March is the month when high school seniors hear back from colleges regarding their applications. Going to the mailbox each day has yielded some great highs as well as a few lows for my daughter. It has also been a time of empathetic emotion. She reacts almost as much when one of her dear friends receives a thin or a thick envelope of his or her own. For a young adult who is just learning what it means to manage her emotions, it has been a tough month to stay centered.
I’ve been fascinated by my own turbulent emotions. One day I’ll be high as a kite, thrilled by an acceptance that means an institution sees the remarkable girl I see each morning. I expected those days. What has caught me off guard is that a rejection letter from a school she wasn’t even really considering could have just as much power over my state of mind. For no good reason, I watch myself crash land from my high into a morass of questioning, doubting and worrying.
Let’s just say, despite the yoga, it’s been a tough month for me to stay centered as well.
What role does yoga play?
Yoga teaches us to watch ourselves closely. In Sanskrit, this practice is called svadhyaya, which is translated as self-study. When we are practicing self-study, we are closely observing our actions, our thoughts and our feelings.
Let’s start with the easiest – learning to observe actions. Most of us begin this process on our yoga mat. On mine, I pay such close attention to what I am doing that I notice a ton of little things. I notice that I hold my breath as I stepped forward into a lunge. I notice that I fiddle with my ponytail (Every. Single. Time.) before time I move into a hand-balance that worries me. I notice that I scootch my hips out of alignment in a seated forward fold so I am able to go deeper. Each time I notice something is an opportunity to change, to learn and to grow.
As I move and breathe on my yoga mat, I can take my self-study a little deeper by observing my thoughts. This requires me to soften and expand my focus so it includes both my actions and my mind. I notice that I start worrying about a scary posture about 15 postures in advance. I notice that I’m really tough on myself when I mess up, using language that I would never use with a student or one of my children. I notice that my thoughts race for the first few seconds of savasana (resting pose), then quiet gradually if I’m patient enough to lay there for a little longer. Again, each time I notice something is an opportunity to change, to learn and to grow.
As I practice, I have found that self-study can go even deeper. My focus can expand again to include my emotions as well as my actions and thoughts. I notice that a success in a challenging posture leaves me feeling lighter and thinking more positively about postures to come. I notice that it takes me longer to settle into a rhythm on my mat and for my thoughts to quiet when my morning started with a worry or a grumpy mood. I notice that when I’m sad my body often feels sluggish and my thoughts tend toward the negative.
Mainly, I notice that feelings are tricky. If we’re not very aware, they can become the lens through which we observe our actions and thoughts. This isn’t a terrible thing. But, as our practices evolve, we find that we don’t want a colored lens. We yearn to see clearly. And to do this, we must get a little space from our feelings. This space allows us to mindfully choose our responses rather than simply reacting. This holds true whether we are moving through postures on our yoga mats or navigating the ups and downs of March with a high school senior.
It is svadhyaya which revealed to me my emotional turbulence over the past few weeks. And I am grateful for it. Thanks to self-study I have noticed that I’m allowing each subsequent “yes” or “no” to dilute the joy or disappointment of previous letters. I have noticed that though these emotional reactions feel powerful, they are actually quite surface. If I dig a little deeper, I find a well of deep contentment (mixed with maternal pride) that my daughter has choices to make. Finally, I have noticed the unsettling, irritating effects of having answers trickle in. I have noticed that I am allowing the uneasiness of waiting to distract me from my settling and centering faith that everything will work out exactly as it is meant to for each of these kids.
Which is exactly what I am going to try to convey to my daughter tonight (after a deep breath or two) when her phone starts to blow up again with texts from dear friends sharing their news.
[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”18″ align=”left”]Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence, yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world.” – Robert F. Kennedy[/mk_blockquote]
Doing what is right when everyone else is doing what’s right (or at least when everyone else seems to acknowledge what is right) is not typically a problem. It’s doing what is right when everyone else is doing what is wrong that requires more of us. It can even require courage.
While these situations crop up in life at any age, they seem to plague teens. After all, most teens take very seriously their job of pushing the envelope at all times, of proving that most if not all rules are stupid, of being about 1,000 times cooler than you (the adult in their life) could ever dream of being. Since we were all once teen-agers, it should be relatively easy to (re-)connect with the classic situations in which teens find themselves that require moral courage. Underage drinking. Sneaking into “R” rated movies. Cheating or committing plagiarism. Having sex for the first time. Cutting class. Lying to protect your friends.
Looking at the list, the morally right answer mostly seems glaringly obvious. And none of these situations seem frightening enough to require anything remotely close to courage. Yet, if we’re doing our job of trying to get in touch with how we really felt and perceived things when we were adolescents, I suspect we can remember how dire at least one of these situations seemed to us. So dire, perhaps, that we chose the morally wrong path even though we “knew better.”
What made the situation so dire? 99% of the time it was the fact that “everyone else” was doing it. Yes, that’s right. “Everyone else” – whether perceived or real – is a very powerful force. Peer pressure was often the reason we failed to muster the moral courage to do the right thing while we were in high school or college. And, while we probably wouldn’t call it peer pressure any more, swimming against the tide is still something most of us struggle with well into adulthood.
What adults have to lean on in situations like this that teens do not is life experience. My daughter’s very wise first grade teacher called it “simple time on the planet.” Over time, experience helps to mitigate peer pressure. We come to find out that “everyone else” is sometimes only two or three loudmouths. Even when “everyone else” is a larger group than that, as we mature, we begin to trust that it’s OK not to care what “everyone else” thinks.
But still, even with lots of time on the planet, we can struggle. Why? Because sometimes it’s really hard to figure out what we believe. Sometimes we’re still questioning what we think is right or wrong. Sometimes the moral path is camouflaged rather ingeniously – especially when the “other” path is packed with people.
What do we do then? We have to tune into our gut or our intuition. In other words, we have to figure out how something makes us feel. This is actually something that can be harder to do for those of us with more time on the planet. We are well-trained to think things through, to analyze and to study, but all this intellectual training does not put the same value of feelings. In fact, many of us are taught to distrust feelings as emotional rather than logical, as weak instead of strong. This can leave us at a loss for a compass when we’re trying to navigate a path that requires moral courage.
A yoga practice offers us access to just such a compass. Yoga helps even well-schooled, “heady,” proud thinking folks like me and you to reconnect with our inner-wisdom, our intuition and our feelings. We face feelings all the time on our mats.
We face fear. When a posture that “everyone else” is doing scares us, we must determine the nature of our fear. Is it keeping us safe or holding us back? We face joy. When we finally succeed in a posture we must manage our joy in an appropriately humble way that doesn’t leave us smug. We face frustration. When a posture is elusive or fleeting we must manage our response – balancing the desire to keep pounding away at it and the wisdom of walking away for now.
The right path for us on our yoga mat is often not the path that “everyone else” is taking. Yoga requires us to find our personal path. Not to do so puts us at risk of injury – physical, mental or emotional. Teacher after teacher has advised me to listen to my “inner teacher.” I say the same thing to my students. Our inner teacher knows much more about us than any teacher ever could. We learn quickly on our yoga mats to heed his or her voice.
In doing so, yoga puts us closely in touch with our intuition, our gut, and the wisdom we were born with rather than the wisdom that we gained through study. It is from this wisdom that moral courage springs. So the next time we’re deciding whether or not to allow “everyone else” to lead the way, we will have the strength, the fortitude and, yes, even the courage to go our own way. When we do, we might be surprised to look back and see that “everyone else” has followed along after us.
Trust yourselves. Be courageous. Change the world. I know you can do it.
There was a time when a snow day could send me into a tailspin of angst. I would be anxious about the “lost” time. I would be frustrated by my looming list of things to do. I would feel derailed from my schedule. By the way, it wouldn’t have to be a snow day. It could be a child home sick. Or a broken-down car. Or the phones or cable being down and the requisite 4-hour window I’d have to wait for the repair person.
In short, there was a time when life’s little hiccups could leave me feeling victimized. Not anymore.
I’m going to chalk up the change in me to yoga. After all, if fifteen years of practice have taught me anything, it’s that I can count on nothing. I could have the most feel-good practice of my life one day and the most painful one I could imagine the next. I could spend three straight years doing an inversion and go out to practice one day to find I am no longer be able to do it. I could struggle with a nagging injury for months and show up on my mat one day to find myself mysteriously, miraculously healed.
I’m not making this stuff up. It’s all true and it’s all happened to me. The vicissitudes of a daily yoga practice can rival the nonsensical theatrics of any soap opera on television.
It turns out that showing up when you have absolutely no idea what to expect takes an astounding amount of practice. I still fall prey to expectations. I still dash excitedly out to practice the day after I was super bendy, my anticipation for another rubber-band practice at a fever pitch. I still find myself feeling smacked down when I feel more rigid than flexible. In fact, I think it’s the exhausting emotional impact of these crazy highs and devastating lows that have taught me to walk contentedly down the “middle way.”
In pure yoga fashion, the very physical practice of unrolling a yoga mat and moving, breathing and sweating has provided me a stunning level of intimacy with a great big philosophical concept.
The Middle Way is the name Buddhists use for this concept. Not to oversimplify things too dramatically, but Buddha taught that there are addictive qualities to both self-indulgence and self-mortification. In other words, we humans can get hooked on highs as well as lows. Avoiding these extremes by choosing moderation or “walking the middle way” yields peace, calm and even enlightenment.
Christian scripture also teaches this idea. St. Paul wrote (in Philippians 4:11-13) that he learned to be content in any circumstances – in need and in plenty, in hunger and when fed, in plenty or in want. Contentment and peace, Paul discovered, come from within. If we hinge our well-being on seeking certain circumstances of life, we risk exposing ourselves to highs and lows that we must then navigate.
The Hebrew scholar Solomon Ibn Gabirol, who wrote in the middle ages, taught the idea of seeking contentment in all situations with brilliant simplicity. To paraphrase, “He who seeks more than he needs hinders himself from enjoying what he has.”
Yoga philosophy offers us the idea of Brahmacarya. This idea is found in verse 2:38 of the ancient text, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The word literally translates as “to walk with God.” It asks us to seek moderation in all things. Not because it’s right or because doing so makes us extra-virtuous or because if we find moderation we’ll somehow also find enlightenment. We are taught to seek moderation because our experience of life is better when we do. The reward of moderation is balance and centeredness.
Over the years, then, my practice has taught me (honestly, sometimes the hard way) all about the peace that is available to me when I find contentment with “what is” – a tight day or a loose, injured or well. This lesson has not been limited to the confines of my yoga mat. Actually, very few things I’ve learned on that rubber rectangle have only benefited me there. This practice of walking the “middle way” or moderation has seeped off my mat and into my life.
Which is why I believe that snow days (and, yes, even four hour waits for the cable guy) now feel like gifts to me. Even though some things may not get done. Even though my schedule is interrupted. These unexpected windows of time feel like opportunities. They feel filled with surprises just like my very familiar yet always surprising practice.
I will close this with a familiar Hebrew greeting which offers you peace, harmony and tranquility no matter what type of day you’re having.
[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”18″ align=”left”]Appreciation can make a day, even change a life. Your willingness to put it into words is all that is necessary.” – Margaret Cousins[/mk_blockquote]
“Thank you.” These two words may just be the most powerful words in the world. They profoundly impact both the person being thanked and the person doing the thanking. They bind people into a web of respect, appreciation and gratitude. They can wash away exhaustion. They can transform crankiness into a smile. They can inspire us to do things we never imagined it was possible to do.
Our annual high school musical was this weekend. There were five shows – three sold out. For the last several years, I have organized the ushers for the show. In the scope of the amazing things the kids and other parents do to put on these professional level shows, mine is a small- to medium-sized job. I gather volunteers, build a schedule and teach my team how to efficiently get hundreds of excited guests to their seats. Most importantly, we make sure that everyone is welcomed with a smile. Even when a seat has accidentally been sold twice or when someone has mistakenly arrived at the show with a ticket for the night before, we cheerfully solve the problem. I tell the team of ushers that our highest intention is that everyone who has made the effort to be there sees the show.
Just before the ushers arrived for show number three, I was leaning against the door thinking. There had been more issues than usual at the previous two shows, and I was mentally running through logistics trying to troubleshoot this show before we welcomed our first guests. When the director of the show stepped through the doors, I took a deep breath, anticipating another complication to navigate. Instead, he said he wanted to thank me for all I’d done. He said that putting on a musical took a village, and he wanted me and my team to know that the show would not be the success it was without our efforts. As he smiled and left the auditorium, he left me changed. I no longer felt harried and worried. Rather, I was reinvigorated and raring to go.
By taking three seconds to express his appreciation, the director affirmed the value of my hard work. He made it clear that my efforts were noticed. He made me feel like an important part of the team. Those three seconds made a big impact.
As a child, my mom insisted that we write thank you notes for every gift we received. I’ve held onto this habit as an adult in part because saying thank you feels like the right thing to do. I like to think my words of thanks (even if just via email or text) will add a little smile to my friend’s day. But I also take a moment to write a thank you note because it gives me the chance to savor the appreciation I feel for the person who has given me something special – whether a gift or a favor or some much needed help. Expressing my thanks leaves me awash in gratitude and warm feelings all over again for the generosity and love that I have received.
When I teach yoga, I often open or close class with a moment of gratitude. I suggest that my students take a moment to thank themselves for the gift they are giving themselves of the time and space to take care of themselves. I suggest they spend a moment feeling gratitude for the practice and for all the teachers who have passed it down to us. And I suggest that they take a moment to feel grateful for their fellow students, who have come to share energy and movement and breath that morning. In these quiet moments, I can feel the energy of the room shift and change.
Genuine gratitude is tangible. It changes us to feel it. And it changes the world around us when we take the time to express it.
Thank you for the opportunity to share.
[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”18″ align=”left”]And so I give this spark of what is light to me, to guide you through the dark, not to tell you what to see. – Unknown[/mk_blockquote]
This Wednesday began the season of Lent. For Christians, this is a very holy time set aside to prepare inwardly for the celebration of Easter. What does it mean to prepare inwardly? Some people give up things they enjoy for Lent – like coffee or chocolate. These sacrifices are not about being healthier or losing weight or even breaking bad habits. Their intention is to prompt us to pause and think of God every time we experience a desire or craving. Some people assume a Lenten discipline – adding in a practice such as daily spiritual reading, volunteering weekly at a homeless shelter, attending a class at church or writing a thank you note each day to someone who makes their life a little brighter. Like Lenten sacrifices, these disciplines are intended to help draw faith into daily life.
If that rings a bell, it’s for good reason. The physical practice of yoga that we share is also a tool to help draw God into our daily lives. Our ancient yoga teachers do not define God by creed or religion. They simply ask us to surrender to a higher power. I have found that the practice can be a powerful addition to any faith – helping us to draw God beyond regular worship services and religious holidays and into our day to day lives. In the same way, yoga also can add a spiritual dimension to lives lived without formal religion – offering us a regular time to tune into our spirit, to pay attention to our conscience, to drop down beneath our intelligence to tap into the wisdom of our heart, and to be quiet and attentive enough to sense our connectedness to the world around us. As a yoga teacher, Lent has become a season when I re-focus my teaching and my own practice on the spiritual aspects of yoga.
Yoga is a multi-layered practice. It touches us on all levels – body, mind and spirit. There will be times when it speaks mainly to our bodies. During these periods, we may be hard at work on a new posture or healing an injury or developing the strength required to practice more often or for longer. During these times our awareness of the impact that our yoga practice is having on us physically is heightened. We feel it changing us and these changes to our body draw us back to our mats over and over again for more.
There will be other times when yoga is more mental. During these periods, we might be very stressed at work, or navigating a life change such as retirement or a new baby, or we might be juggling more projects or tasks than is comfortable. During these times, we are very aware of yoga’s calming, centering effects. We step onto our mats frazzled and distracted. We sit up out of savasana focused and with clearer priorities. In these stages, we come to our mats even when we may not really have the time because we crave the energized, yet balanced, state of mind we find there.
And there are still other times when yoga is more spiritual. During these periods, we may feel lost, alone, purposeless or insignificant. We may simply feel flat – the sense of meaning faded a little from our lives. During these times, the opposite may also be true. We may have had a spiritual awakening of some sort or we may feel ebullient and uber-connected to God. Or we may just feel a deep yearning for “more” that we can’t quite put our finger on. As we practice during stages like this, we are very aware of our connectedness to the world around us and to “something greater” that yoga helps us feel. We may find ourselves taking an extra moment to set an intention at the start of practice to turn toward the Divine, or expressing prayers of heart-felt gratitude at the close of practice. We might find that our rests in savasana are extra-deep and -rich.
The hustle and bustle that surround most of us most of the time is not all that conducive to living a spiritually focused life. In fact, I have found that the periods of time when yoga is naturally spiritually-centered for me and for my students can be wildly outnumbered by the periods when yoga tends more toward the physical or mental. For this reason, setting aside a “season” each year to be mindful of and deliberate about the spiritual nature of yoga is very important.
These seasons are not a time for abandoning the physical. After all, the movement and effort of the practice teach us to be still – still enough to sense and feel our spirit. Nor are they times for abandoning the mental. After all, the concentration and focus of the practice create an awareness of the almost constant activity of our thoughts. This awareness is the first step toward recognizing that there is more to us than our chatty, busy mind. Once this awareness solidifies, we are better able to drop beneath our thoughts into the quiet of our heart and soul.
To set aside a season to focus on the spiritual side of yoga gives us a defined time to stretch beyond the aspects of the practice that may come to us more naturally. This can be a season for exploring the quieter, stiller portions of the practice that may slip by without capturing our full attention. These include the time centering yourself before beginning to move, the chanting, the breath work, the time traditionally set aside for meditation after savasana. This can be a season of remembering the real reason we practice – to draw closer to God every single day in every single thing we do.
Whether you consider yourself religious or not, I invite you to spend the season of Lent shining the light of your spirit onto your yoga practice. If you practice more for the rich physical or mental gifts, search for ways to allow your practice to root itself into your heart the way it has rooted into your body and your mind. If yoga is already feeding your spirit, search for ways to add a new spiritual element to your practice. Perhaps you could open practice by reading a poem or a piece of scripture. Perhaps you could spend an extra 10 minutes in prayer or meditation after sitting up from your rest. Perhaps you could spend a minute or two before moving and breathing on your mat to center yourself on God and Creation and the very special, vitally important role that you play here in this life.
In the end, this is what it’s all about. Yoga helps us recognize, honor and live into the people we were created to be. Yoga helps us find the presence of God all around us and in every person in our life. Opening to these gifts of the practice has the power to transform your entire life. Why not spend forty days or so giving it your all?