Duty Bound

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Researching for a novel I was writing.

Eight months is a long time. It’s two hundred and forty days, give or take. That’s how long it has been since I abandoned my writing practice. My photography? I abandoned that when I packed up my darkroom and sold my printer in 1994. Then, and now, I had my reasons. Life was busy. Work was all consuming. It still is.

When does our sense of commitment to a job and to others supersede abandoning the touchstone that speaks to our heart? When did I trade my creative life for a life of duty?

My work as a yoga teacher and program director at Samyama Yoga Center brings a sense of immense personal accomplishment. My work with chronic pain patients, most recently as someone who offers training to yoga teachers new to working with this demographic, fills me with joy.

But along the way I’ve lost my balance. These activities – these wonderful things that bring food to my plate and keep a roof over my head – have become all consuming. So while I have enough creature comforts to keep me fed, clothed and sheltered my soul feels raw for the lacking.

I crave a wholesome life. I crave a life that supports my happily charging forth duty bound into the fray and a life that is blessed with the time to hold my emotional heart in my hands.

This dilemma is not unique to me and I am grateful that this simple idea of finding balance and that honoring my creative heart is my biggest problem. All in all, I am a very lucky woman.

Still, it feels good to be back.


Resolve and Forgiveness

IMG_1521I was recently asked by the Palo Alto Weekly to write an article about setting New Year’s Resolutions.  I interviewed, via email and phone, several individuals who offered lovely insights.   I want to thank them:  Professional coach Linda Furness, personal trainer Steven Rice, chef Anna Rakoczy from Homemade, Dr. Rebecca Green from Peninsula Integrative Medicine,  Dr. Fred Luskin from Stanford University and Arda, author of the book The Seeker’s Manual. You can click here to see the final piece, which appeared online yesterday and will be in the print edition this Friday.

What the article has to say is important – we can set reasonable goals and make time for home cooking with delicious local ingredients.  We can move our bodies – often and in different ways. We can improve our energy and balance our emotions by spending more time in nature.  All these things will help us achieve the resolutions we set for our physical health and wellness.

The problem is, I write for the food section of the Palo Alto Weekly.  I’m very happy and very grateful to be able to do that.  But it means that my penchant for personal reflection has to be stymied.  And despite my master’s in the subject I have to curtail my instinct to add a transpersonal twist.  These boundaries, I’m certain you can imagine, has put me on a very steep learning curve.  My editors are infinitely patient with me as I study and slowly absorb the techniques required for this type of writing.  Having the facility for putting one word in front of another in a reasonably coherent manner is one thing.  Learning the techniques for thinking and composing as a journalist – while on the job – is another.

The thing is, what I really wanted to write about for the Weekly was forgiveness.  I wanted to answer the question, “How do we, when we slip or fail, forgive ourselves and glean what we are meant to learn from the experience?”  But the article was meant to be about food.  There was no room for forgiveness.

Thank goodness for blogs.  Here’s the rest of the story.

Dr. Fred Luskin, a professor at both Sofia University and Stanford University and author of several books about forgiveness, spoke with me by phone and offered these ideas.  His words landed in my heart like a blessing.  He said, “Making your goals physical or material will never make you happy.  It is not your physical body that determines the quality of your life.” And then he clarified,  “Of course we ARE physical – we need to take care of our bodies and to earn a living.  They are good things but not THE good thing.”

He suggested that if we are going to set a resolution it should be this: Choose to be kinder to yourself and to the people around you.  When there’s a choice, choose that. 

“Give thanks more,” he said, “Rather than demanding more give thanks to people – people are precious, they are impermanent and they are flawed.”

It seems simple but as the article was taking shape and moving away from what I wanted to communicate it was difficult to be grateful.  Difficult to give thanks.  But now that I’ve seen the finished piece on line and have had a chance to reflect I’m exceedingly thankful for the time everyone willingly offered.  I’m grateful for the editing, too, and grateful that I can choose to share Dr. Luskin’s and Arda’s important message on Practically Twisted.

Arda has a coaching and healing practice in Palo Alto.  I interviewed him via email.  Rather than write a summary of that interview, here is a lightly edited transcript:

Q: How do we forgive ourselves when we fail? 

A: We can only forgive ourselves when we understand why we fail. This is a dilemma. We see failure as a negative outcome. As a result, we bash ourselves for failing. Every time we [fall into a pattern of] self-criticism, it moves us away from forgiveness.  Instead, we can use failure as an opportunity to get to know our vulnerable side. When we learn more about who we are and why we do the things the way we do we can accept our failure and forgive ourselves.

For example, if we want to quit smoking, it’s not the act of quitting that will make us achieve our goal. We need to understand that, let’s say, smoking takes away our social anxiety (our vulnerability). Without understanding the underlying reasons of our social anxiety, it will be very difficult to quit smoking. Once we understand and accept the reasons behind our social anxiety, we will be ready to take steps towards quitting. 

Q: Is there a roadmap to self-compassion? 

A: Yes.  The first step is self-awareness. Since we perceive the world through our conditioned lenses, it is important to know how our internal programming, i.e. thought patterns, beliefs, values and fears, affect our perceptions.  Then, the second step is to identify how our life experiences have affected our internal programming. The main component here is to review how our past, i.e. situations and people, has made us who we are today.

With this deeper insight of our personality and our programming, the third and final step is to embrace our life experiences as they are. This opens our hearts to ourselves without judgment and blame and brings understanding and self-compassion.

Q: Is it better to not set goals and never fail, or to have those goals, slip along the way and then pick ourselves up and try again?

A: Setting goals is natural. When we believe that reaching a goal will save us from misery and suffering, the attachment it creates sets false expectations and disappointments.  Setting goals without attachment can only be done when we can connect with our values. As a result, we can focus on the process of achieving a certain goal, instead of viewing goals as end results.  Failing to reach a goal is a valuable experience and growth oriented action and not a reason to avoid goal setting.

And I, for one, am not shy about setting goals.  So here they are: 

In 2016 I’m going practice kindness.  I’m going to be kind to myself, to my partner Ben, to my co-workers.  I’ll even be kind to the guy who cuts me off when I’m driving down Alma Street.  In 2016 I’m going to grateful for every opportunity I have to be more of who I am and for all the opportunities I have to grow, to be humbled and to learn.  I’ll move more in 2016, too.  And I’ll cook nutritious meals at home with local ingredients (I’ve already dusted off the slow cooker for some hearty winter dishes…black eye-pea and kale stew anyone?). 

My biggest goal for 2016?  To be a better writer.  To think like a journalist when that’s what the job requires.  To not be a ‘lazy writer’ – simply throwing words together because I know I can.  To commit myself to the process and to what is being asked of me.

Wishing everyone a joyful, safe and loving New Year.


Santosha

IMG_1827Several years ago a friend gave me a huge leather chair. It’s green and it has a matching hassock. The chair was her father’s, and you can see through the stains and the scratches that the chair was well loved. My friend’s father felt content in that chair. He read the paper or told bedtime stories to his children. I’m content in that chair, too. It’s soft and easy and wraps around my body. The chair has wide arms that I can stretch my legs across and I’ve filled it with pillows that support my back. But the contentment I feel in that giant green chair is not the same contentment that is asked of us when we embrace Patanjali’s second Niyama, Santosha. The contentment I feel when wrapped in that chair is easy to come by.

But how do we find contentment when we are standing in the eye of a storm, or when we brush up against discomfort? How do we find contentment then?

I believe we can find contentment simply by witnessing ‘what is‘. If we choose to release our anxiety about the past and the future and if we choose to release the stories we tell ourselves about how life should be it will create the space needed for contentment to take a foothold. If we release expectations and instead choose to center ourselves in the here and now contentment will find us.

Contentment is a choice, a promise and a practice. Some choices are difficult to make. Some promises are difficult to keep. And sometimes we don’t want to practice.

It’s important we continue our practice of contentment, however, so that when we brush up against the hard edges in life – when the chair is less than comfortable – we can still rest in a place of comfort and ease.

It’s important we continue our practice of contentment so that, as yoga therapists, we can live what we are trying to teach. Accepting the circumstances in which we find ourselves is the essence of finding contentment. This is why santosha is important in yoga therapy. Our clients are on a journey of acceptance. Santosha can hold space for that acceptance.



Saucha

IMG_3064Our bodies are temples. Our positive actions are conduits for positive re-action. Our thought forms are pulses of energy with the potential to open hearts. But if we hope to raise our bodies, actions and thoughts to their highest vibration, a place where the catalyst for healing exists we must practice saucha.

Saucha, our first niyama, is purity and cleanliness.

Much like the Western mind considers asana as the first step on their yoga journey we are drawn toward considering physical cleanliness as we begin our practice of saucha. Yet physical cleanliness is not limited to what we see on the surface. When reflecting on saucha and how it pertains to the physical we must also look at how we keep pure that which is within us. What we choose to put in our body is as critical as what we choose to put on our body. How do we source our food, clothes and cosmetics?

Likewise, how do we manage our environment? Do we choose to create a space that aligns with the principle of saucha? My first request to a class that they stack their props mindfully was met with laughter. The second time, when I explained saucha, they still laughed but began to understand. The third time they smiled. And then I watched as blankets were folded, blocks were stored on shelves and bolsters were lined against the wall. It didn’t matter that in ten minutes another class would undo the effort we made to create a clean space. The energetic flow we manifested through our effort supported our practice.

Is it possible to practice saucha in order to create a clean and nurturing emotional environment? One in which mental impurities are washed away? I believe we can. It takes diligence and for that reason I am relieved that we call our yoga a “practice.” My diligence and discipline fail me more times than I want to admit.

Remembering saucha as we observe the world as well as our actions as we move within this world reminds us that it is possible to reframe our thoughts, our words and our behavior even while maintaining the integrity of the ideas we wish to communicate.


Breathe Into Your Kidneys: Verbal Cues in Yoga Explained

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“Breathe into your back ribs.”

What?

“Breath into the space around your kidneys.”

Seriously?

“Breathe into your big toe.”

Ok. Now you’re just trying to be funny.

How many times have you been instructed to take your breath someplace considered physiologically impossible? Yoga teachers give this instruction all the time, but it doesn’t really make any sense, does it? Our breath moves into our lungs. Period.

Right?

And no one takes the instruction to breathe into the soles of the feet literally.

Do they?

Because I’m one of those yoga instructors. I’m one of those instructors who will ask you to breathe into places where the breath doesn’t travel. But I’ve got my reasons.

When I provide the verbal cue to breathe into the back of the ribs I’m asking you to bring your awareness to a specific part of the body in a more efficient way than the cue “relax.”

Furthermore, by breathing into the back during a pose like Balasana (child’s pose), we become attuned to the physiology of breathing. We gain an awareness of the muscles involved. The lungs may be the workhorse of breath, and the diaphragm our ‘third lung’, but there is so much more to consider. Our intercostal muscles, for instance, extend and contract with each breath to move the ribcage. Our internal obliques work in opposition to the contracting diaphragm. The gift of breath – the art of breathing – is more than filling the lungs like a balloon. It is a complex event with an interrelated team of muscles, organs and bones.

So if I ask for the impossible.  If I offer the verbal cue “breathe into your kidneys” just go with it.  I have my reasons.