Friday, September 24, 2010

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger...with a side of compassion.

Last weekend I kept meaning to sit down and write about what it was like teaching my first real-deal-real-people-real-life yoga class. Didn't happen. Tuesday did happen, though, so as of Tuesday at 6:31pm I started meaning to sit down and write about what it was like teaching my SECOND real-deal-real-people-real-life yoga class. Now it's Friday. Sitting down? Check. Writing? I suppose.

At Kripalu Yoga Teacher Training we would set inquires for every Practice Teach. In fact, we set inquiries all day, every day, which was part of what drew me to the Kripalu program in the first place. I'm the product of Montessori School and an Authentic Liberal Arts College Education (on the World's Most Beautiful Campus - yes I'm bragging on my alma mater. Again.) and the Kripalu YTT methodology, much like every other educational experience of my life, reminded me of that amazing Rilke quote:
...have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
...which is NOT to conjure images of sipping scotch (although I am a fan) in an imposing Ivory Tower feeling generally superior. In fact, it's the opposite - sometimes I feel incapable of making decisions because my brain has been wired to live everything as a question, to see a million POSSIBLE answers, and then see each possible answer in shades of gray - good and bad - right and wrong - and OH! Every possible answer PROBABLY becomes another inquiry. Woo!

Learning to teach yoga from this perspective (it's one of Pantanjali's sutras: Atha Yoga Nushasanam - Now, the inquiry of yoga) means the realization that you could teach an entire 2-year series on Tadasana (mountain pose). "What happens if you soften the knees? What happens if you shift your tailbone down ever so slightly? How does it feel when you lift the ribcage? Spend the next hour noticing your fingers!! Namaste!" To be fair, we did spend an entire day learning/learning to teach Tadasana, and nothing changed my understanding of yoga or helped me tune in to the details of my own body more than that day.

I used to get so anxious standing in mountain pose. First of all, it felt ridiculous to just STAND there. I wanted to move on and start beating myself up - you know, force my body to work hard, harder, harder - be stronger, be more flexible, be BETTER - whatever that meant. Second, I was always sure I wasn't doing it "right" - the cues to notice these subtle things in my body were just totally lost on me. It was almost impossible to connect my mind with where my hips might be. How could standing be SO complex? That drove me crazy.  These two things are connected, though, and common. And exactly why I'm teaching yoga.

It's the devastating thing I saw in my own life and I see in the lives of people all around me, all of the time. Somehow the body has become a thing we have to punish, beat into submission, force into compliance. On those TV shows where people are losing weight in groups or working with celebrity trainers I've heard it spouted off as a way to do more, work harder, get results: "Show the body who's boss! Run faster! Push harder! Don't let the body control you, you control the body! No pain, no gain!" Essentially we're encouraged to disembody ourselves in order to achieve something physical. As opposed to being one integrated human being, we are a floating head who happens to own a body, and as the owner of the body, we're going to whip it into shape. I used to do this all of the time in fitness classes, running, working out at the gym: I would tell myself I was the boss, I could keep going, I could do more -as though my body and mind were totally disconnected. And it can work for a little while. Maybe it could even work for an extended period of time, at least on the level of keeping the body in good physical shape as defined by the clothing industry.

But it's a recipe for failure, misery, injury and weight gain, and here's why: perhaps on Monday I disembody myself so that I can run five miles as fast as I can - I'm pushing and beating myself up and forcing - and maybe it's a good thing in and of itself. Maybe my body really needed the movement, the exertion, the oxygen. That's good. Except if I'm doing it from a disembodied place - if I'm forcing my body to run as some kind of power-play, showing it that I'm in charge, I'm setting up a really warped mind-body connection. And then on Tuesday, maybe I continue feeling disembodied, but this time it makes it easy to binge on fast-food because, hey, the body is just this thing, it's not really me. And maybe on Wednesday I feel really guilty about the fast food binge, and I spend a lot of time hating my thighs, obsessing about how much I hate my thighs. And then on Thursday I feel generally shitty and I don't really know why. On Friday I am so disembodied that during my latest and greatest strength training program (that has promised me THE perfect abs) I don't listen to the cues that I'm using too heavy of weights and I put my back out. On Saturday my body and I are involved a serious war - stupid, hurt, not good enough body keeping me flat on my back in bed, all the while probably gaining weight and making sure I can't fit into my favorite jeans. On Sunday I'm in a state of such serious self-loathing I can hardly see straight. Why? Here's a guess: if I'm punishing my body, I'm punishing myself. If I hate my body, I hate myself. The end.

I don't mean this as a literal example. Each day could represent one year in a person's life, even. But this is what we are being told to do by many in the fitness industry - even in yoga classes, especially the latest and greatest super-vigorous-core-power-vinyasa-ass-kicking-in-a-room-as-hot-as-a-sauna class (and I mean no harm - I love intense vinyasa classes, and I even love Bikram classes!) - and  we are so completely disconnected from our bodies that it is hardly a surprise that we fill them with food that has no nutritional value and that people are starving themselves and over-exercising on a quest to meet some arbitrary standard of physical beauty. It's no surprise that we pack our schedules so full that we have no time for any relaxation, restoration or anything else that doesn't serve a specific purpose toward getting further on the imaginary totem pole of necessary life accomplishments.

I want to teach yoga from the perspective of how miraculous the body is. Instead of hating your thighs, what if you marvel - simply MARVEL - at their strength holding you, sweet and easy, in Virabhadrasana I? Instead of hating your belly, what if you explore the way your core strength allows you to move and stretch and stabilize poses? What if your goal wasn't to show your arm muscles who the boss is, but to instead notice, every day, how much longer you can stay in chaturanga dandasana, and then thank those muscles - those parts of YOU - for the effort? In my experience, if I work WITH my body - with the muscles that I am strengthening and training and stretching every day in my yoga practice and any other form of exercise, then it becomes fun and compassionate to work hard, challenge, explore the edges of exertion and endurance.

When a yoga practice allows you to begin reconnecting the body and mind - inquiring into parts of the body that have been ignored because of shame and experiencing the beautiful power and potential of the body even after years of neglect - the door to true health and wellness has been opened.

What if I can connect my body, mind and spirit in such a way that we are one entity: moving, flowing, living and loving together? Moreover, what if I can inspire my students to approach their practice (and by extension, their lives) from a place of compassionate self-awareness so that one day choosing healthy foods that nourish their physical form becomes second nature; not holding back during a vigorous yoga practice becomes an act of love; sweat pouring and heat building goes from being a punishment to an expression of the connectedness of mind, body and spirit?

Now, the inquiry. =)

PS - My first two real-deal-real-people-real-life yoga classes went well, by the way. =)


  1. Hey Hilary, congratulations on the amazing leap into yoga teaching, and thanks for blogging about it as I'm enjoying reading your thoughts. Wish I lived near you to take a class of yours!

  2. Thanks so much, Brigid!!! So good to hear from you! I hope I get to teach a class at a Kenyon reunion one day, so maybe we can make it happen! Next year (2011) is CS reunion!!! xoxo

  3. That was all so nicely put. Wow. It sounds so yummy :0)

  4. Great post, Hilary! I thought you made a really helpful point when you said "Essentially we're encouraged to disembody ourselves in order to achieve something physical." That's so true, and while I believe that some people are just fat like some people are just short, mind/body connection is certainly supportive of health regardless. Thanks for sharing this!

  5. Thank you, Anna!! I feel like a celebrity has commented on my blog!! xoxo