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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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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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Let’s talk about yoga (finally)

Although this blog has featured many a subject, from where I’m traveling to what I’m eating to what I’m feeling, it has never seen a single post on yoga. Yoga: an activity I do, on average, at least four times a week. Yoga: a practice that has grounded me and empowered me through the most trying years of my life. Yoga: a philosophy, a life style, a devotion that has captured my heart and emboldened my spirit. I dedicate a large portion of my life to the practice, and yet, I’ve never been able to write about it. Perhaps the task of writing about something so intricate and so vast intimidated me. Perhaps I feared that if I shared the details of my practice with readers it would lose its intimacy. It would no longer be my practice. I realize now that those fears were unfounded. Writing about yoga and sharing my questions, insights, and processes surrounding it is part of the practice, too. Even so, had I attempted to pour my thoughts onto the page the way I pour sweat onto the mat, I would not have been capable. I wouldn’t have been ready.

Now, I know that the lessons I’ve learned and the work I’ve done throughout several years of practice have been in preparation for this—for creating a new union, a new yoga, between my practice and my writing. What brings me to the page to write about yoga now is something that will take me to my mat later—

In August, I’ll be starting a yoga teacher training program here in Tucson, and I had applied for a scholarship to help me pay for it. The application process was emotionally and creatively challenging, requiring much self-reflection and soul-searching. By the time I completed my essays, I felt I had bled onto the page and bared my heart, raw, red, and throbbing. But I also felt empowered, for responding to the prompts had helped me articulate and understand my own motivation for doing the teacher training, and even more importantly, for practicing yoga at all.

When I turned in my application, I knew that doing the teacher training was the right path, the only path, I could take in this place and time. Still, this choice had been marred by my own self-doubt surrounding my drastic change in careers. I had spent three years studying and working my ass off so that I could be a diplomat or a foreign correspondent or a prestigious something or other, and here I was, after all that turmoil, choosing to become a yoga teacher? Blah blah blah. It was a big deal for me. It was daunting, and I had the idea that if I received this scholarship, it would be a sign that the universe affirmed and condoned my decision. Getting this scholarship would be my validation.

In the following weeks, I would send a prayer to the universe every time a thought of the training or the scholarship came to mind. I would shoot affirmations up into the cosmos: “I got the scholarship. I deserve the scholarship. I got it, I got it, I got it.” And yet, it was not my prayers or affirmations that confirmed in my heart that I am heading in the right direction. It was—big surprise—the practice itself.

It happened unexpectedly, in a Bikram inspired hot yoga class that I had gone to on a whim. We’d hiked the room’s temperature to a steamy 106ºF, and I’d just done something I’ve never been bold enough to do in any yoga class before: take off my shirt. It was hotter in the room than it was outside, and sweat was dripping into my eyes, so I simply had no choice. I needed to let my skin breathe, and I needed something to wipe the sweat from my brow. The shirt had to come off.

After a particularly intense standing sequence, the instructor has us rest for a moment to return to our breath. I lay there on my mat, a human swamp, breathing heavily, heart beating like a war drum, and listened to the teacher. He was talking about hormones. “You know,” he said, “when the body reaches this temperature, it releases the same hormone that is released during sex.” I don’t know why, but this line filled me with joy. When I practice, I am making love, I thought, and the divine universal Spirit is my partner. I started to cry. As we pushed up and back into downward dog, tears of happiness mixed with drops of sweat. I was overwhelmed by the exhilarating, life-affirming feeling that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. On my mat. In a sweltering studio. Making love with yoga.

Bliss. Sweet, sweaty, burning bliss.

Tree Pose at Windy Point

Photo by Abby Cochran, Windy Point, Tucson, AZ

***

Last night, less that a week after this experience, I received an email that said I did not receive the scholarship for the teacher training. Thirteen people had applied, and only one scholarship was available. The studio did offer the remaining 12 of us a large discount on our training, though, and I gratefully accepted. Still, the news filled me with sadness. If this is supposed to be a sign from the universe, is this an indication that I am making a mistake? The obvious answer is no.

My validation for choosing this path cannot, and does not, come from any external judge or standard. That affirmation can only come from within, from my own heart and my own practice. I may not have gained the approval of an unknown scholarship donor, but that is completely irrelevant. I know I am meant to do this, and yoga helped me learn that. Yoga, with all of its challenge, sweat, discomfort, and power, taught me that the only source of validation that truly matters is that which comes from within. I am my only source of self-love and self-actualization. And I am exactly who, what, and where I need to be.

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Samedi Sommaire 1.7: [insert Spring-themed cliché here]

Hello mes ami-e-s! Happy Saturday!

It’s the first weekend of April (!!!) and Spring is in the air, even here in still-chilly-and-dreary Paris. Spring means change and rejuvenation. It’s a time to look back on the New Year’s resolutions we forgot about, to clean out the drawers in our desks, to hang up the winter coats and pull out the windbreakers. It’s also a time to make new goals, to try new things and to seek new inspiration.

This first week of April, for me, has been exactly that. Here’s what the week has brought me:

Listening to: 

The Malian singer Rokia Traoré. My ears are happy.

Inspired by: 

That’s right—that’s Marilyn Monroe doing yoga. According to yoga scholar Eric Shaw, Marilyn was quite a yogini. Shaw has collected 21 photos of the movie star doing various asanas in the 1950s, long before yoga was a popular practice in the United States. Marilyn’s postures exude elegance and warmth, but they also display strength and discipline. Seeing her makes me want to bring the same grace and beauty to my own practice.

Thinking about: 

Youth, childhood and the vast differences between the lives of children all around the world. Over an 18-month period, Italian photographer Gabriele Galimberti photographed children from various parts of the world posing with their most prized possessions. Each image tells a different story and portrays a different way of growing up. The two photos above show a little girl from Botswana (top) and another from Italy (bottom). Quite a contrast.

I found this photography particularly thought-provoking because (1), I am the oldest out of two girls, and my sister and I have experienced vastly different childhoods, even though we were raised by the same set of parents, in the same town, with the same traditions and expectations; and (2) I’m currently a nounou, a nanny, for a 5-year-old girl. Spending time with her has made me reflect on what it means to be a kid, how kids see the world and how we lose our youthful spirit as we grow older.

Intrigued by:

Elaine Sciolino’s funny, flirty and fascinating book, La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life. A dear friend of mine (a seductive Française herself!) bought me this book, knowing I am intrigued by French culture and how the French live, act and react to and within their society. Did you know the French can take classes to learn how to talk in that low, husky tone they all seem to be born with? Did you know the word “seduction” isn’t just sexual, but can be used in political and commercial settings, too? As in, Jacques Chirac seduced the voters? Pick this book up. You’ll fall in love. 

Diving into:

Yoga’s sister science, Ayurveda. This philosophy, which translates as “knowledge of life,” is a system of healing that uses various diet and exercise practices to help balance individuals’ energies and dispositions to make them the best version of themselves. According to Ayurveda, there are three basic natures, or doshas, that manifest in different ways in different people. The three doshas are vada, pitta, kapha.

Discovering how I fit into this philosophy (I am without a doubt a kapha) has been absolutely enlightening and liberating. Understanding my body, my disposition and how I can bring out the best in myself through Ayurvedic practices brings me a huge feeling of empowerment. I’m looking forward to learning more about Ayurveda and incorporating it into my life!

What new discoveries have you made so far this spring? 

Love and light,

Savannah

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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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