Tag Archives: Advocacy of the Self

Missives from the Mat 16 — 10 Pointers (Lessons Learned) for #Teaching #Kids “How” to #Yoga

Standard

Teaching yoga to children was my early passion as a yoga instructor. I began as a volunteer in 2007 at my kids’ elementary school. The PTA was in need of a teacher to take over one of the classes for its “Sixth Grade Electives” program which was a parent-run (and possibly exclusive to our school) endeavor. The concept was simple: give the 6th graders a choice of what to do with 50 minutes of one day a week for eight weeks in the second semester of their final year in elementary school.

The more memorable choices ranged from “journalism” where they would work on stories of interest, to “cake decorating.” Other classes included “fashion design” and “personal finance.” These classes are taught by actual people with businesses, degrees and certifications in the offerings. Yoga was offered after a couple kids aged out of the school and so did their parents and the PTA president at the time knew I was a practitioner with several years’ experience and that I had kids of my own, so natch, I was a fit.

I hemmed and hawed. I wasn’t sure. I was terrified.

Comedian John Mulaney has a great line about why 13-year-olds still terrify him, mostly because they will be able to make fun of you and be extremely accurate. So, that was me; I wasn’t terribly ready to face up to ten 12-year olds.

But my friend the PTA president persisted and I stepped up.

Fast forward several years, more encouragement from my PTA president friend, more volunteering, more experience and here I am: a certified yoga instructor with a bonus specialization in teaching kids.

I’ve been at it, as a paid professional, for almost three years now, and recently got picked up by the local parks department to teach two after-school classes at two different schools.

While I don’t have a degree in education, or teaching certificate, I am a communications professional and I make clear communication — regardless of the age of the participants — an absolute foundation of everything in which I engage.

Other than the absolute requirement that you have a sense of humor and the ability to be mentally flexible, here’s a list of what I’ve gleaned from teaching yoga to kids as a kid’s yoga teacher. It’s meant to help parents and teachers engage with all yoga kids:

  1. Truth. Active children will always be active children; putting them in a yoga class will not impel them to be less active, it will teach them (hopefully, if they are developmentally ready) to learn how to recognize what they are doing. So it’s all a matter of drawing attention to what isn’t “known.” I have adults in my classes who tell me, “I hear you in my head now, ‘belly button gently pulled toward the spine, shoulders back and reaching down toward the hips… release the jaw…’ and I never knew I wasn’t doing that until I heard you tell me to do it…”
  2. Habits. With particularly active kids, it will take time, consistency and patience to have the children understand how to recognize their urges to move, their inability to sit still, and their tendency to act on impulse. One 8-week session of yoga will not do it.
  3. Expectations. Don’t expect yoga to turn your kiddo into a Tibetan Monk. Just as you have your ups and downs, your good days and bad days, so do kids. Sometimes we as parents don’t really see our kids for who they really are. Sometimes we are the stressed-out ones, and they are just being  … kids. Remember children are supposed to be active and curious and lively and spontaneous. Maybe it’s the parent who needs the yoga, to look inward and give himself or herself some mindful breathing and relaxation, maybe the child is just being his or her normal. It’s all relative.
  4. Breath. Metaphors and visualization are CRITICAL to helping children understand the concept of mindful breath, which is the root of yoga. Always with the palms touching (that joins the two halves of the brain from a sensorial / neural standpoint) we begin our conscious breathing. Getting them to close their eyes is NOT important. They are children, remember. Their eyes are part of their experience. They are all about data collection. It’s good — as long as they’re still and aware, it’s all good. For some kids, closing their eyes means they press them together super hard and that creates tension in the face, then the jaw, then the neck… They look so uncomfortable. that’s NOT what we’re going for. I give all the little hints, “lightly touch the tip of your tongue behind your front teeth” but if I told you, an adult to do that, can you be reasonably assured you’re “doing it right”? So much bliss gets lost in details and our need to “do it right.” For kids, I’d rather have them look around or at a fixed spot on the floor and do their breaths than “struggle to meditate.” For some kids, sitting composed, as if about to levitate, and silently in “criss-cross applesauce with namaste hands” comes super naturally.  For those kids in my yoga classes, I use “Smell the flowers” (not “sniff,” because sniffs are short, like bunny breaths) and say “blow the bubbles” (the kinds of bubbles from a bubble wand, not “motor boat” bubbles in a pool). Before we begin, I remind them by asking, “What happens if we blow too hard through the bubble wand?” Invariably, the kids say, “THEY WILL BURST!” and they’re right. So we go with that. As they are blowing their bubbles, as repetitions increase, I ask them to count the number of bubbles forming from the wand… And then I ask them to blow out just one more bubble. … Maybe two more bubbles? Watch them float away as you smell the flowers to blow more bubbles. I’ve begun with a couple new ones too, “smell the warm cookie fresh from the oven … … cool the warm cookie fresh from the oven…” Either way, we’ve got lots of brain activity going on. After about the fifth round of “yoga breaths” I talk about “that floaty, dreamy feeling in the body… Do you feel like a feather drifting in the air? Like a bubble? Do you feel like you’re safe and so calm?” That’s the feeling we are going for, that’s the bliss I’m trying to impart to them. “And by doing your yoga breaths, no matter where you are — if you’re afraid or sad or surprised or mad or even super happy, mindfully using your yoga breaths will help you feel floaty like a feather…” I say this a lot, during class, but most of all during “savasana” which is our “yoga rest” time.  Using that word that we see so much of these days: “mindfully,” is critical in helping all of us make the link between a sensation (state of mind) and breath (the body doing something it does anyway but now doing it consciously). Getting any of us to slow down our breathing and notice that floaty feeling is the magic of yoga and mindfulness.
  5. Boundaries. Lots of kids in all my classes talk about their stresses. STRESS? FOR A KID?! Man, as adults in this world, we have got to get our stuff together. No child should even KNOW that the word “STRESS” exists. Are we foisting our stuff on to them? We need to save our stories about being backstabbed by a friend, or tales of woe from the office, or the latest headlines for our peer groups. We would all do better to be more mindful of keeping the flow of information from the kids up to us. Goodness knows we don’t want to know everything President Obama knows, do we? No. Say no to that. So let the kids be kids. Answer their questions in a simple way. I have a band-aid on my face from recent Mohs surgery to remove a basal cell from my cheek. All the kids asked about it, and I said as simply as I could: “I have a cut on my face that a doctor gave me to take a boo-boo off my face. So the doctor fixed everything and I’m ok.” Inevitably the next question was, “How did you get the boo-boo?” So I said, “I believe I got it because I didn’t wear sunscreen. So when your Mommy or Daddy wants you to wear sunscreen, you need to let them put it on you.” And then lots of conversations started about sunscreen, relatives who are doctors, going to the pool, swimsuits, beach towels, which beach they love, seeing dolphins, then then I steered that into doing dolphin pose and we were somehow back on plan.
  6. Sharing. One day after playing a particularly arduous game of “rainbow tunnel” I asked the kids to sit on a line in the gym and slow down their breathing by counting the bubbles we were blowing. When they were calm, I asked if anyone had any questions. One asked, “Why do we do yoga?” And I was about to answer, but I paused and let a kiddo answer. It was amazing. The responder said, “because it’s good for us, to learn about ourselves.” Yeah. I couldn’t have answered it that way. I would’ve said “for flexibility” or “for balance”  (which were amongst some of the children’s answers) but I was really not at all prepared for that answer. So sharing time in the yoga circle is really important because it builds empathy, peer recognition and mirroring. One of them answered, “for stress” and then the sharing really began. Some kids talk about: their bigger siblings heading off to college; hearing parents talking about money; parents traveling and the kids feeling like they are having too much put upon them by the babysitter when the parents do travel. (One actually said, “I get scared too when my parents leave, I want the babysitter to take care of me, not just ask me to help out.” I encouraged that child to talk to his parents before they travel.) Some speak about their siblings’ lack of boundaries and physical altercations with their siblings or school mates and how doing their “yoga breaths”(flowers and bubbles) helps them so much. Other kids talk about classmates, even in the yoga classes, who are domineering, interruptive, and make them feel small. Other kids talk about going up to their rooms and doing yoga breathing when their baby sibling is throwing a tantrum.
  7. Feelings. Let the kids talk about their feelings — so often we want the kids to “relax,””get over it,” and “move on.” As an adult, you take a pause for a second with me, breathe in, and relate: How annoyed and condescended to do YOU feel when someone tells you to move on or to get over it? Do you feel rushed, unheard, dismissed, insignificant? So might your kid. The point is, we all have feelings and feelings are just sensations. Sensations are fleeting. Sometimes we get stuck in a rut, but even those can pass. The sooner we can acknowledge and safely allow anyone’s feelings, the sooner we can process them. I’ve had situations in my classes where one child feels diminished or put-upon by another child. I stop things almost as soon as I can, I actually get down to their eye level and say “namaste” to the child and we talk about it. There is real healing going on during those moments: the perceived brusque child is NOT chastised, but rather has a moment to step back and explain herself and the offended child has a moment to hear and feel heard. Sometimes we just bump into each other during a rousing game of “musical mats” (The. Best. Game. Ever.). We always end a quick chat with a namaste to the group and go back to what we were doing. The namaste to me, is like the wave of thanks in traffic when someone lets you in a lane or you let someone in ahead of you. It’s just a kindness — a pause, a moment to simply acknowledge each other. Too much of that, our seeing of one another, is missing these days.
  8. Engage. Just like you like to be asked about your day and you like to hear about your kid’s day, asking about something specific, like yoga is no different. Ask open-ended questions and I get it that some parents might not know what to ask. So here are some ideas: Q: Did you play any games today? Q: Can you show me how to do “downward dog”? Q: How do you do a yoga breath? Q: What does “namaste” mean? (I tell the kids that it means “I am good and I see that you are good too.”) Q: Did you read a story in yoga? What was it about?  If you have a kiddo in a class I teach, ask about: “Teddy Dog” or “musical mats” or “the cricket during yoga nap” or the “thumb piano” or “Jacob’s ladder” or the “balancing birds” or the “sneezing giraffe toy” or what about when we play “super kids” and the things we rescue when we put on our scarves. Ask them what we do during “cat” and “cow” pose (it’s not quiet). Have them show you how to sit in “namaste” or ask them to teach you how to “smell the flowers and blow the bubbles…”
  9. Presence. Give yourself a gift and really listen to him when he answers you. Give her your full attention, even if it’s for five minutes. Let him teach you. Let her show you. Do the pose with your child. If you want to meditate with your child or have her sit with you in a few minutes of quiet, I recommend you light a candle and have her focus on the flame with you. There’s something about the animation of the flame, the unpredictability of it all that keeps everyone entranced. I am not permitted to light a candle during my in-school classes for obvious reasons. I’m repeating because it’s worthy: So when you ask, make sure you’re really able to listen without interrupting; sometimes these concepts are hard for a child to impart to an adult.
  10. Affirm. Back to point number 1: You Must See Your Child Exactly As  Your Child Is. If she really doesn’t like yoga, I’m not insulted. Put her in Tae Kwon Do, or dance. I know I’m bringing my A Game each time we meet. I’m naturally very observant, and as a mother, I know I have to be ready to shift gears in a microsecond. As a teacher, I do shift gears because all it takes is one kiddo to divert the “plan” of class: Say one kiddo is acting like a bumble bee and no one else is, but that one bee won’t stop buzzing. In a traditional classroom, that bee is neutralized, told to sit down and stop buzzing. Good luck with that. In yoga, that bee is “followed”: we will all start buzzing and it’s great. After a minute or two, when I see some kids slow down, we stop buzzing and put our hands on our hearts and feel our lungs eventually slow down from all their amazing work of making us busy bees. Affirming someone’s higher energy gets all the “willies” out and we have a great time. I’ve started classes with two minutes of full-on laughing or 30 “mountain climbers” (which are now being requested, so we’ve got some budding Cross-Fitters out there…) or being “washing machines” (seated in criss-cross applesauce with cactus arms up and twisting side to side very quickly with the breath) to wash our hoodies. If the kids are still active, we put the hoodies in the “dryer” and we tumble our arms as we bow up and down and then we check the dryer to put on our nice warm dry hoodie.

By no means is this an exhaustive list. It’s just my top 10; many other ways are helpful for creating presence with your little yogi. I love to teach kids, they are the best teachers: they show me that even a “grown” woman is a big kid at times… and that it’s nice to not have all the answers.

Thank you and namaste. Especially to that PTA president and those first kids (who are now sophomores in college!) all those years ago…

 

 

Missives from the Mat 15 — Seeing Things for How they Really Are #teaching #yoga

Standard

It has been a very long time since I last wrote a blog post. Personally, lots of things have been going on; primarily, bronchitis and a sinus infection for me, a mild concussion for my middle son, college visits for the older son, Hallowe’en (which is truly a Holy Day around here), lots of glorious rowing, and helping to run the registration desk for a large regatta. Oh! And I had a basal cell carcinoma removed, but I’m good. (I’ll write about that later, it’s pretty funny. Well now it is…)

The most notable executive news for me is that I have decided to stop teaching my evening adult yoga class. This wasn’t an easy decision to make. When I took over the class from a well-known instructor and teacher trainer, I remember her sigh-saying as she handed over the metaphorical keys, “I always thought that this class would blossom with someone in the community running it…”

Looking back through my jaded lenses, that should’ve been a sign to me… I have been reluctant to admit the truth about the reality of the yoga potential here.

You can’t get much more “in the community” than me as I live less than a mile from the facility. The logistics remained the same. Even payments carried over. For students, it was easy-peasy.

That said, changes were a’coming and people don’t always adjust to change.

The first change was that people were about to get a new yoga teacher. GULP.

The second change is that I was about to shake up the payment scheme. People do like their money. They also like to do whatever the hell they want with it.

The third change was actually a constant: I can’t change who I am… But people said they liked my style, they loved my classes, they wish they could keep taking them…

In retrospect, at first, I tried to be all things to all people: I tried to be that departing instructor. Then I also tried to be the original instructor who started the class. So that’s two separate people besides me — the funny thing is: I never attended either one of those teachers’ classes, so who knows what I was trying to replicate.

The first two instructors ran the classes on what I like to call a “peace love happiness” hippy punch-card scenario. That’s not at all my style. I treat yoga more as a studio business would: you buy a set of classes in a “session” (a finite period, say 10 weeks, so you attend the commensurate amount of classes remaining during that session and classes could carry over only per request).

Upon taking the helm, I decided that I would honor for two more months whatever “balance” remained on the punch-cards, as several of these cards had been in circulation for TWO YEARS and were unused.

In fact, several of the people on the original email list never contacted the second instructor, they never attended her classes for the one-year period when she took it over. It was only when they heard from me, that “use it or lose it” was in effect, that they attended classes.

In a punch-card world, someone has to keep track, someone has to “X out” a class on that card. At a studio, a receptionist can do that. I don’t have a receptionist. I don’t babysit adults, nor do I “X out” anything. We are in our 40s and beyond, people. If you’re going to make your yoga teacher hold you accountable, you’ve got problems.

Before starting the classes, I consulted with my brother. He’s an MBA with a big job and he and wears fancy shoes. He gave me his advice and told me why he likes to pay for his fitness instructors and how he “gets it” that this isn’t about “nice feelings” but rather, it’s a transaction of values. “Don’t let people confuse you either, this is a business transaction. Yes, yoga is all about energy and feeling good, and being good, and all that shit; but it’s also a transaction. It’s about money.” He told me (along with my own yoga teacher) to change the payment program to “buying a group of classes in a ‘session'” instead of a “punch-card” because a punch-card doesn’t impart a commitment to the self and to the practice, and that self-improvement, as we all know, only works when you work it.

“If you don’t show up, or you don’t do the work, how can you expect any changes?” he reminded me. “I could go get McDonald’s or a Slurpee instead of coming to your class. I don’t value you if I don’t show up. I also don’t value myself, but that’s totally different, and not your problem. Your problem is waiting on people to follow through: to take you up on the service you are trained to provide them. Your service won’t be like anyone else’s, that’s what they’re buying. They’re buying YOU for 90 minutes. Not with a punch-card, but for that time only.”

He could sense that I had a problem asking people to pay me for a service that I felt they could just as readily perform on their own.

“But they can’t, can they? They can’t see their own misaligned knee or that their shoulders aren’t stacked, can they, unless they’re looking for them… but even then, if they’re looking, they’re not ‘doing yoga‘; they’re concerned with their appearance… They can’t see how the pose is performed, or hear you talk about what to feel or engage what muscles where or to loosen their jaws, can they?”

“No.”

“That is reason enough to pay you. Shit, no one but a trained and observant teacher who is doing the work with them, and who can talk about where things are working, as they do the work with them, can tell them that stuff.”

So he was right. Over the last 21 months, the count of participants ebbed and flowed. My most successful quarter was about a year ago: I had about seven registered session students, and several drop-ins. I bought myself a pair of boots last year. I didn’t ever make a killing. I could use the money to pay for gas for a long road trip and maybe a nice dinner out for my family, but that was it.

Then the numbers started to really drop last spring.

Lives change: elderly parents get sick, job requirements shift, people move, bodies ache, people lose their jobs or their motivation… My purpose on this planet is not to judge anyone’s decision to do anything, but to rather look at where I was feeling satisfied and if I was being “of service” to people; if I was actually helping people instead of sitting there picking my navel and feeling sorry for myself because no one showed up anymore.

The numbers continued to drop. I had three registered students, and only one regularly showed up. More logistical challenges for the other members, wrenches thrown in the engine.

It became a real drag.

I have a giant IKEA bag holding 12 yoga blocks; 6″x 2′ strips of my old yoga mat for extra knee / spine / elbow support; and 12 static double-D ring straps to hold poses or to stretch more effectively. I played amazing music (Todd Norian, “BIJA,” get it) too. I spoke softly and humorously about what was working in the poses. I offered modifications to challenge or support the body. I sprayed lavender oil mist in the room. I recited a guided breathing exercise during savasana for anyone who was interested. I infused a brief yoga nidra during every meditation. I had created, in my estimation, the very class I always wanted to attend. It wasn’t perfect: I was nervous teaching inversions, but I tried every so often and most people didn’t really care for them. I was not teaching to change people, or to get them to do something they’re not comfortable with. My goal always, has been simple: to help people feel good and let go.

But the numbers continued to drop. One day, I was quite certain no one would show, so I texted the people that hadn’t let me know and one did come to class! I was thrilled to see her! In fact, I even had a drop-in that night! Two people in the room with me! It was really nice! But I knew it would be short lived, so I decided that night I was throwing in the mat.

If it weren’t for one seriously dedicated person, and she knows who she is, I would’ve given up a long time ago. She asked me one night, “Is it discouraging when no one else comes?” I was so touched and surprised and defensive of the question. I answered sort of automatically, “No, it’s nice you’re here; I enjoy being here with you…” But I do wonder about it all… I said to myself.

The concept of “walking out on this class” never occurred to me. Nor had the idea that I had a choice. Growing up in the world I did, with the mother I had and the father I had, I couldn’t leave my post, or my mother would falter. She could die. I couldn’t stop my sentry work, or things would fall apart. My father was relying upon me to keep watch, to let him know how things were going, to let him know if Mom was sick or where she was, or what she was doing or who she was with. I had to stay. I had to keep my post. The same thing happened with the yoga, I guess. Even as I type this right now, I realize that I’d taken the position of yoga instructor to heart. There’s nothing I don’t do that isn’t done 100% and I think people have come to expect that from me. I have come to expect that from me. That’s fine, because I’ll always try to deliver. But my duty was to the yoga mat, and to hold the door open, so to speak, to the space where we practiced. To always be ready for people to come in. And to wait, even alone, in the dark, in that big room for people to come because that meant they would be safe. That meant they would be well. That meant they were taking care of themselves. I could relax when people were doing yoga, because they were secure. I knew where they were.

I’d never been given permission to retire. Failure was not an option, nor was deciding that the seas were too strong and that the prevailing winds were simply trying to teach me something: to lie down, to batten down, to steer my craft to calmer seas… to stop waiting for adults to show up at night. (Woah, that use of “adults” just now, just typed itself.)

It’s hard to admit. If it weren’t for the health club where I was recently hired, and if it weren’t for the growth in those attendances and the news from the health club management that I “have quite a following” for my yoga classes, I would be crushed.

They say ego is not supposed to be part of a yoga teacher’s energy, but if it weren’t for a healthy ego, I would keep trying to make this work despite the obvious signs it wasn’t working. It’s November, chilly, and once daylight savings time ends, people go into hibernation mode. They do NOT want to leave their homes, no matter how glorious the yoga. I get that. But still… it’s hard on the ego. However, empathy must prevail: it’s cold and dark out, who wants to leave home?

What also must prevail is the absolute truth that anyone’s decision to not come to yoga classes that they’ve already paid for has NOTHING to do with me. I really have to get my head out of my ass.

I have had some really interesting students, too, in this evening class. These are amazing people with some pretty spectacular disorders and physical challenges; I’m grateful for the opportunity to teach these people because they taught me as well: that no matter how strong a teacher I want to be, there are SOME THINGS I will never match. (That sounds a little too familiar to my story growing up, doesn’t it?)

In the very beginning, I had a student who became very attached to me. She was sweet and sparkly-eyed. But I have limitations and I’ve done a shit ton of couch time to not only allow for the existence of the flags, but to see them and turn heel and run.

I can’t handle that, when people become attached to me. There are only four people and two dogs I will be OK with attaching to me: my kids, my husband and Charlie and Murphy. This is not to say I’m not a reliable person. I absolutely am reliable. Just don’t expect me to be your everything; I’m barely my own anything.

This one student somehow identified with me. Maybe it was my kindness, or my optimistic attitude toward her situation, and my utter newness toward her and her idiosyncrasies. I was sincerely proud of her accomplishments despite a major disability. But, like they all do, these empty souls whose mommies didn’t love them enough (raises hand sheepishly), she attached to me. She idolized me, for something, and inevitably, I disappointed her. I treated her like I treated everyone else, despite her identification of me. She thought she was someone special to me, because I was someone special to her.

My job as a yoga teacher is to teach yoga, not cleanse your soul. I teach yoga, not emulate Jesus. I teach yoga, not act as your therapist. I teach yoga, not solve your problems. I teach yoga, not be your mother. I teach yoga, not set you apart. I teach yoga, I teach yoga, I teach yoga. I ask for payment. I expect you to show up. I teach yoga. That is all. If I am lucky, we will become friends, but we are equals. I am not superhuman, but I am very sensitive to energies, so the moment I feel people set me apart and think of me as special, I start to feel sick, as though I am picking up their self-loathing; it’s a very tenuous sensation: it feels like you don’t know if you’re coming or going: “are these my shoes?” After many years, I know when I start to do that to other people, make them my saviors. So I take a deep breath and I re-center myself. Don’t make anyone else your idol; it’s a lot to live up to. 

I liked to get to the space early, to loosen up myself and to prepare to teach, go over notes, play with a transition or a flow, or select a reading for the class. It was as though she could see the parking lot from her house because as soon as I pulled up, she would be walking up or waiting on the steps for me. She would text me in the morning, “Hey Doll! Have a great day!” on days we didn’t have class. I said inside to myself, for her benefit, please don’t do this to me, don’t do this to yourself.

On the one day she wasn’t waiting for me or preternaturally aware of my arrival, she stormed into the room. She started barking out her day. This was fairly common, but I could usually get her to simmer down, to let it go… but she was having none of that. I spoke to her gently and privately before others arrived about her disposition; suggesting that maybe she should take her dog for a strenuous walk instead of yoga, that I’d credit her for the class. She said the others knew her better and longer than I did. She wanted to pass out her business cards to the people in the class. She wanted to cross all sorts of boundaries. I said no. Absolutely not. “People come to yoga class to practice yoga, to get away from their day and their lives off the mat,” I explained to her. Do the business card thing later. Not before.

People started coming in. She was erratic. Like a loose puppy. I sat and waited, made small talk with students. I took up my chimes and started to sit up straight. People started to center on their mats. She fidgeted.

As I did during every pranayama (the seated opening breath and meditation sequence), I invited the group to give themselves “the gift of keeping the day outside and preserve this space, for the yoga, inside,” and I rang the chimes three times with our conscious inhales.

As usual during pranayama, my eyes were closed, so I don’t know if she glared at me, but I did open them after hearing her huff and snarl, to witness her get up, gather her things as noisily as she could, and let the door slam behind her.

Awwwwwkwwwwaaaarrrrd.

I spent a little longer in pranayama, for entirely selfish reasons, and we did some sort of conscious breathing exercise, likely alternate nostril breathing. I can’t recall the exact one, but we did it for another five minutes.

She never came back to my classes.

I fell from grace.

I became the “anti-her” person. Another bad guy. Another reason, as she told me in a text, during that class, for her to not leave her house.

Don’t give me that power. I certainly don’t deserve it, nor do I know what to do with it, I texted back to her the next day, followed by telling her I was glad she got home ok.

After several very quiet months, despite telling me to never contact her again (and I hadn’t to begin with), she sent me an email. A blog post from MindBodyGreen about how to be a good yoga teacher, “I thought you would find this helpful,” she wrote as an intro. It was about the importance of teachers keeping their egos in check; to not show off or show up the students with displays of magnanimous self-control or pious self-awareness. To not demonstrate crane, or bird of paradise, or dancer poses because it was too upsetting to those students who felt unable to perform them.

Ask any of my students if I’ve ever demonstrated crane or dancer without a request to do so; you will hear crickets. I purposely keep my classes mellow, meditative, mostly on the ground, and introspective because I know that no one is coming to me to look like the cover of Yoga Journal. I never expected this woman to exceed the massive limitations of her disability, but I never made her limitations the focus of the lessons. As an “all levels” teacher, you must teach to the highest ability, so that’s what I taught. No one was in those classes to levitate or balance on one toe, the classes were well-designed and challenging.

After Little Miss Backhanded-Awareness sent me that blog post about keeping the ego in check, I ceased all communication with her, and told her to give me distance as she demanded of me: “I’m not your Virgin Mary, your Jesus, your Buddha, your Saint. I’m a flawed, suburban mother of three who is working her ass off to conquer her own demons, so save your blame and finger pointing for your mirror.” >booya.<

But here we are again. Admitting the truth: the number of people coming to my evening classes has fallen. I can’t beat out the four health clubs in the 3-mile radius with their fee-inclusive classes; nor can I beat out the churches with their “Christian yoga” (ha! it is ABSOLUTELY to LAUGH!) versus my “satanic yoga,” I guess. So I am not going to try. I am finished being Sisyphus. I am letting the rock roll.

  
I’ve decided to go back to my teaching roots and teach children’s yoga. The classes are shorter, the students are shorter too. The kids are game, sometimes too game, but that’s what being a kid is all about. For me, teaching yoga to them is a game, and we play games. Kids are super honest and they are also really into noticing how things affect their bodies. At least in the way I teach it, they get that yoga is about everyone, not just one of us.

In my next post, I’m going to write about what it’s like to teach yoga to kids, and how we as parents can know if our kids are truly ready for the mat instead of us just wishing they were…

Thank you and namaste.

Staying in My Lane, The Gift of “xo, Mom”

Standard

Last weekend, my eldest and I drove off to my home state, New York, to tour Rochester Institute of Technology. He is a high school senior, and swinging by Rochester from my cousin’s house in Buffalo, where I grew up, was really no big deal. Except that it was.

My son, as it turns out, loved the school. It’s eight hours away by car.

“We really haven’t looked at any bad schools, Mom, so, it would figure that RIT would be great too.”

Astute. It’s a goal of mine to not waste any time and show him any “bad” schools… I mean, who would do that?

Watching him grow up, is a mixed bag.

I find it hard to stay in my lane.

I find myself channeling my first and best therapist ever, Cooke: “What would Cooke say about this? How would Cooke talk to me about things like this…? How would he phrase what I want to get to the heart of, but not sound like the gestapo?” and most importantly, “How would Cooke help me feel that what he’s inquiring about is really about the person on the couch rather than the person on the chair asking the person on the couch?”

Just when I find myself off the couch, I find myself sitting in the chair across from the couch.

Let me be clear: my son is not in need of a couch; I’m simply stating that when I engage with someone these days, I am finding that I still need to get the hell out of their lane and stay in my own: not make anything they’re saying about me. Keep the streams uncrossed.

It’s hard.

My son is embarking on new chapters and it has nothing to do with me.

Keeping these posts, these essays relevant to him, because he is a human on this planet, makes for interesting story telling, but keeping these posts about me and my growth and not divulging too much about him and his brothers or his father or anyone else, is always my goal. I have to sit back, read and then ask about the relevance of content as my own editor and do my best to ensure the posts are mostly expressive of my seat and perspective in the shared experiences.

It’s hard to not feel like a hopeless narcissist though when I find myself writing in the pathetic bathos tense…

It’s a fine line, a narrow lane.

It’s nearly impossible to relate to life as a mother, a caring person on this planet and an empathetic person without relating to others. So I find myself softening the crayon strokes as I near the edges of what I’m coloring.

Given the alignment of American tradition / history, he will be gone and in some dorm in ten months and I will have to absolutely let go, as he turns from his gentle wave goodbye as I turn my body forward from craning over the back seats and pressing my face against the tailgate window only to leave him there. Maybe I will put his “Momo” — a stuffed baby cow he was given as a toy when he was born (I took Momo to Vegas with me) into a sock and he will find her and smile.

Live in the moment. He’s still home. Breathe. 

I write about him more than the other two boys these days because he has a lot going on. He’s not more important, he’s not more valuable.

He’s my first. He’s my first true teacher of humility, of the dangers of narcissistic extension, of fear and its sneaky cousins: denial and self-sabotage.

Last week when we were in Buffalo, my cousin threw me a birthday party. I’m 48 now. My life is more than half over, as I have no intentions of living to 100, drooling, having my kids wipe my undercarriage and repeatedly asking people to repeat themselves. Those are my intentions… we will see what fate delivers, always, of course.

At the party, I was speaking to someone about age, having kids and the biggest gift of all, the true honor and privilege it is to write, “xo, Mom” at the end of a quick note or text.

I said, “If you were to tell me 25 years ago that I were going to be married, with three sons and everything else I’ve been blessed with, I’dve told you to walk. Writing ‘xo, Mom’ on a note has been my greatest honor ever; words fail to express the journey and its gifts wrapped in lessons.”

So I see him, with his hairy man legs and hear his deep voice and his sharp observations, and words come back to me that a friend recently said of her own experiences watching her son grow up: “Suddenly, there is another man in your house. The step is heavier, the pace is slower, the tone more deliberate and the entire vibe doesn’t so much change because he’s not a ‘man’; he’s your kid who likely needs to tie his shoe or tuck in his shirt to you, but there he is nonetheless: a man.”

And you’re that much older.

So the adjustment must be made. I guess it’s only natural to still treat your child like a child, but sooner or later, you have to look at them as they have always been: separate and individual and capable of their own triumphs and disasters and no matter how deep the desire to meddle, parents can only set up their children for coping with the consequences of their choices. We can’t do anything else… ever.

And it sucks, I think.

We can’t make people be nice to them and see them for the fantastic people we believe them to be. We also can’t be so blind to their humanity that we deny their flaws. That’s the worst thing we can do: pretend they are perfect.

So, as my friend continued about her own college drop-off experience, “I heard the landing gear lock in when the jet cleared the runway, and all I could do was breathe and try to deal with the onslaught of doubts: Eighteen years… did we hug enough? Did I speak kindly enough? Was I patient enough? Did I tell him ‘I love you’ enough? Did I play enough with him under the dining room table? Did we have enough heart-to-heart talks? Did I show him how his choices affect him? Did I tell him enough about the dangers of peer pressure? …”

And I hear my own thoughts compete with hers, Did I instruct him about changing a tire? What about the allure of self-pity and trap falls of despair? About the value of hard lessons? Have I taught him about resilience? Egad! Does he even know how to cut an apple? Make lasagna? HE DOESN’T KNOW HOW TO MAKE LASAGNA!!! I’VE BEEN AFTER HIM FOR YEARS TO MAKE LASAGNA WITH ME…sauce noodle goo … sauce noodle goo …

I still have time. I know he’s going to really want to spend time with me now… at 17. There’s nothing cooler than spending the weekend with your mom while she teaches you how to make lasagna. I know that’s at the top of his list of things to do before heading off to wherever is next.

Can you imagine…?

While we were in Buffalo, he went off for a walk with his cousins. Soon after that, the cake came out and it was time to sing to me.

But I knew he was out.

I was at an impasse… Do I call him back? Do I interrupt his “me time” for my “me” time?

I felt strongly that I knew what my mother would do: she would interrupt him. She would call him in to gather round her with the upcoming generation and venerate her with song.

I decided to wait a few more moments to see if he would come in on his own.

He didn’t.

So I did what I thought was only fair. I decided to let him know, because in my own twisted (yet I’m working to untwist it) and fearful mind, I would have thrust at my mother also a vengeance that she purposely didn’t tell me so that she could thrust guilt at me and I could summarily thrust shame at myself:

IMG_5913

So while I sat there, letting everyone sing to me, which was really nice an’ all, I was quite aware of his absence. And I was aware of my awareness, so I took a breath and let it all go.

And at some point, as aware we are of our children’s maturity and individuation, we must also allow our parents their past and realize that we are our own separate adults now and that they don’t have reign over us anymore, for good. That we don’t have much time left, even in the best of circumstances to live our lives. So, yeah… pull up our own bootstraps.

He came in later, and after everyone was gone, he sang “Happy Birthday” to me all alone. He sang every verse. Even the “dear Mommy” part, looking at me right into my green welling-up eyes and smiling, completely void of any irony, weirdness, or self-consciousness.

“… happy birthday to youuuuuuuu…”

And I sighed, hugged him deeply, almost cravenly, and I softly wept a little because he’s so sweet, and thought to myself, “Just one more year…”

Nope.

This is all we get.

Note to self: stash Momo in a sock.

Thank you.

Love The Sinner, Hate the Sin

Standard

Today is the second anniversary of my mother’s death. I’ve written extensively here and privately about my experiences in grief. I’ve written about her death two years ago being the final somatic death which followed so many other of her deaths I felt I had grieved over my recent lifetime.

Last night, when going over photos of her, the one below in particular, I wept silently while my husband slept beside me, oblivious and recuperating from a sinus infection.

This photo was taken about six years ago in my parents’ house in Canada. A place we used to joke about having in case there was another military draft. Now it feels like a good idea to hang on to in case Donald Trump becomes president.

Mimi and the boys, summer 2009.

Mimi and the boys, summer 2009.

I wept for many reasons. I feel now / today / this moment and felt during that moment that I weep because I will never have that sweet older lady in my childrens’ lives any more.

She wanted so very much to be present in their lives. She was, in her way. I got in the way. I see that now. I sort of robbed them of her sprite-like ways because I was so hurt by it, her lack of an anchor, as a child. I wanted to protect them from that, but I see now, that by just being their mother, I was protecting them from that. They weren’t going to be with her 24/7, as I was, yet I couldn’t really unplug from those memories, at least not then. I was aware of it too. What I mean by that is that I was aware that I was in the way and yet I wanted to be out of the way, and yet, I wouldn’t be out of the way. I was and am so hell-bent on providing for them a healthy life that I suppose in some ways I’m stifling an unanchored life…? that doesn’t make sense. I sense now that I’m becoming my own judge, jury and executioner. Breathe. 

Mom used to say, “Jesus said to ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ or something like that…” and I’m being a little flip in my treatment of that memory, but she did often say something very similar to that, depending on the tenor of our conversation and her state of mind.

As I wept last night, my throat hardened and tightened and I knew that it was because I was and have been disallowing a truth for almost all my life: that I loved her and needed her so very much and that as much as I wanted to hate the physical incarnation of her addictions: her, I know rationally that doing so limits my exposure to her, even now in her death. So I thought and mostly felt some more (even though it was reeeeeally difficult to feel the feelings) and said to myself, “I do love you, and I always did and I guess I always will, even though I hated how things went down between us.” And my throat softened.

I always have to allow that reality, that caveat (that she was messed up too). I’m not one to paint a dead rose as one in bloom: shit was hard between us. We were each others’ teachers, of this I have no doubt. I am easily able to say now, that I am grateful for her being my mother and that she taught me the most important lesson of all: to get real with yourself, because she had such a hard time doing it herself.

I realize that Mom was an instrument of God for me and my brothers and that her mission was to teach us, in one way or another, about the dangers of addiction and alcoholism. And to live as an example, as harsh as it was (and it was harsh) so that we would be able to break a cycle. So that we would be able to live consciously and as deliberately as possible.

Mom was such that there was no patois of our dynamic, after all, she was an actor and an illustrator. As good as she was at stringing words together, Mom really seemed to fail at times in speaking and writing… it sometimes devolved into a bathos and her notes to me could cut like a backhanded compliment. “It was the booze talking…” I remember her saying one time. In vino, veritas, I would hiss back. In a way, she ended up unduly sacrificing herself for our sobriety. The tenor of our relationship was mostly mistrust, which really … sucked.

If my mom existed so that I could spare my sons an alcoholic mother and hopefully influence their own lifetimes in awareness of alcoholism and their genetic predilection, then her existence and my forgiveness of her is not for nothing. That’s the lesson I feel I’m steeped in right now. That’s where I can step into forgiveness. For me, right now, forgiveness has to be or at least look like a transaction.

I have actually begged for her to appear in my dreams. She does, sometimes.

The current book I’m reading, A Manual for Cleaning Women — Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin, is an emissary of sorts for me right now. In it, Berlin writes clearly about alcoholism, witnessing her mother’s and her grandfathers’ own travails and also her own. The shakes and delirium tremens, the self-loathing and mental anguish. Through her, I have a glimpse of my mother’s struggles and demons and I am leaning toward “forgive the drinker, hate the booze.” I suppose I could’ve used this book a few years ago. But it is what it is. Mom and I were as good as we were going to be around the time she died, we’d had several real adult and womanly conversations. Berlin has also made me a little braver in my own writing. Life is too short to have to fear what other people (through their own filters) think of anything I do.

When Mom aged, she softened, as so many of us do. Gone were the harsh and defensive edges of projected self-recrimination and doubt. At least around my kids, they were softened or completely worn away. She still had her self interest, poised above all others, but her kindnesses toward my children were absolutely sincere. In a way I was envious of them, their ability to be so at ease with each other. She had no worries about failing them and they had no fears of not living up to her expectations. It was like a little team of back-patters. I am happy that they all had those moments together.

I recall a day when she wanted to be with us, but logistics made it difficult (or maybe just I did) and so we all played Monopoly with her on the speakerphone. One of the kids would roll dice for her, the other would move her token (usually the thimble) and the other one would deal with her bank (that was usually my oldest son). She just liked being on the other line, hearing us all play together. I remember wishing she’d had an computer or iPad or something so that the boys could play online Scrabble and Pictionary with her; she would have loved it.

The day she died is different from today. Two years ago, it was Labor Day. Everyone in my family was with their own families, no one was alone to have to hear the news. I remember, clear as it happening right now, that when my father called that day, I was on my deck with my husband. I just knew. You know — how you just know? I just knew. Dad’s voice was unsure, but upbeat, like he was calling me to tell me that he’d cracked up my car but that everyone was ok… “Your mother has collapsed in the driveway. She’s in an ambulance now… the officer here wanted me to call you…”

….  ‘Officer…?’ …. 

We went over to their house as soon as we could. I’ll never forget it. The angle of the sun. The heat of the day. The wait in their front hall for an update. Then the update from the officer, “Mary didn’t survive…” and I thought he had the wrong person… “Mary? Who is Mary… ” … “Your mother, I’m sorry… she didn’t survive…”

Oh.

Then the drive to the hospital. And the phone calls and texts to brothers — where was my younger brother?? — and cousins and in-laws and close friends from the back seat of my own car as my husband drove and my father sat, granitic, in the front passenger seat. It was about 4:30pm at that point.

So tonight, I will have another root beer float, as I did that evening when I’d found out she’d died. She was on her way to get one that day. I got mine from the Baskin-Robbins down the street from the hospital. I remember for weeks after that, just telling people that my mother had died. I told my cleaning ladies. I told people I barely knew. I always got a hug for it. The freshness is still there, of that moment. I feel like that’s the greatest gift of being sober and in touch with your feelings: that joy and pain and all the others in between are right there, just beneath the surface teeming to leak out. We should let them every once in a while, it keeps us real. If your mom is still around, give her a hug for me. If she is not, think softly of her for yourself.

Thank you.