I am in Colorado, sitting in my car talking to my sister, Anne, in Texas. She has spent the last week helping my parents in the hospital while my mom, Andrea, had a kidney infection. Anne tells me that, when it was time to leave the hospital, she said, "Mom, it's time to go home."
Mom said, "Anne, I don't have a home."
Dad said, "You know, Andrea, I just can't call that place home either."
Mom and Dad had been living in an assisted living community in Austin, Tx for about nine months, and while it was not horrible, the situation was a bit depressing. And while the facility provided a more-than-basic level of care, clearly the place had not become "home" for either of them.
I told Anne, "Well, you know, things in life can change on a dime. We never actually know what is right around the corner."
Kelly and I put an offer down on a house in Buena Vista, Colorado.
We invited Mom and Dad to move to Colorado with us.
Locket, Kelly and I loaded up in the Sprinter van and took a cross-country camping, hiking and teaching trip that included visits to some of my favorite yoga communities and gave me the distinct honor of getting to marry two of my yoga students, which was a highlight.
October 18, we took possession of our new house.
I spent a lovely week in San Marcos, Texas hosting Manorama for her intensive and co-teaching with Gioconda Parker.
Mom and Dad moved in.
Anne and Jeff came for Thanksgiving.
December I returned to San Marcos for the Winter Asana Intensive. We had our first Christmas here. Anne and Jeff came for the holidays again.
The new year began and continued with teaching trips, snow blowers, learning to snowboard, going to church again, cooking, cleaning, laundry and the like. Intermingled with all the details of living and teaching, I have been adjusting to living in a new place as well as living in a more extended family situation for the first time since I left home when I was eighteen.
And so on.
Tuesday, April 18, 2017
Kelly, Locket, Mom, Dad and I are driving from Leadville, Colorado to Buena Vista, after getting our driver's licenses changed. As we passed the sign for Buena Vista city limits, Mom said, "We're home!"
I don't think she meant a lot by her comment in any conscious way. However, her joyful exclamation registered in my consciousness as a meaningful moment of which to take note.
Mom had a home again.
We are part of that home.
I texted Anne: Mission Accomplished.
Three and half years ago, my mom had her second stroke. This one came 13 years after her first stroke and her recovery has been difficult for her, for dad and for our family. As her needs increased, we made the choice for Mom and Dad to go to the Assisted Living Community, where this little blog entry began. Mom didn't talk much over the last few years and had slipped into her inner world to a degree that we, as a family, were unsure if she was experiencing signs of dementia or if she had a more significant level of damage from the stroke than we had previously thought.
In the time she has been with us, her strength has steadily increased, her interest in life has returned and she is talking again-- telling stories, making jokes and laughing at herself and all of us. In more ways than I can list, she has come back to life.
More could certainly be said, but much of that is hers--and Dad's-- story to tell, not mine.
The story that I can tell is that life can, and often does, change on a dime. The day I sat in my car talking to my sister I had been planning on returning to Texas in the fall and getting back to business as usual after a summer season in the Colorado mountains. I had no plans for a big life change. I had not been planning on re-orienting my life and becoming an active participant in caring for my aging parents.
And yet, here I am.
And I am happier than I thought I would be in the change.
A few weeks ago, a visiting Episcopalian bishop came to our church and preached about Lazarus. He suggested that each one of is Lazarus in some way. Each one of us is breathing but not necessarily living, walking but not in freedom of choice--bound and blinded by habits of thought word and deed that keep us locked in a tomb of limitation--perceived or actual and making us ripe for transformation.
He also suggested that each one of us are the disciples saying that the journey is too dangerous. Each one of us is Mary, blaming God. And each one of us Martha, wanting to avoid what is smelly, unsightly and distasteful that must be faced in order to grow. And he also said, that in some way, each one of us can also connect to the power of Love that is Jesus in the story. Each one of us can be renewed, revived and (dare I say it?) resurrected in Love.
The story I can tell is that caring for my parents in this way has clearly been a good thing for them, for which I am super grateful. And our new arrangement has been a good thing for me also. In countless small and often seemingly insignificant ways, the change has breathed new life into my perspectives, has unbound areas of my own self-centeredness and has opened my eyes to a wider world of Loving. Love has called me out of a cave of comfort in to an arena of risk that holds its own reward in the process of living into it.
The thing about Love seems to be that it has the power to transform, not only those who receive it, but those who offer it. Being a part of someone's depression lifting, witnessing someone's sense of humor return, and providing a place that someone can call "home" is deep, meaningful and extraordinary territory to inhabit. Tender, precious, tough and worthwhile.
And don't even get me started on Easter.
And since many folks want to know a lot of specific things about the move so here goes--
All right, if you made it this far, I applaud you.
I have had difficulty writing blog entries lately as evidenced by the fact I have not written since last year. Between the election, the move, the adjustments to a new circumstance, I haven't had a clear notion of what to put down on paper.
I don’t feel like debating politics at all. I think we have a dangerous situation there— not just #45 but the entire regime he ushered in with him. And I am not that open-minded about it and I have yet to see anything in his actions that have convinced me to change my opinion. I do listen and read— as best as I can, which admittedly is better some days than others— to people who support #45, but I have yet to see the situation differently. I do not think that “giving him a chance” makes any sense. (In fact, he has his chance regardless of how I feel about it, so I don’t understand that line of advice anyway. And, larger forces than my opinion need to work through legal channels for his chance to be over and that will take some time. But I digress.)
I do stay tuned to the ongoing developments in the political arena and I see what could be signs of hope in terms of some dynamic leadership rising up in resistance. And I phone my senators and congress people. I also think Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin is a voice, not only of resistance, but of something that might come close to reconciliation. Her smart, generous, passionate and clear-minded perspectives are good for those interested in educating themselves about how to be an intelligent part of progressive politics right now.
When our current president was elected, we were in the middle of an intensive at The San Marcos School of Yoga. I didn’t know what to say to my students but I did know what we needed to do. Walking into the tearful, scared and angry group of people who were in attendance that week, I offered a short ritual that involved movement, expression, visualization and mantra. Oh, and some fire. And then we did our asana practice—a strong, heart-opening practice to work squarely in the face of apathy and fear.
I am not of the mind that yoga actually makes the world a better place. Nor do I think that just because we practice asana we become better people. I do not think yoga— in and of itself— solves many problems. I think yoga may even make some problems worse. For instance, any of us with OCD tendencies might notice that regular counting-based practices leave us counting more than our breath off the mat. Those of us with eating issues may find ourselves in the grips of yoga-inspired food restrictions ranging from vegetarianism to cleansing protocols to well, you name it. Anyone suffering from body image issues may feel worse at times, not better. More than one narcissist practicing yoga has done more than a little harm to the people in their communities. It can be all too easy for any of us to fall prey to the multi-faceted traps of delusion, illusion, and confusion no matter how sincere our intentions are.
So there is that.
And yet, for me doing my various practices bear fruit. I am not talking about practice as simply going to class where we get caught in the nitty-gritty, in’s and out’s of what is happening in any public studio anywhere— some of which is really great, some of which is not my thing, and some of which is downright troubling. I am talking about studying scripture and grappling with the Teachings. I am talking about praying— out loud, in silence, in groups or alone, in faith or in desperation. I am talking about singing and chanting the Names of God. I am talking about moving with my breath. I am talking about exploring the shapes— again— to see, in some way, what the state of my own union is— again. And again. I am talking about charting the territory from my big toe mounds to my sternum and watching the chains of reactions inside of myself that occur as I invite myself again— and again— to be present to my embodied experience. I am talking about writing in my journal, talking to my therapist, going to church, reading inspirational literature and staying close to those things that nourish and nurture my faith, strengthen my ability to live in accordance with my inner compass, to fight the good fight against despair, cynicism and nihilism and to believe in Love.
Practice is not world peace. Practice will not save the environment or pay for health care. This work may not always pay the bills. And yet, I think that there is no time like the present to dive deep into the life of spiritually-oriented practice because we are living in a time where the very structures of our society are eroding— like free press, public education, environmental regulations, health care, arts and so on— and if we do not have an inner connection and are not practiced in taking that inner journey to the source of our innate wisdom, discernment and vision, we will be at the mercy of the outside forces of destruction. We will be that much more manipulatable, that much more able to turn a blind eye to injustice and that much less willing to rise up, resist and persevere.
There is no magical solution, as I see it. There is simply the next pose.
Again and again.
In other news, I learned to snowboard this year.
I am heading back to Colorado, after almost two weeks teaching in San Marcos, Texas. As so often happens after an intensive at the San Marcos School of Yoga, I am tired, inspired and grateful. On the final day of the ten-day teaching streak, two of our Alchemy of Flow and Form students graduated. I told the group that I was brought up in the yogic guru paradigm and feel like, for all of its problems and pitfalls, I benefitted from the structure. I am grateful for the education I received; however, I do not want to serve my students according to that paradigm.
When I resigned my license to teach Anusara yoga and looked at an open road of Possibility, I knew I did not want to reside at the top of a pyramid in such a way that implied I had all the answers, that I had some awakening, some special knowledge, or even some new insight about yoga. Plenty of people I know personally are more studied in philosophy, more accomplished in asana, and spend a whole lot more time meditating than me. I didn't feel like I had some new take on yoga or could offer a unique iteration on the tradition that I could honestly sell to others as a thing. And believe me, I had more than a few "what's your mission, vision, etc." types of sessions with more than a few experts along the way.
Ninety percent of what I teach in terms of asana I learned from my my Iyengar yoga teachers, Manouso Manos, Patricia Walden, Laurie Blakeney, George Purvis and John Schumacher. Not one class goes by that I am not drawing on the wealth of information and insight I got from John Friend. I stand solidly on the shoulders of the great and ever-creative Desiree Rumbaugh, who I consider my Big Sister in Yoga, and the quirky, yet always on-the-money perspectives of my gurubai and long-time teaching partner, Darren Rhodes. My sister, Anne Schultz, and I have spent more hours than I can count hashing over sequences, techniques and teachings from our studies and practice together, and my friend Gioconda Parker and I have explored both the meeting points between vinyasa and form-based practice as well as their points of divergence. I consider myself fortunate to have spent time with the exemplar Afton Carraway, Kathy Durham, Gianna Purcell and Mardy Chen whose clarity, expertise and passion for teaching and practice stand as ongoing, shining examples of what is possible in and through Bikram yoga's often-times difficult and misunderstood points of entry. In short, very little of what I teach is my own. (In fact, ten percent may be a generous estimation of things I teach that I have actually made up.
I love teaching a lot. More than teaching, I love being a student of a great teacher and I love learning. Teaching first and foremost calls me into the sphere of learning and continually asks me to grow and refine—not only my knowledge—but myself, so that I can actually help people. I am continually amazed how much inner work has been, and continues to be, required to exhibit anywhere close to how I want to be as a teacher. I am grateful for the path that teaching keeps me on, although sometimes the lessons are tough to swallow. Of course, I am also happy to report that the lessons also come in pretty lovely packages.
So at some point, I realized I could not make a method, nor did I want to lock everything down in such a way it could be packaged, sold and commodified. And close to that realization was the recognition that about the only thing I felt qualified to do was to facilitate and nurture a community of learning. I can stand in front of a room and play a leadership role only in so far as that role does not require me to have all the answers, to be the best in the room, or to be beholden to the same truths tomorrow that seem true to me today. And for the last few years, that approach has been deepening within me and I am finding that, for a handful of students, it seems to be a viable strategy.
By viable, I mean that enough people have been interested in learning this way that my business is sustainable. And more importantly, than that, I say viable because I am watching people who are willing to repeatedly put themselves in an 800-sq ft room and practice asana, mantra, pranayama and other various means of self-inquiry in a small group setting: These individuals grow and deepen—not just as asana practitioner and teachers—but as human beings living soulful lives with honesty and passion.
I do not mean to imply that my students are all really happy. They aren't. Some are, of course. And none of them all of the time, that is for sure. They are struggling to make ends meet, to parent with integrity, to crawl out of depression, to heal from trauma, to overcome addictions, to love fully, to forgive themselves and each other, and to have faith and hope. We are a very imperfect bunch, truth be told.
And yet, it seems there is no better ground to find compassion for oneself than in the aftermath of our greatest mistakes. No better teacher of forgiveness exists than betrayal. No better way to find love than in the broken shards of the heart that have carved the deep cuts of self-hatred. As time goes by and I learn more of the details of my students' stories, I find their beauty heart-breaking at times. There is not one person in the room without wounds and yet no one is without resilience, depth and longing for something Real. I do not think I could find finer company.
Years ago, one of my teachers spoke about the Grace of the teacher. I have known this Grace as a living and breathing force, with many manifestations. Today, I am reminded of the second part of the teaching he gave that day: The Grace of the Student. For as much as we are held in the grace of our teachers, the teachers also are held in the Grace of their students. We exist in one other, held in this field of grace, participating in what to me is nothing short of a blessing.
Fine company indeed.
At the end of the summer, Kelly and I started making arrangements to move to Buena Vista, Colorado. We bought an awesome house that looks out over the Collegiate Peaks mountain range and invited my parents to move out of their assisted living community in Austin, TX and into the house with us. So, in the midst of the elections, the Thanksgiving holidays and so on, I have been somewhat absorbed in this major family transition.
I still have trainings on the books at The San Marcos School of Yoga through June and so I will be back and forth between Texas and Colorado over the next few months. I am in Texas now, with a few moments to sit and write before 10 days of teaching begin tomorrow with the Asana Junkies Winter Intensive which will be followed by the annual intensive I teach with my friend, Mari Young. I am looking forward to both events.
Mom and Dad arrived in Buena Vista on November 16 and the settling in process seems to be going pretty well for all of us. In preparation for their move, I made contact with the local United Methodist church, Grace Church, hoping to create a connection for them to have when they got here. Of course, it didn't surprise me one bit that, while I went to church "for them" I found a lot of strength and support for myself there as well. I have been playing this game of growing up long enough to know that many times I do something for one reason on the surface, only to find that there are often much deeper reasons driving my choices. I always feel a bit like God is winking at me in those moments.
I loved Jesus as a kid and had a pretty rich prayer life as long as I can remember. I never felt "at home" in church, however, but in retrospect, that may have had more to do with southern culture which was never a great fit for me as a strong-willed, opinionated, outspoken child who asked a lot of questions and had a somewhat difficult relationship to authority. But I digress. My exploration of spirituality beyond Christianity wasn't so much based on anything bad that happened for me as a result of my Christian upbringing, but had more to do with a desire for the experience of God and the experience of community to be authentic, inspiring and alive in action. I found that in the practical work of the 12-steps of OA and in my exploration of yoga and in my relationship with my spiritual teacher, Lee Lozowick, None of those avenues felt like a rejection of my early religious upbringing, but instead, felt more like an expansion thereof.
Last Sunday was the first Sunday in Advent and the minister gave a lovely sermon about how Advent is not the preparation for the birth of Christ as much as it is a preparation for the "Second Coming of Christ." And just in case your hackles go up when you hear that term here on a yoga blog, don't worry. She went on to say that the "Second Coming of Christ" happens when Jesus comes alive within us and when, in that awakening, each one of us brings forth our truest and deepest talents in creative, authentic ways that serve others in awakening to that same understanding within themselves.
I know writing about religion is about as dicey as posting something politically-oriented on Facebook these days. I know this rendering of scripture might not be for everyone. (So, as always, take what you can use and leave the rest.) I loved her message and found the essence of her teaching reminiscent of what I believe is possible in and through yoga. Am I saying that yoga will turn me into Jesus? Not so much. But I have, like many of you have who are reading this post now, had moments where my Heart rises, where wisdom awakens, and where clarity dawns from the clouds of confusion. I have found courage to step up, to speak out and even to shut up, when that is needed. I have developed the muscle of recognition, which helps me notice those moments that feed me spiritually and point me in the direction of my growth. I don't work with definitive set of rules, protocols or guarantees on the path, but I have faith in the process of self-study, self-inquiry, service and action.
I certainly don't have a faith that "things will work out" because I think the human timetable of "things working out" may not match up to the larger story of evolution and, while my personal life seems lovely now, things can change on a dime. And it goes without saying-- but I am going to say it here anyway-- there are many privileges and luxuries I enjoy that others do not and so it seems absurd to match up a good phase in my life with some notion of a more universal trust in positive outcomes.
And in the midst of a heated Presidential election and in the presence of fears for the future, many people have told me that their faith has gone a bit dormant, that they feel disconnected from hope. I get that. The state of current events has been divisive, vitriolic and even abusive for many people. I certainly don't think a better back bend is going to make a big difference in public policy or foreign relations. I do, however, think that those moments when we bend over backwards and face ourselves on the mat-- the good, bad, and ugly-- can help carve out a pathway to the Heart so that it can rise within us and empower our action off the mat. I do not think asana will do the job for us. I do, however, think it can help us grow sensitive, flexible and strong enough to respond to the uncertainty of our circumstance with some measure of consciousness.
It can. Of course, it might not. There is enough evidence to suggest both possibilities are true, but I can not go down the road of "what is wrong with yoga" today.
Anyway-- sitting there in church, seeing the familiar symbols of the faith tradition of my childhood and participating in the ritual of shared worship, felt nourishing to me. I heard the same scriptures with new ears and with different eyes and saw the message of redemption through Love that has always been there with the gratitude of an adult who needs it, as opposed to the petulance of a child who wanted it delivered according to my own ideas. I experienced retuning to church like a homecoming that didn't take away all that I have learned in my studies and practice, but instead gave me a place to integrate my who I am now with the roots of who I have always been.
And in this day and age, I will take inspiration wherever I can find it.
Anyway, lots more could be said but I needed to get back in the game of posting blog entries and this is what was on my mind today. At some point, I will write more about helping Mom and Dad during this phase of our lives but for now, all I can say about that is that it is precious.
Yesterday, after long hike in the mountains, I went to Cottonwood Hot Springs to soak. Easing myself slowly into the sublimely hot water, I smiled at the woman on the opposite side of the tub. She smiled back and said, “I noticed your strength as you walked over here. What do you do to get that strong? Do you do yoga?”
Feeling a bit awkward, I said, “Well, it’s summer so I hike, I bike and I do yoga.”
She said, “What kind of yoga? I don’t look like you do from yoga.”
I replied, “It’s mostly genetic.”
I soaked in the pool, avoiding further eye contact and conversation.
But of course, like so many conversations, I continued the dialogue inside my head.
First, I thought, “Isn’t kind of weird that a woman I have never met and do not know, felt so free to make a comment about my body?”
And secondly, “Isn’t it weirder that I felt obligated to answer her?”
And thirdly, “How in God’s name am I supposed to answer a questions such as, ‘What do you do to look like that?’ ”
I sat, soaking in the tub, contemplating the lifelong story of “what have I done to look like this” as flashes of my life came to my mind, each part of the complicated answer to the seemingly simple question I was asked by a stranger.
I am 13 years old and weigh 98 pounds when my best friend and I go on our first diet. It was called The Sunshine Diet. It consisted of the same menu for 1-2 weeks: Breakfast: 1 orange, 8 oz. skim milk; Lunch: 1 orange, 8 oz. skim milk, 4 oz. hamburger patty; Dinner: 1 orange, 8 oz. hamburger patty, 8 oz. skim milk
Let’s just say, I did lose weight (not that I needed to, mind you), but I certainly didn’t feel too sunny inside.
I am 15 years old cheerleading at a football game when one of the boys in my class yells, “Nice thunder thighs, Tina” from the stands. Let’s just say, I never really loved short skirts much after that moment of shame. Of course, in retrospect, it seems obvious that he should have been ashamed for such a crass, cruel and objectively mean-spirited remark, not me. Instead I felt embarrassed, belittled and ashamed.
I am 18 years old- suicidal, a bit strung-out from mixing drugs, alcohol, and bulimia and I am talking to my psychiatrist about wanting to get some help. Seizing an opening, she said, “Describe to me what it would look like for you and I will find it.” In some moment of clarity, I described, in almost perfect detail, the treatment center I would enroll in within three months: “I would be safe to be honest about my problems. I would have friends who would not care only about how I look. I would be able to go swimming and enjoy feeling the water, not just worry about how I looked in my swimsuit.”
In retrospect, some part of myself knew exactly what I needed and that wise part of me has never left me since that moment. Obviously, I have done better and worse jobs of listening to her and letting her guidance lead my choices over the years, but some part of me was intact back then, even in the midst of a pretty messy time of life. To me, that is Grace.
Images of my healing and recovery working continued to flash through my field of awareness— 12-step groups, psychotherapy, New-age healing circles, more than a few cults, spiritual communities, schools of yoga, esoteric traditions and the like.
I think about how for over three years I weighed and measured my food, according to a protocol of my OA sponsor, in an effort to bring some structure to something as natural as eating that had become so distorted and out of control that I was brought to the brink of suicide more than once.
I think about every kind of eating plan I have tried over the years— raw foods, macrobiotics, low fat/high fiber, South Beach, Atkins, vegan and vegetarian— that each taught me some vital lesson and yet never got close to solving the essential hunger that lived inside me; a hunger for depth, connection and meaning that was insatiable, consuming and which no amount of premium ice cream could ever slake.
I thought about living with the competing inner injunctions of “be skinny” and “don’t make anyone else feel uncomfortable” and “be disciplined” and “don’t be rigid” that created a double-bind where any move in one direction put love, approval and belonging always feels at stake in a game that demanded I keep playing and yet could never be won.
I thought about the various milestones of life that always went along with the curse of gaining weight— puberty, freshman year of college, getting married, turning 40, menopause, etc. What a shame that development along the natural arc of life came with the narrative of “don’t gain weight, or else”, much like an oppressive rider on a good piece of legislation gets slipped through the voting process and accepted as law.
I thought about that “or else” and the power it has had over me, my friends, my students and colleagues to the point where amazing, beautiful, creative and passionate women I know who are kind, smart, hard-working and insightful are also a bit obsessed — existing mostly on kale smoothies and afraid to eat pasta or drink beer. (I know, some of you actually like kale smoothies and many of you are actually are gluten-intolerant. And I am not saying beer is essential for a good life. I know. I mean it metaphorically. Mostly.)
I thought about how my weight fluctuates a good ten pounds throughout any given year, depending on my travel schedule, my stress, my activity level and the degree to which my vanity has a grip on my behavior. And well, truth be told, it’s more like 7.5 pounds but even knowing that the exact number is 7.5 pounds, not ten, speaks to a bit of ongoing crazy that I would rather just keep to myself.
I thought about writing a book on the topic of body image in 2003 and how I thought then that yoga would have answers for me and for other women suffering the same or similar thoughts, feelings and behaviors, only to see overwhelming evidence thirteen years later in my world of work that yoga may just as likely make matters worse as it will make matters better when it comes to body image, weight and food choices.
And yet, Yoga From the Inside Out was about ending war with the body and committing to a lifelong peace-keeping effort where the truce between society’s insane imperatives and my own inner state could be found only in, and through, a life lived from the Heart, dedicated to Grace and grounded in the sanity of practice over time.
So— I deflected the stranger-in-the-hot-tub’s question and said, “It is mostly genetics.”
You see, I have no “5-step Plan For a Strong Body Through Yoga” or a prescribed set of dietary suggestions to offer anyone. I do not actually care what people eat, what kind of exercise they do or even how they look. Nor am I very perfect in the area of food, body image, exercise and health. I prefer breakfast tacos to smoothies, I have stopped trying to overcome my caffeine addiction, nor do any efforts of restriction seem to bear any fruit over the long haul. There is always a swing-back. It may take a week or it may take a decade, but experience has shown me, if I move too far or too fast in any singular direction, the pyschic toll necessitates a swing-back in the other. I have come to appreciate the slow crawl toward change over and above the grand gestures of seemingly rapid transformation.
When I was in therapy groups in my 20’s there were often older women in the circle. I was certain that by the time I was their age, I would not have their issues. Truth be told, I was a bit disappointed in them for not being more together than they were by their age. And of course, I thought that doing all this inner work in my youth would yield a much more “together” older woman than what they seemed to be managing to become.
As I am now closer to 50 than I am 45, I see the whole process a bit differently. I no longer value the perfect picture on the outside or the true-but-trite one-liners that attempt to sum up a lifelong process in a single sentence. I admire the honest struggle to be real. I admire the humility of repeated efforts and repeated failures. I admire faith, tenacity, and any scrap of compassion that is built amidst the shared struggle to live a life of meaning in a body that has weathered the storm of our own or another’s violences. I admire forgiveness. I admire all that it takes for any one of us to live according to our better angels.
Perhaps I should have said these things to this person in the hot tub. Of course if I had, I wouldn’t have written this article.
As always, take what you can use and leave the rest.
I was a racist by the time I was nine-years-old.
Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t know I was a racist. I didn’t plan to be a racist. My parents were forward-thinking, progressive, liberal Christians who never spoke poorly about people of other races. I was a generally happy, smart and energetic kid who got along well with others and love kittens, candy and playing outside.
So how, you ask, did I end up a racist before puberty? (For those who want the short answer, it is simple: I grew up in America. For those who want some personal backstory, keep reading.)
Between the ages of four and nine, our family lived in Rye, New York. An affluent suburb of New York City, Rye boasted wonderful resources in education, recreation and community-based enrichment activities. It was a great place, as I recall. But the thing is, I do not remember any black people there. Not in my school, not in my church, not in my neighborhood, not in my gymnastics class, not at the ice-skating rink, not at the swimming pool, not at… well, you get my point.
The only interface I had with people of color was through television— Good Times, What’s Happening, Sanford &Son and The Jeffersons. Somewhere along the way, my young and impressionable mind came to believe that all black people lived in ghettos. Maybe a few were lucky enough to get out— as in the the Jefferson’s “Moving On Up”— but really, black people lived in ghettos.
In 1979, when I was nine years old, our family moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I attended Frank Porter Graham Elementary School. And guess what? There were black people there. Perhaps you can imagine my shock when, at nine years old, I realized my parents had moved me to the ghetto.
I was worried.
I was scared.
To make matters worse, I had to ride the bus to school. The bus route went through a low-income housing community before rolling into our white, middle-class neighborhood. I am sure it is no surprise to any of you that the students in the low-income housing community were black. Of course, to my 9-year-old self, getting on a bus that was full of black children was just more proof that my parents had moved me to the ghetto and that I was in danger. In fact, when I got on the bus, the kids who had already been picked up would typically be seated on the inside seats of each row. When the kids at our stop asked if we could sit down, the black kids would tell us to “go to the back of the bus.”
Let’s say, racial tensions were just that--tense.
I found this passage online, which gives some of the back story about North Carolina schools at the time:
"In 1971, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education that it wasn’t enough simply for schools to open their doors to students of either race. Instead, schools must actively work to dismantle the “dual system of education” that had developed during desegregation.
The problem was that segregation had produced separate black and white communities, each with their own neighborhood schools. The solution seemed to be busing white and black children to integrated schools outside of their neighborhoods. While some of the opposition by whites to busing was motivated by racism, busing was opposed by both white and black parents. Many parents were concerned that their children were being bused across town, sometimes for more than an hour, and attending schools outside of their own communities. Some white parents objected to busing because their children were being sent to formerly all-black schools, many of which were in disrepair and underfunded as a consequence of segregation. African American parents were concerned that busing their children to predominately white neighborhoods might expose their children to racism." (1)
At any rate, forced busing certainly exposed me to racism.
I should probably pause my story for the purpose of facts, as opposed to the perspectives of my remembered 9-year-old self. In the move, my dad had left academic research for a lucrative position in corporate America. Our house was beautiful, spacious and much nicer than our house in New York. I was afforded every kind of lesson you could imagine from piano to violin to gymnastics. Our standard of living increased considerably because of the move to North Carolina. I had not been moved to the ghetto. Not by any stretch of the imagination was being in the ghetto the actual circumstance in which I found myself.
However, my felt experience was quite different than reality because I had never seen a positive image of a person of color in the first nine years of my life. Wait— I take that back. My mother had a friend from the city who used to visit us occasionally in Rye. Ruthenia was a Methodist minister and was pretty awesome. So, for accuracy's sake we can say that for almost an entire decade of my life, I knew one black person.
As luck and pluck would have it, I eventually made friends with the kids on the bus and in my class and, looking back I am grateful I grew up in an incredibly diverse, interracial community. Racial tensions were always present. And always tense. Yet, I remember my group of friends being in a constant dialogue with each other around these tensions and striving to do well. I will save some of those stories for another day as they are not the point of today’s walk down memory lane.
My point today is that by nine years old— even with progressive, kind and caring parents, and having only met one black person personally— I had ingested the toxin of racism. The indoctrination into racism I had received in those early years --without knowing it, mind you-- went something like this: “White people live in good neighborhoods, black people live in ghettos. Black people get out of ghettos by acting like white people. Black people are scary unless they are acting like white people.”
Okay, maybe not word for word, but you get my point.
In fact, one of my first friends at my new school was a black girl named Tiffany. Tiffany reached out to me on my first day. She was the only person who did so, in fact. She introduced me to Trixie Belden books and we spent many an afternoon at each other’s houses, playing and talking. She lived in a nice neighborhood. People would say, “Well, you know, Tiffany is more like a white person.”
Anyway, I was thinking about my early racist indoctrination on my bike ride today as my heart was full of pathos after this last week. I didn’t choose my perceptions about race-- I was conditioned to perceive things in a certain way. As I rode, the first step of the 12-steps came to my mind: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol-- that our lives had become unmanageable.” Reflecting on my younger self, I realized I had been powerless over racism’s insidious power to influence and govern my perspectives.
I went on to consider, in what way has that made my life unmanageable? Certainly, I have wounds around that school bus ride. And certainly, the racial tensions around dating were fierce enough to keep me from exploring relationships with boys I really liked over the years. And yet, clearly, I am a privileged white girl and racism doesn’t seem to explain any of my phases of unmanageability.
But there have been costs.
The seeds of separation, division and fear rob me of the depth of my own humanity and steer me into the waters of isolation, suspicion, hopelessness and apathy. And, that is just me. Certainly, it stands to reason that those same insidious toxins invaded the hearts and minds of more people than one slightly-spoiled, spunky and tender-hearted young girl. In my opinion, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the toxin on racism got in deep- far and wide- and the painful consequences of infection abound.
(Okay, that last sentence might win an Understatement Of The Year Award. At any rate, I am forging ahead with my story.)
I worked with the first step as I rode today-- “I admitted I was powerless over my racial indoctrination-- that my life has become unmanageable." I remembered the nine-year-old me well. I felt tenderness for her in that move for how scared she was. I felt compassion for her confusion. And then I felt grateful. Grateful that that she grew up and grew beyond her indoctrination and grateful that she can see her life and the pain of other people from a different perspective now.
Don’t get me wrong- I am not some perfect, non-racist, white person now.
I think about personal recovery from systemic racism like my eating disorder recovery. As insane as so much of that thinking is, I still watch eating-disordered thoughts arise in me. I can wake up any given day and decide that some problem in my life will go away if I lose weight. I can be in bed in the morning and watch my mind plan a weight-loss program. It is crazy. And so we are clear, I know I am not overweight. I know that weight-loss will not repair my heartbreak, make my jealousy any easier to face or diminish my fear of growing old. I am smart, soulful woman with a fascinating inner life, not a shallow teeny-bopper who only cares how she looks and yet, those image-based thoughts can come up with the force of a tsunami, depending on the day. I have spent almost 2/3 of my life working with these issues and still, here they are. The difference today, is that I know my thoughts can feel real, without actually being a valid representation of reality. Much in the way, at nine, I felt like I was in the ghetto, and I wasn’t.
And in the same way I wish I wasn’t conditioned by modern society to care so much about looks, I wish I wasn’t conditioned by 450 years of systemic, institutionalized racism.
But I am.
Luckily for me, there are 12-steps or chances are, I could not bear to take the first one. Who can admit there is a problem if they do not believe there is a solution? Not me. Talk about despair. So luckily for me, I also know that there is a pathway I can take to restore my sanity. I have yet to find a path that will make me perfect, but I do know there that there is a pathway for seeing the lies of the conditioned self for what they are. And luckily for me, I can appeal to a Higher Power— not to solve political problems that require action- but to help me hear my better angels and to help me find courage to live according to their wisdom.
(And the cool thing is that my luck, is also your luck. These practices and perspectives are available for anyone interested in taking the journey. Talk about lucky. But I digress. More on that later.)
I have more to say on the topic, but my main take-away from my writing practice today is that no matter how messy I have ever been at Step One— and believe me, over the years, I have been at Step One many times and NO ONE looks good there— that messiness has always led me to some part of me I was happy to find. And no matter how much I may hate my own conditioning and some of my own behaviors, when I can find compassion for myself about how those conditioned thoughts and behaviors got there in the first place, I know I am in the neighborhood of healing and helping.
At any rate, take what you can use and leave the rest.
I wish you honesty, compassion, tenderness, healing, and hope. More soon.
(Here is a somewhat depressing and enlightening interview with North Carolina Senator, Jesse Helms, on the topic.)
Mary, a naturally disciplined sort of person with an outgoing personality fit right into my T/Th 9:00 AM Level 1 class. She came regularly, learned to stand on one leg, made friends with other folks in class, asked good questions and gave me ongoing feedback about my teaching.
She told me about her first major breakthrough with great excitement. The night before, when she was cooking dinner, she reached to the top shelf in her kitchen without a step stool or without calling her husband for help. She said, “You know, I think this stuff might actually be working!”
“The other day, I waiting in line at the bank and I actually felt patient. I am never patient. Once I noticed how I was feeling, I thought to myself that it had to be the yoga. That is the only thing it cojld be."
“Yes. When I first started bird watching I didn’t do ducks. There are so many kinds of ducks, they can be very difficult to tell apart and I was already overwhelmed with all the other birds and how to keep track of them. So, when I saw a duck, I just told myself, 'Mary, you don’t do ducks,' and I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“I see,” I said, not really seeing at all.
“Well, there are so many cues you give that I have NO idea what they mean. When I first started coming to classes, I was so overwhelmed by simply being in a class at my age that I had no idea you actually expected me to do all those things you were saying, much less did I know how to do them. When you would say certain cues, I just told myself, ‘Well, that is a duck. I will let it fly by.’ But the amazing thing is that now, all these years later, when you say those same cues, I actually know what you mean, how to do it and I can feel what is happening in my body. Just like ducks.”
Just like ducks.
(Now, granted, there are some teachers giving some cues that do not make any sense at all because the teacher is not clear in what they want, the cue is given indirectly or in such esoteric terms that you do not know if you are in an exercise class or a guided visualization or if you are supposed to be astral projecting. Sometimes, the cue is a bad idea to begin with and the reason you don’t understand it is that the instruction bears no resemblance to any commonly understood notion of the pose. I am not talking about these kinds of experiences. I am talking about the experience where you actually do think the teacher knows what they are talking about but YOU do not know what they are talking about or how to do what they are asking.)
Instead of being helpful, everything the teacher says sounds like BS or like some kind of interminable run-on sentence. Some of us, at this point, get mad at ourselves and berate our ability to understand and go down the rabbit hole of not being smart, not as good as the other students who obviously know what is going on, etc. Some students, when the cues have moved beyond their abilities and understanding, do not get mad at themselves—they get mad at the teacher, blaming the teacher for being a know-it-all, a show-off, or insensitive to their needs.
No one told me Mary’s secret in my early years, so I am telling it to you now: Some cues are ducks. You can’t do them yet. Don’t worry. Let them fly by. Don’t blame yourself. Don’t blame your teacher. Just work on the cues you can access and do the actions you understand and can feel. Just like in birdwatching, you may eventually build a foundation and a set of understandings that will help you take on the ducks. In the meantime, enjoy the birds you are watching, take in the scenery of whatever inner landscape the yoga takes you to and keep up with one-legged balancings because high up on those craggy inner peaks, you will need them.
Keep the faith.
A few weeks ago one of my friends posted this clip on Facebook. My friend is a black woman. I watched the clip and remembered watching videos ofJane Elliot's experiments when I was growing up in some class on the Civil Rights Movement.
A couple of people commented on the thread saying "What a racist woman" and "I simply don't buy that all white people are racist... for instance, in my situation..."
I felt tired.
I didn't engage publicly.
Kelly came into my office while I was watching the video and asked me about it. I told him about Jane Elliot's experiments. I dug a little deeper into the video archives and showed Kelly this video of Jane's work with Oprah. We both agreed that the first video made more sense in a larger context of who Jane Elliot is and the history of her work.
A week or so ago, I ran into my friend at a party and brought the topic up. I told her I was disappointed in the way the thread went. We talked a while about the thread, the video, racism, and the difficulties of social media as a platform for dialogue. She thanked me for saying something to her directly.
We kept talking. (I am the kind of person who goes to a party and either stays in the kitchen and makes food or talks to one person for a long time. But that is another story.)
As our conversation unfolded over the next hour, she shared some of her story and her personal challenges and triumphs. Toward the end of our talk, I asked her, "So, as a black woman in Texas, who is in community with so many white folks here in Austin, what is actually helpful to you personally? For instance, I didn't comment on that thread because I felt too exhausted by the topic to engage it that day. But, as a black woman, not engaging because you are tired of people's ignorance isn't a choice that you have, right? Like, that would have helped. Had I chimed in and supported you directly, that would have helped, right?"
She looked me in the eyes, and with no malice whatsoever, said clearly, "Yes. That would have helped."
Our conversation-- and my own discomfort-- has stayed with me for a few weeks now. I spoke about my experience and my feelings last night at our local Social Justice reading group, which opened up a conversation about the difference between education and conversion or condemnation, about how staying awake to injustice can take practice and requires support, and how, while not every fight is ours and we all hit our limits along the way, the discomfort of inaction may simply become more painful than the fear of criticism, rocking the boat or ostracizing ourselves or others.
And since we are all yoga teachers in the reading group, we latched on to the analogy of how many times we tell students to "take your thighs back" or to "straighten your arms" even though it seems futile at times. Why, when we are willing to repeat those same instructions in every class are we unwilling to speak up repeatedly regarding our culturally-conditioned blindspots? (Anne wrote a blog entry about her impressions from last night.)
Anyway, I am sure this post reads a little bit like "blinding flashes of the obvious" to people in the trenches of social justice work or like "confessions of a spoiled white girl" to people who do not have the luxury of choice in such matters, both of which are probably true. Be that as it may be, if my own fumbling attempts to stay awake and bring my insights into action can be of use to you in your world, I offer them today in this entry.
If you are interested in hearing more on the topic, this is an excellent clip--
"In the Work, we look at our negative states with noncritical, nonjudgmental observation. But it is very difficult to objectively observe a negative state in ourselves without any criticism or guilt or emotional reaction going along with our observation. The Work likens it to turning on the light in a messy room. The light doesn't make any comment about the room, it just sheds light on the situation. We may see by means of the light that the room needs to be cleaned. But if we turn the light off because seeing the messy room makes us feel terrible, we aren't going to get a whole lot of effective cleaning done in the dark…
How can you expect to have any degree of inner freedom if you are at the mercy of every change, every event, every little incident in your external life? If everything upsets you so easily, how can you have inner freedom?” -Peter Rhodes, Aim: The Workbook
I recently told my class that, in almost twenty-five years of asana practice, I can think of only two or three times I have gotten up from savasana when I didn’t feel better. That does not mean that I have enjoyed every class, workshop or training that I have gone to. I haven’t. In fact, quite the opposite— I have attended many classes, workshops and trainings that I did not enjoy much at all. Nor do I mean to imply that my time in my personal practice is joyful or even enjoyable a lot of the time. It isn’t. Many times, I feel stiff, sore, tired, cranky and distracted.
Of course, I do enjoy my time on my mat some of the time. And I enjoy classes, workshops and trainings some of the time. However, while the number of practices where my mind was critical, complaining or judgmental and where I didn’t like what the teacher said or taught are too numerous to count, I can count only a few times when I didn’t feel better when I was finished.
What this insight tells me is that yoga’s power to shift my state of consciousness to a new reference point does not live in yoga always giving me an enjoyable experience, but lives instead, in my ability to engage my practice as a process that takes me through difficulty, not around it. If I come to my practice or class looking for enjoyment only, I am going to view everything I do not like from a vantage point of comfort and preference and whether or not I got what I wanted. If I like the sequence, the room temperature, the music or the lack of music, the instructor’s cues, etc., then my practice will have been “good.” If things do not go according to my expectations and preferences, I will probably label my experience as “bad.” In these simple examples, I have externalized the responsibility for the efficacy of my practice.
However, if I come to my various practices with transformation in mind, the inevitable upsets and difficulties become possibilities for my growth and work on myself. Yoga, as a transformational path, uses the tensions and frustrations of the practice itself as a means to experience greater love, compassion and acceptance by both meeting the difficult moment as it is and by inviting (and sometimes demanding through extreme discomfort) that we develop a skill set that allows for choice beyond the obsessive, self-critical, perfectionistic stream of conditioned thoughts and feelings. (And for the record, because it is a hot topic, I want to be very clear that I am NOT suggesting that we tolerate abuse, degradation or subjugation of ANY kind from ourselves, our teachers, or our communities.)
And unfortunately, as sincere as we may be about wanting to transform and shift our reference points through asana practice, the negative self-talk of shame-based criticism commonly comes to the forefront of our experience, drowning out any attempt we might make to be breath-focused, attentive to alignment or aware of ourselves energetically. And, perhaps even more unfortunately, these negative thoughts do not come in, waving a flag of objective warning, and tell us, “For the next sixty minutes, I am going to give you a run for your money to see if you really can break free of your patterns and conditioning like you say you want to. Get ready-it is going to be rough, but you can do it.”
Instead, self-hatred and self-criticism—be they internalized messages of childhood, culture or both— come in riding our emotions, so that we feel ashamed, ugly, unloveable, different and bad. Like a toxic miasma of self-loathing, these messages come to us from inside our own emotional body, making it very difficult to gain clarity and perspective about what is happening, why we feel so bad and what to do about the situation in which we unfortunately find ourselves. While the yoga class or practice may have outside triggers— such as an instructor who uses body-shaming language, an overwhelming culture of body-centered narcissism and even a room full of people who appear un-phased by the issues with which we are grappling, the fact that the negative feelings and thoughts are arising within us gives us a clue as to where the solution for moving beyond them lies—inside our own hearts and minds.
I know how upsetting it can be to come to class or to personal practice looking for a break from these demons, only to find that the “enemy” has rolled out its own mat inside your emotional body and inside your head. The experience is awful and upsetting. When consumed by negative self-talk and the shame-based feelings I am describing, it is common to feel like yoga, the class and/or our teacher has somehow betrayed us.
And while I think it is important for our yoga teachers to learn to use inclusive, non-shaming language and for our yoga studios to be sanctuaries that are oriented beyond image and cultural notions of beauty, I believe we, as students and practitioners, must see healing as our personal responsibility in yoga. We must identify and dis-arm the patterns by which shame grabs hold of us and convinces us that we are bad, wrong and unworthy of love and belonging. We need to redirect our attention in order for our prana to enliven a life of love and resiliency, rather than producing shame and fear.
Furthermore, while supportive teachers and friends can help be very helpful, they cannot do the work for us. I have watched my own efforts to help students work through the issues of shame-based comparison fail miserably— no matter how I tried to establish an inclusive, uplifting and competition-free zone in my classes, workshops and trainings. Even the best of teachers’ best efforts cannot stand up to these deeply entrenched patterns, nor should we expect them to.
No one can do the work for us.
And if we we have not uprooted the sources of shame within us, it is impossible for any situation to conform perfectly to our needs in such a way that our shame will not be triggered. Yoga is not responsible for never triggering us. Yoga's value, in my opinion, is that it gives us tools through which we can respond more optimally to our triggers.
Case in point— One time I was in a class with some yoga friends who were all preparing for a yoga competition. As we were talking casually before the practice began, I noticed a feeling of “fat” and shame had washed over me. I looked in the mirror and could see objectively that I looked exactly how I did the previous day and that nothing had actually changed in reality. Then I looked at my friends, all of whom had been on a strict juice-based diet, in preparation for their competition. I realized they were all thinner than usual. Even though the atmosphere was friendly and I knew these people loved me, my own mental comparisons had taken over my mind and I felt unworthy and unlovable. As soon as I realized what was happening, my perspective shifted and the feeling of shame dissipated. Almost instantly, I no longer felt like I did not belong. The shame I felt was not because my friends were thinner than usual. Their thinness was a trigger for me, activating my own dormant patterns of conditioned thoughts that linked being thin with feeling loved and with belonging.
I tell this story to illustrate the futility of expecting outer environments to be 100% validating. My friends said not one word about body weight and size, nor did they make any ostracizing gestures whatsoever and still, after over 30 years of investigating body image, my shame was triggered. Because I have worked through my shame-based feelings so many times over so many years, I could recognize shame, name it clearly, expose it for what it was, and return to a more clear relationship with myself in the present moment. I didn’t have to follow my shame-based feelings as though they were true indicators of reality.
I used to think that that yoga would “fix me” so that I never felt insecure, unsure of myself or plagued by my patterns of self-hatred. Instead, yoga has helped me learn new reference points for who I am beyond those messages and has given me a way to see those messages as false. Yoga hasn’t kept me from getting upset but it has helped me learn the skills to chose how to respond to those things I find upsetting.
Twenty-five years ago, I would not have signed up for this outcome. I really hoped something much more magical would have happened by now. I imagined myself much more “together” than I am now. And yet, truth be told, here I am at 47 years old, pretty happy with where the path has taken me so far. Instead of fixing me, it helped me love my brokenness. Instead of self-improvement, I have some measure self-acceptance. The path didn’t make me fearless but somewhere along the way, I found my courage. I didn’t get perfect, but I am becoming whole.
All in all, not a bad deal.
In 1999, I was a new yoga teacher. I lived in Prescott, Arizona at the time, where my husband and I also owned and operated a small coffee shop/cafe in town. I taught a 9:30-11:00 Level 1 class every Tuesday and Thursday. My class was composed of several retired school teachers and principals, a handful of practicing psychotherapists, several bodyworkers, teachers from the local liberal arts college who were specialists in experiential education and a few college students. Well over half of the students who came to my class had children my age. As time went by, it was clear to me that the students came to class to see each other, as much as they did to learn yoga or to learn yoga from me, specifically. And, in retrospect, I can say in all honesty, that those students gave me the best teacher training I have received.
At that time, I had bitten the bait of Anusara yoga and was swept up into the vision of both the Anusara philosophy and asana methodology. I was experiencing huge shifts in my own practice and was so excited to share what I was learning with my students. I would come home from a weekend or weeklong training full of “heart-opening” tips and tricks and sell them to my students.
“Guess what?” I would ask. “If you get your arm bones back and really work shoulder loop, one day you will be able to drop back into urdhva dhanurasana! How cool would that be?!!”
And I would look expectantly out into the classroom and see blank looks. And even eye rolling.
Crickets, perhaps, but no certainly no enthusiasm for “advanced postures” and no recognizable “zeal for improvement” and no interest whatsoever in my pep talk of “continual expansive growth.”
Occasionally— well, regularly, might be a more accurate word, truth be told— I would get a hand-written card from one of my students. Keep in mind that many of these women were career educators from a day and age when penmanship was a priority, so these cards came written in perfect cursive with specific tips for how I could improve my teaching. After a while, the cards also contained feedback about how well I was—or was not— improving based on the previous suggestions.
For instance, they told me that they had a difficult time getting up and down off the floor and if I was going to do floor postures, I should keep the students on the floor until we were ready to stand for a while. They told me they did not enjoy the room too cold, but they did not like it too hot either. They told me I needed to talk slower, louder and not trail off at the end of my sentences. They did not like my use of passive voice in instructions and thought active voice would be better. They told me they needed to work into poses gradually. They told me that they were not interested in big poses, that they wanted me to understand that they had been injured before and they were cautious for a reason. They told me they didn’t expect to do back bends, they mostly wanted to improve balance and to stay strong enough to get up and down out their chair as they aged. One woman was an avid birdwatcher and wanted to maintain her hiking prowess as she aged.
At every turn, they shared with me their interest in the practice and without saying so directly, helped me see that what inspired me at my stage of life and practice, was not particularly compelling for them. In fact, often when I was in the middle of pitching a theme with a philosophical premise, one of the psychotherapists would interrupt me and tell me how unhealthy such a perspective was or share the many ways they saw it differently from their own vantage point. I had never seen anything like it before or since, truth be told.
They also wrote me about how much they liked to learn. They explained how the details of alignment engaged their minds and how much they liked learning the how and the why of the poses as much as they enjoyed actually doing the postures. They told me that the community of the yoga class had become a source of camaraderie, connection and joy for them.
These students of mine were hard-working. They were also really hard on themselves. Highly competent people, they were coping with a change in their physical capacity and life circumstances and the yoga was as confrontational as it was nurturing. They wanted a challenge and yet, without warning, any challenge could become fuel for self-criticism and self-condemnation. Like with so many things in yoga, we walked a fine line together. And we walked together for many years. In fact, many years after I left, that class stayed together, practicing with Rachel Peters when she took over Prescott Yoga, and then Cheryl Walters, when she founded Lotus Bloom.
I could go on about the many ways this group of people taught me as my students, and truth be told, not a day goes by when I do not rely on the training I got in my initial days as a yoga teacher. My Iyengar yoga teachers definitely modeled the inventive use of props and progressive teaching strategies but those skills were an absolute necessity in a class that never strayed far from the Level One syllabus. I came to see that advanced work in poses happens, not in fancier shapes or crazy contortions, but in the interior aspects of the postures— in the intelligent application of action within form that can only happen when awareness, heart and effort come together over a long period of time. And when that work happens in the context of a supportive community, the synthesis is greater than the sum of its parts and is nothing short of transformative to everyone involved.
This was, of course, before the days of Yelp or Twitter or Facebook. Certainly, this was before the time when there were yoga studios and classes on every street corner. Clearly, not everything about my classes worked for my students and yet they invested in the class, in my growth and in one another by communicating honestly and directly with me about what they wanted, needed and hoped for. And while I look back appreciatively, to be sure, I was not always psyched when those little cards came my way. As much as I know that feedback is essential for growth, I do not always find feedback easy to handle. In fact, I was often prickly, defensive and angry when my offering wasn’t positively perceived and/or received.
So we grew together. I like to think we have all kept growing, although I haven’t seen some of these people in many years. Be that as it may be, over 17 years later, what remains the same is that community requires investment, and growth— both as a student and as a teacher— does not happen in isolation, without difficulty, and without a few prickly moments. And, unfortunately, we can’t always know in said prickly moment, how the lesson is going to turn out. At any rate, the beauty of sustained efforts is that, through them, we get to glimpse the bigger picture as time goes by. Time can yield an expanded perspective.
When I was a new teacher, I never heard any stories of the struggles my teachers experienced when they were getting started teaching. And I can’t tell you the number of times new teachers look at my career now and make comments that reveal they do not believe I was ever new, inexperienced, poorly received and/or struggling in any way. And it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that the work I do now stands on the long-developed foundation of fifteen public classes a week for over a decade. At any rate, as I make my way home from a lovely weekend in Kansas at Yoga Gallery, I am reflecting on the many ways through which we grow and “advance” as both teachers and students.
In the same way that advanced work in asana does not depend on fancier poses, improving as a teacher is not always evidenced by bigger classes, fancier venues and more compensation. It may be. And that is great. Of course, improving as a teacher may also take the shape of greater sensitivity to the needs of our students, of increased confidence to set limits with what and how we offer our expertise, with less defensiveness regarding our shortcomings and by owning up to our prickly sides and sharp edges.
And one thing I know for certain is that whatever current challenge you may have in your teaching, in your community or in your personal practice, that challenge is likely to be the very circumstance you look back on 15 years from now as some of the best training you ever received. Of course, that doesn't mean you have to like the lesson, but it is a reminder to keep in mind that the work of teaching is a long-term investment and the pay-off is not not always what you expect.
Keep the faith.
Follow This Blog
"There is a light that shines beyond all things on Earth, beyond us all, beyond the heaven, beyond the highest, the very highest heavens. This is the light that shines in our heart."