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.

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I Am a “Mindful Yogini”

January 5, 2009 at 9:34 am | Posted in little bits of nothingness | 1 Comment

Mindful Yogi
You Are a Mindful Yogi!
You no doubt are very conscientious about your Yoga practice. You practice regularly and you want to make extra sure you are doing the poses correctly. You give a lot of thought to your practice – on ways you can improve it, on the philosophical aspect, on breathing and focus. You probably own a number of books on Yoga. Your assets are your detailed mind and your precision – you don’t miss a thing! You need to work on seeing the bigger picture – sometimes you can’t see the universe for the stars. The type of Yoga that would suit you best would most likely be Iyengar, or one of its offshoots, like Anusara.

Take the quiz here.

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

garlic

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

image credit

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?

inner-light-the-energetic-heart-low-rez-85x11

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?

I Did… But Then I Took it Back…

November 2, 2008 at 8:13 pm | Posted in coworkers and colleagues, learning and growing, questions and conundrums, the Universe craves balance | 1 Comment

So, I did it.  I sent in my resignation letter.  It was scary to hit the “send” button, but I did it, and I was prepared to live with the decision.

Because the place where I work can often be like a high school – where rumors pop up like so many dandelions in springtime – I decided to send a copy of my letter to my coworkers who also teach yoga.  I didn’t want them to hear that Chili had stormed into the bosses’ offices and threw things and uttered vicious swears and cried, screaming “I QUIT” at the top of her voice.  I wanted them to hear it from ME exactly the way I intended it to be heard.

I wasn’t prepared for the reaction.  Three of the five people I emailed responded that same afternoon that they were more than happy to cover my classes for me and wished that I’d reconsider my decision to quit.

I thought about it for all of five minutes, then sent another email to the bosses asking them if they’d mind very much if I retracted my resignation.  If it was okay with them that quite a lot of my upcoming classes be taught by my colleagues, then I’d like very much to keep my job.  I was surprised when the big boss emailed back that he was pleased I’d be staying on and that, as long as the members were okay with the subs, whatever arrangements we came to as a department were fine with him.

I taught my Sunday class today, and everyone there understands that they likely won’t be seeing me again until after Thanksgiving.  Mr. Chili is leaving for an extended business trip to New Mexico on Wednesday, I explained, and it’s damned near impossible to find child care on Sunday mornings.  They all said they’d miss me and look forward to my return.

I’m glad that I don’t have to quit.  While I’m not pleased with the working environment at the health club (though I do love my yoga colleagues!), I really love my classes and the people who attend them.  I’m really glad I don’t have to leave them just yet.

The Universe provides.

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.

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.

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.

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