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”

 

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Presence Under the Tree

Merry Christmas, Dear Friends!

This past year I interviewed for a few different jobs with our school district. During this process, I was given a compliment by my current principal. He told me he’s never seen me rattled. Ever.  

Now, my work as a teacher aide (currently in my fourth year) is admittedly not stressful in that I have no deadlines, no one reporting to me and nothing to bring home at night. However, I am required to wear many hats and be able to change them at the drop of a… you get the picture. This is accomplished surrounded by hundreds of children under the age of ten who are under our care, with the expectation they will be taught the three R’s, along with manners, self-respect and respect for others. Things happen. It’s unpredictable. And it’s loud. But Ron is right. I rarely do get rattled.

My meditation practice has grown since I began two-plus years ago. I have been practicing yoga for over ten years now and have been teaching a little over two. Still a beginner in many ways. I have a morning routine that gets me up at 5:30 during the week and helps me to ease into my day. My meditation practice is a key element of this routine. While this may sound admirable, you must know that many mornings I go through an entire laundry list of what I need to accomplish (usually it IS laundry) when the chime goes off and I realize I did not meditate at all.  

I do not berate myself or judge how “good” my practice was. I accept it as it is. I practice presence. And this is what meditation does. It teaches you not to stop your thoughts, but train your mind to be present and still. It is not easy. The beauty of it is, however, if you practice quieting your mind in silence at 6AM on a cushion with the scent of bergamot diffusing in the air, you will slowly learn to be present and still when it’s 2PM in a classroom full of third graders a half-hour before their Halloween party in a room that smells like, well, third graders.  

This past year, we went on several college tours and trips with our oldest, to North Carolina, Virginia, Washington D.C., Gettysburg, Bethlehem, and Chicago. Yes, next fall we will be sending him off to begin this new chapter of his, and our, lives. Some trips involved the four of us and a few were just he and I. Precious, precious time.  

My goal is to be present. Not nostalgize the past and worry about the future, but be here now. So often I find myself reeling myself in. When I start spinning, thinking about how I will get through the transition of having one less spot at the dinner table, or being fearful of some event in the future, I stop and “return to my cushion.”  

When I find myself rushing, arms full of bags and papers, holding a hot cup of coffee with two fingers while I search for my keys, and feeling like I just can’t…do…one…more…thing, I recognize that I am spinning, that I am not present. I remind myself to notice my breath. I ask myself, “What can I do now?” Then I do it if I can. If I can’t, I can be comforted knowing I am practicing living in a way that is compassionate and accepting. Remember, the only people finished with everything are dead. Truth.

Presence can also be practiced with your interactions with others. Lord knows, we need it now more than ever. We are a culture bombarded with information, texts, tweets, posts, emails and voicemails, all demanding our response. Release the vice grip on your phone, put the internal dialogue aside and focus, really focus on the one you’re with. Listen and respond, whether it’s your first-born who will be leaving your home in a few months, the harried cashier at the grocery store or a seven-year old (who seriously needs a tissue) telling you about her loose tooth.

Be where you are. Wherever you are. Feel the warm water on your hands when you do dishes. Notice the steam rising from your coffee, dancing in thin air. Feel your feet gently touching the Earth when you walk. Feel your feelings, whether they are comfortable or not. Listen to what they are telling you. Slow. Down.

This all takes practice. Sometimes years of it. But keep practicing. Most importantly, be forgiving with yourself when it’s hard.

Pema Chodron, one of my most favorite people, says it best:  

“Being present is not something that happens once and then you achieve it; it’s being awake to the ebb and flow and movement and creation of life, being alive to the process of life itself.”  

I never did get those jobs that I interviewed for, but all is still well. We are all healthy, riding the waves together.

May you receive the gift of presence this Christmas and in the coming year, and may you be awake to its ebb and flow, accepting all as part of your own personal journey.

Peace.

The Choice

Fear:  defined as an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.  

I’ve been thinking a lot about fear these past few weeks. Many agree that the months leading up to last week’s election were centered on it.  Indeed, the candidates were counting on it, leveraging it for their own particular party.  Fear of losing jobs and the right to bear arms from one side, fear of taking steps back for human rights and the environment from the other, just to name a few.

Now that it’s decided who will be leading our country, the fear has unfortunately not subsided.  We are all still consumed by it.  And if you look at your newsfeed, we are all raw, even if our candidate won.  Fear is still winning.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who authored “Death and Dying,” asserts that there are only two primary emotions:  love and fear, “…for we cannot feel these two emotions together, at exactly the same time. They’re opposites. If we’re in fear, we are not in a place of love. When we’re in a place of love, we cannot be in a place of fear…We have to make a decision to be in one place or the other. There is no neutrality in this.”

The bible endorses the same idea.  “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” ~1 John 4:18.

One can presume, then, that all emotions can be traced back to either love or fear.  Anger, jealousy, envy, hate all stem from fear, if you dig deeply enough.  

Much of yoga involves working with students around the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.  One of my many goals as an instructor is building awareness of these two systems and increasing students’ abilities to activate the parasympathetic.  The sympathetic nervous system is our “fight or flight” response.  Its purpose is to assist us when we sense danger.  Our blood vessels open, sending much needed blood to the extremities from the center, giving us the adrenalin to flee from the perceived attack.  The heart races and the breath becomes more rapid.  Activating the parasympathetic nervous system brings the blood back to the gut, lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and activates the “rest and digest” response.  If you see a cougar on the trail when you are taking a morning jog, the former is helpful and potentially life-saving.  However, when we perceive “danger” in the form of a deadline, too many commitments, too many self-imposed expectations, a family gathering (Hello, Thanksgiving), or even a presidential candidate we do not like, this creates trouble, in our bodies and minds.  

Many of us are, sadly, in a perpetual “fight or flight” state.  Not only is this incredibly detrimental to our physical health, causing disease (and dis-ease), it also necessitates that we react as though anything outside of us is a threat.  If we think we are under attack, we will react accordingly.

In the case of our newsfeed, our words have become our weapons.  And how we wield them is in direct proportion to perceived size of the threat.  Remember, fear is defined as an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous.  That someone or something may not be dangerous until our mind believes it.  So, so many of our brothers and sisters believe they are under attack, that their families are under attack, that their very lives are at stake.  

So what to do?

Practice being a yogi.  I’m not suggesting that touching your toes or sitting cross-legged chanting “Om” will take away your fears.  I’m talking about self-awareness, noticing sensations in the body, and recognizing how emotions and the body are connected.  When you feel threatened, either by words, or ideas, stop and notice where you feel it in the body.  Does your gut tighten?  Does your jaw clench?  Do your hands squeeze into fists?  Begin to notice where you feel the fear.  You may not even be aware that your body is reacting.  Start there.  And breathe into that sensation, where you’re feeling it.  Feel the breath in the belly, allow the jaw to relax, open your hands and feel the breath at the tips of your fingers.  

Next, see if you can tap into what is specifically creating this fear, and recognize that it is probably perceived. It does not need to be a part of you and you have a choice, always, of how you will react to it.  

Consider this:  “Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.” ~ Rick Warren

Choose love.  Recognize that we are all afraid.  Of something.  We all want what’s best for ourselves, our children, our families.  Remember that hate and bigotry almost always stem from fear.  When you consider responding to someone whose views are different from yours or offend you, stop and check in.  Choose love.  

Once again, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross:  “If you don’t actively choose love, you will find yourself in a place of either fear or one of its component feelings. Every moment offers the choice to choose one or the other. And we must continually make these choices, especially in difficult circumstances when our commitment to love, instead of fear, is challenged.”

This is a challenge, folks.  Our country is being, and no doubt, will continue to be, challenged.  Half of us didn’t want to go in the direction we are going.  But how we rise above this challenge starts with us, in our own hearts, with our ability to recognize our fears and make the choice to respond with love.  

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…

Sweet Stillness

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This morning as I sat down to my meditation practice, things were a bit different.  Because of weather conditions, the school where I work was closed, so I took the opportunity to sleep in and linger under the warm flannel sheets.  By the time I took to my cushion, the sun had risen and I had a beautiful view of the blue sky above my neighbor’s rooftop.

I typically begin my practice before dawn, with eyes closed and lights off, the only light coming from a candle in the window (assuming I have enough energy to find a lighter at that hour).  This morning, however, I was riveted by the sky and a steady stream of clouds that appeared slowly from behind the roof and moved upward, each one unrushed and unique.  The formation of the clouds was such that each was a thin strip, so it looked like lines slowly appearing above the apex and continuing, one after the other.

I was mesmerized and comforted into silence by this movement.  The clouds weren’t trying to get anywhere, they just “were,”  allowing the air around them, the temperature, whatever it is that moves clouds (what can I say?  I’m no meteorologist) to move them.

Every day we are moved by things around us:  our jobs, our families, our insecurities, our angst to be somewhere else, someone else.  What if we, for just a few moments a day, allowed ourselves to stop moving, to not be moved by some external process, but look inward and stop the movement?

Watch the clouds.  Observe the trees moving in the breeze.  Follow snowflakes falling to the ground.  Watch a fish gracefully moving through the water in a fishbowl.  Harmonize your breathing to your beautiful sleeping baby’s.  Meditate.  And then, most importantly, incorporate that stillness into your being, and into your daily life.  It’s always available to you.  You just have to be still.  And let it in.

Peace.  Namaste.

From Greg to Greg

Greg, my brother, born August 1, 1960, died July 11, 2004.

Greg, yoga instructor.

Neither Greg knew the other, and couldn’t be more different, but I have experienced a journey that started with my brother’s death and led me to the yogi, and, what I believe is the start of something awesome and life-changing; something I’ve been meant to do, that I would not have found, had I not experienced my brother’s death and all the events following.

My brother died in his sleep, apparently peacefully at the young age of 42.  As far as I and the rest of my family were concerned, it was unexpected and obviously horrific.  His death, I am positive, exacerbated an already existing illness in my mother.  She died sixteen months after Greg, and my father, unable to cope, died two months after my mother.

Having studied counseling in college and graduate school, and understanding its importance, I immersed myself in it, both privately and in group therapy sessions.  I relied on therapists, and strangers experiencing loss, and friends and family.  I grieved passionately and completely.  It was a dark time.

Somehow, in all that darkness, I started doing yoga.  Looking back, I’m not sure what led me to that first class.  I just knew I needed something.  Something new, something to feel like a fresh start.  The first class I took was very gentle, taught by a beautiful, sixty-something woman who admitted to enjoying a glass of wine after a long day.  I immediately liked her.

For several months, I would lie in savasana with tears streaming from my eyes, leaving a small puddle on either side of my head on my mat.  I would come home, puffy-eyed and exhausted but cleansed.  (My husband, worried, would ask, “Why the hell do you keep going to this class?”  To which I would reply, sobbing, “Because this feels good!” I’m not sure he was convinced, but he didn’t argue.  Smart man, my husband.)

The love for yoga didn’t dissipate when the grief did.  I decided to explore and found another teacher, this one the embodiment of yoga both on and off the mat, and my ultimate inspiration.  I learned more about the practice and found myself wanting to continue to learn.  I got a subscription to Yoga Journal.  I tried a home practice.

Then, another tragedy.

While jogging one evening, I was hit by a car.  The impact broke both bones in my lower leg and shattered my ankle joint.  I had surgery the following day and months of recovery and physical therapy.  It was a very hard time, faced with yet another (thankfully temporary) loss, that of my physical body.  But I still had yoga.  I could still breathe, and move my arms, and use my core.  My instructor came to visit me several times during my recovery, helping me to move and teaching me to ultimately “find the lesson.”  Not an easy thing to do when something you love has been taken away (again).  My recovery was quicker than expected and I came from that experience wiser, more compassionate and, more of a spokesperson for yoga than ever.

A couple years later, I decided to leap and signed up to complete the 200-hour training to become a yoga instructor.  My first classes were led by an instructor named Greg.  The net had appeared.

From Greg to Greg.

Had Greg not died, had my parents not died, had I not been hit by a car, this journey would not have happened.  When one door closes another opens…Look for the silver lining…Look for the lesson…Have faith.

This journey from Greg to Greg took nine years.  But it happened.  I never would have thought when I got that dreaded phone call, telling me my brother was found dead in his apartment, that I would be standing on a mat, in a yoga studio, feeling whole, feeling grateful, feeling like my life is beginning again.

We all have loss and lessons.  I guess the key is to let go, feel it, embrace it, and use it.  Use it to begin again.  Because loss doesn’t have to take away from who you are.  Perhaps in time, however long it takes you, it will mean it’s time to redefine how you see yourself.  Perhaps it’s time to change.  The older I get, the more I realize that that is what life is:  change.  Experiencing losses of all kinds, grieving them in your own time, asking for help, never giving up, but always looking for, being open to, and finding the next door.

Walk on, walk on
What you got they can’t deny it
Can’t sell it or buy it
Walk on, walk on

And I know it aches
And your heart it breaks
And you can only take so much
Walk on, walk on

~Lyrics from U2’s “Walk On”

Thanks, Greg.  And you, too, Greg.