Paperclips and Hands-on Assists

“We’re in the middle of a sea change,” said Jason. “Most yoga teachers now are erring on the side of not giving manual adjustments, and for good reason.” It was the second day of our two-week module (the first part of a 300-hour training), and the conversation had shifted from “How to give hands-on assists” to “Should we give hands-on assists?” As you might imagine with a room of 50 teachers, there were a lot of opinions.

I’ll admit it: I love hands-on assists. Most of the time, I have a difficult time relaxing (no, the irony is not lost on me), but when I receive a caring touch, I melt instantly. A sacral press in child’s pose, a thigh-bone pull in down dog, a hand on the back of my heart in tadasana – I love all of it.

But I also know that not everyone does. In fact, for some of us, touch in a yoga class, no matter how caring the intent, is a violation of space and safety. What if a student has an injury that will be aggravated by an assist? What if they’re recovering from physical or sexual assault? What if they have experienced abusive touch in the past, and any unexpected touch is a trigger? The last thing they need is someone touching them without consent. To teach yoga with a trauma-informed lens, we are told that we must ask permission before offering manual adjustments.

Partner childs pose

Most of us yoga teachers have heard this before, and most of us have also probably ignored it at some point. I used to think that I could tell whether or not a person was okay with hands-on assists, just by observing their body and yoga practice. I used to think that if I gave the right assist – caring, yet professional in nature; meant to feel good, not simply to “correct” a pose – anyone would enjoy it, because how could they not?! I thought for a while that this was the generous thing to do: because I loved assists so much, I wanted everyone else to experience them. Then at some point, I realized this was the same logic used by cat-callers: “Hey! I’m just trying to give you a compliment! If someone told me I had a nice ass, I’d be flattered!” Guess what, buddy: not everyone wants to be told they have a nice ass, especially by someone they don’t know or trust. And guess what, yoga teachers: not everyone who comes into our class wants to be touched; they don’t know us, nor will they necessarily trust us immediately (or ever!).

My friend and co-worker, Molly Boeder Harris reminded me of all this (and more) in her workshop Teaching Yoga With a Trauma-Informed Lens. In her workshop, we discussed teachers’ use of language, movement patterns, presence, and of course, their use of touch. She echoed the advice that I had heard and read from other trauma-informed teachers: don’t touch your students without asking permission.

The challenge with this is that, especially when we have large classes, it is dreadfully inefficient to ask each person individually, “Are you okay with hands-on assists?” before we offer one. There’s also the problem of the leading question. To ask “are you okay with…” implies that by saying “no,” that person is “not okay.” But to ask a more neutrally phrased question such as “How do you feel about hands-on assists?” is even more inefficient, as it warrants an essay response when there is really only time for a one word answer.

The solution? Many teachers have adopted the habit of saying toward the beginning of class, “If anyone doesn’t want assists, please raise your hand/ leg/ put your hand on your heart now.” The challenge with this (apart from the fact that it is again framed in the negative) is that who in the Sam Hill is going to remember who raised their hand/ leg/ put their hand on their heart?! Someone smarter than I, I guess.

So what are we left with? Flip chips? (Cool, but expensive.) Signs on each person’s mat? (A little over-the-top.) Telepathic communication?! (I’ll keep practicing…)

I was searching through the drawers at the studio one day, looking for something – anything – I could use for this purpose, when I happened upon a box of paperclips. img_5468I wondered: What if students secured a paperclip to one side of their mat if they like assists, and the other side if they don’t? Then everyone has a paperclip (no one is singled out), both options are presented neutrally, and students can keep them on their mats for next time they’re in class! (And if we lose a few clips, who cares – they’re dirt cheap!) It’s not as aesthetically pleasing as a flip chip, but at least it will do for now, I thought. And so it was proclaimed: take a clip, and put it on the front right side of your mat if you really like assists; front left side if you’d like to be left alone. (Or, as one student later said: “Right on, hands on; left for left alone.”)

A year later, I am still using this system. In that year, some students have asked, “What if we like assists as long as you warn us first?” We decided that placing the clip in the middle of the mat would remind me to alert them first (the assist continuum!). Many have also asked, “What is a hands-on assist?” which has led to a brief definition or demonstration of what one might expect in an assist. (What is obvious to us teachers is not always obvious to our students!) And just as this system has allowed students who prefer no assists to remain untouched, it has allowed students who love assists to receive more of them; I am no longer hesitant when I offer an assist, because they have already (and recently) given consent.

Touch can be profoundly healing; it can also be triggering. Skillful assists can illuminate a certain pose, part of the body, or movement; they can also disrupt. I do not want to stop receiving assists, nor do I want to stop giving assists to those who love them. I do want everyone in class to feel safe and cared for. Whether this safety and care comes through a confident and caring assist, or leaving a student be, the student must be the one to decide.

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Teaching What We Need, Because We Have To

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

I agreed. Then I reflected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Nam Chantepie

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

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

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

 

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.

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.