The Yoga of Sunscreen

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 SutrasThe 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.

Namaste, yogis!

The Guilt-free Productive Optimist

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:

  1. Write down the “perfect day” to do list
  2. Prioritize that list
  3. Assign the things that can be done on another day to another day
  4. 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.)
  5. 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!

 

Crisis of Confidence

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Break It Down

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!

Evil Email or Spam-iest Time of the Year

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!

 

The Good Kind of Selfish

My dear friend Susan Timmons Marks always says when she leads iRest practices, “there is no selfishness in self care.”

I really understood that, like REALLY understood it, when I went away for five days to Boston. By myself. No kids. No husband. No students. No teaching.

It was selfish. It was indulgent. And it was exactly what I needed.

Every year the venerable Judith Hanson Laster teaches a training in Boston called “Experiential Anatomy”. I’ve been wanting to take this for at least eight years. Seriously. But it wasn’t until this year that I finally made the decision that I had to go.

What was holding me back before was that it seemed like such a selfish decision. To leave my husband to deal with all three of the kids for five days?! (This has absolutely nothing to do with my husband’s ability to manage our children. Because I work on so many evenings and have for a long time, he is the master of the solo dinner/bathtime/bedtime routine. So of course he is completely capable, but I know how exhausting it is to do all of that, plus all of the house chores, and then morning routine, too!)

There was also the general organization of it. Calling favors for babysitting so my husband could keep on schedule with his work, finding great subs for my classes, making sure there was enough food and clean clothes for everyone before I left…

Not to mention the expense of the whole trip! Air travel, paying to stay some place, the cost for the training itself…

Just the idea of leaving made me feel guilty. So indulgent!

But while I was there, I realized just how much I needed it.

In taking care of myself and only myself for five whole days, I realized just how much time I spend taking care of other people. Cooking for my family, cleaning my house, putting bandaids on skinned knees, propping my students to help them rest, mentoring apprentices… Having a week without teaching, cooking, or giving advice, made me recognize how integral taking care of others is to my life and who I am. Caring for other people truly brings me joy and sense of purpose. But sometimes I get so immersed in my role of care-taker that I forget that I need to be cared for too. This trip helped me recognize that things were way out of balance for me.

I returned from Boston a more enthusiastic teacher, with a better understanding of my motivations on the mat, with exciting class plans and new things to explore. I came back with a greater appreciation for those obnoxious early morning bed invaders. I actually missed cooking and folding laundry while I was away. Everyone missed me while I was away and I missed them too! I came back a more grateful teacher, mom, and wife.

Turns out a little selfishness and indulgence is just what I needed. You too? Maybe you need a weekend yoga retreat, an extra piece of cake, an hour of sleeping in. These things help us relax and refresh. They remind us of all the amazing things we have and help us stay focused on what we really want and need. So it’s good to be selfish. Sometimes.

Back to school

It’s back to school time in Chez Lemerise. What strikes me the most is the change I see in my kids and their friends after being away all summer. It’s not just that everyone has grown a few inches and are wearing new shoes, but there a clear shift in their energy and mine as well.

It is such a big time here that I sometimes forget that not everyone has this big transition at the end of August and the beginning of September like our household does. And yet in class last night one of my students remarked how even though she doesn’t have kids, she can feel the back to school enthusiasm and it renews her interest in yoga.

Whether you or members of your family are heading back to school or not, it really is a great time to recommit to your yoga practice. If a weekly class isn’t in your schedule these days, check out one of my workshops. Or maybe you need a whole weekend away. My fall retreat at the beginning of October can fit that bill.

I hope to see you on the mat this month or maybe at that PTA meeting.

Procrastination be gone!

In general, in most parts of my life and work, I’m a get-it-done kind of lady. But when it comes to this one particular item – writing a monthly blog post – I’m the biggest procrastinator ever.

I always have really good excuses…

“I just got back from a really busy (and totally amazing!) weekend retreat.”

“I’ve been juggling some childcare challenges.”

“I’ve been working on lots of new class plans.”

“I’ve spent time cooking for some friends and neighbors who needed a little help.”

And none of that would be a lie. But the real truth (get ready for the yogi confessional) is, quite simply…

I’m procrastinating.

In my procrastinating this month, I think I might have come to recognize why I put this off and always seem to find other “more important” things to do when it’s newsletter writing time.

I care a lot what you think. It’s been going on for awhile, like, ever since I can remember.

And my drive for you to think highly of me rears its ugly head when it comes time to write something. I get worried that you might think what I’m writing about is lame. Or that I’m bothering you by sending this newsletter.

Now in most things, I’ve mostly gotten over myself. I don’t care so much about what you think of my clothes or my hair or my post-baby belly (okay, maybe I’m still working on that one!) I don’t really care if you like my classes because I’m really confident in the value of what I’m offering. And I acknowledge that I am way more judgmental about myself than any of you are likely to be of me.

But when it comes to things that will be photographed, or in print, or on the interwebs for(ever?) a long time to come, I’m almost paralyzed by my need to be perfect because of what you might think and so I would totally prefer to avoid than to actually do.

So instead, I do the things I love like cooking, practicing yoga, planning classes, doing laundry, going to the car wash, watering the garden, playing with the kids…

And while all of those things are helpful and good in their own way, I totally know that there are just those things you have to make yourself do because they move you forward toward your goals, even if they make you uncomfortable. For me, it’s writing a newsletter. Putting myself and my offerings out there whether you like it or not so that hopefully you will all come to class and I can make a living as a yoga teacher.

Here’s the real point of all of this: are you reading this because you are avoiding something you should or have to do? If so, own it. Call yourself on it and then go! Get on with it, friend! Stop procrastinating. Get on your yoga mat. Finish your work. Clean your house. Call your mother. Go to the dentist. Go to bed. Whatever it is for you, go and do it.

Love,
Tara

 

How does your garden grow?

Before all this rainy weather that showed up, it seemed like all of my yoga students were coming to class with aches and pains from a few weeks of gardening. ‘Tis the season for tidying up the yard and clearing out all of those unwelcome garden creepers, right?

I have to admit to you that my flower beds were looking pretty rough. I’ve got the greenest of thumbs when it comes to houseplants but the outdoor varieties? Not my bag. The truth is, I don’t really like to dig in the dirt.

I tried to spin this gardening chore into a fun family activity. After all, my kids love getting dirty or so their end-of-the-day clothes might suggest! But after just a few minutes, it was clear that an almost 2 year old and a 4 year old do not make the best gardeners. Big surprise, right?

I mean, they did pull the weeds. And they also pulled up lots of flowers. My dismay at the situation was almost immediately dissolved by the wise 8-year old yoga in the family who pointed out that there was something really great still there (besides the cute garden gnome!)

Potential.

Swami Sivananda wrote about the similarities between gardening and yoga. He likened the mental space to a beautiful garden with so much potential to create life and beauty. And also often plagued with weeds – unconscious habits that create mental and physical distress, sometimes suffocating the positive and healthy things that are struggling to take hold. He described the practice of yoga as a weeding out our habitual, unconscious patterns in order to encourage more conscious “patterns that are expressive of the higher powers and virtues of enlightenment.”

Despite my aversion to the dirtiness of gardening, I completely dig this metaphor (dumb pun totally intended!) Sometimes my yoga practice is precise, like an expert gardener with perfect plucks and tugs that remove the exact bit of tension or stress, leaving a warm, fuzzy afterglow, all the lovely flowers in tact.

Other times, my yoga practice is like my kids in the flower beds: rough and tumble, sweaty, dirty, and undiscerning. At first, those times can feel annoying, unexpected, grumpiness-inducing. And yet…the weeds are gone. Even though the flowers are too, the space that remains is a place to grow something new. Something to nourish us, heal us, help us make the most of the life we are living.

So don’t be afraid to pull up the flowers with the weeds. Because maybe like my kids in the garden, your practice is just making the space for you to grow some green beans and cucumbers. See you on the mat or in the garden!