photo by Andrea Killam
Whenever Locket encounters a dog she does not know, her hackles go up. Most times, her hackles stay up as she and the other dog sniff each other and figure out if they are going to play together. Eventually, her withers relax and she has a new playmate.
On rare occasions, Locket’s hackles stay up and she and the other dog do not make friends. Mostly, the other dog starts what would likely result in a fight, but, truth be told, Locket has been culpable more than once.
Other times, Locket meets a dog, her hackles go up, and then she walks away uninterested. She does not engage.
photo by Kelly Sell
Truth be told, my hackles go up for all kinds of reasons every day. Snap judgements, first impressions, habituated reactions, instincts alerting me to proceed with caution, intuition warning me something is amiss, etc. Locket’s example teaches me that feeling a bit contracted or on-edge at first needn’t be a problem. Like my guru used to say, “You are not responsible for your first thought.”
Sometimes, with the right kind of interaction, I settle down and make friends. Sometimes, the “hackles up” was indeed something to heed lest a fight ensue. And sometimes, I need to walk away, refrain from engaging, and keep my own counsel.
photo by Andrea Killam
I think Locket’s behavior is also instructive for how to engage yogic teachings— philosophical, attitudinal, and even bio-mechanical. Our hackles might go up when we hear a teaching about the Self, about God, karma, the guru, detachment, service, about an alignment principle or verbal cue, Instead of labeling “hackles up” as 100% reliable or 100% suspect, I suggest making what I call a “note to self.” For instance, "Note to self— when that teacher is talking about yoga philosophy, I feel like she is converting me to a different religion. Or, I think that teaching sounds effed.”
Of course, you would need to put your note to self in your own words, but that is what a lot of my notes to myself sound like. My point is, first notice and acknowledge. Many folks, when faced with the discomfort of "hackles up" immediately go about the business of fixing what they perceive as a problem. We have all kinds of tools for shifting our mood and working with our mind and emotions, so many of us are eager to use them as soon as we notice we are feeling at odds with the moment. The “note to self” is simply acknowledging that your hackles are up, and how. Maybe you feel suspicion, whereas others are more likely to feel judgmental, angry, and/or defensive. Some of us make inappropriate jokes, others space out, and others criticize. All I am saying is that it’s good to know how it works in you.
photo by Kelly Sell
If, like Locket and her dog-friend, one keeps sniffing around the teachings, insight emerges, and nuances are discovered that create context, depth and a more spacious interaction unfolds and our withers relax. Education, explanation, familiarity, and greater clarity can help us make friends with the teaching and learn how to play with with what was initially problematic.
Occasionally, after the initial sniffing-- the more one works with the teaching or the circumstance-- the more agitated and upset they become. Our hackles might be up in relationship to a philosophy, a practice, a teacher, a community, etc.— you name it. The point is, if, for whatever reason, we can’t make friends with the situation, it would be a violence toward oneself to stay involved.
And sometimes there is no need to sniff around at all. Sometimes the best choice we can make is to walk away. Years ago, I remember telling my guru that I was not connecting to some teaching he shared. He told me, “Oh, that’s no problem. That one is not for you.” In a sense, he gave me permission to walk away. Many times, we have to give that same type of permission to ourselves After all, not everything or everyone we encounter on the path is going to be useful for our growth at the time we encounter it. And sometimes we learn more from walking away than we do from forcing ourselves to stay.
Perhaps the deeper lesson from my Locket-inspired musings is that however we are in any moment can be an entry point into greater self-understanding and conscious choice, whether that moment is messy, upsetting, or filled with ease. Whether we are on or off a mat, whether the conflict we are responding to is internally-oriented or externalized, noticing and acknowledging where we truly are--not where we think we should be-- is going to be the way through.
In other news,
I spent the weekend with Brittany and Alex recording Season 1 of the Live the Light of Yoga Podcast. We used my latest book, A Deeper Yoga; Moving Beyond Body Image to Wholeness and Freedom as a springboard for discussion. Each episode centers around a topic, theme, or teaching from the book with me riffing, preaching, exploring, commenting on the issues related to said topic. We covered suffering, studentship, compassion, perfectionism, practice, addictions, recovery, white fragility, shame, gurus, modern yoga culture, dogs as perfect beings, and, of course, Love. As far-ranging as the subject matter was, we only scratched surface of what might be said, leaving plenty of room for more conversations to come. If all goes well, the podcast will launch in early March.
One of the recurring themes in the book and in the podcast is the relationship between yoga as a protocol for self-improvement and yoga as a practice of self-knowledge and self-compassion. Once again, we find ourselves in a both/and conversation here. I know for me, there has been plenty of improvement needed from the git-go— from bingeing and purging, compulsive exercising, obsessive thinking about food and my body, depression, shame, anger, and more-- all of which needed a bit of “cleaning up.” Time and again, I see yoga practitioners come to yoga and engage the process of that necessary cleaning up work, even if the symptoms vary person to person.
(And, to be clear, I am using the word “yoga” here to refer to a Path of Consciousness which might involve an asana class, but might just as likely involve a visit to a psychotherapist, a 12-step group, or a meditation training. I do not limit my perspectives of yoga to a the public asana class setting.)
At any rate, we enter the stream of the teachings and clean some things up. And, in so doing, we eliminate a tremendous amount of suffering and often improve our self-esteem. Think about an obvious example— Don’t want to be hungover? Don’t drink too much. Then you will feel better about doing better. Don’t want to get a speeding ticket? Follow the speed limit. Then feel great because your insurance premiums aren’t going up. Want to avoid the Walk of Shame? Well, you get my point, right? Basic stuff.
Up to a point, we can make progress that improves self-esteem, solves a lot of our problems, and ends some of our personal suffering. After a point, however, we are going to be up against our humanity— with it’s flaws, failings, and limits. Additionally, we are going to be up against what my teacher called Life As It Is, what the 12-step communities refer to as Life on Life’s Terms, and what the Buddhists call dukha. . And, no matter what the new-age propaganda says, life rolls on with its ups and inevitable downs, gains and unavoidable losses, all of which which call us to interact with the suffering we can not change, the circumstances we can not fix, and the rough edges of our personality that no asana achievement, essential oil, crystal, vitamin or herbal supplement, positive affirmation, or chakra-balancing technique can fully eradicate.
The stage I am referring to is not a beginner’s problem. It may take decades to realize that, for all the improvements and gains along the way, still, we are who we are. And, to me, this stage is where we find the limits of yoga for self-esteem only and are initiated—by necessity— into the practice of yoga for self-knowledge. This stage of practice calls us to cultivate self-compassion and curiosity instead of achievement and self-improvement. Instead of always working “on” ourselves, this stage is about working “with” ourselves.
For instance, what if, despite your ongoing best efforts you occasionally (or regularly) fall prey to jealousy, insecurity, pettiness, and/or angry outbursts. Let’s be clear, you know better. And, you would do better if you could. On top of that, your current situation is not what it is for a lack of trying. (If you don’t relate to what I am describing, then chances are: 1.) You are still improving well and so that stage is still working for you, or 2.) You might have a few blindspots. At any rate, keep reading so you can learn something about the rest of us.)
In addition to the help of a trained psychotherapist, honesty is one of the best tools I can think of for pointing myself away from the shame and self-criticism that comes from not being able to fix everything about myself and/or my life and stepping toward self-compassion and curiosity:
Telling the truth is not always easy, but sometimes we can pave the way with phrases such as “Wow, I wish this wasn’t the truth, but I am really feeling ______________.” or “I feel like I should be better than this, but the truth is ________________.”
I also find words like “contraction” helpful when describing an uncomfortable inner state. “Wow, I am super-contracted hearing that comment.” or “Wow, I am contracted right now and feeling less-than, not-enough, or whatever.”
Humor, too, can go a long way to help. “Well, this is certainly not my finest hour, but I __________________.” Another phrase I rely on is “You know, my conscience is pricking me. I feel uncomfortable about ___________.” I have a friend who says, “________ is really eating my lunch right now” and while that statement makes no logical sense, it seems to work as doorway into truth-telling.
If you know me personally, you have most certainly heard me say at least one or two of these statements because even though my fiery nature is tempered well beyond where I started, still, I say things. I wish I had it all handled. But well, I don’t. (See what I did there? Told the truth with a little nod to the part of me that does know better and so often does do better.)
Another tricky aspect is that even with the best intentions, our impact is often different than what we had intended. And impact often involves other people with their perspectives, projections, shortcomings, talents, and rough edges. For instance, I might think I am being funny and I hurt someone’s feelings. Or I think I am being helpful and someone experiences being handled, underestimated, or invalidated. The list goes on and my guess is you have your own list to work with by now. Self-compassion and honesty help us acknowledge the disparity between intention and impact and pave the way for doing better in the future.
Which brings me back to the irony that we are often able to improve once we are honest, compassionate, and curious instead of so ambitious about changing and improving. I believe we want to be known and loved in our wholeness and these pesky areas of personality are often crying for our attention to be understood, not just eradicated, ignored or put into fancier yoga-inspired clothes. So often, when given the light of our own love in the form of honesty, self- compassion, and curiosity, the seeds of what seemed so bad and wrong are free to grow and flower into greater self-understanding, humility, and self-acceptance. And that is living the Light of yoga.
Okay, more can always be said, but that is enough for today.
I frequently tell my students, “You know, you can live a happy life without ever kicking up into handstand, pushing up into urdhva dhanurasana, or getting your feet off the floor in an arm balance.” I give this teaching so often because, from my perspective, asanas are not life skills. Asana is not a substitute for clear communication, empathy, or accountability. Asana will not apologize for you when you have trespassed against another, or make it easier for you to forgive others when they trespassed against you. Asana will not balance your check book, clean your house, or cook your dinner for you.
So, on one level, the postures — how they look, what one can and cannot do, whether or not one is progressing in any visible way, etc. -- do not matter. In fact, many students tell me, “Oh, I don’t really care about doing x,y, or z pose.” And I believe them. They are telling the truth. They would pass a lie detector test.
In all the years I have been teaching, I have yet to see someone do something one day that they could not do the day before and not be excited about it. I was recently reminded of this aspect of asana practice when several of the students in my class pushed up to urdhva dhanurasana for the first time. (All 4 of these students were over 60, by the way.) As a teacher, I can talk all I want to about strength, grace, and empowerment, but the act of accomplishing something for the first time generally speaks for itself. After all, an empowering experience of strength and grace often makes words seem a bit empty and/or unnecessary.
Of course, a shadow always lurks near accomplishment. If we feel good when we achieve, we tend to feel bad when we don’t or can’t. Welcome to the joys of duality, where every up has a down and where success always lives next door to failure. And, let’s be honest, for most of us, there are far more asanas we can not do than there are poses we can do well. Even the bendiest, strongest among us have limits they will eventually reach or that life will deliver them to.
One solution to the thorny problem I have outlined is to detach from caring about doing or not doing and focus on the work there is to do in the posture, not the outcome of the efforts. I watch many teachers and practitioners take this route. The perspective makes sense, to be sure. And, with just a little philosophical training, you can even back up this approach with lofty discussions of the Sutras or the Gita and sound quite enlightened.
But then, the blasted success comes again and it remains exciting, empowering, and is, occasionally, even exhilarating. Or a loss of ability or a perceived failure comes our way in practice and, even with our lofty spiritual outlook, we are ensnared and feel less-than. What then, is a person to do?
For me, I have long since stopped expecting myself to be a bland, detached, I-am-beyond-success-and-failure- kind-of -person. I am achievement-oriented, competency-based, and striving in nature. All the yoga in the world has not changed that basic programming. I like to work hard, make progress and achieve. I also think that being able to feel happy in the face of success and disappointed in the face of failure is crucial to healthy psychological functioning, and the detached approach seems to run dangerously close to spiritual bypassing. Of course, that might be a different post for a different day.
So, what has yoga done for me if it hasn’t changed this basic temperament of mine, you ask? Good question.
All the yoga has helped me see my disposition for what it is and not for more than what it is. After almost 30 years of consciously considering yogic teachings on the mat, the cushion, the couch, and in my life, I see the part of me that cares about success and failure, etc. is not the whole story of my practice, and certainly not the whole of who I am. Simply put, my basic predisposition lives within a much larger sphere of reference than I previously knew.
The I can/I can’t, I understand/I don’t understand, I am better/I am worse, I am improving/I am backsliding dualities are all valid on the level that they are valid. Practice has yet to eradicate that level of my consciousness and I have ceased expecting to one day wake up free of my personality with its quirks, knots, and idiosyncrasies. What sustained practice over time has shown me is that there is more to me than that level only. Yoga practice — asana, meditation, mantra, therapy, studentship, teaching and a host of engaged relationships — has helped me find a larger, more expansive, and infinitely more compassionate domain within me. While I still have my endless, ongoing narratives of contract/expand in their many expressions, all of that unfolding now happens within a domain of self-understanding that is not so tied to the endless ups and downs I have been describing.
To me, I can/I can’t, I’m up/I’m down lives right alongside this unbounded wholeness that is untouched, unencumbered and free. The thorny dilemma of “I feel good when I do and bad when I don’t” is resolved, not through detachment and not caring, but in seeing each domain for the truth it holds. On one level, the poses matter. On another level, they do not matter one bit. Holding the tension of this paradox is a means by which we practice a yoga that I think matters very much: discernment, self-acceptance, self-understanding, self-validation, and self-acknowledgement. And, as I see it, these inner attitudes, or postures, are most definitely life skills.
It is not too late to sign up for Studies in Form and Flow.
Catch me in a city near you:
photo by Andrea Killam
Today is Thursday. Thursday at our house usually means Kelly sees patients and I work at my desk. After an early dinner, Kelly goes to the local music jam while Locket and I stay home. But today, Thursday means that I not only get some time alone at home with my pup, I get to watch Picard. So, in honor of Jean Luc and the team being back together, I thought I would talk about how yoga is like space exploration.
On one of the missions of the Next Generation, the crew encountered an anomaly in deep space. Being the intrepid explorers that they were, they sent a probe into the center of the anomaly. No answer. Again, they sent in a probe. No answer. And on and on the probe went into space until finally, they received a response.
I can’t think of a better metaphor for a lot of what happens in your average alignment-oriented yoga class than sending a probe into space and not getting an immediate answer. I remember my teachers saying things like, “Which sitting bone is heavier?” and “Which side of your torso feels longer?” and “Which way is the skin flowing?” and so on. I would send my attention inward to those places and come up with nothing beyond a vague sense of frustration and futility. Meanwhile, other students in the room shouted out their findings with great confidence and authority.
I believed that there were differences within my body and imbalances there to be felt. I believed other people were feeling them inside themselves. I maybe believed that one day I would feel something also. But in so many moments along the way, when I sent the probe of my awareness into the deep inner space of my body, I received no immediate answer.
Until, of course, I did.
Many of you with a background in Anusara yoga remember the Inner Spiral, a complex set of energetic actions that 1) turns the legs in, 2) moves the inner edges of the feet and legs back, and 3) widens the legs and pelvis apart. (If you did not learn Inner Spiral, don’t get lost here— the relevant part for my story is the IN, BACK, and APART.)
So, there I am in a workshop in Atlanta, Georgia with John Friend during an afternoon hip opening class in which he repeated instructed the activation of Inner Spiral throughout the session. About 3/4 of the way through class, I exclaimed, “Oh my God!”
I was in the front row and John was right in front of me. He looked at me and said, “What?”
I exclaimed, “Inner Spiral!!! I feel it!”
He said, “What do you feel?”
I said, “It moves IN, BACK, and APART!!!”
Keep in mind, I was a certified Anusara yoga teacher at the time and had taught a lot of people about Inner Spiral. I passed the test on it, knew lots of tricks for activating it, and even had seen the positive effects of it in many of my poses. (And yes, I know not everyone saw Inner Spiral as positive thing and some people had some deleterious effects from it, etc. Debating Inner Spiral is not the point of my story.) Anyway, on that particular day, all of a sudden after a long period of time, in a weird hotel ballroom with terrible carpeting, I felt Inner Spiral as an energetic phenomenon just as it was described to me, just as I had described it to others, and yet, in a completely new way. At that moment, Inner Spiral became an embodied experience as opposed to a concept or a set of mechanical alignment instructions.
Deep space had returned my probe.
In a sense, every time we execute an instruction, bring awareness to our position in space, endeavor to activate our muscles, encourage the movement of an energetic flow, and/or reflect on any level of our experience within the pose— from how it feels, to how it makes us feel, to the endless cascading effects of our actions within the posture— we are sending probes into space. And like the crew of the SS Enterprise found, we do not always get an immediate response back.
I personally think this “no return message” ordeal is why so many people do not enjoy alignment-oriented yoga. In the same way no one likes text messages, voice mails, or emails to go unreturned, no one relishes the part of the asana journey where we seem to come up empty-handed in our efforts. The process I am describing takes time, is filled with empty space and plenty of uncertainty. Many of us competency-oriented types are frustrated wandering around in inner space and would rather than be on the solid ground of concrete rules, visible progress, and clear maps for the territory we are traveling.
And yet, the repeated inquiry—the repeated attempt to being awareness to bear on the process of posture—creates an effect that ripples through the space of our being over time. In the same way that the Enterprise crew eventually discovered that the probe itself was creating the disturbance they were investigating, our efforts to pay attention, to activate, participate, and reflect on ourselves within the pose are a disturbance of their own. They disturb our habitual consciousness, taking us off automatic pilot and giving us some agency over the way we navigate in and through ourselves.
Ultimately, the way of steering I am describing moves the practitioner beyond the level of alignment that is outcome-oriented and achievement-based. This way of working invites us to become less dependent on improvement, prowess, or the execution of fancy poses. This frontier in practice frees us from the misconception that alignment is an imposition of form, and shows us that alignment protocols can be a means by which we compare and contrast, explore where we truly are not where we want to be, where we step beyond rules and dogma into the vastness inside ourselves where we have not gone before.
So, like that. Star Trek is to outer space as alignment is to inner space.
And Picard has a dog in the show, which is awesome.
Recently, a long-time student/colleague was talking to me about the challenges and opportunities of team teaching in a training program where the trainers had different backgrounds and perspectives on asana, philosophy, practice, teaching, tradition, modernity, etc. On the one hand, different perspectives can be awesome, providing a learning environment with less dogma and rigidity and a broader lens through which to view and explore. Of course, the opposite is also true— with teachers offering different perspectives, the subtle territoriality and defensiveness (which almost everyone has at times and of which no one is proud) can fill the environment and have even the most expansive and generous people feeling protective, criticized, critical, and/or righteous.
And, the truth is, everyone can be trained in the same method by the same teacher and see things differently. Just gather a group of senior Iyengar teachers in a room together and you will find plenty of places where their opinions diverge.
Personally, I love harmonious relationships and rooms full of people who agree with me, one another, and who get along with ease and aplomb. I really do. And, I like smart, authentic, insightful, honest people who are in touch with their own experiences, perspectives, and opinions. Where those two strains of my personality intersect is where my life gets interesting, because smart, insightful, honest people in touch with themselves and their experiences do not always get along with one another easily. Reminds me of how my first OA sponsor told me, “Well, Christina, if at least 10% of the people in your life are not mad at you, chances are you are not telling the truth.” And, truth be told, I do not like that teaching any better today than I did almost 30 years ago.
And, yet, playing well with others in a training program is in our best interest as people if we don’t want to live life continually bitched-out, contracted, and in constant competition with others. Equanimity as part of a teaching team is, more importantly, in the best interest of the students who are there to learn from everyone on the faculty, not just us. And, lest we forget, the students are the reason we have a job in the first place. Speaking from many years of observing myself and others in the role of teacher, I think many of us occasionally forget that our teaching work is not about us. Our teaching work is not about us being perceived or recognized in any given way. Our brilliance as teachers is good insofar as it elevates the student’s understanding, capacity, growth, etc. And, while I love refining the craft of teaching, I am on a slippery slope when I forget what the purpose of that refinement truly is. (And yes, I think this a very difficult perspective to manage in the hustle of marketplace, in the face of our humanity, and in the messy, relational business of truth-telling in groups, otherwise known as yoga teacher training.)
So, I reminded my colleague that the good news about yoga is that yoga is a path of direct experience, not a belief system. Our task as teachers is not to get students to believe us instead of the teacher who taught the previous class. Our task is to guide students to their direct experience and help them participate more consciously on what the yoga is doing to them, within them, for them, etc.
I often point people to their direct experience in classes and workshops by presenting two different ways of approaching a posture and having the students try both ways. Then, I will ask them what they noticed about what differences the differences made. I explain that the capacity to articulate one’s experience is part of the process of integrating outer teachings into inner wisdom. When we articulate our experience, it is as though we are weaving a thread of awareness from the outer instructions, through the execution of the form, to the process of reflection, to the insight based on experience, through to the words that are now our own. At this point, as a teacher, we are free from needing anyone to believe us because they are in touch with their direct experience.
Sometimes I will ask for a show of hands, “Who thought approach #1 was easier?” and “Who thought approach #2 was easier?” (It isn’t about something being easier or harder, so substitute any adjective that suits your lesson that day.) Invariably, the room is split down the middle, which gives us a great opportunity to explore and examine not just own experience experience in the pose, but one another’s. I might be talking about handstands or back bends in class, but think of the radical, off-the-mat implications of being able to validate one’s own experience while taking interest in someone else’s. We are now training empathy, relationship, and connection.
As teachers, we need to challenge the assumption that there is only one right way to do an asana, and that if we can just find the right words for the right way, some kind of magic will happen. As practitioners and students, I think we can expand our idea of class and instructions beyond right and wrong, beyond what is easier and harder, and beyond just the execution of a posture and move toward the understanding that the postures and the variations are doorways to self-understanding, to a more conscious participation with our lived experience, to an increased capacity for reflection and an expanded tolerance for difference.
Okay, more could be said, but I am at my 1000-word limit. It is not too late to join the fun in Studies in Form and Flow. Also, I am out and about a lot this year and would love to see you in person at a workshop.
Photo by Andrea Killam
Into the same river twice, we both do and do not step. —Heraclitus
As many of you know, my sister is a Greek philosophy professor and a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher. During one of our conversations about teaching, philosophy and yoga, I said, "It’s kinda like that saying, you can’t step into the same river twice.”
She said, “Actually, the more accurate translation from Greek is into the same river twice, you both do and do not step.”
I mused, "You know, that translation is better when it comes to practice and teaching. On the one hand, down dog is always down dog. Same river. On the other hand, every day is different, our bodies are constantly changing, we are learning more all the time about ourselves, our needs, our students, and the poses. Different river.”
I could come up with endless examples to elaborate on the point. I am sure you can also. In a very real way, this inquiry is at the heart of practice and at the heart of teaching. If you have been in my classes and courses for any length of time, a point comes where you know most of my jokes, examples, and tricks of the trade as it is impossible to have new material ALL the time and some things are so good they bear repeating. So there are always some “same river moments” to be expected, no matter how creative your teacher is and no matter how diligent your studentship is..
Even if you are newer to me and my teaching, you will probably hear me say and teach principles, poses, and techniques that are familiar to you. Once again, same river.
And yet, I am always refining my perspectives, continuing my education, enlarging my reference points and so are you. No matter how long we have known each other and how many urdhva dhanurasanas, we have shared, I know there will also be many “new river” moments throughout the course of a class, workshop, intensive or training. Perhaps the "new river" will be a physical accomplishment. Maybe the "new river" will be a new understanding, a clarifying explanation, or a surrender of a limiting belief or a contracting emotional pattern. However, they come, I encourage you to acknowledge your "new river moments" and celebrate the many ways that the same river is also a different river.
On a deeper level, this teaching about the river is an invitation to non-dual thinking that is a crucial perspective to embrace on the yoga learning journey. In the same way that Heraclitus invites us into the paradox of “same river, different river," yoga is an invitation to explore the inherent paradoxical principles that live in yoga philosophy, practice, teaching and that each of us hold within ourselves.
Is yoga a path of self acceptance or a path of transformation and change? Is yoga a path of surrender or a path of effort? Is yoga a path of spirit or a path of physicality? Is yoga a path of transcendence or embodiment? Is asana about the flow or about the details? The experience or the analysis? The muscles and bones or the energy?
I have been thinking about these distinctions as I have been preparing my upcoming year-long, in-depth program, Studies in Form and Flow. The underlying assumption of the course is that yoga is a both/and proposition where one can learn to hold two apparent opposites in a creative, dynamic tension without collapsing the distinctions inherent to each. From this vantage point, non-duality can be seen, not so much as a merging, but as the capacity to live in a place of reconciliation or creative relationship with seemingly contradictory principles. So, not black or white, but black and white. The “and” is a place of the middle, sometimes known as The Heart-- not the heart as a physical organ, but the Heart as an organ of spiritual perception.
The mind naturally functions like a computer, in a binary way. And, our waking consensual reality is a lot like that also— we have night and day, inhales and exhales, sleeping and waking, doors that are open or shut, republicans and democrats, etc. Knowing these differences is important and clarity is key for successful functioning in the world. And, knowing how to hold both aspects in their differences is the key to the advanced yoga of non-duality where unity arises out of difference, not as a result of those differences being negated.
Not only might this capacity to hold the tension of paradoxical forces help us as yoga practitioners and teachers to “play better with others” and respect the various traditions, approaches, and perspectives that are in play in our industry, I believe practicing this perspective could help us navigate the binary, win-lose, us-against-them, increasingly divisive world in which we find ourselves.
For instance, is it possible to care about black lives and police officers? Certainly.
Is it possible to recognize, validate and express our various racial, ethic, and cultural differences and also recognize our unity as a human species. Yes.
Can we care about human life and also care about the right for someone to have legal agency over their body and their decisions? I think so.
Again, there are endless examples— that take us far away from the yoga classroom— where the kind of philosophical viewpoint we will practice in regards to yoga is relevant and applicable.
I should also say that part of putting this philosophy into practice involves recognizing when we fall into the binary nature of our own thinking and to offer ourselves honesty ("I am doing it again, making their way wrong and my way right!") as well as compassion. ("Wow, well, of course I have unconscious assumptions, biases, and I want to be right-- its the nature of my mind. Perfectly natural and yet, I want to evolve beyond these limitations,")
So, these are big topics and we are going to dance around them all year-long together in the course and well, the rest of our lives from what I can tell. I personally believe that flow and form is another one of those binaries that creates what philosophers call a false dichotomy. You can have alignment in flow. You can have dynamic movement in alignment. And while there are differences in the marketplace which are important to remain clear about, my premise for this course is that they are not in an essential conflict with one another. In fact, these two different approaches have a lot to offer us in physical conditioning, instructive metaphors for living, and as lenses through which to view reality.
Want to jump in the river with me and some other amazing folks? Find out more here--
photo by Andrea Killam
photo by Mike Frosolono, circa 1976
I recently joked that I should write a memoir called, My Life in Leotards, referring to the fact that I started teaching fitness in 1988, asana in 1998, and have spent over thirty years in front of a room instructing people in some kind of movement, I have been wearing leotards since, well, they were called leotards. Many of you know them as leggings or simply “clothes” but many of us remember days well before the current athletic-inspired fashion craze where yoga pants outsell jeans, including that super-awkward phases in the 80’s during which we wore thongs on the outside of tights. But I digress.
I could also write a memoir of My Life in a Body. Oh wait— I did write that one. Three times! (All great books, by the way, and, if you haven’t read them yet, I suggest skipping the first two and starting with the latest, A Deeper Yoga. I think it is the best.)
Whether it was dance class as a five-year old, gymnastics from six through thirteen years, cheerleading through much of high school, aerobics, spinning, or asana, the truth is, I have been in a leotard A LOT, exploring the ways that movement effects well-being, exacerbates obsession, creates comparison and dissatisfaction, fosters empowerment, creates injury, nurtures resilience, aids in self-acceptance, includes and excludes, fosters community, and so on. If I were to write the memoir I would assert that there is not any one movement discipline that has the corner on healing or positive physical and psychological outcomes.
I was thinking today about a woman who came to my fitness class at the YMCA many years ago. She started in the most moderate class I was teaching as part of her New Year’s resolution to lose weight. Over the year, she lost weight, left her marriage, became a fitness instructor herself and her entire affect and personality expression brightened. I saw her many years later, after I had left the YMCA and had started teaching yoga. She was still teaching fitness, had maintained a healthy weight she felt good about, (By healthy I mean she seemed vibrant, with some curves still intact, she liked how she looked, and felt empowered by the fact she had maintained her goal weight, etc.. “Healthy weight” is a bit of a triggering idea and, for the record, I believe health is a multi-faceted, personal thing that can exist at many different weights, sizes, and shapes. )
I was thinking of her as an example of how a seemingly physical resolution cascaded into a series of positive outcomes that were emotional, social, relational, professional, and dare I say, spiritual. I think this is one reason why I lost interest in the discussion of who is doing real yoga out there and find myself much happier keeping my eyes on my own yoga. Having spent my life in leotards, the outcomes I might attribute to yoga— and to my own particular path within the vast world of asana that has centered largely on the alignment studies-- someone else has found in a different asana style, a different movement modality or through a different discipline altogether. These positive outcomes are consistently more interesting to me than the judging the means through which they were achieved.
And, the not-so-positive outcomes must be acknowledged as well. Anyone who has spent any time in my classrooms has heard me say that every asana style has people with healing stories and every asana styles has people with injury stories. Injury, like health, is a multi-faceted process that is never physical-only, even if we are talking about torn hamstrings. And, unless you have been living under a rock these last few years, you know that Yoga-land’s injuries are clearly not limited to torn hammies. Not at all.
So, when I say, “eyes on my own yoga” I do not mean that I turn away from what is painful to see. I am not talking about ignoring abuse, failing to make clear distinctions, or avoiding exploring how even seemingly good ideas can unfold within the life of a community into situations that are toxic. That work needs to be done with committed vigilance.
What I mean is that I focus my gaze on where my practice is taking me more than I look at what the folks down the way are up to. I am talking about the every-day level of what feels to me like a form of yoga tribalism that has the superior tone of my-yoga-is-better-than-your-yoga and look-at-what-those-other-people-are-doing-wrong mixed into it. My personal opinion is that if I can’t work to stop othering in yoga, well, I am going to have a hard time stopping othering at the borders, in my communities, houses of worship, politics and so on.
Once again, how I engage practice is what practice yields more than the practice itself. Running with loving attention is probably more loving than yoga with strain, stress, and judgement. Like I said earlier, no one discipline has the corner on positive outcomes. And, of course, this work is a practice and a process.
So, that’s what I have today other than another shameless plug about my upcoming online Teacher Training course. I am excited about the course because it brings together over 20 years of yoga teaching experience into one comprehensive program. I based this program on the questions I am most often asked in teacher trainings such as “How would you cue that?” and “Why do we do it that way?” and “How would you teach that to a new person?” and so much more. This is a course designed to help you know the HOW of teaching and the WHY behind common cues.
At its heart, this course is an invitation to move beyond dogma, rigidity, and what has always been done into a field of understanding that embraces paradox, invites inquiry, and celebrates difference within unity. It is going to be great.
photo by Andrea Killam
In my last blog entry, I made a comment about how yearly cycles and resolutions at the beginning of the calendar year are not really my thing. They aren’t. I tend to be more focused on the beginnings and endings of my personal astrological cycles and more tuned into what is unfolding organically within my inner process than I am on the yearly calendar. New years and new intentions always feel a bit forced to me and, having tried to fit myself into that model over the years to no lasting effect, just seem better left to other people.
That being said, as I scroll through Facebook and Instagram reading the testimonies and reflections from my friends, colleagues and students, I am touched and inspired by the challenges, triumphs, upsets, victories and overall resilience the people in my life exemplify. No matter how shiny any person’s outer life appears, there is always a back story of adversity overcome, hardship experienced, and disillusionment transformed into wisdom. No matter the mess another person appears to be at any given moment in time, there is always a hidden strength that surfaces, a faith that is forged, or a tenacity revealing itself in the cracks of their seeming brokenness.
The theme emerging for me over the last cycle of my life (not the yearly cycle of 2019 but perhaps more like the last 5 years or so) is the surrender of the obsession with self-improvement. Don’t get me wrong— I love growth. I love refinement. I love all things related to the process of shedding what no longer serves and the renewal of Spirit in the recognition of what is most true. But somewhere along the way, that process stopped being about making myself into a “New and Improved me" and started being more about getting to know myself better as I am.
What I want today is to live in such a way that I can become more known to myself. And I want that knowing to happen in a spacious field of Love. And, truth be told, that aim sounds better on paper than it often feels.
In practical terms, what I am talking about is the difference between creating an intention to be more patient and instead, being curious about my chronic impatience. Instead of trying to be less angry, I am more interested in holding my anger in the light of my own Love and seeing what hurt lives underneath the anger, what unmet need stokes its fire and if, perhaps, the anger is alerting me to the fact that I have limits I am ignoring, boundaries I need to honor or pain I need to validate. I find myself more interested in clarity than I am in strategies of positivity, wishful thinking, or promises of a better tomorrow.
And, yet— I know there have been seasons in my life where a stake in the sand was required. Times when “enough was enough” and I needed to mark the moment in such a way that there was no turning back, no wiggle room, and no way to negotiate what life was requiring of me. And, if those times have come before, chance are they will come again. And, those times call for resolve— resolutions, if you will. Whether these stake-in-the-sand-moments coincide with the end of the calendar year or not, they always call for courage in the face of fear, standing strong when we feel weak and living with vulnerability and not-knowing when what we’d like most is the assurance of a “happy ending.”
While I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions as such, I didn’t want the season to end without taking a moment to acknowledge that everyone I know is dealing with something. Hidden or exposed, seen or unseen, ready -to-shift or still-in-process, pretty or messy— the human condition is a condition of coming together and falling apart, of necessary tensions living alongside one another, of pain and joy informing one another. Whether you orient yourself with the calendar year, to the zodiac, or to some other North Star is not really so important, in my opinion. What I think matters is that the process of orientation you engage helps you to navigate more authentically toward what is most true within you.
And, to be clear, if that authentic orientation means a change in diet, a visit to the gym, a new training program, an appointment with a psychotherapist, or a renewed commitment to asana, then great. And if it means vacation, more cake, and less rigidity— also great.
All right, that’s what I have on that for now.
Lots on deck for me with work— A year-long in-depth Online Training, 2020-21 Advanced 300-hour Teacher Training, A 3-Part Writing Program with Angelon Young and Regina Ryan, weekend workshops all over America as well as Japan and Singapore and 5 amazing intensives in Colorado. I am excited to continue my work with Yoga International and on a personal note, I am enjoying time on my mat, my snowboard, with my piano, and of course, with Locket, God’s most perfect creature. Oh, and spoiler alert-- a podcast will be coming your way this spring, so stay tuned for details on that. (Sign up for my mailing list, if you haven’t and subscribe to the blog.)
May you recognize Grace in its many forms in whatever cycle in which you find yourself.
photo by Andrea Killam
Happy 2019 ending and 2020 beginning.
I suppose I should say something meaningful about yearly cycles, new beginnings, intentions v. resolutions, and all that. Instead, I am writing a nerdy entry on how I work with a sequence in my home practice. These reflections may or may not help you with your New Year, New You project. I will leave that up to you.
For the record, I am on the New Year, Same Me program, which is another blog entry I could be writing. The thing is that I feel like I am growing and living into an ongoing inquiry into how best to bring that growth into a meaningful, authentic expression. A new calendar year isn't really part of that process for me. Don't get me wrong - I am all for whatever helps someone align with themselves, so if New Year's intentions and resolutions do that for you, use them. No judgement from me. With much of the world engaged in the resolution process, you just might be able to tap into the collective energy quite effectively.
So - home practice.
I generally write a sequence for my practice. The sequence functions like a plan and helps me stay focused on my asana practice rather than on Facebook, Instagram, or dust bunnies. I have not always practiced with a set plan, but currently I find that heading into my practice with a plan provides a valuable structure.
Pictured below (on the very same piece of scratch paper that I wrote it on) is my plan. Down the right hand side of the page is what I wrote down and planned to do.
I often start with virasana, baddha konasana, malasana and uppa vista konasana. These leg positions help mobilize my hips and have the added bonus of being poses I can do sitting down! When I was younger and asana was my primary athletic endeavor, I always started with more dynamic postures like sun salutations and standing poses. Now, I hike, bike, snowboard and such and my legs are generally tired when I get to my mat. The seated hip work serves me well and helps me ease into things.
The other thing I like about these four poses is I can go in just about any direction I want from there. You see these leg positions in the forward bend syllabus - virasana becomes triang mukaikapada pascimottanasana. baddha konasana informs janu sirsasana and ardha pada padma pascimottanasana. Malasana relates to all the maricyasanas. And uppa vista konasana has its twisting and forward bending expressions and relates to the straight leg of poses like janu sirsasana, etc. (if the sanskrit is all too much, look in Light On Yoga and see plates 125-152 and you can get a sense of the way the shapes repeat.)
Additionally, these leg positions become the eka pada raja kapotasana back bends, so they can take me to back bends. Also, the hip mobilization prepares padmasana, all the standing poses and so on. As a jumping off point, these poses are excellent, provided you have knees that can do them, which is not always the case and would be a different blog entry, For a glimpse at the eka pada raja kapotasana back bends, head back to LOY and look at plates 539-547 and for fun with padmasana look at plates 104-124, then back up to the previous section where you will find baddha konasana and virasana variations.)
I am directing you to Light on Yoga for additional references and pose education to stimulate your thinking about how my sequence makes a certain sense. You can also take my online course where I explain a lot of Light on Yoga stuff.
From there, my plan was to take those basic leg positions into supine, hip extended versions. Then to a little side stretching, thigh stretching and upper back mobilizing, before taking those same leg positions into the eka pada rajakpoatasana preparatory cycles with quad stretching. Then into back back bends like ustrasana, dhanurasana, urdhva dhanurasana and some deeper work with the chair.
NOTE - these are not the full eka pada rajakapotasana (EPRK) backbends, just the leg positions with cobra-like back work. So, preliminary EPRK.
Also, I think about the three primary categories of backbends and incorporate them when I can into a back bending session. Some back bends are lifting up into spinal extension with the belly down, such as dhanurasana here. Some have one end anchored and lower down which requires an eccentric contraction of the muscles, like in ustrasana or drop backs where the abdominal muscles are toned as they lengthen. Other back bends have two ends anchored like urdhva dhanurasana.
So that was my plan.
Once I got into the sequence, however, I found my body needed more preparation than I planned. So what you see down the left side is what I actually did.
Also, sometimes when I am into things, I get ideas or creative inspiration and I think, "Oh, now, how might that fit in?" Or, "hmmm... you know, I forgot about that other thing, let me give it a go and see what it gives me."
For me, a plan is not a rigid, fixed or problematic constraint. For instance, Kelly and I had gone snowboarding the day before I wrote this plan. When I sat in virasana, my feet felt tight, my ankles felt restricted, and my calves felt bulky, making it harder than usual to get the deep knee flexion of virasana. So, I added in a whole big series of work for my feet and lower leg. (Many of you who are long-time students of mine affectionately know this work as the "foot and calf smashing routine.")
Then, back over to my original plan, after which I realized that some focused quad stretching and hip flexor work would make supta virasana a much more pleasant experience.
As I went on into the next part of my plan and I was down on my belly stretching my quads, I added in some twists, some cobras, some upper back opening with blocks.
I didn't plan on the twists, but I do like how they help my back bends. And there I was doing supta padangusthasana to the side and them anatasana and I thought, "well, supine twists would feel good." And then by the time I did anahatasana I figured, "Hey, I should do some cobra to get even more going on in my upper back." Once again, a plan does not limit me, it just gives me a basecamp from which to explore.
Now, the downside of all these exploratory trips down the left hand side of my page is that they took some time. So when I got to the back bends I did ustrasana and then a bunch of urdhva dhanrasana, I cut out the dhanruasanas, I didn't get to the chair work. But I did make a significant deposit in the bank of urdhva dhanurasana.
So here is a sped-up glimpse into my practice. And while this is a fast recording, I used a timers so most poses were 1-minute holds.
Pro tip - Use a timer for home practice. I use one on a basic Timex Ironman watch. The timer function has a repeat setting. I generally set the timer for 1-minute so I hear a beep every minute. This has been an invaluable tool for me in developing the capacity to self-generate intensity and focus. And, like a plan, a timer is not a rigid thing-- if I need to come out of a posture, I just come out. Plain and simple. No problem.
It's my practice, after all.
All in all, a good day's work.
I revisited the sequence two days later. I did the whole shebang, incorporating the side trips as part of my plan, since I had found them useful.
Which brings me to Sunday afternoon, a few days later. VIsit #3 to the sequence.
Down the left hand side of the page was my plan, incorporating the two previous days. You can see the basic repetition. (Also, figuring I was going to post the sequence, you can also note that I wrote more neatly and used a fresh piece of paper, rather than scrap paper from my pile.)
Down the right hand side are the notes of what that I actually did.
I used side stretching and twisting variations in the opening hip work. Once again, these were 1-minute timings so I was in virasana a minute, then each side stretch a minute, then each side twist a minute. I love side stretching in these four basic seated poses, whether I am going to forward bends or back bends. I get length for my side body, some deep opening in the groins, a lot of which I think has to do with the fact the psoas attached in the leg at the lesser trochanter so changing the leg position while stretching along the sides is not just a side-stretch only. And, as most of you know, nothing in yoga is only one thing. (Again, a different blog entry for a different day.)
Not included on my list of postures are the Down dogs I did between these long bent-knee holds. Once again, a plan is simply a plan - need something more or less? Add it in. Simple.
I should note, that this kind of planning is my approach for teaching as well. I always have a plan. I almost alway veer from the plan. In the words of Winston Churchill (I think): "Plans are useless. Planning is essential."
I stayed reasonably close to the plan through the supine segment and then the upper back work, but began to realize that my body felt pretty ready for back bends. So, I did not do the entire eka pada rajakpotasana prep work as I had planned. Once again, I skipped the dhanurasanas. (There is a theme here emerging - I am generally happy to skip those poses. Note to self - practice those poses.)
I got to some chair work. and while it says urdhva dhanurasana, what I actually did was:
Then I added in some supine closing postures and simple forward bends and then did my evening meditation session. I would have like to do savasana after that, but life was calling and I answered and went on to the next thing.
So that's a wrap, except for my shameless promotions. If you are still reading, then you are just the kind of yoga practitioner who would love my upcoming online offering Studies in Form and Flow. This is an in-depth, year-long, online program where I will:
So, that's a lot. It is a lot because there is a lot to cover and I want you to know a lot as a practitioner and teacher.
My main aim in a program like this is to give you the reasons behind the sequences, the cues and instructions, and the principles behind the methods. This is a program for people who want to understand what they are doing in practice and teaching so that they can more consciously and skillfully participate in the the thing that is transforming them. Almost everyone reading this blog loves asana and has felt it change their life. That is one thing asana practitioners - no matter what style or approach - seem to share. What I want to help teachers with is unpacking the practice in such a way that they understand more about the practice they love and love sharing with others.
And, while I am primarily a "Form teacher" I am included Flow sequences because I am continually asked about the interface between alignment and flow, because I enjoy vinyasa practice when done intelligently and because I think you can have form in flow and flow in form and both have tremendous value.
Studies in Form and Flow is a stand alone program or can be paired with a series of intensives and workshops (done over 2+ years) for a 300-hour advanced teacher training program.
I took a snowboarding lesson last week. Among such gems as “Alignment is something we need to be vigilant about” and “Your breath is the best tool you have on the mountain,” my teacher taught me an acronym for riding that seems relevant to yoga practice both on and off the mat: Visualize, Commit, Execute, Celebrate.
See yourself riding in good form. If you come up on challenging terrain, see yourself navigating the situation skillfully and confidently.
Decide to ride. Half way down the mountain is no time to be half-hearted or half-committed so commit to the course you have visualized.
Well, this one seems obvious enough, right? Do the thing.
If the ride went well, great. If you fell into a pile of powder and spend 30 minutes swearing and digging yourself out, well, great- you got out. Whether the execution was what you had hoped for or not, there is always something to celebrate such as survival, a learning moment, and so on.
These four steps may happen in the blink of an eye or be a thoughtful, more involved process, but one of the things this approach does is help us “take hope out of the equation.” Whether it is snowboarding, kicking to the wall in handstand for the first time, opening a studio or launching a new teacher training program, “hope is not a plan.”
And sure, life is uncertain and there are variables beyond our control that affect outcomes. Still, having a clear vision for our endeavor is better than beginning with a vague sense of hope.
Don’t get me wrong, I am all for hope in the Big Picture- hope for humanity to pull its collective head out of its collective you-know-what to confront the challenges of our times and the fears that have lodged themselves deeply in our individual and shared psyches and made their way into our institutions, sure. I have hope for that because I have faith in the ever-present nature of Grace and Love to triumph and yet, in the immediate sense I think education, soul-searching, some good therapy and difficult conversations with self and others is going to be the means through which my Big Picture Hope comes alive. And voting. But I digress.
Visualization is not magical thinking. Visualization is grounded in skills. In snowboarding, I can imagine myself soaring down the hill all I want, but if I don’t understand edges, weight distribution and speed management, well, I am most likely going to be in a pile of snow with something broken not long after I begin my run. In snowboarding, visualization is not just imagining myself going down the hill but imagining how I am going to do that.
In asana, I may want to balance in handstand, do a drop back, or get my leg behind my head (although, let’s be clear, you can live a happy life without ever doing any of those things) but if I do not understand the mechanisms through which these postures occur and the progressive stages that mitigate the inherent risk of such endeavors, I will be disappointed at best, and hurt at worst. I need to know how to do the poses.
And, if I understand the steps and can see clearly where I am in terms of my skill, then I need to commit and execute. Take a drop back from tadasana to urdhva dhanruasana, for instance. I need to know to keep my weight in my legs, to bring my pelvis way forward, to lengthen my spine, lift my chest, and coil my upper back like crazy. And, even with all those things going for me and a good sequence as preparation, if I can’t see the floor behind me, I am not ready to go. Furthermore, “let’s just see if I can do it” is not really a good way to approach a pose where I could land on my head. And, if I can see the floor and I am gonna go for it, my arms need to be straight and nothing good will happen if, half-way to the floor, I am half-hearted or inattentive.
I think one reason why so many people are getting hurt in advanced poses is because they do not truly understand the process by which the poses occur. Not enough information, skill development and then the commitment and execution is either “lets see what happens” or is so full of willful zeal that there is no recognition of whether the poses is appropriate or not.
And, so, here we are having done the thing and it’s time to celebrate. Celebrate is not a simplistic, “it’s all good, life is a celebration” kind of concept but is actually an honest self-review with a mindset determined to learn, grow, and evolve through the ups-and-downs of learning through practice. When my run or pose goes “well” and I feel like “I did it!” do I know why? Can I articulate the reason behind my success so I increase the chances of being able to recreate the success and/or help others? (Teachers, we need to know why we can do things as much, if not more than we need to understand why we can’t. This is especially true for those teachers for whom many poses came easily.)
If the run or the pose didn’t go as I had hoped, do I know why? Can I identify my growing edge and acknowledge my mistakes without— and this part is key— beating myself up, criticizing my personhood or invalidating my sincerity? Can the exacting self-review be done in a spirit of compassionate celebration or at least be in a movement toward greater love? Celebrating is celebrating the fact I am on a learning journey, not celebrating that I am super competent and always kicking ass.
So, that’s what I have today in terms of learning, practicing and teaching. Lots of opportunities coming your way to join me in the process— Online Teacher Training Studies in Form and Flow, 2020-21 Advanced Teacher Training, Intensives and Workshops and online classes with Yoga International.
Regardless of your vision— snowboarding, asana studies, teacher development, or getting through holidays with a semblance of equanimity, I hope this entry finds you developing your skills, committing to what maters, doing your thing with joy and recognizing the many ways Life is always there to help you learn.
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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."