Loving your Body, Yoga, and Community

A few months ago, I had the pleasure to participate in filming this video about BYMV. I have seen my fair number of studios, but few could even attempt to rival the magic at BYMV– the loving details of the studio, the wonderful staff, our students.

They also managed to catch me talking about one of the biggest ways yoga has helped me: self-image. There’s a great quote from the spoken-word poet Andrea Gibson:

“I realized I was looking at my body like my body was my enemy, and if I didn’t learn how to be an ally to my body, I was going to feel like shit for the rest of my life.”
-Andrea Gibson

Yoga helps me be an ally to my body, and keeps me from feeling like shit. I ingested that self-loathing of the body that is all too common, especially for women. I hated how I looked, and so I hated myself. Even though I always played sports, and gained coordination and physical strength, it was only a stop-gap. It prevented me from feeling worse about myself, but it didn’t change me for the better. Only yoga has been able to do that.

Even if I never practiced yoga asana again (would not happen), the hours I have put in to so far have already irrevocably transformed my relationship to myself in ways I never could have predicted. I still have more than my share of moments of doubt and negativity, but I also have a well-worn path out of that dark place. I know what to do to help myself feel better. And now, when I practice, it is as a reminder to love myself. To be compassionate with the things I cannot yet love, and to appreciate all the rest.

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“Keep it Light”

Yesterday was day 30 of my 60 day challenge. 30 consecutive days of yoga, and I am halfway there!

And it has been a challenge, emotionally most of all. I was deeply reluctant about signing up. My practice hasn’t been the same since I came home from Australia (never take breaks, kids, that’s the lesson… just kidding). Over the holidays I struggled and suffered and dragged myself through every single class. My hip flexors were chronically, painfully tight and class only seemed to make them ache worse. Standing Bow almost always sent me into a physiological and psychological nosedive. Any corrections, and my faith in myself and my abilities crumbled. Teaching was fine, but practicing was a nightmare. I started to wonder whether I would ever be able to handle the heat again, and my mind quickly devolved into an identity crisis.

The idea of having to go through that every day…… Shudder. BUT, inspired by my friend Chris, who has brain cancer and is currently undergoing radiation and chemotherapy yet again, I mustered up my determination and committed to the challenge.

And it definitely has not been easy. My hip flexors feel better (thanks actually to keeping up a regular advanced practice and being diligent about my after-class hip-stretching homework). I still have had some really rough days–for instance, one where my teacher-friend hugged me when I burst into tears after class, or another where a different teacher-friend hugged me because I cried through the last half an hour of class (I love my teacher-friends). And every Standing Bow still feels like a psychological roller coaster. I have also had some anxiety flare-ups, and while practicing helps, the difficulty breathing also makes practicing even more challenging and even less fun.

This time around, I do not push. Right now, for me, pushing only leads to failure and frustration.

Cynthia taught my class yesterday afternoon, and during party time she reminded us to “keep it light.” To let go of the struggle, the suffering, the resistance that only makes what we fight against stronger. My practice has felt heavy, I have felt heavy. This was the perfect time, and the perfect reminder: I become preoccupied during Standing Head to Knee that Standing Bow is just around the corner, and I fear it coming. Keep it light. And for now, that’s the best I can do. In Standing Bow, I pour all of my energy into changing the pattern, all of my focus into remembering that I can feel strong and good in the posture. And when I waver, I remind myself that how I might feel now is not how I will feel forever or even tomorrow. Keep it light. This stayed with me for the rest of my class.

At BYSJ, we begin the year with a pack of Angel cards which have themes for meditation written on them. We invite everyone to choose a card to act as a guide or intention for the year. Mine? Exactly what I needed.

My 2015 Angel Card

My 2015 Angel Card

Release
1. allow or enable to escape from confinement; set free.
2. allow (something) to move, act, or flow freely.

Yes, please. 

Why do you do yoga?

When I got here, I used the chalkboard just outside the door to the yoga room to ask this question. We've got some cheeky students, and I love it!

When I got here, I used the chalkboard just outside the door to the yoga room to ask this question. We’ve got some cheeky students! (In case you can’t tell, the bottom line reads: “I don’t know. It hurts. It is difficult. It’s bloody hot. But I do like to be told what to do by sexy women.”)  Whatever gets you in the door? 😉 We’ll work on self-realization one step at a time…

Saturday Snapshot: Family yoga

kidsyogatriangle

Teaching Triangle Pose: Undoubtedly, I am talking about stretching the left arm up in this moment.

On Saturday, I had the privilege and pleasure to teach the first family yoga class at BYMV. And what an experience it was! We had seven kids and seven parents, which I consider quite a reasonable turnout for the first one. One hour, unheated, one set of all the postures.

Lessons for the next go-around:

  •  Teaching Pranayama and Triangle to kids is hard! So many technical, alignment details that make such a big difference.
  • Definitely give them a visual for the trickier postures: I had grown-ups demonstrate Standing Bow and Triangle, but I wish I had done it for Standing Head-to-Knee, too.
  • It’s hard NOT to say the dialogue! I kept finding myself slipping into that wonderfully familiar rhythm, even when it wasn’t appropriate to do so. I needed to continuously translate the dialogue into kid-speak, which required quite a lot of mental energy.

Highlights:

  • Having the kids demonstrate postures they were really good at: my bonus nephew does an awesome Scorpion pose so I had him show everyone after Locust, and one of the little girls had an absolutely beautiful Camel pose that I asked her to demonstrate. When she lay back down on her mat for Dead Body pose, she gave me a thumbs-up and a proud little smile. It was heart-meltingly adorable.
  • One of the older boys got stuck in Fixed Firm so I got to help him out. 🙂
  • Seeing everybody lie still in Dead Body pose at the end of class, actually still…. except A, who had rolled himself up in his mat sideways. It was surprisingly peaceful.

All in all, it was the awesome kind of chaos you’d exactly expect!

a worthwhile interruption: lessons in awareness

The view from pada-hastasana

The view from pada-hastasana: I’m a rebel! Look at that gap between my toes and heels!

I debated whether to leave and rush back for advanced class.
Feeling a little roasted from teaching four classes in less than a day, instead I lingered.
I breathed, settling myself into pranayama, taking in the ocean air.
Sufficiently oxygenated, I continued moving, flowing into the advanced series. Sun salutations, then half moon.
About to do my backbend, I paused, facing the ocean–
Dolphins! Their fins peeking up and out, then down. Over and over and over.
And to think that, had I not paused to breath, had I turned and left, I never would have seen or known.
I would have missed it.
So appreciative of my choice to be slow, to be still.
When the cascade of dorsal fins were too far to distinguish, I dove back into the flow of postures.
Another reward: standing up from Wheel pose for the first time. Finally finding, accessing, engaging those leg muscles for the initial plunge against gravity. A whole new realm of possibility.

The other (more breath-taking) view.

The other (more breath-taking) view.

I’m cherishing these post-teaching Friday afternoon meditations with the ocean. They may not be yoga in the conventional-hot-and-sweaty-posture sense, but they manage to cultivate that union that is the reason why we “do” yoga in the first place. I get a chance to read yoga books, write in my teaching journal, meditate in lotus… and occasionally break out some serendipitous, spontaneous asanas. Cheers to other limbs and exploring new ways to go deeper!

Here’s what I am curious about: how are you doing your yoga (asana or otherwise) outside the room?

the good, the bad, and the trust

I think I may finally be able to articulate the difference between two very different types of classes:

The class that feels incredibly frustrating and draining. I feel no rapport with my students–I speak, but it’s awfully hard to tell based on their bodies OR their faces if anyone’s listening. I run behind on time, and yet everyone moves more and more slowly. No one responds to corrections. I pour more and more of my energy into the class, but it’s a black hole. Over the course of 90 minutes, I work to stay cheerful and positive, to not get distracted by my perceived ‘failure’, to try and try and try again. After, I feel exhausted and demoralized and somewhat incompetent.

In case you can’t tell, emotional resiliency is not my strongest character trait.

VERSUS

That class that feels absolutely incredible to teach–I feel connected to each student, everything flows well, I can tell a few students are even enjoying themselves, and I get the rest to at least occasionally remember that smiling is not against the rules. I make jokes, individual corrections, no one tries to flee and everyone works hard according to their individual abilities. Afterwards, these are the classes where students come up after and really sincerely thank me for class, and I get to go home feeling great about having had a really positive impact on my students. It’s like bouncing around on a cloud. Ah, these rarefied moments!

I call them Unicorn classes, because they are magical and elusive. (Thankfully not mythical, only rarer than I would like.)

But here’s the rub:
You can neither predict nor force a certain class to be what you want it to be. First of all, that’s an ego race the teacher is doomed to lose every. single. time. Secondly, I know that the only successful way to have a great class is to let go of the IDEA of having a great class–both in the judgement about how the class is going (Oy!) and this attachment to “results”. Whether or not a student sits down on their butt through the whole of the Balancing series is not a reflection of me, or even about me at all. No matter how much I think it is. Clearly, this sort of “letting go” is something I’m working on… ok, let’s be honest, we’re all working on it.

THIS is how you visualize how these classes feel. Just. like. this.

THIS is how you visualize how these classes feel. Just. like. this.

At the same time, there IS a certain extent to which a teacher’s energy (mine included) greatly impacts the quality and tone of the students’ attitude and effort.

I think the difference is trust.

How much the students trust the teacher correlates to how hard the students try. Based on my personal practice, it makes sense–how much harder is Triangle pose once you’re convinced the teacher is never going to get you out of it and you start thinking, ‘OMG I’M GOING TO DIE!’? When I practice, but don’t trust the teacher because of the heat, their personality, their dialogue–whatever reason my mind has fixed on, class becomes a whole new level of hellish and challenging.

Well, I think the reverse holds: perhaps my students only do as well as much as I trust them to do well. When class starts going south–whether in reality or merely in my perception, which for these types of cases are indistinguishable–I have a harder time trusting that the students will respond to the dialogue. Then they don’t respond to the dialogue. And then we begin a vicious descending spiral of mistrust.

Of course, to stop that cycle, I have to trust again. Which means being vulnerable. (Sidenote: If you haven’t watched this video on vulnerability by Brene Brown, you need to watch it because it will blow your mind. If you watch it and don’t have that reaction, we’ll need to check your vitals and make sure you’re human.) I feel vulnerable each and every single class I teach, and although teaching has thus definitely made me a stronger person as a result, it’s not a particularly fun or easy process.

Trust is definitely not an overt theme teachers discuss, but it’ll definitely be in my mind as I teach two more classes tonight (this morning was a Unicorn!). Happy yoga-ing, everybody!

Kid’s Say the Darndest Things: Yoga Edition

I took my 5-year-old niece, H, to kid’s yoga this past weekend. What a fun experience!

Hailey, demonstrating her Tree pose.... but really just interested in her post-class juice box

Hailey, demonstrating her Tree pose…. but really just interested in her post-class juice box

 

She has had some experience with toddler yoga before, but never Bikram yoga. So the whole experience–even if it was only warm (80ish degrees) and a single set per posture–was a lot to try. She got frustrated by not knowing what to do, and it was a fine balance to juggle between staying quiet, showing her what to do, and trying not to laugh at the inevitably hilarious results.

Certain postures–Triangle, Spine Twist, Camel–she did NOT “get” what was supposed to be happening. In Half Moon, she exemplified the typical beginner’s collapsed chest (you know the kind I’m talking about, where the head and arms are way forward and the butt comes way back). Separate Leg Stretching she stepped over MY mat instead of hers, and then got upset when she smashed her finger trying to grab her foot.

Other postures–namely Fixed Firm and Half-Tortoise–she did easily and well, like a natural yogi pro. If only all adult beginners had that kind of flexibility!

Still, there was definitely some overlap with adult yoga, mainly in the commentary:

  • “This is too tricky!” (Separate Leg Stretching)
  • “This is uncomfortable!” (Rabbit)
  • “I’ll keep trying and then I’ll be better at it.” (after class)

All of which were true, and therefore hard to dispute. I really enjoyed getting to introduce her to what I do. It has reminded me how to teach the posture in the simplest, most straightforward way and to enjoy the opportunity for silliness that we lose so easily in our “Torture Chamber” (Step 1: never call it that). I know, also, that the yoga has the potential to really help H be more patient and learn to control her breath and her emotions, since she struggles with being overwhelmed and frustrated. I only hope I’ll have a chance to take her again. If not, it’ll be lessons at home until she’s old enough for me to bring to a real class…. and that’s quite a few years down the road!

communion

Open skies over Colorado, an open heart for Jess.

Open skies over Colorado, an open heart for Jess.

I am freshly returned from a week-long vacation with my partner to visit my sister and my nieces in Colorado. Thank goodness for that break, the opportunity to spend time with the people I love most in the world without obligations or time constraints. It allowed me to clear my head, clear my heart, and (most importantly) to miss my yoga.

This morning, I stumbled into the studio a minute late, my body eager for the opportunity to practice. I had practiced minimally (and eaten maximally) while away, and it had been two and half days since my last 26&2. Two days of swimming with a five-year-old, chasing a toddler, sitting cramped on an airplane. My body was in need of cleansing. As a result, class was challenging–my heart racing faster, my breath more shallow, my muscles tighter and weaker–but oh! how it responded. My lungs gulped for that extra capacity, my muscles drained away that silly tension, and my heart gloried in retrieving that yoga state of mind. Still, my real challenge was to keep my mind enjoying how much I was getting out of class, instead of feeling angry and guilty that I was not performing to my highest, or even usual, abilities. The challenge of remembering that is not the point.

Amidst all this, before I leapt in the room or even had the chance to change, one of my regular students (also a bit late), exclaimed and bombarded me with a hug. As soon as I headed into the room, trying to grab a spot as quickly and non-disruptively as possible, another one of my regular students saw me in the mirror and paused in the middle of Pranayama breathing to grin wildly at me and silently say hi. (So much for not causing a disruption, eh?) When my friend and teacher-to-be off to my right caught my eye later in class, she jokingly stuck her tongue out at me. (I returned the favor a few postures later, of course.) Each made it clear how much they had missed me over the past days, and how genuinely glad they were that I had returned.

These little moments, alone or together, reminded me how much I belong here. There is a place for me here, in spite of my locational fatigue and ever-present wanderlust–a place which I have cultivated. This, this communion, is the result of my yoga practice, my yoga teaching. It feels good to be back. For my body, but even more for my heart, to be so enthusiastically welcomed home by my yogis.

determination, effort, and 30 days down

A mini-celebration… gratitude for reaching the halfway point of my challenge today. 30 days down, 30 days to go!

I have met with my fair share of challenges so far: a few utterly ego-busting classes, new pain sensations from one of my vertebrae, struggles to hydrate while teaching full-time. But so far, this challenge has also reacquainted me with the need for patience (one posture at a time, one day at a time) and renewed my compassion for those new (and old) students in the throes of a particularly overwhelming class.

As I continue, I find myself increasingly looking for guiding wisdom to inspire me each class. I hope this one, taken from the Dalai Lama in The Art of Happiness, 10th Anniversary Edition: A Handbook for Living, resonates for others as well.

It takes a long time to develop the behavior and habits of mind that contribute to our problems. It takes an equally long time to establish the new habits that bring happiness. There is no getting around these essential ingredients: determination, effort, and time.

knowing why and wanting to try

I had an interesting conversation yesterday with two other teachers, talking about the decision to include the medical benefits of the posture while teaching.

While looking over the dialogue for Standing Separate Leg Head-to-Knee, I mentioned how I really want to nail (i.e. successfully include in class) this one fantastic tidbit of additional dialogue about all the benefits of the posture:

Good for eight things:
       Marriage between the pancreas and kidneys, thyroid & pituitary glands;
       Extension of the oblongata & medulla;
       Opening the throat & crown chakras.
Good for the digestive & endocrine systems, metabolism, body chemistry, immune system.

Me in Dandayamana-Bibhakptapada-Janushirasana

Me in Dandayamana-Bibhakptapada-Janushirasana , so everyone has some idea what we’re talking about, not because mine is perfect!

The other teacher, B, responded that she doesn’t like to say the medical benefits because every time she hears them it always comes off sounding awkward and fake. For teachers to suddenly start using scientific terms and getting descriptive disrupts the rhythm of the dialogue’s usual commands. Plus, most people don’t understand what you’re talking about anyways–after all, how many people casually reference the oblongata or medulla, or understand what the chakras symbolize?

Both incredibly fair points.

I love them though, because when executed well the medical benefits motivate the students. Particularly in this posture, which is

  1. Physically uncomfortable (hi, throat choked!)
  2. Technically challenging (you have to touch your forehead to the knee!), and
  3. Mentally exhausting (everyone just finished Triangle, it’s 45-50 minutes into class, and everyone just wants to be on the floor already…. or at least ASAP).

So for me saying the medical benefits are a fantastic way to mentally get my students to want to try. Some don’t know why they’re being told to do all of these things, so they don’t care. Others know why, but are too tired to care. For both, this reminder–that they will personally benefit in a lot of ways if they just keep trying–will get them to overcome their exhaustion or whatever obstacle they’re facing.

Since my responsibility as a teacher is to get my students to try, the medical benefits are a very powerful tool that I can’t afford to ignore. The harder part, of course, is actually managing to say it. Those words are a frickin’ mouthful, and if it takes me too long to say it, their inclusion will extend the posture so long that the students give up anyways. Thus defeating the purpose. But that’s the fine line we walk as teachers the whole 90 minutes, between challenging people and pushing them too far.

It’s going to take a lot of practice to get it down–with a lot of awkward attempts during which students will just have to bear with me–but after all, worthwhile things are rarely easy!

As a fun post-note, I got to take class from B this morning, and during this posture she said “If you want to know all the medical benefits, ask Jessica.” Ha! This made me smile, which was exactly what I needed at that moment. There’s a new way to include the benefits for you! I really admired and enjoyed the spontaneity of it. It was a sign of active teaching–she knew what was right to say for that class, in that moment.