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.