Feeling True Again

CIMG1075Yoga has been my ‘centering place’ for thirty years – the one true place to which I turn when my soul needs to celebrate or my heart needs mending. I can stretch the blues away with a few flying dragons or settle unbridled joy by closing my eyes to breathe.

Or at least I could.

Even though I’m now on the other side of the depressive episode that turned my otherwise colorful world black and white, I struggle to find the words to describe the guilt I feel for having fallen ill and the remorse that stains my recovery.

I am a yoga teacher. Today’s ‘californicated’ version of the simple practice I embraced in 1984 promises, with a fixed smile and soft focused gaze, that with the right intention, a few appropriately placed crystals and the strike of a gong all chugged down with a bottle of organic kombucha we can keep the demons from our door and hold close our health and wellness.

I believe this. Or at least most of it. I believe in the power of yoga. I believe in a mind/body connection and that what we think affects what we feel. I have experienced the healing vibration of bells, gongs, tuning forks and even, sometimes, pretty rocks. While I don’t always choose wisely, for the most part my diet is vegetable based and, on occasion, includes the weird tasting fermented fungus otherwise known as kombucha. It’s true. I believe all these things help to sustain our health and wellness. If we’re already pretty much healthy and well.

But last year I wasn’t healthy and well. I needed an allopathic intervention of therapy and pharmaceuticals to change the course of the path I was on.

I’ve experienced three episodes of depression in the past decade. It’s possible I fought my way through the first two but more likely all three are part of the same fluctuating persistent depressive disorder. The last dip, triggered about two years ago, was the most severe and included increased anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Still, I resisted seeking help because I believed, as a yoga teacher, I had the tools to lift myself out of the dark pit I had fallen into. I thought if I could just think the right thoughts, practice enough gratitude and eat good food a bit of light would once again fill my heart. I didn’t want to admit that what was happening to me was more than a bad mood or the blues. I didn’t want to admit that I wasn’t strong enough to heal on my own. I didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t yoga my way to better mental health.

I was convinced that if what I knew about yoga and complementary therapies after working in the industry for twenty-five years wasn’t enough to restore me – that if I had to resort to pharmaceutical intervention – then my practice and my teaching was based on a lie. I was a fraud. If I was a fraud, then what did my life mean?
That’s how ill I was.

I’m not alone.

Depression and anxiety are two of the most common mental disorders in the United States. In fact, in 2014 almost 16 million adults over the age of eighteen or older had experienced at least one depressive episode in the previous twelve months. You may be one of the 40 million adults in America who suffer from debilitating anxiety. Most individuals who have anxiety are also depressed.

At the same time, we read reports about the over-prescribing of antidepressants. But if I’d not been given the prescription I’ve been taking since the beginning of winter, this summer would be looking very, very different.

When I finally let go of the idea I’ve heard so many yoga teachers express to their students – that the magical cure for what ails us can’t be found in an orange bottle of little white pills – that’s when the downhill slide I was on began to level. I filled the prescription my doctor offered and within four weeks began to smile in the morning. A few weeks later I could feel my soul warm and now, nine months on the journey, I’m writing again. I’m walking and riding my bike again. Most of all I’m laughing and loving again. I feel better than I have in many years. My yoga practice is strong and my love of teaching has blossomed.

That little white pill may have saved my life. Even if it didn’t, even if I would have finally been all right without it, this little morning pill has given me the strength to open my heart once again to all the self-care tools that have kept me strong in the past – before depression and anxiety had their way with me.

My message? If you are struggling and you think that a deeper asana practice is the cure, or that all the other tools in your self-care plan will bring you back to yourself – maybe they will. But if you suspect, or if someone suggests to you, that you may be seriously depressed, please find a doctor you trust and let them help you.
Besides loving Ben, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. I feel true again.


New Year, New Practice

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What sort of teacher will I be this year?  What can I promise my students? What intentions should I set?

2017 marks my twenty-fourth year of teaching.  To the best of my recollection the first yoga class I taught was on behalf of Mountain View Adult Education.  Or maybe it was the Parks and Recreation department.  In any case, my ‘studio’ was a carpeted classroom filled with desks.  Every Saturday morning I arrived early to push aside them aside in order to create space for all five (on a good day) of my students.  We didn’t have mats.  Instead we rolled out towels or worked on the carpet.  We wore tee shirts and shorts and had no props or music.  This was well before yoga teachers doubled as mix masters; before the Yoga Industrial Complex entered the stratosphere .

I taught the class as I had been taught:  demonstrate, practice, refine, demonstrate and then move to the next asana.  There may have been vinyasa classes happening somewhere but not in my cloistered Iyengar yoga community.

Two and a half decades has seen tremendous change.  I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to feeling a twinge of nostalgia for the way things used to be.  I miss teaching for the love of teaching. Sometimes these days it feels as though there’s a competition to see who’ll be featured at the next Wonderlust gig or land the cover of Yoga Journal.

Back in the late 20th century we were so earnest. There was something so pure about it all.  There was never any hope of my surviving and thriving as a yoga teacher and that was fine. In fact, unless you were that rare breed – a studio owner (and when I began teaching the Iyengar Yoga Center was the only studio in town; Yoga Source wouldn’t open until 1994) you had no choice but to keep the day job.  Of course, back then I was a starving artist and a fledgling yoga teacher. What was I thinking? No wonder I packed it in and headed for Ireland!

But that was then and this is now.  For a time I tried to keep up with it all. I completed my 200-hour training and then a few more trainings after that. I joined Yoga Alliance.  As recently as last year I upgraded my YA designations and became a Continuing Education Provider but now I’m wondering ‘why‘?

The answer is so that I can find my place in this 21st  century iteration of yoga.  And there is a place for me – the older teacher.  I’m happy to hand off much of what modern yoga is to the more ambitious.  Knowing that I can me brings a bittersweet strength and liberation.

So. What sort of teacher will I be this year? I know I’ll continue to teach my truth.  And for what it’s worth, that is my intention and my promise.


For the New Teacher: The Business of Yoga

IMG_0168Sometimes it’s hard to think of those two words together: business and yoga. But yoga is a business. It’s a very big business. In fact, it’s a $27 billion dollar industry. And as yoga teachers we have a choice. It begins with asking the questions, “What does success as a yoga teacher mean to me? Is it about money? Fame?” Maybe it is. Maybe that’s your dharma. There’s no shame in being a yoga rock star who travels the world leading workshops or lands the cover of Yoga Journal. But what if your dharma is leading one class a week for seniors at the local recreation center? Or teaching underserved populations? Or not teaching at all?

I think for most of us there’s a middle path. I think most of us envision teaching three, maybe four classes a week, taking on some private clients, teaching a few specialized workshops and finding a local studio that holds space for our work and encourages us to grow. A studio we can call our yoga home.

It won’t happen over night, but if that’s what you want there is some groundwork you can put in place that will support the journey:

Join Yoga Alliance. Your 200-hour certificate will allow you to register with YA with the designation “RYT.” As you begin to teach you’ll keep track of your hours and you’ll be able to upgrade your designation. In time you’ll also qualify as a Yoga Alliance Continuing Education Provider (YACEP). This is a good thing. It means that, eventually and with enough experience, you will be able to offer workshops through which students can accrue continuing education units. As members of YA we are required to continue our education. This can include contact hours like workshops or additional trainings or it can include non-contact hours like research and publishing. Joining Yoga Alliance won’t make you a better teacher. But it’s a great resource. There is a yearly membership fee involved but there are also member benefits. Explore the Yoga Alliance website to see if it’s a good fit for you.

Have adequate insurance. Some studios will have policies that will cover you but if you intend to rent space to teach or to see private clients in their homes you must have liability insurance. The Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance websites will have information about how to find low cost insurance.

Continue learning. Attend classes, take workshops, read the latest research. Practice what you teach.

Cultivate a professional reputation:  Show up for classes on time, start class on time and finish on time, be present for your students – be an active listener, do not speak disparagingly of fellow teachers or studios, take the Yamas and the Niyamas to heart.

And that’s pretty much it. Almost…you may want to consider having a professional headshot to use for marketing purposes, creating a basic website to list your classes or, if you’re up to it, creating a blog.  Social media accounts dedicated to your practice and teaching are a nice idea, too.

What about taxes? It’s not as tricky as you think.

If you are an employee at a studio it is like any other job.  You’ll receive tax forms at the end of the year and you will file as usual.
If you are an independent contractor you will need to fill out a Schedule C when you file your taxes.  So keep good records of everything you earn and everything you spend for your yoga business. You might receive 1099 Forms from places you work. You most likely won’t receive these from private clients.
If you are an independent contractor and therefore self-employed, remember that you will owe not only income tax but self-employment tax (Social Security & Medicare) therefore you should pay quarterly estimated taxes.

 

 


We All Have Something to Say

IMG_1815Last month I walked past the sandwich board outside of University Avenue’s Lululemon emporium twice every Tuesday and Thursday for two weeks and each time I wanted to kick it. In my wildest moments I envisioned myself carrying a can of spray paint so no one else would walk past, read its message, and have that little moment of feeling less than. What words did I find so offensive?

My mascara runs faster than you do.

I’m guessing the marketing genius who came up with that tag line believed she was being light-hearted, and that it was meant to inspire those women for whom running is a passion. But for the rest of us – the walkers and Sunday bikers, or the woman balancing work, kids and all of life’s unexpected surprises – it was offensive.

Am I over-reacting? Maybe.

Except that it happens all the time. Social media is crowded with words that, on the surface, appear to inspire. But pick at the corner and peel back the shiny veneer and underneath you’ll find a subtext – intended or not – that is mean spirited and ugly.

If your dreams don’t scare you they’re not big enough.

What?

I have dreams that are small enough to hold in my hand. I have bigger dreams, too, and I have dreams that are the size of all the beating hearts in the world and are unlikely to ever come true – but they still make me smile. Dreams that scare? Those are called nightmares.

We need to consider the words we choose, the words we share.

We’re all writers now and it’s a dangerous thing because it’s so easy to stick to the slick surface of a pretty sentence. But words and sentences and the messages we’re trying to send have layered context and connotations.

There’s an essay making the rounds on social media from a young yoga teacher. You can read that essay here. She screams her way through five hundred or so words, lambasting the yoga industrial complex and layering her argument with more than a few expletives. She ends her rant with this:

…It is ALL f***ing yoga! There is no concrete, set in stone, no if ands or buts way to teach or practice yoga…

As I watched the likes and hearts, the shares and affirmative comments pile up I had to wonder what I was missing.

Because I believe she’s wrong.

And she’s wrong in the same way that Lululemon’s sandwich board sign was wrong and that passive aggressive adages reminding me that my dreams should be scary disguised as deep and meaningful philosophy are wrong.

The nuances of teaching are, of course, up to the individual teacher’s personality and whims but the core of yoga and the asana we practice is part of a system that has evolved over thousands of years. If we play music at savasana does it interfere with our practice of concentration and truthfulness? Yes, it does. It transforms savasana – the most difficult of poses – into sleepy relaxation. What is our intention as teachers? As yogis? If our practice has evolved to a state where anything goes – as this yoga teacher’s essay implies – then I want out.

Yoga, at its core, is about self-regulation. It’s about observing, understanding, reacting – all with clarity and honesty. It’s about being aligned with the Yamas and Niyamas.

I know that a dear friend of mine would suggest I’m taking myself too seriously. Taking yoga too seriously. Of course I am.

Yoga is not a witty aphorism. It’s my life.


Duty Bound

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Researching for a novel I was writing.

Eight months is a long time. It’s two hundred and forty days, give or take. That’s how long it has been since I abandoned my writing practice. My photography? I abandoned that when I packed up my darkroom and sold my printer in 1994. Then, and now, I had my reasons. Life was busy. Work was all consuming. It still is.

When does our sense of commitment to a job and to others supersede abandoning the touchstone that speaks to our heart? When did I trade my creative life for a life of duty?

My work as a yoga teacher and program director at Samyama Yoga Center brings a sense of immense personal accomplishment. My work with chronic pain patients, most recently as someone who offers training to yoga teachers new to working with this demographic, fills me with joy.

But along the way I’ve lost my balance. These activities – these wonderful things that bring food to my plate and keep a roof over my head – have become all consuming. So while I have enough creature comforts to keep me fed, clothed and sheltered my soul feels raw for the lacking.

I crave a wholesome life. I crave a life that supports my happily charging forth duty bound into the fray and a life that is blessed with the time to hold my emotional heart in my hands.

This dilemma is not unique to me and I am grateful that this simple idea of finding balance and that honoring my creative heart is my biggest problem. All in all, I am a very lucky woman.

Still, it feels good to be back.


Resolve and Forgiveness

IMG_1521I was recently asked by the Palo Alto Weekly to write an article about setting New Year’s Resolutions.  I interviewed, via email and phone, several individuals who offered lovely insights.   I want to thank them:  Professional coach Linda Furness, personal trainer Steven Rice, chef Anna Rakoczy from Homemade, Dr. Rebecca Green from Peninsula Integrative Medicine,  Dr. Fred Luskin from Stanford University and Arda, author of the book The Seeker’s Manual. You can click here to see the final piece, which appeared online yesterday and will be in the print edition this Friday.

What the article has to say is important – we can set reasonable goals and make time for home cooking with delicious local ingredients.  We can move our bodies – often and in different ways. We can improve our energy and balance our emotions by spending more time in nature.  All these things will help us achieve the resolutions we set for our physical health and wellness.

The problem is, I write for the food section of the Palo Alto Weekly.  I’m very happy and very grateful to be able to do that.  But it means that my penchant for personal reflection has to be stymied.  And despite my master’s in the subject I have to curtail my instinct to add a transpersonal twist.  These boundaries, I’m certain you can imagine, has put me on a very steep learning curve.  My editors are infinitely patient with me as I study and slowly absorb the techniques required for this type of writing.  Having the facility for putting one word in front of another in a reasonably coherent manner is one thing.  Learning the techniques for thinking and composing as a journalist – while on the job – is another.

The thing is, what I really wanted to write about for the Weekly was forgiveness.  I wanted to answer the question, “How do we, when we slip or fail, forgive ourselves and glean what we are meant to learn from the experience?”  But the article was meant to be about food.  There was no room for forgiveness.

Thank goodness for blogs.  Here’s the rest of the story.

Dr. Fred Luskin, a professor at both Sofia University and Stanford University and author of several books about forgiveness, spoke with me by phone and offered these ideas.  His words landed in my heart like a blessing.  He said, “Making your goals physical or material will never make you happy.  It is not your physical body that determines the quality of your life.” And then he clarified,  “Of course we ARE physical – we need to take care of our bodies and to earn a living.  They are good things but not THE good thing.”

He suggested that if we are going to set a resolution it should be this: Choose to be kinder to yourself and to the people around you.  When there’s a choice, choose that. 

“Give thanks more,” he said, “Rather than demanding more give thanks to people – people are precious, they are impermanent and they are flawed.”

It seems simple but as the article was taking shape and moving away from what I wanted to communicate it was difficult to be grateful.  Difficult to give thanks.  But now that I’ve seen the finished piece on line and have had a chance to reflect I’m exceedingly thankful for the time everyone willingly offered.  I’m grateful for the editing, too, and grateful that I can choose to share Dr. Luskin’s and Arda’s important message on Practically Twisted.

Arda has a coaching and healing practice in Palo Alto.  I interviewed him via email.  Rather than write a summary of that interview, here is a lightly edited transcript:

Q: How do we forgive ourselves when we fail? 

A: We can only forgive ourselves when we understand why we fail. This is a dilemma. We see failure as a negative outcome. As a result, we bash ourselves for failing. Every time we [fall into a pattern of] self-criticism, it moves us away from forgiveness.  Instead, we can use failure as an opportunity to get to know our vulnerable side. When we learn more about who we are and why we do the things the way we do we can accept our failure and forgive ourselves.

For example, if we want to quit smoking, it’s not the act of quitting that will make us achieve our goal. We need to understand that, let’s say, smoking takes away our social anxiety (our vulnerability). Without understanding the underlying reasons of our social anxiety, it will be very difficult to quit smoking. Once we understand and accept the reasons behind our social anxiety, we will be ready to take steps towards quitting. 

Q: Is there a roadmap to self-compassion? 

A: Yes.  The first step is self-awareness. Since we perceive the world through our conditioned lenses, it is important to know how our internal programming, i.e. thought patterns, beliefs, values and fears, affect our perceptions.  Then, the second step is to identify how our life experiences have affected our internal programming. The main component here is to review how our past, i.e. situations and people, has made us who we are today.

With this deeper insight of our personality and our programming, the third and final step is to embrace our life experiences as they are. This opens our hearts to ourselves without judgment and blame and brings understanding and self-compassion.

Q: Is it better to not set goals and never fail, or to have those goals, slip along the way and then pick ourselves up and try again?

A: Setting goals is natural. When we believe that reaching a goal will save us from misery and suffering, the attachment it creates sets false expectations and disappointments.  Setting goals without attachment can only be done when we can connect with our values. As a result, we can focus on the process of achieving a certain goal, instead of viewing goals as end results.  Failing to reach a goal is a valuable experience and growth oriented action and not a reason to avoid goal setting.

And I, for one, am not shy about setting goals.  So here they are: 

In 2016 I’m going practice kindness.  I’m going to be kind to myself, to my partner Ben, to my co-workers.  I’ll even be kind to the guy who cuts me off when I’m driving down Alma Street.  In 2016 I’m going to grateful for every opportunity I have to be more of who I am and for all the opportunities I have to grow, to be humbled and to learn.  I’ll move more in 2016, too.  And I’ll cook nutritious meals at home with local ingredients (I’ve already dusted off the slow cooker for some hearty winter dishes…black eye-pea and kale stew anyone?). 

My biggest goal for 2016?  To be a better writer.  To think like a journalist when that’s what the job requires.  To not be a ‘lazy writer’ – simply throwing words together because I know I can.  To commit myself to the process and to what is being asked of me.

Wishing everyone a joyful, safe and loving New Year.


Santosha

IMG_1827Several years ago a friend gave me a huge leather chair. It’s green and it has a matching hassock. The chair was her father’s, and you can see through the stains and the scratches that the chair was well loved. My friend’s father felt content in that chair. He read the paper or told bedtime stories to his children. I’m content in that chair, too. It’s soft and easy and wraps around my body. The chair has wide arms that I can stretch my legs across and I’ve filled it with pillows that support my back. But the contentment I feel in that giant green chair is not the same contentment that is asked of us when we embrace Patanjali’s second Niyama, Santosha. The contentment I feel when wrapped in that chair is easy to come by.

But how do we find contentment when we are standing in the eye of a storm, or when we brush up against discomfort? How do we find contentment then?

I believe we can find contentment simply by witnessing ‘what is‘. If we choose to release our anxiety about the past and the future and if we choose to release the stories we tell ourselves about how life should be it will create the space needed for contentment to take a foothold. If we release expectations and instead choose to center ourselves in the here and now contentment will find us.

Contentment is a choice, a promise and a practice. Some choices are difficult to make. Some promises are difficult to keep. And sometimes we don’t want to practice.

It’s important we continue our practice of contentment, however, so that when we brush up against the hard edges in life – when the chair is less than comfortable – we can still rest in a place of comfort and ease.

It’s important we continue our practice of contentment so that, as yoga therapists, we can live what we are trying to teach. Accepting the circumstances in which we find ourselves is the essence of finding contentment. This is why santosha is important in yoga therapy. Our clients are on a journey of acceptance. Santosha can hold space for that acceptance.