gassho: shining the light on sybil shelton-ford

sybil.feature
“The breath is where the beauty happens.” ~ Sybil Shelton-Ford

 

Kismet. Synchronicity. Divine InterventionThe Power of Intention. Before I even realized I was ready, my teacher appeared!  I can get tired of treading the same streets and sometimes look for new routes to explore and new sights to soak in.  That day in November 2005, I wandered along a quiet downtown block that I hadn’t walked before and discovered a newly-opened yoga studio offering $5 classes. GASP! An accessible studio with affordable classes in little ol’ Lansing?! Say what?! I made a mental note to check it out as soon as I could.

A couple weeks later, I flipped through the local newspaper to see this radiant Black woman gracing the front page of the business section. She was the owner of the studio I had passed…and she looked like me in shape and ethnicity! (DOUBLE GASP!)  I called a dear friend and spiritual confidante in Virginia to share my excitement.  Tati knew my spiritual compass had guided me toward the contemplative practice of Buddhism and that I’d recently found what would become my root sangha; however, my study of yoga had been a private and solitary exploration.  Tati, who also understood that I could be a “slow burn” with new people and things, immediately declared: “She’s your teacher.”

I liked Sybil instantly and, shortly after I’d begun practicing with her that December, asked if she’d ever consider offering a teachers training.  I didn’t have any specific aspirations of becoming a yoga teacher at that moment but could see its potential for healing and building community. Sybil hadn’t ruled it out but was focusing first on getting the studio off the ground.

Fast forward to June 2006, Sybil had hosted a Girls Night Out at the studio and invited me to offer a Reiki share circle similar to those held at the Reiki program I attended before I left New York City three years earlier. It was a lovely body-soul nourishing event filled with asana, laughter yoga, tasty treats, and good conversation. A few days later, I sat down to send Sybil an email to thank her for allowing me to participate and to volunteer to help in any way I could with the studio. Instead I was greeted with a message from her, announcing that she was ready to begin her teachers training program and would like to offer a scholarship to me if I was interested! Um, YEAH!

This month marks 8 years since I began my intensive one-on-one apprenticeship with Sybil. The journey has taken us from apprentice and teacher, mentee and mentor, to friends and collaborators! (Full circle moment: I decided in May to take a summer hiatus and, as soon as I opened Facebook, Sybil’s post appeared in my newsfeed announcing her availability to sub yoga classes, walk dogs or help with gardening!!! ) So I am thrilled to introduce Sybil to the community of devoted practitioners who find refuge with me every Monday evening. Sybil will be bringing a “yummy” spin to Yin + Yang Yoga from 7 July to 28 July.

With a deep gassho, I offer my sincere gratitude to Sybil for being a true sponsor of my teaching, learning, and growing along this path!

How has yoga changed you?

Yoga has made me become more mindful about all aspects of my life; how I eat, how I speak, how I listen; how I attend to my job… everything.

How has your personal practice + teaching approach changed over the years?

When I first started practicing yoga, it was all about the asanas (poses).  It was about how it LOOKED, not how it felt.

Now when I practice asana, it is all about the breath. Breath first – pose second. The breath is the precious jewel of all yoga that it often overlooked and this is  a true shame.  The breath is where the beauty happens.

Also when I first started teaching, I was more concerned about how to sequence classes and would even plan out my classes ahead of time.  I remember writing down the sequences on pieces of paper and stuffing them under my mat!  I would often check my “notes” to make sure I was on track.  Now I teach to the student – to who is in front of me.  Sometimes I will ask them for requests, but sometimes I “read” their energy and/or their bodies and the sequence sort of emerges from there.  I never plan anymore.

 

When people ask you about yoga/wellness, what is/are the thing(s) you value the most that you’d like them to know?

I think the most important thing is to listen to your body; listen to your gut.  The only way to really do this is to be mindful and aware of what is going on both INSIDE and OUTSIDE.  I would also urge them to remember that they are individuals and what works for someone else may be true poison for them.  This is true in yoga, when choosing foods, when choosing a career… everything!
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Sybil Shelton-Ford is a mother, early childhood educator, yoga therapist + founder of As You Are Yoga. She completed her 200-hour yoga teacher training at the Temple of Kriya Yoga in 2003 and went on to receive advanced training (500 hour) with Integrative Yoga Therapy. She has additional training in Yoga for the Special Child with Sonia Sumar, Chakra Yoga Therapy with Joseph and Lillian LaPage, and Ashtanga Yoga with David Swenson.

Sybil has developed training curricula for teaching yoga to adults and children (including those with special needs) and is currently studying to become a health and wellness coach. She plans to launch her first conscious eating workshop series this fall.

embodied practice: walking the labyrinth

we meet to walk in silent contemplation

of earth, cooling our feet

of air, tickling our skin

of water, rushing as sound + current to dampen our ears

of sun, blazing warm on head + hearts

we spiral in + quietly in

stepping

breathing

cleansing

clearing

sorting

settling

centering our awareness on new beginnings, grace, gratitude, friendship

we spiral out, expanding once more

greeting one another on the path

a momentary pause

a deep bow

a gaze into eyes of compassion

we sit then, steady of heart + mind

soaking in the suchness

of the four elements

of dear companions

of movement that awakens understanding

embodied practice: “taking refuge in the island of self”

breathing in, i go back
to the island of myself.

there are beautiful trees
there is water, there are birds,
there is sunshine and fresh air.

breathing out, i feel safe.

~thich nhat hanh
Nothing To Do, Nowhere To Go: Waking Up To Who You Are

zen in motion:
as a mountain,
exalted,
resilient,
uplifted,
half moon, waxing: open heart,
balancing: steady of body + heart + mind,
taking refuge in the wisdom of breath,
refuge in the self
~t scott

#MyMellowOutMonday

embodied practice: on the power of mindfulness

“…Meditation is not escapism; it is not meant to provide hiding-places for temporary oblivion. Realistic meditation has the purpose of training the mind to face, to understand and to conquer this very world in which we live. And this world inevitably includes numerous obstacles to the life of meditation.”

~Nyanaponika Thera
The Power of Mindfulness

embodied practice: on self care as self-preservation

via "panarchy" [http://miafortunato.tumblr.com/]

 

 

embodied practice: seeing into habit energies

As far back as I can remember I have been fascinated by the marvelous transformations which take place when a very simple sort of magic is applied to things.

Even the most everyday transformation of something undesirable into something desirable has, to me,  a tremendous magic power back of it, and it is a power which I believe in using more deliberately and often than most people do.

Everyone marvels at such transformations when they come by accident, but it never seems to occur to anyone to make them happen at will.

I am shocked by the ignorance and wastefulness with which persons who should know better throw away the things they do not like. They throw away experiences, people, marriages, situations, all sorts of things because they do not like them. If you throw away a thing, it is gone. Where you had something you have nothing to work on. Whereas, almost all those things which get thrown away are capable of being worked over by a little magic into just the opposite of what they were.

So that in the place of something you detest you have something you can adore. And you have had the most thrilling kind of experience, because nothing is more thrilling than working the magic of transformation…It is not work at all. It is, simply, magic.

But most human beings never remember at all that in almost every bad situation there is the possibility of a transformation by which the undesirable may be changed into the desirable.

~Katherine Butler Hathaway, The Little Locksmith [p.12 -13]

As I prepared for sangha’s contemplation of habit energies, I encountered an article on Access To Insight, which included a portion of the quote above (see the bolded text). It beautifully and succinctly captures the tendencies we have to avoid, discard, or turn away from what we find difficult or unpleasant and to doggedly pursue what brings us pleasure or comfort. Neither is inherently wrong. In fact, it is a primal neurobiological instinct to assess threats (response: fight, flee, freeze) and opportunities (response: accept, seek out, multiply). The question is one of looking into whether our habitual response is skillful–does it generate understanding and compassion?

When we perceive an arising “threat,” we may flee from it–finding it easier to deny, ignore, suppress, push away, or discard it. Our mindfulness practice invites us to strengthen our compassion and equanimity so that we become steady enough to stay where we are in the midst of swirling change, uncertainty, and discomfort. We learn to greet the difficult/unpleasant with breath and loving awareness. To embrace the moment tenderly as a parent would a crying child–to tend to our suffering wholeheartedly. Nothing is left out. All becomes part of the practice of nurturing the heart and mind of love and skillful understanding.

Explore:

Buddha’s Brain  ~ Rick Hanson

kiss your brain: a compassionate life lesson from a preschool teacher

Here’s a practice to help foster self-compassion + (it is hoped) to plant seeds of skillful understanding about the workings of the brain and the arising mind and behaviors. #KissYourBrain #CradleYourHeart

dhamma for mama*

Last year, I worked as a substitute teaching assistant for a preschool program and had the opportunity to observe the dynamics between teachers, program assistants, and students in several classrooms.

One teacher quickly won my heart when I heard her say “Kiss Your Brain” in praise of the kids’ engagement in a group lesson. It wasn’t about having the “right” answer or being the best and smartest. It was a simple celebration of their ability and willingness to use their brain power—thinking, imagining, problem-solving, asking questions—and sharing it with others.

I’ve carried this practice into my home as well as into my yoga and meditation classes. With my son and the children that I teach, this phrase is a seed of self-compassion to nurture confidence and a sense of competency. It has the power to foster a love for learning without the pressure of performing to a certain standard of…

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embodied practice: on the suchness of sangha

“I could hear my heart beating.
I could hear everyone’s heart.
I could hear the human noise we sat there making,
not one of us moving,
not even when the room went dark.”

~Raymond Carver
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

This gem was quoted in the film Stuck In Love (so-so) and instantly evoked for me the image + energy of mindfulness + compassion that we cultivate in what I call the full embrace of sanghaIt is the suchness generated within a community of spiritual practitioners + friends.

 

 


Explore
:

Suchness, Tathata, Mahayana Buddhism ~ India Netzone

The Contemplation of Suchness (.pdf) ~ Jacqueline I. Stone

Tathata: The The ~ Richard Collins

embodied wisdom: lessons on chronic pain + yoga postures (with tips via Sequence Wiz)

As a yoga practitioner + teacher who has experienced chronic pain off and on for over 20 years due to a sports-related injury in high school, I know firsthand how vital it is to have an intimate understanding of our pelvis and sacrum. Yoga therapist Olga Kabel of Sequence Wiz  (whose vision statement “every yoga practice must have purpose, order and meaning” resonates deeply with my own approach) explains it clearly here: Too many asymmetrical poses can create sacroiliac joint issues. I can attest that the simple and functional exercises I learned from a friend (also a yoga therapist in the viniyoga tradition like the author of the blog linked above) have been an enormous help to me in maintaining pelvic/sacral stability.

Embodied Wisdom: A Twenty-Year Lesson on Chronic Pain + Rehabilitative Therapies + Yoga

Back in 2006, I remember being baffled when a physical therapy assistant told me to stop practicing yoga even though the stretches for my super tight iliopsoas muscles (deemed the culprit for my back pain) were similar to the asanas (like lunges and pigeon pose) that seemed to help relieve the tension in that area. She offered no further explanation that I can recall, so I was hardly convinced it was problematic. I loved how my body felt in postures and appreciated the skill with which my teacher instructed.

Even before starting my teacher’s training with her that summer, I came to experience the potential of yoga as a lifelong journey of self study and refinement. Coupled with my study and practice of Zen Buddhism, I knew that it had less to do with what happened physically on a mat and far more to do with generating compassion, equanimity and resilience of heart and mind in order to nourish skillful understanding of ourselves and skillful relationships with others. Asana can be used as a skillful means of clearing tension in body, heart and mind. However, what has become clear to me over the years about asana is that, if not practiced or taught with a skillful understanding of the interplay between movement, muscles, connective tissues and bones, it can be incompleteineffective and dangerous. This may be what the PTA meant but failed to articulate.

I’ve been treated by athletic trainers, physical therapists, occupational therapists, osteopaths and podiatrists since my high school sports injury. None have quite made a deep and thorough connection between my various symptoms (broken toe bone, strain in my arches, tightness in Achilles and calf, shin splints, runner’s knee, frozen shoulder, SI issues–a spiraling line of dysfunction from my left foot, leg and hip wrapping around to the right side of my sacrum and continuing upward to my right shoulder and, sometimes, down to my right elbow and wrist—all arising from a brief stint running track followed by 3 years of shot putting + discus throwing) and the root cause: pelvic and sacral instability.

During my last trimester of pregnancy in 2010, nearly every footstep would bring searing pain to my pelvis because of pubic symphysis diastasis  (PT treatment #3). The pain diminished post-partum as my ligaments tightened and knitted my pubic bones back together but returned with a vengeance in the form of sciatica and SI pain, making it difficult to sleep and even to walk when getting out of bed in the morning. For a mom, on little sleep, who uses her body for a living to teach yoga, this was madness!

Over the past two years, I’ve seen an osteopath and undergone a fourth round of physical therapy. I found that going to an osteopath was a waste of time and insurance money for such fleeting relief. I would feel better after the manual manipulation but then, because of my daily activities, would run the risk of throwing myself back into misalignment and require readjustment again…Um, no thanks! I asked numerous questions about caring for my body’s unique structural alignment as well as the impact of yoga poses and running on my problematic areas. According to them: no restrictions, limitations or modifications were needed. Hmmm, really?!  And, of course, the pain returned.

So back to physical therapy for what I proclaimed would be the last time. During my initial assessment with the PT, I rattled off my history of injuries/symptoms dating back to the stress fracture in my foot from a stunt I performed (jumped off a cement post and crossed my legs as I hit the ground) when I was 8 years old! I absolutely did not care that the PT was taken aback by my onslaught of information. She actually told me she didn’t need to know all of that (meaning, insurance only covers the current, localized issue — my sacrum). But I wasn’t having it and promptly insisted that she help me to understand and to correct the chain of dysfunction, explaining that I could not keep coming back to physical therapy every few years for “Band-Aid” treatments.

Even though I asked the same questions about maintenance and self-care, I had no illusions that I would get all the answers from physical therapy. Indeed, I got the same “you’re-free-to-move-without-restrictions” prescription. (To their credit, I realize that in some ways these therapists deferred to my experience as a yoga teacher, as well as my healthy range of motion in my joints–figuring I knew how to take care of myself.) But overall I did receive a better treatment plan this time because I advocated for it. More important, in deciding to be fully responsible for my own healing and care, I diligently tested the validity of the recommendations from these healthcare practitioners alongside the knowledge of my body I had acquired through my training, practicing and teaching of asana. I continue to seek new perspectives on anatomy, physiology, kinesiology and exercise to refresh my understanding and application of relevant principles and tips to my practice and teaching.

Treating every movement as an act and extension of yoga has been key to healing and realigning my body. Through the union of purposeful asana with running, walking, strength training, and self-applied myofascial release with foam rollers and balls (see links below), I have gained more stability and a considerable sense of freedom from pain and tension in my body. I continuously share this journey with my students and encourage them to trust their bodies’ wisdom (particularly when it shows up as pain) and to develop a collaborative relationship with their care providers. They may be experts in their fields, but we must reclaim our role as experts of our own bodies.

Related:

Learn more about the role of connective tissue plays in creating and maintaining stability, postural integrity, and balancing out or holding “stuck” tension.

Anatomy Trains

MELT Method