“Look at everything as if you are seeing it for the first time or the last time. Then your time on earth will be filled with glory.” – Betty Smith
The beach is a haven for me, a place where I automatically slow down and switch into a more carefree state of mind. I’m very fortunate to get to spend a week at the beach each summer. Even though I am often solely responsible for five or six kids when here, something about being near the ocean makes it all perfectly OK. Actually, it’s better than perfectly OK. It’s fun.
This is the first year at the beach for my puppies. Having them here has required a little adjustment to my formerly schedule-free days. Earlier mornings. Yoga practices that smell a little like peanut butter as my two fuzzy friends enjoy their frozen treats next to me. A little less time in flip flops and more time in sneakers as we walk the sidewalks of the island. While I worried that some of these adjustments would feel like “costs,” one in particular has been a real gift.
You see, until this week, I couldn’t remember the first time I saw a sea gull or a sand dune or the sweep of the giant, endless blue sky or the ocean. Because I was raised by a beach-loving mother and have always lived within easy reach of the seashore, these sights, though among the most beautiful in the world to me, are normal. But walking my dogs this week has made it all look and feel brand new.
When Pax froze in ecstatic jubilation at the sight of his very first seagull swooping across the sky, I froze too. As I tried to figure out what had him pointing with such focus and excitement, I actually saw the bird. Before that moment, I am certain that I would not have paid any attention at all. Seagulls here are everywhere. If you’re eating a sandwich, they’re even a bit of a threat. But that morning, I didn’t see a potential lunch thief. Instead, I viewed its enormous wingspan and the beautiful curves of its silhouette as it soared above us as things of beauty. That morning, instead of flying beneath the radar of my awareness, I actually saw the glory of the seagull and it made me smile (though perhaps not as widely as my dog).
This morning as we walked, we wandered down to the end of the island – or at least to the end of the paved part of the island. The closer we got to the end of the road, the more I could hear the sound of the crashing surf. The crash of waves is like a siren call to me and I found myself turning onto the dune path even though dogs aren’t allowed on the beach. When we crested the dune and caught our first glimpse of the ocean, my two energetic young dogs actually sat down in their tracks.
Though they have been hearing the sound of the sea for days, there was no way for them to know what was causing it. And the sight of all that water, the smell of the salt air, the sound of the waves, and the swath of sand took them a long moment to process. It was a moment I am so happy I was there to witness because I don’t remember my own first time. As I smiled and knelt down next to them, I tried to see it through their eyes. What has been a beautiful “normal” for my whole life became awe-inspiring in that moment.
And then a flock of seagulls swooped down and the peace of the moment came to a screeching (Literally. No one has ever accused the seagull of having a beautiful song.) halt as my dogs refocused on their most favorite thing – BIRDS!
As you head out into your day today, especially if you’re somewhere familiar, I invite you to look around with fresh eyes. I invite you to see your world as if for the first time. I invite you to seek beauty in sights you may have long since stopped noticing. I invite you to pause for a moment and just look. It may not be the most efficient or productive way to move through your day, but it’s late July, so maybe it’s OK to slow down a little bit to enjoy the magnificent world around you.
I’ll be doing the same thing here and smiling along with you.
“Why do you do yoga?” is a question I am asked nearly every day. “Why do you do yoga?” is also a question I wish (oh, how I wish!) that I could easily answer.
The gifts of yoga are hard to define.
I, like most people, started practicing yoga as a way to take better care of my body. I teach runners who add a yoga class or two into their week to open their hips and hamstrings from all the time they spend in their sneakers. Weight lifters come to class to lengthen and open muscles that become shorter and tighter as they bulk up. Injured athletes turn to yoga as a healing therapy. People who have gotten away from exercising at all often come to class thinking that yoga will be a gentle way to reconnect with the physical side of themselves.
And yoga does all this. It makes us stronger and more flexible. It helps us develop endurance. And it is very healing.
But yoga does so much more than this. I suspect as you read that last paragraph you were visualizing toned muscles, loose hamstrings and the ability to sail through an entire class without breaking a sweat. I bet you were imagining back injuries, sore knees and carpal tunnel syndrome disappearing with a regular, dedicated practice.
But reread it. Yoga helps us develop inner strength and flexibility. It requires as much mental endurance as physical. And as many physical ailments as it heals (and I’ve yet to come across something it cannot help heal), the inner healing it supports is nothing short of miraculous.
In short, as good as yoga is for the body, as healing and as transformative as it is physically, that is just the tip of the iceberg.
The rest of the iceberg, though, is what makes yoga difficult to describe.
As we move in synchronization with our breath on our yoga mat, we are connecting our mind and body. We are integrating our less-tangible feelings and thoughts with our very tangible movements and physical sensations. As we move and breathe on our mats, we are (often for the first time in a very, very long time) functioning as a whole. We are learning to tune back into the wisdom of our gut reactions, our instincts and our dreams, and not to always defer to all that we’ve learned from our studies. We are practicing something called contemplation.
“Contemplation” is often misconstrued. When we practice yoga, we are not becoming “lost in thought.” Just the opposite. We are “considering with attention” to borrow from Merriam Webster’s definition of the word. What we are contemplating varies from person to person. Yoga’s creators suggest that we contemplate God – our relationship with God and God’s place in our daily lives. In my own journey as a student and a teacher, I have concluded that it (almost) doesn’t matter what someone is contemplating. What matters is that we enter that contemplative state and get accustomed to being there.
In this state, we spend time and energy learning to love and accept ourselves. Over time, this flow of gentle love and acceptance begins to change us. We become mindful, patient and persistent. We become as comfortable with failure as we are with success. As we watch ourselves grow and change, we become hopeful and optimistic about others changing too. As our teacher shows us different ways to move into a yoga posture, we become more willing to entertain other approaches to almost everything. Our edges become a little softer even as our passions and drive become stronger.
When your friends ask “Why are you so dedicated to yoga?” “Why do you go to class so often?” “How does yoga make you feel?” you will probably, like me, find it’s difficult to answer them. After all, “to contemplate” feels like a strange and imprecise answer. Plus, for ages and ages, I’m not sure I even knew what contemplation was, let alone that I was doing it.
With or without the word contemplation, it’s hard to speak specifically about the way you feel your concentration and focus improving – that you are less distracted and less prone to wander off into your daydreams and worries. It’s hard to clearly describe how you suddenly feel curious about other cultures, other faiths and other opinions. How you feel less inclined to argue and more inclined to listen. How you feel less a need to be right and more a need to connect. How you find that, though your principles feel rock solid, you have lost all sense of certainty that your way is the only way. It’s hard to convey how old heartaches, ancient slights and even habits and assumptions you’ve carried with you for years have slipped away.
It’s hard to fathom (let alone describe) that what started as a way to take care of yourself has yielded something more. Not only do you feel better, but you are finding yourself better able to take care of those around you. That in addition to feeling calmer and quieter yourself, you now hope with all your heart that you’re contributing less noise and clutter to our hectic world. That by looking within yourself, you have glimpsed how astoundingly special and unique you are. And that, in that same glimpse, you have also seen that you are an infinitesimally tiny part of a staggeringly huge whole. Special? Yes! The center of the universe (or even of this moment)? Good Lord, no!
It’s hard to fathom. But this is exactly what happens no matter why you first wander onto a yoga mat.
So, the next time you unroll your mat to breathe and move, contemplate the fact that as you heal and change (and you will, without a doubt, heal and change), you are also healing and changing the world around you.
“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” – Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz!
In a feeble attempt at jet-lagged humor, this was probably the first thing we said in the van from the airport to our hotel in Bangkok. I expected to feel as far from home as I’d ever been when we traveled to Thailand. And I did. We all did. What I didn’t expect was to also feel so very at home. And, in a surprising way, I did.
When we chose to travel to Thailand, we did so in part for the shock of being in a whole new world. The landscape, the architecture, the food, even the traffic patterns were wildly different from what we’re accustomed to. We drove past acres and acres of geometrically precise rice paddies. We toured dozens of gleaming gold temples. We shopped in street markets filled with fruits we’d never seen or tasted (I won’t even get into the stalls of crispy fried crickets and silk worms). Daily we were filled with awe at the skill of our driver and gratitude that we’d decided not to rent a car.
These are exactly the type of challenges we hope for when we travel. We believe it’s good for us to get out of our bubble to see and experience other ways of life. In our minds, travel is a way to stay open-minded, curious and humble about this immense world we share.
While nothing that we saw, did or ate in Thailand felt even a little familiar, daily something less tangible was giving me a curious sense of homecoming. It took me a few days to figure out what it was. When I did, it was almost as surprising as the country around me.
For the first time in my life, I was in a place where people were living their busy, bustling, very worldly lives with a spiritual focus. Ever since I first stumbled into a yoga studio and back into church, this has been my somewhat counter-cultural intention. For over a decade, I’ve felt certain that yoga can help me “walk the walk” rather than simply “talking the talk” of my faith. So I practice, I ponder, I write and I teach. And, on some wonderful days, I feel like I’m actually doing it! To wander into a culture whose very foundation is this intention was profound for me.
Thailand is a deeply spiritual country. Community life revolves around the local Buddhist temple. (93% of Thai people are Buddhist.) The towering gold stupas that top each temple pepper urban, suburban and rural landscapes alike. These shining spires and the countless golden statues of Buddha, make the temples appear quite rich. Yet, our guides told us that not only is everything in a temple a gift from the community, but everything is shared back as well.
We saw firsthand how the community cares for the temple and its monks when we ducked into a local temple for a few minutes of refuge from the heat (my LORD Thailand is hot!). Even this non-touristy temple was breathtaking. As our eyes adjusted to the opulence, we noticed donation boxes dotted every altar. While we cooled down, people from all walks of life – business men, old women, young moms with a toddler in tow – popped in to kneel for a quick prayer and to drop an offering in a box. These temples were quiet and felt “religious” like houses of worship do, but they were bustling with the comings and goings of life on a non-Sabbath day in a way that our church at least is not.
On one of my favorite mornings of the trip, our guide picked us up quite early to join the community in giving alms to the monks. He had told us the previous day that it is quite normal for families to prepare extra food for breakfast each day. Yet his words did not prepare me for the people lining the sidewalks with these wrapped up extra meals to give to the monks. On the way, we stopped at a stall and bought prepared meals for our offering. Then we found a place along the monks’ route. After we placed our gifts into their alms bowls, the monks offered us a blessing in return.
As we watched, we noticed that on these walks each monk receives more food and drink than they could possibly consume in a day. Some monks were walking back up the hill to the temple carrying bulging bags of food and drink. Our guide told us that the monks share the food they receive as alms with the less fortunate in the community surrounding the temple. With these simple gifts, daily the monks and the community complete the circle of giving and receiving.
The temples provide more than simple sustenance. They are also schools. Not only do monks and prospective monks study at the temples, but they open their doors – to classrooms and dormitories – for children of families too poor to provide a proper education for their kids. The temples also open their doors to the poor and indigent. They provide a safe place for people to come sleep and even to live for a little while when they have nowhere else to go.
We could actually see trappings of this generous, welcoming approach. Inside many of the temples we visited, I recognized statues of Hindu deities that I’ve come across in my yoga studies. One temple we visited was designed just like a western church, complete with stained glass windows. When we asked, our guides described an open faith that easily welcomed elements from other religions to support people in their efforts to draw closer to God in their daily lives. There was no fearful or judgmental talk of other people “doing it wrong.” Rather, there seemed to be a long tradition of willingness to listen to and learn from other faiths.
Listening to our guides describe the roles temples played in everyday life – and getting glimpses of it myself – was inspiring. To see trained religious men see needs and reach out without hesitation or thought is beautiful. But this was so much more than that. We were seeing regular people just like us, with families, jobs, and lives, pause to care for the monks, the poor and even stray animals. Witnessing so many put their faiths into action in their daily lives was humbling.
I return home surprised and a little awed at the gifts of travel. We left home hoping to experience a place that was wholly foreign. We left home hoping to learn, to stretch and to grow a little bit. All of these hopes came to fruition plus an unexpected one. Our trip around the world landed me squarely at home with regards to the way my yoga practice has been teaching and inspiring me to live. I find myself back in “Kansas” with a renewed passion and vigor for my practice and my faith. This might just be the best souvenir ever.
“Live in such a way that those who know you but don’t know God will come to know God because they know you.” – Unknown