Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What's the rush?

I'm often told by students that it's hard to practice yoga at home for a variety of reasons. The phone rings, the dog barks and wants to lay down on the mat, there's not enough room, family interruptions, and just plain lack of motivation are common excuses I hear.

I confess I'm not always able to do my own practice at home either despite having an open studio at my disposal. My excuse is I've already done 15 downward-facing dogs in one day and I usually am not in the mood to do more. Besides, on my day off I feel it's important to give my tired body a rest.

Still, I enjoy the time I get to spend alone doing the poses I like most without having to explain them to someone else. There's a restorative feeling that comes focusing on my body for a change. For that reason I try to make a point of doing my own practice at least once a week.

Yet I can relate to my students who tell me they'd rather come to class than practice at home because there's no one there to hold them accountable. It's easy to rush through a series of poses and call it a practice. I too notice that I don't hold my poses as long as when I'm in a class.

As a remedy I began watching the clock to time myself in my poses. But that backfired. My practice became series of self-imposed time constraints and more about the time I spent than simply the awareness of my body in the poses. Once it was an issue of time, my practice became a check mark on my to-do list.

More and more I realized I was taking this same attitude toward my life, always ready to move on to the next moment, the next event.

In our culture we are wired toward getting things done. Instead of being in the moment we are always thinking about and preparing for the next moment. If we are at work we long to be at yoga class. During yoga class we long to get home to dinner to satisfy our hungry stomachs. During dinner we long to finish and get to the livingroom to watch our favorite TV show. During the show we long to be in bed asleep. And while trying to sleep we long to be at work to finish up the project we started earlier in the day. We never get to where we want to be because we are always wanting to be somewhere else.

Brennan Manning, in his book "Ruthless Trust," writes about the "geography of nowhere." He says, "Now/here spells nowhere. To be fully present to whoever or whatever is immediately before us is to pitch a tent in the wilderness of Nowhere. It is an act of radical trust- trust that God can be encountered at no other time and in no other place than the present moment. Being fully present in the now is perhaps the premier skill of the spiritual life."

Maybe instead of measuring our practices by the length of time we spend at them, we can start measuring them by how present we are during the time we practice. In doing so, we might as Manning suggests, be now-here instead always off somewhere else. To not be fully present to this moment is in reality to be no-where.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

So you want to be a yoga teacher?

If someone had told me when I was in college that I would end up as a yoga teacher and massage therapist I wouldn't have believed it. At that time in my life I was a high strung, stressed out, perfectionist, just trying to figure out what to do with my life. My two choices then were athletic trainer (not to be confused with exercise trainer, I mean one of the people you see running out on the field when an athlete goes down) or journalist. I chose journalist and thus began my short lived career.

I was actually pretty successful as a journalist and that was the problem. By age 25 I was the editor of a decent sized, weekly newspaper in Shoreline. But I confess I had no idea what I was doing. I spent most of my time trying to prove that I deserved my position.

I thought that when I received my promotion balloons would fall from the sky and people around my would jump-up and applaud. They didn't. In fact, I received nothing but headaches and negative phone calls from very upset readers. You wouldn't believe the stuff that people think to complain about. I actually had a woman nearly punch me once because I didn't have room for an article about her that week.

To combat my stress, I took yoga classes at the Everett Parks and Rec. I would often joke with my husband that someday I was going to quit my job and become a yoga teacher. One day he simple said, "Why don't you?" I scoffed at the idea at first because it seemed so absurd. Yet the more I thought about it the more I felt called to it.

I completed my first teacher training in Aug. 2002 and was hired as an instructor at the Mukilteo YMCA. Everything seemed to fall into place, until the night of my first class...

The fact is I wasn't well received as a teacher by my first students. It's safe to say the hated me. They wrote nasty letters about me and asked for the return of the previous instructor who left to go back to school. She had been very popular and my style was very different from her's. All I could think was "what have I gotten myself into?" as my dreams of a stress-free life dissolved in front of me.

I stuck it out and 6 months later they loved me. Over the next few years, class eventually grew to 60- plus students. This presented it's own set of problems. I couldn't teach them, only lead them through a series of poses and try my best to get everyone to fit in the room.

During that time I picked up several more classes, 15 total and was running to-and-fro around town. I always felt like I was going from 5th gear to 1st without any downshifting. So much for that perfect life. That's when I decided to start my own studio.

Even with me as my own boss, calling my own shots, there are still problems and hang-ups that have to be dealt with. When my students look at me dreamily and say they wished they had my life, I laugh, and say "There's no escaping stress. Even yoga teachers have bad days."

What I've learned however,is that though stress is an inevitable part of life,it's how you manage it that matters. Breathe deep and accept that things will never be perfect (sometimes not even close.) Just as your poses will never be perfect, neither will your life and that's the beauty of it. God gives us challenges to help us grow and lead us to where we need to be. If my career as a journalist hadn't been so taxing I would have never become a yoga teacher. I would have missed out on one of the best blessings of my life.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


I can’t count the number of fretful phone calls and emails I get from nervous beginning yoga students who all say something like; “I’ve never done any yoga before at all, is that OK?” Well if it wasn’t OK no one would be practicing yoga. We are all beginners at some point.

This repeated question makes me wonder if there’s a vicious rumor swirling around the yoga world of classes filled with contortionists wrapping their legs around their heads and balancing on one finger. For the record, I’ve been practicing yoga 12 years now and will only attempt the splits on the hottest day in July and after about an hour of practice first. I still cannot get my legs around my head and doubt I ever will. In fact, this may bit hard to believe, but I couldn’t touch my toes in a seated forward bend when I first started yoga. I wasn’t born flexible but I became more flexible because of yoga. This is why I often laugh when people tell me they can’t do yoga because they aren’t flexible. I say, “You need to do yoga because you aren’t flexible and flexible people need to do yoga for strength.”

I think the fear of the first yoga class comes from the perceived difference between a class at a gym and a class at a studio. Many people believe that yoga studios are only for those serious students with more experience.

Having taught at both venues, I’ve seen the advantages and disadvantages of both. Gyms tend to have class sizes around 15-30 students (occasionally I’ve seen classes upwards of 60) and the instructor often leads the class from the front of a very large room. Students follow along to the best of their ability as the level of the class varies. However, gyms do offer the anonymity of the back of the class for those who just want to watch and see.

As an instructor, I think that the smaller studio classes are the safer place for beginners even if they aren’t as anonymous as some might prefer. In a studio the instructor can help students with the correct form and modify poses more easily. There’s less a question of “am I doing this right?” in a studio.
At Tranquil Turtle Yoga studio, there are no designated classes for beginners because classes are never bigger than 8 students. This is small enough that everyone gets personalized attention from me.

Likewise, most students are beginners for a number of years before they move on to more advanced poses. This means that everyone tends to practice the same poses even if they’ve been attending class for some time.
I like to remind my students that yoga is a journey, not a destination. A student will never be perfect because there is no perfect in yoga. It’s a life-long process of learning all the nuances of a pose and holding it for just a breath longer than the last time. Over time the poses will begin to feel more and more comfortable. Also, students will become more and more confident in their ability to do the pose correctly on their own without instructor assistance. Muscle memory will take over and the body will start to automatically know what to do in a particular pose.

I remember the first time I ever attempted triangle pose. I thought there was no way I’d ever be able to do the pose and not feel as though my hamstrings were about to pop out of the back of my leg. Gradually, with the help of a yoga block and lots of practice, I was able to do the pose without pain. Then, with more time and practice, I was able to do the pose without a block. Now, I’m still working on turning open my hips without jamming up my spine and feeling the freedom in the pose. I’ll never get to the point where I’ll say, “Triangle, go t that down, don’t need to practice that anymore.”