Getting over my fear of touching feet

I still might freak out just a little bit … if I had a student with feet that looked like this.

I hate my feet.  Hate hate hate them.  And don’t particularly like touching anyone else’s feet — likely a result of this disgust with my own feet.

At tonight’s yoga workshop, however, I had to get over this aversion real quick.

The class was devoted solely to savasana, hands-down my favorite part of yoga practice.  The final resting pose is the light at the end of the tunnel when the practice is particularly challenging.  Usually, the more challenging the practice, the more blissful the meditation during savasana.

The other yummy part of savasana is when the teacher gives adjustments — especially when the adjustments feel more like a delicious massage.  When I belonged to Crunch Fitness years ago, there was one yoga instructor who kept me coming back to his class because his adjustments during savasana were wonderful.  I’ve also had some awkward moments with teachers who didn’t enhance the experience at all.  In fact, they ruined it with abrupt or jerky movements of my body that prematurely ripped me from my bliss.

I do not want to be that teacher.

That was my motivation for attending tonight’s class — to learn some of the basics to help students sink into bliss, not unravel out of it.  What I didn’t anticipate was spending 10 minutes giving a perfect stranger a foot massage.  I thought we’d learn a few tricks with the shoulders and head.  Not the feet.  Ugh.

While it was somewhat awkward for me, as I’m not someone who touches and massages people so freely, it was a valuable lesson in that it forced me to explore.  It made me uncomfortable, and forced me to confront this aversion.  As I concentrated on pressure and rhythm, and playing around with hand positioning along the foot, anxiety slowly lessened.  It transformed from “Ohmygod, I’m touching this person’s feet!” to “How can I seize this opportunity to learn, in order to enhance future students’ savasana experience?”  Massaging this stranger’s feet became … kind of pleasurable.

Despite this revelation: Don’t expect me to give foot massages on a regular basis during your savasana.

 

Side note: Why some choose to leave yoga class right before savasana has always upset me.  Guess those are the people with “better things to do” than take 10 or 15 minutes to let the effects of a yoga practice truly resonate.  To each their own.

Master Teacher Roundtable: Wendy Doniger

According to Wendy Doniger, there is an ancient Hindu text that offers a rather colorful explanation of how a soul enters “rebirth” into a next life.  The soul hovers over the bed — or wherever your parents are doing the deed — and chooses life as son or daughter right there.  If the soul desires the woman and hates the man, it enters the womb as a male.  If the soul desires the man and hates the woman, it enters the womb as a female.  It’s an explanation that even Sigmund Freud would enjoy analyzing.

It’s pretty remarkable that of all the topics discussed during her two-and-a-half hour lecture titled “Death and Rebirth in the History of Hinduism” — this is the anecdote that captivated me (and humored me) most.

Wendy is not a traditional yogi.  In fact, she’s not a master yoga teacher at all.  She is an academic with Ph.D.s in Sanskrit and Indian studies from Harvard and has been teaching at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago since 1978.  Hence, her talk was highly intellectual and reminded me of some of the hard-to-stay-awake lectures I used to attend as a student at Northwestern University.  The flow of the discussion was tough to follow, especially since questions from the floor jumped around on all sorts of topics related to karma and death — highly esoteric topics unto themselves — and Wendy’s answers weren’t very straightforward.  In the end, the information dispensed left me more confused than when I entered.

I’m quickly learning that that’s a theme with yoga education, however: Each new door I walk through reminds me just how little I know.  And that’s OK.  In fact, it’s great.

Aside from the idea that souls watch people fornicate, here are two other gems I took away from Wendy’s lecture:

1.

The concept of lila (“lee-lah”).  Lila is a Sanskrit word that means playfulness or the act of putting on a performance.  According to ancient Hindu texts, this is the spirit in which the Divine (God) created the universe.  Wikipedia explains it this way: “Lila is a way of describing all reality, including the cosmos, as the outcome of creative play by the divine absolute (Brahman).”

I immediately conjured up an image of God — the male God with the white beard, as described in my CCD classes — having a good chuckle as he unfolds a storyboard featuring the universe in perpetuity.  He then sprinkles billions of game pieces — or souls — on the storyboard and sits back to watch as these pieces begin interacting with one another on the storyboard.  Life becomes one giant game of, well … Life.If the universe is truly the result of “creative play,” and we’re all just bit players on this global stage, then why the hell do we take everything so seriously?  If this is all “play,” then nothing is “real” … shouldn’t this make life immensely easier to live?

Lila reminded me of the line from Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’: “All the world’s a stage / And all men and women merely players.”

2.

Karma is different from fate.  Wendy said that many misinterpret karma as a fatalistic concept — in other words, it’s something about your life that you cannot change.  Not so.  “Karma explains the hand you’re dealt, but not how to play it,” she said.

She provided this hypothetical: If you’re born into the world blind, it’s your karma.  But that doesn’t mean you accept your blindness and do nothing about it.  You go to doctors, you seek out treatments, you pray, you inspire other blind people to live vibrant lives.  You exert free will to try and change the situation.  You work through your karma.

I will continue working through mine, that’s for sure.

Getting ready to listen to Wendy Doniger’s lecture. All spots of this floor were ultimately taken — the studio was packed.

Teaching prenatal yoga

Engagements, weddings and babies.  These are three life events that have sprouted up around me with tremendous frequency.  Nearly all of my friends are experiencing one of these.  While it hasn’t happened for me yet, it doesn’t mean that I can’t indulge — and learn from — friends in the throes of wedding or baby preparations.  It will hopefully come in handy later on.

This life phase is also a gift for my yoga teacher training, as I am surrounded by mammas-to-be who crave yoga TLC.  I have such gratitude for Anna, Erin and Erica — three pregnant girlfriends who trusted me as a yoga guide today.

Anna is pregnant with her third child; Erin and Erica are each pregnant with their first.  All are beautiful mothers-to-be and supportive of my yoga teacher training.  None practice yoga regularly, however.

Knowing each of their life stories made today special, and it inspired me to gift them with something beautiful and empowering.  Note: I realize that this sort of familiarity doesn’t come with every yoga student.  But, I hope to develop a way to channel this level of enthusiasm for a class of perfect strangers eventually.  Everyone deserves it from their teacher.

To prepare for the two yoga practices I held today, I spent the past few weeks reading up on prenatal yoga — what is appropriate, what isn’t — and took a class with Moksha’s resident prenatal teacher, Teresa.  Although I modeled my class off what I learned in Teresa’s, I made today’s practices my own.  I don’t want to be a parrot.

I focused on guiding them on the breathing — getting them to feel how their breath was linked to movement, and how it can help focus the mind during asana (and perhaps, in a few months, during labor).  I also focused a lot on heart and hip openers, as well as making playful references to “dancing with their baby” and doing “yoga for two.”  i.e. I added some fun flow, such as figure 8s with their hips in Goddess pose, so they could “dance with their baby.”  Oh, and I kept it lighthearted by sprinkling in jokes here and there.  Laughter is a wonderful nutrient, too, after all.  Plus, these girls know my personality well.

Although it felt a little choppy at times, especially when I was mirroring, the rhythm felt good.  I wasn’t nervous.  For the second practice, I forgot my “script” at home and improvised based on memory.  I was unusually calm about this — a reassuring sign.

Anna, Erin and Erica experienced me at my rawest yoga teacher state.  I’m positive that there were many parts of my teaching that could have been better.  (Anna was the only one to offer constructive criticism after I pressed her: “Don’t be afraid to give me an adjustment just because I’m pregnant.  I’ll tell you if it doesn’t feel right.”)  I really wanted more feedback, but the cheerleading was wonderful — I won’t lie about that.

If each of them left my presence feeling a little better than when they first started — which the smiles on their faces indicated — then I’ve done my job.

Class Notes, Week 7: Yoga is everywhere

The Moksha yoga teacher training program requires me to journal once each week about my experience with the poses and assignments + my practice and progress. This is part of that weekly assignment.

You know that feeling you get when you fall in love?  And you suddenly want to be with that person all of the time?  That’s how I feel about yoga right now.  I am enamored with it.  The  yoga practices, the Sunday training classes, the piles of yoga books sitting on my bedside nightstand and kitchen table, the new discoveries I make each day that can be traced back to the Yoga Sutras.  I just want to absorb as much as I can, as often as I can.

If it were “practical” to quit my media job and focus on this 100-percent, I’d do it.  Sometimes, I flirt with that very idea.

But, the few times in my life when I have fallen in love — really fallen in love — I’ve lost myself in my obsession with that other person.  Not good, and difficult to recognize when you’re in the midst of it.  I’m being extremely mindful of not falling into that black hole with my yoga training.  It could ultimately prove detrimental to myself, and the responsibilities that financially sustain this journey.  Plus, it could turn off those around me.  Not everyone “gets” it; and I don’t want my passion to be polarizing.

That yellow flag aside, the most profound thing that’s happened over the past month is not any specific pose I’ve improved or learned to teach.  It’s the amazing cast of characters I’m meeting on this journey, and how the lessons of yoga are coloring my daily life in brilliant shades of red, gold and green.  It’s like my own personal Greek mythological quest, set in the 21st century.  (Cyclopses and sea monsters are replaced with modern challenges and self-discoveries that revolve around city life and managing personalities at work.)

I’m saying “yes” to workshops and lectures, those sponsored by Moksha and those that are held by outside organizations.  As many of them as possible.  In the past month or so, I’ve gained drops of wisdom from luminaries such as Aadil Palkhivala, Deepak Chopra, Seane Corne and Ana Forest.  I’ve become friends with teacher trainee classmates, all of whom have such interesting and varying life stories, but share in my yoga zest — it’s a like-minded community I haven’t found elsewhere in Chicago.  I’m devouring books that I otherwise wouldn’t be so motivated to read.  The learning is constant, and incredibly colorful.  It’s injected a new enthusiasm into my daily routine.  For that, I’m so grateful.

I’m also grateful for the heightened awareness the deepening of my practice has inspired.  I’m listening to my body more and paying attention to intuition — which has usually been right in the past, just ignored.  When I fluctuate between extreme emotions, both “good” and “bad” ones, I come back to these two Sutras:

Sutra 1.2
yoga chitta vritti niroddhah
Yoga is the control of the modifications of the mindfield.

Sutra 1.4
vritti sarupyam itaratra
Otherwise, we identify with the activities of the mind.

These Sutras don’t always pause whatever emotions are gurgling up.  But the reminder keeps me aware and in the present.  It forces me to question the value and truth of whatever I’m experiencing.  Plus, it’s always fun to recite Sanskrit in your head.

Onward with this 21st-century Odyssey … Who or what will I meet next?  What new revelation will I make about myself?  About the world?  Will I encounter my own version of the Cyclopse?  And how will I apply yoga to handling it?

Stay tuned.

Master Teacher Roundtable: Ana Forrest

Tonight I attended a talk by Ana Forrest.  I didn’t know much about Ana, other than her brand of yoga was, in part, conceived in her quest to work through sexual abuse.  I’ve taken a few Forrest yoga classes over the years — and only remember that they kicked my ass.  Really kicked my ass.

With little background, I attended with no expectations or preconceived notions of what to expect or what she might say.  I simply brought my curiosity, plus a bottle of water.  It’s exciting — and rare! — to walk into a situation so virginal.

Well, virginity be damned.  At one point tonight, Ana had us on our feet, grabbing our genitals with one hand, ass with the other.  No time for modesty.  It was time to confront fear.   And that was the theme woven throughout tonight’s talk: fear.

Ana Forrest told us to “stalk” our fear.  On and off the mat.  She didn’t encourage us to simply confront it.  She carefully chose the word “stalk.”  This implies tracking it in the same way a hunter would track its prey.  Expanding upon this metaphor: Ana told us to stop being a victim of our fear, living in it, reacting to it without question.  And instead be a hunter of it, exploring it, questioning it, getting to the root of it.  Do the poses on the mat that scare the shit out of you.  Embrace the sensation that comes with that emotion, rather than let it control you.  Off the mat, disobey — don’t let fear dictate what you think you should do.  Sometimes you need to do the exact opposite.  Disobey fear.

It was an empowering message, coming from her mouth.  Ana carries a wild medicine woman intensity.  In fact, she called herself a “medicine woman” at one point during the night.  She’s lived an uneasy life — including in her talk references to sexual abuse, broken family, drugs and violent binge drinking — and you can see traces of this “hard” life on her face.  But she found her strength through it, and because of it.  And now she channels this strength to help others.  I so admire that.

Her honesty was intense and incredibly raw, too.  She shared with us the trigger she experienced while on the mat that led her to “stalk” the abuse she experienced while young — something she apparently buried deep, deep, deep.  While in dolphin pose, Ana said, she had flashbacks to someone grabbing her hips and violently raping her.  What a highly charged thing to experience on that mat!  I cannot even begin to imagine …

Note: It seems like the most profoundly empowering yogis have endured tortured early lives!  I suppose it’s part of what makes them a living example of how yoga can save even the most seemingly down-and-out-and-confused soul.  I’ve had such a blessed life so far; what does that mean for the impact I may have?

… Attending this talk piqued my curiosity about Forrest yoga.  While it scares me a little, especially knowing it was born of this holy-shit-she’s-tough-as-nails woman, I wouldn’t be taking Ana’s advice to “stalk” my fear.  Why am I scared of it?  I need to take a class and find out.