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?

 

 

 

 

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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). 

 

 

Falling From a False Summit: Or, The Less I Think I Know, The Better

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. 

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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?

 

 

Presence in Yoga, Presence in Love

I love to teach yoga to newbies. There’s an almost palpable sense of coming alive in those first few classes. As students learn to move in new ways, it’s not unlike a toddler explore her range of motion- testing out a foot here, or the gaze here, or marveling at what her body can do and how it feels to be in different shapes. Finally, when savasana comes and a group full of workaholic adults lies down to rest and breathe together, I love to watch as their faces soften and their bodies relax into their mats. I think most teachers would agree: it’s pretty magical to watch and work with the someone waking up through the practice of yoga.

There’s also quite a visual distinction between the novice and the experienced student, of course. As a new student moves into a standing pose, you might observe a sort of “floppy” quality to his arms and legs. He’s watching the teacher, following the verbal instructions, and simply moving himself into what seems like it might be the correct position. You might observe that the hands and feet seem disconnected, even lifeless; an afterthought, or a forgotten accessory.

A more senior student, on the other hand, is keenly aware of the sensations in her fingers and toes; the lines of energy lifting and expanding from uddiyana and mula bandha; the subtle changes in the breath and the micro-shifts of flesh, bone and breath within the external shape.

So we see, then, that there’s a distinct difference between simply bringing one’s body into a shape, and bringing the feeling of the shape into the body. The beginner student moves (or, in many cases, forces) the body-pieces into an approximate puzzle-shape and then stands lifelessly in place. The senior student moves her body into her variation on the asana and then begins to occupy it actively, breathing and moving within the pose in a way that feels completely embodied and alive- full of presence.

Tara Brach’s latest book, True Refuge, defines this quality of presence beautifully:

Presence is not some exotic state that we need to search for or manufacture. In the simplest terms, it is the felt sense of wakefulness, openness, and tenderness that arises when we are fully here and now with our experience.

I remember very well what it felt like to “wake up” through this process- suddenly I was in my body, and breathing with it, and truly, there is such a sweetness and tenderness to being completely with yourself, aware, awake, alive. It was quite poignant and almost, in a way, heartbreaking, when I realized how I’d neglected myself in this way.

As is so often the case, the on-the-mat experience provides a fantastic metaphor for our lives off the mat. Recently, I’ve been examining my relationships with others- current and historical- in light of this quality of presence.

I believe that it is not enough to simply move ourselves into position with another person- that is, to say, I’m your lover, I’m your friend- and then occupy that space lifelessly. True love- romantic or otherwise- is only, I think, alive and breathing when it is infused with this wakefulness, openness, tenderness.

Maybe it’s inevitable that this will happen with certain relationships, at certain times in our lives. Perhaps we are so occupied with our own challenges that we can’t embody love in this way. Maybe we’ve never learned how. In my own case, I can see quite easily that while I might have called myself a wife, or a girlfriend, and truly felt that I was living in that role, there was an inauthenticity, an incompleteness, to my actions. At the time, I didn’t know how to fully be present with that person- to love him fully, actively- because I was so unhappy with myself. It’s also clear that we were poorly matched, in many ways- so that to be fully present would have meant to acknowledge a painful truth.

In another case, I can recall asking myself why I felt so terribly lonely when I was with someone who said that he loved me deeply. I knew that it was true- and yet I believe at the time he simply wasn’t capable of completely embodying love. He was in the pose, so to speak, but the presence, the attention, the wakeful, open and tender quality was not there- and so our relationship could not flourish.

“If you do not give right attention to the one you love, it is a kind of killing. When you are in the car together, if you are lost in your thoughts, assuming you know everything about her, she will slowly die. But with mindfulness, you attention will water the wilting flower. “I know you are here, beside me, anti makes me very happy.” With attention, you will be able to discover many new and wonderful things- her joys, her hidden talents, her deepest aspirations. If you do not practice appropriate attention, how can you say that you love her?” -Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings

As part of the spiritual path, bringing mindful presence to our relationships is far more challenging than the work we do on our mats, at least in my experience. While I can do hours of asana practice or meditation with some degree of awareness and presence,  I’m challenged deeply by the daily work of embodied love. My concern with my own self-image, my need to protect myself in some way, often stands between me and full presence with others in my life. Like most people I know, I’m struggling to somehow look good and feel in control. There’s a vulnerability in setting that aside in service of this quality of presence. With practice, this grows easier, I’m finding, and the feeling of really, really giving your full loving attention to someone is its own reward.

Some yoga students never make it past their first class. It’s not easy to work with ourselves in different ways. Sometimes the pain of waking up may feel like too much. And yet- that tenderness, that feeling of being fully present- oh, that’s worth it. We deserve our own kind attention in this way, and we find that because we are kind to ourselves, we’re more able to give that same kind attention to others. And, waking up, we become open and receptive to embodied, active presence from those who are also learning to love fully and completely.