Friday, March 27, 2015

Zoology Meets Yoga? Animals Are Our Teachers...

Last week I attended a three day yoga and meditation retreat at the Prama Institute in North Carolina, and something the retreat facilitator said to us is sticking with me: most yoga poses have animal names, because animals are our teachers! If you practice yoga, this is something you've undoubtedly noticed: upward and downward facing dogs, puppies, cows, lizards, crows, eagles, cobras and even scorpions make their way into our verbal and body language in yoga classes.

Our retreat facilitator, a veteran yoga teacher and clinical psychologist, referenced the history of yoga and the ancients' practice of closely watching animals and the ways they moved to provide insight into how we humans can best manipulate our bodies to reach a more enlightened state. Although animals were not the theme of the retreat (the actual theme was the Science and Practice of Meditation and Yoga), what we learn from animals figured prominently in my experience over the three days. 

As soon as we pulled up to the retreat center and took our bags out of the rental car, we were greeted by a dog who looked to be a boxer/hound mix, young and tentatively friendly. The staff informed us that this dog was a stray who had been abused and had adopted the retreat center as its new home. The dog seemed to want to make friends with us right away, yet acted skittish as we offered our hands to pet it. Over the next few days we encountered several other dogs who had also been cared for by the retreat center community and who seemed to be adjusting quite well. The staff told us, "the dogs are our teachers!" 

Horses also figured in our experience since one of the teachers leading the movement classes uses equine therapy in her teaching and work with psychotherapy clients. One of the techniques she used in class was bouncing to eliminate stress, emotional imbalance and pent-up energy--I had the sense of trotting on a horse as we bounced. I later discussed with her my previous horseriding experience as an adolescent and how the relationships we have with particular horses can teach us a lot about where our challenges lie in relating to people! 

In my own work with yoga students and clients, I use shaking and swaying motions to warm the body up and help "shake off" unpleasant moods, lethargy, frustration and other unwanted sensations. One of my teachers refers to the way dogs shake off anything they don't want on them: water, dirt, negative contact with other dogs and humans--I have seen my own dog do this many times, even when she is scolded by me! 

The dogs I interacted with on the retreat during breaks outside had an important lesson for me. All of these dogs had been abused in some way and were working on their ability to trust humans again. Many of us, by simple virtue of being alive on this planet for X number of years and not living in a cave, can relate to some type of abuse or painful relationship dynamic. Like the dogs, we all want and need loving acceptance and companionship. When I took a walk off the property one day, I had started to jog and a large, black dog barked loudly, running from its owners yard and jumping on me in a threatening way. I kept moving and spoke sweetly to the dog in a high pitched voice until he calmed down and began to trot alongside me. Another dog joined us and I talked to both of them, pet them a little, and they stayed by my side on my hour long walk accompanying me back to the retreat center before they went their own way. The strays I had met earlier were somewhat intimidated by these dogs and there was a show of territoriality; the strays cowered. I thought about human survival and predatory instincts, our fear, protectionism and territoriality, in spite of our need to love, be loved and create safe families and communities. I felt empathy and compassion for the dogs, because I too struggle with balancing protective impulses with my need to be loved and my desire to show warmth to everyone.

The lesson I took away from these dogs was this: there is a scared, territorial dog in me, and in each of us. The best way to deal with this dog, whether internal or external, is to greet it with consistent, confident friendliness and acceptance. Each time I see this dog, inside or outside of myself, if I react with consistent loving acceptance, the dog will learn to trust. I made a commitment to myself that very day, at the retreat: I promised to show lovingkindness to myself in acknowledging and embracing my fearful impulses and emotions like distrust, diffidence and jealousy with an attitude of quiet and comforting reassurance. Like the friendly yet skittish stray dogs, I too could relearn to trust and be at ease among humans, dogs... perhaps among all creatures. 

In practicing yoga and meditation we can use every experience, every relationship, every posture and each and every moment to learn, grow and evolve. This applies to our internal and external worlds. Who and what will be your teacher today? Will it be your pet dog or your downward dog? Your pet snake or your cobra pose? Your cranky boss or your cranky hips in lizard pose? Your impatience as you drive or your feelings of sadness as you sit in meditation? The dream you had last night or the daydream you had waiting in line at the pharmacy? Pay attention to all of your life as it passes, greeting each unique teacher with as much lovingkindness as you can muster, and you will be well schooled in Yoga, a yogi in the truest sense. 

Monday, March 9, 2015


As the ground begins to thaw,
the seeds and bulbs of Spring
under the ice and snow
and piles of dead leaves.

As hope always persists
in the face of death,
exuberance appears in the wake of loss,
creation equalizing destruction,
light balancing dark,
heat tempering cold,
action completing inaction.

Always following,
in tune with an involuntary awakening,
our bodies respond to the cyclical stimuli
of death, rebirth and growth,
as the Earth spins on,
1.8 deaths per second,
undeterred by mourning.

Come out of your shadows,
chimeric illusions in a flimsy,
phony world.
Slip into the power
of the raw, animating force
which drives your sun, your seasons,
your tides,

and flow.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Vulnerability Builds Confidence

Instead of hiding our vulnerability, what if we embraced it? What would it feel like to allow transparency instead of building more walls, to know that we are acceptable just as we are, to open up to the vulnerability of our partners instead of backing away? Embracing vulnerability is part of owning our truth, and goes along with the yogic ethical practice of satya, respecting truth.

Some yoga practitioners and teachers use video diaries as part of their personal practice and teaching. Initially I was very shy and skeptical of sharing videos of my practice, yet I enjoyed watching others' videos. Now, sharing some of my practice videos helps me to embrace my vulnerability and get comfortable with it as a teacher. It helps me with satya and also with surrender and self-confidence. On a lighter and perhaps unrelated note, it's just fun... and creative... The following six videos are of my home practice, background noise, dog, snow, flaws and all! I really love practicing in pajamas!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Semper Caveat Emptor

In my chosen field for rewarding, part-time work, I am the regular recipient of offers to improve and build upon my credentials, to expand my work/client base/spiritual practice/financial security/knowledge/wardrobe. Sound familiar? At least some of this will sound familiar to people doing any type of professional or client facing work. When I worked in law the firms paid for continuing education and I would also see the occasional sales pitch for retreats or self-care aimed specifically at lawyers. My husband, a financial analyst, receives a small amount of promotional material to help him build on his knowledge as a CFA or to improve his managerial skills. 

My chosen field is holistic health and personal growth (yoga teacher, interfaith minister, spiritual coach). I know: when I signed up to do these things I also signed up for a continual onslaught of sales pitches from a growing number of people who want to help me do my job better and just generally be a better person. 

Since I graduated from interfaith seminary and was certified at the 200 hour level to teach yoga, I have been continually offered more opportunities to train further, many of which I have accepted. I am currently completing anatomy studies for yoga teachers, another 108 hour training, to further my knowledge of anatomy. I have attended a four day retreat to learn more about restorative yoga. I have attended many workshops to learn more about yoga therapy and tailoring yoga sessions to the needs of the individual. I have read countless books and articles about spirituality, yoga, religion, psychology, philosophy, nutrition and personal growth. I am truthfully running out of time and energy to maintain this level of dedication to my continued training. I know of no other professional field that approaches recent graduates or trainees with the intensity of prompting I am receiving to up-level my credentials. 

Apparently, I need to do 300 more hours of training (at a minimum) to teach yoga well. I also need to do another certification program through the same people who trained me in interfaith ministry, so that I can do the type of spiritual counseling they deem professional and competent (because in any initial two year training, there is never enough time to cover everything). In addition, this seminary has changed its name and mission and would like me to swap out my former ordination for a new ordination under a new ordaining body, for a fee that I do not consider modest. Also, I need to do a coach training in order to work with coaching clients, because the training I received to work professionally with clients as an attorney, a yoga teacher, a spiritual minister and a pastoral care volunteer is simply not sufficient to "hold space" for people who want to buy coaching services. 

Simply put, no thank you. I am well equipped to serve any clients who come to me, now, without any further "official" training or certification, which I very well may choose to do in the future. 

I do plan to complete a 300 hour yoga teacher training (at some point) to bring me to the 500 hour level. I have a suspicion, though, that once I reach the 500 hour level, another level, perhaps 1,000 hours, will be recognized and become the new yoga teacher gold standard. 

At some point, we all have to have the confidence to step into our roles and do our work based on our own unique talents and knowledge base. Additionally, we all have a right to enjoy the life we have, right now, without the need to feel it is falling short somewhere. I truly love the life I have. It is fulfilling. It is enjoyable. My dreams have actually come true, already. I really don't feel the need to keep paying other people in my line of work so that bigger and better dreams can come true. My dreams are/were good enough. Not only am I happy, I am content. That's not something I paid someone else to give me. It's not written on a certificate. I don't have to pay annual dues to register it.
I don't need a new ordination, a new designation, a new and better mentor, a bigger following or higher internet traffic.

Finally, for future reference, as a tip to myself and possibly to you, if you're reading this, maybe not that many of us really need to get certified and credentialed to do the things we love, and dare I say, to do them quite well. 

Caveat emptor, my friends.