Missives from the Mat 14 — After a Year of “Teaching” Yoga

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It’s been more than a year since I started to teach yoga to adults. I am the student, I am realizing.

That said, because I am still and always learning, and quite open to that reality, I have a few things to impart:

People come to yoga for a variety of reasons, but the most frequent one I hear is “stress reduction.” What they don’t understand, or what I think they don’t understand, is that yoga really isn’t what’s reducing their stress, it’s the fact that they are paying attention to the stress in the first place. I say this at risk of throwing away income, of disgruntling fellow yoga instructors, and all the rest, but the fact remains that the first stage of correcting anything is the acceptance that it needs correction.

Granted, if people don’t come to yoga, chances are quite high they’re not doing it on their own. We just aren’t that cool of a civilization.

Want to feel great? Right now? Go ahead and sit or stand up straight. Gaze ahead softly with a gentle focus. Release your jaw and pay attention to any tension in your face, neck, shoulders, belly, hips, thighs, knees and ankles. Just note it. Now take a big deep breath. Slowly let it out. Do it again. And one more time, only on the third time, lift your arms with the breath — you don’t have to go all the way up, just open the chest. As you let out the air, slowly lower the arms. Repeat it a few more times. Now your body is digging this. It will tell you what it wants. Just be sure to connect with your breath…  Breathe with the motion.

Speaking of breath…

Many people don’t like to hear their own breathing. I get this. I used to be that person, the one who would inwardly roll my eyes when the yoga teacher would say, “I want to hear your breath…” but now I realize that maybe that reluctance to hear our own breathing stems from a subconscious hesitancy to actually live as fully as we can. Is it rooted in shyness? Is it rooted in shame? Is it rooted in fear? Self-loathing? Inadequacy?

Whatever the reason, I learned about a year ago, that if my students don’t hear me breathing, then I am DEFINITELY not creating a space where they find their own energetic license to breathe audibly. Over the past few years, I’ve gotten better about the breathing audibly thing and here’s why: IT FEELS GOOD. (It’s also essential as butt for me to come out of an inversion or a forward bend with a massive inhale or I’ll experience super-fast super low blood pressure drops.) So I make a point of it now to say clearly to my students, “Can you hear your own breath?”

I go on… “Welcome the sound of your own vitality; the proof of your life and the connection between the mind and the body. When in doubt, breathe it out.”

WHY WHY WHY??? Because I want people everywhere (including me) to not be afraid. I want you to get to a point where you either key in on a sensual level to the feel and rhythm of your own breath, and just note it; or that you key in audibly to the sound of it… because when we can hear the breath, we know we are transferring energy. Woo-woo alert: We know that we are part of the dance of life, everywhere, and that we are connected. Trees do it silently, yet we know they do it, or we’d be toast. So breathe, people.

It’s “just the little things…” Mini-anxieties related to mini-moves.

One of the aspects of yoga I try hard to share with my students is the awareness of a sensation. The proposition of doing things we are unaccustomed to, even in the most subtle way, and then bridging the awareness emotionally and intellectually with the experience that we’ve survived it practically.

Case in point: I have my students interlace their fingers in a non-native clasp. The first time they do this, they are very thrown off. Resistance presents itself. But they do it anyway, facing the obstacle. These micro-moments of confusion or “different” and even perhaps, anxiety, flood in. Through the breath: calm, a sense of ability to deal and then awareness (or at least my promotion of it) of the breath and the fact that they are “winning” over the emotional / mental moment.

I say to myself, “this too…” as I’m going through it with them. I don’t like the way this feels. But it’s not threatening me, if I breathe through it, I can get through it… and before you know it, we are all releasing back to a native interlace and learning about ourselves… Then a few more rounds for good measure and we are done with that.

The fact is though, every moment in yoga presents a new awareness of our being. How often have I held warrior 2 pose for a minute or more, at the suggestion of my teacher and wanted to punch something? What am I fighting? Why am I forcing myself to do this? Just a few more seconds… transition… Woo-woo alert: what I’m experiencing is the experience. Nothing more, nothing less and the choice is mine to come out whenever I want, but the fact remains, that I know I can stay in it, and I know there is a lesson and new fibers and new neural pathways and all sorts of shit I just can’t see going on inside me that will be really great for me is happening.

I am more at peace with my warrior 2 holds now. I am constantly tweaking them: what’s my back foot doing? How’s the front knee tracking? Am I lifting through the chest? What about my shoulders… are they engaged? Hips too? Release the jaw… breathe… steady gaze… and by the time I’m done that inventory (which happens automatically now for the most part) I’ve got another 20 seconds to “rest” into the pose.

But what if I come out… am I a failure?

Even moments of dismissal — if we pay attention to what we’re dismissing: a feeling, a moment of vulnerability, a sensation of fear, a memory we weren’t expecting… we have a choice: pretend it didn’t happen (which is what a lot of people do, hence anxiety medication prescriptions, but the anxiety never goes away, does it?); simply notice that it happened and leave it there; make note that it happened, and visit it later or not at all; and countless other ways of managing the situation. The point is this though: you’re on the bus. You’re noticing something and now things are in play.

Things are always in play, my friends. That’s the nature of life. As I say to myself, “This is my first June 22, 2015 too… Give me a moment to get the hang of it…” Mistakes will be made. Lessons will be learned.

No. If I come out, I’m not a failure. I’m tired. I’m listening to my body. I’m figuring things out. There’s a reason there are no trophies in yoga.

Yoga teaching for me isn’t about a “peak” pose. It’s about letting my students feel safe knowing that we are here to grow. I’d rather have two students who are on the bus to personal awareness, hearing their own breath, allowing their own breath TO BE heard by others, than a room full of people who can hold a handstand, or crow pose, or scorpion (even though that’s my goal pose) for six days. I am a firm believer that there is NO SINGULAR POSE that makes you a better more self-aware person than anyone else.

I have a Facebook friend who told me of a memory about growing up with Deepak Chopra. This person told me that Deepak was once at the high school cafeteria table debating with another student about who was more spiritual than the other. “I am more spiritual than you are,” Deepak was overheard saying. I laughed my gluteus off.

I prompt people. A lot.

Here’s what you will get out of a class with me: a reminder to let go of things not only with the mind, but also with the body. I’m big into reminders to release the jaw and the space between the eyebrows. (I’m doing it now as I type.) To listen for the breath (what is it with me and all this breathing??). To feel the chest open. To feel the back expand. To take in one more heartbeat’s worth of air. To hold a pose for one more heartbeat longer. To protect the joints: make sure the glutes and quads are flexed. Just bringing awareness to sensations in the body is about 90% of a good yoga class.

Lots of people think yoga poses are just about making pretzels out of your body… dude, you couldn’t be more wrong. At least in my class. Some of the most basic poses — standing up! — are designed for you to check in and contract your muscles. You’re not just standing there like Homer Simpson: stuff is going on. Then we stand with consciousness for half a minute. Feel that… what’s slipping? What in your body are you letting go? Do another scan… bring it back to the breath…

I say all these things to my students BECAUSE I KNOW it’s slipping in me. You can’t be a hypocrite and be a good yoga teacher. Truth comes out, it always does.

When I prompt in a stretch that we reach for the sky, I’m taking it further: reach for a cloud, higher. I use lots of visual cues in class because I’m a visual person, but also because I want people to “get there.” So often people reach with closed hands… NO! Splay your fingertips, spread open the palms… LIVE! Grasp! Reach! Send energy through the fingertips! Let it go!

Even though what I teach is what I would consider a gentler form of yoga (I like to call it “sloGa”), it’s not easy. I spent a long time of my life rushing, not feeling, getting stuff done and moving to the next thing. In my yoga classes, I have fully embraced the art of slowing down, connecting with the breath and the body, and listening to the body. When we do cat / cow pose, I tell my students to take it slow, to feel the discs separate and lubricate the spine and to let the abdomen drop as the throat opens… and to LISTEN: when your body says “I hate this” you simply affirm it and then act. You can come out or you can stay in… but in the meantime… what’s the lesson here that my awareness [of my sensation] is teaching me? This should be no big deal…  Where does this hurt? What is my body trying to tell me? 

Maybe I talk too much. No one has ever said so though. Part of the reason I talk about the poses is because I’m really into them and I hope to encourage my students to be into them too.

So here’s an alternative to all the introspection on pain. Just as going into a pose requires consciousness and awareness and listening to your body, so does coming out. So it would stand: if you feel pain, pay attention. Conversely: if you feel joy or release, WHY?! What is your body trying to tell you? What is WORKING? This is the part that bugs me a little bit about yoga. Yes, we all have pains, but we also all have joys and pleasures and frankly, let’s promote them too! We are what we think about.

Emotions come up.

Emotions can come to the surface in a yoga class. I don’t mean just the heavy ones. I sometimes find myself in the middle of tree pose (vrkasana) suppressing a giggle. I think about Joyce Kilmer and the fact that I thought the poet who wrote about trees is a dude, not a chick. Go figure.

In eagle pose (garudasana), I’m a mess. I call it “laughing bird” because while I find the pose absolutely challenging, it also reminds me of not being able to laugh in church because you’re not supposed to laugh at church. When I teach this pose to my class, I tell them to squeeze their thighs together (and if the thought “like you’re holding back pee while in line at a Bruce Springsteen concert” comes to mind, that’s on them).

In chair pose (utkatasana) I call it the “regatta bathroom” pose when I work with rowers and “public bathroom pose” every once in a while if the mood suits me. You have to be careful about bathroom humor when you’re dealing with different students and settings.

In warrior 2 (virabadrasana ii), I tend to identify with feeling like a badass, because that pose is so empowering. I remember from my youth, the silhouette of women in the Charlie’s Angels opening credits. Warrior 2… let’s do this.

All too often though, I think people think yoga is this place where we just sit and “experience” and “feel” and “be one” and all that. While I absolutely hope those ideas and concepts come into peoples’ minds, I’d be a blame fool if I thought that was all they thought about AND all they “needed” to hear. Life’s too short, man. Lighten up.

In cow face pose (gomukhasana) I just laugh because, um… this resembles a cow’s face, how?

The thing is — we have these feelings come up because we are still. If we’re constantly rushing, there is no feeing of anything. That’s why people who rush all about the place, REEEEEEEAAALLLLY need yoga. Hence, me on the mat.

That said, everyone has one. The hated pose. The pose that makes then learn. The pose that threatens to shatter their carefully shaped image of self control and composure. The one that reminds us of our humanity.

I hate camel pose. Just thinking about it makes me nervous. For starters, you begin on your knees. Talk about supplication. Then you end up with your chest opened, your back bending, thighs stretching and pressing to what’s in front of you, shoulders reaching for each other, hands resting on blocks or ankles behind you, beside your feet, and then your head is back, if that’s good for you. You can’t see what’s coming. And then you’re supposed to just … “let go…” ??!?

So if you’re in a protected space, like where I teach: I can lock the doors and attempt to bring the psychic energy down in the room to a nice grounded place (but that’s up to the people really), it should feel like it’s no big deal. Only for me, it’s not. Something releases in me emotionally, and no matter how hard I’ve tried to keep it together, I end up weeping in camel pose. I can’t really stop the thoughts or memories or people who flood my consciousness. I try to connect with the breath. I try to be “open hearted” as the pose so clearly suggests. But it’s all about trust. Camel pose is all about trust. So I continue to learn…

Ustrasana - camel pose. I don't know why they call it camel. Maybe things were all on their sides back in the days when yoga was invented...

Ustrasana – camel pose. I don’t know why they call it camel. Maybe things were all on their sides back in the days when yoga was invented… Upon further inspection, I have noticed that I did not completely let go in this pose; I didn’t let my head drop all the way back. Hmm. But in the first one of the series for the photos, I did. The angle was off so I didn’t include it.  

After I did camel maybe 10 times for this post, I will submit that I didn’t get emotional. For some reason, trying to get the angle and the lighting “right” which was a nice “distraction.” What’s the opposite pose of this? For me: child’s pose.

But the feelings do come up. What came up after I finished all that? Relief. So I wonder why.

I also don’t know if it’s a good idea to constantly push one’s self to do things which bring up feelings that we’re not really ready to face. There is never any shame coming out of a pose. Even in my restorative classes, which I teach once at the mid-point and again at the end of the sessions in my classes, people can feel vulnerable and fearful. That’s much more common, paradoxically, because we are really being still. Not just for another 15 seconds, or five more breaths, but until I remind my students to deeply breathe in and prepare to transition into the next restorative pose, which I encourage them to hold for seven minutes.

I’ve seen people change over the year. I’ve seen balance and upper body strength improve. I’ve seen anxiety drop and confidence build. Smiles come easier and slower and softer. They tell me they hear me in their heads, “belly buttons in toward the spine, nice tall back…” I hear my own teachers tell us the same. This stuff sinks in, slowly if you let it. That’s what is super rewarding: that it works when you work it.

Boundaries.

I have learned to say no. I have learned that it’s ok and it doesn’t make me a crappy teacher if I don’t let someone dump all over me, either in private life or in yoga teacher life. And that it doesn’t make me a crappy teacher with shitty boundaries if I DO let people share and dump on me. The choice at the end of it all, always exists. I can live with that person’s story and wear it as my own, or I can place it where it belongs: in a compassionate place where I can hold that person’s personal and separate story as it is. Not mine and not shared with the intent to encumber. Yoga teachers who do have shitty boundaries, I’ve come to believe, have them because they want to be liked and loved and needed. I am OK with that now. Yoga is the thing I can give to other people; as in all aspects of life: people don’t have to take it, and no one is a bad person.

Final thought so far: I have become my own brand of teacher. I no longer wonder too deeply or too often if I’m any good at this, or if students prefer other teachers to me, or if I am doing something “wrong.” I don’t other trying to be like another teacher, and it’s so completely liberating. I read a lot and watch lots of videos and experiment with movements, sometimes right on the fly, to be a stronger version of me as a teacher. I watch and try to retain what I do like about other teachers instead of what I don’t like. 

Because I am ok with being who I am as a teacher now, I really have no clue if my students go nearly as deeply as I encourage them to go. I know though, thanks to feedback and kindnesses that the yoga is making a difference. I need to be better about taking compliments. I minimize a compliment when it’s given. I’ve been introduced to people by students as “My favorite yoga teacher” and “the best yoga teacher” and I say a quick “thank you” internally and then I blush and say, “I’m your ONLY yoga teacher…” but the fact is that I need to be kinder to myself and take the compliment.

To all my students, past and present, thanks for trusting me. Namaste.

Thank you.

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