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Should yoga be “comfortable”?

“Comfort” is getting an increasingly bad reputation these days, and yet is is an essential human need. So what is the deal with the “comfort zone” and yoga? 

Should yoga be “comfortable”?

The word “comfort” is a loaded one. We all need and deeply crave comfort from the moment we are born. We may associate comfort with the nurturance of a parent, the supportive words of a friend, or the relaxing sensation of sinking into a warm bath to soothe our aching muscles. We may also associate the word “comfort” with indulging in an excess of cookies, binge watching Netflix when we have a pressing deadline, or avoiding looking for a new job because we fear rejection. So, is the “comfort zone” really what holds us back from love, money, success, self-actualization and creative accomplishments? Or is it just the ideal setting on a thermostat?

The other day I saw a comment thread on a yoga studio owners group in which one person said that they wanted their students to feel comfortable in their yoga studio, and another person said that “yoga can never be completely comfortable”. Images like the one above (depicting “The Comfort Zone” as a place where no magic can happen”) seem to be popping up more and more on social media, indicating that comfort has a complicated reputation, at best. I find this debate worth unpacking.

When I first started studying yoga, it was definitely not what I would describe as “comfortable”. Physically, it was one of the more awkward and often downright uncomfortable experiences I had ever had, though at the end of the practice while lying in savasana (the final rest pose  in all yoga classes, or “yoga nap time” for those of you who are new to yoga) I did feel more comfortable in my body than ever before. Mentally and emotionally it was not comfortable to walk into a strange new room with people I didn’t know and try to follow along with a practice that was outside of my range of cultural experiences, but after the practice none of that seemed to matter at all, and my comfort with the studio quickly solidified after the initial discomfort. This is a classic example of the journey of comfort. It is both the initial obstacle and the end goal. We do need to challenge and overcome our need for comfort at times, but ultimately we need to return to comfort. We are not necessarily trying to reject our “comfort zone” with this process, but rather expand it.

So, should yoga be “comfortable”? Here is what I believe: The yoga studio should be a safe space for as many people as possible, and it should be as comfortable as possible, and at the same time, just entering the yoga studio will be uncomfortable for many people until they become more familiar with it. Yoga will always involve deep inquiry, which is an investigation into the unknown spaces within, and unknown spaces are often outside of the comfort zone. However, if we take a line from the great Pema Chodron and practice being “comfortable with uncertainty”, we can greatly expand our comfort zone, even to include the unknown spaces.

What is your relationship to comfort? Is it compulsive and self-admonishing? Do you treat yourself to comfort in a self-nurturing way? How do you know when you need to rest in easy comforts, and how do you know when you need to grow beyond your comfort zone?

Journal prompt for examining your comfort zone:

What do I know I’ve always wanted to do or try that I have held back on because of my discomfort? What am I afraid of? What is one small step I could take outside my comfort zone today that would prepare me for expanding into the life experiences I truly long for? 

Action Step (and shameless plug for my upcoming series):

One of my superpowers as a yoga teacher is bridging the gap between the comfort zone and the journey into a yoga practice, which is why, even after I took a hiatus from teaching group yoga classes last year, I still offer a seasonal “Yoga 101 for Absolute Beginners” Series. I have met too many people who had an initial encounter with yoga that left them feeling embarrassed, out of the know, ashamed or incapable, which is never how a yoga practice should leave you feeling. If you or somebody you know is thinking about trying yoga but is holding back for comfort zone reasons, please come to my spring series! I promise it will be welcoming, accessible, and we will move back into comfort quickly.

Kate Holly is a yoga therapist, life coach, theater artist and the founder of Yoga Refuge.

Everyone carries a shadow.

Last night I bolted upright in my bed at 4am, after having one of the worst dreams of my life. In it, I received news that my 4-year-old son was dying, and within moments he was gone. I experienced a heart-wrenching grief that felt as real as any in waking life. I clung to his favorite stuffed animal, wailing, and I begged to understand why this had happened. There came a moment when I suddenly realized I was dreaming, and I tore myself from sleep with immense relief. I laid in bed awake for some time, ruminating on my dream and the very real emotions it had elicited in me. I was reminded of the workshop I had taught a few days earlier in our yoga teacher training, on the subject of Yin Yoga.
Yin (in yoga and in life) is the shadow side of our striving world. Yin is associated with darkness, depth, passivity, mystery and nighttime, whereas Yang is associated with light, heat, activity, daytime, and what is outwardly seen and obvious. Much like the image of the Yin/Yang symbol, Yin contains Yang (and vice versa) and exists in relationship to it. For example, a cup of warm tea is yin compared to a pot of boiling water. A Hatha Flow practice is Yin compared to a Crossfit workout, but Yang compared to a Restorative Yoga practice.
Yin becomes Yang, and vice versa, and these transformations can occur slowly over time, or quite suddenly. We see this in the rapidly changing weather patterns this week, as the weather zigzags from cool rain to extreme heat overnight, and then back again.
So what does all of this have to do with my dream? The final factor in talking about Yin Yoga that has been sticking with me all week: Yin controls Yang. Balance between the two will occur, whether we invite it or not. With our Yang-dominant culture, we reward those who overcome obstacles and exhibit strength, but we undervalue the need to rest, restore, be still and experience silence. We push ourselves to do more, get more, be more, while putting off our innate need for mystery, passivity, slow processing and inner quiet. I hear story after story of people pushing themselves to the point of injury or illness–that breaking point is yin controlling yang. The need for rest was there all along, and by ignoring it we force it to take us over. Carl Jung wrote, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”
For me, becoming a parent brought an onslaught of Yang energy into my life: high levels of activity, the warmth of small children who give and receive love so easily, the noise, hustle and bustle. I spend most of my day on the bright surface of life with my children, reflecting to them the safety and abundance of the world so that they might develop resilience and an inherent trust in themselves and others. What is unseen and ever-present (the Yin side of raising young children) is the constant vulnerability. The more we love, the more we fear losing what we love. My husband took my 4-year-old to school on our big cargo bike yesterday and, sensing my nervousness, sent me a photo after he had safely arrived. We did not speak of my fear, but he intuited it, because he feels it too.
My dream last night was the shadow of my experience as a parent needing to be seen and felt. It was Yin controlling Yang.
Yoga practice for your shadow:
Whether you practice Yin Yoga or not, we can all benefit from welcoming our shadow side to the yoga mat. Who are you striving to become? In that striving, which parts of yourself have you ignored or banished? Can you invite your whole self to the yoga mat, warts and all? Can you let your lazy self have a yoga practice this week? What about your incompetent self? Can you be willing to explore the mystery of your yoga practice rather than go in with an expectation of what it is? What is happening on a deeper, slower and more subtle level in your practice?

If your practice includes journaling, try this prompt:
What is present in the shadow that I am carrying right now?

Try a Yin or Restorative yoga class:
We offer 2 weekly Yin classes: Tuesdays at 7:30pm and Wednesdays at 7:15pm. Restorative yoga has a different lineage than Yin, but is an excellent practice for increasing Yin energy in your life. We offer 2 weekly Restorative yoga classes: Thursdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 4pm.
Also, join me on Saturday, June 24th for a special Summer Solstice Yin practice in the evening! You can register here.

Why I love Yoga Conservatory.

There are a lot of Yoga Teacher Training programs out there, which is why I want to make sure that if you are looking for one, you find the RIGHT one out of all the noise. Here at Yoga Refuge, our teacher training program is unlike any other, and its also important to us that we find the right candidates who are a perfect fit for what we are doing. I wrote a little ode to the things about Yoga Conservatory that make me swoon, which I hope will help you prospective trainees make an informed decision.

World Class Anatomy Training.
Yoga Alliance requires teacher training programs to spend 10 contact hours on anatomy. Our program provides 20 contact hours, in addition to extremely thorough homework assignments. Our anatomy section is led by Todd Jackson, who is a sought after master teacher of yoga, biodynamic massage and craniosacral therapy. Todd assembles a knowledgeable team of yoga teachers, massage therapists, acupuncturists, and bodyworkers to assist in this training, and his approach integrates hands on palpation, experiential anatomy inside of asana practice, and detailed lecture and demonstration.

Emphasis on creative process and skillful inquiry over dogma and methodology.
Like life, teaching yoga is complex and nuanced, and most of the real work happens in the moment of doing, rather than in the theories around doing. A skillful yoga practice is not about learning “right” from “wrong”, so much as it is about learning which inquiries are meaningful and useful, and how to listen for the answers. A skillful yoga practice (and therefore a skillful yoga teacher) will integrate the wisdom of the body, the understanding that the body and all things are constantly changing and therefore the answers will change over time, and the ability to stay present with what is.
There are some programs which try to make the process of training teachers more efficient by creating simplified methodologies. At Yoga Conservatory, we examine issues from a variety of perspectives, we teach tools for self-inquiry and personal practice as a primary reference point for trainees, and we work to help students develop their own voice and have the willingness to share it. We empower new yoga teachers to hone their own unique skills and interests, and to participate in creative process in order to craft an authentic teaching practice.

Performative Presence.
Performer training techniques are integrated throughout the Yoga Conservatory curriculum, and bring a unique perspective on the relationship between performance and facilitating yoga. Some components include:
-Improvised Movement, drawing from Body-Mind Centering, Viewpoints and other contemporary movement techniques. This content is helpful in discovering new ways of embodiment, sequencing a class and creating inventive transitions.
-Embodied Voice Practice, drawing from the work of Roy Hart. Teachers use their voice as one of their primary tools, and rarely get the training to understand the power of their voice. This work helps students to explore the relationship between their body, voice and spirit, and can lead to a new understanding of how the body speaks to us, and how the voice can shift self-limiting beliefs.
-Contemplative Arts Practice, drawing from the work of Barbara Dilley and Chogyum Trungpa Rinpoche. By cultivating curiosity and awareness about space, architecture and objects, we can better understand how to craft meaningful ritual and intentional use of design elements in yoga classes.

Yoga as a healing art.
There are many approaches to yoga practice and teaching, and it is helpful to define your intention when pursuing a Yoga Teacher Training certification. Some schools are more focused on yoga as exercise, others on spiritual or religious pursuits. At Yoga Conservatory, we are practicing and teaching yoga primarily as a healing art. Some subjects include:
-An introduction to Ayurveda
-Mindfulness and Meditation
-Yoga for the Right Brain
-Introduction to the Nervous System
-Skillful use of language in teaching yoga
-Techniques for safe, sustainable asana practice

Yoga as way of building community and activating social change.
Yoga is increasingly becoming a popular way to connect communities, heal trauma and introduce tools for personal resilience where they are needed most. Whether you aspire to teach yoga in unconventional settings (such as prisons, addiction treatment centers and the like) or you simply want to know how to teach to the general population in a way that is inclusive and accessible, Yoga Conservatory covers the most vital subjects for using yoga as a tool for community and social justice, including:
-Trauma-informed teaching
-Examination of diversity and cultural barriers to yoga
-Body-positivity in yoga
-Resources for learning to work with special populations

Apprenticeship Opportunities after graduating.
A 200-hr program is just the beginning of the journey to becoming a skillful yoga teacher. Many students feel satisfied with a 200-hr program for the personal growth they experience and the basic tools for bringing yoga into their work and communities. For those who aspire to teach yoga professionally, or who want to continue to refine their teaching skills, Yoga Conservatory offers apprenticeship opportunities for graduates who show passion and promise. Our apprenticeship program includes opportunities to:
-Teach to peers and receive regular feedback from a mentor teacher.
-Teach to the general public in a yoga studio setting at Yoga Refuge.
-Teach to underserved communities through our outreach program.
-Develop business and administrative skills relevant to yoga teachers, such as using Mindbody Online software.
-Learn the skills of entrepreneurship to grow your yoga business.

Yoga Conservatory is for you if:

-You want to integrate yoga as a tool for personal healing and empowerment.
-You want to use yoga as a way of helping other people to heal and become empowered.
-You are willing to keep asking questions even when there are no easy answers.
-You are ready to “get in the arena” of being vulnerable.
-You are curious, creative and open to innovation in the field of yoga.
-You like to be challenged, to grow and to learn about yourself.
-You are motivated by the question “How can I be of service?”

Lauren LaBarre Photoraphy