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.



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.