What Would You Carry?

As of this week I’ve filled eighty-six small to medium sized boxes that are light enough for a sixty-three year old woman in good health to lift with relative ease. Each box is numbered, the contents roughly noted on a Google spreadsheet. In twelve weeks – give or take a few days – those boxes that I’ve filled with treasures, junk, books – oh so many books – cookware and memories will be loaded onto a truck by a couple of burly strangers and driven across the country. 

When I was young a move required nothing more than a backpack and a few boxes. I had my life pared down to bare necessities and when the weight of possession became too much I happily gave it away. But to flit about as I did in my youth required a lightness for which I no longer yearn. What I want now, more than anything, is an anchor. I want to feel tied to a place and a people. I want a home. I want family and the sense of belonging that’s alluded me since the days when I was able to pack almost everything I owned into a cardboard box. 

I feel some guilt around my selfish wants. I know there is a difference between a ‘want’ and a ‘need’. I have everything I need and for that I’m grateful. But still, I want these things. Wanting pretty things like porcelain teacups from Japan. Wanting furniture made from wood and not multi-density fiberboard. Wanting a dining room table with extendable leaves and room enough for my beloved’s sisters, his nieces and nephews and their children. Cloaked around the knowledge that it can be taken away without warning is a deep want for stability. But this morning I’m wondering if a stability is determined by your environment or how you experience your environment.

What’s interesting about the process of packing is that as our moving date approaches we’re finding it easier to let go. But I struggle with the precious things. The little things. The tchotchkes that serve no purpose but are the keepers of such potent memories. The carnival chalk ware figurines I found at a car boot sale in Letterkenny, County Donegal twenty years ago. The elf shaped, never-been-burned three inch candle that my beloved keeps at his desk and refuses to abandon. What do we do with the precious things and what would our lives be without them?

The things we choose to keep around us tell our story. They remind us of the places we’ve been, the people we’ve loved, the dreams we’ve lost and the dreams that came true. 

But if I had to chose between these things and my life I would abandon everything without question in order to survive. What must it be like, do you think, to be forced to do that with a moment’s notice? What must it be like to wake up to the sound of explosions and to realize that everything you know, everything you assume will always be there – the school, the hospital, the corner market – is about to be destroyed?

For five weeks we’ve watched missiles rain down on homes that look like the homes we live in and on cities that look like the cities we love. Two weeks ago we saw a mother with her two children, two family dogs and the family friend leading them to safety. One moment they were alive and when the dust cleared they were dead. What did they carry with them? If we opened Tetiana’s rolling suitcase what would we find? What precious toy did her daughter Alise find room for in her backpack? What book was so important to Mykyta that he would choose to carry it with him on their futile attempt to escape a savage war?

What would you bring? What book would you carry?


Accepting Change

I was reared in a family that never scheduled routine check-ups and avoided seeing the doctor unless it was an emergency. I remember Dr. Yost being called out to our house for me three times in the ten years we lived in Lynnport. When I was seven I had a bad flu, when I was in fourth grade he pulled a large splinter from the back of my leg, and when I was in high school what started as a cold turned into something much worse. Each time my mother’s call to Dr. Yost was the last resort after all efforts by her to heal me failed. So I learned early on that you don’t call the doctor unless there are no other options. And a gazillion options are one click away. 

Following my families tradition I’ve avoided asking a doctor to examine my right hip and instead have designed my own treatment plan. What’s wrong with my right hip? What began as pain a few months ago has settled into unrelenting ache. It aches when I walk. When I climb stairs. When I sleep.

Instead I use heat. I use ice. I use over-the-counter NSAIDs and sleep with a pillow between my knees. My yoga practice is dialed down and until this week I shortened my long walks to brief strolls. I do core exercises to strengthen my back. I’ve added core exercises to support my back. But family traditions die hard and I’ve not seen a doctor. Although, to be fair, the physical therapist I work with ran some range of motion tests on my hip…so there’s that.

But with my medical degree from the University of Google, I assume it’s arthritis that’s plaguing my right hip. I don’t know that, of course, but I assume. And I don’t want to go to the doctor to have my assumptions confirmed and my current approach to treating the pain validated. While I’m blessed to have insurance it comes with a very high deductible which means a very high bill. So I am, for now, sticking to my ice and my heat, my NSAIDs, my mindful movement and my tummy crunches.

Here is the point of this long winded story:

While I continue to avoid seeking medical attention I’ve begun working on accepting change. Because isn’t that what’s really happening? My body is changing. This skin sack I live in, with all its bones and tendons and ligaments, nerves and muscles is aging. And my right hip is reminding me of that truth. 

I have nothing against growing old. I love watching my hair turn silver and I look forward to dispensing kitchen wisdom to any potential step-grandchildren that might show up in my dotage. I’m just not a fan of the baggage that comes along for the ride.

Like my achy hip. Which, by the way, is responding to my treatment plan.

Here’s some news you might use. Did you know yoga teachers have a higher than average incidence of hip replacement? I began teaching yoga almost thirty years ago. All those triangles and twists add up. Factor in the ego-driven yoga practice of youth and you might be looking at a titanium ball and socket joint before you collect social security.

For an interesting take, read this.


Truffles, Baseball Caps & Judgement

During the pandemic a friend of mine eschewed the sourdough bandwagon and instead  mastered chocolate truffle making. His truffles are exquisite. Velvety smooth, they’re indulgent but somehow never ‘too much’. Some of the truffles he makes are elegant and traditional – little spheres of creamy chocolate rolled in cocoa or hazelnut. Others are playful and wear coats of chocolate sprinkles or crystalized ginger. All are simply perfect. 

Sunflowers

I’m thinking about truffles, COVID and politics this morning. Is it just me or does it feel like we’ve figured out how to live with COVID? At least in the the San Francisco Bay Area where vaccination rates are high, infection rates are low and people lean toward wearing masks indoors. New variants don’t hold Omicron’s power to terrorize and we’ve figured out how to enjoy social occasions with groups larger than two again. We’ve even mastered Zoom.

But I’m still baffled by anti-vaxxers. Early on, when vaccines first became available, a friend explained why she would remain un-vaxed: “I take vitamins, I exercise and I’m in good health. And I did my own research.” In hindsight I wish I’d replied, “I bet a lot of people said that before they ended up on a ventilator” but I was too flummoxed. More recently – during the peak of Omicron – a friend invited me to lunch. They excused their lack of vaccination this way, “I’m not going to catch COVID and even if I did, I’m going to die anyway.” Sigh. 

This, believe it or not, brings me back to truffles. 

My truffle making buddy and I meet – vaxed, boosted and, now that mandates have softened, carrying a mask just in case – every few weeks for coffee. If his ganache hasn’t broken I’m presented with an elegant box purchased from Etsy and filled with little yummy bites of joy. 

Today’s truffle was rolled in finely crushed Oreo biscuit and black salt.  The addition of salt added an unexpected and nuanced sophistication to the cookie crumble.  I enjoyed it with a cup of Earl Grey. The morning was pretty much like the truffle – delightful. The sun was shining and people were happily filling bags with produce from the nearby farmer’s market or standing in a long, chatty queue at the dim sum market stall across the street. Even the cafe’s usually grumpy owner was wearing his frown upside down. A few tables away sat a group of four middle-aged friends and a dog. One of the men – slightly older with a thick, grey beard – was wearing a light brown baseball cap with the message ‘Biden Failed Us’ embroidered in gold on the crown.  

To say I found it triggering is an understatement. But not for the reasons you think. Free speech, after all, is a human right.

But in today’s political atmosphere wearing a hat that is guaranteed to provoke feels unnecessary to me. It feels ugly. Selfish in the same way that, unless you are exempt for health or religious reasons, not being vaccinated is selfish. It’s an easy way to be loud without opening your mouth. To look like you are well informed when really you’re more like the Great Oz when he’s revealed to be less of a wizard and more of a fraud. 

I know nothing about the man with the hat and maybe, if I’d asked him, he would have explained with clarity his position. Yet I let his silly hat drag me kicking toward a mental space I find myself locked in more often than I would like. 

Judgement. 

It’s been a messy two years. An exhausting two years. And just when we thought we could see daylight again the world has fallen into a frightening state of chaos. 

I’ve been accused of being a Pollyanna and the accusations are true. I am a card carrying, dyed-in-the-wool Pollyanna. But I believe with all my heart that we have a light within us and this is the time to shine. We shine our light by thinking about how our decisions impact the lives of others. We need to consider how our choices – down to the hat we choose to wear – should lift people up rather than tear them down.  We need to speak with care. We need to own our beliefs but share them with compassion, not vitriol. 

We need to stop being mean.

And above all else, we need more truffles.


New Guided Autobiography Series

I never know where to begin when it’s time to write about Guided Autobiography. I always want to let you know that it’s not a writing class – even though each week you’ll be writing. And I always want to describe the impact Guided Autobiography has on those who join – but it’s difficult to find the words. 

Guided Autobiography, I guess, is about processing. It’s about looking at the events of our lives. It’s about finding again those lost experiences that may have been the catalyst for profound change in our lives. 

And it’s about sharing those moments. Which is the best thing about Guided Autobiography – the friendships that are deepened and made all the more rich as we learn from one another’s stories.

Our Guided Autobiography meetings follow the same format each week: 

  • We begin with a check-in – a casual chat about the successes and the struggles we endured or celebrated during our writing week. This typically involves howls of laughter.
  • As our check-in winds down I introduce the writing theme for the following week. James Birrin developed his Guided Autobiography program around twelve life themes and the questions that accompany each theme as a means to stimulate our memory. When I was a fledgling GAB facilitator I followed those themes and questions to the letter. But as I gained confidence I did what most GAB facilitators do and developed my own themes and questions. Themes can run the gamut from how we developed trust in ourself or others, moments in our lives that became turning points, or the experiences we’ve had around failure or loss.
  • After the theme is introduced I offer a five minute break but no one ever wants to take a break so we jump right into reading.
  • The essays we write are about 800 words – two pages. And it’s important that we try our best to keep to this limit. Once read, as a group we don’t offer a critique of the writing. What we offer instead is encouragement and support. We might ask questions to know more details in the story. On more than one occasion tears have been shed by all of us.
  • When we have finished our readings we close the class with a final discussion about the following week’s theme.

And that, for the curious, is Guided Autobiography in a nutshell.

Our next 6-week Guided Autobiography session begins Thursday, March 31st at 2:00 PM.

Tuition is on a sliding scale from $60-$120, payable through PayPal.

To register, a simple email will do.

Once I receive payment you’ll receive our Zoom invite.

Class size is small – no fewer than four, no more than eight.


Do More! Bend More! Twist More!

I facilitate yoga classes for people in chronic pain. In the decade that I’ve been doing this work my teaching has changed, my attitude has changed and my body has changed. I love this work. It’s beyond rewarding to witness the transformation in people as they discover their capacity for movement and learn to trust their bodies again.

Some aspects of the work, however, are challenging. For instance, it’s difficult sometimes to convince students to ‘start where you are’. To lean into the present moment experience, to feel what they are feeling right now and to allow those feelings to lead the practice. But this challenge is not unique to students in chronic pain.

At times we’ve all abandoned what our bodies need in the moment in favor of our deep rooted goal-oriented mindset. Who hasn’t, at some point, embraced an ego-driven yoga practice? Who hasn’t attempted to show off in front of their instructor or maybe the person on their left, the one with the fancy Manduka mat, struggling with ardha chandrasana? Who among us hasn’t judged their practice through the lens of ‘I have to do more, bend more, twist more, achieve more?’ 

The Sutras remind us that we practice in order to ‘still the fluctuations of the mind’. And in order to still those fluctuation – in order to self-regulate – we must maintain a dedicated practice with no attachment to the outcome. So there is no room for pushing ourselves beyond our limits, no room for unreasonable expectations. There is no room for competition with others and no room for competition with ourselves.

We know that our physical practice is just one limb of this beautiful thing we call ‘yoga’ and that together, all eight limbs of yoga create the yoke that unites the body, mind and spirit. In other words, the dedicated practice called for in the Sutras is not limited to perfecting trikonasana. The forms we create with our bodies, the poses we flow through in alignment with our breath, will build stamina and flexibility. But their true intention is to build the strength we need to find stillness in meditation. An asana practice does not refine our physical body through exercise so that it is capable of doing more. It refines our body so that it might do less.

In your practice this week, what can you do to remain present with your body in this moment? What shift in thinking do you need to make in order to do less?


The Intentional Human

Have you ever met someone with whom there’s an instant connection? That’s what happened when I met my friend Evan. We became peer coaches for one another while completing our sixteen-month training with ICA, the International Coaching Academy based in Australia. That was two years ago. And now, every Monday morning, we meet for an hour ostensibly to keep our coaching skills ‘laser focused’. But no coaching takes place until we catch up with one another’s lives and more often than not laugh ourselves silly.

Evan talks a lot about intentionality. I like that about him. He’s curious about his purpose in life and how he might better live with intention. So keen is he on the idea of living with intention his company is named Intentional Human Group.

But it’s challenging, this whole ‘intentional life’ business. Where’s the user’s guide? There is none. It’s as if we’re handed something that looks like a map but it’s nothing but an empty white void with a red ‘you are here’ in one corner and ‘your purpose’ in the other. The only way to show the path that will lead us to the life intended for us is to take one well-thought step at a time.

In short, you better pay attention to your intention. 

Forty years ago Joseph Campbell urged us to ‘follow our bliss’. Like so many others I took the idea to heart. The problem is that the full quote – the idea Joseph Campbell was trying to share – doesn’t fit on the front of a tee shirt.  Why is it a problem? Because the notion of following our bliss has no foundation on which to ground. It’s as light and airy as a flatulent unicorn’s rainbow fart. Taking the concept of following our bliss to its extreme – which is far removed from Campbell’s intent – removes accountability for our actions and disregards the affect those actions have on the people around us. It gives us permission to see self-centeredness as a virtue.

Here is the full quote:

“Follow your bliss.
If you do follow your bliss,
you put yourself on a kind of track
that has been there all the while waiting for you,
and the life you ought to be living
is the one you are living.
When you can see that,
you begin to meet people
who are in the field of your bliss,
and they open the doors to you.
I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid,
and doors will open
where you didn’t know they were going to be.
If you follow your bliss,
doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.”

Just for fun, change the word ‘bliss’ to ‘intent’. The word ‘intent’ creates a foundation on which we can build. It has edges, boundaries. It has form. Ask yourself, ‘What is my intent? What are my intentions? How are my actions and the choices I make intentional?’ 

It’s easier to live with intention than it is to follow bliss. Living with intention is a powerful choice.  

Let’s be intentional humans.


Are Alignment Cues About Safety or Aesthetics?

Ten years ago I was in my second decade of teaching alignment informed yoga classes heavily influenced by my years of practicing with teachers who had studied with BKS Iyengar. 

Trees come in all shapes and sizes. So do bodies.

So when a student described a workshop she had attended – a workshop about something called ‘yin yoga’ where poses were held for minutes at a time and any thought of alignment was tossed out the window – I’ll admit to feeling annoyed. No alignment cues? Impossible! Unsafe! Ridiculous! But I was also intrigued and when the opportunity presented itself I hauled my yin-curious self to the nearest Paul Grilley workshop. 

Midway through the first day, from the back of the room I called out, “But what about alignment?” He looked at me, smiled, and then gazed out across his rapt audience. It was the yoga equivalent to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and Grilley’s first beatitude might as well have been: ‘Blessed are those who study yin and forgo alignment, for they shall learn that alignment is about aesthetics’.

The moment blew my little yoga brain into pieces and was the catalyst that changed forever how I teach.

Until that moment I had never considered the obvious. That although we are all made up of the same components – bones, muscle, connective tissue and so on – those components will differ in length, width, tensile strength, yield strength, efficiency and power depending on the gene pool in which we swim and our lifestyle. We’re sort of like cars, I guess. A Maserati does not drive like a Mini Cooper. A car that has its oil changed and tires checked does not drive like a car that hasn’t seen the inside of a garage for fifty thousand miles.

In other words, we are all different. 

In other words, alignment is about aesthetics. Kinda. Some alignment cues are about safety, too, and that’s something we shouldn’t forget.

A decade ago I returned home from that weekend workshop questioning if everything I’d ever believed about asana was wrong. The answer, of course, was ‘no’, but maybe it was time to reevaluate my attachment to the philosophy around alignment I’d studied for so long. I had never considered that there might be another way to move through an asana practice. To move through space. For so many years on my yoga journey there was only one ‘right’ way to practice.

But that’s not true.

Every beautiful human moving through a series of yoga postures is having an experience unique to their body, their mind set, their belief system.

As teachers, we should remember that. 


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.


Prop Problems? How to MacGyver Your Props and Save Your Knees with a Bagel

The first blocks I remember – long before anyone thought to put the word ‘industry’ behind the word ‘yoga’ – were heavy, solid wood. Drop one them on your toes and you’d know about it. The straps, home made by one of the teachers at the studio where I studied, were strips of denim sewn together with love. I still have one of those straps. We didn’t use mats. We practiced barefoot (of course) on a wooden floor. The regulation turquoise blue sticky mats, kept only for special occasions, were stacked in the large cubby spaces under the window, next to two columns of foam exercise mats, in the back of the studio. Folded in thirds the sticky mats added support to our cervical spine in shoulder stand. Unfolded and stretched out away from the way they kept our metal folding chairs from sliding during a supported backbend at the wall.

Now, of course, you can purchase blocks and straps and mats at the local CVS. But when I began my practice back in the dark ages before the internet (1984) I was struggling financially and besides, even if I could find a yoga prop for sale the cost was prohibitive. I relied on my studio to provide everything I needed.

Even though costs have come down and a plethora of discount yoga supply websites are  available on the internet I still bristle at the notion of someone thinking they need to purchase special equipment to begin a yoga practice when everything they need can find in their home. 

The only thing that is required is a little imagination and the ability to channel your inner MacGyver. Watch the video to find out how I used a couple of bobbie pins, a stick of already chewed Juicy Fruit and a dried out Bic pen to make all the props I needed.

Just teasing. But I did use some bath and kitchen towels, masking tape and a set of Funk and Wagnalls.

Prop Problems? You have everything in your home that you need for a safe yoga practice.

Guided Autobiography: Not a Writing Class

Our next six-week Guided Autobiography session begins Thursday, January 6th, 2022 from 2:00-3:30 PM/PST. Tuition is on a sliding scale of $60-$120.

Curious? Ready to dive in? Contact me for details.

Guided Autobiography is a powerful catalyst for improved self-esteem, self-confidence and communication within our communities and our families. 

Guided Autobiography is not a writing class and no previous writing experience is necessary. Guided Autobiography is a class that will make you laugh and cry. It will break you open in the most wonderful way. It’s an exhausting, exhilarating and soothing balm for the soul.

Since the mid-1970’s Guided Autobiography (GAB) has been a method for helping people document their life stories. Researched and developed by Dr. James Birrin, GAB leads us through themes and priming questions that evoke memories of events once known but filed away and forgotten. A new theme is introduced each week. We have seven days to ponder, remember and write two pages inspired by that theme. When we meet again we share our story. The sharing process forges a deep connection within the group. We gain a greater appreciation not only for our own lives but for the lives of other. Writing and sharing our life stories with one another in a safe space is an ideal way to find new meaning in life and to put life events into perspective.

Doesn’t that sound like a wonderful way to begin the New Year?