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. 

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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.

Natural Beauty Month: Season Three

Two years ago, I challenged myself to go the entire month of June without wearing makeup. I remember the first time I was about to leave my house without my usual eyeliner and mascara, I nearly cried. Why would I do this to myself? I wondered. Why would I choose to make myself feel so uncomfortable and exposed?? But I had already blogged about it, told all my friends about it, and encouraged all the women in my life to join me in the challenge – so I couldn’t back out.

By the end of the month, I had grown used to my naked face. No longer did my reflection seem foreign, and no more did I fear the world seeing my face as it was, naturally. I still thought I looked “better” with makeup, but I had finally accepted the fact that I didn’t need it.

Last June, I challenged myself again. At first, it was almost disappointingly easy. Soon, the challenge became less about my appearance and more about my life: Were my choices reflecting my desires? Were my actions consistent with my beliefs? Was Ibeauty isnt makeup letting the world see me as I was, even when I wasn’t at my “best”? When the challenge is simply don’t wear makeup, the course of action is clear-cut, even if it’s difficult. But when the challenge is be yourself and let the world see it, things are trickier. Before we can be ourselves, we have to know ourselves – a challenge all on its own, and a dynamic one at that. When I graduated from high school, I thought I knew myself, and for all intents and purposes, I did. When I went to college, however, I realized that I would have to get to know myself all over again. The same thing happened when I graduated from college, again when I quit my first full-time job, and again when I moved to Portland last summer. I knew who I was, for the most part, but I would again have to learn who I was becoming.

In my (almost) 30 years on earth, I’ve met myself many times. I’ve made some really good first impressions, and some really shitty ones too. I’ve seen myself do and say things that make me want to curl up under a rock and die; I’ve also done things that I’m immensely proud of. And what I’ve come to accept recently is that this cycle will continue. I will never outgrow embarrassing myself, and I will never be too old (or too young) to do something amazing. Living well and living happily takes time and practice; it also takes failure and sadness. But above all, I think, it takes acceptance and love.

This year, I again present to you the challenge of Natural Beauty Month. This might simply mean not wearing makeup, or it beauty is not the facemight mean wearing less. I might mean reminding your friend that he or she looks (and more importantly, is) awesome. It might mean not using hair products, or not dousing yourself in cologne. Or maybe it means speaking up, even and especially when you’re afraid. Maybe it means telling someone you love them first. Whatever it means to you, let it actually be a challenge – then face it. Because you, my friend, are one bad-ass ninja-warrior of love and happiness, and the world needs more of you.

When The Speaker Shuts Up

I haven’t written since I ran the Boston marathon.
And I haven’t written since my cousin got married.
I haven’t written since I took a five-day yoga training
or since I decided to make my teaching simpler.
I haven’t written since I got into a new improv troupe.
I haven’t written since I decided to teach English.
I haven’t written since my friend killed himself. He would have been 30 last week.
I haven’t written since my sister and brother-in-law put their house on the market and started applying for jobs in a new city (my city!).
I haven’t written since I got into a relationship I thought would last a long time.
I haven’t written since I ended that relationship.
I haven’t written since I fell off my bike.
I haven’t written since I heard a podcast on explaining death to children
or since I decided to teach yoga for trauma
or since I cried about my dad for the first time in too long.
I haven’t written since I started teaching yoga to a 12-year-old with scoliosis.
I haven’t written since I read about a new scoliosis surgery that doesn’t use rods or fusion
or since I cried about my back for the first time in too long.

I haven’t written in four months
despite there being so much to say.

I want to say I can’t wait for my next marathon.
I want to say congratulations, Will, for marrying one awesome lady.
I want to say I think marriage is weird.
I want to say thank you, Jason, for reminding me how simple yoga is, and for making me so pumped to keep teaching.
I want to say thank you, improv, for reminding me to laugh. And listen.
I want to say I’ll pay more attention.
I want to say Happy Birthday, Chris. I miss you.
I want to say I’m sorry.
I want to say I miss you, Papa.
I miss you a lot.
And I want to say I think of you, Papa, and of you, Mama, whenever I see my 12-year-old student, and we talk about crooked backs and braces and surgery.
I want to say, fuck you, rods and screws and bones that don’t allow my back to bend.
And I want to say thank you, rods and screws and bones for holding me together
even when I’m angry.
I want to say I love you.

I want to say that I’ve learned something – a lot of things – since I last wrote.
I want to say that I have something to show for it.
But instead of a thing to show
instead of a moral
or a lesson
or a thing to say
I’m left just feeling
with very little to say
and very little to do.

What I really want
is to listen.
What I really want
is to watch.
And what I really want
is to be.

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Love Yourself, Then Laugh About It

When I first told my yoga students that I did improv comedy, they were surprised – sort of. “Wait, what?!” said one, then immediately followed it up with, “Actually, never mind. I can see it.” The next week, that same student came up to me before class and said, “Abby! I’m coming to your show tonight!” And while I am usually glad when my friends come to see my shows, my first thought this time was: Oh dear. She’s going to see a whole different side of me – what if I do something offensive on stage?! What if her image of me as a peaceful and loving yoga teacher crumbles and she never returns to my class again?? But of course what I said was: “Oh yay!!” Then I spent the rest of the afternoon wondering why I felt self-conscious about my two worlds merging.

improv kissing TimAs an improvisational comedian, I have had to develop my philosophy of comedy. My philosophy thus far has been simple: make fun of everything, including and especially myself. At the same time I have been cultivating my philosophy of comedy, however, I have also been honing a seemingly opposite philosophy of mindfulness (what some might call a “spiritual philosophy”): love everything, including and especially myself.

For years, I have seen the similarities between improv and yoga, but struggled to explain it. They are both about listening, and about being present. Both are about releasing expectations, accepting offers, and seeing possibilities, rather than obstacles. In Tina Fey’s chapter, Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Bellyfat, she observes: “As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no. ‘No, we can’t do that.’ ‘No, that’s not in the budget.’ ‘No, I will not hold your hand for a dollar.’” She asks the reader, “What kind of way is that to live?” To Fey, accepting offers and saying yes is not just a way to perform: it is a way to be. I have a similar reaction as a yoga teacher. I am baffled when I meet people who belittle their skills, habits, and beliefs, or think they are fixed. I get very upset when people say things like: “I’ll never be able to touch my toes,” “I could never run a marathon,” or “I can’t do yoga – I have a bad back.” I want to shake them (lovingly) and shout (kindly), “Just freaking try it!!!!”

There is another important commonality between improv and yoga: both are terrifying. And while the terror is more obvious with improv (there’s a whole audience watching you if you fail), it doesn’t take long to reach that terrifying place in yoga. Over the Improv NYE 12last seven years, I’ve quit two full-time jobs, gone through three major breakups, moved across the country, and tried to make a living teaching yoga, performing improv, and writing. All of these things are and were terrifying, and for all of these things, I blame yoga. And improv. Through yoga, I have grown to understand, appreciate, and love my whole self: physical, mental, and emotional. Through improv, I have learned to listen, laugh, and fail gracefully (as well as publicly). And while I believe I have always known myself, deep down, yoga and improv have encouraged me to exhume my deepest, darkest, and, incidentally, brightest self.

Yoga shakes us up (lovingly), and shouts (kindly): “This is you! Here you are!” While this shaking and shouting may initially throw us off course and create more chaos than we lived with before, it ultimately allows us to reassess the course we’re on, clearing out space to make sense of the mess that was previously stacked Yes-andin a neat pile, behind several doors and walls. Improv does a similar thing: it requires us to observe what is happening right now, and to respond in a way that makes sense. Scenes move forward when characters listen to each other, build upon each other, and give what they have to offer. The best scenes are those where we commit to our characters, where we are not afraid of the dark. It is frightening, invigorating, uncomfortable, and hilarious all at once. If this sounds like a metaphor for life, it is. When we see ourselves clearly, we can love ourselves fully. When we love ourselves fully, we can see others clearly and contribute positively. The darkness that once scared us becomes yet another thing to explore. And thank goodness for our scene partners! They are here to reminds us that whatever we do and whoever we are, we are worth saying yes to.

A Crack in the Sidewalk, or 15 Days Later

“With an intention, there is no failure.” – Me

Good thing I said that, because otherwise, I’d be writing today to say that I’ve failed.

It started last Thursday, when I was pressed for time and decided to run to my yoga class. It was a brilliant idea, I thought, for it would only take slightly longer to run there than it would to bike; I’d turn my prescribed run into transportation, thus saving myself time and keeping up with my marathon training. No sooner had I finished patting myself on the back for this uber-efficient and athletic solution did the sidewalk remind me just how fallible I was.

A mile into the run, I tripped on a crackcracked-sidewalkand fell, leaving my knees bruised and bloodied, and my dignity fractured. As the graceful citizens of Portland continued to walk and cycle past, I lay on the cruel concrete, crying pathetically and wondering what on earth I should do. I didn’t have time to go home and get my bike, the bus wouldn’t get me there in time, and I couldn’t find my car2go card. If I were to make it on time to teach, I had no choice but to keep running.

Four painful miles later, I arrived at the studio, knee puffy and sore. I taught, gingerly, and figured it would heal up in no time. The next morning, when it was still creaky and fat, I began to get nervous. I taught my usual Friday classes, hoping I wasn’t doing more damage, then made the bold decision not to practice yoga that day. In any other month, this would have been no big deal, but this time it meant I would not succeed in my 31 day challenge. To add insult to injury, I forgot to write. I wish I could blame it on a wrist sprain or a bad case of tennis elbow, but no: I just plain forgot.

When Saturday came and the knee was still sore and puffy, my anxiety swelled. I had already skipped one day of yoga, and it was looked like I would have to skip another. Saturday was also the day I was scheduled to do my long run, but that, too, seemed like it wouldn’t happen. Not only was I failing in my yoga quest, and not only had I skipped a day of writing, but my marathon training was unraveling as quickly as a loose-knit scarf at a cat convention. This is why I don’t do ___-day challenges, I cursed, because shit like this happens, and then everything falls apart!

Or maybe that is exactly why I should do such things.

Last summer, I told one of my yoga classes about a fabulous book I was reading: Mindset, by Carol Dweck. The segment I dont unravelreferenced had to do with our perception of, and reaction to, “failure.” Essentially, we often over-react, and turn minor mistakes, hiccups, or snags into spectacular ones. We eat one forbidden cookie, then say, Ah, fuck it! and eat five more; we get a poor night’s sleep, then guzzle enough coffee to give even the steeliest lumberjack an ulcer. But to do this, she says, is akin to getting one flat tire, cursing our luck, then slashing the other three ourselves. Why not just fix the one tire, she asks, and move on?

I still have four and a half months until the marathon, and there are still 15 days left in December. Also, as most yoga teachers know, one doesn’t need to do sun salutations and balancing poses to practice yoga. I can so simple seated poses; better yet, I can simply meditate (and maybe even ice my knee at the same time?!). Since Friday, I’ve been writing every day (again), trying to meditate for at least a few minutes each night before bed (hey, it’s better than nothing), and above all, appreciating my health. At least my spill on the sidewalk wasn’t any worse, and at least I can respect my body enough to take some time off when I need it. Meditation and stillness have always been more difficult for me than yoga asana and movement – so in a strange way, maybe this is the perfect kind of “__-day challenge.” I can’t say I like being laid up, or that I’m glad I fell, but it certainly has given me a lot to write and think about. So Cheers! to finding inspiration in the uncomfortable.