Maybe you’ve heard a teacher remind you to focus on your breath in class. I know as a teacher I say it often. But this week a student asked me a question that made me go deeper. “How do I know if I am stretching the body or doing damage to it?” This gave me great pause, because while I can teach a challenging class, I’d like each student to feel that they have the space to explore themselves beyond my cues. So, in response, I’d like to share some advice given to me many years ago:
There is no one more experienced with your body than you. You are the expert, whether its your first class or 10,000th. In fact, the time you spend on the mat could be the most intimate conversations you’ll ever have. The conversation between you (your mind/heart) and you (your body). The mind requests and demands things of the body daily, but the magic of a Yoga class can be the opportunity to LISTEN to what the body has to say back to you, and the opportunity to OBSERVE the response. The postures are merely a tool to begin this conversation. How you respond to the body will set the tone for the conversation. Is it demanding? Compassionate? Inquisitive? Curious? Only you will know.
If you are not used to listening, the breath is the means of communication. Like you would check the signal on your cell phone, check in with your breath. Long deep fluid breaths suggest your body and mind seem to be present and working together. When the breath wains or holds may suggest that you’ve found an edge; whether it’s worth pursuing is your prerogative.
Here are a few questions to consider in those moments. Do you find yourself avoiding the source of the sensation? Are you just waiting for the teacher to guide you out of it? Do you have the energy to go in and seek to understand? Does directing the breath to the root of physical (or emotional for that matter) intensity dissipate the sensation? Is there a sharpness that does not subside? For the latter, I recommend backing off completely. In my opinion, there is no posture for which sacrificing your body holds value.
As a visualization, I see the breath as a wise teacher extending a guiding hand inviting me to take hold for a precious journey of self-inquiry. Are you willing to take her hand and trust the wisdom of the breath?
I have considered the benefit of asana (yoga postures) for quite some time. I think I have been doing it long enough to see it evolve not only in the Houston community but in my own personal practice. I am so very grateful for the physical practice of yoga, specifically Ashtanga Yoga. I’m not sure I would have been so intrigued without it. However the sustainability of such a rigorous workout was clearly not in the cards for me. Thankfully, in the depths of all the jump backs, jump throughs and sweat, a seed was planted. I giggle a little bit when I think about how I had to wear myself out to hear what the teachers and philosophy were actually saying, which boils down to something like this: It’s not the posture that is the practice, but who you have to be to master it.
I was determined, dedicated, and persistent. When I failed, I was humbled, and met my ego Head-on, and not very gracefully, I may add. Deeper still was more magic; because in those moments when my expectations didn’t meet the reality of my body’s capability, I finally heard my inner dialogue. I was surprised at how cruel I could be. A tone and language that would have compelled me to intervene, had I heard it externally.
How do I begin to change that pattern? Having children helped a great deal in working it out. I watched them try new things and struggle, and for them I was encouraging and supportive. When they were upset with themselves, I showed them compassion. It finally dawned on me years later that it was the key to my own struggle with my inner dialogue. In the space between my expectations and reality, sprinkle compassion and encouragement.
My practice is a far cry from the rigor of Ashtanga yoga, but I feel it’s just as powerful. The functional movement on my mat now is like an investment in my future self. My body feels good, the shoulder and back pain of my early days rarely surface, and my mind and I seem to have found some common ground. The compassion and encouragement I share with others seems more sincere because I have recognized my own struggle. When I see yogis nail a handstand or master a difficult pose and it ends up on social media, I hope they one day look back at the photos without lamenting physical prowess of days past, but to discover the magic behind Adho Mukha Vksasana, which is in its essence, Yoga.
There is a crispness to the air that the calendar has been announcing for weeks. Sweater weather is finally here, and if I am completely honest, I did put some Ugg boots on to keep my feet warm last night. The cooler temperatures are a signal, in a perhaps long forgotten time, to harvest what your crops produced. To take an accounting of your hard work. To examine what techniques brought more bounty and what was less effective.
While the common city dweller doesn’t practice the physical labor of harvesting what he has sown in terms of crops, it doesn’t mean the task doesn’t have merit regarding our hard work of the spring and summer. What I mean is, I tried new things this year. Last spring, I decided to “plant” new classes, relationships and ideas. I cared for and tended to them over the warmer months and some were bountiful, others dwindled.
The cooler weather of the fall signals to nature to start drawing in and to retreat. I can see nature’s work in the falling amber leaves. In this time, I will follow natures lead and harvest the work of the warmer months and take an accounting. I want to examine what worked for me and what will sustain me in the darker, colder days of winter. I want to cull the classes, relationships and ideas which drain my personal reserves and contaminate the rest. I think of this tradition as a practice of personal refinement.
With each year and season becoming more authentically me, I can share those things most valuable in my life with others. As an attempt to refine the essence of who I am to be more effective in what I have chosen to do. I believe it is a never-ending cycle of self-awareness and life examination. My wish for you, in the spirit of autumn, is to slow down and enjoy the bounty of your work. Take a deep cool breath, go outside long enough to feel the power of natures wisdom... and come visit us for a class or workshop, we are offering a bounty of slower practices this season.
Welcome to fall, at least that’s what the calendar says. I am not sure the weather here in Houston has gotten the message yet.
This year I have the privilege of turning fifty, living in an empty nest, and actually following through on a list of plans I have, both personal and professional.
As a child, I thought fifty-year-old adults were ancient. I don’t feel ancient, in fact, I’m not even sure how it got here so fast. What I can say is that there is no substitute for life experience, and I feel incredibly fortunate. This may sound so obvious to my friends that have already passed this marker, but there is a wisdom that comes through living your years. I think it’s the more challenging times that I credit the most. For it’s in those challenging times that I have received some precious gifts.
Competence – because I didn’t know I could until I had to over and over again.
Peace – because there has been extended periods of chaos.
Confidence – because I didn’t know I could until it showed up and I still survived.
Heartbreak – because if there is no opening in the heart, how will the love get in or out?
Vulnerability – because I have less to prove, more to give, and I am okay with heartbreak
So here’s to accepting and allowing what’s to come and appreciating every moment, because if I have gained wisdom in anything, it’s that the moments are fleeting and you never get them back.
Come wish me Happy Birthday with your time and a hug. I’d love to see you at the studio, at any of the events listed below, (just keep scrolling,) or, at YouniverSoul Fest on October 19th.
I plan on celebrating for the rest of the year.
I had the opportunity and great pleasure to see The Rolling Stones this past week. On the set list was this song, a classic for sure: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Sage advice from some individuals that have been together for more than five decades. I’ve always loved this song and the lyrics. At the studio, we even created some t-shirts with this very advice printed on the back.
I’ve thought about it often, studied, and even meditated on this idea. What I have come to know about myself is this: it is always my expectation of an event or a relationship, that when Experienced, falls short of what I “thought” it would be. There is a story line running in my mind about how my life should go, when in fact the only control I have is my behavior and not what may come. I have also found, that I am NEVER lacking for what, in fact, I need. This has taken decades to understand and it’s never easy. Upon reflection of the most difficult times in my life, the times when I suffered most, were also the times that my expectations were the furthest from what actually happened, or as some may say, reality. It was in that gap that I became more fully embodied in who I am. Those moments where there is no choice and no turning back, I was required to struggle and grow, leaving me sometimes proud, sometimes humbled and definitely more human.
As a child, I remember throwing tantrums or pouting because I didn’t get what I wanted. I think there are times when fatigue and weakness take over and I still throw tantrums, but then if I try sometimes, I find I got exactly what I needed.
Ever started cooking a recipe only to find you were missing the pink Himalayan rock salt? The one ingredient that not only added depth to the dish, but an inviting and inspiring color to the garnish. In this moment you make a decision: use the table salt you have in the back of your pantry, go to the corner store and hope for the best version of gourmet salt, or you drive to the specialty store 20 minutes away and risk the entirety of the dish being over-cooked or served way after bedtime. Does it really matter what choice you made? No, not really. But if the intention behind the meal was to savor the complexity of flavors and the art and flare of cooking, maybe the table salt fell short of those expectations. Now if you were just really hungry and needed something in your belly, table salt is the perfect choice.
I bring up this scenario related to food to make a point about purpose and planning. Imagine if days before you decided to cook the meal you sat down, looked at the recipe and made a list of all the ingredients, then went to the store and stocked up. The state in which you prep and cook the meal would be more mindful and perhaps fun and enjoyable because you knew with certainty you had everything you needed to cook and enjoy the meal.
Now to layer this onto something a bit more intangible, the food for your soul. You realize it is time for some yoga. You can tell not because your tummy is grumbling, but because you're a bit on edge and a little irritable, so much so that your family and friends are recommending you take some time for yourself. You acquiesce. You glance at the rectangular oracle (your phone) and find the next conveniently available class without regard to the teacher or format. This will probably get the job done in the time that you have, true. But imagine spending the time once a week to plan for your practice, one that reminds you of the joy of being here and now, despite the obstacles that life can present. With planning, that teacher, friend or class will benefit from!1your energy in being there, time will magically appear in your day because the class is on your calendar, and that fantastic yoga outfit is already in your car. You’ve committed, not only to the class but to your well-being; and those are the kinds of experiences that offer sustenance for the busier, trying times.
Is one better than the other? In my opinion, no. Do what you can and make it practical because if it’s not practical, you won’t do it, and some yoga is better than none.
Try it! Plan for a new class, a new teacher, meet friends, or see a teacher that you haven’t practiced with for a while. Trust me she (he) would love to see you too.
At the start of 2019, I made a promise to myself that I would have as many uncomfortable experiences as I could. That is to say, I would intentionally put myself in situations that were less than warm and fuzzy. Why? Put simply: Fear.
So when the opportunity arose to do a 4-day hike on the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, I figured, why not. I sarcastically joked, "At least if I fall off the mountain, I'll go out in a cool way." But my morbid sense a humor was merely masking a much deep-rooted fear. What appeared as a fear of heights on the surface, I started to realize, was a fear of falling (and failing) from the passions in my life-- the tops of my mountains, so to speak. A deeper layer to that, which the first two days of my hike shed light on, was ultimately the fear of not knowing myself, especially when it came to pain.
As I write this now, alive and back from my journey, I realize that I will be unpacking this experience for years to come. The layers are almost difficult to summarize in words. There is something to be said for using physical exertion to take apart your mind, only to put it back together in an unfamiliar way. Everything I had expected didn't happen, and everything that happened I didn't expect. The main thing-- excruciating knee pain.
Having no knee pain prior to the trip, it was a hard hit to my ego when on Day 1 (the easy day) my knee was visibly swollen and throbbing after only a few hours. My initial reaction was stress, anxiety, fear, and all of the habitual patterns that are ready and waiting when shit hits the fan back home. Looking back, it's no surprise they made their appearance with me in the Andes. But it wasn't a lesson in pain management I needed to learn-- it was mind-framing.
In the first two days, I would stop to elevate my leg and obsess about resting. At a low point, fear had me bawling and contemplating the worst case scenario of continuing. But what did that accomplish? With the help of some wise reminders from my friends, I returned to the purpose of my trip. "Embrace the suck; sit with discomfort. Face fear." That was where the lesson was.
There were a couple of mantras I would recite across the thousands of steps I took on my hike. "No mud, no lotus" reminded me that without sitting in the dark places, we are not able to grow. In those moments where I felt that things were at their worst, "this too shall pass" would assure me that all is temporary, even pain.
So on Day 3 and 4, rather than being limited by the pain, I used it. I found that if I kept moving through it, and didn't stop, I felt the pain less. As I moved, I was more aware of my steps and my breath, and the muscular effort to keep going. The moment I stopped, stillness brought a negative hole of throbbing pain. So I kept moving.
While I wish I could say pain was the only element of challenge on the hike, it was not. My fear of heights joined the party on Day 3, just to be sure I didn't get too cocky about working through my pain. I started to understand that fear is not something you necessarily overcome, at least not right away. You simply get better at handling it. While it can be crippling, fear can also be the largest motivator.
Our fears tend to hide in the shadows, making themselves at home in the confines of the mind. They manifest themselves by quietly influencing our actions and behaviors. Sometimes it takes stepping out of our comfort zones to establish or understand the source of those fears. Perhaps it's a fear of rejection that keeps us from making connections, or a fear of the unknown that keeps us seeking answers. Maybe there's a fear of obscurity or, on the contrary, a fear of being remembered for inadequacy. Suppose the fear of missing out (or FOMO) is masking a fear of scarcity, or the fear of losing control leads us to plan and micromanage others. Then there's the fear of pain and death, which can affect our desire for new experiences.
As counterintuitive as it sounds or feels, the path we avoid, is often the one we need to take. When we stop hiding from fears and embrace what we're afraid of, what are the possibilities? What discoveries could we be opening ourselves up to if we embrace vulnerability and stare our fears in the face? Sure, there may be some discomfort along the way, but on the other side of that is growth. Without the climb, you'll never reach the top of the mountain. And without the descent. you'll never reach the bottom.
When I tried to pinpoint the main lesson or takeaway from the trip, I came up empty-- simply because I am so full of lessons to narrow it down to one. Maybe that's the point though, to stop trying to squeeze an experience into a box. Let it be what it is, appreciate the beauty as you see it, and allow what comes.
- Brittany Pires