Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Yoga, Shopping, and Filling the Void

I think I finally understand why so many yoga studios these days are cashing in with gift shops and retail sales.

For as many days as I leave my practice at the studio feeling elated, light, and happy, there are just as many days that I leave feeling empty. And not empty in a good way, either - just empty.

The Void.

It's what we try to ignore, push down, and beat back when it surfaces.  It's that feeling of just being a hollow vessel, with nothing inside of you that is in any way substantial. It's pretty damn frightening, if you allow yourself to really feel it deep down in your bones.

It's why we bake, eat, read, and of course, shop.

And what better way to fill The Void when you shop than by acquiring spiritually-themed items? Incense, candles, special yoga clothes, jewelry, wind chimes, t-shirts, toe-less socks, pictures, journals, oh, my!

So we can tell ourselves that by filling The Void with these things, we're making ourselves better, more spiritual people.

In fact, what we should actually be doing is sitting with the feelings and the fear that come up when we start to notice The Void - instead of running away from it.

I actually felt it this morning. On my way back from dropping off the boys at school, I stopped at the yoga studio for a little bit of meditation and self practice. I lit some candles and counted my breaths and tested my body to see where my energy level was at for today.

On the way home, I stopped at the creamery and bought more milk - and cupcakes. And it was as I was driving back into town that I started to notice how grey and damp everything felt, like a cold Sunday afternoon. I felt it in my heart, and down in my bones.

That was the exact moment that my mind said to me, "Oh, hey, the thrift shop is open today - maybe you should go look for some new pants for Colden and maybe a few things for yourself."

BOOM! I caught myself before I drove past my house and straight to the thrift shop. First of all, I just cleaned out all of my kid's clothes and washed everything and stocked his dresser with six pairs of pants, none of which have holes in the knees. That's more than enough for now.

Second of all, I neither need nor have the space for any more clothes in my room. I have SO MANY FUCKING ITEMS OF CLOTHING it's almost a disgrace - and that's after I packed up two bags to give to the thrift shop last weekend.

Third, I have about ten bucks left to my name after I pay for the snow tires to be put on the car this afternoon, so it's not like I have a lot of money to spend on clothing right now - even thrift shop clothing.

So what the hell was my mind doing, suggesting to me that I needed to go shopping?

Trying to fill The Void, that's what it was doing.

So do you see what happens, here? This practice of yoga, this slowing down and turning inward, will always, invariably, lead us to The Void. It's that place where we acknowledge that we are indeed united with the rest of existence, and yet we are nothing. It's that place where we can let go of the Ego and just be, and for most of us, it's still pretty uncomfortable, if not downright scary.

And if you feel that way after a yoga class, well, that's okay. We're trying to go deeper into ourselves, right? Yoga is that journey inward, to pure consciousness. It's not really an easy journey, is it?

And what do we do when we start to feel that fear? We try to placate it. We try to fill up that emptiness with stuff, without allowing ourselves the chance to really sit with it and experience it.

I'm no stranger to the yoga-spirituality-impulse buy, either. Let's not talk about my collection of yoga clothes, or gemstones, or jewelry, or candles...

I think most big retailers in this country are, to some degree, aware that people are very uncomfortable with this feeling of emptiness. We're all terrified of feeling unloved or not needed or inferior, and so we try to mask these feelings with lots and lots of THINGS.

But the truth is, all that stuff - the things, the feelings - they all go away, eventually. And what are we left with?

While I try to chew on that for a while, I'm going to go make myself a cup of hot chocolate and enjoy the sensation of eating a chocolate cupcake. No sense on venturing into The Void on an empty stomach.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What's Really Going On, or, Skinny Girls Have Body Image Issues, Too

I'm nearly finished with my Curvy Yoga Certification training, and I'm starting to think about setting up workshops and series classes and all that fun stuff. In fact, I spent a good chunk of tonight working on a couple of marketing materials like flyers and brochures.

And you know, as I've been working through the materials from each module and completing the homework, I've become so much more aware of my own body image issues.

Looking at me on the surface, you might wonder, what the hell is she talking about?

Yeah, I've lost a LOT of weight in the last few years. Like, more than 30 pounds. And I've managed to keep it off, too, for the most part.

I find myself practicing some very physically intense forms of yoga. (Although not hot yoga, noooo!) And I've developed a lot of strength as a result of that - hell, I've got real muscles! I can hike again! I can bike! I can swim! I have energy!

But the other day, I put on my jeans, and I put on my shirt, and I looked down at my belly, and I just squirmed around a whole lot inside.

I had a BELLY. Ugh!

There it was, sticking out of my shirt like this grotesque blob... It rolled all the way down my front, down into the waistband of my jeans. It was flabby. It flopped around. It was ROUND.  The more I looked down at it, the more I felt like I couldn't possibly go out in public like, well, like THIS. Children would run away screaming. Adults would point and whisper. I was a horrible person because I had a floppy tummy.

For more than a few minutes, I had this picture in my head of a super-slim Jennifer Aniston with her flat, non-existent belly and I was jealous. So jealous.

Why did I have this huge, enormous, gross jiggly belly full of flab to contend with on this particular morning? Why, why, why? Why couldn't I be slim and fabulous like Jennifer Aniston?

Before I could beat myself up any more over my belly, I stopped to remember something that I had read for Curvy Yoga training. And it was something like: no matter what part of my body I hate on this particular day, what's really going on is never about my body.

Woa.

Reality check!

Yup. That's me with my big belly. Reality check, anyone?

 That was a clear sign to me that maybe I needed to slow down and figure out what was really going on that morning. Because whatever I was angry about, it wasn't my belly.

After I dropped the boys off at school, I spent a little time in quiet meditation, and hey, a few things came up as I sat in stillness.

None of them were about my body.

They were more along the lines of: oh my God I have so many bills to pay and I have deadlines coming up and I feel like I don't know what I'm doing half the time and I'm scared and my job is driving my crazy and what if my husband doesn't love me anymore and what if I teach a really sucky yoga class tonight and and and....

So I was feeling all of these insecurities about other things that had absolutely nothing to do with the way my body looks, and I was just internalizing them all into a temper tantrum about what my body looked like.

What did I do about it? Stay tuned....

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Spiritual Housekeeping

So, there I was, thinking about how nice it would be to get ready for a manifesting ritual for the full moon this Thursday. I was all set to go - I thought I was so ready to invite some positive energy and some real change into my life! I wrote up a whole blog about a full moon manifesting ritual, even picked out a journal that I would use to record my progress as I move down this path to becoming a full-time Ayurvedic practitioner and yoga teacher.

And what happens?

Alas, after doing my homework, I find that I am mistaken. It is not the full moon that is best for manifesting, it is the NEW moon that is used for manifesting.

The full moon, indeed, is best for letting go and releasing negativity.

Well, that wasn't what I was expecting. But once I stopped to think about it, it sort of makes sense.

We spent this past weekend cleaning our house, nearly from top to bottom. We moved some furniture around, put some stuff into storage that we knew we wouldn't be using for a while, and gave the floors and windows a good scrubbing. We did laundry. We sorted clothes and toys and dishes. We moved all the plants from the outside back porch (where it has been well below freezing the last few nights) back into the living room, where they can stay relatively warm in the heat from the wood stove. We even cleaned the fish tank and installed a new heater for the poor little fishies who have, no doubt, been freezing their little fish butts off since the old heater crapped out a couple of weeks ago.

Just when you think you *might* be ready for something new in your life, sometimes you have to stop and think about what you need to get rid of in order to make room for that new something. Right? I mean, after all, just like in our material world, things pile up, energy gets clogged in the physical body, and unless you live in an enormous mansion with an endless underground storage cellar, sometimes you just have to let shit GO.

So after my initial disappointment that I could not use this full moon for manifesting, I realized that I might have a wee bit of spiritual "housecleaning" to do. And this full moon seems like the perfect time to do just that.

My plan is to go to yoga tomorrow evening as usual, but then when I get home, I will light a stick of incense and spend a few minutes in quiet meditation in front of the wood stove. When I'm ready, I will write down a few things that I need to let go of on small slips of paper. One by one, I will feed the papers into the fire going in the wood stove, and visualize these things turning into smoke. After a small prayer of thanks and gratitude, I'll have a cup of tea, maybe a warm bath, and then go to bed.

Tomorrow is the perfect time to do a little spiritual house cleaning. What will you  let go of tomorrow?


Monday, November 3, 2014

Turning Of the Year


Samhain, or Halloween as we now call it, was celebrated as the last day of the year in ancient cultures. It was the day when animals were slaughtered for winter food, and preparations were made for the dark, cold winter ahead. Just as the day began at dusk, so the new year began at the darkest part of the year. It was believed that spirits could more easily enter the world of the living during this time, and their presence was honored.

I love the idea that Halloween is sort of a New Year's Eve, preparing us for the beginning of a new cycle on November 1. It definitely felt that way for me this year. I felt more of the shifting energy than in years past. Not sure if it's because of my yoga practice, of my being able to tune in to my own energies better, or just because the energies were particularly strong this year.

This morning, I can't help but think: wouldn't it be wonderful if we could go back to a worship of nature and living more in tune with the natural cycles of life? (Or that could be just the "jet lag" talking, from setting the clocks back an hour this weekend.)

Monday, October 20, 2014

Monday, October 13, 2014

Saturday, October 4, 2014

What Yoga Isn't...

I see so many gross misrepresentations of yoga in mass media, it's sometimes a little unsettling for me to think that when I tell someone, "I practice yoga," they immediately think of skinny white girls in see-through Lululemons.

The other day, someone in my Facebook news feed posted a link to a yoga "competition", and I just cringed a whole lot. Ugh!

But it's so hard to define exactly what yoga IS. I think maybe it's easier to talk about a few things that yoga is not...

  1. A competition. I can't stand the whole "yoga competition" thing. Maybe you want to call it an asana competition, which is more accurate. But even then, the whole spirit of asana practice isn't, and shouldn't be, competitive. 
  2. A religion. Yoga, all eight limbs of it, is an ancient spiritual practice, but it is not a religion. You can be a good Christian or Jew or Muslim and still practice yoga.
  3. Just asana practice. As I mentioned before, there are eight limbs of yoga, and only one of them is asana, or posture, practice. If you're going to practice yoga, there are many other things to explore - yama and niyama (ethical ways to living), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (withdrawal or sensory transcendence), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and finally, samadhi (bliss or enlightenment). You see where I'm going with this? If you want to really practice yoga, it only makes sense that you spend at least a little bit of time exploring all these other spiritual acts.
  4. Yoga butt, i.e., achieving a "perfect" physical body. This extends to other aspects of the practice, as well. And it goes back to #1. This is not a competition to see who can look the best in their overpriced yoga pants and sound the loudest "ohm" at the end of class. 
What yoga actually is differs from person to person. For me, it's a way to connecting with my authentic self. It's a way of dealing with life's challenges in a healthy way. It's how I create balance between my professional life, my family life, and my personal spirituality.

Yoga is about learning to observe without judgement. It's about cultivating a sense of compassion for myself and for others. It's about accepting and embracing life just as it is.

 And most of all, yoga is a practice. It's about letting ourselves be human, while reminding ourselves that there is, within all of us, a tiny spark of the Divine.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

My Favorite Bedtime Yoga Poses

If you're like any one of millions of Americans who have a problem getting to sleep at night, or getting back to sleep if you wake up in the middle of the night, yoga and pranayama can help with that!

I first discovered this when I was taking a Hypnobirthing class in preparation for the birth of my son. One of the exercises we were given by the instructor was a breathing exercise in which you inhaled to a count of 4, then exhaled slowly to a count of 7 or 8. I practiced this consistently every night as part of a CD of relaxation exercises I was given, but the problem was that I kept falling asleep about 20 minutes in.

I went back the following week and told the instructor what was happening - how I never made it past the 20 minute mark on the CD, because once I started lengthening my exhales to double the length of my inhales, I just zonked right out.

She looked at me for a moment, puzzled at what I was asking. "And this is a problem, you said?" she asked.

"Well, yeah," I replied. "Because I can't get to the rest of the relaxation exercises!"

"But if you can get yourself to fall completely asleep after just a few minutes of that breathing exercise, you're going to have no problem relaxing yourself during labor," was her reply.

Turns out, she was right. I was able to stay perfectly calm and relaxed through 3 days of labor - before the doctor decided that enough was enough, and that it might be time for a c-section.

These days, I still have nights when I need help falling asleep or staying asleep. My Vata mind is always active, and getting myself to unwind at the end of a busy day can be tough - really tough. On nights like that, I like to do a few yoga poses while resting in bed before I close my eyes for sleep, and here are five of my favorites for you to try, too!

1. Child's pose. Being facedown with your arms stretched in front of you is very soothing to the nervous system. The belly-down position stimulates the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system, the hips are gently opened, and with the eyes closed, it encourages a restful state of mind. Try tucking a pillow under the forehead for a little extra support.

2. Reclined pigeon pose. This lovely reclined hip opener is a fabulous way for releasing tension in the hips and lower back. You can do it comfortably in bed with your head and upper back resting on a pillow, or even in the middle of the night if you wake up and can't fall asleep again.

3. Reclined bound angle pose. One of my favorites for stretching out in bed after a long day, just bring the soles of the feet together and move the feet upwards towards the body as close as is comfortable. Let the knees flop apart, resting on pillows if you want a little extra support, and for some extra relaxing goodness, extend the arms above the head, interlace the fingers, and take a looooooooong torso stretch as you inhale and exhale deeply.

4. Reclined twist. There's a reason I like to end my yoga classes with a reclined twist - it's a wonderful way to check in with the body and find any little hidden pockets of tension. Reclined twists are also lovely for the gentle massage they give the internal organs. Tuck a pillow under your knees or legs, settle back down into your pillows, and breathe deep.

5. Legs up the wall. Not always the easiest pose to do in bed, but you can get into this pose easily on the floor next to your bed! This gentle inversion will lower the blood pressure and switch on the parasympathetic nervous system. When paired with slow, deep belly breaths, this will get you ready for some seriously good sleep.

And my secret weapon for calming the mind and banishing insomnia? Pranayama. Yep, breath control exercises are fabulous for those of us who struggle with overactive minds and bodies that refuse to fall asleep.

The first pranayama you can try is the 1:2 breath I mentioned earlier in the post. Simply inhale deeply to a count of 2 (or 3 or 4), take a brief pause at the top, and exhale long and slow to double your inhale count. So if you inhale to 2, exhale to 4. Inhale to 3, exhale to 6. Easy. You can start with a 2:4 breath and gradually increase the lengths of the inhales and exhales, but if you're like me, you might be asleep before you make it up to a 4:8 breath.

Alternate nostril breathing is another wonderful bedtime pranayama practice. To do alternate nostril breathing, form a mudra with the right hand: curl the index and middle fingers in towards the center of the palm, extend the pink straight out, and allow the thumb and ring fingers to be soft. Press the thumb against the right nostril, the ring finger against the left nostril. Close off the right nostril with the thumb, and take a slow deep inhale to the count of 4 with the left nostril. Close off the left nostril and hold for just a brief second, then open the right nostril and exhale slowly and with control to a count of 4. Take a deep inhale to a count of 4 through the right nostril, close off the right nostril, pause, open the left nostril, and exhale slowly and with control to a count of 4. That's all there is to it! Repeat that for 4 or 5 minutes, and you'll feel calmer, more relaxed, and maybe even ready for a good night of sleep.

What's Healthy?

I saw this article pop up in my news feed on FB this morning, and it really got my hackles up. The Truth About Yoga and Eating Disorders points to a lot of things I see in how yoga is marketed (ugh, I hate that) in the United States.

I have a problem. I cringe whenever I see this stick-thin uber-flexible yogalebrities all over the place. I want to die a little inside each time I see people talking about juice fasts and juice cleanses, about starving themselves of calories and nutrients all for the sake of being "healthy".

But what is healthy?

What if healthy, instead of looking like something, were more of a feeling?

It's true that healthy can look like any number of things: skinny, curvy, heavy, light, black, white, and all shades in between.

As the daughter of a woman who struggled with eating disorders her entire life, and as someone who has had her own recent struggles with an eating disorder, I'm starting to shun any marketing of yoga as a way to burn calories, fat, or otherwise sculpt and "perfect" the body. And that pretty much sums up every article I read in Yoga Journal. Looking a certain way doesn't necessarily mean that a person is healthy or unhealthy. Weight is not an indicator of overall health, and yoga should not be used as a marketing ploy to get people to buy overpriced detox regimens and protein bars and other nutritionally-deficient fly-by-night schemes.

When I lost 30 pounds because of digestive problems three years ago, I freaked out. I had the opposite problem of what most folks with an eating disorder have: I weighed myself obsessively because I was so worried about being TOO thin, and turning into the unhealthy image of my mother, who weighed just 78 pounds when she passed away in 2008. For a while there, after I lost all that weight, I would freak out just a little bit when I would see someone that I hadn't seen in a long time, and they would look at my physical changes and say, "You look so THIN! You look great!"

They may have thought that I looked great on the outside, but I sure didn't feel great inside.

Finally, I decided to move the bathroom scale into the garage to stop myself from stepping on it compulsively every time I went to have a pee. And I started to re-think my definition of "healthy".

It's not an easy thing to nail down. What do we include in our definition of healthy?

As I'm working on changing my inner dialogue, I'm taking a really close look at what it means to be healthy, and I'm finding that it's a lot more than just your jeans size. There's a whole subtle layer to the definition of "healthy" that I think many people either ignore or overlook, and it includes things like:

  • Your overall stress levels
  • Your social network/social life
  • Your satisfaction with life
  • Your ability to accept and deal with change
  • Your relationship with family and friends
  • Your general outlook on life
  • Your relationship with your own body
It's all too easy to use a very one-dimensional set of guidelines to define what we think is healthy these days. Doctors like to use numbers, like the BMI (body mass index) chart to determine health, but that only gives us a very one-dimensional way to assess the health of a whole individual.

And how does yoga play into all of this? When I'm in a pose like Dancing Warrior or teetering into a basic arm balance or working my way into headstand via dolphin pose, I feel healthy. I feel relaxed, I feel strong. When I lose my "self" in a yoga pose or posture, I find that connection between mind and body and spirit.

There needs to be a broader conversation, in my opinion, on what "healthy" is, and how we can all get there, because it's not going to the be the same for any two people. Just for today, throw away your old ideas and preconceptions and just ask yourself: what is healthy for me?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Why I'm Doing a Curvy Yoga Training



Does this look familiar to anyone? This popped up in my news feed on Facebook the other day, shared by the Huffington Post humor page.

But you know, for all the giggles it gave me, it pointed to something worth thinking about. Have you really LOOKED at any of those glossy "women's" magazines lately?

The message they seem to be sending is that if you're not thin, with perfect hair and perfect teeth and dumb as a box of rocks, you're worthless. It seems that the message they are sending is that you need more of everything to be happy.

And truth be told, it's the same way with Yoga Journal, too, in case you haven't noticed. It looks as though there are only skinny, wealthy white women practicing yoga these days.

But is yoga really meant to be exclusive? When I was at Kripalu back in April with my husband, we saw all body types, genders, and races practicing yoga with us, and it was incredibly inspiring. So when I got the opportunity to enroll in a Curvy Yoga training, I jumped on it.

Maybe some of it is from having a mother with multiple lifelong eating disorders. Maybe some of it comes from watching my friends raising daughters to have a healthy body image. Maybe some of it comes from my own struggles when, following the birth of my son and the passing of my mother just a few months apart, I found myself with an extra 40 pounds on my frame, and no idea what to do with any of it.

I have a problem with the portrayal of yogis as always thin, flexible, and athletic. The truth is that anyone of any body size or type can practice yoga asanas. And I want to bring yoga to as many people as possible - even those who have been told or who just think that they're not the right "type" to do yoga.

So I start my training on September 22, and early next year, I'll be looking for a few lucky folks to receive private yoga lessons to get them started on their own path as I practice my new skills. I want to create a welcoming space for everyone in my yoga classes, and this is as good a place as any to start, right?

Until next time, keep breathing, keep practicing.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Simple Changes: Why I Love Ayurveda

Last year when I was taking my first weekend workshop on how to treat anxiety and depression with yoga at Kripalu, I spent my Saturday evening walking the grounds and exploring their extensive book store. I was trying a bit of an experiment, trusting my gut (my intuition) to lead me to where I needed to go.

In the book store, just before closing, my hands landed on a copy of Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing by Dr. Vasant Lad.

I was less than a year into my quest for trying to restore my mental and physical health and wellness, and so far, yoga seemed to be doing the trick. But I knew that I needed to do more if I wanted to really heal and become a vibrant, healthy, productive human being again.

I took the book out with me into the grounds for a moonlit walk through the labyrinth, and then back to my room where I started to read.

It occurred to me as I was reading that this might just be the key that would help me restore my sanity and my body.

What first struck me was how according to the science of Ayurveda, which has been around for about 5,000 years, was how practitioners look at each individual to determine what can best solve their health needs. Very unlike what I've experienced with Western medicine where the doctors treat the disease the same in everyone, regardless of differences between people.

It only makes sense to me. I mean, my husband and I are completely different physical types - he's tall and muscular, and I'm short and lanky. (Although I'm building up some strength from my yoga practice these days!) His digestion is completely different than mine. He sleeps differently than I do. Why would it make sense to treat us for indigestion or headache in exactly the same way?

That was my first clue that I had stumbled on to something good.

Next, I read about Ayurvedic diets. Now, an Ayurvedic diet is really not a difficult thing to follow. There are no hard and fast rules about eating in Ayurveda, only guidelines about which foods benefit each dosha, or type. There are no big warnings about AVOID THESE FOODS AT ALL COSTS kind of thing. No crazy you-can-only-eat-this-if-you-prepare-it-under-a-full-moon-at-exactly-sixty-eight-degrees-after-soaking-it-in-calves'-milk-for-a-fortnight kind of stuff.

An Ayurvedic diet just makes recommendations on what to eat and how to cook it - easy. For my type, Vata, I need to eat mostly warm, well-cooked foods. It doesn't decree that I can't ever eat things like salads, raw foods, or cold foods - it's just a set of guidelines for how to make food that will work well with my digestive processes so that I get the most nutrition possible out of my food.

And the crazy thing? It WORKS.

For years and years, I've had this predisposition to drinking ice-cold beverages. I used to put ice in every single glass of water or juice that I ever drank. And that was at the height of my digestive distress, when my gallbladder finally gave up the ghost and I was losing weight for seemingly no reason and I was scared shitless.

This past winter, I tried an experiment. I ate according to Ayurvedic principles laid out in this book. I drank lots of warm teas and warm drinks, I cooked my food well, and I used to recommended seasonings for my dosha - ginger, cumin, basil, thyme, black pepper, salt, cilantro, and sage.

I started eating more foods with healthy fats in them like avocados, nuts, eggs, and dairy products. (Some of you know I have this love affair with cheese. I indulged freely in cheeses of all types while trying this experiment.)

I ate lots of rice, quinoa, and organic wheat. I ate eggs. I filled my plate with loads of healthy foods like beets, carrots, asparagus, sweet potatoes, zucchini, and onions.

And at the end of this, I discovered that I had made it through the entire winter without a single bout of gastric distress. No indigestion. No stomach aches.

I started to look at the idea of changing my routine to suit my vata dosha. Some of the actions took a little bit of work - I've never been a morning person, just ask my husband - but I started getting up a little earlier. I started practicing pranayama every day. I ate my breakfast before 8:00 a.m. most days. I slowed down my meal times, eating in silence or creating a tranquil environment in which to savor my food, and I tried getting to bed before 10:00 p.m. I started my mornings with a small amount of warm water with a squeeze of lemon in it.

Then I began to experiment with things like gentle oil massage on my feet and using certain scents that were supposed to help balance my dosha.

And if I didn't notice the results immediately, the people around me sure did. I started to hear people telling me, "You look wonderful!" "You look so healthy!" and "You're glowing!"

The best part of all of these changes that I made? They were small. Simple. I made them one at a time. I made them mindfully, writing them down in my journal.

So if anyone asks me why I love the practice of Ayurveda so much, it's because Ayurveda doesn't demand crazy changes in your lifestyle or diet or routine. How easy is it to make simple changes like adding a glass of lemon water to your morning?

The only hard part in all of this, as I see it, is that you have to have the desire to make these changes. If you're not motivated, nothing will ever change.

But if you can make these small, manageable changes to your routine and your lifestyle, you might be surprised at the differences you see.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Just Do It

All day yesterday, I kept thinking about when I could fit some yoga into my day. We got up early, took the canoe out to try to beat the rain storm that was coming, failed to beat the rain storm, and wound up spending some time in a lean-to while we waited for the rain to let up enough so that we could get back to the car without getting soaked. (We were soaked.)

Dinner time and bed time came and went. I had really wanted to put in a good hour or so of asana practice, but I never got around to it.

Then this afternoon, I took a break from everything around 4:30 and just decided that it was time to do yoga. So I grabbed my mat and went outside into the little spiral labyrinth that we have in the back part of the property where my Buddha sits under a locust tree. I unrolled my mat and turned on some music, but then decided that what I needed more was to listen to the bugs and the wind and the trees and my breath.

I set my meditation timer on my phone (because everyone has a meditation timer app on their phones, right?) to time my final savasana, but instead of setting it for 5 minutes, I set it for an hour and five minutes.

And like any good yogi who can't sit still or can't quiet the mind on any given day, I kept thinking to myself, huh, this savasana is taking way too long. Too long. How long have I laid here? Damn, there's a bug on my foot. What if a worm is crawling across the bottom of my mat?

Finally, I just gave in and brought myself back, and looked down at the meditation timer. It was still running. I had set it for an HOUR and five minutes, and I had actually been down in savasana for about 15 minutes before I sat up again.

I took another 5 minutes to do a seated mudra meditation at the end of my practice, looking up at the clear blue early autumn sky, and the leaves of the locust tree against the sun from behind my back. (I tried to snap a quick picture of it with my phone, but my phone is nearing the end of its useful life, and is pretty much just an overpriced music player at this point.)

I started thinking about what was coming for us - winter. Winter where it's -30 F every night for weeks on end, where we get snow drifts that are taller than I am, where it's muddy and cold and dark and grey.

When winter comes, I have to move my home practice inside. And since I've talked before about my tiny little house with it's tiny little (warm) rooms, you'll remember that it's not easy for me to find a place to practice yoga in my house.

This winter, though, I'm feeling like I need to just set all that aside and just do it. Right? Like the sneakers: just do it.

Because the truth about doing yoga at home (like pretty much anything else worth doing) is that it's never going to be the perfect time to do it. If you wait until the stars are aligned just right, your bank account is big enough, or whatever, you're never going to get around to doing ANYTHING.

So my mantra for this winter as I take my yoga practice back indoors in front of the cozy little space in front of the wood stove, with my candles and my Tara on the mantel, is going to be: This is the perfect place and the perfect time for yoga. Right now. Just do it.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Blissed Out: Why I Will Always Be a Student of Yoga

My husband was called in to work to answer an alarm at 1:15 this morning. I vaguely remember him telling me that he had to go to the plant, and then I tried to drop off back to sleep. I definitely remember him coming back to bed sometime around 3.

But then I was up at 5 to get us ready for Colden's second day of first grade. He slept a little later than usual, so we were in a rush. Had to get him fed and dressed. Had to make sure I packed his gym shoes. Carpool was coming at 7:30 - and I realized that my husband had driven off to Lake Placid with the booster seat, leaving me with the immensely bulky, strapy car seat that take a good ten minutes to set up in a vehicle. But then I would have to arrange to pick up the car seat for when I picked up Colden at the bus stop. I had a 9:00 a.m. chiropractor appointment in Plattsburgh, too, to try to fix this burning in my left hip and the tingling in my right arm that can only have come from a pinched nerve in my neck.

I'm still trying to get caught up and just stay caught up with work, after having three short weeks in a row when I traveled to Philadelphia for a trade show, then back home, then a long holiday weekend...

And then there's soccer practice tonight. Colden gets off the bus at 3:30, and soccer practice is at 5. So we get home around 3:45, then have to turn around at 4:30 and drive all the way back to Keene Valley for soccer practice. (Last year, he didn't want to do soccer, so I don't want to discourage him from going, but YIKES! The logistics!) And it's farm night, when someone has to drive 20 miles up to Keeseville and pick up our CSA share from the farm. And I like to go to Robin's 6:00 p.m. Vinyasa class on Thursdays, even if it's just to get me out of the house and out of my head and into my body...

So, WOA! Do you see where I'm going with all of this? It seems like our lives as they're designed in American society put our nervous systems on overdrive. It's always go-go-go!

I finished up a little earlier than I had planned at the chiropractor, and I remembered that one of my favorite yoga teachers in Plattsburgh has class on Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 9:30. It had been a while since I'd been to one of Luiz' classes, and I had exactly 20 minutes to get there. I had left my mat at home, thinking I'd just be coming straight back to dive into the day's insanity, but right there, I decided that the thing I needed most in the world was to slooooooow down.

I'm so happy that I went. Luiz at ADK Yoga is just a wonderful teacher. He has a wicked good sense of humor, and I love the chanting at the beginning and end of each class. I always leave his classes feeling so grounded and blissful, and I learn so much from him!

Today's class was wonderful - all floor work, no standing poses. It was exactly what I needed. I had a couple of laughs in class, and I even surprised myself by being able to push straight up into forearm plank from a resting position on my belly. (Really. I never saw THAT one coming.)

Savasana in that class is always like I'm experiencing an altered state of consciousness - it's like I'm dreaming but not dreaming.

The woman set up next to me had a crazy, wild afro-mohawk hairdo going on, and she rocked it. Her male companion had hair way longer than mine ever was, and we had a couple of smiles during class as we tried not to bump our feet and hands into each other.

As I walked back out to the car to head home, I felt so GOOD. Yes, the to-do list was still there. The need for figuring out the logistics of getting my kid from the bus stop and to soccer and back and still get him fed and to bed on time was still there.

And of course, as soon as I got into my work to meet my deadlines, my work computer froze right the hell up. (There's something weird with it, not sure what it is. I've tried virus software, spyware, everything, and I think I'm just going to have to break down and take it to the computer hospital.)

But the difference now was that I felt calm and centered and grounded. Everything would get done, or it wouldn't, but after that class, I felt like I was paying attention to the important things: the breeze coming off the lake, the ideas for blogs and newsletters that were swirling in my head.

Don't get me wrong, I love being a writer and an artist. But those of you who also write know how hard it can be to get out of your own head sometimes. For me, I've got be able to recognize when my brain starts to go on overdrive, because it's then that I start with an anxiety attack or a stomachache or some other unpleasantness.

And as a teacher (who is starting a new teaching gig tomorrow morning), I feel like it's just so important for me to experience as many different styles and teachers as I can. Yes, I've been practicing a whole lot of yoga over the last 3 years or so, but there will always be something new for me to experience on my mat. There will always be something new for me to learn.

I've noticed that very often, I get that feeling of bliss or being "high" when I take a class with a new teacher that I especially like, or when I travel to a different studio outside of my regular haunts. It brings me back to that beginner's mind in my yoga practice. And it's just good to see some new faces and meet new people.

No matter what else happens today, I've been able to take some time to slow it down, find my center, and approach the rest of the day with a clear head. That's why I will always be a student of yoga.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

What I Learned From Teaching One Student

As a new yoga teacher, I've been struggling a lot this summer. Mostly with trying to find exactly what it is that I have to offer the students who show up for my classes, but also with the fact that my class sizes this summer have been small. I mean, really small. The biggest class I taught was 12 people, but that was only because I was subbing at the last minute, and these people had all showed up for a different teacher.

So, yeah. Trying not to take it personally, but there's that little part of me, and I'm sure everyone has that little part, that starts to wonder: What if I really suck?

Also, I've been struggling with teaching these smaller classes (sometimes just two people) because for me, I feel like I can get "lost" in a crowd of more people. When it's just me and two people, I felt very exposed, very vulnerable, like all my flaws and insecurities were going to be right out there for everyone to see and criticize.

Insecurity really sucks, you know?

SO, on this one particular Tuesday evening, I arrived at the studio early and began to just straighten up. I swept the floor, rolled straps, folded blankets, and just made the place look nice. When I was finished, I began to do a little bit of my own practice, just to get grounded and go over in my head what I wanted to teach that evening, if anybody showed up.

Around 5:45, someone came into the studio and introduced himself. Lord help me, but his name went right out of my head as fast as it went in. But he filled out the required forms and we started to chat for a few minutes about hiking and Keene and Canada. It felt almost like I was talking to an old friend, someone that I had known for years. He told me about his yoga practice back home, and how he did mostly power yoga, and I thought, oh, Lord, he's gonna HATE this class.

Pretty soon, I realized it was 6:05 - and he was the only one there for class. I don't mind admitting that I was freaking out a little bit as I hung the "do not disturb" sign on the door. Holy hell, I was about to give a private lesson, and I just didn't feel ready.

I asked him if he'd ever done any Ashtanga, figuring that I could fall back on the set sequence to take some of the pressure off me. He said that he had, so good, I decided that we'd start in mountain pose, in standing, and use that as a little bit of standing meditation.

So there I am, standing on my mat, in front of my one and only student for the evening, eyes closed, trying to focus on my breath, and the whole time, my mind is screaming at me: You can't do this! Run! Get out of here! Go! Now! Why are you still here? Tell him you can't do this, and leave!

And then, from somewhere, came that brave little voice in my head: No. Stay here. You got this. Fuck it, right?

Fuck it, indeed.

So, I turned up the music a little bit. And we moved through some sun salutations as a warm-up. And we started moving through the standing series.

And you know what? It really was okay!

About halfway through the standing series, he opened a dialogue with me, and we started talking about extended side angle pose. It was easy! I could so relate to what he was saying! Woa!

We moved on to some balancing poses, and this was where something sparked in me. I felt alive - THIS is where I found something I could offer my student. I love my balancing poses. I've been doing them, literally without even realizing it, since I was a kid. Ah-ha! We even had an ah-ha moment, when I explained where I was feeling the muscles working when I held wind-removing pose.

By the time I led him back down to sit on the mat and move through a brief cool down before savasana, I was feeling pretty good. I felt like I had found something!

After we were finished with practice that evening, he said to me, "Thank you so much for staying and conducting class. It was a lovely class. I've been to studios back home where I show up as the only one, and they cancel class on me right there, so thanks for taking the time to do a class for me tonight." And it turns out that he used to be a martial arts instructor, and he would do the same - if one person showed up for class, he always took the time to give them a good lesson.

So, wow. I was blown away by all of this.

I gave him a schedule and recommended that he come back for Robin's Thursday night vinyasa class, as it's fun and a little challenging, too.

Well, Robin didn't teach that evening, but he showed up, again, and set up next to me for class. And it was just really lovely to practice next to this man, who was totally okay with dropping down into child's pose when he needed to, who was really comfortable with the idea of honoring himself through his practice. There was just this nice energy in our little corner of the room that evening, and I was a little disappointed that I didn't get to say goodnight to him when he left.

The next morning, I went back to the studio for my Friday morning class, expecting another low turnout, but this time, I had had time to think about what he had said to me on Tuesday. I had time to consider where I wanted to go with my teaching.

What I decided, after that one experience teaching a single student, was that maybe what I have to offer is best received in a one-on-one basis. Maybe I need to teach students in small groups, or privately, in order to be able to reach them. Maybe that's just what I need to do.

So when my student from Tuesday showed up again on Friday, along with one of my regular students from this summer, I was thrilled to do a class with just the two of them. I enjoyed focusing my attention on THEM - I offered support with props, with bolsters, with adjustments. And at the end, when we sealed class with the vibration of Ohm, it was beautiful. My student from Tuesday and I were the only two who Ohm-ed, but after a few seconds, I couldn't tell which voice belonged to him, and which one belonged to me.

It moved me right down to my bones.

We ended class with a warm handshake, and he got in his car to head home to his family, and I got back into my car to head out for the rest of my weekend.

I don't know if I'll ever see this person again in any of my yoga classes, but I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for showing me something about myself, and for helping me become a better teacher. And that is what the practice is all about, isn't it?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Ask, and the Universe Answers

So, I've been tossing around the idea in my head for months now that I really, really want to do an Ayurvedic practitioner training to complement my yoga training.

I mentioned it to a friend/teacher a few weeks ago, saying that I would need to figure out how I was going to find the time to do this training, since most of the programs that I had researched all required participants to be on-campus, usually for several weeks at a time.

I was immensely lucky in finding the yoga teacher training program that I did down in Schroon Lake last year, and I just assumed that I wouldn't get that lucky again in finding an Ayurvedic training program.

Well. What do you know?

Turns out that there's an excellent school of Ayurveda in Gorham, Maine. And not only is it close to me, but they also offer a low-residency/independent study option for those of us who require that kind of a program.

My only stumbling block, it seemed, was the initial deposit of $950 for the program. That's a whole lot of money for me to come up with at once. Because as we all know, life happens, and this winter, life is going to include an extra load of firewood, a fuel oil delivery, and snow tires for 3 vehicles.

In the back of my head, I thought about putting together a GoFundMe page to see if I could get a little help in raising the money I'd need for the deposit for this program. I wondered if it would be tacky. But, finally, I decided that this is really where I need to go next in my training, so I put together the page and just went for it.

And what do you know? In the first few hours that my page went live, I raised over 20% of my deposit, plus I received some amazing messages of support from some of my very dear friends.

It's an experience that has me overwhelmed with gratitude, and humbled by the generosity of the people I can call my friends.

So now I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my initial supporters, and to all the future supporters of my endeavors: I'm inspired to take this knowledge and use it to make my corner of the world a better place. And who knows? One candle can light a thousand more...

So, if you're so inclined, please take a look at my GoFundMe page. If you can't make a donation, maybe you can share it with anyone you think might be interested. I'm offering some pretty sweet rewards: Ayurvedic consultations, yoga classes, personalized Ayurvedic herbal and oil samplers, and even a beaded Ohm cuff bracelet by my sweet, supportive friend Carol Dean Sharpe.




Saturday, August 30, 2014

Parts of the Same Soul

Truly, this has been an amazing week. Busy, yes. One step close to complete chaos, yes. But truly magical and amazing.

I'm not ready to talk about the whole thing yet, and I'm still trying to hold on to these memories for as long as I can.

But over this last week or so, I've come to realize that I can recognize when I come into contact with someone who just might be part of the same soul as I am.

There's no way to explain it, other than a feeling in my gut. A connection. It's when you're sitting next to someone in a crowded restaurant and you look at them and suddenly, you're the only two people in the whole place. It's meeting someone for the first time and in the space of an hour feeling like you've known each other your whole lives.

So, while I'm still processing everything that has happened and everything that I'm feeling and where I need to go from here, I'll leave you with a thought from Paulo Coelho:

"Really important meetings are planned by the souls long before the bodies see each other."

 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Love Your Curves, Part 1: Clothes Do Not Make the Yogi

http://www.seattleyoganews.com/yoga-in-india-yoga-in-america/
Okay, let's talk about yoga clothes.

If you've ever taken a yoga class in a studio, maybe one of the first things that you've noticed is, of course, what everyone else is wearing. The instructor. Your fellow yoginis and yogis. And if you're in a hot yoga class, well, maybe what's more important is what everyone isn't wearing. ('Cause, you know, the only way I'm comfortable in 104 degrees is if I'm completely naked.)

Americans in general are obsessed with STUFF. Lots of stuff. The more the better, right? There are hundreds of companies all looking to sell you clothes that are "designed" for yoga. You know the names: Hard Tail. Prana. Lululemon. Cozy Orange. Gaiam.

They want you to believe that in order to do yoga, you really NEED to buy their clothes.

And to some degree, these kinds of clothes are really nice to wear during asana practice: most of them fit reasonably well, they're comfortable, they're pretty and visually appealing, and they allow you to move.

But if you saw what yoga looks like in India, you might think differently about plunking down a hundred bucks for a single pair of spiffy new yoga pants.

In India, yoga is practiced in whatever clothing you happen to be wearing, as long as it's comfortable and you can move around in it.

So, here's what I think about yoga clothes: wear them. Or not.

As long as you can move without restrictions, as long as you can breathe deeply throughout your asana practice, it really doesn't matter one bit what you're wearing.

I'm of the personal opinion that we shouldn't be worrying too much about what we look like when we go to yoga class. As long as your clothes fit comfortably, wear them. As long as you're not going to have any kind of "wardrobe malfunction", you're good.

If you don't have $165 to spend on a pair of yoga pants, who cares? Wear your sweats to yoga class. Wear your favoritest, most comfortable, ratty-looking gym shorts.

My favorite yoga teacher says this quite often: It doesn't matter what a pose looks like; it matters what it feels like.

Same goes for your clothes.

Sure, it's fun to wear a nice outfit to yoga now and then. And I'm not saying that you should completely neglect personal hygiene, just because you're on a spiritual journey. (Heck, even Patanjali talked about saucha, which is translated to cleanliness of thought, mind, and body.)

But unless you're doing "gym" yoga or something that isn't a spiritual practice (because in my head, if it's not a spiritual practice, it ain't yoga), one of the things that we should be cultivating off the mat is asteya, the practice of non-coveting, or even not entering into debt. If you can't afford to spend $65 on a top designed JUST for yoga, it's not a big deal. There are plenty of beautiful, comfortable, and most importantly, affordable options for you at places like your local thrift shop or resale shop. Bonus: most of these thrift shops and resale shops benefit a small business owner or charity. (My favorite thrift shop uses the money from sales of merchandise to fund our local food pantry, and my favorite resale shop is owned by a friend in the next town over - so my dollars are supporting things I believe in!)

When we practice yoga in a studio, we should feel welcome, no matter what we're wearing. It's the responsibility of the studio owners and teachers to create a safe, welcoming environment for yogis of all shapes and sizes, no matter what they wear to practice yoga.

Now that we have THAT out of the way, look later this week for how to take your yoga off the mat and love your body.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Love Your Curves? An Open Letter to Yoga Journal

Okay, for months now, I've been bitching that there hasn't been a whole heck of a lot of diversity in the pages of Yoga Journal, aside from the occasional injection of testosterone from male models. So I was actually kind of excited to see the article called Love Your Curves in the September 2014 issue. (Hilaria Baldwin is on the cover, which is a whole other gripe for another blog.)

But, back to my curves...

So, I at first thought this article was going to be about how to modify poses for curvier bodies. Hallelujah! A way to love your body by practicing asana! Making your practice YOURS, no matter what your body type!

Imagine my shock when right there on the first page was the little text box in the corner that read, "Lucky me, I inherited cellulite. How can I conceal my butt dimples?"

Whaaaaaaaaaaaaa?????

Turns out that the article is all about how to DRESS to "cover up" your "imperfections" and "accentuate" your "assets".

Oh, give me a fucking break.

This? Again?

A whole freaking article about which $65 yoga tops and $80 yoga pants will help you take the "angst" out of "dressing" for yoga class.

Other helpful bits of advice from this article:
  • "My bottom doesn't fill out my yoga pants. How can I create curves?"
  • "Which prints look best on thicker thighs?"
  • "My thong underwear rides up in Down Dog, but I don't want my panty lines to show. Should I just go commando?" 
Holy hell, it reads like Cosmo's Guide to Getting Your Yoga On.

Needless to say, I am more than a little upset about this article. It seems to go against some of the very yogic principles I (and millions of other American yogis and yoginis) are pursuing. No wonder people think that American yoga is a big joke!

Stuff like non-attachment to material things ($80 yoga pants, anyone?), acceptance and contentment, compassion for all living things, and celebration of the divine through the self.

The first paragraph of the article talks about how "yoga isn't about achieving the perfect body", and how our own body image issues can cause every yogi a little bit of stress. But instead of telling us how to address these kinds of thoughts and insecurities through our practice of yoga, they tell us that we can solve these problems by how we DRESS.

Wow, YJ. You so totally missed the mark on this one.

According to the article, if you want to feel beautiful on the mat no matter what your body type, it all comes down to what you WEAR.

Tell you what, YJ: you want a REAL article on addressing body image issues on the mat? I'll write one for you, and you can bet it won't include a single sentence about what I'm wearing.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Paschimottanasana and Santosha

Paschimottanasana
Paschimottanasana - if ever there were a yoga pose to send my mind into World War III (as my lovely friend likes to phrase it), this is it.

It's a seated forward bend, easiest to begin by sitting in staff pose, dandasana. Now, dandasana itself is a struggle for me. I have probably the tightest lower back of any yoga teacher in North America, so I need to tuck a blanket right under the edge of my butt for a little bit of support. Then you extend your legs out long in front of you, flexing the feet and pointing the toes back towards the body. The arms come out to the sides and the fingertips can rest on the floor. Then when you're settled in this pose, drawing up on the perineum, drawing the belly button back towards the spine, you drop the chin towards the chest. This engages all 3 energy locks, or bandhas, in the body.

To move into paschimottanasana, you release the chin from the chest, and some folks like to raise the arms up overhead and get nice and long in the torso before hinging from your hips and moving forward, lowering the chest to the thighs and reaching the arms forward, folding the body in half into a graceful sandwich.

That's about as far as I can get. On a good day.
Whatevah.

I have a couple of anatomical things working against me, here. First of all, in addition to the tight lower back that keeps me from folding into much of anything, I've got short arms. So even if I could fold myself in half at the waist, I would still have a problem reaching my toes.

And despite two years of a daily yoga practice, my hamstrings are still tighter than an Eskimo drum. (Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, you don't want to overstretch the tendons and ligaments that hold your bones in place.)

When I first started yoga, this pose was a struggle for me. Every. Single. Time.

I would breathe and try to imagine my lower back releasing my upper back down onto my thighs. I would imagine a light attached to my chest, shining forward.

Yeah, okay.

Finally, one day, I just said, fuck it, I'm gonna sit right here where I am and flex the shit outta my feet, press out through those godamn heels, and just be here.

These days, I practice some form of a seated forward bend almost every single day. Whether it's paschimottanasana or janu sirsasana, I sit my ass down on a blanket, flex my feet, and fold as far forward as my body can on that particular day at that particular time.

Sometimes my hands make it all the way down to my ankles. Woot woot!

Sometimes my hands just rest on my knees while I drop my head and breathe into the God-awful sensation running down the backs of my concrete hamstrings. (It's not pain, which is always a bad thing in yoga, it's just a wickedly intense sensation of being stretched like an industrial strength rubber band.)

And then yesterday during yoga class, when I was in what felt like my four thousandth practice of paschimottanasana, I realized something: I wasn't struggling in this pose anymore.

What had changed?

Surely not my body - while I've noticed some amazing changes in the way my body looks and moves in the 2 years since I started a daily yoga practice, my ability to fold forward while seated is not one of them.

What changed was more important - my attitude towards the pose.

Instead of launching into a full-on war of the worlds in my mind, I just sort of followed my breath downward as I folded forward as far as was comfortable. And then I just sat there in it.

No struggle. No pain.

Yoga is just as much a training of the mind as it is of the body.

I was giddy when I left class yesterday, feeling like I have another tool to use in my management of stress and anxiety. Because surely, if I can change my attitude towards paschimottanasana, there's something else in my life that I'm struggling with that could use a little help from an attitude adjustment.

What if today, you picked something that you struggle with. We all have shit in our lives that we struggle with, whether it's a relationship or work and career or money matters. What if, just for today, you decided not to struggle with it? What if you decided to just let it be as it is?


And that, my friends, is how you begin to practice santosha. Acceptance. Contentment.

It goes a lot deeper than my seated forward bend.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Changing Your Inner Dialogue

When I was a kid, I had urinary tract infections all. the. time. Really - like one a month. My parents dragged me around from doctor to doctor to try to figure out why I was getting them. I underwent a painful and, as it turned out, useless surgical procedure when I was around 5 years old. I had test after test after test after test...and nothing. It felt like my whole life growing up was spent being treated for a urinary tract infection, and then around the time I turned 16, they turned into spectacularly painful kidney infections.

Thankfully, I finally discovered the reason for these infections (not until I was 26), and I'm happy to say that I've had exactly two of them in the last 14 years.

But growing up, there was always this voice in my head that said, "Oh, you've got a fever? You're probably sick again. You're always sick. You've got these things wrong with you all the time."

And then there were the migraine headaches that started when I was about 6. I can still remember the first one - there's a picture somewhere of me and my sister sitting in a chair reading a book together, and all I can remember about that day was the incredible amount of pain I was in from this headache. 

And add to that watching my mother with her constant running dialogue in her head telling her that she was dying, every single day...and, well, you probably understand where this is going.

Half of my battle with the anxiety is trying to convince myself that there's actually nothing wrong with my health. I can remember in my first yoga class with Robin, we were somewhere between extended side angle pose and exalted warrior, and I couldn't help but cry at the thought that if my body was capable of feeling so strong in these movements and these poses that there really wasn't anything wrong with me at all.

So maybe that's why I do yoga every day. As a reminder. If I can float through a dozen sun salutations, there's probably nothing physically wrong with me.

I need to shut off that inner dialogue that says to me, "Oh no, a headache? Brain tumor. Nausea? Pancreatic cancer. Twinge in your jaw? Heart attack."

And I'm sure there are other people out there who think the same thing, but when some of that inner dialogue comes into my head while I'm in the throes of a bout of anxiety, it's a total disaster, usually involving a visit to the urgent care clinic (or the emergency room if it's particularly bad), and costing us a small fortune with our crappy high-deductible insurance plan.

It's just like the mantra workshop I took back at Kripalu in April: we all have a mantra practice already, whether we realize it or not. The things we tell ourselves are the things that we become. If I continue to tell myself that I'm sick all the time, well, I'm probably going to get sick. At the very least, I'm not going to feel very good, physically or mentally.

My mantra for this week while I'm on my yoga mat will be: I am strong. I am healthy. I am whole.

What kinds of things do you tell yourself that you wish you could change? Are you even aware of them?

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Ashtanga Standing Series, Day 6

Last week, my friend and teacher Debbie Philp told me that she had decided to do the standing series of poses from the Ashtanga Primary Series every day for 30 days.

I've been finding myself drawn to the Ashtanga practice lately, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's the warmer weather. Maybe it's because I feel like I have more energy these days when I'm not so worried about stacking wood and keeping the fire going and just trying to stay warm. Maybe it's the rhythm of the series, the predictability, the routine.

Whatever the reason, I figured I would join her, and today was Day 6.

I decided to make it a little mini-Ashtanga practice, beginning with 3 Surya Namuskara A and 3 Surya Namaskara B. Those alone get my heart pumping some days, and I don't feel bashful about dropping down into child's pose instead of downward facing dog towards the end of those Sun Salutations.

I didn't get up early enough this morning to do my practice before I went off to teach at the studio, so after I came home, had lunch, flew a kite with Colden, went swimming with Colden, and walked around the backyard a few times, I decided it was time to do a little yoga.

It was around 4 in the afternoon, and it was hot. The temperature on the back porch was probably close to 90. And something...happened.

Because it was so hot, I decided to take off my tank top and just practice in my shorts and sports bra. For the first time, probably ever, I wasn't ashamed of my body. I didn't feel fat. I didn't feel chunky. When I looked down at my legs and my knees in downward facing dog, I didn't see "chubby" - I saw strong, legs like tree trunks that rooted me down into the Earth.

When I gazed down at my stomach, I didn't cringe at the stretch marks or the bulge of my belly. I thought, geez, how the hell did I squeeze an 11 lb. baby in there?

I may not have felt terribly flexible, but I certainly felt strong and light as I moved through each asana. THIS, I thought, is a real yoga body. I was nearly perfectly content with my body and what it could do and how it felt in that brief 55 minutes of practice.

At the end of my practice, I gave myself a nice long break in a supported shoulderstand; then a restorative fish pose; and finally, a good 15 minutes in savasana.

24 more days to go. I wonder what else I'll discover along the way...

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Blessings

This jade pendant came to me in the jewelry that I inherited after my mom passed away 6 years ago this month. I know nothing about it, but it spoke to me for some reason, so I wore it down to the funeral a few weeks ago.

You should know that the friends I was with during my trip to New Jersey for the funeral are Chinese, and I've known them since 8th grade. Pretty much their entire family knows my sister and me, we've been friends for so long. So when I walked in the door wearing this, all of the Chinese aunties started telling me what a beautiful piece of jade it was and asked me where I got it.

The day I left to come home was the day of the funeral. After the funeral, we all went to an enormous all-you-can-eat buffet. As we sat and ate and enjoyed being with each other, I mentioned to my friends that I had no idea what the Chinese character on this pendant meant, and asked them if they knew. No, they said, but they motioned towards one of the aunties sitting a few tables away and told me ask her, because she would know for sure.

So I went over and asked her, and she told me that it means "fortune".

"But not just the money kind of fortune," she said. "It means money, family, health, happiness, everything!"

The other aunties agreed, and one said, "You can also interpret it to mean, 'blessings'."

I felt my heart melting as I walked back over to the table where I was sitting with my friends. I felt like I wanted to cry, but I tried not to, seeing as how I had just stuffed myself full of sushi and sesame balls filled with sweet bean paste and carrot salad and miso soup.

It was a long drive back to New York through pouring rain for pretty much the entire 5-hour ride. But the whole time, I kept thinking about that pendant around my neck, the meaning of it, and where it had come from.

It took me a few days more to process it. When I told my friend about it later that week, she said to me, "How beautiful! Your mother left you these blessings!"

The irony of it all is that I wonder if my mother ever knew what the character on this pendant means, or if she ever really understood the blessings she had in her life.

Looking back on things, I feel as though my mother was never actually present in her life during the time that I knew her. She was always worrying about something, or distracting herself from things with work or television or crossword puzzles. Even when she was sitting with us at the table or when we were sitting with her in her room, she was busy doing something else.

Part of why I want to work on being more mindful in my everyday life is so that I make sure that I never, ever take for granted all of the blessings that surround me.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Weirdness

So, this is the year of the horse in Chinese astrology, right? Big changes supposed to happen for lots of us. Very unpredictable energy, so we've got to just hang on. But I'm not feeling big changes - I'm just feeling weirdness.

Is weirdness a type of big change? Maybe.

Colden had his first all-day field trip today, down to an amusement park in Lake George. It's not a short ride - Lake George is a good 90 minutes from school. That's a long ride for a bus full of kindergarteners and first-graders.

And of course, the anxious mind in me starts freaking out: what if he gets hurt? What if there's an accident on the northway? What if, what if, what if?

Part of me wants to tether my little boy to my side for the rest of my natural life to keep him safe, but there's another part of me that wants to push him out, to encourage him to see the world in all of its beauty and diversity. I want him to understand that life is all about the experience, but at the same time, my Momma Bear instincts want to keep him close.

Then there was last night and my inability to fall asleep, despite the fact that I was absolutely exhausted. Believe me, I tried EVERYTHING, but I couldn't calm my racing heart enough or relax my body until well after 2:30 a.m.

At 5:30, I heard my husband calling me: "Jen! It's 5:30! Get up!"

I was torn between wanting to stay in bed, my head resting comfortably in the puddle of drool on my pillow, and wanting to get up and kill my husband.

I got up, but my husband is still alive. (Thankfully.)

This is just how it's been for me this year, how my life has been. Daily activities interrupted by strange curve balls and things over which I have absolutely no control, forcing me to find ways to work around them and still maintain a level head.

Now that I've taught this morning's yoga class and procured a container of incredible lunch-y goodness in the form of spanikopita from the local natural foods store, I am headed down for a quick nap before I go pick up the rugrat from school. I know he's going to be hot, cranky, covered in bug dope and sunscreen, and probably tired from the day's adventure. But at least I feel like whatever happens with him this afternoon, I can handle it.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Not a Happy Post

I woke up to some unexpected news this morning. My best friends' father passed away over the weekend. I've known these two since the 8th grade in Catholic school, when we had to wear those stupid uniforms with plaid skirts and synthetic-fiber vests and knee socks with ugly shoes.

It made me aware that there is a growing number of my schoolmates who are now part of the "one surviving parent" club.

This is the part where we watch our parents die.

My mom died 6 years ago this July. And I think there are times when the tragedy of her life is still too much for me to think about.

I wore a piece of her jewelry today, a quartz crystal wrapped in wire and hung from a chain. It gave me a small comfort, a connection, a tiny bit of hope.

And I feel completely helpless as I sit and watch my schoolmates and friends go through the same thing. Our parents are growing old and leaving us.

It's the normal order of things, of course, but that doesn't make it any easier.

Some of us will have to deal with estates, nursing homes, assisted living, hospice, attorneys... Because that's just how things work.

So as we sit and keep watch through these life transitions, I wonder: in our 40-odd years on this planet, what have we learned? Have we learned anything at all, really?

What are we doing for our kids? What are we leaving for them?

What kind of experience are they going to have when it's their turn to watch us die?

I can't say that I've known this all along, but what I know to be true tonight is that all we have is this moment.

This breath.

These eyes.

This soul.

And nothing else...none of it...really matters, anyway. All that we have, truly, is this.

This.

And I was lucky enough tonight to have a safe place to go to sit with all of this that was swirling through the chaos of my mind, a place where I could go and let the tears come along with the fear and the other hard stuff. I had a place where I could go and just let it all go.

We identify so much with our parents. We feel as though they will be there forever, because they have been there forever, right? So when they just suddenly...disappear...what's left?

Just this.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Mirror

Yesterday, I started teaching a new yoga class - all on my own, outside of the studio in Keene where I like to teach. It was this lovely little arts theater that's literally a five minute walk down the hill from my house.

The last time I was there, the upstairs space in this theater wasn't "finished", and they were using it as a room for art workshops. This time, it was apparent that the arts organization that owns the theater had made improvements and turned it into a dance studio, complete with bars along the walls, and - ugh - mirrors.

Right before I got pregnant with Colden, I did bellydance with a friend once a week, and it was great fun. And I really didn't mind looking in the mirrors. Usually, I was so focused on trying to make my body move the right way that what I saw in the mirror didn't bother me.

But then I was pregnant and had an 11 lb. 2 oz. baby and a c-section and my body just changed. Every inch of it, inside and out, was not the same as it was before. And we all know how easy it is to deal with change, right?

One of the things about yoga is that I love how it's all about the way you FEEL, and not so much about the way you look. I can't stand hot yoga or Bikram that's done in front of mirrors. For me, anyway, it's just so distracting to look into the mirror when I'm trying to focus on my breath and keep my eyes closed and find stillness all at the same time.

So I kinda freaked out when I saw the damn mirrors in this space. Ugh. I was worried that the students for this class would freak out, too, so I tried my best to keep us facing AWAY from the mirrors.

About 3/4 of the way through class, while demonstrating a standing pose, it happened. I caught sight of myself in the mirror, and I totally freaked out. All I could see was belly and butt - and they were huge! Enormous! Nothing at all like what I imagine I look like when I close my eyes and settle in to a pose.

When I'm practicing at any one of my other favorite studios, I don't have to worry about what I look like. I make the adjustments to my body as I feel them, I close my eyes, I come back to the sound and rhythm of my breath, and I FEEL my poses.

In my mind, I feel strong. I feel light.

I looked neither strong nor light when I looked at myself in the mirror that day.

I tried to laugh it off - ha ha!, I said. I said this was a good time to close your eyes and turn your attention inward so you wouldn't have to look in the mirror.

But I was surprised at what came up out of me, all the negativity, and the discontent, bordering on hate for my body.

Where the hell did THAT come from, I wondered.

Here I am, thinking that I'm so comfortable in my own skin for the first time in ages that I can swear SPANDEX! (Didja happen to catch the flying pigs that day when I wiggled into my first pair of Spandex yoga leggings?) I haven't been obsessed with my weight or with my clothing size or any of that crap. I felt graceful and light and strong, and...

All of that flew out the window when I saw myself leading that class.

I thought about maybe bringing sheets with me for the next time we have class there, so I can cover up the mirrors.

But, no. On second thought, this is going to be my practice from now on. If I'm going to be okay with how I look, it means that I have to be okay with what I think when I look at myself. I need to look at myself - on so many levels - and change that dialogue.

So, the mirrors stay. Uncovered. And we'll see what they uncover next.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

I Hate Yoga

Yep, that's right. I hate yoga.

It's an uneasy sort of night. Something doesn't feel right in my body, in my mind. My spirit is unsatisfied. Nothing feels right or good.

I have harsh words for myself as I choose my clothes for the day. Do you really need all this crap? Why the hell did you spend your money on that?

I drive to the yoga studio, but there isn't any music that can soothe me. The notes coming from the speakers in the car sound like broken glass scratching across my mind and in my chest.

In the studio, I unroll my mat. I sit in easy pose, hands resting on my thighs. I follow my breath, the inhale and the exhale.

What the hell am I doing this for? Do I really need to be here? I don't need to be here. I should be at home doing the dishes or cleaning up the endless piles of stuff that get taken out and not put away every day or taking Colden to the park or cooking or cleaning the refrigerator.

My arms move up and down. I'm pissed at myself. Pissed at all my shortcomings as a human being. I'm a terrible person. I shouldn't be here. Why the hell did I think I could be a yoga teacher? Wasn't that whole thing a big waste of time?

I tip my hips back into down dog, and it shoots into my brain, right before my closed eyes: I. Hate. Yoga.

I really do. I hate it. At this second, I'm intensely aware of every single character flaw, everything that my body is not capable of, everything that I should be doing instead of trying to make my body move into these strange positions.

I hate the way yoga makes me aware of what's not working in my life, because then it begs me to answer the question: What do I need to change?

I hate the way that yoga makes me understand that my discontent in this moment is coming just from me, and not from anyone else.

I hate the way yoga makes me ache for connection with other human beings, other people who may or may not be struggling the same way I am.

My brain is snarling at me, snapping like a terrified dog backed into a corner.

And then...and then...

There's the release. Just when I think I can't take anymore, when my stomach and my brain and my heart are stretched to their limits, everything just busts wide open, and...

Everything is fine.

Monday, May 19, 2014

YogAlign: The Anti-Yoga?

A huge part of being a yoga teacher, of being a good yoga teacher, is staying open to new information about this ever-evolving practice. So when Michealle Edwards, the creator of the YogAlign method of yoga came to my local yoga studio, I signed right up to see what she had to say about yoga and posture.

I read through her website in the week before she came to the studio, and noticed that she uses William Broad's notorious book, The Science of Yoga, as an example of how "dangerous" yoga is. (Cue interior cringing. There's a lot wrong with that book and it's distorted presentation of asana practice.) Her website promises that her method will result in "pain free" yoga, which to me, seems kind of odd - I've always believed that all yoga should be pain free.

So, more on that later, but the day of the workshop, she had all of us take before and after pictures so that we could see if there was any shift in our posture after working with her methods throughout the morning. She taught us a couple of breathing exercises to make us aware of what muscles are moving in the body every time we take a breath.

Michaelle guided us through a series of movements meant to create body awareness and stabilize our posture. I definitely noticed a difference in how my body felt before and after we did each side. When we did some upper body work, I noticed that after completing a range of movements on my right side, my right arm was most definitely about an inch longer than my left. (The left arm evened up nicely after I repeated the movements on that side!)

First, I completely agree with Michaelle that posture is a huge problem for a whopping majority of people these days, even among practitioners and teachers of yoga. We've (de?) evolved into a society of mostly desk-sitters, and our bodies are slumping forward as the result of poorly designed chairs and desks from where we sit all day.

I also agree with her that yoga should not hurt, and that asanas should most definitely be modified to create a sense of ease and stillness.

I don't agree that the practice of asana is inherently "dangerous". Speaking as someone who hurt herself a whole lot (read: weekly) when I got serious about a daily asana practice 18 months ago, I've learned that a huge part of asana is meant to bring your awareness into your own body. How many years have we all spent rushing through life in this body without giving any thought to how it feels or what it wants? It's probably the hardest part of asana practice for many of us: learning how to tune in to our bodies and what they really want after all these years, and learning how to treat ourselves gently. That doesn't necessarily make the practice of asana dangerous - it just means that we have to pay attention to how and what we're practicing.

And how is our body really "meant" to move, anyway? I think a huge part of the practice of asana in yoga is to develop the strength and flexibility to get into some of these poses, while, of course, being gentle to yourself while you're doing it. Michaelle asserts that the human body was never "meant" to be in positions like staff pose (sitting on the floor with the legs stretched out in front, feet flexed).

But from my beading studies, I know that this is how the Ndebele tribe of South Africa sit for extended periods of time while doing their beadwork. Is this somehow unnatural?

Ndebele woman doing traditional beadwork in seated position very similar to staff pose

No, we don't often walk with our knees locked stiff and straight, nor do we walk with our pelvic floor tightened and engaged, nor do we sit like, well, the Ndebele tribe does on a regular basis. But that's not the point of asana in yoga - at least, not as I understand it. 

My last question, and one that was asked by more than a few people at the workshop, was that if Michaelle thinks that other forms of yoga are so "dangerous", why is she marketing her workshops to yoga teachers and yoga studios? Why is she even using "yoga" in the name of her method?

Now, before you get the wrong idea, I took away a lot of valuable information from this workshop. First and foremost was a reinforcement of my belief that too much flexibility without strength can be a liability in asana practice, and people who just stretch mindlessly without full awareness can indeed injure themselves pretty seriously.

Something else very interesting that Michaelle talked about was resetting our muscle memory, which is what I heard about when I took a short positional therapy workshop last month at Kripalu. Muscles that are too tight can cause lots of pain and lots of problems, and the idea behind positional therapy (much like Michaelle's YogAlign method) is that allowing certain muscles to relax back into their natural configurations, you can relieve things like chronic back pain and muscular tension headaches.

I intend to immerse myself in Michaelle's book to learn more about her methods and the reasoning behind them, but for now, I'm going to continue to practice certain asanas with the support of props like blankets and modifications like bent knees.

Last lesson behind all of this? Staying open to new information from alternative viewpoints can sometimes lead to a reinforcement of your current beliefs! Don't be afraid to hear what others have to say, even if it's not totally in agreement with what you already think you "know"!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Finding Strength In the Small

So yesterday morning after Colden was packed off to school, I rolled out my mat before I did anything else, and I put myself through a vigorous asana practice. I did my Sun Salutations, went through a nice vinyasa flow using my favorite standing poses, and then did a few seated poses to cool down.

A thought kept popping back into my mind as I went through my flow. When I was at the studio for practice yesterday morning, Robin said to me, "Look at your biceps! Oh my God!"

Yeah, after 18 months of near-daily Sun Salutations, I have itty bitty biceps on my itty bitty arms. My body has definitely changed - I'm more flexible, stronger, and leaner than I was 18 months ago. My size 12 jeans have been replaced by sizes 8 and 6, if you can believe that. And all I did was yoga. I do not lift weights. I do not run. I do not do "cardio" (except for a vigorous Ashtanga practice now and then), and I don't go to the gym to "work out". I just do yoga.

And it's not like I'm doing any of the really big, flashy asanas, here. No headstands for me. I can only do shoulder stand if I'm using a bolster or a stack of blankets about 6" high. I can't do plow, or wheel, or any of those crazy back bends. (At least, not yet.)

But think about it: if you stand in Warrior II with your arms outstretched, what are you doing? You're working those muscles. You're breathing deeply, moving oxygen and red blood cells through your body. You're standing still, yes, but you're WORKING.

It's not a big movement to stand in mountain pose with your arms stretched overhead. But if you do it every day, what happens? Eventually, you get strong. Your legs get strong - your bones get strong from weight bearing, your muscles engage and get used. Your shoulders loosen up, your arms get long and lean.

When I  move through Chaturanga, the yoga push-up move that's a part of every Sun Salutation, I still can't move right from plank and lower down to the mat without dropping my knees first. I just don't have the strength in my core.

Yet.

But practicing all those Chaturangas with my knees bent has paid off - I have biceps! 

Don't be afraid to start small. If you're looking to start a yoga practice, don't be afraid to walk into a beginner class and learn the basics. Don't tell yourself that just because you need to modify a pose that you're practice isn't as "good" as someone who doesn't need a prop or a modification.

Yoga is not about a competition. It's about working on YOURSELF. It's about checking in with YOU. Treating yourself gently makes you stronger, not weaker.

Have you ever just spent an entire yoga practice sitting in easy pose or child's pose? That's a powerful move, right there. Do you have the strength to sit with your thoughts and your breath for a full 75 minutes? I encourage you to try it one day, and experience it for yourself.

Sure, one day I might have the core strength and strength in my shoulders to get into head stand and shoulder stand. But for now, I'll keep practicing my small moves, and enjoy those biceps of mine.