[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”16″ align=”left”]”If the plan doesn’t work change the plan, but never change the goal.” – Unknown[/mk_blockquote]

next stepsI’ve lived a long and happy life following plans. I cook and bake from recipes – many tried and true from the kitchens of my mom and friends. In college and grad school I learned to select classes taught by professors who not only handed out syllabi, but actually followed them. I closely follow directions when driving somewhere new and confess that, despite my beloved i-phone and Google Maps app, I still keep in my car the box of maps my dad gave me when I got my driver’s license “just in case.” In short, I’ve always been happiest and most effective when the rules, parameters and expectations are clear.

And then I had kids.

Despite the shelves of “how to” books available to parents, it’s been my experience that raising children is one undertaking that does not come with a map, a recipe, a syllabus or even a plan beyond the most basic of guidelines. This isn’t just true with your first child. If you think you’ve got being a mom or dad all figured out, the quickest way to prove yourself wrong is by having a second child. Heck, you don’t even have to do that. If you think you’ve got it all figured out, just wait a second. You’ll be right back at the drawing board concocting a new plan as soon as the next “age or stage” arrives.

Being a mother has forced me (sometimes kicking and screaming) to develop my improvisational skills. Being a mother has required me to develop a degree of comfort (perhaps only the tiniest of degrees, but still …) in flying blind. Being a mother has dragged me to the certainty that there is always (always!) more than one way to do something or get somewhere.

In short, being a mother has taught me to shift my focus (over and over and over again) from my plan to my goal.

Even as I type those words, it sounds like a no brainer. But, at least in my experience, it’s surprisingly easy for plans to supplant goals. Once I get going on a project – no matter how simple or complex – getting to the next step becomes profoundly desirable. Even when I’m beginning to get the feeling that the next step may no longer make sense, there’s a powerful urge in me to take it anyway, if only because it’s part of the plan. Plus, let’s face it, following an existing plan is a whole lot easier than regrouping to create a new one. But, sometimes in life regrouping to create a new plan is precisely what needs to happen.

I practice and teach Ashtanga yoga. This practice is comprised of (for most of us mere mortals) three series of postures, called Primary, Intermediate and Third series. As you practice, your body gains strength and flexibility. As this happens, you move on to the next posture and the next. Eventually, you’re ready to move on to the next series in the sequence and the step by step process of your practice continues. Honestly, I couldn’t have stumbled into a style of yoga that was more fitting for the planner in me if I’d planned it.

Except, following the plan didn’t end up working for me. My body simply didn’t open up in the postures of primary series the way it was intended to. Despite months and years of practice, my chest and shoulders remained stubbornly immobile. That is, until one of my teachers introduced me to Intermediate Series well before I’d achieved any degree of success in the “gateway” poses of primary series often described as required before you begin to work in the next series.

It turns out that for me, a dedicated rules- and plan-follower, breaking the rules and ceasing to the follow the plan was the key. To make matters even less conventional, it turns out  that it wasn’t the first or second postures of Intermediate series that I needed. (Calamity!) I had to sneak a little further ahead to find the postures that finally unlocked my body. But by changing the plan to one that worked for me, I was able (over years of practice) to keep my eye on the physical goals of Ashtanga yoga – to restore balance, to build strength and to develop stability in my body.

Setting aside Ashtanga’s plan was ridiculously hard for me. It made me feel alternately brazen and sheepish. It’s still not something I am completely comfortable that I did. Despite my discomfort, this was a major life lesson for me. Being willing to regroup and create a new plan was precisely what was needed, even though it drew me away from my comfort zone of following a tried and true plan. Being willing to set aside such a well developed and revered plan on my mat, has helped me become more willing to set aside plans (even plans that seem really good) that are not working off my mat.

In fact, I credit my yoga practice with my willingness to be flexible in how I’m raising each of my children. I know that just because certain curfew-related consequences worked for one child, does not mean they will work with the next. I know that just because one child is motivated by stickers, grades or even money, does not mean this will be the case with the others. In fact, so few of my parenting “plans” work across the board, that I have almost stopped making them. I am getting much better at ad libbing. I am getting better at improvising.

In short, as I wound up doing on my yoga mat, I’m learning to make up the plan as I go. I’m learning to figure out each next step as it comes. With my eye always on my goal of raising confident, content, compassionate and courageous children, I am getting much better at changing the plan as needed.

What plan do you need to set aside to reach your goal?
Amy

[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”16″ align=”left”]And they lived happily ever after. The End.” – Every Fairy Tale Ever[/mk_blockquote]

happily-ever-afterI’ve never done endings well. As a child, I’d fall to pieces at the end of every family reunion – sobbing in the car as we pulled out of my grandmother’s driveway for the long drive home. I’d be too sad to  help take down the Christmas decorations, choosing instead to mope in my room. As a young adult, while my friends were jubilantly celebrating the last day of school, I could be found in my dorm room mourning the end of the year.

Looking back, however, it’s not my embarrassingly emotional response to endings that I most regret. It’s the wasted moments leading up to these endings. It’s the lost last days of every single family reunion when I allowed the pending ending to dampen my joy at being with my cousins. It’s the moments I could have shared with my parents lovingly packing up Christmas treasures as we watched the Rose Bowl Parade had I not fled the scene of the holiday’s close. It’s the last parties, heartfelt “Have a good summers!” and parking lot hugs that I missed out on because I had retreated alone to my dorm room.

Sitting here today remembering all these endings, I find myself shaking my head. There was just no reason to allow the fact that an ending was approaching to cut short all these really good stories. In focusing on “The End,” I managed to skip over the most important words of every fairy tale I ever read and loved – “They lived happily ever after.” After all the drama, all the lowest of lows and highest of highs, all the wonder and all the suspense, what I loved most about these stories was that the characters lived on. While one story of their lives was ending, they didn’t end. In fact, in my imagination, “happily ever after” was filled with story after story, each as good as the one I’d just read. “Happily ever after” was just a doorway into more life.

It’s not just in life that I slip up and allow an approaching ending to short-circuit perfectly nice moments. I’ve noticed that if I’m not really, really careful, I begin moving out of a posture well before I finish my last breath in it. This is a shame. That last exhalation is often the deepest, most open moment that I have in any posture. After the four preceding breaths, my muscles are finally relaxing in the stretch. If it’s a challenging posture, it’s most often in that last breath that I get a satisfied feeling of “I did it!” If it’s a pose that scares me, it almost always takes all five breaths for my fear to ebb away – to exit it early means that the posture will remain in my emotional memory as “scary” rather than “manageable.”

In short, to miss out on the last breath of any posture is to miss out on 20% of my experience in it. When something gives me as many gifts yoga does, there’s absolutely no good reason to carelessly turn down a fifth of them.

Each time I catch myself slipping out of a posture early, I have the opportunity to practice staying in the moment. Better yet, I can work on catching myself when I’m mentally or physically preparing to leave a posture during my last breath. Each time I allow my mind to wander ahead to the fact that a posture is ending, is a chance to refocus myself on the experience I’m actually having. After all, no matter how short-lived it might be, it is absolutely worth my attention.

All this practice pays dividends off my mat. While I may not always succeed in keeping my emotional response to endings at bay until the ending actually arrives, I’m getting better at catching myself when sadness creeps into my heart prematurely. I’m getting better at refocusing myself on the often wonderful experiences that lead up to each ending. Whether it’s an “easy” ending like the satisfied last steps in a challenging project I’ve been working on for nearly a year or a “hard” one like the long series of “lasts” that make up my child’s senior year of high school, I find that I can practice my yoga off my mat. And, in doing so, I’m much less likely to miss out on the moments that fill these endings.

Even better, I’m finding that with a deep breath like the ones I take on my yoga mat, I can lift above my sadness to remember that these endings, like the endings of the stories of my childhood, are simply doorways to more stories –– to more life. And, because this is my story rather than a fairy tale, I remember that I actually get to see what “happily ever after” looks like.

Namaste,
Amy

Big Blue 2As far as “stuff” is concerned, there are two types of people in the world: keepers and purgers. At the time I started practicing yoga, I was very much a keeper. I had collections of little knick-knacks displayed around my house. My attic was filled with tubs of tiny baby clothes kept simply because I could not part with them. I could open a drawer or cupboard in my kitchen and pull out gifts from my wedding shower, not because I used these things but because I’d received them at my wedding shower. Better yet, in my dresser drawers I still had shirts from fraternity formals and college basketball seasons. Clearly I, a mother of three, wasn’t sashaying around town in these.

Now, after nearly fifteen years on my yoga mat, I am most definitely a purger. Clutter sets my teeth on edge. Picture frames have been culled, collections packed away, kitchen drawers and china cupboards emptied of all but necessities. I prefer my “quaint” (i.e. tiny) closet to have more space than stuff. Outgrown kids clothes get promptly handed down. Outdated clothes from my closet go directly to the church for its second hand clothing sale. My once powerful urge to hold onto “stuff” as a way to hold onto the past has all but faded away.

Or so I thought.

My beloved old Suburban, Big Blue, has been failing for two or three years. This isn’t surprising as I’ve driven her for close to 200,000 miles since 2002. She’s taken our family on countless trips. I leaned into her back doors to load kids who now outweigh me into and out of bucket seats and booster seats. She’s been packed to the gills with cousins and friends for hours of fun. She’s witnessed bickering of the sort that only happens on long road trips. She’s been covered in mud and filled with stinky cleats after a hundred games and tournaments. She’s taken our polished and primped children to their first dances. It was in her seats that we had surprisingly deep conversations about sermons on the way home on Sunday mornings, that we cried after funerals, and that we shared those intimate moments with teens that seem to only happen in the car.

It turns out that Big Blue had become a thing – a big, big thing – that I was holding onto for very sentimental reasons. The thought of parting ways with her actually hurt. I said to my daughter when she suggested a new car might be a good plan, “I’ll never have another car that carries me through as much life as she has.” When my son suggested that her brakes were somewhat quirky after he drove her, I leapt to her defense even though he was right. When my husband announced that there was a three year old Suburban at the local Chevy dealer that we should go see, I felt like throwing up. When the salesman called an hour later, and the price was right, I actually cried. My other daughter looked at me (slightly mystified) and said, “Mommy, we’re going to fill the new truck with memories too.”

I’ve learned on my mat to let go. I’ve learned that it’s perfectly normal and OK for a posture I’ve worked hard to attain to suddenly disappear. I’ve learned that success in a posture one day doesn’t mean I’ll have success in that posture the next day. I’ve learned to let go of fears. And I’ve learned to let go of my ideas of what I can and cannot do. After all, things that once scared me are now no-brainers. Things I wasn’t able to do, I now can. And vice versa. Change on my yoga mat is dramatic and constant.  Sometimes it’s sudden and sometimes it’s gradual – but the one thing I can completely count on in my practice is change.

All this intimate and incessant work with change has been yielded two powerful gifts. The first is that I’ve learned to hold things with open hands. As I do over and over with ideas and fears on my mat, I’ve learned to let things go when it’s time for us to part ways. The second is that I’ve learned to live fully in the moment – gratefully embracing what is, without wasting a lot of energy on what was and on what might be. When I allow both of these gifts to work within me off my mat, I move more lightly through my days. I am much more open to the shifts and changes of life. I am so focused on my experiences that I have much less need to accumulate stuff.

It is this practice that, over the years, lead me to change from a keeper into a purger. It hasn’t always been easy. In fact, it’s taken a lot of hard work. But living lightly and openly is, I have found, much easier. Which is why, in the end, I could see my attachment to my beloved old truck for what it was. And I could see that it was time for a change. As I rode the waves of my surprisingly emotional good-bye to her I realized that feeling so deeply and remembering so much did not mean that it was a bad choice to trade her in. Instead, it was a way to honor the huge role she played in our young family.

As I’ve found on and off my mat, all change is easier to navigate with an open heart, open hands and an open mind. It was my daughter’s words that opened me up to this particular change. While I didn’t keep Big Blue, I will always keep the memories we made in her. And we will indeed make many more in our new family truck.

Namaste,
Amy

logo-yoga-with-spirit-light-bg-mobileOne of the most beautiful things about yoga is that appearances truly don’t matter. In fact, society’s narrow notion of beauty is often turned on its head in a yoga studio. I have practiced next to women the world might deem “too heavy” or “too big” whose practices were so fluid and so graceful that they took my breath away. Next to these yoginis, women who perfectly fit today’s definition of “pretty” simply faded into the background. I have taken classes with teachers who at first glance seemed too old or too stiff to have much of anything to offer, only to bowled away within minutes of the opening chant by their profound and beautiful understanding of this practice.

In yoga, we learn quickly that beauty comes from a much deeper place than our exterior. Beauty on a yoga mat comes from attitude – a pleasant smile and a kind greeting. Beauty on a yoga mat comes from a steady mind –  a soft focus, a quiet determination, a little laugh at a mistake, a willingness to try again. Beauty on a yoga mat is about grace – easy movements synchronized with breath, fluidity, a balance between the hard work that the practice requires and the choice to softly release or let go in each posture.

As much as beauty doesn’t make anyone a better (or worse, for that matter) yogi, yoga itself is quite beautiful to behold. The individual postures are lovely to look at – placing the body into elegant, symmetrical and sometimes awe-inspiring shapes. To my way of thinking there is almost nothing as captivating as watching an experienced practitioner move gracefully and strongly on his or her mat. While meant solely to benefit the person practicing, the interplay of lightness and strength that is displayed on a yoga mat could easily earn a standing ovation from an audience. The beauty of the practice comes from its smoothness, its efficiency, and its grace.

Ironically, a regular yoga practice makes a person look more beautiful — and not in the most obvious ways. While muscles do become leaner and more toned, fat does tend to melt away, the skin does tend to be dewy and radiant from a good daily sweat, and the eyes do glow with an inner contentedness, these things are not necessarily what you first notice about a person who practices. Rather it’s their easy smile, quiet centeredness, willingness to listen, and sweet stillness that first strike you when meeting someone who has been practicing for years.

But the most lovely thing about a person made beautiful by their practice is that the beauty is almost incidental. I have yet to meet anyone who is still practicing years or even decades later because of yoga’s physical gifts. In comparison to the life-changing and life-giving inner gifts of the practice, these physical changes are just not great motivators. That said, yoga teaches us a lot about gratitude and appreciation and I haven’t met anyone whose body has been changed by the practice who isn’t grateful for the changes.

Speaking of beauty and feeling grateful, I am excited to launch a new look for Yoga With Spirit – a new logo and a brand new website. I designed my old site myself nearly ten years ago. It has served its purpose steadily, but technology has improved greatly since its launch. My simple site didn’t allow for many pictures, which are so compelling when trying to convey the energy and feeling of a place. Also, as the offerings of my studio expanded year after year, my little old site had become cluttered and difficult to navigate.

I think the designers of the new site did a beautiful job and hope you do, too. As beautiful as I think it is, however, like the beauty of yoga, that exterior beauty pales in comparison to its efficiency, smoothness and grace. Its design is simple, clean and efficient, hopefully making it much easier for you to find out what is going on at the studio. It strikes a graceful balance between the challenges of conveying a great deal of information and being accessible and easy to navigate. The calendar is not only easy to read and navigate, but is customizable to your interests. Finally, the spaciousness of the pages dedicated to these essays makes reading them much more enjoyable – and you can now access more of my archived essays.

Mostly, however, I love that the new Yoga With Spirit site celebrates not only the beauty of yoga postures and the human body (because they are indeed beautiful to behold), but of the relationships and community that are the lifeblood of Yoga With Spirit. In short, my hope is that the new site will be as warm a welcome to Yoga With Spirit as I would give you personally were you to walk into the studio tomorrow.

Welcome! Enjoy! I hope you come back again very soon,
Amy
www.yogawithspirit.com
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[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”16″ align=”left”]The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift. – Albert Einstein[/mk_blockquote]

choices2We’d come down to the wire. In order for our son to be placed in university housing, a decision had to be made. Being fortunate enough to choose between his two favorite schools had suddenly become a sticky spot. As he’s never been a decisive child, I went to work researching the available programs of study at each school. I called friends with kids at the schools. I scoured the two websites. I created lists and spreadsheets. Bearing the fruits of my research in a stack of papers, I joined my husband and son at the dining room table after dinner on Sunday night.

Before either my husband or I could say a word, before we could show him a single line of a single spreadsheet, my son rubbed his head and shut his eyes. Taking a deep breath, he said, “Look, could I go to Temple? I just like it better there. It feels right.”

I could have laughed with relief. Setting my pile of papers aside, I smiled. “Buddy! That’s a decision! You did it! Congratulations!” And with that, he booted up his laptop and enrolled as an incoming freshman in the Temple University Class of 2019.

The beauty of my son’s decision is that he trusted his gut. He went with what felt right to him. While he didn’t spend the two weeks preceding his decision as I had, up to my eyeballs in statistics, course catalogs and comparisons, he hadn’t come to his decision in the dark. He’d been to both campuses several times. He’d sat in on classes in his chosen field of study. He’d met with professors and students. He’d chatted with fellow prospective students at his two auditions. We even made it a point to return to both schools to take a second tour and spend some time walking around to experience the “feel” of the campuses once he’d been accepted. In short, like me, he was filled with information.

In an article on Oprah.com, Helen Fisher, PhD, explains intuition as a function of the mind. “That little voice that nudges you when you’re stuck between two choices? It’s real. … While intuition may seem to arise from some mysterious inner source, it’s actually a form of unconscious reasoning – one that’s rooted in the ways our brains collect and store information.” As we accumulate knowledge and life experience, we begin to recognize patterns. We store these experiences in our brains organized in “chunks.” As we live and learn more, we link more and more patterns. “When you see a tiny detail of a familiar design, you instantly recognize the larger composition – and that’s what we regard as a flash of intuition.”

While I concur with Dr. Fisher in her explanation of the way that our minds process intuition, I believe there is an added dimension that is less easy to explain. I believe in the conscience. As defined by Google’s dictionary, the conscience is “an inner feeling or voice viewed as acting as a guide to the rightness or wrongness of one’s behavior.” Dictionary.com takes it a step further and says the conscience is common to all men. Walt Disney brought the conscience to life as Jiminy Cricket in the film Pinocchio. And while most of us can’t see our conscience as clearly as Pinocchio did, when we listen, we can all hear the voice of conscience as loud and clear as Jiminy Cricket’s whistle.

The trouble arises when we allow the deafening roar of the world around us – the statistics from our research, the compelling (and constant) marketing messages that bombard us from our radios, televisions and computers, not to mention the loving and concerned (and sometimes quite bossy) voices of our peers, colleagues, parents and mentors – to drown out our inner voice. As Albert Einstein states so beautifully, we’ve all received the gift of intuition. Though it can feel counter-cultural to do so, let’s be sure to put it to good use. Doing so consistently requires the same practice, repetition and experience that Dr. Fisher credits with helping to create a stronger sense of intuition.

Practicing yoga is one way to deliberately reconnect with our inner voice. We actually begin this process by learning to listen to our body. We tune into physical sensations for the first time in what could be years. Some of these sensations are aches and pains. Some are exquisite releases of tension. Some make us sigh with pleasure. Some require us to take a deep breath just to endure them.

Our listening evolves as we begin to get better at sensing more nuanced physical reactions. When faced with a challenge, we can suddenly tell when we really aren’t ready to try something and when we’re just fearful. When faced with a strong sensation, we begin to be able to tell the difference between damaging pain and the at times powerful sensations created by a changing body. We even get better at discriminating types of fatigue – that which is real vs. that which is simply a flash of laziness. Each of these instances is an opportunity to act on the guiding messages of our inner voice. And each time we do, we gather more experience and more knowledge to rely on in the future.

As we practice this awareness, we find we are able to determine whether it’s right or wrong for us to try a new posture or to go deeper in an old one; to rest or to forge ahead; to honor a fear or to challenge it; to respect a sore muscle or to gently work with it. As we maintain our awareness at this level, suddenly listening to our bodies blurs into listening to something much deeper. There are many names for this. For me, it feels like I am tuned into the voice of my heart – the same voice that Disney depicted as a cheerful, whistling cricket and that we call our conscience, intuition or gut. Steady, regular and deliberate practice on our mat helps make listening to this voice second nature. In short, practicing yoga helps us get better at listening to and trusting our intuition off our mats.

A yoga practice is not necessary to developing a healthy relationship with your intuition and conscience. After all, my son reached his decision without setting foot on a mat. That said, as we practice recognizing and working with our intuition on our mat, it becomes easier to stay focused on our inner voice when in the throes of a difficult choice. When we’ve seen the gifts of tuning into our intuitive mind day after day on our mat, it is a whole lot easier to trust the effectiveness of doing so off the mat and in life.

This practice helps us even when the intuition (or gut) that we’re trusting in the moment is not our own. In my case, my practice allowed me the opportunity to confidently recognize and validate my son’s intuitive choice of where to spend the next four years of his life. To borrow his words, it just feels right.

Shanti,
Amy