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.

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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.

Dear Abby

I received a “Dear Abby” in the mail yesterday; it was from me. I had written it on the last day of a yoga retreat I attended with my mother, just five weeks ago, and, like many things I do, I had forgotten about it. As I started reading, however, the feelings I had when I wrote the letter came back to me.

It was the end of a five-day respite from society, a break from my friends and family asking me, “So you’re done with grad school – what next?!” Prior to coming on the retreat, I had decided to move across the country to Portland, OR – big news, considering I had never lived more than an hour outside of Rochester, NY. I had thought this decision was momentous enough, but apparently everyone I spoke with wanted to know more: What would I do there? What if I didn’t get a job? How was I going to get to Portland? Was I sure I wanted to sell my car and most of my belongings? While I had once felt confident in my decision to move, these questions left me shaken. Perhaps I had not thought everything through; perhaps this was one of those ideas that sounded romantic and wonderful in theory, but in reality would leave me feeling foolish and desolate. But throughout the retreat, and especially as I wrote myself this letter, I calmed back down. Was every detail worked out? No. Was I sure that moving felt right? Absolutely.Dear Abby

To a degree, I wrote to myself, I revel in being unsettled – it gives me energy, keeps my looking forward, keeps me from falling asleep (literally and figuratively). But maybe, even in that unsettled state, I can find sure footing, and remember how soothing it can be to stand on the edge, water lapping at my ankles.

Three weeks into my Portland adventure, I have begun to find my footing. I am still what you might call “unsettled” – I spend the majority of my days job-searching, writing and rewriting cover letters and resumes, and asking myself what I want to do with my life. I have applied for Language Arts and Special Education jobs, jobs teaching yoga, am about to apply to AmeriCorps (again), and am considering applying for service jobs. I ask myself each day what my goal is: Do I want to work steadily toward my dream job now (owning and operating a yoga studio that caters to adults, kids, families, and athletes)? Or do I want to secure a steady, full-time income with benefits (through anything but self-employment)? Depending on my mood, my answer varies. And after reading my Dear Abby letter, I think this uncertainty is okay. I may not be settled, but at least I am not stagnant.

on the edgePsychologist Barry Schwartz discusses the idea of “The Paradox of Choice”: when we humans are faced with many options, rather than feel excited, liberated, and empowered, we often feel overwhelmed, paralyzed, and discontent. UrbanDictionary.com discusses a related phenomenon called “FoMo”: the Fear of Missing out, often exacerbated by seeing friends’ social media postings about what great lives they’re leading. And just last week The Telegraph took this concept further with the introduction of “MoMo”: the Mystery of Missing out – you know, when your friends don’t post their status every ten seconds and you’re forced to wonder if their lives are better than yours. With today’s barrage of choices and social media postings, it is easy to feel that we don’t have enough, that our lives aren’t exciting in comparison to someone else’s, that we should have chosen or acted differently. Rather than feel defeated by all this, however, perhaps we can feel exhilarated. The fact that there are so many jobs to have, goals to set, and people to meet is a beautiful thing, so why not take comfort in it? Complete stillness, like absolute zero, exists only in theory; it is the transitions, the restlessness, the uncertainty, that keep us moving.

Pink and Blue

Apparently, when I was three years old, I informed my parents that “Pink is a girl’s color. Blue is for boys.” My parents, recovering hippies that they were, shared a perplexed glance as if to ask each other, Are you responsible for teaching her that genderist smut?! When neither owned up to it, they decided it must have been the evils of society – no matter how careful they were to shroud me from such ideas, societal roles and expectations were just too insidious.

Throughout my childhood, I was reminded of this story several times. To my parents – especially my father – the story seemed a sort of prototype, a representation of all the assumptions and preconceptions that we, as a society, pass down without knowing it. As I grew older, I would encounter many such gender half and halfpreconceptions, several of which would test my confidence: when I was in middle school, I learned that boys don’t like goofy girls; in high school, I learned that girls and boys could be friends without sexual tension (then, in college, I learned they couldn’t); in college, I learned that men don’t like confident women (then, in recent years, I learned they do); and somewhere along the line, I learned that women wear makeup and men don’t. While I have always fancied myself an observant and reflective person, it was not until last June that I truly pondered the absurdity of this last societal myth. If someone had said to me, “Hey! Isn’t it weird that half the population is expected to paint its face, while the other half is expected not to?” I might have acknowledged that yes, that was weird. But no one said it, and I accepted it as a truth.

In most of the animal kingdom, it is the male sex that primps and fluffs, and the female that chooses and chases her mate. In human society, we have somehow reversed this: women are the “fairer sex,” and under no circumstances are we supposed to chase our potential male mates. eHarmony even published an article alerting women to the dangers of, “E-mailing [the man she is interested in], texting him, Facebooking him, sending him a cute card, dropping by his house, in any way attempting to initiate some kind of contact.” Not only have we convinced women to cover up their physical blemishes, we have also trained them to cover up their feelings. What happened to letting the world see us as we are? Are we so afraid of judgment that we need to keep at least one layer between us and everyone else?

What would happen if we accepted each other as readily as we accepted societal norms? be-who-you-areHow would we behave if we did what we knew to be good, instead of what we were told was right? I have wracked my brain to come up with a non-cheesey way to say it, but I can’t, so I’ll just say it, cheese and all: Bare your face, and while you’re at it, bare your soul; speak your truth, and recognize that truth is relative and malleable; don’t worry if you don’t fit society’s idea of you, or even your own idea of you – a person is more than an idea. Perhaps Dr. Seuss said it best: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

You’ve Heard it Before, I’ll Say it Again: Just Love Yourself Already

While I am usually impressed, even moved, by the writings that Elephant Journal publishes, I must say that Altucher’s (2010) essay, How I lost 30 Pounds through yoga and never saw them again, with embarrassing before picture, gave me pause. Well intentioned and genuine as the author seems, I find the underlying messages of the article inherently flawed: that we should be “embarrassed” by our bodies “before” we make healthy life changes; that lighter is healthier; that yoga is the magic bullet.

I am always skeptical of headlines or articles that proclaim weight-loss as a focal point. The way I see it, weight-loss is either a product of healthy life choices, unhealthy life choices, pregnancy, or a medical problem; since we rarely know which (unless we know the person well), I find it prudent never to bring it up, nor to dwell on it. Despite being an observant person who is fascinated with people’s bodies, I rarely notice when my friends, family, or students lose or gain weight. Perhaps I have trained myself not to notice, because I don’t think it matters–what matters most is the person’s quality of life.

ImageSome of the steps Altucher mentions are benign enough; others are inspiring: “love yourself;” “start cooking;” keep yourself in balance; have patience. Some others are downright dangerous: try a “colonic” to “cleanse” your system (our bodies do this just fine when we eat and excrete, thank you);  “when you are hungry, drink water first” (I prefer to listen to my body, and actually eat when I am actually hungry). And call me crazy, but I don’t see how someone who truly loves herself can simultaneously feel embarrassed by a picture of herself with 30 more pounds. Shouldn’t true self-love triumph over shame?

I do not mean to tear the article or its author apart. If she is happier at 118 pounds than she was at 148, then I am glad for her. I do, however, want those who read the article (and others like it) to ask themselves some very honest questions: Why do we see losing weight as good and gaining weight as bad? Why are we moved to exercise, or to be sedentary? What inspires us to eat healthy food, and what spurs us to binge? When we can answer ourselves honestly, without judging our answers as good or bad, right or wrong, strong or weak, we empower ourselves to harmonize our actions with our feelings.

Living a healthy, balanced, and happy life is a constant experiment. It is not something we can achieve, but rather, something we must continually invent and reinvent. Throughout my life, I have experimented with strict vegetarianism, veganism, not-so-strict vegetarianism, the Paleo diet, running, not-running, yoga, cycling, CrossFit, and fasting. I even experimented with bulimia for a brief time in college—not because I thought it was healthy (I knew it wasn’t), but because I mistook lightness for a sign of health (it’s not). Throughout each of these experiments, I gathered information, tested my hypotheses, made new conjectures, and began the process again. I have learned never to tell others that their choices are wrong, that they should exercise, that they should eat certain foods, that they would be happier if they would just _____. The truth is, none of us knows what makes others happy; we only (sort of) know what works for us. That being said, I will agree with Altucher that loving oneself is a key element to real and lasting happiness. Rather than think of it as “the first step,” however, I prefer to think of it as the most prominent theme.

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A Tribute to The Rods

Sometimes I forget that I had back surgery. Most of the time I’m just used to how my body moves (or doesn’t), but every now and then, someone reminds me with an innocent comment: “Abby, you have amazing posture!” or, “I feel like I have to stand up straighter whenever you’re around,” or sometimes, “You’re a yoga teacher? No wonder you have such perfect posture!” I feel almost guilty when I tell them, “Thank you for noticing, but it’s not the yoga – it’s the rods.”

Eleven years ago this month, my body was permanently altered. I went under anesthesia at Beth Israel North, and when I woke up, I had eleven fewer moveable joints, two new stainless steel rods and 22 ragdoll pinkscrews. My scoliosis had progressed aggressively over the previous five years, and surgery was an attempt to fix it for good. Most days, I am incredibly thankful for this permanent solution; sometimes, however, I feel a pang of regret: what if surgery wasn’t the best option? What if a new, less invasive surgery comes to fruition – will I pity myself for my impatience and antiquated rods? To add to this mental conflict, I have also had several yoga teachers express regret on my behalf when I tell them of my rods: “I wish you had come to see me before you decided on surgery!” one said; “Yoga is a natural way to correct scoliosis,” said another. Every time someone says something like this, I want to respond: Are you f*cking kidding me?! Do you think I didn’t try other solutions? Do you think it was an easy decision, gluing nearly half my vertebrae together and reinforcing them with stainless steel? But every time, in an effort to remain cordial, I smile and say, “Yeah, it was a difficult decision, but it’s too late to change my mind now.”

I am still learning how to reconcile my own view of myself with how others view me – or, more accurately, my perception of how others view me. Usually, I am happy with myself and my decisions, and usually, I focus on how I feel, rather than how I might appear.  But more often than I would like to admit, I look to others to validate my choices, to tell me what a good job I did, or to reinforce an inkling I have – positive, or negative. Sometimes I am so focused on how I come across that I find it hard to accept a compliment (a compliment, that, just moments earlier, I was hoping to receive). Rather than simply say, “thank you,” I find some excuse to diminish my skills, abilities, or even my posture: “Oh, I’m not really that good”; “It’s not the yoga – it’s the rods.”

The truth is, my rods aren’t solely responsible for my excellent posture, nor are my natural talents responsible for any of the good work that I do. It is all a balance of nature and nurture, innate and cultivated, acceptance and seeking. Whenever I am alone – whether I am cooking, doing yoga, scoli x-ray backscoli x-ray sidereading, singing, dancing, or sitting – I am deeply in touch with what I want and need; I accept my body fully for what it can do, and what it can’t, and I appreciate my challenges as much as my talents. With no one around to critique or congratulate me, my successes and failures are my own. Once I step into the world, however, I inevitably begin comparing myself to others: am I smarter, faster, less attractive, more adept, less patient, or just plain different? How much of me is fixed, immobile, permanent, and how much of me can still grow and evolve? When I let others’ assessments of me speak louder than my own, self-doubt creeps in. But when I stop seeking outside opinions, slow down, and listen, not only do I feel more capable of making my own decisions, I feel content with the decisions I have already made.

So, rods and screws in my spine, listen up: I know you’re in there, and I appreciate you. You are part of my body, no longer a collection of foreign objects, but an integral part of my skeleton. Some people may tell you (or me) that you don’t belong, but we cannot doubt our connection. We’re in this together. Happy Anniversary.

half moon pink

(Photo credit to Steve Kraft)

Why I Love the Rain

I’ve often thought it funny that so many people pay to take restorative yoga and meditation classes. Yes, I’m a yoga teacher, and yes, I have taught both restorative yoga and meditation to paying customers; I am thankful for these paying customers, for they are the reason I can afford my groceries. What I find funny is that so many of us won’t relax, won’t slow down, won’t take deep breaths, without a professional teacher telling us to.

I grew up on a bison farm in western New York where my father was the primary farmer. Despite this being a “stay-at-home job,” come hay season (late May-early September), I hardly saw him. Anyone who farms knows that a farmer is at the mercy of Mother Nature. Anyone who pays attention to the weather (and news) might also realize that we are all, bisonin fact, at the mercy of Mother Nature: when it is sunny and temperate, we flock to the outdoors; when it rains or snows, we cover ourselves and rush indoors; during a heat wave, we worry about sun burn and heat stroke; during a cold snap, our heating bill skyrockets and we curse our ancestors for ever deciding to settle in such a horrid place. On the farm, a hot, dry day meant my father would be mowing, raking, and bailing hay until sunset; a rainy day, on the other hand, meant the grass was too soggy to rake and bail, and my father was obliged to stay indoors. Instead of coming downstairs to an empty kitchen, I would find my father sitting at our island, finishing his giant bowl of cereal and reading a National Geographic. My mother followed a similar pattern: though not a fulltime farmer, she spent her share of time outside. Whether running, biking, or gardening, she was an outdoors kind of woman. Rain, however, afforded her some time to stay under our roof, free of guilt—a rainy day was a fine day to clean up her desk, practice the piano, or sit in the kitchen in her bathrobe, sipping tea and listening to classical 91.5.

Most of my yoga students know that I love the rain. On rainy mornings like this one, they remind me of this fact: “You must love this weather, eh?” or sometimes even, “I blame you for this weather, Abby!” (all said in good spirits, of course). And it’s true: I do love the rain. But I didn’t realize why until today, when one of my students asked me, “Why do you love the rain?” For the first time, I analyzed my feelings on precipitation: First of all, I thought, rain makes plants lush and healthy, and makes the color contrasts richer: brown bark and green leaves, blue-grey sky and black pavement, true-blue sky peeking around dark clouds, a clear stripe of sun burning through fuzzy, humid air. But even more than the rain itself is what it implies: warm socks, an afternoon nap, settling on the couch to watch an episode of Parks and Recreation, more people in my yoga classes, and above all, moving slower.

Although I am skilled in helping others relax, I often find it difficult to apply these skills to myself. When it’s sunny and warm, I feel compelled to go running—even if I don’t especially want to, I think I should (because in Rochester, sunny Imagedays won’t last forever!). When faced with the choice to relax in front of a movie or straighten up around the house, I generally choose straightening up (because what better way to get ahead than use one’s down time productively?). Of course, there is nothing wrong with keeping busy and active—in fact, there are many things right about it. There is a difference, however, between keeping busy for the joy of it, and keeping busy because we think we have to; while the former yields more joy, the latter often breeds resentment and stress. Perhaps it is no wonder so many of us need to step into a yoga studio in order to relax: since “go to yoga” is something we can check off a to-do list, we can feel like we did something. With the rain, however, I feel my to-do lists dissolve. I think of my parents, sitting inside, free of guilt, and remind myself: if they were allowed to relax on rainy days, so am I.

Yoga Tunes: Turn Them Up or Turn Them Off?

I don’t get angry very often. It’s an emotion I don’t enjoy, and one I generally prefer to reserve for social injustices or animal cruelty. But last week, I found my heart pounding and my ears steaming as I read some Reddit-users’ (affectionately deemed “redditors”) comments on the r/yogamusic page of Reddit. The topic was (surprise!) music in a yoga class, and it started innocently enough: “Yoga teachers: What are your current playlists for your classes? I need some inspiration.” It quickly migrated, however, to the age-old discussion: should music be played at all in a yoga class, or is it merely a distraction? Choosing a playlist is one of the most difficult aspects of teaching for me. I want music that is relaxing, yet energizing; music that is poignant, but not depressing; music that enhances the mood of the class, rather than distracts from it. To find 75 minutes worth of songs that fit these criteria is time-consuming.

Students’ and teachers’ tastes in music range wider than a seasoned yogi’s legs in Virabhadrasana II—how can we possibly appeal to them all? The obvious answer is, we can’t. One redditor’s comment proposed a simple solution to the music problem: don’t play music at all. He went on to say that his usual teacher never plays music, but that he’d been to a class recently where the sub had played a Bon Iver song during Savasana. “I can’t stand Bon Iver,” he said, “and I almost approached her after class to tell her she shouldn’t play something so divisive.” Another redditor offered a similar sentiment: “Teachers who play music in class are either uncomfortable without it as a backdrop or feel that their students are.” And another: “What’s with the need to fill the silence that would enable clearer focus???”

First of all, the idea that the yoga studio should be (or could ever be) devoid of all controversy is absurd to me. Unless we sit at home and listen only to our own opinions, opportunities for controversy and disagreement follow Imageus everywhere—yes, even inside the yoga studio. Ironically, the same redditor who “can’t stand Bon Iver” acknowledged that he “tried to take it as a learning opportunity—finding peace when you’re uncomfortable, you know?” But this desire to learn appeared fleeting when he added “I tried … but I actually left class felling really upset.” I wanted to ask this person: is this how you always treat your yoga practice? What happened, say, the first time you attempted a handstand? Did you leave feeling upset if you didn’t succeed? Did you then declare that teachers should not teach handstands because some students don’t find them comfortable? Or did you come back and try again? Finding peace amid discomfort is difficult and frustrating, but surely it is worth more than one try.

Regarding the comment that “teachers who play music” (as if we are all one homogenous breed) are “uncomfortable without it,” I could not disagree more. Perhaps there are some who fear silence, but even if that is the case, so what? We teach yoga for others, not for our own personal growth; if music makes us more comfortable, confident teachers, great. I would far rather have a teacher who seemed comfortable with herself and her class structure, even if I “hated” her music, than a teacher who seemed unsettled. When I play music, it is because I want to, not because I don’t not want to. There are some who don’t care for my taste in music, and there are others who love it. But whether they like my music or not, I would hope that they come to my class, not for the playlist, but to gain a greater appreciation of their own bodies and selves.

Sitar_for_yoga_musicAnd finally, in response to the question, “What’s with the need to fill the silence that would enable clearer focus???” I ask: does silence guarantee clearer focus? Don’t get me wrong, I am a friend to silence; I agree that it is important not to fear it. But I also believe it is important to make peace with cacophony. Like it or not, the world is full of noise—some of it soothing, a lot of it stress-inducing. As yoga teachers, we do not have the responsibility (or the capability!) to rid our studios of everything that might cause our students stress; it is our job to equip our students with tools to effectively cope with the stress they encounter. We must be sensitive and attuned to our students’ needs, but we cannot remove all obstacles for clear focus and inner peace. That is work that we all have to do for ourselves.

So why do I bother ranting about this? I can think of two reasons: 1. I am a sensitive soul who loves music and will defend its place in a yoga class to my death, and 2. I want people to think. If a yoga teacher plays a song a student dislikes, this does not mean she shouldn’t have played the song; it certainly doesn’t mean that music has no place in yoga. Similarly, if a student is uncomfortable with a music-free class, this does not mean the teacher needs to fill the silence. To my fellow yoga teachers, I say: keep on rocking the music—or silence—you love. And to my fellow yoga students: keep on breathing, even and especially through a song you don’t like, for being uncomfortable allows us to use the skills that yoga teaches us. In the words of Kelly Clarkson, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, stand a little taller.”

An Empty Corner

When I decided to become a yoga teacher, I thought I’d finally be disciplined enough to go to the studio every day. I didn’t think I’d be toting my mat everywhere in the hopes that I’d find an empty corner where I could do at least a few Sun Salutations and maybe a Pigeon.

Since becoming certified to teach, I have practiced yoga on a subway, in a park, in an airport (or three), at my office, at home, in the green room of a theatre, on the stage of a theatre, in the backstage area at a fashion show, and, when I’m really lucky, in the yoga studio. Thankfully, I am at a stage in my life where I don’t notice onlookers. Yes, I avoid some of the more “suggestive” poses in public (too much vigorous Cat/Cowing can send the wrong message), and I am mindful not to kick any passersby as I swing through to Warrior I, but for the most part, I am in my own world (something, incidentally, my kindergarten teacher told my parents long ago). I don’t tune the noise out, exactly — indeed, sometimes that is impossible — but I wouldn’t say I listen to it either. In a way, the noise is comforting. It reminds me that there is a world around me, full of people and animals and plants and wind and cars and sirens and stress — you don’t get all that in a yoga studio. Of course, the yoga studio is wonderfully comforting too: a room full of people who value health and want to take care of their bodies; a teacher to guide you through a journey you might not take on your own; music to help your mind stay focused and present. But why do we go to the yoga studio in the first place? Usually because something in our every day lives reminds us that we need some help. So we enter the studio, breathe deeply for 75 minutes, feel amazing, then we get home to find the dishes still in the sink, the fridge still empty, and the stubborn piles of paperwork that made us drop everything and declare, “I’m going to yoga NOW!”

Practicing in public reminds us that there is no escape, only respite. Whether we like it or not, we are a part of this crazy, busy, crowded, noisy, violent, and imperfect world; isn’t that why we search so hard for peace, and become so euphoric when we find it? Perhaps what we should remember is that this peace, this euphoria, isn’t unique to the yoga studio. It doesn’t exist only in small quantities for monks or yogis in ashrams to hoard. It can be found in the middle of chaos, in the middle of war, in the piles of unsorted laundry, in that empty corner between the catering table and the trash can. Whether we have 75 minutes or five, breathing deeply does the body good.

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