Friday, May 28, 2010

Is that the best you can do?

We've all heard it since we were kids. "Do your best." But what does this actually mean? When I teach yoga, I regularly emphasize this idea to my students. "Do your best. That's all you can do." Just like any overly used phrase, "Do your best" has lost meaning along the way for many of us. Oftentimes we hear it as "Just do something" or "Try not to slack."

"Do your best" means dig deep, try hard, push against your easiest-to-reach-limits. Your best is the unknown. Unidentifiable because it always changes, constantly evolves. In yoga practice, as we get stronger, more flexible, more focused, our best becomes better, deeper, harder. In other parts of life, as we practice different things, like cooking instead of eating out, not yelling at our kids, driving the speed limit, the more we actually commit to really doing our best, the better at it we become.

So how do you know if you are doing your best? You become present. You accept that you are not perfect and you d o y o u r b e s t to work hard always. And, within that commitment, you will notice time and time again that from wherever you are, there is always somewhere else to go. For example, when I weed my garden, I regularly leave the dandelion roots, opting for a quick handful of leaves and stem instead of walking to my garage to get the weeding tool that will surely capture the nagging root. I know in those weed-pulling moments that I am absolutely not doing my best.

On the flipside, though, there are times when it is clear as day to me that I am trying my hardest. The other day, I was talking to a friend about the fact that I have a really hard time accepting praise. I said that I was working on breaking that habit. She asked me if I am hard on myself when I falter, fall back into old patterns. I had to think for a moment, but ultimately realized that no, I am not hard on myself because I do my best. I really do. I recognize each time I shut down a praise-giver and I commit to do it differently the next time. I do this over and over and over.

I can tell the difference between this and blowing off serious weeding. There is a consciousness in both instances. In one, the weeding, I consciously decide that I don't really care if I have weeds. In the case of my inability to graciously accept praise, I am deeply aware of where and how I want to develop emotionally and I do my best to push against my bad habit every time it shows up.

Yoga is a great place to practice doing your best. For many of us, the fact that there is a physical component makes doing our best more tangible. Does camel pose make you feel like you are going to lose your breakfast? But you do it for one more second anyway? If you've been there, you know exactly what I mean. That's your best. Once we understand the physical expression of doing our best, doing it mentally and emotionally makes more sense. Like anything, it is a practice. We do our best to do our best, checking in to see if we have more to give, deeper to go. We ask ourselves, every time, "Is that the best you can do?"

Monday, May 24, 2010

What are you waiting for?

Waiting to exhale.
Waiting in line.
Waiting in vain.

I've always had a negative association with waiting. To me, the act of waiting seemed like the opposite of action, the antithesis of actualization. I remember when my father was dying, I was so frustrated with him. I felt like he was just waiting. I wanted him to do something, take charge, be enraged. He just waited. Somehow, the fact that he had terminal cancer didn't really matter to me.

Waiting means something else to me these days. A few months ago, my psychic told me that in my normal mode of functioning, I do as much in a half-day as some people do in a week. There is a reason why I have random bruises, cuts and burns on my body, stains on my clothes, two unchipped drinking glasses, and frosting on my ceiling. It is because I do 12 million things at a time. Lucia calls me "Clumsy Mommy."

Because I am so recklessly fast in getting my myriad of life tasks accomplished, I crave calm. A lot. To slow my frenetic pace down is not easy. The transition doesn't make sense. It's like driving sixty miles per hour and suddenly needing to be idling. This drastic action creates skid marks, sometimes car wrecks.

So, I've been practicing a new idea. In my speedy brain, when I notice that I need to slow down, I set that intention. Then I wait. Sometimes this works. Sometimes it doesn't. When it works, I get to a calm place. My heart rate slows, my brain quiets down, I get in touch with one thing I am doing (instead of twenty). When it doesn't work, I go back to my octopus-mode. What is different though, is that I've had the waiting moments, and even if I do go back to multi-tasking, I'm less crazy. The waiting takes me out of the chaos, even if I can't stay out.

In my Yoga practice, I've started waiting as well. Sometimes when I am in a posture and I feel tired, like I can't hold it for another second, instead of going right to my immediate response of falling out, I wait a second or two to see if something changes. Often, that little pause gives me a different perspective. New ideas occur to me, "Maybe I'm not that tired." "So what if my legs are shaking." "Maybe I can hold this bad boy a little bit longer."

Waiting has helped me most in Savasana. Savasana is the attempt to consciously relax, be still, open, receiving. This is hard for me; hard for most of us. At the end of my practice, I want to be there already. I want to be in that relaxed state because I've worked hard and now I am ready. I want to experience that amazing feeling where the floor holds me, my body is weightless, tingly, my mind somewhere just between waking up first thing in the morning and falling into a late afternoon nap. But it's a big change to move into Savasana from anywhere, even a yoga practice. So, I get physically into my Savasana, and then I wait. I just wait. Will it come? Will my mind slow down? Will my body be still? I'm waiting to see, and, while I'm waiting, doing nothing really, it usually comes.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Unplanning

There's a concept that parents talk about a lot nowadays called "Executive Function." As adults, we use executive function to perform such activities as planning, organizing, strategizing and paying attention to and remembering details. Developing these skills in childhood is critical for future successful functioning in adulthood.

I am a fan of executive function. I say YES to executive function! HOORAY for executive function! On a personal level, some of the executive function features I possess are the ability to multi-task, analyze my performance, read, write, and keep track of time. I am grateful that I have these skills and abilities. Without them, I would likely not be able to own my own home or business. I would struggle to manage my finances. Organizing my child's schedule would be difficult.

When I teach yoga, I often espouse the idea that "planning" is counter-productive to being in the present moment. I try to promote a mindset of not planning. The idea-- think like a beginner, like someone who doesn't know the answer or what's coming next-- and life will be more interesting, more full, more present. Granted, this is in the context of yoga practice, but it begs the question, "How does one find balance between planning and open-mindedness in everyday life?"

I recognize my inability to stay in open-mindedness at some point every time I practice yoga. My mind wanders. The teacher says, "Don't be sad" or, "Try not to anticipate" or  "Breathe." I come back to being open---for a moment.

Being without a plan when I am not practicing or teaching yoga is exponentially more challenging. I have always been someone who makes things happen-- plane tickets four months ahead of time, oil changes ten miles before I need them, birthday parties, cookie parties, block watch meetings. Planning has worked for me professionally. It has worked financially. For the most part, it has worked socially.

For years (maybe all of my years), I have unsuccessfully attempted to also plan emotionally. In crisis, in joy, in anger, in fear, I've attempted to anticipate my next move. That seemed efficient, like good management.

As I get older and find myself more willing to be vulnerable, I realize that managing emotions is just the opposite of efficient. When I find myself planning emotionally, I feel tired, depleted, off-balance. The burden of carrying the unknown is cumbersome and unwieldy. When I can sit in the unfamiliar, sometimes scary territory of not knowing what is next, there is less baggage. The elusive balance between planning and open-mindedness in everyday life can be found only when we stop trying to find it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

"You have to practice napping"

Since Lucia was born (over five years ago), I have not napped. I grew up in a house where my stepfather Al napped every day at 4:30pm for 60-90 minutes. He'd climb up to his third floor "nap room" (seriously), put the sound proof curtains across the attic door and sleep. Al is a sleep researcher and believes in the powerful benefits of napping. His circadian rhythms are set strictly at this point, so that if he isn't napping at the time he is supposed to be, he just falls asleep wherever he is. He once fell asleep at a parent teacher conference.

It's not that I don't want to nap. It's not that I don't need to nap. I love to nap. I can still conjure the feeling of a summer afternoon nap. Falling asleep with the sun on my face, waking up with sweaty hair, warm sheets, a tight neck, and a parched mouth..... I just can't do it anymore. There's always something that seems to needs attention-- bills to pay, dishes to wash, books to read, friends to see.  But those activities never stopped me from napping before. Why somehow I've lost my ability.

Two days a week I wake up at 5:00am, which means I usually get between five and six hours of sleep on those nights. By 3:00pm the next day, I just power down. I need a nap. Yesterday was a day I really needed a nap. I was emotionally and physically exhausted. I drove home from work at 3:00pm, resisted engaging in any significant distractions in my house and marched right to my bed. I lay there for ten minutes and quickly realized this attempt was, as usual, futile and stupid.

So I went to yoga. Still frustrated at my napping incompetence, I walked into the studio and asked the teacher Frances how she was. She yawned, stretched her arms over her head in a big praise to the sun circle, cocked her head towards me and said, "I just had the best nap." What the fuck?! "I can't naaaaaaaapppppp." I moaned, eyes rolling up to my forehead. Without missing a beat, Frances said calmly (I swear she had sheet wrinkles on her cheek), "You have to practice napping."

O H. M Y. G O D. You have to practice napping too? You have to practice doing yoga. You have to practice listening to your child's messages. You have to practice eating well. You have to practice EVERYTHING. Even napping. "You can't just take a 15-minuter" Frances explained, "I tried that and it just doesn't give you enough time to practice." Of course she's right. For whatever reason in my life-- my age, my sign, the position of Mercury, this is what all things point to. Practice. Find a practice. Make a practice. Do a practice.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Unlatching the Thing.

At Lucia's last parent-teacher conference, in discussing her periodic 5-year-old meltdowns, her teacher Julie said, "Sometimes she just needs to get to the cry." I have thought about this sentence a thousand times in the last three months.

I always tell students that crying in class is not bad. It is actually good. If your practice is making you cry, then, even if you don't know what you're crying about, you need to cry. Don't analyze it, just do it.

I just finished a book called The Sky Below by Stacey D'Erasmo. There is one line in the book that stung me. "The thing in me unlatched." I read it ten times and then I put a post it on page 95 so I could read it again later.

As I read the words, "The thing in me unlatched", I had a flash of clarity. "Unlatched." Getting to the cry. Same thing. Letting it all out or in or through. "The thing"--the heart, the ego, the breath.

Generally, I take great comfort in recognizing that my struggles are no bigger or more important than anyone else's. Life is hard sometimes. It just is. It's hard if you're rich. It's hard if you're poor. It's hard if you are thin or fat or do yoga or smoke cigarettes. It's hard if you don't have kids and hard if you do.

AND, while the "life is hard" attitude serves me most of the time, I can see now that it isn't always what I need. Everyone needs to find a way to let "the thing unlatch", whatever it is for us in any particular moment. Maybe it is just giving ourselves permission to cry. Or listening a little more carefully to the feeling that comes when we are misunderstood. Maybe it is leaning into the very big feelings instead of holding them at arm's length. I'm still figuring this one out. Trying to find the thing. Figuring out how to unlatch.

What am I worth?

For the first time in my adult life I am in the position of not having a "real job." I am on a chosen hiatus from being fully d...