Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

Kerry Maiorca

Kerry is the Founder & Director of Bloom Yoga Studio, voted Best Yoga Studio in the Chicago Reader, Chicago Magazine, and Citysearch. As a practicing yogi, writer, and mother of three, Kerry is all about making the principles and philosophies of yoga real and accessible for day-to-day living. You can find Kerry on Google+.

We were having a perfectly nice dinner, our little family of four, when my phone rang. I tried to be all Zen about it and pretend that as a yoga teacher and conscious human being I didn’t care, but after three, then four rings I excused myself and pushed back from a delightful conversation about the latest findings on Mars, which was of particular interest to my son because of his recent Mars rover project for school.

My husband gave me the “is this really necessary?” look, the one that after 13 years of marriage seems less like a scolding or judgment and more a reminder from my own conscience. I made some lame excuse about needing to make sure it wasn’t an urgent call from the studio, but somewhere in my mind I knew it wasn’t. I was simply overcome by the urge to answer the call of the more subtle, conniving side of Mean Mommy, the occasional visitor who haunts our house.

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Yes, Mean Mommy is sometimes the yelling sort, but more often lately she emerges in other less obvious ways. She’s tricky, switching her methods on me like this, but you can’t blame her. I've become better at defending against her old yelling tirades, so she had to get creative.

The moment I stepped into my office to answer the phone, hearing traces of a conversation about what methane in the atmosphere might mean and why water isn’t the only important indication of life on a planet. I said an optimistic hello, hoping it would be something super important, something that would justify my leaving a perfectly lovely family dinner table moment, but I was instead greeted by a sharp robotic “Hello” in return. “This is a message from Chicago Public Schools…..” it continued. To my credit, I only listened to another ten seconds of the robo-call about the importance of childhood vaccinations for all CPS students before hanging up, but the damage had already been done.

Entering back into the dinner conversation, I was out of step and asked a question about Mars that my son curtly informed me had already been covered. Sneaky Mean Mommy smirked from within and I passed it off as a smile, trying to pretend I was fully present, but my thoughts were somewhere else entirely as my daughter shared the latest art project she had been working on.

Mean Mommy can’t tell the important stuff from the trivial and frequently acts as though possessed to find any distraction to set herself apart from the primary activities of the moment. Whether it’s reading while brushing teeth, checking email while the kids enjoy an after-school snack, or letting thoughts of work seep into family dinner time, she’s a sneaky, petty thief.

Mean Mommy knows nothing of asteya, the yogic principle of non-stealing. 

It starts out innocently enough. “I just need to finish this one thing,” I’ll say as I’m blasting through emails after school, talking to both my computer and my son, “and then we can play football. Okay, sweetheart?”

20 minutes and 7 follow-up requests later, my sweet tone has devolved into a Mean Mommy snark as I move from pleading, to threatening, to bribing with television. 

This may seem like pretty standard stuff for any mom, moms being the great multi-taskers, but it has been happening more frequently than I care to admit lately. This chronic distractedness reveals a deficit of time, productivity, and efficiency elsewhere. But instead of being a grown-up and addressing the core issue, Mean Mommy attempts to steal some of that time back from her family as a solution.

Mean Mommy has boundary issues, to say the least. 

Just as I worked to lessen the yelling Mean Mommy’s visits by making more time for self-care (been working like a charm, by the way!), my new plan with this thieving Mean Mommy is to set limits for myself, much as I do with my children.

Boundaries make me better. I’m a person who gets overwhelmed by limitless possibility, so the process of saying “this, not that” is actually freeing rather than limiting. 

If I know that after school I can pick up the slack and wrap up unfinished business I didn’t get to during my work day, I tend to be less productive than I could be. Were I not to have the release valve of multi-tasking while parenting, I would be forced to figure out a way to either get it all done during the workday or be more selective about what I commit to and how I use my time in the long run. Both of which would be incredibly positive consequences.

In anticipation of my kids’ upcoming two-week holiday break from school, I’ve decided to commit to some personal boundaries to avoid straddling the parenting and working modes whenever possible so that I can focus on just embodying one role well. It’s scary to change my habits, and I’m coming face to face with the ways in which I sometimes use work to escape the frustrating, boring, and annoying moments of motherhood. But I know from experience that when I just let myself play one role, I do it better. And I have more fun.

Before my phone rang at the dinner table that night, I was enjoying our family’s conversation, loving my husband and children, and reveling in the fact that in a busy, crazy, scary, hectic, connected world with billions of people, I was lucky enough to be in a room every night with the three who are most important to me. That is a gift that I’ve been given, and all I have to do now is not let Mean Mommy steal it away. 

This. Not that. And breathe.

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A couple of weeks ago my family again joined our dear friends on a pilgrimage to Jasper Pulaski State Park to witness the migration of the sandhill cranes. It was a beautiful, chilly Saturday morning, and I was giddy. My son, on the other hand, trudged down the path, completely disregarding the “Sandhill Cranes – True or False?” quiz placards we had so eagerly read together the year before.

He tossed his football so high it grazed the tree branches overhead. “Why can’t we just stay at the campsite and play football?” he said, missing the catch and running after his ball as it rolled erratically through the golden brown carpet of leaves. “They’re just a bunch of birds!”

As we continued up the path towards the observation tower and the familiar sight of 100 or so people perched on railings overlooking a massive field of cranes, I realized I had been pondering the same question. Why do so many of us keep coming back to watch a bunch of birds who are completely indifferent to our presence? What would happen if we were all just too busy with work and family stuff to bother?

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I pictured the tall wooden observation tower empty, the cranes themselves the only witnesses to this natural phenomenon, and was comforted knowing that nothing would be different in that scenario. The cranes would still make their Mary-Poppins-style landings, do their flapping dance, and communicate with their incredibly resonant honks.

As I leaned on the railing and watched these gorgeous animals move and interact, I was overwhelmed with the pure joy of doing just one thing. Emails, status updates, schedules, and everyday aggravations fell away and it occurred to me that this one-pointed focus I had dropped into was not some kind of amazing feat. It was just who I am when I peel back the layers of busyness.

By the time we left I was brimming with the imagery and poeticism of the trees, the fallen leaves, the earth, and the sky dotted with birds and stars.

Back on my yoga mat last week after our return, I practiced a variation of crane pose, balakikasana,to cultivate some of that simplicity despite have been thrust back into the challenges of daily life. After 17 years of hearing yoga’s definition translated as “the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind,” as I flapped my wings, moved with my breath, and steadied my gaze, I began to understand it in a different way.

In savasana I imagined a river flowing from my head through my trunk, arms, legs, and out my toes. I visualized that the flow of this river was my true, unchanging self, ease and wellbeing. It’s the part of me that is just waiting to be found if only I can stop distracting myself with things that seem important when I let myself get too busy. Whenever a thought popped into my head, I imagined that thought was a small stick or a golden leaf falling into the river, and I’d watch it float downstream.

Yoga is an undoing. It's not about wishing to stop the thoughts or mental fluctuations any more than a river wishes the sticks and leaves would stop falling into it. Thoughts, those little sticks and leaves, are not the problem.

When I visit the cranes, spend time outside, or simply practice being a mindful, breathing human being on a yoga mat, I’m clearing the river’s pathway so it can flow, as per its nature. I’m witnessing the delicate fall of sticks and leaves, watching the thoughts come and watching the go. I’m not the sticks or the leaves. Rather I’m the river that carries them, I’m the cranes that fly and honk and dance regardless of whether they have witnesses or not. I’m the stuff beneath my stuff, the steadiness beneath my busyness. I am right here, wherever I go, despite the layers of multi-tasking or distraction I sometimes choose to cloak myself in.

In the field beneath the observation tower my son sprints and dodges, clutching the football with a determined grin as he goes for the touchdown with his friends. The cranes honk, the perfect spectators, neither approving nor disapproving of his alternating successes and failures. He’s shed his coat, hat, and gloves, and his cheeks glow red despite my worries that he’ll be cold.

As a kid who’s relatively uncloaked in the layers of distraction, he doesn’t need the cranes in the same way I do. The sunlight fades and my husband goes in for a friendly tackle, then they tumble over each other in the grass, laughing.

I want to tell my son he's right, they are just a bunch of birds. I tell myself, remembering, we're all just a bunch of birds.

 

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Over the past 15 years of teaching yoga, I’ve told my students thousands of times, in thousands of different ways to avoid creating discomfort with the practice. Physically I felt this was the key to guarding against overdoing, strain, and injury.

But a couple of weeks ago I took an Experiential Anatomy workshop with Judith Lasater, and since then discomfort has become my new normal. Judith presented a completely new way of looking at alignment through the lens of kinesiology, and the cognitive dissonance I experienced during the workshop was as unsettling as it was exciting. After 15 years of practicing mountain, triangle, and down dog one way, I’m now exploring what it would mean to do almost exactly the opposite.

Tadasana, mountain pose, my familiar friend, has become this new creature. The shifting of the pelvic alignment, the undoing of ‘sneaky tailbone tucking,’ has freed my belly and low back, requiring much less work while achieving greater stability. Relying more on my bone structure means not needing to do so much work in the poses.

As exciting as these discoveries were, I still wasn’t sure what to think. I felt like an absolute beginner again. While I’m not generally attached to my ability to achieve fancy poses and my practice looks more like a level 1 student’s these days anyway, I was still uncomfortable with this absolute throwback to beginnerdom.

I’m not used to being uncomfortable in any substantial way. Most of us in the US aren’t. I have adequate food, clothing, and shelter. I’m in good health and my yoga practice has been a constant comfort to me, physically, mentally, and emotionally. I’m used to knowing what’s what in my practice, but right now on the mat I’m caught in a dialogue between old habit and new. As I make my way into trikonasana with the new alignment cues, my muscle memory protests, ‘But this is NOT how triangle feels...’

At every point in the pose my mind tries to decide whether Judith’s way is good or bad, whether I like it or dislike it, and I can’t help debating whether or not she’s right. But as Judith reminded us, determining what’s ‘right’ demands identifying its opposite, and there’s really not room for ‘wrong’ in yoga practice. All these tiny alignment details teachers offer students are simply ways to encourage paying attention and moving consciously rather than from rote. The mental focus and awareness generated from such details helps you practice yoga rather than just asana.

What do most of us do when we feel discomfort? My tendency is to fill it up – over the years that tool has ranged from stuffing my face with chocolate, zoning out to bad TV shows, or losing myself in work or writing projects to avoid feeling the unease of not knowing. Unconsciously, I must believe that if I do something familiar (even something that causes other kinds of pain and discomfort, like an overfull belly, regret over wasted time, or exhaustion from staying up too late), the weird unfamiliarity will be quelled so I can go on about my nice little life without having to examine what the discomfort really means below the surface.

I’m ready to invite discomfort in for myself and for my students, to play with the balance between knowing and not knowing, between certainty and unfamiliarity. We often visited this world as kids because so many of our experiences were new and uncomfortable, but we were repeatedly told it was an important part of our growth and development.

As adults couldn’t embracing the discomfort of newness be useful in cultivating that same sort of growth?

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I’ve been refining my definitions. Yes, discomfort is a warning sign. But sometimes rather than a red light, it’s a flashing yellow. ‘Hey, you! Pay attention to this and decide – do you want to hit the brakes or proceed with caution?’

Discomfort and pain are distinct experiences on the mat. Discomfort is the unfamiliar, like when Judith asked me to shift my pelvis forward and down in triangle rather than trying to spin open as I have done so many times before. My body was confused, my muscle memory jostled, and I experienced emotional discomfort because I felt like a complete beginner again. On the other hand, some of the things Judith suggested did not quite feel right in my body and bordered on pain. In those cases I listened, pulled back, and asked for help. But for the most part, when I managed to stay with the unfamiliarity long enough to undo my habitual asana patterns, I experienced a new lightness, steadiness, and ease in the poses.

While I want to play with discomfort and encourage my students to do the same, I’m still a firm believer that pain does not belong on the yoga mat and you need not push through it to achieve a breakthrough. I also don’t feel I’ve unlocked the key to the one ‘right’ way to approach alignment, but rather have reinforced for myself that the value of asana practice lies in its ability to help us pay attention to small details and sensation. I look forward to inviting students to pay closer attention, undo habits, and explore their discomfort with newness in asana. And I hope that when they step off the mat and back into their day the exploration they’ve done will open them to the growth possibilities that exist within cognitive dissonance, with the questioning of patterns without need for determining ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’

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Can you imagine what your day would look like if you paid as much attention to your own battery levels as you did your phone’s?

Two weeks ago when my kids were home and our family was living in the limbo between summer activities and the start of school, I’d play outside with them for much of the day, compensating by shifting my workday to the post-bedtime hours. After a few late nights I was feeling run down and somewhat Mean Mommy-ish, but every evening I’d still find myself at my desk as the clock ticked past midnight. No matter how late I had stayed up, before I shut off the light and called it quits for the day I’d always double check that my phone was plugged in.

The battery on my phone predictably dies within a day, even when I haven’t used it. It’s been this way since I got the new phone six months ago, so after it died on me once or twice I noted the issue and have remained vigilant about checking my battery and recharging as needed. (Another approach would have been to just buy another battery, but that’s the subject of another post.)

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The sight of my fully charged phone – that proud green bar with a powerful little lightning bolt – makes me feel ready for anything that life throws at me. As the hours wear on and the battery level goes down, I check the battery display obsessively, worried about getting to the piddly yellow band or (gasp!) the dreaded red stripe accompanied by that terrible beep that signals the near-end of my phone battery’s life.

Without consciously setting rules, over the past few months I’ve adopted an unspoken method for keeping my phone juiced up. If my battery is more than halfway charged, I leave it alone for the day knowing it’ll be okay until I can charge it up overnight. If it’s less than halfway charged I strategize, no matter where I am, to figure out when and where I can plug it in. In extreme cases if I know there won’t be a recharging opportunity for a while, I’ll often just shut the phone off to conserve its precious energy.

When I consider the gymnastics I put myself through for this device (particularly considering that I’m anything but phone-obsessed), it seems laughable. I rationalize it because as a mom with young children and a business owner I rely on my phone, and these are the hard-and-fast rules it presents me. There’s no bargaining for just a few more minutes so I can finish a text message to let my husband know my phone is dying and we’ll be staying at the park for a while longer, or to call back a client who wants to know more about bringing yoga to her workplace.

I really never thought much about this recharging craziness until my friend and colleague Lisa Sandquist mentioned the idea in the context of restorative yoga, noting the irony of how vigilant we are about phone and device recharging, when it never even occurs to most of us (even the yoga teachers among us – ahem!) to apply the same concept to our own energy levels.  I’ve unfortunately become an expert at taking myself beyond the red bar, deaf to my own terrible version of the beep that comes when I’m overtired and grouchy.

Since Lisa planted the seed, I’ve been pretending that I’m a device that must be adequately charged in order to function. On nights when I’m super tired, even if I have work to do I pretend that my battery doesn’t have an override setting. I pretend that there’s no dark chocolate waiting for me in the pantry to give me that boost to work till 2AM. Instead I lie down on the floor and throw my legs up the wall for 10 minutes.  I breathe deeply and acknowledge my tiredness rather than trying to push through or beyond it.

When I emerge from that 10-minute plug-in, I feel different. Not fully recharged (that only comes with a few nights of consistent good sleep), but nowhere near the yellow or red. I’m solidly in the green, and I approach everything that comes after that in my day differently. Some of the softness of my restorative yoga break comes with me as I decide how to spend my time, how to move, how to speak.

This calls for svadyaya, self-study!

If I can modify my phone plug-in behavior based on hourly checks of a quarter-inch green bar, I can certainly learn to look inward once or twice a day to determine whether my body/mind may be in need of a recharge for a few minutes.

Humans don’t come equipped with bright, shiny, LED screens or that terrifying low battery sound. But with the conscious practice of yoga and self-awareness, we can learn to see the signals almost as clearly as if they were green, yellow, or red bars. 

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Investing your time and money in a yoga teacher training program can be an effective way to deepen your understanding of yoga in order to share it with others and possibly move towards a career doing what you love. Finding the right program can make all the difference between a mediocre experience and a life-changing one.

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In the past 5 years, there’s been a boom in yoga teacher training programs in the US as yoga has become big business. It takes a significant amount of experience, dedication, and time to craft a quality program. However, for some schools teacher training programs are primarily viewed as a source of revenue, and in those cases the program’s quality may reflect those priorities.  Asking the right questions as a prospective student will help you determine whether a program will prioritize your education and personal development, or whether they’re more interested in your participation for financial reasons.

If your teacher training experience is just a fast-track to certification, you’ll graduate feeling only vaguely familiar with the material. A quality program will provide repeated exposure to key concepts, adequate support and feedback, and plenty of time to absorb the information so you’ll feel confident and practiced enough that you could teach any yoga pose or philosophical concept to your grandmother. 

Will you be ready when a student in your first post-teacher-training class asks how to modify for their back issue or wants to know what that Sanskrit term you’ve been throwing around really means? 

Get an insider look at what's really important by asking these 10 questions: 

1. Is the program an RYS? Over the past year, Yoga Alliance has become the essential player in the yoga world, to the point where it’s hard to get a teaching job if you don’t attend a Registered Yoga School (RYS) and obtain the Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT) designation. Yoga Alliance offers valuable member benefits such as health insurance, liability insurance, educational webinars, and more. Even if you aren’t sure you want to teach, it’s wise to invest in a program that will enable you to get your RYT because if you change your mind and want to teach after graduating you will not have to spend additional money on a second RYS program. To ensure you can get your RYT designation upon graduation, verify that a prospective program is listed as an RYS on Yoga Alliance’s website so you know the program is in good standing.

2. What is the style of the training and will it make you a versatile teacher? While demonstrating respect for the broad tradition of yoga, the program should focus on one particular approach (that resonates with you) rather than providing a survey of 10 different yoga styles. On the other hand, consider whether the program’s teaching certificate will make you a versatile instructor who can teach in a variety of settings, or whether you will only be qualified to teach a branded class in a particular location or for a particular company.

3. How experienced are the primary teachers? To become a skillful yoga teacher, you need to learn more than just the basics of alignment and a bunch of Sanskrit. You’ll learn most from the insights your primary teachers share based on their years of experience practicing, studying, and working with thousands of students. With teacher training programs cropping up everywhere, it’s important to find out how long the primary teacher has been teaching. The depth of what you can learn from a teacher who been honing her craft for 10 or more years is significantly more than someone who just graduated from her own teacher training program 2 years ago. 

4. How many trainees do they accept? Consider how you would feel being in a class of 20 versus a class of 60+. Smaller teacher training class sizes allow for more personalized instruction. Ask to talk with the primary teacher about the level of individual feedback provided on your practice, teaching, sequencing, and other assignments. The way you’re received as a prospective trainee will reveal how you’ll likely be treated once enrolled. If the teacher makes time to address your questions, that’s a good indication she’ll value you as an individual rather than just another number on the roster.

5. Is the school fair and upfront with their pricing? The current advertised pricing for teacher training programs ranges from around $2500 - $4000. However, many schools add extra hidden costs for required workshops, makeups, manuals, or in the case of residential programs, accommodations. Find out all fees that are associated with completing the program so you know what your true cost will be, and be sure the program has their attendance, pricing, and refund policies in writing so there are no surprises should the unexpected happen.

6. What do program graduates say? Recent graduates can be one of the best sources for information about the quality of the training. They can share their first-hand experience and give you a sense of whether the program delivers what it promises. The primary teacher should be happy to put you in touch with graduates for a phone or email exchange.

7. How long will it take to get certified? There are many programs that will certify you to teach in a few weeks, often running trainings that last for 8-10 hours, day after day. The average adult has an attention span of 20-60 minutes, so at a certain point excessive information will simply not stick. The key to retention and absorption is learning via sessions that are shorter in duration and that meet consistently (weekly rather than monthly), allowing you to circle back to key concepts until they are second nature.

8. What is the curriculum and classroom format? Yoga Alliance requires RYS to provide a minimum number of instructional hours in six educational categories, but each program can choose to allocate those hours in a variety of ways. Ask the primary teacher to show you the curriculum and book list, and find out the format of classroom hours. According to Yoga Alliance guidelines, teacher training classroom hours must be in a “dedicated teacher training environment (into which others might occasionally be invited) rather than in classes intended for the general public.” If the program doesn’t follow a clear curriculum and your teacher training sessions are open to the general public, the depth of your learning will be compromised.

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9. Does the program prepare you to teach beginners and modify for students with injuries? Teaching intermediate students is pretty straightforward – just call out ‘handstand’ and, voila, up they go! While it can be fun to play with more challenging poses, part of being a good yoga teacher is meeting students where they are. As yoga becomes more popular, it’s essential to know how to safely teach a variety of students (not just fit and flexible yogis) because regardless of what level you plan to teach, every class is really a mixed level class. The program should emphasize learning alternate variations so you can empower students to participate at a level that’s appropriate for them rather than risking overdoing it or having to sit that challenging arm balance out.

10. How much yoga experience is required to apply? If a program requires no previous yoga experience for applicants, this should raise a red flag. It means you will receive a less-thorough education because your teacher trainers will need to spend more time instructing newer students in the basics of alignment and technique. It may also indicate the program values generating revenue over accepting appropriately-qualified candidates. One year of consistent yoga practice prior to applying is a minimum standard for potential teacher trainees.

Having asked the above questions and pondered the answers, you’ll be well-equipped to determine which program will be the best fit for your educational needs while preparing you to become a skilled and knowledgeable yoga teacher. Enjoy the journey!

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