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I had a conversation with sorrow today.

She’d been taking up so much space, so heavy, all around.

Asked her what she wanted me to know.

First, she said, not with words but with energy,

“You’re not the only one with sorrow.”

She didn’t say it to reprimand, just acknowledging.

 

This breath in.
This breath out.

 

Second, she said, not with words, but with energy,

“Now that I have your attention, we can work together.”

Sorrow winked at me, just like my grandma used to do. As if she was saying,

“There is a purpose,

you’re on the right track,

I got you.”

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One of my yoga students, a retiree, told me she fell last week while out on a walk. She said she lay there on the ground, upset and confused. She didn’t know if she’d tripped or if she’d fainted. Her phone had fallen out of her reach. She wanted to call her husband for help, but couldn’t get to it.

After a bit of panic, she had a “wait-a-second” moment, and remembered,

“I do yoga.”

And she thought,

“Ilonka has me getting up off the floor from my belly all the time.”

So she took a breath. And she did what we do in class.

And she was able to get up, and she brushed herself off, and was able to make her way home.

A few days later, she’s got a bruised knee, and a sore hand.

But otherwise she’s fine.

Yogis, wouldn’t it be great if the next time we were in a tailspin we were able to do as this student did? To wait-a-second, take a breath, remind ourselves, “I do yoga,” and THEN…

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Having a child on the autism spectrum has helped me be a better yoga teacher. In fact, if I hadn’t a child on the spectrum I likely wouldn’t be a yoga teacher at all. During the very stressful early years, yoga helped me. I’d go to a yoga class frantic and in despair, and leave with a calmer nervous system, feeling like I could do it for another day.

And when an autism mom in Michigan broke mentally and did the unthinkable, that was my cue to take my first teacher training. No longer could my internal dialogue tell me I wasn’t young enough, bendy enough, thin enough, enough enough to be a yoga teacher. I could no longer hide behind my fears. I knew yoga had helped me as an autism mom, and I wanted to help others. My first classes as a teacher were for autism parents, and I cherish those classes and those students to this day.

In addition to that initial motivation, I believe the skills I have learned as an autism mom have helped me be a better teacher as well. One example:

When my kids were little, I might say something like this,

“Kids! We have to leave in five minutes! I want you to get your shoes on. Make sure you turn out the lights in your room. Make sure you brushed your teeth. Did you take your supplements? Is your hair brushed? Where is your book bag? Make sure you tell your teacher x,y and z…..”

I’d be exasperated when five minutes later, I’d find my child in her room, oblivious, playing with her toys. Too many words resulted in overwhelm/tuning out.

A better instruction for her at the time was simply,

“SHOES!”

“SHOES!” resulted in kids in the foyer getting shoes on and us getting out the door in a timely fashion. Cutting the fluff, less was more.

Now, as a yoga teacher, I do not bark out orders like “SHOES!” But I will be succinct. I might simply say,

“Downward facing dog.”

I don’t talk non-stop for the sake of filling the silence. I do not chitter-chatter for the sake of hearing my own voice. The information I want students to take in comes from meeting the sensations they are experiencing in their own physical and emotional bodies with curiosity. How can they hear themselves if I never shut up?

Now don’t get me wrong. I am hilarious (just ask me). I might crack a joke, or tell a funny story at the beginning of class, but once students fully drop in, my words become more measured.

Simple instructions.

Come back to your body. Come back to your breath. 

This breath in. 
This breath out. 

Anything much more, is overkill.

Pause.
Take a breath.
Tune in.
Listen more.
Talk less.

I learned that, from my kid.

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Approaching my six year mark as a yoga teacher my heart soars over the endless continuing ed opportunities to learn more, go deeper, and serve my students better. I love it.

Lately, I’ve been immersing myself into the study of aqua yoga, using videos, books, and my own body. While getting into a bathing suit is one of my least favorite things, I am willing to do it, for the benefit of my students. It’s been so rewarding to be able help those who can’t “do yoga” traditionally, move into a beautiful practice in the water.

And by “those,” I mostly mean, my guinea pig, er… husband Todd aka Hot Toddy. He loves when I call him that (not really). But I only do it on line. I don’t walk around the house referring to him as Hot Toddy. That would be weird. Or would it?

Anyway, in his younger days, HT tore both ACLs playing sports and had surgery on each. His knees are stiff as can be, and very sensitive to weather. There are good days and bad days for those knobby suckers which have scars that look like zippers down the front of each one (see photo above). So much of what we do in a typical yoga practice, even a gentle one, is out of reach for him. And it bugs me because I know yoga is so good for him.

In the water it is different. A pose, like dragon that is not typically accessible to him without pure misery is now right there, using the pool stairs. Standing facing the steps, he places the right foot flat onto a stair, his hands press flat on the step inside the right foot. The left leg is straight, ball of foot on pool floor. Voila! He can even turn out onto the outside edge of his right foot, opening the right hip.

Child’s pose on land is miserable for him, but with knees bent, shins pressing on the wall of the pool, arms straight on out, palms flat on the pavers, a variation he can take is born, no problem. He’s been able to do complete, full practices with no pain, and he feels great afterward.

There is something so special about shavasana, one noodle around the neck, arms resting on top of it, and noodle under the knees, floating in the water. I cradle my love’s sweet bald head and guide him to relax his body, part by part, then give him a kiss and let him float away. BTW, he is the only student I will ever kiss before/during shavasana. Well, maybe my kids.

Do you know, that when I was in nursing school twenty + years ago, HT let me practice IV starts on him? That’s the kind of guy he is. He is a constant support, always willing to help me learn and grow, always wanting what is best for me. I feel much better about subjecting him to yoga, than I did about stabbing him with a needle repeatedly.

Anyway….if you live locally and know anyone that might benefit from trying yoga in the pool, have them call me. I’m really excited about bringing this to private clients who are seeking more freedom and movement in their bodies.

This breath in.
This breath out.

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I could be having a bad day. I could be heartbroken about the state of my country. I could be tired, I could be hungry. I could be temporarily off coffee. I could be worried about my kids or a myriad of perfectly acceptable things to worry about.

But stepping into the role of teacher, those things fall away and being present with my students is all there is.

As I instruct them to breathe, I breathe too.

It’s really quite a gift.

To have an occupation that encourages breath. That encourages presence. That encourages fluidity and movement, and stillness.

Each one in front of me, a Divine spark.

It doesn’t get any better than this.

 

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I am a stalker of sunsets. I will drop everything and hop in my car driving five minutes to a nearby lake if I think I might catch a two-minute glimpse. Driving down a rural highway, I will make a U-turn and pull my car over for the right sunset. I don’t understand why everyone around me isn’t doing the same. Are they blind?

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Sunsets also frustrate me. Sometimes my timing is off and I miss it. I’ll be making dinner, and look up and it’s dark already. Dejection! Or sometimes I am chauffeuring kids around and by the time I get them dropped off and head back to the lake it is over. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel resentful.

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But here’s the most frustrating thing. I get there. The sunset happens, and it’s pretty good. The sky, the lake. I think it’s over. I wait a few extra minutes just in case. Finally, I get in my car and leave. Then, on the way home the sky gives one last shocking hurrah of PINK! But I’m in traffic, and can’t really admire it the way I’d like to. The way it deserves.

WHY DID I NOT WAIT FIVE MORE MINUTES? I was sure it was done. I did wait a little, but not long enough.

One time at a Buddhist retreat center, the teacher was talking meditation. She said, sometimes, right when you get the urge to come out of meditation, if you stay a little longer, if you just give it a few more minutes, insights or breakthroughs will happen. Not that they must, but sometimes our impulse to leave the meditation is actually fear of our own growth.

There is a saying in the yoga community, “the pose begins the moment you want to leave it.” I don’t know about that. There is wisdom in listening to your body if it is telling you to leave a pose. If you are at your limit. If you are in pain. But sometimes, there is wisdom in staying just a little bit longer.

Why am I so often in a hurry to get to the next moment?

What beauty might happen if I learn to wait?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Photo by Matthias Zomer on Pexels.com

Class was getting settled, I started them out lying on the back. I was guiding them to lengthen the breath, and just as they were dropping into their practice, a tiny elderly woman in sneakers entered the room and marched directly toward me.

“I’m a hundred years old and I’m blind in one eye,” is how she greeted me. She pointed out a couple of other physical problems, told me she’d be doing her own thing.

I assured her that was A-okay with me. I was subbing the class and appreciated her letting me know about her issues.

“I’ve only been doing yoga since the sixties,” she added, one eyebrow lifted.

She rolled out her mat and got settled along with the others. She kept her sneakers on. I loved that she kept her sneakers on. Loved that she advocated for herself in this small way.

There was much she couldn’t do in this gentle slow-flow-ish class. She modified what she could, expertly, and when she couldn’t, she chose to lie on her back, on her mat.

And when I instructed arms overhead, she lifted her hands just a smidge off the floor in that direction. Every instruction I gave, she was right there. Even if it was just a pointing and flexing of her toes. I could see, with the slight direction of movements in her body, that in her mind, she was visualizing everything I was saying. She knew every yoga pose (and most sequences) by heart. Her brain neurons were firing as if  her body were doing the entire physical practice.

It was quite amazing to witness.

We spoke after class and she told me more about her eye. She told me she’d lived all over the world. She asked me about my name.

I told her she had a beautiful practice.

I told her that she inspired me.

 

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After a recent yoga class a student came up and asked, “Are you always this peaceful?”

I looked her in the eye and said, “Nooooo! I’m a terror.”

And we laughed! 

(I do believe she thought I was kidding). Terror might be a little harsh, but no, I am not always peaceful.

I told her I practice yoga because I need to. Not because I am naturally peaceful. Her ask was especially ironic that week, because I had been feeling anything but peaceful. I’d been quick to anger. I’d been quick to get my feelings hurt. Times like that, when people assume I’m “peaceful” I feel like a big old hypocrite. (I imagine most yoga teachers if they are being honest have felt imposter syndrome from time to time).

It’s not that I’m pretending to be peaceful when I teach. I am peaceful when I teach. I’m 100% present and focused on my classes. I don’t have to think about the stresses of my everyday life during the time I have students in front of me. Teaching is its own form of meditation. It’s sacred space. I love it.

So how about this? Generally, I’m more peaceful than I would be without yoga in my life. But I’m a passionate person with the full range of emotions. Life often enough throws me big seemingly impossible challenges. Some days are better than others. Most days I am skillful. Sometimes I fall flat on my face.

Toting the essential oils I use in my classes has my car often smelling like heaven. My daughter’s friends hopped into the back seat one time recently and went all dreamy.

“You’re mom is sooooo peaceful…,” the girls swooned, inhaling.

Riley was quick to correct them,

“She’s not peaceful all the time.”

And we laughed! 

I’m not.

I never said I was. I might wish I was. But I can’t pretend to be.

For all the yogis out there, who fear they are not allowed to feel anything other than “peace, love, la la la….,” I would like to call BS on that.

I can feel mad, sad, hurt, depressed, overwhelmed, hopeless, or like a failure some days. I’d never heap any of that onto my students, but I sometimes feel those things. Of course I do.

My guess is “ultra spiritual” people who claim to have risen above negative emotions are kidding themselves, or lying, or are fortunate enough to have lives set up where almost everything goes their way. One of my friends, a fellow special-needs mom says of self-proclaimed enlightened ones, “Try one day in my life, and see how you do.”

And we laughed! 

When I’m feeling imposter syndrome, I need to remind myself that having moments (or days) of not feeling peaceful doesn’t mean I’m not a good yoga teacher. Or a good mom. Or a good person.

It is in moments of despair, on our worst days, that we are called to look in the mirror with compassion toward the parts of us that are hurting, not kick ourselves for being in pain, or for not being further along the path than we think we should be.

There is a saying in the yoga world, “Gentle is the new advanced.” This usually means asana, but I think it also includes being gentle with ourselves when we are in emotional pain. It just means we’re human.

This breath in.

This breath out.

Peace.
Peace.
Peace.

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One time, many years ago, in another state, I was a yoga student at a crowded studio. There was a teacher there everyone loved. She was bubbly and sweet and had studied with one of the best known and respected teachers in India. She knew her anatomy, knew her stuff.

I do not think she was a trauma-informed yoga teacher though.

Teachers receiving training to volunteer for Connection Coalition (working with youth  in crises) and Connected Warriors (working with veterans), are versed in giving students choices and never taking their power away from them.

Back to that long ago class. I was at my limit in a pose. I wasn’t being a “quitter.” My intuition, my inner guidance told me enough. This teacher came by and tried to physically force me deeper (not brutally, but physically) into the pose. Trying to discourage her I shook my head and whispered, “I can’t.” She ignored me and moved my leg further than what I felt comfortable or safe with.

She smiled, victorious! Her bubbly personality shining out through her eyes, thinking she’d done something amazing, showing me I could go further than I ever imagined!

“Except maybe you can!” she said. Like a cheerleader.

My heart sank. I did not share in her victory. I felt completely disempowered.  I felt like it had become “her” pose, not mine. I wasn’t a teacher yet and didn’t know anything about trauma informed yoga, but I felt a real sense of despair and had to swallow a lump in my throat. I didn’t understand why I felt so angry?

Help isn’t help when we railroad over peoples’ choices. Help isn’t help when it isn’t invited in. Help isn’t help when it makes a person feel smaller rather than empowered.

I’ve made this mistake countless times myself. Not as a yoga teacher, (I hope) but as a human. As an adult child of an alcoholic, with co-dependent “helper” tendencies, it has taken me a long time to learn that I should ask permission before charging in with all my awesome “help” and helpful ideas.

And as a soul on the path, I work on forgiving those who have, with the very best of intentions, inadvertently not “helped” me.