2019 Immersion & Teacher Training with Abby: Q&A

Dearest yoga students and wannabe teachers:

In case you haven’t heard, all my dreams have come true and I will be leading a foundational Yoga Teacher Training at The People’s Yoga this coming January-June! With an unbridled love and reverence for yoga, a (sometimes obnoxiously) fervent passion for education and teaching, and some really smart friends to help me out, I am SO PUMPED TO TELL YOU ALL ABOUT IT!! Below are some questions I’ve received from students over the last few weeks, and my verbose attempt at answering them. If you have more questions, please let me know (and maybe I’ll even write another post/ answer them in a video – I hear people like videos these days)!

Love,
Abby
abby@thepeoplesyoga.org

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Your program is advertised as a
300-hr Immersion and Teacher Training… Tell me more about this structure. Why the differentiation between “immersion” and “teacher training”?

In my experience, it is useful to separate the study of a discipline (in this case, yoga) from the art of teaching (a discipline in and of itself). If we have not invested substantial time and energy in studying yoga, attempting to teach yoga will prove a great challenge. By focusing first on developing our understanding of and relationship with yoga, we will be better prepared to guide others along the path of self-study.

During the immersion (the first 200 hrs), we will dedicate the majority of our time to: the practice and study of asana; anatomy and physiology, as they relate to yoga asana and alignment; yoga philosophy and history, as they relate to our modern, personal practice. Through a combination of asana, meditation, philosophical readings, discussions, and journaling, we will work together to develop a sustainable, daily yoga practice, that is most helpful and relevant to you.

During the teaching methods segment (the last 100 hrs), we will turn our attention to the art of teaching. Yoga is a practice that is meant to be shared, and to do so requires engagement and connection. In studying the art of teaching, we will place particular emphasis on engaging a diverse body of students, appealing to multiple learning styles, and creating an inclusive learning environment. Students will have the opportunity to practice teaching, not only with their peers, but within local community organizations (their final Karma Yoga Project). Through a combination of class observations, pedagogical readings, discussions, sequencing, and practice teaching, students will develop their teaching philosophy, persona, and voice.

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Aren’t most foundational YTTs only 200 hours? Can’t I just do the first 200 hours?

It’s true that most foundational trainings are 200 hours. It’s also true that some studios will hire anyone who has taken a 200-hr training (or less!). As noted above, however, the first 200 hours of this training will focus primarily on developing your personal practice, understanding of and relationship with yoga. If you are serious about teaching, I implore you: don’t stop after the first 200 hours.

That’s my short answer. Here’s my long-winded one:

There is some confusion as to what credentials a person needs in order to be hired as a yoga teacher. This confusion exists for a few reasons: 1) There is currently no broadly-accepted certification process for yoga teachers (only a “registration” process; more on that below, and in this article), and 2) Different studios have different standards. Many teachers are “registered with the Yoga Alliance” and display the acronym “RYT” (Registered Yoga Teacher) on their business cards. To be an RYT, a person must have completed a training program that has been approved by the YA. While this might imply a reasonable amount of oversight, the Yoga Alliance offers its stamp of approval to virtually any program that promises to spend a designated number of hours discussing various topics. What the YA doesn’t do is require students to demonstrate their knowledge on those topics – i.e., there are no exams, no capstone projects, no demo classes or student-teaching requirements. As a former school-teacher with a masters degree in education, I hope you’ll pardon me for saying: this is ludicrous! To skip the step of assessing our students’ learning isirresponsible, especially in a field where people’s bodies (not to mention hearts, minds, and spirits!) are directly affected.

This training takes that additional step and requires its students, not simply to study certain topics for a predetermined number of hours, but to show us what they’ve learned. While we have made the conscious choice not to register this training with the Yoga Alliance, we have instead developed our own (significantly more rigorous) learning standards and assessments with the help of many well-respected educators in the Pacific Northwest and California.* Through observation and written reflections, class discussions, presentations, peer teaching and demo classes, you will be held accountable, not just for what you study, but for what you have learned.

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Okay, I get it. You’re an education nerd. But what can I expect, practically, from this training?

With a combination of 2-hr early morning sessions (6am-8am, Mon-Fri), 3-hr Friday evening sessions (6pm-9pm), and 8-hr weekend sessions (9am-6pm Sat & Sun, with an hour lunch), the structure of the training allows us to explore different topics in formats befitting those topics:

Weekday morning sessions will be a forum for you to develop your personal practice and relationship with yoga. These sessions will include a combination of guided asana, seated meditation, and journaling, and will build in progressively more freedom throughout the course of the training. (In my experience, very few brains are awake enough at that hour to do a lot of heady discussion/ ingest much new information – so we shall use that time to focus on embodiment, and to create a sustainable practice!)

Friday evenings will be dedicated primarily to discussions. Some will be student-led, Socratic-style seminars relevant to that week’s philosophical readings; others will be led by one of the teachers on faculty and tackle such topics as Ethics in Modern (Western) Yoga, Yoga as Social Justice, Developing Your Teaching Voice, and Creating an Inclusive Learning Environment.

Saturdays and Sundays will be our time to dive deep into Anatomy and Physiology (with Dr. Kara Giaier), and Yoga History & Philosophy (with Meghan Maris) – and don’t worry: it won’t be eight hours of lecture! Both Kara and Meghan are highly skilled educators who recognize the importance of embodied/ kinesthetic learning as well as intellectual grappling, so you can expect a combination of lecture, discussion, and workshop-style asana practices. (And personally, I can’t wait to learn more from these amazing women!)

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Gosh, all this sounds like so much fun! But… what if I’m not very good at yoga? Don’t I have to be good at yoga to teach it, or even study it in-depth??

First, a quick request that we PLEASE THROW OUT THE IDEA THAT ANYONE IS BETTER AT YOGA THAN ANYONE ELSE! There is no such thing as “good at yoga,” and there is definitely no such thing as “bad at yoga”! If you are disciplined in your practice and pursuit of yoga (asana, and beyond!), if you are curious and reflective, if you are willing to admit what you don’t know while committing to continually learn more, you will most likely make an excellent teacher. And if you’re not interested in teaching and just want to start with the first 200 hours, great! Do it!! Goodness knows the world needs more people committed to self-actualization and building peaceful community. Let us start here!!

*This is part of a broader, long-term goal to raise the national standard for yoga educators. The People’s Yoga is excited to pilot this teacher training with established learning standards and assessments!

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Why I Hate my Garmin Watch

I was riding the bus in San Francisco when a woman made the mistake of asking me about yoga. “I like your yoga pants,” she said. “Do you do yoga?”

“I do indeed,” I answered.

“Man, I should start doing yoga,” she said. “I hear it’s a really good way to lose weight,” she said. “Is it a good way of losing weight?”brown bus seat

I laughed. “I mean, it can be? But probably not for the reasons you’d think.”

“Oh really? Why’s that?”

“Well,” I began, “it makes you listen to your body and more aware of when you’re actually hungry. And in my experience, it makes you want to treat your body better and feed it healthy things.”

“But you sweat a lot, right? I hear that sweating a lot makes you lose weight.”

“It certainly can, but that’s water-weight,” I started again.

“All I know is my girlfriend started doing yoga, started doing those hot yoga classes, and she lost 30 pounds.” She got up. “Well this is my stop,” she announced. “Thanks – I gotta stop eating these Oreos,” gesturing to her shopping bag, “and try yoga!” And with that, she was gone.

A month later, I got a new watch. It was to replace my old GPS watch that I had lost, and this time, it was extra fancy. Not only does this watch track distance and pace, it tracked heart rate, steps, stairs, calories, and (apparently) one’s level of stress. It also receives texts and Instagram notifications – you know, in case you’re phone isn’t within an arm’s length. Perhaps its most obnoxious feature is that, whenever I sit still for more than 15 minutes, it vibrates and flashes a message: “Move!” This is especially absurd when I’m seated in meditation.

When I ordered the watch, I knew we would have a complicated relationship. I did not want to become obsessed with its metrics, or reliant on it to tell me things I already knew, lest I stop actually listening to my body. I do not care how many calories I burn in a day, nor do I care how many steps I take or staircases I climb. I’m intrigued by heart rate, but mainly when I’m running (to see how high it goes) or doing yoga (to see how low it goes). But I figured, once I measured my heart rate once or twice during such activities, I’d stop caring; having a general idea would be good enough. And even though I knew all this – that I didn’t care or even want to care about virtually everything it measured – I started to feel myself getting sucked in. 

I wore the watch while running, biking, kettlebelling, and during a few yoga classes (as well as when I was not doing any of those things), just to see what my heart rate was and to see how many calories I burned. It confirmed what I already running on bridgeknew: deep breathing = lowered heart rate = fewer calories burned. Hard work and heavy breathing = higher heart rate = more calories burned. Unlike physical activities meant to encourage a body to work hard and burn calories, yoga is about using one’s body more efficiently. When we use our bodies efficiently, we expend less energy and therefore burn fewer calories – fewer than if we did the same task with greater effort. By this logic, yoga is one of the worst ways to lose weight – that is, as long as we think that burning calories is the secret to weight loss.

But why, oh why are we so obsessed with weight loss anyway?! Are humans innately happier when they are skinny than when they are fat? Do fewer pounds mean fewer health problems? Does slenderness yield higher self-esteem or self-compassion? As a person who has always been, by all accounts “thin,” I can safely say: absolutely fucking not. 

Here’s the problem: When we see a slender person, we assume they must be doing something right: they must eat healthfully, exercise, and generally treat their body well. When we see a heavier person, we assume the opposite: they must be doing something  wrong; they’ve “struggled with their weight” and lost. These assumptions are predicated on the belief that fat = unhealthy and skinny = healthy; this belief is simply not true.

Health is not merely physical – this is so painfully obvious that I feel ridiculous even typing it. Health includes the things we do with our physical bodies and what we feed them, of course, but it also includes our emotional well-being, and how we relate to ourselves and others. And yet somehow we forget these things when we see people as physical beings. Perhaps that’s the curse of a visually-oriented culture: we see first, listen later.

The problem with “smart watches,” like the one I recently bought, is that they distill us down to our vital signs. Instead of learning to pay attention to how and what we feel, we learn to pay attention to the metrics: our number of steps, our measurable pulse, our calm mindcalories expended. Instead of making decisions based on our observations of ourselves, we begin to make them based on what we are told from a removed, robotic source, and are rewarded with messages like “Goal met!” when we run faster or take more steps. There is no similar reward for sitting still, observing, and feeling.

To anyone who is wondering: Will yoga help me lose weight? I offer the annoying answer: Stop it. Get rid of that question altogether and ask yourself: What am I actually trying to do? If your answer is “to feel more at home in my body,” then my answer is “YES!” If your answer is “to feel healthier and overall more well,” then my answer is “a thousand times YES!!” If your answer is “to look better in a bikini,” my answer is “Who the fuck cares!! Just try it already!!

And to anyone who wears one of those watches (yes, I’m talking to myself): Remember that you are not your vitals. Your watch is a robot; it does not have sensory awareness or spiritual enlightenment or wisdom or anything else that a human has the capacity to have (except maybe a really good memory). Trust that your ability to listen is greater than your watch’s.

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.

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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.

Yoga for Scoliosis: Sat, Oct 21

It took me a long time to want to teach yoga for scoliosis. As a teenager and young adult, I did not like the idea of attending a class that reminded me I was different or abnormal. As a teacher, I did not (and do not) want my students to think people with scoliosis should not attend a “regular” yoga class. And while I’ve taken and taught a variety of yoga styles, from power vinyasa to restorative to yin, vinyasa is where I feel most at home. The thought of leaving vinyasa, or of shifting my focus to gentle or therapeutic, has historically been less appealing than going back to middle school and putting on my back brace. I do not want to be that teacher with rods in her spine; I want to be an excellent teacher.

My first experience with yoga was an Iyengar series with Francois Raoult at Open Sky Yoga. I was 15, knew almost nothing about yoga, and my goal was simple: to straighten my spine. I cannot remember if Francois also had this goal, or if he even thought this was yoga for scoliosisrealistic, but I do know that since then, several teachers have shared with me their belief that yoga can cure scoliosis, if done consistently and correctly. One teacher even expressed his regrets that I had gotten surgery before coming to see him, as he was certain he could have helped me avoid it. But whatever my goals were, whatever Francois’ belief was, and however skilled a teacher (and he was extremely skilled), yoga did not cure my scoliosis. My spine continued to curve and twist at a frightening rate, and I ultimately came to a place of acceptance: I could not do this alone. I would surrender to medical interventions.

After surgery, I took an eight-year hiatus from yoga. When I returned to it in my early 20s, my goals were not so clearly defined. My spine was already fused, so there was no sense trying to “correct” anything. Instead, I was focused on feeling more at home in my body, more at ease with the state of my life. I wanted, once again, to come to a place of acceptance.

For years, I gravitated toward teachers who would (gently) kick my ass, who would remind me that if I could breathe deeply while holding a 4-minute plank, then maybe I could breathe more deeply when I encountered my next challenging situation in life. Yoga helped me to feel strong, capable, and thoroughly alive. This feeling is what I wanted everyone to experience, and the reason I started teaching.  

I have never wanted to use scoliosis or rods as an excuse for not being capable. I do not want people to feel sorry for me, or to tell me I’m “brave.” I do want them to know that I understand what it’s like to be extremely frustrated with my body. There are times in child's poseclass when a teacher cues backbend after backbend, twist after twist, and all I want to do is curl up in a child’s pose and cry. There are times when I’m teaching, wanting to incorporate an interesting spinal movement or position, unable to demonstrate what I’m cuing, unable to tell if my cues are helpful. And then there are times when I just want to stretch my back or ride in a sedan without hitting my fucking head on the ceiling or sit on a couch comfortably, and become so sad at the thought that my spine will never bend again. But were it not for scoliosis, I would not have the understanding and appreciation that I do. And were it not for these frustrations, I would not have the patience that I do. It is these qualities, not the rods, that make me the teacher I am.

Yoga for scoliosis is not about being deficient or less able. It is not about avoiding challenging postures or styles of yoga. It is about gaining a greater understanding of our bodies, so that we may approach challenge with gentleness and grace. It is about learning to feel strong, capable, and thoroughly alive.

Join me for Yoga for Scoliosis this Saturday, Oct 21, from 1:30-4:00pm at Yoga Pearl to explore what scoliosis means for your yoga practice and for you. All levels of students and teachers welcome.

 

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! 🙂

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.