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.

 

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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! 🙂

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.

Coming next week: Yoga for Athletes

A few weeks ago, I received a Facebook message from a friend inquiring about my Yoga for Athletes workshop. He said he had seen the flier, was interested in attending, but he had a few concerns. Not only was he worried that he wasn’t accomplished enough to be considered an “athlete,” but he felt anxious that he would feel out of place. “Unlike you and others in the class,” he said, “feeling better about me and working better with my body was something that came much later in life.”

First of all, let me be clear: you do not need to have earned any medals or set any records to be an athlete; if you know what Abby Warrior 3 Circlesore muscles feel like, if you’re familiar with pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, if you play or participate in a sport – no matter how un-competitively – you’re an athlete in my book. Secondly, “working with my body” and “feeling better about me” have not (and do not) always come easily to me.

It is true that I had an early start to athletics, and that I am, by most definitions a “good athlete.” When I was four, my parents enrolled me in dance classes in an attempt to burn off some (read: a lot) of my energy. When I was eight, they enrolled me in gymnastics in an attempt to preserve our furniture (which I had usurped as my own personal trampolines and balance beams). In middle school, I started running, hurdling and high jumping, and in high school, I ran cross-country and swam. Most of these things came naturally to me, and I defined myself largely by my athletic prowess. Then, at fourteen I was diagnosed with severe scoliosis, and sports were replaced by doctors’ appointments, back braces, and, eventually, surgery. My competitive energy had no athletic outlet, and so it turned against my body.

Before scoliosis, I had great control over my body. It did what I told it to do, and for the most part, it looked how I wanted it to look. With scoliosis, I suddenly felt out of control. I stretched, I strengthened, I tried to unbend, and still, my curves worsened. Back braces helped somewhat, but they were awful (imagine stuffing your torso scoli x-ray sideinto a section of PVC pipe each morning – then
staying there until you sleep). My parents and I read everything, tried everything, trusted everything, then cursed everything when none of it worked. So at age seventeen, I got surgery: eleven vertebrae were fused, and two stainless steel rods were placed alongside my spine, secured with 22 screws. Months passed, my bones healed, and soon enough I got back into sports. I took up Ultimate Frisbee, started running half and full marathons, and of course, started practicing and teaching yoga.

Most people who meet me now wouldn’t guess I have anything “wrong” with my body. Most people assume what my student assumed: that feeling good about myself and working well with my body came early and with relative ease. And when I tell most people about the rods, their first question is always, “Do you set off metal detectors??” (The answer is no, sorry.) Then they get more serious and ask, “So, can you feel the rods??” And while I always answer no, the answer is actually yes. But perhaps not in the way you think.

scoli x-ray backNo, I cannot touch the rods, and neither can you. No, you cannot look at my back and see outlines of metal debris. But yes, I can feel that my back doesn’t bend, and yes, I can feel what that means for my body.

When I take yoga classes with teachers I don’t know, I usually inform them of the rods. I also usually fold my shirt up – in case they forget, the scar is there to remind them: I might do my own thing, and this is why. I don’t do twists, I don’t do sidebends, and I don’t do backbends. It is not because I “have fear” as one teacher posited; it is because it is about as productive as you trying to twist or bend your forearm. And honestly, I am so used to the rods that they rarely frustrate me (just like you probably aren’t often frustrated by your forearm). I still have a “complete” yoga practice, my body still does what I want it to do, and for the most part, looks how I want it to look. I treat my body well, and it treats me as well as it can in return.

I am still a competitive person. I prefer winning to losing, and I prefer yoga poses that I can enter and hold gracefully to poses that I flail into and fall out of. But losing does not make me angry like it used to, and most of the time, flailing and falling just make me laugh.

When I talk about Yoga for Athletes with my friends and students, they are often surprised ragdoll pinkto learn that it’s not just a bunch of pushups disguised as chaturangas, or squat-thrusts disguised as vinyasas – it’s true that we athletic folk are often attracted to physically challenging classes, but perhaps that is not what we need. The same people are equally surprised to learn that Yoga for Athletes is not simply a collection of long-held stretches – indeed, too much stretching will leave the muscles slack and under-responsive. Sure, yoga taught me how to stretch my back and body in ways I thought I couldn’t, and that is useful. It also taught me that I can do a lot more things with my body than I thought I could, and that is wonderful. But above all, yoga taught me to pay attention, to find balance, to stop fighting against my body, and to start fighting with it. To me, this is what Yoga for Athletes is about.

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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Love Yourself, Then Laugh About It

When I first told my yoga students that I did improv comedy, they were surprised – sort of. “Wait, what?!” said one, then immediately followed it up with, “Actually, never mind. I can see it.” The next week, that same student came up to me before class and said, “Abby! I’m coming to your show tonight!” And while I am usually glad when my friends come to see my shows, my first thought this time was: Oh dear. She’s going to see a whole different side of me – what if I do something offensive on stage?! What if her image of me as a peaceful and loving yoga teacher crumbles and she never returns to my class again?? But of course what I said was: “Oh yay!!” Then I spent the rest of the afternoon wondering why I felt self-conscious about my two worlds merging.

improv kissing TimAs an improvisational comedian, I have had to develop my philosophy of comedy. My philosophy thus far has been simple: make fun of everything, including and especially myself. At the same time I have been cultivating my philosophy of comedy, however, I have also been honing a seemingly opposite philosophy of mindfulness (what some might call a “spiritual philosophy”): love everything, including and especially myself.

For years, I have seen the similarities between improv and yoga, but struggled to explain it. They are both about listening, and about being present. Both are about releasing expectations, accepting offers, and seeing possibilities, rather than obstacles. In Tina Fey’s chapter, Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Bellyfat, she observes: “As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no. ‘No, we can’t do that.’ ‘No, that’s not in the budget.’ ‘No, I will not hold your hand for a dollar.’” She asks the reader, “What kind of way is that to live?” To Fey, accepting offers and saying yes is not just a way to perform: it is a way to be. I have a similar reaction as a yoga teacher. I am baffled when I meet people who belittle their skills, habits, and beliefs, or think they are fixed. I get very upset when people say things like: “I’ll never be able to touch my toes,” “I could never run a marathon,” or “I can’t do yoga – I have a bad back.” I want to shake them (lovingly) and shout (kindly), “Just freaking try it!!!!”

There is another important commonality between improv and yoga: both are terrifying. And while the terror is more obvious with improv (there’s a whole audience watching you if you fail), it doesn’t take long to reach that terrifying place in yoga. Over the Improv NYE 12last seven years, I’ve quit two full-time jobs, gone through three major breakups, moved across the country, and tried to make a living teaching yoga, performing improv, and writing. All of these things are and were terrifying, and for all of these things, I blame yoga. And improv. Through yoga, I have grown to understand, appreciate, and love my whole self: physical, mental, and emotional. Through improv, I have learned to listen, laugh, and fail gracefully (as well as publicly). And while I believe I have always known myself, deep down, yoga and improv have encouraged me to exhume my deepest, darkest, and, incidentally, brightest self.

Yoga shakes us up (lovingly), and shouts (kindly): “This is you! Here you are!” While this shaking and shouting may initially throw us off course and create more chaos than we lived with before, it ultimately allows us to reassess the course we’re on, clearing out space to make sense of the mess that was previously stacked Yes-andin a neat pile, behind several doors and walls. Improv does a similar thing: it requires us to observe what is happening right now, and to respond in a way that makes sense. Scenes move forward when characters listen to each other, build upon each other, and give what they have to offer. The best scenes are those where we commit to our characters, where we are not afraid of the dark. It is frightening, invigorating, uncomfortable, and hilarious all at once. If this sounds like a metaphor for life, it is. When we see ourselves clearly, we can love ourselves fully. When we love ourselves fully, we can see others clearly and contribute positively. The darkness that once scared us becomes yet another thing to explore. And thank goodness for our scene partners! They are here to reminds us that whatever we do and whoever we are, we are worth saying yes to.

A Crack in the Sidewalk, or 15 Days Later

“With an intention, there is no failure.” – Me

Good thing I said that, because otherwise, I’d be writing today to say that I’ve failed.

It started last Thursday, when I was pressed for time and decided to run to my yoga class. It was a brilliant idea, I thought, for it would only take slightly longer to run there than it would to bike; I’d turn my prescribed run into transportation, thus saving myself time and keeping up with my marathon training. No sooner had I finished patting myself on the back for this uber-efficient and athletic solution did the sidewalk remind me just how fallible I was.

A mile into the run, I tripped on a crackcracked-sidewalkand fell, leaving my knees bruised and bloodied, and my dignity fractured. As the graceful citizens of Portland continued to walk and cycle past, I lay on the cruel concrete, crying pathetically and wondering what on earth I should do. I didn’t have time to go home and get my bike, the bus wouldn’t get me there in time, and I couldn’t find my car2go card. If I were to make it on time to teach, I had no choice but to keep running.

Four painful miles later, I arrived at the studio, knee puffy and sore. I taught, gingerly, and figured it would heal up in no time. The next morning, when it was still creaky and fat, I began to get nervous. I taught my usual Friday classes, hoping I wasn’t doing more damage, then made the bold decision not to practice yoga that day. In any other month, this would have been no big deal, but this time it meant I would not succeed in my 31 day challenge. To add insult to injury, I forgot to write. I wish I could blame it on a wrist sprain or a bad case of tennis elbow, but no: I just plain forgot.

When Saturday came and the knee was still sore and puffy, my anxiety swelled. I had already skipped one day of yoga, and it was looked like I would have to skip another. Saturday was also the day I was scheduled to do my long run, but that, too, seemed like it wouldn’t happen. Not only was I failing in my yoga quest, and not only had I skipped a day of writing, but my marathon training was unraveling as quickly as a loose-knit scarf at a cat convention. This is why I don’t do ___-day challenges, I cursed, because shit like this happens, and then everything falls apart!

Or maybe that is exactly why I should do such things.

Last summer, I told one of my yoga classes about a fabulous book I was reading: Mindset, by Carol Dweck. The segment I dont unravelreferenced had to do with our perception of, and reaction to, “failure.” Essentially, we often over-react, and turn minor mistakes, hiccups, or snags into spectacular ones. We eat one forbidden cookie, then say, Ah, fuck it! and eat five more; we get a poor night’s sleep, then guzzle enough coffee to give even the steeliest lumberjack an ulcer. But to do this, she says, is akin to getting one flat tire, cursing our luck, then slashing the other three ourselves. Why not just fix the one tire, she asks, and move on?

I still have four and a half months until the marathon, and there are still 15 days left in December. Also, as most yoga teachers know, one doesn’t need to do sun salutations and balancing poses to practice yoga. I can so simple seated poses; better yet, I can simply meditate (and maybe even ice my knee at the same time?!). Since Friday, I’ve been writing every day (again), trying to meditate for at least a few minutes each night before bed (hey, it’s better than nothing), and above all, appreciating my health. At least my spill on the sidewalk wasn’t any worse, and at least I can respect my body enough to take some time off when I need it. Meditation and stillness have always been more difficult for me than yoga asana and movement – so in a strange way, maybe this is the perfect kind of “__-day challenge.” I can’t say I like being laid up, or that I’m glad I fell, but it certainly has given me a lot to write and think about. So Cheers! to finding inspiration in the uncomfortable.

31 Days

Yesterday was a big day. Not only was it the first day of my marathon-(pre)training program, but it was also the first day of my 31-day yoga challenge. For good measure, I offered myself another challenge: write every day for the month of December. I’m proud to say that, two days in, I’m right on track with all of the above.

This is big news for me because, while I’m generally a rather disciplined person, I’ve never much cared for the “___-day 31-Fingerschallenge,” for the same reasons I’ve never cared for cleanses, diets, or strict race training plans: our diet ebbs and flows with our phases, as does our weight, as does our workout schedule, as do most of our habits. To challenge myself to a number of consecutive days of anything gives me sweaty palms and a jumpy heart (and not in the fun way). What if I am super-busy one day and I don’t do yoga like I promised myself I would? What if I’m especially sore and decide not to run on a day I’m scheduled to? What if I forget to write something one day? What if I just really want a piece of chocolate or a bowl of ice cream (not so much a hypothetical as an everyday occurrence)? In simpler terms: what if I fail?

Classic perfectionist talk.

But this month, instead of pooh-poohing the yoga challenge that my friend proposed, instead of casually running and calling it Yoga Matstraining, instead of rationalizing my way out of writing every day, I said, Let’s do this. (Yes, the royal “us”: my ego and me.) Will every yoga practice be enlightening and amazing? Probably not. Will every run make me feel strong and fast? Today’s certainly didn’t. Will everything I write be enriching and wise? Judging by some of my past journal entries, I’ll go ahead and say: hell no. Is that fine? Yes. In fact, it’s fantastic. To be able to do something for the joy of doing it, rather than the sake of achieving a goal is something I need to practice.

In most yoga classes I teach, I invite my students to set an intention at the beginning of class. I then remind them (and in turn, remind myself) that an intention is different from a goal: an intention is something to focus on and feel, rather than something to achieve. With an intention, there is no failure. So instead of waking up each day in December and thinking, “I have to write, I have to run, I have to do yoga,” I shall think: “I get to do (at least!) three things that I love today – how glorious!” The intention, after all, is not to shame myself into doing things that are “good for me.” The intention is joy in doing.

So Cheers! to holding oneself accountable without guilt trips. Cheers! to living one day at a time. And Cheers! to delighting in the practice of doing, rather than the perfection of skills or achievement of goals. Don’t wish me luck; just wish me joy.

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.