Jay Fields is a veteran transformational educator and author of the books Teaching People, Not Poses and Home in Your Body. An expert on embodied integrity, her approach to helping people be their whole self is grounded, gritty, playful and intelligent. She maintains a somatic mentoring practice, facilitates workshops internationally and is on the faculty for the Awakened Heart Embodied Mind Training in Venice, California. Learn more at jay-fields.com.
1. Please describe, or tell a story, about your first yoga class or yoga experience.
My first yoga class was at the rec center of the College of William and Mary during my freshman year. There were maybe 35 people in the class, and in an attempt to be as inconspicuous as possible, I sat in the second to last row. I had wanted to be in the last row, but it was all filled up by the time I got to class. This is important only because my main memory from my first class was how much I looked around at what other people were doing. (I have so much compassion for the new students who do this in my classes because I was that person!)
I understand now that this looking around in part has to do with the natural tendency to simply orient oneself in an unfamiliar territory. But that day my curiosity about what other people were doing was really mostly about comparison. I watched the people around me to suss out who was a yoga rock star and who was worse than me at the poses even though it was my first time doing yoga. I distinctly remember in some poses wishing that I had been able to snag a spot in the back row so no one could see me flail, while in other poses I kind of wished I was closer to the front of the room so that everyone could see that the new girl knew what she was doing. You see, I had spent my childhood as an elite gymnast, so not only was I quite strong and flexible, but also all I knew about being in my body was that it was a competition with everyone around me.
So my inner experience nearly every moment of that first class was pumping myself up that I was so good at all of these poses or beating myself up that I should be better than the people around me ‒ that I needed to come back and keep practicing so I could get better than them. But then the teacher invited us to lay down in Savasana. She turned the lights off. She placed a blanket over me. I laid there at first totally disoriented. "What do you mean we're lying down?? How is this useful?" But within just a few minutes of being still on my back among a room full of people, all the chatter in my brain quieted. I felt euphoric, like I was given permission to be a little kid again and just take a nap. I felt everything that I had just done with my body sink in and integrate as a new type of intelligence.
When I sat up at the end of class it wasn't all the funky postures that stuck with me as new and exciting and challenging. It was Savasana. That pose shifted something in my mental and physical experience so profoundly. I recognized it as quite possibly one of the most kind and intelligent things I had ever done with my body. It was because of Savasana that I knew I'd be hooked on yoga for a very long time.
2. Describe or narrate your first time teaching yoga. What do you recall?
I have absolutely no recollection of the first time I taught yoga. Not what I wore, not how many people were there, not whether I thought it went well or not. Nothing. What this tells me is that I was not at all present in my body. Not one iota. I was only 18, shy in front of groups, perfectionistic and a pleaser. I was terrified that I would be awful and be laughed at. My way of managing that situation was to be totally in my head. Though I don't remember what I taught, I'm absolutely certain that I had notes. In fact, my few mental images from my early days of teaching include trying to slyly look at my notes while attempting to keep the class flowing. The only feeling I remember was one of panic in my chest when I would look at the clock. "Oh God, it's only been 15 minutes! What am I going to do for another hour?"
It's so curious to me now how I could have taught anything when I was so robotic. To be honest, I think it took years of building confidence in my practice of yoga and years of building confidence in myself as a person before I gained enough presence to really be in my teaching. That's why now as a teacher trainer I think one of the most important things that a person who wants to teach can learn is how to self-regulate when they are scared so that they can stay present in their body. Without presence there's no connection to one's inner resources and no connection to one's students. That doesn't make for memorable yoga for teacher or student!
3. Last time you took a yoga class or workshop, what were your impressions?
The last time I took a class was with Julian Walker, my colleague along with Hala Khouri in the Awakened Heart Embodied Mind Training in Venice, California. It had been a very long time since I had been to someone else's class. Other than training with master Iyengar teacher Julie Gudmestad, in the last five years I've not taken many traditional classes. In part because I prefer the way my own practice at home unfolds. In part because there isn't a teacher whose classes I really enjoy in my home town. In part because I'm a yoga snob and only like to go to classes that I know will be skillfully taught. So that day in Julian's class I got to experience how he is a master at weaving together anatomical instruction with poetry with tidbits from neuroscience with a kickass playlist. I noticed how solid his presence was, how lovely his tone was. How he would be challenging me one moment, soothing the next.
About three quarters of the way through the class we were in a seated posture and he invited us to move intuitively. I was so present in my body and so moved by the music and by my own movement that I just started crying. There was no story to it, simply a sweet release and a profound sense of love and connection to myself. It wasn't until right after class that I realized he had never said any words that were directly spiritual. He had simply and skillfully facilitated each one of us meeting our full self, which in turn created one of the most spiritual experiences I'd had in a yoga class. For me it had to do in large part to the music, which I found interesting. Though it's not uncommon for me to practice at home with music on, and though I have a ton of experience with guiding ecstatic dance and know the transformative effect of music on the body and psyche, I teach with music maybe once a year. I walked away from that class with a question ‒ is incorporating music the next chapter for me in my teaching, or was that experience in the class just for me to take in for myself and savor?
I also walked away with a renewed appreciation for how the spiritual dimension of practice can come through a deep experience of one's humanness ‒ body, emotions, thoughts ‒ rather than through trying to create a spiritual feeling through talking about spiritual concepts. It was lovely to again feel the marriage of matter and spirit, and just how much the matter part matters!
4. Describe the last time you taught a class or workshop.
The last workshop I taught was at Project Yoga Richmond in Virginia. Called "Free to Be You," it's a workshop that combines yoga with the best practices from improv and somatic leadership and weaves in neuroscience and yogic texts. The intent is to find embodied self-awareness so as to create a felt sense of what it means to be in integrity. Integrity in terms of alignment, wholeness and being true to yourself. I've taught this workshop in Canada and at different places around the country so I felt pretty confident about the material and only mildly nervous about working with a whole new group of people. However, there was something different about this workshop: my family of origin lives in Richmond, and I was planning to spend the entire week prior to teaching the workshop staying with my parents and visiting with my aunt and my brother and his family. So rather than being in my own home or a hotel room to myself to have time to center and prepare before teaching, I would be coming to teaching the workshop straight from whatever family dynamic would be happening in my parents’ house that morning or residually from that week.
I have a great family and I love them a lot, but as we all know, being around family has a way of reverting us back to ways that we acted when we were kids and teenagers. For me that was a lot more shut down emotionally and oriented around pleasing. I was nervous that I'd have to make too big of a leap from "daughter" mode to "teacher" mode. In short, I was worried that I'd stand out as a total fraud when it comes to having integrity! Because I was aware of my nervousness about this before I even went back east for the family visit and workshop, I made a commitment to myself that I would really practice what I teach about staying true to yourself when I was with my family. That week I practiced embodied self-awareness in conversations with my family, I made space for myself to feel my feelings in the moment, to speak my truth and to not numb out--things that have been hard for me with my family in the past. I said to myself, "OK, Jay, if you teach about this stuff it's time for you to actually do it in the place it is the hardest for you."
What I discovered was not only that I had a much more enjoyable visit with my family, but that I got to experience a seamless experience of myself from "daughter" to "teacher" mode on the day of the workshop. When I showed up to teach that day I didn't feel like a fraud, like I was putting on an act. I felt like me. This was a turning point for me on a personal and professional level. I left the workshop that day not only aware of how teachers teach what we most need to learn, but how what it's really about for me is creating the type of atmosphere we most want to be in. By teaching workshops about integrity and being in your embodied truth, I get to spend my days around people who are also exploring that, and that feels very healing. That's part of what makes teaching yoga so very hard in that I feel like I'm constantly facing my "stuff," and also so very wonderful in that it apparently does work!