Playing in the Mud

There is a popular saying in yogic circles: No mud, no lotus. The lotus flower, viewed as a spiritual symbol in Eastern religions, represents being grounded in the earth while aspiring towards the divine.  It grows in muddy water, its petals blooming from the murkiness to reveal beauty. “No mud, no lotus” is an analogy for life’s sufferings, of which no one can escape; the recognition that even suffering has a purpose in our lives, if only we pay attention. Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book, “No Mud, No Lotus,” states, “Most people are afraid of suffering. But suffering is a kind of mud to help the lotus flower of happiness grow. There can be no lotus flower without the mud.” 

This past week, I played in the mud for a few days, doing an Ayurvedic cleanse to reset my digestive system and do a little self-exploration.  In Ayurveda, we do cleanses to balance our doshas. Doshas are three energies that define a person’s makeup. These three doshas also apply to times of each day, the seasons of the year, and seasons of one’s life. Ayurveda teaches that food is medicine and that when one of our doshas is out of balance, we can help bring it back in balance through diet and lifestyle adjustments. A cleanse jumpstarts this. 

I must clarify that I did not decide to do this to lose weight. There was no scale or measuring tape involved. It was an experiment to see what would happen, physically and emotionally, if I deprived myself. It was three days. And it was life changing. 

So here’s what I did. Three Days. No caffeine or alcohol, warm water and herbal hot tea only. My nourishment came from Kitchari, an Indian “stew” made from rice, mung daal beans, ghee and spices. This I ate three times daily: breakfast between 6 and 8, lunch between 11 and 1, and dinner between 5 and 7. No snacking and no food past 7PM. That’s it. 

Amazingly, I wasn’t starving. But much happened. From the very first day. 

What I didn’t expect was the sadness. I’m no stranger to this, as I have struggled with depression for several decades.  I am fifty-three years old and things are changing: my body, my family (my husband and I will be empty-nesters in five short years), my friendships, my marriage.  It’s a lot. All of that came to the surface and felt very raw. As a friend who did the cleanse with me so accurately stated, all emotions were “right there.” To add to this, there was the fogginess.  Oh, the fogginess.  

Without the distraction of food – because we really do spend a lot of energy around food:  shopping, planning, organizing, cleaning up – you have time on your hands. You have time to be with your thoughts, good and bad.  I realized I felt, in a word, old. All of my self-conscious doubts about my appearance, i.e. how “old” I look, rose to the surface. Yes, at fifty-three, I still struggle.  

One of yoga’s many lessons is being with what is.  Through practicing asanas, we learn to be with our bodies as they are in the moment.  Without judgement, we move through poses, noticing where we’re tight, where we feel the pose.  We practice kindness and non-judgement towards ourselves, recognizing that all bodies are different, and that each day our body feels different.  There is no “right” or “wrong,” just what is. This is intentional. As we practice this on the mat, we learn to transfer these lessons off the mat – when we’re not in a down-dog pose, when we’re standing in line at the grocery store, or dealing with a difficult situation. Like a three-day cleanse.

So when these emotions arose, I was prepared.  I didn’t push them aside or try to rid myself of them.  I accepted them with compassion towards myself and without judgement.  I allowed myself to be sad. I asked for help. Not to say this was easy, mind you, but…no mud, no lotus. It’s not called “a practice” by accident.

On the second day, I awoke very disconcerted after a fitful night of sleep with very vivid dreams that left me melancholy and questioning my life. Deprived of my beloved coffee, the low-grade headaches I endured the day before returned in spades but blessedly weren’t constant.  Throughout the day I strangely felt glimmers of clarity and joy mixed with fatigue and boredom. Naps were my new bff. I felt anger dissipating. Anger towards time, towards my husband, towards strangers, towards myself. I felt kinder, in and out.

I even had this moment of sheer gratitude driving home from a movie, windows down, cranking “Hey, Jude,” past fields of kids playing baseball under the lights, surrounded by their loved ones watching. A beautiful summer night. I actually thought to myself, “Everything is amazing.” Something a depressed person NEVER says. 

That night, I endured another fitful night of sleeping due to pain in my hips/buttocks. This was not soreness. A middle-of-the-night Google search revealed that a lot of people experience this with fasting, but interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be any conclusive medical explanation. My mind immediately went to yoga (isn’t that the answer to everything?). In yoga, the hips are a place of deep release, a place in the body where tension is stored and some say unresolved emotions, as well. The analogy often used for the hip area is the “junk drawer” of emotions, where they make their home if they’re not processed. 

Dr. Peter Levine, author of, “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma” says “…traumas stay with us, as a frozen residue of energy that has not been resolved and discharged; this residue remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and spirits. Our hips are like a bowl, then, catching and holding the residue of a trauma or a prolonged period of stress.” 

Was my body processing past trauma? Unresolved emotions? Or was it just caffeine withdrawal? I’ll never know, but I do know this: after three days of cleansing, I am a new person. I have no idea if I lost weight and don’t care. What I learned was far more gratifying.

I learned that I am in charge and basked in the satisfaction of someone achieving a goal. I learned that my body is amazing and incredibly smart. I learned that taking care of myself and paying attention to what I put into my body is critical to my physical and mental health (yes, we all “know” that, but I felt it). I learned the importance of listening to what my body tells me because it knows. I learned that I really don’t need all that much food and to eat only when I’m hungry.  I learned that I’m okay, to ask for help, and that “being with” emotions, uncomfortable as that is, is the best way to process and learn from them. When you’re tired, rest. A nap does wonders for the body and mind. 

When I was able to resume eating and drinking, again, I craved fruits and vegetables, not pizza. My first cup of coffee was beyond lovely, but I didn’t have a desire to have a second. Alcohol has lost its grip, too, for now. The nearly constant ache in my shoulder is gone.  My mind is clear, my depression is at bay, I am looking through rose-colored glasses. My “junk drawer” is organized. My yoga practice is stimulating and meditation is fruitful. 

Not bad for seventy-two hours in the mud.

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One Hundred Eight

Yesterday was the Summer Solstice, the first official day of Summer and the longest day of the year.  Many yogis recognize the day by practicing sun salutations, 108 of them. This practice is common not only for Summer but at all the seasonal transitions – to cleanse the body and mind and recognize the changes that the seasons bring, both within and without.

Why 108? Here’s Shiva Rea’s take:

“But 108 has long been considered a sacred number in Hinduism and yoga. Traditionally, malas, or garlands of prayer beads, come as a string of 108 beads (plus one for the “guru bead,” around which the other 108 beads turn like the planets around the sun). A mala is used for counting as you repeat a mantra—much like the Catholic rosary.

Renowned mathematicians of Vedic culture viewed 108 as a number of the wholeness of existence. This number also connects the Sun, Moon, and Earth: The average distance of the Sun and the Moon to Earth is 108 times their respective diameters. Such phenomena have given rise to many examples of ritual significance.

According to yogic tradition, there are 108 pithas, or sacred sites, throughout India. And there are also 108 Upanishads and 108 marma points, or sacred places of the body.” Rea, Shiva. “Q&A: What’s So Sacred About the Number 108?” Yoga Journal. Yoga Journal, 13 Nov. 2007.

Typically sun salutations are part of a class sequence, done nearer the beginning of a practice to warm and prepare the body. A sun salutation is a series of asanas, or poses, eight to be exact, that stretch and challenge all the major muscle groups, So each one is a mini-workout for your body. Ideally, each pose is linked to the breath so the flow is in tune with the body’s natural rhythm.

I decided, after being a yoga practitioner for over ten years, that I was ready to try this crazy thing. I gathered 54 coins in a bowl, moved one out of the bowl after each salutation, then moved them back when the bowl was empty. It was hard, and I was drenched when it was over (and just a tad sore the next morning), but what I got was much more than physical. Here’s what I discovered:

When you do that many sun salutations, it’s easy to lose the breath, the pose, the mind. The challenge is to keep them all together, time after time after time. This takes mindfulness and concentration to not only breathe, but to perform each pose safely and with awareness. To be safe you need to make sure you’re not getting “sloppy” with each pose. You must pay attention to your body because the movements are so repetitive. Otherwise you risk injury at worst or boredom at least.

Slow and steady wins the race. Whenever I started to look at all the coins in the bowl, I remembered that each one offered an opportunity. That it wasn’t about moving all the coins, or finishing in a certain amount of time, but making each one meaningful.

It’s really okay to give yourself a break, pausing when necessary, even if only for a brief inhale and exhale. Giving yourself a break when your tired. Recognizing that “this is f***ing hard” and you are worthy of rest, that those salutations will still be waiting when and if you are ready. Sometimes the only rest needed is a breath, or two or three. To feel your heart beating, or the energy flowing in your body and noticing how you’re feeling. Where and how. And how that always changes with each breath.

So what makes this different than a long run or a hard workout? Intention. This is what keeps you going. Each salutation is a meditation, a prayer. I dedicated my practice to opening my heart – to the sun, the summer, but mostly to myself. When I was through, standing in tadasana, I felt the Earth supporting me, and felt its energy. I felt calm and cleansed and connected. And, yes, proud that I did it.

And what if I didn’t complete 108? I’m sure I still would have gotten the same benefits with the added benefit of realizing it’s not about emptying the bowl, but knowing that what was emptied was done with intention and awareness.

Thanks to the number 108, I begin summer recognizing that it’s important to slow down, pay attention, give myself a break when I need it – even if it’s just a few breaths – and live with intention.  Not too shabby for an hour and fifteen minutes worth of sweat.

The Power of the Pause

I’m snuggled under the covers on a cold but sunny Sunday morning, dog at my feet, a sick teenager by my side, blessedly allowing me to stoke his hair while he rests. No sound but our breathing and the occasional hum of the furnace as it kicks on. A warm cup of coffee to enjoy start to finish.

A pause.

In yoga, the pause is profound.

We pause to notice the flow of breath: the miraculous inhale and exhale, over and over and over, again. We pause to notice our bodies: where we’re holding tension, where we can release. We pause to notice our thoughts: What are we telling ourselves when we can’t hold tree pose as long or as steadily as the person on the mat next to us (or the person we were yesterday)? What bubbles up when we are still and how do we react to it?

In yoga, we practice quieting the body as a gateway to quieting the mind. It is said that the yoga begins when you want to come out of the pose, when things become challenging, when the internal judges show up for court. We practice on the mat to prepare us for our lives off the mat. Life is busy, and our minds are exponentially so. Off the yoga mat, the pause is equally profound.

So when you are late for work and the traffic is intolerable, you stop to pause. When you receive bad news and you reach for the bottle, you pause. When your spouse, or anyone you love (like the teenager sleeping next to me), pushes an internal button, you pause.

“Quieting the mind, becoming present in the moment, experiencing what is rather than trying to create what might be or remaining stuck in what was, are the doorways to freedom from the busy mind. Our minds need to be trained to be an effective ally. It is our responsibility to quiet the mind by entering into the moment—the power of that pause is profound.”

~Aruni Nan Futuronsky, Faculty, Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health

The key point for me in this quote is “our minds need to be trained.” We need to practice. And practice. And practice.

The great author and Buddhist monk, Pema Chodron, says this: “It all comes through learning to pause for a moment, learning not to just impulsively do the same thing again and again. It’s a transformative experience to simply pause instead of immediately filing up the space.”

Find your pause. Be transformed.

Different = Good

I’m a yoga teacher.  But I’m also a yoga student.  In my real life, I work for an elementary school, meaning I have summers off.  From June to August (far too short, in my opinion), I have the opportunity to be more a student than a teacher.  I can take a class in the morning, afternoon, or night, or maybe all three.

Whenever. I. Want.

And I love it.  Best part of summer vacation.  

In doing this, I have come to realize how wonderful it is to experience different teachers.  Even if they are your friends.  Especially if they are your friends.  So, I thought I’d sit down and share, “What I Learned on my Summer Vacation.”  Here’s my top ten list of why it’s important to mix your practice up.

Number One:  Different is good.  The yoga tradition is ancient and vast.  So vast, that a teacher certification, while a noble accomplishment, cannot possibly touch on every aspect.  There is so much to learn from over 2,000 years of teaching and most of us have less than a hundred to learn it all. The path each teacher takes after certification is as individual as the teacher herself.

The individual teacher’s motivations and values are the determining factor in their class style.  Each teacher’s focus is different and it comes from their own light:  what has spoken to them through their yoga.  Their own personal interpretation.  And that’s a beautiful thing to see and be inspired by.

Number Two:  Special teachers for special needs.  We are all different, people and yoga teachers (‘cause they are one and the same).  No two are alike, and no two teach alike.  Some teachers focus on alignment, others focus on mula bandha, still others ride the breath.  Some are peppy and talkative, others are slow and keep their instructions brief.  

You may find a certain teacher resonates with you more than another, or, depending on your mood, you may want a different kind of class from one day to the next.  Having a “working knowledge” of the teachers at your favorite studio will make it simpler to decide what will benefit your body and soul based on your particular need.

Number Three:  Some teachers swear (really, they do).  Yes, teachers are human.  They are real. They may say “left” when they meant “right,” or forget the sequence they put together and have to teach on the fly.  They are not enlightened, or possessing of special spiritual powers.  And the more you meet, the more you can celebrate that they are all guides sharing your journey, doing the best they can, just like you.

Number Four:  The students are different.  Most teachers have “regulars:” folks who are there more often than others.  They are there likely because of coinciding schedules, but, schedule or not, you need to like your teacher to keep going back.  

So…the class reflects the teacher, who can be as different as, well, another teacher (see Number Two).  It’s cool to meet new yogis.  You can learn as much from a fellow student as you can from the one in the front of the room, trust me (Note:  while you can learn from fellow students, we should always be practicing astaya.  In yoga we honor our own body and don’t compare.  And it is possible to learn from others without berating ourselves, with practice).

Number Five:  You force yourself to move inward.  By trying something new, you are faced with the unfamiliar, but you always have the familiar that is within you.  Your light is always there, no matter who you practice with.  It is unchanging.  Changing the outer stimuli reminds us of this.  

Number Six:  You learn new ways to express a pose.  Every teacher has a different way of explaining a pose, what to focus on, mentally or physically.  Because we are all different, we teachers, we feel poses differently.  And we teach from our experience, either what we’ve personally felt or what we’ve seen in our students.  

You may just walk away from that class almost nailing crow pose because of a few tips you hadn’t heard before (thanks, Tracy).

Number Seven:  It shakes things up.  If you’re in an emotional rut, go take a class with a new teacher.  Someone once said, “Do something every day that scares you.”  Going to a new class takes you out of your comfort zone.  And creates a little crack in the mind that allows strength and self-reliance to seep in.  

Breathe that sh*t in (Oh, my…did I just swear??).

Number Eight:  Teachers like to have things mixed up, too.  Because students are also our teachers, we instructors have much to gain by our classes being “mixed up,”  by seeing different faces, different bodies, different needs.  Thanks for coming.

Number Nine:  Some teachers actually like people (really, they do).  Especially new people.  

Number Ten:  You are happily reminded how wonderful yoga really is.  How it brings people of all ages and sizes and ethnicities and religions together and we’re all cool with those differences.  We yogis see and honor the light in all.  

And as a yogi, you know that no matter who you practice with, or who that person is in the front of the room, you always, always, always feel better after yoga.  You walk out a different person.  And different is good.

Namaste.

 

Stealing from Myself

Last night I taught my usual Tuesday night yoga class, the one I’ve been teaching now for a year and a half. It’s typically a small class, with some regulars and some drop-in’s who attend intermittently. The pace is even and the asanas are mildly challenging.

For the past couple weeks, some of the students attending this class have been teacher trainees from another yoga studio; part of their training encourages them to go to different studios and experience different styles (very cool, I must say).

Last night’s visiting attendees were two women: one instructor and one trainee. Both were young and energetic, the instructor thin and lithe, her upper body overlaid with colorful tattoos. Her asanas were nearly perfect and lovely to watch.

Like most instructors, I’m sure, I always feel a little intimidated when an instructor shows up for my class; feeling not so much that I’m being judged, but watched. Very carefully. I do the same when I attend a fellow teacher’s class. I’m not judging, but always searching. Searching for new ways to explain a pose or inspire students (or myself). I recognize that my style is mine, that theirs is theirs, and that instructors can’t be compared. I have tremendous respect for all teachers. What intimidates me, however, is knowledge.

Yoga is so deep and vast that when I meet other teachers (especially if they practice a different style), I am always overwhelmed at how much I DON’T know. I am suddenly reduced to a student, a child seeking approval, feeling inadequate.

“No, I don’t remember what my dosha is.”

“No, I’ve never practiced ashtanga yoga (at least I don’t think I have).”

“Nope, never heard of the hasta or the pada bandhas.”

“No, I haven’t read the Bhagavad Gita from beginning to end.”

“No, I can’t do a handstand or hold a hip balance with straight arms and legs for more than a few breaths.”

“No, I don’t make a habit of adjusting my students.”

Cerebrally, I know that we are never “done” when it comes to yoga; that the depth of this practice is vast and never-ending. So why do I feel so less-than when I discover something I don’t know? And how do I release the self-judgement for not knowing everything about something which is fundamentally unknowable?

As always, I look to the Yamas and Niyamas for guidance. The Yamas and the Niyamas are the first two limbs of the 8-Fold path of yogic philosophy. Taken from the Yoga Sutras, there are five Yamas, or restraints, and five Niyamas, or observances.

For this particular experience, Astaya, the Yama of non-stealing, spoke to me. According to Deborah Adele, in her book, The Yamas and the Niyamas, “Astaya guides our attempts and tendencies to look outwardly for satisfaction.” In looking outward, we are stealing our joy and ability to look inward. Astaya asks us to shift our awareness of others to ourselves.

So in looking inward, I can appreciate how far I’ve come, without the distraction of comparing myself to others; because comparing either leaves you feeling dejected or superior, and neither is a healthy alternative. And often what we reach for is not necessarily what we want, but what may look good at the time. In our culture, we have much to compete with. There are pretty little baubles, bangles and beads in front of us wherever we go. If we keep reaching out for things just because they are there, we aren’t fulfilling our truth.

I don’t see myself as a teacher, really, but a guide. I share what I know and take in what my students teach me. I don’t feel I will ever be one of those instructors that people seek out, revered as a master in my field. I work full-time, have a family, so my ability (and let’s face it, energy) to study and immerse myself are limited. But I love my class and my students and take the moments I do have very seriously.

No, I am not trained in Ayurveda. No, I can’t twist my 49 year-old body into asanas that a tattooed twenty-something can do. And yes, there is an enormous amount of knowledge yet to be discovered. Astaya encourages me to “be where I am,” appreciate the journey and discover where I really want to go.

Oh, and I don’t have any tattoos. Just sayin’.

Dinner for One

“We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, and private; and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.” ~C.S. Lewis.

If you want peace and rest, you need look no further than yourself. All you need for rejuvenation is within. The trick is to be quiet enough to hear.

I was granted the opportunity to spend the past four days completely alone in our home away from home; the cards just fell that way with schedules. I balked at the opportunity at first, mostly because I felt a sense of guilt. Not for leaving my kids or husband, but, sadly, for actually being able to do it. I know it’s something most people can’t have, and it felt so selfish. I thought about inviting a friend for a day or two, but in my heart of hearts I knew solitude was needed.

My days were spent doing various things needed when running a home and getting it back to order after renters: cleaning, rearranging, restocking, and organizing. A labor of love, really.

But I also meditated. I slept (a lot), spent time on the water, did some yoga, rode my bike, watched movies, and read. I ate when I was hungry (one dinner consisted of pretzels and cheese, toll house cookies, and a cold IPA), I moved when I needed to, and stayed put when my body told me to stop. I listened to the rhythm of my body and responded to its needs. I looked back and reflected on what’s brought me here, now. I expressed gratitude.

During this time of quiet, I remembered a sermon delivered by our minister several weeks ago, the topic of which was the importance of a day of rest. The Fourth Commandment, he suggested, is the Rodney Dangerfield of commandments, because it’s the one that most of us, in this crazy, open-24-hour world, tend to ignore: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” His lesson was not chiding, not one of you-must-attend-church-every-Sunday. It was to remind us of the importance of stopping, of reflecting, of being grateful.

For my time away, I brought a stack of old magazines with me from the studio where I teach yoga.  As providence would have it, one of the articles I came across was titled, “The Forgotten Pleasures of a Day of Rest.” Someone is clearly trying to tell me something. The author of the article grew up in a Brooklyn neighborhood and her family, although not stringent Jews, observed the Shabbat every Friday. It is a tradition that she still savors, not solely for the religious observance but also the opportunity to stop, slow down, and just be, alone or with family.

Now, I realize, most of us aren’t able to take several days to ourselves (we have had our home for over ten years and this was a first for me), but we can regularly carve out a day or even some finite chunk of time from our busy lives for solitude. It’s that important. And it shouldn’t be something you reserve for your summer vacation, once a year. You need to make me-time a priority, regularly and often.  And no guilt for being “selfish.”

Set a time on your schedule to unplug the phone, step away from the keyboard, and give yourself the gift of reflection. The laundry, the worries, the pressure will be there when you return, but you will be rejuvenated, approaching them from a state of gratitude and energy. Look back and ask, “For what am I grateful this week?” “When did I feel most alive?” Most importantly, create a distinctly separate time for “Being” and “Doing.” Treat it as sacred. Because it is.

The yoga tradition teaches that we are all endowed with our own inner light and inner teacher. We simply need to stop and listen. You can call it God or Jesus or divine spirit or whatever resonates with your heart. The key is to pay full attention. Treat it like a friend. Sit down for coffee and talk. Once a day or once a week. For an hour or for an afternoon. Even ten minutes of paying attention to your own breath will do. Feed, nourish and discover yourself.   Toll House cookies optional.

How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?

Open.  Energized.  Disillusioned.  Humbled.  Grateful.

Nothing but yoga can unveil all these emotions for me.  No exercise, no drug, no one person.  I continue to be amazed with my practice and this ancient art.  It’s interesting and unfortunate to me that most people think of yoga as positions: twisting your body into them, the goal being to look like a human pretzel.

However, it is so much more.  It is pushing yourself to places you never thought you could go; it’s challenging yourself, yes, physically, and, as a result, mentally, as well.  You can’t do a headstand (or even touch your toes) if you’re not willing to fail, to take baby steps and be content with that, to recognize that your body behaves differently every day into the next.  You can’t get discouraged by the person next to you who seemingly effortlessly goes from a down dog to a back bend and back, again.  Ultimately, you develop the ability, at the end of a difficult practice, to let go, to sink into the floor and enjoy the benefits of your hard work.  To not feel your body, but feel only your presence and your breath.  To focus only on the light and energy within.

This is why they call it “the practice” of yoga.  It is hard work and never ends, because each practice contains a lesson.

I will be starting yoga certification training next month, and consider myself to be an experienced yogi, having practiced now for six years.  Today I grabbed my mat and headed to the studio for a more advanced practice than is typical for me.  I found I was not so experienced.  It was a challenging class with challenging poses that required strength and stamina.  Many I had never done before and many I could hold just for a second or two.  My classmates were the experienced ones.

It was humbling and exciting at the same time.  Thankfully, I have had years of practice so although I felt discouraged and self-critical initially, that melted into motivation to learn.  I was nearly brought to tears while in shavasana, feeling somewhat ashamed of my smugness yet thankful for this new awareness.

Yoga means union.  The literal meaning of the Sanskrit word yoga is “to add”, “to join”, “to unite.”  I understood its meaning fully this morning, experiencing all these emotions in an hour-long practice.  I left invigorated, yet spent.  Reflective, yet motivated to learn more, to write, to soak in the day.

One of the most exciting benefits of yoga is when your practice starts to extend beyond the mat:  when you are faced with a difficult situation and find yourself just focusing on your breath.  When you allow yourself to just “be where you are” and not have self-imposed limits, criticisms or comparisons.  When you are grateful for these lessons.  This is what yoga is.  It’s not positions, it’s not being able to stand on your head.  The positions are a means to an end.  And the end is an ever-evolving process that leads to peace and gratitude.  Loving the lesson.

So even if you can’t touch your toes, go get a mat and practice.  You’ll get there.  And you’ll enjoy the ride.  I promise.

Peace.

Namaste.