I am on my way home from Boise, Idaho and, as is often the case, I am taking a few moments to reflect in writing about my experience.
This was my third trip to Boise and I was struck by the community that has developed there over the years. The first time I taught in Boise many of the students told me that they didn’t feel part of a yoga community and how they felt like they were really missing something. The mood was so different during this visit because so many students came up to me and told me about their group practices and how bonded they were feeling with each other and how important their yoga community was to them. We had students and teachers from so many of the local studios and practitioners of all sizes, shapes and sizes and abilities, all of whom listened well, worked hard and laughed freely. Even compared to last year— which was great— it seemed like the conversation in Boise has moved away from worrying about right and wrong within the poses and from fixating on method-to-method differences, toward a more grounded, harmonious exploration of the postures and how to approach them intelligently regardless of lineage, background and even personal preference.
Clearly something good is happening there and it was great to be a part of it.
When I started yoga, there was very little talk about yoga community. Yoga was presented much more as a personal enlightenment path and classes were very internal and interiorly directed. While the teacher was interactive, giving lessons, explanations, adjustments and corrections, the in-class experience wasn’t so interactive or community-focused. There was no chatter before class and there was good-natured banter during class. It wasn’t cold, mind you. I knew my classmates and there was community, community considerations just didn’t live at the forefront of the experience as an expressed ideal or value.
The premise when I began was that yoga was primarily a personal practice endeavor that you would mostly do alone at home and class was to learn how to deepen your individual, solitary, at-home pursuit.
I do think that the industry of yoga has driven yoga classes in a direction where now most people practice yoga in class and that “yoga practice” has come to mean “yoga class” for many folks. I also think that Anusara yoga’s emphasis on community altered the conversation a bit also. At any rate, both the context and content of what a yoga class is for has shifted considerably over the years in which I have been participating as a student and a teacher. Plenty has been written about such industry trends and how these changes and others have been the demise of true yoga and so on. I am purposely going to steer a bit clear of too much additional commentary along those lines. Blessing or curse, our yoga world is what it is, we have what we have and for many people, yoga is a communal event and an interactive experience. In my observation, people often come to class as much for interpersonal connection as they do for introspective inquiry. When I interview students and teachers about what they love about yoga, community is at the top of the list for many people.
I find the evolution in perspective from singular pursuit to community experience so much more interesting and compelling than whether or not we have ruined yoga. As a teacher of something I learned as primarily an introspective art who has students seeking and valuing a communal experience, I get a chance to ponder topics such as learning outcomes, teaching methods, epistemology and communal ways of knowing and constantly update my understanding of the milieu in which I am teaching. I am finding that the more I lean into the inquiry of where I am located as a teacher and where my students are located in their learning process, the more able I am to use the practice, the class and the teaching intelligently.
I am aware that we are pretty disconnected as a culture these days and while we have technological ways and means to update everyone on our status, to share our good news, our good hair days, our awesome children’s achievements, our irresistibly cute pets, the tasty meals we are eating, the lovely yoga poses we can do or to occasionally/frequently blow off steam with a rant about a rude stranger, a bad meal, an insensitive yoga teacher or an awkward moment, many people feel lonelier and more isolated than ever.
What an amazing thing to have a gathering place like a yoga class in the midst of our connected and yet strangely disconnected lives. There we are together, in the flesh, with all of its up-close-and-personal inconveniences like body odor, sweat, uncomfortable temperatures, bad manners, eye rolling, blank faces and heavy ujayi breathing to offset the sometimes-intoxicating-often-seductive -LED-screen-enhanced-emoticon-laden-highlight-reels- of-the-social-media-brand-your-lifestyle-selective-windows-into-reality of modern times.
So we are clear and lest we think that this is an indictment in which I do not include myself— I love technology. I use it daily and sometimes, truth be told, I am used by it, as the edge of skillful engagement with technology is one of those edges, in my observation, of which I can fall off either side. Sometimes, I feel the addictive cycle of it all and other times I sit in awe of the ways that we can use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, e-books, apps, webinars, videos, youtube and the like to connect, to provide sanctuary, solace, education and inspiration. Like with so many things in this wonderful manifested life, technology as good or bad depends on my relationship to it, not to the thing itself.
And I know without a doubt that community can be built online. I have been a part of online community-building experiments as a student and as a teacher. I received my master’s degree in a program that was a pioneer in online education back in 1997 and offered my first online course in 2006 when I created an online training for folks wanting help with the Anusara yoga certification process. So I have been exploring online learning communities for almost 20 years.
I think we need community now more than ever. And I am glad that yoga is part of helping us connect in person, in and through our bodies. I am also grateful that going to class requires both inner work and outer sacrifice, costing us not only money but time, inconveniences, headaches of traffic, costs for babysitters as well as the fact that we have to deal with other people’s lovely and sometimes challenging personalities. I recognize that the students who come to class have often moved mountains-sometimes interiorly and sometimes exteriorly to roll out a mat and be part of the class experience.
And as much as I think we need connection to each other in the midst of our increasingly technologically based society I also think we need connection to ourselves and the ability to be with ourselves alone, in silence, in stillness, away from the notifications, status updates and selfies that document our lives so publicly. I think we need the ability to contain our energy, to hold our questions, to sit with our discomfort, to be bored, to be anonymous, to be underwhelmed and even sobered by the repetitious nature of the practice without modern means of distraction or entertainment. I think that interior connection is as important a solution to our feelings of isolation and disconnection as in-person communal connection is. I think the ability to be in community with the cast of characters that lives inside of us is as important as the ability to be in community with the cast of characters that lives outside. Like so many things in yoga, when it comes to community, we find ourselves in a both/and conversation, not an either/or endeavor.
The cool thing about practicing alone is that no one cares what you wear, what you look like and you can decide the temperature of the room, the playlist or the silence, the sequence, the timings, the tempo and the tone. What to work out, rock out a flow. Need to restore, grab your bolster. Like to open your hips first? Do it!
So many issues that pervade the blogosphere about politically correct speech, trauma-sensitive language, affordability, inclusivity, body image, inappropriate this and disrespectful that all disappear when it is us with our mat in a small corner of our bedroom, living room, hallway or office. It’s a beautiful thing, really. To me home practice is not a “should” thing— like “you should practice at home to be a good yogi," it is simply my preference for asana practice. As philosophically open as I am to all kinds of styles of practice and their potential benefits, I am actually kind of picky as a yoga consumer. And so I pick mostly to practice with me. I like my style. And I think I am smart and funny.
But I digress.
So look, I know that personal practice doesn’t pay the rent on a gorgeous studio in a convenient location and I know that people staying at home doesn’t seem like it would help increase class attendance and so I know there is a business of yoga discussion we could have another day. (I have noticed, however, that my students who develop home practices do keep coming to classes, workshops and trainings because they actually start getting a lot better and they also get hungrier for more help and, wait for it— they love yoga community!)
And so we are clear, as much as I love to practice with me, myself and I, I also love to benefit from group practice with students and friends and from great instruction from teachers who can hold the space and see my mistakes and my unrealized potential. (And since I started this small tirade talking about community, I suppose I should get back to the topic.) To me, the camaraderie that develops over time when I regularly show up at the same time and the same place is amazing. I might not even know someone’s name but I see them week-in and week-out in class and I know that simply through the mountain-moving experiences of “getting to class” and “getting through class” I am bonded to a stranger in and through a shared endeavor. Nothing like it. Its deep, its profound, and I think it is more ordinary than many people think.
People often tell me that they long for community and they wish they had it. Their longing often makes me wonder if all the recent talk about yoga community on blogs like this has them thinking that they are missing out on this ever-elusive thing called yoga community. It is almost like they imagine an ideal land of yoga community where potlucks, kirtans, mala-making parties, yoga practices and stand-up paddle-boarding exist like the perfect blend of therapy-group, spiritual-revival, social club and professional organization with none of the complications that go along with people coming together in groups. I have yet to meet that community. And I visit plenty of communities.
I have yet to meet a community in which everyone feels accepted all the time. I have yet to meet a community where no one’s feelings get hurt. I have yet to meet a community that doesn’t struggle with power differentials, pecking orders and jealousy. I have yet to meet a community that retains all its members. Maybe these utopian communities exist somewhere and I just haven’t visited there yet. Maybe. But I doubt it. I think people often have a kind of community FOMO going out comparing the reality of what they have to an idealized image of what they think they should have based on what they imagine other people having. Something like that. I am not even saying it is conscious. Just a gut instinct I have.
Anyway, I have met communities where people are doing the hard work of owning up to the ways that inclusion and exclusion operate inside both the individual and collective psyches of those involved. I have met communities where people have learned to admit fault, apologize to one another, heal from mistakes, forgive trespasses and move on better with better informed and with greater degrees of intimacy. I have met communities that have matured over time. And the strongest communities I know are founded in the shared endeavor of practice on-that-mat, on-the-cushion, and/or in study groups as opposed to expecting their yoga community to function like a social club, therapy group or professional organization.
I know for me that yoga community started simply. Yoga community was a “where two or more are gathered” kind-of-thing not a large social endeavor. I asked a few of my students to practice with me. I didn’t charge for it—we just got together with a long list of poses, a timer, a copy of Light on Yoga and long Sunday afternoons stretching out before us. Rachel, Meg and I spent hours together on sticky mats figuring out arm balances and back bends and as the years went by we loaded into cars and onto planes to go study with our teachers.
And we did it over a long period of time. We still do it when we can although it's a bit harder 15 years later an 3 children between us (theirs not mine, obviously) than it was then. Anyway, over time, other people joined us and classes and practices grew and expanded. Meanwhile, as we were all learning the intricacies of urdhva dhanurasana and how to balance in handstand we bought businesses, changed jobs, got married, had fights, moved across the country, struggled to stay married, had children, got puppies and kittens, put old dogs down, lost loved ones, went to therapy, lost weight, gained weight, stopped drinking, started drinking, learned about Ayurveda and in just in more ways than I can list, became witnesses to each others’ unfolding lives.
Sure we had some fun parties and potlucks along the way but honestly, the profound simplicity of rolling out a mat with people throughout the up-and-downs of life, of learning to see one another and of learning to be seen by one another is at the heart of my experience of yoga community. True community rarely happens quickly and it need not be on a grand scale to be extremely valuable and rewarding. Yoga community to me is a lot more about being with 1 or 2 people I know well in a small room working on poses than it is about being with 300 strangers in a larger tent at a festival or a conference, as fun as that can be.
And that is what struck me about Boise. Many folks have made practice groups and committed to practicing together outside of class and have found the gold of both shared and personal practice over a long period of time. And in the last several years it seems that the “I am missing out on this idea of community” narrative has shifted to a “we all push each other to stay committed to our growth” storyline. The energetic shift was palpable and inspiring.
Anyway, my dream for all of us as yogi’s is that we have both. (See I don’t want much- just everything.) I wish for us the sanity and sanctuary that only personal practice gives over time and that we have the inspiration and refuge that shared practice delivers so spectacularly in yoga studios everywhere.
I am happy to be sitting down at my computer with some time to write a blog entry. After my last entry, Gioconda Parker and I taught a 5-day training for the Alchemy of Flow and Form Advanced Teacher Training called the Fundamentals of Teaching. AS many of you know, we teach an 11-month Online Teacher Development Program that and this year we added an onsite component as an option for folks looking to register with Yoga Alliance at the 500-hour level.
One of the students said, "honestly, I am not sure I could have integrated more, even if you had offered more!" which was a great reminder that more is not always more.
And look, I know there are "puppy mill 200-hour" teacher training programs out there training people to teach yoga whose only program requirements seem to be that the prospective trainee has $3000 and can fog up the mirror. And certainly I know that there are plenty of ego-maniac, narcissistic personaltiy-types out there teaching yoga who exploit the vulnerable students who have entrusted their yoga education to a charlatan. Obviously, I am aware that the pressure of making a living in a competitive industry that requires dealing with lots of different kinds of people does not always bring out the best in any of us. And I know that many folks will spend only a few years in this noble profession before having children, going back to school, finding a more reliable income stream and/or exploring other creative ways to be of service and make a difference in the world.
No way— he remains, to this day, in another league entirely.
Right after my friend asked me to teach at her studio I was at a workshop with my teacher and I told him that one of my friends asked me to teach at her studio. I told him that when I got out of college with a counseling degree I had been handed groups of teenagers to “counsel” and I realized in retrospect that I had no business trying to help those kids but I didn’t know until after the fact that I wasn’t ready. I told him that I figured teaching yoga would end up the same way and so maybe I should tell my friend that I wasn’t ready. It seemed the repsonsible thing to do, after all.
He said, “Well, the first thing you need to know is that EVERYBODY teaches before they are ready. That is how it works. That is simply built into the system.”
I remember staring at him at this point in the conversation. Chances are good my jaw dropped and my mouth was hanging open a bit.
He continued, saying, “But you live in a small town in Arizona. Who, in that small town of yours, knows more about yoga than you?”
And then he added, “What you have to remember is 1.) Only teach the poses you can do. If you can’t do it, don’t teach it, 2.) Make sure you remain a student and keep working on your own practice and 3.) make sure you have a relationship with a teacher who is more experienced than you are who will answer questions for you that you will inevitably run into when you are teaching.”
And so, I went home and said, “yes” to my friend and started teaching yoga. No 200-hour training program, no goal-setting, no Vision, no Mission, no life-plan, no-nothing other than a mixed-blessing from my teacher, a time-slot on the schedule, and a desire to help people.
My first class had 3 people. Mary Kate came. She had to come— she was my college roomate and was obligated to be there so I knew at least one person would be in my class. Barry also came to class. He was the studio owner’s astrologer who had a class pass in trade for casting a chart with an auspicious date for the studio’s opening. And Sunny came. I met Sunny when I subbed a class at the YMCA for Julie.
And the times have changed and yet, I still follow my former teacher’s advice. I teach the poses I can do. I remain a curious student and I talk to my teachers and colleagues about my troubles. I make a ton of mistakes. I do my best to stick by my students and I am amazed that so many have stuck by me.
And I know why some haven’t. None of this is easy. For a lot of reasons.
And I know— puppy millls, etc.
But I have to say that I do not spend a lot of time with that these days. I have students who came out of those training programs and they are eager to learn, passionate about growth and allow their minds to be blown open with what comes after their initial training. Sure- some folks don’t keep going, but I deal with the people who do keep going and they are pretty darn inspiring.
I can’t worry about what someone did or did not get before they get to me. I am not saying I do not have opinions about all of it but I am saying that people walk into the world of yoga through very different doorways and the best way for me to see the situation we are in together is to be happy that people walked into yoga at all.
I mean, it seems simple enough, right? Yoga instruction often boils down to “Straighten your arms” or “Straighten your legs,” or whatever. But it is not that simple. It really isn’t. Bent arms and legs belong to people and the cue/adjustment/sequence/input is coming from a person and the correction/adjustment is given in front of other people and so the somewhat simple task of straightening our arms and/or legs becomes a much more complex interaction with a dizzying number of variables.
The thing about teaching yoga is that teachers and students traverse a universe between “arms bent” and “arms straight”. We cross a chasm when a “stupid question” isn’t dismissed but instead opens a doorway of greater understanding. We heal a lifetime of isolation and shame when the risk we take yields the safety to feel unsafe and the courage to be vulnerable. When the questioning of long-cherished understandings and ideals produces an edge of discrimination and clarity we find a way of knowing that transcends the personal domain of experience and takes us into a communal understanding of truth, if even for one moment.
I have said it before but there is something about yoga that feels to me like “growing up in public.” And it is Big.
I often say teaching yoga is an empowering ass-kicking. There is no other job I know of where you get a chance to witnes such profound growth in yourself and others while being so profoundly and publicly criticized and questioned and in which you will question yourself so repeatedly. For every “win” we have as teachers we have a chance to improve on something else. And we have to get good with that as teachers or we won’t last. We will burn out. The work will kill us.
After all, good, old-fashioned work on the poses always makes me happy.
I call this kind of work "old-fashioned" because there we no work on transitions between poses, we did maybe 6 sun salutations in two days and I don't think we did anything fancy or tricky. We did use a lot of props, as I had props on my mind preparing for my upcoming Props and Modifications workshop. And we did work on nuances and progressive strategies for poses like urdhva dhanruasana, drop backs, parivritta janu sirsasana, and padmasana. So there were a few fancy outcomes, I suppose.
Also, I think we had between 16 and 20 people in each session and so having a smaller group felt a bit "old- fashioned" as well. And, so we are clear, I mean "old-fashioned" in a good way, as in, a return to my roots. As much as I enjoy teaching and learning in big groups, lately, I have been appreciating the kind of teaching I can do with a smaller group, in a smaller room, with a closet-full of props and a ton of space at the wall. I can show techniques and check for understanding in a way that just doesn't happen in a larger-sized venues or experiences. I am less tired at the end of the day of teaching and I feel like I get a chance to connect with the students personally. Lately, these things have felt very meaningful to me.
(It is not an all-or-nothing thing, group size. It is more that different sizes yield different opportunities- as a teacher and as a learner-- and the smaller size has been really great for me.)
Yes, sure we can goal set, write shit down, and even take action every day in alignment with our stated vision, mission and goals. And then, there is what I call the svaha factor, the mystery aspect, the wild card, the great mystery of Life Itself plotting for our evolution that we actually can not know about in advance and which can not be tied down to a tidy 5-year plan for It lives outside the boundaries of self-reference. I love the svaha factor, really. I do not always recognize it or love it when it is happening, because sometimes, "things not going as I planned" really sucks. Sometimes things not going according my plans is downright painful, humiliating and demoralizing. Yet time again, in retrospect, this mystery element saves me from myself and seems to orchestrate for me the perfect storm of circumstances from which to learn.
Life is like a fire ceremony or ritual, where we make the offering of our intentions, efforts and actions into the cauldron of our circumstances or into the fire of our lives. By doing this we are, in a sense, making our life into a sacrifice. I don't mean sacrifice like some martyrdom narrative where we sacrifice ourselves but more as in "to make sacred" or to take actions in alignment with the sacred Heart within and to sacrifice what is narrow-minded and self-centered for what is expanded and Self-centered.
So, there you have it.
I looked around throughout the weekend, realizing I was living the momentum of my intention and while I couldn't have predicted the exact form it has taken or the winding inner and outer roads I would have travelled to be here, I was smack dab in the middle of my Vision.
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."