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!
I decided to write some blogs about the real life problems of being a yoga teacher as a career. We face a lot of issues and because we are in a wellness profession, things are often glossed over in favor of making everything about our lives and work appear shiny even if it’s fake. I want you to know the inside scoop about being a teacher and I have a whole series of posts about the good and challenging aspects of being a yoga instructor as a career. These are meant to be illuminating and compassion provoking posts for your yoga teachers – so you have some insights into the complexity of their jobs – not so you can attack the places they work at. And fellow yoga teachers, I hope these posts help support you in navigating an even better lifestyle and career for yourself! I also recognize that yoga teachers are not the only people who face these challenges and although I do not know all industries, I can imagine that what I’m writing about also impacts many freelancers and even “regular” employees in the current corporate environment and culture.
This post idea began not long ago when I got violently and suddenly sick in front of my students. I was fine one second and completely sick to my stomach and near passing out from dizziness the next. It was a scary experience. The students were amazing – they brought me water, checked in on me, made sure I had a ride home and even started up my iTunes app so they could keep practicing as I sat in the corner nearly fainting. To make matters more intense, I could only think of one person who worked nearby my class who might be able to come and pick me up (with my car I couldn’t drive in my vertigo state). This person is a student and it was really hard to call her. As a teacher I’m used to doing the helping and it was hard to be the one asking for help. She of course came to help me without even a second thought and I’m so thankful she drove my sick self home! It was a real reminder in our common human vulnerability and the need to care for one another.
I also had to reach out to my manager at another club where I was scheduled to teach in less than an hour and tell her I was sick. Stressful! Classes don’t get canceled and certainly not without penalty. One place I used to teach at would bill you if you missed a class. Other places write you up and you can be terminated from your employment after three write ups. Stressful part two! Luckily in this instance the teacher before me was able to stay for the class I taught and everything worked out. Also the manager on the other end of that line was incredibly compassionate and helpful in every way possible – even checking in on me through the evening hours once I got home to make sure I was ok. Even with that, it weighs on me each time I have an emergency situation that I might lose one or several of my jobs because of an illness.
You might be asking why I’m writing about this. Well, I’m not sure people know how hard it is to be a yoga instructor and deal with something “simple” like getting sick – especially when it comes on suddenly. We have to find coverage for our classes which means reaching out to a large substitute instructor list, getting approval for our subs from managers and doing so in a timely manner. Up until a month ago, I never had ANY sick time. A new Chicago city ordinance has enabled me, for the first time in 15 years of teaching, to accrue a small amount of sick time for every hour I work (1 hour sick time for every 40 hours work). That meant every time I missed a class for any health related issue before this ordinance, I didn’t get paid and had no way to recoup income. When I contracted pneumonia over the winter and missed over a week of work, I lost more than 25% of my monthly earnings. When I had a serious surgery and was told by my medical professional to take at least a week off of any work that involved talking or moving my body (ahem my whole job involves talking and moving my body), I took 3 days because that was all I could afford and came back to teaching with a mouth full of stitches.
Even with an egg of savings, what if I am injured or seriously ill and unable to teach for months? Most disability insurance is extremely expensive and does not cover all situations. In fact many situations that would regularly take me out of work were not covered by the disability insurance plans I looked at. It also can take two weeks or more to even begin paying. I simply can’t afford to buy both disability insurance and health insurance – I had to pick one and chose to keep my health insurance. There is always a lingering worry in the back of my head that I will be physically unable to teach and my savings will run out and perhaps even worse that I will have no job to return to when I get better.
I’m ashamed to say that I’ve had to teach with a cold, the flu virus and a stomach bug because coverage could not be found for my class in time and “a class can’t be canceled.” I’m not the only one. If you knew how many of your fitness and yoga teachers come to teach their classes deathly ill and fake being “ok,” you would be shocked and dismayed. Without paid sick time to cover outages, we are really in a bind when we get sick. Take the time off if you can get a sub, but miss out on necessary income. Or teach while you are sick and potentially get everyone around you sick. Neither one a great option. There is also often the feeling of letting the students down if you don’t come in and teach. The new city ordinance helps somewhat, but consider that some of your yoga teachers may only be employed 4 or 6 hours a week and it could take them 8-10 weeks of work to accrue just one hour of sick time. And they are only accruing sick time at places where they are employees. Most yoga studios hire all their teachers as contractors and therefore this ordinance would not apply to any of those classes. Crazy, I know!
I’ve also been told in the past that I “get sick too much,” as if that is something under my control. I am never away from work unless absolutely necessary. I not only love my job but also care deeply for the student experience and consistency in my teaching. I am exposed to nearly 100 people a day in close proximity and I work in locations considered community health settings where germs and bugs flourish. Just Google some of the swab tests that have been done on yoga mats in studios and gyms. You will 1. forever bring your own mat to props to class and 2. understand the onslaught my immune system is under every day. It’s almost like being a school teacher! To add to this, teaching private clients in their homes when children are potentially sick or have been sick exposes me to even more opportunities to pick up illnesses. Who gets to determine how many times I get sick or need health procedures done? Before this city ordinance, I worried every single time I took a sick day that I would lose my jobs. I only have one day off per week and all of my health related appointments had to be scheduled on that day which is also hard. I still feel on tenuous ground even though I am now legally accruing sick time. If I am already perceived as “sick too much” does that mean another sick day will put me out of a job?
There is also a student perception here. Yoga teachers are often seen as bastions of “health” and “vitality.” When I had this recent sick day emergency, I came back to several students saying things like, “But you’re a yoga teacher, you aren’t supposed to get sick” and “Isn’t yoga supposed to heal all that illness stuff?” Ummmm…no. Yoga teachers are human beings with immune systems susceptible to viruses and bacteria just like regular humans. Yes, practicing yoga has been shown to improve immune system response, but that doesn’t make your teachers infallible. Yoga is not a cure all! We are not superheroes! It feels really awful when we are judged for getting sick – as if that is something that doesn’t happen to “spiritual” or “good” yoga teachers.
I wish there was an easy answer here, but alas I think that many working professionals in many disciplines have similar issues. The freelance economy that many industries are increasingly moving towards suffer from many of the same problems. I believe that many employees in corporate environments feel similar pressures even if they do have a bank of sick time. Don’t even get me started on true mental health days. Some of your yoga teachers have worked 40 and 50 day periods straight without ever having a day off. One local teacher recently bragged about 100 straight days of teaching nearly 12 hour days with commutes and free special events alongside regular classes and clients. The next post put up on their page was about the physical crash that followed and a serious bout of illness. Yoga teachers need to learn to take sick days when they are sick and to better balance their schedules to allow for down time and self-care. One of my next posts addresses why in the heck that is SO HARD to do when you work in this field (Hint: it’s often financial tied in with the strong tendency to want to give to others).
Yoga teachers take care of their students in physical, mental, emotional and spiritual ways. We are (and I know this is going to be a controversial statement) integrative health care professionals. As such we need to be supported in working fair hours (see my upcoming post about how our working hours are not just in-studio teaching time) and in getting well when we get sick. The next time your yoga teacher is out sick, love up their sub and tell the managers how thrilled you are that your yoga teacher got time off. Ask if they are getting paid for getting well. You pay a lot of money for your yoga classes, gym memberships and the studio packages. Why not make sure more of that is shared as a benefit to your teachers? Thanks to all the beautiful students who text me, call me, check in on me, delight in the subs who cover my classes and generally rock being caring and compassionate humans in this regard when I am not well. Thanks to all the managers who do help out and are supportive when I have been sick or needed help in the past. Thanks to all the colleagues who have stepped in when I needed to cover a class to get well – your help does not go unnoticed or unappreciated. I wouldn’t be doing what I love for this many years (going on 15!!) without all of you and your support.
It’s really easy these days to wake up and feel some sort of despair. There is violence erupting all around the world. Hunger, starvation, illness, conflict, hatred, income inequality and political woes are rampant worldwide. Closer to home in Chicago we are not immune to the divisiveness and brutality of what has seemingly become daily life. And so when another day passes and two more mass shootings pile up on the news like last week or another terrorist attack happens like today, it is not inconceivable that I feel a bit hopeless.
Last week and then again today as the news updates flashed across my phone, I was thinking about my teacher, Ana Forrest, and a really common question she has asked me and hundreds of other students over the the years, “What part of this can you do?” She is usually talking about a complex or challenging yoga pose or emotional moment of practice, but the question could be used anywhere. It brings to the surface of awareness in a moment of overwhelm the reminder to seek out the pieces (however great or small) of an experience we can handle. This particular question has become one of my favorite Forrest Yoga-isms over the years both internally and in my classes, and I find myself this evening reminding my own Spirit of its wisdom.
When I exited class last week, a couple of students were chatting in the locker room and I joined in. In no more than 10 minutes of chatting we covered all the hopeless things happening around the world: religious strife, conflict, war, violence, gun legislation, health care legislation concerns, political questions, international conflict, poverty, hunger, dissociation of human beings from each other and so much more. And we each said something so simple. One said: “Let’s each just be like that Tim McGraw song says, humble and kind.” A second said: “Let’s each continue to connect with one another and other people in person and bring others into that connection.” And a third of us said: “Let’s remember all that we CAN do in the face of what feels lost.”
We need these reminders: there are a myriad number of ways we can help, and it is good to start small with our own lives and communities. We need to ask ourselves each day, “What part of this can I do for the greater good?” What follows is a brief form of one part of a list of my own ideas that I have come up (actually since the election in November when I first thought about writing this blog) in a few areas of life in which I feel particularly passionate. They are my reminders and I hope they get your wheels thinking about what reminders you need in your own life. I encourage you to make your own lists! My values and priorities are not yours. What I find disconcerting these days may not be what you do. The key is to identify what you value and support it with your small daily actions – because that is really many parts of what you can do.
– Bring a re-usable mug and water bottle everywhere so as never to use a plastic bottle or disposable cup (Check out this infographic on why this is a good idea and a simple switch)
– Always have re-usable bags with you! I have them in my car and in every purse or backpack I carry. I make sure to use cloth bags for produce or to meticulously re-use plastic bags that I clean until they can’t be used anymore and need to be recycled. I do not pick up new plastic bags.
– Consider riding my bike or taking public transportation instead of driving when possible – limit mileage on my car (which is a hybrid and uses less gas and makes fewer emissions)
– Replace bulbs in the house with LED ones to limit consumption of power even further – be cognizant of turning off lights and appliances when not needed
– Take shorter and less frequent showers to conserve on water (we have low flow shower heads and water filters in the showers – all of our appliances are also Energy Star rated or higher)
– Research and select power sources that are 100% renewable energy for the delivery of home electricity
– Make purchases locally for as many goods as possible and support local businesses while also cutting down on shipping
– Purchase carbon offsets for EVERY flight I take this year and moving forward (these offsets can purchase endangered forest land, contribute to projects reducing dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, and develop renewable energy projects around the world with a focus on dramatically reducing future carbon emissions – check out Terrapass for some info on this)
My list of causes and ideas is upwards of 12 pages long at this point, and I keep adding to it. I don’t want to put it all here and bore you because you need to go and make your own! Mine has tons of specific charities, articles and research to support what I most want to see in my world. It is an inspirational document. Why do I have these lists? Well every day that I feel hopeless about something (which is everyday!!) I turn to these lists and pick two things – just two things out of 12 pages – and I do them. Start small. Break things down. Do something – anything. Don’t let the cynic inside you or the cynics outside of you tell you your little something doesn’t matter. It does! What part of this can you do?
Hope is, by definition, the faith to meet the moment with belief that things will get better even when EVERY indication is to the opposite. We are, therefore, right now in the midst of a worldwide hope campaign. Every news story and daily event seems to tell us that all is lost, but we know in our hearts to have hope that we can make things better. One small action at a time. Start with a change in your day – something small. Then work your way up to something you can do on your block. Then work your way up to something you can do in your neighborhood. Move up to your city, state, region, country…the world is just around the corner. Start too big and this is overwhelming, but start small with what you honestly can do and change will happen. Humans have amazing capacity for destruction, greed, violence and hatred, but I also have the hope and knowledge that our equally powerful forces of love, compassion, creation and generosity can prevail. Will you join me in this mission?
In the summer of 2015 I unexpectedly found myself in one of the most magical and spiritual places I have ever visited: Assisi, Italy. I had no preconceived notion that I would feel this way about this place. Eric and I decided to visit this city because we had never been to Umbria and we were hosting a yoga retreat nearby the week before. We try and visit a new part of the country we travel to each year. Recently I was reminded of just how magical this trip was when scanning through the television channels and coming upon a Rick Steves episode all about Assisi.
As soon as we arrived in Assisi and checked into our quaint and quiet little apartment, we felt different. Settled. It was a searingly hot summer with temperatures in the high 90s up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit the whole time we were there. There was no air conditioning and absolutely no breeze, just the pink stones covering the winding walkways of this mystical old city and hours of blistering sunlight. We wandered from church to church, each one a dark and cool respite from the heat. Many of the churches did not allow any photography or talking. This too felt soothing to the mental and emotional heat I had to adjust to after coming down off leading an intense retreat experience.
Assisi is the city where Saint Francis was born and founded the Franciscan religious order in the early 1200s. This order was (and is) dedicated to helping the poor, to seeing the joyous nature of life on Earth, to social justice and to living simply. All throughout our walks we would see friars, visiting priests and nuns walking amongst the tourists and residents – many of them emanating a kind and peaceful presence of Being. With such a historical significance, Assisi is equal parts Catholic churches and silent monasteries (and tourist shops!). We went in every one to explore this energy we felt all through the town.
We hiked up to the hermitage rooms and caves in Eremo delle Carceri used by many a monk to commune with Self and God. We hiked down into the catacombs of many churches and visited the resting places of Santa Clara and other historical figures. We even visited Portiuncula – a tiny, ancient and powerful feeling church with a huge Basilica built around it on the outskirts of Assisi. We spent hours in the two main churches of Assisi – collectively called the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi – scouring the intricate artwork and appreciating the dark and light shapes of the lower and upper churches.
In each of these holy places, Eric and I (who are not necessarily “religious” people) could feel a pull of something deep and silent. Thousands upon thousands of people had prayed, convened, made pilgrimages to and worked from these spaces for many years. They left an imprint. The tiny little hermitage rooms with their one small bench felt soothing even though there was nothing about their physical shape to soothe us. The cool quiet tombs had a certain whisper of wisdom in their old air even though physically they only contained bones. The churches covered in beautiful paintings and tile work inspired our hearts even if we didn’t know who the artists were. One church even had this incredible tile mural of Saint Francis preaching to a sea of fishes – all handpainted – that we will never forget! (Saint Francis is sometimes called a patron saint of animals.)
Perhaps what struck both of us so much was that most of these churches and tombs had signs in nearly a dozen languages with two simple directives: No Photos and Silence. (Hence the no pictures of any of these sites in this blog.) Seems easy enough, and yet in every site we went and felt such a pull of silence, everyone else ignored these two simple rules and proceeded to talk loudly, point at and remark about things they saw, touch painted surfaces, photograph every little detail and disregard what felt natural to us in these places – to simply be quiet, observe, absorb and be with the experience of the space. Periodically over the loudspeaker as the din of people talking grew louder, a kind but exasperated deep voice would say, “Silenzio SHH!” or “Silence SHH!” and for a few moments a hush would come over the crowds. (Eric said it sounded like Sister Mary Elephant from Cheech and Chong – the reference is lost on me.) Not long after, the talking and photographing would start up again and the frustrated friars would look on with dismay. This repeated all day every day.
At times I wish I could be the voice over the loudspeaker saying a simple “Silenzio, SHH” reminder in many a circumstance of modern life. To the person talking to their neighbor during savasana. To the people having loud conversations in public spaces on speaker phone. To the person blasting music loud enough for all to hear through their headphones as they run around the beautiful corner of Chicago’s lakefront path. To the people taking a million selfies on the beach but missing the beautiful waves just before them. It is so easy for us to be distracted and to give in to the urge to busily log everything in picture form on our phones to share on social media instead of actually experiencing the place we are in, to speak about everything out loud instead of listening to another person or the energy of a space fully, to wrap ourselves in music/television/internet instead of sitting with the world around us.
Every place in the world from your home city to a remote island in the Pacific has its own energy and special feeling. Assisi is not alone in this! It just happened to be a powerful place where I could really find a connection to this principle of being absorbed in the unique energy of a location through quietude. Could you take the time to put your phone away, to sit or stand quietly, and to listen with all your Being to what is around you? You might be surprised at the Beauty that wells up from the silence.
This summer the spiders outside our home have been busily weaving the most beautiful webs all over our deck and windows. I don’t actually like spiders – they scare me a little bit! But their glistening, strong webs have had me thinking lately about the weaving of the web of humanity – and its strength and fragility of late.
When I came to practice Forrest Yoga, Ana Forrest spoke often about the mission of her methodology of yoga to teach in a way that helped “Mend the Hoop of the People.” At the time, I was a teenager and I didn’t understand much of what she meant when she used that phrase. As I practiced with her longer, I came to more clearly comprehend her deep personal commitment to help heal the broken connections between individuals, cultures, countries and inside each person’s own Spirit as a way of strengthening the web of humanity – one person, one class, one yoga pose, one breath at a time. The depth of this mission has never felt so pressing to me as of late.
As we spent a weekend celebrating our country’s Independence Day this 4th of July, I kept thinking of one of the oldest motto’s of the United States – E pluribus unum – Out of many, one. If my AP US History still serves me, this original motto was a description of the colonies joining together to become one nation and how much stronger they were as a united front. I understand that their bonding together pitted them against other nations in wars and violence, but I still feel there is an importance foreshadowed by these words – an importance bigger than just our country.
This is time when divisiveness is at an all time high: socially, politically, economically and even individually. We are many faiths, political systems, economies, communities and people – and yet we make up one country here in the US and one world if you take this post to a global level. Our human people are not only divided against each other, but also can carry within their own minds and hearts deep personal disconnects. Our web – our hoop of people – feels broken and fractured. In her book, Fierce Medicine, that is exactly how Ana describes the story of Black Elk – a Lakota medicine man who spoke of a vision of the hoop of the people – as inspiring her personal mission. I understand my teacher’s urgency to help people learn how to breathe deeply, to meditate, to connect with their Spirit’s wisdom and to live a life according to the delicate balance and harmony of everything’s interconnectedness. There are lights in the darkness when I see children being raised differently and more openly, when I see my yoga students developing new insights and connections to their own Spirits, when I see other humans providing random acts of kindness and gratitude, and when I focus on the people who are doing really healing things for humanity all over the globe.
I have friends, colleagues and even family members of many different religions, political parties, socioeconomic groups and corners of the world. As someone who has the absolute privilege to travel and see different parts of the world, I often marvel at how similar we are despite vast differences in food, religion, political opinions and ways of life. For some reason I can see and feel the similarities more strongly than the differences. When I studied anthropology and worked for several years as a museum anthropologist, I felt this curiosity for other ways of life continue to grow. I would look at a basket woven in North America and see the same shape in some pottery from Asia, all the while thinking about how really different expressions had common bases. Sometimes I am overcome with the feeling that not everyone is as curious or as able to see similarities in the midst of difference.
Lately I have been sensing a deeply held cynicism in many news reports and social media postings about the state of the world – it is really easy to be beat down by what I hear and what I read. Countries oppressing their people or worse torturing them. Wars around the globe. Vast income inequality growing by the day. Racism. Distrust. Terrorism. Disease. Hunger. Suffering on so many levels. There are a lot of things to be concerned about. But each day that I’ve been meditating recently, all that comes up is this feeling of “Out of many, we are one.” This is, in addition to a national motto, also a foundational yogic principle in several non-dual philosophical lineages. Where yogic philosophy might have spoken about breath, mind and body relating together as one, or the Witness and the Witnessed as one, today it feels like what happens in Turkey, the United Kingdom, Iraq, Bangladesh and the United States is all connected. Where one part of our human web is suffering, the whole is suffering.
The opposite also arises as true: as one of us learns to be understanding, it ripples out along the web of humanity. As another of us chooses love over hatred, it sends a signal out to others to choose love. When we choose to live the life of our deepest wisdom – our Spirit – and not our fear – we inspire others to seek out their deepest wisdom and Spirit. If we can feel and see each person on this planet as an integral part of a bigger picture – if we can all start to see out of the many, we are one – then the ripples get a little bigger and things start to change. Does this mean our differences go away? No – absolutely it does not. It means that we find a deep sense of peace in connecting to one another profoundly in spite of our differences.
If I worry about having an effect half a world away, but I ignore my own health or the issues of my community – my worry doesn’t do much. When I choose to take action in my own life and in the communities I am a part of, the impact can be tremendous. So here is my suggestion: let’s take inspiration from our forefathers and put back into action the idea that out of many, we are one people. Start small. Pick one action in your daily life that makes a difference in how you openly and clearly experience the world around. Pick an issue that a community you are a part of is facing and take some action related to it. As your interconnectedness with your own Self and the world you live in grows, expand your reach outside your state or outside your country.
Here are some ideas for yourself, your community, your state, your country and your world:
This week as I am celebrating my country, I’m also reminding myself of a greater community I’m a part of – humanity. I’m looking for ways big and small, daily and beyond to help feel more connected and strong as a part of this web of human beings. I’m recommitting myself to a vision of a world where there is a more supportive and woven web throughout humanity across borders and differences – and I hope I can inspire you to come with me in that vision!
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.
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.
There was a time, not really that long ago, when my pair of ice skates felt more comfortable to me than anything. When waking up early I found myself on the ice at a local arena, not on my yoga mat. When jumping into the air off the ice and spinning faster than you can imagine was more natural to me than walking up stairs. There were many years when performing and competing as a figure skater drove me more than meditation or yogic self-inquiry. Barefoot back then would have felt naked; now it’s the daily uniform.
Then there was the injury that ended it all, and I left figure skating more than a decade ago seemingly never to go back. It was too painful physically at the time to even think about skating. And my Spirit felt destroyed when the rug of all I had known and identified with was suddenly pulled out from underneath me. For many years after, I felt like I wandered.
Fast forward to today, when I have been feeling a need to start ice-skating again. For months in 2014 I dreamed of skating. Every song on the radio became a skating routine rather than a yoga sequence. I was dreaming of choreography and moves in the field, hearing the sound of my old “patch” scribe drawing out the figure eights on the clean ice surface, and recalling the voices of my coaches chasing me around the ice. I could smell the ice just after it was resurfaced by the Zamboni. I took all of these as signs that the time had come to go back to the ice – to see what was still there. There were memories in my body, in my energy, in my very life force – and for some reason they were coming back to the surface. At the time I left my figure skating career, I didn’t have much mental space to process what happened. Maybe the time and space had finally arisen.
So I researched the local ice arenas’ public skate schedules and picked one that was close and worked: the Chicago Park District McFetridge Ice Arena. I pulled my skates out of hiding (yes I still have them, and they still fit!). I found some clothes that would work and I planned a Friday visit. The first time I went, I couldn’t even get my skates on. I was too scared. It was too familiar and too foreign all at the same time. I had to wait another week until I tried again and actually got onto the ice. I fully anticipated to fall flat on my butt! I was surprised at what I found instead.
I remember so much of the “bad” stuff of skating: coaches yelling at me, losing competitions, the relentless striving for perfection, how nothing was ever good enough – there was always the next step of “better” that someone else had mastered and I had to catch up to, the endless criticism, the demanding schedule and practicing. I had forgotten so much else.
Not only did I stay upright, but I am in fact still a quite capable skater. My feet, legs, hips, arms and hands remembered things that my mind had forgotten. Our bodies remember what our minds often forget. Here is what my body remembered:
1. Going Fast is Fun: Yoga is slow moving even on it’s fastest day. I forgot how exhilarating it is to go fast. And I can still skate REALLY fast! Speeding around the rink feeling the wind rush around you is the coolest feeling. I forgot how much I missed that feeling.
2. The Balance of Strength and Vulnerability: Figure Skating is equal parts strength and vulnerability. You have to develop physical strength in your feet and legs to carry yourself around on those little blades, but you also have to be vulnerable enough to fall down many times to learn how to do anything. You have to be willing to crash into a hard surface to learn how to stay upright.
3. Tough as Nails and Smooth as Silk: There were times in my childhood that I skated more hours than I went to school. I kept a rigorous schedule of sleeping, eating, practicing, studying and acing school – also working jobs from a young age. It was not hard and when I look back I see a child that really was tough as nails and holding all of this together! But at the same time, I had to be incredibly sensitive inside those skates to perform openly, to bring artistry to my routines, and to sense the subtleties that make the moves in figure skating so incredible. It was good to be reminded what a fusion of these two I am still today.
4. Trust: As a skater you have to trust that a skinny little blade it going to catch you after a dizzying spin or a high jump. You have to trust your edges are going to push, pull and propel you around the ice as you ask them to. You have to trust your legs beneath you and your arms around you to coordinate your movements. I forgot how good I can be at trusting myself.
5. Equal Parts Control and Wild Abandon: Let’s face it – it takes a lot of practice and physical control to learn all those jumps and spins…but it also takes a healthy dose of wild abandon! As I leapt about the ice trying to recall the jumps I used to be able to do, I had to let go of being in control. I needed to just go for it! Yoga has made me almost too controlled. It was incredible to leap into the air off my blade and hope for the best on the other end. My blades caught me every time! I guess the body memory retained a control and precision even without my mind being there 🙂
6. Beauty and Grace: I would not call myself graceful and I don’t think I move particularly beautifully. I would use words like athletic or capable to describe my movements. But on the ice, I am beautiful and graceful and stunning. I hadn’t been on the ice for 15 minutes, and someone came up to me and asked if I was an adult competitive figure skater. They complimented me on my graceful form in a particular turn I was playing with…on a movement I haven’t done in over 10 years. It was fun to remember that I can be graceful – even if just on a surface like ice 🙂
Your body remembers a lot more than you might realize. Perhaps there are experiences you have passed through, difficult or delightful, that arise in your mind from time to time. I really believe this is your own body memory arising to give you an important reminder in your current life. Take the time to heed the memories that are arising, revisit elements of the past without getting stuck in them, and you might be amazed what you find. I know I am! And I am so happy to have a weekly skating date with my graceful, beautiful, fast moving, fast spinning, jumping with wild abandon, trusting, strong and vulnerable Self. What body memory are you going to reclaim?
I haven’t written on my blog in months. I haven’t written much in months period. After our beloved dog Rosie left us in December and I wrote about the experience, I felt kind of dead too. I had lost my inspiration. I felt like hibernating. I wanted to climb into a blanket fort on the couch and watch romantic comedies indefinitely. I was not only sad, I was depressed about her loss. It felt like she took a huge part of me with her into the ether. I decided to sink into winter like I never have before. Lots of sitting – little writing, exercising, or exploring. Then a serious health situation with my partner demanded my attention stay relatively home-bound, and I remained internal in many ways over the past few months.
Flash forward to March 22 – and suddenly there was a new dog in town. No – really. We got a new dog and his name is Town. And he changed us in ways we would never have anticipated, and revealed to us new parts of ourselves.
As you can see, Town is big! So much bigger than our last greyhound. He is also strong, a voracious eater, plays with toys, cuddles with us, leans like a pro, and loves to snuggle up in the morning. In short, he is completely different than our last greyhound. This has been a wonderful surprise as we thought we needed to find another dog like the beautiful girl we lost. It has brought us out of our shells in new ways to have a completely different personality in the house. It has helped us to open our hearts again to a new and wonderful creature in our family. And it has inspired my transition into Spring in ways I had not anticipated. Maybe it is the long walks outside, or the longer daylight hours – the slightly rising temperatures or the meditation training I did in early March – but suddenly I feel re-charged and inspired again. I really think it is thanks to this new member of our family that our household feels more alive this Spring than ever before!
This sense of re-charge – of new beginnings – of surprises and unexpected turns in my year both delightful and tragic, reminds me so strongly of the natural order of things. There is a birthing, a living, and a dying off of all things. Something as simple as dinner has a creation, an enjoyment and a clean up. This cycle is all around us. I’m so happy that our new dog reminded me not to get stuck in the dying off part of the cycle. Rather he brought me back to the fact that things dying off can be an incredible springboard to new things being born.
Join me this Spring in not only emerging from the polar vortex of a winter many of us had, but also in springing out of the things that have died off into new growth. Take the time to mourn losses and to pay respect to things that have passed in your life. But also remember that there is something sweet, unexpected and wonderful just around the bend when you keep going. And it may arise in the most unusual package! Here’s to a Spring revival and so much more!