Precisely Imperfect

woman with question mark sign over her face

Is this me? You’ll never know!

I like going to yoga classes where no one knows me. Too often I’m in a class where students know I’m a yoga teacher and I feel pressure to practice in a particular way. To be clear, this pressure is totally self-imposed.

I’m sure no one really cares if a nail the handstand or not.

But I feel the pressure anyway so I seek out places to take classes where I can be anonymous.

Well, a few weeks ago I went to a studio where I’ve never been before and took a class with a new-to-teaching and new-to-me teacher. It was one of those crazy unexpected times when I ended up at the only student in the class. Hard to be anonymous when you are the only person there.

A few minutes into our session, the teacher asked me how long I’ve been practicing yoga. When I answered that I’ve been practicing yoga for 18 years, she said, “oh, well that explains why your poses look so perfect! You shouldn’t be in a beginner’s class!” She certainly meant it as a compliment but it felt like the wrong kind of compliment. I really considered what she said and the whole thing reminded me of this story that one of my students shared with me.

He came to his first yoga class at the recommendation of his doctor when he was 68. Around that time, his daughter was teasing him about how inflexible he was as he was getting in and out of her car. He replied, “Just you wait until I finish yoga!” Nearly 5 years later, as he told me this story he smiled as he said, “Well now I know better. I’ll never finish practicing yoga.”

My student is totally right. There is no endpoint, no perfect way to do a pose, no final version of a posture. And because of that, we are never done, never perfect.

It’s because we aren’t aiming for perfection in our postures.

Perfection is chock full of self-criticism and judgment. Perfection comes from moving from the outside.

Wait. Does she only have one arm and one leg? That’s not perfect!

Of course we have to have some starting point, some common way to talk about the general shape of postures. For example, an inverted v-shape in your body with you hands and feet on the mat and your hips up high in the air is downward facing dog pose. But the general shapes of the poses are only the start, not the goal.

Instead of perfection, we are meant to practice from the inside out.

Precision cares about the placement of the body, not because there is some ideal shape, but because we are cultivating mindfulness of action. Precision is a process. Practicing with precision means we are never done. I really think we put the emphasis on the wrong things when we are aiming for perfection in yoga poses.

My friend Naomi recently wrote an inspiring blog post about rediscovering the joy in her yoga practice.

Many times we have to step away from the outside pressure and judgements about what is a perfect pose to find our joy in practice.


BKS Iyengar in shouldstand lotus

Obviously this is not me doing lotus in shoulder stand (It’s BKS Iyengar)

As my unexpected private lesson was wrapping up, the teacher instructed me into shoulder stand. Then she asked me to add lotus position for my legs. I attempted it and managed to get only one leg in place.

She seemed a little disappointed. So I jokingly told her if I kept practicing shoulder stand with lotus legs for another 18 years I would be able to do it. She shook her head and assured me in an eager and super-earnest way that if I tried it everyday, I’d definitely be able to do it in a few weeks.

Or never, I thought, as I ended in savasana with a Mona Lisa smile. I know it really doesn’t matter if I ever get my legs into lotus while I’m in shoulder stand.

Precision not perfection.

What’s love got to do with it?

I recently heard about a church group who started what they call Valentine’s Day of Compassion about 10 years ago. In an answer to the “Hallmark holiday” that focuses almost exclusively on romantic love, the organizers wanted to reframe the idea of what it means to love and be loving towards others. It reminded me of the different ways that yoga views love.

Love as compassion is one of them. In Yoga Sutra 1.33 we are advised to act with compassion for the miserable and sorrowful.

Miriam-Webster defines compassion as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”

In Sanskrit, the word for compassion is karuṇā.

Photo of dictionary entry for compassionJust like our understanding of the English word compassion, karuṇā is more than plain empathy, more than the ability to understand the feelings of another. And it’s not just sympathy or feeling pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.

Karuṇā is the ability to understand someone else’s feelings, plus feeling pity and sorrow yourself for their dilemmas, AND a desire to alleviate the suffering for both of you.

There is a beautiful compassion meditation that comes from the Buddhist tradition.

It goes like this…

Invite into your awareness someone you know who is suffering. (It works best at first if you choose someone you know personally.) Fill your heart with an image of this person. Inhale and draw in all of that person’s pain as if it were a dark cloud. Exhale and send the person a bright light of joy and healing.

It sounds simple, right? But if start to practice you’ll notice it’s not as simple as it seems.

Noticing what comes up as you practice this meditation gives you lots of information about yourself and your tendencies.

CartoonFor example, when I do this meditation, I make it about 2 or 3 breaths before I’m in problem-solving mode. I hear myself in full-on infomercial announcer voice “Are you suffering? Well suffer no more! I’ve got 50 different options for things I’m sure you haven’t tried!” Then it starts to morph into something similar to this cartoon.

Does your mind do this too? Does it immediately jump to all of the schemes, all of the actions, all of the solutions for the problem?

Or maybe you get sidetracked by our own pain and discomfort. Thinking of a friend who is suffering reminds you of your own suffering and instead of being able to offer light on your exhale, you end up getting bogged down in your own dilemmas. That’s definitely happened to me too!

These scenarios make it tempting to consider your compassion meditation a failure. But Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön writes about karuṇā, saying:

“True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings.”

Cultivating karuṇā is about connection to others through memories, sensations, realizations of our own sufferings. But it can be challenging not to get bogged down in our experiences of suffering or in our rush to judgement and desire to offer up advice.

Compassion that comes from the ways we are similar is meant to be the foundation upon which we chose to act.

And just because I couldn’t borrow the blog post title from Tina Turner without actually linking you to the song, here you go.

Everything is Connected. Even Boston and Nirvana.

Jack, my oldest son, has become a serious rocker. He’s been playing the guitar for about 18 months and the list of bands whose songs he’s been learning to play has gone like this…

Jack playing a Fender Mustang

The Beatles
Vance Joy
Jack Johnson
<enter his first electric guitar>
Foo Fighters
Rage Against the Machine

Earlier today, as we were taking down our Christmas decorations and unpacking from our holiday traveling, Jack heard the song “More Than a Feeling” by the band Boston playing on the stereo.

“Who is this band? Is this a cover of a Nirvana song?” he asked us tentatively. “It sort of sounds like ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’

At first my husband and I just laughed. But then we all stopped and listened more closely. My husband Googled it and Jack is definitely not the first person to hear the connection between these two songs, as you can see for yourself in this mash-up video.

Turns out the similarity between the songs was a total accident! You can read about it here.

Okay, I know you are probably thinking, this is pretty cool but just how is this related to yoga?

The very first premise of yoga’s philosophical basis is that everything is connected and our suffering comes from the experience of and identification with separateness.

The practice of yoga is about finding, making, abiding, in our connections. Simple. Sure. But easy? Nope. Not at all. It’s because so much of our lives are filled with the experiences of discord – me versus you, light versus dark, awake versus asleep…

Oneness is always concealed in the differentiations. The yoga is in seeing oneness despite that.

So seeing something familiar in someone else, tasting a familiar flavor, or hearing a familiar sound… these are perfect entries into interconnectedness. A moment of revelation. Yoga suggests to us that we are constantly playing a giant game of hide and seek. Our oneness is concealed and then revealed. But we can only see if it we are paying close attention.

My wish for 2018, or shall I say, my resolution (to borrow from the day’s classic buzzword) is to continue to play the cosmic game of hide and seek. That means I’ll keep seeking connections, celebrating similarities, and listening to hear something familiar in every song I hear.

Happy new year, yogis.

black and white drawing with quote by da Vinci

The Yogi’s GPS

I’ve driven to my hometown in York, PA from the DC area more times than I can possibly count. Certainly hundreds – maybe thousands? – of times since I moved to MD in 1999. And yet, not so long ago I was driving to my grandmother’s house and I totally missed my exit. What? How is that possible?

signs pointing in different directions

Well…I have a terrible sense of direction. Like really the worst. I have zero instinctual understanding of where I am and the route to take to get to where I’m going. It was an even worse dilemma in the not so distant past when I needed actual road maps to plot my courses.

Luckily for me, the modern navigational technologies of GPS and a smart phone has resolved any serious issues with my lack of sense of direction when it comes to getting places.

But I sometimes feel like I’ve lost my way when it comes to less concrete things like getting to my grandmother’s house.

Equally fortunate for me, yoga offers me a kind of GPS for the non-physical moments of feeling lost.

Prajñā, often translated as clear understanding, can also be understood as clear direction. It is one of the five virtues, along with focusstrength, faith, and retentive power.

Yoga offers us opportunities to cultivate focus, strength, faith, and retentive power in order to have a clear direction and understanding of the self and ultimately life.

Prajñā has three important and specific components:

  1. Knowing what we want and where we want to go;
  2. Recognizing when we are on the right course to get there;
  3. Knowing where we are when we start.
Where am I going? Hello, sankalpa.

How can I get somewhere if I don’t know where I am trying to go? As George Harrison sings in Any Road, “If you don’t know where you’re going/Any road will take you there.”

Working with an intention or sankalpa is a strategy that helps get at exactly what it is that we want and how we get there. Kelly McGonigal wrote a really fantastic article about sankalpa and how to set one that is powerful and meaningful. I find it super-helpful, especially as the year is winding down and I start thinking about what it means to set a New Year’s resolution.

Am I on the right path? Where am I right now?

line drawing of woman meditatingCyndi Lee is the teacher that has inspired me most lately to access a clearer picture of whether or not I’m on the right path. Her meditation tradition called shamatha, a technique based on Buddhist teachings. The premise is that the essence of our being is unconditional wisdom and compassion. But it’s easy to lose track of our wisdom and compassion because other real (and imaginary) drama gets in the way.

It’s become a regular strategy for me now to ask myself, “is this reaction you are having right now coming from a place of wisdom and compassion, or is it a result of being hangry/tired/sick/scared/grumpy/etc?”

It’s hard to make good wise decisions when the basic needs of body and emotional self aren’t totally met. But sometimes it’s even harder to recognize when I am abiding in a state that is not wisdom and compassion. Fortunately I have meditation and a very helpful husband to continue to call me out in the most loving ways possible.

Reenter the five virtues.

Santa Claus in tree pose

Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, Chairman and Spiritual Head of the Himalayan Institute, explains as we nurture focus, strength, faith, and retentive power, our clear direction unfolds before us. Essentially prajñā means that we understand “what we are supposed to learn from the pleasant and unpleasant experiences that life brings, and ultimately, know how to use our worldly achievements to fuel our spiritual growth.”

While yoga is helping me to figure out my clear way forward into 2018, I’m still pretty grateful to modern technology for helping me navigate in my car. Even luckier and oh-so-appropriate for the season, Santa is the voice of my directions on Waze right now.

Happy holidays, yogis. I look forward to seeing you this month and in 2018!

Time Is On Our Side

I’ve just returned from a retreat at one of my favorite places on the planet: Blue Mountain Retreat Center. There’s a funny thing that happens when I’m there. I totally lose track of time. It’s a bit inconvenient, especially when I’m running the retreat and responsible for keeping on the schedule. But it feels like retreats there are set in an unusual kind of timelessness.

clock with no handsThe super wise and brilliant teacher Machelle Lee once told me that when our nervous system switches into rest and digest (the parasympathetic side) instead of fight or flight (sympathetic), we lose track of time.

Or maybe more specifically, we lose track of our urgency around time.

While this isn’t exactly the kind of timelessness that the Mandukya Upanishad is talking about, it certainly reminds me of it. The Mandukya Upanishad proposes that Consciousness is beyond time.

Our mind’s state is divided as follows:

  • Outwardly focused
    We are only connecting to the external world – solving problems, getting things done, responding to information we receive from our senses.
  • Inwardly focused
    This is sometimes calls the dreaming state where we are replaying our past actions and desires.
  • Deep sleep
    This is described as a state when there are no actions and no desires.

It goes on to describe what happens when we become more fully aware in each of these three states:

The superconscious state is neither inward or outward, beyond the senses and the intellect…without parts, beyond birth and death…Those who know Consciousness become Consciousness itself.

One of my teachers, Judith Hanson Laster, talks about how difficult it is to get access to this kind of connection. She explains it like this: the body is always stuck in the past. It is a cumulative experience of all our past movements and lack of movements, injuries, bodily experiences.

Our mind is often concerned with the future. It’s pushing ahead to solve problems and be prepared for whatever we might be expecting to encounter or experience.

But our breath is our best place to get access to the present.

If we can connect mind, body, and breath together, we can stay steady and aware in the present.

supported savasanaStaying present is absolutely not possible when we are in a rush to do something or to get somewhere. When we can slow down and be in each step of the practice as we encounter it, we are cultivating a more purposeful kind of awareness in action and this is the launching point for access to this Consciousness described in the Mandukya Upanishad.

If you want to experience a kind of timelessness that happens on a restorative yoga retreat, registration for my winter retreat is now open!

From Fullness, Fullness Comes

pumpkins and mums

This weekend I pulled out the sweatshirts and flannels with great delight that the cooler weather has finally arrived. I put some pumpkins and mums (my favorite flowers!) on my porch and I considered how fall always feels like a time for organization, order, preparations, settling in.

Fall also always gets me thinking about abundance, specifically the invocation from the Isha Upanishad: 


“All this is full. All that is full.
From fullness, fullness comes.
When fullness is taken from fullness,
Fullness still remains.”

I have lots of favorite parts of the Upanishads but as a whole, the Isha Upanishad is my favorite. Purportedly It was Ghandi’s favorite, too. Ghandi did reference the Isha Upanishad in his writings, specifically about the implications for our social and economic structures if we were to take the Isha Upanishad’s message of abundance seriously.

Ghandi is famously quoted as saying “There is enough for everyone’s need, just not enough for everyone’s greed.”

Sometimes our yoga practice serves us best, perhaps after a particularly stressful week in the world, as a place for us to regroup and turn inward, as a place to recharge and practice self-care. It becomes a place that moves us in rhythm the energy of the fall, where we organize our bodies, our attention and it’s where we can gather in to what serves us as individuals.

But in Ghandi’s view our yoga practices should ultimately rest on the foundation of what is good for the collective, no matter what the season.

The Isha Upanishad’s point is that there is one consciousness that connects us all. We have equal access to it and equal right to experience it.

Even more than that, it is not a limited resource. This one consciousness is abundantly and constantly available to us. What kinds of implications does that have for the way we move through the world?

There is so much division and conflict right now, perhaps even in own families and even within ourselves, that I find a particular inspiration in words from Greek philosopher Plotinus’ Enneads, which sounds quite a bit like the Isha Upanishad’s message:

“Think of this One original source as a spring, self-generating, feeding all of itself to the rivers and not yet used up by them…When you pours over us, we are not dashed down but you raise us up. You are not spilled out, but collect us together.”

Diana's Bath, Bartlett, NH

On the matter of being in and out of a body

Not too long ago, one of my students had what she described as an “out-of-body experience” in a restorative yoga practice. It reminded me a bit of the experiences described by some of transcendental meditators that I used to hang around.

Those amazing yogis had the most intense meditation practices of anyone I’d ever known.

They were super far out, yearned to be in that space all the time, and specifically cultivated a meditation practice that would take them there at will. (On the flip side, most of them had a hard time paying the rent or being in committed relationships. But that came from never putting their energy or focus back down and into their daily lives.)

The yogi from my class who had the “out-of-body experience” said she firmly prefers the kind of yoga that puts her *into* body.

She jokingly said she was about to jump up out of savasana and into a triangle pose.

I told her a story from the Mundaka Upanishad about Shaunaka, a householder yogi. Shaunaka goes to his teacher and wants to know why he isn’t making more progress in his study of yoga. His teacher explains that while Shaunaka’s practice is steady and correct, he is succeeding in becoming master of only lower knowledge.

The Mundaka Upanishad goes on to explain in a very beautiful and poetic style, more beautiful than my retelling could do justice, the true purpose of yoga.

The benefits of yoga practice come when the student works toward mastering the Self.

My teachers have given me a similar chat about my own yoga practice. I’ve been stuck in asana-land these days and I recognized this experience in my student, too. We joked about it.

If just practice down dog long enough and in exactly the right way, we are sure to attain Self-realization eventually.

Ha! Neither of us believes for a second that yoga asana can take anyone to this place. That doesn’t mean yoga postures are a waste of time. Asana is a fantastic way to improve the health of body, and to get us more fully connected to the body. Asana has definitely helped me to recognize ways that my body and my perceptions of it are the causes of suffering.

But let me tell you first hand, it’s so much harder to face all of the stuff that comes bubbling up when the moving and posing stops.

Even the most complicated yoga posture feels like a breeze compared to those crazy demons that can come popping up in the quiet stillness.

I definitely can’t claim to have experienced any of the transcendent “out-of-body” experiences that my student or those meditators I used to know have had.

But it’s in the quiet times when I really start to dig into understanding the interworkings of Self.

And that’s when the practice of yoga really starts.

Making Space for Contentment

I’ve just returned from leading a 4-day summer retreat that was all about cultivating contentment. Santosha (sometimes spelled samtosha or santosa, as well as several other variations) is one of the niyamas or recommended habits and practices of yoga.

Santosha is described as a state that is essential for changing the future.

Yep. I know. That seems contradictory, right? If we are content, why would we need to change anything?

It might be easy to misunderstand santosha as a need to remove all desires (which of course is a mysterious paradox: the desire to remove desire.) But I think it’s more helpful to think about santosha as a process of clarifying the difference between pursuit of cravings and pursuit of needs.

If we are always focused on what we don’t like in this exact second, or not exactly the way we want it in this moment, we are more likely to make rash decisions that are based on our immediate attractions and aversions. We go for quick fixes and we are less likely to make decisions that take into account the long view.

Restorative yoga is the quintessential place for cultivating contentment.

It can be so tempting to work to acquire postures, to own them, to be able to “do” them, which in the end isn’t so different from wanting to acquire stuff in an effort to be happy.

Don’t get me wrong here. I love doing crazy hand balances and working on achieving the almost unbelievable movements and shapes possible in body. There is something totally empowering and motivating about having a goal pose and then nailing it. But the real magic of yoga comes for me when I’m not working to achieve anything physical and instead working on being curious about and contented with whatever I encounter when I practice restorative poses.

Restorative poses give time and space to withdraw from the demands and the pressures to consume and achieve.

We get permission to land in a place where we don’t have to be motivated. This idea of being in a space where I lack motivation is an often uncomfortable one for me. Doesn’t that sound like a bad thing? I hear lack of motivation and I think lazy.

But imagine, or perhaps even remember, a time when you were still and quiet in savasana and you noticed some sound 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.”

When we make space and give ourselves permission to abide in that place, we have an incredible amount of control. We are choosing for ourselves what is important and what deserves our attention without any pressure to have more or to do more.

Judith Hason Laster, says

“You can’t run after contentment. It has to find you. All you can do is try to create space for it.”

Just consider whether or not you making space for contentment in your life and in your yoga practice. It’s not easy but I think it’s worth it.

Who Has Time and Energy for This?

A few years ago I thought I wanted to go back to school to be an Occupational Therapist. I knew I was going to have to take a bunch of prerequisite courses (a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion doesn’t really cut it) so I went to Montgomery College to talk to an admissions counselor.

The counselor was great; he helped me figure out what I would need to take to be able to apply for the OT program and then he had me take a math placement test.

I tested into Remedial Algebra. That’s a nice way of saying I needed to go back to 4th grade. Seriously. Suddenly my two years of prerequisite courses became four years of just math. Eek! Could I have studied up a bit and taken the placement test again and probably done better? Sure! Could I have powered through those additional courses? Sure! Did I want to? Absolutely resoundingly: no.

Here saying no was actually a yes.

I’m telling this story as a contrast to all of those other stories you hear about incredible and far-reaching goals achieved with hard work and serious acts of willpower. We regularly hear those stories. Things like the story of Alex Honnold, my 10-year climber’s idol, who just happened to do the most dangerous free solo climb of El Capitan. No biggie. Ha!

But we don’t often hear the more common stories like mine. Those ones about regular folks who have an idea, realize how much work it will be to bring that idea to fruition, and then decide not to pursue the goal because it isn’t really worth it.

There’s absolutely something inspiring about seeing someone achieve their goals after lots of sacrifices and hard work. But I think it might be equally inspiring and perhaps more empowering to hear stories like mine.

We all have millions of goals, desires, interests, and behind every one of those is a certain amount of willpower to accomplish it.

If we acknowledge this and the choose with confidence to let go of certain goals, would it be possible to reclaim the willpower and energy that belongs to each of those goals?

There seems to be a kind of unspoken (sometimes very much spoken!) narrative that if you don’t go after your goals you are a slacker or a failure. But sometimes not going after your goal is about optimizing resources.

What could be possible if we could stop directing attention and effort at the things that aren’t really worth it?

In asana this can looks like making the appropriate amount of effort in each pose. This is not about working more or working harder but working differently. Perhaps it comes as a shift to some part of our skeleton, such as unlocking our knees and untucking our pelvis. Or sometimes it just means doing a pose in a different way so that there is a different load on a different part of the body.

Still other times it means doing something different with your yoga that might not even be asana at all. Maybe it’s time to revisit pranayama or to reconnect with your meditation practice. It is an 8-fold path and asana is just one piece of the puzzle.

As you move through the month of July, vacationing, working, summering how you do, consider what kinds of goals you have – the in-process ones, the yet to be started ones, the abandoned ones. How much willpower is there behind each of those? Could you be content with the ways that you have let go of goals that were too much work to achieve? I think you just might be able to redirect the latent willpower in those not-so-worth-it goals in order to move closer to what you really want.

Focus, Fire, and Letting Go

Not too long ago, Will came inside from playing in the back yard and asked me if I knew where he could find a magnifying glass. We ended up finding one buried in his closet and he tromped back outside. Assuming he was just looking at some interesting bugs, I went back to whatever I was doing. Moments later Sadie came running in, shouting,

“Will is starting a fire in the yard!”

My reaction was just as you might expect but it turns out I needn’t have worried. Will was *trying* to start a fire… With his small hand-held magnifying glass, wet leaves, and the 4 pm spring time sun.

But… if all other conditions were right and if Will had been holding the magnifying glass still, it would have been possible to harness the power of the sun. A magnifying glass is able to focus the rays of the sun into a concentrated beam, then multiply it through the lens to make a fire.

This is… wait for it… yoga. (I’m so predictable, I know!)

We are capable of amazing and powerful things, including the power to heat, transform, even to destroy, just like the sun.

However, we can only harness our power with concentrated effort.

This kind of concentrated effort only comes with dedication to practice. And this part of yoga is hard. Because habits. The Sanskrit is saṃskāra, or the impression of our past actions.

We need to practice – many times in a vigorous and dedicated way – in order recognize and then replace the old habits that are impeding our paths or causing us suffering. In Sanskrit this is abhyāsa.

That all makes sense. In order to learn something new, you have to practice. Even my 6-year old in the backyard trying to start a fire knows this to be true. You need a dedicated practice, focus to get the fire started.

But you also need to let go. This word in Sanskrit is vairāgyā.

As hard as it is to practice, I think it might be harder to let go.

It might help to understand the importance of releasing, and for that we have to come back to saṃskāra again. Any actions, even the positive forming habits are saṃskāra. Just like the old patterns, these new ones we are forming eventually will not serve us anymore either.

The whole cycle is one of many beautiful paradoxes of yoga. We are called to practice, to be fierce, to become master.

But then, just when we feel like we are getting “somewhere”, we are called to let go of that mastery.

One of my students recently wrote, “I find it remarkable that Tara, who practices and teaches highly athletic versions of yoga, is also an advocate and teacher of restorative yoga. Her classes have helped me realize that both activity and deep rest are necessary.”

You got it, Margaret. Dedicated practice and then letting go. That’s the most yogic combination there is.

Get the conditions just right, start the fire, but then know when and how to put it out.

Need more “athletic” yoga in your life? Dedicate to your active practice in my summer weekly classes. Better yet, get your partner in on it with you. Need more resting and letting go? Retreat is almost sold out so get registered!