The Chinese Zodiac tells me that 2013 is the year of the snake.
I’ve been searching for a snake charming yoga guru all over the frozen tundra of my hometown in the high country of the Colorado Rockies. Freezing outside my studio, teeth chattering against the arctic windshield, I resign to the fact that there are banshees and bobcats in these mountains, but no guru here who can serve me the Kundalini bliss I’ve been craving.
So I do what any stumped and frustrated yogini does: head west. Now I’m flying into the warmth of California’s Central Coast, a city that even the locals boast as the happiest city in the whole USA.
San Luis Obispo. Ahhhhh.
A hidden village surrounded by lush hills that at this time of year are so intensely green they practically sparkle. A refreshing breeze wafts in from the Pacific. There’s no need for a car; the downtown is easily walkable.
This place is an American Brigadoon—the legendary Scottish village that appears once every hundred years. Immediately, I become a character of the legend, plopped right onto set of the musical. Salty sea air tickles my chin, the eucalyptus-infused breeze whips my hair, I picture myself barefoot and skipping through the airport.
Unlike some of the big name yoga teachers who all have PR agents, legend has it that Peter Sterios is the real deal. He offers what most culturally popular teachers can’t—unique, personal and most importantly, one-on-one instruction.
When I meet Peter for the first time, I balk a little. This dude is my long-awaited yoga guru? He’s supposed to look like a 5,000-year-old Hindu Sage, but instead he looks trapped in the body of a middle-aged soccer dad.
I stay calm, however, knowing that this mysterious non-guru has indeed lived many lives: a groupie for Shadow-yoga guru Shandor Remete, an Iyengar teacher who lived with BKS Iyengar, a gypsy in India for five years, and a competitive Rugby player in New Zealand for eight years.
I hold a vague memory of Peter from when he gave his first workshop in my hometown of Durango, Colorado a few years earlier. After his classes I felt unhinged, like all my joints—jaw, hips, shoulders, and toes—had been scooped right out of their sockets, and set out to rehydrate.
Peter’s guidance unhooked my nervous system from hypertension and rebooted it into silence.
I see this kind of yoga as an awkward, yet subtly powerful, version of snake charming. Before I can hypnotize the serpent that is my spine, I must first rattle the basket and shake loose the locks that keep it encaged.
The opening sequence—designed to stimulate “marma” pressure points and all of the joints—is our daily encounter with the power of gravity.
We breathe slowly, tilling into the soil of our muscles; we release constantly, breaking up the chunks around the joints. We balance on our toenails—which feels like a direct form of torture at first—smash our noses into the floor in mayurasanam, wring out our wrists, and do shoulder openers that bring even my double-jointed body to shame.
Never in a yoga class have I felt so humbled. Apparently, my joints and the floor have needed to talk.
I realize how all those years of fancy yoga was just, in a subtle way, another practice to perpetuate my hyperactive nervous system.
Stephan Rechtschaffen, founder of the Omega Institute, describes Peter’s approach as an antidote to the body beautiful culture. He says, “Instead of constantly stretching and pushing the body beyond its limitations, Peter’s approach encourages the body back to its natural rhythms. It’s about allowing gravity to align with the body’s more natural wisdom.”
I guess it’s time to learn to trust the earth below me. It’s right here—I can lay down with my sorrow, allow my wounds to bleed, and my bones to moan.
Peter is not interested in trying to heal peoples’ symptoms. “I’m trying to turn them towards their reactions, their relationships with the symptoms,” he says.
Instead of feeding us a formula or complex technique, he urges us to empty enough so we can “let the master who is in us come out.”
Every class, we crack ourselves open onto the earth, and we learn how to listen anew. We use the same ground upon which we have fallen in order to stand up again. If gravity is the attraction of two physical bodies—earth and body, for example—then grace is the attraction of two non-physical—spiritual seems like the appropriate name—bodies.
What arises once we have surrendered to gravity? We connect with the ache of our hearts that reminds us how desperately we yearn to be back in balance with the natural order of life.
After a few days of living like a (spoiled Westernized) monk (5 a.m. rise, skin and tongue brushing, sugar-free diet and many hours of silent meditation), during the first segment of the 10-day teacher training, I notice that Peter speaks from his spine rather than his mind. He listens to his students and responds with a sincerity that resonates in my bones. He is, like any creative genius, full of paradoxes. He’s reverent but radical, centered but constantly leaning into the abyss. He reminds us not to pass the limit of where our bodies allow us to go safely but at the same time, warns us to never be satisfied with resting into the comfortable zone of a posture.
“What I teach is not about advanced poses. It’s about cultivating heightened awareness in simple poses. The integrity of a pose starts with the very first inhale and ends with the very last exhale.”
This philosophy challenges me to cultivate beginners mind once again.
Again!? Again and again, I stand in tadasana with the simple task of balance. It’s hard to ignore my inner Iyengar wiz-kid who orders me to stretch my spine, pull my kneecaps up, brighten my body and broaden my shoulders.
Instead of cuing us to open our hearts or do anything with our muscles though, he urges us to soften the top of the lungs and release the collar bones. Who knew releasing actually requires more attention than all the other tasks put together.
Little by little, we refine the breath, make it subtler. We do not strengthen by engaging the muscles with our minds; we find strength when we let muscles in our joints release and bring us to a more authentic, softened connection with the floor and gravity.
Peter confirms my intuition about yoga really being just a dance.
It’s a dance of transitions, the entrances and exits. Any great performer knows it’s not about the tricks you pull off, but its about the spaces in between, the way you move through the challenging moments. He also confirms my intuition that circus folk really are the truest yogis.
So is Philippe Petit, a crazy, French high-wire tightrope walker who dared his routine between The World Trade Towers in 1974. One night after lecture, a few of us go and watch the documentary about him, Man on Wire.
Petit’s philosophy is this: “Life should be lived on the edge. You have to exercise rebellion: to refuse to tape yourself to rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge—and then you are going to live your life on a tightrope.”
Me: This dude is definitely part of our tribe.
Peter: This guy is my guru.
Silence. Petit sways on the line, 1,800 feet high, and then dips down into a single-leg lunge.
Peter: Do you think he’s thinking about pulling up his knee-cap right there?
During one of our classes, at dawn, we are lying on the floor with tennis balls under our necks. I can’t hear Peter’s cues very well. I can only focus on this dull rage that surges as the ball digs deeper towards into my jaw.
We’re at the moment of transformation in our daily ritual. This moment with the tennis ball lodged into my jaw feels as painful as birthing.
I remember Jungian psychologist Robert Johnson’s quote, “When the unstoppable bullet hits the impenetrable wall, we find the religious experience.”
Here goes nothing. Instead of rolling out of the pain, I whimper, surrender a little more, give up the struggle and let myself drop into the sensation of the pain body.
Peter guides us through it: “Follow the subtle expansion of the inhale into your discomfort and touch it as lightly as you can. On the exhalation cycle, create softness and the feeling of spaciousness. Let gravity pull that sensation down into the earth and simultaneously feel the lightness responding through your spine upward through the back of your skull.”
If you’ve ever really watched the way a snake sheds its skin, you will notice that it’s a slow dance, a primal pulsation that allows the snake to wriggle free of the old layer.During the process, the snake pushes out from its deepest core, bulging its entire body into the old skin. It makes space by expanding itself from the inside out.
Then its trunk shrinks, releases its volume away from the layer, until, at the very end of that compression, it’s able to undulate forward and caterpillar itself one millimeter out of the sheath, allowing the scales to fall away completely.
So, I listen more deeply.
I sense into the old skin around my heart, the clenching in my hips. I do the dance of the molting snake. From my core, I slither through old barriers, and then let the breath move me beyond. I release a little more into the sensation, and sense a flicker, a poised thread of light spiraling through my spine. It’s in this moment, with my body curled up over the floor, this thread moving simultaneously through the floor and into the sky, that I get a taste of grace.
It may seem odd, but clearly the best gift a teacher can give their student is to become irrelevant.
It’s to give the tools, open the road map, and watch as we crawl back into ourselves. They empower us to be courageous to find our own intimate journeys into the ever-ascending and descending snake of our spines.
Katie Clancy is a certified Body Mechanic and founder of Altaer Education. Her tools: Radical Yoga, Renegade Journalism, Ritualistic Performance Art. She uses her Vaudeville blood and Gonzo roots to forge a path along Zero Point—the Silent and Narrow Path—where all the chaos and order, sin and redemption, passion and piety come together. She teaches and builds altars across the Americas, acting as a translator between verbal and non-verbal languages. Her upcoming book, My Own Private Gonzo, is non-fiction with a splash of magical realism. Find her here.
published by Elephant Journal 4/22/13: