4 Considerations for Teaching “Body Positive Yoga”

4 Considerations for Teaching “Body Positive Yoga”

This past November 2016, I had the honor to curate, host, and present at the very first ever Yoga and Body Confidence Conference. (The next one is scheduled! August 24-27 at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health! CLICK HERE to read all about it.)

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long time, and crystallizing my own philosophies throughout my teaching career. And, as the creator and host of the Adore Your Body Telesummit, I maintain that to arrive at an understanding of what it means to be “body positive” it’s important to hear many, various and varied perspectives.

After listening to the voices of the contributors, I realized that there are four main elements you as a teacher must grapple with, and make a decision about how you will handle. They are:

  1. To Touch or Not to Touch—the Quagmire of Assisting Versus Adjusting.
  2. Props: Use them, or Don’t?
  3. Alignment : Shouldn’t the body just “know” what to do? If we “trust the body” then isn’t alignment innately confining? Who am I, the teacher, to tell you how to align your body?
  4. Watch Your Language: How You Say What You Say…

But, even before exploring these in more detail, I think that it is worth considering if your if your views align with your lineage, or diverge from them, and why.

My yoga education has taken place within two incredible wombs—Forrest Yoga, and yoga in New York City. I’ve been fortunate to have top-notch schooling, both through Forrest Yoga and through being in the city where we have the best of everything. No—I’m not biased. It’s really true. 😉 Frankly, I’m shocked when yogis come from other places and don’t try to take as many classes as they can while they’re here. And, the more I look into it, the more I discover that my own views align strongly with my lineage, Forrest Yoga, which I consider to be incredibly body positive, except in one main way, which is the fault of ALL yoga, I think. Yoga culture is fat phobic.

That vast failing aside, for many, many reasons, I believe Forrest Yoga to be one of the most body positive lineages in existence today. You may disagree, and likely it’s around one of these main points below. I’m very happy to discuss, BUT, I challenge you to look at the ways that your own system, or lineage failed you in some regard (every lineage will inevitably fail you, by the way), and if that is why you’ve developed the stance you have around one of these four points.

O.K. let’s go!

  1. To Touch or Not to Touch—the quagmire of Assisting Versus Adjusting.

Some teachers believe resolutely that “corrections” given through touch are not body positive. Why? First, is assumes that the teacher has the right to touch another person’s body—it’s about ownership, consent, and power. Second, some people may not like you to touch them in the places that we as yoga teachers often touch, such as ribs, bellys, thighs, arms. Third, as student’s desire to be touched may change from day-to-day, and it may be difficult to communicate without ongoing conversation or simple systems of consent, such as consent cards placed at the front of the mat. Even the idea of “adjusting” suggests that there was something that needed to be fixed in the first place. Finally, if you experience body shame, you really might not want someone touching, without warning, the places you feel crappy about.

While I understand and respect these concerns, I have different ideas, strongly influenced by practical matters of teaching and by experiential knowledge of HOW people can heal body shame in yoga, built on 18 years of my own experience, and 10 years of teaching, including 8 years under the close tutelage of Ana Forrest, a survivor of deep, physical, emotional, and mental trauma.

First—the pragmatics. After 10 years of teaching, I’ve come to see and understand two fundamental truths. One—not everyone will understand your words or your visual demos. Some people will ONLY, EVER understand what you mean if you touch them, and guide them with your hands, helping (assisting), not adjusting, them in the asana. As a teacher, it is my deep, heartfelt desire to include everyone in the experience as best as possible. When I see people who just don’t seem to get it—no matter how I describe it differently, no matter how many times I show them—it’s an indicator that human is a pure kinesthetic learner. They are rare. Often people come in combos, like kinesthetic/visual or aural/visual. You will identify a pure kinesthetic from their flailing efforts, often with eyes closed.

Now, imagine for a moment that you went to a yoga class, and you were blind and deaf. How would you get along? This is a rough approximate of the kinesthetic learner. That person will give it their best go, trying hard to translate your words and demos into something felt in the body, and they will fail every time.

Should you withhold touch from that person, they will go on failing. And you, the teacher, will be allowing it. Are you O.K. with that?

Two, touch is the language of the body. Even if your skills of aural and visual comprehension translate brilliantly into a felt experience, IT IS NO SUBSTITUTE. Listen to me again. Touch is the language of the body. Not words. Not English, or whatever your native tongue may be. Not visuals. So, if you want to communicate with the body, on its own terms, touch is the way to go.

Our society it starved for good, clean, healthy touch. My teacher, Ana Forrest instructs us around touch thus: touch your people as if they are the Beloved. Not a lover—but a deep sacred mystery, which you will never fully understand. Touch with a reverence for that deep, divine mystery beneath your hands. Respect.

Just last weekend, I lead an event here in NYC with four other Forrest Yoga teachers. At the end of the event, which had over 70 people in attendance, we had a closing circle to hear what were the most impactful aspects of the urban yoga retreat. Overwhelmingly people marveled at the quality of the assists, the care of the assists. One young woman commented on an assist she received, recalling how someone touched her hand. That’s all—touched her hand—and the care that came through that touch brought her to tears and touched her heart in a unforgettable way.

Listen up. This is what can happen when you touch right. A person could come to your retreat, and the MOST MEMORABLE experience of the whole event could be ONE MOMENTARY TOUCH TO THE HAND. I urge you, please consider why you would not want to show your people that you care enough to touch them with the dignity and concern that is the right of every human being? Is it because someone hurt you through touch? Well, fuck them. If you really want to set things right around that, don’t ban touch from your life: learn how to touch people in a good way. Don’t’ let some asshole who hurt you ROB YOU of this human need—to give and receive quality, caring, non-sexualized touch.

Is it because you didn’t learn how in your teacher training? Well—O.K. then—but realize that you only got like 1/3 of a TT because this is essential training. Now seek out the best teachers you can, who give amazing assists, and never, never, NEVER push, pull, or shame through touch.

Is it because you feel insecure in your own ability to give quality assists? See the paragraph above.

See, even the language around this is key. “Adjustment” is the wrong idea. Assist means to help. Assists are co-created. Assists go at the rate and depth of the person in the pose. Assists are inherently respectful. The body knows by the attitude of the touch what is the intent behind the touch. I swear to you. If you believe in body positivity, you MUST believe that the body knows. It remembers. And, the path to repair will always be through the primary language. If you were hurt through touch, inevitably, you must go back into that wound and heal through touch…

This is not a suggestion that I or any other teacher “knows” what will be healing. But, to abdicate even trying to help because to suggest I might “know” something about another human is somehow “playing God” is also not a solution I’m comfortable with. NOT actually teaching, while saying you are teaching, is an unacceptable solution to the complexities of this issue. It’s a cop out. We’re better than that.

  1. Props: Use them, or Don’t?

O.K. people. I’m as pretty geeky when it comes to yoga. And, as you can hopefully see from the diatribe I wrote up above, I think a lot about the complexities of teaching yoga, and for instance why a person doesn’t want to be touched, and working with that desire. But, honestly, this particular debate about props has me completely baffled. YOU ARE NOT A LOOSER IF YOU USE A PROP! What the hell. What kind of ignorant person would teach that?

Arms, legs, and torso come in all different lengths, sizes, and proportional relationships. I’m flexible. I can touch the floor easily, but in certain poses the relationship between my arms, legs, and torso distorts the integrity of the pose shape. I need blocks. This does not in any way reflect on my achievement or value as a human or a teacher. It’s just a reality—my legs are longer than my arms, proportionally speaking. No amount of not-using-props is going to change that.

I speculate that the idea to withhold props might be founded on the principle that the human is an innately bad thing, and must be taught to be good. A “good” body “fits” into the posture. A “bad” body doesn’t and needs to just “keep trying” until it figures out how to be “good.” Ugh.

There’s a competing view. The human is an innately good and perfect thing. Right now. With arms, and legs, and round bellies, and backs that don’t bend, and wrists that hurt, and necks that don’t turn, and elbows that were broken, and, and, and, and. We’re all broken and good. Perfectly imperfect. This “innately good” idea is a much more hopeful view of the world. Personally I’d rather hold this view, wouldn’t you?

I’ve been taught that above all my job is to get my people out of suffering. One way to do that is to use a prop. A block is a wonderful thing—it makes arms longer. It elevates seats. A strap makes arms longer too. Guess what—you arm is not going to get any longer than it is now (unless you’re a child), and that principle “keep trying” can be a lesson in repeated failure. And that sucks. The essence of karma yoga is action—helpful action. If you see something that you can do to help, DO IT. Stop teaching people that their bodies are not O.K. as they are. Help them, and if props help, use them for Shiva’s sake!

  1. Alignment : Shouldn’t the body just “know” what to do? If we “trust the body” then isn’t alignment innately confining? Who am I, the teacher, to tell you how to align your body?

No. No, no, no, no, NO. Part of teaching yoga is teaching people HOW to feel, how to “do” the poses. Re-introducing them, rehabilitating them to the idea that feeling is good, and O.K., and provides necessary information. Physical action is the way we accomplish this. Asana. Students seek out teachers because they know something that the student doesn’t. It is your job to TEACH. Yoga is a method for coming into relationship with the body, and that includes these things called ASANA. Therefore you must engage with the body, not ignore it.

To teach asana well you MUST have these skills (at the very least):

  1. Being able to do the poses you are teaching. This is a basic requirement. Do Not teach things that you are not able to do, or are not ON YOUR WAY to doing, at the very least. For instance—I am on my way to free balancing a handstand. I teach about that process, even if I’m not “there” YET.
  2. Succinctly and successfully being able to describe how to safely and easefully get in and out of a pose.
  3. Understanding how to sequence a class from beginning to end in a physiologically friendly way.
  4. Have and use the tools to help people who are struggling in their bodies feel successful at the level they are at. These tools are skillful modifications, thoughtful speech, and compassionate assists.
  5. Be prepared to address bodies with injuries and illnesses in helpful ways. Do not ignore these people. They have bodies too, and they deserve to be SEEN. Illness and injury—the land of the sick—can be a disheartening and isolated place, where you feel betrayed by the body. Know what poses are contraindicated for specific conditions, and offer up alternatives. Make these people welcome in a class for a modality (yoga) that purports to work all kinds of health and wellness magic.

If you don’t want to actually teach alignment principles in asana, but you still want to teach body positivity, then please, STOP TEACHING ASANA, and teach some other aspect of yoga to help people come into relationship with their bodies. I believe whole-heartedly that if you don’t actually teach people to feel their bodies with the context of asana alignment, you are perpetuating disregard for the body itself.

4. Watch Your Language

As yoga teachers, we’re in a funny position. What IS yoga? Is it fitness? Is it spirituality? Maybe teaching a fitness-y kind of yoga really is your jam. And, I think that there is a certain kind of body positivity that is real and honest that talks about wanting to “get fit.” But, all-too-often it is a masquerade, and underneath it all there is a certain kind of self-loathing. Just be aware of where you are, as a teacher, and as a practitioner, and get honest about that. It will show up in what you say, as a teacher, and as a practitioner. For a while I found myself slipping up into all kinds of old habits, making yoga—a sanctuary I myself had claimed—into my place of exercise and weight loss. It’s tricky. You gotta observe yourself.

I think that it should go without saying that when in a position of influence, as you are as a yoga teacher, you should pay close attention to what you say. Here are some recommendations of certain things to root out of your language, if you want to make people of all body types feel comfortable in your class and stop perpetuating the cycle of body hatred.

  • Don’t talk about feeling fat > DO talk about emotions that are uncomfortable and how they sometimes manifest as critiques of the body
  • Don’t’ assume that everyone thinks that a hetero-normative body is attractive > DO talk about the difference between a cultural beauty standard and a self-defined idea of beauty
  • Don’t talk about “getting a yoga body” > DO talk about self-definition and empowerment around health, and health at all sizes
  • Don’t talk about dieting or cleansing after holidays > DO talk about digestive health and eating to support steady emotional and physical states
  • Don’t ever, EVER, EVER talk about “getting ready for swimsuit season” > DO talk about feeling comfortable in the body, no matter WHAT size, shape, age, or ability to currently possesses.
  • Don’t talk about your diet > DO talk about eating to support the best health of your body, mind, and spirit.

O.K. So that covers one area of language.

Another is more specific. HOW do you teach the poses. Is there an “end goal” for the poses; an ideal? Some people feel like they are “failing” if they have to modify a posture. Some people take offense if you use the words “down-level” or “up level” as if “down” is somehow better than “up.”

I’ve got one main thing to say here. It’s all in the delivery.

If you spend much of your teaching time setting up the idea that practitioners will be best served by working at their own level, and that one is not better than another, then hopefully no one will feel “less than” when you offer modifications. And hopefully no one will feel less than when you offer options to move onto the next stage in the pose. “Advanced” is not to be found in the depth of the posture. Advanced is a state of mind—steady, easeful. Sound familiar?

But if you frame asana as if the “full expression of the pose” (whatever that is) is some enlightened ideal that only very special people will attain—well then it’s easy to see how “down” and “up” now have relative goodness and value and one is better than the other.

If you still feel like “modification” and “up-level” and “down-level” are words you’d rather not use, then perhaps try “stages.” Stage 1, Stage 2, Stage 3. Like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. Caterpillar = Stage 1. Chrysalis = Stage 2. Butterfly = Stage 3. Nothing better or worse, just different. (Of course you’ll have to stretch the analogy for poses that have more than 3 stages!)

Don’t just ignore this. People have different capabilities, and that’s O.K. Some people need to be challenged, like a horse needs to run or an eagle needs to fly. Feed their spirit: give them the “up-level!”

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Teaching yoga is infinitely more complicated than I really ever imagined it would be at the outset. There’s all of these details and considerations of your experience, of other people’s experience. Being “good at yoga” isn’t enough to be a good teacher. You have to also: 1. develop the skill of teaching, 2. know the topic of yoga inside and out, 3. be curious about other people. Like, deeply curious.

The whole agreement might be more than you bargained for. Sometimes I feel that way. But, I cannot imagine many other playgrounds for the study of personal development.

My aim with this article is not to overwhelm you, but rather to give you the categories that you need to consider if you want to accomplish the goal you set out to: teaching body positive yoga. No one ever told me what was involved. So, it is my desire, as a teacher, to help my people along their paths by offering clarification, guideposts, and places for you to think and make your own decisions about what you are doing in your teaching. The most important part, I think, is that you continue to develop self-awareness, and make conscious choices about what you are doing, and why. No one has to approve of, or agree with what you are doing. Just you. And if you’ve clearly thought about the what and the why–well, now you are acting with integrity.

Many blessings to you. Please reach out to let me know if there is any way that I can be of service to you on your path.

with love,

Erica

p.s. if you would like to study with me more, I have rolling Advanced Study Modules happening 1x/month. Check my website HERE to see what’s happening next. I would love the opportunity to work with you.

What is Vinyasa?

What is Vinyasa?

Photo by Ray Tamarra
The beginning of a Sun Salutation.

I think that it might be prudent to begin with an orientation. My views and perspectives on vinyasa are in part tempered by an historical moment (2004-2017) and a region of the world: New York City. What vinyasa is here today, is probably different than it was 20 years ago, and is probably different than what it is in other regions and cities.

A brief history: Vinyasa was invented by Krishnamacharya. Among many things, he made two contributions to our understanding of “vinyasa” yoga: breath connected to movement, and “pose counter pose” theory. Pattabi Jois, who studied with Krishnamacharya went on to develop Ashtanga Yoga, which is formally named Ashtanga Vinaysa Yoga. Most modern practices generally called vinyasa have Ashtanga as a parent practice.

From The Heart of Yoga, Krishnamacharya’s son, Desikachar, writes:

“Developing a yoga practice according to the ideas expressed in the Yoga Sutra is an action referred to as vinyasa krama. Krama is the step or literally “stages,” nyasa means “to place,” and the prefix vi –translates as “in a special way.” The concept of vinyasa krama tells us that it is not enough to simply take a step; that step needs to take us in the right direction and be made in the right way.” (The Heart of Yoga, pg. 25)

These days, this definition of vinyasa floats around and is commonly cited: to place in a special way. It is sourced from this book. “To place in a special way” is partially correct. If you read carefully, in the quote, Desikachar is also very clear about two things:

  1. The step must be in the right direction
  2. It must be made in the right way
Arms overhead

Consider this. You have a candy bar, a key, and a watch. You place these things in a special way upon your dresser. Have you done vinyasa?

I jest, of course, but I do so to point out the other crucial aspects of vinyasa. You gotta know where you’re going. You gotta go in that direction. The step you make needs to be done in the right way. If you’re headed towards advanced OCD, then maybe putting your candy bar, key, and watch in a special way on your dresser is exactly correct, and then yeah, you’re doing vinyasa. Have fun!

In the interview section of The Heart of Yoga Desikachar applies these two ideas—that you need to go in the right direction, and you must take the right action—to yoga more directly. He answers an open-ended request from the interviewer to say something about “structuring your yoga practice intelligently—the concept of vinyasa karma.” Quoting at length:

“First I must ask: what do you mean by “intelligently”? You are probably familiar with the argument that doing the headstand brings more blood into the head. Somebody who has the feeling that the blood supply to the head is not good enough then comes to the conclusion that the headstand is the best asana for them. But first we should think this through. Do we all suffer from a deficient supply of the blood to the head simply because we stand and walk upright? Suppose that someone is haunted by this idea so much that he begin to practice the headstand every day, if possible first thing in the morning, perhaps as the first and only asana. Our experience in working with all kinds of people has taught us that people who do this eventually suffer from enormous problems in the neck, that then result in great tension and stiffness in that area and a decreased supply of blood to the whole musculature of the neck—precisely the opposite of what they hoped they would achieve.

An intelligent approach to yoga practice means that, before you begin, you are clear about the various aspects of the asana you wish to practice, and know how to prepare for them in such a way that you reduce or negate any undesired effects. With regard to the headstand, for example, the questions are: is my neck prepared for this? Can I breathe well in the asana? Is my back strong enough to raise the entire weight of my legs? To approach your practice intelligently means that you know the implications of what you want to do, whether that be asana or pranayama, and to make appropriate preparations and adjustments. It is not enough to jump if you want to reach the sky. Taking an intelligent approach means working toward your goal step-by-step. If you want to travel overseas, the first thing you need is a passport. Then you need visas for the countries you intend to visit, and so forth. The simple fact that you want to go there does not make the trip possible. All learning follows this pattern.” (ibid, xx)

Forward fold. Sort of. Mostly.

In modern yoga, we may at any time be working with these four basic definitions of vinyasa (I’ve ranked them from most common understanding to least-known):

  1. A type of yoga class—now-a-days sometimes even assumed to be a “flow” class.
  2. A specific sequence of breath-synchronized movements to transition between sustained postures, a shorthand for: plank, chatturanga, upward-facing dog, downward-facing dog
  3. The linking of body movement with breath
  4. Setting an intention for one’s personal yoga practice and taking the necessary steps towards reaching that goal

“Vinyasa means a gradual progression or a step-by-step approach that systematically and appropriately takes a student from one point and safely lands them at the next point. It is sometimes described as the “breathing system,” or the union of breath and movement that make up the steps.” Maty Ezraty

Styles of yoga that a commonly considered to be vinyasa based on their relationship to Ashtanga yoga include Baptiste Yoga, Jivamukti, Power Yoga, and Prana Flow. I also consider my home lineage, Forrest Yoga, to be a vinyasa practice for two main reasons:

  1. How strongly we link the breath to motions. Not always “big” movements, as are often expected, but smaller more internal actions as well.
  2. How we always set a strong intent for the practice with a specified asana goal, as well as a goal for internal work, and then set about creating an intelligent pathway towards success.

Often, in my classes, students find that they are able to accomplish things that they previously had never done before. These results are the effects of skillful vinyasa—it’s the responsibility of the teacher to help guide our students towards successful outcomes, in the form of asana accomplishments and internal breakthroughs.

Half Lift

Often in my classes, students have the experience of breathing more, and more deeply than they ever have. This is the result of vinyasa—the deep union of breath with actions small and large.

The aspect of vinyasa that intrigues me the most, is the potential for teaching people about how to reach their own goals in their lives. Step by step, intelligent action towards an asana goal feels a certain way. It contains elements of making a decision about where you want to go, studying the possible routes, deciding on a course, taking deliberate action, making course corrections on the way, cultivating patience and determination together, faith in the process, surrender to the mystery, and celebration upon arrival.

If we teach our people about these things in class, and dissuade them from the things that will impede their progress—impatience, ego, lack of a plan, use of undo force, giving up, just to name a few—then we will be giving them incredible life skills. This is part of why teaching yoga can be so powerful: you have an opportunity to model for your students decisions and actions that will lead them down a path to success, and then encourage them to find similar experiences on their own.

Vinyasa is so much more than it seems on the surface. Vinyasa is a way of living life. Vinyasa is a form of critical thinking that will help people move towards their successes. Vinyasa is a about skillful teaching, learning, and the process of living feeling empowered.

Make THIS definition of vinyasa the one that comes to the fore whenever you hear the word, and it will change your perspective forever:

Setting an intention for one’s personal yoga practice and taking the necessary steps towards reaching that goal.

Downward Facing Dog

For those of you that don’t live in our fair city of New York, I hope that you’ll check out my Sound Cloud channel, where I have many, many “Forrest Inspired Vinyasa” classes up for you to take. On friendly online “stalker” made my day by writing this about me: You have teaching perfected. Seriously. Tone of voice and perfect blend of seriousness and humor. Like hanging out with a friend that will call you on your shit.  DANG GIRL! MY WORK HERE IS DONE: PERFECTION ATTAINED! haha. Click HERE to see of you agree with her! 

And, if you’re on the East Coast, I and my buddy Leslie Pearlman teach a weekend module about Forrest Yoga & Forrest Inspired Vinyasa. We’re available to teach it at your studio, or if you’re free the first weekend in March (2017), join us at her studio for what will be an incredible weekend of knowledge. Click HERE to read about the modular  300 hour training of which this weekend is a part. If you want a description of the module, just reach out in the comments, and I’ll email it to you.

Bye for now. Keep being awesome.

~E

 

31 Things I’ve Learned about Love in My Short Time Here on Earth

31 Things I’ve Learned about Love in My Short Time Here on Earth

 

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  1. It’s not guaranteed that we’ll get love from the people we’d like to feel it from
  2. It’s not guaranteed that we’ll get love the WAY we want from the people we wish would deliver in a specific way (even if we provide clear instructions)
  3. Love is a feeling AND a practice
  4. There is not always a direct corollary between being loved and feeling loved
  5. More people probably love you than you think
  6. Feeling love for someone, and making them FEEL loved are not the same thing
  7. The Golden Rule is a good place to start, but it doesn’t always work
  8. Not everyone wants to be loved the way YOU want to be loved
  9. Animals are great teachers in the practice of love
  10. The spontaneous love I feel for animals is something I quest for when I comes to humans
  11. Some people inspire love more spontaneously than others
  12. That doesn’t mean others are “less lovable”
  13. With our many flaws we all can benefit from the gracious allocation of love from people who have enough to give
  14. Love is a terrible catch-all term for many emotions that can come in a dizzying array of often-confusing composites…
  15. To love well, you must learn to love as many different ways as there are beings in your life
  16. Loving someone sometimes makes me bend my personal boundaries on their behalf…not always to everyone’s advantage
  17. Loving is a practice of looking deeply, understanding the suffering of another, and cultivating our capacity to remove their suffering
  18. I’m not a fan of the ooey-gooey teaching about love. It’s easy enough to say “love is the way” (#truth!), but without concrete teaching on HOW I’m left feeling incredibly unsatisfied
  19. Loving takes a strong heart. There will inevitably be pain involved
  20. A broken heart is a heart that is wide open to the world
  21. Heart practices are critical to the cultivation of a loving countenance and behaviors
  22. It’s helpful to others if we have an idea of how we would like to be loved. It begins to create a roadmap. Whether or not the people around us will use it is an entirely separate matter
  23. Love early and often. Better to speak our minds and hearts than to regret later that we didn’t
  24. A helpful question to guide our behavior is “what would love do?”
  25. Time spent loving is never time wasted
  26. I’d like to believe that everyone is born capable of loving
  27. I’d bet that the loving a human receives early on directly impacts their capacity to learn loving behaviors later
  28. “Deserving” is a loaded word when it comes to love
  29. Love can be transactional, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing
  30. I’m not sure unconditional love really exists, or if it does it is exceedingly rare
  31. “The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom” ~bell hooks

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The pretense of #gratitude

The pretense of #gratitude

Here’s a tip for you:

the quickest way to get grateful about things is to have them taken away from you.

Ever have an aspect of your health compromised? That will get you grateful real fast. When I broke my foot, and had to navigate stairs and subways in a New York winter, the value of bipedal mobility was made very apparent to me.

When one day, I woke up with a migraine headache, and now have had them for fifteen years, the value of a healthy nervous system was made very apparent to me.

Did you know that in a survey of countries, as it relates to happiness, the United States ranked 33rd in the nations of the world? Far, far behind what we still call “third world” nations, places where children still play games together outside, sometimes even using their imaginations. Remember that?

I think having so much really gets in the way of feeling grateful.

 

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Don’t get me wrong. Every sky strikes my heart through with awe and wonder, and heck–this might be the last sky I ever see. But, these moments can’t replace the numbness we feel in the rest of our lives, and a quest for #gratitude that is essentially desperate recognition that something is off. Something is wrong. At the foundation.

When I traveled to Cuba, way back in 1999, it was impossible not to notice that they had so very little. While we were there, everyone on the trip was a little hungry, the whole time. Because, there was far less food than we were accustomed to. One couple kinda knew about this, and had packed food. They had a stash of rice krispie treats. They shared one with me, and—wow!—I can’t recall that food ever tasting as good as it did then. I was grateful that they shared with me. I was grateful to have what I didn’t recognize back then as a sugar addiction satisfied a little bit. I took a piano lesson with a guy who is world renowned. And paid him $25 cash–more than his family might earn in a year. Think about that.

When I returned to the states after that trip, I recall my first trip to an American grocery store. It was overwhelming. There was so much! Do we really need 20 different options when it comes to toilet paper?

In the yoga world, #gratitude has become its own trope. Heck, I’ve even adopted it, and lead a retreat called “Practice Grace, Receive Gratitude.”* Every time I go to lead this retreat, I run up against a feeling inside, something that tells me I’m faking it a little bit. That I might be faking ought not to dissuade you from coming to the retreat—no, in fact, if you get caught up in these ideas of gratitude, and find yourself really having to cast around for something you’re grateful for besides, like, a cup of coffee (addiction much?), this retreat might be for you. Or, if you appreciate that a teacher grapples with themselves, even struggles with a concept, this retreat might be for you. I like to learn from people who didn’t master the topic immediately. It means they really had to “learn.” Innate talent for a topic doesn’t always yield the best teachers.

But don’t take my word for any of this. Continue to hear me out. If there’s one thing in the world I’m a warrior about, it’s ferreting out those moments where we’re faking it, modulating our behavior to fit some expectation, becoming less authentic along the way. It’s happening to us all the time, like entropy. I’m interested in the ways that we have become divorced from really feeling grateful in our lives, and started faking it. Don’t lie to me, and tell me that you really feel grateful every day. Really? Do you? Or have you just decided its “good” for you to say so, like eating kale, or drinking green tea? I’m sure you’re like most other Americans (or a citizen of some other developed world), drowning in TOO MUCH. Abundance, ironically, becomes its own trap.

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Behold. Another heart-breaking sky.

Think about it for a moment. What could you do without. Really, could you pare your existence down to the bare minimum? Like those Cubans—man, the U.S. embargo even blocked those people from having the simplest of medical supplies, and still they figured out how to have one of the BEST MEDICAL SYSTEMS in the WORLD. You might ask what I was doing in Cuba—funny you should ask. Delivering medical supplies. And musical instruments. One of the most prolific, creative societies in the world lacked tools with which to make their art. Reeds for clarinets. Spare parts for a saxophone. But did that stop them from making great art? NO. In fact, it probably motivated them even more to make BETTER ART. Take THAT world!!!

So much comes out of having less. Do not despair if you find yourself lacking. It will cook your character in the fires of (relative) hardship. And you will perhaps emerge, finding that you have discovered a depth of #grateful that you never knew existed. And that might make you grateful all over again.

 

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These tropes of grateful, they ask us to give thanks for a tree, or a cup of tea, saying the little things count. That’s not false, but it’s also not entirely true. The BIG things count too. Set your life on the right course, if you feel you’ve gotten off-track. Dig deep.

*actually, we used to call this retreat “Practice Gratitude, Receive Grace” and then realized that the relationship was backwards. If you’re interested in the retreat, click HERE to read my honest assessment, and description of what it’s about, and click HERE to view the registration page.

 

 

What does a Yogi Behave like?

What does a Yogi Behave like?

On Wednesday, November 9th, 2016, my main job was to ground people, get them breathing again, and give out terrific hugs.

New York was in shock.

Many great political commentators have already done a terrific job dissecting What Happened?!? As a person who has always been interested in the behavior of people, and more recently, as a yogi, I’m very curious about the decisions that lead voters to cast one way or another. Because at its core YOGA is early study of human psychology. For me, to be curious about yoga is to be curious about yourself, and about other people…I’m curious about YOU!

And as a leader in teaching yoga, I’m interested in the way our community responds, and more importantly how we behave, IN REAL LIFE.

Its lead me to think again about this one, core question:

How does a yogi behave?

And, more pointedly: How does a yogi behave in the face of adversarial conditions, full frontal assault, from other humans?

There are surface, signifying, yogic behaviors, that have become commonplace. Wear yoga pants. Attend yoga class. Do asana.

This is the beginning. These signifiers show that you have started to create a new relationship with yourself.

Then, you may hit a different, deeper layer. You start to talk to the people about “going with the flow” and “being in the moment” and “feeling what comes up” and “self love and acceptance” and “compassion and non-violence” and “accepting what is” and “living your truth.” All good things.

It is a behavior of a yogi to live an examined life. These outward verbal signifiers are signs that something transformative is occurring within you.

And, in the face of radical dissonance with the world outside—like we’re seeing now—this inward change may need to accelerate, so that you can BEHAVE outwardly like the change you wish to see in the world. IN REAL LIFE.

There is a story that is central to the texts yoga that tells us something about the behavior of a yogi. The story is called the Bhagavad Gita. In the central narrative—an epic poem of sorts—our main character, Arjuna, is facing his family on a battlefield. Unbeknownst to him, his charioteer is the God, Krishna.

They dialogue about Arjuna’s reluctance to fight his kin. Over the duration of the conversation, Krisha describes the attributes of a yogi, or the “wealth of divinely inclined persons.” (Quote, and the following list are from the Bhagavad Gita XVI:1-3) Note: for interpretations of these attributes, I’m relying heavily (exclusively?) on this website, because it is the only published commentary I was able to find.

Let’s take a look at this list, provided by a God. J

  1. Fearlessness: It is the quest of a yogi to eradicate “fear-based” behavior and thinking from his or her life. “Fear robs man of the indomitability of his soul.” (Yogananda). Fear is a primal, core emotion, and it hijacks a person’s ability to do…well anything, much less behave well.
  2. Purity of heart:Purity of heart means transparency to truth.” (Yogananda)
  3. Perseverance in acquiring wisdom and the practice of yoga: “Practice, and all is coming,” said Patthabi Jois.
  4. Charity: Unselfishness and generosity.
  5. Subjugation of the senses: Self-restraint means that you are master of your senses. They do not run you, yet they give you important information, with which you take right action in response.
  6. Performance of holy rites: What could this mean? A devotee, according to his state of development, may perform the symbolic physical rite of pouring clarified butter into fire, or the mental rite of burning wrong desires in the flames of wisdom, or the yogi’s spiritual rite of consuming human restlessness in the fire of soul ecstasy. In the ultimate, the whole of one’s life should be a holy rite, with every thought and act purified by a devout heart. (Yogananda)
  7. Study of the scriptures:Redemption does not come from what one knows intellectually, but from what one becomes as a result of that knowledge.” (Yogananda) Beware un-embodied, un-activated knowledge. Study ought to lead you to become a different person, and that is characterized by different choices and different behaviors, and therefore, different outcomes.
  8. Self-discipline: How do you train yourself? Do you have a practice of discipline? Through these practices you learn to train yourself to behave consciously, to respond instead of to react.
  9. Straightforwardness: This is a sign of being an honorable person. It ought not lull a person into thinking others are honorable as well. Heed the lessons of Ned Stark…
  10. Non-injury: Seek actions that hold at their core the good of all and harm to none.
  11. Truthfulness: Adhering to the truth may be the path to bring you to the Truth. Watch the many lies that we tell ourselves, they are the beginnings of the fog that obstructs our discernment of what is real and true.
  12. Freedom from wrath: Anger clouds a person’s judgment. Yogananda says that anger is caused by the obstruction of one’s desires. I think that’s true. I think anger also arises when your boundaries are violated. Anger is a very useful emotion, one to learn from, and to consider where it comes from. Then, once the emotion is not running you, you can select correct action and respond, not react. Remember this: angry people do not create peaceful outcomes. Never cook or eat angry—just think what it does to your food! Take this as a tangible model for what happens in your life when something is created from anger.
  13. Renunciation: This is an incredibly foreign concept in the age of immediate-gratification and entitlement. Consider this “deferred gratification.” Is there something we might forfeit today for a better outcome later?
  14. Peacefulness: As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.” Seek out tranquility, and eradicate the thoughts that disturb it. Life and the events around you will inevitably be upsetting. How you respond: that is your sole domain of control.
  15. Nonslanderousness: Translated to the absence of fault-finding and calumny “Absence of fault-finding hastens one’s spiritual evolution by freeing the mind from concentration on the weaknesses of others to focus wholly on the full-time job of bettering oneself. A person who, like a detective, is busy observing the shortcomings of others gets a false conviction of superiority— either that he himself is free from those blemishes or is otherwise qualified to appraise others. A critical person rarely perfects his own life.” (Yogananda)
  16. Compassion for all creatures: Seems pretty clear. Sometimes people get hung up on what “compassion” means. Consider it sympathy for the suffering of others, and the desire to remove that suffering, a ability to do so, and the courage to take the action needed to make it so.
  17. Absence of greed: When you master your senses, and understand yourself and the origin of greed and envy, they wither away…
  18. Gentleness: Seems pretty straight-forward. Do you think gentle thoughts? Do you speak gently? Touch gently?
  19. Modesty: Consider for a moment all the truly GOOD people you know. They are (or were) probably quiet, humble, moderate. And in fact, these things were in part to source of their power, not a result of it.
  20. Lack of restlessness: “Absence of restlessness enables one to avoid physical and mental roamings and useless activities. Nervousness and restlessness are usually caused by constant indulgence in sense pleasures or by habitual negative thoughts or by emotional problems or by “driving” traits like worldly ambition.” (Yogananda)
  21. Radiance of character:Divine radiance in the devotee is further characterized by a natural unfoldment of spiritual magnetism, an unassumed vibratory aura of goodness, and a quiet outer expression of deep inner joy.” (Yoganada)
  22. Forgiveness: “If you become vengeful or angry, you only make more enemies, for an angry person is the target of all.” (Yogananda)
  23. Patience: Seems simple enough. But I think there are two kinds of patience. One, is defined as fortitude. It’s the ability to withstand to forces of your life and not allow them to deter you from your goal of…being a better person. Then, there is the kind of patience you exhibit with other people. Children. Strangers. Family. People whom, under certain circumstances you’d really rather act like a jerk to. Patience means that in your speech and actions with others, you restrain yourself and help them either behave differently, or, when you just want to be a jerk just because, you resort to gentleness, humility, and compassion instead.
  24. Cleanliness: Cleanliness of the body and purity of the mind helps create a clear space for all of these other attributes.
  25. Freedom from hate: Hatred clouds your ability to see yourself in all beings, and all beings as an extension of the Creator.
  26. Absence of conceit: Lack of conceit signifies absence of excessive pride. (Yogananda)

This is quite a list to work with, yogis. Now, let’s consider how many of these are applicable, say in interactions with people whose political views anger you in person or on the internet.

You might get upset and say, “fuck your list of behaviors! That person is repulsive! They don’t deserve to be treated well!”

I’m sure that horrible person thinks the same of you.

Always take the high road. Behave with grace, and elegance, and be a beacon. BEHAVE like the change you wish to see in the world.

I’m thinking to take this year to really delve deeply into this list of qualities, and consider them more whole heartedly, with an article dedicated to each. It’s that important, at this very moment in time. Stand by.

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Yoga Teachers: KNOW YOUR WORTH

Yoga Teachers: KNOW YOUR WORTH

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NYC requires armor of a sort: hat, headphones, backpack filled with survival gear (change of clothes, snack, book, water bottle)

Hello, fellow yoga teacher! I teach in New York City. Where do you teach?

Here in New York City, I’ve been witnessing a trend that’s been happening over the past few years. The trend has these main features:

  1. Class times have gotten shorter.
  2. Yoga is increasingly marketed as “fitness.”

Is this happening in your region too? Perhaps even these two elements walk hand-in-hand with a well-branded yoga studio that promotes the weight-loss benefits of hot power yoga. That yoga studio probably also has showers. Yay! It’s nice to shower after showering in your own sweat.

Sadly, though, these market trends have forced yoga instructors to compete with cycling, and barre, and Zumba, and whatever fun new activity that’s springing up. Because, well, if yoga is fitness, then it’s gotta stand up in the fitness market-place. And, if that’s the confine you’re working with, then your worth boils down to how good a workout can you give, and relentless physical instruction.

Let’s go back in time a bit, and take a look at your own personal history. Why did you start practicing yoga? Why did you decide to take a teacher training? Why do you continue to teach? I’m going to wager a bet that none of this has to do with a burning desire to deliver a great workout. Am I right?

So here’s the deal. Really, this is my plea to you, because I believe, that as a collective force, we yoga teachers have the potential to really do a lot of good in the world.

  • Your worth is not how well you can instruct a triangle. (Although you gotta do that well, too.)
  • Your worth is not how many calories a person can burn in hot power class. (Sweating more does not mean that you burn more calories.)
  • Your worth is not in your capacity to fit some mold of “what you think a yoga teacher should look like.” (Cute and young doesn’t last forever. At some point, everyone will realize this.)
  • Your worth does not even rest in the beauty or awe-inspiring nature of your physical practice. (Handstands are cool, yes. But 98% of the population is not that interested in yours, nor in doing one themselves.)

You are worth So. Much. More.

So, what is your worth? Your ability to influence.

That’s it. If you can figure out how to influence people to do what’s best for them, do what feels good to their heart, soul, spirit—that, my love, is a skill whose value far eclipses all those other cool things I mentioned.

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You gotta be willing to take a stand for something. Start with taking a stand for yourself, and what you believe in.

Your super power: you help people find out who they really are, and therefore live the kind of life that they really want to live.

That’s it.

Well, sort of. It’s more easily said than done. And that’s why I spend YEARS talking to my yoga business clients about this one super-important question that will guide you learning to understand your value, as it intersects with the needs and desires of other people in the world. Ready? Here’s the #1 question you have to answer.

What is the most important lesson that you want all of your students to learn from you?

If you can figure this out, you will be farther along than 99% of the yoga teachers out there in understanding what is your worth. Because when you know, without a shadow of a doubt, what you want your people to learn the people who would like to learn that from you will show up. And when those people show up, then you can really stand in your power and teach to your highest ability. No more trying to fit into that yoga fitness model. No, no. If anything, that short changes what we all have to offer the world. You have so much more to teach our people than how to get in shape (which is a good thing too). But you, my love, are destined for more…That’s why you wanted to teach yoga!

Anyway. If you want to work with me on all of the nuts and bolts of this deep question, and how to build a congruent business around that center ideal, then reach out to me. I have business programs that I would like to tell you about. And people doing amazing work in those programs, who I hope are going on to effen CHANGE THE WORLD. Bwa-ha-ha!

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Also: yoga teaches you to know yourself. So, what I’m asking is at heart of the yoga practice. I like to think I’m an earth angel. Thus: the wings. What are you?

Regardless, I wish you to find your value, and stand in it, and share it with the world, and feel relevant, empowered, and appreciated, for all the good that you bring to the world. Amen.

The Consequences of Being Yourself

The Consequences of Being Yourself

One of the things I learned at yoga was this:

The greatest services you can do for the world is to heal yourself. Why? Because unless you are well, you cannot help others.

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The skys in New York are always arresting…

As a girl from the Midwest, steeped in a puritan world-view, self care was basically an indulgence. Taking care of yourself made you that horrible word a person would never want to be associated with: selfish.

But at yoga, I learned that self-care was the opposite of selfish. It was a sacred duty.

I believe that this idea comes from an aspect of the yoga teachings that is blurred together with the ideas of karma and dharma. Dharma is your life’s sacred work. And, we all have things to learn. So, the work of healing our hurts and traumas so that we can be the best version of ourselves, well, that is our highest calling in life.

I learned another thing at yoga, too:

You are enough.

Have you heard this? I bet perhaps you have. It’s another, well, frankly, subversive idea, because everywhere in our lives we are taught the opposite. Never is a person smart enough, thin enough, good-looking enough, ripped enough, wealthy enough, loved enough…

So, where does this idea—you are enough—come from, you might ask?

Another mish-mash teaching, yogic, Buddhist, who knows, they all are second-cousins once removed after all, BUT! The essential teaching, as I’ve understood it, is that at your heart, you are divine. And, well, the Divine, is pure good, right? So you must be pure good, right? And, well, THAT’S enough, of course!

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I am a field of flowers…

Ah. Here’s where I get tangled.

And here’s where I think that many seekers do what we call a spiritual bypass, which is basically a feat of logical distortion to keep everything looking really pretty.

Let’s back up. I think that “you’re enough” is a very good, very effective way of getting everybody to calm the fuck down, and stop questing, and perhaps even to look at WHAT really IS.

Right? Because if you stopped trying to be something that you’re not, you could get accustomed to who and what you really are. And “you’re enough” is a way of saying “hey, you’re O.K. just the way you are, so relax a bit, and just be yourself.”

This is a good thing. If people stopped trying to be something that they are not, I think that our world would be a much more transparent place. And, people would know themselves for a change.

 

But this attending idea that everything that you’ll find when you look inside is good, and cool, and beautiful…? Well, that’s where everything goes sideways.

There’s another reason people quest to be something else. It’s because if they really did the hard work of looking inside, they might find something they didn’t like. Sometimes you already know this, even without looking too far. You look in the mirror and wince. And then put on a full face of makeup. It’s like that, but looking INSIDE, instead of outside.

So, what if you looked inside, and you discovered that you are truly an asshole. And all these years you’ve been trying to tell yourself that you’re not? Is that “divine,” or “enough” to be a jerk?

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I’m not a jerk…I’m a snaillllll….

 

I tend to think that the idea Our Creator is inherently loving is specious. I end up more on the Taoist end of things: nature is all things. It’s death AND life. It’s good AND evil. I’ve learned somewhere from someone that the original energies that formed us keep us in the dark about what we truly are, because if we knew that were are Divine, we would not have the very human experiences that we do. Creator has no body, see, and wants to experience EVERYTHING. All the good things and all the bad. And, I think, the only logical answer for why that might be, is that Creator is ALL THINGS. Not just, selectively benevolent, and good…

 

So, in truth, I think that it CAN be divine to be a jerk. The real question is, are YOU O.K. with knowing that you are a jerk, and living your life as such? Is it “enough” to be a jerk? Is your “healing” life’s work accomplished if you accept your jerk-like nature? It’s really up to you, I’d say, and this—the deciding—is part of the quest. Working to become a “better” person, if that’s your wish, or fully embracing who and what you are. JERK. After all, a scorpion never tries to be a canary. The folly is yours if you ever expect a scorpion to behave like a canary. But, if you realize that you are a scorpion…are you ready to deal the consequences of being yourself…?

 (Photo by Ray Tamarra)
Bwa-ha-ha

 

 

 

The True Power of Yoga

The True Power of Yoga

IMG_4294Every now and again, as a yoga teacher, I think to myself what in the world am I aspiring to accomplish by teaching yoga???

These sorts of questions are, I think, healthy ones.

They keep me honest. They keep me on track. They keep me on my toes…

In the end, the questions with which I torment myself benefit my students. Because the clearer I am about what I want my students to learn from me, the better I will be at conveying those lessons.

It gets muddled. Am I just teaching how to do poses?

No…that’s not it…

My longing and aspiration through teaching yoga is to teach the magic of transformation. Before you roll your eyes and stop reading because I used some fluffy language…hang on for a moment. Hear me out.

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I believe that people have a deep desire for change. We are scared of it, to be sure, but we also long for adventure, and, well, it’s hard to deny that change is adventurous.

For me, magic IS change. Change IS magic. Think about it. When was the last time that a person you knew really changed, and for the better? Did you wonder how they did it? Did you have a longing to experience something similar? Probably, even if you asked that person to describe the process they might glance away and shrug their shoulders and say something like, well, I couldn’t really describe exactly how I did it, but…

Even for the person who has experienced the change, it is a mystery. A mysterious, yet REAL change: that is magic. And “transformation” is just a fancy word for change.

Now, transformation suggests that there was a before and after. And the HOW, the thing in between “before” and “after” is part of the mystery. But, I have an answer for the question what is the magic that got you from “here” to “there”?

I know. You’ve already guessed, right?

Yoga.

And, so when I ask myself, what in the world am I aspiring to accomplish by teaching yoga??? This is it. My heartfelt answer, is:

If I can show just ONE person how to become the kind of person they MOST want to be, that would be a good deed.

And now I ask you this.

What is more difficult a task than to change a person? Think about the people around you who you wish would change, even just in little ways. Good luck. There are better ways to spend your time than to try to change people, right?

But, what if a person really WANTS to change? What would you advise them to do?

You might not think to suggest to them “go to yoga.” And, personally, I wouldn’t blame you. It’s not like yoga teachers these days are known of as change agents.

  • You wanna gain some flexibility? Go to yoga.
  • You wanna decrease your experience of stress? Go to yoga.
  • You wanna get a cute butt, and learn to handstand? Go to yoga.
  • Maybe even, someone might suggest yoga for your back pain.
  • Maybe even, someone might suggest yoga to help you lose weight.
Yoga portraits at JR Studio on December 12, 2015 in NYC. (Photo by Ray Tamarra)
Photo by Ray Tamarra

But, if you had a serious, elusive change you wanted to make? A quirk in your personality that keeps sabotaging you? A dark memory that you can’t seem to get out from under? A false belief about yourself that, no matter how many times people tell you otherwise, you cannot disabuse yourself of?

People might suggest therapy. But yoga? Probably not.

I get it. It’s not well-explained, nor well-taught HOW yoga can help you become a better version of yourself.

And, this is the quest that keeps me teaching yoga. Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE teaching the physical aspects of yoga.

But THIS is a lesson of value. If you can learn to change, you now have acquired a super-power.

Shall I show you how? 🙂 

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What does yoga have to say about freedom?

What does yoga have to say about freedom?

Erica_9894_FINALWhen I came to yoga, I was suffering. Quite literally. I experience migraine headaches, and had heard that yoga could reduce stress, and therefore reduce my migraines.

Many people come to yoga, to free themselves from physical suffering. I was one of them.

Yoga is described as the path of liberation. If you are seeking to become liberated, the question is, from what?

The overarching answer, says yoga, is suffering.

People suffer in all kinds of ways. They suffer most obviously from physical pain, like back pain. Carpal tunnel. Migraines. Acid reflux.

Physical suffering is just the first layer.

Dive underneath that, and you’ll locate the next layer of suffering: Emotional. These things manifest most prominently as depression and anxiety. Depression is described as melancholy about the past. Anxiety is fear over the future. Both keep us away from the moment that can actually change us: now.

Yoga teaches that all kinds of emotional suffering arises from your perceptions, which are clouded by ego, attachment, refusal, and fear. This was before it was known that emotions can also be modulated through our internal chemical environment.

As I practiced more, my physical suffering changed, and through it I could see that much of it was also affected by my emotional suffering.

This realization alone is a kind of liberation, which leads to an increasing experience of freedom.

In retrospect I realized one of the very first fundamental kinds of freedom is the ability to understand yourself, and your situation.

This brings us to the third layer of suffering: the kind generated by our thoughts. And, our thoughts are mostly dictated by our perceptions. Often, it is the way that we perceive things that causes our suffering.

This is true. But.

Where I think yoga falls short for us, sometimes, because our teachers haven’t reached for real teachings, is in how these ideas and philosophies were developed for ascetics, not for householders. Not for modern people who really are actually, legitimately trapped in circumstances that limit their freedom.

The freedom that yogis taught about was really intended for people of a certain caste. It wasn’t for everyone.

As a woman committed to humanism, free thinking, writing, and expression for all, I want to know how yoga can teach me about soci-economic freedom. Racial injustice. Extricating ourselves from the the kinds of religious,sexual, and reproductive confinements that we see circling in around us.

How will yogis define freedom now? What kind of liberation can we offer people whose actual civil liberties are being threatened and taken away?

Freedom is the ability to change your circumstances—internal and external. No one can ever rob you of your internal freedom, its true. But, it’s sure nice not to have to console yourself with that fact in the face of human rights atrocities.

Suffering also arises from entrapment in binaries. When you speak of freedom, it immediately introduces the opposite. There is only ONE way for freedom to truly exist: for everyone to be free. Which would mean that no one would have any knowledge of freedom, or its opposite.

Can you imagine a world where everyone experiences freedom, and the people—and all living beings—are so immersed in freedom, just swimming in it, breathing it, that they don’t even know what it is? Or that it exists?

So what does this have to do with the picture I posted? I was asked recently “what does freedom LOOK like?” because, ya know, we live in this digital, visual, social media world. I posted this picture, because, sidebends feel like freedom to me. They were one of the first experiences of freedom I had, in my body.

And yet.

A sidebend will NEVER substitute for things like reproductive rights, the right to earn the same wage for the same work, the right to vote free of harassment or intimidation, the right to love who you want, have sex with who you want, marry who you want, worship the god you want, die when and how you want. These things can only be written about, talked about, argued about, debated. But. In the end, we must remember this: for you to be truly free, ALL beings must be free. Everywhere. Always.

What does it mean to “Adore Your Body?”

What does it mean to “Adore Your Body?”

Screen-shot-2014-01-29-at-10-1.39.03-PM-960x474A couple of years ago I crafted a Signature System to help men and women get over their body image challenges. I named it “Adore Your Body.”

I was looking for some words that were “gender neutral” but still encompassed the mission. For me, the word “love” is over-used, misunderstood, and also has some sexual connotations. I didn’t want people to think the program is about masturbation! And yet, I know that some recoiled from the title. For many, to adore your body is a far stretch, already out of reach. For more people than you might think the starting point was “I hate my body”—it was for me!—and from that low, low point a step up would be, well, to hate it just a little less. Maybe, “loathe,” or “despise,” or even “tolerate” would be a really great place to move into!

When I crafted the course title, the body positive movement was just gaining steam. Since that time in 2013, the movement seems to have plateaued a bit: there’s far less writing on the topic, and I think perhaps thanks to Tess Holiday attention has pivoted to acceptance of fat bodies, which is in-and-of-itself a good thing! In the intervening couple of years, there was a lot of writing that I think transformed the project of bolstering your body confidence into yet another female social obligation, one where, if you fell short, it was just yet another task to fail. Bummer. In response to that new social pressure, some people decided to opt out. Why should I have to love my body? They asked? Isn’t it enough just to call a truce?

Yes it can be, and to my point, reaching a neutral place with your body is a terrific place that falls along this spectrum that I’m talking about, where HATE lies at one end, and well, I’m proposing that “adore” lies at the other.

Another critique of the movement was around the project of “body improvement.” So, if you want to improve your body, is that necessarily a form of body hatred, or could it possibly be another form of body love? My answer: it all depends on the intent behind the action. And, the only person who can really be honest about that is YOU. So you want to loose weight because you enjoy the project of working out, eating well, being at the gym, and having measurable results? Cool! But, I ask you this: would you be able to feel good about yourself if you were unable to do all those things? Would you be cool with an extra 10 pounds? Because if you can’t, then you’re probably not really adoring your body.

Why? Here’s the thing. In my mind “adoring” is an unconditional kind of gig. As best as fallible humans can pull of “unconditional.” “Adoring” means, I respect and honor you through thick and thin, through good times, and bad, though health and illness. You don’t have to do anything, achieve anything to be awarded my love. It is enough that you ARE, and for that I adore you.

Adoring is not the kind of emotion that says: I only approve of you IF you look a certain way, behave a certain way, achieve certain things, HAVE certain things. Those are the hallmarks of a conditional kind of love. That is not “adoring.” And, I believe, that is not even love. It is a cage.

O.K. that’s all well and good, you might be thinking, but, what does adoring look like in practice? When I slam up against all the difficulty and messiness of life: then what???

I have ideas for you, and some of them have to do with how do you practice yoga, because on the mat is the place where I began to unravel my own body hatred. If you don’t practice yoga yet reach out to me, and I’ll help you find a good teacher to work with. It’s important that you get some guidance in this department, because not all yoga instructors are trained around how to promote body positivity in the classroom.

If your body is injured, ill, or tired, respond to that accordingly. The demands of our daily lives often seem to take precedence over, well, everything, including the body that houses all other parts of us. Over centuries, we have come to treat the body like it is a machine, but it is not. The body is a mysterious, complex, and intelligent organism. What would it feel like to treat it with that kind of due respect?

Yoga portraits at JR Studio on December 12, 2015 in NYC. (Photo by Ray Tamarra)
Lounge Lunge is like my favorite pose ever. (Photo by Ray Tamarra)

Here are a few thoughts:

If you’re injured and continuing your yoga practice, you need to modify the postures. If you’re not sure how, find a skilled instructor who can help you figure out what to do in the poses that threaten your injury.

If you are sick (like a cold, or a headache, or something like that): don’t go to work! Don’t “push through.” Rest. If you are tired, notice that, and adjust your routine accordingly. Can you go to sleep earlier? Can you catch a 20-minute nap? Could you put your legs up the wall at your office?

The ways that we are cruel to our bodies begin here with small, daily occurrences. And, we have an opportunity to alter that relationship, every day, through small behavior adjustments.

If you gain some weight. Wait. Don’t do anything. Often people gain weight and freak out. They think it’s a bad thing to gain weight. And why wouldn’t they? Everything about our society tells us that to be thin is to be virtuous and to be fat is to be reviled. But, I ask you, why do you buy into this? Have you really thought it through? Where did this construct come from? How does it fit into a historical context? What is the function of this ideology? There was a time when being thin was unattractive and being fat was IT. These ideals as not inherently “good” or “bad.” We have decided that they are. And we can “un-decide.”

So, if you gain three pounds or five, or twenty, refrain from:

  • Putting yourself on a diet, cleanse, juice fast
  • Doubling down on your exercise regime
  • Thinking doomsday thoughts

Instead, get curious about what your body is doing, and why. Is it responding to the season? Is it building new hair, bones, or fingernails? When your body puts on some pounds, its not “doing it to you.” It has its own agenda, which you mostly know nothing about. So, get curious. Curiosity is part of “adoring.”

Watch the way you talk about your body. Watch the way you THINK about other people’s bodies.

Very often we think and say derogatory things about our bodies. There are so very many reasons that we do this. I’m not gonna get into it. I’ve got one thing to say: STOP IT.

Often we think ill thoughts about other people: Why did she think wearing that was O.K.? Fashion FAIL! Looks like she’s put on a few pounds. Getting wrinkles! She’s aged badly…

Take your pick of cruel thoughts. But here’s the deal: those are fears about yourself that you have projected onto other people. So, instead of doing a silent mental laceration of another human being, shift into a place of curiosity and compassion. Try these thoughts instead:

Wow, what an original outfit! I wonder what made her think to put those things together today. Or, maybe she was just down to the very last clean items. Haha! I know what that feels like!

 She’s got such a cute look: no matter whether she’s a little thinner or a little heavier, I just adore everything about her.

Wrinkles are so great. They show a life-line on the face. Hopefully there’s a lot of laughs there! I hope that the past few years haven’t been too hard on her…Maybe I should check in…

A word or twelve about food: We live in a “diet culture.” What does that mean, you ask? It means that in our society, dieting is considered compulsory and a sign of virtue, especially for women. Here’s what I’ve got to say about that. No one knows better than your body does what it needs to eat. The entire process of undoing ideas of “I should eat this” or “I shouldn’t eat that” can take many years. But in the end, no book, no other human or “authority figure” can figure out for you what you need to eat. It’s a private and intimate conversation between you and your body. And, believe me, your body WANTS to eat nutritious, yummy food! So, consider “adoring” to include going on a quest to find out what your body really wants, when, and how much. No one likes to be starved. Don’t do it. Don’t do it ever again.

Finally, be sweet, and gentle, and generous with touch. When you touch your own body—if you pay attention carefully—you might be surprised to discover that you poke, prod, pinch, twist, scratch. Most of these are probably not experiences that a person would submit to as a form of receiving love. Begin the process of building an adoring relationship with your body by touching it in ways that it responds to favorably. Be respectful. Be gentle. Be kind. These are ideals that can go along with “adoring.”

Start with the practices. And, if you’d like to go deeper, hop on my mailing list at www.ericamather.com, and you’ll hear all the news, including when I roll out my next body confidence coaching program. I hope to have to opportunity to work with you! I’m passionate about this project, and view it as a lifelong adventure, building a positive relationship with the body so that you can stop wasting time in the energy drain of body hatred and instead use your life for your own good, and for the good of everyone around you. I hope to hear from you soon!