I almost entitled this post “children, children, go away” because I’ve been on vacation from my kids this past week. (My oldest and youngest were in MA with their grandparents and my middle one was in PA with the other grandparents.) I’m looking forward to seeing my kids again on Saturday but like any good vacation, I have definitely enjoyed the time away. My experience this week has reminded of the practice of pratyahara, the fifth limb of yoga’s eightfold path as described in Patanajli’s Yoga Sutras.
Pratyahara is often translated as withdrawal of the senses. Interestingly, the Sanskrit word prati means “towards” and ahara means “to bring near or fetch”. I understand this to mean that during the practice of pratyahara, we are separating from the input of our five senses – smell, taste, touch, hearing, sight – and as a result we are bringing near, fetching, the awareness and bringing it toward us. This part of yoga gives us a way to fix our awareness on the internal instead of being distracted by the information we receive from our senses. With pratyahara we move from the outer to the inner with yoga.
Imagine, or perhaps even remember, a time when you were still and quiet in savasana and you noticed some sound in the room but you thought to yourself, “I hear a sound. I don’t care about that sound and am not going to do anything about it.” Judith Hanson Lasater explains this experience as a part of pratyahara practice called ashinya. She refers to it as withdrawal of the senses plus lack of motivation.
This a brilliant place to visit. We teach our body and mind quite a bit by spending time in an pratyahara-induced ashinya space. It is a calm place where we have the opportunity to notice what is important before we react. It’s like being in a place where we can consciously and calmly choose the things that deserves our attention.
That sounds just like my vacation away from my kiddos, as I’m sure you can imagine. This past week, I had time to do what I wanted to do; I prioritized my own time and paid attention to the things that interested me. (Read: no playgrounds, Legos, Daniel Tiger or Minecraft!)
However, practicing pratyahara or getting access to this ashinya state is not an aim of yoga or life in the long term. We need to come back to the world. We receive important information about our surroundings and even about ourselves through our senses. We need to reopen to our senses in order to be in communication and relationship with people and things around us.
The skilled yogi can move in and out with her awareness, and pratyhara is the first step in practicing the movement inward. But just like a vacation from kids or a vacation from your regular work and routines, being a householder yogi in the modern world requires a return to the things we can experience through our five senses. And I think the most skilled yogi can apply what she discovers through pratyahara and ashinya to everyday life.
So if I would have called this post “children, children, go away,” I’d most definitely follow it up with the end of the rhyme and say “come back again another day.” For now, I’m going to enjoy my last few hours of kid-free pratyahara. Enjoy your vacation time this summer, friends!
“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” – Joseph Campbell
Nothing like an impending move to make you question why you own what you own. I spent most of the past two weeks packing up our house. It was sifting, sorting, selling, donating. It was an interesting experience to reflect on what I had been keeping and why, an excellent chance to practice the yama known as aparigraha.
Aparigraha is sometimes translated as non-possession but that doesn’t really capture the essence of this yama for me. Calling it non-possession makes me think I should be giving away everything that I own, and aspire to live the ascetic, possession-less life. While there are certainly schools of yoga that encourage this kind of lifestyle, it makes more sense to me when aparigraha is translated as non-grasping, not clinging so tightly to what we have.
Sometimes what we are holding is a physical thing, like the single sock my husband was refusing to get rid of even though he hasn’t seen the mate in more than a year. Or the six pairs of scissors that I was keeping, you know, just in case one pair got lost.
Or maybe it’s not something physical. Ingela Abbott writes, “Am I attached to being a stiff person or a weak body, attached to my old tensions or old injuries, attached to blaming people for my old pains or injuries, attached to doing a perfect pose or doing the finished pose, attached to doing a pose a certain way, or attached to my teacher’s way of presenting the poses, or just simply attached to that certain spot in the classroom?”
She goes on to argue that releasing the grip on physical things, thoughts, ideas, and even the grip on other people, allows us to connect more fully to our true and most authentic self. “The more we let go in all areas of life, the more life unfolds itself to us”.
My friend Naomi Gottlieb-Miller just wrote a great blog post about the stories we tell ourselves and the way we hold on to beliefs and ideas about ourselves, even when those stories aren’t really true.
As for me, I’m busy unpacking. But not in the way I hoped I would be unpacking. Unfortunately, the impending house purchase fell through the day before closing, two days before the move. Unknowingly, we were working with a terrible lender who erroneously pre-approved us for a loan and then wasn’t able to get the loan through the underwriters. After talking to another lender in an effort to save the deal, it was clear that we never should have been pre-approved for the loan in the first place.
The reason we couldn’t get the loan was a direct result of a tenant who lived in the rental property we own. She didn’t pay rent for six months last year, had to be evicted, and left us with a huge repair bill on the townhouse. In other words, absolutely nothing I could do to change that woman’s behavior or the decision the bank made on the loan that we were expecting to get to pay for the new house.
Talk about stressful, frustrating, disappointing! I had a day where I was clinging so tightly to those feelings that I was totally paralyzed.
But then I started unpacking.
I realized that just like the sorting and reflecting and letting go that I did when I was packing up, in order to move on, I had to let go of some things again. I had to let go of my disappointments, and my ideas of success and failure. I had to let go of my anger over how someone else had power over my options. I had to let go of what could have been, let go of the plan I had. Quite simply, this whole ordeal has just been another chance to practice a little more aparigraha and stop grasping so tightly.
My first car was a 1985 GMC Jimmy, my dad’s old car, gifted to me for my 17th birthday. Think pick up truck turned passenger vehicle, with absolutely no bells and whistles. It was sort of first generation kind of SUV.
As perhaps everyone thinks somewhat fondly about that first vehicle they owned or drove, this car was great in some ways but totally terrible in far more ways than it was good.
First, the gas gauge didn’t really work. As soon as it read a half tank of gas, I had to fill it up because it might truly be a half tank or…. SURPRISE!…. it was almost empty. I tried tracking my miles once as a way to tell when I needed to get gas and got it completely wrong so I was nearly stranded. I had to flag down some teenage farm boys to help push me into a gas station. (I ended up with a date out of that incident but that’s another story for another time.)
Another ridiculous thing about this car was what happened when I tried to drive faster than 65. It would accelerate steadily, but once that speedometer hit 65, the whole car would start vibrating. I could feel the vibrations in my feet and in the steering wheel. To be fair, the car was so badly sound-proofed, it was kind of like driving in a tin can even at low speeds so I think that was part of it. But the vibrations at higher speeds were almost as if the car was saying, “Okay, I can go this fast but you are past the limit here. Go any faster and I will break into a million pieces.” At 60 MPH, we were steady and easeful. 65? Not so much.
This is exactly how I think of Patanjali’s recommendation from the Yoga Sutras about how to practice asana. In Sanskrit it is: “sthira sukham asanam”. In BKS Iyengar’s translation, the definitions for the words as as follows:
Sthira = firm, fixed, steadfast, steady, lasting
Sukham = happiness, delight, ease
Asanam = performance of postures, poses
As with all of the concepts in the Yoga Sutras, much easier to say than to do, right? When you think about the actual poses you practice, it’s a big part of the challenge of yoga to make steadiness and ease happen every time.
With the good old Jimmy, it was easy to tell when I’d crossed the line past the steady and easeful mark. I think an important part of asana practice is to determine our limits in the same way, to know the signs of when we’ve lost the steadiness and ease. Of course the postures build strength, increase flexibility and come with a whole host of other physical benefits. But I also see the practice of asana as a means to learn about our limits. The poses become our own speedometer.
When you hold a challenging pose past the limit, you can feel it in your body. Like the vibrating steering wheel of my old car once we got past 65 miles per hour.
Even aside from the physical cues like the achy joint or the inability to stay in a balance pose, Iyengar says of asana practice, “it should be done with a feeling of firmness, steadiness and endurance in the body; goodwill in the intelligence of the head, and awareness and delight in the intelligence of the heart.”
He’s saying finding the limits in our postures isn’t just about the physical things we experience. When we lose the goodwill, the awareness, the delight in the postures, those are all signs that we’ve moved to far away from the steadiness and ease in our poses.
So practice with steadiness and ease, my friends. Find your own speed limit. See you on the mat.
On the very first day of my spring vacation this week, I slathered up the whole family in sunscreen and spent the morning at the beach. We played ball and built castles and collected shells and poked at dead jellyfish. By early afternoon it was clear that I had neglected sunscreening and I was completely burnt to a crisp. (Luckily the kiddos and hubs were spared!)
I really should have known better. My skin is stupid sensitive to sun and even though I was using SPF 50, it was my first exposure of the season to a bright and concentrated full-on dose of summer-like sun. Instead of relying on one application of sunscreen, I should have reapplied throughout the morning, or just put on more clothing!
Does this same kind of thing ever happen to you with yoga practice? You start out with what seems like appropriate preparation and self awareness but you get carried away and go too hot, too hard and don’t realize it until after the fact?
Some folks might say this is an example of too much tapas. (No, not those little Spanish appetizers. Though they are delicious!)
Tapas is one of the five niyamas of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The word comes from the Sanskrit verb “tap” which means “to burn”.
The traditional interpretation of this niyama is exactly as it sounds. You need fiery discipline to burn up the obstacles that are preventing you from being connected to your truest self.
Tapas is often used to advocate for (externally) heated practices and also the kind of practices that require long holds or fast movement from one pose to the next to build internal heat. Now I love all of these kinds of asana practice as much as the next girl. I like it when yoga asana practice is hot and hard and flowy or some combination of all three. I like the kinds of thing that pushes me right to the edge. It really does feel like all the junk and obstacles are burned up and the way is clear. However, in excess, tapas can burn like an uncontrolled forest fire, taking the good and the bad with it. Or as some might say, burning your skin.
So too much sun is too much tapas? Maybe not. I think maybe my sunburn was an example of not enough tapas. Here’s why:
For a long time, I misunderstood the recommendation to practice with tapas as only possible if the yoga practice was difficult. In my head, someone who could perform a really hard pose must be more disciplined and by extension more knowledgeable and spiritually evolved.
Certainly you can feel a great sense of accomplishment and pride in being able to perform a difficult posture. And I think it’s safe to assume that most folks DO have to practice consistently to make big backbends or handstand or binds happen for their bodies. But not necessarily. Maybe those poses just come naturally to them, like compact hand balancing poses happen for me.
But even aside from all of that, why would being able to perform an unassisted drop back into wheel pose, for example, mean that person was wiser or a better yogi than someone who couldn’t do a drop back? That just sounds silly! But I’m telling you, I honestly thought that. And sometimes I still catch myself in that, especially when I look at pictures of yoga poses.
Difficulty alone does not transform or educate. Of course the path of change and self-discovery is often difficult. But many times for me, difficulty in asana is simply calling my ego. One of my favorite yoga sayings is, “Asana strengthens the ego; tread carefully.” (I think that is attributed to B.K.S Iyengar but now I can’t find the reference.) And another of my favorites is by Pattabhi Jois: “Do your practice and all is coming.”
The more useful way for me to experience the energy of tapas is as consistency. It’s not hard and hot all the time. It’s not me on my yoga mat hammering away at the most difficulty poses out there. But it is me on my mat. On a regular basis.
Judith Hanson Lasater says, “For many years I mistook discipline as ambition. Now I believe it to be more about consistency. Do get on the mat. Practice and life are not that different. That’s a fundamental understanding.”
I think if we understand tapas as the practice of consistency, it is particularly transportable to life off the mat. It becomes the practice of approaching anything with a spirit of consistent attention. Like applying sunscreen, for example. Or you could think of tapas as the call to renew your commitment to your yoga practice this spring and then the follow through by showing up regularly.
I once read that optimistic people are late to things. The idea, of course, is that they optimistically believe they have enough time to do just one more thing before they leave. I consider myself a pretty optimistic person and I have certainly had that one-more-thing-before-I-leave moment more than once. I’m consciously not late to work or appointments but I have noticed that my optimism for how much I can accomplish has started getting the better of me these days.
My husband, Drew, was actually who called it to my attention. A few evenings ago he asked me how my day had been. I responded, “It was good except I didn’t get as much done as I wanted to get done.” He said, “Honey, I think that is the story of your life.” We laughed about it at the time but long after I found myself still thinking about what he said.
I had been blaming my failure to complete everything I intended as due to the switch in our work and childcare schedules that started in January, the aftereffects of the snowstorm, tax preparations, catching a cold… But is it actually ever possible to get everything done on my day’s to do list? Of course! If it is an absolutely perfect day. You know that day? It’s where everything in the universe lines up perfectly. When there are no traffic accidents, and the Post Office stop takes 5 minutes, and the kids leave school at exactly 4:45 pm, and no one needs help getting the game off the top shelf… Yeah. It’s exactly what you are thinking. Yep. A day like this NEVER happens!
I started to realize is that my idea of what is possible never allows for any wiggle room. So what to do? Lower my expectations? Um… yes. I think so.
Now this is hard one for me. I feel really good about having high expectations for myself, the things I produce, the schedule I keep. But having high expectations only work if the high expectations aren’t impossible to achieve.
So here is my plan how to be an optimist and still feel like I’ve been productive:
- Write down the “perfect day” to do list
- Prioritize that list
- Assign the things that can be done on another day to another day
- Build in extra time for things like putting on shoes (This is not for me but for my children. It can’t possibly take more than 5 minutes to put on shoes? Oh yes, yes it can.)
- Take a savasana break
Yep. You read that right, my dear friends. Do not skip your savasana break. It is the one thing that I am absolutely firm about doing everyday. Because as Ovid reminds us, “Take rest; a field that has rested gives a beautiful crop.”
I’ll keep you updated on my progress and you do the same.
I will say this, yesterday the weather was SO beautiful that I completely put aside my to do list. I played outside with the kids all day. We even went out for dinner (which we never do!) because I didn’t cook all day. It felt great! Until 10 pm when I looked at everything that was still waiting for me on that to do list and I felt a twinge of familiar lack-of-productivity guilt. Sigh. It’s a practice, as they say.
Until next time, yogis!
I never set out to be a mentor. I never even imagined that I’d ever be in a position to teach people how to teach yoga. And yet, in the past two years, all signs are pointing to that very thing.
First, I developed a restorative yoga teacher training program. I started it because I was just bursting with stuff to share about this practice and it sort of took on a life of its own!
Then I was invited to teach in the 2016 Yoga Teaching Training program at CHY. This is at the same time totally scary and absolutely thrilling.
In addition, one of my oldest yoga teaching colleagues and friends, Naomi Gottlieb-Miller asked me to teach her Yoga Teacher Training group at Lighthouse Yoga while she is out on maternity leave.
And finally and the point of this entire story, two very dear yoga teachers who are students of mine came to me in the same week with the very same crisis of confidence: “I don’t know if I should be teaching yoga.”
I explained to them both what happened to me when I encountered this very same crisis about 8 years ago.
I graduated from yoga teacher training in 2005, the same year I got married and bought a house, all while working a full-time job AND working part-time at the yoga studio in exchange for yoga teacher training tuition. (Yes, you read that right. I was doing all of that at the same time. Type A, pitta, overachiever much? No wonder I needed yoga!)
Then, before I’d even graduated from YTT, I accepted a teaching job, taking over a class from one of my teachers who was moving away from DC. For about a year and half after I finished YTT, I was teaching several classes per week and I loved it. Teaching yoga lit me up in a way that nothing else really did.
Then I had a baby. And when Jack was three months old, I had to go back to my full-time job. I had great visions of continuing my practice and my teaching schedule. Afterall, I was well practiced at doing everything!
But it didn’t work out like I planned. I was barely making it onto the mat for my own practice. I was struggling to get to my classes to teach, and I certainly wasn’t being mindful with my class plans or my intentions when I was in the seat of the teacher. All of my students who were so thrilled I was coming back from maternity leave just stopped coming to class.
Looking back, it’s not surprising that happened. I was completely disconnected from my relationship with yoga and rightly so! I needed to work full-time and take care of a baby. Teaching yoga fell to the lowest rungs of the priority ladder.
So I quit. I quit teaching. It was traumatic and I cried a lot.
But you know what happened? Not too long after all of that, things settled way down. Jack was sleeping at night plus we scored a spot in the daycare at my work, Drew (my husband) got a new job, and we had all gotten more comfortable with this-is-life-with-a-kid routine. Drew encouraged me to go back to taking classes at a studio. Within two months of going back to group classes, three amazing teaching opportunities landed right at my feet. I didn’t even really intend to go back to teaching at that point but I just knew when those opportunities knocked, it was time to answer the door. My first class back in the seat of the teacher, the entire class burst out in applause after the final om.
A crisis in confidence, about whether you should teach yoga, or should stick it out in your job, or continuing in a relationship, is really just a call to check your priorities. It’s a chance to examine what’s best for you, what serves you. I’m not advocating rash decisions. Certainly we all have ups and downs. An off class, a bad day at work, a fight with our partners. But when more days and times are like that than they are good or when you intuition is giving you messages that what’s happening just isn’t right, it’s time to consider a change. Here are three ways to face your crisis of confidence:
- Write about it. Sit down and make a pro/con list. It’s the oldest school of the old school. But lots of times, it works. The trick is to do this more than once. Write out your pro/con list and then tuck it away for a few days. Go back and write a second one. Maybe even a third one a few days after that. Then sit down and compare all three lists. The answer might be clear.
- Talk to people you trust who love you. Almost always other people in my life can see things more clearly than I can. You know how it’s always easier to solve other people’s problems than it is to solve your own, right? Getting some outside perspective can be just what you need.
- Get on your yoga mat. You had to expect that one was coming! There’s a great quote that I come back to all the time, “Put your yoga to it”. I don’t know who originally said it, but it works for me every time. When you are confused, head to your mat. Maybe it’s sun salutations, or savasana, or seated meditation. And even better, get into class in community. Practicing alone is powerful, essential even, but practicing as part of a group is even more magical. Among a group of yogis, you feel held up by the folks practicing around you, even if you don’t say a word to anyone in the room.
Driving back from our short holiday trip to visit PA with a car full of amazing presents from our generous family, Drew (my husband) and I started talking about ways to organize some areas in our house to make room for all of our new stuff. The conversation started out about the play area in our basement and snowballed into all of the places that needed some cleaning out and organizing: the linen closet, the boys’ bedroom closet, my desk, the living room bookcases, the shed… And finally, the Storage Room. Perhaps bolstered by the “new year, new <insert whatever needs improving here>” sentiment, we threw ourselves head first into cleaning out and organizing as soon as we arrived home.
Drew was particularly keen to get the Storage Room stored out. I think at one time in the past, this room had been used by previous tenants as a bedroom but it’s not really suited to be such a thing. It’s small, with a low ceiling, a narrow doorway and a high tiny basement window, tucked out of the way in a corner of the basement. It’s not really good for anything except storing stuff so that’s how it got it’s name. But as we started pulling out boxes and bins, we decided a more accurate name would be the Junk Room. It turned out to be a way bigger project than either of us expected. How in the world did we accumulate so much stuff?
By the end of the first day of our Operation Organize, our entire house looked far worse than when we started with boxes and bins and stuff in every room and in every corner. We went to bed feeling tired, cranky, and liked we had accomplished nothing at all.
By the next morning, I realized our mistake. We had this huge vision for our space but we didn’t really break it down into manageable parts.
I think this just might be the pitfall of every New Year’s resolution ever. Our giant visions for self-improvement are only as good as the parts. The good news is that I have some great opportunities this year for you to “break it down” and accomplish whatever it is you are setting out to do. Prioritizing self care? Get started by snagging the last room at my January Restorative Yoga Retreat. Do you have handstand on you list of to do’s for 2016? Join my 9-week “Get On Up in Handstand” series! Or just do a mountain pose while you wait in line at the store. Take 10 minutes for a living room floor savasana. Tackle your vision for yourself and your life this year one little piece at a time. One pose at a time. Or in the case of my “Storage” Room, one box of stuff at a time.
My yoga teacher friend Galen posted on Facebook yesterday that what he learned in 2015 is “the fewer things I try to do, the more I get done.” Today, we took a page from Galen’s book and started the day by saying we were just going to finish the shed. And you know what? It worked! The shed is done, the kids’ closets are done, and the Storage room has only three more boxes to sort through. Small goals, big progress. Let’s do this 2016!
Sadie (my two-year old) asked Drew (my husband) why he was taking a picture when he was looking at his phone. He told her he was reading his email. She said, “Your evil?” We had a good laugh about that.
More often than not, I think evil is the perfect way to describe my email inbox. And especially at this time of year. Even before the plates were cleared from Thanksgiving dinner, my inbox was filled with messages that haven’t stopped since then.
“Free Shipping Today Only!”
“25% Off Sale Just for You!”
“Don’t Miss These Great Deals!”
It’s basically a whole pile of junk mail telling me what to buy and from where, how to think, how much and what to eat, what experience I’m supposed to be having this holiday season.
The messages from social media, news media, even family and friends, the “outside” voices are so loud, so prolific, it feels easy for my voice inside to be overtaken. But really, all of that stuff is just spam. In fact, this is the spam-iest time of the year, as my friend Felicity says.
In the same way that I delete or unsubscribe or just ignore and delete those unwanted advertising emails, I have to keep reminding myself that I have the capacity to shut out those unwelcome and usually conflicting messages of the season. This time of year seems to demand that I be social and outgoing, shop and consume, celebrate and be joyful. But the truth is that sometimes I just don’t feel like that.
It feels like the whole season is one long, giant backbend. Now, I love a good heart opener as much as the next girl. (Actually, that’s not quite true. I often feel like of anxious and unsettled in backbends but that’s another story for another time.) Lots of times, especially as it is getting dark so early and colder outside, I have no desire to burst out in song and do a jig. I just want to curl up with a nice hot cup of tea, a book, and a purring kitty in my lap. When I come to my mat, I find myself lingering in the hip openers, the forward folds and long savasanas.
Yet even when I’m drawn to hide under the covers, literally and metaphorically, I always feel better when I get on my mat. Whether it is a warm flowy practice or a quiet savasana, whether I am alone or in a group, yoga resets the volume on all of those outside voices and messages. It’s like the trash icon for the spam, all of that “evil” email. I don’t want to be another person telling you what to experience at this time of year, but I will recommend that when you feel tired, overwhelmed, and like you’ve lost track of what you really need and want, yoga could be just the thing you need. So come see me on the mat now and then this month. And very best wishes for a safe, happy, and healthy end to your year, my friends!