I ran a yoga studio from 2009-2014 much like many folks run yoga studios nowadays: I held the lease, paid the rent and overhead, taught most of the classes to keep that overhead down, did most, if not all, of the administration, balanced the books, and basically was a control freak about all of it. Several other teachers taught on the roster, a few classes each, and I did my best to pay them fairly ($5 per student with no maximum, and $25 minimum even if no one showed up.) I ran the studio this way because this "single owner" studio model was the only model of yoga studio I was familiar with. I took most of the risk - and yes, I reaped most of the rewards.
Or, so I thought at the time. Thing is, after about 3 or 4 years of running a yoga studio this way, I found it wasn’t feeling rewarding, either spiritually or financially. In fact, I was burned out. I was spending more of my time marketing the studio, trying to sustain existing students, and gain new students, and less time doing the thing I loved, which was serving human beings through the act of teaching Mysore style Ashtanga Yoga.
The space itself was lovely, but the building was marginal and in a poor location. The last 18 months I taught there felt like walking through waist deep water. And, I was going through a profound change personally as well, which prompted me to finally listen to and follow my intuitive voice that was screaming at me: THIS ISN”T WORKING! NOT FOR YOU, NOT FOR THE STUDENTS.
And, so, I closed that studio and, inspired by Marie Kondo’s, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, divested myself of 99% of the props, mats, and years of accrued paraphernalia of the old studio. I sold it all, because I knew I never wanted to run a studio again - but I still wanted to teach, so I subleased in a holistic center that provided a nice open space and yoga props on Main Street in Northampton, and taught Mysore five mornings a week, with a couple of Led classes at night. I also separated from my husband of 20 years and moved with very few personal items into a small, simple, austere apartment. This was the first time in my entire life that I lived alone, and I loved it. I was happy, and it was this time away to regroup - not unlike returning to samasthithi - that helped save my marriage, in the long run..
A giant, cleansing wave of radical change had swept through my life, both personally and professionally, creating a fresh, clean slate from which I could start again.
Part of my daily practice included studying Sanskrit, chanting Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and studying other ancient texts - like the Gita and the Upanishads - in addition to my asana practice. I accredit the strenuous mental effort of that sadhana - and the resonances of Sanskrit within my body - with my own personal evolution of clarity and purpose. I began to look more and more at teaching as an act of service, as devotion to something greater than running a “yoga business” designed to personally support me and “make money.”
I believe sincerely and have experienced personally that sadhana/practice, when done reverently and consistently for a long time, without attachment to the results of the practice, becomes a catalyst for positive change. I knew that letting go of the results - letting go of the striving to achieve financial success, and simplifying what I offered by teaching as a form of devotion and service - helped create an alchemy within me that lead to greater self awareness, compassion, wisdom and clarity.
But, old habits die hard, and after a successful year and a half in the subleased space, with a growing student community and apprentices who desired to teach, I found that I was falling back into something I didn’t want to do: running a yoga studio.
So, I tried something radically different. Over the course of a weekend, at the suggestion of my friend and fellow teacher, Georgiann Kristek, I developed a model for a collective or cooperatively based yoga studio - one where all the teachers would share. This meant sharing not only the risks, but also the rewards. Sharing the space, sharing the props, sharing the students - no teacher, including myself, would say, “These are “my” students” - but rather, “This is OUR yoga community.”
Here’s how it works in its simplest form:
-Each teacher pays a portion of the rent based on the ratio of classes they teach.
-Each teacher collects 100% of the income from their classes. (Yup, you read that right.)
-Each teacher is responsible for one of the administrative duties required to run the studio.
-Business decisions (i.e. schedule changes, marketing expenditures, etc.) are made collectively and put to a vote democratically; consensus is the goal, but every teacher has veto power if they are strongly against something.
-Teachers are invested in the success of the studio community as a whole vs. in competition with each other.
-Teaching is an act of service to support and help the students develop as conscious human beings.
-Creating a strong, healthy and conscious yoga community is the main purpose of the studio.
These last two are especially important for this model to work. It is not a capitalist model, based on extracting all the resources from the environment - those resources being students. (Remember, students are NOT dollar signs walking through the door, but human beings.) The intent of this model is to serve, give and love one’s fellow human beings, to become more conscious and self-realized - which is the goal of yoga, after all - and to help the students find that freedom, too.
Here’s a simple, practical example:
A group of 4 teachers wish to share a practice space and create a yoga community together. They find a 1000 square foot space that is ideally located and affordable at $1000 a month. After outfitting the studio with props and decor, a cost shared equally between them, the group chooses teaching slots and divvy’s up the schedule in a fair way through consensus. They will have a total of 20 classes a week in the space - three classes a day, two on Saturday.
Each teacher takes on a portion of the administrative duties based on their time and talent - i.e.cleaning, beautification, doing the books and payroll, social media marketing, the email newsletters, managing the schedule, updating the website, creating and distributing print media, etc.
The group also chooses to sublease the space in off-hours to two groups: a dance group and a singing group, who rent 2 hour weekly class slots at $100/month - thus reducing the gross rent to a net $800.
Divide the net rent of $800 by the 20 weekly classes the cooperative teachers share, and the rent per weekly class per month is $40.
Each teacher pays $40/month for each of their weekly classes.
Teacher A - 8 classes a week, $320
Teacher B - 6 classes a week, $240
Teacher C - 4 classes a week, $160
Teacher D - 2 classes a week, $80
Plus two subleases = $200
And, the monthly rent of $1000 is covered.
(Now, this is a very simple example, but, you get the gist, I hope. We all pay some small additional money each month to the rent ratio to cover any marketing costs. For start up costs, we split to costs of outfitting the studio equally (this was the “buy in” to be part of the collective.)
This model is the model that AYN has been following since October of 2015, and it works for us - even through a move to a new location. And, it has not lead to feelings of being “burned out” - because all the teachers are invested in the success of the studio. It works for a variety of reasons:
-The teacher relationship is collegial and supportive, not competitive.
-We communicate with each other.
-We know and trust each other.
-We practice together.
-We share with one another.
-We are generous with each other.
-We have the same goal: that of creating a positive, healthy, supportive space for our students, to serve them and help them grow through yoga sadhana.
A rising tide lifts all boats.
In our modern capitalist, post-industrial world, sharing is seen as somehow weak, foolish, or ineffective. Especially here in the States, the belief is that an individual needs to “fight” for their “piece of the pie” - and that the pie is finite and apt to be gobbled up by more voracious, “stronger” competitors.
Turning around my own personal attitude about what success "means", my own beliefs about sharing and giving, into believing that “the pie” is not finite, but in fact, abundant and infinite, and making community and service the main goal of teaching yoga - serving, giving and loving fellow teachers and most especially, the students - makes all the difference and has helped create a successful, fulfilling and inspiring yoga community of kind, conscious students - and happy, fulfilled teachers, too.
I’m proud of what we’ve created and sustained through this means, and happy to share this with inspired, curious yoga teachers who want to work differently - those that are willing to try running a studio not based on the capitalist “resource extraction" model, but rather, aligned with service and devotion and community - the sharing economy. It feels good to share! Email if you want to learn more.
I walk into my studio most mornings each week, and the first thing I do after taking off my coat and shoes is to greet and honor a statue of the Hindu deity, Ganesha, that resides in the practice room - usually with a short Ganapati chant that I sing while lighting candles and incense. If I have time, I anoint him with fresh water or essential oil while ringing a small brass bell as I chant. He’s a massive, modern bronze representation of Ganesha - beautiful, elaborate and stylized. One of his four hands holds a bowl of prasad, another an axe, and the third a goad. His fourth, one of the right hands, is held forward in a gesture of beatitude, with an OM symbol in red on his palm. His eyes are gently lidded, head surrounded by a halo. He is impressive, calming, and holds the space of our little shala quite as gently and firmly as he holds the sacred symbols in his hands.
In Hinduism, the divine presence is everywhere and everything, and it is accessible through form. Hinduism uses anthropomorphized form, whether it be Shiva, Kali, Devi, or Deva, or Ganapati, to access the divine - and to understand our own true nature. For the divine presence is everywhere and everything, and is ready accessible through all forms. So, what does the story of this particular form - a deity with the body of a corpulent young man and the head of an elephant - mean on a sacred level?
He is arguably Hinduism’s most popular deity, known as “the remover of obstacles.” But, he also represents the obstacles, too. It’s important to honor our obstacles, because it is through engaging with them and resolving them - whether they be ignorance of our true nature, egotism, attachment, aversion or fear of death - that we learn and grow as fully functioning human beings.
On the occasions when students ask me about Ganesha, I begin by telling them that he’s “on loan” from Anna, one of our teachers, and, then if they indulge me, I like to share my favorite version of his origin story. (Now, this is just one of many origin stories about Ganesha, and I owe a debt of gratitude to the Indian authors Devdutt Pattanaik and Ramesh Menon for shaping my version of the myth.)
The story goes that once, Shiva, the primordial, ash-smeared, dreadlocked, ascetic, primordial yogi - and anthropomorphic manifestation of universal consciousness, or purusa - was preparing to leave his home in the Himalayas to immerse himself once more deep into tapasya. His consort, Parvati, the Devi, the feminine divine - who also happens to be prakriti, the prime material energy from which all matter is composed - knew that in order for the universe to find balance, Shiva must not withdraw, self-contained and alone unto himself, as is his wont, but rather, engage more fully with the world of form. So she followed him to the door of their home and said gently to him, “I would like us to have a child.”
Shiva, distracted as he prepared to leave, responded to Parvati dismissively, saying, “Why should we have a child? I have no need, nor desire for a child; I have no ancestors that must be honored, for I was never born. Nor do I need a child to take care of me in my dotage, for I will never grow old nor die: I am immortal.” So saying, he embraced Parvati, and with his ganas, the retinue of ghosts and goblins who attended and followed him constantly, left her to go and meditate deep in the Daruka Vana, an ancient deodar forest set upon the steep Himalayan mountainsides.
The Divine Goddess incarnated as the daughter of the Mountain King Himavan to become the consort of Shiva. He was her husband, her love, and she was utterly devoted to him - but she had incarnated specifically to induce him to engage in the world of form, and Parvati would not be turned from this goal. She silently watched him walk away down the mountain for a few moments, then turned indoors and called to her servants, “Prepare my bath.”
She entered the marbled bath chamber, and some of her attendants rushed to help her, removing her bright yellow silken sari, her gold ornaments, her jewels. Parvati’s smooth dark skin glowed in the soft light of the chamber, and, resplendent in her nakedness, with hair unbound, she stepped down into the steaming, sweet-smelling, flower-strewn hot water. Then, she took precious oils and golden turmeric and anointed her body, creating a thick paste that mixed with her sweat and her skin. Scraping this clay from her body, she molded it into the image of a young boy. Holding this moist clay form in both her palms, she breathed life into it.
The young adolescent boy that was born from her power was strong of limb, tall and beautiful of face - a face faintly reminiscent of Shiva’s own. Parvati named him, Vinayaka - “He who is born without Father.” Embracing one another, mother and son, they beheld each other joyfully in immediate understanding and love. After a time of peace and quietude together, Parvati handed the beautiful boy a study wooden staff, and said to Vinayaka, “Go to the door of our home, and stand guard there to protect me. Let no one - no matter who they are - come in.” Vinayaka bowed to his mother lovingly, touching her feet, and went resolutely and proudly to the door to guard his mother.
Of course, Shiva, who loved Parvati deeply for all his seeming indifference, eventually decided to return home from his meditations. Sending his ganas on ahead to announce him, he said, “Tell my beautiful wife to prepare for my homecoming.” They rushed back to the great palace perched on the crest of a mountaintop, and as they approached its door, saw standing before it a young boy, tall and silent, holding a staff in his hand.
“Move aside, boy, our Master returns,” they said.
Vinayaka smiled slightly at the haughty command of the ganas, but said nothing.
“Did you not hear us, boy? Move aside - or we will kill you!”
The boy replied quietly, “I will not move aside. And you cannot kill me.”
Incensed, the ganas leapt violently upon the boy with spears and swords, attacking as a group. Vinayaka calmly parried their blows with the staff, bloodying noses, smashing kneecaps and cracking their skulls expertly and swiftly, making the hideous, deformed ganas wail in pain and surprise. Defeated, they beat a hasty retreat down the mountain, where they met Shiva on his way, and told him,
“Master, there is a warrior at the door. We have never seen him before, and we told him to move aside, but he would not. We attacked him and he was easily able to stop us - look at the injuries he has given us!” Shiva, annoyed, said nothing, but strode quickly to the door of his home, where he saw the beautiful youth standing calmly at attention. Seeing he was young, he turned to the ganas and said, “Lazy fools, this is just a boy! How could you, my ganas, be frightened of him - or defeated by him?”
The ganas hung their heads, shamed at disappointing Shiva. But, the bravest of the ganas said, “Master, he is much more than he seems.”
“We shall see,” said Shiva, and he walked up boldly to Vinayaka.
“Boy, step aside. Let me through. You cannot stop me.”
Vinayaka said quietly but firmly, “You may not pass. Please do not try.”
Shiva, who was generally quite difficult to provoke, found himself filled with rage at this young boy who defied him so calmly. Without another word, he began to fight the boy, violently and expertly raining blows upon him with his trishula, his trident. But, he was surprised - and a little impressed - to see that even with all his skill as a warrior, he could not hurt the boy. In fact, the boy was his equal in prowess and skill. Vinayaka silently parried and defended himself from the Mahadeva, indefatigable and unbeatable, a gentle smile upon his face. Shiva laughed in delight at one point during their battle, impressed and amazed at the skill of the boy.
Seeing there was no way to defeat him, Shiva stepped back from the fight and returned to his ganas, who had been watching awed from afar during the battle. He said, “Go to Vishnu, and tell him that I need his help.”
Soon after, the great Hindu God Vishnu, the sustainer and preserver, arrived on the scene, and Shiva quickly apprised him of the situation. Vishnu, who is more worldly-wise than Shiva - and also not unwilling to resort to deceit to win battles - told Shiva,
“I will attack the boy, and distract him. When we are deep in our fight, strike his head off.”
And of course, this is exactly what happened, although it dawned on Vishnu, who was hard pressed to defend himself from the boy during the battle, that there was much more to the boy than met the eye - something surprising, uncanny and yet, familiar. But, dismissing this thought, Vishnu doubled his attack, then yelled to Shiva, “Now!”
Shiva strode up and with his trishula, he smashed the boy’s head to smithereens, destroying it. Blood spurted from the neck as the boy fell across the threshold of the palace, and Shiva, spattered with gore, stepped over the corpse and through the door triumphantly to where Parvati stood, looking pale and horrified. She rushed past him, looked down at the dead body of her son sprawled on the ground in front of the door, and screamed,
“My son, my son! You killed my son!”
She dropped to her knees, tore her clothes, beat her chest and pulled her hair from its bindings, wailing in rage and sorrow. Then, growing deadly quiet, she turned again to Shiva. Without a word, she changed before his eyes, from his demure and gentle wife, to the dreadful Kali - naked, huge and fearsome, eyes red and wide, hair unbound, maw open and tongue protruding, a necklace of demon’s heads around her neck, a scimitar in her hand.
He called to his ganas, who stood nearby in silent turmoil and fear at how badly things seemed to be going for their Master. “Quickly, go North, and ask the first living thing that you see for its head.” They rushed Northwards and came upon a beautiful, pure white bull elephant in his prime. Some say that this elephant was none other than Airavata, the mount of the God of the Sky, Indra. Others that he was one of the two elephants that waits upon the Goddess of Wealth and Abundance, Lakshmi (who, in some stories, ends up as Ganesh’s consort.) Regardless, the ganas approached the great elephant with their unusual request, and the elephant, knowing wisely who Shiva was and the importance of the request, complied.
Shiva took the elephant’s head, and placing it upon the corpse of the boy, breathed life into it once more. Kali calmed her rage, and became Parvati again as she saw life return to her son - and, too, as she saw that her consort, Shiva, was engaging with the world of form by becoming a father, as she had wished. The boy rose up whole, but much more than he had been before. His head filled with kindness, intelligence and wisdom, his body with strength, skill and fortitude, he was the child of both Parvati and Shiva now. Shiva embraced his son, sniffing the crown of his head affectionately, and said, “You shall be known as Ganapati, Lord of the Ganas” for, the incident had shown Shiva that the ganas, whose service to him he’d long been negligent of, had no Lord of their own, and their loyalty deserved acknowledgment. By giving them Ganesha to guide them, he acknowledged the ganas, and helped make them less needful. By engaging in the world of form by creating a child with Parvati, he brought balance to their marriage - and thus, metaphorically speaking, balance to the relationship of consciousness with the world of form.
Ganesha had been both an obstacle and the means of transformation of purpose, of engagement for Shiva, whose propensity was to be self-contained and disengaged from the world - from the Devi. Parvati had needed and asked for his help, yet he ignored her, indifferent to her needs. But, how can the needy ever learn to be self-contained if the self-contained do not engage with the needy?* Vinayaka was Parvati’s way of turning the tables on Shiva: as he would not engage with her on the level she desired, she created an obstacle that he could not surmount without admitting his own shortcomings, his own need. She changed the dynamic of their relationship, and Shiva became, ever afterwards, a householder God, with family and children - the only God in the Hindu pantheon who is portrayed in family portraits, along with Parvati, Ganesh, and their other son, Kartikeya.
Or so it is said.
*from Devdutt Pattanaik's Seven Secrets of Shiva
Love the quick profit, the annual raise, vacation with pay.
Want more of everything ready-made.
Be afraid to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery any more.
Your mind will be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something they will call you.
When they want you to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something that won't compute.
Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace the flag.
Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot understand.
Praise ignorance, for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium.
Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested when they have rotted into the mold. Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years.
Listen to carrion--put your ear close, and hear the faint chattering of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world.
Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable.
Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy a woman satisfied to bear a child? Will this disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head in her lap.
Swear allegiance to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it.
Leave it as a sign to mark a false trail, the way you didn't go.
Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
“Evil is everywhere, and anger and hatred are loud. The shouting drowns out the quiet; tragedy and disaster block the view of the good. Yet there are always signs of progress toward a better future. Look, or you may miss them.” - from the NY Times, December 2015
I meant to send this out last week. In fact, there’s a lot of times I want to reach out to you and share my thoughts, but I know you get a lot of emails, and I’d prefer not to add to the cacophony too often.
Still, what a year. From a personal perspective, it was one of change: my youngest child became a college freshman and my husband and I are embarking on the “empty nester” time of life. Ashtanga Yoga Northampton moved from being my sole responsibility to being cooperatively owned and run by all of its teachers. And, I finally traveled for the first time to India this past October - a dream of mine for over two decades.
Collectively, it was a year that brought the forefront some serious human-caused problems that have been brewing and plaguing our world for centuries, to name a few: unceasing global wars and unrest, ever-present global poverty and famine, the proliferation of ignorant terror attacks, the acceleration of senseless gun violence in our own country, the shame of our continued institutionalized racism, and of course, the destruction of so much of our planet and its ecosystems, that we seem to be on course for a mass extinction of countless species - perhaps even our own.
It’s hard not to get discouraged by the suffering and pain that are so prevalent on our little blue planet, by the suffering we experience as individuals and as a species. It certainly doesn’t help that much of our media and many American politicians seem insistent on fostering a culture of xenophobia that exacerbates this feeling of separation, isolation, discouragement and apathy.
Nevertheless, if you’re a “cup half full” kind of person, as I am, there were many things that happened in 2015 that give me hope, too, some of which are wonderfully outlined in this editorial in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/25/opinion/moments-of-grace-in-a-grim-year.html?_r=0
It’s worth reading.
And, because I’m an optimist, rather than get discouraged by this increasingly mad world, I am planning on doing more of the following in 2016 to help alleviate my own angst and helplessness, and perhaps shed a little light - in no particular order:
Changing the whole world is an impossible task. But, it is possible to start making positive changes within yourself to raise your own vibration, to increase your own sense of light and lightness. Doing yoga together is another small thing you can do - because it fosters community, it helps connect you with others, and it spreads goodwill and cheerfulness. Plus, studies show, the more people you come into contact with, the healthier you become. You raise your own vibration when you do yoga with us. You raise our vibration when you walk up those stairs and roll out a mat and breath with us. And, you raise the vibration of people you come into contact with after you practice, too. It’s a win-win-win, whenever you do your practice.
I believe it’s the small changes we make in ourselves that might lead us all towards the light, towards a better world, not only for our fellow human beings, but for all life on our planet. It begins at an individual level and can spread outward, like ripples in a pond.
Please join us at AYN in 2016 to practice yoga with us. We are here to support and serve you, to be your community of like-minded folks, and we look forward to practicing with you this year.
Happy New Year, from all of us at AYN,
Michelle, Georgiann, Meghan, Alicia, and Anna
I have been an armchair traveller to India almost as long as I can remember. Now, after many, many years of deferring the gratification, I’ll be traveling to India during the next month, on the Namarupa Yatra. This journey is the culmination of my decades-long, long-distance love affair with India, one entirely conducted through years of studying its literature, philosophies, language and history, both ancient and modern.
I’m not going to India to simply practice yoga (although I will be practicing Ashtanga yoga almost every day with a few of the best teachers in the world - and trekking in the Himalayas, too.) My journey will be a Yatra, or pilgrimage. I’ll be traveling thousands of miles to experience darshan of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, in a variety of temples and sacred places (darshan means source of spiritual renewal, both seeing and being seen by the deity). This intentional, respectful spiritual journey will bring me and my fellow travelers to many of the most highly charged and spiritual places in India - to a land where epic stories unfolded thousands of years ago. It is a place where experiencing the divine is thought to be more possible than anywhere else in the world.
Friends who have been to India before me have all said something along the lines of: “Forget all you think you know of it, don’t try to control what happens to you there, and be prepared to be deeply moved and changed by your trip.” I’m trying my best to follow their advice so that I can fully enjoy and integrate all that India has to teach me. I am as prepared as I will ever be, and very grateful to leave my classes in the hands of my capable and supportive colleagues at AYN - teachers who have generously offered their time to give me this gift of freedom. Our schedule will remain unchanged, so that you can continue your practice uninterruptedly while I'm gone.
I think this will be the longest time I will have taken off from teaching Ashtanga in almost 10 years, and I will miss all of you (not to mention, my family and my pets.) I'm grateful to feel everyone’s support as I realize this dream.
Please stop in to practice with me Sunday or Monday morning - I leave on Tuesday October 6. I’ll be back in the studio on Monday morning, November 2. Meanwhile, keep up with your practice, and continue to share your presence and energy with our teachers and the AYN community while I am away!
I'll see you soon.
This is a reposting of a blog essay I wrote back in March of 2013 on my old Florence Yoga Blog. I'm including it here because of a recent request by Angela Jamison of Ashtanga Yoga Ann Arbor to share my story once more. Since I have written this post, I have shared my story with many students and many teachers of the Ashtanga practice, warning them of the risks inherent in these devices for all women - but especially those who practice Ashtanga. The risk of a severe physical and mental toll on women who use Mirena - and I suspect, other IUD forms of birth control as well - far outweighs the benefits. My recommendation: steer clear of IUDs, no matter what your age.
I've loved the practice ever since my first led Half Primary class 16 years ago. I've struggled with it, loved it and at times, hated it, too - but I have stuck with the practice with little variation because I believe it's brilliant and it works for most humans - if you put the time and effort into it, that is. At one time, though, I literally was unable to do the practice, for about a year, because it hurt way too much.
In 2004, I was looking for an alternative form of birth control, and an IUD called the Mirena was suggested to me by my well-meaning ObGyn. Placed inside the uterus, good for five years, the Mirena is a very small plastic device shaped like a "T" and it's impregnated with a low dose of hormones, so that you don't get pregnant. "Brilliant", I thought, "hook me up!" So, the device was inserted into my body, and all seemed well. Sex with no muss, no fuss, and no worries!
I went to one of Nancy Gilgoff's adjustment clinics the following Summer, where she was teaching us Uddhiyana and Nauli Kriya. After demonstrating the how-to for us, she said, ominously, "If you have an IUD in, do NOT do Nauli Kriya. I'm not even certain you should do Uddhiyana Kriya, either." My ears perked up, and I raised my hand and said, "I have an IUD in." Both Nancy and Christine Hoar said, almost simultaneously, "You should have it removed."
My reaction was skepticism, "Yeah, well, sisters, I really, really am done having kids. So, the IUD is staying in." And, so it did.
In year two of the IUD, I stopped getting my periods, but also started noticing an increase in water weight. (Let's be frank: I was really bloated, all over.) I was practicing daily, rigorously, but not a bit of weight was coming off. Practice made me feel so depleted, I would compensate by eating too much. There also was a little bit of back pain now accompanying the lovely bloat, too. Nothing severe, but it was there.
In year three, I started noticing that I could barely move when I woke up in the morning. My back was becoming increasingly stiff, and practice was starting to become difficult. I was noticeably heavier. I had been practicing all of Primary and all of Second before the IUD, but at that point, even Sun Salutes were becoming difficult. And, I had to practice later in the day, vs. the mornings, because my back was just too stiff and painful early in the morning. After an afternoon practice, my back would feel better, and I would think, "Oh, Good, practice fixed it." But, then, I would wake up the next morning, wracked with pain and feeling like I was 80 years old. (I was 40 at the time.)
I went to a doctor, who could find nothing wrong, other than "muscle spasms." I attributed the worsening of the initial, tolerable back pain to lifting heavy furniture. The pain got so bad, I finally decided that it was the Ashtanga practice that was hurting me, so I stopped doing it completely, and thought I'd try some other form of Hatha yoga. For almost a year, I tried other styles. Yin Yoga. Good, but not great. Iyengar. Dull, with too much talking about "how" and not enough doing. Kripalu. Better, but, still not great. Svaroopa. No movement at all, really, and so, no pain, but then the pain would return. I even tried Anusara, which was not a fit.
None of these practices addressed my physical needs, and certainly, none of them addressed my mental and emotional ones, either. I was getting weaker and weaker, too. Chronic pain, if you have ever experienced it, is extremely debilitating. You just don't want to move at all. After this fruitless search, I decided that the Ashtanga system was the most sane and wise, and the only one that addressed improving strength along with flexibility, and, even if what I was doing wasn't the traditional, "pure" practice, it worked better than all the other forms I had tried.
So, I did an extremely modified Ashtanga practice on my own (really, a series modeled on the Ashtanga sequences - but, no Sun Salutes, no vinyasas, a modified Primary with no forward bending beyond 80 degrees. Some of the first part of Second series, too, nothing beyond camel, `although the twists of Second series and Parighasana were very therapeutic, so I added those at the end of my practice. Shoulderstand sequence, once I hauled myself up into it, felt good and restorative, too. And, I turned to Vipassana meditation, which really helped manage the pain. I started to really read and study the Sutras, and I focused on the other limbs of Ashtanga practice. With these tools, which were nothing like what I had once enjoyed in my "traditional" asana practice, but were actually deeper in many ways, I learned I could manage the pain. My desire to continue on the spiritual path I'd started years earlier was aided by the gentle movements of the highly modified practice, along with the more intense meditation that Vipassana provided.
I did this for a year or so. It worked. Then, I went to a really great bodyworker, who, in just a few sessions, alleviated a great deal of the pain in my low back, allowing the spasming muscles there to relax and release. I very slowly started to do more Suryanamaskar in my practice, lengthening out the sequence of Primary series if it felt good. As soon as I felt my back starting to weaken or go into spasm, I would stop, do a gentle closing, and facilitate the slow but steady return to my former strength and flexibility.
This really worked well. Pain management was easier, and while I still had a lot of pain in the mornings, I could do the practice.
Then, I had the IUD removed, in December of 2009.
Within a week of the device removal, the pain in my back was completely gone. Within a month of removal, my body shed over 20lbs of water weight. Within six months, I was doing all of Primary and most of Second once more. People who hadn't seen me in a few months didn't recognize me. I felt young again. It was a miracle!
No, it was the removal of the Mirena. I googled "Mirena back pain" after I had it removed, and was stunned by the sheer number of women who's experiences were similar to mine.
Subsequently, I've had female students who have complained of back pain in their practice, and it's always one of the first things I ask: "Do you have an IUD inserted?" Upon removal of the IUD, their back pain and bloating went away, too.
Food for thought, IUD users! I know, they are convenient, I know, they are an easy and thought-free means of contraception. But, ease and convenience are definitely not worth the pain. Take it from me.
There’s a saying, “A mile wide and an inch deep.” I heard this many years ago, and it struck me, because I realized it was something that I did all the time. Beside taking care of three children and a home, I was doing yoga, and taking horseback riding lessons. I loved to hike or take walks in nature. I spent an inordinate amount of time doing crafts like knitting, sewing or hooking rugs. I poured over cookbooks and spent a lot of time preparing great meals. I noodled around on the guitar. I was (and still am) a voracious reader. And I was doing a lot of painting, too, on commission. For my “down time” I’d watch too much TV and read fashion magazines. (This was before the Internet, so Facebook and Instagram weren’t around, but those also became distractions in their time.) While most of these things seem quite edifying, I was doing none of them with any sense of cultivating depth or understanding. Generally, most of these activities were all just surface, done for entertainment, to remain busy when I was bored.
Hearing the “Mile Wide” quote, it dawned on my that I had a desire to learn to do one thing really well in this lifetime, and that one thing was Ashtanga Yoga. Of all my activities, I knew that it was the best for my wellbeing in the long run. I loved how it made me feel, inside and out. I was intrigued by the centuries of knowledge that could be studied, and the states of being that could be experienced. I had a passion for it. But, I still struggled to find the time to practice. While I couldn’t and didn’t want to stop parenting and caring for my home (that was my first priority) I realized it was time to let some of my less edifying and less productive activities drop away, and make room for some depth in my life.
What I let go of:
I let go of anything that I could not devote conscientious attention to, and more importantly, I let go of anything that didn’t bring me joy.* (This is an adaptation of the KonMari method, from the recent book, The Lifechanging Magic of Tidying Up. A great book if you want to start learning how to declutter your home and your life - highly recommended!)
What I didn’t let go of:
Focusing more on these joy-bringing activities, in addition to my Ashtanga practice, has simplified and enriched my life considerably. I feel less stressed and hectic. My home is less cluttered with stuff. I have more time to do what I love: take care of my family, do my practice, hike, and teach Ashtanga Yoga to my wonderful students.
What can you let go of, to make more room in your life for what brings you joy?
*Granted, sometimes Ashtanga Yoga does not bring me “joy.” Sometimes it’s a slog, and sometimes its really uncomfortable, and sometimes it’s frustrating. But, I’ve found that there is joy in the effort of just doing the practice, even on the days when it doesn’t feel “good.” To sense that I have a deep understanding and connection to my breath, a relationship of awareness and acceptance of my body, and the ability to begin to see more clearly how to act compassionately and be fully human through this practice makes the less “joyful” times worth the effort to get beyond them. Because I always seem to get beyond them, even when practice seems awful!
You’ll often hear me saying to students as they leave, “Thanks for coming, it was good to see you - I’ll see you tomorrow.” Many times their response is filled with chagrin: “I have to (fill in the blank) tomorrow. But, I’ll be back on (choose a day in the near future.)”
You’re not a bad yogi if you can’t make it to class because work or family life get in the way. Practice should not be a duty, but should be done because you love it. It took me many years to work up to a 6 day a week practice. And, even after 18 years of doing Ashtanga, I continually have to make choices, and sacrifice the superficial, so that I can do the practice that I love - even if it’s just for 15 minutes of Suryanamaskar, 15 minutes of sitting meditation and rest.
Working full or part time, raising children, maintaining a strong, happy partnership, taking care of aging parents, going to school, taking care of pets, maintaining a clean and organized home inside and out, etc., etc. There’s a lot on our plates, and most of us don’t have a staff of nannies, gardeners and housecleaners at our disposal to give us the leisure time needed to practice. As modern householders, in a society that looks at yoga as a luxury, we all have huge demands on our time - so much so, that the idea of going to a yoga studio to practice for 60-90 minutes, six days a week can seem preposterous, selfish and frivolous.
So, I get it, six days a week is a hard recommendation to accept, and that’s why at AYN we ask that you practice a minimum of three days a week to join the Mysore program.
“Three days!?!” you might scoff, “I don’t even have one morning or evening to myself, let alone three!”
There’s some practical reasons we ask for this minimum of three days a week.
First, you will get less benefit and will not be able to learn the series if you arrive just once a week. We are creatures that learn best by repeating, and once a week just doesn’t hack it, frankly. Repetition a minimum of every other day - ideally, every day - makes learning and memorizing easier.
Second, your body will more quickly adapt to the rigors of the practice if you come to class more consistently. You will see your strength, stamina and flexibility increase at a far greater rate with three days of practice a week. With just once a week, you’re actually setting yourself up for an uphill battle, facing the same pain, tightness and depletion every seven days, vs. working towards a sustainable and sensible practice of doing fewer postures, more often.
Third, if you remember what you did in your practice yesterday, and do not need to be reeducated on it, you’ll become better at memorizing more and more chunks of practice going forward. PLUS, it makes it easier for the teacher to be available to all the students in the Mysore room if you come consistently - and remember consistently. I admit it, I find it frustrating when someone shows up just once a week and needs to be shown - again - what I taught them when I last saw them a week ago. Frustrated not for myself, because I love to teach and have learned patience, but frustrated for the students who come consistently and regularly and with dedication each day, but who will get short shrift because someone who is only dabbling in the practice shows up and needs most of my attention as a beginner. We are a community, and to support the community and our fellow students, serious Mysore practitioners should take responsibility to learn through regular and consistent practice.
So, that’s why starting with three days is our minimum requirement, and I feel it’s a reasonable one. Once three days is established, consider adding another day every six months or so, working over a few years to the six day a week practice.
While you may agree with the requirement and understand it, you may still feel you can’t practice three mornings a week, even though you love the practice. If that’s the case, just drop in to our Led Classes, and please do not feel guilty that you can't do more right now, because even once a week is a great start. Your life will open up some day, just as mine did, so that you can dedicate more time to it. Remember, practice should not be a duty, but should be done because you love it.
One thing you can do to help develop a more consistency is to begin to consider your practice as a spiritual or mindfulness practice vs. a fitness program. It becomes much easier to facilitate consistency and regularity when you begin to notice the deep inner connection to yourself that happens when you do your yoga practice. Sincere spiritual practice isn’t a leisure activity, something that can be done just one day each week while we avoid looking inwards the other six days. It’s a commitment to do what you can, every day, to become a more conscious, awake and loving human being.
(Next week, I'll offer some practical advice on how to sacrifice the superficial in your life so that you can find more time to do the practice you love.)
One consistent theme stressed by the teachers I’ve studied with is, “Be yourself when you teach.” It took me a long time to figure out what this really meant. When I first started teaching, I thought I understood, and promptly set the concept aside, because what was important to me when I began teaching Ashtanga 10 years ago was being “liked” by my students. Because if my students liked me, they would keep coming to my classes - and that would mean I was a “good” teacher.
In the very first class I ever taught, I was excited and scared, but hopeful, too. I was doing what I loved, and what I had trained to do for some time. I was subbing for a senior teacher in the studio, so I’m guessing a few were in the room weren’t happy to see that “their” teacher wasn’t holding the class as usual. I stood at the front of the dozen or so people, and began the Ashtanga invocation. In my nervousness, I forgot a few of the words. Two people abruptly rolled up their mats and walked out.
Not an encouraging start.
Just like becoming a seasoned Ashtanga practitioner, it takes years of hard work, self study and perseverance to become a seasoned teacher. It’s 99% practice, 1% theory all over again. So, taking a lesson from the rigors of practice, rather than being discouraged, I worked harder, and taught as much as possible, volunteering and teaching for free in schools, or to friends and family. I put my hours in, just as I had done when I rolled out my mat every day.
But, even so, that need to be “liked” over being “myself” stayed with me for a very long time.
This was a deeply ingrained behavior pattern, reaching way back into my childhood. I was a latch key kid with a lot of freedom, and when I wasn’t reading or doing chores, I would be running around the woods with the boys in my neighborhood. I was the only girl, and I developed what was at the time considered “masculine” behaviors. I was very confident of my athleticism and my intellect. I was a bit of a nerd in school, and would talk about science and literature. I refused to wear dresses. My parents, thankfully, did not try to make me more “feminine,” but my behavior perplexed my female peers. I remember once one of them said disparagingly to me, “You’re a girl, but you act like a boy.” The one “girls” birthday party I was invited to in grammar school was a social disaster; in my awkward attempts to fit in, I was shut out harshly by the queen bee, who took an instant and very hostile dislike to me, which swayed everyone else at the party to shun me as well. After a few minutes of hot shame, outrage and awkwardness, I walked home before the cake and ice cream were even served. Remember, this was nearly 40 years ago when gender roles were more strictly defined than today.
As a result, for a long time, I preferred the company of boys, who were familiar and more transparent in their behavior - and more egalitarian, in my experience - than girls.
After several misfires at befriending other girls in the way I had befriended boys, I changed tactics as a teenager. I’d hide my “boyish” nature, and adopt the other girl’s mannerisms and interests to fit in and be “liked” by her or her clique. At first, these girls would like me. But, eventually in my excitement at finding a new friend or group, and feeling accepted by them, I would let my guard down a bit, shed a bit of the persona, and show them my beautifully geeky, outspoken, overly enthusiastic self. In my fears of rejection and need for connection, I would come on too strong: rather than learning how to have a conversation or really listening to would-be friends, I would be nervous and excited, and start talking too much, too quickly, and be a bore in my enthusiasm for subjects like the Lord of the Rings, Arabian horses, 19th Century British writers, or, when I got older, Ashtanga Yoga. (FYI, Aspergers runs in my family.)
Time and time again, the pattern would repeat itself, well into my adulthood. The childhood socialization behaviors I’d developed with boys - pontification, geekiness, overconfidence - were a turn off for most when it came to making girlfriends. And the coping, conciliatory mechanisms I’d developed as an alternative in my early teens were ultimately unattractive, too. Clearly, I had trouble striking a balance. New girlfriends, exasperated by my vacillating neediness combined with my over-sharing and bombast, would become frustrated, then annoyed - and eventually drop me. Which, of course, crushed me.
(Those who have remained loyal over the years, and who compassionately look beyond my sometimes exasperating social skills are the most amazingly strong, beautiful and wonderful women I know. Thanks, dear friends, for seeing me.)
Meanwhile, remember that first Ashtanga class I taught? Well, after that less than auspicious start, it took me some time - let’s be honest, years - to get over my lack of confidence, and my sense of inadequacy. Those first years of teaching deepened my “like me, like me!” behavior. For example: I taught with music because a teacher in the studio who was popular with the students played music; then, because it was “not done” in Ashtanga (and I wanted to be considered a true “Ashtanga” teacher) I taught without music.* Sometimes I tried to be silly and make people laugh; or, sometimes, I’d try to be serious and quiet, because I’d observed those behaviors in successful teachers.
I tried a lot of methods and experiments and took on a lot of personae. It all felt false and filled me with panic, frankly - and eroded my confidence even more.
My lack of confidence wasn't helped when was told more than once, "You shouldn’t teach Ashtanga, because you haven't been to Mysore." The censure of those whom you reach out to in your community, and whom you hope to feel are your peers, is devastating. It felt exactly like I had been told not to sit at the cool kids’ table: a repetition of those crushing childhood ostracisms.
I didn’t become conscious of this self-destructive social behavior pattern (which did more to ultimately push people away from me and cause me suffering) until I had been practicing for several years. And it hasn’t been until I began teaching Mysore style Ashtanga yoga, and really learned how to be a more truly compassionate person, by pulling my own ego out of the equation, that my confidence in myself actually grew, both as a person of value, and as a teacher. When I began to truly listen to, see and serve my students - when I became what I call the “holder of the space” for their experience - only then was I able to let go of the need to be liked. Not just by my students, but by, well...anyone. This wasn’t a conscious choice, but simply arose out of the letting go of my own fears of rejection. I’m more able to feel equanimity in the face of being rejected, through the process of making myself vulnerable without ego. And, I’ve come to understand that most of us are operating from a place of fear - fear of rejection, fear of being judged, fear of being ostracized, fear of not being loved. Because I operated that way for a long time.
“Be kind, everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” (Plato)
So, now I understand what my teachers meant when they said you have to “be yourself” when you teach. You have to be your Self when you teach. Which is the True Self, beyond facades, beyond fear - always there and always loving. It feels like coming home.
“When one raises above I, me and mine, the Atman reveals Itself as the real Self.”
*Although I do still teach without music, because there are so few spaces in our modern world where silence is allowed to happen for a sustained period of time.
I've always been a practitioner who's goal was increased health and vitality (and, when I first started practicing, relief from pain, too, as I'd had a bad back since my early teens.) I've never been the type to seek the admiration of my peers for my asana prowess, but, still I was just as addicted to "getting" postures as anyone who does Ashtanga. I wanted to be strong and flexible, and I worked hard at my asana practice in the early years - too hard. I was always trying to "open my hips" and "deepen" my forward folds and back bends, under the mistaken belief that if I got my legs easily into lotus or my head to my knees in paschimottanasana, I'd have…arrived. Only then would I be happy and strong and really healthy. Only when I could "do" the postures correctly would the dis-ease I felt most of the time finally be eradicated.
I was trying to use the practice to "fix" myself.
Practicing in this way pushed my body beyond what was right for it, and it depleted and hurt me, even though my intention was to help my body. It was a form of blindness, and it took an illness to reveal to me that this approach was NOT holistic, but rather had been detrimental for me for many years. With my illness came the complete loss of ability to do asana - and a lot of sadness and grief over this loss. I had to let go of a lot of judgment towards myself, and also fear of being judged by my peers, and find a new way to do the practice so that it didn't harm me. My return to health came only after a patient year or so of using the Primary Series as a guide and teacher - and completely letting go of my old practice at the same time.
The biggest thing I discovered during that time of relearning was that the practices that felt the most therapeutic and joyful to me were those where my breathing was slow and deep, equal in both inhale and exhale, and steady throughout the entire practice - practices where the asana forms I made were secondary in importance to my breathing. My rule was "Breathing first, asana second."
("No futzing practices," as Nancy Gilgoff likes to call them. "Free Breathing with sound," was what Guruji would perhaps say. )
Equal, free breathing is referred to as sama vrtti in Sanskrit - and now, it’s what I seek every time I roll out my mat. The simple act of bringing your attention and focus mostly to your breath - really concentrating on that primarily, vs. striving trying to attain the pose - is the key to this no futzing, free breathing practice. To try it yourself, cultivate dharana (concentration) and become a Breath Detective. Listen to your breath when you do your practice. Feel it's rhythm in your body. Notice the qualities of your breath as you practice:
Pay attention to the breath first, refine the breath before refining the asana, and you will notice a beneficial shift, an easing, in your practice. You will feel less depleted, and very likely, the practice itself will feel more joyful, less stressful and I suspect, less uncomfortable and/or painful.
Your breath is the barometer, the gauge, the solace, the guiding light of your practice. If you have to change your physical form (i.e. modify the posture) to find sama vrtti, then change the form and modify the posture. There are no Ashtanga Police, thank goodness. In fact, abhor anyone who makes you feel bad if and when you do modify a posture because it is hurting you or you can't breathe. Let go of judgment (or fear of judgment) and breathe. When sama vrtti returns, let your mind rest in the steady feel and calming sound of your breath. If you wish, only then should you seek to go deeper into the pose. If that results in pain or a change in the breath, be content with where you are at that time and….just breathe.
Guruji also said, "The asana is correct when the mind is quiet." That's the goal, isn't it?
If you can’t sustain sama vrtti, then consider chanting silently as you practice. Japa helps, and you can chant whatever inspires you (e.g Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound; Om gam ganapataye namaha; Da Doo Run Run Run, Da Doo Run Run.) My personal sama vrtti chant is “lokahah samastaha” on the inhale and “sukhino bhavantu” on the exhale. (from the Mangala Mantra, "May all beings be free from suffering" - including me!) I make an effort to chant silently throughout the whole practice, especially during those times when things get more rigorous. Japa calms, refreshes, enlivens. It need not be spiritual, as long as it helps you keep the rhythm of your breath equal, steady and calming.
I guarantee, your practice will feel much better and you will enjoy yourself more if your primary focus is the breath vs. trying to get the posture in it's "classical" sense. Interestingly, after practicing patiently in this manner for some time, your body will shift and open, subtly but profoundly. Your practice will become more integrated and gain depth. As you become a Breath Detective and gain mastery over the breath, turn your attention next to the bandhas, the seals/locks, and the drsti, the gaze, as well. These are the "holy trinity" of Ashtanga practice, that bring peace and joy during the darkest of times. Happy Holidays and Happy Practicing!