Good Grief

Ok this post will have nothing to do with Charlie Brown or the Peanuts gang. But I will note that my mom always told me I was a bit of a Lucy. I guess that means that you can give me a nickel next time you see me for this bit of thought.

My Grandma Mishler on my wedding day. She was a genius and wore slip-on shoes and wrinkle-free fabric.

My Grandma Mishler on my wedding day. She was a genius and wore slip-on shoes and wrinkle-free fabric.

Today is the sixth anniversary of my grandmother Margaret’s passing. It is very fitting that near this anniversary I have focused intention setting in my classes around loss. This is a topic I have wanted to approach for weeks but I wasn’t able to find the right way in. I read about grief trying to understand what universal truth there is in the experience of it. This week, I was given some guidance on how to hold space for my students so they could reflect on loss in a safe way.

I want to back the train up for a moment. There is another reason why it is so fitting that I share this lesson on the anniversary of my grandmother passing — her dying was what first brought me to yoga. I wasn’t looking for anything from yoga other than a way to distract myself from the reality that my last living grandparent was dying. I didn’t know that it would entirely change my life over the course of the next six years.

Margaret Mishler was an amazing woman who was my first example of feminism in action. She was a working mother (and grandmother) who taught her daughters and granddaughters they could do anything. Her laugh filled the room. Her stories were incredible. I wish I had known her better during her time with us on Earth.

When she was diagnosed with liver cancer she knew that it would be her end. I lived in Wisconsin at the time and wasn’t often able to visit her in Michigan during those last months. But I learned that through my yoga practice, I could offer her my strength and could connect to her that way. This is partially the reason I was so drawn to a powerful practice; I needed all the strength I could muster for this mission.

The final time I saw her was on her “last good day” a term that is familiar to folks in the cancer community. She was up and telling us about her trip to a Detroit Tigers (or her boys as she called them) game. I know it was the power of my practice that allowed her to be present with me during that visit. I know this practice can connect, support, heal, and serve us in mysterious ways.

Back to the original purpose of this post…

Camel pose, a mega heart-opener. For some folks, this pose might make them feel as though their heart is breaking open. For me, I feel a buzzy and loving sensation.

Camel pose, a mega heart-opener. For some folks, this pose might make them feel as though their heart is breaking open. For me, I feel a buzzy and loving sensation.

I wanted to share with my students a way to understand grief through their yoga practice. A teacher of mine explained that the way to approach this topic was not from the “we’re all going to die some day” angle. It is much better to invite my students to cherish the memories they have while mourning that new memories cannot be made. If you can do these things in parallel, you can grieve in a very healthy way.

In my reading, I came across C.S. Lewis’ book “A Grief Observed” chronicling his experience losing his wife. In the very beginning he likens the feeling of grief to that of fear. I thought about how we hold fear in our bodies and where that could hide as tension and pain. Then I came across the words of Thich Nhat Hanh,

 “Enlightenment is when the wave realizes it is the ocean.”

These pieces became the building blocks of my teaching. I focused on a sequence that would target the areas in our bodies where we hold fear and grief. And I used the imagery of water to help students think about those they lost as simply in a new state of being.

I was feeling very self-conscious sharing a topic so heavy with my students. I generally have a more lighthearted style. But instead of feeling push back from students, I was greeted with welcoming ears. Someone even thanked me for approaching such a brave topic. The holidays can be a time when the festivities serve as a reminder of who is no longer with us which is another reason it was the right time to share this intention. I am not sure anyone had the same life altering connection with their practice that I had 6 years ago, but maybe they could offer someone they love a bit of strength and power too.

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.

“Treat people well. The world is small.”

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I have run into so many people from my past these last two months that I knew there had to be some lesson I was missing. I thought about it, stewed over it, and tried to come to an answer. Finally, I Googled lessons learned from past friendships. And I came across this quote in one of those Medium listicle pieces:

“Treat people well. The world is small.”

There you have it. A reminder that how you act and how you treat others is bound to return to you. I have been fortunate because all of these encounters have been pleasant. But it got me thinking about how I usually exit relationships.

I have shared on this website and blog how I value being independent but when I choose to love, I love hard. I describe myself as a fiercely loyal friend. I don’t do the casual acquaintance thing. Though when these friendships don’t work out that means it cuts me a little deeper.

I have had many good friends who over the years I cut from my life because of a misunderstanding or a petty feud. I can’t defend these actions because they are petty. As I think about treating people well, I know I have failed at times.

This has created a new intention for me: as much as I work to forgive others, I hope they can forgive me, and I first have to forgive myself. We are not perfect beings. Our emotions drive us to do strange things without understanding the consequences. You do your best to make amends but then you have to let yourself off the hook. Accept that you have learned all you can from that relationship and move forward.

Things I Don't Talk About

This weekend I was catching up with my mother over the phone. After telling me about her painting class, how she has started swimming again, and the new restaurant she tried, she turned the conversation to me. She asked me how things at work were going and if we had moved into the new studio yet. I began detailing the various roadblocks we had come up against to which she said, “Oh, so you are exhausted and depressed?” Moms always know, huh?

I hate to admit that I am the kind of person who subscribes to strong, silent type ideals. I carry difficult things inside me and maintain a high level of privacy. I rarely share deep details of my life with my coworkers, clients, even friends. My mom knows this about me and knows that when my life is out of balance I tend to sleep more, talk less, and cry only when alone.

My mother calling me out on my silent struggle reminded me of a beautiful sentiment that comes from the legendary Fred Rogers. Mr. Rogers taught us that “feelings are mentionable and they are manageable.” This inspired me to share a few personal struggles that I rarely talk about as an effort to better manage how I feel.

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1- My father’s dementia. I talk about my dad a lot. I share with people how my dad was a basketball coach who truly believed that defense wins championships. I share that I come by my love of athleisure wear honestly because my dad loves nothing more than a good pair of sweatpants. I share how growing up with a federal pretrial officer for a dad kept me on the straight and narrow. But those are all memories of my father. In the here and now my father is very sick. The onset of his dementia hit my family hard. None of us were prepared to deal with the rapid decline of his mental health, and we certainly weren’t prepared for it to happen when he was in his early sixties. There are days when the thought that if I ever have children they will not know their grandfather creeps into my mind. It breaks my heart. Sometimes I am so overcome with emotions that I can’t breathe.

2- My mother’s breast cancer. In the last year my mother was diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer. Although she was fortunate in that she only needed the mass removed and not the entire breast, her treatment has not been an easy road. Our entire family is very fair and has sensitive skin. The radiation burned her so badly that wearing almost any clothing was unbearable. The best way I could think to help was buying her some silky bras. I felt a mix of worry for myself and what this could mean in my future (damn you, genetics) and fear that our family could lose my father’s caretaker. Then I would feel guilt that my initial reactions were so selfish. My mom was tired but fighting and doing so without the presence of three of her children (two still live in the state and are much better children to my parents than myself).

3- My feelings of inadequacy and failure. Nearly every day I wonder if I made a mistake leaving my previous profession for managing a yoga studio. Nearly every day I wonder if teaching yoga is actually what I should be doing. Over the last four months, as we have planned for and started to move the studio, I have felt like I am consistently dropping the ball. There is always something I didn’t anticipate. There is always some snag, some detail, some something that I overlooked. I begin to think about the clients that I am letting down. I think about my bosses, whose business I have been entrusted with steering, and how I am not carrying enough weight for them. I think about everyone who relies on me and how I have failed them because we are not in the new studio yet. And then either I shut down or I lash out.

You know who else was a fan of the strong and silent type? Tony Soprano. I would much rather be a Fred Rogers than a Tony Soprano (I know that one is real and one is not but you catch my drift). We cannot manage the feelings that we do not acknowledge. Strong emotions and intense feelings carry a vast amount of energy. Yoga teaches us that being present to this energy, learning how to practice with it, brings us to a deeper understanding. My mother offered a kind reminder to me that I cannot bury the difficult inside me. It will surface in another form. So instead I will try to practice being present to what is honest and true in my life. I will practice acknowledging and mentioning my feelings to manage them through my practice.

"Demoing brings up all of your body issues."

I had the distinct pleasure of working with the Be Here Now teacher trainees this week. I love getting to work with this group because I learn a ton just by talking yoga with them. They ask great questions and they have valuable perspectives and wisdom to share.

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This week, we were tackling the subtle art of demonstrating poses for your class. We talked about teachers who they have seen demo effectively and why those approaches were effective. We talked about the tips and tricks to demoing for your class without having to do an entire practice. And then it was time for the trainees to practice demoing with one another.

That was when a trainee shared, “Demoing brings up all of your body issues.” And all I could say was, “Yes.” Because that is a statement of fact. While yoga is not a visual art, like dance for example, demoing for your class is undeniably a visual means of teaching. There are expectations of how your body should look to effectively communicate a pose’s shape. This means people are looking critically at your body.

When I say critically, I don’t mean to be judgmental. I simply mean they are looking to you for guidance. For those of us who haven’t made peace with our bodies, this is an uncomfortable situation. Even if your students are simply looking to be guided, they are looking and you assume they are judging.

I struggle with the curves of my body. I was 11 when I gained the hips of a woman’s body. I was incredibly embarrassed to be the only tween wearing junior sizes while my friends were still in kids’. Since those early days, I have never truly come to terms with my lower half (see my previous post where I explain how I use my curves an excuse to not invert). So yes, there have been many classes when I doubted myself and wondered if the students thought I “look like a yoga teacher” enough to lead them. Translation: am I skinny enough?

This feeling has mostly subsided in my everyday teaching classes. This confidence is hard earned over hundreds of hours being in front of folks and leading them into yoga poses. But I did get a wallop of insecurity reviewing the photos Alex took for me to build this website.

Half moon pose and I have a long history of struggles. I couldn’t hold my balance in it for a very long time and I decided the culprit was my hips. “They are too robust to stack and open correctly” was the utter nonsense I told myself. So when I saw the picture of Half Moon pose I thought, “Goodness gracious my hips look so thick and not stacked at all!” But that is just my body. And my hips do a lot of work for me on the regular. I should really appreciate them for it and, in an effort to do so, I am sharing this picture with the internet!

If you feel insecure in yoga because you don’t look like an Instagram Yogi (no offense Insta Yogis because you inspire me to try new and fun poses), I am here for you. Your body can do yoga if you want it to do yoga. After all, if you just keep breathing you are doing yoga.

The Things that Scare Us

Fear is such an interesting thing. I still remember the first time I saw a clown and a deep-rooted, instinctual fear took over my body. It was at a farmer's market. My mother was buying Michigan blueberries (Michiganders will understand the distinction is important). And I ran to hide behind my mother's maxi skirted legs. While I have outgrown my fear of clowns in some ways (I still hold the belief clowning is an odd life choice), the feeling I experienced on that day is as real to me sitting here typing as it was in the moment. 

I was discussing the fear of different poses with a male student last night. He shared with me that working on splits is his greatest yoga fear. This statement made me pause for a beat. He explained that when he is in the pose, it feels like there could be a moment of no return, like he is constantly riding the edge of injury. I can understand and respect this feeling. I am far from the full expression of Hanumanasana (splits) and depending on the day my hamstrings feel like a rubber band about to break. But I don't get that fight or flight feeling in the pit of my stomach. 

No. The pose that gives me that sinking feeling is headstand. Sirsasana (headstand) has been my asana nemesis for years now. Some weeks I am intent on conquering it. Some weeks I am fine with it never being a part of my practice. I make all sorts of excuses. "I am really bottom heavy so inverting is hard for me." "I have to be really warm to stack my hips over my shoulders." "I slept on my neck weird so it isn't feeling it today." Oh, I have used them all. But none of these excuses are valid. It is fear that keeps me out of the pose. My fear of looking silly in a class. My fear of hurting myself. My fear of falling loudly, my body betraying me, and feeling like a heavy sack of potatoes. 

Now that same student I was speaking with loves inversions. In fact, he was practicing handstands with great control later in the class. It made me think about the intention that I offered my class the previous week, reflecting on how in the class each individual is experiencing the pose differently, but we still try to create a collective consciousness among us. This requires compassion and understanding for the other on the mat next to you. And a healthy dose of self-compassion as well. 

For those of you who might share my fear of headstand, I am sharing my best efforts at the pose (Alex's photography talent make it look a little better). It is far from perfect. It is far from complete. But if I can try it, I promise you can too! Even if you just start with the building blocks of placing your head below you heart. Hmm... head below heart I wonder if that has a philosophical meaning in yoga? Oh wait, it does. You are creating a shape that represents compassion (heart over the head). Alright, enough of my writing. Get practicing!