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.

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