How to Make the Season of Giving Last All Year Long

Many years ago, I went to a yoga class when I was on a vacation in South Carolina and the teacher kept saying things like, “this pose isn’t for you; it’s for someone else” and “give away this pose”. Every time she would say things like that, I would bristle.

What do you mean, this isn’t for me?

This time that I’ve worked so hard to carve out this time for yoga practice? This warrior 2 we’ve been holding here for an eternity? This backbend I’ve been attempted so diligently? These millions of rounds of kapala bhati? This busy mind of mine that I’ve been working to understand for years in my meditations? No, no, no. This is ONLY for me!

Then back in October, I went on a retreat with my best friend. The whole weekend was only for me; it was a girls-only weekend getaway reminiscent of the road tripping my friend and I used to do together back in our college days.

Several times throughout the weekend, Natalie Miller, the retreat leader, would say something like, “be generous to yourself.”

To be honest, going on that retreat felt like a big splurge, one that I felt a tad bit guilty about, but with Natalie’s reminders I started to remember that by practicing yoga, by setting aside a whole weekend to practice and just be, I was giving a very generous gift to myself. And it was a gift I deserved!

All weekend long, I noticed that I was more patient with myself when I didn’t know what to do. I was more forgiving when I messed something up. And above all, I was more curious than judgmental about my reactions to things.

But the unexpected thing was that all of the amazing benefits of my generous practice time ended up working to the benefit of others.

I didn’t feel flustered when the drive home took an hour longer than usual and I ended up 10 minutes late for a workshop I was teaching. My husband noted how relaxed I still looked and acted, even the day after I returned home. I felt undisturbed by the giant pile of laundry that had accumulated in my absence, something that otherwise would have caused me great angst.

You get the idea, right?

So I guess you could say that it just took me a really long time to learn the lesson that teacher was trying to impart in that class so long ago when she kept telling me that my yoga practice was for someone else.

Yoga practicing is an act of generosity and the benefits extended well beyond the practitioner.

Now as we are sitting at the end of the season of giving, I offer you a challenge. Come to your yoga practice this month, not because of a New Year’s Resolution and not because you are committing to change something about yourself.

Come to your practice as an act of generosity to yourself. Because you deserve it!

Practice and practice often. And notice how your practice benefits you and also everyone around you. It’s the best way to keep the season of giving happening all year long.

Threads of the Prakriti Carpet

The thing I love the most about home makeover shows is where they find something really valuable and unexpected under some badly designed wall or worn out carpet or boarded up fireplace. That stuff that’s over the top of the hidden treasure, like that old ugly carpet, is just like the yogic concept of prakriti.

Prakriti is the stuff of the material world. You can think about it as layers of forces or energy. The Sanskrit word for these forces/energies is guna. The word guna literally means strand or string or thread. So you can think about the gunas as the threads that make up a cloth. That cloth is prakriti.

In The Bhagavad Gita, the gunas are described as the threads of the cloth that make a mask or a veil. And that veil, like the bad 70’s shag carpet in the Fixer Upper house, is disguising something amazing.

One way to apply this in a more practical way is to start to consider what is underneath, out of sight for you. What is behind your desire to practice yoga? What is happening in your yoga poses that is more than just the outward appearance of the shape of the pose? What motivates you on (and off!) your mat? What is the intention that informs and underpins your yoga practice?

The fall is the perfect time to start to ask these questions and settle into the ways that yoga practice can serve you best through the colder and darker months ahead.

The Yoga of Vacationing

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!

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!

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!