life changes, context, and the Bhagavad Gita

I had the privilege to author a blog post for my teacher Noah Mazé's website -- after coming through another period of deep study (grappling, question-asking, lurching, digesting, analyzing, and dreaming...) with the Bhagavad Gita, I wrote this piece. I hope you'll click over to the Yogamazé website and read there about Arjuna's adventures, and my own. Then, please: share with me about your "What the hell am I doing with my life!?" moment!

Teaching as Practice

The relationship between the inner and the outer as teacher:

When I show up to teach, my job is to deliver the lesson (curriculum), and refine the path I take my students down in to make that lesson clear (teaching technique). Observing my students closely to know if the path I've chosen needs to be adjusted is a large part of this practice.

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And so I must be willing to abandon ship, start over, change direction, and sometimes even halt mid sail. Being adaptable is part of this. But beyond a willingness to see outside of myself is a necessity to sense within myself.

Teaching well involves curating a relationship. The best student-teacher relationships are forged when both parties are willing to progress together, and adapt as internal and external forces change. Just like in any relationship. This can happen over the long term (think of those students who have been coming to your classes for years), and also happens in the short term (first-timers, workshops out of town). The same principles apply in both situations. And the only way to know how to adapt is to hone the ability to listen without, and within. Said another way: you can't know where you need to go if you don't know where you are right now!

Teachers, see your students. Watch how they integrate what you tell them to do. Is it working? Is your desired result being achieved? If not, does it make more sense to adjust your expectation (maybe the desired result was unreasonable?) or to adapt your approach (result is reasonable -- pathway isn't working)?

Then, see yourself: the more you connect to your own body, to the presence in your experience while you teach, the more you can accurately read the bodies around you. And that's how you know when, why, and how to adjust. Find your feet first, before expecting your students to. Know if the method you're using is working for you -- often your need to change course will be felt in your own flesh. It might arise as anxiety, frustration, dissociation, temperature changes, distraction, etc.

In this way, teaching becomes practice just as your asana or meditation are practice. You go in to go out. Intimacy with students won't look like intimacy in your friendships or other relationships, but it will be filled with a similar charge that reads like those days when back bends come easy. The spark is lit, both parties are doing their part, and synchronicity happens.

Likewise, conflict in the student-teacher relationship surfaces just like in your other relationships, too. The good news is, conflict doesn't always mean you've hit a dead end: it's often an opportunity to redirect. Instead of letting the conflict take you further out of yourself, remember to pause. In that quiet stillness, sense where you are. Then thoughtfully discern what you need to find ease again, and take your students with you.

Reflections During Eating Disorders Awareness Week

Reflections During Eating Disorders Awareness Week:

When I was young, I loved a boy very much. I want to say young man, but looking back in time, we were children. I was really just a girl. Trying so hard to grow up, to craft a grown-up world, I fumbled many times. I had not yet learned about hard work. I had not yet learned about boundaries. I had not really suffered any substantial losses.

In the process of transitioning to early adulthood, it began to dawn on me that I could not create a lasting magical world with this boy, because there were other factors. Things I had truthfully not considered before, like working to earn a living. Or really putting anyone besides myself first.

So, misstep and misstep again. And things fell apart, as they do. And as things fell apart, my insides clenched, lurched rapidly and halted. And I decided to starve myself.

Fast forward in time a year, some months, and I'm sitting long-legged and flat-chested on the beach in North Carolina, declaring to my mother a life of celibacy. I believed it at the time. Anorexia saved me from something. It relieved me of intimacy, vulnerability, and much of my humanity. Truthfully, it was a dreamy respite from the things I could not control. I felt invincible, protected, and focused.

I can safely say I'm past my eating disorder now, age 38, married to a gentleman who I really met as a man, when I was really a woman. But I cannot say that I am free from the desire to flee my body. This is very difficult to admit. I have made my life's work embodiment, I have turned my eating disorder recovery into my passions, my pursuits, and my paycheck. The study of yoga, which I was pursuing before I had anorexia, deepened and fortified for me in recovery and post recovery as a pathway to better know how my heart and body could live side by side. Yet the work is work, and my urge is often still to flee.

I am seventeen years recovered from anorexia. I am proud of that commitment. But the recovery of the heart is an ongoing project. And my MO is still to guard -- to protect, to distance, to disengage, to run. When the going gets tough, or really, when things get too soft, when life gets too tender, when there is just too much to lose, I still know how to cut myself off from my humanness, from my heart, from my husband's heart and his dear humanness. This no longer looks like calorie restriction, but it looks like burying myself in work, taking on more projects, two jobs, three jobs, build a new website, start a new business, buy a house at the same time, plan trips, don't ask for help.

Last weekend I was in New York celebrating my baby sister and the baby she's about to have. At the baby shower, with wine glasses clinking and food plates moving around the room, my dad sidelined me with a comment: "Those teenage years are hard. We were close with you, Peach. We almost lost you, Peach. I mean, we didn't, but we did, didn't we?"

Last night, I woke up in the middle of the night to check on Peter, who is sick with a fever and cough. And then I could not fall back to sleep. I was picturing my sister, her baby still in utero, thinking of my babies breathing in the next room, wondering if I should go climb in bed with them, and then I turned to my husband and lifted his heavy, sleeping hand onto my waist. His hand is so big. It's so scary. So terrifying for me to love. There is so much to lose.

Musings on Meaning + Words Like Love

Musings on meaning and words like love:

What is the difference between love and devotion. When it comes to our children, our partners, how directly do we put our devotion into action? Or at what point does love require that we stay devoted to the love itself and not the person? Is love for a person really about ‘the other’ at all, or is it about our own potentiality to feel? How arbitrary is the person? Does our capacity to love speak more to our capacity to be vulnerable — to our willingness to be loved? Does it speak to the degree to which we are devoted to ourselves?

I went to bed last night genuinely wondering whether or not love was measurable. How can I be sure what I’m feeling is actually love? Can I truly, accurately, discern love from other things such as longing or need or desire? Is love separate at all from my own pursuits or seeking? I know many of the great spiritual teachings from various traditions talk about a pure love as being entirely separate from our own desire. Love without parameters or cages or mirrors. But while embodied, while being in the human experience, is this attainable? Is this even the goal?

I am grateful to be in physical form. I celebrate my human struggles, and more than I want to transcend the limitations of being human, I want to dive deep into the crevices of their boundaries and borders. As a young woman I explored calorie deprivation seeking a hard and fast boundary. Where does my physical body end? Where is the line? How deliberately can I pursue that border? And though this might be a controversial statement, I did not abandon my body or my love for myself by doing this. (I’m not defending anorexia or saying we shouldn’t advocate against it, I’m just saying I didn’t abandon those things.) I actually listened very intently to my body in order to know just how far I could go. I chose, intentionally, not to feed myself. Because I was angry, but also because I was curious. Because I was scared, but also because I was seeking. See me, don’t see me. Where is the line between?

With earnest humans, is there any act that isn’t an act of love? Is love really the opposite of fear, the way we’re told in quick quips or cute quotes? Or are they the same thing. Does my devotion to my own process require that sometimes love looks like fear. Does my devotion to my body require an honest i.e. messy, nonlinear, destructive at times, relationship. Can I separate love from any action or step I take?

This morning I sang a silly love song to my family, I kissed my husband, I made heart-shaped pancakes and handed out chocolate kisses and cards to my children. I drove them to school, and got out of the car to pause and watch them walk toward their classrooms. I had that feeling that my heart was outside of my body, that what I loved was walking away from me. Except that I remembered all of the love I’ve ever felt is housed only in my own body. Love can’t actually come or go. Likewise, every drop of rage or fear or guilt or grief I’ve felt stems from deep within me too. (This is not to say I’m responsible entirely for my feelings and experience — I don’t actually believe that — I do think it’s sometimes appropriate to place blame outside of ourselves, and I do believe outside forces come into play and affect our inner experience — I’m just saying, the feeling gets housed in my body.) And thank all of the thankable beings — gods, goddesses, demons and dream creatures — that I get to live the spectrum. Love and devotion in every shape and form. On my hands and knees for my children, for my partner, and on my own hands and knees for me as well, and for you. Mistake after mistake after mistake. I’ve fallen on my face so many times. I’m sorry. I’m in love. And not the way you think.

On Preparation:

I have just concluded a two week chapter in my local classes, focusing on belly down back bends. The trajectory peaked today with Bhekasana, a pose that can feel untouchable without adequate preparation in the shoulders, spine, and legs.

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Learning a pose really means studying the shape of the pose, understanding what's required of the various parts of your body in order to achieve that shape, and then spending most of your time doing preparatory postures. I aim to teach my students how to perform the required actions in simpler, more accessible postures, to make translation into the peak pose more effective.

Bhekasana, like many postures, demands a blend of stretch and strength. In fact, it's this high demand that usually sets accessible postures apart from those that are more inaccessible -- the level of both strength and flexibility that the pose insists on simply requires more preparation time.

So what does this look like for Bheksana?

  • Lengthening the fronts of the thighs, including the quadriceps and hip flexors
  • Strengthening and shortening the hamstrings and glutes
  • Increasing the mobility throughout the shoulders
  • Extending the spine in this prone (belly down) position, to strengthen the spinal extensors

Preparation for Bhekasana over the past two weeks included lots of belly down back bend strengthening work. Think: all the Salabasana variations.

In the final practice of the two week trajectory, I included repetitions of Salabasana and Bhujangasana to warm up the spinal extensors and prepare the hamstrings and glutes; thigh stretches like Supta Virasana and Anjaneyasana; and then practiced a couple of rounds of Dhanurasana to explore lifting the chest and pressing the feet back into the hands but without the added complication of the funky Bhekasana arm position.

Throughout practice we did work to open the shoulders, and practiced 'flipping the grip' in more accessible, one sided forms before attempting both arms at the same time (think: Anjaneyasana with a thigh stretch, and Ardha Bhekasana, which is Bhekasana with only one leg!).

By the time we arrived at Bhekasana, students were well prepared physically, and also mentally: because the same cues needed to get us into Bhekasana took us through all the previous postures.

This is a teaching skill that will take you far: teach your students how to perform complicated poses by doing simpler poses. Then, the cue translates much more effectively into shapes that require more of us.

I've already had requests for a video class on this one -- stay tuned.

Desperately Seeking Sensation

Sometimes, if I back students out of a pose from the maximum range of motion toward not the maximum range of motion, they say, 'But now I can't feel anything,' or 'Now it feels like I'm not doing anything.' That always stops me in my tracks.

What do you mean? You're not dead. Why can't you feel anything? Are you paying attention?

Notice in the moment when you have the thought, 'I can't feel anything,' whether you immediately seek more intensity in order to feel something so obvious you can't avoid feeling it, or whether you consider pausing, and paying closer attention (aka listening) to sense what is actually already there.

More very quickly becomes excess, not just in asana, but in so many areas of life. Imagine sitting down to a meal. After you take your first bite you think, 'This needs salt.' But what happens if you put too much salt on? Then all you can taste is the salt. But eventually, you become conditioned to so much salt, that the simple food tastes bland without it. Take away the salt, and in time, you can taste your food again.

The same is true with our bodies. If we are always pushing to feel extreme sensation, then we lose our ability to sense the subtle.

 

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On Teaching

I really enjoy watching my kids at gymnastics, and observing the happenings in the gym. One thing I appreciate is that in this environment, the objectives are clear: it's the coach's job to teach the students how to do gymnastics. There are certain drills and skills in the curriculum, and the expectation is evident for both teacher and student regarding progress.

In my job as a yoga teacher, I consider my role also pretty clear: I teach people how to do yoga. But it does not seem that the expectations are clear across the board. For example, students don't always come to yoga class to learn how to do yoga. Sometimes they come for a workout. Sometimes they come for emotional healing. Sometimes they come for that weird back pain they can't figure out, or because their doctor recommended it. I hear from many that they come for community. Sometimes they come for a playlist and a foot massage.

Also, the expectations from studio to studio vary. Some studios make sure their yoga teachers use physical touch, some prohibit it. Some encourage alignment instruction, some intentionally avoid it. Some want a heartfelt message accompanying the postures, some want postures only, some want music, some want pose names only, some want oils and incense, some don't allow any scents...there are so many considerations beyond "teaching yoga" that have rippled into a yoga teacher's job.

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Hence we end up with a situation where saying "I teach yoga" isn't enough, because what that means from studio to studio, town to town, person to person, comes with quite a bit of room for interpretation.

I have spent a lot of time this summer in the observation deck at the gymnastics center, watching the coaches work with their students. I hear clear instructions, see clear demonstrations, observe clear feedback given, and watch skills be repeated continuously until they are learned. It looks like a school.

In this environment, it seems that the path of learning is clear for student and teacher both, and that at least you know what you're getting when you sign up. I'm certainly not saying this doesn't come with it's own set of problems. Yoga gets to say it's inclusive; I don't think gymnastics can say that. So the ever-morphing, indefinable slippery slope state of 'what yoga is' is not necessarily or entirely a bad thing. Room for interpretation can lead to freedom, and allow for a lot of humanness. We can adjust and modify the curriculum for varying needs, and not just needs, but desires. It's like a candy shop for movers: everybody gets to grab what they want.

When I train new teachers, I usually suggest they get out there, teach wherever they can, and gain experience. When I mentor teachers who have circled back around to me after getting some experience, I start to ask these questions: What do you want to spend your time focusing on when you teach? What do you value in the student/teacher relationship? Who do you like to teach, specifically? This is really step one -- step two comes in learning how to take your answers to those questions and apply them to your teaching choices. When teachers get clear about why they're there and what they're hoping to accomplish, and can learn to communicate that to their audience and be consistent in their aim through delivery, then fewer misunderstandings like "Oh, but I came for the foot massage" occur.

There is room and space for the variety. And with a market which still continues to grow even as many communities are saturated, the best road to success is through honing your aim down to every little choice you make, from your marketing through your student interactions. I heard a friend refer to this one as the "tyranny of small decisions." The small moments of conscious choice will build your brand, so you might as well make them intentionally.

As we grow, we change (thank all the thankable beings!) and then so can our aim. Knowing why you teach doesn't fix you or adhere you to one way. But knowing why you teach helps you know yourself. And then, you can watch yourself change, and make intentional choices as you need, in order to stay caught up with yourself.

An Approach to Urdhva Danurasana - in two parts

The difference between preparing for a back bend and not preparing for a back bend = all the difference in the world!

Yoga teachers, sequence thoughtfully for Urdhva Danurasana and see greater success in your students with this quintessential and satisfying pose. The first video takes you from zero to Urdhva Danurasana in twenty minutes, focusing on stretching your hip flexors and shoulders. The second video emphasizes strengthening drills to help improve and refine the pose. Enjoy!

Pelvic Stability, or Why You Want a Strong Butt

Gluteal engagement and yoga have had a tumultuous relationship this decade. Like that brief period in the 80's when we all thought margarine was healthy -- until we saw the light (and pure, lustrous goodness) of real butter -- yoga teachers have had to retire the misdirected 'relax your glutes' cues that were commonly instructed in back bends.  Strong gluteal muscles are a lot like real butter: they make everything better.

How can you strengthen your glutes within your asana practice? Watch this short tutorial to work these big hip extensors in Virabhadrasana III.

The why behind the margarine cue has to do, I believe, with the fact that gluteal muscles will externally rotate the legs at the hip joint, something we generally want to avoid in back bends, especially symmetrical back bends like Urdhva Danurasana. However, the solution isn't to take these powerhouse muscles out of the equation all together; in fact, it's impossible to practice Urdhva Danurasana without firing your glutes. This is because in addition to external rotation, your glutes are responsible for hip extension: a key ingredient in back bending.

There's a really great article that addresses an approach to Urdhva Danurasana by yogi anatomist Ray Long, which you can read here. For today, I'm going to dial back from the back bends, and highlight on how to strengthen the glutes specifically for hip extension (see the video).

Your glutes are the family of mighty movers on the back of your pelvis, and made up of three muscles: gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. I'm going to focus on the glute max.

 the glute max is the largest muscle in this image, on the lower left hand side.

the glute max is the largest muscle in this image, on the lower left hand side.

A primary mover in hip extension, glute max is the largest muscle in your entire body. You want it to be strong. If it's not, then the smaller, secondary muscles try to do its job, leading to all sorts of imbalances that can ripple throughout your body. In addition to hip extension, your gluteus maximus also play a key role in external rotation and abduction (this is where caution to avoid too much of these actions led to our well-intended, but misleading, margarine cue).

You can practice strengthening glute max in Virabhadrasana III. This is a great pose to also focus on keeping your glutes firing with the action of hip extension, and limit the external rotation. This way, you're mimicking some of what we want to achieve with back bends. A common misalignment of Virabhadrasana III is to externally rotate the lifted leg. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, and you could certainly do that intentionally as a variation. But you can get that sort of abducted, rotated leg in Ardha Chandrasana, so, I like to use Vira III more traditionally, and keep the lifted leg from turning out.

Yoga is notorious for streeeeeeetching our hips and hamstrings. All of which is quite productive, if you can't touch your toes or sit cross-legged on the floor. A lot of humans need that. For those of us who have a fair amount of mobility in the lower half of our bodies, however, we need to prioritize balancing our flexibility with strength. It makes sense that lots of regular yoga practitioners either arrived naturally flexible to their first yoga class, or have developed their flexibility with years of practice.

In addition to supporting your asana practice,  strong glute max helps prevent low back pain, and avoid pelvic imbalances including SI Joint Dysfunction. Often, symptoms from weak gluteal muscles don't show up immediately. The best treatment is prevention. So, here's to keeping your butt toned, and your pelvis in one piece!

Thanks to Noah Maze, Paula Gelbhart, and Rocky Heron for teaching + inspiring me.

Teaching Tips

Here's a few friendly reminders for those of you out in the wild, I mean the field, of yoga teaching:

1. Know your strengths.

The good news is: there is not one way to teach a yoga class. The more intimately you know your own strengths, the more confident you'll show up for your students. It's good to make mistakes and reveal your whole self, too, but for the sake of yoga education, it will help your career and your students' growth if you offer them what you know.

Don't try to be another yoga teacher. Be the yoga teacher that you are.

2. Teach asana progressively

Teach the key actions of complex postures in the simpler poses that come before it. When you arrive at the complex pose, remind your students to perform each action the way they did in the simpler pose(s) that came before it - this will help diminish the tendency of your students to force themselves into complicated shapes with old habits or poor technique.


3. Connect with yourself to connect with your students.

Don't abandon yourself to be with your students. Hone your skills of self awareness, and stay observant of yourself as you teach others.

The result? Your teaching will make sense. It will be comparatively unhurried, and clear. You'll be able to teach without feeling depleted, and your students will feel like you were really there.


4. Teach what you know.

Don't teach what you don't know. If you're not sure: ask for help.


5. Observe your students.

Notice what they need. Cue to that.

Then:
Observe whether or not your cues make a difference. If not, change your cues, or find another way to get your point across.

Remember:
You're the teacher.

Shapes of Embodiment

In 2008 I published a book about my recovery from anorexia and compulsive exercise. For years, my work was focused on education, advocacy, and recovery support, specifically for eating disorders. If you glance at my life now, it might look like I'm on a different career path. Most days, I teach straight asana. But my over-arching mission is really very much the same. My approach, though, has shifted distinctly.

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My ultimate aim as a yoga educator is embodiment: my work is to help students land in their bodies and have a working relationship to where they are in space, an understanding of which limitations are real and which are perceived, and to see more clearly what is true and what is not so true about who they are as and in a physical body.

In case you want to know, my curiosity about my body's limitations is no less than it was when I was exploring starvation. The difference is that, now, I use the information and make life-affirming choices. In other words, I get very curious about the limitations, and I honor them rather than stubbornly destroy them. I honor the real limitations, and sometimes I honor the perceived ones too, because, fuck, I'm human, and it's hard to be human.

Via asana practice, I learn what is real and true in my body. I learn how my body can move, and I learn to adjust and adapt day by day, season by season. In this, the work of recovery continues, though I don't think about it as 'recovery' anymore. I think about it as coping with being human. Some days, I think about it as being at peace with being human, or even (!!), being happy being human.

Via teaching asana, I commit to helping my students accurately sense their bodies in space. Through my verbal alignment instructions, they have an opportunity to hone in on specific actions that give them tangible feedback about...being human. Feedback such as: This hurts. This doesn't hurt. Now I can bend more. When I do the other thing, I can't bend as much. And so on.

This is in stark contrast to the voice of an eating disorder, which completely ignores all sensory physical signals, and thrives in a distorted mental realm. In that realm, all sorts of stories get made up, stories which have little or no resemblance to the truth.

All that said, even in the yoga world, there's a fair amount of body distortion happening. The work doesn't always work. We get side tracked or lose our way. We forget what we're in it for.

I am still plugging away advocating for recovery and educating people about being well in relationship to their flesh, but my approach, like I said, is quite different. I don't have to always talk directly about anorexia to do my part.

But, once in a while it seems right to look it in the eye. And because in fact I do have a lot to say about this, and because my dear friend and strong voice, Livia Cohen-Shapiro does too, we are dedicating some time to this topic this winter and spring.

Learn how what you're already doing in your yoga practice can be healing for body image. Investigate why it doesn't always work. Uncover what's coming up for you when you practice. Dissect the shadow voices of body image, and expose yourself to images of embodiment. No agenda to get any certain 'thing,' but a supportive curriculum and framework to help you do the inner research.

Please join us. The course has already begun, but we are keeping registration open for a few more days. The link to enroll in the online webinar is here. Listen in your own time. Join the conversation as you are ready.

http://www.ecstaticunfoldmentonlineschool.com/enrolme