Maybe we should just let the monsters in?

Seems a likely time to talk about monsters on the day after Halloween but it was actually something else that inspired this month’s musings.

One of my family’s favorite board games is called Castle Panic. Do you know it?

All of the players work together to save the castle from invading monsters. It’s a combination dice and card game where you use various warrior-type cards (archers, swordsman, knights, and others) to injure and eventually kill the approaching monsters who are en route from the perimeter of the board to attack the castle sitting in the middle.

If you get rid of the monsters with at least one tower of your castle still standing, you win the game.

There are lots of strategies that you can employ to rid your space of monsters.

For example, you could work to damage and kill as many monsters as you can while they are still on the outer edges, farthest away from your castle and keep them as far away as possible.

Or, the favorite strategy employed most often by my kids is to build up as many reinforcements as possible around the castle and just let the monsters come and do their worst.

The first few times we played this game, I kept trying to convince my kids that their strategy was too risky.

Why not just kill them when you have the chance? I would argue. Why waste time building up extra walls? Who would want the monsters that close?

But most of the time, their strategy works and we win.

Even so, maybe you are like me and you always try to keep the metaphorical monsters at the edges.

Ogres,

trolls,

ignorance,

self-doubt,

illness,

failure,

even death…

Who would want any of that to come close?

But many times no matter how hard we might try to slay the monsters from a distance, we just can’t always keep them on the perimeter.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patañjali warns us about kleśa – afflictions, things that cause suffering, sometimes the word is even translated as poison.

We are told that everyone experiences ignorance in one form or another, egoism, attraction and aversion, and the fear of death.

The good news is that our yoga practice gives us tools to build up our reinforcements for those times when we can’t keep the monsters away.

Yoga calls us to remember our true nature of interconnectedness.

Practice helps us develop our capacity to find calm in the moments of distress.

Like all great games – board games and life alike – the elements of luck and chance mean that we sometimes get it wrong.

We don’t always have the outcome we intend.

We get stressed and scared.

We doubt ourselves and each other.

We forget our essential nature.

All.

The.

Time.

The monsters overtake the castle and we lose.

But it’s not forever.

We just take a little break.

And then we regroup and set up the game to try again.

 

Join me this month for some classes and a workshop or two to help you build up your reinforcements and resiliency. Need a bigger break? There’s still room for you to join my Costa Rica retreat in May and there’s one spot left in my winter yoga retreat

Where is your Harbor?

This past weekend, I had the great privilege of spending a few hours learning from a brilliant teacher named Sam Rice. Her workshop was called “Harbor of the Heart” and at the beginning, she offered this as the definition of the word harbor:

  1. a place of security and comfort
  2. a part of a body of water protected and deep enough to furnish anchorage

While the posture work we were doing was deep and active and full of precise and and intentional alignment cues designed to take us into a deep place with backbends, the whole time I was thinking about Restorative Yoga.

(But not for the reasons you might be thinking. It wasn’t like “Help me! I can’t possibly do ANOTHER wheel pose! When is savasana?!?” Though actually, after the 12th wheel pose, there might have a been a bit of that too!)

I was thinking about savasana because these two definitions of harbor describe EXACTLY what we are doing in Restorative Yoga.

First, the props create a safe haven, a place of security, and comfort.

That security and comfort communicates to our nervous system that we have entered protected space.

We hold the poses for such a long time in order to plumb the depths of the consciousness, and to anchor ourselves there.

It might be tempting to think that this is the whole game of our yoga practice:
To get super comfy and supported and then to anchor ourselves and hold fast to those deep places in ourselves.

Who needs to face the outside world? It’s hard enough to deal with the dark places within. Why not just drop anchor, batten down the hatches, and stay until we’ve sort it all out?

Many a yogi have renounced their worldly possessions and attachments to do just that.

But our life as modern householders doesn’t really give us that option.

We have jobs, and families, and responsibilities to each other and the world.

Instead, our yoga is to find that protected space, to seek out and create a comfortable place where we can let go safely.

In the harbor of our Restorative Yoga practice, we drop in to the deep waters and we give ourselves time to rest and to notice what we notice.

When our lives and the world around us require it, we pull up the anchor and head back out into the open waters.

It’s only when we leave that safe and quiet harbor to face the problems of our lives in the world that we can really assess the efficacy of our practice.

If what we learned about ourselves in that deep, quiet, and protected place helps us navigate the relationship with ourselves and others in the world with more clarity, compassion, and ease, then we will have succeeded.

And when it doesn’t, we head back into the harbor to rest some more.

single boat in the harbor

The Side Show

Many years ago, I heard this piece on NPR about how multitasking is a delusion. We think we are doing more than thing at once but what’s actually happening is that our brain is moving from one single thing to another single think at such an unbelievable pace that it makes us think we are doing multiple things at the same time.

Fast forward a decade plus to Nick & Lindsay of the Side Show Opera on American’s Got Talent.

Nick swallows razor blades! Lindsay throw knives! Nick lays on a bed of nails, with a cinder block on his torso and then Lindsay breaks the cinder block while blindfolded with a flaming mallet!

All of this while Nick is singing opera.

For reals. I couldn’t even make this up if I tried.

After their last audition on the show, one of the judges noted that much of which seemed to be doing depended on precision, but each “talent” was not very precise at all and each individual things merely mediocre.

Of course it was! As science tells us, we can’t possibly manage all of these things at one time. Our brains just don’t really work that way.

The yogis of ol’ didn’t need our modern science to tell them this. In fact, if they saw Nick & Lindsay they would understand the judge’s comments completely.

The truth is that the mind is better at focusing on one thing.

But the Yoga Sutras give us guidance for these scenarios, from a cluttered house to a busy mind to a knife-throwing, razor blade swallowing, opera singing extravaganza.

Sutra 1.12 tells us that with practice and dispassion we can stop our mind from it’s faux-multitasking ways.

Sutra 1.13 goes on to say that once we have a goal, our effort to keep our focus on the goal is called practice.

“Patanjali’s approach to yoga requires you to find an object on which you can focus your mind. Without that focal point you will not be successful in withdrawing the scattered forces of your mind from the external world. Even if somehow you do succeed in withdrawing your mind from the external world, it will begin to wander because the mind does not know how to stay in one place without support.”

Pandit Rajmani Tigunait

As the year winds down into fall, it can feel like the demands on our time and energy are ramping up.

This makes fall a great time for us to get support to renew our focus on what really matters. No side shows or illusions about our ability to multi-task.

So give me a call, Nick & Lindsay.

You too, my friend.

Yoga has the goods to help us refocus and shape our reality into what serves us best. All we need to do is show up and be willing to practice.

See you on the mat!

What We Get When We Fail

The Swamis once gave me an assignment:

Make a list of all of the times you wish you made a different choice.

Sounds easy, right?

At first it was. I just started making a (very long) list of all of the times I screwed up and wished I had done things differently.

Then I started getting pretty sad about all of my screw ups.

I had to keep reminding myself of this bit from The Way of the Bodhisattva:

If something can be done about it
what need is there for dejection?
And if nothing can be done about it,
what use is there for being dejected?

Shantideva

And it helped because the longer I sat with this assignment, the harder it was to leave all of those things on the list.

For every “bad” choice, I would think about all of the things that happened as a result of that choice.

It was like I kept having my own “Sliding Doors” moments.

Do you remember this late 90’s movie with Gwyneth Paltrow before she was the eye roll-inducing “health” advisor that she is today?

In the film, she gets fired from her job and we watch the what-ifs play out for the rest of the movie. In one scenario, she catches the train and in the other she doesn’t .

A bit unlike Paltrow’s character in the film, for every single one of my choices on my list, something really good had come out of the bad decision.

In fact, for all of those things on the list, I realized I had to make the “wrong” choice – the choice that led me to fail – in order to be clear about something else.

I never actually complete the assignment for my teachers.

Or maybe I did?

Perhaps what they wanted me to realize is that failures, bad decisions, and disappointments are the only way to find our true path.

The Art of Yielding

Will and I were in the car a few days ago, about to merge onto 495 when the traffic in front of us came to a dead stop on the ramp.

As we were paused, Will looked over and noticed the yield sign.

“Mom, does that mean stop?”

When I explained that it means the cars on the ramp have to make way for the cars on the highway and slow down to find the right time to fit themselves into the flow of traffic, Will was perplexed by why the car ahead of us had stopped.

I told him that it can be scary to have to merge into this fast moving lane of traffic and sometimes it feels safer to just stop.

“I can understand that,” he said in his oh-so-wise 8-year old way. “But mom, how do you know when to go?”

Now that question made me pause.

How do we know when it is time to go? How can we tell if it is time to assert ourselves into the flow or if it is wise to hang back?

The answer, of course, is my favorite… IT DEPENDS.

And of course, we know when it’s time to go because we practice.

Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit: A Return to Wholeness by Donna Farhi

This whole conversation with Will reminded me of this book. So when I got home, I dug it out from the depths of the bookshelf and remembered the brilliance of Donna Farhi’s Seven Principles of Moving. In very brief summary:

The first principle is to breath, and more specifically to let the breath move you.

Second, she says we need to yield.

Yield to the Earth to find levity.

At first the idea that we need to yield to the Earth to find lightness seemed almost counter-intuitive. But I realized that my idea of yielding was this first set of definitions in my dictionary:

capitulate… relent, admit defeat…quit, give in, give up…

I don’t know about you, but giving up or giving in rarely makes me feel light.

But what Donna Farhi is really talking about is here:

This is what we are called to do, my friends, whether it is on the road or on our yoga mat or in our relationships.

Pay Attention.

Permit.

Allow.

This is kind of yielding that gives us access to levity. And to possibility.

It doesn’t feel like sinking or giving up.

It doesn’t feel like fear.

And it definitely doesn’t feel like uncertainty.

When we pay attention, permit, and allow, we know when it’s time to take action…Or not.

But you know what?

It is not easy. It takes tons of practice.

Just like driving the car down the onramp to merge into the fast-moving traffic on 495 takes practice.

So I’ll see you on the mat and out in the big wide world where we can practice the art of yielding together.

Earth. Breath. Beauty.

Jillian Pransky shares this story in her brilliant book Deep Listening. It’s been on my mind a lot lately.

A Buddhist community in France was visited by a reporter who was on assignment to write a story about the comings and goings of the group.

When he arrived, he was invited to take the daily silent walk with the group.

Upon returning from the walk, the members of the community were refreshed and joyful but the reporter was exhausted. All he wanted to do was take a nap!

It might be tempting to think the reason for this was because the community was accustomed to the exercise and the reporter was not. (He was just out of shape, right?)

Or maybe it was because the reporter was jet lagged. (Traveling is really depleting!)

Perhaps the reporter was an extrovert and being in that silent more introverted place was difficult for him?

But the answer was none of those things.

You see, on this walk, there were three simple rules:

  1. Feel feet hitting the earth.
  2. Connect with breath moving in and out of body.
  3. Look for beauty.

But the reported did none of them. He was caught up in his busy reporter’s mind. He was watching the community members, he was assessing and analyzing, he was basically writing his story as he was walking.

How often does this happen to you?

Me? ALL THE TIME.

I end up feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, and unproductive – even on the days when I’ve done all of the things all of the time because I’m caught up in my busy mind.

But… when I do heed my yoga practice’s promises – the exact same rules the Buddhist community had for their walks – I feel so much better.

And I don’t even have to be on my yoga mat or anywhere even near a yoga studio to feel this way.

Give it a try, my friends.

Feel the earth under your feel.

Connect with the sweet pulsation of breath in your body. Inhale… Exhale…

And look for beauty all around you.

Look Before You Leap. Or Not.

A few days ago, I took a yoga class that felt like the Wild West of yoga. Folks were doing random headstands and handstands, crow poses and jump backs.

A yoga friend of mine who was taking the class with me said afterwards, “Yeah, I used to like to practice like that but now I’m too old and lazy.” And we had a good laugh.

The class made me think of a summer past when we were spending time with our family in Massachusetts. My kids and their cousins were having so much fun jumping off a dock into the lake.

Two of the kids – Sadie included – were super tentative, checking out the scene, assessing, planning, and finally jumping while holding hands.

The other three ran pell-mell down the dock at top speed and launched themselves into the water with barely a glance.

I remember applauding Sadie for her courage when she jumped off the dock she said,

“I was always going to jump. I’m brave but not foolish.”

In that class I took, I felt like Sadie and her cousin, being super cautious before I jumped and everyone else was acting like the other three kids, launching themselves from the dock without looking.

But actually everyone in both of these scenarios – the kids at the lake and the yogis in that class – were acting courageously.

None of the kids jumping off of the dock were really being foolish at all (despite Sadie’s assessment.)

And certainly no one in that yoga class I took was being lazy (despite my friend’s self-deprecating comment.)

It’s just that some folks – like my friend and I – needed to set up everything precisely, to assess all of the angles and possibilities and to do a lot of looking before leaping.

Other folks, needed to just get in there and do it.

The brilliant thing is that yoga gives us both approaches to practice.

We get to decide what we need in the moment and what will help us find some harmony and balance.

There’s great learning opportunities when we push outside of our comfort zones.

My tendency is to analyze and plan and triple check before I leap but I also have lots of ah-ha moments in classes where the teacher says, “Don’t worry so much. Just jump and see what happens!”

On the opposite side, many of the just do it folks could find some benefit to slowing down and assessing their hand positions and other finer points of alignment before launching.

As always, yoga works best when it show us our tendencies and gives us a chance to decide if those tendencies – attractions and aversions – are serving us best.

Any time we use the practice to look closely at ourselves, we are acting courageously.

So here’s to courage in all of it’s forms and to looking before we leap… Or not!

The Right Way to Yoga

Have you ever seen the movie “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”?

Definitely not a cinematic master piece but a chuckle worthy early 2000’s rom-com that I think is worth a watch on a dreary afternoon.

Check out one of my favorite scenes…

sthira suka asanamMy celeb crush on Paul Rudd aside, I feel like this SO often when it comes to my yoga practice.

What does it mean to find the right balance between effort and ease, as Patanjali recommends to us in the most oft-quoted lines in the Yoga Sutras? How do we know when we are doing too much?

If you’ve ever come to my class, even just once, you know my favorite answer is…

IT DEPENDS!

And at the same time, our practice doesn’t have to devolve into an amorphous sea of relativism.

In fact, I’ve come up with a (totally click-bait worthy) list of questions for you to answer that will help you sort out the “it depends.”

1. Are you able and willing to pay attention?

When we are working too hard, it is as if our mind says to us, “This is miserable! I’d rather think about anything else than pay attention to this intense stretch/emotion/painful thought.”

At the other end of the spectrum, if we aren’t working hard enough, it is as if our mind says, “Oh, this is easy. I can do this pose/meditation/breath practice and still solve the worlds’ problems and make my grocery list while I do yoga!”

2. Do you have access to your breath?

And we should definitely and especially be able to pay attention to the breath. When we are working too hard, the breath could become short, shallow, ragged. Or we can’t even begin to notice that we are breathing.

So if you can’t breath well and be able to observe your breath, then you are doing too much.

3. Is this a whole person experience, or just a sharp sensation in your hamstring?

First of all, modern postural practice is obsessed with hamstring stretching. Am I right?

Not to rag on the hamstring stretchy asanas, really you can substitute any part of your body for hamstrings here. The point is, the posture should be a whole person experience for you. Well distributed sensations are a hallmark of just right effort.

That sharp bright tug that you can point to means that something is not quite right. And first thing to adjust is your level of effort.

4. Does what you are doing feel like your intention?

We talk a big game about intention in yoga, especially at the beginning of our classes and sometimes at the end. In fact, you can check out my old blog post about it from last year.

But what does it really mean to connect our practice to our intentions?

For example, if your intention is to cultivate compassion but you berate yourself for losing your balance in tree pose… Well, you get my point, right?

So the bottom line is:

“Do less. Try less… No. You gotta do more than that….”

#ThanksKunu and happy practicing! Can’t wait to see you in 2019!

The Mysterious Case of the Too Tight Pants

My daughter, Sadie, is a sweet but fierce 5-year old. While she loves to follow the rules and remind other when they are not following the rules, she also has some very strong opinions. Especially about what she wears.

Not too long ago, right as the season started to shift and we had just pulled out all of the cool weather clothes from last year, she insisted on wearing this particular pair of pants. Typically not a problem, even when in this case they totally clashed with the rest of her outfit. However, these last winter pants were at least one, maybe more like two sizes too small. I pointed out to her that while the pants were super fabulous, they were probably going to be uncomfortable.

“They are already pinching your belly, love. I think you should choose something else.”

Nope. It was those pants. She was not to be swayed.

I relented. Because a) fights about clothing are not worth it. And b) she was wearing a dress so I figured worse case scenario, she takes off the pants at school and it’s still good.

But no. When she stepped off the bus, she was still wearing those too tight pants. And she was wearing a super-grumpy face to go with it.

Of course you are grumpy, I thought. You were wearing pants that were two sizes too small. All. Day. Long!

And sure enough, she came inside and took off the pants and felt heaps better.

It was easy enough for me to smile knowingly and shrug off the pants episode as childhood nonsense. But then I started thinking….

Sheesh. I’ve totally done this same thing! Haven’t you?

For me it goes like this:

Oh, I loved this fancy dress when I bought it and it’s just been sitting there my closet. It is just perfect for this wedding/funeral/cocktail party! Hmmmmm. It’s a little too tight but it will only be a few hours, right? It will be fine!

Famous last words. Soon after I’m grumpily trying to adjust my dress in the ladies room and lamenting the fact that I can’t dance as much as I’d like.

You know what I mean?

But even when I think about this scenario as a metaphor, there are tons of times when I’ve squished myself into places and moments that didn’t fit quite right.

A meeting. A school event. A job. A house. A family gathering… You name it.

Undoubtably this is a requirement of living adult life.

But here’s the thing. When we do this so often, the uncomfortable too tight sensation starts to feel like that’s how it always has to be. We acclimate to the experience. It’s just normal. We always feel like we are wearing clothing a few sizes too small.

So then we show up on our yoga mats for our asana practice. The poses become a continuation of this too tight pants experience. We squish bodies into uncomfortable doesn’t fit quite right shapes. We allow the postures to be imposed upon us. They are checklist-able items to perfect.

Tree pose? Check.

Warrior 1? Check.

Triangle pose? Check.

Cobra pose? Check.

Hey, this so good for you. No pain, no gain. It’s what it means to be an adult. Right? Right? Right?

At my last restorative yoga retreat, a participant had a revelatory moment. She told me, “What was so amazing about this weekend was that you were asking us to to care if we were comfortable or not. I don’t think I ever really think about that. It was when I got really comfortable here that realized I’m uncomfortable almost all of the time.”

(Want to see for yourself? My next retreat is in January.)

When we allow ourselves the opportunity to consider whether or not we are comfortable, we have some opportunities to practice some *real* yoga.

It’s not just about accumulating or accomplishing poses. And it’s definitely not about enforcing someone else’s definition of how a pose is supposed to be.

Just in case you were starting to get worried, I’m not saying all of this to discount or diminish alignment instructions in our asana practice. Our group yoga classes together aren’t suddenly going to devolve into everyone rolling around on the floor or cuddling up for nap time. (Just for the record, that would be really great too!)

I am suggesting that if we are not reflective about our experiences of comfort and discomfort in our practice, we aren’t really doing yoga.

Comfort and complacency aren’t the same thing. Read this oldie but goodie post about contentment if you need a reminder about that.

And sometimes we really do have to agitate to get the desired results for ourselves. Remind me to tell you the story about the time my washing machine wasn’t working.

But until then, make it your practice to attend to your comfort. This is so critical at this time of year.

As the year winds down and the holiday season is upon us, we can be adulting it up so much that we force ourselves into too tight pants. Literally and metaphorically.

Please don’t. Because it’s going to make you grumpy. I guarantee it.

Happy holiday season, my friends. Take care of yourself and each other out there. Hope to see you on the mat soon!

Gratitude

With a giant pile of Halloween candy bounty, fresh from my  Trick-or-Treat adventures with a surfer, unicorn, and Kurt Cobain, I’ve already starting thinking about Thanksgiving.

It is easily one of my favorite holidays. Part of the reason is that a few years ago, I convinced my family to let me host the gathering. Even though we live in the smallest house of all of our relatives, including the smallest kitchen of any house anywhere and no dishwasher.

We squeeze 11 people around a table that can really only fit five and then do dishes for hours and hours afterwards but there is something so satisfying about this day. Part of it is the food. Part of it is the loved ones all around. Part of it is the focus on giving thanks for all of it.

I recently read an article that argued fear is the thing that keeps us from kindness.

We are certainly living in a time where fear is the prevailing energy. And there are certainly LOTS of things to fear right now.

And at the same time, there is SO much that is worthy of our gratitude.

In order to express sincere thankfulness, we have to be present. And so we can use gratitude as a tool to help us reconnect with our awareness. It becomes a yogic practice.

Gratitude is not a passive response to something we have been given; gratitude arises from paying attention, from being awake in the presence of everything that lives within and without us.

Davide Whyte

Do you need to give your gratitude practice a jumpstart?

Sometimes someone else says something you are thinking better than you can. That’s exactly how I feel about about this Practical Guide to Gratitude.

Or check out this fantastic workshop called Gratitude 30 that the always-inspiring Maria Hamburger is teaching at Willow Street at the end of November.

At my annual fall retreat last weekend, a participant came into the kitchen as I was setting out all of the amazing food that had been prepared for us. She remarked how easy it can be for us to take for granted just how lucky we are and how much we have. Then we both took a silent moment to observe, admire and appreciate the food and each other. It was a beautiful moment of yogic gratitude.

May your month ahead be full of moments of gratitude just like that one!