Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Writing the beautiful

Last night my daughter Lucia and I wrote thank you letters to Hillary Clinton.  When Clinton lost the presidential race, writing to her was my first instinct. I needed to tell her what her running for president meant to me. I also needed to find a way for my 12-year-old daughter to process her grief about the loss. I hesitated to write this blog because over the course of the elections, I've experienced many moments in my liberal, third-party, west-coast, community being shamed as "right wing" or "ignorant" or "small-minded" for favoring Hillary Clinton. But, now in the wake of her loss of the election, I am more compelled than ever to be honest and open.

At a writing retreat I attended last month, one of the exercises we did was "writing the beautiful." We had to choose something in our life that was bad, even heinous, and write only the beautiful things about it. I didn't think I could do it, but I did. I got up at dawn on the second day of the retreat and set up my laptop overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I steadily wrote two short essays about things I didn't want to think about and I found the beautiful. I found memories, feelings, details that I hadn't let myself see because I was only looking at the event from one lens.

When Hillary Clinton ran for president, a new level of hope and excitement slowly unfurled for me. I was raised by a feminist parents. My father, even back then, was the Board President of Planned Parenthood. He taught my sisters and me to play football and encouraged us to start a team at our school. My mother worked tirelessly for accessible clinic services for young women and helped us write letters of concern and complaint to Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

Even with these feminist roots, I never knew, could never imagine that a woman could be president. Sure, I fantasized, I hoped, but I didn't believe it. A woman would make so much difference. She truly would change the world. Hillary Clinton looked like she was getting close. I let myself believe. The unimaginable became thinkable.

And then she lost. The electoral college declared Voldemort our leader, and my heart broke a little bit. As my partner Nancy and I watched Lucia sob over the results, swimming in teenage tears of disillusionment and disappointment, my heart broke a little bit more. The next morning when the dust had settled a little bit, I told my family that I was going to write to Hillary and tell her what her running for president had meant to me. I invited Lucia to do the same. It's taken a week to get the letters done. They were difficult to write at first because the blow of the loss was too close. But it helped, writing the beautiful, expressing gratitude to Hillary Clinton, a woman who let all of us, especially the 12-year-old girls in the world, believe that the unimaginable is possible.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Striving for what?

Right now I am participating in the Fall 30-Day Challenge at The SweatBox. I (try to) do yoga every day for 30 days. Some days I do Bikram, other days Vinyasa, and other days Yin. Some days I do both. I'm noticing is that my mental approach to my practice is changing. I enjoy each class I take and feel grateful to be able to practice yoga of any kind whenever I step into the studio, but I'm aware that how I go into my practice has changed.

My first committed practice, the one I clung to and did religiously for 20 years, before stepping into other styles is Bikram Yoga. Bikram Yoga appealed to me I think because of my competitive nature. I swam competitively for almost fifteen years and I grew up in a fiercely competitive house with my two sisters, one twin and one 21-months younger. It seemed we were always striving to be seen and heard by our parents in some way. The repetition of Bikram practice comforted me. I could get better at all of these postures, notice my progress, watch my evolution really clearly. The sameness of the series also mentally and emotionally comforted me. I didn't have to worry about being "good" or "proficient" at these postures; I only had to focus on working hard to get better at them.

Then I started practicing more Vinyasa Yoga and the challenge of it also fed my competitive inclinations. I had the strength to do this practice, and I could see how I'd get better if I worked harder. I strived for that, worked hard, and it has been incredibly fulfilling and satisfying.

And then I started doing Yin Yoga. At first it was confusing. Where is the battle? What I am I working towards? Pushing against? That piece was missing, yet I still felt fed by the practice. The challenge was there but the striving was not. It became clear to me when I went to Canada to train more extensively in the foundations and philosophy of Yin Yoga; the difference was the intentional absence of pushing, forcing, grinding. This absence, I learned, was a foundational premise of Yin Yoga. Once I started teaching Yin and watching my students-- the calm expressions on their faces, their eyelids gently closed, the softness of their fingers and toes as they held different postures-- I could see clearly this difference. There is a whole process going on internally, one that is slowly, quietly feeding each of their bodies and minds in ways that each of them needs.

The striving was gone. In its place was allowing, yielding to the body's position and letting the posture happen. It's beautiful. Sometimes when I'm teaching Yin I feel an emotional welling up. It's nothing in particular, just the idea that the competition is gone. There is no struggle to be seen and heard because all of that is happening inside.

Since I've integrated Yin Yoga into my practice,  I notice the difference in my Bikram and Vinyasa Yoga. I work just as hard, but I am a little more open to "allowing" and listening to my body guide me when I am in triangle or half-moon. An outsider wouldn't notice anything different about my practice. It looks just the same but it feels different. I am calmer, there's less fight, less grind. The striving is gone, and I'm working just as hard.

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.