Take a look at any mainstream yoga rag, and you might think “yoga” means skinny white ladies lounging around in stretchy pants, talking about probiotics. But yoga is so much more.
Yoga’s smart. Yoga’s radical. Yoga’s counter-cultural.
The modern yoga scene is at a tipping point. Commodification and “Instagramification” have transformed this profound meditative practice into a trendy, upper-middle-class fitness craze.
It’s time for populist, philosophy-loving yogis to reclaim yoga from its widespread assimilation as a sanitized, fashion-driven workout. Believe it or not, the philosophical tradition’s got much wisdom to offer regarding the messy, sweaty, sacred/profane reality of being alive. Which brings us to…Fight Club. Yep, you heard me right.
On a pristine Sunday evening in late spring, we memorialized the life of my old friend Greg.
It was a perfectly Aloha party, an anti-funeral on the rooftop deck of a restaurant under the Bay Bridge, complete with Hawaiian shirts and rollicking toasts and great seafood. The weather even behaved on behalf of the celebration: no fog in sight.
At the request of Greg’s friends and family, I’d agreed to officiate the memorial.
This left me anxious as hell.
The morning of the service, I woke up with an unnameable knot in my belly. The pressure to sum up a beloved friend’s life in a few brief words completely trumps the pressure of doing, well, pretty much anything else.
My son was born on my birthday.
February 22: George Washington’s birthday. Drew Barrymore’s birthday. And mine.
My phone pinged with Facebook notifications as I stood over the hospital trash bin and retched. Three times I emptied my stomach of the apples and peanut butter my husband had lovingly sliced a few hours before. Once into the trash can. Again. And then again into the birthing tub laced with lavender essential oils.
Fiercely feminist, I’d always been ambivalent about having children. I’d watched my peers spawn with nary a twinge of jealousy, content with my books and my yoga. I told myself, “If it happens: great. If it doesn’t: great.”
On our first date, I teased my future husband, Robb, that I’d likely go the way of Sylvia Plath, making the kids sandwiches and sticking my head in the oven.
Six months later, drinking champagne on a pier overlooking Tomales Bay, we were engaged.
A year later, I was pregnant. Robb promised parenthood would make me a better yoga teacher. I rolled my eyes and took a swig of my chai, wishing it were vodka. He was right. Motherhood has made me a much better yoga teacher.
But I was unprepared for the shattering.
This is a selfie.
I talk a lot of shit about selfies. Have for a long time. You know, that they’re narcissistic and precious and self-conscious and misguided and pretty much the downfall of the yoga world these days. All about “The Gaze,” all about “being seen” rather than just “being.” The practice lost to the performance. No small thing.
But, shit. That’s a goddamned selfie.
And you know what?
I fucking love it.
Do you know how people take yoga selfies? There’s not a single graceful thing about it.
That effortless Handstand-on-the-beach? She took 62 shots of that and they were all sandy and shitty. That relaxed Pigeon in the park? He ran back and forth to the camera 17 times before he could actually get into the pose in time. That Natarajasana on the mountain top? She about lost her shit and fell into the Grand Canyon.
Let’s be honest: there are tons of vinyasa classes out there these days.
What can you do to ensure yours is terrific? What are the essentials for designing a really solid class, beyond the basics (like safe sequencing, cueing the breath, and making sure no one passes out)? And how can you make your class the kind of can’t-miss experience that keeps students coming back for more?
Here are seven keys:
1. Be yourself.
Don’t get your “yoga-voice” on. I’ve taken classes from a number of rad, funny, cool yoga teacher friends who, once they step in front of a class, totally lose their personalities and become yoga automatons. Don’t be afraid to be real—to speak in your normal tone, like you would in everyday conversation, and maybe even (gasp!) swear once or twice (if that’s normally how you’d talk). People are more relaxed in the presence of a confident leader, and your students will feel at home when you’re at ease. That said…
2. Don’t talk too much. For real.
This is the feedback I hear most often from students who have negative class experiences. Have you ever taken a class where the teacher’s so eager to fill all the silent spaces that they jabber the whole way through? Honor the introverted, meditative nature of the practice. Nonstop chatter makes it really tough to settle into a meditative flow, and it can be, quite frankly, invasive, unhelpful, and really annoying. So step back. Don’t feel like you need to explain everything you’ve ever learned about a pose or a philosophical topic in the span of five breaths. Offer the basic instructions necessary, count out a few breaths as you go along, and then STFU. Your students will thank you.
3. Keep a nice rhythmic pace, as though you’re playing an instrument.
I’m a yoga teacher. It’s a weird time to be a yoga teacher.
Since watching that Republican debate, I can’t tell my students to breathe without feeling uncomfortable, like Ted Cruz in leggings and a ponytail.
Some of my colleagues are ignoring the election completely. They think politics is crass, negative, not spiritually relevant. They’d rather be in the studio meditating or chanting loving prayers toward all the candidates. That’s super nice, too, and I’m totally on board with sending some peace and ease to all of those folks, even the ones who make my blood boil, because damn, this election season is a bitch.
But I’m hooked. Hardcore. Can’t get enough.
I rush home after teaching to catch the tail-end of the debates. I spend Saturday nights in front of the TV cringe-watching Donald Trump’s bizarro meandering victory speeches. I troll Twitter in the wee hours of the morning for the latest analysis on who’s projected to win Ohio and Florida.
I haven’t felt this politically invested in years.
I am a progressive Democrat. I am also a lifelong feminist and will support Hillary Clinton tooth-and-nail, should she end up as the Democratic nominee. At first I figured she’d be my candidate all the way. I mean, go first woman President! and all. And who’s more qualified, right?
But, very quickly, very easily, Bernie won me over. His authenticity, his passion, his commitment to economic justice? Well, geez: he’s a total yogi.
In the yoga world, we use the Sanskrit phrase “Sthira Sukham Asanam” to describe the complementary balance of effort and ease, strength and softness necessary in every pose. Sutra 2.46 lays out the way in which each asana (literally, “seat”) should be a kind of relationship, an ongoing conversation between steady, active presence and yielding, relaxed stillness. The combination of the two qualities creates a yin-yang kind of wholeness that is strongly rooted, firm in foundation, confident and stable — and at the same time malleable, easy to adapt, gentle in spirit and undeniable in the face of transition. …
When I met my husband (unsuspecting, in a yoga class), I fell in love with his finely-tuned practice of Sthira Sukham Asanam. A longtime yogi, he was capable of being at once resolute and confident, tender and gentle. He could throw back a beer in one breath and quote Hafiz in the next. …
The most challenging practice has been finding center, grasping at sattva in the moments of sleeplessness, of relentless, bone-breaking parenting. Fumbling to stay calm at the changing table when the little man wriggles off. Struggling not to yell when he refuses to get into his high chair for the fiftieth time. Trying to be tender with one another when we’re both rundown and under-slept and haven’t showered in four days.
The idea is, of course, not to nail every posture (or every diaper change), but to let go and roll with the punches, to allow the sensations — the fear, the anger, the exhaustion — to move through you and to just get out of the way, exhaling into the quiet that’s always there under the chaos, paying attention to how everything is perpetually changing from day to day, moment to moment, breath to breath.
And then it passes.
PICTURE A BUDDHIST. What comes to mind? A red-robed monk or nun sitting patiently on a cushion, lips gently smiling, eyes closed, legs crossed in Lotus Pose?
Or perhaps you picture Tina Turner, or Richard Gere, or another famous pop culture Buddhist?
For most of us, it’s definitely not an athletic, barefoot, nude-leotard-clad dancer bounding elegantly across the floor on a brightly-lit stage.
San Francisco-based choreographer and dance filmmaker Claudia Anata Hubiak’s contemporary dance company, The Anata Project, suggests an unconventional new Buddhist prototype. Since 2011, inspired by the Tibetan Buddhist concept of anata (“egolessness,” or the notion that there is no such thing as a permanent, unchanging self), The Anata Project has produced dances and dance films that take a genuine and unflinching look into the unguarded mind and heart. Its interdisciplinary conceptual foundation stands at the cutting edge of the meditative melding of body and spirit, seeking to break new ground in the worlds of modern dance, mindful embodiment, and Buddhist art.
Yesterday I sat with my kid in my lap and leafed through the latest Yoga Journal. There was a fashion supplement, a celebrity profile of a pretty teacher who married a famous actor, and a whole feature on how to dress to hide your figure flaws and look thinner on the mat (“How can I conceal my butt dimples?”).
I cancelled my subscription.
I felt sad. And dejected. And not good enough, especially since I’m a butt-dimpled new mom with a muffin top and it’s been awhile since I’ve done Natarajasana in high heels on a rooftop like Hilaria Baldwin. But mostly, I felt disappointed, because I’ve written a few pieces for YJ in the past and have always felt proud of finding a market for intelligent mindful writing amidst the glossy rags.
Today I’m sitting on the floor with my kid in my lap and he’s chewing on a soft fabric car with wheels that spin across the three sheet-covered yoga mats that we’ve laid out across the living room floor as a playmat. We’re making frozen toaster waffles (nope, not organic) with maple syrup and reading Where The Wild Things Are, which, incidentally, includes no fashion supplements. He’s learning how to sit by himself, and falling forward into Paschimottanasana every time. I’m wearing old black tutu-leggings with a hole in the crotch; my peeling, calloused feet haven’t had a pedicure since January; I ate 27 dark-chocolate-covered almonds from Trader Joe’s for breakfast (after finishing the peanut butter cups first), and my bare face is blotchy with postpartum rosacea.
It doesn’t look anything like a Yoga Journal spread. There are no high heels or probiotics to be found. And yet, it feels very much like yoga.
Ten weeks after my son was born, I returned to teaching yoga. Between diaper changes and feedings, I hadn’t had much (OK, any) time to do asana. I’d barely done a full 90-minute practice. But I’d had a helluva lot of time to do yoga: the kind of practice that looked like chanting lullabies at 3 am whilst bouncing on a blue exercise ball for hours on end, crying babe in arms, trying to stay calm.
It was the hardest yoga I’d ever done. Way harder than Kapotasana. And it was also the most rewarding.
Having a baby has been tremendously educational, for my body, mind and spirit. With that, here are seven things having a baby has taught me about yoga: