Do talk to strangers – my quest to make more pals

Meet-Neighbors.jpgI grew up learning to never talk to strangers. My folks, naturally concerned for my safety growing up in a large city, did a terrific job safeguarding me from abductors, Hannibal-channeling crazies and Boogymen. So great a job, that now, even though my yogi-tyke days are long over, I still sometimes struggle to engage with even the kindest soul upon first encounter.

Friendly fella behind me in the grocery checkout line? What if he turns out to be a little too friendly?

Grinning gal offering up a smoothie sample at Costco? Quick! Escape to another aisle!

Alright, maybe I’m exaggerating a tad, but you get the idea. It’s been ingrained in me to never talk to strangers. After moving across the country last year, I quickly discovered that it was time to break the pattern once and for all, or risk spending days on end having conversations with my bamboo plant (a fake bamboo plant, no less). Enough of this nonsense. Time to talk to strangers already. Fortunately yoga, and especially teaching yoga, has been the most natural path out of self-sequestering hell for me. In the safety of a yoga room, where judgment and ego-swelling are parked outside the studio door, I am free to chat it up with fellow yogis, who are always easy to find common ground with. How to break the ice? Mention the finer points of downward-facing dog and you’ve got at least an hour’s worth of dialogue to engage in.

Here are a few intentions this former pepper spray-in-purse carrying big city girl has set to make more pals in my new town:

  1. Get into the present. I’ve noticed that whatever crap is circulating in my head, engaging with a kind soul clears it out. Fast. I recall a few years ago sulking down 5th Avenue in Seattle between meetings, brooding over a personal situation/cantankerous client cussing me out/topped off with a bad hair day when a homeless man caught my sad eye and encouraged me to “smile sweetheart, it will all work out if you just put a smile on that pretty face.” He was so sincere, so engaged, and so encouraging I decided to break habit and follow his advice. I smiled, thanked him, and gave him a $5 bill, which he resolutely refused, insisting my smile made his day. Wow. Enough said.
  2. Learn. Ask someone, anyone, what they are smiling about. Smiling people are people I want to know. For whatever reason, I felt the urge to ask a smiling student after class what she was grinning about, and she shared that in that moment, she was just proud as hell of her son, an uber-cool music talent agent in NYC who just happened to represent one of the bands I was playing on my morning class playlist. Cool.
  3. Gain perspective. Hurricane Sandy quickly revealed the power of community. Neighbors all around rallied to gather food, clothing, money, and loads of love to send to those directly hit. People all over my FB page offered up showers, warm beds to hot meals to those nearby who lost power. The studios I teach at organized fundraisers and food/clothing drives. I grew closer to my neighbors through sharing how grateful we were to still have our homes intact. I also learned I shouldn’t wait for tragedy to reach out to them. I’m trying to smile and say hello to everyone I encounter at my apartment complex. Strangers into neighbors.
  4. When I’m too shy to chat it up with a harmless stranger, I just love up the dog! Everyone around here, it seems, has a dog. I used to have a dog, who recently passed and I sob daily over (read more here: 7 lessons my dog taught me about being a better yogi). I bond with dogs almost instantaneously, unless of course fangs are present. A friendly neighbor downstairs was a stranger until I noticed her two giant, proud mastiffs walking by her side. A big scratch behind their ears and I now have three friends – my neighbor, and her two adoring dogs.

I think my plan is working. Today I went for a power walk on the New Hope trail and smiled at a nice couple who smiled back. And wouldn’t you know, the woman gave me a hug and said, “you’re Shannon! I took your class last week and loved it! Great to see you!” Great to see YOU beautiful student, who made me realize friends are all around me, if I just open myself up.


Teach the teacher daily lesson 3/26/2013

Daily lesson from March 26, 2013 (Teach the teacher)Look vs. Feel

The best yoga instructors I’ve had the pleasure of learning from had a way of directing my attention to how I felt in a posture vs. how the posture looked. And today I found myself in that role with a frustrated student who was very concerned about his downward facing dog: “I can’t see what it looks like, even in a mirror, and I don’t think I’m doing it right.”

When I asked him, “how does it feel?” he confessed he hadn’t really considered that. He was so intent on getting it to look right (even referencing a DVD with a model he was supposed to look like) that he lost the powerful, nonverbal communication between his physical body and mind during his downward facing dog. To me, this is the magic of yoga – moving through postures and paying close attention to the messages my body is sending:

  • Am I tight somewhere? Is this due to a life pattern that needs tweaking? Too much time in front of a laptop hunched over, perhaps? How can I correct this?
  • Is my right ankle on fire in Warrior II? Oh yeah, that’s the one I’ve sprained three times over the past few decades of jarring activities. What adjustments can I make in this posture to bring some relief?
  • Am I scared practicing handstand in the middle of the classroom? Is it really my fear of falling? Or is it a fear of being judged by others who might be watching? Aha – the fear of what it looks like.

So much is revealed when I let go of any expectations of what a posture should look like and concentrate on what I’m feeling. The body is constantly sending us messages that if we just quieted our mind, our egos, our “what do we look like?” obsession, we’d gain a ton more valuable knowledge and make wiser choices.

It’s hard though. REALLY hard. We naturally want to look good for myriad reasons: to set a positive first impression, to gain respect from colleagues and peers, to attract others. And in yoga, who doesn’t want to rock some of those Yoga Journal cover-worthy poses? But in practice, and in life, sometimes we need to let go of our concern for what we look like to allow our physical bodies the ability to communicate with us. As a teacher, I sometimes allow concerns of what my demonstrations look like. Heaven forbid I wobble in a standing balancing posture I’m teaching to students. Instead, what if I simply recognized that I’m human too, and wobble sometimes? And maybe my wobbling is sending me a message that my body is overtaxed and instead of 30 more chatturangas, it could use a day of rest? Maybe it needs a plate of vegetables instead of handfuls of animal cookies? How does it feel?

Fortunately through yoga we can continue to practice the lesson my student taught me today: feel what messages our bodies are sending and let the images in our heads go.

Teach the teacher daily lesson 3/22/2013

coach-yelling-at-playerDaily lesson from March 22, 2013 (Teach the teacher):

“Is she going to yell or curse if I don’t get a pose right?” After assuring her son, a high school football player, that no, her yoga teacher would not (nor would she ever) yell or curse at her students, a yogi mom convinced her son to join her in my evening class.

This got me to thinking – do coaches still swear, holler, and belittle their players? Isn’t that so old school? I thought back to all those in my life who have served as coaches, mentors, teachers, positions of authority, and came to a clear conclusion. Those who motivated from love made the biggest impact:

  • In my tweens and teens, I frequently crawled out of the pool dead last in any given event. Nevertheless, my favorite swim coach was always waiting at pool’s edge with a giant smile and a “great swim Shannon! Your hard work is going to pay off!” I sucked, no question. But his encouragement led me to swimming into adulthood, and coupled with stronger events like cycling and running, I was able to garner a few impressive triathlon times.
  • A former dance/fitness studio owner and instructor who mentored me in my 20s insisted I had a gift for teaching and an ability to inspire others. She pushed me hard in classes and refused to let me believe I couldn’t crank out 10 more push ups, but never once cursed or told me I sucked. Twenty years later, after finally saying sayonara to corporate life, I am now teaching yoga full-time.
  • The joy I find in writing every day began with a journalism teacher who never allowed the red ink scribbled all over my first drafts to deter me. She spent hours after class helping me refine, polish, and clarify whatever point I was trying to get across. With her encouragement, writing has become synonymous with feeling present, alive, and joyful.

So dear high school football player, come back to class. And haul in your whole team for that matter! Because in my class, no one is going to yell, curse, or get in the way of your beautiful flow.

Letting go of Western patterns to find space in the body

As I willed my knees down in a cross-legged seat on my yoga mat, I thought about what patterns over my four-plus decades of life got them to this stuck in mid-air state, despite daily yoga practice the past three years or so. To be fair, they’re a little closer, but we’re talkin’ a millimeter per year and no more. My outer hips are just tight. (Or to be specific, my gluteus medius and tensor fascia lata for the anatomy geeks.)

Years of distance running, cycling, and swimming have certainly kept my hips locked in forward motion, but what else?

I thought about this as my fabulous teacher/employer/studio owner announced before class an upcoming two-hour hip opener workshop we ought to sashay our fannies into next month. She emphasized how our Western culture isn’t the most conducive toward healthy open hips and butts.

She’s got that right. And she got me thinking. Back to my trips to Vietnam, Northern Thailand, Shanghai, where shop owners and food vendors would sit in a beautiful malasana squat for hours on end looking as comfortable as I might feel were I reclined in a Lazy-boy with my heels kicked up. How is that possible??

A glance around my apartment bears clear evidence of Western habits resulting in not so happy hips, butts, shoulders and feet. And backs. And…pretty much every other body part.

Sectional sofa, check. Monster leather chair, check. Plushtop mattress, shoe tree with all sorts of high-heeled ridiculousness, the loo, even. Check. Check. Check! All these modern conveniences mean our bodies don’t get to peel open and work with gravity. Step beyond the apartment and the caved-in culture continues – in the driver’s seat, at the office hunched over a keyboard, the plastic seats at the DMV. Sigh.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not racing out to buy a futon (been there done that), or dine Moroccan style on cushions every night (though some nights sound pretty fun!), but I can do a few things, and you can too:

1. Sit on the floor. You probably did as a kid, so why not now?

2. Employ a no-shoes indoors rule. Feel your feet already. Walk barefoot through grass and all kinds of wonderful is headed your way. I always think of fun, summer lazy days growing up when I walk barefoot in the grass.

3. Take svasana. On the floor! Not your plushtop. Practice hard enough prior, and you might just fall asleep – experiencing the same type of slumber as a good part of the Eastern culture that doesn’t require mounds of cushy under your spine.

4. Attend Laura’s Hip Opening Class at Yogasphere April 21, 2013.

5. Any more ideas?? I’d love to hear them so please share!

Teach the teacher daily lesson 3/18/2013

no-alcoholDaily lesson from March 18, 2013 (Teach the teacher):

“It was your class or a cocktail,” my dear student shared minutes before class, confessing to a miserable day at work.

This is part of what I LOVE about teaching – that I can actually serve as a healthy alternative to a cocktail. How cool is that? And I especially appreciate this because I used be that guy, doing hard time in a swivel ergo desk chair banging away at a keyboard on another soulless Monday, daydreaming of what it would be like to settle my achy hips onto a mat and stretch my fingers out wide. Sure, I could have sat on the floor at my former corporate gig, maybe even bust out into headstand when no one was looking. But at the end of the day, I was still staring into a glowing computer monitor, with an endless scroll of emails demanding my attention. And there were many a day I, too, faced the same decision as my student:

Power Hour or Happy Hour?

Sometimes I made the wise decision, sometimes not, feeling even stiffer the following morning as my cranky hips and stiff shoulders settled into another rote day at the office.

But since shifting my life’s work toward living, teaching and sharing yoga with others, I’ve long since left the happy hour behind and relished in days like today, where I get to play a small part in making someone’s life a little better.

So thank you, dear student, for choosing to love and care for your beautiful body and ending a crappy work day on a positive note.

Namaste and see you in class 🙂



Do it for someone else


Just read a powerful story about not giving up. In a nutshell, professional cyclist Taylor Phinney rode a grueling, thigh-killing, lung-busting stage and ended up dead last. But the guy FINISHED. Which is more than several other riders, who chose to unclip and bail before things got really ugly on a ride that even the tour directors deemed overly- excessive.

I’ve included a link below, and encourage you to read. Here is what really resonated with me:

  • Tyler very well could have called it day and rested up for the next stage, but he rode for someone else. He rode for his father, a former professional cyclist who now suffers from Parkinson’s Disease. Tyler knew, that if his dad had the opportunity to sit in his saddle during this miserable ride, he would have jumped at the chance, regardless the pain.
  • Tyler thought of someone else on the entire ride (his dad) to see him to the finish line.

So I guess I’m just thinking, if you don’t feel like getting up, moving, riding, practicing yoga, throwing a baseball, or whatever it is you do, and can do, then do it for someone else. Someone who would be damn grateful to be able to do what you get to do.

The link: Taylor Phinney story