Sunday February 11th was the end of my unlimited yoga package at Treetop Yoga in Gloucester and was also my 123rd day as a Treetop Yoga member. That evening I took my 123rd Yoga class there and it was Hilary Yin Flow class, which I humbly and lovingly refer to as a Cosmic Restore class. One doesn’t just participate in a Hilary class, you experience it. Just surrender. Start your weekend with Jamie “Cardio for the Soul” Saturday morning flow class, end it with Hilary’s Yin, and you’ve got a powerful set of Yoga bookends!
One of the things that has been on my mind once I hit the 100 classes in 100 days, was that I found myself looking back at how aspects of Yoga have been entwined, perhaps in a less conspicuous way, in my work over the years.
My undergraduate degree was in Human Development & Learning, and it was in a HDL class then I first heard the quote from Soren Kierkekaard that said: Life is Lived Going Forward yet is only Understood by Looking Backward. Of course, I was 19 years old and didn’t have a lot of life to look back on. Yet now, nestled solidly in my sixth decade of life, I’m at a point where I have more than enough “looking backward” material to work with.
In the 1970’s, while a student at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, I worked as a “Houseparent” at a residential treatment center for preadolescent kids, and I vividly recall that the Athletic Director, Bill Gorman, had a poster on his office door showing a man running on long stretch of pavement along with the wording “There Is No Finish Line”. How true is that in yoga? There is no perfect, there is no completion, there is no finish line. There is however a stronger, more fit, more healthier, more focused, and perhaps a more accepting me! It’s the “doing” and it’s the “being.” It takes time and it takes effort, And what do they call it again? Oh yeah, a “Practice.”
In the late 70’s and most of the 1980’s I was an instructor for the Outward Bound Schools around the US and Canada. My experience at Outward Bound solidified many of my personal guiding principles and core values that continue to resonate and ground me even today. For instance, one of Outward Bound’s maxim is “To Serve, To Strive and Not to Yield.” Right there is the Yoga concept of Seva, or “selfless serving”, the striving of putting personal effort forward, and ‘not to yield’, that powerful phrase lifted from Ulysses that denotes an unwillingness to give up, and to stay strong in spite of life’s difficulties, or . . .maybe like holding a challenging pose, which for me is a prolonged Malasana.
At Outward Bound, “Service Projects” were a cornerstone of most courses. As an act of kindness and giveback, Service Projects could take on many forms, from trail maintenance, helping in a food pantry or soup kitchen, or any other expressions of social or environmental responsibilities. Outward Bound Service Projects continued a life lesson that my mother often emphasized: “It is better to give than receive.” It was at Outward Bound that I really understood that “Compassion for Others, is best Expressed by Service to Others.” Service to Others = Seva. How do we look for ways to practice Seva? Where are the opportunities to contribute to the “greater good” and offer service that benefits something beyond oneself? Take a look at Yoga Reaches Out; it’s pure Seva. 1000 yogis coming together to benefit Boston Children’s Hospital.
On a personal note, one of the yoga poses that really appeals to the inner me is the Humble Warrior, a bowing down hip and heart opener pose. Yoga, at least in my practice, is a humbling process. Oh I may have that “Nailed It” moment on a rare occasion, yet my MO on the mat is more introspection and self-awareness. It’s an accepting move, it’s a releasing move, and Humble Warrior is a reminder to me of the Outward Bound’s creed: Be Humble Yet Bold, Always Swayed by Beauty and Truth. In the market for your own life-guiding principle? That’s a good one to start with. (IMHO)
Leaving Outward Bound, I took a job as Program Director for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections’ S.P.R.I.T.E. Program. An acronym for Support, Pride, Initiative, Teamwork, and Education, SPRITE was an Adventure-Based Rehab program for incarcerated youth. Working with teenagers who had made, shall we say, some lousy decisions in their lives, I had the opportunity to witness the concept that learning and personal development works from the inside out, and not the outside in. Results in life are a consequence of behavior. Behaviors are determined by acting on beliefs. Beliefs originate from thought. “Stinking Thinking” is what got most of these kids in trouble in the first place. I get that we are all smarter after the fact. The key is how to have wise, healthy thinking in the moment. Yoga sets the stage for that. Yoga works from the inside out. Yoga is mind-body awareness. Yoga calms the busy mind, and allows our innate wisdom, our healthy, wise thinking to emerge. The outward physical advantages of yoga are well documented, yet it’s under the surface where the inside growth and development is happening. My mat becomes my mirror.
The 90’s found me working in Santa Fe, New Mexico with the Pecos River Learning Center. The founder of Pecos River, Larry Wilson, defined Winning as “going as far as you can using all that you've got” and to consciously choose Playing to Win versus the tendency to Play Not to Lose. Playing Not to Lose is avoiding situations where we might fail, be embarrassed, lose status, or be rejected. Playing not to lose is when a student at Treetop says “ Oh I’m not good enough to do an Annakathyrn class, or I couldn’t keep up with the group in a Jaime or Erin class, OR people, who when they hear the word YOGA, their self-talk kicks in with a whole list of self-limiting playing it safe reasons: I’m not flexible enough, I’m too overweight, I’m too old to start yoga. One thing Larry Wilson often said was “ What if you believed that ‘I can not fail, I can only learn and grow’. Now what would you do? ”How does THAT show up in yoga class? Someone can always execute a better pose or perform a flawless Vinyasa flow, yet it really doesn’t matter. What matters in the studio is that when you walk in the door, you walk in with a Playing to Win attitude. This shows up as “going as far as I can with all that I have and learning from whatever happens.” It means getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. It means emotional maturity and being able to respond optimally to life’s events. Yoga creates the space to make that happen. In the practice of yoga, becoming more self -aware in inevitable. One of my earlier Treetop Ah-Ha’s was realizing that when I go into the studio, the world gets along just fine without me for 90 minutes . Doing yoga is about tapping into my most thrival self → my own Playing to Win.
Another of the the key aspects of Playing to Win is the notion of Stop – breathe - Challenge – breathe, and then Choose your behavior. It’s a powerful embrace of the steadying power of conscious breathing – Pranayama. Another take-a-way from my time at the Pecos River Learning Center was coming to understanding the notion of What you Resist, Persists. Larry may have lifted it from Carl Jung, yet it’s a belief that shows up in my practice of yoga frequently. Just look at any attempt at balance poses, or Crow, or Wheel, or Wild Thing. Thoughts flow in, thoughts flow out, frustration, anger, disappointment are best not to engage. Acknowledge perhaps, and then let pass on like clouds in the sky.
Later in the 1990’s I moved to Cambridge MA and was working for a leadership consulting firm in Los Angeles. It was a powerful period of life for me in that I was consulting with senior executives on organizational culture change, wearing business suits to meetings, and teaching a personal and professional development process rooted in the California based Human Potential movement. Specifically Lifespring. Think Werner Erhard, Remember the est movement?
Here is the Yoga tie-in. While working with managers and leaders, a significant teaching point was to better grasp the notion of Be Here Now. I suspect some of you older yogis have a copy of Ram Dass’ Be Here Now collecting dust on your bookshelf, yet it was really quite seminal back in the day. And the timeless teaching of Be Here Now is it’s utilization on a daily basis, where just a little more thoughtfulness results in increased personal value –in that moment. The world of deeper feelings are accessed and Being Here Now delivers a gift we can give ourselves every time our mats are unrolled. It’s showing up Sunday Morning for Kalya’s Relax & Restore and being 100% present for her warm unobtrusive style and minimalist approach. It’s Jaime speaking about doing the hard work by breathing through it , and working through it together. It’s Jemma’s graceful, yet intoxicating, integration of mind, body, and breathing. It’s the lilt of Elaine’s voice as she creates a studio filled with unconditional love. It’s hearing Sharon speak about how we all may come to our mats for difference reasons, yet we all meet together in Savasana.
Be Here Now is an act of respect, of being in receiver mode, and honoring the unique preciousness of a moment in time.
I mentioned earlier that my unlimited yoga package ended in February. I worked and traveled much of the month, and prepared for my Total Knee Replacement surgery that took place on February 28th. Two months before surgery my surgeon told me: “ you give me a great leg, and I’ll give you a great knee.” I understood that, and really stepped my gym work, my bike riding, and particularly my daily yoga classes. The arthroplasty itself went smooth as can be and I went home after one night stay in the hospital. Home PT, Out-patient PT, some 1-1 re-entry yoga sessions with the Elaine, healing Reiki session with Hilary, deep tissue and energy work with Jemma has all put me on the way to total healing health.
And I must say, it’s great to be back in the studio where I am constantly reminded that There Is No Finish Line.
PS. Yoga Reaches Out at Gillette Stadium on Sunday April 29.
Please consider joining us!