The Journey Begins with One Step

July 25, 2010 at 8:25 am | Posted in holding myself accountable, learning and growing, meditations | 1 Comment

I am not as healthy as I could be. Seeing that I come from a long line of remarkably unhealthy people, I have an interest in doing whatever I can to buck my genetic legacy and stay upright and breathing in and out as long as possible.

I’ve been flirting with the idea of getting serious about my health for a while now, but I think I’m finally ready to commit. In an effort to stay on the path and to hold myself accountable, I’m going to post my progress here. I don’t know if I’ll get to post every day, but I will aim toward regular check-ins, just so that I have a map of what I’m doing and how (or if) it’s working.

I have decided to begin with a private yoga practice (which is part of why I’m posting this part of my life here instead of at home). I’ve been teaching yoga for about 8 years now, but I’m not sure that I’ve been practicing for that long. I’ve always known that teaching is very different from doing (sarcastic adage aside); the feel of presenting material for others is often an entirely different activity than experiencing it for oneself.  Since I’ve also been going through a bit of a blue period lately, I thought that taking the time to practice just for me – to honor myself and my body and my place in the Universe – might just be the thing I need to change my energetic hue.

I started this morning with a 45-minute, silent practice.  I was pretty easy on myself, though I did work a series that included Warrior II and another that was a back-and-forth between down dog and plank; I was pleasantly warm by the time the whole thing was over.  I’ve settled on 4 as my tempo; I like to move with my breath, but I’ll hold poses for 4 complete breaths before I’ll move to the next expression.  I didn’t give myself much of a savasana today; I’ve got to get the family moving so we can go to my sister’s house for a pre-wedding gathering, and I don’t have the time for laying out.  I did sit for a bit, though, and gave myself permission to release negativity.  I’m going to continue that through the day (I find, too, that I can do a great bit of meditation in the car on the highway.  Don’t worry – I don’t zone out or anything; it’s a mindful kind of meditation).

I’m working on being aware of what I eat, as well, and I’ll likely start keeping a food log here, too.  So far, though, I’ve nothing much to report; just my usual morning dose of Ovaltine in a glass of 1% milk.

Thanks for coming along this ride with me.  I welcome your questions, comments, or suggestions.

Nameste.

A Lesson in the Music

January 6, 2009 at 4:43 pm | Posted in inspiration, learning and growing, meditations, observations, philosophy, practice off the mat, the Universe craves balance | Leave a comment

The other day, I was driving home from a wonderful visit with a dear friend when the Universe offered up yet another gift to me.

I was listening, as is my wont, to NPR.  On this day, All Things Considered was doing a focus piece on a musician by the name of Richard Crandell.  Formerly an extremely gifted guitarist, Crandell suffers from essential tremor syndrome, which prevents him from playing his instrument with anything but a frustrating imprecision.

At one point several years ago, Crandell was asked to drive a tour bus for a group of African traditional musicians.  When he returned with the bus, he found an mbira (pronounced em-beer-ah) under one of the seats.  Sometimes called a “thumb piano,” the mbira is a sacred instrument of the Shona people of Zimbabwe.  He started goofing around with it and, to his surprise, discovered that his hands didn’t shake when he played.

I was so struck by this story, and by the beautiful feel of the music that Crandell played (both with his guitar, from before his diagnosis, and his mbira today) that I opened iTunes as soon as I got in the house and bought everything they had of his work.

I started playing Spring Steel for my yoga classes this morning.  Before we began, I told the two women who came to the session at Local U. Crandell’s story and asked them to keep in mind that, more often than not, the Universe holds a new door open as it simultaneously closes an old, comfortable one.  Even though we may resist the “loss” of something we held dear and familiar, we need to remember to stay open to the possibility of new experiences, and to recognize that it is often in those spaces where we find growth.

Glass (more than) Half Full

January 3, 2009 at 9:06 am | Posted in meditations, observations, philosophy, practice off the mat, The Eight Limbs | 1 Comment

“We spend January 1 walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance the list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives, not looking for flaws, but for potential.” –Ellen Goodman

I gave essentially this same message to my yoga class yesterday. We spend so much energy this time of year focusing on what we need to fix (I need to save more money, I’m too fat, I procrastinate too much…) when we should probably focus a bit on what WORKS (I’m healthy enough to come to yoga class, I have friends, I have wealth enough to be a member of a health club…). While it’s certainly important to seize opportunities for self-improvement, it’s more important, I think, to be mindful of what we have. An attitude of abundance really makes a difference in one’s quality of life.

Peeling Garlic

November 30, 2008 at 7:10 pm | Posted in inspiration, learning and growing, meditations, observations, philosophy, practice off the mat, The Eight Limbs, the Universe craves balance | 3 Comments

I’ve been a little off my center lately.  There are a lot of reasons for that, most prominent among them being an extended discussion / disagreement I had with someone I thought I knew better than it seems I do, the fact that the terms are ending at both TCC AND Local U., and, of course, the approach of the holidays.  While I’m trying my best to keep everything in perspective, sometimes it’s harder than others to stop and recognize when one is spinning one’s wheels and focusing on stuff that, in the big picture, should probably not be given as much attention as we give it.

That being the case, I’ve been actively trying to divert my attention elsewhere.  This afternoon, for example, I found myself with three heads of garlic that needed peeling and roasting.  “Perfect!” I thought as I set out a roasting pan and dragged the trash can next to the counter for a solid half hour of mindfulness.

Thich Nhat Hanh, in his little book The Miracle of Mindfulness, talks about being present and focusing on the task at hand and about the wonder that can be found in simple acts like washing the dishes or eating a tangerine.  Being aware of what we’re doing right here, right now brings us to a level of consciousness and purpose that most of us – at least, most of the people *I* know, myself included – don’t often experience.  Speaking for myself, I find that entire days – weeks, even – can go by without my ever having been really aware of where I was or what I was doing.  I, and I imagine that a lot of us, tend to be primarily reactive; we respond to the stimuli of our lives and most often think we’re lucky if we feel like we’re just keeping up.

It takes a lot of practice to be mindful and present more often than one is reactionary, but I’m starting to get the hang of it.  While I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a master, I am starting to notice, more and more often, when an opportunity presents itself for me to stop and take stock.  While I’m waiting at a red light, for instance, I can focus on my breath and my posture.  I can really see the images outside my windshield and notice the vibration of the car’s motor and the feel of the wheel in my hands.  When I’m brushing my teeth, or walking to class, or taking a shower, I try to remember to be present – to notice everything I can about what’s happening right here, right now – and to appreciate the fact that I’m right in the middle of it.

I’ve found that, along with being very calming and centering, the practice of mindfulness also brings with it a heightened appreciation for one’s surroundings and condition.  I glory in the feel of warm water on my body in the shower.  I’m grateful for the force of my muscles and the strength of my balance as I walk from one place to another.  I can bring all my attention to the feel of papery garlic skins in my fingers, and relish the heady scent of the cloves as they undress

garlic

and, just for those few moments, I can be here and no where else, which is exactly where I’m supposed to be.

image credit

What’s Your Agenda?

November 14, 2008 at 9:13 pm | Posted in compassion and connection, inspiration, learning and growing, meditations, philosophy, practice off the mat, questions and conundrums, The Eight Limbs | 2 Comments

In addition to teaching yoga, I also teach college-level English.  I’m writing here about both of them because, where this question is concerned, they intersect quite nicely.

I wrote here about a student who left a comment on an  end-of-term survey at one of my jobs.  The short version of the story is that the student felt that I used the class to forward an agenda, and that s/he felt that the class was less about the reading and more about my opinions.

I don’t think that the student was wrong, exactly, but I don’t think that s/he was right, either.  It is not unreasonable for ANY teacher to be who s/he is in the classroom; teachers are not heartless computer programs – it’s never just about the material for the course.  What makes teachers good – or not – is, I think, the level of themselves that they choose  – or not – to share with their students.  I said as much to my boss – you can read my full response here.

I’ve been thinking about this question as it pertains to my yoga instruction, as well.  How much of my “agenda,” which can best be described as lefty-humanist, would I be appropriate in bringing into my classes?  Was it okay for me to remind my students to vote on election day?  Is it appropriate for me to remind my classes that there is much suffering in the world, and that each of us has the power, though our thoughts and words and deeds, to help ameliorate that?  How far can I go in encouraging my participants to take love and kindness and compassion off the mat with them?

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I am careful to leave faith out of my yoga classes.  I ask students to play with their own energy, and I refer only to “the Universe” and never to “God.”  I want, though, for the people who come to my yoga classes to leave with a feeling of connection to a higher power, and to feel as though they are a representative of that power in their world.  I tell them that this habit we have of coming to class and unrolling a mat and twisting our bodies into funny shapes is only a tiny portion of a complete yoga practice.  I remind them that yoga can work to help us locate and nurture our highest and best selves, and to use that to inform our choices in everyday life.

I can’t go into a classroom and leave myself at the door, and I don’t think that I should.  Bringing myself – my passion and my energy and my love and my questions – makes me a better teacher…. and a better person.  Isn’t it part of my responsibility as a teacher to model the lessons I’m seeking to teach to others?

Holding the Space

August 8, 2008 at 8:33 pm | Posted in compassion and connection, learning and growing, meditations, observations | 1 Comment

My Friday yoga class is the one in which I include a bit of restorative yoga.

I’ve mentioned restorative yoga before – here, specifically – and I think that it’s an important component to my teaching practice. SO many people in our society just do not know how to be still and quiet with themselves. They can’t relax, even for ten minutes.

I give my participants the opportunity to practice settling their bodies and minds at the end of each Friday class, and I tell them that it’s okay if they don’t get it this week – or next, or the week after that. I’m going to continue to provide this as a part of our practice, and I implore them to not be harsh or judgmental of themselves if they can’t quite sink into these ten short minutes; what’s important is that they try-by-not-trying (just try explaining THAT to a group of over-achieving health club members!). I’m asking them to release, to exhale, to let go of themselves for a little bit, and I make a point of being firm but gentle in what I expect them to do. I want them to know that they are safe here with me, but I also want them to focus – I think that the effort is well worth the reward.

This morning, as I do every Friday, I explained what was involved in the restorative part of the practice.  I told people to get into whatever position was most comfortable for them, let them know that there were blankets and blocks and chairs and extra mats for their use, then went around the room making sure that everyone was settled.

One gentleman, who’s been in my class many times before, was lying with his heels on the seat of a chair.  I knew that his knees were going to hurt in just a few minutes, so I had him lift his feet while I slid the chair under his calves.  Then, I went to get a blanket for him – he was only wearing shorts and a tank top, and when the A/C kicks in, it gets cold in that room.  I laid the blanket gently over his chest and arms, all while talking the class into relaxation.  Then, I noticed that my gentleman was crying.

I know what it’s like to cry in a yoga class.  I can’t really tell you what it is about certain environments or certain situations that allows for the walls to come down, and I can’t really tell you exactly WHY I sometimes feel the urge to weep in a class – there’s nothing specifically upsetting; it’s more as if a hatch gives way and allows something amorphous to come bubbling up.

I also know that it’s terrible to have specific attention drawn to you when this happens; it’s hard enough to be crying without knowing why, but to have the entire class know it makes it even worse.  Finally, I know how wonderful it feels to feel connected, quietly and unobtrusively, to someone else.  Knowing that someone knows you’re struggling without having to explain yourself or feel embarrassed is incredibly freeing and, I think, helps to work out whatever emotion is trying to escape in the first place.  A nod, the touch of a hand, a smile, or a hug are really all that’s needed for that connection to be made, but those small gestures are profoundly important.

Knowing all of this, I continued to talk in the same tone and pace to my class, but I moved to kneel over my gentleman’s head.  I put my hands gently on his temples, all while directing the class to release their toes and fingers, to let themselves either sink into the floor or float above it, while I stroked the sides of his head.  I wiped tears away.  I stayed there until he began to calm, but I left before he was quite there because I didn’t want him to calm for me; where he went with this was entirely his journey, and I didn’t want to influence it in any way.  He knew I was there, he knew he was safe, and he knew that I had no judgment; I tried to vibe as much love and warmth as I could.

I let the class stay in their pose for about 10 minutes, then guided them to be brought back in the arms of a strong, loving presence.  I wanted them to feel light and clean and safe; held and loved unconditionally, the way a parent would carry a sleeping baby.  I asked them to feel themselves being lowered gently back into their bodies.  I brought them back to a seated position, thanked them for sharing the hour with me, and invited them to come to see me with questions or concerns, then I dismissed the class.

Before he left, I went to my gentleman, bowed to him with prayer pose, then wordlessly offered a hug, which he accepted.  I don’t need to know what his emotion was about, but I do need him to know that he is loved and cared for.

I’m feeling pleased and proud that I created a safe space for him to take this trip today.

He’ll be back.

My Philosophy. Well, at Least, Today

June 3, 2008 at 10:06 am | Posted in learning and growing, meditations, observations, philosophy, practice off the mat | 4 Comments

I have been thinking a lot about how I practice – and teach – yoga. The thinking is vast and expansive; there isn’t just one factor that comes into play as I formulate and adjust my philosophy about this experience, and I find that every new student, every new lesson, and every new idea influences – even if just a little – the way I live my practice.

I had a private client the other day, who was brand new to the adventure of yoga, and I was trying to explain to her that there’s so much more to yoga than the effort of putting one’s body into pretzel-like poses. I wanted her to get the idea that where she is right now is perfectly okay – it doesn’t matter that she can’t get her heels on the floor in downward dog; it’s okay that she can’t reach her toes in forward fold – what matters is that she finds her best expression of these poses today, because tomorrow will be different.

I have found, through a lot of personal experience, that people (in general) take yoga WAAY too seriously. The get all stressed out about how often they practice or how deeply they can get into a pose or what other people – or their teachers – think of how they look or of how “yogic” they are. They spend tons of money on props and products and clothes so they can “fit in” and look the part.

Instructors are sometimes just as bad. They adhere, with the tenacity of a barnacle on the side of a pier, to one philosophy and one practice. They “encourage” (please read that for the euphemism that it is) their participants to do poses one way – their way – and to push themselves beyond their limits. They promote one way of thinking to the exclusion of others, and they end up limiting the experience of their participants with their own orthodoxy.

All of this – every last bit of it – is all contrary to what I think yoga is supposed to be about. Yoga, for me, anyway (and I don’t even imagine I speak for anyone else) is about finding balance in one’s self. It’s about getting the right mix of physical, emotional, and spiritual energy working in harmony in one’s life.

The physical practice of yoga is about challenging oneself gently and kindly; about finding your edges and nudging yourself up against – or through – them. It’s about encouraging (really encouraging – no euphemisms this time) yourself to find out what you can – and can’t – do. It’s about learning that sometimes you’re on and sometimes you’re off and it’s about being okay with that. It’s about gaining perspective. So you fall out of tree pose this afternoon; who cares? What higher purpose is a perfect tree pose going to serve in your life? It may well be that the lessons you take away from falling out of poses are far more valuable than those you’d get from being picture-perfect.

The emotional practice of yoga has to do with understanding your relationships – to yourself, to your family and friends, and to the world around you. Yoga has taught me more about compassion than anything else; when I learned, though my physical practice, to be compassionate with myself, I found that I was able to expand that capacity outward. I understood – truly understood – that I am a pebble in the pond; that all my actions have consequences that I may not be immediately aware of and, more importantly, that I have a great deal of control over those actions. I have choices, and I can be mindful about what kind of energy I radiate. I may not be able to choose how people treat me or what happens to me in the larger world, but I certainly have control over how I choose to respond to those things. I can react out of love, or I can react out of fear. Yoga has taught me to take the time to be still and quiet and to make those choices mindfully.

Finally, yoga helps me to locate my place in the Universe. I am able to connect to my higher self through my practice and no, I’m not talking about some voodoo channeling or astral-projection, either. I’m talking about making the very important recognition that I belong here, that I am a part of the larger picture, and that the energy I bring to this party is vitally important. I’m talking about learning to make those choices, in my physical and emotional practice, that resonate with me on a spiritual level. I’m talking about being mindfully aware of always striving for my own highest and best expression of my own self – of my own soul – and of playing a part in helping others to make that recognition, too.

That’s how I feel about yoga today. I’m completely open to the idea that I may learn something new this afternoon that changes how I think about my practice, but for right now, this feels right.

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