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!
When I first started doing Ashtanga, in 1997, I was in, perhaps, the worst shape of my life. I had just given birth to my third child a few months earlier, and had struggled with the physical and emotional changes from all three of my pregnancies. Laziness and inertia had truly set in after years of carrying children and steadily gaining weight. The way I liked to recharge myself was by watching a French film on DVD from Blockbuster on Sunday nights, along with a glass of wine or two, after everyone had gone to bed (admittedly, I still enjoy doing this occasionally!)
Although it’s an accepted truth today, the idea that doing yoga could make me both healthier and happier if I just did it consistently was something that no one wrote or talked about at the time.
When I finally found Ashtanga, after a brief exposure to hatha Yoga in the early ’90’s, it’s beauty and depth (and the intellectual and physical rigor needed to practice it) appealed to me like nothing had before. I was hooked from the first class, but did not become a “daily” practitioner for many years. My path to daily practice - and more importantly, the renewed health and vitality it gave me - wasn’t a steady and straight path. In the first years, I would take off weeks due to demands of family life. Nor did I learn Ashtanga in a Mysore style setting, but only attended Led style classes, as the lovely studio where I took my first Ashtanga classes didn’t offer Mysore style practice*, and I didn’t know how to practice on my own at home.
(In retrospect, my practice took much longer to evolve and grow, compared to students who practiced more consistently and also those I met later who learned via Mysore style. Seeing my own students today, most of whom are learning the practice in a Mysore style setting, I now know that those who practice more consistently AND do Mysore style practice generally go further in - and get more out of - their practice than those who only practice once or twice a week in led style classes.)
It was only when I began studying with Nancy Gilgoff and learned that practice need not be a 90 minute led class, but rather, that you could practice 6 days a week by setting aside as little as 15 minutes (if that is all you had time for) to practice sun salutes, the last three padmasanas, then take rest - and that those 15 minutes counted as a daily practice! Only then did I begin to have a consistent, true Ashtanga practice, because I could do 15 minutes on the days I couldn’t get to led class. And, those 15 minutes soon turned into longer and longer self-practices.
After just a couple of months of daily practice, I noticed a few things:
First, what was once a demanding practice actually became easier for me, both physically and mentally, even though at first I felt I didn’t have time to do it every day. Admittedly, I wasn’t doing 90 minutes of asana every day, but I was doing at least 30-45 minutes, 6 days a week (with Moons and Menses off, natch). What was important was that it was consistent, mindful and wise practice. I wasn’t as sore or depleted as I had been when I practiced only sporadically, i.e. my former method of once or twice a week for 90 minutes of “kick-asana”-style practice that would leave me wrung out and depleted - and usually feeling discouraged, too.
Second, I felt that consistent practice made me better able to handle the ups and downs of daily living and family life. To be frank, I was, simply, a nicer person (and a better Mom and partner - just ask my family for proof of this) when I practiced more regularly. I was more patient, less irritable, more cheerful and energized, and therefore better able to sweat the small stuff - and a little better able to handle the big stuff, too.
And, third, it was only then that I finally began to do yoga.
Ashtanga practice had become something more to me than merely a means to stay fit or reduce stress. It had become sadhana. When you roll out a mat consistently several times each week, doing the same series of postures again and again, breathing and moving mindfully every day, you begin to notice a few things about who you are, what you struggle with, and what your monkey mind tends to turn towards (generally, quite negatively) like a broken record or some bad pop song looping in your head. This noticing is enhanced when your practice, your sadhana, is quiet: with Ashtanga, it's just you breathing and moving and following the same sequence every day (with effort and kindness in equal measure, egolessly) and, importantly, with little to no distractions to anesthetize you. There is no music blasting, nor is there a teacher shouting at you or telling you constantly what to do. Rather, it’s just the inhale and exhale guiding you into and out of postures that are attempted earnestly and sincerely, but without pushing yourself to injury or despair. (And, when you practice in a Mysore setting, with folks nearby working earnestly themselves, with a teacher there to support you when you need him or her, and the room filled with the sound of the breath, well, that's even better. As AYN teacher Georgiann Kristek likes to say, "How lucky are we?!")
I’ve never experienced anything else quite like it. After almost 18 years of doing Ashtanga, I am grateful that it’s lessons and gifts keep coming, and hope they will for a long time.
Sometimes students ask me, “Why do you think this works?” I usually say in response, “I don’t know, but it does work. Just keep practicing, even when - especially when - it gets difficult.” Sometimes, I read them this lovely quote by the Australian Ashtanga teacher Dena Kingsburg (one of Pattabhi Jois’ most advanced students) from the book Guruji by Guy Donahaye and Eddie Stern. It is the best metaphor I've ever read of the Ashtanga practice and explains better than I ever could why the practice works:
“The practice is a purification process, a therapy to make us well. From this state of being well, other things unfold....the rhythmic repetition of movement becomes familiar and soothing, and the mind slips away into the space between thought. I think of it like this: Perception is a window. This window has been marked with the passing of time. Impressions are left upon it by our conditioning...by life’s experiences...damaged by disappointment, trauma and loss, clouded by uncertainly and confusion. I see the practice as the process of cleaning the window. Each day we dip the sponge into the bucket and wipe it across the surface. After some time, the change is apparent. A clear opening arises where it was clouded before, and this unclouded vision brings more light and clarity. It’s enough to keep you dipping. Sometimes there are marks on the glass that are difficult to remove and sometimes there are areas in the practice that are difficult and it seems that we will never be able to pass beyond them. Repetition is the key. We go back to the same place over and over without expectation or judgment ...until eventually catharsis,either subtle or dramatic, occurs as some stubborn or trapped part of us breaks free....Days, weeks, months, years pass, and slowly the mind settles and the window of perception clears.”
*(In fact, AYN is still one of only two Mysore style Ashtanga shalas in Western Mass, and Mysore style teaching, which teaches students how to practice on their own, is rarely available outside of big cities even today.)
I'm going to get personal here, inspired in part by my good friend Maria's most recent blogpost on her excellent Ashtanga-centric blog, Serene Flavorful. She was inspired by another blogger who wrote about body dysmorphia.
If you've never taken Mysore class, it's really kind of hard to describe, and a picture (or a grainy video) is worth a thousand words. Yesterday, I filmed the Mysore class for a few minutes, with the plan to share a minute or so on the studio's Facebook page. Watching afterwards, however, I didn't see the class or the students. I couldn't help but notice myself, especially, my belly, and my stiff way of walking about the room. I cringed and thought immediately, "Ugh, I can't post this: I look old and fat."
My stiffness was the result of slipping and falling hard during a hike the day before, and it will pass. But, my belly has always been, shall we say, rounded, even as a young child - and this roundness worsened after carrying three big babies. Pregnancy gave me diastatis recti, a splitting of the linear connective tissue between the "six pack" or (rectus abdominis) muscles. Essentially, there is a long weakness and in some places an actual tear in the connective tissue, from my pubic bone to above my navel. Because it's always been weak, even as a child, my gut tends to hang out. Practice and the integration of uddhiyana bandha has helped immensely in knitting up the damage from pregnancy for the most part, but I will never have a flat stomach, even if I starved myself and worked on my abs for hours every day.
I've tried that form of suffering and, frankly, it sucks, and it's not ahimsa.
My Father liked to call me "Stick Legs" or "Shelly Belly" because I looked kind of like a candy apple as a little girl. Now, I am not blaming my Father for my personal self-image issues, but certainly, those names didn't help. Growing up in our rock-hard-abs-buns-of-steel-obsessed culture didn't help either. Looking at the video, I notice a couple of things: the skinny legs and big belly of my childhood exist in my adult form, too. But, in general, I am healthy, strong and feel great. My bodily form looks as it does because it's what genetics gave me, and 18 years of Ashtanga practice have not changed it very much. My form ultimately will dissolve completely, along with everyone else's, including those considered by our culture to possess the form of a "lithe yoga goddess".
What's the answer to all this disfunction?
Perhaps remembering that my temporary form has nothing to do with what I am in a permanent sense, and also that future suffering can be avoided (in this case, being saddened by how I perceive myself, and also, afraid of my form being judged harshly by others.) There's where the advice "Practice and all is coming" should be taken to heart, as practice (and non-attachment) is the best way I've found of becoming more conscious of being caught up in my inherent doubts, judgments and self-delusions. Only when I become aware of them do I have a chance of wiping them away, as the invocation exhorts us to do, "...Pacifying delusion, the poison of conditioned existence."
Meanwhile, I also noticed a few other things about the video: every person in the room has their own completely unique body type. (In fact, spend some time in a variety of Ashtanga rooms around the world, and you will see that the practice is for everyone and done by everyone, of all ages, shapes and sizes.) The students are generally so intent on doing their practice, they don't seem to be caught up in how they "look," but are just trying to breath and move to the best of their abilities. I'm not thinking at all about what I "look" like, either: I'm teaching. We are all present, breathing and moving, in these few moments. It's only after I looked at the video that I judged myself.
Maybe another answer to body dysmorphia is to stop taking (yoga) selfies and posting them on the internet, when the intent is to get attention or admiration. Because, how does it feel when we don't get the response we were seeking? Future suffering can be avoided, indeed.
In any event, in the interests of full disclosure, and to face my fears and self judgment, I'm posting a quick clip of our Mysore room working peacefully and quietly together. Enjoy.
On heat and practice...
I recently read a great Facebook posting by certified Ashtanga Teacher and author Gregor Maehle on the subject of heat in the Ashtanga room during practice. While I find the preference of a hot vs. cool room depends on one's constitution (i.e. whether or not your primary dosha is Vata, Pitta, or Kapha) in general, keeping the room at around 80 degrees F in New England seems to work best for most of our practitioners. But, Gregor gives some great insights on heat in the shala, and also, why it may not be necessary to keep the windows shut, too. Read on...
"I keep receiving questions regarding whether it’s important or good to heat the yoga shala and whether this aids in detoxing. I also hear people reasoning that the shala should be heated to emulate the heat of the gangetic plains in India, which is supposed to be the native environment of yogis. Now during the 1980 and 90’s I travelled extensively through the gangetic plains but I must say that I found them surprisingly bereft of yogis. On the other hand if you went up into the freezing Himalayas you found that the yogis were stacked up to the rafters. Surprising, isn’t it!
Do you remember that even Krishnamacharya went up into the Himalayas to practice tummo, yoga of inner fire, while sitting on the ice? You can’t practice that down in the gangetic plains.
Nowadays Western yogis are really emphatic about keeping the windows of the yoga shala closed. I remember that neither KP Jois old shala in Lakshmipuram nor the Parakala Matt in Mysore where T Krishnamacharya taught ever had any windows. And I remember that in January at 4.30 AM I always froze in those drafty windowless rooms. And nobody offered to turn on any heaters because there weren’t any!
Now of course in many places in which people practice yoga today it gets much colder than in Southern India in winter, such as North America or middle and Northern Europe. In which case it makes sense to heat the room to room temperature, say around 20 to 23°C (68 to 74 °F). Everything above that would mean that if you practice vigorously, the bodies cooling mechanism (sweating) would fail, which can be noticed when the sweat starts to run off and forms puddles. People who practice in such a fashion usually age prematurely and if you look at them 10 years later they have a washed out and drained look to themselves because of all the prana they lost, by practicing too vigorously under too hot conditions.
Notice that the yogis were very concerned about loosing tejas (inner glow) and one of the ways of preventing that is to rub the sweat produced during pranayama back into the skin. This is a technique, however, that should only be used in the context of pranayama and not during asana, during which excessive sweating should be avoided. Hence, do not heat the room too much and if it’s warm outside keep the windows open. Many yogic texts (shastras) state that the shala should be well aired. Hope that helps, Gregor"