Cultivating an at Home Practice

As a yoga instructor people often ask me, “Do you practice everyday?!”.  The simple answer is, yes, I practice yoga everyday.  The more we practice, the more we understand that the awareness we first learn to cultivate in class extends far beyond our mat and way out into every part of our life.  To quote one of my lovely teacher’s Jeanmarie Paolillo, “I practice yoga every minute of every day.”  Some minutes more successfully than others, but that’s why it’s called a “practice”.  For me, the first step towards gaining this understanding was bringing my mat out of the studio and into my home. 

Outside of making the effort to get into a Daily Down Dog much easier, having your mat in the comfort of your living room (or bedroom, or kitchen, or maybe parts of all three of those rooms if you live in New York) opens the door to something much more profound.  In yoga, we call this opportunity svadhyaya, or self study.  Practicing on your own, without the distraction of an instructor’s voice, without other students to compare or compete with, is a much different experience.  For some of us it’s liberating, and for others of us it can actually be quite scary.  Practicing alone means the chatter in our mind might have space to grow louder than normal, the judgment starts to rage, we find ourselves unmotivated without the feeling of the eyes of our teacher or other students on us.  Ahhhhh!  It’s scary!  But if we look through the fear, and turn our own eyes inward we can see the opportunity to learn, to pay attention to the kind of chatter that arises and to find within ourselves the motivation to move forward and grow.

At some point in our lives we’ve all experienced the feeling of hiding from ourselves.  It’s a natural defense mechanism and makes life feel a whole lot “easier”.  Taking the first step toward looking in the mirror and deep into our own eyes, flaws and all, requires courage.  So, if you’re feeling courageous, or ready to take your practice to a new level, here are 5 tips for cultivating an at home practice:

My home office.

1.     Props.  Get yourself a mat you like, a few blocks, a blanket or two, and a strap…and if you really feel like spoiling yourself, a bolster.  Having new props to play with (or staring at you in the corner of your room) provides a little extra motivation and encourages you to give it a go.  In this sense, they not only provide physical support, but emotional support as well.  Lean on them.  Use that block in trikonasana that you usually snub.  Sprawl out across them in a yummy supta baddha konasana and give yourself a break.  Props are amazing tools and they teach us a lot about accepting support and being kind to ourselves. 


2.     Do what you can, when you can.  You don’t need to be an “advanced” yogi to start practicing at home and you don’t need to set aside hours in your day for practice.  Some days you might be able to set aside only 10 or 15 minutes, and good for you!  There are tons of online resources, including my new Videos section, where you can find quick simple sequences.  But I also encourage you to explore on your own, with your own guidance and body…you know much more than you think you do. 

3.    Turn off your phone while you practice.  And I don’t mean put away your phone, turn it OFF.  Whoever is calling, emailing, texting, instagram-ing you, can wait.  This is your time.

4.     Disignate a “Yoga Spot.”  Choose a spot in your home where you feel comfortable and at ease and make that the space you practice in.  Having this consistency will help inspire your practice and quiet the mind.  My spot is my living/dining room.  Surrounded by books that inspire me, cool calming colors, and art that I admire.

5.     Practice compassion towards yourself.  It’s so cliché to say “love yourself”.  But yeah, love yourself!  You’re going to be stuck with yourself for a very long time so you might as well learn now.  For most of us, it’s much easier to have compassion for others than to turn that kindness on ourselves.  We judge and compare and decide whether we’re worthy of our own compassion.  When we can tap into that part of ourselves that connects all of us, we realize that we’re all worthy of compassion.  Taking quiet moments to explore yourself, and your practice, facilitates the awareness of that connection. In yoga, we call that Yoga. 

I hope these five tips will encourage you to take the time to tap in.  Yoga is a practice in which perfect does not exist.  We’re always changing, always evolving, always growing.  When we set aside moments to tap in it makes the journey much more enJOYable.  

Lessons Learned in My First Year of Teaching

The culmination of both the new year and the finish of my six month long 500 hour teacher training through YogaWorks has caused a double whammy of reflection as of late.  At the end of the month my happy yoga bubble, full of fellow newbie teachers, mentors, and yoga friends, will burst and I’ll be thrust out into the unknown on my own.   Though I’ve been teaching since the end of my initial training last January, I’ve been mostly (and happily) occupied by workshop obligations, taking classes, assisting classes, meeting with my mentor and fellow mentees, and lots and lots of reading, reflection, and at home practice.   My training has been directing my path for the last year, but come February I’ll find myself fully planted in the driver’s seat.  Yikes!  It’s all at once terrifying and exciting.  Am I ready for the road?  And, hey, where’s the map?!

As I reflect on 2013 and my first year of teaching I can’t help being confronted with the many lessons I’ve learned along the way.   I left the comfort and stability of my full time job, became my own boss, learned from my most admired teachers, taught my first classes (with lots of gulps and deep breaths before and after…), lead workshops exploring the relationship between acupuncture and yoga, assisted enormous outdoor classes in Bryant Park, got my very first weekly class on the schedule at Yoga & Pilates in Tribeca (thank you lovely yogis!), became certified and honored to teach mommas-to-be, and learned more about myself in a year than I have in the past five.  In no particular order, here are my top ten “Life of a Yoga Teacher” lessons learned in 2013:

1.     First and foremost, there is no map

2.     Learning to teach is like learning a new language, and having the same expectation is important.  Don’t expect to be fluent after a year, and know that the only way to truly learn is full immersion.  Getting the words out is always the hardest part for me, whether it’s yoga, French, Portuguese, or most recently, Hebrew.  Your insecurities get the best of you and even if you’ve learned the vocabulary, stringing them into comprehensive sentences is something else entirely.  So teach often, to whomever is willing to listen.  Even if it’s just you and your mat having a conversation in your living room. 

3.     Don’t expect your friends to be as interested in what you’re doing as you are.  If they like you, they’ll try, but steer clear of trying to convert anyone.  Most of the time, they just don’t get it, and that’s OK.  Which brings me to my next doozy of a lesson…

4.     Be prepared for judgment.  From yourself and from others.  Quitting your full-time job to pursue something as unstable as teaching yoga will seem crazy to most people, and will probably even leave you wondering yourself at times.  The fluff of the average New Yorker’s “Where do you live?/What do you do?” small talk will become even fluffier the moment you mention you’re a yoga teacher.  Get ready for quizzical looks, and comments like, “Oh, that’s nice.”  But rest assured, all that judgment is great preparation for your studio auditions!  It forces you to become very clear in your intentions as a teacher, and confident in your decisions.

5.     Practice what you preach, and practice while you teach.  Remember, you’re first a yogi and second a teacher, so stay flexible and present.  It’s easy to lose your awareness if you’re plotting your next move three steps ahead in a class.  I used to spend hours writing out sequences before going in to teach.  I learned quickly that not only is it a sure way to make your teaching feel rigid, unaware, and disconnected from your students, you also never have any idea what you’re walking into.  You might have planned an entire sequence geared towards back bending only to discover that half of your students are complaining of low back pain. 

6.     Teachers are human too.  One of the biggest surprises of the last year was the new expectation that because I teach yoga I am now a fully enlightened, perfectly calm, and all knowing being…oh, and I’m Vegan too.  I’m sorry to disappoint, but I am still very much human, full of attachment, ugly moments of stress, struggles, and I do enjoy the occasional grass-fed burger.  I’m riding the same imperfect path as everyone else, trying to do no harm and hopefully leave a happy mark on the earth.

7.     Being a yoga teacher is actually quite lonely.  You are your own boss, co-worker, and administrative assistant.  There is no team effort, no pat-on-the-back for a job well done, and no outlined schedule.  You’re on your own kid.

8.     I am not a teacher.  I use the word “teacher” only because it’s the most universal and understandable term to describe what I do.  To label myself as a “yoga teacher” feels heavy and too large, like a child playing dress-up in her mother’s beaded gown.  Teachers know much, much more than I do.  What I do is share: I share what I’ve learned and I guide fellow students.  But Yoga Sharer doesn’t have a very nice ring to it. 


9.     Make sure you and your partner are on the same page.  Not only was this my first year of teaching, it was also the first year of my marriage. Why I decided to combine two massive life changes, I’m not quite sure…but I do know this past year would have been impossible without the full support of my handsome hubby, David.  Thanks, babaganoush, for always having my back.

10. Get ready to be constantly confronted with your “self”.  Yes, becoming a yoga teacher demands lots of technical knowledge in anatomy and alignment, philosophical study, and physical practice.  But the most exhausting, and even daunting, (but also amazing) part of becoming a yoga teacher is the requirement that you study and explore your self.  I can’t think of any other occupation that entails so much constant self-work and improvement.

So, there you have it, my top ten.  There were many more where these came from, like “Never demo forward bends in Lululemon pants”, but these are my most significant, and hopefully most relatable.  Taken out of the context of yoga, almost all of these lessons are also extremely applicable in life.  Taking leaps and risks is scary, especially when you have no idea where you’re landing, and you’ll always face judgment and insecurities, no matter what you’re doing.  I feel very lucky to be on this path, not only pursuing something that I love, but also pursuing something that has the potential to have such a positive impact in the lives of others.  It’s an honor and a privilege and I hope to be a good steward in the lineage of yoga as it continues to grow and evolve.  With the New Year comes a new set of challenges, but I’m entering 2014 with awareness and flexibility.  We’ll see what the next year brings…

Bruised Elbows and Egos

Many an article have been written on the subject of Yoga injuries.  Yoga Basics author Mara Carrico writes, "Sometimes it seems that the only thing growing more quickly than the number of yoga classes offered in fitness facilities is the number of injuries sustained by eager participants."  With this flood of injuries comes of course criticism, of both teachers and Yoga as a whole (some of them fair),  fearful students, and a plethora of “new” ways to avoid injury.  One of the fairer arguments criticizes newbie teachers as being too inexperienced to handle students coming into class with pre-existing injuries and low fitness levels.  It takes practice to learn the difference between pain and sensation in our bodies.  Both are speaking to us, but learning their language can leave beginners lost in translation, creating new injuries or worsening old ones.  

My own body was familiar with bumps and bruises, sore muscles, and broken bones long before I came to yoga.  I’ve broken fingers and toes, my right wrist, my left clavicle, and learned the limits of my pain tolerance when a fly ball at a baseball game made a line drive for my face at over 90 mph (ouch!).   As a consequence, my endurance for pain was informing my yoga practice much more than any desire to develop awareness.  That poorly set left clavicle giving you trouble?  No worries, bind your way through that pain Chelsea!  I never once raised my hand to inform a teacher I had an injury.  In fact, it took me two years to realize that the tightness in my shoulders might stem from that injured left clavicle.

Ultimately, we are responsible for ourselves.  Our teachers are there to guide us, but just like any relationship, communication is key. 

The other side of this high pain tolerance spectrum is the fear of sensation.  Without an understanding of what it’s like to feel pain in our bodies, we interpret any sensation as pain.  As the lovely and renowned Iyengar teacher Carrie Owerko would say, we have to know our maximum as well as our minimum in order to find our optimum.  I had the pleasure of learning from her this past weekend and we spent all of Saturday and Sunday discussing how to work with injuries from the ground up, making space for the body and mind to begin the healing process.   

Just as every body is different, so is every injury specific to that body.  Learning how to practice in a way that promotes healing for yours takes time, and sometimes requires trying many different methods until you find what works for you.   It’s our job as teachers and students to recognize that symptoms are the body’s way of telling us that something needs to change and that we need to give ourselves the opportunity for variation in our practice. 

For me, this variation meant being gentle, giving myself support (in the form of props and people), and learning to communicate what I needed to both my self and my teachers.  For others it might mean letting go of their fear and learning safe ways to discover their limits.  As always, these ups and downs in our practice teach us even more about life than they do about our bodies.   As my teacher Jeanmarie often says in class, “How we do one thing is how we do everything.” We have to be open to exploring, to admitting we might be doing something wrong, and to finding strength in our vulnerability.   

Our goal as yogis, and more importantly as human beings, is not to be so unaffected by pain that we charge through life without any compassion, or to be so passive that we never discover the courage to challenge ourselves, but to live somewhere in the middle.  In our own personal optimum.