It seems like I've been saying this a lot lately: "Yoga classes are general. You are specific."
When General Is Good
When you first start doing yoga, you do what the instructor says to the best of your ability because you don't know anything else to do. The poses have great benefits. You've been told it'll be good for you by a magazine article, or a health professional, or a friend or family member who loves yoga. But moving your body in all these new directions is foreign so you trust in the instructor. You put your hands here, lift your leg like this, turn your toes that way, extend your spine. You keep coming back to class and the poses become more familiar. You start to pay attention to your breath. You realize you can balance better. You feel great after getting off the mat. In those first few weeks or months, just moving will have benefit. That is the general part. Yoga asana have general benefits and you begin to experience some of them. This pose is energizing. That one is calming. This one helps you breathe better.
And When It's Not
But saying a particular pose always has benefits is like saying almonds are good for everyone. It is absolutely true that almonds have protein and good fats and are high in calcium. But if you are highly allergic to almonds, they can kill you. That may be a bit extreme, but a yoga pose that is supposed to bring more dynamic energy into your being isn't worth it if it also pinches a nerve in your back each time you do it. This is when it is important to leave off working in a general way and become specific. You need to learn how you are not like everyone else so that you can learn to move more fully within your body.
The Lie of Listening
Yoga instructors tell students to "listen to your body and stop when you need to." Having taught for over 17 years, I can tell you that most people don't have any sense of how to listen to their bodies. It's not their fault. We ignore or numb ourselves to sensations of pain or discomfort for years because, as a culture, we have breathed in the limiting mindset of "No pain, no gain/Suck it up/Push through the difficulty." And now, suddenly, a new yoga student is expected to listen to their body and stop when needed. Riiiiight. When the yoga instructor encourages you to move into a modification of a pose, you're thinking, "Screw that! I'm doing the real pose," not understanding that the modification is not only a real pose, but may be the best pose for you. When he or she says to "come out when you need to," you're holding your breath and thinking, "I. Can. Hold. This."
How on earth are you supposed to learn to listen to yourself?
It Starts With A Question
As you wait for your next class to begin, observe how your body is different from your neighbor on the next mat. I don't mean in the sense of envy or critical comparison. Are you similar in muscular development? Are you the same height, weight, build? Are you comparably limber? Or stiff? Probably not. You also may have injuries that are not in common; life experiences you do not share. When you begin to practice, take stock of a few specific aspects of your body. How tall do you feel? What is your energy level like at the beginning? Is it easy to breathe? As class continues, take a few moments here and there to stop and see if anything you noted at the beginning of class is different. And is that difference a positive or negative change?
It is through self-awareness that you will be able to practice less generally and more specifically. It is in noticing how different parts of the practice affect you that you will begin to cultivate self-awareness.
Permission To Be Specific
This past week, I took a class. An old ankle injury has been bothering me as the weather turned colder. We started in Tadasana. I felt collapsed in my right ankle and in my right hip. I tried the first standing poses which usually feed my legs and make my whole body wake up. Not today, they didn't. So as the class moved into more standing poses, I laid down on my back and starting working in Supine Mountain (Supta Tadasana) and various other supine poses. I created the same actions I would have used had I been able to find them while standing. I wasn't doing the same poses as the class, but I was doing the same work. Every time the class came back to Tadasana, I stood up and joined them. I felt taller and more stable in my right ankle and hip. Every time I tried to join the class in a standing pose, that stability would disappear, and so I would return again to my supine practice. I was able to join the group in Prone work (Cobra, Locust, etc.), but anything up on my feet was depleting.
It has taken me years of experimenting and asking myself questions before, during, and after practice that led me to practice in class that way. I also knew the instructor understood that what I was doing was listening to myself. It wasn't a criticism of her instruction or the poses she chose to teach. My body needed something else. Something specific. I needed poses that would benefit my specific injuries that specific day.
Look, it is easier to not pay attention to your own needs, and to stay with the group. It is the path of least resistance. No one wants to be the different one in a class. But if doing a yoga pose causes you discomfort, then not attending to that discomfort means you have stopped doing yoga. In our "Just Do It" culture, it takes more strength and courage to NOT do what the group is doing if that pose is going to cause you pain.
You may be new to yoga, but you've lived in your body your whole life. Start paying attention to what poses make your body feel better, which ones help you breathe more deeply, which ones feed your energy. And next time the class goes into that pose that causes you discomfort (or worse, pain), try doing something else. The class is general; YOU are specific.
September. I love this time of year. It always feels like an opportunity to renew and reinvent myself. School starts and with it comes all the new notebooks and pens that still excite me with their promise of a fresh start.
These are quickly followed by Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur. The Jewish High Holidays include a period of 10 days of reflection on the past year. During this time, you are supposed to seek forgiveness from those you have wronged. By becoming aware of how you may have hurt another, acknowledging your part in the difficulties you may have experienced with someone, and asking their pardon, you are repenting in order that your name be inscribed in the Book of Life. And you begin a new year, intent to do better.
My yoga practice is similar, although I do not grant myself one specific period in which to look back at my previous actions. Rather, every time I am on the mat, I am met with the results of my years of dancing in a body that wasn't built to do what I asked of it. I am aware of the multitude of injuries I sustained that have limited my movement or changed it entirely. I cannot remain blind to the truth of my constitution (tight joints, short tendons, poor endurance, poor circulation, short fuse). All of my history is present in every forward fold, every Virabhadrasana, every Savasana.
I look to the repetition of practice and meditation to find peace and understanding and acceptance. You see, reinventing cannot happen without awareness of what you are carrying. Only when you see your habits, your patterns, can you begin to see which ones are still helping you and which ones no longer serve a purpose as you take your next steps. If all I do is mourn my loss of ability to move in a certain way, I am trapped in the past. And if my response is to blame all that dancing and wish I had never done it, well, that is a wish that cannot come true. And honestly, I don't wish I had never danced. Something in me needed that form of expression. Some part of me had to follow that passion and it led me to incredible adventures and an accumulation of friends and experiences that I am so lucky to call my life.
But I cannot move forward toward a more healthy, respectful treatment of my body if I hold on to memories and continue to dishonor my body. I ask its forgiveness as I learn how to move the body I have now. The missing cartilage and bone erosion in my right ankle. The inflexible spine, and tight hips. The sacrum injured during childbirth ... twice.
When driving on a road, if you come upon a lake, you do not drive into it. You leave the car, and find a boat. The car is not suddenly bad, nor is the boat a more superior mode of transportation. One is simply no longer appropriate. This is how I see my practice of learning about my body and figuring out what to use next on the path forward. I cannot blame or long for what got me to this place. I can see my past as something to set aside as I learn new ways of moving on.
The Jewish High Holidays begin this evening with Rosh Hoshanah, the Jewish New Year. In this year 5774, I will keep learning on the mat about my personal challenges. But I will take these next ten days to look just as closely at my life off the mat. My interactions with the people in my world. My past behaviors that are no longer necessary in my future. I hope you can find time in your life to just sit with who you are. Honor what has brought you to this place in your life. And be willing to let go to move forward.
Roger Eischens always asked us to figure out what we couldn't feel and then we'd know where the work was. To figure out what I can't feel, I usually have to start by taking inventory of what I can feel: Where is my weight on my feet? Which muscles are engaged? And so on.
The next step, once you recognize that areas of your body aren't being stimulated, is to change the pose to start waking up what's sleeping. Changing the pose is often the hardest aspect of yoga for many students. When we're in a pose, we want to look like the rest of the class, like the teacher, like a magazine photo of somebody else doing that same pose. But if my shoulders lock up and I can't engage my arms in an overly flexible Downward Dog, maybe I need to back out of the pose to where my arms remain engaged and the shoulders don't lock.
And now, ego gets involved. We really want to do what every one else is doing. But the point of yoga is to practice with integrity, using our own imperfect bodies as the medium toward finding balance. Teachers will tell you to listen to yourself, but no one wants to go the wall to have the stability they need to do a more grounded tree pose, not if the rest of the class is standing and balancing in the middle of their mats. I watch students struggle to bend deeper in a fold, even as they have lost all extension of the spine and later tell me their back hurts. Doing what serves your body can be humbling, and humility is not what many people are looking for when they approach the mat.
This idea of looking at yourself closely and critically, and then making the changes you need to make is one of those on-the-mat/off-the-mat yoga teachings. Recently a friend asked me (apropos of my teaching) what I would do if I had five bazillion dollars at my fingertips. I didn't have an answer for her which surprised me. The next day, I heard myself say to a class "Figure out what you can't feel, and you know where the work is." I made what at first seemed like a strange connection to my friend's question. I couldn't answer my friend because I hadn't given that question any thought. I couldn't feel for an answer because I had none. And THAT, dear reader, is where my work is.
I've spent the past two and a half years just trying to create anything resembling a teaching career after uprooting myself (and family) to a new state. Struggling to make ends meet, I took on other work. My husband had a second job. The kids went without most extras, and I was grateful for in-laws who took them school supply shopping or I don't know how we'd have provided that either. Now, with my husband in a better job (no longer jobs), and with my teaching finally picking up to the point that I finally quit my barista job, we have achieved the goal of functioning economically. Not great, but not scrambling from paycheck to paycheck. And I realize I don't have idea one about what the next step will be for my teaching.
But since last Wednesday, I'm bringing it into focus and I know a few things:
• More classes for not much more money isn't the ticket.
• Workshops (local and out-of-state) require serious planning and research, and I now have time to devote to that.
• Teaching teachers is something about which I'm passionate.
• I am way behind the learning curve in using technology to expand my reach.
It is time to change the pose, and I can't approach it like anyone else. I'm not anyone else and I come at this from where I am today, not from where my mentor is, nor where my friends are. It is humbling to recognize where I've fallen behind, where I'm limited. But it gives me direction.
So, Suzanne, if you asked me that today, my answer is still vague, but I know that one thing I'd do with that five bazillion dollars is hire professionals, purchase equipment (laptop with a webcam, lighting), rent studio space or create it at home, all with the purpose of using the internet to teach and reach a wider audience. Another is to commit more resources to my workshops. And lastly, there are numerous avenues where I could be teaching teachers here in MN that I have yet to explore, and I hope to participate in some of them very soon.
It's a start. And a good one.
Today I taught a very small class. Just three of my regulars. (It has been below zero here for a couple days and not everyone is silly enough to leave the house for things like yoga class.)
I assumed our transformation work would go quickly, working with partners to remove/reduce rotation in the back leg in Side Warrior (Virabadrasana B for those of you who do Sanskrit). I should know by now that what I think will be simple usually isn't, and what I think will be hard goes easily.
So here we are looking at legs, and I'm aware that one of the women is not getting what we're supposed to be looking at. It isn't important to me that she see it --- it is the first time I've ever pointed this rotation work out --- but she clearly is bothered. When her turn comes, her emotions are at the surface from frustration. And she is already holding tight to every instruction I have ever given in this pose. I try to tell her this isn't intended to change any of that, just to refine it. No good. By the time we have done "helping" her in the pose, she is so disconnected from her body and quite upset.
Once, years ago, I had the same response to too many instructions and tweaking. So many that I ended up cranky and disconnected. I looked at my student and very quickly put her through the same transformation work she had just done, only with minimal instruction and staying in the pose for a very short time. She stood up, calm, content, one with her body.
Life lessons learned today:
For the very cerebral, too much time and too much instruction only puts you further into your head.
As a teacher, know your students. Do not feed their imbalances.
Which leads me to this: All those ways you approach life may have served you well, but when they get in the way, can you change your approach? If you keep pushing through challenges, are there times when maybe you should just ease up? Can you persevere if it is your natural inclination to walk away from difficulty? Do you know yourself well enough to know your patterns of approaching life's challenges?
Watching how you approach a yoga pose can teach you a lot about your habits and patterns of mind. Taking yoga off the mat can happen while you're on the mat.
Deep, and not so deep, thoughts on bodies, movement, yoga, art, shoes, parenting, dogs. You know, life.