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2018 In Hindsight

If 2017 was a year of travel for me, then 2018 was the year of writing about my various journeys across the landscapes for learning, inside and out.

Much of what I have written in my life is based on observation and reflection about learning—my own, or others’, as well as learning in the broadest sense.

Sometimes I share my “professional” learning with others publicly as I did when I published The Graphic Novel Classroom (Corwin Press, 2011) for educators. Most times I don’t share my “personal” learning that I’ve been recording almost daily in paper-bound journals over the last two and one half decades. A hybrid of both professional and personal writing is this blog and the soon-to- be-completed Classic Wisdom for the Modern Human Self Study Guide. 

In hindsight, I am glad I have consistently written about my life both professionally and personally because I can revisit my history and see its value, especially in terms of learning. I can see how far I have come and how I have grown. I can see “mistakes” and “wrong” turns that were responsible for such growth and now inform my future direction. I know where some of the potholes are and am better at avoiding them. As Louise May Alcott wrote, “I am less afraid because I am learning how to steer my ship.”

Because I have recorded my learning in writing, I can see the personal strength and flexibility I’ve built over time through the trial and error process and this motivates and inspires me to keep struggling forward. It reminds me that the current pain will be worth the health, integrity, and satisfaction of my future self.

I can rely on myself in the future as a result of my attention to the work of being me in the past, and for taking on the responsibility for knowing who I am. Without self-study, without writing about my learning experiences throughout my life, I’d be useless to others, unable to connect with them, serve, or teach.

By looking back on my personally recorded history, I can have faith that life will happen for me exactly as it should because it always has, and that I don’t need to try to force things to happen or control the future. I can see how my attempts at control merely postponed acceptance of truth. I can also stay more open to the mysteries that will inevitably unfold (like a flower petal blooming) and cultivate an attitude of curiosity about the unknown– the potential that will actualize– instead of being afraid of it or resisting it. Surrender is powerful.

I have also learned that my current pain and suffering, whatever it may be whether self-induced anxiety or from external “accidents” beyond my control, shall pass, as these always have and always will. I have the stories of my past, in writing, as proof of the truths of what it means to be human and what it means to be specifically and uniquely me.

If I continue to approach all of my experiences as opportunities to learn, to observe my life as it unfolds organically, then I can enjoy it, be grateful and appreciative, and use what I have already learned to continue to be healthy, secure, and well and help others do the same.

I am not a Pollyanna nor am I wearing rose-colored glasses.

It’s not that everything works out the way I want it to or that everything always turns out well; it’s not that I don’t make the same mistakes twice (or more). It’s simply that, for me, using writing for reflection has been an incredibly useful tool for becoming more wise over time and more well. And as I keep becoming more of who I am, well, it just so happens that that’s the meaning and joy of my one, short, precious life. If I am reflective and continually witness the unfolding of my true self, and accept that truth, especially when it’s difficult, I can love my life even more and resist its discomforts less!

As I age and become even more experienced, more keenly reflective, and more honest in my writing, the more alive and robust I feel, yet at the same time, I feel less rigid, less anxious, and more humble about all there is still yet to be discovered. I continue to see how much I really don’t know. Now, at almost 50, I am surely not the same person as I was at 40 or 20. Who will I be at 60 or 80?

My life, as I record it through writing, has taught me that a sense of security is not the same thing as permanence, and trying to control and cling to safety is not the way to live well. Just because my life has been constant change, that the world is constantly changing (faster and faster most recently), it doesn’t mean I am not secure and safe. The one thing that has remained consistent is the entity called “me”– the experiencer, this reflective, evolving being who writes. Writing has been a critical tool for my self-knowledge. And knowing myself better is foundational for my good health and wellbeing.

I write to articulate my life to myself, not as self indulgence, not as self-obsessive or selfish, but as self-care, as therapy. I also can share who I am with others, if I choose, certainly not to give prescriptive advice about how to be or do life (I don’t recommend anyone be like me! and I don’t have the answers for you!) but to let others know they aren’t alone on this journey of figuring out how to become a person (Rogers). I can share my struggles and successes with others, but like any diet or recipe, what “works” for me may not apply to others’ unique constitutions. We are all so specific which is why we have to understand ourselves as well as possible to apply the exact prescriptions for our individual selves.

The Classic Wisdom for the Modern Human Self Study Guide is my newest way of publicly sharing my learning from a life of writing, teaching, and yoga practice. I outline a few insights, practices, and techniques I have learned along my travels, both professionally and personally, on the outer and inner landscapes of life, to help me be wiser and more well.

These insights, practices, and techniques are not a secret, nor are they original. They’ve been in the toolbox of humanity for a very long time. They are recorded in the literature and history of the ages, rooted in the wisdom traditions from both East and West. I’ve discovered them, applied and tested them over time, and found they work very well for a meaningful trek to knowing oneself in our modern world. I hope you discover that they can work for you as well, in your own way, to meet your own individual and unique needs to know who you are and express that truth.

I hope next year when I reflect in writing about 2019 that I will be able to report that the personal learning I chose to share publicly in the form of the Classic Wisdom for the Modern Human Self Study Guide has helped propel my life and others’ lives in the direction it’s meant to go. I trust that it will.

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It’s Not About the Grades: Landscapes for Learning Beyond Schooling

The heart of my story, “It’s Not About the Grades: Landscapes for Learning Beyond Schooling” is about living with integrity, authentically, as the true me who I was born to be. It’s about how my essential nature was co-opted by society’s values of competition and comparison. It’s about my long journey of loss and recovery. It’s about living from my soul, from love, from the inside-out, not from the outside-in in order to please the world and its egocentric values (Plotkin). It’s about my story being common, maybe a little too familiar.

“Doing You” is the best and most efficient and effective way to truly serve others. When you know who you are, you can understand how to take care of yourself. It’s an ongoing process of awakening and awareness. You are your own best teacher for life across the landscapes that are here for your trials and errors, transformation, and transcendence– your learning.

If we look at our life experiences as opportunities for learning, we are empowered rather than victims.  Ironically, by exposing ourselves and being vulnerable and afraid we become courageous, strong, and flexible. We learn and change and grow. And that is who we are– constant change, growth, becoming, like a flower-petal blooming (Choudhury). Beneath that gorgeous blossom is all of the hard work of waking up–the mud: the practice of brutal honesty required, the struggle, the doubt, the resistance, and the failure that is intrinsic to the beautiful reality of being human and being truly alive,flourishing. What is flourishing? It’s meaning, purpose, passion, and vitality. No mud, no lotus (Hahn).

My story is unique, but not unusual. I see lots of others traveling the same path I was on– unaware, disconnected from their core self, and not knowing how or where they might find the tools to awaken and live truthfully, despite appearing “normal” and “successful.”  The details differ but the journey is the same. I see that we are educating and raising kids the same way I was raised–to the detriment of the true self and the unnecessary suffering that results from such disconnection.

Teachers (including parents), by explicitly promoting approaching life as a learner, not just an academic achieverwill provide kids with a more complete education–one of character not just career, wisdom not just knowledge and information, in order to live, love, and appreciate (gratefully) each moment– the present moment, instead of focusing so much on what kids are going to be “when they grow up”. Kids need to be here, now (Ram Dass). We all do.

I wish I had such an education earlier in my life, awoken to this truth about building the courage to stay connected to my essential self and gaining the tools to practice living my truth.

I wish someone told me there was this thing–” truth,” that existed within my inner landscape waiting as potential to be actualized and that it was my responsibility to “do the real me” instead of merely copying models or crafting myself into something valid and legitimate in the estimation and judgement of others.

I wish I had a warning that I would suffer because I am human, and then also be taught that to lean into, explore, and learn from that suffering would be the exact antidote to the type of worse suffering that would persist if I ran away– which I did and so many of us do without even realizing it.

Is learning by direct experience about one’s own human nature and character too spiritual? Is becoming authentic, truthful, and true the humanities education for the 21st century we need to quell the postmodern relativism that prevails?

We should encourage students to trust teachers less and trust themselves more.

We should guide them to go inward to travel their inner landscape, beyond the eyes and judgment of schooling, to see clearly their pure essence which is love, allow it to unfold as their witness, and then stay out of the way of such unfolding. Instead, we interfere with narrow expectations and an obsession with grades, measurement, comparison, and competition. We co-opt authentic learning with too much schooling.

We should not steal their suffering, but rather show them how suffering is done better so they can suffer less or at least not unnecessarily.

We should educate them such that unconditional love of oneself is the norm rather than the exception.

We should teach them more yoga.

References

Dass, Ram. Be Here Now. (1971).

Choudhury, Bikram. Bikram Yoga Teacher Dialogue. (2002).

Hahn, Thich Naht. No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering. (2014).

Plotkin, Bill. Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World. (2007).

Definitions

Self-realization (Wikipedia, Merriam Webster’s Dictionary)

Self-realization is an expression used in Western psychologyphilosophy, and spirituality; and in Indian religions. In the Western, psychological understanding it may be defined as the “fulfillment by oneself of the possibilities of one’s character or personality.” In the Indian understanding, Self-realization is liberating knowledge of the true Self, either as the permanent undying Atman, or as the absence (sunyata) of such a permanent Self.

Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines self-realization as: Fulfillment by oneself of the possibilities of one’s character or personality.In the Western world “self-realization” has gained great popularity. Influential in this popularity were psycho-analysis, humanistic psychology, the growing acquaintance with Eastern religions, and the growing popularity of Western esotericism.

In Hinduism, self-realization (atma-jnana or atmabodha) is knowledge of the true self beyond both delusion and identification with material phenomena. It refers to self-identification and not mere ego identification

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Podcast 013: It’s Not About the Grades: INTRODUCTION

It’s Not About the Grades: Love for Learning Beyond Schooling is very close to completion, so I am recording a reading of a few chapters for feedback, as a faster way of getting “peer review” before I write proposals for publishing the final manuscript.

INTRODUCTION 

Download Episode HERE

I would LOVE your input, insight, constructive criticism and HONEST feedback to improve this manuscript draft. And, of course, please share with teachers, parents, yogis, friends on your social network so I can get lots of good input! I would appreciate it!

I am days away from putting the final touches on the manuscript and readying it for readers for review. Enjoy (I hope!)

 

 

 

 

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Podcast 011: Teri Almquist

 

“Every student deserves a good teacher,

every teacher deserves the opportunity to be a great teacher” 

-Teri Almquist

 

 

Building an inner connection with yourself isn’t easy. This union, or yoga, is hard work. It’s about  trust–first in a teacher when you don’t yet know how to trust yourself and you are overwhelmed by pain, fear, or self-doubt, and then little by little you begin to believe in yourself, then you begin to trust yourself, then you have genuine faith in yourself. You become stronger and more flexible, more balanced through this process. Your teacher is your trusted witness on your unique journey into your inner landscape. It’s important that every student has a good teacher and that every teacher has the opportunity to become a great teacher.

This enormously important teacher-student relationship built on trust can be transformative, life-changing. Teri’s first teacher, Diane Duscharme believed in her and supported her from the very first moment she entered the yoga studio with a badly injured neck and a pack a day smoking habit, and since then Teri has been paying her transformation forward– first by becoming a Bikram Yoga Teacher, then opening her own studio, and now providing continuing education for Bikram yoga teachers around the world.

A Bikram yoga class is an opportunity to focus in the mirror and concentrate on oneself– to travel one’s inner landscape. It’s practicing over and over again, consistently, in order to learn more about oneself.  It’s a chance to find that quiet space within us where our truest, most loving self lives— that place from which we can learn how to mindfully respond to life and all its challenges. It’s a landscape for learning.

Please enjoy my conversation with Teri Almquist, “Like” the podcast on iTunes, and feel free to comment!  You can find Teri and her work using the links below:

The Toolbox: Tools for Teaching Bikram Yoga by Teri Almquist available HERE (Amazon)

Visit Teri’s Studio at Bikram Yoga Merrimack Valley, North Andover, Massachusetts at https://www.bikramyogamv.com/

For more information about teaching seminars, webinars, and professional development visit: https://www.teachfromlove.yoga/

Webinars for teaching yoga at http://webinars.teachfromlove.yoga/

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Podcast w/ Myozen Joan Amaral on Zen, Zazen, Practice and Social Life

“The best way is to understand yourself, and then you will understand everything.

So when you try hard to make your own way, you will help others, and you will be helped by others.

Before you make your own way you cannot help anyone, and no one can help you.”

Shunryu Suzuki

 

 

Myozen Joan Amaral moved to the Boston area in 2012 from the San Francisco Zen Center to serve as guiding teacher for the Zen Center North Shore. She is delightful, funny, a ray of light, and a calming force to be around. There’s a positive and loving attractiveness about her that, as she says at the end of the podcast, impacts others more than anything she could say using words. As a Zen priest living back out in the world, her primary focus is on the dynamic relationship between formal meditation practice and everyday, messy human life.

JoanAmaral

I met Joan years ago when I went on a World Religions class field trip to the Zen Center and again when she was invited to implement a meditation program for students and teachers at the school where I worked as a high school humanities teacher.

In this podcast, Joan talks with me about the interplay of the inner landscape and life on the outer landscape in terms of zazen and the precepts of Zen Buddhism. She talks about the Zen Center and her role as Priest within the local community and individual mindful meditation practice as well as its relationship to community, activism, and social justice.  We also talk about the definition of mindfulness and how it is popularly perceived as a tool for stress reduction, how it’s been limited in some ways because of such perceptions and definition, and the possible barriers to its acceptance as a valued practice in a school setting.

Influencing the world and serving others is intimately tied to individual practice, and honing one’s practice is a form of social activism benefitting not only the practitioner but all else.

Interested in inviting Joan to your school or local organization? Feel free to contact her at the Zen Center!

For more about the North Shore Zen Center:
https://zencenternorthshore.org/

For more information about Zen Buddhism:
http://www.zen-buddhism.net/

*A Meta-reflection on this post:
I am continuing to hone my podcast interviewing skills, which based on this conversation still need lots of work. This podcasting experience is showing where I have gaps in my understanding (which means I am still learning, so I am happy about that!) and that I have to continue to listen more. My god, I can talk! I am also still very uncomfortable with hearing my own voice and remaining positive about this endeavour. Frankly, it all still makes me cringe. Oh, and also, I am still learning to edit and publish effectively using Audacity which is a frustrating sound editor indeed, as I have been unable to save some projects after several hours of work. I wanted to be tested, and that is surely happening.

I learn a lot about the way I communicate from podcasting– how I listen or fail to, and I also learn about my own understanding and misunderstanding when I am able to re-listen to the conversations and edit them before publishing. This is an excellent way to learn about your own thinking and communication of ideas. I am a work in progress!

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Learning is Life

 

“To see young people come alive is the reward of teaching”

—Joseph Cambell

According to Joseph Cambell, famed author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), Myths to Live by (1972), and The Hero’s Journey (1990),  the goal of maturity is to know oneself —to understand the inner landscape– to be the hero of one’s own life. He says in this brief clip (below) from his famed interview with Bill Moyers:

the influence of a vital person, vitalizes. There’s no doubt about it… he says, people have the notion of saving the world by shifting it around and changing the rules…No…to bring [the world] alive is to find in your own case where your life is and be alive yourself….[and so] in saving yourself you save the world.

Teachers (this can be any of us, not just school teachers) have to focus more on helping young people find their life. We can teach them what it is to be alive and vital. It’s less about making them knowledgeable about the external world or outer landscapes, and more about making them knowledgeable about the world within each one of them.

 

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Podcast: Meet World Traveling Yoga Teacher, Changu Changezi

003: Podcast with Changu Changezi

Changu Changezi is an ordinary guy with an inspiring story about learning and landscapes. He is a traveling Bikram yoga teacher who lives his life with integrity, authenticity, and an unshakeable sense of self.

He has been traveling the world teaching Bikram yoga for the past four years, approaching learning with an open heart and an open mind all along his journey.

Whether meditating, practicing or teaching yoga, biking across Canada for charity, being bullied as a young boy in Pakistan, coming unglued from his chair in the corporate world, or dancing,  Changu sees the beauty in everything– every experience, every person he meets, good and bad. Trusting the process of life as ever-unfolding allows him to live deeply connected to himself, others, and the world around him. Ever grateful for all of his life-long learning, Changu consistently lives and speaks his truth.

Our conversation about landscapes for learning includes Changu’s immigration to Canada, transformation, compassion, integrity, Bikram Yoga Teacher Training, world travel, “trusting the process,” teaching, yoga, faith, and more.

Changu and I will chat again in the future, delving more deeply into his traveling and teaching adventures, so enjoy his first podcast and come back for another!

Please check out Changu’s Facebook pages, Tulandandasana Everywhere and Humans of Bikram Yoga for stunning photos from Changu’s yoga postures on gorgeous landscapes around the world and inspirational stories about individual transformation resulting from the practice of Bikram Yoga. 

Watch this incredibly beautiful slow-motion video of Changu below….and his balancing stick poses from around the world!

 

External Links:

https://www.facebook.com/tuladandasanaeverywhere/

https://www.facebook.com/bikramyogaeverywhere/

 

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Podcast: Grace Tempany, Multi-potentialite and teacher-extraordinaire

Grace and I discuss our desire to begin a conversation about teaching as moral and teaching with courage and integrity. We discuss the need for more authentic forms of teaching and learning in school, so that kids can embark on their individual journeys toward the self rather than just trying to find the right answer for an A on a test or college admission. Enjoy!

Check out Grace’s wonderful work at GraceTempany.com 

 

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Tough-Love Lessons of Bikram Yoga

“We students (and future teachers) needed to learn how to be “unknowing,” to embrace beginner’s mind, become skilled followers; we were being asked to suspend our authoritarian ways of thinking to become humble, open, and flexible enough to learn about yoga postures and anatomy and mostly ourselves. How can you understand others or help them (as a teacher) if you don’t understand or help yourself?”

disciplinefreedom

I love the idea of less.  Less isn’t so much about ridding oneself of problematic hoarding of cars, jewelry, furniture, houses, companies.  To me, it’s more about how I use my energy and channel the good and evil within. It’s about temperance: self-restraint and discipline, with a generous dose of compassion. You might also think about it as moderation or balance. Sometimes gaining more balance in life requires less– less resistance, less control, fewer expectations and lies, and less rigidity.

The idea of less occurred to me, as ideas so often do, when I was teaching yoga. In this particular class, three people practiced: One giant man who I hadn’t seen in class in a long while, one “regular” practitioner, and one other slightly crazy woman who always practices with sunglasses on in the back corner of the room and does everything but the postures I am teaching. As usual, an interesting combination of fellow humans from whom I learned four lessons.

Lesson 1: About Assumptions and Expectations…  

Expectations suck more than usual when they are based on unwarranted assumptions. It appeared to me that the students seem to believe that I expected them to go above and beyond in their practice because I had them in clear view. I believe they felt like they were “center stage” or “on the spot” because it was just the three of them and me. This was a not a class where they could feel comfortable “hiding” in the back, out of their teacher’s view. When people think they are being watched, judged, or held accountable for their actions, they seem to step up their “honest” effort.  (Yes, I made this assumption based on experience and instinct.)

However, I did not place any expectations on these people whatsoever. I assumed they would come into the room, set up their mats, and do their yoga. I assumed they would not try to kill me or charge the podium or tackle me or anything else irrational or uncharacteristic within that particular environment. (Again, assumptions based on a pattern of typical experience.)

Whatever perceived expectations they thought I had of them are the ones they came up with on their own. They likely made assumptions based on the conditions that evening, in that location, and made their own decisions to act according to the expectations they then set for themselves. (Does anyone else think about these things, or is it just me?) But, if I was a betting girl, I would put my money on the fact that none of these people even thought consciously about the expectations they put on themselves. I bet it happened out of habit.  And, let it be noted that I have absolutely no proof whatsoever that any of them had the expectations of themselves that I am ASSUMING they created and tried to meet. (Are you sufficiently confused?) But this, I think, is usual human interaction, eh? Each of us continually making assumptions, some warranted and some perhaps not, and setting expectations, usually unrealistic or unnecessary ones. (See The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz) When I observe, I learn.

plato

Lesson 2: About the Ego…

Excessive demands of the ego cause unnecessary suffering.  This is home grown suffering. It differs from suffering caused by unexpected, external events. We create our own suffering—unnecessarily, ALL. THE. TIME. I cannot speak beyond my own limited realm of experience and observation, but the problems we cause usually seem to be “first-world problems” that are completely irrelevant and unimportant in the global scheme of life.

Self-talk that literally causes unnecessary stress in your body (not the “good stress” of moving muscles and exertion) goes something like this:

I am so disappointed in myself/angry with myself/hate myself because I couldn’t kick my leg forward in Standing Head to Knee pose. When will my fat fucking ass ever be able to do this? My mother always told me I’d never amount to anything. And while I am on the subject, I hate my mother for never encouraging me or loving me unconditionally. I should just leave/quit/give up, because nobody will love me since I am so negative and I have abandonment issues. Nice attitude! God, I am so selfish! There are people with real problems in the world and here I am complaining in a yoga room. But the world sucks too and I didn’t cause poverty or violence or anything else, so why should I even care? I have my own problems, and everyone will die anyway, so what is the point?

Seem exaggerated? It’s not. It’s irrational, sure, but this is an example of real, internal dialogue for MANY PEOPLE. Negative. Judgmental. Critical. Cynical. Tyrannical!

Because we have been conditioned to shoot for MORE than perhaps we are capable of, and because we run up against limits and our ego doesn’t like that, we suffer. We, or the ego, always want more and more and more rather than valuing, loving, appreciating, and being grateful for what it already has or is. Chill the fuck out; you’re doing fine with all your limitations and you are loved whether you kick your leg our or not. If you didn’t have limits, you’d be God. You’re human, stop whining, and deal with it.

masterymindandbody

Lesson 3: About Being a Follower…

Is it such a bad thing to be a follower? And why don’t people just do what they are told? When I went to yoga training, Bikram told us to shut off our minds and just do what we were told. Some people reacted with fright to the thought of not being in control. Not being in charge. Not being the authority. Not trying to figure everything out. Not questioning nor analyzing.  Not drawing conclusions and/or critically judging or evaluating. Can you imagine? Aren’t these the things we naturally do by default? Or are they so conditioned within us that they seem natural? The people who could not do what they were told, who couldn’t be a good follower to learn, struggled through the entire 9 week training because they couldn’t turn themselves over or “trust the process.” Some people left training. Some railed and wailed and blamed Bikram for being an asshole. They struggled with letting go of control. The “shutting off the mind” was meant to be a reprieve (and relief) from always having to be in charge; it was time off from thinking, and planning, and plotting, and reminiscing, and worrying. 

We students (and future teachers) needed to learn how to be “unknowing” students, embrace beginner’s mind, become skilled followers; we were being asked to suspend our authoritarian ways of thinking to become humble, open, and flexible enough to learn some things about yoga postures and anatomy and mostly learn about ourselves. How can you understand others or help them (as a teacher) if you don’t understand or help yourself? Try the right way, the hard way, and get 100% benefit. 

The dialogue we learn to deliver in class commands students to, very precisely, do what they are told, yet they often refuse. Sometimes it may be the result of confusion, poor listening skills, or lack of concentration, but often times it’s about flat-out unwillingness and resistance; not letting go of control out of fear. The woman wearing sunglasses in the back of the room in my class wants to do what she wants to do– not the postures. They make her feel uncomfortable; she doesn’t like being uncomfortable (or for whatever other reasons) and she refuses to compromise. It feels better to her to leave her foot on the inside of her thigh rather than up on her hip. She bends her upper body in a circular motion rather than up to the ceiling and side to side as she is told. Perhaps she is closed, inflexible, ideological, and arrogant. She is rigid and clings to her own safety. She refuses to let go or to trust. She is afraid to lose control. She won’t bloom like a flower petal, and she is missing out on finding her truth. This is where tough love comes in (and what many critics of the Bikram method reject).

discipline-is-doing-what-you-know-needs-to-be-done-even-if-you-dont-want-to-do-it-quote-1

Perhaps the yoga teachers who refuse to say the dialogue as Bikram intended it do the same thing as that woman in the back of the room. They don’t like being told what to do or how to do. They think they know better. It’s more comfortable doing it their way rather than doing as they are told. Why is it so difficult for people to be honest and to trust? 

I know all of this seems slightly ironic: we inculcate students in school when they are children to do as they are told. Then we unschool them by teaching them to question authority and think for themselves. Don’t follow blindly, but blindly is the distinction. People should not follow without some understanding of what they are following or whom and why. I intended to learn how to teach yoga with the authority of that particular yoga system, Bikram Choudhury. I made a conscious, well-considered decision and choice to turn myself over to his direction. When you sign up for a Bikram yoga class as a student, you make the decision to do BIKRAM yoga- not some other form! You come into the room with a yoga mat and towel and you do as you are told. You follow the very precise commands given. You trust the process. If you don’t, you aren’t doing the yoga. Then, when you insist on doing things your way, maybe you hurt yourself and blame Bikram yoga and call it bullshit yoga.

As one of my favorite, seasoned teachers likes to say, “Bikram yoga is like a robbery. Do what I say and nobody gets hurt!”

AND THAT IS THE YOGA: doing what you are told. Sorry, but that’s tough love. Your teachers are here to make you better, not make you worse– to make you stronger and more flexible, not just in the body, but also in the mind.

Your ego wants you to be comfortable. You want the fans on. You want to avoid suffering. Welcome to the club. But you don’t always get what you want, and as a continually maturing human being—- you need to accept that truth and learn more effectively how to deal with it. (The Rolling Stones really did have it right, after all.) 

stones

If you are brave enough to struggle with all of this, one day you will discover that your ego went from being invisible to you, to visible. You see its existence and the power it holds; then you learn how to manage it– find out how, and when, and why it is useful and positive, and in alignment with your spirit and when it is not; when it is counterproductive, causes suffering, pain, and when it is the culprit of your misery and  discontent. You don’t ignore your ego– you identify it’s desires and you manage it in ways that don’t add additional suffering to your life or the life of others. That’s another reason we tell you to look at yourself in the mirror. Don’t move. Don’t even blink your eyes.

Lesson 4: About Flexibility….

Flexibility is a valuable commodity and something our world desperately needs right now.  A flexible rather than fixed mindset is helpful in preventing you from becoming so entrenched in your own perspective that you risk becoming a dangerous ideologue who is willing to destroy others to defend your views. A flexible mindset helps you listen with genuine attention and interest in learning more than what you think you already know. (There’s always more to learn). Oh, and here you were thinking this was about your body. Well, yes –when you regain full range of motion in your joints, or maintain the full range you already have, your body is more flexible too. People are not separately minds or bodies; these aspects of ourselves are intricately fused; they are inseparable. Yoga is becoming more flexible, in body and in mind. So stop fighting and start stretching.

now or later discipline

Yoga is an interesting state of being because the objective of the practice really isn’t about the posture– the object is you, and you are also the subject. Think about how simple this is: you move your body into a pose to the degree that you are honestly able (and only to that degree) and you hold still and breathe. That’s all. You come face to face with your limitations and you breathe. Simple, yet people love to make it (yoga and life) complicated. Why?  Because everything I have written here about the ego and the unwillingness to do as one is directed, flexible mindset, and assumptions and expectations are inherent in the human condition. Clearly, we wrestle with these things because the three people I taught in class the other night exhibited some sort of conflict with every single one of them.

Yoga is hard. Being a human being is a challenge, but what’s the alternative? Run away? Lay on the couch and cry, or blame life itself, the universe, for being unfair? Drown your sorrows and suffering in fleeting, unhealthy pleasures? Eat candy and play video games? Watch porn, hang out with others who do the same to justify your own degenerate and weak behavior? Or show up with an open mind and heart (and ears to listen), do exactly what your told, the best you are able– to your limits whatever they may be, and breathe within a loving environment among others who are trying to be the best they can be too.  Have faith that you will be better, stronger, more flexible, and good by honest effort, trying the right way, and not giving up– that’s the ultimate destination. 

aristotle

Observing those three students was my yoga, my opportunity to learn some great lessons that evening, and these students were excellent teachers. That’s why we, in Bikram yoga, refer to our instructions as a “dialogue.” It’s not just about the asanas, after all.

Namaste.

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The Pain and Hurt of Yoga

One fine morning after teaching a Bikram yoga class, a student charged out into the lobby to ask me why I used the word “pain” and “hurt” repeatedly throughout class with regard to the postures.  She clearly didn’t like it.

You know how sometimes some people begin an oncoming verbal attack with a seemingly polite question? You know, they’re “just curious” about something? This was one of those times. I wasn’t surprised by the question as much as I was shocked by her obvious fury, though I shouldn’t have been, as I have dealt with similar people and complaints in my job as a high school teacher.

“…push your head back until your neck hurts a little bit…”

“…you’re back is going to hurt don’t be scared…”

“…creating a tremendous stretching feeling, pain sensation…”

“…your back is supposed to hurt…”

“…elbows are supposed to hurt…”

“…make sure your back hurt…”

“…make sure your shoulders hurt…”

“…neck might hurt a little bit…”

Clearly, she wanted to engage me in an argument. She wanted justice done — for me to eliminate saying the words “pain” and “hurt,” as she believed the terms were misleading at best and flat out wrong at worst; to be telling people they should feel pain during a yoga posture seemed heretical to her. The notion of feeling pain, hurt, or any sort of discomfort seemed counter to her notions about yoga as healing and serene, among her other perhaps stereotypical perceptions about yoga practice— you know, namaste and all that shit.

This interaction presented me with a wonderful opportunity to think about the role of pain and hurt in the process of yoga practice, and more generally, to life and learning. Such thinking has led me to articulate for myself what makes my life as a teacher meaningful.

I don’t recall providing her with a fully articulated response at the time, but upon reflection, this is what I would have liked to have said. The first answer about pain comes from B.K.S. Iyengar who writes in Light on Life:

“…pain is an unavoidable part of asana practice…The pain is there as a teacher, because life is filled with pain. In the struggle alone, there is knowledge. Only when there is pain will you see the light. Pain is your guru. As we experience pleasures happily, we must also learn not to lose our happiness when pain comes. As we see good in pleasure, we should learn to see good in pain. Learn to find comfort even in discomfort. We must not try to run from the pain but to move through and beyond it. This is the cultivation of tenacity and perseverance, which is a spiritual attitude toward yoga. This is also the spiritual attitude toward life. Just as the ethical codes of yoga purify our actions in the world, the asanas and pranayama purify our inner world. We use these practices to help us learn to bear and overcome the inevitable pains and afflictions of life.”  (Iyengar, 871-877)

Iyengar’s words suggest that we remain humble and curious, respectful toward pain, as it is our teacher, our guru. This takes discipline and practice to learn, to get better at, to master, so the repeated reminders about “hurt” and “pain” within the Bikram yoga dialogue seem not only merely warranted or justified but appropriate and absolutely necessary.

Perhaps some yoga teachers will disagree with me (or Iyengar) on this point about pain, and that’s to be expected, but as a high school teacher, I have additional experience with resistance to such assertions.

I have many students and parents (and ,occasionally, other educators) who, like the questioning woman in my yoga class, object quite vociferously to the appropriate and necessary pain involved in the learning process that typically results from failure not only to learn but to achieve desired grades (and, by the way, yes, there’s a very important distinction between the two- a post for another day.)

The pain my students might experience and the variety of suffering they learn to cope with and manage in my classroom is healthy and paramount to their success and authentic growth as human beings, just as it is among the yogis within the asanas in the hot room. However, in today’s cultural climate of “everybody is a winner!” and “snowflake” parenting, such proclamations about pain are considered subversive.

People don’t like pain. They run from it, avoid it, and believe everyone else does the same which justifies such behavior and group think. Nevertheless, as a yogi who has developed an unconventional relationship with pain, I often seem to walk on thin ice, as my attitudes and approach to teaching and learning run counter to local cultural norms and expectations. I do not encourage risk-aversion, and that makes people uncomfortable– which is the point and the thing to practice.  

Adherence to the notion that real learning involves pain and sometimes hurt and a little to a lot of suffering is grounded in what it means to be human. I know this to be true through study of human nature and as witness to the amazing success of my colleagues over many years teaching and being a student of great teachers myself. This boldness and bravery is what enables me to be a perennial learner and therefore to walk the walk,  as teacher, without becoming completely discouraged. Such an attitude and disposition is exactly what is required to be effective within the institution of education today– that is, to get people to actually learn about themselves and their own humanity rather than merely achieve high grades or other unrelated objectives that have become fashionable. 

I am with Iyengar, all the way, on pain being the guru, whether it comes to learning math, writing, chemistry, dealing with romantic breakups, social phobias or anxiety, or whatever other dragons people or potential heroes may need to slay in their individual lives. No true growth and change happen without the presence of pain. The sooner you change your mind about it and make friends with it, the better. 

Living out the belief about teaching and learning as painful is difficult, as I am sure many teachers can understand. It would be easier to eliminate the words from the yoga dialogue to appease that woman and anyone else like her, or tell my students’ parents what they want to hear about their child, or inflate a grade to avoid problems with a supervisor. I have to defend my practical philosophy with steadfastness, on a regular basis, and that takes rationality, discipline, energy, and confidence; I am consistently making critical judgments and trusting my gut about when to spare the rod, apply tough love, or witness additional struggling of students. I am always trying to figure out whether to listen or speak, jump in and help, or allow the person to flounder and suffer more to reach their ultimate destination. Sometimes teaching is like sitting next to a terminally ill person and watching them die— because, in fact, sometimes people have to burn up and destroy themselves altogether before they can put themselves back together or be reborn. It’s painful to do, and painful to watch. 

It’s physically and emotionally challenging to be a part of so many people’s pain-filled journeys each day, over the course of many years, in the classroom and in the yoga studio. There’s a lot of energy that a teacher both gives and receives from collections of students each day, each class. There’s a lot of resistance. But, just like our students, we continue to engage with our own pain, learn how to resist it less, and try to be the model of learning our students need. 

Setting limits that cause a student to “hurt a little bit,” like saying no as a parent, or rejecting one good cause to enact a great and far more beneficial cause is something for which teachers need understanding. They don’t necessarily need your blessing or agreement, but fewer obstacles and objections would be nice, so they can continue to “be there” for students, to remain present as the steady witness to the learner on their unique, individual journey. Empathy is all. Suffering, as best we can, together is compassion.

Explaining this process to teenagers (and their parents and other staff) who struggle with the notion of the inevitable pain and hurt of learning— stewarding them through their “school yoga” is an enormous challenge, but one I still believe is worth taking on, even though on many days, the resistance to this process seems overwhelming. 

Life is a series of continual states of brief comfort alternating with disruption, disorientation, and discomfort, yes, including pain and hurt. We are constantly mapping out our lives, and re-mapping when obstacles arise, as they inevitably will. In this constant tooling and re-tooling process, theorizing, or what others have called mental masturbation, does nothing to prepare you for the real, practical challenges you will face in your life.

So the yoga practice? the life learning? Yes, it has to hurt a little bit, it has to be real, it has to be acted out, and even cause a “pain sensation,” because “tremendous stretching” hurts, whether you like it or not, think it’s unfair or not. Bikram’s dialogue is precise and accurate, carefully construed. Eliminating the words of “pain” or “supposed to hurt” robs students of important learning and the potential for authentic mental physical and spiritual growth.

As Iyengar says, “…the practices of yoga show us how much pain the body can bear and how much affliction the mind can tolerate. Since pain is inevitable, asana is a laboratory in which we discover how to tolerate the pain that cannot be avoided and how to transform the pain that can.”

Gaining such wisdom might hurt a little bit, but there’s no better process to dedicate yourself to than mining your own suffering for meaning and truth. And there is no better profession than teaching to witness such beautiful transformation.

*Bikram Yoga Beginning Yoga Practice, Teacher’s Dialogue

**Iyengar, B.K.S.. Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom (Kindle Locations 877-879). Rodale. Kindle Edition.

 

 

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Turn the Teacher Off!

“I used to confuse and misuse the two kinds of listening, and I bet many other teachers can relate. As a consequence, the people I cared about, who only needed me to be there and not do anything for them, told me to ‘turn the teacher off!'”

Almost every school day for the past thirteen years, I have been successfully and unsuccessfully teaching students how to express themselves through the use of the English language. Among other responsibilities, I am employed to inform teenagers about the concepts and conventions of language use, provide them with strategies to improve their skills, and encourage them to practice. It’s no surprise, after thirteen years of repeatedly listening to people ask for help with their problems, that offering help, solutions, and strategies has become my modus operandi. I love working with people; I am invested in each student; I take my job seriously. And at this point in my career my habits are deeply ingrained. The problem is, I can’t always “turn the teacher off,” outside of the classroom which is something I have been accused of several times by the people I love most. My teacher mode of listening, which is useful in diagnosing and prescribing solutions in order to achieve specific results doesn’t always smoothly transfer to my personal relationships.

In the context of life beyond the classroom (and within the classroom, too!) people often need a different form of listening– a more compassionate form. Most times, people who appear to be asking for solutions to their problems just want to be heard, and perhaps they don’t even realize that is what they are asking for– to be heard.  As the listener and friend, I certainly don’t need to treat them like a student who is struggling with a challenging concept.

teacher help

Conferring with a student about writing, in other words, isn’t the same thing as sitting with someone who’s grieving. The struggle to write (and to learn anything in general) is a painful process, but it isn’t the same kind of suffering as, say, the loss of a loved one or a break-up, or dealing with the pain of infidelity or the discovery of a serious illness. It’s certainly not the same kind of suffering as being wronged or a victim of abuse of injustice. All of this might seem rather obvious if you are reading this and you aren’t a teacher, but I used to confuse and misuse the two kinds of listening, and I bet many other teachers can relate. As a consequence, the people I cared about, who only needed me to be there and not do anything for them, told me to “turn the teacher off!”  I didn’t need to be responsible for diagnosing and prescribing a recipe to address my son’s fight with his best friend. I didn’t need to offer a to do list to help a friend deal with her poor eating habits. I only needed to be present to listen, compassionately, to these most personal struggles and complaints without offering any sort of solution at all. Many times, less is more, which has always been a challenge for me, as I bet it is for others.

After all, teachers don’t act as teachers, we are teachers through in through; it’s the predominant part of our identity. So it becomes very difficult to shut that part of ourselves off, but we can certainly become far more conscious of our tendencies toward constantly feeling responsible for people and their problems, offering practical solutions, or taking charge. We can learn to bite our tongue, “hold our seat,” and offer compassion with merely our presence and attention. We can surely do this with our students as well, when appropriate. The knack is knowing when which sort of listening is called for (or both) and moderating our sometimes knee-jerk reaction of controlling a conversation and actively offering solutions. Just because we exercise our authority and expertise repeatedly with our students day after day doesn’t mean we ought to be the authority in our personal relationships. The modus operandi of teaching in school doesn’t always work “in the real world.”

listen when teacher speaks

More often than not, many people just need to sort through their own problems out loud with someone present, whether it be how to deal with putting their dog down or how to write a conclusion to their essay. Again, less is usually more. When we teachers jump in too soon to “help” the people we care about most, whether it be our students or our spouses, this active form of assistance can take away that person’s independence, self-confidence, and the golden opportunity for them to learn and appreciate the value of compassionate listening. And, really, the best way to learn how to listen at all is simply to be heard. To be on the receiving end of true listening is a gift you can then bestow on others, and as all effective teachers know, modeling is one of the most effective tools in the teacher’s toolbox.

I thought I was a fairly capable listener when I first began teaching, but I have improved the quality of this skill after lots of trial and error with both students and my loved ones who taught me what it means to turn the teacher off; through my own frustration of not feeling heard; through quiet reflection and writing; and through my yoga practice, which is essentially showing up and being present for yourself as well as compassionately listening to what is happening in your body and mind while suffering through postures in an overwhelmingly hot and challenging conditions. In yoga, I learn to get quiet, simply stay with the difficult sensations and thoughts as they happen within, and hold the postures using stillness and conscious breathing. This discipline trains me to better “hold my seat” (and my tongue) with people when they need it most. 

youcandoit

I also learned how to get better at compassionate listening from the example of one very close friend. At first, I judged him as slightly disinterested and incapable of finding good answers and solutions to my problems when he failed to say much. I only realized later that he was not unsure of what to do at all, but was being mindful, empathetic, nonjudgmental, and was providing space for me which allowed me to sort through my own dilemmas safely within the security his presence provided.  That’s love. He knew that’s what I needed, despite my pleading with him for answers— for him to do something! He was there for me.  His conscious and intentional decision not to act, to do less rather than more, was the exact brand of helping I needed in order to feel capable, independent, and strong. Count yourself lucky if you have this sort of teacher in your life!thanks teacher

I think that in this age of accountability in education, a lot of times, we teachers believe that we must always be taking action with our students, that we always must be doing something concrete and practical, for we are observed and evaluated on our performance, as are our students. Many of the yogis I teach also believe the same– that a more visible demonstration of posing is what shows the most progress in their practice, but the art of self-control and presence for oneself is invisible yet far more valuable than any external show of mastery in the asanas. Why do we feel that we are supposed to consistently demonstrate our skills and strategies and that they must all be outwardly visible? Is it because otherwise it appears as if we are doing nothing or we are unproductive which runs counter to our deeply ingrained values?  As many teachers already know, some of the best teaching and learning, like compassionate listening, is entirely invisible; it’s relatively unquantifiable; and it’s found in a consciously chosen “not-doing.” I wish more people knew this.

By failing to turn the teacher off, I have learned that, at times, my mere presence is all that is required, and to show up for people I care about and do less rather than more is sometimes the best kind of teaching.

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Dear Efficient Utilitarian Student,

Dear Efficient Utilitarian Student,

It’s not your fault that you were raised with the great American values of utility and efficiency. These values are enacted and followed by virtually everyone around you– your parents, your school, your government; they’ve been enacted throughout most of American history, especially in the Industrial Revolution, in the world of corporations, and throughout most of modern and contemporary society. And, the invention of the internet along with new information technologies has exponentially accelerated and reinforced these values (and created so much distraction that you have no ability to sit quietly long enough to reflect honestly about values).

It’s not your fault that you have been influenced by these external forces. You never really had a choice. These values, on the surface, are fairly important, but, unfortunately, when these two values become an approach to learning, their effect is devastating. If utility and efficiency are intrinsic to how and why you learn, there’s probably not a whole lot of room for mindfulness or appreciation.

If your goals are expediency and efficiency when it comes to learning something new, whether a concept or a skill, you’ll miss the pleasure of authentic learning, the appreciation of the subtleties of that concept, idea, or skill. If it’s all a hurried process of finding what you can use, you may miss developing an appreciation for language, numbers, angles, the concept of infinity, the way your body works, or F.Scott Fitzgerald’s writing style. Again, not your fault, as we “educators” have invested in this thing called “time on learning.”

What about slowing down to savor all of your learning experiences, even the painful and boring, for no other reason than to remain open to learning itself and to learn for the sake of learning? What about lingering over a piece of art, wrestling with a difficult mathematical concept or skill? You don’t have to “do” anything with these learning experiences except experience them, and they will benefit you regardless of your desire to utilize them in your own pre-planned way. Please, slow down, and just enjoy learning, without expected payback or any added value beyond mere appreciation and present moment awareness. This approach may affect you in unanticipated and sometimes unwanted ways, but it will lead to the best sort of growth.

growth

Think about meeting a new student in your school, a stranger. If that person doesn’t fulfill a social or other goal for you, will you tend to, because of efficiency and utility, ignore that person? If you do actually meet this person and efficiency and utility are at the forefront of your mindset, are you narrowly fixed on only the aspects of this person that will potentially benefit you? Are you contemplating how this person can potentially help you in achieving your individual goals?

Can you consider the possibility of slowly and mindfully taking in everything about this person, thinking about him as a fellow human being who suffers and loves and hopes and wonders and experiences loss and smiles and cries and puts on his socks and shoes everyday, just like you? Can you take the time to focus— to appreciate the details of her face, her eyes and the contours of her cheeks and jaw line? Are you interested in this person as a person, or are you only focused on how useful she may be to you; what he may be utilized for? And, are you dismissing this person too quickly  (using stereotypes) because you can’t waste your time getting to know them beyond a surface introduction? Or are you deeply engaged and intrigued as if your were looking at exquisite art?

student-thinking

Are you, Efficient Utilitarian Student, while in your classes, thinking to yourself:

“Hurry up and get to the point.”

“How can I use this information, this experience, concept, idea, skill to get an A ?”

“Is this going to be on the test?”

“I wish the teacher would just hurry up and tell us what we need to know for the test and forget all the other extra or irrelevant stuff.”

“I hate working in groups with other people because it negatively affects my grade.”

Efficient Utilitarian Student, you are missing so much beauty and joy in your life! You are missing out on how deliciously long a moment can feel and the way life can unfold before you within each and every one of these precious moments! And for this, I apologize. We have steered you wrong for too long. But, it’s not too late!

mountain-flowers2

Now that you are more aware, you might try to approach your learning the way you might walk along the beach and enjoy a sunset, or the way you might climb a mountain and survey those tiny flowers that make you question how they could stay alive so far up amongst nothing but rock, or how you might fish on an enormous lake where the water looks like glass and everything around you is still and quiet.  Live out that sense of wonder, curiosity, openness to experience, where likely the last thing you are focused on is expediency or how any of these experiences, these moments, may be utilized.

If you took the time to read this letter, I hope you found something useful in it.

Sincerely & Apologetically,

Your Teacher