Monthly Archives: April 2012

Deeper Into Yoga, part 3: Teaching

Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Fabio Gismondi

I am starting a community class next Friday in Rogers Park, please contact me if you’re interested in coming. It will be a donation-based class, since I’m still honing my chops. I should have something up on Facebook in a day or two.


I’m so mental that it literally hit me one day recently that I was actually going to be teaching this stuff. I’m not sure what I was thinking before, but the teaching bit is really good for me because it adds a little gravitas and structure to my training. Otherwise it would just be easy to be sort of half-committed, taking away yet more information about life, but not really having to put it into practice.

I feel I have more responsibility to really know my stuff if I’m going to teach it.

It’s also good for me that yoga is about practice more than philosophy. We do some reading and studying, but even the philosophy we read is very experiential; the yoga sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, they mostly guide, organize and explain the experiences you are likely to have as you delve into the practice. You are a student of yoga, and once you actually start to experience some of its more esoteric effects, which I’ll get into some time, you are an initiate.

You may or may not be able to identify with the level of scariness this word presents to me. The only thing I’ve been really committed to is my resistance to commitment, relatively happy to flit about in the realm of ideas my whole life.

Now I’m so excited to become a teacher, more than I expected. My training has brought me such a different kind of awareness of myself and others, but I understand that half the challenge is to bring that into the world, to help bring it to others.

I can’t be in a yoga class anymore without being very aware of the teacher’s style and personal idiosyncracies. I also can’t help but watch the other students’ postures as well, but without my former judgement. I still have a critical eye but there’s a sense of compassion and understanding underpinning it. I can see more deeply now, and I just want to help people to open to themselves. I know that this process leads to a gradual unfolding of cooperation and insight that brings a more harmonious attitude to life. And, incidentally, an ability to get out of your own way and accomplish what you set out for yourself.

I also look on those I know in my life who are teachers differently. I see their magnanimity, their unselfish service to others. Unlike many intelligent people I know, myself included, the teachers seem more to be without the need to prove something about their  intelligence. I think it’s because they are passing it on, while many who simply derive their self-esteem from it, who perhaps feel as if they haven’t performed up to their potential, are constantly looking for positive feedback to support them.

Until we share our talents they remain half-baked. I think there’s a simple balance in life that says that you can only take in so much, then you have to put out a roughly equal amount. In other words, if we don’t deliver, our talents molder. Without that angst, the best teachers seem able to remain open, to be students of the world, seeking to learn and not just to be seen to know.

I marvel to see all of my classmates finding their voices as teachers, a process which is bringing us all both more in to and out of ourselves. Some are so physical and seek the most basic way to articulate movement to the student. The ones who are no BS, put things in a no BS way. It’s pretty entertaining to see. I’m not sure how I’ll be, but I’m striving for an integration of the internal experience with the external, for this has been my challenge. If that sounds vague, I guess it’s about this strange and wonderful feeling I get sometimes in yoga, that the movement is literally starting from somewhere deep inside, from the belly of the breath, and moving into the body/world without modification or self-consciousness.

This reassures me that thinking is not the only way to approach or produce effects in life.

As a consequence, I feel more purposive, confident, and direct. I feel less likely to create drama in my daily life. I don’t sweat the small stuff. The more I seek to give, the more I feel I get. This is a major turning point for me. It’s hard to admit how self-absorbed I’ve been. But when you find your way through a quandary that’s been puzzling you for years, you can’t quibble with the past. You just breathe a sigh of relief to find that it all brought you somewhere.

Learning lessons is fun, isn’t it?


Deeper Into Yoga, part 2

Wings over Dublin
Photo Credit: Steve-h via Compfight

At first I was excited to get down to some crazy yoga shit, to get into handstand, forearm stand and full wheel for more than a few seconds. I grew slightly impatient as the weeks passed and my teachers kept having us do things like downward dog with bent knees, or chaturanga prep. Seriously, at first that just seems like you’re laying there doing nothing. I  questioned my commitment. As much as I had balked at yoga classes that caused aches in my low back and arms from too many pushups, I still thought that’s what yoga was. I thought maybe I was too advanced for the program.

I realized soon enough just how inculcated I was into a Western mindset and approach.

Goal orientation and an acquisitive attitude toward life, however much like living in Pacman it may be, is not easy to give up. It’s not even easy to notice, in all the varieties of ways it filters down into every crevice of the way one does things.

I wasn’t alone. In the second or third week, a student asked when we’d get into to more advanced stuff. Our teacher M. said, with slight exasperation (the most unease I’d ever see in her): “We’re not trying to get anything, we’re here to get rid of things!” That quip aside, she explained more gently.

One of the first things I learned was that there is even an attitude there. And that it (wanting to get through it so I can get to the rest of my day) makes it hard, nay almost impossible, to notice the subtle sensations in the body.

Yoga is about letting go of the biases accumulated in the body. In yoga philosophy this is tantamount to saying that yoga is learning about letting go of the accumulated experience that makes you act the same way over and over, based on old information. Experience leaves its marks on the body, most solidly, and on the mind and in life in general. “How you do one thing is how you do everything,” they say. Yoga is a kind of play area to see what you’re like.

This is true of any discipline that targets the body. It’s hard to change, your limits are not something that you can bullshit, and it pushes your buttons, showing your reactions and attitudes pretty quickly. Henry Rollins agrees. (via Medusa)

The body is in some ways the hardest thing to change because it is the most solid thing we have. Years of habitual behavior shows on the body, has been hardened into solidity, and has become the norm. If focus plus time creates things in this world, the body becomes the most clear map on which the past is drawn.

Though the body is most solid, it is still where we can most easily begin to manifest change. That’s because it is also the most accessible way for us to see change. Change in the body (or anything) happens only over time, with sustained effort. When speaking about any of yoga’s benefits, we are taught to preface it with, “Over time with practice…” This inculcates a different attitude. It teaches how change happens, to teach you how to work on other more subtle aspects of life that need work.

Change starts with awareness. Not will, not even understanding, but awareness. The big idea is that in life you just have to notice things. This orients you to the reality of things rather than wishful thinking. And you need to let go of judgment about what you find. Guilt merely feeds denial. This is how the paradox can be: Acceptance leads to change. Although I’d use the word awareness over acceptance, which has a whiff of resignation and irresponsibility.

Our teachers didn’t seem to mind if we were impatient; they were reassuring, but they also just let us be. They said we’d find most of what could sustain us as teachers in our own practice.

I started to slow down when I practiced, building the pose from the ground up, do simpler poses, and became aware of my body in an entirely new way. Using the breath, I could begin to feel and let tightness go.

It worked. Slowly things did change. We all progressed in a somewhat miraculously systematic way. We lost a few along the way, but most of us became devoted. In the process we have become more supportive of ourselves and each other. As a yoga teacher said on NPR recently, who knows why evening out your weight on your feet, hips, shoulders, or setting an intention, or connecting movement to breath, leads to peace of mind and just generally being a happier person, but somehow it does.


Deeper Into Yoga, part 1

I’ve been getting deeper into yoga. I’m in a teacher training program and I graduate in just two months. The program is a rigorous and traditional hatha program, it’s been around since the 60s, was actually one of the first programs for hatha teacher training in the U.S. We have gone steadily through what are called the 8 limbs of yoga, of which asana or posturesthat most of us understand to be yoga are just one part.

It took me a long time to get around to doing this program. I started researching similar trainings four years ago when I was in New York. It seems inevitable how, looking back, that I would eventually do something like this. I’ve always been seeking some deeper understanding of life that seemed elusive.

I didn’t realize how much tension I had accumulated in my body over the years at my office job, doing “knowledge work” and just generally thinking, reading, and talking for most of the day. It seemed normal. Most of the yoga I took then just compounded the problem. The quick, strenuous, movements of traditional exercisedone with the kind of haste with which you make up for lost timeoften encourages habitual overuse of stronger muscles, making them stronger, and tighter, while making weaker muscles still more inaccessible.

Yoga, as I’ve learned, is used to correct imbalances in the body and biases in our posture so that the skeleton easily bears the weight of the body, and the muscles don’t have to overwork. And, what came to be over time can only be changed over time.

The aches in my body also reflected the tension underlying my fairly hard-driving nature, something I didn’t even recognize for a long time because it didn’t gel with my laid-back manner. When I was in college, I told a friend I wanted to do yoga to help relax, and she said, “Jeez, Em, If you were any more relaxed, you’d be unconscious!”

It confused me, how others saw me, because even then I felt dissatisfied and tense, despite (or because of) my passive demeanor. Through the years my obsessive habit of overthinking hardened into feelings of stuckness that pervaded my life, and my body. Stuck in an eddying whirlpool, not going anywhere for all the energy I was expending.

Even when I tried to find a solution, I was just using the same techniquesoverthinking, a critical problem-solving attitudethat got me into the predicament. Friends used to say to me, “You think too much,” and I’d say: “That’s interesting, I’ll think about that.”

It was only in yoga that I began to learn a different way, and to understand why my approach didn’t work to begin with.

To be continued…

Photo Attribution: By Robert Bejil Photography

Personal Cliché

It is interesting tendency I notice that when I come to some profound change in life, I often resort to cliché in talking about it. Even when I make it up, finding the right way to say something, it has the force and compact quality of cliché.

“You can do a lot of things in life, but you can only do them one at a time.” This was a lesson I needed to learn, as I flitted from one thing to another and had grown frustrated with having so little sense of accomplishment. This single sentence boils it down to the essential point, though the story’s colors are lost along the way.

I have an impatient need to just move onto the next thing. But this also reflects the nature of our minds, showing the structure we necessarily impose on our thinking and memory.

After we’ve learned, the whole story is compacted, filed away. But, there’s a short liminal period when for a time we can see what has happened, how the changes took place.

This is why, incidentally, in business research it’s been found that it is better for someone who just learned something to teach others, than someone who mastered it long ago. Because you forget how you got there.

After the change is complete, in other words, we no longer have access to the mind that solved the problem. We may not even have much insight into the change, really. (It’s not necessary to understand change in order to progress.)

I’m reminded not only of Einstein’s inspiring quote, “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.” But also of a corollary, this time from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of larger ideas, never returns to its original size.”

After that window is closed, explaining it to someone else can be an exercise in futility. We usually end up with a lifeless cliché, like that most despised by young people—Be yourself. I remember thinking, when well-meaning adults would say this to me, it seemed almost perversely naive. As if it’s so easy.

But at a certain point in life you just become more yourself, mostly because you can no longer put the energy into being something else. It’s pretty simple. Your self is actually an aggregate of all your choices, habits, and opinions, that reaches a sort of density that has more momentum than any of your projects to be something different, better, more enlightened, more glamorous, or whatever. This is why history seems inexorable in hindsight.

So, “be yourself” is just a conceptual marker of accomplishment, an acknowledgement rather than an injunction. Having found the circuitous path to it in our lives, we’ve earned that shorthand. But, each person must earn it themselves. This is why it is so hard to talk about this stuff with other people. You use tedious abstractions, trying to get at whatever it is. Conversation is a way of reaching for something, finding the words for something is like summoning it to you. And once you’ve reached it, it seems almost beside the point to talk about it with others who understand you. You just look at each other and say, “Yeah.” “Yeah.” And move on.

A goal of writing is to to preserve a moment in time, so that by some magic we can convey the richness of life to those reading it. It becomes an experience in and of itself. This is way beyond cliche, it is communication. It can help forge connections and lead you on the right path.

This makes me think of an old story. One night years ago I was hanging out with my friend Sarah. We were sitting right next to the stereo speakers, in our very first apartment, in Portland, Maine, listening to Pink Floyd’s Wish U Were Here.

How I wish you were here.
We’re just two lost souls
swimming in a fish bowl
year after year.
Running over the same old ground
What have we found
The same old fears?
Wish u were here

We looked at each other, stoned, all of nineteen, and said, “So true.”