E-RYT 500, yoga instructor for children and adults

Words drip from your lips,

Poisoned honey, sticky and false.

Dishing up what you think you’re supposed to feed me,

Hoping I’ll swallow without question.

I’d rather gulp down the scalding bitter darkness,

Rub my tongue over the rough patch on the roof of my mind,

Than slurp the lukewarm sickly saccharin that goes down easy,

Then sneaks up on my heart, burning a place I can’t touch.

Don’t stroke my ego with a coat of sugar;

Caramelized by fire, it cracks the thin layer of trust between us.

Work Your But Off

Recently I was talking to a student about building strength and was explaining how I found out I can do a pull up, which for most of my life wasn’t possible. “I went out to a spot at White Rock Lake with a friend of mine where they have these pull up bars and some other equipment outside. He goes out there to do, um, stuff, like uh, movement or . . . what would you call that?” “You mean working out?” he laughed in response.  It’s a funny thing for a yoga teacher to say, but I’ve never been a fan of exercise. I’ve always been active, but the activity had to have something else behind it. Sure I knew all the benefits of moving my body. The idea of being healthier and gaining strength, endurance, and flexibility sounded great, but these things weren’t enough to motivate me to get going. When a medication I was prescribed caused me to gain weight, not even my vanity or self consciousness could get me to exercise. I absolutely hated going to the gym. Mindless reps of weights or drills might leave me breathless, but they didn’t take my breath away. I had to have some other goal, a challenge to overcome or technique to master. Over the years I have been interested in dance, gymnastics, volleyball, distance running, Jazzercise, Zumba, and of course yoga. I never participated in these with the intent to “get a work out.” Instead I was hooked by the fun, enjoyment, or challenge of playing.

When I found yoga, I loved the fact that I could use my body to work towards mental and spiritual growth, and considered the physical benefits to be lagniappe. At first I didn’t even like the more physically intense classes,  preferring gentle flows and Ashtanga, which while challenging, is slower and more traditional than most modern yoga styles. Lately though I’ve seen a shift. I’ve become one of those people who loves to go to the hard exercise classes and try the more difficult moves. I’ve started to crave the feeling of sweat pouring off my skin and the soreness of my muscles after a hard workout. I’ve been bouncing around from power yoga to cycling to pilates to kickboxing. On my second visit to the boxing gym, the instructor made a comment that some people don’t like going to his class because it’s too hard. He argued that this is the exact reason why you should attend his class, so you’re as strong as you can be when faced with other challenges. I nodded my head in agreement and also inwardly chuckled that I had unconsciously chosen the hardest teacher. Nothing is random.

Soul Cycle has also recently stolen my heart, and my favorite teacher there also happens to be known as one of the toughest. I was talking to another yoga teacher about my new love of spin and she mentioned that through a studio swap, we got free classes a different indoor cycling studio. At that studio they show your stats as you ride so you can record your progress. Though I understand why some might like the ability to track their physical goals, this aspect really turned me off, which is why I still pay a hefty fee to attend Soul Cycle rather than going elsewhere for free. I do enjoy pushing myself, but I don’t want to see the numbers. As I pondered the reason behind my costly choice, I realized that when it comes down to it, it’s still not about the physical for me. Sure I’ve gotten stronger, so it takes a more active practice to get me to my edge, but it’s really the mental challenge that I crave. I like taking classes from teachers who help me to be my best, who keep moving the bar a little higher. I like the tough teachers who also motivate and inspire, who help me work through the internal struggles like, “but I’m too old, but I’m too tired, but I can’t do it, but I don’t know how.” The teachers I admire push me physically and mentally. They encourage me to set goals, to explore new things, and to move beyond my comfort zone. They’re positive and kind, not drill sergeants, but they also don’t let me off the hook. They hold me accountable, encourage me to move beyond the limits of my mind, to do more than what I think I’m capable of, and teach me to do the same for myself.

I still love teaching and practicing gentle, restorative yoga. I definitely need the stillness I get in my daily meditation, and I believe in regularly practicing a softer “yin” style to balance the active “yang.” However as a student and a teacher I have grown to appreciate the mental and physical strength that come from a movement practice that really works my “but” off.

The ninth commandment forbids falsifying it. Patanjali considers it a prerequisite to yoga. Witnesses in court swear to it. Yet despite the many exhortations for it, truth is hard to come by. In my own life, I began my search for truth by looking outward. I began to notice when people didn’t seem to be telling the whole story. I became distrustful of others, especially in relationships. Hypocrisy frustrated me more than anything. Tellingly, there have been a few significant times in my life when I have been accused of saying one thing and doing another, or not being open and honest about what I was thinking or feeling. Of course I could always rationalize my own dishonesty as necessary under the circumstances, or as insignificant in the bigger picture. After hearing the old adage “when you spot it, you got it,” I eventually began to turn my gaze inward. I didn’t consider myself to be a dishonest person, at first I thinking it would be easy to commit to authenticity. But like most things that seem simple on the surface, the ramifications ran much deeper than I realized.

I’ve had a history of mental health challenges, suicide attempts, and various unhealthy coping mechanisms. Sometime after college I discovered cutting and soon developed an addiction to this destructive habit. I have many small scars that aren’t prominent, but there is one in particular on my left wrist that was bad enough to require stitches. What started out as a typical ritual of cut, clean, and bandage escalated into something closer to a suicide attempt. Looking back it was a desperate cry for help, though that doesn’t make it any less serious. Big, red, raised and ugly, I used to hide this scar at all times. I had an extensive collection of thick bangles, bracelets and watches and I never left home without wearing one. I even wore sweatbands around my wrist when I worked out. I used every scar treatment product I could find and dreamed of someday getting it removed, or covered up by a tattoo. Around that same time my first marriage was on the rocks, in part due to my mental illness. At one point my husband read my journal, in which I confessed having feelings for someone else, which provided the final impetus for our divorce. After we separated, this emotional affair continued into a full blown relationship and was a major factor in me moving to Dallas. I rarely told anyone the truth about why I moved here. When asked I claimed that it was to start fresh or have more opportunities for work, which was partially true, but not the whole truth. As you may suspect, this doomed relationship didn’t last long. I learned a harsh but necessary lesson when I found out my new partner had not been honest with me about his past, which included dealing with attraction to underage girls. I don’t think of it as a punishment though, karma can only use the raw materials I give her to create the circumstances through which my soul achieves growth. When I could no longer deny the messages I was receiving, I decided to take Gandhi’s advice and sincerely begin to embody the truth which I wanted to see in the world.

Though I’ve been in recovery from cutting for some time, it was only a few years ago that I began to go out in public without hiding my scar. Seeing it reminded me of sitting in the dark on the bathroom floor in that even darker place inside my mind, and I was ashamed and embarrassed that someone else would see that too. At first I was cautious about letting anyone look too closely. Over time I began to realize that not many people even noticed, and that if they did I typically received more compassion than judgment. I finally did decide to get a tattoo on my wrist, but instead of covering up my scar I boldly positioned the design right next to it. My partner at the time questioned whether I wanted it there, knowing how sensitive I was about it. I knew I would want to show off my new tat and that in doing so, I would be showing the scar as well. It scared me, but I felt ready to reveal that part of myself. I had healed enough inside to let my external wound show. Now when I see it, it reminds me of what I have overcome instead of feeling ashamed about where I have been.

It’s been challenging to navigate my newfound commitment to openness and honesty. Anytime I set a sincere intention, the universe gives me opportunities to practice it. Swinging from one side of the spectrum to the other, I still sometimes catch myself softening my truth, sugar coating or dancing around what I really want to say. I’ve also said some things under the guise of full disclosure that didn’t really need to be said, and I’ve suffered the consequences of hurt feelings and strained relationships. Yet instead of giving up, I’ve worked harder to recognize when not speaking up is a lie of omission versus when it is something I can truly keep to myself. As Wayne Dyer said, you can only be better than you used to be. I’m still walking the path, complete with detours and wrong turns, but I can honestly say I’m moving in a positive direction. A friend of mine and fellow yogi Sarah Lee recently said that she appreciates other teachers who seem real and “wear their shit on their sleeve,” and that she has always experienced authenticity in our relationship. It felt good to be acknowledged, and helped take the sting out of my failures. Much like revealing my scar, the more I open up and show the wounded parts of myself, the more I can heal.

**If you struggle with mental health challenges like cutting, addiction, depression, anxiety, or just need a place you can talk, listen, and be yourself, please join me at Foundation 45’s free weekly support group on Monday nights at 7 PM in the back room of Independent Bar and Kitchen in Deep Ellum. And before you engage in any destructive behavior, please reach out. National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK; Crisis Text: 741-741

How Do You Yoga?

“Why is this so hard? I’m hot. I can’t breathe. I didn’t know yoga could be this hard, I thought I was supposed to feel relaxed. How is that old guy keeping up? Oh dear lord not another chaturanga.” These were likely some of the thoughts running through my mind when I took my first intermediate yoga class. When I began my yoga journey in the early 2000s in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the options were fairly limited. My introduction to yoga was a gentle class offered as an extension course through LSU. All I remember is falling asleep in savasana every time. Something about it made me want to try more, so I sought out a studio, one of only a couple in the city at the time. They offered both kinds of yoga: beginner and intermediate. The beginner class was fairly gentle and mellow, so I formed an assumption based on my limited experience that yoga was a practice of easy stretches and slow movements with deep breaths. Then I attended the intermediate class. In my memory it’s a blur of sweat and humidity and arms and legs and up and down. Since then I’ve had a love/hate relationship with “hard yoga.” For a while I turned my nose up at this exercise based style of practice because it was not traditional enough. But after learning more about the origins and purpose of yoga, I now believe that anything can be a form of yoga. It’s not what it looks like on the outside, but the intention and shift that happens on the inside.

In the West when we say we’re doing yoga, we usually mean a class in which a teacher leads a group of students through a series of poses, or asanas. And there are plenty of different varieties to choose from. Iyengar yoga is vastly different than restorative, which are both worlds apart from Ashtanga. Yet these practices, which are very different physically, must share something in common. In the 2000 year old collection of aphorisms known as the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali defines yoga as the restraint of the fluctuations that disturb our peace of mind. He explains that when the mind is calm, we dwell in our own true nature, or higher self. The word yoga means union, and refers to this merging of the individual self with the higher Self, or the soul with its source. The process of union is also known as enlightenment or awakening, meaning we wake up and shine light on the truth that we are spiritual beings inhabiting material bodies, and we’re all in this together. One of the main obstacles to enlightenment is an out-of-control ego, which causes us to feel separation and fear instead of connection and love. The practice of yoga then is anything that reduces ego and leads to spiritual awakening, peace and equanimity. There are various paths of yoga that focus on different techniques for attaining enlightenment. Yogis on some of these paths may not necessarily perform postures, or if they do they may be secondary to their main practice of service, chanting, or meditation. Raja yoga is known as the path of introspection, and while it too leads to meditation it includes hatha yoga, which is made up of the physical aspects of yoga like postures and breathing that are most familiar to us today. In the sutras, Patanjali gives very little detail on how to perform asana. He says only that it is steady and comfortable and the practitioner is able to release tension and meditate in the pose. The word asana originally simply meant seat, and here Patanjali is probably referring to a seated meditation posture. The other hatha yoga techniques and postures are meant to maintain the health of the physical body, the vessel for the soul, as well as cleanse the energetic body so we can more easily connect to the Self in meditation. The irony that I had judged certain styles of yoga practice as “not traditional” was not lost on me when I learned that almost all the poses we do today are relatively modern compared to this original meaning of asana. As usual, karma likes to give a little humor with her lessons.

If you’ve ever sat for meditation, you know it can be challenging. Feelings of anger or sadness can arise, seemingly out of nowhere. I often feel bored or frustrated, especially if my mind is very active. But I always remind myself that there’s no such thing as a bad meditation. Every time I sit I get a little more clear, a little more focused. It doesn’t always feel peaceful and calm doing it, but it has lead to an overall increase of peace in my life. Literally sitting in the mental discomfort helps me to increase my equanimity, almost like strengthening a muscle. I think the physical component of yoga can be the same way. If our asana practice is always relaxed and happy and easy, we never get the opportunity to practice staying centered when faced with a challenge. Life isn’t always calm, and we have to learn to deal with the uncomfortable feelings, the challenging people, the difficult moments. A challenging yoga practice can be a safe space where you observe your reaction to things. Challenging of course means different things to different people, and the various paths of yoga show us that this is not only acceptable, but necessary. Sometimes I need to push myself in a physically active way to get to my mental edge. And sometimes the challenge is to lie still in a restorative class or keep my mind present during savasana. Since the original meaning of asana was just a seat, and the other physical expressions of yoga were born out of necessity to cleanse and challenge the physical body, then I believe anything can be yoga when done mindfully. Walking, skating, kickboxing, cycling, running, jazzercise, swimming, dancing—all these can work with the body to get to the mind, and eventually beyond both.

I like to remind my students that we don’t do yoga to get better at yoga, we do yoga to get better at life. Our yoga practice can certainly be our refuge at times, but if we only use yoga to feel good then it can become just another escape. I believe that our practice has to challenge us in some way in order for us to grow. Ultimately we must face our physical, mental, and spiritual limits in order to transcend them.

Karm’ Again?

As of this week I’ve made 36 trips around the sun in this lifetime. Sometime last year a friend said that when you turn 36, you’ve been raising yourself as long as your parents did, so you can’t blame them anymore. Although I had a pretty great childhood, this statement still resonated and has been on my mind in the months leading up to this birthday. Besides parents, karma tends to be the second most popular thing to blame for undesirable circumstances. If I plan to take responsibility for my life, I also need to address my karma and what I can learn from it.

I spent many years looking to external factors to determine my happiness. I looked to other people to validate my worth. I depended on my accomplishments to feel successful. In high school I was valedictorian and voted “most likely to succeed.” I called it the kiss of death and joked that I was sure to end up in a gutter somewhere. Admittedly it boosted my ego to be thought well of by my peers, although secretly I wished I had been voted onto homecoming court instead. And despite not literally ending up in a gutter, there were times when it felt like I had been cursed. Even though I would call my life successful now, in a way I was right about not living up to the expectations of my youth. My life now is nothing like the picture of success I imagined back then. And for that I’m eternally grateful.

According to tradition karma accumulates over the course of many lives. But even considering only what we know for sure within this lifetime, we can still see the workings of karma in our own bodies and minds. Prarabdha karma is what we come into this life with. I could say that my DNA, bone structure, family of origin and country of birth are this type of karma. These can’t really be changed. Sure I could get plastic surgery or move, but the impact those things had on me is still there, and they’re largely fixed. I simply have to accept the reality of the situation. Sanchita karma is what we’ve created from the moment of birth up to the present. All of the choices I’ve made throughout my life have affected how it has turned out. Everything from the way I’ve treated my body, to the people I’ve developed relationships with, to the work I’ve chosen to do have shaped what my life looks like now. I can’t go back and change the past, so in this way it’s similar to prarabdha karma. However since this karma has been shaped by my conscious choices in this life, I can change how it continues to unfold. Which leads to agami karma, which is what we’re creating in this very moment.  The choices I am making now are affecting what happens in my future. I can’t control all the people and circumstances around me, but I can control my own words, thoughts, and actions.

Karma isn’t about right and wrong, just choice and consequences. Being my father’s daughter is prarabdha karma. He had been a runner for a long time and I looked up to that as a kid. Every year when we went on vacation with some family friends he and the other dads and their sons would do a 5 mile run to the Florida/Alabama state line and the moms and daughters would drive to pick them up at the finish. Ever the defiant spirit, I decided that I wanted to be the first girl to join them on the run, which kicked off my own love of running that continued through high school and college. When I started my yoga teacher training I was running long distances, intending to train for a marathon. My teacher said that yoga is great for running, but running isn’t great for yoga. He meant that running would tighten up some areas of my body that would make it more challenging to do certain yoga poses. However if running was important to me, yoga would be great for my body while I was training. He didn’t tell me not to run, instead to recognize the impact that running made on me and decide what my priority was. I didn’t have to judge it, just acknowledge that every decision has a different result. Cause and effect, action and reaction, choice and consequences. In the process of training I injured my foot, a combination of not replacing my shoes soon enough and building up mileage too quickly. The injury has sidelined me from running for a couple years, but it has also helped me to deepen my yoga and meditation practice. I realized that running had been a form of meditation for me and I needed something to replace it. Eventually I developed my own daily seated practice. Just recently I have been getting the urge to run again, and I’ve been looking into doctors and options. All of those decisions, from the one to begin running, to joining the high school cross country team, to deciding not to get new shoes quite yet, to seeking out a doctor who can help me heal, those have all brought me to this point. They represent my sanchita karma. Although I would rather not have been hurt, instead of wallowing in “why me,” I can see the ways in which karma has weaved its lessons throughout this experience and learn from it. I don’t think “everything happens for a reason,” so much as I can make meaning out of everything that happens. That’s agami karma, what I choose to do with the current reality that is presenting itself in this moment.

Karma may be a bitch sometimes, but she sure has a good sense of humor, albeit sometimes a dark one. Laughing along with her can help take the edge off of otherwise depressing situations. When I got married for the first time, I remember being so excited to go to my ten year high school reunion. I had everything right on paper: a husband, mortgage, dog, cat, and a “real” job. Things are not always as they appear however, and despite looking successful from the outside, I was miserable inside. My first divorce happened in the midst of my mental breakdown and subsequent recovery after my mom’s death. I had moved to a healing farm in North Carolina for intense therapy and my husband was left alone in the condo we had bought together. When it became clear that our marriage was over, we decided to sell it. He wanted to get it over with, which I understand, but because I wasn’t ready to come home yet he was stuck with the task of packing up all our stuff. Mine went into storage and he took the essentials and started a new life in  New York. Fast forward about a decade and once again I’m in the process of ending a marriage. This time my wife was the one struggling with mental health issues. Upon realizing that our marriage was over, she decided to move to Oregon. She packed what she could fit in her car and left the majority of her furniture and household items in the apartment that we had moved into together. I didn’t miss the bitter irony of this fact as I took on the task of packing all her stuff so it could be shipped to her in her new residence. Instead of getting bitter myself though, I chose to be grateful for the opportunity to absolve my own past karma and to cultivate more compassion for my first spouse and what he went through. The icing on the karmic cake is that I’ve been drawn to minimalism for a while, and with my ex’s stuff gone I’m well on my way to a tiny house someday. File that under be careful what you wish for, cross referenced with the universe works in mysterious ways.

Looking at karma as a useful teacher and guide helps me to change my perspective when faced with challenges and suffering. It encourages me to get clear on what I want, to be the change I wish to see in the world, to keep my side of the street clean, and take responsibility for myself. It empowers me to create what I want in my life, not by controlling other people or events around me, but by fully owning the energy I bring. My parents raised me for 18 years, my ego for 18. Let’s see what happens when I let my soul take the reins.

Let’s Get Physic-al

I’ve often joked that not only do I not understand physics, I don’t even know what physics is. I attended an academically rigorous Catholic high school, and I was in the honors program.  The honors physics teacher had a reputation for being tough and fun, and as I remember she was also progressive and outspoken. In previous years her students had created elaborate Rube Goldberg machines, constructed bridges out of toothpicks that held up under a person’s weight, and conducted egg drop experiments from the roof of the convent. I was a little nervous about the difficulty level, but also excited to face the challenge. The summer before my senior year there was a sudden and mysterious change in the teaching staff. The former teacher “left” the school for reasons not explained to us. Conspiracy theories abounded, at least in my head. She was replaced at the last minute by a very sweet woman who had been teaching basic science at a smaller public school. She tried but, as we say in the South, bless her heart, she was seriously unprepared. My friends and I spent most of the semester playing Tetris on our graphing calculators and “borrowing” links from the math department to have competitions. We were such rebels. Fast forward to adulthood and I’m great at packing for a move but clueless when it comes to the workings of the universe. I tried to read Stephen Hawking’s “The Universe in a Nutshell” several times, but never successfully cracked it. I set it all aside for a few years until a recent conversation with a friend made me realize I really don’t know how gravity works, aside from a vague notion about objects exerting force on other objects related somehow to their mass. While perusing my shelf of yet-to-be-read books, I happened upon “The Elegant Universe” by Brian Greene. Published in 2003, which also happens to be the year I finished college, it starts with the work of Newton and Einstein as a foundation, then moves into string theory. I took it as a sign, decided to give my physics self-study another go, and pulled it down for some light bedtime reading.

It didn’t take long to confirm my suspicion that this is an area of knowledge in which I’m severely lacking. The good news is that the writing style is very approachable and it’s helping to fill in the gaps in my understanding. And it’s totally mind blowing. If you, like me, had a tentative grasp on the force that’s keeping us all from floating off into space, then read on for a simplified explanation. You’ll soon find, as I did, that gravity isn’t so much a force as it is a shape. As objects with mass float in the sea of space, space actually bends around the object. The substance in which everything exists is more accurately described as “spacetime” but for ease of communication I’ll stick with just focusing on space in this discussion. The fabric of space is warped by the presence of an object with mass. The analogy commonly given is that of the bowling ball on a rubber membrane. Imagine a rubber sheet suspended horizontally. What happens when you place a bowling ball in the center? The sheet stretches, curving around the mass of the ball. Greene acknowledges in his book that this is an imperfect analogy, since space is three dimensional. I like to think of space as a giant tub of pudding, but that would cost a lot more than $240. It’s very hard for our minds to imagine the qualities of space as there isn’t a perfect comparison in everyday life, so the rubber sheet will have to do for now. Back to the bowling ball suspended on the curved sheet. Picture a much smaller object, say a golf ball, being dropped onto the same sheet. If it is far enough away from the bowling ball, where the sheet is still flat, the ball would roll along its own path undisturbed by the presence of the bowling ball. But if the golf ball landed close enough to the place where the curvature begins, it could start to roll towards the bowling ball. It could potentially begin circling around the curved lip of the depression and spiral into “orbit” around the bowling ball like the earth orbits the sun. Another possibility is that it could “fall” straight in towards the bowling ball and land on the surface, sticking there the way objects stick to the earth. Gravity then is not a force that exerts itself onto objects, but rather the distortion of the medium through which objects move.

In yoga philosophy there are two main polarities that work together to make up the universe: Shiva and Shakti. Shakti is the active energy of creation, Shiva the pure consciousness that contains the life force energy. Shakti is often described as feminine energy, and Shiva masculine. However it is important to note that all people, regardless of gender identity, possess both Shiva and Shakti energy within themselves. The goal of yoga, which means union, is to join these two different qualities in a balanced way. When I read physicist John Wheeler’s famous quote, “Mass grips space by telling it how to curve, space grips mass by telling it how to move,” I immediately thought of Shiva and Shakti. We know from Einstein’s famous formula E=mc^2 that mass can be transformed into energy and vice versa; they are two different forms of the same substance. Yogis also say that matter and energy are made of the same stuff vibrating at different frequencies to manifest everything we know as reality. Playing with Wheeler’s couplet, we arrive at, “Shakti connects with Shiva by telling him what shape to make, Shiva connects with Shakti by telling her how to move within that shape.” Shakti dictates the shape of the container by virtue of her mass, or energy, causing him to bend around her. Shiva dictates the movement of Shakti by virtue of his space, shaping the path through which she travels. The universe once existed as a densely packed unit containing everything in a single point, which then explosively spread apart. To this day, space and time continue to stretch as matter and energy move farther away from one another. Putting this into yogic terms, Shakti energy caused Shiva space to grow exponentially, creating planets, stars, and everything else in the universe along the way. This phenomenon is aptly known as the Big Bang, though I’m not sure if the yogic pun was intended.

Some people think that science and spirituality are incompatible, or at the very least dissimilar. The more I learn about both topics however, the more overlap I see. The yogis who received these teachings interpreted them through the lens of what they knew about the natural world around them, without the benefit of telescopes and space ships. When Mother Earth hugs us to her breast, Father Sky is the gentle hand that curls around our backs, holding us in place. Shakti creates worlds and Shiva choreographs their cosmic dance. Despite not having the advantage of modern technology, the ancient sages came to many of the same conclusions that our modern scientists do, even if they spoke in different languages.

 

Heart Broken Record

Every word I said that pierced someone’s heart

Plays on repeat in my head.

Sometimes quietly, sometimes

It fills the room and I can barely hear my own heart beating.

Occasionally it skips and scratches,

“you HURT me . . .  HURT me   . . .  HURT me.”

Perhaps it’s a penance or punishment.

“Someday I’ll break that fucking record,”

I say as a hand shakily reaches out and places the needle

Back at the beginning.

AstroSync

Opening the wheel, web and flower of life

OPERATION YOGA

Helping people who are ready for better