On Stoicism

For most of my life, I have identified as an extrovert. I preferred social time to me-time, planned frequent parties, and enjoyed making conversation with strangers. I shared my stories readily and eagerly, trusting Happy-Fingersthat most people I met were kind and caring and interested in what I had to say. I had many friends, and continued to put in the effort to make more (though perhaps “effort” is the wrong word, as it never felt like work). I was of the belief that if some friends were good, more friends were better; the bigger my community, the happier I would be.

It wasn’t until graduate school, when I was 28, that I was first described as “quiet.” My mother and I both laughed heartily at this description, as we both knew better: outgoing and gregarious, yes; quiet, almost never. We dismissed this description as comparative. At the time, one of my dearest friends was outgoing and gregarious to the extreme; next to her, we agreed, anyone would appear quiet.

Then, when I was 30, one of my yoga students referred to me as “stoic.” I can’t wait to tell my mom about this! I thought. My mother – whom I had called every few weeks throughout college to throw a tantrum about how much I hated deadlines, how I could not possibly finish this paper by tomorrow, how I could not stand how much work I had to do or how busy I was – would surely find this as hilarious as I had. If there was one thing I had, it was a lot of feelings; if there was one thing I liked to do with those feelings, it was share them. (That was still true, right?)

Since that first time a student described me as stoic, several others have done the same. Some have even been surprised to learn that I used to throw a lot of tantrums and that I still, on occasion, feel extremely, debilitatingly stressed. And when I recently described myself to one student as “a bit of a hummingbird” in reference to my excitability and difficulty being “chill,” he said, “Yeah, you say that, but I don’t see it.” Really?! I thought. How can you not see this energy boiling beneath the surface?! Why do you think I do so much yoga?!? But stoicism is not a feeling; it’s a way of presenting. And as a teacher, I have made a conscious choice not to present many of my feelings to my students. I do not want to stand in the way of their experiences, and so, to some extent, I do put on a stoic front. It seems to me the professional thing to do.

driving in the rain along Nose Hill Drive, traffic stopped at a red light.

When I allow myself to feel my emotions, however, they are of utmost intensity (who’s aren’t?!). Sometimes, I pull my car to the side of the road so that I can indulge in deep, wracking sobs, or so I can shout and scream with the fury of a thousand suns. Other times, I’ll sit alone in my room, journaling feverishly, underlining, all-capsing, and taking occasional weeping breaks before returning to scribbling. 

According to society, these are generally considered “healthy” ways of dealing with emotions: I am expressing them in “appropriate” contexts, rather than directing my anger or sadness (i.e., my “negative” emotions) toward other human beings or in a public space. But in another sense, these expressions feel incomplete. As I have gotten further in the habit of being “professional” with my feelings, of appearing stoic, I have gotten less in the habit of expressing my feelings to others. Shouting and weeping in solitude offers some comfort, but if that is all one ever does, one is liable to feel isolated and lonely in addition to whatever upsetting emotions she felt in the first place.

According to Van de Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, “having a good support network constitutes the single most powerful protection against becoming traumatized” by difficult experiences (212). I would propose that simply “having” is not enough; that one must actively engage with said network. I would also highlight the word “good,” and remind the reader (as I now remind myself, often) that living healthily and happily requires being discerning, defining for ourselves what is good for us, who is good for us, and how we can be good to ourselves. 

The interesting irony here is that, as I have become more introverted, I have started to put more effort into connecting with the people I truly resonate with – i.e., good people. I have even come to admit that I actually need others to survive, and to function well. Sometimes, this effort does feel like work, and sometimes it is frighteningly vulnerable. Connecting with others on a superficial level has always been easy for me; allowing others to feel safe to express their vulnerabilities has also come easily; but it has not been as easy for me to be the vulnerable one.

a few good people

The more I contemplate my newfound introversion, the more I wonder if it is less introversion and more discernment. Probably it’s both. I no longer wish to share my stories with just anyone; I want to know and trust the person first, and I want the relationship to be mutual. I do not want to share all my ups and downs with my yoga students; to me, the context of a studio class is not appropriate for that. And I have begun to accept that if someone wants to share their vulnerabilities with me but I do not feel comfortable sharing my vulnerabilities with them, it is okay for me to not to share; I need to feel safe too.

There is nothing wrong with presenting as stoic. Indeed, to know how to remain unflustered and non-reactive is essential for survival (thank you, yoga, for helping to cultivate these skills!). But when the context is appropriate for vulnerability, we do not need to remain stoic. We can cry, we can shout, we can express – this, too, is essential for survival! And perhaps most empowering to remember: we can determine who we fold into our “good support network,” so that we are not left to express alone.

Advertisements

An Open Letter to Wanda’s Mother

Dear Wanda’s Mother:

Your daughter was nine weeks old when I met her. Her name was Caramel then, but I quickly decided that was too saccharine (I know, you didn’t choose it), and changed it to Wanda: a name I felt more appropriate for the confident, sociable, and strong young lady that I intended to raise. I hope you approve.

Everything about Wanda was adorable: her floppy ears, her tiny snout, her wiggly body, her wobbly legs that were a bit too long for the dachshund in her, and her calm, grounded presence that belied her chihuahua roots. I had read about chiweenies – that they were prone to barking and nipping, and that they were not good with kids. “[T]hey can be easily irritated by noise and activity,” one website noted, and “[t]hey are… known to not get along with other animals.” Your little girl, however, seemed different: she was quietly inquisitive, delicately sniffing around my living room while the woman from the foster agency and her 10-year-old son watched. She had arrived with another chiweenie friend, Herbie, whom I was also interviewing. Wanda seemed just as happy to play with Herbie as she was to lick the 10-year-old boy’s face. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that I quickly fell in love with her. I’m sure you were in love with her too.

img_6785

The first night she slept at our house, she didn’t utter a peep for seven straight hours, and only began to stir when her thimble-sized bladder needed to be emptied. In the month that she’s lived with me, she has met many dogs and people, responding with either a demure interest or slight trepidation, quickly followed by playfulness – never with barking. She isn’t fazed when I grind my coffee beans or when other dogs bark, and she can sleep like a champion through whatever loud beats are pumping at my gym. The dog trainer I work with comments frequently on her mild manners, her curiosity, and her quickness to learn. I try not to mistake any of Wanda’s behaviors as my own personal successes, though it is tempting. (As a side-note, I finally understand some parents’ tendencies to brag about their children: They are great, and I raised them, therefore I am also great!) Wanda is her own woman, as I’m sure you know, and though her brain and heart be but little, they are fierce.

I have heard many people say that dogs are reflections of their owners, and to some degree, I believe this is true. Your species is incredibly perceptive of our human energy and stress levels, and if we are not careful, we can certainly imbue them (you) with some of our own neuroses. But sometimes, even the most caring, careful owners can raise yippy, nippy pups, just as sometimes, even the kindest, most patient parents can raise children who rebel, and rebel hard. No matter how much safety and love we offer, there are many things of which we are not in control; this is especially true of the babies we adopt.

 

img_6929

In Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score (perhaps you’ve read it?), he references a study that examines rats’ relationships with their mothers, and how these relationships affect development. The conclusion was unsurprising, and the implications clear: “The rat pups that are intensively licked by their mothers are braver and produce lower levels of stress hormones under stress than rats whose mothers are less attentive. They also recover more quickly – an equanimity that lasts throughout their lives” (154). A similar conclusion was reached in another study with rhesus monkeys, and again, in a study with humans: “Monkeys with [deficient serotonin transmitters] that were raised by an adequate mother behaved normally and had no deficit in their serotonin metabolism… humans with [the same deficit] had higher rates of depression than those [without the deficit] but… this was true only if they also had a childhood history of abuse or neglect” (156). In short, attention and affection from a loving parent yield greater equanimity and resilience, regardless of genetic makeup (and regardless of species). I don’t know when Wanda was taken away from you, her first mother, but I can only assume that by the time she was, she had already received adequate licks and copious snuggles. Thank you for that.

When I was in graduate school for adolescence education, we spoke frequently about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and generally agreed that, in order for our students to learn, they first had to feel rested, nourished, safe, and supported. This was easier for those students who received this support from their parents or guardians; it was more difficult, though not impossible, for those who relied on their teachers or school counselors. Since I am not Wanda’s biological mother, I don’t have the advantage of having known her her whole life; I won’t be licking her coat like you did, or picking her up by the scruff of her neck, or even sleeping next to her every night. But I will pet and cuddle her as much as she allows,introduce her to as many loving humans and dogs as I can, and remind her in plain English that I love and appreciate her and how much she is learning. I guess that’s the cool thing about your species: you’re part dog, part human; you can understand both languages if we let you, and if we communicate clearly.

img_7033

I will leave you with one final anecdote: Last week, as I was telling my counselor about the stresses of dog-parenthood (I’m sure you know that it’s not always easy!), she showed me a picture of a bumper sticker: “Proud parent of a great kid who is sometimes an asshole and that’s OK!” I laughed and immediately felt soothed. I am doing my best, she reminded me. I am researching and learning about dog development, putting in time and effort and love. Wanda’s successes deserve to be celebrated as her successes, and when she fails, she needs to know that I still love her, so that she can continue to feel safe with me. Safety is essential; love must be unconditional. For Wanda, for you, and for me.

Thank you, Mama Wanda, for providing our little gal with so many licks, and so much affection in her formative weeks. I will do my best to continue helping her feel safe, supported, and well-loved in all the human ways I know how. 

Love from one mama to another,
Abby

Speaking Up

Over the past few months, I have had difficulty speaking up. In conversation, my voice is often crackly and hoarse, and when I try to project, my vocal cords feel strained. I cannot sing with the range I used to, and by the end of most days, saying more than a few sentences in a row is physically painful and exhausting. In recent weeks, this has worsened, and I have taken measures to preserve my voice how I can: I have skipped out on social engagements and stayed away from loud environments; I have limited my intake of caffeine and alcohol, and instead drunk comical amounts of warm water and tea; I have slept more; I have taken days off from work. I have even contemplated writing an email to all my friends asking them to please not take it personally if, for the next several months, I skip their parties or don’t join them at bars; it’s not them, it’s me.

One of my acupuncturist friends once asked me if I am prone to holding in my feelings, specifically, anger. I laughed. “I am one of the most emotive people I know,” I said. “And I don’t think I get angry very often.”

She clarified: “Do you speak up for what you need?”

I laughed again. “I don’t know?”

kid speaking up

For most of my life, I have fancied myself a rather bold personality. I can enliven a conversation if it grows stale, ask thoughtful questions, and offer thoughtful answers in return. I am not shy when meeting new people, and I can entertain like it’s my job (in fact, it has been my job). If I am excited about something, I show it; if I love someone, I say it. I would venture to say that “afraid to speak up” or “quiet” are not phrases most people would use to describe me.

But then there was that time that I spent three and a half years in a relationship I knew wasn’t right for me. There was that time I spent half a year in a relationship I knew wasn’t right for me. That time I spent three months in a relationship I knew wasn’t right for me… (I think you see the pattern.) And then there were all those times I agreed to things I knew I didn’t have time for (subbing classes, designing costumes, subbing classes, coaching cross country, subbing classes, playing fall league) but my friends or co-workers really needed someone, and I technically didn’t have anything else scheduled. 

Speaking up is easy when I’m confident that what I’m saying will be well-received. But when I sense that my speaking up is going to inspire disappointment, sadness, or confusion in others, speaking up is painful. There have been so many times I have not spoken up for what I want in interest of making others more comfortable. When I do this, I get angry (really angry) at myself. And because I know I brought it upon myself, I try to re-frame it to make myself more comfortable: “Abby, it’s fine,” I say. “You have dealt with stress before and you have lots of coping mechanisms. This is nothing compared to what other people endure. Your life is fine, even great!” To some degree, this is true, but in another very real sense, it is false logic: what other people can or can’t endure has nothing to do with my current experience; and what others need or have needed has nothing to do with what I need in this moment.

giving hands

Part of the problem is that when I agree to do all these things, I do so because I think it’s the kind or generous thing to do. If “selfless service” or karma yoga is something to strive for (which I believe it is), how can offering to help be bad? If everyone contains within them a spark of divinity or Atman (which I believe they do), how can staying in a relationship with anyone be destructive? What it boils down to, I think, is motivation. When my motivation is pure, in other words, when I truly want to help, I am not exhausted or depleted by the work; I am energized. And when I truly want to be in a relationship, I am not exhausted or depleted by it; I am thrilled. It is no secret that to want to help, to want to be in relationship, we must first have energy and love to share; we cannot, in good conscience, enter into either feeling depleted, resentful, or incomplete. And to feel energetic, generous, and content, we must first be attuned to and care for our Self.

Tomorrow, I have a doctor’s appointment where I will find out if I have vocal polyps. I have already entertained every scenario I can think of: maybe they’ll tell me I need to rest my voice completely. Maybe, for the next month (or two, or six), I won’t be able to teach yoga, do improv, play frisbee (or at least shout excitedly while doing so – which is essentially the same as not playing). Maybe I will have to get surgery, then rest my voice for an unknown amount of time. Maybe I’ll find out I don’t have polyps at all, in which case, my vocal issues will remain an annoying and painful mystery. Maybe I’ll need to create my own boundaries and rest regimen, rather than rely on those that my doctor has drawn for me.

Whatever they tell me will not change the fact that speaking up is hard. And although a diagnosis may give me a medical reason to work less (at least temporarily), it will be up to me to actually do so. It will (still) be up to me to express when I need to rest, when I don’t feel safe or happy, when I need support. To speak up for these needs is not selfish; it is Self-care. I have told myself this for years, but this time, I think I actually believe it.

Yoga for Scoliosis: Sat, Oct 21

It took me a long time to want to teach yoga for scoliosis. As a teenager and young adult, I did not like the idea of attending a class that reminded me I was different or abnormal. As a teacher, I did not (and do not) want my students to think people with scoliosis should not attend a “regular” yoga class. And while I’ve taken and taught a variety of yoga styles, from power vinyasa to restorative to yin, vinyasa is where I feel most at home. The thought of leaving vinyasa, or of shifting my focus to gentle or therapeutic, has historically been less appealing than going back to middle school and putting on my back brace. I do not want to be that teacher with rods in her spine; I want to be an excellent teacher.

My first experience with yoga was an Iyengar series with Francois Raoult at Open Sky Yoga. I was 15, knew almost nothing about yoga, and my goal was simple: to straighten my spine. I cannot remember if Francois also had this goal, or if he even thought this was yoga for scoliosisrealistic, but I do know that since then, several teachers have shared with me their belief that yoga can cure scoliosis, if done consistently and correctly. One teacher even expressed his regrets that I had gotten surgery before coming to see him, as he was certain he could have helped me avoid it. But whatever my goals were, whatever Francois’ belief was, and however skilled a teacher (and he was extremely skilled), yoga did not cure my scoliosis. My spine continued to curve and twist at a frightening rate, and I ultimately came to a place of acceptance: I could not do this alone. I would surrender to medical interventions.

After surgery, I took an eight-year hiatus from yoga. When I returned to it in my early 20s, my goals were not so clearly defined. My spine was already fused, so there was no sense trying to “correct” anything. Instead, I was focused on feeling more at home in my body, more at ease with the state of my life. I wanted, once again, to come to a place of acceptance.

For years, I gravitated toward teachers who would (gently) kick my ass, who would remind me that if I could breathe deeply while holding a 4-minute plank, then maybe I could breathe more deeply when I encountered my next challenging situation in life. Yoga helped me to feel strong, capable, and thoroughly alive. This feeling is what I wanted everyone to experience, and the reason I started teaching.  

I have never wanted to use scoliosis or rods as an excuse for not being capable. I do not want people to feel sorry for me, or to tell me I’m “brave.” I do want them to know that I understand what it’s like to be extremely frustrated with my body. There are times in child's poseclass when a teacher cues backbend after backbend, twist after twist, and all I want to do is curl up in a child’s pose and cry. There are times when I’m teaching, wanting to incorporate an interesting spinal movement or position, unable to demonstrate what I’m cuing, unable to tell if my cues are helpful. And then there are times when I just want to stretch my back or ride in a sedan without hitting my fucking head on the ceiling or sit on a couch comfortably, and become so sad at the thought that my spine will never bend again. But were it not for scoliosis, I would not have the understanding and appreciation that I do. And were it not for these frustrations, I would not have the patience that I do. It is these qualities, not the rods, that make me the teacher I am.

Yoga for scoliosis is not about being deficient or less able. It is not about avoiding challenging postures or styles of yoga. It is about gaining a greater understanding of our bodies, so that we may approach challenge with gentleness and grace. It is about learning to feel strong, capable, and thoroughly alive.

Join me for Yoga for Scoliosis this Saturday, Oct 21, from 1:30-4:00pm at Yoga Pearl to explore what scoliosis means for your yoga practice and for you. All levels of students and teachers welcome.

 

Teaching What We Need, Because We Have To

“Well, I think anyone driven toward a lot of self-reflection is a little crazy,” he said as we left the theater and started to the bar.

I agreed. Then I reflected.

“I mean, I’m driven toward a lot of self-reflection,” I said. I paused, then laughed. “And it does make me feel crazy sometimes.”

“Totally,” he agreed, though I wasn’t exactly sure which part he was agreeing with.

It was a first date, and we had been talking about yoga and yoga teachers. He had observed that many of the teachers he knew had gotten into the profession because of some momentous experience: a specific trauma or significant event in their own lives. Sometimes, he noted, their intense searching for inner peace came across as neurotic. This was a thing I had also noticed, but the fact that he had brought it up made me wonder: Do I appear traumatized? Are my neuroses so palpable that when I say, “I’m a yoga teacher,” people think, “Hmm… I wonder what happened with her…”

And they would be right to wonder, for the answer, of course, is a few things:

When I was 12, I was diagnosed with mild scoliosis; by 14, the diagnosis was upgraded to moderate to severe. For the next two years, back treatments were a central pillar of my life. If I wasn’t wearing a back brace, I was at the chiropractor or doing odd physical exercises. Over these two years, I threw regular tantrums, and spent innumerable hours looking at my body in the mirror, trying to stand in a way that made my shoulders even and my waist symmetrical. Despite the efforts I put into caring for my spine, it did not seem to care for me. And just after my 17th birthday, I yielded to surgery – the thing I had been trying so desperately to avoid – and immobilized my spine for good.  

When I was 16, my father was diagnosed with nausea and vertigo. Two weeks later, this Kraai family Christmas 2001diagnosis was upgraded to an aggressive brain tumor. For the next two weeks, hospital visits were the central pillar of my mom’s and my life. My sister and brother-in-law flew home from California. My aunts and uncles drove and flew in from everywhere else. We sang to him. We rubbed his toes. We cried regularly. Despite the efforts we put into caring for my father, his brain did not care for him. Two weeks after his brain tumor diagnosis, he was dead.

Soon after I got to college, I decided that I was not attractive. By January of my freshman year, this decision had developed into body dysmorphia, and I began exercising twice a day. Under the guise of environmental concerns, I became a vegan, severely limiting my diet. For the next two years, I tried to make myself vomit after eating what I felt was too much. I did not tell my family. I wrote depressing poetry. I cried regularly. Despite all the hours I exercised, despite what I ate or didn’t eat, I could not accept my body for what it was. I did not care for it, and it was no wonder that it did not care for me. 

img_4971

Photo by Nam Chantepie

Then, at 23, I began practicing yoga regularly. Throughout each class, my teachers would remind me that yoga was not about the physicality of the pose; it was about how we breathed in the pose. It was not about overcoming our bodies; it was about harmonizing with them. It was not until then that I began to feel at peace with my body. At 25, I had an epiphany: I would become a yoga teacher. So thankful for what I had learned, I needed to share it, to help others find peace with their bodies and selves. And it was not until I started teaching yoga regularly that I began to feel at peace, not just with my body, but with my life. I began, slowly, to accept that I cannot control the world around me (or within me), that the best I can do is treat myself and those around me with love and care.  

Last week in a yoga training, my teacher, Jason Crandell, in his hilariously cynical way, asked our room full of yoga teachers the following: “Can we all agree that we are in this profession because we’re all a little crazy? That we, in a sense, have to teach?” We all yoga is self-acceptancelaughed, perhaps a little too hard, and I was comforted to know that I was not alone.

As I laughed, I thought back to my date. Perhaps he had not meant to be rude or coarse. Perhaps he was simply noticing that people who dedicate their lives to yoga and meditation do so, in part, because they have strong personal connections to the subject. Indeed, it is this intimate knowledge that makes us fierce and impassioned. We know what it’s like to feel pain, and we also know that sooner or later, everyone else will, too. It is not our job to rid others of pain, to help them avoid trauma or stress. It is our job to help them endure, to give them the tools so that they (and we) do not actually become imbalanced. If that makes me crazy, I don’t want to be sane. 

 

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! 🙂

Good Enough

When I started practicing yoga, I thought my teachers knew everything. I would follow their directives to the letter, stay in each pose as long as I was told (not a moment more, and certainly not less), and obediently accept most any philosophical offerings they would propose. I saw my favorite teachers as almost magical beings, able to read my mind and tell me exactly what I needed to hear, both physically and mentally. Inspired and eager to learn a bit of this magic, I decided to become a yoga teacher myself, and set off across the country for my 200-hour training.

I was shocked on the first day when our primary trainer walked in: not only was he wearing jeans and white cotton socks (a far danger expectationscry from the hip and groovy yoga clothes I was expecting), but he sported what I would have labeled an “average” build: not at all overweight, but certainly not the chiseled and tan outdoorsy type I had dreamed up before his arrival. As I got to know him better, the vision I had constructed continued to crumble: I learned he had gone through a 12-step program, had attempted suicide as a young adult, and that he could be sarcastic and snarky. He started our classes late, he said things I disagreed with, and answered several of our questions with, “I don’t know,” or “Who cares.” While I had gone to the training to learn from him, to gather up wisdom, and to absorb the confidence and tranquility that I was sure he would perpetually exude, here he was admitting to us that he wasn’t (gasp!) perfect?! I was confused, and, I daresay, mildly disappointed.

My first teaching job brought up similar feelings. I worked for a woman who was anything but calm; she was intense, demanding, and so focused on her own vision that she often seemed to ignore the needs of her employees. I began to wonder how someone so stressed out could even teach yoga – weren’t teachers supposed to be models of the subjects they taught? Weren’t they supposed to be as inspiring outside of the yoga studio as they were inside? (Whatever that meant.) I felt frustrated, disillusioned, and disappointed.

Since then, I have worked in many yoga studios, alongside many teachers, and (needless to say) with many students. While I generally fancy myself a welcoming and encouraging teacher, I admit there have been several times I have thought to myself, stop expecting people to be perfect“What is this person doing in this class?! Hey, Buddy: learn to exhale, then call me!” The same went for teachers. I remember sitting in several classes questioning, critiquing, and judging: “Doesn’t this teacher know that hip openers are supposed to come after back-bends? Did this teacher really just drop the F-bomb in the middle of class?? Wait, did she really just make a reference to pole dancing?!? And what is up with this song choice?!?!!” With so many distractions, I found it difficult to concentrate, let alone find peace. It took months for me to realize: they weren’t the distracting ones; I was the one distracting myself.

When I began practicing yoga – and then again when I began teaching it – I was in search of perfection. I wanted to accept myself as is, sure, but the only way I could accept myself as is, was if I knew I was closer to perfect today than I was yesterday. I saw growth as linear rather than cyclical, I judged others for not growing as quickly as I thought they should, and I believed in “good” and “bad.” But as my fifth-grade English teacher used to say: “good and bad are third grade words – be more specific.” (To any third graders reading this: I mean no offense! Keep up the good work!!) Rather than act on what I felt or believed, I found myself tying my actions to expectations, and feeling disappointed when I didn’t live up to them. Sometimes others would remind me of my apparent hypocrisy: “I thought yoga teachers weren’t supposed to eat cheeseburgers…”; other times, I would remind myself: “You haven’t been to a yoga class in a week and now you’re about to teach one?! If your students only knew…” It took years for me to realize that I am, in fact, allowed to make my own decisions, to make mistakes, and that I do not need to feel guilty just because someone tells me I should.

In his pseudo-memoir, author Donald Miller writes: “When you stop expecting people to be perfect, you can like them for who they are.” Sure enough, when I let go of my expectations for both my teacher-trainer, and my previous employer, I began to if you judge no time to loveappreciate them for who they were and what they offered – which was a lot. As for my expectations of myself, I should confess that I have not yet given up on perfection, though I am working on it (maybe writing a blog about it will help?). Our teachers are not perfect, they are not magic, and neither are we, no matter how hard we try. When we stop judging, we can start loving; when we stop seeking, we can start being. We may disappoint ourselves along the way, and others may tell us that we have disappointed them. But each day, we do the best with what we have, and that will have to be “good” enough.