Monthly Archives: February 2016

Compassion: Practice, Practice, Practice!

Photo from Pixabay AutumnsGoddess0A scoff brought the first pain to my heart. I was checking in a student for a yoga class, trying to type her name into the system. Her unusually spelled first name was giving me troubles, and her scoff made it clear she thought I was a complete idiot. The interaction only became more difficult from there. With practically every word I spoke, her response became more critical. Old feelings arose–self-doubt, shame, sadness. They manifested in my body as tightness around the heart, scrunching at my brow, a jangling feeling in my stomach. I rounded my back reflexively, pulling in my belly as if protecting my guts.

I saw all of these things happening from one place within myself. At the same time, I was doing my job–squaring her memory of the classes she had taken with our system, offering to email management to get things figured out, generally trying to be calm and positive.

As a yoga teacher, I recognize that energy is sticky. If I walk into a studio feeling distracted, my students will only multiply that lack of focus. If I take a few minutes to breathe deeply before walking into the room, my students will reflect that groundedness back to me. (I have written on this effect for MoveYoga.com.) As neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor has said, we are energy beings, absorbing the energy of others. After years of practice, I have seen how one person’s energy can shift a whole room. An honest laugh can lift up a whole group of people. So I try to be very aware of what energy I am putting into the world.

Clearly this student didn’t understand a correlation of this law of energy–that we get back whatever energy we contribute to the universe. Looking at that sentence, I can hear some of my high school classmates marvel, thinking, “Wow, when did she become such a woo-woo hippie?” So let me ground this in neuroscience (a passion of mine). Our brains contain mirror neurons. These are specialized cells that replicate the emotions of others within our brains. Scientists discovered them when studying the brains of monkeys. They were watching to see which areas responsible for movement lit up in monkeys’ brains, when they noticed that the same areas lit up in the brains of monkeys who were simply watching another monkey move.

It turns out that we have these same cells in our frontal lobes–the most evolved portion of the brain, behind the forehead. And while scientists continue to study how mirror neurons work, it is clear that they can immediately convey our emotions to people around us. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. It is helpful to be able to quickly read the emotions of your tribe. In our day-to-day lives, our mirror neurons reflect back the emotions of people around us. So we are wired to understand and replicate the emotions of others. In other words, when I smile at you, you feel better. When I scowl at you, you feel worse. We have such power to affect the experiences of people around us!

This student’s negativity threatened to pull me down in the minute or two before class started. I definitely didn’t want to bring that energy into the teaching space. So I reviewed how I felt, took a few breaths to become grounded, and decided to let that energy go. I walked into the room and taught (what I thought was) a good class. I made sure to give the negative student some positive shout-outs during class, pointing out what she was doing well.

In years past, I would have avoided this student. I would have steered clear from her throughout class. This time was different. At the end of class, during savasana, I felt drawn to her. I recognized how difficult it would be to be in her shoes–to have her own negativity reflected back at her all day long. To be simmering in that anger. Also, if she was that critical toward me, she’s probably extremely critical of herself as well. As I rubbed my palms together and walked toward her, I thought, “I wish you happiness. I wish you peace. I wish you a life of ease.” I kept up the mantra and visualized white light coming from my palms into her shoulders, as I gently pressed her shoulders down to open her scalenes. I felt her body relax down into the mat, softening under my hands.

After class, she b-lined for the door. I didn’t have a chance to check in with her. But that’s fine. I was able to recognize my own growth as an instructor and as a human being. My Vipassana meditation practice, my ongoing Svadyaya (self-study) and my yoga practice have helped me cultivate compassion.

It is my dream to bring this same process to my students, to adults and to kids alike. I envision a world where we can feel our own internal response first, before we automatically fire back the anger and sadness of others. It’s a practice. Compassion can’t be instantly taught. It must be something we work on every day, an opus that we compose across our lifetimes. To those who are yearning for peace within themselves and on our planet, I say, “Keep up the good work! Keep the faith!” Your compassion practice will be successful over time. Plant daily seeds of compassion, for yourself and for others. Sooner or later those seeds will grow, bloom, and bear fruit.

 

Next 3 Saturdays: Teaching Saturday Noon Vinyasa at Yoga on Yamhill

I am delighted to teach at Yoga on Yamhill, a beautiful donation-based studio in downtown Portland. For the past six months or so I have taught the prenatal yoga class there on Saturdays at 9am. It is a joy to teach in a donation-based environment–I feel so happy that anyone can get yoga and pay the amount they can afford. (The suggested donation is $8-$12, cash only.)

The studio has two practice spaces, one downstairs and one upstairs. The prenatal class is usually held downstairs (although this coming Saturday it will be held upstairs to make space for a workshop). The vinyasa class is upstairs. The downstairs space has warm brick walls, it’s cozy. The upstairs space has a tiny courtyard; it makes me feel like I’m teaching in a New York walk-up.

Grasshopper Pose

Grasshopper Pose

When I have the chance to teach this 75-minute vinyasa class on Saturdays from noon-1:15pm, I feel it is one of the best classes of my week! I have been practicing my flow for the whole week, so by the time I get to Yoga on Yamhill it is well worn into my mind and I can be very present as an instructor. This week we worked toward grasshopper pose, a challenging arm balance. As an instructor, I hope to give my students inspiration and a challenge– but I don’t expect every single person to get into the peak posture. I define success as trying, as setting up a strong foundation, and staying present throughout the class.

I invite you to join me for class at Yoga on Yamhill for the next three Saturdays, February 13th, 20th, and 27th.

 

Second image: from Pinterest

My Yoga Diary: An Early Entry

DiaryI have decided to start posting diary entries to this blog, as a way to help others see yoga not as a one-time workout, but rather as a lifelong practice. I have certainly changed in the last ten years, since I started practicing yoga. Here’s a journal entry from 2008, when I was in teacher training:

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“I began doing yoga about two years ago, during my student teaching [for elementary education]. My roommate, Satya, saw that I was depressed. I wasn’t enjoying teaching, and I had never ‘failed’ at anything major before, the way that I felt I was failing at student teaching. I can see now that I had never lived for my own joy before– I was doing what others expected of me and what would earn me praise.

I think some of my relationships and negative habits were tied into this lack of self-awareness, or perhaps more succinctly, lack of self-propulsion. I was attracted to either victims or smart rebels who put up the same front of wit and charm to hide their vulnerability and denial of their true selves. [My ex boyfriend] comes to mind.

Satya was working at a Portland yoga studio at the time, so she got me a discounted month-long unlimited membership. Throughout the turmoil of graduate school and the next year, working at a local school and fighting the tiny voice inside telling me that I actually hated the prospect of being a full-classroom teacher, yoga was one of the only things that consistently brought me deep, unreasonable joy.

After that year, I moved home to Reno to reassess my interests and direction–who I was without teaching [elementary school classes]. I finally had the time to do exactly what I wanted to do during the day–what I would do no matter what, just to make myself happy. Some of those things are writing, yoga, ballroom dancing, and crafts. So I started going to yoga every day at a lovely studio in downtown Reno. I loved the calm, non-competitive nature of this studio, the patient and spiritually aware teachers, etc. I discovered Kundalini and Tibetan Heart Yoga, and practiced Yin and Restorative, all of which I look forward to teaching myself someday. One of my teachers mentioned that she became a teacher because she wanted to do yoga every day, and she knew she would if she taught. ‘Hey!’ I thought, ‘That’s just like me!’ So, I started researching schools, and here I am in Portland, attending CorePower Yoga’s teacher training.

I’m surprised at how many people in the teacher training program really saw yoga as just a physical exercise. I may not be as physically fit as they are (perhaps because I’m still smoking a bit), but my spiritual understanding of yoga is more developed.

(There I go again with my competitive nature. One of my goals is to let that go–but for now it may be a stepping stone to self-confidence, which I found through others’ praise for a long time. Now I’m providing the praise, and I want to work toward an innate sense of self worth that’s not based on how I stack up to other people.)

Further, it’s interesting to see what types of people are in this CorePower training. CorePower, as a school of yoga, is more focused on Hatha Yoga, enlightenment through the physical realm, than say, Tibetan Heart or Yin or Kundalini Yoga. So I guess it’s not surprising that my classmates are really tuned into their bodies. On the other hand, when I express my joy in yin yoga, they usually say that it’s ‘torturous’ to them because they can’t quiet their minds. Humph. And I thought that was one of the most important goals of yoga– inner calm and clarity, and the ability to calm your mind. Then again, I’ve had experience with other schools of yoga as well as Buddhist philosophy through some of my favorite books, like The Joy of Living. So, I guess one of the lessons I’ve learned from this experience is to avoid judgement of others’ paths to joy. There are many paths to joy and self-awareness and compassion, and why should I assume my path is the only “right” way? Gosh, that would make for a boring world!

Another lesson: JOY is one of my primal qualities, and a gift I can constantly give to others. My housemate said I bring others to enjoy life more–I love that. I hope I can do that through yoga, writing, and tutoring.

I’m feeling good about my progress so far–I’ve been practicing a lot with friends. Yoga makes me SO HAPPY.”

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Since the time of this entry I have stopped smoking all together (and at this point I’m not drinking alcohol or caffeine, either). I did continue writing–indeed, now I am a freelance copywriter. And although I never would have anticipated it when writing this diary entry, I am getting back into the schools. I was recently hired as a substitute teacher for Portland Public Schools, and I just completed a P.E. endorsement program last December.

It is very interesting to look back at my mind during teacher training. Some of the same themes in this diary entry have resonated throughout my yoga career–balancing physical fitness and mental peace, not comparing myself to others, focusing on joy. I am glad to share this entry because it tells the beginning chapters in my yoga journey.

If you practice yoga, I encourage you to keep a yoga diary too. Bring it into the room with you and jot down your thoughts before and after practice. It can help you observe your own thoughts and get to know yourself better. This self-study is a basic tenet of yoga–known as Svadyaya in Sanskrit, it is the idea that we can make compassionate choices when we know ourselves well.

Image: by Kevin B. Pixl