flipping pancakesDespite having flipped what must be thousands of pancakes in my lifetime, there is still a moment when my stomach clenches just prior to turning the spatula. It’s funny because nothing all that awful happens when I misfire on a pancake flip. Perhaps the pancake could land on its neighbor or, a little worse, it could land on the edge of the griddle. Experience has shown that, while the resulting pancake isn’t pretty, if I just let it cook in either of these positions I still end up with a perfectly edible product.

So what’s with the little flare of anxiety?

The moment I flip a pancake requires a leap of faith. Up until that moment, I am completely in control of the process. When I ladle the batter onto the griddle I can precisely choose its placement and I can carefully manage the quantity of batter and, thus, the size of the pancake. Whether I’m adding blueberries or chocolate chips, I can artfully arrange these into each cake. When I’m removing the pancakes to the serving platter I can neatly arrange them in three even stacks – one for each child.

Flipping the pancake to cook the other side, however, makes me feel just a little out of control. No matter how carefully I set things up – waiting until just the right moment when the batter is bubbling, watching the edges for the exact instant they start to look done, and lining up the angle of the spatula – the moment of the flip itself requires me to let go and trust that things will work out. It’s that moment of relinquishing control – when the half-cooked pancake is flipping in the air and dropping back to the griddle with no help from me – that makes my stomach clench a tiny bit.

Here’s the thing, though: if I succumb to that little clenched feeling by hesitating even a bit, a misfired pancake is guaranteed. Thousands of pancakes have taught me to breathe through that instant of anxiety and just go with it. After so much practice, more often than not, everything works out just fine.

You don’t have to make pancakes every day to get regular practice letting go. Yoga offers plenty of opportunities. I remember the first time I conquered one in particular. It was in the transition out of a posture called Reclining Wide Angle Pose (Supta Konasana). In this posture, you lie on your back and roll yourself up onto your shoulders, legs in a “V,” and reach your toes for the floor behind your head. Once in place, you reach up and clasp your toes. For most people, though this sounds complicated, getting into the posture is not an issue. It’s leaving the pose that requires a little leap of faith.

First, you must roll up to balance on your bottom without releasing your grip on your toes. Again, this tends to be a surmountable challenge. It’s the next step that can cause your stomach to clench. From your balanced position, you must drop your legs – still straight, still in a “V” and still holding your toes – to the floor. For most people it’s the landing that is scary. While a strong core can slow your descent a bit, the fear of smashing your heels into the floor causes some anxiety. For me, with my tight, long legs, it seemed preposterous to even try that landing in such an extended position.

The day I finally tried it, I had quite the inner narrative going. It actually started in the preceding posture – a seated wide legged forward fold called Upavista Konasana. While in it, I pointed out to myself that none of my muscles felt stretched to breaking point. As I moved through the next pose, I again deliberately pointed out to myself that my legs felt perfectly fine as I perched on my bottom in a “V” while holding my toes. Then my inner “coach” got really busy. I reasoned that if my legs were fine up and down, then they would also be fine along the way from up to down. After all, nothing would really change except their distance from the floor.

While this reasoning made perfect sense to the thinking part of my mind, it didn’t fully assuage my clenched stomach. No matter how hard I tried to keep my legs straight on the way down, my knees kept reflexively bending. It took me many weeks of practicing to manage to keep my legs straight on the way down. Nonetheless, when I finally did it, I was thrilled! Even though this wasn’t by any means a peaceful yoga pose for me – my inner coach actually had to holler over all the doubts and worries in my mind – I felt triumphant to have overcome my anxieties.

Years (and probably thousands of tries) later, this landing no longer causes a moment of anxiety for me. Luckily for me, though, there are plenty of other postures that do. Yes, luckily. Almost every time I unroll my mat I have the chance to take a leap of faith. Almost every time I practice yoga I also get to practice letting go of control and trusting that everything is going to work out just fine. Almost every time, it does. And even when it doesn’t, it’s fine. I can still forge ahead. I can sometimes even salvage the posture. And I always learn something – something to do next time or something NOT to do next time.

The tiny frisson of anxiety that comes from flipping pancakes or from practicing a yoga posture is nothing compared to other moments in life that require us to take leaps of faith. Leaving one job to start another, sending your son off to a new school, walking into a party where you know only the hosts, or waving as your daughter backs the car out of the driveway on her own for the very first time require you to let go and hope for the best. And, more often than not, everything works out just fine. Better yet, the more you practice, the more you discover that, just as on the griddle and on the yoga mat, even your misfires usually result in a perfectly adequate result.

Take that leap!

[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”16″ align=”left”]Life doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful. — Annette Funicello[/mk_blockquote]

wonderful lifeI have always loved dinner parties. There is something so festive about drawing a meal out for hours, chatting and laughing with a handful of friends. I particularly like to host dinner parties, but the way I do so has changed dramatically over the years.

Through my 20s and well into my 30s, hosting a dinner party was all about setting a beautiful table, planning an elaborate menu and creating interesting guest lists. I would scour magazines and books for pictures of centerpieces and recipes. I would consult with the owner of the wine store about his newest discoveries. It was possible for me to start preparing for the party a week in advance – making lists, shopping, and even preparing some of the food ahead of time. The day of the party would be completely consumed with cleaning, setting up, cooking and baking — frantic scurrying around to create a perfect setting and perfect meal. While I enjoyed these preparations, by the time our friends arrived I would often be running on sheer adrenaline.

Sometime along the way, however, my notion of the perfect dinner party changed. I haven’t stopped hosting them, but my focus has shifted away from the trappings of the table and the meal to the sheer pleasure of sitting around a table, laughing with people I love to be with. Some of the nights I remember most fondly involve sitting on our patio next to the grill, drinking a cold beer and eating off paper plates. If we get our act together for brownie sundaes or s’mores I consider the evening a homerun. While the simple food is always fresh and delicious, with or without dessert, the reason these nights are so wonderful is the kicked back feeling of relaxing with friends with no schedule, no agenda and certainly no “fanciness.”

Full disclosure: I am a recovering perfectionist. As such, my journey to this easier, more relaxed vision of “wonderful” has been a long one. Dinner parties aren’t the only aspects of my life that have evolved. I’ve backed off – at least somewhat – on my endless battle with clutter and the inevitable mess that comes from cohabitating with three busy teens. I’m getting better at allowing projects around the house to remain unfinished for another day if something more fun comes our way. And I’ve come to embrace all kinds of family togetherness as meaningful even if it doesn’t resemble the perfect “moments” portrayed in Norman Rockwell paintings. After all, the quick conversations I have in the car with my kids, our Sunday morning breakfasts at the decidedly un-fancy Bagel Factory and the hilarious laughter as my children make faces at their travelling father over FaceTime are actually the stuff that make our highly imperfect life feel pretty wonderful.

Yoga has supported me greatly as I’ve evolved from someone who seeks perfection into someone who seeks wonderful. Getting on my mat and moving my highly imperfect body into whatever quirky version of yoga postures that are available to me each day has brought me face to face with the reality that “good enough” is not only good enough – it is profoundly beneficial. My body didn’t have to wait until I could flatten my torso to my thighs to benefit from a forward fold. My hamstrings were lengthening, my low back was opening and my core was strengthening long before I could get all the way into those poses. While my forward folds were far from perfect, they were changing my body in wonderful ways.

As the years have passed, I have achieved proficiency in postures that once eluded me. But yoga hasn’t given me the opportunity to rest on my laurels for long. With each milestone I’ve finally reached, I’ve been rewarded with a new posture to work on or – even more educational for this recovering perfectionist – a new nuance to explore in an old posture that I imagined I’d perfected. In fact, when I look back at the whole of my practice, I can see that it is essentially an endless exercise in continual growth and development. Somehow, rather than being frustrating, this is wildly liberating. On my mat, I can honestly say that while I still crave growth and I still seek change, I’ve lost the desire for finish lines and have no delusions that I will ever achieve perfection. In fact, even the idea of perfection seems stagnant and dull compared to the wonderful experience of becoming that I have on my mat each day.

And this is really at the heart of it. Even if it were attainable, perfection just doesn’t look that great any more. Given the choice, I’ll choose wonderful (even when it’s messy, changing, shifting and silly) over perfect. Every single time.

What about you?

head in the sandWhat do you avoid?

It doesn’t have to be a big thing, though it might be. Just take a look in your mental mirror and find something you avoid.

My son (as well as every single 17 year old male that I know) avoids the mountain of little tasks that must be completed in order to submit applications to college. Every time I suggest he get it done (read: NAG), he is capable of offering 1,000 reasons why he’s too busy or tired or stressed or distracted or not ready to sit down and just do it.

My husband avoids picking up clutter. He actually confessed to me that he ignores it until it absolutely cannot be ignored any longer. I imagine that this moment arrives when he can’t find a critical document on his desk, or when his pile on the radiator in our closet avalanches to the floor or when a colleague makes fun of the dorm-room-like “feel” of his office.

I avoid difficult conversations. Although I am not a natural procrastinator at all, I will stall like nobody’s business when I have to tell someone I’m angry or disappointed or hurt. I will debate endlessly whether I need to have the conversation at all. My inner avoider chants at me: “Just get over it. They’re just feelings. They will pass. There’s no need for both of us to be upset. Grow up.”

[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”16″ align=”left”]All problems become smaller if you don’t dodge them but confront them. Touch a thistle timidly and it pricks you; grasp it boldly and its spines crumble. — William S. Halsey[/mk_blockquote]

There’s no avoiding it. We all avoid something. Mostly, we avoid these things because they make us uncomfortable. My son, I suspect, feels uncomfortable imagining himself leaving home next fall. Completing those applications makes him face the reality of that departure. But procrastinating on them means that he must keep thinking about both the applications and going off to school. Getting them done would allow him to return his focus to his senior year of high school. My husband absolutely hates to straighten up. It’s dull, tedious work that sets his teeth on edge. He’d rather suffer the mess than “waste” his time cleaning it up. But the longer he puts it off, the worse the mess gets and (duh!) the more onerous the cleanup will be. I am uncomfortable expressing negative emotions. Always have been. Keeping these feelings bottled up, however, makes me even more uncomfortable – my irritation intensifies, my stomach hurts and, to add insult to injury, I begin to feel guilty for being short with the person who has annoyed me!

As you can see, avoiding actually magnifies our discomfort.

[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”16″ align=”left”]Our biggest problems arise from the avoidance of smaller ones. — Jeremy Caulfield[/mk_blockquote]

In a blog I enjoy, Alice’s Adventures in Yogaland, the author writes, “yogis avoid avoiding.” She’s right. Whether you practice Ashtanga yoga’s set series where there simply is no option to what comes next even if you really really really hate the posture, or whether you prefer to practice in group classes where you follow where your teacher leads even if you really really really would prefer not to, our practice teaches us that there’s no sense in even entertaining the notion of avoidance.

Setting the issue of choice aside, I have found that it is the postures we’d most like to avoid that have the most to offer us. If I wake up with a tight low back, I definitely wish I didn’t have to work on eka pada sirsasana (leg behind the head). Except that every time I work on that posture, my low back feels wide open. I have a student with tight hamstrings who loathes the forward folds in surya namaskar (sun salutations). But she’ll be the first to tell you that she’s glad we never skip these movements because she feels so good once they’re done. A friend is dealing with nagging shoulder pain. She describes a mental debate about whether or not to work in backbends that can go on for a full hour while she practices. Yet, every time she “wins” that debate and moves through her backbends, her shoulder feels great.

Just as in life, in all of the above instances on yoga mats avoiding would have left us continuing to feel our discomforts. In addition, these physical discomforts could eventually intensify because we’d done nothing to address them. Echoing Mr. Caulfield’s sentiment, these little nuisance aches and pains could eventually take root and grow into bigger problems that need more care than moving and breathing on a yoga mat can offer.

Our practice teaches us to avoid avoiding. Day after day as we practice, we face our challenges, we stare discomfort in the eye, and we watch it melt away. Day after day, we do the things we’d prefer not to do and we feel better for having done so – better because what we were avoiding had something to offer us and better because we just did it. Day after day, we become certain that the discomfort of facing the things we’d prefer to avoid is never as bad as the added discomfort of avoiding them.

One day at a time, with practice, we can hope to become people who avoid avoiding off our mats as well.

Be strong,

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