It’s been 108 days since I last taught a public yoga class. Prior to that day, I was in 5 or 6 different places every day of the week except Friday teaching my heart out. I spent my hours planning connection with other humans and then fulfilling that connection through my teaching career. I love working with people and it is one of the many reasons I so love teaching yoga. If you have attended a live class with me, you know that I pride myself on providing individualized attention in a group setting and hands-on-corrections where they are wanted to support the practice. I enjoy chatting with students about what is going on in their lives and how their yoga practices can help with whatever they are passing through. For many years I have taught in corporate environments and privately to clients from all walks of life. To help build a stronger business, I developed an international wellness retreat company from scratch. I’ve spent many a week over the past 8 years taking groups all over the world to learn about new cultures, eat great food and do yoga together. I had never imagined the sudden and jarring end to all of that – in a 24 hour period nonetheless.
When our shutdown due to the pandemic spread of Covid-19 happened in Chicago on March 16, I didn’t stop and think – I just designed a new way to connect. There was no time to stop and think. It was pivot the entire business or fail. I had a lot of money invested in a huge retreat outside the United States – failure on that end would have meant bankruptcy. I drew the majority of my income from a location that had just closed its doors indefinitely – I needed to find a new way to teach classes and make a viable income. I received most of the rest of my income from teaching private yoga sessions in private homes – I could no longer be in people’s homes safely and needed a new way to work with clients from my own home. I knew I had to do something and fast before this crisis paralyzed my business and my life in ways I could not anticipate or plan for. I jumped off the proverbial ledge of comfort of teaching in person and switched everything online within a week. New scheduling system. Website integrations. Zoom tutorials. YouTube tutorials. New equipment purchases from a savings account of funds for just such an emergency. Updating email addresses. The works. I haven’t taken a day off since before the shutdown (I am not proud of this – it has been a necessary sacrifice to build a business from scratch). I have taught every single day since then just to make ends meet and figure out all this new business as best I can.
I was terrified at the time of the shutdown and switching to digital content connection. What if it didn’t work? What if people didn’t like it? What if no one came to class or booked a private? Those first few classes I taught through the screen were nerve-wracking. The first time I shared a recorded class, I was petrified about all the things that could go wrong. I realized I was re-creating a new way of connecting with people and it felt weird! Change always feels weird. Remember how I often speak to this when we change the interlace of our fingers during our yoga practice? Well I was neck deep into some radical changes.
Some of you started emailing me with check-ins a couple weeks in to these big changes. You felt closer to me through the screen than in class. You told me I looked more at ease (TRUTH: I’ve never been so well-rested and well-fed as in the past 3+ months). The stress you felt to perform in a group class disappeared in your home and you found your yoga. You stopped worrying about doing the hardest variations and “being the best in class,” and just did the easy ones – and now your aches and pains are gone. My teaching took on depth and meaning you had not heard from me before because I could teach however I wanted now – these were truly my own classes. You learned from watching me demonstrate poses during the online classes in ways I had not spent as much time in the poses during live teaching, and these demonstrations helped you feel the poses in your own body differently. Some of you hated my classes and let me know. You told me I was a greedy sell-out for charging for my yoga classes or that I was boring. Connection took on whole new meanings.
When I taught live, I was subjected to a daily (often multiple times daily) barrage of criticism. Do it this way. Don’t teach it that way. You’re too skinny. You’re getting heavier – better watch out. Your hair is going grey – no one will want to take your class anymore. It’s not a real yoga class without headstand, shoulderstand and wheel – you obviously have never taken a teacher training. Your clothing is weird. If you want to be more popular and attract more students do XYZ. That was too long of a savasana. That was too short of a savasana….Seriously – it was starting to feel like an endless tunnel that I was lost in. I have a good filter and a strong sense of self, but even for me – after 18 years of teaching – this type of daily interaction with people was taking it’s toll. I was bullied by colleagues and told off by students. I was attacked several times and stalked online. When I reported things I was told I was the problem. And then it all disappeared and I was so scared…and so free.
The shutdown freed me to connect with you all in whatever ways I wanted to. I designed the classes and the schedule that I offered. I ready poetry to you and taught poses I learned in physical therapy. We did long pranayama exercises and awesome meditations. Sometimes we did entire classes resting on our back and it was glorious. I remembered how to be me while I’m teaching, and boy does that feel like the best connection of all. I also remembered how to read books that were not related to yoga. How to cook and eat meals with my husband every day. I remembered how to take long walks with my dog and get lost in the trees or notice the flowers growing differently each day of Spring. In the midst of the craziness at keeping my fledgling business afloat, I would suddenly be struck by a poem and have to write it down or outline a short story. In short I reconnected with you in new ways and with myself in ways I had long forgotten.
I’m still teaching virtually and will be from now on. I want to reach people beyond my city and grow connections with those who find a home in the way I teach movement and breath. I will be returning to live classes on a limited basis during the pandemic and probably beyond. I’m teaching a few clients in person and the majority online for the time being. When I teach in public I am in full mask mode – and in some places I wear even more personal protective equipment to keep myself and my clients safe. I realized during this last 108 day period how much of myself got left behind running around 14 hours a day 6 days a week. That isn’t really me. I’m not sure who that woman was. The running around and fitting into everyone else’s life was a necessity to make my living, but I lost my life. I remember now that I have something so unique to offer and that this essence can come through the digital realm, and also that there is so much more to me than being a yoga teacher. Thank you for connecting with me in new ways during such a difficult time – your support has been incredible. To those of you who have taken a ton of online classes, booked private sessions, reached out to make sure I’m ok, donated money to help me give free yoga to those who are unemployed and so much more – THANK YOU. And thank you for recognizing the many ways that I feel freer teaching you now than ever, and the ways I am rebuilding my life through this crisis.
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.