by Ali Valdez
Anyone have unique traditions, or theme months? At our studio, one of our Sattvists does a Liquid-tober, where she and her spouse drink nothing but water. As November approaches, our studio does a Class Crawl and a Gratitude month. There is a practice I do called #simplegratitude, a plan to change my mental state each and every day regardless of life circumstances. I can find good in virtually all things, even the unsettling and confrontational ones.
November is my chance to share this love of practicing gratitude with my yoga community, and this blog is really dedicated to them. I would like to share with everyone why I am grateful for having my yoga studio, even in the midst of the highs and lows, the uncertainty, and sometimes transitory nature of our students, and the years of surrounding construction and in spite of such challenges, blessings remain ten-fold and continue to grow.
With gratitude and from the heart, here are my top five November studio gratitudes:
- Sattvists helping Sattvists. One thing I can say definitively about Sattva teachers and community, is that we have each other’s backs. Having started with childcare during classes, many of our students entrusted us with the care of their children and we have seen many of them grow up. Our community binds together, becoming friends. We lean in and help out with our extended teachers’ community, helping watch kids, getting each other food, taking care of dogs (and cats!), subbing for one another when they go off to study, host retreats or go on holidays. When talking about this with our long-time studio manager, she concurred “no other studio on Earth does what our team does for one another.”
- International Flair. In a world of increasing divisiveness, I love and honor the diversity of the members of our studio. Our teacher trainees are native in over a dozen languages and come from all corners of the world. They have spread the Sattva spirit throughout the country, across Asia and Europe. We even have Sattvists in New Zealand, Peru and Mexico. During advanced teacher trainings, we discuss global issues and there is no one-sided or myopic view of the topics most challenging in our current times. We debate, respectfully, unapologetically and discuss both sides of history, religion and conflict. In many courses, teachers are encouraged to share their vision statement in English and their nature language. In any given course, almost everyone shares twice. This means when people come through our doors, they feel welcome, because the place is comfortable and authentic.
- The Cheers of Yoga. Anyone from 80’s television knows of the sitcom Cheers, and the infamous Norm. Whenever Norm stormed into Cheers bar every night, everyone shouted “Norm!” because it was the kind of place where everyone knows your name. We strive to make a personal connection with each student. Oftentimes, they are taken aback when they walk in and are greeted by name (and with a smile). I love that we stay connected to our students during their registrations, even though we have more technology at the front desk than a regional Microsoft sales office.
- Cleanliness & our Karma Yogi crew. Time and time again, I see the same feedback. “This is the cleanest studio I’ve ever been in.” We have our incredible staff of Karma Yogis to thank for that. Sometimes I walk in, especially Tuesday evenings, and the place is sparkling, which lends itself to the magic and the experience on the practice. Our karma yogis are like family. We are so grateful for everything they do, each and every day.
- Last, but not least… our students. As we approach our fourth year, many of our students have been there since the very beginning. We started in the shadow of another business closing down and abandoning ship. We evolved from one to three studios, from 52 classes and twelve styles and have had our share of dramatic moments. About 18 months ago, the building we occupy was sold. We waited to hear what would come next. Nothing came next as it so happened. The answer is we could very well be here for years to come. Everything around us is being tore down and rebuilt, but we still cling to our small corner of old Redmond and the esprit du corp of a local, community-centric yoga studio offering something for every body, every day. It’s so good to catch up weekly, to continue learning more about them and their lives, gradually meeting members of their family and seeing their children grow.
How blessed are we at Sattva? So blessed. Thank you to everyone who has been a part of this yoga journey.
by Ali Valdez
The timing of the new A Star is Born falls in line with Mental Health Awareness month. This Bradley Cooper remake is the fourth iteration of a timeless love story, mixed in a tragic cocktail of addiction, despair with a fading promise of hope. But what makes for good cinema does not a fairytale ending make.
Millions of us know all too well, oftentimes suffering in silence.
Who hasn’t been touched by depression, a childhood of neglect, addiction, or suicide? If it isn’t you, perhaps there’s someone you know. As an owner of a yoga studio and a lifelong teacher and mentor, I can say I know many. Too many. So many, a little piece of my heart breaking each time our paths cross, a prayer list that feels like playing favorites because it’s so long.
How people show up in life is not always a reflection of how they feel deep inside. Shame is an insidious demon, stealing from us the very connection that puts meaning into our humanity. Jackson Maine showed us a man tormented by a broken childhood, a disenfranchised journey into manhood with only his music barely keeping him alive.
That was until Ally came into his life. She had an alcoholic father, effortlessly falling into the role of well-intended codependent desperate for validation. When she gets it, she goes off the deep-end drunk on a fame of flippant pop tracks far beyond the soulful music she and Jackson made together in their combined misery and yearning for deeper meaning. She thought loving him would be the antidote to his pain, because that’s how codependents think. As her star ascended, his further spiraled.
Heaven was fleeting for both of them, but they shared glimmers of galaxies together, immortalized and told in their songs.
Whatever side of the equation you or someone you know may be on, chances are the hurt will come like a burgeoning, unforgiving tidal wave. The movie dignifies the many facets of mental illness for what they are: part of a disease endured by man, distorted by the brain, taxed heavily on the heart.
And it’s fucking unfair.
When I went to see it, I intentionally pre-purchased my ticket away from the people joining me. I wasn’t sure what kind of emotional reaction I would have, and I didn’t want to startle anyone, or take away from their experience (namely the music of Lady Gaga). The tone, pace, music matched strong acting and performances from the leads and bolstered by a surprisingly restrained supportive cast. It hit all the right notes, I cried but was held together by the earnestness of the story.
After I posted seeing it, there was commentary from people who experienced the movie as more of an event, a reckoning of a sort of suffering we all know exists, but doesn’t really live out loud like we see the characters so vulnerably do on the big screen. Without spoiling the ending, there is a quadruple hit that leaves most of the viewers’ emotional resilience a bloodied pulp by the very end. Typically, Hollywood doesn’t tell stories that way with such naturalism. Endings can be sad, of course, but this one didn’t play fair.
Rightfully so, because addiction doesn’t play by the rules. The punch to the stomach when you lose someone you love to mental illness, death or even relapse cannot be articulated in words- it’s hard to move past the stunned stillness of time. The movie does a worthy job of portraying it in frames, songs, blinking lights fading to blackness- the sense of devastation in Ally’s eyes.
Good movies tell stories that attempt to unravel aspects of the human condition, going into those unsettled niches that keep dwelling in the shadows. This isn’t about being entertained, it’s about engagement. It’s about feeling queasy and unsatisfied with the horrors of life, the danger and fragility of loving, yet choosing to rise up and resuscitate the heart that although shattered, still continues beating.
by Ali Valdez
When I made the decision to finally finish my Masters, I had also planned for one of my two high-tech client projects to end. It was okay to have a few months of 80 hour weeks leading up to this because graduate school is expensive AF.
It was a dovetail scenario, meticulously planned.
That is until my client extended, and my other client renewed. I had registered for more classes than I should. So now it was like having three jobs, all computer screen intensive, simultaneously. Maybe this wouldn’t be too difficult to manage, only I am also a single mother with multiple businesses as well as a yoga teacher passionate about her practice.
Within six weeks of graduate school starting, I jacked my low back, strained my eyes, compromised my posture and expanded my thighs; and yet, this journey into an overworking darkness proved to be the biggest (short-term, not to be relived ever again) blessing in disguise.
It forced me into a desperate corner. Not only did my ridiculous time management skills have to get even better, but it began to chisel away at one of my worst inner demons—the unrelenting disease of perfectionism. There simply wasn’t time to be perfect at all three tasks, PLUS yoga teaching and the quality of my practice. Something, many things, simply had to give without inner negotiation. My desire to overachieve was the first thing drop-kicked out the window of my consciousness.
Quickly I realized that I cannot do everything to my usual level with so much on my plate. Graduate school my first semester, I applied for academic dispensation to take more classes than typically permitted.
Note to self: dumb.
I also thought to better motivate myself, I would take the hardest classes first. You know, get them out of the way.
Note to self, part deux: super dumb.
Client extending again, and the other entrusting me with more strategic workloads, I was headlong into a death spiral one might assign to anxiety. It manifested particularly in one course which paralyzed me. I know in quantitative methods and statistics I just couldn’t do my best work, so I just quit functioning. Weekly quizzes, I barely passed; one I even flunked.
As the weeks went by, the reading, the research, the APA references, and the homework just kept piling up. One project impacted strategy planning for an almost $1B business; the other project interfaced globally with over 70k Enterprise customers. There were no shortcuts. Everything was demanding world-class results. For the first time, I felt sciatic nerve pain.
To make matters worse, for f*** sake, I took all of this on DURING THE SUMMER, when my child is out of school, provoking and demanding constant entertainment and stimulation, and the only season where the sun is amply shining and I long to be outside. For the love of God, I wanted a nap! But, alas, no dice!
Then it hit me; my own lil epiphany. My inner angel spoke to me:
“Better to just turn something in than fall behind and waste energy worrying about it.” I’ll be, I clicked send. I got 22/25. Ok, not perfect, but also not the end of the world. Then I did it again. Just clicked send. I got 98/100. Sigh. Then I kept doing it. I did the best I could with the time that I had and become unattached to the outcome, clicking send to my little heart’s content. Ironically, writing the research papers got easier. My final project for a marketing course I completed three weeks early, much to the bewilderment of the professor.
The semester eventually wound down to a close- two A’s, one B, plus a whole lot of contentment and a full set of hair.
This is not to say that I don’t give a shit about the work I do. I just came to realize that part of honoring and respecting myself is not constantly crushing my morale and metabolism under the ruthless lens of self-criticism and a perfectionism I managed almost obsessively, but which remained a hungry ghost that could never be satisfied.
So I let go. I gave myself permission to just be okay. This semester, there is only one client, and all the same parental and yoga responsibilities. What’s missing is the attitude, the despair, the constant nagging that I could be better than I am. In reality, that’s just not the case, but a silly and outdated ideal that stuck to me unawares.
Today, I am just me. I am enjoying life and my graduate studies are low-stress. Your attitude can be your greatest ally, or your worst enemy. It’s your choice today, as it was mine, which way you choose to honor or tear yourself apart.
It has been almost forty years since I last saw the world without prescriptive care. At age nine, I remember one of a handful of times when I was taken proactively to see a doctor. On some level, it felt more like I was in trouble, but the only trouble was I didn’t do very well on my most recent elementary eye exam and the school nurse was worried. Soon I was fitted with cheap pink glasses and off to experience the world for my remaining days one lens parted in a new ocular reality.
Over the years, through excessive reading and computer work at the burgeoning of the high tech movement, with each worsening eye exam, my glasses got thicker, my contacts higher in their numbers. I was approaching legal blindness in my left, while oddly, remaining at near perfect vision in my right.
I made due with high fashion frames, colored contacts, a variety of brands, and a regular annual exam. Then something happened. When I first began a serious asana practice, each eye exam, my eyes improved. For several years, I reverted from 3.75 to 2.75 in one eye and kept the other eye to 1.00. To this day I thank three things about the yoga practice for restoring some part of my eyesight:
- Inversions, hanging upside down to flush more blood to my head
- Hormonal rebalancing resetting the eyesight
- Drishti, maneuvering a controlled gaze in many directions aided in strengthening my eye muscles
In spite of all the yoga goodness, I still could never fathom operating in daily life without assistance from eyewear: the little contacts holder on the edge of my sink; my Tom Fords or Pradas left somewhere intermittent about the house.
In the last six months my eyesight has death -spiraled, and it was super scary. Deteriorating rapidly- double fulltime client loads working as a Strategist and Communication Director, as well as graduate school and research had completely fried my eyes. It was a complete eyeball rebellion and I had to spend a few days after my first semester, eyes shut and legs up the wall.
But the reality of returning to the job prevailed, so I just converted to working all day typing with my eyes closed. Fortunately, I make few mistakes, so this was as productive as working eye-wide open. Example, I just typed this paragraph with shut eyes and only made one typo without compromising my speed.
My first thought was to get special glasses with blue light preventative film- love me my mitochondria. Then came nausea, burning eyes and migraines. It was a losing game and I was growing a bit desperate. At the end of this summer, it was as if my eyes were rejecting eyewear, so I did the unthinkable.
I liberated my eyes of all prescriptive care.
Guess what happened?
- Every misery went away
- No migraines
- My eyes are a bit dry, but they are happier and not tired
- My eyes are feeling air reach them
- The heavy bags under my eyes are soften (slightly)
- Driving and reading from a distance, has become manageable
- My eyes adjusted and feel stronger than ever
- I have scared the shit out of my eye doctor
- I pay attention more, and keep focused; yogi ninja tricks, so all good.
Two months have gone by and I always have glasses by my side, but seldom reach for them. Last weekend, I did a big test, and went to see a movie unaided. Yes, things were not crystal clear, but not nearly as blurry as I imagined either.
For the majority of your life I always did something one way, and one day decided to no longer do that. It’s small, but a bit of a personal revolution. It took me losing my sight to actually begin to see.
Is it the yoga? Or is it the free will, a determinant spirit, setting its own course? I wonder how much of anything we do is actually truly necessary, or just merely a resignation to the authority and advice of another?
How much of our own personal power and individual choice do we forfeit at any given point in our lives without much soulful consideration? In hindsight, now I feel like I did myself a disservice allowing my eyes to grow weak aided by optics and never focused on just caring for them. Diet, relationships, overworking, not sleeping, lack of exercise discipline, all the same sides of the coin; resignation, not resistance.
It’s not to say that I will never again wear glasses, but for now, I am enjoying the freedom, and at times the momentary panic, when I am about to leave the house and wonder if I forgot to put on the glasses for the moment I no longer need.
by Ali Valdez
Everyone has something they do really well. Think of yours. Imagine being highly regarded for excellence at something, truly world class, standing far beyond your peers, cited as the example of mastery.
Now admit it: at times it isn’t hard to get a little complacent because no one is eclipsing the steadiness and quality of your work. You continue but without others to challenge you to evolve, you stay as you are, and maybe even slide a bit.
Then imagine one day coming in and there are handily a dozen people able to do what you do, only ten times better.
That’s sort of what happened to me this past month when Cirque du Soleil rolled into town.
Every year the circus comes to Marymoor park, setting up its tents across the freeway from one of my businesses, a brick and mortar yoga studio– if you’re here now, I think you know the one! This year many of the star performers and musicians began attending classes the weeks leading up to the opening of the show. Word of mouth spread, and even more of them began practicing. What makes this roaming band of contortionists, aerialists, dancers and skaters so unique is that they don’t have to come to yoga for physical conditioning or concentration. These are some of the most physically conditioned (with strength and flexibility) human beings in the world.
So I began to ask myself, what has happened as a result of having best of class in my class, and found three reasons this experience has upped my game and revitalized my focus. They are transferable to any business owner, too.
1) Can you Scale & Keep Quality? As a yoga teacher, and studio owner, when Cirque performers walk in, your class better be brilliant. Not only does the core product have to deliver (if you want them to come back), but you have to give something they cannot get elsewhere, e.g. with their own world-class training and conditioning team. Now is not the time to pretend to be something you’re not, but if you thought you could just keep dialing it in, this is a defining moment where everything must be at its best, because it’s a balancing act of stepping up to meet their needs, and not forgetting everyone else. The complexity and physicality, not the mention the ability to manage a class to five different skill levels concurrently, is not for the amateur. One person in the room is standing folding forward trying to bring his hands to his knees; the other one is grabbing his ankles bending backward and everyone else balancing between. Assessing how your services can directly serve each individual in a bespoke way brings people back- every single person. Every experience needs to meet them where they are at, even if their “at” is better than your own.
2). It’s a Family Affair. Getting to know them, the team has come to see how much like a family they are. They are relatively isolated, limited three month stints before caravanning off to another city. They rely on each other emotionally, and on stage, they rely on one another for survival. If you have experienced a show, you know there can be little room for error. The stunts are high risk, some of the acts are extremely dangerous, at times, sadly tragic.
Every year, we take the team as a group to see the show. It is a wonderful team bonding experience that everyone looks forward to. They remind us that it’s the team that makes it all work. When we work together like a family, our studio flows, and everyone in our community comes together to care and support one another. It’s pretty magical, just like it is when they are performing on stage.
Years back, I utilized Blue Ocean Strategy as part of my team-building events at Microsoft and Openwave Systems. So much to consider and appreciate about the fundamental disruptor this entertainment juggernaut has become and $300m outlet for the performing, musical and visual arts.
3). Keep Going; Never Stop Pushing your Edge. Last week, I led a class that was about half performers. I took the class through a progressively rigorous practice. It was pushing new limits for me in my teaching and my personal practice, as we did some pretty radical and mathematically complicated sequences. I truly felt like I grew from that class, and the buzz in the lobby afterward was electric. Everyone rose to new heights together. We all pushed, everyone gave that little something extra. If you’ve ever been in sales or built a product, you know how vital that incremental reach can be, for the company and for morale.
They have since inspired me to return back to a more rigorous practice and reminded me of why I keep the studio open and continue doing what I do there even though my professional trajectory has shifted. When I teach, I grow. When I practice, I change. It benefits my students, my employees, my clients and my companies. It also benefits me.
There is a expanded definition of what my A-game means to me; I am feel stronger, smarter and better for it.
If you haven’t yet experienced a Cirque du Soleil show, treat yourself to a sensory feast suitable for your family, friends, and teams. Volta is currently playing in Seattle and the show is amazing!
by Ali Valdez
Seldom does one boast of their failures. We focus on exciting, new ‘beginnings’ instead. Our egos are rebellious beasts, always trying to turn the tables on our shortcomings, dare I say at times, our very incompetence. At the end of the day, it is all about us.
Except for when it’s not.
Perhaps some our greatest failures in life have nothing to do with us. Let’s assume uncomfortably for a moment, we cannot control anything, and our failures come in our delusion in thinking that we do.
How did that feel inside your body conceptualizing your world that way?
Perhaps your greatest failures are indeed all about you: your selfishness, pig-headedness, ignorance, your desires. What if it’s all in your control, and you still continue to f** everything up?
Now, how did that feel?
Neither feel great to me. There are times where I know the universe orchestrates a bigger plan, one which I lack the skills to fully comprehend, so I need to participate in life with an eagerness to see it through. I would call this the part of my brain more receptive to creativity, working in ambiguity, being able to see a bigger picture and my place somewhere in it.
At other times, and maybe a bit kicking and screaming, I am hit in the face with my missteps. I would love to say I don’t have any, but inevitably situations present themselves reminding me that that simply isn’t the case. This is the part of my brain that self-protects, wants to be iron-fisted with balancing my subjective definitions of how things should be for my personal advantage and survival.
It’s rather personal; it has to do with my shortcomings as a parent. Frankly, I’m terrible at it. At least I tell myself that I am. Nothing reminds me more of my utter selfishness and childlike tendencies than managing my household.
Anyone else ever feel that way?
There is a nagging feeling about always having to chose between working and child-rearing. As a single working parent, and serious yoga practitioner, I am not clear why I hadn’t seen this coming. Blame it on the hormone injections perhaps to cloud my common sense. Every cry for attention is in competition with a need to work, execute and deliver. About eighteen months into the parenting “gig”, I broke down. I couldn’t do it all, and I chose to quit my career and focus on being a Mom.
We traveled through Europe and Asia. We ran (she rode via baby jogger) in half marathons around the country. We toured the deep south and spent July 4th on a rented boat in the Hudson to watch fireworks. I become the quintessential Kindergarten mom. You know the one that does everything AND volunteers kids’ yoga on Tuesday mornings? Yeah! That gal! It was a good run; I am thankful for the time.
Then I went stupid. I didn’t change anything during these years off. My failure was in the assumption that I would simply pick up where I left off…financially, professionally and otherwise.
But anyone who has a child knows, these changes are permanent. With time, my desire to be at home with my daughter directly competed with my lust to get back into the hunt with one fueling and the other losing to the growing need to start making money again. More importantly, a sense of loss was also looming: lost years of potential earnings, stocks, and titles. Admittedly, my emotions about this remain mixed.
If you care about the quality of your motherhood, not to mention the merits of career, these can also be terrifying times because you just can’t know how much EVERYTHING is going to change. Somehow this isn’t adequately covered in What to Expect When You’re Expecting.
A recent New York Times article came out, discussing the almost lose-lose balancing act between the hard realities of being a mother and managing a career against the torrents of escalating childcare costs and parental expectations of overachieving climbing the after-school ladder.
College-educated women assume a certain trajectory, that is why they assume debt of school, striving to crawl their way up a corporate ladder.
It hit me: my greatest failure was trying to be great at everything, instead of simply being happy with what was in front of me. Could I ever truly have both? I had lingering expectations, remained attached to something no longer plausible, but was too stubborn (or blind) to let go. This article scared the s*** out of me, plaguing me with newfound doubts about the direction I had taken.
As mothers, I agree, we are marketed an ideal that plays out in many ways from the agency to the buyer to print media- only later to be slapped with a cruel tug of the rug and vexing memento mori that no one can really “have it all.” The mom that does? Well, that’s apparently the stuff of urban legends.
Looking into the mirror, was I just the stuff of myth? Was I kidding myself? I had to wonder.
My failure lie in a lack of understanding that one can indeed have it all, just not the all it used to be. There is still ample room for expanding, growing and developing if one has a kid. The article’s comments seemed to state the contrary.
All of this concern ended up, subconsciously, becoming a distraction. It was more emotionally exhausting the last six months of my stay-home motherhood than just heading back into the office. This didn’t help my daughter and it certainly didn’t serve me. Furthermore, it didn’t help our future.
The yogi knows that always being present in the moment and practicing mindfulness clears away any doubts or misgivings.
The outcome was in order to make things works, I had to be innovative and create something that worked for both of us. Thus, I started my own business. We did great! Then I went stupid again and started more and more of them. Too many of them to be useful at the house- the sole intention for heading down this path in the first place. My ambitions, or desire to go back to the level I was at in some tangible way still piloted my life like an involuntary compass ten degrees of center.
My failure was a lack of self-control. I was a big middle-aged baby who hasn’t yet learned to self-regulate.
I cannot blame motherhood for that; however, I can thank motherhood for revealing this to me. I cannot blame walking away from a career for that; but I can thank motherhood for teaching me what’s important about career for me.
Either way, it’s all on me.
Here’s my dirty confession: more times than not, I will choose the work over the relationship. Work’s the easy part; my drive is unnaturally high and I tend to succeed. The human part is uncomfortable and messy, forcing me to be broken open and rebuilt again. It reveals in my interactions where my own bias surfaces, where my emotional self is screaming for attention. I just assume pile on more work, take on more responsibility, meditate longer, land another degree, than tread the path of humanity. As you can observe, my list, by design, remains endless. How sad for me, but I am not the only one suffering in this equation and limited mindset.
The most unstupid thing I have done of late is allowed myself to cross a few things off the list and halted adding more. This means no to the second studio lease I was about to ink, no to concurrent graduate school programs, and it means owning two businesses and managing one (ok, maybe two) client(s).
With some breathing room, I see where my daughter creates moments of discovery and pockets of playfulness. My success from my shortcomings is being committed to seeing a fuck up for what it is, trying again and doing things a little bit different. Learning as I go as a parent AND a professional doesn’t make me beholden to anyone’s point of view, as I clearly possess my own.
Thank you, New York Times, but I’m going to take a pass.
Part of acknowledging failure is being okay with picking yourself up, dusting off and starting over. This manifests in many ways, one not more important or meaningful than another.
There is no happy ending to this story. I am still writing it and have yet to figure out the ending—part of the anti-failure movement is, again, that whole mindfulness “thing”.
Each day I fail in some small way, but I learn stuff too and am having some fun with being wrong on occasion. Maybe things don’t always go as hoped, but if I can learn to be okay with that, it is my hope that you can, too.
If the universe is truly conspiring in our favor, then perhaps my life exists already authored somewhere in some ancient books as the rishis claims. So instead of worrying about making mistakes the inevitable mistakes of life, perhaps I will start focusing on simply living (and enjoying) it.
by Tatiana Linardopoulou
Last night, I got into a conversation about anger and resentments – I am not lacking in either. The other party stated that anger was a colossal waste of energy, that it served no purpose – so why hold on to it? Why hold a grudge when the recipient (in this case, a particularly distracted driver) wasn’t even aware of the offense and was, in actuality, totally unaffected by my outrage? I wouldn’t gain anything as a result of my anger, thus it was a waste of my own precious time.
I thought about this for a while – it was a logical argument, I agreed. There are certainly situations that warrant anger but most of the resentments I cling to do not fall under that category. It didn’t make sense, yet I continually chose to stew over minor offenses, allowing them (and me) to paint a larger picture of an unkind, unfair, and unloving world.
And then it dawned on me: my anger does serve a vital purpose, albeit a somewhat camouflaged one. Beneath the overt cause and effect, anger allows me to create a very specific internal story about myself.
What do I mean by that?
As humans, we are natural storytellers. We communicate all kinds of stories to others – verbally, through the written word, through art, etc. Internally, we create stories about ourselves and our life. Stories based on rather subjective interpretations of past events – memories. Obviously, we are all the protagonists of our own story. In my internal story, for example, I am the misunderstood but highly capable hero, struggling against an unjust world.
Our mind, or rather our ego, will interpret events to fit into this internal story – even if it requires skewing or altering some aspects of objective reality. Why? Because in my story I am the hero, and the hero is always just, fair, and righteous.
So my anger continues to fuel this story and, in turn, my ego. It tells me “I’m right and you’re wrong” or, taken further, “I’m better. You’re worse.” Above all else, it keeps me separate from you and from humanity as a whole. This separateness helps keeps the ego alive and thriving, after all. But it also leaves me alone with myself – and, for me, that’s a dangerous place to be. Most, if not all, of my worst decisions were made in this place of separation, of utter aloneness with a loud and unrelenting ego.
Yoga has provided me with a much-needed respite from this place. It seems that the opposite process occurs every time I am in class. I can go in stewing but, through the flow, the anger melts. Moving in the same breaths as my classmates, I feel connected to something larger – no longer ‘better’ or ‘worse’, but simply ‘being’. My ego quiets and in its place there is calm and focus. From our many stories one arises – a story of unity, flow, and compassion.
And in that place I realize that just as in my story, I am the hero and the offending party plays the role of the villain, in someone else’s story the opposite must be true. So we are all heroes in our own minds and villains in others’. Yet we are so much more than this two-dimensional description. We are both – hero and villain, and we are neither. We are the amalgamation of every aspect of ourselves, meaning we are all simply, yet complicatedly, human.
by Ali Valdez
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Recently, I was forced to revisit a rather difficult period in my academic life. Without belaboring a long-winded back story, I’ll just say he was heavily advised to, and promptly resigned. It was a #metoo moment that I tried to brush aside with fortitude and resilience.
Although there a sort of vindication in going through an exhaustive process that leaves many young ladies hung out to dry or ostracized, it doesn’t mean that years later something won’t trigger you, bringing back aspects of the situation left incomplete or not fully healed.
We are all products of our society. Inevitably, something will come along, bursting the seam of the collective subconscious and ignite a fire nestled deep within. It seems even for me, the woman chiseled from the side of a mountain, that time had come.
Why now? The solidarity of the female power brokers in Hollywood for starters. Seeing women begin to come forward, unapologetically sharing their stories, using their platform in a bold way. Then, the news broke about the girls’ Olympic gymnastics team. Personally, this shattered me. I was a young girl separated from my parents, too, entrusted to the care of another, an authority who knew best, even in spite of my own discernment that something was not right. Girls had complained before me, but no action was taken on their behalf.
Today I mentor a young competitive gymnast in yoga, and I am the mother of an eleven-year- old girl. May this never be their story. At some point, it becomes a responsibility to create breathing room for young women to know their voice matters and to speak up, always trusting their intuition. All I needed was one well-intended compliment that brought up those once buried, bad memories. There was now nowhere to run; I had to face the pain one more time, as if reliving it all over again.
Now, without having to focus just to get through it, I gave myself the space I never had before. I wanted to simply feel, to address its impact on an emotional level; something that is seldom, if ever, encouraged in one’s professional life. I lead a team of young professional women that report to me. I shared my story with complete vulnerability and candor. It was important for
them to know why maybe I was a bit more tender at times, most bristling at others. Moreover, I wanted them to know that situations like this can happen to anyone, and that no one needs to remain silent anymore.
In a recent leadership training, the facilitator was talking about keeping a logbook about synchronicity that may transpire through the course of the training. At one point, someone was sharing, and he said, “Maybe that’s something for your log book.” It reminded me that I had been a copious log-keeper during that time. I was dealing with someone trying to use control and coercion to threaten my longer-term academic career and diminish my prospects as an aspiring writer. Maybe the salve that I needed was to go back and dig up thirty year old journals to see what I might find.
Luckily my assistant just sent a text saying she found a box of old journals that she had no idea where to place. A true kismet moment, I went home and there they were, as if waiting for the synchronicity of me finding my place in that moment. Seven years of daily writing. I combed through a few, full of photos, hand written letters on beautiful stationary (people did stuff like that thirty years ago) and a record of every thought, feeling and aspiration I once had. What there wasn’t, at first, was any record of him, and the dirty little imprint he put on my life.
I contemplated calling it a night. Then I saw a little red journal smaller than the others. It had a cover with a golden backdrop and a red angel. I reached for it; the title read:
The Dr. (Name Omitted) Factor.
I read in painstakingly crafted detail of over 63 offenses against me. It was laid out objectively and concise, as if I were writing an article for the newspaper I ran. The facts read:
This was man fantasizing and objectifying one of his students, constantly questioning her mores, baiting and challenging her “innocence and purity” at the bible college she attended.
This was a man who wouldn’t let his student select any other professors, drop out of his classes, and wanted complete visibility into her personal finances as well as badgering her for every detail of her dating life, contriving and verbalizing his lurid and overlaid projections onto them.
This was the man who would insist on closing his office door, saying the most repulsive and vulgar comments about her body and her looks, and then threatening to make any chance of going to graduate school an impossibility without complete cooperation.
Almost thirty years later, the facts still felt crushing. At nineteen, you feel so helpless and vulnerable. You study and prepare for years to reach your goals and right before the finish line, someone who seems so supportive and trustworthy begins to reveal their true colors.
It wasn’t until I refused to stay in his office one afternoon that he lurched from his chair and grabbed me forcefully by the arm. It was the only time, and the last time, he ever touched me. I had had enough. Time was up. Three other women had similar concerns about him. Together, we not only reported him, but threatened together as a unified front to take legal action when the school offered no recourse, only a verbal warning that would not even be placed on his record.
There were a few things I learned about myself by combing back through my journals and navigating this situation in lieu of the larger outcry from other women across the country put in situations such as this or worse. It is my hope that these lessons may serve as inspiration to you as well.
- RECLAMATION: Pasted into one of my journals was a photograph of me during Christmas break when I was 19 years old. This was just before this man was assigned my Academic and Graduate advisor. Bright-eyed and full of life, I cannot recall a single photograph since where I looked so joyful. I decided it was time to reclaim that lost part of myself. At any time, we can find our true North and make our way back to center.
- ADVOCACY: I wanted to make sure no other student should have to deal with something like this. I wanted to protect other girls. Naively though I was asked to sign a non-disclosure; he went off and was gainfully employed by another small college. This still grips me with immense remorse. I was short-sighted, wanting it all to end. Helping my fellow classmates was small restitution in lieu of what might have been a much larger problem elsewhere. I have an opportunity to make this right now by being a candid advisor to my team, the women I mentor, and the young women in my life. Just because I had been given a chance to speak my voice once, didn’t mean I was then obligated to silence it.
- LETTING GO: When it came time for me to testify, I was the last of the four women, taking my seat at the end of an emotionally exhausting day. After I went through my grievances, in a first, he broke down weeping and apologized to me. It isn’t worth holding onto something that shaped a single season at the expense of possibly distorting an entire life. I was able to get some closure for my personal benefit and for the advocacy of others. The lesson here was remembering honestly, completely, and creating space for both sides to grow from the process.
- SIMPLE GRATITUDE: Lastly, whilst culling the gory details of my last semester of college (the threats, the gross comments, the exerted control, and the outright obsession) I noticed an equal outpouring of gratitude. Not gratitude towards him, mind you, but gratitude for my friends, my supporters, those who stood by my side, held my hand when I cried. I was grateful that my school, once trying to avoid overthrowing a wildly influential tenured professor, in the end did the right thing and took care of its girls. This was the early nineties, and an evangelical Christian liberal arts bible college at that. I was grateful for my own resolve, resilience, my unquenchable thirst for justice.
I didn’t lose what I loved most. I was grateful I didn’t lose my love of writing, my hope and belief in the goodness of men, nor my nerdom for just wanting to spend every waking minute reading books and studying language. I still became a teacher. I am writing and publishing.
Thirty years later and the women who shared this journey with me still remain my friends. I see that the biggest blessing of all, reliving this event and in spite of its painful memories, has shown me that I am a woman instinctually recognizing the good, even in circumstances that ripped my heart asunder. I have found that gratitude is an extraordinary asset, a critical tool in the game of life, and something that I have carried with me all along.
In the wake of a succession of passing luminaries in the yoga world, there is a void that remains unfilled. Recently in a training course, I was asked who the next generation leaders in yoga are. This is a question since the passing of Jois, Iyengar and most recently Desikachar, that is flummoxing to ponder. There really are no substantial yoga leaders outside of the realm of asana prowess that come to mind. Chances are the true greats are probably the ones you’ll never hear about and most likely will never know.
This feeling consumes me on many levels. Primarily, I just do not see contemporary teachers who are particularly inspiring or walking the talk in a way that engenders much confidence in their ability to effectively lead or shape the trajectory of future yoga minds or envision a more adaptive form of the practice. We see this in the business world every so often and no one bats an eyelid. It’s a leadership vacuum. As long as the masters of old were still kicking it and coarsely correcting budding Westerners, our bases were covered, maybe. But now they are all gone and the tunnel is long, dark and the dawn of its endgame unclear. We see it with startling alacrity but no one seems to care betwixt the beers, buds and goats. Yoga has segued some places from an enriching contemplative exploration of self to a three-ring circus. Most teachers are training in mimicry, not imagination or innovation.
There are pockets of sincerity and mature guidance. But the voices in our world grow steadily quiet as the yoga goes faddist and run the risk of fading away. A sweet Natarajasana doesn’t make the sting less painful; no amount of Paschimottanasana can cure yoga’s woes. We’re at the point where we can almost hear the pin drop. Now more than ever, society needs a strong yoga voice; ideally one that doesn’t also proclaim his/herself as God and does not exploit or sleep with their students.
From afar, I admire many strong teachers, committed to staying grounded, not getting full or ahead of themselves in the rat race of this billion dollar business. What I do respect are the gently spoken women of quiet power that are influencing the yoga world, namely through Seva-based initiatives and summoning sacred feminine ways of addressing societal and existential concerns. There is tremendous gravitas towards many of my teachers and an appreciation for others under which I have never studied. But the majority pretty much, well…
The power and promise of yoga evolution is not lost. Yoga can contribute pieces to the puzzles of chronic pain, resilience, emotional health, rehabilitation, addiction and influence overall vitality and well-being through all stages of life. It is thrilling to see momentum in these fields and it’s exactly here that I want to channel my intentions and efforts. Substantive practice is hard to come by, but where there are pockets, there is also recognition of its distinction. It isn’t about placing blame, or bashing people or the industry. The critique lies solely on the last generation of teachers failing its students with watered-down teachings, little to no practical or academic cache and less than exceptional standards.
There is a leadership crisis in the yoga world. The hyper-commercialization, the tepid at best proliferation of yoga alliance certification programs, and the self-aggrandizing platform known as social media has spun our Manduka mat world off kilter. There just has not been the raising up of excellent, emotionally-mature, non-egoistic critical thinkers coming into the yoga world these days. This is not to say the old-timers were perfect or enlightened, but they had substance. What? Namely staying power and relevance. The revolving door of relevant yogis reads like last year’s Vogue. As with any trend, things come and go. What is old is new again (ala the “new trend” of Nauli and Agni Sari making its way around Facebook), what was once new, is now getting progressively edgier: Brew to Vino to Whisky to Gin but not evolving any faster.
I have always considered yoga both an evolving science and a sacred art. These values are still held dear to me. I think what has changed is my assumption that Western yoga would pattern itself lock-step with my ideals. This is where my own ego teaches me blind spots and delusions. Today I remain grateful that yoga took me around the world to experience its various manifestations. Gaining appreciation both for what’s out there and what I have gained from the teachers I have met along the way.
Leadership is more than just a certification, a title or an assignment. Leadership is in demand anytime a few people meet, eager to be inspired, taught and guided. We need leaders to take us into the tunnel and get us to see the light within each of us. This should start with the economically impractical burning of the paschal lamb of studio income: 200 hour teacher trainings. Can we agree to call them, if not make them, something else that doesn’t engender another generation of the ill-equipped?
Recently, my personal choice has been smaller segment blocks, big on reading, essay writing and robust discussions. My students around the world join me on Skype building a cadre of highly-diversified people for many cultures discussing yoga and the world we live in. At any time, a dozen languages are spoken among us and many more countries lived in or traveled. No one looks, dresses or talks the same. You can imagine what gets birthed out of that hardly is the same cookie cutter stamp carbon copy. Whether they go on to teach public asana classes is not the point. They are being developed as leaders curating solutions to evolve individually, serve generously and expand their world view broadly.
When teaching a class, contemplate what principles of leadership you are exhibiting, model what you loved best in the example of leadership from your teacher or life mentors. Each day commit yourself to deep studies and meaningful actions. The promise can be kept alive; but we need to be the leaders to step up and do it.