The Yoga of Letting Go of Yoga

Dear Friends,

I have decided to end my yoga therapy practice. Most of you won’t be affected by this, but I’m sharing it anyway because it’s something I’ve put a lot of time and energy into, and I’m not usually the type of person who likes to walk away from something I’ve worked hard for. But I’ve been learning some lessons about patience and flow in the past couple years, and I can say now that despite my patience, developing a yoga therapy business is just not in flow for me right now. What I mean by that is that life has a certain flow to it, and we’re not in control of the flow. Time moves without our consent. People come into our lives and leave again based on events and circumstances we may not even see. Things we want don’t come through, and things we never even considered asking for sometimes show up at our door and change our lives. Sometimes, what you thought was just going to be a hobby or a side gig becomes the center of your life. Sometimes a person you thought would be a fun fling becomes your life partner. And of course there are all the unexpected things you hope will never happen like Donald Trump becoming president and your mom getting cancer — things that turn your life upside down and make you question your naive perception of reality and your over-estimation of what you could control.

But about yoga therapy … Do you want a history? I’ll keep it brief. I started practicing yoga when I was 16, and it’s very possible that yoga saved my life. I was a closeted bisexual kid with an anxiety disorder in a religious southern town. I was terrified of my body, and I was starting to take refuge in drugs because I didn’t see any better options around me. Yoga became a safe place for me, and it’s something that I have continually returned to when in need of support and self-care. After grad school, I wasn’t happy with the direction my career was taking, so I reached out to yoga again and became a yoga teacher. I only managed to teach part time, though, even when my husband earned enough that I could afford to quit my day job and focus on teaching for a while. Teaching yoga as a full time gig is exhausting mentally and physically, and it didn’t pay what I needed to get by. I kept at it for a while, but as my business kept growing, the time I could spend on teaching kept shrinking. Then derby entered my life and I noticed that I had so much more energy for skating and cross training than I wanted to put into yoga practice and teaching. My heart just wasn’t in yoga anymore, but I kept teaching because I thought I needed to. I pursued further trainings, and I found Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, a method of practice that reached me powerfully. I had been working on healing the divide between my mind and body through my yoga practice already, but PRYT gave me a more advanced toolset for the work. I pursued further training in PRYT because it resonated strongly with me and I felt that I could help others with it. I felt that if I had the right tools to help people, they would show up and let me help them … and pay me to do it. That I could finally have a thriving career in yoga. But despite my training, my enthusiasm, and my dedication to the work, it just didn’t come together like that.

I have pondered the reasons for this, and they are many. For one thing, I’m bad at self-promotion. For another, I don’t like asking people for money. But also, I’m an emotional sponge and despite all that training, I don’t know how to turn it off. I take on the emotions of my friends and partners, and I found myself doing it in client sessions as well. After many sessions, I felt tired, unable to focus, irritable, and disengaged. Meanwhile, the business continued to grow without us doing much self promotion at all, and I found myself feeling guilty about the time and space I was setting aside for my yoga therapy practice. I was frustrated because it would appear that I do actually know how to build and run a business because I’m currently in the middle of doing exactly that … buuuuut I’m not ready to do it for two businesses at once.

As I pondered whether and when to end my practice, I sought the advice of my own therapist, several yoga therapy friends, and my close loved ones. I realized I wasn’t sad because I would miss practicing yoga therapy. I was sad because I was giving up on something that had once mattered so much to me. Nonetheless, it was increasingly clear that it was time to let the practice go. I tried to wait for the perfect moment. There is never a perfect moment. I did it anyway.

It’s been two weeks since I ended my practice. Prior to that, I was putting minimal time and energy into it, but it still weighed in the back of my mind like a responsibility I wasn’t meeting, a guilt trip just waiting … I had been avoiding looking at it for a while, so it just followed me around. I drew a portrait of it to post on Instagram, and now I want to draw a whole series of the monsters that live in my head.

Anyway, I was right about one thing: Letting go of the practice immediately freed up a significant amount of mental space for me. It feels like a huge boulder has been removed from a rushing river. Where there was turbulence and spray above the surface, there was also undertow beneath, and now the water flows more evenly over the remaining, smaller rocks. My life is still a rushing river of events flowing mostly without my control, but the river no longer looks flooded and treacherous. In the next few weeks I hope to spend some time weighing the ways that I’ve changed since starting my PRYT training in 2014, to take account of the things I’ve learned, and to really consider where I can apply that on my journey forward. I won’t start that list here and now because I’m sure it’s exhaustingly long. I’m hoping that what I’ve learned will serve me well. I feel clear now that the self-work I did in the course of my training was the real point of the experience for me, and that although I am done with the yoga-as-career phase of my life, I will probably never be done with the work.

Here’s to the next phase of the journey,

Mary

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What to write once you’ve done the thing.

May 10, 2014. About a month after I joined my local roller derby league, I posted the above photo on Instagram. “It’s easiest to write when you have done something worth writing about. If you’re stuck, go outside.” Looking at it now, the message still rings true, although I can’t believe it took me more than three years to notice the missing apostrophe.

I had noticed in myself a lot of circular thoughts, and a certain amount of boredom with myself, my way of thinking and living. I needed to get outside myself, outside my comfort zone, beyond my current knowledge and experience. I needed to live a little, but I had no idea how much I was about to live.

When you play roller derby, every year feels like three. Home season, travel season, and off-season are each jam-packed with a year’s worth of living. Especially off-season, which seemed to be the only time I could check in with the rest of the world, reconnect with non-derby friends, visit my family, and catch up on sleep. Maybe that’s why I feel so much older now, only a few years later. I did a lot, and I learned a lot. I intended to write about it all along the way, but living the adventure and processing in real-time left little brain space for translating my experience into readable material worthy of the effort required to post on the internet. And aside from that, my anxiety disorder was in full swing during much of that time, so to post anything that  might make me feel to vulnerable didn’t seem wise. Somewhat unwittingly, I forced myself to follow my own advice above, as well as some other thoughts I kept pinned to my wall.

Slow down. Edit. You’ll know when it’s ready.

And.

There’s a lot of pressure in writing a letter on good paper.

In other words, don’t rush, and don’t be precious.

The intervening three years have been an exercise in observation of the self under extreme pressure. In the yoga world, we talk about tapas, the fire in which karma is burned, the drive that fuels our practice. For three years, roller derby became my yoga. I made it my intention to be as fully present to the experience as possible. Every hit, every lap, every victory and defeat, every after party and every heartbreak — that was my tapas. When I fell on my ass during All Star tryouts, my coach asked if I was OK, and I told him the only thing that was hurt was my ego. I dedicated that year to Kali, the goddess tattooed on my right arm, the ego killer. And boy did my ego get killed in the most spectacular ways.

I thought I might write about it all after retirement, but I’m not sure how. There’s so much. And of course, there are other people involved, people who I sometimes loved and sometimes resented, who have flaws and hearts just like my own, and it would be impossible to tell my own story without touching the pulse of a few of theirs.

So while I figure that out (assuming I will eventually figure *something* out, even if that something is that this story isn’t the one I came here to tell) I guess I’ll be reviving and reclaiming this dusty little corner of the internet. As always, I make no promises. My  plan is to keep following my own advice, to allow myself the luxury of time to process and write, and to indulge in the simple joy of expression.

Oh, and not to bury the lede or anything, but there’s a podcast coming. I started talking about it on Twitter a while back, about half joking, but then I decided to do it for real. So that’ll be up eventually … when I figure it out. Again, I’m slowing things down and not trying to rush through the creative process anymore. As it turns out, it’s the process itself that interests me more than the sharing/posting/publishing part. So I’m taking my time to create it and do it well, and I’ll share when it’s ready. 😉

Peace.

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Five Thoughts to Deepen Your Yoga Practice

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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

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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.

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When you are quiet, you are the source of peace.

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I believe we are genetically programmed to want enlightenment.

We are bliss-seeking creatures, and we’ve heard good things about nirvana.

The absence of suffering and confusion.

Absolute clarity.

But clarity sorta sucks. Sometimes it brings the suffering of others into excruciating focus. You’re hit with a barrage of emotions, and then clarity is gone.

You have to learn to be still amid the chaos, to avoid stirring up all the shit, to look life in the eye and say, “okay,” and let go.

So that’s why I meditate.

Because I am a shameless spiritual junkie. Because someone said life is suffering, and I’m the kid trying to prove them wrong. Because I know if I am still, right here and now, I can find quiet. Because I just got back from a week-long visit with my family, and I didn’t fight with my dad or anything! Because I was looking for truth and someone said, “inquire within,” and it’s by far the most useful piece of advice I’ve ever been given.

In just a few days, I’m offering my first Introduction to Meditation workshop at Shakti Studio in Arnold, MD, and I would love beyond words to have you there.

Here’s how you register:

Go to this link. You will probably be prompted to create an account. Do that, and then you’ll see the class schedule, etc. Click the “Workshops” tab at the top of the page, and you’ll see several workshop descriptions including the “Introduction to Meditation.” Click the blue button that says, “Sign up now!” Follow the instructions from there.

Also, join the Facebook event for the workshop so we can get in touch. There, you can ask me questions if needed or get in touch with other workshop participants.

If you have any trouble signing up, please send me a note or just show up early so we can get you all squared away.

xoxo

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