The Impermanence of [F]all

Fall is the perfect time to remember the law of impermanence. Quite simply, nothing lasts. Ah, of course! But that’s not something that is easy to grasp or practice, right? On one hand, it’s a relief to know that whatever miserable thing that is happening won’t last. (Okay, maybe it lasts longer that I might like, but it won’t last forever!) But then on the other hand, it’s quite a downer to realize those moments of bliss and complete delight are not going to last either.

I can tell you with complete certainty that all of the suffering in my life has been when I’ve mistaken the impermanent for the permanent. When I’ve expected the blissful moments to remain the same and was then deeply distraught when they didn’t last.

Yoga is offering us these tools to be present to whatever is happening at any given moment. Yoga is not requiring or even asking us to transcend the mundane parts of our lives. It’s not even asking us to get beyond the “down” moments!

My teachers recently sent me an email that said, “You are not your worst day. You are not your best day. You are the awareness that allows you to recognize those extremes and everything else in between.”

Yoga simply says to us, here are some tools to try out. Use them to be more fully aware of yourself and all of the ways you can and will change. Because, as the old adage goes: this too shall pass.

Not the Territory

m-sage-twist

The Call of Autumn

I’m so weary of this hot late summer heat. And while it is a big relief to have the kids back to school and the corresponding routines settling into place, this transition back into the fall has me feeling all out of sorts.

In an effort to ward off my fall transition funk, I took a wonderful Yin Yoga class with the predictably phenomenal Machelle Lee. During class, she reminded me of this old Krulwich Wonders piece I heard long ago on NPR about what happens to leaves in the fall.

Of course this season gets its name because the leaves from trees fall. But what is actually happening is much more fascinating. If leaves were to stay on the tree in winter, they would photosynthesize during the warm part of the day and then they would have water in their veins, which would freeze. That frozen water would cause the leaves to die. With the leaves dead, the tree would died shortly thereafter.

Perhaps even more fascinating, as a way to defend against this possibility, the leaves don’t actually fall from the tree. Instead, the tree develops these cells that cut off the leaves. Basically the tree pushes the leaves off. It’s as if the tree is saying, ‘Get out of here, leaves; it’s time for me to cut back and hunker down for what’s to come.’

This is the call of the season:fall leaves

Get grounded.

Pare down.

Take care of yourself.

 

So consider this your official autumnal invitation to get back to your mat. The fall semester at Willow Street begins Tuesday, September 6. Check out my full list of weekly classes.

And there is still space for you to join my annual fall retreat. There is one room for 4, 2 spots in a room for 3, and one spot in a room for 2.

Plus, if you are ready to take your yoga practice to the next level, the Willow Street Immersion begins September 9. It is such a huge honor to be a part of this program.

Hope I’ll see you soon!

What is before your feet?

feet forward fold

Undisturbed by Dualities: The Yoga of Politics?

Sometime ago, a friend of mine posted a photo quote on Facebook: “No one is you and that is your power.” I replied saying, “But also everyone is you and that is your power.” We had a chuckle over that and even more so when someone else weighed in to say “You aren’t even you.”

The Sanskrit word avidya is sometimes translated as ignorance. While adviya does mean ignorance, it also means misconception. It’s the word that describes mistaking illusion for reality or the mistaking the impermanent things for permanent. In other words, incorrect knowledge.

In B.K.S. Iynegar’s translation of the Yoga Sutra he writes, “when asana is practiced with steadiness and ease, the infinite being within is reached. From then on, the practitioner is undisturbed by dualities.”

Mr. Iyengar’s read on Patanjali is that we’ve got to bring our whole selves – body, breath, and mind – to each pose. When we do that, we can be steady and easeful in asana practice, and we recognition more fully our capacity for connections in this microcosm that is our individual self. We are undisturbed by dualities when we acknowledge the separations for what they are. The divisions that are a covering for the ways things are deeply connected.

When I think back of the moments when I’ve feel the most distraught and disturbed by the challenges I’ve faced, it’s always because I’ve identified more fully with the way I was separate from others. And this distress continues for me full-force in today’s contentious political environment.

It’s easy to say that the folks who disagree with us are inferior, uneducated, separate from us. It’s easy to just disregard them or maybe outright argue with them in an effort to make them change their minds. How many times have I tried to point out that I’m not like THAT person!?

But what happens when we say, “they are us too”? Is it possible to recognize ourselves in the other? How can we do this without validating racism, misogyny, bigotry, lying, and just plain bullying?

I don’t know the answer. And maybe it’s just the peace, love, and understanding hippie dippy part of me that is foolish for even thinking this is possible.

But think about this: if the body is a microcosm for the way the world, nature, and all of humanity interact and it’s possible to practice asana in the body in such a way that we know without a doubt that we are connected to ourselves, then I think it’s possible to make this jump too:

Everyone is you.

Even the awful racist, misogynist, bullying, lying, egotistical maniacs.

And believe me, that guy scares me. A lot. But perhaps there is more power in saying that we are connected. We are responsible for that guy. We are that guy. Whoa.

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!

What are you holding too tightly?

“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.

What’s your speed limit?

1986_gmc_jimmy-pic-25336-640x480My 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.

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!