Monthly Archives: August 2011

It’s all in the approach

Hanuman pose, or, as I know it, "Not Happening" pose.

Since I love my mom and dislike hurricanes, I decided to head upstate for the weekend and combine natural disaster preparedness with family time.

I was hoping to try out the local studio where my mom’s been practicing ever since her joyful discovery of yoga’s benefits a few months back, but there weren’t any classes on the schedule beyond Saturday morning, and I didn’t realize that until it was too late.

So instead, I’m turning my focus to helping my mom develop a home practice. Because as much as I love taking classes, I’ve found that the true benefits of yoga come more from a little bit each day than from a lot once a week. And in presenting postures in a parent-friendly fashion, I’m reminded how important it is to take an accessible approach.

My mom doesn’t yet need to know it is possible to jump back into chaturanga, because she is competitive enough to want to try that move even if her upper body strength isn’t ready for it. So the version of surya namaskar she is learning–and the one I prefer, anyway–foregoes chaturanga for the simpler knees-chest-chin lowering of the body.

Once she is confident that she can perform sun salutations, then she can explore variations. But competence and comfort must come before complexity.

I was reminded of this over the past week when, in two different advanced classes, the same challenging pose was taught in entirely different ways.

First, on Wednesday, I had the immense privilege of taking a class led by the anatomy instructor from my teacher training. I cannot say enough wonderful things about this man and his teaching style: kind, informative, empowering, etc. So even though his class was billed as a Master Class on the studio schedule, I knew I would not feel pressured to perform beyond my abilities.

It was that comfort and security that enabled me to fully relax and connect with my body–and I did end up hitting a milestone in my personal practice when I landed crow pose for a few solid seconds. (Yay for arm balances!) But what I didn’t do was make it all the way into Hanuman pose.

And I probably never will, which is fine by me. I have little use for the splits. However, the way the pose was taught to me on Wednesday made me feel like I could get there someday if I wanted to. We worked up to the posture slowly, used blocks for support, and were reassured that there was absolutely nothing “less than” about needing that support.

But the way the pose was presented less than twenty-four hours later, I felt inadequate even trying.

Why the difference? The second teacher was certainly competent and on the whole her class was excellent; I was impressed by her slow and steady pacing that centered on breath counts–an important baseline given the intensity of the flow that she taught. But instead of identifying Hanuman pose as challenging and explaining modifications, she simply called out the name and expected her students to know what she meant–and perhaps with good reason, since nearly everyone else in the room readily slid into the splits.

In both classes I was borderline out of my league, but I only felt that way in one of them. Part of the disparity was that on Wednesday I knew the teacher’s style and on Thursday I didn’t, but more significantly, on Wednesday I was gently guided and on Thursday I felt pushed: There was an assumption of ability that, reasonable or not (it was an advanced-level class, after all), intimidated me beyond a point of comfortable exploration.

Thankfully, since I’d just experienced an alternative approach, I pushed my initial feeling of inadequacy aside and simply applied Wednesday’s lessons to Thursday’s class in order to safely modify my posture. But had I not been bolstered by outside knowledge, I would have felt out of place and unworthy–two sensations I never want to provoke in my students.

So as I teach my mom a short sequence that meets her personal needs, I’ll be extra careful how I introduce ideas and set up expectations–and no offense to the legendary leaping monkey, but Hanuman pose will not be on the agenda.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Yoga’s what it means to me

Healthy words --> healthy thoughts --> healthy actions.

I left the community center yesterday feeling uplifted, enlightened, and thoroughly respected.

I didn’t speak to a single child.

This wasn’t the plan, of course. The plan was for me to plunge valiantly back into the throng of children who last week thwarted my efforts at teaching them how to get calm and stay focused. To encourage a different outcome this time around, I showed up renewed and prepared, armed with positive energy, helpful teaching tips, and a custom visual aid.

The poster, which I’d made myself and cleverly rolled up into my yoga mat for easy transport, spelled out an acronym for RESPECT: Responsible, Empowered, Secure, Positive, Equal, Choice, True.

These words carry meaning for me, and hopefully, my students. I knew there was no guarantee we’d get around to discussing each of the words, or even that we’d talk about respect at all. But we have talked about it before, and I figured I could at least put the poster on the wall and take it from there.

On the walk from the train to the center I silently coached myself for class, running through a flexible list of games and activities and assuring myself I had the necessary skills and tools to do my job well. As I neared the entrance, I took a deep breath and reminded myself of two of my favorite truths: I am always supported, and this too shall pass.

It was quiet when I entered the building. Too quiet. I signed in and was told my site contact–the program director, who I’ll call D.–was upstairs. I had hoped to speak with her before class so was glad to know where to find her, and while I was nailing down locations I asked if the desk attendant knew in which room we’d be having yoga.

“Yoga for who?” he wanted to know.

“Um, the kids?” I answered.

“The kids are gone,” he said.

The kids are gone? I asked him what he meant and he smiled cryptically and suggested I just head upstairs. After a flash of stricken frustration I breathed deeply and smiled back. No kids? Okay, no problem, what now?

I found D. mid-discussion with another community leader, who graciously pardoned my interruption as D. expressed her surprise at seeing me. I managed to hide my shock but not my disappointment when D. explained that camp had ended the day before.

Just like that, my job was over.

In short, red tape complications had prompted an early dismissal of the kids, and since my site contact didn’t realize my Street Yoga contact was on vacation, I didn’t get the message that I wasn’t needed to teach.

No, that’s not the message I got at all: The message I was given in person, via the heart-to-heart D. and I had in lieu of class, was that I have done good work in my time with the kids, and she hopes I will share more yoga at the center.

I am really sad I didn’t get to say good-bye to my students. I didn’t know that last week’s discouraging chaos was also going to be my farewell effort–though if I had known, I probably would have felt even worse about the less-than-happy ending.

But I am also glad to understand that nothing has really ended. The kids are alive and well, maybe even better off for having been exposed to what I offered them. D. certainly thinks so, and since she’s savvy enough to–among other inspirational feats–fund and manage a multigenerational community center, I choose to believe her.

I choose to believe the work has just begun. Forget about failure: I’ve successfully laid the groundwork for more healing in my community, and for that I am wholeheartedly grateful.

As for my poster? I left it with D. She wants to laminate it.

A little help from my friends

I am trying, and I am tired. But I am trying! That about sums up my recent sentiments regarding one of my greatest challenges thus far as a yogi: holding a safe space for a crew of kids ranging from age 4 to age 12.

It’s hard. I knew it would be–I’m working with a community program partnered with Street Yoga, teaching at an urban summer camp, so it’s not like I was expecting my class to resemble the illustrations in my jaunty book of yoga games.

But, still, dang.

Even though logically I have known from the start that I have a lot to learn, part of me thought bravely welcoming opportunity and cheerfully taking on responsibility would somehow make the job easier.

And surely it has. But I’m nonetheless being pushed, and I’ve very nearly made it harder for myself, because I haven’t wanted to ask for help.

Help is for people who can’t care for themselves. (Or so my ego told me.) The last few weeks have gone relatively well, and I liked the idea of teaching alone, of proving I could singlehandedly corral and calm a gaggle of children. I still believe that I can. But I sure didn’t last Friday, and there is no denying that failure.

Of course I don’t want to call it a failure, both because I am stubbornly optimistic and because I don’t like failing. But if success is guiding an engaged group safely through a structured yoga class, well…no.

There were some successful moments, at least. One girl proudly proclaimed she’d “come prepared” and showed off her stretchy pants. That means she was thinking about yoga outside of class! And even though she rolled their eyes, another girl knew the meaning of “namaste.” (“Hello, good-bye, I respect myself and others, blah blah blah.”) And the young man who practices yoga at home on his Wii Fit? His peaceful enthusiasm and quiet eagerness to learn was a welcome contrast to the persistent rough-housing of his peers.

(Honestly. I could never have anticipated the number of times I would have to repeat, “Hitting is not yoga!”)

I am aware of the value in successful moments. I know they add up to something bigger. But even though I understand baby steps are necessary and that they help, it can feel like I’m not getting anywhere.

It feels like a drop in the bucket, my work. A small drop in a big bucket. But I return again and again because I believe in the power of droplets, know that slow and steady drips can carve stone.

And I know that I’m not alone. I almost forgot that after last week, when I left (fled?) the community center with my smile plastered in place and a panicked certainty that I was in over my head. On my train ride home, I wrote that “either no lifeguards are around or they are content to watch me struggle.”

Thankfully I have since considered a third possibility–that lifeguards may be on duty, but if I pretend I’m treading water when really I am sinking, no one is going to throw me a floatie.

And so I asked for help, because I know how to care for myself. (So my true spirit assures me.) And in return I’m receiving support. I know that next time will be better, because already I am better equipped, lifted up by the assurances and suggestions of my peers–and an increased awareness of my own limitations.

As I was told in the yoga class I took tonight (one that involved absolutely no rough-housing), limitations can be helpful guidelines that highlight different needs. And as long as I listen–to my body, to my students, to my mentors and friends–I will receive good guidance.

This is where the peeling begins

There. I said it. That horrible pun has been pinging around my mind since Thursday. When the peeling began.

It turns out my rooftop asana was canceled by rain, so I thought I’d have a reprieve from sweat and thus a chance at a tan. But the next morning showed a pink spot on my shoulder, and I knew the jig was up. Sometimes skin must be shed.

The upsides of surrendering were the back-to-back yoga classes I took Thursday night. I’m using a thirty-day voucher from one of those group coupon sites, which thank goodness for because otherwise I’m not sure I could afford to practice at such an upscale studio. But for now I’ve got twenty-something days before I need to worry about yoga money, and a fan-tas-tic place to practice in the meantime.

Last night I took a deeply fulfilling class that centered my spirit, and I have been trying to carry the energy with me ever since, in particular because I have a phone interview tomorrow that is important to me.

The interview is for what I’ve previously referred to as my “dream service job,” and I am still “in the delicious stage where I don’t yet know what’s decided.”

Like I said in a blog post back in June, “I am hopeful, because I believe the job will allow me to serve my country by doing something that I love, and intuition tells me I will find the work fulfilling.”

Balancing knowledge and hope requires care. Knowledge–or the lack thereof–can create hope falsely or falsely destroy it. It’s a layered task, sifting facts and feelings and deciding how to tell the truth. The art of sharing what’s true is at the heart of authentic communication, and a craft I encourage everyone to practice.

If I end up with this job, I’ll have a chance to practice my craft on a large scale, telling truths than can effect change I care about. I’d have to make some big changes of my own to take on the challenge, but I am willing, because I have energy and talent to give–and as I’ve said before, “I am full of gratitude, happy to understand that a job isn’t something I get, but that I give.”

Plus, the long hours would decrease my chances of more sunburn.

No sweat

This is not me. But I relate. A lot. (Photo courtesy of shelleylyn's Flickr feed.)

You play in the sun, you’re gonna get burned.

At least, you will if you’re me and you experiment with the sun-shielding abilities of shea butter. True fact: Shea butter has natural sunscreen properties. Truer fact: Shea butter does not have enough natural sunscreen properties to adequately protect you on a hot summer day at the beach.

And thus I have been a painfully deep shade of red from head to toe for going on five days now. My condition has prompted many a sympathetic smile, despite the obvious: This is my fault. I know how to avoid skin damage, and yet I didn’t. And so, sympathy aside, I have been suffering the consequences.

It’s not the tender skin that I mind (though that’s no fun). It’s the fact that I’ve been unfit for asana. I was already in a pattern of lazy when it comes to asana practice, and was hoping to get back to the mat in full force this week. But when your skin is hot to the touch, generating internal heat doesn’t help the healing–particularly not when you want your burn to become a tan.

I came back from Colorado earlier this summer boasting an average burn that soon faded to an appealing brown–until I sweated off all the dead skin in the yoga room. It’s discomforting to feel your discarded skin slide away beneath your fingers, but if you’re not yet tan you can get in even more trouble. I know this because I took Bikram with a burn a couple of years ago, and let me just say, OW. Granted, it was an oven burn and not a sunburn, but I was nonetheless horrified as I watched the injury on my wrist go from red and flat to puffy and bubbly in the course of ninety minutes. It was like my skin was being cooked. Which it was.

SO, rather than consciously cook my already injured skin this time around–an inevitability in any studio, given the summer heat–I accepted that I would have to avoid yoga classes this week and instead focus on moisturizing my skin to the maximum possible level.

The plan has worked, and has also prompted me to find my yoga in other places. In pausing to do mountain pose with a tree (vrksatadasana, as I’ve coined it) as I walk around the city. In patiently helping my friend move into a new space, tolerating the heat and clutter with calm and controlled breaths. In teaching my coworker a few stress-relieving postures she can do at her desk–and then remembering to try them myself. In stretching my lower back as I hang in ragdoll/forward fold and rub more, more, more lotion into my legs.

But I miss taking class. And my skin has healed to the point where the top layer is more brown than red, which is to say, dead. Still, since I’m fair-skinned, a tan is a rare and exciting achievement, no matter how ill-gotten it may be, and I’m loathe to lose the golden brown color I’ve managed to acquire.

However, if I’m choosing between asana and a tan, what choice am I really making? Internal well-being versus external appearance, pretty much. And tonight, when yoga is being offered on a rooftop, accompanied by the words of a poet friend, it’s no choice at all.