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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What’s Your Agenda?

November 14, 2008 at 9:13 pm | Posted in compassion and connection, inspiration, learning and growing, meditations, philosophy, practice off the mat, questions and conundrums, The Eight Limbs | 2 Comments

In addition to teaching yoga, I also teach college-level English.  I’m writing here about both of them because, where this question is concerned, they intersect quite nicely.

I wrote here about a student who left a comment on an  end-of-term survey at one of my jobs.  The short version of the story is that the student felt that I used the class to forward an agenda, and that s/he felt that the class was less about the reading and more about my opinions.

I don’t think that the student was wrong, exactly, but I don’t think that s/he was right, either.  It is not unreasonable for ANY teacher to be who s/he is in the classroom; teachers are not heartless computer programs – it’s never just about the material for the course.  What makes teachers good – or not – is, I think, the level of themselves that they choose  – or not – to share with their students.  I said as much to my boss – you can read my full response here.

I’ve been thinking about this question as it pertains to my yoga instruction, as well.  How much of my “agenda,” which can best be described as lefty-humanist, would I be appropriate in bringing into my classes?  Was it okay for me to remind my students to vote on election day?  Is it appropriate for me to remind my classes that there is much suffering in the world, and that each of us has the power, though our thoughts and words and deeds, to help ameliorate that?  How far can I go in encouraging my participants to take love and kindness and compassion off the mat with them?

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I am careful to leave faith out of my yoga classes.  I ask students to play with their own energy, and I refer only to “the Universe” and never to “God.”  I want, though, for the people who come to my yoga classes to leave with a feeling of connection to a higher power, and to feel as though they are a representative of that power in their world.  I tell them that this habit we have of coming to class and unrolling a mat and twisting our bodies into funny shapes is only a tiny portion of a complete yoga practice.  I remind them that yoga can work to help us locate and nurture our highest and best selves, and to use that to inform our choices in everyday life.

I can’t go into a classroom and leave myself at the door, and I don’t think that I should.  Bringing myself – my passion and my energy and my love and my questions – makes me a better teacher…. and a better person.  Isn’t it part of my responsibility as a teacher to model the lessons I’m seeking to teach to others?

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…

Hot Yoga

September 12, 2008 at 3:41 pm | Posted in compassion and connection, learning and growing, philosophy, the Universe craves balance | 3 Comments

And no, I don’t mean the kind of yoga practiced in a 105° room, either.

I’m talking about me, being hopping mad about the experience a friend of mine had in a yoga class.  Go on over to Ciboulette’s site and read about what happened.  Go ahead, I’ll wait; you’ll need to read it to understand what I’m so mad about, anyway…

You back?  Okay, first of all never, and I mean NEVER, stay in a class where the instructor tells you that pain is to be expected!  EVER!!  The very FIRST thing I say at the beginning of EVERY yoga class I teach is that if it hurts, don’t do it. Challenging is good, painful is bad, and unless one is in labor, this is ALWAYS true.  Please promise me, y’all, that you’ll get up, roll up your mat, and make for the door as soon as you hear an instructor tell you that you need to work through the pain.  You NEVER work through the pain unless you’re delivering a baby.  Promise me.

Look, I have nothing against Bikram yoga in principle.  The poses themselves are very similar to yoga poses taught in other traditions (not much changes in that respect – yoga poses have been pretty much the same for the last 5,000 years) and, as long as someone is well-hydrated and not prone to heat exhaustion, I think that hot yoga is fine, if you’re into that sort of thing (personally, I don’t particularly enjoy sweating/melting, so I’m not really a fan).

What I DO take issue with are teachers who teach students not to honor their bodies or their intution.  I dislike teachers who don’t offer modifications to students, who expect students to do the pose THIS WAY, DAMMIT! without any consideration for the different levels people occupy or the different ways in which people are physically built.

It may be true that, because of someone’s bone structure, they will never be able to get into a “full” expression of a pose, and no amount of focus or dedication or practice will change someone’s bone structure, folks.  If someone (like me) has a short neck between the body and the head of one’s femur, for example, one is never going to be able to do a full split; it’s not a matter of making the muscles work in certain ways, it’s a matter of the physics of bone against bone – once the head of the femur hits the hip bone, it’s not going any further no matter HOW much yoga one practices.

I really think that responsible yoga teachers would encourage their students to work within their physical edges.  I tell my students to do what they can and ONLY what they can.  They are certainly allowed to gently nudge those edges – if you don’t go a little beyond what you always do, you’ll never really improve – but they are admonished to never, ever force themselves into poses.  It’s just not worth the risk of injury.  And for the love of Goddess; if it hurts, stop.  Let’s not fail to take into consideration the fact that you may have tweaked your shoulder lifting the baby out of the tub, or that you slipped on the stairs and have a fussy ankle now.  Those bits need to be treated gently while they heal, and your instructor should be telling you that during every single class.

Finally, a good teacher is one who will encourage you to be kind to yourself.  Don’t allow yourself to be bullied or intimidated in a class – yoga, at least as I understand it, is intended to teach us how to interact with ourselves, each other, and the world around us.  We’ve got plenty of influences telling us to compete and strive and push ourselves.  What we really need are loving, counter-balancing messages of relax and accept and flow.  You should leave your yoga class feeling joyful and renewed.  If you don’t, don’t go back; keep going to classes until you find a teacher who clicks with you – you’ll know them when you find them.

I Honor That Place In You…

August 4, 2008 at 10:48 pm | Posted in inspiration, learning and growing, philosophy, practice off the mat | 1 Comment

I had no idea that I did this.

A few weeks ago, while attending the Shoah fellowship, I was approached by one of my colleagues with a question. “I noticed,” he said, “that you do this a lot.” Here, he put his hands in prayer position in front of his heart. “I’ve seen you do it when you meet someone new, and I watch you do it every time someone finishes a lecture. Why do you do that?”

I hadn’t realized that I WAS doing it, but after he pointed it out to me, I acknowledged that I do. I explained to him the idea of namaste – that I believe that there’s a bit of the divine in me and a bit of the divine in everyone else, and that when I’m in that place in me and they’re in that place in them, we are the same being. The prayer pose is my way of honoring the divine in someone else; of extending to them a recognition of and appreciation for the gifts that they bring to me.

Here is a photo of me with Ernie, a survivor of Auschwitz who came to share his story with us. My roommate took the picture – I didn’t know she had her camera out – and caught me in the proverbial act. I was so profoundly moved by this man’s capacity to love and to forgive and to devote his life to telling his story that I couldn’t not honor him in the most respectful way I knew how.

Namaste, indeed.

The Inner Guru

June 10, 2008 at 3:13 pm | Posted in learning and growing, philosophy, practice off the mat | 2 Comments

A debate was raised – but never addressed – in my 200 hour yoga teacher training about how (or whether) one should seek a teacher to guide one’s path.

One of the things I loved about this training was that our trainers – I call them Cecily and David for the purposes of their privacy – were so very different in a lot of their ideas. Cecily, for example, thinks that it’s vitally important for a practitioner to find a teacher. She spoke reverently of the person who she considers her guru and whose ideals and philosophies she studies and works to emulate. David, on the other hand, believes that one can be one’s own guru and, though he didn’t actually say so, I got the impression that he thinks that devoting oneself to a single individual is a potentially dangerous thing.

I’ve got to say that I come down with David on this question. I really do think that I would find the study and devotion to one person – one way of physical practice, one way of thinking about the Universe and one’s place in it – would be too limiting. As I thought about this, I thought about why it is that David – and I – feel so strongly.

I think it has to do with one’s self-esteem, one’s willingness to experiment and play (and to be willing to change and adapt as a result of those experiments and that playfulness), and one’s belief that there are, as David so beautifully put it, many paths up the mountain. I think it’s a lot more risky to “go it alone,” and while I can understand that some people might not be ready to blaze their own trails, *I* can’t imagine signing up for only one tour guide.

During our 200 hour training, we were exposed to a vast sampling of different styles, different personalities, and different attitudes about yoga – its origins and practices and its place in one’s life. Some of these views and ideas resonated with me and some of them didn’t. I made a commitment to myself – and it’s one that I largely kept – to go into this experience with as open a mind as I could possibly manage (and, as a sometimes opinionated Yankee, I found that this was no small act of will). I took in what others had to offer and I used my heart, and my training in critical thinking, to hold up what they offered against what I already knew, thought, felt, or believed to see if it fit. If it did, I kept it; if it didn’t, I set it aside.

The learning that I did as a result of this experience is largely focused around coming to better terms with my trust of myself and my commitment to keep learning and growing. I learned that I CAN be my own guru, and that I can allow her to guide me to new and different learning challenges without forcing myself to accept something that doesn’t feel “right” just because someone else says it’s so. My hope is that I can show others that they can do that, too.

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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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