Gratitude. Gratitude. Gratitude.

Because we all have one, beautiful, amazing life.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

To the Yogi Next to Me

To the Yogi Next to Me: 

Thank you for rolling out your mat next to mine tonight.  

It has been a rough couple of weeks for me and my mat at some of my studio classes. Most of my regular yoga buddies have not been around; the crowds have been large and full of new faces. There have been plenty of latecomers and lots of rearranging of mats and feet in my face and more sweat than usual dripping from bodies and walls. I have felt a little bit like a stranger in a place that normally feels like a second home. As much as I try to let it go, I keep finding myself getting annoyed at the heat, the late start to class, and all of the other little things that I am usually able to soften around. 

Not that you knew any of these things when you randomly set up in my corner of the room today. 

When you introduced yourself (and after I had embarrassingly clarified twice that your name was in fact BRIAN and not RYAN), I asked if you typically come to this class, because I didn't recognize you. When you told me you had been a regular at the nearby studio that just closed its doors, I could see the sadness in your eyes. You looked down as you said the name of the old studio, and I knew in that instant how much you wished your mat could be back there tonight. 

And in that one moment, you changed my whole practice. 

I looked around the room, at the new faces that I didn't recognize, and it was like looking at them with new eyes. How many of them were looking for a new place to land? Although it has been several years, I remember the early days of finding a new yoga home here in San Francisco. Of going to classes where no one knows your name or your practice. The anticipation of how the class would be structured and whether you would like the teacher. Not knowing how the room is set up and laying your mat out like a fish swimming upstream. Maybe the parade of latecomers, I thought to myself, just hadn't yet figured out how to budget time for parking in the Mission on a Thursday night. It is really tough to be the new yogi, no matter how welcoming the community. 

I saw you, Brian, as you lifted your foot at odd times in the sequence, your body longing for a specific sequence that wasn't being taught - the one that you would have had at the old studio. I wanted to grab you blocks during pyramid pose, to make you more comfortable and tell you that, eventually, the abdominal exercises would stop and we would go on to other poses. 

I heard you chuckle at one of the teacher's regular jokes and realized that yes, it is pretty funny when you haven't heard it before. And that made me laugh, too. Not just a giggle, but a real laugh.

I had a good practice tonight. It was sweaty and crowded but I was happy to be there on my 71 inches of home. I was grateful for the unexpected, but necessary, attitude adjustment that I received. 

Thank you, Brian, for a humbling lesson in compassion, and a reminder that I am responsible for the energy that I bring on to my mat.

Please come back next week. I promise that someday soon, it will be home for you, too. 

With love,

the Yogi Next to You

Friday, September 26, 2014

Last Chance Dance

I have blogged in the past about my work with Lemonade, A Yoga Program. We provide yoga classes to each unit on SF’s juvenile hall every week. After serving on the board for several years, and having spent multiple days there over the course of the past 18 months, I recently decided to commit to spending one full day each week in the hall teaching yoga.

What does this look like? This looks like a jail. This looks like five classes, with anywhere from 8-20 kids per class, in uniforms, on mats placed about 15-20 feet away from their cells. This looks like depressed youth who have seen unspeakable violence. This also looks like your average group of teenagers – lanky, growing into their bodies, easily distracted, and shockingly vulnerable at times. Most importantly, this looks like a lot of faces that probably didn’t have much of a chance to break the cycle they inherited at birth. For the teachers, this looks like a very long day – with awesome highs when someone makes a breakthrough and disheartening lows when you find yourself feeling just a little bit hopeless: about the chances that these kids have to make a better life, or even survive. 

An empty unit at San Francisco Juvenile Hall. Yoga is done on the carpet or tile of each unit.
But this is where yoga comes in.

Yesterday, during one of our classes, we had a major disruption, and it shook me a little. It didn’t shake my commitment to these kids or our work – but it did shake my spirit in a way that makes me want to give up a little bit on humanity. How broken has life made some of these small souls?

In the midst of this situation, a little levity emerged, and kids that had been distracted were now active participants in class. Many yoga poses look similar to hip-hop dance (as they tell me, hands on hips: this yoga "stuff" is all "hip hop moves"). We were treated to a bit of a dance-off. A student that had complained for most of the class and seemed only slightly interested, was suddenly engaged and interactive as he danced in front of his peers. There were some small signs of a community rallying. And the victory of finishing a class - IN SPITE OF what had happened. A space that didn’t seem safe to them at first – had found a way to heal. 

In retelling the day's story to a friend, she wondered why we hadn’t called someone to help with the disruption. When you are on the maximum-security unit of juvenile hall, you have actually reached the end of the road. It isn't like a school. There isn’t an expulsion process here. 

This is the last chance dance for so many of these kids.

And so you breathe, and you keep going, and you put your hands on your students and you help them find their breath, too. 

You do your yoga. You leave the rest. 

Yes, I left feeling defeated. I took a few hours and practiced yoga with my community, and let it all settle. I took a shower. I turned off my electronics. And slowly, I remembered many other “wins” from my day. I successfully led my first complete class on one of the units (this is more daunting that it sounds), and another one of our teachers had a ton of wins when we were on the girls’ unit. We gave out mats to two staff members for their home practice. Several of the kids recognized me, gave me hugs, and thanked us for our work. 

The whole world looks at these kids and sees the one disruption that happened. Yoga helps me see the bigger picture – the better picture.

These kids are - hands down - the best students that I have ever had. 

My job is not to save them. My job is to teach them. 

My job is to be their dance partner. Even if it is just for an hour. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Having a Little Faith

I am often asked by friends or students: what do I do when yoga doesn't seem to work?

My answer has always been the same:

Keep going. Keep showing up. Even when you don't want to go. Even when you just sit there and think through life or your to-do list while you move through poses. Whatever keeps you on your mat. Go to classes where you feel safe - but keep going. Even if you can't be present - go to a studio or to your bedroom, roll out your 72 inches of solitude, and DO.YOUR.YOGA. Have a little faith that your practice will come around again.

Over the past five years, I have definitely had weeks of very deep distance from my yoga, even though I practice daily. For me, yoga is like any long-term relationship, it has peaks and valleys, and is dynamic by nature. 

When I finally decided to take the leap and quit my job, my yoga practice started to fall apart as my support system. And I say that rather dramatically, of course. I still practiced daily, but it wasn't the refuge it always had been. I couldn't get out of my head. All I got was body movement and a lot of monkey mind. So much fear, and worry, and uncertainty. Here was my ultimate act of letting go - the act of leaving - and my practice seemed to buckle under the weight of it all. 

I went to class, I got on my mat, I did all the things that I had advised people to do when they struggled. And I waited. I waited all through May. I waited all through June. I went to class. I practiced at home. I stretched. I ran and hiked and did all sorts of other physical activity hoping to will the numbness away. I went on two yoga retreats, and found my happiness in cool lakes and hot springs, but rarely in our morning and afternoon yoga sessions. 

My entire practice began to feel like dealing with an injury, only I was trying to modify for what felt like my "broken yoga" in every class. Going to yoga was now an exhausting task. I started to get used to the fact that I couldn't anticipate the person I would be when I got on my mat. I would have a great day of writing, show up at an evening class, and have to modify every pose to down level because my mind wouldn't settle down. I cycled through emotions like a quick moving thunderstorm: anger, frustration, fear.

Every once in a while, a class would feel "good" or I would feel relief after going. Two months into grasping for my practice, these were my touchpoints.

I told my teacher on more than one occasion: I want my practice back.

That was the simplest way to put it. 

Sometimes, as Rumi tells us, what you seek is seeking you. I had committed to assisting an intensive, month-long teacher training starting in late July. This meant that instead of doing hours and hours of yoga as a student in the morning intensives, I would be assisting and co-facilitating, six days a week, 12+ hours per day for four weeks. I gave some thought to backing out, and trying to be a student instead, feeling that my practice simply wasn't accessible enough for me to be a good facilitator for a yoga training.

But I'm not really the backing out type. So I showed up ready to work on the first day of teacher training, and met seventeen amazing souls.

It was here that I found the missing link:

Inspiration. And a want for my practice to be for more than just myself. 

Being present every day for this group of individuals has given me back my practice.

Over the past two weeks, I have realized that I need to rebuild my practice the same way I am rebuilding my direction in life. Teacher training requires me to focus on yoga without a lot of frills. What are the basics? What are we doing here? Why are we doing it? Is our cue-ing clear? Are we looking at foundation first? 

It is vital as a teacher to practice what you preach. Right now, this means that I need to focus on doing the work, not on how strenuous, how beautiful, how advanced, and how cathartic my practice feels.

My practice is different than it used to be. And that's okay. I suffered through two months of gripping to what wasn't serving me, to realize that surrendering to serving a greater purpose would bring it right back in a different form. 

As yoga teachers and practitioners, we do a lot of messaging around "letting go" - and that is certainly relevant here. But so is staying and holding on. I would modify my advice in these situations now that I have lived through one of the longest periods of doubt. I would offer this:

Keep practicing. Keep showing up. 
Let it be different. Let it be uncomfortable. 
Look for inspiration. Look outside yourself. 

Have a little faith. Have a lot of faith.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

In Medias Res

When I pictured what my first week away from corporate life would look like, I have to be honest: I imagined something a bit more dramatic. Perhaps a giant WOOSH that would sweep all of the gripping, fear, and anxiousness away, and replace it with a new, delightfully unscheduled and laid back “Writer Abbie.” 

I was so excited to meet her and get to know what the “new me” was like. Cue the city girl walking down the street with her laptop, and a fun independent movie-type soundtrack playing. 

Update: One week later. I am still the same me. And this still feels like transition. 

Additional update: My expectations might have been a little high. 

One week later: Writer Abbie looks a LOT like regular Abbie. 
These initial days don’t feel like a beginning. I have devoted more time to writing, but there are no large sweeping changes in my routine on that front. In the spirit of truth speaking, I have packed my days with activities to make sure that I stay relentlessly busy.

But this isn’t much of an ending, either. My decision to quit was not impulsive. My departure from work felt more like a slow burn than a final, explosive burst of flame. My nervous system also isn’t convinced that we aren’t returning to the office next week. 

I naively imagined that my physical body would also be experiencing sweeping changes in yoga, as my previously tight upper back and hips relaxed from being away from my desk. 

Update: I checked on this today in class and I can still report the same level of tightness in both of these areas. 

Additional update: I realize that I am writing this blog post hunched over a table. My expectations might have been a little high. 

As I moved into Warrior 3 this morning, staring into the grains of the wood floor beneath me, I found my eyes scanning, desperately trying to locate a suitable drishti, the spot for my gaze, as my foot wobbled and I fell out of the pose. 

This is what I am doing right now: looking for a center, even though I feel like I am already in the middle. 

The gift of transition will certainly be recognition of the drishtis in my life. My yoga practice. My village. Random emails and texts. The silence of an empty house as I sit and type and drink that first cup of morning coffee. The awesome conversation with my favorite server at the Pho place down the street, who upon hearing about my new adventure, told me to “bring a laptop and just write.”

Authors who start stories from the middle refer to this as In Medias Res which is latin for “in the midst of things.”

This is where I am going to start. This is where I am. 

Because “in the midst of things” sounds a lot like being present. It sounds a lot like being right here, right now. 

I am learning that my journey is not about starting over, but moving forward. 

Instead of looking for the new me - be me. Instead of looking for the perfect place to write - just write. 

This decision was about taking the authentic path. The real truth is that I have no idea where the path is leading or how far I have traveled.

My hunch is that I am probably somewhere in the middle. 

In medias res. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

On Leaving, Leaping, and Letting Go

I have never been much of a leaver.

I like things comfortable. I like things how they are. I like the false sense of safety and security that a tight grip offers.

I am also fiercely loyal. To family. To friends. To where I buy my groceries. And of course, to my employer.

And so it has been an incredibly difficult decision to make the break that I will officially make this week.

It still sounds weird to even say:

I am leaving my corporate job.

And I don't have another one lined up.

This is the part of life where you realize that your story isn't necessarily who you are, and it certainly doesn't have to be who you are growing into being.

Five years ago, I walked into a yoga class - thinking - knowing even - that I wasn't flexible enough to do yoga.

And we all know what happened there.

That lesson has changed the course of my life.

Yoga opened up the parts of me that had long been dormant; not just physically, but emotionally as well. And as this blog can attest to - yoga helped me tap the forgotten writer that had been buried under "doing the safe thing" for so long.

I have wanted to write a book since I was a little girl. I have been writing in my head and in my heart for as long as I can remember.

And now - at age 33 - I am going to try and realize that dream. Even if that realization involves only three people reading my work.

This is not a change without fear and very real risk. To walk away from a good income at a solid company is not something I take lightly. At the same time, however, we are offered no guarantees in this life beyond right now, in this moment.

Life is short. Terrifyingly, shockingly, achingly short. The beauty of life makes the ticking clock that much more imminent.

Our lives are a series of choices that direct our path. I am incredibly grateful to have this new path as a choice - and to have a partner behind me that has loved me and supported me in this and every other crazy adventure we have taken on across twelve years of marriage, sixteen years of togetherness, three states, and two continents.

Something magical has also happened with this choice. I feel like I don't just have my partner behind me - but a whole village. A village of forever friends and family and yoga friends and artist friends and soon to be former coworkers, and yes, even this city. This holy, crazy, larger than life, 7x7 place that I call home.

I have always wondered what a leap like this would feel like.

And standing here on the edge of the cliff - it feels a lot like you might expect: plenty of fear, some excitement, and a lot of anticipation for the relief of finally leaping. Because once you head out over, you've committed, and you are on your way.

This is the letting go moment.

And I'm finally here.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

What Was Happening This Week: March 24th

Here's a little update on what struck me this week in class and on the mat! I split my time between lots of Forrest in the East Bay, a little happy hour yoga here in the city, and home practice.

Themes that Moved Me: Relaxed Confidence with Michelle on Monday night - my takeaway was the ability to stand strong in your power without gripping. 

Mantra I'm currently using: Less looking, more leaping. 

What I Taught: Themes: Making Space, Focus on Deep Hip Openers. No right answers, just feeling: Shoulder Exploration.

New Songs for the Playlist: Lanterns by Birds of Tokyo, Top of the World by Imagine Dragons, Peace by OAR, and Further On by Bronze Radio Return

Trending Poses: Twisting Scissors, Anything Hips, and Gate Opener Abs

Biggest Challenge: Working with my "seriously it's been three weeks and it doesn't feel much better" tailbone injury. 

Best Advice Received in Class: Using two blankets folded side by side with just a little bit of space in between to support my tailbone while seated on the mat. 

Victory Moments: Landing Twisting Scissors into Regular Scissors on the right side, practicing total softness in class on Thursday night, and working on breathing big without forcing this morning. Also, hitting day 300 in the Handstand Challenge:

Things That Inspired Me: Watching a private client find a new way of looking at challenges. Reconnecting with an old friend over a wonderful meal to realize that while our lives have traveled different directions, our paths are similar. 

Quote that's staying with me: (hint: It's my all-time favorite)

We're all just walking each other home. - Ram Dass

Beauty Moment: Driving home from yoga on the new span of the Bay Bridge.  

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

For the First Time...Yoga Class FAQ

Over the past two years, I have fielded many questions from friends and family members who want to try yoga but are concerned about how to start and what to expect. 

Grateful Yogi presents...

Yoga 101 FAQs: 

What type of class should I start with? 

I would suggest starting out with either a beginner class (or an "all levels" class if a beginner class doesn't fit your schedule). It is good to take several of these to get used to the way a class works, names of poses, and to see how the practice feels to you before stepping into a more advanced class. Some studios even require a few beginners classes before you can try anything else. This helps with safety, but also makes you feel more comfortable/confident. 

I heard it is, like, 130 degrees in the yoga studio. Am I going to pass out? 

Temperatures at studios vary, but let's go ahead and divide the studio population into three groups: Unheated, Warm and Hot. Unheated is exactly what it sounds like - no artificial heat beyond what a normal room would feel like. Warm is usually 80-95 degrees. HOT is usually 95-105 (or hotter). Humidity can be added as well depending on the studio. Why heat a room at all? Many practitioners (myself included) appreciate the fact that heat makes your muscles warm, so you can get deeper into poses. Additionally, it can flush out toxins from your body. The heat bothered me at first, and now I love it. I'm a WARM yoga kind of girl and I think 85 is a great temp. I actually get kind of cranky when I have to practice somewhere less than 80, but initially it was tough. 

Check the studio website or call to find out about temperature if you are concerned. Some studios add a note on their class descriptions as to the level of heat. 

Bring water. Hydrate. Hydrate before class. Hydrate after class. Hydrate all the time, regardless of whether you keep practicing yoga! 

So I get the water part but...what about eating? 

Try not to eat too close to when you attend a class. This is a physical activity. Most "people" (I am not actually sure who - experts? websites? studio owners? friends?) say 2 hours but to me that is a little strict. Think about how your body reacts to other types of physical exertion after you eat. Give it at least an hour to be safe and like all things, test out how your body does. The more you practice, the more you will get a sense from your body about what works. 

I'm nervous about everything. But mostly...the sweat. 

Important Note: You will think that you sweat more than anyone else in the whole world. Trust me when I tell you: this is not true. It is not even close to true. I have seen sweat. You will not be the sweatiest. 

BUT! Do bring a towel with you. Mats can get slippery as you sweat. And slippery mats are uncomfortable and can be dangerous. 

If you fall in love with the practice, there are mat towels that you can buy that are amazing for sopping up sweat, but for the first few weeks, a regular towel should do just fine.

Props - can be your best friend - at your first class - and ALWAYS

Can you explain what an "adjustment" is and an "assist."

Teachers will probably adjust you - either verbally or physically. Verbally would be: hey, put your foot here, or move this way. Physically, they might actually move you deeper or twist you further by touching your shoulder, arm, hip, etc.. It is always okay to say "no thanks" if it doesn't feel right or you are uncomfortable. It is also important to know that there is not a 100%, one size fits all "right way" to do a pose. I practice every day and I still don't take triangle pose the way that it often looks like in yoga magazines. I was born with hips that move slightly differently. So the purpose of an adjustment or an assist should be to help you feel the pose more fully based on your body. Good teachers will also be looking to make adjustments if they see that you might be taking a pose in a way that could be harmful to your body. An example of this would be tuning your knee in a way that could cause injury.  

I've heard that you don't breathe out of your mouth in yoga. What if I can't do that?

Ujjayi breathing is a common breathing style in yoga that involves an audible breath on the inhale and exhale, with lips closed. This is a skill that takes time to master, and is taught in many beginner classes. Like most things in life, it comes with practice. Do not worry about doing this in your first class. Listening to others around you is a great way to learn, though, so just being in class helps. 

My friend does yoga and she says that they pray and sing. I'm not sure about that.

Yoga - above all else - is what you want it to be.

It can be a purely physical workout. It can be a deeply spiritual practice. 

While I identify with yoga as a deeply spiritual part of my human experience, I frequently practice next to people who would put themselves all over the spectrum. The great thing about yoga is that you can decide as an individual how you want it to be for you. 

A teacher may ask you to bring your hands to heart center - in prayer. This is more to describe the pose and help you connect to breath than it is a prescription to pray. If this triggers you - another option is to cover your heart with your hands. 

You may here the sound of "Om" to start or end a class. Om is a chant, or mantra, and the best way that I can describe it is the sound of simply being. For me, it is a reminder to drop in and put aside everything going on in my head - and concentrate on the present moment. If you don't feel comfortable om-ing at first (or ever) - just listen. It can be a beautiful sound. 

You may hear the word "Namaste." This is a Sanskrit word that can be translated to mean: "the light within me honors the light that resides within you." If om is the sound of being, then namaste is the greeting of being - it is you telling your neighbor - whether stranger or friend - that you honor their being in the world, and their being in your present moment. 

You may hear chanting. Chants can be sung at the beginning or end of class - usually Sanskrit words and often call and response. This is another way of asking people to bring themselves into the present. The translated chants are often quite beautiful. At your comfort level, join in or simply listen. 

What is a prop? 

A prop is an item that helps you in a pose - the most common props are yoga blocks, straps, blankets, and bolsters (shaped pillows). I used to think that a student with fewer props was a more advanced student. This is not true in many cases. Props help our bodies get into shapes, and they help us with comfort while we practice. Bring on the props! 

I need to leave 5 minutes early from class to catch my train. Is that okay? 

This is a bit of a gray area, but my from-the-heart answer on this is: no. The final pose of a yoga class is Savasana. It is a pose that involves laying down, being still, and allowing your body to feel all of the work you have done. In the beginning, this pose might feel awkward and your mind might race. This feeling slowly dissipates as you practice more and savasana can often become one of the most blissful poses of your practice. Savasana is a quiet pose, and moving around to get your things, roll up your mat, and leaving the room can be extremely disruptive to other students and distracting to the teacher. 

If you must leave class early - leave before savasana. Do your best to stay. 

What else should I do when I get to the studio? 

Arrive Early
For your first class, I suggest arriving at least 15 minutes early. This allows you time to fill out waivers, navigate your way around the studio, lay your mat out, and take some deep breaths before class. 

Be respectful of etiquette - and know that it varies
All studios are different, but know that typically, you need to arrive before class starts to set up your mat, get props, and get settled. There may be a certain way that mats are lined up in a classroom, and depending on the location, studio, and class size, there could be 2 feet between mats or 1 inch. Yoga is a great place to practice follow the leader - take a glance around the studio to get a sense of what other students are doing. 

Two universal rules: Silence your phone. Be respectful of those around you. 

Introduce yourself and acknowledge injuries
When you go to your first few classes, definitely try and introduce yourself to the teacher, and let he/she know that you are new and if you have any injuries (particularly back/neck/shoulder stuff). For the first few classes as a beginner, the best place is actually middle or further back in the room - so that you can watch other people. This seems backwards, but the teacher doesn't normally stay in the front of the room - and you might want people to look at for a little help on where you should be/how you should look. 

Take breaks and breathe
When all else fails, or if you get into a tailspin in class: check in with your breath and breathe. Part of yoga is pushing through, but it is also knowing when to back off. It is always okay to take a break. If this happens and you need a rest - either sit in cross legged and just breathe up to your heart, or go into child's pose (one of the first poses you will learn). 

When in doubt during class, take child's pose, or simply sit and breathe. 

Trust yourself
You go to yoga with YOUR BODY. If a teacher asks you to do something that you know in your gut you shouldn't do - TRUST YOURSELF FIRST!!!! No yoga teacher can know your body better than you. Especially someone who met you 30 minutes ago! Say no politely. Be firm. If they don't listen or respect your request - leave. 

You might have firework explosions of bliss at your first class, but more likely it takes a few classes to know if it is right for you. I fell in love that first class but I didn't appreciate the love until months later. Sometimes, you need a little time to grow into it. 

What did I miss? What do you still want to know? If I didn't cover one of your burning questions about starting a yoga practice, feel free to email me at gratefulyogisf(at)