Tag Archives: life lessons

Lessons from My Practice: Responding to Injury

One day I am standing on my hands. The next I am in bed with a heating pad under my back unable to move. It happened, literally, in the flick of a wrist: I folded over my legs in my narrow shower to shave my calves at 7 am and suddenly— spasm, tighten, slump— I’m in a ball on the floor with water pouring down my face and pain rushing up my spine. It wasn’t that moment that did it, though. In truth, it was a culmination of many small and subtle moments, pains physical and psycho-emotional, that led me to injury.

Injury is inherent in all exercise. I injured myself as a basketball player, as a track runner, and now, as a yoga practitioner. The problem is that, as a yogi, I have come to believe I am more educated about fitness and the body than I was before. Therefore, I should be able to prevent injury. While I’ve proven myself wrong countless times, I still beat myself up about getting hurt. It was my fault. I brought this upon myself. I’ll be a burden to everyone. I am useless. Stupid, stupid, stupid. It seems when I get physically injured I punish myself with self-inflicted psychological injuries, too.

This is where yoga comes in. One of my aims in my yoga practice has been to learn how to detach myself from outcomes and results, to separate my self-worth from the consequences of my efforts. For example, I have been trying for at least a year to balance in handstand without success. Every time I failed, a voice in my head used to say things like, “you’re a mediocre yogi” and “you’ll never be a good yoga instructor.” Eventually, I learned to ignore that voice and focus on what truly mattered: not that I could balance in handstand, but that through consistent and focused effort I am making progress and becoming stronger along the way. Yoga has taught me that I am greater than the faults and fumbles of my body.

Still, it is hard to ignore the voice that says “your body has betrayed you” and “you’re never going to recover” when you’re sitting on the floor of your shower with only half of your calf shaved and a sharp pain shooting through your back. It is in that moment that I had to do what yoga reteaches me everyday: breathe deeply, move carefully, and listen to my body. My yoga practice has proven to me that my bones and muscles are always wiser than my ego. Even when it is crippling me with pain, my body knows best. The hard part is decoding the messages the body is sending.

I think of the body as a vessel, not just of my blood, bones, and flesh, but of my stress, fears, insecurities, efforts, and achievements. It carries physical, psychological, and emotional burdens. It also expresses feelings of joy, pride, sadness, and fear, often without my knowledge.  So now, as it screams to me, my task is to hear its message, and—here’s the tricky part—respond. Because I’ve been here before, I know that my body is begging me to slow down, to take care of myself, and to practice moderation. I know this in my heart. It’s my ego that doesn’t want to hear it.

Convincing my ego that my value and success will not be diminished by self-care requires taking a long-term approach to achievement. If my ultimate goal is to balance in handstand before I’m 23, well then breaking my back (not merely metaphorically, it seems) is well worth it. But if my goal is to prolong the longevity of my body, my yoga practice, and my life, then taking time to care for myself is not a setback, but fuel forward. What’s more is that learning to positively respond to the needs and limitations of my body is part of the practice. I am human; my body is fallible. My self-worth is not diminished by my physical flaws. I can allow my body to rest, and in doing so, give love and care to my body, mind, and heart. 

Child's Pose/Balasana

Although I won’t be getting back to my normal practice this week or even the next, I will be practicing something. As I have heard my teachers say time and time again, this practice is, for many, the hardest practice of all: Rest.

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5 Lessons I Learned from My First Year of Teaching

Just four weeks ago, I completed my first year of teaching. Somehow, within the chaos, self-doubt, sleepless nights, and shimmering moments of success, I managed to continue to learn and grow as both an educator and an individual. In fact, I think I learned more from my students, my colleagues, and my own experience than my students managed to learn from me. Regardless, I know that the wisdom I gained in my first year will serve to make the coming years more enriching, more successful, and more fulfilling for both my students and myself. What follows is only five of the countless lessons I learned, which apply not only to my classroom, but to my everyday life. 

1. Specificity is Key

When I first started teaching, I had no idea what I wanted my classroom to look like. I didn’t know how I wanted my desks arranged, how I wanted papers handed in, or even how I wanted students to label their assignments. As a result, I was rarely specific or consistent. My desk arrangement changed at least every quarter, students handed their papers in upside down, backwards, and slantways, and sometimes, I had no idea which assignment I was grading because I never taught my students how to write a proper heading. I learned, the hard way, that being specific about everything in my classroom was the key to managing it effectively. There is power in being specific: specificity shows that you know exactly what you want and how you want it; you are in control.

2. Raise the Bar

I cannot count the times that I toned down the difficulty level of assignments because I thought it was “too much” for my kids. What I didn’t realize is that students will rise, or fall, to meet their teacher’s expectations. In the words of Harry Wong, “Students tend to learn as little or as much as their teachers expect.” When the expectations are high, students exert the effort and energy to rise up and meet them. If the expectations are low, so too is students’ effort and energy, creating a culture of apathy and negativity. Raising the bar, then, is crucial for students’ success both in the classroom and in life.

I asked my students to create a poetry book that contained examples of each poetic device we studied. Expect quality and that's what you get!

I asked my students to create a poetry book that contained examples of each poetic device we studied. This particular student went above and beyond expectations!

3. Don’t React, Respond

When I look back at how I handled disruptive situations in my classroom,  I’m a little embarrassed. It was rare that I managed to stop and think before reacting to something that happened in my classroom. If a student did something hilarious, it wasn’t uncommon for me to burst out laughing, completely derailing class so that I could collect myself. If my most challenging class was completely out of control, I often reacted with explosive, harsh fury. It wasn’t until the last quarter of the school year that I was able to change my behavior from reactive to responsive. Calculating a mature and controlled response to a given situation is much more effective than unleashing whatever gut reaction arrived initially. This sets a precedent that disruptive situations will be handled calmly and effectively each time they arise. It also reduces tension between teacher and student and shifts control back to the teacher. Pause. Breathe. Respond.

4. Try Again Differently

Sometimes I left school at the end of the day feeling successful, like I’d achieved what I set out to do and manifested my intentions. Other times I felt deflated, like I’d failed to turn my vision into reality and let my kids down. It was in these moments that I had to remind myself that I could try again tomorrow. And tomorrow, I had the chance to try again differently. If my lesson didn’t go as planned or the students didn’t connect to the material, I could revisit the same concept tomorrow using alternate methods. I could give them a different task or read a different poem; I could explain something with a real-life example or show a video. I realized that I had options, and each day was a new opportunity to start over. There are few jobs that allow you to simply forget about yesterday and start anew. That’s one thing I love about teaching: everyday at 3:30 pm I can let my students go home knowing that the next day at 8:00 am I’ll see them again, and together we’ll try again, hopefully a little better than the day before.

5. Never Stop Learning

If there is one thing I am proud of about my first year, it is that I never stopped looking at my teaching with a critical eye and asking myself, “how can I do this more effectively?” I took risks, and I was never too proud or afraid to incorporate suggestions from my colleagues and my students. As a result, my classroom was constantly evolving, and I was constantly learning—learning from my successes, my mistakes, and my failures.

Whether you are a school teacher, a professor, a yoga instructor, or a coach, never stop being a student. As teachers, we must be students first. We must forever cultivate our curiosity. We must always keep an open mind. We must be brave enough to experiment, knowing that if we are not successful, we have not failed— we have merely learned an invaluable lesson for tomorrow.

K(now) W(onder) L(earned) charts are an activity that I learned from one of my fellow teachers. It turned into a great way to engage my students in what they are reading!

K(now) W(onder) L(earned) charts are an activity that I learned from one of my fellow teachers. It turned into a great way to engage my students in what they are reading!

Fellow teachers, what are some lessons you’ve learned throughout your career? Share them in the comments below!

Learn on,

Savannah

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9 Things I learned from Yoga Teacher Training

It was only a couple short weeks ago that I received my 200 RYT and Yogahour® certification from YogaOasis here in Tucson. This ten-month-long training not only taught me about yoga, it taught me about myself. Below are nine major lessons that I took away from the experience. 

1. Work from the Foundation Up

As myself and my fellow teacher trainees learned how to instruct poses, our teachers taught us to deliver instructions from the foundation up. In other words, if the pose is reverse warrior (below) and the student’s weight is in her feet, start with aligning the feet and legs, then work upward. To me, this concept doesn’t just apply to giving directions; it is also a reminder to return—constantly—to the basics. To the breath, to the heart, and to love.

Reverse Warrior

2. Use Props

When I began yoga teacher training in August 2014, my attitude towards props was not positive. To me, props were crutches; I didn’t need them. That changed quickly, for I learned that props are not just things to lean on; they can be things to pull, things to squeeze, things that make your limbs longer, and things that make your poses stronger, things to melt over, and things to push against. The more I delved into using props, the more open, challenging, and truer my practice became.

3. Listen to Your Body

I say that my practice became “truer” when I started using props because I started using them in response to the needs of my own body. About halfway through the training, a recurring knee problem resurfaced, and I could no longer perform certain asanas in the same way. For instance, I could no longer straighten my leg in trikonasana, or triangle pose (below). Instead, I learned to place my hand on a block and gently bend my front leg. Now that I’ve learned to tune into and actually respond to the pleas of my body, my practice has become more modest, more nurturing, and more sustainable.

Trikonasana/Triangle Pose with block

4. Acknowledge Your Mistakes

Early on in the training, we were given a task to form small groups and each recite the exact instructions for a few of the poses we had memorized. We were not to use our scripts. In the group I was in, I was the first to be thrown into the fire. The exercise was challenging, but I played by the rules. After a few poses, another member of my group jumped in, and so on. When the final member of our group began her turn, she reached down for the script and began to use it to prompt herself. My ego quickly flared up. Who was she to break the rules and use the script? I thought. If it were me, would I want my peers to let me keep using the script? Or would I want them to force me to crash and burn? I decided I’d prefer the latter, and moved to snatch the script away. My fellow student snatched it back. I complained, saying nobody else had used the script. Then, she said something that made me wish I’d let it be: she told me she had a medical condition whose treatment caused her memory to falter, a fact which I was completely unaware of and should have never needed to know in the first place. I was floored. I immediately shut my mouth and withdrew. I felt shame, sorrow, and disappointment in my behavior. I had let my ego take over, and as a result I had hurt another person.

At the end of training that day, I apologized to my group member for how I had treated her. I acknowledged that it was a mistake for me to think that I knew what was best for another person and to impose myself upon her. She accepted my apology wholeheartedly, and we later became friends. In the end, I was grateful that she had pointed out my mistake and that I had confronted it. I would return to this lesson over and over again, not only in teacher training, but in my classroom, in my relationships, and it my yoga practice. By acknowledging my mistakes, I’ve transformed them into tools for learning and growth.

5. Let Go of Your Ego

Rumi said, “the Ego is a veil between humans and God.” I like to translate this as, “the Ego is a veil between humans and Love.” Throughout the training, whenever our teachers would offer someone the opportunity to share with the class, teach the whole group, or do a demonstration, my first thought was always “Me! Me! I want to go!” What followed next was a reminder from my inner self that although I was capable of doing whatever it was in front of everyone, I didn’t have to be the person in the spotlight all the time. Just because I didn’t jump on center stage didn’t mean that I was incompetent.

As I learned to let others take the lead, I began to feel more invested in the success of my peers. I felt joy as I watched my fellow students meet the challenges set before them, and I let go of my ego’s desire to show off. Now, I realize that what matters is not showing off, but showing up.

6. Practice Makes Progress

The lessons I learned during each session of training—whether they were dealt with my asana or my self-development—became exercises requiring constant practice. For instance, on my mat, I practiced bending my knees in standing poses to prevent hyperextension. At first, I thought this effort was fruitless because the pain in my knees did not subside, but now, months and months later, my entire practice has transformed. My legs are stronger, my knees are healthier, and my poses are more sustainable. My practice is far from perfect, but progress, not perfection, is what matters.

Falling_Tree_Sage

7. Reflect

One of the most useful parts of my teacher training was the brief minutes when we were asked to take out our journals and reflect upon a question chosen by our teachers. These questions included everything from “What is your word of the day?” to “Why do you want to teach?” to “How has the training invited you to be more courageous? To what degree have you accepted the invitation?” For me, these journaling exercises acted as a hoe tilling the soil, uncovering what has been buried and bringing fresh earth to the surface. As I attempted to answer each question, I tilled my own sort of inner garden, allowing new understanding and clarity to spring forth.

8. Know Your Lineage

During the second month of training, we discussed the lineage of Yogahour®. Darren Rhodes, the creator of Yogahour®, told us, “Lineage is leverage. What we have is really a recalibration of what is, what was.” My background, past experience, and origins are tools that inform what I create moving forward. Without lineage, I am like a tree without roots. By understanding my own lineage and what it has to offer, I can infuse my own offering with the insight, wisdom, and power of what has come before.

9. Take the Seat of the Teacher

Through this training, and the many experiences I had alongside it, I’ve learned to stand in my own power, to trust what I know, and to be where I am. Hopefully, where I am will be more and more in the seat of the teacher. This is a role I am eager to fill, but it is not without self-doubt, hesitation, and fear. If there is a tenth lesson I learned from yoga teacher training, it is that I have so much yet to learn. Supposedly, I know things now that I didn’t before, but here I am, feeling as though I know nothing. However, this should not and will not prevent me from giving all I that I can.

A gift from a friend.

A gift from a friend.

The following words came originally from Darren’s father, and he offered them to us. In the coming months and even years, I know they will come in handy:

“God does not choose the qualified. He qualifies the chosen.”

Love and light,

Savannah

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Lessons from Paris: On Privilege and Perspective

On the south end of rue de Rennes, one of Paris’s busiest shopping boulevards, the same middle-aged man sits everyday on the same span of sidewalk holding the same cardboard sign: J’ai faim. Aidez-moi s’il vous plaît. I am hungry. Please help me.

His face is round and tan, his eyes are dark and gentle. Scruff lines his jaw. Dirt covers his hands. He wears a black beanie on his head. He has been sitting near the Rennes-St. Placide bus stop every day for about a month now, and I pass him each morning as I walk to class. Up until a few days ago, our only interaction had been a small smile and a polite nod of the head—and a wink on his part—to kindly greet one another.

This routine suddenly changed at the beginning of this week, when the weather switched abruptly from winter to just-about-summer. It was the kind of day that demands a cute dress and sandals, and that’s exactly what I wore.

Practically skipping down rue de Rennes, I caught the man’s eye. But this time, instead of exchanging our usual greeting, he spoke to me. Ca va? he asked with a sly smile. Oui! Ca va, toi? I replied with the same hint of flirtatiousness. Our “how-you-doin” dialogue was ultimately harmless, but it broke the barrier between us and changed our relationship from formal to familiar.

Perhaps too familiar. Now that we were on speaking terms, I felt it would be nice to show this man the same politesse I show others, like my neighbors and the caretaker of my apartment building. Hence, when I passed him Friday morning, I smiled and asked, Vous allez bien? You’re doing well?

He raised his eyebrows and shook his head—non.

Seconds later I heard the following words ringing in my head like a fire alarm: Check your privilege.

The ability to respond to simple questions like “How are you?” or “Having a nice day?” with a positive answer is a privilege I have always taken for granted. So much so that I figured everybody is “alright,” “not bad,” or “great, thanks! How are you?” I didn’t stop to think about the fact that the man before me, pleading for something to satisfy his hunger, would answer with a resounding “no.” Now, for the first time in my life, I wish I could take that question back.

Poverty is omnipresent worldwide and omni-visible here in Paris. I wrote about the harsh reality of this city’s streets in this post at the beginning of the year. As I said then, Paris is no fairytale. But it is one heck of a classroom.

Here in Paris I’ve learned about not only the severity of poverty, but about the importance of relativity, too. It is only through recognizing the relativity of situations, issues and events that we can recognize our privilege and change how we interact with the world around us. This week I was reminded that although I may be a “poor” student, I am quite wealthy relative to the man who begs on my street, and extremely wealthy relative to the majority of the world’s population.

In fact, based solely on the income I receive from my academic scholarship each year, I am among the top 13 percent richest people in the world, according to this calculator. Perhaps if I calculated my status based upon my material wealth as opposed to my income, I would end up at a lower percentage (considering my “wealth” includes my laptop, my iPod, a vintage cracker-jack tin, The Great Gatsby and an “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” DVD set). Still, according to the site, it would take the average worker in Zimbabwe 11 years to earn what I receive in one. My monthly income could pay the monthly salaries of 52 doctors in Azerbaijan. That puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?

Next time you feel like griping, take a moment to consider not what you lack, but what you have, whether it be a roof over your head, a loving family, or an education. Take note of how your situation looks relative to that of others, and consider what you can do to share your wealth—material or abstract—with those who have less. What seems like poverty to you may be luxury for someone else. What appears in your eyes to be a tragedy may very well be another’s everyday experience.

Check your privilege. Use it meaningfully.

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40 Days Later: from optimism to strength

Forty days ago I started my Savannah Smiles Challenge in an effort to bring more optimism to my day-to-day life, my attitude and my spirit. It’s a good thing I did, too, because I got some bad news today, and I’ve had to turn all that optimism into strength.

Several months before I started the Challenge, I had begun to tackle another feat, a scholarship application for an award that would have provided $30,000 toward a master’s degree and connected me to change agents in multiple fields worldwide.

I am proud to say that I made it to the semi-finalist round. The next round, however, wasn’t meant to be.

How fitting, I thought, that I would read a rejection email on the final day of my Savannah Smiles Challenge. Apparently, I have been nurturing all that positivity for a reason.

As I’ve said again and again, I believe we must be the makers of our own happiness. We can’t expect positive energy to illuminate our lives if we don’t actively strive to cultivate that energy within ourselves and others. Well, I believe the same is true of strength. We must always do our best to choose strength over weakness, to take a step forward instead of a step back. Of course it isn’t always easy, or even possible, to immediately stand up after a fall. But if we resign ourselves to lying defeated on the ground after every slip, resignation will become the norm and resilience will disappear into obscurity. Weakness must be the exception, or else it will only be harder to summon our inner strength when we truly need it. There are far worse things than not getting some big-deal scholarship, Savannah. Suck it up.

I can’t help but feel the 39 days I spent doing sun salutations, journaling and reading poetry were all in preparation for today, the 40th day. Disappointment almost kept me from going to my yoga class this morning, but after greeting (almost) every day with yoga these past few weeks, I knew that single hour would help me heal.

I walked into class late, feeling heavy. After sun salutations and leg exercises,  my instructor said it was time to go into our headstands. I collapsed into child’s pose. Tears started to pool in my eyes. “No,” I whispered to myself, “not today.”

But against my own will I prepared myself for the pose. I placed my head between hands and began inching my feet toward my torso. Then, for the first time in my life, I lifted myself into the half-posture—meaning my legs were folded next to my stomach, with only my head and my elbows supporting my body—and stayed there. Normally, I get to this point and immediately fall over. But this time, I remained balanced on my head, looking at the world upside down. Those jerks can reject me, but I bet they can’t do a fucking headstand.

Overall, I’d call the Savannah Smiles Challenge a great success. I have started journaling almost every day, and sun salutations come second only to my morning coffee. I’ve also started reading some of my poetry and listening to others at SpokenWord Paris, an open mic poetry sesh that goes down every Monday night.

What’s more important, however, is that I learned, once again, that I have a plentitude of people and things to be grateful for and to find happiness in. My gifts, my opportunities and my experiences make my life unique, vibrant and beautiful. My friends, my family and my mentors—all of you bring such joy to my heart and make every day worth living. If I ever again feel my optimism fleeting, as I’m sure time and trial will cause it to do, I will only need to look back on these past 40 days and remember what I learned from daring myself to smile.

I may have listened to this song 20 times within the past three hours.

I don’t care. I love it.

—Savannah

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