Falling Down

May 16, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Posted in compassion and connection, coworkers and colleagues, holding myself accountable, observations, poses and asana | Leave a comment

WOW.  How long has it been since I’ve been HERE?!  Is anyone still following?

Regardless, I was inspired to come back and write in this space when my friend Liv posted this article on facebook.  Go ahead; read it.  I’ll wait.

This part stood out to me:

“Because if you don’t practice it, how can you teach it?!”

While a part of me honors those who leave out certain poses because they’re simply not in their own practice, I find that I use this principle as inspiration for moving outside of my proverbial “comfort zone.” I WANT to try new things so that I can share them with my participants, and I think that there’s a LOT of under-appreciated value in having participants watch an instructor wrestle with a pose.

I think that too many people come to yoga class thinking that they’ll NEVER be as good as the instructor. Hell, I’ve been practicing for going on 13 years now, and I STILL think that every time I walk into someone else’s class.  Despite my exhortation that students NOT compare themselves to other people (or judge themselves too harshly), I find myself doing just that.  Every teacher is more graceful and flexible than I am, and I’m particularly bothered by the fact that I can’t (yet) execute a full bind and that my standing straddle is, in my estimation, wholly insufficient.

Letting that go is still a deliberate practice for me.  Someday, maybe, I’ll get past it, but for now it’s still something that I’m actively working on.

I think, though, that letting my participants see me fall out of half moon – sometimes spectacularly – or fight for a bind that I can only maintain for one breath gives them permission to fall down and fight, too.  Watching me struggle, seeing me shake and sweat, and listening to me talk about the places where it doesn’t just flow demonstrates to them that this yoga thing really IS a process.

Though it sounds counter-intuitive, falling down makes us better.

Twice in One Day

February 1, 2009 at 3:32 pm | Posted in compassion and connection, observations, philosophy, poses and asana, practice off the mat | 2 Comments

Today was a GREAT yoga day for me.

For starters, I had 38 people in my Sunday morning class.  Yep, you read that right; THIRTY EIGHT.  I’m more than a little surprised that my numbers are still that high, frankly; I’m used to a surge in attendance after the new year – resolutions and all – but the herd usually thins substantially by now.  I am heartened and humbled that so many people are willing to leave their warm beds on Sunday mornings to come and play with me.

I had a couple of brand-new, never-been-to-a-yoga-class-ever folks in class today.  I LOVE it when new people come to my class; I feel like it’s an opportunity to hold open a door for them.  So many of them come in nervous and apprehensive, and most of them leave feeling like this yoga stuff isn’t so scary after all.  I love that.

Anyway, we had a great class.  I worked ’em a little harder than usual, though don’t ask me why because I have no idea where the energy for a warrior series AND a sun salutation came from.  Through it all, though, I was mindful of my new folks and made sure that my directions were very clear.  I reminded people, again and again, to only do what they could – that their best was, and always is, good enough.  When it was all over, I laid them all out for a little rest, settled into a seated posture myself, and waited for the Universe to tell me what today’s lesson was.

What I got was an impression of Thich Nhat Hanh eating a tangerine.  In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Hanh tells the story of eating a tangerine – really EATING it – to remind us that we can receive so much more of life’s wonders and blessings if we just stop long enough to actually NOTICE them.

“So much of our lives,” I said, “feel like riptides.  We’re so focused on keeping our heads above water – on just keeping UP – that we often look around and realize that days and weeks have gone by without our ever feeling like we were present in our lives.  As you take your practice off the mat and into your world this week, try to be mindful of the opportunities that the Universe offers you to BE here.  When you’re walking somewhere, be aware of all the wondrous things that happen to keep you upright and moving forward.  Really TALK.  Really LISTEN.  Be where you are.”

I woke everyone up and started rolling up my mat when Gail came to talk to me.  She’s an accomplished practitioner and rarely comes to talk, so I was concerned that perhaps she’s acquired an injury or wanted to express a concern about something that happened in the class (why do we always go to the negative first?!).  Instead, she wanted to tell me that the closing thoughts I shared with the class were exactly what she needed to hear.  She told me that she’s dating again after more than a decade, and that she’s finding it difficult to let go and trust.  “Being where I am – being mindful right now – is exactly what I need to do.”  It brought goosebumps to my skin to hear her say that – and it’s bringing them up again now as I retell the story.

After Gail left, one of my brand-new folks came and introduced himself.  HE had something to say, too, and he touched on something that I occasionally worry about as a yoga teacher.  “I know that some people, especially people who come to your class all the time, might find it repetitive, but it was great that you kept telling us to only do what we could.  I can’t do much, and the only reason I stayed for the whole class was because you told me that what I could do was good enough.”

More goosebumps.  I love my job.

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A Lesson in the Music

January 6, 2009 at 4:43 pm | Posted in inspiration, learning and growing, meditations, observations, philosophy, practice off the mat, the Universe craves balance | Leave a comment

The other day, I was driving home from a wonderful visit with a dear friend when the Universe offered up yet another gift to me.

I was listening, as is my wont, to NPR.  On this day, All Things Considered was doing a focus piece on a musician by the name of Richard Crandell.  Formerly an extremely gifted guitarist, Crandell suffers from essential tremor syndrome, which prevents him from playing his instrument with anything but a frustrating imprecision.

At one point several years ago, Crandell was asked to drive a tour bus for a group of African traditional musicians.  When he returned with the bus, he found an mbira (pronounced em-beer-ah) under one of the seats.  Sometimes called a “thumb piano,” the mbira is a sacred instrument of the Shona people of Zimbabwe.  He started goofing around with it and, to his surprise, discovered that his hands didn’t shake when he played.

I was so struck by this story, and by the beautiful feel of the music that Crandell played (both with his guitar, from before his diagnosis, and his mbira today) that I opened iTunes as soon as I got in the house and bought everything they had of his work.

I started playing Spring Steel for my yoga classes this morning.  Before we began, I told the two women who came to the session at Local U. Crandell’s story and asked them to keep in mind that, more often than not, the Universe holds a new door open as it simultaneously closes an old, comfortable one.  Even though we may resist the “loss” of something we held dear and familiar, we need to remember to stay open to the possibility of new experiences, and to recognize that it is often in those spaces where we find growth.

Glass (more than) Half Full

January 3, 2009 at 9:06 am | Posted in meditations, observations, philosophy, practice off the mat, The Eight Limbs | 1 Comment

“We spend January 1 walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance the list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives, not looking for flaws, but for potential.” –Ellen Goodman

I gave essentially this same message to my yoga class yesterday. We spend so much energy this time of year focusing on what we need to fix (I need to save more money, I’m too fat, I procrastinate too much…) when we should probably focus a bit on what WORKS (I’m healthy enough to come to yoga class, I have friends, I have wealth enough to be a member of a health club…). While it’s certainly important to seize opportunities for self-improvement, it’s more important, I think, to be mindful of what we have. An attitude of abundance really makes a difference in one’s quality of life.

Peeling Garlic

November 30, 2008 at 7:10 pm | Posted in inspiration, learning and growing, meditations, observations, philosophy, practice off the mat, The Eight Limbs, the Universe craves balance | 3 Comments

I’ve been a little off my center lately.  There are a lot of reasons for that, most prominent among them being an extended discussion / disagreement I had with someone I thought I knew better than it seems I do, the fact that the terms are ending at both TCC AND Local U., and, of course, the approach of the holidays.  While I’m trying my best to keep everything in perspective, sometimes it’s harder than others to stop and recognize when one is spinning one’s wheels and focusing on stuff that, in the big picture, should probably not be given as much attention as we give it.

That being the case, I’ve been actively trying to divert my attention elsewhere.  This afternoon, for example, I found myself with three heads of garlic that needed peeling and roasting.  “Perfect!” I thought as I set out a roasting pan and dragged the trash can next to the counter for a solid half hour of mindfulness.

Thich Nhat Hanh, in his little book The Miracle of Mindfulness, talks about being present and focusing on the task at hand and about the wonder that can be found in simple acts like washing the dishes or eating a tangerine.  Being aware of what we’re doing right here, right now brings us to a level of consciousness and purpose that most of us – at least, most of the people *I* know, myself included – don’t often experience.  Speaking for myself, I find that entire days – weeks, even – can go by without my ever having been really aware of where I was or what I was doing.  I, and I imagine that a lot of us, tend to be primarily reactive; we respond to the stimuli of our lives and most often think we’re lucky if we feel like we’re just keeping up.

It takes a lot of practice to be mindful and present more often than one is reactionary, but I’m starting to get the hang of it.  While I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a master, I am starting to notice, more and more often, when an opportunity presents itself for me to stop and take stock.  While I’m waiting at a red light, for instance, I can focus on my breath and my posture.  I can really see the images outside my windshield and notice the vibration of the car’s motor and the feel of the wheel in my hands.  When I’m brushing my teeth, or walking to class, or taking a shower, I try to remember to be present – to notice everything I can about what’s happening right here, right now – and to appreciate the fact that I’m right in the middle of it.

I’ve found that, along with being very calming and centering, the practice of mindfulness also brings with it a heightened appreciation for one’s surroundings and condition.  I glory in the feel of warm water on my body in the shower.  I’m grateful for the force of my muscles and the strength of my balance as I walk from one place to another.  I can bring all my attention to the feel of papery garlic skins in my fingers, and relish the heady scent of the cloves as they undress

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and, just for those few moments, I can be here and no where else, which is exactly where I’m supposed to be.

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To Whom it May Concern

October 16, 2008 at 5:55 pm | Posted in learning and growing, observations, philosophy, questions and conundrums, the Universe craves balance | 1 Comment

I’m going to hand in my resignation at the health club tomorrow.  I’ve been thinking about letting this part of my life go for a while now, and I think it’s finally time.

I’ve been teaching at the health club for going on about 8 years now; I joined the club as a member after Beanie was born and started as an instructor about a year later.  In the course of those eight years, I’ve taught step and aqua aerobics, pre-natal fitness and weight-training, and, of course, yoga.  I’ve also made a lot of friends.

My decision to leave is one that’s been brewing for quite some time.  The idea came to me, I think, when my step class was reassigned to another instructor and was reinforced when a class that I was recruited for was also reassigned.  The instability of the environment is a big factor in my wanting to leave; the attendance at my Friday yoga class has been low over the past few months and I suspect that considerations are being made to either drop the class off the schedule or give it to another instructor.  I don’t find my supervisor to be a very stable or supportive presence in that part of my professional life, and I dislike the condescending emails that are periodically sent to the staff, scolding us for things like not parking in “designated areas” (with apologies to those who actually lived through that era, the emails feel very much like we’re being told to use the “colored” entrance).  While my work there has never been about the money, I’m not getting enough joy out of the job to make up for the fact that I’m only earning 28 dollars a week (before taxes).

My “other” life is interfering with my yoga schedule at the health club, too.  Because of professional and personal commitments (workshops, visiting relatives, Mr. Chili’s business travel), I’ve had to (and WILL have to) sub out a LOT of my classes.  That’s not going to fly with the boss for much longer, and I don’t really think it’s fair to the members, either.  I can’t give the club enough of a commitment for me to feel good about the job.  It’s best if I give my notice now.

While I’m relieved to have made the decision, I am going to be sad to go.  I really do love my classes there, especially my Sunday morning group.  We’ve laughed, we’ve grown, we’ve had a good time, and I’m going to miss a LOT of people who have practiced every week with me for the better part of a decade.

The thing is, though, that I need to balance my values against my affection for them.  I have rules in my classes, you see.  Rule number one is that you may not do anything that hurts in my class.  Challenging is good; painful is bad – unless you’re in labor, this is always true.  Rule number two is that you don’t have to look like me (or her, or him, or anyone else).  Do what you can do today and be content with that.  Rule number three is if you have a question in the middle of class, ask it in the middle of class.  Don’t worry about disrupting the energy or anything like that – I’m here to help you in any way that I can, and if that means calling me over to adjust your pose (or standing behind you to keep you from falling), then do that.  Finally, rule number four derives from the wisdom of the Ben and Jerry’s bumper sticker (which, of course, I can’t find online right now) that says “If it’s not fun, why do it?”  Yoga classes should be fun, safe, and welcoming.  Enjoy yourself.  Laugh (or cry).  Be where you are now.  It’s THIS rule that I feel I’m breaking by staying at the health club.

I’m going to compose my resignation letter and drop it by after my class tomorrow morning.  My last day at the health club will be October 31st, unless the boss finds a replacement before then (or the boss already has one lined up, which is a distinct possibility).

Moving on…

Holding the Space

August 8, 2008 at 8:33 pm | Posted in compassion and connection, learning and growing, meditations, observations | 1 Comment

My Friday yoga class is the one in which I include a bit of restorative yoga.

I’ve mentioned restorative yoga before – here, specifically – and I think that it’s an important component to my teaching practice. SO many people in our society just do not know how to be still and quiet with themselves. They can’t relax, even for ten minutes.

I give my participants the opportunity to practice settling their bodies and minds at the end of each Friday class, and I tell them that it’s okay if they don’t get it this week – or next, or the week after that. I’m going to continue to provide this as a part of our practice, and I implore them to not be harsh or judgmental of themselves if they can’t quite sink into these ten short minutes; what’s important is that they try-by-not-trying (just try explaining THAT to a group of over-achieving health club members!). I’m asking them to release, to exhale, to let go of themselves for a little bit, and I make a point of being firm but gentle in what I expect them to do. I want them to know that they are safe here with me, but I also want them to focus – I think that the effort is well worth the reward.

This morning, as I do every Friday, I explained what was involved in the restorative part of the practice.  I told people to get into whatever position was most comfortable for them, let them know that there were blankets and blocks and chairs and extra mats for their use, then went around the room making sure that everyone was settled.

One gentleman, who’s been in my class many times before, was lying with his heels on the seat of a chair.  I knew that his knees were going to hurt in just a few minutes, so I had him lift his feet while I slid the chair under his calves.  Then, I went to get a blanket for him – he was only wearing shorts and a tank top, and when the A/C kicks in, it gets cold in that room.  I laid the blanket gently over his chest and arms, all while talking the class into relaxation.  Then, I noticed that my gentleman was crying.

I know what it’s like to cry in a yoga class.  I can’t really tell you what it is about certain environments or certain situations that allows for the walls to come down, and I can’t really tell you exactly WHY I sometimes feel the urge to weep in a class – there’s nothing specifically upsetting; it’s more as if a hatch gives way and allows something amorphous to come bubbling up.

I also know that it’s terrible to have specific attention drawn to you when this happens; it’s hard enough to be crying without knowing why, but to have the entire class know it makes it even worse.  Finally, I know how wonderful it feels to feel connected, quietly and unobtrusively, to someone else.  Knowing that someone knows you’re struggling without having to explain yourself or feel embarrassed is incredibly freeing and, I think, helps to work out whatever emotion is trying to escape in the first place.  A nod, the touch of a hand, a smile, or a hug are really all that’s needed for that connection to be made, but those small gestures are profoundly important.

Knowing all of this, I continued to talk in the same tone and pace to my class, but I moved to kneel over my gentleman’s head.  I put my hands gently on his temples, all while directing the class to release their toes and fingers, to let themselves either sink into the floor or float above it, while I stroked the sides of his head.  I wiped tears away.  I stayed there until he began to calm, but I left before he was quite there because I didn’t want him to calm for me; where he went with this was entirely his journey, and I didn’t want to influence it in any way.  He knew I was there, he knew he was safe, and he knew that I had no judgment; I tried to vibe as much love and warmth as I could.

I let the class stay in their pose for about 10 minutes, then guided them to be brought back in the arms of a strong, loving presence.  I wanted them to feel light and clean and safe; held and loved unconditionally, the way a parent would carry a sleeping baby.  I asked them to feel themselves being lowered gently back into their bodies.  I brought them back to a seated position, thanked them for sharing the hour with me, and invited them to come to see me with questions or concerns, then I dismissed the class.

Before he left, I went to my gentleman, bowed to him with prayer pose, then wordlessly offered a hug, which he accepted.  I don’t need to know what his emotion was about, but I do need him to know that he is loved and cared for.

I’m feeling pleased and proud that I created a safe space for him to take this trip today.

He’ll be back.

Still and Quiet

June 23, 2008 at 10:05 pm | Posted in learning and growing, observations, poses and asana, practice off the mat | Leave a comment

I did an experiment with my Friday morning yoga class last week.

The gas crunch has inspired me to coast as often as possible. Whenever I’m on a hill (and it’s safe to do so), I engage the clutch, pull the car out of gear and let Sir Issac Newton power me along. I’m telling you this because it’s a metaphor for a big idea I’m circling around lately as a part of my yoga practice; the idea of releasing oneself to the flow and taking advantage of the energy that’s available to us all. I don’t need to power my car down hills – the Earth will do that for me (and, it turns out, just this act of coasting has increased my gas mileage by almost six miles to the gallon!). Coasting isn’t just a behavior; it’s an attitude, and I wanted to see if I could get my yoga class to step back from themselves and disengage for a few minutes.

I warned them the week before that I’d be adding a single restorative pose to the practice for the coming week. For those of you who don’t know, restorative yoga is a practice which puts practitioners into supported poses and leaves them there for long stretches of time – up to 20 minutes in some cases. The idea is to reach a state where the sympathetic nervous system – the fight or flight response – is shut down and the parasympathetic system – the relaxation and restoration responses – are turned on. The student is given an opportunity to be completely still, to relax completely into the pose, and to experience the sensations of the quiet of body and mind that ensues, with the added benefits of healing and a little bit of rest thrown in for good measure.

What I’ve learned about the population of student who frequents my class is that, for the most part, they are all profoundly uncomfortable with still and quiet. I habitually put students in savasana (the final relaxation at the end of a class) for little more than about 6 or 7 minutes, and even THAT is too much for most of them; they fidget, they sniffle, they wiggle and roll around. Has society gotten so frenetic that we’re unable to lie still for 5 minutes? It seems so.

A few weeks ago, I experienced an epiphany in a restorative yoga class, and I wanted to offer my students an opportunity to play in the quiet spaces of their own inner selves. I explained to them that, for some people, this was going to be the hardest part of the class – some of them, I said, wouldn’t be able to be still for the 10 minutes I was going to leave them in this pose, and that was okay. All I asked was that they do the best they could.

True to my expectations, in a class of 11 people, only 2 of them were able to fully engage in the practice. There was the usual sniffling and shuffling that I hear in savasana (I hear it because I sit in easy pose with my eyes closed, trying to steal a little still-and-quiet for myself, even though my classes aren’t MY practice). I was neither surprised nor disappointed – I had a pretty realistic expectation going in. All I was looking for was exposure, really, and I got it.

When I called them back to themselves and up to a seated position, I asked them to debrief. The 9 who were fidgety said that I was right – it WAS hard (well, two of them said so – the other 7 nodded agreement). The two who were able to sink into the pose echoed my praise of the practice – while they’d never done restorative yoga before, they could certainly see the value in it. Everyone agreed that it might be a good thing to include in the practice on a fairly regular (though not weekly) basis.

I’m pleased by the experiment. It’s often difficult to introduce new elements into established classes – students come to the sessions expecting certain things and can be quite resistant to anything that messes with their comfort levels. My aim as a yoga instructor, though, is to stretch my participants’ experiences so that they’re willing to at least ENTERTAIN a new idea every once in a while. I’m pretty sure they’re not ready to OM just yet, but my teaching them to coast a little more often will certainly do them some good.

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My Philosophy. Well, at Least, Today

June 3, 2008 at 10:06 am | Posted in learning and growing, meditations, observations, philosophy, practice off the mat | 4 Comments

I have been thinking a lot about how I practice – and teach – yoga. The thinking is vast and expansive; there isn’t just one factor that comes into play as I formulate and adjust my philosophy about this experience, and I find that every new student, every new lesson, and every new idea influences – even if just a little – the way I live my practice.

I had a private client the other day, who was brand new to the adventure of yoga, and I was trying to explain to her that there’s so much more to yoga than the effort of putting one’s body into pretzel-like poses. I wanted her to get the idea that where she is right now is perfectly okay – it doesn’t matter that she can’t get her heels on the floor in downward dog; it’s okay that she can’t reach her toes in forward fold – what matters is that she finds her best expression of these poses today, because tomorrow will be different.

I have found, through a lot of personal experience, that people (in general) take yoga WAAY too seriously. The get all stressed out about how often they practice or how deeply they can get into a pose or what other people – or their teachers – think of how they look or of how “yogic” they are. They spend tons of money on props and products and clothes so they can “fit in” and look the part.

Instructors are sometimes just as bad. They adhere, with the tenacity of a barnacle on the side of a pier, to one philosophy and one practice. They “encourage” (please read that for the euphemism that it is) their participants to do poses one way – their way – and to push themselves beyond their limits. They promote one way of thinking to the exclusion of others, and they end up limiting the experience of their participants with their own orthodoxy.

All of this – every last bit of it – is all contrary to what I think yoga is supposed to be about. Yoga, for me, anyway (and I don’t even imagine I speak for anyone else) is about finding balance in one’s self. It’s about getting the right mix of physical, emotional, and spiritual energy working in harmony in one’s life.

The physical practice of yoga is about challenging oneself gently and kindly; about finding your edges and nudging yourself up against – or through – them. It’s about encouraging (really encouraging – no euphemisms this time) yourself to find out what you can – and can’t – do. It’s about learning that sometimes you’re on and sometimes you’re off and it’s about being okay with that. It’s about gaining perspective. So you fall out of tree pose this afternoon; who cares? What higher purpose is a perfect tree pose going to serve in your life? It may well be that the lessons you take away from falling out of poses are far more valuable than those you’d get from being picture-perfect.

The emotional practice of yoga has to do with understanding your relationships – to yourself, to your family and friends, and to the world around you. Yoga has taught me more about compassion than anything else; when I learned, though my physical practice, to be compassionate with myself, I found that I was able to expand that capacity outward. I understood – truly understood – that I am a pebble in the pond; that all my actions have consequences that I may not be immediately aware of and, more importantly, that I have a great deal of control over those actions. I have choices, and I can be mindful about what kind of energy I radiate. I may not be able to choose how people treat me or what happens to me in the larger world, but I certainly have control over how I choose to respond to those things. I can react out of love, or I can react out of fear. Yoga has taught me to take the time to be still and quiet and to make those choices mindfully.

Finally, yoga helps me to locate my place in the Universe. I am able to connect to my higher self through my practice and no, I’m not talking about some voodoo channeling or astral-projection, either. I’m talking about making the very important recognition that I belong here, that I am a part of the larger picture, and that the energy I bring to this party is vitally important. I’m talking about learning to make those choices, in my physical and emotional practice, that resonate with me on a spiritual level. I’m talking about being mindfully aware of always striving for my own highest and best expression of my own self – of my own soul – and of playing a part in helping others to make that recognition, too.

That’s how I feel about yoga today. I’m completely open to the idea that I may learn something new this afternoon that changes how I think about my practice, but for right now, this feels right.

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