Monday, February 22, 2010

Re-learning Namaste

Have I mentioned how much I love teaching yoga to beginners? I have never experienced anything like it.

Tonight I had a woman walk up to the desk and ask for help in choosing her first yoga class. She looked at me and said, "I am 53 years old, and I've never done a single athletic thing in my life," and she asked me to tell her everything I could to get her prepared for this big step. And it is a big step. If I put myself in her shoes, I wonder if I'd have the guts. It's truly remarkable.

I want so much for that woman to return to the studio and take that first class. I gave her all the information I could manage in a short amount of time, but we were interrupted constantly and then I had to leave the conversation to teach my class. I hope she heard what I was saying. I also have to be careful not to scare people away with my enthusiasm. I believe so fervently that yoga is life-changing and empowering; I want beginners to give it a real chance. I want them to take classes regularly for at least two or three weeks before they decide how they feel about yoga. I want them to try different styles, different teachers, different times of day. It all matters. It all helps.

I also had several brand new beginners in my class tonight. This is actually somewhat rare; I teach beginner-level classes, but it's not often I have more than one or two people there who have never taken a single yoga class. It's a challenge, but it's more rewarding than I'd ever expected. I was humbled tonight as I looked around the room and saw every student giving 100% effort during a difficult pose. And, despite having to crane their necks to watch demonstrations, the new students persevered and did their best to keep up.

I'm a new teacher, and I'm nervous when I walk into the yoga room to teach a class. But I've been in yoga rooms hundreds and hundreds of times. My anxiety must be a fraction of a brand new student's anxiety. The courage evident in the class I taught tonight was inspiring, as was the trust the students placed in me. They were listening to every word I said and trying to follow each instruction perfectly.

At one point (remember: very new teacher!), I accidentally got them all turned backwards on their mats (it was easier than you'd think, but my cues for bridge pose obviously need some work!). I stood there for a moment, rather confused, and wondered who on earth gave me permission to teach these amazing people anything. But then I laughed, turned them around, and moved on. None of them seemed to notice or care, and, if they did, they hid their frustration.

It's become quite interesting for me, as an instructor, to say "Namaste" at the end of class. Namaste, a Sanskrit word, means, "the teacher (or light) in me honors the teacher (or light) in you." In this context, "teacher" does not mean yoga instructor. Each of us is a teacher, a light, in the world. At the end of yoga practice, the instructor says "Namaste" to the class, and the class says "Namaste" in return.

I've never taken the word "Namaste" lightly. I've always tried to infuse it with meaning when responding to my yoga teachers at the end of class. But never before have I meant it with such force. I want so much to honor my students, to share with them how much I respect their courage, their trust, their compassion - but, again, I don't want to scare them or make them uncomfortable. Instead, I put all of my thoughts into that one word--Namaste--and hope at least some small message is conveyed.

[Photo taken at Denver Botanic Gardens.]

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Getting Out of the Way

My yoga studio has become a regular part of nearly every day, and now, after several years, it feels like a second home to me.   A couple of years ago, I was scheduled to travel for work, and I had planned to get to the studio for an early morning class before I had to leave for the airport.  I almost didn't make it to the class in time, and I really needed my practice that day. 

I felt relief wash over me that morning when I walked through the studio's doors.  I know that sounds hokey, but that's how it felt.  Some kind of palpable freedom suddenly lightened me physically and improved my attitude and my energy.  Even before the class started, I felt like everything was going to be okay.

I don't mean to make it sound like yoga is some sort of addiction that requires a fix, or like it's a band-aid that instantly remedies the problems in your life.  But I often hear people describe their yoga mat as a safe place.  It's a place where you can let go of all expectations, including the expectations you personally have for the future (be it the immediate future or the distant one) and the expectations you think others have put on you.

My yoga practice was no different from anything else in my life when I first started practicing.  I wanted to be the best at it, better than anyone else in the room.  I frequently watched the other students and compared myself to them. I felt frustrated when I couldn't do a pose other people managed to do, and I wanted so badly to please my teacher that I injured myself multiple times by pushing myself into poses my body wasn't ready for.  I didn't understand how to have compassion for myself, and I wanted to push my body to the limit.

It has taken many years of practice, but I've finally learned how to focus on just my own mat during class.  I've accepted that the people around me are on their own journeys, and I must respect that and let it go.  Yoga is about non-judgment, and this means we shouldn't be overly critical of ourselves.  I've learned that what my body can do today might be quite different from what my body can do tomorrow.  Poses change from year to year, day to day, and moment to moment.  And, on any given day, one side of my body can feel markedly different from the other.  As I mature in my practice, I realize how much inner strength is required to take a pose down a notch when a modification is what the body really needs.

I still want to be the best yoga teacher I can be, but that sentiment doesn't stem from my competitive spirit.  It's much more about the students than it is about me.  If I work hard enough and stay focused and present when I teach, perhaps I'll help someone else out there begin to feel the freedom that comes with a dedicated practice.  Perhaps I'll help someone else choose to make space in his or her life for a practice that will help him/her be a better parent, or a better friend, or a better manager. 

When I practice yoga, I endeavor to let go of my thoughts and to focus only on my breath and the movement of my body.  Similarly, I think teaching yoga is about getting out of the way.  No part of it is about me.  My role is to do such a good job that my students can forget themselves for a little while.  My job is to get out of the way and let yoga do its thing.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Studying yoga philosophy, I've often encountered the idea of abundance. Yoga teaches that we should trust that we have enough and that we'll always have what we need. Yoga also teaches that we should practice non-attachment and greedlessness. Practicing greedlessness, or aparigraha, is an important part of step one of The Eight-Limbed Path.

Darren Main explains that, to feel greed, you must believe there is a lack or scarcity. If you believe you'll always have what you need, there is no reason to be selfish or attached. In fact, if you believe in abundance, you can cultivate selflessness. I love this idea. I want to cultivate selflessness, and I want to stop worrying that my family won't have what they need, or that we'll lose what we have, etc. Worrying benefits no one, and I feel ridiculous and guilty for worrying about such things when most of the people in this world have so much less than we do.

So I've chosen to incorporate a belief in abundance into my life. It's not easy, and I'll probably always struggle with it. I have to remind myself that I don't get to define what constitutes "enough." I just have to trust. I'm taking another look at what faith means to me. Undeniably, things like the earthquake in Haiti test my faith in this concept of abundance, and I won't pretend to fit what has happened there into some neat little tenet of yogic philosophy (were I to try, I'd be in way over my head, and I wouldn't be writing from an authentic place anyway). I am merely offering this idea of abundance to you in case you find something useful in it. Perhaps it will settle into your thoughts for awhile and then, later, take you by surprise, as it did me.

For a long time, when I thought about abundance and greed and non-attachment, I thought about stuff. (Consumerist culture-type stuff.) And I thought about money. (Happily, a belief in abundance makes it easier to give money away to those who need it more.) But, recently, I heard someone saying that we should also trust that we have an abundance of time. I can't remember who said it, or where I was when I heard it, but that doesn't matter. For me, trusting in such abundance would be nothing short of life-changing.

For as far back as I can remember, I've spent nearly every waking minute thinking about what's next. I want to fit as much into this one life as I possibly can, and, to achieve this, I've become the most scheduled person I know. My husband tells people I'm happiest when I'm busiest, and he doesn't understand how I can disagree. And, really, how can I disagree when all evidence says he's right? I set unreasonable goals for myself before each weekend has even begun, and then I close out my Sunday night feeling guilty that I didn't get to everything. I think the only time I'm truly present is when I'm practicing yoga.

Trusting that I have an abundance of time changes everything. Everything! I can't adequately describe the relief--the freedom--it brings. I don't have to jump from activity to activity. I don't feel so rushed. I still fight my old ways, of course, but I'm much more conscious of the decisions I make about how I spend my time. More than anything, I'm trying to stay in the present moment and appreciate it.

For several years, I've had a sticker hanging in my closet that says, "The meaning of life is to live it." I realize now that I didn't really understand it before, but I'm starting to figure it out.

(The above paraphrased quote by Darren Main is from his book, Yoga and the Path of the Urban Mystic, which I highly recommend.)

(Photo info: I took this photo a few years ago at a special exhibit at the Denver Botanic Gardens. This statue is called 12 Buddhas.)