Wednesday, March 14, 2012

15 Years of Gratitude

Glancing around the studio during rest pose in a recent yoga class, I felt so grateful. It was a good day, attendance-wise, and there was a quite a variety of people in the room. Some were family, some were friends; some were students of mine from way back, some were new to class, or returning after a long absence. With each and every person, I felt some sort of connection.

When I first began teaching, fifteen years ago, most of my students were strangers. My mother has attended class at least weekly since the beginning – and occasionally friends do as well – but for the most part the people who roll out their mats and pay me money to lead them through a series of stretches are simply “students.” They are there for the yoga, plain and simple.

But then a strange thing happens. In those semi-awkward minutes before class, when we’re waiting for the hour to strike; in those more-languorous minutes after class when we’re putting away our props and waiting in line for the bathroom; through the occasional offhand comment or question amidst our posture flow, we get to know each other. Week after week, we share our stories, as well as our yoga practice. How does your granddaughter like her new school? Where did you go on your latest vacation? How is your husband’s recovery from hip replacement surgery coming along? We celebrate each other’s joys, provide support in the tough times, offer solace for the sorrows. We may not interact at all outside the yoga studio, but over time, through our brief weekly conversations, we become invested in each other’s lives.

One student recently referred to it as “chat pose.” I like that.

I’ve seen so many people pass through the doorway to my studio – through the doorways to the ten-or-so studios in which I’ve taught over the years – and with anyone who’s stuck around for a while, inevitably I’ve formed some kind of bond. I care about what happens in their lives. I feel compelled to share a little bit about what’s happening in mine. And with the students who eventually pass out of my life for whatever reason – relocation, injury, perhaps just-plain losing their yoga mojo – I wonder where life took them next.

When I began teaching, at age 25, few of my friends were interested in yoga, or in “my” style of yoga, which seems to appeal in large part to the over-fifty set. But now as I head into my forties, I’m finding a lot more of my contemporaries are inquiring about my teaching schedule. Most of us have young children at home and when we can manage to squeeze in an hour to nurture ourselves, the serenity of the yoga studio beckons.

Teaching yoga can humble you. I advise my new students all the time: make an effort to find the “right” teacher. If I’m not a good fit for you, that doesn’t mean you don’t like yoga. Keep looking ‘til you find the right fit. So many students come and go that way – and I have to accept that – for whatever reason -- I just wasn’t what they were looking for.

So when a student decides to stick with me, when he or she shows up for class, week after week, for a year, and then two and then five. When it’s been so many years that we have to calculate the span of time “It was just after my divorce, so that's . . . OMG, that’s twelve years ago now!” I feel such gratitude.
“You’re not bored with me?”
“My class works for you?”
“You start to relax as soon as you hear my voice?”

I can’t tell you how good this feels.

I find such satisfaction in teaching yoga -- the stretching and breathing, the slowing down, the opportunities for perspective and insight. I love how being focused on the words and movements required to lead a class will tune out all the chatter in my head and leave me with a sense of peace. I love that people show up, week after week, to share this with me. I love that I can (to some extent) support myself and my son with this work. It’s rewarding, it replenishes me, and it feels good.

This past Valentine’s Day marked the fifteenth anniversary of my first class. On February 14, 1997, Mary Norton – who runs the Cohasset Yoga Center and had been my own teacher for four years at that point – had enough faith in me to let me lead my own class at her studio. I’ve been teaching consistently ever since. First one class a week, then three, four, five. . . and at one point twelve. I’m down to a comfortable seven now. I’ve endured injury, pregnancy, post-partum depression, anxiety disorder, exhaustion, divorce . . . but I’ve kept teaching throughout it all (except for the month I took off after Abel was born). I would not continue to do this if you weren’t showing up for class week after week.

So, dear students, I have this to say to you: Thank you.

Thank you for your consistency, your stories, your willingness to share, and your support. Thank you for laughing at my dumb jokes, for not noticing when I fall asleep during rest pose, for getting me back on track when I forget what I’ve just said. Thank you for bringing cookies and chocolate, newspaper clippings and family photos, or the occasional gift from some far-off land. Thank you for giving me a job, a purpose, and a compelling reason to unroll my mat each day.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Heartache is Real: Yoga and the Emotional Body

Any seasoned yoga practitioner can attest to the notion that we human beings “store” our emotions in our bodies. If we feel something that we’re not ready to express – perhaps because of fear, or confusion, or because it’s not socially acceptable – then usually we repress it. The emotion gets filed away in the “deal with later” pile and we forge on.

But the body doesn’t forget. If these emotions go unaddressed, then they start to manifest in other ways. It’s like they’re saying “Hey! Remember me? I need you to pay attention!” We may feel pain, heat, stiffness, cramping, or other general discomfort. And then we try to figure out what we did to cause it . . . was it my workout yesterday? Or lack thereof? Was it from sitting too long in the car? Perhaps it’s old age setting in? We tend not to consider that it could be something “inside” causing the discomfort, and not some external force.

A long time ago, I was in a committed relationship with a much older man. At age 24, when I looked to my future, I hoped for marriage and the possibility of children. Well past forty, my boyfriend did not. We loved each other (and liked each other!), but we wanted very different things from life. We weren’t sure what to do, so we just kept going – living and working together and trying not to think about what would come next.

Around that time I developed a weird pain in my chest. It was there when I woke up in the morning, and came and went throughout the day. It wasn’t particularly uncomfortable, but it was hard to ignore, sitting there like a stone, pressing down on the connective tissues above my heart.

I went to the doctor – had EKGs, and all that. “There’s nothing wrong with you.”

I thought maybe I’d pulled a muscle in yoga class. But no – the pain seemed not to be attributable to any particular thing.

One day I was chatting with Mark Mincolla, the Cohasset-based specialist in nutrition and Chinese medicine. I told him about the phantom pain and he said simply, “You’re grieving.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. No one had died, nothing tragic had happened in my life. “Huh?”

So the next time I went to see my massage therapist (what a life, I lead, hmm?), I told her about it too. (She does the kind of work that makes connections between the physical body and our ever-changing emotional states). She said, “Let’s find out what’s going on in there.”

And so we began an inquiry into What Was Causing This Pain. What was going on in my life that could cause such heartache? She helped me tune in with the subtle energies present in my – in all of our – bodies. She encouraged me to breathe into the pain and see what thoughts and feelings came up. I found myself crying a lot – sobbing at times – but still unable to put my finger on the source of these emotions.

Why is it so hard to see the writing on the wall?

Long story short: after a lot of soul searching, I realized that my relationship with the man I loved was not going to work in the long run. We were not a good match – we wanted different things and neither could bear to compromise. He didn’t want a lifelong commitment and I couldn’t bear the thought of NOT having one. And so we parted.

I moved all my stuff back to my parents’ house and left the next morning for a 2-week immersion at Kripalu, the first half of my yoga teacher training (YTT). Out of the frying pan and into the fire . . . Have I ever told you how intense YTT is? Ask me sometime. It’s like holding a magnifier up to your every last insecurity and being forced to study each in depth, until you’re utterly exhausted. Fun times. (Priceless too. No, I’d never give it back.)

And then I came home, settled in with my parents. It wasn’t an easy time. I had given up my 3-year romance, as well as the place I’d lived for two years and the job I’d held for three. For the rest of that year, everything was in flux. I dated a very tolerant (younger) man, became a yoga teacher, secured additional hours at my other job. Eventually things settled back into places that felt “right.” And one day I realized that I hadn’t felt that pain in my chest for a good long time.

It never came back.

I share this story today because I’m thinking about all the benefits one gains from a committed yoga practice -- the insights, the connections, the epiphanies. Sure, in yoga class, we stretch our bodies, strengthen our muscles, air-out our lungs and drive back the ever-surging tide of stress, but there are subtler benefits too. Things like releasing emotional blockages in the body.

It’s September, a time when many of us feel energized and ready to try new things (or return to things that have fallen by the wayside). Are you feeling the pull toward yoga class? Come back! Come try a class or a workshop and see how good it makes you feel. (Note: Lingering heartache is not a requirement for admission.)

And Now A Word From Our Sponsor:
This weekend’s Hamstrings and Hip Flexors Workshop will be a prime opportunity to release some of the emotions that tend to get stored in the hips: anger, resentment, sadness, self-expectation/self-doubt, disappointment, and issues that pertain to sexuality. come stretch, breathe, and release some of the junk you really don’t need anymore. Insights/epiphanies are practically a given. Whether you’ll be able to walk the next day is another story . . .

Friday, August 5, 2011

Life is Suffering? A Quick Glimpse at Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths

I’ve been quiet here on the yoga blog these past few months, because my life has been in turmoil. My husband and I are divorcing. We have a five-year-old son, so you can imagine what a complicated process this is – for all of us.

I live my life – or aspects of it, anyway – in the public sphere. Between my blogs, my newspaper columns, Facebook, and the things I say during class to my yoga students, I am very much in the spotlight – by choice, of course. These past few months have provided an opportunity to edit and revise my public self. Just how much do I want to share?

Often, the challenge for me is to determine whether or not telling my story – whether it’s a humorous anecdote about an excursion with my son, or a hard look at my own shortcomings -- will help people. Sure I can keep all of this to myself, but if by telling my story, I help someone else feel empowered, or less alone, then my words have a purpose.

Sartre said that hell is other people, and that when it comes down it, we are all essentially alone. No one else, but ourselves, can live our lives, or fight our battles, or make our decisions, or find our enlightenments. To depend on others to do this for us is beyond foolish.

The Buddhists, on the other hand, posit that hell is not so much other people but the way we react to them. And while I agree with Sartre that it all comes down to what we do for ourselves, I also know that there is a great gift in community. The flip side of the suffering that other people – our reactions to other people – elicit in our lives is that we can find some comfort in their very presence.

I have been so fortunate for my chosen community these past few months. My parents are endlessly generous, graciously welcoming me and Abel (who is with us half the week) into their home. My closest friends have proven to be reliable listeners and advisers. I take great solace in knowing that this support is there for me. But I still have to do all the work by myself. Yes, I have a excellent therapist, who does a great job generating questions for me to ponder. But the fact is, I alone have to come up with the answers.

Buddhism is based on Four Noble Truths.
1. Life is suffering.
2. There is a cause for this suffering.
3. It’s possible to end this suffering
4. There is an established path out of this suffering.

Or to put it in more modern terms,
1. Life sucks.
2. It’s our own fault that it sucks.
3. It’s possible for it not to suck.
4. Help is on the way!

Hard times are inevitable, but they tend to take us by surprise. We have been sold a fantasy of an ideal life – perhaps the one we see in TV commercials, or in movies with happy endings. It’s hard not to buy into the fairy tale. So when something happens – something tragic, or impossibly difficult – that doesn’t fit into our worldview, we freak out. We may get angry/resentful, we may get depressed, we may try avoidance techniques like shopping or drinking in an attempt to escape the pain.

But there’s no escape. As the old adage goes, the only way out is through. The first step is acknowledging the pain itself, as well as the source of the pain. “I am suffering, and it’s my own damn fault.” Before you argue that plenty of random incidents are NOT the victim’s fault (I agree, I agree) let me restate that it’s how we REACT to what life throws at us that causes the suffering, not the incident itself.

So what do we do? We embrace the suffering, let ourselves fully experience the (for lack of a better word) suckitude. Acknowledge that there is a cause – that this didn’t happen randomly, but because of an intricate series of events and words and feelings – and that our own choices (or inability to make choices) is at least part of the problem. “Okay, divorce is hard. There is no getting around that. My life is going to be a firestorm of emotions for a while, and I’m just going to have to ride it out, do the best I can, and see where I come out in the end.”

Isn’t a relief to know that pretty much always, we “come out in the end?” This is the Third Noble Truth, in a nutshell. There is an end to the suffering.

And the Buddhists assure us that there is a path out of suffering. So where’s that path?

You find it by being present. The Buddhists will tell you that meditation is the answer. And it can be – oh yes it can. But the essence of this notion is that the end of suffering grows out of being present: acknowledging how you feel in a given moment, and letting that feeling be. Not trying to escape it, run away, change it . . . but fully feeling it, and all the turmoil that feeling it creates.

I felt like a failure when I realized that my marriage was over. I never, ever saw myself as “someone who would divorce.” It wasn’t even a consideration. I know that marriage requires hard work and I was determined to do that work, especially for the sake of my son. But nothing in life is simply black & white like that. You just never know . . .

So after a five-year lull, I’ve revived my daily meditation practice. Every morning I wake and spend ten minutes sitting in silence, trying to be present. (Full disclosure: I check my email first.) Sometimes I focus on my breath; sometimes I just tune in to whatever emotion is the strongest for me in that moment. The sitting is calming and grounding, and it helps me to feel more balanced as I start my day.

And it’s working. Slowly, very slowly, it’s leading me out of the suffering.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Are You A Yoga A-Hole?

My old friend and fellow yoga teacher Josh Summers shared this article with me. It makes sense and it makes me laugh. We yoga teachers can take ourselves WAY too seriously.

And Bill Withers? LOVE him!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On Change and Mindful Transitions

My friend Josh Summers writes a wonderful weekly email newsletter, Minute of Mindfulness, which gives helpful hints for establishing a meditation practice . . . or sometimes just ideas and inspiration for self-improvement. (You can sign up for it via this link

A recent post from Josh included this quote from Voltaire. “Doubt is uncomfortable, but certainty is absurd.”

These words are really resonating for me right now.

I’ll be turning 40 this fall. Many of my friends are in the same boat. Milestone birthdays tend to make us feel reflective. We look back on what has happened in our lives so far, and look ahead to what we’d like to happen next. (I think this is especially true at forty, which these days can be considered the mid-life). So birthdays are often times for re-evaluating and re-prioritizing – perhaps letting go of things we don’t need and setting goals for what we wish to accomplish in the future.

Here’s a simplified example. I want to double the monthly contribution I make to my retirement account. In theory, this is easy – I can just go online, log into my account, and change one digit. But in practice, it’s not so easy. I have to figure out where those extra funds are going to come from. I have to reconfigure my budget and see if there’s room to move things around. I have to find ways to save money, while at the same time, generate more work so I can increase my income. So this seemingly simple change actually affects all areas of my life.

• Home – Can I spend less on groceries? Entertainment?
• Work – Can I work more? Are there additional sources of income I can tap?
• Relationships/Family – Who will watch Abel while I work? Will I feel guilty being away from him more? How will my husband handle me being even busier?
• Friends – With more work comes less social time . . .
• Health – Can I handle the increased stress associated with these changes?

Transitions can rock us to the core. Even if the change is only in one part of our lives, it tends to affect all the others. And with transition comes questioning; doubt. We may lose our bearings. What was once comfortable makes us feel restless and uneasy. We may even question the essential nature of Who We Are. What do I want from life? What’s important to me? Why is this suddenly different from How It Was Before? Perhaps – because of this restlessness -- there is nothing in which we can find true peace or solace. If we’re lucky there is at least some consistency, some little “mooring” (perhaps it’s certain people, or an activity, or a place, or even a yoga class) where we will feel like ourselves.

And then there’s the questioning . . . and the inevitable waiting that comes as we sort everything out. . . and the “feeling stuck.” Perhaps we’ve identified what we want to change, but we aren’t able to implement the changes right away. Or we just don’t know how to proceed, and we need time to figure things out. Being “in the mire” – where we can see what we want to change, but still feel unable, in one way or another, to do it – can be difficult, frustrating, even painful. Yet we must wait. . . and accept that this waiting is part of the process. Dealing with The Unknown is one of life’s biggest challenges.

Certainty is absurd? Well, yes. Change is pretty much inevitable. Have you noticed that when you finally accept or get used to The Way Things Are, they tend to change? I find this especially evident in parenting. Have you ever lamented, “When I finally felt like everything was good, (x) happened, and changed everything?” It happens all the time. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s hard. You get a surprise job offer that turns your life upside down. Or you unexpectedly have to put your pet to sleep. Or there’s a tsunami.

Transitions are essential in life. Without them, we’d be bored; complacent. Sometimes they’re relatively simple – like my savings example above. And sometimes they’re not simple at all – struggling with a difficult and complicated relationship, or profound discontent in one’s career, or a health issue for which there is no immediate cure.

Sometimes we have to walk through fire . . . I have a friend who is earning her Masters Degree while working full time and parenting two young children. That’s not easy. But she keeps focusing on where she wants to be in a year or two, and that gets her through it. I have another friend who is struggling with a major health issue – with a relatively new diagnosis, she has to reconsider everything she does in life, and makes changes that will support her fragile health. Every day is a new challenge for her as she figures this out. Perhaps the essential nature of change can bring some consolation. “I won’t be in this difficult place forever. This too shall pass.”

How does all of this apply “on the mat?” Well, in some ways, transitions in yoga class are much easier. Because most of the time, we are in control.

When I teach, I put a lot of thought into how we move from one posture to another. These transitions are just as important as the postures themselves, because it this is the make-or-break time where we can maintain – or lose – our focus. If the postures and what’s between them flow in a comfortable, logical sequence, then the yoga feels meditative, relaxing, good. If the transitions are choppy, it disrupts our sense of peace.

So how do you work with transitions in your yoga practice? When we finish a balance pose, do you thud your foot to the floor, or do you let it down gradually? When we move our arms overhead and then down again, can you find a sense of symmetry and grace? Where does your mind go when you hear me tell you to release a posture – are you focused on your breath, or are you worrying about what might come next? In class, smooth transitions require mindfulness, strength, and coordination.

Come to think of it, we need these same qualities for the transitions we encounter “off the mat” – in our everyday lives as well.

So if change is inevitable, can you learn to embrace it? To flow with it? To ride it like a wave? This is not always easy, but indeed it can be done. Can you let go of the need to feel in control all the time? If nothing is certain, and everything changes, the notion of control is more or less an illusion anyway.

Lots to think about these days . . . lots and lots.

See you at yoga class!