Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Aerial Omily: The Tricky Dance of Choreography

My favourite part of working on an aerial piece (aside from maybe performing it) is choreographing it. This is kind of a no-brainer: choreographing is the fun, creative part. It's playful, and open-ended, and you don't have to stress about technique, or conditioning.

But choreographing a piece may not be fun if this is, say, the first piece you've ever choreographed (or the second or third; it takes a little time to hit your stride). It takes a certain level of proficiency with your apparatus before you can manage a productive session of free-associating from one trick to another, but even if you're there (and especially if you're not), having some of these tricks up your sleeve will make putting together a visually interesting aerial act much easier.

Whenever I choreograph an act, I'm starting with one central inspiration, as both a starting point, and a unifying principle. It may be a particular trick or mini sequence, a character, a song, a costume, the theme of the show I'm choreographing for, an act or performer I admire...but it's very clear in my head what it is, and it forms the scaffolding for the whole piece.

That's the thing: choreographing an act isn't just about stringing together the tricks that you're good at. It's about the cohesive performance you're creating and sharing with others. You're taking up a few minutes of an audience's time, so you want to give them as immersive an experience as possible. You're starting with only one of these things, but you ultimately need them all: the song, the character, the sequence, the costume, the style, and the technique.

Over time, this process will become more organic. You'll consider all these different aspects in relation to your inspiration, and they will fall into place fairly quickly. In the meantime, you can jumpstart the process by making lists.

Start by making a list of all the aerial moves you feel awesome doing. Don't panic if it seems like a really short list. It's amazing how few separate aerial tricks you can fit into an aerial performance, especially in the beginning, when your acts are in the three minute range. And keep in mind that your audience isn't going to be counting the number of tricks you fit into your piece, nor would you want them to. Beginners think an aerial sequence is all about the tricks, but the pros know it's all about the transitions: how do you move from one relationship with your apparatus to another? Can you do it in such a unique, and stylized way that an aerialist watching won't know where you're going until you get there?

If an aerial move you love was your starting point, start considering how your other favorites relate to this one. Do any of them lead easily into, or out of this trick? Consider if this is a trick you need a lot of height for, or if you'll need to do it early on while you're fresh. Do you lose a lot of height with any of the tricks on your list? You don't want to have to climb up more than twice.

If your starting point was something different: a song, a character, a costume, etc, consider which of the tricks on your list fit well with the inspiration for your piece. If your starting point isn't a character, just looking at which physical movements fit well with a given song or costume will start to give you an idea of the character you'll create.

You might think that your character is just the summation of your sequence, costume, and music, but your character is the soul of your piece. It's the part that makes you fun to watch! If you have no idea who your character is, consider how your song makes you feel (or how you want the song you pick to make you feel). What emotions, thoughts, or sensations do you want to convey to the audience through your sequence and other elements? This list of feelings is not your character, it's just the inspiration for her or him. You don't have to go so far as to name your character, though you can if it will help. What you should do is know who your character is, and how she or he feels. You should have an idea of what happened to your character right before your performance, and what she or he is on her or his way to right afterward. I'm trying to avoid the word 'motivation' because it's such a stereotype, but it's a stereotype for a reason!

Knowing your character, and the feelings and thoughts you want to convey to your audience will enable to you to make a(nother) list of movement qualities to focus on when you rehearse. Adverbs like, 'daintily', 'impatiently', 'joyfully', and 'fearfully' are good examples. You'll need some time to just get your sequence into your body of course, but you'll want to start rehearsing your character and your movement qualities as early as possible.

If some of these other aspects are coming together, but you haven't settled on a song, get a short list, and then play all of them while you work with the tricks you've settled on at an open workout. One of them will start to fit.

If you find there's a trick that will be perfect for your piece, but you're not great at performing it, ask yourself realistically if you'll have time to perfect it before your performance. Is it just a matter of learning it better, or do you need more strength than you currently have? Prepping for a piece is a great time to book a private lesson. Your instructor can tell you how likely it is you can get a trick show-ready in the time allotted, and can suggest alternatives that may work better.

When thinking about your costume, consider your budget. You can shell out a couple (maybe several) hundred bucks for a professionally designed and created costume, you can put together something out of components you already have, or you can poke around American Apparel and Strawberry for affordable pieces, funky or basic. If you're feeling stuck on your costume, watch videos of other aerial performances, and browse the stores mentioned above. Keep in mind that you're either going to be choosing tricks based on your costume, or choosing a costume that works with your choreography. What skin needs to be covered? What needs to be exposed? What embellishments will add to your character, but won't get in your way? Should your hair be up, or down? What about makeup? Practice applying false lashes, but also accept that applying false eyelashes will always be the most obnoxious part of your costume.

Write down lots of haphazard notes. Let yourself brainstorm, and free associate. You won't use everything you come up with, but you'll want lots of different ideas to choose from.

As you can see, it's difficult to write this blogpost is a straightforward, logical manner, because no two aerial performances, even by the same aerialist, are choreographed in quite the same way! I hope you're able to sort out the tips that you need to make your nascent aerial performance the best it can be. If you use them, let me know when and where you're performing, and I'll try to come support you! The picture at the top is me performing a piece I choreographed, with a little assistance from my instructor, Nicki Miller.

Happy flying!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Teaching Without the Protection of Warriors

In a recent blog post, I talked about my yogi toning class at Bella Vita. Today I want to talk about my aerial yoga class at Om Factory. Today was the first yoga class in which I did not teach Warrior I, Warrior II, and Reverse Warrior. As a born and bred vinyasa instructor, this is a big deal. The Warrior poses are kind of the meat and potatoes of most vinyasa-based classes. In four years of teaching countless classes at countless studios, I have never, ever, ever, not taught those three poses before.

There was no dramatic decision to abandon these foundational poses. I've had those dramatic decisions: the day I left my notes outside of the classroom and let the energy of the room guide the sequences for the day, the day I stopped stalling for a few extra breaths for my own sake in seated meditation before beginning the asana practice, both decisions I've never went back on. But this wasn't like that.

I had thirteen students, ten of whom had never done aerial yoga before, and I just...didn't get to those poses. I had other goals: getting them into as many different relationships with the fabric as possible before the hour was up, letting them have fun and be silly without letting the giggles and side comments sweep away my authority over the class, making sure everyone was safe and learning with strong alignment, and dealing with the inevitable, "This HURTS!" (The answer to that one is, 'Yes, I know', 'You can stop doing it...', and, 'Blankets, all around!')

I think I already knew on some level that the mini warrior sequence I snuck into my aerial yoga classes was paying homage to my own tradition more than it was actually serving my students, but it wasn't until today, when I abandoned it so readily, that I really confronted that fact. I mean, it is called aerial vinyasa. It's, in theory, a vinyasa class with an added prop...but in practice, it's its own unique animal. The hammock will drag you away from your center if you let it, and in the bigger picture, it drags the whole practice away from its roots if you let it! And, surprisingly, I'm inclined to let it!

Because Vinyasa is one school of Asana, not the end all, be all. Because yoga is the science of happiness, not a sequence of warrior poses that help to articulate the entire body much more successfully without a hammock than with it. That hammock forces you to find your center: the physical center of your body, your core, the seat of your strength, to keep from being dragged into unsafe stretches and precarious positions; and your center: the still, quiet place from whence you can evaluate challenges and decide if the fear you're feeling is something to be pushed back against, or something to yield to. There is no room for ego in an aerial yoga room, and that makes it a harsh teacher of YOGA, whether it's clearing up vinyasa poses for you or not.

That said, it's pretty effective at clearing up vinyasa poses, too. By offering support in one form or another, the fabric allows you to focus more attentively on a different aspect of the shape. By shifting the support around, you can come to a deeper understanding of every aspect of a given pose. My first aerial yoga class was a tree pose class: we explored tree on the ground, and in a variety of support variations with the help of the fabric, and then we did this crazy no-hands flying tree in the hammock which blew a few minds, and was promptly retired. For now.

There are many effective teachers of yoga, and, actually, you can leave Asana out of it all together if you're feeling like a meditation badass. It's a lot harder to still the mind without the effects of body movement to pave the way!

Those steadfast warrior poses were some of the first ones I learned to teach, and some of the first ones I felt deeply confident teaching. Now that I've learned that I don't need them, I feel like I've graduated to a new level of yoga-teaching proficiency.

If you'd like to try a (potentially warrior-free) aerial yoga class with me, I'm subbing up a storm this month at Om Factory. Just look for Emily Hursh on the schedule.
Live Omily,

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Eating Omily: Fresh Flavors While We Wait for Spring Veggies

The magnolias are blooming! It's really, truly Spring!! Ok, so we're still waiting for asparagus, and the ramps are all gone by noon this early in the season, but that doesn't mean there aren't delicious, fresh flavors just waiting for you at the Farmers' Market! Here's what I've been having a Spring fling with this year.

I've always been a huge fan of sea food: fish, shellfish, sushi, oysters on the half-shell, fish and chips, you name it, I love it...well, I don't eat octopus, but that's a whole other issue. I love that I can find sea food at the Farmers' Market, and I do my best to serve sea food in our house at least once a week, since it's so good for us, and sustainable sea food is so available. Most of my choices come from the sea: fishing boats that ply the waters off the coast of Long Island, but lately I've discovered that most deliciately delicious of fresh water fish, trout!

Seriously, are these the most beautiful fish you've ever laid eyes on, or what? The vendor at the Farmers' Market has both wild brook trout, and sustainable farmed rainbow trout, and oh my goodness are they delicious. We took our trout, wrapped it in foil with butter and salt, and baked it until it was tender. The flavor was unbelievable: sweet, and somehow as cool and fresh as the stream it came from.  I've got to get the picture of the Vendor's sign off my phone, but as soon as I do I'll add it to this post.

You'd think we'd be hooked after that, but I knew we had to try the hot hardwood smoked trout, and that was a whole other delicious dinner, with leftovers that made a perfect hearty breakfast. And speaking of perfect, hearty breakfasts, Central Valley Farm, my very favourite Farmers' Market vendor, had done it again! I practically live on their yogurt already, and they've managed to make it better: they've strained into incredibly thick, solid (almost more like cream cheese) Greek yogurt, and then topped it with strawberry puree! An eight ounce container is only $3!!! Not impressed? This yogurt hits all the same bells and whistles as strawberry cheesecake, with a much better nutrient profile: healthier fats, and very little sugar, and big enough to share, for $3! Seriously, you need to give this stuff a try. It's a game-changer.
Are you into ribs? Do you think of ribs as somehow more violet or creepy than other meats? If you answered 'yes' to either of these questions, I know where you should be buying your supply!
This sign made me laugh. At least it's honest!

Have you made exciting Farmers' Market discoveries lately? Are you dying to try that strawberry yogurt? Let me know in the comments!

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Omily Tarot: Before, During, After...Routinely Better Readings

Today I'd like to revisit a topic we've touched on briefly in the past: your personal tarot MO. A tarot reading is incredibly personal, and for most of us, sacred. No two people prep, set up, read, and defuse after a tarot reading exactly the same way. Maybe you already have a routine that suits you just fine. Maybe you're just starting out doing readings and know you want to set this time apart, but aren't sure how. Maybe you have rituals in place, but they aren't resonating with you like they used to. Either way, it never hurts to reconsider your options. And there are as many of them as there are readers!

An easy-peasy rule of thumb: whatever you do to prepare for and set up a reading should leave you feeling calm, safe, and clear-headed. It may seem obvious, but lets say you like to sleep with the deck under your pillow before doing a big reading, but then a friend calls you in tears, desperate for some tarot insight immediatly. Suddenly your once soothing ritual can become a source of anxiety that gets between you and a good reading.

Simply put, the more complex or intensive your preparation ritual is, the more likely that sooner or later, you'll be forced to alter it. It's important to remember that your rituals only have power because you give them that power. Many a tarot student has read that bit about keeping their deck wrapped in silk...and found out months or years later they've been wrapping their deck in a polyester blend all along. Does that mean none of those readings were good, or that the deck wasn't working properly? Of course not!

All that said spending a little energy on setting the stage can enhance any reading. If you have the time, you may find it nice to spend a little time meditating. Lighting candles, incense, or sage are also common ways of sanctifying the space and time. You may enjoy laying out a cloth, either the same one every time, or whatever is on hand, to lay out your cards on. Aside from being a reminder of special nature of what you're about to do, this also makes it super easy to rotate or move the spread as a whole if need be. On the other hand, this ritual can unduly emphasize the cards themselves. They're just cardboard, remember?
These are solid suggestions that may be useful to you, but ultimately, anything that centers you and leads to solid readings is the right ritual for you. A cup of tea? A rendition of the chicken dance? A big sneeze? Maybe just a couple deep breathes? If it works for you, stick with it. It may need revising one day, and that's ok, too.

During the reading, especially when you're first starting out, it can be really helpful to have a bit of a routine, too. Do you like to flip one card at a time, and then go back and look at the big picture? Maybe, like me, you prefer to flip all the cards at once, and take a moment to look for overall patterns or suggestions before zooming in on the cards one by one. Maybe you like to talk to the querent about their question before you even turn over a single card. Maybe you like to let the querent give their insights about the cards before offering your own. There are lots of ways to go. If you figure out which works for you best, you'll be less likely to feel stuck in the beginning of the reading, because you'll know exactly what to do first thing.

It may seem like after a reading, all there is to do is put the cards away and move on, but depending on how deep you went, sometimes a transition is needed, and it's nice to have one in your back pocket ready to go. The first thing I do is invite my querent to take a picture of the spread before I clear it, so they can take a look at it later if they want to. If they don't have a camera, and they want a picture, I'll take it on my phone, and e-mail it to them along with my summary of the reading. Once that's done, I don't rush on with my day. If I've already brewed myself a cup of tea, I'll stay put and sip it, letting my mind wonder. New insights into the reading may pop up, but I don't force them. Just like the deck needs cleared after a reading, I do, too. You may prefer to go for a walk, write in a journal, burn sage, or go play with you cat. If it works for you, keep doing it.

These are fairly simple suggestions. I'm not trying to set up your rituals for you. Rather, I just want to put a bug in your ear that having rituals in place can make for more consistently better readings, though on the other hand, overly complex readings can throw you off sometimes. If keeping your readings very casual and spontaneous is working for you, there's no need to throw in some smoke and mirrors to feel more legitimate as a tarot reader. We're all different, and that's awesome!

Do you have rituals you perform before, during, or after tarot readings? Do you think you'll start having one, or change the ones that you have now? Tell me in the comments!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Aerial Tips from Lindsay Lohan (well, sort of)

In yoga, we make a big deal about breathing. In aerial, we often do, too. The reasoning behind it is a little different. In yoga, the breath is in many ways the whole point: it serves as the connection between the voluntary and the involuntary aspects of the body. In aerial, it's a little simpler: if you don't breathe, you won't accomplish much up there, and for some silly reason, a lot of people automatically hold their breath as soon as they engage their muscles and pull themselves up. The problem gets even more exacerbated when the fabric applies any pressure to the abdomen: people tend to let all their air out, allowing the fabric to squish their guts completely. Then they have no room to inhale, and from there they inevitably start to panic.

This is actually a pretty sensible reaction. If you can't breathe, you've only got a couple minutes to alter your situation so that you can before it ceases to matter anymore. We all get this. So why is breathing during aerial work such a challenge sometimes?

I think a big part of it is that when we first start aerial, for most of us, it's the hardest thing we've ever done. And when we're doing something really, really hard, we tend to hold our breathe, perhaps to save the energy required to move our breathing muscles. In most cases (moving furniture, etc.) we don't need to maintain that level of exertion long enough for holding our breath to be a real problem. Not so in aerial work! We want to be up there for at least a couple minutes, so breathing is crucial. And of course, when you're working hard, the more oxygen you can feed your hungry muscles, the better!

the gut-squeezing aspect of aerial work is a whole other problem. Let's take a trick like wheel-down. It's really simple, and really rad-looking, so I wanted to learn it right away. But really simple means really hard, because it's up to me to make the rotating descent happen: the simple S-wrap isn't doing it for me.
(Here's a link to another video of a wheel down, in case the video embedding tool is on the fritz)

And that simple S-wrap? It's tied right around the middle of the performer's body. I've tried a few different techniques to get it down around the bony part of my hips, but the weight of my lower body makes it slide up to the thinnest part of my body every time. For the first year's worth of attempts, the S-wrap tended to cinch up tight, causing not only breath-holding, but even more fun, collapsing into a rounded pike shape. With all my weight collapsing toward the ground, my belly got getting squished even more. Which, of course, induced panicking, and a controlled flailing descent, not the graceful wheel down I was hoping for.

I always thought that the answer to my wheel down woes was to have a wider straddle, so my body weight balancing point is closer to my hips, instead of my waist. While a wider straddle never hurts, my amazing trainer Nicki set me straight by introducing me to that joyful drill: the slow wheel down: rotate 90 degrees, stop for five seconds. And repeat. She also cleared up where my hands should be at each point of the revolution. That drill forced me to breathe in spite of the pressure of the S-wrap on my abdomen...which forced me to realize that I could breathe in spite of the pressure of the S-wrap on my abdomen, which made me stop panicking and start focusing on staying taught, and maintaining my form. And round and round we go! My wheel down's not perfect, but it's miraculously improved.

What can you learn from this story? You, too, can breathe in the air! No matter how tired your arms are getting, no matter how confused you are about the wrap you're working on, no matter how tight that waist wraps get, you can breathe! Know this, and be free!

Especially if you're already a yogi, acquainted with the power of the breath to slow racing thoughts, and remind you to take things one step at a time. Now that's a skill that will serve you in the air!

The long and the short of it is, you'll improve as an aerialist much faster if you can find some way to remind yourself to breathe in the air. Say 'Breathe!' out loud before you climb up? Use an audible breath so you hear it if you start holding it? Have your instructor scream, "Breathe!" at you when you start to look flustered? Get 'Breathe' tattooed on the inside of your wrist like Lindsay Lohan?
Or does it just say 'breath'? I'd go with 'Breathe' for yours.
Figure out what works for you, and do it!

Happy flying!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Weighing on my Mind

I've got a great teaching schedule going at the moment: good class times, generally good-sized groups, lots of variety...and I'm subbing a lot, too, which means meeting new students, trying my hand at different class styles, gaining experience with different populations, like pregnant women, and just teaching more, which is always a good thing.

I've got my standard alignment-based yoga class on Tuesday, which keeps me and my student grounded in those warrior series, and other vinyasa classics. I've got my aerial yoga on Friday, which keeps my spirits up, and my skills challenged, and, there's my yogi-toning class on Mondays, which I was very reluctant to take on initially, but is now one of my favourites to teach!

Here's why: the beauty of teaching yoga, as opposed to, say, sixth grade, is that everyone is there because they want to be there. Oh, sure, maybe they kind of pushed themselves into it and they're really craving a nap, but they signed up, paid, and got their asses onto the mat all by themselves. The difference in energy that makes in a room is unparalleled. BUT, in my other yoga classes, the reasons why the students want to be there vary quite widely. Some are there to cultivate inner stillness. Some want to get more flexible, some want to get their heart rate up, some want to lose weight, some want to tone up their muscles, some really aren't sure why they keep coming back yet (and yes, they're kind of my favourites...). It's simply not possible to craft a class that's going to satisfy all these hopes and dreams, and still be safe, accessible, and, you know, yoga. It's also crucial that I teach authentically, and that means honoring what I know students need but don't want, and what I feel needs to be put out there on a given day for reasons I may not be able to explain. Bird of Paradise in a roomful of newbs, anyone?
I know this isn't the best picture in terms of focus or size; I'm more concerned with following my commitment to show people of color, different body types, and people working toward full execution of the pose in my blog. Enjoy!
 But yogi-toning is different, because it's specific. We are here for yoga. We are here to tone. If you're into both of those things, you are going to love this class. We will probably also move fast enough to break a sweat, if only because I only have forty-five minutes to hit every major muscle group. When the class was first suggested to me, I was afraid that it would be yoga in name only, like so many other yoga-inspired workouts, but I figured that part was up to me. So, forty-five minutes be damned, we start every class in quiet, seated contemplation of one facet of yoga philosophy. We reconsider that philosophy as we breathe into shaking muscles, and we BREATHE. Everything in my classes is optional, accept breathing.

In a contradictory way that is oh so common in yoga, these strict parameters give me a lot of freedom: it doesn't matter if inner thigh jumps aren't part of the yogic cannon, anymore than it matters that mountain pose is just not all that taxing of a pose. I think my favourite part is refusing to offer chaturanga as an option. Not seeing a bunch of hunched shoulders and compressed lumbar spines makes my yoga class much more pleasant for me. Over the past several months, I've been pulling from many different sources for my classes: yoga, aerial conditioning moves, online fitness videos...and then this past Monday, a stroke of genius: there are small hand weights available for student use in the studio. Just two to five pounds, nothing crazy...but perfect for Warrior I Triceps Lifts!! And that's just what we did, along with Goddess pose presses, and high lunge bicep curls! My students loved the edition of weights because it added more toning potential, without requiring the subtraction of any of the yoga aspects. Warrior II with weights in your extended arms is harder, but still warrior II.

One of my regulars mentioned that she felt her core engaging more frequently and more strongly in addition to her arms, and really understood how the movements of her limbs should be originating from a strong center. Success!!

If we can use blocks and straps as tools for learning in yoga, then why not weights? The proof is clearly in the pudding. I'm beginning to think I was silly to fear that adding toning to yoga would automatically decrease the yoga. The fact is, if students are there for a full experience of as many yogic limbs as possible, that's what they're going to get, and if they're just there for a workout, what's the harm in giving them that?

Want to try it for yourself? Yogi-toning with me is every Monday from 3:15-4:00pm at Bella Vita Wellness. Sign up online at least four hours in advance to ensure your spot.

Live Omily,