Q&A

Q: How do you make a connection, when you're actually in a yoga pose, to bring in the breath and let it go? How do you do that?

A: First and foremost, you want to notice if you're holding the breath. I always teach that you don't have to do a lot of intricate pranayama techniques if you know how to breathe well, because pranayama is both breathing exercises (to support natural breath) and the bridge between the movement of asana and stillness of meditation. A lot of classes these days are taught like aerobics classes. They are so fast and music-based that instructors try to match the rhythm of the class to the beat of their playlist, so they end up instructing the movement first and the breath second (i.e. "reach your arms up, inhale, fold forward, exhale") and because it's a group environment we think we have to be moving and breathing on cue. Personally, that approach drives me nuts and completely misses the point both from a physiological standpoint and a philosophical one. It can cause a lot of stress on the delicate tissues of the lungs and both the primary and secondary breathing muscles, and that's exactly what we don't want to do for so many reasons.

Move slower. That might mean finding a slower-paced class or one that doesn't play music. It's so important to not have strain around the breath - even in Ujjayi. Remind yourself to check in frequently - "what's the quality of the heart and mind right now?" "is there stress or overwhelm present?" and move at your natural pace. That's so important - to understand your natural pace, to let your movement be initiated by the breath rather than the other way around, and to stay in poses long enough that you can explore the nuances, soften, and expand.

Q: Meditation! I have this tumultuous relationship with it. Do you sit?  Everyday? What have you found works best for you?  I feel the pull but haven’t found the time of day? Method? Something else?

A: To me, finding the true balance point of this is always a struggle. Everyone talks about making things a habit, which works on one hand but habitual also implies mindless disengagement with something, which is exactly the opposite of what we want to build with a meditation practice. So it's difficult to practice consistently with sincerity, interest, and openness, without expectation for what you'll get as a reward for your time and effort.

However, there's a truly brilliant aspect to meditation that is very often overlooked, and that is that any moment of awareness builds consistent mindfulness. Sitting regularly is really supportive to the process of mindfulness because there are less external stimuli pulling our attention in one direction or the other, and we actually get to see the internal push and pull of wanting and not wanting, the wax and wane of awareness and dullness, and moments of confusion and clarity. But, to the original point, any moment of awareness is a moment of mindfulness, so any moment in daily life is an opportunity to be aware. Guided meditations are helpful if the mind is really scattered and choppy, but it's also important to also give yourself time to be alone with yourself.

For a long time I sat every morning, or even for a period twice a day. My hair was on fire with the dharma, and I deeply wanted to be enlightened, like it's a goal or an endpoint. I really thought I could get it just like I went to grad school and got a degree. I really wanted to stop suffering, which for me was living in near constant anxiety, and I believed achieving enlightenment would do that for me. Then, during this long period of meditating twice a day for big chunks of time and "being a really good yogi"- you know, being able to hold handstands, wearing a mala, having some crystals around, channeling signs from the universe and all of that -  my longtime partner left our relationship, and while I'm sitting there on the couch while they're telling me we're breaking up, I was literally thinking both, "is this really happening? This can't be happening. What am I going to do without this person?" and "this is great! This is what I've been waiting for! Stay here! Feel this! Notice this!" And I realized that the pain and difficulties and suffering in life is not only the motivation, but also where the waking up happens. So that changed how I approach meditation, and now I'm a lot more gentle with myself and consider my meditation practice beginning from the moment I wake up to the moment I fall asleep, and I make time to sit and tune my awareness within that.

 

 

Q: I find I'm often overwhelmed by the breadth of the wellness industry/how to reconcile religious beliefs (im Christian) with spirituality/ belief in the universe as well as crystals, cards, all that stuff. Do you have any advice? I know this is something I have to figure out on my own but looking for guidance :)

A: Good! Keep questioning it. Everyone on the planet is trying to figure out how to be happy, and we think that being happy relies on a certain level of absolute truth and meaning. The thing with the wellness industry is that it's an industry, so it's always trying to stay relevant so that it can continue to be profitable. The expressions of that industry can be seen in the complex web of classes, cleanses, teacher trainings, meditation apps, crystal therapy sessions, healers, affirmation cards, etc. etc. These are human expressions that point to the process of understanding the key questions of who we are, what we're supposed to be doing with our time on earth, and what happens after we die. Those three questions are the root of every spiritual and religious philosophy.

One of my favorite sayings, which I'm pretty sure was in the Bruce Lee movie Enter the Dragon, is something like "don't mistake the finger pointing to the moon for the moon." All of these things inside of the wellness industry are just fingers pointing to the moon. I would say the same thing about any religion - the rituals, the group energy, the scriptures - are fingers pointing to the process of answering those three questions. You don't have to figure how one can coexist with the other. They are all a pieces of the same whole.

 

 

Q: How can I begin a meditation practice and make it feel meaningful?

A: Start the way you'd start anything - have the intention to do it, and then make the decision to follow through. It doesn't matter what flavor of meditation you're trying, and I think it's really good to cast a wide net and try a lot of things, especially in the beginning. Having right view is important. Meditation is a process, and there are different ideas of how to best undertake this process, which is where all of the names and styles come in. Mindfulness in and of itself, for instance, is just one piece of the process. Lots of us are so quick to commit to one style right away or do something because it's being talked about or a person we respect is really into it, but you don't know what works for you until you try many things. Find some guided meditations - there are loads of them available from tons of different teachers in many different traditions - and see what works for you. Meaning is something we assign. Your practice will become meaningful when you see the benefits of it.

 

 

Q: Do you think it's possible for everyone to attain something like the splits over years of practice or are some bodies just not designed to move in certain ways?

A: Both. Anyone can achieve any pose, but I guess you have you decide what the end point of the pose is. Poses are a continuum, like everything else. So poses for someone who started dancing at 3 are going to look different than the same poses from someone who just decided one day at 50, after years of running or sitting eating Cheetos, they want to do the splits. What does the splits even mean? One leg back and one leg forward, right? Some people can do that pose right away and have their pelvis resting on the floor, and some people can do that pose for twenty years and be using blocks and a bolster with their pelvis two feet from the floor and yet their legs are still in the same position. Isn't that attaining the splits, too? There are structural variations in anatomy that make some poses more accessible than others in some bodies, and then there are the things we do with our bodies that shape how they move. The bigger question is, even if you can do the pose the way you think it should be done, what happens when you finally achieve it?

 

 

 

Q: Something I’m struggling with right now would definitely fall into the comparison category. I work for myself and have just this year come to accept that I don’t think I’ll ever be one of those “I never sleep because I’m always working because that’s what you do when you run your own business” people. 50% of the time I pride myself on prioritizing work-life balance, my mental health (yoga every AM). And that I need lots of self care in order to do my best work. But the other 50% of the time I’m reading interviews with women I admire running businesses I aspire to and think I could be doing so much more if only I have more of myself. My anxiety spikes and I have restless energy I don’t know what to do with and end up paralyzed in my own comparison and fear. I can’t seem to shake that feeling even though I mostly do a good job of staying optimistic and trying to be proud of the work I do.

A: First of all, you are not alone. Everyone compares themselves to other people, it's just something we do and has biological reasoning behind it, so it's hardwired in, so to speak. It seems like you have pretty consciously decided to prioritize your life in a certain way. It's great that you admire and are inspired by other people's success. That's actually a really beautiful and valuable quality of heart called sympathetic joy - otherwise known as empathy. It's related to compassion, loving kindness, and equanimity.

 

Running your own business is hard, because you always feel like you can be doing more to be more successful. It's something I think about a lot, too. I remember when I was working at Patagonia in my 20's and my best work friend, who is a photographer, and I were always talking about how we were wasting our time and potential. I felt like I had to go do something to make my mark in the world. So then I left after awhile and opened the studio, and I spent the next six years dreaming of a simple job where I could just show up and leave, like working at the store! Success is a moving target though - it can't actually be realized or held. There's always another level. There's always going to be more. Looking to success to define happiness or to achieve happiness is never going to pan out. So what is it that you want? Money? Fame? Money is nice, fame is nice, but the more you have of anything the more time and energy you spend trying to maintain or grow those things. The higher you go the farther you have to fall, so to speak. That doesn't mean stop trying or doing your work - far from it. To me, how we live our lives - you know, the qualities and the values that we move with and that guide us in how we interact in all of our relationships - is way more fulfilling than what we do.

Q: my question is more so for some advice and words of encouragement on my journey as a yoga teacher. im dealing with the ever familiar, "can i be an (effective) yoga teacher and still live my lifestyle in the western world? one that indulges from time to time and one that seeks pleasure for pleasures sake but still has a deep practice and understanding of what it brings to me and my students, and believes so strongly in the importance of passing along the mind/body/spirit connection?"

A: To be honest, I think in order to be an effective yoga teacher you really must have experience in the western world. You have to understand the mentality and values in which we are conditioned, and to be an effective teacher you can really only reach people who connect to you. Our task as teachers is to unite the spiritual with the material - that which we can perceive through our sense doors and that which is ethereal, spacious, and unbound. So you absolutely need to know what it is to struggle with saving for a mortgage, being in relationships, dropping your expensive phone and hearing that disgusting crack of glass on the pavement. I think we very often mistake that practice is making shapes with the body or sitting still or chanting or whatever - practice is always. It's all fodder for the path. You've got to live in the real world in order to talk to real people.

 

Just keep going. Step by step, breath by breath - that's the real vinyasa. Be willing to shift your perspective when it's apparent that you no longer hold the same views as you did before. Be wiling to make mistakes, because you'll mess up. Be honest, humble, and human, and just keep going.

 

 

 

Q: How did I get the confidence to build my business? Who am I to teach? How did you know this is the right path for you? Am I meant for more than a 9-5?

A: Confidence builds in stages from being willing to experiencing failure. In the freelance world, they say if you're not being rejected daily then you're not putting yourself out there enough (that sounds like a lot to me but I didn't say it...). When I first started teaching, I couldn't look at the students in the room. I was so scared, and so insecure, and sometimes I still am. I mess up all the time. But if I hadn't failed to meet my expectations for myself so many times, I wouldn't have learned to pick myself up and keep going, look at the root of these expectations, and learn that the picking up is the thing that builds confidence. I wouldn't have had the drive to teach multiple classes every day for years, to study with the best teachers I could find, to devote the first years of teaching to also reading every philosophy book I could find, or be willing to move on from the stuff I had outgrown. It's like if you're learning acrobatics, the first thing you learn is how to fall. Once you know how to fall you're not scared of it anymore, because you're confident in your ability to recover. Far too often we let our fear of failure keep us from opening up to the world, while our fear of missing out drives us to a near constant state of anxiety that we aren't doing enough. When these difficult emotions show up for you, let them play out a little and see what's underneath that fear.

Building a business isn't any different. You do your best to prepare for what you can and then know you're probably going to mess up at some point. We are truly in the Age of Aquarius (a.k.a. the Information Age), and there's a cultural thing happening where if you put yourself out there in some way you are supposed to be an "expert". Expertise comes from making loads of mistakes. Expecting yourself to have every answer, to be able to cater to every personality, or appeal to everyone is too much weight to carry. Do your thing, be you, and the people who gravitate towards you will find you.

I didn't know this was what I would be doing with my time. I wasn't raised by parents who spoon fed me this stuff - in fact, I think they probably still don't really understand what drives me to spend my time this way. I have a degrees in art and design, and spent the first two thirds of my life really envisioning a life doing that. My interests naturally started to gravitate towards identity and the embodied experience sometime in my later teens - before that I was using yoga and meditation as tools to be a more competitive swimmer. The expression of my life as an artist is just much different than I ever expected. I don't think you need to ask yourself if you know it's the right path for you forever, or if you're "meant for more". Living a meaningful life is not synonymous with teaching yoga, nor is being a garbage truck driver or administrative assistant a meaningless life. Meaning is made, not given. Follow your curiosity and your interest - if you're interested in doing this today then do it for today. If one or twenty or fifty years from now you want to do something different, then follow that. The question isn't if "this path" is right for you, but if you're willing to follow your own path, wherever that leads.

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Photography by Erin X. Smithers © 2020

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