Creating as a Contemplative Practice

As a young girl I spent weekends at my grandmother’s narrow red brick row home, the one at the end of Poplar Street in Allentown, Pennsylvania, while my mom and step-dad went on the road with their country and western band. To cure my boredom, on Saturday afternoons my grandma would take a small bottle of Elmer’s Glue, some colored construction paper and a pair of child’s safety scissors from the metal cabinet tucked in a corner near the back door and put them down in front of me while I watched at the kitchen table.

Sometimes she poured all the dots left in the bottom of my grandpa’s hole punch into a bowl. Even better was when she gave me the hole punch so that I could make my own dots from the pages of a well read McCall’s magazine. Sometimes my grandma crushed the egg shells she’d saved from breakfasts that week, separated them into three or four Dixie cups and adding a few drops of McCormack’s food coloring to each one.

And then she left me to my own devices. I was free to create textured mosaics with the egg shells or to follow the outline of a pencil drawing with my pile of dots in all shades of color and tone. I sat at that table for hours while my grandma worked around me, grilling sliced onions, mixing horseradish with catsup and frying my beloved Minute Steaks while rolls toasted in the oven for my favorite Saturday dinner. 

The act of creating – whether it’s an egg shell mosaic or an egg filled soufflé, a loom knitted beanie or a black bean burrito – can be a balm that shifts our focus from ruminating on the past or worrying about the future to the moment in which we are living. This moment. The present. There is, however, one caveat. While our intent when we’re creating may be to produce something that we’ll gift to others, the act of creating must be something we gift ourselves. Because creating is a mind-freeing act of self-care.

It took me half a century and a global pandemic to figure that out. 

I think what catches us up when we consider creating something out of nothing is our predilection for wanting to make something perfect. Wanting to create precisely what we see in our mind’s eye. The perfect portrait. The perfect flower arrangement. The perfect layered cake. The perfect dance. When we abandon those ideas of perfection and decide instead to lean into the question ‘I wonder what would happen if…’ creating becomes contemplative play. As the chaos we’re living through continues to storm around us, creating as contemplative play becomes a gift of self-care that reduces anxiety, changes perspective and sparks joy.

Right now I’m spending my ‘creativity time’ playing with needle and thread, fabric and photographs. I’m learning new skills like felting and sashiko and boro and remembering old skills that I loved as a child like embroidery. 

When was the last time you dug out that set of colored pencils you keep stashed at the back of your desk? Or finished the blanket you began knitting two years ago? Or made your grandmother’s lemon bar recipe? Or dusted off that guitar? Or done any activity that lights up a different part of your brain and moves you from the routine to the sublime?

It’s time.


Prop Problems? How to MacGyver Your Props and Save Your Knees with a Bagel

The first blocks I remember – long before anyone thought to put the word ‘industry’ behind the word ‘yoga’ – were heavy, solid wood. Drop one them on your toes and you’d know about it. The straps, home made by one of the teachers at the studio where I studied, were strips of denim sewn together with love. I still have one of those straps. We didn’t use mats. We practiced barefoot (of course) on a wooden floor. The regulation turquoise blue sticky mats, kept only for special occasions, were stacked in the large cubby spaces under the window, next to two columns of foam exercise mats, in the back of the studio. Folded in thirds the sticky mats added support to our cervical spine in shoulder stand. Unfolded and stretched out away from the way they kept our metal folding chairs from sliding during a supported backbend at the wall.

Now, of course, you can purchase blocks and straps and mats at the local CVS. But when I began my practice back in the dark ages before the internet (1984) I was struggling financially and besides, even if I could find a yoga prop for sale the cost was prohibitive. I relied on my studio to provide everything I needed.

Even though costs have come down and a plethora of discount yoga supply websites are  available on the internet I still bristle at the notion of someone thinking they need to purchase special equipment to begin a yoga practice when everything they need can find in their home. 

The only thing that is required is a little imagination and the ability to channel your inner MacGyver. Watch the video to find out how I used a couple of bobbie pins, a stick of already chewed Juicy Fruit and a dried out Bic pen to make all the props I needed.

Just teasing. But I did use some bath and kitchen towels, masking tape and a set of Funk and Wagnalls.

Prop Problems? You have everything in your home that you need for a safe yoga practice.

Guided Autobiography: Not a Writing Class

Our next six-week Guided Autobiography session begins Thursday, January 6th, 2022 from 2:00-3:30 PM/PST. Tuition is on a sliding scale of $60-$120.

Curious? Ready to dive in? Contact me for details.

Guided Autobiography is a powerful catalyst for improved self-esteem, self-confidence and communication within our communities and our families. 

Guided Autobiography is not a writing class and no previous writing experience is necessary. Guided Autobiography is a class that will make you laugh and cry. It will break you open in the most wonderful way. It’s an exhausting, exhilarating and soothing balm for the soul.

Since the mid-1970’s Guided Autobiography (GAB) has been a method for helping people document their life stories. Researched and developed by Dr. James Birrin, GAB leads us through themes and priming questions that evoke memories of events once known but filed away and forgotten. A new theme is introduced each week. We have seven days to ponder, remember and write two pages inspired by that theme. When we meet again we share our story. The sharing process forges a deep connection within the group. We gain a greater appreciation not only for our own lives but for the lives of other. Writing and sharing our life stories with one another in a safe space is an ideal way to find new meaning in life and to put life events into perspective.

Doesn’t that sound like a wonderful way to begin the New Year?


I Resolve

Scroll through the last ten years of Practically Twisted posts and you’ll discover a pattern. Every few years, around the middle of December, I write about the long list of promises that I resolve to keep in the fast approaching new year. And then I’ll confess to feeling the deep disappointment of personal failure when those promises are broken by February. In other years I write about how I’ve learned my lesson about resolutions. I decide to throw caution to the wind and to swear resolutions off for good. I give myself carte blanche to do whatever I darn well please.

But throwing caution to the wind is not in my character. It doesn’t sit right, this going rogue. There has to be a place for everything and everything has to (more or less) be in its place. I like to know where I’m going and how I’m going to get there.

I think that’s why I love this time of year. It’s the time of year that asks for introspection and reflection. It’s the time of year when I can look back and see that I’ve survived another circle around the sun more or less intact. It’s the time of year when I’m giddy with the anticipation of making a game plan for the next twelve months. Of figuring out how I can reach the heights to which I aspire.

I guess that’s why I like to make New Year’s Resolutions. Even when I try to convince myself that it’s a fool’s errand. Taking time to make a resolution suggests we’ve taken time to contemplate, to imagine ‘what if’, to ponder. And it helps me create order out of chaos. Resolutions are a road map. There’s plenty of opportunity for me to take side trips and short cuts, but resolutions point me in the right direction.

What about you? Do you set resolutions? 


On Purpose

I have a morning ritual. Bruce the Cat wakes me up at 5AM. While the kettle boils he and I go outside for a breath of fresh pre-dawn air. When he completes his ‘check of the perimeter’ (and after he is thwarted in his attempt to munch on a nasturtium leaf) we come back in, I make a cup of coffee or tea and sit down at my desk to begin my day. I write a few words in my journal and then open all the emails that arrived while I was sleeping.

Last Friday, in between taking the New York Time’s Weekly Quiz (I scored 10.67!) and watching Seth Meyers’s Closer Look (his impersonation of Mike Lindell the Pillow Guy is hilarious!) I opened my newsletter from Medium and scanned the page with my finger ready to ‘delete’ until I saw this quote from the actor Wil Wheaton: “Whenever possible be the person you need(ed) in your life. Do it on purpose.”  

On the surface it reads like one of those sickly sweet pseudo-inspirational phrases that show up on our Facebook feed. The ones written in a graceful, italicized font over a soft focused image of a field of flowers or the sun setting over the ocean.

It’s the second part of Wheaton’s message that struck home for me: do it on purpose

What the little guy from Stand by Me is talking about, I think, is intentionality. 

Back in the day I was in an acting class taught by Ed Hooks in the basement of a local church. Each week we’d perform a short scene with a partner which would be followed by critique. I can’t act my way out of a paper bag (I’m way too self-conscious) but I remember the question Ed posed to us again and again about our acting choices we made for our character: What is your intention? 

In the pre-pandemic Before Times, when I found myself contemplating something new, I often asked myself the same question: What is my intention? Knowing why my choices mattered to me helped me commit more fully to the process.

But the shut down changed all that. My spirit grew as soft as this new roll around my middle. I lost sight of my purpose. I forgot how to live on purpose. I forgot how to choose with intention. Did you?

As we begin to stretch our legs and make our way out of the den after a long COVID winter we might remember Wil Wheaton’s words: Be the person you need in your life. Do it on purpose

Live with intention. 


Holding Space for Others in a Virtual Yoga World

When we made the shift from in-person to online yoga classes in 2020, our hearts were full of gratitude that the technology existed for us to continue to gather together, if not in real life then at least virtually. Nineteen months in, however, and our online yoga classes are no longer a novelty we are thankful for. They are what we do. They are the routine.

As a yoga teacher, I find building an authentic sense of community in the virtual classroom challenging. The fact that we are communing together from different locations means it is necessary for me to mute participants to eliminate dog barks, background conversations and the errant ring of a telephone. Pressing ‘mute’ puts us each into our own separate, soundless vacuum. Added to the challenge is connectivity. When bandwidth falters – fortunately a rare occurrence – there is a break in continuity and we are reminded again of our separateness. 

Sharing our yoga practice in a virtual world can never match the camaraderie we feel in the studio space but, with all of us working together we might experience camaraderie in a new and unique way.

Because when we practice yoga as an online community we are together energetically even as city streets, miles and time zones keep us apart. The absurdity of our physical distance, even as we practice together, is itself a distraction. The fact that each one of us is in the familiar environment of our own home makes it more so.

What would happen if we began to acknowledge that the energetic space we create when we come together to practice yoga is a sacred space? Something special. Would our practice deepen? Would it become less an hour of exercise and more an hour of self-care and reflection that we share with others?

Maybe I’m a fool for believing that can happen. How can it when we’re practicing trikonasana in our kitchen or living room? When the dog wants to go for a walk, the cat wants to curl up on our yoga mat, the phone rings or the people we share our homes with can’t find the coffee? Sometimes, on some days, it seems impossible.

Or maybe I need to remind myself of how yoga came into my life and why I practice. Maybe I need to remember the gifts that yoga offers to me each day I’m alive.  If I can do that then maybe I can, as the facilitator of our group practice, create the conditions that allow us all to be present not only for ourselves but for everyone else in our virtual world.

What else is possible?

During our practice let’s treat the space where we roll out our mats as we would our studio space. I don’t think we’d have our phone with us in the studio so why would we during our home practice? Is it alright for us to be unavailable to others for sixty minutes?

I think we can limit other distractions, too. We can orient our mat away from the dishes that need washing or the books we want to read. The cobweb on the ceiling fan and the dust kitties under the bookshelf (my personal distractions) can wait. When setting up our device for class we can choose ‘Gallery View’ rather than ‘Speaker View’ as a reminder that we are part of a whole. If we need to take a phone call, or leave the virtual space, or have a conversation with someone or for heaven’s sake TEXT (you have no idea what my eyes have seen in nineteen months of Zoom yoga) we can turn off our camera as a courtesy to the community.

It’s easy to think we have two choices: the studio space or the virtual space. But what about the space in between? What about the liminal space between apartness and togetherness? Let’s meet there.


Will Western Yoga Change When We Return to the Studio?

What makes a yoga teacher? Pieces of paper? Letters behind a name? I’ve plenty of both and yet I hesitate to call myself a ‘teacher’. A facilitator? Sure. A guide? Maybe. But twenty-eight years – almost to the day – of standing at the front of the studio for the first time I recoil at the thought of using the word ‘teacher’ to describe what I do when I roll open my mat.

A conundrum forms when we try to codify unregulated practices like yoga. Codification helps set standards the consumer should trust but it also transforms a time-honored practice into an industry. It binds yoga to an unnatural list of rules and expectations that, the longer I lead classes, the more I want to push against.

The post that follows is little more than a frustrated vent. I know I have a point in there somewhere. I mean, I really do believe we need to question the current system. What I don’t know is how those questions take shape and what are the answers they reveal?

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon an online advertisement for a new yoga teacher training program created by a well-known leader in the yoga therapy community. Since then one question has been simmering in the back of my brain. Why does this training exist? And why does its existence vex me so?

I think it’s because I’ve over-stretched my tolerance for the Western Yoga Industrial Complex (WYIC). Does the world need another yoga teacher training program? Instead of trainings maybe what the world needs are yoga teachers who are dedicated to serving their students, and the yoga tradition, more than they serve themselves. I know they exist, but they’re hard to find in all the noise and bustle it takes to transform a tradition thousands of years old into a billion dollar industry.

That’s why I hope one of the silver linings of these extraordinary times is a forced reckoning in the WYIC studio system.

The Western Yoga Industrial Complex is a system that forces a surfeit of studios to design 200-hour yoga teacher trainings in order to keep their coffers filled and their doors open. Some of those trainings, in turn, become human puppy mills. Every few months they produce a new litter of smiling faces posing for photographs with pride and holding teaching certificates fresh from the printer. They send a copy of these certificates and their hard earned cash to Yoga Alliance (YA) who then allows them to add the designation RYT (Registered Yoga Teacher) after their name. These eager graduate RYTs are giddy with excitement about their future. But after investing thousands of dollars in their training, most graduates will not go on to teach. And the ones that do often feel they’re in over their heads because the three months of training they received did not provide the experience they needed to feel competent. 

Doesn’t it seem odd and a little arbitrary that two hundred hours of study is all one needs to call themselves a yoga teacher? Ludicrous, actually. How did this happen? In an attempt to codify teacher trainings, and with what I believe was good intention, a YA committee created a list of competencies and sub-competencies deemed important for yoga instructors to understand. These are the recently revised competencies:

  1. Techniques, Training, Practice
  2. Anatomy & Physiology
  3. Yoga Humanities (formerly Yoga Philosophy, Lifestyle, & Ethics)
  4. Professional Essentials (includes merged Educational Categories of Teaching Methodology and Practicum)

Each competency has a minimum number of hours in which it must be taught. There is a heavy emphasis on the first two. Studios create a training program based on these hours and competencies, submit the written program to YA – along with payment, of course – and wait for approval. Once that approval is received YA allows the studio to use the designation ‘RYS 200’.

Given the absence of accountability – meaning there is no check to see if the studio’s program is following the curriculum submitted to Yoga Alliance or, for that matter, if the lead trainers meet Yoga Alliance’s approval – the studio is somewhat free to do whatever they like. Unless, of course, an enrollee in the teacher training is dedicated enough to look at the YA standards for RYS 200 trainings and to call the studio on it if the training they are receiving has strayed.

 If 200-hour teacher trainings weren’t necessary to keep a studio open and if we understood that the Yoga Alliance seal of approval holds no weight, what would happen? Would we forget about trainings and certificates altogether and transition to a mentoring protocol, where those who might feel a flickering call to teach study under a mentor until the flicker becomes a flame?

Or what if we flipped the yoga teacher training model around and instead of placing an emphasis on the physicality of yoga began trainings with a deep dive into the philosophy of yoga?  What if entrance exams were required? Or proof of a personal practice? Should personal practice – something difficult to define – be a requirement? 

My guess is that there would be fewer teacher trainings, fewer individuals wanting to train in the art of teaching yoga and, ultimately, fewer studios. 

Am I wrong to think that would be a good thing?

I guess maybe I’ve seen too much of the bad and ugly. Like the studio that boasts about the number of students it pushes through the trainings it hosts multiple times per year, taught by teachers flown in for the weekend and never seen again. And too little of the good. Like the pre-natal yoga teacher training that will hold back a certificate from a trainee until all assignments have been received and passed.

The yoga industry needs less of the former and more of the latter. Maybe, as we begin to return to our studios, that will happen.


The Little Things

I’ve begun packing. Our new life on the East coast is still eight months away but I’ve begun to bundle in bubble wrap those things I don’t use but don’t want to lose. It would be far easier to send these silly tchotchkes to Goodwill – after all, they’re just ‘things’ – but I can’t seem to find the resolve. The attachment I have to them is visceral and giving them away at this point is like giving a part of myself away. I did not feel this way when I was younger, when I moved across an ocean and back again. Then, I gave most of what I had away to friends with ease. At the time it was like a cleansing but I realize now that I knew so very little about myself. I had no connection to my own history and thus no connection to the things I kept around me.

But now I do. And it’s these things I’ve packed away – my grandmother’s vase from Germany, the desktop magnifying glass my grandfather used to examine the coins he collected, the wooden puzzle boxes with inlaid images of Mount Fuji my sister and I were given as children, the Bible my mother carried with her through three marriages –  these things connect me to my past and to the blood flowing through my veins. They tell the story of who I am and how I came to be. 

These stories are important. And yet, if a calamity occurred and everything was lost the energetic imprint of these things I hold in my hand would still be held in my heart. 

With the image still fresh of Afghan families huddled by the perimeter walls of the Kabul airport desperate to board a flight that will take them to an unknown destination far away from where they are, and as Haitians emerge newly baptized by the waters of the Rio Grande to gather under a bridge in the sweltering heat of our southern border I am more than aware that the circumstances of my life are sweet blessings.

With that in mind, it’s healthier for me to see the task of deciding what to bring and what to leave behind as a joy rather than a burden. And in the process I can refine the vision I have of the life I want to live with my beloved human and beloved feline in rural Virginia. I can refine the vision of how I want to walk through a world that is so beautiful and fragile.


Your Creative Heart

When I was a child I loved September. I loved school shopping. I loved the smell of a new lunchbox, fresh new clothes, breaking in new shoes and the sharp graphite tip of a bright yellow number two pencil whose perfect pink eraser was still intact and whose pristine finish had yet to be marred by my biting incisors.

But that was then. This is now. And as we enter the second September of the pandemic, it’s a struggle sometimes to hold on to my optimism, my hope and my motivation. I know I’m not alone. Let’s face it. The past year and a half has been one heck of an endless slog.

What do you do when you know you’re reaching critical mass? When you know the stress of all we’ve been through and all we’re bearing witness to weighs too heavily on the heart?

Inspired by a friend whose journey as an artist has been so much fun to watch, I pulled out my own art supplies. The creative process, whether it’s at an easel with a fresh gessoed canvas, in your kitchen whisking a roux or with pen in hand and a story to tell, is the distraction we need. It offers us room to breathe. The creative process slows down time and provides space for honest reflection. It provides the clarity we need to be honest with ourselves about how we are experiencing life in this New Normal.

Where is your creative heart? Music? Visual arts? Cooking? Writing? Is it time to get your creative heart beating again?

Lately I’ve been seduced by the practice of ‘slow stitching’. Letting time pass one slow stitch at a time. My Aunt Mimmie taught me how to embroider when I was young and slow stitching has nudged awake a joy I’d forgotten. I’ve also been working on a series of mixed media pieces called ‘Family Album’. This collage is from that series. The man on the left is my great uncle William Harrison Barber, known as ‘Henry’ to his friends and family. The text on the right is from the last postcard he sent to his brother Robert. From the moment I found his postcard in my mother’s collection of family ephemera I felt a connection  to this man. I can’t explain it. I just did.

Henry wrote the postcard in 1903 from the Oakes Home for the Consumptive in Denver, Colorado. He tells his brother, “I don’t look like a sick man but appearances are very deceptive with lung trouble.” His doctors tell him he is not improving and advise that he head to Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks. Henry knows that if his health doesn’t improve when he is in New York, he will never see Colorado again. He’s only twenty-three. And he never makes it to Saranac Lake.

His story has given me pause to reflect on what we do to survive and the connection between good health and creativity. 

Throughout the pandemic it’s been my adventures with basket making and needle felting and wet felting and eco-dying and collage that have brought me comfort. They’ve kept me sane and quite possibly alive.

William Harrison Barber was a musician. He left his studies in Boulder to pursue a career in music and found some success with his ditty ‘Dainty Flo from Idaho’. I’m sad that music didn’t save his life but I bet it brought him comfort. 

Can exploring your creative nature be a comfort to you?


Knowing What is Unknowable (and trying to sleep)

Insomnia is like the buzz of a fluorescent lightbulb about to burn out. It’s the annoying clack of your office mate’s pencil against their desk. The cackle of canned laughter coming through the floorboards from your downstairs neighbor’s television. Insomnia is silence broken by the gristled smack of someone chewing with their mouth open.

I’m irritatingly sensitive to sound. And I hate insomnia.

When sound breaks through the cocoon of quiet I need to have wrapped around me in order to work, it’s easily remedied by distraction. Moving to another room. Taking a break. Walking outside. Eating. 

They say that when insomnia steals what you hope will be a deep, restorative sleep the remedy is similar. Distract yourself from the fact that you are unable to sleep with a good book or a warm drink or anything that doesn’t involve too much mental energy or screens.

So when insomnia sat on the edge of the bed in our hotel room in Charlottesville last month and incessantly tapped its pointy little finger on the crown of my head I did what any intelligent human being wide awake for no reason at 3AM would do. None of the above.

Instead, I tossed. I turned. I yearned for sleep and each time my eyes closed and I thought ‘at last’ a new stream of consciousness would flood my brain. It was like a movie of my life that had been cut and pasted out of sequence and it made no sense. My thoughts bounced from the red dress I wore for my first grade school photo to lesson plans I wanted to write for my yoga classes. My brain played pin ball with whether or not the new refrigerator would fit in the kitchen to how we would move the family furniture languishing in a Pennsylvania storage locker. Did I really have to keep the cookie jar from my childhood? My grandfather’s turquoise Jim Beam bottle in the shape of a star created to celebrate my birth place become our 49th state? 

All the while, weaving its way through these warped concerns like a repeating weft with a broken shuttle was a singular truth. My insomnia was not about how to move furniture from one state to the other. It wasn’t about my red dress or cookie jars or Jim Beam bottles. It was about trying to find order in the unknown. Which seems to me to be an impossible quest.

Knowing that, however, left me reconsidering the question ‘are we making the right decision?’. I realize now there is no answer. The answer is unknowable. So I release fear and move forward with love and trust. And I sleep really, really well.