I heard a story the other day that almost brought me to tears. It took place on a January day in 2007 in Washington, D.C., in the busiest subway station in the city. Standing in a corridor was a man with a violin, playing for people passing by. He played for 45 minutes; a series of Bach’s most intricate concertos that very few people in the world can perform. And the reason this man could perform them, was because he was Joshua Bell, one of the world’s top violinists, playing on a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. During the 45 minutes that he played, 2,000 people passed by, and only 6 stopped to listen. 6 out of 2,000. What nobody had time for on this afternoon, was the same sold-out concert that he had given two days earlier, with tickets going for $100 dollars apiece. That day in the subway, Joshua made about $30 dollars, and played to an empty audience.
This project was a social science experiment carried out by the Washington Post, and is a shining example of what we, as a society, tend to suffer from – too much, too fast, with not even a few spare seconds to stop and listen to the music. Not even if the music is from a world-class musician playing us some of the most difficult pieces ever written on a three million dollar violin – and in person! Which begs the question – by rushing through our transitions, focused on getting to the destination as fast as humanly possible, are we missing out on life…?
(You can check out the video of the subway performance here)
Our lives are full of transitions, both on and off the yoga mat
On a communal scale, we are transitioning into a new climate, transitioning into a new political atmosphere, transitioning into a more awakened state of existence, as more and more people dedicate themselves to yoga and mindfulness practices. We feel the effects of the changing of the seasons, and we move from one thing to the next over and over again throughout the day. Think about how you transition from your bed in the morning to getting up and eating breakfast and showering, how you go from home to work, from work to yoga, from yoga back home. Do you linger in bed in the mornings; are you the last one out of the office everyday? Or do you rush out of bed in a frenzy, rush to work, rush to yoga…? Or do you have the Goldilocks of transition times between one activity to the next, pausing just enough to enjoy every moment of the in-between, while still making it on-time for your appointments? The more I work to smooth out my transitions in life and on the mat, the less I stress about the destination or rushing to get there. My moments are much more meaningful, my life a bit more beautiful, when I loosen my grip on control and enjoy the ride, floating smoothly from one thing to the next, and on and on and on.
Scroll down to bottom for the videos and practice tips if you’re too rushed to read this article 🙂
Last month, I themed my yoga and meditation classes around transitions
When creating themes for my classes, the only way I can really make them come to life is if they are currently relevant to me. And, after spending the last half -year on the beach in Mexico, I needed a reminder that transitions are actually the place where our truest selves shine through and the most growth can happen. Not only that, but how we transition is just as important as the place we are transitioning to. My friend Vera recently reminded me of the saying, “How you do anything, is how you do everything,” and by slowing down every move on the mat, I remember to do the same off the mat as well. Stopping to enjoy the in-between spaces (like in the story above) is where we reconnect with the brilliance that surrounds us, if we take the time to stop and pay attention to it.
I’ve been teaching yoga for many years now, and the quickest way for me to gauge how long a new student has been practicing is by watching their transition time in-between poses. Two things usually occur with new students: either they don’t trust their bodies or their listening skills on what I just cued, and wait until every other person in the room has gotten into the pose so they can mentally catalog every single detail before making a move. OR, they rush super fast, swinging their limbs around through space and moving without enjoying the process at all. I love watching my students’ practice unfold over time, as they learn to slow down, and milk every micro-movement and millisecond of space while gracefully transitioning from one pose to the next.
Transitions can be approached in two ways – the seen (asana), and unseen (meditation / thoughts)
Refers to everything having to do with our physical bodies as well as outside of us – taking a vinyasa as well as acclimating to a new job or a new relationship. The unseen refers to the more subtle transitions constantly taking place within the mind and the subtle body. And, for the most part, for every ‘seen’ transition, there is inevitably at least one ‘unseen’ transition that comes along with it.
We can bring our attention and intention to moving slowly as we go from one pose to the next, all while cultivating energy in certain parts of our body or encouraging the opening of the Nadis for the free-exchange of information throughout our sensory body. The physical transitions, once we begin to slow them down and bring them to the front and center, invite in a stronger mentality and tapas, or determination and willpower, then it would have taken to just throw our body parts around the mat frantically and as quickly as possible.
When it comes to meditation, the transitory spaces are the bread and butter of the practice. If you’ve ever taken a meditation class, you might have heard the teacher tell you to find the pause between the thoughts. If you’ve never taken the time to look at the way you think, rather than just what you think, this idea can seem pretty weird. A lot of people live their entire lives without realizing that their thoughts are one constant, churning soap-opera of stories that are, for the most part, not at all real. Most of the content of our thoughts is hypothetical, a misguided projection of either a positive or negative way of seeing the truth of the situations that actually surround us. Again, this is all fine and good…except not at all helpful if we want to be happy! What do I mean…? Well, for example, I can’t tell you how many relationships I’ve sabotaged by spinning a web of false beliefs in my mind about why the other person is acting a certain way, or believing I know anything about what they are thinking and feeling. When we find the pauses between the thoughts, the pauses between the breaths, this silence is where we feel our eternal selves – believe me, I know how hippie-dippy that sounds, but I’ve felt this peacefulness and I believe it’s a real thing. These are the transitions in the mind and in the breath. The pause before moving from one thing to the next.
This “no-man’s land” is in fact, quite the opposite of a desolate void of nothingness. It is the place where we connect with our true nature – with ‘everythingness,’ with oneness, where the yoga happens. This is the place that is naked and still – the silent well of space deep down inside where the divine lies within each and every person. We connect to it by stripping away all the bullsh*t of the mind, by releasing expectations and worries, by letting go of the constant drive towards the next thing, and the next thing after that, and so on. When we just pause, and take a conscious moment of being EXACTLY WHERE WE ARE, right here and now, this is where true freedom lives.
In Buddhism, this place is called a Bardo State, and is our highest hope for reaching enlightenment. Monks lead their entire lives out by cultivating this transitory state of in-between all the ‘things’ that get in the way of our connection to our true selves. The most important Bardo, or transition, is the one that happens immediately after the death of the body, when the soul is traveling on the subtle energy plane, and either becomes liberated from reincarnation (which is the goal), or takes another sentient form, whether human, animal, or Bodhisattva.
Yoga and Buddhism have always been very closely related, and tapping into the in-between spaces is one of the best examples of their shared philosophy.
Yoga – breath transitions, movement transitions, mental transitions / Buddhism – breath transitions, mental transitions
Life, and consequently, our yoga practice, can be choppy, unstable, and erratic. Slowing down the movements into and out of the poses helps you notice the subtleties involved, gives space where before there was none (space is the place!), and builds strength as you notice which muscles are engaging in order to maintain balance in your slowed-down state of awareness.
Here are some short sequences (1-2 poses) where a full, fluid, and thoughtful transition can really be highlighted (videos below) :
3-legged dog into knee taps :
move super slow to lift the back leg, spread the toes and press out through the ball of the lifted foot / keep that / as you bring the knee forward, give the back of the corresponding arm the softest, sweetest tap you can (Control!!!) / and then slow-mo, still with the foot active and spreading, lift back up to 3-legged dog / repeat this 3 times, and on the third time, be fully aware in your movement as you step the foot forward for a lunge.
windmill the hands up & down
this one is great for lifting up into standing poses from a lunge, for example, and for going back down from standing pose to lunge or plank or downdog / from lunge – spin the back heel down as you lift up, fully engaging the core / slowly, as if moving through water, windmill first left arm, then right arm (if R foot is forward), coming into warrior 2 / repeat this in reverse to get back down / consciously link a full, deep inhalation with the entire movement (the beginning, middle, and end, and all parts in-between!) of the windmill movement / and consciously link a full, deep exhalation with the entire movement (the beginning, middle, and end, and all parts in-between!) of the windmill movement.
crescent pose to tree pose
from crescent pose – lift and gently spread the toes of the front ( i.e. R) foot, press into the 4 corners of the foot / then release the toes back down, unclenched / on an in-breath, and with a steady drishti, or focus-point, move through honey as you step forward and bring your L knee into your chest as you reach the arms up overhead / pause / find your balance / keep the toes of both feet spreading and actively press through the balls of the feet as you bend the L knee to the side and press the sole of the foot into the inner R thigh for tree pose / move so slowly and become aware of the muscles in the L leg firing to lift the foot high enough to set it in place without the use of your hands / then, just as slowly, if not slower, reverse all movements / knee to chest, feet and toes alive / bend R knee and suuuuper slow step back into crescent.
these 3 videos show both an exaggerated version of how students sometimes rush into the poses, as well as an example of how it might look to mindfully transition into the next pose
These are just a couple of examples, and every single yoga class is chock-full of transitory spaces to slow-down, fill with attention and love, and find freedom of expression in. I hope this has been helpful to you, whether student, teacher, or both. As you take the time to slow down your practice and see the beauty that is in these in-between spaces, hopefully you see the transitions in your life off the mat start to come alive as well. Remember – magic doesn’t just live in the destination, it’s where we are right now.
Lots of love,