Thursday, October 27, 2016

Facial Blindness and Group Nudity

Last week I got a phone call on Wednesday letting me know that I'd made it off of the waitlist for a weekend writing retreat that started the following Friday. I had tried to register for the retreat in May but sadly it was full. Because I had no notice to plan for my trip, I didn't have time to get worried or nervous or anxious. After scrambling to cash in miles and get a last minute rental car, I packed my bag and flew to San Jose and drove three hours to the beautiful Santa Lucia mountains.

The retreat was held at the Esalen Institute, a stunning retreat center nestled in the mountains of Big Sur, Northern California. Esalen is home of the human potential movement and some of the most splendid hot springs (Esalen people call them "healing waters") I've ever experienced.

During the retreat, I had the opportunity to take a writing workshop with Heather Sellers, the author of a memoir titled, You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know. Heather has a neurological disorder called prosopagnosia, also more commonly known as facial blindness.

In addition to being a really talented writer, Heather has a magnetic personality. Her teaching style-- a combination of modern dance and spoken word-- is profoundly entertaining and educational. I learned more in two hours with Heather Sellers than I learned in a whole year of a University of Washington writing program.

One of the things Heather talked about was being open in our writing-- she invited us to throw away the planning of it.  She shared what she's learned from living with facial blindness; she lives every minute of every day living in the unknown. While she'll meet you and see your face, she has no ability to remember it one minute later or ten years in the future. As I sat, riveted by this amazing woman, I thought how much strength and creativity she has cultivated through this experience of living in the unknown.

In between workshops, I had small breaks to enjoy the healing waters of Esalen. On their website, they state that nudity in the baths is "not mandatory" but those words alone let me know that nudity is standard, even expected. I am a painfully modest person so I was naturally nervous about group nudity. I thought, as I walked down to the baths the very first time how it would be great if everyone, including me, had facial blindness.

Personal writing can feel a lot like nudity. It's vulnerable and exposing, potentially embarrassing. During the different workshops, I found myself only wanting to share my writing that was less revealing. Some things I wrote felt too personal to share with people I had just met hours before. But, as I listened to people read their work that was very intimate and exposing, I didn't have any judgment or criticism about their work. I felt grateful and humbled to be able to share what they created.

I did make myself step into the unknown of group nudity. I went to the baths several times, nude. And each time I was okay. Just like in the writing workshops, I felt no judgment, no criticism towards any of the nude bodies at the baths. And of course, none of the other people cared that I was nude. Everyone was equally revealed, equally exposed, and it was was beautiful and it was healing.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Make space for all of it.....

Last week on the way to school, Lucia said, out of the blue, “Mommy, I'm just not spiritual.” I’m prone to parental lecturing, oversharing my opinion, but I’m newly enlightened by a book called Untangled by Lisa Damour. The book breaks out the major stages of female adolescence.  Instead of launching into one of my moralistic lectures, I remembered the author’s wise words about how 11-year-old girls are just dipping their painted toes into independence. They are making overt efforts to establish themselves as wholly separate from their parents. 

I stayed quiet. I just nodded and vocalized an “Mmm hmm” of acknowledgement to her declaration. “I mean, it’s just not my thing,” Lucia continued, “spirituality, I mean. It’s just not for me.”

Okay. I thought to myself. She is different from me. She is letting me know how different. And, I, in a clear moment of parenting lucidity, recognized that we were both doing our jobs--- she was establishing her individuality, differentiating from me, and I was letting her do it! Two points for the mother-daughter team!!!!

As I was teaching Yin last week, the experience of my conversation with Lucia came into my mind. Yin Yoga is an intensely calm and quiet practice, and as such, there is room for lots of mind-wandering. In Yin practice, there isn’t the endorphin rush or constant movement present in more Yang styles like Bikram or Vinyasa. This absence can create an environment where mental wanderings proliferate. It’s easy for thoughts to enter our minds that we perceive to be “bad” or “wrong” or “inappropriate.”

I told my students the story about Lucia’s declaration of “not being spiritual” and shared my response—to let the pronouncement sit there, to make space for it. Once that happened, we could both move on, and feel good about the experience. Had I glommed onto a resistant response, “Honey, you never know. Someday you might  become spiritual….. Do you really know what spirituality is? ……blaaaah, blaaaah, blaaaah.” 

As I looked out into the sea of bodies, everyone had their eyes closed. They looked so peaceful and serene. But as a student, I know that closed eyes doesn’t mean quiet mind.  I encouraged the room of students to make space for the myriad parts of themselves, the different voices, unexpected feelings. Resistance to a posture might come. Let it come. Make space for it. Frustration might interrupt your serenity. It’s part of you. Let it be. Only by making space for the things we don’t necessarily want, can we get to the other side to discover what else is waiting to be seen and heard.

Adolescence is a time of rawness, extreme evolution, individuation, and identity exploration, but that process doesn’t stop when we become adults. When Lucia said to me, “Mom, I’m just not spiritual,” I was able to recognize that she is in a moment in time in her life, a moment that is not permanent; her perspective could last ten years or ten minutes. But it’s hers. It’s part of her right now. 

Whether with your own body in your yoga practice or the car with your kid, make space for the new, the different, and the unexpected. Who knows what you’ll find on the other side.

Thursday, September 29, 2016


I recently listened to a Dharma talk by Sarah Powers; she talked about how interpersonal relationships are such an important part of the yogic path. When we can find a place of equanimity physically and emotionally, and when we can achieve a level of consistent mindfulness, only then, can we start to truly reach new levels interpersonally. 

It makes sense. How can we love another being if we don't love ourselves. As a twin, I have always struggled with getting connected to my whole self, my own true identity. As a result, I struggle to find a satisfying connection with my twin sister Katherine. Since my conception, I've shared space, been in reaction to another being. First we shared a womb (Katherine refers to us as "wombmates") and then, even though we weren't identical, from the time we were born, we were seen in reference to the other.

I was tall, she was short. I was shy, she was funny. I was crabby, she was playful. I did sports, she did theater. And now, even though we are adults and have maneuvered our way into our own "identities", vestiges of this shared identity remain. Hearing Sarah Powers talk about equanimity made me think a lot about my twin identity. Do I have individual emotional equanimity? No. Will I ever have it? I hope so, but I realize that, because I am a twin, living in this consistently co-reflective space (albeit subconscious most of the time), I might have to work a little bit harder, dig a little bit deeper.

One place where I don't share identity space with my twin sister is in my yoga life. Maybe that's why it's such a big part of my life, a important daily touchstone for me. It's only me. It's mine. Katherine has an equally vibrant, deep connection to her own work in her life in the Bay area, and I'm guessing that she feels equally enriched from having something that is solely hers.

I'm in a particularly uncomfortable time with Katherine right now. We are struggling to connect, to celebrate each other. Even though in current time, we are very, very different from each other, we still struggle with this complicated shared identity; we are still reacting to each other. Yoga helps remind me who I am. I always say that yoga is a lifetime process. It's a wave we ride, up, down, over, in, out and through. It's not all good or fun or calm, but it's a path that gets us to where we need to go. And once again, yoga, my greatest teacher reminds me that my relationship with my twin is a process as well. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

Turn it off

On Monday, I went to hear Anne Patchett at Benaroya Hall. I thought she was going to read from her new book, Commonwealth  but she didn't. She stood on stage in front of a very full house and waxed on about her approach to writing, her philosophy about reading, and some wonderful anecdotes about her personal life. She was funny and brilliant and awesome in all kinds of ways.

If you are a fan of Anne Patchett's, you know that her fiction is fiercely imaginative, sometimes far-fetched, and that it clearly takes a ton of research and coordination to pull together each of her novels. At the end of Anne Patchett's talk, the Director of Seattle Arts and Lectures interviewed her.  She asked Anne, who, in addition to writing amazing fiction and non-fiction, owns an independent bookstore in Nashville and seems to have read every book of every genre of all points in history, how she could be both such a prolific reader and writer.

I'm guessing Anne Patchett has been asked that question before because she answered right away. "I have a fifteen-year-old flip phone and I've never texted. I don't own a television and I have never once looked at Facebook," she replied. "I have a lot of extra time."

I'm sure many audience members sank into a bit of despair to hear that. We all know what a time suck innane texting is, what a silly habit Facebook is, and how television can drain hours from an otherwise productive day if we're not careful. As an avid writer and reader myself, I left Benaroya feeling inspired by Anne Patchett, but also a little downtrodden about my own distracted focus and commitment to my writing and reading practices.

But the very next day I went into the studio to practice yoga and had an immediate sense of gratitude and pride for the fact that there are NO screens in the studio. There never have been and there never will be. While I am not reading or writing in my yoga practice, my brain is getting served. Almost every blog topic I've ever written has come to me in the yoga room, either while practicing or teaching. Most of my big life decisions have been made on my mat.

Not everyone can be an Anne Patchett, who knew at a very young age that she wanted to be a writer. Most of us wander through life testing out different waters and landing somewhere for a while before moving on more than a few times. I'm so happy to have been inspired by the brilliant Anne Patchett. I'll continue to read the books she writes and keep my ears open for books she recommends. I'll look to her and other great writers for inspiration. But most importantly, I'll keep coming into the yoga room everyday, the one and only place in my life where there are no screens to suck my time, focus, and energy. I hope you'll join me!

Monday, September 19, 2016

Human Kindness

Last week I had an experience that left me with an unsettled feeling-- a combination of gratitude and elation tinged with seeking and inspiration.  I feel its presence subtly, at different times during the day, but mostly when I'm teaching or practicing yoga. Kelly, a wonderful yoga student of mine and now teacher of me, invited me to help her in a class she teaches called Adaptive Yoga. Adaptive Yoga offers people with mobility restrictions (spinal cord injuries, Cerebral Palsy, Parkinson's Disease) accessible yoga instruction. And, as I experienced last week, it is so much more than that.

There were just two students in the class I attended, a small group for that session. One of the students was quadriplegic and the other paraplegic. Kelly and the other teacher Julie led the small group through seated postures and then moved them to the floor for a series of supine postures.

I hesitate to even try to describe my emotional experience in this class because I don't have the technical writing skills to really explain it. There were so many moments, moments when Kelly or Julie gently laid hands on a body that "couldn't feel." But was that right? Who was I to say what another person could feel. Watching the teachers, I was brought to the brink of tears. Why? I'm not sure. I've been trying to sort it out all week. I suspect that maybe it was the recognition of my own assumptions about people who are paralyzed. Or the beautiful message from the instructor to feel what was happening internally when the physical body was in a posture, regardless of their paralyzed status. The energy in the room, the combination of vulnerability, determination, and human kindness literally overwhelmed me.

What I'm left with in this time before I go back to volunteer again (which I plan to do as often as I can), is the sense of how small the world can become when we define "feeling" in only a handful of ways. I, being an able-bodied, fully "feeling" person, was knocked out of my comfortable state being a part of this class--- in a really good way. That unsettled feeling-- elation and gratitude and seeking and inspiration-- come to me when I practice. Today when Rachael had us do 27 sun salutations, I closed my eyes during a lot of it so that I could feel in a different way, a deeper way. And when I teach, I am so filled with gratitude for being able to teach yoga, a practice that goes beyond just physical postures. I am grateful to be in this newly seeking place, to explore more deeply myself and to be able to invite my students to do the same.  Thank you Kelly.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

You can do anything for ten seconds

I recently started watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It's a series about a young woman who is rescued from a cult in Indiana and sets off to create a new life in New York City. I've only seen three episodes, but I'm keen on Kimmy. She's possessed by a combination of extreme naiveté and intense optimism.

One of the things Kimmy learned in her cult captivity was to endure intense boredom and monotony. Though she doesn't share her bizarre past life with her new friends in NYC, she does share jewels of wisdom from her cult-life, like her regularly doled out advice, "You can do anything for 10 seconds." She says this to herself and to other people in her life who seem to be unable to manage whatever situation they are in.

Ten seconds is not very long.  It's the time it takes to turn on the water tap and fill a glass of water. It's writing a quick grocery list in the morning or bringing in the mail. It's about the length of time it takes to inhale in Pranayama deep breathing.

In life, we don't have control over much. Shit happens. The other night I saw a friend who's long-term relationship suddenly ended. She was shocked, bewildered, and heart broken. She had no control over the break up, it just happened and now she was slowly blinking her way out of the wreckage. What I said to her, which is what a kind soul offered me when I was in a similar situation many years ago, was "all feelings pass." It helped me and I hope it helps her. In times of deep sorrow, crazed anger, or intense fear, I told myself, "this is a  temporary feeling. I will not be here forever. It will pass." And the feelings did pass. They came back with great regularity, like the garbage truck every Thursday, but they also didn't stay, and eventually, I got through it, ten seconds at time.

Sometimes the experiences we think we can't endure are short, like when Half-Moon pose feels like it is going to go on for 30 minutes. Break it down. Remind yourself, as Kimmy would, "You can do anything for ten seconds." And once those ten seconds are over, you're onto a new feeling, different sensations. Other times, the struggles are longer, harder-- a break up, the loss of a job, a death. It's the same game plan-- break it down. Take a deep breath and give yourself time and space for things to shift. Even in the worst of times, remind yourself that you can do anything for ten seconds.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Beauty of Human Variation

I come from a tradition of Bikram Yoga, a practice that is very regimented, rigorous, and black and white. For many years, for myriad reasons, this practice worked well for me. As I've grown older and found myself wandering into the mysterious waters of menopause, my physical flexibility has lessened, but my mental flexibility has flourished. Over the past few years, my changing flexibilities have led me to broaden my yoga practice.

As the owner of a yoga studio, I am in the unique and thrilling position of creating a vision. In the fifteen years that I've been doing this work, I've learned a lot. For example, I know that it takes a village to run a business. I am blessed to be surrounded by people who share and support the vision of The SweatBox. As The SweatBox visionary, I am excited to share my expanded view, one that acknowledges all yoga as good yoga and all bodies as perfect bodies.

Something that's become crystal clear to me as I've expanded my personal yoga practice and teaching knowledge over the years, is how significant human variation is and how important it is to honor these differences. There is no one "right" human. We are all different and perfect in our own way. As a yoga teacher and student, I have found that expanding my view of "the right way" to practice yoga has been profoundly liberating. I want to share that with my community.

Bikram Yoga everyday is great for many bodies, but it's not great for ALL bodies. The Pranayama that we do in Bikram, for example is an amazing exercise that develops lung capacity, efficiency, and oxygen flow in the body. The repetition of postures in Bikram Yoga can, for many of us, create an unparalleled moving meditation that leads to significant stress reduction.

Vinyasa Yoga everyday is wonderful if you have the strength and agility. The unexpected nature of the flow offered by the teacher, the new and different challenges that come with every unique class help us stay creative and open-minded. But a daily Vinyasa Yoga practice is also not the magic bullet for all bodies.

A Bikram Yoga practice is a therapeutic, healing practice to be sure. Adding Vinyasa and Yin Yoga (which are also healing and therapeutic) into a regular yoga practice, can facilitate create a greater sense of physical and mental balance in one’s life. Many Vinyasa students who have been staunchly Vinyasa-based will find themselves surprised and delighted by how a regular practice of Bikram provides healing and respite for their tender shoulders and wrists.  

Yin Yoga is the counter, the balance for both Bikram and Vinyasa practitioners that brings a greater state of physical, mental and emotional equanimity to all bodies. This technologically turned-on world we live in is fast-paced and often relentless. Yin gives us all an opportunity to slow down, to step off the moving walkway.

Each of our skeletons, the placement of our organs, the hormones that course through our bodies, are individual and unique. As such, we need to experience a variety of yoga options to understand what serves us. This will lead to a greater understanding of who we are and what we need. It might be one kind of yoga one day and another kind another day. It might be practicing one style more, one style less. It might mean adding Qi Gong. It might be practicing at a different time of day or making subtle modifications to what you've been doing the same way for decades. Only by trying new things can we know what best serves us and helps us grow.

I believe a daily yoga practice is important—whether it is a Sunday morning home practice of Yin with your partner combined with six days a week of more Yang yoga at your favorite studio or yoga in the woods with your family every morning with a periodic visit to the studio. It doesn’t matter what yoga you do, it’s that you do it. In expanding my own vision of what yoga is good yoga, I have been able to commit more deeply to my own yoga practice. I invite you to do the same. Try something you haven’t tried. Challenge your body and your mind in new ways. Be a beginner again. Practice some good yoga everyday.