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.

A Little Bird Told Me…

Funny things happen when you stop. Really stop. Like when you have a concussion and can’t read, use your phone or computer, watch TV or deal with noise.

One morning while sitting outside doing not much more than sitting (see above), a robin landed in the grass in front of me. I watched her as she proceeded to walk through the yard, quickly starting and stopping, patiently waiting for the movement of a worm beneath her. After traversing almost the whole yard, she suddenly and swiftly poked her beak into the earth and pulled up a worm. According to various studies, robins use a combination of primarily visual and auditory cues to find their meal. Imagine being still enough and able to hear a worm moving through dirt!

It was amazing. She stopped, she listened, she felt, and she kept going despite several failed attempts. And in doing all this, she was fed. What a lesson for all of us.

When you truly can’t do anything but listen and be still, you hear a lot. You hear your inner dialogue more clearly. Truth be told, that inner dialogue was not so pleasant the first few days of my “confinement.”

In the Hatha Yoga tradition we strive to practice Ahimsa, both on and off the mat. Ahimsa means non-violence, or “do no harm.” This can have many meanings, and is most often associated with vegetarianism, but it actually is the idea of complete and total absence of violence from one’s body, mind and spirit.  One of the ways we can practice Ahimsa is showing compassion towards ourselves. Violence can come in the form of self-talk, much of which, lets face it, can be negative. And, when you’re laid up after a concussion, plentiful.

There is a discussion going around the internet that we have on average 70,000 thoughts a day, some estimates going as high as 600,000. If you go with the former, that amounts to almost 49 per minute. Considering where my head’s been this week, that number seems exceptionally low.  And imagine if the majority of those thoughts are negative.  That’s a lot of violence.

Jon Westenberg, founder of Creatomic, says this: “When you start to consider how finite your existence and your time and the processes of your brain actually are, you can see how precious the level of mindfulness that requires us to sit up and pay attention really is.”

As fortune would have it, I came across an article (blessedly short – the reading thing, you know) in a Buddhism magazine about love, specifically self-love. In the article the author suggested a meditation that goes something like this:

“This is a moment of suffering.

Suffering is a part of life.

May I be kind to myself at this moment.

May I give myself the compassion I need.”

These words can be altered to fit your own experience, but basically each sentence brings to the forefront that yes, you are in pain – This is a moment of suffering / I am having a hard time right now – that suffering is part of the human experience (no one escapes it, folks) – Suffering is a part of life / Others have been through this – all while keeping you in the present moment – May I be kind to myself at this moment / May I be present with this feeling without judgement –  and setting an intention to be self-compassionate – May I give myself the compassion I need / May I speak to myself as I would speak to a good friend.

As I sat with these words, and breathed them into my heart, I felt released. I didn’t have to beat myself up for my injuries. I still had my faculties. I was worthy of compassion. This would pass.

Then another question arose: When this does pass, what will I have to show for it? What is the lesson? Because there always is one, if (and this is key) you look for it.

I’ve heard it suggested that you are closer to “you” in the time you meditate than in all the other minutes of the day. Those minutes when you are working, serving, rushing and planning aren’t really you, your essence. Your essence is what you touch when you’re still. It’s always there, the light is always shining, but we allow the clouds to cover that light. We allow our busy-ness, our self-talk to take center stage and we lose sight of “you.”

So I have decided to be like that robin. When my soul needs to be fed, I will still myself and listen. I will open my heart, breathe in and speak compassion over and over and over again, remembering the “you”  I really am. I will remember my light.  I will rest in the knowledge that wherever I am is exactly where I need to be. And if all this doesn’t work the first time, I’ll do it again, and again, and again.

I draw the line at worms, though. You know, Ahimsa.

“If you celebrate your differentness, the world will, too. It believes exactly what you tell it—through the words you use to describe yourself, the actions you take to care for yourself, and the choices you make to express yourself. Tell the world you are one-of-a-kind creation who came here to experience wonder and spread joy.” ~Victoria Moran, Author of “Light From Within: Tending Your Soul for Lifelong Beauty”

 

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’.

Let Go

let go 2

My dear reader,

I hope this writing finds you happy and healthy, reflecting on the past year with joy and contentment.  If I were to pick  a “theme” for my past year, it would be hard to narrow it down to just one thing, but, one phrase that does stand out is “Let go.”  This can mean a lot of things, and has.

Perhaps this is fresh in my mind due to a yoga retreat I attended in October.  The subject was compassion.  Now, I consider myself a pretty compassionate person, so I figured the weekend would be a breeze.  You know:  do some yoga, meditate, hear some interesting lectures, sleep, eat some good vegetarian food, and come home refreshed.  It was a great weekend, but what I didn’t count on was work.  On myself.  I learned that in order to be compassionate towards others, really compassionate, you must be compassionate towards yourself.  Forgive, drop the negative self-talk, and let go.  Let go of whatever doesn’t serve you fully and bring you joy.

In June, my oldest son left for a three-week life-changing trip to Malawi, Africa, with our church youth group.  He was sixteen.  We were apprehensive.  We knew he was in good hands, but would he be okay?  Would he eat well?  Would he be sad and overwhelmed by what he would experience?  Would he sleep? In the end, he was more than fine, he loved every moment and, despite a few rough weeks of re-adjustment, he has returned to us a more introspective, grateful, open-minded and faith-filled young man.  We can now breathe a sigh of relief.

I have continued to teach yoga (this past June marked my one-year anniversary as an instructor) and, having summers off, I decided to take advantage and teach as much as I could.  However, the timing and location of classes didn’t work out as planned and I ended up scrapping a few, using my extra time to enjoy taking classes instead of teaching them, which, I discovered, helped to make me a better teacher in the end.

I have also continued to develop and nurture a solid meditation practice.  I began meditation in the Spring of 2014 (part of my teaching certification) and have not stopped since.  It has opened a window for me, spiritual and deep.  It is my prayer and my connection with God every day.  But to connect, to allow the stillness to let God in, I’ve had to let go.  Let go of the incessant to-do lists, the “shoulds,” the racing thoughts.

Approaching 50, I’m letting go of a great many other things:  the ability to do the things I used to do physically, my appearance (just who IS that person in the mirror?) and being able to adjust that changing appearance at will, the career I have (or lack of it), the friends I’ve lost (by choice or not), and, heartbreakingly, the knowledge that many people who have influenced my life in so many ways are leaving me, one by one.

As sad as all this sounds, letting go has been incredibly freeing and uplifting, but only because I’ve welcomed it and try very hard to look for the lesson, always.  By letting go of something, you are opening space for something greater.  By having faith in the universe, or God, or Jesus Christ, or whatever you believe, you open yourself up to possibilities greater than yourself.  You give yourself a break.  You let someone (or something) else take over.  You let go.

“Let go of something, somewhere.  Become aware, to touch what lies beneath the surface of the skin.  Is there tension longing for release; a knot of fear so deep and familiar that you believe it’s part of who you are?  Ease into dark corners, locked rooms, unexplored hallways.  Gain entry not by force or will but only by softness.  Enter by wings of breath, and turn the key of self-acceptance to let go of something, somewhere.”  ~ Danna Faulds

Is there something you are holding on to too tightly?  Something longing for release?  We all have something:  anger, perfection, the need for approval, addiction to any number of things, even the pressure of writing an entertaining and inspiring blog post.

Sometimes it’s scary to acknowledge and it can be damn uncomfortable.

Pause.

Soften, slow down, breathe deeply, focus on the breath and the miraculous flow of the inhale and the exhale.

From this place, you begin creating space.  If whatever isn’t serving you is deeply ingrained, it will take practice, patience and persistence.  It’s scary, it’s uncomfortable, and it is work, but the gifts can be immeasurable.

Wishing you all the joys and gifts of the new year, especially the gift of letting go.  May it create a space of love, peace and light within your heart.

Blessings…

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