The Long Stretch

When I began taking yoga classes in 1989, I was looking for an exercise class which engaged my mind as well as my body. I was a computer programmer, and I needed a way to take my mind off of my program when I left work. At that time, yoga was viewed as being a little odd, possibly cultish, but I thought it was fun, and I always came home feeling good.

I took my first class at The Health Advantage Yoga Center (HAYC) in 1994. Betsey Downing, Ph.D., the founder of HAYC, had begun teaching classes at Brown’s Chapel in Reston several years before. As her classes grew, she moved to our space in what is now half of the Purple Room. By 1994, the studio had grown to two yoga rooms and a meditation room, covering the area from the current Purple Room to half of the Green Room.

My first class at HAYC changed my view of yoga. The previous classes I had taken were mixed-level and not alignment-based, so the classes were either too easy or too challenging, and there were no consistent explanations for positioning various body parts. Often the level of difficulty changed drastically from week to week, and the instructions in one class would completely contradict the instructions of the class the week before.

In my first class with Betsey, she said, “Turn your left foot in to protect your knee.” A simple instruction, but for me, it was a lightbulb moment. There was a reason for each action! As I took more classes at HAYC, I saw that instead of just coming to class and moving, we were being taught. The instruction and poses fit the level of the class, and by the end of each session, I understood more than I had at the beginning.

I continued to take classes at HAYC and after a particularly difficult computer project during which I worked over 96 hours a week for several months, I recognized that though I enjoyed programming, this was not how I wanted to live my life. I switched to another programming job with more manageable hours, started practicing yoga at home, and began to look at other career options. I soon realized that yoga was what I truly enjoyed, so I took the HAYC Teacher Training Program and began teaching at HAYC in 1997.

Over the next few years, classes continued to grow, and Betsey expanded into the Blue Room. In 1999, Betsey moved to Florida. She opened another studio there and continued to run HAYC, coming back for a weekend or week each month to manage the studio and lead the teacher training program. I approached her about buying the studio in the summer of 2000, and we completed the sale in January 2001.

I had no idea what I was getting into, and I was very fortunate that Liz Wright, Betsey’s office manager, stayed on and remains our office manager. I was also fortunate that the teachers stayed, several of whom still teach at HAYC fifteen years later: Kelly Cleveland, Doug Keller, Kelly Kessler, Janet Kim, and Pat Pao. There are also a number of students who started taking classes with Betsey at Brown’s Chapel who continue to take classes with us today.

Our classes continued to grow, and in 2006 we expanded to fill the entire top floor of our building. Since then, we have weathered the recession and changed a Virginia law which would have made yoga teacher trainings too costly to hold.

In the 27 years that I have practiced yoga, the perception of it has changed. When I bought the studio in 2001, the view was starting to shift from offbeat to mainstream: yoga instructors began to appear on segments on TV morning shows and talk shows, and reputable magazines like Time published articles praising the benefits of yoga. Over the next few years, gyms and recreation centers went from holding a yoga class or two a week to scheduling several a day, yoga pants became popular, and stores and websites dedicated to selling yoga clothing emerged. Now there are yoga studios and classes everywhere, and new types of yoga arise as people blend different styles of yoga or add yoga to other exercise forms.

Over the years, I have changed too. Though I am still type A, I am more balanced and less stressed with yoga and meditation as part of my daily routine. Each week I look forward to going to the studio and to my classes. I have been and remain grateful to everyone connected to HAYC: the students, the teachers, and the staff. I have met so many interesting people and watched friendships form and grow. Thank you to everyone for making HAYC what it is today. HAYC has become a true community, and I cannot imagine what my life would have been without you.

Natural Abilities

When I was in college, courses were divided into three areas of study:

Area 1: Arts and Humanities: Classical Studies, Comparative Literature, Dance, English, Fine Arts, Modern Languages, Music, Philosophy, Religion, Theater and Speech

Area 2: Social Sciences: Anthropology, Economics, Government, History, Psychology, and Sociology

Area 3: Hard Sciences: Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Geology, Mathematics, and Physics

Each student chose a major in one area, but was required to take classes in the two other areas. With my computer science major, I was a solid Area 3 student.

Throughout college, I tutored students in computer science. Some students asked a question or two, and then could complete programs on their own. Other students required a lot of help. After a while, I saw a pattern in those asking for assistance.

In general, the Area 3 students understood basic programming fairly quickly, while many Area 1 students struggled. Instead of thinking in a step-by-step way like a computer, the Area 1 students tended to make huge leaps in logic. Though their thought processes were correct, we would spend hours working through the project sequentially.

When I took a college English class, I saw this difference in thinking from the other side.  After I turned in my first paper, the professor called me in and asked about my intended area of study. When I replied Area 3, he nodded and said I should stay there because I would never make it as an English major. My paper was too direct and lacked all the niceties of decent writing. I took that as a sign I should not take any more English classes and happily stayed in the sciences after that semester.

I did not write much besides technical papers until I bought this yoga studio. The previous studio owner wrote articles as the first page of our quarterly brochure, and I decided to continue her tradition.

It was a painful process, and I am grateful to Liz Wright, our office manager, who patiently explained transitions, linking sentences together, and how to make words and sentences flow. Writing fifty articles over thirteen years forced me to learn what I had not in school.

In yoga classes now I have noticed similar differences in natural skills. I see a wide range of people each week, and there are a variety of body structures and lifestyles, and different levels of strength and flexibility. Additionally, some people naturally bend forward well, while other peoples’ spines naturally move easily into a backbend or twist.

How someone is built can affect the ease with which they do various poses. For example, some of the advanced backbends require you to reach back over your head to hold a foot that you are lifting behind you.

Natarajasana

This pose, Natarajasana, though never easy, is usually more accessible to someone who naturally backbends and has long arms and legs. People with other body proportions can do this pose, but it often requires more effort and practice, since people with shorter limbs need to reach back farther and backbend more.

It would be simple to do as I did in college and just avoid areas of difficulty. Since yoga is voluntary, there is no pressure to attempt poses that are challenging; you can just decide that you do not want to do a pose or a category of poses and move on.

However, like my ability to write, areas we avoid can come back to haunt us. For example, in yoga poses, if you consistently do forward bends and avoid all backbends because you cannot do them well, at a minimum you miss stretching the front of your body and strengthening the back of your body which over time can create imbalances.

It can be interesting to look at the reasons why you do not want to do something. Is there a good reason or is it just too challenging? What is the cost of not doing it? Is it worthwhile to make an attempt?

We cannot excel at everything, but that does not mean that we have to limit ourselves. In many cases, we can take small steps, learning as we go. Who knows, we may surprise ourselves with what we can accomplish.

 

Sense of Wonder

When I was in junior high school, my mother volunteered to be a part of Meridian House’s orientation program for visitors to the United States. The visitors were mid-level government officials from a variety of countries and were here for school or for work. The purpose of the orientation program was to teach them the basics about the U.S., like our denominations of money. At the end of the week, each person or pair would go to an American’s house for dinner. My mother offered to host a few of these dinners.

One of the most memorable visitors was a kale farmer from Kenya. On the way to our house, he asked to see a grocery store. He walked into what by today’s standards was a very small Giant and stopped in his tracks. He had never seen so much food in one place. He was stunned when my mother showed him that we had fresh kale, canned kale, and frozen kale. This was so far beyond anything he had seen or imagined that he kept talking about it during dinner. My younger brother and I could not understand what he thought was so interesting since it was just our normal grocery store.

In May I went to India to visit my college roommate. She and her family have lived in southeast India for the past two years. For six days of the trip, I went by myself on a tour of the Golden Triangle: Delhi, Jaipur and Agra. I had a driver and we met a guide in each city. I had expected that the hours spent driving between cities would be dull, but I had not anticipated Indian traffic. Lanes are no more than suggestions, and any two lane road becomes five lanes: the two shoulders, the two lanes themselves, and the section in the middle of the two lanes. There are motorcycles with one to five riders and small motorized rickshaws called tuk-tuks, both of which zip in and out of traffic, plus cars, buses and trucks. In addition to motor vehicles there are handcarts, bike carts, bullock carts, and people walking on the shoulders and crossing in the middle of the street. Usually standing placidly in the middle of the swirling traffic is a random cow or two. Nobody drives very fast, and there are surprisingly few accidents.

Tuk Tuk

Tuk-tuks

In the five hour trip between Delhi and Jaipur, I watched traffic stream by. After an hour or so, I began to see the logic of how everybody wove in and out. Suddenly, I spotted a camel cart coming down the road towards us. I pointed and said, “That’s a camel.” My driver, Subhash, agreed that yes, that was a camel. I had not expected to see any camels in India, so I pointed again and said, “There is a camel in the road.” Subhash agreed. I said, “We don’t have that,” which Subhash thought was very funny.

IndiaCamel

An hour or so later, a monkey ran across the road in front of us. I pointed out the monkey because I had not anticipated seeing monkeys on the roads either. Once again, Subhash agreed, and thought it was funny when I said we did not have monkeys on our roads.

Monkeys by the side of the road

Monkeys by the side of the road

Later that evening, while we were returning to Jaipur after a short tour, I spotted white circles about a foot in diameter appearing and disappearing just above the road a little way in front of us. As we drew closer, I saw a reflective bar several feet above us and realized we were approaching an elephant. The white circles were the bottoms of the elephant’s feet and the reflective bar was on the back of the driver’s saddle. I pointed out the elephant to Subhash and explained we did not have elephants on our roads. Subhash commented that our roads must be really boring.

Elephant in the road

Elephant in the road

I had never thought of our traffic that way, but I had to admit, he was right. A few days later we returned to Delhi from Agra on a new superhighway that was restricted to cars and a few trucks and motorcycles. It was similar to a U.S highway and in comparison to the Indian roads I had seen, it was dull.

I spent most of my time in India in a state of astonishment. Everything was so different than my normal life here. There were bright colors, crowded bazaars, ancient temples, and amazing forts and palaces. Every time I thought I had become acclimated, I would be startled by something new. Every day was a new adventure.

I hope to retain some of the sense of wonder in the world around me that I found on this trip. There is so much around us that is remarkable that we do not notice because we see it everyday. If we look at the world around us with new eyes, there is much to be seen and enjoyed.

 

 

Hissing

The Holy Man and the Snake. A parable by Ramakrishna Paramahamsa

A holy man arrived in a village and found the people unhappy and scared.  They said that a snake was terrorizing them. The snake appeared without warning, biting them in their fields and on the streets, and they were afraid to leave their houses.

The holy man wandered around the village and found the snake. He asked the snake with such love and compassion to stop frightening the villagers that the snake agreed to change his ways.

Soon the villagers discovered that the snake would no longer hurt them, so they beat and trampled him.  The snake slunk away to his hole, venturing out only on rare nights for food.

When the holy man returned a year later, he found the snake was just skin and bones, his lustrous coat shabby.  The holy man asked the snake what had happened.  The snake replied that he had done as the holy man asked and the villagers attacked him now that they knew he would not fight back.  The holy man stroked the snake tenderly and said, “I told you not to bite, but I never told you not to hiss.”                 

Several years ago, when we were in the middle of the fight against Virginia’s regulation of yoga studios, I received a discouraging call from my lawyer.  It was becoming apparent that the only way we could defend ourselves was to change a law.  After I hung up, I stood at the studio’s front desk fuming at the unfairness of it all. The yoga studios had done nothing wrong, yet we were going to have to spend months fighting regulations that were meant for universities, and these regulations had the potential to put most studios out of business.

A student walked by and saw that I was angry. She smiled sweetly and said, “Just breathe.”  That was not what I wanted to hear at that moment.  In fact, it had the opposite effect; I became angrier. The woman meant to be kind, and I did not want to turn my anger on her, so I walked into the office before I said something I would regret. 

I am seeing a trend in some areas of the yoga community that it is “unyogic” to be angry or upset.  There seems to be an expectation that one must be calm, happy, or even joyful to be a good yoga person. However, anger has a place in our lives.  It is a primal emotion.

I am told that when I was very young and got angry, I would hold my breath until my lips turned blue and then I would scream. My parents treated this and my later temper tantrums with a laugh.  When I figured out these outbursts did not work, I changed my behavior.  I still got angry, just not with screaming fits.

We learn how to handle our emotions with time and by taking cues from those around us.  We find how to act in a suitable manner that allows us to fit into society. If we do not channel our emotions in an acceptable way, we pay some type of price.

Often great changes in society occur because people get angry.  The Virginia yoga community changed a law that protected yoga, pilates, and other non-vocational activities. On a greater scale, where would we be if people had not gotten upset enough to fight the Revolutionary War, or struggle for women’s suffrage and civil rights?  Groups have been fighting for LGBT rights for the last few decades with increasing success.  These changes came about because people got angry and channeled that anger productively.  It is all about how you hiss.

First Steps

I live in a townhouse that backs onto woods with a stream. Usually every winter a mouse or two finds its way into my house. I decided long ago I could not handle snap traps, so I use live traps that hold mice until I can set them free.

I bought a few expensive traps/cages from a pest control company, and though in theory they should catch and hold a number of mice, I have not been able to catch a single mouse with them. Now I use cheap plastic traps which have been surprisingly effective. Unfortunately, the less expensive traps are so small that the mice cannot survive in them for very long, which completely defeats the purpose of having live traps.

I learned through a few regrettable experiments that the best way to save the mice is to transfer them from the cheap traps to the bigger, more expensive cages where they can live for a day or so. The problem is getting the mice to move from one to the other. Even though they will die in the small traps, the mice struggle to stay in them; I have to tap or lightly shake the small traps to get the mice out. Later, when I open the cage to release the mice in the woods, they refuse to leave, though the world is open to them. I usually need to upend the cage, though once I waited for fifteen minutes to see how long it would take a mouse to leave on its own.

The mice, of course, are attempting to protect themselves. They do not know the traps are unhealthy and at least for that moment they are safe. They struggle to stay in the security of a known place rather than move into the potentially dangerous unknown.

Just like the mice, it is easy to become accustomed to our circumstances and comfortable in the safety of our routines. Even if we are not in an ideal situation, we know what to expect, and it is often simpler to stay where we are rather than to make a change. Sometimes however, the world around us shifts and a change is forced upon us, whether we like it or not.

The unknown can be scary, but a little exciting too. With each step in a new direction there is the possibility of other new steps and more fresh opportunities. We just have to take or be pushed into making that first move.

With a new year beginning, is there something you have always wanted to try but have hesitated to take the first step? That step may be as simple as changing a hairstyle or signing up for a class. It also may be as challenging as changing jobs or moving. Taking that first step requires courage, but the entire world is out there waiting for you.

Reality

In early February, a website went up that contained damaging information about John Friend, the founder of Anusara Yoga. The website disclosed how John had illegally stopped his company’s pension plan, had marijuana delivered to the Anusara corporate office, and had slept with a female employee and some Anusara teachers. Though the website was taken down in less than 48 hours, the damage was done. In a few days, after the initial shock wore off, Anusara teachers began to resign.

Though the press has covered John’s sexual liaisons, very little has been written about his abuse of power. The Anusara system was structured in such a way as to give John an enormous amount of power over his teachers and he lived up to the phrase “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

When I received my Anusara certification in 2000, the system was new and the requirements, though demanding compared to many other yoga styles, were not as rigorous as they became in later years. Many more-recently certified teachers spent two or more years and tens of thousands of dollars to obtain their certificates which enabled them to become licensed Anusara teachers. Unfortunately, when they obtained their licenses, they became trapped. Many based their livelihoods and reputations on being Anusara teachers. If they angered John, he could take away their licenses; they could still teach yoga, but not use the name Anusara. If a teacher taught at an Anusara studio and lost her license, she could also lose her job. In addition, people who lost their Anusara licenses were often shunned by other Anusara teachers, so a person who lost her license also lost friends and connections.

More troubling were Anusara’s philosophical changes over the years. When I was certified, the philosophy was tied to an ancient set of teachings. Several years ago John decided to change the philosophical backbone of the system and cobbled together pieces from several schools to form a new Anusara philosophy that focused on the positive aspects of life. With this change he removed all constraints that acted as checks to his power. His newly created philosophy lacked the depth and sophistication of the older teachings and promoted catch phrases like “Look for the Good” and “Align with the Good.”

These phrases are very nice on the surface, but they became a means of control. Anyone who disagreed with John was not aligning with the good. If someone spoke badly about Anusara or John’s actions, they were not looking for the good.

In the last few years, as John’s behavior became more problematic, people did not object. If John treated a student poorly at a workshop, many assumed he had a bad moment or a bad day and let it go. They did not talk with others or question, because that would not have been looking for the good. Now as people compare stories, they see patterns of behavior that were not apparent when they attended a workshop or two a year.

This is not as cheery as most of my articles, but the idea of positive thinking versus reality is a point I have been pondering since before I left Anusara in 2007. Though I have my glass half empty days, I am happier when I see the glass as half full. Yet positive thinking can be taken too far and used to mask or ignore an unpleasant reality. Where is the line? What can be disregarded as trivial and when do we need to take off our rose-colored glasses?

I was once told that a purpose of yoga is to polish our lens, to remove obstacles and veils so we can see reality more clearly. As many Anusara teachers discovered, looking only for the good may be pleasurable, but life is much more nuanced with a broad range of emotions and experiences. Just as a negative attitude can mask the small joys in life, a falsely positive attitude can hide problems better faced than ignored. In the end, reality will be what it will be and one of the challenges and joys of a full life is to view it clearly.

Survey Results

At the beginning of the year, one of our longtime students, Sue Bowman, approached me about doing a survey at HAYC. As Sue explained how the survey would work, it sounded like a fantastic way to get feedback about our studio and classes. The survey was emailed in early March and we received more and better responses than either of us had anticipated.

First, thank you to everyone who took time to fill out the survey. Over half of our current students and about ten percent of our former students answered; a remarkable number of responses. Sue tells me that an average response for an electronic survey is somewhere around 15%! Additionally, of the current students, almost 100% said they would recommend HAYC and 95% said they already had recommended us to others. Of the former students, 98% said they would recommend us. I am extremely grateful for your trust, confidence, and loyalty to our studio. Thank you.

The final question in the survey asked for additional comments. The responses were overwhelmingly positive or offered constructive comments or suggestions. What follows is an explanation of some of the more common issues.

More bolsters and longer belts: Got it. At the beginning of the Spring session we put more bolsters and more eight and ten foot belts in each of the rooms.

Rooms are too crowded: I have a friend who owns a yoga studio in Arizona. He puts little sticky dots on the floor that are just a few inches wider and longer than a sticky mat on all sides. Students are expected to put their mats inside of these dots, and usually there is less than a foot of empty space between each person. Fitting as many students as possible into a room is a common practice in many studios.

We limit classes by room size so there will be enough space in a room for those registered for the class and for those making up. For example, we limit classes in our largest room, the Green Room, to thirty people. For weekend workshops in the Green Room we set the limit at forty people because no one will be making up. If we followed the dot system like my friend in Arizona, we could easily fit over sixty-five people in that room.

Smell in the lobby: Several people commented about the smell in the lobby. Replacing the lobby carpeting was a step in the right direction and our cleaning service now scatters baking soda throughout the studio before vacuuming to help keep the entire studio smelling fresh. We also have the carpets steam cleaned regularly. However, everyone leaves their shoes in the lobby and summer is approaching, so this may still be an issue. Since many people have scent allergies, we are limited in which air fresheners we can use. We are testing some baking soda brands now and will continue to experiment if they are not effective.

Scheduling a class with a certain instructor on a particular time and day: Though we are one of the largest studios in the area, we are still limited to four rooms of classes at any one time, and our schedule, especially in the evenings, is full. Many people have been taking classes for years and have found an instructor, day, and time that suits them and they return to that class session after session. If we replace one class on the schedule with another, the people in the original course will lose their weekly class.

Additionally, we try to balance the schedule in an attempt to provide make up classes and a variety of choices in each day and timeslot. We cannot have two Yoga 1-2 classes at the same time on any day or five Yoga 2 classes at 7:30 on weeknights. Also, instructors are not always available to teach in other timeslots; many have family or work obligations. When there is an imbalance, we try to correct it as we are in the Summer session by adding a Yoga 2-3 on Tuesday at 5:45 p.m.

Breaks between sessions: Though this did not appear in the survey, we regularly receive comments about the breaks between sessions. Since I bought HAYC in 2001, we have always had the same number of weeks each session every year. For example, the Summer session is always eight weeks and the Fall session is always thirteen weeks. There are the same number of days off each year.

The breaks serve two purposes. First, they give us time to schedule major repairs and upgrades to the studio. In the past year we replaced the carpet in half of the studio and had the entire studio repainted. Second, and more importantly, the breaks provide time off for the teachers. Yoga instructors who teach continuously tend to burn out after just a few years, yet over half of our instructors have taught at HAYC for more than ten years. In the survey, 65% of the people currently taking classes responded that what they enjoy most is the quality of the instructors. The breaks allow our teachers to rest and come back refreshed to their classes each session.

Friday and weekend classes: A number of people suggested we hold more classes on Fridays and in the afternoon on the weekends. Right now on Fridays we have a Yin Yoga class in the morning and children’s classes in the afternoon. When I added Friday evening and Sunday afternoon classes to the schedule in the past, very few people signed up, and we need at least five people to register for a class to keep the class going. Since so many people requested these classes I will ask you: What classes would you like to see on Fridays and at other times on weekends? I will have a box near the front desk where you can drop in your suggestions for times and classes. If there is enough consensus, I will add a class at the time and day suggested.

Finally, thank you again for filling out the survey. If you have other comments or thoughts, you are always welcome to email me or leave me an anonymous note. It may not always be possible to fulfill your request, but I value your thoughts and input.

More Survey Results:
These statistics are based on the responses of the people who answered the survey in April 2012.

 

Statistics About Respondents:
52%     Current students who responded
10%     Former students who responded

 

Of the current students who responded:
90%     are female
84%     are over 40 years old
99.8 % would recommend HAYC to a friend. Only one person said they would not.
95%     have recommended HAYC to a friend

 

Of the former students who responded:
91%     are female
84%     are over 40 years old
98%     would recommend HAYC to a friend
81%     would return to HAYC if their circumstances changed.

 

Responses from Current Students
Percentages of current students in each class level:
34%     Yoga 2 or Yoga 2-3
26%     Yoga 3 or Yoga 4
20%     Yoga 1 or Yoga 1-2
12%     Gentle Yoga (This number may be slightly low because it was left off the survey for the first 12 hours.)
4%       Specialty classes such as Yin Yoga or Yoga for Scoliosis
3%       Vinyasa Yoga
1%       Kids and Teen Yoga

 

Most important reason you first came to study at HAYC? We only allowed one response to this question which generated a number of comments from people who wanted to make multiple selections. We limited the number of responses because multiple selections would have not provided much useable information. The top answers were:
30 %    Increase flexibility
17 %    Get physical exercise
16 %    Health or medical reasons
16%     To reduce stress.
13%     Curious about yoga

 

Most important reason you continue to study at HAYC? Only one selection was allowed for this question also.
57%     I feel better doing yoga
15%     Increase flexibility
7%       Health or medical reasons

 

What do you enjoy most about HAYC?
65%     Quality of the instructor
12%     Variety of what is available
10%     Studio’s ability to accommodate individuals’ different physical capacities
There was no major interest in a Pranayama (breathing class), an early morning class or a 4:00 p.m. class. Interest in meditation was neutral.

 

Many thanks to Sue Bowman for suggesting this survey, compiling the questions, and tabulating the results. I greatly appreciate her time, effort, and expertise.