Hard, hard it is, this anxious autumn,
To lift the heavy mind from its dark forebodings;
To sit at the bright feast, and with ruddy cheer
Give thanks for the harvest of a troubled year.
The clouds move and shift, withdraw to new positions on the hills;
The sky above us is a thinning haze—a patch of blue appears—
We yearn toward the blue sky as toward the healing of all our ills;
But the storm has not gone over; the clouds come back;
The blue sky turns black;
And the muttering thunder suddenly crashes close, and once again
Flashes of lightening startle the rattling windowpane;
Then once more pours and splashes down the cold, discouraging rain.
Ah, but is it right to feast in a time so solemn?
Should we not, rather, feast—and give the day to prayer?
Prayer, yes; but fasting, no.
Soldier and citizen alike, we are a marching column,
And how long the march may be, and over what terrain
We do not know;
Nor how much hardship, and hunger, how much of pain
We may be called upon to endure. And fortitude
Takes muscle; and needs food.
Never more dear than in a thoughtful hour like this
Are the faces about the table: each stands out
More sharply than before, and is looked at with a longer glance.
And smiles are deep, from behind the eyes, and somewhat quizzical,
Lest they go too far in tenderness.
God bless the harvest of this haggard year;
Pity our hearts, that did so long for Peace;
Deal with us kindly: there are many here
Who love their fellow man (and may their tribe increase).
But cunning and guile persist; ferocity empowers
The lifted arm of the aggressor: the times are bad.
Let us give thanks for the courage that was always ours;
And pray for the wisdom which we never had.
This is nothing new—that we should be attacked
While we are napping: is it not always so?—
And, dazed and unprepared, start up to act,
Rubbing our eyes, not knowing where to go?
Yet the trained hand does not forget its skill;
Nor can we lay precision and speed aside:
Strength we have, and courage; an acetylene will;
A timorous vigilance; but a brave pride.
From the apprehensive present, from a future packed
With unknown dangers, monstrous, terrible and new—
Let us turn for comfort to this simple fact:
We have been in trouble before . . . and we came through.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
I woke up this morning after sleeping for 8 hours and I felt wrecked, like I’d been hit by a bus. No, I didn’t have too many drinks the night before and I hadn’t even been awake at 3:30 needing to read for awhile to shut off the chatter in my mind. But I had been dreaming vividly. And the dreams were a bit like a post apocalyptic video game. What I knew upon waking was that my mind had been working through some stress. The evening before, I had finally made the decision to be honest with a man that I had been dating for a couple months. But, I had been having this unsettled, nagging anxiety. After spending an hour quietly practicing restorative yoga, and inviting in this unsettled feeling (the sensation was just a clench in my chest and a hollow feeling in my belly that quickly dissipated as I gave it space) I knew that I needed to stop my current behavior in order to make space for the kind of relationship I truly desire.
Is this a piece about being single or dating etiquette? Not really. This is a piece about what’s often missing in our yoga practice. In the current yoga culture some of us have confused the practice of yoga with working out. Don’t get me wrong, working out is great and has it’s place. But the physical benefits of the practice of yoga are what I consider to be side effects. Long, lean, strong and flexible are wonderful byproducts of showing up on our mat.
The other day I was talking with a colleague about the idea “gentle is the new advanced”. I wholeheartedly agree. Our culture rewards us for going hard all the time. We feel worthy when we push and stress. I tell myself I am important when I answer the question “how are you?” with the answer “I am so busy!” We learn to ignore our exhaustion, our discomfort and our heartbreak. We learn to abandon our deeper Truths and needs in order to be productive beings. And there it is BEINGS! For a long time I was a doer who had forgotten how to be. I ignored the young parts of myself that needed my attention and my comfort. I pushed all of that away and ran on adrenaline. Until I couldn’t do it anymore. Slowing down felt scary like a little death.
When I learned about restorative yoga and my nervous system, I felt drawn to it and scared at the same time. How can I stop pushing? Who will I be? What if all those plates I’ve been spinning crash down around me...then what? The ease that I touched kept drawing me back. I craved the comfort of the props and the deliberate stillness and silence.
The physical yoga postures feel amazing in my body. It is fun to work hard in practice and to learn new things. The asanas can invigorate and challenge; they can be sensual and soothing. Gripping and protection start to soften and my mind is more clear. After 26 years of practice, this softening and clearing is the entry, the invitation to sit or to lie still. To invite the feelings that have been pushed down or distracted against (that nagging sensation of anxiety that leads me to the tenderness of knowing that I want more from a relationship).
After my quiet practice this morning, I knew that I had made a decision that was filled with integrity and honored all my desires and needs. I also knew that even though I had slept for 8 hours, I had still been exhausted. Sleep and relaxation are not the same thing. My restorative practice honored my night of disturbed sleep and the sadness of disappointing another in order to care for myself.
Some days when I lie down I am faced with a whirlwind of thoughts and an almost pounding sense of my energy. What I know now after years of balancing active asana practice with stillness and meditation is that it takes a little time, a little patience and a light attention on the breath and little by little my whole being starts to quiet down. Some days the ease feels deep and wide, and others, I barely touch it. When the chimes ring after 22 minutes of sitting or watching my breath or doing a restorative pose, I am more spacious, more sane and sometimes I feel like I’ve had a healing vacation.
Give it a try. Silence, stillness and savasana. Set your timer for 20 minutes. Switch gears. Get still and quiet. It will change your life. What’s missing from your yoga practice?
A few weeks ago, one of my regular students sent me a link to a NY Times article about a study on yoga and bone health. She asked if we might do a sequence in class based on the poses in the article. She hoped to be inspired to practice at home. I took the poses from the article (and also the poses from the actual study, which appear to be a bit different) and put together a 90 minute sequence (105 minutes for intermediate practitioners). I used a repeat timer app that I purchased and set the intervals for one minute per pose with 20 seconds in between to change positions or sides.
It's important to listen to your body and to monitor your breath when working with a timer. Attempt to keep the asanas steady and comfortable. If the timing is too long, take a break or come in and out of the pose a few times during the minute.
I found the practice with the timer to be very interesting...some minutes feel far longer than others!
Supta Padangusthasana - supine hand-to-foot I
Supta Padangusthasana - supine hand-to-foot II
Navasana - boat pose
Adho Mukha Svanasana - downward facing dog
*Adho Mukha Vrksasana - handstand (intermediate poses are *)
Utthita Trikonasana - Triangle pose
Virabhadrasana II - Warrior II
Utthita Parsvakonasana - Side angle
Parivrtta Trikonasana - revolved triangle
*Sirsasana - headstand with the head off the floor, feet on the wall
Salabhasana - locust
Bhujangasana - cobra
*Urdhva Mukha Svanasana - upward dog
*Urdhva Dhanurasana - upward bow
Setu Bandha - bridge pose
Janu Sirsasana - one leg seated forward bend
Maricyasana III - seated twist
Ardha Matseyndrasana - seated twist
Pascimottanasana - seated forward bend
Here is the link to the article:
"There is a teaching that says that behind all hardening and tightening and rigidity of the heart, there’s always fear. But if you touch fear, behind fear there is a soft spot. And if you touch that soft spot, you find the vast blue sky. You find that which is ineffable, ungraspable, and unbiased, that which can support and awaken us at any time."
From her book Practicing Peace
"It is unfortunate that many people who have not penetrated the depth of yoga think of this spiritual path to self-realization as being merely a physical discipline, and the practice of hatha-yoga as nothing but a kind of gymnastics. But yoga is more than physical. It is cellular, mental, intellectual and spiritual - it involves man in his entire being."
B.K.S. Iyengar, from "The Tree of Yoga"
I woke up last week at about 3:15 a.m. and this phrase was in my head, "don't forget, yoga is an inside job". It was still there when I woke to prepare for my day. I took the dog out, practiced a little asana and pranayama and then sat quietly in meditation. And that's when I remembered the truth of the phrase.
The previous weekend, I was feeling a bit listless with a house that needed cleaned and work that needed attended to. Instead, I went shopping for yoga clothes. I had this little brain "tickle" that told me how much better I would feel if I had new clothes to wear for work. The underlying message of the "tickle" was universal. If only I had the right ________ (insert clothes, boyfriend, car, job, salary etc.) then I could finally be happy! We all know this deep desire to look outside ourselves for some thing or things that will finally deliver us from the sadness or mediocrity of the life we are currently living. It is true that my new yoga clothes gave me momentary pleasure. I felt a little different, a little new, a little special. And this wore off relatively quickly (a stressful phone call with my dad smudged the shiny edges of my new- clothes glee).
Yoga is an inside job, reminds us to look inside, so that we may learn about the abandoned parts of ourselves that have a story to tell. Loneliness, disappointment, confusion, joy and fear can get tamped down to the point where we are unable to feel anything. The asana practice is a doorway into a vast landscape that exists underneath our busy-ness and our hunt for satisfaction and ease. Once we enter the doorway, the contemplative practices allow us to come into connection with who we really are.
As you journey through this life remember to befriend and embrace the various parts of you that have been forgotten. Through silence and contemplative practices, like pranayama, meditation and restorative yoga, a deep connection with Self is nurtured and sustained.
I wanted to be angry at that little blue car that parks next to the tree right by my driveway on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It makes it tricky for me to pull out and go the direction I want to. I'm sensitive about my driveway. Somehow my driveway, with my car parked in it, is invisible to some people. They park in front of it blocking me in, and after I search the neighborhood and find the culprit, there is often an excuse, "this street is so crowded, there was nowhere else to park," and I use this as an excuse to be pissed off. I fire off angry comebacks about 'my' driveway, rude behavior, inconvenience (I've even done this with an EMT). Did I mention that I live next door to an assisted living facility? It's a house in my neighborhood and there are some folks in wheelchairs and lots of people cooking and sweeping and many cars coming and going. The people who work there don't block my driveway. They know better.
This morning I sat down at my desk and was checking my email when the tiny blue car pulled up and parked in the non-spot that it barely fits into and I immediately clench my teeth and imagine the minute or so of challenge I will have as I attempt to exit my driveway later this morning. I think about opening my window and yelling, "Hey, that's not a parking spot - do you know how hard that makes my life?"
I peer out the window as the man exits the car. Dark hair, mid forties probably. Neatly dressed and bundled up against the cool January morning air. He quickly walks toward the assisted living and the path toward Grand Avenue, and I lose sight of him. I assume he works on the avenue. I mumble under my breath, and start deleting emails. My preoccupation with the blue car and the man wanes as I ponder, type, delete. Suddenly he is back in my view. Blue car man rushes to his car, opens the passenger door, and grabs a scarf from the seat. He turns and stands for what seems like several minutes and then breaks into a smile. An elderly man with a cane slowly makes his way up the sidewalk. He stops next to blue car man, who kindly touches his shoulder and wraps the scarf gently around the old man's neck. The younger man takes the free hand of his companion and they slowly depart on a morning walk.
I feel a tightening across my solar plexus as I witness this intimate encounter. I feel a pang of guilt, as my dad just moved into an assisted living facility in Ohio, and for reasons I will not elaborate here, I have yet to visit him there, let alone to accompany him on a morning walk.
I stare down at the blue car and notice how drastically my perception has shifted. I am no longer having angry thoughts. I feel a sense of awe. The tender care that blue car man showed his companion has elevated him to hero status in my book. I take a deep breath. Maneuvering out of my driveway on Monday, Wednesday and Friday has forever changed.
Wheel of Reflection
A Ritual to Begin the New Year
I have done this ritual for the past 6 years. I find it very rewarding and interesting. It is particularly helpful if you feel that you had a rough year. You might be delighted as you reflect back on some of it’s sweetness.
This exercise asks you to slow down, to pause, and take the time to review the past year so that you can recognize the surprises, successes, failures and wisdom learned. After the review, you begin the new year with a sense of fullness and clarity.
You could do the whole exercise at once, or break it in half or quarters. If you break it down, make a firm commitment to yourself to complete it in a timely fashion.
To begin, draw a large circle and write 2015 in the middle. Write surprises in the east, successes in the south, disappointments in the west and wisdom in the north.
As you reflect, start in the East with surprises. Think back and begin to write a list on another sheet of paper of all the surprises you encountered in 2015. Be sure to take your time. Let your mind wander and really reflect. Then move clockwise around the wheel to successes in the South. Again take your time, pause and write them down. Next up in the West is disappointments. Try to take your time here too. It’s important to feel and acknowledge disappointment in order to heal. You will end up in the North with the wisdom that you gained during the year. As you reflect, notice what you have learned and how you have grown. Write it all down.
Once you have completed your list of items, you may decide to share them with someone you trust like a partner, friend or therapist.
January is known as the “Dreaming Time”. It’s the time to visualize your future, filled with possibilities of what can happen, what you desire and what you wish to create. And once you’ve given yourself sufficient “dreaming time”, you actively begin your new year in February.
Within the next few weeks declare 2015 as being complete and contemplate what support you may wish to ask for in 2016.
How do we shift our attention from the chaos of the mind to being more embodied in our yoga practice and our life? Most of us are walking around with bodies that are asleep or numbed out. Bodies that are holding up heads full of thoughts and stories, like the soundbites on the morning TV news cycle. I heard once that we have approximately 60,000 thoughts per day. And the sad thing is that probably 58,998 of them are the same thoughts we had yesterday. So what's a girl to do? Here are three tips you can use to prepare for your practice. These tips can also be used any time you want to be more grounded and present throughout your daily life.
- Bring your attention to your body. Feel yourself sitting (or standing or lying on the earth). Notice any sensations that are readily apparent or calling for attention. Then notice your body as a whole.
- Place a light attention on your breath. Observe for a moment its existence. Notice its rhythm. Notice any sensations created by breathing in, and notice any sensations created by breathing out.
- Observe the quality of your energy in this moment. Without judgement or evaluation, just observe. Are you calm or jittery right now? You don't need to change anything, just be awake to what is happening now.
Proceed to your hatha yoga practice, or meditate, or have that really hard conversation with your boss. Go grocery shopping or walk in the woods with your best friend. Take the time to yoke your mind and body. Wake up and be more present to your life. Practice these steps often and repeat. There is no danger of overdoing it. Practicing these three tips may open the possibility of connecting with the part of yourself that is wise and infinite. As you drop below the level of judgement and story, you may just get a glimpse of your Self!
I took some time off in August, and went to see my goddaughter in Cincinnati (she's 15 now and A-mazing!) and then on to Cape Cod to visit friends. It was lovely to have time off and I imagined arriving back in Oakland, rested and tan and ready to jump back into life. Instead, I got sick a couple days before I left the Cape. So, with a full-blown head cold I boarded a plane and flew back to the left coast. I arrived home blowing my nose (a lot!) with jet lag and zero energy. The following week I taught, tried to rest and streamed Netflix. I also practiced restorative yoga which mostly turned into a nice afternoon nap. When people asked about my vacation, I heard myself waxing negative, whining a bit and generally sounding victim-y. After about a week, I was not only still sick but sick of hearing my own whiney voice.
I knew I needed a BIG shift. I started to really pay attention to my words, and noticed how getting sick had soured my perception of my time off. I decided to start cultivating a little gratitude at the beginning of my daily practice. Of course, I'd read a bunch of articles in the past on social media that talk about gratitude practice, and I'd made little lists in my head and on paper of things I was grateful for, but this called for something more specific and more formal. I'm still amazed at how quickly my mood began to improve and my perceptions began to shift. So I thought I'd share my method...just in case you might need a bit of a shift yourself.
Without gratitude, I find that I'm always just a little sour inside. Actively cultivating gratitude at the beginning of practice feels sweet, and that sweetness infuses the practice and lingers thoughout the day.
CONTEMPLATE THESE TRUTHS before your asana or meditation practice:
1. You are alive - You happened! (and you woke up this morning)
2. Your life circumstances are such, that you have the time to practice (or take class) and to be exposed to the practice and spiritual teachers who motivate and inspire.
3. No matter how sore, tired or unwell you might feel on a given day, what good fortune that you have the tools to improve your condition and your life.
4. Reflect on your exceptional circumstances.
5. Remember, life is a gift.
Begin your practice.
This week I've been thinking about why change is so difficult.
I had been teaching classes at Piedmont Yoga Studio for 15 years...some of those years were fantastic and others were quite challenging. PYS has evolved through the years and lately it was much different than it had been when I started teaching there. I am a loyal, stick-with-it kind of girl, both personally and professionally. So, when it was time to say goodbye and walk away from my yoga home there was a lot of internal kicking and screaming going on.
I was invited to teach at The Yoga Room in Berkeley, all my classes could move there, same days and times. It was an amazing opportunity. I've been there now for 4 weeks. Transition done. Many, though not all of my students have made the trek to Berkeley. The room is big and gorgeous and well propped, and the business model is old school (much more conducive to making a living teaching yoga).
So, why did I hear myself saying (imagine the victim-ey tone), "well...it's going ok", when anyone asked about the transition? I asked myself the question this morning as I sat down to meditate, "why is change so hard?" and I listened for the answer.
"We fear change so much because it asks us to let go." It's like a little death. Even if we want it, or we asked for it...even if the current situation has us feeling small or unappreciated. We are so good at hanging on and so unskilled at letting go.
Letting go is a practice, and yoga supports this practice. We practice letting go of the out breath, the tension in our shoulders, the habitual hardness in our jaw. We let go of some of the forcing and pushing, and begin to notice when we are harsh with ourselves when we are afraid. We lie down in savasana...the ultimate practice of letting go. Each time we practice, we soften a little more. Each time we practice, we meet ourselves right where we are.
This afternoon an acquaintance asked me how the transition is going. I smiled and said, "It's fantastic and I feel so grateful," and then I took a deep breath and let it go. I miss PYS and I embrace the change and the challenge (at least in this moment :)
How twired are you? What is twired? Twired = tired + wired. And it’s an epidemic in our society. We are running on empty. Some of us go to bed too late, don’t get enough sleep and then run on adrenaline all day. Others don’t sleep well (due to hormones, stress, alcohol) and then wake up, and move caffeinated and wired through the day. We don’t know how to rest. No one taught us. We think that zoning out to TV, or answering emails on the couch while we down a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, or playing candy crush on our ipad is rest. Think again. Rest involves stopping and we don’t do that well. Some of us are so twired, we’re afraid that if we stop, we may not be able to start again (you know who you are!)
Being busy is the new addiction, and it’s actually a control mechanism that keeps us from feeling. It keeps the fear and the loneliness below the surface. Stopping to rest can be downright frightening. It might mean that we tap into a part of ourselves that we’ve denied and kept hidden for a long time. Stopping and feeling requires that we wake up.
So how can we learn to rest? Yoga and savasana to the rescue!
Here’s what you do:
Set a timer for 15-20 minutes. Place a folded blanket under your head as a pillow and a roll under your lower thighs/knees (or put your legs up on a chair or your bed). Place your arms a little away from your sides. Let the weight of your body drop into the floor. Notice your breath. Soften something that feels tense. Do nothing but rest. Attempt to relax, and stay awake. Feel + breathe + be.
Savasana lacks ambition. Savasana is receptive. Savasana is soft and kind. Savasana is about being and not about doing. Savasana is the practice of deliberate stillness. Savasana is the antidote to twired. 15-20 minutes will radically shift your nervous system. You will feel more relaxed, more at ease, more peaceful. The more you practice the easier it becomes, and it will change your life. Your friends, family and co-workers will thank you!
So here’s the 30 day challenge:
For the month of December (the next 30 days), do 15-20 minutes of savasana every day, once a day. Drop the twired - be more at peace - get to know yourself. I promise you won’t regret it! (Oh yeah, let me know how it goes…)
Every day I want to speak with you. And every day something more important
calls for my attention—the drugstore, the beauty products, the luggage
I need to buy for the trip.
Even now I can hardly sit here
among the falling piles of paper and clothing, the garbage trucks outside
already screeching and banging.
The mystics say you are as close as my own breath.
Why do I flee from you?
My days and nights pour through me like complaints
and become a story I forgot to tell.
Help me. Even as I write these words I am planning
to rise from the chair as soon as I finish this sentence.