I was tired last week. So tired that my arms and legs actually felt heavy as I walked around. The simplest tasks seemed daunting enough that I put them off for another day. Getting out of bed (which is rarely an issue for me) took an astounding amount of will power. Even my favorite way to waste time, playing word games on my phone, was suffering. I just wasn’t as quick or as creative as usual when I played.
I began to question my health. Was I coming down with a cold? Or was I developing allergies? I began to question my yoga practice. Was I doing too much? Did I need to back off? I went to bed earlier, set my alarm thirty minutes later. I watched what I ate. I watched how much water I was drinking. And, still, I was so very tired.
Then my husband, who’d been travelling all week, mentioned that he, too, had been oddly tired. The coincidence caught my attention. Hmmm.
Maybe we weren’t actually as physically tired as we felt. Maybe we were dealing with the aftermath of the insane burst of energy it had taken to get our son packed and ready for college. (My mom calls this phenomenon “let down.”) Maybe what we thought we were feeling in our bodies was coming from our hearts – which were a little confused and a lot saddened by our new family arrangement with one child living away from home. Maybe, just maybe, my body was responding to something deep within.
The more I thought about it, the more this made sense. After all, I know from countless hours on my yoga mat that there is absolutely no way to separate body, mind and heart.
We begin to develop an understanding of the elaborate interconnections within us as we work with our bodies in yoga postures. Some sleuthing reveals that a sore wrist in backbends is actually coming from tightness in that shoulder. We notice that the pain we’ve been feeling in our knee is relieved on days that we work on hip openers in class. As we engage the muscles in our thighs to reach our toes an inch closer to the ceiling in boat pose, we are surprised to notice that the muscles deep in our low belly respond by engaging powerfully.
In other words, if we’re really paying attention as we practice, we can learn what we’ve known all along but maybe haven’t truly understood. The knee bone is actually connected to the leg bone! And to everything else in the body. There’s simply no way around it. Discomfort or imbalance in one part of the body will absolutely affect the rest of the body. Sometimes these effects are subtle. Sometimes they are quite dramatic. There is no way to isolate a single muscle or bone. Our body is the sum of its parts.
With more practice, we begin to sense a deeper level of interconnectedness. No matter how hard we try, a frazzled day at work will echo into our practice. We may have to work a little harder to focus on each breath. Or we may notice that our mind is wandering more wildly than it usually does. Mental exhaustion often masquerades as physical fatigue on the mat. Emotional upheaval – positive or negative – will show up as well. A sad day might leave us craving the quiet, soothing energy of forward folds. A happy moment might have us floating lightly on our mat. Stress and worry can leave us as out of balance – literally falling over – on our mat as they do off.
In short, like our bodies, we are a sum of our parts. Our “self” is made up of body, mind and feelings. Each affects the other two. Each affects the whole. Sometimes dramatically. Sometimes subtly. But there is always a ripple effect. A sore elbow can make us cranky. Feeling physically strong can bolster our courage as we confront a co-worker. Allergies can make our minds feel fuzzy. Nervousness makes our stomach hurt. Wonder takes our breath away. Elation can leave us literally leaping for joy.
And, as my husband and I discovered, sadness can make us awfully, terribly, completely tired. While time is the surest way to help us get used to our new “normal,” we can work with the other aspects of ourselves to feel better. Taking care of our bodies – continuing to exercise, practice yoga, get enough sleep and eat well – can make us feel perkier. Taking care of our minds – planning fun activities, getting lost in a good book, tackling a project around the house – can draw our attention from our hurting hearts to whatever we’re doing.
Little by little, I’m happy to report that, while being a four-person household still feels strange, we have begun to feel more like our old selves – body, mind and heart.
Take a minute and ask yourself if part of you needs a little extra care right now … like us, you may be surprised.
When they are small, you must hold tight to your children. When my son was a tiny infant, I had to be careful that my grip was sufficient or he would (often out of the clear blue) arch his entire body to literally back-flip out of my arms. When he was a toddler, I had to maintain a firm hold of his little hand – especially in parking lots and shops – as the sights and sounds around him could easily (and dangerously) lure him from my side. Even through elementary school, he would hold my hand as he marched resolutely into his new classroom or a friend’s birthday party – I suspect gaining strength and courage from being linked to someone bigger and braver than he was.
As little boys become bigger boys, though, we learn to hold our children more loosely. While we weren’t holding hands as he headed into middle school that first day, I remember we were walking so close to one another that our bodies were touching as we went through the door together. In high school, when holding hands with your mom simply cannot happen in public, we stayed “in touch.” Even though he was taller than me, he would often plop on top of me in the chair in the kitchen when he got home in the afternoons. His driver’s license required me to release my grip even more. Suddenly, I was no longer there to kiss him and send him into wherever he was going with a reminder of how much I love him. But — still — he came home to me each evening.
Earlier this week, I had to open my hands to hold him even more loosely. As we moved him into his first dorm room, every synapse in my body yearned to clench down and hold on tight. The situation felt as perilous as those long ago parking lots. Yet something deep within me – perhaps a glimmer of maturity and wisdom? – knew that to hold tight would only cause more pain. To grip and squeeze him as he positioned himself to fly would not only hamper him as he spread his wings, but it would hurt me. The way to ease the pain of our inevitable separation that day was to hold him lightly, with open hands, and allow him to go – as he is more than ready to do.
These open hands required more courage than it did for me to gradually trust that he could safely walk beside me into the mall. These open hands required more faith of me than watching him back down the driveway in the Honda that first time. These open hands asked me to trust in the “stretchiness” of our love. As we walked back to the car from his dorm, I could actually feel my heart stretch. While leaving him was hard, it wasn’t as hard as keeping him with me would have been. Leaving him was right – and letting him fly will allow our love to continue to be healthy. Holding on would have pinched and squeezed us, eventually squishing our love into a small, sad facsimile of what it’s always been.
Holding on lightly is not something we humans do naturally. I don’t know if this is because of the simple fact that we are blessed with opposable thumbs, but we are creatures who prefer to hold on rather than let go. We get glimpses of this tendency – and the ways it limits us – on our yoga mats. In my practice I have noticed myself holding tightly to a desire for a certain posture. Whatever I’m working on, the moment I grip onto the need to “get it” is almost always the moment the posture slips further out of reach. Growth and change happen more willingly when I’m not overly caught up in measuring my progress or fixated on success. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve flung up my hands in surrender only to find myself nailing the posture the very next week. Even when success isn’t that sudden, letting go allows my practice to shift from the frustrated energy my desire has created back to the centering, calming and fruitful energy that keeps me coming back to my mat day after day.
Similarly, I’ve caught myself holding on to my successes with a death grip. Over and over again I’ve figured out a posture only for it to suddenly disappear. The resulting emotional tsunami typically causes me to tighten my grip even more. I catch myself gritting my teeth as I approach the posture. If you don’t tell anyone, I’ll confess to letting a few choice words fly as I try again and again to do something I was once able to do. My frustration, tension and tight desire obviously are not helping me. It’s only when I finally surrender to the fact that the posture clearly had more to teach me, that I can relax enough to learn again. And each time, the lessons I learn are exactly the ones I need to not only bring me back to the “lost” posture, but to help my practice move to a whole new level.
These experiences on my mat have helped me develop a lighter hold on the things I care about. Becoming comfortable being open-handed has allowed me to grow and stretch in ways I could never have imagined. Releasing my grip has allowed me relief and freedom – relief from pain I didn’t even know my tight grip was causing and the freedom to receive gifts that my previously clenched-closed grip had prevented me from receiving. Becoming comfortable being open-handed in the safety of my yoga mat has helped me develop a solid trust that an open-handed grip is not a guarantee that I will lose something. To the contrary, holding something lightly often brings it back to me in a whole new form.
And this is exactly what I have faith will happen with my son as he stretches his wings and learns to fly in college. I trust that, over the last 18 years, I’ve held him enough, told him I’ve loved him enough, and taught him enough about what it is to be a good man in a complicated world that, though he will indeed soar to great heights, he will feel the same stretchy pull that I feel in my heart. Because I’ve kept a loose grip on our love, I trust that he will fly back to me over and over again as he grows into a man. Best yet, each time he does, because I haven’t clenched down on the boy he was, I have faith that I will be open-handed to receive the man he is becoming.
Twenty years ago, I made a friend. I was sitting in the back row of a darkened auditorium listening to a speaker at a publishing conference in Manhattan when it happened. The woman with the awesome head of curly hair sitting a few seats away leaned over and made a hilarious comment about something the speaker said. Or maybe I did that. It doesn’t matter. We both burst into disruptive laughter and, in that moment, I knew I liked her. A lot.
One equally hilarious double-dinner-date with our respective significant others later, and the deal was sealed. We were absolutely going to be friends. And we have been – through career changes, weddings, babies, deaths and many, many moves. Our friendship even managed to survive a sad period when we fell out of touch. (Thank goodness for social media’s power to reconnect lost loved ones.) Bottom line? This friendship is the real deal. I like to think we at least suspected it’s potential in that auditorium.
So what’s that all about? What is it in us that draws someone else to us so magnetically? Why are some laughs with a stranger fleeting moments that we quickly forget, but others result in an exchange of business cards and quick plans to meet up for dinner?
Friendship like this is beautiful, powerful evidence that we’re more than what we look like and what we do and what we say. We feel so real with these people that what we look like, do and say feel like labels on the surface of what’s really going on. That auditorium was filled with people I could have (and probably did) speak with. But only one became my friend. There’s something sparkling within each of us – sometimes hiding under a pile of labels – that makes us who we are. And some people in the world are better able to sense and see that sparkle. Not only that, when we’re with those people, our sparkle gets bigger and brighter — and so does theirs.
And that’s exactly what happened in that first easy laugh – my friend and I felt, at a surprisingly deep level, that this was someone with whom we could be authentically real, with whom it was safe to be exactly who we were, with whom there was no need for masks or pretense or illusion. Sadly, this is a rare thing in this world. Often, we don’t even realize how much we hide. We’re oblivious to how often we pretend to be someone or something that we’re not. Sadly, this happens so much and goes on for so long, that we become more connected with our masks than we are with the real essence of who we are. Sometimes, we even lose touch entirely with who we are.
As we practice yoga, we discover how many masks we hide behind in life. It starts out, as yoga often does, with the physical. “I’m tight.” “I’m a clutz.” “I love to balance.” “I’m scared to be upside down.” Each time we unroll out mats, however, is a chance to tear away one of our self-applied labels. Suddenly we’re touching the floor in a forward bend and realize that we’re no longer “tight.” One day, we manage to stay upright in Tree Pose and realize that we may not be so “clutzy” after all. There will be times when our favorite postures become our least favorites (it happens, trust me), and, out of the blue, we fall in love with our least favorites. When this happens enough, we see how changeable our preferences are and stop relying on them to describe who we are.
As happens with most realizations that we have on our yoga mats, it doesn’t take long until we’re noticing them off our mats and in our lives. “I am a yoga teacher.” “I am a mother.” “I like to write.” “I don’t like crowds.” On an on the list goes. And while each of these things is true and hints at aspects of who I am, none fully describe me. More importantly, they are not me. In fact, with steady practice, just as the labels we apply to ourselves on our mats frequently cease to fit, the labels off out mats can begin to pinch and squeeze. We begin to sense that maybe we’re hiding behind them and maybe we can outgrow them. Over time, our yoga practice helps us shed these labels and discover the joyful freedom of just being ourselves – changeable, vibrant and always growing.
As we do this, something wonderful (almost miraculous) happens. We befriend ourselves. We begin to sense our own sparkle deep within. As happens when we’re with a true friend, our light begins to shine brighter and more publically. Of course, we may lose touch with this dear friend every once in a while. That just seems to be part of the human experience. But, because this is the truest of friendships, we can be confident that we will be able to pick right where we left off when we reconnect – as my dear friend and I were able to do when we fell out of touch.
When we do reunite, just like with true friends, the joyful comfort and ease of being exactly who we are with someone who is being equally real with us, is beyond compare.
[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”16″ align=”left”]I see trees of green, red roses, too. I see them bloom, for me and you. And I think to myself, “What a wonderful world.” – Louis Armstrong [/mk_blockquote]
I’m always on the lookout for elements of vacation that I can bring home with me. Though I’m famous for toting bags of sea shells home with me and my son is a master at finding obscure t-shirts wherever we go, I’m not talking about souvenirs. I’m talking about the feeling of being on vacation – the spaciousness of each day, the “let’s just see what the day brings” mindset and the wide-eyed sense of wonder that comes from experiencing a new place.
I know that it’s fanciful to hope that regular life can be as free and easy as vacation. But the two trips that I’ve been fortunate enough to take this month have taught me that there is something about being on vacation that translates easily and powerfully to life at home. We drove 1200 miles during our time in Iceland. It’s not a stretch to say that we were gazing out the window in awe at our surroundings for every one of those miles. Even when we weren’t out of the car and exploring, we were intensely in tune with the world around us – celebrating its beauty, allowing it to stir up our emotions, awash in gratitude to be able to see these sights.
I was much closer to home last week – and drove only about 5 miles in 7 days – but the world around me played a significant role in the joy I found as I vacationed on the beach in Stone Harbor, NJ. During my daily walks to the tip of the island I marveled at the changing beauty of the coast. Though I walked at low tide each day, the beach was never the same. Tide pools moved and the colors of the water changed dramatically. The sky was as changeable as the sea – shifting from vivid, bright blue with cotton-white clouds to a blue so faint it was almost white.
But it wasn’t just the beach and the ocean that captivated me. Walking into town, I found myself paying close attention the houses I passed and the festive shop windows. Sitting on our front porch, the nature of the light at different times of day caught my attention. Leaving the air conditioned house, I found myself relishing the feeling of the warm, humid air on my skin. It crossed my mind that I was experiencing a place I’ve visited for years with the same sense of wonder with which I explored a far-away country.
This week, as I’ve bounced around the town I’ve called home for 15 years, I’m finding that I’ve managed to bring home a wonderful souvenir from our travels – a keen awareness of my surroundings. I’ve found myself taking a deep breath as I appreciate with clear eyes the rolling green fields dotted with beautiful, black cattle on the way to my children’s voice lessons. I’ve strolled through town smiling at the familiar shop windows much as I did when at the beach. Even the view out the window of my own backyard – the hummingbird that visits my hibiscus, the boxwood hedge stretching toward the sun, and the ferns waving in the shade by the fence – makes me feel grateful that I can experience such beauty whenever I want.
Until I developed a yoga practice, I’m not sure I understood that awareness is a skill like any other. It can be sharpened with practice and can become dull without. As we move and breathe on our mats, we allow ourselves to be fully absorbed in our experience of the moment. With practice, we discover that a single exhale in downward facing dog can be as changeable and fascinating as the scenery on a drive alongside a glacier in Iceland. With practice, we realize that in the space of a single inhale our entire forward fold can open and change as much as the beach does from one day to the next. With practice, we become reluctant to miss any of these experiences. We strengthen our resolve to avoid distractions. We become determined (and – more importantly – able) to pay keen attention to everything.
On our yoga mats, we focus so intensely on what we’re doing and feeling that our awareness of our surroundings – be it the room we’re in or the people around us – fades away. This can seem the opposite of the vacation-induced awareness I’ve been relishing lately. But yoga has a way of turning itself inside out. We devote time to care for ourselves in order to be better able to care for the people in our lives. We embark on a practice of change and discover that we’re better able to accept and embrace ourselves as we are. And (drum roll, please) we turn our senses from the world around us to focus within, only to discover that we’ve managed to hone our awareness so that we’re better able to appreciate the world around us.
As you move through your day today, I invite you to lavish your attention on the world around you. Notice the big things and the small. Feel the wind on your skin. Really see the sights along your way – maybe even stop and explore like a tourist in your own life. I promise, you will discover a sense of awe and gratitude at being able to experience this wonderful world that will brighten every corner of your life.