Why I Love the Rain

I’ve often thought it funny that so many people pay to take restorative yoga and meditation classes. Yes, I’m a yoga teacher, and yes, I have taught both restorative yoga and meditation to paying customers; I am thankful for these paying customers, for they are the reason I can afford my groceries. What I find funny is that so many of us won’t relax, won’t slow down, won’t take deep breaths, without a professional teacher telling us to.

I grew up on a bison farm in western New York where my father was the primary farmer. Despite this being a “stay-at-home job,” come hay season (late May-early September), I hardly saw him. Anyone who farms knows that a farmer is at the mercy of Mother Nature. Anyone who pays attention to the weather (and news) might also realize that we are all, bisonin fact, at the mercy of Mother Nature: when it is sunny and temperate, we flock to the outdoors; when it rains or snows, we cover ourselves and rush indoors; during a heat wave, we worry about sun burn and heat stroke; during a cold snap, our heating bill skyrockets and we curse our ancestors for ever deciding to settle in such a horrid place. On the farm, a hot, dry day meant my father would be mowing, raking, and bailing hay until sunset; a rainy day, on the other hand, meant the grass was too soggy to rake and bail, and my father was obliged to stay indoors. Instead of coming downstairs to an empty kitchen, I would find my father sitting at our island, finishing his giant bowl of cereal and reading a National Geographic. My mother followed a similar pattern: though not a fulltime farmer, she spent her share of time outside. Whether running, biking, or gardening, she was an outdoors kind of woman. Rain, however, afforded her some time to stay under our roof, free of guilt—a rainy day was a fine day to clean up her desk, practice the piano, or sit in the kitchen in her bathrobe, sipping tea and listening to classical 91.5.

Most of my yoga students know that I love the rain. On rainy mornings like this one, they remind me of this fact: “You must love this weather, eh?” or sometimes even, “I blame you for this weather, Abby!” (all said in good spirits, of course). And it’s true: I do love the rain. But I didn’t realize why until today, when one of my students asked me, “Why do you love the rain?” For the first time, I analyzed my feelings on precipitation: First of all, I thought, rain makes plants lush and healthy, and makes the color contrasts richer: brown bark and green leaves, blue-grey sky and black pavement, true-blue sky peeking around dark clouds, a clear stripe of sun burning through fuzzy, humid air. But even more than the rain itself is what it implies: warm socks, an afternoon nap, settling on the couch to watch an episode of Parks and Recreation, more people in my yoga classes, and above all, moving slower.

Although I am skilled in helping others relax, I often find it difficult to apply these skills to myself. When it’s sunny and warm, I feel compelled to go running—even if I don’t especially want to, I think I should (because in Rochester, sunny Imagedays won’t last forever!). When faced with the choice to relax in front of a movie or straighten up around the house, I generally choose straightening up (because what better way to get ahead than use one’s down time productively?). Of course, there is nothing wrong with keeping busy and active—in fact, there are many things right about it. There is a difference, however, between keeping busy for the joy of it, and keeping busy because we think we have to; while the former yields more joy, the latter often breeds resentment and stress. Perhaps it is no wonder so many of us need to step into a yoga studio in order to relax: since “go to yoga” is something we can check off a to-do list, we can feel like we did something. With the rain, however, I feel my to-do lists dissolve. I think of my parents, sitting inside, free of guilt, and remind myself: if they were allowed to relax on rainy days, so am I.

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Yoga Tunes: Turn Them Up or Turn Them Off?

I don’t get angry very often. It’s an emotion I don’t enjoy, and one I generally prefer to reserve for social injustices or animal cruelty. But last week, I found my heart pounding and my ears steaming as I read some Reddit-users’ (affectionately deemed “redditors”) comments on the r/yogamusic page of Reddit. The topic was (surprise!) music in a yoga class, and it started innocently enough: “Yoga teachers: What are your current playlists for your classes? I need some inspiration.” It quickly migrated, however, to the age-old discussion: should music be played at all in a yoga class, or is it merely a distraction? Choosing a playlist is one of the most difficult aspects of teaching for me. I want music that is relaxing, yet energizing; music that is poignant, but not depressing; music that enhances the mood of the class, rather than distracts from it. To find 75 minutes worth of songs that fit these criteria is time-consuming.

Students’ and teachers’ tastes in music range wider than a seasoned yogi’s legs in Virabhadrasana II—how can we possibly appeal to them all? The obvious answer is, we can’t. One redditor’s comment proposed a simple solution to the music problem: don’t play music at all. He went on to say that his usual teacher never plays music, but that he’d been to a class recently where the sub had played a Bon Iver song during Savasana. “I can’t stand Bon Iver,” he said, “and I almost approached her after class to tell her she shouldn’t play something so divisive.” Another redditor offered a similar sentiment: “Teachers who play music in class are either uncomfortable without it as a backdrop or feel that their students are.” And another: “What’s with the need to fill the silence that would enable clearer focus???”

First of all, the idea that the yoga studio should be (or could ever be) devoid of all controversy is absurd to me. Unless we sit at home and listen only to our own opinions, opportunities for controversy and disagreement follow Imageus everywhere—yes, even inside the yoga studio. Ironically, the same redditor who “can’t stand Bon Iver” acknowledged that he “tried to take it as a learning opportunity—finding peace when you’re uncomfortable, you know?” But this desire to learn appeared fleeting when he added “I tried … but I actually left class felling really upset.” I wanted to ask this person: is this how you always treat your yoga practice? What happened, say, the first time you attempted a handstand? Did you leave feeling upset if you didn’t succeed? Did you then declare that teachers should not teach handstands because some students don’t find them comfortable? Or did you come back and try again? Finding peace amid discomfort is difficult and frustrating, but surely it is worth more than one try.

Regarding the comment that “teachers who play music” (as if we are all one homogenous breed) are “uncomfortable without it,” I could not disagree more. Perhaps there are some who fear silence, but even if that is the case, so what? We teach yoga for others, not for our own personal growth; if music makes us more comfortable, confident teachers, great. I would far rather have a teacher who seemed comfortable with herself and her class structure, even if I “hated” her music, than a teacher who seemed unsettled. When I play music, it is because I want to, not because I don’t not want to. There are some who don’t care for my taste in music, and there are others who love it. But whether they like my music or not, I would hope that they come to my class, not for the playlist, but to gain a greater appreciation of their own bodies and selves.

Sitar_for_yoga_musicAnd finally, in response to the question, “What’s with the need to fill the silence that would enable clearer focus???” I ask: does silence guarantee clearer focus? Don’t get me wrong, I am a friend to silence; I agree that it is important not to fear it. But I also believe it is important to make peace with cacophony. Like it or not, the world is full of noise—some of it soothing, a lot of it stress-inducing. As yoga teachers, we do not have the responsibility (or the capability!) to rid our studios of everything that might cause our students stress; it is our job to equip our students with tools to effectively cope with the stress they encounter. We must be sensitive and attuned to our students’ needs, but we cannot remove all obstacles for clear focus and inner peace. That is work that we all have to do for ourselves.

So why do I bother ranting about this? I can think of two reasons: 1. I am a sensitive soul who loves music and will defend its place in a yoga class to my death, and 2. I want people to think. If a yoga teacher plays a song a student dislikes, this does not mean she shouldn’t have played the song; it certainly doesn’t mean that music has no place in yoga. Similarly, if a student is uncomfortable with a music-free class, this does not mean the teacher needs to fill the silence. To my fellow yoga teachers, I say: keep on rocking the music—or silence—you love. And to my fellow yoga students: keep on breathing, even and especially through a song you don’t like, for being uncomfortable allows us to use the skills that yoga teaches us. In the words of Kelly Clarkson, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, stand a little taller.”

The End of The Month, Not The Mindset

Well it’s July, and Natural Beauty Month is officially over. I considered posting a celebratory picture of my face, covered with an offensive amount of foundation, bronzer, eye shadow, eyeliner, maybe even some fake eyelashes, with a caption that read, “Soooo excited to wear makeup again!!” Then I realized that some people might not get the joke; that, and I don’t own half those products. But egregiously applied makeup and sarcastic captioning aside, the end of Natural Beauty Month does present me with some important questions: Will I go back to wearing makeup? If so, how often, and how much? Now that I am used to looking at my naked face, will I judge my made-up face negatively for being “fake”?

I have never been one for extremes. I don’t believe in strict diets that guilt a person into eating exclusively “healthy” food. Setting a strict “no makeup” rule for myself seems similarly restrictive: what if I feel especially dumpy one day and a dash of mascara makes me feel better about myself? One could argue that I should not care what I look like in the first place—indeed, this would be ideal. But the reality is, I do care, and some mornings I wake up looking more refreshed than others. I do not want to go back to relying on makeup to make up for the fact that I did not get a good sleep, ate too many fries, or didn’t exercise for a few days in a row. I want to be content with what I have and what I look like naturally, and I want to keep doing all that I can to care for myself from the inside out. I want to see makeup as an option, not as an evil entity, and certainly not as a necessity.

When I saw the headshots that my friend, John Schlia, had taken of me and two friends for Natural Beauty Month, I had a brief spell of anxiety. He had posted the pictures to his Facebook page, then tagged me in them—not only would my giant, naked face show up in his friends’ news feeds, but in my friends’ as well. Well shit, I thought, I guess there’s no turning back now… Of course, my two friends looked beautiful in their pictures, but mine was by far the worst. When I told one of these friends how jealous I was that her picture came out so well, she laughed: “Oh my GOD, mine is the WORST!” she said, “I thought you’d love yours!”  She proceeded to describe all that was wrong with her face in her picture—“flaws” that I had not noticed, nor did I notice when I went back to search for them. She told me that our third friend had felt the same way: our pictures were good but hers was the WORST. To each of us, the others were prettier, more photogenic, and our own natural faces looked terrible.

It is difficult to stop judging ourselves, and even harder to accept and love ourselves fully. Ironically, it is usually when we feel bad about ourselves that we treat ourselves badly. Unhealthy choices are addicting, but fortunately, so are healthy choices. There is a lot I will take away from this June, the most important being that no one cares what I look like as much as I do. When we stop seeing ourselves as flawed, broken, imperfect people, we start to treat ourselves with the love and respect we deserve. As we move forward into July, let us try to remember that no one will ever judge us as harshly as we judge ourselves. Let us make choices we can be proud of, and allow ourselves to make mistakes—these mistakes will not kill us, and they will probably even help us to appreciate the times we get it right.

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Even though I STILL think my picture is the worst, John is a great photographer. Thank you, John!

Reflecting on Reflections

Another week gone; another fifty people asking me, “Hey! How’s the no makeup thing going?” My favorite is when people say, “I saw your post about Natural Beauty Month—what a great idea… I mean, I can’t do it, but it’s a cool idea…” When I ask them politely, “Why can’t you do it?” they inevitably respond with the same things: I’m too old—you’ll understand when you’re 40/50/60; I literally have no eyelashes unless I put on mascara—you’d understand if you had blond hair; I can’t go without foundation—you have good skin so you wouldn’t understand.

I hear all these reasons, and I get it. I am 27—not even into my 30s, let alone my 40s, 50s, or 60s; I do have (relatively) dark eyelashes; I don’t understand what it’s like to have “bad” skin; I even have what society tells me is a highly coveted body: tall, tan and slender. It is these things combined that prompted one of my friends to tell me, “You know, there are probably some people who resent you for creating Natural Beauty Month—like, ‘sure, Abby can not wear makeup—she’s already got a good body and a pretty face.’ Other people are not so lucky.” Again, I hear this, and I get it. (And don’t worry, I have already felt guilty about the genes I have been given.) But my friend’s observation ignores two key things: 1. I work very hard to maintain the body that I have; it is not purely “luck,” and 2. looking “pretty” is not the point of Natural Beauty Month.

Cameron Russell, a 25-year-old American model, gave a TED talk recently where she dispelled the idea that being naturally good-looking leads to healthy self-esteem. She admitted to reaping the benefits of being physically beautiful, of which there are many: absolution from speeding tickets, special treatment from strangers, and of course, making a very comfortable living without exerting much effort, to name a few. As a model, she said, being acutely aware of her physical image is part of her job—and as most of us can attest, this sort of awareness often leads to insecurity. Do pretty people get special treatment? Yes. Does this mean we should all try to be prettier so that we can receive special treatment, too? No.

How others judge our appearance has nothing to do with us; how we judge others’ does. When I look at another woman and ask myself if she’s prettier than I am, I am the one making myself insecure, not she. And since attractiveness is largely a matter of opinion anyway, to judge one as “hot or not” is not only self-serving, but also absurd. We have control over what we do with our bodies: how much we exercise, what we eat, how much we sleep, how deeply we breathe. But there are certain things we cannot control: how tall we are, the structure of our bones, the color of our skin. In these last two (official) weeks of Natural Beauty Month, I encourage you to appreciate your physical body, to love and care for it, no matter what state it is in. Examine yourself honestly, and talk to yourself gently. Cultivate your health and happiness, for they are rooted much deeper than physical image.

do what you can

21 More Days: Confessions on Natural Beauty Month

Thirty-six hours into my naked-faced challenge, I had a panic attack. Call me overly-sensitive and self-conscious (I am), but when the reality finally set in that I would not be able to change my appearance for a whole month—even if I looked tired or haggard—I nearly started crying. I had known I felt more confident with eyeliner and mascara, but I hadn’t realized just how vulnerable I felt without it. Each time I looked in the mirror, I found myself staring for longer than normal, trying to find something nice to say to my “naked” reflection. Don’t get me wrong: I love myself, and I generally have very high self-esteem. But what I have realized during the past week is that a large part of that self-esteem comes from not worrying about how I look—and when I have makeup on, I don’t worry. So how do I get to a place where I don’t worry when I don’t wear it?

I read an article recently that discussed the detrimental effects of complimenting young women on their appearance. “Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything,” the author, Lisa Bloom, says. Bloom argues that bringing the focus away from physical appearance, and toward intellect and personality would mitigate the self-esteem issues that so many girls and women suffer from. (I would argue that the same goes for boys.) As I stood staring at myself in the mirror last Tuesday, I thought back to this article. I wondered if perhaps my focus was in the wrong place, searching for the “beautiful” features of my face or body. What if, instead of looking to the mirror to tell me how beautiful I was, I did something that contributed to my overall health and beauty?

I am not self-conscious when I practice yoga, when I run or meditate, when I cook an elaborate dinner, when I draw, paint, read, spend time with my family and friends, or rehearse with my improv group. All these things make me feel happy and secure—so why not shift my energy to those things? I am not suggesting that this will cure me completely of self-consciousness or worry; my point is that, whenever I look around me, or look within myself, I realize that my life is pretty fantastic.

I’ve got three weeks to go in Natural Beauty Month—that’s 21 more days of no makeup. But rather than focus on the negative (“no makeup”), I shall try to think of it in positive terms: 21 more days to appreciate what I have and what I can do; 21 more days to focus on the things that matter; 21 more days to reinforce a new habit: Gratitude.

This June: Natural Beauty Month

I’ve just had an idea. It’s called Natural Beauty Month: if you’re an everyday makeup user, this one’s for you.

This weekend, I played in an ultimate frisbee tournament where everyone camped out in the rain and dirt. There was no point wearing shoes because the mud would eat them. There was no point wearing makeup or fixing your hair, because the rain and mud puddles would wash it all away — and I use the term “wash” loosely. We were filthy; we were soggy; and by golly, did we have fun.

But an interesting thing happened. A friend of mine, Susan*, didn’t recognize our friend Carla. Susan had met Carla several times, but since Carla wasn’t wearing makeup, Susan couldn’t be sure it was her. Another of my friends later commented that he did not recognize Carla without her makeup either. Yikes, I thought. I didn’t even think Carla wore a lot of makeup…

It got me thinking. Has this ever happened to me? Have any of my friends seen me without makeup and wondered who they were looking at? I’ve certainly been asked if I was tired on days that I was in fact quite energetic; the only difference was that I was not wearing my usual eyeliner and mascara. Most mornings I look at myself in the mirror and try to decide if I look alright as-is. Most mornings, the answer is, “Ehhh… I’ll just put some eyeliner and mascara on for now…” I don’t wear a lot of it, but I wear it a lot. I am used to seeing myself wearing it, so when I don’t, I look weird — but weird is relative. If I were used to seeing myself au naturel, I would adjust my idea of how I looked. I wouldn’t view my naked face as my face without makeup; I would view it as my face.

So here is what I propose: the month of June shall be Natural Beauty Month, where people everywhere dare to leave the house with a naked face. I know, it’s already June so you don’t have much time to prepare, but here’s the good news: there is no preparation necessary. Naked is sexy, right? So is your naked face. Wear it. Own it. And if you think you look tired, get some more sleep. If your skin is oily, eat more carrots and fewer fries. When you look in the mirror, see yourself for who you are, not who you aren’t. Actors and actresses wear makeup all the time: don’t compare yourself to them. In fact, don’t compare yourself to anyone. Be who you freaking are because who you freaking are is freaking awesome (or if it’s not, coverup won’t help)!! Go on, girl, admit it: you were born with it; you don’t need Maybelline.

ImageJoin us in solidarity through the Natural Beauty Month event on Facebook.

*All names are pseudonyms.

An Empty Corner

When I decided to become a yoga teacher, I thought I’d finally be disciplined enough to go to the studio every day. I didn’t think I’d be toting my mat everywhere in the hopes that I’d find an empty corner where I could do at least a few Sun Salutations and maybe a Pigeon.

Since becoming certified to teach, I have practiced yoga on a subway, in a park, in an airport (or three), at my office, at home, in the green room of a theatre, on the stage of a theatre, in the backstage area at a fashion show, and, when I’m really lucky, in the yoga studio. Thankfully, I am at a stage in my life where I don’t notice onlookers. Yes, I avoid some of the more “suggestive” poses in public (too much vigorous Cat/Cowing can send the wrong message), and I am mindful not to kick any passersby as I swing through to Warrior I, but for the most part, I am in my own world (something, incidentally, my kindergarten teacher told my parents long ago). I don’t tune the noise out, exactly — indeed, sometimes that is impossible — but I wouldn’t say I listen to it either. In a way, the noise is comforting. It reminds me that there is a world around me, full of people and animals and plants and wind and cars and sirens and stress — you don’t get all that in a yoga studio. Of course, the yoga studio is wonderfully comforting too: a room full of people who value health and want to take care of their bodies; a teacher to guide you through a journey you might not take on your own; music to help your mind stay focused and present. But why do we go to the yoga studio in the first place? Usually because something in our every day lives reminds us that we need some help. So we enter the studio, breathe deeply for 75 minutes, feel amazing, then we get home to find the dishes still in the sink, the fridge still empty, and the stubborn piles of paperwork that made us drop everything and declare, “I’m going to yoga NOW!”

Practicing in public reminds us that there is no escape, only respite. Whether we like it or not, we are a part of this crazy, busy, crowded, noisy, violent, and imperfect world; isn’t that why we search so hard for peace, and become so euphoric when we find it? Perhaps what we should remember is that this peace, this euphoria, isn’t unique to the yoga studio. It doesn’t exist only in small quantities for monks or yogis in ashrams to hoard. It can be found in the middle of chaos, in the middle of war, in the piles of unsorted laundry, in that empty corner between the catering table and the trash can. Whether we have 75 minutes or five, breathing deeply does the body good.

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Hug A Runner Today

To all my runners, race officials, volunteers, their families, friends, and the people of Boston:

For the last five weeks, I have been nursing a broken toe. This has left me unable to do much yoga, or any running at all. Both yoga and running are for me freeing, empowering experiences that remind me of my strength, endurance, and flexibility; each day, I grow more Imageanxious to return to my usual routine of running and yoga. When I heard about yesterday’s Boston Marathon bombing, I felt my heart sink. So many runners dream of finishing a marathon — a feat that I still dream of — and for a runner, there is no sweeter sight than the finish line: a place full of adoring fans, colorful banners, and prideful tears. Instead of tears of pride, however, yesterday’s marathon ended in tears of confusion, sadness, and pain. My heart is heavy for all the runners, family members, friends, race officials and volunteers that were present for such a horrible event; my first marathon will be run for you.

Peace, love, and running,
Abby

 

Love Your Body

Loving one’s body is one of those things that should be easy, but thanks to society and popular media, rarely is. Think about it for a second: when was the last time your body totally crapped out on you and didn’t recover? Sure, you may have broken a bone that didn’t heal quite straight; you might have lost a bunch of weight, then gained some (or all) of it back; you may even have had some crazy surgery that changed your body forever (like, oh I don’t know, had eleven of your vertebrae fused and two stainless steel rods screwed into your spine). But what happened this morning? Probably, you woke up, got yourself out of bed, made breakfast, ate it, then got yourself to work (or school, or maybe even a yoga class if you’re really lucky!). All those things are pretty amazing if you think about it. We are, for the most part, self-sufficient beings that can move, eat, breathe, talk, sing, dance, and heal — and most of this is done automatically! And even those who aren’t self-sufficient usually have someone else to care for them (that’s right, we have physical ability and health to spare!). Maybe our bodies don’t always look quite the way we want (or, more accurately, the way others want), but they sure do a lot for us. So perhaps rather than bemoaning everything that’s “wrong” with our bodies, we should simply say “thank you” every now and then. Eventually, we’ll might even see our bodies for what they are: a crude physical rendering of who we are and what we do.

How to Love Your Body When You Don’t Like It (Excerpted from Yogadirect.com)

This may seem like an oxymoron: love your body without liking it? 

Here’s why it’s important, and how to love your body.
  • If you are trying to become healthier, more in shape, or lose weight, it is imperative to love your body and yourself in order to stick to a regular healthy plan. If you don’t have love for yourself, why would you be nice to yourself? If you don’t love your kids (you may not like how they behave all of the time, but you still love them), then you wouldn’t be nice to them. 
  • When you begin to foster a deep love and care for your body, you will WANT to do good things for yourself. You’ll want to exercise, eat healthy, and take time for yourself.
  • Just because you love your body doesn’t necessarily mean that you like the way you look. Your body can be a work in progress, and you can still be trying to lose weight or get tone, and love your body.

Is Yoga a Religion?

Last week, parents in California’s Encinitas Union School District filed a suit against a recently adopted (completely optional) in-school yoga program. Their issue? As one enraged parent put it, “They’re not just teaching physical poses, they’re teaching children how to think and how to make decisions… They’re teaching children how to meditate, how to look for peace and for comfort” (Common Dreams). The parents’ lawyer agrees (as any good hired lawyer should): “This is frankly the clearest case of the state trampling on the religious freedom rights of citizens that I have personally witnessed in my 18 years of practice as a constitutional attorney,” said Dean Broyles in a public statement (Wall St. Journal Blogs). The Constitution Daily–a blog that claims to provide bipartisan, “smart conversation about the Constitution” is not so sure, and points to the many nuances within the definition of “religion”–does a religion necessitate a belief in a god? an afterlife? Is a practice or activity that discusses morality automatically religious? (If so, philosophy, English, and history teachers had better watch out!)

As for me? I find the lawsuit utterly preposterous. Unless the yoga teachers in the Encinitas school district have created their own brand of yoga that adds religious discussion to the practice, I cannot begin to understand their opposition. If teaching bodily awareness is religious, perhaps we should ban physical education. If teaching children “how to look for peace and comfort” is an infringement on their rights, maybe we ought to rethink what it means to be a good parent. If encouraging deep breathing is off limits, why not go ahead and outlaw oxygen, just to be extra cautious?

It is frustrating at times to see yoga represented in the media–many articles would have us believe that yogis are all a bunch of Buddhist vegans who vote Ralph Nader (whether he’s on the ballot or not). And while there are plenty of them (us) who are bleeding-heart new-age hippies, “the yoga community” is in fact quite diverse. Even within my circle of friends and students, there are yogis who identify as Christian, Muslim, Jewish, republican, democrat, independent, the list goes on. What we share, however, is much more salient: a desire to be healthy, strong, reflective, and resilient people. If that’s religious, so is being human.

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