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…


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.

 


Are You Listening?

thI was uncomfortable with the idea of my turning sixty, which is going to happen in late November.  

I have friends who are older than me who thought they were laughing with me when they saw what they considered feigned distress. “You’re a child,” they said. “Just wait until you’re my age.” 

I have friends who are younger and, with what I read as a patronizing tilt of the head told me, “You look great. Besides, age is just a number” (I’ll get back to them when they’re approaching sixty to find out if they’ve changed their opinion).

They believed they were offering support but I didn’t feel heard. Their words invalidated my complicated relationship with aging and I felt myself becoming invisible.

And then, one day after class, a student said to me, “You’re right – turning sixty is a big deal.” The moment those words landed in my heart I reclaimed my focus and returned to being sharp edged and filled with color. 

Someone listened not just to the words coming out of my mouth but the meaning behind those words. Someone heard me and I was no longer alone. It was time to celebrate.

Hearing is easy. Listening? Not so much. How often do we formulate a response before the person with whom we’re engaged in conversation has completed their thought? How often do we try to finish someone else’s sentence? How often do we interrupt?

I’m guilty of all three more often than not. What about you?

Listening can be part of our daily practice. We hear in a rush. When we listen we are mindful. 

Give this a try. Find a friend and a timer. Pour a cup of tea. And then choose someone to go first, set the timer for five minutes and begin. One person will talk about anything or nothing, the other will listen. No questions, no comments, no chatter in the mind. Just pure listening. When the five minutes are over, switch roles and practice again.


Is Gratitude a Spiritual Bypass on the Road to Samadhi?

IMG_3246I’m at a four-day yoga therapy conference at a Hyatt Regency in Virginia. I’m sitting on the floor of a large, carpeted ballroom. It’s filled with one hundred beautiful, mostly mid-life women dripping in Lululemon, Om symbols, prayer beads and diaphanous Shakti-printed shawls purchased at the ashram in Buffalo where they attended their last silent retreat. 

Scattered among the women are a few earnestly bearded men dressed in baggy cargo shorts and shapeless, faded tee shirts.

This is my tribe. My people. We are all devoted to our practice. We are all devoted to helping others. But we’re all just a bit too grateful. We use gratitude as a balm to protect us from truths we’d rather have slide off our souls like rain on an oil slicked street. It’s no surprise then, that as I listen to the call and response of platitudes, I begin to fidget. My brain begins to twitch. It’s time for action because if I make no effort to stop the next person from proclaiming their gratitude for an injustice served my head will almost certainly explode. 

I raise my hand. It’s a first for me, speaking up in a crowded room. I’m a happy introvert and chutzpah is not in my nature. But when I see a woman across the room raise her hand, too, I take mine higher and suddenly it’s as if we’re competing to see who’s the most logically evolved. I win. I consider the repercussions for one tiny moment and then open my mouth.

“Gratitude is over-rated.”

Do I really mean that?

imagesThe Naas Bypass, opened in 1983, was the first of its kind in Ireland. Otherwise known as the M7, the highway connects the town Naas in County Kildare to the town of Limerick one hundred and sixty-eight miles to the southwest. In the thirty-four years since the ribbon cutting, new and upgraded bypasses have woven there way across the country. But the Naas Bypass has the honor of being the first road in Ireland to take a driver around rather than through a town. In doing so it relieves congestion in Naas’s town center and slices minutes from the journey.

UnknownIt’s a nice trade-off. We crave speed and ease and so when the goal is to get from Naas to Limerick as fast as possible then the town’s charming character, with its retro Eddie Rocket’s diner and Carphone Warehouse, is not a priority. We can avoid being slowed by the locals on their way to do a weekly shop at Supervalu. We don’t have to dodge truant children chasing runaway pups across the street. We can avoid anything at all that threatens our smooth journey to someplace else and enjoy the open road. The bypass is an alternative that’s both fast and direct.

In the ballroom I avoid the few pairs of eyes turned on me and look toward the instructor for some sign of understanding. She nods vague approval but to be honest I was expecting more. I thought there would be at least a smattering of knowing smiles and a few light chuckles. But the ballroom is silent. It’s not the dead silence of drop-jawed shock. It’s just silence. Silence that in one reckless moment I decide is my responsibility to fill. I attempt a clarification.

“Don’t you think we need to wallow in the muck before we can be grateful? When shit happens to me I need to sit with it. I need to figure out how I feel about it and hang with it until I can step back and stop reacting. If I can do that, then after the dust settles maybe then I can be grateful.” 

I don’t know why I feel that way. I don’t realize until later that anything less than standing in the middle of our discomfort is a spiritual bypass.

We hope that moving from pain to gratitude and bypassing the sticky stuff in the middle puts us on the fast track to samadhi but there are unintended consequences to avoiding suffering. Moving through misfortune directly to gratitude, without stopping to acknowledge and experience our suffering – or without considering the cause of our suffering – leaves an imprint of unresolved issues and open wounds. While the Naas Bypass is efficient and time saving, a spiritual bypass circles around our pain. It distances us from and delays the discovery of our authentic spiritual nature.

Changing the language we use to describe our suffering – whether it’s to a friend, a partner or the family cat – can rewire our brains to think differently about it. Saying “I’m sad” is very different than “I’m feeling sad.” In the former we are the situation. In the latter we are the observer of the situation. Prakriti and purusha. The ‘seen’ and the ‘seer’. This simple shift creates the space for us to sit in the middle of our discomfort without becoming the discomfort.

If our goal in practice is to still our fluctuating thoughts it doesn’t serve us to avoid the unsavory circumstances in which we sometimes find ourselves. Instead of choosing the bypass, let’s choose the slower scenic route.


Small Rituals

fullsizeoutput_5dfI threw off the morning’s rhythm on Monday and made everyone cranky. Even Bruce the Cat. I rose early rather than settling in for a second round of snooze control. I filled the kettle, ground the beans and sifted the matcha. I gave Bruce fresh kibbles and changed his water.

This is not my job on a Monday morning.

My job is to linger under the covers, snuggle with Bruce the Cat and to listen as my dear Ben shuffles into the kitchen to complete the tasks that on this particular Monday morning I completed instead.

And now the rhythm is off and the morning (at least Ben’s morning) has been not quite ruined but most definitely bumped from our household’s comfort zone. Bruce the Cat, however, is doing just fine. He’s eating breakfast and has already forgotten that I didn’t rub his belly this morning. I’m doing just fine, too. It was nice to boil the water, grind the beans and sift the matcha. I know that I barged unfairly into a weekday ritual that is Ben’s, but my intentions were pure.

Ben has gone back to bed. His morning ritual stolen, the day has temporarily become too much to face.

Rituals pull together the loose threads of our lives. We all have rituals, whether we label them as such or not. Some rituals are obvious: attending church or temple, family meals taken together or the walk we enjoy with loved ones at the start of the new year. Others rituals are less obvious. Like sifting matcha in a dark kitchen by the dim light of pre-dawn or counting the number of turns it takes for the burr to grind enough beans for the cafetiere.

Rituals shift and change – at least mine do – depending on the season. When I was a child, before I even knew the word ritual, I sat on the deep windowsill in my bedroom and watched muskrats swim upstream in the steep-banked creek toward their den. The creek was one of many small afterthoughts that broke from the larger Ontaulaunee, which originated in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In spring heavy blooms of white and purple lilac leaned down over the water to drink. In summer the giant weeping willow standing guard on the far bank kept the creek in shade. Sometimes, after the winter snow melt, the waters would rise a foot or so up the bank, turn from clear to muddied grey and push downstream with violent energy. Once, during Hurricane Agnes, the water breeched the banks and threatened to spill through my window. I guess when that happened the muskrat dens were washed away. I didn’t think about that as a young girl. When I was a girl, watching muskrats swim against the current calmed me and reminded me that there was a world beyond the view from my window that my heart ached to explore.

My small rituals as an adult are also tied to the world around me. On my walks to the yoga studio I am certain to keep to a particular side of one street in order to walk past the lemon tree that has, from time to time, left fruit for me to enjoy. And I make sure to walk through the abandoned lot where a fig tree grows. If I didn’t follow this path on my walks to work it wouldn’t feel right. And when I walk to the pain clinic I keep my eye on the persimmon trees growing in Peers Park. Watching the lemon, the fig and the persimmon trees blossom and bear fruit season after season, no matter the depth of chaos and suffering shown on the news, reminds me of the long afternoons I sat at the windowsill and watched muskrats. It keeps me calm and reminds me that it is still a beautiful world.

What are your small rituals? What pulls together the loose threads of your life?


Judgement and Discernment

IMG_3147I’m a judgmental woman. It’s not charming and not something of which I’m particularly proud. Nevertheless, I own my judgmental nature in the same way that I own my adorableness, my ability to empathize and to be kind, my sense of humor, my lack of math skills, my ability to organize and my fear of driving. I judge. Sometimes harshly, almost always unfairly.

Understanding who we are and owning the qualities that make us who we are – qualities that shift and change shape from moment to moment – opens the door to deep self-inquiry. I am, at times, a judgmental person. If I deny this character flaw then I am unable to observe my actions and correct them when necessary.

Self-inquiry is part of our yoga journey. We can study the self through meditation and journaling or when we step on the mat to take our asana practice. Self-inquiry is also, for me, a daily examination of how I live my life. Did I tell an untruth today? Did I cheat someone or steal from someone? Did I honor my friends and students with kindness and generosity? Or did I snap and growl, caught up in my own story. The truth is I am human. And being a human means that there are moments when the truth eludes me, moments when my integrity sags and moments, too, when my grace and integrity shine as bright as the sun.

Where does judgement come from?

My harsh judgements are reactionary, fleeting, biased and not based on evidence. They momentarily allow me to feel “better than.” My judgements are like sentries protecting me from truths I don’t want to examine. But after the heat of judgement cools the truth still seeps in. When that happens I feel “less than.” My harsh judgements sit next to my fears, just a few pews away from insecurity’s quagmire. That’s where my judgement comes from.

As part of my personal practice, I acknowledge those moments when I judge harshly. I take a step back to consider why I’m being reactive. I look for the evidence and attempt to discern whether my judgement is based on an external reality or is answering an insecurity that I carry within.

Our practice as students of yoga is to understand how judgements can arise, the difference between judgement and discernment, and how right understanding can move us closer to the truth.


The Wonder of a Blood Red Moon

lunar-eclipse-factsI know very little about the science of astronomy, yet I’ve been captivated by stars, satellites and transits since I was a little girl standing in the driveway with my mom in Lynnport, Pennsylvania searching the sky for Perseids. The anticipation I feel when I know we’re about to experience a meteor shower, an eclipse, an unusual alignment of planets along the ecliptic plane or those same planets’ transit across the solar disc is as giddy as a child’s anticipation of Santa Claus.

The cosmos is a vast and constant beauty, as it was on Wednesday morning when the earth’s shadow turned January’s blue moon blood red.

I am compelled to bear witness to these celestial events. When I do, I am one with the motion of the planets. I feel connected to the stars. I feel connected to the spinning earth and the energy of every other creature craning her neck on a frosty pre-dawn. I’m part of a collection of craned necks looking up in amazement and wondering what lies beyond the sparkling dark and inky pool above.

Being present for the stars, the moons and the planets reminds me of my infinitesimal smallness and the terrible burden of weight I place on the most insignificant of circumstances.

It’s a wondrous, wonderful thing to know that on Wednesday the brick red glow reflected back to earth was the light of all the planet’s sunsets and sunrises. For those few hours, anyone who looked up at the moon saw the beginning of every new day and the close of another. It was like looking at the breath of Gaia.