Category Archives: Yoga Cures Stuff

After Gym Class: Learning to Love Movement via Yoga

Malasana September 2018A few weeks ago, I read an article in the New York Times entitled “How You Felt About Gym Class May Impact Your Exercise Habits Today.”  This is something that feels so obvious to me I was kind of surprised that it merited an article, but then again, I think way more about my traumatic life experiences (and other people’s) than is probably healthy, so I’m all over this topic.

Exercise and movement are such a big part of my life now that it’s hard to reconcile my current lifestyle (a daily practice of gym, yoga, weightlifting, occasional awkward excursions into Jazzercise, jiu-jitsu, running, biking, you name it) with the first three decades of my life, in which exercise was something you did if you were required to, or if, as one of my ex-boyfriend’s mothers said to me, “You are getting fat. You need to make exercise” (there was a cultural difference, so I’d like to think I’ve let this go, but here I am writing about it on the Internet 20 years later, so probably not so much).

As a kid, I liked to play outside, but mostly I used that time to enjoy being alone, spending time with my dog, reading and daydreaming. When my friends forayed into group sports (softball, field hockey), I gave it a try, but really struggled. I literally did not understand how the games worked or what the rules were. There was no Google to look these things up, and although you might reasonably ask, “Why would you not just ask someone?” it didn’t feel that simple to me. If everyone else already understood this thing that I clearly was supposed to have learned somewhere or somehow, the best my introverted self could manage was to kind of pretend and hope it would all work out one way or another.  Don’t pass to me, I’d pray during the game.  Oh, they’re running that way– must be time to run with them down the field now. 

You can imagine, then, how much I did not enjoy gym class. I was a child of the 80’s, and all I knew of politics was that Ronald Reagan liked jellybeans and that he, in his infinite, grandfatherly wisdom, had decreed that we must complete the Herculean tasks of the Presidential Physical Fitness Test. Pull-ups. Sit-ups. The Shuttle Run (ugh). The Mile. The Sit-and-Reach.  I can’t remember what I wore yesterday, but the agony of the Physical Fitness Test is super fresh in my memory. Our gym teacher had big puffy brown hair and chewed gum as she noted, bored, on her clipboard, my subpar efforts. A quick romp through the Internet tells me that I am not the only child who remembers the tests with a lingering sense of shame and anxiety (“Sit and reach. I sat, I reached, I farted. Ruined 5th grade,” says one person.  You can read more of “The Sad, Sad Stories of the Presidential Fitness Test” here).

Middle school was no improvement. Some of us threw hard rubber balls across the gym. Others were hit with a stinging whack (guess which one I was!). It was only an hour or so, but that was nothing compared to the mandatory public shower afterward.  In order to earn a passing grade, we were required to walk into the communal shower area (open to the entire locker room), take off our towel, place it on the low wall, and twirl around once under the shower so that the teacher could see us do it. This had nothing to do with hygiene and everything to do with body shaming, anxiety and often bullying from older girls.

So yeah– gym class missed the mark for me. I know plenty of kids who enjoyed it– the naturally athletic ones, the ones whose bodies moved easily through space, who could kick or catch a ball or yell “Pass it to me!” with confidence. Extroverts thrived on the team experience– I shrank and wilted.

Let’s go to the Times article:

“People’s memories of gym class turned out to be in fact surprisingly “vivid and emotionally charged,” the researchers write in the study, which was published this month in the Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine.

And those memories had long shadows, affecting people’s exercise habits years later.

The most consistent associations were between unpleasant memories of P.E. classes and lingering resistance to exercise years later, the researchers found. People who had not enjoyed gym class as children tended to report that they did not expect to like exercise now and did not plan to exercise in the coming days.”

-Gretchen Reynolds, How You Felt About Gym Class May Impact Your Exercise Habits Today

All of this is a long preamble to say– despite my struggles with gym class and the US Physical Education system, I have managed to find my way to being a reasonably healthy person who loves to exercise. I like to learn new movement skills and I’m relatively confident as an athlete, even if I’m not good at something (I’m pretty bad at most new things, FYI). Was it a miracle of some sort? Life coaching? Sheer willpower? Nope. It was yoga.

Yoga bridged the gap between the social anxiety, poor body image and low self-confidence that I felt as a human adult attempting exercise. I’ve taught yoga for several years now, and I think I have an understanding of why yoga managed to convert me into an active adult when other modalities failed: it teaches body awareness, creates confidence, and it’s essentially non-competitive.

One of the most crucial skills that I began to develop when I began doing yoga was proprioception*. This is simply the sense of where your body is in space.  Some of us don’t develop this terribly well, for many reasons, but luckily it is a skill that can be learned and taught. Chronic “klutzes” may find themselves moving gracefully! It’s pretty awesome.

Once we have a greater sense of where we are in the world, it’s natural that we start to feel stronger and more confident. As I continued to practice yoga, I built strength and found that I could actually enjoy moving my body through space in a deliberate way. I also found that I could appreciate what my body was able to do, and to find ways to nurture it so that it could work even better.

I often remind my students that one of the best things about the yoga practice is that we can stop anytime. This may sound a little silly, but for me it’s quite meaningful. If exercise has been challenging for you, committing to a 90 (or even 60) minute yoga practice may feel too overwhelming. Perhaps it’s not the physical challenge that scares you, but social anxiety. In that case, too, knowing that there is no pressure to compete or keep up, that there are very few rules to be memorized, no team to let down, and that nobody in the room has any expectations of you can be tremendously freeing. You really can stop at any time. You can sit down, or do a different pose, or you can try something on one side you didn’t do on another. You can roll up your mat and practice another day.

Having this freedom– to try something different, or to simply stop when we need to– has an interesting psychological effect. Because they don’t feel that they have to, often I find that students are eager to practice and even try things that might always have been outside of their comfort zone. The anxious students, gaining confidence in themselves and finding that they can be comfortable in an “exercise” environment, find themselves relaxing and engaging with fellow students.

The pressure to perform is off, and the joy of movement and play has returned. In this way, yoga has the potential to repair the damage caused by a poor educational approach to exercise (I’m looking at you, Presidential Physical Fitness Test). I have seen time and again that learning embodied awareness and cultivating an appreciation for movement and our body’s abilities leads not just to greater health and more functional movement, but to strength and confidence in the rest of our lives and in our relationships with others.

Of course, not all yoga classes are created equal. In order for to be truly empowering, a yoga class should include instruction on and time for inquiry (rather than merely imposing external alignment principles). Variations on poses should be taught and celebrated, and students encouraged to meet themselves where they are that day (teachers– we’ll take a look at how to create this kind of environment in an upcoming blog). Otherwise, yoga classes run the risk of simply recreating the same uncomfortable, inequitable experience so many of us lived through in that gym class.

 

*Yoga and meditation can also teach interoception (a sense of the internal state of the body– am I hungry, thirsty, tired?) and exteroception (a sense of what’s going on outside of the body). This means we have the potential to use and care for our bodies more skillfully, and to engage with the world around us in a more mindful, integrated way. 

Advertisements

A Long Post About How I Made it to Yoga Despite Ridiculous Social Anxiety

social_anxiety

Sunday (two days ago) I received a really nice email from geoYoga, the studio that I manage. It was an automated email (it would have to have been, since I didn’t send it to myself), but I liked it anyway. “Dear Laura,” it said, “It’s your anniversary with geoYoga!”

How exciting. I love this kind of thing and the opportunity it presents for self-reflecting. (Yes, I’m a dork in this way. “You sure do like to check in with yourself, don’t you?” someone observed not too long ago. Darn tootin’. I like to know what’s up with me and how it measures up against how things were with me before. It might be a little obsessive, but at this point I figure it’s better than ignoring my innermost feelings).

Prior to my geoYoga experience, I had done some yoga classes through the local adult education program. These were at a gym, an hour each. The teacher was pleasant, led us through some postures and included Savasana (challenging, due to the Eagles music inevitably blasting through the walls from the weight room outside). I thought it was all pretty fantastic, until another student said to me, “I’ve been going to this guy’s classes at the Civic Center, you should check it out. He’ll tell you if you’re doing the postures right. And he lights candles! The class is 75 minutes long.” Wow, 75 minutes, I thought. “That’s a LONG TIME,” I said, not realizing that she was intending this to be a selling point. Oh, how things change.

It had been really, really hard for me to get up the nerve to sign up for that first yoga class. I felt like such an idiot walking into the gym, as though I were wearing a sign that said “I AM A CLUELESS SHMUCK. YOU SHOULD LAUGH AT ME.” Making the transition to the second yoga venue… well, that required even more courage on my part. I had to find the location (I drove by a few times to be sure I had it right).  I also included some Internet research, which helped me to feel more anxiety about whether or not I needed a special towel to cover my mat. I called and asked how much and when it was (I dreaded showing up at the wrong time, with the wrong sort of money- how people would look at me pityingly, poor dumb broad, can’t even get to a yoga class).

The hour arrived- I think it was 6 PM on a Thursday, as though it mattered- and I walked into the classroom. In one sense, this should have been easier- I’d already done some yoga classes. However, I now understood that, by yoga-world-rules, the yoga I’d been doing was sub-par. This was REAL yoga. Longer-than-an-hour-yoga. With candles. When the teacher walked by me, I sweated more. Please don’t talk to me, I prayed. Please don’t look at me, don’t talk to me, don’t engage with me at all until I know what I am doing. From the corner of my eye, I studied my fellow students and attempted to blend in. Aha, a block-shaped thing (later I would find this was called a “block”) could be placed by the mat. Crazy thing that looked like my brother’s childhood Boy Scout belt also at the ready. Crap, she’s got the special towel. I knew I should have bought the special towel. Once the stage was set, it seemed, one sat down on one’s mat and closed one’s eyes. I did so and immediately regretted not going to the bathroom before I left work. Do I have time to go before class? What time is it? Why didn’t I wear a watch? Why didn’t I put my mat where I can see a clock? What if they start while I’m gone? What if I miss some important information? Forget it. I can hold it for 75 minutes.

But this yoga class- ah, it was so worth the emotional distress, and that soon melted away. The room had many windows overlooking the river, through which we could watch the sky change as the sun set. The teacher played fun music. He read inspirational quotes and just generally made the whole thing feel super, super special. I fell in love with yoga. And I began the healing process of getting-more-comfortable-in-my-own-skin- so I wasn’t quite so afraid of things as I used to be. I even started saying “hello” to the teacher, although anything beyond “hello” caused me to become tongue-tied. I felt that if I were to pause too long before him, all of his insight and wisdom would penetrate through my guise and see what an absolute mess I was. The mask would fall away and it would be clear that I was not a terribly functional human being. 

It was a few months into this practice that another student suggested to me that I might want to check out this yoga studio- where they offered a free class Wednesday mornings at 7 AM. Once again, I invested my emotional energy into detailed planning for and strenuous worrying about my first visit to a Real Yoga Studio. That morning, I still felt unbearably shy and awkward, sitting in the mostly-empty parking lot before class. What made me think I could handle a yoga class at a real yoga studio?

But: the teacher that day was one of the owners, and was so kind as I was shepherded into the practice space, I felt that I must have made the right decision. Of course, that was before the sweaty torturous practice began.*

And I loved this yoga studio. It was so perfectly warm and inviting. A special place just for yoga. Where yoga people went, and did yoga things, and shared yoga ideas.

During the following year, I spent more and more time at geo, buying passes and doling the classes out to myself like a hoarded sweet. At the time I thought of myself as being poor** and yoga seemed like a luxury item.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. The time I spent on my mat, especially under the guidance of trained teachers, was invaluable. Finally, it felt like there might be a crack in the mask I’d worn for so long. This mask was both a costume (“Normal Person,” the label may have read) and a protective shell.

Up until that point, in any new social situation, I’d been sure that others were thinking what a loser I was. If someone laughed nearby, I knew it was at my expense. I felt most comfortable at home, but it was a sad and lonely thing. I was sure that nobody liked me, and I didn’t know how to change that. I cried a lot. I took a lot of medication. And when I did go out, I put on the mask. It was a lousy mask, really, because it just made me look like I didn’t like you very much.

Yoga gave me the stillness to hear my inner dialogue and the confidence to question it. Am I really klutzy, or is that just something someone told me once? What if I am not ugly? What if they’re not laughing at me? What if I AM worthy of the teacher’s attention? and, most importantly, perhaps… What if other people are feeling this same way?

I began to notice all the ways that I avoided interacting with other people, based on fear. I even found that I had chosen not to buy a new bag to carry my mat in because I thought it might take me too long to put the mat away after class, meaning that I not be the first one out the door and might have to actually talk to people.

The change was gradual, but I think you probably know by now that somewhere along the journey, the mask just fell away.

One of my earlier teachers was a beautiful young woman who was so open. I clearly remember walking into the room- she turned to me and smiled and her whole face lit up with her “Hello!” I thought, wistfully, I want to be that way. I want to be open and smiling and friendly and filled with love. 

I’m looking back from the edge of this anniversary to that sad and lonely Laura, clutching at her mask, and I don’t know how I look to you, but I feel open and smiling and friendly. I am filled with love for her, and with compassion and kindness. There’s gratitude, too, because when I meet new students, sometimes I recognize the trepidation, the self-doubt, the fear, and it helps me to know how to meet that with love and understanding.

Happy Anniversary to me! Sorry this was a little long- I so enjoy a good check-in. 😉

* It was an Intro to Astanga Class, and it was harder than any practice I’d ever done before. So many vinyasas! I thought, Nobody can do this many and still walk out of class alive. I didn’t realize at the time that, out of pity for us, the instructor was only doing them between postures, and not between sides, as is traditional! …and when she explained Janu Sirsasana B, I  thought, What! This can’t be right. Nobody’s foot should go there. When we finally got to Navasana (FIVE TIMES?!), I was trembling, drenched with sweat and wondering how I’d make it through a day of work after the experience. On the positive side, I was so exhausted that social anxiety fell away and I remember being able to chat with other students as I left. Not the teacher (she, like my previous teacher, was on an untouchable pedestal in my mind), but at least the students. Had you told me that morning that in just a few years I’d be doing twice the practice with twice the vinyasas 6 days a week, I simply would have thought you were talking to the wrong Laura.

** once again, I wouldn’t have believed you if you told me how much poorer I could get!

Enough is (Never?) Enough. Brahmacharya, Take 2

You’ll never believe it, but I had an actual real-life request from someone the other day to write about Brahmacharya (the law of yogic moderation). I felt, for one heady moment, as though I’d hit “the big time.” A blog request! For me!

The idea that anyone was interested in hearing my blogged opinion about anything was so  gratifying that I was really excited to get right on it- until I realized that I’ve already covered Brahmacharya in this post.

But, I considered, it’s almost certainly not coincidental that I am being asked to revisit the topic. Brahmacharya is a lesson I have yet to learn, or at least to assimilate fully into my life and practice.

I am highly qualified to talk to you about over-indulgence. During the early 2000’s (especially during college and the confused years right after), I over-indulged in caffeine and cigarettes. This paired nicely with my video-game addiction so that I was no longer a very functional member of society. A typical day might look something like this:

11 AM. Wake up, start video game on way to make coffee.
11:05 AM.  Sweet rush of relief. Cigarette and heavily sugared coffee in system, ready to engage in online drama of elves, dragons, etc., for next 12 + hours.
12:30 PM. Phone rings, but I can’t answer* because I’m either a) too busy with game or b) feeling guilty about what I’m doing. Open bag of Doritos and the second-to-last bottle of Coke.
3:00 PM. Remember that I forgot to take the garbage out, write a paper about Love In the Time of The Cholera, and that the Marlboro Lights are running low. Suppress emotions with some more Doritos and another cigarette.
6:00 PM. Bag of Doritos is gone and down to the last liter of Coke. Time to put on pants and go to the store. Decide to wait another hour for the online group I am in to disband as I don’t want to miss out on anything.
6:35 PM. Group has ended but there is now an online raid on a dragon starting and my presence is absolutely critical. Call Little Caesar’s. Ask if the driver will stop and buy cigarettes. Brush hair for the first time today. Consider brushing teeth, but time is limited. Keep mouth closed when pizza arrives.
2 AM. Raid is finally over. Eyes bleary and throat stinging. Chest feels heavy but I am very close to level 47 and having a lot of (delirious)? fun with an online friend killing giant spiders in an ice fortress.
2:15 AM. Last cigarette of the day. As I log off the game (“Night Lyssandra, **HUGS** Farramir”), I feel a wave of panicky sadness. Where did the day go? What am I doing with my life? When will I get it all under control?

Just for fun, here is a picture of me from that time. I am drinking a wine cooler, I believe, but put the cigarette down for the photo. I also put on my happiest smile, as you can see. TX Laura

While I eventually overcame the gaming and smoking vices, the underlying pattern has manifested in various ways throughout my life.  Later years would see me do things like compulsive exercise and calorie-counting. Over-working is another compulsive activity that I am still fighting. And yeah, yoga can be the same way.

These latter activities are more dangerous to the compulsive over-indulger because society is set up to reward them. “Oh, you’re so good about exercising,” someone might say to me. Or, in a corporate job where the unspoken expectation is that you work 50 hours per week, you weren’t going to get anywhere if you weren’t working 51**. And yoga, with its halo of wholesome goodness- well, of course, a daily yoga practice can only be good, right?

Deborah Adele, in her book  The Yamas & Niyamas, says, “In yogic thought, there is a moment in time when we reach the perfect limit of what we are engaged in. It is this moment of ‘just enough’ that we need to recognize.” She goes on to say, “Nonexcess is not about nonenjoyment. It actually is about enjoyment and pleasure in its fullest experience. The questions before us are: Are you eating the food, or is the food eating you? Are you doing the activity, or is the activity doing you?”

Blerg. I recognize the painful truth in the last question. There have certainly been times where my own yoga practice has gone from pleasure to excess. The physical signs are there, if I can heed them. When I’m over-practicing, I feel strain in my wrists, my neck, my knees.

There’s also a set of addictive mental and emotional behaviors. I can recognize the signs- a feeling of worry or stress if I’m not able to practice daily, or an unbalanced sense of displeasure if I feel that I’m not “performing” at my peak. A crankiness if someone comments that I certainly am practicing a lot lately. I might even be careful not to mention certain aches, pains, or injuries to certain people that know me too well. I might (and this is a little scary) not even tell people the truth about how much I am practicing.

I am really loving my Ashtanga practice, but there’s an element of danger there for someone of my disposition. I love the discipline of practicing 6 days a week, 2 hours per day. Of seeing the changes in my practice, measuring my progress against the previous week’s. The headiness of finding myself suddenly slipping into a new posture- and the (exhilarating? crushing?) knowledge that I could continue this practice for the next several years and still have places to grow. The endorphins are unreal.

Another way that I might over-indulge in my yoga practice is with specific asana. It’s easy to get really excited about a particular posture. Right now, I’m wooing Handstand, Supta Kurmasana, and Urdva Dhanurasana. If I were to be honest with myself, and with you- I need to back off at least one of these and let my body recuperate. Oh, it’s not easy, when I’m having so much fun- but when I ask myself:  Am I doing the practice, or is the practice doing me? I know I’ve crossed a border. I’ve gone beyond “just enough” into “just three more!”

But the fault itself is not in the asana (physical) practice. The fault lies with the practitioner (in this case, maybe, me) who is disregarding the ethical limbs of yoga. Brahmacharya. Ahimsa (non-violence).

As often happens, I often find just the encouragement or wisdom that I need, just when I need it. I ran across these words from BKS Iyengar this week. His ‘balanced practice’- well, that’s Brahmacharya, to me. See what you think:

When your posture is imbalanced,

the practice is physical;

balanced asanas lead to spiritual practice.

As a goldsmith weighs gold,

you have to adjust your body so that it is

perfectly balanced in the median plane.

As pearls are held on a thread,

all the limbs should be held

on the thread of intelligence.

Yogis, what’s your experience with Brahmacharya in your own practice? Leave a comment, please!

*Dear Everyone I Knew During This Time: I’m really, really sorry. 

**Off-topic, but I’m reminded of Office Space. “If you want me to wear 37 pieces of flair like pretty-boy Brian over there, why don’t you make the minimum 37 pieces of flair.”

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

Beauty in the Broken Shell: Self-Love, Self-Acceptance, and Late-Night Nachos

I found this shell on the beach today. Perfect in its flawed, worn and broken beauty. This shell isn’t looking in the mirror and wishing it were younger, less worn. It’s not regretting the tides that dragged it. It’s just itself, as it is. Enough. 

It’s been an interesting year for self-revelation. An exhausting one, too. Lately it’s insight after insight, and it gets pretty tiring. Some days you just want to sit on the couch and eat nachos, rather than understand WHY you are sitting on the couch eating nachos. Can’t the nachos just be nachos? Alas, even a nacho is an opportunity for a life lesson, it seems.

Lately I’m thinking a lot about positive self-image (you might remember this post). Self-acceptance. Self-love. It’s taken me a while, but it’s pretty clear to me now that I have programmed myself to be a “good girl”- to be the favorite, the smartest, the best at whatever it is I want to do. I’m competing, in a silent, miserable way, with an unattainable ideal.

No, this isn’t really news- I’ve always been, as my husband says, a “try-hard.” But it feels like news to me now, as I navigate some larger life changes, and am faced with my own behaviors. Here’s my (hidden) motivation: I am afraid not to be the best. I am afraid to take a day off. I’m afraid that if I am not engaging with life 100%, I am not winning, and I will have to face the fact that I am not good enough.

And when I sit down, exhausted, at the end of the day, alone with the emptiness of my self, and the feeling that I didn’t DO enough today (make enough money, please enough people, burn enough calories, etc., etc.)- I actively avoid facing how I’m really feeling. I’ve got a bit of an addictive personality, and I am good at busying myself with varying compulsive behaviors. Sometimes it’s more work-type behavior- making lists, creating a financial plan for myself, worrying in one form or another.  The activities have changed over the years- at one time I was a great smoker, video-game player. Most recently, I’m a great eater- that’s where the nachos came in.

One of my friends and teachers, Christopher Baxter of InnerSky Yoga, gave a lovely workshop last week on The Yoga of the Subtle Body. As part of the practice, he guided us through a meditation in which we asked ourselves: What do I long for?

For peace, I thought. From self-loathing. From self-defeating. From the divisive behaviors that catch me up like a wheel. To feel whole, as a person, and not flawed, or lacking. To love myself completely. And then I saw it all so clearly- the ways in which I’ve designed my life so that I never really have to deal with this raw and painful lack in myself. In fact, as I sat and meditated on my own lack of self-acceptance, my mind quickly went to work to try to “fix” the situation- suggesting, among other things, weight loss, a haircut, and more hours teaching. Ahhh, mind. So clever in your sabotage.

I’m happy to report, however, that I am making changes. Working less. Letting go more. Bringing {maybe just a little bit more} awareness to what I do and why I do it, especially during those dangerous late hours when the Halloween candy is oh-so-accessible.

Please don’t misunderstand me, friends. I am, today, happier than I have ever been in my life.  I’m free of my depression- which has haunted me since grade school, requiring medication and therapy, causing broken glass, broken relationships, and countless missed days of work, play, and life. Yet now, with each step I take into more mindful, joyful living, I continue to trip over, and then rip away, the hanging shreds of the unhealthy, unhappy behaviors that bind us like cartoon mummies. It’s a FREEING feeling- but damnit, it’s EXHAUSTING too.

And (enlightened though I long to be) my ego wouldn’t let me share this vulnerability with you if I didn’t know that I am not alone. That you understand, and recognize, these feelings of inadequacy, of not-loving-yourself. I wish you love and self-compassion on your journey, as I know you wish me on mine. I believe I can accept myself. I believe we can all accept ourselves.

It starts with awareness. Maybe with nachos. And this broken shell I found on the beach.

Satya Will Set Ya Free!

Have you ever told a white lie for what seemed like a good reason- and then got caught up in layer after layer of complication?

Or found yourself talking with some friends about an acquaintance in a way that you knew was unkind- and then felt bad, after, when you saw that person?

Have you ever indulged in a habit that you knew was a bad idea for you- and then felt awful afterward?

Yeah, me too.

“That which is false troubles the heart, but truth brings joyous tranquility” -Rumi 

Right on, Rumi. It doesn’t feel good when we’re false in thought, word or deed. As always, yoga has a solution. This week in class I’m exploring the second of Patanjali’s Yamas, which is satya, or truth.

A nice way to get started is through your practice on the mat. Begin to listen to your internal narrative, and question what it says. You’ll know it’s time to tune in when your emotions start to act up. If you’re feeling stressed, irritable, or unhappy, during a challenging posture, there’s a good chance you’re experiencing one of these common thoughts:

  1. “This pose sucks. Why would I even want to balance on one foot while holding my big toe?” 
  2. “This teacher doesn’t know what she’s doing. It’s her fault. She didn’t give us the right information to get us into the posture.” 
  3. “Everyone else can do it. There must be something wrong with me.” 

Other variations can include, Blaming Society, Blaming Parents, Blaming Your Job, Blaming the Guy Who Cut You Off in the Pickup Truck and Made You Late So You Had To Put Your Mat Too Close to the Wall, etc.

If you find yourself thinking any of these things, congratulations! You’ve identified a place to work. Now it’s time to decide- is your thought true? What is the reality behind this thought? What could you accurately say instead? Perhaps, “I am finding this pose challenging today” might be enough for today.

Gradually, it becomes easier to trace thoughts back to their truthful origins, and you can take the practice off the mat. In your day-to-day life, when you are feeling a strong, unpleasant emotion, stop and listen to the internal talk. What are you saying to yourself? What truth are you filtering? How do you feel when you get down to the truth?

Once you’ve learned to identify truth, you may even wish you could put the genie back in the bottle. It’s a life-changer. Now, as you talk to friends, and experience daily interactions, you’ll notice that you often say all kinds of things that you know aren’t really true. That don’t represent the true you.

Before you know it, you’ll begin to change how you speak to others, and after that, how you act, as well.

You’ll have to, you see, because by then you’ll have found that it feels so much better when you 1) think the truth and 2) speak the truth and 3) live your truth.

Or that’s where we’re headed, anyway. As always, go easy and be gentle with yourself as you practice. There’s a reason that ahimsa (non-violence) is the first of the yamas. We want to always temper our truth with the sweet touch of kindness.

How do you practice satya? What have your challenges been? Please leave a comment below- I’d love to hear from you!

Even Yoga Teachers Get The Blues: A Happy Ending

When you’re feeling blue, you don’t want to move at all.

UGH.

If you’ve ever been down, depressed, unhappy for no real reason, you know how it feels: Sluggish. Heavy. Tired.  You might be snappy, cranky, irritable, annoyed, or maybe you’re crying, whining, or otherwise acting out. And the physical element is just exhausting.

I haven’t been down this particular road for a while, but today it hit me hard. At 2 PM I was sitting on the living room floor with my head on the coffee table.  There was very little in the world I wanted to do less than to drive my leaden, corpse-like body to a yoga class 45 minutes away. I wanted to get in bed and eat ice cream. I wanted to sleep until it was tomorrow. I certainly didn’t want to actively breathe and move and sweat.

I have been here before, oh so many times- I am an old hand at the pity party, the sad sack, the heavy-sighing-misery-loving-mopey-selfish behavior. Previously, I would have canceled my scheduled plans to stay home and wallow in my own emotional mud. Later, to complete the unpleasant cycle, I’d berate myself for acting this way, leading to more poor decisions, leading to more unhappiness.

But thank God, thank the Universe, thank everything, because today, this time, something was different. I remembered:

I am not my emotions.

I am not my thoughts.

This is not forever.

This is not even real. 

I am a happy person, and this unhappy feeling is impermanent.

This time, I remembered that if I could just get myself moving, I would feel better. That my mind, my soul, is like a lake: emotions and unhappy thoughts are just clouds in the water, stirred up by passing circumstances, and that until things settle, I could still dip my toes into the cool still bottom, that place of peace, calm, loving patience. That place where all the things that stirred me up are completely inconsequential.

This time, I moved. I changed my clothes. I put on makeup (yeah, I wore makeup to yoga class, I’m not that enlightened yet), I got in the car, I drove, I met my friends, we drove together, and the tightness in my chest broke up a little. By the time I was on the mat I was ready to fall into routine: knowing that if I put my feet here, and my block and blanket there, and inhale deeply, and roll my shoulders back to open my heart, there would be a medicinal effect in the breath. And yes, as always, there was.

It’s many hours later, and I’m so tired, but this post is just gratitude.

Thank you to tonight’s teacher, who spoke to my soul.

Thank you to my body, for treading the physical path with me, although I berate you and feed you poorly and don’t respect you and generally just heap anything but love on you.

Thank you to my community, my family, who show me love, support, respect and affection.

But most of all, thank you to my practice, for giving me the space to (finally) (maybe just finally begin to) learn that there is another way.

It also feels a bit like… well, maturity. Sorry it’s taken so long. (If you are an ex-boyfriend, I’m extra sorry). Essentially, I’m okay with this, as I have plenty of good company. We’re all pretty immature emotionally for a good chunk of our lives. After all, as the Buddhist teacher Trungpa Rinpoche once said, the best mantra is “OM—grow up—svaha.”

And now I’m off to bed, minus the ice cream and self-pity. Thanks again, yoga.

PS. If you’re feeling a bit blue and you can’t quite get yourself to yoga, watch this interview on Super Soul Sunday with Oprah and Michael Singer. Inspiring!

Suggested soundtrack for this post- Barry Manilow “I Made It Through The Rain.” Love you, Barry!