Category Archives: Health

Deeper Into Yoga, part 6: Some Woo-Woo Stuff

© Emily Johnson

The other day one of my fellow trainees asked how to balance the needs of students in a class when they diverge. Some of her students want to learn about the philosophy behind yoga, and others were weirded out by that. They just want the physical practice.

I think this quandary is grounded in the idea of the two being somehow different or unattached to each other. I believe that if you are teaching yoga well, the philosophy gets in, too, and at best unobtrusively.

At the beginning of training our teacher said that we might find some things just change: how we eat, how we behave with others, how we think about things, all an organic outgrowth of our practice. And many of us have found this to be quite true. Then again, we have studied the philosophy, the Bhagavad Gita, the yoga sutras, all eight limbs.

But we didn’t start there. I’ve often had the suspicion that yoga is just an elaborate way to get you to meditate and do breath work, which is too subtle at first (read: boring) for most of us. It would be like giving a first-grade reader a book by Austen. It’s enough to get into the physical stuff, at first.

One major challenge for a beginning (or any?) teacher must certainly be putting physical experiences into words. That’s what we do, really: we translate the physical to the verbal, and then people translate it back for themselves. Things can get lost in the translation, so we try to keep it simple and send people back into themselves and not out, as can happen when we’re indulging loftier ideas.

The challenge is that we don’t typically verbalize our physical experience. We talk about what happened, and maybe our thoughts and emotions. That’s about as close as we get to sharing our actual visceral experience, and when someone has a particularly sensual or colorful way of speaking, it can be strangely arousing, like they can root around inside you. The best books do this.

It’s a challenge in writing, too. When I’m writing about yoga, I am a rationalist trying to redeem it, preemptively, from those in my life who might think it’s too woo-woo or “out there.” I try to keep it all very close to home. This is to entice people, to convince them. Maybe to explain it to them a little bit. Whereas with people already in a class the goal is to give them something they want, or need, a need just an unexpressed or uncomfortable want, however deeper it seems to be generated. And this, too, can be tricky.

As for yoga being “out there” or somehow esoteric; on the contrary I’ve found yoga to give me more awareness, more grounding in reality than I’ve ever had. It imparts both a will and a way to get beyond wishful thinking and escapism that seems common not only to many so-called spiritual disciplines, but to our culture in general.

Maybe it is all about the breath, which helps you stabilize yourself in the most uncomfortable positions. Keeping breathing through difficult or strange or new movement also trains us to regulate our emotions and soothe ourselves, in a life and time when more and more people are succumbing to stress-induced sickness, both mental and physical.

Yoga is a practice of beginning again, always back at the source, which is just ourselves. Just standing there is a pose, and we do have to learn how to just stand there. Yoga literally means the yoking of the mind to the body. We use the body to quiet the mind, and then learn to use both as tools, as both the means and the measure of things. The breath and the movement bring us into a better acquaintance with our body, inside and out. It shows us that our everyday level of awareness is pretty superficial, and it shows us this by taking us deeper.

Is that all the philosophy you need? I like the idea that you just go along and you get it when you’re ready for it. That includes knowledge, lucky breaks, and challenges too. So sure, yes! And that must include the teacher too. If it comes up for you, it comes up. Some people will zone it out anyway.

Deeper Into Yoga, part 5: Teach, Taught

End of Day in the Enchanted Forest
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Fred

I had my teacher training demo last weekend, and I taught a class with about five people the night before. I passed my demo with flying colors! Rah!

It went really well. Friday night I was shy, tentative, worried about getting the instructions right. Saturday morning I was bolder, more creative, able to let go when I started tensing up, and use the energy rather than be reduced to the shakes.

I’ve noticed that I am absorbing the wisdom of simplicity. Sometimes I can get so deep with the thing that I lose the thread that makes it intelligible to other people. I am learning to come back to basics when I feel myself spinning off into an abstract conceptual universe. In other words I sometimes need an editor. In teaching, you have to edit yourself, and I know from writing that this is tough.

You don’t want to get all up in your face and clog your mojo, you want energy flowing freely and cleanly, to be yourself, to not second guess things. It is just a little half-step back, during a pause, when you take a breath and ask yourself, “First principles. What is the essence of the pose?” Or if you’re writing, and going a bit off, “What’s the story?” It always starts from the ground up.

In my first class, I was a bit tight, standing too far back. I didn’t let it flow, I was too concerned about saying everything correctly. One of my students, a friend of a friend, was a yoga teacher. Not intimidating at all! But he was great, afterward he told me not to worry and to be myself, that people will come because of my personality, not for perfect instruction.

The next morning I was able to remember this, and when I got worried or nervous, just allowed myself a couple of breaths, smiled and laid off a bit, and looked down at my students’ foundation to know what to say next.

Which is what I love about yoga. It is real, it is a physical embodiment of principles that work for literally everything. Foundation. Ground down and lift from there, etc. The routine, the limited system is very comforting (something about freedom within confinement, feeling held, yes?)

My writing mind is engaged with the challenge of saying these things over and over (essentially), but differently, to keep students listening, each one feeling it differently in their body when you put it precisely this way, or that way.

At school I had to pee all morning. I couldn’t remember the last time I was that invested and excited about something. I had to go back to dance recitals as a kid to locate a similar feeling. (Writing is different, it’s more of a wave of euphoria when I get something real down, then a rush of dread when I think people might actually read it). This is more about performance, something I really haven’t done much in adulthood. But it’s also not about me. It’s for the students, and this short-circuits my modesty and appeals to my desire to serve others, a higher purpose. And I still get the rush of it. I am so pleased. Yoga, and learning to teach, has brought me more into and out of myself.

Read on…for more woo woo stuff.

Deeper Into Yoga, part 4: Mission

I will be conducting a yoga class this Friday in Rogers Park, hosted by the folks at the Solarium. I have my final in teacher training–to teach a demo class to my classmates–on Saturday morning, so I was a bit unsure of putting another source of nervousness on my plate the night before. But then I thought, why not? I might as well get two for the price of one nervous day.

I wrote this to help me prepare for teaching, and to aid me in grounding the practice in the  basic alignment principles that will allow my students to build a personal practice of their own. This is important in yoga, the path of change (in the body, in the mind) runs gradually, over time and with regular practice.

Mission Statement

We escape into our minds every day, constantly ruminating about issues in our personal and professional lives. This way of being often leaves us feeling anxious and exhausted, yet we repeat the cycle on a nearly daily basis. So distracted from what we really need to do, change seems inaccessible.

Yoga is a way to rebuild the pathways between our external senses with our internal experience of life. It reconnects us to the body, from the skin on down to the very cells. Yoga allows us to achieve centering, focus, self-care, and a healthy relationship with the body. It promotes health in the circulatory system, better digestion, cardiovascular health, calm and focused awareness. Even more, it supports transformation in the body and courage in everyday life. The healthier we feel, and the more we take care of the basics in our life, the more we have a stable base from which to perform great feats in life.

Yoga is for everyone, and you do not need to be super physically fit to take part. We begin where we are. This class will acquaint both new and more seasoned practitioners with the building blocks that support a personal daily practice.

Read on

FAM: Natural Birth Control

Here is an essay I wrote detailing my “100% natural!” birth control method. Check yourself before you wreck yourself! (Respect.)

After years of people’s suspicions about my birth control
method, I have only to point out exhibit A: my non-pregnancy over the past five years, using nothing but my knowledge of my body’s fertility for birth control.

Keep reading: Fertility Awareness Method (FAM)

It appears in this week’s Loyola Women’s Studies Digest.

For more information on the method, for birth control or pregnancy achievement, check out Planned Parenthood.

Health insurance sucks

This is a guest post I did about my befuddled search for health insurance, reprinted below in its entirety. Don’t tell me it’s not interesting. I know health insurance is “not interesting.” Kafka’s bureaucracies are also, in a quantitative way, not interesting. And no I’m not comparing myself to Kafka.


Health Care is a Drag

It was an hour into the conversation with the insurance agent when I realized that the policy I was about to buy didn’t really cover very much. I would have a high deductible*, coinsurance* and for an additional $40/month I could buy an “accident benefit” that covers the deductible if I “fall off the roof,” as Sue the agent put it. Why not get a plan with no deductible, then? But I didn’t get into it. I was afraid to ask the question, it seemed like one question would only open the floodgates on a dozen more, and I knew the answers would be as slippery as the carefully written language of the policy itself, and would be calculated not to give me the basic information.

How many thousands of people had had similar conversations with clueless agents, 24-year-olds, aspiring to have interesting jobs (Sue wants to be a music manager) but had graduated at the worst time ever, forced to pay her dues instead as a professional obfuscator.

Poor Sue, she didn’t even know. The confusion was built-in, showing wear, like an apartment in a pre-war building that has ten coats of paint. The newest coat is easy to pick at and magnifies bumps and irregularities instead of covering them over.

The real question I kept at bay was why buy health insurance if it’s so bad to begin with….

I’m one of the (lucky) few who literally has no medical needs. When I did go to the doctor regularly—the physical therapist for back pain—it felt slightly wrong, like getting massages on the company dime, and didn’t cure the problem. The only other regular med I have taken, birth control, I went off years ago. So I’m in a position to wait.

I looked at Sue and felt lost for words, thinking of how to ask the questions in the right way to force a simple answer. I thought about how much my “one annual wellness visit” or “four regular doctor visits” was worth to me. One moment a very basic question occurred to me. “Well, how much does it cost to just go to the doctor without insurance?” She had no idea.

The answer is that it depends. Seeing a doctor is like going to a car mechanic. It’s the diagnosis that will cost you.

The answer I finally uncovered was that the policy didn’t cover critical care. That means I was buying a high-deductible accident policy, what I like to call a Hail Mary policy. If I get pregnant, get cervical cancer or have a stroke, I am still SOL (shit out of luck).

So I answered the big question. Why have health insurance? It lacks the security it’s supposed to give. It doesn’t really cover the scary potentialities. And as for the basics, I don’t strictly need it. I’m healthy and fairly young still, so I’m coveted by insurance agencies. I should be one of those people subsidizing care for the sick folks. I’d love to, I can’t wait for mandatory health care, because I know I’d be better off with insurance anyway. I hope it will be more affordable and comprehensive, and several degrees less complicated. I know my solution is a stop-gap measure at best. But until then, I’ll keep my money, and my fingers crossed.

A few defined terms:

Deductible: Your expenses before insurance kicks in. Many low cost plans have high deductibles, around $5000-$10000. Doesn’t apply to annual checkups, usually.

Copay: What you pay at the doctor. Usually $15-$35.

Coinsurance: You pay a percentage of most medical costs. 80/20 is common, meaning you pay 20% and the insurance company pays 80%. Not so good plans will make you pay all costs upfront and reimburse you the 80% they owe you, rather than the other way around aka the sane and helpful way.

Wellness visit: Annual physical/check-up.