Kelly, Gioconda and I left Austin on Wednesday afternoon and arrived in Buena Vista, Colorado after lunch yesterday. After settling in and a visit from the plumber to help us repair the pipes that froze during the winter, despite all precautions, we spent the evening relaxing, talking and then doing some work on the next iteration of Alchemy of Flow and Form Advanced Teacher Training. This morning Kelly and I woke up, did some reading and a little work before we headed out for an awesome mountain bike ride. Now here it is, after lunch and I am settling in to write a bit.
Almost one year ago I came to Buena Vista, CO to teach when Jenna Pfingston, owner and fearless leader of Jala Blu invited me to give a workshop. Kelly and I immediately fell in love with the natural beauty, the grounded, friendly people and the endless opportunities to hike, bike, kayak and explore the great outdoors that exist in this small mountain town. After years of traveling and teaching which followed years of being in Arizona teaching in my own studio and studying on the ashram with Lee, I found myself starved for nature and more interested in building my own life than in building my business.
Now do not get me wrong, anyone who follows this blog knows that it is not like I let go of my business or that I suddenly slacked off of on those pursuits. Not at all. I continued to teach, write, create programs and develop curriculum and so on. My work is a creative outlet for me and I am grateful to all my students and teachers who support me in the churning of my personal inquiry and experience into the teachable moments and lasting relationships that is called "teaching yoga." But whereas for over ten years, the pursuits of learning yoga, practicing the principles and growing a business seemed meaningful and in many ways were an end in and of themselves, this way of seeing things had simply stopped being the case for me.
Perhaps it was the passing of my guru in 2010 or perhaps it was the shift of my affiliation with Anusara Yoga in 2011 or perhaps it was simply my midlife crisis, which my therapist calls a "passage" and not a crisis, which is certainly more generous language. Perhaps it was "in the stars" as my Vedic Astrologer says that this period of time is marked by the dissatisfaction with status quo and the recognition that what drives and fuels ambition is generally empty even if dharmic. Whatever you call it and however you explain it, I became decidedly less satisfied with yoga as my life and increasingly more interested in making my life my yoga.
Don't get me wrong, I love my practices. I love to learn. I love to teach. I have no interest in a meditation-free life, in an asana-free existence , nor do I want to change jobs or anything of the sort. I just stopped feeling that "finding my perfect offering" or "creating a values-based business" or "clarifying my aims and goals" and "writing action plans" was that interesting or that meaningful beyond what I had already done. Somewhere along the way, I stopped thinking that some "new paradigm" of alignment, philosophy, business, relationship, communication, diet, etc. would fix me, complete me, make some final difference in my life and therefore deliver me to a problem-free existence where I could coast along happy, joyous and free without the need for self-reflection, clear-mindedness and discernment and where I would never grieve loss, suffer betrayal and have to endure the messy business of my own humanity.
Quite simply, I think I started to grow up and growing up involved a different kind of conversation with myself, one founded on a premise of "good enough" as opposed to the the premise of "never enough" as "never enough" kept me focused on an endless search for outside answers, fixes and solutions. Perhaps the irony is that I couldn't have grown up as consciously without making yoga my life and yet, I couldn't keep growing up unless I learned how to make my life my yoga.
I think part of the majesty of the yoga practice is that, if we stay on the path long enough, we will find that we can only engage yoga from where we are and as we are. We can try to fit ourselves into the box of yoga with all its rules, regulations and expectations all we want but sooner or later, who we actually are will rear its sometimes-ugly head and the truth will demand its due. Eventually, who we actually are will win out over who we wish we are. Sometimes the truth is our rage and sometimes it is our compassion and from what I can tell, most times the truth demanding its due is that hard-to-bear blend of light and dark that lives within most of us. The practice meets us in the middle of our human developmental process and will usher us along relative to our unique disposition and evolutionary demands and in time with our own capacities for growth, change and acceptance.
I do not think at 45 I should look at my 35-year old self with judgement as she was perfectly primed for the tasks of that time. And who I was and how I practiced and saw things at 25 was consistent with that unique developmental challenge as well. And even who I was in my more horrible moments as a teenager were all perfectly engineered for my growth. This yoga stuff has not happened outside of my growth as a person and I do not think there is a dharma to follow that exists outside of a dynamic relationship to my human development, personality, and temperament. I do not think dharma is those things, mind you, and I do not think yoga is human development but I do not think it can, or should be, separated.
At any rate, more could be said like how a developmental perspective could help us understand some of the ambition we see in yoga since there are more people in their 30's making a living at yoga than ever before and being ambitious is 100% developmentally on-track at that age. We might see how useful fundamentalism is early in a practice and how damaging it can be after a certain point when the developmental task as we age is to claim our own wisdom and so on. But those are different posts for a different day.
As I have grown up in my own process the return to mountains, rivers and trails that wind through granite rocks under wide open skies has been vital to my process as they are things, oddly enough, that I "inadvertently renounced" in the process of making yoga my life. (Weirdly, my guru was not a nature-lover and my yoga teaching most often takes me to urban centers and not wilderness areas, etc. and so before I knew it 10+ years had gone by without a camping trip!) So, that brings us back to a small cabin in Colorado that Kelly and I are making payments on and the repeated road trips out of the Texas heat into the Rocky Mountains.
Now, off to watch the kayak championships. It is Paddlefest here this weekend and the tribe has gathered.
I am taking a few moments to check in on my blog before heading down to San Marcos for some appointments before a weekend of Teacher Training. We are in the 8th weekend of our year-long program which is pretty incredible. I love working with a group over a year and watching the changes that happen in everyone's lives throughout the duration of the program. This weekend we are diving deeper into verbal articulation skills both in terms of refining and honing interpersonal communications skills with active listening and needs-identifying work but also with some practical work on verbal skills in teaching.
I love working with verbal skills in teacher training because so much of how we actually teach in the classroom comes down to what we say, how we say it and what we chose not to say. I do not think these are the only teaching skills we use nor do I think that verbal cues are the only way that students learn yoga but, on a very practical level, a huge part of our job is talking people into and out of poses. I get to go over my magic formula for verbal cues which boils down to a simple formula which yields amazing results, believe it or not.
Here is the magic formula for free: Give mostly active commands, in active voice and speak in complete sentences.
Active commands tell a students to do things. If something on the mat requires an action, then phrasing the instruction as an active command is the best bet. For example- saying, "Feel your muscles engage" is different than saying, "Engage your muscles. " Even better would be a cue that would tell someone what to do to engage their muscles, but that is a slightly different lesson.
Active voice is a term from writing but makes a huge difference in the classroom. This type of cue reinforces for the students that they have to take action to make the pose, the action, the alignment, etc. happen.
Listen to the differences:
passive voice- "Feet step wide"/ active voice- "step your feet wide."
passive voice-Arms lift overheard/ active voice -"lift your arms over your head"
This game can go on forever. However, active commands in active voice cue the student that, well, they are going to have to take action since arms do not lift on their own, feet do not step wide on their own, muscles do not engage on their own and so on.
Here is the basic script to use to practice active commands in action voice: verb+body part+in a direction
Step+ your feet +wide.
Tone+ your muscles + to the bone.
Root + your legs+ into the ground.
Draw+ your waistline+ back.
Lift +your chest + up.
Simple. Clear. That is the point here.
The basic script can also be embellished to be: "breath cue+ verb+ body part+ in a direction+ with a feeling" if you really want to go for it.
For instance, "inhale+ lift +your sternum+ toward your chin+triumphantly"
Again, I could go on and on about verbal skills in teaching and the power of the simple instruction. Much like how, in writing, the power of a simple declarative sentence is a fundamental skill that is surprisingly difficult to master, teaching with active commands in active voice is deceptively difficult and surprisingly effective. Admittedly, these distinctions might not sound like much on the surface but these simple shifts in teaching presentation makes a tremendous difference in the classroom and in how the students follow a teacher's instructions.
So- we have all kinds of skill-building drills on the agenda for the weekend. And really, the point of honing presentation skills is really not just to get good at the skill or to model the skills as though the skill itself actually matters. The point of the skills of teaching, in my opinion is to maximize the likelihood that a student can follow our instructions into their own bodies in an efficient and straightforward way. Once the student is inside themselves, then the yoga is teaching them from within rather than from without. To me, listening to the experience of the pose as opposed to simply listening to what the teacher is saying is where the yoga is pointing us. In this way, yoga is a big game in listening.
And let's face it, yoga is an oral tradition. All the way back to the Upanishads we get the clues that in order to learn yoga or to experience the transformation yoga promises, we are going to have to get near the teachings. As many of us have learned in our yoga philosophy courses, the word upanishad means to "sit down near", or to "sit close to" and implies that learning in yoga is going to happen in proximity to the teacher, the teachings and to the Source. To me, proximity is both exoteric and esoteric- meaning there is both an inner and an outer process going on when it comes to the exploring the Teaching.
The outer forms of proximity seem obvious enough- find a teacher, get to class, go to the lectures, participate in the retreats, take the trainings, go to darshan, etc. where the teaching is being given. There is also the inner aspect of proximity where we find the pathways through practice and study and inner inquiry to get closer to our own wisdom, to sit down near our own sense of right and wrong and to engage a relationship with ourselves through which we become students of our own direct experience and where the various postures of our lives are teaching us from within. The process of navigating the inner and outer processes of proximity is what is most important to me about yoga practice these days.
Without this experiential and sustained link to my inner experience, I will have no other choice but to fit myself into outer forms- be those forms the classic postures, various alignment protocols, values, behaviors, expectations, etc. Even those ideals deemed "yogic" or "appropriate", when engaged only from the outside, might simply reinforce the age-old patterns of conformity or rebellion that are referenced in not-enough, different-from and every other shame-based message imaginable. And all that reinforcement can happen even in the name of yoga and even with the best intentions behind the effort. (Although don't get me wrong, some good structure and some good protocols are pretty helpful along the way I am just saying I think they are tools, not the point.)
Anyway, enough for today. More soon.
I started keeping a blog in 2007 when I took a trip with Anne to Pune, India to study at the Iyengar Institute. At the time, I never read blogs and never thought I would keep one but my students asked me to to start a blog so they could read about my trip while I was gone. So I did. I figured a dozen people would read my blog and after the summer of yoga study I would stop writing. As it turned out, I enjoyed the process of writing a web blog and I kept up with the practice. In the beginning of the project, I wrote almost daily entries about my personal activities, my class sequences and also gave all kinds of opinions and commentaries on what was happening in my corner of the yoga world in which I participated.
Seems like I am busier now than ever with all kinds of activities both online and in-person that makes keeping a daily blog seem unrealistic but recently I have been so fatigued by Facebook that I thought maybe I should go back to writing more on my blog and spending less time on Facebook. There are so many fun times to be had on Facebook so I am not swearing it off or making some big thing out of it as the Facebook forum can be a great tool. However, for me lately, keeping up with Facebook's ever-changing protocols and algorithms is a full-time job with increasingly diminishing returns.
Years ago, one of my students started a blog and updated her Facebook status with the pronouncement: "Facebook is a dalliance. Having a blog is a commitment." I am not sure if she still has her blog since she wrote that comment a long time ago and commitments are not easy to keep. However, her words have been ringing through my head these days as the time between my blog entries is getting longer every month. For many reasons, it seems harder and harder to sit down to write a meaningful blog entry these days. It isn't that I am not thinking about all kinds of thing I could write about. I am always thinking about things. I hate to blame "busy" but perhaps busy is as good a reason as any. Between my online programs, the plethora of email I tend to, the ongoing crafting of course descriptions, and ubiquitous cruising on Facebook, etc. much of my time and energy is spent on other pursuits of varying degrees of creativity, productivity and consciousness.
However, lately my blog has been calling. Maybe because Anne is headed back to Pune, India and I am reflecting on how the whole writing-a-blog-thing got started. Maybe the blog is calling because I keep finding Facebook discussions to be increasingly frustrating for a variety of reasons. Maybe because the process of writing and sharing is so clarifying and the expanse of blank page or a blank screen invites me to take some much-needed time to explore an idea or to make an offering. And perhaps what is actually calling is not the blog as much as it is the time, exploration and the space for listening to myself a bit more deeply that writing affords me.
My mother gave me my first diary when I was quite young- sometime around the time I was five or six years old. The little diary had page for every day of the year with the date clearly stamped on the top of the page. Mom helped me get started in the practice of writing down the day's events. When I was around nine, my dad handed me a black and white composition notebook and introduced me to journal writing. He taught me that I could write down whatever I wanted- not just what happened during my day but how I felt about the events and what I thought about my life and what was going on. No longer restricted to one page per day, the world of writing about my life opened up to me and I have kept a journal of some kind ever since.
I still write by hand in a journal, although not every day. And keeping a web blog, even though a blog can be quite personal, is a different animal than a private journal since a blog is public. At any rate, for both public and private use, writing has always been such a meaningful way for me to mine my life experiences for the nuggets of gold hidden in the midst of the grit and grime of daily life.
I think about the image of mining gold a lot when it comes to growth and transformation. When gold is taken from the earth a whole bunch of earth comes with it. It is not as simple as just digging up some gold and making something pretty with it right away. The gold is extracted along with a bunch of rock and dirt and so on and a big process of freeing the ore from the earth, heating it and purifying it is involved. Then the process of turning the gold into something useful, ornamental, etc. is another set of skills. and really, pure gold is too soft to do much with. That is another entry for another day but honestly the Path of the Pure is not my path at all. A certain measure of impurity, difficulty and dare I say lead, may be necessary.
Okay, back to the mining process...
Just like in life the Teachings tell us that there is gold hidden in our difficulties, that everything in life can be our teacher, that everything in life can be used for our growth and that hidden in the dirt, rocks and impurities of our circumstances is the gold of our awakening. Yes, yes, yes and yes. I believe that. I really do.
However, the real question for me is, not if the Teaching is true but given that I believe it to be true, am I actually mining the gold or am I just talking about it? If every situation can be used, am I actually doing the work to make use of what I have been given? Do I have the skills to turn my disappointments to my spiritual advantage? Can I find the lessons I need in my heartbreak? Can I listen to myself closely enough to discern wisdom from whining and caution from judgement ? Can I and will I courageously act in accordance to what I hear?
Like that. I get that life can teach me in every moment. I also get that I do not always make the best student. I get distracted, caught-up, scared, and so on. And then I wake up again and get back to the work and play of living the Teachings for another day and exploring how best to use what I have been given.
Lee encouraged us to write about our experiences in sadhana and if we had some great insight, experiences, revelation, etc., he would often say, "It didn't happen if it isn't written down," which more or less meant, "Please, don't tell me about it, write about it." He also said that the degree to which we can articulate our experience is the degree to which we have integrated it. Obviously, there are many ways to articulate something and many ways to integrate an experience in addition to writing about it. Writing is one of many ways.
I personally like to write because often times the part of me writing is much wiser than the part of me going about my busy life. And there is something about writing ideas and insights down that creates a container of accountability and a structure for listening to my own deeper currents that is meaningful. And necessary.
Well, perhaps not the most inspiring entry this morning but I am priming the pump. Oh wait, that is another metaphor.
So as I was getting dressed for Peggy Kelly's Advanced Iyengar yoga class tonight and couldn't settle on an outfit that felt right. For some reason, I reached into the closet and pulled out a pair of trusty yoga bloomers to wear to class. I glanced at myself in the mirror to see to see if they still fit and took stock of the situation. It was obvious right away that my legs, which are generally muscular to begin with, were particularly beefed-up from some of the bike riding I have been doing lately and also I have a tan line from biking which leave the thickest part of my thighs the whitest, which is not so flattering. I had my hair in braids, no make up on and now I was going to class in a pair of bloomers and I was several steps away from looking "put together" , "fashionable" or even very "attractive" so I made a post making fun of myself on Facebook.
Now, here is the thing. Mostly the thread was funny and I meant it as a joke. But my joke also got me thinking about how much yoga has changed over the years and how outfits and "feeling attractive" is now part of going to yoga class when it didn't used to be a concern of mine at all. And the fact that feeling attractive was not a concern when I got involved in yoga is part of why the practice and the yoga culture at the time was so transformational for me.
So maybe I own The Bloomer an apology.
I wrote a lot about wearing bloomers in 1999 when I was writing Yoga From the Inside Out and while I do believe they are somewhat unflattering for most people (unlike many of the $100 yoga pants that seem to make everyone's ass look good) I do have to say that ON THE RECORD the bloomer for me is, and always has been, an exercise in shame reduction.
You know shame, don't you? Shame is that feeling-- not that you have done something wrong but that you are something wrong. Guilt is usually regret or remorse about something we have actually done, about some act or some behavior that we have committed. But shame attacks deeper because it tells us that who we are at the level of Being is bad and/or wrong. And those of us with eating disorders and body-image issues usually have strong feelings of shame arise when how we look does not match up to society's standards. (And wow, does that open a can of worms in today's yoga culture. )
So, someone with eating disorder issues gains five pounds on a vacation and it is not as simple as "Wow, I ate and drank more than usual- by God, I actually relaxed and had a good time-- and so no wonder I am a little heavy". When someone who struggles with body-image issues and eating disorders gains weight, the inner dialogue is more like "I am unlovable, invaluable and without worth because I gained weight and no one will love or respect respect me until I get back to where I was before the trip" or something like that. The shame makes the neutral, physical fact of 5 pounds into a moral issue of self-worth where one's intrinsic value is at stake.
And I am a smart person and so are all my friends who suffer these impulses and so we all know, at the level of intellect that this kind of thinking and self-talk that I am describing is insane. The hook of shame is not an intellectual hook. The hook of shame is deeper than "knowing better", deeper than "talking yourself into a different point of view" and deeper than any other such self-improvement strategy. Put all the memes up on Facebook that you want about the numbers on the scale can't measure your worth and so on and still, this is an insidious set of patterns in many people out there that causes great suffering. And for me, yoga was a big part of helping me have an inner dialogue and embodied experience that could stand up to such an onslaught of shame. And so were the bloomers.
Lots could be said about the changes in the yoga industry and I am finding that too much talk about the changes isn't so great as it tends to isolate and divide people from each other rather than include and create ways to be together in what we have today, but when I found yoga, yoga was decidely not centered around fashion, photographs, social media, and the pose-for-pretty-pictures that it has become today. (I pose for pretty pictures a lot and so I am part of this evolution for sure.) Anyway, when I found yoga, I was emerging from a significant bout with an eating disorder relapse and had turned to yoga more seriously to see me through what was a very tough personal time. And it was precisely because bloomers did not look so good that I wore them exclusively for almost 5 years. I wanted to see myself as I was and know that I was okay. I wanted other people to see me as I was and to accept or reject me and I had come to the point of needing to know that acceptance was deeper than appearance. I reasoned that if I had cellulite and stretch marks underneath the black tights, etc, I might as well come to terms with it rather than hide it. The bloomers and this context behind wearing them was a serious part of my sadhana for many years. (Bloomers have a whole chapter in Yoga From the Inside Out, in fact.)
At some point I moved on and the bloomer experiment had served its purpose and so on a day like today as I looked in the mirror, I can make jokes. And anyone who knows me knows that I make fun of myself A LOT and sometimes people laugh with me and sometimes they get offended and many times my humor is misunderstood. But my comment and our banter on Facebook did get me thinking that, even though I made a quip about looking unattractive while doing yoga the point of the yoga is to direct my attention inward to where the wellspring of beauty resides and that has nothing to do with the size of my thighs or the clothes I wear when I practice. And had I found a yoga that centered itself on outer beauty I might very well be dead today. I found a yoga with no fancy pants, with no photographs, no mirrors and no need to be flashy and showy. I found a yoga of mindful attention, of careful placement of bhava and breath and it saved my life. And the people in those rooms saved my life. And the people who allowed me to teach them saved my life.
Peggy's class was one of those classes tonight--solid, straight-forward, intelligent, caring Iyengar Yoga, with standing poses, inversions and forward bends that led to a deep savasana I felt like I could have stayed in for hours.
No fancy pants required.
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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."