Finally Rolling

Dolls Group HugThis past weekend, I realized a goal I’ve been dreaming of, working for, and yes — dreading — for a year or more. Those who have heard me talking about derby for the past year may be wondering why it took so long, but there’s a method to the madness. When I tried out for Charm City Roller Girls, passing the tryout just meant I was allowed to practice with the league. I was not yet cleared for contact (i.e. hitting/blocking), nor was I eligible to scrimmage, be drafted, or play in a bout. After months of training and several rounds of skills assessments, I became eligible for the draft and got onto the Junkyard Dolls. Getting there took eight months, a lot of patience, much ego checking, and countless hours of practice.

Finally, on January 24, 2015, I played my first roller derby game with the Junkyard Dolls.

I wanted to tell you what it’s like to play your first roller derby game, but truthfully, I remember very little. It was a blur of noise and wheels and bodies. Going into the game, I was convinced I’d forgotten everything I’ve ever known about derby. Coming out of the penalty box, I was afraid I’d do something wrong and frantically asked the people around me, “Where can I come in … behind the pack right? Behind everyone?” Yes, Dirt. Behind everyone. In theory, I know the rules. In a state of panic, not so much.

My performance was what you could expect from a newbie: not glamorous, but I showed up.

My teammates, on the other hand, were better than I could’ve asked for. They were tough. They gave me instructions. The pushed me where I needed to go. They high-fived me when I did well. They forgave me when I fucked up. In general, they rocked. The Junkyard Dolls won. By a lot.

My biggest fear going into the game was that if we lost it would be due to my personal failure. By the second half, I realized it wasn’t possible for me to be the sole cause of our failure if we did lose.

As for what made us win, that’s a more complicated story. We played against the Night Terrors, and I think of them as being a great team because they have quite a few skaters I admire. However, they also got the most new recruits during the November draft, so for the moment at least, they seem to be in a rebuilding phase. This being the first game of the 2015 season, lots of people on all the teams struggled to get enough practice hours to qualify for Saturday’s game. The Junkyard Dolls were apparently the only team whose skaters all met the requirement, therefore we were the only team with a full roster of our own players. That’s a pretty obvious advantage.

At half time, we talked about what was working and what wasn’t. Holly thanked everyone for making their practice requirements because preparation really was our greatest advantage. That moment made me realize even good teams with great skaters can’t succeed if all their players aren’t engaged, not just on game day but for the month leading up to it.

In an interview on the CCRG blog a while back, Fed mentioned that the Dolls all have a ton of heart and really leave it all on the track. I think that’s another way of expressing the same thing — the Junkyard Dolls don’t just show up and expect to be great. They keep showing up until they get great … and then they do it some more because being great for one game isn’t enough.

As for me, greatness was not on my agenda this weekend. My primary emotion during this first game was fear, and my goal was to face it. I did that. Box checked. Now I get to work on the next thing, whatever that turns out to be. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Five Thoughts to Deepen Your Yoga Practice

2410149852_43262e9b4a_z

What becomes of your yoga when you leave the mat? If you’ve begun to feel the positive effects of practice, it’s only natural to want that sense joy and well-being to carry through to the rest of your life. The physical and mental training that happen during a yoga class help us develop the focus, self-control, and physical health required to begin pursuing true yoga — or union — across the breadth of our lives. Here are five concepts that will help you deepen your experience of yoga and allow the effects of your practice to reverberate throughout your life.

Humility: Know that you are imperfect. Embrace it. If we’re being honest, we know what it would take to be the “perfect” person we think we’re supposed to be, and it’s just not happening. Why? Because being perfect sounds awful. Instead, accept your imperfections, be honest about who you are, and let go of the need to prove something.

How it deepens your yoga: Instead of comparing ourselves with everyone around us, trying to be the best and berating ourselves for our flaws, we start to focus on doing the best we can with where we are right here and now. We lose perspective for whether we are ahead of or behind others and instead start to view ourselves in terms of our quality of life and general happiness. And frankly, you’re less likely to get hurt this way.

Self-Study: In Sanskrit, it’s svadhyaya. Take a sincere look at your lovely, imperfect self. This applies physically, mentally, emotionally, and even socially. Observe yourself in your yoga practice, in your meditation, in your interactions with others, and in your time alone. Always be learning. Life is a learning experience, and you are your own school.

How it deepens your yoga: The more we learn about ourselves, the more we eliminate what is false. Our practice and our lives can be about the True Self instead of about the ego. This is hard because it requires us to face uncomfortable realities, but choosing to be present even in those difficult moments proves priceless.

Tapas: Heat. Drive. Find your fire, and fuel it. What’s moving you forward? Your heart keeps beating because it wants something. What is it?

How it deepens your yoga: Being in touch with what drives your practice is essential because there will come a time when you just don’t feel like doing it. What will keep you going even on those days? You can be driven to get healthy, cope with your depression, or find spiritual peace. You can dedicate 108 Sun Salutations, a month of meditation, or your morning run to any person or cause you’re passionate about. You can dedicate your entire life to something if you really believe in it, and that drive will make you unstoppable.

The Guru: Not some guy in robes. The truth we know without knowing. The teacher that taught the first teacher. The spark. That which brings light. It lives in all things, including you. Seek it.

How it deepens your yoga: Learning to listen to your own inner teacher gives you the ability to step out on your own, to question authority, and to seek knowledge through experience. There is great value in the teachers you will find on your path, but without the guidance of your own wisdom, you can be lead astray too easily! Listening to your guru can start on the mat, but once you learn to recognize that inner wisdom, you can consult it in any area of your life.

Ishvara: Some people call it God. That which is beyond comprehension. The fact that we exist. Intelligence. The infinite animal in which we are cells.

How it deepens your yoga: While the Guru is an internal and personal experience, Ishvara is external and universal. We can barely see beyond our noses and often lose sight of the vastness of the universe, which extends apparently infinitely in all directions. It is beautiful and divine, and in it keeps our drama in perspective. Remember to look outside yourself occasionally. The universe will remind you that you are very small, yet you have value because you are part of something much bigger than yourself.

photo credit: asteegabo via photopin cc

My Plan for World Domination Starts with a Toestop

4063860672_9dcd210995_z

Thank god the offseason is over. I didn’t realize quite how much I’d gotten addicted to derby until we came back to practice this week. Every day, I found myself thinking, “Wow, life is so much better when derby is in season.”

Practices this week were tough but so rewarding, and I was happy to notice that some things I couldn’t do back in November suddenly clicked. Apparently I needed the holiday break to let my brain and body integrate some of the stuff I’d been learning. I don’t wanna brag, but my hockey stops have come a long way, and I don’t suck at hitting anymore. I felt a lot more confident in the basics coming back, which meant I could start thinking about the next things I want to work on. It’s kindof exciting to realize I have so much to learn. I feel like the nerdiest kid in the world in a really big library.

So, after my first week back at practice, this is the list I’ve decided to focus on for now.

  1. Master the left side reverse toe stop. It’s one of the last footwork 101 things that I still struggle with. I can do it when I’m skating alone at open skate, and I can do it if I’m working on a drill and no one’s watching me. But if I’m being told when to do it, someone’s standing there coaching me, or we’re doing a stop circuit where everyone’s doing it at once, something about those situations makes me too anxious, and I trip over myself. I need to get comfortable enough with the movement that I don’t get so hung up on it, and I need to work with that anxiety somehow.
  2. Get better at backwards crossovers. It’s not like we spend large periods of the game skating backwards, but I want to feel ultra confident moving in any direction on my skates, so I need work here. Plus, backwards skating is so pretty I just wanna be able to do it. I’ve been asking every advanced skater I can to show me how they do it. A little bit at a time, I’ve been catching on. This week at practice, Punchwrap Supreme broke it down for me once again, and I actually did it. Now I just need to do it over and over again until it becomes natural.
  3. Don’t be afraid of my team. Yeah, they’re rockstars, but they’re also humans, and they’re my team. If I want to be a contributing member, I need to stop thinking of them as better than me. If I don’t learn to speak up and hold my ground, what use am I to the team?
  4. Hit like Colleen Best. Have you ever been hit by her? Jeeze. Everyone seems to think she hits hard mostly because she’s super tall and strong. I am never going to be as tall as her or have her muscle mass. But she hits with intensity, focus, and finesse, and those are things I can work on. I mean, she takes a running start and slams into your mercilessly, but she’s also in complete control of her movements. A hit from Colleen is a thing of terrifying beauty. I wanna do that.
  5. Run on toe stops — improve agility. Again with the toe stops. I’ve just always been a little scared of them. It feels like running in heels but with wheels attached so there’s a greater chance of snapping my ankle in two. So I think I need to work on strengthening my ankles, getting over the fear, and improving agility in order to be able to step high and quickly.
  6. Don’t be the weakest link. Learn to absorb hits better and resist pressure from the back. I’m just tired of falling so easily. I need to remember to use my little plow stops and keep working on strength.
  7. Learn the dark art of jamming. In a way, jamming is easy because you always know where you’re supposed to go — forward. But like … how? This week I suffered from tunnel vision, so I need to broaden my awareness on the track. How does one get track omniscient? I kept hearing “head on a swivel,” so that’s one thing — just look around more. But also maybe I could incorporate this into my meditation practice somehow. Meditation is all about awareness, after all, isn’t it?

I think that’s a good enough list to work on for now. I have boatloads to learn, and it won’t all come at once. the common link seems to be strength and focus, so I guess I better get to the gym.

 photo credit: Gomisan via photopin cc

Why I Don’t Do Hot Yoga (but it’s OK if You Do)

photo by Kullez on Flickr

I often get asked for an opinion on the different types of yoga, particularly hot yoga, and I usually try to give a succinct answer that’s clear (I don’t like hot yoga) but respectful (you can still do it). That sounds totally non-committal, but there’s a reason for it! TLDR: I choose a practice style that’s right for me personally, and you should pick one that’s right for you. People who’ve only tried hot yoga might feel that there’s no other way to practice or feel that yoga’s either “not for me” or just meant to be brutal. That’s not the case, though. Yoga is for everybody, and you get to choose what type of practice is healthiest for you. So, having tried it myself, here are the reasons I choose not to practice hot yoga, but we can still be friends if you do.

Problem 1: Ego. My biggest problem in a hot room full of people is that I will push myself too far and get hurt. I will not be listening to my body the way I should. I’ll feel more flexible than normal because of the heat, and I will do poses my body can’t normally get into. Even though I teach yoga and practice regularly, I have some really tight muscles because I skate a lot, so something as simple as janu sirsasana can be a significant challenge for me. If I let myself get into a competitive state of mind, I’m more likely to push myself in challenging poses, which can result in injury. The obvious answer to this first problem is ahimsa, the yogic principal of nonviolence and non-harming. For me, entering into an environment where I know I will push myself in an unsafe way is a type of violence or aggression toward myself, so my practice of ahimsa means taking a gentler approach to asana.

Problem 2: Heat doesn’t make your yoga practice better. Sweating profusely isn’t particularly better for you than working up a moderate sweat. Sitting in a hot sauna can feel really nice, and a good sweat can give your skin a healthy glow, but heat by itself doesn’t burn fat or release toxins or anything like that. Heat and sweat produced by the body working and burning calories is productive. Heat and sweat produced by being in a hot room is just your body’s way of desperately trying to cool itself, which is why it’s important to drink tons of water if you do plan on practicing hot yoga. Some people really love the feeling of sweating their brains out. I don’t. Plus, I hate when my hands and feet are so sweaty that I slide all over the mat. This article does a great job of debunking several myths about the benefits of practicing in extreme heat.

Problem 3: Bikram Choudhury and other guru types … I mention Bikram in particular because he’s infamous. He’s the rock star of hot yoga and Bikram classes are taught in a very prescriptive way. I instinctively distrust people like this. They’re very good at what they do and well-known for it, but that doesn’t make them superior beings. I try to take whatever wisdom I can from them and move on. Bikram probably knows an awful lot about anatomy and asana practice, but my body is still my own and I get to decide what to do with it. If a yoga teacher insists that a pose be done in a particular way (or done at all) when it’s clearly putting the student in pain or at risk of injury, that teacher is irresponsible and not to be trusted, in my not-so-humble opinion.

Problem 4: Different abilities. In every yoga class I’ve taught or taken, there have been people of different ability levels. Even if you go to the most beginner level class, you’ll have beginners who are relatively fit and taking their first steps into yoga, and you’ll have beginners who haven’t exercised in years or are recovering from major injury or illness. As a teacher, it’s my job to try to meet all of those people where they are and provide a class that benefits everyone in the room. Around here, many hot yoga classes are vinyasa style, which means you’re moving pretty quickly from one pose to the next, and there’s very little time for discussing alignment, much less for giving specific feedback and adjustments to individuals who may be struggling. In these classes, I’ve often observed fellow students in unsafe poses and had to stop myself from stepping on the teacher’s toes by assisting them myself.

Problem 5: Too much rajas. In yogic philosophy, there’s the concept of the gunas: tamas, rajas, and sattva. Tamas is a sedentary state, rajas is an active state, and sattwa is a light state. (This is an oversimplification, and I suggest you read more about the gunas here if you’re interested.) Most of us live somewhere between tamas and rajas — we may live a sedentary lifestyle, sitting a desk most of the day and watching TV most of the evening, but we’re mentally and emotionally very rajasic meaning that we’re stressed out, anxious, and our thoughts and emotions are out of control. A sattvic state is attained through the various practices of yoga including self-reflection and meditation. To be functional in our world, most of us need a healthy balance of all three gunas. We need enough tamas to be grounded in reality, enough rajas to take action, and enough sattva to have a clear perspective. I’ve noticed in my social circles that the people who are most attracted to hot yoga are also the people who’s lives are already very rajasic. They are busy, often stressed out or anxious, high achievers, and typically very image aware. A fast-paced, heated practice like hot yoga tends to reinforce those same traits. So, hot yoga will feel great to someone who loves to be active, but it won’t necessarily help them to become more balanced or less stressed.

Exception to Problem 5: Some people need that. Especially if you’ve been living a sedentary lifestyle and you suddenly stumble upon a yoga practice that really invigorates you — that’s great. If it gets you moving, inspires you, and starts you on your yoga journey, then I’m all for it. A vigorous practice can help you burn anxious energy, and if you’re working with a good teacher who can bring you back down from that energy high in order to relax and meditate at the end of class, even better. But you don’t have to practice that aggressively or be in a super heated room to get that calming benefit from your yoga.

Problem 6: Sustainability. I enjoy a hot yoga class maybe three times a year, at the absolute most. In the dead of winter, it feels really good to go into a hot studio and sweat like crazy. It feels like I’m jump starting my body after months of staying inside and hiding from the cold. It’s just not a practice I personally can sustain more than a few classes in a row. Some people have the energy for that, but I don’t. I get my workout elsewhere, and I spend plenty of energy on that. When I turn to yoga, it’s to help my mind and body recover from the demands I place on them, not to continue pushing.

Problem 7: The physical challenges of yoga are fun, but they don’t mean anything. This isn’t exactly a problem, but I do think certain styles of yoga over-emphasize the importance of asana practice. There is no inherent merit in being able to do a handstand or reach the bind in extended side angle. There is no yoga god looking down and distributing blessings to people who can put their feet behind their head. It’s fun to work on advanced poses, but it’s not important. My shoulders really don’t like binding in certain poses, so I’ve decided that for me, it’s just not that important to get there. What matters is respecting my body and choosing a practice that leads me toward the ultimate goal of yoga which — believe it or not — isn’t a pose at all.

At the end of the day, your yoga practice is what you make it. You can compete with yourself or the person on the next mat. You can make it a practice of self-reflection or self-abuse. It can be your workout, your source of peace, or both. There’s no wrong yoga as long as you practice with intention and awareness. If you practice mindlessly, it’s not yoga, it’s just poses. Whether you’re in a hot room sweating buckets or lying on the floor doing restoratives, the quality of your practice is determined by your intention, not by the brand you prefer.

2014: The Year of Humans Sucking and Getting Better

medium_361193140

2014 has been a year of massive learning.

This year, I have witnessed friends experiencing all kinds of painful stuff. Divorces, abuses, rejections and failures have been plentiful.

But I’ve also seen and experienced some wonderful stuff. This year I saw a transgender friend coming to terms with her real self. I saw her being herself and feeling beautiful for possibly the first time. I saw a friend choose to exit a toxic relationship. I saw another friend ask for help even though he hates needing help. I saw people come to yoga class who have been at war with their bodies for decades. I saw them make peace.

And as for me? Man, I fucked up a lot. It’s pretty much my greatest talent. But I also kept trying and had some little successes of my own. I did some things I didn’t think I could do, like getting on to a derby team — did I tell you I’m a Junkyard Doll now? Hell yeah. And I’ve started accepting help from my friends in the form of teaching home yoga classes (think tupperware parties for the soul), and while that might not sound like much, asking friends to host classes for me a year ago would have paralyzed me with fear. My motto for the year was, “see the fear and let it go,” and I repeated it to myself almost constantly for my first six months of roller derby.

On a personal level, I’d say this year was extremely challenging but also rewarding … although sometimes I had to look extra hard to find the happy part.

On a grander scale, it was still a dark year. Terrible things happened in the world. I have felt pretty much gutted and useless about the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and far too many more young men who didn’t deserve to die. It’s so clear to me that racism is alive in our world, yet I can’t fathom a way to transfer that knowledge to the people who most need to get it. All the shouting doesn’t seem to help, so I work on compassion. I think compassion is what makes people realize others are human, so that’s what I try to practice and teach.

I’ve been trying to keep a positive attitude about the future of the world, and I’m tempted to write a really airy, upbeat conclusion to this blog post, but it wouldn’t ring true. I want to say that despite all the pain and suffering people are going through, we are becoming more aware. We are being forced to face each other’s suffering and experience the excruciating awakening of compassion. But you know … people are still dying. Specifically, young black men in America. But people all over the world are suffering. Every day we are confronted with it, and the only thing that can stop it is when we recognize others’ suffering, see that they are human, and care enough to help them by changing ourselves and the world. Not enough people are doing that.

So here’s the bad news: This year I learned that humans really suck. We do evil things to each other, largely out of ignorance but also out of hate and fear. All of us do it sometimes, but some people seem to live on that level, and they can be really fucking evil, especially in groups.

And here’s the good news: We don’t have to suck. We could just admit it, you know? Like, “Hey, I kinda suck. I’m human. Will you please love me anyway?” And suddenly … we suck less. And we kinda know deep down that we’re good people who are doing our best. And then — here’s the important part — we have to actually try to be better. We have to leave the shitty relationship or start being kinder to each other. We have to forgive others. We have to look honestly at ourselves and our behaviors. And we have to be brave enough to open our damn mouths and speak when we see injustice. But if we do that … then we’re not totally useless.