Last year at this time I was just finishing up assisting a monthlong teacher training course alongside my teacher, Ana Forrest. It was an enlightening and grueling month of 4am mornings, intense learning and inspiring work. I oscillated all month between feeling completely in the “right place” as a yoga teacher and feeling like running away entirely. I felt alternately like a highly skilled instructor and total fraud. At the end of the month, I began a year of questioning whether I should continue being a yoga teacher at all. This wasn’t a matter of whether I “could” be a yoga teacher – I have been a yoga teacher for 14 years and the skills to do so successfully are there for me to grow from. This was more a question of whether I “should” continue being a yoga teacher or whether my Spirit was feeling restless and looking in a different direction.
For a while before assisting this teacher training I had been feeling lackluster. The politics of the “yoga world” were bringing me down. Teachers speaking badly of one another, seeing teachers with the right “look” move ahead even as their students were getting injured, the general competitiveness of a community that outwardly “supported” one another but inwardly exposed a deeply ingrained scarcity complex. I felt unappreciated for my really hard work. I spent (and spend) hours working on sequences, doing my own practice to stay inspired, educating myself to be a better and better teacher and so much more. I was feeling like all that meant nothing. Then festivals and workshop venues started questioning the number of Facebook and Instagram followers I had – as if this was a better litmus test of what kind of instructor I was than my actual teaching skills and training. Falling compensation rates, festivals not paying at all, and potential clients balking at the price of private sessions all compounded my feelings. At this time last year I had come off some comments through the grapevine about how I was getting “old” not in age but in teaching techniques, and fears of being irrelevant in the changing yoga atmosphere toward fast-paced flashy vinyasa sequences were at the forefront of my mind.
Through my work with Ana Forrest last September, each day I questioned what I was doing and why. She pushed my boundaries physically, mentally and emotionally, and questioned me about my ethics and values – not to be mean but to get me to hone in on what I really wanted from my life and to cut out the extraneous. She revealed to me as no one else could these glaring blind spots in my life and in my teaching. She has known me longer than anyone except my family, partner and a few close friends – she knows me inside and out better than I do sometimes. She can see me without the veil of my limiting beliefs and from a lifetime of her own experiences in the deep dark places. She was willing to go with me into those feelings of inadequacy and fear – to understand where they were really coming from. I’m a graceful navigator of life – a fact she reminded me of daily – and she knew better than I did that these feelings of not belonging in the yoga world were merely an indicator of another much deeper Spiritual malady and discomfort.
I was there to assist a teacher training, but she assigned me to write poems and read them out loud in front of everyone with a trembling voice. She sat with me when everyone else had partnered up for an exercise, set a timer and asked me to tell her all the secrets I had kept bottled up for so long. She listened openly about how cramped my Spirit felt in my current life. She threw me in front of the crowds coming to her intensives and encouraged me to speak in ways that I never had. Ana Forrest told me repeatedly in whispers throughout the month to, “Let the Poet speak, she has important things to say.” She left me at the end of the month with the note below: “Please schedule in writing as a daily spiritual responsibility. It’s time. Spiritual Fulfillment.”
Because while I have found tremendous fulfillment, delight and financial success as a yoga teacher, it was at the expense of some other really important dreams of my Spirit. I put on hold my ideas for books and the stories that passed by in dreams. I closed off the whispers of poems that passed through my ears while I cued elbow to knee or drove down Lake Shore Drive. I came to believe that the thing I was best at was teaching yoga. I forgot that there was a time not long ago that I did write every day. I remembered a time in my life when I lived in a internal world of magical stories made real on the page. My discomfort with my current career and all the signs around it were simply redirecting me back to the magic of these stories. The stories have been bubbling up louder and louder each year, and the roar could no longer be ignored.
One of the most fantastic parts of Forrest Yoga is just this: the reclaiming of our whole Self, not just the accepted one. Breath by breath, practice by practice, the tools of Forrest Yoga infiltrate life off the mat to bring about the most amazing epiphanies. From the memory of the magic of those stories I went forward and hired a shaman – Bridget Boland – to help me on the process of calling in my other parts of Spirit that needed attention. We have spent the better part of this year doing the work necessary to clear limiting beliefs, work with past mistakes, forgive myself and move ahead with a guidance from wisdom-keepers beyond my daily life.
I likely will not have the biggest Instagram following at any time. I don’t teach or sequence “traditionally” – I’m like me. I am still teaching. I decided not to go, but I made an agreement about staying. If I was going to continue teaching it had to be unapologetically on my terms. I re-cultivated my own voice and took some big risks in the topics, sequences and methods I taught from. I included more ceremonial work and anatomical instruction this year publicly than ever before. I talked about my dark spots. I read poems in class (not one of my own yet). I wrote blogs like this and journal entries more frequently than in the previous 10 years of teaching yoga full time. I stopped comparing myself to other yoga teachers and focused on what I was doing. I chose to spend time with those who really inspire me in different areas of my life. Moving into next year I turned down any work that didn’t actually support me in the teacher and person I most want to be. I made space in my schedule for writing. And I am happier for it.
Many students have stay or go questions: marriages, jobs, having children and so much more. I’m not a therapist – I have no training in that arena – but through the practices of Forrest Yoga I can help you listen to the voice of your Spirit more clearly. And through the voice of your Spirit you can feel when it is time to stay, go or simply change the balance of power of elements in your life. So a year later and a lot of reflection from whirlwind experiences over the past 12 months, I’ve decided to stay but, as many of you have noticed, with some big changes in my teaching. I hope that those changes continue so that the pieces of me long held in storage can finally get more air than my Ujjayi breathing.
In my last blog I recounted a synchronous occurrence a few weeks back on my flight home, when I met Bhupendra Badhe, MD, and we spoke about yoga philosophy. He let me know that his teacher’s name, the one who taught him about the formula for happiness, is Vedic scholar and teacher Jaya Row of Vedanta Vision. She spends her time interpreting and teaching ancient Vedic wisdom so that the current, modern populations of the world can understand and use its immense wisdom in everyday life. I’m so happy to have learned more from Bhupendra (who is now a friend on Facebook – thank you social network for connecting us even though we live on opposite sides of the planet) and to be able to share the source of some of the wisdom of my last blog with you.
Apparently what I wrote was a HOT topic! I have heard from many of you readers in emails, comments, and conversations at class about how much you liked the last blog and wanted to know more. Shortly after my last post, I taught a series of classes and sessions here in Chicago themed around desire and happiness. I wanted to explore with yoga postures and breathing exercises the conscious connection to the formula for happiness in my last blog via Jaya Row and Vedanta Vision – happiness = number of desires achieved divided by number of desires total. What came up from the student perspective was incredible.
Some students said it was inappropriate of me to speak about desire in a yoga class – that it was a topic not spiritual enough to be associated with yoga practice. I think they might have only associated desire with sexual intimacy and not in any greater realm or definition.
Other students said they left classes feeling completely and utterly empowered to go after long hidden wants in their life. That feeling into their desires on the mats led them to great insight and motivation into desire in their life that they had not previously recognized.
Still other students said the classes left them feeling hollow because they had no idea what they desired truly in any arena of their life. They realized that what they went after in their poses, practice and life had nothing to do with what they really wanted, but rather more to do with what was expected of them or what was “correct.”
This really affected me – and made me think about the extreme power of desire to shape our lives. As a follow up to my last blog, I wanted to share with you some ideas on harnessing the potent force of what you most desire, refining it into a smaller number of big true desires, and then going after them!
Desire is not a dirty word. As living creatures we are highly motivated by desire – and if we do not consciously examine what and why we desire, then these wants will control us mindlessly. By studying and examining what we want, when we want it, and distilling the pieces of why we want it, we can learn how to use desire to propel in a direction of delight. If we suppress or avoid desire, maligning it as something “unspiritual” or “wrong,” we risk cutting off a piece of our personal power, a piece of our motivation, and really a huge chunk of our Spirit. When refined, desire can become delicious Spirit food.
My own teacher, Ana Forrest, creatrix of Forrest Yoga, speaks often about desire. She does so in a very particular way. In her work with me, she has had me very clearly imagine, visualize, and write about the person I most desire to be. In doing so, she has taught me how to see whom I most want to be and then to craft steps to become that person – even as that person is evolving. This exercise has also shown me “false desires” – those desires like having a certain amount of money, or owning a big house, that are not my own but are ingrained in me from outside influences like culture and upbringing. By envisioning the qualities of the person you most want to be, you can quite literally sculpt a future self out of your current experience base and take steps to be anyone and anything. Without acknowledging who you deeply yearn to be, you simple absorb the desires marketed around you and take them up as your life. This taking on of someone else’s desires chokes off the voice of your Spirit and the wisdom of your deepest self. As an example, the person I most desire to be is a healer, kind, honest, full of integrity, compassionate, passionate, teacher, inspiring, among many other qualities. Because I consciously know that I desire these qualities in myself, I take action in my everyday life to practice healing, to be kind, to speak the truth, to act within the boundaries of my own integrity, to define and embody compassion in my own way, to stoke passion, to practice teaching, to create ways of inspiring and being inspired, etc.
“To discover what we truly desire we must first strip away what we’ve been taught to desire: a certain weight, a certain clothing, a certain mate, all the things that mean we are successful and happy. Out of love and concern, your parents might have inadvertently imposed their desires on you to become a doctor or to make a certain amount of money rather than follow your innate gifts and skills. We have to look beyond surfaces and discern a true desire. Perhaps you think you want to be really rich, but what you really desire is to live free from the fear of want.” – Ana Forrest
Ana also guides her students deeper into desire by exploring all the facets of a seemingly simple desire in daily life – like food, sleep habits, book choices. I’ll give you an example. Some of you who know me well know that I love chocolate – borderline crazy about chocolate. Several times over the course of the last 10 years, I’ve experimented with not eating any chocolate for significant chunks of time even though I desire to eat it all the time. Now this may seem like I’m thwarting my own happiness according to the desire formula above, but really what it has afforded me is a view into what I REALLY desire. And what I really desire is not a caffeinated combination of sweetness and antioxidants wrapped in a brown package, but a physical manifestation of a delicious way of combining bitterness and sweetness in a desirable way. My life has had a lot of bitter moments (whose hasn’t!!) and a lot of incredibly sweet moments, but one of my challenges – and one of my deep desires in life – has been to evolve enough to combine them into a meaningful life. Chocolate was a physical way I was expressing that desire. And now that I know this about my great desire, I still enjoy chocolate but I do not crave it or need it in the way I used to. Maybe you have a sleep desire or a TV show you always desire to watch that holds for a you an actual deeper desire – a much bigger desire that encompasses not only the TV show but something greater in your life. Learn the bigger desire that houses all the other little desires, go after it and knock it off your leaderboard, and a different kind of happiness will surely abound.
The next time you feel desire tugging at your mind-strings, or your heart-strings, take a deep breath and listen. Feel inside – what does that desire really ask of you? What do you really want from your moment or life? Acknowledging and welcoming desire, harnessing its powerful ability to motivate and inspire you is an important part of your development of Self. “Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.” – Rumi
I had the pleasure of spending last weekend with one of my teachers, Ana Forrest, at her annual conference – Wind Horse. As I left on Sunday to come home I encountered long lines at the airport, a ticket situation, even longer security lines, and a final run to my gate to make my flight home. Because of the ticket situation, the customer service agent from American upgraded my seat to one with more leg room and didn’t even tell me – this was very nice of her! After my run to catch the flight, I hopped aboard, found my seat, put my luggage away, and sat down. I was in the middle seat – not my normal. I usually try for an aisle seat because I don’t like to feel caged in. To my left was a woman reading her e-reader and to my right was a man sitting quietly looking out the window. Little did I know then how much this man next to me would have to teach me or who he was.
The flight took off, they served us our beverage, the movie played…When the movie ended, the man next to me asked if Chicago (our destination) was my home and I told him yes. We conversed a bit and it turned out he was flying through Chicago (and then London) to get home to Mumbai. That is a long journey from Seattle! He talked about going on a cruise from Seattle with his daughter and wife, he told me about his life in India and his other child. I told him about my partner, and my cat and dog. We talked about Chicago – he had been there to visit his daughter. We talked about weather patterns in our home towns. We even talked about the cultural differences of marriage between our generations and our countries! He asked why I had been in Seattle – and here is where the story gets interesting.
I told him, “I was in Seattle for work.” That is my standard answer when people I don’t know ask why I’m traveling. He nodded his head and said, “What is your line of work?” I said, “Well, I actually teach yoga.” And his face broke into a grin and he laughed.
It turns out the man sitting next to me, who is a doctor by occupation, was also well versed in the philosophical and physical traditions of yoga! We had the most lively discussion of the importance of the different limbs of yoga. He learned about my lineage of yoga, Forrest Yoga, and I learned about his passion for vipassana meditation. We talked about the Buddha’s life and teachings. We talked about the Bhagavad Gita and various other texts related to yoga. He was intrigued by the combination of Native American Medicine teachings and yogasana that Forrest Yoga uses for healing. We discussed macrocosms and microcosms in the physical and energetic realms as manifestations of the principles of yoga.
He then turned to me and said, “Do you know what happiness is? Do you know how to get it?” I replied that for me happiness was going after my passion – I could teach yoga all day long without getting tired, travel the world talking about yoga, do yoga everyday and not get exhausted because I’m so passionate about it – that I felt at my most happy when I was doing tasks and things I could be passionate about. He then told me about one of his teachers, and their formula for happiness. He said, like many others I have heard, that happiness is a practice – and not only a practice but also that it is a mathematical formula we have to practice. He told me the following formula for happiness from his teacher: happiness = number of desires achieved divided by number of desires total.
In the modern world, we get stuck in the desire to have too much: we want this new phone, that new computer, this new car, that quality in our partner, this element in our life, and on and on. As a result our bottom number (number of total desires) is HUGE. And because we have ever-growing desires, we can never achieve enough of them to have but a fractional amount of happiness. The key, he said, is to go after the big desires of our life – keep the number small and then actually do them. This way the top number of the formula (how many desires we achieve) gets bigger, and the bottom number goes to zero. All my math geeks just got it…when the bottom number goes towards zero, the result is nearing infinite happiness. 🙂
And then, soon after, the flight ended. We landed. We got off the plane. I gave this man my card, he hugged me, and we parted ways. It was a most incredible experience – and surely not an accident – nothing is. I don’t know if he would allow me to publish his name, and I don’t know the name of his teacher who taught him this happiness formula, or I would put both in here now. They deserve the credit for these ideas – I’m just a messenger!
What I do know is that during my weekend with my teacher at Wind Horse, I was profoundly touched by a feeling that I need to build a new community around me, because several parts of my own have been decimated over and over in the past decade. It’s time to re-create consciously who I am connected to and why. And my own personal prayer to my sacred ones at the end of my yoga weekend was to come across people on my path who were like-minded, who could remind me to trust and be held in a space of communion, and who would see me for my light and dark and still be there. This stranger, with whom I had a very deep 2 hours of conversation with, was an answer to my prayer. He was from a different city, culture, and occupation. He could see my challenges and my passions straight away. And he left me with a hug and a smile, and a feeling that we are all very much more connected as a world community than we might recognize in our daily lives. That we are all much more similar to one another than we might see at the surface level. You never know how what you ask for will come through. I never would have thought the seeds for new plans in my community would have started with a chance meeting on an airplane. And I have one less desire on the bottom of that happiness formula, and more of a sense of delight in my life upon my return.
Recently I was assisting Ana Forrest during her Advanced Teacher Training Program in New York City at Pure Yoga. This 9-day program is an incredible whirlwind of breakthroughs and development for the students who take it, and an equally incredible challenge to development for the teachers like me who assist it. Our days began early – 3am to be exact – and ran through 11:30am including a long practice for the assistants and then a practice for the students that we helped with. There was a short break and then back to business for the afternoon until 5:30pm. I’ve taken this course many times and reaped incredible benefits from it, but this was the first time I was assisting it. I was nervous about the schedule, nervous about being a good assistant, nervous about working with new people, and more.
Things started off great: I didn’t oversleep for the early AM practice sessions, I learned new hands-on assists, I met very interesting and kind new students, I worked alongside my mentor and lifelong teacher. It was a great experience.
Fast forward to day 5: in the middle of the day I started feeling quite ill. By the next morning during practice I was feeling much worse. My teacher looked at me and she said, “If you need to go and rest, please go to your apartment and rest.” This might sound like a simple phrase to you, but inside my mind this was revolutionary. In my mind, rest was not an option. If I left, my mind told me the story that I was a failure, that I was not completing my obligation to assist the program, that I was weak, that I was letting Ana/the other assistants/the students down, and that there was something wrong with me because this was the 7th time I had been sick in as many weeks. I was floored – stopped in my tracks – that I was having such thoughts about myself.
In the maelstrom of energy that coursed through me along these trains of thought in a single moment, pulling me down into a spiral of despair, Ana in her wisdom and stepping into Spirit turned back to me and said, “What would you have said to your student if they came to you and were sick like this?” This blew the doors open. I started crying and said, “I would tell them not to worry at all and to go home and rest, and to get better, and I would mean every word.” It’s the truth.
In delving deeper into these issues for myself, I realized that I have trouble resting. I joke about it, but I really have been conditioned throughout my whole life to “just keep going no matter what.” There are a lot of threads weaving into the tapestry of that pattern in my life, but in feeling deeper into the pattern I came up with some wisdom for myself that I hope will help you too.
Fast forwards to coming home to Chicago. When I came back to teaching after being sick for weeks, I was struck by several things. First, that so many sick people were coming to class with full-on influenza, stomach virus, colds, strep, and more. Second, that suddenly I could see very clearly students who were pushing beyond their edges into a danger zone when they needed to back off, but they simply would not stop pushing ahead even though they were in pain and even though I encouraged them not to. Third, that no one seemed to think either of these patterns were odd or injurious, but the opposite: that by practicing while VERY ill or pushing hard and fast ahead they were actually helping themselves….This left me unsettled as I realized I had some of this pattern in myself.
In light of these experiences, I think we need to re-evaluate the yoga practice of rest!
Ana Forrest teaches about discerning when you need to rest by feeling into your current state honestly without getting sucked into your “rackets.” Sometimes when we “rest” in a pose like embryo or child’s pose, we are actually doing it out of avoidance or because we have a story about the sensations that are coming up in another pose. Likewise, when we are in a challenging pose and we keep pushing ahead, Forrest says sometimes the story is that we have to push through the pain to get ahead – and how false and potentially damaging this kind of internal story really is. Using feeling as a discerning tool to sift through the stories we tell ourselves about our practice to get to the truth of the matter will allow us to learn when and how to actually rest. Sometimes this means changing alignment, other times changing the pose entirely, other times staying home from a group class altogether. But feeling into the truth of your state of being is the key to making the decision.
Another of my teachers, Scott Sonnon, talks about rest as active recovery. He has been through a wide variety of instances in which he needed to keep moving to heal from his injuries and conditions. When he says “active recovery” he means tailoring the movement modality to what is actually going on in the body at any given time – whether that is a neck fracture or the flu. He recommends the practice of Intu-Flow (functional joint mobility training) solo to address where the body’s energy is stuck as a result of fatigue, illness or injury. He also recommends neither too much sleep, nor too little, but the amount of sleep that actually helps you to feel your best – and how this is different for everyone. He speaks to the need to eat not only high quality, whole foods, but nutrient dense foods that actually provide what your life schedule and activity levels ask of you as a form of “rest” or replenishment.
From my teachers I walk away with some tips for you:
1. If you are sick with a fever, are just getting over the stomach flu or food poisoning and feel weak, are dizzy to the point of feeling like you are going to pass out, have a bacterial infection not yet treated and cleared by the your doctor, stay home and rest up! Know that you are doing a huge service to yourself by resting. And you are keeping those around you from getting sick.
2. When you are fatigued, know that sitting around will probably make you more fatigued. If you usually take Power Yoga or something kick-your-asana because that is the practice you like, consider taking a steadier or more energetic based practice like Forrest Yoga or Slow Flow Vinyasa to learn about replenishing your supply of Self.
3. When you are in a pose, become finely attuned to your edge: the space where you feel something is happening, but you could stay for a while and not fall over into the abyss of overwhelm and abandon.
4. Reframe the negative internal dialogue that comes up for you related to resting, taking breaks, backing off, bailing out, etc. Congratulate yourself for becoming aware that you are even having these patterns of reactions! Once you cultivate awareness you can finally begin to cultivate change.
I leave you with some final tips!!
Eat well for your body and schedule. Sleep enough for your constitution. Move every day. Give yourself time for silent contemplation. Turn off Facebook from time to time (and Twitter!). Go for a walk instead of surfing the net. Read something that inspires you. Call a friend. Stay home when you are sick and recuperate. Learn your own “rackets” and stories, and be the best writer as you recreate yourself one pattern at a time. Delight in your process of being – this is the only go you get.