The Unnerving Unknown

Sometimes yoga teachers will cue students to step one foot back behind the other. For instance, students may be standing with both feet together in Mountain Pose and then asked to step the left foot three feet back to Warrior One.

As a young(ish) student, hearing Karl say ‘step your foot back’ filled me with unnerving dread. How was I to know what was behind me? What if an errant yoga block was precisely where I wanted to blindly place my foot? What if the floor had moved? It didn’t take much for me to imagine black, empty space where once there were solid planks of maple worn to a soft, golden patina by decades of practicing yogis. It seems silly now, but stepping my foot back without being able to see where it was going was too much like flinging myself into the unknown.

The unknown can be a scary place. And here we are, flung into the middle of it.  

This is a collective unknown. We are all experiencing the pandemic together, in real time. Some – like the residents of New York City – are closer to it than others. But we are, as the talking heads keep repeating, in this together.

Does that make it any less unnerving? It depends. We’ve all seen images of spring break revelers partying like it’s 1999, and we may have read the story of the B-list starlet who values her freedom more than her health. At the same time an enterprising man, upon hearing the news of the coronavirus, purchased every bottle of hand sanitizer he could find in order to sell them on Amazon for a healthy profit. After a few weeks of relying on people’s fears to make him a wealthy man Amazon got whiff of the scam and busted him. In the end he donated the remainder of his sanitized stash. And we’ve all stared in disbelief at the empty store shelves where once the Charmin Ultra Soft family of bears smiled down upon us. 

The cavalier youth, the freedom loving starlet, the enterprising man and those of us who believe toilet paper will save our heinies if not our lives – we have something in common. If we dig deep I bet even the man behind the sanitizer scam will admit to feeling uneasy about tomorrow.

But aren’t we always standing in the middle of the unknown? We can plan – and boy do I love to plan – but we really don’t know what will happen in the next moment let alone in the next year. 

It’s just that this unknown is too big, isn’t it? Maybe size doesn’t matter. No matter the unknown, our choices for how we handle the stress and anxiety are pretty much the same the same. 

  1. Know the unknown. What is a virus? What’s the best way to wash my hands? What else can I do to keep myself and my family safe and healthy?
  2. Break it down into sizable chunks. What do I need to do today? What can I do tomorrow?
  3. Prepare. Last week I channeled my inner Boy Scout and without being too excessive (except for the vanilla soy creamer I need for my morning tea) bought the foods Ben and I need for a few weeks. And then I made soup. A lot of soup.
  4. Breathe. When I feel the ‘winding up’ I do something my acupuncturist taught me to do years ago. She told me to breathe into my feet. It works. Visualizing the inhalation moving to the souls of the feet roots me to the earth. It re-establishes my equilibrium in a way I didn’t know was possible. Another technique I love is the ‘candle breath’.  Breathe in through the nose and then exhale through the mouth with pursed lips, as if blowing out a candle. Extend the out-breath until it’s a little longer than the in-breath. Your shoulders will drop away from your ears and whatever you anxiety you were holding on to will melt away.
  5. Move. I take mental health walks. When I walk there is a noticeable difference in my outlook and attitude. This week I learned that one walk every other day isn’t enough and so I’m beginning to take two walks – one in the morning and one after lunch. They keep me sane.
  6. Distract. I’m a sucker for sit-com bloopers. Or the cowbell sketch from Saturday Night Live. I’m trying to watch less news and to read more books. The kind with pages. Or I get myself wrapped up in ‘contemplative crafts’ – for this pandemic I’ve taken up making tiny baskets. They take more hours than I can count but their repetitive nature is meditative.
  7. Speaking of things that are meditative: meditate. I have the Headspace App but if you’re not into apps then just set a timer for five minutes, find a comfortable seat and watch your breath. When thoughts come up – and they will – without judgement notice that’s what has happened and then gently redirect your attention back to your breath.
  8. Speaking of the breath, tonglen breath is a beautiful practice that forces me to acknowledge the pain that the whole wide world is feeling now but it’s a practice that also offers me a technique to lighten the pain. Read Pema Chodron’s instructions for tonglen breath here.
  9. Support. I’ve found that it’s possible to keep my distance and still be helpful. Ben’s and my neighbor can’t drive and so yesterday he wrote us a list, gave us a debit card (that Ben sanitized) and I shopped. On my way I dropped off some soup at a friend’s house. Compassion and care for others is a reminder that it isn’t all about me.
  10. Ask for support. We are physically separated but not socially separated. Use your phone. FaceTime. Set up a Zoom Happy Hour. Find out if your favorite yoga teacher is running online classes. I’m so happy I took the plunge and set up my own classes. Staying in touch with my community has been a huge blessing. We know that we’re there for one another. Knowing that is all the support I need.

Stay safe. Stay healthy. 


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.


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…


What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?

Have you ever thought about something, or maybe saw something totally outside the realm of normal and then, for whatever the reason, it’s everywhere? Sort of like when Uno won the Westminster Dog Show and then suddenly we were running into beagles around every corner. 

That happened to me three times this past week. Three times in the span of five days this question appeared: ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’. I first saw the question in an article I was reading online. Then I heard the same question posed to an audience during a TED talk. Finally, the question shows up in the tome my book club is reading,  David Brooks’ The Second Mountain.

It could be that I’m riding the edge of a wave and by the end of next week we won’t be able to turn around without bumping into posters, bumperstickers and tee shirts imploring us to contemplate the answer. Or maybe the universe is directing the question to me and me alone – a little bit like the freeway sign who talks to Steve Martin’s weather man in the movie L.A. Story.

Either way, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to contemplate. What would YOU do if you weren’t afraid?

Maybe you’re already doing it. Maybe not. Does it matter?

I’m all for living fearlessly but the suggestion that we’re holding ourselves back from full self-actualization because we’re afraid is annoying. Why? Because it feeds the idea of individuation during a time in our history when, more than anything, we need to connect. The question encourages us to be selfish during a time in our history when we should be selfless.

Yes, sometimes fear keeps us from walking a certain path but is that always bad? I’ve often thought about getting a tattoo. With a great sigh of relief I happily confess that fear has kept me from the artist’s needle. The saying ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ is not one I choose to embrace. The intention of these ideas, on the surface, do not encourage community building. Instead, they lean us toward a narcissistic variant of introspection.


Social Media is Making Me Sick

jOCjulUCT0q30hFW6gbywgDiscovering that a friend from high school – a quiet boy that I had a crush on in 1974 – served in the military after graduation, met hid one true love later in life and now spends time traveling around the world with her filled my heart. 

Finding family on my father’s side – a man I never knew – and now preparing to meet a cousin who can tell me about the half-brothers I didn’t know existed until a few years ago would have much more difficult to do before 2006.

Keeping up with people I’ve known through my life or clicking the crying emoji when a friend I’ve never met loses a beloved dog, sharing New York Times articles about the plastics found in the belly of a whale or Nikolas Kristof’s latest opinion piece (and believing that means I’ve done my part) these are all the reasons why I love and loathe social media. And it’s why I’m letting go of my personal social media accounts.

Don’t get too excited. My personal accounts will disappear but social media’s sticky tentacles will still have me in a stranglehold. Where would I be without social media as a marketing tool? I use Facebook to advertise my classes and to showcase the personal essays that land on your feed in ever dwindling frequency. Without Facebook I’d be posting fliers on telephone poles and sending long holiday letters to the few dozen folks who subscribe to Practically Twisted. In other words, I’m like the guy who lists all the many ways his life has improved since giving up Facebook but still has an Instagram account for his dog. 

And that’s just it. On the surface, Facebook seems innocent enough. After all, who doesn’t want to know what the girl who sat behind you in seventh grade algebra is doing these days? Before Facebook all we could do was guess. Before Facebook, I hoped that at least one of the kids who tormented me in 1972 – when my name was Robbie Myers (long story and no, I’m not in a witness protection program) – would find my name on the masthead of Elle Magazine and believe I was the editor. Without Facebook, how would they know that although we share the same name and even the same birth month, that I am not the Robbie Myers that found success in New York City’s high powered publishing world?

Other social media platforms don’t vex me the same way Facebook does. I’ve opened and then abandoned countless Twitter accounts and don’t really get the point of Instagram. So leaving them behind is painless.

But Facebook? Loosening Facebook’s grip is no easy feat. After all, in the beginning Facebook was the gentle and omniscient narrator of our lives. We were having too much fun to see the truth – Facebook is a beast of a business. Its primary purpose is to succeed and success is not measured in how many virtual friends you have. It’s measured in money.

But, like many things in our twenty-first century lives, it’s complicated. 

At first it was the time-suck that got to me. And then it was the sense of false connection we feel for people we’ve never met and the underlying loneliness that false connection hides. Pile on that the trolls, the bots and the anonymity that fuels mean-spirited commentary. Finally, the evil that was live-streamed from New Zealand. Offering infamy to twisted souls shouldn’t be as simple as giving them access to a camera, an internet connection and the ability to live-stream (of course, the counter argument to that is Philando Castile’s brave partner, who live-streamed his murder by a police officer in Minneapolis. Who would we have believed if she hadn’t had access to her phone and Facebook’s platform?). 

It’s complicated. I knew it would be. But social media is making me sick. It steals my time, makes me angry and breaks my heart. And so, anyone who needs me knows where to find me. And if you don’t know where to find me, you don’t need me.

 


Don’t Dream It’s Over

The suitcases are back down in the storage locker, the laundry is folded and tucked away. The photos have been filed and the promise to have our favorites made into a Shutterfly book is written on that long ‘to do’ list.

fullsizeoutput_ccfIt’s like a dream. The only reason why I know for certain I was there is because of the sense of familiarity that welled inside when I saw images of the protests that occurred in Kerala in early January. A wall of women stretched the length of the place I had just been and deep in my soul I could feel the heat and hear the traffic and smell the layered perfumes of India.

I’ll be honest. I don’t want to be writing this. The deeper my last post about the backwaters of Kerala sinks into this blog’s history, the further away I am from that magical land. That’s how wonderful those ten days were.

I know plenty of people who look forward to their two-week holiday every year. Friends, students and private clients let me know they’ll be missing class or canceling appointments. They organize the cat sitter, hold the mail and stop the daily delivery of the New York Times. The kids are piled into the family van for a road trip or a race to the airport for a bargain priced flight to parts unknown.

glglq8tkrey3i1gqy+kx2aOur ten days in Kerala were a first for Ben and me. Over the past five years we’ve enjoyed time spent with family back east and long weekend breaks to Half Moon Bay and Arcata, but we’ve never had an extended holiday all to ourselves. Even worse, there’s never been a time when we’ve taken a so-called break and didn’t take work along as if it were a third traveling companion. (And if I’m being totally honest, on my first day in Bangalore, while Ben was finishing his business meeting, I worked on Samyama’s monthly newsletter, Prana Pulse).

I’ve always been a little weak in the self-care department and until December I didn’t understand the point of vacations. Time away from work for me usually means I’m attending an IAYT conference or taking another training. But to just sit still? Until December this was impossible. Which is pretty funny considering how often I encourage clients to be kind to themselves. I guess it’s sort of a ‘do as I say and not as I do’ situation.

Besides its gentle beauty, the biggest blessing of Kerala were the blissful two days without wifi.

fullsizeoutput_aa6For those two days my brain turned the volume down on the endless chatter, my body relaxed in a way I didn’t think was possible, and Ben and I had a chance to bask in the love we share. We engaged with life, with the world around us and with each other. During those two days I was fully immersed in the life around me – the colors, the textures, the sounds and even the silence. I engaged with life, not with a computer. 

I was very lucky to be able to travel to the other side of the world and I don’t know when I’ll have that opportunity again. No matter. Ben and I plan on taking another vacation this year. It might not be extreme or exotic or even that expensive. But after this experience, after really feeling what it means to renew and recharge, our next vacation will be designed with kindness and self-care in mind.


When Gratitude is Too Big

fullsizeoutput_6e7Over the past few weeks in the creative expression classes I teach we’ve been creating gratitude journals. Gratitude journals are, as they say, ‘trending’. There are studies, in fact, that suggest keeping one benefits our mental and physical health. This might be true. 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. 

But sometimes the concept of gratitude feels too big for me and at the same time too elementary. It’s difficult for me to winnow down all the reasons I have for being grateful.  The simple act of creating a daily list of well-meaning gestures, happy accidents and unexpected outcomes might remind me of the good in life, but it doesn’t 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?  The things that turn our frowns upside down?

In yogic philosophy we study Patanjali’s niyamas. The niyamas are a collection of five virtues. One of these virtues is self-study (‘svadhyaya’).  Anchoring the contemplation of gratitude in self-study provides an opportunity to embrace those moments for which we are grateful and then to explore the deeper nature of gratitude and how we can express the gratitude we experience. 

If we want to narrow our focus even further 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 be asked about a relationship, a situation or even an event. For example, if I choose to practice Naikan on my mother then the questions I ask are:

  • What have I received from my mother?
  • What have I given to my mother?
  • What difficulties have I caused my mother?

The obvious fourth questions, What difficulties has my mother caused me?, is ignored. It is human nature to shine a spotlight on that question, but it is through the examination of our answers to the first three questions that we’ll find enlightenment.

When you open your journal tonight, how will self-study or a Naikan practice influence how you consider gratitude?