Most of my time and energy for writing has been applied toward finishing a manuscript for a new book on Yoga and Body Image. I am happy to say that I submitted it to my publisher, signed a contract, and have a release date for Spring 2019. I wrote Yoga from the Inside Out in 2001 and it was published in 2003. Before Facebook, before Twitter, before Instagram and before the proliferation of online media, I wrote about the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that the yoga industry was infiltrated by modern culture's narrow standards of beauty. I suggested that yoga practice could either heal, or reinforce, those norms, depending on where we placed our attention, both individually and as a larger community.
Since that time, the yoga and body image conversation has grown and expanded to encompass diverse viewpoints and to explore greater places of intersectionality with race, gender, age, and economic privilege. This book is an updated set of musings aimed primarily at experienced practitioners who, after an initial period of healing in yoga, may be experiencing disillusionment, disappointment, and who, in the midst of the current milieu feel a lack of connection to the spiritual essence of yoga, Beyond Body Image: Yoga as a Pathway to Peace is about moving beyond outer images of beauty toward a loving, compassionate connection to one's spiritual essence.
So, that has been one project. Not an exhaustive treatise, by any means, but an updated set of musings 15 years after my initial book on the subject.
The other project I worked on this fall was my Shelter From the Storm and Teaching in Troubled Times courses. (the courses are still available and posted online, even though they are technically over so it is not too late to take the course now. ) After crafting daily emails full of teachings and practices for 45 days, I realized, I had an outline for a book. I have been expanding and re-working some of that material for a second manuscript called Shelter From the Storm: Yoga for Troubled Times. I was really pleased with the course and am excited how this offering is shaping up as well. I hope to have the manuscript to my editor by the end of the month.
Between writing projects, teaching work, the holidays and the flu (which has kicked my ass for almost two weeks), I haven't written a blog entry in a while. In a way, this statement sums up much of how I am feeling these days-- keenly aware that it is impossible to do everything and that life involves choices about how to spend my energy. Of course, that idea is nothing new, but the truth of it is finding a new fullness within me.
One of my students recently asked me if I was going to do another Asana Junkies course soon. I said, "Well, I don't really practice like that right now, so it's not like I have tons of new things to say about back bends and arm balances that I haven't already said."
She asked me, "Why aren't you practicing like that?"
I went on to say that for me to keep a lot of advanced poses in my repertoire involves a lot of time. It also involves not doing a lot of things I enjoy. And over the last few years, not hiking, not biking, not boating, or not snowboarding so that my back bends got deeper just didn't feel like a good trade-off. I have nothing against pose lust, big poses, or the pursuit of all of that and have no axe to grind about advanced poses. And, I have plenty of help I can offer people who want to do those things in the right setting. However, for me, big poses just don't seem as interesting to me these days as meditation, mantra, a great hike, writing books, gardening, and some good, basic asana to keep things working well.
Like I said, choices.
Maybe you can have it all, but it never seems to me you can have it all at the same time. (And truth be told, I doubt most of us can really have it all, but that is another post for another day. Of course, on a spiritual level, we already have it all, but again, a different post for a different day.)
I have always considered asana a life-long relationship. And like any relationship that endures the test of time, there are bound to be changes over the long haul. Years ago, I wanted to be like some of my yoga teachers who were doing advanced poses at 70. Now, I mostly want to be out in nature, connected to my inner life, and able to walk when I am 70! Seeing my mother deal with the loss of mobility from her stroke made me aware of the precious gift it is to walk independently and how vital the strength and stability of both body and mind are.
And, my favorite thing about asana practice, is not the poses, weirdly enough. My favorite thing about the asana practice is how, little-by-little, slowly-but-surely, over the last twenty-something years while I was studying, practicing, and teaching, I charted a pathway inside myself where awareness can rise and I discovered a relationship with my own awareness. It would never have sounded exciting to me all those years ago, as I was pretty darn focused on those back bends, but I love feeling the connection between my big toe and my chest, between my chest and my back, between my breath and my mood, and so on and so on. As it turns out, all those hours on that rectangular piece of rubber were in service to something so much more than the poses themselves.
In a sense, that "something so much more" is the essence of what I have been writing about over the last few months. . Whether it is body image and the destructive forces of cultural conditioning or it is the troubling political landscape, the gift of yoga is not in the shapes themselves, but in what the shapes lay the groundwork for. The shapes and their depths will come and go, and perhaps, our interest in them will come and go. However, the steady, uninterrupted practice of said shapes, regardless of how fancy they are, lays the groundwork for awareness to rise, for us to know ourselves as that awareness itself, and to live our lives from a reference point that is deep, interior, and Real.
And that is a relationship that can stand the test of time.
"Hard work is not easy." --Papa Peter Rhodes
I returned home yesterday from a three-day intensive I taught with my friend, Darren Rhodes at Yoga Oasis. Darren and I have been friends for many moons and have spent literally over a thousand hours co-teaching over the years. This training, like every time we teach together was a intense, sweet, difficult, beautiful, fun, hard, running us all through a gamut of emotions and a rich group process.
The title of the workshop was The Work and we used Red Hawk’s book, Self-Observation, as springboard for inquiry and discussion. Based on the principles of the the Fourth Way, this book offers a thought-provoking foray into the process of developing a relationship with attention.
On the last morning we had a discussion about the relationship between self-observation and privilege which launched us in to some tender and passion-filled territory about money, beauty, race, gender, opportunity and oppression, fragility and courage. I want to protect the sanctity of the space that occurred by not giving a point-by-point recap. The tender vulnerability and messy honesty we shared is still too raw and precious for public consumption on a blog. I can’t risk that the details would be held in anyway other than sacred.
That being said, the experience was so valuable I feel like I need to write something.
The landscape of my yoga trainings is changing. Only a few years ago, the kinds of questions I was asked had to do with poses and personal psychological issues. Now, due to magnificent work in the fields of activism and in the intersection of social justice and yoga, coupled with the disturbing trends in our national political arena, students and yoga teachers are asking different questions.
Don’t get me wrong— I still get questions about how to deepen back bends, how to deal with injuries, and I still hear about plenty about personal challenges and triumphs. But when my former teacher would use the word diversity, I think he really mostly meant that we could all be different— in so far as a group of mostly affluent, white people can be different. Like, some can be loud and some can be quiet and some can be funny and some can be serious. Maybe he meant racial diversity but there was really only one or two people of color in any training from what I observed. The word was used, sure, but not in the same way, that we use it now.
Of course, because this is a blog entry and I am attempting to keep my tendency to ramble reigned in, I am making gross generalizations. I mean no harm. I am hoping to illustrate that, while we have so much work to do-- as a culture and as a yoga community— to dismantle systems of oppression through education and action, something has shifted in the field.
One of my long-time students was in the room this weekend. She told me that her Facebook memories feed had a quote she posted six years ago. The quote read something like— “If you are a happy person, the world will be a happy place. And if you are an unhappy person, the world will seem to you an unhappy place. The world reflects to you your inner state.” In the last six years she got a master’s degree, educated herself on the realties of systemic oppression and institutionalized racism, and is now an outspoken feminist and body-positive yoga teacher with a private psychotherapy practice who would never post a quote like that. She and I discussed how a conversation like our group had on Sunday morning would never have been in that same room six years ago. We both knew that was true, because we have both been in that very room for almost ten years.
So maybe there is a reason for hope.
I should state honestly that our group’s conversation wasn’t perfect and I was grateful to have it. We plodded together through what was messy, clunky, awkward, tense, loving, heart-breaking, incomplete, unresolved, and difficult. I had to laugh that the workshop was called The Work, not The Play and so I really should have known.
Of course, work like we did in a classroom will not change Congress, will not feed the hungry, will not fix the hatred and division surfacing in the fabric of our country and world right now. It will not stop fires, floods, or famine. It will not put an immediate end to misogyny, rape, abuse, injustice, discriminatory policies and so on. So we are clear that I am clear, I am not saying that praying for world peace is working for peace.I do not think 60 people— 51 of them white— is a particularly diverse population sample.
What self-observation practices have done for this person of privilege is to give me a greater capacity to observe my own defensiveness, my own fragility, my own seeds of conditioned division without getting so filled with shame that I have to shut down completely, Difficult conversations with my friends, students, and colleagues have helped me see how precarious the line is between wanting to help and being a savior; between creating space for others to speak up and speaking for others.
I have no easy answers or elegant conclusions with which to to end today’s entry. I do have appreciation and respect for my students and for the activists who are willing to keep disrupting the status quo so that we can all grow into our humanity more fully. Additionally, I have a renewed understanding of the necessity of heart-break on the road to this expanded possibility of humanness.
There is no way to wake up to the violence, oppression, division, injustice, and degradation upon which so much of our culture is built without heart-break. There is no way to truly listen to individual people’s struggle to communicate with themselves and one another what it means to navigate those same forces in a world that denies they exist without it breaking your heart. And there is no way to own up to our own conscious and unconscious complicity in the system without heart-break. And so, we must cry our tears as we let the heart shatter and work anyway.
And make mistakes. And keep working.
Also, for tangible help for navigating this new territory, please consider supporting this Kickstarter project by Michelle Johnson.
Find out more about Michelle here-- https://www.michellecjohnson.com/.
(click the picture and it will take you to her campaign.)
I am on my way home from teaching a four-day intensive in Portland, Oregon at The Bhaktishop, run by the fabulous Lisa Mae Osborn. In October 2011, I resigned my license to teach Anusara yoga. Lisa Mae invited me to come and teach at her place in the midst of many cancellations for various reasons. And while the years following my resignation were somewhat rough at times, as I struggled to find an authentic balance between my past training and my current offerings, Lisa Mae has stood next to me as a solid companion and friend on the Path. She and I are around the same age and have been “in the ring” teaching yoga for around the same time so we share a long-term perspective about the inner work of teaching in the midst of the ever-changing tides of industry trends.
And while Lisa has always been interested in the intersection of spirituality and politics, that passion has been ignited since the 2016 election and in what we both see as its aftermath. She has spent the last year using her studio-- and platform as a teacher and community leader-- to offer workshops, seminars, and trainings dedicated to inclusivity, diversity and social justice. These topics are highly charged, difficult to work with well, and increasingly necessary in a time when racial tensions are high, equal rights of all kinds are threatened, and every news cycle brings some fresh new hell for us to confront, examine, process, and attempt to integrate into what has become a new normal. Whether or not yoga teachers want to be political, and despite the valid and varied positions regarding the role of the teacher/studio in our current political climate, the cultural backdrop from which people now enter our classes is fraught with upset. That much seems obvious.
So, when discussing a format for my offering this year, Lisa Mae asked if some of the elements to which she has been dedicated since the election might be included in an intensive for yoga teachers. Thus, The Grace of Great Things Teacher Intensive was born.
While I am no social justice educator, nor do I consider myself an activist, I have never been one to shy away from difficult discussions in the right setting. (And, before that sounds like a “right setting” and “wrong setting” or a “good time to talk about oppression” v. a “bad time to talk about oppression” I do believe that some situations are more conducive to communication and dialogue than others. And some suit my temperament better than others. And so “right” is not a value judgement as much as a recognition of what I need as a facilitator to step into sensitive territory.) I asked for all participants to commit to the entire training, accepted no “drop-in-for-asana-only” registrations, and asked for a four-day intensive format where we met for five hours in the middle of each day with breaks throughout.
I had a loose template to work with and centered our writing and discussions around a section in Parker Palmer’s book, The Courage to Teach, called The Grace of Great Things. This section of his book talks about a vision of educational community that gathers around the great things of any subject, makes room for the sacred and secular to inform one another, and honors each participant in the community with respect and reverence for their varied experience, expertise, and humanity.
I found the week difficult. It rained continually and the group didn’t always laugh at my jokes. We had varied asana capacities and differing backgrounds and spheres of influence. The topics brought me into the realm of my own existential considerations of power, corruption, and futility which made me reach for sources of hope, healing, and strength in new ways.
I also found the work exhilarating, meaningful, and deep. One of my favorite things about teaching right now is that I have found some interesting avenues to make use of my many struggles as a person and a teacher. I have an abundance of stories about my varied misunderstandings— as a student, a teacher, a wife, a friend, etc. that illustrate how messy the path can be. I don’t share them because I “need to share” as much as because I hope to level the field a bit, to end the silence of shame that isolates, divides, and cuts us off from our own gifts and offerings. It's kind of weird to say it, but my teaching work became redemptive when I no longer felt it was necessary to have all the answers, to be a shining example of righteousness, health or well-being, or to have the most refined understanding of asana, anatomy, or philosophy on the market.
In writing, it seems obvious to me that as nice as it might sound to gather around The Grace of Great Things, it is only fair that those Great Things exact a price in order for their Grace to be recognized. And while I believe that Grace is Grace because it needn’t be earned, my experience has often been that to step into its flow requires some kind of payment in the form of personal inquiry, risk, trust, and surrender. And, it seems, that the gift of those sacrifices, is always returned ten-thousand fold from my students. To witness and participate in another person’s self-inquiry, risk-taking, courage, and surrender is a Grace like no other.
Some key points emerged as take-aways from my own musings and from the students heart-felt sharing, regarding how yoga teachers create safe space for others in this troubled time. The following list is not an exhaustive enumeration, nor do I have each point fleshed out in some organized plan, but here goes--
More could be said, but that is enough for today.
Shelter From the Storm: Yoga For Troubled Times
One month of Online Inspiration, Education and Support
Every day during the month of November you will receive an email-delivered straight to your inbox with yoga-inspired teachings, techniques, and practices that you can incorporate into your life easily and immediately. Practitioners and teachers of all levels will find personal inspiration for practice on and off the mat without long lectures, appointments to keep, or in-depth assignments. All lessons and supporting materials are downloadable and yours to keep and use over and over again.
For approximately $1.66/day, you will receive:
Please note— if you have been displaced (and still have computer access) or have lost your job due to recent upheavals, please contact me directly for a scholarship to participate.
“Not one political crisis, environmental tragedy, or interpersonal argument will be made better by you not being your most whole, integrated, work-in-progress self. CNN, Facebook and the Twitter-stream will be there when you return from your mat, cushion, or various service work. Even if your practice won’t make the world a better place, it certainly won’t make it worse.”- Christina Sell, Blog Entry 10/01/2017
If you are a yoga teacher, please consider adding on:
Teaching in Troubled Times
December 1-15, 2017
This course will build on the platform of Shelter From the Storm but will speak directly to teachers about how to use the reality of our shared world as a springboard for teaching, without sermonizing, glossing-over, catastrophizing, or avoiding. From philosophical teaching to prop-based exercises to sequencing strategies, this course will explore how to support yourself and your students to find courage, strength, and hope in both personal practice and in the classroom.
Daily emails, delivered to your inbox will include:
SIGN UP TODAY!
Please note— if you have been displaced (and still have computer access) or have lost your job due to recent upheavals, please contact me directly for a scholarship to participate.
“Yoga teachers have an opportunity to invite people into the field where anatomical placement meets inner awareness through attention, breath, movement and stillness so that wholeness and healing can rise. It needn’t be fancy, It may not require a sermon from you. You don’t need to know every last thing about trikonasna, nor do you need to have all your shit sorted out in order for Grace to work through you. The power of the practice, the invitation for Grace to move through the group, and the desire to serve are the tools of our trade and are not to be taken lightly or disregarded flippantly or cynically. And so, while tonight’s class or tomorrow’s training may not change the world, chances are good that the class will help you and the two-or-more-people-gathered-with-you to glimpse a greater Possibility than despair, division and hatred.”— Christina Sell, Blog Entry, 20/02/2017
Last night I dreamt of Las Vegas. In my dream, among other common dream-time images was something new— toxic rain. Down from the sky rained a green, thick, and rotten goo that covered everyone and stifled their ability to breathe, to see, and to speak. As the rain continued, the situation became increasingly dire and I struggled to get to the meeting where I knew my spiritual teacher was holding darhsan.
I awoke to the news, well, that we all awoke to.
I want to add something to yesterday’s blog entry, where I said that my reasons for practice are not very lofty and that generally, world peace has never gotten me on my mat. I also mentioned that I think we are in a time in history where the forces of evil are gathering and the odds don’t seem so good for those of us wanting to live in the Light. (You can read entire post here, if you haven’t. It’s 1038 words and won’t take you very long. Meet you back here in a a few minutes.)
Okay, we are back.
Today, I want to add, that, while I do not think that my down dog is activism, nor do I think that a group of generally privileged people gathering to practice yoga has much influence on world events, I also believe that yoga studios, classes, workshops and trainings— big, small, well-known, and/or obscure— have the power to provide sanctuary, refuge, and dare I say, shelter from the ravages of the storms of our lives.
I know that we fail.
Yoga teachers, for all our great traits and training, have blind spots, unexamined biases, and unchecked prejudices that can be gigantic and problematic. We have personality flaws that get the best of us, wreaking havoc in our families and communities. Our industry, driven by capitalistic values, is as broken as any other— studios have trouble making enough money to stay open, teachers deserve to paid more than they are, and students find it hard to afford their classes. Flashy moves and sexy packaging sells; wisdom, depth, and the endurance to stay in place year after year often go unnoticed, unrecognized, and unappreciated. I could go on, but if you are paying attention, you have heard it all before.
And yet, I know that in the midst of these failures, when we get enough out of the way to be of service to something other than ourselves, a Grace is possible. People come to our classes and find healing, respite, renewal, hope, faith, and the strength to get back up again. Not everyone. Not all the time. And yet, that these outcomes happen at all, gives me hope and inspiration.
The Christian teachings assert that when two or more are gathered in His name, there He will also be. The Buddhist traditions remind us that the sangha, or community, is one of the three Jewels of Refuge. Those of your steeped in certain Tantric streams of philosophy and practice will recall the teachings of the kula, or spiritual family, that remind us of the transformational power of Grace held in a community of committed practitioners. I remember one of my teachers in particular saying, “Consciousness, which tends to contract, expands when people come together with a common aim.”
Thiis Possibility of Grace, of sanctuary, of shelter, of refuge, is not ours to grant personally as much as it is ours to invite into Being through our active participation in creating, cultivating and nourishing a field in which it can arise. Providing shelter from the storm does not depend on our spiritual perfection or personality-based skill, but depends instead, on a continual emptying-out of ourselves through heartbreak, brokenness, mistake-making, self-reflection, genuine remorse, amends-making, renewed commitments, broken promises, forgiveness, and the humility that can only happen when we stay in the game and endeavor to contribute.
Like I said previously, I don’t think much about changing the world.
However, I think quite a bit about how to contribute. Sometimes, my best contribution is inner work. When I got interested in racial injustice,for instance, I wanted to act, but instead, I started reading A LOT. I asked people to read with me and to educate ourselves so that we might get some insight into how best to take action later.
Sometimes, my contribution is outer action. Do the dishes, take out the garbage, call the senators, donate money, grant a scholarship, and so on.
Sometimes, my contribution is enjoyable. I have loved watching my parents blossom under my care and seeing their lives take new shape with joy.
Sometimes, my contribution sacrificial. I own up to my temper, my judgement and sacrifice looking good in order to mend a broken relationship or to find a new threshold of intimacy. Sometimes, the most obvious way to serves is not fun, sexy, profitable or likely to get me any accolades whatsoever.
There is no one way to make a contribution and no prescription that I can make to help anyone find theirs. But if you are a yoga teacher, you are placed well to get started. Yoga teachers have an opportunity to invite people into the field where anatomical placement meets inner awareness through attention, breath, movement and stillness so that wholeness and healing can rise. It needn’t be fancy, It may not require a sermon from you. You don’t need to know every last thing about trikonasna, nor do you need to have all your shit sorted out in order for Grace to work through you. The power of the practice, the invitation for Grace to move through the group, and the desire to serve are the tools of our trade and are not to be taken lightly or disregarded flippantly or cynically.
And so, while tonight’s class or tomorrow’s training may not change the world, chances are good that the class will help you and the two-or-more-people-gathered-with-you to glimpse a greater Possibility than despair, division and hatred.
And that matters a lot.
To me, anyway.
And probably for those who made it to class.
I had a phone session with my therapist a few weeks ago. I began by saying, “Well, since last we talked, there has been a solar eclipse, forest fires, storms, and floods of Biblical proportions, and it seems we are on the brink of WW3.. And that is just on the outer plane.”
And, of course, she asks me, “Have you had any dreams?”
“Why, yes,” I replied, “yes, I have.”
Writing about yoga teaching and practice these days always feels like it runs the risk of being somewhat tone deaf. And yet, I do not have much to add in terms of political or social commentary.
As a practitioner and teacher, I can add my two cents that I believe practice remains relevant and important—although more than one of my colleagues and students has told me their practice feels insignificant, self-indulgent, and even meaningless in the face of so much devastation, heartbreak and corruption.
I think those feelings of doubt are completely understandable, especially for those tender-hearted, optimistic individuals who have practiced for the last 1-20 years thinking that their personal yoga practice and the collective energy of other folks who practice was actually helping the world be a better place. I, being a more self-centered realist (as opposed to a tender-hearted idealist) have never been motivated to practice by such lofty aims as world peace or making the world a better place.
Don’t get me wrong, I am into world peace. And, I certainly think there are some things “out there” that could use improving. And, to be fair, if you pressed me, and we went down the rabbit hole of my reasons for sustaining practice in my life, maybe, just maybe the conversation might end up there anyway..
But practice for outer change is not the narrative from which I operate on a daily basis.
For years, I practiced mostly to avoid the personal suffering that came in the form of self-hatred, addictive behavior, anxiety and general ennui. I suppose some of that original motivation remains in the pantheon of my personal reasons for practice. But at some point in my journey, I realized that I no longer felt crazy, isolated, or in need of a constant reality check lest I head down a road dictated by my lesser angels. At some point I realized, that having practice in my life is just a better way for me to live. Additionally, many behaviors and perspectives no longer required so much “practice”, but had simply integrated themselves into a more natural way of being.
These days I feel like we are living in a scene from the Lord of the Rings right before the big battle, when the forces of evil are gathering and, as is usually the case in any epic tale, the odds are not on the side of those fighting for Light. I mean, one scroll through my newsfeed doesn’t bear much good news about our current, collective plight. (Okay, there are the puppy videos. And some lovely reports of human kindness and small-scale miracles. So that is something,)
And so, if I practiced because I thought that my down dog could influence our current President to abandon his divisive tactics and become a man of unity, I would have already given up. If I practiced because I thought that embracing the abandoned and disowned parts of myself would make a difference in the heart of Neo-Nazi’s, hate groups and the growing alt-right, well, I would not sustain the effort.
And, as much as I have studied the non-dual dharma teachings of many traditions, I take very little refuge in the teachings of non-duality on a daily basis. I mean, sure, it’s all One and what was never actually born (the soul) can never truly die and this play of circumstances is simply the One manifesting in its myriad choices of freedom, blah, blah, blah. Great teachings. Inspiring and up-lifting. Even great conversational fodder on any given day.
But not why I practice.
I figure we are always lined up on a battlefield facing an enemy of some kind— be that enemy one’s personal demons, damaging social imperatives, oppressive cultural structures, or the many expressions our corrupt political arena— and we are called to fight. I believe practice is part of that fight. I believe that whatever peace, clarity, sense of okay-ness, embodiment, and/or transcendence we are blessed to find through the various mechanisms of practice are part of our armor and arsenal in a battle where the odds often don’t look very good.
But not fighting is the other choice and for me, not fighting means despair, blame, violence, etc. which are not viable options.
At some point in my teaching, I stopped promising that “if you do_____, this good thing will happen.” I mean, it might. But it also might not. It might for a little while. Then it might not for a very long while. And so on. The whole narrative of “getting better” and “achieving” has a lot of downsides on a practical level after a certain point. For me, the point of the practice is to do the practice and, it seems, that the outcomes of said practice may never be fully known and may not always be felt or experienced as "good.".
I am sure there are a ton of loopholes and inconsistencies in my musings today, which I am not really prepared to defend. My point is, if, in the face of “all of it” these days, you have abandoned your practice in some way— be it literally, like you never roll out your mat anymore, or figuratively, like you have lost faith— find some aspect of practice again. Today.
Not one political crisis, environmental tragedy, or interpersonal argument will be made better by you not being your most whole, integrated, work-in-progress self. CNN, Facebook and the Twitter-stream will be there when you return from your mat, cushion or various service work. Even if your practice won’t make the world a better place, it certainly won’t make it worse.
In 2004, I went to study yoga at a school in the Himalayas. Throughout the month-long intensive, my teachers continually opined that “people didn’t want to learn yoga, they just wanted to do asana.” I kept thinking to myself, “I traveled halfway around the world to learn. I can stay home and do.”
In 2007, I went back to India to study at a famous yoga institute. One of the main teachers began every class with some lamentation about how “Nobody wants to learn yoga philosophy, they just want to do the gymnastics.” I kept thinking to myself, “Why not just teach us some philosophy, instead of talking about how we don’t want to learn it? After all, here we are, a somewhat captive audience…”
In 2009, one of my yoga friends told me that the teacher of a class we both went to said to her, “Well, you know Christina doesn’t come to class to learn, she just wants to do the advanced poses.”
As much as students experience the grace of their teachers, teachers, too, live in the grace of their students. The power of the relationship between teacher and students exists because it is just that— a relationship. Teacher-student relationships in the asana classroom can be a bit odd because, generally, the conversation is a bit one-sided. Even a non-chatty yoga teacher is still doing more talking than the students. And the student is having a deep, interior experience while the teacher is having a more bird’s-eye outer experience of the class. This disparity can lead to all kinds of problems and hurt feelings. But that it is different blog entry for another day. My point is, one of the most sustaining and inspiring parts of being a teacher is helping people learn and when we assume students don’t want to learn, we block ourselves from the grace of the student, from the reciprocity that exists in sharing the learning process.
I wish I had a dollar for every yoga teacher who tells me their students don’t want to learn. I talk to a lot of yoga teachers these days and I hear this complaint frequently.
I get it.
I, too, brought up in a lineage of teachers who believed students didn’t want to learn, spent many years assuming students in my classroom didn’t want to learn. I had unconsciously assumed the bias of my teachers and projected it on the people who came to my class.
Being a teacher for people who did not want to learn did not make me happy. Being a teacher for people who did not want to learn made suspicious, angry, and defensive. And guess how many people want to learn from a yoga teacher who is suspicious, angry and defensive? Not many. (Which then re-affirms the original belief that people do not want to learn. See how that works?)
Look, I am not going down some new-agey road of “you create your own reality” as a yoga teacher here. Nor am I trying to ride some big high-horse about teaching. I have taught more than one forward bend class to people who seemed more interested in the state of their pedicure (or lack thereof) than they were in what I had to say that day. I have looked out into those seas of expressionless faces and I have lost my temper more than once trying to get people to come watch a demonstration that I knew would dramatically help them with their pose. I have subbed classes that students walked out of and I have received emails and letters with “suggestions for improvement" which included everything from my sequencing choices to my obvious need for psychotherapy. (I am not even kidding.)
I am not without reference points for the frustration so many teachers share with me.
Somewhere along the line, however, I realized that even though I love learning, my teachers didn’t see that love in me. They couldn’t see my love of learning because they were so busy expecting to see its lack. I realized that if they had been wrong about me, maybe I had been wrong about my students. I realized that even if people do not want to learn, being a teacher and assuming students were uninterested did not make me happy. I started assuming my students wanted to learn, even if for no other reasons than it made me happier to start with “they want to learn” as a governing assumption as opposed to “they don’t want to learn.”
And guess what?
People started to seem more interested. Not all at once. And not all the time. And not everybody. But I became able to see sparks of interest.
I began to see that:
a.) most people do enjoy improving in their practice even if they do not always like the means by which that improvement is realized (let’s face it, demonstrations and explanations can be boring, alignment can be tedious and even the most interested student can lose interest by the fifth repetition),
b.) some people are not ready to learn what I am teaching,
c.) some people are not able to learn in the way I teach,
d.) people’s interest in learning can be expressed in many diverse ways that I can not always recognize or relate to,
e.) just because someone may want to move and “do” a lot, does not make them uninterested in learning,
f.) just because someone has a different background and experience in their yoga training, does not mean they will not like or benefit from what I am teaching,
g.) I can let people decide for themselves what they get from my class and why, I do not need to decide for them in advance,
h.) most people will enjoy learning more from someone who sees them in a positive light than from someone who judges them harshly. (And, truth be told, even if a student seems to be attracted to a hard-to-please, highly critical teacher, that might not be the best pattern to reinforce and I would rather not add to that samskara, if I can help it),
i.) Being inspired and excited about what I am teaching is generally better incentive for learning than shame, criticism or threats of injury or rants about “right and wrong”,
j.) If my students are not interested, I need to look at what— if anything— in my demeanor, presentation, and/or our relationship might be shifted to create a more fertile ground for learning. I need to look at me first, not them.
Let me pause my list on that last one. I need to look at my rough edges, my personal indulgences in the classroom, my expectations and use my student’s seeming dis-interest to help me see some of my blind spots. I am not talking here about dumbing things down, catering to the lowest common denominator or turning my yoga class into a “Have-it-Your-Way-ala-Burger-King-or-Starbuck’s” kind of classroom. I am talking about looking at myself here.
And I need to see my students and their readiness to see if there is a place where what I am offering can meet what they are ready for. And sometimes, yes, Sometimes, no.
Case in point, one day I came in to teach my advanced alignment class and ran into one of my regular students leaving the all-levels flow class that was scheduled before my class. He looked at me, smiled, and said, “I just couldn’t focus the way you ask for today.”
I said, “You made the right choice— I have big things on deck that require a lot of work. See you next time!” And I did. He came back. A lot. For years.
And lest you think I am on a high and mighty tirade, I am the same way as a student. One of my favorite teachers at the Bikram studio I used to go to was really tough (nice and funny, but exacting and precise) and she gave me a lot of help when I would come to her class. I loved that about her class. But, I didn’t go on the days I didn’t feel sharp or when I felt too fragile for feedback. Some days I was more ready than other days for “learning.”
My point is that if, as a teacher, you find yourself in a rut, feeling like people do not want to learn from you, you owe it to yourself and your students to unpack why you feel that way. Maybe, the truth is, you haven’t been inspired or inspiring for a while. Maybe you need to give students some of what they want so you can give them a little of what they need. Maybe, just maybe, you are scripting the experience of learning together in such a way that you are failing to see the beauty of where the student actually is because of your expectations of where you think they should be or how you think they should be expressing their interest.
I could go on, but hopefully some of my personal examples are enough to help you get started in loosening the knot a bit and I want to steer clear of too much preaching.
And don’t get me wrong— I am not saying that any of this personal work will mean your classes are suddenly full and you are going to become the most popular teacher at the studio or anything of the sort. I am only saying that you might stumble into the field of your student’s grace to a degree that you can participate in the blessing it is to share the teachings with people who want and need them.
One of my former yoga students, Jeanine Canty, is a faculty member at Naropa University, specializing in transformational leadership, social change and the intersection of gender, culture, history and ecology. Last year she shared some of her thoughts about yoga in modern times with me in an email exchange:
“I get angry at the way yoga seems synonymous with whiteness, spiritual bypassing, and cultural appropriation. Today’s yoga culture feels less like a union with and more like an advertisement for an elite, privileged community. There seems less reflection on being a yogi that serves the greater whole and too much emphasis on self-care and ego gratification.
It is rare to hear a teacher acknowledge what is going on in the world and how this relates to our practice. When the shootings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other black men and women occurred along with the Black Lives Matter Movement, I noticed how angry I felt in a yoga class of predominately privileged white people. When we did poses that had us raise our hands in the air, I often felt like shouting “Don’t Shoot.”
This anger also comes up for me when I witness white yoga teachers bringing in Native American traditions with no acknowledgement of the historic and current struggles of indigenous peoples as well as the issues of cultural appropriation. The apathy in the yoga community breaks my heart. How can we be yogis who are at union with ourselves when we ignore what is going on in the world?”
I am sure I am one of the many people in our country who, caught between outrage and heart-break, are struggling to find the best way to contribute positively in the wake of recent events.
Personally, I always feel torn about the use of social media in times when the monster of racism and bigotry rears its ugly head in ways too hard for even the privileged to ignore. I want to declare my position but I am not fooled that a passionate status update is devoid of real, substantive action. And, while for some of my friends who are in marginalized populations, Facebook and Twitter updates are valid means of expressing solidarity, there are just as many who tell me they find it distasteful and and a bit suspect when white folks like myself think “showing up” can actually be done in the low-risk atmosphere of a Facebook newsfeed.
I fall off both sides of the the razor’s edge of social media these days. Sometimes I comment and get dragged down a thread that exhausts me and seems to come to no good end for most of the people involved. Sometimes I stay silent and hurt my friend’s and student’s feelings, failing to be the ally I told them I aim to be. And so on.
I don’t yet have a clear understanding of what is best for me and my community along these lines. So I fumble along— fucking it up some days and probably helping at other times. Win some, lose some, I suppose. I am not complaining, mind you. I think right relationship to anything usually involves repeatedly falling off each side before finding my way to what is both authentic to me and helpful to others.
Don’t get me wrong— I do things. I call my senator and congressman. I talk to my loved ones. I talk to my students. I talk to my colleagues. I donate money. I read across a broad spectrum of subjects, opinions and perspectives and try to pull from a variety of sources.
There are lots of resources out there right now from activists more skilled and more experienced in such matters than I am about how to take action to fight hate. I have found a lot of helpful suggestions from The Southern Poverty Law Center.
There are also a lot of resources for ways to stay educated, informed and active in the resistance. I personally tune into Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin's broadcasts as much as I can as I find her an inspired, passionate and grounded voice in the wilderness of politics these days.
I also write.
I suppose that I write as much to make sense of things for myself as well as in the off chance that my musings and insights may be useful to others. And, anyone who knows me well knows that I find it virtually impossible to give short, pithy answers to questions, making me more suited to writing books and blog entries than I am to writing good twitter posts.
At any rate, as a trained and experienced yoga teacher, as opposed to a trained and experienced race educator, activist, lawyer, or politician, I keep coming back to my own sphere of influence and how to best serve from where I am.
My student’s words have stayed with me, helping me realize that while many folks may want to come to yoga for a “time-out” from life and to have a reprieve from the stresses of our modern political, cultural, environmental climates, that time-out is actually impossible for people who are in any way marginalized unless the struggles of their lives are acknowledged. It seems that those of us who have unexamined privilege tend to feel most “comfortable” when things are left unspoken, whereas people who live outside the bounds of normative culture feel most “comfortable” when disparities, injustices and difficulties are named and acknowledged directly.
I could be wrong about that last generalization, but it’s a working theory of mine. And, at some point, it seems, that as the yoga takes hold of us at deeper levels, we start to realize that any person’s oppression is ours also; that no one is free unless everyone is free. And at some point, hopefully, we also realize that the vision of freedom is worth some discomfort.
Look, I am not saying that every Wednesday night class needs to be a lecture about systemic racism and institutionalized oppression, unless, of course, you advertise it that way, in which case, have at it. I am simply saying that “comfort” from a modern-day yoga perspective might be worth re-considering. Sure, it might be a bit “uncomfortable” to acknowledge the stark realities of our cultural baggage of hate, oppression and injustice, but not nearly as uncomfortable as it is going to be to live with inevitable increase in violence we can expect when those realities continue unchallenged.
In fact, I think we yogi’s are perfectly poised for discomfort, if we can look at it the right way. Sure, it may be “uncomfortable” to look at the ways our culture conditions otherwise good, caring people to feel different, separate and threatened by differences in race, religion, ethnicity and so on. And yet, isn’t the fundamental premise of our practice that we have thoughts, feelings, behaviors and perceptions from which we operate from and yet, and yet, we are also more than the lens of our conditioned identity?
For me, the glimpses of this “more than my conditioning” are what gives me strength. Every time I roll to my right side after savasana and I feel that deep sense of okay-ness so unique to post-asana-practice, I am grounding my self-knowledge in something deeper than my poses, my preferences, my biases, my wounds, my fragilities, and my fears. And you better believe that visiting that place repeatedly— day after day, year after year— has made me stronger. And I want that strength for myself and for my students. Shit, I want that strength for the world.
Come to think of it, the word comfort, shares the same root as fort, fortitude, and fortress, meaning “strength.” What if, from a modern day yoga perspective, we stopped equating comfortable with “not rocking the boat” and started realizing that true comfort comes from those things that give us strength?
I don’t think that yoga is activism. But I think yoga can be training in discomfort and more importantly, I believe yoga can be training in the direct experience of our something more. And I think that the something more is our strength, our hope and dare I say, our salvation.
I spent the weekend in Atlanta, Georgia at The Yoga Collective with Gina Minyard and her awesome community there. I have known Gina for many years now and as always, being with her is both inspiring and thought-provoking. Gina, having recently completed a three-week meditation intensive and training with her teacher, Paul Meuller-Ortega, was full of potent clarity and passion for practice and the process of awakening. Once again, I was reminded— as I so often am in both my life and my teaching work— of the potency of practice and the value of being established in the tools and techniques of the inner life.
Somewhere over the last few years, I have become less interested in whether what I am up to is actually yoga or not. In fact, the less I call it yoga, the more relaxed about my journey I am, the happier I feel, and the more expanded my sense of who I am becomes. Of course, along with this expansion lives a narrowing of my interest and a sense of honest recognition about what is for me and what is not for me. One thing that is not for me is defending whether or not what I am up to is yoga. I am more interested in whether or not my efforts are bearing fruit.
For years I thought the fruit my efforts would bear would be described in glowing terms like “transformation” and “evolution” and I would have a testimony of radical life changes and triumphs over my limitations.
Some of that happened. Plenty, in fact, truth be told.
And, of course, since I said I was telling the truth, some things haven’t changed.
And. while I I am being honest here, it’s beginning to look like some things about me are here to stay.
In a recent conversation with a friend of mine on the path, I was listening to her testimony of her radical change and growth. I noticed I felt a bit tired. Don’t get me wrong— I was happy for her that she felt the freedoms that she was describing and attributing to her practice. I mean, really, I am into it. For me. For her. For the world.
But somewhere along the way, (in the midst of my mid-life crisis/passage, I suppose), I got interested in another facet of my experience: How was I living alongside those things within me that —like it or not— have not changed?
I am not talking here about life-threatening addictions and abusive patterns of behavior and so forth that, well, we do need to go to work on for the safety of ourselves and others. I am talking here about the ten-thousand neurotic tendencies that annoy, distract and rob joy in ways too numerous to name. I am talking here about the things that I hold against myself and use to keep self-love continually out of reach, turning my own regard into something I have to earn with the unrealistic price tag of perfectionist standards I will never meet.
This growing interest in living with what has not changed does not make a very enticing workshop description on a brochure, nor would it have been of any interest to me when I got started working on myself all those years ago. I wanted change.
Well, truth be told, I needed change, if I was going to live. That sounds dramatic, but I am quite serious. I had some life-threatening behaviors that needed to stop. Believe me, I know how important shifting some patterns can be. But I have stopped thinking that there is some kind of salvation on the other side of all the things wrong with me, be those things perceived or actual, judged by me or by others.
Instead, I think there is a salvation to be found within those things I hold against myself. The salvation of which I am speaking is compassion. I am not talking about the surface-level compassion I grant myself that has within it the subtle, and often unconscious, promise that “one day I will change.” I am talking about the compassion that is only possible when I can be with my own suffering— even if that suffering is my impatience, jealousy, frustration, anxiety, anger, shame and sadness— with no promise or reassurance that “one day I will overcome.”
And, of course, the ironic thing is that the salvation of my own regard and tenderness, of my own self-compassion, often creates a shift. This shift is not always the shift of my outer behavior, but is most certainly a re-direction of my attention toward Love. That re-direction of attention toward Love is the fruit of practice to which I was referring earlier. Call it what you will, this re-direction toward Love is where my primary interest lies.
Postural practice helps redirect me, although its not as though every time I roll out my mat I am subsumed in self-love. Usually, asana practice is an achey, awkward foray into the stiff nooks and crannies of my body, mind, and emotions that somehow seems to yield an overall movement toward something quite sweet within me.
Meditation practice helps me, but let’s not be confused— sitting with oneself, regardless of method, is not always relaxing, blissful or easy. The direct encounter with the machinations of one’s mind is often uncomfortable and difficult, and while the overall effect may be a re-direction toward Love, the process isn’t always smooth or enjoyable.
I could go and on and on about the tools and techniques of the inner life that I find useful and many of them probably qualify, at least loosely, as yoga. But really, if I called these tools something else, they would still work. And the fact that they work gives me tremendous strength and faith in the face of the rest of it these days. The rest of it— from politics to family life to industry issues and everything that lives in the unique circumstances of our lives— create plenty of things for us to deal with and to practice in the face of.
And while everywhere I go yoga teachers report that they are working harder than ever for less money, and while students everywhere report that the costs of participating in classes and trainings are more prohibitive than ever, and the while blogs and forums abound with both valid critiques as well as with what I see as incomplete understandings made into problems, I feel fortunate to have found my way to teachers, teachings and practices that continue to help me deepen my understanding of who I am and re-direct my attention toward Love.
My wish for all of us is that we find that re-direction toward Love in and through whatever movement practice we do, whatever meditation style we engage, in the quiet moments of tending to our breath, in the active moments of our day, in solitude, as well as in our families, friendships, and communities. And, I hope that for those folks whose practice feels stuck, stalled, wrong or incomplete, who feel hurt, betrayed, and/or are suffering in their relationship to the teachings and to their teachers, that compassion can rise in the midst of their difficulty and bear the fruit of the movement toward Love.
"Attention matters deeply. Turn your attention to the highest, to what is best, most important, most crucial. What is fundamentally powerful for the growth of your life in a positive way? Turn your attention to your own intelligence, toward your own compassion, love and creativity."
- Paul Muller-Ortega
In preparation to write a blog entry today, I closed out several screens of commentary about Russia, health-care, Sean Spicer, Robert Mueller and so on. As I opened up a new document on my computer, I felt a bit at odds with myself and the world, trying to drum up something useful to write about yoga practice, teaching and spiritual growth. Truth be told, writing blog entries has been difficult for me since the presidential election, since watching our country careen toward the end of democracy makes the debate about “music or not in class” or “groupons vs. class pass” or “should the hips be square in Vira 1” and “do my next webinar” seem somewhat shallow and self-serving.
Reading or contributing to commentaries about the problems with modern yoga has also felt strange to me since November. Something woke up inside me the morning after the election that made me feel that squabbling about yoga in any way was a luxury I no longer have. I am not saying that there is no place for good, honest critique. In fact, I think we need critical thinking, discernment and clarity more than ever right now. But, if I am to have any hope that our political leaders might journey across the political aisle for the betterment of our society, I might as well start working toward peace within the yoga communities and let a lot of shit go.
Personally, I know I need the sanity and sanctuary that my practice provides me without the distraction of doubt, fault-finding and petty jealousies. I am talking here about the level of intrigue, shit-talking and suspicion that exists within yoga communities, not the valid concern about the exploitation of power dynamics, social inequities and traumatization that happens in yoga communities claiming to help people heal.
So, while there are problems galore to be explored, none of them exist between me, my mat and my practice. Give me a few minutes and few downward dogs, and I feel better. And I need and want that “better.”
And even without the dramatic political landscape of which we are all now a part, and even if the world of yoga was a utopia— which it isn’t and never will be, in my opinion— my personal life now involves living with my parents in a new place and adapting to a big shift of priorities on a daily basis, which has altered my perspectives considerably.
At any rate, so we are clear, I am not ignorant of what is going on in the political arena, I am simply choosing not to write much about it here. And certainly, I am not blind to the many problems that seem to plague the industry in which I work, but I am not so interested in writing about them here. And, much of my life with my parents is not my story to tell, but involves personal details that belong to other people, which feel important to safeguard.
I suppose that is what is on my mind a lot these days—what it means to safeguard one another’s personhood in some way.
When my mom had a stroke four years ago, Kelly and I were with Mom and Dad in the Galapagos Islands. We had to evacuate Mom from our small cruise ship in the middle of the ocean to a mainland hospital in Ecuador. So, instead of a 10-day, vacation tour of the islands, we spent six days in a hospital in Quito.
During that time in Ecuador, I reached out to a mentor of mine who had taken care of her mother at the end of her mother’s life. I made an offhand comment that what I was going through with Mom and Dad felt like a bit of a role reversal. She said, “It would probably be best for you and them not think of it that way. What you have is an opportunity to return the care that was given to you.”
I took this perspective to heart during that trip and have leaned on her advice during this current transition into a new iteration of family life. I do not want to parent my parents and I am pretty sure they do not want that from me either. I do want to care for them and help them care for themselves and to invest some of my time and energy in helping make their golden years a bit more golden. It is my honor and privilege to return the care that they gave me.
Of course, it is not sexy work. Caring for human beings is often messy and many times, mundane. Cooking, cleaning, bathing, talking, planning, driving, and so on define the structures of the day and become the way one spends a somewhat inordinate amount of time and energy. I am not complaining, mind you. And, all of you who have mothered and fathered children know the reality I am describing better than me. The amount of time required to simply create the structures in which a dignified life can occur is somewhat awe-inspiring.
I thought I knew.
I did my best to support those doing this work.
I didn’t know.
At any rate, a dignified life is what I want for my parents. And what I want for myself with them. And, a sense of dignity is what I have always wanted from my life of practice.
Not to be confused with some kind of false sense of imported formality, the dignity of which I speak is sourced— not in social niceties or through conforming to the outer expectations of others — but in a connection with something more intrinsic and essential. I call this connection Love and I feel it in my heart as a sense of “rightness” that has a quality of inspired groundedness. And when I am referenced in this Love, my own personhood is safeguarded from the many demons and entities wanting to feed on it and I am more able to stand guard at the gate for the people I love so that they can remain as whole as possible amidst the ravages of life's inevitable challenges.
I am interested in those things that help me access this state of embodied mind and heart that I call Love. I am interested in those teaching and practices that create strength and confidence in this connection.
Many of us glimpse this Love in asana, I think. And many of us who teach— for all our fantasies and flaws, which seem to be considerable— want very deeply to serve the recognition of this Love in others. And while the pressure to pay the bills-- to keep up with the trends and the demands of the marketplace-- turn the best of us into crazy people at times, still, we stay in the game because we have tasted something Real in and through the practice and through our somewhat haphazard attempts to lead others along the path.
So, while the world is lurching along toward its own ends and while our industry has its very real problems, you will find me making breakfast (and lunch and dinner), growing a garden, practicing asana, helping mom with her bath and going to the doctor with my dad. You will find me practicing asana, hiking mountains, playing with my dog and making time for date night with my husband.
And, when the planets align and Luck smiles, I will sit down and write a bit about my process in case— just in case— some part of my journey helps you along yours.
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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."