Yesterday was the Spring Equinox and the official start of this new season…I don’t think Chicago got the memo 🙂 There is a still a blustery, coldness to the air here today, and a huge winter snowstorm on the East Coast. We all know the wild oscillations in the weather are probable in the upcoming weeks of this new season. We can also feel the changing light levels: the sun rises earlier and sets later giving an expanding quality to each day. The first green things are just starting to show themselves out of the brittle soil even with the cold temperatures.
These are precisely the qualities that are so prevalent in Spring: a mutability of temperatures, a broadening growth of all things and a sort of beautiful chaos as nature remembers how to move again after the Winter – clumsy and slow at first, but then gathering steam. It is essential because of these qualities that we turn to our grounding practices and feel the ways we are growing in new directions too so as not to get swept up in the chaos or lost in the fast expansion of energy in the environment.
My yoga practice come springtime takes on a whole new energy. I find myself lingering in long standing sequences, opening my hips and exploring balance poses. I am drawn to deep almost vigorous breathing exercises that help me remember my own expansion into this new season. My quiet, restful stretches of long, bundled up winter savasana give way to a certain eagerness to spread out at the end of my practice. I awaken at the end of my savasana these days completely splayed out with arms and legs wide as if to say with my whole body, “I’m ready to move and grow again!”
As a result of these tendencies of springtime energy, it is so easy to feel anxious, fidgety and even a bit spacey and lost. Energy around us is expanding rapidly and without a proper ground, that expansion dissipates or confuses. Consider a seed. It really needs to root itself down into the ground in order to grow up into a plant. You, your energy and your new directions of growth are no different!
So how can you bring a grounded growth into your springtime routine? Here are 5 simple practices to stay balanced all throughout the dynamic nature of Spring.
1. Practice the variations of the breathing technique Sama Vritti
Sama Vritti is a name given to many variations of breathing exercises that cultivate even, steady breath patterns. The most basic of these techniques is to inhale and count your inhalation and then to exhale for the same count. If you inhale for 5 seconds, exhale for 5 seconds. The next round of breath might be inhalation 8 and exhalation 8. The number is not important and need not stay the same for each round of breath, just balance the inhalation length to the exhalation length. The result is a certain steadiness – neither totally relaxed nor stressed out but somewhere at the equilibrium point.
Another variation of this technique is commonly called 4 Part Breathing and involves an inhalation for 4 seconds, holding the inhalation for 4 seconds, exhalation for 4 seconds, and holding the exhalation out for 4 seconds. It works with breath retention to deepen feelings of balance and equilibrium.
Both of these breathing techniques are great at revealing where you may be out of balance. Let’s say that simply cannot lengthen your exhalation to match your inhalation – you run out of breath too soon. This lets you know that you are holding on to a lot very tightly and having some difficulty releasing it. Similarly if you can exhale for hours but have difficulty inhaling you may be in a period of releasing a lot and re-learning how to nourish yourself. Either tidbit of information can tell how what to focus on more in your own practice to balance yourself out.
2. Incorporate longer, slower holds of standing postures in your yoga practice
Standing poses are wonderful physical mediums for grounded energy. They help you connect with your feet, your legs and the way the ground feels underneath you. Consider adding in longer holds of simple standing poses like Warrior 1, Lunge, Warrior 2 and Triangle to your home practice. Take your time to really feel the alignment of your feet and the strength of your legs. Put your energy into your legs – feel them as your root system. Get a sense of how you can grow up and out of your legs and hips when you are more grounded through your feet. Slower practices and standing poses also help you face what can feel chaotic about Spring and all the rapid changes it brings to the world around you.
3. Open your chest, your shoulders and your lungs!
The cold, dry winter air can make our chest so tight and our posture so slouchy. To practice that expansive quality of Spring, bring in more chest openers and shoulder work to your practice. I love Extended Warrior variations, Chest Opener at the Wall, Shoulder Shrugs, Eagle Arms, Twisting Table
and so many others to pick up my posture. When our posture is supported and upright, it is so much easier to take a deep, full, refreshing breath which helps us feel more energized entering Spring.
4. Bring in balance poses to your daily life.
Everyone loves to hate on balance poses like Tree Pose, Standing Leg Reach, Standing Pigeon (or as some of you like to call it: Falling Pigeon Pile) in my classes. They ARE challenging, but they are also physically, mentally and emotionally beneficial. Physical balance requires focus, grounding through the standing leg, core engagement, hip strength and the ability to respond to small movements without getting totally knocked over. All of those lessons apply to Spring! Standing in Tree Pose even if your foot is shifting from inner to outer edge demands that you adapt in the moment and respond. The same thing happens when perhaps it is warm in the afternoon and then an evening cold front comes through and you have on a light jacket – you need to grab your scarf, put on an extra layer and stay warm without cursing the return of the cold. Even if you fall out of standing balance poses in your practice, keep putting them into your routine. You won’t learn how to balance by avoiding. Be like a baby and when you fall, give a good little chuckle and crawl back up to try again. These poses will build your resiliency and balance in the midst of the mutability Spring often brings.
5. Write down your action steps for your dreams and how to make them reality.
Winter for me is a dreamtime – it’s when I reach into the vastness of the dark and pull out a few bright morsels. But I know that as my energy is in hibernation and recharge mode in Winter, I don’t have the juice to act on those bright morsels yet. When Spring arrives, the energy is finally free and moving to take action on things I’ve been dreaming about. This is why I don’t set New Year’s resolutions anymore – I just use Winter to rest and dream. Now when Spring arrives I have a huge amount of ideas to pare down and select from. Write down a list of your dreams and wishes and desires. Pick the ones that feel the most important. Identify steps you can now start taking to making those dreams a reality. This will also help you harness the expanding energy of Spring to carry you into what you want in your life path.
If you are in class with me regularly, you will probably notice that these themes and techniques are coming back around! Some of you have already commented that we have been doing too much Tree Pose 🙂 Expect that and the balanced breathing techniques, standing poses and rootedness of the practice to continue to help you through Spring.
May you also remember at this wonderful and at times confusing junction of the year the wisdom of one of my favorite quotes from author Cynthia Occelli, “For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out, and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.” Just when you think everything has gone to hell in a hand-basket, consider that maybe your life needed to be upended to feed your next growth. Stay grounded in your own body and energy and the chaotic expansion of the Spring season can be exciting, beautiful growth rather than angst over warmth not arriving fast enough for you. One person sees growth and another destruction – you get to choose what you see and what you connect with in this season. I hope these ideas give you some guidance into a fresh view this season! Happy Spring!
At the end of last year I added something to my week that I have been trying to get into for many years: a dance class. Despite years of figure skating competitively (or maybe because of that), I feel like I have a really difficult time expressing myself through movement. I’m shy (even though I am very extroverted). I feel stupid (even though I know myself to be intelligent). Those of you that know me as a yoga teacher might beg to differ about the quality of my movements as you see them in class, but yoga postures like figure skating are carefully calculated in every way. I’ve studied the alignment and feeling of yoga postures in the same way that I memorized the feeling of triple jumps.
Dance is different. Dance for me does not feel calculated even when it is choreographed. Dance feels expressive and more in the moment than anything else I have ever experienced. It has emotion and responsiveness in a way that I do not experience in yoga and that I never experienced in figure skating.
About 8 years ago when I knew I wanted to explore a style of movement through dance so different from anything I had ever done, I researched Hip Hip dance classes. In its powerful moves and sharp lines I feel a really distinct beauty. Hip Hop music sounds like poetry to me. This seemed like a type of dance I would enjoy and that would challenge me as something so different from the gracefulness and stationary nature of yoga and figure skating. I found only one class that I could make with my teaching schedule. It was a beginner level and I was so excited to try it. I anticipated that evening class all week!
It ended up being absolutely awful. I barely made it to the end and was crying on the way home in my car. The teacher did not explain anything. He went super fast through showing the choreography and chose very fast music. He picked on those of us (about 5 including myself in a room full of 40 people) who could not keep up. It was obvious the other 35 people were not beginners. He broke us into groups at the end of class and made us do the choreography in front of everyone. He put the 5 newbies together and laughed when we couldn’t do what he asked. Perhaps worst of all: at the end he told me I had no rhythm and that I shouldn’t come back. My deepest fear confirmed – point blank – I couldn’t dance. I, of course, didn’t go back.
Ever since then I’ve looked every now and then at dance classes and thought about going back to try again. I always found an excuse: I was too busy, the time was too close to one of my classes, it was too expensive, etc. Really I was just scared that I would repeat the terrible experience of my last dance class. This is ironic because I spend most of my days coaching other people through things they are scared of or feel they are not good at (think of being a beginner at a yoga class or any tight yoga pose and you get the idea). I’m also usually really good at approaching things I fear and using that experience to grow. There was something about dance that really got to me from the beginning.
Last Fall something changed. I got an email from the Old Town School of Folk Music – I think I had signed up for their mailing list at a local music event over the summer – and they listed dance classes as one of their class categories. I clicked through and noticed that they had a beginner Hip Hop dance class at a time I could actually do. I called and checked – yes it was for sure a class where beginners and non-dancers were welcomed. “The teacher is amazing,” they said, “You should try it.” I don’t really know why, but I registered as soon as I hung up the phone…for an 8 week course. I justified it as needing something new, fun and non-yoga in my week. Really I think my Spirit knew there was something deep for me here.
I was so nervous when the first class rolled around. My stomach churned. I was also excited and hopeful that this might be different. When I arrived the class was small and the other students were so nice. They talked and chatted with everyone like me who was new. It was a completely different vibe right from the beginning. The teacher came in super low-key and so nice. He led us through a warm up and some choreography. I felt awkward and stiff and out of place. He was supportive and funny. The other students helped and encouraged one another. It was a completely different experience than my last dance class. At the end of every class we got time just to free move and it was so fun. The whole thing was fun – something that had been really lacking in my life.
After a few weeks we had settled into something of a rhythm and while I still felt nervous and awkward, I didn’t ever feel judged or ashamed. Around the 3rd or 4th class our teacher said something that I will never forget. He said, “No small movements! I want to see big movements! Exaggerate it! Make it huge!” as he stepped, moved his arms and shifted his shoulders to the beat of the music in singularly sharp, rhythmic and fantastic ways. When I went through the choreography that day, I felt like for sure I was moving in an equally enormous way.
We recorded ourselves at the end of this class and when a fellow student emailed us the recording I watched in dismay. What had felt to me like huge movements of my arms, hips, shoulders and legs were in fact TINY! I barely moved and most of the time I looked at the floor as if afraid to see myself in the mirror. It was an interesting experience. I suddenly felt inside, “How long have I been playing small?” and “Where else am I playing this small and tiny in my life?”
These simple questions unlocked an enormous amount of wisdom to me. I realized that in so many ways I had been playing small for most of my life. I had worried for so long about other people that I forgot to bring my Self to the the live I’m living. I tamped down my smarts because I was “intimidating.” I stomped out my creativity in skating to please my coaches. I quieted my emotions to assuage my family. I shut my mouth out of fear of retribution from my attackers. I let fear of more hazing and harm keep me from reporting it. I “took it for the team” when attacked by colleagues instead of standing up for myself. I let bosses push me into doing things I didn’t actually support instead of sticking to my beliefs. I sidelined my own ideas to support others in their dreams. In this moment of inquiry I realized I’ve spent most of my life being so much smaller than I actually am. And I have no good reason why. I haven’t found the origin point yet of this pattern, but I realize it has dominated so much of what I do and who I am.
I’m a planner so as soon as these realizations came to the surface, I made some internal agreements about how to move forward to keep the ball rolling. I made a commitment to start practicing being “big” in my dance class. Even if I felt foolish I challenged myself each week to go a little wild. I watched our video recordings and practiced at home. I started moving to music in front of mirrors at home and actually began to (sometimes) watch myself in the mirror at dance class. From each of these small steps, huge openings started happening elsewhere in my life. I have no idea if my dancing changed at all on the outside or if anyone noticed anything different about me, but on the inside it was like a dam broke open.
I started to feel like I was angry at my coaches in skating for trimming me down all those years. I felt the need to reach out to high school friends that had either hurt me or tried to help me just to reconnect. I wanted to find the people who attacked me so long ago and rip them to shreds (and I am not a violent person). I wanted to talk about how many times I “bit my tongue” out of fear of how my expression would be received. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs about all the “spiritual” people who had verbally maligned me. I had an outpouring of brilliant, creative ideas that have filled pages – book outlines, poems, business plans, website ideas and so much more. I started moving/dancing all over the house. I think the arrival of the #MeToo movement around this time pushed some of my internal dam breakage as well.
This outpouring made me think: how many of us are unintentionally playing small? How many of us regularly avoid the things that make us uncomfortable? How long have we let our conditioning to please others over our self hold us back? How many times have we all ignored the evidence that we are so much greater than someone else would have us believe? I think this happens so much more than we would like to admit. I keep wondering how I missed it in myself for so long. I’m so happy that I came back to a dance class so these triggers could be brought to the surface again – perhaps with better tools and wisdom on my side at this point in my life to approach working through them.
What about you? Could you pick something that scares you – but also excites you? And then do it. Maybe it’s a new job, a new relationship, a new type of exercise, a yoga pose or a place you have always wanted to travel to. Recognize how it makes you feel and all the threads of excuses that keep you tied back from actually doing it. Tell me what you find out about yourself when you take even one step into that great “Bigness” of life. For the love of all things important in this one wild beautiful crazy life you get, please play big for all of us to see.
Last year at this time I was just finishing up assisting a monthlong teacher training course alongside my teacher, Ana Forrest. It was an enlightening and grueling month of 4am mornings, intense learning and inspiring work. I oscillated all month between feeling completely in the “right place” as a yoga teacher and feeling like running away entirely. I felt alternately like a highly skilled instructor and total fraud. At the end of the month, I began a year of questioning whether I should continue being a yoga teacher at all. This wasn’t a matter of whether I “could” be a yoga teacher – I have been a yoga teacher for 14 years and the skills to do so successfully are there for me to grow from. This was more a question of whether I “should” continue being a yoga teacher or whether my Spirit was feeling restless and looking in a different direction.
For a while before assisting this teacher training I had been feeling lackluster. The politics of the “yoga world” were bringing me down. Teachers speaking badly of one another, seeing teachers with the right “look” move ahead even as their students were getting injured, the general competitiveness of a community that outwardly “supported” one another but inwardly exposed a deeply ingrained scarcity complex. I felt unappreciated for my really hard work. I spent (and spend) hours working on sequences, doing my own practice to stay inspired, educating myself to be a better and better teacher and so much more. I was feeling like all that meant nothing. Then festivals and workshop venues started questioning the number of Facebook and Instagram followers I had – as if this was a better litmus test of what kind of instructor I was than my actual teaching skills and training. Falling compensation rates, festivals not paying at all, and potential clients balking at the price of private sessions all compounded my feelings. At this time last year I had come off some comments through the grapevine about how I was getting “old” not in age but in teaching techniques, and fears of being irrelevant in the changing yoga atmosphere toward fast-paced flashy vinyasa sequences were at the forefront of my mind.
Through my work with Ana Forrest last September, each day I questioned what I was doing and why. She pushed my boundaries physically, mentally and emotionally, and questioned me about my ethics and values – not to be mean but to get me to hone in on what I really wanted from my life and to cut out the extraneous. She revealed to me as no one else could these glaring blind spots in my life and in my teaching. She has known me longer than anyone except my family, partner and a few close friends – she knows me inside and out better than I do sometimes. She can see me without the veil of my limiting beliefs and from a lifetime of her own experiences in the deep dark places. She was willing to go with me into those feelings of inadequacy and fear – to understand where they were really coming from. I’m a graceful navigator of life – a fact she reminded me of daily – and she knew better than I did that these feelings of not belonging in the yoga world were merely an indicator of another much deeper Spiritual malady and discomfort.
I was there to assist a teacher training, but she assigned me to write poems and read them out loud in front of everyone with a trembling voice. She sat with me when everyone else had partnered up for an exercise, set a timer and asked me to tell her all the secrets I had kept bottled up for so long. She listened openly about how cramped my Spirit felt in my current life. She threw me in front of the crowds coming to her intensives and encouraged me to speak in ways that I never had. Ana Forrest told me repeatedly in whispers throughout the month to, “Let the Poet speak, she has important things to say.” She left me at the end of the month with the note below: “Please schedule in writing as a daily spiritual responsibility. It’s time. Spiritual Fulfillment.”
Because while I have found tremendous fulfillment, delight and financial success as a yoga teacher, it was at the expense of some other really important dreams of my Spirit. I put on hold my ideas for books and the stories that passed by in dreams. I closed off the whispers of poems that passed through my ears while I cued elbow to knee or drove down Lake Shore Drive. I came to believe that the thing I was best at was teaching yoga. I forgot that there was a time not long ago that I did write every day. I remembered a time in my life when I lived in a internal world of magical stories made real on the page. My discomfort with my current career and all the signs around it were simply redirecting me back to the magic of these stories. The stories have been bubbling up louder and louder each year, and the roar could no longer be ignored.
One of the most fantastic parts of Forrest Yoga is just this: the reclaiming of our whole Self, not just the accepted one. Breath by breath, practice by practice, the tools of Forrest Yoga infiltrate life off the mat to bring about the most amazing epiphanies. From the memory of the magic of those stories I went forward and hired a shaman – Bridget Boland – to help me on the process of calling in my other parts of Spirit that needed attention. We have spent the better part of this year doing the work necessary to clear limiting beliefs, work with past mistakes, forgive myself and move ahead with a guidance from wisdom-keepers beyond my daily life.
I likely will not have the biggest Instagram following at any time. I don’t teach or sequence “traditionally” – I’m like me. I am still teaching. I decided not to go, but I made an agreement about staying. If I was going to continue teaching it had to be unapologetically on my terms. I re-cultivated my own voice and took some big risks in the topics, sequences and methods I taught from. I included more ceremonial work and anatomical instruction this year publicly than ever before. I talked about my dark spots. I read poems in class (not one of my own yet). I wrote blogs like this and journal entries more frequently than in the previous 10 years of teaching yoga full time. I stopped comparing myself to other yoga teachers and focused on what I was doing. I chose to spend time with those who really inspire me in different areas of my life. Moving into next year I turned down any work that didn’t actually support me in the teacher and person I most want to be. I made space in my schedule for writing. And I am happier for it.
Many students have stay or go questions: marriages, jobs, having children and so much more. I’m not a therapist – I have no training in that arena – but through the practices of Forrest Yoga I can help you listen to the voice of your Spirit more clearly. And through the voice of your Spirit you can feel when it is time to stay, go or simply change the balance of power of elements in your life. So a year later and a lot of reflection from whirlwind experiences over the past 12 months, I’ve decided to stay but, as many of you have noticed, with some big changes in my teaching. I hope that those changes continue so that the pieces of me long held in storage can finally get more air than my Ujjayi breathing.
We live in a world full of distractions. Texting, social media, new television shows, new movies, the next “big” life drama…the list goes on and on. As a yoga teacher for the past 14 years and a practitioner for the past 18, I have seen the state of the distracted mind get seemingly worse and worse. It was challenging for students to hold their attention through five rounds of pranayama back in 2004, now it is nearly impossible to get my newest students through even three rounds without someone checking their phone (no phones are allowed in class), looking at the clock several times or staring down everyone around them.
Just this week several students spent an entire 90 minute class texting, checking their Facebook pages and talking to one another during class – even when asked to refrain from doing these activities. They just couldn’t stop themselves from pushing the button on their phone and seeing who had texted them even though their phones were off. And this morning’s commute was snarled by a four car fender bender that happened because two of the drivers were texting and on the internet while driving in traffic. In some ways these situations bring up in me the thought that it is not entirely their fault – our culture and society have created a world of distractions and encouraged us to use them!
This state of being in the modern world has taught me to be more patient with my students as they learn how to re-train their attention to be present with one thing at a time. I continuously focus my classes on guiding students into the present moment through feeling the movement of their breath and the sensations in their body. But it has also left me curious about the nature of distractions and how we can work to improve our attention.
Every year for the past 5 or so years I have taught a class on January 1 to kick off the year. I’ve set a yearly intent to guide us through our practices as a community along the course of 12 months. We revisit the intent of the year in a few practices every month to stay connected and track how it is changing our perceptions and actions across a whole year. Several years ago I came across the Sanskrit word avikaritvam as I was reading an article about the Bhagavata Purana (a classical Indian text about Krishna). Translated as either “clarity” or “freedom from all distraction,” this word really stuck with me. It felt at the time, as it does now, like something my community needed more connection to. I set it as our yearly intent when I came across it…and it fell flat on its face. Every mention of it made my students fidgety, uncomfortable and, well, more distracted! I felt at the time like it failed to inspire anyone.
Enter today. I have returned to teaching about this concept more and more – perhaps this time around more skillfully myself. I started with my own life to inspire the teaching. Instead of just using a concept I was interested in and a word that felt wise, I looked at the distractions in my own life as a place to study this in action so that I could teach about it better. What I found alarmed me.
My social media habits were a major distraction. I love Facebook. I used to check that thing all the time. And I got into a nasty habit of comparing myself to every other yoga teacher in my feed, feeling most days like a total failure. Instagram? Love it. Who doesn’t love a cute puppy photo? Twitter…I have no idea why it is important, but I was addicted to scanning through those little snippets. I used to justify my time spent on social media as “a place I went to for inspiration” or “the way I kept in contact with friends from afar.” The truth: it was a major distraction. Nowadays I’ve broken that distraction cycle by only looking at social media sites once per day and for a time allowance. I unfriended or stopped following people that genuinely made me unhappy. I wrote down and redefined my own rules of what I post on social media, when I post it and why. I revisit those rules every few months to see if they need updating. And when I am working on something that needs my attention, I close off everything else that could distract me. I leave my phone away from me so I am not tempted to look at it.
My work habits were a major distraction. I used to book myself solid. 14 hours a day for 7 days a week? No problem! Running from client to client through traffic in rush hour at opposite ends of the city? No problem! … Wait! HUGE problem. In keeping myself so booked with work engagements, I left myself zero time (or energy) to engage with the really important things in my life. I essentially distracted myself from my own growth and delight in life by being unnecessarily busy. Today I’ve hired a “coach” and re-evaluated my schedule really honestly. I’ve let go of clients and classes in the last year – many of them. I no longer take a client when I can’t actually teach them well. I have opened up my schedule to have stretches of time for writing, being with my partner, walking my dog and hanging out with friends – activities I used to “distract” myself away from.
My mind’s creation of dramatic stories about my life was a major distraction. Unless you know me really well, you might not know that beneath the surface inside my mind used to be an incessant string of dramatic critical stories about myself and others. I could waste hours of sleep time, yoga practice time and even loved-one time by re-hashing gossip, failures, mistakes and stories I had created about who I was that I didn’t like. Talk about exhausting! And also a huge distraction away from the things that are going well in my life, that are near and dear to me, that I want to grow into and that are the actual reality of the world around me. This one was a bit harder to get around. The mind is a slippery place and gets so settled in its ways. I started by letting go of the people in my life who gossip and who want me to engage in gossip. This was easier than expected! They didn’t actually like me – they just wanted someone to collude with. Then I started recognizing when I was talking in stories that were not actually true – mostly about myself but sometimes about others. Every time I caught myself in this action, I stopped, rewarded myself for catching the behavior and moved on to something in the new habit I wanted to cultivate. Finally, the best way out of this distraction was to get back into a daily meditation practice every single morning. It’s amazing how we can rewrite our stories, untangle them and quiet our critic with just a small meditation time each day.
I’m sure there are many more ways I encounter distractions in my everyday life. These stuck out for me! When you look to your life: where do you sink into distractions? Sit with the fact that as they exist now, they are sapping your power, energy and focus. Channeling your focus through small changes in your social media habits, putting your phone completely away when you drive, re-evaluating how you keep yourself so busy, cutting out the gossip from your conversations, adding in some daily meditation and cultivating healthier habits for your mind can make all the difference. It’s so worth it! Every day feels more fresh, clear and spacious without my distractions.
Some time ago I subbed a class for one of my colleagues. Subbing is one of my favorite things to do because it gets me out of my comfort zone – puts me in front of new people, mixes up the formats I’m teaching and totally shifts my schedule so my day feels different. On this occasion, I stepped in to teach at the last minute to help out – someone was sick and needed coverage. I’ve been there and I had the time open so I jumped on it.
I planned a really fun fluid class as this was listed as a Power Vinyasa practice at the time. I knew that the students would want more movement than my regular Forrest Yoga classes. I was pumped! I couldn’t wait to get in there to share with them. I know that my sequencing is different than many other styles of yoga because Forrest Yoga considers sequences from a different angle of preparation and pacing, but I have always been able to use my creative sequencing knowledge to build fun class experiences for many levels.
I walked in the room and a small group of students was there – they all looked absolutely annoyed and downright offended that I was there to teach. One student even rolled their eyes as I went to set up my mat. I’m used to not getting a “warm welcome” as a sub – they are used to their regular teacher, I get it. I also know that I am human and I can completely misconstrue the energy of a room because I am feeling nervous. I’m always nervous when I sub so I thought, “Oh I must be reading too much into this! They are probably just a bit tired today and didn’t know there was going to be a sub. It will be great.”
I typically start each class by checking in with each student and getting to know them a little bit. I had seen everyone in this room at least once, but I could not remember many names. As I went around the room, the energy got more challenging. No one wanted to tell me their name. No one wanted to say how they were feeling that day. When I asked how they were doing, I got answers such as “Please make sure we do headstand” “A good class always has a wheel” and “Upward Facing Dog.” Finally towards the end of saying hi to each of the students, one said to me, “Can you please just teach us real yoga and not what you normally do?” And my heart stopped. I got it – they didn’t have any interest in what I was excited to share with them.
I decided in that moment to run an experiment – one that I am actually a bit scared to write about. I threw my carefully planned sequence out. I took each thing they had asked for and put it into the most generic sequence framework I could recall. There were lots of “vinyasas” and no cues about alignment (if you know me, you know I am really keen on alignment!!). There was no guiding force behind the sequence. It was a messy hodge-podge. One student had asked that I not correct them as it “interrupted a strong flow.” So I didn’t assist any of the students. That is also very strange for me as my natural teaching method is to be helpful to each individual and to use touch in a loving way as I teach. I was sure this class was an epic failure – I had just “dialed it in” with a terrible sequence and lots of new-age lingo.
Then the shoe fell, so to speak: THEY LOVED IT…I’ve never gotten such high praise for a class. At the end things like “I knew you could finally get how to teach for real” and “Thanks for the best class you have ever taught” were said alongside hugs. I have never felt so sick to my stomach. And the reason is that I was being praised for being totally and completely inauthentic.
This experiment showed me a lot about myself and others. It showed me that I value my authentic style of teaching more than I value being liked. It showed me that some students don’t have a lot interest in experiencing something different on the mat outside of what they habitually do. It also revealed to me that when I am myself, I draw to my teachings exactly the students I am meant to reach. I got a glimpse of what it feels like to “dial it in” as a yoga teacher. It felt boring and draining to me to teach from that space of inauthenticity.
I hope that you will risk in your own life showing your real self even if it isn’t popular. The world doesn’t really need more flashy, fake or phony – there is enough of that on reality TV. Much to the contrary, the world really needs YOU – you in all your glory. There will never be another person like you in all of time – please share of yourself. Feel into your own life: where have you been dialing it in? And would you take a chance even for a day or two to let your full self shine? The rewards for this risk are incredible! It runs vibrant energy through you when you are authentically yourself. It brings into your life realm the opportunities and people you were made to work with. It inspires vision and takes you in directions where you can really be of the greatest good to those around you. It is a like a magnet for amazing things when you are authentic to yourself.
I’m still not sure what “real” yoga is but I do know that where I teach from is precious – precious to my own heart and to those I share it with. There may be fewer upward facing dogs and more cues about alignment, breath and Spirit, but I love that I get to share that depth of my real self with you in my classes and out.
I am an avid planner. I love to-do lists and schedule books. I spend some time every day planning the next day. When I travel, I make a file of pertinent documents and contact numbers so that I have them in case I need them. I plan my yoga classes and my workshops, I plan when to sleep and when to eat. As a result of my love of planning, I am a bit stingy with this thing called “spontaneity.” It was recently suggested by one of my mentor teachers that I “put down the to-do list.” 🙂
I joke, but it is actually a real problem. I want so much to plan and control everything in my day and schedule that it leaves no wiggle room for when a friend calls up and wants to have dinner last minute, or when my partner wants to run and grab a movie spur of the moment. My planning actually cuts out some really fun stuff from my life!
I decided that this is another habit (one of those branches off my “overworking” habit tree) that needs some pruning. I’m not one for huge change (shocking I’m sure given my love of planning and may I say ahem “control.”) I decided to take this one on slowly: once per week I would not plan any of my classes for a full day. I could think about them all I wanted, but not write out anything. The result: some really amazing classes and I’m told no one could tell the difference.
When I write my classes out it does absolutely prepare me and help me hone in on some sequencing skills – it also gives me a record of what I taught. When I let go of writing things out, I didn’t lose any of the sequencing skills and I recorded what I taught after the fact. What I gained was an ability to jump into setting themes and intents, working pose sequences in the moment to different students’ needs and a lightness in my energy. I found my inspiration going in all new directions and my Spirit picking poses out of my internal yoga lexicon that I don’t gravitate towards when I’m actively planning.
The irony is not lost on me that I’m still actually “planning” my “spontaneity.” I had to start somewhere! This little shift has helped open me up to accepting the random invitation to an evening gala even though I would “normally” teach. It has made me aware of some of the many blind spots that have developed in my teaching career because of my planning obsessions. This little once per week change has made a big difference in my willingness to break out of my control box – I feel the changes seeping outside of yoga teaching.
What if one small change to a pose that you have resisted could make all the difference in how it feels or how it effects you? What if one different step in your daily routine could really help you out of a controlling habit? Would you do it? Pick something that has been challenging you habit-wise this season: a thought, action, recurring emotion, food choice, pathway you take to get to work, etc. Decide one small thing you could do ONE TIME this week that would take you off this habit hamster wheel. For example: you always take the Red Line downtown to work because it’s closer to home. So one day this week you give yourself some extra time, walk the extra blocks to the nearest Brown Line Station, ride around the Loop and get off at a different station – feeling what’s different about your routine and how you respond. Then run the experiment again another day next week and take the bus!
If we learn how to make change fun we can become our own inspiration for evolution. Identifying our own habits and then playfully working with them teaches us how to be our own best life guide. It gives us independence in our process of development. These types of exercises for the Spirit also help remind us how important PLAY is to our ability to create meaningful shifts in our life. When we are in a state of playfulness we are not attached to the outcome – this allows us to consider, choose and work with so many different options – stoking our creativity and insights. Pick your experiment and let me know how it goes and what you learn!
Many years ago a best friend gave me a small journal as a gift. I decided to use it as a quote journal, and I wrote within its pages the many small words and longer passages that felt inspiring along the pathways my life has taken. I still write in it when something strikes me – although I must admit its pages are dwindling and I’m writing smaller and smaller to cram things into its margins. I’m not sure what I’ll do once it’s full! Written upon one of first several pages is a small and simple quote from Anais Nin: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
I’ve looked upon those words so many times, but recently they have been ringing ever more true for me. I’m in the midst of a yearlong mentoring process as a part of my training through the lineage of Forrest Yoga. This mentorship program has been a course of study under a Forrest Yoga Guardian named Sandra Robinson – owner of Equilibrium Yoga Studio in Peterborough, England. She was absolutely the best choice for me: encouraging, wise, kind and insightful in all the ways I needed at this point in my journey. Through the weekends of work with her guidance and in a small group of other mentees, I realized that my life has made me see the world around me and within me in quite a critical way. As a result of this practiced critical world view, I don’t see things as they really are, I see them as I can criticize them or pick them apart for being imperfect.
From a young age I was a figure skater. I’ve written about my skating before and what a huge part of my life it was up until about age 16. It was a marvelous and challenging sport to grow up in. It cultivated in me great physical and mental discipline, strength, focus and perseverance. It also planted the seeds of perfectionism, ruthless pursuit of achievement, isolationism and severe physical injury. I can distinctly remember so many of the private coaching sessions being a list of every single thing I did incorrectly and directions to repeat movements over and over again until they were “perfect.” One coach in particular chose one element each session and I just repeated it over and over again for a whole hour – each repetition a new error was found. There was never a time I did the movement well enough – there was always something wrong with it. There was little praise – even as a young child. I learned to pick apart every edge, every glance and every turn, searching for any minute problem that would lose me points or bring the criticism of my coaches upon me. Competitive programs were recorded, dissected and then compared to fellow students. I felt pitted against the other students my coaches worked with, and they against me – we were all pitted against all the other skaters. This was supposed to foster some sort of healthy advancement, but really it just made all of us see the world as broken, imperfect, hostile in some way and with success and achievement always just beyond our reach because someone always skated better or because something always needed more work. Even when I won first place, a competition would end with details on what needed to be improved for next time.
I remember watching a random figure skating competition on television many years after I left skating myself. I was sitting with my partner and as each performer took to the ice my partner would say things like, “Wow! How graceful!” “That was an amazing jump” “Look at how fast she is spinning!” To these comments I would reply, “Her coaches told her to smile there. It’s not real” “She actually cheated the rotation of that jump and won’t get credit for it” “That spin traveled” (‘traveled’ is figure skater speak for a spin that doesn’t balance well on the blade). He noted long before I really understood it how totally and completely crazy it is that I could not appreciate the beauty in any of their movements – I could only see what they had done “incorrectly” or “not well enough.”
So we don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are. And I have for a very long time seen the world through the eyes of that child who could never do any movement “right” and who had to remain hyper-vigilant about where the next criticism was coming from. I’ve built years into a habit of being hyper-critical of myself and those around me. I’ve held myself to standards that are unreachable and downright unhealthy both in my careers and in my personal life. All of this because my early world view was one of extraordinary criticism, rigidity and perfectionism.
I like to say nowadays that I’m a recovering perfectionist. I’m learning how to soften my inner critic (and some days just plain steal her megaphone and shut her up). I’ve spent a long time coming to an understanding of why I saw the world as such a harsh place where good things couldn’t happen. Working with Sandra peeled back another layer for me – a layer of forgiveness. I couldn’t know how to see the world any other way, and allowing myself to acknowledge I’ve done the best I could with what I was given has brought a playful lightness to my continued exploration out of the old way I saw things. Our teacher, Ana Forrest, has a funny and very true saying, “We don’t evolve by punishment. If we did, we’d all be fucking enlightened.” If I punish myself for the way I’ve seen the world, for being “stupid enough” to follow my coaches, I get stuck back in that perfectionist-“I’m not enough”-nothing ever works out mentality. When I offer up to myself a forgiveness and really deep compassion for where I am now and what I have been through, change happens so much more effortlessly! I become a person who is enough just as I am. Now I can see the world as an inviting place, mistakes as realms of growth and discovery, and the beautiful things happening in and around me.
This journey into my own different world views also helps me to understand those around me with so much more compassion. A person may be seeing the world around them through a really tough pair of glasses. I feel more understanding of that now than ever before. When you read these words, what do you feel about the way you see the world? And is that the pair of glasses you want to see everything through? What if you decided it was time to try on a new pair? I leave you with some final words from Sandra that I’ve been silently repeating inside my head with every person I meet and that has been imbibing the way I see things these days, “We don’t love you for being perfect; we love you for being you!”
I spend some time each and every day in practicing gratitude – small moments at the end of a class when everyone is quiet in savasana, in the car when I’m stuck in traffic, when my legs carry me up 5 flights of stairs back home, when my shower has hot water straight out of a pipe from my wall, when my belly is full and my home is a safe place to rest my head and heart. There is so much to be thankful for in my everyday life, and I feel so much more grounded, present and energized when I take the time to say simple thanks.
During this holiday time when we celebrate gratitude – Thanksgiving – I’m surrounded by family and friends. I got to see students all week before the holiday and saw them again after for some fun classes. All I can think about are the simple but powerful words of my mentor teacher, Sandra Robinson, when she set the intent for our Forrest Yoga Mentorship Weekend back in October: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” (This is an African proverb from all the sources I could dig up.)
I’m not interested in going fast – what’s the hurry? I do want to go far: far into our bright spaces and dark ones, deep into our Spirits and the choir of voices waiting to be heard inside, long into the pathways of our lives and how they intersect. To do any of that amazing growing work we have to go together. I need others to remind me of my brightness and to help guide me through my dark patches. I want to be an ear to hear your many voices and a set of feet to walk with you when we meet.
So on this day of giving thanks I’m thanking all of you that make up this “we” and “us” I’ve come to know as my community of students, colleagues, friends, tribe and family. May we celebrate all the things that bind us closer together rather than the superficial things that set us apart. May we be willing to work together to go far in this life towards peacefulness, wisdom, clarity and healing for ourselves, our communities, our societies and our planet. May we have open hearts, minds and arms to those around us we have not yet met or understood. I’m by your side and I’m so thankful you are by mine. May we all Walk in Beauty together! Happy Thanksgiving!
This weekend I was supposed to be in Sioux Falls, South Dakota teaching at the new studio of my colleague, Gretchen Borgum. I was so excited to be bringing a full load of Forrest Yoga and iRest Yoga Nidra workshops to her space, Soul Movement Studio. I was thrilled to get her invite (and we will rebook this weekend!), delighted to meet the community in a new city and geeking out on what I could bring with me to teach them. I’ve been prepping for months – delicately researching and planning each workshop. In the last week alone I likely spent 15 hours on my lesson plans and making sure everything would work smoothly as a weekend experience. I prepped my life here at home to make sure I was all set for the weekend – snacks packed, laundry cleaned, emails answered.
I knew that a snowstorm was heading for Chicago on Saturday and that Sioux Falls would get some of that snow on Friday when I was due to leave. I figured I would beat the worst of the snowstorm by taking the first flight out of O’Hare to Sioux Falls…Mother Nature had other plans. Mid-way through our initial descent into Sioux Falls we had to turn around and go back to Chicago because conditions had gotten so bad due to the snow. Back in Chicago I was told the Sioux Falls airport was closed until further notice, the remaining flights of the day were either fully booked or cancelled.
I found myself feeling growly – barking a bit at the United customer service rep who couldn’t re-book my flight or find me a seat. He was trying to help and I was just irritated by the whole situation. He told me the outlook was not good for any flight to get out of O’Hare to my destination until Sunday – which wouldn’t do me any good. I decided to cancel my weekend of workshops – something I hate to have to do. The whole cab ride home I was wracked with a feeling of “what more could I have done? Should I have driven there? Maybe I could have forced my way onto a later flight?” etc.
In this swirl of thoughts I realized how absolutely tired I was. I taught two winter retreats and numerous workshops. I worked all summer teaching conferences, workshops and retreats. I worked through an injury during my “off” month of August when I didn’t have any big events booked. September I worked more hours in 28 days than I would in in 10 weeks of a my typical schedule. I ran right into October and working in England on some continuing education through Forrest Yoga. Then I taught a Forrest Yoga Intensive workshop here in Chicago before running to Sioux Falls. All these extras occurred alongside what would already be a busy “normal” teaching schedule of classes and clients in Chicago. Don’t get me wrong – I LOVED every moment, but it was a hectic year.
When the weekend was cancelled, a profound and deep exhaustion settled upon me. I looked back a year, two years, five years, ten years, twenty years…I’ve been working since I was around 11. I used to recycle aluminum cans and foil, babysit, run a mini neighborhood day care for the kids on my block, teach figure skating, caddie at a suburban golf club – all while also being a high performing student and athlete. I can’t remember a time when I actually had a stretch of free time before me to sink into. Even on “vacation” I’m typically preparing for my next event or combining fun travel with work. I had done all the leg work before this weekend was cancelled and before me were two precious days of really absolutely nothing.
In this realm of nothing I finally started writing again. I dreamed. Pages poured out into the journal. I caught up on awfully wonderful tv shows I’m way behind on. I read. I had time to be with my partner and my dog. I slept in – until like after 9am! I’m not sure that has ever happened. I made pancakes for breakfast. I ate leisurely. I danced in the kitchen for no reason. I felt no rush to do anything and it was wonderful. I wrote a handful of poems in less than 30 minutes. I feel at ease.
So this cancellation was really a blessing in disguise. It revealed to me more clearly than anything else a tremendously challenging pattern I have inside me to DO DO DO. I love my job. I love working on workshops and planning classes. I adore my clients and the beautiful yoga work we do together. I get jazzed to work 14 hour days with my teacher Ana Forrest because it’s fun and I learn so much. I’m open to working on retreat planning and teacher training day in and day out. But there is so much more to me and I feel my Spirit has been quietly trying to tell me for a while now that I need to slow down and take time for some of my many other interests outside of my current work. I started to get really curious: what is living behind all the DOING?
The blessing is being able to see behind the disguise of really great work to a really nasty habit: overworking. The lesson here is a good one. The next time things don’t go the way you planned, can you see behind the change in plans to what is really being revealed to you? What great thing is disguising one of your challenging habits? Feeling and recognizing our own self-sabotaging habits is one of the most important areas for growth. It is hard to acknowledge that things we do could actually be awful for us. I hope that your yoga practice or connection with me helps give you the tools to look at your own habits that need a little bit of help so you can grow in new directions. Will you look behind some of your disguises with me? Let’s do these big changes together!
I’m sure this is not my only habit that needs some polishing 🙂 but it is the one at the forefront with many roots into other habits that I’m going after first. How? I’ve started with a re-evaluation of my schedule, of the people and projects I really want to keep working on. I’ve asked for my partner’s help to remind me to take time off. I’m looking for ways to take a second day off every week. I’m reviewing my 2016 schedule and making it simpler even if it means I don’t teach as much. I’m willing to change things to sustain my love of my work but to add in my love of my life and to make time for both. I am risking looking behind the disguise of my doing to get back in touch with the blessing of my being.
I’ve always been something of a loner. I’ve never spent a long period of time with the same circle of friends. I was never popular or very social. I spent much of high school and college extraordinarily reserved. No one ever asked me to a dance or out on a date until much later in life. As a figure skater I spent a lot of my childhood with myself on the ice practicing alongside coaches or with headphones covering my ears practicing my moves on my rollerblades when I couldn’t get to the rink. I ran for my high school’s track and cross country teams – also very solo experiences. I was more comfortable with my nose in a book than I was socializing. These patterns followed me into my first jobs out of college and eventually into my teaching career in yoga. It’s not that I avoided social activities or didn’t have friends…I just found it more than challenging to sustain relationships with others because of my own fears, habits and choices. This has always been an interesting predicament for me because I am in fact quite extroverted.
Flash forward to a comment I remember as clear as if it were yesterday – maybe because I have recently returned to the place, to the very room where it occurred, or maybe because I have been thinking of it since the day it was muttered. Years ago I came to Kripalu, where I was recently teaching, to take a course with my teacher, Ana Forrest. We were doing a group sequencing exercise and I was holding back. I didn’t want to offend anyone. I didn’t want to be wrong. I didn’t want to make waves. And as Ana watched us deliberating as a group, she noted that I was quiet despite having taken more of her trainings than anyone else in the group. As the day ended and we went our own ways she rest her hand on my arm and said very quietly but very strongly, “Allison, the time of the lone wolf is over.” And then she walked off. (Some day I’ll tell you more about the wolf analogy and why she chose that metaphor for me.)
This was her way of telling me that holding out, that isolating myself out of fear, that not risking sharing what I knew was a habit that needed to end. She was encouraging me to share my gifts and work with the community around me without fear. I took this comment to heart and for the next several years I threw myself into a project and job that required close collaboration with colleagues – hoping to make friends, to build community, to break out of my shell and trust others as I never had before to co-create something magical. I put all my wisdom and efforts out in the open. I revealed myself professionally as I never had before. I tried really hard to be a great teacher, a great colleague, to work well with others and learn from them. It went horribly. I will spare you the messy details – no one needs to hear them here – but needless to say that I went back to being a lone wolf licking its wounds rather quickly after the experiences I went through trying to reach out of my shell.
I armored myself back up. I locked up my heart. I internalized the messages that I was unlovable, untalented, stupid, a fake, a failure, manipulative, a thief, unkind, screwed up and unworthy of anything good in life. In fact these were just some of the words hurled at me by those I tried to co-create with. And I believed every word hook, line and sinker. This was another of my patterns: to believe what others thought of me over my own knowledge of my Self. I went back to being just me – I stopped trusting other people or even reaching out to them. I “did my own thing.” That’s all I could do – I was so destroyed inside. Colleagues would ask me to share a tea date or take a class together, and I found every reason in the book to avoid them.
For years I prayed and asked for a personal understanding of what had gone wrong – of what had happened, of what went awry and what I was supposed to learn from it. I did some work with healers, shamans, business mentors and medicine people. Magical things happened. I learned a lot about myself – and about others. I came to some very deep understandings about my personal responsibility in situations, but perhaps more importantly that others had a responsibility for their actions too. Somewhere in my heart there was a longing to be in the world with others – not just to teach others or be taught, but to have a community with my peers and colleagues built upon relationships of trust. I couldn’t yet ask for a friendship, but I realize now that I was looking for that too.
Fast forward to now – back to Kripalu. I was there with a team of colleagues co-teaching and co-creating the most beautiful week of Forrest Yoga ceremonies, practices and specialty classes in all the things that we are passionate about. We shared meals and conversations, practices and delightful hands on assists. We shared our wisdom and we shared our fears. And some place deep inside me smiles because it feels like the time of the lone wolf actually is over. These members of my tribe don’t care if I’m good enough, smart enough, worthy enough…they already know that I am and so much more. Like a yoga teacher spotting a new student in a handstand, I feel it in my very bones that these individuals would spot me through any misstep even if I offended them, coach me through my fears, laugh with me when I screw up, comfort me when I’m sad and offer up an understanding of heart I never realized I was longing for. They know that I am more than enough just as I am – perfectly imperfect – and they want to remind me of this fact with every interaction. And they reflect back to me that I do the same for them – that I can spot them through their rough spots and remind them how worthy they are just as well as they do for me. This is the type of community connection I’ve been longing for – and I think a lot of other people are looking for it too. Having met many people as a teacher and as a human, I can feel a collective craving for an understanding and supportive community that is often lacking in our day to day lives.
Surround yourself with people like these gems – those who see your value, who will hold you up no matter what, those who would tell you when you are wrong but stay by your side anyway to figure out a pathway forward. Be with those who know the messy truth of all there is to you and share in it. Let go of the people in your life or your past who make you feel like you have no value, like you are not enough. Release the influences that tie up your heart in knots, cast doubt on your Self, and refuse to work with you when things go down the troubled path. They are not worthy of your effort. Risk revealing yourself – the rewards far outweigh the possible pain or sorrow. We gain nothing from holding back except a sense of loneliness. There is so much to gain from reaching out to those around us and sharing of our experience with those we come across. Now more than ever these connections to see, hear, feel and touch one another are so important. The time of the lone wolf really is over, and if we are to survive as a human race we must learn how to strengthen the ties that bind us to each other lovingly over all the potential things that pull us apart from one another.
And just so you know: wolves are some of the most social and behaviorally sophisticated animals on the planet – without their pack they wouldn’t make it very long. We humans are much the same: we need each other to survive the joys and trials of everyday life. I hope that as a teacher, friend, woman, sister, aunt, and human, I can start to help you find your pack to support your thriving life and Spirit so you don’t feel as alone too. I hope to be a beacon for those who have felt a bereftness of community in their life – that they may come to know others who can spot them through their perfectly imperfect moments. If this calls to your heart, I hope to connect with you soon to keep this work going! I see more collaboration with my colleagues in the future – and instead of being afraid of it, I’m excited for it.