Tuesday, January 27, 2015

44 seconds


I am one of the people who didn't watch any of the winning Seahawks playoff game. On that Sunday, I decided to run the six miles to work. My run from Seward Park to Capitol Hill is mostly along the lake, a path widely traversed by runners, walkers and cyclists. But on this Sunday, I only saw two runners and maybe five cars. It felt creepy, like I'd missed a memo to get into the bomb shelter or something. 



It all became clear once I got to work. Above is the text I got from my friend Cuc as I was getting ready to open the doors for the 4:00 p.m. Yoga class at The SweatBox on Capitol Hill on the Sunday of that amazing performance by the Seahawks. It took me a couple minutes to sort out what "TD" and "OT" were, but once I did, the enormity of that text hit me. Just before that text, I heard the whole neighborhood collectively scream and peeked out the window to see throngs of people hugging each other and guzzling beer in the middle of the street. I figured we'd won, but I didn't know the details. 

I heard from my students as they raced in to make the 4:00 p.m. class how AMAZING the game was, how the Seahawks made it happen at the eleventh hour, or as Cuc described, in the last 44 seconds.  As I often do in an effort to make my classes relevant to life, I seized the moment to use the "44 second lesson" in class that Sunday, and I've used it several times since.

According to the reports I got about the playoff game between the Packers and the Seahawks, the Seahawks were kind of sucking and they got some rough luck for most of the game.  Then, at the end, everything turned. They never gave up. This happens in Yoga  a  l  l    t  h  e    t  i  m  e.  You come in expecting to have a class similar to yesterday's class. You've hydrated, you haven't eaten for three hours, you slept well last night, you have your favorite yoga top on. And then, wham, you fall out of Standing Bow four times. You bonk out in Triangle. You fidget like you have the chicken pox. What the hell!??? That energy can be all-consuming. It can hijack you and send you on a path to self-loathing and despair. It might have been where the Seahawks were heading.....

But the game isn't over until it's over. There is always time, always a moment, a window to turn things around. Jermaine Kearse and Russell Wilson found that moment with the 35-yard touchdown pass (I read about that in the paper).  


You might think that switching the direction of your energy between Standing Separate Leg Stretching Pose and Tree Pose is not such a big deal, but it is. It's the practice of committing to yourself, to not giving up. You might feel like a loser for 90 percent of your class, but that's not who you are. That's  simply how your practice is for that blip in time. I don't know how Jermaine and Russell did it. I don't know what they told themselves, but whatever it was, it worked. It won the game. When you are in Yoga, there will be infinite moments like this. Times when you feel like you're headed down a path of no return, a path you don't want to be on. Stay committed to your vision, to the practice you want to have. It might take some time to get there, but it can happen, maybe even in the last 44 seconds.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

After 20 long years.....

Lately I've been having a renewed love affair with Yoga. After twenty years, with bouts of periodic dormancy, it is always heartening to greet the passion again. Since I became a studio owner and teacher (almost 14 years!) I've struggled intermittently to find a good balance with my practice and the other hats necessary to keep the studio alive. I've gone for months at a time when I dreaded practicing because all I could do was look at things like dust on a pipe or a flickering light bulb. Or, I'd focus so heavily on what a teacher was lacking in or doing too much of, that I simply could not get engaged in my practice.

In moments like now, when my love affair with Yoga is hot and heavy, I realize how silly it is to focus on the small things, the inconsequential factors that really don't affect my individual practice. It's important for me to remember this, so when I get bogged down in these details in the future, I can more quickly be aware that the small things are not what make my practice. It is what I choose to do during my practice that makes my practice.

It's like any long term relationship. My best friend has been married to the same man for twenty years. She jokes, "It's been twenty years. We've done pretty well. Now we can move on...." Of course she's just being funny, but she's also acknowledging a truth in her life; that after a long time, things get a bit stale, and there is a fatigue or lack of motivation that sets in. She and her husband acknowledge the ebb and flow in their passion and they also see the bigger picture, the long-term picture. After twenty years, they have the faith that they will get back to the "love affair" soon enough.

Many years ago I had a therapist who talked about "disappointments" versus "deal breakers" in relationships. At the time, I was fresh out of a shitty long-term gig and trying to navigate what being in a healthy relationship meant. We have to consider disappointments and deal breakers in all relationships. In a romantic relationship a deal breaker is very different from a deal breaker in a friendship. In a friendship, something that's a disappointment might be a deal breaker with your romantic partner.  And everyone's window of tolerance and comfort is different, so the spectrum is broad.

One of the things I know for sure in my own life is that Yoga is a non-negotiable. While I'm proudly plugging away in my current relationship for going on six years, outside of my relationship with my family of origin, Yoga is most definitely my longest relationship. Not practicing Yoga would be a deal breaker for me. I often say that Yoga is a learning laboratory for life. The little things-- distracted focus, habitual fidgeting, laziness, close-mindedness-- these are all things we can see in the Yoga room, but also translate to our bigger lives. My practice is what I make it, what I do while I'm there. So is my job as a parent. I screw up being a mom regularly and I have to clean up, reorganize. So is my relationship with my beloved. We just spent a year remodeling a shit hole---our nerves are frayed, our patience is short, and our coffers are depleted. And it's hard to see clearly through that; it's like 365 days of dust on a pipe. But it's so important to see the bigger picture. What's important? What practice do I want to have? When you are in a groove with your kid or experiencing renewed passion with your partner, take note, appreciate it and absorb the moments.  And, as the years come and go, you'll fall out with your mate, find yourself feeling out of control as a parent, lose your passion for Yoga, but have faith in yourself. You're in charge.

Friday, January 16, 2015

You're not fat, you're sad.

I remember about 10 years ago I was at a hotel in Palm Springs at Yoga Teacher Training. There were hundreds of tight little bodies, yoga bodies swarming around the vast patio which was home to several pools and hot tubs. I was sitting on a beach chair reading and a woman, between 50-60, walked by me. She had on a very simple black swim suit, a very normal-healthy body, much like mine is as I approach 50. What I noticed about her was how confident she was, how unapologetic about her age, her body, herself.

The other day after teaching, Gary, who'd been in my class asked me, "You okay? You seem sad." I was sad, and tired, and frustrated. A few hours later I took a class and had a strong reaction to my image in the mirrors. I did not like what I saw. I had many, many complaints and it took me a while to get settled into my practice and find my flow.

A few months ago, I was standing in the kitchen with my partner Nancy. "I'm fat" I whined in my most sad puppy voice. "You're not fat" she said, "you're sad." I don't remember what was going on at the time, why I was sad, but I was. The first place I go when I feel bad (sad, dejected, frustrated) is to self-criticism. For me, it's way easier to focus on something tangible, like my belly that will probably always have, as Lucia calls it,  "a little hump." On more emotionally rational days I say to myself, "Laura, you are healthy, strong and whole." But on days when I am not feeling emotionally stable, the first place I go is to my body.

I'm forty-six years old. That feels solidly middle-aged-sort-of-old to me. I'm at definitive point where I truly recognize that I will never be viewed as young.  I am getting older, grayer, wrinklier. I am in a stage of life where I should be grateful and happy for my wellness. I have enough friends who have lost parents, spouses, even children. Thinking about this, I feel really silly for wasting my time on "feeling fat."

Ironically, the times I feel best about my body are in the mirrored Yoga room. It doesn't always start out great, even when I'm in the best of spirits.  An internal comment----"Oooh. I maybe shouldn't have worn these shorts....." --might lead me down a dark hole for a few moments, but I eventually come back, and soon enough, I've forgotten about the shorts. The mental/emotional is outweighed by the physical practice. Sometimes when I struggle to find my bearings, when I'm not in Yoga and need to get my shit together, I think about that woman in the black tank suit in Palm Springs. It wasn't her outside beauty that invited me to notice her. It was the energy she carried, the self-acceptance she exuded. If you're like me and your emotions hijack your physical perception, take note. That day when Nancy said, "You're not fat, you're sad", it was an AH-HA moment indeed. It doesn't mean I have eliminated my whiney kitchen moments, but naming the connection between the emotional and physical has given me a chance to see myself with a different lens. Maybe in 5 years I can be just like the woman in Palm Springs.





Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Smile much?

"Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy." ~Thich Nhat Hanh

Some of you might have seen my partner Nancy practicing at The SweatBox. She usually practices in the second row by the women's dressing room. You'd know her because, without fail, every single time she holds Standing Bow Pulling Posture for the whole time, a huge smile takes over her face. She can't help it; it just comes.

Nancy has been a Vinyasa Flow practitioner forever. It is only in the past several years that she's "warmed" to Bikram Yoga. It's her antidote to any injury and, like me, she appreciates the balance that it brings to her other physical activities. If you run, Bikram takes care of your knees. If you cycle, your hips. If you do Vinyasa flow, Bikram Yoga is healing for your wrists and shoulders.

Urban lore says that it takes 17 muscles to smile and 43 muscles to frown. That's almost triple for a frown, so theoretically a lot more work. I'm not sure if this myth is true, but it serves me in my teaching because I think we all could do with more smiling, more positive affirmation. We know that smiling actually activates neural messaging; the act of smiling, even if it is forced, sends a bit of happiness to the brain. We also know that smiling is contagious, so when someone smiles in class, it affects the other students practicing around them. The practice space gets lighter, more energized.

Nancy is not alone in her smiling after holding her balance in a hard posture. From time to time, I notice other students having that reflexive post-posture smile, but it's not the norm. I don't know why more people don't celebrate their Yoga practice with smiles. I rarely do it. Maybe it's how we are hard-wired. Maybe for people like Nancy, the smile reflex is more developed, easier to access. Yoga can be serious business, it requires us to really focus and concentrate. I would never encourage someone to force a smile during Yoga. That would feel contrived and awkward, but if it bubbles up, surprises you at some point, let it happen. It's a good thing.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Koosh Ball

The other day I hosted a sexuality education class for 10-year-olds and their moms in my living room. A sexuality educator came equipped with a pink knit uterus, flash cards, a maxi pad and tampon demo kit, and group movement exercises.

We learned about pubic hair, breast buds, body odor, crushes, bullying, and the false images created by Photoshop in the media. Girls got to ask questions about puberty and they got to secretly ask questions via index cards that they were too shy to disclose out loud.

At the end of the two hours, the teacher took out a Koosh ball and threw it into the crowd of girls. "When I throw you this ball, I want you to say something about yourself that you like." Of course a few girls whined, "What if I can't think of anything?" "Just throw it back to me" she kindly invited.

As the content of the session grew more detailed and graphic, I noticed around the room that many of these "too cool for school 10-year-olds" who normally wouldn't be caught dead sitting next to their moms, were literally crawling their long legs and torsos into their mother's laps. By the time the Koosh ball was thrown, many of the girls were wrapped in their mother's arms.

When Lucia got the ball, she leaned heavily into my chest and very, very quietly said, "I like my long arms and my long legs." When I was ten,  a long-legged, long-armed bean pole like Lucia, I could only compare myself to my fraternal twin sister who was much shorter, and I thought, much cuter. So I was proud and happy that Lucia owned her length and declared it as a point of pride. The ball went around the room. "My hair" won as most frequently proclaimed. But there were others too-- "my brown eyes", "my eye brows", "my nose."  There was joy, contentment among the girls who declared something they liked about themselves. After a pretty intense two hours learning about hard stuff, a lightness filled the room. What a great way to end the evening.

The grown ups in the room were not invited to share what they liked about themselves, but if they had been, I think there would have been some struggle, perhaps even more than the young girls had shown. This morning I woke up thinking about what I would have said if I got the Koosh ball.  Would I be able to declare out loud in front of twenty people that I like my ankles? My neck? Maybe, but I would also feel self-conscious about it. I would likely feel awkward and embarrassed.

Maybe if we'd all practiced acknowledging what we liked about ourselves during puberty, when our bodies were really changing and emotionally we were wildly unmoored, it would be easier as adults. But most of us didn't get that practice, so it feels like pulling teeth to publicly proclaim our strengths, our positive characteristics.

How I would love to invoke the Koosh ball while teaching Yoga. So often when I teach, especially newbies, I notice that people can barely look at themselves in the mirror, and when they do, it is to fix their clothes or hair or mat, all tools to distract them from looking at themselves. I do it too, every time I practice.  But I want to invite the idea into the room (and I will people, just wait) to periodically throw yourself a Koosh ball. Sometimes you'll have to throw it back; it will simply be too hard to conjure a compliment to yourself. But keep trying. Find something; remind yourself what you like about yourself. Yoga practice, just like a two-hour puberty class, can be hard. Throw yourself some bones. Give yourself some love. It might lighten your practice a little bit.





Saturday, January 10, 2015

Making the Choice to Make the Choice


On Friday, I got my running clothes on as soon as I woke up. I do this on days when I plan to run so that I won't talk myself out of it. I walked Lucia to the bus though soupy fog, a weather state that for me would be a perfect sit on the couch and read day. On my way home from the bus stop, I got a text from my running partner that she had to cancel at the last minute because her daughter was sick home from school. I was bummed. This would be my 6 plus mile day and I knew that without Kate, I would lose some of my mojo.  As soon as I got home, before I had a chance to start making the chili I needed to make for an event that night, before I took down the Christmas tree, before I had another cup of coffee, I made myself go running.

When I run on my own I listen to music or podcasts. On Friday I listened to a Dharma talk about Choices. It was the perfect narrative for my mental state that morning. Choices, the wise woman said, are often hard at the beginning. The challenge, the resistance to make a choice, is why lots of us just choose not to make them at all. It's why many people don't try new things; because that initial choice to do it is really hard. Like the start of a run, it's never really fun. You have to make the choice to stick it out. And then, after a bit, your choice is made and you are no longer in that deliberating space.  I have the same experience often- when I'm cooking or baking or cleaning or writing or paying bills. There's an initial grind. I have to "get through" the space from making the choice to being in the choice that I've made.

On Friday, I didn't run as far as I would have with Kate, but I ran a solid 5 1/2 miles and I felt so glad I'd stuck with my running plan. When I got home I was able to notice that tentative space at the beginning of my chili making. At the start of cutting the onions and garlic, I wasn't thrilled, I wasn't fully in it, but I consciously told myself that this space was temporary, and sure enough, I eventually succumbed and was able to enjoy the activity of cooking. Then I moved on to the Christmas tree...

It happens like this in Yoga too. Many of us struggle through the first set of Pranayama. Arghhh, do I want to do this? Do I really want to be here? Pranayama represents that important choice changing time. We make the choice to practice yoga, to get into the practice room, but there is often that tentativeness at the beginning, those moments where we are not fully committed. And then, almost always after the first set of breathing, we are through the part of actually making the choice, and we are able to be fully in our practice.

For me, recognizing that there is a natural need to make time to transition into a choice has been incredibly liberating. It feels like a new permission to give deliberate space to my resistance, to acknowledge that this is part of getting to the next phase.  Knowing that making the choice to do something- a new activity or an old one-- may come with some discomfort at the beginning, is ultimately an opportunity to take lots of new plunges,  do more new things. Make the choice to make the choice.