So they recommended yoga? Where to start and what to look for: pain, injuries and mobility.

[6 min read]

Logistics: Self-management and Help-seeking

Because yoga helps us understand our bodies and learn to make adjustments for comfort and realignment many folks with chronic pain, injuries, or other issues related to mobility find yoga therapeutic. The tough part with this one – as with the trauma and stress pieces as well – is that every person’s needs will be quite different. While going to a physical class may be useful in that the teacher may have insight to help you heal, others may prefer an at-home practice to work through at their own pace. Neither is better or worse, these are just factors to consider.

First things first, if you can, inquire with your doctor or physical therapist about what types of movements are best for your body. They may recommend a specific type of yoga, but whether they do or don’t information about what to incorporate or omit is incredibly useful. I’ll add an example when we get to talking about styles of yoga below.

More logistics: I checked in with a friend who lives with chronic pain and she offered some tips I’d like to emphasize. First, she said to listen to your body and don’t try to keep up. I concur – the slower you go now, the more potential you have for continuing and growing your practice in the future.

If you attend a class in person she also suggested telling the teacher about your injuries and asking for modifications when necessary. Though trained to pay attention, teachers may fail to notice one student struggling or a look of discomfort in a class of fifteen or more. Furthermore, even a highly skilled teacher benefits from learning about their students unique needs in order to ensure they are more inclusive of everyone in the room through changing flows, modifying single poses, or suggesting supportive props. This means that in some sense it is your responsibility to voice or self-manage your needs in a classroom setting as it is the teachers responsibility to respond to them.

Maybe more so a note for teachers: my friend mentioned that she appreciates when the teacher reminds students to take their time and breathe. I’ve heard this feedback from students time and time again. I’ll also add for non-teachers that if you have a moment where you become aware of your breath (or the lack of it) use it as an opportunity to stay connected, deepen your breath, and acknowledge it as a new start. That’s a beautiful aspect of this practice; the concept of non-attachment and non-striving gives space for compassion and recommitment, rather than shame, guilt, or frustration with self.

This final note is my own: while discomfort may not be a bad sign (new things can be uncomfortable!) pain is. If you experience pain STOP – adjust or move on (or even stop your practice for the day, depending on the severity of the pain). Here’s a great flow chart:

Styles of Yoga

If you’re struggling with pain, and especially if you haven’t been active in a while or at all, less vigorous practices are a good place to start. However, while some classes will include dynamic stretches throughout class others will focus on longer holds. I’ve had just as many students tell me their body prefers constant movement as I have had people tell me they need to stay put for a period of time.

The two schools of yoga most practiced in the United States are Vinyasa and Hatha. Now, the specifics of language opens the door to a larger discuss of the history of yoga, but for all intents and purposes just hang with me here.

Vinyasa yoga is generally a more athletic practice. It is characterized by linking the breath with the movement, in many cases moving on every inhale and exhale. Hatha yoga includes longer holds and generally – not always – these classes offer more alignment cues. There may be some flow incorporated into Hatha classes, but not to the same extent as a Vinyasa class. In these types of classes, especially vinyasa, you probably want to be able to get up and down from the floor with ease. If you’re not sure, contact the teacher or studio.

Under the umbrella of Hatha and Vinyasa are other styles, generally more audience or content/focus specific. There are even some classes that cater to injury or pain; back pain, for instance, is one I’ve seen multiple times. I’ll share some more styles that I think would be relevant to this blog focus (if you want to know more in general, check out the Yoga Poster.

Beginning yoga classes are great because the teacher should be more prepared to offer supportive descriptions and have more time to provide adjustments to individual students. Gentle yoga classes are also a great place to start if you want to make sure you have time and space to hear the teacher and integrate their instruction into your alignment. Chair yoga is also a great option for anyone, though generally marketed to an older audience. Restorative yoga works toward general relaxation with the use of props.

Yin yoga is (somewhat) similar to restorative yoga, though props generally aren’t used and poses are held for a while (one to five minutes, for instance) in order to stress (stress is semantic choice over stretch, but don’t get too caught up for now) connective tissues. There are some differing perspectives of yin yoga (not necessarily researched or validated), though mine is that it’s a beautifully safe practice when accompanied with mindful awareness (just like any other style of practice). You can check out some articles for varying perspectives and general information about yin yoga here and here and here. I think these are great educational resources for those who do decide to try yin yoga. 

Lastly, just like I have emphasized in previous posts, research, explore, and don’t give up on finding the practice that suits you.

Craving more information? My most-used resources include:

Yoga International

Yoga Glo

Yoga Journal

Mala Yoga NYC – follow Steph and Angela on Instagram for educational tips!

Books by Ray Long, MD FRCSC (and I found a pdf of one!)

I’m a big fan girl of Jason Crandall – his wife has a great podcast that he frequently shows up on

 

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So they recommended yoga? Where to start and what to look for: Stress, mental health, and trauma.

If you experience stress, anxiety, depression, trauma, limited physical mobility, injury, or pain your doctor, physical therapist, or mental health provider might recommend yoga. Or, maybe your friend just mentioned they think you should give it a go because they are awesome.

How do you know which type is the best for you? Best case scenario you just pick one that sounds groovy, love it, and go back for more. But perhaps you give up from the very start, overwhelmed by the options. Or maybe you take a class, don’t enjoy it or don’t find it accessible, and you never go back.

My recommendation (albeit complicated by yogic philosophy and the risk of commodifying a practice with ancient roots) is that you should shop around before giving up, just like you should shop around for any other wellness product or service. There is no perfect teacher and no perfect class. I might also argue that there is no perfect fit for everyone, but there is definitely a class or teacher out there who will match your needs, level, energy, and goals to the extent you find it necessary.

This post is the second in a series of posts meant to support new and future yogis. Peep my last post for more! This month I’ll focus on stress, mental health, and trauma. Next month I’ll cover pain, injury, and mobility.

Most of this post will focus on classes in yoga studios. If you’d like to practice at home take a look at these resources and browse my piece on developing a home practice.

Let’s jump in!

STRESS and MENTAL HEALTH

If you are seeking yoga out in pursuit of relaxation, know that while nearly every yoga class has the potential to support your emotional wellbeing, some classes will focus on more supportive strategies, poses, and breath practices designed to help students calm down. Practices such as forward folds and intentionally long(er) exhales, for example, work to activate your parasympathetic nervous system helps you calm down. In nerdy words, it’s the part of your nervous system that counteracts the fight-flight-freeze reaction of the sympathetic nervous system.

That said, if relaxing, managing symptoms of anxiety and/or depression, or increasing your ability to regulate your emotions is your priority, keep in mind that the appropriate class for you might not fulfill your exercise requirements for the day. You might not even break a sweat in class. 

That’s not to say the practice won’t feel intense! This is the caveat us in the wellness profession give to every yoga student, therapy client, or otherwise: sometimes our stress seems to increase and things feel crummy for a while before getting “better.” It makes sense. Anxiety, depression, anger, hurt, and other deep shit get stirred up a bit as we quiet, intentionally draw inward, and face the parts of ourselves and our lives that we’d like to shift.

There is definitely a time, place, and attitude to let loose in a physically intense or vigorous practice, but sometimes slowing down can feel more difficult than speeding up. It is perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed by intense sensations that arise in class.

A certain level of stress – physical, mental, emotional, or otherwise – is therapeutic because it helps us build resilience. Try reframing stress as an opportunity to learn more about your triggers, how and where you hold stress in the body, and what helps you calm down. You are on a path to increase your emotional awareness, and general ability to cope with and manage negative emotions and sensations! This article is on point with that sentiment.

Pro-tip: Take a friend for moral support, or identify someone you can talk to when stuff comes up. Yoga’s essence is connection: to your body, to your mind, to your community, to the world. It is our human nature and birth right to have people in our lives that we can rely on, and that we can provide support.

If you are interested in yoga for managing stress and mental wellness look for keywords including Gentle, Restorative, Yin, or maybe even Hatha. There may even be classes geared towards anxiety or depression.

TRAUMA

“Anything that induces shame can be traumatic” – Patrick Carnes, Ph.D. 

As the public narratives around both yoga and trauma expand many health professionals understand that connecting with the body is a first step to healing and that yoga can facilitate this connection. When it comes to trauma, survivors deserve special care and attention.

A disclaimer: None of this is to say that if you are a trauma survivor you are not ready for, or should not go to, a more generic class. It does mean that you might have a conversation with your therapist or yourself about your readiness, what your triggers are, and what you’ll do in the case that you might feel triggered. You might also choose to contact the yoga teacher or studio in advance and ask questions to gain more insight into what the class is like. Or maybe you can use the buddy system and bring along a trusted pal. Whatever processes and actions remind you that you are worthy, powerful, and deserving of it all are where you should focus your attention!

However, not all yoga classes are trauma-sensitive. Yoga teachers complete specialized trainings in order to be certified as a trauma-informed teacher. Trauma-sensitive classes are rooted in specific principles that respond to the needs of trauma survivors and seek to return the power that may have been taken from you through your experiences.

Here are a couple articles that speak to the trauma-sensitive yoga framework: One is more of a nerdy research piece and the other is quick and easy to read.

Trauma-sensitive classes are attuned to the fact that certain mindfulness and meditation practices might open up the door to thoughts, feelings, and triggers and therefore shy away from asking participants to meditate or simply be silent.

These classes also acknowledge that physical adjustments from the teacher may negate your sense of security; the class might not include any physical adjustments at all, or may offer opportunities to choose whether you desire to be touched on the day you participate in class (which might change for you, class to class!).

You can read more about yoga’s role in healing trauma and stress in many places, but I recommend the Trauma Center’s work.

Survivorhood is not a monolith. Certainly all survivors will need different things and some will really enjoy and benefit from the “less” trauma sensitive classes or even those that are more energetic or athletic. The important thing is to know that just because it’s a yoga class does not mean it is automatically the best go-to option for survivors.

If you desire a survivor-focused class the class title will likely include the word trauma (e.g. trauma-informed, trauma-sensitive, trauma-aware, etc.). You might also like the classes discussed in the section above, or it’s possible you may find that you need faster-paced classes that don’t allow so much space for being quiet, mindful, or meditative.

Questions, comments, concerns? Let’s chat! Feel free to comment below or message me privately.

Here are some good classes for trauma survivors in the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area:

 

Is Yoga right for me?

[3 minute read]

Now, I’m wouldn’t say that I’m a yoga evangelist, but I do believe that every single one of you out there deserves as much time and space to find a style or teacher that speaks to you or fits your needs as they are in your current life. The truth is there are just as many ways to practice yoga as there are people practicing yoga in the world.

Yoga is not a one-size-fits-all concept. For some, it doesn’t even include movement. In many of the places most of us live asana (pose) practices are generally what are available to us at yoga studios or gyms, for instance. If you’re curious about the many ways you can incorporate yoga into your life check out a copy of the Yoga Sutras. You might find there are practices, values, and perspectives that will augment your experience on and off the mat.

The point is: try different studios, styles, and teachers. Try videos at home if you prefer! (Check out my last post on building a home practice). Do some of your own research on yoga practices if you can. And keep this in mind:

1. One yoga class will not “cure” you. In fact you might leave the first few classes wondering what the heck you’re even doing. Be open so that when you can answer your own question you’ll be open to receive the insight.

Atha yoga anushasanam*

“Now begins the study of yoga” – Yoga Basics

“With humility (an open heart and mind) we embrace the sacred study of Yoga.” Translation by Nischala Joy Devi, The Secret Power of Yoga

2. You don’t need to be flexible to practice yoga. Well, maybe not physically. The point is not to achieve or perfect. The point, one could argue, is to become more in touch with your body and how it interacts with your mind and your breath. Yoga is practice for how we want to be and feel in the “real world.”

Yogas-citta-vrtti-nirodhah

“Yoga is the restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness.” Translation by George Feuerstein

“Yoga is the uniting of consciousness in the heart.” Translation by Nischala Joy Devi

3. Know and honor your boundaries, and also be open to your potential. Balance compassion and slowing down and ease with moments of challenging yourself and doing things that might feel a little scary.

4. You and only you own your practice. In most schools of yoga all that the teacher says is simply invitational – aside from injury-preventing adjustments – so feel free to adjust, modify, shift, or go off script and just peace out in child’s pose or savasana (you’ll probably learn about these poses in your very first class, don’t worry) whenever your body calls you to do so.

Tada drashtuh svarupevasthanam

“Dwell in your own nature.” Yoga Journal

“As a result of yoga or sustained, focused attention, the Self, or Seer, is firmly established in its own form, and we act from a place from our own true, authentic Self.” Yoga Journal

“United in the heart, consciousness is steaded, then we abide in our true nature — joy.” Translation by Nischala Joy Devi

Sometime in the next 2-3 weeks I’ll share a follow up post:

“So you’re doctor/psychotherapist/physical therapist/best friend recommended yoga?”

Got other questions (about yoga, therapy, health, wellness)? Message me and I’ll try to incorporate answers in future blog posts!

*Yoga Sutras corresponding to each element.The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are considered the foundational text for yoga. Offered in Sanskrit and English Translations.

 

Using Progressive Muscle Relaxation to Understand Muscle Contraction and Isolation (and to just plain relax, dagnabbit!!)

[11 minute read]

Asana practice grants us access to a deep awareness of our bodies and the subtleties in our movement. There are infinite levels and layers of noticing and exploring, each as valuable as the next. Simply moving with the breath is a great way to introduce yourself to your body. Deepening the meditative aspect of your practice, whether through an isolated meditation practice or increased mindfulness throughout asana practice provides a different, sometimes more nuanced understanding of the physical self. Often these aha moments surprise us and this is wonderful, exciting, and fulfilling, but sometimes experimenting with specific exercises can facilitate this learning and integration of our new self-knowledge into future practices.

As a teacher, I often observe students struggling to comprehend and implement muscular cues. For me, teacher training was a structured context to learn about how our anatomy and yoga poses synergize to create certain effects, build strength, and increase flexibility. For many others, when you’re in a yoga class of 15+ people grappling with didactic material can feel overwhelming; you may be anticipating the next cue and feel rushed to explore and/or you may find it unfamiliar to translate cues to sensation and movement.

One area I’ve noticed this issue coming up is activating and relaxing muscle groups. In most poses, actively squeezing muscles opposite those you seek to stretch changes the experience, minimizes opportunities for injury, and increases the overall benefit of the movement. If you’ve ever taken an Anusara-style class, for instance, you may have heard the teacher invite you to squeeze the muscles to the bone, a cue intended to recruit the muscles and bones at play to support one another (this is called Muscular Energy, and it is complimented by the practice of Organic Energy; you can read more here if you like).

I’ve found that practicing progressive muscle relaxation – whether before practice or just as a mindfulness tool in your mindfulness toolbox – is a great technique for becoming more attuned to what muscle contraction and muscle isolation feels like.

As a disclaimer, while this exercise can help us become more acquainted with these subtle movements and help us teach ourselves through exploration, in practice the hug may be softer (this doesn’t mean less powerful). Additionally, poses often require slightly more intentionality, such as considering the direction the muscles should be moving; teachers may describe this as isometrically hugging, squeezing, or moving the muscles. Finally, this exercise is simply one tool in our yogi toolbox and only focused on one aspect of our practice. In reality, at any given moment, we should be integrating many, many things at once, something that we can build up throughout the years that we practice. I personally believe there is really no rush, so long as you are feeling safe and are injury free.

Below I’ve transcribed a progressive muscle relaxation you can read over, as well as a relaxation I think is helpful to let go of any unnecessary tension before the muscle relaxation. I’m also sharing with you a couple audio recordings that I’ve enjoyed. At the end of this piece, I’m also including examples of asanas you might explore after you’ve completed the exercise.

Pre-laxation (is this a word?)

Make sure you’re in a comfortable position preferably lying down if this is available to your body; you can add a pillow, bolster, or two blocks under your knees if your low back needs a little extra support; it is also possible to do this exercise seated with your feet planted firmly on the ground. Inhale through your nose and exhale audibly (like a big sigh) through your mouth three times.

Start with a body scan, releasing any tension you notice as you move from your head to your toes. Allow yourself to move through your body as slowly as you can, mindfully and without judgement or reaction simply gathering feedback from your body.

Relax your head, your forehead, ears, cheeks, nose, jaw, and tongue. Relax your neck and shoulders, right shoulder and left shoulder. Relax your right arm, elbow, forearm and wrist. Relax your right hand and each one of your fingers.  Relax your left arm, elbow, forearm and wrist. Relax your left hand and each one of your fingers. Now move your attention back to your torso. Relax your chest, relax your belly. Relax the sides of your rib cage. Relax your back, from the top of your spine, through the middle of your spine, all the way down to your tailbone. Relax your hips and glutes. Relax the pelvic floor. Relax your right leg, right knee, calf, and ankle. Relax your right foot, relax the top of the foot and the sole of the foot. Relax each toe. Relax your left leg, left knee, calf, and ankle. Relax your left foot, relax the top of the foot and the sole of the foot. Relax each toe.

Hold space for yourself for a few moments here, seeing if you can completely relax your entire body at once. Inhale. Exhale. You are breathing. Notice how the breath feels moving in and out of the lungs and through the rest of your body. Imagine you are breathing with your entire body. Allow yourself to exhale audibly through the mouth a few times.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

On your next inhale squeeze only your feet, curling your toes under on each foot and imagine you’re trying to reach your toes across the sole of your foot to your heel. Hold for a few seconds and exhale as you release the hold. Now move up into the calves. Inhale and squeeze only the calf muscles as tight as you can. Hold for a few seconds and then release. Next move up the legs, squeeze the muscles in your upper leg — see if you can squeeze both the quadriceps (The muscles on the front of your leg) and your hamstrings (the muscles on the back); do your best to relax the calves and glutes. Hold and then release. Now squeeze the glutes on your next inhale; see if you can recruit the muscles on the sides of your hips to contract as well. Hold and release on the exhale. Inhale and squeeze the muscles in the core of your body in (belly muscles, back muscles). Exhale and release. Inhale and contract all the muscles in your arms and shoulders, squeezing your shoulders up near the ears and hugging your arms in towards the midline. Hold and release. Next, isolate the hands, squeezing them into strong fists. Hold for a few seconds, then exhale and let go. Finally, focus on your face. Squeeze as much as you can in towards the center of your face holding in the breath. Release as you exhale. Finally, explore squeezing every muscle in your body on an inhale. Hold for a few seconds and release with a big, audible exhale. Inhale and exhale here for a moment.

Allow your body to absorb the contradictory experience of squeezing and releasing your muscles, and notice what it was like to isolate specific muscles while relaxing others. Reflect on the amount of control you have over your body and the muscles in side.

Core

As a mostly sedentary society, many of us have little awareness of our core and therefore underutilize it both on and off the mat. However, our core is essential to every yoga pose and critical in many of the more advanced postures we’d like to explore (such as floating up to headstand). A few ways I’d suggest playing with contracting your core muscles include:

  • Lay on your back with your feet planted on the mat. Keep your knees bent at a right angle and bring the knees and legs together as best you can. Hug the legs toward one another as you lift the feet off the floor, bringing your shins and calves parallel to the floor. Inhale and on your exhale contract your abdominal muscles. Inhale as you slowly lower the feet toward the floor; keep contracting your core. You may find that the low back begins to peel off of the mat, add direction to the contraction by pulling the very low ab muscles up, hug the belly button in, and tuck the tailbone so you can keep the low back on the ground. Play with this as a little core work, inhaling legs down, exhaling up, hugging in the whole time. You may even feel steady enough to extend the legs long, but be aware this will make the exercise more challenging!

 

  • Come onto your knees, keeping them two fists-widths apart. Tuck the toes under. You’re preparing for camel pose here, but slowly moving into the pose. Standing on your knees, inhale and allow the sternum to lift; hug your shoulder blades behind you. Notice you may be arching your back. Exhale and hug the core, pull the low abs up, and tuck the tailbone. Notice that you can both expand through the chest and keep the back neutralized. Stay here for a few moments, inhaling and exhaling, keep expanding the chest and hugging the core. It’s truly from our heart center that safe backbends begin. When you’re ready, bring hands or fists onto the low back to encourage safety in the low back. Hug your core as you lean back. Often in backbends we focus on the back body; see if utilizing your front body helps you to feel more secure here and/or able to stay for longer. When you’re ready to come up, inhale and squeeze the core. Let the core pull you up, rather than your low back or glutes.

Forward Fold

Forward folds largely focus on stretching the back body, including the hamstrings (back of the upper legs). For instance, contracting the quadriceps (opposite the hamstrings, on the front of the upper leg) in uttanasana can help the hamstrings lengthen as well as provide the strength needed to ensure the body is moving forward over the toes, rather than pushing the hips back past the heels.

Standing Poses – Renditions of Warrior

When invited to move into a standing pose such as Warrior I, Warrior II, or Crescent lunge, it’s not uncommon to simply put your feet where you’re instructed to do so and simply hang out. I also think there’s something to the fact that because many of us (in the west) begin yoga because we hear about its physical benefits, it’s likely that we’ve explored more common exercise modalities, such as cardio, calisthenics, and strength training. If you’ve ever done squats (and regretted it the next day 😛 ) you’ll recall that you normally stand, feet perhaps a little wider than the hips, and move your seat down and back. While I enjoy a good workout here and there, moving through a series of squats, while we may have super strong legs, does not afford the same level of mindfulness when it comes to engaging our leg muscles (and the core!). Regardless, if we’ve never had the opportunity to mindfully explore our bodies, implementing what we’re learning through these exercises might make our next Warrior experiences feel completely different. Try this:

  • Come into a standing pose with the feet apart of your choice (Warrior or Crescent). First, press down through the heel. At the same time, imagine you are pulling energy upward through the feet and encourage yourself to manifest this energy up through the shins. Now isometrically draw the heels toward each other (imagine you’re going to wrinkle the mat up between the feet, but don’t actually move them!). See how this helps you pull the thigh muscles toward the bones to make your stance more stable and powerful. Perhaps you can even lunge a little deeper (keep the front knee over the heel or behind it if necessary). I love staying here and noticing that all the work I’m putting into the lower body allows my upper body more freedom to move, breathe, and explore where to go from there.

Happy practicing!

A Home Practice of Your Very Own is Possible

[4 minute read]

As a yoga teacher, two of the most common explanations I hear for not exploring the practice are:  “I can’t even touch my toes” and “I don’t want to/can’t afford to/don’t feel comfortable taking classes as studios.” I empathize with these very real challenges, two that are exacerbated by selective images and narratives that advertise only the most idyllic yoga bodies. Yoga’s increasing popularity is at once intentionally welcoming and impactfully intimidating. For those who have deep personal practices, the concept that yoga should fit your ever-changing body – and not the opposite way around – has become a well-kept secret. I mean, why post the photo of yourself falling on your face when you can share the half-second moment when you nailed the handstand? Similarly, why take risks to grow your practice – or even just start one – in a space filled with sweaty strangers?

While achieving confidence and comfort in a group space is possible and should be accessible, for me, cultivating a home practice was essential to extricating myself from expectations of my body and shifting my focus to responding to my body as it is on any given day. Practicing on my own has been hands down one of the greatest gifts I have ever given myself. It wasn’t – and still often isn’t –  easy. I was expected to do it as part of my yoga teacher training, but it took a massive amount of time and effort to embed it into my life and habits, and, most importantly, trust my ability to guide myself. Today it is absolutely crucial to my wellbeing – physically, emotionally, professionally.

You don’t need much to start a home practice, save a mat and ample space, and even these are debatably unnecessary. Check out the suggestions below, based on my own experience as well as what I have heard from other yoga practitioners – beginner to expert!

Designate a space. Keep a mat at home. Buy yourself a couple props or makeshift them with books, belts, and large, firm pillows. You may not have an entire room or every block, bolster, strap and wheel you think you need, but by picking a spot you’ll return to you’ll decrease distractions like deciding where to practice or moving things out of your way that you notice once you’re upside down, and this space will start to feel like a home base. Eventually.

Roll your mat out. Get on it. Do some sun salutations, some basic stretches you saw on a YouTube video once, or a silly dance. It might be an hour or it may only be five minutes. Just because you can’t dedicate the time you would if you were going to a class, just because you’re not sequencing through 20 poses or culminating in a peak pose doesn’t mean it’s not a valid practice. Your movement, in and of itself, is valid and valuable. You might consider trying different times of day. Maybe you like the idea of setting your day up for success. Maybe you’re less stiff after work.  

Breathe. This is crucial. Start with deep breaths and allow that to carry you through the practice. If you do nothing else but breathe, and maybe a child’s pose, that’s sufficient. That’s yoga. Let yourself off the hook from your expectations, enjoy the sensation of your breath moving through your body, and explore spots of tension and release, give yourself time to figure out what it all means for how you’ll carry yourself through once you step off of the mat.

Be creative. Be brave. Investigate asanas. Check out books from the library, utilize Google, identify trusted resources and take your time exploring them. There are many online resources – both paid and unpaid. If you go to a yoga class every once and awhile (or every week, or every day) ask your yoga teacher to clarify any questions you have before or after class, or ask a friend to play around with you.

Go at your own pace. Some days you might decide to focus on a specific pose or body part, other days you may work with an intention such as being present, breathing, or feeling free. One of the best parts about a home practice is you have the time to play around with poses you might not normally have time or space for in class, and you can also fall all over your living room floor without embarrassment (though embarrassment need not be a feeling you experience during a group class).

Consider tracking your practice. Get on the bullet journal bandwagon, start a habit tracker, write down what you’re focusing on for the day or the week, or journal what comes up for you at the end of each session.

Keep going. You will be on a roll, and then you’ll fall off. You won’t practice for a few weeks. Or you’ll practice something and be discouraged. Your home practice will not be linear and don’t for one moment trick yourself into thinking it so! The important thing is to come back. Yoga teachers can talk all they want about being present and the importance of the journey over the destination, but it’s your own personal exploration of this narrative that is critical to your home practice. Let yourself be surprised and remind yourself that you once started something you didn’t think you could do, and you sure as hell can start all over again.

Follow this link to the Self-Care Syllabus for resources and please feel free to comment below with your own suggestions!!

Just Raina

[6 minute read]

I am not an activist.

Over the last 8 months or so I’ve been caught up in my feelings. Tending to my immediate needs, responding to my trauma(s), and figuring out who I am as I emerge into next-level adulthood (*le sigh*). It is an enlightening obstacle to pull myself away from what I think I *should* be doing and focus on what I need to be whole and authentic. Graduate school – which I finished in December, praise – poured salt into the open wound that is my evolving practice of letting go of my “shoulds” and allowing the deepest, most authentic parts of me breathe deeply.

When I stopped teaching “my own” weekly classes at the Phoenix Center in early 2016 the decision was the culmination of many conversations spread over multiple therapy sessions, discussions with friends and family, as well as emotional breakdowns (and breakthroughs!). I wanted so badly to fulfill an image of myself that others had come to see me as – strong, wise, capable of doing it all, capable of holding everyone else’s pain in addition to my own, making a huge dent in the yoga industrial complex. In retrospect, by holding on to the class I was searching really hard to figure out exactly what it was and mold myself into it, instead of simply being me, instead of fully practicing what I preached at the beginning of our group practices and even in this very blog.

The exploration of what it meant to let go continued throughout the year, at times deepening, but often only as shallow as a few inches of water. I was in the practice of healing but I was also sabotaging myself; my implementation manifested more as a trial and error, with mostly errors that turned into difficult moments of reflection and learning. I observed myself holding on tightly to idealized versions of myself as I collaborated with peers to plan programs that actually just drove my anxiety up the wall, as I put in hours I didn’t have outside of school and my field placement driving back and forth to Detroit to network for the sake of my job search, as I dated men who only spoke of feminism, love, and vulnerability, and as I consumed way too much fried food and alcohol in order to tolerate being with friends and classmates who projected their own anxieties into me. I gained weight. I spent money I didn’t have. I held in emotions for fear of burdening others. I ironically pushed away opportunities to reveal my own vulnerability and connect with community members over the relentless violence spiraling out of our social and political circumstances. I was knee-deep in a romanticized, overly-indulgent form of “self-care” in order to overcompensate for the over-exertion I expected of myself to look a certain way on the outside.

I think the vacation I blogged about just under a year ago symbolized a tipping point, that I had to give myself time and space to sit with my discomfort and piece together what it meant for my healing. After that, my final semester of school I withdrew for the most part, only selectively spending time with others, for better or for worse. I’d always assumed I was an introvert, the artistic kind, on an ‘Eat (and eat and eat), Pray, Love’ adventure. My therapist challenged me to consider that when I want to withdraw, I’m actually quite anxious. I pushed back even though I knew she was right. Even though I knew my Myers-Briggs personality type (LOL) rendered me an extrovert, desiring to be around people, energized by the healthy relationships in my life. Even though I knew community is crucial to personal healing and radical social change. It was almost like I went to the opposite side of the spectrum of where I’d been before. If collaborating with others, drinking with others, or networking my ass off wasn’t me, then I guessed I needed to chill alllllllll the way out.

I don’t want to be too hard on myself here: so many of the qualities I long to embody are truly a part of me, but the expression of them – how I wanted others to see them – has sometimes been misguided to my own detriment. Instead of letting my highest self ebb and flow as is natural to life, I squeezed it all out of myself until I was empty and exhausted.

Graduating, moving out of the small, dirty ass apartment I called home for a year and a half, getting a J-O-B, and instituting a new rhythm to my life laid the groundwork for a more honest and holistic way of taking care of myself. I’m frustrated that this is what it took, but I’m humbled to finally be here. I’m learning more about what balance looks like. I’m learning more about how the ways in which I honor myself translate into my work as a Health Coach, a Therapist, a Yoga Teacher, and a friend. Before, I intellectually grasped the concepts I find critical to these professions and I did practice some of them, but I spoke about them way more often. A year and a half after I really pulled back my teaching practice and I’ve just now began to give myself time to reconnect with my body, which I’ve unfortunately hated for the last year and a half, which I was angry at for being heavier, for being injured, for not doing what I wanted it to do when I wanted to do it.

I’ve never really identified with the word ‘activist’ but I do think it’s an identity I aspired to for a long time. I’ve been really fortunate throughout my whole adult life, but especially in the last 6-12 months to call real-life organizers friends. I’ve witnessed their genuine dedication to radical movements because it is right and this rightness breathes life into their being. On the other hand, I’ve also been fortunate to have friends and mentors, especially boss women of color, who have shown me how to preserve myself whether I am or am not deeply intertwined with equity and reparative efforts. They have shown me how to own, and not be defined by, my own mental and physical health positionalities. Who have reminded me that I don’t “owe” anyone anything but that by locking arms with others I might find that sense of fulfillment my therapist also challenged me to seek.

I’m making time to be more intentional in my action in the spirit of Humanism, Black Feminism, and critical, radical Public Health Social Work. I feel strongly that while there may be moments when I embody a sentiment of “activism” the expression most authentically manifests within me as a verb, not a noun, not an identity, and that is ok. I realize that in a year, or even a few months, I will have similar feelings about where I am now. There are aspects of my past I think fondly of even though there are also aspects that caused pain and humiliation. I am more comfortable with the fact that I am constantly evolving, that I am at once perfect and imperfect, but that in order to move forward I must nurture myself, be honest about when I desire support, and only then work outwards in support of other beings. I understand I will always be figuring it out, but I hope the trial and error will feel less destructive. I do not have to fulfill a false ideal of activism to be of value to my communities. It is indeed my responsibility as a human to do my best to make an impact in collaboration with others, but I simply cannot do so if I am not grounded in my own self.

I am reconnected to my asana and meditation practices. I am energized by my work with my clients. I am beyond grateful for all my truly amazing friends and my family. I am ready to begin teaching yoga again. But not as an activist. Not as a sage. Just as a person who is learning a whole lot and is in a more stable place to join with others as they do the same. Just as Raina.

Special thanks to Verónica Caridad Rabelo for editing this piece.

[I am easing back into teaching. Stay up to date by checking my teaching calendar, requesting a workshop for your organization or community, and/or inquiring about private sessions.]

I Have Power Because I Have People

 

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[8 minute read]

I recently spoke with my new friend Elizabeth (Liz) González about her experience as a social worker and yoga instructor. We sat outside of our favorite coffee shop, excited at the opportunity to soak up the sun after being in confined air conditioned offices all day. Liz is the type of person I feel like I’ve known forever, but we’ve really only hung out three or so times. I was grateful to learn about her life and background in college access during our conversation.

Liz was the first in her family to go to college. She moved from a predominately Mexican community along the border to attend University of Texas at Austin.

“It took me a while to find my place. There was also a culture shock. But one day there was this Latino guy running for student government outside of the dining hall and we became friends. He told me he was a social work major, and when he told me what that was I was like ‘oh, that’s me!’”

Liz took Introduction to Social Work the first semester of her sophomore year and describes the experience as generally awful. “I got stuck in a group with three white women who were all in a sorority, and it was all about what was convenient for them. I was working two jobs at the time on top of 12 hours of class and there was no attempt to figure out what worked for all of us.”

Liz continued with the Social Work program despite similar persistent challenges.

“People hid true identities for fear that it didn’t align with what social work was. There was this diversity class facilitated by three white women – and not to say three white women can’t be diverse, but this is the problem.” So, Liz minored in Sociology to get the dialogue she was looking for and when she graduated worked for a long time in college access, mostly with first generation college students.

To Liz, the concept that the personal is political is foundational.

“All the work that I do is functioning from my identities. I know that these are my lived experiences, but they are not the only experiences.”

While working at Huston Tillotson, an HBCU, she found herself overidentifying with the students. She wondered to herself, “Why is this student struggling? They need to pick up the pace,” until one day she realized she was projecting.

“And here’s social work,” Liz stated, drawing attention to an ironic trend in the field. “Often we are only having a conversation in our multicultural competency classes when the person across from us does not have a shared identity. So the curriculum is set up for white students only. Because then where’s the room for me to have a conversation about when I have a person who’s sitting across from me who is a first generation college student or Latina? All of my stuff was on alert and I had to be extra aware.”

After that, Liz worked part time for the National Domestic Violence Hotline and part time at a college access nonprofit. “Again, all personally connected to me. So I wonder how is that helpful? Where do I get stuck? Who do I talk to about this? There’s a lack of mentorship and guidance.”

Liz took up yoga at the suggestion of a friend and noticed there was no one in the room who looked like her, until one day “I found this one instructor and his was the first class in which I saw people of color, people in their 60s, women in hijabs, men who looked like football players, and for the first time I was like this is what this should look like. How do I get more of this?”

Around the same time, Liz started therapy to work through some of her trauma. Then last September she participated in a yoga teacher training at her studio mostly to enhance her own practice and complement her therapy.

“Words can’t even begin,” a teary-eyed Liz explained. “If I could support others in feeling this good because there’s an awareness there and an experience there without saying that this is the only way it should be, then how awesome would that be? When the universe shows you a gift it’s for a reason.”

Liz has since taught around campus in addition to her responsibilities at the University counseling center.

“Part of my approach to teaching is that words matter. Oh my gosh, words matter so much. You will never hear me say ‘if you need something more intense do this,’ because then you’re also saying something to folks who can’t, who aren’t ready, there’s this inherent judgement. I come from this approach of challenge by choice and if it’s not right now it doesn’t mean never and let’s play. As adults we don’t really play anymore. We’ve lost the vulnerability, the courage.”

The concepts of vulnerability and courage transcend her experience on the mat.

“Once a month as a staff we get together to do internal diversity work. Sometimes people say things that are racist or hurtful. There’s a moment of fear when I call them in, and that fear is always there, but I’d rather have that then this person walk out of the room thinking that what they just said or did was ok. This idea of power. To me, there’s a way in which power is an illusion. Some people get fancy titles, but we all answer to someone. I really do think that I have power because I have people. When I’m in those internal diversity meetings and someone says something off and you look around to see who else knows that was really messed up, it’s about making eye contact that gives me strength and power to call that person in. I am definitely shaking in my boots all the time, but I refuse to let someone walk out and think that’s ok.”

Listening to Liz, I noticed themes of balance and exploration. She believes strongly in going into your vulnerability, fear and trauma to the extent that you feel that you are empowered to do so. I admire that she recognizes that trauma is part of who she is and also part of why she’s able to serve others. I asked her how she comes to terms with that balance of authenticity and not being completely overwhelmed.

“Sometimes I’m scared that when I speak up it will hold me up from moving up the ladder or getting a good reference to go to another place, but that’s how oppression works. That’s how trauma works. Let me scare you. Let me have you think that I have something over you so that you be quiet. At the end of the day I’ve decided that if I don’t say anything then I’m not authentically me and I can’t continue to hold this hurt and frustration when there isn’t any change. I’m going to continue to bring attention to what is and not necessarily be married to whether other people choose to do something about it. When it comes to developing knowledge and cultural humility: when you know better, do better. I can’t control is someone wants to do better, but I’ll do my part by speaking up.”

Being engaged in such relentless and personal work, I wondered if and how Liz let’s it all go at the end of the day.

“This summer I got to a place of burnout. In May, I told my boss I would do a presentation at our August staff retreat on using work as self-care. By the time it rolled around I thought I could tell my boss I can’t do this, or I could be a bit more radical about my self-care and see where I show up. I did this loving-kindness meditation: send love and kindness to yourself, a neutral person and someone who you love. Then it said to give love to a difficult person. Well, I wasn’t expecting that. In a 20-minute guided meditation I went from all zen to I could be on Jerry Springer, you don’t know my life, I have every right to be angry at this person. The next line was if you are having a hard time sending love and kindness to the person, then send it back to yourself because you are the person in the moment suffering.” Liz realized that she was holding onto anger. “So when I got to the presentation I was honest about wanting to get out of the presentation and what I did instead.”

When I asked Liz what gives her hope, or if there is no hope what keeps her going, she responded without a beat, “Power because I have people. People who are in it with me. People’s stories.”

And her advice to others who can relate to her?

“Know what’s non-negotiable, when you’re getting to a place that’s compassion fatigue. Self-compassion, self-compassion, self-compassion. Be authentically you, but it can be scary because who knows what the repercussions on. I have a lot of faith in the universe conspiring to put me in a place I need to be, but I co-create that. Sometimes when the universe is showing me where I need to go I’m scared, but then I remember that I have people.”