I got home from Atlanta late on Sunday night and spent most of yesterday getting my feet back on the ground: practicing asana, grocery shopping, making kicharee, etc. Looking ahead today and it looks like more of the same along with prepping for my Asana Junkies Webinar tomorrow.
The weekend in Atlanta was great for me. There are several themes that are the most present for me in my practice and teaching these days. They are interrelated, of course and constellate around Self-Love, Life as the Teacher, Yoga as Education, and Discernment. I think the title of my weekend had to do with practice but mostly I wove these themes into my talks and teachings.
I have become very clear on the fact that many people who are practicing yoga these days are very hard on themselves. And when the context behind the yoga is one of self-crticism, harshness, self-judgement and condemnation we will most likely hear the teachings through those filters and the yoga will serve as a weapon in our arsenal for the war we are waging on ourselves. Verbal corrections become proof that we are not good enough, the more flexible person next to us shows us that we are stiff and therefore not good enough, the community's closeness only make us feel out of place and different and the challenging postures we struggle with become proof that we actually lack the ability to do yoga, etc. Even the inspiring teachings of compassion begin to show us how judgmental we are, the teachings of oneness only remind us how separate we feel and the testimonies of faith only augment our feelings of doubt and fear.
I think of these states of mind and heart a bit like the "dirty little secret" in yoga right now. While the yoga teachers are up in the front of the room waxing on about how asana is a "celebration in and through the body" and how classes give us a way to "be a part of the community of the heart" and how practice helps us "live in the constancy of the Spirit" many of the students in the classroom are feeling awkward, stiff, tight, uncomfortable, apart-from, different, out-of-place, alone and afraid. While we teachers go on about "not comparing", there our students often stand, comparing themselves to those around them and practicing asana mired in self-hatred for the size of their thighs, the tightness in their legs or the fill-in-the-blank- about whatever their particular thing is. And to make matters worse the student now feels bad about comparing themselves to others since the teacher just said they shouldn't do that in yoga!) In the effort to be inspiring and to paint a big picture of Possibility, we, as teachers sometimes fail to cover the fine print adequately.
And the fine print of yoga is that it often teaches us virtue through the direct experience of the virtue's opposite. We are in the world of duality, of pairs of opposites, of hot and cold, of day and night, of light and dark, of joy and sorrow, of good days and bad days, of "I can" and "I can't" and so on. And while, yes, I believe there are moments where Grace carries us, where God does for us what we can not do for ourselves, I think there are even more moments where we are called to the nitty-gritty work of cultivating the virtues we seek. I have never once been "granted" patience by some unseen hand of God but I have been stuck in more than one traffic jam and more than once I have waited longer than I wanted to for a goal to come to fruition or for a prayer to be answered. Think about it-- we simply can not learn patience quickly. Learning patience has to take time.
So, the thing about yoga as the teacher of self-love is that it is, many times, going to teach us how to love ourselves by making us very aware of the ways that we don't love ourselves so much. (Now, before I go too far down this road one must also keep in mind that yoga does many times grant us a "pink cloud" where, for many months or years we simply LOVE yoga. We fall in love with our breath and the majesty of moving in sync with this deepest of rhythms. We feel accepted by a group of people and part of a clan for the first time ever. We get glimpses of a place of deep quiet, of profound inner sanctity and of a kind of serenity that we never dreamed was possible. So yes, all that does happen and for some, they get a lot of that right away. So I am not discounting that aspect. It is a very real phenomenon for many. Not for everyone but for many these experiences are the very thing that hooks them into the practice. Lee used to say, that in the beginning the Guru, Grace, the Teachings carry the sadhaka or practitioner.)
Okay, so if you had the pink cloud great. If you are still on it, enjoy yourself, the pink could is a wonderful ride. But if you are wondering why the thing you loved and helped you love yourself a few years ago--yoga- is now the thing with which you beat yourself up and over which you suffer, don't worry. That is the second part of Lee's teaching. "In the beginning you are carried," he said more than once. "But after a while, you need to learn to carry yourself." So life starts to teach us through these most wonderful pairs of opposites. We learn trust and through betrayal, forgiveness through anger, love through hatred, and these opposites carve within us the most beautiful patterns and textures and reveal over time our depth of character and quality of Being.
So love isn't some pink cloud kind of experience only. While sometimes love is nice and sweet, other times love will kick our ass. Remember, we asked yoga to teach us about Reality. All of Reality. That is big. We asked yoga to teach us who we really are, not just about the parts we like. (Another big request, by the way.) So a yoga practice or class aimed at the high mark of "teaching love" can not be only easy. If every pose was achievable, how would we face up to who we are when we can't do something? If every class went exactly according to our preference, how we would face up to who we are when we don't get our way? If we never had a fight, how would learn reconciliation? If we never got our feelings hurt how would we learn to examine our triggers, to claim responsibility for our reactions, and to forgive ourselves and each other? While I think yoga gives us a safe-haven and provides us with shelter from the storms of life, I think, by definition, at times yoga has to become the storm in order to do the job we asked it to do for us.
So anyway, more could be said, but that's enough for today.
Well it is Wednesday already and I am just now getting a chance to sit down a write.
We had a great weekend down in San Marcos for the Postures and Prayers Asana Intensive with me and Darren Rhodes. We had a full house with folks from all over and with varied experience and ability. However, despite those kinds of variables, the group was well-matched in enthusiasm, depth and sincerity. We did a lot of asana analysis and a lot of strong work and the intimate setting yields such a profound interpersonal dynamic. So it seemed to me that the body the mind and the heart were each well tended to.
Teaching in San Marcos is really so fun for me since I feel like I am at home and able to teach the yoga in a way that feels very easeful and natural to me. I like almost everything about being there, in fact. I love that during the intensives Kelly and I stay on the property and so I am grounded and truly at home while I am teaching. I enjoy having a place for people to gather over coffee and tea and a place for people to hang out during the weekend. I love sharing a meal together on the Saturday evening. Having a well-equipped yoga space with all the wall space and props I need is also a special treat. We fit 36 mats in the space with a little room to spare which is also great since that number of people gives me a chance to really see and help people with postures and also is also large enough that the group dynamic has some space but no chance to factionalize. And I love having the space available all day to being with puja and pranayama so that there is a formal space for shared ritual and invocational prayer.
We talked a lot over the weekend about the importance of not only having one's own experience in yoga classes, workshops and trainings but to learn to validate that experience and to mine it for the nuggets and lessons that will become our own wisdom. This is a topic very dear to my own heart these days as I explore my own relationship to yoga, to the teachings and to the different communities of which I am, and have been, a part. The thing about a teacher is that sometimes a teacher teaches us through positive input and the overt teachings and interactions. And sometimes the teacher teaches through the negative. In this case, I do not mean positive and negative in the sense of good and bad or ethical and unethical. I am thinking a bit like a photographic negative and how the opposite of what has been captured or recognized or offered from the teacher may actually hold as much gold as the formal, recognized "positive" image.
For instance, I have a friend who was in a spiritual community for years with a charismatic guru and at some point she left the group. As we all know I have my own experiences with charismatic teachers, gurus and spiritual communities. We were walking the other day and we were laughing a bit because even though she no longer feels that this person is her teacher and she is well aware that it was in her best interests to leave the community she was in, the experience - of both participating and leaving--was so defining that in one way, he is still teaching her now. She left and yet now she is learning a bit through the negative, the photographic opposite, so to speak.
I think that is the thing about being a student of the teachings of yoga- we may agree, we disagree, we may chose to take up certain practices and we may chose to leave certain things out of our life of practice for all kinds of reasons- faith, temperament, interest, time, philosophical differences, lack of understanding, etc. And yet, those choices of what we do and do not do in relationship to the tradition are important in and of themselves. Additionally, the choices we make also important opportunities for us to learn about ourselves, our values and our aims-- the why we do and do not do things. If we stay attentive to the choices we make in relationship to the yoga and why we make them then we get to learn a lot. And sometimes we will be learning through the positive image and the things we agree with and sometimes because of the things we do not do, agree with or buy into--the photographic negative, so to speak.
At any rate, as both a teacher and a student myself, I know there is no for a teacher way to present information so that no one in the class is offended, upset or challenged. I know there is no way to present the information so that everyone agrees, feels validated and aligned with what is being offered. Yoga is designed to teach us the totality of reality and not just the parts of reality we enjoy, agree with or find easy to implement. I believe the yoga is aimed at the whole freakin' ball of wax. So on the days it is teaching through the photographic negative or even through the downright scary and heinous aspect of reality we can learn to see it is doing its job as the teacher. And then we get to ask ourselves, "What is our job as the student in relationship to what has been offered?"
So, while I do not think learning can happen in ways that are always easy and agreeable, I do think there might be a few ways to increase the likelihood that we can honestly look at why we both agree and disagree with what is offered. I think we might be able to validate our own experiences and learn from them. I think we can learn to allow people to experience the very same teachings or circumstances in wildly various ways. I think we can learn some skills inside ourselves that can have some profound outcomes in our shared experiences. I think here we start barking up the tree of discernment a bit. But the more I ponder this thing called studentship and discernment and even common sense on the path I realize it starts with owning the full spectrum of our experience and while people can help us with that and the teaching have lots of tools for mining that experience it is something that each one of us has to do for ourselves in some way. And I think weirdly enough we may, at times, need a community to really learn how to do such a thing for ourselves.
We talked a lot about that this weekend. I think for me it boils down to engaging yoga as process of education not a path of conversion or a religion or ideology and certainly not as an identity.
More on all this as time goes by.
Here are a few scenes from the weekend. Enjoy!
I had a great trip to Grandville, Michigan to Peace Lab Yoga this last weekend. The workshop had a lot of significance because this was one of the first invitations I received to teach after I resigned my Anusara yoga license. I remember thinking, "I may still have a job!"
but an interesting part of the back story on this gig is that when Melanie, the owner of Peace Lab, contacted me and asked me if I would come teach there was no Peace Lab. Melanie told me that she was in the process of transitioning from her current teaching situation to something different but she wasn't sure where or what it would be exactly. So-- there she was with no studio and there I was with no method and there we were together making a plan for a workshop 15 months in the future. Only yogis would conduct business like that right?
And somehow it all worked! She and her husband Jim found an amazing space and moved into it this fall, her students from the YMCA came with her to her new space and I came this last weekend to teach an amazingly sincere, funny, down-to-earth, hard-working group of yogis. We laughed a lot and did a lot of asana and from what I could tell, everyone had a good time.
There is a lot to that could be said about the weekend but the thing that stands out to me the most is the lesson that when we find the people we really resonate with as teachers and students, the work is so much smoother and enjoyable for everyone. In a world that has a kind of unrelenting pressure to be a certain way or to live up to outside expectations, this can be a hard lesson to remember. I talk to so many yoga teachers who feel pressured to perform and provide yoga in a certain way or according to some outer standard and it seems like it has become a full time job to just learn how to be oneself. The cool thing is that authenticity and self-acceptance can really attract the right people and circumstances to us for our work to grow and flourish. Melanie and her husband Jim have created just that kind of place at Peace Lab, where it is very easy to be oneself because they are so easy going and natural and the students are at ease as well.
Also, great was to be part of someone's leap of faith because Melanie told me she had been thinking about opening a studio for a long time but knowing that she had to have a place for the workshop created a bit of a push for her to take the leap she had been considering for a while. So there you go- you can't cross a chasm in two small steps. And you can't be yourself if you are trying to play by someone else's rules all the time. Good lessons to learn.
Here are a few scenes form the weekend.
Since I have been having so much fun with my Asana Junkies Webinar and Practice Club I thought I would take a few moments to share some of the sequence and scenes from this week's lesson.
We are on Week #5 of an 11-week program. We spent the first few weeks doing sequences to build strength and clarity in foundational postures. We worked with long timings and with lots of repetition. And of course, every week I remind people the sequences are guidelines, not meant to be used rigidly or to encourage anyone to move further or faster than what is intelligent for them as individuals.
What has been great to watch is that many people are working alone at home and taking inspiration from the online forums for camaraderie, education, troubleshooting and community. Other folks are gathering with friends and forming their own local practice clubs and using the sequences as a structure. Again, to me it an incredible blend of global community being grounded in local connections. We have participants from all over the states and from Israel, Asia, Malaysia, Australia, all over Europe, Canada and even an officer in the US Army has joined the fun.
Here is the sequence we are working with this week:
standing back arch
anjaneyasana back bended
chataranga to up dog
eka pada rajakapotasana prep
eka pada rajakapotasana with quad stretch
UD to kneeling/ustrasana
urdhva dhanurasana to tadasana
Adho mukha parsva vajrasana
adho mukha sukhasana
Each week we have "yoga school", a 60-90 minute webinar where we review the previous week's sequence, issues that are coming in practice, and strategize for the upcoming week. Then we all go our merry way and work on the sequence. Each week I give a 2-hour version of the sequence and also 90-minute, 60-minute and a few 30-minutes variations for people to work with. During my local group practice, I film a lot of my demos and post them as tutoirals for the group to bring additional clarity.
urdhva dhanurasana to ustrasana
The Rocking Horse
Using the wall to practice drop backs
Well, I had an amazing time this last weekend in Silver Spring, Maryland at Willow Street Yoga. I taught a 4-day Intensive called Live the Light of Yoga. We had asana classes open to all levels every morning and a Teacher’s Session every afternoon in which we explored Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar as a resource for practice and teaching. Natalie MIller, the owner and director of Willow Street Yoga, and I talked about how much I love the book Light on Yoga and how so many teachers know they are supposed to use that book (for instance it is on the required reading list of almost every Teacher Training out there) but for many people the book remains an obscure, almost archaic-seeming book that is inpenetrable and hard to understand, much less relate to. Natalie asked me if I would teach a course for teachers on the book to help people “crack the code” of Light on Yoga so that they might come into a more personal relationship with its contents through discussion, experiential excercises and practice.
Of course, this kind of super-yoga-nerdy-workshop is my favorite kind of thing these days. I jumped at the chance to talk about Light on Yoga and to touch base with the larger themes of how each one of us might live from the Light of Yoga that we practice and teach; meaning how we might live in touch with our Spiritual Light. Willow Street Yoga, with its long-standing committment to alignment-based yoga, spiritual principles and community spirit was the perfect place to teach this course for the first time because the students are so well-trained in alignment and are so adept at navigating between the physical asana and the metaphyscial principles the asanas embody.
We really had a good time.
I reminded the group A LOT that I am not an Iyengar Yoga teacher nor was the training an Iyengar Yoga workshop in any way. The course was just me, hybrid-yoga-teacher-Christina Sell, offering some insights, tips and ideas based on my own experiences as a student and practitioner of the book as well as some very good Iyengar, Anusara and Bikram yoga teachers. Another amazingly refreshing part of the weekend for me was in the clarity the people in the community had in terms of their individual and collective relationship to Anusara yoga. The students were comofrtable talking about what they saw as Anusara’s strengths, weaknesses, invaluable contributions as well as the recent events influencing that particular stream of yoga. There was an open, intelligent and respectful inquiry into comparisons and contrasts between the postures, the key alignment of different systems as well as the ways that different methods present postures and philosophies.
I am a fan of comparison. If I were to go back to school again, I am pretty sure I would go back and study comparitive religion. I simply love looking at things in relationship to each other. I love learning how both simliarity and difference defines systems, beliefs and approaches to learning, to practice and to perception. Some people misunderstand my comparing and think I am being critical when I compare and contrast in class. I see their point but I have a differnet persepctive on it as it is how my mind works and I see no inherent problem with it.
I figure that the mind is set up to perceive disctinctions between things and to try to stop the mind from doing what it does naturally is a bit problematic and troublesome. The problem only comes, in my mind, when we assign value and meaning to the differences.
For instance, walk into a yoga class and try not to notice if you are smaller or bigger than the person next to you. Try not to notice if you are sitffer or more flexible than the peple around you. Chances are you are going to notice those things. I never tell people in my classes not to compare themselves to the people around them. I mean, really- good luck with that. It is like telling someone to “sit in a corner and don’t think about pink elephants.” Chances are, pink elephants are the only thing that person is going to be able to think about. I do suggest to people that bigger, smaller, stiffer, bendier, etc. has no additional meaning beyond what they notice and those differences do not mean anything about one’s value, worth or inner self of Being. So I think we can and should intervene on the “meaning making” that so often comes along with comparisons, whether it is puffing us up into superiority or tearing us down into inferiority.
And once we are in the world of learning from life about what is good for us and what is harmful for us in terms of personal behavior, activities, people and who we want to learn from and so forth, I think some value judgements and some meaning-making is quite useful and necessary because judgement and comparions is part of discernment. In fact, once we shed LIGHT on a subject, the whole thing is that it helps us to see one thing clearly from another; it helps us to be discerning. For instance, I think we can and should be comparing how we feel after a good night’s sleep to how we feel after staying up late and fueling our lives with caffeine, sugar and or nicotine. We can and should be noticing and comparing how wholesome food makes our body feel as opposed to processed food. I think we can and should be noticing whose company elevates us and challenges us to grow appropriately and whose company subtly or not-so-subtly undermines our confidence and self-esteem. All of that learning falls under the category of comparion, judgement and meaning-making. Try to cut judgement entirely out of life and we cut ourselves off from our instincts, our gut feelings and a huge amount of the information our lives have for us about how to take care of ourseves and nurture our own growth.
I see this well-intended “non judging” dynamic with yogis a lot who in all sincerity and with loving intentions, do not want to “be judgemental” and so they ignore inner signals in their relationships with others that on the surface seem negative or comparing and yet are in fact, whispers of inner wisdom. (Of course, if always seeing the worst in people is all you can do, do some work on that as that is not a happy way to live either. But I digress.)
At any rate- we were able to have some very enlightening, interesting and adult discussions that involved comparing methods, styles, approaches and ideals while owning our personal opinions, experiences and preferences. So fun. So mature.
I am happy to be headed home and looking forward to a full week ahead. More soon!
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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."