Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Hi, folks. I have decided to take a hiatus from writing this blog for a while so that I can immerse myself in my yoga practice and in larger scale writing projects, including some that link feminism and yoga. Thank you for following my blog; I truly appreciate it. But in the interest of balance, I am going to let it go for a while.

Wishing you all a balanced and joyful summer. Be well,

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Recharging with Todd Norian Workshops

I am spending the weekend in therapeutic intensive workshops with Todd Norian, an insightful Anusara teacher who is visiting my home town of St. Paul, Minnesota. He came in the nick of time, when I was in greater need of revitalization than I had realized. As I sit in the workshops, I am drinking up the inspiration and information like a woman who forgot to bring her water bottle on a long hike. It feels deeply nourishing.

Of course, I recharge on my yoga mat each time I practice, and with my friends each time I reconnect with them. But it has been a hectic semester crunch, when more and more tasks are thrown on my plate, more budget cuts threaten the Women’s Studies Program in which I teach, and stress and anxiety permeate many of the students and faculty with whom I work. I feel like I have been able to remain level but not soar, stay steady but not access the deep joy that allows me to open and thrive.

So participating in twelve hours of intensive Anusara workshops this weekend is more invigorating than the breath of spring that is beginning to infuse the Minnesota air. I drink in Todd’s energy and humor, supported in the laughter and warmth of the other participants. I refill the wellspring of knowledge, learning how to help people with knee, shoulder, or hip injuries. As my knowledge deepens, so does my joy.

Though it may seem, to some, like work to allocate my weekend to workshops, the time is spent reconnecting to the energy that allows me to center and thrive. It doesn’t just quench my thirst, it nourishes me and surrounds me with the intrinsic goodness that clarifies how I want to be in the world. As Todd reminded us, the Tantric philosophy of Anusara reminds us that joy is our birthright, and that “life is not a problem to be solved but rather an experience to be savored.”

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Will Somebody Please Hand Me My Feet?

One of my students blurted this out as we went into bow pose. Her inadvertent exclamation had the rest of the class rolling in laughter. We could commiserate with the way that certain yoga poses seem out of our reach when we are first introduced to them. But with both practice and proper alignment technique, many of the poses are much more doable than we might think.

Of course, the laughter is what really opens our hearts to possibility. When we dedicate ourselves to our practice and our values but don’t take ourselves or life too seriously, we are often able to delve into our potential. We can take more risks, accept the results without judgment, and embrace the supportive atmosphere as other join in.

Anusara Yoga starts with the premise of internal goodness in each and every one of us. That belief creates a gentleness and warmth that can support us when our patterns or our limitations arise. Such aspects of ourselves and others are not “flaws,” but are rather part of the divine nature of being human. When can learn to laugh as we grope around for our feet in bow pose, we will often find that our heart blossoms when we lift our legs, feet, and heart up to extend into the pose.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Feminist Yogini?

As I was teaching my yoga class this week, I realized a seeming paradox in two key realms of my life: my Women’s Studies and my yoga worlds. In the latter, I teach about being non-judgementally present with what is. But how does that sit with feminist activist efforts to produce social transformation?

Dukkha, or suffering, yogic philosophy teaches us, comes from not accepting reality as it is. The human tendency is to either try to force things to be as we want them to be (craving or clinging) or to try to avoid things we do not like (aversion). On our mats, we have the opportunity to cultivate a witness to how things are. We can learn to accept reality as it is, without judgement, and notice our patterns.

But as a feminist, I am not accustomed to accepting things as they are. When social inequality exists, my tendency is to want to change it. And yet, even in feminism, an accurate view of the present reality is an important first step. We have to understand how oppression works, and who suffers from it, in order to figure out how to change it. We also have to understand how larger structural patterns operate in order to determine effective strategies for change.

Similarly, yoga does not teach us to mindlessly accept a reality that isn’t good for us. We first have to cut through our delusions to see clearly. Then, we can make more life affirming choices about our actions.

Perhaps they are not so different after all.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

But How Will We Look?!

Our yoga mats can be the place where we reclaim the authenticity of our internal experiences and resist the influence of negative outer perceptions. I think of this idea every time I give my yoga students instructions to feel their way into Downward Dog. “Bend your knees,” I suggest, “and stick your sitz bones way up in the air. Get a really long spinal stretch. Then from the back of your thighs, straighten your legs, keeping that delicious length in your spine.”

Every time I say this, I find myself noticing how odd it is to tell a group of mostly women to stick their buts in the air. It’s a bit counterintuitive to ask women to stick out our sitz bones, when we are taught to be so self-conscious and worried about whether we have the perfect body.

And yet, letting go of self-consciousness on our mats paves the way for doing so off our mats. Once we give ourselves over to our own practice, we can become much more concerned with what we are feeling than what others are thinking. How incredibly freeing.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Befriending Our Edge

Our yoga mat is the perfect place to explore the full potential—and the limitations--of our capacity. Our edge is that place that allows us to learn: if we hang out too far in front of our edge, we don’t grow to our full capacity. If we go too far past our edge, however, we risk injuring ourselves and others. Let’s face it, it’s just not sustainable to constantly spread ourselves too thin.

What a delicate dance to find that line, especially when it’s always shifting. Our edge looks different when we are twenty then it does when we are forty, different when we are comfortable in a familiar job than it does when we’ve just started a new one. Our yoga practice, as I’ve noted elsewhere in my blog, is a perfect place to learn our edge.

But the deeper we embrace the dance, the more we discover about our edge. It’s like a good novel, replete with layers of nuance. See, it’s not just knowing our edge in the moment of practice (like when we are in Natarajasana and choose not to extend our leg any further), it’s also seeing the big picture, like whether our muscles will be screaming the next day. For instance, in my own life, I honored my edge very well last semester when I came up with lots of interesting ideas, but I am finding my edge sorely tested this semester as all my great ideas come to fruition and I have to carry them out.

Befriending our edge, then, also involves choosing how we will meet the challenges on our plate. I may not have much choice about whether I will honor my commitments, but I can choose how I will do so. In these tough economic times, people may not be able to choose how many jobs they need to hold to make ends meet (if they are lucky enough to have jobs) or whether to assume the responsibility for caring for an elderly parent. But we can choose how we treat ourselves and others as we navigate those responsibilities.

I am learning that coming back to my foundation—both on my mat and off—is what allows me to engage the dance with grace and beauty. When I practice clear alignment principles, I know that however deep I go in a pose, I can do so in a healthy way. We can cultivate the same solid foundations in our lives off our mats.

Monday, January 25, 2010

A Case of Cold Feet

OK. So I know this is a silly question, but….Has anyone else gotten really nervous before teaching yoga in their first couple years? You know, the type of nerves that make you queasy and wonder what you were thinking when you decided to become a yoga teacher? Never mind that you completed the necessary certification and have gotten positive feedback. Still, the case of nerves can be unsettling!

As a teacher by trade, I know that such nerves are a natural and inevitable part of the process. The first couple years I spent as a Women’s Studies Professor were full of anxiety, second-guessing myself, and stage fright. Over the years, I have come to see that no matter how prepared one is in one’s field, part of the process of being a novice teacher is learning from the daily experiences in the classroom. There’s a confidence and knowledge that can only come from that hands-on experience. And, of course, a certain degree of nervousness often makes us better at what we do.

But I had an epiphany on my yoga mat the other day, (a place that is increasingly becoming the site of profound realizations). I discovered that when I started to second-guess myself in the academic classroom, I would just overcompensate with more preparation. I relied on my intellect to shore up the armor around my nerves, to give me the illusion of confidence that everything was OK. That was a safe route, since institutions of higher learning reward the overemphasis on the intellect.

But the Buddhist writer Pema Chödrön teaches that underneath most emotions, such as anger, fear, or anxiety, lies a deep tenderness that we often strive to avoid by reacting in habitual ways. Teaching yoga has taught me that it’s the raw softness underneath the nerves that offer the deepest growth possibilities. Intellect as armor only avoids that more fundamental learning. Though I can and will continue to study to prepare for class, the real gift comes from meeting my own self with the same compassion and patience with which I meet the students in my yoga classes. I have found that when I open to the vulnerability underneath the nerves, I can be a much wiser teacher, for myself and others.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Soaring Through Inner Sensitivity

Yoga Moment! I balanced for 7 whole seconds in Sirasana (headstand)! Whoohoo!
It was like flying. For months now I have been doing that dance with many inversions: one foot off the wall, then the other, then quickly falling back to the security of the wall if I started to waver.

Today, though, all my yoga principles seemed to converge in full alignment. I engaged Muscular Energy by pressing into the ground and hugging the midline. I activated skull loop to keep my head safe and give me more balance. I scooped my tailbone and puffed my kidneys to keep from arching my back. And I pressed up through my feet, activating inner spiral.

The balanced action that resulted was freeing. I could feel myself anchoring down to the stability of the earth even as I activated Organic Energy to extend toward the sky.

It enabled the exquisite poetry of being fully in the present moment. I can’t balance on automatic pilot. I have to turn inward and attune to all the subtle messages of my body. When I started to fall forward, taking my hips back helped me stay up. When I started to waver backward, pressing both downward and upward simultaneously helped center me again.

My yoga teacher said the other day that an intermediate class is not distinguished so much by the physical poses or capability, but by the sensitivity. For me, the soaring sensation of balancing came from the deeper layer of inner attunement that allowed it.