Thursday, December 20, 2012

I want to hug the earth!

For the last few weeks I have been nursing an injury-- bicipital tendonitis. It's my first shoulder injury, one I sustained, embarrassingly, by carrying a purse that was too heavy. I've been doing my yoga practice without my right arm for the most part. I find that I really miss my right arm. A lot. Not just for balance, I miss the energy of my right arm.

This morning before class, I told the teacher (Brisa) of my injury. Brisa advised me to practice with the body I had, to do what I needed-- great words that should be heeded every day, regardless of injury. During class I did my usual one-armed postures. During Hands to Feet Pose, Brisa gave me a gentle neck massage to help me release that tightness near my right shoulder. Even though I was one-arming it a lot, I worked hard. I was having a good class.

At Full-Locust Posture I was setting my arms up in my modified position (angled down instead of straight out) when Brisa said, in her lovely, lilting, Portuguese-tinted voice, "Stretch your arms out like you're hugging the earth." At first I thought I misunderstood. "Earth" sounded a little bit like "eart" and I translated that in my injured-shoulder brain as "hurt." But then I put it together and I was so sad that I couldn't hug the earth!

My arms, constrained down by my sides to avoid any unnecessary pull on my injury seemed sub-standard, shoddy. I felt like I was withholding something from the earth. I love the earth. I want to hug the earth! If I could have, in that moment, with Brisa's enthusiastic, loving coaching, I would have hugged it long and hard. But alas, I have a bum shoulder so I can just think about it, plan for the moment when I can use my long, strong arms to reach big and wide in Full-Locust and hug like hell.

I love yoga. I love having different teachers. I love when something about their voice or their tone or their energy takes me to a new place. I always say practicing yoga with an injury is the best way to build knowledge, to develop empathy for other people who struggle. I realized today that it's also a way to hear messages differently and appreciate things we might normally take for granted. Thanks Brisa.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Just jump in!

A few weeks ago, I started Lucia in a new swimming class. My family is going to Hawaii in December, and I wanted to get Lucia a final few lessons to prepare her for the ocean. Lucia can definitely swim, but she lacks confidence. She will only go in the shallow end and, even when she doesn't need to, she stops mid-way through to settle her toes on the pool bottom. I called around for private lessons thinking that would be the most efficient way to get her proficient in six weeks. Private lessons are not only expensive, but I was struggling to coordinate a time that worked with a busy eight-year-old's schedule.

I finally decided to just enroll her in the community pool's group lessons. Lucia was totally bummed. New place, new kids, new teachers. That's so not her style. As she changed and showered in the frigid, prison-like dressing room, shivering and shooting me a major stink-eye, she said, "Mommy, swimming is my least favorite sport." Lucia knows that I was a competitive swimmer for thirteen years. She knows I love swimming. "Soccer is my favorite sport" she snarled, "and swimming is my least!" (Soccer, mind you, before she started, also occupied the ranks of most-hated sports.)

When we got into the pool area, Lucia was pleased to see a classmate. They stood, purple-lipped, shivering in wait for their teacher. Lucia had missed the first week so the pool manager guided her to beginners. Lucia was visibly pissed to learn that her classmate was intermediate. "Jump in!" Lucia's beginner teacher instructed her group. Lucia looked back at me with what I assume was an imploring stare, but I averted my eyes so she couldn't make contact with me. She jumped in. There were 21 kids in this class! No private lesson here. They separated the kids into three groups, with three teachers, each on a different wall of the pool. I watched the beginners teacher ask Lucia to swim a little bit to assess her skill level. Lucia, like a kid in an episode of Scared Straight, did as she was told. The teacher saw that she had above-beginner skills and promptly sent her into the deep-end to the advanced class. I imagine this over-burdened beginners teacher was thrilled to be responsible for one less swimmer-in-training.

Every time Lucia looked my way, I put my head down as if captivated by my book. When it was safe again, I'd look up and see her swimming. She, along with the ten other kids in her group, were swimming laps! Back and forth. No tippy-toes touching the ground. The girl could swim! I giggled the entire lesson thinking to myself, "This child has been holding out on me for months! She's actually a good swimmer." Lucia, competitive by nature, and a bit of a perfectionist, would not be out-shown by these other kids. When the teacher yelled "Backstroke" she did it. When he shouted, "kick more!" she damn well did it.

I don't think Lucia was actually tricking me. I think her mind was tricking her. Lucia needed someone to push her over her mental hump. She needed a fresh environment. Her previous lessons, where teachers indulged her anxieties, weren't helping. She needed someone to ignore her anxieties and look at her potential.

After Lucia's first lesson, she emerged, blue lipped and frozen, with a beaming smile. The proud look on her face is one that I will never forget. As I stood holding Lucia's towel while she shampooed her hair in the warm shower, she said through chattering teeth, "Mommy, swimming is my new favorite sport."

Here's to just jumping in!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Listen harder to yourself

Lately I've noticed lots of coming and going in the yoga room. Refilling water bottles, getting a Kleenex, going to the bathroom. One person starts the exodus, and then it spreads like ringworm. I've observed it more as student than as a teacher. One person leaves the room and soon there are three, four, TEN people jumping off their mats to do something seemingly urgent. But what is urgent during a 90-minute yoga class really? Yes, sometimes a student really truly needs to do some business in the bathroom. Of course, by all means, go to the bathroom. But 99% of the time there is really no great reason to leave one's mat.

As a teacher I'm pretty strict about this stuff and make no bones about my approach. "Strictness", I tell my students, "is the love language of The SweatBox." I remember kids (including me) doing dumb stuff in childhood and adolescence. A teacher or a parent would inevitably respond to our stupidity with, "If Max jumped off the bridge, would you do it?" That cliche phrase is one that most of us heard (some of us with more frequency than others) during childhood. I use it with my own daughter. "Think for yourself," I tell her. "Be your own person."

A regular yoga practice will result in a more connected self. There is more connection between the physical and the mental, the emotional and the spiritual. With regular practice one can also develop a stronger sense of self, a more clear point of focus and direction. Ninety minutes can seem like an eternity some days, and there are potentially thousands of distractions to lead us astray in every session. We have to be committed to following our own path, not that of someone else in the room. As Bikram himself says, "Don't let anyone steal your peace."

When one person in a class makes the first move, hops off her mat to get water in the middle of the posture, there is an interruption in the class that invites other people to follow suit, ("jump off the bridge with Max"). It's so easy. We've all done it. We see that sneaky cat get across the room with no trouble and figure it's easy so we do it too. Some teachers (yours truly) are more vocal about discouraging this behavior. I make it clear as a teacher that my expectation is that people won't do this. So recently, as a student, when I watched 5, 7, 12 other students interrupting their practice with silly distractions, I started to wonder why they do it in this class, but not in my class.

And here's what I realized. We're all human. We live in a world filled with temptations and sometimes we fall prey to them, even when we don't want to. This is why yoga is important, why it makes us healthier, saner, more calm. Yoga helps us develop our own internal voice to guide us through the distractions. It shouldn't matter if a teacher ever says one word about staying on your mat. Part of your yoga practice is building your discipline, honing your internal voice, so that it is louder than any other. You are your most important teacher and your internal voice, your more connected voice, if you listen, is likely telling you to stay on your mat.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Find some stillness in your stillness

On Tuesday, I took Katy's 6am class. For those of you who don't know Katy, she is lovely. That's the first word that comes to mind when I think of her. She is authentic, positive, nurturing, and a damn good yoga teacher. Katy's strengths as a teacher are similar to her strengths as a person. She's authentic, positive, and nurturing. At 6am, this is especially important. To go from deep sleep to Bikram Yoga is not an easy process.

On Tuesday, the class was hot, humid, and full of bodies, so there was the usual intensity you'd expect in a Bikram class. Katy is statuesque and incredibly strong. She's also graceful, and really at home in her body. This strength and confidence gives her the ability to hold the energy of an intense class. She's unapologetic about the toughness of Bikram practice, but also sends the message of acceptance. Like many of us teachers, she makes sure to convey the message, "Be where you are. Every day your body is different."

During the first Savasana after the standing series, Katy was helping us to relax our bodies. She threw out a few instructions, "relax your muscles", "be still in your body." And then she said, "Be still in your stillness", and then chuckled, "if that makes any sense."

It was only later that day when I was teaching a big group of sweaty, intense students, trying to be confident, clear and strong enough to hold the energy in the room, that I had a flash of those words in my mind, "Be still in your stillness." That's so good. As a student, it is relatively easy (some days more than others) to follow the teacher's instructions to keep our bodies still. But most of us know that there is an entirely different ball game going on in the mind. The body is still and the mind is at Wild Waves with a forty ouncer. --- "I have a drip of sweat about to drip into my ear." "The woman next to me must have had a ton of garlic last night." "I wonder who left those bobby pins on the floor next to my mat." "Would it be okay if I served red wine with salmon?" Stillness? What stillness?

It's been a long time since I've been teaching and practicing and it's a thrill when I hear something that helps me in both realms. I relate to simple instructions. "Be still in your stillness" is so dang clear. But like different teachers, sometimes different words help get a message across. The body still. The mind still. Duh!!!! It's like washing the car and cleaning the inside. So much better. So much more complete. Thanks for the clarification Katy.



Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Warm 106.9

Every once in a while when I'm teaching yoga, the thermometer will say 106.9. This usually means it's time to turn down the heat. It also means I start thinking about soft hits. I know some of you reading this are familiar with Delilah. You know the theme song-- "Love someone tonight."

This fall has been exceptionally busy for me. Work, volunteering at Lucia's school, birthdays, social engagements. My coffee intake in September reached it's highest point since college. Last Thursday, after I spontaneously started sweating and felt like I was on the verge of cardiac arrest, I decided I was definitely switching to decaf. Despite my regular yoga practice (thank god for that), I was clearly not managing my anxiety.

I used to listen to WARM 106.9 all the time. For the last few years I've been pretty unconsciously tuned into KUOW. But recently, something moved me to switch back---and it wasn't a pledge drive. After my near heart attack, I was driving on Rainier Avenue South towards downtown. KUOW was on and the commentator was talking about the upcoming elections. It was stressing me OUT! I happened to be driving to the first of two meetings that day, both of which were going to involve confrontation. I suck at confrontation, and I didn't need more stress to prepare me for it.

I had a moment of clarity, "I don't have to listen to this shit!" I shimmied my dial up to 106.9 and heard Celine Dion. Now I would probably not buy the iTunes single of The Power of Love, but in that moment, it was so simple, so easy, so soft. I loved it. Next came Genie in a Bottle (Christina Aquilera). " oooh oooh.... my body's sayin' let's go."

It was one of those unprecedentedly glorious sunny days in Seattle. Over the course of my 35 minute drive, I heard Cyndie Lauper, Stevie Nicks, John Mayer. I sang my heart out."Your true colors, true colors, are beautiful like a rainbow...." My sunroof was open, my windows were down. I just needed some back up singers to complete my harmonies and a new outfit. I felt so happy, I didn't even mind the Sleep Country commercials.

It was such a small thing, making the decision to change my radio station. But the results were enormous. I'm still tuned into 106.9, not all the time, but a lot. Whenever I find myself wanting to check my email while I'm driving, I know I'm simmering over, stepping out of balance. "Crank those soft hits Culberg," I tell myself. Last week I cleaned my house with 106.9 on and I didn't stop to check my phone for two hours!

You might hate 106.9 (many people do, especially in December when it's all Christmas songs all month long), but there is something out there that helps you dial down the stress. It's too easy to get into a pattern of overdrive. We all have obligations, responsibilities, but life shouldn't be without lightness. I feel grateful to have yoga as a constant in my life, a tool for releasing stress, but sometimes I need more. I need James Taylor, Lionel Richie, Enya, Mariah Carey, Fleetwood Mac......


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Well that was just awful....

Yesterday I had a brand new student in class. As always, I fully briefed her on the heated room, taking breaks, and being open minded about what to expect in her first Bikram class. She seemed to be fine for the first few postures. While she didn't smile, she also didn't audibly moan or grunt or signify indications of discomfort. Towards the floor series, I could tell she wasn't loving class, but she stayed.... until the last posture. At spine twisting, she abruptly rolled up her mat and walked out. I called out, "Wait, you're almost done. This is your last posture!" But, alas, she was out the door.

It's very unusual for a student to leave the room at that stage in class. I mean, once you're in the last 5 minutes, it doesn't really make sense to abandon ship. After final Savasana, I found the student in The SweatBox lobby. She was quietly sitting, her mat rolled up on her lap. When she saw me, she stood up. "How are you?" I asked, "you did really great for your first time." (She really did).

"Well, that was just awful" she said. "That was really really unpleasant. I just hated that." I'm not sure what my exact response was. I probably told her the heat takes a while to get used to. I might have said something about the first time always being the most difficult. But she was done. "I'm never coming back" she said, "that was really just awful." Okay. Bye.

I've been teaching Bikram Yoga for over 11 years. I've taught thousands of students. My skin is pretty thick. I didn't take this student's comment personally. Not at all. She's right. Sometimes yoga practice is awful. Sometimes it's really awful. That's the point. We practice through the discomfort, the unfamiliarity, the heat. If you're a new practitioner, you might still be in the throes awfulness. If you've been practicing twenty years, you too will have practices that are awful. And then, you'll have practices that are wonderful, enlightening, epiphanic.

It's hard to tell a brand new student that "awfulness" is part of the process. Until you've endured the struggle of practicing through hard times, it won't really make sense. Once you've been there, seen both sides of hard and easy, inflexible and flexible, wobbly and balanced, you know how important all of the experiences are in your practice.

Maybe I should have tried harder with the new student, pushed her to understand more. I hope that she tries yoga again so she can see the other side of "the awful."
As for myself, the experience with this new student was a great reminder for my own practice. I remember those early days.... Some days yoga class was so hard. And now, almost twenty years later, it still is sometimes. The only difference is that now I know the rest of the story.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Michelle Obama must do yoga....

For years, I have been out of the loop politically. It's just a bunch of mental masturbation to me. Blah blah blah! I vote. I care. But I'm just tired of the bullshit. I grew up in an intellectual household where knowledge of current events was very important. Reading the New York Times and multiple other publications daily was the norm. But not for me. I'm a Sunday New York Times Style Section girl. Cover to cover every week.

Then last week when I was driving home from work, I heard Michelle Obama on the radio speaking at the DNC. I have some background with Michelle. I'm from the same neighborhood in Chicago where she and Barak used to live. I went to the same school as their kids. Like all Hyde Parkers, I kind of feel like I really know Michelle and Barak Obama, so when Michelle was speaking, it felt like listening to a trusted friend. At one point in her speech, Michelle said, "If you succeed you don't slam the door shut, you reach back and help the next person succeed."

Whoa. When I heard her say this, I nearly wept. Her voice, so warm and loving and fierce all at once, made me feel like she really believed that statement. I know Michelle and I aren't really friends, and I know she's speaking to millions of people, but it felt so real, like change is possible if we can remember not to slam the door shut.

The next morning I taught the 6am class at The SweatBox. The class was all women, about ten of them, mostly in their late 30s to early 60s. One older woman made the trek down to Capitol Hill from Shoreline at the ungodly hour of 5:30am to meet her friend who lives near the Capitol Hill studio. Her friend had been complaining about her arthritic shoulder and she knew yoga would help. All of the women worked their asses off. They always do.

At the end of class, when everyone was lying in final Savasana, I did my usual guided relaxation. "I don't know if any of you heard Michelle Obama on the radio last night." (Some whoops were shouted from the corpse poses in the darkened room). "She said, 'If you succeed you don't slam the door shut, you reach back and help the next person succeed.'" Hallelujah and Amen uttered the corpses....

I said, "Michelle Obama must do yoga because she has so much to give." Now I don't know this for sure (because she and I are not super tight friends), but I know Michelle Obama must do yoga or something equally self-nurturing because she is a woman who clearly takes care of herself enough to be able to offer amazing inspiration to those around her. I said as much to this class full of hard-working women. It is only by caring for ourselves (yoga, yoga, yoga!!!), that we can replenish the energy neccessary to support our families, our communities, and (dare I say this semi-political utterance)our country.

I'm still not political, but Michelle Obama's one liner gave me some clarity about how all parts fit into the whole of making our country a better place. Taking care of ourselves is the first step. Give yourself a little and you'll have a little bit more to give. Thanks Michelle Obama.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Bend a little bit

Last week when I was teaching, I had a student who did a standing backward bend so deep that her fingertips almost touched the floor (behind her). It's hard to picture, hard to fathom, but there she was, in the flesh, bending like a bow-- backwards.

People come to yoga with varying levels of innate flexibility. This certainly factors into how deeply a person can backward bend. And the more one practices backward bending, the deeper they can go, but I think there is something more to it. To deeply backward bend, you have be open to feeling really uncomfortable, scared, vulnerable. You have to be open to falling, to being dizzy, to losing a bit of control.

Backward bending is the body movement we do least in our lives. We forward bend to write, to drive, to cycle, to change diapers,to order a latte, to cook. Our bodies default to forward bending, making backward bending not only uncomfortable, but also unfamiliar and often scary.

I have been teaching for eleven years, and every year, I find that I am able to recognize more postural nuances in the bodies I am teaching. This is especially true in students I have taught regularly for years and years. The most common thing I see in the standing backward bend is ambivalence. It's so subtle. The neck is just a little bit tight, the jaw slightly clenched, the shoulders just a bit too hunched. This is the natural, pervasive fear of letting go, moving into the unknown.

The student with the deep deep beautiful backward bend was a first timer to The SweatBox. When she signed in, I got a brief overview of her life. For the past several years, she's lived all over the world, on several continents, going where the wind blew her. She was, as cliche as this might sound, a free spirit.

Of course I do not know this free-spirited woman at all. Perhaps she comes from a long line of Ukrainian gymnasts. Maybe she has that magic cartilage that just moves that way. But my suspicion is that it is likely a combination of things that give her the ability to U-Turn her spine. I suspect that this woman is a little bit more fearless than some of us, myself included.

And when I think about some of my long-time students, I can see that there is indeed a pattern. One student, a woman in her thirties who has been practicing for a couple of years, recently ended a long-term relationship, moved into her own place, decided she wanted a new career, and, moved to a whole new realm in her backward bend. Coincidence? I don't think so.

In life, it is the things we are least comfortable with that we have to push ourselves at the most. I think for me, with my uber-controlling, fairly rigid personality, backward bending will always feel difficult for me. I will probably always fight it like I do any kind of change, but I have noticed that when I let go more, when I open my mind, I actually go deeper. The other day in class, for the first time ever, Frani actually said, "Nice backbend Laura."

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Sometimes getting your ass kicked is a good thing.

Summer time yoga practice is hard. Bikram yoga practice in the summer is especially hard. During the cold, dark and rainy months of the year I regularly practice 3-5 times a week, but in the summer because of child care obligations, other activities, and let's face it, laziness, I only practice once or twice a week. Yesterday, I practiced for the first time in 10 days! I'd been gone for a week with my family and, though I brought 8 mats in the car so the whole fandamily could get their yoga groove on, the bag didn't leave my trunk. As many of you know, a break that long makes for an almost inevitably difficult reentry yoga session. And mine was. Yesterday Penni (as usual) kicked my ass. This morning when I took Kristen's class, I felt stronger, but oh my aching muscles. Even my chin was sore from yesterday's practice.

This post-hiatus yoga discomfort is something I rarely experience during the non-summer months of the year. And though it's not pleasant--feeling nauseated, tight, weak, and slightly pathetic--it is informative. Yesterday I got my ass kicked, and today I could feel it ALL OVER. The physical sensations in my deltoids, my neck, my quads, were all reminders of what's happening in my body when I practice. And the mental rigor of doing my 90 minutes of Bikram is exponentially more difficult after a long break. Ninety minutes can feel like 90 years.

I take for granted when I practice very regularly how hard this yoga can be. Of course, like we all do, I have ass-kicking practices year round, but never like the summer. I can be really really hard on myself. I'm known as a bit of a perfectionist (See January 2012 Post "Welcome to the Revolution") so feeling like a loser is not something I do well with (who does?!), but this round of getting my ass kicked, I am taking it differently. Instead of spinning out about what a moron I am for not doing yoga on my vacation, I'm giving myself some props for practicing at all.

If you're out there, worried about your return to yoga, fear not. Yes, it's hard. You might have a wicked hard class, but then while you're bathing your sore muscles in Epsom salts, re-hydrating into the evening, preparing for your next class, you can relish in the greatness of your strength, determination, and struggle. You might have gotten your ass kicked in your yoga class, buy you, my friend, are an Ass-Kicker!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Meditating with Lucia.....


Last week my seven-year-old daughter Lucia woke up with a 14-year-old's attitude. She was snarky, mean, uncommunicative, aloof. I spent the morning alternating between attempts to coax her out of her mental misery and distract her into another mood. Neither tactic worked. She sat on one couch reading her book; I sat on the other couch reading the paper. Whenever we made eye contact Lucia would make an indignant grunt like my very existence was causing her physical pain.

I couldn't really focus on the article I was reading. I was over-analyzing Lucia's mood, wondering what dastardly parenting faux pas I'd made to create this behavior, but then I took a breath and did what my therapist advised, I tried to remember what it was like when I was her age. And it all came back. I remember it so clearly. I'd get in a mood and hold onto it like it was the last life preserver on the Titanic. No matter what my mother said or did, I was committed to my mood. It was mine and I wouldn't give it up.

I called Lucia over to my couch and told her I wanted to try something I'd recently read about in a parenting book. I told her that we were going to set the timer on my phone for two minutes and meditate. Lucia, always game for a challenge, agreed. I imagine she was thinking that she'd "win" at this game with Mommy.

I instructed Lucia to put one hand on her heart and the other on her belly, to close her eyes and just breathe for two minutes. At the end of the two minutes, I asked her to tell me what she felt. "Not what you thought, honey, what you felt." Lucia couldn't do it. It was too abstract, too vague. I told her she'd done great. She said she'd like to do it again sometime, and she went back to her couch.

I assumed that the two minutes hadn't done anything for Lucia. But the two minutes had definitely helped me. I felt better, lighter, less encumbered with Lucia's mood. About twenty minutes later, Lucia looked at me with her beautiful smile and said, "You know what Mommy: I woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning, but now I'm better." And she was. Those magical two minutes had helped Lucia to relinquish her cranky mood and move on to a different one. Joy for me! Joy for her!

I told my yoga class the next day this story about Lucia. "It's like Savasana," I said. "When you're stuck in a bad place in class, during Savasana take a break from thinking, and just feel. This will allow you to clear your mind and move on to a new perspective."

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Summer Blues

I woke up this morning and walked to the coffee maker. As I stood, half-asleep staring out the window while I filled the water pitcher, I realized that I have found a new battle. The weather! As a control freak/perfectionist letting go is one of my big life projects. It's why I do yoga. It's why I'm spiritual. It's why I go to therapy. And I have developed my ability to let go in many ways. I let go, for example of having my house and yard look a certain way (though I still have bouts of trying, I'm not consumed). I let go of having the same parenting style as my ex, and that's oftentimes frustrating. I let go of Lucia's school not having an art program.

This last week a new stuckness has emerged for me. The weather. I hate it. I'm angry at it. I feel deprived and resentful and utterly cranky about it-- a deeply irrational response to something I really have no control over. But I do. When I wake up, I look outside and it's gray. I pull out my BOOTS to wear. I put on an UNDERSHIRT. Seattle is a stunningly beautiful city in so many ways. It is always green. The snow-capped mountains surround us, water on every side. Where is my gratitude? When it's 53 degrees in June, I have none. I'm too pissed off.

Both my sisters used to live in Seattle. It was perfect. The three of us are close in age (all within 21 months of each other) and being together is one of the highlights of my life, but since they both ran for the hills in search of better weather, I'm here in RainLand on my own. When they visit, they know to come late in the summer.

On Monday when I was spewing negativity in response to the weather, wishing I lived anywhere else, barking, "I hate Seattle. I really do. I hate Seattle," my girlfriend said, "Laura, you can't hate where you live. You have to love where you live. You live here."

And she's right. The weather is like anything else. It's part of who we are. It directly affects our energy level, our mood, our interactions with the world. Many of us know the feeling of hating our bodies, or our jobs, or even a person. That kind of negativity is toxic for the soul and the body. And now, as if I needed another issue to contend with, I've added Seattle in June to my list of things I have to let go of.

When I came into The SweatBox to practice this morning, Frani and I commiserated about the weather. She was exhausted. I was exhausted. She was depressed. I was depressed. Seattle in June was consuming me. And then class started. I was warm and cozy in my familiar cocoon of yoga. And it hit me! My gratitude. Here it is! I am grateful for this place, The SweatBox, where I can come to let go of Seattle in June (or any of my other myriad issues).

Monday, June 18, 2012

Do you wish you looked more like you?



During my last hair coloring appointment, my hair stylist Katie, who is also one of my yoga students, shared this great quote with me, "Do you wish you looked more like you?" She was of course using this line in reference to finding the perfect style, the perfect color.

I love that quote. Looking more like me is where I get when I do yoga. In my life, I have spent too much time trying to get it just right. The right haircut, the right body, the right job, the right partner. Everyone searches for something, some of us more that others. The problem is that the search, while focused on an individual, is too often motivated by external factors.

This morning one of the students in my class said, "I am going to do my best to not hate myself when I look at myself in my yoga clothes." She bravely said aloud what many, many people (women and men) think in their heads. In response, I told this courageous, honest student, "When you start that nonsense in your head, work harder, sweat more, get yourself out of your head."

Those of you who practice yoga know what I'm talking about. It's kind of magical. While nothing external changes over the course of your practice, you start to look different in those 90 minutes. You see yourself through a different lens. At the beginning of class you see your thighs or your belly or your eye bags. But by the end of class, that stuff, while it's still there, isn't the predominant image in the mirror.

It's almost like the inside comes out. The outside stuff becomes less visible, less relevant. Through the hard work, the sweat, focus, you've set the inside stuff free.

The other day in class, Kristen repeatedly encouraged us to see ourselves in the front mirror. "Look up", she'd say or "Look at yourself." "Don't look down!!! Look at your beautiful reflection." At the beginning of the class, this direction was hard for some of us. It's hard to look at something you don't want to see. It happens for me every single time I practice. But by the end of class, I truly am more me. I feel more like me. I look more like me. At the end of class, the image in the front mirror is so much more than my thighs and my belly and my wrinkles.

Katie's a great hair stylist and I always feel more like me when she's finished with my hair. But I can only justify getting my hair done every few months, so in between appointments, yoga will get me to that place- looking (and feeling) more like me.


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

It only gets easier after it's harder

Right now my daughter Lucia is learning a new song on the piano. It's by Brandi Carlile-- "Before it Breaks." It's really cute to see her playing a real song. When she first started practicing this song, she was still new to combining the chords with the melody and she struggled mightily. She reached peak frustration minutes after starting her piano practice. I tried different techniques-- play the right hand separately from the left. Just sing the song. Take a break and play another song. But the truth was, it was going to be hard for the first little bit while she learned it. One day before practicing, to get Lucia geared up, I found a YouTube video of Brandi Carlile playing "Before it Breaks". In the video , she introduces the song by saying, "I'm just learning how to play piano live. This song took me 9 hours to play. I cried twice."

Lucia snickered a little bit. "9 hours!", she gasped, feeling smug that she could probably get the song in less time than that. But she got the message-- learning this song was going to be hard work. The rest of the video, of course, is Brandi Carlile crooning and playing the piano with what seems like very little effort. I watched Lucia as she mouthed the lyrics and watched this "rock star" singing the song she was learning. Riveted. Inspired. Excited.
For the next week or so, Lucia practiced "Before it Breaks" a lot. And it got easier for her. A lot easier. She memorized it. She loved it. And next week, she's playing the song in a recital.

Sometimes I use Lucia's piano playing when I teach as an analogy for how yoga practice, and certain postures in particular can sometimes feel. Some days, practice is so goddamned hard. It feels pointless. You wonder why you bothered to come to this literal torture chamber. You ask yourself when it will ever get easier. And why isn't it getting easier. It's because it is always harder before it gets easier. I am not sure what it is about the human brain, but we tend to focus on the experiences that are hard and barely give a wink to the moment when "it" (piano, yoga, fill in the blank) finally gets easier.

The next time you are practicing yoga, or piano, or your challenge of the moment, try to remember that, if you're in a rough patch, a hard time, that you're on a path that's taking you somewhere else. Eventually, you'll get to the place where whatever it is isn't so hard, and maybe one day it will even be easy. The easy part only comes from experiencing the hard stuff. And, then, when you reach that moment, like when Lucia finally "got" the song, take a moment to appreciate that you got there.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

I can't believe I wore those underpants!

Remember first grade? Fourth grade? Eight grade? Everyone has some time in school that kind of sucked. You got teased or bullied or wore a kilt with really loud underpants on tumbling day in gym in third grade. It is that indelible memory that you have for years, maybe your whole lifetime, of utter embarrassment or despair or humiliation. It enters your semi-consciousness periodically. As the years go by, it has much less power. The memory is more like a whisper that a kinesthetic jolt.

This year my daughter Lucia had her time (or at least one of her times). Three boys singled her out and decided she was the one to whisper about. Lucia never knew the content much beyond, "Lucia has a boyfriend." As a first grader, Lucia was embarrassed, humiliated, and ultimately, after too many days of the same unrelenting teasing, in despair. The situation has since been remedied and I think if that is "the" big moment that will plague Lucia's psyche into adulthood, she is very lucky indeed.

While Lucia was enduring this, I felt conflicted. On the one-hand, I thought, "I should kick those bad boys in the ass and tell them to take a hike." On the other-hand, I thought this is an opportunity for Lucia to take on some discomfort and find her way through it. The situation was bad enough that the teacher and principal did end up getting involved. The boys targeted another girl in Lucia's class and when Lucia told her to just ignore them (as she'd been instructed), one of the boys pushed her, knocking her to the floor. In a private meeting with Lucia, her teacher and the principal they told her that she had been brave to help the other girl. They told her that they were there to support and help her. At the end of the meeting, Lucia felt proud, special, and courageous. She had new energy to take on the problem.

Lately, I've noticed that there is surge in people struggling on their mats. Could be weather related. Could be because we have lots of new students. Maybe it's me. I struggle myself--often. When I see people fidgeting compulsively or leaving their mats at random times to fill their water bottle or go to the bathroom or do whatever, I think (and often say aloud), "Just hang in there. Stay the course of your discomfort or anxiety or dizziness." I advise this, because when we do stay the course, we learn that we can get through it, so next time the fidgeting or leaving the room won't be our first choice.

I can see it with Lucia. She didn't get a new classroom. She got some new tools and some thicker skin. I know sometimes it is hard to stay in a class that feels challenging and frustrating and overwhelming. But try. You'll find that what you get is much more satisfying. At the end of your class you will feel proud, special and courageous. Staying the course might not be your first choice, but it's the best choice.


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Broken phone

Last week my phone broke. It was kind of traumatic and kind of awesome. I happened to be in Belize (poor me) so my phone was really only with me so I could receive any information about my daughter who was not with me. Emergency only really. But on the fourth day, I dropped my phone and the screen just went black. I could hear the phone ring, hear when text came in or a reminder for an event, I just couldn't see the screen to activate anything. It was okay. I used my partner Nancy's phone when I needed to, but the broken phone really was a major challenge for me.

This past Sunday (4/22/12)in the New York Times, there was an article titled "The Flight From Conversation" by Sherry Turkle about how texting has compromised the ability of many to have conversations. Yes, we talk to each other, but are we really there? We text while we talk, always one foot out the mental door to the next thing. We are able to edit ourselves, monitor what we share, even with the people we are closest to. Some of us text all the time. I do. A few weeks ago I had a friend over who I rarely see. She was texting intermittently while we talked in depth about our love lives, children, struggles, deep things. It was just weird! Last week in Belize, I was on a tiny little 10-person plane. It was a very short flight, a very small plane, with lots of water below. The pilot was texting!

Yesterday I went to get a replacement phone. The woman at the Verizon store told me that I use very few talking minutes, but LOTS of texts. She confirmed what I already knew. I'd rather organize my thoughts and present them as I want them to be heard, rather than pick up the phone and talk. After I got my new phone, I went to work, but you can bet I checked my phone about 12 times on the way (in the car). Later in the afternoon, I had to make a difficult phone call. I would have emailed, but I didn't have the person's email. I was hoping that it would just be a voicemail, but she answered. Completely disarmed, I just said what I had to say. Much harder than texting or emailing, but cleaner too. Immediate results.

I was basically without a phone for less than a week, but I noticed such a difference. At breakfast with Lucia, I wasn't constantly checking the time on my phone to make sure we were on track to get to school on time. I just trusted that five more painstaking minutes with the slowest eater in the world would be fine. When we were stuck in traffic on the way to Lucia's soccer game, I couldn't call to tell anyone that the goalie would be late. I couldn't look on my phone to see what all this bullshit traffic was about. I just sat there talking about how the bee in the bee movie Lucia had recently seen called his butt "his heaving buttocks." I was so much more present!

This has all been said. It's the talk of the era. Google glasses are next. We'll been seeing screens as we walk down the street. Or the automatic car that drives for us so we can do texting, emailing, Photoshop, marketing analysis.....Sherry Turkle, in her New York Times Article, says, "We think constant connection will make us feel less lonely. The opposite is true. If we are unable to be alone, we are far more likely to be lonely."

Ms.Turkle makes a great point. The phone and the constant connection it represents is a false connection. The real connection comes from talking to or being with another person. Or it comes from being connected to yourself by being alone with yourself and appreciating that. Not waiting for the next thing. Not being part-way in the current thing.
I love my new phone. It does amazing, cool, efficient things. It's going to be hard, but I'm going to find some phone-free spaces in my life. If I start to slip, I hope you'll remind me. Just send me a text.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A text would have been so much better!

I hate listening to voicemail. Blah blah blah blah. Just text me okay! God, that sounds so bratty. Anyway, last week I was running around all morning like a nutbag-- drop Lu at school, park, race to a meeting, race to another meeting, and TRY like hell to make the noon yoga class.

At 11:52am, I made it to the studio, scurried to grab my clothes to change. I still had to put my mat down and fill my water bottle. I checked my phone because I always do to make sure there's no message from Lucia's school (I know, neurotic) and saw there were two missed calls from a 949.286.3973. I don't know that area code at all, so I just ignored it because that's what I do. I ignore it.

I got my clothes on, my water bottle filled, my mat situated. Frani came in to the yoga room, turned on the lights and the heat and started Pranayama. At the exact moment that she told us to start inhaling, I had a thought that would plague me for the next fifteen minutes. 949.286.3973! That's my house alarm company. My alarm is going off and I'm either getting robbed or it is a false alarm and I'm going to owe ADT $150! How was I going to get out of the room to listen to my messages? Could I? Would it be awful? Would the other students just think I was doing some important owner-task that had to be done right in the middle of class? No way. I was stuck.

I was completely checked out through Pranayama. Between images of a masked villain rifling through my underwear and bras, I told myself to just breathe, let it go, and concentrate on my practice. And then, flash, an image of my beautiful newly-painted green front door smashed through with a hatchet would take me away again. Breathe, I told myself. I was still plotting how to get out of the room through Half-Moon and Awkard. I thought, maybe during party time I can make a break. But somehow, in Eagle, I must have switched over. I had let it go. When party time came, I didn't want to leave the room. I knew there was nothing I could do about my alarm or the $150 or all of my important worldly goods being gone.

And so it was. I practiced my practice. Maybe not my best ever. Definitely not my best. But I was able to let my obsessed brain release its obsession for almost 90 minutes. When I finished class, I didn't even remember to check my phone right away. It wasn't until after my shower that I remembered to listen to my voicemail. I was being offered a new credit card! All was well in the world. I'm so glad I practiced.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

This is your brain on Yoga.....

Gretta, Lucia's piano teacher, is very kind, but she's also strict about her expectations. Last week she told Lucia that she absolutely has to sing the notes and sing the counts of the notes while she practices piano. Lucia has received this instruction multiple times from Gretta, always with the same result. Practicing the notes is fine. Lucia gets up every morning and (with some nudging) practices. When I tell her to start singing the note names or singing the ta-ta-tas to count the timing, she freaks out! I mean, WHOA, you'd think I handed the girl bagpipes and asked her to play a little jig.

The last time Gretta gave Lucia the singing instruction, I told her what happens. I said, in my most diplomatic voice because Lucia was standing beside me, "Singing while playing seems to be really frustrating for Lucia." I was hoping Gretta would say, "Okay, don't do that." But of course she didn't. She told us that it is very important, so important, because Lucia, in doing these two activities (playing and singing) simultaneously, is creating pathways in her brain.

The next day, I did some research and found this on the web,
"Bulk up your brain by performing two different sensory activities at the same time. For example, listen to music and smell flowers, listen to the rain and tap your finger, or watch clouds and play with modeling clay at the same time. Performing multiple sensory activities at the same time stimulates your brain to create new neuronal connections." *

Well, that can't be bad. New neuronal connections. I definitely want Lucia to have those. I want to have those. And, when I started exploring where I could get them, I didn't have to look far.....

Dr. Timothy McCall says this, "With advances in understanding and technology, scientists now talk about 'neuroplasticity.' The brain, they have realized, is plastic, meaning it is capable of change.... Two thousand years ago, Patanjali wrote in the Yoga Sutra—classical yoga’s foundational text—that the key to success in yoga was to practice regularly without interruption over a long period of time. This sounds like the perfect formula to create deep new behavioral grooves that take advantage of neuroplasticity: Regular repetition of a variety of yoga practices will increase the number of connections among neurons and may even cause new neurons to be recruited for the task."**

So there is hope for us, grownups like me who thought brain functioning would be mostly downhill from here. Remember how people used to tell us that we had limited brain cells, so we shouldn't sniff rubber cement or lick Sharpies? Remember that commercial, "this is your brain on drugs?" Now we know that we can make MORE brain cells, BETTER brain cells. We can make neuronal connections. Yoga is is the key to making this happen.

I think especially right now of all the folks on day 27 of this month's 30-Day challenge at The SweatBox. They have literally changed their brains. That's amazing. And such good news for all of us who practice yoga regularly-- practice Savasana and Tadasana and Trichonasana day in and day out. We are bulking up our brains, creating new pathways of our own. Two thousand years ago when Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutra, the idea of changing brain chemistry through yoga was just a theory. But no longer! It's a brave new world-- neuronal connections, neuroplasticity, recruiting new neurons! The results are in--this is your brain on yoga.


*http://www.livestrong.com/article/216213-brain-plasticity-exercises/#ixzz1plQ7U4XC

** http://kripalu.org/article/179

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Shhhhhhhh!

Fairly regularly, I have the disturbing notion that everything I am doing as a parent is completely wrong. Not a great feeling. My daughter, by most accounts, is a really delightful, well-adjusted seven-year-old, but still, I must be royally screwing her up right? Probably. But I still try to be a good parent despite the sad, likely inevitability that Lucia will resent me, dislike me, condemm me for some part of my parenting.

In my feeble attempt to prevent that sad, likely inevitability, I recently read a great parenting book-- Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children by Thomas Gordon. One of my take-aways from this book is the idea of acceptance. As parents, one important aspect of raising our children is to promote a sense of acceptance for them. For me as a parent, this translates into sometimes stepping out of Lucia's way and letting her figure things out for herself. It means sending her the strong clear message that, even if it isn't that way I would do something (the puzzle, the spelling homework, the sewing project), her way is okay, and I accept it. This is hard. It involves being really quiet, and maybe even completely removing myself from an activity. Being an engaged parent, an active parent, might in some ways be taking away from Lucia's ability to find her own path, her own voice.

I've noticed, for example, if I stop directing Lucia so much in her piano practice, she tries new things, like playing two chords at once instead of sticking to her prescribed lesson plan. Or, if i take myself out of her football game with her friend Cece, she gets way more down and dirty (a good thing for my risk-averse, indoor kitty child). My job-- to watch, to notice, to appreciate that she is figuring out who she is without my voice. This does not mean that I don't discipline Lucia. It doesn't preclude me from engaging with her. Not at all. It just puts me in the added position of being an active listener to what she is saying, doing, experiencing.

In many ways when we practice yoga we are our own parents, our own teachers. We discipline, direct, often judge and criticize. In yoga, particularly Savasana, we have an opportunity to shift roles. Like sitting on the sidelines while Lucia plays football, we get to get out of our directing roles and just listen--to our bodies, our minds, our hearts. When you are doing Savasana, notice if your parental voice is there. Is your mother's voice telling you to stop fidgeting? In Tadasana, is your old coach's bark commanding you to stay focused? That discipline, that rigor in our practice is so important. We don't want to lose that. But over time, with regular practice, the discipline and rigor are there. Let the voices quiet down a little bit. Allow yourself to practice without the judgement, the criticism. You'll be surprised at what you might learn.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Little Baby Burrito

When my daughter Lucia was tiny, a little 7 pound lump, I swaddled her in a contraption called the Miracle Blanket. The Miracle Blanket was nothing more than a super-soft, organic cotton, hippie-looking piece of fabric that could be folded strategically to wrap a baby like a little burrito. The theory behind the blanket is that it comforts infants to be contained and swaddled in a way much like they were in utero.

The Miracle Blanket was truly amazing. Lucia was wrapped about ninety-percent of the time during her first few months. My mother, when she first came to visit, worried that her muscles might atrophy from lack of movement. But I was dedicated to the burrito maker. Even when Lucia wailed, flailed, and kicked, I used the Miracle Blanket. The calm that came over Lucia when she was swaddled was comforting to her, but to me too. As a sleep-deprived, new mother, bloated with milk that responded to my baby's cry like a fire hose on a burning building, I grew to depend on the Miracle Blanket to make everything okay in the world. Calm for Lucia meant calm for me.

Today when I was practicing yoga, I thought a lot about the Miracle Blanket. My class this morning was a ninety-minute crisis management session. I saw stars, I held back puke, I blinked away eye cream that dripped into my eyes. If it wasn't one thing, it was another stupid little distraction feeding my anxiety. "If only I had the ability right now", I thought to myself as I hoisted myself to standing for another vomit-inducing posture, "to contain myself like the Miracle Blanket used to contain Lucia."

Most babies are lucky. Their parents swaddle them, contain them, give them the physical sense of comfort that induces calm. Most kids too. Parents set the rules, make curfew, control sweets, give them the sense that someone else is in charge, containing them, keeping them safe.

Not adults. We're responsible for finding that calm for ourselves.

Eventually in class this morning, I just sat out for a whole pose instead of trying to get up. In the eighteen years I've been doing Bikram yoga, I've had many hard classes. I always get through them, and I always go back for more. Once I removed myself from my self-induced physical pandemonium, my full-on drama about my nausea, my dizziness, my fatigue, once I finally lay down, it was clear what I needed. I needed a Mental Miracle Blanket. I'd been here before and I knew what I had to do-- stop fighting myself, let myself be contained. And it happened. When I let go of the struggle, I could feel it, the sense of calm, just like the little baby burrito.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Welcome to the Revolution!

Last week while we were cooking dinner, out of the blue, my seven-year-old daughter Lucia said, "Mommy let's make a revolution to not be perfectionists."

"Revolution?" I questioned, then clarified, "A revolution is like a protest."

"No. No. Not a revolution. What's that thing called when you make a decision to change how you act?"

"Resolution?"I asked.

"Yes. Yes. Let's make a resolution to not be perfect all the time."

My heart swelled and broke at the same time. I was so proud and happy to hear Lucia articulating herself clearly and openly, but devastated with the realization that she shares my affliction for perfectionism.

My head still spinning with images of the tortured life my poor little perfectionist would lead if I didn't do something immediately, I seized the opportunity for a teachable moment, "I think that's a great resolution Lu. No one's perfect all the time right? Every single person in the world makes mistakes. All the time. Every day."

"Yeah Mommy, like it doesn't really matter if you don't have the perfect boots on when you get dressed." Lucia lectured while stirring pasta. "You could be ready a lot sooner in the mornings if you didn't worry about your boots or your socks or your skirts."

Stab! Definitely a top ten bad mommy moment!

Later that evening while Lucia was practicing piano, an ongoing stressful event, she kept scolding herself for messing up. I reminded her about our resolution, "Shake it off Lu. Remember, you don't have to be perfect. No one is perfect." She wiggled her arms, took a breath, and tried again.

Since that evening, I've had lots of anti-perfection moments with Lucia and with myself. Like when I let go that my new green-striped Smartwool socks were in the laundry. My black tights would be fine. Like when Lucia read about Martin Luther King and mispronounced "Congress" repeatedly and I held my tongue. Like when Lucia and I built a magnificent snow girl and the head fell off an hour later. I started to run outside to repair our hard work, but instead I just said, "Oh well, she's a smushed snow girl now."(Smile Smile Wink Wink).

I'm not sure what motivated Lucia to make this 2012 resolution, but I'm grateful for the reminder to stand up and fight against the institution of perfectionism.

Welcome to the revolution!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Free falling

My brothers and sisters and I span 15 years. And, aside from being pretty hopelessly liberal, the other thing we all have in common is our love of Tom Petty. When I was 35, my then 20 year old brother gave me a Tom Petty's Greatest Hits for my birthday. Awesome.

When I think of Tom Petty, I immediately start singing "Free Falling."
"I wanna free fall out into nothin'. Gonna leave this world for awhile."

Most of the other lyrics are about Tom's latest love interests and exploits, but the idea of free falling is an awesomely poignant message. The ultimate letting go. Most people I know have at least one thing in their life that plagues them-- a painful childhood memory, significant loss, bad break up. An event that grips us and seems impossible to move out of. I personally know no one who doesn't have at least one "big one." Life is equal opportunity. It's hard for us all.

So why is it that sometimes we can let go and sometimes we cannot?!!! Tom Petty says it perfectly--- because is scary as fuck!! "Free falling. Out into nothin'." That's heavy. But, as any of us who have experienced a big one in life (and gotten through it), the only way to get through a life crisis is to really dive into the great unknown of what's next. If you don't dive, you just hover, holding onto "it", never knowing what's beyond.

None of this is to say that getting through crisis is easy. God no. It's about having the understanding that getting through crisis is possible. And, that there is life beyond. In my life, I've had two significant crisis moments that I was sure I would never get through, and I, like most people found comfort in the familiarity of my feelings within that crisis. Going anywhere different felt too scary--- more grief, more pain. No way! But then, when I finally did, when I started to free fall, started to leave that world for awhile, I actually began to feel lighter.

I see this fear everyday in Standing Bow Pulling Pose. Everyone hovers on the edge of the kick and stretch, afraid to fall out, and then one day they do fall out, and it's okay. And Standing Bow Pulling Pose is never the same again. It's new. It's different. It's better. It's "write her name in the sky" good!

Thanks Tom.