Sustainable practice, sustainable life. That was the catch phrase that had me hooked and a train ticket booked when I discovered that world-renowned yogi and yoga instructor Nicki Doane would be teaching a 3-day workshop in the snowy town of Truckee, CA. Although exchanging her Maui home for the subzero temperatures of the small but popular ski town last weekend, Nicki was in fine form for the eager students that awaited her strong guidance and wise words. With sustainability at the core of the workshop, Nicki’s phrase “I want to be able to do yoga for the rest of my life” was echoed in every part of her teachings, which she shared as tools for a life-long yoga practice.
The workshop was hosted by Truckee’s Tahoe Yoga & Wellness Center, a small but cozy haven for yogis escaping the cold, wet, January snowfall outside. “Yoga is the practice of finding the self” was Nicki’s assertion, sharing the view that understanding and respecting the self is the most important part of our ability to sustain anything we are doing. Having studied under the Ashtanga yoga master Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in the early 1990s, Nicki has gone on to develop a teaching style that marries flow of movement, breath, alignment, self-awareness and integrity enjoyed by students and yogis worldwide.
All of the weekend’s practices began with an invocation to the divine for strengh to help those in need, immediately focusing our attention to the moment and drawing a calm unity to the room. Gradual and fluid movement through postures including sun salutations, lunges, standing poses, hip openers and back bends made up all of the classes, and Nicki took great care to explain the importance of correct alignment in every asana (pose). For example, in downward facing dog, the weight of the upper body should be held in the inner palm, thumb and index finger knuckle, known as the inner triad. This hand alignment protects the wrists from becoming weak, as the outer wrist contains the pisibone, which is nearly as small as the tiniest bone in the human body. Downward dog also calls for turning the inner eyes of the elbows to face each other, making sure the hands are shoulder width apart, spreading the feet hip width apart, and gazing towards the navel to stretch the neck. A seemingly simple and relatively easy pose, it required full, undivided attention and calm, even breathing to reap its full benefits, especially when holding the pose for up to 5 minutes.
Engaging bandhas, meaning muscular locks, and pranayama, meaning breathing exercises, helped us stay focused and empty our minds of thoughts relating to dinner plans, meeting friends or the coming work week. Nicki taught that bandhas are utilized to release strains so that the mind can focus fully on the body and its attunement to the current time and space. Jiva bandha, where the tongue rests as lightly as “a buttefly landing on a flower” on the ridge of the upper mouth behind the tooth enamel, releases the jaw, teeth and throat, areas that most of us constrict when trying to concentrate. Jiva bandha can be used anytime to relax the mouth and mind when one realizes that the jaw is clenched, such as when faced with a frustrating situation.
Nicki reminded us that yoga is the “practice of turning inwards” to embark on a journey of the self. By learning to respect ourselves and truly experience the moment we are in, whether it’s an intense hip flexor stretch, a sunrise on the beach, or dinner with our parents, we learn to respect and fully experience the people and environment around us. Respect for one’s ferocity and perseverance was experienced on all days of the workshop through simhasana, also known as lion’s pose, where the simple action of pressing the front of one ankle into the back of the other and sitting back on the heels can cause searing pain. “We pay far too little attention to our feet, and poses like these are great for keeping the feet healthy.” Our hips, back, quadriceps and sacrum were also on the focal points, with dynamic and deep poses bringing us to experience one of Nicki’s favorite yoga sutras: shtira sukha asanam. Sthira, meaning alertness without tension, and sukha, meaning relaxation without dullness, creates a sense of harmony between the mind and body during the practice of yoga.
Nicki’s exceptional ability to blend the wisdoms of the yoga sutras with the flow of movement, breath and anatomical teachings allowed for a fully rounded and extremely engaging yoga experience. Her sense of humor, calm demeanor and down-to-earth mannerisms make her teaching style accessible to almost anyone, encouraging students to “do the best you can do – it’s all you can do”. To Nicki yoga is a life support system, sustaining a healthy relationship with ourselves, realizing “your body is a temple”, and thus a healthy relationship with those around us, offering a truly sustainable life and practice. As a fitting closing statement she asked us to “keep doing yoga, keep supporting your local studios and local teachers, keep teaching your students.”