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.


Creating Connections with an Old Bag of Tea

We power through cups of tea at our house. I’ve been saving the wrinkled and wet used tea bags in a bowl. Don’t judge me. I have my reasons.

Not quite finished. The dark flecks are tea. The red pigment comes from pounded rose and geranium petals.

In June I began a year long virtual course of study with India Flint. India is an artist who works with plants and found objects to create beautifully dyed paper and cloth. India’s course of study is why keen eyes might find me in the wee hours of the morning gathering handfuls of eucalyptus leaves from along the bike path that parallels El Camino Real and stuffing them into the pockets of my baggy cargo pants.

India Flint, and this course, is why I save used tea bags.

India’s teaching style is that of a storyteller. Rather than providing precise step-by-step directions – like the sort you’d find if an Ottolenghi cook book – she weaves a tale of her experiences with the plants she is using, the mistakes she’s made, the lessons she’s learned. She gives permission for us to take what we need, to leave the rest, and to be inspired by her life’s work.

I’m inspired.

Our first journey was through the making of a book. I didn’t have much of what was needed – proper paper, a sewing machine, a very sharp pair of scissors – but this course is filmed with such care and beauty it didn’t bother me that I wasn’t playing along. I was still learning.

Which is how, this morning at 5 AM, I found myself carefully deconstructing a dozen or so tea bags, emptying their contents into a bowl and spreading the fragile paper out like one might smooth a bedsheet.

But there is more to this story:

Over the weekend my friend Diane – a talented and dedicated artist – gifted me Beth Pickens’ book Make Your Art No Matter What: Moving Beyond Creative Hurdles. This is a book that weighs much more than it should and its Times Roman font is a point size or two smaller than my eyes enjoy. The first chapter, however, is about time. Something I’ve been pondering lately.

And here’s a little more to the story:

I had lunch yesterday with a friend I’ve not seen since before the shut down. Carolyn and I laugh when we’re together. We laugh a lot. But yesterday, as we were talking about how the pandemic changed us, we thought of something that stopped us in mid-giggle. The shutdown gave us time. And now time feels more precious. Both Carolyn and I are discovering how different life is when we treat time as a gift and not a commodity to burn through. We’re learning to say ‘yes’ to what we love. Even if that means saying ‘no’ to something we love less.  

And that is how I found myself at 5 AM this morning gently opening the tea bags that had been drying for a day instead of reading emails and absorbing all that had happened in the world as I slept. India’s course is inspiring me to explore. Diane’s book is encouraging me to love my inner artist. My conversation with Carolyn is reminding me that time is precious.

Deconstructing tea bags is a slow, careful process. While I sat at my desk, my Ottlite breaking the pre-dawn grey, I fell into a sort of meditative reverie. I thought about the tea, how far it had traveled – the Ashwaghanda from India and the green from Japan – I thought about the farmers who grew and harvested the tea then bundled it off to factories to be processed. I thought about the work it takes to create the paper that holds the tea and about how I was moving the process of creation forward by turning the old tea into dye and the these fragile scraps of paper vessel into a new vessel.

It was a profound moment to experience that deep sense of connection. It felt new to me because it wasn’t cerebral. The connection came from my heart. 

I hope I can hold on to that feeling of connection.


Do Clothes Make the Yoga Teacher?

You wouldn’t know it to look at me but I love clothes. It doesn’t matter that my daily uniform rotates around a tee shirt paired with yoga pants or two identical pairs of Target jeans bought in two different sizes on sale for a tenner each – I love clothes.

Who knew I needed a pea green bomber jacket?

I love the expressive nature of clothes. How the colors you choose can reflect the mood you are in and how the way you style your clothes can shout to the world, ‘here I am!’ or whisper ‘shhh…I’m thinking’. I love how a structured shoulder can help you ‘fake it ’til you make it’ and how cutting cloth on the bias changes the drape of a dress. Clothes can indicate where you stand politically. Clothes can shine a light on your inner artist or reflect your relationship with nature. 

Thirty-five years ago I loved nothing more than to spend a Saturday afternoon at the Goodwill on El Camino Real in Mountain View scouring the racks for vintage dresses. I paired my findings with fishnet stockings, Doc Marten knock-offs and baggy houndstooth jackets with fabulous, patterned satin linings from the men’s section. I was making jewelry at the time – huge brooches made with old watch parts and those tiny spoons you find in salt cellars – and I’d have one pinned to an oversized collar or maybe use one to replace a missing button. The look had a grunge-goth vibe that I embraced. The style was trendy, of course – I mean, what self-respecting Goth didn’t have a pair of Doc Martens? – but those clothes also told a story. Anyone looking at me would know, without asking a single question, a little bit about me.

I don’t dress to impress or express these days. While the pandemic influenced an even more relaxed approach to my sartorial splendor, I’ve been rolling through life in baggy clothes and graphic tees for awhile now. The only story I’m telling through the clothes I pull on each morning is the one that says ‘I’m not worth the effort’. How sad is that?

But maybe that’s about to change.

Last week a woman who plays the role of ‘cool, older aunt’ in my life cleaned out her closet and offered the clothes she no longer wore to me. 

I took them.

These are not clothes with worn out knees or thread bare elbows. These are clothes my bank account would never allow me to purchase for myself. These are beautiful, classic, never going out-of-style clothes.

I slipped my arms through the sleeves of a well-tailored jacket and caught a glimpse of myself in my friend’s mirror. Who was that? I recognized my face, but everything else about me had changed. For one thing, I had a waist. For another, the chatter in my mind shifted from the typical self-deprecating ramblings to which I’m accustomed into something approaching pride. 

I brought the clothes home that evening and the next day purged my own closet. And the day after that? I started showing up for my Zoom meetings sitting a little bit taller and a little bit more confident.

And then I started thinking.

You wouldn’t know it to look at me but I love clothes.

That being said, I’m conflicted. I know clothes are nothing more than the means by which we keep our bodies – our souls’ temporary home – protected from the elements. So why should clothes matter? But if our naked bodies are a blank canvas then clothes are the paint by which we express to the world who we are and who we aspire to be.

Who will you be today?

ps…As a yoga instructor I will continue to wear baggy tee shirts and budget leggings to class. It’s my small protest against the Yoga Industrial Complex and the sexualization of a practice that means so much to me.


What Makes Today Special?

What makes today so special? What makes any day special? Is it the blinding blue sky or grey torrents of rain? Maybe the four mourning doves who have found their way to my home, who have sat in my potted herb garden – have shat in it, too – and eaten my thyme. Maybe that’s what makes today special.

I’ll go for a walk later, toward end of day when the blue turns pearly and pink through the branches of the redwood trees. It’s the time of day that dogs are walked and children run in circles as if life were to be lived with reckless abandon. Sweaty and red faced they won’t notice the cool breeze blowing in from the Pacific while I tighten the drawstrings for the hood of my favorite sweatshirt.

If, while I’m on this walk, I look toward the Santa Cruz mountains, I’ll see pure white pillows of fog folding over the ridge and slipping down the slope to fill nooks and crannies. It’s my favorite thing. A beauteous thing. 

After I’m home and have had a bowl of soup I’ll step out onto the mirpesset to watch the full moon rise over the buildings of this town, its light reflecting back to me the stories of everyone who has ever looked up and dreamed. I’ll look for the planets, lined up like soldiers across the ecliptic plane. Not long ago Jupiter and Saturn were so close they almost kissed. And before that Mars, all bold and red, was as big as I’d ever seen. Before I go back in I’ll take a moment to marvel at the stars I can see and to wonder if anyone is marveling at me.


Hi. I’m Exhausted. How are You?

There’s a Saki Santorelli quote that asks us to treat ourselves with kindness. If we can learn to treat ourselves with kindness, then we can learn how to treat others with kindness.

If there’s ever been a time to put this in practice, it’s now.

I’m exhausted. Exhausted to the point that it’s hard to speak. Exhausted to the point that if you mention Vice President Harris my eyes well up and I spill joyful tears. And yet I feel as though we’ve been subjected to a forty-eight months long mass psychic trauma and when the valve was opened on Wednesday the grieving for the past four years began.

That’s how it feels. A muddy puddle of joy and grief. I know the mud will eventually settle and I’ll be left with a pool of clear joy but for now this is what I’ve got. Mud. And it’s exhausting.

I don’t think it matters where on the philosophical continuum your beliefs rest. Those of us who ‘won’ mourn the past. Those of us who ‘lost’ are angry about the future. I think it’s important to hold space for the sadness of the previous four years and I think it’s wise to consider what we want for our future. But to dwell in either place for too long serves no one.

So. How do we treat ourselves with kindness? While I’m waiting for the mud to settle, for the grief to pass, how do I treat myself with kindness?

I’m going to stop fighting the exhaustion. I embrace with a full heart the shift in energy that arrived this week, but I need to rest. I need to stop talking about it. I need to spend some time letting go of the frustration and the fear of the last four years. But I need to let go in my own time and at my own pace. That is how I will treat myself with kindness.

I will polish my critical thinking skills and formulate opinions based on what I learn and not on what people tell me. That is how I will treat myself with kindness.

I will practice empathy toward those whose anger is fear-based. It will be difficult when the anger turns to violence, but that is how I will treat myself with kindness. I will not excuse the violence but will do my best to understand the circumstances that caused the violence.

I will treat you with kindness by giving you the space you need to process. When you need silence I will be quiet. When you need to be heard I will listen.

So for now, go treat yourself with kindness. You deserve it. 

We all deserve it.


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.


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? 


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.


The Gift, Part I

On Monday the 16th of March I left home halfway through the government’s daily COVID-19 press briefing for the thirty minute walk to Feinberg Medical Group where I teach yoga and meditative crafts to chronic pain clients.

When I walk to the clinic I am listening to the sounds around me. I hear dogs scolding me with frantic yips from their living room perch. The 1:40 southbound CalTrain screams its way toward its next stop. Traffic races down Alma and music pumps from transistors balanced on the tailgates of pickup trucks parked in front of green manicured lawns.  

The path I walk takes me past Palo Alto High School. Before the coronavirus closed Paly the school’s track would rumble with the footfalls of athletes, the coach’s loud shouts of encouragement and snide laughter from the bleachers. 

Decades ago I walked with a cassette tape Walkman and then, when they arrived, a CD Walkman. I graduated to an iPod and progressed to a Nano a few years after that. If I was walking my ears were plugged and my brain was pulsing with U2, Jackson Brown, the Eurythmics or (and this will really give away my age) Howard Jones. When I grew tired of music I’d listen to news. Music or headlines – it didn’t really matter. My brain was happier stuffed with something other than my thoughts. On the day I realized I’d arrived for my walk at Shoreline without my Nano I almost turned around. How was it possible that I’d be able to place one foot in front of the other without my Nano?

Somehow I managed. That was the day I realized the cry of seagulls and the sound of the wind circling through the rushes was better than Bono wailing about bloody Sundays and the incessant peal of the next breaking bulletin. 

And that’s why I missed the news of the Bay Area’s imminent lock down on Monday. I was too busy listening to the thrum of life. That’s why I was surprised by the frantic energy pouring from Trader Joe’s doors as I passed. It explains why, by the time I arrived at Feinberg’s all that was left for me to do was turn around and return home. The functional restoration program – the program of which I’m a part – had sent patients home.

Like so many others, in twenty-four hours I went from having an overflowing calendar to one that was near-enough to empty.

We’re facing a tremendous challenge. Nevertheless, six days in and I’m realizing what a gift I’ve been given.