An student of mine recently completed one of my courses on Yoga International and wrote me a few reflections, one of which was “You taught to lift the legs first in the back bend which was a lot harder for me to then to lift my chest first.”
Her comment made me think about my learning process with asana studies. For many years, I studied the shapes, the forms, the “how to” of getting into and out of the postures, the application of the actions that help activate the shape or mitigate the inherent dangers of the shape, the ways to make the pose more accessible and, in a sense ,“easier” and so on. I learned (and learned to teach) all about the poses as though doing the pose is the point of the pose. Fair enough. After all, the execution of asana is part of our subject matter as is understanding the means by which we might practice the poses with greater proficiency and/or help others do the same. We might call this stage “learning the language of asana.”
So far so good, right?
Once I learned the language of the asanas and had some familiarity with the “how to” as well as the “how to do what I need to do for ourselves within the pose” then I got to use the poses as tools for explorations, not as the subject of the study itself. Once we learn dhanurasana, for instance, we can practice it by lifting our chest first, by lifting our legs first, by lifting both as evenly as possible, by belting our legs, by squeezing a block between our legs, by adding height under the top of our hips, by adding height under the lower part of our pelvis, by changing the placement of our grip and so on, ad infinitum. And, like my online student noticed, not every variation makes the pose easier, better, more enjoyable, or is even going to be consistent with other variations or common interpretations of the posture.
Using the asana as a means of exploration rather than simply the subject of study opens up a world of possibility, although the leap is not for everyone. For those people looking for any form of certainty, the exploratory work is often frustrating. For those who enjoy competency and being good at things, the fact that the exploratory work often makes poses more difficult and not always more doable, is sometimes too much to bear. For those seeking the safety of “right” and “wrong” the exploration through asana contains too many variables to manage with way too much gray area to navigate. And, of course, for those folks who don’t want to reflect, analyze, observe, make distinctions and/or find nuances within the asana experience, this work will be way too mental to be enjoyable. Or sustainable. (Like black licorice- people like it or they don’t. Although, some occasionally acquire the taste for it.)
For me, the exploration is where the fun of alignment is. I know some people look to alignment for the how-to of the pose and we have great information for that domain of interest. Others see alignment principles primarily as safety protocols and I believe we have some of that to offer. Others practice alignment as a means by which to be certain, to be right and for others to be wrong and that is a possible application. I see alignment in asana as a means through which we explore ourselves through the postures. While it can seem like “working on the pose” and can easily tip into obsessively tracking details or imposing something on ourselves from outside-in, alignment-oriented approaches offer a means by which I can develop a relationship with the pose and my body as well as with my attention, awareness and consciousness.
I get to see, “Wow, that approach is more difficult. Why? What does it require differently of me, of my body?” Or maybe, “Wow, that is so much easier the way! What do I get from the variation that I don’t normally have? What can I build to move in the direction of this new-found ease? What might I let go of?” And, perhaps topping the list of important in my book is “Wow, that approach is harder and I am not good at it. How am I with myself when my competency isn’t high? Am I nice to myself? Might I learn to be?”
And so on.
At some point my interest changed from the “How To Do The Shape” domain of study to the “Interest in the Exploration” domain of study. In the “Interest in Exploration” domain, that I notice the difference is what is compelling and vital, not that the difference makes me better or worse at the pose or makes the pose easier or harder to perform. Noticing, rather than performing, is the skill-set being developed.
And of course, there are other games to play beyond the work of observation, noticing, and tending to the cascading effects of the instructions within a pose while we study the the cause and effects of the alignment within ourselves. The work in asana is never-ending and the depths never reached in their entirety. And, so we are clear, I am naming these domains as categories as through they are distinct, when in truth, I think they are intersecting sets, like a Venn diagram. All those different explorations often yield proficiency in execution. And greater awareness will often take us to deeper non-analytical absorption and experience. And a more compassionate relationship with difficulty and a more curious relationship with ease are actually life-skills where as balancing in handstand does not pay the bills, make relationships function smoothly, or provide much in the way of soothing one’s existential angst, fun as handstands may be for some folks.
Well, I am up agains my 1000-word limit so I will close it out now.
I am in Tucson this weekend for 3-day intensive with Darren Rhodes at Yoga Oasis. This is a yearly team-teaching program we offer and I always look forward to being in his good company and in the supportive community of Yoga Oasis. This is my last out-and-about teaching gig for 2019 and I am taking a few days to go on retreat at my guru’s ashram after I finish. Then I’ll head home from some R&R (Snowboarding, here I come!) and some online program development I will launch early in 2020. (So stay tuned for details on that!)
Love to you all.
The Way it Is
by William Stafford
There’s a thread you follow.
It goes among things that change.
But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding. Y
ou don’t ever let go of the thread.
I suppose it sounds a bit trite to say that I am grateful for my practice, given today is the day before Thanksgiving and expressions of gratitude are somewhat obligatory, but I do feel grateful for my relationship to practice. Keep in mind that for me, the notion of practice is not limited to asana but includes those actions in which I repeatedly engage in order to participate in the process of Self-remembering. From lifestyle choices to formal practices to the cultivation of bhav or mood, practice is multi-faceted.
Like any relationship, my relationship to practice has gone through many seasons-- from zeal to avoidance and back, from hope to disillusionment to acceptance, and from externally-referenced to internally-oriented. What I feel most grateful for today is that I have stayed connected to the thread of practice during the various seasonal cycles.
Staying connected to the thread of practice might mean being honest about the fact I am avoiding a life pointed toward consciousness. Staying connected often looks like doing some small thing in the face of seeming futility. Staying connected often means facing boredom, difficulty, and resistance in its many forms. And, of course, there are seasons when my commitment is renewed, when I can savor the sweetness of the fruits of my efforts and I want for myself those things that my practice requires and offers.
In a recent business meeting, I was talking about why I call my programs Live the Light of Yoga and how the name has evolved for me over time. I am no longer interested in living the prescriptions of yoga, in being defined by any one asana style, a set of dietary protocols, a style of meditation, or by notions of what real yoga is or isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, this level of practice is important, but to me, the do’s and don’ts of practice are not an end in and of themselves, but are in service to the awakening of the Light within so that I can truly live the Light.
So, I have landed this consideration smack in the middle of the great paradox of yoga practice— I can’t realize the fruits of practice without the practice and yet, the practice is not the only point. And yet, practice is the thread upon which so much hangs. Personally, I am in a season of finding my various practices enjoyable and enlivening. I feel a congruence with myself as I sit in the mornings for meditation, chant the sadguru arati, and do my simple puja ceremonies. I am enjoying time with my journal, time with my mat and the way these practices give me time with myself. Teaching, too, as many of you know, is another practice and when engaged in a certain way, offers a tremendous transformational pathway.
I am grateful I held onto the thread of practice during the darker times so that I am still in place now that the Light shines more fully. There is no easy formula for it other than to do some small thing, even if that small thing is simply telling the truth that you aren’t doing much of anything. And, as times has passed, one thing I have learned is that while a certain amount of force may be useful at times, that approach is not sustainable over time. I simply can not force myself into something— be that something a pose, a protocol or a perspective— that is not authentic without experiencing some kind of backlash. At some point, I stopped using practice to work on myself and started using it to work with myself. As obvious as it sounds, the pathway toward Love works best when it is, well, loving.
So, that’s what I have today. I know holidays can be a mixed bag for folks for various reasons so I wish for you your own love in the midst of whatever they are for you. I wish for each of us that we hold on to the thread of Love and that we keep practicing in whatever way we can.
I am home from a week-long trip to Texas to teach at Wanderlust Austin in Austin, TX and to help Dad move to Waco. Dad's move is the big news in our family life. After being here for three years, he decided to move to Texas to live closer to Anne and to be near some resources he may need as he need as he ages. It is a big transition for everyone and the move went as well as could be expected. His new place is beautiful-- located a few doors down from Anne's Waco residence, many Baylor faculty members and friends, and close to the church he plans to attend.
The weekend workshop at Wanderlust Austin went well with lots of students I have never met and many I have known for years. I hope to get a little more time than I have this morning to unpack some of my insights from the weekend, the November Intensive in Colorado and my time in Tucson before that. One common theme in each worksop has been the consideration of maturing in practice.
I define practice as those actions we repeatedly make to participate consciously in the process of Self-remembering. For many people the initial foray into practice is a process of learning new things, going along with recommendations, taking advice, following protocols, and getting integrated into a community. Over time, the process of sifting through the information, making more adult choices about what to disregard and what to include comes (often after a period of upset, disillusionment, etc.) and we learn to consciously participate in the process that is transforming us.
I am passionate about the shift from what I think of as passive studentship--waiting for the teacher to say all the right things, to give all the right cues, to create the best sequences (although, to be clear, as a teacher I am committed to doing a good job) to what I think of us as active, adult studentship. Active, adult studentship is collaborative between teacher and student, between the student and the teachings and between the individual and the community in which we practice.
I recently peeked in on a Facebook thread from a seasoned student who was upset that the teacher in whose class she was practicing got upset when she modified a posture and did her own thing for a while. On another thread in the same group, there was a long discussion about what one should do as a student if they needed alternative alignment (such as feet slightly turned out to adjust for a variation in their knee) and the teacher kept insisting they turn their feet straight ahead in classic alignment. And, most of us have been been considering touch, consent and the sticky wicket of hands-on adjustments as of late.
There are a lot of nuances and needs inherent in each situation that are too numerous to name this morning and yet, I am struck by the differences in how I handle those things now compared to how I was trained to deal with them over twenty years ago. Somewhere along the way, I started asking students, "Hey, are you turning your feet out for a reason?" before adjusting them verbally or otherwise. And sometimes the reason is "I had no idea I was doing that" and sometimes the reason is "Yes, because I need this for a structural reason" and sometimes the reason is "I learned it that way" and so on. (And, as a student, I always let my teacher know if I am hurt, tweaky or worried about some type of posture. )
At any rate, that little pause and question has been a revelatory unfolding in my teaching life, allowing me to enter into a dialogue with my students which empowers us both to participate consciously in the teacher-student relationship and saves me the nightmare that comes from assumption-making. None of what I describing is easy, nor has the process of my own maturation in practice, studentship and teaching been smooth. Anyone who knows me knows that I am full of fire, opinions, and perspectives and no one formula works all the time, no matter how sincere the players.
More on these considerations soon.
If you are still reading this entry, then here is my shameless plug for my upcoming program. This program is designed to help support you through the holidays with simple, short, effective means to stay in touch with yourself. Each week, you will get a mantra practice, a breath practice, a writing practice, a visualization practice and an asana practice-- each under 15 minutes and recorded for download. Its a great way to stay connected to yourself throughout the upcoming season so if you feel to busy to do it, that's the best sign that it might be a good thing to do.
Anyway- we start Monday, so sign up!
Off to move some boxes and move some furniture.
“The 15 minutes of practice that you do is better than the 2 hours that you do not do.”
- Christina Sell
Begins November 25
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At the end of a recent interview, the interviewer said, referring to me, that “asana was my thing, my jam…” I replied, “Well, we should be clear that asana is what I am known for. And I have some experience and expertise as a teacher. But asana is not my primary life interest.”
Truth be told, there are plenty of people WAY more interested in postural practice and the mechanisms of bio-mechanical functionality than I am.
Don’t get me wrong— I find the body fascinating. I enjoy movement. I have been blessed to reside in the kind of body/mind for whom exercise and physical activity is largely enjoyable. So sure, I am into it. But mostly, my deep dive into asana was about having an exercise practice that was resonant with my spiritual interests at a time in my life when ordinary exercise modalities triggered dangerous eating-disordered thoughts and behaviors. (Want more of that story? Read my three books. And if you only have time for one, get my latest book. It is the best.)
Asana has never stood alone as the primary practice in my life. My asana studies have always been unfolding in the context of a larger spiritual life with a set of tools that include, and extend beyond, life on a sticky mat.
I have always been a seeker. I was brought up in the Methodist church, daughter of two committed Christians, and while my spiritual education has taken me to ashrams, temples, teachings and communities outside of the Christian faith, there is never going to be a meaningful life for me that doesn’t involve the exploration of my humanity through spiritual precepts, practices and in the company of others who do the same. And my love and respect for the Christian faith endures. Anyone who knows me knows that I have a deep and abiding relationship with Jesus and what I understand to be his teaching of Love, Forgiveness, Redemption and a unified Spiritual Heart.
More could certainly be said about all of that.
At any rate, for me, asana has never been a separate thing from yoga philosophy, spirituality, and self-inquiry. And while asana has been a lovely, supportive exercise practice for me for many years, the postural practice has always existed within a larger scope of study and my spiritual life has always extended to communities beyond the yoga studio. I would have to ask my astrologer to be sure, but something must have been going on in 1998/1999 because right around that time I started teaching asana, I met my guru, Lee Lozowick and I met Desiree Rumbaugh who introduced me to John Friend, the founder of Anusara yoga. And while I loved the alignment principles of the Anusara yoga system and my asana practice blossomed during this time, I was primarily attracted to the fundamental premise and promise that “when a true seeker steps into a greater flow, Grace descends, carries them and reveals their capacity and worthiness to live in that greater flow.”
So, while I am no longer a card-carrying, licensed Anusara yoga teacher, nor do I use that term to describe my teaching work, I am still committed to the first principle of that system of yoga which, when I learned it, was Open to Grace. (I have since been told that the first principles is now Open to Something Bigger, but the machinations of all those shifts are outside the scope of my interest.)
I do not think every asana class needs to be some big sermon about Supreme Consciousness or a big song and dance of mystically-inspired theatre. I lean heavily on biomechanics in my work and spend a lot of time on the postures themselves— how to do them, how to modify them, how to progress toward them, how to back out of them, and so on. And while I have no interest in converting, convincing, or coercing anyone into philosophical teachings or religious orientations they do not feel, I find that asana makes the most sense and is the most satisfying to me when it is referenced in a larger process of awakening.
I have taught my share of atheists, agnostics, and people of faith traditions and belief systems much different than my own. I am sure some people never came back to my class because of the spiritual teachings I have shared. I know for a fact than many of my students have nodded and been polite (and even a bit impatient) with the “spiritual stuff” and just waited for the sermon to end so we could get to the asana. (I say I know this for a fact because many of my students have told me exactly that over the years.)
I have no idea what other teachers should do. I personally like a straight-physical class. I do not mind being responsible for my own spirituality when I go to class. I also love a good sermon, an insightful dharma talk and/or a moving testimony. (Please note, I said “good” sermon and “insightful” dharma and “moving” testimony, which is highly relative and hard to agree on, but that is another entry for another day.)
My point is, I am not suggesting that I have some fixed idea of what anyone else should do. I believe many expressions can be quite wonderful and efficacious.
New and seasoned teachers often ask me about whether or not they should present yoga philosophy in their classes. No one wants to alienate their students. No one wants anyone to experience undue discomfort. And the pain, betrayal and upset related to spirituality and religion seems to know no bounds in this day and age. Like I said, I do not know what other teachers should do. However, I have found that the more I make room for the Christians to be Christians in class, the Mormons to share their faith (yes, I know they are Christians), the Buddhists to be themselves, the atheists to be atheists, the agnostics to be who they are, and the Jewish tradition to be alive in the space and so on, then the people who come to my class get to be who they are and so do I.
The way I see it, it is not only that Grace descends and carries us. Grace arises in our midst when we gather with shared respect and with enough courage to testify to those things that give us strength and hope. When it goes well, Grace arises as us, in and through us and we carry each other.
I wouldn’t want it any other way.
PS- Interested in listening the interview I mention in the opening paragraph? Here it is.
Perhaps the question I am most commonly asked by teachers-in-training is “How would you cue that?” The question always shocks me a bit because generally I would cue something the way I just cued it right before someone asked me the question.
Looking a little deeper, I often find the question of “How would you cue that?” a bit unsatisfying to answer. Any cue, no matter how accurate, precise and sincere is only as good as 1.) the student’s understanding of what it means, 2.) the student’s capacity to execute said cue in their body, 3.) the appropriateness of said cue to the individual who is going to execute it and 4.) the other instructions and insights that balance the action the cue refers to.
Take the hotly debated cue of “scoop your tailbone,” for instance. Since tailbones do not literally “scoop,” I need to know what that instruction actually means. Based on my Anusara yoga training, for me that cue means that I should initiate a series of actions from the top of my pelvis that draw the flesh of my buttocks down, move my tailbone forward slightly, lift my low belly up from the pubic bone to the navel and encourage a movement of my navel back toward my spine.
In a pose like tadasana, those actions would stop when the pelvis appeared like a box, level side to side, front to back, and bottom to top. In a pose like malasana (a deep rounded-shaped squat), those actions would continue until the pelvis posteriorly tilted and the lumbar spine flexed. In a pose like ardha uttanasana or a concave spine stage of a forward bend, those actions would be applied within an outer shape of an anteriorly-tilted pelvis and an extended lumbar spine.
Again, I have to know what the cue means. To further analyze my example, take note of how many things are implied in “Scoop your tailbone” and yet how few of those aspects are covered the cue.
Simply put, cues are not explanations. Cues often function like a sutra from a philosophical text where a short aphorism communicates a larger idea, context, and/or teaching and relies on a commentator, or teacher in this case, to explicate the subtleties and layers of implicit meaning. And even with the best translation, commentary, and explanation, the sutra will only come alive when it is practiced and integrated by the student. Same with cues.
Even if I know the intention behind the cue and what said cue is aimed at beyond the level of “This is the right way to do the pose,” or “This is what my teacher always says this so I say it," still the cue’s efficacy is limited by my capacity to implement it. As a practitioner, I need to know not only what to do, but how to do it. And then I need to chart the pathway to actually being able to do it. All of this work takes time.
For instance, I recently saw a video in which the teacher kept saying, “Find integrity in your core.” I thought to myself, “Well, that sounds good enough, but what does that actually mean? Does that mean I should lift up along my central channel? Does that mean I should activate my transverse abdominal muscles? Does that mean I should keep my side ribs back and keep my front ribs from flaring? Does it mean I should make sure I have a natural lumbar curve?” Your guess at this point is as good as mine.
And let’s guess that the instructor was after some kind of abdominal recruitment. “Use your core” doesn’t really tell me the same thing as a lesson about how to engage my transverse abdominal muscles with a laugh or a cough or sharp exhale and how to keep that firing in the sequence I practicing. What to do is easy enough: “Tone your low belly.” However , helping students know how to do it often requires an explanation, a demonstration, or some kind of lesson to bring the words to life. And even without a great lesson in low-belly recruitment, we are still more specific now than “find integrity in your core.”
(Of course, to be fair, for all I know this instructor may have explained it at another time to his students. And if you students do know how to do something then telling them what to do is often sufficient.)
Examples are endless.
And thirdly, even if I know what the cue means, I know how to implement the action and I have practiced long enough to be able to perform the action in my own body, the other challenge is that everyone has a slightly different body through which the cue with be executed, the pose will be performed.
Back to my “scoop your tailbone” example.
I personally have an anteriorly- tilted pelvis and a more-than-well-established lumbar curve. As a result, any pose that has a neutral pelvis requires tremendous work for me, but poses with posterior tilt and lumbar flexions are nearly impossible for me. I have even seen my lumbar spine flexed in an x-ray and it doesn’t move that much. I have to work A LOT to get the action of “scooping” to manifest in my shapes.
My husband, however, wakes up in the morning with a posteriorly-tilted pelvis,. His default posture needs more anterior tilt just to get to a neutral pelvis. He can still do some of those scooping actions to stabilize his low belly and bring awareness to a region, but those same actions need a whole lot less power in them for him than for me and rarely should he take them as far he could because he begins already past the point of neutral.
Even with this brief sketch of two different body-types, we see the problem and limitation with counting solely on cues to teach the yoga. We haven’t even talked about how one side of the pelvis might tip forward more than the other and how often one side is higher than the other. Even the most specific of cues is not specific enough to manage all the variations in the average public class.
And onward to my fourth point about the limitations of cues, almost all cues will create an imbalance if they are not practiced with certain actions before and after and if their effect is not being observed, felt, managed, and refined by the individual practitioner. As soon as I scoop my tailbone, for instance, the tops of my thighs come forward and my front body will tend to shorten. As soon as move the tops of my thighs back and lift my chest, my pelvis will tilt forward. If I rotate my legs without muscular engagement, my knees tend to move in less-than-beneficial ways. As soon as I lift up through my head, I tend to lose a sense of groundedness. And so on.
So, one thousand words later I can say simply that cues participate in a delicate balance and sophisticated set of relationships to one another, to the person practicing, and to the pose to which they are being applied.
Now, lest this entry be confused with an attack on cues, I want to state that I do not see a problem with the fact that even the best of cues are full of inherent limitations. I see the problem is with the unconscious expectations many students and teachers have that cues can take the place of explanations, demonstrations, study, dialogue, practice, and self-inquiry. Cues are necessary and insufficient and that reality can be a source of frustration or a source of relief and sanity, depending on your perspective.
Truth be told, we all have to start somewhere. And we often start with doing our best to follow instructions. We have to get in the game somehow and following a teacher’s cues is part of the price for entry. My point is that the once you are in the game, the work continues and in a sense, never ends. Longevity on the path requires developing a taste for this kind of ongoing self-examination. How we instruct poses through verbal cues is important- we are an oral tradition, after all. And I have plenty to say about increasing the efficacy of verbal cues, to be sure. But living the tension between necessary and insufficient is part of our task as students and teachers, so, well, forewarned is forearmed.
Keep the faith.
At this risk of sounding a bit tone deaf to current events and the many upsetting examples of division, oppression and misuses of power, today I am writing about teaching yoga. And, lately, when not contemplating national and world events, I have been thinking a lot about what I care about in yoga and what I do not care about.
The longer I teach, the less I care about why people come to my class. As far as I can tell, people’s reasons for attending a class or a workshop vary greatly from fitness to inner peace and from time-out to time-in. I used to care about what I considered “pure motives” but now, not so much. Why someone is in my class is not necessarily my business.
Don’t get me wrong. I know that most people’s lives that are an interesting and oftentimes-messy mix of things that are going well and things that are flying off the rails in some way. (And if some situation or relationship is not currently flying off the rails, chances are, said circumstance just landed or is about to take off. But I digress.) Most of us have pain and joy in equal measure throughout any given year and everyone has periods of lightness and stretches of agonizing darkness. And, whether or not someone wants a cuter butt, a compassionate community, or is interested in abiding in the presence of the deepest Self, I am pretty sure no one is in the room with such an abundance of self-esteem and self-love that they need something to bring them down a notch. Most people are in class because they want a positive experience for themselves. We may not all agree on what makes any given class or workshop “positive” but as far as I can tell, most people are not hate-attending yoga class; they are not spending their hard-earned money and precious time to be upset, disappointed or put-down.
So, with all that said, I still don’t really care why someone is in my classroom.
I also do not care if everyone in my class can do every pose that I teach or not. I do not care if someone sits some things out. I do not think that everyone needs to do all the poses to live a good and meaningful life. And, even though it might seem like straight arms and legs are a big thing with me during the duration of class, truth be told, I really don’t care about it much in the grand scheme of life. Just so you know, I know that the benefits of yoga are not dependent on flexible hamstrings or balancing in handstand.
I do care, however, that we have a healthy rapport and that we are working toward a mutual acknowledgement of limits and capacities. I do care that over time we are working together to find appropriate stages, modifications, and/or alternatives to poses that are troublesome. I also care that we identify the poses that are simply out of the questions for any reason.
I know I can not plan a class that will avoid every possible physical limitation in the room while simultaneously meeting the most able-bodied person’s capacities. The task is impossible as far as I can tell. What is possible over the course of engaged study and practice is finding ways to work that are appropriate, uplifting and beneficial.
In the same way that I want students to know their own limits, I want them to know that my limits as a teacher far outnumber their limits as a student.
I do not care if my students are Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, pagan, atheist, agnostic or if their tent is pitched in the spiritual camp of “I Believe, But it’s Complicated.” However, I care deeply that my students learn to hold to their convictions and faith (or lack thereof) with self-respect in my classroom. I do care that students know I present yoga philosophy as part of a yoga education, not as a means to convince, coerce or convert them to something that is not right for them.
I do not care what size body someone is in. Yoga is a come-as-you-are proposition that may or may not change our outer appearance and yoga is not dependent on cute clothes, good hair, small thighs, or buff arms. Of course, if someone likes those things, I certainly do not care about that either. I do not care about what someone ate for lunch or whether or not they prefer green drinks or tacos for breakfast. Tea or coffee, soda or kombucha- again, not my interest.
I do not care if my students agree with everything I say or present. I do care that students feel safe to ask questions. I do care that students know that I know I make mistakes. I care about open channels of communication. I care about accepting responsibility, offering the benefit of the doubt and cultivating compassion for ourselves and each other. I care about studentship and paying attention and I also know that studentship and teaching are processes of maturation that take time. As much as yoga meets us where we are, yoga has the capacity to take us to places we have not yet been and have not yet imagined. I care that we, as a learning community made up of teachers and students, share in the promise of that Possibility.
I also do not care so much about the numerous ways people see what is broken in yoga. I care about discernment, clarity, evolution, and naming pitfalls and problems, but I see criticism as a means and not as an end. In my travels and long-term relationships with yogis and yoginis around the world, I see studios with teachers and students who are committed to growing in and through yoga. I see people who have found themselves and one another through the teachings and practices. I am not blind to the many problems we have and I am interested in naming them so that we can build something strong, wise and resilient. And, if the time comes where I do not see that possibility, you will know, because I will be doing something else.
Oh— and please call your representatives.
One of the questions I am most frequently asked is how I stay inspired to practice yoga.
The last time someone asked me about inspiration, I answered, “You mean beyond the basics? You mean, what do I do beyond meditation, mantra, asana, time in nature, studying, journal writing and going to therapy? Really, I got nothing other than that.”
And we laughed.
The question also assumes something that may or may not be true for me, depending on the day—that I am actually inspired.
Truth be told, I am not particularly inspired about yoga many days. I am, however, committed.
Come to think of it, the thought of having to be inspired to practice seems like way too much pressure to put on myself.
Let me back up. As far as practice goes— be it an asana practice, a study practice, a meditation practice, a dietary practice, etc.— there are two primary distinctions to consider. Are you established in practice and struggling within your established practice? Or are you struggling to establish yourself in practice? For instance, are you on your mat more days than not and the endeavor simply feels boring, repetitive, dry, frustrating and/or disappointing in some way? Or are you finding everything other than practice to do with your time and attention like laundry, Facebook, phone calls, emails, happy hour, etc.?
I consider myself established in a few practices. I don’t have to drum up a big story about why I do them, nor do I bring a lot of lofty ideas into the process. I sit in meditation, I write in my journal, I exercise, and I study simply because I am committed to doing those things. Within that, some days I want to practice and some days I do not want to. Some days I find the process enjoyable, while other days I find the work boring. Many days, my feelings are more neutral and unexamined. That being said, regardless of how I feel about the practice, most days my various practices seem to lift me up and carry me along in some way that I appreciate. Whether it is the dive into Self, a dose of endorphins from exercise or a bit of OCD-type satisfaction from checking something off a list, I am not exactly sure where the appreciation arises from, nor does it matter much to me. Practice seems to move me in a positive direction, whether or not I felt inspired to do it.
I suppose my inspiration-meter is set pretty low, when you get down to it. One nugget of new understanding, one insight about myself or someone else or Life itself, and/or one point of clarity and I feel more interested, if not inspired.
Many times the inspiration comes in the little things for me. For instance, I recently went to a yoga class and the teacher taught this one thing with a strap that I am getting lots of mileage from in my home practice and that is sure to show up in my intensives and trainings. A few weeks ago, a teacher gave me a tip about using my obliques in a specific way that has been a game changer and gave me tremendous fuel for study, practice and teaching. And so on. Sometimes all it takes is a slightly different twist on the poses (or a practice) to stimulate my creativity and curiosity.
I should add that, many times, long-time practitioners of any discipline may need to step outside their chosen discipline for inspiration. The number of long-time yoga teachers who are bored with teaching who think they need to do another training to get re-inspired far outweighs the number of long-time yoga teachers who, when feeling a bit dried-out in terms of inspiration, decide to plant a garden, take a dance class, get a puppy, or go on a non-yoga-related vacation. To be clear, I am not advocating a life of diversion and distraction, but simply a change of pace, a new vantage point, and a break in routine. Sometimes coming up to the shallow end of the pool is needed. Sometimes a deep dive is required.
It all depends.
If you are struggling with the inspiration for practice, to get established in practice in a way that is committed, reliable and generates its own momentum for continuity, then perhaps a different approach is needed. As always, to get a good answer we need to ask a good question which, when it comes to practice, means getting honest about where we actually are, not where we think we should be.
Strategies like 30-day challenges, goal-setting, coaching sessions, and one-on-one accountability structures can go a long way to helping folks get from “I want to, but I don’t,” “I want to, but I just can’t” and “Even though I love yoga, I don’t practice it,” and so on. I don’t use those tools currently, but when it comes to practice I am all for whatever works.
A few moments spent reflecting on your own personality can go a long way toward overcoming your current challenge, whatever it is. Do you work better alone or with a group or one-on-one? Would making a date to meet a friend at class help? Would committing publicly in some way help? Do you work well with rewards?
Maybe you are setting the bar too high for yourself in regards to your expectations for yourself. I can’t tell you the number of times I remind people that the 15 minutes they actually do is better than the 2 hours they do not do. The principle of “just do something” seems obvious enough and yet, sometimes we fall into the trap of all-or-nothing thinking and/or self-criticism and fail to recognize that regularity over a long period of time bears more fruit than do the grand gestures that start and stop.
Well, I am rounding the corner on 1000 words now and so will bring this entry to a close with some shameless promotions that may support your commitment, if not your inspiration:
Keep the faith.
Judith Lasater once told me that a lineage is three generations of teachers back from you.
My spiritual teacher’s name was Lee Lozowick. His guru was Yogi Ramsuratkumar. His master was Swami Papa Ramdas. My first influential asana teacher was Manouso Manos. His teacher was BKS Iyengar. BKS Iyengar’s guru was Krishnamacharya. Later in my asana journey I met Desiree Rumbaugh who introduced me to John Friend who studied with Ramanand Patel, George Purvis and Donna Holleman, all of whom studied with BKS Iyengar. (This name sonly a few of the senior Iyengar teachers who helped him along the way, ) Even later in my asana studies, I met some amazing Bikram yoga teachers like Afton Carraway, Gianna Purcell, Kathy Durham and Mardy Chen. They studied a lot with Emmy Cleaves and Mary Jarvis, all of whom who studied with Bikram Choudhury.
I hear a lot about lineage these days, both positively and negatively. If you were to google some of the teachers on the afore mentioned lists you could go down a rabbit hole through which, at the very least, you would find unconventional behavior and with certainty, in some cases, scandal and abuse. (And I must be sure to note that many of the people on the list are doing their work in the world free of scandal or abuse allegations and while they may have had the occasional conflict with a student here or there, these people are of the highest integrity and deepest humility.)
The fact that so many of my teachers are complicated characters makes the topic of lineage a bit uncomfortable for me at times. Even considering the difficulties associated with these teachers, I had an excellent yoga education for which I am grateful. I was one of the lucky ones for whom the scandals and abuses did not cause much harm.
Others, clearly, were not so lucky.
In the aftermath of the scandals associated with Anusara yoga, I quickly learned the depth and breadth of varied experiences that existed within our community. Some people practiced for years in a community that was healing for them. Others members of the same community were practicing under significantly traumatic circumstances. I have endeavored to make space in my own heart to hold the complexity of this wide spectrum of experience.
I have watched similar challenges play out in the Bikram, Ashtanga Vinyasa and Iyengar yoga communities as they have taken their turns walking through the muddy waters of abuse allegations, legal investigations, licensing issues, interpersonal complications and professional devastation. I don’t have too many smart things to say about these challenges. I can, however, offer some heart-felt validation for how hard it is claim one’s own experience as it is within a community— good or bad— and to honor, respect and make room for another’s experience to be 180 degrees different from one’s own.
As far as lineage goes, I find strength in remembering that I am distinct from my teachers. My offering as a teacher is informed by the positive aspects of the lineages of which I have been part as much as it is informed by the things I have seen go haywire. For instance, one reason I haven’t created a “style” of yoga with a structured process of certification is that I have never wanted my students to be beholden to me or to be at the mercy of my possible future lapses in judgement.
And, I have seen enough to know that anyone can fall. Anyone.
And, all of us stumble. Some of us, repeatedly.
I also find strength in the recognition that lineage flows both ways. A host of smart, dedicated, successful, and sincere practitioners generously refer to me as their teacher. My students are from different walks of life, live in a varied types of bodies, are different ages and have skill sets, expertise and experiences beyond my own.
From online relationships to up-close-and-personal relationships, my students inspire me with hope for the practice and for what is possible within imperfect learning communities who endeavor to grow more conscious together. My students have helped me grow into who I am today— both in and out of the yoga room. And, in the same way that I am different from my teachers, my students are different from me and create programs, trainings, and offerings of their own--some of which resemble what they learned from me and some of which do not.
As I see it today, lineage also flows outward as well as up and down. It flows between our friends, fellow seekers, and colleagues with whom we are intimate and through whom God's grace manifests as support, understanding and the occasional swift kick-in-the-ass.
If you are one of the lucky ones for whom lineage feels like a blessing today, say a prayer of thanksgiving. However, it is not necessarily unlucky if the lineage of which you were a part is no longer fertile soil in which you can grow or if the environment that once nurtured you grew toxic. Perhaps the disillusionment is its own brand of luck as it will invite you into a new domain of spiritual authority and personal agency. Two of the best things that happened to me were meeting Lee and his death. Meeting him helped me find a current of Grace to which I could connect and his passing helped me understand that this Grace lived in me all along.
And so, if you can not name your teacher’s teacher teacher, or you don't want to name them, you are not outside the field of graceful opportunities that yoga has to offer you. Lineage is not a commodity to be leveraged in the marketplace, nor is lineage an essential prerequisite for growth on the path personally or professionally. If you find yourself in a stream of teachings that is carrying you along to a deeper awareness of the power of Life itself, then trust the current you are on to carry you where you need to go. Live, practice and teach from the assurance that life is unfolding— at least at a deep level— in the only way it can today.
Keep the faith.
Oh, and here is Locket.
In the summer of 2014, on a warm evening in the Rocky Mountains of southern Colorado, I found myself engrossed in conversation with Christina Sell. We were in her car in the parking lot of the motel where I was staying during a yoga retreat offered by a well-known Iyengar teacher. Christina too was staying “off campus” and had offered to take me to and from the ranch where the retreat was being held. And so, we rode back and forth together over the course of the six-day intensive.
Sitting in Christina’s car each evening after class, we talked and laughed and talked some more. Connecting tentatively at first, we quickly progressed into deep conversation. Be prepared for the same experience as you open A Deeper Yoga and read. Her words are honest. They are real. They pierce the pristine veneer of how things are often presented in the yoga world. Christina gets right to the heart of the matter. In these pages, she invites you to do the same. A Deeper Yoga is like Christina herself: brave, honest and willing to engage in the occasionally messy process of reflection and introspection. If you allow yourself to be guided by her excellent prompts—for journal writing and personal contemplation—you will find yourself in very unexpected, revealing and enlightened places.
I greatly appreciated our drives together and our parking lot conversations during that Rocky Mountain retreat. We both felt a bit like outsiders at that program. Christina had studied Iyengar yoga for many years but was not a certified teacher in that line, as she was trained in a related yoga tradition. I was a senior-level Iyengar teacher, but one who held an unorthodox approach. We both questioned pretty much everything. And that is what we did, in the car, together. We felt safe in doing so. In your encounter with this book you might feel safe in the same way. Here is a place where you can let your guard down in the company of another. . . a trusted traveler.
On our drives along Highway 160 outside of Durango during that yoga intensive, the conversations traversed a wide variety of topics, yet we talked less about asanas and the various shapes of the poses and more about the bigger picture of how the practice functioned in our lives and relationships. We touched on the many ways in which yoga practitioners give up their personal power and their ability to think critically. We discussed the tendency of many yoga teachers and communities to embrace a kind of group-think, especially the yoga communities that the both of us were brought up in. We acknowledged our own part in all of this, and the complex nature of belonging. We also laid out our struggles with body image, with language, and with our ability or inability to accurately communicate with others about things that are meaningful for us.
The topic of yoga and body image, and concepts of what is or isn’t considered beautiful, are covered in depth in this book. Christina shares her personal story of disordered eating, and the pain that it caused her, in a riveting and compelling way. And she manages to bring her excellent sense of humor to all of it.
Christina can be very funny. In fact, I remember us laughing hard together as we recalled one of the retreat teacher’s comments about body type. To us, those comments reflected a bias toward a certain type, and we laughed because our similar bodies did not conform to what our teacher apparently preferred. Our mutual laughter was helpful and liberating for me. That teacher’s comments could then be considered without heavy emotional reactivity and so provided an opportunity for us to reflect on how our words, as teachers, might not support our chosen values in the way that we think they do.
For me, A Deeper Yoga feels very much like an ongoing conversation, like the ones I loved having on Highway 160 in which Christina and I questioned everything. We were both giving voice to our questions, feelings and perspectives in a tradition that does not (traditionally anyway) tend to value alternative perspectives. Christina has created space for you, the reader, to join in on the conversation and to speak honestly with yourself from a place of strength and vulnerability. She does this throughout her book in a real way—not presenting a pure and pretty depiction of what some people might feel a female yoga teacher should look or sound like. Christina is who she is, as she is, and she writes bravely and truthfully from her heart as well as her gut. These pages are an invitation for you to engage. There space is for you to fill here, and as truthfully as you can.
Christina shares her personal trials and tribulations while keeping a steady eye on the bigger picture. We can do the same. We all experience struggle and connect to each other by sharing these struggles, these stories. As you work with this book you might find yourself surprised—and in a good way—hitting something profound or laughing when you least expect it. Your practice (whether writing or yoga) need not look or sound like anything Christina or anyone else has done: You will be inspired to follow her example, not imitate it. It will be your inquiry. It will be your yoga of integration.
Advanced Praise for A Deeper Yoga
Christina Sell lights the way for yoga teachers and students alike to pay attention to why we do what we do, asking us to consider: Do we want to be perfect, or do we want to be whole? A Deeper Yoga offers a quiet contemplation on how we learn to nurture our spirit and create our own mantra of loving kindness for self. With writing prompts and practice suggestions, she invites us to explore the inner deep of our soul. Christina shows us how to use yoga to embrace the self in a blanket of compassion, love and self-respect. This book offers a beautifully written, thoughtful and candid look at how she found peace at last. — Michelle Marchildon, the Yogi Muse, author of Fearless After Fifty and Finding More on the Mat
The book is exactly what it promises in its title. It is a deeper yoga to ask such profound questions as, “How might your life shift if you were not consumed with body obsession, food addiction or imposed constructs of improvement?” That question alone is a powerful entry point toward yoga’s highest expression, which is freedom through contentment or samādhi. And it reminded me of what I love best about the way Christina writes. Her book is full of similar questions, that can act like keys to unlock every locked door within you. Her path toward a deeper yoga is about making you aware of where you’re stuck and giving you the practical tools to get unstuck. — Dr. Katy Jane, Sanskrit & Vedic studies scholar, meditation instructor & Vedic astrologer; author of Awakening with Sanskrit and Sanskrit for Yogis
Christina Sell is the most effective Hatha Yoga teacher out there, in my experience. She brings that same efficacy to the page. Her written work is not about yoga—it is yoga. This book is an invitation to live the life of yoga, the only life worth living in my world. — Darren Rhodes, author: Yoga Resource
Christina fearlessly names the dangerous cultural narratives and projections of modern yoga and its insidious harm to the practitioner’s psyche and soul when the focus of practice is based solely on outer displays and standards. She invites us toward our own maturation as practitioners, teachers, and imperfect human creatures. We can move beyond the physical practice of yoga and use that same practice as a pathway into deeper intimacy with our thoughts, feelings, behaviors and inner dialogue. Christina’s memoir of wholeness through the direct experience of her body and mind illustrates with warmth and honesty what transforms when yoga and psychology work in partnership on one’s being. Her book is a must-have for contemporary yoga as we know it now. — Livia Cohen-Shapiro, M.A., Registered Psychotherapist
Reorienting us from our “perfect postures” to an experience of the innermost essence of practice, Christina invites us to “detach from media-driven imperatives” to welcome ourselves to the intimacy we’ve been seeking since we unrolled a yoga mat for the first time. Reading this evocative work has me returning to my own mat, with my own innate knowing as my finest guide. It will remain near my mat, pages marked and noted, for the rest of my life. — Elena Brower, author: Practice You and Art of Attention
Christina Sell, devoted student and respected leader in the field of Yoga, has a well-earned reputation for being a knowledgeable, powerful and life-changing teacher. In A Deeper Yoga she delivers a compelling and inspirational perspective of the transformational power of yoga and skillfully explains how yoga teachers and students can access this depth and then also facilitate others’ accessing it for themselves. — Desiree Rumbaugh, Certified Anusara Yoga Instructor and co-author of Fearless After Fifty: How to Thrive with Grace, Grit and Yoga
A few weekends ago, I returned to Scottsdale, AZ to teach at Yoga Village, an Anusara yoga studio run by Barbara Adams. I met Desiree Rumbaugh, John Friend and eventually, a world-wide community of practitioners and teachers from my very humble beginnings taking classes and workshops in Scottsdale over twenty years ago. I felt happy and more-than-a-bit nostalgic, upon returning to the area.
In each session of my weekend workshop, students I had taught in the first year of my teaching were in the room, many of whom are now seasoned teachers themselves. In any given session, I looked out and saw people I had known for twenty years sitting with students I was meeting for the first time. I saw long-time students from my Anusara yoga days and folks I had met since terminating my license to teach Anusara yoga, with whom I have weathered the aftermath of that tumultuous time.
And while the landscape of teaching and practice has shifted considerably over the years, and every year in front of the room seems to bring some new challenge or shifting narrative — from social concerns to personal finances and everything else in between, observing the many ways that yoga is still knitting us together inside ourselves and with one another continues to inspire me.
As I have written before, I have made just about every mistake in the book as a yoga teacher. My learning curve has been long and pretty steep at times, taking me through the terrain of my own self-centeredness, anger, jealousy, and insecurity, while also offering me glimpses of the deep humility that lives at the heart of being able to witness other people grow through yogic principles and practice. I often joke (although I am 100% serious about it) that God made me a yoga teacher, not because I was so well-suited to the task, but because I needed to live close to the teaching in order to grow into the position I had been given.
In the words of Papa Peter Rhodes, “God doesn’t choose the qualified, he qualifies the chosen.”
How is one chosen to teach yoga? Essentially, we raise our hand and say, “I will help.”
The way I see it, we live in dark times and the waters of hope, faith, compassion, personal growth, accountability, and service are muddied by competing cultural narratives, unexamined psychological patterns, and even larger cycles of nature. If I were God, Supreme Consciousness, The Universe, Spirit, or whatever name you have for the ALL THAT IS, I would look around and see how much pain there was, how much oppression, injustice, and fear existed in the hearts of even good people and I would give as many jobs as I could to anyone willing to work on the side of Light — be that the light of awareness, the light of generosity, the light of honesty, the light of compassion, the light of well, you get my point.
And while every year brings with it a new specialty within the world of teacher training and a new niche of service to explore and in which to get certified, the path of “getting qualified” of which I am speaking is an experiential training program that anyone interested in helping can enter. Each of us who teaches starts from where we are— full of wounds, projections, hopes, dreams, shortcomings, and talents. And we meet our students where they are, full of the same.
And then the messy magic happens. In the midst of such a meeting, in the field of all of what we are and are not, of what we can do and can not yet do, we hold one another in an uncertain Grace. I say uncertain because this is not the Grace of easy promises, of no hurt feelings, of always being and feeling understood. The teacher-student relationship is as likely to go wrong as it is to go right because while we learn and teach the subject of yoga— from philosophy to posture, from mantra to meditation— we are all just ordinary people, which always makes for a bit unpredictability.
I am not as passionate about big back bends and long, sweaty practices as I used to be, preferring a different approach to asana as I turn 50, than the one I had at 25, 35, and 45. I no longer think that every year I am practicing will bring with it some new asana achievement or some new “next level” of accomplishment. And while some of my students are upset my interests are changing, others like the new direction, happy at last to stop pushing so much. At any rate, as with any relationship, we do not always grow together, grow in the same way, or grow at the same time and none of that means something is going wrong.
One thing I love about getting older is that I am more aware of the long-term game we are playing together than the day-to-day ups and downs inherent in the messy Grace of learning and teaching yoga. Whether our students practice with us over the long haul or find another teacher with whom to share the journey, whether we are on a personal up or down-swing, the opportunity to live alongside the practice and the teachings is a blessing of Light in a time of darkness. Whether our classes are packed or sparsely-attended, whether we make a living as a teacher or not, and whether or not we feel resonant with the latest trend in the industry, each of us raised our hands to help, got chosen, and are spending our days and years getting qualified.
And that, my friends, is a beautiful thing.
Keep the faith.
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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."