Thank Yourself

When the yoga teacher invites the class I’m in to thank themselves for coming to class or to thank themselves for taking the time to take care of themselves, it takes supreme effort not to allow my groan to become audible.

The people that I admire in the world: Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, etc. are not individuals known for taking care of themselves but rather for taking care of those around them. Now I’m sure that all of them took needed time to get nourishment and rest when they could – but taking care of themselves wasn’t their prime directive. So why in the yogic community are we pushing hedonistic behaviour?

Continuing along this line of thinking and using another yoga teacher favourite phrase: Thank yourself for showing up. That seems to be the problem – many people simply show up and delude themselves into thinking that they are engaged. Being present for a yoga class is one thing. Being engaged in the class, putting in the physical and mental effort needed is an entirely different matter.

It reminds me of a time a fellow dancer and I both enrolled in a series of fitness classes to augment our dance careers. I personally hated the classes – every class was a journey into my own personal hell. My friend loved them. One day I stood behind my friend for the class and was shocked to see that while I was standing in a pool of sweat – she didn’t have a single drop of sweat on her! My muscles were visibly quivering and she was happily bouncing along with the music. At first I thought it was me but in the end – I got stronger and she didn’t.

Isn’t one of the problems in our capitalist society the fact that everyone wants an instant return for their investment? Stores open and close, companies change direction, bankruptcies, refinancing. Then there’s the other obvious problem – who wants to take the longer route that benefits the earth when that route doesn’t have an instant return or a return that has a monetary value? Quality of life is not a quantitative value.

It seems to me that we can better serve the people that come into our classes by teaching with honest values, which in turn could help to bring about some needed changes to our society. Teach your students patience. Teach them hard work without reward. Teach them faith in themselves – that their efforts will have some affect on their lives – though maybe not what they planned. Teach them awareness to their fellow beings. Teach them gratitude that they are able to take a yoga class.

Teach to the person that you yourself want to become.

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In the hot seat

The woman felt alone in the room even though she wasn’t.  There was someone sitting right across from her, waiting.  It was her interrogator.  The woman took a deep breath and looked up, meeting the interrogator’s eyes.

“How do you think you did?” asked the interrogator.

The woman forced herself to keep eye contact as her body began to sink back into her chair.  She took a quick breath and then began to list all her faults, foibles and recent transgressions.  The interrogator’s face was grim.  One eyebrow started to rise slowly.

When the woman finished her monologue, she looked down at her clasped hands and waited.  Her breathing was shallow.  She glanced up.  The interrogator’s expression hadn’t changed.  After a moment, the interrogator tilted his head back so he was looking down his nose at the woman.  He took a long deep breath, shifted in his chair and then began.  First he added to the list of the woman’s transgressions and then he analyzed the effect that these transgressions had had on the greater society.  Occasionally he would pause and demand the woman offer more in-depth explanations for her actions.

It really didn’t matter what explanations the woman gave.  The damage had already been done and this was an exercise in blame and guilt.  Her behavior would have to change.  What steps was she taking to change this offensive behavior?

Is this a scene from Communist China during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s when self-criticism and public humiliation was the expected norm?  Nope – this is a 21st century feedback session and feedback is a big part of the yoga scene.

I have no problem with feedback, in fact I have been receiving feedback my entire life.  The dance teachers correct you, the rehearsal directors yell at you, the choreographers have their opinion, the directors hire or fire you and the critics throw in their two cents publicly.  Having said that, I’m very particular about how I act on the feedback that I receive.

If you are someone that I respect, or I admire your approach – then I will work hard to incorporate your feedback into my teaching.  But if you are one of those people whose classes I tend to avoid, or whose style is on the opposite side of the teaching spectrum, there’s a good chance I won’t act on your feedback.  I will listen to it and accept that it gives me another view to the whole picture but I probably won’t act on it.  No one can be everything to everyone.  All I can do is my best and teach from a place that feels authentic to me.

I do think that probably the worst way to start a feedback session is to ask the person, “So, how do you think you did?”  Other than it’s not very original, I am sure that many people, like myself can slam themselves down ten times better than anyone else could and how is debasing one’s own performance going to help with self-confidence?  Also going over the mistakes ad nauseum isn’t helpful.  We’re trying to create competent teachers who have a love of learning, not a group of people who are afraid to make a mistake.  The fear of making a mistake was a big part of my early life, where messing up could get you fired.  I don’t want to go down that path again and I don’t want anyone around to have to go down that path.

It might be more helpful if feedback sessions were broken into two parts.  Part one being the actual feedback.  Nothing more.  The second part should be a few days later when the person receiving the feedback has had the time (and privacy) to digest what was given.  Sometimes a feedback session can feel like an assault.  You get hit with something that you didn’t see coming and you just don’t know how to react.  Well – react beyond confusion.  One of my initial yoga feedback sessions went like this: “Your voice was very monotone but now that I’m talking to you, I realize that’s the way you speak”.  I honestly didn’t know how to respond to that one and we ended up staring each other for about a minute while I searched my brain for something to say.

Feedback needs to be taken with a grain of salt and that includes good feedback. Praise feels great but the day you start believing it to be the only assessment you need, you’re in trouble.  Just remember that not everyone will love everything that you do.   Use the feedback that feels authentic to you, be wary of the feedback that seems a bit whacky and realize that your growth is just that – your own growth.

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Take a deep breath

The first time I heard someone use ujjayi breath, I thought they were having a seizure. For those of you not into yoga, it’s a breathing technique that uses a constricted throat and produces an oceanic sound. So they say. To me it sounded like a cross between a snore and a death rattle. It certainly didn’t sound healthy. I glanced over to the kid next to me, a tiny little girl smiling serenely with her hands pressed together in prayer, making this frightening noise.

The class teacher passed in front of me and began to instruct the class on how to create and use ujjayi breath in our yoga practice. I tried to constrict my throat but the only thing that came out of me was a gag reflex and a panic attack. The teacher insisted that she wanted to hear an oceanic sound coming from all of us. I tried again. It didn’t work. I gave up. When the teacher passed me, I made a snoring sound. She bought it – or she chose to leave me alone.

Making sound when I breathe is not something that I am accustomed to. In the world of ballet where I grew up in, we practiced silent breathing. The idea is to make the effort of dance seem effortless and that included the sound. No unnecessary sound of the feet hitting the floor and definitely no audible breathing. Sure the chest might be heaving after a particularly vigorous dance – but it was a visible heave and not an audible one. I still like my ability to take long deep silent breaths.

But now here I am in the yoga world where breathing is an important component of the practice. Maybe there should be some clarification. Maybe we should stress the goal is to have controlled breathing, calm breathing, deep breathing. Telling someone to breathe is kind of silly. Everyone alive is breathing. A wonderful meditation teacher once introduced counting as a means to extend the breaths. It was very effective and that was the method that I used to cultivate more breath control into my life.

How does controlled breath aid our lives? I once took an hour-long yoga class while breathing through a straw – for the entire hour. Although physically it was an easy class, it felt like one of the longest hours of my life. The inability to have all the air I wanted when I wanted it was maddening and it put me in a constant state of panic. All my yogic breath training kicked into full gear as I tried to convince myself that I was OK, that I was in control of my slow breathing. A side note to this anecdote: A friend did this exercise with me and we both discovered that with our focus distracted by our inability to take full breaths, we missed almost 50% of what the teacher said (a good note for anyone teaching people with respiratory issues).

Now that I have more calmness when I breathe, I find that many teachers instruct breathing too fast. Sometimes it feels like I’m doing the straw exercise again. I think it’s better to be too slow. If a student gets stressed by the slowness of the breath cue, they can always take a small hiccup of air and then rejoin the rhythm of the class. Forcing a faster breath or not allowing a breath to go to its natural fullness causes a stress in the body. As a teacher, I follow the breath of the slowest breathing person in the room and within a few cycles, most of the class is on the same rhythm. I still don’t see the difference between silent controlled breathing and audible controlled breathing but I certainly don’t know everything and these are simply observations made on a long journey.

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Traditions anyone?

The irony of my life in yoga or for that matter, my earlier years in ballet is not wasted on me. Both practices have their foundations built on established traditions, and anyone who knows me, knows that I am not a fan of traditions. The minute I hear someone start to expound the wisdom of the ancients, I can feel my eyes roll back into my head.

I’ve studied Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and the Hatha Yoga Paradipika, I’ve read the Bhagavad Gita and B.K.S. Inyengar’s Light on Yoga, along with a countless number of books on yoga positioning, aryurvdic practices and yogic philosophy. What have I learned? That there are a lot of different life styles out there – which isn’t much of a surprise. What surprises me is when I hear someone quote one of the texts word for word like it was the road map for life. Seriously? Can someone honestly tell me that one person, one life style, one culture, one text is one hundred percent correct?

I do appreciate the tone of these volumes and practices, and I appreciate the general messages that they impart, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty day-to-day living, there is no way I am going to start living my life as they did hundreds of years ago. I’m happy I don’t have to live my life as things were sixty years ago when I was born. In the world that I was born into blacks were segregated, gays were beaten and jailed, mental patients were left to rot in hospitals surrounded by high fences and a woman’s worth was tied to the man she married and the children she produced. While there are still countless injustices around the world, my little corner of the globe has improved and for that I am grateful.

One of the older practices of yogic living included elephant stomach cleansing. In the most basic of terms, it involves regurgitation which in my mind is the equivalent the ancient form of bulimia. I’ve unfortunately been around bulimics my entire life (welcome to the world of ballet) and even attempted to become one at one stage of my life (happily I failed) but can you imagine the impact this practice could have on a person suffering from bulimia? To have their self abusive lifestyle expounded in an ancient text? Not everything we read is relevant to our lives and what is good for one person might be deadly for another.

I don’t trust majority decisions. Historically that hasn’t been a wise choice. I honestly don’t have a problem with history’s demonic dictators (Stalin, Idi Amin, etc.). There are deranged and delusional people around us every day. What I do have a problem with is the hundreds of people who supported and ratified these whackos. One delusional person by themselves is an annoyance, one delusional person with a strong man is a problem, one delusional person with an army of supporters is a disaster. The majority choice is not necessarily the right way to go.

So building on my distrust of the majority and the fact that I don’t think anyone is one hundred percent perfect, I tend not to take the directions of teachers, authority figures, etc. as the final word.   They are simply presenting an opinion that allows me to understand one facet of a whole. The only teachers and colleagues who have my full attention are those who teach with humility, knowing that what they are imparting is not good for everyone and that what they think today might change tomorrow as they themselves learn more. That’s the way I teach. If what I say works for you – great! If it doesn’t work – ditch it. Maybe remember it because as your life continues to evolve, perhaps it will help you at a different stage of your life…or not. Everyone’s life journey is unique.

With all this skepticism I am still not sure how I am to fit into this tradition based world of yoga, but luckily for me, I have once again landed into the perfect environment – one that embraces a myriad of personalities, including skeptics.

One post note: My only exception to this life of skepticism involves my mother. My mother is always right and I am always wrong. It’s something we’ve agreed upon and it’s the only tradition that I happily follow.


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My yoga journey

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about my recent journey into becoming a yoga teacher. It’s been an interesting one, to say the least and it has taken me into directions I would not have expected.

Like many others, my journey started in the yoga practice room, the safest place in the world where the teachers encouraged self-acceptance, calm and observation without reaction. For the overachieving ‘A’ personality that I am, this stuff was mind-blowing! I could screw up and still be a good person. Seriously, this was revolutionary to me. I wanted more of it and I wanted to be part of this wonderful movement, so I packed myself off to an intensive yoga teacher-training program. It was as wonderful as I thought it would be.

I truly appreciate the education and training I received in the foundational aspects of yoga, especially in meditation and the ethical guidelines of yamas and niyamas.  While there is bound to be someone who disagrees with my broad definition of the yamas & niyamas, here’s the basics: Yamas are principles of non-violence, truth, no stealing or cheating, self-restraint, no envy, jealousy or unhealthy competitiveness and niyamas are principles of purity, contentment, discipline, study of the self & embracing the self. Basically, be a good person.

I came back from the teacher-training course a changed person: calm, accepting, non-violent and 95% all-loving. A hundred percent all-loving would have made me a saint and nobody beyond Mother Teresa has my vote for that one. I came back calm and happy – and then I walked back into the yoga studio and got slapped up the side of the head.

While before I was just another practitioner who soaked up the wisdom of the teachers, now I was one of the teachers and I found myself right in the middle of some wild and crazy personalities. Where was the wisdom? Where was the calm? OK, maybe this a bit of an exaggeration. There were definitely some of the calm, wise teachers floating around the space but at the same time there were quite a few people who seemed at odds with the whole yogic environment thing. Apparently they had slept through the yama, niyama, meditation part of their yoga training.

The insanity of the environment both shocked me and it welcomed me. It shocked me because my incessant naivete assumed that all the yoga teachers I had known before my training had already attained that all encompassing calm and acceptance through years of practice. It welcomed me because I had basically walked back into the let-it-all-hang-out atmosphere of the arts world. Who would have known that I had trained my whole life to exist in the world of yoga?

And yet things were different. Before my yoga teacher training, if I had come across one of these crazy and abrasive personalities, I would have verbally slapped them down and then stewed over the situation for a week or so. Now, in my mind I roll my eyes, I chuckle to myself and I walk away. No, that’s not totally true. Every now and then I have a mini meltdown over some yogic brick wall of a personality that is in front of me but that’s not the norm anymore. I guess that’s what is called growth.

You know? I really do love my life in the yoga world.



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