Despite the many physical and mental benefits I have received as a result of my yoga teaching (tools for managing and alleviating anxiety, balancing emotions, clearer thinking, improving body awareness, and increasing self-esteem), I thought that I did not have the time or the space—or the need—for a personal practice. Teaching was my personal practice.
As a life-long learner, any kind of yoga workshop or training inspires my teaching, but the recent Mind/Body Fitness conference I attended is the first time I have been inspired by a YogaFit training to develop my personal practice. As I note in YogaFit Full Circle: An Evolving Teacher Training (part one), between taking Level 4 in 2012 and taking Level 5, Pranayama, and Meditation and Mindfulness in 2017, I explored some of the world of yoga beyond YogaFit. This space, and my own evolution, found me ready to learn new dimensions and ideas that I had not been ready to integrate in the past.
In my evolving teaching, I have only dabbled in the “woo-woo” of yoga. These moments have been mostly experimental and exploratory; they come and go as I remember and forget and rediscover. It has taken a lot of time and integration—kinesthetically and ideologically—for me to be ready for a deeper understanding of breathing and meditation and a deeper understanding of myself. Through this time of exploration and integration, I find that a lot of the woo-woo actually makes sense. And some of it makes sense for my teaching and my personal practice. And the following, I think. makes sense to share....
Teaching Re-Commitment: breathing and yoga wisdom (in baby steps)
I am always telling my classes—yoga and cardio—to remember to breathe. Participants regularly thank me for this reminder. I give these reminders because I know the importance of breathing, mostly from my own practice. When I teach, I teach from my own body and if I am forgetting to breathe, then I know I need to remind my classes to do so.
But my one-day workshop on Pranayama really drove home the importance of breathing—not only of breathing, but of breathing effectively. The three-part breath and the principles of one breath per movement have been ingrained in my mind and body and cemented in my teaching; sometimes I would teach lion’s breath or alternate nostril breathing or equal ration breath, but these were often just attempts at variation and experimentation. I'm starting to bring in more breathing techniques like bee's breath, horse lips, and Amy Weintraub's Hara breath.
Effective breathing means not only emphasizing the inhale (as I always do), but also emphasizing the importance of the exhale. While I always say exhale, I had never thought about why the exhale is at least as important as the inhale. As my trainer (Kelly Gardener) said, “you have to let it all out to get it back in.” Further, we learned that 70% of the toxins in the body are released through the breath; if we are not breathing those toxins out, we are keeping them in. Optimal breath can equal optimal health.
Effective breathing means reversing the habits we have been trained into (paradoxical breathing where we inhale and suck in our stomach) and breathing all the way into the lungs, expanding the ribcage and the belly with the breath (what is referred to as lower body breathing). I had practiced this breath, but I had not understood what this kind of breath was actually doing for our bodies. I had not thought a lot about the function of the breath to nourish our bodies.
I had uttered things like “breath is life” and “breathing consciously is the simplest form of yoga,” but I had not fully integrated or embodied what these phrases mean. In a world that induces anxiety, breathing can slow things down and help alleviate to stress and to fuel every one of our bodily functions. This is particularly true of the nervous system, which can be relaxed and stimulated through breathing.
Breathing consciously can also help to keep us present in our lives—in the here and now, so to speak. A few months ago, I came across a quote from an ancient Chinese philosopher who said that if we are living in the past, we are likely depressed, and if we are living in the future, we are anxious. Only when we live in the present can we find peace of mind. This is one of my biggest challenges and I work to bring this focus on the now to my students as well as to myself.
Commitment to Personal Practice: daily meditation (KISS), positive affirmation, movement, music, mantra, and conscious breathing.
For most of my years of yoga, my personal practice has been synonymous with my teaching. The benefits I got from teaching were enough, I thought, even though sometimes I have felt the need to also do yoga just for me.
On my hiatus from YogaFit, I began to develop a personal practice, but this practice has been more reactive and sporadic than proactive and consistent. The tools I learned from Bo Forbes (myofascial release, interoception, and yoga for empaths) infiltrated my teaching, but were the foundation of my personal practice. So while I introduced “football” and other techniques with the tennis ball, my exploration of these tools have been mostly developed through my practice—suddenly feeling the need to roll out my feet or back, suddenly feeling the need to focus on my breathing.
My YogaFit training with Kelly Gardner (Pranayama and Meditation and Mindfulness) and Sandi Cartwright (Level 5) gave me permission to play with breathing and meditation, the tools to make my personal practice my own, and the impetus to establish a set of rituals that give my mind/body what it needs.
Kelly made breathing and meditation far less intimidating and easy to integrate. In fact, what I learned about meditation told me that I am already practicing meditation techniques; I am just not giving myself credit for “meditation.” Meditation is not about tuning out, but about tuning in; it is like “falling awake,” Kelly told us. And so even though I often feel like maybe I am not doing meditation right, at least I am doing it consistently. As Kelly assured us, trying is doing. I think about meditation now through the “keep it simple, sugar” acronym of KISS; no need to overthink meditation. In fact, that’s kind of the point.
In my development of my personal practice I am trying and doing simply. I have more than 19 days in a row of morning meditation—something I never thought I would be able to do. I am also less skeptical of positive affirmations and mantra (even though I remain skeptical of some of the claims that are made about “The Secret,” for instance).
I have reinvigorated my love of moving meditation and the power of music, and I practice conscious breathing far more often throughout my day. I have routine and flexibility; I decide what kind of meditation or breathing techniques I need based upon the moment rather than a prescribed plan, but I set aside time every morning. I continue to play with ideas and approaches and to evolve my personal practice for my own self-care as well as my continuing evolution as a teacher. While I look forward to where all of this will go, I am increasingly content with simply being here now. And that’s also something I thought was entirely impossible.