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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Sacred Space

I love quotes. I kind of geek out over them. Sometimes I just read one after the other, searching by author or topic, admiring the way people can condense a thought into a few marvelous words.

I was recently wondering what I could write as a reflection on this past year for our Christmas card and I came across this: “When you let go of what no longer serves you, you create space for what’s meant to be.” Bam. My 2018 in eighteen words.

In June, we sold our second home.  Prior to the sale, I grudgingly created space by cleaning out closets, cabinets, and rooms.  I filled a U-Haul truck with stuff to bring home. This, in turn, required that I create space in my home by cleaning out its closets, cabinets and rooms.  Bags and boxes were donated, sold, or left for trash.

All this space-creating then started an avalanche of cleansing.  Clothes, jewelry and makeup followed. The thing that I did not anticipate, however, was how clearing my physical space would create more space mentally.

I decided to give up teaching a couple of my yoga classes.  This freed me up to take more classes.  And join a choir (unfortunately, this endeavor didn’t work out as I hoped, so, with my newfound respect for my time and space, I promptly gave it up).

When you let go of something, it creates more space in your life for better things to fill it.  Brendan Burchard, author of The Motivation Manifesto, suggests:  “The most crucial task is to forge more life into your day. This does not mean more to-do’s; it means less.  It means creating space to think, walk, eat, sleep, read, love, dream.”

With my newfound space, I started teaching Sunday school a couple Sundays a month and, although many of those mornings I walk slowly to church, clutching my coffee and grumbling about why the hell I decided to take this on, at the end of the hour, I am filled.  I’ve also discovered the joy of teaching yoga one-on-one and seeing the almost immediate results of the practice. And when it is right for me, I am reading more. I am sleeping more. And I am trying to write more.

How about you? Where can you create space physically or mentally? What is asking for your release?  Can you create space to care for yourself, whatever that means to you? Pay attention. Only through stillness can you hear what your heart is saying.  Who knows what you’ll be making room for?

Wishing you all the blessings and joy of the season.  May you be surrounded by everything and everyone you love. Especially sacred space.

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’.

Speed Limit Zero

Since the weekend before Thanksgiving, I have been battling a virus of some sort which yesterday turned into an infection.  One of the hazards of working in an elementary school, I suppose. In those twenty days, I missed most of Thanksgiving, teaching four yoga classes, practicing yoga, five days of work, two holiday parties, Christmas traditions like sending cards and baking, and spending precious time with my husband, boys (two of whom became sick, as well) and friends.

When someone I know gets sick, my classic response, whether stated or not, is, “Someone is telling you you need to slow down.”  Yeah, I get all pedantic with my bad self.  Funny to hear your own words when your head feels like it’s going to explode. Clearly someone really wanted me to slow down.  As I always do, however, I am trying to find the good, and have had plenty of time to reflect.

I’ve thought about my mom, who, nine years ago, this very day, was in a hospital fighting for her life (she lost less than a week before Christmas) and I was fighting through losing her and getting through the holiday season. I always think of that terrible time when the Christmas carols start playing, mind you, but who doesn’t want their mom when they feel lousy?

I’ve also been thinking about how blessed I am to have people who care, who help and wish me well, to have medical care, and a cozy, clean bed, and books, and movies, and tissues. My Lord, the tissues. And hot toddies.  Mostly, though, I’m grateful because I know I’ll get better.  A sinus infection isn’t terminal, even though when you’re in it, it feels like you will never feel better.  I will eventually get out of bed, get outside, and resume my crazy life.  Some people aren’t so lucky.

It’s funny how things do get pared down when you’re sick. You do only what’s essential. Sleep. Eat. Care for yourself. When simply being able to get a shower and put on clean clothes is a small feat; something you do every day, but, when you’re sick, is a luxury that leaves you feeling grateful.

Maybe I did need to slow down. We all do. The trick is to do it before you get sick. Take time to sleep. Enjoy a meal. Dream. Meditate. Pray. Read a book. Enjoy a luxuriating shower.  Do absolutely nothing. It’s so much more enjoyable when your head doesn’t feel like it’s going to explode. Trust me on this.

“There is more to life than increasing its speed.”  ~Mohandas K. Gandhi

Weekend Education

Getting older most certainly has its advantages. Like seeing old friends, feeling the benefits of sharing a history and life’s challenges and joys.  Like the ability to look back, to laugh at old times while creating new ones.  Like having the wisdom to recognize the urgency of seizing the moment and living this life.  Now.

This weekend I had the blessing of revisiting my college days, reuniting with a few sorority sisters for Homecoming Weekend. The leaves were just starting to change and a definite chill was in the air.  Turns out thirty years did not have an effect on our affection for one another.  We caught up on lost time; we drank too much, shared struggles and triumphs with kids, husbands, family and careers.  We were validated.  We laughed until we cried or our stomachs ached, whichever came first.  We created new inside jokes and gave them life.  A lot of life.

Someone we ran into said it perfectly. “Yes, we are connected with people through email, texting and social media; but then we see those people, we hear their voice, we look into their eyes, we witness their mannerisms, and we remember.”

Full disclosure: I have become too reliant on social media to fill my heart and soul.  Full disclosure: they still feel empty.  Not today.  Not after this weekend.  This weekend was a reminder that nothing will ever replace actual human contact.  Of course it can’t.

We are all busy. We are all crazy.  We all have phones that are within an arm’s reach at all times.  We are more connected than ever, but less connected than we have ever been.

We can’t get complacent. Building a history means sharing, face-to-face; creating inside jokes.  And the older you get, the more you need that validation, the more you need that support.  Life happens.  Life gets hard.  Friendship shouldn’t be.

Make that phone call, then put the phone down.  Turn it off.  Meet for a cup of coffee.  Go for a walk.  Connect.  See someone. Really see them: hear their voice, witness their mannerisms, feel their energy and respond to it, remember.  Your heart and soul will fill to overflowing.

Older is sometimes good. I’ll be dammed.

Wrestling with Chance

Today Kris left for his freshman year of college.  It was a bittersweet day, and he will be missed.  We had our last meal together last night, his choice of my “famous ribs” (according to my family), and hugs were shared today.

Kris isn’t our son, but a young man we met a little over a year ago.  He moved here from Kenya when he was five years old and started wrestling at an early age as an act of defiance towards his mom, who wouldn’t let him play football.  As a senior, Kris surpassed even his own expectations and ended his high school career as a state qualifier and place winner in wrestling.  He heads to college with a near full scholarship because of his academic and wrestling achievements.

We’ve gotten to know Kris over the past year through, yes, wrestling.  He and my oldest were on the varsity team together, and, always wanting to improve, Kris would come to any and all practices with our boys.  We would pick him up and take him, with never a word from his parents.  Polite and respectful, we didn’t mind.  He started “coaching” our youngest, going to his matches and tournaments with Chip, my husband (some overnight), and coming over for one-on-one practices in our basement.

Then, about a month ago, Chip got a message from Kris: “Mr. G, I need to talk to you about something important.”  Problems at home were making it difficult for him to stay.  Could he move in with us until he started school?  He would work, do whatever, to earn his keep….

For Chip, the decision was instantaneous.  Of course he would move in.  I, however, was a bit more cautious.  What if he gets hurt in our care?  How will we afford to house and feed another boy?  Are we really ready for the enormous responsibility of another person?  What about our kids? I talked to a friend, talked to Chip, talked to the boys, but in the end, I knew I had to do it.  How could I not?  I almost felt as if he was sent to us.

So…Kris became a part of our family a few weeks ago.  He did chores without being asked, he entertained my youngest (not an easy task), he never failed to say “Thank you for the food,” when I prepared a meal.  He always called or texted if he was out, letting us know when he would be home.  And the day before he left, we found our dog, the dog that Kris feared whenever he came over, asleep on the floor by Kris’ bed in the basement.  He truly had become “part of the pack.”

Last night at dinner I said a prayer thanking God for bringing Kris to us, and asking Him to look over him.  Although I am thrilled for him and the opportunities that await him, my heart breaks for him:  a boy who wants nothing to do with his own family, and who leaves for college without a “home” to return to.

I am beyond grateful and in awe of the serendipitous nature of life.  Had Kris not made the rebellious decision to wrestle, years ago, had my husband not been so involved with wrestling, had we not built the basement addition ten years ago which made it so convenient for Kris to stay here, and had Kris not had the courage to make that call, this never would have happened.  Sure, it may have happened to someone else, but it didn’t.  God has a plan and we don’t know what it is until we look back.

And Chip was a part of it.

He made the connection with Kris.  He nurtured the relationship and made him feel like family, enough that Kris had the courage to make that call.  He knew it would work.  He made a difference.  Thanks to him, Kris has a fighting chance, not just to succeed in wrestling, but in life.

Looking back, like everything in life, the events of the past few weeks have been temporary and fleeting.  And what a difference they made.  The increased water bill (Kris, we discovered, really liked showers), the tri-weekly trips to the grocery store – all over.  And look what we’ve gained.  Another “son.”  A person who might now have a chance.  Who feels loved.  Who feels like he belongs.  Somewhere.  We won this match.

 

 

 

Me, Myself, I

I was given the gift of a solitary weekend while my husband and kids were away. It has been a lovely and thought-provoking time. I spent some time with an old friend Friday night sharing wine, conversation and a ridiculous movie. I taught yoga, I practiced yoga, I sat in meditation in the morning sunshine with a symphony of birds as my accompaniment. I enjoyed an entire cup of coffee, sitting down. I cooked with fresh vegetables and herbs, savoring the smells and textures and tastes of good food. And I was even lucky enough to unexpectedly share it with a friend, with more wine and conversation. I read a magazine on my patio, almost cover to cover. I walked with my pup at dusk. I wrote. And I listened to classical music. Loud.

Nothing mind-blowing here, but I spent the precious time I had doing what I wanted to do, nurturing my soul. Because it needed it. As I sat reading my magazine, comfortable and warm and relaxed on a Saturday mid-afternoon, I wondered why I don’t find myself here more often, when I’m not alone.

What is it about my husband and kids that prevents me from taking time to do what I love, to stop and take time for me? Let’s face it, they are all pretty self-sufficient at this point. They don’t really expect anything from me. Yes, they are not the most organized or neat people on the planet, and sometimes you simply have to take care of responsibilities, but the Earth will not stop rotating because there are dirty socks on the living room floor. In the end, it IS a choice.

I didn’t realize how much I needed it, and, truly, how little time it really takes. In reality, it’s the simple act of recognizing that I am valuable enough to nurture. It’s not selfish. It’s self-preservation. It’s good for your health. Once you can just allow that concept to settle into your bones, you will find yourself doing what you love because, after all, you deserve it. You are valuable enough to nurture. Even it only means turning up the radio and refusing to move from the comfy chair until your cup is empty.

‘Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.’ – Dalai Lama