As the holiday season gains momentum, I see many conflicting messages about how to spend those two precious resources, time and money. We are urged to reach out to help those in need by volunteering our time and donating our money. At the same time, advertisements temp us to spend these resources on ourselves, telling us that we deserve to indulge. We often confuse self-care with selfishness, and self-neglect with selflessness. At times we may feel that we don’t have enough resources to spread around. It may seem that we have to choose between helping others and helping ourselves. Ultimately, however, self-care is selfless, and vice versa. If we spend our money and time wisely, we can maintain our own well-being and still have some left to help others. The familiar warning we hear every time we fly on an airplane helps to illustrate this idea. The flight attendant reminds us to place the oxygen mask over our own nose and mouth first, before helping a child or companion fasten their mask. Some people take this idea and emphasize the fact that you put yourself first. They use this excuse to be selfish under the guise of “self-care.” But they are missing the second half of the statement. After taking care of yourself, you then proceed to help someone else. You don’t stop at the act of self-care; you extend this care to those around you. Others may think they know better and ignore the first part, trying to help others first and put themselves last. But once the time comes to take care of themselves, they are too drained and exhausted to do so. Eventually this wears them down and in the end they don’t have the energy or resources to help themselves or anyone else. In addition, many people don’t even know how to truly care for themselves, instead seeking instant gratification through things like food, liquor, shopping, sex, or gossip. These pursuits may be fine when done mindfully, in moderation, and as a form of entertainment; not when they are the only way for you to feel better. I have personally tried all of the above, and trust me, it doesn’t end well. You’re left bloated, hung over, broke, alone, disliked, and with all the same problems you had before. My friend and fellow yoga teacher once said, “Vegging out is not relaxing.” True restoration and relaxation come when we tune in to our bodies, minds, and spirits. Mediation for you may involve walking in nature, writing in a journal, creating music and other art, or of course practicing yoga. We can mediate in many different ways, the common thread is that we take the time to slow down and look within. Only then can we truly set priorities that will serve to nourish us and also leave us with a reserve of energy to share with others.
Archive for November, 2013
I’m all about accentuating the positive. I believe that what we focus on increases, so focus on the good. And if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Lately I have been reading and hearing a lot about truth, authenticity, and being yourself. Is emphasizing the good in your life while ignoring the bad a positive technique for manifesting more good, or is it denial and dishonesty? Abraham Hicks says to only focus on what you don’t want long enough to get clear about what you do want, then switch the focus to manifesting that. Therapists tell us to talk about our problems to air them out in the open and let them go. The answer is likely a delicate balance between the two, talking about challenges when it could help yourself or others, and holding back when it is just mindless complaining or gossiping. Still, the tendency for people to showcase only the most fabulous aspects of their lives is starting to take a toll on society. In some studies, it was found that the most common emotion people experience when looking at social media is envy. I would argue that if you are experiencing jealousy of friends or acquaintances due to their posts online, maybe it is time to log off the computer and start doing some of the things you wish you could post about. However I do see the benefit of being open about struggles and challenges as well, to create a balanced picture of life. A friend of mine is always open and honest online, some say she is too open. Her response to that is to say, this is me and if you don’t like it you don’t have to read my posts. Fair point. I tend to be more private on social media, not so much because I am trying to keep things a secret, but more because I choose to use a different forum, and for me Facebook isn’t one where I reveal too much. (You have to read this blog to get the juicy stuff.) I also tend to wait until I have learned a lesson or gained some clarity on an issue before writing about it online. But in the interest of full disclosure, and tongue firmly planted in cheek, I give you a few examples of posts I might share, and the part I might not.
When I post: “Join me tomorrow for a fun, energizing flow!”
What I don’t say: Please, I need to make rent. Seriously. I love what I do, but yoga teachers gotta eat. 🙂
When I post: A motivational quote.
What I don’t say: I posted that not as an admonishment to you, but as a reminder to myself.
When I post: “Yummy, raw, vegan, organic salad for dinner!”
What I don’t say: To make up for the fast food I scarfed down in my car at lunch.
When I post: “Awesome morning meditation today!”
What I don’t say: Which was the only calm in the storm that was the rest of my day.
When I post: A picture of my pet with the caption, “So cute!”
What I don’t say: And it’s a good thing, because after cleaning up the mess he made I have a few 4 letter words that I’d use to describe him, and cute isn’t one of them.
When I post: A picture of myself in a challenging yoga pose
What I don’t say: I tried this pose thousands of times before I could do it. Literally. I have taken yoga classes for over 10 years, at least several times a week, often almost every day. Practice and all is coming.
And now you know the rest of the story. Good day.
Yoga means union, to connect with something greater than yourself. There are many paths to yoga, many of which don’t even use postures. There is the yoga of devotion; some may find their yoga in a temple, church, mosque, synagogue, or meeting house. There is the yoga of service; some may find this union at a shelter, soup kitchen, or charity event. And of course there is the yoga which includes postures; but even on this path there is a foundation before asana and a goal after. Postures are not the end of the journey, but they are a vital step along the way. There are eight steps or limbs on this particular path to yoga. The first two steps form the foundation for right living, giving us guidelines like honesty, contentment, and discipline. Then comes postures and breathing, acknowledging that we do indeed inhabit physical bodies that deserve to be tended to. Next is the withdrawal of senses, or going inward, which leads to concentration and meditation. Finally the goal is reached: enlightenment, bliss, the ultimate union of yourself with that “something greater.” Going back to the beginning, the very first of the foundational guidelines we are given is ahimsa, or non-harm, kindness, compassion, in a word, love. I believe this to be the foundation for all yoga, for all life. In fact, in trying to come up with a single term to describe that thing that is “greater than ourselves” that all people can relate to, regardless of faith, religion or belief system, love is what I came up with. Who can deny that we all need love, that we are all striving to unite ourselves with love in some way? I would argue that we are all yogis, we are all seeking union with love. This journey however is not easy, as fear and ego cloud our eyes. They say actions speak louder than words, and I would add that intentions speak louder than actions. Actions can be deceiving if the actor is playing to an audience. The difficulty however is that we can’t ever really know the intentions of others. Lately I have noticed much debate about what “real” yoga is. Is yoga hot, slow, loud, private, static, flowing, cool, quiet, public, fast, hard, gentle? But we are all arguing over the external, the actions. One thing I do know, that no matter how you get there on the outside, the real yoga happens inside. What matters is the intention, and only each individual practitioner can know what his or her intentions are. No matter how loud or silent the room is in which you practice, only you know how much noise is inside your head. No matter what the temperature is in the space, only you can feel the spark of the internal fire inside you. No matter how fast or slow you move through poses, only you can feel the swirling or the calming of the fluctuations of the mind. If you are wondering if what you are doing is “real yoga,” ask yourself this simple question: does it make me better? Not does it make me look better or even feel better, but does it make me better as a person? If yoga is union, then it involves me and the world around me. Yes it can be a private internal practice, but when I leave my meditation cushion or roll up my mat, do I bring that peace and love with me and spread it around? Even if no one else is watching, do I still act from a place of love and selflessness? Does it help me to connect to love? Am I more loving, patient, compassionate, and kind towards everyone, friend, stranger, and enemy alike? Does it help me to not only find peace but to bring peace into the world? Every morning I repeat the prayer of St. Francis, asking for love to guide me to bring more peace, more joy, more light into the world. Some days I fail miserably, some days I make some small contribution. But every day I intend to find, spread, and live love. Love is what made the Velveteen Rabbit and Pinocchio real, and it is what makes yoga real also.
I cried in class today. Several personal issues were weighing on my mind as I walked in the door. I felt the subtle crumbling that precedes a break down. I thought about leaving during the opening postures, but I knew I needed this practice. A comment from the teacher at the beginning of the primary series postures really hit home. She reminded us that what followed was “yoga chikitsa” or yoga therapy. You might initially think, like I did, that this means physical therapy. And indeed it is physical. I have gotten stronger, healthier, and more flexible since I have been practicing yoga, and particularly since I have been practicing Ashtanga consistently. The secret though, is that the physical benefits are only lagniappe, as we say in Louisiana. They’re a nice bonus, but not the main goal. And it wasn’t until recently that I began to really understand that concept. After over a decade of practicing yoga, several years of teaching, and more recently practicing mostly Ashtanga, I am beginning to get it. As they say, this is lifetime practice, measured in years and decades. The true aim of yoga is “chitta vritti nirodha,” the calming of the fluctuations of the mind. We are striving towards equanimity, a calm and blissful internal state that we maintain despite what external storms may be blowing around us. That can be a tall order. Not only do we have the day to day minor irritations like traffic, illness, or work stress, but we also have our deep rooted habitual thoughts and behaviors, or samskaras. So when a challenge confronts us, it is not only that specific problem that we wrestle with, but also our old fears, insecurities, and past insults that pop up and join in the brawl. The practice of yoga helps us to systematically call up and release those samskaras. And if you’ve ever done a detox or cleanse, you know that it usually feels worse before it gets better. It is painful to dredge up all that old toxic stuff hiding in our minds, clouding our perspective, dampening our energy. But it is the only way to get it out. We have to face it, hold it up, and examine it to get rid of it.
I struggled to continue to breathe deeply towards the end of class because I could feel the breath stoking the internal fire, stirring up emotional energy, burning samskaras. I could literally feel my breath going deep inside me and dredging up some really dark stuff. I wanted to resist, but I knew I needed to surrender. My ego was telling me it wasn’t professional to cry in class, at the studio where I also teach, in front of students and colleagues. I was worried about how I would look to others. But really, what better place than around those who understand? This battle between ego and spirit raged silently in my head, and I made it to the closing postures without incident. I sniffled into my towel during the post-backbend Paschimottanasana, or forward fold, my head buried between my shins. But then again, I generally do that in every class anyway, as deep backbends are very emotionally intense for me. It is a very vulnerable thing to have your soft underbelly completely exposed, not to mention if you dropped backwards, barely seeing where you’re going, to get into that position. Otherwise I mostly kept it together, until savasana. The teacher was giving me some lovely gentle adjustments and I couldn’t hold back the flood of emotion any longer. Poor thing, I think I scared her as I suddenly burst into tears and shook with emotion. I rolled to my side and cried quietly into my towel until the end of class. There I managed to soothe myself, put myself back together, finish the class and go on with the errands of the day.
I am so grateful though for the breaking apart, the tearing down, that this practice does for me. Sometimes you have to break into pieces before you can put yourself back together. It truly is therapy, and trust me I’ve done plenty. The beauty of Ashtanga yoga for me is that the poses are set out in a perfect order, allowing my mind to settle and work within instead of wondering what comes next, trying to hear the teacher’s words, or listening to the music playing. It is designed to systematically release our samskaras. And although they vary in the details, when it comes down to it, we all share the same ones. Fear of rejection. Desire for approval. Grief over a loss. Suffering. Ashtanga grabs onto of all this darkness, holds it right up in front of my face, and says, “Breathe.”