From the age of five all the way up until college, I went to LDS church every Sunday, and every Sunday I “partook in the sacrament” by eating a piece of Wonderbread and taking a shot of water in remembrance of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Viewing entries in
Damn it feels good to be home. After an action-packed Advertising Week in New York, I almost cried with joy as I stepped out of the airport and into the clean and crisp San Francisco air.
Between work and weddings and learning and teaching, I've been on 19 flights over the past three months. I've spent far too much time on the road for my taste and far too much time DOING, not enough BEING. And it's been cramping my style. Because though life's offered a lot of stimulation with all its recent assignments and activities, it hasn't been very spacious.
In fact, I've been feeling anything but spacious. Over the past few weeks, swept up in the throes of life's intensity and movement, I've felt overwhelmed, distracted, agitated, and rather confused. In fact, I even feared I'd gone backwards on the spiritual path.
Faced with all kinds of deadlines and deliverables, I've been stress-eating like hell (all paleo intentions out the window), overdoing it with coffee, grinding my teeth, waking up sweating, skipping practices, and constantly judging myself and others -- mind always racing a million miles a minute. And whenever I did find myself with free time, I usually chose to spend it either numbing out or trying to fill it with more activities, when what I really longed for, what my intuition softly called for, was presence, inquiry, and self-compassion.
Yet I didn't give myself any of that until things hit a breaking point in the Newark airport this morning, when I broke into tears over breakfast. Sadness + eggs do not mix in my world. I realized it was time to hit pause.
So I dropped the drama and sat in stillness for 30 minutes, allowing myself to get intimate with what I'd been avoiding for weeks: my own feelings, raw and unadorned. Then I reread my notes from a recent meditation immersion, relishing each insight, remembering who I am. Finally, I chose my themes for my upcoming yoga retreat -- not because I thought I should, but because I felt genuinely inspired. And as I slowly went through these three activities, as I turned inwards, all crescendoing angst, clenching, and desire to escape my life dissolved.
The fact is, I've been wanting out. But today I was reminded that the only way out is in. There's no chance of escape by numbing out, or powering through, or sensory distraction, like I'd been attempting. That only prolongs suffering and creates more anxiety.
Suffering won't go away until you go right into the center of it and be with it like you'd be at the bedside of someone you love if you were tucking them in after a tough day. With compassion. With presence. With love. With "It's going to be okay," but, more importantly, with "It's already okay, and it always has been."
Because it's okay to forget what really matters. It's okay to float out to the periphery and away from your core. It's okay to be human! It's more than okay, really. It's happening, so it's perfect.
And by the way, there's no going backwards on the spiritual path. There's no falling off it, either. We're never NOT on the path, and the path leads straight in. In other words, you're already home -- all you have to do is recognize it and remember.
This morning I woke up with a throbbing temple and smarting, knotted shoulders. My brain felt raw against my skull. "That's it!" I said to myself for the trillionth time. "I'm done with drinking!" Except this time it only took one drink to get me to this state, an Anchor Steam Winter Ale I cracked open and enjoyed last night over Netflix's new show, The OA. The brew was tasty and refreshing, a welcome treat at the end of a day's work. But was it worth it?
My body has been sending me consistently clearer signs it doesn't like when I drink, and I'm finally ready to listen. In addition to my ongoing "golden rule" resolution, my resolution for 2017 is to give up alcohol.
My New Year's resolutions for the past few years have consistently included "drink less," but this year I'm taking it one step further, because "drink less" hasn't been enough. I've wasted too many hours that could've been productive and full of life on hangovers. On headaches and body aches and misery and confusion and regret. Moreover, I want to be fully present and lucid in each moment. Drinking prevents that, and therefore has to be let go.
I'll admit giving up alcohol is not going to be easy for me. First of all, alcohol is everywhere. It's a quick way to (temporarily) destress. And, most importantly, I actually love the taste of beer. I crave it with dinner, after yoga (I know!), and during times of leisure (like when kicking back on the beaches of Belize as I'll be doing in January). I think it's fair to say I've been pretty attached to alcohol.
But now I'm starting to understand this renunciation won't be as hard as I've previously thought it would be either. With the growing clarity I've been cultivating through meditation has come a true courage that liquid courage pales in comparison to. The courage to just be, even when that being is awkward, bored, or stressed. These days I feel simultaneously grounded and light and strong. It's time.
As you set your own New Year's resolutions for 2017, here are my three tips:
#1 Think About What Really Matters
Are you looking beyond the superficial? A quick way to tell is to ask yourself whether your goals are driven by ego or something else. For example, is losing 10 pounds really going to solve your problems, or is there something deeper at the root of your suffering, such as over-identification with your physical form? If so, why not attack that instead?
#2 Keep It Simple
If you're like me, most years you make too many resolutions, and end up keeping very few. In our culture we tend do go a bit overboard with the drive to achieve. Last year I set more than ten intentions, including learning Turkish and finishing my 500 hour Yoga Alliance teacher training certification. (I did neither.) It's not that there's anything wrong with leaving resolutions incomplete. The problem lies in spreading ourselves too thin by attempting so many big things at the same time. We risk getting tired, forgetting to enjoy each moment for what it is, and losing clarity. Try choosing quality over quantity this year.
#3 Look Back On Old Intentions and Surprise Yourself
This one's for your own amusement, and perhaps for some inspiration as well. What did you resolve to do last New Year's? How about ten years ago? In preparation for writing this, I looked back through my old resolutions. Just three years ago, I resolved to "practice yoga two times a week." Now I'm teaching it, and three+ times a week! After you write down your resolution(s)/intention(s) this year, try hiding them somewhere you never look. If/when, years later, you stumble upon what you wrote, you might be surprised by just how much you've grown. As Pattabhi Jois loved to say, "Practice and all is coming!"
One last thing: When you break out your eggnog (spiked or not) and get down to setting your intentions, don't forget you're already perfect, so avoid thinking in terms of changing yourself, but rather removing the ego clutter layered on top over the years. And when you're done planting your seeds, consider treating yourself to a sweet 20-minute savasana :)
Happy Holidays, and see you in the new year!
Blog photograph by Sarah Gustafson
Stop right now and ask yourself this question: "What are the top three words I'd use to describe my yoga practice?"
This is a sincere request. Before reading any further, please complete the exercise. How would you describe your practice? Three words, and be honest.
Did you do it?
What did you come up with?
If you're new to yoga (and were honest with yourself), you might have words like "confusing," "frustrating," "struggle," "competition" - even "torture." Hell, you don't have to be a beginner - there are days/poses/teachers that bring these feelings out in all of us.
Now, if you've been practicing for at least a few years, chances are you chose words like "relaxing," "concentration," "focus," and "breath." And these words describe a lovely practice. But I'm not satisfied with them.
What about joy? Love? Gratitude? Ecstasy? Wonder? Surrender? Were any of these words on your list? If not, I hope they will be soon.
In the beginning, the yoga asana practice is about improving our physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. We learn to hold and breathe in the poses in a way that breaks up energetic blockages and makes space for prana to flow freely through the body. We prepare our vessel.
But once the foundations are established, the practice can become something much greater. After we fulfill our basic needs from the practice, we're ready to stop asking and start offering.
If we let it, the practice can be a joyous celebration of life itself.
This is my favorite way to practice. I close or half-close my eyes. I suffuse every breath, every transition with meaning. Sometimes I cry, if I need to cry. I savor the music, the movement, the moment. I saturate ever fiber of my being with my intention, whether it's to send love and happiness to someone I work with, to forgive someone who's hurt me, or to offer deep gratitude for all of existence. I surrender to the infinite wisdom of the universe. I'm not afraid to say it: I worship.
Practicing in this way is delicious. It's like eating a juicy watermelon on a trampoline on a hot July day. It's bliss. It's the ultimate.
But you might not get that from taking my class. Here's my struggle: it's hard to teach alignment and surrender at the same time. It's not that they can't coexist. When an experienced yogi understands how to contain her flexibility, stay with her breath, move from her center, and respect her own physical limitations, and understands these principles so well she can keep them on autopilot, then she can absolutely practice surrender on a foundation of alignment. This is what I do.
But practicing both is one thing. Teaching both is quite another. Focusing on alignment and surrender simultaneously is incredibly hard to pull off. It generally leads to too much talking by the teacher and cognitive dissonance, if not complete bewilderment, in the students. Most teachers fall into the Annie Carpenter camp (alignment) or the Rusty Wells camp (surrender). Few teachers can nail down a mix, at least in the same class (although Amanda Moran and Stephanie Snyder do a damn good job). I certainly haven't figured out how to do it.
I might hope to focus on cultivating "joy" in class, for example, but when I look around and see yogis pointing their toes and knees in opposite directions or attempting to force themselves into a pose they aren't ready for, I have to step in and bring the focus down to Earth, down to the physical minutia of skeletal alignment. And, even beyond safety, alignment is important to me for the sake of developing technique. Yoga is most certainly not about achievement, but I want my students to be able to progress physically in their practice as well as spiritually. And you can't learn handstand if you haven't learned plank.
Maybe one day I'll discover a better way, but for now my approach is this: Safety first. Teach with alignment as a foundation, but hold space for everyone to explore something greater through the intentions I always have them set at the beginning of class, and offer everything I can from my own intention of celebrating this beautiful existence we all share. I teach with a focus on alignment, but as I do I invite my fellow souls to be curious, playful, and lighthearted in their manner, so they may one day come to describe their practice as "blissful," "soulful," and "celebratory" on their own.
"I'm going to meditate and practice yoga every day while in Japan," I told myself just before heading there for a two-week vacation. I sincerely believed it at the time too -- but yeah, right.
When I actually found myself there I didn't want to sit still and "just breathe." I wanted to immediately dive into my surrounds, into the sights, into Japanese culture. And into Japanese food.
Instead of starting my mornings off with yoga, most days began with desperately trying to find breakfast in a country that doesn't really do breakfast places (but apparently still does breakfast). I'd usually end up at Mos Burger, the only eatery around open before 11am, where I'd chow down on a rice, egg and soy sauce sandwich and alternate between sipping coffee and miso soup. Then I'd waste no time in taking to the streets, rarely coming back to my hostel before sundown -- there was too much to see. And too much people-watching to do.
The first several days (the entire time I was in Tokyo) the bliss of practicing yoga took a clear backseat to the joy of exploring a fascinating and brand-new-to-me country. But eventually, in Kyoto, I began to crave some breath-led movement and centering. I was getting cranky, sluggish and overwhelmed by mental clutter. I missed my practice. It was time to circle back to the mat.
Instead of practicing at the Airbnb apartment I stayed at, where where there wasn't much space and because I was incredibly curious, I decided to check out what public yoga in Japan was all about. Over the course of three days, I attended three yoga classes, all taught in Japanese, at a studio called Tamisa in the middle of a shopping center not far from Gion. The first class was Level 1 Vinyasa. It was very slow. Lots of low lunges. The second was a busy Level 2 Vinyasa class. It was less slow. Lots of low lunges. The final class I took was a noon class, something called Tri Yoga. It was the slowest, but also the most challenging class of the three. There was a strong focus (I inferred from the teacher's body language) on smooth ujjayi and moving with the breath. Lots of low lunges. An unreal amount of cat-cows.
Chaturanga wasn't instructed once in any of the three classes I attended (though I have to admit I snuck a couple in). And the unhurried pace felt great. It was the perfect vacation yoga.
I wonder if most yoga in Japan is in line with what I experienced: gentle, leisurely and more focused on stretching than strength. I should probably practice that way more often.
In my personal practice, I know have an excess of fire that needs to be balanced, but even though I know water'd be good for me, I only ever crave fire. I'm always thinking "vigor." I avoid restorative and yin and anything too sleepy, but in Japan it came to me. And, you know what? I didn't hate it.
In fact, in Okinawa, my last stop in Japan, I stayed at a summer cottage with plenty of floor room for yoga. I finally rekindled my home practice there, and I did it in the Japanese style. I lingered in each breath and doused each pose in breath. Three-legged down dog, which is usually a one-breath affair, I held for five. And it felt like smooth, hot sake in my body. You might guess I took several low lunges. I did indeed. And I certainly took my sweet time to wind it all down before savasana.
Looking back on the trip, I explored a lot and practiced a little (but the little I did do taught me a thing or two about the power inherent in practicing with tenderness). I think I did alright in terms of maintaining balance...for a vacation. But next time I'll bring breakfast bars so I can at least fuel a daily morning meditation session. #vacationyoga
I was traveling the past week for work, which presented a great reminder of easy it can be to get swallowed up by irritation and general negativity when we step out of our comfort zones and hand over control (willingly or not) to external forces, in my case to flight crews, LA traffic, and packed schedules I didn’t set. All week on the road, I noticed myself and my companions complain about one thing followed by another, from flight delays to lack of bottled water. (First world problems, in other words.) Minor inconveniences can easily breed major disgruntlement if we let them, especially when we aren’t paying attention, which is to say the majority of the time. And most people don’t realize it, but the act of complaining only sows the seeds for more future complaining. (Do you think everyone’s out to get you? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but unless you change something, that will only get worse for you.)
What if we didn’t say everything we thought and instead examined the source of our thoughts? What if we observed the ego instead of jumping to identify with it?
I recently read in Mental Floss magazine about Trisha Prabhu, a 15-year-old girl who designed a mobile keyboard called ReThink to prevent cyberbullying. The keyboard creates a pause for kids (and teens) to review and rethink their messages on every app they use before choosing to post live (or not). Mindfulness by technology. Such a cool idea, I thought, especially since the part of the brain that controls decision making capabilities isn’t fully developed until the age of 26, and there’s unfortunately a strong resistance to directly teaching mindfulness as a practice in most schools (the argument being that “mindfulness” has religious connotations). Early research shows that taking an extra moment to reconsider significantly increases the chance a user will choose to refrain from posting a negative post they had planned to share. Rethinking works.
But Trisha’s app wasn’t created for adults, thought there are certainly some adult trollers out there who could use it, and frankly not all situations can be intercepted with technology. So how can we instill a technology-free mechanism that allows everyone, child or adult, to pause and rethink our words and actions for just a micro-moment before we speak or act? We can all cultivate mindfulness through yoga and meditation.
Yoga allows us to create space and meditation teaches us to listen. Together, the two practices beget mindfulness. In yoga we create space by opening and lengthening and twisting and compressing to untie the energetic knots that hold learned behavioral patterns (such as notice discomfort —> complain) which live in our bodies. The body holds our stories and not all of these stories are very productive. (Most of them aren’t. And, anyway, life is more interesting when we see each moment afresh.) The skillful linking of breath and movement we practice in yoga allow us to detoxify of our energetic baggage so we truly experience the present moment in the moment. And the space we create in yoga extends to meditation, where we take things one step further by sitting in complete stillness to better observe the fluctuations of our own minds and the ego created by these. When we meditate, we listen. When we listen, we learn.
Our task, then, is to apply the space we create through yoga and the listening skills we develop through meditation to decision making in the real world. When we learn to practice pausing between stimulus (for example, discomfort) and response (for example, complain or embrace and adapt), we can choose to respond instead of react. The difference between responding and reacting is everything - in our online lives, in our offline lives, at home and on the road (where there might not be water bottles in every corner but at least there’s always a floor to sit on in stillness).
Mindfulness matters, more than we might realize, for both our own wellbeing as well as the general wellbeing of the universe. That’s why there’s so much focus in yoga and meditation on creating space. We create space so that we can pause at will. We lengthen and twist and compress to make room and detoxify. We tap into the breath to tap into the present moment and we sit in stillness to observe the fluctuations of our own minds. This is all to train ourselves for decision making in the real world. The goal is to cultivate the practice of pausing between stimulus and response, so that we can truly (mindfully) respond instead of simply react.
Have you ever been slapped silly by spontaneous insight from within? Hit upside the head by an unmistakeable message? Just in time for New Year’s resolutions, I was, via dream. And I’m still reeling from it.
It’s said that traveling increases one’s chance of lucid dreaming thanks to the influx of unfamiliar stimuli during the waking state. I was in Florida for the holidays this year and, sure enough, one night in Miami I became lucid.
Flying is the first thing many people do when they become lucid. I actually became lucid because I was flying. “Wait, I can’t fly,” I realized mid-flight. “This has got to be a dream!” I remembered my intention to summon my "spirit guide," something that has been on my lucid dream bucket list for a while. I shouted “I want to meet my spirit guide!” up at the sky and soon I found myself face to face with a man (to my slight dismay - I was hoping for a goddess) who looked strikingly like Michael Caine.
I can’t remember all the details of the dream. (I let it go on for too long before waking myself up and I’d had one too many key lime pie martinis the night before to make myself write it down in the morning.) But I do remember one part distinctly.
“Do you have any messages for me?” I asked my Michael-Caine-looking guide. “Oh, we’re sending you messages all the time,” he replied, “in your dreams but also while you’re awake.” He motioned towards a towering contraption which seemed to include a satellite dish. “But you won’t receive them unless you’re tuned into a high enough vibrational frequency. Luckily that’s something you can work on.”
Needless to say, I woke up with my mind blown. The message could not have been more clear. Now, provided the contents of our dreams come solely from our own conscious, subconscious and unconscious minds, my spiritual “guide” and the other guides he referenced are probably just me. In dreams, and in life at large, we're conditioned to perceive everything in terms of "I" versus Other, instead of recognizing the ultimate truth: that there is no Other. So even though I was able to receive it visually and through a conversation (thanks to creative power of dreams) I believe what I experienced was my Self metaphorically messaging my ego self, “Yo dawg. U gotta be prepared 2 hear me. I’m the real U.”
I received the message like a slap in the face, so I kept it simply this year with only one New Year's resolution: In 2016 resolve to stay tuned into the highest vibrational frequency I can, where I can communicate with my true nature, just like my "spirit guide" said I should.
With my recently cemented intention of tuning in and remaining tuned in, attempts at contact by my Self to myself are becoming more recognizable to me, if only after the fact. For example, just in the week since returning from Miami I’ve had several conversation about dreams within my dreams, as if my mind were guiding me, even coaxing me to become lucid. In fact, last night I had not one but two dreams in which the topic of not just dreaming but lucid dreaming came up. In one dream a personified teddy bear was reading a manuscript I had written and asked me if I was on drugs when I wrote it. My reply? “No, it’s wild because it’s inspired by my lucid dreams.”
Other oneironauts might smile in recognition. The talking stuffed animal did not make me question my surrounding reality, but could there really be a more obvious prompt than the words “lucid dreaming”? This kind of signal from the layers of consciousness should be unmistakeable, and, since it’s become frequent for me, starting today I will do my best to perform a reality check each time I read/see/hear/say anything about the topic of lucid dreaming or dreaming in general. (The idea is that I’ll make this enough of a habit that I’ll remember to do it in my dreams as well and will come to realize I’m dreaming -- when, after hearing a dream character say “dream,” for example, I look at my palm as a reality check and see the lines on it swimming around, instead of remaining static.)
The more often I have lucid dreams, the more often I can “talk” to my subconscious, unconscious and higher Self so directly. But, like Batman’s butler told me, dreams aren’t the only vehicle for insight. We’ve got 24 hours to be tuned in each day. Our “guide” is always there. Within. Tryna text us. So turn on your notifications this year, please!
One of my teachers is currently writing a book about yoga philosophy. I was chatting with him about the book's content earlier this week and he said there's a memoir element to it that he's trying to approach carefully. He explained that yoga teachers tend to publicly share only experiences in which they learned, overcame and grew -- in other words, experiences in which they came out on top. Because nobody relates to perpetual triumph, my teacher said he is consciously striving to include stories of failure as well as stories of success in the personal parts of his book.
That makes sense. Enlightenment isn't an effortless pursuit, after all, so why do we yoga teachers keep acting like it is? So let me tell you about something I'm struggling with, for once, versus something I've achieved. Wouldn't that be a nice break from all the self-congratulations that flood your social media feeds each day? Wouldn't a splash of vulnerability be refreshing?
Now this is far from the biggest struggle of my life, but it's one I'm dealing with right now and it directly affects my yoga teaching: I teach mindfulness but I'm not always mindful. I should, but I don't meditate regularly.
Why not? Well, one, it's freezing in the mornings -- the only time I ever really successfully meditate -- and, two, I don't want to give up any sleep: those are my two pathetic excuses. Seems like they'd be easier to overcome, right? Especially when you compare the list of Pros to the Cons.
What are the Pros, you ask? Why do I want to cultivate a daily meditation practice, anyway? To become more mindful, certainly. But also to no longer ever feel like I need a drink or a vacation or any kind of bigger retreat from what is. How crazy would that be? To have every day truly count, and not just the weekend days or those days spent "away from it all." And, of course, to more deeply embody what I already preach: presence. Yoga asana alone isn't enough to grant any of these benefits fully.
So here I am, still working towards warming up my sitting cushion, one day at a time. All it takes is a choice and I've been working on making the cold and sleepy choice for a while, with several previous blog posts about my intention to cultivate a meditation practice as proof. There are many weeks my butt never touches the cushion once. I'm not perfect yo. But I always set it out for myself with plans to return.
Much like the practice of meditation itself, it's about recommitting over and over again. Recommitting to the cushion each time I observe my focus has strayed, my mindfulness has slipped -- perhaps when I catch myself checking out of conversations or reacting quickly and angrily at work or on public transportation -- just as while meditating we recommit to concentrating on the breath each time we observe the mind wandering somewhere else.
So at least I'm being mindful about the need to be mindful. (See how I snuck that pat-on-the-back in there? After all, yoga teachers have egos too, if you haven't noticed yet.) But intention, sankalpa, isn't enough here. I know this. My work when it comes to meditation practice continues to be discipline. It's time for tapas, and I'm not talking small plates of delicious food. I'm talking sitting still and breathing and being bored and dealing with whatever shit comes up that I've been avoiding facing. That's my work right now. What's yours?
I'm gonna soak up the sun
While it's still free
I'm gonna soak up the sun
Before it goes out on me
The sun's still shining, but the end is near. Every third day or so the wind stirs along the streets of the Mission and I wish I had a scarf wrapped up to my nose. At night my wet hair chills next to the window I should have closed. For a few weeks already, the flower stand along my morning commute has been selling pumpkins instead of roses. Any day now, it seems, the cold will renounce for good our lingering honeymoon with summer and the sun will take back its generosity. So I'm savoring summery ales, sweaty Sunday strolls and the freckles on my face while I can. While they're still in season, thanks to San Francisco stretching this one.
It's so easy to miss something when it's gone, but it takes a greater awareness to appreciate relationships and experiences in the moment. I recently read an inspiring article in Mantra Magazine about living fervently. In essence, the takeaway was that if you're going to say "yes" to something, you better make it a "Hell yes!" This idea, the idea that when we choose to do something why not choose to do it with our full soul, really resonated with me. How often do you RSVP to a social event, for example, only to spend most of your time on your phone or wishing you were somewhere else? What if instead you really committed to being where you were at all times, dialing in rather than checking out? What would that be like?
Back in my Idaho days, I competed with students from other schools in Idaho and its surrounding states in both speech and debate. The realm of speech comprised many categories, including humor and improv. My favorite category though, the category I competed in, was Original Oratory. In "OO," as we called it, the topic was up to the participant who was also responsible for composing, memorizing and performing a ten-minute speech on said topic. My 15 minutes of speech fame came in the ten minutes I performed "Live It Up," a motivational speech inspired by the wild adventures of my best friend Lacey and myself. In this oration I encouraged dancing with abandon, embarking on spontaneous road trips and playing elaborate pranks on teachers. These were examples of how one might live life more fully, I explained.
Now, despite what one might guess upon seeing the hairdo in my current corporate headshot, I'm still a young person. But even a decade ago I was already contemplating the fleeting nature of our days in this life (or at least this lifetime). The difference is now I understand "living it up" doesn't mean doing anything drastic or even doing anything at all. It's both easier and more difficult than that. To live fully is to live presently. To savor what's there when it's there.
Meditation is helping me do this more consistently. I used to be THE poster child for FOMO but, thanks to the work I've been putting into strengthening my presence muscle, I'm getting better at following Sheryl Crow's advice and "wanting what I've got." (And I'm much happier for it.)
And on the mat I've been trying something simple that has made a significant impact in terms of enabling me to stay present. I've keep closing my eyes as I flow. I'll open them through jumps back to chaturanga and during balancing poses, but I try to keep them closed (or almost closed) more often than not. As a result, I feel like I'm savoring the breath and the movement and the sensations like I'd savor a rare cheese. It's blissful to practice this way and it's my version of saying "Hell yes!" to the practice. It lets me squeeze all the benefits out like I'm squeezing the remains of summer out of SF.
Soon I'll be savoring fall. I bought a pair of cold weather boots this week. I'll start getting pumpkin ales when summer ales are off the shelf, and I'll enjoy them. But while I've got it, I'm, I'm guna soak up the sun (with my eyes closed). I've got my 45 so on I...can rock on!
Wispy clouds crown the blazing cap shading the collective eye of Lumaria. We drink huckleberry honeywine on the train tracks underneath the stars. Between handstands and backbends, we run barefoot through the dark corridors of the old, Western hotel to pee. The light is perfect for writing in the White Mountain Cafe, where Grease Lightning plays while a young teenage boy with slicked dark hair and pristine eyebrows stands behind the "U" of the counter eating a piece of toast with both hands. This is Mount Shasta, where two years ago I began my yoga journey with a simple intention in a ballroom. This weekend I went back for some more magic.
Highlights include talking dreams with Nick, playing countless singing bowls at The Crystal Room, getting smoothies from Berryvale Groceries, hiking from Castle Lake up to Heart Lake, befriending a pilot and a Polish Buddhist, finding my serratus muscles like never before, and sleeping in a haunted room with doors that lead to nowhere and too many corners. Here are some of my favorite photos from the weekend:
After The Incident going out to brunch proved too big an ordeal for Gita. The bottomless mimosas and chicken-stuffed waffles at Benny’s, our old Sunday “church” of choice, weren’t worth the accompanied stares. We couldn’t focus on gossip, especially Gita, with every pair of trendy eyeballs in the place shooting curious (and slightly repulsed) laser beams our way. So I came over to her house last Sunday morning and we cooked our own brunch. I cooked. Gita just laid there. (Obviously.) But in exchange for the blueberry French toast I whipped up for her, she finally revealed how it was that she had reached nirvana so early on in life. Ready to let her feel like a guru, I fed her while she talked.
Gita had been experimenting with yoga for about a year when it happened, she said. The teacher responsible for putting her into this state wasn’t a regular at Gita’s studio – he was only visiting to put on a workshop he called “The Bliss of Letting Go.” This teacher was world famous for transforming people from Type As to Type Bs within ninety minutes for only $35, and Gita wanted to see for herself what all the hype was about. The workshop was just around the corner from her house and all participants received a free T-Shirt that said “Let.” on the front and “Go.” on the back. Needless to say, she signed up.
The rest of her body soggy and immobile, Gita widened her eyes in the direction of her French Toast. So engrossed was I in the story that I hadn’t realized I had been neglecting my feeding duties. I wiped her drooping mouth of syrup and fed her another bite.
From the beginning of his class, Gita resumed, after a burp, she found that she was able to connect to her breath, to some deep and happy emptiness inside her Self, like she never had before. It was as if she was blossoming into her own aura for the first time. It was as if her job, her relationships, her accomplishments could all dissolve and she’d still be Gita.
There was just something about his voice as he guided her prana, she said, and every cue he used was right on point. His adjustments were heavenly too, and after the third round of Sun Salutations, Gita began to feel her body detaching from itself. As the physical sensations fell away, she said, her spirit soared. Pose after pose, vinyasa after vinyasa, something was unravelling within Gita. “It was as if I was finally ‘getting’ yoga, you know?” she said. I didn’t know, but I nodded. I was more into TRX-type workouts than stretching.
At this point in the story Gita paused to let me know the rollers were coming soon. She asked if I wanted to stay and watch them work for a while. I still had an hour before I was supposed to meet my brother in the park for some beers, so I said sure, why not.
“But wait,” I said, eager to get back to the events in question. “It’s still unclear to me when you actually melted. Like at what specific point in the flow did it happen?”
Gita looked at me as if she could have judged me for the question but chose not to.
It was during savasana, when the workshop participants were lying in pools of their own sweat, exhausted, that it happened. Gita’s body felt electric, she said, energy pulsing in her palms and at the soles of her feet. For a few minutes everything was quiet exceptfor the sound of breath. Then her teacher suggested, “Imagine your body is made of ice. A mass of ice the hardest that exists. Ice that’s been frozen over multiple times.”
As her teacher spoke these words, Gita said she found her body quickly becoming a block of white ice. She found herself unable to move her neck or her fingers, or even her eyes. All she could do was shiver in the slab of her body and emit an icy steam from her still-smooth breath.
Rapt, and suddenly cold, without taking my eyes off Gita I picked up my mug and took a sip of my coffee. (It was lukewarm, but hazelnutty.) Gita’s tongue sloshed around in her mouth like a freshly caught fish. I tipped my mug to her mouth so she could try it too.
But just when Gita though she was about to shatter into infinite chunks of ice, she said, the teacher changed gears. “Now feel your body melting,” he said. “And with it, all the karmic ties you have to this world. Let yourself melt back into the earth from whence you came.” These words pushed Gita over the edge of solidity and Gita began to melt. She imagined herself melting in her mind and she melted in her skin, like candle wax. “This,” the workshop teacher said, just as the newly-creamy Gita merged with her mat, “is the bliss of letting go.”
Gita’s phone began to ring directly after this climax, and I answered it. “Hello?” I said. “It’s probably the rollers,” Gita said. It was. They said they were just outside. I opened the door to three long-haired white men in “Let” on the front “Go.” on the back T-Shirts. Their faces were gaunt but their eyes were bright and smiling. “We’re here to roll out!” one of them joked as he bowed to me, hands in prayer at his heart. I let them in.
In Gita’s sunny bedroom the three men - boys really - put their palms on Gita and worked them in gentle circular motions to mold her body back into human form, breasts and all. Gita explained that they came over and did this for her every day at the same time. It was part of their practice. They would work for ten minutes, break for two, work for ten more, break again. Each time they stopped rolling Gita, though, she would melt back into a blob. “You’re entitled to the labor, but not to the fruits of that labor,” one of them explained. The other two nodded.
I watched for as long as I could before I had to go meet my brother. On my way out, after the five of us chanted “Om” together and embraced in a group hug, I discretely swept up a drop of Gita that had fallen onto the floor during rolling. Outside, I closed my eyes and licked my finger. It was sweet and salty, bold and subtle, smooth and sharp -- the perfect balance of sthira and sukha. And the perfect post-brunch dessert.
Last week I tried something called SoulCycle. You may have heard of it. SoulCycle is the latest branded workout craze to take over the country, a la CrossFit a few years back. It's indoor cycling with a distinct flavor. Every 45-minute SoulCycle class takes place in a windowless room pitch black except for a few neon lights. The face wash and razors and smartwater water bottles are free. The electronic music is loud and fast, and the instructors are trained to motivate. If you weren't in your gym clothes, locked via shoe into a bike, you might believe you were in some kind of futuristic nightclub.
SoulCycle has never advertised. They've never had to. SoulCycle followers are devout and, after taking a class, I can understand why. It's "fun." The experience is a unique one. At only 45 minutes, it's efficient. And, of course, it's a great workout. You're guaranteed to leave soaked in sweat.
But I must say, I found it hard to find my soul in SoulCycle.
It was loud and overwhelming, sure, but there were bigger issues. "Find your soul" is the SoulCycle motto, but at $25 to $70 a class, this "soul finding" is only accessible to a small subset of the population. At the studio I attended in Soma, each class costs $30. At one point our instructor proudly told us she had taken 500 classes when she decided to become an instructor. All I could think was, "Okay, so $15,000 later." Wow. I can understand the "upscale workout." There's a market for it. But why attempt to layer on a spiritual tone to something so exclusive? I was offput by the focus on "soul" in general. Throughout the class the instructor would throw out things like, "On this bike that goes nowhere, this is where you find yourself - your soul." Why in this class, on this $2,200 bike? It was hard to believe my soul could lie in a manufactured brand, in a $30 class so loud I couldn't hear my own thoughts.
I'll stop right there. My goal isn't to harp on SoulCycle - I completely understand the appeal. (Fun, fierce, efficient.) I'm not anti-cardio either, by any means. It's great for the heart and it complements a strength and flexibility practice. I really do love a good sweat as much as the next guy. My goal, rather, in bringing up my SoulCycle experience is to express how it made me renew my gratitude for yoga and all yoga stands for.
I was originally introduced to yoga as a workout. I started with Bikram yoga, strict and sweaty. With years of dance behind me, I was pretty flexible and could go deeper into the poses than many of the people around me. This was food for my ego, so I kept coming back. But eventually I found myself returning for other reasons - more meaningful ones. Ones that dissolved my ego instead of feeding it.
Over time, the steadfast focus on the breath throughout each pose had a profound effect on me and I observed my life starting to change outside of class. I felt freer. More present. I found myself becoming more open-minded the more I practiced. Less competitive. More optimistic. Happier. Slowly, too, I began to love my body just as it is. (This alone transformed my world. I could have used yoga in middle school!) The more I practiced, the more my capacity for love grew and my perception of separation faded.
Today, ten years later, my yoga practice has become much more than a workout. Whether I'm in a class or alone in my room at home, yoga is my time to build compassion, to proffer gratitude, to pray for loved ones, to tune into who I really am, to find acceptance, to praise existence. The mental, energetic and spiritual benefits are surfacing with the physical. And I'm still just beginning to open my eyes to what else yoga can be. Yoga is a lifelong, flexible practice that meets you where you are now. Today. This moment. Yoga can be a physical workout, no doubt. But yoga is always a workout for the soul. And that's what makes my yoga sweat meaningful.
At the end of the day, the meaningfulness of the sweat that you sweat is endowed by you. If it makes you happy, it's meaningful. If it helps you shake off the stress acquired during the day, it's meaningful. But if it also helps you garner a greater awareness throughout your life and open up your chakras to enable a healthier flow of energy, maybe it's a little bit more meaningful. You don't need a brand of any kind to experience yoga. You don't even need a mat or a class. All you need is your own breath and a willingness to listen to what it tells you.
Back in Florida, my dad belongs to a New Age circle that meets every other Sunday to discuss energy healing and metaphysics and paranormal phenomenon and other dimensional worlds and so forth. I once tagged along to a special event of theirs, at which a visiting medium channeled deceased friends and relatives of the audience members. Out of nowhere, as the event was wrapping up I was approached by a New Ager, a (presumably psychically-endowed) member of my father's circle. This man took my hands and bent his head low to look into my face. "Now you! You get what you want," he told me, with great sincerity. "Just remember: be careful what you want."
I carried those words with me for a long time after the encounter, cherishing them as personal prophesy. Now I realize my father's New Age buddy probably wasn't implying I'm unique when he told me I get what I want. We all get what we want in life, if we want it badly enough. It's the Law of Attraction. And it's very real. As the old king tells Santiago in The Alchemist, "When you really want something to happen, the whole universe conspires to make that wish come true." He was talking about dharma.
Living out of sync with our individual dharmas (with "dharma" defined here as "destiny") is no doubt largely at fault for the chronic anxiety that plagues much of our society today. As an obvious example, most of us choose to spend forty hours or more a week doing something that makes us completely miserable. We choose this misery out of ego and fear.
So how can you cut through ego to discover your dharma and find lasting happiness in your life's work?
It's simple. Meditate. Meditation will (over time) attune your awareness to your own vibrations and to those of the Universe at large. Meditate to attune to small soul and to Big Soul. Then ask yourself two questions: "What would I choose to do with my time if I had to do it for free?" and "What would I do if nobody could know I was the one behind the work?" The answers should point you in the direction of your dharma.
I've been meditating more often these days and, through meditation, I've day-by-day, sit-by-sit come closer to what it is I want to Do with a capital "D." I've said it a few times, but now it is undeniably clear and I am no longer afraid of it. As proof, I'll state my manifestation here in plain words. Not because I need to make it public, but because I want to share the joy of choosing to follow my dream (even if only part time for now) and perhaps inspire you to choose to follow yours.
First, I want to write. I've been an avid reader all my life. I love words and I love being surprised by a unique voice or unusual story. My room is a temple of fiction - my closet full of novels and my desk stacked with short story collections. But around my room you'll also find piles of writing reference books and writing memoirs (including Stephen King's and Natalie Goldberg's). Particularly over the past few years, as strongly as I've been drawn to read I have felt the pull to produce words of my own. Yet up until very recently I've largely suppressed this calling. No more.
My other dream is to teach yoga. I love working with people - something writing doesn't cater as well to - and I love the idea of helping others remember who it is they really are. Also, I love to think about energy, talk about energy and work with energy. With yoga, I can make that a career! A career that marries empowerment, spirituality and creativity - what else could my soul ask for?
So writing + teaching yoga: that's the two-pronged dream I'm officially manifesting for myself, starting with teaching yoga at work once a week and self-publishing a KidLit book with illustrations by my childhood friend. Soon will come the day that I'll have my own yoga studio and lead retreats several times a year, perhaps with a focus on dream yoga. And soon I'll be writing outside of this blog. Kids books, short stories, travel articles, maybe even a novel or two. It's happening. It's happening because we are pure energy and we get what we want. All we have to do is choose.
Over the past eight years I've been struggling with a sense of spiritual dearth. Eight years ago, I left behind a blissful state of self-actualization (along with my soulmate, the one person who could fuel my spiritual flame to its fullest), and moved across the country against my will. I traded in my beloved Idaho mountains for the base beaches of Florida, and out of loneliness lost myself to new passions - the most powerful of which being competition (a force I now recognize as a symptom of forgetting the most fundamental concept of existence: that we're all one and the same).
After I moved I had nobody to distract me with propositions of spontaneous adventure and nobody to remind me of the beauty within my soul. So I put all my energy into getting ahead. Even in the context of relationships, I developed the need to always "win" and come out on top. By the time I started college, I was consumed by this motivation.
Yet the more "successful" I became, the more I felt something was missing in my life: specifically, spirituality. I felt incomplete for eight years. Then everything changed six months ago, when the yoga journey commenced.
Yoga teacher training helped me remember who I really am and what makes life worth living. (Hint: it isn't winning an argument or getting into Duke or landing a job at Google.) But the training is over as of a few weeks. It happened - I'm a graduate! Now the question is how to self-sustain the kind of growth that was originally sustained by a rigid study schedule, regular group therapy sessions and, most importantly, my community of like-minded teachers and classmates. Just as the goal at the conclusion of a yoga class is to bring forth - into the "real" world - the stillness attained in class, my goal is to keep focusing on pursuing a purposeful existence without somebody else constantly reminding me to. It won't be easy, but I simply can't fall into the same trap I did when I left behind the zen of Idaho and the joy of being with my soulmate. The trap of thinking I need something or someone outside myself for fulfillment.
I just spent a week in New York City, the city that utterly embodies the everyone-out-for-herself attitude that I held close as my personal mantra for so many years. Even as I recognized the city getting to me last week, I couldn't resist its effect. Compounded my the discomfort of the heat and the rain, and, if we're being honest, probably also by the booze, I felt myself reverting to the unstable mindset I inhabited when I lived in New York the summer after freshman year when I was in the peak of my competitive grip. Last week as I conversed with strangers as well as friends, old fear-induced thoughts kept creeping to the surface. I couldn't understand where they were coming from. And I couldn't stop them. The stewing set in on my first night in the city as I dined with a friend, even as I shared with her the yogi view that approaching life through a lens of "me versus them" will not ultimately lead to happiness. And when she left to catch a train home, I took my stewing to the streets. The night hot, the air thick, the rain steady: conditions were perfect for a good stew, one that would lead me to walk alone for two hours from Chelsea to Washington Square Park and back to my hotel. In the dark and the rain, I walked and stewed, soaking my work shoes and rubbing deep into a few choice blisters.
My goal wasn't to stew. As I embarked to my old stomping ground, my goal was to calm myself down. To recharge. But all the sat-nams in the world couldn't do the trick. I was in too much of a negative New York rut. Instead of counting my blessings as the night wore on, instead I kept thinking about more and more things that piss me off.
But all the while, as I was brooding over my resentments and my intolerances, I was really trying to get to what they say about me. Because, thanks to yoga, even as I stewed I knew my frustration was revealing more about myself than the objects of my frustration.
And that's exactly what saved me from stewing myself into a New York sewer: the awareness that's a by-product of yoga. It's easy to maintain chi in the middle of nowhere, Idaho or when on the mat, surrounded by people "om"-ing with breath slowed down 5x, but true zen is being able to maintain that chi anywhere (including the city that never sleeps) at anytime. And Step #1 is awareness. Awareness that we create our own chi. Awareness that all thoughts stem from either fear or love. Awareness of self. With awareness comes the opportunity for conscious change.
So that's where I'll start my "life after teacher training" chapter: with focusing on becoming more aware. (Heaven knows one can never be aware enough.) And, as much as I love avoiding it, that means meditating regularly. Starting yesterday. The saga continues!
Oh, and that soulmate I mentioned? The universe is reuniting us this weekend. Stories to come.
I started my yoga journey via a 200-hour yoga teacher training program five months ago, on Valentines Day. Every weekend since then (with the exception of Memorial Day weekend and Easter weekend) I've been devoting each Friday night and three solid hours smack dab in the middle of each Saturday and Sunday to the study of yoga - specifically to the study of yoga history, alignment, pranayama, anatomy, yoga and pregnancy, assisting, meditation and philosophy. There are just a few weeks left, during which we'll cover sequencing. Then - come end of June, it's all over! Wait, what?
The last few months of training have reinforced for me that attachment is the root of all suffering. Despite all teachings though, I've acquired many attachments - okay, addictions - as a direct result of training. And I'm too addicted to say goodbye.
First off, I don't know just how I'm supposed to quit my fellow yogis and teacher trainees. It's hard to pay attention to our lecturers sometimes when all I want to do is turn around and gaze lovingly at the 30-or-so wonderful souls I've been traveling this strange road with and think about just how much I love each and every one of them. There's Abby. She's quiet but her crazy headstand variations and countless colorful tattoos speak volumes. There's theatre-star Kathryn with her half-shaved head and animal sounds. Every week I look forward to our Friday nights - starting with "happy hour" heated yoga class at Valencia (where the teacher thinks we're dating) followed by teacher training philosophy lecture and drives home during which we geek out together about silent retreats, self rediscovery and the simple beauty of life. Then there's dancer Andrew, a sassy, mystical, irreverent vinyasa master. We take class together often and we have similar teaching styles. I would love to co-teach a class with him someday. There's also Alissa, a fellow blogger. She's been through some major shit over the past few years and her healing process is visible. She's so strong and so smart and so beautiful - she's pure power. And of course there's Remington Bain - only his full name would do him justice - an ex-Marine turned acupuncturist, always sitting in full lotus, always interjecting with nuggets of wisdom about the human anatomy and the subtle body and life itself. These are some of the souls on which I've gotten hooked. I'm addicted to my classmates.
Then there's my addiction to the asana practice. At the beginning of class: "Come to a comfortable sitting position at the top of your mats." These words make me giddy every time I hear them, even though I hear them almost every day now. And I can't help but smile to myself when after a few namaskars the class starts to glisten and the smell of yoga begins to slice the room, specifically the piercingly tangy scent of our yoga mats and/or kombucha sweat (almost indistinguishable smells if you haven't yet noticed). It's gross but it pleases me. Conditioning. I've also become addicted to certain teachers and styles of yoga. I'm constantly checking the schedule to see who's teaching what where and when. If I can't find one of MY teachers, I generally choose to practice by myself in my room with my music at my pace. This lone-wolf practice, something rather new to me, is something I've become addicted to as well.
Finally, I must mention my addiction to the new outlook teacher training (and yoga in general) has given me. Over the past five months, I've renewed my spirituality, shifted my priorities and have begun the process of remembering who I really am. I can't help it. I'm attached - obsessed - addicted to cultivating inner Awareness.
All suffering results from the perception of loss directly correlated with attachment to that which was lost. The greater your attachment, the greater your perceived loss and, therefore, the greater your suffering. Despite knowing this, and reinforcing it regularly through my practice, I have developed the aforementioned attachments thanks to teacher training, and I'm not quite ready for the journey to be over.
But it isn't over yet. It's never over, just as the smell of kombucha will never leave the linings of my nostrils. The love will continue to live on and that comfortable seat at the top of the mat will always be there for the assuming. We can always come home, because home is within. And so is yoga.
My favorite yoga asana of all time is probably Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose). I also love Camel Pose, Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Facing Bow Pose) and backbends in general. And I'm a big fan of handstands, though I'm still too scared to do them away from the wall (or, more accurately, my dresser). Recently, however, Savasana ("Dead Man's Pose") has been climbing my asana affinity charts. But not for rest or even absorption of the benefits worked towards during the practice - the reasons you might guess I'd enjoy it. I look forward to the obligatory end-of-class Savasana because I'm savoring a new courtship with my subtle body (the energy body we each have, made up of "nadis" instead of nerves), and this shape provides the optimal conditions for subtle body work and awareness.
We don't pay enough attention to the energy we're made up of. Until recently, I only paid attention to mine when walking under streetlights at night. (If you know me well, you know I have a strange capacity to turn streetlights on or off when I pass by.) Or on accident, perhaps when stumbling upon a particularly moving song. But lately I'm drinking the energy of life in a little deeper. And Savasana is tasting a little sweeter as a result. (As an example, I've been working on recruiting my focus to create spheres of concentrated energy in my open palms in Savasana - the successful manifestation of which I find exciting and extremely gratifying - and I'm getting pretty good at it!) This Saturday, though, my Savasana game was taken to a whole new level. Let me tell you about Kundalini.
Kundalini is the term used by some yogis to refer to our life force, housed at the base of the spine, which can be awakened with practice (via breathing, meditation, chanting and asana) to rise up through and engage our seven chakras. I experienced my first Kundalini yoga class on Saturday. The vibrations have mellowed out somewhat since I left the Portrero studio, but I still smell the rose oil our teacher had us rub between our hands before we left. And I still feel high as a kite.
The class was unlike any yoga class I've ever attended. We did a lot of chanting, waving around, shimmying and singing. The urge to burst into laughter was pretty strong at the beginning (for example, when we were instructed to shimmy WHILE doing figure eights with our hips), but I did my best to avoid eye contact with my fellow teacher trainer and I soon surrendered to the weirdness. (This class was not the place to be self conscious.) We did a "happy dance," we practiced different breathing techniques, we shimmied some more and we sent a few praises to the sun, all while internally repeating the mantra "Sat Nam," meaning "truth is my name." We abandoned all concerns, and before I knew it we were done.
Finally, it was time for Savasana. Exhausted from the breathing and dancing, I laid back, closed my eyes and happily emulated a dead man.
Shortly thereafter, ninety minutes' worth of meditation and Kundalini-stirring declared itself as power beyond measure. To my surprise as I lay there, energy coursed through me like a charging river. I already felt electric there, in the silence of our meditation, but then our (beautiful!) teacher began playing a loud gong. The electricity turned up ten notches. Maybe the craziest I've ever felt, I swear I could hear something celestial ringing true through the vibrations. For a few minutes, my soul sang.
I haven't been the same since Saturday, when I learned how to really pay attention to the universe. Somehow, I feel so alive it almost hurts. I want to sing. I want to dance. I want to smile at everyone I see. Maybe the new San Francisco heat is partially to blame, but, as the yogis say, "something shifted in me" that morning as my subtle body awakened. And I'm not looking back.
Imagine it's the break of dawn and we're standing in the middle of nowhere.
Together, we connect through our breathing and the vibrations of the earth below us. Overhead, the mass of stars begins to fade as the sky gets lighter. What was black is now magenta and blue and peach and pink. We raise up our arms to salute the sun rising from behind the regal mountains which surround us, snow still frosting their tips. Blades of grass are shimmering with fresh dew at our feet. We aren't in a valley in Wyoming. We're actually within the four painted walls of my future yoga studio, Mount Yoga. And class has just begun. I look around at my students: their intentions are strong and their energy is palpable. There's nowhere I'd rather be. This is what I dream about before I drift off to sleep these days.
I thought I'd be sick to death of yoga by now but in fact it's quite the opposite. As the non-yoga hours of my life flip like the pages of a book before me, try as I might to live in the moment, some part of me is ever yearning for my next vinyasa flow or teacher training session or Bhagavad Gita chapter. But even as I'm being flattened between my corporate inbox and the clock, I'm at peace knowing I always have energetic Mondays with Kerri to look forward to, as well as strengthening Tuesdays with Jonathan, scientific Saturdays with Sean, and rejuvenating Sundays with Julie. And while I'm looking forward to these classes I can hold myself over by perfecting the playlist I'm creating for the first few classes of my own. (Looking for guinea pigs for these by the way - get at me if bored and curious!)
Yoga continues to bring me joy on joy. And - the thing is - I never have to worry about this joy running out! That's because yoga's gifts come from a bottomless well. How can this be?
Kerri put it into words for me this past Monday evening at the Portrero Hill Yoga Tree. Her challenge for us that night was to forget our manic Mondays and instead bring our "Friday energy" to our work on the mat. It was a sweaty, slow-paced, endurance-testing 90 minutes. But instead of forcing ourselves into every pose "Monday style," we deliberately let our Friday hearts pull us through. This made all the difference. I felt the stress and agitation float off my body layer by layer as the minutes passed and the sun set outside. And at the end of it, just before our final meditation, Kerri said, "Notice how you feel right now." I felt amazing. We sat in stillness for a few moments. Then she said, "Remember that you don't need anything to feel this way. There is nothing outside yourself, no material thing that can ever do this for you." She was right. The "yoga glow" can't be bought, but it can easily be accessed.
Through yoga we develop the ability to tap into our own awareness, and thus the power of the universe at large. This is a skill that one can continue to develop over a lifetime and the more you learn, the less you realize you know. There is always more work to be done in yoga, and, beautifully, the goal is the work itself. Yoga isn't about achievement. It's about commitment. And it's available to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Even bodies aren't necessary (remember, physical "asana" yoga is only one of eight limbs) - just bring your soul.
I don't know about you, but I'm already packed and ready to go! But don't worry, there's enough for everyone. And it will never run out.
As the beat rocked and the candle flickered in the fading light, before my own mat a full class naturally unfolded. It probably lasted an hour, from all three Warriors to Dolphin to Hanuma to Wheel with plenty of Downward Dog pose in between. Through my free style, I learned that I like long sequences on one side before switching to the other and that I prefer to move slowly (but powerfully) through the poses as well as the flows. (Doing so helps me slow down my breath and feel everything more deeply.) I also learned that I really need to do more outer-hip openers or I'll never come close to Full Lotus (which is supposed to be the best position for meditating). But most importantly, I learned that I can trust myself. Completely.
It's my 24th birthday tomorrow. If we assume a life expectancy of 96 (just go with it), now would be an appropriate time to entertain a quarter life crisis. Thanks to yoga teacher training, it's already happening and somehow I never saw it coming.
Now I'm four weeks in and questioning everything in my life from the way I choose to I spend my time and the people I choose to spend it with to the books I read and shows I watch.
It's exhausting, this thorough introspection and self re-evaluation. Not that I had a full grip on the affairs of my soul (let alone the universe at large) before I kicked off my 200 hours of yoga teacher training - which, by the way, I'm so happy I get to stretch over six full months. But now I have no choice but to deal with myself, my baggage, etc., because a lot of the principles we're being taught directly contradict the way I've lived my life so far.
Who knew yoga could be so therapeutical beyond the physical realm? (Not I.) But you know what they say about therapy: before it gets better it usually gets a lot worse. And that's what's going on right now with all the questioning. It ain't comfortable. And it ain't pretty.
Questions I've asked myself in the past week: Why did my parents have to raise me to be so damn competitive? Why does our need for validation so often outweigh our desire for happiness? What if I were to jump off the corporate ladder and teach yoga full-time? Why don't I have the balls to do that? Why do we have to suffocate kids' creativity? Why is my ego so out-of-control? Why can't I stop being so hard on myself? Do I have to be Vegan?? Is yoga completely bogus? Who am I, even?!
The below story will shed some light on where I've turned for answers.
Everyone ("everyone" being the YTTT program teachers as well as the authors of our required yoga books) keeps harping on the importance for teachers to have a daily practice not only of their own but on their own. Just you and your body.
"Practice what you teach" seems obvious enough, but the idea of practicing it alone has always freaked me out. I love going to class, yet there are days scheduling and logistics won't allow it. And other days I'm just too lazy to leave my house. Specifically for these days, I've adopted yogaglo.com, a Netflix for yoga, if you will, that, for a monthly fee, allows you to watch unlimited yoga class videos with the option to filter classes by duration, teacher, level and style. It's quite addicting, actually.
Yes, alone with a video I can definitely do. But alone, calling the shots myself as I go? That, to me, has never sounded comfortable or effective in the slightest - instead, painfully awkward and frustrating.
But I thought I should give it a shot regardless. After all, if I can't teach myself without someone telling me what to do and when to do it, how can I expect to teach a room full of people? So Friday evening before our lecture on the ancient yoga texts, I re-arranged some furniture in my room, unrolled my bubblegum pink mat in the space created, lit a candle, put on some new trance-y jams, resisted the urge to pull up yogaglo, took a deep breath, and dove into sun-salutations, not knowing what would happen next. And that's when I learned we're each equipped with all the knowledge of all the universe within our very cells. All we have to do is learn how to listen.
Yoga Teacher Training was kicked off on Valentines Day in the original Yoga Tree location at Stanyon and Haight. That night, instead of pouring over prix fixe menus and gazing into our lovers' eyes, 33 of us chose to sit in a circle under painted clouds and opened our hearts to a new relationship that would last at least six months (and a lifetime if we are lucky).
We didn't know each other, but I think it's safe to say most of us thought we knew what yoga was. A few of us probably even considered ourselves pretty advanced yogis. (I mean, I mastered side crow recently. Just saying.) But all it took was one weekend to clarify that none of us had a clue and even if we did, we would get the most out of our training (and our teaching) if we believed we didn't. "Knowing is the enemy of learning," they told us. "Your goal is to cultivate a Beginner's Mind." My first major Beginner's moment (in which I surfaced my own cluelessness)? When I was told that the sweaty vinyasa practice I hold so dear is merely one variation of one of eight limbs of yoga. The other seven aren't even physical!
In fact, Beginner's Mind goes beyond the idea of coming to the yoga mat with a humble and open mind. It's about approaching mind, body, spirit, community, the current moment, all of life, really, with a fresh outlook and a curious disposition, all expectations set aside. Our teacher gave the example of the difference between an adult and a child attempting a balance-challenging asana. Can you imagine a young child thinking, "What's wrong with me? Why can't I balance here peacefully? I hate my quivering feet. I HATE YOGA!" Who do you think gets more upset when they fall out of the pose - child or adult? Who has more fun?
But after just a few years of life, even children lose Beginner's Mind. They pick up detrimental thought patterns from their parents as well as from the wider world they know. Their teachers, their parents, the media, their friends' parents ceaselessly reinforce the false idea that we are our bodies and thus you and everything around you are separate, instead of united through spirit or universal energy. And by introducing the illusion of separateness, the world consciously or subconsciously creates Ego while narrowing children's internal exploration spaces. Thus children (who grow to become adults) learn fear and develop negative samskaras (habitual thought patterns or "imprints").
So, for me, to have a Beginner's Mind is to approach every moment not as a yoga novice or a blind person who just found sight or even as a child having fun with tree pose. I think the ideal Beginner more closely resembles a wide-eyed infant than any of these.
Babies have no ego. Babies are never looking for a means to an end. They don't know past or future, and so aren't distracted by either; they simply show up in every moment ready to observe and explore whole-heartedly. (On a slightly unrelated note, I love that there's an asana colloquially referred to as "happy baby pose." What's more beautiful than a happy baby, amused by every single feature on your face, drooling ecstatically, ready to burst out into laughter at the next peek-a-boo?) The point is: to get the most out of yoga, don't stop - START - being a baby.
"How many of you have spontaneously burst into tears during a yoga class?" Every teacher we've had so far has posed this question to the room and, to my surprise, about half of my peers admit that they have. "If you haven't yet," our teachers say, "You will." I personally have never experienced such spontaneous tears, but I know if I want to fully embrace Beginner's Mind I should be ready to. So I am. I'm ready to open up and I'm ready to be surprised by yoga. I'm ready to be a baby, baby!
It first clicked for me during a three-day "inversion immersion" retreat in Mount Shasta. (Mount Shasta, for those of you unfamiliar, is a small California town about halfway between San Francisco and Portland inhabited by a host of New Agers and believed by many to be a spiritual power center.) It was my first yoga retreat. I had never done a handstand before and wasn't sure I'd ever be able to, thanks to a lifelong fear of falling on my head and damaging my most precious resource. (My sister and I both practiced gymnastics when we were younger. When it became time to learn backflips, I gave it up in exchange for ballet where I knew my skull would be safe.) Still, I had been studying yoga with my teacher for about a year at the time and was ready to deepen my practice by attending a retreat, inversions not withstanding. Little did I know I would return to San Francisco with the intention of becoming a teacher myself.
It happened in the last few minutes of the last night of the retreat. Our teacher had finally cut the lights after an hour of sweaty flow followed by an hour of inversion-strengthening exercises, and we were in the dark but for a few candles in the middle of the hotel ballroom that served as our studio. We were already at the walls of the room where we had just been practicing supported handstands, headstands and forearm stands. He guided us to our backs and instructed us bring our legs perpendicular to the floor against the wall, sacrums pressed into the ground. "Close your eyes," he said. "Just be."
I was still worked up, heart pounding, still sweating. But then he turned on the song he always played for savasana, the one which evoked a vision of horse hooves, clouds and wet pavement for me, and, like a charm, the knuckles of self-control relaxed and my heart rate began to return to a place of calm. He let us lay in meditation for about five minutes before he spoke again.
"Bring your awareness back to your breath and to the sound of the breath of your friends to the left and right of you. Now," he said, "this next part is important so listen close. I'm going to fill you in on a little secret. All you have to do is..." He paused for several breaths. "Nothing."
"All you have to do is." He could have said anything. I loved that he said "nothing." It made all the sense in the world.
I got a taste of it then, with my legs resting against the wall of a ballroom in an old hotel in Mount Shasta. I got a taste of Self. Not the ego self with all its wants and needs and judgments and fear, but the Self with a capital "S," the higher version of who we are, collectively. The God Self within each of us, pure prana, or energy. The Self that can just Be. The Self I am now learning how to connect others to, within themselves, through yoga.