Author Archives: laurasana

Settling the Mind in Savasana: A Body Scan Technique

Recently I took a look at some different Savasana variations to help your body feel comfortable and relaxed for rest. When our bodies are supported and at ease, we give our minds a better opportunity to be calm and peaceful. Sometimes, even with the body in its most optimal position, our mind is still racing and we’re not able to truly relax. What’s a yogi to do?

This week, I’ll offer you a technique to work with the breath, body and mind to cultivate greater relaxation in Savasana (or any time you’d like to encourage the mind to settle). This is a variation on a body scan adapted from Reginald Ray’s excellent book on somatic meditation, The Awakening Body. “My” version of his technique is by no means intended to replace or replicate what he teaches (which is a much more nuanced and intricate process), but may work to help soothe body and mind.

  • Lie down in your comfortable Savasana. Begin by bringing your awareness to all of the places where your body is supported, resting on the earth. Imagine that gravity is rising to meet your body as your body sinks downward.  Feel those points of connection where the back body rests into the earth.
  • Now, bring your awareness to your feet and notice any places in your body where you feel tension, tightness or pain. As you inhale, recognize the tension, as though the breath could move into or occupy the tension itself. On the exhale, invite the tension to drain away into the earth through the heels (or whichever part of the body is supported on the earth, closest to the feet). You could stay with the feet for a little while, or move up to the ankles and calves.
  • Continue on in this way, gently noticing tension as you inhale and inviting it to drain away into the earth with an exhale. Move up the body bilaterally, so that you are working with both legs, hands, etc., at the same time.
  • In each body part, feel that the stress drains directly through the back of the body at whichever place is closest and supported on the earth. For example, at the chest, the tension moves through the shoulder blades and rinses away.
  • Be sensitive and kind, especially with areas where you know that you may hold tension, or that feel emotionally difficult. If you find tension that does not “want” to let go, it’s important to simply allow it to be as it is for now, and feel that you are resting with the tension. When it’s ready to leave, it will.
  • You may find that as you release tension in one area, you get a release in another part!
  • When reach the face and head, allowing tension to drain into the earth through the back of the head, you can continue the exercise by now allowing the whole body to breathe. Continue to lightly scan through the body, noticing where tension may be present and inviting the exhale to drain it away.
  • Before rising, take several full-body breaths to invigorate and enliven the body and mind. Trust that you did good work and that you can return to this practice at any time to continue to invite your tension to wash away.

 

Louis in Savasana.jpg

 

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After Gym Class: Learning to Love Movement via Yoga

Malasana September 2018A few weeks ago, I read an article in the New York Times entitled “How You Felt About Gym Class May Impact Your Exercise Habits Today.”  This is something that feels so obvious to me I was kind of surprised that it merited an article, but then again, I think way more about my traumatic life experiences (and other people’s) than is probably healthy, so I’m all over this topic.

Exercise and movement are such a big part of my life now that it’s hard to reconcile my current lifestyle (a daily practice of gym, yoga, weightlifting, occasional awkward excursions into Jazzercise, jiu-jitsu, running, biking, you name it) with the first three decades of my life, in which exercise was something you did if you were required to, or if, as one of my ex-boyfriend’s mothers said to me, “You are getting fat. You need to make exercise” (there was a cultural difference, so I’d like to think I’ve let this go, but here I am writing about it on the Internet 20 years later, so probably not so much).

As a kid, I liked to play outside, but mostly I used that time to enjoy being alone, spending time with my dog, reading and daydreaming. When my friends forayed into group sports (softball, field hockey), I gave it a try, but really struggled. I literally did not understand how the games worked or what the rules were. There was no Google to look these things up, and although you might reasonably ask, “Why would you not just ask someone?” it didn’t feel that simple to me. If everyone else already understood this thing that I clearly was supposed to have learned somewhere or somehow, the best my introverted self could manage was to kind of pretend and hope it would all work out one way or another.  Don’t pass to me, I’d pray during the game.  Oh, they’re running that way– must be time to run with them down the field now. 

You can imagine, then, how much I did not enjoy gym class. I was a child of the 80’s, and all I knew of politics was that Ronald Reagan liked jellybeans and that he, in his infinite, grandfatherly wisdom, had decreed that we must complete the Herculean tasks of the Presidential Physical Fitness Test. Pull-ups. Sit-ups. The Shuttle Run (ugh). The Mile. The Sit-and-Reach.  I can’t remember what I wore yesterday, but the agony of the Physical Fitness Test is super fresh in my memory. Our gym teacher had big puffy brown hair and chewed gum as she noted, bored, on her clipboard, my subpar efforts. A quick romp through the Internet tells me that I am not the only child who remembers the tests with a lingering sense of shame and anxiety (“Sit and reach. I sat, I reached, I farted. Ruined 5th grade,” says one person.  You can read more of “The Sad, Sad Stories of the Presidential Fitness Test” here).

Middle school was no improvement. Some of us threw hard rubber balls across the gym. Others were hit with a stinging whack (guess which one I was!). It was only an hour or so, but that was nothing compared to the mandatory public shower afterward.  In order to earn a passing grade, we were required to walk into the communal shower area (open to the entire locker room), take off our towel, place it on the low wall, and twirl around once under the shower so that the teacher could see us do it. This had nothing to do with hygiene and everything to do with body shaming, anxiety and often bullying from older girls.

So yeah– gym class missed the mark for me. I know plenty of kids who enjoyed it– the naturally athletic ones, the ones whose bodies moved easily through space, who could kick or catch a ball or yell “Pass it to me!” with confidence. Extroverts thrived on the team experience– I shrank and wilted.

Let’s go to the Times article:

“People’s memories of gym class turned out to be in fact surprisingly “vivid and emotionally charged,” the researchers write in the study, which was published this month in the Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine.

And those memories had long shadows, affecting people’s exercise habits years later.

The most consistent associations were between unpleasant memories of P.E. classes and lingering resistance to exercise years later, the researchers found. People who had not enjoyed gym class as children tended to report that they did not expect to like exercise now and did not plan to exercise in the coming days.”

-Gretchen Reynolds, How You Felt About Gym Class May Impact Your Exercise Habits Today

All of this is a long preamble to say– despite my struggles with gym class and the US Physical Education system, I have managed to find my way to being a reasonably healthy person who loves to exercise. I like to learn new movement skills and I’m relatively confident as an athlete, even if I’m not good at something (I’m pretty bad at most new things, FYI). Was it a miracle of some sort? Life coaching? Sheer willpower? Nope. It was yoga.

Yoga bridged the gap between the social anxiety, poor body image and low self-confidence that I felt as a human adult attempting exercise. I’ve taught yoga for several years now, and I think I have an understanding of why yoga managed to convert me into an active adult when other modalities failed: it teaches body awareness, creates confidence, and it’s essentially non-competitive.

One of the most crucial skills that I began to develop when I began doing yoga was proprioception*. This is simply the sense of where your body is in space.  Some of us don’t develop this terribly well, for many reasons, but luckily it is a skill that can be learned and taught. Chronic “klutzes” may find themselves moving gracefully! It’s pretty awesome.

Once we have a greater sense of where we are in the world, it’s natural that we start to feel stronger and more confident. As I continued to practice yoga, I built strength and found that I could actually enjoy moving my body through space in a deliberate way. I also found that I could appreciate what my body was able to do, and to find ways to nurture it so that it could work even better.

I often remind my students that one of the best things about the yoga practice is that we can stop anytime. This may sound a little silly, but for me it’s quite meaningful. If exercise has been challenging for you, committing to a 90 (or even 60) minute yoga practice may feel too overwhelming. Perhaps it’s not the physical challenge that scares you, but social anxiety. In that case, too, knowing that there is no pressure to compete or keep up, that there are very few rules to be memorized, no team to let down, and that nobody in the room has any expectations of you can be tremendously freeing. You really can stop at any time. You can sit down, or do a different pose, or you can try something on one side you didn’t do on another. You can roll up your mat and practice another day.

Having this freedom– to try something different, or to simply stop when we need to– has an interesting psychological effect. Because they don’t feel that they have to, often I find that students are eager to practice and even try things that might always have been outside of their comfort zone. The anxious students, gaining confidence in themselves and finding that they can be comfortable in an “exercise” environment, find themselves relaxing and engaging with fellow students.

The pressure to perform is off, and the joy of movement and play has returned. In this way, yoga has the potential to repair the damage caused by a poor educational approach to exercise (I’m looking at you, Presidential Physical Fitness Test). I have seen time and again that learning embodied awareness and cultivating an appreciation for movement and our body’s abilities leads not just to greater health and more functional movement, but to strength and confidence in the rest of our lives and in our relationships with others.

Of course, not all yoga classes are created equal. In order for to be truly empowering, a yoga class should include instruction on and time for inquiry (rather than merely imposing external alignment principles). Variations on poses should be taught and celebrated, and students encouraged to meet themselves where they are that day (teachers– we’ll take a look at how to create this kind of environment in an upcoming blog). Otherwise, yoga classes run the risk of simply recreating the same uncomfortable, inequitable experience so many of us lived through in that gym class.

 

*Yoga and meditation can also teach interoception (a sense of the internal state of the body– am I hungry, thirsty, tired?) and exteroception (a sense of what’s going on outside of the body). This means we have the potential to use and care for our bodies more skillfully, and to engage with the world around us in a more mindful, integrated way. 

Finding Ease in Savasana: Prop It Up!

At the end of every yoga class, we lie down in Savasana- yoga’s “corpse pose.” In this final pose, we practice letting go and letting be.  Trusting that we’ve done enough, we release any sense of effort and give ourselves over to rest. Neurologically, this is a chance for our nervous system to absorb and digest all of the new information we received throughout the practice.

Ideally, if the class is sequenced well, your body and mind are primed for rest, and this is a nurturing and relaxing experience. Many students really, really love this pose (we used to sell shirts at YogaFish that read, “I’m Just Here for the Savasana!”). Others (often, especially, newer students) find it challenging and would rather get up and leave than partake in mandatory adult nap time.

In order for the mind to really be able to rest, it’s helpful to make the body as comfortable as possible. If lying on the floor on a rubber mat isn’t your idea of a luxurious getaway, I’ve got some simple Savasana alternatives for you to explore that might help your body to feel more at ease. Most of these are pretty simple and will just require you grabbing an extra prop or two before practice.

Stonehenge SavasanaStonehenge is a favorite with several of my students. By placing a bolster on top of two blocks, you’re allowing your lower back to nestle into the floor more cozily. I find that sitting closer to the blocks (creating deeper hip flexion; that is, bringing knees closer to the face) feels better on my low back, but you are welcome to explore. Adding a blanket over the feet or the whole body can create a sense of comfort as well. 

 

 

Double Bolster SavasanaDouble Bolster Savasana is for the yogi that likes a bolster under the knees and wants to really snuggle in! Here the legs aren’t as high as in Stonehenge, but the second bolster under the calves and ankles provides a deep sense of fundamental support, signaling the primal brain that it’s okay to relax. A blanket or pillow under the head or neck is always great if you find that your head is tipped back; you want to feel that your forehead is the same distance from the ground as your chin.

A nice addition to this pose would be a folded blanket or sandbag over the hips. Adding a pleasant amount of weight here can feel good physically and creates a psychological sense of security.

 

Legs up the wall SavasanaLegs Up the Wall Savasana can be a real breath of fresh air if you want to take some weight off your legs. Here, Carol Dee has added a sandbag over the feet (your teacher can place this here for you).

If you’re adding a bolster or folded blanket under the hips here, try placing it about 6 inches away from the wall (setting a block between the bolster and the wall will keep it from moving and help you space it). This creates a mild inversion, which some folks really appreciate.

 

La-Z-Boy SavasanaLa-Z-Boy Recliner Savasana takes a little set-up, but may be well worth the effort! This is a favorite with prenatal students. It’s a great option for students who have difficulty lying flat on the ground. The chest is mildly elevated, but the spine remains fairly neutral.

The basic pose is simply two blocks (one on the high setting, furthest from the head; one on the medium setting, closer to the base of the spine) under a bolster. Here, Carol Dee has wound a rolled blanket around her ankles to gently hold them in place. I would love to add a folded blanket under each arm so that her elbows can relax more comfortably; an eye pillow would be the icing on the cake!

These are just a few options– why not have a little fun with it? Try out a different variation the next time you unroll your mat (psst–if you’re practicing at home, bed or couch pillows make great bolsters)!  In all of these variations, the common denominator is really giving the body as much support and comfort as possible. As you lie down, ask yourself “Is there anything I can do to make my body feel a little bit more supported?” If there’s an ache or a twinge you can’t quite figure out, please ask! Your teacher may be able to offer a suggestion that can allow you to rest more easily. Notice whether or not adding support to your body with a bolster, block, or even just a blanket over the body lends a little more serenity to your mind in Savasana.

Finally, please remember that Savasana, like any other yoga asana, is really an expression of your body and mind’s needs in that given moment. If for any reason you are unable to feel comfortable lying down or even closing your eyes, it is completely reasonable for you to sit quietly on your mat (perhaps in meditation) or to prop yourself against a wall.

In our next blog, I’ll include some techniques to encourage the mind to relax in Savasana. In the meantime, let’s hear from you! What are your favorite Savasana strategies? Are you a minimalist or do you bring your own eye pillows and lavender mist?

 

 

 

 

Teaching Series: Preventing Burnout

So now you’re a yoga teacher.* You’re in love with your life, you’re in love with yoga, everything is super amazing, rainbows and sunshine!

Or, maybe it is for a while, anyway. If you haven’t read the first part of this series, I recommend checking it out to review some of the “yogastential crises” that can arise for yoga teachers throughout their career. Even though yoga and meditation have changed my life, and there is nothing I’d rather do for a living than to share these practices with others– it is not all incense and “Namaste.” I’ve fallen out of love with yoga multiple times (or at least with certain aspects of, or styles of contemporary yoga). I’ve had serious financial stress. I’ve had brutal injuries and personal grief and no choice but to show up and teach.

I haven’t always handled these situations particularly skillfully, but I have always learned something. Along the way, I’ve found some ways to manage the yoga-teacher work/life balance that I’ve found helpful to both prevent burnout and create a structure that will support you, Fellow Yoga Teacher, in the event of a personal crisis. Here’s a clickbait sentence for you: Check out my Ten Strategies For Avoiding Yoga Teacher Burnout Below!

1. Find time for your own practice. If you are able to take classes with a teacher locally, do! Working with another teacher that you like and trust is an excellent way to receive the benefits of yoga and to feel cared for and nurtured. If that is not possible, create space in your home for your own practice and commit to it, even if it’s just 20 minutes and two poses, twice a week. 

Your own practice means just that– your practice. This is time for you on your mat. It does not have to look anything like a studio practice. It does not have to be structured in any particular way, and it definitely should not be a time that you are creating a sequence for your students or rehearsing for class.

What happens if you don’t manage to find time to practice? Your teaching might start to feel stale, or boring to you. You might lose touch with the reasons why you wanted to teach yoga in the first place. Possibly even worse is a feeling of resentment and frustration that arises while you are teaching because your own needs are not being met.

2. Consider another movement practice. From time to time, our asana practice may not feel like a refuge; it might feel like work. Or, we may find that we are not getting a well-rounded physical experience from just practicing yoga. Adding another movement practice to your routine will give you the opportunity to practice mindful embodiment and joyful movement in a way that has nothing at all to do with yoga– and sometimes that can be a really good, healthy thing! Jazzercise, walking, Tai Chi, Jiu Jitsu, soccer, biking, swimming, gym time– whatever gets you into your body and feeling good about moving.

When I first started teaching, I thought yoga was THE THING. I would never need to exercise or do anything else. After a few years of just yoga, I was really craving something different in my body. Adding strength training, cardio, and other creative workouts to my own weekly routine has given me a renewed appreciation for my yoga practice, and keeps my body more balanced. It’s also really, really nice to do something sometimes that isn’t yoga. When your whole life is yoga (work, friends, recreation)– you definitely run the risk of burning out. Similarly…

3. Have non-yoga interests & friends.  Immersion into the yogic path is wonderful. However, when it is our livelihood, our pastime, and our refuge, we can easily become imbalanced and insulated. Continue to cultivate interests and friendships that are outside of the “yoga world.”

One of the best experiences of my adult life was learning to ride a dirt bike (yep, motorcycle you ride in the woods). It was completely different from anything that I had ever done, and as a new yoga teacher, I probably would have felt it was un-yogic and vaguely wrong in some way. However, the time I spent doing something so outside the yoga box and the awesome community of people I met doing it (hint: we have very little else in common beyond the bikes) were really refreshing, eye-opening and gave me a different way of interacting with the world.

4. Have a mentor or teacher that you can turn to. I’ve found it helpful to have a mentor or teacher that I can trust. This might be a yoga professional, or it might be someone else in your life. In my case, it’s several different people that can advise me when I need help with running my business; teaching a class; dealing with teaching challenges; my own meditation practice.

5. Have a peer group that you can use for reflection and support. Make connections with other yoga teachers and use them to get and give support. Teaching yoga can be difficult and lonely at times as you are offering so much to others. Having peers that you can call after a difficult class, or if you’re experiencing isolation, can help prevent burnout.

Look, I know how it feels to teach a class and think, “That was the worst class anyone has ever taught, ever. I have no business doing this for a living.” Every yoga teacher knows what that feels like. But in that moment of self-doubt and misery, we feel really isolated. Having a friend at the other end of a call or a text will remind you that 1) everyone has a bad class, or a bad day, or a bad year and 2) we’re really not alone.

6. Pursue Continuing Education that lights you up.  Workshops, online courses, online classes, online blogs are great ways to keep your teaching fresh and to keep yourself interested and connected to the teaching experience. You can might study philosophy, pranayama, alignment, anatomy, a different style of yoga, history, alternate movement practices and how to integrate them into yoga, chanting, Sanskrit, cueing, meditation, or anything at all that sparks your interest.

Free or low-cost online workshops and series are available online through Yoga Journal, Yoga Alliance, and Yoga International. I often find that just taking an online class can  provide me with material to keep my students (and me!) engaged and inquisitive.

7. Separate work from non-work. Because our schedules tend to be erratic, and we often do our class planning and business work at home, it is essential that we create a separation between “work” and “non-work.” I use a paper schedule to plan my day, separating it into blocks of time in which I am working, planning, relaxing/eating, exercising, meditating, etc. Creating structure around your work schedule is crucial to maintain a healthy work/life balance. It helps you to stay focused during work time (even when you’re working on your couch) and to give yourself permission to really relax when you’re not working.

8. Balances Your Yes and No: While there will be times in our lives where we need to work a lot, saying “yes” to as many opportunities as we can, keep in mind that for our own physical and emotional well-being, we cannot do all things for all people, and that we need to put our own self-care first so that we can care for others. Does saying “yes” to someone else mean that you’re saying “no” to yourself? If you are finding difficulty with this, check in with a mentor, peer, or therapist to get feedback on finding balance.

9. Eat well and rest enough.  While this is good advice for anybody, it’s an essential part of self-care for yoga teachers. If we show up to teach tired and poorly nourished, we’re not able to effectively care for our students. You’re gonna be CRANKY! And if you can’t take it out on your students (I hope you don’t)– it’s going to come out somewhere else. Road rage. A fight with a loved one. Screaming at stupid television commercials.

Oh, and do what you can to make sure you have at least one day off from work. I know, I know– you’re trying to make a living and you have to say “yes” to as many opportunities as you can. If you absolutely must work every day, create an end date by which you’ll make a change. This is one of the biggest pieces of advice I can offer you. You need time off. Period. 

10. Create your wellness team & and maintenance schedule.  You know this: in order to care for others, we must first care for ourselves. You probably will not need all of the following, but keep in mind that in addition to caring for our students’ bodies by using our own, we are teaching them to be emotionally and mentally well. If our own bodies, hearts and minds are not in good shape, we will have a much harder time doing our job.  Not only do we need to have a wellness team, it’s important that we not wait until we are burnt out, sick, or on the verge of collapse before we make an appointment. Invest in caring for your body and emotional well-being on a regular schedule. Your team might include your massage therapist or other body-worker; acupuncturist; therapist, psychiatrist, or psychologist; physical therapist, kinesiologist, chiropractor, osteopath; recovery support groups; and even a good GP that you can call when you need one. 

What do you think, yoga teachers? I’d love to hear your strategies, what works, what doesn’t, and how you’ve gotten through the challenging times. Please leave a comment below and let’s support each other!

*Or at least I’m going to assume you are, since you’re reading this post that’s probably not very interesting to you personally otherwise

Teaching Series: the Yogastential Crisis

“Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life,” they say. “Follow your dreams!” “Do what you love and the money will follow!” Sometimes, we’re quoted Rumi: “Let the beauty you love be what you do.” Or, the Bhagavad Gita: “It is better to do your own duty badly than to perfectly do another’s.”We + Be Retreat Yoga Photo

The yoga teaching career has an aura of spirituality, dharma, health and wellness around it that, to the outside eye, would make it seem like the ideal job for someone who values these things. You love yoga, you’re always reading about it, thinking about it, talking about it, why not teach it? And, as a yoga teacher, you find that you really do love your job– you get to help other people, the work atmosphere is often ideal, most of your students and fellow teachers are the sort of people you’d choose to spend time with.

But what happens when your yoga practice—- your refuge, your solace, your peace, your sanctuary– becomes your life? Where do you turn when your getaway has become a source of uncertain income, the scene of your career challenges, and the cause of inner turmoil?

After six years (3,000+ hours) of teaching yoga and running/owning a studio, I have not only experienced a few of what I’m calling “yogastential crises,” I’ve seen others work through them, too.

These might include:

  • A major change in your personal life– divorce, death, etc.– and yet you must still teach yoga classes. How do you stay authentic while still creating a safe space for students to have their own experience?
  • A health crisis or injury– energy is low, you are unable to use your body to demonstrate or practice yoga yourself. Teaching is more difficult and you’ve lost your own practice (on top of other pain, stress or discomfort).
  • You’ve been teaching many classes and you lack funds or time for self-care. It feels like everyone needs you and there’s not enough support for your own needs. You’re depleted, exhausted, cranky and resentful of others.
  • Financial stress– teaching yoga is not particularly lucrative and you may not be able to pay your bills.
  • You no longer enjoy practicing the kind of yoga you are teaching; you feel inauthentic and empty.
  • You’ve fallen out of love with yoga, or you’re just not sure it works anymore. Maybe you’ve got a yoga injury, or any of the above issues are feeling overwhelming. Your own practice is non-existent, and you feel like a hypocrite.

While any of these might happen to any yoga student, when it happens to the teacher, it can be a particularly painful and even desperate situation. At some point, if you’re making yoga teaching your career, you will find yourself in the midst of a yogastential crisis. You might wonder whether or not it makes sense to keep teaching yoga, or if it’s time to throw in the (yogitoes) towel.

If you’re going through any of these– please, please know that you’re not alone. Our profession can feel really lonely if we don’t have a support system set up; sometimes we feel like we have to have it all together or we’re not really doing it right, somehow. I don’t know a yoga teacher who has not experienced one of these crises. I’ve been through most of these, and ended up a more empathetic person and a better teacher, and with a better idea of how to be create resiliency and prevent burnout.

Take heart: while pain is inevitable, suffering may, perhaps, be avoided. There are some ways that we can set ourselves up to weather the challenges of our yoga teaching careers. In the second part of this series, I’ll offer a few strategies that I’ve found helpful to stay (relatively) sane, healthy and grounded as a yoga teacher.

 

 

 

“I’m Here, But…”: thoughts on making your practice your own

image1Often, my newer students come into class with disclaimers: “‘I’m here, but…” or, “I don’t know how much I’ll be able to do tonight…” they start, sometimes with a shamefaced look, “because I’m just really tired,” or, “Something’s going on with my left wrist,” or “I tweaked something in my back,” or “I’m still recovering from this cold I had last week.”

I think most of my regulars know me (and our studio) well enough by now to know what I’m going to say. It’s okay. I’m glad you’re here. You can do as much or as little as you want, and if you need to lie down for the next 90 minutes, nobody else minds a bit. You don’t need to apologize for the state of your body. 

During class itself, as I observe our students,  I can tick off the issues mentally: this one has tendonitis, that one a neck issue, she’s going through a hard time with her family, another one is suffering from almost crippling anxiety, there’s a foot issue in the front row and an ankle problem behind her. My friend in the back can’t raise his arms above his head or support weight in his shoulder. In other words, we’re all kind of messed up in some way. Or maybe, better said: our bodies function on a spectrum of change, and it’s pretty rare that any of us are in peak athletic form. I think that’s pretty average for the general population.

What’s not so “average” is that in this group, we’re learning to be okay with this. Throughout the practice, my students have learned to modify for themselves. So it might look a little bit like controlled chaos (are we all even in the same yoga class?!)– but we’re learning, together, that we can all do yoga and it doesn’t need to look the same.

In my early yoga years, I was a slave to my practice. I struggled to force my body into shapes– binds, backbends, balances– despite the messages of pain that my body was giving me. I practiced whether I was sick or tired. I never allowed myself a day off or an “easy” day.

This worked pretty well for a few years. My body adapted and compensated- I hyperextended some joints (developing a chronic elbow issue), aggravated an existing lumbar issue, and learned to push through the pain to achieve an end goal. I allowed teachers to push and pull me into poses that my body was begging me not to do. I had a beautiful yoga practice, strong, fluid, graceful, and a body that was crying out in pain and neglect.

I recognized that this wasn’t working when my body began to give out on me. I was exhausted all the time, unable to walk up a flight of stairs without resting. My muscles no longer responded to my commands. I couldn’t go on. “If my yoga practice were my spouse,” I said to a friend, “someone would have called the police by now for domestic abuse.”  I simply couldn’t do what I had done before, and had to modify my practice. At first I felt apologetic, and ashamed. Like my students, I wanted to explain, justify, what I was doing.

So many vinyasa yoga classes speak contradictory messages. We verbalize self-acceptance, self-love, encourage compassion. And yet the unspoken message is push yourself a little further. It’s not okay to rest. Intricate sequences without pause, countless chatturangas, and no options given to modify. Our culture (and by osmosis, our yoga culture) values hard work, discipline. How do you know you did a good job? It hurts. How do you know it was a good yoga class? You feel a sense of relief when the effort ceases and you can relax.

This was how I taught for many years. As my own practice changed and I could no longer ignore my body, I found that my teaching had to change. I don’t want my students to hurt, or collapse, or ignore the signs that their bodies are giving them. I want them to know that it’s okay to have an injury and you can still practice mindfully. That some days are strong practice days, and other days are for nourishing and restoring. This is a truly mature yoga practice- working with the body you have, rather than forcing your body to work beyond its capacities or resources.

It makes my heart happy when I see our yogis modifying their practice. During a vinyasa, for example, some students will skip it and take dog or child’s pose. Others take cat-cow, or do cobra pose, or locust. Some will do extra chatturangas or practice a handstand. I do my best to create a community where students know what the options are, how they can modify, and that they are always encouraged to engage in inquiry and dialogue with their body.

After a while, when students come in the door, they don’t need to apologize or disclaim their practice anymore. There’s a confidence that comes from understanding that our body is not an object to be used but a source of strength and vitality, which requires deep listening and nourishment in order to be our thriving partner on our mat and in our lives. As we learn use our energy and our bodies skillfully, we become more available to ourselves and others, and our kindheartedness can encourage others to do the same.

 

 

 

 

The Yoga of Self-Expression

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.” -Martha Graham, as quoted in The Life and Work of Martha Graham (1991) by Agnes de Mille

When I was a little kid, I loved to draw. I could draw lots of kind of funny-looking things: people, flowers, animals. Often there was a joy in the simple expression of putting pencil to paper. As I grew older, however, and began to compare my artistic attempts to others’, I would get frustrated. I could see that what I was doing wasn’t the same, but I didn’t know how to make it “right.”

One particularly upsetting day, I was struggling to draw a person. I tried again and again to draw a nose that made sense- that looked like what I thought a drawing of a nose on a face should look like- but it just wasn’t happening. I was overwhelmed with frustration and maybe even the beginning of a sense of grief that I wasn’t able to live up to what I thought I should be able to do. This is when my mother intervened with a little bit of absolutely brilliant parenting.

She opened one of the many magazines that we had around the house and flipped to a cartoon of some little kids that was part of a frequent column. “Look,” she said. I looked: the children had been drawn with no noses at all. And yet they were still clearly children. They were a different expression of an idea of children, but they were people, and the nose was assumed, or it wasn’t, but it didn’t matter, because suddenly it became clear to me that there were many different ways to draw, to visualize, to convey the idea of something.

My lovely mom in that moment, took on the role of a teacher. Teachers can cultivate our individuality  or (perhaps with the best of intentions) impose someone else’s idea on us. My mother had given me a gift that is still carrying me 30 years later: the knowledge that self-expression is individual, unique, and not better or worse than anyone else’s expression.

Perhaps you can remember a time when you felt stifled by a teacher. Last week, for some reason, I recalled with stunning clarity a picture of a potato that I drew in high school. Well, let me be clear– I had started drawing this potato in my art class, but it wasn’t going very well. My attempts to capture the essence of potato in colored pencil form were failing pretty spectacularly. Our art teacher was a demanding and troubled guy, and the best you could sort of hope for in that class was to be left alone. Sadly, his eye fell on me and the potato art that day. He sat down beside me, took the drawing, and completed it for me. It was a masterpiece. Subtle shading, deep-set eyes and utterly potato-like curves. It could have been promo material for the Idaho Potato Board.

I remember watching him draw my potato, explaining where I’d gone wrong; I remember taking it home and somehow it even ended up framed over my dresser for a time! But every time I looked at it, I felt sad, a little shamed- it wasn’t really mine, and in fact it was a reminder of how I had failed as an artist according to the teacher’s standards.

This memory came to me during a class I was teaching last week, actually. I was watching a group of my students in Warrior 1. Each of them looked different. Their feet were in different places, their knees were more or less bent, their arms were doing slightly different things, and their hips were in varying degrees of proverbial Warrior 1 “square”-ness. And I thought of how, in previous years, I would ask them to place their feet in particular ways, and move their hips into a certain position, and place their arms just so, in an attempt to “get them into the pose.” I’ve attended classes recently that asked the same thing of me. And knowing now what I do about my body, and my students’ bodies, I wouldn’t confine them to exacting specifications. The cues I give to the class at large are much broader and likely to ask them to explore their own range of motion and comfort. My assists or adjustments are becoming more rare- while I love the idea of communicating through touch, I’m more cognizant now of how I may be inadvertently indicating “wrongness” on their part- that I might be sort of metaphorically taking their pen and drawing their potato.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe that we are always trying to do the best we can as teachers. I certainly was. It’s simply that with time, I’ve gotten more information- injuries in my body, observation of my students, research from teachers that I respect, and communication with my students.  While I have no interest in taking on the role of a guru, there is an element of power inherent in the word teacher. I believe that entails moral responsibility. For me, it means that I want to empower my students to recognize their own power, grace, and strength within their yoga practice. I want them to learn the value of their own unique expression of creativity in their body.

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How could I do better than to emulate the instinctive wisdom of a mother? To demonstrate to my students that however their creativity presents itself- as artists, as yogis, as human beings- is not only okay, it’s an expression of their luminous, radiant nature and an opportunity to celebrate their singular essential goodness. To me, if a yoga practice is making me feel like I am wrong in any way, I’m happy to hand the pencil back to the teacher and move on.

(Gratitude and love to my wonderful mother, whose love of me and celebration of my life is so complete that she would be proud of me if I lived in a cardboard box down by the river).