Category Archives: Asana

Students: How To Make Any Yoga Class More Accessible

person rolling green gym mat

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It’s summer! If you’re traveling this year, you may be leaving your favorite classes and teachers behind. If you’re intimidated by the thought of of finding a yoga class while you’re on the road, I’ve got some guidelines for you. Sometimes it can be a challenge to find a class or a teacher that feels like a good fit, but with the right mindset and a willingness to experiment, you might enjoy the exploration of a “yoga field trip.” Here are a few thoughts on how to make any yoga experience more accessible for you:

Introduce Yourself and Set Boundaries: This sounds dramatic, but it’s pretty simple. Meet the teacher and introduce yourself. Let her know that you may be modifying the practice  to accommodate your body. That’s plenty of information– you don’t need to be more specific if you don’t want to. This is your chance to let the teacher know in a friendly way that you know what you need to do to take care of yourself. If you prefer not to be touched (I always prefer not to be assisted or adjusted by a yoga teacher that doesn’t know me or my body, and with whom I have not yet established trust), then just let them know that you prefer not to receive any adjustments if that’s something that is offered in that class.

Be Confident!  When you walk into class, you’ve got that whole “I’m in a new place” vibe to work with. You may be the person in class who looks different, or who doesn’t have the same type of yoga outfit as the other students. Maybe it feels like you’re the new kid in the class and you don’t fit in. Before you have a major high school anxiety attack, take a deep breath and remember that you are there to take care of yourself. Your yoga mat is your refuge (even if it’s a rental), and you can take your practice with you wherever you go. If it’s not awkward, you might introduce yourself to someone and ask a question or two about the class. Or close your eyes and meditate. Or do a little Savasana. Or do whatever you want, because you’re awesome and your yoga looks like what it looks like for you!

Grab Your Props. Take a look around and grab any props you know you like.  I always take a blanket and two blocks, if available– the blanket is great to support under the hips for seated poses if that helps your body. Blocks will bring the floor closer to you when needed. If you know you like a bolster under the knees during Savasana, grab one, or double up your blankets if there aren’t bolsters available. Oh, and a blanket folded over two blocks works pretty well if props are limited!

Move at Your Own Speed. This can be a tough one. It may be that your body does not want to move as quickly as the class tempo does. If you can get a feel for patterns in the sequence, you may be able to omit steps so that you can land in some of the same poses at the same time. For example, if the class is powering through chaturanga, up-dog, down-dog, you can skip right to down dog to be ready for the next standing pose. Or, omit down dog and wait in table (hands-and-knees) for the next transition. If you’re feeling like you just can’t keep up, take a resting pose and breathe for a while– the tempo of class may change, and you’ll be able to participate more then.

Modify Where Needed, But Keep An Open Mind. Hopefully you have some ideas about what works well in your body by this point in your yoga practice. If down dog doesn’t work for your shoulders, chill out in a hands-and-knees position. Maybe a traditional “chaturanga/up-dog/down-dog” vinyasa doesn’t work for you. You can sub out whatever movement works for you: cat and cow, knees-down chaturanga, locust pose, or spend some time in forearm plank. There may be some poses your body can’t do (that’s pretty typical). If the teacher doesn’t offer an alternative or modification, you are free to do something that feels right to you instead. For example, if Bird of Paradise is offered and it’s just not working, then do tree pose instead, or another pose that was taught earlier that feels appropriate to you.

At the same time, this is an opportunity to try something different and perhaps explore a different style of practice. Ideally, this teacher has a specific sequence that’s designed to create an experience for the class. My recommendation is to make the class accessible for yourself, but to do what you can to participate.

From time to time, everyone (even a yoga teacher) has the experience of not being able to do something that others seem to do easily. It’s not for nothing that Teddy Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Every one of us has our own practice. We can’t know anything about the other students, their bodies, their lives, or their experiences with yoga. If you get caught up in comparison or judgment, notice that it’s happened, and practice the internal skills of yoga: feel your body, notice your breath. Return to the embodied experience of your yoga practice. In this way, we become more aware of our habitual internal narratives and repetitive mental patterns, and grow more skillful at working with them.

Whatever your experience in the class, at the end, you’ll know yourself and your body better than you did before. If you find that the experience was really not right for you, I like to imagine myself writing a review. What were the highlights? What did you not enjoy as much? Was there anything unique or different about the practice space, or the community? What will you look for next time?

I hope you enjoy your yoga travels and find joy in the experience!

 

 

 

 

 

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A Plea for Clarity in Class Descriptions

Imagine you are a prospective yoga student. Looking at class schedules online, you see a lot of “vinyasa” yoga, and you wonder what it is.  The descriptions say that the poses that “flow” together with breath and that all levels are welcome. This isn’t much information to go on, so you decide to go take a class and see for yourself. It turns out that you love the class, the teacher is great, you can do most of the poses pretty well, and you think, “Great! Now I know that I like vinyasa yoga.”

The following week, you decide to attend a vinyasa yoga class at a different studio. This time, you find yourself completely lost. The class moves really quickly, there are poses that you don’t know how to do, and the teacher is hard to hear over the music. You feel confused at best: which of these classes was “real” vinyasa yoga?

As an industry, we suffer from a lack of consistency in branding and we often do a poor job clearly explaining the class experience in our descriptions. While it’s wonderful that there are a variety of options available for students, it’s unfair that our students don’t know what they’re getting into. One of my colleagues pointed out recently that a clear class description is also the first step in informed consent– students have the right to know what they will be asked to do.

From a marketing perspective, it’s smart business, too. If I order macaroni and cheese at a restaurant, I have a reasonable expectation of what I’m going to get: macaroni and cheese. If there are other non-traditional ingredients, the menu will list them, so that green peppers or bacon, or vegan cheese won’t be a surprise when my meal arrives. An unpleasant surprise for the diner (or student) is unlikely to result in repeat business.

My vinyasa classes have changed over the past 7 years, but until recently, the description was exactly the same as it was for other vinyasa classes at my studio. My classes don’t include many chaturangas or traditional vinyasa movements. The pace is a little slower than some other vinyasa classes. I teach strength and mobility and de-emphasize flexibility, and include functional movements that aren’t part of the “traditional” yoga canon*. Sometimes, new students love my class– other times, it was clear they were looking for something different.

A few months ago, I had a student in class who was clearly used to (and possibly expecting) a different type of vinyasa class. I went home and re-titled the class (from “Vinyasa” to “Mindful Vinyasa”), with a clear explanation in the class description. I wasn’t sorry that I taught the class I did– I am clear on what I am teaching, why I am doing it, and what it has to offer to students– but I was aware that a lack of clarity and communication on my part could lead to some unfulfilled expectations.

There is one benefit to teachers or studio owners in having a vague class description– it leaves a lot of wiggle room for teachers to vary the class greatly, or to allow for frequent substitute teachers who may teach in a very different way. It deflects the responsibility, putting the onus on students if the experience is not what they’re looking for. Occasionally, I’ve heard a studio owner say that in a case like this, a student should learn to practice detachment– so it’s the yogi’s fault if the class isn’t to their liking(!).

As teachers, if we have our students’ best interests in mind, and we want these practices to be of maximum benefit, then we would do well to be transparent and clear in our class descriptions. Let’s help our students find the right teacher and class for their needs.

*”Traditional” being kind of a joke here, as most of these are 20th century inventions and not inherently special, spiritual, or otherwise transcendent. This needs its own blog post, but you might take a few minutes to read this piece by Mark Singleton for a little more context. 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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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?

 

 

 

 

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). 

 

 

Moment of Weakness: Hitting the Workshop Wall

A few years ago, when I first became enamored with yoga, I decided to attend my first weekend workshop.

In order to get to the studio on time for the first night’s session, I left work early. I’d changed out of my business-casual-Friday-attire and was wearing some sort of yoga outfit and my lime green plaid plastic Keen shoes. I stood by the water fountain to fill my bottle, and fielded questions from co-workers. Several of them were about the (perceived) ugliness of my shoes, but most were curious about the experience.

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“You’re going to do yoga ALL WEEKEND?” someone said. “Yes, she’s really good at yoga,” another person (who’d never seen me practice, nor understood what ‘being good at yoga’ might mean) responded.

For a brief moment, at the call center water cooler, I was a yoga goddess. Crazy shoes, eco-friendly water bottle- I was poised for success. I’m sure I felt excited and optimistic as I drove off to my first-ever yoga workshop.

Three hours later, I was in a different world.

Visiting a new yoga studio for the first time can be, in itself, an intimidating experience. For a shy, insecure, or new-to-yoga person, going for a workshop is a special sort of social torture, not unlike attending some other high school’s prom. Everyone knows each other. The air is thick with full-body hugs, inside jokes (like, inexplicably,”Prana Butt!”), and the scent of Luon. You are wearing the wrong thing, you don’t know where to put your stuff, and suddenly you are sure you forgot to put on deodorant.

That first yoga workshop was a rite of passage for me. Had I been told what I would have to endure, I’m sure I would have skipped it. The Friday night class was the worst- we were forced to pair up into partners. As almost everyone in the room had completed teacher training, I was easily the most clueless person there, and my partner didn’t bother to hide her irritation at the fact. If I could have died then and saved her the frustration of having to deal with my yoga ignorance, I would have done it.

With two more days to go it did get better: I met some people who reminded me that I wasn’t a total loser who deserved to be hanged with a yoga strap. I did my first handstands and got closer to full Hanumanasana than ever before.

Despite these successes, by Sunday afternoon, I had hit what I’ve come to know as the Workshop Wall. I was totally exhausted, physically and emotionally. It’s not easy to spend so much time with strangers, even when they are kind and supportive. To be smiling and friendly after hours of challenging physical activity is hard enough. There was also, for me, the additional challenge of being reminded that I really wasn’t awesome at this yoga thing. I just felt stupid in my body. Like, why couldn’t I do this stuff? Why didn’t my body just “get it”?

Something about this prolonged intense physical activity coupled with the intensely intimate social cocoon of the workshop environment triggered the absolute worst in me, emotionally. I fell back into the ruts of depression and negativity. The narrative in my head sounded something like this (warning- it’s mean): “You’re too old/heavy/ugly/stupid. You’ll never be able to do these things. Nobody even wants you here.”

The Workshop Wall: bricks of physical exhaustion, dehydration, possibly pain and soreness, mortared together with comparison, insecurity, self-criticism, self-doubt, and even self-loathing.

Now, it’s been a few years, and I’ve gotten stronger emotionally and physically, and since I’ve been practicing with this South Florida community for a while, now I more often find myself on the “inside” of the “inside joke” crowd, though I do my best to remember how lousy it feels on the other side, and bring people in as much as possible.

Still. Still. Still. The Workshop Wall exists for me:

Last weekend I went to my first-ever  AcroYoga “Solar Immersion” Workshop with Daniel Scott and Chris Loebsack at Trio Yoga in Miami. I’ve only been practicing AcroYoga for three months and this was a total whim. In order to “qualify” to attend the workshop, I had to get some of my skills up to speed (check out the pre-requisites here). In a few days, with some help from a friend and teacher (we’ll call him Jake, he’ll be in the story later), I learned to do several things I’d never done before, but I knew I was weak in some areas.

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Practicing for the weekend!

I made the impulse purchase a few days beforehand and then began to wonder why I’d done it. The workshop was on my birthday weekend, historically a time of intense depression for me, and I’d chosen to put myself in a physically challenging environment, with strangers who were all going to be more skilled than I was. Yep, Jake would be there on the second day, but until then I’d be on my own with a bunch of people I didn’t know at all (not too long ago, this would have been completely impossible for me. See this post.)

Even worse, when I considered it, was the fact that AcroYoga (maybe yoga in general?) appeals to me so much because it gives me a second chance at one of the saddest parts of my life- my adolescence. I’d always wanted to be a gymnast, and I envied the cool girls who were strong and flexible and popular and wore patterned tights and stuff. I’d say they were sexier, but at 13, that’d be weird. You know what I mean, though. Hell, I envied all of the girls who were able to do any kind of physical activity. In my mind, I was ugly, unhappy, uncoordinated and unpopular.*

So basically, guys, I’d set myself up to relive the hardest time of my life- a time when I was bullied and suicidal- with the additional handicap of being the weakest practitioner, in a strange environment, with a bunch of people (think of them as the Cool Kids) who all knew each other well. Happy Birthday, sucker! Welcome to the Wall.

I arrived at the workshop five minutes early (which, to my mind, is like, 20 minutes late) and came in the door feeling like a hot yoga mess. Everyone else was there already being all friendly with each other, and it took me a quick minute to check in with myself and say, “You know this is okay. You’re not an outsider, you just don’t know them yet.”

AcroYoga doesn’t let you be a stranger for long- it’s all about intimacy, communication and connection with others- so before too long I was finding my social feet and feeling pretty good. For the first day and a half I was able to keep up with almost everything without a problem- I’m relatively strong and flexible and have a decent yoga foundation.

After lunch on the second day, though, I could spy the Wall heaving into sight on the horizon. I’d been acting as a base (the person on the bottom who “flies” others) for most of the day, and this was challenging for several reasons- first, it played into my physical insecurity. Here’s my (mean, irrational) mental dialogue around that: You’re too fat, you’re too butch, you’ll never be small and delicate and you suck at backbends.** Second: dude, have you seen what bases have to do? Go watch the video I linked above. It’s hard work!  Third: I really wanted to fly, and was feeling sorry for myself that I wasn’t getting to do what I wanted to do.

We’d also just gotten to Barrel Rolls. I’d flown this a few times with Jake, but basing is different- and I still felt absolutely confused about foot placement and hand-switching. My quads were exhausted and quivering and now I was going to ask them to support a person who weighs almost as much as me on one leg out to the side.

I watched the demonstration with glazed eyes.  I was up against the Wall.  I wasn’t the only one- the energy in the group was subdued and we were all a little confused. I tried to keep up with the demonstration, asked a question, watched intently and nodded at the appropriate places. I knew my mask was slipping, though, when I looked up and saw the two instructors looking at me, whispering to each other, and looking back again. A few minutes later, Chris came over. “Are you okay?” she asked. Ugh. I was becoming the weakest link. Earlier that day, Daniel had given me some encouragement as well. “You’re doing awesome!” he enthused. I confessed I felt I was over my head, and he denied it vehemently at the time… but now I’d hit the Wall, and I knew there wasn’t much I could do.

Back to small groups to try Barrel Rolling. I did the best I could and I really don’t believe I embarrassed myself with my group (who were kind, supportive, and reinforced me in every way they could)- but I was starting to feel it. You suck, I thought to myself. You’ve got no right to be here. 

This time, though, I understood. I visualized myself against an impossibly tall wall, and felt compassionate. Of course you feel like sh*t, I thought. You’re exhausted. You’re surrounded by people you don’t know who have been doing this for years. You’re going to fall back into patterns of social anxiety, insecurity and depression, but it’s not going to last. You’re okay. 

At the end of the day, I gathered my stuff and prepared to leave. I was drained and emotional and just needed to get the hell out of there, but I hugged my new friends and thanked the teachers. I said goodbye to Jake with a minimum of words. “Okay, bye.” He hasn’t known me very long- three months- so he tends to think of me, I would guess, as a gregarious and exuberant person. Sorry, buddy, I thought. This is the best I can do right now. I dragged my carcass to the car and cradled my face in my hands, preparing for the two hour drive. Come on. You can do this. 

I’m always pretty honest with you guys, so I’ll tell you: I cried on the drive home. It wasn’t all self-pity, though. I felt exhaustion, and grief for my life over the past year. I felt the weight of being alone on my birthday, unsupported by a relationship. I felt the weight of thirty-six years, twenty of them full of violent cycles of depression, anxiety, and self-loathing. And then- this is sweet- I felt compassion and love for myself. I was proud of myself for what I’d done. I was against the Wall, but now I knew the Wall was on wheels and rolling away slowly.

I was about an hour away from home and feeling much better when my phone rang- Jake, unexpectedly calling me. “I just wanted to see if you were okay,” he said. “You seemed really quiet when you left.”

In the brief pause before I began speaking, I saw this post unfold in my future. I knew I wanted to share this with you, if you wanted to take the time to read it. Because if I’m hitting the Wall, I think maybe someone else is too.

For the nice guy on the other end of the phone though, who didn’t sign up to read (literally) 2000 words of my life: Reader’s Digest version. “I got really tired,” I said, “…and it makes me feel drained and kind of emotional. But I’m really okay.”

I’m really okay.

🙂

*Though after a time, I made a nice niche for myself with the art class flannel-wearing alternative crowd. I had these sweet plaid Doc Martens. Why do I like plaid shoes so much?

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