Archive for April, 2017

Work Your But Off

Recently I was talking to a student about building strength and was explaining how I found out I can do a pull up, which for most of my life wasn’t possible. “I went out to a spot at White Rock Lake with a friend of mine where they have these pull up bars and some other equipment outside. He goes out there to do, um, stuff, like uh, movement or . . . what would you call that?” “You mean working out?” he laughed in response.  It’s a funny thing for a yoga teacher to say, but I’ve never been a fan of exercise. I’ve always been active, but the activity had to have something else behind it. Sure I knew all the benefits of moving my body. The idea of being healthier and gaining strength, endurance, and flexibility sounded great, but these things weren’t enough to motivate me to get going. When a medication I was prescribed caused me to gain weight, not even my vanity or self consciousness could get me to exercise. I absolutely hated going to the gym. Mindless reps of weights or drills might leave me breathless, but they didn’t take my breath away. I had to have some other goal, a challenge to overcome or technique to master. Over the years I have been interested in dance, gymnastics, volleyball, distance running, Jazzercise, Zumba, and of course yoga. I never participated in these with the intent to “get a work out.” Instead I was hooked by the fun, enjoyment, or challenge of playing.

When I found yoga, I loved the fact that I could use my body to work towards mental and spiritual growth, and considered the physical benefits to be lagniappe. At first I didn’t even like the more physically intense classes,  preferring gentle flows and Ashtanga, which while challenging, is slower and more traditional than most modern yoga styles. Lately though I’ve seen a shift. I’ve become one of those people who loves to go to the hard exercise classes and try the more difficult moves. I’ve started to crave the feeling of sweat pouring off my skin and the soreness of my muscles after a hard workout. I’ve been bouncing around from power yoga to cycling to pilates to kickboxing. On my second visit to the boxing gym, the instructor made a comment that some people don’t like going to his class because it’s too hard. He argued that this is the exact reason why you should attend his class, so you’re as strong as you can be when faced with other challenges. I nodded my head in agreement and also inwardly chuckled that I had unconsciously chosen the hardest teacher. Nothing is random.

Soul Cycle has also recently stolen my heart, and my favorite teacher there also happens to be known as one of the toughest. I was talking to another yoga teacher about my new love of spin and she mentioned that through a studio swap, we got free classes a different indoor cycling studio. At that studio they show your stats as you ride so you can record your progress. Though I understand why some might like the ability to track their physical goals, this aspect really turned me off, which is why I still pay a hefty fee to attend Soul Cycle rather than going elsewhere for free. I do enjoy pushing myself, but I don’t want to see the numbers. As I pondered the reason behind my costly choice, I realized that when it comes down to it, it’s still not about the physical for me. Sure I’ve gotten stronger, so it takes a more active practice to get me to my edge, but it’s really the mental challenge that I crave. I like taking classes from teachers who help me to be my best, who keep moving the bar a little higher. I like the tough teachers who also motivate and inspire, who help me work through the internal struggles like, “but I’m too old, but I’m too tired, but I can’t do it, but I don’t know how.” The teachers I admire push me physically and mentally. They encourage me to set goals, to explore new things, and to move beyond my comfort zone. They’re positive and kind, not drill sergeants, but they also don’t let me off the hook. They hold me accountable, encourage me to move beyond the limits of my mind, to do more than what I think I’m capable of, and teach me to do the same for myself.

I still love teaching and practicing gentle, restorative yoga. I definitely need the stillness I get in my daily meditation, and I believe in regularly practicing a softer “yin” style to balance the active “yang.” However as a student and a teacher I have grown to appreciate the mental and physical strength that come from a movement practice that really works my “but” off.


Heart on One Sleeve, Shit on the Other

The ninth commandment forbids falsifying it. Patanjali considers it a prerequisite to yoga. Witnesses in court swear to it. Yet despite the many exhortations for it, truth is hard to come by. In my own life, I began my search for truth by looking outward. I began to notice when people didn’t seem to be telling the whole story. I became distrustful of others, especially in relationships. Hypocrisy frustrated me more than anything. Tellingly, there have been a few significant times in my life when I have been accused of saying one thing and doing another, or not being open and honest about what I was thinking or feeling. Of course I could always rationalize my own dishonesty as necessary under the circumstances, or as insignificant in the bigger picture. After hearing the old adage “when you spot it, you got it,” I eventually began to turn my gaze inward. I didn’t consider myself to be a dishonest person, at first I thinking it would be easy to commit to authenticity. But like most things that seem simple on the surface, the ramifications ran much deeper than I realized.

I’ve had a history of mental health challenges, suicide attempts, and various unhealthy coping mechanisms. Sometime after college I discovered cutting and soon developed an addiction to this destructive habit. I have many small scars that aren’t prominent, but there is one in particular on my left wrist that was bad enough to require stitches. What started out as a typical ritual of cut, clean, and bandage escalated into something closer to a suicide attempt. Looking back it was a desperate cry for help, though that doesn’t make it any less serious. Big, red, raised and ugly, I used to hide this scar at all times. I had an extensive collection of thick bangles, bracelets and watches and I never left home without wearing one. I even wore sweatbands around my wrist when I worked out. I used every scar treatment product I could find and dreamed of someday getting it removed, or covered up by a tattoo. Around that same time my first marriage was on the rocks, in part due to my mental illness. At one point my husband read my journal, in which I confessed having feelings for someone else, which provided the final impetus for our divorce. After we separated, this emotional affair continued into a full blown relationship and was a major factor in me moving to Dallas. I rarely told anyone the truth about why I moved here. When asked I claimed that it was to start fresh or have more opportunities for work, which was partially true, but not the whole truth. As you may suspect, this doomed relationship didn’t last long. I learned a harsh but necessary lesson when I found out my new partner had not been honest with me about his past, which included dealing with attraction to underage girls. I don’t think of it as a punishment though, karma can only use the raw materials I give her to create the circumstances through which my soul achieves growth. When I could no longer deny the messages I was receiving, I decided to take Gandhi’s advice and sincerely begin to embody the truth which I wanted to see in the world.

Though I’ve been in recovery from cutting for some time, it was only a few years ago that I began to go out in public without hiding my scar. Seeing it reminded me of sitting in the dark on the bathroom floor in that even darker place inside my mind, and I was ashamed and embarrassed that someone else would see that too. At first I was cautious about letting anyone look too closely. Over time I began to realize that not many people even noticed, and that if they did I typically received more compassion than judgment. I finally did decide to get a tattoo on my wrist, but instead of covering up my scar I boldly positioned the design right next to it. My partner at the time questioned whether I wanted it there, knowing how sensitive I was about it. I knew I would want to show off my new tat and that in doing so, I would be showing the scar as well. It scared me, but I felt ready to reveal that part of myself. I had healed enough inside to let my external wound show. Now when I see it, it reminds me of what I have overcome instead of feeling ashamed about where I have been.

It’s been challenging to navigate my newfound commitment to openness and honesty. Anytime I set a sincere intention, the universe gives me opportunities to practice it. Swinging from one side of the spectrum to the other, I still sometimes catch myself softening my truth, sugar coating or dancing around what I really want to say. I’ve also said some things under the guise of full disclosure that didn’t really need to be said, and I’ve suffered the consequences of hurt feelings and strained relationships. Yet instead of giving up, I’ve worked harder to recognize when not speaking up is a lie of omission versus when it is something I can truly keep to myself. As Wayne Dyer said, you can only be better than you used to be. I’m still walking the path, complete with detours and wrong turns, but I can honestly say I’m moving in a positive direction. A friend of mine and fellow yogi Sarah Lee recently said that she appreciates other teachers who seem real and “wear their shit on their sleeve,” and that she has always experienced authenticity in our relationship. It felt good to be acknowledged, and helped take the sting out of my failures. Much like revealing my scar, the more I open up and show the wounded parts of myself, the more I can heal.

**If you struggle with mental health challenges like cutting, addiction, depression, anxiety, or just need a place you can talk, listen, and be yourself, please join me at Foundation 45’s free weekly support group on Monday nights at 7 PM in the back room of Independent Bar and Kitchen in Deep Ellum. And before you engage in any destructive behavior, please reach out. National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK; Crisis Text: 741-741

How Do You Yoga?

“Why is this so hard? I’m hot. I can’t breathe. I didn’t know yoga could be this hard, I thought I was supposed to feel relaxed. How is that old guy keeping up? Oh dear lord not another chaturanga.” These were likely some of the thoughts running through my mind when I took my first intermediate yoga class. When I began my yoga journey in the early 2000s in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the options were fairly limited. My introduction to yoga was a gentle class offered as an extension course through LSU. All I remember is falling asleep in savasana every time. Something about it made me want to try more, so I sought out a studio, one of only a couple in the city at the time. They offered both kinds of yoga: beginner and intermediate. The beginner class was fairly gentle and mellow, so I formed an assumption based on my limited experience that yoga was a practice of easy stretches and slow movements with deep breaths. Then I attended the intermediate class. In my memory it’s a blur of sweat and humidity and arms and legs and up and down. Since then I’ve had a love/hate relationship with “hard yoga.” For a while I turned my nose up at this exercise based style of practice because it was not traditional enough. But after learning more about the origins and purpose of yoga, I now believe that anything can be a form of yoga. It’s not what it looks like on the outside, but the intention and shift that happens on the inside.

In the West when we say we’re doing yoga, we usually mean a class in which a teacher leads a group of students through a series of poses, or asanas. And there are plenty of different varieties to choose from. Iyengar yoga is vastly different than restorative, which are both worlds apart from Ashtanga. Yet these practices, which are very different physically, must share something in common. In the 2000 year old collection of aphorisms known as the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali defines yoga as the restraint of the fluctuations that disturb our peace of mind. He explains that when the mind is calm, we dwell in our own true nature, or higher self. The word yoga means union, and refers to this merging of the individual self with the higher Self, or the soul with its source. The process of union is also known as enlightenment or awakening, meaning we wake up and shine light on the truth that we are spiritual beings inhabiting material bodies, and we’re all in this together. One of the main obstacles to enlightenment is an out-of-control ego, which causes us to feel separation and fear instead of connection and love. The practice of yoga then is anything that reduces ego and leads to spiritual awakening, peace and equanimity. There are various paths of yoga that focus on different techniques for attaining enlightenment. Yogis on some of these paths may not necessarily perform postures, or if they do they may be secondary to their main practice of service, chanting, or meditation. Raja yoga is known as the path of introspection, and while it too leads to meditation it includes hatha yoga, which is made up of the physical aspects of yoga like postures and breathing that are most familiar to us today. In the sutras, Patanjali gives very little detail on how to perform asana. He says only that it is steady and comfortable and the practitioner is able to release tension and meditate in the pose. The word asana originally simply meant seat, and here Patanjali is probably referring to a seated meditation posture. The other hatha yoga techniques and postures are meant to maintain the health of the physical body, the vessel for the soul, as well as cleanse the energetic body so we can more easily connect to the Self in meditation. The irony that I had judged certain styles of yoga practice as “not traditional” was not lost on me when I learned that almost all the poses we do today are relatively modern compared to this original meaning of asana. As usual, karma likes to give a little humor with her lessons.

If you’ve ever sat for meditation, you know it can be challenging. Feelings of anger or sadness can arise, seemingly out of nowhere. I often feel bored or frustrated, especially if my mind is very active. But I always remind myself that there’s no such thing as a bad meditation. Every time I sit I get a little more clear, a little more focused. It doesn’t always feel peaceful and calm doing it, but it has lead to an overall increase of peace in my life. Literally sitting in the mental discomfort helps me to increase my equanimity, almost like strengthening a muscle. I think the physical component of yoga can be the same way. If our asana practice is always relaxed and happy and easy, we never get the opportunity to practice staying centered when faced with a challenge. Life isn’t always calm, and we have to learn to deal with the uncomfortable feelings, the challenging people, the difficult moments. A challenging yoga practice can be a safe space where you observe your reaction to things. Challenging of course means different things to different people, and the various paths of yoga show us that this is not only acceptable, but necessary. Sometimes I need to push myself in a physically active way to get to my mental edge. And sometimes the challenge is to lie still in a restorative class or keep my mind present during savasana. Since the original meaning of asana was just a seat, and the other physical expressions of yoga were born out of necessity to cleanse and challenge the physical body, then I believe anything can be yoga when done mindfully. Walking, skating, kickboxing, cycling, running, jazzercise, swimming, dancing—all these can work with the body to get to the mind, and eventually beyond both.

I like to remind my students that we don’t do yoga to get better at yoga, we do yoga to get better at life. Our yoga practice can certainly be our refuge at times, but if we only use yoga to feel good then it can become just another escape. I believe that our practice has to challenge us in some way in order for us to grow. Ultimately we must face our physical, mental, and spiritual limits in order to transcend them.

Erin Marie Yoga



Helping people who are ready for better