Thoughts on Teaching

I’m getting ready to teach my seventh yoga class and I feel like I’m beginning to hit my stride. Halfway through my 200 hour teacher training, I have a lot of information to assimilate and put into practice yet I hunger for more. A self-confessed recovering perfectionist, I’m learning that teaching is hard. It’s extreme vulnerability for me. I am in a position of offering my knowledge to others while I am still coalescing what I am learning and putting it into practice myself. I spend hours upon hours each week creating a lesson plan: thinking about what I want students to get out of class this week, what the impact of the season is on our psyches and bodies and how to mitigate that through our yoga practice, which poses and in what particular order will help bring my students a step further in their practice, what philosophical idea I want to layer into my descriptions of poses and why we do them at all/in a particular way/in a particular order. And then I test that lesson plan out on myself – I practice the sequence and see how it feels in my own body. I practice so I can see what stumbling blocks my students might come across because I come across them myself, so that I can help guide the class through the blocks. I practice so I can see how the sequence flows, and what my body naturally wants to do next, and then I adjust, and I practice again, and I adjust some more. I review my pose descriptions and the anatomy and the alignments and I run the language through my head of how to accurately and simply talk the class into, through, and out of the poses. I think about what aspect of certain poses I want to highlight. I ponder what I want to share about why I sequenced the class in a particular way, or what the goal of the class is. And then I take a deep breath and I head to the studio and I hope that I remember to say just one-half of the insights I wanted to share. And I learn to let go of my perfectionist ways as I stumble over my words, have to change plans mid-class because things took too long for whatever reason, and come to the end of class realizing that I forgot to add a particular variation I wanted to include or forgot to explain a key concept that I was really keen on explaining. Next time.

Teaching is vulnerability. I’m learning to open up to the vulnerability, and I’m loving it. Time for class!

Body Types or Loving Uniqueness

For women (and perhaps for men, but I don’t have firsthand experience there), there is a huge undercurrent of stress related to how our bodies look that is somewhat subconscious but also very much in your face. Let me back up…let me say that for ME, I know this to be true. I also know this to be true of all of my women friends that I’ve ever spoken with about this, to varying degrees.

I’ve been pondering this for a lifetime – well, at least as long as I’ve been conscious of it – or maybe many lifetimes. I remember distinctly when I was a child (maybe around 10?) thinking that my neck was short and stubby and I wished it were long and thin. I was hanging out in my mom’s home office upstairs, looking out the window at the rural/suburban street below and gazed upon a woman walking by. Her neck was jutted out in front of her and my thought was one of glee – “Oh! Her neck looks so thin and long because she’s jutting her head out! I can do that! I can have the appearance of a long and thin neck!”

I’ve spent the past 25 years trying to recover from the pain and chain reactions of tension that were caused by the forward head position I purposefully put myself in for “beauty’s” sake. It’s crazy how we can look at other women and think, I should look like that. I will therefore force myself into unnatural and damaging positions, or follow dangerous diets and exercise patterns in an attempt to try to emulate that desired look.

The thing that I think so few of us truly learn and absorb as children, or even as adults, is that we are all unique and we have different body types, and actually, that is how it should be and how it really is. Fighting against that is damaging to our bodies and to our mental and emotional state.

I have always been a larger girl. I always will be. When I was about 7 years old, I remember an adult coming up to me and exclaiming that they thought I would never lose my baby fat! I was a chunky baby and toddler. I was also dang cute. But that comment cut deep – and I was only 7! I was fat. I should have been skinny, because I was a girl, and girls are supposed to be small and cute.

As I learn more about Ayurveda, I’m amazed by the simultaneous complexity and simplicity of the ancient health system. There are distinct constitutions that we are each born with and that dictate what is a healthy body state for us. It is our karma. If you are born with a predominantly kapha constitution (like me), you are born with tendencies towards being softer, larger, slower, stronger, caring, calm, stable, loyal, loving. You are not meant to be small and skinny. Attempts to force yourself into a constitution that you are not are met with imbalances that cause chronic health issues and emotional imbalances.

We are each our own proportion of these basic constitutions and we are all meant to be different sizes and shapes. It is natural and beautiful and normal. What does not work is trying to mold ourselves into whatever the flavor of the decade is of the “ideal” body type. Naturally thin, small women are a natural body type and that’s the way they should be. That’s not the way I should be and that’s okay. And I don’t need to harbor resentment against women who look like that because that’s the way they should be. It’s like there’s a fat vs thin woman war out there – heavier women are made to feel like they are unhealthy and unnatural for having a bigger body, but on the flipside, thin women are also slighted (or hated) for being “too” skinny.

I know I have weight to lose to get to my ideal healthy weight. But, my healthy ideal weight is around 180 pounds, which is huge for many women with a different constitution than I have. I also have a constitution that is slow and steady and holds on to excess weight a lot more than I’d like. Pile on top of that an autoimmune thyroid disorder that just seems to make the weight pile on with ease with a massive difficulty in losing it and keeping it off. Whereas some people can make changes to their diet and exercise routines and see immediate change, I have to take the slow and steady and patient route. Sometimes it’s hard to keep going on the right path when the change is happening at a snail’s pace. One weekend of eating more carbs or meat than my body can tolerate makes me gain 5-7 pounds. It then takes me 2 weeks if I’m lucky, or 2 months, if I’m being relatively good, to lose it again. It’s tempting to take drastic measures to lose weight quickly, but those always backfire and end up with more weight gain than I started off with.

I am working hard to lose my vanity and love the body I have, because it’s gotten me to the place I’m in, and I have a fabulous life. Because hating my body only makes me gain more weight. I don’t need to measure myself up against anyone else but my own unique constitution. That’s incredibly refreshing. And also hard to unravel 35 years of programming. One step at a time. Did I mention patience is key for me?

Respiratory Trees

After years of curiosity and minor dabbling in essential oil usage, in December I stepped up my game and started buying a range of essential oils and diffusers from doTerra and started reading books and web resources to try to better understand the power of essential oils and how to safely use them as part of holistic self-health care. There were a few things I had already discovered over the years: lavender oil is great for calming, sleep, removing the itch from insect bites, using as an insect repellent; oregano essential oil is a powerful antimicrobial; lemon and peppermint are uplifting to the spirit.

But, I never really knew what exactly essential oils are, why they are important to plants, why and how they work in humans, and how to understand the massive quantity of oils that are available and how best to use them. There is a lot of information on the internet that comes from people with a very wide range of expertise. I have a couple of books on aromatherapy and essential oils which are helpful for looking up conditions and finding out which oils are recommended, which is great at a basic level. Sometimes they tell you particular blends of oils to make at particular ratios, but there is no real information about why the particular ratio so that you could feel confident in altering the blend by cutting out an oil or substituting a different one if you needed to swap out, or to understand how to make your own blends from scratch. I’m the type of person that really wants to understand the principles of how and why things work so that I can look at oils that I may not be familiar with, and use principles to understand at least at a basic level how an oil can be used safely and know a bit about how I can combine them with other oils for a safe and therapeutic effect.

Kaya introduced me to Floracopeia‘s online course offerings about aromatherapy. The owner is a licensed acupuncturist/TCM and ayurvedic practitioner and has studied essential oils as a part of his holistic clinical practice over the past 3 decades. The courses he offers are infused with this deep holistic knowledge and they are fascinating. I bought the Pharmacy of Flowers course for home aromatherapy use (on steep sale if you dig deep in the website to the bottom of the detailed page about the course) and have been enthralled.

For example, he groups oils in a way that makes sense with biological unity in mind, and within these categories, you can rely on the oils primarily performing a specific healing purpose. I say primarily, because if you ask which oils have an effect on, say, the lungs, you could really list pretty much all essential oils. But there are certain oils that the research shows have a primary benefit to the lungs and respiratory system. He calls these the Respiratory Oils, and they include oils from the leaves or needles of conifers (e.g. cypress, pine, fir) and eucalyptus trees.

As he discusses in the course, if you look up the anatomy of the respiratory system, you would find a description like this:

Together, the trachea and the two primary bronchi are referred to as the bronchial tree. At the end of the bronchial tree lie the alveolar ducts, the alveolar sacs, and finally the alveoli.

The tubes that make up the bronchial tree perform the same function as the trachea. They distribute air to the lungs. The alveoli are responsible for the primary function of the lungs: exchanging carbon dioxide and oxygen.

The respiratory system is referred to in relation to being a tree! Plants and humans have an inverse breathing relationship: plants breathe in CO2 and out O2, humans breathe in O2 and out CO2. We rely on plants for our respiration – and the structure of our lungs even looks very similar to an upside down tree. Trachea = trunk, bronchi = big branches, bronchioles = small branches, alveoli = leaves and needles. As the above description reveals, the alveoli are responsible for the primary function of the lungs – exchanging CO2 and O2. The respiratory oils from conifers and eucalyptus trees are extracted from the leaves and needles of the trees. The leaves and needles are representative of the alveoli, and the respiratory oils have their main impact on the alveoli of the lungs!

Now, I’m not a licensed or certified clinician and I’m not diagnosing essential oils for your particular condition, but I can say that in my own home self-healing, I’ve started to diffuse 5-6 drops of respiratory oils on a regular basis in order to help boost my immune system and respiratory system when I’m well so that I can, hopefully, over time reduce the amount of respiratory illnesses I catch, and at the same time, use the oils to help me recover more quickly from any respiratory illnesses I do catch. The oils, when diffused, will attack airborne pathogens – so if others are sick around you or you want to purify the air you breathe to help reduce the risk of spreading illnesses, diffusing oils will help.

Did I mention that essential oils are part of a plant’s immune system? A primary purpose of these oils for the plant is immunological: to protect plants against insects, predators, herbivores, microbes, fungi, viruses. They are part of the life force, prana, vitality, intelligence of the plants and we can benefit from them because our existence is intertwined so deeply with plants. It’s pretty awesome, when you think about it.

And now, because of this part of the course, I know that if I find an oil that is from the leaves or needles of a conifer or eucalyptus tree (e.g. add on spruce or juniper or one of the many varieties of eucalyptus), I will think back to the respiratory tree and have a basic understanding of the primary role of these oils. Whereas before I may have seen in a book to use eucalyptus for bronchitis, I might now do a blend of eucalyptus and cypress (or replace it entirely with cypress because that’s what I have at home right now) to get a new smell profile, but have two oils that are from the same group and have a similar impact. Knowledge of the principles behind the oils is key!

Path to deep healing

When I started this blog a few years ago, I intended to use it as a sort of photo blog, but it didn’t go anywhere and now I’ve decided to try to kick some life into it but going in a new direction. Many who know me well know that I’ve been struggling for years with chronic health issues and have been working hard to understand the root causes and figure out holistic ways to heal myself. I had several dark years where I just felt pretty horrid almost all of the time, I couldn’t find a doctor to properly diagnose me, the western medical field wanted me to pop pills to mask the symptoms, which I refused to do, and the alternative health modalities that I had been pursuing for years that used to help suddenly stopped helping.

I had an internal tug-o-war happening, swinging between being more determined to understand what was happening to me because I couldn’t live like this, and starting to lose all hope that I would ever get better. An amazing pilates teacher I was seeing at the time suggested I try spinal release yoga in the studio next door. I checked it out, took one class and was totally hooked. I felt better after one class than I had in years. This was October 2012, and with the amazing knowledge and support of my teacher, Kaya, I started down a path of deep healing through spinal release yoga and ayurveda, with the additional support of my acupuncturist. I feel better now than I can remember ever feeling in my entire life and I know that this path will only continue to heal me at a deeper and deeper level. The drastic cycles of pain, fatigue, and grief I was going through are nearly gone. I’ve healed from injuries that happened over a decade ago that I thought would always be with me. I’ve seen huge shifts in my mental and emotional patterns and outlook. My whole life has changed for the better.

I feel so blessed to have found this path for myself that I can’t help but want to help others heal. I’ve been wanting to become a yoga teacher for years (I studied Iyengar yoga for 15 years and dabbled in other forms of yoga and practices such as qigong before switching to spinal release), but never had the consistent, daily, home practice that I knew I needed before I felt truly ready to take the plunge. I happily and easily have that dedicated home practice now and I can feel it deep inside that I’m ready for this next step.

I am registered to study spinal release yoga in a 200 hour teacher training in Colorado through two 10 – day immersions in April and October this year. I’m beside myself with excitement and eager anticipation of deepening my own practice, and at the prospects of starting to teach yoga myself. I don’t know yet what that will look like, but it’s a long time coming and I’m going to do my best to let it flow as it will. Patience is something I’m working on.

I’ve also started dabbling in essential oils and aromatherapy, but that’s a whole new addition to the story, for a different post.

I’m going to use this space to share what I’m experiencing and what I’m learning as I continue down this path of deep healing. I know writing it down will help me and hopefully it will be interesting and possibly helpful to you.

To good health and a life of joy!

Roadtrip begins!

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The roadtrip started with an immediate change in plans. Upper Lake Lola Montez was inaccessible due to snow, so we headed south to another favorite, Camp Creek. A weekend of camping with friends and swim holes, and now we’re headed north towards Crater Lake. A couple pics from a photo-op stop overlooking Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe.

a toe tickling adventure

Mule, Moose, and Walrus are coming to visit me, Ratty, from New Zealand for the month of August. What happens when a Mule, a Moose, a Rat and a Walrus fit themselves and their gear into Luna, the Subaru, for a 3 week roadtrip from California to British Columbia and back? Lots of mayhem, laughter, antics, swimming holes, hikes, gin, and photos to back it all up. Adventure!

Assuming all goes well with the snow melting in the mountains after a record year of snowfall, the adventure will start with a weekend of camping at Lake Lola Montez in 3 weeks. From there, we head northward through eastern California, Crater Lake and Bend, Oregon, onward through some part of Washington to be determined, and up into eastern B.C. where we’ll explore the Kootenays and surrounding areas. After we’ve worn our welcome in eastern B.C., we’ll head over to the west side to Whistler for 4 days so the Moose and the Mule can fling themselves down the mountain on bicycles. With hopefully no broken bodies, we’ll continue back down south via Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland, before we cut over to the coast and enjoy the slow going but beautiful drive overlooking the ocean back to E-Ville.

Adventure. It’s tickling my toes. They’re dancing with excitement of being dirty. The good kind of dirty. The camping kind of dirty. The camping with good friends kind of dirty.

Even finance people can be convinced to write

I feel like my heart has been ripped out of my chest and stomped on. I’m trying to make sense of something that makes no sense at all. Being stuck in my head hasn’t worked, so I decided to join the movement and attempt to express this gut-wrenching devastation by writing and sharing, something I’ve always run screaming away from, but of which I’ve learned the power from some amazing teachers.

It all started for me eight years ago, March 24, 2003, to be exact. I started working for a 37-year old organization called the National Writing Project, a network of teachers that come together all around the nation in pursuit of a common goal: to become more effective teachers in order to improve student achievement. There’s no curriculum, no scripted program, no outside expert telling teachers what to do.

Teachers teaching teachers

The premise is simple: teachers are in the classroom everyday with students, therefore they are the people who hold the expertise and knowledge. If you bring teachers together to open their practice to other teachers, inquire into those practices, push outside their comfort zone, research, write, learn, try out new strategies, ask more questions…well, you get amazing results.

No matter what industry you work in, professional development is important in order to improve, as is a community of like-minded professionals to learn from and with. Imagine coming together with a group of your peers to inquire into the relevant issues that tie your profession up in knots. How far do you think you could push your profession?

The landscape of education shifts rapidly alongside the rapidly evolving social, economic and political landscape. Immigration brings higher numbers of English language learners to an area, or an economic downturn shuts down the major employer of a small community, causing massive increases in unemployment and poverty. All of these factors have a major impact on schools, students, and teachers. If teachers can come together to explore these issues of diversity, poverty, and access, social change and education can be impacted tremendously.

This country, along with the rest of the world, is suffering a major economic downturn. Education funding is being slashed over and over again. It’s to be expected. Everyone has to bear some of the burden. However, I can’t help but feel that education has been impacted hardest. How do we expect to pull ourselves out of this if we aren’t properly preparing our youth to be active and engaged participants in society? We should be investing more in our youth and in effective education, rather than cutting it to the bare bones minimum.

What I especially do not understand is the vilification of teachers in this day and age. Teaching is one of the most difficult professions that exist. I often think about becoming a math teacher, but honestly, it scares the hell out of me. My dad was a teacher, and I have worked closely with teachers for the past 8 years. I know what the climate is like in schools. I know how under-supported teachers are. I know what issues poverty adds to an already difficult educational landscape filled with assessment and standardized testing. People blame teachers for falling test scores without stopping to think what the test even represents and whether it’s a worthwhile indicator in the first place. Why would anyone want to become a teacher when this is what you’re facing?

Teachers are amazing

They are paid not nearly enough, to spend their days with hundreds of children, spend their evenings and weekends planning lessons, grading papers, and pushing themselves to figure out how to reach that one student who isn’t getting it, to keep that other gifted student immersed in learning, while not alienating the others. They work to sculpt their classrooms into a place where learning and exploration are the driving force, where children can engage in meaningful discussions about relevant topics in order to forge their place in this democratic society. They aren’t there to force feed facts and give out tests to assess how much ‘knowledge’ has been shoved into children’s brains.

When education policy is drafted, teachers are not at the center. They are on the fringes. Who better to reflect on policy, reform, and effective teaching than teachers themselves?

That’s what the National Writing Project provides: a cherished place for teachers, at the center.

Yet, after over 20 years of federal investment in building a national infrastructure of writing project sites in all 50 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the federal government has signed a bill that eliminates all federal funding for the National Writing Project. The federal government is literally sweeping literacy under the carpet, choosing to place all their attention on more sexy focuses like STEM. How do you expect to succeed in science, technology, engineering or math if you don’t have the writing and reading skills to back it up?

NWP Works. National Writing Project teachers provide more than 7,000 professional development activities annually, reaching 130,000 educators, and through them, 1.4 million students. With the stroke of a pen, this network and its impact on children is in grave jeopardy.

Yesterday, 60% of staff working at the national office in support of this network was informed that they would be laid off. Today, 200 sites learned that the funding for their year-round work is being reduced, and future funding is uncertain, at best.

This has been intensely difficult, to say the least. Each night I go to bed and wish that when I wake up, this nightmare will disappear. Nausea over the implications this has on education hits me in big waves.

It’s not about my job. I could get another job. If it came down to it, I’d do my best to squelch my fear and join the ranks of the teachers that I hold in such high esteem.

But what it comes down to is a group of the most amazing teachers I have ever met, working night and day to reach students. I’ve poured myself into this organization for the past 8 years of my life because I truly believe in the transformative power of the National Writing Project on thousands of teachers across the country, and their resulting impact on students. I feel the power of their stories every time I speak with them on the phone and at meetings. It’s indescribable. I want for them what they deserve: respect as professionals and leaders. Respect.

I’m tempted to hide myself away and cry and kick and scream. Instead, I’m doing what I’ve learned from this impressive network of teachers: I’m writing. I’m making my voice heard, among the many teachers and supporters of the NWP who #blog4nwp.

I’m fighting back. Those who know me, know that I’m generally very laid back, but you really don’t want to piss me off. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does…step back. Well, I’m angry. So, no, this isn’t the end. Not even close. I’m ready for the challenge. Are you?

Barbara Ann Hasselbach, Assistant Director of Grants and Contracts, National Writing Project.