The Practice: Me and Kripalu Yoga, An Unexpected Love Story
I walked into my first yoga class at 19. It was strip mall yoga. I remember being told to relax and breathe while in poses where breath, and relaxation were the last things I imagined possible. “WTF” was muttered under my breath repeatedly as I contorted myself into painful poses I’d never done before. I worked hard and tried to keep up with a flow that felt like it was created by a sadist. When the class was over, I remember feeling really angry and hateful. No bliss. No peace of mind. I walked away from my first experience of asana wondering what the hell my straight-edge, vegan friends getting into yoga and joining the Hari Krishnas were thinking. Nuts. They were nuts.
Why I ran from yoga
But like many ultimately great relationships mine with yoga started with distaste and confusion. What the hell was this practice that pushed my buttons so deeply? Why would I want to chaturanga 20 times and then hold down dog while watching my brain spin? Not willing to quit right away I tried out some DVDs by yoga-lebrity teachers and disliked those too. Some were too fitness class like, some too New Agey. And just like the woman who runs from that guy at the party who sips seltzer and challenges her mind with interesting thoughts rather than telling her how hot she is, I ran from yoga.
What on earth is Kripalu Yoga?
Flash forward by 9 years. My back hurt. It hurt bad. I had herniated discs during labor and the road to recovery was filled with intense lightning bolts of pain. Every doctor I had encouraged me to try yoga. “It’s good for a bad back,” they said. “It’ll be relaxing,” they said. With my initial experience of yoga with the sadist and boring DVDs it was hard to believe what I was hearing so I ignored the advice. After a year of limping through physical therapy, cortisone injections, and ever more pain I saw a flyer in my town for free yoga classes… this yoga had a weird name… Kripalu Yoga. Incredulous. Exasperated. I decided that I would try this yoga with the strange name.
I walked into the tiny rec center with a stinky carpet and cardio machines jammed against the wall and my tiny chunk of hope shrank even smaller. There were 10 or so people jammed into a room that only 6 people on yoga mats would fit comfortably…I was about to leave when my teacher Laura immediately sprang to help me find a spot. Everyone shifted a little left, a little right, and suddenly there was a place for me…it felt nice. My hope grew a smidge.
There was gentle chanting playing from a tiny radio. She had a sweet little altar with sacred objects I didn’t recognize and this little chime that she struck right before she began to speak. After the chime sounded everyone stopped stretching and the room fell silent. We were old, young, fit, and fat people all gathered together. Looking around the room I felt a sense of ease. I felt that we each belonged there on that mat, in that place, with each other. I felt myself settle.
This is yoga!
When Laura spoke her voice resounded through the small space, sounding like warm honey tastes…nourishing and sweet. She encouraged us to turn our gaze inward and sense our breath and body as it was in the moment. Then for about 10 minutes we breathed and noticed that practice. We began simply, just filling our bellies with breath, then breath moved up a bit higher, all the way to the collarbone. We exhaled generously, squeezing the belly. I felt my self sink deep into my body, felt my busy mind slow way down. I felt the muscles in my body soften a little, felt peace beginning to bubble up from inside. Suddenly my heart and brain screamed from inside of me, THIS IS YOGA!
Finding the true potential of yoga
Though the rest of the practice was challenging and again I found myself in poses I didn’t know that I could do and breathe simultaneously, again I felt angry about my body’s limitations, however there was a big difference between that night and my other experiences. This time I had space for it all. With my teacher’s gentle cues, encouragements, and lots of reminders to notice and accept the thoughts and sensations I was having I made it through the 90 minutes of yoga without letting my frustration sweep me away, off the mat and out of the class.
At the end of class I felt a sense of accomplishment, and my body felt better. Tensions were softened. Tissues lengthened. Though the flow was intense I felt like I was learning something beyond exercise for a sore back, I was learning something really important about noticing my experience and not letting it carry me away.
The beginning of a mad affair
That was 11 years ago and I haven’t looked back. I’ve been practicing Kripalu Yoga ever since. Not to say that this mad affair has been all wine and roses, true yoga practice isn’t. I’ve cried, sweated, blown apart, come back together, blown apart again and got back on that mat many times. I’ve learned that what I experience on my mat I can take into my life…noticing the hard feelings and not becoming overtaken by them. Bringing acceptance to my limitations, celebrating my growing ability to become conscious of feelings and thoughts.
The impact of a good teacher
Over the past decade I’ve had the opportunity to study with a number of yoga teachers, some true masters of Kripalu Yoga but none will ever capture my gratitude and heart like my first teacher, Laura Lin. Thank you Laura, wherever you are now. Your spirit lit the candle in my soul and I will be ever blessed for that. Jai Bhagwan!
Heather Bilotta is a passionate believer in the healing power of self-expression and the importance of connection to community. Her Shake Your Soul®, Kripalu YogaDance, Kripalu R&R classes, one-one SomaSoul® and Divine Sleep Yoga Nidra® healing sessions are infused with heart and creativity and are an opportunity to bring light and acceptance to your whole, unfiltered self. She truly provides a supportive no-judgment zone. Heather teaches at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, Cranwell Golf Resort, and beyond. She is continuing her studies in Body-Centered, Subtle Energy Healing in the Professional Training Program at Hartford Family Institute.
Join Heather and Sage Brody at the Art of Living Retreat Center from May 18th to May 20th for Gotta Dance!, a joyful and healing exploration of body and movement.
This article first appeared on heatherbe.com.
Interested in learning more about Ayurveda and the programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here!
In House: Sage Brody & Heather Bilotta on Dance and Fear
Sage Brody and Heather Bilotta know that we were born to dance. At their recent Shake Your Soul® retreat, they brought inspiration and freedom to their guests in the form of integrative dance, meditation, and mindfulness. We sat down with Sage and Heather for a fun, fast-paced rapid-fire question and answer session about dance, fear, and the Art of Living Retreat Center.
SB: Dance is feeling what moves you in any way, and that could be a micro movement! It could just be my heart pulsing.
HB: I feel soul the most in my body. So soul for me is the sweat after a good dance, the pulse of my heart, my feet on the ground.
SB: Something that comes from deep inside that you may not even know is there – but then suddenly it is!
AoLRC: Lack of inhibition.
SB: Lack of inhibition is trying what might feel scary, and just seeing where it goes…
HB: And feeling the fear, and doing it anyway! I think for us, so much of our dance practice is about making room for the love of it, the joy of it, the sensuality, the groundedness, the spirit, but also making room for the awkwardness of it.
SB: It doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to look good, and it doesn’t have to be a specific kind of expression. It’s something that’s fundamentally yours.
HB: Not caring about looking good is so important in the realm of yoga and dance, because we can have so much pressure for our bodies to look a certain way, to have a perfectly pointed toe or ankle, and we want to take dance away from that and back into the human realm, where it’s about spirit and connection.
SB: And as you move, and certainly in a group, connection is so important – to the ground, to spirit, to heart, and just seeing where that goes – not knowing where it’s going to go, and letting it happen.
AoLRC: Sacred dance.
HB: For me, sacred dance is about honoring tradition and those that came before us. Every spiritual and religious tradition has a dance. Shake your Soul is taking all of that, and putting it in the blender, and taking a combination of feeling our bodies and offering what comes from that, while honoring our ancestors as well.
SB: And we love all of the textures of world music – one song could be Balkan, one could be rap, the next song could be African drumming, and we love to explore how to honor all of these traditions and still express ourselves authentically while doing it.
HB: We welcome nerves!
SB: The person who stands on the side and watches for the whole thing is just as welcome to our class as everyone else. You know, nervousness doesn’t really go away. But we honor that resistance or fear.
HB: Just like a meditation practice.
SB: Fear, nervousness, resistance, excitement – they all have a place, and they create a space to exist within and to come forward with what’s real for you.
HB: For me it really happens on a body level. I tend to feel everything very physically. So for me, it’s really about how I can allow my body to hold the sensation happening as I experience emotion, rather than constricting physically against it.
HB: Humans are designed to hear and respond to music, and our job is to help you remember that.
SB: You get to be you while trying on different ways of being and moving that you may not be familiar with, and feeling into that natural place.
HB: It’s like that quote – “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and do that.”
AoLRC: The Art of Living Retreat Center!
SB: There’s this incredible energy at the Center.
HB: This beautiful space, well-maintained with staff and volunteers who were here to serve heart and soul. Seeing an organization living their practice and really moving from the heart – it really makes our job so much easier, and makes us want to come back again and again and spread the word.
AoLRC: Anything else you’d like to add about dance?
HB: For me, there’s a real naturalness to it. When I hear music, the first thing I want to do is move. Letting myself do that feels like a real gift to myself, and then to others when I teach.
SB: And for me, it’s a way to come out of what can be a really busy mind. So many of us live in our heads, and dance is a real invitation to feel our bodies, and to experience an act from that place rather than the habitual way we are in the world.
Interested in learning more about Ayurveda and the programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here!
Exploring Wisdom: This is Me Dancing
My heart felt achy; heavy in my chest. It was a strange yet familiar feeling, a combination of an ice block in my core right alongside a sensation of longing. I could feel my arms, legs, and hips move with the rhythm of the music. With each step, reach, bend I felt like I was melting that ice away, opening deeper into my experience of myself. What is this feeling?
Loneliness… sadness… heartache…“that’s it,” I thought to myself, and all the while my body kept pulsing, moving, kept expressing this deep sadness via the way my limbs crumbled, extended, folded, and launched my body through space. Here I am. I am heartache. This is me. I am dancing.
Dance is Expression
Dance has always been a way for us to express and connect. An ancient way to find a mate, go to war, celebrate birth and death and get in touch with so many wordless aspects of the human experience. I postulate that dance in its most sincere form is not just about connection to another, it is also about fostering an intimate connection with ourselves as well. Movement is a way to experience and communicate those deep emotions that well up from the insides of us. The ones that we may have a hard time processing with language alone.
For me, heartache is one of those hard to feel and hard to share emotions. What I mean is to share from a place of feeling, not just talking. I can report about my sadness or loneliness to you in words, but there’s a way this content-driven means of communication can feel hollow for me, and maybe for you, too, as the listener. We are hard-wired to communicate our feelings through the subtle and unsubtle movements of our face, hands, and every other part of our body. When I allow my body to move out my grief through the vehicle of dance to an evocative song, or off the dance floor when my movements and facial expressions tell you how I feel as my voice is silent…that is when we can often feel the most deeply touched by the experience of another.
Dance is Healing
The healing trick for me here is this. Attunement. Attunement to self, then another. The first step in the process is to allow ourselves to first become aware of our own felt experience. Once we are in touch with those feelings, we can choose movements and gestures to help us land even deeper into our experience. When we are embodied, fully connected to our felt sense we can then move in a way that feels alive and congruous. Dance and expressive movement is a way that I get to know me better, and then share me with others in a way the feels soulful and rich.
Throughout my life there has been nothing quite so healing as having the dance of my truth. Whether that’s sorrow, joy, power, or softness with others who are dancing their truth. It has been particularly sacred when my fellow dancers and I echo and mirror movements…then I know they get it. They get me. My pain is their pain and vice versa. “Just like me….” This seeing a reflection of my movements, this feeling of unison, of community through dance can often blast through my frozen heart in a far superior way than words. As my fellow dancers and I fall into moving together a connection forms like no other off the dance floor.
Dance is Connection
Turns out that this feeling of peace and well-being after dancing isn’t just my experience or the experience of a finite group of people. While listening to NPR’s Morning Edition earlier this summer I heard a report on a recent research study out of the University of Oxford on the profound health benefits of group dance. They found that people who danced together in synchrony had a higher pain threshold than those who didn’t dance, or those who danced without mirroring others.
Dance is a way that we connect, that we attune to each other, that we feel felt by another. Humans are a social species. Our survival, growth, and evolution are dependent in part upon our ability to connect with our community. Dance has been and continues to be an integral part of the human experience. My suggestion is that when we add self-attunement with dance, this is a recipe with endless healing potential.
So the research is in. Dance. Get out there and do it. Whether you go sign up for ballroom, get your best friends together in your living room, or come to one of my Shake Your Soul classes, dance is a powerful way to befriend your body, other people, and create a sense of well-being and peace inside and out.
– Heather Bilotta
Heather Bilotta, RSMT
A passionate believer in the healing power of self-expression and the importance of connection to community, Heather is a Registered Somatic Movement Therapist, Certified Shake Your Soul® Instructor, SomaSoul® Practitioner, and Divine Sleep Yoga Nidra® Teacher. Heather teaches at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, Cranwell Golf Resort, and beyond. Read more of Heather’s thoughts on her blog.
Express, connect, and heal at Shake Your Soul: The Yoga of Dance, from June 23 – 25, 2017. Click here to learn more.
Interested in learning more about programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here.