A Yoga Teacher's Identity Crisis, Part II: Defining a Yoga Class

Yoga classes today are wildly variable to the degree that a current question in the yoga community among students and teachers alike is, “Is that yoga?”  I believe this is largely due to the fact that yoga’s origin and history are so complex, because there are minimal regulations on the industry, and likely a dozen other reasons.  My whole current identity crisis revolves around the fact that I found myself asking this very question about my own classes. I am committed to the idea that there is at least one defining element that makes a yoga class a yoga class, however, I haven’t completely worked it out (I do plan to tackle that idea in a future post).  For now, I have to just speak about yoga as it relates to me personally—and this was so much harder than I could have imagined. What I’ve come up with is a product of hours of thinking about this, having some conversations, and writing about it. I’m still not fully convinced that this is the final product, because at any moment I might come up with a new objection to my own thoughts! But alas, today, this is what I have.

In my last post I wrote that for me, yoga boils down to “awareness during movement in a safe space.”  I should expand.  For me personally, a yoga class is:

“ A movement class in which I feel like I’m home because of the space and the ritual and that incorporates specific components that invite me to experience a deep awareness of my body and breath to the extent that I might access a state of flow, and after which I feel re-set.”

Let’s break it down.

A movement class:
Yoga’s origin is ancient and philosophical, and in its ancient context there is no mention of a physical component.  This alone invites a giant conversation that is too big for my scope to write about.  I am interested in yoga’s current popular form, and today, in 2018, yoga is practiced primarily as a movement discipline. I use the word “class” rather than “discipline” in my definition because yoga as a discipline, like any, can have a cumulative effect on a person. My intent for now is to define what a single yoga class has to offer me.

in which I feel like I’m home because of the space and the ritual:
In general (plenty of exceptions), yoga studios tend to be environments that invite a calming effect the moment you walk in. Such calming environments help activate the parasympathetic nervous system, psychologically cultivating a sense of safety where students can let their guards down more easily. I find this naturally invites and holds space for introspection. The very nature of introspection is deeply personal and assumes a sense of honest inquiry which may be the closest we can ever get to ourselves: an “inner home.”  In addition, there’s a bookend-like beginning and end to the class (which I’ll detail further below) that gives it an element of ritual. I find this to evoke a feeling of intimacy, creating a personal relationship to the experience and giving it the intangible value of met expectation, comfort, assurance, dependability—all qualities we might associate with being home.

that incorporates specific components which invite me to experience a deep awareness of my body and breath:
One can definitely find each of the below components in other movement disciplines, but I find that yoga tends to incorporate many of them all in one class making it easier for me to access such a deeply personal experience so quickly.

  • Space. For the same reasons mentioned above, the environment itself that most yoga classes inhabit lends to opportunities to be more aware of oneself.  

  • There are no mirrors.  In general (again I’m aware of the exceptions) yoga studios don’t have mirrors, suggesting the idea that a feeling of one’s own body rather than an external reference is the focus of the experience.  

  • Focus on the Present. it is widely accepted that the physical practice of yoga originated with the intention of preparing the body for seated meditation.  While we don’t often sit in meditation at the end of classes, there’s an underlying focus on staying in the present moment. 

  • Breath Awareness.  I think it’s safe to say that across all yoga disciplines, breath is an underlying element.  Regardless of techniques and varying opinions about how and when breath practices should be performed, a foundational principle exists: the breath is a tool to maintain awareness in the present moment. The breath is present, so if we are aware of the breath, we are in the present.  

  • Coming to Center and Savasana. I think it’s also safe to say that every yoga class has a few moments, if not a few minutes, to “come to center,” at the beginning of class—this amazing opportunity to transition our attention from external sources to internal ones, a conscious transition into presence.  Every class also includes Savasana—the practice of laying on your back and actually resting at the end of class, or between poses in some practices.  Both of these elements are specific invitations for taking one’s awareness to a deeper level, beyond the outside world and into the abyss of the self.   

  • Language. Yoga is sold as a healing practice (both physical and spiritual). Whether that should or shouldn’t be the case is a can of worms for another blog post. But healing is a deeply personal and intimate journey no matter who or what or how, bringing us naturally into a state of self awareness.  The language used in a yoga class is a direct reflection of this idea. Yoga teachers use specific words, ideas, tones of voice, even pace of speaking to curate an experience suggestive of and conducive to healing inside and out.  

to the extent that I might access a state of flow: The “flow state” is a concept coined by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975.  It’s described as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.  In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.”  Csikszentmihalyi’s research has shown that accessing the flow state boosts overall happiness possibly explaining some of the physiological effects of a yoga class.  This flow state mimics a meditative state and may explain the “yoga high” that I and many others associate with a yoga class. This concept and more details will heavily influence the next post, so stay tuned!

and after which I feel re-set: between the distraction of technology, the intensity of politics, the load of work schedules, the overwhelm of environment (living in urban cities especially), and the emotional drama of everyday life as a human being, there is no fuel left in the tank for me to keep going at full speed without something like yoga.  Spending a whole hour + of time focusing on myself, my body, and my breath means I’m not focusing on all of the above. There are countless studies that show how focusing one’s awareness on breath and body (such as one does in meditation) has innumerable benefits to our brains, stress levels, and overall happiness. So I am re-fueled, leaving a class with even just a little (if not a lot) more grounding, perspective, and calm than what I walked in with.  

So what’s the crisis??? Stay tuned for Part III . . .

xoxo

A Yoga Teacher's Identity Crisis, Part I: Why I Need to Define Yoga

BACKGROUND: Both my parents are very highly educated.  My father is a Pediatric Endocrinologist, my mother has a PhD in Biochemistry and evolved to become self studied in naturopathy, herbalism, and anything else in the realm of non-western medicine.  They are both highly inquisitive, deeply thoughtful, and well-read individuals—attributes I never thought applied to me.  As I’ve delved into the world of yoga and movement, I’ve discovered a passion I never knew I had, and with that, a deep curiosity I also never thought I had.  I am the type of person who now wants to understand why.  I have a need to justify, to rationally explain, to connect the dots.  This is partly a type-A thing, partly a passion driven thing, but mostly a parental influence thing for which I’m truly grateful.

WHY I WANT TO SHARE THIS WITH YOU: As I ponder my current yoga teacher identity crisis, it’s crossed my mind several times that none of you may actually give a rat’s a$$ about my evolution.  Why should you?  Your yoga practice is personal to you.  You may attend classes with various teachers to get a well balanced practice, you may attend class once a month or less and therefore consider your yoga practice as kind of a random once-in-while exercise.  Who knows, but what does it have to do with me? Not much.  However, if you’re on this email list, you’ve most likely been to my class and enjoyed it.  And if you’ve been to my class or decide to come again, I need you to know why I teach the way I teach.  Even if it’s not important to you, it’s important to me that an explanation exists about the process behind what I’m doing.  Even though it’s all subject to change at any moment, there’s always an intention.  In my perspective, intention is everything.  If we don’t live with intention, we’re just floating around aimlessly.  

AN IMPORTANT QUESTION: If you’re not interested, I’m not offended in the least.  If you are interested, you might read on.  My identity crisis revolves around this question:  What makes a yoga class a yoga class?  Is it the breath work? But not all teachers focus on breath.  Is it the flow? But not all teachers teach flow.  Is it the poses? But teachers add their own variations of poses these days.  Is it the spiritual element? But many students do not consider their practice a spiritual one.  Is it the environment, the sacred space? But I have taught yoga in the middle of the High Line on a busy summer Saturday.  Is it the mind/body/breath connection?  But some runners or martial arts practitioners consider their movement to also be a meditative act of mind/body/breath connection.  So then what makes yoga yoga?  I want to believe there IS a universal answer, but I haven’t found it, so I will resolve for now that it depends on the practitioner.  For me, my yoga practice is a place to turn my anxious mind off.  To cultivate a deep sense of awareness of the subtleties of my body that seem impossible to access during everyday life in the city.  It is a place that seems sacred, that evokes a feeling of home.  A place where I can cry if I need to and no one will judge me.  A place where I am so in tune with myself that I start to understand my habits, my struggles, where I push too much, where I am insecure, where I start to ask uncomfortable questions.  There is attention to breath, but it may not perfectly link with my movement. There is movement of my body, but it may not look like traditional yoga postures. There can be a physical challenge, but there doesn’t have to be. There can be music, but there doesn’t have to be. Really, what I think it boils down to for me is awareness during movement in a safe space.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? Yoga has had a dramatic evolution over the past 30 years in Western culture, not to mention its evolution since its earliest mentions in the ancient Vedic texts.  So, what yoga IS is not set in stone, it’s a conversation.  So before I continue with part 2 of this post, I’d like to extend the question to you. 

What makes yoga yoga to YOU?

Please feel free to comment below or email me directly.

xoxo
alia

A "Bad" Yogi. (or . . . a story of human inquiry)

Today, I bought a bag of skittles from a street vendor instead of giving money to a homeless woman.

The homeless woman with her cup was crouched on the same block, maybe 15 steps before the vendor. I paused my train of thought to consider giving the woman a dollar. I knew I had 2 dollars in my wallet. But that meant I had to stop, pull out my wallet, open the wallet to find the dollar and face the woman in front of me whose life is harder than I have the ability to imagine.  I would have to place the dollar in the cup and wonder why I didn’t put both dollars. I’d have to place the dollar in the cup and see what was in the cup. If the cup looked full, I would have the thought, “My she’s had a successful day.” If the cup was empty, I’d have returned to my moment earlier thought, “Why didn’t I give her both my dollars?” 

I resumed my original train of thought as I kept walking passed her.  I had been thinking about fancy yoga poses on Instagram and what it is about them I hate so much.  Is it because I truly believe they’re devaluing the practice? Or is it just because I can’t do them? 

15 steps later, I walked passed a street vendor. I kept walking. Then I stopped, turned around and walked back to the street vendor. I pulled out my wallet. I opened the wallet and found a dollar. I continued to dig through all my coins for a quarter. The skittles were $1.25. 

I threw the skittles in my bag, immediately disappointed in myself for having so quickly given in to my drug that I give into when I feel weak inside—sugar.

5 steps later, it hits me.  I can’t believe what I had just done. How quickly I forgot about the woman.  The irony of the entire situation. 

The icing on the cake was that one of my resolutions for the year was to always carry a dollar in my bag, and as long as I had a single dollar, I would give it away to the first person who asked me for it. 

Why do I always hesitate? What exactly am I afraid to confront?

I had to write this down. And here, in my notes section on my phone, on the subway, I began to write. Halfway through my story, a homeless man walks through the subway car, offering up a cup. I immediately pause my train of thought, stop typing, pull out my wallet, open it up and find the dollar, drop it in the cup.  There was already some change in there.  “God bless.” He didn’t look at me. I felt ok with that. 

**************************

xoxo

I Hate That I Love What I Do

I’ve spent a solid one third of my life being told by friends/family/society, that the only way to get on with things is to know what I want to DO.  I strongly believe the whole conversation and the questions and answers surrounding it should be geared to whom do we want to BE, but that’s a whole separate blog post.

After many years of confusion and sadness, really high highs and really low lows, life coaches and self help books, cries to sleep and binge eating, I finally discovered a passion that I wanted to develop into a career.  Teaching yoga.  Yayy!! I figured it out!! (for now)  Well that was pretty exciting until I realized that the hard work and the stress and the uncertainty doesn’t magically disappear.  It doesn’t even become easier.  It becomes harder . . .WTF?

Apparently, becoming more invested in something changes things.  Now, I actually care.  Not just enough to do really well, but I care way beyond that, beyond what is required of solid performance because I’m now invested in myself.  Even though I barely know what I’m doing, even though I’m confused as much of the time as I’m sure, something continues to propel me forward.  Of all the interests I’ve tried to develop and all the jobs I’ve had, this is the only one where the idea of quitting doesn’t provide a sense of relief.  When I’m nervous as hell or shit does NOT go well, bailing on teaching yoga still isn’t on the table.  I used to quit a job like the drop of a hat and never look back.  Not so anymore.  

So.  This, I’ve discovered, is what it truly feels like to be on the right track, to feel wholly committed to something you believe in.  This, I’ve discovered, is what it truly feels like to always be behind, to always want to be better than I am, to have no choice but to continue moving forward past doubt and failure.

Over the past year and half, I have heightened and sustained a “butterflies-in-stomach” nervousness from the very first class I taught my friends at a neighborhood coffee shop to the audition at a studio on the Upper East Side I just attended today.  I have never so consistently pushed my envelope. One of the many valuable lessons my life coach taught me several years ago was to do something at least once a week that made me uncomfortable.  Well, I’m blowing that lesson through the roof.  That doesn’t mean things go well every time.  

My audition today was extremely challenging.  It was actually my first one.  I had no idea what to expect, I was made to feel incredibly small for a variety of reasons (unintentional on their parts), and what they were asking of me was clearly reflective of a studio looking for another instructor rather than a teacher.  But the whole experience is forcing me to evaluate myself, forcing me to define what I’m doing, what I have to offer, and why I’m doing any of it.  Aren’t those all the yoga questions anyway?? No matter where we are in life, whether we practice the physical aspects of yoga or not, regardless of where we live in the world or how old we are, aren’t we all always asking ourselves those very basic questions?  And if we’re not, shouldn’t we be?  

So maybe I shouldn’t save it for another blog post, maybe this IS the blog post.

Who do we want to be?  Why?

 

keep practicing . . .

xoxo

 

Change, change

Last week I listened to a TED Radio Hour episode about our perception of time.  Harvard psychology professor Dan Gilbert shares a study--this is the rough summation:  there are two groups of people from all age categories.  One group is asked, “How do you think you will change in ten years?” and the second group is asked, “How have you changed in the past ten years?”  The group members who were asked to forecast their change assumed very little change in their lives, circumstances, personality, friends, etc.  The group members asked to reflect on their change described a lot of change from who they were ten years ago, even those who were older in age.

Time and time again I’ve heard people say about themselves, “Well that’s just the way I am.”  

Is it?  

What if that was a cop out?  What if that was an excuse out of having to work to better ourselves because transforming ourselves to overcome challenging aspects about our character/personality/life is hard?  What if we KNEW we would could be totally different in ten years, who would we choose to be?  What would we choose to do and how would we choose to live?  We create barriers for ourselves on purpose because staying contained is easy.  It also helps us make sense of the world around us and organize the chaos that is this life.  There’s nothing wrong with that!  It’s amazing that we have tools inherent within us to comprehend this universe and keep us feeling secure and safe in an existence that’s scary and unpredictable.  But that’s why change is so hard.  That’s why we don’t predict ourselves changing all that much--we’ve structured our entire lives around who we are now.

One example.  A couple of years ago, I had to admit something to myself.  I was no longer an “extrovert.”  I no longer felt the need to be constantly social, I felt increasingly awkward around new people, and I LOVED hanging out with myself.  Quiet time for me, myself, and I.  I fell way behind on social media platforms, I required more quiet and more sleep, and I began to dread constant social engagements.  All of it was so weird!!  And I put myself down for it.  I wasn’t making enough new friends, I wasn’t taking advantage of all the big city had to offer, I cringed at dating apps and so was bound to be alone forever.  And then, I turned 30.  I finally had the balls to admit, I changed.  A huge part of my identity for almost 30 years had morphed into something new, and it was AMAZING.  As soon as I accepted it, I was able to take full advantage of who I’ve become, to nurture it, to find balance, to stop fighting it, to structure a whole new environment based on my new self--including different friends, the right job, the right partner.

Then there’s when we don’t anticipate change in others.  How many friendships, intimate relationships, families have you seen fall apart due to change?  When we don’t expect it, we have a hard time accepting it in ourselves but also in others.  Or even when people don’t change the way we think they should, shit falls apart.  We can’t handle it!  What if...knowing that change is inevitable, knowing that fully evolving into our change can help us learn our lessons? Can help us accept one another, can help us understand one another, can help us remain compassionate when change doesn’t work in our favor?  If we stop fighting it, and work with it, we’ll find that it actually does always have a way of working in our favor if we let it.

keep practicing . . .

xoxo