Sunday, August 21, 2016

Tennis Anyone?

Last weekend I took my daughter Lucia (now eleven) out to play tennis. She's been asking to learn for a while and we finally had a moment in the middle of an unseasonably hot, sunny Seattle day. I'm not a great tennis player; I took lessons as a kid and went to a few camps; I'm not good but I can play.  Lucia and I share the unfortunate trait of being stubborn, and we're both kind of know-it-alls. So when we got out to the court and I began giving Lucia some tips about grip, follow through, and body placement, it did not go smoothly.

I got a lot of eye rolls, 'yeah, yeah, yeahs" and stomping to the back of the court. It was hot and Lucia was scheduled to babysit so we only played for about 40 minutes. It was more than enough for both of us. Lucia wasn't half bad at tennis even though she acted as if she hated every moment. As we left the courts in search of a quick 7-11 Slurpee before her babysitting job, Lucia said, "Mom, you're a good teacher."

As is often the case when I am parenting, I was surprised (and secretly delighted) to hear Lucia's assessment of the tennis experience.  It happens all the time when I think I am teaching my child a lesson and she is simultaneously teaching me something else. 'Right, Lucia, I am a teacher," I realized as she complimented me. It's what I do every day. It's what I love to do, what gives me energy and creativity and happiness. I forget sometimes, because I love it so much, that the person (or people) on the other side of my voice have a different experience. They may not love every moment. They might feel irritated or frustrated or pushed somewhere they don't feel like going in the moment.

But when I teach, just like when I parent, I am motivated by love. I love to share what I know and I love to see people learn and grow and challenge themselves. I love to encourage and nurture and support the growth process.  And I love to be a student as well--to hear what the teacher wants to share, to wonder how s/he fine tuned the idea or the technique. It's an honor to be in the role of teacher and a gift to be a lifelong student. If I am your teacher, this is a gentle reminder that I do it all from a place of love. If you are my teacher, please know that I love every minute.

Friday, June 17, 2016

It's just a few rocks

I have a tendency to jump ahead. Maybe it's why yoga has been such a pivotal force in my life. I struggle to stay in the present and fully be in the moment. I've had several "companies" that emerged out of hobbies. I had a fleece hat business, a baby t-shirt business, a blackberry jam business, an ebay business, even a fabric brooch business. In my great enjoyment of doing something-- usually a craft-- I made the assumption many times that I should take that enjoyment to another level.

The only business that actually stuck for me was yoga. After several years of practicing, I moved into teaching and running a studio. It's been 15 years and I still love it. When I was with Tony Sanchez a few weeks ago studying a new style of yoga, he said, "When Neil Armstrong went to the moon, all he got was a few rocks." Tony shared this in the context of how we practice yoga.

Since I studied with Tony, I've been thinking about how to take what I learned to the next level. What should I call this new class? How will I market it? Who will like it? Who will teach it? And then I remember what Tony said. Getting the rocks from the moon was easy (relatively). I don't know for sure, but I'm assuming Neil and his guys just grabbed them and put them on the ship. But getting to the moon-- planning, studying, practicing, and failing and failing again---that's where the real experience was.

Practicing yoga, even one single posture, can be looked at through the same lens. It's not about finally getting into toe stand or crow pose. It's about building the strength, the focus, the balance to get there. It's easy to focus on the end point but really practicing yoga teaches us that an end point truly does not exist.

Yoga has taught me to be in a process, on a path. Perhaps the reason I keep practicing, continue trying, is because I have so much learning. I don't regret any of my past cottage industries; they were each short-lived and fun for the stints they existed. I have no intentions of giving up yoga as a practice or as my "business." It's a great life, a challenging, interesting, sometimes scary path and, as far as I can tell, there's no end in sight.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Your body is an extension of your breath

Right now I am in Bristol, England at a workshop with Tony Sanchez learning a series called Ghosh Vinyasa Flow. The series/practice is still new to me and I will continue to study and learn and slowly unveil all that I've learned over the next several months when I am back in my studio in Seattle. The one thread though, the phrase that has passed from Tony's lips through my ears into my brain maybe 100 times already, is "your body is an extension of your breath."

Tony has said to us many, many times this week, "your spirit is your breath" or "your breath is your spirit." If you no longer have breath, your spirit dies. You die. Breath, when I look at it this way, takes on a wholly different meaning. It is not just a physical process; it is all that we are; all that I am.

This six word phrase that Tony has offered again and again, "Your body is an extension of your breath," has been amazingly inspiring for me. I've been practicing yoga since 1994 and my own practice, my own teaching, has evolved in many ways. I know I've written before about other inspirations that have moved me, but this might be the most significant.

Standing in a pose, Balancing Stick, for example, when my shoulders feel heavy and tired and hopeless, my standing leg feels wobbly, my hips uncooperative, I scan my mind for solutions-- "drop your left hip", "relax your shoulders", "bring your weight forward", but this week, hearing Tony say in his calm, melodic voice, "remember, your body is just an extension of your breath" at times when I've felt like I had nowhere else to go in the posture, has brought a new ease to my practice that I am grateful for.

Using my breath is not a new concept for me. I think about it all the time-- to take a deep breath when I feel anxious, to try to slow down my breath when I'm struggling to fall asleep. When I teach, I guide my students to rest using their breath. But now, thinking about my body as an extension of my breath has created an new lightness for me. If my heavy arms, my tight hips, my furrowed brow, are all just extensions of my breath, then I can find ease in these parts by being consciously aware of and engaged with my breath.

I am grateful for all of the teachers in my life-- my parents, my partner, my daughter, my yoga teachers, my friends, the people I meet on the street. All offer me different lessons through the unique experiences I share with them.  I hope that this new enlightenment, that my body is an extension of my breath, will bring me a deeper sense of connection and ease, not just with my yoga practice, but with all of these relationships. Thank you Tony for being a most inspiring teacher.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Mother Shucker

A few weeks ago, Nancy and I went to Lilliwaup, Washington, home of Hama Hama Oysters. Every year they have the Hama Hama Oysterama, a festival that involves harvesting one's own oysters. Between the two of us and the handful of friends we went to the festival with, we collected 32 dozen oysters. We made a plan about what we'd do with them all:

  • Raw, in three ways--with Mignonette, cocktail sauce and saltines, and an invented cilantro lime infused invention.
  • Two kinds of grilled
  • Fried oysters on a Ceasar salad
  • Fried oyster poboys
The cooking was a big part of it, but before we could cook them, we had to shuck all 384. Nancy, a native of New Orleans, grew up shucking and worked in an oyster bar in college, so she gave us a basic tutorial. Between the ten of us at the oyster dinner, we had a hearty group of people shucking oysters pretty much all day long. If you've never shucked oysters, you know there's a skill to it. In addition to having a good shucker, you have to know how to hold the oyster, where to insert the blade, and how to cleanly separate the oyster from the shell. We threw out some bloody oysters and used a lot of bandaids in the process of reaching shucking proficiency. 

By about 3pm, after many courses of oysters, someone decided that we should have a shuckathon. Judges were named, criteria were established, and contestants were registered. There were six of us competing. We had five minutes to shuck, separate, flip and present our oysters. Despite my fierce competitive attitude and a few new cuts on my hands, I didn't win. Though I was the second to complete my shucking, and I lined up my oysters artistically,  I neglected to flip any of my oysters to hide the ugly bottom muscle. The winner, receiving the title of "Mother Shucker" until next year, was not the first to finish, but the best on all categories. 

Even though there was only one true Mother Shucker that day,  I was impressed by was how confident we had all become at shucking oysters in the short few hours we'd been practicing. This struck me because it made me think about how infrequent this feeling has become for me. How often do I actually take on a new skill to learn, build, compete in!!? It's rare. And, it's a good feeling. 

Life is busy. It's hard to have time to take on an extra hobby and hone a new skill, but there are micro-ways to get this feeling all the time.  Part of finding ways to experience this feeling is being open-minded and alert to the moments that will get us there. It's kind of like being in a yoga class where the teacher introduces something totally new and different. As adults, often our first response is resistance, maybe a little bit of fear, but once we're done with the new thing, and after we've done it a few times in subsequent classes, we start feeling more confident, even proficient, maybe even like a winner. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Guest Blogger- Seth Brown- The Magic of Yoga

Buried deep inside a ballroom, converted into one giant hot torture chamber, the class of fall 2014 struggled on through posture after posture as Bikram himself issued his command from atop one giant podium.  There’s no way you could see yourself in the mirror with the 333 trainees sweltering mat to mat, front and back, side to side the room was literally just big enough.  With the heat and humidity in Thailand, there was hardly a moment during the entire nine weeks that we weren’t constantly sweating, in and out of the hot room.  It was the second class of the day and the evening class, by this time we had already practiced that morning and suffered through 4 hours of lecture, most people suffering from sleep deprivation.  It was hard, really really hard; people collapsing, people leaving the room – they were pushing us to the brink.  Then you start to wonder why you can’t maintain a posture as well as you did yesterday, and you become your own worst judge.  Whenever I found myself in this situation however, which was approximately 97 times over two and a half months, I had to remind myself of one very important thing.  And that was how in the hell I even got to this place, with all these people from every corner of the globe, under the cruel tutelage of a master yogi.  So as the class went on and we push our bodies to the limit, my mind would begin to wonder.

A year – exactly one year – before my present situation, I was in another situation, only then I was learning how to walk again.  I had undergone a 3rd brain surgery in September to remove a cyst which had been growing for quite a while, creating tremendous pressure inside my head and displacing the spinal cord.  It was my 3rd go around with this sort of operation – the first being in 1998 while still in elementary school, the second in 2003 as a sophomore in high school.  By this time I had developed a pleasant disposition toward this seemingly mortal experience and I kept in good spirits knowing that “if I can do it once, you can do it again”.  But whenever I looked at those scans of my brain and the size of the cyst, my stomach would turn in knots and a hopeless feeling would begin to set in.  So it was that on September 11th 2013 I went back under the knife and I knew as the anesthetic began to take over this was that last I would know this body. 

I woke up in ICU and realized instantly where, when and who I was; while I knew it was going to be a long road to recovery, and that I might never be the same again, I was so happy because I knew that I would recover.  Then another thought came into mind, an idea that I had been toying with even as I prepped for surgery less than 7 hours ago.  It was pretty clear that things were going to be different from here on out and I was most likely going to have to leave my old occupation as a metal worker.  It was an intense job putting my body through a lot of stress which certainly contributed to my present hospitalization.  The idea was clear in my head that I was going to have to become a Bikram teacher, not only as the method to rehabilitate my body, at this point it was more a matter of shear survival.  I had already been practicing for seven years and given a lot of thoughts to becoming a teacher one day.  I’m a firm believer that the universe has a way of keeping us on a certain path; over the years my practice would ebb and flow, whenever my practice was at its strongest, life would just seem to so much easier.  Nerve damage as a result of my previous surgery had plagued me for years, but it would improve tremendously the more I practiced.  It would take me 3 months and a lot of therapy to get back to work, but the stage was already being set in my mind with a path clearer than the bluest sky’s.

It took one month before I practiced my first class after the operation.  I wasn’t near being able to perform all of the asanas, but I knew that even if I did only the breathing exercises and lay in the heat for the 90 minutes, it would do a world of good.  It did, but it was also the hardest class I had ever taken because my body had been through so many traumas.  I laid there sulking for most of the class while the instructor – a good friend – took the greatest care to accommodate my new condition.  It took time for the nerves to repair so to establish a consistent practice, even though the postures were more challenging than they had ever been, it was working.  Through the pranayama and the postures I could tell each time I went that I was getting stronger physically, however, it also kept me mentally focused and out of depression.  Often times after anyone goes through a life changing operation people have a hard time adjusting to their new circumstances, which is normal, yoga made that adjustment possible as well as bearable.  Three months out from being bed ridden at Swedish and I was practicing 5 times per week and going to the gym in preparation to return to work, discontinuing therapy as well as medications.

I returned to work but I was never sure if I was ever going to be able to attend a teacher training; it really started as a “what if” idea that I fantasized about.  Time went on, and the “what if” slowly but surely turned into “it could”, eventually “it could” turned into “I can”.  Month after month the reality grew and grew until “I can” turned into “I am”, which brings me back to that relentless hot room in Thailand on the far side of the world.  Whether I fell out of postures in that room, or simply couldn’t stand at all didn’t even matter.  I never worried about completing training, or, denied a certificate; none of those even mattered to what I had to go through just to get there.  Certainly, having come this far, the rest would be a walk in the park.  Bikram yoga didn’t just save my life, it became my life and it continues to make me thrive in mind, body and spirit.  Life is a blessing, and from where it came from we may never know, but we do know that how we choose to live that life, whether in joy or misery, is completely within our power.

About Seth: You can find Seth Teaching at The SweatBox. Seth's yoga journey began in 2007 at the suggestion of a friend and teacher, who later became a mentor. At the time Seth was working in the trades as a welder and metal fabricator.He finally tried Bikram and after a few weeks of regular practice he noticed the difference the practice made in not only his balance and coordination, but also in his focus and discipline in all areas of his life. In September 2013 Seth underwent a third brain surgery to remove a cyst near the base of his spinal cord; the cyst a result of a tumor fused with the brain stem. The first thought that came into his mind after waking up from that operation was of course “yoga”! But more than as a student, Seth wanted to become a teacher, and almost a year to the date he began his Bikram training. Since then Seth has been able to travel the world teaching in several other countries and major cities in the United States.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Only the first 100 years

I went to a Conscious Parenting Class the other night and the teacher Kelly opened the class with a story about how when she was a new, exhausted mother to her 6-week-old son, her mother-in-law, at that time, mother to 6 and grandmother to 15, said, "Don't worry. Parenting is only hard for the first 100 years." As any new (or not so new) mother would be, Kelly was brought to her knees to hear that news.

I went to this class because, for me, parenting seems to be getting progressively more challenging as Lucia ages. I am the mother to one child-- a hyper-verbal, very smart, hilarious eleven-year-old. Sometimes after school, Lucia will tell me a story about what's going on in North Korea, or she'll share a ridiculous Donald Trump anecdote, or maybe she'll explain the reproductive system of a fern. Often she greets me with an emotional tirade about something I truly cannot understand. With every expansive turn Lucia's brain takes, I feel simultaneously excited and scared. How long will it be before this child completely launches and I can no longer keep up with her?

The hardness of not knowing what to expect on this parenting road is not dissimilar from other paths we take in our lives. Is anything ever really known?  When I hear Lucia talking about politics or math or stupid boys in her class, it doesn't help me know where she'll be in ten years, twenty years, one hundred years.

When I heard Kelly share that advice, "parenting is only hard for the first 100 years," in a way it was a relief. Hard is not necessarily bad, it's just hard. Every single time I practice yoga, I have moments that are very difficult, hard. It doesn't deter me from practicing. It actually does the opposite-- I feel motivated to keep trying. And things do change. Some of the things that felt difficult get easier and other things get harder.

Yoga and parenting continue to be my greatest teachers. When I am teaching, I often encourage students to truly lean into the struggle because there is always a reward on the other side of it. Yesterday in Penni's class, I felt a fatigue I hadn't felt in a long time. After a short rest, I was able to get up for triangle pose, one of my favorite, most satisfying postures.  Last night I had a wonderful moment with Lucia---a shared moment of singing and dancing to our favorite Hamilton song in the kitchen. Later, when it was time for bed, I found myself in the familiar role of nagging to get teeth brushed, face washed.  It all balances out. Sure it's hard, but there's always the good that comes after.

Friday, April 22, 2016

What Padmah Lakshmi made me think about...

I went to see Padmah Lakshmi read from her new memoir a couple of months ago. One of the things she talked about was how her experience toggling between two cultures- American and Indian- helped form who she is today.  A big part of her life, and of her memoir, is presented through the lens of food, but it is not just her palate that is challenged from being in these two different cultures, it her mental, emotional, spiritual bodies.

I grew up with a pretty homogeneous cultural experience. My dad was Jewish. My mom was not.
Eventually, both of my stepparents ended up being Jewish as well, with my Dad's household being much more Jewish identified. Overall, I was basically "Jewish-light". I never thought of my two households being that culturally different, but they were. At Dad's we got to have hot dogs and use a microwave. We could drink soda, eat fast food, go bowling and to movies, play board games. At Mom's we didn't get fast food or soda and we rarely did activities like bowling or Monopoly. We did a lot of crafts and chores and ate stir fry and homemade pasta. I never thought of the back and forth as a cultural shift, but in retrospect, it was.

Now that I am an adult who has been managing my own household for over 25 years, I can see how significantly both life experiences played into making me who I am. And of course, there is the me I was born with somewhere in the mix as well. My sisters and I, all raised in this two household childhood, share some quirky habits. For example, my mom's house didn't have a television until she married my stepdad when we were tweens. My dad's house had multiple TVs. Television is not a big part of any of our lives, until it is. I, for example, don't own a television, but if I have a spare hour (or four), I can veg out on my laptop watching Shameless like a true TV pro. Similarly, my sisters and I are all really healthy- we eat healthily as a rule and we exercise regularly, but given the chance, we'll throw down Diet Pepsi and Red Vines over a marathon Monopoly game without a second thought.

Sometimes I feel like I still live in two cultures --- in the yoga room and out. I like to think that I can transcend the demands of my daily life with my finely honed yoga brain, but I think, if that does happen, it will be many years from now. For the time-being, I'll accept that I'm on the path, headed in the right direction. I try to practice yoga almost every day. When I am in the room, I am in the present moment, in my body, experiencing my breath. Just thinking of it now as I type these words gives me a full and grateful heart. When I leave the room, I am still me. I still possess that good stuff that I experienced in the yoga room, but the other parts of me bubble up as well. I have to return the emails. I have to order the supplies for the studio. I have to pick up Lucia from school. I have to do the laundry. I see myself going from the blissed out woman who just did yoga to the frustrated mom of a wonderfully smart and stubborn eleven-year-old.

So here's what I know. It's all me. And it's all okay. The truth is, I'm not sure I'd leave the yoga room with a blissed out body and mind if I didn't live a rich and vibrant and busy life on the other side. And, I could definitely not manage a business, a household, a relationship, and a child if I didn't have the yoga room to nourish me with quiet, calm strength and energy. I'm always grateful for enlightenment, in whatever form it comes. Thanks Padmah for sharing your story and making me think more deeply about mine.