The Inside Scoop on this year’s Telluride Yoga Festival
with featured teachers Allison English, Tias Little, and Karl Straub
We are getting pumped for this summer’s festival on July 11-14th. You are all internationally acclaimed teachers and have taught all over the world. What makes this festival different from others where you’ve taught?
Karl Straub: I have taught in many countries over the past 8 years, and I can report that the Telluride Yoga Festival experience is truly one of the best in the world. Definitely part of that is the stunning environment, but it`s more than that, too. The festival organizers make the participants as well as the instructors feel entirely supported, and so everyone feels a great sense of camaraderie and fun. Not all festivals are so lucky.
Allison English: Yes, it’s an intimate setting. The teachers connect with one another more deeply than at other festivals and because TYF takes over the town, everyone ends up hanging around together and making friends.
As returning teachers, what keeps you coming back?
Tias Little: Teaching in the midst of the grand granite peaks and riding the gondola with dear students and colleagues.
AE: Speaking of gondola rides, last year during my first ride up the gondola there was a GIANT bear below us. The gondola stopped for a few moments as it does from time to time and I got to see my first real lumbering bear from high above. It was magical and fascinating and that bear was BIG!
KS: Expect to have some epic adventures during the festival. Last year, I was hiking the Bear Creek trail with a few friends. It was a warm sunny day, and when we reached the impressive cascade of Bear Creek Falls, the cool mist felt inviting, so after some preliminary toe testing, a couple of us waded out to a boulder which sat directly under the cascade. We plunged into the rush of icy snow-melt. I guess the water was just a few degrees above freezing. This has a peculiar stimulating effect that yogis will appreciate.
First, holding involuntary pranayama: (gasp!) then holding…the….breathe…in….um…yes…still…in…not…by…choice…just…can’t….seem… to….move…ribs…diaphram…frozen…, then an involuntary exhale, AH-HA-HA-HAhhhhhh, then inhale (gasp!)…. holding…holding… and exhale, YAAAAAAAAh-Haa! Inhale (gasp!) … WHOOOOOOOO-HA! I distinctly felt the blood temperature shift hit my brain, and it gave me a physical sense of merging with the river. For maybe three magical minutes I heard and felt only the Cascade. No thoughts, just the sense, the experience newly carved in my breath and blood and skin. Invigorating! Then I became an amphibian after the first thaw, and creakily climbed out of Bear Creek Falls, directly into immediate luxury: embracing the biggest dry sun-heated boulder I could find.
Haha, yes, Colorado does have a power that transforms us radically. I take it that even if you weren’t teaching, you would make the pilgrimage to the festival and be a student?
TL: Definitely. The mountains, valleys, and rivers of Telluride really stoke the pranic fires within.
KS: It is the perfect place to meet new and old friends, recharge on clear mountain air and sunshine, and catch a few classes with renowned yoga teachers from around the world.
AE: Yup, its like a yoga retreat and world-class yoga conference all wrapped up in one: physical beauty, incredible teachers, outdoor activities, great food.
Obviously, people come here to gear up their asana practices, being that the festival offers up to 8 hours of daily practice. But what’s there to do in Telluride when you are not on the mat?
AE: Honestly, my favorite thing to do is get gluten-free pizza from Brown Dog Pizza or watching for the eagles down by the river that flows right through town.
KS: Hiking, chilling by the river, or gondola cruising!
TL: One image: Doing pranayama at 11,000 feet!
AE: Speaking of doing pranayama at high altitudes, here’s my memorable TYF story: The first time I came to Telluride I was really nervous. I have never taught at high elevation – heck I’d never even been at high elevation! I didn’t know anyone except the students who came with me. As I was practicing one afternoon to prep for my session the next day, an eagle came flying by and was in view from my hotel window the whole time I practiced. I came up out of savasana and the eagle dove and was gone. Eagles are powerful medicine in my tradition – keepers of wisdom and the power of seeing the bigger picture in our life. Its message brought a great deal of Beauty to what I taught the next day.
We are pumped for this summer’s festival. Any last words of encouragement for yogi who are still considering taking the journey?
KS: Now is the time!
AE: Honestly, this gathering of kind, brilliant and inspiring teachers combined with the power of the mountain environment is truly special. You will leave feeling recharged, refreshed and revitalized. As a teacher, communing with others at this festival in this locale leaves me feeling uniquely stronger and more connected to my true self than any other festival out there. See you there!
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.
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.
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.”
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.
This is an interview with Thea Blair, a Certified Massage Therapist, a Certified Pediatric Massage Therapist, and a Waldorf teacher, as well as a mother of two children. Her son is 16 and her daughter is 9. She lives with them and her ex-husband in a small intentional community and farm in Nevada City, California.
“I am passionate about the healing benefits of touch. It started with my experiences with the children in my home kindergarten. I was amazed at how simple touch, either comforting or playful, worked like magic to transform aggressive and anti-social behavior into calm and friendly willingness to play.
Later, after my massage trainings, I discovered that I am gifted in helping parents and teachers achieve greater connection and collaboration with their children. My own children are the “guinea pigs”! Because of my training and experience as a Waldorf teacher I am able to create simple massage routines in imaginative ways that are fun and easy to do.
My work extends to Personal Consultation. Its all about connection and learning to live to our full potential. With children its about helping them live to their full potential. The sense of touch is integral in this process.”
You call yourself a Touch Educator. How did this journey begin and what is your mission?
My mission is to bring awareness of the importance of nurturing human to human contact in healthy human development and in the evolution of empathic and enlightened human culture, because touch is our primary language of acceptance and belonging, safety and security. Nurturing touch, or touch-with-presence is a physical, tangible form of love.
What is the significance of touch for an evolution towards greater compassion?
Well, this comes straight form Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf schools: In his view, touch is the first and over-arching sense, culminating in a perception of the sovereign being of another. Namaste, if you will. I call it Empathy, or the capacity to perceive self and other simultaneously. If you think about it, thats what touch is on a physical level – a simultaneous perception of self and other. When this is received, especially at developmentally important moments, it translates into the social sense of mutuality.
What role does the sense of touch play in personal development?
I became aware of the significance of the sense of touch to the quest for self-knowledge when I was in massage training. Suddenly all of my spiritual, emotional and intellectual strivings since adolescence began to integrate! It was a very exciting moment when I realized that I had not been “in my body” for years.
My first clue was a couple of years before this when I was going through a dark night of the soul. Once, in the midst of my deep despair, I had a flash back of being an infant and crying out and no one came. The ensuing panic and terror sensation in my body was almost more than I could bear.
My second clue was when I became aware of the lack of nurturing touch in my marriage; in my childhood; in the
culture. How normal this was and how inhibited I felt about touching. (This is what I mean when I refer to a “touch barrier”.)
I began to do a lot of research and read that others, such as James Prescott, discovered that touch deprivation leads to violence. I found, through my own introspection, my personal research, that this was so. Furthermore, I have discerned that if violence is not “acted out” it is “acted in”. I don’t know if anyone else is saying this. Now, I had the answer as to why I had feelings of self-loathing, feelings like I had done something terribly wrong and voices in my head berating me for not being enough”.
Humans are social mammals and as such, touch is our primary language of acceptance and belonging. When a social mammal perceives itself to be outside of the group, either left behind or banished, this is extremely stressful and the brain goes into the survival mode of fight, flee, or freeze. The Hormone that stimulates this is Cortisol. With Cortisol everyone and everything is seen as potential enemy. Now, Cortisol lives in a balance with another hormone and that is Oxytocin. Oxytocin is known as the bonding hormone, because it was discovered in infants and mamas when they are forming attachment. Nurturing touch stimulates the secretion of Oxytocin, which views everyone and everything as a potential friend. This is why I refer to this duo as the “Yin and Yang of Survival” and why I believe that touch and Oxytocin will lead us to an Empathic Civilization.
Is your work primarily with parents and children? Do you work with couples? What is the nature of your Personal Consultation service?
Educating others, especially parents, about what it is that infants and children need is part and parcel of what I do, because the first thing they need is touch.
I offer a service for coupes that I call Couple’s Massage Personal Training. wherein I teach them to give each other a massage made-to-order. It is a lot of fun for everyone!
My Personal Consultations always focus on what is right about a situation. What is the wisdom that is trying to be revealed through certain behaviors.
What poses the greatest challenge to this work?
I would say, all things considered, that denial is the greatest challenge I face when bringing an awareness of healthy touch to adults. Because touch deprivation in infancy is traumatic and because it is the nature of the brain to numb out painful experiences; because touch is portrayed as violent or sexual in the media, most people just don’t get what I am about until they hear my presentation and experience Peer Massage for themselves. So I face a challenge in being invited to speak. But once I do, my work is always received with enthusiasm and gratitude.
Tell us about your work with children and massage: How did you come to do this work?
For fourteen years I held a Waldorf inspired pre-school in my home for ages 2 through 6. In my last year of teaching I became acutely aware of the significance of touch, either comforting or playful, in resolving children’s difficulties whether between two children or a disturbance they brought with them from home. This coincided with my own awareness of the lack of touch in my marriage, the lack of touch in my childhood, the lack of touch in my culture.
I stopped working with children to process a divorce. I enrolled in a massage training, because it was something I always wanted to do. One of my fellow students told me about massage in the classroom and zoom! I had another way to contribute to my life purpose of supporting healthy childhoods!
How do you bring it to children?
All the routines on my DVD developed spontaneously with my pre-school children or with my own children. My daughter is 9 and my son is 16. During my massage training I practiced on them and was amazed at the immediate change in attitude and behavior it effected! This fueled my fervor to bring awareness of healthy touch to parents and teachers.
I give talks and teach workshops. I visit classrooms. I work one-on-one with parents and their children, teaching the parents how to massage their child.
Why is touch so important?
Touch is our first sense to develop. It is our primary language of acceptance and belonging, safety and security. We need touch our whole lives, but some times more that others. Most people are aware that infants need touch, but are not aware that touch deprivation in infancy is trauma and has an affect on how the brain develops.
Touch is also important at adolescence, which I think of as the second emergence, a very stressful time.
To understand the importance of touch it is helpful to understand that when we are stressed the adrenal gland secretes Cortisol which stimulates the Fight, Flight, or Freeze response. This causes blood to be diverted from the digestion, the immune system and the forebrain (the place that makes creative thinking possible) and shunts it into the large muscles of the arms (to Fight) or the legs (to Flee).
Nature is wise. Sometimes we really need this response to get us out of immediate danger. At all other times it is most advantageous for our survival to collaborate, to think rationally and creatively. There is a hormone which stimulates this, too, and it’s called Oxytocin. Oxytocin is known as the bonding hormone, the love hormone, the friendship hormone, the community hormone. It was initially discovered during parturition: it stimulates contractions (babies first massage!), flow of milk, and bonding. It is secreted by the pituitary gland and when it floods the blood stream it is like a sigh: the breathing slows, normal digestive and immune function resume, relaxation occurs; everyone and everything is seen as a potential friend.
What brings on the Oxytocin? Connection. Any kind gesture, any attempt to understand another, any way we share a common purpose, will bring on the Oxytocin. By far the most significant contributor to the secretion of this “peace hormone” is our primary language of mutuality: Touch. That is why a hug is so comforting.
How can it help in the classroom?
In the classroom it is called Peer Massage and is conducted student to student with the teacher telling a story and overseeing the activity. It helps the children be calm, focused, and friendly. It dissolves cliques, reduces bullying, increases social inclusion. In addition to all of this, it establishes a respect for physical boundaries and empowers the children in ways to get their needs for touch met in non-sexual ways.
How is it received?
From my experience in Waldorf schools the children of Kindergarten age and younger receive nurturing touch from their teachers and then share it with their friends and family through imitation. I bring Peer Massage to the grades and high school. I have found that up until 6th grade the children need very little explanation. Beginning with 6th grade I encounter gender-embarrassment, yet they do not want to hear much explanation. They definitely do not want to hear the word “sex”, yet they are responding to the messages they get from our culture about touch and sex. By high school they have calmed down quite a bit and can engage in a conversation about how touch is depicted in the media. The challenge in high school is that the social boundaries are more established and some of the youth identify themselves as outsiders – they have given up on trying to belong – and will opt out of the activity, not giving it a chance to work.
At the end of every session I ask, “How was that for you?” I have never had a negative response. Usually they say, “Relaxing”, or “Peaceful”. A few 6th graders once said, “This was the best day of my life!”
My greatest challenge is that, until parents and teachers and school administrators hear my presentation and experience the peer massage for themselves, they are skeptical or even uninterested, because the value of healthy touch is not a reality for them. And I can empathize! But once they receive my presentation they are always enthusiastic. One 8th grade teacher said that it wasn’t until my presentation that he saw he was touch-phobic and that was why he asked me to bring peer massage to his class. He knew he was not capable of bringing this valuable skill to his students.
Many children are very sensitive to touch, how does massage work for them in the classroom environment?
Every case is different, but on the whole it gives them an opportunity to communicate exactly how they want to be touched. I have seen children who are touch-sensitive teach their partner to touch them in a way they enjoy. It is very empowering. They are in total control of the massage. Checking in with your partner is part of Peer Massage. They are also free to decline the activity.
What might parents do at home to bring conscious touch to their children?
A couple of things. First, experiment: instead of arguing or punishing anti-social behavior bring in touch. Say your child comes home from school and gets sassy or shows angry behavior to you. Invite them to sit on the couch and tell you about their day while you rub their feet. Or perhaps your child will respond to playful wrestling. A hug, a shoulder rub… get in as much touch as you can. I have done this and watched in amazement and gratitude as the anti-social behavior simply dissolves.
The second thing you can do is examine your own “touch biography”. When I did this I saw how much of my life had been lacking in touch so the amount of touch that I considered normal was not enough. I still have to push myself through my own “touch barrier”.
Is this good for adults too?
Most definatly! Just remember, touch is our primary language of acceptance and belonging, safety and security. People behave differently when they feel loved and accepted in this tangible way.
How can teachers, parents and child care providers learn more about bringing touch to children in this way?
First of all I can be contacted through my website: www.theablair.com There you may purchase my DVD called Playful Touch, 10 massage routines for your child. You can also subscibe to my weekly newsletter called Let’s Stay in Touch. I am available to do a workshops such as “Breaking Through Your Touch Barrier” and “Getting in Touch, Staying in Touch”. I also offer Personal Consultations for parents, teachers or anyone else. What is blocking you from getting what you want? You may schedule a complementary conversation with me through my website.
I recently did some spring cleaning and through out everything in my cosmetic bag, bathroom and purse which wasn’t serving me. I became interested in the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics a few months ago and began incorporating independent handmade cosmetic lines who are transparent about their ingredients or have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics into my beauty regime because they promise to never use ingredients that are harmful or linked to cancer. Continue reading →