Working Towards Accepting: Why I’m a hypocrite of a yogi

Teaching yoga has really refined my skills of hypocrisy.  I tell my students to listen to their bodies, to care for themselves, to give themselves permission to skip a flow or take Child’s Pose, and inversely, to give themselves permission to try something new, a variation they may have decided–consciously or unconsciously–wasn’t for them.

And yet it is so hard to practice what I preach.

Over two weeks ago, while teaching on a Saturday morning, my left wrist started to bother me.  “Huh,” I thought to myself, “That’s odd.  Oh well.”  I finished the class, took class on Sunday, taught again on Monday, took class on Tuesday, and by Wednesday I couldn’t bend the wrist or lift anything with my left hand.  At the insistance of two friends, a pair of massage therapists/personal trainers/martial arts instructors/yoga instructors (so I couldn’t really challenge their suggestion), I begrudgingly went for an X-Ray.  Afterwards, I was greeted by a fast-talking doctor with a downstate accent, who peppily told me that there was nothing wrong with my wrist.  It wasn’t broken or fractured or even sprained.  I had tendonitis.

I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed by this diagnosis.  Tendonitis?  That didn’t sound like anything worth the pain I was experiencing.  With a flurry of prescription pad papers, Doctor Peppy told me to take an anti-inflammatory, wear a wrist brace, and it’d be better in ten days.  “It can hurt like hell for you little girls, but it’ll be better in no time.”

Deciding to appreciate the fact that he thought I was little, and ignore the implication that I was a child, I dutifully wore the wrist brace and semi-dutifully took the anti-inflammatory, trying my best to stay off the wrist.  The first time I took class, I responsibly stayed on my forearms in Plank and took Dolphin instead of Down Dog.  But it’s been over two weeks now, and I’m getting frustrated.  I tell myself that if I wear the brace, it’s OK to take Up Dog on my fists.  I’m having a hard time taking my own advice to listen to my body.  Instead, I’m listening to my head as the woman next to me, a newly-minted teacher who is as annoyingly kind and intelligent as she is beautiful, arcs into Upward Facing Dog.  So I don’t stay off my wrist completely.  I start to break through the skin on the knuckles of my left hand, convinced that staying on my fist will work just fine.

One day, I forget the brace and take class anyway, stubbornly refusing to modify.  Because I’m trying to ignore what my body is telling me, my thoughts gleefully chatter away.  I find myself silently criticizing that woman’s Warrior II, that guy’s Revolved Triangle.  By the time we reach the peak of the work phase of class, my breath runs hot and ragged in my chest.  I try to breathe deep, but the air doesn’t seem to help.

I have no choice.  I take Child’s Pose.

It feels revelatory.  The tightness in my chest loosens.  Suddenly I’ve made space for the length of my spine.  My breathing works again.

It’s such a simple solution.  Such an obvious one.  Since hurting my wrist, it’s a solution that I’ve given to others, probably dozens of times.

I still get frustrated, taking class.  When we go into arm balances–often my favorite part of the practice–I think the longing is probably visible on my face, especially when the class is working on Firefly pose or going from Crow to Crocodile.  I feel like I’m ten years old again, wanting the teacher to know how great I am–I can do it!  Look at me!  But I can’t do it.  Not right now.  So I close my eyes.  I breathe.  I’m working towards accepting that I will have a gentler practice, for a little while, and that’s OK.

I’m working towards accepting.

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Going Om

“We will begin this practice,” intoned the yoga teacher, a compact and petite woman with springy curls of hair, “With three oms, to bring together the energy in this room.”

Um, what?  I thought.  Om-ing—for lack of a better term—was new to me, and weird.  Yes, I understood that yoga was more than a workout—that’s why I can come back to my mat, day after day, and yet come up with any excuse not to go to the gym.  Yoga has brought me peace of mind, a greater understanding of myself, as well as the ability to fold in half and balance on my arms.  But om?  Was that really necessary?  I remained respectfully quiet as the half-dozen people around me drew in a collective breath, drawing that vocal tone up from the belly, through the chest and out the throat.  After a beat, the space for a breath, the teacher began to lead us through Sun A’s.  I could relax here.  Movement in yoga, I knew.  Tuning in to the breath, yeah, that made sense.  But speaking—letting the breath vibrate with voice—was strange and uncomfortable for me.

As I continued taking classes at this new studio, though, I started to softly add my unsteady voice to the chorus of oms that opened and closed each class.  As my voice began to grow stronger, I marveled at the physicality of speaking om: the conscious breath control required to press the sound out from your core, the strength I felt not only in my belly, where the sound began, but all the way up from my feet.

Above all, what I found was the sense of community, of being a part of a greater whole.  I have noticed a phenomenon in class, and I’m still not sure if others have heard this, or if it is just me:  the opening oms of class often sound a bit uneven, disjointed, unharmonious.  At the end of the practice, although we haven’t been speaking, our voices have smoothed, our breath lengthened.  I can feel the vibration not only of my own voice but also of everyone around me.

Yoga is such a personal practice, a time spent in your body, your breath, on your mat—and yet at the end of the class, somehow we have united.  Sometimes the om still feels strange, even a little intimidating—a room of 300 people om-ing is simultaneously empowering and overwhelming for me.  I still cannot bring myself to be the first one to vocalize the om—I need to have voices to join.  But I can’t ignore the amazing and bizarre power of this simple sound, a sound that unites and strengthens.

What are your thoughts on om-ing?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Interim: For the people of Newtown

On Friday morning, I woke up to several positive comments on my blog post from the day before, as well as a note from a WordPress admin telling me that my post had been “Freshly Pressed.”  Elated, I plugged in my Christmas tree, poured myself a cup of tea, and sat down to keep writing.

Wow, I thought.  I’m finally starting to write again.  I finally feel like some things are falling into place.

 Meanwhile, 300 miles southeast, a young man entered an elementary school carrying a semiautomatic rifle.

Like the rest of the world, I can’t begin to understand.  I am not a parent and I don’t know these families, yet I can feel our country’s collective sense of grief, a weight so heavy it slopes our shoulders, slows our steps.  I can see what it does to our president, a father himself, who could barely find words.

I grieve for the family of the killer, the people who now must keep living, knowing that they knew the person whose name will persist in infamy.

To talk about yoga at a time like this seems bizarre, trivial, silly.  I had a class to teach on Saturday morning, and I spent Friday evening wondering how I was going to do this.  What could I give my students, after what we all had lost? 

I mustered up all the love I have during class, and I asked my students to do the same, to send that energy out of their practice, out of the studio and into the rest of the world.  People often refer to yoga as a moving meditation, and this was forefront in my mind as we moved through sun salutations.

Whether you recognize a holiday at this time of year or not, there is generally a perceptible shift in energy in our society.  I’ve found that shift more pronounced than usual this year—because we’ve just come off another rancorous, dividing election, because the Mayan calendar says the world is going to end, because there have been more high-profile mass shootings this year than in any other year in my memory—the energy is more frenetic, taut, uneasy.

 So what else could I do, but to bring my class back to the simplest elements of love and gratitude.  Back to the breath.  I tied these ideas together with this song during Sun B’s, and this during savasana. 

There is no big answer to end this post. I have no “so what” that teachers always reminded me needs to be somewhere in your writing.  

Because there are no words that can begin to encompass what happened on Friday, because there is nothing that can be done to ease these parents’ grief, I ask anyone reading this to simply continue to act with love, to radiate love into whatever you do, with whomever you speak.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

I breathe in, I breathe out

Just a few minutes ago, I reached for my untouched cup of coffee to take a sip.  It was empty.  I started blankly into its depths, thinking, when did that happen?

I drank the whole cup without knowing it, sipping it idly while doing—what had I been doing?  I couldn’t really recall that either.  I’d been on my computer, doing something…I strained to remember the flavor of a single sip of the coffee, but it was gone.

This reminded me of a question posed at a yoga training earlier this year:

How much time do you spend thinking about…

  • What has happened
  • What is happening
  • What will happen

???

For me, the outside choices greatly outweigh the central.  I flush with embarrassment over a stupid decision made five years ago; my stomach hurts as I worry about what could happen tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I drink a cup of coffee without realizing it.

I’m not saying it isn’t important to think about things outside of right now, but do we really have to think about the past and future so much, when doing so causes us to lose sight of the present?  It’s absurd, when you think about it: the minority of our (at least, of my) time is spent thinking about what I’m actually doing at the moment.  Everything else is devoted to things I have no control over—what’s already happened; or things I have very little control over—what’s not yet happened.

Over the years, I’ve gotten better at “practicing presence” on my yoga mat, but it’s still a challenge.  Moving through Sun B’s, I find myself wondering what I’m going to make for dinner, remembering I need to buy toilet paper.  Breathing in savasana, I realize I’m thinking about what happened last week on Dexter (and that’s rarely relaxing).

Per the suggestion of one of my instructors, lately in class I have been repeating to myself, I breathe in, I breathe out. Over and over.  I breathe in, I breathe out.  Sometimes, this leads to thought patterns like:

I breathe in, I breathe out.  I breathe in, I breathe ou—oh, look at that girl, her stomach is so flat, and she has such beautiful back muscles, I should start weight training I don’t know how though, last time I did was in college, wow that was a while ago, I wonder whatever happened to that girl I used to see at the gym, what was her name, I wonder if she’s still with that guy, I should repaint my nails,

And so on.

Some days, I think it’s getting easier.  Other days, I sit up from savasana and think, it’s over?  Where did those 75 minutes go?

But I keep going back to this mantra, class after class: I breathe in, I breathe out.

And slowly, I’ve started to carry this mindset outside the yoga room, doing one thing at a time.

I work at a juice bar, which means lots of repetitive work.  I do the same series of tasks every day.  It’s a great exercise for presence.  Washing one apple at a time, I try to notice the smoothness of its skin, the temperature of the running water.   Instead of being frustrated by the repetition, I try to appreciate it.  I breathe in, I breathe out.

Of course, the operative phrase is I try. There are still days when freshly washed apples rain down on my head from the shelf above, days when I think if I have to wash one more carrot, I will go on a carrot-killing spree, days when I just don’t want to take the time to be present.

Because that’s the thing—presence requires time.  Presence means slowing down.  Is there anything in this world we have less control over than the passage of time?  For control freaks like me, this is a huge part of the challenge.  We are always looking ahead, wanting to know what’s coming and to get there as soon as possible just so we can move on to planning the next thing.  Being present requires letting go, accepting what you can control and admitting what you can’t.

And so I continue: I breathe in, I breathe out.

Especially challenging when its Christmastime and there's a cat chewing on your fingers.

Especially challenging when its Christmastime and there’s a cat chewing on your fingers.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 90 Comments

Yoga and Angst

Although the techno music of a cardio-step class pounded on the other side of the wall, the lights were low and apparently I had lulled my students into a state of relaxation with the aid of a mantra pulled from the Battlestar Galactica soundtrack.  Keeping my voice as smooth as I could, I began to rouse my students from savasana: “Beginning to deepen your inhales and your exhales…”
My “closing” bits are never exactly the same, but they tend to follow a few similar routes.  In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I riffed on gratitude.
“In this season of thankfulness, we will hopefully have lots of opportunity to be thankful for the world around us, for the people and places and things that aid and nourish us.  So take a moment here, on your mat, to be thankful for you, in your body, for your amazing ability to stretch, to strengthen, to breathe.  Breathe this gratitude as you start to press yourself up to seated…”

I meant every word: I am truly grateful for my students, and I think their abilities are beautiful and amazing.  At the same time, however, I couldn’t help but observe my hippie-dippy yoga teacher voice with a tinge of cynicism.  My mother, who happened to be in the class, summed it up nicely afterwards, as we were walking to our cars:
“The way you teach, you’d never be able to tell you’re so angsty in real life!”

She’s right.  I’m frequently amused and bemused by my teaching.  I can observe myself during classes in a way I haven’t figured out how to do in the rest of my life, and the woman I see is beguilingly unfamiliar.  She looks like an adult, self-possessed and quietly confident, unafraid and knowledgeable about her craft.  Yoga, for this teacher, is an art, a creative outlet.
I tell my students they are stunning and incredible because they come to their mats, week after week, because they are game to try new things and they are smart and conscientious in knowing when to rest.
And then I leave our yoga room with its soft lights and warm tones and step right back onto the merry-go-round of self-doubt and criticism that so many of us ride around and around all day, every day.  Is it hypocritical of me to be so self-assured in class when outside of it, I’m a hot mess of a 22-year-old who doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life?  Am I being insincere when I preach ahimsa, non-violence even towards yourself on the mat and then look in the mirror at home and tell myself I’m fat?
Maybe it’s just being human.
Teaching has taught me that you don’t have to be perfect to be a yoga teacher.  You don’t have to have a habit of meditating for an hour each day to teach an uplifting, inspirational class.  You don’t have to be able to do a perfect forearm balance in order to create a challenging and energizing sequence.  I am close to enough fellow yogis—those who teach and those who don’t—to know I’m not the only one who experiences “angstiness” off the mat.
We’ve all heard variations on the saying, “Without the darkness, how would we know the light?”
In the same vein, without the angst, how would we know the calm?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

The Most Challenging Class I’ve Ever Taken

Breathe, I kept telling myself, just breathe. How long had I been in this pose? 1 minute? 10? I couldn’t even tell.  My muscles twitched and my mind raced as I struggled to keep my breath even and lightly set my thoughts aside.  This is crazy, I began to think. How can the teacher ask this of us? Is she insane??  How much longer do I have to stay here???

We weren’t sitting back in utkatasana or extending into trikonasana—I lay on my back, a combination of bolsters, blankets and blocks supporting my spine, knees, the back of my head, even my hands and feet. The instructor softly chimed her tingshas and told us we had been in supta baddha konasana for 35 minutes. Next we would move right into
savasana.

Restorative yoga is designed to do just that—to restore. Props are used to support the body so that you can completely relax, giving the nervous system a chance to rejuvenate and the body as a whole a chance to heal and rest. For someone like me, more-often-than-not trapped in my own head, it is outrageously difficult.  I regularly practice Vinyasa yoga, a high-energy flowing style, in an 85-90 degree room.  The practice saps me, leaving me hungering for savasana by the end of the class. Apparently, I need to be exhausted to stay still.

My experience teaching has showed me that I’m not alone in this. Students who have been practicing for years and newcomers alike have moments of palpable discomfort when asked to lie still and silent.  They look around wide-eyed. They take the opportunity to do some crunches. Or they just leave.  If they are anything like me, these reactions come from the fact that being quiet in solitude is incredibly disquieting.

Simply put, we aren’t good at being alone.

Most of us never are. I’m as guilty as the next person for checking my phone while standing in line, while waiting for an appointment—any moment that I’m not otherwise occupied. For most of us, this starts first thing in our day: As soon as I wake up, I turn the alarm off on my phone, and check for messages.

We are so desperate to stay connected that we even have the compulsion to check our phones while driving a car rocketing down the highway at 70mph.

We cannot be alone.

When I am silently supported in a pose in Restorative, I sometimes feel a pressure in my chest, tightness through my face. I can’t stay here, I think, all of my teacher-training and positive affirmations flying out the ornately-dressed window of the yoga studio.  I can’t do this.

And yet I stay. Restorative is still much more difficult for me than a power-Vinyasa class, but I keep going. I keep trying, because I believe Restorative is the single style of yoga everyone can and should do: to cultivate the ability to be alone, to be quiet with yourself, without the phone or laptop or TV. I believe this is important. In our increasingly connected world, I believe it is imperative to know how to be, alone.

During one class sign-in at the studio where I work, a young woman came up to me and said, “I’m here for restoration?”

The question mark at the end of the sentence was audible as she shifted from foot to foot. She was looking at me, waiting for confirmation that she had come to the right place.

“Yes,” I smiled, “You are.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 3 Comments