ASK A YOGI: About balance
In this edition's Ask A Yogi, we do what we usually do: ask our friends a few personal questions...because we can. Meet Lea, a Brooklynite, and Harry, a Manhattan-dweller.
Words: Harry Figgie and Lea Helle // Images: Jill Futter
Which asana tends to make you think "balance", especially as you're practicing it?
Harry: For me, it's ardha chandrasana. This is the ultimate balance pose. It challenges me on many levels: there is the obvious challenge of balancing on one leg, but additionally the bottom hip is rotated, which creates a whole new set of challenges. Because of this, it’s one of those poses where I am very aware of my whole entire body. You have to stay so focused on alignment and breath, it keeps the mind from wandering, which is an added bonus. I like that "ardha" means half and "chandra" means moon. For me, both of these words carry a connotation of balance: the balance between half and whole, the moon and the sun, night and day. When I am in the pose, I feel like my heart and mind are free, exposed and bright! In a pose named after something you see in the night sky, that juxtaposition always resonates with me.
Lea: To me, "balance" has a variety of meanings on the mat. Of course, there is the obvious challenge of balancing your physical body in space during a challenging asana, but I am more curious about finding balance in different areas of the practice: balance between the fiery and the soft way of approaching a pose, balance between going for it and letting go when you come up against yourself, balance between listening to what the teacher is offering and what you need for yourself, balance between taking energy in and staying with your own experience... The list could go on forever. So yes, I think about where my gaze is in ardha chandrasana or how my stomach draws in and up in a warrior three, but that is more a side product of the movement itself, not the focal point of my practice.
What tends to knock you off-balance, emotionally, and how do you work on regaining equilibrium?
Lea: The number one stressor that will knock me off-balance is lack of sleep and the general feeling of running after my life versus being on top of it. Having a schedule that often requires going to bed late but then getting up early, I struggle with giving myself enough time to recuperate, which definitely throws me off balance and makes me move through life less joyfully and with less awareness. The most obvious way of regaining equilibrium is sleep, but also other small adjustments--having one hour at home before rushing into the city, connecting to my family in Europe or calling a good friend. And having too much coffee, of course.
Harry: Well, I'm very fortunate to instinctively maintain a pretty consistent emotional balance, overall. I'm also very blessed to have a lovely wife whose personality supports and complements my emotional needs. However, I am a very routine-oriented person, and deviations in my routine cause me great angst. Even in class, if the teacher deviates from their usual sequencing, I find it very noticeable. When I feel like this, I try to slow my mind, breathe and stay present. I know that class, work, life, love, and so on all keep moving forward regardless of how I'm feeling so I remind myself that the present moment is all there is.
"I like that 'ardha' means half and 'chandra' means moon. For me, both of these words carry a connotation of balance: the balance between half and whole, the moon and the sun, night and day." -Harry
Do you work on finding balance in what you eat or consume?
Harry: The short answer is no, I’ve never really given food much thought in that sense until I read this question. My diet is pretty balanced. I only eat when I’m hungry. I tend to eat with the seasons without being too strict about it. Frankly, I don’t really care much about what I eat as long as it’s not canned tuna or anything else equally as gross...I’d rather pass on that meal! I'm usually more concerned about when and where I eat. Food and eating for me are much more of a social event. I don’t eat much during the day when I'm working, and dinnertime is a time to catch up with family, friends and my wife. It seems to me that I might need to be a little more mindful about finding balance in what I eat.
Lea: Absolutely. Balance here is not only nutrition, but also considering the global effects my choices have. I was vegan for two years and I am working myself back into it--not because I believe humans aren’t supposed to eat animals, but because the way we have organized the food industry harms this planet dramatically.
You both live in New York City, a place that is all about speed, momentum, and the next thing. How do you find, or maintain, your sense of inner self?
Lea: It’s the small things that make a huge difference for me. Staying away from the city on a day off. Letting that one F train go because there will be another one. Pausing, breathing - practicing! My mind notices when I haven’t done yoga in a day or two, so I try to do something every day and it’s a blessing that my work as a dancer forces me to move through asanas before every show to settle into my body and the space around me. Yoga enables me to keep up with New York City’s insanity and offers guidance when I feel like I can’t.
Harry: Scotch. Scotch helps! All kidding aside--I don’t think New York City is devoid of balance, but that most people’s perception of balance--stillness, calm, quiet--isn’t exactly what comes to mind when you think of New York. However, people need different things to feel balanced. Think of walking across a balance beam--the moment when you start to lose your balance, you instinctively start moving faster to keep from falling. In contrast, when a spinning top slows down, it begins to wobble and shake, eventually falling out of balance. Like the balance beam walker, the speed and the forward momentum are exactly what keeps me in balance most of the time. However, just like the spinning top, eventually I, too, fall out of balance. To regain that balance, I practice yoga--mostly asana. Lately, I’ve been really into a slow and deliberate flow. If I’m already out of balance, I prefer to be slow and thoughtful with my movements. This approach creates a sense of calm that is needed to let the body realign itself and quiet the mind, which eventually brings me back into balance and ready to reinsert myself into city life.
"It’s the small things that make a huge difference for me. Staying away from the city on a day off. Letting that one F train go because there will be another one. Pausing, breathing--practicing! My mind notices when I haven’t done yoga in a day or two..." - LEA
Finally, which do you prefer--arm balances, or standing balances? And why?
Harry: Standing balances. I enjoy the extension I feel in my body in many of the standing balances. I like that I can be as open as possible, with my drishti on the horizon. When I arm balance, I feel hunched over and my focus is on the ground… I need to be like an eagle man, you gotta set me free and let me open up. I can’t be pinned down! (laughs)
Lea: Oh! I don’t know! I don’t care! How can they be compared? It depends on the pose! The only pose I truly dislike is parivrtta ardha chandrasana. It’s just evil.
ABOUT OUR ASK A YOGIS
Lea Helle is a dancer and newly certified yoga teacher who lives in Brooklyn, New York. Recently, she completed her 200-hour teacher training at Prema Yoga in Brooklyn, all while dancing as part of Company XIV in SoHo (that's her, third from right, in a recent New York Times review).
Harry Figgie is a long-time practicing yogi and is one of those lucky ducks who gets to be married to a yoga teacher--a sample Friday night at the Figgies' Manhattan apartment involves glasses of wine and partner acro yoga on the living room rug. They're already getting quite good at it.