When the Road from Yoga Teacher Training Doesn’t End with Teaching

On this path effort never goes to waste and there is no failure.  Even a little effort toward spiritual awareness will protect you from the greatest fear.

 – Excerpt from The Bhagavad Gita, translation by Eknath Easwaran

In 2004, I was in my mid 40s and at a crossroads… I had been working full-time for several years as the main breadwinner in my family, commuting over 10 hours a week to jobs around the Boston area, and I was burnt out.

I was also longing for some kind of fulfillment that I couldn’t quite name at the time, but I knew it wasn’t in my 8-5 corporate job.

With both of our daughters through college and at the height of the housing boom, my husband and I decided to cast our fates northward, selling our house on the south shore of Massachusetts and moving to Maine. We had always loved the rugged, down-to-earth beauty of Maine, and we were hopeful the new environment would present new opportunities for both of us.

That’s when yoga first entered my life… Without the immediate responsibility of work (thanks to the savings from our house), I was free to explore my yearning for something deeper… for a connection to something that I hoped would help me feel more whole, more fulfilled, and bring me greater joy.

I began attending a few yoga classes at WholeHeart Yoga studio in Portland – our new home city – and I was hooked. I immediately connected to the Kripalu-based instruction and the experience of becoming present in my body through a grounded asana practice that was heart-centered. I truly felt transformed… and I knew I wanted – no, needed – yoga to be a central force in my life moving forward.

Filled with an almost desperate desire, I enrolled in Kriplalu’s 200-hour basic yoga teacher training program in the fall of 2004. The month-long training was difficult both physically and emotionally, but it was also extremely rewarding. I met a wonderful group of compassionate, aspiring yoga teachers and experienced faculty with whom I felt a sense of belonging. Being immersed in the Kripalu culture of compassion, within the beautiful Berkshire surroundings, was a true gift to my soul.

I returned to Maine with my teacher certification in hand and a pure intention in my heart to transform my work/life as a yoga teacher.

Starting Out as a Teacher

Initially, my teaching practice was a bit of a struggle… Being an introvert, I was not entirely comfortable in the spotlight as teacher and I was even less comfortable giving hands-on adjustments to students.

I remember clearly my very first class and making a verbal mistake that truly brought home the concept of self-compassion: During the centering phase of the class, I was so nervous that I mistakenly used the word “clavichord” (a musical instrument) instead of “clavicle” (referring to the collarbone)! Thank goodness no one seemed to notice – or they forgave my inexperience without mentioning it.

In those early days of teaching, to help bolster my confidence I prepared detailed notes for my classes, typing them up and pasting them on colored index cards. I also practiced my class sequences regularly. Over time, my confidence evolved and matured, and I felt increasingly gratified by my teaching experiences.

For the next two years I taught a weekly class at WholeHeart Yoga studio, along with a lunchtime class at a local business. I also subbed regularly at various studios in in the area and taught a short-term program to a group of pre-school children. Whenever I could swing it, I returned to Kripalu for additional training and R&R retreats.

As life would have it, however, our family savings eventually began to run out and it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to sustain a living solely as a yoga instructor… It seemed me then (as now) that to make a full-time career through yoga requires being a studio owner — or else being in a position financially where you don’t need a full-time career. I had neither the business inclination to own my own studio nor the financial means to work only part-time.

So, apart from occasionally subbing, I eventually let go of teaching and returned to a full-time job.

An End… and More Beginnings

My yoga story could end there, but it doesn’t… Even though I stopped teaching, I never stopped my personal practice. In fact, it only deepened.

Fast-forward to 2014 and I was once again at a crossroads… After a good run of work stability and satisfaction, things changed drastically when the small nonprofit-like consulting firm I had been with for several years merged with a much larger company. Within a few months my comfortable, remote writing job – where my skills were highly valued – was gone. I soon found myself caught up in a corporate culture that felt like a meat grinder, where I was made to feel inadequate and my skills unvalued… I knew I had to make a change.

I left that job in April 2016. Although doing so provided some immediate relief, since then, my husband and I have faced a series of ongoing, exhausting challenges. For one thing, we moved three times – from Maine to Colorado and back to Maine again – and had four different addresses in 10 months. Not easy for two aging baby boomers.

I have also applied for hundreds of jobs, and even launched my own copywriting business and wellness blog to try to regain my employment footing. But the challenges of being an older worker, and someone who’s not naturally inclined toward “networking,” have been extremely harsh.

Throughout all of the upheaval and disappointments over the past two years, yoga has been the one stable, positive force in my life. It’s also been my health insurance and mental health therapy.

My yoga practice has allowed me to let go of regrets, anger, fear, frustration and sadness – if only for an hour or so a day – and experience tranquility… For the time that I’m on my mat, yoga relieves me of the burden to “become” and allows me to settle into the assurance of simply “being.”

In the midst of so many uncertainties about the future, I can always return to my breath and to the wisdom of yoga, which teaches me: “On this path effort never goes to waste and there is no failure. Even a little effort toward spiritual awareness will protect you from the greatest fear.” What blessed reassurance!

As I continue evaluating employment options and my path forward, something from my yoga teacher training 14 years ago keeps bubbling up: How can I serve?

I’ve thought a lot about whether to return to teaching as part of that yearning to serve. Although I still have financial pressures—in fact, maybe even more than before—something feels different at this stage in my life… As I approach 60, there’s less time to waste on being unfulfilled. I feel more committed to making choices based on what I truly want rather than what I feel is expected of me.

Whether or not my future involves teaching yoga again is unclear… But what I do know is that yoga continues to teach me and guide me, and for that I am eternally grateful.

12 Days of Christmas Cookies!

Being in a job search mode over the holiday season can be challenging since most prospective employers/clients are on a hiring hiatus.

So, rather than fret about my job search this holiday season, I decided to suspend my worry for a couple of weeks, get creative and have fun baking a bunch of Christmas cookies and treats!

Keeping it Healthy

My husband and I try to steer away from refined sugar and flour, so I started researching healthy cookie recipes online and I found several great options (listed below). In total, I made 11 batches of cookies plus one batch of sweet & spicy nuts with no sugar or white flour! Several of the recipes have gluten-free and dairy-free options.

Before cranking up my oven, however, I realized I needed one key piece of equipment that, up to now, I had been reluctant to buy – a food processor – thinking it would set me back over a hundred dollars. Luckily, I found a great bargain at Walmart on a Black & Decker model for $25.

With my recipes printed out, my food processor washed and assembled, and my unemployment fear at bay, I set to work on my cookies!

Christmas Cookies 2017

The first (1) recipe I tried was for a gluten-free biscotti with pistachios and dried cranberries from Amy Green: http://amygreen.me/pistachio-cranberry-biscotti/. This was not a great success for me and I attribute it to not ever having made biscotti before (i.e., user inexperience) – and also because I substituted some gluten-free flour for the flour mix listed in the recipe. Although my biscotti didn’t have a great flavor and it didn’t cut easily, it was festive-looking and some of my family liked it well enough!

Next, I made several recipes from Megan Gilmore at https://detoxinista.com/ including:

(2) The Healthiest Cookies Ever – I made 2 batches, one with chocolate chips and one without.

(3) No-Bake Peanut Butter Cup Bars

(4) Ginger Cookies (Grain Free)

All of these recipes were good but my husband and I liked “The Healthiest Cookies Ever” the best.

Over the next few days, I moved on to these recipes:

(5) The Ultimate Healthy Cut-Out Sugar Cookies – I wanted to make some traditional, Christmas cut-out cookies and these worked great! I used lemon extract instead of butter extract, which gave these cookies a delicate, delicious flavor and I nixed the vanilla crème stevia. I also made 2 batches, one with a light frosting decoration (for my granddaughter) and the other plain (for my husband).

(6) Vegan and Healthy Thumbprint Cookies – I used white whole wheat flour instead of straight whole wheat and I nixed the coconut sugar.

(7) Orange Spice Bliss Balls – I found this recipe thanks my yoga friend and owner of WholeHeart Yoga in Portland ME, Pam Jackson. These are delicious, no-bake cookie balls.

The weekend before Christmas, I still had some ingredients I wanted to combine together – chocolate chips, walnuts, dried cranberries and coconut – into a festive cookie bar. So, I consulted with my twin sister Karen, who has been baking healthy treats for years. She had just the right recipe:

(8) Lightened-Up Seven Layer Bars – Because I had unsweetened coconut milk on hand, I substituted it for the sweetened condensed milk, but I don’t recommend it… The coconut milk was too watery and I ended up having to bake the cookies about twice as long. Still, they looked festive and they weren’t overly sweet since the only sweetness was from the chocolate chips.

With all of these goodies stored in my freezer and ready to be “plattered” for the holiday, I still felt like I was missing something… soft gingerbread cookies. (Although I had already made grain-free ginger cookies, they weren’t the soft gingerbread texture I was looking for.) So, I turned to this recipe:

(9) Soft-Baked Ginger Cookies – I used white whole wheat flour instead of straight whole wheat.

These 11 batches of healthy cookies made up my holiday desert platter:

For one more healthy treat (#12!), I made a batch of Sweet and Spicy Roasted Nuts, which I served during the holiday and gave away as a gift (pictured on the left above).

While I may never have the time or wherewithal to bake like this again, my 12 days of Christmas Cookies in 2017 was a great gift to myself and my family.

 

Bridge Pose to the Soul

If I had to choose my single favorite yoga pose, Bridge (Setu Bandhasana) would be it.

Bridge is how I started doing yoga many years ago… After working a long day in my heady corporate job and after all my evening chores were done, I would retreat to the carpeted floor in my bedroom (I don’t think I even had a yoga mat back then) and do a series of stretches to wind down and reconnect with my body.

Having been “upright” (and uptight) throughout most of the day, I didn’t go for standing poses – my body wanted to be supine… and my spirit wanted to be uplifted… Bridge pose delivered.

Bridge is a type of backbend that strengthens the quadriceps, stretches the abdomen, squeezes the kidneys, and provides an all-around detoxifying “lift” for the body. But it also delivers something more – for me, something deeply soulful.

When I hold Bridge pose with a steady Ujjai breath, my heart is open, my gaze is focused and I feel supported by my own being… I feel empowered… I feel I can “span the chasm between two contradictions,” as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes below, and I feel the god in me.

As Once the Winged Energy of Delight
Rainer Maria Rilke

As once the winged energy of delight
carried you over childhood’s dark abysses,
now beyond your own life build the great
arch of unimagined bridges.

Wonders happen if we can succeed
in passing through the harshest danger;
but only in a bright and purely granted
achievement can we realize the wonder.

To work with Things in the indescribable
relationship is not too hard for us;
the pattern grows more intricate and subtle,
and being swept along is not enough.

Take your practiced powers and stretch them out
until they span the chasm between two
contradictions… For the god
wants to know himself in you.

Warming up for Bridge
After studying yoga and becoming a teacher, I learned a simple routine to warm up for Bridge that has become a staple in my daily practice. This routine is considered a vinyasa because it’s a series of movements coordinated with the breath. It goes like this:

STEP 1 – Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet on the floor/yoga mat, and arms by your sides. Take several deep, cleansing breaths through your nose (mouth closed).

 

 

STEP 2 – On the next inhale, press into your feet, rotate your arms over your head, and lift your buttocks off of the floor.

 

 

STEP 3 – As you exhale, lower your buttocks, draw your knees into your chest, and hug your hands around your knees.

 

 

STEP 4 – On the next inhale, press your feet toward the ceiling straightening the backs of your legs and rotate your arms overhead again.

 

 

STEP 5 – As you exhale, bend your knees, bring your feet back to the floor and your arms back down to your sides to return to the starting position. Repeat Steps 1 – 5 several times coordinating with the breath.

 

 

To come into the full Bridge pose, on the next inhale, lift the buttocks but this time keep your arms at your sides and draw your shoulder blades in toward each other. If it’s comfortable, clasp your hands together and press the backs of your arms into the floor. Breathe. Watch your belly rise and fall. Feel the possibilities of your own being.

To release from Bridge, unclasp your hands and allow your arms to move back to the sides of your body as you slowly lower your back onto the floor/mat one vertebrae at a time, as if lowering a pearl necklace. Hug your knees into your chest and massage your lower back by rotating gently side to side.

The next time you need a lift, try doing Bridge pose. Namaste.

Are You My Dharma?

One of my favorite picture books as a young kid, and as the parent of young kids, was Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman.

It’s the story of a little bird that hatches after its mother has gone off to find food… So, left alone, the little bird embarks on a journey to find its mother – asking a kitten, a hen, a dog, a cow, a boat, a plane, and then a power shovel if any of them is its mother. Finally, after the little bird cries out in desperation, the shovel places it back in its nest where it’s reunited with its mother.

I’m not sure why, but this book has resonated for me at different times in my life – including when I was searching for a partner (are you the love of my life?) and, more recently, as I’ve been searching for my life’s purpose (are you my dharma?).

I envy people who seem to have a clear sense of their calling in life from a very early age – especially artists.

For me, the process of finding my dharma/purpose/calling has been anything but clear…

I think part of my challenge has to do with the fact that I became a single parent at a young age, and my path toward a “career” was framed much more by necessity than by any deep internal calling.

It’s also true that we’re more tuned into uncovering our life’s purpose as we get closer to the end of it… and as a 59-year-old, that’s where I’m at.

In my process of searching for my dharma, I’ve read a couple of good books:

Your Soul at Work, by Nicholas Weiler in collaboration with Stephen C. Schoonover, MD

The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide For The Journey To Your True Calling, by Stephen Cope

But what I’ve mostly learned is that it takes a good deal of listening (to my heart), along with prayer – and then more listening… It also takes gratitude… and courage.

Maybe that’s why I still love the book Are You My Mother? so much… Because it teaches us about having the courage to go out and find what we seek, which in the end is right back where we started – in the nest of our own heart.

Bob’s Pureed Kale Soup

I love healthy food… I mean I really love healthy food. (Okay, yeah… I really love food period, but mostly healthy food!)

I think it goes back to growing up in a family of 10 kids where “healthy” was not a high priority… having “enough” food was.

Powdered milk and orange juice substitute (remember Tang?), bleached white bread, no-name American cheese, the cheapest, oiliest canned tuna available and sodium-dense canned soups – those were the staples I grew up on.

Vegetables? Frozen peas and corn… Fresh fruit? Well, let’s just say it was a rarity.

So years later when I met my future husband—who is a great cook—my stomach was the first to say… Yes!

Over the years, our diet changed as our kids grew up and as my husband and I became more attuned to the changing needs of our own bodies. We also became more aware of the benefits of Ayurvedic cooking.

One of our favorite foods these days is a pureed kale soup. There’s just something about all the minerals and nutrients in the kale that goes directly into your cells – like Popeye’s spinach! It’s a great staple for the fall season – delicious, nutritious and warming for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Since it’s fairly labor-intensive to de-stem the kale, this recipe makes a large amount. We freeze several containers for future meals.

You can also substitute broccoli for some of the kale, which is a big winner with our granddaughter.

Note: The recipe below is from my husband (Bob) who never follows a recipe… so it calls for a bit of “winging it.”

INGREDIENTS:

4 or 5 bunches organic Lacinato kale [also called Tuscan]
sea salt
cracked pepper
dried thyme
fresh ground coriander
oregano
ground chipotle
couple onions, sliced
couple carrots, chopped
whole head garlic, chopped
a tomato, sliced
some white wine

STEPS:

  1. Wash kale. With a knife remove center rib of all kale leaves and cut them into about 4-inch pieces. Set aside.
  2. Cover the bottom of a large stock pot with extra virgin olive oil and heat oil over medium high to just about a sizzle.
  3. Add onions, garlic, carrots; add some salt, pepper and other seasonings of choice (i.e., thyme, ground coriander, ground chipotle) and sweat the ingredients over medium high heat with pot cover on.
  4. Stir now & again. If anything begins to stick to the bottom of the pot, add a bit of white wine directly to the bottom, hoping for sizzle. Add a bit of wine at some point anyway, sweat more… stir more.
  5. After the above ingredients have cooked/sweated for about 6-10 minutes, add about a third of the kale & salt it fairly heavily. Let it sweat/cook down, and continue this process of adding kale, salt and sweating until all the kale is sweated down.
  6. Add enough water to completely cover the kale mixture and then some. The amount of water always varies (we use between 2-3 pitchers), so you’ll have to experiment… trial & error.
  7. Cook at a low boil (covered) for about 2 hours; then let sit for a few minutes off of the heat.
  8. Once cooled down, puree with a hand mixer/emulsion tool (we call it the “motor boat.”)
  9. Season to taste. (Secret ingredient: If the soup seems a little bland, squeeze in some Roland anchovy paste and mix around.)

 

Enjoy!

3 Keys to Practicing Yoga Safely

When I first started teaching yoga several years ago, one of the things I worried about the most was making sure my students avoided injury.

I knew that proper alignment was an essential part of practicing safely, but my Kripalu training also taught me a lot more…

Synthesizing what I learned from my training, I came up with a 3-part mantra that helped guide my teaching and continues to guide my personal practice today…

Breath, Length, Compassion…

1. Breath – All forms of yoga and meditation start with connecting to the breath. This is the foundation for bringing our minds into the present moment and our awareness into our bodies.

But it’s not just about starting your practice by focusing on the breath… It’s about staying connected and returning to the breath repeatedly throughout each transition into and out of a yoga posture.

The breath is like a traffic light… When your breathing becomes strained, it tells you you’re pushing too hard and you need to yield or release a stretch. When the breath is free-flowing and unrestricted, it’s an indication it’s safe to continue deepening or holding a stretch.

2. Length – This is the alignment part of safe yoga practice. Our bodies are skeletal structures stabilized at the core by the spine, pelvis and sacrum, along with the surrounding muscles. Before moving into or releasing a yoga posture, it’s essential to stabilize the core by lengthening the spine and engaging the abdominal muscles.

Keeping your spine long during yoga practice not only protects you from injury, it also allows your breath to move more freely and deeply.

3. Compassion – Being compassionate toward ourselves (and to others) is part of the practice of ahimsa (non-harming), one of the key principles of yoga.

Think about it… If you’re feeling critical or judgmental toward yourself—including comparing your body to other yoga practitioners—you’re more likely to be careless in your movements or to push your body too far. But when you bring a sense of self-compassion to your practice, you learn to honor your body (including any physical limitations) exactly where it is in that moment.

The beauty of remembering breath, length and compassion is that they apply “off the mat” too… In other words, stand tall, breathe and show yourself some love — not just when you’re doing yoga.

Free, Organic and No Negative Side Effects: The Breath

 

Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?

-Mary Oliver

For me, the concept of wellness always starts with the breath… It’s where I go first thing when I settle onto my yoga mat, or when I’m out in the world and catch myself feeling anxious, fearful, sad or alone.

Nature’s Cure-all

What’s striking is how simple yet profound this wellness technique is: Focusing on the breath, and breathing deeply, is the greatest cure-all in life. And the beauty of it is that it’s free, organic, easily accessible and has no negative side effects…

So how does it work? In very simple terms, there are two key benefits to focusing on the breath: First, it brings your mind into the present moment, allowing you to let go of outside distractions. Second, by deepening the breath, you trigger a number of important—and beneficial—physiological changes, such as reducing your heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension to name a few.

Form Matters

Most living beings breathe automatically through no effort at all. But to truly achieve the wellness benefits of the breath, there are a few important techniques to keep in mind:

  1. The breath needs space. Try breathing deeply when you’re slumped over on your sofa… Your chest cavity is compressed like the letter “c,” which gives the diaphragm very little room to take in or release oxygen. That’s why it’s important to keep your spine lengthened by sitting (or standing) up straight, or by lying down flat on your back.
  2. Use your nose. Breathing through your nose is better than breathing through your mouth in many ways—from warming, moisturizing and filtering incoming oxygen to allowing the lungs to absorb more oxygen on the exhale. Nasal breathing also promotes deeper relaxation and stress reduction.
  3. Lengthen the exhale even more than the inhale. Deep breathing involves deepening and lengthening both your inhalations and exhalations. And extending your exhalations even a little more helps stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls your rest, relaxation and digestion responses. For example, try counting to 3 on the inhale and to 5 on the exhale.

While we’re all born with unique talents and characteristics, the breath is the one universal gift of all beings. By bringing awareness to the breath, and breathing deeply, we can learn to harness its incredible healing power and live more fully.