Festive ribbons and bows.
Candles flickering on the table.
Jingling bells on doors.
Carols on the radio.
The trimmings of the season are designed to put smiles on our faces, to inspire us to take a pleasant pause and to lift our hearts. They are designed to make our spirits bright. In fact, without the trimmings, I’m not sure the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day would feel half as special as they do. Without the trimmings, this dark month leading up to the winter solstice would be even darker.
The choice to make spirits bright is available to us all year long. As yoga teaches us, when setting life intentions, it’s always helpful to start with ourselves.
How do we choose to be bright? In a nutshell, we take care of ourselves. We eat nutritious foods. We get enough sleep. We move our wonderful bodies every day – on a yoga mat or off. Daily, we set aside time to meditate or pray. We stay connected to the world around us by reaching out to our neighbors, by volunteering to help with a meaningful project, by staying in touch with our friends, by joining something (anything!) – a faith community, a biking club, a tennis team or a book group. We give generously of our time, treasure and talents. We count our blessings every night.
Starting by brightening our own spirit is far from selfish. When we are smiling, when we are pleasant, when we are centered, content and energized, we are simply better at living as the generous, caring, open-hearted, open-minded and loving people we were created to be. Yoga calls this living into our best selves. When we live this way, our bright spirits are contagious to the world around us.
Beyond simply living into all the loving potential held within each of our spirits, we can choose actions that make others’ spirits a little brighter. We can sincerely thank the bagger at the grocery store for taking care of our food and us. We can let the other person have the parking spot. We can give an extra-long hug when our loved one is feeling droopy. We can drop off a meal to a friend who’s had a rough week. We can scoop up the poop on the town trail even when it’s not our dog’s. We can shovel our neighbor’s walkway so they are surprised when they step out their door. We can quietly pay for an extra cup of coffee so the person behind us gets a little gift in addition to their caffeine fix.
I could type ideas all morning long, but I’ll leave it at that. I suspect, if you try spending a day or a week or a month living with the intention to make spirits all around you bright, that you will find it becomes a bit addicting.
Each time we choose to brighten another’s day, we are giving a gift as sweet and as meaningful as any we wrap to give during December. When we embrace the notion of making spirits bright, we become the beautiful trimming that enhances life for all those around us. And, just as our own peaceful, joyful state of mind can spread to others, the good will we are creating flows back to us, making our own experience of life quite wonderful indeed.
May your holidays be filled with light and love and peace!
‘Tis the season for enough festivity to fill the whole year. Concerts at school. Parties. Dinner invitations. A poorly timed yoga workshop (Really? December?). A Christmas pageant. Late nights out with friends. Impromptu drinks with loved ones not seen in far too long. Family celebrations of all shapes and sizes. And that’s just a look at my calendar for the last half of the month! What a delightful tsunami of fun.
Though their calendars are filled with some different activities than mine, my daughters are feeling the same way. In fact, with near tears of relief when she realized that she did not have choir rehearsal tonight, my older daughter commented this morning that she had not had a night with nothing to do in weeks. I smiled and said, “Take it one fun thing at a time, my dear. And tonight your fun thing will be to relax.”
“One fun thing at a time,” has actually been my mantra this month and it’s working marvelously. I’m not looking too far ahead because to do that is to ensure a meltdown. When I do find myself with a quiet window of time, I have turned on the Christmas carols and done a little gift wrapping. While I haven’t sat down with a book in weeks, it’s OK. There will be more than enough time for that in February. For now, I am determined to squeeze all of the merry out of this season.
And this intention has gifted me with some surprising moments of happiness. As I was making the 30 minute drive out to puppy school (I know. Really? In December?), I caught myself murmuring with a smile, “That is so pretty!” as I passed a fence adorned with beautiful greenery and gold trimming. As we made sugar cookies (A.K.A. made a gigantic mess of the kitchen) this weekend, I noticed that I wasn’t in a hurry at all. I realized, curled up happily on the sofa, that I was relaxing instead of list-making as I listened to my daughter sing during her voice lesson. In each of my classes this week, I have noticed that I’ve saved time for extra-long rests in savasana.
There has been an odd, almost paradoxical feeling of spaciousness in my very full month. I have actually not been tempted to skip anything – not even puppy school. While I have woken a few mornings with a racing heart, feeling like a tiny ant staring up the mountain of my to-do list, I have not skipped my yoga practice. Each day, as I roll up my mat afterwards, I’ve felt centered, calmed and ready for the next step. My practice has been a powerful reminder that, as taking one posture at a time makes 90 minutes on my mat feel manageable rather than overwhelming, one step at a time makes even the fullest day feel manageable.
While I chose my mantra of “One fun thing at a time” to help me navigate all of the extras in my schedule this month, it has done far more than that. It has slowed me down. It has kept me in the moment. And, in doing so, it has made even things that I may not have categorized as “fun” enjoyable. This mantra of mine may just become my New Year’s resolution. I’ll have to let you know. After all, there are many more steps to take until then.
Enjoy the fun!
Looking at a fellow yoga student who is remarkably bendy, a woman asked me a fascinating question. “Is there a correlation between physical flexibility and having a flexible personality?” Hoping for a moment to gather my thoughts, I asked her to expand on her question. “Well, she seems so mellow and easy-going. I just wondered if that was part of the reason her muscles are so loose compared to mine.”
I smiled, partly because I understood at a deeply personal level what she was asking me. “Is my “Type A” personality one of the reasons I am still challenged in something as simple as a forward fold?” is a question I’ve asked myself a hundred times if I’ve asked it once. I was also smiling because I know the bendy woman very well and I know the journey of transformation on which life has taken her. Let’s just say, her lovely, mellow, easy-going persona is the product of a great deal of soul-searching and dedicated inner work.
Let’s start with personalities. The label “Type A” is a bit of a dumping ground for adjectives. Among them many are negative – controlling, driven and impatient. Often forgotten are some positive traits – orderly, organized, efficient, prompt. I often joke that, as a result of my yoga practice, I’m a “recovering” Type A. This is not wholly true. Yoga has not changed (and will not) who I am. It has simply helped to draw me back to center when the more extreme aspects of my personality make my life uncomfortable.
For instance, I have released much of my need to control. I have managed to develop an admirable degree of patience. Yet I still consider myself an orderly, organized, efficient and prompt person. While still “Type A,” since I began practicing yoga, I am learning not to allow for my need for order or to be on time to make me panicky or stressed. When I tease that I’m in recovery, I’m saying that my priorities have shifted. I now seek centeredness, balance and comfort rather than control. All of us – “Type A,” “Type B,” or types I haven’t heard even of – can benefit from harmonizing transformation such as this.
On to physical flexibility. In my fifteen years of practicing, observing and teaching yoga, I have come to believe that genetics plays a tremendous role in flexibility. In my own case, my mom is bendy and my dad is decidedly not. My sister takes after my mom in this regard, while my brother and I take after my dad. To take it a step further, genetic flexibility seems to be pretty precise. My sister is flexible in exactly the same ways that my mother is – loose hamstrings and hips – while my brother and I struggle with the same tight areas that are hallmarks of my dad’s body. This theory has been validated nearly every time I have the opportunity to teach mothers and their children.
That said, given time and practice, yoga will change your body – specifically your flexibility. While I will probably never feel “bendy,” I can now (at least when I’m warmed up) palm the floor with straight legs in a forward fold. My brother, who chooses to run and bike rather than jump around on a yoga mat, is still challenged to touch his knees in the same position (which is about where I started). I know runners with such tight hips that they never thought they’d sit in lotus do so. I’ve taught people with vertigo, who never thought they’d be able to balance on one foot, do so. With slow and steady practice, patience and persistence, I’ve watched this practice help people with serious back issues, replaced joints and other debilitating injuries return to wholeness.
And there’s the key. With slow and steady practice, we change. With patience and persistence, we change. When we set aside our drive for specific goals and simply head out into the unknown that is our own possibility, we change. As a creek can create a canyon given enough time, this practice can change us quietly and yet dramatically. We will feel its changes inside and out. Not only that, but, given enough time, the changes we experience will quietly change the world around us.
[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”18″ align=”left”]Breath is the bridge that connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath to take hold of your mind again.” – Thich Nhat Hahn[/mk_blockquote]
I very rarely practice yoga in front of my children. Firstly, I’m up hours before they are and have usually finished my practice before they even come down for breakfast. Secondly, I’m simply not someone who has ever enjoyed an audience (just ask my piano teacher who had to calm me from the brink of panic before every single recital of my life). Lastly, because I teach from my house, I’m lucky enough to have a studio available to me just footsteps from my back door, so I almost never unroll my mat in the house. Yoga, therefore, is mostly a solitary activity for me.
Recently, however, I shared a hotel room with my daughter. After a grueling car ride the night before, I absolutely needed to work out some kinks so I unrolled my mat as far from her bed as I could get. I wound up in that little entryway space that seems to be part of every hotel room in the world. As I was rolling my mat back up an hour later, she commented, “You have really good breath control. Even when you’re doing something hard, you sound the same. I bet that would be helpful for a lot of stuff, like when I’m on the erg.” (For those of you who are not crew moms, my daughters tell me that an “erg” is a torture device disguised as a rowing machine.)
I exhibited a great deal of self-control in my response and simply said, “Yup. My breath is really helpful.” (Time and again my husband have learned the hard way that much more than this results in glazed-over or rolling eyes.) For you, my friends, I will expand on that response here.
Yes, my breath is helpful. It sets the pace for my practice. It’s like a metronome that keeps me from speeding along when I’m feeling stressed or busy or hyper. It also keeps me from plodding along when I’m tired or down in the dumps. When everything is going well, my breath feels like the heartbeat of my practice.
Yes, as my daughter noticed, my breath is especially helpful when I’m doing something hard. I have a teacher who opens every class describing the way the breath keeps us safe. If we breathe into a stretch that is hard for us, we literally cannot hurt ourselves. The converse is also true. If we move into that same posture while holding our breaths, our risk of pulling or tearing something goes up exponentially. For more dynamic movements such as lifting into an inversion or a balance, the breath is just as critical. It keeps our movements smooth and mindful, making it much less likely that we will topple over. When moving into postures that are scary, there is no better time to focus on your breath. It is something familiar and grounding to support us as we move into unfamiliar or frightening territory.
But the breath is so much more than helpful. It is the gateway from the outer gifts of yoga (the strength, the flexibility, the health) to the inner gifts. When we focus on our breath even for just a few moments, our inner landscape automatically changes. The pace of the thoughts zinging around in our head slows. The heartbeat evens out. The jagged edges of our emotions start to smooth. When we draw our attention back to our breath over and over for an hour or more, we begin to feel quite settled in this changed inner landscape. Therefore, when things start to get out of whack – in other words, when we feel stressed or rushed or upset – we notice. We notice and we instinctively take a deep, calming, settling breath and we shift back into a more balanced way of being.
Imagine if, without even a thought, you habitually turned to a transformative tool like this in the challenging moments that pepper every day. After a near-miss on the highway. After you’ve messed something up on a project for school. While your boss is giving you some “constructive criticism” in front of your colleagues. While the person in front of you at the deli is loudly expressing a political view that you find offensive. Just before you open your big mouth to yell at your child or puppy or neighbor. Your experience of life would be different, wouldn’t it?
Practicing yoga is a great way to practice working with your breath. But you don’t even have to unroll a mat. You can sit still and focus on your breath. Set a timer for 5 minutes to begin with. Close your eyes and feel your breath. You can count. You can silently label inhalations and exhalations. You can simply engross yourself in the sensations of breathing – the cool, dryness of an inhale and the warm, moistness of an exhale. When you notice that your mind has wandered off to a thought or daydream, without judgment (that’s important), simply return your awareness to your breath. After just a few days, I suspect you will start to notice that you’re using your breath to give you a sense of peace and stability as you dash around your life.
We are headed into a month filled with hustle and bustle, parties, long to-do lists to check (and check again), and family gatherings with loved ones from near and far. There is no better time to spend a little time with your breath. Remember, changing your inner landscape can be as simple as focusing on your breath for just a few moments. That altered landscape can make this month – even the moments that are hard for you – a month to remember.
Inhale … Exhale … Repeat.