful Ugg and L.L. Bean boots shoved into and under mismatched shelves. Puffy winter coats overwhelm the rack that runs along the inside wall.

Caught between two afternoon classes, the lounge fills quickly with students of all ages. The regulars greet each other by name, but the crowded space forces even strangers to converse.

“Hi, George.”

“Yeah, I just got back.”

“I have no energy today.”

George and another yogi strike up a conversation while everyone else ransacks the coat rack.

“Excuse me.”

“I’m just standing here awkwardly.”

The yogis shuffle around searching for bags, boots and nearly empty water bottles. Most students arrive in typical yogi attire: racerbacks, T-shirts and skin-tight cropped cotton or spandex pants.

“Where did you get your yoga mat bag?”

“A thrift shop in Tucson, Arizona, actually. It was a really good find.”

“You doing the February Challenge?”

“Nah. I’m too poor for that,” a young female yogi says, glancing at the February Challenge poster hanging above a mess of boots and bags.

Forty-one names are scribbled on the poster in black marker. Each name is followed by a row of multicolored star stickers, an indication of completed classes. While the

challenge is free to join, students still have to pay the full price for their classes. The goal is to complete 24 classes within the month. Nameless personal goal sheets decorate the rest of the wall. One near the center reads: 1. Yoga! 2. Yoga! 3. Yoga!

Three suede, armless chairs are clustered around the BE YOURSELF sign, as well as a stack of Yoga Journal magazines. Most days the chairs stay empty. But today, a young woman sits cross-legged, ignoring the swarming lounge. Her fiercely cropped brown hair falls forward as she journals fiercely.

Despite the “disconnect to re-connect” signs scattered throughout the studio, another young woman bounds toward the check-in room, chatting loudly on her cellphone.

“Yay! Cool, have fun with your mom and I will talk to you soon.”

Yoga mats and Mighty Yoga gear — from water bottles to plum racerbacks with “Kick your own asana” in orange text across the chest — are on display to the left of check-in.

There are only a few mats left for sale, but one stands out: It’s a vibrant lime green. At $22, it’s one of only two cheap mats left. The rest are priced around $65.

According to Liz, “some people get really picky about their mats.”

The studio’s instructors take turns manning the desk as students shuffle in from the lounge, greeting the students as they line up at the desk.

“Hi, Heidi.”

“Hi, George.”

“Hi, Judy.”

“This class is always so crowded.”

Liz sits cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by shelves of pricy, Jade brand yoga mats.

After studying natural resources and sustainable development in Costa Rica and Washington, D.C., where she taught yoga for seven years, Liz began teaching at Mighty Yoga in 2011. Yoga has helped Liz build an awareness of her body and a stronger connection with the earth. A self-described environmentalist and earth-lover, yoga isn’t Liz’s only job. In addition to teaching garden education part-time for Cornell University Cooperative Extension, she now shares a farm with her fiancé, Steve, where they grow shiitake mushrooms and raise ducks for eggs.

They recently added four sheep to their farm — named Wellspring Forest Farm — to help with pasture rehabilitation of the land. She spends two to three days a week

working on developing the farm. It’s important to Liz that her jobs “are not just paying the bills,” but that they also reflect her ethics.

While Liz and Steve hope to build a house on their land in the next year or so, for the past two years they have lived in a yurt, or a large, one-room tent. “It’s basically just like a round house without very much insulation” — so it gets cold in the Ithaca winters. They have a wood stove, a water system and solar power.

“It can be hard to do yoga there.”

The instructor at the desk fiddles with the computer, rattling off Heidi’s options to renew her monthly package. For today, Heidi pays the drop-in rate, picks up a marble Mighty Yoga stone — to be collected at the start of class — and heads toward the studio, mat in hand.

The studio lies beyond a set of maroon-curtained double doors. Most of the ceiling spotlights are illuminated; their beams bounce off the brilliant tangerine studio walls. White wood paneling works around the bottom half of the room, accented by swirling lines of red paint and white Christmas lights.

Liz stands at the front of the room, sporting a black, spaghetti-strap tank and bright aqua Capri pants. She has just returned from the Virgin Islands, where she celebrated her parents’ 45th anniversary. Upon first glance, it’s easy to miss her nose ring: just a small, silver stud. Liz seems somewhat out of place with her freshly tanned skin and bright smile; Ithaca’s blustery February weather is visible through the large windows behind her.

“We have the same pants!”

MADDY is scribbled on the lid of this student’s green Kombucha bottle, which she keeps just barely in reach at the top of the rented navy mat. Maddy pairs her aqua capris with a slouchy grey Ramones T-shirt. Her brown hair is pulled back in a haphazard bun.

She never removes her silver toe ring, despite the warrior poses and squats that put her full weight on her feet. The silver ring shines in the dim light as she presses into the mat. She shifts from warrior three into a lunge. Orange earrings, shaped like teardrops falling toward the sky, sway as she changes poses. Her moves are effortlessly steady; she’s a practiced yogi.

The Thursday afternoon class is taught for all levels, so practiced yogis stand out. Many of them are decorated with tattoos partially concealed by their spandex.

George removes his T-shirt to reveal a red and orange sun behind two black pyramids on one of his muscular arms, which bulges when he moves to a plank position.

Liz warmly welcomes her students, urging them to find what they need for themselves within the practice.

She usually starts class with a question: “Any requests for today?”

“Core.”

“Twists.”

Some days no one answers.

The week of Valentine’s Day, Liz kicks off class with a personal story. She explains the class will focus on “moves that open the heart.” Liz often chooses a focus when planning the sequence of poses for her classes. But this week’s focus wasn’t inspired by a Hallmark holiday.

 

Liz and Steve were cross-country skiing North of Syracuse, N.Y. They spent their afternoon trekking through two-to-three feet of snow with their dog, Sadie.

“Everything was great, and then she ran off.”

The part husky pup has done this before, but the area was unfamiliar, so she couldn’t just run home.

For a while, Liz and Steve followed in the direction she ran, calling out her name. After some time, they realized they were losing daylight and decided to split up. Steve kept following Sadie’s tracks in the snow, and Liz headed back to the car. When she reached the vehicle she burst into tears. “I just felt this sense of losing hope in possibility.”

She reached out to friends and family. “I texted everybody who knew Sadie, people who loved Sadie.” She told them: “Picture her for a moment and send her back to us.”

They spent about four hours searching for Sadie, but soon, it was blizzarding and nearly dark. Shortly after sending the mass text message, Liz drove to the intersection where she’d planned to meet Steve so they could find a hotel for the night.

And there she was. In a place none of them had ever been before, Liz found Sadie lying in the middle of the intersection, waiting for them.

Inspired by the emotional weekend adventure, Liz designed her week’s classes to focus on trust, vulnerability and opening the heart. While the experience shook her, it made her recall something she was told by one of her yoga teachers: “In the yoga practice, as in life, we sometimes have a fear of falling, or perhaps it’s a fear of flying — being all we can be and being willing to put yourself out there to be vulnerable, ask for help, open to the potential of growth…” Liz says she prefers to fly. “You have to put yourself out there, trust yourself and trust that you’ll lift off!”

The impact a yoga teacher can have is not something she takes lightly. Practicing yoga in a studio requires building a relationship of trust between teacher and student.

“We connect with [our] teachers based on their ethics, their practice and how and what they offer.”

Liz sees touch as one of the most powerful tools a teacher can use to help students deepen their experience. Being assisted or adjusted is one of her favorite parts of yoga — an aspect of the practice that she believes makes yoga kind and loving, in stark contrast to many sports and gym workouts.

Liz is always in motion, and with more than a decade of yoga practice, she is also capable of stillness. She weaves her way through the maze of mats, looking for ways she can help her students reach poses they can’t quite find themselves.

Carla Bruni’s French ballad, Quelqu’un m’a dit, plays softly from iPod speakers near the front of the room. “Pourtant quelqu’un m’a dit que tu m’aimais encore. C’est quelqu’un qui m’a dit que tu m’aimais encore.” (But someone told me that you still love me. Someone said you loved me still.)

For much of the practice the music is purely instrumental, with gentle acoustic pieces and a bit of African drumming music, which was given to Liz by one of

her students.

The class is back in a key pose: downward facing dog. Liz approaches the young woman on the coral mat, first placing her hand on the student’s hips and then shoulders. The adjustment is gentle — compassionate, but effective. The student slowly inhales, pushing deeper into the stretch.

“Send the right leg back for three legged dog. Inhale and step through letting the foot land between the hands. The back heel finds the floor parallel to the mat. Open to warrior two.”

Hands are grasped behind the back but repeatedly slip apart from the sweat. The room is hot.

“I’ve been thinking recently about the privilege of being a yoga teacher,” Liz shares with her students as she

continues to moves between mats. “It’s humbling.”

A student once told Liz she enjoys her classes because “they’re universe-based — grounded in something that we recognize is bigger than us.”

“The mat is a mirror,” Liz says.

Liz sees yoga as more than just a physical practice. It is therapeutic, but also has a “kickassness” about it.

“There’s a tradition the practice involved breath, asana — poses — meditation, and how we treat ourselves and others,” she says. “It’s not just going to the gym. We show up because we believe in something.”

Near the end of the

75-minute class, Liz powers down the iPod speakers spouting classical music and shuts off two rows of ceiling spotlights.

The room is dark. Rows of students lay on their backs or in child’s pose — the only time positions aren’t planned and synchronized.  Liz shares a quote.

“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe’ — a part limited in time and space.” She pauses between sentences, but her pace stays steady. The studio is quiet except for her patient voice. “He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.”

Eyes closed, students listen as their teacher demonstrates her approach to yoga through the borrowed words.

“This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” Albert Einstein.

Liz invites her students to participate in the end of the practice.

The students break their silence with “the sound of the universe,” a single “Aummmm.”

Seated with legs crossed and hands pressed together at her chest, Liz bows forward. Her students follow suit.

“Namaste.”

Lifting her head from the bow, a middle-aged woman near the middle of the room stands and walks to the front. Her neon green shirt stands out against the tangerine studio walls. She holds out a sheet of paper to Liz, requesting her signature.

Susan is training to become a yoga instructor. As part of her training, she must explore local studios. Now, there are only two more classes standing between herself and

her certification.

 

It is a cold February afternoon. Susan is early. She lives about 20 minutes away, but always allows extra time for traffic. This is only her second time at Mighty Yoga. She runs her fingers through her blonde highlights, trying to catch her breath.

“It’s so hard to find parking around here. Are the doors open?”

The doors to the check-in desk, changing lounge and studio are all locked.

“What time is it?”

“25 ’til.”

“25 ’til 3?”

“Yep.”

Liz arrives to unlock to the doors around 2:45 p.m. Susan approaches the desk, says her name and takes a Mighty Yoga stone from a box. The green and teal marble stones indicate a student has checked in and are collected by the instructors at the start of class. Susan heads for the studio, eager to warm up.

She unrolls her blue mat beside the far wall, a few rows from the front of the room.  After a few deep breaths, she begins to stretch.

Because she spends her days forcing her arms forward while shoeing horses, she tries to focus on extending in the other direction when practicing yoga. Standing at her mat, Susan rolls her shoulders and reaches her arms behind her.

Susan started yoga about two and half years ago. She picked up the practice as a way to cope with her daughter’s poor health. Susan won’t say much about her daughter — only that yoga has helped her physically and emotionally. She started training as an instructor because of yoga’s impact on her life.

“It’s healing,” she finally says, tears settling in her eyes.

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