big lessons from little humans

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I didn’t learn the most about teaching from school, nor from any teacher-training course, internship, mentorship, or apprenticeship program. Rather, I learned how to teach from a three- and a four-year-old.

I was not originally meant to be their teacher, although I’m sure I did teach them a thing or two over the time I served as their nanny. However, the small skills I shared with them, such as how to use their “yoga breathing” when they were feeling scared, or that peppermint oil can salve tummy aches, or even how to make a healthier version of the age-old favorite dessert of dirt, worms and mud, dim in comparison to what they taught me.

Mae and Ryan taught me how to change my approach to reach different students. Consequently, I learned to distinguish what sets apart a good teacher from a great one.

A good teacher recites all the right lines—and does it on cue. A good teacher facilitates growth by inspiring his or her students to move further and go deeper.

A great teacher does something else. A great teacher listens, and then helps the student to realize the growth that he or she actually needs, in the moment he or she needs it. And a great teacher does this, not by imparting every bit of sage wisdom he or she has to give, but by meeting the student on his or her terms.

Ryan and Mae had stark personality differences. Ryan, age four, was a sensitive, artistic type. When Ryan was stressed, he needed a gentle, loving approach. As he told me one evening, “I need space.” So space is what I gave him, until he worked through his feelings.

Mae, on the other hand, was outgoing and confident, effortlessly taking command of the playground. What Mae needed most was strict boundaries underlined with firmness. It took me weeks to figure this out. Finally, one day, I’d had enough of her daily, end-of-school-day tantrums. She would throw her backpack, lunch box and various other belongings on the hallway floor, cry and refuse to pick them up as I juggled car keys, sticky hands, art projects and snacks.

This day, I felt an outside force come over me I told her, in a stern voice, to put her lunchbox in her backpack because I would not do it for her. Mae’s preschool teacher, whom I greatly admired, walked by as this was happening, looked me in the eye, and said, “Good.” In her gaze, I saw a newfound level of respect.

I felt the same sentiment emanating from Mae, later that day, when she sat on my lap and gave me a hug. We had crossed a threshold together; Mae now respected me, and from this place she was able to love me on a deeper level.

When I once took a stricter approach, with Ryan, the opposite happened. I could feel him pull away. Tough love created an invisible boundary between us. No longer sharing his bright ideas and creative thoughts with me, he grew quiet in the car ride home. Later, when he spoke to me, he said my name differently than before, with increased emphasis on the “t’s,” a four-year-old version of the subtlest form of mockery.

As teachers, our responsibility is to not only know the differences between the Mae’s and Ryan of the world, but to also honor this understanding by teaching each individual based on where he or she is. This means understanding when tough love will lift someone up—or when it will cause him or her to shut down.

The key to achieving this lies in sensitivity. I have been told countless times that sensitivity is both a burden I must work with and one of my greatest strengths. I never saw this quite so clearly until my experience with Ryan and Mae.

Nevertheless, having sensitivity as a natural tendency does not make using it any easier.

Setting firm boundaries with Mae was incredibly difficult, particularly because I, personally, would not have responded to such an approach. Staying soft with Ryan was equally difficult in the moments in which he frustrated me.

The most important aspect of teaching is that it can never be about the teacher.
Any kind of egocentric tendency to derive self worth from helping someone else (or imparting greater “wisdom”) results in a downward spiral of tunneled vision through which it is impossible to truly see the student.

In order to truly teach, teaching must always be about the student. This means taking a chameleon approach based on what works for each individual, even when that entails stepping outside of what feels comfortable. It also means investigating methods outside of how we were taught.

I am fortunate to have found a teacher who is attuned to the level of sensitivity needed to teach me. As she says, when considering whether to learn from a teacher, we should ask ourselves, “Who told the teacher to teach?”

For me, the answer lies less in whether that person’s teacher(s), told him or her to teach, although that is certainly important. I look more for the ability to listen on a deep enough level, to teach me in both my Ryan moments and my Mae ones.

This post was published on elephant journal.

the real reason i started practicing yoga

I have a confession to make. There’s a bio floating out there (somewhere) about my yoga background and it is – get ready for it – a lie. Not a whole lie. A half-truth. And one made unintentionally. But I want to come clean all the same.

I started practicing yoga from a dvd in my bedroom, when I was about 11 or 12 years old. My partial-truth bio claims “as a complement to dance”. Which is true. I was a dancer (a not very good one) and I thought increased flexibility, which I heard I could get from yoga, might make me better. So the way I remembered it, I bought a “yoga for flexibility” dvd. I vividly remember practicing it in my bedroom – for some reason seated twists stand out in my memory. Maybe that dvd had a lot of them.

Memory is a funny little selective animal. Often it cages out the aspects on which we don’t want to focus our attention. Last winter, in the middle of a move, I came across that dvd again. The title was actually “yoga for weight loss”. Not flexibility. Aha – now all the twisting-postures make sense. The reality is, when I was in middle school, I had an eating disorder.

I used to limit myself to less than 1,000 calories a day. I worked out obsessively –running, swimming, dance, and, apparently, yoga, as long as it promised to turn me into a size zero.

The irony of it is – I started practicing because I wanted to be smaller, but instead, yoga had the opposite effect.

I have heard that eating disorders often originate a means for control. Which, in my case, makes sense. As a kid, I was an oddball. I got made fun of, and had a hard time fitting in. I remember one time, riding the bus home from third grade, a girl telling me the clothes I wore were weird and that I should dress more like her. She was wearing blue-jean overall shorts with bright flower patches sewed on in random (“fashionable”) places. That same day, shopping with my mom at Kids R’ Us, I saw those shorts. I asked my mom to buy them for me. That girl and I ended up becoming friends, when she realized I had the same shorts she did. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

We didn’t have cable until I was eleven, and to this day I still don’t know how to play video games. I think those were the kinds of things that made you cool back then, but I’m not entirely sure. I remember making a new friend when we moved in sixth grade who, upon realizing how shy and awkward I was, stopped being my friend. I have always been an introvert – and in middle school, being quiet and shy was just plain not cool.

I think the combination of getting picked on, and my sensitivity, led 12-year-old me to subconsciously realize that I could never control other people and what happened around me. As a means for coping, I gripped at controlling the one thing I thought I could – myself. Namely, my body. I became obsessed with being perfect. I thought perfection equated happiness. Because people who, in my eyes, appeared perfect, also seemed to be happy. I forgot that inherently, I am happy. Always have been. My mom claims she never met a happier baby. And as a child, I may have been a goofy weirdo, but I loved every minute of being a goofy weirdo.

That “yoga for weight loss” dvd led me to my first “real”, instructor-taught yoga class, which I took at my high school. It was taught by the gym teacher, a marathon runner who I doubt had any kind of yoga-teaching credentials. This was back before yoga was all that popular in the US (and a smidgeon of the size it is now in DC). I told someone about this and he told me I’m “like an original hipster of yoga”, because I did it before it was cool. I think that comment will make my family laugh. At the time, armed with a field hockey stick and a slew of pink hair ribbons, I was the epitome of a catholic schoolgirl, and basically the opposite of hipster. I think the most ironic thing I did was go to a Fall Out Boy concert. And, apparently, do yoga.

I have nothing but fond memories of my freshman-year yoga class. I went to a large public school, and felt lost there. I had very few friends, and spent many an open-lunch period wandering the halls by myself, because I couldn’t find anyone to eat with. But in yoga, none of it mattered. Students of all ages and social statuses took the class, and in the “yoga room”, we were all equal. The teacher would write on a chalkboard the poses we were going to learn that day. Every Friday, she put on meditative rainforest-sounding music, and we did savasana (i.e., corpse pose, otherwise known as the yoga version of naptime), for the entire class. It was awesome.

My first yoga teacher did not wear lululemon (if that even existed then). She did not chant or take photos of herself doing fancy poses, or teach us rigorous flow classes with a peak pose (at least, not that I remember). What she did do was offer us a safe space, in which to explore our bodies through the practice of yoga. She read the room, and gave us what we needed (deep rest). She planted the seeds of yoga, which, for me, have since cultivated into a lifelong practice.

That year, I started eating again. I also, unknowingly at the time, learned to listen to my intuition. I made the challenging choice to transfer to a smaller, all-girls school, where I felt less lost and more at home to be myself.

At first, eating again had the opposite effect – I went through bulimic episodes, and frankly, blew up in size. My journey with food has been a long, hard-fought, solitary battle. It took me years to get to a place where I did not count calories or feel guilty about what I ate. Today, I eat a highly intuitive diet that works for my body. I focus on whole, unprocessed, natural foods, and have eliminated foods that don’t serve my body’s health. I have written briefly about my journey with food here.

Exploring my sensitivities, and which foods do and do not work for my body, led me to another version of my former eating-disorder behavior. This time, instead of focusing on loving myself because of how I looked, I turned my focus to loving how good I felt, as a result of practicing yoga and meditating everyday, self-care rituals, and living a clean, healthy lifestyle. Yet I was still missing the point. Because both of those versions of living involve conditional love – loving myself because I look or feel a certain way.

I realized this recently, when several instances of control-related issues emerged in my life. I believe we attract into our lives what our souls require for higher growth and learning. And I needed to learn the ugliness of the control-gripping monster.

Last week, I saw a photo of myself, and I realized that I was viewing it in a different way than I was accustomed to. A great deal of my life, I’ve seen my photo, and immediately began analyzing the parts. But last week, I looked at my face, and saw the whole person. I looked at my image just like I look at other people. I think this is what it means, to love myself unconditionally. Loving myself in entirety, no matter how I look, what I can do, or how I feel.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading about the beginning stages of my yoga journey. I think this is why I love teaching yoga to all ages, but especially kids and pre-teen and teenage girls. I have visions of one day starting a mindful living club for teenage girls, where we practice yoga, meditate, and talk about mind-body health.

For me, yoga is (and was) a game-changer, the gateway to my own healing. I began practicing because I wanted to be a size zero, and I thought “yoga for weight loss” would get me there. I think a lot of us start a yoga practice because we want something specific. Writing this reminds me of the song lyrics – “you can’t always get what you want/ but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need”. I never did become a size zero, from that dvd. Instead, I got exactly what I needed.

I intentionally don't keep photos around from my disorderly phase. Instead here's one from the peak of my "awkward phase" - 15 or 16 years old. Back when I thought it was okay to cut my own bangs. And apparently I really liked pink.
I intentionally don’t keep photos around from my unhealthy-eating period. Instead here’s one from one of my prime “awkward years” – 15 or 16 years old. Back when I thought it was okay to cut my own bangs. And apparently I liked pink.
Ten + years and so much growth later <3

lessons from a roach

This morning I entered the kitchen, as I do at the start of every day, to turn on the kettle for warm lemon water. Feeling a crunchy squish beneath my Birkenstock (although I prefer bare feet, I’ve learned to always wear shoes in my group house), a foreboding sensation overcame me. I thought “Oh no!” and glanced down, scraping the demolished cockroach off my sole. The little guy was a goner.

Since moving into this mid-19th century, lovingly disheveled home, the cockroaches, critters, and I have had an unspoken (obviously, bugs can’t talk) pact. I don’t hurt them, and they don’t hurt me. I have become a master at sweeping many a cockroach to freedom. I named the mouse that lives under our oven Gus, and secretly hope that he comes out to play (he’s quite shy) because I not-so-secretly think he’s the cutest little thing ever.

Other people don’t understand. I’ve been told I “don’t want to share my home with cockroaches and mice”, but the way I see it, they are the ones sharing their home with me. Today, I felt genuine sadness about ending the life of Charlie the Roach (I just named him that, RIP Charles). His death also struck a strangely empathic note. Lately, more often than not, I have felt like the cockroach. Just trying to live life, maybe find a nice sunny spot on the floor, and then bam! – squished (unwittingly) by some giant.

Such is the artist’s life I guess? I have zero clue. I’m really only writing about it because last night, during yet another late-night (okay, 8:30 pm) rant of confusion about what I’m even doing here with my housemate, she encouraged me that my experience would make a relatable blog. That and I squished a bug this morning, and the act inspired me.

PS this post is dedicated to Charlie, valiant former resident of Oakwood Terrace.

Last night, I had another nightmare. I’ve been having nightmares of a recurring theme since February. Where I run into my former “boss”, and yet again, she tries to take me down. One time it was stealing my laptop (to delete all my “stories”). Last night, I think she was trying to convince my family and friends to join forces and work for her. I rushed to their defense, warning them in the nick of time to stay away. She would, no doubt, take advantage of them, too.

The thing is, I know that what happened to me, when I went through my personal fairy tale nightmare (literally, I wrote fairy tales as my former job), is seriously no big deal. It was only a few months of my life; I was able to shake it off pretty quick. And I gained valuable life lessons through the experience. But until I let the story play its course, and go through the painstaking resolution of this drama – which, in my case, entails suing my former employer, for the salary she has yet to pay me – it will remain trapped in my subconscious, and I will no doubt keep having bad dreams about it. Ugh. Suing someone else is so not my nature. I mean really, I almost cried after accidentally killing a cockroach. But perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned since I jumped off the deep end, leaving the corporate world last fall, is if I don’t stand up for myself, no one else will. I have learned to rely on my gritty core. And keep moving forward.

I never wanted to be a writer. Similarly, I never wanted to teach yoga as a career. When my yoga teachers talked about how hard it is, I actually listened, and so I knew I would teach classes, but not full time. I grinded it out in my office job as a means of survival. But then last fall, it was like life suddenly no longer gave me that option. I now understand that when everything falls into place like that, and seems too good to be true, chances are, it is too good to be true. In fact, it is probably all a veil, lifted to reveal an incredibly challenging, yet necessary, lesson.

I never wanted to be a writer, because I knew it would be hard. Even when I was a kid, I knew it was a long, treacherous, and lonely path, one that I didn’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole. My mom came home one day when I was about seven, with a giant desk she’d bought while antiquing. She claimed her imaginative daughter “needed a writer’s desk”. At first, I loved that desk, then we decided to get rid of it, because it impeded my play space. I decided I would rather play than write. Seven-year-old me had the right idea.

I found out I’m meant to be writing truly by accident. And then as soon as we discovered it (we being my former employer, and me), everything fell apart. She continued to pull me into her slippery slope of a rabbit-hole in which she dwells, messing with my psyche in a twisted way. Ultimately, we parted ways. I emerged from the rabbit hole, exhausted, defeated, and utterly lost. Since then, I have been navigating murky waters, unsure of where to go or what to do but knowing that I need to just keep swimming. To stay above water however I can.

I tell you this story not for sympathy votes or anything like that. I don’t need pity, or anyone to join my “side”. There are no sides here to join. In all honesty, I was probably the only other person who ever truly believed in the fairy tale writing business. Everyone I mentioned it to did not hesitate to speak his or her reservations. Consistently surrounded by doubt, meeting blind (albeit, naively so) faith must have been a shock to the system. And so it goes, the reactionary cycle continues. I discussed this with a good friend who is also a writer. He, too, experienced a strangely twisted experience, his taking him all the way to China, early in his career. Now, he approaches every contract differently. He knows the signs to look out for. I too, now understand how to listen to my intuition, when approaching these situations.

My purpose in writing about this is to speak from the only place I know how, which is right where I am, at this point in time. It’s like yoga – I can’t teach a pose that isn’t in my body. I can only write what I have lived, in the hopes that someone else somewhere has lived something similar and feels just a little bit of a connection through the words that I type.

So if you are where I am – if you’ve ever been taken advantage of, rejected (over and over again), run ragged, and made to feel like your contribution is worth very little (if anything at all), I want you to know, I feel your pain. And I continue to have hope for us. I continue to pray every day that this season of no’s is leading me toward to the one yes that matters. I continue to trust and have faith in the process, exactly as it’s unfolding. That is all I can do.

Last weekend I went to a teacher training, in which we talked about the difference between being a good teacher and being a popular one. Now, I know I am nowhere near being a good teacher. I have only been teaching a couple years; I’m still the definition of a newbie. There are classes I teach every week, to which no one shows up. Or sometimes, the only people who come are my parents. 100% serious. I know that I will never be popular, as a teacher, or in any other sense of the word. Sure, other people like me (at least, I think they do), but I’m far too shy and sensitive to be popular. All I can strive for is to one day be a good teacher. Or, at the very least, to continue trying.

Again, no sympathy needed here. I’d much rather not be popular. Through many a yoga class taught to just my dad, as well as blog posts written solely for my aunts’ eyes (love you guys), I have learned to judge my self worth not by how many other people show up, but by how I show up. Even when nobody comes (or reads), well, at least I put myself out there.

And amid the years of rejection, I have had major, glimmering breakthroughs that continue to carry me through. Like when a student who has come to my yoga class every Sunday for the past year and a half, told me that, because of learning how to deepen the breath, she felt an opening within her back. Being able to guide her through her practice, so that she can teach herself how to have an experience like that, well that, to me, is worth more than a packed room any day. Or the other week, when the three-year-old I babysit started teaching her baby doll (named Helmet…yes, I love the name too) how to do yoga in the backseat of the car. Those moments are pure gold. I will probably never speak to the masses, and I honestly don’t even want to. Because the impact I can have, on an individual basis, to me, means so much more.