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! 🙂

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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.

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