Conversations – Vickie Russell Bell

Vickie Russell Bell, Iyengar Yoga teacher

Jen: What is core?

Vickie: When I think of core, I think about how I’m integrating between my mind and my whole body. We are in our core when there is an integration between mind and body that has integrity. I want to be soft and supple and receiving and heart wide open on the outside and I want to be strong and self-sufficient on the inside. What we speak of when we speak about the physical, be it core or otherwise, is a metaphor for our emotional and experiential lives as well. So in our conversation, there is always the outermost layer of what we’re literally talking about and the inner layers that reside in metaphor.

The Sushumna Nadi (a Sanskrit term used to describe the central channel within the subtle body) is a channel of energy that flows vertically, along the course of, but slightly in front of, the spinal column from the perineum to the crown of the head. I think of this as core. This is the energy that rises up the front of the spine. When we allow this to be open and strong, energy can flow freely up the spine and throughout the entire body. The joints need to be strong and aligned to support that ever-present energy. So the principles of alignment that we practice in yoga are all in service of freeing up this energy that travels up the spine. It is an ever-present energy.

Core is the authentic part of ourselves. We have a closer connection to our core when we are aligned, both physically and mentally, which creates an integrity that we then move from. So being in one’s core can also mean we are aligned from physically and emotionally, in mind and body, in actions and words.

Jen: That’s why we’ll often hear you say in class: “Soften something.” Instead of telling your students what to do or correcting something specific, to say “Soften something” suggests that we are all responsible for our own transformation; it means that we each have to go inside ourselves and ask: “What’s actually going on? What’s actually happening?”

Jen: What about gravity? I am working with the idea that gravity is our friend; that in order to find our sense of being truly up right, we first need to feel into gravity. As my mentor, Wendy leBlanc Arbuckle, says: “Notice how a plant grows: It doesn’t effort, it grows up toward the sky, and down into the earth, from core, from center. We’re discovering a primal relationship “the two directions of the spine.”


Vickie: My experience was always with the down line, the connection to the earth, the grounding, the heaviness of gravity. I had to learn to cultivate lift, or my up line. In balancing the up and down line in the body, I‘ve learned that there is a certain “co-dependence” (though I hate that word) that needs to be going on between the up and the down line, between releasing into gravity and feeling the uplift out of gravity. We need to have both in order to be balanced, to be integrated. There is always this balance of opposites in life: prana/apana, masculine/feminine, creativity/earth energy and grounding. So core is about these relationships. When we are aware of these relationships in our lives, on and off the mat, it adds a deeper, richer consciousness, and context, from which we move through the world. Be aware, be present, be conscious. Yoga is about waking up to these elements of life.

Jen: In my own teaching and my work with clients, I am trying to move away from labels. Both personally in my own life, and with my clients. I can see how much labels can limit our potential. I notice in your teaching that you are careful about labels, too. Can you talk about that?

Vickie: You know that I teach a Parkinson’s class. Well, my students in this class…. I have learned so much about people’s potential. There is no right and wrong way to do anything. What we are teaching is how to help people help themselves. And as guides for people, we need to be very careful about how we say things. I think sometimes that people are more afraid of their own possibilities than they are of their limitations. To limit people by saying “You will never do this” is to literally kill all sense of what’s possible for them. It cuts off their potential to transform.

So, I’m really interested in blurring the lines between levels (of yoga) and opening up possibilities instead. The more advanced student is only more advanced because of a deep and focused awareness and consciousness. It isn’t about being advanced because you can put your foot behind your head. Being advanced relates to someone’s ability to listen, to pay attention, and to be aware and present to what they are doing, needing, and wanting. Teaching people to listen to themselves takes the foreground over everything else.

Jen: Exactly!


Vickie: Yes, we have to take the time to learn alignment. We have to have good set ups both for the safety and for the possibilities that good alignment offers. Alignment isn’t there to beat ourselves up over. Alignment is about creating space and possibility. It’s not about good posture as a cure all “at all.

Jen: We’ve talked a lot about the connection between the physical and the emotional: Why do some people have pain with no apparent structural issue while other people who have major structural issues going on have no pain at all? It’s interesting to think about what’s going on there. Why is that? How can we even try to pretend that our emotional lives don’t play out in our bodies? So, when we start tallking about “posture”, which is such a loaded concept in this culture, we have to be very careful about what we say. Which leads me to language. I am currently in the awareness of really paying attention to what I say, what words I choose, what tone I choose, and noticing, in general, how hugely powerful our words and tone are. I’m curious how you feel about this?

Vickie: Yes, language is powerful. In the Iyengar tradition, for example, you watch complimenting as much as criticism because complimenting is seen as another form of judgement. For example, when I get complimented for having a “beautiful yoga practice,” it’s a compliment that feels so empty to me. What does this really mean? That “compliment” doesn’t inspire me. So, I think a lot about what’s we’re saying when we give a compliment. And, what does it then indicate when we don’t compliment someone? We have to be careful. Our words and our compliments can be empty of feeling or meaning. To say something is beautiful, or to compliment one’s yoga practice as “˜beautiful” isn’t really transformative or inspiring. It sounds more like it’s coming from a compliment of habit than something genuine. I try to be careful about how I speak to and guide my students. I also try to notice how I acknowledge someone’s accomplishments.

Jen: Another thing I’m playing with as a teacher, and in my personal life for that matter, is letting go of my agenda. First, noticing if I have an agenda but more importantly noticing how that might be getting in the way of a student’s own revelations and explorations. You must deal with this, too.


Vickie: When I walk into a class, I may have a structure or an outline of the class in my head. Maybe it’s a theme we’ve been working on or something I’m really thinking about. But when it comes down to the moments before a class starts, I have to remain totally open to what’s going on for people. I have to be able to allow for whatever’s happening with people to unfold. We have to honor the line between our own agendas as teachers, which we often need to give structure to a class, and being able to abandon that agenda when something else comes up. Judith Lasater told me once, “Intuition is the key.” I think intuition is what helps you see through your own agenda. Step back, get out of your own head, and see what you are really seeing. Open up your peripheral vision. See what you’re sensing. Step back and look peripherally with a softer gaze, a more subtle gaze and look intuitionally, if that’s even a word. Hard focus tends to pinpoint us towards what really isn’t the issue at all. We have to open up and expand to what we’re seeing when we’re teaching. Hard focus tends to come from our agendas.

Jen: A question that Wendy, my mentor, recently asked of me was this: How are your internal conversations and your eternal speaking aligning? Can you talk about that?

Vickie: It goes back to what we were talking about earlier around integrity. Truth telling is so important. It’s so important to stretch ourselves to our maximum in order to grow and transform. I am deeply committed to transformation. A big part of transformation is how you align who you are, what you say, and what you do. Actions and words. It is so valuable to align who you are in the world and your authenticity with what you’re doing and how you’re speaking and listening. What is our intention? As often as you hear this in yoga classes, to ask ourselves this question, authentically, is really powerful. It dicates the way we live our lives, the decisions we make, the way we move through our daily lives.

Jen: Lastly, What is nurturing? What is the difference between really wanting something vs. just doing something because it’s something you think you should be doing? How is the energy between the two different? Of course, this applies to our physical body, our physical practice, as much as it applies to our emotional lives.

Vickie: Yoga”¦is”¦.nurturing. Yoga is about stepping into a sacred space where you give yourself permission to connect with yourself.

March 2011