Q:What is the definition of an expert?
A: Someone who lives out of town.
Given that the majority of the teaching work I do these days involves me getting on a plane to go teach, I enjoy the “expert” status that comes along with being a teacher from “out-of-town.” I figure that means that the students are typically a little more patient with my long-winded explanations, detailed demonstrations, and slow-paced teaching style than they might be if it was Wednesday night class and we shared the same zip code.
Be that as it may be, I am continually inspired by the sincerity of students in the workshops I teach.
I think learning yoga is difficult. Each one of us steps into the classroom— be it a public class, an online offering, a workshop, or a training-- with a unique set of circumstances including, but not limited to, our personal history, our current lifestyle, our hopes and dreams, our strengths and weaknesses, our unchecked biases, our privileges and disadvantages. For all of our similarities, we are also different, with variables are too numerous to name.
I also think teaching yoga is difficult. Teachers vary in education, expertise, charisma, compassion, dedication, maturity, depth, and skill. Learning environments range from private sessions to gym classes to public parks to eclectic studios to studios dedicated to a singular approach of study and practice. Some teachers are articulate in their own bodies, but give confusing cues. Some teachers give great cues, but don’t know why what they say seems to work. Some teachers are kind, but inexperienced. Some are seasoned, but impatient. Some are poetic. Some are concrete. Some are practical. Some are mystical. And so on.
And, if you set aside learning styles, teaching styles, personality preferences, and limitations galore, still the subject matter of yoga is as vast as the ocean. Each one of us comes to the shores of the subject, dressed for gym class, holding a tiny little cup called “our current capacity” and engage a sophisticated, physically and psychologically complex endeavor that is often set to music, crammed in between appointments and family obligations, and do our best to learn.
And, to my continued amazement, for all of the mis-information, confusion, and problems that seem to exist, the process also works for many people. I do not mean to say that it works perfectly or that there are not times where it fails. Certainly, there is enough evidence out here in the Yoga Blogosphere about the abysmal failures of teachers, systems, communities, and practitioners that it would be ludicrous to suggest that nothing is broken or that nothing needs to be improved upon. I know I am doing my best to make changes to my teaching that best reflect my current understanding of my past mistakes.
And yet, I see people find each other. Friendships form in these rooms that endure. I see people find themselves and begin the process of making peace with long-forgotten places of pain and previously unknown sources of beauty. I see bodies get stronger and more mobile. I see discernment dawn in simple acts such as modified postures and intelligent questions. I see people choose to spend time, money,and attention to explore who they are through the practices of yoga. I see these same people stay with that process through every great joy and tragedy that life can dish out. My friends, students, colleagues and teachers on path have practiced through births and deaths, marriages and divorces, abortions, miscarriages, murders, abuse, manipulation, disappointments, and anything else you can name. And for every trauma that gets triggered, we also have reparative, corrective experiences that heal.
I have seen the practice rise up inside each of us when we least expect it. We remember to breathe, we know how to respond to someone we love, we shut up, we speak out, we expand beyond our body of habits in some mall way that creates just enough room for a new possibility to emerge. Of course, we fall short also. Obviously, despite our best intentions, we make mistakes. We miss the mark. But, there are moments. There are moments when we can glimpse that all that yoga was not a “time out” from a busy or stressful life, but was, instead, a training in warriorship, a preparation for service, and an exercise in compassion.
My spiritual teacher used to say that there were three times in life when we are most available to Divine Influence: 1. When we are praying; 2. When we are laughing; and 3. When we think nothing is going on. I am pretty big into prayer and I am a pretty funny yoga teacher, but I have to say that I think most of my life of practice and teaching falls into the third domain he mentioned. I rarely think that anything very meaningful is happening in my effort to do trikonasana or to push up to urdhva dhanurasana. I do not roll out my mat most days with lofty aims or high intentions. I mostly practice with an “another day, another down dog” kind-of-mentality, much in the same way I brush my teeth.
And yet, it seems that something has been built. And I see it in my students also. I have the good fortune to have been teaching long enough for my students to have been practicing with me for over 20 years. What I have come to see is that learning, practicing, teaching and living are a long-term relationship and not a one-night stand. And like any long-term relationship, there are good times and bad, tough moments as well as tender times.
Yes, I think learning yoga is difficult. And, so too, is teaching. And yet, I believe the process works.
More soon. Keep the faith.
Tuesday, February 6, 2018
My mother says, “Christina come down here. I have a secret to tell you.” I think it is odd my mother would tell me a secret, but I follow her down three steps into a private area. She looks at me, holds my hands and says, “I need to tell you that I will be passing soon.”
Surprised by her proclamation, I ask, “How do you know?”
She replies, “I have lights passing in front of my eyes and across my forehead. They mean I will be going soon. But do not tell your father— he will just worry.”
I try to reassure her, telling her she will be with Jesus in heaven.
She interupts me, saying, “I am okay with this. You do not need to reassure me.”
We hug for a while. Crying, I tell her, “You know, Mom, you have had to work very hard in your life these last few years since your stroke. That work will finally be over and you can rest.”
“Yes,” she says, putting her her head on my shoulder and adds,, “You are right. I am a tired.”
Wednesday, February 7, 2018
Buena Vista, CO
Kelly and I have a dinner party at our house with Mom and Dad and our friends Janet, Bob, Russ, and Syd. Amidst the laughter and general merriment, Syd told us about how her parents died. Her Dad contracted an infection in the hosprital and eventually passed wtih the help of Hospice. Her mom, however, went to sleep one night and didn’t wake up, which was a surprise for everyone.
Interestingly enough, Syd and Russ have a niece who has psychic capacities that allow her to contact people who have died. At Syd’s request, her niece spoke with Syd’s mother about her death. Syd’s mother said, “Tell Syd not to worry. It was just fine. It was a breath in and breath out.”
Thursday, February 8, 2018
Buena Vista, CO
Mom and I are in the kitchen together at breakfast. She had on the fluffly pink robe she got this year for Christmas. Her hair was messed up from sleep. She was happy and relaxed.
I say, “Mom, Dad said we kept you up too late last night.”
“Yes, I was so tired when everyone left that I just wanted to go straight to bed. Dad made me brush my teeth, though.”
“Sorry about that, Mom.”
“Oh, it was worth it. I had such a good time.”
I hug my mother good-bye, kiss her on the forehead, and tell her I love her. Kelly and I get in the van to drive to Flagstaff, Arizona for a weekend workshop. We stop in Durango and spend the night. Dad texts me around 6pm and says that everything is fine.
Thursday, February 8, 2018
En route to Flagstaff
Dad calls to tell me that Mom was sick in the night. The nurse practitioner from our doctor’s office has examined her and thinks she has the flu. Mom takes an ambulance to the ER. Dad tells me not to come home, as she is being cared for in the hospital and her conditions doesn’t seem serious.
Mom has been admitted to the hospital and reports are that she seems okay.
I get a phone call from the doctor at the hospital. Mom’s symptoms have worsened. She has been admitted to the ICU. The doctor is asking me about DNR’s. Mom is non-responsive.
Our minister is with her and tells me to come back. Our CNA/helper tells me to come home.
Kelly and I get in the car and drive to Durango, with the plan to spend the night and be at the hospital in the morning.
Friday, February 9, 2018
Heart of the Rockies Hospital
I come into mom’s room and rush to her bed. I grab her hand. She looks at me and says, “I’m sick.”
I reply, “I know, Mom.”
She whispers, “They told me you were coming.”
There are many more details to tell about the trajectory of her last 5 days and her battle with an infection that eventually settled into her lungs and caused the pneumonia that would bring the end of her life, but the final moments we shared as a family seem the most important to share now.
Febrruary 14, 2018
Heart of the Rockies Hospital
As it became obvious that too many things were stacking up against Mom, we made the decision for the doctors to remove the supplemental oxygen she was receiving. She wasn’t intubated, but she was dependent on supplemental oxygen. We agreed the doctors would wean her off the oxygen, allow the carbon dioxide to build in her system, and assist the process of death with morphine. (side note— Even in my grief and tears, I made them promise LOTS of morphine.)
Her case manager had told us that hearing is the last of the senses to go as the body dies and that we should keep talking to her so she would know we were there with her. Even with a lot of morphine, her last minutes of breathing seemed labored and stressful, as she was in an oxygen deficit. Watching her struggle to breathe, while attempting to reasuure her, was heart-breaking.
I remembered Syd’s story about her mother. “It was a breath in and a breath out.”
I put my hand on Mom’s heart. Under my hand was the raspy texture of her breath as her infected lungs struggled for air. I looked at my mother and said, “Mom, it’s going to be a breath in and a breath out. Here is what you are going to do… You are going to make your exhales longer. And as you exhale, God’s going to breathe you back in. We will do it together. A breath in, a breath out. We are with you.”
And so on.
Her eyes found mine. My mom followed my breathing instructions, allowing me to coach her as she did just what I suggested and made her exhales increasingly longer. Her sharp, labored inhales changed. She seemed less afraid. She kept looking at me.
And after a few more minutes of breathing together, she died.
One of my teachers told me that being with someone as they die can be like going into the parlor that sits outside the room of Death and Beyond. You can gain entry into the parlor—if you are lucky— but you can not go through the door with the person who is dying.
No matter how much you love them.
And, of course, once they go through the door, you must leave the parlor and return to the land of the living. Of course, the entirety of that landscape is forever changed.
And, it seems, to me, time in the parlor alters the one who went there.
Given that Mom died less than six weeks ago, I am a newcomer to the landscape of this particular grief. Slowly, little-by-little, I am getting my bearings.
In my current landscape, the sun rises every day— full of its reliable and bright glory— but without the reliable, bright laughter that accompanied my mother every day. And yet, like the light of the sun, there is no place where she is not. She taught me to cook eggs, how to get dressed, how to bathe myself, and how to clean a toilet. She taught me how to do my hair, make a shopping list, and how to water my plants. Every daily activity is a living connection to her and a living legacy of her care.
In my curent landscape, the Grace of my friends has become the very ground beneath my feet, reminding me that no matter where I step, I need not walk the pathways of this new land alone. Shared meals, long hikes, phone calls, letters, plants, flowers, cards, and heart-felt sharing surround me at every turn, showing me that love is real, people are precious, and God does not live in the sky, but lives instead t in the easy-to-miss moments of life where we minister to each other.
In my current landscape, a heavy weight settles daily in my chest, like low clouds that settle in a mountain valley, and make my normal routines more tiring than usual. This weight, impossible to think my way out of, reminds me that tears will soften what is sharp and jagged within me, just as rain will eventually wear down the craggiest of peaks, and spring showers will nourish the driest soil so that seeds of renewal can sprout. And I do my best to let the healing waters of my tears keep me tender inside.
In this landscape, dogs run in the yard, the neighbors have a new baby, and the bulbs I planted for her in the fall have begun to peak out of the earth. Here, in this landscape, life continues with its indomitable spirit and power. Majestic and ordinary, tedious and inspiring, frustrating and exhilarating , life is here to be lived.
My mom did that well. She fell. She got up. She was no perfect person and certainly, she did not give birth to a perfect daughter. She was, however, who she was. And her authenticity will always inspire my own.
There is nowhere I can go where she is not.
That is my mother’s grace.
A breath in. A breath out.
Life is to be lived.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
from Rumi: The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing
translated by Coleman Barks
I spent the weekend in Aptos, CA at Yoga Within. I always love teaching at Yoga Within because the students there have so much depth and experience. This trip was my first teaching gig since my mother passed away on Valentine’s Day. The experience of her passing was very fresh and tender in my heart throughout the weekend and the kind, generosity of the students in attendance bolstered me considerably.
In fact, the title of the workshop was Bolstered From Within: Asana for Inner and Outer Strength. For all the problems that have been identified in our industry, in our ever-changing understanding of anatomy and physiology, and in our expanding dialogue about teaching methods, psychology, and unchecked biases, I still find refuge in the practice.
Asana has provided me a structure through which to find discipline, self-understanding, and awareness. Asana gave me a means through which I discovered both humility and empowerment. I have learned ways that effort and surrender inform one another. And the postural practice has taught me that transformation and change must be tempered with compassion and acceptance. In a somewhat imprecise and non-linear way, practicing the poses has taught me more about what lives beneath and beyond the shapes than seems logical or rational.
Of course, sometimes I look at the asana practice and how much energy so many of us give to the pursuit of postures and the whole endeavor seems odd. Take a scroll through my social media feed— where yoga selfies coupled with inspirational quotes abound-- and the whole thing gets even weirder. Pairing an acrobatic feat with a claim of inner peace often lands somewhere between the bizarre and the delusional for me.
And, just to be clear, I am not saying anyone should stop making yoga memes or cease promoting their prowess and insight. I have played the game myself and found great pleasure in the many facets of creative expression inherent in the types of posts I am describing. I am simply saying, that for me, some days, the whole thing makes my hackles go up a bit.
Clearly, asana’s pathway is not a straight line. Like any relationship, there are twists and turns, surprises and stretches of boredom. There are times when I give my relationship with asana a lot of my attention and there are times where my relationship might best be described as avoidant or neglectful. I have expected too much from my relationship with asana as often as I have taken our relationship for granted. At some point, however, I stopped trying to do it all so right and began to trust that these ebbs and flows were simply the way I was doing it— for better or worse, rich or poor, sick or well. Somewhere along the line, my relationship with asana became my own, not anyone else’s.
My therapist once cautioned me about making life too much about competence and doing things right. Life, with its many complexities, is full of paradox, mistake-making, triumphant achievement, and abysmal failure. We love, hate, betray, forgive, and continue on. I was reminded of my therapist's caution in the hours after my mother passed when the issue of a “good death” came up.
My mom spent the last six days of her life in the hospital before dying from complications with pneumonia. I had my hand on her heart as she exhaled for the final time. How ludicrous to assign a good or bad label to something so mysteriously natural as death. And, by the same token, how unfair to judge our living, breathing moments by the limiting narrative of competence and skill or good and bad.
More could be said, but it seems to me that the strength that asana yields and the ways the practice bolsters me, is not so easy to define. Furthermore, what makes life worth living is even harder to pin down.
Oh-- and many thanks for the sincere, heartfelt support you all gave me throughout the process of my mom's passing. You made Grace real to me in and I have been truly bolstered by my family, friends, student's, colleagues, and teachers.
Most of my time and energy for writing has been applied toward finishing a manuscript for a new book on Yoga and Body Image. I am happy to say that I submitted it to my publisher, signed a contract, and have a release date for Spring 2019. I wrote Yoga from the Inside Out in 2001 and it was published in 2003. Before Facebook, before Twitter, before Instagram and before the proliferation of online media, I wrote about the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that the yoga industry was infiltrated by modern culture's narrow standards of beauty. I suggested that yoga practice could either heal, or reinforce, those norms, depending on where we placed our attention, both individually and as a larger community.
Since that time, the yoga and body image conversation has grown and expanded to encompass diverse viewpoints and to explore greater places of intersectionality with race, gender, age, and economic privilege. This book is an updated set of musings aimed primarily at experienced practitioners who, after an initial period of healing in yoga, may be experiencing disillusionment, disappointment, and who, in the midst of the current milieu feel a lack of connection to the spiritual essence of yoga, Beyond Body Image: Yoga as a Pathway to Peace is about moving beyond outer images of beauty toward a loving, compassionate connection to one's spiritual essence.
So, that has been one project. Not an exhaustive treatise, by any means, but an updated set of musings 15 years after my initial book on the subject.
The other project I worked on this fall was my Shelter From the Storm and Teaching in Troubled Times courses. (the courses are still available and posted online, even though they are technically over so it is not too late to take the course now. ) After crafting daily emails full of teachings and practices for 45 days, I realized, I had an outline for a book. I have been expanding and re-working some of that material for a second manuscript called Shelter From the Storm: Yoga for Troubled Times. I was really pleased with the course and am excited how this offering is shaping up as well. I hope to have the manuscript to my editor by the end of the month.
Between writing projects, teaching work, the holidays and the flu (which has kicked my ass for almost two weeks), I haven't written a blog entry in a while. In a way, this statement sums up much of how I am feeling these days-- keenly aware that it is impossible to do everything and that life involves choices about how to spend my energy. Of course, that idea is nothing new, but the truth of it is finding a new fullness within me.
One of my students recently asked me if I was going to do another Asana Junkies course soon. I said, "Well, I don't really practice like that right now, so it's not like I have tons of new things to say about back bends and arm balances that I haven't already said."
She asked me, "Why aren't you practicing like that?"
I went on to say that for me to keep a lot of advanced poses in my repertoire involves a lot of time. It also involves not doing a lot of things I enjoy. And over the last few years, not hiking, not biking, not boating, or not snowboarding so that my back bends got deeper just didn't feel like a good trade-off. I have nothing against pose lust, big poses, or the pursuit of all of that and have no axe to grind about advanced poses. And, I have plenty of help I can offer people who want to do those things in the right setting. However, for me, big poses just don't seem as interesting to me these days as meditation, mantra, a great hike, writing books, gardening, and some good, basic asana to keep things working well.
Like I said, choices.
Maybe you can have it all, but it never seems to me you can have it all at the same time. (And truth be told, I doubt most of us can really have it all, but that is another post for another day. Of course, on a spiritual level, we already have it all, but again, a different post for a different day.)
I have always considered asana a life-long relationship. And like any relationship that endures the test of time, there are bound to be changes over the long haul. Years ago, I wanted to be like some of my yoga teachers who were doing advanced poses at 70. Now, I mostly want to be out in nature, connected to my inner life, and able to walk when I am 70! Seeing my mother deal with the loss of mobility from her stroke made me aware of the precious gift it is to walk independently and how vital the strength and stability of both body and mind are.
And, my favorite thing about asana practice, is not the poses, weirdly enough. My favorite thing about the asana practice is how, little-by-little, slowly-but-surely, over the last twenty-something years while I was studying, practicing, and teaching, I charted a pathway inside myself where awareness can rise and I discovered a relationship with my own awareness. It would never have sounded exciting to me all those years ago, as I was pretty darn focused on those back bends, but I love feeling the connection between my big toe and my chest, between my chest and my back, between my breath and my mood, and so on and so on. As it turns out, all those hours on that rectangular piece of rubber were in service to something so much more than the poses themselves.
In a sense, that "something so much more" is the essence of what I have been writing about over the last few months. . Whether it is body image and the destructive forces of cultural conditioning or it is the troubling political landscape, the gift of yoga is not in the shapes themselves, but in what the shapes lay the groundwork for. The shapes and their depths will come and go, and perhaps, our interest in them will come and go. However, the steady, uninterrupted practice of said shapes, regardless of how fancy they are, lays the groundwork for awareness to rise, for us to know ourselves as that awareness itself, and to live our lives from a reference point that is deep, interior, and Real.
And that is a relationship that can stand the test of time.
"Hard work is not easy." --Papa Peter Rhodes
I returned home yesterday from a three-day intensive I taught with my friend, Darren Rhodes at Yoga Oasis. Darren and I have been friends for many moons and have spent literally over a thousand hours co-teaching over the years. This training, like every time we teach together was a intense, sweet, difficult, beautiful, fun, hard, running us all through a gamut of emotions and a rich group process.
The title of the workshop was The Work and we used Red Hawk’s book, Self-Observation, as springboard for inquiry and discussion. Based on the principles of the the Fourth Way, this book offers a thought-provoking foray into the process of developing a relationship with attention.
On the last morning we had a discussion about the relationship between self-observation and privilege which launched us in to some tender and passion-filled territory about money, beauty, race, gender, opportunity and oppression, fragility and courage. I want to protect the sanctity of the space that occurred by not giving a point-by-point recap. The tender vulnerability and messy honesty we shared is still too raw and precious for public consumption on a blog. I can’t risk that the details would be held in anyway other than sacred.
That being said, the experience was so valuable I feel like I need to write something.
The landscape of my yoga trainings is changing. Only a few years ago, the kinds of questions I was asked had to do with poses and personal psychological issues. Now, due to magnificent work in the fields of activism and in the intersection of social justice and yoga, coupled with the disturbing trends in our national political arena, students and yoga teachers are asking different questions.
Don’t get me wrong— I still get questions about how to deepen back bends, how to deal with injuries, and I still hear about plenty about personal challenges and triumphs. But when my former teacher would use the word diversity, I think he really mostly meant that we could all be different— in so far as a group of mostly affluent, white people can be different. Like, some can be loud and some can be quiet and some can be funny and some can be serious. Maybe he meant racial diversity but there was really only one or two people of color in any training from what I observed. The word was used, sure, but not in the same way, that we use it now.
Of course, because this is a blog entry and I am attempting to keep my tendency to ramble reigned in, I am making gross generalizations. I mean no harm. I am hoping to illustrate that, while we have so much work to do-- as a culture and as a yoga community— to dismantle systems of oppression through education and action, something has shifted in the field.
One of my long-time students was in the room this weekend. She told me that her Facebook memories feed had a quote she posted six years ago. The quote read something like— “If you are a happy person, the world will be a happy place. And if you are an unhappy person, the world will seem to you an unhappy place. The world reflects to you your inner state.” In the last six years she got a master’s degree, educated herself on the realties of systemic oppression and institutionalized racism, and is now an outspoken feminist and body-positive yoga teacher with a private psychotherapy practice who would never post a quote like that. She and I discussed how a conversation like our group had on Sunday morning would never have been in that same room six years ago. We both knew that was true, because we have both been in that very room for almost ten years.
So maybe there is a reason for hope.
I should state honestly that our group’s conversation wasn’t perfect and I was grateful to have it. We plodded together through what was messy, clunky, awkward, tense, loving, heart-breaking, incomplete, unresolved, and difficult. I had to laugh that the workshop was called The Work, not The Play and so I really should have known.
Of course, work like we did in a classroom will not change Congress, will not feed the hungry, will not fix the hatred and division surfacing in the fabric of our country and world right now. It will not stop fires, floods, or famine. It will not put an immediate end to misogyny, rape, abuse, injustice, discriminatory policies and so on. So we are clear that I am clear, I am not saying that praying for world peace is working for peace.I do not think 60 people— 51 of them white— is a particularly diverse population sample.
What self-observation practices have done for this person of privilege is to give me a greater capacity to observe my own defensiveness, my own fragility, my own seeds of conditioned division without getting so filled with shame that I have to shut down completely, Difficult conversations with my friends, students, and colleagues have helped me see how precarious the line is between wanting to help and being a savior; between creating space for others to speak up and speaking for others.
I have no easy answers or elegant conclusions with which to to end today’s entry. I do have appreciation and respect for my students and for the activists who are willing to keep disrupting the status quo so that we can all grow into our humanity more fully. Additionally, I have a renewed understanding of the necessity of heart-break on the road to this expanded possibility of humanness.
There is no way to wake up to the violence, oppression, division, injustice, and degradation upon which so much of our culture is built without heart-break. There is no way to truly listen to individual people’s struggle to communicate with themselves and one another what it means to navigate those same forces in a world that denies they exist without it breaking your heart. And there is no way to own up to our own conscious and unconscious complicity in the system without heart-break. And so, we must cry our tears as we let the heart shatter and work anyway.
And make mistakes. And keep working.
Also, for tangible help for navigating this new territory, please consider supporting this Kickstarter project by Michelle Johnson.
Find out more about Michelle here-- https://www.michellecjohnson.com/.
(click the picture and it will take you to her campaign.)
I am on my way home from teaching a four-day intensive in Portland, Oregon at The Bhaktishop, run by the fabulous Lisa Mae Osborn. In October 2011, I resigned my license to teach Anusara yoga. Lisa Mae invited me to come and teach at her place in the midst of many cancellations for various reasons. And while the years following my resignation were somewhat rough at times, as I struggled to find an authentic balance between my past training and my current offerings, Lisa Mae has stood next to me as a solid companion and friend on the Path. She and I are around the same age and have been “in the ring” teaching yoga for around the same time so we share a long-term perspective about the inner work of teaching in the midst of the ever-changing tides of industry trends.
And while Lisa has always been interested in the intersection of spirituality and politics, that passion has been ignited since the 2016 election and in what we both see as its aftermath. She has spent the last year using her studio-- and platform as a teacher and community leader-- to offer workshops, seminars, and trainings dedicated to inclusivity, diversity and social justice. These topics are highly charged, difficult to work with well, and increasingly necessary in a time when racial tensions are high, equal rights of all kinds are threatened, and every news cycle brings some fresh new hell for us to confront, examine, process, and attempt to integrate into what has become a new normal. Whether or not yoga teachers want to be political, and despite the valid and varied positions regarding the role of the teacher/studio in our current political climate, the cultural backdrop from which people now enter our classes is fraught with upset. That much seems obvious.
So, when discussing a format for my offering this year, Lisa Mae asked if some of the elements to which she has been dedicated since the election might be included in an intensive for yoga teachers. Thus, The Grace of Great Things Teacher Intensive was born.
While I am no social justice educator, nor do I consider myself an activist, I have never been one to shy away from difficult discussions in the right setting. (And, before that sounds like a “right setting” and “wrong setting” or a “good time to talk about oppression” v. a “bad time to talk about oppression” I do believe that some situations are more conducive to communication and dialogue than others. And some suit my temperament better than others. And so “right” is not a value judgement as much as a recognition of what I need as a facilitator to step into sensitive territory.) I asked for all participants to commit to the entire training, accepted no “drop-in-for-asana-only” registrations, and asked for a four-day intensive format where we met for five hours in the middle of each day with breaks throughout.
I had a loose template to work with and centered our writing and discussions around a section in Parker Palmer’s book, The Courage to Teach, called The Grace of Great Things. This section of his book talks about a vision of educational community that gathers around the great things of any subject, makes room for the sacred and secular to inform one another, and honors each participant in the community with respect and reverence for their varied experience, expertise, and humanity.
I found the week difficult. It rained continually and the group didn’t always laugh at my jokes. We had varied asana capacities and differing backgrounds and spheres of influence. The topics brought me into the realm of my own existential considerations of power, corruption, and futility which made me reach for sources of hope, healing, and strength in new ways.
I also found the work exhilarating, meaningful, and deep. One of my favorite things about teaching right now is that I have found some interesting avenues to make use of my many struggles as a person and a teacher. I have an abundance of stories about my varied misunderstandings— as a student, a teacher, a wife, a friend, etc. that illustrate how messy the path can be. I don’t share them because I “need to share” as much as because I hope to level the field a bit, to end the silence of shame that isolates, divides, and cuts us off from our own gifts and offerings. It's kind of weird to say it, but my teaching work became redemptive when I no longer felt it was necessary to have all the answers, to be a shining example of righteousness, health or well-being, or to have the most refined understanding of asana, anatomy, or philosophy on the market.
In writing, it seems obvious to me that as nice as it might sound to gather around The Grace of Great Things, it is only fair that those Great Things exact a price in order for their Grace to be recognized. And while I believe that Grace is Grace because it needn’t be earned, my experience has often been that to step into its flow requires some kind of payment in the form of personal inquiry, risk, trust, and surrender. And, it seems, that the gift of those sacrifices, is always returned ten-thousand fold from my students. To witness and participate in another person’s self-inquiry, risk-taking, courage, and surrender is a Grace like no other.
Some key points emerged as take-aways from my own musings and from the students heart-felt sharing, regarding how yoga teachers create safe space for others in this troubled time. The following list is not an exhaustive enumeration, nor do I have each point fleshed out in some organized plan, but here goes--
More could be said, but that is enough for today.
Shelter From the Storm: Yoga For Troubled Times
One month of Online Inspiration, Education and Support
Every day during the month of November you will receive an email-delivered straight to your inbox with yoga-inspired teachings, techniques, and practices that you can incorporate into your life easily and immediately. Practitioners and teachers of all levels will find personal inspiration for practice on and off the mat without long lectures, appointments to keep, or in-depth assignments. All lessons and supporting materials are downloadable and yours to keep and use over and over again.
For approximately $1.66/day, you will receive:
Please note— if you have been displaced (and still have computer access) or have lost your job due to recent upheavals, please contact me directly for a scholarship to participate.
“Not one political crisis, environmental tragedy, or interpersonal argument will be made better by you not being your most whole, integrated, work-in-progress self. CNN, Facebook and the Twitter-stream will be there when you return from your mat, cushion, or various service work. Even if your practice won’t make the world a better place, it certainly won’t make it worse.”- Christina Sell, Blog Entry 10/01/2017
If you are a yoga teacher, please consider adding on:
Teaching in Troubled Times
December 1-15, 2017
This course will build on the platform of Shelter From the Storm but will speak directly to teachers about how to use the reality of our shared world as a springboard for teaching, without sermonizing, glossing-over, catastrophizing, or avoiding. From philosophical teaching to prop-based exercises to sequencing strategies, this course will explore how to support yourself and your students to find courage, strength, and hope in both personal practice and in the classroom.
Daily emails, delivered to your inbox will include:
SIGN UP TODAY!
Please note— if you have been displaced (and still have computer access) or have lost your job due to recent upheavals, please contact me directly for a scholarship to participate.
“Yoga teachers have an opportunity to invite people into the field where anatomical placement meets inner awareness through attention, breath, movement and stillness so that wholeness and healing can rise. It needn’t be fancy, It may not require a sermon from you. You don’t need to know every last thing about trikonasna, nor do you need to have all your shit sorted out in order for Grace to work through you. The power of the practice, the invitation for Grace to move through the group, and the desire to serve are the tools of our trade and are not to be taken lightly or disregarded flippantly or cynically. And so, while tonight’s class or tomorrow’s training may not change the world, chances are good that the class will help you and the two-or-more-people-gathered-with-you to glimpse a greater Possibility than despair, division and hatred.”— Christina Sell, Blog Entry, 20/02/2017
Last night I dreamt of Las Vegas. In my dream, among other common dream-time images was something new— toxic rain. Down from the sky rained a green, thick, and rotten goo that covered everyone and stifled their ability to breathe, to see, and to speak. As the rain continued, the situation became increasingly dire and I struggled to get to the meeting where I knew my spiritual teacher was holding darhsan.
I awoke to the news, well, that we all awoke to.
I want to add something to yesterday’s blog entry, where I said that my reasons for practice are not very lofty and that generally, world peace has never gotten me on my mat. I also mentioned that I think we are in a time in history where the forces of evil are gathering and the odds don’t seem so good for those of us wanting to live in the Light. (You can read entire post here, if you haven’t. It’s 1038 words and won’t take you very long. Meet you back here in a a few minutes.)
Okay, we are back.
Today, I want to add, that, while I do not think that my down dog is activism, nor do I think that a group of generally privileged people gathering to practice yoga has much influence on world events, I also believe that yoga studios, classes, workshops and trainings— big, small, well-known, and/or obscure— have the power to provide sanctuary, refuge, and dare I say, shelter from the ravages of the storms of our lives.
I know that we fail.
Yoga teachers, for all our great traits and training, have blind spots, unexamined biases, and unchecked prejudices that can be gigantic and problematic. We have personality flaws that get the best of us, wreaking havoc in our families and communities. Our industry, driven by capitalistic values, is as broken as any other— studios have trouble making enough money to stay open, teachers deserve to paid more than they are, and students find it hard to afford their classes. Flashy moves and sexy packaging sells; wisdom, depth, and the endurance to stay in place year after year often go unnoticed, unrecognized, and unappreciated. I could go on, but if you are paying attention, you have heard it all before.
And yet, I know that in the midst of these failures, when we get enough out of the way to be of service to something other than ourselves, a Grace is possible. People come to our classes and find healing, respite, renewal, hope, faith, and the strength to get back up again. Not everyone. Not all the time. And yet, that these outcomes happen at all, gives me hope and inspiration.
The Christian teachings assert that when two or more are gathered in His name, there He will also be. The Buddhist traditions remind us that the sangha, or community, is one of the three Jewels of Refuge. Those of your steeped in certain Tantric streams of philosophy and practice will recall the teachings of the kula, or spiritual family, that remind us of the transformational power of Grace held in a community of committed practitioners. I remember one of my teachers in particular saying, “Consciousness, which tends to contract, expands when people come together with a common aim.”
Thiis Possibility of Grace, of sanctuary, of shelter, of refuge, is not ours to grant personally as much as it is ours to invite into Being through our active participation in creating, cultivating and nourishing a field in which it can arise. Providing shelter from the storm does not depend on our spiritual perfection or personality-based skill, but depends instead, on a continual emptying-out of ourselves through heartbreak, brokenness, mistake-making, self-reflection, genuine remorse, amends-making, renewed commitments, broken promises, forgiveness, and the humility that can only happen when we stay in the game and endeavor to contribute.
Like I said previously, I don’t think much about changing the world.
However, I think quite a bit about how to contribute. Sometimes, my best contribution is inner work. When I got interested in racial injustice,for instance, I wanted to act, but instead, I started reading A LOT. I asked people to read with me and to educate ourselves so that we might get some insight into how best to take action later.
Sometimes, my contribution is outer action. Do the dishes, take out the garbage, call the senators, donate money, grant a scholarship, and so on.
Sometimes, my contribution is enjoyable. I have loved watching my parents blossom under my care and seeing their lives take new shape with joy.
Sometimes, my contribution sacrificial. I own up to my temper, my judgement and sacrifice looking good in order to mend a broken relationship or to find a new threshold of intimacy. Sometimes, the most obvious way to serves is not fun, sexy, profitable or likely to get me any accolades whatsoever.
There is no one way to make a contribution and no prescription that I can make to help anyone find theirs. But if you are a yoga teacher, you are placed well to get started. Yoga teachers have an opportunity to invite people into the field where anatomical placement meets inner awareness through attention, breath, movement and stillness so that wholeness and healing can rise. It needn’t be fancy, It may not require a sermon from you. You don’t need to know every last thing about trikonasna, nor do you need to have all your shit sorted out in order for Grace to work through you. The power of the practice, the invitation for Grace to move through the group, and the desire to serve are the tools of our trade and are not to be taken lightly or disregarded flippantly or cynically.
And so, while tonight’s class or tomorrow’s training may not change the world, chances are good that the class will help you and the two-or-more-people-gathered-with-you to glimpse a greater Possibility than despair, division and hatred.
And that matters a lot.
To me, anyway.
And probably for those who made it to class.
I had a phone session with my therapist a few weeks ago. I began by saying, “Well, since last we talked, there has been a solar eclipse, forest fires, storms, and floods of Biblical proportions, and it seems we are on the brink of WW3.. And that is just on the outer plane.”
And, of course, she asks me, “Have you had any dreams?”
“Why, yes,” I replied, “yes, I have.”
Writing about yoga teaching and practice these days always feels like it runs the risk of being somewhat tone deaf. And yet, I do not have much to add in terms of political or social commentary.
As a practitioner and teacher, I can add my two cents that I believe practice remains relevant and important—although more than one of my colleagues and students has told me their practice feels insignificant, self-indulgent, and even meaningless in the face of so much devastation, heartbreak and corruption.
I think those feelings of doubt are completely understandable, especially for those tender-hearted, optimistic individuals who have practiced for the last 1-20 years thinking that their personal yoga practice and the collective energy of other folks who practice was actually helping the world be a better place. I, being a more self-centered realist (as opposed to a tender-hearted idealist) have never been motivated to practice by such lofty aims as world peace or making the world a better place.
Don’t get me wrong, I am into world peace. And, I certainly think there are some things “out there” that could use improving. And, to be fair, if you pressed me, and we went down the rabbit hole of my reasons for sustaining practice in my life, maybe, just maybe the conversation might end up there anyway..
But practice for outer change is not the narrative from which I operate on a daily basis.
For years, I practiced mostly to avoid the personal suffering that came in the form of self-hatred, addictive behavior, anxiety and general ennui. I suppose some of that original motivation remains in the pantheon of my personal reasons for practice. But at some point in my journey, I realized that I no longer felt crazy, isolated, or in need of a constant reality check lest I head down a road dictated by my lesser angels. At some point I realized, that having practice in my life is just a better way for me to live. Additionally, many behaviors and perspectives no longer required so much “practice”, but had simply integrated themselves into a more natural way of being.
These days I feel like we are living in a scene from the Lord of the Rings right before the big battle, when the forces of evil are gathering and, as is usually the case in any epic tale, the odds are not on the side of those fighting for Light. I mean, one scroll through my newsfeed doesn’t bear much good news about our current, collective plight. (Okay, there are the puppy videos. And some lovely reports of human kindness and small-scale miracles. So that is something,)
And so, if I practiced because I thought that my down dog could influence our current President to abandon his divisive tactics and become a man of unity, I would have already given up. If I practiced because I thought that embracing the abandoned and disowned parts of myself would make a difference in the heart of Neo-Nazi’s, hate groups and the growing alt-right, well, I would not sustain the effort.
And, as much as I have studied the non-dual dharma teachings of many traditions, I take very little refuge in the teachings of non-duality on a daily basis. I mean, sure, it’s all One and what was never actually born (the soul) can never truly die and this play of circumstances is simply the One manifesting in its myriad choices of freedom, blah, blah, blah. Great teachings. Inspiring and up-lifting. Even great conversational fodder on any given day.
But not why I practice.
I figure we are always lined up on a battlefield facing an enemy of some kind— be that enemy one’s personal demons, damaging social imperatives, oppressive cultural structures, or the many expressions our corrupt political arena— and we are called to fight. I believe practice is part of that fight. I believe that whatever peace, clarity, sense of okay-ness, embodiment, and/or transcendence we are blessed to find through the various mechanisms of practice are part of our armor and arsenal in a battle where the odds often don’t look very good.
But not fighting is the other choice and for me, not fighting means despair, blame, violence, etc. which are not viable options.
At some point in my teaching, I stopped promising that “if you do_____, this good thing will happen.” I mean, it might. But it also might not. It might for a little while. Then it might not for a very long while. And so on. The whole narrative of “getting better” and “achieving” has a lot of downsides on a practical level after a certain point. For me, the point of the practice is to do the practice and, it seems, that the outcomes of said practice may never be fully known and may not always be felt or experienced as "good.".
I am sure there are a ton of loopholes and inconsistencies in my musings today, which I am not really prepared to defend. My point is, if, in the face of “all of it” these days, you have abandoned your practice in some way— be it literally, like you never roll out your mat anymore, or figuratively, like you have lost faith— find some aspect of practice again. Today.
Not one political crisis, environmental tragedy, or interpersonal argument will be made better by you not being your most whole, integrated, work-in-progress self. CNN, Facebook and the Twitter-stream will be there when you return from your mat, cushion or various service work. Even if your practice won’t make the world a better place, it certainly won’t make it worse.
In 2004, I went to study yoga at a school in the Himalayas. Throughout the month-long intensive, my teachers continually opined that “people didn’t want to learn yoga, they just wanted to do asana.” I kept thinking to myself, “I traveled halfway around the world to learn. I can stay home and do.”
In 2007, I went back to India to study at a famous yoga institute. One of the main teachers began every class with some lamentation about how “Nobody wants to learn yoga philosophy, they just want to do the gymnastics.” I kept thinking to myself, “Why not just teach us some philosophy, instead of talking about how we don’t want to learn it? After all, here we are, a somewhat captive audience…”
In 2009, one of my yoga friends told me that the teacher of a class we both went to said to her, “Well, you know Christina doesn’t come to class to learn, she just wants to do the advanced poses.”
As much as students experience the grace of their teachers, teachers, too, live in the grace of their students. The power of the relationship between teacher and students exists because it is just that— a relationship. Teacher-student relationships in the asana classroom can be a bit odd because, generally, the conversation is a bit one-sided. Even a non-chatty yoga teacher is still doing more talking than the students. And the student is having a deep, interior experience while the teacher is having a more bird’s-eye outer experience of the class. This disparity can lead to all kinds of problems and hurt feelings. But that it is different blog entry for another day. My point is, one of the most sustaining and inspiring parts of being a teacher is helping people learn and when we assume students don’t want to learn, we block ourselves from the grace of the student, from the reciprocity that exists in sharing the learning process.
I wish I had a dollar for every yoga teacher who tells me their students don’t want to learn. I talk to a lot of yoga teachers these days and I hear this complaint frequently.
I get it.
I, too, brought up in a lineage of teachers who believed students didn’t want to learn, spent many years assuming students in my classroom didn’t want to learn. I had unconsciously assumed the bias of my teachers and projected it on the people who came to my class.
Being a teacher for people who did not want to learn did not make me happy. Being a teacher for people who did not want to learn made suspicious, angry, and defensive. And guess how many people want to learn from a yoga teacher who is suspicious, angry and defensive? Not many. (Which then re-affirms the original belief that people do not want to learn. See how that works?)
Look, I am not going down some new-agey road of “you create your own reality” as a yoga teacher here. Nor am I trying to ride some big high-horse about teaching. I have taught more than one forward bend class to people who seemed more interested in the state of their pedicure (or lack thereof) than they were in what I had to say that day. I have looked out into those seas of expressionless faces and I have lost my temper more than once trying to get people to come watch a demonstration that I knew would dramatically help them with their pose. I have subbed classes that students walked out of and I have received emails and letters with “suggestions for improvement" which included everything from my sequencing choices to my obvious need for psychotherapy. (I am not even kidding.)
I am not without reference points for the frustration so many teachers share with me.
Somewhere along the line, however, I realized that even though I love learning, my teachers didn’t see that love in me. They couldn’t see my love of learning because they were so busy expecting to see its lack. I realized that if they had been wrong about me, maybe I had been wrong about my students. I realized that even if people do not want to learn, being a teacher and assuming students were uninterested did not make me happy. I started assuming my students wanted to learn, even if for no other reasons than it made me happier to start with “they want to learn” as a governing assumption as opposed to “they don’t want to learn.”
And guess what?
People started to seem more interested. Not all at once. And not all the time. And not everybody. But I became able to see sparks of interest.
I began to see that:
a.) most people do enjoy improving in their practice even if they do not always like the means by which that improvement is realized (let’s face it, demonstrations and explanations can be boring, alignment can be tedious and even the most interested student can lose interest by the fifth repetition),
b.) some people are not ready to learn what I am teaching,
c.) some people are not able to learn in the way I teach,
d.) people’s interest in learning can be expressed in many diverse ways that I can not always recognize or relate to,
e.) just because someone may want to move and “do” a lot, does not make them uninterested in learning,
f.) just because someone has a different background and experience in their yoga training, does not mean they will not like or benefit from what I am teaching,
g.) I can let people decide for themselves what they get from my class and why, I do not need to decide for them in advance,
h.) most people will enjoy learning more from someone who sees them in a positive light than from someone who judges them harshly. (And, truth be told, even if a student seems to be attracted to a hard-to-please, highly critical teacher, that might not be the best pattern to reinforce and I would rather not add to that samskara, if I can help it),
i.) Being inspired and excited about what I am teaching is generally better incentive for learning than shame, criticism or threats of injury or rants about “right and wrong”,
j.) If my students are not interested, I need to look at what— if anything— in my demeanor, presentation, and/or our relationship might be shifted to create a more fertile ground for learning. I need to look at me first, not them.
Let me pause my list on that last one. I need to look at my rough edges, my personal indulgences in the classroom, my expectations and use my student’s seeming dis-interest to help me see some of my blind spots. I am not talking here about dumbing things down, catering to the lowest common denominator or turning my yoga class into a “Have-it-Your-Way-ala-Burger-King-or-Starbuck’s” kind of classroom. I am talking about looking at myself here.
And I need to see my students and their readiness to see if there is a place where what I am offering can meet what they are ready for. And sometimes, yes, Sometimes, no.
Case in point, one day I came in to teach my advanced alignment class and ran into one of my regular students leaving the all-levels flow class that was scheduled before my class. He looked at me, smiled, and said, “I just couldn’t focus the way you ask for today.”
I said, “You made the right choice— I have big things on deck that require a lot of work. See you next time!” And I did. He came back. A lot. For years.
And lest you think I am on a high and mighty tirade, I am the same way as a student. One of my favorite teachers at the Bikram studio I used to go to was really tough (nice and funny, but exacting and precise) and she gave me a lot of help when I would come to her class. I loved that about her class. But, I didn’t go on the days I didn’t feel sharp or when I felt too fragile for feedback. Some days I was more ready than other days for “learning.”
My point is that if, as a teacher, you find yourself in a rut, feeling like people do not want to learn from you, you owe it to yourself and your students to unpack why you feel that way. Maybe, the truth is, you haven’t been inspired or inspiring for a while. Maybe you need to give students some of what they want so you can give them a little of what they need. Maybe, just maybe, you are scripting the experience of learning together in such a way that you are failing to see the beauty of where the student actually is because of your expectations of where you think they should be or how you think they should be expressing their interest.
I could go on, but hopefully some of my personal examples are enough to help you get started in loosening the knot a bit and I want to steer clear of too much preaching.
And don’t get me wrong— I am not saying that any of this personal work will mean your classes are suddenly full and you are going to become the most popular teacher at the studio or anything of the sort. I am only saying that you might stumble into the field of your student’s grace to a degree that you can participate in the blessing it is to share the teachings with people who want and need them.
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"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."