[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”18″ align=”left”]If you begin to understand what you are without trying to change it, then what you are undergoes a transformation.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti[/mk_blockquote]
When I found yoga I had three little children ages 1, 3 and 5. I also had a brand new puppy (a crazy decision, I know). The extreme levels of chaos in my home combined with my natural tendency to be a control-freak ensured that my nerves felt frayed nearly all the time. To make matters worse, each time I lost it, I found myself yelling at a tiny child or a little puppy. Truly, I couldn’t have felt more horrible if I’d tried. It’s not surprising at all, looking back, that the aspect of myself that I disliked the most was my temper.
It’s also not surprising that, when I figured out that yoga made me feel calm and centered while I practiced, I became determined to be calm and centered at home, too. In fact, the more I went to class, the more hell-bent I was to change into the person I felt like on my yoga mat. Honestly (and sadly), rather than helping to reduce my tantrums, all this determination accomplished was more dismay and self-loathing every time I did lose my temper.
Luckily for me, yoga was working its magic in ways I didn’t yet sense or understand.
As I practiced, I had no choice but to witness my mental and emotional reactions to the postures. I came face to face with how I handled success and failure. I noticed when I was complacent and when I worked hard. I paid attention to patterns – I was hard on myself when I was tired, I was pleased with myself when I saw glimpses of change, I was really good at focusing, I didn’t get tripped up comparing myself to others.
Interestingly, I noticed that I was surprisingly willing to laugh at myself when I fell out of standing balancing postures. Failure in these poses was “no biggie.” I would easily smile and try again. Put me upside down and ask me to balance, however, and I was a mess. There was no easy attitude. There was no humor. There were absolutely no smiles. There was mostly a towering wall of angst and fear and frustration.
Each time I tried and failed, I would feel a surge of anger. “Why can’t you do this?” I’d growl to myself in an unkind, awful tone that reminded me of the way I scolded the kids or the dog. Then, I’d berate myself for thinking mean, negative thoughts.
These little emotional explosions were so out of place in the centered serenity of my practice, that they called for more reflection. Because my practice put me in the same situation (a.k.a. postures) several times a week, I had many chances to observe and reflect. One day, all of this attention paid off. I realized in a flash that I felt out of control when I was upside down in ways that I didn’t in any of the other postures. I understood immediately that being out of control like that absolutely terrified me.
In a bright burst of insight, that lesson from my mat revealed a truth about myself that had been hiding deep within me. Feeling out of control scared me. My knee-jerk reaction to being scared was to explode by yelling or growling or otherwise losing my temper. In that instant, my whole perspective on myself shifted and softened. My temper was no longer a character flaw to be loathed. My temper was just a wild attempt to regain control so I didn’t have to be scared anymore.
As a mother of small children and a puppy, I knew exactly how to handle someone when they were scared. When someone is scared, you’re gentle with them. You soothe them. You reassure them. You help them see that they don’t need to be scared, and that, over time, everything will be OK. All of a sudden, when I lost my temper (or, on good days, right before I lost it) I’d notice that my inner dialogue no longer sounded disdainful. Instead, it sounded like I was soothing a startled puppy or a terrified child awoken from a nightmare.
This soothing worked. Just as my puppy learned over time not to panic at loud noises and my children learned to calm themselves from bad dreams, I learned to be OK when feeling out of control. While I wouldn’t necessarily choose chaotic situations for myself, I got better and better at handling them in the same calm, focused and centered manner that I eventually learned to be upside down.
With this new understanding of who and what I was, who and what I was underwent a major transformation. Not only did my temper fade away, but I became a kinder gentler person — not just to my children and my puppy, but to myself, too.
When life gets crazy (and it’s mid-May, which means life is definitely crazy because we’re coming to the end of the school year) my tolerance for messes in my house (which is never great in the first place) goes way down. During these times, I’m not the most fun to live with. My typically calm demeanor gets frayed. I become a bit of a whirling dervish. Belongings left laying about are especially vulnerable to being left in a pile on your pillow (this includes filthy sneakers) or summarily tossed into the garbage. Over the years, I’ve figured out that this is my way of maintaining some type of control during times when I’m feeling mostly out of control.
Over the years, I’ve also learned that while a neat house makes me feel settled and sane, the frenzy and friction of maintaining this state does not, so I’ve been working on other coping mechanisms. The one that has worked the best for me is simply a different take on my instinctual need to surround myself with order. When my days get crazy, I redouble my commitment to my schedule and to the practices that help me live like the kind of person I hope to be rather than the kind of person who throws out someone’s socks because they weren’t in the hamper.
What are the things that I’ve built into my days to center, settle and energize myself?
Nothing overly profound. No magic bullets. A predictable schedule – waking and going to sleep at roughly the same time. Daily movement – for me, I choose yoga. And (this one’s really important), a daily time of stillness and turning inward. I choose to attach my time of quiet to my time of movement. Yoga settles my mind even while my body is moving. I’ve added on two brief times of meditation and prayer to the beginning and end of my practice. You could do the same with your workout or run. What’s important is that this quiet time not get lost in the shuffle of your crazy days.
But let’s get real. I have to admit that there are many days when I’m feeling so squeezed that my heart just isn’t in it. I’m stressed. I’m distracted. I’m feeling scattered and out of control. But I take a deep breath and I do what I know works. Honestly, sometimes I’m pretty much faking it. But I’ve learned that there is truth in the saying that you can “fake it ‘til you make it.”
Do I want to get up at 5:30 when chaos has left me feeling exhausted? Absolutely not. But I don’t succumb to the temptation to just sleep until I wake up. I know from experience that can leave me groggy and panicked about lost time. Instead, I stick to my normal rhythm and set the alarm to wake as usual at the crack of dawn.
Though my list of things to do seems endless, I also resist the temptation to stay up late or to spend an extra hour working on my computer. I know from experience that staring at screens too close to bedtime makes it hard for me to fall asleep. I also know from experience that staying up late throws off my sleep even more profoundly than “screen time.” Somehow my body shifts back into full throttle “awake” mode if I stay up a couple of hours later than usual. So it’s early to rise and early to bed for me, especially when life is crazy.
Though my days feel cramped and pinched for time, I never, ever skip my yoga practice. And, though it is wildly tempting to speed through or abbreviate my practice when life is bananas, I deliberately make myself slow down. In the beginning, the five breaths that I take in each posture feel interminable. But, posture by posture, I gradually settle down. The steady breath of my practice eases my racing brain and heart. And, while my mind may rev right back up as I lay down in savasana, I hold firm to my resolve. Sometimes I even set an alarm to make sure I rest for at least 5 minutes at the end of practice. I do it because I know it’s good for me.
When I sit up from my rest, I resist the urge to sprint back out into my day. I cross my legs, press my palms together at my heart, and close my eyes. I take a few deep breaths until I feel my mind slow and my heart open. I bow my head to the floor and pause there. Then I give myself over to my day – whatever it may bring. I pray to meet the gifts and the challenges of the day with all of me – body, mind and spirit. I pray to delight in the day – even the hard parts. I pray to stay focused – drawing my awareness (over and over again) away from my long list and back to each of the steps along my way.
I pray the same prayer every single day – wildly busy or blissfully calm – and I mean it every single time. And, every single time, it resets something deep within me. Suddenly, I’m not faking it anymore. And I feel confident that I will make it.
Photo Cred: The amazing Amanda Zavodnick.
“I am fascinated by tiny, incremental changes, almost imperceptible shifts in how people orient themselves in the world, because those are in some ways the most hopeful.” – Leni Zumas
Three or four times a week I take my dogs for a run in the woods. We take the same path each time. My husband once asked me if the dogs would ever get bored going to the same place and running through the same terrain. I laughed and said I didn’t think boredom would ever occur to our two furry friends when they were doing the thing that gives them the most joy. He looked at me and revised his question. “Do you think we’ll ever get bored taking the same hike?”
I wondered about that enough to pay attention for a few weeks while I walked our walk in the woods. I have come to the conclusion that, though I have walked the same path dozens of times, I have yet to take the same hike. When my husband posed his question, the woods were frozen and sleepy. My dogs were able to skid to a stop to slurp at “snow cones.” The landscape was a palette of whites, grays and soft browns. The creek was dark and somewhat still.
As I’ve walked, I’ve watched life return to the woods. It was subtle at first – a few green shoots amongst the undergrowth. The creek was waking up, beginning to burble along at a merry clip. The birds returned from their winter travels to tease the dogs with their songs as they zipped up and down the hills. As the snow cones disappeared, my “boys” discovered the joy of leaping into the water to splash and drink. (One also discovered the rich, black mud in a boggy area. Thankfully a splash in the creek is usually enough to clean him up.)
If I hadn’t been there nearly every day, I would have thought the trees and bushes leafed out overnight. Instead, I got to watch the slow motion unfurling of the leaves. I witnessed tiny green pips transform into full, beautiful skunk cabbage. Where I knelt down to get a closer look at fiddle heads the day before, I now brush through patches of waving ferns. I’ve smiled as I’ve glimpsed hard to spot trilliums in bloom. I watched May Apples shoot up and bloom over the course of a handful of days. I’m waiting eagerly for the honeysuckle blooms to open and turn the words into a fragrant haven. Any day now …
There’s simply no way to be bored in the face of life’s unfolding glory. To watch these tiny, incremental changes is a joy. To see “our” woods fully transformed is nothing short of a miracle.
As I’ve paid such close attention to the almost imperceptible shifts and growth on my walks, I’ve finally stumbled across the answer to a yoga question I hear a great deal. “Do you ever get bored of your yoga practice?”
You see, I practice Ashtanga yoga. Ashtanga is a set series of postures that you move through six days a week. A part of me understands how you might imagine doing the same thing over and over again could get dull. I think it’s the same part of me that took my husband’s question about our hike to heart. But, upon reflection, my experience on my yoga mat has been precisely the same as my experience in the woods. While my practice might travel the same path every day, it never feels like the same journey.
Over the last 15 years, my body has changed as dramatically and as completely as the woods have changed in the last eight weeks. It has done so by the same accumulation of tiny, almost imperceptible changes. While, if I hadn’t been paying attention (and in the early years I was still learning to pay attention, to notice, to witness… ), it could seem that I achieved new postures overnight. But I know better. I know I didn’t wake up one morning to palm the floor in a standing forward fold. I know over months of practice that my fingertips crept down my shins, spent weeks within a hairsbreadth of my feet, and finally brushed the floor.
I know that change feels slow unless you’re keenly paying attention, watching closely for the tiny shifts along the way. Then, change feels miraculously immediate and your potential seems limitless. This never gets boring.
And this secret is true for the whole wide world. Take a look around at life’s unfolding glory. Watch as the world around you is transformed. And know – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that you are changing and growing and unfolding, too. Change like this is nothing short of a miracle that we get to witness every single day.
When I first unrolled a yoga mat fifteen years ago, I had never heard the expression “stay in the moment.” Nowadays, this expression is thrown about so often and so casually that it has almost become trite. You hear celebrities tossing it into interviews on the morning news. You read it in self-help blogs and books. Cute or serene images preaching its message are all over social media. It’s become so commonplace that I wonder sometimes if people even hear it anymore, let alone take the time to try to understand what it means for them in their own lives.
Back when I was learning yoga, mindfulness was not so trendy. In fact, yoga wasn’t so trendy. While I knew yoga was changing me, it actually took me a very long time to figure out that at least part of the way that yoga was helping me revamp my life was by teaching me to stay in the moment. Class after class provided lessons – some subtle and some glaringly obvious – in being present. When I allowed my thoughts to run ahead toward the dreadful backbends that loomed at the end of my practice, I found that I was distracted and out of whack in the posture I was working in. When I allowed my mind to dwell on the posture I’d toppled out of earlier in practice, I found that I completely missed out on the one I could have been enjoying right then.
And this was just the tip of the iceberg. Mental gymnastics aside, I found allowing my eyes to wander to my classmates’ mats was also a way to wander away from my own experience. Comparing myself to a super bendy student could make me feel inadequate, even if we were in a posture I adored. The opposite was also true. Comparing myself to a student who was not as adept as me (honestly, there were way fewer of these distractions) could send me into ego-driven flights of self-satisfaction mixed with a little pride. I’d be so caught up in these feelings that I would completely miss the physical feelings of the posture.
Non-yoga distractions could pull my awareness off my mat as well. A slamming door, a siren on the street outside the studio, a screech of tires, the flush of a toilet, the sound of birds outside the window. All of these ambient noises could kidnap my attention away from what I was actually doing and experiencing. In essence, allowing myself to become distracted could steal me away from the class I’d paid $15 to attend.
It didn’t take long before I started keeping an eye out for moments when I was present and moments when I was distracted off my mat and in my life. At the time my kids were very small. I discovered that I was very adept at distracting myself to survive the monotony of long days with toddlers. There are, after all, only so many times you can dress a Barbie or read Miss Spider’s Tea Party, without worrying about your brain turning to mush.
Yet, when I was “too busy” or doing something else or simply “parallel playing” (reading a book or talking on the phone or sorting Legos by size and color while they played near me) with my kids, I guaranteed myself that I was going to miss out on those moments. I began to see this as a choice. A choice I was sometimes willing and sometimes unwilling to make depending on the day, their moods, my levels of exhaustion, and so forth.
As I practiced “staying in the moment” in my life, I found I was taking more pleasure in the little moments that filled my day. I was enjoying my children more. I was also more thoroughly enjoying the mental breaks I allowed myself to take from them. Best yet, I was discovering all kinds of tiny opportunities I would have missed if I’d been distracted. One afternoon, my son expressed curiosity about earth worms and we spent over an hour digging in the corner of the yard to find some. I learned about my daughter’s friendships in school by listening to her play with her dolls. I got to watch the slow-motion miracle of a child learning how to read by patiently reading the same picture book over and over day after day.
My full participation in these tiny moments had an enormous impact on me. They made me a better mother. They helped me take more pleasure and satisfaction from my life in exactly the same way that paying attention in a yoga class helped me to fully enjoy the yoga practice into which I had invested time and money. And these are just two facets of my life. I can see the same truth in my teaching, in my friendships and even in my simplest activities – walking the dogs, cooking dinner, making a bed.
These days, staying in the moment may seem like a silly little idea that is talked about way too often, but it’s not. It’s a big, powerful idea with the potential to change your experience of your life. So, to use a yoga expression, “Keep your eyes on your own mat.” Devote attention to everything you do. You never know when a precious moment will come along disguised as something tiny and insignificant.