Recurring Choices

I once worked in an office job where part of the decor were so-called inspirational posters. You know the ones, right? They have these cheesy photos overlaid with glib sentiments like:

“There is no I in team.”

“Whatever the problem, be part of the solution.”

“Continuous effort is the key to unlocking potential.”

But there was one poster that I did actually find to be pretty motivating. And I actually still do! It said:

“It’s not that there are recurring themes in life. It’s that there are recurring choices.”

I think this is one really important thing to remember amidst this push to reflect, make resolutions, and to plan ahead:

We always get a chance to try again at the things we didn’t get quite right the first time.

When we mess up (and we definitely have, and we will again!) we will also get another crack at it in one form or another.

Every breath is a chance to bring our mind back from its uneasy wanderings.

Every ache or pain in the body is a new invitation to check on our wellbeing.

Every time our thoughts and emotions shift, we have another remind that good and bad are not permanent but there IS something timeless and ever-present that we should seek instead.

Don’t get me wrong here. This reminder that we have limitless do-overs is not an excuse to take our decisions and actions lightly.

It doesn’t absolve us of dealing with the implications of our bad decisions and missteps.

It doesn’t mean that we stop showing up or that we give up on working hard or that we abandon the requirement to rest fully.

We keep on doing all of that.

This is just a gentle reminder for those of us who are prone to taking our decisions so seriously:

Don’t worry, love.
Do your best right now.
And then you’ll get to try again.
And again.
And again.

That’s my resolution for 2020. What’s yours?

Happy New Year! See you in 2020!

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.

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 Right Stuff for Non-Attachment

One of my kids’ favorite book characters is Chico Bon Bon from the “Monkey with A Tool Belt” series by Chris Monroe. Do you know these great stories?

If you don’t know Chico Bon Bon, you should definitely check out the Monkey With a Tool Belt books.

Allow me to summarize.

Chico Bon Bon is a monkey with a tool belt. (You could have guessed that from the title, right?)

He has absolutely all of the tools anyone could need for anything. All of the things. As you can see.

In one story, Chico gets captured by an organ grinder and taken to the circus. The story is about how he uses his tools to escape.

Every time we read this book – and I’ve read it so many times I could probably recite it from memory for you – I think about the classic Indian allegory about catching monkeys. It goes like this…

Do you want to catch a monkey? Let me tell you how.

Build a small box of wooden slats to hold a banana. Place a banana in the box in the jungle and go out of sight to wait.

Soon enough, a monkey will arrive. He will be able to put his hand between the slats to pick up the banana but he will not be able to get the banana out through the slat.

The monkey will become OBSESSED with getting this banana out. He will try every trick he knows. He will pull and yank. He will twist and bang. He will be so very focused on getting this banana out that you will be about to leave your hiding place and walk right up to him.

He might even notice that you are approaching but he will not let go of the banana. He will be so deeply attached to the banana, unwilling to release it, that you will be able to pluck him right up.

I’m not sure if this is true or not but the point of the story is pretty clear.

Freedom for that monkey is so close. When he hears the human approach, the logical thing to do would be to let go of the banana, pull his little hand out and run. But he doesn’t.

How many times have you been holding onto something so tightly, trying to solve some problem, to the point that it captures you?

I have. Dozens of times.

The story is meant to be a lesson in practicing aparigraha or non-attachment or sometimes non-possessiveness. I hear this message in a infomercial sales pitch voice:

Are you suffering because you are holding on to something too tightly or too long? Let it go and you are free!

Sounds so easy, right? And yet.

Here’s where I think about good ole’ Chico Bon Bon.

I think we need some tools to help us figure out let go of the bananas.

The solution to the grasping too tightly problem is probably somewhere between Chico Bon Bon’s overly stocked tool belt and just simply letting go.

We probably don’t need a zoozle and a snoozer like Chico’s. Whatever the heck those are!

And we definitely don’t need 2,100 yoga asanas either.

Fellow restorative yoga advocate and teacher Jillian Pransky recently wrote a great blog post about the difference between letting go and letting things be. This distinction is at the heart of the lesson of aparigraha. Check it out.

And perfectly on topic, in this short video Chico Bon Bon creator Chris Monroe talks about how Chico Bon Bon is about to get his own Netflix show.

I love how enthusiastic she is and also totally not surprised by it. Consider her attitude as she speaks about how it happened. It’s a great example of non-attachment.

Buying and Selling Goats

Do you know this folktale about a yogi who lives in a tiny house with her husband, her mother, five children, a dog, two cats, a cow, and chickens?

Well, as you might imagine, she was feeling so overwhelmed by the chaos in our daily life that she went to her guru for advice. Her teacher told her the problem was easy to solve:

Buy a goat.

Really? – she thought with great skepticism. Should I really be adding more to this chaos?

Nevertheless, she trusted her teacher who had never led her astray so she bought a goat and brought the goat home.

Now she had her husband, her mother, five children, a dog, two cats, a cow, chickens, AND a goat running around chomping on everything. Things were even more crowded and chaotic than ever before.

The exasperated yogi returned to her teacher who told her the solution was easy:

Sell the goat.

‘Really?’ she thought with great skepticism once again. ‘I just bought this stupid goat!’ But trusting her teacher once more, she sold her goat.

As she looked around her house at her newly goat-less house with her husband, her mother, five children, dog, two cats, a cow, and chickens she thought…

Wow! It’s look how peaceful it is around here!

While I’m (only slightly) tempted to make some joke about the rise of goat yoga, this story is really just reminding us of how yoga can sometimes work in an unexpected way.

So often we come to our yoga practice as a way to let go of something. Maybe it’s tension, the trauma of an injury or an emotional experience, or the distress of life in a fast-paced demanding world. And when the aim is to reduce, it seems a bit counter-intuitive to add something.

But when we add an engagement in a particular part of our bodies, or an intense breath practice, it hones our focus. Then when we let go of that precise effort – when we sell the goat – there is a tangible, noticeable sense of relief.

Buying and selling goats ends up as a perspective shift that informs what it really means to be at ease in body, mind, and otherwise.

Now I know this story of  buying and selling goats might seem like a big contrast to the message I left you in last month’s blog post.

One of the greatest gifts yoga offers us is the promise that we already have everything we need. And also, sometimes we got so wrapped up in everything we have going on, we can lose our perspective. It’s only until we add one thing, and then take it away, that we have the same perspective shift as the heroine in the story.

You must look within for value, but you must look beyond for perspective.

-Denis Waitley

In other words, I know summer can be a super busy time. I can hear you thinking, ‘Come to class now? Really? You want me to add one more thing?’

But yes, come to buy and sell some goats and I think you’ll be delighted by the results.

And I know, I know…

 

Inquire Within

Irish stone sculptor Helen O’Connell at work

Have you ever watched a sculptor working?

Even if you haven’t, you can imagine. It’s totally mesmerizing.

She is there working at a solid block of stone, chipping away small bits at a time to make a something you didn’t even see at first begin to appear right before your eyes.

Her vision and willingness to work at manifesting it reveals the shape. She’s literally removing the stuff that conceals the beauty of the stone for everyone to access.

Many years ago, my teacher asked me to meditate on and write about all of the reasons I wanted to study yoga and to study yoga with him.

I submitted my “assignment” to him, which included all of things I wanted to learn and all of qualities that I admired about him.

He barely looked at what I wrote and simply handed the papers back to me and said,

“I can’t give you any of this. I can only help you learn that when you are truly practicing yoga, you find all of these things within you and know how to discard everything that isn’t.”

This was truly a revelation to me!

All along, I had been trying to use yoga to accumulate wisdom and understanding from someone and something external. I was practicing postures and pranayama and meditation trying to accumulate things into a sculpture of a yogi. But I just kept adding on and adding on and feeling a bit overwhelmed.

At that time, my yoga was a continuation of the message we hear almost constantly from every direction. The message goes like this:

The more you have and the more you do, the better/happier/healthier/more successful you will be.

But my teacher pointed out to me that this was a complete misinterpretation of yoga. And a common one at that.

Practice should be helping us seeing what is concealed. It’s not about adding things on but it is about chipping things away. This is how we reveal and enhance those qualities in us already that are concealed or simply forgotten.

Yoga is really offering us totally revolutionary message:

You already have everything you need.

You are already everything you need.

Chip away at whatever isn’t your best most beautiful self and you will be able to reveal and enhance the qualities that make you the best version of yourself.

Even as I type this, I’m in awe of this possibility. But for as often as I assure myself and even experience this exact thing on my yoga mat and in my everyday life, some part of me remains skeptical.

I can hear that little voice saying inside whispering,

“But are you sure that there is no connection between a perfect triangle pose and everlasting joy?”

Do you hear that little voice too?

It might be a really good time to make a list of your own. What qualities are you trying to obtain in your practice of yoga? What do you admire most about your yoga teachers?

After you make your list, go back and see if you can catch even the smallest glimmer of those qualities in you. I’m betting there’s a pretty good chance, you need to do some chipping away to reveal them in their fullest.

Because, really, yoga is really meant to be teaching us how to “inquire within.” And it takes a lot of practice.

Inquire Within cartoon

 

Step 1: Notice, Acknowledge, Allow (Or Is That 3 Steps?)

Just a few days ago I was cooking in the kitchen and I heard a kid fight brewing in the living room. It started off with a snippy remark. Then I heard stuff animals being throw, then some yelling, then pillows were thrown. By the time I arrived on the scene to intervene, at least one book had been thrown and an iPod with headphones attach was raised for a chucking.

“Hey, hey. Pause here a second! You guys are really angry right now!”

Both boys looked at me and said at exactly the same time, with exactly the same grimace and red face and bulgy forehead vein, in exactly the same growly voice and snarled, “I’m not angry!”

Denying an emotion or an experience we are having is something we have all done at one time or another.

For me it usually goes like this…

Husband: Are you okay? What’s wrong?
Me: Nothing. I’m fine.

Why? Why do we even do this?

I think it might be because we don’t want to feel angry/tired/sad/whatever we are denying. Some emotions have been deemed “bad”. Some of our experiences are painful and just downright unpleasant! And who wants to acknowledge that we are in pain – physically or emotionally?

Yoga invites us – encourages us! – to acknowledge, allow, and even accept the experiences we are having. It’s big part of connecting to ourselves.

If we are using our posture practice as the place for exploration on this point, it might look like acknowledging that our tree pose feels wobbly. Or maybe acknowledging that we are talking to ourselves in a harsh way when we can’t do a pose in the way we think we should be able to do it.

Give this a try in your everyday life. When you stand on the metro platform or in line at the grocery store, is your weight on both feet? I’ll bet it’s not. And what about your knees? Are you locking them? I’ll bet you are.

I’m not trying to say that there is some ideal posture for everyone (read or listen to this fascinating piece!) I’m not trying to say that every time you stand up, you need to be in mountain pose.

And I’m definitely not saying we have to be complacent.

Practicing yoga is not about accepting and then throwing up our hands and saying “oh well this is how it’s going to be.” It’s just the opposite, actually.

The only way we can move forward toward whatever it is we want is to know our starting point.

Back in the day before GPS and smart phones that could pinpoint your location for you, if you wanted directions you had to know where you were before you could plot your course toward your destination.

Let’s go back to the knee locking. Noticing that your knees are locking, or in other words, hyperextending and moving beyond a functionally straight position, can give you good information.

Knee locking is one of those unconscious things many of us do, often in an unconscious effort to brace ourselves and feel a sense of stability. Shoes with heels exacerbate this tendency. The problem is that as the knees curve back, the tops of thighs and hips have to move forward to compensate. This puts a bunch of pressure on low back. To compensate for the low back, the pelvis tucks into a posterior position in an effort to reduce pressure on the low back. Now the lumbar (low back) spine is flattened and the cervical (neck) spine flattens reciprocally so the head juts forward.

Long story short, hyperextended knees can contribute to low back and neck pain.

So if we want to move toward a pain-free low back and knees we have to be able to notice, acknowledge, and accept that our knees locking and that might part of the problem.

Then we can move forward to what we want and intend for our body’s experience. Our asana practice is the place where we can notice and adjust the physical habits like the way we use (or don’t use!) our bodies.

Meditation is our way in to our to do this same thing with our emotional self. It’s our tool and strategy for noticing, acknowledging, allowing, and then choosing to respond in a way that is more helpful for what we want in our lives.

Here’s a great video of why meditation is a worthwhile practice. If you are reading this, I probably don’t need to convince you but honestly, I just can’t get enough of this amazing animated mouse and hedgehog. And who doesn’t want a unicorn thrown in for good measure? Watch and see.