The longer I teach and practice yoga and meditation, the less I am sure I know. That being said, I do have some critical questions we can ask ourselves as students, and teachers, to be sure we’re on the right path.
This is, perhaps, the largest reason for the remarkable decline in my once-prolific blog posts. At the onset of my teaching career, I felt quite confident in many “truths-” alignment truths, meditation truths, insights I’d reached, etc.
I’m sure I’ve shared this with you before, but one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received came from my valued meditation instructor Tim Olmsted: “Every insight is a false summit.”
I cringe to think at how many times I’ve confidently asserted some yoga “truth” as a teacher- whether in this blog, or in class- only to discover later that this truth doesn’t work equally well for all bodies.
…which leads me to another one of my favorite pieces of advice from Tim (although he didn’t intend it as such): “The older I get, the less inclined I am to give any advice at all.”
We all have different bodies. Different lifestyles. Different needs for our yoga practice. Why, then, did I ever assume that one instruction would work equally well for an entire class of students?
When we begin our yoga practice, or our practice as a teacher, we have to start somewhere. So we emulate our teachers. As students, many times, we take their suggestions as ultimate truths. As new teachers, we repeat the instructions we heard from our teachers. At this point, we’re like toddlers finding our feet- just beginning to occupy our bodies, or our roles as teachers- and we’re still just learning about these bodies.
Along the way, we start to find “truths,” “insights.” Sometimes an injury leads us to discover that a pattern we’ve been following doesn’t work well; or we attend a workshop where a respected teacher gives an instruction that resonates with us. We have a revelatory experience and feel that suddenly, everything has changed. In my case, I tend to become evangelical about this new, better way of doing things. I can remember many times where I suddenly changed how I was teaching a pose because I was sure THIS NEW WAY was the definitive best way to do it.
Then: the false summit. Looking around class one day, I realized that the instruction I was giving for Virabhadrasana I was great for some newbies, but wasn’t allowing more experienced students to explore a greater range of motion or sensation. On another occasion, having taught Janu Sirsasana with square hips for about a year, I felt a lightbulb coming on over my head as I realized that there might be a benefit to doing it differently for some bodies. In these moments, I recognized that being caught up in a concept I’d taken for an absolute truth was causing me to offer advice that wasn’t helping my students. I felt ashamed of my prior confidence and assertiveness.
There have been times, I’m sure, that I was even aggressive in this way: offering this “truth” as an absolute, telling students that they needed to do a pose in a particular way. I deeply regret these moments. I believe now that forcing students to do a practice in a particular way (even by means of suggested alignment) can squelch their ability to experience the sensations of embodiment that can make the practice transformational. Instead of teaching us to feel and explore our bodies, rote alignment instructions turn it into an intellectual exercise: “Am I doing it right? How am I supposed to do this?” Worse, instructions couched in preventative terms (“engage the core to protect the back,” “align the knee this way to prevent injury”) set up a mentality of fear and divisiveness between the mind and body. For me, this is exactly what I don’t want to do. I want my students to learn to trust, accept, appreciate and eventually love the body they’re using.
So, with regard to group instruction, my verbiage has changed greatly. I’m conscious that what works for one person will not work for another. When addressing the group (unless it’s one that’s quite experienced), I am much more general, and emphasize the quality of exploration and feeling. I’ve found that specific directions offered to a class at large tend to work for very few people. Ajahn Chah, in his book “A Tree In The Forest,” puts it beautifully:
At times it may seem to some of you that I contradict myself when I teach, but the way I teach is very simple. It is as if I see someone coming down a road he isn’t familiar with but which I have traveled on many times before. I look up and see him about to fall into a hole on the right-hand side of the road, so I call out to him to go left. Likewise, if I see someone else about to fall into a hole on the left, I call out to him to go right. The instructions are different, but I teach them to travel in the same direction on the same road. I teach them to let go of both extremes and come back to the center where they will arrive at the true Dhamma.
When giving individual instruction, when offering specific suggestions, I try to ascertain what the student really wants and needs. Then, I can encourage experimentation and remind them that what works at one point in the practice will change over time. I have some experience and I can offer ways build strength, gain range of motion, and work one’s way into more intricate postures, if that’s what’s appropriate. What’s more important to me, though, is that I am helping the student to have an embodied experience and to feel good about it. That may not include things that once felt important to me- like those particular nitpicking alignment details.
Keeping in mind that this way of teaching may just be one more false summit, I will add that I know that this way of teaching is not what everyone wants or needs. There were times in my own practice as a student that I would have resented an instruction to explore for myself, and that I craved specific, explicit, detailed alignment direction. But- and this is maybe the crux of the matter- I know now that I wouldn’t feel I were offering a real service to my students with this sort of teaching style. I’m less inclined, as Tim said, to offer advice.
As students, I would suggest that it is important to ask ourselves the following:
- What do I want from my yoga practice? Is my teacher’s style supporting me in my goal?
- Do I feel that I “need” or “should” do something particular in my practice? If so, why?
- Is there one right way for me to do this pose every time?
- How does my body feel after I practice?
- How do I feel about myself mentally, emotionally, after I practice?
- Does my yoga mat feel like a place where I am embodied, alive and aware?
As a teacher, I am continuing to explore and ask myself the following:
- Is my ego invested in this instruction that I’m giving? (I’ve found that if I’m feeling protective or defensive of a particular instruction, there’s something behind it that has little to do with my students’ experience and more to do with my own)
- How can I help students to feel good mentally, emtionally and physically?
- After I teach, how do I feel? Did I learn anything, and how would I handle it differently next time?
- When I do have an “insight,” am I allowing myself space to believe that it may be contraindicated for some people?
- Is what I’m offering as a teacher authentic to my own belief system?
- Is what I’m offering a service to the students?
- Am I remembering as often as possible that I may be completely and totally wrong?
I love Tree Pose. Check out a few of my favorite tips here… and stay tuned for an upcoming piece on “The Three Stages of Criticism,” or ” Internal Dialogue in Your Least Favorite Yoga Pose.”
Five minutes-ish of some of my favorite hints for letting your crow take flight. Stanley makes a last-minute appearance.
It’s Valentine’s Day.
Some of us are happy- we have someone who loves us, someone we love, maybe children or family that we like to put at the center of our emotions on this day. If that’s you, I am very happy for you! You might want to read this post anyway, just in case.
Some of us have someone, and aren’t as happy about it as we’d like to be. Keep reading.
Some of us are unhappy, perhaps because we don’t have a romantic love right now. I get it. Read on.
Some of us might feel unloveable. I understand, and I love you. Please do keep reading.
I have experienced the pleasure and the pain of each of these situations. I have felt that there is a hole at my center, something missing, something empty. At times I thought the hole was like a cookie-cutter shape, and I could put another person right in it. What happens when the person no longer fits in that hole- or something changes, and that person is no longer in your life? You’re back to feeling empty again.
It sounds cliched. You might not want to believe it- I didn’t, at one point- but until you love yourself, until you accept that you deserve love, that your nature itself is love, until you turn the powerful beam of your heart back on yourself, you will not feel secure in the shifting sands of romantic love. There will always be an emptiness at the center.
Ravi Shankar suggests:
“Find the love you seek, by first finding the love within yourself. Learn to rest in that place within you that is your true home.”
It was at a meditation weekend retreat that I first really understood this concept. When I first looked, I mean really looked and SAW the emptiness within myself, the heart-shaped hole where my own love should dwell, I cried. Torrential, gulping tears.
I thought: I can’t love myself. I’m not perfect enough- I’m not always as kind as I should be. I don’t work as hard as I ought. I make mistakes. I hurt people’s feelings. I don’t look the way I think I’m supposed to. I do not deserve love.
Although we don’t always SEE this cavernous pain within ourselves in such a clear way, the outward symptoms are more evident. I hear it daily. Almost everyone I know has a to-do list of items to be fixed, things they don’t like about themselves, reasons why they don’t give themselves love. Reasons to be limited, in every area of our lives, from our yoga mat to our relationships. To say, this is as good as it gets. I don’t deserve more than this.
How then do we get from this self-shame to self-love? How can we begin to accept that we may already be perfect, lovable, just as we are? Once you’ve noticed these feelings, it just takes a little work to begin to shift your perspective.
Take a few minutes today to cultivate your own self-love with a brief meditation.
- Close your eyes and get comfortable, sitting with an upright spine.
- Take a few moments to notice the sensations of your breath coming and going- perhaps the air in your nostrils, or the lift and swell of your ribcage.
- Now, begin to call to mind one thing that you have done recently that is an act of kindness or compassion. Perhaps you fed your dog. Smiled at a stranger. Or maybe it was an act of kindness to yourself- had a cup of coffee when you were tired. Ate at your favorite restaurant. If nothing else, acknowledge that you loved yourself enough to sit down and do this exercise!
- Allow yourself to acknowledge this act, no matter how small, and smile at yourself. Inhaling, breathe in your own love. You might even say silently, or out loud, Breathing in, I know that I am love.
- As you exhale, imagine that you are releasing the limitations you’ve placed around your heart, your love. You might see this as wispy dark clouds loosening and drifting away, or perhaps as an opening, chinks of light shining into the center of your heart. You might even say, silently or out loud, Breathing out, I release the limitations on my own love.
- Repeat the process as many times as you like, first remembering something kind or loving that you have done, and then acknowledging your own worthiness, and finally releasing the bind around your heart.
When you are done, spend a few moments listening to and feeling the sensations of your breath before opening your eyes and returning to your day.
Romantic love is wonderful in all of its stages- from exhilarating and breathless to comfortable as an old sock. However, its very nature is unstable as it relies on another person. When we practice lovingkindness and compassion for ourselves, we are learning a love and happiness that will be the most stable thing in our lives.
Learning to love yourself- coming home, as Ravi says- does not take away from the fairytale and firework elements of romantic love, but adds an underlying stability that is the foundation for the most enduring of relationships. Who wouldn’t want that?
Happy Valentines’ Day, my Loves.
(Complete and total just random by-the-way: I can’t decide if I should be capitalizing these guys or not, so I’m sort of sticking with not-capitalizing them except in the first paragraph, which makes, I know, no sense whatsoever. If you have thoughts about whether or not yamas should be capitalized, please leave a comment or drop me an email.)
It’s been quite an interesting practice bringing the yamas to life in my classes. I (selfishly) am enjoying the research I do to understand other people’s “takes” on the moral laws; it gives me ideas and it also gives me perspective on my own actions. This week, as I examined non-stealing, I found myself “stealing” several times.
No, I haven’t been shoplifting Yogitoes or ToeSox or anything like that. I manage to keep my kleptomania under control pretty nicely. It’s the less tangible “stealing” that’s a problem for me… and I’m thinking, maybe for you too.
You see, asteya means taking anything that is not freely offered.
This week I took some granola from a friend without asking her- see, I knew she’d say I could have some, so that’s okay, right? Yeah, not really. If I put myself in her shoes- and she was really hungry because she hadn’t eaten breakfast- I might feel a teensy bit resentful about that.
This week I also found a book that I forgot to return to a friend. He asked me a few weeks ago if I had ever given it back. I was pretty sure I had, so I said “Yes.” Naturally, I found it this week as I was cleaning. Of course I’m going to give it back to him, and he won’t be upset- but I stole from him, nonetheless. I stole his time with the book; I stole the book itself, for a time; I stole a little bit of his trust and confidence when I said “yes” even though I was only ‘pretty sure.’
These may seem petty- but as with all of the yamas, where we draw the line is arbitrary. Once our eyes are opened, as mine were, this week, we start to think about our actions in a new light.
Are you guilty of any of the following thefts? Can you identify what is being “stolen” in each of these scenarios? Answers at the bottom of the post.
- Parking in the “15 minute parking” when you know you’re going to be there for more than 15 minutes.
- Downloading music without paying for it
- Borrowing software from a friend and installing it- or using pirated software (listen to the rationalization in your head on this one)
- Telling someone else’s joke or using their quote without giving them credit
- Tipping the server less than usual because you spent more than you planned elsewhere that week
- Calling a friend and keeping them on the phone while you drive home because you’re bored
- Getting in the 10 items-or-less lane with more than 10 items
- Taking more than you can eat from the buffet
- Calling a meeting and arriving unprepared
- Teaching a yoga class and 1) starting late or 2) ending late
- Attending a yoga class and 1) arriving late or 2) leaving early
- Telling a story about another person that shows them in a less-than-favorable light
These are common thefts- are you completely innocent?
I’m going to commit another sort-of theft here- in my research on asteya, I found an interesting concept that I’d love to quote directly or link to, if I could find it (if you know who said it or where it is, please let me know so I can give credit). The basic idea was, when we steal, we’re making a choice: we care more about the outcome of our actions than we do about the collateral damage. For example, I’ll take the last cookie in the box because it is more important to me to enjoy the cookie than it is to let my husband have it.*
Or, let’s look at asteya from another angle. Gandhi said, ” We are not always aware of our real needs, and most of us improperly multiply our wants, and thus unconsciously make thieves out of ourselves.” The practice of yoga allows us to fine-tune our “needs” vs. “wants” thinking so that we can better understand what we really need.
Without that finer understanding, we are prey to the common fear that there is just not enough for everyone. Not enough cookies- not enough jobs- not enough money, or time, or friendship. We become jealous and fearful and grabby.
A physical practice to counter this fear is to bring more of a grounding element to our asana. You can easily add this element to your practice by doing the following:
- Take time for child’s pose. Bring the forehead to the earth, or a block or blanket if needed, and allow your exhales to invite a sense of dropping down, or melting into the earth. Take several deep breaths here- slow down each breath as much as you can- and feel the security of knowing you are completely supported.
- In Tadasana, Mountain pose, bring the feet together, or keep them hip width apart, with the toes slightly closer together than the heels. Have the outside edges of the feet parallel to the long edges of your mat. Close your eyes and feel the weight distribute evenly between all four corners of your feet. Lift your toes and observe the sensations there.
- During standing postures, close eyes, if possible, and press down as evenly as you can through all corners of the feet.
- Notice how much strength you can draw up from the earth. Practice isometrically drawing your front foot toward the back and the back foot toward the front- as though you were trying to wrinkle the mat between the two feet! This will draw up energy from your feet to the pelvic floor, up through the belly and spinal column, and to the crown of your head.
- In postures where one hand can touch the earth or a block- Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), Parsvottanasana (Pyramid Pose), Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose)- notice how one additional limb on the floor, or point of contact, can re-stabilize and re-ground you.
- Drishti- use the gaze as an additional grounding element in your practice. Look down at the earth and allow the features of your face to soften, as though gazing at someone you love.
Reminding ourselves that we are safe, secure, and grounded, is a lovely way to trust in abundance in the universe. Whether this is, for you, a trust in the natural order of things, or in a higher power, is your choice.
Rolf Gates, in his book Meditations From the Mat, says it well:
” An Alcoholics Anonymous text says, ‘Either God is or he is not.’ Each theft, each time we ‘forget’ to return something we’ve borrowed, each moment we give in to the impulse to covet or to be jealous, we are saying, ‘My God is not.’ To practice asteya, we must abandon ourselves to the care of the universe. We must be willing to give up all we have for the one true thing. We must say in each moment, with each thought, word, and deed, ‘My God is.’”
Answer Code: Who’s the victim?
- Parking in the “15 minute parking” when you know you’re going to be there for more than 15 minutes- steals the space from someone who needs it
- Downloading music without paying for it- steals from the artist and anyone else who would benefit.
- Borrowing software from a friend and installing it- or using pirated software (listen to the rationalization in your head on this one)- steals from the manufacturer, from the employees of the manufacturer, and from anyone else who would benefit.
- Telling someone else’s joke or using their quote without giving them credit- steals their opportunity to be respected, promoted, etc.
- Tipping the server less than usual because you spent more than you planned elsewhere that week- steals from the server.
- Calling a friend and keeping them on the phone while you drive home because you’re bored- I’m guilty of this. It steals their TIME.
- Getting in the 10 items-or-less lane with more than 10 items- steals the time (and sometimes, the sanity :)) of the others in line.
- Taking more than you can eat from the buffet – steals the food from anyone else who could eat it.
- Calling a meeting and arriving unprepared- steals the time of those who are attending.
- Teaching a yoga class and 1) starting late or 2) ending late- steals students’ time. Steals from yourself- takes the students’ respect away.
- Attending a yoga class and 1) arriving late or 2) leaving early- steals from the time of the class, if others are waiting, or if the instructor has to repeat. Leaving early- steals from yourself by not taking savasana; steals from others as it is distracting and causes them to have a harder time relaxing.
- Telling a story about another person that shows them in a less-than-favorable light- steals their reputation.
*This is a serial crime in my house, sad to say. Thankfully Danny is not a cookie fiend as I am. I could say, in fact, that he is a thief in the sense that he will let cookies sit for so long that they get old and moldy and we throw them away. He is depriving someone else the joy of eating that cookie. There, now I feel better.
Dear Friend, Student, Fellow Human:
There’s Nothing Wrong With You.
I mean it.
At the end of class, when I sit in the darkened room, looking out across the rows of paper-doll bodies, outwardly still and peaceful in their Savasana, I feel so much love for my fellow humans. I think: I wish this person loved themselves as much as they deserve. I wish they didn’t feel a lack in their lives. I wish they knew how wonderful they really are.
I believe it so much that I don’t even care how hokey it sounds, or how cheesy or corny or new-age hippie you think I am. It’s true.
Why is it so hard for you to believe it? Why is it so hard for me to believe it about myself?
It’s not much of a mystery: we’re conditioned to believe that there is something wrong with us. That we need to change something in order to be good, or happy. It starts at childhood (“Don’t pick your nose”) and continues through adolescence (“You weigh 115 pounds? OMG that’s a lot”) and by the time we’re in our twenties we’re well established in the patterns of self-beratement that will follow us through our lives. Entire media empires are built on selling us products and services that will complete us, “fix” us, make us better: Tooth-whitening, breast implants, liposuction, seaweed wraps, self-help books.
Our parents, our loved ones, who started us down this path, didn’t mean to do us any harm- after all, in many cases, they love us more unconditionally than we love ourselves!- but they simply followed the formula that’s pre-programmed in the human brain:
“If I could change my circumstances, then I would be happy.”
Maybe this programming started as a survival instinct- certain things make us feel good so we want to do them. Caveman: Sex feels good, have sex, propagate species! (look, it’s my first R-rated post!). What this means to our chemical brains is that we’re always out shopping around for a better experience. Our species has internalized this so much that we’re not even happy with the body, mind, or life that we have- we think that there’s something better available, and if we could just get that something better, then we’d be happy.
Maybe you’re okay with this. You might enjoy shopping, dieting, working hard to change yourself so that you can become “better.” After all, Laura, you may be thinking, why do people do yoga? So they can become more flexible. Or more peaceful. Or happier. Isn’t this a contradiction?
Here’s the thing: yoga, and other meditative practices, can cut through the “bettering” and get down to this fact: essentially, you’re already okay. There is nothing wrong with you. You’re whole and perfect, just as you are. After a while, you can even begin to make friends with your silly mind and the little tricks it plays on you. ‘Really, mind? I’d be happier if I bought a new pair of yoga pants?’
And while there is a fun aspect to shopping, comparing, and even “self-improvement,” there’s also a whole lot of misery and drama, isn’t there? If we could break free of this cycle, how much more energy and time would we have to devote to things that really matter? Imagine that Martin Luther King Jr. thought he was too fat, or not articulate enough, to share his message with others. If he let these thoughts limit him- if he stayed home because he was having a bad hair day on August 28, 1963– what would the world have missed?
You can begin to move past your self-imposed “I’m not good enough” boundary by beginning first to gently notice:
- Tune in to your internal dialogue. Listen for the words “should,” “if you…” and “I need to”. Don’t try to change it! Just notice.
- When you do hear the voice of self-judgment, ask yourself two questions:
- What is the truth behind this statement?
- If I let go of this belief, what would that free up for me?
Be cautious, and compassionate with yourself. It’s important that as you begin to notice your “something is wrong with me” self-talk, that you not judge yourself for having these thoughts. If you do find this happening, see if you can bring a sense of humor to the situation-smile at your silly mind and its habitual tricks.
After a while of practicing “just noticing” in this way, without any conscious effort to change it, the dialogue will start to shift. You will see these thoughts as they arise, and know them as just a habit of your mind. You will find yourself more confident, happy, and radiant. You will have more to give to the people in your life- who never understood why you were limiting yourself anyway.
Because, really: there is nothing wrong with you. I know you don’t believe me today. Someday, maybe we can make it true for ourselves.
Until then, we practice together.