My Own Words Coming Back at Me

March 28, 2010 at 3:03 pm | Posted in compassion and connection, inspiration, practice off the mat | 5 Comments

(Hey! I’m still here! Didja miss me?)

I’ve been feeling like I’m on the verge of something for a while now, and the truth of it is that I’m probably on the verge of a lot of somethings. For the purposes of this post, though, I’m going to talk about something very specific.

I, like everyone else who’s ever lived, have heard my elders complain as they watched me eat whatever I wanted to no ill effect. “Just you wait,” they’d tell me. “Once you hit 35, your body’s going to betray you.”

Well, I don’t know if I’d call it a betrayal, exactly, but I do know that, in this stage of my life (the 40-something stage), the rules of the game have definitely changed.

I’ve been thinking for a while now about the condition of my physical being and recognizing that the events in the last year or so of my life have not been conducive to the healthiest me I could be. I spent most of last year on the couch at my mother’s bedside, and my level of physical activity since she died hasn’t increased much (though, to be fair, my level of activity goes down when the weather gets cold, anyway; don’t think that I’m blaming my current state on my mother, because I’m not).

My observation is that human beings don’t effect change until things get “bad enough” that the status quo can’t – or shouldn’t – be maintained. I’m pretty sure that I’ve gotten to that point, and I’ve been doing the typical stressing that I do before something gives. I’ve become far more aware of the fact that I don’t “do” anything – that is, I’m not moving my body around nearly as much as is probably healthy. I’m reminded, every work day, that I’m not in very good shape as I huff and puff my way up the five floors of stairs I climb to get to school. I have noticed that my clothes don’t fit the way they used to, and I’m starting to get self-conscious about the way I look.

I was talking about this to my Weeble after yoga class today. He’s someone I can bitch to about this stuff because he gets it; he isn’t going to give me that “just make the time” crap because he has a job and a wife and a son and a life, too, and he knows that it’s not always that easy to take time for yourself when you’re intimately tied to other people. Anyway, just a few minutes ago, this popped up in my inbox:

Chili,

We are all so fortunate to have you and your words every week. Based on our conversation today, it is fitting that the spirit of your words reflects back to you…

There are things in all of us we don’t like. It is OK to have self-critical thoughts but always try to be patient and kind to yourself. Celebrate those things that you do so well and use those positive feelings to propel you forward in areas that you feel need improvement. Ask friends what they do. Try something you’ve never done. If that is not fun or effective, try something else. Be discouraged, laugh it off and bounce back.

Be happy for the journey even if the destination seems unreachable.

Weeble

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THIS is why I keep teaching this class (the only one I teach at the health club. I’m pretty sure I spend more in gas to get there and back than I earn a week). In it, I have a strong, supportive, loving community to remind me to be kind to myself and that doing what I can is enough.

I think I’m the fortunate one in this story….

So. Not. Cool.

October 17, 2009 at 6:38 pm | Posted in coworkers and colleagues, practice off the mat, questions and conundrums | Leave a comment

Okay, here’s what happened; several weeks ago, one of my colleagues at the health club asked me if I’d sub her Saturday morning yoga class. I like this lady very much and I didn’t have anything planned for the morning, so I told her I’d be happy to do it.

I arrived at the club and taught a lovely class. When it was over, everyone was rolling up their mats in preparation for leaving. As I was clearing up my things, I was commenting to one of the participants that her form in a particular pose was especially lovely – keep in mind that I wasn’t just standing there talking, but was cleaning up as I spoke – when the woman who teaches the next class in the room – let’s call her Annie – walked in.

Her exact words to me were “Chili. Honey. It’s 9:30. I have a class. Get out.”

I was horrified. I gathered up all of my things and headed for the hall, seething.

Now, to be fair (fair? I’m not sure what other word to use), Annie is not famous for her tact. In fact, she’s got a reputation as being a self-centered diva. She’s the kind of person who announces in her classes, over the loudspeakers, that her birthday is next week and offers up gift suggestions. She’s blunt and forceful, and everyone knows this. Should I have been surprised that she would speak to me this way? No; I’m not part of her clique and she has made no show of hiding her disdain for those, like me, whom she deems to be less than her.

What I really objected to, though, is her willingness to be so rude and unprofessional in front of a room full of yoga participants. One of the women in the room found me in the hall and told me that she was upset by the display; there was no need of Annie’s behavior, she told me, and she was sorry that it happened to me. I tried to be professional about it and told the lady that *I* was sorry that it made her uncomfortable, but didn’t really say anything else. What else could I have said?

Here’s my question, Dear Readers; what do I do about it? Should I bring it up with Annie and ask her to please express her impatience in a more professional way? (Just as a point of reference, everyone complains that classes don’t clear out of the room fast enough, and this has been a gripe for YEARS; why we don’t stagger the classes with five minutes between them is a wonder to me.) Do I bring it up with the lady for whom I was subbing and let her know that I may not be comfortable subbing that class in the future because I’d rather not put myself in a position to be abused by Annie again? Do I tell my boss what happened? Do I hope a member complains to the management, or do I just chalk the whole experience up to Annie’s being an unprofessional, immature, and selfish child and leave it at that?

I tried really hard to not let this wreck all the nice energy I worked up in the class, but as you can tell from the fact that I’m writing this a little more than 9 hours after it happened, clearly I failed.

Sigh.

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?

Easy Come…

September 1, 2008 at 5:25 pm | Posted in learning and growing, practice off the mat | 2 Comments

I was supposed to start teaching a kundalini yoga class at the health club on Wednesdays.  The woman who teaches the class decided to leave the club, and the group exercise instructor approached me to ask if I’d take over the course.  Keep this in mind – she came to me.

It just so happened that the woman whose class I was going to take over – we’ll call her Jen – was in my dining room going over some of the resources she uses to teach the class.  She was excited that I was going to be taking over for her, and she wanted me to have a variety of places to go for inspiration and support.

Just as Jen was getting ready to leave, the phone rang.  I excused myself to answer a call from Gretchen, the woman who coordinates the group classes at the health club.  As Gretchen tells it, members came to her to request a different instructor.  She told me that they had hoped to have different teachers each day of the week in our time slot – so since I already teach the Friday 10:00 class, they wanted someone different in the Wednesday 10:00 slot (she said a bunch of other things, too, but that’s neither here nor there).  I told Gretchen that was fine, said good bye, and hung up.

Jen was beside herself.  She didn’t believe a word Gretchen said to me – she was under the distinct impression that the class was excited to have me take over for her, and she wondered what could possibly be the motivation to bump me from the class.

Honestly?  I was over it as soon as I got to the purpose for Gretchen’s call.  Yoga is teaching me (among other things) to practice detachment.  Did I want the class?  Yes, I did; I was looking forward to working in a new tradition and to adding another class to my practice.  Was I upset that I lost the class before I even got to teach the first one?  Not even a little.  I wasn’t attached to it, and I am not willing to give anyone – bosses in particular – power to upset me with something so small.

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.

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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