gratitude“You need an attitude adjustment.” is a statement you could use (if you were brave enough) in many situations:

To your teen-aged daughter who often wakes up snarling at everyone in the house. To the cashier at CVS who is exasperated to have to put down her cell phone to help you. To your son who is sitting, bored to tears, because the internet is down. To the driver who is tailgating you despite the fact that there is nowhere for you to go to allow him to pass. To the neighbor who refuses to make eye contact and smile – ever.

Oftentimes it’s you who needs to hear these words. Maybe you’re moping. Maybe you’re grumpy. Maybe you’re feeling crushed by a loss. Maybe you’re harried. Maybe you’re jealous. Maybe you’re testy. Maybe you’ve got a lingering case of malaise.

Deciding to give yourself an attitude adjustment can require a few steps, each of which requires a certain degree of what yogis jokingly call “enlightenment.” Regular people tend to refer to it as self-awareness.

First, you have to separate from your mood enough to recognize that you’re in one. It’s also helpful at this stage to take another step back to notice the ripple effects of your mood on the poor unfortunate souls around you. This step can often be done on the fly – while you’re moving through the activities that fill your day – and is often enough to help you dial things back to a level that is less socially offensive.

For moods that linger even after you’ve realized that they are affecting the world around you, there is another step you can take. But this one requires a little more of you. You need to take a long, hard look at your frame of mind. It’s not enough to just announce to yourself that it’s stupid or ridiculous to be in such a state. You need to accept that you do feel the way you feel. In fact, you feel so much that your feelings are driving your actions. You might notice how heavy or overwhelming your mood feels. You might notice that you are not behaving like the person you want to be. You might notice that your frame of mind is coloring everything you see or do.

This step requires some real introspection which, in turn, requires your full attention. You can’t do this while working, or carpooling or attending a meeting. Your yoga mat, your meditation cushion or the kneeler at church are great places to do this work. Interestingly, you learn while you move and breathe on your mat or while you sit observing yourself on your cushion or while you’re on your knees in prayer that moods have a way of shrinking down to more proportional sizes when inspected like this.

In fact, over time, we learn that moods are as fleeting as thoughts. They drift across our minds like clouds drifting across the sky – sometimes totally blocking the sun, sometimes filtering the light, sometimes allowing for a bright, sunny day. Even in the throes of the darkest of moods, once you’ve established a practice and created the habit of self-awareness, simply stepping onto your mat or choosing to sit or to kneel can be enough to create the clarity you need to witness your mood for what it is – a mood.

Though going through these steps can be hard, it is good work for us to do. These are wonderful practices for us to establish. They are beneficial when things are going swimmingly and they will support us during trying times when we really do need an attitude adjustment.

But there is another way. It, too, is a practice. While it ought not to replace the work of developing self-awareness described above, it is a profoundly powerful tool when giving yourself an attitude adjustment. When employed, many find that the resulting attitude adjustment really “sticks.” This practice makes good times seem better. This practice makes tough times seem manageable. This practice keeps life in perspective. In fact, this practice can utterly change the way you experience your life. Even though it won’t change the events or conditions of your life, over time, this practice will leave you feeling blessed beyond reason.

What is this practice?

Gratitude.

Yes, gratitude is a practice. It is a choice. Feeling grateful is always an option. And, when done sincerely, choosing to feel grateful is always exactly the attitude adjustment that we need.

Gratitude is a powerful practice whether formally implemented or more casually practiced. More formal practices include keeping a daily gratitude journal or sitting regularly in prayers of gratitude. More casually, a gratitude practice can be choosing to take a quick moment to refocus yourself on gratitude while navigating a challenge. However you decide to work it into your life, one thing is certain. You will absolutely be grateful that you did.

Wishing you a heart filled with gratitude as you celebrate Thanksgiving Day and beyond,
Amy

not easyMy husband recently made the decision to leave a job he loved. In order for you to understand my point, I need to emphasize just how much he loved this job. He said it was his favorite job since he was a bartender in the only on-campus bar at our college — and that was a really fun job. As you can imagine, he did not take the decision to leave lightly. In fact, he agonized over it.

It was an interesting aspect of the new job that turned out to be the tipping point of his decision. As he described the new position to me, he said, “I’m a little scared. This is a big job. It’s going to be hard. What if it’s more than I can handle?” As his sentence hung in the air between us, we gave each other a knowing look. A job like this – a job that would be a challenge, a job that would make him stretch, a job that mixed in a healthy dose of “what if?” – was the only kind of job that was worth leaving a position that made him so happy.

At first glance, this may seem counterintuitive. Why would anyone choose to leave comfort and contentment for a challenge which, even in its first impression, looks like it’s going to be a big one? After all, comfort feels good and contentment is something most of us seek. Yet, I suspect that when most of us look back over the course of our lives, times of greatest challenge stand out as our most satisfying times.

Personally, I will never forget my math class sophomore year in high school. Never having been a strong math student, I was dismayed to be assigned a man reputed to be the toughest teacher in the building. The first marking period did not go well. But I was determined not to let this teacher break my streak of good grades. I kept at it and, sometime that winter, I realized that I actually “got it.” By the end of the year, not only did I earn a grade I was proud of, but, thanks to that teacher, algebra remains the only kind of math I can begin to help my children with. More so, that teacher is one of the few I still remember as truly great.

Practicing yoga provides a less addling way to work with this notion. As we move and breathe on our mats, again and again we have the opportunity to choose to stretch beyond comfort. Again and again we experience the benefits and satisfaction of putting ourselves into challenging situations. While it is nice and feels very good to sail through a yoga practice filled with familiar postures, over time I suspect this type of practice would fail to lure you back to your mat. Comfort, it turns out, can be the perilous top of a slippery slope to boredom.

Add in a posture that is hard or scary or confusing, however, and you might find yourself impatient for a chance to try again. It’s important in a yoga practice to be working on a pose. It’s critical to the energy of your practice that you be learning, stretching and growing. Even though the new posture may be daunting, seem impossible or just feel really, really uncomfortable, it adds an element of interest to your daily practice. This spark of interest keeps you hungry for more. It keeps you coming back day after day. It creates a practice that can last for – and support you for – a lifetime.

Getting comfortable with willingly – even eagerly – stretching beyond your comfort zone (ironic, no?) is a powerful gift of a yoga practice. It leaves us brave enough to try. It leaves us aware enough to recognize an opportunity, even when it’s masquerading as fearsome change. It leaves us certain enough in the benefits of a challenge that we’re less likely to shy away. It leaves us open enough to new possibilities that we will continue to grow and stretch throughout our lives. Most importantly, it leaves us willing to continue to become the person it is possible for us to be, even when we’re pretty happy with the person we already are.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s quote describes my year of high school math beautifully. It wasn’t easy, but it was certainly interesting. It also describes the yoga practice that continues to draw me to my mat daily after almost 13 years. Three weeks into my husband’s new job, he feels the same way. He’s working harder than he has in years and he says it’s hard as hell. But he also says his crazy days are never dull — the work is way too interesting for that.

Take a look around. What opportunity – perhaps disguised as something tough or even scary – is presenting itself to you?

Amy

happinessThis year, I am taking three yoga students through the equivalent of teacher training grad school. In regular teacher training, most of the postures my students learn to practice and teach are familiar to them. Not in this program. For the last three months, these women have been adding brand new postures into their own practices as well as learning how to break them down into safe and accessible modifications for their students. It’s a lot to process both physically and intellectually.

Because I provide a curriculum outlining our studies for the year, it’s been tempting for them to look ahead at the postures to come. It’s fun to listen to their speculations: “I’ll never be able to do that one.” “I can’t wait for that one!” “That one looks like it’s going to be painful.” Sometimes, they’re spot on. Sometimes, not so much.

Last week, to a person, they surprised themselves. We were working in variations of eka pada sirsasana (leg behind the head). To say that they had low expectations for themselves would be a gigantic understatement. The commentary leading up to these postures was filled with “No ways,” “Not gonna happens,” and “Not in this lifetimes.” My reminders that success in this program is not about being able to get fully into every posture was doing nothing to shift their outlooks. So I stopped talking and in we plunged.

Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Here’s what happened (and not on just this one mat):

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While we have had many, many successes in this class, none created elation like this. Even successes where they have been able to get into the full expression of a posture did not elicit the joy that came from getting “almost there” in this one. Perhaps Mr. Schwartz is right: with expectations set so very low, exuberant happiness was the result.

I’m not suggesting that you head out into the world deliberately underselling your abilities to yourself and others. After all, “I can’t” can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. What I am suggesting is that you try to set aside your notions of what you can and can’t do. Just try. And allow yourself to be surprised. I am suggesting that you can find a modicum of success even when you don’t quite “get it.” After all, if you don’t take steps (big ones and small ones), you’ll never get all the way there. And, I am suggesting that if we can clear our minds of our expectations of success or failure, we can find great happiness with what happens when we try anything.

The same thing works when we set aside our expectations of others. When someone meets our expectations, feelings of gratitude might be masked by the sense that they’ve only done what was expected. When someone fails to meet our expectations, disappointment or even anger may prevent us from responding kindly. If we can manage to free ourselves of expectations (it is really hard to do), we are freer to be compassionate when someone annoys us or reveals a weakness or simply makes a mistake. While lowered expectations won’t solve every instance of frustration in our lives, doing so can lead to a happier state of mind.

For the next day or so, why not give it a try? Set aside your expectations of others. Allow them to surprise you – and try to respond with gratitude or compassion. Set aside your expectations of yourself. Just do your best and see what happens. You may end up with a shocked smile on your face like the one above. After all, whether you expect it or not, you are capable of amazing things.

Namaste,
Amy

TeacherWith a son preparing to audition for college theater programs, I have been spending more time than usual with his voice teacher. Though I try to behave like the proverbial “fly on the wall” during these lessons, one night I couldn’t keep from laughing at the instructions she gave my son. Fortunately, she laughed too and said, “I swear I’m going to write a book called 850 Ways to Say the Same Sh!t.” When the laughter died down and the singing recommenced, I realized that I could write a “yoga teacher” version of that book myself. I suspect any teacher could say the same.

After all, every student in every class has his or her own style of learning. Some are visual learners. Some learn from listening. Some learn from doing. If you define a really good teacher as someone who is able to reach, and therefore to teach, any student who comes to learn, then a really good teacher must be fluent in many teaching styles. Sometimes you give instructions. Sometimes you give demonstrations. Sometimes you break things down into tiny bits. Other times you throw your student into the deep end and see how she does. Sometimes a soft, gentle hand is exactly what a student needs. Other times, a firmer, no-nonsense style is more effective.

Even within the instructions you give, you learn to change your language. While I don’t know if I have 850 ways to cue someone into Downward Facing Dog and to describe the sensations I’d like them to notice, I’m confident that I have dozens of versions of these instructions in my arsenal. When teaching someone with tight hamstrings, for instance, I often focus on the sensations of the upper body to expand their awareness beyond the loud-mouth muscles on the backs of their legs. When working with someone with a sore shoulder, however, I will be extra-precise as I cue them to stretch into the posture – sometimes using a guiding touch. How I teach the posture to a beginner – often getting on my own mat to demonstrate the posture for them – varies wildly from the way I cue it to an experienced student.

To complicate things further, sometimes a student simply isn’t ready to hear what you’re saying. I can’t count the times I’ve finally “gotten” a posture after weeks or months of practice, and asked my teacher incredulously, “Why didn’t you tell me that before?” She always responds with a little half smile. Now that I’m in her shoes, I know that smile means “I’ve been telling you that for ages, you just couldn’t hear me.” The art of graceful repetition, then, can be critically important to success at the head of a classroom.

Sharath Jois, the lead teacher at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India, says:

[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”14″ align=”left”]When I began working with Guruji [father of Ashtanga yoga, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois], slowly I began to understand how you must approach people differently in order to make them understand. We have to study the student first, study each student one by one, so we can know how to approach him or her. If I tell him like this he might understand, but another student is different so I have to tell her in a different way and then maybe she will understand. It depends on the student’s mindset and capability of understanding – we have to approach him accordingly. Sometimes we even have to yell, to wake up some people and give them a 440-volt shock![/mk_blockquote]

Like Jois, I believe that my teaching must meet my students where they are. Otherwise the teaching will sail right past them without leaving a mark. To this end, I am willing to give almost anything a try. While I have yet to yell at a student, like my son’s voice teacher, I have tried what absolutely feels like 850 ways to teach the same postures. Rather than feeling tedious, this constant tweaking and changing feels like growth. Each time I step before a class of students, I have the opportunity to refine, to hone and to develop my teaching. And, each time I do this, my chances of sharing a “light bulb” moment with a student (the best outcome in the whole world for a teacher) go up exponentially.

Even if you’re not a teacher, the skill of having “850 Ways to Say the Same Sh!t” serves you well. Anyone who has worked on a group project at school knows that different people require different leadership styles. Anyone who has coached a sport (or even shared a doubles court with a partner) knows that there are (forgive me) 850 ways to teach someone to hit or kick a ball. Friendships, casual exchanges in shops or cocktail parties, and relationships with teachers are all better when you are able to tweak or hone the way you do things. If all these situations and relationships are “the frying pan,” parenthood is “the fire.” After all, no two children respond to the same discipline, the same style of guidance or even the same style of love the same way. Having that second (or third or fourth …) child puts you right back at square one – figuring out all over again how to be a mom or dad.

The good news – whether you’re a teacher or a project leader or a coach or a friend or a parent – is that as you start all over again this time (and the next, and the next) you will have the advantage of having climbed the learning curve before. Each time you do, you will be more refined, more experienced and more agile as you seek exactly the right way to say what you have to say. And, if you’re very, very fortunate, you will have the privilege of being there to share a “light bulb” moment.

So, go ahead, repeat yourself. This time, your words may be exactly what they need to hear.
Amy