Regress to Progress
So, its day 10 of the new year and perhaps you’re in, “New Year, New You” mode. While, well- intentioned, this phrase can create a culture of perfection, obsession, attachment, and expectation. Why drop so many great lessons that you learned from 2018 when you can take them with you?
Here are some great lessons I learned last year that I am putting to practice this year:
What lessons did you learn in 2018 that you would like to bring forward for this year?
Are We Missing the Point?
Just like it’s easy to get caught up in the commercialism of the holiday season, the same goes for the practice of yoga. I mean, how can you not? The flashy poses all over Instagram, alignment OCD, and pressure in yoga classes to perform or keep up. Trust me, I got caught up in all that too, until I looked deeper into the philosophy of the practice.
As a teacher, it is especially hard to strike a balance between offering something fun and interesting yet teaching valuable tools that can be used in everyday life. Before I teach a class, I ask myself, “What do you want your students to learn?” It is my way of checking in to make sure that I actually teach my students yoga, not just movement or asana.
I recently took a couple of yoga classes at studios I don’t normally practice at. One class was at a studio in Texas when visiting family for Thanksgiving and another at a studio in Los Angeles. Both classes where your typical Vinyasa flow style: asana with a heavy emphasis on alignment and breath. However, I walked away feeling as though there was a missed opportunity. There was absolutely no mention of any yoga philosophy or principals of the practice. Sure, I stretched and moved my body, but was that yoga?
It is certainly possible to do yoga without asana and my experience held testament that asana can be done without practicing yoga. So, how can we use asana effectively to act as a tool for the practice of yoga instead of allowing it to override the point of the entire practice? Perhaps, we can consider any form of smart and efficient movement as asana and then apply that to the practice of yoga. Since yoga means union, we can use asana as a means to find union with what is and learn from those present moment experiences to make choices without attaching to expectations, past experiences, or particular results.
So, instead of stressing about buying the perfect gift or nailing some fancy asana, perhaps we stop and ask, “What is the point?” Because sometimes all we need is to remind ourselves of the true nature of their origin to ground us in its purpose.
A Day of Self-Less Service
According to the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Indian text that became a respected resource for yoga, there are four main paths of yoga. Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga, Jnana (pronounced “Gnyaan”) Yoga, and Karma Yoga. Bhakti Yoga is the path of loving-devotion to God. Raja Yoga often referred to as the mental yoga, is the path of meditation. Jnana Yoga is the path of wisdom and study to realize the divine oneness inherent in all beings. Karma Yoga is the path of action. In life, we can feel in the path of Bhakti Yoga, think in the path of Jnana Yoga, do nothing completely – the final step in the path of Raja Yoga, but today in particular is a wonderful opportunity to practice action in the path of Karma Yoga. Today is the after all, the midterm elections.
If you are at least 18 years old and a U.S. citizen, it is your civic right to vote. A civic right to be proud of. To put things in perspective, in 1776 only white men age 21 and older who owned land could vote. In 1920, the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote nationwide. In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act granted Native Americans citizenship and voting rights. In 1964, the federal Civil Rights Act was passed to ensure that all men and women age 21 and older, regardless of race, religion, or education have the right to vote. In 1965, the federal Voting Rights Act suspended voter literacy tests. In 1971, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18. In 1984, the polling places were federally required to be accessible to people with disabilities. (For a more extensive timeline click HERE.) Looking back at a span of over 200 years there have been quite a bit of changes, but that will only continue to happen if we lead with our actions.
Of course, there are many things in life that we have no control over, but today we can put our thoughts, feelings, and wisdom into action through our votes. And, just like the four paths of yoga, every voter has a right to their own path. Therefore, the Karmic path of self-less service is only complete when we can do the work without any attachment or expectation to an end result. If there is any resolve, know that it may have taken over 200 years for the changes in the voter timeline to occur, but nonetheless, they happened.
Yoga: Science of the Mind
In honor of World Mental Health Day on October 10th, I want to share this with you:
I am a recovering perfectionist, there I said it. Growing up as a perfectionist, I treated everything as competition of how to be better, prettier, smarter, thinner, cooler, more successful… etc. I put so much pressure on myself be perfect until it was no longer sustainable.
I was probably 20 years old when a pretty intense bout of depression hit me like a wall. Within a month, I had dropped out of college in New York, quit my job, moved back home with my parents and my serious boyfriend at the time broke things off with me. After years and years of perfecting, planning, goal-setting, and dream chasing, it all just stopped. So naturally, I freaked out, said some really mean things to myself, and assumed other people were saying mean things about me as well. This took me down a really long and dark tunnel filled with self-pity.
Thankfully, with the help of really amazing friends, supportive family, and various forms of therapy I found the light at the end. One of the biggest resources for mental therapy was yoga. After a friend suggested I try it, I began a home practice while watching YouTube videos. But of course, in my default perfectionist mode, I attended my first public yoga class only once I felt
proficient enough in the poses. So, for months, I practiced like I would a competitive sport, just in a different uniform. I always opted for the most physically challenging version of a pose, made sure to keep up with the rest of the class, and considered class more or less successful by how much of it I actually could do. After only 6 months of practice, I stepped into my first 200-hour teacher training to I find that there was more to the practice than fancy poses and stretching. And that is when the light bulb went off.
After living through the lens of yes vs no, right vs wrong, and better vs worse, yoga taught me that I don’t need to hold a higher value to one over the other. Instead, I can experience happiness, sadness, excitement, frustration, anger and every other emotion while I am with them.
One Sanskrit saying comes to mind, “Mana eva manusyanam karanam bandha moksayoh.” This translates to, “As the mind, so the person; bondage or liberation are in your own mind.” If we can remember that we are not our temporary emotions and thoughts, we can simply be a witness to every experience without feeling bound to them. In that, we can find liberation from our own minds just by changing our perspective towards it.
No Asana? No Problem.
It has been about three months since my shoulder tendinitis began to flare up. It is slowly healing, with lots of patience, body-awareness, and to be quite honest more yoga than I have ever practiced before. You might be thinking, “but how?” The truth is, you don’t necessarily need yoga asana to practice yoga. So, whether you are injured like me or are lacking time in your schedule to get to the yoga studio, you can still practice yoga.
According to the guiding text on yoga, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali written over 1700 years ago, the definition of asana is, “The posture that brings comfort and steadiness.” Nowhere in the Yoga Sutras does it say that you need to sweat, do core strengthening exercises, stretch until you can place your foot behind your head, or work towards the “goal” of the full expression of a yoga pose. I know, it can be misleading, especially if you see yoga being advertised as a way to be fit, toned, or achieve the “perfect” version of yourself. Trust me, I bought into that too, until I didn’t. I would show up to a yoga class ready to perform based on what I thought my practice should be, and in the end, I was left feeling disappointed, hurt, and confused.
So, if yoga isn’t the yoga postures that are broadcasted on Instagram or sequenced in a yoga flow, what is its purpose? It is simply a means to experience what it is like to be in the body and access the mind through each present moment experience. You can think of asana as a screwdriver in a tool box. Sure, there are different types of screwdrivers and they are useful for certain things, but it’s not the answer for everything. So, in order to use your toolbox wisely you will have to add other tools and then decide which ones to use according to whatever is presented in front of you.
Now, everyone’s toolbox is going to be unique. Therefore, it doesn’t matter what it looks like or how it’s used. After all, the practice of yoga is about accepting what is and learning from the present moment experience to make skillful choices in action. Seems easy enough right? Well, the problem is that we don’t spend enough time there, because we wish things were different. We either like things so much that we don’t want them to end or we hate something so much that we avoid it all together. We are constantly trying to change what is, and as a result, we are either living in the past or trying to anticipate the future. To put it bluntly, we think way too much.
Perhaps, all we need is to pause and be with what is. Be with the sounds around you, be with the breath, be with the sensory experience of touch, be with what is around you, be with your thoughts, be with your body. Simply be with it as it truly is, without needing to change it, attach to it, or identify with it. Be with yoga, as yoga is now.
Back to Yoga
After practicing yoga religiously at a local yoga studio for only 6 months, I was approached by my teacher after class. This beautiful tall and thin Caucasian lady who I would take class from often said, “You have a beautiful practice, have you thought about doing teacher training?” I am sure that her compliment was well-intentioned and sincere at the time, but now I realize that it reinforced my harmful habits of basing contentment and happiness off approval and perfection. This was a pattern that repeated itself over and over again in many different forms.
So, for years I was practicing and teaching the poses from this place. I trusted other peoples’ knowledge and capabilities over my own, so instead of questioning the method as to why things are taught or practiced in a certain way, I began to question myself. Instead of critically thinking of how to put a class together, I would pull new material from other classes. Yet, for years I felt as though I was just replicating what was taught by my peers, teachers, and teacher’s teachers. I strived to reinvent the wheel by making my classes more-so yoga choreography with intricate transitions and funky variations on poses, but still something was missing. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, until I began searching for answers and trusting my instincts. I later found, that the yoga community at large, including myself, taught the same. Think of your traditional “All Levels” Vinyasa Flow class; fast-paced flow geared towards students who are either athletic, hyper-mobile, coordinated, or all of the above.
That’s when I realized; I was teaching form over function. Even if I would tell my students to find the postures in their body, I would reinforce the complete opposite. I congratulated my students for looking aesthetically pretty, physically adjusted my students as if to say they weren’t doing it “right,” and demoed postures as if to say that my way of doing it was what students had to strive for. Without realizing it, I was encouraging competition, approval, perfection, inclusivity, self-judgment, and attachment; all that yoga is not. Instead, yoga is about accepting what is and learning from the present moment to make choices without attaching yourself to expectations or particular outcomes. So, with that is mind, who cares what it looks like. What we should really be concerned about is using asana as a means to be in the body and actively participate in the current experience that is in front of us.
It may have taken me years to come back to the true nature of yoga, but that is the work. So I will continue to show up and be with what is right in front of me and what happens next is what happens next.
Upon discovering the idea of yoga 6 years ago, I was sold on the physical asana-based practice. Considering my background of playing competitive sports and being physically active, that is all that I knew. After taking my first group yoga class in a heated room, I was hooked. I remember feeling strong, refreshed, and more flexible. I’m sure that the teacher set a beautiful intention for class and carried the theme throughout to provide purpose for the practice, but at the time it didn’t land. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, I just wasn’t ready to receive it.
Within a year of consistent physical yoga practice, I decided to do teacher training. I was at a career crossroads, so I thought, “I like yoga so why not teach it?” Our first homework assignment was to write a paper on, “What is yoga to you and why do you practice?” As Mark Twain once said, “Write what you know.” So, that is exactly what I did. I knew I liked yoga because it was fun, helped me get out of my own head, and made me feel good. I also knew that because of that, I wanted to teach yoga. That was it, plain and simple.
Upon receiving feedback on my paper, the lead teacher trainer wrote. “Wow, that is a lot of pressure to put on yourself. Let go of your expectations; you never know what will surprise you along the way.” That was probably one of the best pieces of advice anyone could have given me at that time.
After learning the history, concepts, principles, and tools of the practice, I set out on exactly what I had my eyes on the entire time; making a career out of teaching yoga. Even though I was still new to the practice, I got out there and taught my heart out. As I taught, I learned and practiced what I preached and began living my yoga, not just teaching it. Yes, I became a better teacher, but more importantly I became a better person. I found my purpose, my voice, and my true self.
Now, I am met with something else I wasn’t quite ready for; a minor shoulder injury. So, in the meantime, my yoga practice is shifting from asana-based to consistent meditation. Let’s be honest. Meditation is hard, which is why most people including myself find excuses not to do it. But my circumstance has presented me with the perfect opportunity to reconnect with my meditation practice that was quite honestly not very consistent. I may not have asked for this, but I sure am ready to receive.
The Sweetness of Now
I’ve been back home now for two weeks after my month of travel in Europe and have so much to share with you!
In early May, I set out on the first leg of my trip to Italy, where I co-led my second yoga retreat with my friend and fellow Yoga Teacher, D’Andre Clayton. After countless hours of hard work and planning, the months of anticipation, small hiccups along the way, and a long journey, we finally arrived. Perched atop a mountain peak accessible by small windy roads in the countryside of Italy was our home for the next 7 nights. I remember getting out of the cab and warmly greeted with hugs and kisses by Paola and Irish, life partners and co-owners of Locanda del Gallo, a beautiful country house and yoga retreat center.
After settling in we gathered for our first dinner. Maybe it was our intimate group or the crisp Italian air, but everyone opened up to one another so freely and from the first night I knew that we would become a family. Every day we gathered for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We meditated together, practiced yoga together, and learned together during the daily workshops. We further bonded during our adventure to the medieval town of Perugia, wine-tasting in a castle, and a cooking class where we learned to make pasta and dessert. It didn’t matter that D’Andre and I were the “teachers” and they were the “students,” we all had valuable stories, experiences, and lessons to share with one another and grew because of it.
At the close of our final day together, the air was bittersweet because we all knew it would be our last night. As I got ready for dinner, I wondered where my boyfriend, Xavier was. My friends who came on the retreat told me he was probably at the pool and that as soon as I was done getting ready I should go get him. As I finished up, I rushed out to get Xavier thinking that he wasn’t ready for dinner. Yet, as I approached the steps to the pool, there was a path of flower petals leading down to the gorgeous infinity pool overlooking the Italian countryside. There, he was waiting for me. As our eyes met we both cried because we knew what was happening. We grabbed each other’s hands as I listened to him speaking intently. And then, he got down on one knee. Before he could even finish asking, “Will you marry me?…” I already nodded and said, “Yes!” It was such a special moment. And, so much sweeter because we were able to share that moment with our retreat family. So, together on our last night we all celebrated with champagne, great food, and of course great company.
As dinner came to a close, we went around the table and shared our key takeaways from our experience of the retreat. Everyone shared something they found of value that was personal to them, and yet, the messages were all universal and relatable. We laughed, cried, toasted, hugged and kissed each other. When it came time for me to share, I smiled with contentment and said, “I am exactly where I need to be.” Everything just felt right. I was humbled by the whole experience and yet so proud to stand at that table surrounded by amazing people doing what I love with the man I love by my side. The entire process leading up to that moment; doubt, failures, late nights, hard work, risk, discipline and persistence gave me the opportunity to enjoy the sweetness of those moments.
When I tell people that I teach yoga for a living I am immediately met with the question, “Wow! You must be so peaceful and happy all the time.” Yes, for the most part I am. I love what I do, and I love the connections I make. However, I stress out just as much as the majority of the American population. In my default mode, I catch myself worrying about bits of the past or obsessing over parts of the future. I ask myself questions like, "Am I doing this right? How will my actions or words be perceived? Will people understand me?" As you can imagine, this makes it hard for me to get things done due to my indecisiveness.
Although I am a yoga teacher, I too can get caught up in the busyness of everyday life that I forget to practice the very thing that I teach. From teaching public and private classes to leading workshops, trainings, and retreats, I find it to be a very delicate balance between finding time for my own practice and offering it for others.
Due to a build-up of recent stress and tension causing a lack of sleep and stiffness in my neck, I began seeing an acupuncturist. During my evaluation, the acupuncturist asked, “Do you obsess over your thoughts?” Hmm. Such a simple question and yet so precise.
Ironically, a friend and student of mine gifted me a book called, Radical Wholeness, maybe a day or two after I saw the acupuncturist. As she handed me the book she said, “I think you will really resonate with it.” After just reading the first chapter, I already felt a deep connection to everything the author had to say. It was a combination between a coming out party and an intervention. I felt relieved to unveil an underlying cause for why I create my stress/anxiety and yet surprised by the parallels I identified with in the book.
In the first chapter, the author discusses what he calls the Chosen Five: the western cultural construct asserting that touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight are the senses that activate our intelligence. The author, Philip Sheperd states, “What each of our senses supports is an aspect of the Story that is foundational to its message about what it means to be human: the self-contained within a boundary.” He introduces Kathryn Linn Geurts who studied the senses of the Anlo-Ewe culture of West Africa. In her studies she finds that the Anlo-Ewe culture contrastingly consider speech and balance to be a sense. The way in which we view speech reinforces our cultural belief that the self is contained within a boundary, therefore, we use speech as a way to present our ideas, opinions, and even ourselves to try to manipulate a certain response. Whereas the Anlo-Ewe people see speech as a means of discovery and learning through the experience of connection. They also see balance to be a sense in that way. They believe that balance is “a felt relationship between your center of gravity and that of earth.” Philip Sheperd elaborates on the Anlo-Ewe culture by breaking down one word, Seselelame which translates to, ‘feel-feel-at-flesh-inside.’ This word refers to what is perceived through the sensations of the body. As Philip Sheperd boldly states, “A nurturing of seselalame is nowhere to be seen in our formal education of children. Rather than ‘feel-feel-at-flesh-inside,’ we are teaching ‘think-think-at-head-inside.’
Perhaps that is the problem; the fact that stress has become so normalized in our culture that is becomes tolerable, acceptable, even encouraged in some instances. I too am guilty of suppressing my anxiety and stress until I become so disconnected and forget to be open to life. But, much like the practice of yoga, I am reminded that the point is not the be perfect or to have all the answers. Instead, it is to experience the process of feeling, being, and connecting to everything that makes me whole. And through the act of being whole, I can become more present.
Start the Conversation
I love the conversations I am hearing and witnessing. At work, on social media, on TV, you name it. It’s happening. People all around me are discussing difficult topics of racism, equal rights, representation, harassment, gun laws, politics, and global issues. Once taboo topics of conversation are now shared among friends, family, co-workers, and most importantly with those of opposing beliefs.
Every day when I walk into class to teach I learn from the diversity of my students. Even without verbal conversation, I see my students through their practice, their movement, their breath. Together we navigate relative forms of challenge, resistance, and discomfort to walk away with something valuable; something learned.
The root word “Asana,” is often considered a yoga posture especially in Western Yoga. Therefore, it is easy to mistake the practice for being about nailing the perfect yoga pose. But, the traditional translation is defined as “comfortable seat.” I guarantee though, that if you sat in any asana for an extended period of time you will probably experience some sort of resistance and discomfort. We oftentimes view those sensations as a bad thing and do our very best to avoid them. However, resistance gives us feedback much like conversations that welcome diverse opinions. Just like in the practice, it’s not about what is "right" vs "wrong," that is not the point. It is about starting a conversation in order to listen, understand, and being open to each lesson along the way. Perhaps with these new and exciting conversations happening in the world we can turn discomfort into tolerance, listening, and understanding.
Hi, I'm Lauren and I am here to support people to find freedom in being authentic and the power to carry that out in their lives and community. Writing is one way I like to explore that for myself. Here is my archive of reflections.