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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Yoga for everybody: Dad edition!

 

Dad and me after his first yoga class

Dad and me after his first yoga class

Proof that my dad survived his first yoga class last weekend. Although I definitely heard him mutter “I’m going to kill you” to me during savasana after camel, he even volunteered to come to family yoga again for at least a few months. He did great, and I’m SO proud of him for trying something new and intimidating! Just goes to show…..

“You’re never too old, never too bad, never too late and never too sick to start from scratch once again.” – BC

Yoga, Not Asana: Pratyahara

Recently, life has felt busier than ever. Full of great things, as I’ve been very conscious of the shape and direction of each of the commitments I’ve taken on, but busier nonetheless. I find myself in rare, spare moments missing the afternoons of only a few years ago, when I would often spend time just sitting in a park, reading or talking with friends, enjoying the sunshine.

Looking at my schedule, I knew that I had this one day off from teaching for at least twelve days in row, not to mention my other never-finished list of tasks for the studio. Weighing the benefits of practicing against the physical dehydration, mental exhaustion and preoccupation of going to the studio, I knew I just needed one day of physical space to nourish some mental space.

So for one day, I didn’t drive, didn’t work, didn’t do anything I didn’t feel like doing. I only left the house for a mile-long leisurely bike ride to pick up nails from the hardware store.  I barely said a word all day (especially nice when teaching requires 90 minutes of uninterrupted speaking– such a luxury to feel no need to talk). And so I listened to the interviews and videos that I’d kept open for weeks on my internet browser, waiting for the elusive “right time.” One of the things I listened to was an audio recording from a book, and the following words in particular were exactly what I needed to hear:

“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence, or a vice. It is as indispensable to the brain as Vitamin D is to the body.”
– Tim Kreider, from “Lazy: A Manifesto”

I sat in my new home and enjoyed the quiet, the light.

Simple, clean, quiet

Simple, clean, quiet

I didn’t feel guilty about doing this, but I did do feel protective. I heard that little voice in my head,  that demands constant productivity, that unnecessarily and preemptively fears judgement and needs to justify any lapses. But the time was MINE, and it felt good.

Now, in retrospect, I recognize that this was my time for pratyahara. Pratyahara, the fifth limb according to the yoga sutras, means withdrawal of the senses. I needed to get away from the noise, the stimulation, the stress. I needed the space so I could connect the dots.

Yoga asana is important, and crucial. But it is also incomplete. I want to get better at recognizing and making space for the practices that will help ALL of me thrive. To practice yoga, but not necessarily asana. Please do the same for yourself, and I promise we will all be better human beings because of it.

 

between harmony and happiness

60 days of monkeys!

60 days of monkeys!

 

I did it! I finished my daily 60 day challenge. No doubles. Just yoga, every single day. I haven’t decided how to celebrate yet…

“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. 

August: A Retrospective

Time for another highlight reel!

A little Bikram yoga-inspired card I made for a fellow teacher who had surgery recently.

A little Bikram yoga-inspired card I made for a fellow teacher who had surgery recently.

 

Get Out, Get In(sight)
I bought a mini-pass for ten films at the Melbourne Film Festival, and spent the first two weeks of the month hopping into the city whenever I wasn’t teaching or taking class in order to catch some films. They varied widely, from documentary, animation, historical fiction, to semi-autobiography. I loved all of them, but in terms of yoga, I probably got the most out of The Grandmaster, which was about the history of kung fu and directed by the same folks who did Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (so, absolutely gorgeous cinematography and action sequences). So much inspiration for grace and focus. Whenever I learn about martial arts, I am reminded of how similar all these branches are to my own practice of yoga. The wisdom and the lessons are the same, even as the methods differ.

 

 

Taylor and I stumbling upon the only Girl Guides shop in the state of Victoria, and geeking out a bit.

Taylor and I stumbling upon the only Girl Guides shop in the state of Victoria, and geeking out a bit.

Blast from the Past
My friend Taylor visited Melbourne briefly after finishing up a stint working for National Geographic, travelling around Australia with a bunch of high school students and teaching them photography. We got to adventure about the city, and just generally catch up on each other’s lives. It was a wonderful little reminder of home, as we went to school together from elementary on and spent years in the same Girl Scout troop. We also got to reflect on how awesome our troop was, thanks in large part to our troop leader who instilled in all of us an appreciation as well as knowledge on how to travel. I think she spread the travel bug, which helps to explain how two of us could end up meeting one another half a world away!

T.L.C.
My studio owner took Emily and I down to the Mornington Peninsula Hot Springs, where we spent a lovely, lackadaisical afternoon hopping between various outdoor heated pools. The spa impressively built all of these pools to blend in to the natural flora, so you feel like you’re in the bush while luxuriating. The most impressive pool was at the top, where you could sit and get a 360 degree view of the Peninsula, including the Bay. The three of us spent the whole time talking about yoga, doing yoga postures in the pools (irresistable), and giggling our heads off. And of course, we ate out before and after so it expanded into a day of wonderful company, conversation, and relaxation.

The Silent Pool.... we were not very good at following instructions. In our defense, everyone else was worse.

The Silent Pool…. we were not very good at following instructions. In our defense, everyone else was worse.

Pushing Boundaries

Continuing my adventure into other styles of yoga, I practiced the Tony Sanchez class as taught by a fellow teacher training mate who happens to also be here in Melbourne. In some ways, it was comforting to recognize many of the postures, but it was also challenging to learn new postures. It revealed many areas of weakness for me: both mental (I don’t like being in new situations or feeling not good at things) and physical (not enough upper body or core strength). It was satisfying to really feel my way into some postures that I’m familiar with from the advanced series: because of the slower pace and longer holds, I had the time to truly do the posture in a way I often don’t have the opportunity to do yet in advanced. I am very grateful for the experience, and would definitely check it out again when it’s convenient (as it is, it was quite a trek out the studio that my schedule won’t often allow).

We held a class intended as a memorial to our loved ones after one of our students' daughter passed away. Silent, lit by candlight, and guided by post-it notes full of love. My practice was of course dedicated to my Mom.

We held a class intended as a memorial to our loved ones after one of our students’ daughter passed away. Silent, lit by candlight, and guided by post-it notes full of love. My practice was of course dedicated to my Mom.

Home & Away (or rather Away & Then Home)
The last few weeks, I confess I have been a little absent-minded and occasionally stressed as I planned my future travel itinerary. My teaching contract here in Melbourne will end at the beginning of October, and as much as I know I would be more than welcome to stay much, much longer (in fact, there have been hints of potential kidnapping in order to compel me to stay), the truth is this: I love it here, but I miss my partner too much. He has been overwhelmingly supportive of my travels, knowing that it was something I needed to do, and he supported me even at the cost of his own happiness. So, my travels around Australia—because I can’t come all the way here finally and only see Melbourne—will be abbreviated. I will spend October travelling up the East Coast, then make my way home for November. It will be a whirlwind, action-packed four weeks, so stay tuned.

My lovelies: studio owner and studio housemate

My lovelies: studio owner and studio housemate

impact and inspiration

The past month has found me stumbling and wavering–not as confident, not as enthusiastic, more fearful. It has not been particularly fun, and I have reminded myself (as well as having been reminded by one of my amazing studio owners) to be compassionate and patient with myself as I move forward. Clearly my teaching is evolving, but sometimes the process of transformation is awkward and clumsy, you know?

In any case, tonight was the first of the 60-Day Challenge parties I’ll be attending, and it was, as always, inspiring. Inspiring to hear from the students what their challenge meant to them. For some, it was health-related: astronomically lowering dangerously high cholesterol and triglyceride levels after years of ineffective medication, becoming free from chronic spinal pain, finally healing from decade-old trauma injuries. For others, it was personal: getting to bond with a son or daughter, dealing with being laid-off and figuring out the next stage of life (teacher training, as it turns out!), grieving for a recently passed away brother. Heavy stuff, really.

At the end of the night, as I went to congratulate the Challengers individually, one of my students told me exactly this:

inspiregiveup

Honestly, having him in my class every week was such a gift to ME. It made ME excited to teach, and comforted me when I was having difficulty feeling my connection to students during class. Another student (didn’t even recognize her, honestly!) told me that I was “inspiring” and that she had wanted to tell me.  I don’t share this to emphasize how great I am (goodness knows I’m an expert at not feeling that way). My point is rather that, by sharing these thoughts with me, my students reinforced how much I love my job and made every bit of my struggles worthwhile.

It seems we never realize the true impact our actions have–clearly, this goes both ways, so yet another reason to spread kindness as much as possible!

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!