Living my yoga: how Hurricane Irma is messing with my sequence

“Do y’all have an evacuation plan in place?” our realtor asked during the walk through. Um, no…should we? Arriving in Hilton Head days ago with a buttoned up plan to close on our new home here has taken a major detour.

I don’t like detours. Nor does my uber-organized husband.

Pre-Irma bliss in Hilton Head

Every step of our transition out of Boston and into the slower-paced, inviting environs of South Carolina thus far has been planned and executed down to the smallest detail. House in Boston vacated and sold? Check. House in Hilton Head on target to close 7 days later? Check. Cars serviced/fueled/prepped to drive 1100 miles south? Check. Hotel reservations complete with rewards points plugged in and back entrances scouted out to sneak our shotgun-riding cat in undetected? Check, check, check!

Passing through NYC en route to Hilton Head

But like a carefully thought out yoga sequence I bring to a class, things can take a turn. Quickly. The first-time yogi with replacement knees isn’t going to appreciate my pre-planned extended series of Half Pigeon pose. Fine. Rotate him on his back and teach a modification. A packed room with an inch between mats isn’t going to Flip their Dogs without at least one ugly kick in the face, so scrap it and stick with three-legged dog. No big. As a mindful and well-trained teacher, I look out for these live, in the moment realities, and make changes on the fly as I go.

In life and off the mat? Hurricane Irma is testing me.

Um, no. We don’t have an evacuation plan in place…”

Not knowing where we are in the ‘cone’ of the impending storm, we took our realtor’s advice and got on the phone and internet simultaneously to find another hotel to escape to for a few days outside of wherever the hell the ‘cone’ lies. “How about Montgomery? It’s west of Georgia we outta be safe there,” my sweet husband suggested. Great plan, only everyone escaping Florida has the same idea. So several attempts later we now have a room somewhere in Tuscaloosa. Ya..I had to look on a map too. It’s in Alabama, I think.

Junior guarding the hotel room somewhere in Virginia

Phew. Oh..but wait. Another sequence change. Our moving truck with our entire home contents is headed here. Irma’s having none of that, nor is the house we’ve not yet closed on. Doors are locked and closed for the moment. As we scrambled to find temporary storage, thankfully my husband got the owner of the moving company on the phone and turned the drivers halfway through Connecticut back from whence they came.

 

Like it or not, I’m living my yoga, and grateful as hell for the sequence changes we’ve been able to make thus far. Now to roll my mat out and practice. Because for now anyway, this is this closest to home I feel.

Advertisements

Toss the scale: how this yoga teacher learned to ditch an obsession with class size numbers

Only once in my entire experience teaching yoga has a student been turned away due to class size. It was about five years ago and I remember it well. Dude! I thought at the time. I packed the room!! My ego rejoiced. So what if the room was the size of a walk-in closet? That class gave this then-fragile teacher a jolt of joy that validated everything I thought mattered in my decision to become a yoga teacher.

And therein began the obsession with numbers. It’s not unlike a fixation with the scale, this obsession with class size numbers. Three pounds lighter? Pass the dessert! Twenty yogis already pre-registered for tomorrow’s AM flow? Hot damn I’m a rock star!

But oh, the delusion.

at YogaSoul, Princeton, NJ 2014

Teachers know better than to use their class numbers to validate their teaching worth. We know other circumstances factor in. Students stuck in traffic. The newly opened competing studio around the corner. The crappy time slot (8 PM on a Friday night anyone?). The weather and time of year (hot power flow on an even hotter, humid day? Right…).

Except we don’t. Class numbers can mess with even the most grounded, experienced yoga teacher. The amount of time, energy, investment, and focus put into teaching just one class can make facing three students feel like an ugly crash landing out of handstand. It hurts. Especially when it’s part of an ongoing downward slide, putting the class itself at risk of getting cut from the schedule. Ouch.

I’ve taught packed rooms with 30-40 students doing their best not to kick each other in the face, and hour and a half classes where I could cartwheel around the room without touching a mat. Some days I get a bonanza. Others a drought. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Anything we cling to causes a maintenance problem for us,” – Deborah Adele, author

  • Aparigraha, fragile yogi. The oh-so-important guiding principle in the Yoga Sutras reminds us the dangers associated with attachment, possessiveness. I love how Deborah Adele, author of The Yamas & Niyamas, Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice, describes it. Clinging to anything – the number of students who show up, the verbal acknowledgements after class of how great it was, the positive Yelp reviews, creates an unrealistic expectation to maintain. I’ve learned to let that shit go, lighten up, and stop looking to others to validate my worth as a teacher.
  • Class size has zero to do with Connection. I’ve taught giant classes and been off on an island far, far away from the yogi two inches away. Yes, there’s a built-in energy that comes pre-loaded with a packed room of eager yogis, but that doesn’t guarantee Connection. I’ve since committed to connecting to every student in the room instead of caving to an ego seeking out the biggest bang for it’s insecure buck.
  • It’s harder, and often more rewarding to teach a small class. One studio I teach in can hold 80 yogis. This morning it held 12. Twelve who showed up for me, and their well-being. It’s an absolute privilege as a teacher to have the time and space to touch every one of my students in single class and learn about what the practice means to them. One student didn’t sleep last night but left feeling more connected to her body. Another was working through a cranky hip flexor muscle. Yet another declared she experienced a transformation she didn’t expect. I don’t get this kind of intimate feedback at the end of a packed class.
  • It’s not about me. It’s about THEM. All three students. Or thirty. Or three hundred. Teaching big classes is fun, who am I kidding. But it requires an iron commitment to making it about the students, not the ego. Trying to impress and wow a big group with clever cues and fancy transitions can lead to disaster quickly. Been there done that. In Baptiste Yoga we practice teaching through one body using a Look, Listen, and Give Tools approach. When I direct my energy and focus directly on one student, give them what they need in the moment, regardless how many students are in the room, magic happens.

Can’t wait for my next class. I welcome you. All three or three hundred of you! Join me at Down Under Yoga.

 

 

There’s no app for that: why the live classroom can’t be replaced

Halfway through another mindless FB scroll, I paused on an ad promising to get me into a one-armed handstand in 30 days. Whether it was the promise of achieving such feat, or the lovely chiseled fellow covered in watercolor tattoos pitching how, I don’t know, but I clicked and delved further.

The website was beautifully laid out, and lured me into several additional options. I could flow like a Goddess for 85 bucks. Backbend like Beckham in 6 short videos. Or finesse my footwork should I need to hoist a barbell twice my bodyweight overhead.

at Baptiste L2 2014

I’ve been teaching and taking classes around several towns since my teens. It’s in my fiber – the classroom approach to staying fit. And it’s worked. But with the extraordinary access these days to classes of every ilk – with some pretty damn awesome instructors – available on whatever electronic device I’m nearest to, it’s tempting to bag the brick and mortar version. There are times, whether practicing or teaching, I experience a spike in blood pressure simply getting my ass there on time. There’s a prearranged time and location to shuffle my other activities around. There’s the extra 15 minutes needed to assemble my gear into a duffle bag. And don’t get me started on hitting the mean, too-narrow, potholed streets of Boston where driving feels like a video game – dodging human bullets pulling u-eys whilst texting and honking. Big fun.

But here’s the thing. I will always go to the studio. The gym. ALWAYS. Because despite the bitch of getting from A to B, the experience of taking care of myself in the company of others can’t be replicated. It just can’t. Here’s why:

  1. Betty Badass Can’t SEE you. You might think you’re adopting her cues into the perfect backbend, but she has no idea. And neither do you. As a yoga teacher, my rule of teaching is Look, Listen, Give tools. In the early days I did it all backwards, spewing out endless cues to sound like I knew what I was doing, but it didn’t take long to realize my job to keep students safe and inspired was to LOOK at them. Their bodies, and most importantly, their eyes. To see if my words were registering.
  2. You’ll get a workout. But that’s it. You won’t get the opportunity to meet a cool chick who also likes to ride bikes in the town you just moved to. Or the sweet sound of the collective breath coming from fellow students. The moment of lightness when someone grunts inviting everyone to laugh and grunt with him.
  3. The studio door is a helluva lot harder to bolt from than the pause button on your phone. I spin at home. Most times I hang in there for the whole ride. But not always. Sometimes I just say fuck it and let my racing heart and screaming thighs win. That doesn’t happen at your local SoulCycle. Just sayin…

Online classes are awesome – to a point. To me, they stand as a great accompaniment to an overall fitness regimen. But never a replacement. The studios I teach at – Down Under Yoga – just received the Best of Boston 2017 award for yoga studios, and it’s because the magic in learning and growing comes from gathering and sharing with others. No app can cover that one.

Zero platitudes and so much space: how a brand new teacher sweetened my flow

His pronouncement at the beginning of our 90-minute yoga flow coursed through my Child’s Pose like poison: I’m a new teacher subbing this class. 

Uh oh…

This is my third week teaching, and I can’t wait to share all that I’ve learned with you.

Oh boy…

Before I allowed my inner asshole to emerge, I stopped myself, practiced some Ahimsa, and acknowledged two truths:

  1. I was a new teacher once. I’ve faced my share of annoyed weekend not-so-warriors staring back at me as I prayed inwardly not to fuck up my big chance at the front of the yoga room. God put me here for a reason this Sunday morning, and that’s to support this new fellow. Teacher to fellow teacher.
  2. I don’t know how this class is going to go. Could be awful, but then it could be awesome. To presume the class would suck because he was new to teaching yoga is bullshit. That’s misjudging, and I should know better.

After a lengthy preamble of how long and how often he practiced, why he loved yoga, reminders to take Child’s Pose where needed, he began teach. Really teach. Teach in a way I’m still working on five years into this gig. Since taking his class while visiting my hometown of Seattle a few weeks ago, I’ve thought about what it was that left me feeling awesome – yes awesome – as I left the studio. And I’ve since realized it’s what he didn’t do that really did it for me.

He didn’t do what so many new teachers feel they must do in the beginning to prove themselves. By avoiding so many must-do traps new and seasoned teachers frequently fall into, he delivered like a pro. Like a guy who’d been teaching for decades. Here’s what he didn’t do:

  1. Fill moments of insecurity with empty calories. I never know when it’s going to strike – that sudden jolt of self-doubt that threatens to paralyze me in any given moment of teaching. And I’ve taught long enough and frequently enough to know that no amount of preparation, memorization, planning, or high-octane coffee will eradicate the occasional moment of self-doubt. When it hits – say somewhere in the first Warrior Two – my default wants to cover it up. The coverup could show up in the form of an exhaustive succession of verbal cues (lift the arches of your feet! engage Uddiyana! soften your front ribs in! BREATHE!!!). Or perhaps a few laps around the room like a caged animal as I throw a couple of mindless assists in to avoid just standing there. But not with this new teacher. Standing in his True North alignment, he didn’t say a word. He held eye contact. Held the space. And implored the class to go deeper in every pose without needing to say anything at all.
  2. Hide at the front of the room. Sounds like an oxymoron, I know. But a teacher can effectively hide at the front of the room. Statue-like and frozen, one can be there, and not be there. My new teacher in Seattle moved throughout the room, and magically appeared next to me almost telepathically as I pressed into my first wobbly handstand. In my first few months of teaching, my feet were glued to a mat at the front of the room until a tough loving mentor/studio owner yanked my mat from me before teaching a group of 40+ students. That Oh Shit moment opened up a pathway of huge growth. No longer fearful of getting close to my students, I now relish in seeing what’s happening before me, and teaching to what’s needed – in the moment – not to what I think is happening.
  3. Impersonate another teacher. Yes, we borrow cues, sequence ideas, themes for class from several of the amazing teachers who’ve helped get us to the front of the yoga room. And that’s awesome. It’s how this process works. Lineages are passed down teacher by teacher. But the critical element that must be present is authenticity. I might repeat a specific cue gleaned from one of my teachers, but not before trying it on in my own body and practice and sharing it from a place of personal experience. Every time I share a kernel of wisdom I’ve learned from teachers before me, I ask myself: am I sharing it because I think it sounds good? To make me look good? Or am I sharing it because I firmly believe it will make a difference in my students’ experience based on my own experience? When I commit to the latter, the lineage can continue to get passed down to those learning from me, rather than disintegrating to a dust pool of half-assed empty platitudes. My new teacher that morning in Seattle shared 90 minutes of wisdom he’s gleaned from his teachers from a place of pure authenticity – including the offering of sweet, quiet space as a tool to enhance our morning flow. His calm and confident demeanor confirmed he’d embodied all the lessons he’d learned and chose to pass on to us.
  4. Speak instead of sing. Blessed with a lovely Indian accent that could easily be characterized as serenade-like, I never detected any hint of affectation or pretense. This WAS his voice. Not until I had to video my own teaching, review, and forward it to Baptiste certification reviewers did I notice how singsongy my own voice became in moments of insecurity. This was the toughest habit to break for me. Yes I amplify my voice to drive a point home, but when it hits a crazy high octave followed by 5-breath long syllable I know I’m overdoing it. It’s a classroom not Broadway Shannon.

Whether you teach, or don’t, are thinking about it, or thinking about those crazies who do, consider that even the newest teacher can rock a classroom. And if they don’t, with love and support from you – fellow students and teachers – they will very soon!

Bored in yoga class? Consider that it might not be your teacher’s fault

After an equal parts restful and restless three month break from teaching, I’ve slowly ramped up to a schedule that feels just right – not so hot I’m burning myself out, not so cold my skills of observation get dull or my pacing gets clunky. With the support of the amazing studios I teach and practice at (Down Under Yoga), the porridge feels just right. Nourishing and invigorating.

Teaching 2013.

Since returning, I’ve encountered a handful of scenarios that are testing my skills as a teacher, and none of them have to do with cuing the perfect Chatturanga (still working on that…and will be until everyone in the room can one day put their knees down without creating a disempowering story around it). The lessons I’m learning are imploring me to get honest with myself and take a hard look at what my purpose is, and is not, in my teaching, my practice, and my life. Heavy stuff, yes. But worth the effort. I want to make bigger imprints with every step on my path toward growth. And so should you. Here’s what I’m learning, and hoping you can too:

  1. I’m here to teach you, not entertain you. This is one heady endeavor. Like most human beings, that not-so-subtle roll of the eyes from the back row, or hardcore handstander blasting past my gentle cues to please slow the fuck down and establish your breath don’t go unnoticed. I see you, I feel your negative vibe, and I want you to enjoy my class. I really do. But my job isn’t to entertain you. Otherwise I’d roll out the turn tables, strobe lights and bust a move with you baby. But that’s not my job. So after a class I taught recently when a student shared he got bored, I took a couple of deep breaths, exhaled out my need to please, and discussed the particulars of what he found boring and what tools he could incorporate in his next class to stay interested and promote growth.
  2. I may be at the front of the room, but I’m taking risks and learning right alongside you. My skill is not in getting every cue or sequence detail just right. I’ve certainly developed a grab bag of go-tos that have passed the did it land in their bodies? test. But unless I take risks, explore new ways of communicating to you, and learn from your feedback, we all stay stuck in a ditch of been there done that. Growth requires taking risks, failing, brushing it off, and getting back up again. And again and again.
  3. I practice with teachers who aren’t like me. As much as I love practicing in classes with a similar pace, sequence, dynamism and flow as the ones I teach, I develop more from teachers who offer something different. Teachers that make me uncomfortable, or even annoy me. Teachers that nudge me toward poses I often breeze over, or into a place of inquiry that makes me squirm. And if I get bored, dammit – that’s on me to wake up and do the work.
  4. I’m not alone. After what I felt like was a particularly shitty class (where a few of my teaching risks resulted in more furrowed brows begging “huh??” vs. physical shifts), I ran into another teacher at Starbucks who laughed over how she had just made a total mess of her last class. God bless you woman. We’re all in this together, doing our best to be the best possible teachers for our students, who are showing up doing their best for us in every class.

Hope some of this resonates, whether you teach or not. Have fun on your mat – and trust your own inquiry and growth to deliver the joy.

Real vs. Virtual: how some of my favorite phone apps can sabotage human connection

It wasn’t until I climbed atop my home spin bike, popped in my earbuds, and touched the little app on my phone to follow along with one of my favorite Peloton instructors that it hit me: there’s a perfectly beautiful bike leaning against the kitchen side door. My husband brought it up from storage last week to motivate us. Tires are freshly pumped, and the weather Gods have gifted Boston with a couple of glorious 70-something degree days.

And yet…

Instead of taking my real bike out on a real ride into the real world, I took a virtual ride. In my basement, plugged into cues from an instructor inside a NYC studio who wouldn’t be able to discern whether his Boston basement rider was actually riding or simply listening in while sipping gin out of her water bottle.

I completed my virtual ride, and enjoyed the workout (sans the gin – in case you thought I was serious), but realized afterward what I’d missed – an opportunity to connect – to life, to nature, to human beings I can see, hear and touch.

cycling the Cape Cod Rail Trail 2016

This basic desire – to see, hear, touch, connect – to other human beings is the number one reason I teach yoga. The burgeoning pile of apps hitting the market designed to save us time, get us fit, keep us connected – is in many ways doing the opposite. Get too ‘connected’ to any of my apps, and I could literally sequester myself to the basement with no connection other than an occasional interaction with one of my grumpy cats who’s come trolling for dinner (a bowl of kibbles ordered from my Amazon app).

Who needs a gym membership? 

I love my Peloton app. I do. And until a week ago, riding on a real bike outdoors would have involved a full length LL Bean parka straying into my gear chain, perilous streets with black ice and snow clumps, and a run-in with a pissed off driver cursing at our April Fools Day hit of snow (for real – in Boston). I’ll spin indoors, thank you. I also love that many once-yogaphobes are finally giving it a shot. My former linebacker Dad even asked what poses would heal his trashed-out knees (his words, not mine). If it takes an online app with the comfort of knowing one can practice in the privacy of their own kitchen floor to get someone to experience the benefits, I’m a fan.

But a virtual yoga teacher, personal trainer, spin instructor, can’t give you feedback or encouragement based on what’s really happening RIGHT NOW. They can’t put their hands on your back in Child’s pose when the expression on your face is screaming, “fuck this, I can’t go on.” A teacher in a real live classroom, fully present, is capable of assuring you that hell yeah, you CAN go on. There’s even a few 200-hour yoga teacher training programs offered online. As in, learning to teach a live class with real people – all from a laptop. Yikes. Alas…

I miss my Frangos

They’ve since been bought by Seattle Chocolates, taste the same, and the pretty little individually-wrapped truffles still come in the iconic hexagonal-shaped box I remember from childhood. Fellow Seattle natives know what I’m talking about, as these little delights still make their way into many a corporate gift basket every Holiday season. But it’s the origin of these precious little mints that I miss sorely. Purchasing a box today is simple as tapping the yellow smiley icon on my phone. Two or three clicks later and that smiley starts to look like a smirk: one more transaction taken out of the hands of a real life sales person behind a counter and into the virtual marketplace. Buying Frangos used to mean accompanying my mom to the grand, opulent, Frederick & Nelson department store downtown. We dressed for the occasion – and it was an occasion. You didn’t enter through the brass doors wearing yoga tights and sneakers. Not if you wanted any help from the well-groomed sales staff. Yes, there was parking to contend with, time out of your day to allot, the chance your size wasn’t available. But touching the goods, talking to others, extending the outing to include a lunch break nearby, made buying a box of Frangos an experience vs. a last minute I-forgot-to-get-my-uncle-a-gift swipe of the phone.

I shop online all the time. In many cases it’s just easier. If I bust my leg and need milk and bananas I’ll tap my InstaCart app. But I do that knowing I can’t ask the cashier how her day is going, or get advice from the guy behind the cheese counter on what’s the best brick of Cheddar. The clothes I buy to look halfway hip in are mostly worn when I’m out shopping, not tapping the Nordstrom app on my phone. I save that to make sure my nieces’ on the other side of the country get their birthday gifts on time.

So, I guess the message here is, use your apps, but don’t get swallowed into your phone. Get out and see, hear, touch people. And come to my yoga class while you’re at it 🙂

 

How a cheap bracelet put a little gold on my heart.

I barely noticed him. It was dark, my eyes drawn to the Saturday night parade of young, scantily-dressed, impeccably groomed tanned and toned celeb lookalikes heading toward their next $30 cocktail on Collins Avenue in South Beach. By contrast, my post-beach getup of frizzy hair, flip flops and workout shorts didn’t catch any return attention save for a “Go Pats!” acknowledgement of my SuperBowl t-shirt. I was tired, it was our last night of vacation, and all I desired was a night in the hotel room watching CNN with an accompanying bag of peanut M&Ms from the honor bar. A few strides further along, my husband tugged at my arm. “Wait a sec, babe,” he commanded.

South Beach, Miami, 2017

South Beach, Miami, 2017

Then I noticed him. Crouched on a makeshift stool sitting behind a small table of bracelets, earrings and necklaces, he looked up and smiled. His skin was dark and leathery. Hair a salt and pepper tangle of wavy curls, he simultaneously blended in and stood out. “This one,” he said, pointing to a champagne hued stone leather bracelet. It didn’t sparkle or stand out, but looked handcrafted from what my naked eye could see. Nothing on the table cost more than ten bucks, and I really wasn’t interested. I rarely wear jewelry. Too much hassle. But over the next few moments, he convinced me this wasn’t just another cheap bracelet.

“I’m an artist. I lived in Amsterdam for a while before…” he rambled as he pulled out more bracelets to show me. His words were difficult to decipher. Could have been his accent, several missing teeth, or a perhaps a really hard life crafting and merchandising his wares everyday to absent-minded, distracted tourists intent on haggling his price down. But his eyes spoke volumes, and bore right into my heart. I looked through several  more bracelets, shared bits of my life and what brought me to Miami (my birthday, an escape from the New England chill – literally and a little bit figuratively too – sun, water and the simple delight of sand between my toes).

After 20 minutes or so, I settled on the bracelet he chose for me. He asked for $10, I gave him $15. He stood, shook my husband’s hand, and kissed the back of mine as what I now believe were small tears welling in his eyes and multiple thank yous.

Best piece of jewelry I’ve ever bought.