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.

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.

Being the Bow

At our lake house I have a Kahlil Gibran quote in a frame flanked by photos of each of my two boys.  They are smiling from the pumpkin patch, young and sweet.  Gibran was a favorite of my brother’s, this excerpt especially, and after his passing it became even more special.

“Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,

which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them,

but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children

as living arrows are sent forth.

The Archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,

and He bends you with His might

that His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the Archer’s hand be for gladness;

For even as He loves the arrow that flies,

so He loves also the bow that is stable.”

~Kahlil Gibran

I have always loved the imagery in this piece:  God as The Archer, parents as the bows, the child the arrow.  The idea that He is ultimately in control; that as parents, we don’t own our children, but Life does.

One of those boys in the pumpkin patch will be starting college in a few weeks and “The Day We Say Goodbye” is marked on the calendar.  It’s a phrase that has permeated my summer.  It has dictated my mood, my interactions with people, my interactions with my son.  It’s like a cloud always hovering, darkening my days.  

Most days I can channel the sun, the clouds part, and I realize I am blessed, and I am grateful.  I know I am.  But some days I unexpectedly get this random glimpse of him at the age of three, or ten, or even right now, and my heart feels like it’s literally being torn from my chest.

Yes, I know it’s not “Good-Bye” in the permanent sense.  I will still be his mother; I will always be his mother.  But after “that day,” as we drive away, everything will change.  He will be embarking on a glorious adventure that will take him to places I cannot even imagine, within and without.  Places I “cannot visit, not even in my dreams.”  He will discover himself, apart from us. He will chart his own course.

More than anything, he will have the time of his life. He will create memories and friendships and relationships that will last a lifetime. He will expand his mind and world and, most importantly, he will discover himself.  He will set his course and even though it may change, and change often, he will be blessed with the opportunity to take charge of his own life.

And for that, I am so, so grateful.  

But along with the gratitude comes the realization that he will have hard days, and hard nights.  He will get sick. He will question himself.  He will be disappointed, by others and probably by himself.  He will meet girls and maybe fall in love with one (or two) of them.  Or maybe get his heart broken.  In the midst of finals.  

The conundrum is that while this breaks my heart, and his absence will be profoundly felt by all of us, I know it is what needs to happen.  It’s what every parent wants, for their child to fly.  On their own.  If I am honest with myself, my children are my gift to this world.  They have given me purpose beyond myself.  And I need to give this gift away, no matter how much I love it.  

I thank God for the blessing of being this young man’s mother and the opportunity to raise him.  It has been my greatest challenge, my greatest joy.  But for now, I will pray to trust The Archer and the mark He sees on the path of the the infinite, bending as much as I can and feeling myself held in His arms.  

 

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’.

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

Old Enough

Awoke this morning with thoughts of church on my mind. Gorgeous day with plenty to do: grocery shopping, sheet changing, checkbook reconciling, and exercising. Any other day I would say I didn’t have time for church. Too busy. But these days, my days are different.

Lately I feel older. Not old, but just old enough. A month shy of my forty-eighth birthday, I feel like a new life has begun, like I have a second chance, and it is thrilling to feel.

I am fully aware that it is only by the grace of God that I have grocery shopping to do and can therefore have food for my entire family, clean sheets on every bed, money in the checkbook to reconcile, and a body that is healthy and strong enough for exercise. All that can wait so I can spend an hour to stop and give thanks.

I am old enough.

Five months ago I started teacher training for yoga, something I never would have dreamed I would do at this age, with two degrees already under my belt. I started work as an aide for kindergarten, content to have no pressure and no real responsibility but to show up, enjoy the children, and do what is needed by teachers.

I’ve had the dream of being a “career woman,” tried it, and realized it wasn’t for me. I’m past feeling dejected about it. I’m ok with not having something terribly interesting to say when I’m at cocktail parties and people ask, “What do you do?” because I know that who I am is much more than what I do for a living.

I’m old enough.

I have two children who are now able to do their own laundry, say “please” and “thank you” without a prompt (at least they better), and have personalities that will continue to develop, but now, it will be on their own, with not nearly as much help from me. And I like them. I really do.

I’m grateful for what I have and who I know and who is here to share this life with. I understand far too well, because I’ve experienced it far too many times, that it won’t always be like this: that people will move, or grow distant either physically or emotionally, or people will get sick and even die.

I want to be present every moment. Because even though I feel like a new life is beginning, in the back of my mind I know the clock is ticking. I am forty seven, after all. I don’t necessarily have my life ahead of me like I did when I left home for college or moved out of my parents’ home for the last time.

However, that ticking clock is no longer a source of fear or sadness, but a reminder that I must take advantage of my time. That it is best spent being comfortable in my skin, being willing to be vulnerable, being grateful, thanking God for my blessings and for the opportunity to still be here and be able to be just old enough.