[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”14″ align=”left”]We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us. – Joseph Campbell[/mk_blockquote]
Monday got off to a fine start. The kids were on time. Traffic was minimal. I was on my mat in time to practice before my first class. Everything was going smoothly until cell phones started going haywire during my 9:00 yoga class. After hers erupted for a third time, one student finally broke with protocol and checked her phone. With a quizzical look, she said, “School’s letting out at noon?” Puzzled, I actually opened the studio door to find a dry driveway and relatively blue sky. Clearly, this was a coming snowstorm and not a current one.
That afternoon was a churning sea of changed plans – appointments were moved and lessons cancelled as people and businesses were sucked into the weather-related frenzy. I struggled valiantly to maintain some sense of order – squeezing my last client of the day in between a shifted physical therapy session for one child and taking another to a friend’s house. I nearly lost it, however, when I received an email from the church announcing that they were closing in advance of the storm and all events were cancelled. I was holding a meeting that absolutely, without fail, had to happen as one of our attendees had flown in from South Carolina. I took a big breath, dug deep for my last vestige of calm, and starting making calls to figure out a new venue.
By the time I went to bed on Monday night, though nary a flake had fallen, school had been cancelled for Tuesday. The forecast was still for 7-10 inches of heavy, wet snow falling through lunchtime, so I made the decadent decision not to set my alarm. I was fully in “snow day” mode – dreaming of pancakes and bacon, some good natured shoveling with my three kids, and an afternoon in front of the fire catching up on “Scandal.” Because Tuesdays are my busiest work day of the week, this was an especially rich treat. It was going to be a great day!
Tuesday morning I woke up to sun streaming in my bedroom window and nearly no snow on the ground. While this was a snow day for the kids, suddenly my day became yet another tremendous change of plans. To add insult to injury, not only was I running two hours behind schedule because I’d slept in, but I still had to shovel those pesky two inches of white stuff off the driveway before I could get started on my day. I took a big breath, dug deep for some inner peace, sent several texts confirming classes and appointments with clients and hit the ground running. (Sprinting, actually.)
By the time I went to bed on Tuesday night I was wiped out. I felt like I’d been swimming upstream for two straight days. I was frustrated at myself for feeling unfocused in a few of my classes. I was sad to have missed out on my imaginary snow day. I was frazzled from all the frantic rearranging. I wondered bleakly what the last two days could have been like if I’d just acquiesced to those nonsensical snow days rather than fighting to follow through on the days I’d planned.
On my yoga mat, I’ve gotten pretty good at acquiescing to changes of plans. I’ve had a lot of experience showing up thinking I’m going to work on one thing, only to discover that my body has something else entirely in mind. I’ll find as I begin to move that I’m surprisingly stiff or just feeling fatigued and suddenly my plans for a vigorous back-bending practice go out the window. Because I’ve learned on my mat that resistance is not only futile, but a really good way to hurt myself, I shift gears pretty easily, knowing that I can always explore those backbends another day.
So what’s up? If I can rather gracefully let go of my plans on my mat in order to have the practice that is waiting for me, what’s keeping me from doing the same in my life? If yoga weren’t such a very important part of my life, I’d say, “Well, it’s just yoga. Of course it’s easy to roll with whatever happens on my mat.” And, to a certain extent, I’d be right. It is just yoga. The world is not going to end if backbends are not done often and well on that particular day. What matters is that I practice, not what I do while I practice.
That’s worth saying again. It’s that I practice and not what I do while I practice – backbends or twists or some crazy upside-down maneuver – that is why my practice is important to me. It’s the “time out” to be alone with myself. It’s the reminder that my body and my breath are just as important as my brain. It’s the space I give myself away from the demands of the rest of my day. It’s the quiet within which my priorities become a little clearer, within which I glimpse the woman I want to be, and within which I feel and express my deep faith in a power far greater than me. Plans fulfilled or plans changed, all of this happens no matter what happens on my mat.
Off my mat, it can be harder for me to untangle my priorities. I get hung up with my schedule. I get hung up making sure I’m not letting people down. I get hung up with my lists. I get hung up with household chores. When I can only see the millions of things that have to be done, I can forget the big picture, which is that all of these little things add up to work that fulfills me, relationships that sustain me and a home that gives me peace. I forget that the world will not come to an end if I cancel a class because my kids are home from school and I want to spend some time with them. I forget that the world will not come to an end if the house is messy but I just want to be in it rather than work on it. I forget that the world will not come to an end if my to do list carries over into tomorrow or even next week because I’ve chosen to do less, but enjoy more.
How do I regain perspective? First, I practice yoga! (You knew I was going to say that, right?) Second, I choose to learn from my mistakes rather than to dwell on them. Third, I gratefully receive the message from my bleak reaction to the way I handled this week’s snow days. Working more was not what I yearned for. What I yearned for was some down time with my kids. Fourth, I rejoice in the fact that I can have that tonight and tomorrow and this weekend … because life is full of chances to try again. And when I try again, I almost always do a little bit better.
My husband has been accused of being a “crazy cat man.” (You know, the guy that, if he weren’t a happily married father of three, would live alone with 17 or 18 cats.) So when he asked what I thought it would be like to live like Jake, our cat, it wasn’t really that strange a question. In fact, because he is just a tiny bit obsessed with the cats, I almost ignored him. Almost. But he happened to ask as I walked by Jake, who was sitting on the bed minding his own business. As I brushed past, the cat looked up at me and started purring.
“What do you mean live like Jake?” I asked. “Well,” my husband shrugged, “it’s just that he’s a pretty contented guy.” And, when I paused to think about it, he was right. Jake’s “motor” has the easiest on button ever. Just seeing you makes him purr. In fact, just seeing the dog makes him purr. Even when I scoop him up to move him from my desk chair, he purrs with pleasure. The cat spends a remarkable amount of time taking pleasure from whatever comes his way.
So, what would it be like to live like Jake?
Jake’s life, while pretty nice, isn’t all sunbeams and full bowls of food. He has to deal with his annoying sister, Lola. Sometimes, the litter box isn’t all that clean. Sometimes his water bowl gets empty in the middle of the night. And we absolutely refuse to let him outside like he wants. Yet, despite these trials and tribulations, he’s mostly purring. Even when he’s being removed from his favorite spot so I can sit down, he chooses not to get worked up, instead relishing the physical contact and little rub under the chin that I give him before I set him down.
A friend of mine’s mother used to tell her, “Find the good in it.” That’s what Jake does. Not a bad rule of life.
My daily yoga practice has helped me get pretty good at “finding the good in it” – whatever “it” may be. After all, there are as many days when I unroll my mat that I am tired or stiff or something aches as there are days when everything feels peppy and great. After all, I always have to spend five breaths in Utkatasana, chair pose. After all, it’s far from a sure thing that I’ll make any progress in the posture I’m currently working on. In other words, I have a lot of moments when I can choose to not get worked up. I have a lot of chances to find the good in it.
So I do. I may have to go a little slower through my sun salutations or even retreat to a gentler series on tired, stiff or achy days. But it’s all good. Just the chance to be on my mat to nurture and even heal my body is a very good thing. And I’ve learned that the best way to navigate my lack of fondness for Utkatasana is to look for “ah ha!” moments. I suppose it’s not surprising that doing this every single time I take the posture has helped me to become (gradually …) more comfortable in that position. As far as those poses I’m working on? Practice has taught me that success doesn’t always mean nailing it. I’ve learned to notice (and to celebrate) all kinds of little milestones along the way. Each of these takes me a step (even a baby step) closer to eventually figuring it out. Even if I’ve fallen over yet again, each little step forward is evidence that I’m growing and changing — and that is absolutely worth celebrating.
It turns out that living like Jake may be a lot like living my yoga. It’s looking for the silver lining in the thunder clouds. It’s trusting that the challenge you’re currently facing will be the source of great growth. It’s habitually choosing to “find the good in it.”
Now, if I could just purr …
[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”14″ align=”left”]Fear: an emotion induced by a threat perceived by living entities, which causes a change in brain and organ function and ultimately a change in behavior. Fear may occur in response to a specific stimulus happening in the present, or to a future situation, which is perceived as a risk to health or life, status, power, security, or in the case of humans, wealth or anything held valuable. … In humans and animals the fear response is modulated by the process of cognition and learning. Thus fear is judged as rational and appropriate or irrational and inappropriate. (Wikipedia)[/mk_blockquote]
When I signed up for our family zip lining adventure, I was told that rappelling off the 70 foot cliff was optional. In my mind, rappelling off a 70 foot cliff wasn’t an option. There was absolutely no way I was going to do it.
Imagine my emotional state, then, as I stood at the edge of that 70 foot cliff and was told that hiking down was even more dangerous than rappelling. I’d just stared fear squarely in the eye seven times as I stepped off tiny platforms to hurtle across rivers, jungles, valleys and the like while harnessed to two wire cables. I was still (literally) shaky from that “excitement” when I received this news.
I took a deep breath, looked at my daughter’s best friend (who I love like a fourth child and who had no intention of stepping off that cliff either), looked at the guide and said, “Explain it to me.” He explained, in great detail, how the ropes and pulleys worked as he strapped my youngest into the harness and asked her to step backwards over the cliff. My heart rose into my throat as she dropped over the edge of the cliff and out of sight. The only way I knew she was still OK was that he was still slowly playing out the rope in his hand.
At this point, it is safe to say that I was having a textbook reaction to fear. My brain was spinning, my heart was racing, my breath was quick. As in the definition above, I certainly felt that I was in a situation that risked my health, life and security. With clear eyes, I assessed my “options” and judged my fear of stepping over the edge of that cliff while attached to a perfect stranger by a rope and two pulleys to be perfectly rational and appropriate.
Except that, according to the guides, my other option was even riskier. Looking back at my daughter’s friend, it was clear that choosing to slip and slide down a treacherous trail was not the way to go. Another look into her frightened eyes modulated my own fear response. Suddenly worrying about rappelling seemed a lot less rational than worrying about her. As my concern slid from my own well being to hers, I took another deep breath and said to her the exact opposite of what I’d been feeling a split second before, “We can do this.”
Fear is a funny thing. It feels physical, but is emotional. At the same time, it is affected by the intellect – sometimes bolstering itself with a web of thoughts, other times shrinking in the face of reason and rationality. In other words, because it plays on every aspect of ourselves, fear can be exceptionally hard to manage.
Yoga has given me many opportunities to better understand fear. I’ve learned that some things scare me for good reason – I’m simply not ready to do them. These fears go neatly (and with very little angst) into the “to be conquered another day” column. Sometimes, I think I’m going to be scared to do something and then surprise myself by doing it. These fears go immediately (with a huge smile) into the conquered column. Other things scare me for outdated reasons. While they may have been too much for me before, I’m more than capable now. When I have these fears, I often teasingly call myself a “head case” and get down to the business of doing whatever it is. For the most part, it’s not too long until I can place these fears in the conquered column. Still other things, scare me even though I can vividly imagine myself doing them. I’ll set myself up and literally freeze as though paralyzed. When I have these fears, the name-calling is often a lot less good natured. These are the fears that consume the most energy and the most time before I am able to move them into the conquered column.
As our moment of reckoning arrived, the thought crossed my mind that it was a good thing my practice had forced me to do so many scary things. Like it or not, I couldn’t allow rappelling to paralyze me. It was clearly going to have to be a fear that immediately went into the conquered column. I asked my daughter’s friend if she wanted to go ahead of me or behind me. She chose to go first and I poured myself into bolstering her. “You can do this.” “You’re totally strong enough.” “It’s going to be easy.” “Don’t look down.” I issued this final admonition as she stepped backwards off the cliff edge. Trying to maintain eye contact with her, I did exactly what I’d told her not to do – I looked down.
Immediately, the fear which I’d tamped down swelled again. As her rope played out, I fought my fear with my mind and my body. My inner voice became soothing and supportive. I defaulted to yoga breathing. I deliberately disengaged from my thoughts – which were skittering in panic. As the guide attached me to the ropes I was slowly regaining the upper hand over my fear. I repeated his instructions over and over in my mind like a mantra as I backed over the edge of the cliff.
About halfway down I had a moment of panic when I swung out away from the wall of the cliff. A clear voice in my head said, “This is not the time to freak out. You just have to do this.” I fixed my gaze on that rock wall, gritted my teeth, resumed my mantra of instructions and started to descend again. While it felt like my 5 minute descent took two hours, I eventually made it to the bottom. My legs nearly collapsed as my feet hit the ground and were still noticeably quivering as we walked back to our starting point.
Thanks to my practice and to my concern for my daughter’s friend, I was able to conquer fear that morning. That said, I’m not sure rappelling will stay neatly in the conquered column. Luckily, I don’t think I’ll need to do it again anytime soon.
What scares you?
While on vacation in Puerto Rico we decided to go deep sea fishing. The captain’s website contained a reminder to take motion sickness medicine an hour prior to departure. While I considered doing so, I decided risking being drowsy during our adventure wasn’t necessary as I’ve always found the bobbing sensation of being on a boat to be among the most soothing feelings of all.
In the words of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, this was a big mistake. Huge.
All was well as we puttered up and down the coastline in search of bait fish, but as soon as we headed out to deeper waters everything changed. The swells were intense and relentless. With the bigger waves, it felt like we were climbing a mountain only to fall off the top, slamming into the trough. If I lost sight of the horizon even for a second (easy to do as the boat pitched on the surf), my equilibrium would be thrown. My head was spinning. My stomach was churning. I was seasick for the first time in my life.
As I perched on my seat in the bow of the boat I poured all of my inner resources into managing myself. Deep, smooth breaths all the way to the bottom of my belly seemed to help sooth my queasiness. Holding my body in an upright posture that was relaxed rather than rigid helped me to roll with the movements of the boat instead of fighting them. Keeping my gaze softly fixed on the horizon was critical. More than once, despite my dire situation, I had to smile. I felt peculiarly like I was practicing asana on my yoga mat – breath, alignment of my body and a steady drishti or gaze.
It is said that holding your drishti or gaze point when practicing is a step in developing a deeper focus. It is a way of mindfully disconnecting from sensory input so your mind can turn inward to settle into the quiet beneath the thoughts, sounds and sights that constantly bombard us every moment of the day. Practicing this skill is a way to move deeper into the meditative experience of practicing yoga.
As it is when I’m practicing yoga, maintaining a steady gaze on the boat was challenging for me. On my mat, I find it hard to keep my eyes from roaming. While I’ve never been one to watch others as they practice with me, I regularly catch myself staring at the “Om” banner on the wall of my studio, inspecting a piece of lint on the rug to determine if it’s a bug or not or taking a peek at my reflection in the mirror to check my alignment. Sometimes I even realize that my eyes have closed as I sink into a posture I love.
On the boat, I found my distractions were even more, well, distracting. Sometimes it was an individual wave that would catch my gaze and pull it away from the safe haven of the horizon. When this happened, most often I found myself fixated on a coming wave thinking, “Holy cow! That one is huge!” But other times, it was the bigger picture of the churning sea around me that would pull at my attention. Because we were in open water I could, if I wasn’t careful, see literally miles of waves coming at our boat. Knowing that I was going to have to navigate the up and down and rocks and rolls of each one seemed brutally impossible. This was much more frightening to me than the occasional gigantic swell. It was in these moments that my steady focus would start to slide toward panic. A little voice in my head would shriek, “There’s no way I can keep this up!”
The first few times I slid into panic, dragging my focus back to the horizon, to my breath and to the way I was holding my body took a staggering amount of willpower. Then, as I was redirecting myself again, I realized that though incredibly difficult, this was no different than dragging my focus back to the moment at hand when my mind has wandered off to the grueling backbends that await me at the end of my practice while I’m still doing my sun salutations, or when I’m still trying to figure out what went right or wrong in the last posture while I’m meant to be focusing on the current one, or when I’m making lists or solving problems rather than giving the yoga my full attention.
And, with that, I relaxed, secure in the knowledge that I could get through this. I was confident in the understanding that this stuff worked. Better yet? That It worked really, really well.
In fact, it was as I dragged my focus back from yet another distraction that I had an epiphany that I pray I will carry with me for a very long time. That rolling, churning ocean was no different than my crazy, hectic life. If I could stay focused on each moment on that boat ride thereby avoiding panic and even sickness, why couldn’t I do the same during my regular days? If taking one wave at a time on that boat was working, couldn’t I use the same technique to navigate an especially nutty day at home? I knew, as I found myself enjoying the feeling of the sun on my face while I gazed at the horizon and breathed deeply, that I was onto something much bigger than any of the waves around me.