from the heart, for the heart: yoga as therapy

Injury management and pain relief are some of the most common reasons people come to yoga. It’s a real blessing that doctor’s now even recommend yoga to their patients. And, yoga can really aid in getting rid of chronic pain and retraining alignment to support healing. I have seen it time and time again work wonders for students of various ages and abilities, and I’ve experienced this myself.

Yes, it’s true I have also seen yoga cause a great deal of injury and pain to people. It can be tempting to blame a teacher for pain after class, and I’ve seen this happen as well.

I’d like to debunk this for just a moment. Stop it.

I do believe that sometimes teachers could do more to protect students. We each have our own way of trying to provide for students who are injured. I can only speak for myself, but I truly try my best to provide a balanced class for my students and to support anyone with an injury to the best of my ability. I am fortunate to have a lot of education and a lot of resources.

I still believe some people leave my class and are hurting.

Here is the reality: your teacher should be trying damn hard to provide a safe environment for you. If you don’t feel safe, I recommend finding a new teacher. However, it is also up to you to listen to your body and care for yourself. 

Yoga is so subjective. Each pose has an almost infinite range of possibility and variation. It is a real privilege as a teacher to look around and see many students in the same pose, but each version so different. At the end of my classes, I often give people the option to add their favorite simple closing posture. I love seeing students so connected to themselves that they can instantly pick a twist, happy baby, a simple side stretch or a shoulder stand. Knowing your own body is incredibly empowering and it’s a gift. I believe this to be the biggest benefit of yoga and mindfulness.

The injury part comes in when we are not able to listen to ourselves. Or, we may think we are listening to ourselves but it is really ego or insecurity talking. We are all in different stages of being able to experience our bodies without bias. Awareness is not a given, we build it with years of careful practice on our mats. In the meantime, we go by what we are told, or what we have seen in the room around us and we do our best to replicate it. I am okay with that.

What I am not okay with is pain. Please, I would love for us, as a culture, to let go of the phrase “no pain, no gain.” Let go of the implications that if something doesn’t hurt you it isn’t of value. This will lead us to choosing to be hurt time and time again. In our relationships, our jobs, and on our mats. Especially if you are arriving at yoga with an injury or chronic pain, please don’t be pushy with yourself. If you are in pain, you should be asking for guidance from your teacher. There is absolutely something that needs to be addressed, and it may need to be addressed in an alternative modification.

Let yourself be where you are. That is the space of true healing. You do as much as you can, and then stop trying, just stay right there. This is the space where our bodies are happy to be doing the work we are asking, and we are not getting an internal alarm signal. If you try to do more than your best, you will cause yourself and your body a lot of stress which impacts you negatively. If you aren’t trying your best then you may not be affecting real change.

My hope for us as a community of yogis is to be patient with ourselves, to include restorative and yin yoga into our palate, and to treat ourselves humanely in vinyasa yoga. The best you can do does get better all the time. Offer it up, know that it is enough, and reap the rewards.

 

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a private space

I’ve been practicing yoga for more than 16 years, and teaching for almost 8. I’ve taught hundreds of private yoga lessons during my time as a teacher, but I only took my first private lesson last month.

I met Jonina Turzi in the Art of Attention Teacher Training I’m participating in, led by Elena Brower. Jonina taught the anatomy portion of this training, and has joined the training as a student as well. I was immediately enamored with Jonina, she’s beautiful and so intelligent. She teaches a beautiful mindful and precise practice, and I knew after her section of teaching in training that her work would make a difference in my practice. I booked a private session with her, and I was not disappointed.

We met up on a brisk day in January at Vira Yoga, prior to a weekend of training with Elena. I am a well-versed and fairly adept practitioner of yoga. I can often correct my own alignment to deepen asana and execute therapeutic benefit for my body. Still, Jonina’s sharp eye and wonderful communication fed me information that has been invaluable.

During my private lesson there were two sets of eyes focusing attention only on me and my practice. My own and Jonina’s. Even the most adept practitioner can not see themselves from the outside. With Jonina’s insight, my awareness of my body has shifted and my practice has grown tremendously in the last month.

Private yoga allows you to gather information that is entirely relevant to your own body and practice. In this way, even one or two sessions can give you many months’ worth of alignment and awareness work to bring back into class. As a teacher, I have worked with many yogis who want to deepen their practice or learn a certain posture. With the insight gained from private work, yogis can return to group classes with a smart focus and accomplish their goals through practice.

I am so grateful for Jonina’s work with me, and for the students that I am blessed to work with privately.

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on losing five pounds

I’ve had a hard time reconciling this post as a follow up to my last one, but my aim is to be real with you. So let’s get real.

There might be an idea out there somewhere that yoga teachers have perfected their bodies, and don’t struggle with regular body stuff, like weight. If you have that idea, please take this gently, but you are wrong. Practicing daily, exercising often in general, is not the same thing as being thin. There are thin people who are strong, thin people that run fast and far, thin people that are weak and out of shape. There are round curvy people who are strong, who can run fast and far, and who are weak and out of shape.

I have a confession to make as someone who practices yoga 9 out of 10 days, who runs regularly, hikes very often, and happens to be pretty strong. I have been unhappy with my body for a little while now.

In late 2012 I got on the stress hamster wheel, there were personal difficulties in my life, I wasn’t eating well and exercise took a hiatus. I gained some weight. I think that when people are stressed and sorting through things, sometimes we do gain weight, sometimes we lose it. This fluctuation is a natural part of our lives. It truly is the Vinyasa of Life, the ebb and flow.

Last year long after the external stressors in my life had faded, and my healthy exercise routine returned, I may have changed shape a little, looked a bit better in clothes, but the extra size and extra weight that I had gained went nowhere. The difficulty comes when we look in the mirror and realize that we are not happy with how we look, that we don’t look or feel like ourselves, it can make us even more anxious, even more stressed. Once we develop this negative self-image, negative self-speak, and stress response to the mirror, we actually make change in the opposite direction we wish to. A stressed body will not happily give up it’s reserves, fat is one of the ways our bodies protect themselves against stress.

I have always been a ravenous eater, I enjoy food of all kinds and grew up in a family of seconds and deliciousness. My ethics along with my love of food have led me to eat organic and to make many meals for myself. What I mean to say is, I am a good eater. I will probably always be a good eater. But recently, I have learned to also be a mindful eater.

It may not seem like a new concept to think about eating mindfully. And especially for a yoga teacher, you would think it came with the territory. It doesn’t. Most yoga teacher trainings do not dive into the realm of food, besides perhaps in passing conversation. I started teaching when I was 19, at the time I smoked cigarettes and ate a lot of pasta. I was also teeny tiny and angry. I’ve spent the last 8 years working my stuff out, just like most people have done, or are doing now.

I have made leaps and bounds from my days of ramen noodles, but I feel like I have only just begun to address food with the same conscious attention as I have always brought to my mat.

A couple of weeks ago, when I told her I wanted to lose some weight, my teacher (Elena B) suggested I start taking pictures of everything I eat. She’d learned this from her coach and mentor, Lauren Zander, co-founder of the Handel Group, as a method used to help folks with bulimia and anorexia become friends with their food, and make their consumption a point of personal pride, rather than a source of shame or something to hide. She asked me to add a caption of intention to each photo that breathed positivity into what I was about to eat (eg. “Food is a source of nourishment and pride in my life”, “I am blessed by this delicious meal”) and to email her the pics at the end of each day.
A week later, I’d lost six pounds, which represents a huge chunk of what I’d gained and been struggling with for more than a year. Victory.
Taking just a moment to take a picture of what was on my plate, and knowing it was going to be seen by someone I truly admire, completely shifted my mindfulness around food. Of course Elena never said anything discouraging or judgemental in response to the end-of-day pictures; sometimes she’d offer a little cheer from the sidelines, sometimes there was no response at all. It was never really about her knowing what I was eating, it was about ME knowing what I was eating. The gap of awareness around my food gave me the space to mindfully make choices about what I wanted to eat, and even more importantly to feel good about my choices, and then to truly enjoy my food without rushing.

Since taking the time to really think about my food, I’ve also cut out a lot of the extra junk that was in my diet and I’m eating cleaner than ever. I have tried veganism and vegetarianism of many kinds and while I support these diets, they did not work for me and my body. I’ve found meat to be an important food for me, and I buy only the highest quality and most ethically farmed and fished proteins that I can. I’m lucky to live in an area where it’s not hard to find local organic steak. What I did feel like I could live without were grains, sugars, alcohol and dairy; at least for the most part.

I found it wasn’t hard for me to eliminate these more toxic foods from my diet. It happened pretty easily, and I’m allowing myself occasional free passes. Because life is better when you can have pasta once in a while, and I was not going to turn down the tuna macaroni salad at the Superbowl Party I attended last night. Most people who eat this way (called the Paleo diet) agree, they feel good. I can certainly say I feel good, and I am proud of what I’m eating and the changes I am making for myself.

My opinion is that health and weight can be separated from each other, and while it will be nice to drop a size, the number on the scale has never been that important to me. What drives me is how I feel. That extends to my physical body: do I have high energy? do I feel strong? can I get through my day with ease? And it extends to my mind: what do I think about myself when I look in the mirror? how do I feel in my clothes?

I am not a dietician, a nutritionist, or a doctor. I can’t tell you what will be best for you (and maybe those professionals can’t either.) But in this yogini’s experience, living a life of grace means exploring possibilities and finding your own path. Don’t run on the hamster wheel of stress and insecurity. Pause, listen, and make change.

If you have your own story of mindfulness, eating and weight I would love to hear it.

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on kindness

One of the Four Noble Truths in the Buddhist tradition is that suffering exists in the world. And, by this suffering, we are all connected. We each have our own stories, our victories and our own sorrows; but, suffering feels the same for each of us whether we are a two-year old who has lost a favorite toy, or anything else. Knowing of this suffering in the world should not make us feel defeated or depressed. Rather, this is our reason to be kind. And the reason that our kindness is so beautiful, so powerful. The kindness that we give to ourselves and others, no matter how small, makes the lives of everyone we share a space with fuller, richer and lighter. To make someone smile, even for one moment, eases their suffering and makes the world a kinder place.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

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