My cat has a clothing addiction. He loves to eat soft material, especially cashmere – what can I say, he has good taste. I have learned my lesson and keep all closets securely shut these days. For a while, I put a chair in front of my closet after he broke in and had his way with a few sweaters. Sweaters, shirts, a few yoga pants and even a coat fell victim to the clothes addict.

I used to have a clothing addiction myself. No, I didn’t take bites of shirts and sweaters like my furry friend does, but I loved to buy new things to wear. I worked in retail on and off for years and I think I spent more money than I made on the merchandise. When I lived in San Francisco and worked in Finance, I bought a new garment regularly.

The outfits, the stuff, didn’t ever make me happy (for more than a few minutes) and now seem to me like armor, insulation, a way to not feel. A metaphor for a closed heart. My cat, Jespa, has taught me how to love again. Animals are pure; they teach unconditional love. Jespa has, literally and figuratively, bitten through my armor, the defenses that keep me hidden away from love and truth and real emotions. Who needs new clothes when you can have a little tiger friend?

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An excerpt from Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing:

“When it comes to storytelling (and it’s all storytelling) I often tell my students that we need to be dumb like animals. Storytelling itself is primal. It’s the way we’ve always come to understand the world around us–whether recited around a campfire, or read aloud in an east village bar. And so it stands to reason that in order to tell our stories, we tap into something beyond the intellect –an understanding deeper than anything we can willfully engage. Overthink and our minds scramble, wondering: Should we go in this direction? Or that one? . . . But when we feel our way through a story, we are following a deep internal logic. The words precede us. We hear them. We sense their rightness. How did I do that, we ask ourselves, once we’ve finished, once the paint has dried, once we’ve worked through draft after draft after draft. . . . We are animals, our ears pricked, our eyes wide open. We put one hoof down, then another, on the soft and pliant earth. The rustle of a leaf. The crack of a branch. A passing breeze. We do no stop to ponder, What’s around the corner? We don’t know. There is only this: the bird’s nest, the fawn, the snake curled beneath the gnarled root of an ancient tree. There is only the sound of our own breath. Our pulsing bodies. We are here. Alive, alert, quivering. We are cave dwellers. With a sharpened arrowhead we make a picture. A boy. A bear. The moon” (150).

Did you ever notice in writing workshops that the students who were the best at critiquing others’ pieces weren’t always the strongest storytellers? I’m not saying that they were not strong writers–they were– but that there was sometimes something missing in their stories. The emotions we feel when we connect to a story has to do with essence; the essence of you and me, which you cannot reach through the thinking brain. In my yoga & journaling workshop, we’ll use the yoga practice (i.e., mindful movement) to shift from the hustle bustle of the left brain hemisphere to the freedom of our right brain–to tap into something beyond intellect. It is in this more spacious state of being that we can connect to ourselves and the world around us: the rustle of a leaf. The crack of a branch. From this centered place, we can express ourselves more authentically and create with our “sharpened arrowheads,” or whatever writing utensil you choose. 🙂 A Boy. A bear. The Moon. 

 

Today, on his birthday, a tribute to my father, Achilles.

I’ve been reading books about the other side recently. I teeter between believing that my father is around me, watching me and helping me to navigate this tricky earth plane to thinking he is simply, gone.

After he died, I saw cardinals on a walking trail near my home. My father loved the outdoors and I felt like the birds were a message from him or a sign that he was around. A few weeks later, I read a post on Facebook that said just that.

One day, some time after the cardinal spotting, I was planning my yoga class for later that day. I wanted to read a poem but wasn’t sure which one and so randomly opened the page to, you guessed it, a poem about a cardinal. I read the poem at the end of class that day. I wasn’t sure if anyone was listening.

A week or two later, a student waved me aside before class. She said she had something for me and handed me a gift bag. I reached inside the bag and pulled out a string of red paper birds, a mobile. I gasped, overwhelmed with emotion. She had been deeply touched by the poem I’d read, she said, and was inspired to make me these origami birds. I was feeling down that day and, just minutes before, had said a silent prayer to my dad to help me teach the class. Now, as I held the birds in my hand, I felt a surge of energy, like being filled with bright light. I felt suddenly on top of the world.

Cardinal calls me from the                       IMG_1519

Railing of the desk. “Turn

your world red,” he says,

insistent, beckoning. “Risk

life outside your hard-earned

walls and windows. Cast

aside caution, propriety,

and your too small sense

of what you can and cannot

do. Fly! I tell you that the

sky knows no constraints.

All you are or can be comes

clear in the near approach of

clouds. Fly! That which you

fear the most holds your

deepest teaching. Let your

spirit be the bridge between

safety and release. Soar to

the far end of what is known

from dawn to twilight, then

throw yourself at the whim

of the wild night winds.

Turn your world red, and

live with no regrets. Fly!

And if you are blown off

course, just change your

destination. Choose to

land wherever your two

feet are standing.

-Danna Faulds

Today, I took a yoga class today at the studio I teach at. It was a full class and as we were about to begin one last student made her way in. She paused, yoga mat, handbag and water bottle in hand. There was a good-sized space between two mats in front of me, and a student next to the space waved her over.

The woman didn’t budge.

When F., our teacher, spotted her he walked over and stood in the space, smiling and motioning her to settle here. She moved tentatively, her body stiff, and unrolled her mat, plopping her giant handbag and other belongings onto the floor beside it. She stood awkwardly on her mat, as though she didn’t know why she was here, and looked around suspiciously at the grey folding chairs that were surrounding everyone’s mats; F. had asked each student to take a chair for today’s practice. The room had lots of stuff in it.

Although I didn’t have a full view of this woman’s face (I could see her only from the side), I had the distinct feeling that she was not amenable to the chair situation, maybe downright pissed about it. She made a face and asked the student next to her a question, ostensibly about the chairs and when the student answered and pointed to the extra chairs at the side of room, she seemed to answer curtly. The other student’s eyes widened and she took a step back on her mat.

F. approached (let’s call her) grumpypants, handing her a chair and the necessary props for the practice. She begrudgingly accepted them. I wondered why, in a room full of students, my energy had propelled toward the one person who had woken up on the wrong side of the bed. I felt my heart rate quicken and that old, familiar sense of unease, of something not being right.

I breathed a little deeper as we reached our arms skyward for Urdhva Hastasana. My gaze traveled through the window that was directly in my line of view, meeting the hudson river. Hello water. I did my best not to notice when grumpy P, in the middle of the pose, reached into her handbag and took her phone out. In her defense, she may have been turning it on silent.

As the class progressed, my focus moved away from my chair-hating friend and I didn’t think about her again. At the end of class, after a long Savasana (the final resting pose) and a sweet serenade by F., we were all feeling pretty good. I had almost dozed off I was so relaxed.  I glanced at Grumpy P and saw that she had lightened, her face visibly softer, and I’d wondered if I’d imagined the whole thing. Maybe she had not been in a bad mood after all.

Or maybe the yoga practice had worked its magic.

We all come to the mat feeling wretched some days, in a grumpy mood. These are the days we most need our practice. I was reminded in that moment of the healing power of the practice.

Showing up for day 3 of my writing challenge (write every day, even if it’s for 10 minutes). Today may be a 10 minute kind of day. White is floating around in the sky.

This morning I drove to an interview for a summer yoga teacher position, teaching kids. The interview was in the same city I live in and yet I got lost for a few minutes (not a surprise to those who know me and my spatial challenges): my GPS lead me astray –recalculating, recalculating, GPS lady bellowed. Recalculate is now one of my least favorite words.

I realized on the way home from the interview that, although I enjoyed the conversation with the man who interviewed me, the position didn’t make sense for me. I feel disappointed. Frustrated. I’ve been putting a lot of time into job searching and so far nothing has panned out. Bupkis.

Do your yoga now, my higher self (the wiser self) pipes in. I shrug. And feel my clenched jaw. My constricted throat. I try to breathe into those places but it feels half-assed. It’s interesting: when we most need the tools at our disposal we don’t want to reach for them.

With each sentence a slice of tension is released. My heart softens. I regain my sense of humor. Recalculating.

The little snowflakes are hustling to reach the ground now. They went from meandering around to being on a mission.

The act of writing, formulating sentences, pinpointing feelings and releasing them to the page (or screen as it were) is healing for me. It’s like having a conversation with yourself; it creates space between you and your bad mood, or whatever event is causing you to feel stressed.

I am thinking about writing at the same time every day, in the morning. Sy Safransky shares his rituals surrounding his writing practice in the February issue of The Sun. He wakes every morning (or most mornings), before the sun comes up, to write. I write at different times each day; erratic even within the consistency I am attempting to create. My Vata energy is holding on for dear life. I understand how the ritual of waking each morning to write can put you into a rhythm, a forward motion, which is easier to step inside of. I want to step inside.

I am not a morning person. I avoid mornings, sleeping until the last possible minute, yet feel a sense of loss at having missed the sacred morning hours, having rushed through them to get to where I need to be, and then feeling plagued all day with a need to “catch up,” to fit in everything I want to accomplish. It’s time to change that, me thinks. It’s time to face the morning. What am I so scared of anyway? The sunshine?

Here I am showing up to my practice. This is not easy for me; my writing practice has been ruled by inspiration and inspiration alone, which comes and goes like the wind or ever-changing moon, and so it has been a spotty practice. A wildly erratic practice, in fact. Making this commitment to write each day, even if it’s just for 10 minutes, feels good. And scary (am I up for the challenge, now that I have boldly announced it?). And a little boring (every day?). But also refreshing and exciting within the boringness (is boringness a word?). I have nothing to say, was my first thought after logging onto my blog. But now, look, whaddayaknow, I have completed a paragraph. It’s a start! And the starting is the hardest part.

I am trying (oh-so hard) not to edit and judge my words as I type them, but to allow them to be, just be (I can always go back and revise after, I reassure my inner critic). I have come to realize that one of my biggest blocks to fulfilling my goals/dreams is perfection (aka a fear of messing up). Perfection is the pesky culprit of procrastination and sucks the life right out of creativity. I am learning how to gracefully accept my flubs, to be kinder to myself when I mess up, so that I don’t send my creative spirit into hiding, where she has already spent too much time.

I have recently begun teaching classes that blend yoga and journaling. This class is about creative self expression. We move slowly, steadily (one breath at a time) away from our analytical left brain and into the open, bright space that can be accessed in our hippy-loving right brain, so that we can express ourselves freely, with abandon (no rules; just write). In intervals throughout the practice, I offer creative inspiration and writing prompts and then invite students to jot down images, snippets of memories, draw pictures … to release onto paper whatever is bubbling to the surface. The writing does not have to be profound. It does not have to be poetic. It does not have to be anything. That is the beauty of the practice. We are giving our well-meaning but annoying friend, perfection, the boot for the day.

I recently read Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing. She writes: “The two greatest shocks I have experienced–my parents’ accident and my son’s illness–ignited in me what had been an already flickering flame of awareness–some might even say a hyperawareness–that life is fragile. That bad things have happened and, without a doubt, will again. That to love anything at all is to become able to lose it. Some days, this awareness gets the better of me. Anxiety sets in. I grow impatient and controlling. Or I retreat from the world. But more often than not, this burden of accumulation feels like a gift. It has taught me that ordinary life–or what Joan Didion calls ‘ordinary blessings’–is what is most precious. … We are revealed to ourselves–just as our characters are revealed to us–through our daily actions. When making my son’s breakfast, I try to focus simply on cracking the eggs, melting the butter, toasting the bread. It doesn’t get more elemental than that. As I drive down country roads taking Jacob to school, I remind myself to focus on the way the sunlight plays on the surface of a pond, the silhouettes of cows in a field. I’ve learned that it isn’t so easy to witness what is actually happening. The eggs, the cows. But my days are made of of these moments. If I dismiss the ordinary–waiting for the special, the extreme, the extraordinary to happen–I may just miss my life” (p.123).

And so, word by ordinary word, I am creating. I am practicing. One word in front of the other. One word at a time. You get the idea. Just get them out, and onto paper or screen. That is the secret (to Still Writing; as in “are you still writing?”). I finally understand.

Last weekend, I had plans to have tea with a student from my yoga class. We had been saying for months that we would get together and had finally set a date. I planned to get a certain amount of work accomplished in the first half of the day, and when the time to meet neared I realized I had not met my goal. I thought for a moment about asking if we could reschedule and was answered by my inner voice: “Stick to your commitments.” So I bundled up in my winter gear and stepped into the cold air. The snow had been whirling down from the sky all day. I walked the 15 minute path to the cafe, welcoming the feel of snowflakes on my face.

At the cafe, I ordered a green tea and sat at a small table, watching the door until I spotted my friend/student. I had not seen her in months and after we hugged, she pointed to her belly as she unbuttoned her coat. She was pregnant! She had trekked in the snow to meet me. She was happy to get outside and move her body, she said. We sat there, at the cafe, chatting about life for hours. It’s rare to meet people you feel completely comfortable around and she is one of those people.

I am working on sticking to my commitments (to myself and others) every day. Step by step. I realize now that every seemingly small decision counts, that all of the day-to-choices we make accumulate into something big: our reality. These daily decisions and habits are the threads of the tapestry that become our life experience. It’s okay if we mess up; it’s unavoidable (I shared this sentiment in my yoga class a couple of weeks ago and one student exclaimed aloud, “I’m in trouble!”). This isn’t meant to be a militant message (clean up your act or else!); it is simply a reminder that we have the power to change. At any moment. With each decision we confront.

Later that day, after meeting my friend for tea, I was back home doing research for a job I would be interviewing for and came across this sentence: “Excellent outcomes are the result of excellent habits”, followed with a quote by Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do.” I smiled at the synchronicity of the message.

I take a lot of classes during the week on YogaGlo (online yoga classes). One of my favorite teachers on the site, Marc Holzman, teaches a class called “The 60:60 Challenge for Endurance, Strength and Detachment.” Marc instructs us to hold each pose for 60 seconds throughout a 6o minute practice, committing fully to each posture, slowing down the practice enough to feel what’s happening in your body and mind. He reminds students that consistency, practicing each day (even if it’s only for 10 minutes) is the key to meeting your goals. It’s not the action of making goals that allows us to attain them (although that is step 1); it’s doing the work each day: that nitty gritty work that we love to avoid. Marc offers, the cool thing is that you can detach from the goal because you’re putting in the daily work that will take you to where you need to go; that’s when trust comes in. You can’t rely on motivation or inspiration alone, he explains, because those guys are fickle and elusive; it is consistency that you must befriend. For those of us who are not exactly consistent by nature (hello fellow Vata peeps), it is a hard earned lesson and one that needs to be learned over and over. And, yes, it takes discipline, Marc admits, but you get into a groove.

In the “60:60” class, Marc discusses the art of writing as an example of consistency. Lately, he shares, he has read a lot of blogs whose authors repeat the same message: the key to success is doing something, in this case writing, every single day (that annoying hashtag #yogaeverydamnday makes more sense to me now): wake up each morning and practice (yoga, write, meditate).

Last night, I was reading Sy Safransky’s preface to his new book, Many Alarm Clocks, in the February 2015 issue of The Sun, my favorite literary journal. He wrote this: “I write in my notebook early in the morning, almost always before the sun comes up. Some of the entries are long and carefully considered; some are just two or three run-on sentences; fragments of essays I’ll never write, snatches of conversation, postcards from the dream realm … I usually write each morning for at least one hour; on some mornings maybe a half-hour. Writing something every day is important to me – no matter how little sleep I’ve gotten or what mood I’m in. When I’m faithful to the practice, my skin has a rosy glow, the car starts in the morning, my cats come when I call. But I’m not always faithful. Sometimes I oversleep, or I wake up worried about an impending deadline and head straight to the office. Even then, I try to remember what the physician-poet William Carlos Williams said. He was also a busy man, known to compose poems between patients. He insisted that ‘five minutes, ten minutes, can always be found.'”

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I cringe at the phrase “let it go.” Not because it doesn’t hold meaning but because its
original meaning has been lost in a sea of spiritual clichés. Yoga teachers, myself included, often invite students to let go of thoughts or worries. But how do we let go? If only it was that easy, right? Let go, and poof!, your mind is pristine.

So what does it really mean to let go? Sure, it’s simple for a well-intentioned friend to flippantly encourage you to let go of an emotion or difficult experience, but, as most of us know, not quite as simple when you’re the person attempting to do the releasing. I think “let it go” can be irritating because it’s often used as though the phrase itself were a solution (i.e. blink your eyes or wave your wand) instead of a reminder of work that needs to be done. There may not be a magic pill to let go of your past or whatever it is you’re clinging to; however, you can begin simply by loosening your grip.

Baby Steps

I remember when a close friend told me to relax my body on a frigid winter day. To breathe into the cold rather than bracing against it (i.e., hunched shoulders, tense jaw, tense everything). And ya know something? It worked. I was still freezing my tush off but I was more comfortable in this tush-freezing state as I softened into the cold air, as I breathed with the harsh winds, and as I basically accepted, rather than tried to escape, the artic-like temperature.

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a heart-opening restorative yoga workshop in Manhattan. Our teacher, Mona Anand, pointed out that the exhalation, which reflects the process of letting go in the body, is akin to generosity. When we are in this more generous state of being, there tends to be a sense of “flow” or connection in our lives. When we “hold on” or “hold in” (picture a person crossing her arms in front of her chest with rounded shoulders), Mona offered, we are in a self-protective state, which generally stems from fear and can cut off a sense of flow, or make us feel stuck.

Some of us have a hard time letting go of our physical possessions. The accumulation of physical stuff can reflect stuck emotions—emotions that have nowhere to go and therefore stagnate. I have a childhood friend who admits to having trouble discarding items she knows she no longer has a use for. She’s found a way of dealing with her desire to save everything she ever owned by first moving the item in question outside of the room where it’s located and into a hallway, where she can contemplate its next destination. Eventually, the item makes its way to her front door, where it usually sits for a period of time while she gets used to the idea of parting with it, until she feels ready to finally send it on its way. I think we can consider releasing old emotional patterns in a similar way. Slowly. Methodically.

Emotions begin in the body. We can feel where our emotions live if we tune into them. In a recent video on the Huffington Post, Pema Chödrön tells Oprah that the way to deal with suffering and discontent is to face it, not to run away from it. “Sometimes I say, ‘What does your heart feel like?'” explains Pema. “People will say, ‘It feels like a rock.’ ‘What does your stomach feel like?’ ‘It feels like a knot. It’s as if my whole body was clenched… because I’m so miserable.’ So, breathe in and let that heart open. Let the stomach open.”

We face emotions by sitting quietly, breathing, feeling them. Simple, but not easy when our impulse is turn on the TV or log onto Facebook.

That’s where the yoga comes in. We shift and change negative emotions by first bringing awareness to the body. We can start simple. We bring attention to our posture by lifting the sternum and dropping the shoulders. In seated postures we use blankets, if needed, underneath the seat. The added height helps to release tension in the hips and back so the spine can lengthen, which makes space for the breath to move freely through the body. When hunched over, we are closed off and it is difficult to breathe. Try it.

When we change the way we automatically interlace our fingers or the foot we always lead with, we are changing our habits. I have switched the interlacing of my fingers so many times in class that I no longer know which is the “weird” or “unnatural” way. They both feel right. I have stepped back to downward-facing dog so many times with my non-dominant leg that I no longer automatically lead with the same leg. When we change up our unconscious patterns, we can open to new ways of doing things, to different ways of being in the world. We can loosen the places in the body where we habitually hold by bringing awareness there, by imagining we’re sending our breath there. Over time, we coax tight muscles to soften through steady awareness, breath, and movement. In the same way, we strengthen weaker, underused muscles so that we can protect the vulnerable parts of our bodies. Do not underestimate the mind-body connection.

Rumi wrote, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” It’s not that we must rid ourselves of something we don’t want, something “bad.” Instead, the key is learning to accept it. And the first step is to look at whatever it is that you are holding onto (as they say in the 12-step programs, “admit to having a problem”), to sit with it and be with it until you are ready to loosen your grip on it.

That’s what yoga teachers mean when we talk about “letting go.”

Original Article Date: January 2015

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shutterstock_162142580-584x364I’m a brand new yoga teacher. Newbie city. Being a beginner at anything, especially teaching, is challenging (to put it lightly), and I’ve been questioning my life choices and wondering how I’ll pay my looming bills, and if I’ll wind up in a garbage can.

But as a yoga teacher it’s my duty to inspire my students, to leave them feeling buoyed. I can’t tell them that I sometimes lose faith and feel like a giant mess. Well, I can, but they might not come back to class.

Is it more important to share philosophical reflections or to share my truth?

I’ll go out on a limb and say it probably won’t feel authentic if I go into class and tell everyone to trust in the universe, if I’m not feeling very trusting myself that day.

And what if my current truth is that things suck; how do I weave that into my yoga class? Remember Adam Sandler in Wedding Singer? Maybe I’ll become the depressed yoga teacher who, instead of sharing inspirational musings, tells her class that life sucks big wompom.

Meditate on THAT, people!

Okay, I probably won’t morph into a bitter Wedding Singer/Yoga Teacher, but I can share a story with my students about how sometimes things feel bleak (key word ‘feel:’ feelings are not permanent), and that that’s okay, because when we allow our feelings to ‘be’ they have a way of dissipating and transforming.

As Spiritual Teacher, Eckhart Tolle, says, most humans are in a conflict relationship with the ‘is-ness’ of life. His point is that we create more struggle and pain for ourselves by fighting against our present reality.  That fighting takes many forms – complaining, thinking negative thoughts, blaming others and ourselves, and thinking things should be different rather than accepting ‘what is’ and making decisions from that more peaceful place.

Can you align yourself with the ‘is-ness’ of your life today – whatever it may be? Can you share your truth with others even if it’s not neatly packaged? Can you share it because it’s not neatly packaged?

I believe we heal (ourselves and others) by telling the truth. By sharing our unadulterated truth (not some sugar-coated version of it), we are helping people to not feel so alone.

And that, I think we can meditate on.

My lovely yoga teacher shared this poem recently in class.  I hope it inspires you as much as it inspires me…

Go in and in.
Be the space
Between two cells,
the vast resounding
silence in which
spirit dwells.
Be sugar dissolving
on the tongue of life.
Dive in and in,
As deep as you can dive.
Be infinite, ecstatic truth.
Be love conceived and born in union.
Be exactly what you seek,
the Beloved, singing Yes,
tasting Yes, embracing Yes,
until there is only essence;
the All of everything
expressing through you
as you. Go in and in
and turn away from
nothing that you find.

-Donna Faulds

Original Article Date: December 16, 2013

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