The Joy of Teaching

I am not naturally an extrovert. In fact, I really dislike being in large crowds, I feel nervous when people are watching me, and I am uncomfortable speaking to people I do not know well. Strange then that I have chosen to pursue a profession which consists of speaking in front of a large group of people (most of whom I do not know) while instructing them to watch my every movement!

For me, teaching yoga was not necessarily something that I wanted to do; it was something that I felt I needed to do. Coming to my first yoga class, an incessant worrier with a restless nature, the practice gave me a sanctuary to release my self-doubts and my inner critic. Yoga led me to discover a still place that resides at the core of my being, a place that I never saw much of before yoga. Through my practice, I learned that this inner sanctuary is available to me all the time. No matter where I am and no matter who is there with me, I can be at home and I can be at peace if I just connect to my center. I liken my experience of yoga to the feeling of being underwater: temporarily weightless, suspended in time, quiet. Yoga frees me from my inner dialogue. 

I am not suggesting that practicing yoga is some magical panacea that makes all of life’s challenges disappear, but I have noticed that when I am calm at my center, no situation facing me feels so grave. When I see through the eyes of my spirit, my problems do not seem so threatening. Discovering this has changed everything about my experience of life and filled me with a sense of urgency to share this new-found awareness with others who could benefit from it. My passion for the practice drives my willingness to go beyond what is comfortable for me in order to fulfill my role as a teacher. It is humbling that even after almost 10 years of teaching, I still get up in front of the class some days and feel completely terrified, as though it is my first day all over again. Then I close my eyes, I deepen my breath, I draw myself into my center, and I call upon the class to do the same. We can all navigate through the waves of tension together as we each individually re-connect to our own inner-sanctuary, a place without time or judgments or boundaries. We can feel supported by each other, even if we are all complete strangers, knowing that at our core we all hold the same hopes and fears. 

To some people, I may be just a fitness instructor but that is not the way that I view my job at all. I see my job as an opportunity to remind a fellow human being of how to connect to his or her own inner refuge. Some people come to my yoga class to sweat, to move pent-up tightness out of the body. Others come feeling disconnected or lost, looking for answers. Some people come to yoga at a point of complete exhaustion in their lives, hoping to release and forget. Through a series of meditative, breath-coordinated movements, I lull the class into a feeling of safety where they can allow themselves to be temporarily vulnerable. In these pivotal moments, I have an opportunity to say something that can shift someone’s perspective away from the mundane stresses of daily life and back to what really matters. As the awareness shifts, a real possibility for healing opens up. I have no delusions of grandeur nor do I believe in any way that I am the voice of reason that healspeople. My students heal themselves by learning how to return to the core of their beings and allow transformation to take place. I feel honored, privileged even, to be there at the birth of their re-awakening. For that reason I take my job very seriously. 

I don’t know if teaching yoga is something that I am naturally inclined to do or even something that I am very good at for that matter. When I started teaching my first weekly yoga class, I did not expect to make a living being a full-time yoga instructor. I was too realistic. Teaching yoga was just something that I planned to do on the side, part-time. More and more my life kept steering me towards teaching, opening doors that I didn’t even know existed, until finally it seemed that the effort to resist teaching would be greater than overcoming the fear to dive in. What I lacked in natural talent, I made up for in drive and passion. I am simply willing to work harder. I am willing to put more time and more energy into every class that I teach, every training that I run, and every retreat that I organize because I believe it is meaningful. It is not just some fitness program to me. It is an opportunity to completely change the way someone views the world and their place in it. That is a big responsibility.

Teaching yoga also holds me accountable. When I conduct myself in a manner contrary to the ideals that I espouse in my teachings, I feel very guilty about it. I have come to see this aspect of my job as a tremendous blessing. If I want to be able to show up to my job and inspire people and say meaningful things to them, I need to be at peace with myself. My job calls upon me to look in the mirror every day and ask myself if I am living in accordance with my values. Am I practicing what I preach? Feeling accountable scared the hell out of me when I was 19 years old and a new teacher, but now I can’t think of anything more important in life than having values and living by them. Having a job, then, that makes me accountable for my lifestyle and my choices is indeed a great blessing.

Playlist: Acoustic Flow

 East - Garth Stevenson

 My Secret Place - Garth Stevenson

 Etoile - Cantoma   

 Noctuary - Bonobo

 Ketto - Bonobo

 Xcentric - TJ Rehmi

 A Path With Heart - TJ Rehmi

 Aerial Boundaries - Garth Stevenson

 Walk Over to You - Piers Faccini

 Norwegian Wood - Adam Rafferty

 Nagual - Michael Hewett

Every Sacred Detail

I recently took part in a week-long intensive yoga training geared towards experienced yoga instructors taught by a legendary teacher in the yoga world.  Virtually every participant in the training had  previously spent extensive amounts of time studying and teaching yoga and each possessed a very advanced personal practice.  Rather than teaching us the intricacies of complex arm balances, deep backbends, or what many would consider to be “advanced” postures, however, our instructor chose to focus the entire week on dissecting the minute subtleties of the most basic yoga poses:  Tadasana (Mountain Pose), Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Hands Pose), Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog pose), Virabhadrasana 1 (Warrior 1 Pose), etc.  

Moving arduously slowly through the poses that week was not always pleasant, but the unpleasantness of it once again reminded me that an important part of our practice is learning to stay with discomfort long enough to relax into it.  Remaining in postures for longer than we want to, gives us the opportunity to witness how we deal with challenge and adversity.  Instead of just muscling our way through a difficult pose, holding our breath, silently cursing our teacher, and praying for it to end soon, if we allow these moments of discomfort to serve as a learning lesson, then the struggle of the pose will take on a whole new meaning.  Instead of feeling like a sinking ship, struggling to stay afloat, we can learn to tap into our inner strength and, with the wisdom that the discomfort will not last forever, we can steadfastly hold our position.  As our perspective shifts, so will our body.  We will begin to receive the earth, feeling how it supports us with unwavering steadiness.  We can then inquisitively scan our body for signs of unnecessary tension and attempt to make the subtle adjustments within the pose to find a position that better allows our body to open and to release.  As our muscles begin to quiver, we can learn to calmly return to our steady breathing.  Right in that moment when we want to give up, we can choose instead to stay; in that moment of uncertainty, we can choose to have faith.  In this way our practice on the mat can serve as a practice in character building for our lives off the mat.

My most important take-away from this experience was being reminded that the true yoga lies in the details.  As our class moved at a laborious pace through sun salutations and basic postures, breaking down every tiny aspect of each pose, it became clear that when these postures are practiced accurately and consistently, they naturally allow for the more elaborate poses to arise of themselves without being forced.  Perhaps more importantly, moving in a slow methodical manner can teach us patience and humility.  

Just as we do in our daily lives, we tend also in our yoga practice to rush through the warm-up on our way to the “real” destination.  Our activities are just the means to an end.  We rush through cooking so that we can eat; hurry through house cleaning so that we can enjoy the beauty of the end result; work so that we can have enough money to buy the things we want.  We forget that these activities are not just distractions on the way towards real life.  Washing the dishes IS life.  Working IS life.  The reality is that these activities collectively make up the majority of our lives.  If we do not change our perspective as to which postures/experiences are worthy of reverence, our practice/lives will quickly slip past us.  We need to recognize the beauty of exactly where we are in each moment.  To place the body mindfully and specifically in your yoga practice is to have reverence for the divine being within you.  To wash the dishes carefully, one by one, is to have reverence for the natural order of the world.  There are no menial tasks.  The mundane IS the sacred.  Every moment, every movement is an opportunity to be alive.

 Playlist: Steady Flow

 Heaven's Gonna Burn Your Eyes - Thievery Corporation

 You Are We Am I - TJ Rehmi

 Moonsmith - Cantoma   

 So Com Voce - Thievery Corporation

 Liberation Front - Thievery Corporation

 Aja - TJ Rehmi

 Transcendence - Thievery Corporation

 Lone Rider - TJ Rehmi

 Breathe - Alexi Murdoch

 The Long Day is Over - Norah Jones

Opening - Wah!

Tapas, The Fire of Yoga

“What we hope ever to do with ease, we must learn first to do with diligence.” Samuel Johnson

As the first official day of summer on June 21 heats up our external environment, it also marks a fitting time for us to excite our own internal heat (tapas) by re-dedicating ourselves to our yoga practice. As creatures of an instant gratification culture, we may be skeptical about a practice like yoga that demands persistent training and perseverance over a long period of time and perhaps we may question if there is a faster way to achieve the results we desire.

This query is easily answered by contemplating the things in your life that are of most value to you. If your list is similar to mine, you will notice that every thing in your life of true worth has required time, consistent maintenance, and an attitude of determination. Whether growing a garden or a business, sustaining a relationship or a home, diligence is always a necessity.

“Tapas” is a Sanskrit word used to describe the diligence that is essential in maintaining a yoga practice. Tapas derives from the root word “tap” meaning “to burn” and has been translated as heat, fire, unwavering zeal, and passion. Tapas may be understood as the will to cleanse oneself by burning away impurities through the regular practice of hatha yoga.

But what impurities, exactly, are we burning away and for what purpose? This question is best answered in the context of yoga philosophy, which views a human as having 5 koshas (layers). The outermost layer is the Annamaya kosha, which is the physical body including the bones, muscles, and skin. Slightly deeper lies the Pranamaya kosha, or energetic body which consists of the breath and the prana (life force) that pervades the body. Still deeper lies the Manamaya kosha, which encompasses the mind, thoughts, and impressions. Vijnanamaya kosha lies even deeper and is our wisdom body, or the true knowing that exists beyond thoughts. The deepest layer, Anandamaya kosha is referred to as the body of Bliss. This layer consists of the pure joy of Being and within this sheath lies that which is eternal in each of us (Soul, spirit, True Self, Divinity, Atman).

The concept, then, is that at the center of each of us lies pure Divine light and our objective is to radiate it outward as a beacon to other seekers. However, when the layers of our self lying external to our inner light are not kept clean, our inner light will appear dull, not because the source of the light has diminished in intensity but simply because the grime that has collected on the outer koshas has overshadowed its brilliance. The daily practice of focusing our mind on the movements of our breath and body in yoga burns away the impurities of our outer koshas, making us clear vessels through which divine light can shine.

The yearning to become a pure instrument of light is the Tapas, or inner fire, that drives us to show up to our mat on the good days, the bad days, and the in-between days. We recognize that, not unlike the daily ritual of brushing our teeth or washing our faces, yoga practice is a purification process that requires constant maintenance. Gradually our diligence transforms into ease as we relax into the realization that there is nothing to outwardly achieve. In our yoga as in other meaningful aspects of our lives we come to discover that the journey is, in fact, the goal: The act of gardening is as joyful as the sight of a beautifully blooming plot, the act of loving is as wonderful as the thriving relationship it creates, and the practice of yoga is as freeing as the final liberation towards which we strive.

 Playlist #9: Soul Flow

 Dunya Salam - 1 Giant Leap featuring Baaba Maal

 Om - Soulfood

 Om - ShaktiSean Johnson and The Wild Lotus Band   

 The Way You Dream - 1 Giant Leap featuring Michael Stipe

 Ram - Sita RamSean Johnson and The Wild Lotus Band

 Sweet Disposition - The Temper Trap

 In The Sun - Michael Stipe and Chris Martin

 Daphne - 1 Giant Leap featuring The Mahotella Queens 

 Jai Ma - Sean Johnson and The Wild Lotus Band

 Gymnopedies - Claude Debussy

 Claire de Lune - Claude Debussy 

Honoring the Cycle of Completion

September 22, 2010 marked the end of Summer and the beginning of Fall. The Autumnal Equinox, as the day is termed, occurs when the Earth's Equator lies in the same plane as the center of the sun creating a 24-hour period of balanced daylight and darkness before a subsequent journey into Fall and Winter, marked by nights that are longer than days.

Every 3 months the end of one season creates the beginning of another. Watching the cyclical patterns of nature, I am reminded that everything is subject to birth, to change, and to death. Whereas Summer is a time of heat, daylight, activity, and the coming to fruition of seeds planted in the Spring, the Fall is a time of slowing down, releasing, and clearing space. These shifts are apparent as the days become shorter, the weather cools down, and more time is spent indoors. Leaves begin to fall from trees and the grasses and flowers in the fields begin to wither, preparing for their journey back to the soil. Autumn is a time for releasing that which has already fulfilled its purpose in order to create space for the new. Recognizing ourselves as part of this natural cycle is a necessary step in our spiritual maturity.

Endings are easier to accept when they do not directly affect us. It is obviously much easier to deal with leaves falling from a tree than to accept the end of our relationships, the death of our loved ones, or termination from our jobs. We want to bask in the eternal sunshine of summer, to always be joyful, to celebrate life, and to be amongst our loved ones always. The Yoga Sutras call this Raga, or attachment. While enjoying the beauty of life is a good practice, holding onto anything too tightly is unhealthy because inevitably everything changes and everything ends. Resisting, avoiding, or ignoring difficult situations (like the ones we are faced with when our pleasurable experiences come to an end) is called Dvesha. Both attachment (Raga) and aversion (Dvesha) lead to unnecessary suffering.

I remind myself regularly that beginnings are only made possible through endings. Looking back, I realize that often the things I struggled so stubbornly to hold on to in my life were actually impediments to my growth. As pleasurable or comfortable as they may have seemed at the time, I see in retrospect that only by releasing them did I clear space to let something new and wonderful in. Life seems to work that way. I have come to recognize that the reason I attach to things is out of a basic fear that I will not ever find anything as good or that I will not be taken care of if I let go. On the other side of that, I see that the more I trust and relax into life, the more smoothly things run. I remind myself that I do not know the big picture, and so although what is happening to me now might not be what I wanted, it may be opening the door for things better than I ever could have imagined.

With this in mind, I make a dedicated effort to practice Aparigraha, or non-hoarding, by letting go of items, thoughts, feelings, relationships that have run their course and no longer serve me. I liken this to a snake sloughing off its old, outgrown skin with the faith that a better-fitting skin will return in its place. While the beginning of Autumn is a fitting time of year to practice letting go, it need not be the only time we are conscious of the cycles of life. Indeed, every breath is a perfect reminder. Each exhalation is necessary to clear space for the next inhalation. The in-breaths and out-breaths do not exist in competition with each other, but rather coexist in perfect harmony.

Playlist: Deep Meditative Flow

Gayatri Mantra - Tina Malia & Shimshai

Om Namah Shivaya - Dharma Mittra

Hum Sa - Dharma Mittra