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My Path to Radical Acceptance: What I’ve Learned in SmartFLOW Yoga Teacher Training

Note: This post was originally published on July 12, 2017 but was lost when my website was hacked in August 2018. I’ve republished it here with minimal edits from a backup file.

Everyone told me that yoga teacher training is transformative. Now that I am almost half way through the 200-hour, SmartFLOW Yoga teacher training program, I know what they mean. For weeks, I’ve wanted to share my experience. But, I have struggled to find the words. You can learn more about Annie Carpenter and the SmartFLOW Yoga system on her website. In today’s blog, I share my experience in SmartFLOW Yoga teacher training and reflect on my path to radical acceptance.

I am Strong and Flexible

Everyone also told me that the asana practices are intense. They were right. The two-hours long practices are mentally and physically challenging (they’re even harder at 6:30 in the morning). However, these in-depth practices have transformed my understanding of my body and how it works.

To be honest, I was terrified of the asana practices. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be strong enough or flexible enough. I regularly rest in Child’s Pose during regular practices in the studio. So, I just knew I couldn’t endure two hours of intense asana practice. I’m happy to report, I was wrong. I am strong enough and I am flexible enough, because I am enough.

Two months ago, I couldn’t tell you what sets SmartFLOW Yoga apart from other systems. Although, I’m far from being an expert, today, I have a much better appreciation for this practice. The Movement Principles and cuing system in SmartFLOW yoga allows everyone, regardless of their shape, strength, or flexibility to find their own expression of each pose.

Any yoga teacher will tell you that you don’t have to be strong or flexible to practice yoga asanas. In fact, most will encourage you to do yoga because it will help you become strong and flexible (among other things). But, SmartFLOW has taught me that I am strong enough and flexible enough, right now and that what comes tomorrow or next year doesn’t matter. What matters is what’s happening on my mat. SmartFLOW accomplishes this by teaching that yoga is an inquiry and that the goal (if you need to have one) is acceptance.

SmartFLOW Yoga is Inquiry

Elsewhere,  I’ve written that yoga is an epistemology, or a way of knowing. Prior to my training, I knew that yoga is a way to learn about yourself, your body, and the universe we all share. Studying SmartFLOW, I now understand yoga is in an inquiry rather than an epistemology. The distinction may be semantic, but my academic side can’t help but indulge.

To me, epistemology represents a system of knowledge. For example, there are infinite explanations for why the sun rises and sets each day. However, in our modern Western society, we teach our children that the sun rises and sets because the Earth rotates on its axis. Sometimes we face the sun, other times we don’t. This explanation comes from science. An epistemology based on systematic observation of the universe. But, at other times in our human history we’ve employed different knowledge systems, such as religion. For example, maybe the Sun God wakes up to protect us each morning, grows tired and falls asleep each night. While this explanation describes sunrise and sunset, the explanation is based on belief and/or faith rather than observation.

Ultimately, I’ve come to see yoga as the process of observing, rather than a means of knowing. In SmartFLOW terms, we say that yoga is paying attention. SmartFLOW yoga teachers invite their students to pay attention to their breath and their body, from largest limbs to the smallest muscle fibers. They do this through inquiry-based cuing.

If you watched my Mountain Pose tutorial, you probably noticed that I asked a lot of questions. In SmartFLOW Yoga, these cues invite students to inquiry rather than command them into a position. Here, SmarFLOW Yoga teaches people (about their body and how it moves), not poses. Compassionate SmartFLOW teachers will encourage you to notice what is happening in your body and guide along a path of radical acceptance.

SmartFLOW Yoga is Radical Acceptance

SmartFLOW Yoga celebrates the uniqueness of every body. We accept that no two practitioners are alike. My strength, range of motion, endurance, and ability to pay attention is likely very different from yours. In fact, my strength and range of motion today is different from what it was yesterday or what it will be two months from now.

Acknowledging our uniqueness, SmartFLOW Yoga encourages every student to experience her full potential. Presenting yoga as an inquiry, or series of questions to the Self without expectation for an outcome, establishes each practice as an opportunity for radical acceptance. This process of inquiry and observation taught me to let go and to accept myself as I am.

It doesn’t matter if my arms aren’t aligned with my head/neck/ears in Utthita Hasta in Tadasana. They might never be. What matters is that I am on my mat, doing my work, observing my body, and accepting what is. And that is the beauty of SmartFLOW Yoga.

Infinite Gratitude

Before I started this teacher training program, I didn’t know what made SmartFLOW different from other styles. I’d practiced Forrest yoga, yin yoga, and other forms of vinyasa yoga; I knew that I felt different in SmartFLOW classes, but I didn’t know why. Today, I know that I feel different in SmartFLOW classes because they start and end in a different place than any other yoga class.

Yes, we start our practice with an OM, and end in Savasana. But, SmartFLOW practices begin with a question and end with acceptance.

I am infinitely grateful to Annie Carpenter for developing this system of yoga. If you don’t know who she is, please, look her up. Take a class with Annie in California or find her on YogaGlo. I have yet to meet her in person, but she has already transformed my life.

I’m equally grateful to my trainers and mentors, Britni Serou and Janet Katz. These women live and breathe SmartFLOW and am honored to have the privilege of learning from them. I can’t wait to finish my training! If you have a chance, you should take a class with Britni at Downtown Yoga in Hammond, LA or with Janet at Second Story Yoga in Memphis, TN.

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Blog Yoga

What Yoga Means to Me

Once, a friend of mine asked me: What is yoga, to you? I don’t remember how I answered him, but I wrote this in my journal:

Yoga is…A coping skill; Exercise; A means to connect and socialize; Embodiment; An epistemology; Moving meditation; Political; An Escape.

Since then, I like to check in with myself and see how my thoughts have changed. I should note that I’m not reinterpreting Patanjali or any other legendary yogis. Rather, I’m expressing what yoga represents in my life.

Yoga helps me cope with stress

I began my practice after my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2015. This was an extremely difficult time for my family but, I had to contend with the added challenges of living more than 700 miles away and balancing a demanding job. My grief manifested as anxiety. Consequently, I was in a constant state of fight or flight. Sleeping was nearly impossible. In addition, I was irritable and short with my friends and co-workers. I heard that yoga was good at relieving stress and I knew that things couldn’t get worse, so I started a night time yin practice before bed. Within days, I was falling asleep faster and sleeping through the night. Since then, my practice has blossomed in ways I never imagined it would. I have a regular home practice and I completed my 200-hour teacher training last year. Altogether, yoga has helped me move through the grief of losing my father and grandfather and be less reactive person. I like to say that yoga has taught me to celebrate each breath, even when it hurts! But yoga is much more than just a coping mechanism.

Yoga taught me to celebrate my body

Yoga is often described as the union of mind, body, and spirit. I can confirm that yoga has forced me to reconcile these three. In our digital society, so many of us live disembodied lives. We are reduced to selfies, usernames, and hashtags. Additionally, our post-industrial economy means much of us engage in service, emotion, care, and intellectual work. For example, my day job emphasizes intellectual labor and neglects my physical existence. I spend hours behind a desk reading, writing, and answering e-mails with only a few short breaks where I stand in front of other being to “teach” them sociology. Because yoga rejoins body and mind it has led me to confront behaviors and emotions I used to ignore. At first, this led to a great deal of frustration in my practice. I became angry with myself for not being able to achieve the “ideal” form in many poses. I scolded myself for neglecting my body for so many years and engaged in a lot of negative self-talk. Soon, the self-shamming faded and now I relish in time I spend exploring my body and learning how it moves in the physical world.

I cannot deny the physical benefits of yoga. My regular asana practice has improved my physical health. I have increased my strength and flexibility and I’ve lowered my blood pressure. But overall, I just feel better. I don’t get as many headaches and my low-back pain has virtually disappeared.

As a fat person, I used to believe that exercise was punishment. That I needed to push myself to exhaustion as penance for over indulging. Yoga has taught me that exercise should be a celebration of the body and an opportunity to explore the edges.

Yoga helped me find community

In 2013, I moved to Hammond, Louisiana, to start a new job. I was a native Floridian and had lived in Orlando and Tampa for a decade before moving to Hammond. The transition to small town life was difficult. As a queer person with radical political beliefs, I felt isolated and trapped – surrounded by people who didn’t think, or talk like me. Practicing yoga has helped change some of my perceptions. In the studio, I have met people with similar beliefs and values. Practicing (and teaching) in the studio motivates me to get out of my house, to see my friends and relish in their company. Additionally, I’ve found an rich yoga community on Instagram, through #fatyoga.

Yoga is Political

We rarely acknowledge it, but yoga is political and tt always has been. However, the yoga industry doesn’t want us to understand the influence of colonialism on the development of yoga or to critically examine our consumption or cultural appropriation. Indeed, these are heavy topics that can make us all feel uncomfortable. None the less, they are important to discuss, and I’ll get to all of that, eventually. At a personal level however, we have become separated from ourselves and others through work that degrades our bodies, minds, and relationships. In this sense, yoga is political because it rejects the external conditions that creates suffering and provides a means for repairing harm.

Yoga practice, whether it’s asana, pranayama, or meditation, allows us to escape the physical world of suffering. As a fat person, yoga has taught me to value my body just the way it is. More importantly, my yoga practice has taught me that I am worth of love, respect, and dignity regardless of my body size or what I ate today.

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Blog Yoga

What is Yoga?

Yoga is an ancient Sanskrit word with many uses. Today, most people in the United States associate the word yoga with a system of physical postures knowns as asanas. Yoga however, is much more than poses. Viewed holistically, yoga is an eight-limbed system that includes ethics, postures, breathwork, and meditation techniques that are intended to lead the practitioner to samadhi, which can be understood as “enlightenment” or “bliss”.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

The ashtanga (eight-limbed) system of yoga was initially described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. According to Patanjali, the yoga system includes an ethical code including moral observances (yamas) and personal observances (niyamas), postures (asana), breathwork (pranayama), sense withdrawal (pratyahara), focused concentration (dharana), meditative absorption (dhyana), and samadhi. Before moving forward, I think it’s important to briefly explore these limbs.

The Yamas and Niyamas

There are five yamas and five niyamas. The yamas provide guidelines for our relationship to other beings (both human and non-human). The niyamas are personal observances often considered to be “good habits”.

Yamas

Ahimsa – non-harming or non-violence in thoughts, words, or action

Satya – truthfulness

Asteya – non-stealing  

Brahmacharya – celibacy or “right use of energy”

Aparigraha ­– non-greed or non-hoarding

Niyamas

Saucha – cleanliness

Santosha – contentment

Tapas – discipline, austerity, “purifying fire”

Svadhyaya – study of self and texts Isvara Pranidhana – contemplating the divine

More to come!

Check back soon for more on the eight limbs of yoga!