Sunday, December 22, 2013

For my dad.

Last night I finished reading The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. It's a rare occasion for me to persevere through a book that I don't initially LOVE. I've been reading it on and off for a few months. It is a memoir of the author's care-taking and final few years with his mother who has pancreatic cancer. Both avid readers, mother and son spend hours waiting for doctors appointments and sitting through chemotherapy, reading specially chosen books and discussing them. Through it all, the tender, mutually respectful, incredibly loving relationship emerges and we get to know both mother and son through their reading preferences, philosophies and opinions.

My father died over twenty years ago, also of cancer. While he was battling cancer, I lived here (in Seattle) and he was in Chicago. His illness was prolonged and I went back frequently, first just to visit, and towards the end of his life, to care take and say goodbye. A few times I accompanied my father to chemo. He'd be attached to an IV in a big lounge chair with several other people also receiving their chemo rounds. My dad was very funny, very friendly, and wonderfully silly. I remember him making jokes to the other patients, jokes only someone who has cancer can make to someone else who has cancer. A few days before Dad died, he actually called all of his friends around the country to let them know he was "checking out" (his words) and to say goodbye. I remember standing outside his bedroom door hearing him reminisce with old friends about times past, mostly laughing but crying too. Maybe this is why I became progressively more engrossed in The End of Your Life Book Club. The author's mother (Maryanne) shared an open-ness,  a connection to that I always felt my dad had. And both Maryanne and my dad seemed to grow even more connected, more open, through their bouts with cancer, the disease they both succumbed to in the end.

In The End of Your Life Book Club, there are several references to Jon Kabat-Zinn's book Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness. In one section of Schwalbe's book, he writes about Kabat-Zinn's perspective on interrupting. Shwalbe says, "we all know it's wrong to interrupt each other. And yet we constantly interrupt ourselves." We split our energies, sometimes to the point that there is really no value, no quality to any of our interactions. But at the end of life, there is a different kind of knowing; an understanding that each interaction is meaningful, an opportunity to be alive. And, while it is sad and often tragic to accompany someone through their last days, it is also a blessing, an opportunity to be present in the way they are present because they are in their last days.

Since I read that piece about interrupting ourselves, I have been thinking a lot about moments where I can start to form an interruption-free discipline that I can build on and expand. It is, of course, in my yoga practice. During Savasana when I am practicing being physically still, mentally quiet, I still interrupt myself. I think about how I've gained three pounds and my shirt feels tighter. I think about how Lucia really doesn't need all the Christmas gifts I got her and how the abundance sends the wrong message. But what if I was practicing Savasana in my last days? Maybe I would notice how my skin around my hips feels after wind-removing pose. I might feel my heart beating in my finger tips. I get teary thinking about my dad in the big lounge chair receiving his chemo. I miss him. But I also feel joyful, thinking about how he was living, really living in his last days.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Get in your car and drive.

Yesterday I was teaching and I had this image of Savasana being like getting into your car and driving. Recently I read the obituary of a Clifford Nass, the scientist who cautioned the effects of data deluge. Nass believed, "the increasingly screen-saturated, multi-tasking modern world was not nurturing the ability to concentrate, analyze or feel empathy." He gave the example of someone driving an automatic car while playing Angry Birds on their phone. Initially it is sunny and the streets are clear, but soon it is raining and there is erratic traffic. When the automatic car asks the passive driver to take over, they don't have the mental presence of mind or capacity to do so.

Yesterday I guided the 25 students in class into Savasana time and time again. "Just return to the physical position of Savasana" I'd say, "your body remembers it. You don't have to reinvent it." I had the image of a rental car. Whenever I rent a car, I always think for a moment, "This car is different. How do I drive this car?" But I always figure it out. It might have a keyless ignition or an unfamiliarly located gearshift, but I always manage because I know how to drive. Driving is driving. I do it all the time.

As I watched many people struggling to settle down in Savasana (as I often struggle to settle down, stay still, focus my eyes), I was reminded of how much each individual in the room is managing. All the information from their lives, their phones, their computers, the constant stimulation outside the studio walls and inside their heads. "It's like driving" I said, "just turn on the car and go." In Savasana we are trying to achieve conscious relaxation which, in our current cultural state is becoming more and more difficult. Savasana isn't automatic. We have to navigate the changes in our mental roads. One day we come to class and the sun is shining, there is a gentle breeze, no traffic for miles. Smooth ride. Other days, I-5 is packed, a semi is jack-knifed, blocking all traffic from Everett to Southcenter and it is pouring like Seattle's new rain is likely to do. Hard driving.

In Savasana, know that the idea is to get to conscious relaxation, and that on different days, it will take very different forms. Your car is not automatic. You have to be engaged and drive it. Get in the car, turn it on, notice what's happening within the roads in your brain, start the car, and drive.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Run like the wind

On Friday, my daughter's school did their annual walkathon. It's the school's biggest fundraiser and kids spend the first month of school getting amped up to run the most laps to raise money. Each grade has 30 minutes to walk. Parent volunteers man check points so that kids can tally their laps as they run. In the center of the big track there is an MC with a bullhorn who keeps the kids motivated and organized. Walkathon day is my favorite day at school and I always volunteer.

With every grade, Kindergarten through fifth, as soon as the music started to signal the kids to walk, 90% of them took off in a run. Not a jog, but a full on RUN. These kids had no concept of losing steam or running out of energy by the end of the half-hour period. They just went for it. As I watched group after group do the same thing, I thought how liberated they all were, how in-the-moment they were all living. Yes, they almost all lost steam by the end. Sweaty, red cheeked 9-year-olds raced by me, shedding clothes, begging for water, with humungous smiles on their faces. They were having a ball!

When I run, the first thing on my mind is pacing. "How am going to get through this whole 4 mile loop?" Sometimes when I teach yoga, students tell me that they want to pace themselves so they can get through the whole class. "Don't worry about pacing'" I tell them "you will get more energy as you go."

As a beginner, this is a hard concept to get-- the idea that, in the process of expending energy, you can also generate energy. Trust the process. You work hard to get into a posture and then hold the posture, and then you rest. You repeat this cycle over and over again. Some days you will need more breaks than the designated resting periods. That's normal. Just like the kids racing around the track needed to slow down or drink water or peel off clothes, so do we need to take breaks during our yoga practice.

As grown-ups, we spend (most of us) the majority of our time being measured, planful, organized. Yoga is a chance to let some of that go. When you come into the practice room, try to shed some of your grown-up skin. Be open to going for it in ever posture. Find the joy in taking that leap, running like the wind. You might be red-cheeked and sweaty by the end, but I bet you'll have a big old smile on your face too.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

What do you think you can't do?

On Sunday, I ran 4.8 miles straight, no stopping. When we started our run, my friend Kate said, "I mapped this. I know we only usually run three miles, but today it should be closer to four miles." Oh shit, I thought. I'm not a four-miler. It was hard at first. In the erratic global warming weather that has overtaken the Northwest, I had overdressed in anticipation of torrential rain. Now it was sunny and I was too hot. Eventually, as we ran, the cloud cover returned and we ran in a comfortable cool drizzle. At one point Kate said, "let's do these stairs!" with an excitement I could not in that moment understand or get behind. Then, "You want to do one last loop around the park?!" The run seemed to go on and on. When I finished, my hips were so tight I couldn't fully extend my right leg. As I climbed my front stairs and looked at my iPhone mileage tracker, I was shocked to see my distance amounted 4.8 miles. I smiled in spite of my aches.

I got in the warm bath right away and relished in my pride at having done something that I had simply decided wasn't in the cards for me. I've always strongly identified as a recreational runner. It's fun. It's efficient exercise when it's all you've got, and during family vacations, it is a catharsis from the drama like nothing else. Three miles has always been enough for me.

But now I feel like a whole new world has opened up. If I can run five miles, what else can I do? Can I run six? Probably not if I only run once a week, but someday..... The best part about this recent running coup for me was the afterglow. That evening after the run, I went to a cocktail party and drank a delicious Manhattan. Freshly bathed, dressed in clean clothes, I sipped my cocktail reveling in the ache in my quads and all the delicious sensations that follow great exercise.

The next morning at work I had a student who was at the studio practicing her second time of Bikram Yoga. The first time she said had been "grueling." Why, she wondered couldn't she simply stop practicing for the day when she didn't want to do it anymore. "It's psychological" I told her. "When you finish this 'grueling' 90-minute practice, you will feel so good about yourself, not just physically, but mentally." I proceeded to share the experience of my run the day before. I told her how I was sure I couldn't run four miles, and that I had run almost five. I told her how the doors of potential opened up for me once I got through something I thought I couldn't get through.

At the end of class (which, but the way she completed like a champ), the student came out of the studio smiling ear to ear. "How was it?" I asked as she slumped red-faced on the bench mustering the energy to tie her shoes. "Hard." she said. "But I did it!"

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Getting older, wiser, and more crazy

The other day a good friend of mine on the heels of turning 45 told me that, in a heat of inexplicable fury, she came close to abandoning her beloved husband and children while vacationing in Sweden. Then she realized she just had PMS. I too am about to turn 45 and suddenly the PMS among my women friends of the same age is off the charts-- emotional, irrational, inconsolable, kind of crazy. My "crazy" related to PMS has always come in the form of severe body dysmorphia. Just prior to my period, I suddenly hate, not just my body, but all of my clothes, my hair, my face. And, of course, like my friends, this affliction seems to be getting worse rather than better as I climb the age ladder.

One thing I always tell my students in yoga is that, if they are filled with criticisms, complaints, distracted self-talk during their yoga practice, they should work harder, push themselves more in the physical realm so their mental Jabberwocky will start to shut off. For me, physical exertion, whether yoga, running, biking, or moving all of my furniture around the house three times, is the only remedy for my destructive PMS mental tirades. It makes sense that when I feel worst about my body, using it is what helps to take my mind off of it. My body has a purpose-- to move.

PMS creates irritability, fatigue, bloating, depression, and a thousand other things depending on who you are. Exercise produces endorphins-- elevated mood, increased energy, even euphoria. It is hard sometimes to exercise when one is in a state of PMS. Who wants to put on teeny tiny clothes and practice yoga in a hot room with a bunch of people who all look great? I do! Amazingly, even when I am feeling at my worst about my body, I want to do yoga. Hormones can be rotten, but they can be really good too. You just have to work the system.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Root canal

On Monday I had my very first root canal. The path to this procedure was not a pretty one. After a palliative treatment in Brookings, Oregon by a dentist with ridiculously poor bedside manner, I went to a proper endodontist and had the whole procedure done properly. She had great bedside manner-- she shook my hand, explained every aspect of what was going on, showed me the x-rays. But still, two full hours with your mouth pried open to its maximum, a dental dam strapped on your face and mini pick axes, mile-long needles, and burning tools passing in and out of ones mouth is traumatic.

Of course I had a local anesthetic-- I'm no James Frey (oh yeah, he lied about that didn't he?)--so I couldn't feel the pain, but the amount of emotional anxiety I had going into the procedure combined with the technical aspects of any root canal, rendered me close to psychotically anxious. From the beginning of the drilling to the final moments when the dentist replaced the filling on top of my now dead tooth, I had to summon all of my yoga strength. I had to figure out how to breathe with the rubber dam and my jaw aching from being open. I had to virtually dissociate from the sounds and smells created by the drilling, sterilizing and filling of my roots. I had to tell myself 407 times, "This too shall pass."

This morning when I was teaching a hot-ass class, I watched the hard-working 6AM students do Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee pose. I could see the sweat dripping into their eyes, their noses; I could see them struggling to get or to keep their foreheads to their sweaty knees. As they struggled, I reminded them to try to breathe normally. I remember when a teacher first said that to me during that pose. I thought, "Yeah right, asshole." It's hard to breathe normally in that pose. But today, I said, "Breathe normally like you do when you're getting a root canal." I had a wholly different perspective. It is possible. It's hard, but it's possible. The root canal sucked, but the moments of intense gratitude I found from my yoga in the process was the silver lining.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

You're hearing it wrong it you're head.

Three months ago I started taking piano lessons. I took lessons briefly as a child, but never got very far. My first song as an adult practitioner was "Across The Universe" by the Beatles. It was a song my piano teacher selected just to get me started. My second song I got to choose. I chose, "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables.

I love musicals, and I especially love Les Miserables. Fantine, the character who sings "I Dreamed a Dream", is a sad, desperate, sick, single-mother forced into prostitution after being fired from her job as a factory worker. When I play the song on the piano, I can hear Fantine singing. I get emotional and lose my focus on the music. Instead of reading the music, following the proper timing, I find myself swaying, imagining Fantine in all her grief. When I am at home practicing this works fine, but when I am at my lesson, my teacher Gretta consistently stops me to point out that I'm short-changing a half-note, holding a quarter note too long.

Recently, I took the liberty of adding lyrics to my piano practice. As a beginner, I really have no business doing this, but I want it. I want to be Fantine in all her misery when I am playing the music to "I Dreamed a Dream." Needless to say, singing while playing has only increased the drama and my timing is way off.

At my most recent piano lesson, after repeated stops and starts to correct my timing, Gretta said, "Laura, you are hearing it wrong in your head." All of my home practice had ingrained into my head a more dramatic, less precise rendition of the song I was learning. I had to learn it all over again, this time following the music, learning the notes and the timing first, before adding my drama.

In learning piano, if I can focus on what there is to learn, the details, the important eighth notes and sharps and flats and rests, then I can go deeper when I play pretending to be Fantine in all her sorrow. Of course there's a correlation here with learning piano and learning yoga. I have been practicing yoga for over 20 years. love it. I am committed to it.  Lately, during my yoga practice, I have been trying practice differently, to receive the postures differently. It's hard. I know these postures. I can feel these postures deep in my bones. Yet there is always more to learn. Yoga is a lifetime process and there is always a further place to grow, a nuance of a pose to understand, a deeper point of focus to achieve.

Monday, May 20, 2013


For mother's day this year, my stepmother Carol sent me a stack of photos from my childhood. They had been given to my father (now deceased for many years) at some point by his parents, Eve and Jack, (known to me as Nana and Papa). Carol came upon them while cleaning the basement and shared the bounty with us kids. The photos reminded me how much time I spent at Nana and Papa's apartment. My parents divorced when I was pretty young and my sisters and I spent a lot of time at our paternal grandparents who lived on Chicago's North Side. We learned to take the bus, the Jeffery Express from Hyde Park (the South Side) where we lived. We'd transfer to the Sheridan 151 on Michigan Avenue which dropped us right in front of Nana and Papa's forty-story building on Lake Shore Drive.

Most of the photos were when I was very little, maybe 3 or 4 years old. There were photos of Nana in her trademark turtleneck sweater smoking a True cigarette, laughing at something, photos of Papa in his signature Ray Bans getting me into my jammies, looking surprisingly comfortable in the role. When my sisters and I visited our grandparents, we'd enter the modern glass lobby through the revolving door where we'd greet one of the doormen who knew us well. As the doorman buzzed us into the elevator room, we'd hear him calling Nana and Papa over the intercom, "Mr. Culberg, the girls are on their way up."

What I remember most is Nana standing in her front door as the elevator doors opened. She'd hold out her arms to us and smile. Then, whoever reached her first would be wrapped up in a hug at her bosom where she'd gently sway and hum. Nana always hummed. After Nana died my mom said that she probably hummed to help her manage her chronic back pain. It made sense. Nana hummed when she hugged us, but she hummed other times too-- watching TV, cutting carrots, shopping for clothes.

The other day in my yoga class the teacher talked about a really tough class she'd recently had as a student. She said she was really struggling, lying out in Savasana to get herself together when she realized she was humming. She shared that experience with us in class, "Notice how you manage your discomfort," she said. "For me, I was managing my discomfort by humming."

I've been thinking about this a lot since class that day. We all have tools that we don't even know we have. I wonder if Nana ever knew she hummed all the time.  My back was hurting and I was stressing about it. It hurt to forward bend. It hurt to backward bend. But mostly, I was mentally struggling, trying to manage the idea that I too was being struck down with the dreaded Culberg Back Pain Affliction, that I'd struggle with it for the rest of my days, humming through life.

But I didn't hum like Nana. I'm surprised at my response to this struggle. I talked to myself as I rested out more postures than I completed. "This will pass Laura," I told myself. "This is a moment in time, and this too shall pass." I know I do this in other areas of my life too. My back feels good right now, but I know realistically that my back will hurt again at some point. Today I got through my mental anguish and fear in class and my body and mind are in a whole new place. If humming works, that's great. If creating your own mantra works, that's awesome. Everyone is different. Everyone's path to self-comfort is their own. The next time you practice yoga, see if you can notice what yours is.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Your breath is your metronome

Last year, I took piano lessons for a few months. I loved it but I just couldn't find the time to keep it up. The phrase I heard most often from my piano teacher Gretta, was, "SLOW DOWN." "Laura," she'd say gently, "you are going too fast for your brain. If you go too fast, you won't learn it." Slowing down is the single hardest thing for me to do. I am known in my family as "Clumsy Culberg." I scrape, break, cut, and dent body parts, dishware, household furnishings and cars. I just go too fast. One of the two songs I learned with Gretta was "Across the Universe" by The Beatles. It's a pretty mellow song, but you wouldn't know it hearing me race through the notes. Gretta's instruction to me was to play so slowly that my brain and my fingers were able to sync up.

When I was a kid we had my great-grandmother Laura's grand piano in our living room. We had an old fashioned metronome placed on top that my mom sometimes used when she played. Now I have a metronome, the same old fashioned kind sitting on my piano at home. Lucia uses it frequently in her piano practice, but I have a hard time using it when I practice. The times when I have used the metronome for piano practice, I find myself a bit stressed out. Who's keeping pace with whom? There's a power struggle--me versus the metronome. I expect the ticker to follow me! "Hurry up!" I want to shout at the little wooden trapezoid. It has gotten easier to follow the pacing every time I practice-- the more slowly I play, the easier it is to follow the rhythm of the metronome.

When I teach yoga, there is almost always someone in class who speeds through the postures. Maybe it's because they dislike a particular posture or they have pain or they are just tired of hearing my voice. Yoga is like music. You have to learn the notes to play a the song. Sure, you could walk into a room, look at a photo of someone doing Eagle Pose and just do it. But the point of Yoga is to get into the poses by learning how to get into the poses, observing what your body parts are doing, noticing how your mind is reacting, following your breath and keeping yourself calm as you do the poses. Doing yoga without the process would be like sitting down at the piano, looking at the notes and then pressing play your iPod to hear the song.

When you start to hurry too much in Yoga, when you notice that you're skipping to the end, missing the steps, try to slow down. In Yoga, your breath is your metronome. At first it might be hard to slow down but you'll get there. Take your time and enjoy the process of learning the postures. You'll be really glad you did.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Embrace your strengths.....

This morning in class I noticed that Jessica, one of our dedicated 6am practitioners, had a really gorgeous Cobra pose. She is super flexible, especially in her upper spine. When I started setting the class up for Locust pose, Jessica went in for a third set of Cobra. This is not unusual, especially at 6am when people are just waking up. But I made a joke, "Jessica", I said, "No matter how gorgeous your Cobra pose is, you still don't get to do a third set."
She laughed and set herself up for Locust. "Wouldn't life be great" I thought out loud to the class, "if we could live our lives only doing things we were good at."

I've mused about this idea many times in my blog. Challenge, pushing one's limits, getting outside of our comfort zones..... This morning though, I thought about it differently. Jessica wasn't consciously doing a third set of Cobra. Her body just went there. Maybe her body went there because it was more comfortable there, happy there, with her bendy upper spine. My happy place is in Eagle. I get positive feedback every time I practice when I'm in Eagle. "It's because I have really long arms and legs," I think to myself when I hear the 'good Eagle' compliment, "anyone with long arms and legs can do this posture."

I spend a lot of time trying to cultivate a sense of acceptance when I teach. I spend a lot of time trying to find that place in my personal life too. Acceptance isn't just about acknowledging our limits in class (and in life), taking breaks when we need them, backing off in a posture if necessary. It's also about accepting our strengths, enjoying them, embracing them. Girls and women especially are well-trained to down-play their power. We brush off compliments, deflect that attention in another direction, make it not about us. Over the weekend, I went to a kids' Yoga training where I spent two full days with a handful of people pretty intimately. At the end of the two days, we each had to stand in the middle of a circle while people complimented us!!!! Our only instruction was that we couldn't reply, just receive. I wish I could tell you what these lovely people said to me, but I cannot because I was completely dissociated. Though I smiled and nodded as each person spoke, I could not absorb the words.

After class this morning, I checked in with Jessica, "Did that make sense?" I asked, "That adjustment about your upper spine being super flexible?"

"I'm flexible?" she clarified. "Very" I emphasized. "Thanks," Jessica said quietly. "....I guess. I'm super sore today." I wouldn't have thought for a second that Jessica was sore this morning watching her gorgeous strong Cobra. But maybe she needed to lessen the compliment. Maybe it was too much, the praise. I understand completely.

Jessica has the gift of flexibility and a beautiful Cobra pose. Her body wants to own its flexibility by doing a third set of Cobra. But like many of us, her mind hasn't caught up. As the mother of a daughter, I want to crack this one wide open. I know it starts with me. If I can figure out how to receive, to be open to accepting and embracing my strengths, that's what Lucia will learn. Like everything, it's a practice. As do many things in my life, this practice too will start in the yoga room.......the next time I do Eagle pose.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Catch them being good.

Yesterday I heard a bit of parenting advice that made me want to weep. "Catch them being good" was the simple phrase uttered from a former special education teacher. So very simple. So incredibly profound.

Parenting is unbelievably hard work. Disciplining your child-- that little sprout that grew so patiently in your belly, the person who depends on you so fully-- is imperative. And painful. Sometimes it can feel like crushing their little spirit, breaking their fragile little heart. Constructive discipline is also what's going to help your child grow up to be a pain in the ass or an asset to society. So when I heard "catch them [kids] being good," it was like I was hearing in 10th grade geometry that I could get an A simply by liking parallelograms.

With Lucia, I feel like I catch her doing good often-- at completing her daily reading, at brushing her hair, at practicing piano. These are all things Lucia enjoys so it's not a big deal to note her success with these chores. Other realms-- not interrupting grown up conversation, unloading the dishwasher, hanging up her bathrobe-- are all tasks that Lucia resists. Because of her chronic opposition compliance in these areas, I have developed a narrow lens that sees only the negative when it comes to these responsibilities. Rarely do I note when Lucia proactively does these things. Note to self--- catch her doing good.

I realize in this whole examination of my parenting that one of the reasons I love teaching yoga is how many opportunities I have to catch students "being good." The student who used to leave the room like clockwork to fill his water bottles who now fills two before class. So good. The student who can finally look at herself in the mirror for a full posture. Excellent. Two shoulders in one line. Yes! If I noted in each class how many ways students were being good, I wouldn't be able to teach the nuts and bolts of the class. I have so much gratitude that I get to watch this goodness every day.

Why is the goodness more challenging to catch in my role as a parent? Maybe it is because I have only one child and it's all on her. She's the good, the bad, the everything. As a kid, I was one of several, so there was more to look at, more to compare. It's a good lesson for me. Yes, I need to be firm with Lucia. I want to create a good, solid form in which she can grow to be a person that I am proud of; that she is proud of. At the end of every class I teach, I say goodbye to all the students, one final check in of our time together. On their faces, almost always, I can see that they feel good. They feel proud.

Most of the time it's the experiences in my daily life that I turn into helpful lessons I can impart in my role as a yoga teacher. Catching the goodness is something I learned in the yoga room. I thank my students for this wisdom.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Face your fears

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about finding your voice. This week, I am writing about facing your fears. Last week Penni, our beloved SweatBox teacher, took her first ever 6:00am class. I had the honor of teaching it. Penni has been practicing Bikram Yoga for more than 15 years and she's never braved an early morning class. When she peeked her head in the studio door at 5:45am, I was shocked, but not as shocked as she was.

Penni, despite her prolific, long-term yoga practice, has always been afraid to practice at 6:00am. After Penni practiced her inaugural 6:00am, she reported feeling great! She was surprised, she said, by how much she enjoyed her class and plans to take another very soon. The day after Penni took my 6:00am class, I took her 9:30am class. She talked in class about how proud she was of herself for breaking the mold, practicing at 6:00am, facing her fears, about how we all need to do the things we are afraid to do. Great words Penni.

Last week I was reading an article in the New Yorker about sleep. The writer talked about how people are Larks or Owls. Larks are people who rise early, are perky right off the bat, perform at their best earlier in the day. Owls, on the other hand perform better later in the day and into the night. They take time to get warmed up and often don't reach their optimal activity level until mid-day. I'm a Lark, 100 percent. I write better in the morning, clean better in the morning, cook better, teach yoga better, practice yoga better. All of it.

Watching Penni face her fears made me think about all the ways I am stuck. For example, I would always choose to practice at 6:00am over 7:00pm. By 7:00pm, I'm usually winding down, craving my sheets and heavy comforter, even in the summer. I worry I won't have enough energy to practice well so late in the day. I'm happy for Penni that she's got a brand new practice time, that she's learned about the new and different strengths she possesses. And I've learned from her.

I've watched a lot of people this 30-Day Challenge push their Lark and Owl edges. Owls are crawling in to the 6:00am to get days 14 and 16 done and Larks are yawning through the 8:45pm to squeeze in day 23. Practically speaking, they are getting their yoga class in, but if you look at the bigger picture, they are getting out of the familiar, facing their fears. Great work everybody. I hope to see you soon at the 7:00pm class.

Monday, March 11, 2013

It's a hard habit to break.

One of my favorite things Frani says when she teaches is, "Breathe well." My interpretation of those two words is to breathe. Simple, remember to breathe-- through the easy postures, through the hard ones, through the stillness, through life. It's such good advice. We grow up hearing, "Eat well", "Sleep well", but "Breathe well" is one that we rarely hear. Breathing well in yoga can make or break your practice. Good breathing promotes a state of calm, as well as an efficient, energized practice.

I recently bought a new car. It's a hybrid, my first one. On my dashboard is a little monitor that tells me how many miles to the gallon I am getting as well as what my average mileage per gallon is. Having a hybrid has made me keenly aware of how I am driving. Pre-hybrid, I was a spaz. I paid zero attention to my speed or how my driving patterns affected my frequency at the gas pump. Now I "drive well." When I'm going an even 63 miles per hour on the freeway, getting 42 miles to the gallon, I think to myself, "why couldn't I do this when I had my non-hybrid car?" I knew then that going at a more regulated speed would offer better fuel economy, but I wasn't alerted visually the impact, so I just ignored it.

In yoga, when Frani says, "breathe well", it's usually a reminder for me, not a direction that changes what I'm doing already. I've been practicing long enough to have a habit of breathing well, but her gentle prompt helps me tap into the importance of good breathing. When I'm driving in my responsible new hybrid car, having big brother remind me how my heavy foot affects my mileage bottom line, I drive better.

Habits can be good and bad. Good habits are harder to form. Why?! I think because they are less fun, less indulgent. It's more fun to speed and whip in and out of the lanes to get to your destination quickly. It's more fun to eat bacon on your salad than just have salad. And once we start on these bad habits, they stick. Breaking the bad habits to create good ones in their place takes commitment and discipline. Having support-- gentle, loving reminders, makes changing these habits from bad to good more palatable.

When my little hybrid monitor shows 99.9 miles to the gallon as I cruise down the hill to my house, I feel like I'm getting an A+ in driving. And I want to have a 4.0 average. I really really do, so I am going to keep driving like that. Eventually it will be my good habit just like breathing well in yoga.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

You're never too old to change

Bikram has a very famous saying, “Never too old, never too bad, never too late, never too sick to start from scratch once again.” All Bikram teachers, and most regular practitioners know this saying and hopefully try to abide by the idea. New beginnings are always possible.

In December my grandmother died. She was 96. Until about a year before she died, she was pretty lucid. Grandma, or GiGi, as my daughter and her cousins called her, was not a flexible woman. Raised in North Dakota by Danish immigrant parents, she was a by-the-book conservative. Grandma majored in home economics in college and was tough on diet and physique. Grandma was wholly concerned with appearance both physically and socially. Once in my teens when the fashion among my clique was to wear men's pajamas to school, she hid me behind a large potted fern to take my photo so that just my head peeked out. At Grandma's house in Fargo, we did all kinds of crazy stuff that never happened in our bohemian-oriented, liberal house in Chicago. We made our beds, said grace before dinner, vacuumed the Oldsmobile, ate beef.

My grandfather was also conservative, a small-town doctor and 100% republican. But Grandpa somehow tempered Grandma's strictness. When my grandfather was alive, he would tease Grandma about her rigidness, "C'mon Sally, let'm have a big scoop of ice cream." My grandfather died when Grandma was in her late fifties and I think that might have made her tighten her rules-belt even more. When she visited us in Chicago, she organized my drawers and my closet, bought me Lanz of Salzberg nightgowns to replace the oversized t-shirts and underwear I slept in, and spent lots of time in the kitchen, scrutinizing the bizarre goings on..... the wok, the rugged butcher block table my family gathered around, the half-open bottles of wine. As a teenager, I always stressed out a bit before visits with Grandma. Would she like my outfit? My haircut? Once I became a parent, I stopped worrying so much. Grandma became GiGi. She loved being a great-grandmother. The focus was now off of me and placed lovingly onto my then tiny daughter who could really do nothing to offend GiGi at her young age.

When GiGi was in her eighties she got remarried to John. John had been a close friend of the family for years and after his wife Florence died, he and Grandma hooked up. John, unlike my republican physician grandfather, was a former academic, and a democrat. Grandma was totally smitten with John. She would coo, "Isn't he clever?" And he was. John published word puzzles that he'd distribute all over their retirement community, doing his part to stimulate his sharp mind and keep all the other old brains fresh. John mellowed Grandma out a lot. She was so in love, so tickled to be in a stimulating partnership, to find romance (again) this late in life, that she stopped really caring about what anyone else was doing. It was a joy to visit the newlyweds at their little apartment in Sun City, Arizona. They were truly happy.

In 2008, when Barak Obama was running for president, Grandma shocked us all by voting for him. My grandmother's first democratic vote, our first African American President, at the age of 92! Growing up, I remember hearing the adage, "s/he's too old to change" about people far younger, and far less rigid than Grandma. Sometimes when I'm teaching I tell this story about Grandma voting democratic. I watch people following their same old habits (we all have them). "If my republican Grandma can vote for Barak Obama at the age of 92, you can resist wiping your brow in Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee!" Never too old. Never too bad. Never too late. Never too sick. Cheers to Grandma!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Kids doing camel

On Thursdays, I teach yoga to at Lucia's elementary school. It is a surreal experience in many ways. The school is 'open-concept' which means that there are no walls. In many ways it is great. It feels like a true community. Everyone sees everyone all the time so, even if you are not personally acquainted, it is as if everyone knows each other. The downside is that people literally walk through the yoga space throughout the class. The school secretary announces messages on the speakers during Savasana. The janitor pushes the rolling recycling bin through our Namaste circle. It's always something. But these kids are pretty used to these distractions and manage to focus in spite of the surrounding chaos.

The little Yogis and Yoginis in the kids' yoga class are amazingly able to be still in Savasana. They know that when they are in Savasana, quiet, eyes closed on their mats, perfectly still, a surprise Beanie Baby will land on their belly. When the get out of Savasana, they get to meet the animal and keep it on their mat for the remainder of class. It's amazing how still they can be.

Lucia, now eight, a know-it-all, and fairly experienced yoga practitioner for having assisted me in every kids' class I've taught, insisted this session that I teach Ustrasana (Camel Pose) to the kids. "Sure," I said, knowing that with the natural spinal flexibility kids have, "it would be pretty easy for them." Two weeks ago, I introduced the kids to Camel. "Ooh!" "Owwww!" "Ahh-Ahh!" "Whoooaaa" they peeped from all around the room. Some little ones flailed their arms to regain their straight spines. I watched little bodies collapsing, tiny wrinkle-free faces turing pink. "Jezum," I thought to myself, "these kids are dramatic."

The next day I was teaching at The SweatBox. When Camel Pose came round I watched the grown up responses-- furrowed brows, clenched teeth, bright red faces. They were doing the posture and they were managing to do it in silence. I know that most people were really struggling, but they kept it inside. I had a flash of the little kids owwing and oohing and ahhing the day before in class.

I love teaching yoga. I love the connection that comes through the struggle. I love feeling inspired by the hard work and dedication. I love the authentic energy that emerges through dedicated practice. I get something different from teaching children and adults. With adults, I feel empathy, compassion, and so much love for the students. I've been there. I know how hard it is. I admire them so much. With children, I feel pure joy, renewal, excitement, and love. I see how utterly authentic they are in their experience with their bodies. They've yet to learn about assigning judgement to themselves in the way adults are so well-versed. They are truly open. Savasana. Ustrasana. Both really challenging postures, with very different physical reactions. Kids go into Savasana with relative ease, most adults struggle. Ustrasana. Kids don't hold back their immediate, intense responses to the intensity of the pose. Adults grit their teeth and bear it.

As always, yoga offers great metaphors for life. When we are young, we are open and free and light. As we get older, we pile on layers of life that inevitably make us less so. These layers of life can act as distractions when we are trying to still our minds in Savasana. And they serve us well to find our determination to be still and quiet in Ustrasana. As for the kids, they are exactly where they should be-- unburdened by adult troubles in Savasana and letting it all hang out in Ustrasana. My hope is that, as kids continue their yoga practice, just like us grownups, they will learn how to use their life experience to help them in their yoga and how to use their yoga practice to help them in their lives.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

At least I'm sure about my nail polish

I sometimes think my ultimate quest in life is to feel certain. About anything. I second guess most things I do-- before I do them, while I'm doing them, and after they are done. This self-doubt might stem from being a twin. Until college when my twin sister and I split up to go to college three states away from each other, I pretty much followed her around. She was cool, new-wave bordering on punk, the kind of high school kid who dyed her hair platinum and wore the wishbone from dinner as an earring to school the next day. I was a nerdish jock. I tried to be as rad as Katherine, but the farthest I really got was dying a chunk of bangs peroxide orange. The result was a really bad Flock of Seagulls look and really irritating grow out. College for me was kind of a disaster. I hid in the familiar nerd-land that was mostly where I was comfortable, and let all that stuff that Kat exposed me to go by the wayside. And I think I missed that stuff. Even though it was Katherine's it felt kind of like part of me too.

My adulthood since college has been twenty years of exploring different "ways of being." Deep down my foundation is still N E R D and as the years have ticked on, I've been able to expand that identity. But I always have been and always will be a twin, so the self-doubt persists. In 1990 Katherine and I drove our grandmother's 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme from Chicago to Seattle. We were going to open a restaurant in Portland but kept driving because we had friends in Seattle. Katherine stayed for about seven years and during those years I still followed her lead. After she moved, it was like college again, only I was a moderately less nerdy.

Yoga is the one really clear thing in my post-gcollege life that has helped me to feel more secure in my decisions. When Katherine left Seattle, I was already doing yoga, but after she moved, I got way more serious, practicing several times a week on a regular basis. Three years after she moved, I was becoming a teacher, opening a studio. In many ways, I think this was my first big breakthrough, leaving my old "do-gooder" social worker job, taking a big risk to open a business, stepping out into something totally separate from Katherine. Since then, I've made lots of little decisions that are just mine. The other day in yoga, I was doing Padahastasana (hands-to-feet pose) and I noticed my newly manicured toes (I'll call the color coral-persimmon). I had a moment when I thought to myself, "Laura, you made the 100% right decision about that color." It felt so good, that feeling of being certain. These days Katherine wouldn't be caught dead wearing nail polish. Funny how things change.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Work hard and be gentle

On Sunday night I contemplated going to Gary's 6:00am class. "Contemplated" means I gave myself an out. If I didn't sleep enough, I would just go to Penni's 9:30am class instead. At 3:36am Monday morning I woke up. I was up for about a half-hour and decided that I'd read for a while, shut off my alarm clock and skip 6:00am so I could sleep longer. At 4:45am I was still no closer to sleep so I decided that I would go to 6:00am yoga after all.

Class was pretty small, only about eight of us. I love the early morning class and it felt great to practice. During Pavanamuktasana, Gary told us to pull harder, harder, harder. Then, during Savasana he said, "Y'know, you can work really hard and still be gentle. Work hard and be gentle with yourself." It was the perfect thing to say at that moment and I've been thinking about it ever since.

I've struggled with perfectionism for my entire life. I hesitate to try new things because I don't want look like a loser. I try to control all aspects of my life so I will be prepared (translation: perfect) in any given situation. It's not a good thing. My challenge in my life right now is to work hard at letting go of some of that control and be okay being (occasionally) in the unknown.

It's really hard work, this letting go business. I find myself being impatient, wanting to be better at it than I am. I'm working on letting go of certain friendships, shedding expectations in existing relationships, being more open-minded and less controlling in all of my interactions. It's kind of an all-day, everyday job and I often struggle. So when Gary said, "Work hard and be gentle with yourself", I felt comforted. Yes! I can keep working on all of these things, but when I stumble, I can be a bit less barbaric with my self-punishment.

Class was great. I worked hard. I was gentle with myself. During final Savasana, I fell asleep. I woke up 25 minutes later when Gary was cleaning the mirrors.
I have fallen asleep in final Savasana only a handful of times in my life. I'm the person who never falls asleep on the plane. I have napped maybe ten times in my adult life. And, being the studio owner, I am rarely relaxed enough to completely check out, so falling dead asleep was a delightful surprise.

I might have fallen asleep because I was exhausted from waking up at 3:36am. Maybe I was lulled into slumber by Gary's familiar voice. I believe both of these things helped. But I think ultimately it was something more, something bigger. I felt a genuine surge of relief when Gary introduced the "gentle" into "working hard." The hard work of life felt a little bit easier. I felt a little bit lighter. Regardless of the reason(s) for it, I loved my unexpected nap. I hope it happens again real soon.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Get to the root of it!

Even though I resist resolutions, I can't help making a least a few little ones each year. It's a big deal to get through 365 days and a great opportunity to make a shift in one's life. This year I decided to give up half-and-half. More than a few people have chuckled at my resolution. It seems pretty minor compared to giving up alcohol or exercising daily or even eating more kale. For me, giving up half-and-half is a giant deal because I drink coffee with half-and-half every day and I love it more than anything in the world. But alas, being in Hawaii in a bathing suit last week led me to consider the slow accumulation of mass that I want to fight as long as possible, so fare-thee-well mighty half-and-half.

I had the opportunity to teach both the New Year's Eve and New Year's Day classes at The SweatBox this year. Seeing all of the students who made the effort to practice on these days inspired me to dig deeper into the possibilities of New Year's resolutions. At the beginning of class on both days, I invited the class to think about how they wanted to live their lives, to think about what "their best self" might look like. Yoga practice is a microcosm of the bigger world, so practicing with our best intentions, not just going through the motions, offers us a way to develop tools for how we live life off of the mat as well as on the mat.

Anyone who practices Bikram Yoga knows the significance of locking the knee in the standing balancing postures. If you're not a Bikram practitioner, just know that it's a big ass deal. Yesterday in class I noticed a lot of students kicking out with a bent knee (non-Bikram people, trust me that's a no-no.) So many times over the years while teaching, I've wanted to yell out at the top of my lungs, "You are good enough!" to the struggling students in the room who kick out on a bent knee. Standing on a locked knee, (not kicking out) is good enough. For those of you still struggling to balance on a locked knee, it might take a while, but you'll get there. Just be patient. Yesterday I said, "when you kick out with a bent knee, it is as if you are pulling out a weed, but leaving the root." It might look pretty for a minute, but the weed is still there. I know how it feels to kick out on a bent knee and I know how it feels to pull a weed and leave the root because, as the quintessential lazy gardener, that's pretty standard for me.

I have tried to be a better gardener at various times in my life. I've committed to pulling out the weeds by the roots, really getting down there. When it happens, it is SO satisfying. Every time I do it, I think, that weed is NEVER coming back. I don't kick out on a bent knee anymore either. I haven't for a while. It's taken years, and lots and lots of practice. My official resolution this year is to quit half-and-half, but the bigger one is to dig deep, get to the root-- in the garden, in the yoga room and in my life.

Work Life Balance

Yesterday while I was working I thought to myself, “I could do this all day long!” And that’s a good thing because that was the plan. I rece...