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
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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."