by Kara-Leah Grant
Ever since I interviewed Vincent Bolletta last year I’ve wanted to do a private yoga session with him. I knew from that interview that this was a man who knew his yoga inside out, on the energetic and physical level.
Over the last few years, I’ve worked with a couple of teachers, both teaching in the Ashtanga lineage, Peter Sanson and Paul Scrivener.
The problem is, I’m not an Ashtangi yogi and while I deeply respect the intelligence of the Ashtanga sequence, it’s not suitable for my body as it is now.
My personal practice is very different from the Ashtanga sequence, although it’s still vinyasa-based. I often move very slowly, or hardly at all. Or, conversely, I use a lot of movement within postures and do a strong rhythmic flow.
Lately I feel like I’ve been hitting up against a number of physical limitations in my yoga practice. Plus in watching myself practice on video, I’ve been aware that I’m lacking a core stillness. The movement I’ve been doing seems more about escaping something or distraction than about opening deeper in the postures and into stillness.
I knew I had blind spots in my yoga practice, and I knew I needed the help of an experienced and skilful teacher to identify these blind spots.
Enter Vincent, stage right.
We started our session with a conversation about what I wanted to get out of, what my personal practice was currently like, and what was going on in my body.
I have a daily Tantric practice which consists of seated spinal rotations, chanting and meditation. Plus I practice asana 5 or 6 times a week – sometimes in mat practices between 30 – 90 minutes long, mostly vinyasa flow. Sometimes yin practices. Sometimes stop, drop and go practices.
Once that baseline was established, Vincent asked me to go through a short practice so he could simply observe me in action.
This was somewhat nerve wracking as a part of me wanted to “get it right” or “be good” even while knowing that this is a nonsense because there is only the way that my body moves – no right or wrong. I went through a couple of sun salutations, varied according to the needs of my body, finally coming to rest in Child’s Pose.
The first and most major aspect of my practice that Vincent noted was a deadness around my mid-rib section. When I breathed, I was breathing primarily down into the belly and completely by-passing the mid-rib section, with very little lateral or posterior movement of the ribs.
In Vincent’s words:
The main component is to start access a sense of depth and subtle lift through the posterior wall of our rib cage. Three dimensional Thoracic volume can be established by pseudo Uddiyana Bandha-like actions. Sensing a light diaphragmatic lateral spread and a slightly elevated centre of gravity will help establish a better tonal range of verticality or axial extension. The overall effect is a greater sense of space and release through the sacral plate. Oppositional forces become more cohesive in supporting the body.
Woah… I didn’t understand everything Vincent was telling me about what was going on, but I could feel the essence of what he meant. And I got the action – my breath needed to change.
Vincent asked me to lie down and felt in around my upper belly and under the ribs, and then had me shift my breathing pattern.
At first, it was almost impossible. I wanted to breathe into my belly, and my breath naturally went there, in what I thought was a good yogic full breath. I kept focusing though, and Vincent used his hands to direct my breath and I began to shift where the inhale went. It felt like I couldn’t get a full breath keep the breath to the diaphragm, and as I worked in there, emotion started to arise and I almost burst into tears.
A ha! Right there! I’d been using my breath to by-pass and avoid being in a part of my body, which was still holding emotion.
The second major insight Vincent had – something I had previously noticed in my breath but not yet attended to – was that my inhale was weak and almost silent while my exhale was excessively strong and loud. I could breathe out with such strength and force – such effort. Yet my inhale… oh so lost and difficult.
On a psychological level this reflects a major theme in my life right now – shifting from predominantly coming from my inner Masculine (the strong, forceful exhale) to coming from my inner feminine (the weak and almost silent inhale).
I feel strong and in control and powerful when I breathe this way… shifting my breath made me feel vulnerable, yet also more still and balanced. I realised I’d been using my breath as a crutch, or as something to hide behind.
Over all Vincent suggested I work on making my breath only audible to myself, making it balanced on the inhale and exhale, primarily expanding the diaphragm over the belly and making my breath more refined.
The irony is that when I teach yoga, I first and foremost bring my student’s attention to their breath and ask them to observe the inhale and the exhale and notice which breath dominates, and what pattern they breath in, and what their breath sounds like… Yet despite bringing attention to the breath and it’s patterns, I hadn’t been suggesting or teaching what the breath could sound like when it’s in an ideal flow. And I obviously hadn’t been attending to the very thing I was asking my students to do!
The next aspect Vincent brought my attention to was my ilium – the upper hip bones. He asked me to draw them together.
Now, it’s physically impossible to bring these bones together as such, however I was astonished to discover how powerful it was to attempt to do this. All kind of tensile forces sprang into action and there was a cascading impact all the way up my body. It felt like a giant missing piece of the puzzle slotting into place. This was why my back felt the way it did, my thoracic behaved the way it did, my legs moved the way they did… so many impacts in one small focus!
The next day, coming into Camel Pose, I specifically focused my attention on this aspect of my body and was amazed at how the correct focus and attention on the front hips naturally opened up Camel Pose with ease. I did the best Camel Pose I’ve done in a long, long time.
The final aspect Vincent brought my awareness to was the placement of my head, specifically in Downward Dog, but as he says, how we place the head in one posture is how we place it in all postures.
I still don’t feel like I’ve quite assimilated this particular adjustment, but in essence if I shift my focus to the back of my skull I find my head moves back and seems to drop into this invisible position and there’s a corresponding shift in my ribs and pelvis.
We did go through a few other postures looking at how my body moved or didn’t move in those postures, but the aspects above were the major focus of the session – breath, ilium, skull.
My instructions were to go away and put this new way of breathing and relating to my hips and skull into my daily practice for about six weeks. The idea is to observe how these small shifts impact my practice. Because really, the breath is the foundation of our practice. It’s everything. And the way I’ve been breathing has been protecting me, rather than bringing me into stillness. It’s created or maintained a rigidness and hardness.
As Vincent said;
We’re looking for a softer version of Kara-Leah.
Which brings me right back to that shift I’m making in operating from the masculine to operating from the feminine. It’s allowing myself to soften and open up, be vulnerable, and feel supported. It’s been on-going for the last two years really – since I first started working with Paul Sanson, the first yoga teacher I’d really worked with.
It’s no co-incidence either that the three yoga teachers I’ve worked with in the last two years have all been men.
Being in the company of a man who is firmly grounded in his masculine helps me soften into and rest in my feminine.
Working with Vincent was exactly what I needed right now. I feel like I now have a focus for my personal yoga practice – something to explore and play with. Since our session yesterday, every time I’m aware of my breath – which is probably about 30% of the day – I focus on breathing evenly, with refinement and softness, and expanding out my mid-ribs laterally and posteriorly.
At first this did make me feel very vulnerable and I instantly craved sugar and chocolate – usually a sign there’s emotion coming up which I want to avoid. But I spent time with a good girlfriend and the feelings began to dissipate.
Then my son came down with suspected meningitis and we ended up in hospital for 24 hours. This triggered intense emotion and may be a part of the unfolding change from shifting my breath – but that’s another story (my son is 100% ok).
Suffice to say, changing my breath pattern feels like it’s re-orientating my life on many levels.
And all this from one private session with a skilled and experienced teacher. Thank you Vincent!
Now to put it into daily practice and watch what happens.