Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Yoga Blog: Q & A With Teacher Sarah Newman

I started doing yoga...wow, 14 years ago now, though I've fallen out of practice at times since taking it up, working first with Marianne Mitsinikos, a classic, disciplined and welcoming yoga teacher who founded Northport Yoga Center on Long Island and later with two more amazing, dynamic teachers, Erika Faith Calig and Valinda Case-Cochella in the ultimate yoga locale, Southern California (aside from that strange incident during a class on Fairfax Ave., when I looked out the window to find Stacy Keach staring back at me from a billboard on high in this class I was already not feeling. I've found yoga is sort of like sushi in that if the teacher isn't on point, things can go bad quick; trust your instincts and head back toward the mountains, away from the Keach.)

So, I was happy to find a great teacher and class in my current neighborhood this spring--well, the teacher, Sarah Newman, found me when she happened to come by my place one night with a few mutual friends. She's not teaching in Sunnyside this fall, but will hopefully be back to teaching in our little nyc haven soon. In the meantime, she'll be subbing at Pablo Fitness on 54th St. between 2nd and 3rd Ave, so look for her there, including this Saturday, September 21 at 10 a.m. She's also available for private lessons.

Haze Ablaze: What drew you to yoga?

Sarah Newman: Since I was young, I had always been curious what yoga was truly all about. When yoga became popular I was attracted to it because it became the “new latest workout.” My first class was at Gold’s Gym in Los Angeles, California. I fell in love with it. I had been a dancer for most of my life and loved how much I could stretch and strengthen my body at the same time. In 2008, I found my teacher, Annie Carpenter, and that’s when yoga became a true part of my everyday life. I discovered, even after years of dancing, I had very little awareness of my body and how the skeletal structure worked. I became fascinated with yoga and its healing abilities--healing physical injuries and stress, and promoting overall awareness of one's body and mind.

HA: What do you find most enjoyable, and also most challenging, about teaching yoga?

SN: The most challenging part of teaching, for me, is the language and wording. Everyone thinks a little differently--sometimes, a lot differently. It can be difficult to articulate what is in my brain and my body in a way that can be translated into my students. Each class is a little different. I welcome all student in my class regardless of fitness level or age. Some people are naturally more "flexible" than others. We all have slightly different skeletal structures, and some times our bones will only let us go so deep. On the opposite side a person who is flexible has to learn to activate the muscles around the joints to prevent overstretching and injury.

While I'm teaching, the students are the ones who really have the control; by watching them I know what level to teach and depending on any injuries or ailments it can guide the class in different directions. My training with Ishta Yoga taught me to gear classes to what the students need in that moment, for that particular class. I always plan out what I'm going to teach, but yoga is designed to fit everyone's needs and any plan can be adjusted for the students in class. I have a passion for the human body and creating balance in one's life, and am filled with joy any chance I get to share that.

HA: Do you get the impression people are intimidated by the prospect of doing yoga for the first time? I used to think I needed to be more naturally flexible first or, if I went by popular depictions, that I needed to be a happy vegan glowing person at all times, which obviously isn’t the case (the vegan part, in particular). Do you encounter misconceptions like this?

SN: Yes, often! Anyone can do yoga and there are many, many different kinds of yoga. Most people who think they are not flexible enough, or it's too slow, or they won't get a good enough workout, have not found the right yoga practice and teacher they need for themselves. It's really just a lack of education on what yoga truly is. Yoga means union: it's the bringing together of the breath and movement connecting with one's inner self, no matter where your body is physically. Anyone can do it.

HA: One thing you do that my other teachers haven’t, aside from during the opening and closing of class, is use music during class, which I love—Fleetwood Mac’s “Gypsy” just feels like the right track to do yoga to for me. (And since this interview, "Jolene" by Dolly Parton has made an in-class cameo, which is of course amazing.) What does music add to both your practice and your teaching?

SN: Music has many benefits in yoga and day-to-day life. It’s a way to focus your attention and music is therapy; it can help your physical coordination, and creates a lighthearted flow to one's practice. It helps to have background noise to zone into while holding poses or have a beat to keep your breath in sync while moving through vinyasas. I choose the music I like and find happiness in. I do enjoy yoga music, but also find my favorite classics to be just as effective to my practice and class. Stevie Nicks is usually one of them.

HA: I know my own perceptions have changed, and been shaped, by my practice over the years and I’ve also noticed that my ability to slow down and breathe (er, be calmer) can be at odds with the larger culture and, on the local level, the pace of NYC. Is this a contradiction you experience and how do you maintain a balance through your practice or otherwise?

SN: The ultimate idea of developing a regular yoga practice is to carry the fundamentals of yoga with you, off your mat and into day-to-day life. To maintain the proper alignment of one's spine can create more energy, as well as improves your overall mood. You can use breathing techniques to keep your nervous systems in balance and reduce stress and anxiety. Especially in NYC, so much of our day is running around from one thing to the next. We stress to make it to our next appointment, stress to make the next train or get that cab that five other people are waiting for. We get tired and frustrated and our sympathetic nervous system is overworked. Simply take a minute to stop, maybe even close your eyes, bring your head to Anjali (Prayer Pose) and breathe. Focus on the expansion of your breath, breathing deep into your low belly all the up your spine, filling up your skull. Taking that moment to focus inward is calming and balances the nervous systems.

HA: What are your favorite poses or flows, as well as the ones you find challenging?

SN: I love back bends: they are energizing and heart opening. Every day I get up and go straight into Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) and, if I’m feeling limber, Urdvha Dhanurasana (Wheel). I love playing with new arm balances but they are my biggest challenge. Balancing on one's arms takes more than just arm strength; it’s a lot of core work as well.

Favorite Energizing Poses:

SN: Back bends and standing balances can be energizing. Poses such as Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge), Ustasana (Camel), Bhujangasana (Cobra) or Natarajasana (Dancer), to name a few, can be heart opening. They stimulate blood flow through the body and strengthen the spine. Standing poses, such as Virabhadrasana 1 and 2 (Warrior 1, Warrior 2), Utkatasana (Chair Pose) and Vrksasana (Tree Pose), are grounding and can stimulate the abdominal organs and heart.

Favorite Poses for Letting Go or Releasing:

SN: Forward bends, such as Balasana (Child's Pose) and Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) are calming to the brain, therapeutic for high blood pressure, and reduce stress and anxiety. Janu sirsasana (Head to Knee) is a great one because it balances out the right and left side of the brain, which is also calming, and slows the chatter of the mind. Poses such as Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Forward Bend) and Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) are also a great way to calm the nervous system and brain. They send de-oxygenated blood back to the heart and brain. Anytime your heart is above your head you are doing an inversion and should be careful or avoid doing these poses if you have high or low blood pressure; try to stick to seated forward bends instead.

Meditation can be calming as well as energizing. Sit in a comfortable seat with a tall, straight spine and bring your hands to Anjali (Prayer Pose) at your heart center. This focuses your attention inward. Close your eyes. Notice your breath and bring your thumb and four finger to touch. Imagine a ball of light at the base of your spine. On your inhale, allow the ball of light to rise up your spine to the very top of your head; on your exhale, let the ball of light fall back down the spine, to the base. Repeat this several times. When your breath slows, using your finger, press the point between your eyebrows, focusing on your third eye. Sit in silence for as long as is comfortable for you. When you are done, lower your chin to your chest and blink your eyes open, focusing on a single point in front of you. Move slowly. Stand in Utkatasana (Chair) to re-ground your energy, then Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Through this technique, we relax and restore the brain. Its like sleeping, and can create room for more energy.

HA: And who doesn't like both sleeping and more energy? Look for Sarah Newman at Pablo Fitness, including this Saturday, September 21 at 10 a.m., and online.