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. 

 

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We Will Make It Work

There were already 40 people crammed into the studio when I arrived. I had deliberated for too long as to whether I wanted to take a yoga class or lounge in bed, and now it was 10:33 – three minutes after class was supposed to have started. When I looked at the room, then at the teacher, she said simply and genuinely, “We’ll make it work.”

“It’s okay if I don’t fit,” I said, trying to sound like I really was okay with it. “I don’t want to be a nuisance.”

“We’ll make it work,” she said again, “Everyone needs yoga right now.”

It’s not uncommon for students to get a bit grumpy when a studio fills beyond capacity. And as much as I, as a teacher, encourage my students to just roll with it, to make room when it doesn’t look like there is any, I also understand their concerns: it kind of sucks to be doused in other people’s sweat, to have your mat so close to your neighbors’ that you Anywhere Zencan barely move without becoming entangled in another’s limbs. Now I was that student, arriving three minutes late to a room that looked like it had no space for me. I really, really wanted to practice, but I really, really didn’t want to piss anyone off.

Just as I was rolling my mat out in the hallway, right outside the studio doors, another student came up to me and said, “I don’t know if you can see it, but there’s a spot all the way on the other side of the studio if you want.” I did want. Very much. So I picked up my mat and trekked to the other side of the studio, expecting to see at least a few frowning faces, annoyed that I had the audacity to wedge myself into a crowd of people who had enough respect to arrive on time. Instead, everyone was smiling, as if they were delighted to have found room for one more person to practice with them. As soon as I laid down on my mat and closed my eyes, I started crying.

Since the polls opened on Election Day, I had taught nine yoga classes. Until that morning, I had taken zero. Nine times, I was tasked with leading people through a practice that was supposed to foster an open heart, an open mind, and peaceful acceptance of what is. Nine times, I had to step aside from my emotions, at least enough to speak coherently and with minimal swear words. All nine times, I got at least a little bit teary and heard my voice get a little bit shaky, but each time, I was able to recover quickly. They’re not here to see me get upset, I kept telling myself, They’re here to practice yoga and to take care of themselves. This class is not about me. But finally, at 10:33 that Saturday morning, I had walked into a yoga studio to practice yoga. This class was about me.  

If you are a teacher (or a parent, or a caregiver of any kind), you are probably familiar with allowing others’ feelings to take priority over your own. I would argue that, in order to be good at our jobs, we must sometimes do this. We cannot take good care of others if we are preoccupied with our own feelings and stressors. Similarly (and somewhat oppositely), we also cannot take good care of others if we do not take good care of ourselves. Acknowledging and respecting our feelings and stressors is of critical importance if we are to empathize with and understand our students. We all know this, but knowing and practicing are two different things.

And the frustrating thing about practicing is that it often makes things harder, at least temporarily. Even though I had felt strongly that I needed to practice that Saturday morning, I must admit that when class was over, I felt more confused, sad, and angry than I had before. For a few minutes, I regretted having gone, as I suddenly felt less equipped to teach my class. In the fifteen minutes between taking class and teaching, I had to gather myself back up, step aside from the emotions that had come raging back, and pretend that I had my shit together, which I most certainly did not.

When I first started teaching, nearly five years ago, I relied on the approval of my students to tell me how I was doing. If several students came up to me after class to thank me, I trusted that it had been a success; if everyone left silently, I panicked (inwardly) and replayed all the possible mistakes I had made: forgetting my lefts and rights, choosing the wrong playlist for the mood of the room, not explaining things clearly, not allowing strength-handsenough time for savasana, allowing too much time for savasana. Over the last five years, I have come to rely less on verbal feedback, and more on observation. If I can hear or see people breathing deeply, moving in harmony with their bodies, or truly relaxing in savasana, I trust that the class I’m offering is working. (Yes, I recognize that we cannot always tell how our students feel by looking at them, but I do believe that, in general, our students will convey how they feel through their bodies, faces, and breath; to ignore this feedback is to discredit our work as perceptive and sensitive teachers.) If, by contrast, I see people looking confused, fidgeting, frowning, or avoiding eye contact, I take this as a message and I try to adjust: I speak more slowly and simply, I turn the music down, I put everyone in a child’s pose or forward fold while I take some deep breaths to myself. If I make these adjustments and the room still appears on edge, I try to trust that it’s still okay. I remind myself that I am doing the best I can, that I am a competent, caring, and passionate teacher, and that I have many students who enjoy my classes very much; if some people don’t, that is okay. They’ll find another teacher who is better suited for them. Usually, this positive self-talk works; on Saturday, it did not.

I know that I am a competent, caring, and passionate teacher. But I also know that I am fucking exhausted. I don’t know anyone who is at her best when she is fucking exhausted. We do the best we can under given circumstances, but some days will be easier than others and some classes will be better than others – in fact, some days will suck, and so will some classes. Some yoga classes will help us feel great and powerful and strong; others will remind us how weak and inflexible we can be. Saturday was a day I felt weak. I expect that I will experience another day like this soon – it’s how these things go. But to the best of my winding-roadability, I will continue to remind myself and my students that it is our weaknesses that help make us stronger, just as it is the wobbles and falls that make us more resilient and more balanced.

I am not looking forward to the political policies of the next four years, but I am looking forward to seeing how we, the resilient people, respond to them. I am not looking forward to the next yoga class where I feel weak and inflexible, but I am looking forward to returning to class after that. I am not looking forward to the next time I hear myself mix up body parts, stumble over my words, cry in front of my student, or see what I believe to be disappointed faces, but I am looking forward to adjusting, regrouping, and trying again.

Progress is not linear. Neither is healing or growth. I have to believe this is for the best. If we could only see ourselves become stronger, more flexible, and more powerful, we might become complacent, arrogant, or impatient. How fortunate that we are instead cyclically and relentlessly confronted with our weaknesses, flaws, and shortcomings! They are here to remind us that, no matter how much we have accomplished, there is still so much more to work toward.

We will make it work.

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! 🙂

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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Good Enough

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

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

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

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

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

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