Friday, December 18, 2015

No Dogma

for Mimi

One of my favorite parts of my job as the manager of O2 Yoga/Cambridge is working with the Teacher Training Program.  My role is largely administrative -- sign here, approve this, yes, no, maybe so -- but it feels anything but rote.  I did the training myself back in 2012 and it changed my life in profound and ever-expanding ways, so I thoroughly enjoy sitting down with those thinking about taking that magical leap and enrolling. When we were in the process of recruiting for our fall training, one of our potential "TTs" who was also a studio regular, came to lean in the doorway of my office one afternoon with a question I think she thought would have a quick answer.  Her question was, "What's the spiritual component of the training?"

I could tell by the look on her face that she wanted the answer to be a sweeping, "We spend an entire day each weekend just talking about this -- you're in luck."  What my answer was, though, was, "There isn't one."  She looked at me oddly and furrowed her brow.  I had definitely confused her.  But I went on, undeterred by her body language.  "Our motto is 'Up Dogs, Down Dogs, No Dogma," I reminded her.  I explained to her that Mimi, the studio owner, was very clear on this point -- students who came to the studio would not be expected to prescribe to a specific set of values or be subjected to emotional suggestion or counseling.  Students were to be lead through a yoga class that was athletic in nature and focused on the safe execution of the postures and nothing more -- more or less.  "All of that said," I continued, "there is something spiritual that attracts people to yoga if they practice it long enough -- and there will certainly be conversations amongst those in your TT group -- but they'll be things that come up over lunch or during different class discussions." At no point will Mimi ask you to recite chapter & verse outside of the correct way to cue a posture safely -- there is nothing we can teach you about spirituality that you can't teach yourself.  You will have those conversations and they will be an important side effect of the training -- but is 'spirituality' on our syllabus?  It is not.

In fact, one of the main reasons why Mimi doesn't want her teachers to talk about the kinds of emotions locked in hips or long speeches about opening yourself up to the practice is "you're a yoga teacher, not a trained therapist or social worker."  If you touch a nerve or what you say results in an emotional outburst or response from students, you have to know how to handle that responsibly -- that's not something 200 hours of yoga teacher training allows time to prepare you for.  So what our teachers-in-training learn to do is sequence a class.  They learn how to say the Sanskrit words out loud.  They learn about anatomy related to modification and safety in postures.  They learn how to do hands on adjustments.  They learn how to stand up and teach.  That's plenty for 200 hours.  Plenty.

Yet, still, this studio, this training, this space allows so much room for spiritual conversations – for discussions of the intangible.  This physical practice is the gateway for something so much more than muscles, bones, sweat, and skin.  Those who are called to do a teacher training or have a daily or weekly practice will experience so much more than a change in the exterior of their bodies – their minds start to change.  There’s an openness inherent in the practice.  In a teacher training, you find yourself in conversation after conversation about what brought you to this decision, this leap of faith to learn this skill set.  You talk about your physical limitations and injuries you may have had or lessons you gleaned from routinely getting on your mat.  You’d be surprised how long you could be in a truly fascinating conversation about alignment in down dog – and how those conversations very nearly turn into true-life parables. 

This student and I talked about this for a long time -- twenty minutes, half an hour.  And by the time we parted ways, I could see that the reply she had first been disappointed in hearing turned out to be exactly what she wanted to hear.  And if you want to know all about it, she did enroll in our program and graduated last weekend, likely moving on to do our teaching internship program, probably eventually getting her own classes.  I asked her near the end of the training, "So did I oversell it?" And she grinned at me with a faraway look in her eyes.  "No, no you didn't," she said as she gave me a big hug.  

It's one of the things I love about O2 Yoga -- our motto, our "approach" to the spiritual side of yoga.  Many teachers and studios have different ideas about incorporating emotional triggers in their classes and there are lots of students who respond to that kind of teaching and love it.  As a student who also considers herself to be a spiritual person, I like O2's choice to focus on "moving with the breath" aspect of yoga, leaving the rest to me to decide.  If I wanted to look at my yoga practice as strictly for fitness purposes, I could do that.  If I wanted to look at my yoga practice as a moving meditation, I could do that, too.  Different people are attracted to yoga for different reasons.  I appreciate that we can all be in the same space taking the same class and being free to take from it what we want.  Mimi's motto essentially boils down to "be your own guru."

Recently, I was listening to my favorite podcast, You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes, and stumbled across an episode where Pete was interviewing Vikram Gandhi -- my eyes lit right up.  Back in 2012, the same year I did teacher training, Gandhi's documentary Kumare was being screened at the Boston Museum of Fine Art and I went to see it with a friend of mine who'd done the O2 training with me.  It had a profound impact on me, perhaps because of the 200-hour long experience I'd just had, but maybe also because it was an on-point examination of the importance of teachers.

For those of you who haven't seen it, the documentary is Gandhi's exploration in to the "truth" behind gurus.  Do they have mystical powers -- or aren't all the positive effects people experience with a guru's "help and guidance" really just things being manifested internally?  Gandhi decided to find out by turning himself into a "fake guru," with a costume and a backstory and a made up school of thought, complete with ritual -- and a name:  Kumare.  And then he went out in the world and cultivated a following.

Boy, did he ever!

Documentary audiences are in on the experiment from the beginning so it's interesting to watch Gandhi-as-Kumare blow his cover over and over and over again while his "followers" don't quite hear what he is saying.  And what he is saying is that he is no one -- just a man, a liar, a regular joe -- and that the power, the voice, the essence of being a guru is right there in the core of every single person's being.  They didn't need him or anyone else to tell them what to do or how to be or what was the right path or anything else.  All they needed to do was listen to their own heart, their own mind, their own body, their own soul.  That is all the guru any of them will ever need.

I highly recommend watching Kumare and then listening to Vikram Gandhi's You Made It Weird where they discuss the making of the movie, the motivation, and the multi-faceted response after the fact, both from Kumare's followers and those who have seen the film.  And -- spoiler -- at the end of the podcast, Pete convinces Vikram to lead a "blue light meditation" as Kumare and it is, wow, fantastic.  But before they get to that, they delve deeply into the impact of this tough life lesson Kumare's people learned -- if they were duped -- and what that all means.  I remember watching the film the first time and thinking, "This dude is a total sociopath."  I thought it was an elaborate maybe even mean-spirited prank that preyed on the emotionally vulnerable.  Watching it a second time, though, all I could see was how often Kumare told his people he was a just a man, no one any more special than any of them, they didn't need him, they only needed themselves.  

It made me think about O2's motto:  "Up Dogs, Down Dogs, No Dogma."  None of the teaching staff pretends to be a guru or will entertain that notion -- it's right there in black and white.  We are here to give you the tools, to teach you this practice, and the rest is up to you.  Some people are more comfortable letting someone else set the table and they merely sit down to enjoy a meal prepared by anyone but themselves -- some people like to do the hosting and the cooking.  Challenge yourself to meet in the metaphoric middle -- to be humble, to be thinking, to be present.  Those are all the ingredients you need to take ownership of your life, to learn, to grow.  It doesn't need to be more elaborate than that.

This has been a year where I've learned a great deal about myself, my ability to cope, my ability to thrive even in unpleasant or complicated circumstances.  My personal life took a completely new direction as a decade long relationship came to an end and with it, so ended the relationships I had with so many others.  Watch this house of cards tumble -- it's not so hard to make it fall.  But the thing that got me through it was the O2 community, it was time on my mat, it was time learning to be my own guru -- I didn't even know I was doing it until I woke up one day and discovered my life looked nothing like it did a year ago when I thought everything was just over.  I am so thankful to have discovered this studio, this yoga, this place where I could take the time to work out how I fit in here and be accepted and loved for being me.  Mimi and I had many conversations that started with me near tears and ending with me feeling uplifted and all she did was listen, share relatable stories, and give me a hug.  Transitions are just as important as the actual poses, to use a yoga metaphor, that's what this year has taught me.  And I was able to learn that by having a place to feel OK being vulnerable without judgment.  

O2 is home to me because it welcomes me as me, end of story.  The yoga is great, too, of course, wink wink.  So much more than a place where people practice yoga, this studio is a total credit to Mimi's vision, her passion, her respect for herself and others.  It's a haven for so many people of all different backgrounds and skill levels and ages.  There's no cookie cutter for our studio -- it's a place where you can be the shape you are and all that we ask in return is you follow the teacher's cues as he or she leads you through a series of postures -- what you dream about in savasana is totally up to you.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Accidental Astangi

Last night, I had to choose between seeing not one but TWO bands I really dig and doing the full Astanga Primary Series at the yoga studio I manage.  A year ago, this would have been a no brainer, no question -- the bands would certainly win.  But tonight, it was ninety minutes of rigorous yoga that won the day -- and not just any yoga, astanga yoga.  The old me would have run screaming in the opposite direction, happy to be doing anything but primary series.  I mean, it's really hard.  It's relentless and grueling and maybe even arguably monotonous.  The only time I'd ever really done Primary Series was during my teacher training back in '12 when we'd use the sequence as our touchstone for learning how to cue and adjust.  Astanga is the foundational practice at O2 Yoga where I did my training and, as Elliott likes to say, Astanga is like learning your musical scales -- it's classical music -- O2 Yoga is jazz.  But you have to learn the foundations before you can start to break them down and spin them into variations.  One of my TT highlights was at the end of the second weekend when I taught a partner successfully through the entire sequence.  What a rush!  It's a lot to memorize, it's a lot to do and I did it!  Wahoo!  But after we moved out of "Astangaland" in TT, I never looked back, leaving the joy of teaching primary series to dwindle into a spec in my rearview mirror.

So what changed.  Certainly not my tight calves that make all those forward folds so difficult for me.  Definitely not my lack of arm balancing skills.  In a non-Astanga class, these sorts of limitations were easy enough to find modifications or variations that worked for me in a way that didn't make me feel inadequate -- in fact, my limitations helped me learn how to work around them and still develop a strong practice.  Even so, I was never tempted to return to Astanga.

And then the one thing that would bring me back happened:  my friends started teaching it.

When the regular Astanga teacher went away for a couple of weeks, my friend and fellow TT Kristen volunteered to sub the class, but since she hadn't taught it since teacher training, she asked a couple of us if she could practice on us.  So I said OK.  I mean, Kristen's one of my favorite people and I wanted to be supportive, so it was easy to agree to her request, especially since it wasn't a real Astanga class -- just a practice class.  What I learned was that my own practice had grown by leaps and bounds since the last time I'd done the series -- I was shocked how little I hated it, to be perfectly honest.  So I went to one of the weeks Kristen taught it during the regular Astanga class time and left the class feeling better than I thought I would.

But even then I wasn't sold.

What happened next was a month or so later, another fellow TT and dear friend Rebecca made a special guest return to O2 (she has her own studio in Newburyport) to teach the dreaded Second Series (aka Intermediate Series).  I had only ever done Second Series once in my life and at the end, my only thought was, "I am terrible at yoga."  Second Series has a lot of backbends and foot behind the head and a host of other bizarre literal twists and turns -- not to mention seven headstands.  Seven!  I had practically vowed never to do Second Series again but when Rebecca came back to teach it, she said, "I'm teaching a class at O2 and you're thinking of not coming to it?"  Damn.  She had me there.  So I came to class and had a very similar experience to my return to Primary Series with Kristen:  this isn't as hard as I remember it.  I mean, it's hard, don't get me wrong, but I wasn't intimidated by it.  Its complexity wasn't overwhelming anymore.  This was something I could work on.

So after that, I set a goal for myself:  Do Astanga a minimum twice a month -- at least one Primary Series, one Second Series -- and I have stuck to it.  Not only have I stuck to it, I have learned to love it.  I still can't do all of the poses -- some of them I may never be able to do -- but none of that matters.  I have learned to modify, I have learned when to push myself and when to find compassion for myself, and I have learned that this Astanga business is fun!  That's right -- I said it's FUN!  Many of my friends and co-workers at the studio are still shocked how much I have gotten into Astanga over the last year -- and I get that.  But I also recognize the need for new challenges and having a regular Astanga routine has served as such for me.  It's given me a new perspective both on and off my mat -- it's given me new goals to achieve.  

It's funny to look back over my yoga path and see the trajectory:
1.  Be dragged to a yoga class by a friend, certain never to return again.
2.  OK, be dragged to one more class.
3.  Fine, one more.
4.  Wait, this teacher is really great!
5.  Buy yoga mat from Target for $12.  Go to that teacher's class once a week or so.
6.  Maybe try another teacher...  Other teacher OK!
7.  Regularly attend four to six classes a week.
8.  Become a member at the studio.
9.  Do teacher training & get a real mat.
10.  Manage the yoga studio and make it the center of your beautiful life.

I mean, that's it!  In the details there, though, is the fact that I stayed almost solely a Basics student for the first several years of practice, only occasionally attending an Intermediate level class, despite the encouragement from my trusted teachers.  There were "basic" postures I couldn't do -- like crane pose -- and I needed props for so many things -- a strap to reach my big toe in forward folds, blocks under my hands for half moon and so on -- and I thought I needed to be able to do all of these things perfectly and without props before "graduating" to a Power class.  What finally got me there was a crowded January at the studio where I quickly learned that capacity crowds for Basics on a Saturday morning wasn't my jam and maybe, just maybe, the Power class before it would be a little less packed.  Plus, Ann, one of my favorite teachers, taught that class.  Certainly, she'd forgive my blocks in half moon...  What I learned was that my fears were unfounded -- that it was not required to be able to do everything in order to be a "Power Student."  Lots of people had limitations and everyone used props for something.  So that stuff wasn't a big deal.  What was important was understanding the intention of the pose and knowing how to modify as needed.  That's not to say that I don't still -- to this very day -- attend Power classes and feel a little sheepish about my limitations, but I also am confident enough in my overall practice to push forward, to try, even if I'm almost certainly going to fail this time around.  

It took years after embracing Power to turn the corner where I was surprised to find myself fitting in nicely with the astangis.  Hey, accidents happen -- sometimes they are happy ones.  This is certainly a case of that.  Doing Astanga now shows me how much my practice has changed, developed, grown stronger.  It's a point of pride to have this unit of measure for me to see how all my hard work has paid off.  The investment, totally worthwhile.

The last three hundred sixty-five days have been full of exponential spiritual, emotional, and compassionate growth for me.  In my life off my mat, outside of my wonderful "yoga bubble," I lost a very significant relationship and with that came the loss of my entire way of life.  So many friends, so many standards of living that had to shift, change, or disappear all together in order for me to move on from what had become an unhealthy and destructive cornerstone friendship and I don't know how I would have gotten through any of it without my yoga community.  I have said often over the last couple of months that I lost seventy-five percent of my way of life this past year but the twenty-five percent that I kept is, god, the best of the good stuff.  All of that is a way of explaining why when Kristen and Rebecca asked me to do Astanga with them, I said yes and in doing so I put my trust, faith, hope, sweat, and tears into this practice that asks you only to move and breathe at the same time in return.  

It's a healing thing, friends.  I am humbled and thankful for it every single solitary day.  

I am an Astangi, even if just by accident.

And, p.s., it doesn't hurt that Lynne, the regular Wednesday night teacher is extremely hilarious and awesome.  Elliott is also hilarious and awesome, but he teaches Astanga at the Somerville studio on Tuesdays, which is not my regular gig.  They're both great and they're both so knowledgable and they care about not only the integrity of the practice but making it as accessible as possible to their students.  So if you've been thinking about trying it, do.  The end.  Namaste.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Brush Up Your Sanskrit

I had the best phone conversation recently with a student calling to ask what the difference was between a Basics-level and Intermediate-level (and beyond) class.  Now, this is a fairly standard question -- I answer it all the time and was going through the usual checklist (boiled down: "as long as you know how to do a Sun A, you are going to be fine in any of our more advanced classes") when the student said something unexpected:  "What I'm actually most nervous is about is the Sanskrit -- I don't know all the postures by name."  My yoga nerd brain lit up -- no one had ever offered this as a potential reason to wait to advance beyond Basics.  

Now, I am a language person, so learning the Sanskrit names for yoga postures was deceptively easy for me when I was beginning.  I actually had no idea how easy it was for me until I did teacher training and was shocked when some of my fellow TTs -- some of whom had been practicing yoga for years longer than me -- didn't know the traditional posture names and struggled immensely with Sanskrit pronunciations.  This dead language was a piece of cake for me because I learned all the cheats -- I learned the root words.  I sleuthed it all together.

So when this student nervously asked about Sanskrit, I got pretty excited (much to the amusement of the teacher and desk staff signing in students for the next class) as I explained that learning the Sanskrit would never be required of our students but it would sure make her life easier if she knew some of the basics -- "Allow me to elaborate..." I said.

And to my good fortune, she did.

"Let's take my favorite Sanskrit posture name: Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana," I began.

"Whoa, what's that??" the student asked.

"I'll break it down for you," I said.  "Eka is the Sanskrit word for one, Pada is foot, Raja is king, and Kapotasana is pigeon pose.  Put it all together and you get One Foot (or leg) King Pigeon Pose."  

I went on to explain to her that anything ending in asana is a posture (Asanas being the physical practice associated with the eight limbs of yoga), which actually simplifies a lot of things, theoretically.  There are also Frequently Used Words, like ardha which means half or supta which means reclining or baddha which means bound.  Hasta means hands, pada (as previously stated) means feet.  Urdvha means upward and adho means downward.  Muka means face.  Konasana is angle.  Etc. etc. etc.  Many of these words are used repeatedly in Sankrit postures so learning a few of them will make Sanskrit, as a whole, less daunting.  Right?

The phone call ended with the student thanking me and saying she was going to make flashcards to study on the T.  Dear Student, whoever you are, will you be my best friend?  My yoga nerd heart beat with joy as I hung up the phone.

Meanwhile, Carly and Sara (the teacher and desk staff, respectively) were still laughing at me from outside the office.  Carly came immediately to the doorway.  "What," she sputtered, "was that?"

So I explained the entire conversation to the two of them, which only lead to Carly and me breaking down other complicated Sanskrit posture names.  To wit:

Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottansana

Ardha = half
Baddha = bound
Padma = Lotus
Paschimottanasana = seated forward fold


After a few more rounds of nerdom, I took it another level and mentioned a Sanskrit-nerdy conversation I'd had with Mimi (founder of O2 Yoga, my Teacher Training and yoga home) about Supta Kormasana.  We had been taught that supta meant reclining (i.e. poses lying down), but Supta Kormasana was a forward fold -- what gives?  "So what explanation did Mimi have?" Carly asked.  "She said, in this case, it meant sleeping."  While Carly gave an affirming nod, Sara stared at us wide-eyed -- "What's Kormasana?" she asked.  "Tortoise pose!" I said, demonstrating it to the best of my ability right there at the sign in desk.

God, this conversation made me so happy.

Yoga is its own language, its own culture, its own proudly held piece of nebulous land.  Understanding this spoken aspect of the practice connects you more deeply with the postures because learning each poses' Sanskrit name is adding a layer of respect for your time spent on your mat.  Plus, it's good, nerdy fun to understand what the teacher is asking you to do and to know that you could go to any yoga studio anywhere in the world and understand what formation your body should assume when the teacher cues, "Vrikasana."  ((That's tree pose, yo))  So brush up your Sanskrit -- let the language be something you pay attention to as you practice -- and you'll be ready for Power in no time.