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 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.

Practice Makes Perfect?

On Sunday I’m going to do something that I haven’t done in a long time. And I’m nervous about it.

I’m playing in a piano recital. In front of about 100 people. Eeek!

I started taking piano lessons earlier this spring. It was the first time I’ve played the piano in more than 20 years!

Despite my current uneasiness about playing in front of a bunch of people, I discovered something I had forgotten. I really, really enjoy playing the piano.

I don’t think I really appreciated it or found it as joyful when I was first learning as a kid. Practice always felt like a chore. I always felt like the piano was just one more thing I was trying to achieve. There were songs to pass, good marks to earn from the adjudicators, a new book or songs at a higher level. You get the idea.

But now that I’m just playing for fun, I get to choose the songs and I find myself really wanting to practice. No surprise that my piano playing has actually improved!

My piano playing saga can help us understand the spirit of abhyāsa.

Abhyāsa means practice, especially a consistent practice, one that is done without interruption or distraction.

I once heard the teacher Richard Rosen say “Abhyasa builds on itself, just as a ball rolling downhill picks up momentum; the more we practice, the more we want to practice, and the faster we reach our destination.”

But wait, you say, I didn’t think we were trying to achieve anything in yoga. Isn’t that what you always tell us?

You know as much as I do that yogis love a paradox.

On one hand, yoga invites us to set intentions for our yoga and setting intentions can admittedly feel like setting goals.

While it’s helpful to have the direction and the prioritizing an intention can provide, yoga ultimately instructs us practice from a place of curiosity and a desire to know ourselves.

And when we practice with a desire to experience the joy in connecting more intimately and completely with ourselves, we improve in more ways than just being able to “do” postures.

There’s a common saying that goes “yoga isn’t about touching your toes; it’s about what you learn on the way down.”

If you have an intention to achieve something or attain something concrete, like being able to balance in tree pose or in crow pose, what is underneath that intention? When you “do” crow pose, what qualities or sensations, what experience does crow pose elicit?

Try reframing your idea about what you are practicing when you do asana on your yoga mat.

Digging at our motivations and ultimately moving towards understanding why we are drawn to certain poses is at the heart of abhyāsa.

In the meantime, despite my impending nerve-wracking piano performance, I’m trying not to forget about the joy I feel when I play. My in-home guru who often appears in the form of my oldest son said to me the other day, “Don’t be nervous mom. It’s like Ghandi and Malcom X say, ‘man’s greatest enemy is fear.’ You are going to be great if you don’t worry so much and just have fun.”

And in case you were wondering, this is the song I’ll be playing though this isn’t me in the video. Wish me luck!

Of Yoga and Chocolate

little boy feeding chocolate to little girlA friend of mine recently took a trip to stay at an Ayurvedic center in hopes of addressing some chronic health problems. She was on a pretty extreme exclusion diet when she arrived and her unaware but good-intentioned roommate offered her some chocolate. My friend was really distressed about not being able to eat it, almost to the point of tears. When one of the doctor’s heard about this, he told her she should just eat the chocolate. His point was that if not eating the chocolate was causing so much distress for her, the exclusion diet wasn’t really being fully effective.

This is an important idea to help us guide our choices in our yoga practice.

When the postures or the sequence or the meditation feels like a punishment, the whole practice has diminishing returns.

Now this doesn’t always mean that our practice is always supposed to be just rosebuds, butterflies, and savasana. Sometimes gnarly stuff gets churned up. And that’s part of yoga, too. You have to sift out and sort through the things you encounter – physically, emotionally, and thought-wise.

But the spirit in which we encounter and deal with whatever comes up really does matter and here’s where intention becomes the most valuable to us.

We can hold up our experience on the mat against the reasons that we come to yoga. If they aren’t meshing up, we get to decide if our practice needs to change or if our intention needs to change.

Sometimes what we encounter can tell us if  we have to back off (restoratives, anyone?) or if we need to push a little harder to get over whatever inertia has built up.

Rod Stryker once told a group of us that in an ideal world, he would advertise a class as advanced power vinyasa and then make everyone do restoratives the whole time.

Sometimes the things that attract us aren’t that helpful. It’s good to mix it up and see what happens.

I wrote a whole blog post about aversion and attraction not too long ago.

daffodil shoots in the snow

In many ways spring is more of a “new year” than when we celebrate the change on the calendar year in January. It’s the rebirth of nature, marked by a strong upward movement, as evidenced by my daffodils shooting up, almost defiant, in our recent unseasonal snow.

It’s a really perfect time to check in with ourselves, our intention, our attention, our practice as a whole. What’s your plan today? Where are you holding yourself back? How can yoga help you figure out what will serve you best?

Keep asking and seeking, yogis. That’s the real practice of yoga. I’d be honored to help you in the journey. Check out my new spring class schedule and come meet me on the mat.

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>
AC/DC
Foo Fighters
Weezer
Nirvana
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!

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.