Category Archives: Inspiration

The Yoga of Self-Expression

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.” -Martha Graham, as quoted in The Life and Work of Martha Graham (1991) by Agnes de Mille

When I was a little kid, I loved to draw. I could draw lots of kind of funny-looking things: people, flowers, animals. Often there was a joy in the simple expression of putting pencil to paper. As I grew older, however, and began to compare my artistic attempts to others’, I would get frustrated. I could see that what I was doing wasn’t the same, but I didn’t know how to make it “right.”

One particularly upsetting day, I was struggling to draw a person. I tried again and again to draw a nose that made sense- that looked like what I thought a drawing of a nose on a face should look like- but it just wasn’t happening. I was overwhelmed with frustration and maybe even the beginning of a sense of grief that I wasn’t able to live up to what I thought I should be able to do. This is when my mother intervened with a little bit of absolutely brilliant parenting.

She opened one of the many magazines that we had around the house and flipped to a cartoon of some little kids that was part of a frequent column. “Look,” she said. I looked: the children had been drawn with no noses at all. And yet they were still clearly children. They were a different expression of an idea of children, but they were people, and the nose was assumed, or it wasn’t, but it didn’t matter, because suddenly it became clear to me that there were many different ways to draw, to visualize, to convey the idea of something.

My lovely mom in that moment, took on the role of a teacher. Teachers can cultivate our individuality  or (perhaps with the best of intentions) impose someone else’s idea on us. My mother had given me a gift that is still carrying me 30 years later: the knowledge that self-expression is individual, unique, and not better or worse than anyone else’s expression.

Perhaps you can remember a time when you felt stifled by a teacher. Last week, for some reason, I recalled with stunning clarity a picture of a potato that I drew in high school. Well, let me be clear– I had started drawing this potato in my art class, but it wasn’t going very well. My attempts to capture the essence of potato in colored pencil form were failing pretty spectacularly. Our art teacher was a demanding and troubled guy, and the best you could sort of hope for in that class was to be left alone. Sadly, his eye fell on me and the potato art that day. He sat down beside me, took the drawing, and completed it for me. It was a masterpiece. Subtle shading, deep-set eyes and utterly potato-like curves. It could have been promo material for the Idaho Potato Board.

I remember watching him draw my potato, explaining where I’d gone wrong; I remember taking it home and somehow it even ended up framed over my dresser for a time! But every time I looked at it, I felt sad, a little shamed- it wasn’t really mine, and in fact it was a reminder of how I had failed as an artist according to the teacher’s standards.

This memory came to me during a class I was teaching last week, actually. I was watching a group of my students in Warrior 1. Each of them looked different. Their feet were in different places, their knees were more or less bent, their arms were doing slightly different things, and their hips were in varying degrees of proverbial Warrior 1 “square”-ness. And I thought of how, in previous years, I would ask them to place their feet in particular ways, and move their hips into a certain position, and place their arms just so, in an attempt to “get them into the pose.” I’ve attended classes recently that asked the same thing of me. And knowing now what I do about my body, and my students’ bodies, I wouldn’t confine them to exacting specifications. The cues I give to the class at large are much broader and likely to ask them to explore their own range of motion and comfort. My assists or adjustments are becoming more rare- while I love the idea of communicating through touch, I’m more cognizant now of how I may be inadvertently indicating “wrongness” on their part- that I might be sort of metaphorically taking their pen and drawing their potato.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe that we are always trying to do the best we can as teachers. I certainly was. It’s simply that with time, I’ve gotten more information- injuries in my body, observation of my students, research from teachers that I respect, and communication with my students.  While I have no interest in taking on the role of a guru, there is an element of power inherent in the word teacher. I believe that entails moral responsibility. For me, it means that I want to empower my students to recognize their own power, grace, and strength within their yoga practice. I want them to learn the value of their own unique expression of creativity in their body.

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How could I do better than to emulate the instinctive wisdom of a mother? To demonstrate to my students that however their creativity presents itself- as artists, as yogis, as human beings- is not only okay, it’s an expression of their luminous, radiant nature and an opportunity to celebrate their singular essential goodness. To me, if a yoga practice is making me feel like I am wrong in any way, I’m happy to hand the pencil back to the teacher and move on.

(Gratitude and love to my wonderful mother, whose love of me and celebration of my life is so complete that she would be proud of me if I lived in a cardboard box down by the river). 

 

 

My Big Brother: On the Gift of Compassion and Love

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In the back of my closet, under a mountain of dust bunnies, there’s a packet of letters. Not, as you might imagine, letters from an old lover, or anything so romantic. These are letters that I wrote over 20 years ago to my older brother. I was in middle school, or high school, and he was at college (before the Internet was available to us, can you imagine?).

The thought of this package makes me cry, not so much because of the heartbreaking content- and it’s pretty wrenching for me- but because of the great kindness and love that it created.

I wrote these letters to my brother during one of the first great bad times of my life. I had always been a depressed and anxious kid, but adolescence was really pretty awful. I woke up every day sick and miserable at the thought of having to go to school, where I felt that I never fit in- that I was too ugly, too fat, too literate, too just not cool. I had some friends, of course, and there were always those who were worse-off than me, but I took my share of bullying* and there was no escape- nobody to tell. My friends all knew and their lives weren’t much better. What could I say to my parents- I’m miserable because nobody likes me? Who’s going to admit they’re a total loser? Of course I wouldn’t disappoint and hurt them like that. Instead, I cultivated a sort of evil mantra for myself that sticks with me still, two decades later, in moments of great darkness- I wish I were dead. 

Seth, seven years older, had escaped to Pittsburgh for college, and wrote me faithfully. I don’t know why, but he found time in his life to think of his little sister, who had always idolized him and generally been an irritant- but there was some good karma here, and he wrote asking how I was. I found that I was able, in writing, to share the pain I felt. Don’t tell Mom and Dad, I said. I’m so unhappy. I don’t know how I am going to make it. I just want to die. 

Rural central Pennsylvania is not a place to be different in any way, as my brother had found out 7 years earlier. He’d grown his hair long, and I’m sure he was called names, as I was when I shaved my head a few years later (Bob Seger’s “Turn The Page” always makes me think with pride of us both: “Most times you can’t hear ’em talk, other times you can/ All the same old cliches: is it a woman or a man?”). He was a becoming a vegetarian and an animal-rights activist in a time when that could have been a recipe for someone kicking your ass. Like his little sister after him- like so many people in small towns, and everywhere- he was just trying to be himself in a culture that valued conformity deeply. In a bigger city (our town had one red light and two gas stations), neither of us would have been anything out of the ordinary.

But here is the great gift he gave me: having “survived,” so to speak, he remembered the difficulty he experienced, and instead of turning away from it, he let it open his heart. He felt such compassion for me that he continued to send me letters encouraging me. You will make it. I promise it gets better. I know it seems like it won’t, but it all gets better after high school. I love you. I understand. I’m sorry you’re going through this. He told me I was smart and beautiful and interesting and cool, when nobody else** believed it, including myself.

Over the years, Seth has become closer to me than a friend or family ever has to be. In typical Seth & Laura fashion, he sometimes has felt very self-critical of his treatment of me. I’m sorry I wasn’t more there for you. I’m sorry I was mean to you. This too, makes me feel quite bittersweet sad- because I understand regret and shame, but there’s just no need for it anymore. I can’t overemphasize for you the depth of the gratitude and love I feel for him when I think of the  depth of his unconditional love.  In times of distress, I have always been able to call him and, like a gentler reflection, been shown the situation from his perspective. He understands- he does not judge- and he says, this will end. I understand, I love you, I’m sorry you’re going through this. He reminds me that things will change, as they always do, and that I can get through whatever it is.

I’m fortunate to have had this close relationship with someone who has understood me so fundamentally that he can be a light in the darkness- not only because of the help that it’s given me in my own life, but because it has shown me that I can be a light for others. I can be a well of unconditional understanding, compassion, and love for those who are broken-hearted, suicidal, don’t fit in, think the pain will never end. I can listen, and, instead of saying, I wish I were dead, say I understand. I love you. I’m sorry you’re going through this. 

For many of us, there are times where we’re not strong enough to endure our own lives without this kind of support.  I’ve spent the last five years learning to believe what Seth has always said. I am smart. I’m cool. I’m beautiful. Everything does end, and I can be kind and support myself with love and understanding. As a result, my way of handling pain has shifted a bit. Now, in times of great personal misery (and those will still come, I believe, as long as we’re suffering through this human life), I allow myself to feel the pain, and I ask: May this open my heart. May this pain be of service to others.

So, you might wonder- how did the letters come to be in my closet, if they were the ones I mailed to Seth in Pittsburgh? About seven years ago, Seth called me. He was moving out of state, and cleaning out his own closet. If you could have heard the emotion in his voice, you would know what it is to love someone fully. “I found these letters,” he said. “They’re so, so sad- I can’t just throw them away-” We agreed that he would mail them to me, and I would keep them in my own closet. I’ve never opened them- I don’t need to- but oh, what a reminder they are.

In recounting this story to you, I’ve cried quite a bit. Please understand that it’s not my own pain, grief or sorrow I’m feeling- it’s deeper, broader than that. It’s a thank you, to my brother- to the misery we both suffered- for giving me this love I have for those who need it. I wouldn’t change a thing about my experience.

Happy Birthday, big brother.

 

*Speaking of compassion- the girls that picked on me- well, looking back, their home lives were much worse than mine. No “forgiveness” needed; they were doing the best they could to manage their own unhappiness.

**Mom, I know you and Dad always did. The fault was mine for not telling you how unhappy I was. You’re wonderful and I love you.

Indulging & Impermanence

 

Photo on 5-3-13 at 6.42 PM

A self-inulgent sorrow selfie. Embarrassing but true*

I used to wrap myself up in nostalgia. Not happy nostalgia, like “Remember when we all wore acid-washed jeans,” but more like… hm, deep grey clouds of melancholy nostalgia. I was secretly proud of my ability to nurse a bittersweet memory. I made regret an art form, sculpting what-ifs in my head into castles of fantasy lives I’d never get to live.

These days, I’m able to see a little more clearly that things pass, and that nothing lasts, and that this is mostly okay. As Buddha suggested, I suffer less as a result.

I was recently listening to a Dharma teaching on this concept of impermanence and was struck by a particular line: “The emotions of the past are gone,” said my teacher, Mingyur Rinpoche.

When I say struck, I mean it felt like I was physically struck- spontaneous tears actually welled up. The emotions, gone? But, but… I LIKED those emotions. Even the sad, sorry-for-myself ones.  I’d spent so much time nursing them, cultivating my garden of self-pity. In an instant I saw clearly that I had been attempting to carry these emotions with me into the present, but that they had already changed. New emotions were there, and some of them might be similar, but nothing was quite the same.

I recently ended a relationship (this is the VERY short version, friends), and at the same time, I reconnected with someone that I loved and lost many years ago. So I’ve had the opportunity to look back and consider, compare, and contrast the similarities and differences between these two loves.

There are many patterns to observe, but one that I see clearly is a tendency to fondly romanticize both the high points and the low points of the relationships. To dwell in them, to turn them over in my memory until I can’t be sure how much  is truth and how much an idealized emotion- one that changed long ago, despite my insistence on dragging it with me like an old battered bag full of crap.

A little indulgence in memory, in past emotion, in lost love, can feel awfully good. But it doesn’t always serve me well. I’m working to turn transform this indulgence into inquiry instead- yes, I think it’s good to appreciate and remember, but I’m also finding that some space around the emotion/memory/whatever can help me to see (and, I hope, release) the patterns that have caused suffering.

The following poem- The Lost Garden by Dana Gioia- speaks to this very phenomena in a much more beautiful way. Enjoy.

The Lost Garden

by Dana Gioia

If ever we see those gardens again,

The summer will be gone—at least our summer.

Some other mockingbird will concertize

Among the mulberries, and other vines

Will climb the high brick wall to disappear.

 

How many footpaths crossed the old estate—

The gracious acreage of a grander age—

So many trees to kiss or argue under,

And greenery enough for any mood.

What pleasure to be sad in such surroundings.

 

At least in retrospect. For even sorrow

Seems bearable when studied at a distance,

And if we speak of private suffering,

The pain becomes part of a well-turned tale

Describing someone else who shares our name.

 

Still, thinking of you, I sometimes play a game.

What if we had walked a different path one day,

Would some small incident have nudged us elsewhere

The way a pebble tossed into a brook

Might change the course a hundred miles downstream?

 

The trick is making memory a blessing,

To learn by loss the cool subtraction of desire,

Of wanting nothing more than what has been,

To know the past forever lost, yet seeing

Behind the wall a garden still in blossom.

*Please don’t worry, guys. I’m really quite okay, and was even when this photo was taken. 🙂 It was a moment of nostalgic, self-indulgent mental “weather.” It passed and all is well.

Autumn Inspiration: In Blackwater Woods, by Mary Oliver

Happy Fall Equinox. This is my favorite time of year- the Savasana of the year, where we all begin to slow and die a bit, practicing a bit more effectively each year. This week I’m sharing a beautiful poem by Mary Oliver- In Blackwater Woods. Enjoy.

Look, the trees

are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Summer Solstice- Inspiration (Poem)

Posted this morning by Shiva Rea on Facebook- I loved its spirit and the promise, and will let it inspire me this summer. Enjoy:

I will not die an unlived life.

I will not live in fear

of falling or catching fire.

I choose to inhabit my days,

to allow my living to open me,

to make me less afraid,

more accessible;

to loosen my heart

until it becomes a wing,

a torch, a promise.

I choose to risk my significance,

to live so that which came to me as seed

goes to the next as blossom,

and that which came to me as blossom,

goes on as fruit.

~Dawna Markova

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Photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video / Foter.com / CC BY

Courage

courage-ee-cummings

Back from retreat and right into new duties as studio manager for geoYoga– on top of some other big changes.

Things can be pretty scary sometimes, can’t they?

However: I am encouraged by my students and friends, those I meet on the path, to be strong, to remember that all things are temporary, and that we can find some measure of ease even in the discomfort. I am grateful to remember that you don’t always have to do things alone. I am reminded that I am not the first person to face these challenges. I see signs that I’m growing up, and, as ee cummings says, that takes courage.

Etymologically speaking: have you ever noticed that the word “encouraged” includes the word “courage?” Seems silly now, but I hadn’t seen this until today. The idea that in being encouraged, you are given courage- how brilliant, simple, and true.  I am given courage by my community, by my family, by what is called in the yoga and Buddhist traditions a sangha.

There have been times in my life where I did not know how to ask for help- or I thought I didn’t deserve the help- or maybe I was just afraid to look like I needed help. Now, I can look with eyes of love at the compassion and kindness of my family and friends (I never knew how many I had!) and know that sometimes it’s just your time to receive.

I recently received an especially sweet and compassionate encouragement from a senior teacher:

Move toward whatever nourishes you- to whatever illuminates the path for you.

I’m sharing her words with you as well, in the hopes that you may find courage there when you need it.

Finally, noticing how the quality of courage can change as we grow and mature, I am inspired by this beautiful poem that I’ve used in class recently. I hope you enjoy.

Courage

It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.

Later,
if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.

Later,
if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off our heart,
then wringing it out like a sock.
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.

Later,
when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you’ll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you’ll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.

“Courage,” by Anne Sexton, from The Awful Rowing Toward God (Houghton Mifflin)

With love and encouragement- and wishes for, perhaps, a more specifically yoga-related blog soon-

Laura

The Lion’s Roar! (In Which The Author Abandons Hope and Allows The Present Moment)

The Lion's Roar!

I have abandoned hope. Not to worry- I’m not despairing, and I’m not like, “giving up on life,” or anything like that.

It’s just this: I’m forsaking hope, and its cousin, fear, and its nerdy cousin, obsessive planning (he wears a pocket protector, I think).

You’re shaking your head. What’s wrong with hope? Don’t we want things to be better? Don’t we long for a better life, an end to suffering? Of course we do- it’s human to want to experience pleasure and avoid pain. The problem is that in clinging to hope, we’re creating more suffering. We’re avoiding our own lives in lieu of a fantasy future.

Pema Chodron, in When Things Fall Apart, reminds us that “hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment.”

So what do we do instead of hope? We practice staying present in the moment, living each uncomfortable breath one at a time, until we learn that, as Geneen Roth* says, “It is possible to be with what you believe will destroy you without being destroyed.”

I am, by nature, a worrier and a planner. When my husband and I purchased our house and I submitted our financial records to the mortgage lender, he was initially impressed by my quick ability to provide the statements to him. He soon became lost, though, as he tried to make sense of my obsessive transfers from account to account. My way of managing financial stress is to micro-manage funds. “I’ve never seen anything quite so confusing,” he said. Confusing, yes- but it sure distracted me from feeling the financial pain at the time.

I wrote recently about Christopher Baxter‘s workshop on Yoga of the Subtle Body, and here it is again (Hey, it was really good). Christopher told a story of his own in which he was struggling to create a sound plan for his future. No matter how he tried to finagle it, he could not come up with a safe plan, and it was really bothering him. When he mentioned the dilemma to a Buddhist friend, the friend told him gently: “There is no safe plan. Something will always happen. Even if you could come up with a plan that worked for you, it would still just be a fantasy belief in a fantasy plan.”

This was one of those great light-bulb moments for me. When I left my safe 40-hour-a-week job this year, I planned as best I could for our financial security. I rearranged finances, cut back where we could. My husband and I even got married (after 11 wonderful years of “who needs marriage” relationship) so that we could share his health insurance. I felt nervous, but glad that I had such a safe plan. I quit the job and began teaching yoga full-time.

(cue dramatic music)

Until… Danny lost his job. Unexpectedly. After 14 years- who would have thought? We had no health insurance. My income was less than half of what I had been making. And my careful hoping, worrying, and planning, like a house of cards, fell to the earth- fantasy belief in a fantasy plan.  @#$%^@%&#$&!!! <–( represents actual, non-yogic cursing)

In the face of lost hope, I was challenged to really live my yoga. This was an opportunity to practice what is known in Buddhism as “The Lion’s Roar.” Trungpa Rinpoche describes this as: “the fearless proclamation that any state of mind, any circumstance, any part of ourselves, including the most difficult emotions, is a workable situation, a reminder in the practice of meditation.”

Today we are still not “safe” and secure. The future is uncertain, and my work life changes drastically from week to week. It feels as though I am standing on trembling earth and cannot build a house. And yet…

I know it is possible to live with what you think will destroy you without being destroyed. I know that hope is false, and planning is a distraction, and when I worry, I am cheating myself of all the beauty in my daily life.

I am roaring like a lion, in this and every breath! I have hurled the pocket protector of planning into oblivion! And I am learning to be courageous in the present moment.

One final reading for you. I notice in this poem, the author uses the positive word, “Allow,” rather than the negative phrase, “Abandon Hope.” Embrace that instead, if you like.

Allow – Donna Faulds

There is no controlling life.
Try corralling a lightning bolt,
containing a tornado. Dam a
stream, and it will create a new
channel. Resist, and the tide
will sweep you off your feet.
Allow, and grace will carry you to higher ground. The only
safety lies in letting it all in-
the wild with the weak; fear,
fantasies, failures and success.
When loss rips off the doors of
the heart, or sadness veils your
vision with despair, practice
becomes simply bearing the truth.
In the choice to let go of your
known way of being, the whole
world is revealed to your new eyes.

*Geneen Roth is the author of Women, Food and God, which I imagined at one time was too unbearably silly for words, and now, I find, has become an important book in my life. Thank God for change.

Photo credit: M Norris / Foter / CC BY-NC