Accepting it all

I had to write an assignment for school recently that ended up being about my journey to yoga. The assignment was to write about some aspect of your identity and before I knew it, I had words on the page. Enjoy.

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Me and my kindred, short-armed spirit animal.

I am not a traditional yogi. I’m not lithe and graceful. I’m not a beautiful blond in a handstand, flat stomach and perfect hair, glowing with peace and happiness for my one million Instagram followers. I don’t go running on the weekends and only wear Lululemon. I’m short and stumpy and cannot get my foot behind my head. I came to yoga in my late 20s and early 30s when anxiety was taking over my life and my therapist recommended a local class to help manage it. I came to yoga because I needed it to breathe. I eventually decided to teach yoga because I realized that there needed to be more plump, inflexible yogis out there to show people that the whole point of yoga is NOT to look like some uber-flexible 22 year old, but the point is to gain mobility, a sense of self, a break from the everyday rush of things, and maybe some spiritual grounding in a practice that reminds you that life is exactly that – a practice.

I always thought of myself as a confident person, but debilitating anxiety and terrible, unsupportive (borderline malicious) bosses throughout my 20s chipped away at my self-esteem. By the time my grandmother died, a moment unlike any I had ever experienced before, I was a complete mess. I was drowning in failure and to numb out the frenetic stress and anxiety I was drinking wine every night like it was water. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t focus. I was at one of the lowest points of my life. Then one day, after I revealed my inner monologue of anxiety and sense of failure to my family, I finally dragged myself to therapy. I loved my fruit-loop of a therapist. She had these two adorable dogs she brought to her office every day, a wolfhound and a whippet. They somehow understood their job and were forces of kindness at every session, snuggling with me while I struggled to understand how anyone could breathe without feeling anxious about it. Dogs somehow make everything simpler. My therapist was this wild yet calming, untamed creature who somehow understood me and my need to relearn how to breathe and function. She taught me about Buddhism and meditation and was the person who suggested I go to yoga. It would change my life.

Yoga is not a religion. It has its roots in many spiritual disciplines, a dash of Hinduism here, some Buddhism there, but it is not in itself a religion. Sure, there can be chanting and the poses all have names in Sanskrit (an ancient language of India), but this doesn’t make it a religion. When I first came to yoga I just thought I wanted to work out the anxiety, to figure out a way to breathe so I didn’t feel like my head would explode at any moment from the sheer stress of living. I would go to class and move through the motions at first, feeling so uncoordinated and out of breath. How the hell does this woman bend her body in that way? Are you kidding me with that arm balance stuff? Again and again the teacher would say, “your pose might not look like my pose,” and in my head I was thinking back, “well, screw you then.” My first class I wanted miracles. I wanted to be fixed, to not be broken any longer. But things don’t happen like that. When you’ve spent years building walls, they don’t come down in just one day. I came to yoga a failing perfectionist and it was a solid year before my ego slowly chipped away, as yoga will do, and the meaning of the teacher’s words finally sunk in.

I bought an unlimited class pass and was going to yoga a minimum of two times a week, but more often then not was there three of four times a week as the magic of the practice started to work its way through my body and my mind. I was slowly starting to sleep better and my body was regaining strength I had lost to disuse and stress. You hear the phrase sometimes, “I was beginning to feel more like myself,” but that wasn’t really the case for me. I wasn’t beginning to feel more like myself. I was beginning to feel like a new version of myself. One with more confidence and an understanding of how my failures were not really failures at all. They were human moments because humans aren’t perfect. Humans are this beautiful, messy, wonderful, infuriating ball of existence and it is ok to falter. I understood that my pose was not going to look like my teacher’s. That my body was my body, with all of its amazing qualities and limitations. No, my t-rex arms will never be long enough to grab each hand behind my back in cow-face pose, but that’s ok. That’s what yoga props are for- to help you where you need help, as long as you’re willing to accept it.

As the words and movement of the practice started to truly take hold of my mindset, I realized that I wanted to share this with the world. The magic that was happening inside me needed to be shared and brought to others. I needed to give to others what this practice had given me. I signed up for a 200-hour teacher training program that would meet for nine weekends over the course of nine months at a beautiful studio in North Haverhill, NH. The studio was on a working farm and one wall was all windows, looking out over the fields where the Highland cows were grazing or the geese were walking around. I knew after the first class I went to there to meet the teacher that it was exactly where I needed to be.

Teacher training is not just about learning the poses to instruct others safely. Teacher training is as much a road to self-discovery as it is a program to help people teach yoga. Your success in a program is dependent on two main variables: your willingness to go deep within yourself and discover who you are and what truly matters to you, and having a teacher who is the right fit to help you journey down that path. Without the right teacher, you may pass the course but you will not be truly prepared to teach the practice. Teaching yoga is about giving, every class taught requires you to give a part of yourself away to your students, so you need to understand who you are so you know what you have to give.

When I met Carolyn, I knew she was the teacher I needed in my life. Carolyn is my polar opposite: tall, slim, beautiful in an interesting way, flexible to the point of inspiring envy. Yet despite these oppositions, we clicked. She is uncompromising, but not in a way that discourages. She holds the line when it is vital, but also provides space when you need it. Her confidence is contagious as is her kindness. I knew from the first meeting that I would learn from her. In yoga there is a sense that the universe has your back and will move things in front of you, both obstacles and advantages, when the time is right. The universe had my back in this case.

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As seems to be the theme in my life, shit tends to hit the fan all at once and from all sides. Part of this is related to my Go Big or Go Home nature –  I never do things halfway and most often go overboard, expecting too much of myself and then struggling to get through (a common aspect of perfectionism). When I signed up for teacher training, I was in the midst of grad school. I figured I was only doing online classes at the time, so I should be able to balance grad school, working full-time, and teacher training. The problem with this sort of thinking is that it leaves no room for anything else to get complicated. My very first weekend of training, my beloved cat died on Saturday night. His death wasn’t a surprise, he had been in decline, but it was devastating and the grief was instant and debilitating. The month of my first week of training, work became intolerable. My office mate went on maternity leave and I ended up having to do all of her work, my own, and most of my boss’s work. I was buried. Add in travel and house guests, and well, it was not an auspicious start, but through it all I knew that I would not regret teacher training and needed to stick with it.

Things didn’t get easier in my life throughout the training, but each weekend at the studio improved my life in a multitude of ways. I started to become more confident as a teacher and a person, my voice unwavering in the front of the room, my pulse steady as I moved students from pose to pose and not concerned about always filling the silence. I began to understand myself and what was important to me, truly beginning to understand my purpose – I was meant to be a teacher, it is where I felt at home when I could let go of the anxiety and desire to be perfect. I became more aware of how important it is to be accepting of ourselves and where we are at any given point in our lives, that we are exactly where we need to be, no matter what is going on around us – my heels will never reach the floor in downward facing dog, it’s ok, that doesn’t make me a bad teacher or a failure, that’s just where I am in the here and now and I can give my students the freedom to accept where they are too. I became a better teacher and student, and understanding how those are ultimately one and the same.

The biggest breakthrough came the last weekend of the training. As part of the ‘final exam’ you teach an entire yoga class to the rest of the trainees and the teacher observes. I had been having a really terrible time at work, feeling like I was failing in every way, and this caused my anxiety to spike to levels only seen before yoga entered my life. I had an event the night before as well, over-extending myself and burning the candle at both ends. I was so nervous about the practicum, despite my teacher’s assurance that she wasn’t worried about my passing, that I couldn’t sleep the night before. I walked into the studio to teach my class and I could feel myself coming apart at the seams. Then it happened, my tired brain jumbled my planned class and I KNEW I had failed. I taught the rest of the class with my head screaming at me the entire time, “YOU FAILED.” By the time I closed the class with a final, “Namaste,” I was in tears and bolted from the room.

See, perfectionism is a nasty habit. It’s pernicious. It invades your psyche and makes you think that you can’t be doing well if you’re not perfect. It’s especially harmful when you must operate in a culture of perfectionism, such as where I worked. When I’m feeling good, anxiety in check, sleeping well, breathing fully, I can keep the perfectionism at bay, it is ok to do ‘enough.’ If things are not in order, it creeps in like a plague, taking hold and rendering me sick and helpless. When the tears had stopped and I returned from my walk around the farm, my teacher said nothing to me other than, “We need to talk in a bit, your class was great and I need to know what’s going on in that head of yours.”

This is a perfect example of why you need to have great teachers in your life. She got me. This is also why I needed a practice such as yoga in my life, because just the fact that it is called a practice is a clue to its power. It can remind you that not every day is going to go well. There will be great days where you feel like you get everything right, and there will be days where nothing goes as planned. Life is a practice where every day is a chance to do over, try something new, expand who you are and be a better version of yourself. There will be days when things will be completely out of your control and you just have to accept the circumstances and do the best with what you can control. Carolyn understood and she understood the words I needed to hear. I had taught a lovely class that hit all the right points. I had passed with flying colors. I was elated, but she didn’t let me off the hook at that, we talked through what happened and I left that day with a better understanding of myself and what I still needed to work on. I needed to work on changing my default mode of perfectionism, because it would only hinder me if I let it continue, even on the days when my threshold has been reached and I’m just trying to survive, if anything, those are the days where I needed it most. I needed to believe in myself no matter what, and to remember that the students looking at me for guidance do not know what my class plan was and if I can just keep going rather than faltering at the first sign of mistake, they will still have a great class and I can walk away with my head held high.

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I left teacher training a better version of myself, and I continue to bring that version to my yoga classes. This better version works hard to not hold herself up to the standards of others, or even her own impossible standards. I make a point every class to share my own limitations with my students, “If you can believe it, the ‘perfect version’ of this pose says that your head will touch your knee. For me, that’s never going to happen because my body is just not constructed that way, and it’s ok if that’s the same for you. Any amount of the pose is the pose.” Any amount of the pose is the pose, it’s something that Carolyn said over and over again during class. It stuck in my head and it became part of my own vocabulary because it is so true, both in yoga as in life. I want my students to understand that it is not about being able to force your body into the ‘perfect pose’ because if you have to force your body that means it is not the perfect pose for YOU. Your perfect pose is making sure to have the pose meet you where you are in that moment and accepting that as where you should be that day. You don’t need to be slim and young to do yoga or anything you really want to do in your life. Accepting who you are at any given moment is far more important than hitting some standard set by others. Yoga taught me, and continues to teach me, about acceptance. It is an ongoing practice that has improved every day of my life.

Sometimes you have to break down to break through.

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It has been a very hard last year or so. Probably longer, if I’m being honest. Grief, stress, constant change, constant obligation, exhaustion. It all adds up until one day, you hit the bottom really hard and the only choices you have are to stay at the bottom and wallow or use the event to inspire good change.

Last weekend, I hit rock bottom. I hit it so hard I bounced. Let me set the stage:

It was my last weekend of yoga teacher training. One of my closest friends was getting married on the Saturday, so I would miss half of my classmates’ practicum classes. I was teaching my class second on Sunday, right after lunch. We got home from the wedding on Saturday not too late, but it didn’t matter because I couldn’t sleep a wink. The anxiety I had had in control for the last month thanks to acupuncture, yoga, and meditation, was back full force and there was no way I would find sleep. I still rolled out of bed and drove to teacher training Sunday morning, doing two hours of asana  practice before finally getting to my class. I felt prepared, I had practiced the shit out of my class, even teaching it to two co-workers all the way through. I knew this class in-and-out. It all started out fine, but I could feel the pressure of expectations, my own and my teacher’s. I made a mistake, not that the class knew, but I KNEW. Then it started to unravel like a ball of yarn in a hurricane. I unraveled. I managed to teach the entire class without any of the students (and even my teacher) from catching on to my disintegration, but I broke down hard at the end. Bursting into tears, I quickly picked up my mat and books and ran from the studio.

When the time came for the last practicum class, I pulled myself together and took the class, managing to stop crying for the entire hour. Then Judgment Time had arrived- final assessments. At this point, I was so certain I had failed and I was already trying to figure out what to say to my family and friends about my failure. I walked in and sat down with my teacher and the first thing she said was, “You taught an AWESOME class, so what the hell is going on in your head right now?!” She and I speak the same language, I appreciate her directness and it allows me to respond in-kind. “When you’ve internalized that a single mistake equals absolute failure for five years, it can be hard to get out of your own way, especially when you’re exhausted.”

When my teacher hit me with that direct question, it charged my brain and the reason hit me like a brick. I have always had high expectations for myself. These were never imposed by my parents or teachers because they could always see that I didn’t need outside pressure to perform well, I had enough intrinsic motivation to do well. This only becomes a problem when you start working for a company (or start a relationship with a person) that recognizes your intrinsic motivation and exploits it to demand perfection at all costs. In my case, it’s my job where my perfectionism is exploited. At work, anything less than perfect is failure. There is no positive feedback, no recognition of effort or that you’re even a human being who will make mistakes. It’s merely, you made a mistake- you failed. Five years of that can be incredibly damaging to the psyche.

Dr. Brené Brown talks about perfectionism and its relationship to shame in many of her books, and I highly recommend you read them (links below) because they are making a huge difference in my understanding of myself. I broke down at teacher training because I felt deep shame for making that mistake. I wasn’t good enough. I failed. All of that hard work, for naught. Five years of that attitude forced on me at work, and I had internalized it as if it were truth. We live in a culture of perfectionism and shame. I think about all of the young moms I know who are in constant fear of being perceived as a bad parent. The level of judgment and expectation has gotten out of control and it’s part of what is contributing to rampant stress and mental illness (IMHO). Talking about what’s going on in our head is still somewhat stigmatized. Breaking down is seen as weakness in a world that has no room for weak moments.

Breaking down at yoga teacher training is probably one of the best things you can do. Why? Because where are you going to find a more spiritually enlightened, safe, open place to breakdown? Where are you going to find more kind, compassionate, understanding people? Yogis are an exceptional group of people on a good day, but they really shine on a bad day when you’ve ripped yourself apart from the inside out. To my fellow classmates: I have so much gratitude for your kindness that day and every day.

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The good news: this absolute breakdown helped me have a breakthrough. Five years of repressed emotion burst through the walls I had built to keep them at bay so I could function. I didn’t just cry on the way home from yoga teacher training that night, I sobbed myself dry. I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed, tears I should have shed so many times and just couldn’t because that too would be a sign of failure. I sobbed away the weight of perfectionism that had me stressed and anxious every day of my life after starting at my company. I came out the other side of those tears a different person. A person who was going to do her best not to let other people define me. A person unwilling to except the unrealistic expectations of others. A person who could make mistakes without feeling like a failure. It was the beginning of something.

It’s been a week since all of this. The Hubs told me last night that he can’t believe how different I am. He told me I’m so much more relaxed and lighter, that he can tell I’m not sitting next to him on the couch and thinking about all of the things I should be doing. I’m more present. My new goal is to maintain this to the best of my ability. I do not want to go back to that world of repressed emotions and feelings of constant failure. Life is far too short and beautiful to waste it letting other people define you.

Books I’ve read by Brené Brown:

Rising Strong

I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t)

Yin Yoga – Slowing Down the Practice

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My practice has always included a lot of active, strong Vinyasa flows or the challenge of a Bikram class in the hot room. As of late, I’ve realized I need to broaden my practice and slow down a bit. This winter has been so cold (until just this week) and it makes me want to curl up in a ball on the couch or in a blanket fort. This has encouraged me to take my yoga practice to the blanket fort and incorporate some slower classes more, such as restorative and Yin yoga.

I wanted to try a Yin class first and I decided to try a 60-minute Yin class on YogaGlo called “Yinspiration” taught by Carole Westerman. The class was designed to ‘get you out of your rut’ and get you to try some new transitions from pose to pose. I have come to really appreciate Yin yoga as a counter balance to my very active and busy life. The opportunity to pause in a pose and develop a deeper understanding of the pose and its relationship to my body has been refreshing to me and has positively affected my personal practice.

In terms of this class…I didn’t love it. I thought the ‘creative’ transitions were a little too creative and disrupted from the overall flow of the practice. Maybe that was the point, and maybe I wasn’t in the right mind for it, but it didn’t work for me. This class challenged me- some of the holds felt reallllllllly long and I wanted to move out of them, but forced myself to hold on, which was good for me and something I need to do more of in all areas of my life. It’s hard to stay with the discomfort when you can easily get out of it, particularly when you are taking an online class and no one else is there to provide the peer pressure to stick it out.

Aside from the funky transitions, I thought Westerman’s cuing was solid and I didn’t find myself having to look up at the screen much to get into the actual pose. Her pacing was good and I didn’t feel rushed. She included some interesting poses that I haven’t done in a Yin class before, and I felt really stretched and relaxed afterward. I plan to include more Yin classes in my regular practice. It is so easy to keep doing a regular vinyasa class like I always do, but sometimes, especially during these winter months, to slow down and try a slower practice.

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Jensen and Bentley encouraging me to slow down a bit.

So if you’re in the mood to slow down a bit and try something new, I would recommend a Yin yoga class, either online or if you can find an in-person class near you.

 

The Pose You Hate is Probably the One You Need

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Tools for class

The pose you hate is probably the one you need. This is also true for entire classes. I had to make up a third chakra-focused class because I had to miss that day in my yoga teacher training program last month. I was…well, let’s just say I wasn’t looking forward to it, because third chakra means abs. Lots and lots of ab work. The third chakra, located roughly around the belly button/solar plexus is where the energy of will and decision comes from, so in order to help balance that area it’s best to do ab exercises that target that area of the body. This means a lot of plank, a lot of side plank, and many many bridges.

So yeah…I wasn’t looking forward to it, but it had to be done, so I fired up YogaGlo on my phone, mirrored it to my tv, spread out my mat and got down to business. I’ll start by saying the things I didn’t like and get them out of the way. The class was taught by Jo Tastula, who did not make me a fan by the end of class. Tastula’s cuing left something to be desired- she often did not cleanly move people from pose to pose, rarely offered modifications, and the pace was highly irregular in such a way that it was disorienting. I know that I’m probably pickier because I’m in the midst of my teacher training program, but it was a tough class to follow and I plan to use it as an example of what *not* to do.

Now to be fair, this was a Level 2 class, so I understand that the cuing might be a little brief because you only get to Level 2 if you’ve been doing yoga for quite some time and already know the poses. I still think you should still provide modifications, but that’s just me. Tastula was very strong in her conveying the focus of the class, connecting the poses to the third chakra, and providing ample time at the start and end of class in savasana for centering and some breath work. I found it interesting that she included kapalabhati breathing during some poses, as well as lion’s breath, and it was a novel tactic for me.

I find side plank extremely difficult. Plank is also not my friend, as my shoulders, elbows, and wrists are weak (though improving!). This class was hard for me, and I know that at least part of my ire above is because of being baldly faced with my own weaknesses and faults. This is ultimately when the yoga really starts. This class forced me to look at my weaknesses and see them as they are- parts of me that I need to accept and recognize that they are parts of me TODAY. I can get stronger and I am working toward that, but today it is all about working to the edge and being comfortable with that. As much as I would love to avoid plank and side plank, I’ll never get better if I just continue to avoid it, no matter how much I hate plank.

And ultimately, I really don’t hate the poses, I hate how the poses makes me feel weak and incapable. By the time I was done with the class today and lying in savasana, I had finally gotten around to all of this. It’s ok to not be perfect, but it’s not ok to avoid what’s hard because it’s hard. The hard place is where the best work happens. The hard place is where you need to be. It’s where the best parts of you are formed.
~Namaste

Today: Bikram Class

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Bentley trying out my hot yoga towel

I remember the first time I went to a Bikram class. I hated everything about it. It was so damn HOT. There were too many people in the room. I was sweating in places I didn’t know I could sweat. It was a free class over Thanksgiving, so the room was maxed out and we were literally mat-to-mat, three rows spanning the entire room. The teacher never stopped talking and he never left the podium. The entire experience felt oppressive. I swore I would never go back again.

Two years later in June, I was doing a dietbet and needed I change from the exercise programs I had been doing. Our local Bikram studio has a new student deal (30 days unlimited classes for $30) and I figured it was time to give it a chance, especially since the one and only time I had gone before it was a free class that was sure to have more students in it than normal.

So I tried it again. It was so HOT and it was so HARD, but the feeling I had afterward got me hooked. Now’s it January and I’m still going. My job sometimes keeps me from making it to the studio as often as I would like, but I try to go at least once a week at the absolute minimum.

Today’s class had me in the front right corner of the room- the very hottest spot with the way the air flows through the room. I hadn’t been to Bikram in two weeks, so I knew it would be a little tough. Bikram is one of those activities that proves the rule that the more you go, the easier it feels- particularly with the heat. You don’t serve yourself well in Bikram if you have overly aggressive modesty when it comes to showing skin. The tinier the shorts and tank top (or just sports bra for the ladies), the easier it is to combat the heat in the room. No one cares if you haven’t shaved your legs in two weeks, or if your belly is not as flat as you would like after having children, or if you’re covered in moles. No one is paying attention to you. Bikram only has mirrors in the front of the room so you can focus on yourself and your form. This practice gives you 90 minutes of complete and total “Me Time.”

The oppressive heat combined with the same set of postures every class almost forces you to go inward. You are so focused on your breath and getting into the pose that it becomes solely about your own body- you can’t focus on anyone else or judge yourself against another because you are in survival mode! Today’s class was a bit like that for me. I had a laser focus on my own body, breath, and heart rate. The sweat is so cleansing to the soul, at least it is to my soul. After class is done and I’m lying in final savasana, I feel sweetly wrung out and connected with my inner self, awed at what I am capable of. They say you never feel more alive than when you are close to dying, and I think that’s a bit extreme a comparison to Bikram, but there is a nugget of truth for this situation. You’re not dying, but you are definitely pushing yourself in a way outside of your norm and that’s GOOD sometimes. We so often sit in our desk chairs at work and let our bodies and minds simply ease along. Bikram takes you out of that and says, “Wake the fuck up! It’s fucking hot in here!”

Sure, there are some things I find problematic about Bikram yoga: the leader/founder of the style has an extremely skewed moral compass that I don’t agree with and is currently running from the law (I’m not joking); I’m not sure how I feel about locking your knee in certain poses (as a student of Vinyasa we are typically told NOT to lock the knee in poses); and there are often few adjustments provided by the teacher.

BUT, the benefits far outweigh the problematic aspects for me. I feel amazing after class. I’ve lost weight, gotten more toned, my anxiety has eased with consistent practice, and most importantly, my lower back doesn’t hurt anymore- something Vinyasa alone has never been able to do for me. I also love the studio I go to. The teachers are fantastic and friendly- they’ve worked to build an incredible community of practitioners.

I still practice Vinyasa and I am training to teach Vinyasa, as Bikram came into my life later and I’m not sure I can commit to the 500-hour at-a-shot training compared to my 200-hour weekend-module training. I highly recommend you give Bikram a try if you haven’t before. It has been amazing addition to my yoga practice and could be good for you too. As always, trust your intuition to keep you safe in ANY yoga class.

~Namaste