There’s always a moment at the end of every yoga teacher training program when a key life learning hits me square on the head. Hard. You’d think after shepherding hundreds of individuals through the process that a day would come when I’d have gotten all there was to get from it. Not yet. Training in this way is like life and purposeful work and anything else that makes deep meaning: it’s a process. You don’t have to be anything (flexible, book smart, holy) to enter into it, and you don’t have to be anything (guru-like, perfect, flexible) when you come out. The only thing required is a willingness to participate, a willingness to be there and be vulnerable.
This is both the surprise and the magic of a yoga teacher training. At first glance, it looks like school, and it certainly is, but it’s much more. Students learn anatomy, philosophy, Sanskrit and so on and they are tested on it. They have homework and reading and they complete it. They learn to direct a group and they practice doing it. But the part that makes it worth their time, energy and effort is their willingness to step into a group as an adult and to openly learn about their differences, similarities, and pre-conceived notions. This is all happening underneath the book learning. It is not something we as the temporary shepherds coordinate. That’s why I called it magic.
Just like the practice of accentuating the pause between the out-breath and in-breath, the course is a dedicated pause. Just like the practice of watching the mind, the course is a compassionate glance at what lies beneath the surface of our daily, pre-packaged selves. Most of us don’t afford ourselves ten minutes of checking in per day but when we do we call it life changing. Well, imagine allowing oneself 200 hours to tune in as opposed to out, to feel rather than numb, to look in the mirror rather than hide under the covers mumbling, “I don’t have time to really see myself today.” It’s no wonder that lives are elevated, redirected to a healthier course, or dedicated to the service of self-care and connection with others upon leaving the studio on the last day. I’ve seen a glint return to the eyes of hundreds of people from different countries, backgrounds, ages and stages. It’s an honor to see and it lights me up again… because I too forget.
We all need this, to be hit on the head with life learnings once in a while. I read a lot, think a lot and spend a fair amount of time in quiet but I still find that the key elements to deep understanding and potential change as a participating member of society (and not a hermit) lie waiting in a combination of physical movement, breath, focus, challenging work and community support. People find this through team sports, mission trips, family rituals and other activities. Yoga teacher training is another highly effective way to find this flow. Those that are a match for this kind of self-inquiry tend to have an inner hint that it’s right for them when they take a moment to listen.
No matter how often I complain or reassert that it might not be the path for me, yoga practices always find me at my lowest and are always a part of my path when I’m operating at my best. I automatically use the breathing tools to calm my mind when I can’t settle. I naturally put my legs up the wall after a long day on my feet. I repeat soothing phrases when my thoughts go reeling like a big fish on the line. It works. It takes me home wherever I may be. This is the heart of the trainings I lead with Ana. The goal is always to educate individuals so that they can safely teach these tools to anyone, from a hyper-active teen to a bedridden elder. It is also my intention that the students in training be able to adapt the tools to themselves across their own lifespans. That way when their lives gets busy and cluttered, loud and messy, they too can always tune in and find their way back home. Magic.
It’s ironic that breathing can be so difficult for many people. I’m not talking about the obvious problems of drowning, suffocating, or suffering from asthma and emphysema. I’m talking about how little we pay attention to breathing in our daily lives and especially in a yoga class. Yes, especially in a yoga class. Even the concept of pranayama or breath work will make many a seasoned yogi roll up their mat and bolt toward the door.
Our state of breath provides a wellspring of information about our physical structure, our physiology, and even our mental state. And yet most of us don’t pay attention, or even know that this information is so readily available to us.
Srivata Ramaswami once told me that Asana reduces Rajas, the kinetic energy within your body, and then Pranamaya reduces the Tamas, the lethargy that is revealed once the Rajas is burned off. The resulting space left within us can then be filled with Sattva, a sense of lightness or clarity through meditation.
It’s our very breath that is key to reducing the heavy inertia of our own habits and destructive behavioral patterns.
So why do so many yogis avoid pranayama? Why is breathwork not taught regularly in Hatha and Vinyasa classes around this country? I don’t have the answer yet, and I may never really understand it. However, I refuse to sit back and keep this amazing practice to myself. I teach it in every Vinyasa and Hatha class I lead. I invite you to ask your teacher about it, tell them you are interested in this 4th limb of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras! Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.
I've been back in town, and in shoes, for a week and I still miss the sandy beaches and smiling faces that I met in Tulum. It was a lovely place to spend part of the grueling Austin summer and an even better place for a yoga training. With every training I lead in any place, the students always emerge transformed, strong, smiling...but the truth is...so do I. The wonder, the effort, the hardship, the fun, the magic that every student gets from a training revisits me tenfold. And for that, I just want to say thank you. Here's to the ladies, and one special gent, that met me on the mat in Tulum and came out the other side tan, tough and ready for the next step. Felicidades!
“We’re gonna do everything just short of taking you out back and snapping you like a rug,” was the last thing I heard before sneaking into the lobby in a gown. The physical therapist had requested I put one on before meeting me or my medical problem. Is back pain a pants-less diagnosis? Could it be resolved with a simple snapping? I thought not. When the receptionist called me to schedule my next appointment, I told her there wouldn’t be a next one (then I said some other stuff). I called my doc and told him to quit referring to this creep. He ignored me. Less than a year later, creep lost his license to practice therapy and was incarcerated…turned out he was doing more than snapping.
Dramatic but now you see: chronic pain breeds a whole host of life problems, the least of which is the hunt for a cure or a moment of relief. When you’re in that kind of pain, the kind you can’t forget, not even when you sleep or on your birthday, the promise of a new tool, pill or practitioner is all you’ve got. For relief, you’ll trot around without pants on the edge of creep-dom. Or, let me put it another way: chronic pain is like constant background noise for your nervous system. Know how loud a plane is when you’re up in the air? You never quite get used to it. Then when it’s gone you realize your voice is strained from yelling your life story to the person next to you. But with pain, the ‘noise’ never goes away. Even in a forest where the trees don’t fall: buzzzzzz. So yeah, when a flight attendant rolls up and offers you something for your inflight troubles you take it and run with it. It just might be the magic pill that cures you from your pain forever! Fingers crossed it’s not just a few peanuts.
We all know (or at least we know enough to tell others) that there is no ‘magic pill’. But that doesn’t keep us from searching. My back pain began when I was 15 years old, a faint tingling between my shoulder blade and spine. By my early twenties, it was a non-stop, raging, un-scratchable, un-alterable force. It felt like your scalp after taking out a face-pulling ponytail you’d worn ten hours too long. It never stopped. Never. About once a year I’d try a new ‘pill’ that always came with a promise and about once in that same year I’d throw in the towel on yet another ineffective plan. I went through some variation on this theme for 15 years. Years I was told would be my physical bests. Spoiler alert: I rarely have back pain now…and none of the things I’m about to tell you about were the quick fix. Turns out, they were all comic relief. Read on if you want your peanuts and ginger ale.
I’ll be brief, but I wouldn’t want you to miss out on the time I was diagnosed with chlamydia of the mid-thoracic or given 4 different prescriptions from a doc I went to for the sole purpose of finding a natural pain solution. I saw a shrink (not specifically of the back-pain-persuasion) and a psychic. I was told to imbibe an array of pyramid-scheme vitamins and to get a new bed. The psychic may have been on to something with the latter piece of advice. None of this worked. In fact, I got worse. And, here’s the big bang I failed to mention, I was maintaining a daily yoga practice?! (“Can you bend this way?” Nope. “Sure you can. It’s just family issues in your way.”) The yoga was wrecking my lower back and SI region and the practitioners were poking and prodding me with wild, inquisitive abandon.
“Hrm, were you in a car accident recently?” I was not.
“Wow. THIS is interesting. Would you be willing to be a clinical example?”
Pause for Math Lesson: inappropriate yoga teachings + inept medical professionals + a psychic = car accidents
I got to the point where I genuinely started to consider that I’d blocked out all the various and horrible childhood accidents I must’ve been in that no one remembered ever happening. Perhaps they were all falls from a Barbie Jeep. If I sound bitter, there is lots of sweet. I learned nearly everything I know about yoga from these experiences. They were some of my best teachers. Pain never lets you miss a lesson.
For some reason (probably insurance), I skipped acupuncture and went straight to prolotherapy. The doctor, who correctly noted that his other patients were a half-century my senior, decided that my ligaments were lax so he set about tightening them. Which ones? Whichever hurt that day! He shot ‘em up with fluid to irritate them so they would heal themselves. Once a month for a year, I’d leave his office all spaced out on lidcocaine and puffy. Did it make a difference? Honestly, I couldn’t really say. So what did? If it wasn’t the nearly nude rolfing sessions or the kinesiotaping, what did it? If it wasn’t the year of postural restoration or fancy yoga teachers, what did it? How did I end up pain-free after fifteen years?
Before I got it, there was a moment when I almost got it. Leslie Kaminoff was teaching and he was about to end the weekend without addressing my pain. I expected him to address it because I’d asked (stalked) and a few others had asked (in a compassionate way). In front of all these people, he showed me how to alter my 28-year old walk! It was contributing to my pain. And here I thought I was an expert walker (I’d logged well over the 10,000 hours of practice). Well, he was right. And I felt a little better that day but I couldn’t help think, “Is it really possible to pay this close of attention to my body all of the time?” I’d had this thought before but usually pushed its onerousness away as soon as it arrived as if to say, “What, me?! Pay this much attention to change this?”
Yes. That’s what it took. Attention. Lots of it. More attention than I give my adorable (read: cantankerous) cat. And, the funny thing is, but the time I figured this out, I was finally ready to accept the amount of energy it would take.
Paying attention to my body during walking, sitting, yoga, sleep, emotional stress, you name it, has not been easy but it works. I recall having to rise from a chair as though I were in my 80s or 90s and standing for a few seconds (squeezing inner thighs and TVA) in order to stabilize before walking. I recall having to sit erect at my desk at school doing contract/relax exercises while everyone else slouched. I recall (and still do) laying face down on a bolster in savasana to give my back a much needed break.
And now, that the burning and aching are no more, does it feel like a magic pill? No. It feels like a long walk…without the peanuts.