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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Speaking Up

Over the past few months, I have had difficulty speaking up. In conversation, my voice is often crackly and hoarse, and when I try to project, my vocal cords feel strained. I cannot sing with the range I used to, and by the end of most days, saying more than a few sentences in a row is physically painful and exhausting. In recent weeks, this has worsened, and I have taken measures to preserve my voice how I can: I have skipped out on social engagements and stayed away from loud environments; I have limited my intake of caffeine and alcohol, and instead drunk comical amounts of warm water and tea; I have slept more; I have taken days off from work. I have even contemplated writing an email to all my friends asking them to please not take it personally if, for the next several months, I skip their parties or don’t join them at bars; it’s not them, it’s me.

One of my acupuncturist friends once asked me if I am prone to holding in my feelings, specifically, anger. I laughed. “I am one of the most emotive people I know,” I said. “And I don’t think I get angry very often.”

She clarified: “Do you speak up for what you need?”

I laughed again. “I don’t know?”

kid speaking up

For most of my life, I have fancied myself a rather bold personality. I can enliven a conversation if it grows stale, ask thoughtful questions, and offer thoughtful answers in return. I am not shy when meeting new people, and I can entertain like it’s my job (in fact, it has been my job). If I am excited about something, I show it; if I love someone, I say it. I would venture to say that “afraid to speak up” or “quiet” are not phrases most people would use to describe me.

But then there was that time that I spent three and a half years in a relationship I knew wasn’t right for me. There was that time I spent half a year in a relationship I knew wasn’t right for me. That time I spent three months in a relationship I knew wasn’t right for me… (I think you see the pattern.) And then there were all those times I agreed to things I knew I didn’t have time for (subbing classes, designing costumes, subbing classes, coaching cross country, subbing classes, playing fall league) but my friends or co-workers really needed someone, and I technically didn’t have anything else scheduled. 

Speaking up is easy when I’m confident that what I’m saying will be well-received. But when I sense that my speaking up is going to inspire disappointment, sadness, or confusion in others, speaking up is painful. There have been so many times I have not spoken up for what I want in interest of making others more comfortable. When I do this, I get angry (really angry) at myself. And because I know I brought it upon myself, I try to re-frame it to make myself more comfortable: “Abby, it’s fine,” I say. “You have dealt with stress before and you have lots of coping mechanisms. This is nothing compared to what other people endure. Your life is fine, even great!” To some degree, this is true, but in another very real sense, it is false logic: what other people can or can’t endure has nothing to do with my current experience; and what others need or have needed has nothing to do with what I need in this moment.

giving hands

Part of the problem is that when I agree to do all these things, I do so because I think it’s the kind or generous thing to do. If “selfless service” or karma yoga is something to strive for (which I believe it is), how can offering to help be bad? If everyone contains within them a spark of divinity or Atman (which I believe they do), how can staying in a relationship with anyone be destructive? What it boils down to, I think, is motivation. When my motivation is pure, in other words, when I truly want to help, I am not exhausted or depleted by the work; I am energized. And when I truly want to be in a relationship, I am not exhausted or depleted by it; I am thrilled. It is no secret that to want to help, to want to be in relationship, we must first have energy and love to share; we cannot, in good conscience, enter into either feeling depleted, resentful, or incomplete. And to feel energetic, generous, and content, we must first be attuned to and care for our Self.

Tomorrow, I have a doctor’s appointment where I will find out if I have vocal polyps. I have already entertained every scenario I can think of: maybe they’ll tell me I need to rest my voice completely. Maybe, for the next month (or two, or six), I won’t be able to teach yoga, do improv, play frisbee (or at least shout excitedly while doing so – which is essentially the same as not playing). Maybe I will have to get surgery, then rest my voice for an unknown amount of time. Maybe I’ll find out I don’t have polyps at all, in which case, my vocal issues will remain an annoying and painful mystery. Maybe I’ll need to create my own boundaries and rest regimen, rather than rely on those that my doctor has drawn for me.

Whatever they tell me will not change the fact that speaking up is hard. And although a diagnosis may give me a medical reason to work less (at least temporarily), it will be up to me to actually do so. It will (still) be up to me to express when I need to rest, when I don’t feel safe or happy, when I need support. To speak up for these needs is not selfish; it is Self-care. I have told myself this for years, but this time, I think I actually believe it.

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.

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.