How to do Advanced Yoga

10898161_892479392515_5440636756608798318_nToday, I may have met my soulmate from a previous life. I walked in the door and the man lit up when he saw me. He was leaning heavily on a cane in his right hand, but raised his left hand to wave me hello. He began walking toward me. It took him some time. When he finally arrived he looked me straight in the eye. “You look very pretty today.” he said. “Thanks so much!” I said cheerily, like the Yoga teacher I am for half of my day. “Is it cold out?” he asked, gesturing to my scarf. “Yes, and it’s supposed to be cold tonight.” I replied.  He smiled wide. “Too bad! I was planning to go dancing.” he joked. Being the flirt that he is, he asked if I was married. I said yes. “Tell your husband he is very lucky.” said the charmer. “I’m 96 years old. What do you do, and where are you from?” he asked. “I was born here in Austin,” I said. “And I teach Yoga. Gentle Yoga. To Seniors, in fact. It’s slow.” He laughed “It would have to be!” he replied. We parted ways and he wished me well, never ceasing to smile or make a genuine connection, albeit a flirtatious one. “There goes an advanced Yogi.” I thought.

It’s the first week of 2015 and Detox mania is abounding. Instagram-ing health food, Yoga poses, and Crossfit WODs has never been more popular than this, the first week of the New Year. I’ve noticed a lot of Yoga studios in my area publicizing their “Power” and “Advanced” level Yoga classes to draw in new students. This is in order to appeal to the workout crowd, who yearn to feel the burn as they attempt to transform in the new year. But every year around this time, I begin to wonder why there is such a desire for transformation, rather than self-acceptance. It seems to me that although we measure success in change and progress, is there not also great success in accepting what is?

I teach Advanced Yoga. We don’t do headstands or prone backbends. We often stay away from poses like Downward Facing Dog, or others that may cause strain to sensitive shoulders or arthritic wrists. Sometimes, we never stray far from a wall. Somedays, we never leave the chair. But there is a thread that runs through these classes I teach. I call this Advanced Yoga because it’s where I find my most advanced students. These are the students with grandchildren and one million true stories of heartbreak and unbearable suffering. They don’t wear mala beads or fancy Yoga clothes, and we hardly ever use sanskrit, but we breathe. They are profoundly grateful for the opportunity to move, and breathe, and be alive. Their goals aren’t to be able to do Scorpion pose or even Lotus. “I want to be able to get up from a chair” they’ll say. And the celebration that ensues when we accomplish that goal is nothing short of an ecstatic Kirtan. When we try new things, sometimes there is stumbling. The lack of balance in these classes usually causes laughter and self-depricating humor, rather than frustration. These are people that have been around long enough to know that balance is hard, and not to be fretted over, but worked on with diligence and a sustained sense of humor.

It’s no secret that one of the largest generations in American history is coming to the age of retirement. This, plus the instability of our health care system has created a great need for accessible solutions to ease minor pains and the symptoms of degenerative disease. What our current Yoga scene seems to celebrate is the antithesis of aging and disease. There is a rebellion, perhaps even a denial that aging, pain, and even emotional distress are inevitable in life. The practice of Yoga in the modern era has promoted the idea that these things can be conquered in some way. Through discipline, healthy eating, and meditating, we are told we can conquer the very essence of ourselves, the core of what makes us human. What my Senior students have taught me, is that not only is this a fallacy, it’s the wrong goal to have in the practice of life and Yoga. Anger, heartbreak, suffering, death, disease, pain-both physical and emotional, are steps on the journey to enlightenment. And that enlightenment does not come from a lifetime of Yoga poses or eating well. It can come from a long, thankless life in the workforce, or as a mother and grandmother. It can come from the death of a best friend, or many best friends. It can come from the many hospital visits, and health scares, and battle scars, and deep wounds that life leaves behind. In fact, the most Advanced Yogi I ever met was my husband’s 90 year old Grandmother, who was a Holocaust survivor, and who spent her life teaching tolerance and smiling at everyone she met. Trauma is just another Yoga pose. These experiences in life are not to be feared, conquered, or denied. What my Senior students understand is the transient quality of Yoga. They possess the knowledge that there is no arriving, that there is only constant movement and acceptance. What they understand better than most Yoga studios I’ve been to is a genuine sense of community, and looking out for your neighbor. They’ve given me more inspiration than every picture of “Yoga” I’ve ever seen, and they’ve given me a goal to aspire to. This is Yoga. This is who I want to be. When I teach Seniors, I know that I’m going to learn much more than I can teach.

A few of these classes are open level, and occasionally we’ll have a guest in attendance. These new students are sometimes younger, and more flexible, and it’s obvious they’ve taken several Yoga classes. They’ll flow through a Vinyasa practice in between our holding of poses. I encourage this. I want all of my students to have their own practice, one that is challenging and authentic to where they are. But recently, one of my Senior students asked me, “Is that what advanced Yoga looks like?” I shook my head. “No, you’re what advanced Yoga looks like.”

 

Americans Ruined Yoga? Nope. Wrong.

2c957f1e557a11e39aaf1288f5591eb6_8-3Recently Quartz published an article by Michelle Garcia titled “Americans Ruined Yoga for the Rest of the World”. The article poses some very important questions that many in the Yoga community have been asking recently. The Yoga scene in America is changing. Issues of Body Image, Sexism, Classism, Racism, and Injury have now made their way into a conversation about this seemingly peaceful practice. And I do agree that the conversation is necessary for the future of our industry. But Americans ruined Yoga? Nope. Wrong.

Now, I’m not typically one of those rootin’-tootin’, flag wavin’, “America-can-do-no-wrong” patriots. I enjoy questioning the status quo, and although I love my country, and my industry, I have written quite a bit on the problems I see with the current state of Yoga in this country, and I, like Ms. Garcia, have commented on how this may be doing a disservice to those who seek to practice. But Americans ruined Yoga? Saying that Americans have ruined Yoga is like saying that American bloggers have ruined journalism because of their love of clickbait titles. Controversial, hard statements like the title of this article cause people to click, share, and comment. And let’s be honest.   It’s the same driving force that the author states is all that is wrong with American Yoga. Ok, if you want to find blame for the lack of authenticity and humility in Yoga or journalism, that’s fair. Capitalism, commercialism, corporate gain, and the modern human’s lack of attention span can all be blamed for “sweaty” Yoga as well as clickbait journalism. I think we can agree that those attributes are not strictly American. If they are, can we also add revolutionary, inventive, and charitable to the list?  Because with 20 million Americans and growing now practicing Yoga, I think it’s safe to say that for every “blonde waif with a face scrubbed free of character”, there is at least one inventive, revolutionary American changing the face of Yoga as we speak.

Take J. Brown and Giaconda Parker, both Yoga teachers that the author uses to emphasize her argument. These are thoughtful, deliberate, independently talented Yoga teachers. J. Brown is especially thoughtful when it comes to questioning the modern world of Yoga. He’s been a major contributor to the conversation of authenticity in Yoga today. And what’s better? He’s an American. So is Giaconda Parker. Both are making the world a better place with their Yoga teaching. They have different styles. Ms. Parker teaches Vinyasa Flow here in my hometown of Austin, Texas. While Mr. Brown teaches more in line with my own passion; slow, accessible, anatomy-conscious Yoga. Most likely, both are responsible for new students falling in love with Yoga everyday. Both are active in the American Yoga scene. They aren’t the only ones. Some of the author’s main issues with Yoga today in America are being talked about in meetings, on blogs, in studios by people she didn’t mention. People like Leslie Kaminoff , Amy Matthews, Jill Miller, Ariana Rabinovitch, Katy Bowman, Carol Horton, and Brooke Thomas. These are just a few people having this conversation about Yoga and, as far as my google search would have me believe, they are American.

Let’s address the question about the roots of Yoga being lost in today’s American culture. Sure. That’s valid. Yes, Americans have adapted Yoga to fit their Christian/secular/skeptic needs. And yes, you could argue that the roots of Yoga and Yoga culture have been white-washed by the West. This is a common argument, and I won’t refute it. I will say, that there are Americans teaching today who are very devoted to keeping the sacred aspects of the practice intact. I know less of those people because that’s less my teaching style. But they are out there. Boy, are they out there. David Life and Sharon Gannon of Jivamukti Yoga are legit. As is my one of my first teachers, Will Duprey of Hathavidya Yoga. These are teachers who emphasize a meditation and Sadhana practice, and living the 8 limbs of Yoga in daily life. They are also American.

Here’s why this article is wrong: Coke, McDonalds, Ford, Apple, are all worldwide brands that started in America. Yoga is not a brand, (although some are trying to make it so), and it is not rooted in the American tradition. But it is quickly becoming a huge part of it. Future generations of Americans will have a clear understanding of the benefits of Yoga from their own parents, schools, and popular culture. And if you’re a person who endorses Yoga, you can see why this is exciting. Because what Americans are great at is making a good thing catch. Is it in need of reform? Some say yes. Should it return to it’s roots? Some others say yes. Should it be less commercial? Eh, where there is something to be gained, you will be hard-pressed to find someone who is not looking to capitalize on their skills, even if it’s only to pay rent on their studio. Money, body image, classism, these are all a part of the human experience, not just the American one. It would be narrow to state otherwise.

The great thing about Yoga is it addresses the negative aspects of the human experience. All types of Yoga: sweaty, restorative, power, traditional Hatha, gym Yoga, share a common core. What is central to all Yoga practices is breath, movement, and spiritual peace or transcendence. It matters not the degree of each of these employed by the teacher, or their country of origin. What matters is what the practitioner seeks. What matters is the intention. And when all else fails, Yoga still has a transformative effect. Even if it is a perceived negative one, each individual comes to the practice and exits with a more clear idea of what they do or don’t want for themselves. The amazing thing about Yoga in America is the many choices you have as a consumer. You don’t have to patronize a studio that does not align with your beliefs, or one that does not promote the peace you seek. You do not have to chant, you do not have to wear Lululemon, you do not have to be thin. As a consumer, you have a choice where your money goes. The market is flooded, and you, the consumer, are left with the luxury of choice. You identify your destination. You choose your path. Anything else would be un-American.

Giving Thanks to things that suck..

vintage-thanksgiving-farm-harvest-postcardThis week is Thanksgiving! Every American’s favorite time to eat, drink, and be merry. We gather to celebrate the peace and harmony that we imagine existed between English Settlers and Native Americans. But more than that, we gather with family and friends to celebrate the abundance in our lives, and to give thanks for all the good things we can be grateful for. Social Media encourages the sharing of gratitude. In November, Facebook is full of #30daysofgratitude posts. But what is gratitude? And why is there so much pressure to feel it?  This time of year, I’m reminded of the importance of not only being grateful for the abundance in my life, but also the lack. And while it may be important for me to be thankful for all that is good, I realize it’s the things that suck that really create a sense of gratitude within all of us.

Last week, it was cold here in Texas. Many people here aren’t fans of the cold weather. I love it. For me, it allows me to tap into my mindfulness, which leads eventually to gratitude. It’s the same reason I enjoy watching sad movies and Naked and Afraid. The conversation in my head goes like this:

My Ego:  BRRR. It’s friggin’ cold!

My Self:  Yes, but you have a jacket.

My Ego:  Stop being so positive!

My Self:  Just breathe, and enjoy the feel of the wind on your face, and the warmth of your bed. Today on this earth, others are not so lucky.

That damn Self of mine, always has the answer for everything. Always trying to remind me that so much is good. It’s not that I don’t have the right to complain. I always have the right to complain. It’s that I have the CHOICE not to complain, and that is entirely based on perspective.

Gratitude is all about perspective. As an anatomy geek, my view on perspective is that is it is just like having a healthy range of motion in the head and neck. With both, you should be able to look around. A lack of perspective in one direction or another is what robs us of the ability to see around us. And thus, lacking perspective, robs us of gratitude. If you are only able to see those with more money, or more “success”, you will lack proper perspective and feel constantly less than. Conversely, if you are only able to see those with less, you feel a false sense of “better than” and will see no need to grow.

It’s the sucky stuff in life that gives us focus, direction, and motivation to rise to a better place. But without perspective, life’s sucky moments just..suck. For instance, there’s a popular phrase for those in the first camp: “FML”. It’s a commonly used acronym in modern media culture. People who use the term “FML” in a non-joking manner should instead substitute the acronym “ILP”,  because they clearly lack perspective. If being served a skim latte instead of a soy latte causes you to cyber moan “FML”, “ILP” is a more accurate description of your plight. And that is a real plight. Because perspective is your right as a human being, and necessary to your health. You best get you some. Then there are the rest of us- the cheerleaders, the optimists, the deniers, who use terms like “Look on the bright side” when addressing the deep and complex concerns of others. This statement also lacks perspective because it attempts to simplify and even reject that which deserves time and acceptance. Optimists and pessimists both lack healthy perspective to some degree. With the pendulum swing of our moods, we all play both from time to time. But it is worth stating that a greater joy can arise from acknowledging the darkness in our lives. Particularly if it speaks to your present truth.

Giving thanks for health, togetherness, and abundance are popular only because we’ve acquired the perspective to know that there has been a time, or may be a time in the future, when we are not so fortunate. This is why people across many cultures offer a prayer of thanks before breaking bread. There is an awareness on our part that we are fortunate, and others may not be so. Some think Gratitude exists despite suffering. This is not so. Gratitude exists because of suffering. Joy happens the moment we accept our situation. Only then, can we truly move forward. “Thank God that that’s over.” We say. We reflect on our suffering in order to tap into the joy of the present moment. And it is the knowledge of suffering that bring us into a place of joy. Today I am ok. Today I am well. Today I am with family. Today, I am fed. Today, others are not. Today, I am here. Today, I am able to feel gratitude. And that is bad ass.

True abundance is nothing more than perspective. If you can look everywhere, all around, and SEE, you are really fortunate. So, don’t feel afraid to acknowledge all the things that suck this holiday season. No matter what the cheerleaders say. Because how will you know where you’re going if you can’t acknowledge where you are?  Next year, or tomorrow, or in an hour, or after one more breath, you might be better. You might be healed, or full, or wealthy. Or maybe, just maybe, you’ll really strike it rich and be able to see for the first time in your life.

Social Media, Yoga, and Conversation Starters

cd20b2dc557a11e3a7a90e7c491880f5_8-2Recently, J. Brown, a Yoga Teacher, blogger, and all around question-asker wrote an incredibly insightful blog post on the current state of Yoga. This one asked the question of whether or not we are actually creating community through our online interactions. I agree with most everything in the article. But upon reflection, I’ve realized that in a  somewhat twisted way, this last year, the internet has been my greatest Yoga Teacher.

A year ago my husband and I moved from New York City to Austin, Texas. After 7 years in New York City, I had collected a large network of Teachers, Therapists, Mentors, and Healers that I revered and looked up to. After moving to Austin, I felt automatically out of the loop. The Austin Yoga community is HUGE. In fact, there are more Yoga teachers in Austin per capita than in any where else in the nation. This is staggering. I felt like everywhere I looked, there was another Yoga teacher, or someone going through or starting a teacher training. I reached out to several studios to see if I could find a home similar to what I found in the Breathing Project in New York. Although there are many amazing Yoga studios in Austin, there is no Breathing Project. Because, woefully, for me, it is still in Manhattan…and I am in Texas. I yearned to continue my Anatomy Nerd studies. I longed to question the Yoga community at large and wondered about the deeper questions about where Yoga is headed. I felt overwhelmed by recommendations of which teachers or studios in my area might resonate with my feelings about Yoga. I’m happy to say I’ve found several peers and teachers in Austin who I admire. But in the search for a community, a home, and new teachers for me to trade ideas with, I found great comfort in the unlikeliest of places: Twitter and Facebook.

I joined Twitter in January of this year, and I now have 450 followers. What’s been most exciting is the abundance of Teachers who have ideas I hadn’t heard much about until I got my Twitter education. I studied for two years in New York City with masters of Yoga Anatomy Amy Matthews and Leslie Kaminoff. When I got to Austin, I missed my teachers terribly, and I’m not ashamed to admit that my favorite thing to do on Monday is to grab a cup of tea and watch the promotional videos they send to me via e-blast. I learn and re-learn from these videos. They excite me and reinvigorate me and challenge me to keep actively learning in my teaching. When I’m not going through anatomy books or old notes from workshops at the Breathing Project, I turn to my good friend Twitter, who tells me that J. Brown has put out a new thought provoking post on the future of Yoga. When I had an actual community in New York, all I knew of J. Brown was that he was the teacher of several of my peers, the brilliant teachers of Abyhasa Yoga in Brooklyn. Now, he is someone I look to to help me formulate the way I feel about my teaching. He’s become one of my virtual teachers. But Twitter told me about more than just one teacher. Twitter introduced me to Yoga Dork, and It’s All Yoga Baby , blogs that are asking some AMAZING questions about what Yoga is today. Twitter introduced me to Carol Horton, a brilliant PHD Yogi, who wrote one of the most thought-provoking pieces on the Ego of a Yoga teacher that really made me think. I’ve also found a hero in Matthew Remski, who is diving head-first into a very well informed conversation about Yoga Asana and injuries.  Facebook kept me in touch with SmarterBodies, who are anatomy nerd Yogi Trainers in NYC.  I’ve discovered new and intriguing people I look to for ideas and inspiration and others just who allow me to question my own beliefs. I’ve discovered the Yoga and Beyond, On Being, and Liberated Body Podcasts, as well as learned more about the work of Tom Myers, Jill Miller, and Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen. The internet this last year has definitely provided me with a sense of community. And I am lucky to be continuing my education through it. J. Brown is right. It’s not a substitute for the kind of real-interaction community. Especially because, as person who practices Therapeutic Yoga with my students, I feel that experiential anatomy and a hands-on approach are of the utmost. But when you are grieving the loss of a community that took you years to construct, the internet can give you a high-speed connection to more ideas and more people, and I do feel a genuine sense of connection because of it.

The internet is like the Force. It can be used for good or evil. I’ve found it can be a place where sparks turn to movements, and experiences turn to inspiration. It’s a place where you can stay connected to those you are apart from, and it tells you when and where you can next connect. It helps you get clear on your ideas, even when it pisses you off. The internet is not a person, but it is a meeting place to share ideas. It is not a teacher, but there are many teachers actively teaching through it. It is not a place to find community, except, sometimes, when you are out there all alone, you do.

So, I am incredibly grateful to the internet and the community and networks I have found there. I hope I get to meet everyone of the teachers Twitter introduced me to. In the meantime, if you’re one of them, please know I’m hanging on and growing from your every word. And my students and I are receiving the wisdom of your teaching. We are part of a new age of ever-changing ideas about where Yoga is headed, and I’m so beyond excited for the community this era has created. I am a part of a new lineage of teachers, where ideas are shared, controversial topics are discussed, and the everyman can be the Guru.