The Day After: Teaching Yoga in the Storm

Even though I saw it coming. Even though we all saw it coming. There was an element of stunned surprise as we watched it happen.

It’s morning. I’ve had my coffee. I’ve watched Stephen Colbert’s opening monologue from last night (it’s worth fourteen minutes of your life). I’m flipping between CNN, MSNBC and Fox (yes, I am). What I believed, what I thought was right and my innate optimism is scattered across the floor this morning like a bucket of spilled Lego blocks. And now I’m left to figure out how to put my faith in who we are as a nation back together. How the Legos stack. They’ll never align the same way. I’m shook.

Are you? You should be.

But before I dig out my pink pussy hat from 2016 and run off to the nearest march, I have yoga classes to teach. People to coach. Papers to write and a Noom account to manage.

So. As yoga teachers, what do we do? When we log into Zoom today do we pretend it never happened? Is this the day we pull out the Ahimsa trope and rehash all the cliches’ we’ve gathered about non-violence over three decades of teaching? Do we set aside the vigorous flow we had planned and trade it in for quiet reflection? I don’t know. I guess it depends on who we are as teachers. 

Something is happening. We preach ‘be here now’ without ever really understanding what that means. Be here now. Stay awake. Remain present. Do not sweep what is happening in our country under the yoga mat.

This morning I’m reactive. I’m responding thoughtfully (I hope) to comments I see in my Facebook feed from strangers across the Atlantic who are describing yesterday as ‘amusing’ or ‘not as bad as…’ (choose any atrocity in Northern Ireland).  I sent a lengthy text to a dear friend wondering why the stock market is up today because my brain is filled with images of gleeful brokers in suits and Italian leather shoes surrounded by money and oblivious to the carnage around them. Every time I hear a talking head say, “this is not who we are” I ask myself, “then who are we?”

Like I said. I’m reactive. I’m reactive when I want to be active. Reactivity is impulsive and not well-thought out. We witnessed reactivity yesterday. And while we watched the capital stormed by thousands of maskless souls, three thousand nine hundred other souls died of COVID. But that’s another story.

I don’t want to react. I want to act. By that I mean I want to be informed. Even when that means tuning into news that may lean toward a political philosophy that is different from my own. I want to be responsive and responsible.

As a yoga teacher, as a yoga therapist, as a coach – it’s an obligation I intend to fulfill.


Resolve & Clarity

There was a time when New Year’s resolutions meant everything to me. This is how it typically played out:

  1. In December I begin to create a list of goals impossibly long and non-specific
  2. By mid-January I’m inching toward failure
  3. February arrives and the goals and aspirations I imagined for myself in December are forgotten
  4. Guilt ensues

I’m not alone. By February most resolution loving humans have become fickle wrecks, rationalizing all the reasons why the promises we made to ourselves were broken. Why no amount of good intention was enough to realize change.

After many decades of repeating this pattern I decided resolutions were a fools errand and stopped torturing myself. Until now. This year, 2021, is different. I’m not certain why. Perhaps  the chaos and commotion of 2020 has left me feeling untethered and the only way to anchor myself in the present is to build a framework for the future.

I’ve read that one of the reasons why our resolve fails after a few short weeks is because the goals we set for ourselves are not specific enough. For instance, it’s not enough for me to tell myself “In 2021 I want to be published.” What does ‘be published’ mean? Do I mean a letter to the editor of my local newspaper or a feature in O Magazine? It’s more helpful for me to set this intention: “In 2021 I want to be published in the Readers Write column of The Sun.” That still may not happen, but the specificity of the intent allows me to create a plan of action that moves me forward toward that goal.

In the past, like many, ‘lose weight’ and it’s sidekick ‘exercise more’ has made an appearance on my list of resolutions. Even when my weight was well in the realm of ‘average’ and I was hitting the magic number of steps. It landed on my list this year but I had to wonder why. And so, it’s been helpful to take time to consider what I actually mean when less weight and more exercise land on the list. It hasn’t taken long for me to realize these goals are really not about weight loss and exercise. They’re about health and wellness. They weren’t about fitting into the embossed leather pencil skirt a friend outgrew and passed on to me. They’re about living life with vibrancy. With clarity. Besides, can you see me teaching yoga in an embossed leather pencil skirt?

So how do I find vibrancy? Where is the clarity I seek?

Last year began with the death of my mother. She was an alcoholic. As was my grandfather.  Two months after the local post office lost and then recovered my mother’s ashes (it could only happen to my mom) we shut down and the life we knew became The Before Times. Overnight we were strategizing new coping mechanisms. 

My coping mechanism was wine. What became a glass or two on weekends morphed into a couple of glasses on weekend nights and a glass or two over the course of the work week which eventually morphed into a glass or two every night of the week. Every now and again I took a break for a few days – just to prove I could – but the next COVID graph would send me back to the Pinot. The amount I was drinking was more than I should but I was convinced my nightly habit relieved the pressure of coping in the weird time in which we live. And besides, I only poured the Pinot as a nightcap before climbing into bed. When I started climbing into bed at 7:00 PM I had to ask myself, ‘how much drinking is too much drinking?’

And the cheap Pinot was not supporting the vibrancy and clarity I want for my life. And so, here I go, walking into this new, amazing year as a non-drinker. I’d like to say this is permanent but I don’t know if that’s true. I want it to be true but I’m just a humble and flawed yoga teacher. So we’ll see.


Pop-Up Coaching

What do you envision for yourself in 2021?

This long, difficult year feels like Groundhog Day. Nothing is what it should be and the fog bank of uncertainty that usually rests in the back of our minds rolls in and pondering the future becomes a fool’s errand. The vision we hold for ourselves isn’t clear because nothing is clear.

Where can you go for a dose of clarity?

Coaching.

A coaching session drills down to what matters most to you. A coaching session clears the fog and brings into focus awarenesses that inspire, motivate and move you forward. Coaching is an effective way to create new habits or maintain current ones. It’s useful when facing challenges at work or when considering a career change. Coaching can help you create structure and to regain control if this past year has you feeling a little out of control.

Now that there is hope on the horizon in the form of a vaccine it’s time to reignite our passion for life, for our dreams and for our future.

Take coaching for a test drive on Saturday, January 2 or Sunday, January 3. Thirty minute appointments are available between 9AM and 3PM. Book your appointment here.

What do you envision for yourself in 2021? Let’s find out.


Karma Yoga in the Age of Zoom

When the world shut down last March, like so many other yoga teachers, I turned to Zoom. Unlike most teachers, I wore my pajamas and led a 30-minute chair class from my desk. That was eight months ago. It feels like eight weeks. Or maybe eighty years.

Now my classes are an hour long and have moved to a light filled corner of my home every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning. And, to the relief of all, I’ve changed from my pajamas to my yoga duds which, truth be told, feel a lot like pajamas.

I’ve come to realize, after all these long COVID months, that my reasons for holding Zoom classes were never about maintaining an asana practice. I began the classes to hold the community together. To keep those who chose to attend energetically connected. I began the classes so we might breathe together. Move together. So that we could have one thing that felt almost normal. 

Asana is what brings us together three times a week but it’s not what holds us together. Yoga holds us together.

When I first began leading classes 27 years ago it was all about asana. I taught the same sequences and told the same jokes as my beloved teachers, who were students of BKS Iyengar and who studied with the Iyengar family in Pune. It took several years before I began to trust my own voice, my own intuition. It’s only now, in these past few years, that I’ve learned who I am – and who I am not – as a teacher.

In these extraordinary times it doesn’t feel right to root the classes I teach in strong, challenging work. Now feels like the right time to root ourselves in healing, restorative practices. Practices that are more about how the body feels and less about what it can do. 

Now feels like the right time to root ourselves in truth. 

What do I mean by that? Beats me. I think what I mean is that in this terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad year we would do well to think less about ourselves and more about others. Maybe what I mean is that we need to move beyond just thinking about others to doing for others with no expectation of what we might receive in return. What I am trying to express is that we need to practice Karma Yoga.

Karma Yoga is one of four schools of yoga. The other three are Jnana (self-study), Raja (meditation) and Bhakti (devotion). Karma Yoga is the yoga of action. It is selfless service towards others. That means cultivating the correct attitude and right motives. To release, as one text explained, ‘selfish desires’.

We should always be prepared to practice Karma Yoga but it seems more important than ever right now. 

Two things happened this morning to bring that point home to me and to bring this post to a close (thank goodness!).

Fareed Zacaria had Jose Andres, a chef and founder of World Central Kitchen. His organization is shining a light on food scarcity and the hunger crises in part caused by the economic challenges created by the pandemic. He spoke so eloquently and with so much passion that even the stoic Zacaria was verkelmpt. Andres is practicing Karma Yoga. Selfless service.

And then Sunday’s Brain Pickings landed in my inbox featuring poet Robinson Jeffers and his thoughts on ‘moral beauty’. It included several quotes but this one, I think, speaks to the practice of Karma Yoga.

“I believe that the universe is one being, all its parts are different expressions of the same energy,

and they are all in communication with each other, influencing each other, therefore parts of one organic whole.”

If Jeffers is right, and we are all connected, then selfless service does not serve one person, or one group or one cause. It serves us all.


Election Day

Four years ago I didn’t realize how much I needed to see a woman in the White House until it didn’t happen.  And when it didn’t happen I was bereft. I was also afraid for the future of our country. I had taken the election for granted and was too ill-informed to understand how it could have possibly happened that we elected our current President. I remember feeling dazed and finally falling asleep, well past midnight, on the couch of the house where I happened to be cat sitting.

The following morning I headed to Samyama Yoga Center to teach my 8:15 AM class.  I wasn’t convinced that, under the circumstances, anyone would arrive ready to unroll their mat. But they did. Shell-shocked and slack jawed, their eyes swollen from crying too much the night before. 

I hope that tomorrow, when I open my Zoom class, that we are all crying again. This time for joy.

We are so close. So close. But I still have some left over sorrow from 2016 so I’m not going to raise my hopes. I’m going to be patient. And whether it takes a day or a week or a month I’ll be ready to celebrate and ready to thank all the women who came before me. The women who fought for the right to vote and the women who fought – and still fight – for equality.

Today is a very big deal and I’m trying my best to stay calm.

Cooking keeps me calm. I’ve been cooking. Alot.

On Sunday morning I filled the refrigerator with food for the week: rice and lentils, quinoa salad with toasted hazelnuts, congee and sweet potato chili. I filled the freezer, too. On Sunday afternoon I finally took a chance with the ‘yogurt’ button on my Instant Pot Duo and made the cottage cheese we ate with slices of fresh off the vine tomatoes we nurtured on our porch through the summer. Yesterday I made yogurt. This morning I spooned its creamy whiteness into cheesecloth bags and set them up to drain through the day. By this afternoon it will be labneh thick and ready to spoon over berries or baked potatoes. Right now, not even 9:00 AM, I’m caramelizing onions in my cast iron pan. I can freeze some to use later but I have a feeling they won’t last long enough. Most of them are going to grace the caramelized onion and mushroom pizza I’m making for dinner tonight.

Most of my typical Tuesday schedule has been canceled. Peer coaches I had arranged to meet pressed pause for the day and my mentor canceled class today in order to fight the good electoral fight on the streets of New York. I’m teaching a class this afternoon for the pain group in San Mateo and have a meeting with my trauma study group at about the same time as Brian, Rachel, Nicole and Joy begin to report early results. After that you’ll find me eating pizza and streaming MSNBC.

The onions are, at last, caramelized (it took an hour!) and now I’m headed out for a very, very long walk. I might head down to Shoreline but it’s more likely that I’ll speed walk my way around the neighborhood. 

What are you doing today?


The Joy of Small Comforts

So. How’re you doing? It’s been awhile.

We’ve a big couple of weeks ahead of us. You holding up? Yeah. I thought so.

Let me ask you this: what brings you comfort? And you don’t have to say your yoga practice. What brings you to a place where the sharp edges soften and you can feel your jaw unclench?

It depends, doesn’t it? This week for me it seems to be copious amounts of carbohydrates delivered by way of fettuccini. And wine. Lots and lots of wine. Admittedly not the two best choices.

Bruce finding joy in the comfort of recyclable packaging paper.

Thankfully I also find comfort in my morning shuffles. If I start early enough I see Venus in the East and Mars setting in the West. Lately, in the evening, Jupiter and Saturn have been dancing around the moon. I take comfort from the display because these celestial events remind me that I am an infinitesimally small speck spinning through space.The upheavals we endure on our ‘big blue marble’ mean nothing compared to the beauty of the universe.

Ben and I grew container tomatoes and herbs this year and we both find comfort in our small but delicious harvest. There’s something miraculous about dropping a seed into soil and watching it sprout and grow. Even though our ‘garden’ is a slab of cement three floors up it is still a place where we can both connect with the earth.

Bruce the Cat’s demands bring me comfort, too. His bossy meows distract me. They slowly bend my laser focus away from whatever task has me obsessed until he’s on my lap and content to transform his demands into purrs. Other cat people will agree, there is nothing so comforting as a purring cat.

When Ben and I decided to get Bruce a cat tree so that he could gaze out the window and watch the world go by, we made certain there was something for him to look at by installing a bird feeder. Little did we know Bruce had very little interest in ornithology. He could care less there’s a gaggle of birds celebrating the mother lode of seed available at our door all day. But Ben and I find comfort in watching them. And I know my yoga zoom community loves to hear them sing when we’re in practice.

The road ahead is going to stay bumpy a little while longer. Embrace the comfort found in small joys. But take it easy with the fettuccini and wine.


Fell Down. Went Boom. Got Up.

Why does time slow down when disaster strikes? In the split second between the moment my toe caught the edge of the cracked sidewalk and I slid to a stop I thought the following:

  • oh crap
  • this is gonna hurt
  • it won’t be that bad
  • should I walk home
  • ouch this really hurts
  • I knew this was a bad idea

The first thing I did after the dust settled and before assessing the damage was to ascertain whether or not there were any witnesses to my awkward fall from grace. Nope. The walking heart attack at the bus stop I’d just run past – the guy with the stained teeshirt stretched over his burger belly was still staring at his phone. No judgement. At least he was still vertical.

The damage: one knee with a rapidly swelling bruise, one road-rashed kneecap, one scraped elbow and two sprained thumbs. Ok. I’d survive. But now what was I going to do? I was less than a mile into what I’d hoped would be a nice five mile shuffle. I could turn around and walk home or defiantly continue toward my goal. While images of Mary Decker Slaney and Zola Budd’s infamous 1984 collision flickered like a Wide World of Sports video in my brain (you have to be a certain age) I chose to compromise. I was too annoyed with myself to turn around but in too much pain to run. I kept moving forward, one step and then another.

That’s all we’re trying to do. Move forward. This is a time of collective, chaotic trauma and we are all figuring out how to navigate our present set of circumstances. But isn’t that what life is? Navigating the circumstances handed to us? Navigating the unknown? Still, the uncertainty of how this tragic blip in history will end has heightened anxiety and anger, fear and despair, loneliness and sorrow. 

Having journeyed through the other five, I find myself on the sorrow end of the spectrum these past few weeks. And running helps lift the sorrow from my shoulders. It’s how I self-medicate…along with my morning 300mg of generic Wellbutrin, a schedule so packed it leaves no room for process and an evening glass of Pinot. (Yes, I’m a flawed, sometimes depressed and happily medicated yoga teacher who enjoys a sip of wine at the end of her day. I’m human.)

But there’s a part of me who, after my little tumble, has become afraid to run. I’m trying to decide if it’s because falling hurts or because I’ve become older and believe it’s time to set aside the things I loved when I was younger.

I know that’s silly. Running gives me more than a tumble could ever take away. Running at dawn is just the best. The sound of my feet hitting pavement and finding rhythm with my breath is like meditation. Knowing that my bones and muscles will complain and then slip into gentle compliance is pure and joyful medicine for my soul.

Why would I ever stop? 

During this extraordinary time some of us are baking sourdough bread. Some of us are Marie Kondo-ing their lives and ridding themselves of things that don’t ‘spark joy’. Others are taking up new creative hobbies while still more are becoming creative thinkers as they chart a new course for their lives.

What are you doing?

I’m running.


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?


Shuffling My Way Through the Pandemic

UnknownA ten kilometer fun run sponsored by Palo Alto Parks and Recreation in late spring 1986. An easy run that takes a sea of colorful souls from the smooth macadam near the golf course and the city’s single runway airport through Byxbee Park to the gravel packed levees that criss cross the Baylands on the Adobe Creek Trail. It’s a blindingly bright, still morning edging from warm toward hot and the tidewaters are retreating. There is the sharp stench of sulphur produced by bacteria digesting dead phytoplankton. In other words, on the day of this 10K, it stinks.

The uneven surface of the gravel levee slows my pace and the morning sun’s reflection on the water pierces my eyes like shards of glass. But I continue to force myself forward even as the runners overtaking me make me feel as if I’m not moving at all.

And then I stop. My body is like a horse refusing to move any further forward. I rest for a moment and consider my options. And then I begin to walk. The walk becomes a slow jog and then returns to walking as soon as my body realizes what my brain is trying to make it do. This back and forth between my brain and my body continues until I see the 10K Fun Run banner indicating the finish line. I shuffle across, collect my tee shirt, and, conceding there was nothing fun about this run at all, go home.

After that 10K my running schedule became erratic. I loved running but it was clear I needed a brief hiatus. It wasn’t my intent but my hiatus lasted twenty years, give or take a few. Running became, for me, like an old romance. There were wonderful memories but painful ones, too. Over the years I often asked myself, “I wonder what it would feel like to run again?”

I can tell you. It sorta kinda feels awful. But I expect that to change.

My bookclub chose for it’s May reading pleasure Kelly McGonigal’s latest book, The Joy of Movement. And recently the New York Times reported that there’s been an uptick in folks strapping on their old running shoes.

Armed with a nearly new pair of Hoka’s I decided to be one of those folks. It hasn’t been easy. Or pretty.

There have been years when I’ve not been particularly kind to my body but I’m in good health (knock on wood) with no heart, bone or blood pressure issues. With that in mind, and knowing my return to road running would be slower than the opening scene from Chariots of Fire (cue Vangelis) I didn’t feel the need to ask for a doctor’s approval. Instead I checked in with my favorite senior marathon runner and took additional advice from Juan Vigil’s book Seniors on the Run: Extending Your Life One Step at a Time.  Then I hit the streets.

On Day One I shuffle the length of one whole block. Four hundred feet if I’m lucky. And then I walk for two. I time my four hundred foot shuffles for when neighbors can’t see me. I know the exercise won’t kill me but it is quite possible I’ll die of embarrassment.

Seven days later and I’m no longer embarrassed by my shuffle nor am I embarrassed by my fifteen-minute-mile pace. I’m not looking for speed and I don’t intend to break any records. I’m shuffling to become reacquainted with a part of me that I miss. I’m shuffling because I never forgot how good running made me feel. Especially in the cool mornings with the smell of jasmine in the fresh dawn air. I’m shuffling because Kelly’s right. It’s joyful.

Besides, it’s never too late to begin again.


The Importance of Stillness

CIMG2291When I was a kid I spent most of my time in my bedroom. We lived in a former two-room schoolhouse that had been built in 1814 and converted into a home sometime in the 1950’s. My room still had the chalk trough running along one wall and when I pretended to be a ballerina like my best friend Leslie Merkle I used it as a barre. The trough ran through to the small room next door that had been converted into a tiny playroom. This room had a portion of the original blackboard. When my mom found an old desk from the school behind an out building she refinished it for the playroom where I pretended to teach Barbie, her best friend Midge an array of stuffed animals how to multiply. That room also held my awesome collection of Archie comic books and Classics Illustrated.

But most of the time I was in my bedroom. If I wasn’t playing my ukulele or guitar then I was playing records or lip syncing to Tony Orlando and Dawn with my hairbrush as a microphone. If that was too much action for me I was happy to sit on the wide windowsill writing or maybe watching the creek that ran behind our house. There were three lilac bushes near my bedroom window and I was content to close my eyes to let their scent wash over me.

I was content being still.

Since we’ve been confined to quarters I’ve thought about how, as a child, I was happy with my own company. Fifty years later I’m looking to my young self to help me navigate our current shutdown.

Of course, when I was a child the only way to stay connected to friends was with the one black rotary dial telephone located in my mother’s bedroom. We were one of five or six families connected by a party line and if Luella Welty, who lived down the lane, stayed on the phone for too long my mom would yell at her to hang up. 

There are no more party lines. Now we have Zoom and WebEx and FaceTime. We have Instagram and Twitter.  And as often as I’ve tried to quit Facebook, I just can’t. So although we are physically distant from one another, we’re not necessarily socially distant. It has made the art of stillness elusive.

Yet stillness is important. It’s the place where are heart rests. It’s where our brain stops listening to the mind’s incessant chatter and hears the birdsong instead. We need to have moments of stillness now more than ever. In an uncertain world, stillness is a refuge of peace and hope.