Lots of people tell the story about how they were dragged to yoga class and hated it at first. They either begrudgingly continued on or didn’t try it again for years. At some point they felt a shift, things clicked, and yoga made sense to them and seemed good for them. That is not my story.
After my first yoga class I went home, plopped onto my bed, and told my boyfriend of that tender decade that I would be a yoga teacher some day. I bought all the books from Barnes and Noble I could find within the first month and spent countless hours in the studio practicing, bugging my teachers for extra help, and trying to build a home practice so I could more quickly progress. Many workshops, several certifications, and a few yoga conferences later I discovered that I was tired and stalling out on my growth trajectory. Exhaustion and even a sense that I didn’t fit into my practice correctly took hold. It was time for a change.
15 years later I can confidently report that the yoga practice is an integrated part of my life, which is inseparable from the rest of my experiences. The changes I can report are vast. The effects of a long and measured practice are staggering as I reflect back over the years. Here is my best advice for working through burnout and carving a personal path in the often standardized and limiting post modern commercial yoga world.
1. Recognize that the rose colored glasses of new love wear off.
If you choose the yogic path as a life path you will inevitably come up against the reality of a committed relationship or a marriage of sorts. In other words, the magic and specialness shift into a new normal and then the work of yoga begins.
Eventually you must come to look at the asana/pranayama/meditation practices as housekeeping for a larger exploration of your whole life. There are two Niyamas of the 8 limbs of yoga to consider here: Tapas and Svadyaya.
Tapas means heat, discipline, and dedication to the aims of yoga. Discipline isn’t always pleasurable and neither is scrubbing your floors. I always encourage students to practice finding the sacred within the mundane. Holiness in dailiness is an ongoing practice of yoga.
Instead of seeking out more and more extreme experiences in yoga, we have to get more and more willing to be intimate with the small normal moments of life.
Svadyaya means self-study and study of the context or philosophy of yoga. Burnout is a sign that you are ready to expand. It means the next layer of yoga is just around the bend!
2. Return to the place you started and know it for the first time.
If you love yoga asana and found yourself inclined to pursue a physical practice that focused on lots of gymnastic variations, chances are, you skipped over some of the really important “basics.”
Foundations are not just understanding the alignment of familiar poses. Building the foundations of both physical and conceptual yoga should happen together. The concepts, postures, and coordinations arise together so it is probably time to take some basic classes again and tend to your connection to the ground and your breath as you move.
Reach out to a trusted teacher and schedule a private session to work on your foundations. It will cost you, but it will be worth it. Drop in Yoga is not the best way to glean insight and gain guidance.
3. Expand your definition of Yoga practice.
Burnout may be an indication that the style of movement you were initially attracted to isn’t serving you. That isn’t uncommon. Many of us start in a system that mirrors our tendencies, likes, and dislikes. We choose a movement pattern and dogma that reinforces our natural patterns. Over time this creates imbalance. Shifting to different movement patterns and styles might be necessary. It was for me.
I’d also encourage you to look at therapy sessions, acupuncture, bodywork, journaling, and volunteer work as yoga practice. Again the practice of Svadyaya ( self-study) can be expanded very broadly as long as you are consciously choosing these things and seeing them as yoga.
4. Establish a working definition of Yoga and the goals of yoga.
You would think this is easy but people have been grappling with these questions for thousands of years and the inquiry is part of the practice. Ultimately yoga is not something quantifiable from the outside. It is a personal and ongoing exploration of the self, an uncovering of truth and freedom.
Studying up on The Yoga Sutras and some of the later Tantric texts can be helpful but look for a teacher and a community to study with.
I hope this advice inspires you to widen and deepen your connection to yoga if that appeals to you.
Know that if you leave the practice behind, you are not failing at anything. Your value is inherent and you don’t need permission to exist and thrive.
That luminous awareness within me
sees and honors that clarity within you.
“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
― Henry David Thoreau
The Season of the Sun
At this moment I am camped out on the back deck watching my son stack shells while my partner tends the grill. I’m hot but the breeze and the shade provide the perfect amount of relief to keep me satisfied and glued to my seat. Speaking of seats, underneath mine is the newest member of our family. Bear, the rescue pup, is curled up and content to snap at flies and chew his paws. This is a Summer Sunday as the sun slowly sets and I am fully aware of my stupidly childlike love of the season.
We only just passed the solstice and already we are moving headlong into heat and heat and heat. The Summer time is considered the most Yang season of the year in traditional Chinese medicine.
Yang = Light, Heat, Activity
The element associated with Summer is fire, big surprise I know, and the organs that rules the season as well as the system of meridians are the heart and small intestine.
The two forces to consider now are the action of Yang energy and the nature of the heart.Yang energy at its best is playful, joyful, and easily expressed.
Now is the time to enjoy what you have grown in your life. Lean into the way things are and ride the waves of pleasure as far as you can. Now is not the time to start new projects or do deep excavating in your life. Eat what grows and feel work as play.
Though this is an active (Yang) time of year, the heart rules the blood, governing circulation. Blood is considered yin fluid that balances yang chi.
Yin = Dark, Cool, Passivity
So the Yin aspect of the blood tempers the rising heat of summer giving us the glorious willingness to just be as we are. Yin is all about being.
Basically the two natural attitudes of Summer are easeful play and unapologetic rest.
Rise with the sun
Rest at mid-day when the heat is unbearable
Play and relax in the evening and enjoy the later days
Eat mostly fruit and veggies
Lighten up on the animal products and grains
Look for cooling foods and drinks
To stimulate the heart meridian, work with shoulder openers and thoracic spine mobility.
Did I mention play?
**Be aware of over heating. It is excess heat that throws the fun of Summer into a tailspin causing sleep issues, digestive problems, and skin irritations.
If overheated do more cooling Yin Yoga.
Keep things simple and settle into life’s natural rhythm.
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Don’t push or chase after change. Change is always happening anyways….to you and all the objects/humans/celestial bodies around you. Impermanence is an immutable law that is impossible to avoid. Your JOB isn’t to chase the yogic transformation from ignorance (Avidya) to wisdom (Prajna) per say. Your JOB is to wake up to the layer that you are already inhabiting and dwell there fully with all your loving awareness. When you lean into your boundaries or limitations without blowing past them or avoiding them, something very interesting happens. Psychologically speaking, its like allowing a toddler to tantrum in your arms with out forcing them to stop or move forward. When you acknowledge the suffering with out trying to change it, it changes on its own. This suggestion is fairly difficult to implement in daily life when dealing with yourself if you don’t have a formal practice to help you understand the concept directly through the body.
The practice of yoga; asana(postures), pranayama(breathing exercises), and seated meditation are designed to help us work with our boundaries, physical and otherwise.
“Work from your layer….don’t skip ahead!”
I call this out repeatedly in the Mission Yoga classroom. It is common for us both on and off the mat to get caught in outward appearances. We let the external perception drive the internal experience and usually we do things that aren’t really aligned at all. When you chase advancement in the physical postures you often end up loading your joints in a misaligned and disembodied way that burns calories but eventually leads to injuries. I’m not suggesting that you should only practice gentle asana at all. The work is in going slow enough to discern your boundaries and to practice with them in sight. Being in your layer means you find your first edge (it is more subtle and nuanced than it seems) and wait there until you become comfortable. Then a natural transition into the next available layer occurs without unnecessary force or wasted energy.
A simple postural example is wide leg fold. I can take my legs wide and tip my torso till my forehead is on the ground. But if I’m honest, I can feel my first layer of stretch before my forearms are even down. If I sit in my first layer I can feel when the tissue that is resistant lets out and then I move again. The power is in the backing up, resting in, and responding rather than demanding. You have to ask yourself, where am I within the posture instead of how do I fit myself into the shape.
I must admit that my paradigm is that of the feminine intelligence of Yin that our culture is sorely lacking. The Yin way is only half of the conversation but it is the half that doesn’t get enough airtime in the world of Modern Postural Yoga. Waiting and listening as a practice fosters skillful action in our bodies and the world. All you have to do is live in, and grow through, the layers right there in your body/heart/mind. Transformation is a guarantee.
BY STANLEY KUNITZ
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
December 21st is the darkest day of the year and signals the start of the winter season. The solstice is considered the most Yin day of the year and Winter is the most Yin season. You have opportunities or obstacles to face depending on your orientation. The darkness of today and the yin quality of the season are glorious invitations to turn inward and get quiet with your self. If you resist this invitation, you will be pushing back against the natural order of things and against your own innate capacity to organize your physical, and energetic embodiment in relationship to the natural world.
The Kidney meridian, most heavily associated with this season, governs the jing (essence energy) that fuels growth and supports immune function. The health of our essence energy is greatly depleted by stress and overstimulation and this time of year the fight or flight response is in overdrive for many. If we deplete our Kidneys and adrenals now, when the rising energy of Spring bursts onto the scene we will be ill prepared to thrive as creative engines. Now is the time to rest, minimize social commitments, and guard time for personal reflection. Yogis are always looking for ways to simplify and bring more Yin into their lives to cultivate balance but now especially, we can all benefit from following the cues of nature. Donna Eden calls winter the Embryonic Rhythm. That name really illuminates the ideal for me. It suggest that we go inward and incubate quietly, passively receiving nourishment from the internal experience of self as both parent and child.
Here are suggestions for thriving in the cold and dark of Winter:
1. Keep your feet, belly, and low back warm. Wear socks Charleston Yogis! Dress for the weather in general with smart layers. It isn’t that cold here but when it does get chilly I see far too many people inappropriately dressed.
2. Go to bed early as often as possible. Sleep resets the nervous system like nothing else.
3. Eat root vegetables and soups. Focus on warm foods and use healthy fats to cook and season with. You should gain a little weight in the winter as all animals do. The weight shouldn’t come from excess sugar indulgence and yo yo extreme workouts but instead should arise as we rest more and eat more heavy and grounding foods.
4. Keep your workouts more mellow. The Kidneys are often referred to as the house of fire and water. If there is too much rising heat in the body (triggered by stress and over exertion) it weakens the kidneys thereby lowering your immune function. Everyone is different so there are no hard and fast rules here but consistency and moderation are always key to exercise.
5.Give yourself permission to disappoint others in order to take care of yourself. Instead of saying yes to everyone and everything then stressing and potentially flaking on your commitments anyways, say no to begin with and keep your calendar more spacious. If you don’t want to do it, then don’t. Life is short and Winter can offer us the opportunity to create better boundaries and grow our wise discernment.
6. As you lighten up on the Vinyasa and heavy lifting, double down on the Yin Yoga, Restorative Yoga, Tai Chi, Meditation, and Yoga Nidra practices. Don’t give up activity by any means. Prioritize nourishment first and do less stimulating exercise but remember that this is a spectrum. Each persons personal needs are different.
I hope you find the Winter nourishing and subtly transformative. If you find yourself fearful or overwhelmed ask for support. Know that you have the tools and can find the guides you need.
As a young adult I gave little energy to the holiday season. My family dynamics were complicated and I wanted to distance myself from any sense of loss by devaluing this time of year entirely. There is a speech I have memorized for every major holiday about capitalism, the destruction of an indigenous people in the name of personal privilege, and the dogma of a religion that bullied and co-opted many other spiritual practices and cultures in order to gain world domination. There is truth to those narratives but not all of the truth. There is value buried under the bullshit.
Baby step by baby step I have tried to reclaim the seasonal holidays in a way that is meaningful to me so that I can share in the recovery, rest, and communal solidarity that can be observed in a quiet and simple way. In fact, returning to the holidays with less attachment to the status quo, I am free to build the traditions of my family in a way that works for us. Some of my friends are less lucky. They had lovely childhoods with giant families and elaborate traditions which involved a great deal of stress, people pleasing, and over indulging (partially due to the stress). They want to uphold the construct, believing it to be part of their loving connection to family, so they struggle through this season.
Regardless of where you fall on the holiday spectrum, rejecter, embracer, over-achiever…I have some suggestions for you this year to help you stay centered. They are easy tangible actions that don’t require much discipline or forethought.
1. Take time:
to go outside, walk, and breathe. Don’t beat yourself up about maintaining your fitness regimen or your yoga asana practice. If you find the time, by all means, get on the mat, but don’t waste energy worrying about it. The easiest thing you can do on your own or with friends and family is take a 30 minute walk each day.
2. Drink Plenty:
of water. If you like herbal tea, drink the hell out of it. First thing when you wake up drink warm water with lemon. Do this before the coffee or tea. In between each adult beverage drink a glass or water (fizzy if yer fancy). Before bed have one last hot herbal tea.
from your cell phone for a day or even a few hours. No really, turn it off. Put it away. As you disconnect from the virtual world you reconnect to the physical world. If you find it tiresome, take a nap.
4. Load your plate:
with veggies and protein first. After that have the stuffing, mashed potatoes, rolls….what ever you want. Don’t go back for thirds but if you do, walking and napping might be even more important.
5. Enjoy the sweetness:
of taking time to be with your self and others in a nonjudgemental way. Take a moment to subscribe meaning to the holiday that is personal to you and remember that gratitude is expressed not by doing but by stopping to feel the fullness of our full and complete lives.