I’ve been teaching my yoga class at the studio where I practice, and where I trained to teach, for about three months now. Usually I enjoy it — I always love the creative challenge of coming up with a sequence and embellishing the asana with some thoughts and ideas that make it more significant than just exercise. Often, it works. Often it works really well, and I feel it as we’re going along, and I can tell the students feel it, too.
It isn’t always related to the amount of time I’ve put into preparing the class; sometimes a sequence I jotted down quickly and taught on the fly (or at least it feels that way) really connects. Other times the ideas I felt strongly about and the sequence I thought was effective falls flat. Or at least it feels like it does to me.
The upside is that I don’t get particularly frustrated when I have a “bad” week. I know that there are all sorts of variables that might make things go not as well as I’d like, and that I won’t always be able to put my finger on them — just as there are all sorts of reasons why a class really works, and it’s impossible to pinpoint all of them, either. So I try not to linger there too long.
Also, good or bad, effective or just so-so, it is all experience.
I was talking about this to my sister, who’s been a yoga teacher for more than a decade, and who is also a dance/movement therapist and a Ph.D candidate — i.e., she has a ton more experience than I do. I was telling her about a particular class I’d just taught that I really felt kind of, well, sucked. The sequence didn’t really fall together, and there was also the issue of wildly varying levels of experience among the students, from a mom who hadn’t been to yoga in more than five years to a teacher who’d actually taught at the studio (I had not yet met her and didn’t figure out who she was until about halfway through the class, when it was obvious she was a far more advanced yogi than I). I left feeling a bit discouraged.
“But you don’t have any idea what the students’ experience was,” my sister said. “Think about when you take a yoga class — you have your own experience of it, on that day, no matter who the teacher is or how ‘good’ the class is, right?”
She also told me about how she’d had the college students she taught yoga to at a university in the city keep journals about their experience with the asana, and how what they wrote about always blew her away — that she never could have predicted their experience.
It’s one of those concepts that should be obvious but isn’t, always — everyone has their own experience of everything. Even things as simple as tasting a flavor — vanilla, say. I taste vanilla and I have my experience of tasting vanilla, and you taste it and have your experience of it. I can never have your experience of that flavor. I can only have mine.
I don’t know about you, but I find that idea incredibly comforting.
Last weekend I attended a series of lectures on the Bhagavad Gita by Douglas Brooks, who is a noted scholar of the text and a teacher several of my own yoga teachers revere. It was an interesting and complicated weekend, with lots of ideas flying around. Many of them really aligned with my own thoughts about yoga and the nature of the universe and how to live. Which was comforting, in itself.
He talked about the idea that we are all the same “stuff”: that everything in the universe is made of the same thing, that DNA — the very evidence of the Self — is present in everything.
But, the sameness is just where we begin, in the Tantric/Hindu line of thinking. We take shape in different ways — different inanimate things, different living things, different animals, different people.
Your Self is your experience, and your Self is your experience.
The gift of life, of being embodied, is that you get to have your own experience of the world, and that no one else can truly touch that, at its core. The Self cannot be violated — no one can steal you from you.
Intimacy, then, is that the people who love you most can come right up to that boundary of your Self and savor the difference that is You — they recognize that they are not you, and they love who you are. They honor and protect your Self; that is their job as your loved ones. And you do the same for them.
Some may find this concept incredibly depressing, alienating, even scary. But I find it beautiful, freeing — frankly, a relief.
Our task in life is to have our own experience of it. To savor that experience — to revel in it. And to support others in that endeavor.
You’ve heard the phrase “knowledge is power.” I’ve been thinking about this. Information is a useful thing. Especially information about yourself and how you handle things, react to things. Knowing yourself makes life easier and nicer. It helps you engage more deeply with the world, to want to engage more deeply. It helps you avoid pitfalls and obstacles, or at least accept them and move through them more gracefully. Even things you don’t really want to know, the stuff you avoid knowing, is necessary to look at, finally.
Most of what you know, you find out through experience. When you do something again and again, when you have a routine, you start to notice patterns. You start to notice whether or not these patterns are working, whether they make you feel good or bad. Just being aware of the pattern and how it feels might help you start to change it.
Sometimes you realize something out of the blue, and it seems so obvious, you don’t know why you didn’t see it before. Or someone tells you, and you can’t believe you needed someone to tell you. Or you didn’t realize it until you heard it in just those words. Or you finally admit something to yourself and see that it feels better to know it than to pretend you didn’t know.
Sometimes you need to do the work of finding out. You need to go to the doctor, or to therapy, or to AA. It’s not always fun, but ultimately it’s a relief to understand. And to have some guidance about what to do next.
Because once you know things, you can’t just sit around and know them. You need to use them, to apply them. That, I believe, is living fully.
Here a few things I know about myself:
— I am not a morning person.
— I’m funny.
— I’m a little boy-crazy, even at 41 (see Simon Le Bon, Robert Downey Jr., et. al.).
— I get snappish when I’m frustrated or distracted.
— I get quiet when I’m tired.
— I get skinny when I’m sad.
— I love being with people, but I’m also a homebody.
— I like to feel on top of things, and to have things in order.
— I’m a recovering perfectionist.
— I couldn’t live without books and music.
— I’m stronger than I used to think I was.
— I subscribe to The Four Agreements.
— I think there’s some higher, divine order to the universe. I don’t really need to know more than that.
Here are a few things I know about myself and yoga:
— I am not afraid of backbends and never have been, even though opening your chest and heart brings all sorts of emotions to the surface.
— Lately, I actually love them, because I finally figured out how to really get my shoulder blades down my back.
— My left thigh bone doesn’t fit perfectly into the hip socket. The right one absolutely does. Things that feel great on my right sometimes hurt on the left. It’s frustrating, but I can work with it.
— I have a bit of scoliosis in my lumbar spine. It curves out to the left a bit. This makes me tip that way sometimes. I can work with that.
— My Achilles tendons get tight, and pressing down through my outer foot helps in poses like triangle.
— I tend to tuck my chin into my chest, and I have to remember (or be reminded) to lift it. This makes breathing easier and nicer.
— I can’t yet kick up into a handstand, but one day I will.
— I really don’t enjoy utkatasana (chair pose) or warrior 1 (seriously, what is with the placement of the back foot?). I adore ustrasana (camel), and I also really love and appreciate ardha chandrasana (half moon).
— The Universal Principles of Alignment are key, no matter what we’re calling them these days or who made them up. In yoga and in life.
Here are a few things I know about myself and running:
— I don’t do well in humidity. I prefer 35 degrees to 75 degrees.
— I like to run in the morning, but not too early in the morning (in the summer, this is going to have to change).
— I love running outside and detest the treadmill.
— I can run in a snowstorm or a rainstorm.
— I need to drink a lot of water before and after, because otherwise I get dehydrated, and I also get a horrible headache.
— If my knees or ankles start to hurt, it helps to pull in to the midline (yoga trick).
— I can go six miles, which means I can probably go 12 miles. Or maybe even 13.1.
Today on my run I decided that when I’m going downhill, I really feel like a runner. (And I’m from the Midwest, so every slight rise is a hill.) Uphill, not so much. Of course, I know the reason for this: gravity. Downhill, I can go faster, my form is better, and I just feel good, strong, capable. Uphill, I struggle, slow down, breathing is tougher. I feel like I’m puttering along, and I certainly don’t feel masterful.
However, I do know that the hill won’t last forever, and that I can do it. I will make it to the top.
And then I’ll get to coast down again.
Every day when I wake up and see that we’re having another beautiful 40-degree February day, I’m glad — but also slightly nervous. Obviously this isn’t typical winter weather. Have the poles completely melted yet?
As much as I don’t want to wish a winter storm on us, and as much as I adore hot weather, it’s also true that the contrast between the extremes is what makes both so desirable, and so beautiful. Think about being freezing cold in the middle of a dark January day, dreaming of a warm beach, or of fanning yourself desperately in the depths of August and craving the gorgeous sight of a row of icicles hanging off the eaves of your house.
This brought to mind a quote from one of my very favorite books, Moby Dick: “Truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.”
Herman Melville was a genius, truly. His book, which upon first glance might seem to be a long-winded tale about a crazy captain chasing a fish, is an epic study in contrast, from the patchwork quilt Ishmael shares with Queequeg seen against the tattoos that cover the savage’s body to the good and evil represented in the battle between Ahab and the White Whale.
The quote made its impression on me when I was 17 — and it stays with me to this day. You don’t truly appreciate the good, desirable, blissful things if you aren’t able to compare them to the bad, undesirable, and painful ones. The idea expresses itself in every area of human life — relationships with parents, siblings, lovers, spouses, friends, children; your work and the amount of play you can find in it, or the balance of drudgery and satisfaction; the way you choose to take care of your body and your health (you need to do the work before you get to feel that runner’s or yoga high).
We all want to be in the blissful, happy place, but you never truly make it there if you haven’t first found your way through the painful, dark places. It sometimes seems easier to just avoid those places, but if we do we don’t get to experience the really great stuff.
It’s all one big experience, this life. If you really want to feel it all, the only choice is between engaging or not.
And though it’s frightening to open oneself up that way, the idea that everything is connected, intertwined, and can’t authentically exist without its contrasts is comforting. Kind of like a warm patchwork quilt.