Today is Friday, March 13, 2020. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, and there is the very distinct feeling that the floor is falling from under our feet. This is a strange, confusing, terrifying moment, and all I want to do is hold everyone as close as I possibly can.
But for now, closeness (at least with those outside the household) is not the protocol. For now, we need distance. Social distance to be precise. And I don’t know about the rest of you, but for me that is really hard.
I had never heard the term “social distancing” until a few days ago, and now it is ubiquitous. When I first heard it, it made me think about all the different types of distance there actually are. Physical distance, emotional distance, temporal distance, geographical distance. And then when I started thinking about these things, I noticed I was filled with a strange feeling that I can’t really name. It was like longing and homesickness and melancholy all rolled into one. I felt like a child separated from my mother. And the only thing I wanted was to close the distance and run back home.
This afternoon I was in the yard with my six-year old daughter. She was playing in her own little world, and I was doing some yard work about ten feet away from her but not in her direct line of vision. Out of nowhere she looked up and said, “Mama?” with more than a hint of concern in her voice. When I asked her what was wrong, she replied, “I just wanted to know where you were” and went back to playing.
This exchange gave me pause. The physical distance between us was practically nothing, but she still needed the reassurance that I was there. For a brief little flash, the distance scared her.
Distance scares me too. It makes me feel like I will be abandoned or forgotten. Distance makes me insecure about how people feel about me, whether they want me around. It triggers my inner tween monologue; “People are distant from you because they don’t like you.”
And here we are at this strange moment, where the loving thing to do is to give one another distance. It feels so foreign and counter-intuitive to me, and yet I know that it is necessary. Truth be told, there are plenty of times in my life where some distance was called for, and I was incapable of delivering it. Maybe one small upshot of this whole thing is that we will all get better at allowing some distance when it is needed. And maybe we can figure out some new and creative ways of loving and connecting across that distance.
For now, I just want to hug all of you through these words on a screen. There is distance between us, but it won’t last forever.
I never thought I would be one of those people who gave the milestone birthday very much thought, but (surprise!) I was wrong. I have been thinking about it a lot for quite some time now.
I am very lucky that in my professional life I get to work with people of practically every age. Many of my yoga students are twice my age, and I regularly dance and perform with people who are half my age. I also teach and mother elementary school kids, so I am constantly reminded that age, like practically everything else in the universe, is a spectrum. And if we are lucky enough, we get to hit a bunch of different points along the way.
But forty does feel significant. The number itself certainly carries a lot of weight. Biblically speaking, there are forty days in the wilderness, forty days of the flood, forty years of wandering the desert. A google search also revealed that -40 is the only temperature at which Celsius and Fahrenheit are the same. That probably has nothing to do with anything, but pretty cool, right?
But let’s be real.
Generically speaking, on some level most of us probably consider the average life span to be eighty. And once we cross the forty threshold, we are closer to our death than to our birth on the timeline of our lives. We are no longer the oldest of the young people; we are the youngest of the old, officially closer to grave than cradle.
This brings up two big things for me. The first and biggest is looking at my own mortality. It shouldn’t really take turning forty for me to do this, but the number certainly has provided a nice frame for it. I doubt that I will ever get to the point in my life where I am not afraid of dying. But I sure as hell am not going to live in denial of death.
For at least a decade prior to her death last summer, my grandmother, Lois, had her headstone placed at her grave site, fully etched with all her details except for the date of death. For years, she was able to visit her own grave and see where she would lie beside my grandfather when her time came. This came naturally to her, and I don’t think that for one minute of her 93 years did she ever pretend death didn’t exist. After all, she was a nurse, lived on a farm through the Great Depression, witnessed war after war. Death was always there, and I can guarantee that it didn’t take her turning forty (or eighty or ninety) to come to terms with it. I really, really, really hope to live up to her example.
The second thing turning forty brings up for me is coming to terms with what I have and have not done so far in my life. It is quite easy for me to fall down the mental chasm of all that I should have accomplished by now and have not. The maturity, security, wisdom, and success I should have achieved and have not. The paths I could have/should have/would have taken and did not. But that is a shitty way to live. And even though it is my tendency to go there (and I mean really GO there, wallow, flail, etc), I am going to work hard not to. As I knock on forty’s door, I am trying to stay as committed as I can to this singular, present moment of my life, and not ruin it by rushing ahead to the future or torturing myself over past paths not taken.
In considering yoga as it relates to these two things (accepting mortality and being fully present), it strikes me that savasana, corpse pose, is an ideal space to practice both simultaneously. For those unfamiliar with yoga, every class ends with corpse pose. This is where you lie on your back, eyes closed, and do absolutely nothing. You quite literally, take on the shape of a corpse. For some, it is bliss; for others, it is torture. And for the rest of us, it is a weird combination of both. Savasana asks you to let go; to relinquish control, to ease your grip. It also reminds you, in a beautiful gentle way, that one day you will die, that your body will become a corpse, and that it will break down into the earth as all things eventually must.
In asking us to do nothing, savasana is actually asking a great deal from us. Perhaps its greatest demand is stillness. It asks that you lie down right in the middle of your life, drop into the ground beneath you, and do nothing. What better way to practice being present and not running away could there possibly be?
To close, I thought I would share a poem I banged out this morning. I love writing poetry but don’t share it all that often, so here goes nothing. Its title is the same as this post.
All things in their season
Each year at winter’s close/ I long to see things in blossom/ Shooting forth in small green trumpet/ From cold hard dirt beneath/That is ready only for crunch not crumble/Too hard still to let soft new life push through.
Each year I want these things too early/ In a time that is not yet theirs/ And part of me quakes at the fear that it never will be.
Each year my faith questions/ The season for shoots and blossoms and brand new things/ My annual forgetting that these can come only in their very own time.
I question my own season/ Just when and how my time will come/ To crunch and crumble/To let something new and green emerge/ Something that has been waiting so long underground/ For the soil to soften and give way/ To life unfolding/ Whenever and however/ It must.
I miss exactly two things about living in New York City: my friends and my asparagus patch.
Over the seventeen years that I called NYC home, I lived in three boroughs, one house, and six apartments. The last abode, which my family and I moved from a year ago, was a modest two bedroom with a small backyard. This may not seem like a big deal for those who have never lived in New York, but let me assure you, having access to any outdoor space at all in NYC is a huge privilege and one that I did not take for granted. I gardened the crap out of that yard and had some pretty delicious fruits and veg as a result.
The shining jewel of my urban gardening crown was without a doubt my asparagus patch. I started it from seed at the back edge of our tiny yard mostly as a way of trying to build patience, something I struggle with, especially as a parent. It takes three years for an asparagus patch started from seed to yield a real harvest, so I figured if I could cultivate a vegetable with that much patience, surely I could cultivate patience in myself as well.
I was also stealing a page directly from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miraclein which she writes, “In my adult life I have dug asparagus beds into the property of every house I’ve owned, and some I rented–even tiny urban lots and student ghettoes–always leaving behind a vegetable legacy waving in the wake…” Preach, Barbara!
I am also a perennial rusher (Catch that…perennial? Sorry, I can’t resist a gardening pun), and growing asparagus seemed like a helpful tool in getting me to slow down and become more comfortable with long periods where not much seems to be happening. Typically, prolonged waiting makes me super anxious, and I wanted to get to the bottom of what that was about. So with all that in mind, I started my sweet little patch.
Growing asparagus was a slow process and beautiful to behold. Prior to it, I had no idea what asparagus actually looked like as it grew, how tall it got, the feathery splendor of its post-harvest foliage. And oh, the taste. The taste! It was nothing like what I had ever bought at the grocery store. It redefined asparagus. It was the physical embodiment of green, of sun, of tenderness and light. It was sublime.
And then, after one small but stupendous harvest, we moved.
We said goodbye to our urban homestead to put down roots in greener pastures (See what I mean with the garden puns? They are just so easy!), but before leaving NYC for the Hudson Valley, I made sure to save some seeds from that first/last harvest, so that I could start a new patch once we moved.
Although I was tempted to plant them last year during the first spring in our new home, I resisted the urge and waited. I am very glad that I did because I have now witnessed each season in our new digs and have a better understanding of the terrain, both literally and metaphorically. It took a lot for me to not rush into starting a new patch (which was supposed to be all about not rushing), but I managed, and I’m really freaking proud of that. I allowed myself that most valuable and precious element which asparagus knows by heart: time.
Often in yoga, like in gardening, we refer to the five elements: earth, water, wind, air, and fire. Some combination of these things is responsible for practically all life on earth, but it does seem to me that time itself is a crucial missing element, without which nothing much can occur. Time is what gives us real, lived experience. Time is what gives us understanding. Time is what allows the alchemy of life to do its thing. Time is what it takes to grow asparagus from seed to harvest.
I am trying hard to focus more on how I experience time both when I teach and practice yoga. I am trying to respect it more as an element in its own right, and one that is perhaps the most powerful of all. Time is always and forever happening right now, and yet it is never in a rush.
I’m trying to let myself live right in the middle of time, a conscious participant in its perpetual unfolding. I’m finding that it is not as easy as it sounds, but that it is quite possibly one of the highest and most profound callings that we can ever attempt to answer.
Hello, dear reader! I have missed you! It has been a greater stretch of time than usual between posts, but I have to keep reminding myself that that is in fact a-okay. And in my case, it is probably a very good thing.
Something I am actively working on in my life is taking more time with things (like writing blog posts) and not rushing. I know that may sound simple or trite, but honestly, I am really struggling with it.
My daily rush generally starts pretty early. I rush to get a few things done during the quiet before my children wake. Then I rush to get them fed, out the door, and to school on time. And then I rush to cram whatever I can into those brief hours before school lets out. And then I rush to make it to pick up on time, and I rush, and I rush, and I rush. It is silly really. And wanna know what else it is?
Rushing accomplishes absolutely nothing except for making every tiny thing feel ten times harder than it has to. And weirdly, my own attempts to keep things moving along at a nice clip often causes them to take much longer than necessary. My youngest daughter illustrates this for me daily whenever I try to hurry her in getting dressed, brushing her teeth, whatever. The more I tell her to hurry, the slower she goes. And I know she isn’t doing it on purpose; it’s like the rushing actually paralyzes her.
Through observing her and paying attention to my own feelings mid-rush, I have come to realize that rushing is even more of a mental state than it is a physical one. And as such, it can so easily affect every single aspect of our lives whether we mean for it to or not.
When I first started practicing yoga a thousand years ago, classes were always at least an hour and a half long. Since then, they have shortened significantly, and in most settings I find myself in these days, classes are an hour (or maybe an hour and a quarter if I get lucky.) That is a pretty huge shift, so what exactly happened? Were we all in that big of a rush? In ten more years will most classes be just thirty minutes?
I really don’t buy the line that our lives are busier now than ever before. In fact, I find claims like that to be arrogant at best, delusional at worst. Since the beginning of time, the business of living has kept all of humanity pretty darned occupied; we aren’t all that special. But I do believe that our brains are now crammed with a lot more stuff (junk, stimuli, media, whatever you want to call it), so we have the internal, mental experience of constantly rushing between points of information and practically always falling behind.
At its best, yoga can be a wonderful antidote to this. It asks you to move slowly, to breathe slowly, and maybe even quiet your mind a little (second yoga sutra and all that). But it is sad to me that we are chipping away at the minutes we are willing to give in the space of a single class. I miss the days of ten minute savasanas, of classes that didn’t try to get your heart rate up by rushing in and out of poses, of sitting in stillness at the end of every practice. In short, I miss taking my time.
But if I am honest, I am the only one who is to blame for that. No matter how short or long a class may be, I am the one in control of whether I rush. I do not have to rush from point A to point B. I am allowed to be still and move slowly. And the same goes for teaching. Cramming as much as I possibly can into a single session is a disservice to my students. Creating space, making room for stillness, and allowing for quiet are the precious gifts they deserve.
In an earlier post, I talked about starting each class with a silent prayer for good clear boundaries. I think I will now add to that personal invocation a commitment to not rush. And whenever I notice myself rushing, I will do my best to pause. I will take a giant breath in and let a giant breath out. I will feel the ground under my feet and the air on my skin and remember how lucky I am to be alive at this sole, singular moment. And I will try my damnedest not to miss it by hurrying off to the very next thing.
Rushing gets in the way of living, and I’m ready to give it up. I think I’ll start by rewriting the story of my day without it:
I wake early. I enjoy the quiet before my children wake. I feed them, dress them, and take them to school. I fill my work day with dance and yoga and writing. I fetch my kids from school. We live, we live, we live.
Once upon a time and many moons ago, I was a ballet dancer. I started taking ballet at the ripe old age of four as a means of strengthening and rehabilitating my previously broken right femur described in an earlier post. That rehab turned into genuine love, and I continued ballet throughout high school in my hometown dance company, Chattanooga Ballet. More specifically, I was a member of the corps de ballet, or just corps for short. For those who may not know, the corps in a ballet company refers to the dancers who always dance together in a group, often as a backdrop to soloists and principal dancers. Literally, the “body” of the ballet, the corps gives weight and structure to every performance. It is the group counterpoint to the radiant solo; the unison of many framing the expression of one.
Being a member of the corps was one of the most challenging, invigorating, illuminating, and instructive experiences of my dance training and, indeed, my life. Its most basic requirement is listening to the group with your whole physical self and doing whatever it takes for that group to be in true unison. This does not simply mean doing the same steps on the same counts (although you have to do that as well), but it requires existing in both movement and stillness as one singular body, even though there could be a dozen or more dancers onstage.
It is no easy feat, but when when a corps is successful, it is absolutely breathtaking, both as viewer and participant. I remember being in the corps and recognizing that I was a part of something so much bigger than myself. At the risk of sounding overly-dramatic, the only word I can think of for that experience is transcendent.
I have heard people liken dancing within a corps to being on a team, but to my mind it is different. For me, a team implies competition, that there are other teams out there who you are striving to outperform. But when I recall my days in the corps, one of the best parts about it was that we were working together so diligently for no other reason than to make something beautiful. We weren’t competing with other corps de ballets; we were simply a tenacious young group of dancers striving to unify in the service of art. It was extraordinary.
Looking back, I am so thankful to have experienced the real power of a group at such a young age. I truly believe that it shaped my life in ways that I still don’t fully understand. And I think at it’s best, practicing yoga in a group can also provide a taste of what I experienced back then: the sublime beauty of moving as a group.
Although yoga class is definitely not about being in unison and certainly asks you to honor your own individuality, the power and energy that comes from practicing in a group can feel like absolute magic, much like the magic of the corps de ballet. There is a shared experience of moving, breathing, contracting, and releasing that is as profound as it is simple. And it is available to us every time we step into the studio if we only remember to pay attention to it.
Often, I forget to pay attention. I get so wrapped up in my own individual practice or in the individual needs of single students that I forget about the magic of the group that is there already, inherent to practicing together. One of my goals for the coming months is to really savor the “group-ness” of the classes I take as well as teach, and I encourage others to do the same. Why should any of us deny ourselves so precious a gift?
In her magnificent and poignant book Late Migrations, Margaret Renkl describes walking in the woods with her niece and finding a ladybug tucked in the fungal folds of a rotting tree. Her niece shares her recent discovery that a group of ladybugs is called a loveliness. How beautiful is that? What could be more perfect? That is what we are and what we always have the potential to be when we come together to practice. A sweet and special loveliness. Full of power, full of grace.
May we always and forever remember to pay attention to the loveliness.
Growing up, my mother was always a stickler about writing thank you notes. My brother and I were not always the most amenable to her prodding, but I am now so grateful for it.
One of the things I remember most as a kid about begrudgingly writing my thank yous, was the fact that I actually did feel better after afterwards. Although I didn’t have words for it then, I was experiencing one of the very real benefits of gratitude. It is one of those rare things, like love, that feels as good to receive as it does to offer up.
I have so much to be grateful for that sometimes it feels obscene. My husband. My children. My parents and brother. My large and sprawling Southern family and the ever-embracing Greek family I married into. My friends. My yoga, which has given me so much and which I cherish even through my disenchantment. My students. My teachers. And last, but most certainly not least, you dear reader. I am so fully, unabashedly grateful for you.
I am writing this post entirely to say thank you. Thank for for giving me your precious time, for reading my digital scribbles, for listening to my gripes and my joys about yoga, and for giving me the space to muddle through my own disenchantment. Your willingness to do these things is such a gift. And I would be remiss as my mother’s daughter if I didn’t put my gratitude down on paper. Granted, whatever screen you are reading this on isn’t “paper.” But I think it still counts.
I know it isn’t the best practice as a writer to end with someone else’s words. But I am going to do it anyway because they have been ringing in my ears the entire time I have been writing this post. And they are Shakespeare’s words, and I figure he is a good enough writer that we can bend some rules. So wherever, whenever you are reading this, please take his words, from me to you, and let them fill your day and your life:
“Icannootheranswermakebutthanks, andthanks; and ever thanks.”
The concept of karma is one that I have always struggled with.
Truthfully, I probably have a pretty immature understanding of it, as does most of the western world. But still, it is something that comes up in yoga often, and as yoga teachers, it is worth taking a look at.
The general gist of karma is that is that it is the sum total of one’s actions during every point of their existence, and those actions determine what will happen in that person’s future. It is cause and effect on steroids. In a karmic framework, whatever is going on in your life right now is the result of something you have already done, and whatever you are doing now will determine what happens in your future. Which makes pretty good sense, right?
Except for when your child gets cancer. Or you lose your home in a flood. Or you are born with a debilitating genetic disease. Or you live in a war zone. Or you get raped. Or, or, or. I just cannot swallow the pill that any of the above scenarios are the results of some previous action, in this life or another. That just seems too cruel to be possible. Of course I also don’t believe in reincarnation, which is probably the root of my trouble with karma. Karma just doesn’t hold up when you are looking at it through the lens of a single lifetime in which good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people over and over again.
But none of that really matters much anyway, as it is only my personal opinion. And I am definitely not trying to change anyone’s mind about matters of the spirit, especially ones that are so central to over 1.5 billion Hindus and Buddhists and many of my own beloved friends and teachers. Certainly, if we all conducted our lives with a greater attention to the consequences of our actions, the world would be in MUCH better shape.
But there is one thing I absolutely know to be true about karma; if anyone (employer, teacher, student, whomever) asks you to do something for them “in the name of karma,” RUN. Cuz ya know what? That is crap. It is yogic gaslighting. It is manipulation of the worst kind. And although I’m no expert, even I know that’s probably not how karma works.
In my experience, I have seen the karma card played mostly by yoga business owners trying to get people to do work for them for low or no pay. (Remember the boundary blog post? Here is yet another example of that). I am talking about a boss asking someone to work uncompensated while they themselves reap some sort of benefit, and using the concept of “karma” to pressure them into doing it. This line seems to occur mostly with new teachers and teacher trainees, although I have seen it used with experienced teachers as well. And it drives me up the freaking wall.
Don’t get me wrong, there can be many great reasons to work for free if you happen to be in a lucky enough financial position to do such a thing. I happen to be a modern dancer as well as a yoga teacher, and I can tell you that if I had never danced for free, I would never have danced at all. And volunteering your time to help someone (even yoga business owners!) in need, can be noble, humbling, and gratifying. But to use “karma” as means of persuading someone to do these things? That is just wrong. And it is also co-opting a spiritual belief for personal gain which is wronger than wrong.
The choice to engage in work for no or low pay belongs entirely to the individual engaging in it. Their “karma” is theirs alone. It is not a tool for negotiation, certainly not for manipulation.
I am curious: have any of you out there also had the experience of being asked to do something “in the name of karma?” If so, how did it make you feel, and how did you respond? If you are comfortable sharing, I would love to hear your perspective.
For pretty much my entire life, I have dealt with anxiety. I know, I know, me and everyone else on the planet, right? But did you see what I just did in that second sentence? I didn’t even give myself a single transitional phrase before trying to minimize one of the greatest challenges of my existence. And of course I had to toss in some knee-jerk defense mechanism humor and just the right amount of self-deprecation that hopefully I won’t scare anyone off. God, it’s exhausting keeping up with my own nonsense. I hope I am not already exhausting you.
As I am sure many of you already know, severe anxiety absolutely blows. It feels like dread and doom and terror and rage all rolled into one. Like the end of the world is about to happen, while at the same time it already has. And somehow, inexplicably, it happened all because of you! Anxiety can have such a corrosive, permeating effect that at its peak, it leaves room for nothing else; it is like gas filling the volume of whatever container it is in.
To make matters worse, when anxiety does finally start to subside, the depression hangover is at the ready. And of course depression wouldn’t be caught dead without its BFF, shame. They go everywhere together, at least in my mental landscape.
But before I drag you down into the morass, I have great news! There is hope! But it ain’t yoga. Well it ain’t only, yoga, let’s say. For me (and honestly, for most) yoga alone will not cure your anxiety or depression. Can it help? Definitely. Is it an amazingly valuable tool, a powerful coping mechanism, a helpful lens through which to understand yourself? Absolutely. But is it a cure? ‘Fraid not.
Yoga is one tile in the mosaic of mental health. Yes it might be a pretty huge one that connects to thousands of others, but it is not the whole shebang. Yoga is not a panacea. And it is definitely not Prozac. And guys? Some of us need Prozac more than we need yoga.
I realize that I may have just lost half my readers with that last sentence. This is supposed to be a blog about yoga, right? And here this fraud is spewing the big pharma company line! But please; hear me out. I promise that is not what I am trying to do. And this is probably a good time to state the obvious that I am IN NO WAY suggesting that I know what is medically best for anyone besides myself. Hell, I struggle with that most of the time. But isn’t that the point? To struggle, to grapple, to really do the work of figuring your stuff out?
When I was in my twenties, I had a terrible experience with an Ayurvedic doctor. He was well-known in his field and had connections with the yoga studio where I was training, so I had a certain amount of trust in him just because of that. I probably should have known something was off when he passed around nude pictures of himself on an Ayurvedic cleansing retreat to all the teacher trainees to illustrate how some ancient detox technique worked. (Remember my post about how yoga people are so bad at boundaries? Yeah. Case in point.) I think I can speak for all of us there in saying that we definitely did not need to see his junk to get the picture.
And yet, I went to him as a patient! That should give you a sense of how impressionable I was at that point in my life. And I was also deeply ashamed that I was taking psych meds. I thought I should be able to be fine without them, especially as a dutiful yoga practitioner and newly minted certified teacher. It was a time in my life when I was actually feeling pretty good, probably in large part because I was finally on medication to help manage my anxiety. But here is the thing with psych meds; once they get you to a place where you feel healthy and stable, you think you don’t need them anymore because you feel healthy and stable! It’s a real mind trip.
Within ten minutes of my appointment, Dr. Ayurveda (not his real name but I am guessing you caught that) concurred that I did not need to be on anti-depressants and that I had been “forgotten” by the doctor who first prescribed them to me and the medical establishment in general. Ten whole minutes it took for him to get there! Right on. I thought. He was confirming exactly what those harsh, needling voices in my head were also saying. You don’t need to be on this stuff. It is toxic! Do this the natural way! Herbs and yoga, baby!That’s the real medicine! Oh, you sweet little naive twenty-something. If only.
He gave me some herbs, a few dietary recommendations, and advised me to start weaning off the meds, which I was very proud of. I won’t go into detail about the castor oil cleanse he also put me on because it was just as disgusting as it sounds. Pretty soon I was off meds and had dumped my psychiatrist to boot. I felt like a total badass sticking it to the western medicine man. Of course I couldn’t afford to keep seeing Dr. Ayurveda at his exorbitant rates, so I stopped seeing him too. I was sticking it to all the men!
Unsurprisingly, it did not take long for me to relapse. My anxiety blossomed into full-blown panic and showed no signs of going anywhere. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, could barely make it out of the apartment. I thought I was dying. I remember teaching a yoga class having not slept in days, my chest so tight I thought it would implode, and thinking: This is it. I am going to have a heart attack and die in front of all my students. And they had no idea. That is how good I was at hiding it.
I have always thought that “relapse” is the wrong word for what it actually is. It sounds so neat, so clinical, and has an almost rhythmic cadence to it. I can assure you, it is none of those things. It is a ton of bricks falling on you at once. It is drowning, but no one can see. It is flailing. And failing. It is ice-cold blood running at warp speed through constricted veins. It is hell.
I wish I could say that the time in my twenties was my one and only major relapse, that I got back into therapy and stayed on meds, but unfortunately that is not the case. It has taken me many ups and downs and the better part of two decades to fully accept that I am, quite simply, a healthier person on anti-depressants. They give me a buffer, a neuro-chemical safety net that helps me move through life without constantly feeling an imaginary floor fall out from under me. Because I no longer have to expend every ounce of energy just coping, I am able to engage in my life, be more present for my family, my daughters, my friends. I am able to actually be myself, and even occasionally enjoy my own company.
So what does any of this have to do with yoga? A hell of a lot. Two of the biggest components of yoga are self-understanding and self-acceptance. These are the exact same qualities that have led me to know unequivocally that I need medication in order to thrive. By accepting my own shortcomings and giving myself the help I need, I am showing myself love and, indeed, growing in my yoga.
So given all of that, can you see why it just burns me up when I hear yoga folks preach about how bad medication is? Or lead students to believe that yoga will cure them of everything? Or turn western medicine into the devil? Or say that yoga is the “real” medicine? God, how many times have I heard that one. Do you know how that makes people feel who need medication? Like crap, that’s how. And no one comes to yoga in order to feel like crap. No one should have to defend their medical choices to their yoga teachers, and certainly no should have to feel shamed.
I cannot overstate how dangerous it is for yoga teachers to even hint that a student on medication of any sort should try and get off of it. You are not their doctor; that is not your job, and it can do real damage. Some of you may be thinking: Well, duh. Does anyone actually do that? Oh, yes. They certainly do, both subtly and overtly. Most often it is not as obvious as with Dr. Ayurveda, but it often comes across in what teachers say, how they say it, and even sometimes by what they wear. Ever seen those ridiculous Heavily Meditated t-shirts? I really hate those. They read as so superior, so shaming of medication, and so totally oblivious to the fact that many people (like me) meditate and medicate. And wanna know what? The two go great together.
I don’t blame Dr. Ayurveda for my relapse so many years ago. That one was totally on me. I went to him wanting some sort of misguided permission to get off meds, and he played right along. But what if he had acted differently? What if he had honored the boundary of his own practice and suggested that I manage coming off meds with a psychiatrist who actually knew me and was trained to do such things? I still might not have listened, but at least he would have been doing the ethical thing within the scope of his practice.
As yoga teachers, we don’t have a neat succinct code of conduct or ethics to refer back to, which is too bad. But some things should be pretty obvious and universal such as:
Never giving students medical advice
Never making students feel shamed or like they have to hide who they are
Never assuming that what is best for you is best for others
Be careful with what you say and how you say it. Encouraging students to get off medications in any way, subtly or overtly, is unethical. In my book, that is the opposite of yoga. In my book, that is malpractice.
When I was three years old, I broke my leg. It is one of my earliest memories, and I can conjure the sensory experience of it even now just as clear as day. Trying to keep up with some older kids in the play area of Buster Brown shoe store at Northgate Mall, I leapt off a platform and ended up fracturing my right femur. When I first hit the ground, I didn’t feel any pain, just the room spinning all around me. The second thing I recall was intense embarrassment, not only for having wiped out in front of the older, cooler kids, but at the fact that my mom was taking my pants off in front of everyone. It was clear that something was VERY wrong with my leg.
It wasn’t until she had gotten my brother and me into the car to go to the doctor that I remember the pain finally setting in. And it was awful, unrelenting in a way that my three-year-old brain did not have words for. As my mother sped to the pediatrician, I laid out supine on the backseat with my brother crouched in the floorboard below holding my hand. I know that kind of thing isn’t done in these days of seat-belt laws, but I think I would have lost consciousness without it and am very grateful. (It was the right thing to do, Mom. And thank you, Douglas!)
Once we arrived at the doc, I was immediately taken to the examining room. By this point the pain was unbearable, and I begged my mother to keep her hand placed firmly on my leg right where the break was. I know that must have scared her to death since applying any sort of pressure, even the lightest touch to a broken bone sounds pretty horrifying. But I desperately NEEDED her to touch it. And once she did, I swanee the pain disappeared! (For the non-southern folk reading this, “I swanee” means “I swear.” Use it in good health, and you’re welcome!) Of course the moment she removed her hand, the pain flooded back in to the point of overwhelm, but while my mother’s hand was on my leg, I was ok.
Now, I am pretty skeptical about many things related to healing. Unlike lots of my colleagues, I am a big fan of western medicine (although I also know that it has many shortcomings), so my first reaction to hearing someone say that a person’s touch made their pain disappear is suspicion. But hand to heart, my mother’s touch on my broken little body felt like a miracle. It felt safe; it felt grounding; it felt like the only thing keeping me from being swept away. It was the most precious, purest form of touch I can think of.
When I first started writing this blog post about touch, I was thinking specifically about how as a yoga teacher, I engage in the physical contact of touching students with hands on adjustments and corrections. But practically as soon as I wrote the word “touch,” the memory of my mother’s hand on my broken leg came pouring out. And here I was all prepared to go in a completely different direction! I was going to talk about instances of hands on adjustments going too far, about how touch can so easily cross the boundary into injury. But instead a story about my mother wanted to be set free. So I will save that other post for another day and try to figure out instead what exactly my memory wanted to show me.
The main thing I can tell from my own story that speaks to touch in yoga is that touch is extremely powerful, and it would be foolish to ignore just how powerful it is. And like anything with great power, it deserves serious consideration before being administered.
Do you remember learning about interrogative words in grammar? Well, I think as yoga teachers we need the interrogative Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How of placing our hands on students. Who are the students in front of us, and is touch even appropriate for them? What exactly are we observing in their practice, and is it possible we are projecting something that isn’t there? When is the right time for them to receive a correction, and when is it better just to let them be? Where are we in our understanding of one another as teacher and student? Why does this student need hands on correction rather than something else in the first place? How can we as teachers best meet our students’ individual needs? And if we can’t answer any of these questions (which is actually ok!), we need to follow another basic grammar rule (this one is about commas): when in doubt, leave it out.
When my mother touched my leg, it was the closest I might ever know of sacred touch. I know I cannot do that for my students, nor would I ever try. They are not my children, not mine to protect from the dangerous world. But I can still approach touch with the respect, inquiry, and consideration that such a powerful tool calls for. In my previous post, I went on and on about why words matter. Well, the recollection of my broken leg reminded me that touch matters just as much, and it can leave a lasting, permanent mark. Lucky for me (and I know that many are not so lucky), that mark is a beautiful one. I will never, ever forget its power. Thank you mom, for such an amazing gift, which I am sure you didn’t even know you were giving. It is everything.
Words matter. They matter so darn much. They are the stuff of poetry and love songs and lullabies, but they can also be so destructive that it will knock your socks off (even those weird yoga socks with the sticky pads and individual toe slots).
One of the things that really gets to me about yoga is how careless we yoga teachers can be with our words. We simply do not hold ourselves accountable to the degree that we ought to, and we do not give full weight (if any) to the negative outcomes that our words can generate.
I’m sure it isn’t news to anyone that words can be destructive. Almost certainly, every person reading this post has been on both the giving and receiving ends of words that have injured, fallen short, deceived, or worse. We are human, and that is what we do. But when we are teaching (any subject really, not just yoga), the impact of our words is magnified. Consequently, the attention and care we should give to our words needs to be magnified as well. Unfortunately, this is often not the case in yoga settings.
About a year ago, I took a hot yoga class at a local studio. Not gonna lie, I’m no fan of hot yoga, but it was the only class that fit with my schedule that day, so I went. I had been feeling stressed out, lethargic, and just generally down, but the class was actually helping me feel so much better. At one point during it, I closed my eyes, savoring a much needed moment of internal calm. At that exact moment (which I am sure was no coincidence), the teacher instructed everyone in the class to open their eyes, saying that losing the focus of the eyes rendered the practice “self-indulgent” (of course she used the sanskrit term drishti instead of “focus” to make her statement sound like it bore some real yogic gravitas). Are you kidding me? Self-indulgent? You mean kind of like spending thirty bucks on a yoga class in the first place? Get real. But it stuck with me. And in me. Even now there are times during classes when I close my eyes and hear that critical voice; Best not enjoy the moment, Lauren, lest you become self-indulgent!
Now, in the grander scheme of things, is this a big deal? Not really. I mean, I know that what the teacher said was crap, and the fact that it still enters my consciousness probably says more about my own fear of being judged than it does about her. But this kind of thing happens in yoga classes ALL the time. Teachers feel compelled to put some sort of moralistic spin on whatever they are trying to get their students to do. She wanted our eyes open because that is what she thought we ought to be doing. She used the term self-indulgent because…actually I don’t know why she did; I don’t live inside her brain. But I can assure you, it sucked.
Fear is another moralistic term that gets thrown around far too casually by yoga teachers. As in, “Fear is the only thing holding you back from (insert yoga pose here).” This is much more dangerous territory than the land of mere “self-indulgence.” This is where you can do some real physical damage. I interpret this type of fear-infused language as a weird type of yoga bullying, about one millimeter away from calling someone a scaredy-cat. It gives me mental images of a teacher in yoga pants chanting I triple-dog-dare ya! to a class full of contrite students. It’s not a pretty picture.
The truth is that as teachers, we have no idea what is keeping our students from doing something, especially in a group setting. What we label as “fear” might be something else entirely, like, I don’t know, a medical condition say? And even if it is fear, who are we to tell them to ignore it or even to conquer it? Explore it maybe, but what if that fear is trying to tell them something that they aren’t ready for at that moment? Or what if just getting up out of bed that morning and making it to class took tremendous courage, and they arrive only to be met with a teacher admonishing them for being too fearful (or self-indulgent)? What if in that group of students you are teaching, there is someone with PTSD, depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, in an abusive relationship, just got a cancer diagnosis, just lost someone to cancer, and on and on and on? I can guarantee that it won’t do any of them any good to be told that fear is the only thing holding them back, and chances are high that it will actually cause them harm.
Often, I think that we yoga teachers say stupid stuff because we don’t know what else to say, and silence in our own classes scares the bejeezus out of us. Sure, we may give silence a lot of lip service, but take away the Krishna Das in the background masking every moment we aren’t speaking, and you will find a lot of teachers (and students) freaking out. Words matter. And so does silence. It is absolutely crucial that the words we speak be chosen with care. And in the moments we don’t know what to say, silence will suffice.