Monday, February 23, 2009

Body Shadow

Not too long ago I did something to my back. I had been mindlessly galloping around, high on coffee. Apparently I jumped one time too many and hurt myself. I was hurting across my hip and deep buttock on one side, my low back on the other, and within the next week on the other side my neck and shoulder were practically frozen. Yikes! A little mindlessness can have big repercussions.

My yoga practice helped me to feel better. But, still, if I felt like that all the time I’d have to find a new way to earn money. It was exhausting to teach yoga with back pain! It made me feel physically ill.

For most of last week I felt so much better! And then last weekend I went to a yoga workshop with Lois Steinberg. She pointed out that I was holding my head crooked, and that I was working my low back and shoulders asymmetrically in symmetrical poses (among other things that were off). And I was so grateful to have these things pointed out to me. My body’s shape had adjusted itself so I wasn’t feeling the residual tightness, but my injuries had deformed me. So when I was adjusted into symmetrical alignment I felt the tightness that was still there.

My injuries had gone underground. I had lost awareness. The truth of my condition had slipped into shadow—invisible to me.

I was so fortunate to see a teacher of Iyengar Yoga at this time! In this system of yoga teachers are trained to look and see asymmetries in the body. These people can help you get your body into alignment so it can function in an optimally healthy way.

Life can really mess up your body without your permission or knowledge!

Earlier I mentioned that the truth of my body had slipped into “shadow.” I intentionally used the word—as in shadow psychology. I had a physical manifestation that reflects the psychological usage. The shadow in psychology refers to aspects of self that are subconscious and can warp a person’s perceptions behind the scenes, often affecting behavior.

In psychology, a way to become more balanced is to do work to bring aspects of the shadow into consciousness. This allows a person to live a more intentional life. And it makes a person less likely to ignorantly harm others. An example of this might be any global judgment about people. Like if someone grew up with a father who never showed feelings, and this person grew up to speak to men as if they had no feelings. This behavior would obviously hurt some people along the way, but it might not be coming from a conscious place. This person is unknowingly hurting others.

The same can be true in our relationship to our bodies. We can be unknowingly hurting ourselves through unbalanced use of the body, as I described above.

I also think that the shadow in psychology can show up in the body.

Just prior to my galloping injury I had seen someone I hadn’t seen for a long time. This encounter was friendly, and just the nature of it forced me to look at my life. I didn’t really want to see what I saw. So I drank coffee, ate sugar, jumped around and hurt myself. My pain called my attention to what had happened. I had seen through this old friend an alternative future for myself that deeply disturbed me. This person was living in a different version of my life, living with decisions that I never made. It was an intense meeting that showed up without my choosing it.

Some people don’t want to be bothered with alignment details in their yoga practice. Yoga for them is possibly about disappearing into a high of the breath and body. I have enjoyed this many times. But, there is a missed opportunity for growth if a student always practices without a teacher with eyes trained for alignment. If I had gone from my “feeling better” state directly into a strengthening yoga practice I may have just strengthened my asymmetries!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Gentle Heaven

The first time I assisted in the Gentle class at the Yoga Circle I thought I was in heaven.

What I saw there was a sharp contrast from what I had experienced up to then. Since graduating from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago I had worked as a gallery assistant, constructed sets for theatrical production, worked in a stock photography house, in a digital printing company, for a internet boom digital magazine, and done independent contractor work in graphic design and production management. I worked hard, and always felt like I had to do better. I had graduated in 1994. I didn’t have email in school then! I had taken a Photoshop course, and had a rudimentary understanding of digital art. So on the job I borrowed the manuals for Photoshop, QuarkXPress, and Adobe Illustrator, always teaching myself what I needed to know and more. I really enjoyed it, and yet it was also a stressful and restless time in my life. Some coworkers were generous and helpful. But there was a pervasive attitude that every person was paid to do their own work and that helping others was a pain-in-the-ass. So I worked hard to know as much as I could so I wouldn’t have to bother other people. I was in my 20’s for most of these jobs! People in there 20’s (or other ages) don’t know everything. Yet I felt pressure to do this, and to figure things out independently. And I was rewarded for my work.

Then I met Gabriel Halpern at a two-day weekend yoga workshop. I remember laughing and crying during his talks. On the first day he asked me to demonstrate Parsvottanasana (a yoga pose) in front of everyone. I remember asking, “Where do you want me to do it?” I would have done it between mats, or on any mat.

He pointed to one and said, “There is fine.” My legs shook in the pose. He gave some instructions about the pose to the class, and said (more quietly) to me, “Find out what is beneath the quivering, and do the pose from there.”

When I came in for the second day of the workshop, Gabriel walked through a group of people, right up to me and said, “If you were at my center (Yoga Circle), I’d guide you to be a teacher.” I didn’t know how to respond, but was elated and surprised. I wanted to teach.

So at the end of the workshop I waited in line to speak with Gabriel. Someone before me had some sort of pain, and I remember Gabriel taking off his belt to use it to traction her body. (I think that the next class had already started in the room where the props were.) When it was my turn I mentioned what he had said earlier and said, “I’d like that—I’d like to teach yoga. How do you suggest I go about doing that?”

And he said, “Come over!” So I did.

I took his class at the Yoga Circle that week, and started assisting in the Gentle class. And very soon after that I had my first opportunity to teach.

In the Gentle class students come with specific concerns they want to work on like a pain in the knee or back, scoliosis, depression, recovery from surgery, and any condition that might benefit from personalized work. Gabriel gives each student a specific set of yoga poses to do, and with the help of assistants each student does work specifically for them.

Assisting in the Gentle class has been a life-changing experience for me. At first I brought my way of working that I had learned in my life up to then of figuring things out myself. But, Gabriel showed me that he was there to teach me how to do this. He said that I should ask him questions, and I got the impression that it was his pleasure to answer them. And I have learned so much in the over six years I have been helping out. In fact it started me on my career as a yoga teacher. (This is an ongoing opportunity for yoga teachers, aspiring teachers, and caring souls. Contact Gabriel at the Yoga Circle if you want to assist in the Gentle class.)

Those first couple weeks I assisted in the Gentle class really blew me away. This was a place where people helped one another with their hands and hearts. I hadn’t experienced anything like it. I thought I was in heaven. It was beautiful, and healing. I remember sitting at the side of the room after class with my senses maxed out, overwhelmed with what I had experienced. I had helped a student relax and to do helpful yoga that they could do. I was in the honored position of opening my heart to hearing their suffering. And I hope I don’t loose you by saying this, but the room did seem to have more than the ordinary amount of illumination—a glow. I felt surrounded by love, and at the same time I wasn’t sure I belonged there. Then Gabriel asked me if I’d like to make this a regular thing, and I remember saying, “I think so.”

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Ordinary Time Travel

I used to think that time travel was something you did by getting into a little machine like they do in science fiction stories. But now I realize that time travel is quite ordinary. We are actually doing it all the time whether we realize it or not.

I ran into an old friend last week. It could have been ten years (give-or-take-a-little) since I saw him last. We had crossed paths a few times since graduation. And to me it had seemed like it was going to be another such random meeting full of fun and shared dreams. But it was so different! Since we last met he has established a business, married and now has a child! Wow. The changes included a short haircut with some grey, and he seemed a little heavier and stressed (but still handsome).

My last memory of him was in the Art Institute of Chicago. We both just happened to be there at the same time. He said something like, “I’m in love. She is wonderful. I’m so happy.” And he was dancing and waving his arms as he spoke.

When I shared this memory with him last week at Whole Foods, his cheeks slackened and his jaw dropped. “Well, that must have been a long time ago,” he said as if he was dropping a heavy turd in my lap.

This is ordinary time travel. My experience of this person seemed to continue, seamlessly from a point in the past to that moment last week, like instant time travel. I was just unaware of all the points that happened in between these two moments for him.

Now the weird part, for me, is that at some point in the conversation he paused and said, “ You look exactly the same.”

And I said, “I am.” I really felt the same: light inside and full of dreams. And I felt a little sad about it (being the same). I admire people who are accomplishing goals and having families.

But, since I last saw this distant yet dear friend, I tapped into my passion for yoga. And this commitment to a dream has taken me on a path I could have never imagined, nor have begun to articulate that day many years ago at the Art Institute.

So I also sensed the flow of time within my own life.

Friday, February 13, 2009


When I was first getting into Ashtanga yoga there were times when, during the heat of practice, a teacher would say to “surrender.” I reacted to this: never! “I will not surrender,” I thought. When a teacher said to “let go,” it had a different effect. I understood that I was holding suffering, and wanted to let that go. But the use of the word surrender confused me. I was using yoga to get sexy, strong, supple, and to feel better. I definitely didn’t want to surrender to the individual teacher: that seemed a bit much. I also didn’t want to surrender to the words I was hearing at that time. Surrendering brought up the image of a conquered enemy waving a white flag. I was not a defeated foe.

The fifth Niyama is Isvara-pranidhana, and it calls for us to surrender. My thinking around this concept has changed since I was first hearing it (without a clarifying context).

The world is bigger than me. It is bigger than the contents of my mind, and more than what I know. So there is some mystery to the world and how things work and why things happen the way they do. This mystery is what the surrendering is about. It acknowledges that there is a larger reality that we, as individuals, cannot control and cannot know. There are times to let go of the desire to control reality, and there are times to trust that things are as they are, existing with reasons that are out of the realm of ordinary understanding. So what we are being asked to surrender to is this larger realm. It is awe-inspiring to witness the beauty of a moment without words, without knowing, and not controlling.

Of course in daily life this presents a big challenge. We want and need to make sure we make enough money, live in safety, and have the freedom to express ourselves. So we strive to control the world so that it will serve our needs. This is natural.

And yet, things still happen that are out of our control. We get sick, injured, hurt, heal, succeed, prosper, age, and so on.

So, I trust the things that happen to me. Things happen that change my plans, and there is always so much to learn along the way. I surrender to the wisdom in my heart while honoring what I see reflected in the world. Perceptions of the world can show me when I’m on track or off the mark.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Ode to Yoga Feet

“Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.”
- Kahlil Gibran

Whatever part of your body is touching the earth: open to it perceptually. Tune into the sensations. Open the pathway into greater awareness. Very often, especially when you are walking somewhere, the parts touching the earth are your feet. Feel the feelings in your feet. If you are usually stuck in the head (as many of us are) it might seem like you are tuning into the perceptions from little Mars Exploration Rovers far away, meet your feet!

Footprints of the Buddha symbolize the embodiment of enlightened consciousness, reminding us that the ideal can be had, here on the earth. We can be kind here. We don’t have to be slaves to roiling bad karma. We can be a peaceful people.

In Iyengar Yoga, the first thing you learn to do is to stand. You learn to stand in different postures, called Standing Poses. And in order to build these poses well, you need to have a firm and well-articulated foundation. So you learn to use your feet, and to be self-aware in the feet. I had a student once comment that before learning yoga she just thought of her legs and feet as little stubs that she walked on, and was so grateful to have expanded her understanding. And this work of learning to use your feet helps as you learn all the poses in yoga. It helps the whole structure of your body to learn to cultivate healthy feet. (Which means that we have to get them out of shoes from time to time.)

Love your feet! (There, I said it.)

Your feet are your physical connection to this earth and this life. Without them we can certainly learn other ways of getting around, but be grateful while you have them! And use them well. Go to wonderful places and do good and helpful things. Love others.

Several months before my grandmother (Nana) died, my Mother was in the hospital recovering from surgery. From her hospital bed she shared with me that Nana was “not going to live too much longer.” It seemed really strange coming from her. She, herself, had just almost died. So I asked her how she knew that. And she said with a voice that was much stronger than the one she had been using, “Look at her feet!” And then with a lighter tone, “They don’t ever really touch the ground when she walks.” And she was right. After that I noticed how my Nana’s feet seemed light as air as they, almost playfully, moved her along, hardly acknowledging the firmness of earth.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Svadhyaya and the Art of Self-study

During a recent dinner conversation, a friend made a distinction between teaching and living through students that made an impact. Teaching conveys the tools of a given subject, but doesn’t dictate the usage of the tools. Living through students is happening when a teacher says, “do it like me,” or, “do it this way.” The example follows:

Imagine a painting teacher who teaches students exactly what colors to use, and how to move the brushes across the canvas so that the resulting works look like an extension of the teacher’s portfolio. And the teacher looks around and thinks, “Ahh, good, I am impacting the world.” In this case the teacher is seeing more of his or her self in the work of the students, and even living through them.

Now imagine an art teacher who teaches about the brushes, paints, and the possibilities of painting, allowing students to communicate themselves through their paintings. In this case the teacher would look around the room and see a community of selves in the resulting paintings, rather than mimicry of style.

To beginning yoga students as well as beginning painters it is appropriate to show a path, but the goal is freedom (in art as well as in yoga). How can we learn to live as true expressions of our selves, whether it is through art or through the way we live our lives?

In yoga philosophy, Svadhyaya, or self-study, is fourth aspect of Niyama.

There is risk in knowing yourself. What if you discover that you are fundamentally different from someone else when your friendship was predicated on feeling the same about things? Or what if you find out that you are very similar to someone that you had decided was an enemy?

Nevertheless, this is an important part of being an artist or yogi: knowing your self. How else can you express who you are?

Svadhyaya includes all the ways we can know our selves: as individuals, in relationship, as a species, as culture, as spirit.

Teachers: Are you teaching to empower students to know themselves?

Students: Are you living through the teacher’s practice, or are you learning to deepen your experience, and to find your own expression and use of the tools?