On Voice

"I did not find my voice— my voice found me through the compassion of a teacher who understood how poetry transforms us.  She taught me to speak with a confidence and joy I had never known before.  She insisted on listening.  She introduced me to the potential of my own voice supported by skill and substance over insecurity and doubt.  I don't believe our fears ever leave us completely.  I still tremble each time I stand up to speak.  I feel faint, nerves ricocheting between the confines of my own skin as memories of a childhood lisp awaken in every muscle in my body.  And in those first few minutes before a group of people, my instincts shout Bolt now, there is still time to escape.  But then I pause, look around the room, find whose eyes are present, and orient myself like a compass, remembering that words are much stronger than I am.  I take a deep breath and sidestep my fear and begin speaking from the place where beauty and bravery meet— within the chambers of a quivering heart."  

— selected from Terry Tempest Williams' When Women Were Birds

This passage speaks to my experience of practicing (and now, teaching) yoga in every way.  In my case it was not a speech therapist who helped me discover my voice— it was my first yoga instructor.  She encouraged me to listen to my intuition and treated me kindly when that proved difficult, painful, and confusing.  As I learned to trust my inner voice, I became more confident and contented.  I grew to understand that speaking with substance simply required living my truth; authenticity began to replace insecurity, ever so slowly.

Though we make strides to overcome our fears, I'm not sure we can ever eradicate them.  The author describes a phenomenon that we know to be true in yoga: memories of past traumas are stored in the tissues of the body, and those fears can reemerge in the present.  In our practice, we move our bodies in order to release held traumas and develop a relationship with our fears, so that we can identify them, understand them, and choose to act in defiance of them. When our fears do not dictate the decisions we make, we are able to make choices out of love and abundance.

For me, standing up to speak before a class elicits the same responses: feeling faint, trembling, nerves buzzing in a state of panic.  My abdomen actually shakes so violently that it's become a bit of a joke with people who know me well.  It happens, without fail, every single time I have to speak in front of a group, which seems a bit bizarre because I've had years of performing experience.  I have been singing, dancing, and generally goofing around in front of audiences since I was a child.  But a single traumatic event can eclipse even the most rewarding experiences, and dramatically affect the way we feel about our voices.  

In my case, it was a criticism I received from a college professor (and head of the department of theater.)  She told me that I should change my major and that I would never work as an actress because of the sound of my voice.  Not my projection, or enunciation, or pace, or patterns of speaking, or anything that I could reasonably affect or change— the actual quality of my voice was unpleasant and unfit for hearing.  Of course, I was devastated to hear any criticism from someone I respected and hoped to impress, but her comments were far more damaging than she intended: I was terrified to speak, to sing, to be heard at all.

Whether the cause is structural, developmental, or environmental, we have been cut off from our voices.  We have been told to diminish ourselves.  We have been punished for sharing our stories when they inconvenience or implicate others.  Simply to speak— as a woman, as any minority in America— is still an act of dissent.  But this disruption is our greatest creative act.  Therefore we must find our voice, we must take up space, we must be present with ourselves.  And when I am preparing to speak in front of a class, that is exactly what I do.  I pause to breathe, to feel the soles of my feet on the ground.  I take in the sights and sounds of the room, and then I find the students who are with me, in the moment.  As a teacher, the greatest thing I can offer them is support to seek their intuition and voice their truth.  As a student, I am so grateful for my teacher, who gave those things to me.


Yoga for Better Sleep

I recently presented my thesis research on The Yoga of Sleep and Dreams at Moksha Yoga Center. I was so grateful for the opportunity to speak on a topic that has fascinated me for years, on both an intellectual and intimate level.

I suffered from insomnia for well over a decade, and it is tied to my earliest memories of sleep. I didn't realize for many years that I was experiencing disordered sleep, because I had no reference for healthy sleep. It was only when I started inquiring about the sleeping habits of family members and friends that I discovered how abnormal mine actually were. But this discovery only led to increased anxiety over inadequate sleep, which began a perpetual cycle. I had resigned myself to poor quality of sleep and its effects: decreased immunity, mood instability, decreased focus, memory loss.

When I began practicing yoga, my sleeping habits began to change. It was unexpected— I came to the practice for different reasons and had no awareness of the relation between yoga and sleep. And, it was gradual— like the practice, which unfolds slowly and steadily, my experience of sleep changed over months and years.

It was an honor to share what I have learned through direct experience and dedicated study, and I was humbled by the students who came to participate in the dialogue. The room was filled with fellow practitioners, dream enthusiasts, and people who were new to the practice but wanted to explore the connection between yoga and sleep— even a technician who works in a sleep lab. It was inspiring to consider the diverse interests and experiences that led everyone to attend, and to witness what happens when we create space for community.

In that spirit of community, I wanted to share some of the most practical applications of yoga for improving sleep quality. These are simple concepts to apply to a regular yoga practice to calm the nervous system and still an overactive mind:

  • Seated or reclining meditation (use bolster or blocks as support)
  • Extend exhalation (inhale for 4 counts, exhale for 6 counts)
  • Seated poses (simple twists, side stretches)
  • Grounding, calming sequences (cat/cow, moon salutation)
  • Forward folds (head-to-knee pose, butterfly, straddle)
  • Passive or reclining poses (supine crescent moon, supine pigeon, happy baby)
  • Passive inversions (legs up the wall)
  • Long holds (90 seconds or more)
  • Long savasana (wear warm clothing, use heavy blanket, cover eyes)

Limit or avoid:

  • Vigorous breathing techniques (breath of fire, holding after inhalation)
  • Exerting poses (chaturanga, arm balances)
  • Active sequences (sun salutations A, B, or C)
  • Energetic poses (deep backbends, inversions)

The Guest House

I often incorporate poetry into asana classes because words have an incredible way of bringing us into our bodies.  It seems counterintuitive when we expend so much effort trying to get out of our heads, but poetry speaks to us on a more visceral level. When reading or hearing certain words, we shift into a space our heart occupies— where a deep sense of knowing resides and we are able to discern truth from illusion. This recognition of truth reconnects us with our intuition, and integrates the physical, mental/emotional, and spiritual aspects of self. In this way we understand poetry and yoga as two paths of self-inquiry both leading toward self-evolution.

Here is a favorite poem of mine:

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Rumi (translation by Coleman Barks)