Friday, July 28, 2017

Family Yoga

Last week I spent seven days with my family at a house in Michigan. It was my little family-- Nancy  and Lucia (12),  our 12-year old niece Kaye, my sister Amy, her husband Ben and their seven-year-old Sam, my sister Katherine and her two boys, Joe (15 1/2) and Sean (14), my mom (76) and stepfather (89).

All families are intense and dysfunctional in their own special ways. My family is no different. Depending on the year and the individual states of mind among all of the kids and parents, different combinations of people work well and others not so well on our family trips. There are always good times, lots of laughing, game playing, teasing, cooking and eating on our family trips, but there's also a collective tension that builds. By the end, even though we all love each other, we're ready to say goodbye.

This morning as we were cleaning up our rental house, I was washing the dishes and broke a vase. When I told my mom, she said, "Oh God, that's a fancy one. It's an Aalto!" I had no idea what an Aalto was, but I was quickly schooled. Yes, indeed it was a fancy one. "The Aalto Littala" to be specific, retailing for $175 at MOMA.

So the end of my trip was punctuated by bullshit-- texting the owner about replacing a vase that we used for 4 days for flowers that died. I spent fifteen minutes stewing in my room between attempts to find the Aalto Littala on sale, but eventually there was nothing I could do but let it go. A broken glass vase cannot be pieced back together, no matter how many ways you try.

As we left the vacation rental I was stewing. The broken vase compounded by the build up of tension from lots of family time made me feel manic and a little bit violent. As we started the two-hour drive from Michigan to Midway airport in Chicago, I tried to redirect my energy by thinking about all of the great moments we had together. One of my favorite was an impromptu poolside yoga class with my fourteen year old nephew Sean, his 15 year old brother Joe, Lucia and Kaye (12), Nancy, my mom and my two sisters.

We only had beach towels, no mats, and it was 8pm, the end of a full day of swimming, tennis and a huge dinner. But somehow it happened. Nancy and Lucia are used to family yoga; we do it often. But I was truly surprised that anyone else joined in. My nephew Sean was the biggest shocker. Sean is an extreme athlete. He's a trampolinist, a wild flipping scooterer, the kind of kid who jumps off roofs without batting an eye. A few months ago, while jumping off of a roof onto a trampoline doing a triple flip, Sean broke his neck and had surgery to fuse two of his cervical vertebrae. In addition to his recent injury, Sean is also a quintessential teen, spending most of his time on his phone and in his room.

So when I asked Sean to join he said, "Sure, I'll try," I was floored. I started the class quickly so that nothing would distract him away from doing yoga. The class lasted about 40 minutes and was very low key. Sean did every posture and stayed seemingly present the whole time (no phone, eyes closed, snickering undetectable).  I can still his face in final Savasana-- peaceful, quiet, beautiful. I can picture the faces of everyone in my family that evening. I have these moments often at the studio when I look around the room after a class and see my students recalibrating, integrating all of the information from the class. It's why I love my job. It's a gift to me to see the peace that comes to people when they slow down, take away the bullshit, and breathe new life into their bodies. I'm not sure when my family will get together again, but until we do,  I'll so grateful to have the image of their beautiful post-yoga faces to remember.

Friday, July 7, 2017


A few weeks ago, I was paired with Betty at Adaptive Yoga.  Betty does not use a wheelchair; she has full use of her whole body, but she likes the class.  In adaptive yoga, volunteers like me facilitate movement for people who have limited mobility. Often we do hip openers by moving the legs from bent to straight to bent again. Or we rotate the leg right and left in circles to bring some lubrication to the hip joints.

I offered to help Betty move her legs because, even if you can move your legs on your own, it often feels really good to surrender and let someone else do it for you. Like many people, Betty had a hard time relinquishing control in this exercise.  In fact, she did the opposite of relaxing into the movement.

A few things to know about Betty. She is little, maybe 4 feet 10 inches. And she's old, a surprisingly young, and strong 92 years old. And, she always wears a royal blue sweatsuit.  As I tried to help Betty through the hip circles (and she resisted) I couldn't get over how strong her little 92-year-old legs were. Betty was married to her husband for 68 years and he died last year. She started yoga as a way to keep busy, and healthy. She also started wearing magnetic bracelets and anklets to help channel energy that would help her back pain. She got that idea from the suggestion of a vendor at the mall.

As a yoga teacher, I am surrounded all the time by people who are pretty open-minded. But these people are in their 20s or 30s or 40s. When I was a kid, we used to visit my grandmother in the Drexel Home in South Chicago. Sometimes our school would go to do crafts and sing songs with the old people who lived there. I always loved the visits with my class and with my family. My grandmother and the other residents were always so appreciative. Old people have experienced so much more life and loss than the rest of us that they are simply wiser. What a gift it was to spend time, doing yoga no less, with this special nonagenarian!

As the class came to an end and everyone was getting comfortable in Savasana, the other teacher Nicole came over to Betty to ask her if she needed anything. Betty's eyes were already closed and her face emanated pure bliss. Her little blue sweatsuit-clad body was perfect as it was.  I looked down at her, watching her chest rise and fall with her breath, her anklets and bracelets slack on her ankles and wrists. "She's amazing," I thought to myself. Nicole and I shared a smile of appreciation for this beautiful soul before she moved on to check on the other students.

When I went home that night, I was, as I almost always am after teaching yoga, gleeful, excited, at peace, all at the same time. My heart was full of Betty, of all her goodness-- her open-mindedness, her faith in healing, her ability to be honest about managing the loss of her husband, her perseverance get herself to finally let go at the end of class. Gifts really do come in all sorts of packages.  Thank you Betty!

Thursday, July 6, 2017


Last week we went out on a motor boat on Lake Washington. The temperature peaked at 93 degrees and after hanging at the lake in the heat of the day, we were all excited to hop aboard our friend Andrea's motor boat and get some wind in our hair. Though it was very hot, it was also choppy on the lake and it seemed that every boat and jet ski registered in the greater Seattle area was out for a spin.

I'm prone to motion sickness. When we travel abroad, I alway pack a perscription anti-nausea, but I rarely take it when we're just on the lake. A few weeks ago we went out on the same boat and I was just fine. But last week, I found that I could barely hold on. A few times I jumped into the water to get off the rocking vessel. That provided a temporary solution but the seasickness came right back as soon as I got back on the boat.

Andrea offered to take us on a longer tour, all the way from south of Seward Park to the 520 bridge. Not wanting to be a pooper, I agreed but about halfway in I realized that I couldn't do it. Head between my knees, I told Nancy I was a goner. She told Andrea who graciously complied with this last minute change of plans. We made a B-Line for the west side of the lake so we could turn back and head to the moorage near our house.

I was okay when the boat was speeding, but as soon as we slowed down to pack up our stuff and get ready to dock, the seasickness came back in a furious wave. Andrea suggested she bring the boat a bit closer in so I could swim the 50 yards to shore. Desperate to escape the nausea, I jumped at the opportunity. I've actually followed this protocol before. Several years ago when Nancy and I were kayaking in Belize, I had to abort mission and swim the last leg of our trip because the rocking of the sea waves beneath the kayak was too much for me.

Still very queasy, I leapt from the nose of the boat into the lake. The waves were big, my stomach was inside out, and the lake bottom was nowhere near my toes. I panicked. Even though I was a competitive swimmer for over 15 years, I often forget my skills in open water and lose my calm. I turned over onto my back and treaded water. I tried to take little sips of air, but I couldn't catch a full breath.  I wasn't okay. "Laura, are you alright?!!!" Nancy yelled from the boat. Not wanting to scare Lucia who standing right behind Nancy, I made a face gesture indicating that no, I was not okay. I was literally over my head. I didn't know how to get control. I needed help.

Nancy threw me a life preserver. I managed to wrangle it onto my body and I dog paddled to shore. As I climbed out onto the wall, I could see people sitting up on their towels, on paddle boards, in boats looking at me, wondering if I was okay, trying to figure out what the spectacle of the woman jumping off the boat and needing a life preserver was all about. I didn't care.  I was simply relieved to be safely on land.

In my younger days, I would have died of embarrassment to demonstrate such weakness, such vulnerability. I might have tried to power through somehow, attempt to override my nausea or deny my panic, but these days I am older and wiser. I know that, try as I might, I am not invincible. I am a human being with frailties, fears, and limits. And life is not in my control. The conditions that day on the lake brought me to my knees and I needed help. The only way to take care of myself, on the boat and in the lake, was to admit my weaknesses, to ask for help.

I resist showing my vulnerabilities. I like to be in control. I often find myself in conflict because I can't just admit that I'm scared or hurt or overwhelmed. It's unlikely, but possible, that I could have drowned had I not asked for help that day on the lake. It's one of the great ironies of life, that admitting our weaknesses makes us stronger. It brings us closer to other people because we show up fully, vulnerabilities and all. The experience on the lake was a gift, a reminder that asking for help is a good thing, a necessary part of life.

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