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Living with certainty in an uncertain world

The recent attacks in Paris have been at the forefront of my thoughts this past week, and at times my sadness and worry have felt almost paralyzing. One of my concerns as a yoga teacher is how to address these emotions that we are all feeling. I watch the way that people are reacting, from changing their Facebook profile picture all the way to full blown hysterical xenophobia from our own governor and other political figures on the right. We all feel helpless to do anything, so our minds go toward fear and anxiety – this is our imagination asking for what it doesn’t want. We may feel helpless, but we are not powerless.

Retreating from life is not the answer, nor is turning off the television and denying the reality of what we face. How do we create more certainty for ourselves in these uncertain times?

  1. Feel your emotions fully and let them pass. Emotions are fleeting and fluctuating, they pull us away from our natural state of equanimity into fear, anxiety and on the opposite end, love and joy. Our job is to stay in the middle. When we hold our negative emotions at bay they grow in intensity and can overwhelm us. Feel them and then let go. Emotions are like the wind that blows through the leaves on a tree – the wind moves the leaves and shakes the branches, but it doesn’t change the tree.
  2. Practice extreme self-care. This is where we cultivate equanimity, stamina and resilience. Be gentle with yourself by eating nourishing foods that are in season, getting enough sleep and exercise. Come to yoga and allow yourself to feel the entirety of yourself – your body, breath, mental functions, emotions and from there you can hear the voice of your inner wisdom. This time of year everyone begins to get pulled into the distractions of the impending holidays. This is the time of year that we really need our introspective practice of yoga, and now more than ever with the state of the world as it is.
  3. Take action on a local level. First, just be kind. Offer kindness to yourself (see #2) and then serve from that place. Volunteer. Be a helper. There are plenty of opportunities locally to make a difference.
  4. Keep your heart open. The people that attacked Paris want us to contract into fear and hatred. Don’t fall for it, and by all means do not demonize an entire group of people for the actions of a few, especially for their religious beliefs. When we see “other” we create separation from God. Separateness is an illusion that we create to make ourselves feel safe or superior – it isn’t real.
  5. Live your life with full-hearted enjoyment. We don’t know what the future holds for any of us. Life is short, so enjoy it – drink in the beauty of the season, spend time with your loved ones and live your life without fear and anxiety. Ultimately we are not in control of anything, but we can impact change and make our world a better place. This happens within each of us, one act of kindness at a time. Make the decision to live with an open heart instead of the pain and anxiety of a closed heart. As Gandhi put it, “Be the change you want to see in the world”.

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Happy Anniversary!

flowers_for_anniversary_2568908943This month marks my fifteenth anniversary of teaching yoga. Just three months before finishing my first 200 hour teacher training, I took over a class at the YMCA that had been taught by a veteran teacher, Hana Hofmann. These were big shoes to fill and I didn’t feel worthy or have clue as to what I was doing. I just stepped in and did the best I could through trial and error and being humbled every time I taught. Looking back, it was the best experience I could have had as a new teacher. I stayed for three and a half years and helped to build their yoga program by adding two additional classes to the one I started with. Teaching at the Y taught me how to work with all types of students – I learned how to see my students as people, separate from their physical issues and limitations, recognizing how we are all struggling with real life challenges.

Within six months of completing my first training, I was aware of how much I didn’t know about yoga. This is often the case when we embark on the path of teaching, and as a serious student, I had a burning curiosity and desire to learn, fueled by the humility I still feel every time I teach. It will be a lifelong journey with no destination. I still marvel at the mystery of the human body and the complexity of our psychology, and why we react the way we do to life, to the tough yoga posture, to the difficulties of relationships. I never tire of the thrill when one of my students makes a connection to my words.

Today I updated my hours with Yoga Alliance, a yearly milestone that is in some way an incomplete measure of my progress and experience. I look with disbelief – have I really taught that many hours? How many students does that add up to, and more importantly, what are all the stories and life experiences of all of those students? I think about this stuff. I care about the people that willingly walk into my classes. I take into consideration all that they are going through, along with remembering each individual injury or limitation.

With the amount of personal energy invested in my calling, I take umbrage with those that dismiss serious yoga teachers by considering them as fitness instructors, or fitness professionals. Those labels do not apply to what we do. I have watched the local yoga scene shift and change into something almost unrecognizable; to something I would name fitness entertainment rather than a practice that is meant to be mindful and help us to connect to something greater than ourselves. More importantly, my understanding of cultivating a practice that is sustainable and healthy over a lifetime, which goes beyond a passing trend.

Where I am today to mark this anniversary is not so far away from where I started as a nervous, self-conscious new teacher. Of course I know more about the practice of yoga, the body and how it works; I am more skillful at modifying my classes for everyone in the room, more adept at handling difficult situations that arise during class with challenging students. What has stayed with me is my intention of service and humility, that there is always more to learn. It takes a great deal of courage and personal integrity to stand up for what you know and teach. It is Old School. It is safe. It is effective. It is sustainable. That is the biggest lesson of my longevity as a teacher.

On Creativity and Yoga

 

jewelrybench

Recently I’ve been exploring a new process, something I’ve wanted to learn for years.  Sliversmithing – working with fine metals and a torch to make all sorts of jewelry, chains, clasps and other components. It feels like the next logical step in my adventures as an artist. Just as I enjoy making recipes from scratch, I enjoy the process of making something useful from basic materials, rather than relying on ready made parts that usually cost more. My husband Ted gave me a strange look the other day when I was in the process of collecting the necessary tools, and I said to him, “You know I’m not doing this because I need more jewelry” (Even though I am a bit of a dragon, hoarding shiny precious things deep within my lair).

Learning something new is a joy for me – a new skill or technique lights my imagination and opens up pathways for new possibilities. I enjoy the challenge of not being able to do something well and having to figure out how to make it work, how to perfect a basic skill and then add onto it. It’s good for my brain and motor skills, using new kinds of tools and not being completely sure about what I am doing, but curious enough to dive in with an open mind.

My first silversmithing class was learning how to solder two ends of wire together and make a linked bracelet. My teacher, Sheridan Conrad (owner of A Jewelers Art in the Paseo), gave excellent detailed instruction on all the aspects – annealing the silver wire, wrapping it around a dowel and sawing through the coiled wire to make the links. Under her trained eye, I bravely wielded a super sharp jeweler’s saw, a fiery torch and molten solder, creating a lovely silver link bracelet that I wear almost daily. I feel a sense of pride and accomplishment when I look at it, knowing that I made it, step-by-step – how I love process!

This past weekend Ted cleared a space for me on our old, cluttered plywood workbench in our garage, and I set up my jewelry work area. I set out my tools – my new torch, soldering equipment, wire, all in an orderly arrangement and set to work making jump rings. Then came the soldering, which was an exercise in frustration as I burned through several silver links, ending up with a blackened mess. How, I asked myself, was it so easy to do this with my teacher standing nearby, and why can’t I replicate the ease of soldering links by myself?

I am always looking for metaphor, and I realized how much I appreciate learning from someone with great expertise and mastery of an art or skill. As a yoga teacher, I hear about people who do yoga at home with a video, or students ask me to recommend videos, to which I cannot do in good conscience.  There is no replacement for the skilled eye of a teacher to keep you safe, or to show you a little trick to make something easier, or to save you untold hours of struggle with a simple demonstration. This is true both in yoga and in silversmithing. Both require a great deal of practice, patience, and the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher.

When I pay for a silversmithing class, I know that I am not just paying for the materials. When I make a commitment to taking a class, whether the subject is yoga or something else, I am paying for the teachers’ years of experience, education and personal understanding of the required skills. Breaking down a complex sequence and making it simple for a beginner is not as easy as it might seem, and I want the teacher to be by my side, observing, instructing, and offering helpful advice – not off on her own, making something that is years away from my level of understanding and ability.

Good teaching, of any kind, is a practice in and of itself. The longer I teach, the more gratitude I feel for every teacher who has sparked the light of understanding and awareness within me, and there have been many along the way. Their craft has served me as a source of inspiration and emulation – just today I remembered two teachers who I have been meaning to thank, and it has been 30 years since I have studied with them. Their teaching still echoes and resonates in my heart. Learning a new skill is humbling, just like yoga. I’ll keep practicing, enjoying the learning and unfolding of the process, and hopefully, create something beautiful along the way.

Process vs. Product

 

My yoga practice has changed over the years, and as I think back, I notice that there is a common thread, or sutra, that has connected me to my practice all along. It goes back decades, to my first discovery of my love for music at around age 12, and then beginning the process of making music; practice. Learning something new requires desire, curiosity, determination, enthusiasm and patience.  My background in music taught me a lot about all of these qualities. The instrument that chose me was the French Horn, a beautiful sounding contraption of a thing, which, in the right hands, can be sublime. I studied seriously through high school, college, graduate school and beyond, and won my first professional audition 4 years after graduation- this was a 15 year process. Even after years as a professional, I don’t feel that I ever mastered my instrument, despite my many professional successes. I love this story about the famous cellist, Pablo Casals;

When Casals (then age 93) was asked why he continued to practice the cello three hours a day, he replied, “I’m beginning to notice some improvement.”

The parallels between music and yoga are so similar that even after 15 plus years of yoga practice, I have yet to master anything on my yoga mat; but that is inconsequential. In yoga there is nothing to achieve; there is only practice. Earlier I used the word sutra, which literally means thread and is the root word for suture. In Patanjali’s definitive text on Yoga, the “Yoga Sutras” we learn all about the practice of Yoga. In fact, the whole second chapter, titled Sadhana Padha, is about how to practice yoga- Sadhana is the Sanskrit word for practice. Interestingly, the physical practice is only mentioned twice in the entire book.  The first set of verses that reflect my thoughts on practice are 1.13-14;

Practice is basically the correct effort required to move toward, reach, and maintain the state of Yoga.

It is only when the correct practice is followed for a long time, without interruptions and with a quality of positive attitude and eagerness, that it can succeed.

So yoga is a state of being that we are working toward by way of practice. I’ve been observing a trend lately, in that yoga seems to be more and more focused on the attainment of advanced poses, rather than on the merits of steady, dedicated practice. Our culture seems to be oriented toward acquiring things, getting it now and achieving immediate results; “getting” that challenging pose and then showing it off via social media. The process, the most potent part of our practice, seems to be getting lost.  In the past when I pushed myself into more challenging postures, I didn’t feel any of the things we are trying to accomplish in yoga– authenticity, inner peace, our true nature, awareness, etc.- I just felt my body differently and often ended up  tweaking a muscle or injuring myself, which actually made my practice more challenging in the long run. In the process my mind would contribute plenty of negative feedback about my lack of ability or self-worth as a yogi, which was totally un-productive and un-yogic.  So the question begs to be asked, what is there to be gained from doing advanced postures?

The longer I teach, the more interested I’ve become in how things work and how we get there, rather than on the attainment of anything. The practice and process have become so much more interesting to me than the product, the achievement of any advanced Asana. How do you refine the actions to the point where you are connected to every aspect of a pose, in tune with not only your muscles, but your mind, intelligence and even your attitude?  This requires years of practice and self-study – there are no shortcuts. Again, when you approach yoga from that standpoint, there is nothing to achieve; there is only practice.

There is much more to be gleaned from the sutras regarding this topic, in verse 1.15;

At the highest level there is an absence of any cravings, either for the fulfillment of the senses or for extraordinary experiences.

This is speaking to gratification of the senses as well as the ego- understanding and knowing the bigger reason behind our actions is the key.  Why are you doing it and of what benefit is it to your practice? Verse 2.26 talks about applying discriminative awareness, Viveka, to our practice to create more clarity. 

Viveka aviplava hanopayah; The ceaseless flow of discriminative knowledge in thought, word and action destroys ignorance.

This is one of my favorite verses, and viveka is one of my favorite words. I use the word discernment here to describe discriminative knowledge, being able to see what is below the surface of things and to really understand the subtle actions that are at play; physically as well as mentally. The next verse states that the attainment of clarity is a gradual process- it takes time- and practice.

As a teacher, I have my reasons for what may be perceived as holding my students back. There is an order to things on the yoga mat, a progression of understanding and awareness that must occur beforehand- it is not simply about strength or flexibility, or “getting” into the big, advanced postures.  There is a level of self-discipline and studentship that needs to be developed and well established in the first few years of practice, and I don’t actually see that happening much these days.  I personally feel that there is no point in teaching more advanced poses when students have not mastered a basic understanding and ability to engage specific actions on a consistent basis (see sutra 1.14). Don’t get me wrong here, I do enjoy challenging my students and taking them toward a deeper experience; it’s that the deeper experience is not as meaningful as the work it takes to get there, and is what moves our practice forward. The process itself is what teaches us how to apply ourselves in our subsequent practices as well as outside of the practice.

So is it yoga practice or yoga product? What is it that we are aiming for when we go to a class?  If the class is not challenging enough, then how do you define challenge? For me, challenge is not the extreme arm balance. Challenge is meeting myself as I am in any given moment by willingly placing myself in an alignment that squeezes me physically, while staying connected to my breath and simply being there. That can be as plain as just standing still, or lying in Shavasana. Practice is what you make it, and each practice should be a learning experience that takes you deeper towards yourself. That, to me, is what the process is all about, and I am content with never being finished. I am always a work in progress, because in yoga there is nothing to achieve; there is only practice.

 

When the Question Becomes the Answer

We begin a new chapter at our studio on February 7th, as we step into our Yoga Teacher Training program. This idea has always seemed too daunting an undertaking to me.  I have told myself many times over that there are other teachers who would do a much better job than I ever could.  I say this mostly because, in all honesty, I regularly struggle with my practice of teaching yoga. There are days when my teaching feels flat and uninspired; when I feel that I have nothing to offer.  My words don’t land with my students and I feel as though I am speaking some long dead language that is falling on deaf ears. The idea of inspiring others to walk this path seems ludicrous, and the mean little voice inside me asks the question, “Who do you think you are, trying to teach people how to teach when you struggle and fall and fail?”

This however, is not bad question to ask.

For me, questioning is part of the practice and process of yoga- deeply internal, introspective work that takes us well beyond the physical practice. Yoga challenges us to question how we live and how we respond to ourselves and the world around us. This is an integral part of my practice and understanding of yoga.  As I remember this little bit of truth, I pause and realize that it is precisely because of my questioning and struggles in walking this path that I am innately qualified to guide others. Within the scope of my experience, I have felt all the low points, disappointments and failures, and have also experienced the positive results of serving and making a difference to many people over the years. So the question actually becomes “who am I not to teach other people to be teachers?”

In light of this new professional endeavor, I seem to be questioning a lot these days.  How do I approach teaching, and how can I effectively impart my knowledge and skills to others? One question that I am asking myself is to define yoga in a multitude of ways, in order to help my students understand that Asana is just the beginning of yoga- the tip of the iceberg.  This morning in bed I was thinking about this question, about how yoga asks us to look past the surface of things, to learn to be more discerning – not only with asana, but with our own lives and relationships, and how we affect the world around us. We all have self-doubt, but that same doubt can be a positive catalyst for our growth. Doubt leads us to question ourselves, our relationships, our lives, as well as our place in the world.

In looking deeper into my own self-doubt, I see its deep roots in my perfectionist tendencies and how they have at times manifest into harsh self-judgment, along with a strong streak of idealism, which colors my view of how I think the world should be, rather than how it actually is. These two tendencies have always been a contributing factor to feeling unworthy, imperfect and incomplete. That is the shadow side of my personality, yet my perfectionism and idealism have also served me in many positive ways as well, as a student, in my attention to detail and drive towards excellence.  We need both shadow and light to be whole, and Yoga is the practice of knowing that we are complete and whole, just as we are.

The questions that yoga has lead me to ask have evolved into a practice of deep self-love and self-acceptance, of learning to sit with how things are rather than how I think they should be, and knowing that the discomfort I feel is a big part of the process of coming home to myself.  Yoga is knowing and trusting that the process works; that I will be ok no matter what.  Yoga is looking past the surface of things – past the discomfort, beyond my imperfections and beyond the harsh reality of the world as it is: seeing who I truly am.

The process of questioning leads me to understand that the questions are my best teacher. The questions ensure that I am ready to take the next step and lead others toward their own truths as teachers.

The Yoga of Music, (or is it the music of yoga?)

By Ted Cox


     Most of you know that I’m a professional musician with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic.  I just finished my twenty-first season last month with the orchestra.  I began music lessons when I was nine years old in 1968.  I had a private teacher who came to our house once a week.  His name was John Costello and he seemed to be able to teach every instrument.  Mr. Costello was my teacher for two or three years and then I switched instruments and studied with Harold Strand, in the Phoenix Symphony, for five years.  When Mr. Strand retired from the Phoenix Symphony, I started studying at the same time with his replacement, Dave Pack, and he’s still in the Phoenix Symphony playing forty years later.

I had good teachers and I was a good student.  Because of those two things, I was able to attend one of the best music schools in the country, Indiana University.  There I studied with a living legend, Harvey Phillips.  One of Harvey’s many, many honors was he was the first wind instrumentalist inducted into the Classical Music Hall of Fame.  In a yoga lineage type metaphor, Harvey was the B.K.S. Iyengar and his teacher, William Bell, was the Krishnamacharya archetype.  I studied with arguably one of the best teachers of my instrument and went on to be his teaching assistant in Graduate School.

When you get a music degree, you have a required number of hours of study for your instrument, music theory, music history and then some general education requirements.  One of my yoga teachers, Christina Sell, says there are three types of yoga students.  The “athlete”, those only interested in the physical practice.  The “scientist/engineer”, those students interested in the details of alignment.  And finally, the “poet/mystic”, those students who love the history and philosophy of yoga.  It was important for me to have a strong balance of the three areas I mentioned for my music education.  All three are related to yoga.  When I was a very young musician, I just wanted to play.  That would be the “athlete” archetype.  As I got older, well into undergraduate school, I became more interested in music theory, our “scientist/engineer” archetype; finally, music history, our “poet/mystic” archetype.  A good student of yoga and especially a good teacher of yoga must have all three areas developed to a high level of understanding.

Playing in a professional symphony orchestra you have a conductor.  The conductor is a little like a yoga teacher.  Instead of using his eyes, he uses his ears to tell whether or not something in the music is out of “alignment”.  In one sense, my job as a musician in the orchestra is very basic.  I have to play in tune, play together with everyone else, make a good sound, play with good style, have incredible accuracy and good overall balance and blend.  All of which you could say is having good “alignment” with everyone in the orchestra.  Actually, it all has to be extremely precise.  The conductor oversees all of this from his vantage point of being in front of the orchestra.  All parts of the orchestra must work together just as all parts of the body must work together to create something beautiful.

I taught music for twenty-two years prior to teaching yoga and I’m now into my tenth year of teaching yoga.  Thirty-two years is a long time teaching.  My music background since 1968 (45 years) informs and influences how I teach yoga today.  Studying with a music teacher is always one on one.  Once upon a time, yoga was also taught one on one.  I don’t think I ever once went to a lesson and practiced in front of my teacher.  I prepared material for him all week to listen to and help me with at my lesson.  At Spirit House Yoga, none of our teachers teach from our mats.  We don’t practice with the students.  Instead of listening in music, we watch in yoga.

Because I studied music, I am very used to constructive criticism.  Sometimes that criticism has been rough.  I remember one specific occasion where I studied with a famous teacher who taught a semester while my main teacher, Harvey, was on sabbatical.  It was my first lesson with him and it was my junior year.  I was loaded for bear going in wanting to impress him and then one of the first things he said to me was, “hasn’t anyone taught you how to breathe?”  I know, it may not sound like much reading it, but trust me, I was ready to quit and do something else.  I was devastated.  I got over it by the next day and practiced my butt off that semester.  I was one of two people to get an A from him that semester.

My root yoga teacher is Baron Baptiste.  The very first time I worked with Baron he taught something philosophical that I very much related to.  He defined yoga as being the annihilation of the walls we build around our hearts.  He also taught a detail in alignment that I had not been doing, and over time caused me great pain in my elbows.  I was misaligning and my teacher at the time here in Oklahoma City didn’t teach the pose the way Baron does and it caused me to injure myself.  It took some time to clear, but it eventually did through what might seem like a small detail of alignment to some.  The first time I worked with another teacher of mine, John Friend, he also taught two poses specifically that I remember learning more about.  One of the poses was shoulder stand, which I was teaching prior to working with John, but after that training, I stopped teaching the pose for a long time until I learned much more about it.  I realized that I had the potential of injuring my students by not knowing precisely how to line the neck up before going into the pose.

Hatha Yoga is a method of yoga for taking care of the physical body.  It’s athletic.  Because it’s athletic, people have the possibility of getting injured.  The word “alignment” seems to have become a negative word in yoga, not only here in Oklahoma City, but everywhere else too.  Yes, there are basic understandings of alignment that students should know, such as where to place your feet and hands.  Beyond that, alignment is not exactly the correct word.  A more precise word is actions.  Shoulder blades on your back, sides of waist back, scooping your tailbone, lifting your toes, spreading your fingers, taking your head back, etc. are all actions.

Martha and I always teach the “why”.  We will always tell you why we want you to do a specific action.  For example, downward facing dog, a quintessential yoga pose.  The primary action of down dog is that of opening the shoulders.  Placing the shoulder blades on the back in that pose is not an easy thing to do.  You need someone watching you because most yoga students can’t tell whether or not they have their shoulder blades actually on their backs.  Awareness of the back body takes years to develop in yoga.  Some teachers want you to press your heals down to the ground.  We don’t.  Why?  Because it overstretches the Achilles tendon and flattens out the low back.  Some teachers have you drop your head in down dog.  We don’t.  Why?  Because it flattens out the curve in the neck and takes the shoulder blades off the back.  Where you place your hands is also important.  Too narrow also takes the shoulder blades off the back.  Misaligning in poses, both in the short term or long term can and probably will cause injury.  Proper alignment and action can and most likely will heal existing injuries and prevent you from injuring yourself in the long term.  Not only that, learning how to align and engage in every pose will make you very strong.  Have you ever tried down dog with your feet on one blanket and your hands on another?  If not, give it a try and you’ll see what I mean about engagement and strength.  Too many people “hang” in their shoulders.  You won’t be able to do that common, disengaged misalignment on the blankets.

I wouldn’t have made it very far in music if my teachers played along with me and never gave constructive criticism that helped me to improve.  If they were just playing their instruments along with me in lessons to “show off” how good they are or worse, how much better they are on their instrument than I was, what would I have learned?  I didn’t learn music that way, I never taught music that way; why would I teach yoga that way now?  When I started teaching music in Houston in 1982, I deliberately left my instrument in my truck so I would not be tempted to play during the students’ lessons.  I wanted to develop my verbal skills instead of relying on my instrument as a type of crutch due to the fact that I couldn’t verbalize what I was asking them to try.  I’ve been around great teaching not only as a musician but as a student of yoga as well.  That level of discernment in being able to recognize a great teacher in music also influenced who I chose to study with in yoga.

A lot of people get degrees in music and never end up with a job in music, especially a playing job.  The level of dedication, self-discipline and personal sacrifice that’s required to win a playing job in an orchestra is enormous.  All of that background and history has informed how Martha and I not only approach yoga, but how we teach yoga as well.  My tenure in the orchestra has been long.  To maintain the level of playing I’m required and expected to have demands a daily commitment to my instrument.  I am no less committed to studying yoga and teaching yoga; which is one of the reasons Spirit House Yoga is the longest operating studio in Oklahoma City; it’s our level of dedication to everyone who walks through our doors.  I won my first professional orchestra job in 1980; but had I sat back and not kept improving myself and my skills, I don’t think I would have lasted in my positions twenty-eight years and counting.  Thanks for reading my thoughts.  I hope you found how I connected music to yoga interesting.

Ted

Perspective

“You know I’ve heard about people like me

But I never made the connection

They walk one road to set them free

And find they’ve gone the wrong direction.

 

But there’s no need for turning back

’cause all roads lead to where I stand

And I believe I’ll walk them all

No matter what I may have planned”

                                                                               Don McClean “Crossroads”

 

 I write this at the end of a four day intensive for yoga teachers in Tucson, Arizona hosted and taught by Darren Rhodes and Christina Sell, both of whom  I admire and respect.  I came to the training feeling heavy and burnt out, and had doubts and questions about the direction that my yoga teaching was going.  The four days I spent with these two teachers yielded an unanticipated result that was not so much surprising as it was a felt understanding of something I already knew, but seemed to have forgotten.   The aspect of the training that helped me to uncover this forgotten truth was an exercise of directed self-inquiry.  Each morning we practiced 2 1/2 – 3 hours of yoga, which was challenging and a bit out of my comfort zone, and yet this was the necessary catalyst to bring up the deeper issues that needed to be seen and dealt with.  The first self-inquiry question was, “In what way is yoga the finest work that we can do?” This is when things began to shift as I began to contemplate.   This is what I wrote:

“To teach yoga is an honor- to serve the awakening of each student at his or her own pace is a powerful responsibility.  We hold each tender opening, each small victory with a joyful heart, and encourage and uplift students in the moments that are challenging.  Showing people that there is another way of being is a great way of serving. “

The second part of the question, however, is “What trouble does that work bring up?”

Again, I wrote: “To show up and be authentic, to be willing to be vulnerable to my students is one of the biggest challenges I face.  I feel that I am sometimes hiding behind a mask of knowledge, and occasionally there is a glimpse from behind the mask that lights up the room and connects immediately to all who are present.  But then there is the inevitable retreat back into my protective shell, the boundary that holds me back.”

I’m sharing this in an attempt to be vulnerable and transparent to my students, so please forgive any tones of self-indulgence here.   Just like each of you, I struggle with aspects of my life that I’d rather not face. I fight against the aspects of teaching that I don’t like, the repetitive nature of classes day in and day out, the pressure to “perform”,  trying to maintain a sense of compassion when working with  challenging students, inspirational dry spells and my own struggles with self-care.

But in the moment when I had to speak to the power of yoga as being the finest work I know, all the struggles suddenly became an integral and necessary part of the practice of teaching, no different than the physical struggles on my own mat.  Understanding and facing these struggles is an important part of the practice of yoga itself: it IS the practice.  While practicing yoga changes me, teaching yoga changes me more.  My teaching evolves and as a result, I evolve.  It is ever shifting work that asks more questions than I can ever find answers to, and the process itself is one of wonder, a softening to the fact that I am always going to have questions without answers, and am always in the process of evolving again and again, deeper into becoming more and more myself.

So while I have no answers to the questions that I brought with me, that is no longer important.  Now I have a whole new set of questions to ask and explore, with the understanding that the landscape of teaching changes with every step of the journey.  Just like traveling to an unknown country, your perspective shifts and new understanding arises, simply by stepping out of your comfort zone.  Teaching is an invitation to my students to travel this landscape with me, and hopefully also have a shift in perspective along the way.

 

I Am In This To Serve

Yoga Teacher MemeI love this meme. It illustrates so well the different perceptions of what we think a yoga teacher actually does. What is it that I think I do and why do I do it? My number one intention as a teacher is to be of service to others, which can manifest in many ways. There is a dimensionality to this work that is subtle, and most students are never aware of what has lead a teacher to each moment in class, or what the idea of teaching as service means. Things look very different when viewed through the lens of the teachers eye. Yoga is as much about changing your perspective of yourself and the world, as it is about moving your body through a series of postures with breath. Part of a teachers service is to help students shift: physically, perceptively, intuitively and perhaps even spiritually, but it must come from the student.

When I am about to start a yoga class the first thing I do is assess my students for injuries, ability and energy. I do this in order to serve as fully as possible, and this information drives the posture flow for everyone in class. This can be a challenging. A few weeks ago I taught a class of students with the following issues:

  • 6 month post-op shoulder surgery
  • 1 year post-op ankle surgery
  • Two failed carpal tunnel surgeries on both wrists
  • 1 year post traumatic head injury
  • In addition to 2 new students, a mom and her 10 year old daughter and several of my regular students

This was an all levels class. So based on who my audience was, I had to create a practice that would serve everyone, which was no easy feat. It takes a willingness to be creative, to be sensitive to the needs of each student, the ability to think on your feet, and to make everyone feel comfortable. To the students who came expecting a wild evening of arm balances, I apologize, but in that class it would not be of service to take people into postures that were not accessible due to their limitations. The teacher must take into consideration everyone’s abilities and serve as fully as possible from there.

There is also the unseen service of holding space for students who are in the midst of personal crisis and being willing to stay after class to listen and support. Service is not limited to the yoga studio: we share in our students grief and trauma as well as in their joy and celebration. It is not unusual for the phone to ring late at night with a student on the other end looking for help, guidance or consolation. We are always there, willing to help when we can, or to simply listen, as needed. This is in appreciation of all the teachers who have supported and held space for me during difficult times, paying it forward.

I am in this to serve. It is also how I make my living. It is not an easy profession, nor is it lucrative, but I do take it seriously and am committed, as I know the value and power of this practice. Ultimately your experience in class depends on what you bring to the practice and your willingness to shift your own perspective. It is the teachers responsibility to serve that in each student. This is what I think I do.