“I did it” from the mouths of teens

At the end of June, the day after I got back from Spain, I had the immense pleasure of teaching a group of 19 rising 10th graders yoga 4 times over the course of 2 weeks. Having just come off of an intense week of fitness based yoga where we were encouraged to embrace discomfort (not injury inducing discomfort, just discomfort) and to push ourselves and our yoga students, I decided to not take it very easy on these kids. I felt for them, I mean they were required to be there and while some clearly wanted to be there some also clearly didn’t want to be. I get that.

On the first day, we sat in a circle and I asked them what they knew about yoga. One student said it’s when you sit with your legs crossed, your eyes closed, and your hands on your knees. Someone said it’s relaxing. Most of the comments ran along those lines. I told them I was going to challenge their understanding of yoga, that it could certainly be relaxing and that it can involve sitting with your legs crossed and your eyes closed, but that it could also be challenging and make you sweat and make you strong. I told them a regular yoga practice can help reduce stress and anxiety and build confidence.

From there we went through some balanced breathing (inhale through the nose to the count of 4, exhale through the nose to the count of 4) and I encouraged them to try to maintain this breathing pattern throughout the practice. Yoga is all about breath, but it’s so often the first thing that we let go of when we find ourselves in stressful situations, like doing yoga for the first time or doing a hard posture whether for the first or fiftieth time. I led them through a few sun salutations (only 3 Sun Salute As, not the 3-5 Sun As followed by 3-5 Sun Bs that YogaBody teaches). We went through most of the rest of the standing series which includes things like triangle, reverse triangle, side angle, reverse side angle, and some others. The standing series ends with extended leg balancing pose (see photo below) and tree pose. Then I had them do some forward folds including attempting a marichi bind (see photo of student killing it below), and each day they took a stab at crow pose.

A couple of things about that experience:

  1. Not surprisingly, I LOVED teaching them! I say not surprisingly because I love working with high school students in general and a good chunk of my career has focused on working with teenagers. While teaching teenagers how to be good students can be rewarding, I really enjoyed the experience of teaching movement. Maybe it’s because I like to move so much myself.
  2. I was SO impressed with how many of them were willing to TRY! That’s what life is about – trying new things. I kept telling them that yoga is a practice, it’s not a perfection. So not achieving crow pose is fine, but not trying to achieve it is, while still their choice, less fine.

On the first day, almost every student had a really hard time standing on one leg in extended leg pose and in tree pose. I gave them modifications to work on balance rather than on getting the leg fully extended (holding onto the bent knee rather than the foot, or holding onto the foot but not fully extending), and keeping the toes on the ground with the heel on the ankle in tree pose. By the fourth class they were almost all standing on one leg!!

On the first day, no one got crow pose. By the last day, there were several people who were getting into crow pose and holding it for a few seconds! And more importantly, there were finally people who had pretty much refused to try, trying and smiling about it. I felt like a rockstar when that one young lady who had a grump face on the whole time smiled while working on crow pose and then smiled even more when she tried side crow pose! Just proves Lucas Rockwood’s assertion that people like to be challenged. That they want to walk away from a yoga class feeling good about the poses they could do and feeling excited about the challenge of the poses that they couldn’t do or were significantly harder.

They were proud of themselves. I was proud of them. And as a teacher it was AMAZING to see the progress they made in just 4 classes. I had students tell me that they were going to start doing yoga at home and that they wanted to find classes to go to. The teacher training I’m going through right now with YogaBody’s Yoga Teachers College is an Ashtanga style vinyasa technique. One of the pillars of Ashtanga yoga is that you do the same poses every time, in the same order. I haven’t studied Ashtanga enough to be an expert on it or the logic behind that aspect of the practice, but one of the benefits of that approach is that you really can see your progress week to week. I noticed that as a practitioner and love it but as a teacher, it is especially rewarding to see the differences in such a short period of time.

On the last day of their summer program, I went to see their final presentations. One of the groups talked about the yoga class. The student covering that section of the presentation pulled up a slide that said that yoga helped reduce stress and made you more relaxed. He told us that when he heard they were going to be doing yoga, he wasn’t happy it because “yoga is for girls”. Cue audience laughter. I won’t do his presentation justice here, but he was funny. On the slide he informed us that “yoga is not relaxing while you’re doing it” and had us laughing again as he read that part out loud and made sure we were all very clear that it wasn’t easy. But he was the student who told me that yoga was his favorite part of the summer program (he might have just said that because I was asking, but I’ll take it). He was the student who could the marichi bind from day one, which I was only able to do a few weeks ago. He was one of the students who never stopped trying, no matter what I threw at them! I think he did a good job of explaining that it was uncomfortable and challenging but also conveying that he really enjoyed it.

Anyway – the whole experience has me thinking a lot about the ways I could incorporate yoga into working with youth and I’m really excited by the prospects!

Thanks for tuning in! Please like if you like it and share if you’re moved to do so.

Finding Community in Barcelona!

20180622_130713I wear a bracelet on my left wrist from myintent.org that reads “MANIFEST”. A few months ago I decided to make a huge life change: quit a very rewarding but intensely stressful job, become a yoga teacher, work international travel back into my life while continuing to serve people, and connect with people. I bought the bracelet to serve as a constant reminder that these are the things that I want in my life, knowing that it would be a hard path with doubts and second-guessing and that I’d need reminding of what I was trying to achieve.

I was right about the doubting and second-guessing. I’ve done a lot of both. Was quitting that job really the right move for me? I miss it, a lot, but I don’t miss the cumulative effects on my mental and physical health that accompanied the high level of stress. Do I really have what it takes to be a yoga teacher? Can I actually have the kind of impact that I want on people’s lives as a yoga teacher?

If you’ve been following along, you know that I have already started teaching yoga and you’ll also know that I am in the process of getting certified (for the doubters out there, in the program I’m in through Yoga Teachers College, we are encouraged to start teaching right away). Last week was a manifestation of several of the things I mentioned above.

I spent 12 days in Europe starting with 4 days in southern Germany with one of my best friends whom I hadn’t seen in 9 years – it was amazing and like no time had passed at all!

I spent the remainder of my time in Barcelona, Spain with 15 other people from 9 different countries for our first of 2 immersion trips to study with the Yoga Teachers College.

But, since this whole site is about yoga, I’ll focus on that. We spent 7 or 8 hours a day either practicing yoga, learning how to teach and adjust specific poses, or talking about other aspects of yoga. In between we had breaks for meals that usually involved quite a lot of walking – I averaged between 5 and 7 miles a day. In short, it was exhausting. But it was SO much more than that too. (As a traveler aside – Barcelona has the BEST gluten free bread I’ve every had everywhere that I had it.)

That first day felt like a week and by the end of it, I knew that I was going to get a lot more out of the week than just more knowledge and skill in teaching yoga. I knew I would leave with a community of people who cared about each other, who were supportive of each others’ paths and who would genuinely have each others’ backs. It didn’t take long for personal stories of struggle and triumph, of the power that yoga had in people’s lives to come out. On the last night, one of our teachers said that this week involved a lot of tears. He wasn’t lying. We cried – for ourselves, for each other, for our shared experiences.

It was these powerful stories of transformation that most struck me. Those stories are theirs to tell, not mine, but I was blown away by the extent to which yoga had improved the mental and physical health of every person there. There wasn’t a single person who said they had chosen the path of being a yoga teacher because they wanted to be in great shape, though that’s a welcome side effect in my opinion. We all wanted to share the transformative, healing power of yoga with others. In YogaBody Fitness classes (Yoga Teachers College is the training branch of YogaBody Fitness), they end classes with the following mantra: “May this practice heal and strengthen my body and my mind. May this practice heal and strengthen your body and your mind.” While YogaBody classes are very centered around challenging your body and pushing yourself physically, those things don’t happen without also being challenged mentally. Regular yoga practice results in growth on so many levels and growth is often really hard. A YogaBody practice doesn’t shrink away from the difficulty of growth and the stories of my classmates demonstrate the same about each one of us.

Imagine if you will, 16 people all wanting to teach yoga to improve other people’s lives. How many lives will the 16 of us transform through our teaching? There were a few points in our training when we were asked to talk about a class or a teacher that had a particularly strong effect on us or on our practice. Someday there will be people who tell someone else about the class they took with one of us and about how it changed their lives. That’s amazing to me. The ripple effect that us choosing to be yoga teachers will have on those we come into contact with. We are choosing a path of self-reflection, of mindfulness, of compassion, of healing, of forgiveness (of self and others), of unity (yoga means to unify), of strength, of growth and we’re choosing to do it in a way that will result in others incorporating more of those things into their own lives.

I started this blog post with my doubts. I will continue to have doubts, I will continue to wonder about alternate paths (that seems to be in my nature) but I do not doubt my love of yoga, my desire to use it to improve the lives of others, nor the incredible transformative power it has had on my life and can have on others. The big difference for me now is that when those doubts creep in, I have this incredible support group sprinkled all over the world, of people who believe in me, in yoga, in our collective power, and who will not hesitate to remind me, as I’ll not hesitate to remind them, of their worth and their strength. I love you guys, thank you for being part of my journey!





Reset and Recharge

A couple of weeks ago my mom and I hosted our first retreat together combining yoga, guided meditation, and tapping.  11 women most of whom didn’t know each other, spent a day in quiet reflection, communion, and releasing some of the burdens each carried on her shoulders.  The retreat was called Reset and Recharge and our goal was to help the participants add to their stress relief toolkit.  I know from recent experience that stress has serious consequences to one’s mental and physical health and there is plenty of research out there indicating that chronic stress can result in severe, long-term health problems.  Each woman set an intention at the beginning of the retreat, something they hoped to get from the day, something they’d focus on throughout.  For some that was to be more open to opportunities, for some it was to spend this time doing something just for her.  I think we underestimate the amount of time we each need to spend taking care of ourselves.  How easy is it to put everyone else’s needs before your own?  How easy is it to lose sight of what you really want in life because you’re so busy making sure that the people around you have what they need?  This retreat started a line of inquiry in my mind that I’m feverishly digesting – what does it mean to show up for yourself?  And as an offshoot, what does it mean to show up for others?  How do we accept and forgive our shortcomings while pushing ourselves to be better and bolder and brighter?  These are things that come up for me as I ponder this work that my mom and I have started doing together.

00aahrenee - 11Working with my mom was a pretty awesome experience!  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen her in this capacity, as a leader helping others to bring more joy and, as she would say, expansiveness into their lives.  She radiated energy and passion for the work.  Because she’s done retreats like this many times before, it was really helpful for me to have her as a mentor in the process as well.  One of my favorite things about doing the retreat with my mom was that there were times when each one of us was able to be a participant.  When she led everyone through a group tapping session, I was right there with them, tapping away the things that came up for me.  I even had my very own epiphany (not for public consumption).  While I was teaching yoga, my mom participated just like everyone else.  It still ended up being a pretty exhausting day – we both woke up well before dawn from excitement – but there was also an aspect for each of us of resetting and recharging.

We have figured out a few things that we’ll do differently the next time around, but overall, the retreat was a success and participants left feeling like they’d gained something.  We took some pre and post surveys and have started collecting data that we’ll share at some point.  Early results indicate that spending the day in self-care reduced our participants’ immediate experience of stress significantly.  That’s what we set out to do and we achieved that end.

We’re working on details (like finding a location) for our next retreat which will be in August.  Stay tuned for more information!

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Making Up with Money

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately, through personal coaching and self-reflection, trying to undo years of damage I’ve done to my own psyche.  As an educator I have spent years talking about a fixed versus a growth mindset, explaining that saying things like “I suck at math” just reinforces that as a reality, that flipping the script and saying “Math is hard but that just means I need to work a little harder” can completely change a person’s relationship with math.

For some reason, I had never translated that information into certain aspects of my own life, most notably, my relationship with money.  I have had a terrible relationship with money for my entire adult life.  When I think about money, I think about the lack of it and all of the things that having more of it could do for my life and family.  I get anxious thinking about the amount of student loan and credit card debt I have and have a hard time imagining being able to dig myself out of that hole.  You might be thinking “chill out, you’re part of the middle class now” or as my husband often says “we’re fine, it’s not like we’re going to lose our house”.  If you’re inclined to say something like that you’re not wrong.  But let me just add another layer of detail.  When my daughter was just a baby, we (her dad and I) were really struggling financially.  I pulled into a gas station in Prescott, Arizona, where we were living at the time, just as my car was running out of gas – basically rolling in on fumes.  I put in my card and it was denied.  I didn’t have enough money to get gas and I didn’t have enough gas to get home and my baby was in the car.  I suppose it’s fortunate that this happened at the Costco gas station where there was always an attendant walking around.  I had talked to him several times in the past so he came by to say hi and noticed that I was upset.  He lent me $5, which was the most I would accept, so I could get enough gas to get home.  I felt so humiliated.  When I had money again I went back with his cash plus interest (cuz it made me feel better for some reason) and a milkshake, and literally never went back to that gas station again.

I could tell many more stories about being a single parent in Chicago while going to grad school, waitressing, and relying on public assistance to keep us fed, but the story about not being able to get gas is the most prominent memory I have when I think about money.  13 years later, it’s still something I think about on a very regular basis.

So it is true that I’ve experienced financial stability for the last several years, I haven’t been in the position again of not being able to get gas or needing public assistance to feed my family.  But if you’ve ever been in that situation, you know financial fear is a hard thing to shake loose.  I still have mild anxiety attacks when I spend more than $100 in one place.  I still worry that my card is going to get rejected even if I just got paid.  I still lose sleep over my credit card and my student loan debt.  Depending on how well you know me, you may or may not know that when I was a teenager I spent almost a year in Latin America (Brazil, Honduras, and Ecuador).  While there, I saw poverty like I had never seen nor have ever experienced.  For me, the worst case scenario is that I have to move in with one of my parents (I have in fact lived with both parents for short periods of time since my daughter was born).  I always knew that I would never be on the streets or in a state of desperation.  Knowing that there are extremes of poverty that I’ll likely never know, made me grateful for what I did have, but did not change the fact that it was hard and traumatic.

A few weeks ago when my personal coach, Crystal Pirri, sent me this link to a post about inviting money into your life by Martha Beck.  She counsels people to write a letter to money apologizing to it for all the ways that you’ve underappreciated it and all the horrible things you’ve said about it over the years.  It might sound a little corny, but when I look at all the relationships I’ve ever had in my life with people or things, my relationship with money has been the worst.  So I wrote the letter.  While writing, it dawned on me that I’m the kid with the fixed mindset about math.  So here are a few things that I need to stop saying to myself and an attempt at flipping the script.

  1. “I suck at money.”  And yet, I own a house, my car is paid off, and I have a good credit score (finally).  So maybe I don’t suck at it so much.  Instead of saying that I suck at money, I will try “Money has done a lot for me, what else can I get it to do”
  2. “I never have enough money.” And yet, I’m typing this on a computer that we own, on a table that we bought, on a rug that we bought on a floor that’s part of a house that we own, and there’s a kitchen full of food right next to me.  So maybe I could try something like, “I have enough money to provide more than the basic necessities, and am ready to bring more into my life to reach my goals.”
  3. “I’m drowning in debt.”  This is the hardest for me.  I think this ALL the time.  And yet… I don’t know, I really do have a lot of debt but I’m not drowning in it.  I’m making progress, most of the time, and my debt has allowed me to get a Master’s degree, and take vacations, and pay for car repairs, and other fun or necessary things like going to Spain in June for yoga teacher training.  Maybe I should try, “Being out of debt will feel amazing!”

This is all directly related to this path that I’m moving towards.  I’m quitting my full-time job!  And that’s scary as hell.  But I’m also really excited about what I’ll be able to do when I’m choosing joy and being more true to me.

What does it mean to be good at yoga?

I told a new friend of mine recently that I’ve been doing yoga for 21 years now and that I’m becoming a certified yoga teacher. Her response was “Wow, you must be really good!” I think I said some false humble thing but that question has stuck with me for the last couple of weeks. What does it mean to be good at yoga? I can’t do handstands and compared to most yogis I see posting pictures and videos on Instagram, I’m not that flexible and definitely not that strong. So am I good at yoga?
The more I’ve thought about this the more I’ve toyed with the idea that being good at yoga really just means being good at listening to your body. If that’s my operating definition than I guess the honest answer is that I’m often not very good at yoga. Sometimes I back off of downward dog when my injured shoulder gets pinchy feeling and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I back off of a twist if I notice my breathing getting constricted and sometimes I don’t.

listening to your body and doing what it needs is the highest form of yoga
I let a shoulder injury get the better of me a few years ago and stopped doing anything physical (very unlike me). Since I snapped out of the lethargy I’ve been working to get stronger (progress is slow given everything else that fills my days, but it is still progress). Don’t let atrophy happen to you!! I want to be at a point where I’m working on more challenging poses but I’ve found beauty in getting back to the basics, in taking the time to do a twist with good posture and to feel the difference over time, in focusing on my alignment in downward dog and in really releasing into child’s pose. Yoga doesn’t have to be flashy or impressive. It can be subdued and therapeutic. In fact, in my experience, it can be almost anything you need it to be.
I’ve now walked on a yoga path for more than half of my life (just) and am grateful for how my practice has shifted to fit the phases of my life if only I have the patience to recognize MY path.