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Teacher's Savasana

Ever wonder what teachers do during your savasana? Most of the time, they don’t do savasana. They meditate, or stretch quietly, or even do a headstand, as one of my Toronto fellow teachers once said.

I typically use that time to meditate and watch over students, as if watching over their sleep. During my first teacher training, in one of the most memorable sessions, we were teamed up in pairs of two and asked to lead each other through a full restorative practice. Our teacher warned that we might be tempted to do “something else” during a long-held pose. And she insisted we sit mindfully next to our student, as if to ward off bad spirits and vampires. Basically, she wanted us to practice the most fundamental pose of all: attention, presence. It’s one thing to pay attention to your own experience, it’s another to be present for someone else’s practice.

<strong>For me, the experience was one of well-wishing</strong>, not only for the yoginii in front of me, but for everyone, no matter who they were.

There is something very profound about well-wishing for others, as a practice. Yes, you can wish well to others, in the passing, but you can also sit and intentionally explore well-wishing in silence. (My advice would be to start with a person or pet for whom it is easy for you to feel positive, and slowly make your way to people who leave you indifferent, and finally to people who upset you. You’ll be surprised how much space it might create for you.)

Like everyone, I’m not perfect. Practicing well-wishing during savasana is a way for me to keep exploring my intentions and motivations as a teacher, and to stay connected to the real reason I started teaching in the first place: inspiring transformation and empowerment. This practice leaves me fulfilled after class, and it helps me tame the critics’ voice inside me, the one that lists everything I said and did “wrong” that day. Here’s another little yoga teacher dirty secret: we encourage and empower our students to go beyond their fears and judgments, yet we are oftentimes our own worst critics. And that’s part of our learning.

So today, I taught two classes. Two sweet long savasanas, where I sat upright and guarded the room against evil spirits (in a figurative way, of course). And when I arrived home, I felt fulfilled. And really tired.

Teachers need their savasana too, after all.

Being Told to Relax, aka the IBS Wake-up Call

Three letters. The MD gave me three little miserable letters to explain all the pain and suffering I’d been going through for years. IBS, as in Irritable Bowel Syndrome. It seemed too little, too common, too simple. I don’t know what I was hoping for, some badass degenerative disease? “It’s only IBS,” she said. “The tests show no damage, no nutritional deficiency. This is good news. You just need to relax.” I was secretly hoping for something complex because it might have been treatable. Medication seemed easier than to relax. How the hell does one relax, I thought. You think I haven’t tried?!

IBS is one funny unpredictable condition. You’re fine and the next minute there’s so much pain you can’t stand up and walk. You feel bloated, sometimes nauseated, your digestion is funky, you’re not hungry for hours and then you suddenly want to eat an elephant. Let’s not even mention the episodes of diarrhea, interrupted by mysterious bouts of constipation.

And so the best advice the MD had was to relax! And avoid uncooked veggies, especially lettuce and red pepper. By then, I had already made many changes in my life. I had ditched all my jeans (too painfully tight) for dresses and yoga pants; I had abandoned dairy (oh, ice cream, where art thou?). I knew I could easily adapt my habits, but to relax?! That was a different ball game. I didn’t even know what it meant.

In my mind, relaxation was for retirement. It was completely incompatible with real life. There was no way I could even imagine myself as anything but stressed-out, over-active, over-zealous. I did every task as if my life depended on it. I was intense, and I did pride myself on getting things done, fast. Fortunately for me, the pain caused by IBS was so unbearable, I had to pause and revisit this assumption.

What I have since understood is that our digestive system is directly affected by our nervous system. Regular stress, when it goes unmanaged, will seriously impede our digestion from beginning to end. Stress affects the foods we choose, how we chew, how we breathe (which in turn influences our digestive organs’ work). It may divert the energy away from the intestines, slowing down digestion, or even cause food to move faster along the digestive system causing discomfort, and serious inconvenience.

What’s even more interesting is that your body knows about the stress reaction before you do. Before you can cognitively recognize that “I am under stress right now,” your body has initiated the response: dry mouth, tightening muscles, faster breathing. Although the mind is a serious player in the stress reaction, the body is the only way in.

That’s how I slowly learned to relax and make friends with stress, and successfully managed to eliminate my IBS symptoms. The first step into deconstructing stress is to take care of the body, breathe mindfully, and move the body in sync with the breath. The mind is completely clueless in this regard. Try talking yourself out of stress, and see if it works. The mind cannot lead this transformation, it can only follow.

Ode to Time Alone

We’re busy. Over and over, we run from point A to point B to point Z to get things done. We’re surrounded by people who need something from us, by phones ringing, by email boxes filling up. We catch ourselves wishing for time off, for time alone. Yet when there is a window of opportunity, what do we do? We reach for our phone, we doze off on facebook, we switch on the TV (if you still have one of those). Are we all collectively afraid of being alone?

I took part in a weeklong silent meditation retreat once. I thought it would be the hardest thing I would ever do. Turned out that speaking up during a staff meeting at work was harder than spending a week in silence. The silence was purifying. It felt soothing to be alone with myself, and to finally hear all the chatter in my head. Stripped of conversation with others around me, I had to tune within and listen to myself going on and on about what I didn’t have, what I wasn’t, why I wasn’t good at this, how others seemed to be getting it so much better than me. And I found it interesting. <strong>I guess I found it interesting because meditation showed me that I wasn’t telling myself the truth.</strong> I was entertaining myself with my fears. Fear of being inadequate, fear of not being smart enough, fear of being left out and forgotten. This last one was the crux of my fears during this silent meditation. Without others to send me approval and acceptance signals, I was left all alone with my own acceptance issues. Could I accept myself as I was, could I sit with myself without judgement? And could I do so without searching for diversion, such as my phone or a book? Simply put, was I able to be alone?

Fear of solitude is true and deep. But it’s fear. And it can be melted away, it can be overcome with a little courage. Try it, and see for yourself. Turn your phone off, and take 20 minutes alone, doing nothing. If you’re bored, it means you find your own company boring. Ouch. Tune into your thoughts, your senses. If this is really hard, pick a simple activity and focus on it completely for 20 minutes, like steeping and sipping tea, going out for a walk, dancing in your living room, eating your meal. Be curious about what is happening within and without. You might be surprised how entertained you will be when time is up.

Time alone is time for intuition and checking in. When I have quality time for myself, I am more available and present with my loved ones when we are together. I am more in tune with my needs, and I am better able to discern what’s important from what isn’t.