Keeping it clean

Being around mess is like being the loser in an argument.  We like to think we’re in control but the mess has all the power and it wins in the end. Mess and uncleanliness can make the act of living unsettling, not just on a physical level but also in the mind.  Living in a mess creates the irritability that comes with losing things; the anxiety of feeling out of control; the despondency of feeling overwhelmed; the blocking of creativity.  Often we’re not even aware of ourselves feeling these things – they just feel like natural states!

Yoga understands the relationship between mind and matter very well.  It offers this simple truth – mess outside equals mess inside.  Mess disrupts the peace of mind just as a disrupted mind reveals itself in mess.  You might have experienced the sense of clarity that comes from clearing your desk for work, or the liberating effects of throwing away of junk and hoarded items, or the feeling of relaxation that comes from sleeping in a freshly-made bed?  You might have noticed how the simple of act of creating a clean and clear physical space also clears the slate of your mind.

These actions and effects are what yoga calls ‘saucha’.  Saucha is the first of the yoga niyamas (lifestyle habits) defined by Patanjali for bringing clarity and purity into our lives.  It translates as ‘cleanliness’ and as with all yoga, it is concerned, ultimately, with purifying all facets of the self.

Saucha expresses itself in our physical environments through the cleaning of the body (showering, cleaning teeth, wearing clean clothes) and the clearing of the spaces we inhabit – the wiping away of dirt, the de-cluttering of home, the organisation and simplification of our physical worlds.  When we take saucha beyond the physical into our ‘mental house’, we can begin to observe how cluttered or ‘unclean’ thinking effects our emotional states, our sense of optimism, well-being and self-belief, as well as the quality of our relationships with others.

One sign of a cluttered mind is a reactive tongue – an aggressive way of communicating to self and others (judgements and criticisms).  Speaking a lot and quickly is another, as is interrupting others as they speak, and finding it hard to listen and respond sensitively to those around us.  Yelling and yabbering is just another way of throwing dirty clothes on the floor which we then must spend time and energy on cleaning up afterwards.  A calm, steady way of speaking keeps the floor clean and no one hurts themselves stepping on lego.

According to the yoga philosophy, a responsive (rather than reactive) way of speaking originates from cleanliness of thought.  This doesn’t mean the mind never has a negative thought or feeling.  It just means that the self becomes aware of when such thoughts become a dominant thread in the mind and consciously chooses a different course.  The self says, ‘I’m not going to throw the clothes on the floor today, I’m going to fold them and put them away.’  It chooses to stop the dirt from building up to the point where it becomes unmanageable.

One of the most powerful avenues for mental cleaning or purifying is meditation.  Meditation allows us to become an audience to the patterns of our thinking and makes us aware of when we’re throwing stuff on the floor.  It helps us stop losing our keys.

If you’re interested in this kind of mental housekeeping, ten minutes of natural breath awareness morning and night can have significant de-cluttering effects.  Regular meditation creates a cleaning habit that stops our mental laundry piles reaching volcanic proportions.

Might be worth a mention that saucha doesn’t mean being that anally-retentive person who won’t let anyone step on their freshly-mopped floor.  It just means being aware of the interplay between our physical and mental spaces and making friends of the two.  Put it this way, a lot of productive and fulfilling work can happen from a clean desk.

©The Yoga Experiment, December 2015

Advertisements

Why I don’t adjust – a frank appraisal

downloadI was in a Vinyasa class recently.  Look, it’s not my fave, it’s a little bit too physical for my brand of yoga but, so?  It’s good to taste different styles.  And frankly, as a teacher, I LOVE being instructed.  It’s nice to not have to ‘think’ or speak or ‘give’; to be able concentrate on my own practice.  But equally as frankly, it depends on who’s instructing, more than the style of yoga being taught, and I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that it’s hard to ditch the teacher hat altogether and be 100% student.  In most cases, I’d say it’s about 50/50.  In this particular case, it probably came out at about 80/20.  More on that later.

It’s hard to refrain from judging the teaching of others, particularly if what they’re doing goes against the principles of your own training.  If someone instructs ardha shalabhasana with the right leg first, I’m likely to think, ‘nah carn, dude, you’re not following the proper direction of intestinal peristalsis in the colon!!’ I think that’s natural.  I don’t try to deny myself these judgements.  I’ve accepted I’m not going to be the Dalai Lama or Jesus Christ any time soon.  But I do try to go away and contemplate whether my appraisals are valid or a biased product of my own indoctrination.  I also try to consider some facts, beyond ideology.

In the vinyasa class, it wasn’t the colon that grabbed my teachery disapproval but an adjustment.  In the tradition in which I trained (Satyananda Yoga), teachers don’t physically adjust students in asanas.  In fact, the purest method requires teachers to sit down at the front of the class and fully instruct the session verbally, without even demonstrating postures (although teachers may have a sidekick demonstrate one or two asanas for clarification).  The reasoning behind this is that it allows the student to become deeply internalised in their own practice, rather than focussing on watching the teacher all the time.  It helps to place the student inside their own experience.  It makes the teacher ‘conduit’, rather than ‘star performer’.  It’s also an effective method for keeping students safe and for ‘listening’ to the needs of the students – due to the consistent observation.  I do demonstrate in my classes, as do a lot of other Satyananda teachers I know (the traditional methods are relaxed somewhat in the outside world).  But we do not touch people in Satyananda Yoga.  And I like it.  I’ll tell you why.

First and foremost, I’m not a physiotherapist.  I’m not an osteopath.  I’m not a chiropractor.  I’m not a Doctor.  I’m not adequately trained to manipulate parts of people’s bodies.  We often go too far in the positions we verbally guide students to achieve, let alone getting up and attempting to push bodies deeper with ‘alignments’.  I’m not saying I have no anatomical knowledge at all – I’ve got a decent amount.  But touching and manipulating bodies is a whole nother field of education.  It deserves a degree of reverence.

This aside, adjusting students without fully knowing their physical histories is fraught with risk.  Teachers don’t always check for past or existing injuries, and even if they do, there’s a lot that students keep secret.   I remember a story my friend, Tina (also a yoga teacher), told me.  She was in a yoga class as a student, in a modified trikonasana to support a recent hip injury, when the teacher came and effectively ‘wrenched’ her deeper into the position without any warning at all.  ‘I’ve got a hip injury!’ she yelped at him.  He actually worsened her injury.  The teacher laughed it off. 

No, mate.  No laughing.  Not funny.  Dickhead behaviour.

If one wants to avoid being a dickhead, one might try this:  ASK A STUDENT IF YOU MAY ADJUST THEM BEFORE YOU TOUCH THEM.  Follow this by asking if there’s any injury.  Then consider the notion that a student might say yes you may adjust, regardless of wanting the adjustment, out of a need to demonstrate compliance – because you are in a perceived position of authority, because the student wishes to please you, because they don’t wish to feel embarrassed in a class full of people by saying no, or because they trust your judgement above their own.

Secondly, we don’t know the psychological histories of our students but we could hazard a guess, given the therapeutic benefits of yoga, that there could people in our classes who are using yoga as a treatment for trauma-related stress.  Physical adjustments are not trauma-sensitive.  Forms of unsolicited touch (and even solicited touch) can be highly triggering.  Emerson and Hopper (2011) make some poignant observations around this is their excellent book, ‘Overcoming Trauma through Yoga’.  An inclusive yoga environment respects that there will be students for whom adjusting is both insensitive and inappropriate.  The same goes for verbally pushing students into positions of discomfort and challenging them to ‘endure’.  Think about it, from the point of view of a student who has been forced to endure any number of psychological and/or physical violations.  Cultivating this way of thinking is not the right approach for trauma-effected people.

If we’re feeling defensive around our right to adjust, it’s worth doing some Googling around adjustment injuries.  They exist. In significant enough magnitude to explore the questions:

Do we REALLY need to adjust? And ‘why?’

Is a student at risk of hurting themselves?  Ok.  Can we move them out of danger by adjusting them verbally?  For example:

‘I’m noticing your knee joint getting a little bit of pressure in that position, can you draw your weight back/straighten your leg a little/align your knee with your ankle?’

or

‘I’m a bit concerned about your lower back at that angle, can you roll your top hip open a little bit?’

Or even guiding the student into a self-managed adjustment by asking the question, ‘Are you feeling any strain or pain in any parts of your body in that posture?’ 

or

‘Can you see your hand in that posture?  If you can see your hand it might mean that the shoulder isn’t rotating enough.  Maybe try resting the arm down by the side instead?’

Why not give the student a chance to locate the error and adjust themselves by guiding them to visual cues and to sensation?  Who’s to say that a clearly expressed verbal instruction can’t be just as poignant (if not more-so) than a physical adjustment?  And it empowers the student.  It gives them complete control over their own experience.

If the student is in all sorts of pretzel trouble and just not getting the instruction, how about…

‘Can you come up out of that position for a moment?  I just want to clarify the correct alignment.  Watch me’ – and then have the student (or better still, all the students) watch you demonstrate.  Even better, demonstrate the practice in stages and encourage students to avoid pushing past limitations.  Emphasise that yoga is not about ‘mastering’ postures.  It’s not about being pushed past your limits. It’s about being AWARE.  It’s about setting an intention towards SATTWA, where the student has opportunities to explore the balance between not trying and all and trying way too hard.  It’s up to the student to define these parameters for themselves, not for us to push and pull them into position or to promote an expectation.

This AWARENESS that we preach to students must extend to us as teachers, also – which brings me back to the Vinyasa class and the incident that spawned the whole chain reaction in my brain you see here.

The teacher had instructed Supta Udarakarshanasana (sleeping abdominal pose) with the knees and feet together.  When I came into the position, I adjusted by crossing my top leg over.  I had a lot of lower back tension, so I just independently modified the position slightly to give my body what it asked for in that moment.  Not long after, I felt the teacher’s hands on my legs, drawing them back to the initial position.  Why?

‘Thanks.  The other stretch is better for me today,’ I said.

‘What’s the injury?’ she asks.

‘No injury, I just want to stretch out the lower back.’

‘Why do you NEED to stretch anything?’ she asked me with a gur-ific half-smile that suggested she was teaching me something profound about my ego in that moment – let go of your needs, young padwan, let go of your desires, raga and dwesha and all that.

I wish I’d had the foresight to ask her why she needed me not to take the stretch, why she needed to come and adjust me out of a minor modification?  Was she attached to me having a particular experience?  Was she attached to her sequencing?  Did she observe I was experienced and wish to establish dominance?  Who knows?  But it didn’t feel right. There was a smugness lurking.  Maybe I should’ve sung ‘let it be’ to her.  That’s the teacher in me, desiring to teach her, the way she desired to teach me. 

What I came to conclude from all this is that the least appropriate adjustment, in my opinion, is the adjustment made from the ego of the teacher.  The adjustment that says, ‘I’m in charge here’ or ‘I’m the expert’ or ‘I need to show you something about yourself’.  So, I modified a spinal twist?  Calm your tits, lady!  I’ll come to my own conclusions, in my own time.  Or I won’t.

I realise I sound obstinate.  Like someone who can’t be instructed.  But I’m self-deprecating enough to be honest with myself, and it’s really not that.  It’s because her actions run contrary to how I teach and to how I understand myself as a yoga teacher and to how I relate to my own students.  And dogdammit, I think I’m right.  I’m man enough to own this arrogance outright.

I have a student who comes to my class and practices the whole session about a minute behind everyone else.  Do I care?  Not one whit.  She likes to marinate a bit more in the postures.  Who am I to tell her not to?  Were she doing headstand gymnastics up the wall and distracting everybody else from their practice, ok, I might step in and teacher things up, but she’s not.  I’m offering her the practices and she’s directing her own practice.  It’s obvious she is experienced, she’s not hurting herself, no harm, no foul.

When I see a student safely modifying their asana practice to suit themselves like this – self-managing their practice – I think ‘hooray!’  I respect it.  I encourage it.  Yes!  They ‘get it’!  They are doing YOGA.  They understand above all else, that they are their own teachers.  And I understand, in that moment, that I’m not the ‘expert’; that I don’t need to enforce my will onto students by adjusting them (without warning, without explanation) to fulfil some expectation I have for their practice.  I don’t need to reinforce my power or my status as all-knowing ‘teacher’.  My status is the same as theirs – we’re all yoga practitioners.  I ain’t no guru and have no desire to be so.  You want to cross your leg over in a spinal twist?  You want to go slowly?  You want to lie on the floor for an hour and do sweet nothing?  That’s your business, kid.

Having said that, if a student specifically asks for a physical adjustment, then I will oblige to the extent that I feel qualified.  I will try the verbal/visual methods first though, every time.  Valid?  I conclude so, for all the reasons set out above.  You don’t have to agree.  If you have been trained in your tradition to make adjustments, then you may have a plethora of ideas about why adjusting is aweballs and should be done.  Some of them might be entirely valid.  Some of them might be programming.  If we’re all practicing Swadhyaya (self-study), we’ll come to our own truths around it and absorb those truths into our own teaching principles.   Essentially, what I’m promoting is an adjustment process that is thoughtful and sensitive and that comes from knowledge, skill and higher wisdom, rather than from the ‘I = teacher’ identity or from the closed mind of tradition.

Just so you know though, if you do come up and adjust me without warning in a class and without justification, I will be secretly judging you behind my closed eyes… just so you know… hey.

© The Yoga Experiment, 2014

 

The Merudandasana Challenge – Before & After (+ weeks 5 & 6)

Hello McFlys.  Guess what? – Mission ACCOMPLISHED!!

I hope you are as excited about my Before and After shots as I am.  This improvement came from 6 weeks of regular, graded practice targeting hip flexibility and core strength (3 times per week).  Now, the focus is on maintenance (a good, targeted hip stretch around 3 times a week).

There is monumental satisfaction (with a smidgeon of smugness) that comes from setting a goal, committing to the process, and achieving progress.  Of course, strictly yogically-speaking, we aim not to attach too much to outcomes – but well… to challenge the logic, that’s an attachment to an outcome in itself.  So, with that in mind…

LOOK WHAT I MADE IN MY BODY! {runs around like kermit waving arms in the air}.  

Everybody can PROGRESS their practice, regardless of age and ability.  Have a go yer mugs.  Take a before and after shot and send it to me!  Then we can all relish in your glory.

 

Image

Image

If you’d like to jump on board the Merudandasana Challenge, you can find Weeks 1-4 home pracs in my last two blogs.  Click here for Weeks 5 & 6.

(c) Copyright The Yoga Experiment, 2014

 

 

 

Progressing Merudandasana (Weeks 3 & 4) + some Anatomy stuff

Better late than never…

Well, we’re into weeks 3 and 4 of our Yoga Pilates Merudandasana challenge in class.  I’ve penned a new home practice for the next two weeks (resplendent with my rudimentary stick figures) which involves progressing our practice a little further.  The first two weeks focussed largely on preparation, and now we are moving into some stronger work.  The home practices are aimed at a beginner level but any student, at any level, can use and benefit from these sequences.

I thought, this time, we might explore some of the anatomical components of Merudandasana.  As with any yoga posture, a whole universe of anatomical workings marry to create movement and maintain stillness and stability.  Muscles and joints work together to flex, extend, stabilise, contract, lengthen, abduct, rotate the various parts of the body to create the big picture.  

Knowing what the body is doing, which bones, joints and muscles are working and how, is a great way of deepening body awareness.  When we know how to isolate and activate the different muscles of the body within an asana, not only do we become way more aware of how we’re moving, we change the whole landscape of the posture.  Anatomical knowledge assists us to work both optimally and safely.  A tweak of a buttock muscle here and there, or the targeted activation of the core, can mean the difference between performing an asana correctly or doing something that puts load on the wrong muscles and joints, and creates injury and imbalances in the body.

I’m using myself as a guinea pig with Merudandasana to highlight some of the key anatomical hot-spots in the pose.  I’m showing you my Week 1 ‘before’ shot. So, the cat’s out of the bag – I am developing merudandasana in my own practice.  It’s old news – my hips need a lot of work!!

Image

Those hips are very tight!! We’d hope to see some progress in external hip rotation and abduction, as well as straightening of the legs by the end of the challenge.

 

Image

Main target areas – strength in upper back, hip flexors and belly; flexibility in hamstrings and hips.

So, let’s have a look first at the aspect of STRENGTHENING within Merudandasana. 

You’ll see in the picture that my back is very straight – though the legs and hips aren’t quite there yet, the spine and upper body are doing well.  The muscles holding the spine in this position are the spinal extensors (the muscles that run vertically along the length of the back).  Where spinal extensors are weak, the lumbar spine will round in the final position and the balance will suffer (you could expect to roll back).  There will also likely be pain in the lumbar spine.  In home practice 1, ardha shalabhasana (half locust pose) was used to develop strength in the spinal extensors.  In home practice 2, sarpasana (snake) picks up where ardha shalabhasana left off, getting a nice, deep isometric hold into the muscles of the spine.

Notice in the picture, that my shoulders are drawn down away from the ears – I’m making mindful use of my upper back muscles here, especially the muscles between the shoulder blades (trapezius, rhomboids).  When these muscles are weak, the upper spine and shoulders tend to round (kyphosis).  These muscles need to be strong in order to draw the shoulders open.  My tip for making the most of these muscles is to ‘draw’ a ‘V’ shape with the muscles between the shoulder blades, drawing them in and down towards the centre of the mid-back.  Activating through the pectoralis minor and serratus anterior, at the front of the shoulder at armpit level and down through the sides of the body below the armpits, respectively, adds even more strength to the position of the spine.  If you can locate them – use them! 

Image

Drawing the shoulder blades into a ‘V’

Back bending asanas such as sarpasana will facilitate upper back strengthening further by stretching the pectoral muscles across the front of the chest and shoulders (flexibility comes into play).  If these muscles are tight (as happens with our habitually slumped computer buzzard postures), the shoulders will be resistant to opening.  No amount of back strengthening is going to open those shoulders if the pectorals are clenched in rigor mortis.  It’s a collaboration between the muscle groups.  As one muscle shortens, another yields.

Speaking of collaboration, I’d be a dum-dum if I left out the importance of the abdominal muscles here.  Activating the core is a powerful necessity in this pose.  Again, if the core is switched off, other muscles are going to get involved in the action to compensate, and it’s not going to feel great (hip flexors and lower back, in particular, can suffer here).

When I refer to ‘core’, I’m not referring to the ‘six-pack’, no siree.  Rectus abdominus looks great in a bikini or speedos but it’s actually doing very little to truly stabilise the spine.  To develop TRUE core strength, we need to access our ‘internal six-pack’ or what we call in Pilates, the ‘corset’ (transversus abdominus, multifidis, internal obliques, diaphragm and pelvic floor).  This collection of muscles is known as the ‘powerhouse’.  You sort these babies out and you’re gonna have a very happy postural life, not to mention kick some big macho man arse at the gym (coz, let’s face it, who doesn’t want to be able to out-crunch gym junkies?).

So how do we locate this magical corset?  Well, think about your typical abdominal crunch (sit-up), or even do a few, for the sake of experimentation.  Most of us push OUT on the belly muscles when we perform a sit-up (targeting the rectus abdominus).  The key is to DRAW THE BELLY IN AND UP as opposed to this pushing out.  Before you even make a move, ‘zip up’ through the pelvic floor and into the belly as if zipping up a pair of jeans.  When you get to the upper abdomen (around the lower sternum area), draw the rib cage in slightly.  Try it, sitting in your chair.  Congratulations, you have just effectively stabilised your spine.  It is the secret to postural health and you just got it for free!!  (Don’t clap, just throw money).

If you try holding this corset contraction, you may notice that the breath can’t flow into the belly.  It’s gonna need to flow up a bit higher, into the side of the ribs, or lower part of the chest.  This technique is known as ‘lateral breathing’.  It is essential to keeping the deep abdominals engaged.  If you notice the breath has moved into the belly, that’s a sure sign that the core has switched off.  If struggling with the breathing technique, just relax, take your mind of it for awhile, come back to it, tug the belly in and see if you can let the breath take care of itself – if you maintain that contraction, it will.

Image

‘Lateral Breathing’ – breath expands and contracts through the side of the lower rib cage.

Pada Sanchalasana (cycling), Poorwa Halasana (preliminary plough) and Rock ‘n Roll abs target the core in the second home practice.  Remember to breathe!!  And if you have any heart troubles, I should probably emphasise here that this challenge isn’t a good one for you right now…sorry L.  If you want to work to full steam, challenge yourself further with the rock n roll abs by rocking up into a balance on the tailbone.  Otherwise, keep it comfortable, rock up to soles of the feet on the floor.

The final strengthening hot-spot worth mentioning, is the hip flexors (iliopsoas).  Hip flexors do what their name suggests – flex the hip!  In Merudandasana, activation of these muscles across the front of the hip assists the legs to elevate and the hips to rotate externally.  Pada Sanchalasana, Leg Drops and Poorwa Halasana are the practices of choice this time around – the trick is to consciously activate through the hip flexors in raising the legs.

Now, to the elephant in the room.  Yep, lookee there – my legs ain’t straight.  Boooooooo… rotten tomatoes hurled from the gallery.

In order to progress to full posture, I need to do some LENGTHENING first and foremost in the hamstrings and hips.  Any forward bend will facilitate this process.  In the home practice I’ve included a simple leg drop from lying (or ‘supine’ if you enjoy fancy language) as a dynamic and static hamstring stretch.  I hold the final stretch for a minimum of one minute (exercise science says thirty seconds is enough but the longer the better).  Using a strap (or neck tie a la strap) placed around the soles of the feet can facilitate the stretch, especially when the hamstrings are particularly tight and there’s a lot of bend in the leg. 

Some extra levels of anatomical awareness I work with here are: keeping the knees a little ‘soft’ rather than pushed to full extension (protects the knee joints and protects against strain in the surrounding muscles); breathing ‘into’ the muscles down the back of the legs and mentally softening; drawing the toes in a wee bit closer every few exhalations to extend the stretch. 

Parvatasana aka Mountain aka Downward Dog then lead us into a deeper stretching down the back of the legs, into the buttocks (gluteals) and lower back.

It’s also clear that the rotation of my hips is a little restricted – indicated by the width of the leg span.   I need to gnaw away at the inner thigh muscles here (medial hamstrings) and further into the inner gluteals (bum).  A held abducted poorwa halasana stretch will target the medial hamstrings while pigeon will give the piriformis and associated muscles some much needed lovin’.

Image

Hip and Hamstring flexibility hot-spots (what you can’t see in the photo – inner thigh).

So!  There you have it.  A little bit of anatomical geekery to help you (and me) on your (my) way to Merudandasana.

See you next time when we amp up the flexibility components of the practice!  Oh, and here is the home practice sheet…

Image

© The Yoga Experiment, 2014

The 6 week Merudandasana Challenge

Hello Peoples,

It’s been awhile.  It’s so good to connect with you and kick off a new year feeling newly inspired!

My 2014 teaching year starts with a yoga asana challenge for my yoga pilates students.  I thought I would share the home practices with you, in case you would like to jump on board?  For optimum results, practice this three times a week (according to the exercise science, strengthening will work once a week but flexibility needs a little more attention).  While my students get the in-class demonstration of all the poses, if you’re doing this from a distance, feel free to ask me any questions on those practices you’re unfamiliar with, or Google is a great friend too.  Please note: full merudandasana is not suitable for people with sciatica, high blood pressure, heart conditions or slipped disc.

If you are joining us – PLEASE take a BEFORE photo after your first session in full merudandasana, so you can take another photo at the end of the 6 weeks and glory in your progress!!  You can start this challenge AT ANY LEVEL – you will progess no matter your starting point.  Watch it unfold!  (I will be posting my own before and after shots at the end of the challenge because I, myself, cannot do the full merudandasana (hamstrings and hips need work!)).  

Excited?  Yes!  A goal is always a great motivator and all the groundwork has been done for you here and you get it all for free!  Feel free to share if you have friends who might be interested!

Merudandasana (Spinal Column Pose) is purported to: tone the abdominal organs, especially the liver (for the wine/beer lovers among us…); strengthen the abdominal muscles (goodbye paunch!); stimulate intestinal peristalsis (ergo, helps you poo efficiently); strengthen and realign the spine (no more buzzard posture!); remove tiredness from the legs; strengthen the knees; and balance the entire nervous system.  Good Lord!  Why wouldn’t you have a go?

Image

Image

Keep your eyes peeled for Home Practices 2 & 3, which will progress the intensity levels and introduce new practices.  If you want a PDF of the home practice, shoot me an email and I’ll send you one.

Love to all.  Have fun!

Jen xx

(c) Copyright The Yoga Experiment, 2014.

p.s. As a teacher, feel free to use this home prac as a class plan.

 

Bad Platitude

So. I’m putting it on the table: these happy hippy dippy everybody hug and be peace-loving platitudes that stain my facebook wall ad-infinitum (and ad-nauseum) are starting to make me feel a bit like hitting myself hard on the head with a stainless steel ladle (why ladle? One of the great mysteries).

Nah carn people, can I PLEASE just have ONE DAY when I’m not being moralised at about HOW TO BEHAVE PERFECTLY?

Today alone, it’s been suggested by a ‘multitude of platitude’ that I really should be striving to:

BE HAPPY SO THAT WHEN OTHERS LOOK AT ME THEY FEEL HAPPY TOO.

ALWAYS BE KIND BECAUSE EVERYONE IS FIGHTING A BATTLE.

COMMIT MY DAY TO LOVE, JOY, PEACE, PATIENCE, KINDESS, GOODNESS, FAITHFULNESS, GENTLENESS, AND SELF CONTROL (I think this list is a little too short, don’t you?)

BE IN THE PRESENT MOMENT.

BE QUIET SO I CAN LISTEN AND HEAR WHATEVER IT IS I’M MEANT TO BE HEARING.

ACT ACCORDING TO: RIGHT VIEW, RIGHT THOUGHT, RIGHT SPEECH, RIGHT INTENTION, RIGHT ACTION, RIGHT EFFORT, RIGHT CONCENTRATION, RIGHT MINDFULNESS.

Newsflash: I don’t know about you, but I’M A HUMAN BEING.

Where I come from (namely, earth), human beings are a messy tapestry of body bits and pieces, electrical impulses, chemical reactions, neural pathways, thoughts, senses, emotions, behaviours, and possibly, spirity bits (yet to be confirmed). Human beings are not ROBOTS. We FEEL stuff. We might not WANT to FEEL stuff. And that WANT might be a big motivator for us to seek out ways of getting past our feelings. Who doesn’t want to transcend suffering? Nobody. But who can? Very few. If any. Really. There’s a lot of talk about it. There’s a lot of self-aggrandising around it. But if you’re feeling defensive about what I’ve said right there, sorry to break it, you’re not quite there yet. If you’re not feeling defensive around it, you’re either (a) Buddha, (b) having a good day, (c) a sociopath, or (d) a self-acknowledged human.

WHY do we relentlessly pursue this need to transcend our human qualities? Why do we always have to behave or strive to behave ‘perfectly’ (whatever perfect means)? Why does the world have to always be peaceful? Why do we NEED it to be? Is it possible we’re frightened? And that this fear expresses in a need to convince ourselves and others to strive towards idealistic ways of thinking and behaving because that helps us feel safe? Is our incessant platitude-ing really just a mirror to our own discomfort with imperfection? I put it to you, the jury, that this striving for perfection in behaviour is, in fact, counter-productive. Why? BECAUSE IT’S NOT REAL. AND! It’s an attachment. Like any other. And it leads us to REJECT parts of ourselves as if they’re NOT REALLY parts of ourselves. And that opens a door to a world of pain in itself.

What if the real truth is – we have to suffer? That’s life? What if all these platitudes simply express… a resistance to suffering?

Another Newsflash: We ALL have dark parts (if it pleases you to label things as ‘light’ and ‘dark’).

Some of the most toxic and destructive people I’ve come across in my life are those who cannot ‘see’ their own ‘darkness’. Theoretically, you could surmise they’re trapped in what Freud refers to as ‘the super-ego’ – the moralistic part of the self that feels that if it doesn’t adhere to the highest moral standards, then it is ‘bad’ (you are a ‘bad person’). It’s that voice inside our minds that says we should always ‘be nice’, we should ‘never get angry’, we must always ‘be loving’, we should always ‘do everything for the highest good’. It is the programming of our society, our parents, our religion, our culture, our FEAR, that lives inside our heads and does everything in its power to control our behaviour, even if it creates dissonance in our emotions. Super-ego is the internal critical parent that tries to control the child – at any cost. When we’re dominated by the super-ego, we do anything to maintain the image of our self as a ‘good person’. Anything that threatens this self-image is pushed away, pushed down, repressed (any feelings or actions of anger, or jealousy, or hate, or shame, or sadness, or ingratitude) because ‘being good’ is connected deeply, and primally, to our survival. Repression is the ego’s defence against that terrifying fear that we might be ‘bad’ – that we might be ‘rejected’ for being so. It’s ugly. It hurts. Make it go away.

But repressed darkness doesn’t go away. It sneaks out covertly, insidiously, in behaviours that harm but that are never resolved. If you’ve ever been beaten up by passive aggression (the communication of choice for repressed darkness), you will know that it can be far more damaging than overt aggression. At least in-your-face aggression is undeniable. It’s there, it’s in front of you, it can be named. It’s not something confusing and hateful that lurks beneath a veil of denial and can never be directly dealt with. If someone can’t be angry (but they are), how is that dealt with? It’s not. Let’s all just smile and hold hands and throw around a few glib platitudes. That’ll sort things out.

So when I see these endless platitudes about being ‘good’, the first thing I think, after ‘groooaaaaannnnn’, is ‘oh hello, there’s the super-ego.’ Super-ego ain’t gonna let me feel sad today. Super-ego ain’t gonna let me feel angry. Super-ego wants me to paint over my darkness coz super-ego is scared of being less than perfect. Super-ego ain’t got no self-acceptance. Super-ego needs to make the world ok so super-ego can feel safe. Super-ego needs everything to be happy and peaceful and love-filled and calm. Super-ego ain’t comfortable with this messy world. Super-ego don’t ever want to suffer and don’t ever want to die. Super-ego don’t wanna be human.

Feeling angry, being mean, not always being ‘good’ or ‘happy’ or ‘peaceful’ creates suffering and that’s the reasoning behind why we ‘should’ try to reverse these things, if not for others then for ourselves (or for a higher spiritual purpose or karma, if that floats your boat) – I get it. But I put it to you, that if we released the pressure we put on ourselves (and others) to never feel angry, to never be mean, to never, essentially, give expression to our HUMAN EMOTIONS, there’d be a lot less anger, meanness, bad behaviour and suffering all ‘round and a lot more friggen peace and joy! For one, I wouldn’t feel like hitting myself in the head with a ladle.

When we remove the shame from being less than perfect, there’s nothing to repress. Acknowledging the human parts of ourselves = self-accepting. If we HAVE or NEED to transcend, we haven’t accepted.

So, I’ve decided, in protest, to write my own platitude and foist in upon you and it goes a little sumfin like this:

TODAY YOU ARE ALLOWED TO BE HUMAN.

Enjoy it while you can.

© The Yoga Experiment, 2013

Relief: a feeling of reassurance and relaxation following release from anxiety or distress.

If you ever want to know what your ego looks like, try relief teaching. Since moving back to my home town and leaving the comfort of my own yoga business behind, I’ve been taking lots of relief classes in order to get a foot in the door of my local yoga industry. It’s been a wonderful opportunity, don’t get me wrong. But wow. I’ve had to learn pretty quickly, the art of taking nothing personally. Thing is – students love their teachers. When they walk into the yoga studio, they want to be greeted by the comfort of their beloved teacher. Not this strange sasquatch whose gonna turn their routine upside down and do… WEIRD stuff they’re not accustomed to (not that I’m hairy – they just look at me as if they’ve never seen something like me before).

It’s hard to walk into a relief job and not feel as if you should apologise somehow. ‘Sorry guys, you’ve got me today. I know it sucks. Try to bear with me.’

Sounds paranoid, right? Let me paint you a picture using REAL experiences I’ve had.

Students start filing into the yoga studio, see me there on my mat, ready to take their class. Not their usual teacher. An infiltrator, no less.

‘Is Pete not here today?’ I’m asked with a tone impregnated with barely-concealed disappointment.

‘Not unless he had a sex change,’ I respond (not really, just one of those crackers hindsight provides you with some hours later.)

Most students are ok with it. But there’s always one – at least one – whose face shrivels up like a fermented prune and who maintains the same expression of distaste throughout the entire class. Always that one who likes to slam the nail in your coffin by very deliberately packing up their stuff and stomping irately from the room ten minutes early while everyone else is still lying on the floor in shavasana. They’ve tolerated as much of you as they can. Messaged received, loud and clear. I’m Satan.

Actually, I got off lightly with this one, compared with my teaching friend Sara, who, during a relief class had a student walk into the room, see Sara there, and then sigh loudly and walk straight back out again, not even bothering to take the class.

Where do these rude people come from? Brat camp?

When you’re relieving, your mission becomes to find a way of building rapport and trust in a very short space of time. Often, you’re pushing shit uphill because reality is, you’re NOT really wanted. Somebody else is. And that’s ok – it isn’t really personal. Yet, still you somehow feel as if you’re threatening to wilfully infect people with pustulous warts, such are some of the responses to your presence.

One day, I turned up at a gym class to relieve my teaching friend Vicky, who has been taking this very well established class for years. It’s a seniors’ class. I love teaching seniors. They’re good fun. Before I make it into the yoga room, one student informs me that they’ll be ‘testing’ me today. It’s said with a Cheshire grin. The teeth are smiling but the eyes don’t quite match the face. I’m looking into the eyes of a snake. I force a nervous titter. The eyes narrow while the smile remains fixed.

It’s a big room. I decide to use a microphone so I don’t have to YELL AT EVERYBODY TO RELAX AND BREATHE. I feel a hushed grumble swell, like a covert Mexican wave, around the room. The microphone is not the norm. Who is this young upstart? This is not how we do things around here.

Tentatively, I begin. Tentative being my second mistake.

As we prepare for one-legged prayer pose, I give the students the option to (a) use a partner, (b) use the wall, or (c) go it alone.

‘Just tell us what to do!!’ comes a shout from a disgruntled older gent who clearly finds options confusing. They’re accustomed to working as partners. My options are disturbing their equilibrium.

Around the 45 minute mark, wouldn’t you know it? – the microphone starts farting intermittently at loud decibels. Oh great. I’m failing the test AGAIN. I persevere. If I ignore it, maybe it isn’t really happening. This tactic works for about ten minutes… until the farts get so loud and frequent they threaten to perforate the collective eardrum. So, I surrender, turn the dastardly thing off, and remove it from my being. I commence yelling.

‘Can hear you better WITHOUT the microphone!!’ comes the smug heckle from another gent at the back of the room. Murmurs of agreement flitter around the room.

Why has God forsaken me?

I have a very clear thought, at this point, about what I could do with said microphone. It’s lucky said gent isn’t in downward dog, if you get my drift. Instead, in a desperate attempt to appease them, I publicly vow not to use the microphone next time. I have acquiesced. Lost control of the mothership. And they can smell it.

Finally the torture… I mean class, finishes. I’ve sweated my ring out. But not from exertion. Just from the mental picture of 30-odd seniors in lycra charging me with pitchforks.

But it’s not over yet. As I’m packing up, other students approach me to tell me they heard me better WITH the microphone. Oh good lord. I have another 4 weeks of relieving this class. How will I resolve this dilemma? To microphone or to not microphone? How on earth am I going to keep these people happy? Maybe I can have cosmetic surgery and come back next week looking exactly like Vicky? If I was Vicky they’d let me use the microphone.

A female student then approaches (these students are like terminators, they never die).

‘Excuse me, but can you give us more yoga poses next time?’ she requests, ‘we like yoga poses.’

I’m not sure what she thought I’d been giving them but there wasn’t a pose in the sequence that wasn’t yoga. When she mentioned the word ‘Warrior’, it clicked. They wanted the mainstream classics.

‘We don’t like all that lying on the floor stuff,’ she says, ‘I thought it better that you knew. Everyone’s talking about it outside but no one else wants to say it to you.’

I thank her for her feedback. I have no fight left in me. I head home, eat a block of Lindt, and kid myself it doesn’t bother me.

Next relief class is Pilates. I’m working in a studio I haven’t worked in before – a really popular one. Before I begin the class, a student asks me if I can turn the fans on – it’s a little stuffy. I approach what looks like a switchboard of buttons designed for flying some kind of high-tech space rocket thingy and attempt to find the controls for the fans. I turn a few knobs. The fans kick into gear.

Another lady enters the room. She’s cold. Can I turn the fans down? I go back to the star trek motherboard and fiddle a few more knobs. I do my best. But really, I’m clueless. However, it’s time to start and I don’t have time to find someone to show me the ropes. We sit for opening settling and as compensation, I offer cold lady (who is cold in more ways than one) a blanket to wrap around herself. She poo-poos me away with swat of her hand and that prune-face expression (what is it with the fermented prune?). I figure we’ll get warm enough soon, with all the heating core work.

Class commences. I keep her in my peripheral vision. She’s not taking any instruction, instead doing her own sequence of postures. I leave her to her own devices. What am I going to do? Wrestle her to the ground? (tempting).

Class goes what I think is SWIMMINGLY. Everybody seems to have enjoyed it. From my end it’s flowed successfully. And then… (cue terminator music)…

Cold lady calls me over and embarks on a five minute tirade about the fans. There’s no attempt at a Cheshire smile this time, just an icy hatred seeping from her pores as she fires verbal abuse seemingly intended to psychologically burn every last ounce of skin from my body. I attempt to interject with an apology. In fact, I apologise to her no less than three times and try to explain that I’m new to the room. But she’s not interested in sorry. It dawns on me that she just wants to punish me because I’m not her beloved teacher. When I finally decide I’ve had enough and walk away, I notice that she heads out to complain about me to the staff. I don’t even imagine what she’s saying. I don’t really care. I confess, I only wished it was my yoga school so I could politely, yet firmly, instruct her never to bring her toxic self back. Ahimsa? That is for the super-human, not for the lowly relief teacher.

Here’s the lovely ending to my story.

I went back to that seniors’ class the second week, ambivalent about how to approach the lesson. Microphone? No microphone? Warrior? No Warrior? And here’s how it played out.

I decided:

I’m not anybody else, I’m Jen.

I’m not going to TRY to be anybody else, I’m just going to be Jen.

I’m going to trust in Jen that she knows what she is doing; that she doesn’t need the approval or acceptance of anybody else; that she can accept feedback and modify her class plans to accommodate students’ needs without compromising her own style, knowledge and expertise.

And so, I did. I walked into that gym class. I picked up the microphone. I turned it on. I explained to students that it made sense to me, in a room this size, with this many people, to use a microphone. I suggested that if hearing was not a student’s forte, they could come down to the front of the room. I began the class. I started with a standing sequence of classical yoga postures, including warriors and other well-known mainstream poses. I challenged them, rather than treating them with kid gloves. When it came to the balance, I instructed them to try it solo, with modifications for those who might struggle. I saw a sea of beautiful one-legged prayer poses before me, and expressions of surprise from students who had previously relied on supports. The class flowed. There was nary a heckle within earshot or a fermented prune in sight. I stood firm and grounded within myself. I did what I know how to do. I wasn’t Vicky. I didn’t try to be Vicky. I just be-ed Jen, in all her Jennish glory – whatever that is.

End of class? Thank yous from students. Polite and positive feedback. A full class again the next week. A comment at the close of class from my oldest student: ‘You’re a very good teacher,’ she said, ‘You’re not Vicky – but you’re as good as Vicky. Just different.’

© The Yoga Experiment, 2013