Ashley Bell, ERYT-200

Charleston, SC
April 12th, 2016 by Ashley Bell

Growing Your Yoga Teaching: Beyond Traditional Trainings

teaching2

 

I’ve had a half-a-dozen or so yoga teachers ask me lately about 300-hour program recommendations (which lead to a RYT 500-hr certification), each sharing this sentiment almost verbatim: “I feel like I’m ready for more.” It’s a common response that I believe arises for two main reasons. First, it’s lovely to be immersed in studentship, so after awhile we begin to crave that cozy YTT learning environment again. Second, once the initial excitement of teaching wears off and we settle into a routine with the work, it’s easy to crave something new and different. While I believe that 300-hour trainings certainly can be a great investment, they aren’t the only way to learn more and improve as a teacher.

 

1) Let the Students Be Your Teachers

The real teaching begins not when you tell students what to do and they do it, but when you can see that a student is lost or struggling and, without singling them out or pushing them into place through physical adjustments, actually cue them (and the rest of the class along with them) into a greater sense of stability and embodiment. When drop your agenda and take in what’s actually unfolding, you can let the energy in the room and the unique composition of each class shape the experience for the students. This can’t happen if you practice with your class. I’m definitely not saying that practicing with your class is wrong; I’m simply suggesting that it’s not going to allow you to engage fully with the students. When possible, challenge yourself to keep the mat rolled up and demonstration to an absolutely minimum, so that you can deepen your capacity to see and broaden your teaching vocabulary.

2) Find Feedback Friends

Let’s face it, as much as yoga teachers love to share inspirational quotes and Instagram posts about embracing imperfections and recognizing that we are always evolving, getting feedback is hard. Actually receiving feedback is harder. As a recovering perfectionist, I understand that as well as anyone. Here’s a process I’m revisiting: create a form based on commonly used feedback practices for friends and/or fellow teachers to complete after practicing with you. Provide space for them to share one or two things that you are doing well (because that is important info too and let’s face it, it’s nice to hear), three things that you could improve upon, and one word, phrase or piece of verbiage that you lean on too much. Receiving the feedback on paper gives you the chance to take it home and read it when you are rested and resourced (and check back in with it months, perhaps years later) and doesn’t give you the opportunity to quickly make excuses and defend. Let the feedback sit for 24 hours and if you still have questions grab tea and ask for clarification. Don’t forget to offer your thanks for their honesty and support.

3) Studio Hop

Practice at studios where you don’t teach, where no one knows your name and your story – “date” around, sample, explore. Can you respond to the cues you are offered and give up “your way” of doing to sample other ways of being? Practice at studios that don’t teach the style of yoga that you practice. It’s pretty easy to get exposure to Vinyasa yoga, but have you explored Kundalini, Restorative or Yin to name a few? Yoga has never been one thing or one way, so exploring other styles and spaces, hearing alternate perspectives on these dynamic and diverse practices will provide you with more tools and techniques to choose from when guiding your students.

4) Be a Beginner

Even if you go to other studios, you’ll still be, for the most part, amongst people of your tribe. General yoga etiquette is fairly consistent. If you have a 200-hour certification, Sanskrit probably no longer sounds foreign. When a teacher casually mentions chakras you likely don’t fall into a panic wondering if you have chakras and if so where in the world they might have been hiding all of your life. To keep your body and your mind challenged, become a beginner again.  Feel what it feels like to walk into a foreign environment with zero connection to the community, no understanding of the language around the practices. Take up knitting, or boxing, or tap dancing…anything that piques your curiosity. I’ve been learning how to swing kettlebells. It’s not only humbling but incredibly helpful. When you are in the role of the student, what kinds of words and gestures help you to feel supported and engaged? How can you apply these teaching methods in your own offerings?

5) Be a Patient Patient

As yoga instructors in a modern studio environment, we have the opportunity to introduce students to the power of the mind-body connection. To fathom the depth of connection between emotional responses and physical patterns, I find it helpful to work one-on-one with holistic health practitioners. When we catch a glimpse of our own beautifully complex nature, we have a greater capacity to see each student as a unique, multifarious organism – challenging us to limit our use of scripted cues and eliminate expectations of cookie-cutter asana. When we recognize how long it takes to begin to navigate energetic blockages, we better understand why the student who, on paper, has all of the mobility and strength to come into crow, might not be ready yet. It can be easy to sit in the teacher seat and wonder why folks aren’t “getting it”, to look at others and question why they can’t just do that thing that they obviously need to do to feel better. But when we are willing to be “in process”, we can begin to understand that the deepest patterns require a lifetime (or more) to unwind.

6) Workshops

It may seem obvious, but participate in workshops with teachers that come to your town, even if you haven’t heard of them. If they resonate with you, ask them who their teachers or influences are. Get on the email lists of studios within a two to three hours driving radius – day trip length. Enroll in a weekend retreat somewhere you’ve never been for a mini-immersion. At the very least you’ll hear new variations on familiar concepts, different ways to approach breath and bandha, warriors and dogs. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll find the teacher with whom you want to commit to study for the next big phase of your journey. When I hear someone say, “I’m looking for a 300-hour program,” it feels a little cart before the horse to me – somewhat akin to shopping for a mail-order bride. I wasn’t even looking at 300-hour trainings when I took a class from Dana Flynn at a workshop in California in 2007, but afterwards knew I wanted to study more with her. At the time her studio, Laughing Lotus in NYC only had 300-hour trainings that spanned a few months with class every weekend – not an option for this SC-based single mother of two. But a few years later they began offering their trainings in short 100 and 50-hour intensives and I was in the first session.

 

Could I have participated in a nearby program years ago and gotten that 300-hour credential under my belt sooner? Probably. But here’s the thing with degrees and certifications – just because you get “it”, doesn’t mean that you “get it”. Regardless of the subject you are teaching, consuming more information might but won’t necessarily make you a better teacher.  And let’s face it, these trainings are expensive – especially if teaching yoga is your fulltime job. If you feel the urge to grow, know that you can go out not just up – you don’t have to climb the certification ladder to “get more”. Don’t underestimate the value of experiential learning; formal lessons are not the only place where learning can happen.

I absolutely encourage you to pursue your 300-hour training, but I assure you that there are plenty of other ways to refine your teaching, and in the process you might forge the relationship that leads you to that training in more meaningful and magical way. The suggestions above are but a few ways to grow. Any moment that broadens our understanding of human-ness and increases our capacity for compassion can improve our ability to connect more fully when we offer our interpretation of the teachings of yoga.

October 20th, 2015 by Ashley Bell

The Heart is the Little Engine that Can

Stopwatch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve probably only run twice in the last year, maybe even months.  I went through periods earlier in my life where I ran with more regularity.  When I was in my early to mid 20s, I ran toward some unknown solution, an indeterminate destination, the person I thought I was supposed to be but couldn’t see very clearly.  In my late 20s and early 30s I ran to get away – from responsibility, from pain, from promises I didn’t know how to keep.  But I never felt like a runner. “I run,” I would say if it came up in conversation, “but I’m not a runner.”

This morning when plans with a friend fell through, I ran. I ran to feel the blissful fall breeze, the bright sun and the pounding of my heart in my chest. I only timed myself to determine the approximate length of the loop at the park, but at the end of the second lap I realized that I had moved a little more freely and run a little bit faster than the first go round.  I smiled and the sky looked closer and bluer. I suppose that confidence put a little spring in my step, and by the third lap I had clearly found my strength.

In the end, the numbers don’t have meaning to me, but the message in the experience is clear and lasting.  Start.  Just begin.  Set out from where you are now and don’t doubt just because it’s slow going or you wobble a bit at the outset.  Remember how that whole riding a bike thing started?  You have to commit and be willing to fumble through it until it all comes together.  The mind is always going to fear the fall, and rational thinking is not without benefit.  But we can start to see when our head keep us from following our heart.  I believe in life, and certainly on the yoga mat, that two things hold us back, keep us stuck: the stuff we don’t know that we somehow think we should, and the stuff we are convinced that we know and to which we are holding tight.  How is who I think I am or am not keeping me from really living the most full and dynamic life possible?

I am a runner. I am whatever I choose to be. Everything we could possibly become isn’t down the road, it’s carried within us, undiscovered or perhaps forgotten. When we choose to begin, with courage and a healthy dose of curiosity, we bring into being magic that we couldn’t possibly conjure up in the mind space.  Just think you can, turn the pedals and breathe.  At some point everything will catch up with your heart, but let it lead.  Believe.

April 25th, 2015 by Ashley Bell

Lost in the Light*

shadow

Last night marked the end of a difficult day. I’m prone to depression and certain conditions and hormonal shifts can kick it into high gear. I’ve learned to manage it, but those with first-hand personal experience understand it’s not something you can “shake off” as well-intentioned folks will often suggest. When it grabs me, this feeling, it seems as though my brain is the dark mysterious inky liquid in the Magic-8-Ball, but the answers just won’t float to the surface. Last night after the children had gone to bed, even the sweet angelic face of my daughter peacefully slumbering next to me couldn’t raise the shadow. I worried about her future, her brother’s and mine, the fate of the world at large. I was tired but I couldn’t sleep. So after a little tossing and turning I thought I’d do some research for this morning’s classes. I recalled that I’d discovered a piece of folded 8.5×11 paper when going through some files a few weeks back, and I’d left it in the “unfinished business” pile. I had noticed that I had written some yoga sequencing on it at some point and wanted to give it a look before I tossed it. When I run across notes from classes or workshop from the past I find that revisiting them always provides a little creative spark as the old stuff strikes the rough, rawness of the newer version of me. What I found upon closer inspection was freedom…

Awhile back, I could never remember if it was ’07 or ’08, I went out to Ojai for the Yoga Crib, a weekend of workshops hosted each October by the lovely and generous Kira Ryder. Participants register for two workshops on Friday, two on Saturday, and one on Sunday. My Sunday workshop swan song was with Dana Flynn of Laughing Lotus NYC (where I am currently working toward my 500-hour training). In short, it was a game changer. Dana was playing with some really interesting transitions at the time, with names like “Shakti” and “I Am Free”. Her playlists were full of soulful music that spanned a myriad of disciplines and cultures and she infused her teaching with rich language and poetry. I suddenly saw how my love of art and dance and reading and writing could dovetail with my yoga practice and teaching in much deeper and more meaningful ways. I was particularly moved by a poem that she shared, but when I got home only the idea of it lingered. Something about a path…but that was all I could recall, along with the feeling of comfort the words provided. I’d thought about it frequently through the years hoping that I’d stumble across the quote in its entirety, but in all of my research and reading it had never resurfaced.

Then last night as I looked more closely at the piece of paper that I’d hastily sorted a few weeks back, I realized that it contained my shorthand notes from Dana’s class in Ojai. I’d jotted them down on the back of my boarding pass that had been printed October 24, 2007 – seven and a half years to the day before my re-discovery of it. I’d written down some of the names of those interesting transitions and then there in the top right-hand corner were the words: Directions to a Poem. And that was it. I went straight to the googles and as you might imagine “directions on how to write a poem” and thousands of similar sites popped up. I finally tried <”directions to a poem” poem> and the second suggestion offered a link to some verses under that name by a Jewel Mathieson on a random Facebook page. I clicked on it, and there in the dark of the night echoing in the dark of my mind were the words I needed…

From Main Street: It’s best to leave well before dawn
Weather permitting, drive into the storm
Cross the bridge where the hemlock grows wild
These roots make the best medicine
Don’t follow the tracks
Take the tunnel at the end of the light
Dig along fault lines
Press yourself between rocks and hard places
Wait for the undertow
When you think you’re lost, you’re there.

And I was definitely there. It was as if the Magic-8-Ball had provided the answer I was searching for, the red dot on the map at a tourist attraction: “You are here.” There’s comfort in that. Context. Presence. Peace.

I always tell my students and myself that forgetting is more than okay, because it allows us to connect with the divine experience of remembering. I believe that it’s a huge part of the nature of being human that we get lost over and over again so that we may find and be found. It’s how we grow and evolve. Yoga doesn’t remove darkness from our lives, but it allows us to see it as inextricably linked to the light. It is the luminousness of the sun shining on the moon that creates the shadows that then sculpt the shifting crescent, the slivery smile and the grape-shaped gibbous. Light begets shadow begets light. We live the duality of infinite spirit contained, for an indeterminate time, in a finite form. As long as we are tethered to these beautiful bodies we will stay in the dance of forgetting and remembering, creation and destruction, our spirits continually rising like the proverbial phoenix.

“Directions to a Poem” speaks to the courage we must have to be committed authentically and presently to the ongoing process of breaking down to break through, to release the patterns that once served but come to eventually imprison, to be willing to spend some time in the murky mud so we might blossom like the lotus. The words remind us that it is only by traveling through the dark forest of the unknown that we find our way through to the light. So don’t be afraid to drive into the storm, to pass by the well-trodden paths for parts unknown, to put yourself between a rock and a hard place. Only then will we know – check that, may we remember – what we’re made of…spirit, stardust, song, Shakti, Shiva, shadow and the bright, life-giving light of the sun.

*”Lost in the Light” is a lovely song by Bahamas, although the lyrics don’t have much (if anything) to do with the content of this post.  It’s s a good listen nonetheless, and clearly I love the title.

November 10th, 2014 by Ashley Bell

Circumstantial Effortlessness

I inadvertently summed up the mission behind much of my yoga teaching in passing earlier this week, in the middle of a conversation that had nothing (but apparently everything) to do with yoga. I was discussing some parenting decisions with a friend – rationalizing and rethinking, and I found myself saying, “I don’t want to spend my time and energy trying to create situations and circumstances that make things easy for my children. I want them to have the skills and resources to find a sense of ease regardless of the circumstances.” Let me be clear that I have no intention of putting either kid through a “Boy Named Sue”-style childhood experience, but so much parenting these days is about making everything as perfect as possible for our children, and I don’t think that it really serves them. Love, support and guidance are all essential to a child’s growth and development, but the longer it takes someone to realize that the universe doesn’t organize itself around their desires, the more painful that lesson tends to be.

I’ve taught yoga for over 11 years now, and I often encourage students to notice their responses to the discomfort in a pose, the awkwardness, the wobbles in transition and the falls and fails. I believe this to be so much more important than the poses themselves: how do we respond when things seem less than ideal? When our sense of identity and value is attached to some set of external circumstances, when we only feel okay when the situation we find ourselves in aligns with the way we think things should be, then we hand over our power, making internal space to fertilize a breeding ground for frustration and disappointment. Yoga teachers often remind their students that we need to practice the poses we are averse to, those that we’d rather pretend aren’t there. We remind our students this because we need to hear it ourselves. As teachers we are exponentially more likely than the average yogi to become attached to “our way” of doing things. It’s easy to feel that things “should be” this way or that, especially in our heavily edited yoga lives.

I believe that while the universe doesn’t organize itself around our desires, it manifests magical moments to remind us that it will save us from our own well intentioned but misdirected navigation. The longer I live the more I understand how every mistake was a masterful move. As I lost my focus and grip in the stumbling and fumbling, through that softness and spinning the universe is able to nudge me back into alignment with myself, my dharma, maybe even my destiny (if such a thing exists). So many simple quotes point us in the direction of internal alignment and trust: “it’s happening FOR you not TO you,” and “you are the perfect person for the situation you find yourself in.” It can be easy to question in these “WTF”, “why me” moments, but that’s always just an opportunity to remember where and how we grow. When my kids are unhappy with me because they feel I’m standing in the way of their wants, I always say, “When it’s possible, I’m happy to do what I can to make you happy. But my first responsibility is what?” And they know the answer: to keep you healthy and safe. The universe wants us to be whole and healthy and breathing and heart-beating in rhythm and harmony with the world around us. I think it keeps trying to encourage us to remember that everything we’ve ever looked around for is hidden in plain sight, right under our noses. Align with what’s within and you’ll never be without. I’ll be forgetting that sometime soon I’m sure, so thanks in advance for the reminder. Namaste.

November 25th, 2013 by Ashley Bell

pinchacrop

When I walk out of my bedroom door I am met with a reflection of myself in the bathroom mirror, which runs from counter (mid-thigh) height, up about three or four feet, and two to three strides to the right toward the sink, toilet and tub.  Sometimes I turn left into the rest of the apartment, but regardless it is hard to leave my room without coming face to face (or face to body) with myself in the mirror.  I noticed not too long ago my habit of coming out of my room and heading to the shower, taking a right and as I do frowning, or grimacing, or rolling my eyes at the sight of my ass in the mirror.  It’s a habit that seems fairly small and harmless, but one I’m working to change for various reasons.  We all have a personal narrative, an endlessly exhaustive collective of experiences that have brought us to this moment and our perception of who and how we are.  Some of these stories help us see ourselves honestly, some hold us back from going we need to grow.  Truth is always up for debate, but here’s the brief version of my personal story about body image:

I’ve always been, by medical standards, thin.  Sophomore year in high school I was walking through the cafeteria and a junior boy asked me if I’d “grown those things over night”.  Crass, yes, but I wondered the same thing myself.  Suddenly I had 32Ds, a tiny waist, and a backside that swished when I walked – a habit I tried hard to break because I hated the attention it seemed to command.  I always danced, participated in sports every season, and ate like a linebacker, and the end result was a body that people routinely referred to as “perfect”.  I never really knew what to say when someone complemented me on my figure (to be fair I don’t handle complements about anything well ever, but that’s probably a topic for another piece of prose).  It wasn’t something I’d earned or achieved.  It’s just how I was.  Whenever I offered that explanation it seemed to piss people off.  So I picked up the unfortunate habit of drawing their attention to some aspect of my person that might be viewed as unattractive and/or quickly changing the subject.

When I went to college we had a sorority exercise where everyone in the pledge class had a piece of paper with their name at the top, and everyone else wrote something they appreciated or admired about that person. At least 80% of the comments on my paper were about how perfect my body was.  I can totally acknowledge now that these were kind and well-intentioned complements, and that as a fairly introverted gal I probably didn’t give folks much to work with, but at the time all I felt was that people only valued me for the way that I looked, which was not something I ever really cared all that much about.  I loved what my body could do.  I loved to dance, hike, walk, boulder, run, bike…you name it.  If it’s physical I’m usually all about it.  What my body looked like wasn’t ever all that important to me, but I think that’s probably easy for me to say because my body generally always looked fairly acceptable by societal standards.

My shape changed a good bit though the years, especially through two pregnancies.  After having children and nursing for 3.5 years total between the two kids, I came out of the other side of that experiment looking different.  Anthropologically it makes a lot of sense: pre-kids I was generally soft and fairly voluptuous, practically a picture of fertility, and after kids I am leaner and more muscular, the ideal structure for defending the nest.  I haven’t tried to change my body, it’s just happening.  The choices I make about diet and exercise are related to feeling good, not looking good.  It’s arguable that, again, by society’s standards I’m doing okay, so it’s easier for me to take that stance.  But we all have our own expectations of ourselves, don’t we?  They’re born of our history and our upbringing, our cultural influences and the things that we see and hear.  Our culture is pretty obsessed with the female form, and standards of beauty over the years have become much more unrealistic as cosmetic procedures have become more accessible.  And even those high profile women who have had cosmetic procedures done, who have access to trainers and personal chefs and careers that revolve around their bodies, are whittled away, smoothed over and re-plumped in all of the right places by the magic of Photoshop.  Society has some pretty crazy – I’ll even go so far as to say inhuman – standards.  My favorite quote of all time on this topic is from Tina Fey’s book Bossy Pants:

“But I think the first real change in women’s body image came when JLo turned it butt-style. That was the first time that having a large-scale situation in the back was part of mainstream American beauty. Girls wanted butts now. Men were free to admit that they had always enjoyed them. And then, what felt like moments later, boom—Beyoncé brought the leg meat. A back porch and thick muscular legs were now widely admired. And from that day forward, women embraced their diversity and realized that all shapes and sizes are beautiful. Ah ha ha. No. I’m totally messing with you. All Beyonce and JLo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes women must have to qualify as beautiful. Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits. The person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian, who, as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes.”

It’s so funny because it’s so true.  And while it can be argued that our insecurities are the fault of the media, I don’t buy it.  We’re only fed what we’re willing to swallow.  So many women I know complain about the standard, but then hold themselves to it more harshly that anyone else would.  I worked in a gym for a long time, and I heard a lot of locker room discussions that really saddened me.  The most complements I ever received on my body during a short period of time came in that gym after having the stomach flu twice in one month.  Thanks but no thanks.  Why do we value what we value?  Why are our standards for beauty so skewed?  So many people don’t feel at home in their bodies.  There’s so much shame and hate.  In my career I’ve found that sometimes those who from an outsiders perspective have the “perfect” body are the most miserable in their own skin, arguably the least healthy.  This is not something the media does to us.  It’s something we do to ourselves.  It affects some of us only in our weakest moments, and others of us are blindly consumed by it. I think we have a great opportunity, if we are willing, to listen to our stories about how we look, to our judgments about how others look, to begin as individuals to challenge our body images and standards of beauty.  Only then will there be a cultural shift.

So back to the bathroom mirror…why do I, in certain moments, find the body reflected back at me so discouraging?  I think it’s about attachment.  The body that I had 20 years ago has changed.  Things have shifted (mostly in the direction of gravity).  I’ve got veins and spots and bumps and dimples and I suppose I’m not supposed to talk about that stuff but I think it’s important for all of us to acknowledge that we are real, not airbrushed.  All of us.  I’m not perfect.  And I never was.  Back in the day I had a body that looked much like what those teenage boys were seeing in centerfolds, so to a handful of guys in my little corner of the world in a moment here or there I was perfect.  And probably only because they had an agenda I was too naïve to recognize.  The funny thing is that I knew it was bullshit then too, but it’s only as I age and realize that I’m moving away from that “so-called-perfect” body that I have moments when I feel less valuable because don’t look like I did half my life ago.

On my next birthday I’ll be 40.  And I look it.  I’ve got lines on my face from smiling and frowning and thinking and learning things the hard way.  I’ve got stretch marks from having babies and suns spots from having way to much fun on way too many beaches way too many times.  I have little to no breast tissue left because apparently lactating is one of my greatest talents.  Who knew?  But I’ve earned this body – every last line and mark and scar.  It’s the illustrated version of my personal narrative.  Moving forward, I have made it a practice to make eye contact with myself when I walk past my bathroom mirror, rather than doing a scan of my body to find satisfaction or criticism.   If I value all that my body can do, even these little moments can be flipped to lift me up rather than to silently and slowly sabotage my self worth.

I am responsible for two very observant and impressionable people – a boy and a girl.  I want them both, my son as much as my daughter, to know that I am proud of who I am and where I’ve been, and that I am grateful for the body that tells that that story.  I want them to understand that the human body is a beautiful machine.  I want them to feel empowered by what their body does not by how it looks.  I want all of us to expand our standards of beauty so that we can see it in the features and faces of each person we meet, to celebrate our differences rather than distrust or devalue them, to avoid judging ourselves as being greater or lesser for any reason, least of all appearances.

It’s been said that “people are like stained glass windows…their true beauty is only revealed when there is light from within.”  This is just one reason why the mindfulness practices of yoga are so valuable.  If the practice revolves around inquiry and a willingness to sit with change, to find stillness amongst the chaos of outer life and inner chatter, then yoga can truly be a life-long path.  If yoga is about the shapes we can make then it is only a matter of time before it becomes unfulfilling.  Because no matter how much time, energy and money we throw at it, the body it is constantly changing.  French philosopher Simone Weil said, “Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions…”  No matter how young we look, we are still aging.  And no matter how perfect we look, we are still human.  No matter how much we match the accepted American cultural standards of beauty we are still going to experience loss, rejection, failure, loneliness, disappointment, fear and heartache.  The flip side of that is every single one of us can experience peace, love, joy, contentment and gratitude regardless of how we look, how much money we have, or any other interchangeable piece of our perceived identity.  I’m not suggesting that we can all be happy all of the time, but I think we can learn to see where and when our judgments and expectations are the source of our own unhappiness and start to wipe it out before it wears us down.  The things that we tell ourselves are powerful, so we have the choice to adopt habits and mantras that foster acceptance, gratitude and wholeness.  Poet Courtney Walsh asks us to remember:  “You didn’t come here to be perfect.  You already are.  You came here to be beautifully human.  Flawed and fabulous.”  Amen to that.

 

 

November 10th, 2013 by Ashley Bell

Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow*

It seems as though every time I log onto the Facebooks these days an article or status update is attempting to define what yoga is and is not.  To label certain styles/methods/teachers/trainings/clothes/foods/practices as more or less “yogic”.  Good or bad.  Right or wrong.   Depending on the day and my mood my responses to such posts may vary, but overall I can say that it just bums me out.   So I decided to write about it.  Is that just me trying to convince people to see things my way because I don’t like that they are trying to convince people to see things their way?  I hope not.  But if so, I direct you to the Walt Whitman quote below…

I suppose it’s fair to point out that as a fairly independent spirit I’ve never had a difficult time living with perceived contradictions of identity.  To provide a simple example, I was captain of the cheerleading squad, but I wore my motorcycle jacket over my uniform.  I was never a joiner, or found any identity from belonging to one particular group or another.  When I read Walt Whitman for the first time it was quite validating: Do I contradict myself?  Very well then, I contradict myself.  I am large.  I contain multitudes.

So it makes sense that on the yoga front, I have no sworn allegiances.  I practice many different styles and love them all for different reasons.  I have read various interpretations of the sutras, but ultimately the meanings grow as I evolve through life experiences and shifts in perspective.  My practice has changed through the years, and the practice itself in this fair city alone has expanded tremendously just since I began practicing almost a dozen years ago.  The more people who bring their expression of movement and breath to this thing we call yoga, the more the meaning, the very definition of this powerful practice grows.  After all, without all of our unique experiences bringing the practice to life, it ceases to exist…it’s just ancient history.

I definitely support the process of inquiry that allows us to let what doesn’t serve or resonate to fall away (neti neti), but why do we devalue and attempt to disallow others their experiences?  If you don’t want to eat something, don’t eat it.  If you don’t want to support a particular business, don’t spend money there.  If you don’t want to dress a certain way, wear whatever you do like.  If you have tried a particular studio, experienced a particular teacher or sampled a yogic style that doesn’t resonate, then let it go.  But what happened to the whole, “many paths one truth” idea?

Yoga is infinite, like love.  To try and define it and divide us is a sacrilege, as I see it.   We don’t all have to get along, but a little tolerance and respect would be nice.   When it comes down to it, doesn’t my criticism of another’s choices say more about me than about them anyway?  And along those lines, those of us who read critical articles and FB rants about yoga have the opportunity to recognize that the internet provides many people with an outlet for their frustration/anger/fear, when they don’t have adequate or sufficient structures of support in their lives.   Sending love rather than engaging in arguments via the comments section or bitching about it with friends could be a much better use of energy.  Hard, I know, but for me it’s a worthy (albeit occasionally challenging) endeavor.

I’m not suggesting that lively debates about yoga and its practice are not valuable, but when we undermine our ability to listen over the internal static of our own judgment, such discussions are not particularly productive.  If your way of understanding and interpreting the world truly serves you, then it cannot be devalued because of someone else’s way of being.  And what if, just maybe, someone else has a different perspective that opens you up in a way that you’d never considered – a way that grows you, that allows you to evolve.  Why shut that out?  Ravi Ravindra attributed the following to Krishnamurti at a recent lecture: As long as I am love is not.  If we are building walls in defense of our identity, we cannot be engaged in the oneness that holds the universe together.  Where’s the Namaste, y’all?

So in short, if you spend 15 hours a day levitating over your meditation cushion, I salute you.  If you have an Instagram account thick with Coyote Ugly yoga photos, I salute you.  Whatever you are doing out there to make sense of the body you live in, the ego you dance with, and spirit that lights you up, I appreciate you.  Because this “living” thing, this human experience, is a crazy fucking ride.  And like it or not, we really are all in this together.  Our varied ways of making it through are each beautiful in their own right.  So you show me yours and I’ll show you mine.  Let’s inspire each other with our creativity and imagination and resilience.

*Big love to George Clinton for the quote, one of my all-time faves.  Funkadelic…)

 

October 13th, 2013 by Ashley Bell

Revisiting Imperfection/Humanness (lather, rinse, repeat)

I’ve been sharing a lot in my yoga classes lately about the freedom that comes from embracing our imperfections.  That change and growth come through struggles and stumbling.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, the practice of teaching always brings out what I need to hear, which is ultimately not about the particulars of my life but the universal nature of human experience.

So this weekend I exposed my human-ness, the universe’s way of forcing me to fuck up when I refuse to show up to the truth.  I’ll spare you the details, because they really aren’t important.  Basically, an old pattern in my life that I thought was ancient history reared it’s ugly head – a beast that had been peeking out at me from behind the trees here and there for months now, threatening to make an appearance.  And like so many teenagers in so many horror movies, I ignored the red flags and forged ahead blindly.   Ultimately no one got hurt, just inconvenienced.  Okay I hurt a lot, but that was my wake up call.  It was due. I disappointed some people, but most of all myself.  In the past, my response to that disappointment would be to obsess about how to go back and change the past, to right the wrongs, to pay my karmic debts as quickly as possible, and then some.  But the reality of any situation, no matter how awful the outcome, is that we can’t change it.  We have to move on.  Period.

So once I let go of that need to fix the events of the recent past (okay, truth, I am still wrestling with the disappointment thing a little but at least it’s not blinding) I was much better able to focus on what lessons are for me in this moment – the “Now What”.  What I learned was this: I’m sad.  And lonely.   Not all of the time, not even most of the time, but sometimes, and that’s okay.  The last few years of my life have been hard for me, despite my need to tell myself otherwise.  And the fight to keep those feelings at bay has exhausted me.  I’ve never felt more cared for in some moments, and in others I’ve never felt more lost.   I have a very busy schedule, and that helps me to avoid having to sit with my pain.   Everyone experiences pain for reasons more varied than I could begin to enumerate.  In my life most of the pain shows up because I miss my children when they are with their father.  I miss the sense of security that comes from sharing a home with someone who would do anything to protect me and those precious children.  But I know that everything that has transpired has happened to strengthen me.  Process is messy.  But I own it, all of it – even the ugly stuff.  It’s me.  I did that.  And whether I like it or not, it was exactly what I needed to do to show me where I need to grow.

I had brunch with my friend Shannon on Thursday, and she talked about a book she is reading for work called the Happiness Trap.  One of the things the book suggests is that we need to make space in our lives for pain so that we can let it come AND GO without struggle.  And then my friend Sarah reminded me yesterday that no matter how much shitty stuff happens, what matters is what we do with that, how we deal with it that makes us who we are.  We all feel loss, pain, grief, fear…and the longer we push it away the more we stay connected to it.  The deeper we bury it the stronger its roots grow into our hearts, further obscuring our light.   I think for me it’s about letting go of the notion that “grown-up” is a place you arrive at some point when you have everything all figured out.  It’s recognizing once and for all that I’m never going to be “fixed”, because I’m not broken, I’m just human.  It’s bowing down to the realization that life will always involve pain and suffering. Yoga doesn’t move me beyond experiencing that, it just provides me with new tools for meeting, accepting and surviving.   I’ve always known this stuff on some level, but the knowing becomes deeper and more profound through each new day.

I’ve been reading the quote below over and over again for over a decade, and the depth of it continues to be revealed.  It’s a portion of a passage from Das Energi by Paul Williams, and there are fewer books that have meant more to me:

Sooner or later a person begins to notice that everything that happens to him is perfect, relates directly to who he is, had to happen, was meant to happen, plays its little role in fulfilling his destiny…He does not live in a state of bliss, though perhaps he feels himself moving toward one – or toward something, he doesn’t know what it is but it is the way he has to go, the journey towards it is the only life he enjoys.  It is hard; it is exciting; it’s is satisfying, lonely, joyous, frustrating, puzzling, enlightening, real; It is his life, that’s all.  He accepts it.

My soundtrack for sitting and dealing with it:

Revelator, Gillian Welch
Leaving Eden, Carolina Chocolate Drops
Nightswimming, R.E.M.
Amazing Grace, Cat Power
Beautiful World, Colin Hay
Blues Run the Game, Slang
Borrowed Tune, Neil Young
Lost in the Light, Bahamas
Song for Zula, Phosphorescent
Oh Sweet Nuthin’, Velvet Underground
Crown of Thorns, Mother Love Bone
Red, Red, Red, Fiona Apple

Take care of yourself, take care of your brothers and sisters, your family and friends, the strangers whose individual manifestations of human experience may look different from yours, but are rooted in the same emotional struggles.  I’m off do the same, and to keep living, loving and growing, one breath at a time.  xoxo

October 2nd, 2013 by Ashley Bell

Holy Ship, Mission Accomplished

On Saturday I had the opportunity to be a part of a pretty amazing event.  Amazing is not quite the right word, but it’s close.  I’ve actually been searching for the words to describe the experience for days now and I’m still not able to sum it up.  I hate to say it, but you truly had to be there.  If you weren’t able to attend, this is what it looked like (for a moment at least, photo by Katie Gandy photography):

 

namaste

And this is what it sounded like:
Screen Shot 2013-09-29 at 10.00.35 AM

 

 

Okay, that’s not really what it sounded like, it’s just the playlist.  But if you weren’t there you now can still enjoy the soundtrack.  And you can also still celebrate the lessons of that beautiful morning: get out and find your bliss, celebrate your health and the pursuit of wellness, do big things and blaze new trails.

Being asked to be an ambassador for lululemon King Street this past summer has been an incredible gift on multiple levels.  When some of the lulu team asked me about my professional goals months ago, I told them that I just want to teach yoga and reach as many people as possible.  So they put me on the deck of an aircraft carrier in front of nearly 400 people and handed me a mike, further confirmation that if you just put your hopes and dreams out there and then open up to the possibility, big HUGE things will happen.

As the crowd dispersed on Saturday, local lulu leaders Stacey and Parker asked me what I was thinking while I was teaching.  And I had to tell them honestly: I wasn’t really thinking about anything.  I was just in awe and totally grateful.  At one point, as the community stood in tree pose, the energy was so incredibly amazing that it almost sat me down.  Sounds like “sh*t yoga teachers say”, right?  But if you were there, you felt it.   It was stunning.  And whether you were there or not, you can slow down a bit from time to time and give yourself the chance to have these opportunities to feel wholly awake and alive.  The setting and circumstances at Sweat on Deck certainly made for a beautiful moment, but I truly believe that if we are willing to pause and breathe we can tune in and find bliss one little taste at a time.

So it was a Top Gun setting on Saturday, but I walked away with Ferris Bueller echoing in my head: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

September 22nd, 2013 by Ashley Bell

The Hero’s Pancakes

This morning I made pancakes for my children.

For some moms, this could be an every day statement.  No big deal.  For me, it feels like a major victory.  It’s probably been a year since I made my children a hot breakfast.  Looking at the positive, between their father and me, we’re able to provide food daily for our children, a sign of abundance that far surpasses what most in this world ever experience.  But I was born into a First World life.  As a parent and recovering perfectionist, I have gradually let go of many of the unrealistic expectations I had for myself before I had children, especially in the last two and half years I’ve spent as a single working mother.  Some unknown but very wise individual (not Shakespeare, despite regular attributions) said, “Expectation is the root of all heartache”, and I have definitely found that to be true.  Resisting the urge to compare myself to others has been particularly helpful too, although in truth I continue to practice letting go of expectation and comparison daily and probably always will.  So much expectation and comparison is connected to this notion that certain ways of being are “normal”.  As a teenager I was always trying in the most safe and innocuous of ways to demonstrate my “independence” from what “everyone else” was doing.  But when we do what we do to thumb our nose at the norms, we are just as bound by them as if we only do what we do to succumb.  Gradually I’m learning to find guidance from within without those filters of expectation and comparison.

This is why my teaching style is so rooted in permission.  I feel that my job first and foremost is to create an environment where students can learn within the safety of their own mat what feels right in their own bodies.  That doesn’t mean only doing what feels good.  I truly believe when given the space and time people will tap into a trust and intuition that that will guide them toward wholeness and wellness.  If a person is willing to make the time to listen and feel, there is no avoiding the call to evolve.  As part of nature, it’s in our nature.

I recently had the great pleasure and privilege of taking a Journey Ride at Charleston Ride with my inspiring friend Rebecca Young.  She presented the cycle of the hero’s path as identified by Joseph Campbell.  The place where so many of us get hung up is on the first step of the journey.  We hear the call, we feel the discomfort, uneasiness, the sense that something needs to change, that action needs to be taken, but we fear the consequences of the choice to heed the call.  We refuse it.  Sometimes the universe conspires to hit us over the head until we are willing to cross the threshold, but many of us become so attached to our suffering and our stories as to make them a part of our identity.  Once we link body and mind through the yoga practice, once we start listening, it becomes harder and harder to avoid the calls when they come.  We must evolve.

What do pancakes have to do with evolution?  Well for the last 9 months, I’ve worked every morning, weekends too.  I do make my schedule, but I’ve been balancing my schedule with my children and their school and activities, their father and his schedule, along with the needs of my home studios and my fellow instructors.  So I picked up classes where I could and I ended up teaching every morning.  I love my job, and I made the schedule work.  And for the first four or five months it did work.  Then I started to say once a week to myself, “I need a morning off”.  Then it started happening once a day, “I need a morning off.”   They one day I said it out loud.  And then I found myself saying it more regularly.  Did I do anything about it?  Nope.  I can be pretty obstinate.  Finally after many months of knowing what I needed, I had a very simple conversation and made it happen.  Done.  And three weeks in to my first month with Sunday mornings off, I made pancakes for my kids – from scratch even – not because I wanted to be fancy, but simply because I don’t keep pancake mix lying around.  They were happy, I was happy, and life kept right on rolling by, breath by breath.

I don’t think that making pancakes makes me a hero, nor does asking for the morning off.  But I think that learning to listen, feel and respond when I know something needs to shift keeps me on the path.  And that’s what keeps me on the mat.  The little things in life are often what bring about more change (think of a slight adjustment in the distribution of weight in a yoga pose, for example).  The little things in life are often what bring us great joy (i.e.: pancakes) and so often it’s letting go of the little things, making small shifts to move out of fear and toward bliss, that are the biggest victories.  Our acts of bravery need not be large or broadcast far and wide to be valuable. Campbell once likened the individual to a blade of grass.  He said that the blade of grass grows up every day, despite being cut back two inches every two weeks by the lawn mower.  That blade of grass isn’t deterred by the setback.  It just keeps growing, and so do we if we can continue to reflect and allow ourselves to be in process.  We don’t have to be perfect, we don’t need fixing, we just need to keep moving toward the light.

I would encourage anyone who hasn’t to see Finding Joe, a lovely documentary about the hero’s journey.  In the film various scholars and other professionals share their take on the path Campbell identified, which is not a straight line or a vertical climb but a circle, a cycle.  The last stage on the circle is to return with an “elixir” to help heal others, to encourage and perhaps even inspire.  Such is the nature of this kind of sharing, I suppose.  Does that make me a hero?  Campbell says if we are willing to embrace the journey then we are all the heroes of our own lives.  So yeah, I am a hero.  And you are too.  So we don’t all wear spandex suits and capes (although I’m fully in support of that).  We’re more like the little blades of grass, standing side-by-side, a connected collective of individuals.  A blade of grass can seem unassuming, but with the right perspective each rooted sprout is poetic.  And I think we lose a sense of our own poetic and heroic nature in the day-to-day routine.  I’d like to suggest that being heroic isn’t about being big or fancy, it’s about being real.  When we support each other’s individual experiences, when we resist the urge to compare as a means of establishing our sense of self-worth, when we expect nothing of ourselves but a courageous commitment to the truth, we are heroes.

July 31st, 2013 by Ashley Bell

you are not broken

I have the pleasure of teaching the Wednesday morning Yin Vinyasa class at Mission Yoga during Kelly’s maternity leave, and had several requests for quotes and playlist after class this morning.  Some context for the quotes: I almost always start a yin class with a quote to inspire a willingness to sit with process and the discomfort of change.  Today’s choice:

“We can’t be afraid of change.  You may feel very secure in the pond that you are in, but if you never venture out of it you will never know that there is such a thing as an ocean, a sea.  Holding on to something that is good for you now may be the very reason you don’t have something better.”  – C. Joybell C.

I use the book Insight Yoga by Sarah Powers as a blueprint for many of the yin sequences I teach.  This book is a great resource, if you don’t have it you should check it out.  It’s super informative and very accessible.  Today we worked a sequence for the stomach/spleen meridians.  In her book Sarah explains in much greater detail how balanced spleen chi fosters a sense of “being at home in ourselves” as well as fostering “clear thinking, understanding and insight”.   Sarah also notes that on an anatomical and energetic level the stomach/spleen system helps us feel a “connection between ourselves and the outside world” , as food comes in and nutritional content is assimilated to nourish the body.  So the quotes below speak to these concepts and while commentary during class provided greater continuity, they still shine on their own.

“Despite illness of body or mind, in spite of blinding despair or habitual belief, who you are is whole.  Let nothing keep you separate from the truth.  The soul, illuminated from within, longs to be known for what it is.  Undying, untouched by fire or the storms of life, there is a place inside where stillness and abiding peace reside.  You can ride the breath to go there.  Despite doubt or hopeless turns of mind, you are not broken.  Spirit surrounds, embraces, fills you from the inside out.  Release everything that isn’t your true nature.  Whats left, the fullness, light and shadow, claim all that as your birthright.”  – Danna Faulds

“Until you make the unconscious conscious it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”  – Carl Jung

“I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books; I have begun to listen to the teaching my blood whispers to me.”  – Herman Hesse

“We accept the love we think we deserve.”  – Stephen Chbosky

Below you’ll find the closing reading, a poem from Hafiz as translated by Daniel Ladinsky, and the playlist, from pre-class tunes through savasana (I skipped a few today, yin portion runs Third Chakra through Come On, Come On):

hafiz
Screen Shot 2013-07-31 at 11.39.48 AM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m most grateful for the courageous and inspiring crew in attendance this morning at Mission!  See you all soon….