Sean Smith is a friend I met in the School of Social Work. Energetically, I immediately felt drawn to him. His presence is tranquil and his wisdom is beyond his years. I was so excited the first day he showed up for my Sunday afternoon class, and flattered when he continued to attend. I am so grateful for the chance to connect with him and benefit from his support, which clearly stems from years of dedicated internal reflection and practice. Interviewing him was a beautiful experience and I enjoyed listening to our conversation as I typed it up even more! This is quite a long dialogue and so I’ve again decided to let it stand as is. Regardless, I know anyone who reads this piece will find something inspiring in Sean’s words – and I’m sure many will look forward to the warmth of his classroom on a cold December day when he will teach us as a certified yoga teacher.
Raina: Thank you for being willing to meet with me.
Sean: I’m glad you reached out. I love talking about yoga and I’m thinking about starting a yoga teacher training, so this is perfect timing because it allows me to talk about yoga and get really clear on what it is that I need and I value. And I know you and I agreed about the decolonization of yoga and who were intentionally bringing yoga to is really important. And having a really clear vision for your yoga as a teacher, and you’ve always been great with that, which is why I practice with you.
R: Absolutely, I want this to be more of a conversation, and the interviews I’ve had so far have been really helpful to think aloud. You learn how to teach from your practice. I loved my yoga teacher training, but I also feel like since I’ve done it I’ve learned a lot more. Because you just see things differently. I’m curious to see how it all unfolds for you. Well, why don’t you talk a little bit about how you started practicing yoga.
S: I graduated from the University of Michigan in 2011 and then I hopped right into Teach for America.
R: The last person I interviewed talked about Teach for America!
S: I feel like the stress and the crazy-ness of something so unbalanced leads you naturally to try and find balance. I stopped in this one yoga studio and I remember thinking it was so expensive and I was like, “I’m never going to be able to make this sustainable!” But I remember the first time really feeling that yoga high afterward and that was undeniable. I think there was music, but it was very soft and it was really inviting. It was ok that I was really stiff and for it to be what it was. It was the first time since starting teaching and really the end of this really hectic career of finishing my studies that I really turned off my brain. I wasn’t thinking about the kid who needed my help, or the kid who was experiencing trauma, or the kid who didn’t have enough to eat everyday. I was just focused on, “oh my god this hurts,” or, “my toes are kind of tingling right now.” I eventually started a mini home practice when I needed it and that led to a really great practice at a different studio. Friends and other teachers were coming with me, which was like this accountability. It was more affordable. The affordability is something I always struggle with yoga, so when I found something affordable, it became sustainable, and then it became changing.
R: Yeah, for anyone! Well I also wonder if it’s been sustainable for you because you do have a strong home practice. That’s the biggest obstacles I notice with people is a discomfort with their home practice. How did you cultivate that?
S: A home practice was not easy to develop. Part of it was coming with time. A year ago I hadn’t gone to enough classes to get a flow that was comfortable and I had these silly expectations I felt very not creative on my mat. Now I go to my favorite poses and think, “oh, Raina showed me that really tough one, I wanna try that again.” It becomes a self-knowledge that comes with practice. You need a certain amount of experience before you feeling comfortable starting your own flow and a home practice.
And then a second piece is that I had to designate a physical location. For someone like me, location is important – I’m drawn to studios depending on how much light there is. I actually sold a piece of furniture and moved something in my space to create a yoga corner where all my mats are stored in a basket and there’s a little candle sitting over there. It’s in the middle of the living room but it’s just enough that it’s a physical reminder and it feels like a little yoga home. I needed that, because otherwise I didn’t feel very anchored. When you actually you create the space then the practice starts coming.
R: Do you prefer practicing at home or practicing in studios?
S: I much prefer practicing in studios. I love the energy of practicing with other people. I love the creativity that teachers bring into “try this now!” because it’s never ideas I would have thought of myself. I like my home practice, but I get caught in the rut of doing things similarly. Plus, there’s not all that energy and people around you – the breathing sounds great and the energy and the sweat. It’s totally a whole different animal. I like the accountability of a class too. Just showing up and trying to make the most of it.
R: Yeah, I really like the community aspect of it. The days when I’m really challenged to practice if I go to a class, I’m really energized to practice. Even if I go really slow and stay in child’s pose for a long time.
S: I’m enjoying those child’s pose days more and more. Once you have a home practice you have all these data points of what each different day feels like. This one teacher was a really big proponent of if the sequence didn’t work for you, do something different or take something out. I love that idea. I thought, if I cut out this and this, my body is gonna love this. You have to, with different teachers, be ready for making the best and finding the little treasures in each one that you need to pull out, and that’s kind of a fun challenge in and of itself.
R: I think a lot of that comes with feeling comfortable owning the space. I notice with students, and even myself, teachers would say what yours did – if you don’t like it, add or omit – but a lot of people don’t get that that is an honest statement. So you’ve always felt comfortable doing those things?
S: I’ve always felt comfortable stepping outside of a flow. I really think yoga has to be your own on the mat, outside of the mat, walking out and holding your space. The day that we start serving up one-size-fits-all yoga is the day that we actually slaughter it. It’s supposed to be a really amazing, individual journey. I think really good teachers get this – you offer up certain things, students have to take what they need out of that and carry it through their entire day. They’re having their own internal experience and they’re taking your words and they’re mixing with what just happened 10 minutes before, and then they’re thinking about what’s happening later, and they’re combining it with their own fears and it’s just such an internal landscape, it’s always changing, we have no idea what’s happening for most students. To expect one flow and not being accommodating or letting someone change it up is just not it.
R: You’ll be a good teacher, having that in mind.
S: I sure hope so! I find myself reflecting back on classes and I already see myself in the role of a teacher.
R: That takes ownership. You know what I do, that you might like, is that anytime I go to a class and I really like something I write down the flow or something they said.
S: I do that too! I love it. Sometimes just words. I remember my first class with you, you were talking about self-care. It’s the very first one I’d ever shown up for and there were a lot of social workers in the room. I just remember writing down self-care as one of the big ideas and I was like, I’m gonna form a class too around self-care, and what that looks like, barriers to it, and around why we think we do that. That’s when I put the pieces together that social work and yoga have a lot of good stuff there.
R: I think they complement each other well. What do you think are some major barriers to self-care?
S: Oh my gosh. I think there are so many things. I think we have this glorification of “busy” in our culture. It’s like, you’re not achieving everything you should be if you’re not busy”. I don’t know where it happened or why it is the way it is, but I just don’t buy into it. I work differently. I want to serve and lead by example, especially in the social work program with all these burned out students. You may not know me as the smartest kid in the class, or the kid who got the best grade. I think I’m holding my own in the classroom, but I want to be known for, “he took care of himself all the time. He came in with a smoothie and he made one every damn morning. He was eating a salad, he packed it the night before.”
I also have my own qualms about how expensive yoga is so I think that’s a huge barrier to self-care. When we value yoga at $22 – I don’t know what I could possibly offer people for $22. When you set that $22 up, know your audience: rich, affluent people who are independently wealthy. And then it creates this condition, as one teachers doing this, another will. I just totally want to defy all of that. I love donation-based yoga, and just trusting that my clients are gonna take care of me and that I’m offering something important to them. It should be sustaining, but that busy-ness, that money factor, all of those things really get in our own way. We complicate our own shit. As humans, we just get in our own way. If it’s something you really value, then do it, or delegate it out to someone, ask for help, or just drop it. It can’t be that important if it’s causing you stress.
R: It’s a big lesson to learn to say “no.”
S: I used to suck at it. Especially in social work, we think it’s not acceptable. If we’re gonna help people, we have to help people all the time.
R: Switching gears, what are your most salient identities?
S: First and foremost, I identify as biracial, which I think is super salient to me because I benefit so much from being biracial. I pass as white. I say that from what used to be a place of guilt and I’ve just come to a place that I want to share how my foundation of having a native mother and a white father has opened up so many doors for me. It’s been a weird ride, but I think the underpinnings of being Anishinaabe, and what it teaches you in even just your generational memory. It’s been accessible for me to plug into the divine and all the different ways in which it comes, so always have this strong sense of helping others.
I was born gay. I was born a biracial person. I was born a biological male. We’re born with these great gifts, these great lights. My identities have been there the whole time. I should have seen that they’d lead me to yoga. I’ve always been interested in alternative understandings or concepts of god, other than kind of white images of god, as well as the goodness and the interconnectedness of all people. And it definitely comes from being Anishinaabe and just seeing and valuing the greatness in humans and nature. It’s even better now because it’s being underscored by my yoga practice.
And it’s being underscored as well by my teaching experience. I would definitely identify as a teacher in a lot of different ways. Both in very employable and non-employable ways. I really like to teach, I like to inform, I like to encourage, I like to open up ideas and have great discussions. All of these identities were always there and now I can really speak to them. And now yogi is there. The spiritual practice was always there, but now this really physical practice has entered the picture.
R: How do you think your other identities interact with being a yogi?
S: I think they all just inform one another, they all just support one another. Especially as a teacher always looking through this lense of social justice, I bring all of that into my practice as a yogi. I’m pursuing a greater understanding of yoga to bring it to others. This feedback relationship of: I do more yoga, I learn more, I think more about all the people who are not in this space and deserve to be. I am always doing the research trying to support some of these practices and I bring that back into doing my yoga and then I see it again and I learn from it again and I bring it back into the spaces of social work.
With my native identity, we grew up in this very Catholic household but it never felt right. It felt very staunch and very judge-y, but I always believe there is something bigger. There are too many beautiful things for it to just be coincidence or just be chaos theory. Humans are really nice and really great when they’re allowed to shine. It has to be the divine. It has to be interconnectedness of all things and all people. I’ve had too many damn amazing experiences for there not to be proof and for me to deny that there’s something bigger than me. That would be irresponsible of me to try to speak against that. So that informs the yoga too. The nativeness of being taught the interconnectedness of all things.
And then the yoga comes back and makes me think about traditional ideas and it makes me want to research and explore – learn more about my family, learn more about histories of trauma within my family. Intergenerational legacy of trauma – that’s big – that comes down through our blood. Yoga helps me sit with as I learn more about tragedies within my family. We’re all trying to heal the intergenerational trauma, because everyone wants to shine. I have to believe that my ancestors and my relatives want to do that. It looks different than mine sometimes, and they don’t understand mine all the time. But just standing strong and doing what you’re doing – it does ripple out to people who need to hear it. It all is interconnected.
Being a queer person doing yoga, even though that’s not pretty irregular in a town like Ann Arbor, I just love it. Being a male doing yoga. That’s a group I really want to bring it to. I think masculinity is so damn fragile all the time. Cracking through that terrible shell of “only girls do yoga” and “it’s a feminine activity.” That informs my yoga practice.
R: I know it could shift, but do you have a vision of your teaching practice?
S: All the time I get little flashes of it. I’m really happy with how things are rolling so far. I would love to offer free or donation-based classes. In particular I love to work with sexual assault providers. I’m hoping that my identity as a male will not prevent me from being able to do that work, but I understand if it’s someone else that needs to do that work. From what I’ve seen and heard through my work, I think there is space for me to offer that. I think those that need it will come, because that’s the way everything is, you know?
I really want to bring yoga to men of all ages, sizes, genders and identities. It’s so tough being a guy sometimes. Just letting it down and being vulnerable is such an important lesson. Even if it’s not a life-long practice, there’s a lot to be taken from a yoga experience. You may never speak of it, but that’s fine.
I would really like to bring yoga to children too. I see the benefits of a mindfulness practice in general with kids in urban school districts in particular. I started doing it with teaching and saw how beneficial it is. Kids doing yoga is so awesome and so important.
R: And you see the changes so quickly. They’re open to it.
S: And they give you feedback! And then when you do an asana they love it. They have such child-like wonder, it’s so beautiful. And their bodies naturally want to do it and it’s accessible for all kids of all abilities. I would love to do that if those spaces are available or if there’s training available.
R: There’s every kind of yoga these days.
S: Diversification of yoga is beautiful; it’s confusing. We get a lot of not actual yoga in the mix. At some point you can do this really thinly veiled yoga practice, which is just basically stretching, but at some point it’s gonna start to change and you’re going to have to go deeper. You can’t do down dog and sweaty practices for 10 years and just teach the “touch your toes, hands up, prayer twist” and it’s just not enough.
R: I think everyone comes to yoga for one reason. A lot of times it’s a physical reason and then it always expands.
S: We come to it when we need it. No one comes when it’s like, “I’m doing really good, I’ve got a great home meditation practice. Now I want to add asana.” Said no one ever.
R: That’s why I always say it’s called a practice. You’re not accomplishing. You’re being. It’s on going.
S: It is so much practice. And that incorporates getting it right and getting it wrong. Feeling good about it one day and not feeling good about it another day. How many other sports or activities or goals in life is that the case?
R: Is there anything for you that is still really unclear or frustrating about yoga?
S: I am not still, hardly ever. I was in one of your classes – and there were two other boys in that class! I was like, What the hell! I was like I’m the only boy in Raina’s classes, guys! What’s going on? It was predominantly men! The stars aligned for your class that day. But anyway, I remember that day in savasana I actually got still. I went 30 seconds with a totally blank mind. There’s always some intrusive thought. It comes in for me constantly. It’s not always bad or indicative of bad things. A Spice Girls song will come it – but something’s gonna come in. I have no chill. I’m always thinking.
R: That’s your challenge. Maybe that’s your breakthrough. Everyone has a theme, in life and in yoga, you know?
S: My theme is balance. I feel totally awful when I’m out of balance. Having a good sense of balance, not having everything in control – I love change, I’m flexible so I don’t break – but I hate when things totally go out of whack. It’s really hard for me. That’s a resounding theme as I look back to being a child. So balance and stillness are these constant struggles I’ll probably deal with my entire life. I get little glimmers of progress.
R: Do you have a favorite mantra, yoga sutra, or phrase, or philosophy?
S: It comes back from my days of a teacher and never feeling good enough, it comes back as a gay teenager and never feeling good enough, this history of never feeling enough and it’s in the stupid glorification of busy. So it’s, “I am enough. I have enough. I do enough.” I love saying it. It’s enough. You don’t have to try so hard. It’s perfect. You’re perfect. We’re all perfect. I try to encourage others to see it too, but I think you really have to learn it in your own time.
R: Do you have a favorite pose?
S: Triangle. I feel super strong in it. I’ve gotten compliments on it! Naturally, I’ve been able to do it, since day one. I can hold it all day. Sometimes it’s my first warm-up one. I even smile as I talk about triangle pose. I just love trikonasa. It feels gooey, it feels warm, it feels nice, like a really nice hug.
R: It’s one I always forget to practice but when I do I love it.
S: One of my teacher said early on, “God gives everyone one or two poses they can kick ass at.” Definitely triangle. Do you have a favorite pose?
R: It’s funny because I realized as I chose this question as one to ask everyone, I probably do but it’s difficult for me to recall one. For me it’s all about phases, so right now I’m in a phase of working into full king pigeon. When I started yoga teacher training, my teacher had us pick a pose as one that we were working towards. She told me natarajasana was mine and I remember thinking, yeah right. It’s been two years since I’ve been teaching, and probably like 6 months since I was in her class more recently and she had us working on it and I was like, yeah no. And then all of the sudden I just felt my shoulder go around. I couldn’t fathom for ever how to make that happen. And then she grabbed it and I thought she was going to break me but it just happened. And it’s a heart opener, and she told me once I could get into that so much would open up for me. It’s true. It’s an affirmation of being able to do a pose that you couldn’t think you could. Yoga for me, a lot of it is all about pushing boundaries, and seeing what your boundaries really aren’t. So that’s where I’m at right now.
S: I saw an adage about when you don’t know the way forward, and all these doors seem to be closing around you, well, that is your way forward. The closing of doors and the ending of options, is, by default, a movement forward. It makes me think of these things in yoga, where you crack down a limit it moves you forward. You break down one wall and you just keep progressing. It’s not in a competitive way, there’s just always more. It’s a slow momentum with these little break throughs.
R: Yeah, I mean, I really appreciate the simple breakthroughs, but it’s not that I can do the challenging ones, but that I worked on them. Well, I just talked a lot on that last one, but do you have any other questions for me?
S: What would you say are essentials to look for if you’re choosing a yoga teacher training program? I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a perfect teacher training program.
R: There’s no such thing as a perfect one, which I think is really beautiful, because I think if it is available to you that you should access multiple trainings in some way. That doesn’t mean like the $3000 teacher training programs every time, but just to have access to different types of training and education.
It’s been important for me to have my teacher around. I need someone I can build a relationship with. But, to the same extent, maybe for you or others it’s just creating community with other mentors who you can count on. Sometimes I just have random questions I’ll text my teacher, or I’ll just want to be around her, or when I go to her classes and it’s like I’m back in training. She never lets me off the hook. You need someone to hold you accountable.
I think it’s important that you’re uncomfortable. You don’t want to always go with what seems comfortable or fun, you want to know going into it that you can do a lot of things that you didn’t think you could ever do or want to do. So someone who can push you past that a little bit.
The last thing: I think it should be well rounded, which could be a lot of things. There’s the business side, the philosophy, the anatomy, sanskrit. Some holistic components. Every program is stronger in different components than others.
S: Those are all good insights. Everyone values such different things and has such a different experience. I really value people’s advice. It’s what I do with everything. I’ll look at 30 resources and pull what I want. I never pull and just say, that’s now my way of thinking. I always construct. I weave my own understanding. So I think that’s what I’m trying to do.