I returned home last night from my second visit to Surya Yoga in El Paso, TX. I had a lovely time with a room full of people of different ages, backgrounds, interests, capacities, and personalities. In other words, the weekend was kind of like every weekend when I go somewhere to teach. And like every class I have ever taught in a yoga studio. No matter what level we say a class is, no matter how we describe a class or a workshop- be it advanced, intermediate, teacher training, or philosophical in nature, every class is a mixture of many things.
We are different ages, different sizes, different shapes and we come with different interests in the practice. In any room, there are different capacities physically, different training backgrounds, different kinds of expertise, and different intentions. Some people want to work big poses, other people want freedom from pain. Some folks have focused their life on yoga, while others have full lives for which yoga is a support, not a central interest. In fact, the variables that might be present in any situation are too numerous to name.
These differences feel overwhelming to me some days. For all of my fiery sassiness, strong opinions, and independent nature, I have a personality that wants everyone to have a positive experience in a class, workshop, or training. Some of that inclination is a sincere desire to help people and some of that tendency lives close to co-dependency patterns like people-pleasing and fear of conflict, etc. I have been teaching yoga since 1998 and I have yet to find a way not to care when someone has a bad experience, misunderstands my offering, or for some reason feels less-than-resonant with what I am offering.
And yet, I have also learned that I am crazy person if I try to meet the divergent, varied needs, interests, and capacities in the room. And look, I write thoughtful sequences, I tell stories of my struggles, I make jokes (some funnier than others) in the hope that humor can dismantle some of the frustrations that inevitably occur in a class or workshop. I do my best. I make mistakes. I get it right and I get it wrong.
Recently I realized that I have made just about every mistake in the book when it comes to teaching yoga, except sleeping with my students. And, I am pretty sure if I had been single when I started teaching yoga, I would have made that mistake also. (Not that being married is any guarantee that a yoga teacher won’t have sex with their students, but that is another entry for another day.) My point is that I have gained most of my insight about practicing and teaching through the school of mistake-making.
I lean very heavily on a teaching from the 12-step communities that says “Take what you can use and leave the rest” and encourage my students to do the same when they take my classes and workshops. Not to be confused with cherry-picking or “taking-only-what-you-like-or-agree-with-or-are-comforted-by,” taking what you can use is a much more nuanced, refined, and complex protocol.
If, for instance, I have a back injury that is aided by a deep lumbar curve and aggravated when that curve isn’t maintained, then poses like malasana, kurmasana, bakasana, and so on, all of which round the spine and move us away from the natural curve of the lumbar spine, are not useful for me physically. However, if they show up in a teacher’s sequence, they might be useful for me in other ways. For instance, I might get a chance to work with preliminary or intermediate stages of the pose or use a different pose all together, which often gives me a chance to practice the postures of self-respect, self-care, and self-honesty. Almost always, my desire to “fit In” and “be like everyone else” and my very valid need for a sense of belonging is going to be worked a little bit when I can’t do what I see others doing.
And, as luck would have it, the challenges also live beyond the poses.
I was in a class one time when a long-legged, slender yoga female teacher made a comment about all the “bulky muscular thighs” that were in the room. Now, while I think she needed a better word that was a little more inclusive with less trigger potential, I made use of that moment to acknowledge and soothe myself by offering myself my own loving support. I had an internal moment where I was able to say (silently, of course), “Wow, she says bulky like its a bad thing….”
My point is that no teacher gets it right all the time. And, no matter how careful we are and well-meaning, the yoga classroom is fraught with potential for upset, misunderstandings, and problems of all kinds. And yet, against all the odds and challenges, amazing transformation occurs, insight dawns, and people come back day after day, year after year to roll out a mat, practice the postures, and engage a process that offers both solace as well as grist for the mill of growth.
I used to think that the classroom was supposed to provide some kind of utopian, corrective experience that would occur when I did it all right and when everyone liked what I offered. I expected the same of my teachers also. And yet, what I have come to know is that while much of the correcting, repairing, and healing many of us need comes through feeling heard, seen, and understood, some patterns are only shifted when we work in what can feel like the photographic negative of those desirable, affirming moments. Oftentimes, something of great value is born when we rise up from within for ourselves in the midst of something that seems (or is) less-than-optimal on the outside.
Not to be confused with tolerating abuse, minimizing dysfunction, pretending we aren’t hurt when we are, or some new-age notion that “no one can rob your joy if you don’t let them,” I am simply talking about a kind of educational environment where as teachers, we continually refine ourselves and our offerings and as students, we empower ourselves to meet the inherent and probable imperfections of group learning with as much clarity and self-compassion as possible.
Of course, there is nothing simple about what I am describing.
We didn’t have a big confrontational weekend or anything. In fact, most people really did seem to like the workshop. I know I had a great time teaching. And yet, these issues are never far from my mind and heart. Every year I teach, I grow more confident and feel more stable in myself and my offering. And, right alongside that deepening, every year I am more aware of all the ways I might miss the mark and the potential harm that might be done.
I often say that most yoga teachers fall into one of two categories. The first category of teachers is the “I have my playlist, I have my cute tights, I have my Instagram account— good luck out there” kind of teacher. I do not personally know any of these teachers I am describing, but I am told they exist by people I believe are trustworthy.
The second category of teachers tends to feel responsible for everyone’s experience being 100% positive, feels the need to not just teach a solid class but to heal injuries, address trauma sensitively, and cover social issues with depth and insight that is also non-divisive and inclusive. This teacher aims to offer a physically challenging-but-not-too-challenging class with philosophical inspiration that is both accurate, ecumenical, non-upsetting and runs no risk of cultural appropriation in a room that is somehow a comfortable temperature for everyone and that is affordable to all while still pays them a living and keeps the studio in business. I could go on for a while, because the list grows longer every year.
So, obviously, teachers in group #1 have to care a bit more. However, teachers in group #2 have to well, calm the fuck down and get real about the inherent limitations of group learning, which is easier said than done for most.
For me, the capacity to calm down as a teacher rests on three primary assertions:
1.)The power of transformation lives beyond “doing it right or wrong.”
2.) The power of transformation is sourced deeper than “people like me or my class or they don’t,” and,
3.) The process in which we are involved together is bound and directed by a Grace that is intelligent, benevolent, and ever-present.
Keep the faith. More soon.
There is a game on Facebook currently that involves posting a profile picture from ten years ago with a current profile photo. From what I can tell, the accompanying narrative involves a consideration of "how well you have aged."
This morning I looked through my profile photos and found the first one I posted in 2007.
I don't have a lot of great face shots from the last few months but I did take this selfie a day ago that can be a decent point of comparison, even though I was right out of the shower and generally my hair does look a tad bit better than how it looks in this picture.
So, Facebook, you ask how well have I aged?
I need glasses to read now, I have more grey hair, more wrinkles, my skin is thinner and looser, and while I weigh about the same, my body composition is surely different and the rate at which my body recovers from activity has changed. Without a doubt, anyone with eyes to see can observe for themselves the visible signs of physical aging I am describing. And look, I moisturize, take my vitamins, exercise, meditate, eat reasonably well and still, my physical body is changing. I am okay with the changes so far.
What I am not sure the photos capture is the inner work of aging well.
I have been lucky to be mentored by wise women since I was a teenager. From counselors and college professors, to 12-step sponsors, friends, students, and colleagues, I have always had friends both older and younger than me. One of my mentors once told me that "Aging gracefully does not happen by itself. If you want to age gracefully, Christina, you will have to work at it."
We live an a culture obsessed with appearances. Of course, this statement is not news to anyone reading this blog. My point is that a zillion times a day, not only are we bombarded with images of beauty that are generally white, young, thin, able-bodied, etc., we are also battered with the message that beauty and appearances are things in which we should invest our time, money, energy and attention. A question such as "How well have you aged?" is resting in a context of youth-centric, appearance-based values, as if continuing to look young, and therefore beautiful, means we are somehow succeeding at the process of aging.
Truth be told, I find that culturally-sanctioned premise shallow and uninteresting. And yet, because of the prevalence of such messages, it seems to me that we do have to "work" a bit on aging gracefully,
A few years ago, I decided not to color my hair as it was becoming streaked with grey and silver because it seemed to me that built into the mechanisms of physical aging are reminders of mortality. Personally, I want a reminder that I do not have all the time in the world to live my life. I want a daily reminder that time is passing and I want to make use of the time I have to live authentically. From grey hair to wrinkles to crepey skin (which I didn't even know was a thing to look forward to until a few years ago!) our bodies are reminding us that they are going to go.
Conventional thinking on aging seems to fall into two primary categories, from what I observe. One strategy that many try is to hide all signs of aging, to ignore the inevitability of aging and death and to, in a variety of ways, shake one's fist at fate saying, "Aging, you won't get me!" The second orientation seems to be a type of resignation that blames aging for an inevitable decline in vitality, capacity, etc.
Aging gracefully, for me, is some kind of middle ground between these two extremes of conventional thinking. The middle ground I seek- and that I witnessed in my many wise mentors over the years- acknowledges the necessary changes and losses that time has brought and will continue to bring, while developing a deeper understanding of Life and Self. For me, how well I am aging, has more to do with who I am growing into and giving expression to, than how youthful I appear. From a yoga perspective, that the body is going to go, is not bad news because the teachings remind us that our spiritual essence, our truest nature, continues after the body dies. Aging gracefully, for me, rests on the promise that I can deepen my connection to that essence and live in an expanding relationship to what is deepest and truest within me.
And look, I don't mean to get too lofty about it. I am just saying that in the twelve years between the two pictures I shared, I have grown a lot. My life didn't get better in twelve years; my life got different. I stopped asking "Who do I want to be?" and setting external goals to improve myself. I started asking, "Who am I?" and found ways to let myself be who I actually am, rather than who I think I should be or who I think others think I should be.
In a lot of ways, on the surface I am a bit less together than I used to be. On the inside, however, I feel like myself more of the time. I am more spacious with the wholeness of who I am-- a caring, compassionate, full-of-fire, opinionated, outspoken, anxious, joyful, funny, and suspicious, etc. person full of flaws and gifts in equal measure. I am quicker to forgive myself and others. I have learned how to ask for forgiveness when I make mistakes and hurt other people. I feel more loving more of the time. I feel loved more of the time. I also stopped worrying when I didn't feel loved or loving, trusting in what is deeper than the inevitable ebbs and flows of my emotional life.
So I have more wrinkles and more grey hair. My body is aging. And my perspectives are maturing and expanding. All in all, a pretty good trade so far.
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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."