Creating as a Contemplative Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s time.


Holding Space for Others in a Virtual Yoga World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What else is possible?

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

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

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


Will Western Yoga Change When We Return to the Studio?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Little Things

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

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

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

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

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


Knowing What is Unknowable (and trying to sleep)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Business as Usual?

I returned to live teaching at a local pain clinic two weeks ago and it’s been joyous. The only ‘connectivity issue’ is attempting to teach while wearing a face mask. Other than that it has been a joy to see people from the waist down, no longer backlit, and with the clarity that can only come from being face-to-face. It’s been a joy to hear them breath. A joy to hear them complain when I ask them to stand up.

But my community classes on Zoom will continue because Zoom classes are joyful, too, for a different set of reasons. 

Over the past sixteen months we’ve built a community on Zoom and at the same time we’ve built a practice that is truly our own. The privacy we’re gifted by COVID’s forced isolation means competition with others has been eliminated. All we’re left with is how our body feels in the moment, the guidance of our teacher and the space we’ve created for our practice.

Pre-pandemic, and acknowledging that space in my home is a limited commodity, creating room for yoga was far down the list of priorities. But COVID has forced us to do just that and, in a rapidly approaching post-COVID world, why would we give that up?

When I practice at home the practice stays with me. In my body, in my bones and in my heart. As soon as I click ‘end meeting’ I sit back for a bit. There is no urgency to race off. I’m content to let my body and my mind rest for a few more minutes.

But the moment my teacher ends a studio class – and I’m pretty certain I am not the only one who does this – I’m rolling up my mat, stacking my props and racing out to my car to beat the traffic on my way to the next thing on my ‘to do’ list. Along the way I might check my phone for important texts or gossip with a friend about what happened the night before. Where is my practice then? Did I practice at all?

In my little corner of the world we enjoy a very high vaccination rate – 72% of adults have at least one dose – and that has returned to us some of the life we enjoyed before March, 2020. The Delta variant is waving a yellow caution flag but that hasn’t stopped us from moving toward our New Normal with open restaurants, gyms, hair salons and yes – even a few open yoga studios.

I wonder, in these sixteen months of practice, how we can hold onto what we’ve learned about ourselves? Can we carry it with us when we return to studio classes? 

Here’s something else to think about. How has the studio system changed? Have studio owners adapted their business model to the New Normal or is it business as usual?


A Sacred Space

I’m often reminded of my yoga ‘origin story’ – how, for years, I studied with Iyengar instructors. How, back then, my practice was informed by hard-edged alignment principles and yoga mats placed in perfect rows on the studio floor. I loved it.

But things change. My body changed. My practice changed. I changed. Over the years those hard edges have softened. I’ve even been known to teach a class with mats placed in a circle like the petals of a flower. Gasp! Quelle horreur!

But have I left all of my Iyengar sensibilities behind? I don’t think so. It’s true that I traded hands-on adjustments for precise verbal cues a decade ago. And I stopped expecting cookie cutter correctness once I gained a greater understanding of human anatomy. My hope for students is that when they step on their mat they let go of expectation, judgement and agenda. When a student steps on their mat I hope they are also stepping into the present moment and meeting their body where it stands.

The yogasana I’m interested in practicing now – the yogasana I’m interested in teaching – is not about doing. It’s about sensing. The yogasana I’m interested in is not about pushing through forms. It’s about noticing the sensations that rise in my body as I move through those forms. It’s about noticing my breath, my thoughts, the attitude I bring to my practice. The yogasana I’m interested in is about paying attention. It’s about discipline.

But then again, it has always been about discipline. I learned that studying Iyengar yoga all those years ago.

Discipline is not my strong suit. Except when I am on my mat. When I am on my mat I am in the practice whether I’m teaching, practicing on my own or attending a class. 

I think Zoom challenges our ability to remain present and focused on our practice. I think it makes sustained discipline difficult. We have the challenge of finding dust kitties under the bookshelf in downward dog, the aroma of coffee as our partner prepares breakfast for the kids and our animal companions demanding a morning cuddle. At the same time we don’t have the energy of a purpose built studio that feels like a sacred space. We don’t have the energy of a living, breathing community gathered together for one purpose. 

In the best of times it takes effort to sustain a yogasana practice with diligence, discernment and discipline. But now, when our yoga community consists of tiny, flat rectangles on a laptop screen, it can feel impossible.

But it isn’t impossible. 

Practice with intention. Remember why you practice in the first place. For the hour you are on your mat, find the strength to maintain your focus. Treat that little rectangle on the floor – your yoga mat – like the sacred space it is.


Power Tools

While training with International Coach Academy, Power Tools were the bane of my existence. A coaching concept to help shift the perspective of clients, at the time a Power Tool felt too much like mental slight-of-hand, as if a few well-timed questions gave me the ability to trick my client into moving from doubt to trust, from trying to committing, or from reacting to responding. It all seemed too easy. Too magical. Akin to a magazine article proclaiming ‘Ten Days to a New You!’

But coaching isn’t magic (although it can feel that way sometimes). Change doesn’t happen overnight. And, as a coach, it’s not my job to shift a client’s perspective. The client can do that all on their own. My job is to remain present, to remain curious and to ask a few well-timed and on-point questions. When I do my job well a client can move from doubting themselves to trusting themselves, from trying to achieve a goal to committing to a goal, and from reacting to a situation to responding to a situation. 

My changing perspective began when I experienced first-hand how substituting one word for another had the potential to displace a less than desirable attitude for one that offered joy.

Such a simple thing. Changing one word. Simple, in fact, to the point of being embarrassing.

How many times do you find yourself saying a version of any of the following:

  • I need to get up
  • I need to go to work
  • I need to do the laundry
  • I need to email (fill in any name)
  • I need to cook dinner

What would happen if we changed those needs into wants? As in:

  • I want to get up
  • I want to go to work
  • I want to do the laundry
  • I want to email (fill in any name)
  • I want to cook dinner

I told you it was simple. But did you feel it? Did you notice a shift in how you felt about each one of those sentences? A shift from avoidance to engagement, procrastination to anticipation and drudgery toward achievement.

Words have power. They have the power to influence our perceptions and perspectives. Words are tools we use to find clarity and understanding. When we understand their power, we see our world through a different lens. 

Words are tools. 

They’re…wait for it…Power Tools.


In Search of the Elusive Authentic Self

In my coaching practice the issue of authenticity is a featured player. More often than not clients will, at some point in the session, tell me they are either:

  1. Searching for their authentic self
  2. Struggling to live an authentic life
  3. Questioning whether their motives are coming from an authentic place.

What has to happen for the conditions for self-doubt to manifest? When do we begin to feel we’ve lost touch with the image we hold in our mind’s eye of who we believe ourselves to be? And how can we return to the clarity that keeps us grounded and focused on the values we cherish most? When we answer those questions authenticity becomes less of an intention and more of a truth we live. 

When I was a child I was teased for having two left feet. More often than not I had fresh or fading scabs on my elbows and knees from all the falls I took. Like a puppy learning to leash walk I was easily distracted by metaphorical squirrels. I tripped over sidewalk cracks, missed steps when climbing stairs and walked into people, poles and walls in my pursuit of something different from the task at hand.

As an adult, while my elbows and knees have healed, not much else has changed. I’m still easily distracted by bright, shiny objects. I still stumble. I fall, enraptured by the aspirations of others at the expense of my own. My admiration for the high bar others set for themselves ignores the higher bar I’ve set for myself and fills my brain with ‘you should do this’ or ‘you should do that’ at the expense of my heart’s song. This longing to be someone I’m not steals validity from the wonderful life I’m living. It diminishes the dreams I have. It diverts my attention away from the values most important to me and ultimately away from my authentic self.  

The best we have to offer the world is grounded in personal authenticity. When we lose sight of that – when we feel lost – how do we find our way back? The answer to that question is as unique as the journey we’ve chosen for ourselves. But I find these suggestions useful:

  1. Get away from the noise. Take a day to yourself. Set work, obligation and commitment aside and give your heart the space to expand.
  2. Breathe with intention. When you feel unmoored, close your eyes and breathe. Lengthen the exhalation until it’s longer than the inhalation. Imagine the in-breath moving into the soles of your feet and connecting you to the earth.
  3. Trust your instincts but know that the answers aren’t black and white. Some of us choose to listen to our heart. Others listen to our brain. But what about the space in between? What is that space saying to you and how does it align to the authentic life you want to live? Is there an equilibrium to be found?
  4. Honor the truth that journeys change. There are detours, road closures and surprises if we choose to spend some time exploring roads taken less often. It’s these moments that help us take the next step.

When we look carefully, we discover that the sense of self is not a particle that never changes, but rather a flow, a wave of thought and feeling that can increase and decrease and is therefore not permanent.

—Shinzen Young, “Brief Teachings”


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.