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How many licks does it take to get to the center of a yoga practice?

Good Question! I love the number three. I like three rounds of most anything: non title UFC matches, vinyasa flow sequences, trilogies. Third time’s often the charm. I was born nine, three, seventy-three; lots of threes there. But that aside, though it might take only three licks to the get to the tootsie roll center of a tootsie pop, it take many more to get to the center of a yoga practice.

My grandmother, rest her soul, used to have a milk chocolate bar ready for me when I’d visit. The bar was a 5X8 grid of smaller “perforated” pieces of chocolate. To my grandmother’s disappointment and disapproval, I’d kill the bar in less than a five minute sitting (almost) every time.

I say almost because there would be times when my grandmother would sit me down and effort to have me slow down and enjoy just one piece of chocolate. It was ridiculously challenging, especially when I was a nine year old. She would ask me to let that one single piece melt in my mouth completely before I’d be allowed another. I’d more than often mash and press down the piece of chocolate with the roof of my mouth against my tongue hoping it might dissolve faster. I didn’t consider it cheating because I wasn’t using my teeth. In a sense though, I was cheating myself of the experience of being mindful in the moment.

Even when my grandmother was not around, I would effort during my childhood to be more mindful when I consumed candy, whether it was a piece of chocolate, a Blowpop, or a Tootsie Roll Pop. There would be times when I’d get so close with the gum almost fully revealed under the hard candy shell of the Blowpop, and then something would happen and I’d lose focus and CRUNCH! (Or crunch whatever last little bit there was let to make a crunch sound with.)

In truth, I was more often unsuccessful than successful. But as the holidays come around and I grow mindful and grateful for all that I have, I remind myself to let myself simmer in all that I experience around me. I must let my yoga practice simmer slowly on my mat just as the piece chocolate simmered slowly in my mouth.

Right from the very beginning, from that first mindful integration: a practice of grounding and centering, of setting intentions or dedications, I pop in that piece of chocolate (or lollipop). Do I crunch right on in with my teeth? No, I slowly warm things up.

Maybe my first sun salutation is really only comprised of raised-hands-pose to prayer-anjali. Maybe my second will be raised-hands-pose to forward-fold-pose back to raised-hands-pose exhaling back to prayer-anjali. On the third round though I may stay in forward fold with palms grasping opposite elbows because I wish to simmer a little bit longer before my hands come down to my shins (starting shallow) as I extend my heart gently forward, press my hips back, and lengthen my back to flat, possibly bending my knees to make that half-forward-fold happen. I’ll then exhale and go through my very first vinyasa (and inhaling into that first cobra better be a baby bhujangasana).

Exhaling to my very first downward-facing-dog should be a piece of chocolate all on its own worth savoring. With all respect due to any Ashtangis, I forget those five breaths, especially for my first adho-mukha svanasana; I’ll go at least ten, if not twenty, but frankly I’m not counting. I move when I feel like moving. I don’t bite into my surya namaskara A, I simmer slowly, taking my time, evolving gradually. I’ll walk up to utanasana at the bottom of my exhale rather than my inhale (that added half breath slows me down just enough) so I might inhale more fully into my ardha utanasana and simmer even more as I exhale back to forward-fold, where I may just stay for an extra breath or two as I contemplate rolling up like a rag-doll to standing or a more intense reverse swan dive upward through to urdhva hastasana; I choose a gentle rollup to standing, with my knees micro bending and my belly firm, and working through my lower lumber first (L5), giving at least a whole second (if not two) to each vertebrae – we have twenty-four of them (from L5 to C1). I roll up slowly through the lumber spine, then the lower thoracic, then upper, then the cervical spine, with the Atlas (C1) the very last to bring my head up right to tadasana (mountain pose).

So one round down and (at least) two more to go.

With that metaphoric piece of candy still in my mouth I embark on my second sun salutation. As I go through round two I might notice my breath getting deeper, my movements softer, the mind quieter. I might also still linger in that forward-fold again, just to ensure a deeper inhale when I extend my back flat into half-forward-fold. I embark on my second vinyasa, placing my feet back one at a time settling (and maybe sneaking a quick inhale) in my utthita chatturanga dandasa, a.k.a. plank, before I lower down slowly to my belly (maybe) – too early for up dog? Let’s just say Yogis choice.

I take my breaths, move out of my dog, and complete round two (probably with a reverse swan dive this time to standing). Third time’s a charm as my breath leads movement and I salute the sun again. And after exhaling to my third downward-facing-dog I check: is the candy in my mouth all gone? Did it dissolve away naturally or did I subconsciously bite down in the form of some jerky movement, or speeding through the asanas, or letting movement motivate breath (and not the other way around).

Some rounds are better than others, some practices are better than others, just as some days are better. By better I merely mean to qualify based on me patiently permitting that piece of candy, a.k.a. yoga, to melt me into my mat just as an M&M melts in my mouth.

Zen Hard, have a wonderful week, and thanks for reading.