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.
At the end of last year I added something to my week that I have been trying to get into for many years: a dance class. Despite years of figure skating competitively (or maybe because of that), I feel like I have a really difficult time expressing myself through movement. I’m shy (even though I am very extroverted). I feel stupid (even though I know myself to be intelligent). Those of you that know me as a yoga teacher might beg to differ about the quality of my movements as you see them in class, but yoga postures like figure skating are carefully calculated in every way. I’ve studied the alignment and feeling of yoga postures in the same way that I memorized the feeling of triple jumps.
Dance is different. Dance for me does not feel calculated even when it is choreographed. Dance feels expressive and more in the moment than anything else I have ever experienced. It has emotion and responsiveness in a way that I do not experience in yoga and that I never experienced in figure skating.
About 8 years ago when I knew I wanted to explore a style of movement through dance so different from anything I had ever done, I researched Hip Hip dance classes. In its powerful moves and sharp lines I feel a really distinct beauty. Hip Hop music sounds like poetry to me. This seemed like a type of dance I would enjoy and that would challenge me as something so different from the gracefulness and stationary nature of yoga and figure skating. I found only one class that I could make with my teaching schedule. It was a beginner level and I was so excited to try it. I anticipated that evening class all week!
It ended up being absolutely awful. I barely made it to the end and was crying on the way home in my car. The teacher did not explain anything. He went super fast through showing the choreography and chose very fast music. He picked on those of us (about 5 including myself in a room full of 40 people) who could not keep up. It was obvious the other 35 people were not beginners. He broke us into groups at the end of class and made us do the choreography in front of everyone. He put the 5 newbies together and laughed when we couldn’t do what he asked. Perhaps worst of all: at the end he told me I had no rhythm and that I shouldn’t come back. My deepest fear confirmed – point blank – I couldn’t dance. I, of course, didn’t go back.
Ever since then I’ve looked every now and then at dance classes and thought about going back to try again. I always found an excuse: I was too busy, the time was too close to one of my classes, it was too expensive, etc. Really I was just scared that I would repeat the terrible experience of my last dance class. This is ironic because I spend most of my days coaching other people through things they are scared of or feel they are not good at (think of being a beginner at a yoga class or any tight yoga pose and you get the idea). I’m also usually really good at approaching things I fear and using that experience to grow. There was something about dance that really got to me from the beginning.
Last Fall something changed. I got an email from the Old Town School of Folk Music – I think I had signed up for their mailing list at a local music event over the summer – and they listed dance classes as one of their class categories. I clicked through and noticed that they had a beginner Hip Hop dance class at a time I could actually do. I called and checked – yes it was for sure a class where beginners and non-dancers were welcomed. “The teacher is amazing,” they said, “You should try it.” I don’t really know why, but I registered as soon as I hung up the phone…for an 8 week course. I justified it as needing something new, fun and non-yoga in my week. Really I think my Spirit knew there was something deep for me here.
I was so nervous when the first class rolled around. My stomach churned. I was also excited and hopeful that this might be different. When I arrived the class was small and the other students were so nice. They talked and chatted with everyone like me who was new. It was a completely different vibe right from the beginning. The teacher came in super low-key and so nice. He led us through a warm up and some choreography. I felt awkward and stiff and out of place. He was supportive and funny. The other students helped and encouraged one another. It was a completely different experience than my last dance class. At the end of every class we got time just to free move and it was so fun. The whole thing was fun – something that had been really lacking in my life.
After a few weeks we had settled into something of a rhythm and while I still felt nervous and awkward, I didn’t ever feel judged or ashamed. Around the 3rd or 4th class our teacher said something that I will never forget. He said, “No small movements! I want to see big movements! Exaggerate it! Make it huge!” as he stepped, moved his arms and shifted his shoulders to the beat of the music in singularly sharp, rhythmic and fantastic ways. When I went through the choreography that day, I felt like for sure I was moving in an equally enormous way.
We recorded ourselves at the end of this class and when a fellow student emailed us the recording I watched in dismay. What had felt to me like huge movements of my arms, hips, shoulders and legs were in fact TINY! I barely moved and most of the time I looked at the floor as if afraid to see myself in the mirror. It was an interesting experience. I suddenly felt inside, “How long have I been playing small?” and “Where else am I playing this small and tiny in my life?”
These simple questions unlocked an enormous amount of wisdom to me. I realized that in so many ways I had been playing small for most of my life. I had worried for so long about other people that I forgot to bring my Self to the the live I’m living. I tamped down my smarts because I was “intimidating.” I stomped out my creativity in skating to please my coaches. I quieted my emotions to assuage my family. I shut my mouth out of fear of retribution from my attackers. I let fear of more hazing and harm keep me from reporting it. I “took it for the team” when attacked by colleagues instead of standing up for myself. I let bosses push me into doing things I didn’t actually support instead of sticking to my beliefs. I sidelined my own ideas to support others in their dreams. In this moment of inquiry I realized I’ve spent most of my life being so much smaller than I actually am. And I have no good reason why. I haven’t found the origin point yet of this pattern, but I realize it has dominated so much of what I do and who I am.
I’m a planner so as soon as these realizations came to the surface, I made some internal agreements about how to move forward to keep the ball rolling. I made a commitment to start practicing being “big” in my dance class. Even if I felt foolish I challenged myself each week to go a little wild. I watched our video recordings and practiced at home. I started moving to music in front of mirrors at home and actually began to (sometimes) watch myself in the mirror at dance class. From each of these small steps, huge openings started happening elsewhere in my life. I have no idea if my dancing changed at all on the outside or if anyone noticed anything different about me, but on the inside it was like a dam broke open.
I started to feel like I was angry at my coaches in skating for trimming me down all those years. I felt the need to reach out to high school friends that had either hurt me or tried to help me just to reconnect. I wanted to find the people who attacked me so long ago and rip them to shreds (and I am not a violent person). I wanted to talk about how many times I “bit my tongue” out of fear of how my expression would be received. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs about all the “spiritual” people who had verbally maligned me. I had an outpouring of brilliant, creative ideas that have filled pages – book outlines, poems, business plans, website ideas and so much more. I started moving/dancing all over the house. I think the arrival of the #MeToo movement around this time pushed some of my internal dam breakage as well.
This outpouring made me think: how many of us are unintentionally playing small? How many of us regularly avoid the things that make us uncomfortable? How long have we let our conditioning to please others over our self hold us back? How many times have we all ignored the evidence that we are so much greater than someone else would have us believe? I think this happens so much more than we would like to admit. I keep wondering how I missed it in myself for so long. I’m so happy that I came back to a dance class so these triggers could be brought to the surface again – perhaps with better tools and wisdom on my side at this point in my life to approach working through them.
What about you? Could you pick something that scares you – but also excites you? And then do it. Maybe it’s a new job, a new relationship, a new type of exercise, a yoga pose or a place you have always wanted to travel to. Recognize how it makes you feel and all the threads of excuses that keep you tied back from actually doing it. Tell me what you find out about yourself when you take even one step into that great “Bigness” of life. For the love of all things important in this one wild beautiful crazy life you get, please play big for all of us to see.
At the beginning of 2016, I felt the need to look and feel dramatically at my life. I was unhappy and confused. I felt “off” nearly everyday. I had nothing specific bothering me: I love my job, my health was good, I was (and am) in a great relationship, I had a huge year of incredible work ahead of me, a roof over my head, food in my belly, a loving family…Why then did I wake up at the beginning of each day in the start of 2016 and just feel blah? I didn’t know the answer. My Spirit had gone silent. I knew I had to find out why.
I embarked on a year long journey of self-discovery guided by my Shaman, Bridget Boland. This incredible woman helped me pick a focus for every month of 2016. She helped me first to see and then to change a huge backlog of beliefs that were holding me back. Better yet, she gave me the tools to rewrite my life in the most beautiful way. We systematically, week by week, through meditations, journaling exercises, conversations and ceremonies, figured out what was at the root of my Spirit’s silence and learned how to bring my voice back. Ironically sending me into periods of deep silence was the only way to help my Spirit speak again.
Part of my yearlong 2016 homework from Bridget was to pick 12 individuals in my entire life with whom I’d had “difficult” interactions or relationships and to bring about an end to what corded or connected me to them so that I could move on from their influence on the arc of my path. A big part of the way I cut the cord with each of these individuals was to say the loving-kindness prayer to them every day for at least 15 minutes for a month. These were people who had wronged me, who I had wronged, who I hated, who sucked so much of my energy because I worried about what they thought of me. These were individuals I’d worked with, been abused by, been friends with, managed and been managed by, taught or learned from. It was a diverse and eclectic list from many eras of my life. Each month I moved from one person to the next and did a month of loving-kindness meditation for each one.
Loving-kindness, or metta meditation, was one of the first meditation practices to which I was introduced. It is the systematic direction of kindness and wellbeing towards oneself or another. Long ago when I started learning about meditation around the age of 13 or 14, I went to a Buddhist meditation center (unbeknownst to my parents – I rode my bike there!). In the little shop at this center was a book called “A Path with Heart” by Jack Kornfield. I bought it – it had a pretty pink cover and something about the “heart” word in the title drew me in. I’ve kept it with me ever since and have read it more times than I can count. The very first chapter is called “Did I Love Well?” At the time I felt very little love for much of anything in my life and I felt a calling from that chapter. Inside I learned about self-love as a ground for spiritual development and the meditation exercise at the end of the chapter is Jack Kornfield’s script for the loving-kindness meditation:
“May I be filled with loving-kindness.
May I be well.
May I be peaceful and at ease.
May I be happy.”
For a while back then I did this simple meditation for myself, to build up a reservoir of much needed self-love – of kindness directed at my own Being. That in and of itself was a very powerful stepping stone on my pathway. Somewhere along the way another meditation technique and then another took over as I moved from tradition to tradition. When Bridget gave me this homework, it felt familiar and powerful all at the same time.
The first name on my list was a tough one. The first few days – probably the first week – the words of the prayer felt like ash on my tongue. I physically felt like I was choking on the words to get them out in my mind’s eye. None of this meditation was done out loud – all internally. Still, I had a serious choking sensation as I began this process. It was challenging internally to wish this person well. They hurt me – terribly. I realized I clung to the hurt righteously even though it didn’t serve me in the least to feel any better. Each day it got a little easier to repeat the words over and over again. Slowly, day by day, the 15 minutes no longer felt like an eternity. Even more interesting was the sensation of lightness related to all the experiences of my life tied to this person. I palpably sensed the release of emotions, energy, thoughts, memories and stories related to this person.
A new month would begin and the process would start all over again. The feelings of dry mouth; the gagging on the words of loving-kindness. And each month, no matter the person on the list, the gagging would fade and the lightness would take over. Even for the REALLY rough people on the list – the ones I never thought I would ever wish well – a lightness always prevailed through the simple action of repeating the words of the prayer.
I thought this homework was assigned to me so that I might learn how be kind to those who had hurt me, or I might magically meet each one again and get to hash out our problems and solve everything. That was not the reason Bridget gave me this homework at all. I will likely never see any individual on my 2016 list again. It’s highly unlikely even if I did see these people that we would ever come to some happy resolution or have an epic fight or showdown that would make me feel any better. The purpose of the prayer as I see it now was to help me release all the energy I had unknowingly tied up in hatred, regret, worry, fear, and anxiety towards these people and towards myself in relationship with each one of them. In sending them loving-kindness, I was finally able to forgive myself for the role I played in the relationships I had with each one. At the same time I really wished each one of them well-being and peace and hope that they were able to feel it in some way.
Perhaps you have people you have wronged or feel wronged by in your history. I hope you can use this simple meditation to bring about some lightness to all the ways those wrongs may have tied you up in mind, body and Spirit along the way. There is no reason to stay bound up in misery to someone else – we all want to live happy, prosperous, loved lives. What a waste of our precious life force to remain stuck in old agony – our own or someone else’s.
Does my year of meditation mean these people didn’t wrong me? No, it does not. Some of them committed serious crimes against me. Others stabbed my Spirit with their actions hoping to kill her off. None of the reality of those wrongs goes away with this process, but almost miraculously I no longer feel any tie to the wrongness or my responses to it. I know its truth but I am not tied down by it any longer.
Write your list. Start tonight. Four simple lines. 15 minutes. Are you ready to let them go yet?
I am an avid planner. I love to-do lists and schedule books. I spend some time every day planning the next day. When I travel, I make a file of pertinent documents and contact numbers so that I have them in case I need them. I plan my yoga classes and my workshops, I plan when to sleep and when to eat. As a result of my love of planning, I am a bit stingy with this thing called “spontaneity.” It was recently suggested by one of my mentor teachers that I “put down the to-do list.” 🙂
I joke, but it is actually a real problem. I want so much to plan and control everything in my day and schedule that it leaves no wiggle room for when a friend calls up and wants to have dinner last minute, or when my partner wants to run and grab a movie spur of the moment. My planning actually cuts out some really fun stuff from my life!
I decided that this is another habit (one of those branches off my “overworking” habit tree) that needs some pruning. I’m not one for huge change (shocking I’m sure given my love of planning and may I say ahem “control.”) I decided to take this one on slowly: once per week I would not plan any of my classes for a full day. I could think about them all I wanted, but not write out anything. The result: some really amazing classes and I’m told no one could tell the difference.
When I write my classes out it does absolutely prepare me and help me hone in on some sequencing skills – it also gives me a record of what I taught. When I let go of writing things out, I didn’t lose any of the sequencing skills and I recorded what I taught after the fact. What I gained was an ability to jump into setting themes and intents, working pose sequences in the moment to different students’ needs and a lightness in my energy. I found my inspiration going in all new directions and my Spirit picking poses out of my internal yoga lexicon that I don’t gravitate towards when I’m actively planning.
The irony is not lost on me that I’m still actually “planning” my “spontaneity.” I had to start somewhere! This little shift has helped open me up to accepting the random invitation to an evening gala even though I would “normally” teach. It has made me aware of some of the many blind spots that have developed in my teaching career because of my planning obsessions. This little once per week change has made a big difference in my willingness to break out of my control box – I feel the changes seeping outside of yoga teaching.
What if one small change to a pose that you have resisted could make all the difference in how it feels or how it effects you? What if one different step in your daily routine could really help you out of a controlling habit? Would you do it? Pick something that has been challenging you habit-wise this season: a thought, action, recurring emotion, food choice, pathway you take to get to work, etc. Decide one small thing you could do ONE TIME this week that would take you off this habit hamster wheel. For example: you always take the Red Line downtown to work because it’s closer to home. So one day this week you give yourself some extra time, walk the extra blocks to the nearest Brown Line Station, ride around the Loop and get off at a different station – feeling what’s different about your routine and how you respond. Then run the experiment again another day next week and take the bus!
If we learn how to make change fun we can become our own inspiration for evolution. Identifying our own habits and then playfully working with them teaches us how to be our own best life guide. It gives us independence in our process of development. These types of exercises for the Spirit also help remind us how important PLAY is to our ability to create meaningful shifts in our life. When we are in a state of playfulness we are not attached to the outcome – this allows us to consider, choose and work with so many different options – stoking our creativity and insights. Pick your experiment and let me know how it goes and what you learn!