Yoga Reflections

When I'm not scribbling away at novels, blogs, or tweets, I'm generally eating, sleeping, or in a yoga studio. I teach six days a week and try to practice everyday (with moderate success).

This wealth of daily experience combined with my need to write things down leads to articles on yogic philosophy, teaching, practicing, and body image, all of which can be found here.

Updates Monthly.

A Meditation on the Subject of Whole Assing

Image via Flickr by The Huntington

Image via Flickr by The Huntington

“Don’t half-ass two things, whole ass one thing.” – Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation

For the last three years I have split my time, creative energy, and care between writing and yoga instructing. In many ways, these two art forms complement one another. As a yoga instructor I have large stretches of free time during the day in which to write (or avoid writing by manically cleaning the house). As a writer, I’ve honed my ability to tell stories, which I frequently use to elevate my class from a calisthenic mediation to a true lesson. Yet, despite the overlap, I can’t help a niggling worry that I am short-changing each by pursuing the other.

Part of my problem is mental. Sometimes I think of myself as an aspiring writer who teaches yoga to pay the bills until my writing will. Then the next day I will think of myself as a yoga instructor who writes. This distinction may seem trivial, but I am a firm believer in definitions and their power to shape our world.

When I feel like I am primarily a writer, I am more diligent about writing everyday. It’s not always fun. Writing feels like pulling teeth as often as it feels like legos snapping satisfactorily into place. But I do it and my teaching suffers. Not a lot, but it’s noticeable. Maybe I’m teaching the same sequence as last week because I haven’t gotten my own ass to the mat as a student in all that time. I could be using an old playlist or my delivery is just a little off because I’m not quite in the rhythm of the class.

When I feel like I am mostly a yoga instructor it’s much the same, but in reverse. I make it to the studio as a student, study yoga, and teach some phenomenal classes, but I don’t write much. Though, in truth, it’s rarely that binary. It’s a spectrum from fully whole assing one thing, to half-assing both right in the middle and there’s the trouble.

You might justly question my premise by asking, “Why can’t you do both well? Does it really have to be one or the other?”

There have been stretches of time when I felt like I could whole ass two things, where I committed myself to studying and practicing writing and yoga while also teaching yoga professionally. They never last. The truth is: I only have so much time, creative energy, and gumption. If I were to put in enough time and effort into both arts to feel like I was doing the best possible job at both, I would be working somewhere around 60-80 hours per week. That kind of schedule is possible, but it’s hard to sustain, particularly because so much of that work needs to be self-motivated.

So, what’s the solution?

I believe it’s a pivot, in one direction or the other. Choosing to “whole ass one thing,” as Ron would say. But which way? That’s the question.

In a way, I’ve already spun the wheel by applying to several fully funded creative writing MFA programs. If I get accepted to one, and choose to go, I will be committing to honing my craft as a writer and will be paid for doing so…

Yet, I almost hope I don’t get into any of them. Part of me compares the hours I’ve spent grinding out pages to the hours spent teaching and knows which I prefer. Please don’t misunderstand. I do love writing. Like right now, when this question feels so urgent it’s burning the back of my throat. Writing helps me sort things out. I find its precision and craft beautiful.

Yet, I don’t generally stand up from a hard session at the keyboard feeling better than when I sat down. Usually the words either come or they don’t. There are breakthrough moments where I get passed a place where I was stuck, and that feels fantastic, but most of the time it’s more consistent than that. When I teach yoga, on the other hand, I almost always feel better by the end of class than I did at the beginning. In fact, I feel better at the end of the day when I teach four classes than I do on my day off. Exhausted, yes, physically and emotionally, but deeply content.

Again, with the information you now posses, you might question why this is even a struggle. “That sounds like a pretty clear indicator,” you might say. “Why don’t you just devote yourself to yoga for a while? You can still write when the urge strikes, right?”

I might just do that. I can feel the my heart spiraling closer to that conclusion, but there’s another factor. I am afraid.

Right now I make enough money to support myself in what my mother calls “a holding pattern.” I’m not worried about feeding myself or paying my bills, but I’m not putting much aside. Looming household expenses like buying a new furnace, or reroofing the garage, threaten to wipe out my meager savings. Committing to being a yoga instructor feels like committing to that uncertainty.

More than that, however, is learning to value a different type of knowledge. Wisdom and a deep knowing in one’s body might sound laudable, particularly in my circles, but in society’s eyes, it sure doesn’t beat the prestige of a master’s degree. As much as it pains me, I am a creature of society. I am a rule follower. I want to think well of myself and want others – particularly my brilliant, well-educated family – to think well of me. Somehow, trying to make yoga more than just a holding pattern doesn’t feel like it’s as legitimate a pursuit as writing. Part of me knows that my family will value me and think well of me no matter what I decide, but fears of being thought less than I could be blend with my more practical money worries into a potent fearful soup.

So, what am I to do?

Well, today, I submitted my last MFA application for the year. In February I will take a break from writing regularly to see how it feels. If the urge strikes, I’ll write, but I won’t force myself to the keyboard. I will take this time for myself and my yoga practice. We’ll see what happens from there.

3 Things You Won’t Learn in Yoga Teacher Training

Yoga teacher training is a transformative experience. You will learn about the body, the asana, practice dialogue, and skim the surface of an ancient knowledge system that it takes a lifetime of study to even partially comprehend.

This post isn’t about any of those things.

This is about the little things that you have to live through (or read here) to know about. The true secrets of yoga teaching.

1) Poop Before Class

Is that too graphic for you? Well, too bad. I could not be more serious about this. As a yoga student, it’s embarrassing to disrupt class by dashing off your mat to use the bathroom but it’s doable in an emergency.

As a teacher, you can’t just leave your class in pigeon and run to the bathroom. People would notice. So, if you need to answer a call of nature 15 minutes into class, prepare to work your Mula Bandha and hold that shit. Or, take my advice, and use the bathroom right before class. Start a minute or two late if you have to, it’s better than the alternative.

Trust me. [Read more…]

Raising Cats: an Exercise in Non-Attachment

Unlike dogs and children, cats don’t care about your approval or disapproval. Some people think this means that cat’s don’t love you, or aren’t happy to see you. These people have clearly never raised a cat.

When Firefly or Igmu walk up, flop on my lap, and start purring like mad, or when they slow blink at me (a sign of trust and affection), I know they love me.

However, when they lay down on my keyboard or book, bite my ankles while I’m trying to work, or continually knock over the trashcan (Igmu), I’m forced to recognize that they really don’t care about my displeasure. All they want is a little attention, and negative attention is as satisfactory as positive attention (as long as it isn’t violent, obviously).

Because negative attention is perfectly acceptable to them, the only really effective punishment for my girls is to simply stand up and walk away. At first, I did this often.

I would be working when one of them would come bite my ankles. I would stand immediately and walk into the bedroom. A stern rebuke for interrupting me while I was working – or so I thought. [Read more…]

Responsibility and the Yoga Classroom

During teacher training, my fellow trainees and I were treated to several philosophical lectures. These lectures ranged from the origins of yoga to brief overviews of related branches of thought, like Ayurveda. One image from these lectures stands out in my memory.

It’s a flower, drawn (poorly) in marker on a white board. At the base of the flower sits the Vedas, the Upanishads form the stem, and each petal contains the name of a philosophical discipline: Yoga, Ayurveda, Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism.

The image is so powerful because it expresses a complicated idea clearly and accurately. It would be a mistake to conflate these petals as each are distinct entities, yet they are also undeniably connected by sharing a common root and stem.

Similarly, the issues I’d like to discuss in this essay are varied. Thoughts, observations, and stories have been percolating in the back of my mind for so long, that they can no longer be expressed as a clear X vs Y issue (as my essays often do for simplicity). Instead, I’m going to weave together a discussion about several topics that share a common root: responsibility in the yoga classroom.

Who is responsible in a yoga classroom, and what are they responsible for? [Read more…]

Purple-Asana

Reflections On The Use Of Sanskrit

It was my second day of work at Yoga on the Lake when the conversation turned to using Sanskrit names for yoga poses in class.

“It can be tough,” Deb, the studio manager, acknowledged. “I had trouble with Utthita Hasta Padangustasana for a while – I kept calling it something else.” She laughed.

“Don’t worry,” Malyssa, the retail guru, said. “We don’t know what you’re saying anyway. You could say, ‘exhale into purple-asana’ and we’d just go, ‘oh what an interesting pose.'”

We all laughed and I blushed as I thought of the number of times I’d called Half Moon Pose “Articundrasana” (like the Pokemon Articuno) instead of “are-dah CHan-DRAHS-anna.”

I received my 200-hour yoga teacher certification from Yoga to the People, a studio that tries to remove as many barriers to entry for new students as possible. One of these barriers is teaching in Sanskrit, which some Western students, particularly religious students, sometimes find off putting.

As a result we spent significantly less time on memorizing Sanskrit names than on other aspects of teaching.

I strongly identify with their “yoga is for everyone” philosophy and for the past year I’ve been happy teaching my classes in English. Yet, over that time I’ve also come to see two distinct advantages that favor teaching in Sanskrit: [Read more…]

Is It Okay To Want A Better Butt?

Reflections on Yoga and Body Image

Does this girl have an eating disorder? Should I talk to her after class?

I pondered these questions as I studied one of my students in downward facing dog. Her arms looked painfully thin and her waist was so narrow that, if she weren’t wearing a skin tight T-shirt, I might suspect she wore a corset — that’s how prominent her hip bones were.

However, her hair didn’t look undernourished, her teeth weren’t stained from purging, and I’ve met plenty of perfectly healthy stick figures. Maybe that was just her natural body shape…

Besides, I thought, feeling my own stomach absently, It’s not like you have much room to talk. Even if she does have an eating disorder, she’s only taking to extremes thoughts that you’ve had. I felt my face glow with the rising tide of hypocrisy. [Read more…]

Smartphones and Yoga Teachers: a Tool, a Crutch, or a Distraction?

“If you haven’t done so already, begin to make your way into Shavasana. Lying on your back, arms either open and receptive at your sides or else one hand finds your heart, one finds your stomach. Eyes close. Release any control of breath you may have maintained throughout your practice. Relax your body.

“Once you’ve established this quiet, relaxed space, try to stay present. Feel the mat, or the floor, underneath your body. Feel the air circulating around your skin, entering and leaving your body with breath. Be present.”

My breath releases in a sigh as I turn my attention from my students to my smartphone.

I check my email, then glance up and look around. Everyone is still relaxing, so I check Facebook, then look up again. My students twitch, shift, and breathe, struggling with the difficult task I’ve set them: remaining present, relaxing, trying not to fall asleep. Occasionally they don’t succeed and gentle snores fill the studio, but at least they’re trying – unlike me.

Over the last several weeks an embarrassing irony has grown in the back of my mind: I tell my students to remain present and then immediately check out myself.

How did this happen? I wonder and, perhaps more importantly, What can I do about it? Do I want to do anything? Do I need to?

Your first response might be an eye roll and a disgusted, “Easy – leave your phone with your shoes. Phones have no place in the yoga studio anyway.”

Generally, I agree with you – for students anyway – but here’s the thing: I (and easily 75% of the yoga teachers I know) use my (our) smartphones for music during class.

Now, your next response might be, “Well then, just don’t look at it.”

Yes, obviously, I’ve thought of that. I’ve even been a bit better about not looking since I’ve noticed myself doing it, but I haven’t stopped completely. Like many modern smartphone owners, I’m accustomed to checking my email every 10-15 minutes (at most) and going an entire yoga class without can be challenging.

Not only that but, as a self-publishing author, I have so much that might be in my inbox. It could be correspondence from that author I emailed last week, it could be my cover artist with a new sketch for me to look at, or it could be any number of, if not vital, then at least vitally interesting things demanding my attention.

Plus, my students all have their eyes closed. It’s not like I’m giving dialogue. I’m not taking away from their experience, I’m just decompressing from a solid 50-60 minutes of being “on,” fully present, in the moment, engaging my students. It’s hard to understand how tiring this is if you haven’t done it. It’s like giving a lecture for an hour, except you are moving, walking, adjusting.

It’s somewhere between a class and an improve performance. After all that work, I deserve a little break right?

Well…maybe, and maybe not.

It’s true that my students are supposed to have their eyes closed (and many may be mortified when they read this), but what if they didn’t? What if they glance up at the front of the room and see me there, on my phone – what kind of message does that send?

Or, worse, what happens when I press the center button on my phone too long and Siri’s beeps shatter the stillness (oh yes, that’s happened). Or I forget to turn the sound off on my phone and the letters from Words with Friends bubble onto the screen, “Boo-boo-boo-bup.” Yep, that has happened too.

Those are the worst things that have come of my consumption.

Here are some of the good things:

1) As mentioned, it helps me decompress for class, which is especially important if I’m going to teach another one in 15 minutes.

2) It helps me get through shavasana.

This is an entirely new aspect of the problem. I like giving long shavasanas.

When I was a Teacher Trainee, I was told that yoga classes should warm up, culminate in a peak pose (like half moon, or full bound side angle), then begin to slow down, and end in shavasana. However, for me, the peak pose is shavasana. It’s the culmination of all the work my students just did and I want to give them plenty of time to absorb that work – particularly because many teachers only leave a few minutes at the end.

I have absolutely nothing against that style. As a student, I frequently appreciate short shavasanas and grow frustrated and antsy when an instructor leaves me there “too long.” This is precisely why I hold my students there. It’s hard, and it’s work, but I think it’s important work that I want to share with my students…I just don’t want to do it myself apparently.

Here’s another thing: it’s even harder for me to sit quietly in shavasana as an instructor than experience it as a student, probably because instead of putting my body through a demanding asana practice I’ve just spent the last hour focusing as hard as I can on my students. I’ve become hyper attentive to their every twitch and movement, and I feel self conscious as I watch them struggle to remain still. I begin to have doubts.

Am I leaving them in the pose too long? Should I say something? Offer something to focus on…What else can I do?

However, the best thing I can do for them is set them up then say nothing. Using my smartphone may be a crutch, but it helps me shut the hell up and let my students have their own experience in shavasana.

The answer, I think, is one familiar to most yoga practitioners: I’ll have to make it a practice.

In an ideal world, I would like to be able to use my smartphone to play music (aka as a tool), then sit with my students through a beautiful ten minute shavasana without resorting to the distraction that my phone provides. However, it’s a bad idea to walk on a broken ankle without support. Sometimes we all need crutches.

The trick is recognizing when it’s time to let the crutches go.

The Danger of “Teacher Proof Students”

I was first introduced to the term “teacher proof students” over dinner at my uncle Jonah and aunt Susan’s house. Susan was talking about high school students who were going to do well no matter what kind of teacher with which they were stuck.

She smiled across the table at my sister, Hana. “You were a teacher proof student.”

Now that I’m a teacher myself (though I teach yoga rather than English) the idea of teacher proof students makes a frightening amount of sense. The idea is scary because it’s so seductive and because it’s at least partially true.

There are students (usually fairly advanced students) who are going to have a good practice no matter what I do. I know I’ve had great practices even when the teacher’s dialogue was faltering and unclear.

There are also students who aren’t  going to have a good practice no matter what I do. While this is an extremely frustrating experience as a teacher, ultimately, there’s not a lot you can do about it. People are going to get out of a practice what they put into it. You can’t make someone take a class more seriously, so there’s no reason to feel like a failure as a teacher when it happens.

Both of these things are true, yet, maybe you can already see the potential problem.

If you fully accept the idea that your students experience doesn’t depend on what you do as a teacher, it’s all too easy to become complacent.

You may begin to neglect the advanced students. You might think, “they’re doing their own thing,” and so focus all of your attention on the struggling students. To a certain extent, this is appropriate. Of course you should pay more attention to students who are newer and need the attention more. However, even advanced students sometimes slip out of safe postures so it’s important that you’re aware of them. It’s also important to give praise when an advanced student (or any student, really) does something well, which you won’t be able to do if you’re only looking at the newbies.

Just as you may begin to neglect the advanced students, if you fully accept that you can’t control a student’s experience, you may miss an opportunity to help a struggling student. Maybe it just looks like the student isn’t trying, but they just don’t know that  their lunge is supposed to be longer. Maybe they have an injury. Maybe they’re just having a bad day, but you checking in with a them (a quick little, “are you alright there?”) could bring them back to the reality of their practice. You won’t know unless you try.

So, what’s the solution?

Try to accept that it both is true and it isn’t true.

Just like when we practice Warrior II and we try to both open our hips to the side of the room and keep our knee aligned over our ankle (two completely opposite intentions in the body), we must both allow our students to have their own practice – to listen to their own inner teacher – and be there as the teacher in the room. Also just like the struggle between opening the hips vs. keeping the knee alignment, we must strive for both but prioritize one. As the knee must always “win” to keep it safe within the posture, so too must our responsibility as teachers “win” over the need to step back.

Our responsibility “wins” by keeping our students safe. Even if that means reminding a student to do the same thing several times, or we give encouragement even when we’re feeling discouraged.

We can still do our jobs even when we allow our students to be their own teachers and listen to their bodies.

Again, just like practice, sometimes I’m great at this balancing act, and sometimes I err to one side or the other. The important thing is to reflect, re-calibrate, and keep going.

Grief, Mindfulness Practice, and the Importance of Taking Care of Yourself

This article was written for the Yoga on the Lake March Newsletter in which I am the featured teacher. I’m proud of it and so wanted to share it with you all. 

When I was five my father was diagnosed with brain cancer. He died when I was fourteen. His birthday was October 20th and he died on November 5th. Every year since his death I’ve experienced what I call my “season of grief.”

Starting in early September I begin to feel…off. I sleep less, it’s a little harder to focus, my temper is a little shorter, and I feel generally “on edge” more often. These symptoms start slowly, then ramp up until we reach my “dark days” – the two week period between his birthday and his death day. After this peak, my symptoms slowly recede.

Last year was the ninth time I’ve experienced this cycle. I knew it was coming and I knew how to take care of myself. I knew that I would experience intermittent hours of grief and sadness, but I also knew that if I included a mindfulness practice (like yoga or meditation) in my daily routine that these periods would be shorter and the spaces in between more joyful.

I knew that I have a tendency to over book my time. I find it difficult to say “no” when people ask me to do things. It’s not just that I don’t want to let them down – it’s that I fear I’m lazy, or will become lazy. For most of my life I bought into the idea (so prevalent in our culture) that rest days are wasted days. However, during my “season of grief,” and my “dark days” in particular, I am very conscientious about only taking on the amount of work I can handle and giving myself plenty of time to rest and feel. I also eat more carefully and do my best to ensure I get enough sleep.

I other words: for these few weeks, I truly take care of myself.

Until very recently, the rest of the year…well I wasn’t bad at taking care of myself. I consistently worked to the point of collapsed, but almost never really exceeded my limits. I ate decently (if not well), made a best faith effort to get enough sleep, and practiced yoga maybe 2-3 times per week. Again, not bad, but slowly, over the last couple years, I’ve begun to ask the question: why don’t I take care of myself all the time the way I do in the fall?

The simple answer is: it’s hard.

It’s hard to resist staying up late watching TV, to say “no” to things you want to do when you know you shouldn’t, to make it to your mat instead of taking a nap. It’s a challenge that’s made all the harder because sometimes you really need that nap, or you feel like really living life should include some sleepless nights (which might even be true). However, for me at least, that’s where yoga comes in.

Not too long ago the inestimable Jessica Warren told me that she practiced everyday because it “wasn’t worth it to not practice.” It’s taken me a little while to fully understand those words – or least it’s taken a little while to understand that they apply to me with at least equal force.

For the last month I’ve been paying close attention to my mental and physical health. When I practice consistently (as in every day or almost every day), it’s easier to do the things I should. I keep myself and my home cleaner, I crave healthier foods, I have more energy, and I work on my novels (oh yeah, another piece of background: I write books) more readily. When I don’t practice things tend to get a little shakier.

That’s not to say yoga is the only way to do this. Meditation, or another mindfulness practice, would work just as well for the mental benefits – though they wouldn’t make you physically fit at the same time.

The benefits of mindfulness practices are well documented, so, if you’re curious about them, I would strongly encourage you to try to incorporate one into your routine. As a yoga teacher, I am, perhaps, biased towards yoga, but really any mindfulness practice or combination of practices will work. Commit to these practices for a week – or a month, or a year – and see the changes they make in your life. Is it easier to take care of yourself? Or to do the things you know you should?

I hope so.

I hope you find the peace and joy a mindfulness practice can bring. I hope you reach to point where it’s simply not worth it to skip a day in your practice.

Just remember: It’s a process. We take two steps forward, one step back. Be disciplined, but also be kind to yourself.

The light in me greets the light in you.

Namaste,

Zac