Your Vinyasa

According to Bernie Clark, yin yoga teacher, anatomy enthusiast, and author of Your Body, Your Yoga, yoga is a self-selecting practice. In other words, yoga attracts and keeps those students who can perform the poses that are commonly taught. In more depressing words, yoga repels and alienates those who cannot perform these poses.

I am a vinyasa yoga teacher. I began as a power vinyasa teacher. I am fully aware of the stigmas that often surround power vinyasa and vinyasa classes. I have read articles on the dangers of chaturanga, heard both students and friends tell me that they “just can’t do img_9458vinyasa classes anymore – they’re too hard on the body!”; I have even wondered, in my darkest hours, if I should trade vinyasa for hatha, yin, and restorative, exclusively, in interest of preventing my students from possibly injuring themselves. But there’s just one problem: I love vinyasa. It is my favorite kind of yoga to practice, and as a result, the kind of yoga I am most passionate about teaching. Each time I wonder if I should move toward something slower-paced, something less movement-oriented, something more yin and less yang, I hear my inner voice say, “But vinyasa feels so great! You love vinyasa, and so do plenty of other people!!”

Do some people get injured in vinyasa classes? Sure. Have I injured myself in vinyasa classes? Certainly. Is it yoga’s fault? Certainly not. When I have injured myself, it has been img_9465for one of two reasons: 1. I took a pose too far; I overstretched or overstrained and pulled or yanked something in an ungodly fashion. 2. I knew I was not comfortable, knew that my body could not or should not do a certain thing, but I did not know how to modify; I tried it anyway, and immediately regretted it. Vinyasa is indeed a tricky beast, as there is generally an expectation that class will keep on moving. Occasionally, I will pause class in order to demonstrate a certain thing, but generally, I try to keep the poses and transitions fluid. That is, after all, one of the great beauties of vinyasa: your body moves so your brain doesn’t have to.

But what about those poses that are more difficult? What about those poses that we do so often that we stop thinking about them altogether? And what if, one day, we have aching wrists, if our arms get tired, our shoulders are unstable, or our hamstrings are tight?? In these cases, that great beauty of vinyasa – its movement – can become its greatest img_9482challenge, its greatest danger. In these cases we must, in fact, slow down in order to approach this movement safely. Sometimes, we must even stop.

On Saturday, January 28, we will take this time. From 2-4 PM, Dr. Kara Giaier and I will take you through the anatomy and alignment of the four most commonly taught poses and transitions in vinyasa yoga classes: plank, chaturanga, updog, downdog. In addition to helping you fine-tune your own alignment, we will highlight these poses’ essential elements, discuss common injuries and how to avoid them, and offer several modifications and variations for each. Then, from 4:30-6:30 PM, we will offer you the opportunity to integrate what you’ve learned through a two-hour vinyasa practice. We will play with variety in pacing, transitions, and sequences img_9487(don’t worry – you won’t just be doing planks, chaturangas, updogs and downdogs for two hours!!).

If you already love vinyasa classes, this workshop is for you. If you want to gain confidence
before trying a vinyasa class, this workshop is for you. If you love movement and want to learn more about it, this workshop is for you. Yoga may be a self-selecting practice, but it is our hope that through equipping our students with more knowledge of yoga and their own bodies, the yoga studio will become a more diverse and inclusive selection of people.

We Will Make It Work

There were already 40 people crammed into the studio when I arrived. I had deliberated for too long as to whether I wanted to take a yoga class or lounge in bed, and now it was 10:33 – three minutes after class was supposed to have started. When I looked at the room, then at the teacher, she said simply and genuinely, “We’ll make it work.”

“It’s okay if I don’t fit,” I said, trying to sound like I really was okay with it. “I don’t want to be a nuisance.”

“We’ll make it work,” she said again, “Everyone needs yoga right now.”

It’s not uncommon for students to get a bit grumpy when a studio fills beyond capacity. And as much as I, as a teacher, encourage my students to just roll with it, to make room when it doesn’t look like there is any, I also understand their concerns: it kind of sucks to be doused in other people’s sweat, to have your mat so close to your neighbors’ that you Anywhere Zencan barely move without becoming entangled in another’s limbs. Now I was that student, arriving three minutes late to a room that looked like it had no space for me. I really, really wanted to practice, but I really, really didn’t want to piss anyone off.

Just as I was rolling my mat out in the hallway, right outside the studio doors, another student came up to me and said, “I don’t know if you can see it, but there’s a spot all the way on the other side of the studio if you want.” I did want. Very much. So I picked up my mat and trekked to the other side of the studio, expecting to see at least a few frowning faces, annoyed that I had the audacity to wedge myself into a crowd of people who had enough respect to arrive on time. Instead, everyone was smiling, as if they were delighted to have found room for one more person to practice with them. As soon as I laid down on my mat and closed my eyes, I started crying.

Since the polls opened on Election Day, I had taught nine yoga classes. Until that morning, I had taken zero. Nine times, I was tasked with leading people through a practice that was supposed to foster an open heart, an open mind, and peaceful acceptance of what is. Nine times, I had to step aside from my emotions, at least enough to speak coherently and with minimal swear words. All nine times, I got at least a little bit teary and heard my voice get a little bit shaky, but each time, I was able to recover quickly. They’re not here to see me get upset, I kept telling myself, They’re here to practice yoga and to take care of themselves. This class is not about me. But finally, at 10:33 that Saturday morning, I had walked into a yoga studio to practice yoga. This class was about me.  

If you are a teacher (or a parent, or a caregiver of any kind), you are probably familiar with allowing others’ feelings to take priority over your own. I would argue that, in order to be good at our jobs, we must sometimes do this. We cannot take good care of others if we are preoccupied with our own feelings and stressors. Similarly (and somewhat oppositely), we also cannot take good care of others if we do not take good care of ourselves. Acknowledging and respecting our feelings and stressors is of critical importance if we are to empathize with and understand our students. We all know this, but knowing and practicing are two different things.

And the frustrating thing about practicing is that it often makes things harder, at least temporarily. Even though I had felt strongly that I needed to practice that Saturday morning, I must admit that when class was over, I felt more confused, sad, and angry than I had before. For a few minutes, I regretted having gone, as I suddenly felt less equipped to teach my class. In the fifteen minutes between taking class and teaching, I had to gather myself back up, step aside from the emotions that had come raging back, and pretend that I had my shit together, which I most certainly did not.

When I first started teaching, nearly five years ago, I relied on the approval of my students to tell me how I was doing. If several students came up to me after class to thank me, I trusted that it had been a success; if everyone left silently, I panicked (inwardly) and replayed all the possible mistakes I had made: forgetting my lefts and rights, choosing the wrong playlist for the mood of the room, not explaining things clearly, not allowing strength-handsenough time for savasana, allowing too much time for savasana. Over the last five years, I have come to rely less on verbal feedback, and more on observation. If I can hear or see people breathing deeply, moving in harmony with their bodies, or truly relaxing in savasana, I trust that the class I’m offering is working. (Yes, I recognize that we cannot always tell how our students feel by looking at them, but I do believe that, in general, our students will convey how they feel through their bodies, faces, and breath; to ignore this feedback is to discredit our work as perceptive and sensitive teachers.) If, by contrast, I see people looking confused, fidgeting, frowning, or avoiding eye contact, I take this as a message and I try to adjust: I speak more slowly and simply, I turn the music down, I put everyone in a child’s pose or forward fold while I take some deep breaths to myself. If I make these adjustments and the room still appears on edge, I try to trust that it’s still okay. I remind myself that I am doing the best I can, that I am a competent, caring, and passionate teacher, and that I have many students who enjoy my classes very much; if some people don’t, that is okay. They’ll find another teacher who is better suited for them. Usually, this positive self-talk works; on Saturday, it did not.

I know that I am a competent, caring, and passionate teacher. But I also know that I am fucking exhausted. I don’t know anyone who is at her best when she is fucking exhausted. We do the best we can under given circumstances, but some days will be easier than others and some classes will be better than others – in fact, some days will suck, and so will some classes. Some yoga classes will help us feel great and powerful and strong; others will remind us how weak and inflexible we can be. Saturday was a day I felt weak. I expect that I will experience another day like this soon – it’s how these things go. But to the best of my winding-roadability, I will continue to remind myself and my students that it is our weaknesses that help make us stronger, just as it is the wobbles and falls that make us more resilient and more balanced.

I am not looking forward to the political policies of the next four years, but I am looking forward to seeing how we, the resilient people, respond to them. I am not looking forward to the next yoga class where I feel weak and inflexible, but I am looking forward to returning to class after that. I am not looking forward to the next time I hear myself mix up body parts, stumble over my words, cry in front of my student, or see what I believe to be disappointed faces, but I am looking forward to adjusting, regrouping, and trying again.

Progress is not linear. Neither is healing or growth. I have to believe this is for the best. If we could only see ourselves become stronger, more flexible, and more powerful, we might become complacent, arrogant, or impatient. How fortunate that we are instead cyclically and relentlessly confronted with our weaknesses, flaws, and shortcomings! They are here to remind us that, no matter how much we have accomplished, there is still so much more to work toward.

We will make it work.

Go placidly.

I do not want to be peaceful about this. I am not in the mood to say, “Love will win,” and I will not try to tell you that everything will be okay. I am unbelievably angry, and I am incredibly sad. I don’t need to tell you why; you know. 

But in a few hours, I will sit on a hard floor in front of a small room of America’s citizens. They will be there, expecting me to help them breathe deeply on a day that is deeply shocking and deeply frightening. So I have to get over it, at least somewhat. I don’t know what I’ll do, except what I always do: remind them to focus on their breath and on what they are feeling right now, on how their breath fills their bodies and on how their hearts beat; remind them to listen, and to do their best to learn. In reminding them, I will remind myself: It will actually be okay, somehow. Love will win, repeatedly and cyclically, even if those victories are small and often ignored. We are angry and we are sad, but we are also hopeful and happy; we are everything all at once.

These reminders, coupled with patience, seem to be all that I gan give.

Whenever my dad would become overwhelmed or depressed about the state of the world, he would reread his favorite poem, Desiderata, by Max Ehrmann. Often, I would read it over his shoulder or on his lap, or he would read it to me. I knew most of it by heart by the time I went to college, and have long planned to get the first two words tattooed on my arm as a permanent reminder: Go placidly.

img_4233I won’t say that reading it will make everything okay (it won’t). And I probably won’t be speaking my truth quietly for the next few days or years (sorry, Max). But I will listen – both to those stories that are vastly different from my own, and to the silence between them. I will be myself. And you can bet the orange guy’s fortune that I will keep interested in my own career, however fucking humble. I will not feign affection, and I will be genuine and generous with love. I will support myself, and I will lift my brothers and sisters up. I will strive to see beauty, and I will strive to be happy.

Thank you, Papa, for reading this to me so many times. Thank you, Max, for writing it.

Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

In Sickness and In Health

When my mom asked me what I wanted for my birthday this month, all I could think about was a throat that didn’t hurt anymore and gums that weren’t swollen.

I had been in bed for six days, alternating between watching Netflix, reading, and sleeping. It hurt to talk, to swallow, even to chew. Visually, my throat implied a Jackson Pollock painting (if he painted with pus), and practically, felt as if someone had sewn a small wad of steel wool on my left tonsil. My gums resembled those of a boxer’s, after receiving several punches to the cheeks and teeth, and felt just as tender (or so I imagine – I have, thankfully, never been punched in the face). What are you doing to me, Body, I kept asking, and why?!?!

Compared to the average American – and I dare say, compared to most healthy Americans – I take exceptional care of my body. My doctor once told me that I had “the healthiest habits [she had] seen in… ever!” I eat copious amounts of fresh, organic vegetables, drink Golden Retriever puppylots of water and a very moderate amount of alcohol, try to vary my proteins between legumes, nuts, eggs, dairy, and meats, and sleep a respectable 7-9 hours per night. I practice yoga asana at least three times per week, and pranayama daily. Between ultimate frisbee, biking, and running, I get at least 60 minutes of cardiovascular exercise anywhere from 3-6 days a week. And while there was a point in my life when I worried about food obsessively and exercised excessively, those days are (for the most part) gone; I am conscious and careful, but I no longer punish myself with a long run and negative self-talk after eating too much ice cream. After 31 years of work, I feel as though I am finally in harmony with my body: I feed it good things, I challenge it physically, and I appreciate what it can do on a regular basis.

Each time I get sick, however, it feels as if my body has betrayed me. For those days, weeks, or months, it seems not to matter what I do, or how I treat my body; I am at the mercy of whatever virus or bacteria has invaded. And despite my hippy, DIY-cure tendencies, I often find myself panicking, wondering if this is going to be it: She thought she had a cold/ the flu/ strep throat, but it was actually cancer, they would say at my funeral. If only she had gone to the doctor in time.

Morbid? Yes. Hypochondriacal? Probably. But that’s almost exactly what happened to my father.

In February 2002, five days after he started feeling dizzy and nauseated, my dad went to the doctor. The doctor diagnosed him with the flu and vertigo, gave him some anti-nausea medication, and sent him home. After he vomited several doses of the medication, he went back to the doctor to investigate further. The doctor then performed a CT scan. Nothing showed up. I don’t know if it was my mother’s prodding, my father’s curiosity, or the doctor’s lingering doubt, but someone decided that my father should get an MRI, just in case the CT scan didn’t pick something up. Sure enough, the MRI showed a large, unidentified mass in his cerebellum. Instead of being sent home, he was sent straight to Rochester General Hospital.

The same week my father was admitted to RGH, I came down with a wretched flu. While he was on the operating table, receiving a biopsy on his brain tumor, I was in bed with a 104 papas-birthday-with-pig-nosedegree fever. My fever meant that I could not visit him after surgery; my general malaise meant that I had little energy or awareness of anything beyond my own discomfort. I remember sitting in the kitchen the first day I started feeling better, having the sudden realization that my father was dying, and had been dying quickly for the last few weeks. I remember feeling completely and utterly overwhelmed by helplessness – my father’s body was fading, and I could do absolutely nothing about it, not even visit for another 24 hours.

When I finally did visit, I was given a mask to wear over my nose and mouth, in case I was still contagious. I remember thinking the mask was pointless. The echos of my flu were powerless compared to the aggressive bundle of cancer cells in his brain. Couldn’t I just sit with my father, talk with him, smile with him, without a mask covering my face? The tumor had already decided its course; we were already at its mercy. Why were we still pretending we had control?

Compared to the average American – and indeed, compared to most healthy Americans – my father took exceptional care of his body. He hardly went to the doctor (he was hardly sick), he ate copious amounts of fresh, organic vegetables, drank lots of water and a very moderate amount of alcohol. He varied his proteins between legumes, nuts, eggs, dairy, and meats, and slept a respectable 6-8 hours per night. Between his rowing machine, ski machine, stationary bike, and running, he got at least 60 minutes of cardiovascular exercise anywhere from 3-6 days a week. Despite occasional frustrations with his aging muscles and creaking joints, he appeared in harmony with his body. He fed it good things, challenged it physically, and seemed to appreciate what it could do. But to his brain tumor, none of that mattered.papa-and-abby-clif

Sometimes I wonder if my obsessive tendencies are a response to my father’s premature death: if I couldn’t control that, then at least I can control what I eat, how much I exercise, and which direction the mug handles point when I put the dishes away. The ridiculous part about trying to control my life, however, is that while I can control the choices I make, I cannot control how those choices affect me or my body. I don’t know or understand everything that goes on underneath the skin, inside the organs (or even above the surface, for that matter!), therefore I cannot foresee how each of my choices manifests – physically or emotionally. All I can do is feel whatever it is I’m feeling, and try to figure out the connections between my choices and those feelings.

It’s easy to think that things are unfair, especially when we are in pain. But I did everything I was supposed to! we may find ourselves crying. Why did this happen?! Life is so unfair!! Perhaps when we dwell on “fairness,” however, we are missing the point. And perhaps when we dwell on our own pain, we are blinding ourselves to the pain others experience. To label our own misery as “unfair” implies that there is either someone else who is more deserving of misery, or that our misery is somehow more miserable than everyone else’s. Neither of these is particularly empathetic, and neither is helpful to rebuilding our health.

At some point during my recent sickness, a friend gently reminded me that “sensation is the only way our bodies can communicate with us.” If we feel pain, she said, that usually means that our body is begging us to listen, and listen deeply. When she said this, I felt a sudden wave of guilt for not loving my body fully – similar to the guilt that arises after I realize I said something mean or offensive to a person I love. Just as it is easy to love those people who are kind to us, it is easy to love our bodies when they respond the way we want them to. But just as we must choose kindness even (and especially) when others are not kind to us, we must be kind to our bodies even (and especially) when they make this kindness difficult. With all their imperfections and flaws, our bodies are ours to love, honor, and cherish, both in sickness and in health.

 

On Leaving Teaching to Pursue Teaching

This past June, one of my 10th grade English students gave her final presentation on the similarities between Siddhartha’s journey in Siddhartha, and Mark’s journey in Lost in Place. Her thesis proposed that “dissatisfaction is essential to enlightenment,” and explored the idea that, as long as we are alive, we will never be completely satisfied – but that does not mean we should stop searching.

As I listened, I could not help but nod vigorously and murmur “Mmhm!” as she spoke, feeling like she was speaking directly to and about me. For all the fortune I had – two jobs I was passionate about, a loving family, good health, a bounty of friends – I felt dissatisfied. everything-is-changeableAs a result of this dissatisfaction, I had decided, only days earlier, that I would not be returning to teaching the following year. Hearing my student speak was simultaneously validating and heartbreaking. Her presentation was so thoughtful, and the class, so respectful and impressed by her work. It was hard not to feel proud that I had helped them develop into the students they were that day, and equally hard not to feel sad that I would soon be leaving them. Was I really going to quit this job in search of more happiness as a yoga teacher? But perhaps, I told myself, it was all just a necessary step in my searching. Perhaps I should listen to my student’s advice and not feel ashamed of my discontent.

Last September, I began an experimental journey: I was hired to teach freshman and sophomore English in a suburb of Portland, OR. It was there that I would spend the next 10 months pouring my heart and soul into creating stimulating curricula, and loving the crap out of my 120 students. Developing reading lists, designing unit plans, finessing my class website, communicating with students and their families, giving pump-up speeches to students who were floundering or distraught, and reminding teenagers to value each other and themselves – what a wonderful, fun, and noble way to spend one’s time! And for the first three weeks, it was magical. 

After three weeks, however, I realized that working nearly 70 hours a week and not sleeping was unsustainable. Even more demoralizing was my realization that, even by working 70 hours a week and not sleeping, I would never feel completely organized or prepared. I would have moments of hope, but no sooner would I celebrate those moments than I would receive an email from a parent, reminding me that her daughter needed me to fill out those recommendation forms ASAP, or from a fellow English teacher, reminding me that our data was due tomorrow!! – data that I had not yet collected. When I was with my students, I felt at home, like I was really rocking it. But each day, after the bell rang and the kids scurried away, I was left alone to wrestle with my to-do lists. The worst part was that I loved virtually everything I was doing, individually; I simply did not have time to do all of it by the time it needed to be done. The job was fabulous, but the lifestyle that accompanied it was preposterous.

Richard Freeman published a video called Yoga Ruins Your Life. The premise is that once you start practicing yoga, you become so entranced by its offerings that you then become crossroads-treesintolerant of all things not-yoga: uncomfortable shoes, poorly designed chairs, pants that don’t stretch. I myself have blamed yoga for my disdain for alarm clocks, my aversion to deadlines, and my indigence toward modern society. I have cried to my mother about how stressed out our culture is, how out of balance our lives are, and how unfair it is that those who defy traditional career paths are seen as naive or weak – and then I blame yoga for making me feel these things, sort-of-jokingly, and sort-of-not.

Of course, the great irony is that yoga, when practiced effectively, is supposed to help us become more tolerant, more resilient, and more content with the way things are. To become grumpy that life is not as tranquil as a yoga studio is to miss the point entirely. But to become complacent, to make no changes to our lives outside of the yoga studio is to miss another point. We can make changes, to both our situations and our attitudes, if we feel dissatisfied; we can also learn to live happily within the framework of the way things are. Deciding when and what to change is perhaps the most difficult part.

When I decided not to teach English this school year, I was aware that I was, to some degree, avoiding stress rather than learning to deal with it more effectively. I was also aware that something needed to change. Could that something have been my attitude? Sure. But changing my situation seemed easier this time. (Maybe it always is?)

There is a part of me that feels guilty and sad for running away from something beautiful simply because it was “too stressful.” But there is a bigger part of me that is delighted about running toward something equally beautiful, something that happens to be not-as-stressful. I am teaching more yoga than I have ever taught before, and rather than feel exhausted by it, I feel perpetually thrilled. Six days a week, I get to encourage human beings to become more in touch with their bodies, to observe and appreciate who they are and what they have, and to embrace the world with a more loving and patient heart. Surely this is just as important as teaching teenagers to read, write, and think critically and creatively?

In talking with my sister last week about our career paths and struggles, she reminded me that, “it’s not about making the biggest impact; it’s about where you’re at your best.” Even though I was passionate and caring and competent enough as anthe-purpose-of-practice English teacher to make a positive impact, I did not feel I was at my best. I was grouchy when I got home, and I neglected my personal relationships and my health. It is possible that I will teach high school English again next year, or ten years from now, and that I will gain the resilience needed to be at my best in that environment. But this year, I will strive to be at my best in a different place. Thank you, sister Corrie, for this reminder, and for granting me this permission. And thank you, yoga: contrary to what I may have told you earlier, you did not ruin my life; you help me to be at my best, and to love myself and the world even when I’m not. 

Guided Self-Practice Begins: FALL 2016

Just over one year ago, I took a yoga class that significantly changed how I taught yoga. It was Saturday, the fourth morning of a five-day training with Jason Crandell, and I was as exhausted as I was energized (almost). The first three days had been a delightfully peaceful and sarcastic explosion of practicing, questioning, and discussing; Jason was as hilarious and thoughtful as I had hoped he would be, and I was thrilled to bring many of his ideas, assists, and methods home to The People’s Yoga, where I did the majority of my teaching.

I had entered the training hungry for a refreshed passion for teaching, as I was beginning to feel stale. For three years, I had taught primarily vinyasa classes, used more or less the same cues, and offered more or less the same assists. Sometimes I would grow so weary of what I felt were the same sequences that I would shift the order of things or incorporate new poses – not because those shifts or incorporations made the most sense, necessarily, but because they were different from the usual. And sometimes I would focus so much energy on trying to make a class “different from the usual” that I would confuse myself, forgetting what I had cued my students to do on the first side, or where I wanted them to go next. I knew that probably wasn’t a good sign, but I kept doing it because I didn’t want to bore my students. So at a certain point in my training with Jason, I expressed this as a concern:

“I feel sometimes like I’m becoming boring. I feel like I teach the same sequences all the time, and then if I try to deviate, things get weird or confusing. How do I keep things fresh without making things too complicated?”

Jason’s response was simple: “Don’t worry about having vastly different sequences. Just make the class focused. People like when things are predictable.”

And then Saturday morning came. It was still early, and several people were still milling around the studio, unrolling their mats. Jason welcomed us briefly, then told us to begin by finding “any position that feels comfortable.” For me, a morning-monster, this keep it simplemeant being as close to asleep as I could get: flat on my back with my eyes closed. After a few minutes, he asked us to “start moving in the direction of cat-cow”; I obeyed, and was already starting to feel a bit more awake. A few moments later he asked that we, “at [our] own pace, start working toward sun salutations.” A few minutes into this, he encouraged us to “keep doing what [we were] doing, and incorporate some shoulder openers.” He then informed us that we had been practicing for ten minutes. There was a light collective chuckle from us teachers, as we all thought the same thing: Only ten minutes?! How do I already feel so different?

This continued for a full hour: Jason would toss out a category of poses (standing, external hip openers, balancing, heart openers, etc.) and give us an update on time (“You’ve been at this for 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes, 60 minutes…”). We would continue moving at our own pace, breathing at our own pace, and occasionally peeking at our neighbors, copying any poses that looked alluring. And although our sequences differed, there were two things we had in common:

  1. Everyone moved slowly.
  2. No one did anything fancy.

When we debriefed after this “guided self-practice,” Jason confirmed that, wherever he went, whomever he taught, the results were the same. The phrase, “your own pace” invariably translated to “slow.” And usually, the phrase, “whatever feels good” manifested as a simple, straightforward movement or shape. Sure, a handstand or scorpion might feel good every now and then, and a few extra chaturangas might help make us feel strong, but the majority of our practices are, when left to our own devices, simple and slow.

sun salutation imgLike most revelations, this seemed at the time groundbreaking, then painfully obvious. Yoga is not meant to be confusing or stressful, so why make it so? This does not mean we should not add variety to our practice (or life!), but perhaps it should remind us that there is much joy to be found in the simple, straightforward act of moving and breathing, trusting that, if we truly listen to our bodies, we will know what to do.

This fall, I will begin teaching a brand new class at The People’s Yoga SE: Guided Self-Practice (or, as I like to call it, “Yoursore” – the yoga nerds get it!) Inspired by Jason Crandell, I will lead class by offering simple sequences (sun salutations A and B) and categories (standing poses, backbends, hip openers) to incorporate, as well as personalized cues and adjustments. Each class will also have a theme or focus to integrate (arm balances, hamstring awareness, shoulder mobility, spinal alignment, etc.), should you wish to give your practice more structure.

While I generally dislike the word “advanced” when applied to yoga, I will categorize this class as advanced – but I will add a caveat: “Advanced” yoga practitioners are not necessarily those who can silently kick up into a handstand, easily touch their palms to the ground in a forward fold, or gracefully tie their legs into a knot; “advanced” is not about the kind of poses a person can embody, but instead about the honesty with which one listens to oneself. Will it be helpful to know the names of many common yoga poses if you are to take this class? Yes. Do you need to be able to physically do all these poses? No. I, for one, cannot (nor will I ever be able to) press up into a wheel. I cannot tuck (nor do I have any interest in tucking) my leg behind my head. And in pigeon, my hips are nowhere near the ground. We all have different bodies with different limiting factors. This class is a forum for students to explore and celebrate their unique capabilities. It is a place for curious and dedicated yoga practitioners to build stronger connections between their bodies and minds, and, yes, their hearts too. I thank Jason for providing me with this wonderful experience, and I cannot wait to share it with others.*

*Please note: This class was originally scheduled to start on Wednesday, June 15, but has been postponed; it is now scheduled to begin this fall! In the meantime, please do come to my Wednesday 4:00pm Vinyasa class starting on June 15! 🙂

Confessions of an Extrovert

We had been staring at each other for three minutes. And in case you’ve never held sustained eye contact with someone for three minutes, let me assure you: it’s a lot longer than it sounds. We had started out smiling, faded to comfortable recognition, then spent a few seconds blinking and moving from left eye to right eye before settling into a serious stare. There was a moment of terror when I saw her notice something in my eyes, then another when she saw me notice the same thing in hers. There was another moment when both our eyes started watering.

After three minutes, I was told to step to her side and place one hand on her upper chest, the other on the back of her heart (to “bookend the StraightUpYoga-56heart”). We were to stay that way for another three minutes – which, I’ll say again, is a lot longer than it sounds. At the end of six minutes, we were instructed to make eye contact once more and thank each other. As we looked at each other one final time, we both knew we didn’t have to say anything; it had already been said through silence.

Only in yoga teacher training.

I think about this experience often, though I don’t often talk about it (my reputation as a GD hippie doesn’t need to be reinforced). I think about it when I ask my high school English students if they’ve finished their homework and they look away – anywhere but at me – and say, “Um… I think I left it at home.” I thought about it when I tried to have a difficult conversation with my roommate, and could only look at the wall behind him. I think about it when I see my yoga students come into class, roll out their mats and immediately take a child’s pose. I thought about it when I tried to make eye contact with my ex-boyfriend and he wouldn’t.

Looking at each other is not something we generally do deliberately and carefully. In fact, it’s something we are trained not to do. I remember being on the bus in kindergarten, looking intently at a sixth grader whom I found particularly captivating. Rather than look back, he asked tersely: “You got a staring problem?” No, I thought, as I glanced away, embarrassed. I was just looking at you. It was not until I took an acting class in college that I learned that looking is okay – necessary, in fact, if we are to form human connection. It was not until my first boyfriend, my first love, that I felt what it was like to be looked at. And it was not until my yoga teacher training that I re-learned how to look.

As any improviser or yoga teacher (and probably pet owner and parent, too) Abby and Max DDwill tell you, looking does not just mean viewing with one’s eyeballs. Looking means seeing. It means paying attention. Ironically, most of us desperately want to be seen and to be paid attention – but once we are, we panic. Our eyes dart around, we laugh or smile nervously, our bodies shift and stiffen, we talk when words are not necessary. But when we trust the person who sees us, when we believe that in seeing us, she recognizes us as part of herself, we can find a comfort like no other.

I used to feel ashamed that I felt a constant desire to be around people. Like many of us, I was told at various points in my life that I should not rely on others, that I should become self-sufficient. Lately, however, I have accepted the idea that we do, in fact, need others for our emotional and mental health. Sure, we can technically survive doing most things ourselves (once we are adults), but what sort of life is that? We can lean on others, just as we can support others; we can accept a hug, just as we can offer one; and we can allow others to see us, just as we can allow ourselves to see them.

In Rachel Stern’s and my upcoming Partner Yoga workshop, you’ll have the chance to explore this theme. Partner Yoga offers the best of both worlds: the serenity of going within, plus the joy and comfort of human connection. Through partner poses and simple assists, you and your yoga partner will allow each other to move deeper into your poses and bodies while creating space for each other simply to be. I hope to see you there.

Marriage, as Analyzed by a Single Woman

A few weeks ago, Ada Calhoun published an article in the NY Times with the provocative title, The Wedding Toast I’ll Never Give. Based on the title, I thought the article would condemn marriage as an institution, and encourage people who are in love to just enjoy being in love, free from any binding certificate or law (how Zen!). Having almost given such a controversial speech just a few weeks earlier at my best friend’s wedding, I was comforted to think that someone else would feel the same way. Then I read the article.

“…Part of what marriage means,” Calhoun says, is “sometimes hating this other person but staying together because you promised you would.” Yes! I thought, and what sort of reason is that?! This author gets it! Then came the next sentence: “And then, days or weeks later, waking up and loving him again, loving him still.”

Really?! This is the edgy sentiment that you wouldn’t dare say at a wedding?? Marriage is hard and you won’t always be pleased with each other, but overall, you’ll be glad you did it? What happens if you wake up, days or weeks later, and the love doesn’t come back? What if you wake up and realize that, for the past 5 years (or even one year!), your marriage has brought you more pain than joy? Should you hold out another few weeks, months, years, and trust that these feelings will pass because you heard marriage has its ups and downs?

My dad was married and divorced before he married my mom. I would not have a sister, had it not been for his first marriage; Imarriage-thoughts would not exist, had it not been for his divorce. My parents would not have had the relationship they did, were it not for my father’s first marriage, divorce, and the things he learned because of them. They entered their marriage aware that it could end, despite the lawful contract. I believe this awareness made their relationship stronger.

Through all our relationships – friendships and romances – we learn what we like and what we don’t, what is helpful and what is not, what works and what doesn’t; and when things don’t work, we are generally encouraged to move on. In all my yoga classes, I encourage my students to listen to their instincts, and to respect that their needs – physical, emotional, spiritual – might be very different today than they were yesterday. I remind them that “instinct” should not be confused with “habit.” But when a marriage doesn’t seem to be working, society (including our family and friends) reminds us that we made a promise – to each other, to the government, to our god or gods – that even when the going got tough, we wouldn’t walk away; we would make it work.

Is this not the opposite of self-growth? Should we not allow ourselves continually to evolve, free from the expectations of others? Should we not allow our actions, circumstances, and environments to reflect our evolving needs?

Say you have a job that you suddenly realize you hate. Sure, it gives you benefits, a hearty salary, a clean office, and, perhaps most notably, stability. But the job itself it mind-numbing. You took the job decades ago, thinking you’d love it forever – and for years, you did. But this year, on this day, you sit down at your desk, open your thousandth word document, respond to your millionth email, return your billionth phone call, and all at once it hits you: you could be doing something else. What you once saw as creative and energizing now makes you want to throw your computer (or, perhaps on bad days, yourself) in front of an love isnt complicated people areoncoming Mack truck. Maybe it’s time for a change, you tell yourself. So you write your resignation letter, even though you promised your boss you’d stay with the company until you retired. When you tell your friends about it, everyone applauds you. “Good for you!” one says. “You’ll find a new job in no time, what with your experience!” another says. “I’ve been wanting to leave my job for years,” says a third, “but just haven’t worked up the courage – you inspire me!”

But if this happens with a marriage? No one is there to congratulate you. Instead of applause, you receive pity. And instead of looking at your past experience and thinking about how marketable you are, you look in the mirror and think, “I’m too old for this game.”

Most of us recognize that a job is not forever, that it corresponds to a certain phase of life, dependent on experience, maturity, needs and wants. But when it comes to relationships, we’re encouraged to stick with one person – the same person – through all our adult stages. Once we’re old enough to “know what we want,” we should find it, then stay with it. The fallacy in this, of course, is that it implies “what we want” never changes – or, if it does, that the partner we’ve chosen should be so in sync with us that he or she will evolve in the same ways at the same pace. Adults do not stop maturing. We continue to go through phases, to grow, to change, to seek. If it so happens that we remain in love with the same person through these phases, lovely. But more likely, we won’t.

In her 1914 essay Marriage and Love, Emma Goldman writes: “Love needs no protection; it is its own protection.” In his poem, Desiderata, Max Ehrmann (1927) urges the listener to “Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.” And according to Rohit Mehta’s (1999) The Call of the Upanishads, “[Love] exists as long as the experience of Love lasts… It is a union without any inducement” (p. 203). None of these writers implies that love cannot fade. Neither do they imply that when love fades, it is lost. Indeed, love will return, somewhere, with someone else.

In my 29 years, I’ve fallen in love three times – which is, incidentally, the same number of times I’ve fallen out of love. I didn’t fall out of love because I suddenly discovered something about my partner that I didn’t know before; I fell out of love because I discovered something about myself. My needs and wants changed, and I no longer wanted to be with my partner, romantically. grass-heartKnowing that relationships are not forever, that they are fragile, that they can end if one or both parties want them to, to me, makes them more precious.

Love, like energy, cannot be created nor destroyed; like energy, it will change form. We cannot choose to be in love with our partners, but we can choose to care for them, to offer them love. We can also choose to leave them, to seek out new relationships, and to offer our love elsewhere. Either way, we are allowed to change our minds, to change where and how we open our hearts. We do not have to think in terms of “forever,” because nothing is forever, and that is okay.

I do not mean to condemn marriage (I’ll leave that to Emma Goldman). I do not mean to sound cynical about love (I hear you, Max Ehermann!). I mean only to say that to be in love is not a choice. To get married is. And to anyone who chooses to get married: remember that you don’t have to be, that your partner doesn’t have to be either. Stay married as long as it brings you (a lot) more joy than pain, and no longer than that. Respect that your partner can do the same. Falling out of love with someone does not mean you have failed, or that your love is gone – it means only that this love has faded, and will resurface somewhere else.

This is the wedding toast I did not give.

Coming next week: Yoga for Athletes

A few weeks ago, I received a Facebook message from a friend inquiring about my Yoga for Athletes workshop. He said he had seen the flier, was interested in attending, but he had a few concerns. Not only was he worried that he wasn’t accomplished enough to be considered an “athlete,” but he felt anxious that he would feel out of place. “Unlike you and others in the class,” he said, “feeling better about me and working better with my body was something that came much later in life.”

First of all, let me be clear: you do not need to have earned any medals or set any records to be an athlete; if you know what Abby Warrior 3 Circlesore muscles feel like, if you’re familiar with pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, if you play or participate in a sport – no matter how un-competitively – you’re an athlete in my book. Secondly, “working with my body” and “feeling better about me” have not (and do not) always come easily to me.

It is true that I had an early start to athletics, and that I am, by most definitions a “good athlete.” When I was four, my parents enrolled me in dance classes in an attempt to burn off some (read: a lot) of my energy. When I was eight, they enrolled me in gymnastics in an attempt to preserve our furniture (which I had usurped as my own personal trampolines and balance beams). In middle school, I started running, hurdling and high jumping, and in high school, I ran cross-country and swam. Most of these things came naturally to me, and I defined myself largely by my athletic prowess. Then, at fourteen I was diagnosed with severe scoliosis, and sports were replaced by doctors’ appointments, back braces, and, eventually, surgery. My competitive energy had no athletic outlet, and so it turned against my body.

Before scoliosis, I had great control over my body. It did what I told it to do, and for the most part, it looked how I wanted it to look. With scoliosis, I suddenly felt out of control. I stretched, I strengthened, I tried to unbend, and still, my curves worsened. Back braces helped somewhat, but they were awful (imagine stuffing your torso scoli x-ray sideinto a section of PVC pipe each morning – then
staying there until you sleep). My parents and I read everything, tried everything, trusted everything, then cursed everything when none of it worked. So at age seventeen, I got surgery: eleven vertebrae were fused, and two stainless steel rods were placed alongside my spine, secured with 22 screws. Months passed, my bones healed, and soon enough I got back into sports. I took up Ultimate Frisbee, started running half and full marathons, and of course, started practicing and teaching yoga.

Most people who meet me now wouldn’t guess I have anything “wrong” with my body. Most people assume what my student assumed: that feeling good about myself and working well with my body came early and with relative ease. And when I tell most people about the rods, their first question is always, “Do you set off metal detectors??” (The answer is no, sorry.) Then they get more serious and ask, “So, can you feel the rods??” And while I always answer no, the answer is actually yes. But perhaps not in the way you think.

scoli x-ray backNo, I cannot touch the rods, and neither can you. No, you cannot look at my back and see outlines of metal debris. But yes, I can feel that my back doesn’t bend, and yes, I can feel what that means for my body.

When I take yoga classes with teachers I don’t know, I usually inform them of the rods. I also usually fold my shirt up – in case they forget, the scar is there to remind them: I might do my own thing, and this is why. I don’t do twists, I don’t do sidebends, and I don’t do backbends. It is not because I “have fear” as one teacher posited; it is because it is about as productive as you trying to twist or bend your forearm. And honestly, I am so used to the rods that they rarely frustrate me (just like you probably aren’t often frustrated by your forearm). I still have a “complete” yoga practice, my body still does what I want it to do, and for the most part, looks how I want it to look. I treat my body well, and it treats me as well as it can in return.

I am still a competitive person. I prefer winning to losing, and I prefer yoga poses that I can enter and hold gracefully to poses that I flail into and fall out of. But losing does not make me angry like it used to, and most of the time, flailing and falling just make me laugh.

When I talk about Yoga for Athletes with my friends and students, they are often surprised ragdoll pinkto learn that it’s not just a bunch of pushups disguised as chaturangas, or squat-thrusts disguised as vinyasas – it’s true that we athletic folk are often attracted to physically challenging classes, but perhaps that is not what we need. The same people are equally surprised to learn that Yoga for Athletes is not simply a collection of long-held stretches – indeed, too much stretching will leave the muscles slack and under-responsive. Sure, yoga taught me how to stretch my back and body in ways I thought I couldn’t, and that is useful. It also taught me that I can do a lot more things with my body than I thought I could, and that is wonderful. But above all, yoga taught me to pay attention, to find balance, to stop fighting against my body, and to start fighting with it. To me, this is what Yoga for Athletes is about.

A Woman in America

I don’t need to tell you that last week, Caitlyn Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair. I don’t need to tell you that on that cover, she looks, by society’s standards, really good: her hair is long and flowing, her features are delicate, and her boobs, no less than assertive. I also probably don’t need to tell you that her appearance has been a hotly disputed topic of conversation. Caitlyn Jenner Vanity FairWhile many are eager to say things like, “She looks amazing!” and “This is a hot woman!” there are plenty of others who are equally eager to note the implications of Caitlyn’s feminine looks, as well as society’s response to them. In John Stewart’s commentary last Tuesday, he addressed Caitlyn directly (and facetiously): “Caitlyn, when you were a man, we could talk about your athleticism, your business acumen, but now you’re a woman, and your looks are really the only thing we care about.” And since then, there has been a storm of articles reiterating and bemoaning this sentiment, and ultimately asking the question, What does it mean to be a woman?

Elinor Burkett’s NY Times Op-Ed, What Makes a Woman? offers an aggressively “feminist” (or perhaps I should say: female-ist) perspective on Caitlyn’s transition, and focuses on the idea that transgender women like Caitlyn “haven’t traveled through the world as women and been shaped by all that this entails.” She claims that trans individuals “disregard… the fact that being a woman means having accrued certain experiences, endured certain indignities and relished certain courtesies in a culture that reacted to you as one.” Okay, Ms. Burkett, but perhaps it would be more productive to replace the word “woman” with the word “person,” and remember that we are all, in fact, individuals who have been shaped by our experiences. Caitlyn’s experience as a trans-gender woman is not the same as your experience as a cis-gender woman, just a my experience as a cis-gender woman is not the same as yours.

And I get it. It’s hard to hear someone speak on behalf of woman-kind, whether explicitly or implicitly. “As a woman,” or “because I’m/ she’s a woman” or “for women” are oversimplified and essentially meaningless phrases. But sometimes we simplify to make things, well, simpler. No woman can claim to know or understand any other woman’s experience – or any other person’s experience for that matter. But she can relate, and she can empathize.

In creating Natural Beauty Month, I am acutely and uncomfortably aware that some of the language I have used is exclusionary. I am also aware that I have equated “natural beauty” with “no makeup,” and focused on advertising the event to women – or at least, I did for the first two years. While I have been careful not to bill it as an event “for women,” I have spent far more energy advertising it to women than to men. Why? Because I know a lot more women who wear makeup than men who wear makeup – I Am Woman redand when I created the event, not wearing makeup was the primary challenge. This year, I felt moved to expand the challenge, focusing less on exposing one’s natural face and more on exposing one’s natural self. My hope is that Natural Beauty Month encourages people of all genders and sexes to see themselves as they are, and to become more comfortable sharing those selves with the world. For me, a cis-gender woman who has tacitly adhered to the feminine norms of wearing makeup and shaving my legs and armpits for most of my life, this means remembering that I don’t need to do any of these things to be a woman. For Caitlyn Jenner, a woman who has previously adhered to the masculine norms of not wearing makeup, not shaving, and not painting her nails, this might mean remembering that she can do these things if she wants to. And ultimately, it’s not up to me, and it’s not up to Caitlyn to change society’s perceptions. Natural Beauty Month will only work if society accepts what we propose: we do not need to cover ourselves up; we are who we are, and who we are is a beautiful thing.