Is Gratitude over-rated?

I’ll be honest. The word ‘gratitude’ annoys me. Feeling grateful is wonderful, of course. I felt grateful this past Friday morning when I was awake early enough to see the brilliant sunrise in all her glory. But gratitude? It’s a trending buzzword and after awhile trending buzzwords relinquish their impact to the next buzzword that comes along. There’s plenty of joy to be found, however, in feeling grateful.

Studies suggest that remembering what brings us joy and recording those moments of gratitude in a journal benefits our mental and physical health. The deliberate act of shifting our energy toward the positive rather than nurturing our habit of catastrophizing the difficulties we encounter builds our emotional resilience and reminds us that living is a group experience. In other words, reflecting on the shared experience of Friday’s sunrise is healthier than reflecting on the shared experience of the pandemic.

Another reason why the word ‘gratitude’ annoys me is this: sometimes the concept just feels too big. It’s difficult for me to winnow down all the moments in my day for which I might be grateful. Am I grateful for the morning cup of fresh-pressed coffee my partner Ben brought to me while I stayed in bed? Sure. Am I grateful for the purrs of contentment my cat Bruce shares when we cuddle? Of course. Am I grateful for the roof over my head? Without a doubt. But while the simple act of opening a journal and creating a daily gratitude list of well-meaning gestures, happy accidents and unexpected outcomes might remind me of the good in life, it fails to satisfy the yearning I feel in my heart to understand how acknowledging these moments feeds my soul.

How can we add depth to the act of recognizing the positive in life? 

In yogic philosophy we study Patanjali’s Sutras. In the Sutras, Patanjali describes five Yamas and five Niyamas. The Yamas describe restraints to practice: non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, moderation and freedom from grasping. The Niyamas are a collection of five virtues: cleanliness, contentment, self-discipline, self-study and surrender. Anchoring the contemplation of gratitude in the fourth Niyama self-study (‘svadhyaya’ in Sanskrit) encourages us to explore the nature of gratitude. It supports our understanding of how we express our gratitude as we walk through life. With that understanding we can more fully embrace those moments for which we are grateful. 

If we want to add a deeper dimension to our gratitude practice we can turn to Naikan – the Japanese practice of introspection. When we practice Naikan we ask three simple questions:

  • What have I received?
  • What have I given?
  • What difficulties have I caused?

The questions might focus on a relationship, a situation, an individual or even an event. For example, if I choose to practice Naikan with my focus on Ben then the questions I ask are:

  • What have I received from Ben?
  • What have I given to Ben?
  • What difficulties have I caused Ben?

The obvious fourth question, “What difficulties has Ben caused me?” is ignored. It is human nature to shine a spotlight on that question. It is, however, through the examination of our answers to the first three questions that we discover aspects of ourselves we didn’t know existed. We learn more about our relationship to gratitude. We move toward enlightenment.

When we open our journal tonight, how will self-study or a Naikan practice influence how we consider gratitude? What would happen if we chose to frame a Naikan practice around those things in our life that cause pain? 


Underlying Beliefs

UnknownThe Black Lives Matter protests have, I hope, encouraged us to reflect on our values and beliefs. Each of us have values that we try to live by and beliefs we hold that support those values. But sometimes our beliefs, our values and our actions are not in harmony. Sometimes they clash. Sometimes they are inert.

For example, I value equality. I believe all people should be treated equally. I value education. I believe every child deserves an epic education, teachers deserve a living wage and schools need adequate funding. I value health and wellness. I believe every human deserves access to the best medical care available and the resources to support a vibrant and healthy lifestyle. These are three of my values and beliefs but, while I can talk the talk, the truth is I don’t know that I always walk the walk. Do I treat everyone I meet with fairness and equality? Do I support the teachers I know or nearby school districts in underserved communities? Do I petition my government officials when health care is on the line?

You might ask, “What’s stopping you?” What’s stopping any of us? I believe our deeper, underlying beliefs are silent influencers that direct how we relate to the values by which we want to live. Our underlying beliefs don’t make us bad people, but they might prevent us from being the best versions of ourselves.

Underlying beliefs – the elusive beliefs we can’t always name – become so much a part of who we are that we lose sight of them. Since fourth grade, when I was laughed at for taking too long to answer a simple multiplication problem at the black board, I’ve believed I’m bad at arithmetic. From the age of ten I told myself ‘I can’t do math’ until it settled into a truth I’ve carried with me for fifty years. Likewise, from the moment Mrs. Arnold took interest in an essay I wrote on the themes of transcendentalism in the music of John Denver for eleventh grade English I believed I had a facility for writing. While I won’t score in the highest percentile in math tests it doesn’t mean that I can’t do math. And while I may have the ability to write a coherent sentence from time to time it doesn’t mean I’m on the path to a Pulitzer. 

Underlying beliefs begin to slip into our psyche at a young age. They are fed to us – almost always unwittingly – by parents, teachers, friends or our own observations. Sometimes they are positive and serve to support how we navigate life. Other times the underlying beliefs that form are negative. They limit and sabotage the steps we take to add meaning to our existence.  Neither the boy who laughed because I couldn’t multiply nor Mrs. Arnold who loved my writing would ever know the impact of their interactions with me. 

The experiences I had in school formed very personal underlying beliefs. But in these times, I’ve been questioning the role of underlying beliefs in the collective unconscious of all our communities, whether they be indigenous communities, the community of white privilege to which I belong or communities of color. I’m not so foolish to believe our conflicts are caused by underlying beliefs alone. But when I hold my backpack a little tighter because the person walking toward me is of a different color, or when I assume the driver taking a sharp turn with no signal is from a different culture – it’s proof that sometimes the underlying beliefs we thought we vanquished long ago can rise to the surface. We cannot deny that our histories have built thick walls of mistrust. Yet when I see a line of police officers taking a knee with a line of protesters I feel a rush of hope. I see underlying beliefs crumbling like dust. Still, my white community is not absolved from the crimes it has committed. There’s more work to do. Centuries of work. 

In the meantime, a recent email from the IAYT (a professional organization for yoga therapists) included this quote from the Rig Veda, one of four ancient Indian collections of Vedic Sanskrit hymns:

“Let us come together! Let us speak together! Let our minds be all of one accord. Let our speech be one; united with our voices! May our minds be in union with the thoughts of the Wise Ones. Let our hearts be joined as one. United be our thoughts. At peace with all, may we live together in harmony.” (X.191)


Still Shuffling, but is it Self-Care?

imagesYou might be thinking, “How’s the shuffling going?”

Not bad. Thanks for asking.

Our cat Bruce rises with the birds. These days that’s around 5AM. And if Bruce is up, I’m up. I’ve no complaints. To be truthful, it’s quite nice. At 5AM it’s dark and peaceful but there’s evidence of a patient dawn waiting to break on the horizon. The birds are stretching their wings and calling good morning to one another across the leafy branches but haven’t yet attacked the feeder on our porch. There’s a calm to this time of day that I love.

Around 6:15 I’ll head out for the shuffle. I’ll be honest, until my bones are warm it’s not far removed from plain misery. But after that, after I fall into the rhythm it’s…well…it alternates between misery and torment. Let’s be honest here – if you know me you know I’m not a gazelle. This is a real, fourteen minute shuffle I’m talking about. I’m moving fast enough for my steps to no longer qualify as brisk walking but too slow to be considered running. In fact, calling it jogging is generous. So why would I subject myself to misery and torment so early in the morning? Good question. 

Because it makes me feel good. That’s right. It feels good. I love the challenge, the fresh air, the improvement I can see from day to day. On my first shuffle about six weeks ago I made it one length of a block. What is that? Three hundred feet? And now I can shuffle a full mile before taking a walking break. My morning shuffle is a gift I give my body. It’s a gift I give my psyche.

But I wonder. Is my shuffle self-care? It depends. If by self-care we mean taking time to keep the body healthy and the heart ticking then yes, it’s self-care. If by self-care we mean engaging in an activity from which we derive some pleasure then yes, it’s self-care. But what if by self-care we mean taking time to find solace in the waking dawn?

In that case, listening to the birds sing at 5AM wins every time.

What does self-care mean to you? A warm bath? A long walk? A glass of merlot? More than ever, dedicating some time to self-care each day is important. It’s not selfish nor is it self-indulgent. It’s necessary. Especially now. The way our world has changed in just eight weeks is giving rise to a second pandemic of mental health issues. So, yes, self-care is necessary.

How will you define self-care and how will you bring it into your life?


Is it Just Me or is it Getting Hot in Here?

Someone shared a recent critique of my asana classes: “We didn’t sweat enough.”

While some might disagree, for the most part it’s true. My classes are not the ones to attend if you’re looking to leave the studio dripping wet. If you need more sweat Samyama has plenty of strong vinyasa classes taught by instructors happy to crank the thermostat – not to Bikram levels, of course, but high enough to make me feel nostalgic for the flush-filled glow of peri-menopause. 

A certain amount of slowly rising internal heat is good for me. I love when my muscles and bones are warmed by a gentle sequence of standing poses. Yet my asana practice doesn’t ask for nor does it need the intensity delivered by a super heated studio and breathless flow. That doesn’t mean a heated studio is wrong for everyone. But it’s wrong for me and for most of the students who attend my classes.

As a student I was never overly concerned about the temperature of the yoga studio. I never gravitated toward a heated flow but I didn’t shy away either. After the alignment-focused lineage I’d been attached to at the hip for so many years gently loosened its grip I became more open to other methods of practice. I was more inclined to dropping-in to studio classes based on my work schedule rather than on my preference. I even dipped my sweaty toe into the afore-mentioned Bikram class three or four times.

My ego loved Bikram. My body not so much. My ego loved the hyper-mobility achieved during those repetitive ninety minutes of practice while glistening beads of sweat from the forty people crammed into the dank room co-mingled in the humid atmosphere and then rained onto our mats. Hours later my body, still depleted from the effort, with each move would beg to never have to go through the experience again. 

I know. There are some who will offer advice: drink more water before class or try a different teacher – a different heated class. The advice might even be the same advice I offer my students: listen to your body.

Around the same time that I began to follow my own advice I began to ask myself why I  practice asana in the first place. Is it for exercise? To sweat? Do I want to lose weight? Or do I want to look like the the models on the cover of Yoga Journal (when I first began to study yoga – long before the ‘body positive movement’  – the majority of Yoga Journal covers were still graced with young, white and very thin women)?

As I continue to ponder these questions, and as my body changes and begins to send different messages – messages I’ve learned to listen to – my motivation for continuing asana practice evolves. And I’ll be honest – my ego is like a little toddler tugging at my sleeve, challenging my discipline, disrupting my equilibrium and sometimes throwing a tantrum that fills me with self-doubt. But I’m ok with that. It’s part of the human experience.

These questions – which seem trivial compared to…well…pretty much everything else – remind me of how much I still have to learn. How yoga is so much more than our body. So much more than our studio asana practice.

Why do I practice asana? Why do you practice asana? Where does it fit into your yoga journey? Where does it fit into our collective yoga journey?


The Art of Yelling at Bicyclists to Relieve Pain

True confession. I ate an entire pint of fig, balsamic and mascarpone ice cream for dinner a few Sundays ago. 

Ten minutes earlier I placed a reasonably sized portion in a small bowl and sat down to stream a few episodes of The Good Place. But on my way to Netflix I made the mistake of stopping by CNN. There was, of course, breaking news.

I know it was only two weeks ago but right now we’re living in the Upside Down and it’s difficult to keep track of the drama and the tragedies. To the best of my recollection either North Korea had launched a second test of short range missiles, the man living in the people’s house had said something ill-advised, offensive and untrue or someone decided to take a semi-automatic rifle and mow down a group of beautiful humans.

Whatever CNN’s bright red, all caps banner headline was screaming at me on that particular Sunday I remember reading it, mumbling something slightly stronger than ‘screw it’, and then grabbing the pint of ice cream from the freezer and a spoon of sufficient size with which to freeze my emotions.

Yoga is not about building a better butt, or meeting friends, or having a reason to purchase flashy overpriced leggings. All those things might happen if you attend asana classes regularly, but it’s not why we practice. When we practice Yoga we are building a strong foundation of self-regulation from which we can observe our actions and reactions. 

But sometimes foundations crack. My self-regulation is crumbling and eating a pint of ice cream for dinner is not my only summer sin.

I’ve taken to screaming at bicyclists who mistake sidewalks for bike paths and then rush past me from behind with nary a warning. Even worse are the ones who speed down the pedestrian tunnel near the train station by my apartment with no thought for the safety of the shuffling, elderly woman wrapped in a coat on a warm August morning pushing her cart full of groceries.

But the salty invectives I hurl are not intended for the two-wheeled speed racers any more than eating a full pint of mascarpone ice cream is about hunger.

They’re simply misplaced reactions to events happening not only in the world but in my personal life. Both my B and I have endured a summer of parental ill health, sudden emergencies and painful loss. At some point in life we all take this journey and I’m grateful to be moving through it with B. Still, while we are each other’s support system the journey is still an intensely personal one and for me it’s one filled with conflict, guilt, lost opportunities and misplaced memories.

And to cope with that internal storm (and because I don’t want to weigh 400 pounds) I yell at bicyclists. I call my sudden rash behavior a ‘stress fart’.  Yes, it’s enough to make a yoga teacher blush but so far no one has yelled back and while it doesn’t feel good at the time it feels wonderful after.

That being said, I’m pretty certain there are better methods of self-care during times of extreme stress…hmmm…like a restorative or yin asana practice, a few extra minutes of meditation, exercise, a healthy diet, a long soak in the bathtub…

Yeah. About that long soak…


Ahimsa

Images from the 1970’s have been running on social media in response of PBS’s series on the decade.  One image inspired this poem:

Local Graffiti

Ahimsa

Violence is a small thing.

It is a girl child running through the jungle, arms stretched out

mouth open in silent cry, clothes seared from her body.

It is a small thing.

Violence is an act of war.

It is a jetliner ripping a skyscraper in half. It is men detonating the bombs they strap to their bodies. It is women being gang raped on the back of busses.

Violence is the sting of a mother’s slap on her young son’s frozen cheek.

Non-violence begins when I remember that violence doesn’t ask for much.

Because violence is a small thing.  

Violence begins when I wake to curse the haggard reflection staring back at me.

Violence ends when I wake and offer thanks for my humble life.

Violence begins when I whisper secrets that belong to someone else.

It ends when I sit in quiet contemplation.

Violence begins when I fill my eyes with gratuitous images.

It ends when I change the channel.

Violence. Non-violence. Ahimsa. Himsa.

Two sides of the same coin that we toss into the air without a second thought.