Interview with Paisley Close On Backbends, Pranayama and Her Upcoming Workshops at Yoga One
by Monique Minahan
I first noticed the transformative quality of yoga while practicing backbends. The steadiness and strength they demand revealed to me both the power and the past housed in my back body. The vulnerability and expansion they require in the front body revealed to me my full capacity for open-heartedness.
The more I practiced this opening process physically, the more I found myself able to open more fully to the people in my life.
While I love backbends now, I didn’t always feel this way. Initially they brought up a lot of fear and disorientation for me. As one of my teachers puts it, “backbends are like strong medicine.”
One of the first teachers to guide me along this road of discovery was Paisley Close. In the years I practiced with Paisley my yoga practice deepened on many levels, both internally and externally, thanks to her expansive knowledge base, precise alignment cues, and unique approach to yoga. Many of the “refinements” she’s offered over the years allowed me to settle deeper into yoga, whether through asana, pranayama, or taking my yoga off the mat.
While Paisley doesn’t teach locally anymore, she offers up inspiration, insight, and all things yoga through her blog and will be paying Yoga One a visit August 18th to teach two workshops: Intermediate Backbends and Seated Poses & Pranayama.
She shares some of her insights with us in the interview below:
Paisley: I began teaching yoga in 2000. When I teach, I love witnessing the moment a student breaks through and does something he or she didn’t think they could.
Sometimes it’s physical, like recently when two students balanced in headstand for the first time, in the same class. Other times it’s the more emotional moment, when I can see and feel that students are connecting with themselves and finding peace and quiet internally. I also love that teaching creates the opportunity to live my practice.
Mo: Pranayama practices are often overlooked in modern yoga classes. What are some benefits of including pranayama in your personal practice?
The major benefit of including pranayama in your practice is that it calms and clears your mind. When your mind is agitated, your breath is usually short and shallow. When you deepen and elongate your breathing with pranayama, it pacifies your mind, which makes it easier to connect with your inner awareness.
Prana, or life force energy, is latent in your breath. By increasing your breath, you increase your body’s ability to hold prana and, therefore, vitality. The prana is like an electrical current and yoga asana, or poses, clear the blocks for the currents to flow freely. Asana also builds the necessary insulation, just like you’d have on an actual electric current or wire. It keeps you from short-circuiting, so it’s important to have an asana practice before developing a pranayama practice.
Mo: What made you choose these two topics for workshops: backbends and pranayama? Is there a connection between the two?
Paisley: I like teaching what’s not already being offered or elaborating on what is. I see very little emphasis on breathing these days, and so much more push to just flow through yoga classes. So I wanted to teach about this vital limb of the practice and thought they deserved a workshop all their own. Pranayama and meditation are such great ways to slow down and unplug from our busy lives.
As for backbends, I chose intermediate backbends to offer a chance for the more practiced student to try new and challenging poses with guidance and in a fun, community atmosphere.
One key to pain-free backbends is to keep a lot of lift and length in your spine. Pranayama can give you that. Also, the backbends open your chest and lungs and make it easier to take in more breath.
Mo: You’re a climber as well as a yogini. How does climbing in Mother Nature influence your yoga practice and vice versa?
Paisley: Oh my gosh, I don’t even know where to start! Both climbing and yoga push me out of my comfort zone and require me to be present. Climbing has a much bigger fear factor, so the stakes are higher. I need to be more aware of how I’m directing my attention and what I’m thinking. Yoga has given me the tools to do that, but climbing makes me practice harder.
In both cases, when challenge and fear arise, I go back to the breath and use my senses to increase awareness. With climbing, my senses are often on overload: the wind is howling, the sun is blazing, my feet are standing on dime-sized edges, my hands are gripping rough rock and the gear is clinking on my harness. Combine that with the heights and exposure and it’s really easy to revert to old patterns of thinking and operate out of the past; i.e. fear.
When I’m on my mat, I allow those fears to come up completely, and see what they’re really about, because they’re never really about the heights or the falling. I practice breathing deeply and watching how my mental patterns weave through my movements and either distract me or help me be more present. I also use my yoga practice to unravel all the tight muscles I get from hiking on uneven, rolling terrain with a 30-pound pack and using my fingertips to cling to the edge of a cliff.
I find a lot of freedom and inspiration in nature. We go to stunning places to climb and I try to fit a practice in when we’re there. It’s much easier for me to feel connected with the world around me when I’m in the wild.
Mo is a writer and yoga teacher who believes in peace over happiness and love over fear. She likes to set her sights high and then take small steps to get there. You’ll find her walking the dirt path behind her house with her little fluffy dog, practicing walking her talk by keeping her head high and her heart open.
Read more from Monique on her blog, mindfulmo.com