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200-hour yoga-teacher training: Lessons learned

 

The day after my graduation from yoga-teacher training in May 2016, I jotted down some notes about lessons learned. The next day, I was admitted to the hospital with preeclampsia, and I remained there until I delivered my son on June 1, 2016. The notes fell to the wayside, but the lessons did not, and I wanted to share some of the ones with the most staying power here.

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Graduation day with my teacher, May 2016.

If you think yoga is about handstands or stretching, you’re missing the best part. There’s nothing wrong with going to yoga to get a stretch or a workout or a yoga butt. But if you’ve gone to yoga for one of these reasons, you’ve probably noticed that you leave feeling a little bit more lighthearted and relaxed, or maybe even blissful. Part of the joy of getting serious about yoga is admitting that it was really never about the handstands or stretches, but has always been about connecting with the body, the breath and the wisest version of yourself. And when you go in with the intention of connecting with your highest power or wisest self? Man, do things get good!

There’s no such thing as “perfect” alignment of a pose. Our posture clinics were led by two 1,000-hour certified yoga teachers who have trained in numerous schools of yoga, including yoga therapeutics. This means they’ve trained with people who see the only expression of Warrior I as with a narrow stance, a sealed back heel, with the hips completely square. They’ve also trained with people who have hurt their hips after years of forcing their bodies into that position, because it didn’t serve their particular anatomy. The fact is, the poses are all pretty modern—created for Indian boys in the 1800s—and are not, as I’d imagined, written in stone next to the Ganges River. It was fascinating to learn how differently all of our bodies are built, and to try to build the “perfect” pose for our particular bodies—which in itself could be a lifelong journey.

I will spend the rest of my life trying to perfect my downward facing dog. When a friend of mine went through her own yoga-teacher training several years ago, I remember her saying that she was obsessed with working on her mountain pose. That’s the one in which you’re basically just standing up. I get what she meant now. You can spend hours trying to activate and then soften each muscle in your body to best express any pose. And even when you feel like you’ve got it all just right, you breathe, and it all changes, and you must activate it again. This is actually the best part—realizing that there is no such thing as being “balanced,” but only the never-ending act of balancing.

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My fellow graduates.

We’re all hungry for authenticity and community, and we get there through vulnerability. We were all attracted to our teacher, Kim Beekman, because of the community she creates through her willingness to be vulnerable with her classes. During our training, we created the same sense of community for ourselves. I learned that yoga isn’t about learning physical skills, such as balancing or stretching—it is a stripping away of the things that we falsely believe define us, like our jobs, our clothes, our resumes and our bodies. And we begin to strip all of that stuff away by getting real with each other about our fears and our feelings of inadequacy and all the other feelings we think are unique to us. (They’re not).

Yoga teachers, I’d love to know: What’s the most important lesson you learned during your teacher-training?

 

 

 

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Postpartum-fitness myths

In my early 20s, when we were still light years away from being ready to introduce an additional human to our home, I had a conversation about body acceptance with a friend who’d recently had a baby.

“I have jeans that don’t fit me anymore, and they’ll probably never fit me again,” she said with a shrug.

This was before I understood the blessing of a new, precious human life (I’m sorry to sound so cliche, but I feel like every parenting cliche is absolutely true), and I’m kind of ashamed to admit that this statement haunted me. I’m sorry, but did you just say that my jeans might never fit me again? I wondered how I’d handle the challenge of trying to maintain some sort of fitness level postpartum.

The most amazing thing happened while I was pregnant with Henry, and after he joined us: I learned that many of my closely held beliefs about what it takes to be strong, fit and capable as an athlete and human were wrong, or at least kind of misguided. Here are a few of those false beliefs.

 1.  If you can’t work out intensely, there’s no point in bothering to work out at all. When we first brought Henry home, he and I took a lot of walks. I didn’t even see walking as a workout, but just a way to get fresh air. Imagine my surprise when our frequent walks led to fitness gains. Who woulda thunk?
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Our first of many walks. This one was about a week after we brought Henry home. I’m doing my best to impersonate a sane person.

2. I will struggle with body image during and after pregnancy. When I got pregnant with Henry, I totally, truly detached from feeling like my body needed to look a certain way, or perform athletically in any way, shape or form. I lost interest in the idea of jeans fitting or not fitting, and wore comfy skirts all summer. Because who cares about jeans size when your body has grown a human? (I mean, seriously—*grown a human being!*)

3. There’s no way my 30-minute home workout will be as good as my hour-and-a-half-long session in a gym lifting heavy weights. Was I more fit when I did really focused, intense, hour-and-a-half workouts than I am while doing 30-minute workouts? Sure. But I was not three times more fit—maybe 5 percent at best. I do a version of this one from SELF magazine a few times a week, and it astounds me that I ever thought I needed more to stay in shape for skiing, short runs and other adventures.

4. Exercise classes geared toward new parents will be good place-holders until I can do my “real” workouts. What made me think I had a monopoly on good ideas for my exercise regimen? And why was I so snobby about parent boot-camp classes? In this day and age, many of the other parents in the parent boot-camp class I take at my local YMCA a few times a week are former college athletes who also want to get in shape to hike, bike, run and ski, and the instructors tailor workouts to this crowd. That class has reminded me of the painful efficacy of tuck jumps, and has introduced me to inverted mountain-climbers. Guess what I wouldn’t have been doing on my own? Those exercises.

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H before our first parent boot-camp class at our local YMCA back in August. Now, he prefers to scoot around on a blanket while mama works out.

5. I will really miss the freedom to do whatever workout I’d like to do on a given day. I only make it to a formal yoga class once a week at best, and I can’t even imagine when it will seem worth it to spend an hour or two of my free time swimming in a pool. But in the biggest surprise of all, I totally don’t care. No workout is quite as much fun as blowing raspberries at my little man and watching him giggle in response. I feel so strongly that have my whole life to train for distance races, but only a brief period of time to snuggle a sweet baby.

If you’ve been down this path, I’d love to hear about your lessons learned about postpartum fitness!

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Where I’ve been

In early 2015, I was ecstatic to find out I was pregnant. In June 2015, during a routine ultrasound during an otherwise healthy pregnancy, I learned my baby had no heartbeat. Doctors induced labor later that day, and on June 19, after five months of pregnancy, I delivered a perfect baby girl, Susannah Grace.

I didn’t know how to write about it, and I didn’t know how to not write about it. So I kind of just went missing, and posted vague mentions of finding peace amid grief and loss by connecting to nature.

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One of many healing hikes.

When I learned I was pregnant again, I was gun-shy about sharing the news. I didn’t feel comfortable posting here about pregnancy workouts and using yoga and meditation to find a sense of ease during pregnancy; I didn’t even share the news with some close friends and family members.

My son is now here, safe and sound. He is curious and smiley and strong, and is the absolute embodiment of joy and awe. He is also the best personal trainer a girl can ask for—at 3.5 months, he won’t nap unless I take him for a walk in the stroller or a hike in the Ergo. He requires fresh air and movement to relax. I wonder where he gets it?

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One of many calming walks.

I want to tell you about squeezing in strength workouts while your baby naps, and about how meditation can help you find peace, calm and presence when your baby’s been screaming for hours in the middle of the night. I want to tell you about becoming a yoga teacher and meditation facilitator. But first, I need to tell you about Susannah.

She was much-loved and much-wanted. The nausea I felt early in my pregnancy with her was ameliorated only by chicken wings and Polar seltzer water, so we celebrate the mark she made on our lives by dining at our favorite chicken-wing restaurant. She sent me down a path that was different than the one I was on. I embarked on a 200-hour yoga-teacher training after yoga helped me to reconcile my grief. She also inspired me to begin volunteering with Angel Names Association (ANA), a Saratoga Springs, N.Y., based nonprofit that provides a variety of supportive programs for the families of stillborn babies nationwide.

On Oct. 8, we will be participating in ANA’s annual memorial walk in Saratoga Spa State Park in Susannah’s memory. The walk aims in part to raise awareness about pregnancy loss and stillbirth, and it’s in that spirit that I’m sharing my experience here. When I lost Susannah, I felt so isolated—I had never knowingly met another woman who’d lost a baby so far along in a pregnancy. By sharing my story, I hope that someone, somewhere, feels less alone.

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Help me help the families of stillborn babies here —> www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/amy-reinink/ana-walk

The walk also raises money for ANA’s programs, including one which provides financial assistance to families who can’t afford a funeral or headstone for their stillborn babies. I hope you’ll consider making a small donation toward my fund-raising goal via my Firstgiving page. In doing so, you’ll not only provide a bright spot to families in their darkest hours, but will help me to honor and remember my daughter—the ray of sunlight who illuminated my desire to be a mom to a baby who could love me back here on earth.

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Best open-water swimming beach on Oahu’s North Shore

I brought my cap and goggles everywhere we went in Hawaii, dutifully scoping out currents and waves and weather conditions to find the perfect open-water swimming spot.

From Barking Sands to Poipu, the cap and goggles stayed in my bag. I tried to be a good, safe swimmer by opting out anytime I noticed a funky-looking current, or anytime the waves seemed more conducive to surfing—which turned out to be just about everywhere on Kauai.

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Don’t cry for me—I sat on the beach and watched waves like these, at Poipu, crash onshore. 

By the time we landed on Oahu’s North Shore, famed for house-size waves that challenge the world’s best surfers, I’d accepted that I wouldn’t be doing much swimming this trip. Oh, how wrong I was.

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Rough surf for swimming = great conditions for watching pro paddleboarders catch waves.

Our Airbnb host in Waialua told us about a beach near our rental cottage, saying it was “really mellow” and “mainly a park for moms to bring their kids to.” As soon as we arrived at Aweoweo Beach Park, I noticed a several swimmers doing laps around the gorgeous cove, which was as mellow as promised thanks to a reef that protected the area from offshore waves. I took a quick dip to literally test the waters—no funky currents, and no waves to speak of. I ran back to our rental cottage to grab my poor, neglected cap and goggles for some playtime.

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Aweoweo Beach Park in Waialua, on Oahu’s North Shore. 

I swam along the shoreline for a bit, in awe of the visibility in the crystal-clear water. I saw a few big iridescent fish and a few tiny, colorful striped ones.

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The water was so perfectly clear! 

Then, I swam out toward the coral reef protecting the rest of the beach from the waves crashing out at sea, and I saw a turtle with a blackish green shell eating barnacles off a pyramid-shaped concrete structure underwater. I floated around him in total awe. I picked my head up to breath, and he picked his head up, too! Pure magic.

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The tiny speck in this zoomed-in, grainy iPhone photo is me, planning to stay in the water forever. 

If we hadn’t had a flight back to the mainland that afternoon, I may have never left that beach. Consider this blog post me paying it forward to any other swimmer vacationing in Hawaii who happens to Google “best open-water swim spot on Oahu.” I’m no authority on which spot is actually best, but if there’s anything better than this one, I’m not sure I want to know about it.

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Yoga and meditation teacher training: The first 90 hours

How can I even begin to describe the first 90 hours of my 200-hour yoga and meditation teacher training?

Amazing. Intense. Life-changing. And, well, like, really hard to describe.

Our teacher is big on Yoga with a Big Y, which means de-emphasizing asana or hatha yoga (the poses we all know and love) and focusing instead on the spiritual practice described in texts like the Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. We spent lots of time in meditation, and a lot of time talking about the ego, nonattachment to outcome and the practice of realizing that we are not our thoughts, our worries, our fears, or any of the other things we often identify with.

Are you still with me? If so, just think about the bajillion ways we can apply these principles to everyday life. How much happier would your next marathon be if you trained your hardest, yet wed yourself to the process, not the outcome (i.e., “I will complete X training schedule over Y weeks with the hope of running 26.2 miles in 3:39” versus “IF I DO NOT BQ THIS RACE IS WORTHLESS”)? How much better would your Monday morning be if you learned that you could watch rather than identify with the crazy to-do list loops running through your mind?

Like I said: Amazing, intense, and hard to explain in words.

Although the physical practice was deemphasized, we still learned a totally incredible amount about alignment and anatomy from two 1,000-hour certified teachers who have each studied in various schools of yoga. Over the course of 10 days, I realized that I could likely spend years just trying to perfect my downward-facing dog (or my mountain pose, for that manner). I also learned to see this fact as exciting rather than discouraging. As one of our teachers put it: “That’s why we call it a yoga practice, not a yoga finish.”

I have 110 hours of training left over three long weekends between now and May. Stay tuned!

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Pre-work: Yoga and meditation teacher training 2016

I signed up for yoga and meditation teacher training last fall, committing to 200 hours of instruction come springtime. Springtime is here, and the training actually begins on Saturday (gulp). There’s not much more I can do to prepare for the 90 hours of training that will happen between March 12 and March 20 (again: Gulp).

 

This leaves me to reflect on the first step in the process, which is already behind me—the pre-work that my fellow trainees and I were assigned back in December.
The reading. We were assigned several books to read, which was thrilling to me as a lifelong bookworm. Some were wonderful and life-changing, and I’m glad I finally had a reason to read them (I’m looking at you, “Mindfulness for Beginners” by Jon Kabat Zinn). Others, such as “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” contained a few revelatory parts, but otherwise didn’t feel applicable to a modern American yogi (knowing that the physical practice isn’t the main point of yoga is cool; learning about the various levels of consciousness and enlightenment seems irrelevant). And then, there’s the “Bhagavad Gita.” It is not pictured here, because its gargantuan size would take up the entire frame. I really *wanted* to love the Bhagavad Gita, which is about the best I can say about that.
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A few of the books assigned ahead of my yoga-teacher training.

The sun salutations. Part of our pre-work involved teaching sun salutations to friends and family members. This was by far the most instructive—and humbling—task on our list. I found it pretty easy to get my “spiel” down, and easier than I thought to keep my lefts and rights straight. However, it was waaay harder than I thought to actually focus on what my “students” were doing. After leading my mom through several rounds of sun salutations, I told my teacher: “I realized that I was saying and doing all the right stuff, but I hadn’t looked up at her for maybe five minutes. She could have been doing jumping jacks, for all I knew.” And that’s with one student, not a room full of students. Other challenges: With all the breath and alignment cues, when do yoga teachers breathe? I have a lot to learn.
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Photo credit Acyuta Gopi, from a kirtan in New York City.

The kirtan. If you Google “kirtan,” you’ll get a long description about traditional call-and-response chanting rituals. This makes it sound unfun at best, cult-like at worst. Here’s how I’d describe a kirtan: You know the music yoga teachers play in class? The songs that have a vaguely Indian-sounding beat and Sanskrit words you don’t understand that help you get in your happy yoga place? The groups that produce this music hold live performances, called kirtans. I attended one at Yoga Mandali on Feb. 20 with Gaura Vani.
My main impressions:  You get to sit on comfy yoga bolsters, not traditional seats (win!). You hear cool folk stories about ancient yogis and yoginis (win!). You sing along after learning what those Sanskrit words actually mean (fun fact: “mangalam” means “auspicious.”). And you leave feeling relaxed and energized at the same time—kind of like after a yoga class (win-win!). This wasn’t assigned as pre-work, but it helped me understand a different side of the yogic tradition, which felt extremely worthwhile.

 

So now, it’s all over but the shoutin’. Wish me luck! 
Have you gone through yoga-teacher training? What do you wish you’d known beforehand—and what advice do you have for me as I embark on mine?

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The victory of being lost in thought

I have a beginner-skier friend whose skiing self-talk is so overwhelmingly positive and cheerful (“Look at you!” she tells herself as she turns. “You’re doing it!”), it’s made me reconsider my own internal chatter. Hers is both positive and mindful, appreciating every turn for what it is, right as it’s happening. Mine goes more like this: I’ll be skiing along when I realize I’m engaging in some lazy bad habit—leaning slightly back, for example. At the moment I realize this, my self-talk becomes: “Good God, woman! Press your shins into the front of your boots!”
I thought about this recently when I stumbled upon this Mindful interview with ABC News anchor Dan Harris and meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein, titled The Victory of Being Lost in Thought. It addresses this very phenomenon in terms of meditation: For most of us, when we realize our minds are wandering, our inclination is to be mad at ourselves for being asleep rather than rejoicing that we’ve woken up.
Harris (author of the terrific book 10% Happier) says to Goldstein: Most of us use that moment of waking up from distraction to beat the crap out of ourselves. In fact, you’re saying we should view it as a victory.
Goldstein’s response: Exactly. So we’re lost in some thought. And then at a certain moment we become aware of that. We wake up from being lost. And the usual tendency is for the mind to jump in with a judgment: “Ah, I was lost again for the ten thousandth time.” And then berate ourselves for that happening. But the re-frame, which is so powerful and so delightful, is in that moment of going from having been lost to being awake, to being aware—To actually highlight first the fact that we’re now aware again, we’re now awake again. And the beauty of this practice, and the transformation from seeing the wandering mind as a problem to, in some ways, seeing it as a gift, is precisely in that moment. For as many times as we get lost in a thought, that same exact number of times, we awaken from being lost.
What a revelation! What if we treated that moment of realization that we’re being sloppy and mindless—whether it’s while we’re meditating, skiing or simply having a conversation with a family member—as a moment to appreciate that we awakened from being lost?

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