Let's Talk About Butts

Warning this post is going to be a little crass. These thoughts have been weighing on my mind this week.

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Chaturanga Clinic

Janurary 12 from 1-2! Sign up at bhnydc.com/workshops

After my Beginners yoga class on Monday, I had a student stop me with a few questions. This is totally normal with beginning yogis. Often they have questions they are a little embarrassed to ask in front of the group. I knew this student because she had attended class for a few weeks in a row. She had previously shared that she has a background in ballet. This background gives her a good baseline of body awareness and a strong focus on technique. She wanted to ask some follow up questions about bridge pose.

I will say there is a “great debate” among yoga teachers about whether or not to engage your glutes in bridge pose. I am a fan of using your bum to help you lift and support your hips. This engagement also helps draw your tailbone down and maintains safer alignment in your spine. For these reasons, I am pro squeezing the butt. This student wanted to know about when and how to engage your butt, not only in bridge but other back bending poses, to keep her back safer. She mentioned that this kind of muscle engagement is new to her because in ballet, “you don’t use your butt because you don’t want to have a butt.”

Whoa.

Now I was of the mindset that in our post Sir Mix-a-Lot and JLo era we were all on board with having a booty. But this moment made me realize that I was very mistaken. There are still areas of our culture where people are pressured to look a certain way or to fit a certain mold. That is pretty messed up.

My week of the booty continued when I was taking pictures for a workshop I will be hosting in January. The workshop is focused on the pose chaturanga dandasana or low plank. There is a habit of practicing what I call the “ass-up” chaturanga where the hips are slightly piked and the shoulders are dipped low. Naturally, I didn’t want to have an ass-up chaturanga in my pictures since I am leading this workshop on the pose. So I asked the teacher who was taking the pictures to mention if I lifted my hips too high. I think the end result photo is pretty good considering holding chaturanga is not the easiest thing to do.

But another person mentioned to me that it looked like my ass might be slightly up. To this I responded, “You know, I think it is just the fact that I have an ass.” I do! But we are not used to seeing yogis of different body types. Things are starting to change on that front; but most people are only familiar with the yoga-pants-model aesthetic.

All of this booty talk led me back to the Yoga Sutras. The concept that seemed to fit my current moment was Asmita, one of the afflictions of our mind. Asmita is false-identification of our True Nature as the mind, body, or senses. We often think of Asmita in terms of the ego. We connect who we are with things like our jobs, our bodies, our thoughts. But all those things can and will change over time. Our True Nature is steady and unchanged; it is the observer of our bodies and minds.

So does it matter if I have a booty or not? Not really. It is just one piece of the vessel that is carrying me through this life. Does it matter if you engage your glutes in bridge pose or pike your hips in chaturanga? Yes! Well, not really because any pose is just a shape. It is an exercise meant to prepare the body for the real work of meditation. I care as a teacher because I want to keep your body safe and feeling good. All of this to say, can everyone get on board with butts being ok?

But I am right...

I have probably said that exact phrase 547 times over the past week. Being home for Thanksgiving brought out some of my less flattering tendencies: my need to argue and my need to be right. I was right about a family matter. I was right about how to do a yoga pose. I was right about Harry Potter trivia. I was out of control.

The reason it feels so good to be “right” is the sense of power it gives us. We feel superior in our rightness. But one of my teachers reminded me that this power isn’t real and it impedes our ability to connect meaningfully with others. She called me out with one question, “Do you want to make a case or do you want to make a connection?”

It has not been an easy question to ask myself. I am still drawn to the power in being right. It still feels good to be right. But when it comes to my family, I do want to connect which means letting go of that need to not only be “right” but to be recognized as being right. (Remember when I mentioned that Non-Attachment lesson that keeps coming around? Tada, here it is!)

I took a walk down memory lane last night to reflect on some times when I have been very wrong. I did this in a pretty light way looking at my terrible hair choices through the years. Speaking of things that are unflattering on me, let’s look at some times when I have been oh so very wrong:

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Long hair don’t care

Cow licks, fly aways, general scraggliness

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Rogue face framing

Highlights only in the front inspired by X-men

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Zebra cap

Cap highlights: always leave your roots showing!

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Middle part in bangs

Also Sun-In spray highlights that turn your hair into straw

Ok so clearly, I am not always right. I am a human making choices based on the information I have at the moment. At that moment in 9th grade, I thought color contacts and collared shirts were high fashion. The difficulty on my latest journey will be leaving myself open to connecting with others. I have to recognize they too are humans making the best decisions they can in that moment. This might be my most challenging lesson in non-attachment yet.

The Feeling of Safety

When reading my daily meditation from Richard Rohr (if you haven’t check him out he is a fabulous writer focusing on how to live a contemplative life) I was struck by this simple conclusion:

No bootstraps needed to pick myself up!

No bootstraps needed to pick myself up!

The only people who change, who are transformed, are people who feel safe, who feel their dignity, and who feel loved. When you feel loved, when you feel safe, and when you know your dignity, you just keep growing! That’s what we do for one another as loving people—offer safe relationships in which we can change. - Richard Rohr

This idea had to tumble around my mind a bit before I came to agree with it. Typically, I think we understand transformation as the outcome of struggle and work. This is usually how I approach my yoga practice as well. While I view it as a form of spiritual expression, and I physically convey what is on my heart, I still want it to be work. I want to put in effort so that my intentions can reach their goals. I think of how we have to face our fears so often in life in order to move forward. To use visual clichés, we have to go out on a limb or pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. How then can transformation only be achieved from a place of safety?

Then I chose to replace the word “safe” with “nurtured.” After the verbal substitution, Rohr’s meaning became clear to me. True and lasting change can only be created if our environment or relationships support the change. We can will ourselves to be different but, if those around us aren’t invested in our success, we are doomed from the start.

Safety, nurturing, love — all these qualities need to be present in our lives in order to be transformed. Without them the changes we make in our lives will be superficial.

Practicing What Does Not Come Easily

I have written before about how headstand is my least favorite pose. I am not confident in my balance in the pose. I have fear about falling. And I don’t practice it consistently enough to change my feelings toward the pose.

Knowing this information, imagine my shock when someone told me that I made going into a tripod headstand look easy. Offended is not the right word, but I was shocked at the very least to hear this. Nothing about headstand comes easily to me. I teach the tripod prep in my classes because that is the variation I am most comfortable demonstrating. But I wouldn’t call it easy for me.

I have practiced the tripod variation over and over again. I have fallen doing it. I have cricked my neck doing it. And then I would do it again. When you add the talking required while teaching the pose you have my living nightmare. But I know it is a pose with many, many benefits and one where students enjoy the challenge. So I have worked at becoming competent in demoing how to build up to the pose. I guess this is how it has come to look easy. And if it is easy, then it is time I do something new in my practice.

I am even less comfortable doing the supported or “basket” version of the pose with the forearms down. I like having my hands grounded on the mat in the tripod shape because it gives me a greater sense of control. But our teachers always say that the poses we like the least are the ones we should practice the most. These poses address the physical and energetic imbalances in our body. I mentioned liking the sense of control I have in tripod but this control is just an illusion. It is a comfort I have given myself. None of us really have control over the circumstances in our lives. We can only make the best decisions for ourselves based on those circumstances.

So, I am choosing to practice the variation of the pose that I dislike. I know it will bring a bit of freshness into my personal practice. It will teach me a lot about myself and how I deal with things that are difficult. Maybe someday a student will tell me that I make it look easy. Then it will be on to the next challenge.

Beauty Rising from the Darkness

I told my class last night that I was having a difficult time working out a theme that was Halloween-relevant without being macabre. All that came to mind was corpse pose, Savasana. While that is a spooky named pose, and sometimes you might wish for an entire class lying in Savasana, it didn’t jive well with teaching a Power class.

Tank top shout out to City Dogs Rescue! Thanks for saving my little Morty.

Tank top shout out to City Dogs Rescue! Thanks for saving my little Morty.

Eventually, after doing some personal practice, I came to find inspiration in the concept of moving from darkness to light. I thought about how seeds have to struggle through dirt and muck to make their way toward the sun. These beautiful things have to persevere in order to break through.

I created a class that drew inspiration from the Lotus flower. These flowers, some of the most beautiful, literally have to make their way toward the light out of pond scum. They represent purity and perseverance. They remind us that even when our path seems muddy, difficult, or unclear that beautiful things lie ahead. In class, we used a mudra and a pose to connect with the lotus flower.

Lotus mudra is made by bringing your hands into prayer position at heart-center. You leave the thumbs and the pinkies connected while opening the middle three fingers. Your hands make the shape of a lotus flower. This mudra can be taken in a seated position to help you ground before or after your practice. In our Power Flow, we used this mudra while holding Tree pose (Vrksasana). Taking the mudra overhead, I encouraged students to challenge themselves by looking up to their thumbs.

Later in the practice, after a lot of hip opening and quad stretching, I offered students the option to take Half Lotus pose (Padmasana) in our seated twist. In the half variation of the pose, only one foot at a time is taken onto the opposite thigh. The full pose would bring both feet onto their opposing thigh. This pose can be taken for meditation or pranayama (breathing) practices.

These are two physical ways you could incorporate the essence of the lotus flower into your practice. You can also set an intention to offer your efforts to the perseverance and struggle of others — maybe someone you love who needs the support. In this way, your practice creates a beautiful gift out of the struggle, or effort, of your flow.