Ishvara Pranidhana: Your Practice Is Bigger Than the Size of Your Shorts

Ishvara Pranidhana is the last of the Niyamas, or moral “observances” of yoga (read more about Patanjali and the 8 limbs of yoga here). It translates sort of like, devotion to God, which is a little tricky for some folks (I’m a Buddhist, so I feel free to go ahead and take some liberties here, which I’ll talk about shortly). It might also be one of the least popular observances to talk about in your sort of contemporary yoga class setting, at least in my experience. I guess it’s easier to talk about feel-good santosha (“be happy with where you are today!”) and “work it, girl” tapas (“one more navasana, guys!”) than it is about, um, devoting your practice to the divine.

For myself, though, and many others, a yoga class devoid of spirituality is not really yoga.  At our yoga studio (YogaFish), the teachers believe there is something more to the practice than just the physical element. This is why we do pranayama in our classes, offer free meditation, and offer chanting as part of the practice (even if it’s just the “Om”). Here’s how I summed it up for would-be visitors:

There are lots of great yoga studio options in the area. What YogaFish offers is an atmosphere of acceptance with an emphasis on the mind/body/spirit connection. Sure, if you want to come to class and just stretch and sweat, you can do that. We believe that what keeps people coming back, though, is the way that they start to notice their lives changing. In addition to the physical benefits (strength, flexibility, overall feeling of better health), there’s an increased awareness. More mindfulness, more appreciation, more self-insight. YogaFish instructors understand that experience- that’s how we teach. Our classes are designed to help our students achieve those insights.

As teachers and studio owners, we can create the space for students but ultimately, it’s up to the practitioner to decide how to handle their time on the mat. Ishvara Pranidhana is your opportunity to devote your practice to a higher power. In my classes, I offer time at the beginning of class to create a sankalpa– an intention, dedication, or resolution that can be a touchstone throughout the practice. I also suggest students bring their hands to heart’s center (anjali mudra) and chant Om with this intention in mind, so that any time their hands return to this mudra during class, they can be guided back to the higher intention.

Yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein, in his essay “Is Yoga A Religion?” says:

“At the heart of all forms of Yoga is the assumption that you have not yet tapped into your full potential as a human being. In particular, Yoga seeks to put you in touch with your spiritual core- your innermost nature- that which or who you truly are….you are free to allow your personal experience and realization to shape your understanding.”

In other words, you are free to interpret Ishvara Pranidhana however you like (in fact, you’re free to ignore it altogether)! Some students may choose to create a sankalpa that focuses on cultivating a particular positive attitude in their practice, or they may dedicate the practice to someone they know who needs that positive energy. To me, these are all different expressions of devotion, and I think a valid way to practice Ishvara Pranidhana. Not everyone agrees. According to Sharon Gannon and David Life and their school of Jivamukti Yoga, specifically devoting your practice to the divine is really a necessity:

“The yoga practices amplify and direct the pranic flow. If we do not consciously aim that flow upward, it will flow to whatever tendencies might be passing through the mind… The psychotherapeutic power of the yoga practices lies in their ability to bring unconscious feelings to the surface. This can be overwhelming, unless the practice is steadfastly dedicated to God. When that unleashed energy is directed toward God-realization rather than toward expressing unconscious selfish emotions, it becomes liberating rather than binding.” –Jivamukti Yoga

There have been times over the past two years where I came to my yoga mat and sort of felt like, What’s the point? Why bother? It felt like a job, or a chore. Sometimes it just felt like exercise.

Although I understood (and paid lip service to) the concept of Ishvara Pranidhana, it wasn’t really clicking for me. As a teacher, I knew I needed to maintain my self-practice in order to stay fresh and able to offer insight into my students’ practices, but I wasn’t able to make that direct connection. I was working from ego on my mat, that is, thinking about myself and my own practice and its ups and downs.

Interestingly, as I was feeling disillusioned with my asana practice, my meditation practice was growing, and I felt a disconnect between what was happening on my yoga mat and what was happening on my meditation cushion.My meditation practice includes time at the beginning and end of each session to dedicate the practice to the service of all sentient beings. I was in meditation one day when it occurred to me in one of those awesome lightning-bolt-of-intuition-moments that I was wasting the opportunity I had every day on my yoga mat. I could dedicate each whole asana practice in the same way!

Ashtanga yoga, which I practice, lends itself handily to a meditative experience. Students are asked to follow the tristana method by focusing on the breath (Ujjayi), drishti (a specific gaze/focal point in each pose), and the asana (which includes the bandhas). If you’ve ever tried to do all of these things at once for a whole 90 minute practice, then you know how hard it is to stay focused.

But with my understanding of asana practice as service- my Ishvara Pranidhana– I was able to use each of these three points of meditative awareness as an opportunity to serve. Every time I drifted away, I said to myself, “Hey now, engage your bandhas for the good of all sentient beings.” If this sounds a little nuts to you, I understand- at one point, it may have to me too. But I don’t need to understand how it works. Maybe it’s as simple as this- by bringing meditative awareness to my own practice, I’m learning more that I can share with my students. When I have a hard time doing something in my practice, or when my awareness drifts, or when I start wishing I had worn different shorts, I can use it as an opportunity to be compassionate toward others who experience the same thing. It’s not about me and my practice any more- it’s about something bigger than that.

Finally- for those days when even getting to the mat feels like a chore- I’ve been inspired by a Buddhist text that says the following:

Used well, this body is our raft to freedom. Used badly, this body anchors us to samsara (the ocean of suffering in which we all live).

May I continue to serve, to use this body well, for the benefit of all beings. 1972261_655174854544705_1407643906_n-1

 

 

Laura’s Magic Kitchen, Now with Expanded Menu Options

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A few months ago, I started reading The Mastery of Love by Don Miguel Ruiz, and it’s had a serious effect on the relationships in my life- including that most treacherous of relationships, the one with myself.

I could say a lot about this book- but today I just want to share with you one of my favorite themes in this book- Ruiz’s “magical kitchen.” He says:

Imagine that you have a magical kitchen in your home…you can have any food you want from any place in the world in any quantity. You never worry about what to eat; whatever you wish for, you can have at your table… Then one day someone knocks at your door, and it’s a person with a pizza. You open the door, and the person looks at you and says, ‘Hey, do you see this pizza? I’ll give you this pizza if you let me control your life, if you do whatever I want you to do. You are never going to starve because I can bring pizza every day. You just have to be good to me.’ Can you imagine your reaction? In your kitchen you can have the same pizza- even better. Yet this person comes to you and offers you food, if you just do whatever he wants you to o. You are going to laugh and say, ‘No, thank you! I don’t need your food.’

Ruiz goes on to describe what it’s like if you forget that you have a magic kitchen. Suddenly, you’re starving, and the pizza deal sounds not so bad. And then you’re hooked on the pizza- and dependent on the pizza pimp.

Your heart, of course, is the magical kitchen, and food is the love that we have for ourselves and others. Our ideas of self-worth, self-appreciation, are all cooked up in this kitchen. When we forget about the kitchen, then we try to look elsewhere for love, appreciation, validation. Sometimes we get pretty desperate and do some stupid stuff to try to feed the unending hunger.

This metaphor was really powerful for me (because I love food? I dunno) and came at the perfect time in my life. I realized that, despite all the work I did, and continue to do, I’d forgotten that the power to feel loved, valuable and worthy was in my own hands– not in someone else’s. And yet, I kept forgetting it- I was looking for someone to feed me.

If the thought of falling in love with yourself sounds overly dramatic or self-centered, perhaps the magic kitchen metaphor will appeal to you more. To me, it’s so silly that it’s sort of fun to work with. Sometimes I like to imagine myself turning around and saying, “Oh, there’s the kitchen!”- as though I’d forgotten about this room in my house for a while.

It also lends itself to more elaborate metaphorical musings. For a while, I was really longing for a relationship. ‘Sure,’ I thought to myself. ‘I’ve got a magical kitchen, but all it makes is burritos. I’d just like a freaking panini once in a while.’  With time and distance, I came to feel that the panini wasn’t so great. Laura’s Magic Kitchen Brand Panini is way, way better.

Here’s an inferior panini story: I dated someone not too long ago who expressed great appreciation for me in many ways. At first, it felt good- yay, pizza!- but occasionally the (still metaphorical, are you tired of it yet?) pizza supply would dry up a little bit. “You know,” he’d say, “If you want to lose weight, you should….” Or, “I even like this about you.” This hurt, of course, because I was depending on the pizza to fill my growling tummy.

I saw the panini guy not too long ago (he’s no longer dealing, or at least I’m not buying, so to speak). He has also read The Mastery of Love, and we spent a little time talking about the Magic Kitchen. When we hugged goodbye, he said to me, “Thanks for letting me bask in the warmth of your Magic Kitchen for a while.” I loved this!  I’m like a food truck, y’all, out driving around loving myself, loving you, just doing the best I can to remember that I’m behind the wheel, standing over the oven…(this metaphor is really getting out of hand, I think I’m about done with it).

Okay, but one last little story to share. That picture at the top of this post- me doing a handstand? That’s from a photo shoot by the genius, talented Jennifer Sampson of Sampson Photography. And it almost didn’t happen because I forgot about the kitchen.

I’d had that photo shoot scheduled for months, and when it finally arrived last week, I was feeling pretty lousy. I weighed more than I wanted to, my skin was utterly broken out, and I felt, in general, like a hideous beast. I know how stupid this is. I do, I promise. But I also imagined people looking at the finished photos and picking out flaws. Once again, I’d put the power of love and appreciation and worth in someone else’s hands, rather than in my own.

Don Miguel Ruiz puts it this way:

There’s no problem at all with being beautiful or ugly, short or tall, thin or heavy…There’s no problem with being gorgeous. If you walk through a crowd of people and they tell you, ‘Oh, you are beautiful,’ you can say, ‘Thank you, I know,’ and keep going. It doesn’t make any difference to you. But it will make a difference to you if you don’t believe you are beautiful and someone tells you that. Then you are going to say, ‘Am I really?’ This opinion can impress you, and, of course, that makes you easy prey.

I do believe I am beautiful, and that things like weight, skin, and hair will come and go. Sometimes it takes me an embarrassingly long time to remember that I believe these things, but it’s getting easier. Not everyone is going to think I’m beautiful. Not everyone is going to fall in love with me. And, with my new extended menu options of self-worth and appreciation, I really don’t need them to.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone-  may your kitchen be full of delicious options today.

 

 

Is Your Love Enough? (The Post About Depression)

Depression, for me, is a drag. It looks a bit like seeing  the world through dirty glass. It feels a bit like  walking through knee-deep water. It’s like Monday morning after a weekend spent doing chores. It’s like your car needs new brakes and your toilet won’t flush and you know something else is going to go wrong, but you’ve accepted with a bone-weary knowledge and keep trudging forward.

It’s also a little bit like I’m the only person in the world. It’s a selfish thing that hurts the people I love, if I let it. It’s like I’m standing on a beach full of pebbles, and I’ve picked up one tiny pebble and am holding it in front of my eye and it’s enormous, and now I can’t see the others because I am confronted by this boulder.

“How can people kill themselves?” a friend of mine asked recently. “How can they do that to everyone around them?” Well, in my experience, there’s a certain kind of self-centeredness that comes with serious depression. It’s an ugly side effect.

The holidays were hard for me this year- after the sweeping life changes of 2013, the holidays by myself felt a bit like a dirty nightcap at the end of a wild party I didn’t want to attend. I felt more down than I had in a long time.

Yoga and meditation have been a tremendous help to me in fortifying my defenses against this disease, though. Recently The Onion published this piece:  New Antidepressant Makes Friends’ Problems Seem Worse. Although it’s a really funny idea, there’s a great truth to it. The antidepressant is compassion. The secret is love.

I do what I can to remember this: When I am allowing depression to get the better of me, I am not able to give my best to the people in my life. Now, this doesn’t mean that I can just “snap out of it,” but it does help to give me direction- to remind me to do the best I can to take care of myself so that I can be more available to people who need me. Friends, family, students. It helps me to make better decisions.

Michael Franti and Spearhead have a great song- I’ve posted it at the top of this entry- that I have been listening to in dark moments. Although it’s about free speech, the chorus speaks to me like a call to arms: “Is your love enough? Can you love some more?”

So I am reminded that I can help myself to walk through this time by doing the things that will help me- my practice on the mat. A walk in nature. Meditation, regularly. And if once in a while I need to take a nap at 3 in the afternoon because I just can’t face the world, then dammit, I’ma do just that. I’ve got work to do, serious loving compassionate work to do, and I’ll do what it takes to help myself get to a place where I can be more effective.

Here’s a poem to share with you. It arrived via Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac in my Inbox on December 30, and I burst into tears when I saw the title. If you’ve ever been so far down that you thought you couldn’t keep going- if you thought nobody would care- I hope this speaks to you as it did to me.

No Hemlock Rock (don’t kill yourself)

by Jennifer Michael Hecht

Don’t kill yourself. Don’t kill yourself.
Don’t. Eat a donut, be a blown nut.
That is, if you’re going to kill yourself,
stand on a street corner rhyming
seizure with Indonesia, and wreck it with
racket. Allow medical terms.
Rave and fail. Be an absurd living ghost,
if necessary, but don’t kill yourself.

Let your friends know that something has
passed, or be glad they’ve guessed.
But don’t kill yourself. If you stay, but are
bat crazy you will batter their hearts
in blooming scores of anguish; but kill
yourself, and hundreds of other people die.

Poison yourself, it poisons the well;
shoot yourself, it cracks the bio-dome.
I will give badges to everyone who’s figured
this out about suicide, and hence
refused it. I am grateful. Stay. Thank
you for staying. Please stay. You
are my hero for staying. I know
about it, and am grateful you stay.

Eat a donut. Rhyme opus with lotus.
Rope is bogus, psychosis. Stay.
Hocus Pocus. Hocus Pocus.
Dare not to kill yourself. I won’t either.

 

Lives In Harmony: Maybe It’s The Cold Medicine Talking, But…

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A few months ago, I told my best friend that I had learned to drive in silence in the car- without music. “That’s so sad,” she said. I knew what she meant. She and I always shared a love for singing together. In fact, last month we drove an extra half mile out of our way so we could get in ALL of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.'” Damn, we sounded good, too. I know it.

What I meant to say to her (and as usual, said very badly) is that I didn’t need music to distract me so much anymore- that I was okay being alone with my own thoughts in a way I hadn’t been before. The quote above- Mozart- makes me feel that way. The silence is not only necessary (otherwise, how to hear the notes?) but a lovely thing that can be music in itself.

But: this week, I’ve been struck with a wicked cold and have had to stay home much more than I ever like to do. I hate, hate, hate not working. It makes me feel guilty and shameful. Yesterday, doped up on cough medicine, I woke up from a nap in a panicky sweat, sure something was wrong. Why was I home? Why wasn’t I teaching? Was everything falling apart?!

My super-charged (and unnecessarily zealous) work ethic aside, I’ve had to face the fact that it is just really hard for me to be away from people. I don’t want anyone to get sick, and I have been pretty contagious, so ethically I know I’m doing the right thing- but ugh. I miss the companionship- sharing with them, even if it’s just on that “hey, I see you” sort of energetic level of exchanging a smile.

I didn’t always feel this way about it- remember this post?– but I’ve come to accept that I thrive when I am around  other people. Sure, I’d rather be a little choosy about which people (I’m not that enlightened)- but I love the interdependence of it, the harmony, the music that we make together. Every day, someone in my life does something just to be nice to me- and I do something for them, too. We have so much to give each other. We don’t exist in isolation. 

Sometimes, after a yoga class, when I see my students talking to each other, no longer separated on their little mats but engaging in community, you can hear the hum of voices, the music they make together, and it’s such a beautiful thing, my heart grows at least three sizes bigger. They’re talking about their kids, or where to get good food, or a shared pain, or a new joy.

In my house tonight, in the silence, there’s a music here, too. One that’s important for me to practice- an aloneness that is beautiful. I hear the ceiling fan. A dog sighing. Laundry in the washer. My own turbulent thoughts.

This silence between the notes is a lovely music. But, given the choice- my heart longs to share life with others. Maybe, someday, one special other?

This post was inspired in part by the following poem- enjoy, friends.

Harmony

by Stuart Kestenbaum

You know the Beatles could have

afforded another microphone,

but George would always stand

in the middle and step up to

Paul’s when it was time to

join in. Because that’s the way

harmony is, you need to share the

electricity, the voice, the words.

Just the way we do when we drive

in our cars with the radio on,

the windows rolled down with fall in the

air, dead leaves swirling in the wake,

or in the spring, the earth damp and soft,

the air hazy with pollen. We hear

the song that moves us, crank the

radio and sing along, at the top of

our lungs, as if we just joined

the group. In tune out of tune,

country western, rock and roll, we want

to harmonize. A whole country of

would-be stars losing love, finding love

with the radio in different

cars, on different paths, the dark

road rumbling beneath.

Totally Comfy Sweet Potato Muffins

This recipe is adapted  from this recipe I found online a few years ago. Feel free to play with the spices- you could even just dump some pumpkin pie spice in there and call it a day.

These muffins are part of my “Self-Care” plan this week- an attempt to nurture myself, relax and have a little fun.  It worked really well, but I have to say that ideally, one should not multi-task and bake while doing a Yin practice at the same time. I had to leave Half Butterfly to take ’em out of the oven. What can I say: I’m still a student when it comes to relaxing.

After I Instagramed a photo of my muffins, a friend said, “Those muffins look totally comfy.” I couldn’t agree more: what a comfy muffin. Enjoy!

Totally Comfy

 

Totally Comfy Sweet Potato Muffins 

Yields something like 18 muffins-ish.

  • 3 C white whole wheat flour (King Arthur is great)
  • 4 t baking powder
  • 1 t cinnamon
  • 1 t ginger
  • 1/2 t ground cloves
  • 1/2 t cardamom
  • 1/4 t black pepper (or more, to taste)
  • 1 1/2 C turbinado sugar (plain sugar would be okay too, of course. Or sorghum molasses. Or maple syrup, if it didn’t cost a fortune).
  • 4 eggs, beaten (I used these because I have a friend with pet chickens. To make it vegan, sub 4 T ground chia or flax seeds, with 12 T of water)
  • 2/3 cup oil (This time I used avocado. Coconut, peanut also good)
  • 2 cups cooked/mashed sweet potato (roasted is best, but 1 can of organic sweet potato is also fantastic)
  • 2 cups chopped pecans (optional. I like them toasted, which is an extra step and usually involves me burning a batch because I forgot I was doing it. Maybe you’ll do better).
  • 1 cup golden raisins or dried cranberries (also optional)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees and prepare your muffin pans. You know, little paper cups if you want your muffins to be wearing little jackets, or maybe just oil or a spray. Your call.

Mix dry ingredients together in a big bowl. This is not the time to be lazy, you want to really get them mixed up awesomely.

Separately (if you have a stand mixer, life is pretty sweet here), beat eggs, sugar, oil and sweet potatoes. Sometimes I throw in a splash of vanilla here because, well, it’s vanilla. Once blended, add your dry ingredients and mix until blended. Now, unlike the earlier step, it’s important not to over mix, so have a light hand here. Just no lumps. Finally, add in your pecans and raisins.

Bake at 325* for 25-30 minutes or until your whole house smells divine.

 

Moment of Weakness: Hitting the Workshop Wall

A few years ago, when I first became enamored with yoga, I decided to attend my first weekend workshop.

In order to get to the studio on time for the first night’s session, I left work early. I’d changed out of my business-casual-Friday-attire and was wearing some sort of yoga outfit and my lime green plaid plastic Keen shoes. I stood by the water fountain to fill my bottle, and fielded questions from co-workers. Several of them were about the (perceived) ugliness of my shoes, but most were curious about the experience.

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“You’re going to do yoga ALL WEEKEND?” someone said. “Yes, she’s really good at yoga,” another person (who’d never seen me practice, nor understood what ‘being good at yoga’ might mean) responded.

For a brief moment, at the call center water cooler, I was a yoga goddess. Crazy shoes, eco-friendly water bottle- I was poised for success. I’m sure I felt excited and optimistic as I drove off to my first-ever yoga workshop.

Three hours later, I was in a different world.

Visiting a new yoga studio for the first time can be, in itself, an intimidating experience. For a shy, insecure, or new-to-yoga person, going for a workshop is a special sort of social torture, not unlike attending some other high school’s prom. Everyone knows each other. The air is thick with full-body hugs, inside jokes (like, inexplicably,”Prana Butt!”), and the scent of Luon. You are wearing the wrong thing, you don’t know where to put your stuff, and suddenly you are sure you forgot to put on deodorant.

That first yoga workshop was a rite of passage for me. Had I been told what I would have to endure, I’m sure I would have skipped it. The Friday night class was the worst- we were forced to pair up into partners. As almost everyone in the room had completed teacher training, I was easily the most clueless person there, and my partner didn’t bother to hide her irritation at the fact. If I could have died then and saved her the frustration of having to deal with my yoga ignorance, I would have done it.

With two more days to go it did get better: I met some people who reminded me that I wasn’t a total loser who deserved to be hanged with a yoga strap. I did my first handstands and got closer to full Hanumanasana than ever before.

Despite these successes, by Sunday afternoon, I had hit what I’ve come to know as the Workshop Wall. I was totally exhausted, physically and emotionally. It’s not easy to spend so much time with strangers, even when they are kind and supportive. To be smiling and friendly after hours of challenging physical activity is hard enough. There was also, for me, the additional challenge of being reminded that I really wasn’t awesome at this yoga thing. I just felt stupid in my body. Like, why couldn’t I do this stuff? Why didn’t my body just “get it”?

Something about this prolonged intense physical activity coupled with the intensely intimate social cocoon of the workshop environment triggered the absolute worst in me, emotionally. I fell back into the ruts of depression and negativity. The narrative in my head sounded something like this (warning- it’s mean): “You’re too old/heavy/ugly/stupid. You’ll never be able to do these things. Nobody even wants you here.”

The Workshop Wall: bricks of physical exhaustion, dehydration, possibly pain and soreness, mortared together with comparison, insecurity, self-criticism, self-doubt, and even self-loathing.

Now, it’s been a few years, and I’ve gotten stronger emotionally and physically, and since I’ve been practicing with this South Florida community for a while, now I more often find myself on the “inside” of the “inside joke” crowd, though I do my best to remember how lousy it feels on the other side, and bring people in as much as possible.

Still. Still. Still. The Workshop Wall exists for me:

Last weekend I went to my first-ever  AcroYoga “Solar Immersion” Workshop with Daniel Scott and Chris Loebsack at Trio Yoga in Miami. I’ve only been practicing AcroYoga for three months and this was a total whim. In order to “qualify” to attend the workshop, I had to get some of my skills up to speed (check out the pre-requisites here). In a few days, with some help from a friend and teacher (we’ll call him Jake, he’ll be in the story later), I learned to do several things I’d never done before, but I knew I was weak in some areas.

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Practicing for the weekend!

I made the impulse purchase a few days beforehand and then began to wonder why I’d done it. The workshop was on my birthday weekend, historically a time of intense depression for me, and I’d chosen to put myself in a physically challenging environment, with strangers who were all going to be more skilled than I was. Yep, Jake would be there on the second day, but until then I’d be on my own with a bunch of people I didn’t know at all (not too long ago, this would have been completely impossible for me. See this post.)

Even worse, when I considered it, was the fact that AcroYoga (maybe yoga in general?) appeals to me so much because it gives me a second chance at one of the saddest parts of my life- my adolescence. I’d always wanted to be a gymnast, and I envied the cool girls who were strong and flexible and popular and wore patterned tights and stuff. I’d say they were sexier, but at 13, that’d be weird. You know what I mean, though. Hell, I envied all of the girls who were able to do any kind of physical activity. In my mind, I was ugly, unhappy, uncoordinated and unpopular.*

So basically, guys, I’d set myself up to relive the hardest time of my life- a time when I was bullied and suicidal- with the additional handicap of being the weakest practitioner, in a strange environment, with a bunch of people (think of them as the Cool Kids) who all knew each other well. Happy Birthday, sucker! Welcome to the Wall.

I arrived at the workshop five minutes early (which, to my mind, is like, 20 minutes late) and came in the door feeling like a hot yoga mess. Everyone else was there already being all friendly with each other, and it took me a quick minute to check in with myself and say, “You know this is okay. You’re not an outsider, you just don’t know them yet.”

AcroYoga doesn’t let you be a stranger for long- it’s all about intimacy, communication and connection with others- so before too long I was finding my social feet and feeling pretty good. For the first day and a half I was able to keep up with almost everything without a problem- I’m relatively strong and flexible and have a decent yoga foundation.

After lunch on the second day, though, I could spy the Wall heaving into sight on the horizon. I’d been acting as a base (the person on the bottom who “flies” others) for most of the day, and this was challenging for several reasons- first, it played into my physical insecurity. Here’s my (mean, irrational) mental dialogue around that: You’re too fat, you’re too butch, you’ll never be small and delicate and you suck at backbends.** Second: dude, have you seen what bases have to do? Go watch the video I linked above. It’s hard work!  Third: I really wanted to fly, and was feeling sorry for myself that I wasn’t getting to do what I wanted to do.

We’d also just gotten to Barrel Rolls. I’d flown this a few times with Jake, but basing is different- and I still felt absolutely confused about foot placement and hand-switching. My quads were exhausted and quivering and now I was going to ask them to support a person who weighs almost as much as me on one leg out to the side.

I watched the demonstration with glazed eyes.  I was up against the Wall.  I wasn’t the only one- the energy in the group was subdued and we were all a little confused. I tried to keep up with the demonstration, asked a question, watched intently and nodded at the appropriate places. I knew my mask was slipping, though, when I looked up and saw the two instructors looking at me, whispering to each other, and looking back again. A few minutes later, Chris came over. “Are you okay?” she asked. Ugh. I was becoming the weakest link. Earlier that day, Daniel had given me some encouragement as well. “You’re doing awesome!” he enthused. I confessed I felt I was over my head, and he denied it vehemently at the time… but now I’d hit the Wall, and I knew there wasn’t much I could do.

Back to small groups to try Barrel Rolling. I did the best I could and I really don’t believe I embarrassed myself with my group (who were kind, supportive, and reinforced me in every way they could)- but I was starting to feel it. You suck, I thought to myself. You’ve got no right to be here. 

This time, though, I understood. I visualized myself against an impossibly tall wall, and felt compassionate. Of course you feel like sh*t, I thought. You’re exhausted. You’re surrounded by people you don’t know who have been doing this for years. You’re going to fall back into patterns of social anxiety, insecurity and depression, but it’s not going to last. You’re okay. 

At the end of the day, I gathered my stuff and prepared to leave. I was drained and emotional and just needed to get the hell out of there, but I hugged my new friends and thanked the teachers. I said goodbye to Jake with a minimum of words. “Okay, bye.” He hasn’t known me very long- three months- so he tends to think of me, I would guess, as a gregarious and exuberant person. Sorry, buddy, I thought. This is the best I can do right now. I dragged my carcass to the car and cradled my face in my hands, preparing for the two hour drive. Come on. You can do this. 

I’m always pretty honest with you guys, so I’ll tell you: I cried on the drive home. It wasn’t all self-pity, though. I felt exhaustion, and grief for my life over the past year. I felt the weight of being alone on my birthday, unsupported by a relationship. I felt the weight of thirty-six years, twenty of them full of violent cycles of depression, anxiety, and self-loathing. And then- this is sweet- I felt compassion and love for myself. I was proud of myself for what I’d done. I was against the Wall, but now I knew the Wall was on wheels and rolling away slowly.

I was about an hour away from home and feeling much better when my phone rang- Jake, unexpectedly calling me. “I just wanted to see if you were okay,” he said. “You seemed really quiet when you left.”

In the brief pause before I began speaking, I saw this post unfold in my future. I knew I wanted to share this with you, if you wanted to take the time to read it. Because if I’m hitting the Wall, I think maybe someone else is too.

For the nice guy on the other end of the phone though, who didn’t sign up to read (literally) 2000 words of my life: Reader’s Digest version. “I got really tired,” I said, “…and it makes me feel drained and kind of emotional. But I’m really okay.”

I’m really okay.

🙂

*Though after a time, I made a nice niche for myself with the art class flannel-wearing alternative crowd. I had these sweet plaid Doc Martens. Why do I like plaid shoes so much?

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Indulging & Impermanence

 

Photo on 5-3-13 at 6.42 PM

A self-inulgent sorrow selfie. Embarrassing but true*

I used to wrap myself up in nostalgia. Not happy nostalgia, like “Remember when we all wore acid-washed jeans,” but more like… hm, deep grey clouds of melancholy nostalgia. I was secretly proud of my ability to nurse a bittersweet memory. I made regret an art form, sculpting what-ifs in my head into castles of fantasy lives I’d never get to live.

These days, I’m able to see a little more clearly that things pass, and that nothing lasts, and that this is mostly okay. As Buddha suggested, I suffer less as a result.

I was recently listening to a Dharma teaching on this concept of impermanence and was struck by a particular line: “The emotions of the past are gone,” said my teacher, Mingyur Rinpoche.

When I say struck, I mean it felt like I was physically struck- spontaneous tears actually welled up. The emotions, gone? But, but… I LIKED those emotions. Even the sad, sorry-for-myself ones.  I’d spent so much time nursing them, cultivating my garden of self-pity. In an instant I saw clearly that I had been attempting to carry these emotions with me into the present, but that they had already changed. New emotions were there, and some of them might be similar, but nothing was quite the same.

I recently ended a relationship (this is the VERY short version, friends), and at the same time, I reconnected with someone that I loved and lost many years ago. So I’ve had the opportunity to look back and consider, compare, and contrast the similarities and differences between these two loves.

There are many patterns to observe, but one that I see clearly is a tendency to fondly romanticize both the high points and the low points of the relationships. To dwell in them, to turn them over in my memory until I can’t be sure how much  is truth and how much an idealized emotion- one that changed long ago, despite my insistence on dragging it with me like an old battered bag full of crap.

A little indulgence in memory, in past emotion, in lost love, can feel awfully good. But it doesn’t always serve me well. I’m working to turn transform this indulgence into inquiry instead- yes, I think it’s good to appreciate and remember, but I’m also finding that some space around the emotion/memory/whatever can help me to see (and, I hope, release) the patterns that have caused suffering.

The following poem- The Lost Garden by Dana Gioia- speaks to this very phenomena in a much more beautiful way. Enjoy.

The Lost Garden

by Dana Gioia

If ever we see those gardens again,

The summer will be gone—at least our summer.

Some other mockingbird will concertize

Among the mulberries, and other vines

Will climb the high brick wall to disappear.

 

How many footpaths crossed the old estate—

The gracious acreage of a grander age—

So many trees to kiss or argue under,

And greenery enough for any mood.

What pleasure to be sad in such surroundings.

 

At least in retrospect. For even sorrow

Seems bearable when studied at a distance,

And if we speak of private suffering,

The pain becomes part of a well-turned tale

Describing someone else who shares our name.

 

Still, thinking of you, I sometimes play a game.

What if we had walked a different path one day,

Would some small incident have nudged us elsewhere

The way a pebble tossed into a brook

Might change the course a hundred miles downstream?

 

The trick is making memory a blessing,

To learn by loss the cool subtraction of desire,

Of wanting nothing more than what has been,

To know the past forever lost, yet seeing

Behind the wall a garden still in blossom.

*Please don’t worry, guys. I’m really quite okay, and was even when this photo was taken. 🙂 It was a moment of nostalgic, self-indulgent mental “weather.” It passed and all is well.

Karmic Growth and Collateral Damage

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I think a lot about karma. How our past choices, our past relationships, draw us together and apart, create dynamics that can cause joy and suffering. Whether you believe in reincarnation or not, you can easily see and grasp the most elemental concept karma on the short-term level. Well, I told a lie, and now the lie was found out, and I need to suffer the consequences. As you sow, so shall you reap.

I’m especially interested in karmic relationships- in the idea that we meet others, are drawn into complex dynamics with them because we have something to work out together. Perhaps (as I believe), it’s because you have karma from a past life together. Or maybe (as others believe), it’s simply that they are part of a divine plan for you to learn something.

Sally Kempton’s article “Seeds of Change” offers a fantastic summary of the situation that I often find helpful:

Question: What is a karmic relationship? How do I know I’m in one?

Answer: In one sense, everyone who comes into your life is someone you have karma with. But a truly karmic relationship is one in which you have a powerful, almost fated sense of connection with another person. You may feel you know the other person well—even if you’ve just met. You know you’re in a karmic relationship when you feel obligated toward someone or inexplicably drawn to them, when a person has a powerful influence in your life, or when you try to extract yourself from a relationship and find you can’t….Another sign of a karmic relationship is a natural feeling of obligation. Sometimes you feel as if you owe something to the other person. At other times, you feel that the person is obligated to you. One of the old definitions of the word karma is “debt.” Something is owed.

When I first encountered this concept a few years ago, I immediately felt a sense of recognition and relief. There are in my life a few relationships (“good”, “bad”, romantic and platonic) that seem to have more complex dynamics beneath the surface- a web of emotional ties that feel hauntingly familiar, like an echo in my soul. Sometimes these are painful, or frustrating- other times it’s a source of great joy to have so much closeness. Sometimes they’re all these things at once.

I believe that these karmic relationships are in play in our lives in order to highlight our samskaras, or karmic imprints. You might think of these as grooves worn into your life- a way of doing things habitually, again and again. that will continue to create similar results. Samskaras can also be a lesson to be learned, if I’m lucky.

I often find at the end of a week, when I sort of look back and review what’s happened recently, that I’ve been presented with the tools from various parts of my life to learn such a lesson. Sometimes the tools come from funny places. This week I saw (maybe you did too!) this Louis CK video. You might enjoy watching it, because he is both hilarious and wise in this clip, suggesting that we hide behind our smart phones to avoid feeling sadness in our lives- but what I really took away from it was this sound bite, in which he is explaining to Conan why he won’t let his kids have a smart phone:

“Kids are mean. They’re trying it out. They look at a kid and go, ‘You’re fat,’ and then they see the kid’s face scrunch up and they go, ‘ooo, that doesn’t feel good, to make a person do that.’…  But when they write (on their smartphone) ‘You’re fat,’ they just go, ‘mmm, that was fun.'”

In one of my interactions this week, I chose to communicate with someone by email, rather than in person. This was a poor choice, as it turns out. My email caused this person great distress. I was fortunate enough, through a series of complex misunderstandings with another friend (crazy karma at work), to find out accidentally that I had made this person feel really, really crappy.

As soon as I found out, I called the person and spoke to them honestly, but the damage had been done. I felt really lousy, of course. And then I realized: That lousy feeling? That’s karma at work. I have the opportunity to learn from this situation, to feel, as Louis CK mimes on the video clip, that icky stomach feeling.

Oh, it sucked all right, but it was only the prelude to bigger pain. Later in the week, I was presented with an opportunity to learn a much bigger life lesson- one I have been presented with many, many times in my life.

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It’s not a coincidence, I firmly believe, that recently Facebook has reconnected me with some of my earlier karmic relationships. I’ve been working through some memories, and having conversations with these old friends about how we interacted together 20 years ago.

So as the needle dropped into the groove with this most recent karmic relationship, I had a little more awareness. I saw my pattern clearly. I even narrated the pattern to myself, shared with my closest friends- “Look, I think this thing is happening again.” I felt the witness in the back of my head saying, “You know this isn’t a good idea.”

But oh, this samskara was deep, and I wasn’t done learning my lesson. I had to live through it again, I had to cause myself pain, and watch another’s pain, and this time I saw the face and I thought clearly of Louis CK’s child and thought, “Let this be the last time.”

Please, may I not cause any more suffering in this way.

After the first lesson, I noted to myself that it was a real shame when my life lessons come at someone else’s expense. Karma Collateral Damage, I thought. But then I remembered a famous dharma talk given by Khandro Rinpoche when a mouse was found dead at the Mindrolling Lotus Garden in 2006:

“For the mouse, itself, this death may be a good thing. It may be its first encounter with Dharma. This mouse could have been born on the adjoining land, or in town, or across the street. Instead it just happened to be born on this particular spot, with the causes and conditions for becoming the basis of a Dharma discourse that enables more than a hundred people to better understand karma. That is a lot of karmic fruition.

Maybe this mouse was a bodhisattva, born for this particular activity. One never knows. It could have been the Buddha sitting in that field—because of which we’re talking about karma. If its death becomes the basis of a hundred practitioners understanding karma and having a moment of genuine compassion, what greater merit could a being accumulate?”

A karmic relationship takes two people. As painful as it is, when I hurt someone else, when I see their face scrunch up because I have done something stupid to them, I can only be responsible for my future actions. They’re living their own karma, too.

Listen: I don’t take this as license to be an asshole. I am growing up more every year, and learning to be less of a fumbling moron of a human being. But my job is not to take on someone else’s pain- that’s theirs. I’ve got my own karma to learn from.

My dear friend and fellow teacher Jaye shared this with me and I think I’ve shared it with you before, but here it is again- Melody Beattie, from The Language of Letting Go: 

“We are each in our present circumstances for a reason. There is a lesson, a valuable lesson, that must be learned before we can move forward. Something important is being worked out in us, and in those arond us. We may not be able to identify it today, but we can know that it is important. We can know that it is good….We must go through it until we learn, until we accept, until we become grateful, until we are set free.” 

When I spoke to my first Karma Collateral Damage victim this week, I said to her: “Tell me what I can do or say to you that will make this better- that will help you to understand how much I value you, and how little I meant to hurt you.”

“There’s nothing,” she said. And I remembered: I used to try to apologize to my ex-husband for the mean things I’d say to him, for the way I often made him feel. My apologies were useless- he didn’t want to hear it. “Just don’t do it again,” he’d say. “If you do it again, then I know you’re not really sorry.”

I hear you, Karma. I think I’ve got a chance this time. May I become grateful. May I become free.

Autumn Inspiration: In Blackwater Woods, by Mary Oliver

Happy Fall Equinox. This is my favorite time of year- the Savasana of the year, where we all begin to slow and die a bit, practicing a bit more effectively each year. This week I’m sharing a beautiful poem by Mary Oliver- In Blackwater Woods. Enjoy.

Look, the trees

are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.