Saturday, December 24, 2011

I'm not a great bike rider, but that was a great ride.

In October, I went on a 25-mile urban bike ride around Seattle with my friend Kate, her in-laws and a group of their super-biker friends. All of these uber-athletes were in their 60s and 70s. I was kind of dreading the ride. My own bike being a 20-year old piece of crap, I had borrowed a bike on which I was less than proficient. Knowing that these bikers are all pretty hard core (Canada to Mexico, the circumference of England, the Idaho Panhandle), I was a bit daunted to join them on this freezing cold Sunday morning. My one conciliation was that Kate, the only other party in my generation, was suffering from advanced pneumonia, and I was pretty sure I would at least be able to keep pace with her.

We all met in the parking lot of Mount Baker Beach. All the elders in their toe-clip shoes, blinking fog lights, spandex of various lengths, and rain gear. I improvised with running shoes, hand-me-down bike shorts and thigh-high disco pink knee socks to keep my legs warm. Kate's in-laws, the official bike docents gave us a preliminary safety lesson (which was incredibly helpful) and off we went. Lily, Kate's mother in-law volunteered to be the "sweep" bringing up the rear to make sure everyone (me, the clown rider, and Kate, the invalid) was safe and accounted for.

We headed north and immediately started climbing what our guide called "a gratuitous hill towards Leschi." I struggled up the hill with Kate and Lily close by, and when we got to the top, all the other bikers were patiently waiting. No one seemed testy or irritated or put out. I breathed a sigh of relief. These people were great cyclists, but they were also kind.

Though my vocation is Yoga Teacher, and yoga is my preferred everyday exercise, I am apparently pretty competitive. I have to really, really push myself to do things I'm not good at. But, like I say when I teach yoga, "It's the postures we struggle with the most that we probably need the most." I went into this bike ride with this attitude-- it will be good for me to push myself to do this thing that I suck at.

And I did suck. Lily had to help me put the chain on my bike when I misjudged shifting gears on a hill. And she did so with such generosity and grace, I couldn't even muster embarrassment or frustration. At one point when Kate's shortness of breath from her pneumonia started to feel like too much to take more hills, Lily, Kate and I took a shortcut for the last three miles and met the others at our planned ending spot.

This all brings me back to yoga. After the bike ride, I thought a lot about my role as a teacher as well as a fellow student. I hear students all the time say, "I am not good at that posture. I hate that posture." As the teacher, of course I encourage them, tell them to try to withhold judgement of their ability, to be in the process more than focusing on some unknown end result. As a student, I try to always bring an openness into my practice, refraining from any judgement of myself or anyone around me, including my teacher.

I am not a great bike rider. But like yoga, biking, or anything else I happen to not be good at, is about the process. Focusing on "being" any certain way with yoga or biking or anything takes away the joy of it. Just be in it, however good or bad you are, try it, do it. You'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

43 and Feeling Groovy

Yesterday I turned 43. I had a good day. I felt really loved and pretty calm, and genuinely happy. This is saying a lot coming from a woman who has a history laden with birthday anguish leading to bizarre behaviors ranging from crying in the bathroom from disappointment over a gift of leggings in my teens to hiding in a closet from anxiety over opening gifts (in my twenties). Yesterday, for maybe the first time in my LIFE, I received gifts with ease and without judgment. I'm not sure why. I have some ideas---I'm older. I'm a mother. I've mellowed out?

I practiced yoga yesterday, my last day of being 42. And it was good. The heat was raging and I was fresh off of a plane from New Orleans, so badly needed the detox. The class served me well. I embraced it because I really needed it. But today was a different kind of good. A great good. A good like I rarely get. Every once in a while, there is a mental connection for me that makes me feel like I'm Pema Chodron meets Michael Phelps. Basically, I love and accept myself and I kick my own ass. I talk about it sometimes when I teach. It's a voice that encourages you to work harder, give more, go deeper. The unique part of it is that the voice is welcome. There's a physical desire to respond to the voice, and while the body works harder, the postures feel almost easy. Getting there is challenging, often elusive, and for many of us, unpredictable.

When I have a practice like that, I can barely remember what it feels like to not want to practice (which of course happens all the time). It's like the beginning of a love affair. It's perfect and electric and easy. So why is this the exception rather than the norm? I doubt I could experience what I had today every time I practice, but I think I could have it more. I've been so dreading my advancing age. 43. That's pretty solidly middle-age. Wahhhh. But, maybe the older, wiser, mellower middle age is where I need to be. Drama free birthdays? Hallelujah yoga classes? Heck yeah. I'll take it.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Thanks for the latte!

This morning I found myself at a drive-through espresso shack in Naches, Washington (a tiny little town-lette outside of Yakima). The barista, a twenty-something dressed as a she-devil for Halloween, prepared crappy lattes but delivered delightfully engaged conversation. There was something about her. She was so open, so interested, so genuine. I left the drive-through shack feeling full of joy, a happy humming coursing through my body from this little jewel of unexpected connection in Naches, Washington. It's an energy that comes when two people, even complete strangers, are both open to connecting.

Had I been the age of the barista, I likely would have taken away only the fact that my latte sucked. But now that I am comfortably into my middle age, I have the ability to recognize and appreciate this kind of random connection more readily. Historically, this has not been my forte. Good friends who eventually made their way through the deflector shield I wore through my twenties and much of my thirties often told me that I presented as "aloof, judgmental, intimidating, unavailable."

Survey says, I'm no longer the Nellie Olson of my youth. My openness evolved over time, and with age, from a combination of experiences-- childbirth, motherhood, heart break, death of my father, falling in love, therapy. All of these experiences created in me a vulnerability I couldn't fight, and ultimately an openness that was easier to bear. The ongoing experience though, that keeps me open, is yoga. Yoga is a conversation between the body and the mind, the physical and the mental. In postures that are physically demanding, requiring great balance or focus, we have to draw from the physical and the mental. When one strength falters, we draw from the other, eventually finding balance. In Savasana, where we attempt to quiet our minds, we do the same thing, quieting the body to remind the mind to be still, stilling the mind to calm the body. Connection.

The ability to connect internally enables us to feel grounded, whole, stable in ourselves. It creates an internal knowing of oneself and consequently a comfort in our own skin. For me, this internal knowing has created the ability to be open to other people. And every once in a while, like this morning, there's a surprise. A fleeting connection that, for a moment in time, makes strangers feel a little bit more like friends.

Monday, October 10, 2011

30 Days of getting to know you.

Right now at The SweatBox, the 30-Day challenge is one-third of the way through. Students are walking around in states ranging from insane, slightly manic nutbags to semi-catatonic zombies. All who undertake the 30-Day Challenge experience ups and downs, peaks and valleys, periods of insatiable hunger and days of feeling the possibilities of existing on breath alone.

At the end of practice, whether we are practicing once or thirty days in a row, we experience the feeling of being depleted, stripped down, cut open, exposed, fried, tenderized. Shortly after these feelings, we may also experience great surges of energy, clarity, wholeness. But, there is a moment when class is just over, after the final breathing when everything is still for a few moments. Our bodies are no longer moving- contracting, extending, contorting, balancing. We get the chance to be still.

In this stillness, final Savasana, we have the opportunity to be deeply vulnerable. In our practice we are moving, sweating, listening to the teacher, but here in final Savasana, when the lights are dimmed and the teacher leaves the room, we are, for a moment or two, ourselves. I always tell students, get into Savasana right away. Don't let the door open to distraction. Just go right to it because the moment of being authentically, exactly who we are supposed to be won't last. Those after practice moments are precious, and fleeting.

For the students doing the 30-Day Challenge, the most significant gift they are giving themselves is the daily experience of these fleeting final Savasana moments. You will hear many teachers say, "if you want to turn your life around, practice every day." And for these 30-Day Challengers, this is exactly what happens. After years of listening to other voices, other ideas, other beliefs, they have the daily opportunity to get in touch with themselves. My favorite months of the year as a yoga teacher and student are March and October, the months where I get to watch the challengers dive deeper and deeper into knowing their true selves. Thanks you guys.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Who's the Winner?

Yesterday, with virtually three training sessions under my belt-- two lake swims and one summer jog, I did my second triathlon. A sprint triathlon, it's called-- half a mile swim, twelve miles bike, and a quick 5K run. I loved doing the same triathlon last year but, with limited time (or interest) and one more bucket list item scratched off, I decided that I could skip this year's event.

Here's the thing-- in my primary exercise, yoga, I am generally successful at being non-competitive. But, despite the fact that, as a yoga teacher and student, I spend my work life teaching people (and myself) to let go of competition, perfection, performance, I am a deeply competitive person. Being a twin is surely relevant, but I can't really say why, and to be honest, I don't want to open the psychological Pandora's box of my twin status. For whatever reason, I'm competitive.

So, when my friend Kate who I did a triathlon with last summer told me that she was doing it again, my hackles went up. If you know dogs at all, you know that's a sign of being on high alert. Goddammit, if Kate was doing it, I was going to do it! Kate is a person who I perceive to be non-competitive. She's open, giving, neutral. So why was I competing? Was I competing with her? With myself? I'm still not sure but I hope I get some clarity through the writing of this blog post.

Yesterday morning at six o'clock am, four of us convened at Kate's house to load our bikes and drive down to the lake for our race. The temperature was 54. It was pouring. And my hands were half-way numb. Kate's dark figure, already soaked from getting the bikes out of the garage, emerged and I jokingly blamed her for getting me into this horribly cold, wet situation. Kate, quick-wit that she is laughingly replied, "Maybe this will temper your competitive edge Culberg!"

Our bikes safely racked on top of the car, we all piled into Kate's car and warmed ourselves as much as we could on the drive down to the lake. It stopped raining by the time we arrived to the race site and, like lost girl-scouts finally finding the path out of the dark forest, we were all optimistic about the weather and our impending adventure. As the sun came up on Lake Washington and we prepped our little spaces with our bikes and helmets, running shoes, and water bottles, I looked around at Kate and my other friends. We were coaching each other out of our nervousness, advising one another about goggle usage, sharing snacks. There were at least a thousand other women in the park around us doing the same thing. Only a handful were clearly uber-athletes, "elite" athletes they call them. They were sizing up the competition, in it to win it.

But not us. And not me. I honestly didn't feel it. No hackles, just cold, wet fur. We walked down to the lake in our separate groups to start our swim. I got my cap on, made the final adjustments to my goggles, did two sets of Pranayama breathing to calm myself down, and dove. And, as I swam, it wasn't the winning that motivated me, it was that we were all doing this together, all one thousand of us, elite and novice, old and young. And I loved it. Same thing with the bike and the run. The allure of this thing was simply in doing it, not in winning it.

Maybe I have figured it out. Being a twin, you are always part of something bigger than yourself. Even in the womb. Katherine (my twin) and I used to say, "we're wombmates." Even when we are each alone, our fundamental frame of reference is being with someone else. Being part of something bigger than oneself. So, while I admit that I'm still competitive, it's not the whole story.

Maybe I'll figure it out at next year's triathlon. I sure hope the weather's better.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Why are you going to the bakery for broccoli?

The other day on the phone, my twin sister Katherine asked me, like only a twin sister can, "Laura, why do you keep going to the bakery for broccoli?" The issue Katherine was addressing in that conversation is related to ancient childhood history, but hearing those words made me feel suddenly like I could deal, not just with that specific issue, but with every problem in my life, by just figuring out what the bakery actually sold.

This question has been on my mind for days. It's one of those Peter Sellers, "Being There" comments that can mean everything and nothing simultaneously. It means not expecting my six-year-old to actually unload the dishwasher when I really need it. It means not expecting my neighbor to give me an honest answer about what he really thinks about my hedges. It means being reasonable and thoughtful about what to expect from a partner, a parent, a friend.

It's kind of depressing, but liberating at the same time-- the more we know someone, the better able we are to temper expectations of that person. For example, I have a friend who inadvertently (or subconsciously) makes little jabs at projects I am involved with. Really subtle, maybe funny, but they're jabs. I could say, "Screw her, I'm done with this friendship" or I could say, "She's got issues, man, they're not mine" and make a mental note to not involve her with projects I love.

It seems like the bakery/broccoli question is everywhere I turn. Except yoga. I realized it today in practice as I drifted in and out of the question... "What is the bakery/broccoli part of my practice?" I turned it over seventeen different ways, but no matter the angle, it just didn't fit. What a relief! The yoga room, my sanctuary from the everyday, is the one place where I don't assume anything, so I never have to adjust my expectations. Now I just have to sort out the rest of my life.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Como se llama?

One of the most frequent comments I hear about Bikram Yoga is,
"it's f%$#*ing hard!" That's the point-- to work so hard physically that you get yourself to a different place mentally. For those of us who are nervous, crazy nutbags, practicing Bikram Yoga is just basic mental health maintenance.

Most people who do Bikram Yoga are, if not competitive, a little intense. I see it every day when I teach-- people sigh in frustration when they lose their balance, students sit up, lie down, sit down again, trying to fight their dizziness. The combination of wanting to work hard and wanting to be "good" can leave students feeling confused about how to find peace in their practice.

Bikram Yoga is like learning a new language. I remember when I started learning Spanish. My first mastery of a conversation piece made me so happy. "Como se llama?" became my most favorite group of sounds. I worked at perfecting my accent for those three words. I eventually learned more, but never felt really confident. There were always things I couldn't say. Elbow, for example. Garage? How do you say that? So I played it safe, rotating my small arsenal of words and phrases. This worked for me. My Spanish was for entertainment purposes, I didn't really need it.

Then, when I was twenty, I went to Spain to live for a year. The beginning was awful. I was so glaringly not a Spanish speaker and I was screwed because I didn't have a choice to speak Spanish or not. Smoking cigarettes helped me feel a little bit more native, but even with that prop, I couldn't go round just asking everyone what their name was. The conversation would always progress and I had to say something.

After about three months, I was able to have regular conversations. I was still nervous, awkward, not able to conjure every Spanish phrase I needed, but I was really working at it, trying all the time. I had no choice, and eventually it just became my way-- cigarrette in hand, I'd talk to anyone, say anything. When I left Spain after 12 months, I was fluent. While Spanish would never be my first language, I felt like I belonged, like I was in my second home. I even talked myself out of being arrested by the policia after passing out in the post office. They thought I was drunk, and I was able to explain in great Spanish detail that I was wasn't drunk, but had in fact just returned from Greece and had a bottle of Ouzo in my pocket that I was planning to bring to a friend (in my fall from fainting, the bottle had broken in my pocket). For several years after my return from Spain, I felt really confident about my Spanish. Then I stopped practicing. Now, I'm somewhere between "como se llama" and fluent.

Bikram Yoga practice follows a similar trajectory. At first, it's so huge, there are so many pieces, that we are overwhelmed. We keep it safe, cling to the postures we're good at, that are easy for us. Then, as we learn a little bit more, we push a bit harder, take some risks. Eventually, we really lean in, going for it, trying new things, even if it means we do something wrong, fall out, need a break. Fluency is about being fully in it, moving beyond "como se llama" even if we never learn "garage." Bikram yoga is f%$#*ing hard. It's like learning a language. Keep practicing. It will get easier and eventually, you'll find your peace and feel right at home, exactly where you belong.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Do you always eat too many red vines? I do.

I've been here before... What makes a practice? What behaviors of mine have become a practice? How many times do I do something in a row for it to qualify as a practice? If I do something twice is it a practice? Ten times?

Since April, my hummingbird feeder has been empty. This hummingbird feeder is prominently placed at the front of my house in front of a window that spans the entirety of my living room. I have walked from my driveway right in front of the hummingbird feeder multiple times a day for the last five months. And every time I walked by that damn feeder, I said to myself, "Gotta fill that feeder." I can't say how many times I sat on my living room couch looking at the view, thinking, "God, I really need to fill that feeder." Sweet little hummingbirds, remembering the former bounty of the feeder, would hover, pausing to see if the feeder had been filled, and then leave quickly seeing that the damn feeder was still empty.

I have several regular habits that, at this point are definitely ingrained enough to be considered "practices." Since I was a kid, I've been a regular picker. It's not something I'm proud of, but it's true. I know I'm not alone in my compulsion to leave no scab unturned. It's routine now. Get a cut, let it scab, pick. You know you're in trouble when your six-year-old tries to physically restrain you from drawing blood on an almost-healed owie.

Another of my no-longer-secret, deeply entrenched habits is leaving the dirty coffee filter in overnight. It's not a huge deal, but imagine how great it would be to not have to clean the coffee filter in the morning. That'd be awesome.

This next practice, leaving my sock drawer slightly open ALL THE TIME, is a mystery. It would be so easy to close it, but, time and time again, I just walk by, like a sassy teenager, "screw you sock drawer, stay open."

There are others, like putting the salad spinner away crooked consistently, not dusting my base molding ever, eating red vines til my tummy hurts. These habits have become practices. I have created pathways in my brain that say, "Laura, you always do it this way", so I continue to do it that way, even if it is bad for me. Or just stupid.

Last week, I finally took the hummingbird feeder down. I don't know where the impulse came from, I just did it. I said to myself, "Laura, you keep walking by this empty hummingbird feeder. Either take it down and throw it out, or take it down and fill it up." And I did. I climbed onto the ledge of my brick planter box and grabbed the hummingbird feeder. While I boiled new hummingbird juice on the stove, I scrubbed the feeder clean. This was an exciting moment--I was breaking out of an old, dysfunctional practice. But when the time came to open the bottom of the feeder to pour in the juice, it was stuck. I tried everything. I soaked the entire feeder in hot water, ran the whole thing through the dishwasher, pried it with a knife, but I couldn't get it open.

So, yes, another lesson learned. I waited and waited and waited to change my pattern with the hummingbird feeder, and when I finally changed my ways, the damn thing was stuck. Two days later, after lots more scrubbing and soaking, I was able to open the feeder, pour in the nectar and rehang it for the birds. Change is always possible, but the longer you wait, the harder it is. You know what's coming.... What's your practice?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Wow, that necklace!

The other day in class, I had a new student. Nice enough, friendly enough, but not a great listener. Most teachers can easily identify these folks-- the "I've done yoga lots of times before" students. There's nothing you can do to convince these students that they should listen a little bit before entering the 105 degree room for 90 minutes. You try to give them the schpeel, but know as they do jazz-hand, quick nod, averted gaze shuffle, that they're not really hearing you. The rest of the 20 students in class this day were my regulars-- hard-working, earnest students. Simply stated, they had great energy.

I used to snicker a little bit when people talked about 'energy.' Once my friend Jamie's psychic (who is also my psychic), said that the stone in Jamie's necklace was an energy hub, a channel or something like that. Jamie's necklace was actually a faux stone made of plastic that she got at Goodwill. But who's to say the psychic didn't really feel the energy, even it was a plastic stone right?

The truth is, I actually am a believer in energy, especially as a yoga teacher. There's a completely symbiotic relationship that happens between the teacher and the students. When it's on, it's incredible. When it's off, it's a little bit like being in a stalling car chugging up a steep San Francisco hill.

At the end of a good practice, I barely remember what happened at the end of a class. Suddenly, the class is in final Savasana, I am talking them through a relaxation exercise, my eyes are closed and my fingers are buzzing. Other times, I feel like I've just run a marathon with no training. I'm depleted, exhausted, parched and frustrated.

There are of course ranges, where sometimes a class is populated with a handful of wiggle worms and/or a core group of extreme focusers. Sometimes I start teaching and I'm tongue-tied, but the energy of the class brings me back and I can get to the place I love to get when I teach, the good teacher place.

The day the know-it-all new student came to class, I started the class and could tell I was off. I was a little off anyway, but more so because I was worried about the new kid. She managed to stay all of 4 minutes and then left (an absolute no-no for those of you not ensconced in the Bikram Yoga culture). I was bummed. You never want a student to leave because that means they haven't pushed themselves and that means they've missed out on the best part. But after she left, WHOA, the crowd went wild. Not literally. The crazy-focused regulars barely batted a collective third eye. And, they proceeded to kick their own asses for the next 86 minutes. It was an awesome finger tingling class for all of us.

Sometimes I wonder where it starts. Is it with me, the teacher, or is it with the 10 or 20 or 35 students in the room? When I'm on and they're on, it's magical. When I'm on and they're off, it's good. When they're on and I'm off, I seem to get better, but when we're both off, heaven help us. It's a disaster. We all feel the disconnect. Even if we can't articulate what made class kind of a dud, we know something was missing.

The radical shift of energy when the know-it-all left the class that day makes me question more thoroughly how energy works, and how we are a part of it. I'm sure this post will require a second part because right now I have no idea, but who knows, maybe a plastic stone being an energy conduit doesn't warrant a snicker.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Five minutes of profound love....

I have a student, a sharp-dressing, sassy forty-something woman who's recently discovered Bikram Yoga. A few months ago she said to me, "Every class, I can't say when it will be, but every time I practice, I experience five minutes of profound self-love." Five minutes is a long time. It is one-eighteenth of an entire Bikram class, the length of time it takes to get a mammogram, the number of minutes most people spend eating breakfast. If you think of one side of the first set of Half-Moon Pose and multiply that by five, you realize how long five minutes really is.

There's something about the mirrors in Bikram Yoga that invites self-scrutiny, especially in the beginning of one's Bikram Yoga journey. Looking in the mirror un-self-consciously is something we lose when we're like eight years old. Lucia, who's six, has a mirror at the foot of her bed. It's remarkable how often she looks in that mirror. Several times while getting dressed for school, but even at bedtime when were smooshed into her little twin bed getting ready for stories, she props herself up on her elbows to see how her freshly washed hair is settling or to adjust her new PJ's. I have to restrain myself from saying, "Jeez, Lucia, again?!" She's unaware that such attention to oneself is regarded as vain once we reach a certain age. She's innocently full of joy at her reflection.

At some point we lose that innocence. And, sadly, for many people, that pure joy is replaced with criticism-- "Your belly should be flatter" "Your ass should be smaller." "Your legs should be longer." We all have our own lists. So, when my friend said that she feels five minutes of profound love for herself every time she practices, I felt ecstatic, especially because she's relatively new to the practice.

Seeing oneself without judgment (self-love) is the a big part of yoga, and with Bikram Yoga, the mirrors help push through some of that judgment. We see ourselves, day in and day out, working our asses off, and eventually we have to let go of the scrutiny, and when we do, that moment (or 5 or 10 or 15 minutes) of non-judgment sneaks in to fill the space. It makes sense that my friend called it "profound self-love." Five minutes of something so different, so unexpected is profound. It's amazing. And here's the good news--- five minutes is just the beginning.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Neutral Ground

The other day in Meghan's class, she repeatedly said between postures in the standing series, "Come back to neutral." That was a hard class for me. I struggled from the first set of Pranayama. Although we were deep breathing, I felt like my breath stopped at the top of my throat. I had to sit out one set of triangle and staggered through tree pose. The moments between postures were moments of great relief, and the idea of neutral calmed me through the anxiety that almost always accompanies a physically challenging class.

Each time Meghan said, "Come back to neutral," I thought about New Orleans. In New Orleans, the median strips throughout the city are called "neutral ground." Legend is that this term comes from early New Orleans history when the French and Spanish could only do business between sections of the city by standing on the "neutral ground."

"Neutral ground"-- a place where fighting will not occur, a space that belongs to no particular side, a place of peace. The word "yoga" comes from the Sanskrit root yuj, which means to unite or join or connect. I teach that yoga practice is an opportunity to find the union between the body and the mind, a peaceful place, a connected place.

When I was in New Orleans, I had the unique experience of eating BBQ on neutral ground in the seventh ward (See April 25th post "I like the struggle"). I'm a Nervous Nellie, prone to worry, especially in new situations and environments. Knowing that the place where we sat and ate was called "neutral ground" and knowing the history of this term, made me feel at ease, safe.

When my body and mind were at odds in Meghan's class last week, I needed to be reminded to find a place where they could connect. I pushed myself into the second set of Standing Bow even though I was seeing stars, so that by then end of the posture I was on the verge of full-blown panic. But then it was over and Meghan said, "Come back to neutral" and I was reminded-- "neutral ground," a place where fighting will not occur, a space that belongs to no particular side, a place of peace. And so it went through the class, posture by posture, hearing the words, remembering the connection, finding my peace.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Comfortably Uncomfortable

Tonight I had the profoundly elevating experience of dancing The Electric Slide with 60 fifth graders (and a smattering of younger kids and brave adults) at my kindergarten daughter's sock hop. Lucia, exhausted and already up well past her 6-year-old bed time, was tweaked out from the excitement of her first big social and begged me to dance one last time before leaving. How could I say no? And so there I was, flanked by preteens doing their thang, struggling to keep a rhythm and a pace to a dance I haven't done in twenty-five years.

My daughter's school is wildly diverse--socially, culturally, ethnically-- and the mosh pit of puberty I stepped into for this last dance was riddled with awkwardness, disorganization, grimacing and confusion. But it was also electrically inspiring. They were all doing their best. I remember those times, thirteen-year-old times, uncomfortably uncomfortable, pretty much all the time. But here these kids were, doing the Electric Slide, carrying each other through the discomfort. I loved it.

When I teach yoga, I often instruct people to find a place of being "comfortably uncomfortable." In other words, I tell them, "Go somewhere different, somewhere deeper, somewhere unfamiliar." Not to the point where you might injure yourself or have a panic attack, but somewhere where you are a little bit uncomfortable--"comfortably uncomfortable."

Lucia has started to tell me that I embarrass her when I break into song while we are walking to our car from school. Tonight when I stepped into the gym and started to do the twist, she tugged at my arm, desperate for me to stop. Poor thing. Mothers are embarrassing. There's just no way around it.

Lucia's embarrassment is not unfamiliar to me. When I was a teenager, I wasn't one of those kids who joined forces to do a group dance. I was the shy one who stood with the other shy ones. When did it happen that I lost that feeling of discomfort? I think part of it is my self-defined parental responsibility. I must do the things I was afraid or embarrassed to do in childhood and adolescence. It is my charge as a parent to show my child that being uncomfortable isn't really that bad.

I'm sure though, that what's helped me the most in getting through discomfort comes from being a student of yoga. How many days a week do I feel like a disaster? Rarely able to get my leg up to the perfect height in Balancing Stick Pose, falling out of Toe Stand for the 700,847th time. I'm constantly reminded that I'm not perfect, that I'll likely never be.

So, like those brave brave 13-year-old dancers, collectively leaning into each other to carry them through The Electric Slide, I do the same thing with my fellow yoga students. We fall in and out of postures, embarrassed, frustrated, awkward, but doing our best, together. Comfortably uncomfortable.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


My mother told me that her friend Claire used to say, "If dandelions were on a hill in Switzerland, they wouldn't bother you." Maybe that's true. Maybe in Switzerland they'd be beautiful, but through my eyes, in Seattle, they are a visual plague. My backyard is 8000 square feet, a massive field of green dotted with yellow DANDELIONS. Thanks to my prolific crop, and my inability to manage the weeds going to seed, my neighbors also have a dandelion issue to control. And they immediate neighbors to the north and south both have immaculate yards, dandelion-free yards. Steve, my neighbor to the north, uses Round Up to control his infestation. George, my neighbor to the south uses a detailed technique involving a dandelion plucking tool, vinegar, and squirts of WD-40.

I can't count the number of times Steve has tried to convince me to use Round Up. "I can't." I tell him over and over. "I have chickens. I have a child. I have carrots." So far this year, he's spared me the offering of Round Up, but has mentioned the services of his teenage son and his buddies to "clean up the place." A few years ago, George, my south-side neighbor, gave me his dandelion plucker. It's antique, a beautiful old rusted relic. The way it works is by placing the plucker at the center of the dandelion, clamping the weed and then, holding the tool down with your foot, pulling out the plant. It might be operator error, but I think the root comes out about 40 percent of the time I use the plucker. But George swears by it, and his grass is yellow-free, so I persevere with the plucker. George's next step in maintaining his impeccable yard is vinegar. He sprays vinegar on any dandelions that do manage to grow. They die and he weeds them out. The final part of George's yard protocol is WD-40. When a dandelion starts to show (and George can tell), he squirts a little squirt of WD-40 on it and it stops its growth.

I love these guys. They are both about twenty years my senior and take good care of me. Steve regularly brings my garbage and recycle in and out and George and his wife JoJo ply Lucia with treats (she calls them her Seattle grandparents). They both have pristine, well-kept homes. They are both engaged community members. They both smile all the time. But there's something about George's energy. He's just calm. While he doesn't have a southern accent, you almost feel as if he does when he sings over the fence,"Hey there Laura, those chickens sure are cute."

I thought about George and Steve and the dandelions yesterday when I was practicing, and then again later in the day while teaching. During hard classes, whether I'm the student or the teacher, I have to remember that yoga, like life, is a process. My life issues--- fear of commitment, for example--- rear up and I have to deal. AGAIN. Or in yoga--- the persistent extreme light-headedness that plagues me in toe stand might go away, but then it comes back again. Just like the damn dandelions.

There are ways to deal with the issues, the poses, the weeds. There's Steve's way, to bitch-slap the dandelions with Round Up. One shot. "Boom. You're down dandelion." And there's George's way, a kinder, more compassionate way. "Pluck, spray, squirt." Little by little, step by step. Life is a process. Yoga is a process. Good, bad, hard, easy. I still desperately want to get rid of my dandelions, and maybe someday I will. Little by little, step by step.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Show me the money?

On Tuesday morning I woke up and said out loud, "I love my life...." And now it is Thursday and 800,576 things have filled the sixty-eight hours between that statement and this moment. Sometimes I experience the naive belief that life will calm down. I think, "I'll just get through this rough patch...." and things will be calmer, easier, lighter. But then it comes up again, a rough patch, a hard spell, a busy time. It keeps happening. On Tuesday after my seeing-the-sun-through-the-clouds euphoric moment, I met with my financial planner. I was supposed to go to his office on Mercer Island, but because the studio was recovering from a flood and I was getting the place ready to teach the first class after the disaster, I asked him to meet me on Capitol Hill at Cafe Vita.

Jim, my financial planner, is a severely clean cut guy. I trust him implicitly. There's just something about him. Either he's completely and utterly honest and trustworthy or he's as conniving as Bernie Madoff and, if that's the case, I might as well be in denial. Tuesday was our annual meeting to take stock of where I am in my personal financial goals. We sat down with our lattes and Jim pulled out his notes from our meeting last year. I had three priorities: 1) Lucia; 2) Financial security; 3) Happiness. He asked me if these were still my priorities. Yes, I said, and I want to make more money. "I should make more money" I proclaimed, like a good client. Jim is a really good listener. He nodded as I talked about wanting to be flush enough to not think about where I go out to dinner, to be able to send Lucia to private school if I want to, to be able to retire when I'm 58 (so random). I talked and talked and talked, and eventually Jim found a place to launch, "Laura, first of all, you don't want to stop working." Oh right. I love my work. "Second of all, money is not the only measure of success. Let's talk about your measures of success that aren't financial."

Just that morning before talking to Jim, I had recognized how happy I am, yet here I was, six hours later, plagued by the niggling need to have more, to be better. How ironic that my financial planner was the one telling me to stop spinning my wheels to make more money. "Laura," Jim said, "You thrive on the excitement of challenge." He's right. "Even if you had all the money in the world, you'd still want, you'd still need that challenge." And so it was that my financial planner became my therapist.

As I write this, I realize that I have lots of room to explore this advise from my financial planner/therapist. What can I say? I'm still stuck on the idea that having more money would make life easier, maybe better. It's the American way. But my lens is a little broader in this moment. I get that money is just a symbol; something I can measure. The things that bring me the most joy-- teaching Yoga, being a mom, writing a blog-- hardly pay the bills. These low-ticket items are the challenges that keep me motivated. It would be nice if the things that challenged me brought home a little bit more bacon, and maybe someday they will, but I wouldn't trade any of them for a job that made more money. I sure do love my life, but maybe I need a new financial planner....

Monday, April 25, 2011

"I like the struggle"

My partner Nancy was born and raised in New Orleans. She has tons of friends and family there and is deeply identified with the food, culture, music and weather. I just returned from visiting New Orleans for the first time. The architecture alone makes you feel like you're in a different country, but it's the energy--slow, humid, debauched-- that makes you feel like you're in a different world. Utterly refreshing. Old men with no teeth sauntering beside frat-boys in Bermuda shorts, both drinking from forty-ounce cans of beer in paper bags.... at eleven o'clock in the morning. Two hundred Catholic Bishops marching beside raggedy street musicians and a lone cop wearing a tight-fitting Village People-esque uniform. I never thought an uptight native Chicagoan like myself could enjoy the jello-paced lifestyle of New Orleans. I was worried it would drive me mad, but I'm happy to report that I loved it. All of it.

Nancy gave me the royal New Orleans treatment. She took me places no tourist would normally go, places I wouldn't have ventured to on my own.  One night Nancy and I went with our friends Simon and Nadine to a bar called Bullets (see image) in the 7th Ward. A man named Bingo set up a huge BBQ in the "neutral-ground" (basically a median strip) and his wife, Miss Fanny, decorated a long card table with vinyl linens, fake grapes and plastic wine glasses. We dined there before heading in to see the music. While Bingo prepared pork chops for Simon, Nancy and Nadine, and a massive barbecued turkey leg for me, Miss Fanny offered us some Chardonnay and then told us about her experience during Hurricane Katrina.

Miss Fanny's former husband had recently died and she was staying with some friends in Lakeview, an area of town horribly hit by the flooding. Miss Fanny and all the people she was with waited on the roof of their house in Lakeview for two days. They were finally transported to the a freeway overpass where they stayed for three more days. "The media", she said, "flew over us like we were animals in the zoo" ignoring the reality that those stranded on the freeway lacked food, water, clothes and places to sleep. After five days, Miss Fanny was taken to Lafayette where her information was processed and her family was able to locate her. She then ended up in Washington D.C. for close to a year before returning to New Orleans. Two of the three people I was with that night had also been displaced during the hurricane, but they sat with me, jaws dropped to hear Miss Fanny share the struggle she endured during the storm and its aftermath.

While we ate and talked, Miss Fanny, Nancy, Simon and Nadine (all who had lived through Katrina) nodded and smiled, non-verbally expressing a profound love and a pride for their city. Miss Fanny told us how her life has changed in the five years since Hurricane Katrina. Cocking her head and raising her eyebrows above her glasses frames, Miss Fanny told us, "I was doing pretty well before Katrina." Now Miss Fanny works six nights a week in a sports bar trying to catch back up to her pre-Katrina status. "But I like the struggle" Miss Fanny mused. "I like the struggle. Once I get some extra time, Bingo and me are thinking about getting a dog." After dinner, Nancy, Nadine, Simon and I went into the wall-to-wall people-packed Bullets to listen to music by local trumpet legend Kermit Ruffins. During Kermit's break between sets, one of the waitresses stuck her chewing gum on to the back of her hand and the audience whooped and hollered as she did a five-minute rap about Hurricane Katrina.

The day I returned home from New Orleans, I got a frantic text from Frankie telling me that a water main had broken at The SweatBox and the fire department was there breaking down doors and managing the flood of water. "A full-blown crisis" Frankie called it. Technically still on vacation, I did my best to let Frankie and the others on the scene take care of it. And they did. I stayed calm and rode the wave. Maybe this calmness came from my time in New Orleans--my exposure to the slower-pace, the absence of structure, the stories of rebuilding at every turn. Two days after our "full-blown crisis", things are almost back to normal for me and my little yoga studio. I can't imagine what it might have been like to live through a crisis like Hurricane Katrina, to have my life torn up like Miss Fanny. But, as I get ready to go in and finish cleaning up the studio, putting the pieces back together again, I picture Miss Fanny's gorgeous card table set up on the neutral ground in the 7th ward outside of Bullets Bar. Miss Fanny made something beautiful out of her struggle. And so will I.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Robe Life

Last month I went for four nights to a fancy schmancy hotel in Palm Springs. The Parker is the loveliest place in the world. For realsie. It has everything you need. If you are walking through the gorgeous, finely coiffed grounds and you feel a tinge of hunger, oh look, there's a humongous bowl of ripe green granny smith apples. There is a fire pit with lush chairs (no camping crap here) where they bring you the fixings for s'mores.

I call my time at The Parker, "Robe Life." At The Parker, there was no reason to wear anything but a robe. Take off your robe to dive into the pool or get a facial. Take off your robe to soak in the jacuzzi or to slip on shorts for a game of Petanque (french version of Bocce Ball).

Per usual, as soon as I got back from my stay at The Parker, the grayness of Seattle descended upon me. I went back to work, back to motherhood, back to life, back to reality. I didn't feel like working hard. I didn't feel like leaving my "Robe Life." I felt cranky and resentful and generally pissed off.

I got back to work on a Tuesday. After teaching the 9:30am class at Capitol Hill, a student said to me, "You know what I love about this place? The SweatBox offers a place for people to work hard. People are afraid to work hard." His timing couldn't have been more imperfect. "Screw that," I thought to myself, "this working hard crap is over-rated." I was still hanging on to my robe life images.

And now, here I am, in the throes of recreating The Capitol Hill SweatBox. I have been working non-stop for ten days. I have to recharge my phone three times a day because I am coordinating so many details with so many different people. I am wearing clothes in public that are absolutely not okay. Today I put together five pieces of IKEA furniture by myself with no help. I'm working my ass off. And I feel great. Tired, but great. Anxious, but great. Unfashionable and dirty, but great.

It's like the 30-Day Challenge, when you feel like you can't practice one more day. You do, and you feel like the mouse who took down the big old fat cat. Today, when I didn't think I could haul another thing, I single-handedly maneuvered a 50-gallon hot water heater outside, drained it and moved it back in. You know I'm bad!

Next week after we open, I'm going on vacation to New Orleans, the land of slow, relaxed folks. I'll likely work my butt off until the moment I get on the plane, but then I'll relax. My relaxation will feel so much better for having worked so hard. Just like Savasana. The harder we work, the better we feel when we finally relax.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Pa has a happy heart

I don't have a TV for many reasons, one being that most shows are complete drivel and my child gets enough of that from me. Another big reason is that I am utterly in love with TV. Television is one of my favorite things; I'm moderately addicted. Like many people who can't control their sugar or alcohol intake, I have to maintain a primarily abstinent relationship with TV. At this point I'm too disconnected from TV to really even miss it, but I do have one lingering indulgence that I share with my daughter Lucia. On her 8-inch portable DVD player that I bought for long airplane trips, we watch vintage Little House on the Prairie episodes (I bought all of Season 1,2 and 3 from Amazon).

A few weeks ago we were watching a scary episode where a mean man tried to drown little puppies in the river. After asking if I was sure Little House on the Prairie is rated G, Lucia buried her head in my armpit and told me to tell her when the scene was over. Ultimately, the brave and wise Laura and Mary (respectively) dove into the river and rescued the puppies. Later in the episode, Pa railed on Laura and Mary for bringing home three puppies that would need to be cared for and fed. Lucia started to bury her head in my chest again, fearing what Pa might do with the puppies, but then she stopped herself and refocused on the DVD player. "Pa would never drown puppies in the river" Lucia said assuredly, "because he has a happy heart." I asked Lucia how she could tell that Pa had a happy heart, "Because look at him Mommy," she chirped in her 6-year-old, know-it-all voice, "He's happy." For the record, Pa did not end up drowning the puppies.

When the Dalai Lama came to speak several years ago, some of the neuroscientists on a panel I watched talked about the intelligence of the heart. They suggested that the heart, like the brain, has intelligence. This idea begs the question: How do you nurture and develop that muscle? We can't practice algebra with the heart or read the classics. But these scientists reasoned that decisions we make, actions we take, are influenced, not just by our minds, but by our hearts. My knowledge of the topic is minimal, but when I think about my own life, I know that decisions I make when I am operating from a more connected place feel different. I can tell the difference between a heart-motivated move and one that is more isolated to just the brain because, regardless of outcome, when I am connected with my own feelings, I feel happier.

For example, in this remodel I'm doing at The SweatBox, there are a million decisions to be made-- where to put walls, what fixtures to use, what color to paint, how to negotiate with the landlord. Some days, I just barrel through, checking things off my list. And, regardless of what I've accomplished, at the end of the day, I feel scatter-brained, depleted. Other times, I slow down, get connected to what I am feeling, and make a decision. It's remarkable, but there's a difference. I feel lighter, happier. Today, for example, I encountered a potentially disastrous hurdle. Before I made any moves, I took some time to feel what I was feeling- scared, pissed, annoyed, exhausted-- and then I approached the relevant parties in the conflict and we worked it out. Going into the negotiations, I was calmer because I was more clearly connected to my own feelings about the conflict, so I was operating from the head and the heart. I felt happy not just to have solved the problem, but with how the problem was solved.

In many ways today I felt like Pa in that puppy episode. Pa could have drowned the puppies. I could have screamed and threatened and turned blue in the face, and alienated the very people who were doing work I needed done. But we each found a different way, a way that was motivated by the heart-- away that left each of us feeling happier.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The View

Lucia's school has four kindergarten classrooms, a total of 96 students and four awe-inspiring teachers. Every morning after the Pledge of Allegiance, these four teachers perch in a row on a kid-height counter that spans the length of one classroom. The 96 children sit on the floor criss-cross-appelesauce, almost stone silent, heads cocked to see the four teachers. Barely raising their voices above a quiet conversational level, the teachers talk about the weather or what the kindergarten day will be like or a special event coming up at the school. The teachers seemingly look through the sea of five- and six-year-olds, ignoring raised hands, chatting about the activities for the day among themselves. The teachers don't even address the kids who are acting out. The kids who can hold it together quiet the loudmouths like pros, absently waving their peace sign fingers in front of the kids disturbing the Kindergarten Teacher Hour starring Ms. Thorp, Ms.Kowabata, Ms. Dadashi and Ms. Martinez. I've very affectionately coined this morning ritual "The View" (after the Barbara Walters show on the ABC Network.)

Last week on The [Kindergarten] View, after the hosts queried each other about who was on for recess duty that day and crossing collective fingers that it wouldn't be another rainy day recess, the topic drifted to problem solving. "Remember what Ms. Lee, the old school counselor used to say...." Ms. Kowabata mused in her sing-song way, "about keeping problems small."

"Right" said Ms. Thorp, putting her index finger to her temple and furrowing her brow, "What did she used to say about that?"

"Keep your problems small by addressing them RIGHT away" Ms. Kowabata instructed her co-hosts, "then your problems will stay small and be easier to solve."

More conversation ensued among the four hosts-- about telling the truth, not holding feelings inside, asking for help. All the while, the children watched and listened, completely star struck. Eventually, Ms. Dadashi observed, "Ms. Thorp's class is the most quiet this morning. Let's watch them walk to their classroom first." And then all of the kids quietly migrated to their respective classrooms.

It doesn't matter what the topic is. Every day, the teachers command this attention from the kids. I stay and watch every chance I get. What I love the most about The [Kindergarten] View is the absence of preaching. There is so much Kindergartners need to learn-- abcs, 123s, hygiene, penmanship. The View offers a totally different angle of learning for the kids. It's almost like the kids are learning these important lessons despite themselves because their teachers are these rock-star, famous people and the kids want to be just like them.

I notice a similar phenomenon among my yoga students. Often, a student will say, "I really wish my partner would practice, but they're so resistant." Over the years, I've learned that the only way to get people to practice is to inspire them with your own practice. "Why are you so calm?" someone might ask or, "Your skin looks so good. New product?" And, after enough times of the answer being "Yoga", this person will try it. You will be their rock star, celebrity talk show host that they want to emulate. And, just like the fabulously well-behaved, compassionate teachers cultivate and nurture 96 well-behaved, compassionate children, we can do the same by practicing yoga and sharing the benefits just by being ourselves.

Friday, March 11, 2011

If your brow is really wrinkly....

"If your brow is really wrinkly, put a needle in it." Sing this to the tune of Beyonce's lyrics, "if you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it...."(From All the Single Ladies). Lately, I sing this all the time.

Thanks to acupuncture my SI joint pain is cured. It feels so great. I can do forward bends. I can do flip turns. I can have dance parties with Lucia to the Glee soundtrack. Last week at acupuncture, the healer had a student in tow which meant that everything happened twice (except for the actual needles). All the assessments, pulse taking, tongue examination, random stuff they do with their flat palms over my body. Because I was lying on the table for so long with my eyes closed while the two of them "worked me over," I found myself feeling more relaxed than usual. I hardly noticed the healer putting the needles in.

So I was more than surprised when, after putting in all the needles, the healer dimmed the lights and said, "Now you only have to do one more thing... relax the furrow in your brow." What?!!! I had no idea I had a furrow in my brow. Flippantly with a hint of indignation, I mumbled, "Can't you just stick a needle in it?" To which the healer said, "Sure." And he popped one right between my eyebrows.

My brow furrow is significant. I'm pretty sure I could hold a dime, maybe even a quarter in my vertical forehead crease. It's possible I was born with a little tilted eyebrow squint. I consciously try to relax my brow on a regular basis--during yoga practice, when I have insomnia, when I look in the mirror-- but this sensation with the needle was revelatory. I wasn't doing anything mentally to relax my wrinkle, it was being relaxed for me. It's like when you get a massage and the masseuse holds the weight of your head in their hands and you can feel the heft of your head but it doesn't matter because it's not your responsibility to hold it up.

I fantasized that the forehead needle would have a botoxian effect and I would leave acupuncture a new woman, years younger, perkier, less stressed. Alas, the needle offered no long term forehead changes, but it wasn't for naught either. I have been left with the knowledge that my brow can really soften, even if it requires external intervention.

"Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh....If you're brow is really wrinkly, put a needle in it.If you're brow is really wrinkly, put a needle in it....Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh.... "

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Reading in bed

This morning I found myself confounded by my situation. Unlike most other mornings in my life, today I had the rare experience of having nowhere to be. Nothing I had to do. No child to manage. This morning the plan was to relax. It is so amazing to me that a good portion of my life involves teaching, practicing, writing or thinking about yoga, and still relaxing for me is like committing some kind of white-collar crime.

My milieu this morning was perfect for relaxing. I'm mid-way through a book that I love (A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century, by Jane Vandenburgh). It's my favorite kind of read-- tragic memoir with a heavy dose of cynicism and hilarity. My coffee maker had brewed me another fantastic pot. My house was actually clean. My laundry was done. When I woke up, I decided that I would let myself stay in bed drinking coffee and reading for as long as I wanted. About an hour in, I started thinking, I should go to 10am yoga. I have to teach this afternoon, so that would mean two trips to the studio on my "relaxed" day. So, I let it pass. While I poured my second cup of coffee and let go of 10am yoga, I decided I'd walk to work later. Somehow this decision made it okay not to go to yoga. After about another half hour of my decadent read-a-thon, I got a text. While on my phone, I looked up the pool schedule. "I'll walk to work and on the way, go for a swim" I thought.

It's like some sort of weird trading card system I've got going in my head. "You can read in bed for two hours, but you have to walk 4 miles and swim 1600 yards." In my mind, relaxing is some kind of an earned status. The other day I had just finished teaching the 5pm class. Gary, the teacher who was waiting in the lobby to teach the 7pm is from Alabama. While I, like usual, frenetically finished my teaching duties so I could gather my things and get to the PTA meeting (late), I said to Gary, "I'm really bad at doing nothing" to which he replied in his laid-back, subtle, southern drawl, "I'm really, really good at doing nothing. I'm actually great at doing nothing." And he was completely serious. He doesn't have the thing I have. I imagine some people would say it's guilt.

I've thought about this character trait of mine a lot, why I'm a multi-tasking, crazy, nutbag. But the answer is that I really don't know why. Once in a moment of pure appreciation and gratitude for my students and the existence of yoga in my life, I told the class, "If not for yoga, I'd be a chain-smoking, road-raging, alcoholic homeland security agent." I like to think that's an exaggeration, but who knows. Even though I fought my plan to relax in bed this morning, employing weird trading card games to justify my decadent morning, I did it. What yoga's given me is the ability to move through the resistance to relax a little bit more easily. Today, I stayed in bed for three hours. Three long hours, an eighth of a whole day. I drank my coffee. I read my book. I relaxed. And, while writing this post didn't bring me the answer to why I'm a relaxaphobe, it did keep me in bed a little bit longer. I'm getting up now to walk to work. And I'm skipping swimming.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

It's all about the gallbladder

What I love about Chinese medicine is the explicitly stated connection between the mind and the body. What's more important? The mind or the body? It's the age old chicken and egg conundrum. Who knows? Who cares? For the last month, I have been laboring over a decision regarding my daughter. It's not a life or death decision by any means. I'm just deciding if she should change schools. The truth is, whatever side of the decision I come out on, Lucia will be fine. She'll be great. It's me who is struggling to make the right decision (if there is such a thing).

I think this is the third time I've blogged about my acupuncturist (aka "the healer"). Last time I went, the healer told me that he thought I had a blockage in my gallbladder channel. O k a y. "In Chinese medicine," he explained, "The gallbladder is in charge of decision-making." So, it is possible that I am having some physical symptoms because I am struggling with this decision, or it is possible that my physical symptoms are making it hard for me to make this decision. The healer worked on me, gave me some Si Ni Wan (herbs) to take, and sent me on my way with an entirely new perspective.

In knowing that my gallbladder is involved in this decision I have to make about Lucia, I am strangely liberated. For me, getting through mental anguish is vastly more difficult than healing from a physical injury or illness. With this Chinese medicine approach, the physical and mental are deeply connected, and equally significant. This gives me renewed hope that my syndrome of indecision is curable.

The body-mind connection in acupuncture is not unlike yoga in that we strive in our practice to create a dialogue and ultimately harmony between the body and the mind. Sometimes this message resonates in yoga class when a teacher tells me to follow my breath. Most recently, it clicked into place when the healer told me that my gallbladder regulates decision-making. Same message, different voice. I'm grateful for them both.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Relaxing is hard work

During a recent treatment, my acupuncturist told me to relax my leg. He was doing a crazy manipulation. I was on my stomach and he had my leg in the air. It was like I was doing one leg of locust pose without the arms under my body. He bent my leg at the knee and told me to relax. I couldn't!!!! I tried every relaxation technique I know. The more I tried to relax, the more my hip contracted, my toes flexed, my quads bulged. "I'm trying to relax" I mumbled into the massage table with embarrassment. Being a skilled professional, the acupuncturist was kind and supportive and told me to just do the best I could.

On Fridays I teach yoga at Lucia's school. The kids are 5, 6 and 7 years old. Alexander is the youngest in the class. He's just five, having barely made the cut-off for kindergarten. The first day of class I taught the kids Savasana. I dimmed the lights, put on Deva Premal, and guided the kids into relaxation. Everyone tried. And of course they fidgeted. Even adults fidget. But Alexander was like a little rolled up sleeping bag. His eyes were clenched shut like a scary movie was playing. His little tiny palms were squeezed into fists, and his toes curled under in pre-high dive formation. Every Friday now, I try to help Alexander relax. I peel his fingers open and massage his hands. "Ow" he says. I rub his arms "Ow." And his toes "Ow". Each week he's a little better, a little more relaxed, but he struggles. It's a lot of work for Alexander to relax.

Last night at Prayer Square*, like always, we started with a five-minute silent meditation. Only five minutes. Usually I at least go through the motions-- be quiet, focused, still-- but last night, I just gave into my distractions. I yawned. I played with the pockets on my new pants, I even opened my eyes and spied on the other people a few times. But then, when the bell chimed signifying that our five minutes was over, I snapped into attention from a deep deep deeply relaxed place. I'd never been to a place like that while meditating, especially in five minutes.

There is something to this whole idea of being where we are, giving in to the experience of being okay not being okay. We are where we are and oftentimes that's not okay, or appropriate, or perfect. I spend a lot of time trying to do exactly the right thing. Put the right amount of money into savings each month, eat enough fiber, send thank you notes. Yoga for me is the time in my life when just doing what I am doing is exactly right, even if it is not exactly right. Yoga gets me to relaxation because there is no "supposed to be". Sure a practice exists. We hold to a physical form, but internally, mentally, emotionally, there is wide open space. While not always applicable in the general operating expectations of daily life, this is a good lesson. When you're all jacked up like Alexander in Savasana or me at the acupuncturist, try being okay with that. Maybe, like my unexpected surprise in Prayer Square, you'll find yourself relaxed anyway.

*Prayer Square is group of women friends I've been meeting with on a monthly basis for close to ten years. We meet monthly and have intentional conversations, sometimes about specific topics, sometimes based on what is going on in our lives.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Loosen your grip on the sand

Being out of control is not my forte. I like to get things done, move them along. I've always done this. Senior year of high school, I forced my (then, and still) best friend Judy to stay home with me many consecutive Friday nights to work on our our college essays. I still take credit for her going to college. My mom talks about the time when I was seventeen that I planned for myself and five friends to spend spring break in Sanibel Island, Florida. I had no credit cards and no check book and really no money. Somehow, though, I arranged for all of us to fly from Chicago to Newark to Fort Meyers on People's Express Airlines. We stayed for eight nights at a retirement hotel and, unable to rent a car, walked everywhere or stole bikes into town. I even coordinated peach Schnapps and orange juice for the underaged Fuzzy Navels on our layovers. Those were the days when liquid on planes wasn't a homeland security issue.

My greatest strength turns out to also be my downfall. In the face of the unknown, the ambiguous, I am a disaster. My mind races, I obsessively go through every possible incarnation of every possible scenario for any given event. Years ago, while walking home from work, I spent 45-minutes imagining all the different ways it would play out if I dropped my keys through the grate on the University Bridge and jumped off to get them. And I hadn't even dropped them.

One of my yoga teachers once said that, if you are planning to know what the next thing is (in this context she was obviously speaking about yoga poses), then you miss out on so much. You miss the newness that comes from being surprised. You learn much less because your mind has already formulated what is coming. My therapist describes this uber-controlling behavior using sand as an analogy. He says having to be in charge of everything is like squeezing a handful of sand. The more you squeeze, the more sand seeps out through your fingers. If you just let the handful of sand rest in your cupped palm, it stays there, a soft, pretty little mountain. You lose only a few grains.

I struggle with letting go in almost every area of my life. I think this is why yoga for me has been so important. First it was just as a student. I don't know how many years it was before I even realized what I was getting from my practice. For the first few years, I think I just loved how my skin felt. I felt clean and perky, like someone from Alaska. Over time, I got more comfortable with my body and that felt good. I was more physically relaxed, less self-conscious. Then I quit my job. I quit my career. Of course I eventually became a teacher of yoga and I felt something new. I was at home, content, in the right place. I understood finally what yoga had been giving me all these years. I could see, because I was teaching it, preaching it, that the trick was, and had always been, to let go.

But control is still my default. It's who I am on a deep deep level. Growing up in childhood heavy with chaos probably bolstered my need for control. It is likely that being the oldest in a line of five gave my controlling tendencies a boost too. Even if I committed to daily therapy with Dr. Phil and weekly visits with the Dalai Lama himself, I'd still be controlling. But I'm okay. I have yoga. When I teach, I am the letting go messenger. I am responsible for getting 20, 30, 40 different bodies and minds through 90 minutes of rigor, challenge. Letting go is the only way. On days when I practice, my teachers remind me. The message is never the same. It comes in different words and configurations of silences. I just wait to hear what's coming, knowing something always will, to help me loosen my grip on the sand.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Bilateral Breathing

In my youth I was a big swimmer. That was my family's sport. Everyone did swim team and, in the summers my sisters and I would go to overnight swim camp for a week or two at various camps in nearby states, sometimes Wisconsin, sometimes Michigan. When I was nine, I came back with an arsenal of new tools to plug into my regular practice at the Hyde Park YMCA. The Y, as we called it, is where I practiced during the school year. Rip, a young, hip, 20-something coach, stood on the deck of the century-old, sub-standard 20-yard pool with no light and no ventilation, and barked his workout orders. Rip used to tease us when we complained about workouts. He'd hold the world's tiniest imaginary violin to his broad brown shoulder and play while beaming a big fake frown at whomever was whining.

The fall of fourth grade, after my revelatory swim camp summer, Rip told us to do a a 500-yard freestyle warm up. I pushed myself up on the lane rope and leaned toward Rip, "Do you want us to do bilateral breathing?" Silence. My ears started getting hot. Maybe that wasn't the term. Maybe it was bi-coastal or binary or collateral. Rip broke the silence with a huge guffaw, "Bilateral breathing. Yeah Shorty. Do bilateral breathing." I was right. But I was humiliated. This is one of my most indelible memories. It shows up all the time, at random moments.

Last week, in response to my mysterious back tenderness, I was swimming laps to try and move things around. I couldn't do flip turns because it hurt, but of course I did bilateral breathing. Since the summer of my ninth year, I always do bilateral breathing. As I swam, I watched my bilateral breathing episode replay like a video clip. And then my mind moved to another channel.

In 1991, before there were any Bikram studios in Seattle, a friend of mine taught Bikram Yoga, unheated, at the Olympic Health Club. She did it in a huge ball room with close to 60 people. I went periodically but didn't have any kind of regular practice. One day, while practicing in the very back row, I kicked out in standing-head-to-knee pose. As I kicked, I felt a little pop in my lower back. Without hesitation, I bent over, folded my mat and headed for the double doors behind me. The teacher, my friend, yelled over the five rows in front of me, "Laura, where are you going? Don't leave." "I'm leaving," I shouted back. And with that, I marched through the lobby into the dressing room and sat in the hot tub in my t-shirt and shorts until class was over. I waited until everyone from class had left. Again, I was humiliated.

I've heard it said that humiliation is the best teacher. We seldom forget what we've learned in moments of being humiliated. Our greatest lessons come from being snapped out of our safety zones. When we are in conflict with our own comfort and knowing, when we are embarrassed or humiliated, our egos are wounded and we stand at attention.

I learned from Rip's guffaw that grown-ups are supposed to be smarter than kids. While Rip's intention might not have been to silence me, I heard a strong clear message. I kept my smarty pants mouth closed in swim practice. Rip was the coach and I was the swimmer. When I abandoned a yoga class I knew very little about, I learned that I wasn't as smart as I thought I was. I've never left any class since that day.

My humiliation experiences, while not pleasant at the time, have helped me to be a good student and a good teacher. As a student of yoga, I trust that my teacher is guiding me, that he or she knows how to hold the form and get me where I need to go. As a yoga teacher, I recognize how important it is to do just this, to be confident in my teaching and lead my students through their process with sureness and strength. Like everyone, I'm still humiliated sometimes. My ego gets bruised and I feel like an idiot. Then the dust settles, the wound heals a little bit, and there it is, a little lesson.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

I never knew I liked sequins.

Have you ever been shopping and out of the corner of your eye see something that you are immediately and compulsively desperate to have? This happened to me once with an Isabella Fiore purse. I was shopping for make up at Nordstrom and, as I short-cutted through accessories to the MAC counter, the purse caught my eye. It was marked down from $600 to $168 (which is my style). I never knew that I wanted a navy gingham purse with red and pink sequins flowers. Never knew. It was a fashion epiphany. I had to have that purse! Had to have it, so I bought it. That purse sits in my closet. I use it maybe once every three years.

Recently I had an emotional epiphany that hit me in much the same way as the perfectly ridiculous purse. I have high anxiety, particularly high anxiety among big crowds, and super-amplified anxiety when I'm having a party with lots of people in my own house. So, we had a party. I thought I would be fine. I thought I was good. I thought I was "over" this particular issue in my life. And then, there it was, the issue, from out of nowhere, like that Isabella Fiore purse. It niggled me. This issue. I've tried to overcompensate for it, being more social instead of less. I've tried to intellectualize myself out of having the anxiety--- "everything is under control," I repeat like a mantra during parties. It hasn't worked. The issue, the emotions attached to the issue are drawing me in, compelling me to look at it, deal with it.

An old friend once told me that if I didn't deal with my feelings directly, as they came, that they would eventually just come out sideways. Like when the coffee filter gets jammed with grounds and the coffee-ish water finds its way out anyway. It's messy and it's a pain in the ass, takes a good half hour to clean up the watery grounds and another ten minutes to remake the coffee.

Sometimes with feelings, we don't always know when they will come, or how they will present. I always tell my students to be open to emotions presenting themselves in class, during different postures. Yoga is one of the few places where, when we've trained our minds enough to really let go, feelings and thoughts can surface without the filter of judgement or control. It's great when that happens. There's no overflowing coffee grounds from this kind of expression. It comes up, it comes out. And we're ready for a second cup.

What a disappointment it was when this old stuff showed up. Initially, when I first recognized that damn, I gotta deal with this, it felt like a disaster. Coffee EVERYWHERE! Who knows why this happens. Maybe we are presented with emotions when we have enough room in our lives to listen. Maybe it happens when we practice enough yoga and our heads are sufficiently clear to notice the noise. Maybe it's a momentary interaction that, like a shock, jars our psyche to attention. It's likely a myriad combination, different for each of us.

My anxiety still shows up, but less frequently. It is still here, and like the purse, it might come out of the closet every three years. It will make a brief showing and go back into the closet. The disaster of it is over. I'm in clean up mode. Rinsing out the filter, adding new grounds. Starting from scratch.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I have an owwie.

Right now I have an owwwie. It's in my lower back. During Padahastana, it feels like a metal rod is being inserted into my spinal column. But only first set. Second set feels fine. And so does most of the rest of class.

Owwies are almost never just owwies.

The other night at dinner, Lucia was being a jerk, alternating between snappy and bratty and remote and aloof. Great dinner mate. At some point, Lucia started bawling. I didn't see it coming. It was seemingly out of nowhere, like spontaneous combustion. When I asked Lucia why she was crying, she said that she was upset about something her friend Ellen had done "when she [Lucia] was five" which means that this acute bout of crying was about an event that happened at least four months ago. At bedtime, Lucia finally told me that Ellen had given her a rejecting message that hurt her feelings. Ellen, a child with extreme, potentially fatal allergies, had said to Lucia, "My allergies are more important than your feelings." I told Lucia, "Honey, Ellen's allergies are really important. She could die if people don't pay attention to what she's allergic to."

"I knew you'd say that!" Lucia sobbed, "Nobody ever listens to meeeeee."

Lucia was sad, frustrated, exhausted, something. And she didn't know why. She needed something to attach her feelings to--an event, an experience. She needed something tangible that she could use to get love, comfort, support.

The body is the same way. Like my back owwie, my inexplicable owwie. Where did it come from? I didn't fall. I don't have degenerative disc disorder. I haven't picked up any bags of cement. I just have an owwie. My body needs comfort, support, love. A few months ago, my acupuncturist (aka "the healer") firmly advised me, "Laura, you expect too much of your body." Among other things, he told me to eat earlier in the day, to eat more meat, and to sleep more. "Every morning", the healer counseled, "instead of thinking about what you can get from your body, take a moment to resolve how you will take care of your body for the day."

I'm still not great at preempting my body's needs. I rarely take stock of what my body needs at the beginning of the day (or the week, or the month). So I periodically get a reminder in the form of an owwie. This time it is in my back. "Culberg", the owwie squeaks, "Pay attention to me. Comfort me. Support me. Love me."

Like Lucia who finds a way to get her big warm blanket of hugs and attention and love to comfort her inexplicable feelings, I too have found a way to take care of my mysterious owwie. I practice yoga and it makes my back feel better. I slow down because my back doesn't let me speed up. It's not a quick fix. I have to pay attention to what my body is telling me. I have to listen carefully and look more deeply because, y'know, owwies are never just owwies.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

But I know a change is gonna come.....

The other day in the car I told Lucia that I thought it was time for her to have a desk in her room. Of course, kindergarten over-achiever that she is, Lucia giggled with excitement at the prospect. We talked about a trip to Ikea, desk accessories, colors, knobs. Then I suggested we move her bed to the other wall. I ruminated about maybe even getting a bigger bed, maybe a loft so her desk could fit in her tiny room better. As I rambled on, I noticed that my partner in excitement was stone silent. "What's up Lu?", I asked through the rear-view mirror. "Mommy." Lucia said authoritatively, "If we move my bed we're going to have to move my bookshelf. Then we'll have to move my dresser and my hamper and my bead box. And, Mommy, you know I'm not a fan of big changes." And that was that.

Two days later, my partner Nancy gifted me a new coffee maker, a nice one, not like the schlock I have from Target. This Dutch beauty brews hot and fast and strong. Plus, the thermal pot keeps coffee hot for HOURS! For a coffee junkie like me, this is the perfect gift. Perfect.

From my living room couch, I could see the exquisite machine sitting on my kitchen counter. Semi-catatonic, I stared at the coffee maker, quietly entering a not-so-mild state of panic. The pot on the new machine is smaller. What if I need to serve coffee to drop-by visitors and there isn't enough? The part that holds the water is glass and maybe it will get dirty. What if my coffee doesn't taste the same? What if it tastes BETTER?

Turns out Lucia isn't the only one who balks at change.....

Change is hard. But why? My life could only be improved by the presence of this fabulous coffee maker. Lucia's room would be fantastically more fantastic with more space and a cool-kid loft bed. But we still opt for the familiar. The known, finding comfort in the well-worn items we've each shaped over time. I'm not proud of this. I fancy myself an outlier, a risk taker. How could such a thing as a coffee maker throw me off guard? I just jumped into a 46 degree lake!

Seeing the response that Lucia had to her theoretical room shuffle and then my reaction to my divine new coffee machine two days later gave me pause. Am I hard wired like this? Is she? (Poor thing). And, if we are, how do we deal with this aversion to change? Here's what I think. We wait. Once we get the information that change is afoot, we sit with that knowledge and wait to make a move. It's a little bit like Savasana. We want to be immediately calm and okay in our corpse pose, but that doesn't usually happen. We have to experience the friction, the struggle, the confusion that almost always comes before any clarity or calm.

I'm happy to report that I'm out of my panic mode about the new coffee maker. Today I'm in the excitement zone. I want to bake cakes so I can serve my new Dutch coffee to everyone I know in my Nana's perfect white German-made china cups. As for Lucia, she's still stewing. I'm not talking to her about the new desk or room re-arrangement. I'm following her lead, letting her soak up the idea in her own time. Who knows where she'll end up, but I predict that within a week, she'll be asking for that loft-bed from Ikea.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Jumping in to a year of more of the same.....

Every year on December 31st I resolve to do nothing. And, like most years past, this year I pretty successfully did nothing with my New Year's Eve or my New Year's Day. Success. I neither contemplated my past year, nor planned for the months ahead. While I'm open to change, I really really like my life. There is very little I want to alter. I'd consider myself lucky if, in 2011, I got more of what I had in 2010.

At a party the week before Christmas, my friend Kate told me how much she hated Christmas, how she'd taught her two young daughters (3 and 5) that Santa didn't exist. This was refreshing coming from Kate, who I consider to be one of the more upbeat, positive, cheerful and engaged people I know. Her cynicism seemed to come from the absolute absurdity that everything Christmas has become-- commercial, indulgent, laden with wants and expectations.

I feel similarly about the whole celebration of the New Year. Why now? Why on this particular day am I changing my whole life? How is that even possible? I mean, what the hell have I been doing with myself for the last 365 days if suddenly I now need to shake it all up, turn everything on it's head and start from scratch. That's overwhelming. That's depressing. That's ridiculous.

Now, while I truly believe everything I just wrote, I must come clean about an unexpected 2011 New Year's Day event. In December a handful of my friends planned to do the polar bear plunge. Meet at Mount Baker beach and jump into Lake Washington at noon on New Year's Day was the plan. Initially, being pathologically competitive, I said yes to the challenge. Then, on New Year's Day morning, after an absurdly unplanned, highly relaxing New Year's Eve, I decided that I would absolutely not do the plunge. I don't need to jump into a freezing body of water to start the New Year, I told myself. But I wanted to see the event, so the morning of, Nancy and  I walked the two miles down to the lake to "watch."

There were people of all ages (even a 6-year-old from Lucia's kindergarten class), all smiling, shivering, gearing up for the big plunge. It was exhilarating, thrilling, contagious. Suddenly, I wanted to be a part of this group. I wanted to start 2011 with an Arctic jump in the lake like them. I deliberated. It was so cold. I had no bathing suit. No towel. No car to get home. I'm not sure exactly how it happened, but as all of the plungers shed their down coats and fuzzy robes, I was suddenly pulling off my sweater, kicking off my clogs and stripping down to my bra and undies. Holding the hands of my old, old, good, good friends, I ran screeching into Lake Washington. It was a big celebration of all of us. We were all brave, strong, impulsive, excited. And it happened to be 1/01/2011.

I still feel the same way about New Year's resolutions. Why wait until January 1st to jump into change? That can happen any time, and it should. I will probably never jump into Lake Washington in the winter by myself. Ever. But I very likely will do it next year. And for many years to come. I'll hold my friends' hands, adding new ones each year, and run screeching into the ice-cold water, plunging into a New Year of more of the same.

Work Life Balance

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