Every year, I am lucky to spend a week at the beach in Stone Harbor, NJ. It is a beautiful, quiet place. My whole body loves it here. I can feel my tension melting away the moment we drive over the causeway leaving the mainland behind. Returning to this stretch of beach year after year has taught me a great deal about the gift of embracing life as it is rather than wishing for what was.
One of my favorite things is to take long walks to the southernmost point of the island. The changes to this landscape year to year are amazing. Huge storms this winter and spring sheared off the dunes, leaving the beach ten feet lower than last year. The point itself is now an entirely different shape. The drop-off into the bay where boats anchor for a swim or a beach bar-b-q is now on the far side of an inlet that didn’t exist last year. The sand bar that runs the length of the beach at that end of the island is now high enough to walk on at low tide. The divots in the beach that form tide pools filled with crabs and tiny fish are deeper and more dramatic than they were last year, forming a moonscape of craters.
It’s not just these massive, year-long changes that captivate me. Each day this week, my low-tide rambles have been different. One day I reached the point at exactly low tide and was able to walk back on the sand bar with water on either side of me. It felt as if I were walking on a private pathway in the middle of the ocean. When I tried to replicate this experience the next day, there was simply too much water, but I was able to wade through amazing, warm tide pools that hadn’t been there the day before. On another walk, the light was just right and the water was so clear turquoise and the sand so sparkly white that it seemed like I had managed to walk to the Caribbean. Yet another walk was all about wildlife – I saw pelicans, dolphins, piping plovers, a baby terrapin, two living horseshoe crabs, a pair of wrestling hermit crabs and gulls of all colors and sizes.
Another favorite part of this annual trip is that I go on a yoga vacation. Over the years, I’ve started calling it my “yoga safari.” I confess to having a favorite teacher here, yet the classes he teaches are wildly different from the yoga I practice (and teach) each day at home. I also deliberately attend as many other classes here as I can. I try styles of yoga I’ve never done before – restorative, vinyasa, Bikram-based, hatha and some I don’t even know the names of. I’ve practiced in heated rooms and air conditioned spaces. I’ve practiced alone with a teacher I’ve just met and I’ve shared classes with so many people that there were only two inches separating our mats.
Each time I walk into one of these classes, my intention is the same. “Embrace it.” One morning, in a class with a teacher I had never practiced with, we were told to grab a bolster, blanket and blocks. I caught myself thinking, “Hey, this class was listed as Vinyasa, not restorative. This isn’t what I expected.” I exhaled and re-focused on my intention. “Embrace it.” I thought. “Open yourself to the gifts this teacher wants to give you.” And I did. As we moved through class, though the postures were familiar, the series was not. Unlike Ashtanga yoga, we sat in the beginning, did our sun salutations in the middle of class and the backbends were not at the end of the practice. My body initially resisted the newness, and then, as my mind let go to embrace the experience, so did my body.
As I lay in savasana at the end of class, there was a moment when my mind released every single thought the way my body let go of its tension when I crossed the causeway onto the island. I dropped into a quiet, still inner place that mirrored the peace I feel during this week on the beach. As I rolled up my mat to leave the studio, awash in gratitude for the gifts this teacher had shared with me, I realized I had just experienced the yoga equivalent of a walk to my beloved point. I love yoga the way I love walking this special stretch of beach. That the landscape changes day to day just makes the experience even more beautiful.
I hope to take my vacation intention with me when I cross the causeway to return to the mainland. I hope to stay open to the gifts that life is offering – even (especially) if they look unfamiliar or are surprising.
I try to practice yoga off my mat even more regularly than I practice on my mat. In the end, after all, the practice is meant to help us live more meaningful lives. What does this mean? In a nutshell, I suppose I’m trying to be a good person, but I think it’s helpful to make a lofty goal like this more specific. So, when I’m practicing yoga in my life, I’m specifically trying to:
Over the years, I’ve found that life practically gift wraps some experiences as opportunities to practice yoga off the mat. Oddly enough, for me, one of my living nightmares, oral surgery, turned out to be one of these experiences. Don’t worry. I’m going to leave the gory details out. I’m a complete dental-phobe and will describe my experiences as if you are too.
Here’s the moral to my tale: The doctor did a double-take and then did something I didn’t expect. She bent down and gave me a hug. Which was exactly what I needed.
Keep practicing. It will bring you exactly what you need too.
A couple of times a year, I get myself into a tight spot. Sometimes I find myself literally backed into a corner. Sometimes I’m off balance. Sometimes I’m scrambling faster than I ever thought I could scramble. Sometimes I’m clinging desperately to a hard-earned lead. And sometimes I’m fighting my way back from a seemingly insurmountable deficit.
This tight spot that I keep re-visiting is nothing earth-shattering and it’s certainly not a life or death situation. When my brother and I get together, we find it hard to resist the lure of the ping pong table. I can’t remember a time in my life that we haven’t been pretty evenly matched. During our 20s, I was a little better than him at beer pong. These days, he’s a little bit better than me at putting spin on his shots. Let’s just say, neither of us missed out when competitiveness was handed out. While our parents didn’t raise poor losers, our games are always hard fought. We almost always work up a sweat when we play. (Yes, it’s possible.)
A rainy weekend gave us our chance to play. As we were warming up, several of my shots missed the back edge of the table. I started fiddling around with my grip, the angle of the paddle and spin. In short, I started thinking. As soon as this happened, the wheels fell off the bus. My misses got wilder. I found myself standing still after a ball flew by me. I even whiffed on a backhand. (Unheard of.) In the middle of the mess, as if from another part of my brain, I thought to myself, “Stop thinking. Just play.” I took a deep breath and did just that.
Ping pong, at least between my brother and me, is a wicked fast game. There is literally no time to think. You have to let your body react and trust that it knows what to do. Strategy, shot selection, ball placement all have to come from a place of instinct. This is a game where years of practice pay off. Patience is a virtue. Long rallies cannot be rushed to an end. Sometimes, ping pong can be a game of waiting for the other person to make a mistake. And, sometimes, you get a shot that you can put away. Again, it’s practice that helps you determine the difference in an instant.
With years of practice, the body finds its way toward skill. This is true of anything you do – cutting chicken, driving a car, pruning a hedge, embroidery, hanging twinkle lights over the patio. With repetition, we naturally get better. We get faster. Our actions smooth out and become more fluid. As our skills improve, we find we have the bandwidth to enhance our work – to add a flourish or to try something a little more complex – when before that would have been impossible. It’s pretty cool, when you think about it, that our bodies seem to be designed to seek efficiency and grace.
This belief in the body’s yearning for efficiency and grace is at the heart of how I was taught and how I teach yoga. While there were absolutely specific skills I needed to be taught – how to align my upper body to take advantage of the appropriate muscles for a low push-up or how to press my weight back over my heels so that downward facing dog wasn’t such a struggle – my teacher had faith in my body to find its way into the postures in its own time. I believe she viewed her job as two-fold. First, to teach me the series of postures over and over again so it would become second nature to me. And, second, to help me find the right form – whether a modification or the full posture – for my body on any given day in each pose.
It turns out that my teacher had faith in my body’s ability to find its way well before I did. I was prone to thinking too much, allowing my mind to get in the way of my body’s efforts. This is changing. In addition to learning yoga, with years of practice, I have learned to emulate my teacher’s faith in my body. While I still sometimes get caught up in thoughts, much like I was when my ping pong shots were going astray, I now notice when this is happening. When I’m thinking too much, my movements become less fluid, even movements that are usually easy for me feel more like work, I hesitate and often totally mess up.
It’s in these moments that I often hear the voice that interrupted my chatty thoughts at the ping pong table. “Stop thinking. Just do it.” it says. And, with a deep breath and a leap of faith, I often find that I can do just that. So I do.
Newfound Lake is a very important place for our family. It has been our summer destination for decades. It is where we gather as an extended family – brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, grandchildren and cousins. It is where we rest deeply. It is where we play hard. It is where we retreat from our full, often busy lives at home to nestle into what feels like a suspended reality. A place where we step out of our regular roles – executives, teachers, lawyers and students – for a little while to just be ourselves.
When you come to the same place year after year, it’s nearly impossible to avoid expectations. They come part and parcel with treasured memories and traditions that have been forged and re-forged by three generations. You yearn to repeat the amazing day of waterskiing on glassy, smooth water. Your heightened anticipation for the annual trip to play miniature golf is almost beyond reason.
Expectations provide excitement and anticipation. They create energy and enthusiasm for the trip that makes the long drive totally worthwhile, no matter your age. Expectations make things easy when you arrive. Your days at the lake almost plan themselves – exercise in the morning, days spent on the boat, evenings around the giant dinner table, putting on a sweatshirt for the trip for ice cream each evening. So do your weeks. “Remember to save a day for shopping at the outlets!” “We have to go to Polly’s Pancake Parlor!” “Don’t forget our traditional meal at the Bristol House of Pizza!”
This happy place has showed us the very best side of expectations. Annually, we are thrilled to be headed here. Annually, we are tearful to leave. Our expectations of this place are rarely disappointed.
At the same time, however, this place so steeped in tradition and history and habit has taught us to hold our expectations lightly or we will certainly be disappointed. There was the year that it rained for 7 full days. Had we not been flexible with our expectations for our vacation, we could have spent the week feeling trapped and irritable. Instead, we look back on that vacation fondly as the week we put together every jigsaw in the house, played epic rounds of board games and went swimming in the rain daily whenever the thunder stopped.
Seven separate summers there was an infant in the mix. Nursing and napping babies shortened our waterskiing trips appreciably. As babies are rarely quiet in the morning and require a great deal of quiet in the evenings, our daily schedules shifted. We discovered the joys of breakfasts at the country store and hardly missed our second beer in the evenings. We went to the town beach and laughed ourselves silly in the sand, hardly missing our late afternoon hours floating in the boat. Staying flexible with our expectations and simply being happy to be here made those weeks as special as the new family members we were spending them with.
This summer, two of those infants are now working and living at the lake. When we arrived for our beloved vacation, we found ourselves moving into “their” space and fitting ourselves into the rhythm of their days. They are licensed and excited to take the boat out on their own, leaving us sitting happily on the dock and teaching our puppies (more “new” to add to all this “old” this summer) to swim rather than hauling skier after skier around the lake.
Sharing our vacation with (mostly) self-sufficient teens is allowing my husband and me to spend much more time together, a silver lining to not getting as much quality time with our kids as we once did. Our schedule is wide open – no breakfasts or lunches other than our own need to be made. We need only to apply sunscreen to ourselves. Movies can be rated “R” if we so choose. While a victory at ping-pong is no longer a sure thing, we are guaranteed an exciting, close game.
New, it turns out, can be good. It’s exciting to reconnect with nieces and nephews who have formed different passions and opinions since we were last together. It is exhilarating when one of us comes up with an entirely novel idea – like the year my husband bought a wake board and we had another water sport to master, or the year we found a hike none of us had ever heard of, or the year I discovered how beautiful it is to practice yoga on the little porch on the front of the house. Change here has been as constant as our traditions. And, like our traditions, change at the lake has been pretty darn sweet.
Upon reflection, maybe what this happy place has taught us is how to have healthy expectations. Yes, we arrive here every year excited to be together. Yes, our expectations are at a fever pitch to do all the things we love to do while we’re here. But decades of visits have taught us that change here is sweet. And that new traditions are as easy to create as old ones are to maintain. We come knowing exactly what it means to be here and simultaneously curious as to how the week will unfold.
Take a quick look at your own expectations. Do they leave you feeling sour or cheated when they’re not met? Chances are you’re holding on too tight. The key to keeping your expectations healthy is to temper them with an openness to the unexpected. In other words, make change one of your expectations!