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.

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