Why Do Yoga Every Damn Day

I’ll be honest, I didn’t intend to become a yoga teacher. I enrolled in teacher training very selfishly because I loved yoga, and I wanted to do more of it, and more deeply. I had no interest in sharing that with any of you, thank you very much.

Then, much to my surprise, it turns out that nothing makes me happier than teaching yoga.

I teach yoga because it changed me. It changed my body, but it also changed my perspective, my worldview, my understanding of myself, my concept of God, and my general opinion of wearing tights in public. With very, very few exceptions, my yoga practice has vastly changed my life for the better.

Now, let me clear: I don’t believe that I can change you, your perspective, or your worldview. In fact, I try to live and work under the assumption that I can’t do any of those things. But I do feel a great privilege of sharing the practice that has been shared with me, exploring and explaining it in a way that I hope is useful to you.

Because I do believe that yoga will change you.

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In January 2014 — after I quit my “real” job — I knew I needed structure so I signed up for an Iyengar Yoga Intensive at Yoga Bywater. All my favorite yoga friends raved about Heide, her teaching, and the practice. They also warned me how much it sucked. How much they hated waking up that early, and how hard it was.

I’ve come to believe that often the best things are also the worst things – so that seemingly mixed endorsement was exactly what I needed to be sold.

For nearly eight months, I woke up to practice from 7:30-9:30 am, five days a week. Ten hours a week of yoga changed my body, and quickly. I knelt with wooden wedges pushed into my knee creases, did backbends over wooden blocks, through metal folding chairs, and in ropes tied to a wall. I did handstands every single morning. I held downward facing dog for five straight minutes (eventually). I did 153,000 leg lifts. I did most of it without complaining, griping, or whining. Mostly.

The level of precision required in Iyengar practice is immense and impressive. After ten years of vinyasa yoga, and two years of teaching, I thought I knew some things about my body and alignment. In those eight months, my alignment was fine tuned — it was like before I was only spinning the Big Radio Dial to get into the general vicinity. Now I was spinning the Little Dial, getting clearer and clearer and clearer.

“My right hip is tight,” became “My anterior inner left groin is restricted, my posterior inner right groin is stuck, my right sacrum pulls to the left, and my piriformis is hypertonic.”  I can differentiate between the heads of all three hamstrings, and know which one is being pulled by my hyper-lordotic pelvis, and which one makes my knee hurt. I became acutely aware of which ribs were moving and which weren’t. I can now feel exactly where my 7th rib pulls away from my spine. My body awareness skyrocketed.

I learned the first four lines of the yoga sutras by heart. I chanted the invocation to Patanjali. I began to understand the value of this text by putting it into practice in my body.

But perhaps most important? Where I used to think I didn’t even enough “will power,” I now know my tendency is to work so hard that I injure myself. I never think what I’m doing is enough. I’m a show-off. And I hate how I look when I walk.

I learned that a teacher who sees me every morning learns what I can see about myself – and what I can’t see. She lovingly reminds me that “you think you’re doing it, but you’re not doing it.” She’s my accountability. She’s a balanced view of my practice. She shows me when to work harder and when to ease up.

And the difference between how she sees me and how I see myself is a direct measure of how much I still have to learn.

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A year ago, I started offering the same kind of short-form, intense practice in my own bhakti-infused vinyasa style. And I discovered how magical it is to watch people change in such a short period of time. To push people harder than they think they can be pushed, and also to empower them go easier on themselves. I do my best to see people lovingly yet honestly, and share what I see.

I cannot change you and I cannot make you see about yourself what you don’t see yet. But I can share what I see, lovingly and honestly. I can be a witness to your transformation. Sometimes, when I’m lucky, I can offer useful feedback that will enable you to change yourself. And I will always learn from you, I will always be inspired when you show up every morning at 6:30am, and I will always be grateful that you let me share the beauty of this privilege of teaching you. Every. Single. Morning.


If you have questions about practicing this way, send me an email.  Or bite the bullet and try it. We start Monday, January 4th at 6:30am.

I dare you.

 

Does Practice Matter?

“You get good at what you show up for.”

My teacher Mitchel shared this with us in my teacher training, and it has stuck in my craw ever since. It’s not just my craw – I’ve shared it with my students, and my friend Tracey Duncan even wrote a great post about it.

It’s a gem almost so obvious that it hides in plain sight: you get good at what you show up for. So if you want to get good at something, show up for it. Again and again.

Perhaps the more painful realization is what we’re getting good at through repetition. For me, it’s watching Nurse Jackie and hitting snooze on my alarm 5 times every morning. But it’s also showing up to teach, voraciously researching music for practice, and studying the human body.

The hardest part about this is showing up — instead of being partially present, or half-invested, to commit yourself totally to one task. In our society this is almost impossible. Phone notifications, emails, texts binging, constant noise of TV or radio in the background — how could you be fully present with any one thing for even five minutes? It seems almost superhuman!

Showing up asks us for humility. It asks us to come to a task – whether it’s washing the dishes or sitting for meditation – with an open mind. It asks us to participate fully and receive all the information that we’re being given. To show up, we have to see our strengths and weaknesses with equal attention. We have to release our expectation of what might happen, surrender our demands of a particular task. Two days ago, you ran three miles effortlessly? Today, just one will be a slog and a struggle.

Showing up requires we surrender our evaluation, because we’ll never fully understand why balance comes so easily one day and is elusive the next. In fact, trying to “figure it out” is just another distraction — our sneaky brain’s way of short circuiting the power of focus.


Animals are great teachers of showing up. My dog Bodhi and my cats are fully committed to everything they do. Watch a dog focused on a squirrel — this is the guidepost for practice — total commitment, dedication, focus; the rest of the world fades away. In thousands of walks, my dog has never once caught a squirrel. But every time he sees one, he is just as committed, just as dedicated, just as focused. He doesn’t lose hope. He doesn’t lose sight of what he’s after. He’s simply showing up to get that damn squirrel.

I aspire to show up that way, even though it’s incredibly scary. All my notifications and distractions are there because I’m afraid I might miss something: the perfect text from the guy I like, the next big media disaster about a gun rampage, a storm coming. I am reinforcing my constant fear that I might miss something, and somehow be left out, left behind, or left for dead. I’m afraid I’ll be left.

I undermine my practice by questioning, constantly, “Do I really want to get good at this?” or “Does it matter?” I saw a great meme the other day: the greatest question every artist asks himself is not “will they like it” or “will they understand” but instead “Does it matter?”

Does practice matter?

In the end, what we practice is irrelevant [sidenote: pick something you like]. What we’re really practicing is showing up. Committing ourselves to something or someone, dedicating ourselves to something bigger, and staying focused even when the going gets tough or it seems hopeless. To keep at it, keep moving, even when it’s uncomfortable or frustrating, disappointing or even painful. To stay in a relationship even when we’re terrified. To keep writing even when we think the novel is shit. Keep working, keep practicing. Keep showing up.

What we learn is that the JOY is in the practice. The fulfillment is in the commitment. We wake up in our focus. We transform in our attention. We show up.

What Hurricane Katrina taught me about yoga

“Purification, Refinement, Surrender. These are the practical steps on the path of yoga.”

– Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra II.1, (trans. by Alistair Shearer)

I’ve gone back to basics lately with my practice, my teaching, and even my thinking about yoga. With over 1,000 hours of teaching, I keep coming back to the same question in my writing and conversation with other teachers: What is yoga, anyway?

My recent study with Doug Keller only underlined that question in my mind. He has a lovely overview of the history of yoga in his book about yoga philosophy Heart of the Yogi. He traces the long history of yoga – philosophy, practice, posture – to reveal there are only a few things that tie them all together: mindfulness and action.

Yoga is sometimes defined as Skill in Action. I like that.

I stayed with my mom over the weekend that I studied with Doug. She doesn’t ‘do’ yoga, so in many ways she’s my best audience. How can I explain yoga to someone who doesn’t already know what it is? I said to her, “It’s kinda like what they say about pornography: you know it when you see it.”

“That is not a good answer,” mom replied.

And she’s right.

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I have been avoiding the anniversary of The Thing this weekend. My teacher Mitchel is in town, and I’m looking forward to his Bowspring workshops and vinyasa classes. I would like very much to go on about my business, and not get sucked in to the ten-year anniversary. But yoga won’t let me.

Purification. That’s what fire does, and it’s why fire is often used as a metaphor to describe the yoga practice. Purification is not a pleasant process, and it usually requires tremendous hard work and a decent amount of discomfort – if not pain. Fire burns away everything that isn’t real.

Water also washes away everything that isn’t real. Water washed away everything that wasn’t permanent, that wasn’t deeply rooted, that wasn’t fully committed.

Refinement. Once the heat of the practice has built, then the true work begins. It’s in the tiny movements in our body that real change happens. We want to find a showy pincha mayurasana to post on Instagram, but we know that’s just the shell. The real work happens on the inside, when we feel those small adjustments starting to reveal huge change. Looking strong doesn’t hold a candle to feeling strong.

The last ten years have been a constant process of refinement. That has meant looking at the things we were doing – as individuals, community, leadership – thing things that were working, and the things that weren’t. Being brave and ruthless about our choices, doing our best to keep the heart of  our city along the way.

As my teacher Heide says: “You don’t learn perfectly. It’s not a straight line forward.”

Surrender. Everybody knows the best yoga pose is Savasana – after 60 or 90 minutes of working, you get to rest. Just rest. And no rest comes easier than the rest after hard, challenging work. Honestly, I MUST work that hard to truly surrender. Because surrender is the hardest part.

Surrender means accepting things as they are, even if they aren’t where you want them to be. Yet. It means yielding to the wisdom the pose has to offer you – letting the pose do you, instead of you doing the pose.

Surrender means being willing to let your life be molded by a power beyond your imagination. It’s a willingness to be humble, to make mistakes, to fail, to learn, and to grow. That is my understanding of yoga.

Yoga is a willingness to be humble, to make mistakes, to fail, to learn, and to grow.

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I want to avoid the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The tenth anniversary of a 17 hour drive to Houston; the tenth anniversary of watching helplessly while my city flooded and idiots on CNN called Elysian Fields Avenue “Elephant Farms Road”; the tenth anniversary of sharing a twin bed in a stranger’s Baton Rouge apartment; the tenth anniversary of a six-week exile from my home; the tenth anniversary of One Dead In Attic; the tenth anniversary of Superdome rapes; the tenth anniversary of watching my city-family being abandoned by a government I had trusted until that moment; the tenth anniversary of deep sense of uncertainty, foreboding, and tremendous loss.

I am not interested in reliving it. It purified me, and for that I will be forever grateful, in a strange, perverted way.

Today, I’m working on eternal refinement – and most importantly, surrender.

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I’ll be at K10 on the Levee on Saturday morning representing Wild Lotus, and the rest of the weekend I’ll be practicing with Mitchel. Come give me a hug. And do some yoga. It helps, I promise.

Confessions of a Size 12 Yoga Teacher

I’m a yoga teacher and I have a dirty little secret. I’m a size 12. The last time I weighed myself, it was in the 180s. (Ugh. It hurts just to write.)

I’ve been practicing yoga for 15 years, and teaching for four. I’m in the lucky 10% of yoga teachers who teaches full-time – it’s not just a hobby.

I practice four to six hours a week. I teach ten to twelve hours a week. I eat whole, healthy foods.

I am a size 12 yoga teacher.


I have an almost schizophrenic attitude about my body and my weight. On one hand, I’m proud to sit at the front of the room, reinforcing that yoga is for everyone – for every body. On the other hand, I’m terrified that students walk in and think, “What is she doing teaching?” or worse: “If practicing yoga will make me look like that, I’m going for a run.”

I’m proud my body can do things that some skinny bodies can’t do. And I’m ashamed there are poses I don’t do because my body gets in the way or makes balance impossible.


I’ve been overweight my whole life. When I graduated from high school, I weighed 215 pounds. I was muffin-topping out of size 18s. I was miserable. I was embarrassed. I was deeply ashamed. I lived in denial.

I was hiding inside my body. I desperately wanted to be seen, and yet I was terrified of being seen.

After years of dieting and… not dieting, I joined Weight Watchers in my early 20s. I lost 40+ pounds, and at my lightest I was a size 6, weighing somewhere in the 150s.  I was running half-marathons, going to the gym, and writing down everything that went in my mouth. After I hit my goal weight, I went on a cruise. I ate so much in Puerto Vallarta that I literally made myself sick. I promised myself I would never do that again.

Shortly afterwards, Hurricane Katrina hit. I went from whole foods to fast foods in about 24 hours. In the grand scheme of things, gaining 20 pounds did not seem like a big deal. And honestly? In the grand scheme of things? It wasn’t.


For me, becoming a yoga teacher has been a process of self-acceptance. I had to accept how much I loved teaching — and that I was pretty good at it. I had to accept that I hated my day job — and I was getting worse at it by the day. I stopped telling myself there were poses I couldn’t do because of my body — and just started trying to do them. I began to accept that my body is shaped the way its shaped.

I try to make food choices that are healthy for me, without disrespecting my environment or fellow beings. I eat as little processed and packaged food as possible. I eat meat, but aim for sustainably and locally sourced options. I consume full-fat dairy, and if I could get raw milk I would. I drink way too much coffee, but choose locally owned, fair-trade when I can.

I am a size 12 yoga teacher.


I recently started writing down everything I was eating again — but for a completely different reason. I have found my energy to be stagnant and heavy, my brain not as clear as I need it to be. To be a yoga teacher my brain must be sharp. My energy is critical to the quality of my work. After 20 years of dieting and… not dieting, I finally found a loving reason to keep track of what I was eating.

Finally, I feel ready to start looking at what’s really going on — what are the consequences of my habits, and what am I willing to change? And how much difference does a difference make?


Yoga taught me a lot. It taught me how to get comfortable being uncomfortable. It taught me that I am not my body, although this body is the only one I’ll get (so I take care of it). It gave me the physical strength to do hand stands, and the emotional strength to survive disasters — from hurricanes to heartbreaks.

I teach yoga because I want other people to feel the way I feel: strong, flexible, balanced, and grateful for every day.

I came to yoga for a physical workout. I got that, but I also got something better: Peace of mind. Self-acceptance. Both a willingness and a curiosity for whatever happens next.

I am a size 12 yoga teacher.


Lately I’m experimenting with avoiding all added sugars. So far, I wake up easier and my energy feels steadier — but I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t hoping to lose a few pounds. Because who trusts a size 12 yoga teacher?

Why I Stopped Caring if My Yoga Was Right

Some yoga teachers claim authenticity of their practice because of how old it is. I’ve practiced with teachers who say their yoga is the “real yoga,” because their teacher taught them the “real teachings.”

Why do we need age or exclusivity to authenticate our personal experience in yoga?

I’ve been exploring a new approach to alignment called “The Bowspring.” It flies in the face what many of us were told and have believed for years that a strong core was “the belly pulled back and up,” and that an anatomical neutral pelvis was the safest and healthiest way to work. I have taught hundreds, if not thousands, of students these same principles: keep the tail moving down towards the heels (but don’t tuck it!), pull the belly back to protect the lower back, front shoulders back, shoulder blades flat on your back!

It’s a rigid shape. It feels hard to me, especially now.

bowtest
The Bowspring alignment echoes an article circulating recently from NPR about why indigenous cultures don’t have back pain. When the base of the buttocks lifts, the belly is full, the lumbar curve is greater than “anatomical neutral,” and the whole ribcage expands out and back. I’ll be the first to say I am not an anatomy expert (just an anatomy nerd) — but in my body, that feels better. It feels stronger, fluid, and dynamic. My body feels soft AND strong at the same time, and not at all rigid.

I was talking to a student about this after my lunchtime class today, and I’m beginning to wonder: Why do we care so much about which yoga practice(s) are “authentic”? Why do we care how old the poses are? Which sequence or alignment is the best? How could we say that anyone (or any country, or any religion) owns yoga? Does it matter that the vinyasa we all love is probably only 150 years old, and was influenced by British calisthenics?

I suddenly realized: Who owns love? Which love is the best? What love is the most authentic?

The answer, of course: none of us, and all of us, all at once. All love is the best, but none is better than another. To paraphrase my teacher’s teacher, “How can you compare infinites?”

That’s the kind of yoga I’m interested in. I want yoga that makes me curious. I want yoga that nurtures change and growth, and doesn’t elevate something static. I want yoga that helps me explore my body, my thought patterns, my emotional hang ups, and leaves me feeling more myself.

So I’ve been practicing the Bowspring. I might teach it in class or online somewhere down the line. But it doesn’t matter.  

If your practice leaves you feeling stifled, restricted, pent up, or somehow less than… I’m curious: what kind of yoga are you interested in?

Integrity

You’re made up of a million different parts. Perhaps even an infinite number.

It’s like the night sky. You can look up, and see twinkly lights — you know that some are stars and some are planets. You even know there are some that you can’t see because of light pollution. You know there are more than you can’t see because there so far away, but you still trust that they’re there. Millions of stars. Spread out across the universe – perhaps an infinite number across an infinite universe.

The gift of this life is exploring all the different pieces — and trusting that just because you can’t see some of those pieces right now, you trust that they are there. You keep exploring, keep looking closer, deeper, farther.

Despite being made of infinite parts, you also know you’re one whole. You’re both things: the pieces and parts of you that you can take apart, and the whole together. The old adage says your whole is more than just the sum of those million parts.

The remarkable thing about the matrix that is you is that one part also carries with it the connection to every other part. Sometimes the connection and relationship is easier to see, sometimes it’s more tricky. You know when you move your foot forward to step, something happens in your pelvis. It may be harder to experience what’s happening in your neck when your foot steps forward – but the more aware you are, the more willing you are to explore that connection.

It’s even harder to see those connections in the parts of us we can’t see — but know are there. When you offer someone a kind word, you know that’s connected to your history of experience with them. It might be harder to connect the kind word you offer to that person with your history of experience with someone else, but you’re willing to explore that connection.

What if it’s all connected? What if your foot is connected to the kind word? What if your history of experience is part of the miraculous matrix of your body?

Are you willing to see it? You’re one thing, refracted and reflected from an infinite number of angles.

Integrity is moving from that one thing in an infinite number of directions. You’re brave enough to make decisions from your center, instead of trying to be one thing in your day job and something else at home with your kids. You know the things you say to coworkers affect how you kiss your lover goodnight.

An infinite number of stars, one whole you.

Is Your Practice Protection or Prison?

Physical yoga (asana) comes from tantric schools of yoga. Tantra, however — contrary to everything your mother fears — is not all about sex. Instead, tantric practices are a concrete exploration of the divine. Tantric practice, in any tradition, involves ritual, movement, mantra, and other practices that give us a chance to experience the miracle of the world instead of just ruminate about it.

The word tantra comes from two Sanskrit roots – “tan” means expansion or stretching, while “tra” and it’s variations means protection or tool. Tantra, in its earliest forms, is often translated as “weaving” or “loom,” – in a way that we must stretch thread, and then bring it together, then stretch again and so forth.

If you have a physical yoga practice, that might sound familiar. You roll out your mat, take some sun salutations, and then settle into a yoga posture. Your practice expands into more and more challenging poses, you begin to stretch and extend your body, find more space, and then dive into that space. You’re constantly expanding, settling in, expanding, and settling in again. This is one of the reasons we call it a practice: because there is always more to explore, always more to stretch, always another pose. Perhaps paradoxically, there is always more contentedness, more ease, and more stability to be found in each of those shapes.

Mantra might be another piece of your yoga practice — another word adopted into our modern vocabulary. Mantra hasn’t been as misunderstood: most of understand it as a word or phrase repeated that comes to represent an idea or ideology. In yoga practice, repeating a mantra has a very similar meaning.

Etymologically, you can see the similarity between mantra and tantra. They both have that “tra” – protection or tool at the end. The “man” comes from “manas,” which means mind — sometimes just the thoughts, sometimes the entire space between your ears including emotions, senses, and all the rest.

So then mantra can both protect the mind and be a tool of the mind. We can use mantra to direct the thoughts — and by directing them in one singular direction, we direct the mind AWAY from all the crazy we’re trying to avoid most of the time. It’s like the banks of a river: without those boundaries, the water spreads, sits, and stagnates into a swamp. The edges keep the water moving in a certain direction.

But what happens when those boundaries feel stifling? What’s the difference between protecting the mind from distraction and putting blinders on? What happens when the walls you built up to protect yourself become like a prison?

This is where tantra returns. There is no final answer, but instead a constant dance between feeling restricted and feeling protected. Every time we get complacent, we can challenge ourselves, expanding our thoughts and our body. Every time it feels like too much, we can always retreat back into the safety of our practice.

The Two Kinds of Darkness

This epic super moon eclipse on the vernal equinox has me thinking about darkness. This is what I’ve been thinking:

There are two main flavors of darkness in our life. Because its easier to see what happening in the world outside us, rather than the world inside us (although I think they are the same), I’ll use meteorological metaphors to talk about these shadows. First, there’s the darkness caused by a great big, ominous, angry storm cloud covering the sun. And then there’s the darkness of midnight, in the void before dawn. It’s two completely different kinds of darkness, and yet we tend to respond to them in similar ways.

The storm clouds show up in our life as suffering — we are abandoned, disappointed, betrayed, or otherwise wounded. When we’re in the midst of this kind of darkness, it’s impossible to see the brightness in our life. When friends suggest the silver lining (i.e. getting laid off means you have time to pursue that side career of your dreams!), we quietly resent their perkiness. We try to be more cheery, we know we should be more positive – but when things are dark, sometimes you just have to wait for the darkness to pass. Because no storm can last forever.

The other kind of darkness is the darkness right before the dawn. The black sky, the void, the emptiness. This darkness is terrifying to many of us, because we aren’t sure what will come next — and we are paralyzed by the idea the we might have to begin to paint the picture of dawn.

Both kinds of darkness pass, but while they’re happening they seem like they’ll last forever. When we’re in the depth of heartbreak, we imagine we’ll always be heartbroken. We’ll never find love again, we’ll be alone eternally — might as well get a grocery cart and 12 more cats now. It the moment just before daybreak, when we have no idea what the next step on this path is because no one else has ever tread this path (because it’s our path), we can’t imagine we’ll ever know what the ground feels like under our feet or that we’ll ever be able to do anything at all.

Here’s what I see as the difference: the storm cloud offers a kind of security blanket, a kind of familiar bleakness that will neither surprise nor disappoint us. Sometimes it just hurts so good. That blackness before daybreak, however, is terrifying – it’s emptiness, eternal possibility. I will do anything to get out of that space.

And so this eclipse is a little like that midnight darkness — a little reset button on the sun. It can be terrifying to realize that our entire life might change forever and we could move in a completely new direction, especially if we think we have to chart the course from the beginning.

I suggest just start with the daybreak – start with the streaming layers of red and ochre, that painfully exquisite sight of your life rising over the horizon.