When my kids were little, their grandparents loved to buy clothing for them as gifts. We found that one of the most effective ways to say thank you for these gifts was to have the child wear the new clothes the next time they saw their grandmother. This gesture conveyed more than our gratitude. As my son or daughter bounded up to their grandmother, smile beaming and arms thrown wide, proudly showing off their new shirt or dress, it was an unmistakable expression of the happiness created by the new clothes.
This isn’t just true for little kids. (Or conceivably this reveals that I haven’t all the way grown up.) You see, this morning I’m wearing a sweater that I really love that I received from my mother-in-law last Christmas. I cannot wait for her to arrive this afternoon to see how great it looks.
As the gift-giver, I can confirm that this type of gesture makes a powerful impact – and not just seeing a material gift such as new sweater being happily worn. The gifts we receive and give in life go far beyond the things we giftwrap for our friends or pop in the mail to surprise a loved one.
Nothing makes me happier than hearing from a student about how much they’re practicing yoga (and how much it’s supporting them in their life) even if it’s with a teacher at another studio. While my students may not feel quite the glee that my children did when showing off their new clothes to their grandparents, I think it’s safe to say that they are smiling when they reach out to let me know how yoga has touched them. To take it a step further, when I get the rare chance to watch one of my teacher training students teach a class, it’s actually enough to give me goosebumps. The joy of giving, it turns out, is also multiplied when you get to observe the gift in use.
Think about the gifts you’ve received in the form of your talents and passions. Maybe you’re a skilled golfer, or a fast reader, or whiz solving computer issues. Maybe you write really moving thank you notes, or are a talented public speaker, or have an uncanny ability to train pets. Maybe you’re ridiculously good at playing video games or the saxophone or have one of the billion other talents I haven’t listed. These are all gifts, you know. Even the ones you had to work really hard to attain. I know this because no matter how hard I worked at playing Super Smash Bros, I will never be as talented as my son is. Though he’s worked hard, he has a gift that I simply do not.
How do we say thank you for these gifts?
I maintain that the best way to say thank you is to use and enjoy your gifts. Much like my children showing off their new clothing, we make the same type of gesture when we put our gifts to use as boldly and as often as we can. As you do, I suspect you will be smiling almost as widely as my children did when they beamed with joy and pride to have their grandmother see how great their new outfits looked. This kind of thank you makes you feel nearly as happy as it does the giver … whoever you believe that to be.
Ceasefire: an arrangement in which countries or groups of people that have been fighting each other agree to stop fighting. – Collins English Dictionary
With three kids, each two years apart, I’ve had a little experience with bickering. In fact, if it truly takes 10,000 hours of doing something, there is a decent chance that I was an “expert” in bickering before my oldest child left elementary school. Bickering is wildly unpleasant to be around. This unpleasantness is compounded by the fact that bickering children are deeply invested in having their mother know they are bickering. (I learned that the British matched the sound of their air raid sirens during WW2 to the shriek of a small child because it is virtually impossible to ignore. Years of listening to just that type of wailing confirm that the Brits are very smart.)
It was pure desperation then that led me to my signature (and possibly brilliant) solution to bickering. Rather than separating my kids by sending them to their rooms (where the bickering and wailing would continue only at a louder volume as they had to shout through doors and down halls), I began placing them on opposite sides of a throw rug. I then asked them to look silently at each other until they could once again see their brother or sister who they (mostly) loved rather than an enemy or thief or vandal or liar or whatever that afternoon’s charge was.
Initially, the looks that passed across the rug were lethal. Squints, glares, stuck out tongues, the works. But within minutes (usually just moments), someone would crack up. Thankfully, laughter is highly contagious and soon thereafter both children would be in stitches. Once everyone was laughing (or at least smiling) one final step remained to receive emancipation from the rug – they had to hug each other. Though the hug wasn’t always the most enthusiastic or sincere, that physical embrace was always enough to smooth any remaining ruffled feathers and prepare both parties to move on in peace.
These memories came flooding back to me when I read a blog post by Kristin Fontaine on the website Episcopal Café. In it she writes of a yoga teacher who regards her yoga mat as a ceasefire zone. In other words, when on her yoga mat, she must cease and desist from any and all hostile thinking. As she described it, hostilities could include negative feelings about her body shape and size, what she had or had not eaten that day, or how much or little she had exercised. However, as I read it I realized I could easily add to her list with more of my own habitually hostile thoughts – “I stink at this pose.” “I’ll never get that one.” “I’m so tight compared to everyone else.” “My Lord! Look at my knees! They are hideous!” “I’m way too old to ever try that.” “Messed it up. Again. Jeez.” You get the picture.
Before reading Ms. Fontaine’s piece, in my imagination a ceasefire zone looked like a godforsaken strip of “no man’s land,” surrounded by barbed wire, soldiers poised along both sides with weapons at the ready. A place where you were stuck between hostilities. Where you didn’t let your hackles down an inch. Where you followed all the rules or else.
But the ceasefire zone described in Fontaine’s piece was something else entirely. It sounded like an oasis. A peaceful place where you could not only step out of the hostilities, but you could set down your very heavy defenses (and offenses) to rest. This ceasefire zone could be a place of rejuvenation and of healing. It could be a place that was fun and even a little silly. It could be a place where you received the chance of a “Do Over.” A place where you might even be able to rewrite the rules of the game.
I realized with a smile that I had created just such a ceasefire zone for my children. That long ago throw rug was a place where they could set aside the heavy weight of their grievances and anger and hostilities. It was place where they could return (sometimes grudgingly) with a smile or a laugh to the warm lap of family and home.
With another smile, I realized that Ms. Fontaine was precisely right. My yoga mat could be my grown up version of that throw rug. While I would be the only person standing on its edges, I had plenty of heavy weights that I could set down. Judgment. Criticism. Negativity. Even sarcasm. I could set all that aside and step into my own little oasis.
As my children remembered how much they loved each other when they looked across the ceasefire zone of that throw rug, I can stand on my mat and remember that I am strong. That I am (sometimes) brave. I can remember that I am trying and that trying is enough. As I move and breathe within my little rectangular, rubber ceasefire zone, the most important thing I can remember is that there is no one else I’d rather be than me. With that, I’m ready to step back into the world lighter, brighter and ready to play by new, “kinder and gentler” rules.
“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to realize that this too was a gift.” – Mary Oliver
Enrolling in yoga teacher training was a massive decision for me. In weak moments, a small voice in my head hinted that I was having delusions of grandeur to even think that I could become a teacher. Even after I was accepted, I worried that someone in authority would realize that I had no business being in the program – deeming me too new to yoga because I’d only practiced for three years or too inflexible because I still couldn’t (all the way) touch my toes or that I was too chicken because I was petrified of being upside down.
Yet enroll I did. Though it was a hefty burden for our household budget, my husband and I had decided it was yet another step in the direction of my “next thing” after leaving my corporate career for stay-at-home-motherhood. In fact, as a symbol of my commitment to my studies, we decided to pay in full for the year-long program.
Three short months later, the woman who owned the yoga studio decided to close her business. She announced in an email that she was unable to reimburse her students for tuition paid in advance and asked for our understanding and patience.
That note hit me hard on so many levels that I could barely breathe. In the nitty-gritty real world, my husband and I could barely afford the tuition we had paid, let alone a second tuition somewhere else. The studio owner’s choice left me truly without the option to pursue teacher training.
Emotionally and spiritually, it felt like being hit with a cosmic 2×4 upside the head. It was nearly impossible to ignore the notion that this was a sign from above that I had no business teaching this practice that I loved. It felt like a crystal clear message from God (the kind of message that God so rarely sends) that I had completely and totally misread my path.
I spent the next two months frozen in a kind of limbo. I was still going to classes, but something had shifted within me. My confidence was rocked. My dreams were squished. I felt like I had been sent back to “home” in the game of Life.
And then the phone rang. A woman who had been a teacher in the shuttered teacher training program had been thinking about me, the only student in the program who was interested in Ashtanga yoga. She wanted me to call her friend, who also practiced and taught Ashtanga yoga. She “just felt like we should know each other.”
Feeling wounded and leery of “overreaching” again, it took me a week or two to muster the courage to call. But despite the emphatic “No!” that my first attempt at becoming a teacher had met with, I couldn’t shake the sense that this was what I was meant to do.
So I called. And I met the teacher who would lovingly take me through teacher training one-on-one, the way it is traditionally (and now very rarely) done. She was profoundly generous with her time and asked very little of me financially, happy to take what I could give. To this day, she is one of the first people I call when I feel muddled and unclear.
Over years, our work together shifted into an important friendship. We have seen each other through marriage, babies, chronically ill children, happy moments and sad. Our relationship also morphed into a partnership. Together we wrote both of the teacher training programs that I love to teach at my studio. Life without her would be sorely lacking
That cosmic 2×4 that whapped me all those years ago wasn’t saying “No!” to me at all. Instead it was setting up a rich, rewarding and irreplaceable relationship. It was a “yes” that felt in every single way like a “no.”
The point of this little story is that blessings come in many different kinds of wrapping paper.
The next time life seems to be telling you “no,” do what you’ve learned to do on your yoga mat. Take a breath (or a hundred breaths). Check in with how you’re feeling inside and out. Be gentle, but be ever so honest.
If this “gift” from life makes you feel afraid, take a loving look at that fear. Is it keeping you small or keeping you safe? If this “gift” leaves you filled with desire, take a loving look at that desire. Is it coming from a place of soulful yearning or a place greed? If it makes you feel sad or happy or anxious or hesitant or proud or ashamed or … just look. Without judgment, with compassion and tenderness, look.
You may have to look long and hard. You may have to keep looking with the hindsight born of months and years. But as you look, you will discover that, no matter how ugly the wrapping paper, your most recent cosmic “gift” is indeed a blessing.
No matter your faith or sense of spirituality, you can trust the words of St. John: “God is light. In him there is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5)
“My intention is to surrender to whatever I’m resisting.” – Sharon Hickey
As a beach-lover trying to raise beach-lovers, water safety has always been an important part of my parenting. No feature of the water is more frightening to me as a mother than the undertow or rip current. I think this is so because the key to surviving an undertow experience is completely counterintuitive. I have never been 100% certain that my kids will remember not to struggle in a moment when every synapse in their nervous system is screaming at them to “FIGHT!”
Until it happened to me, I wasn’t 100 % certain I would remember what to do either. At first, I didn’t. I fought, in a panic, to get to the surface. But fighting all that water was totally futile. It was like swimming in poured cement. As I struggled, for some mysterious reason, an eerily calm part of my brain said, “Stop. Let the water take you.” And, equally mysteriously, I did what the voice said to do.
This was probably my first tangible experience sliding from resistance to surrender. And it’s one I have never forgotten.
By ceasing to fight or resist the pull of the current, I allowed the water to sweep me out a few more feet where the bottom dropped away and the water had more room to cycle. Within moments its grip on me suddenly weakened and I could swim to the surface. I gratefully gasped several breaths, choked back a few tears and swam parallel to the beach until I found water where I could comfortably make my way in to shore.
You might be asking yourself why I’m pondering undertows in November which isn’t a particularly beachy month. I was asking myself the same thing earlier this week when I realized that it was because of something my friend, Sharon, said as we walked in to day two of a yoga workshop. We were both very excited to work with this teacher, Nancy Gilgoff. In fact, we’d both been waiting for years for the stars to align so that we could attend one of her trainings.
As excited as I was to experience Nancy’s perspective on the yoga we share, it is always a little stressful to do this practice in a new or different way. No matter how open-minded I think I am, it is inevitable that there will be something in one of these workshops that I instinctively resist. After all, this is a practice I have done 6 days a week for well over 10 years. I know it inside and out. Though it never stops challenging me, it is as comfortable to me as my best friend. It sees me at my best and at my absolute worst and, either way, it accepts me completely.
So when someone (no matter how exalted) asks me to do my practice differently, there is a tiny part of me that resists. I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to confess that resistance to my friend, Sharon. It’s not something I’m super proud of. So I was quite relieved when she announced that her goal for the day was “to surrender to whatever I feel myself resisting.” I actually laughed in relief as I asked, “You, too?” So we decided together that we would use our resistance as a reminder to surrender to whatever was going on.
It worked like a charm. Surrendering allowed me to explore new ways of doing familiar postures with complete freedom. While with this teacher, I would do it her way. Rather than resist what didn’t work or what felt way too foreign, I would simply try it. Chances are doing so would teach me something even if I didn’t like it.
I had my first opportunity in the very first posture, which Nancy held for much, much longer than I typically do. My knee-jerk reaction was to resist. Just as in that long-ago undertow, resistance meant fighting like mad to survive those extra breaths. If I kept that up, I realized, I would be so exhausted I’d have nothing left in the proverbial tank for the rest of the practice. So I relaxed. As I did, my breathing slowed and her long, slow count which had been causing me to panic became almost meditative.
This attitude and action (note it is both) of surrender works even in my own practice at home. I have always had a tendency to overwork postures that I’m still learning. While it’s almost impossible for me to surrender when I don’t fully know what I’m doing, even the attempt to surrender softens my mind and my body. A softer mind eases me away from my thoughts of “This is never going to happen,” allowing for the possibility of success. The same is true for a softer body. When I’m not physically resisting each and every movement required by the yoga posture by gritting my teeth and clenching my muscles, I am much more likely to get a little further into the pose.
It does not surprise me in the slightest that I also found an opportunity to practice surrender in real life this week. It became clear in one of my college classes that I was not going to have time to get through both of the exercises in the lesson I had planned. The habitual resistor in me was inclined to clench my teeth and speed through it in order to squeeze it all in. This would have short-changed my students in both of the activities.
Again, as happened when I was stuck in the undertow, a measured, calm voice spoke up from the recesses of my mind. “Surrender to the new time frame.” I listened and softened my grip on my plan. On the fly, I tweaked the first activity which left plenty of time for us to invest in the second. Not only did I leave feeling that I’d successfully conveyed the lesson for the day, but I felt energized from the relaxed, upbeat feeling created by the more relaxed pace of the class.
What about you? What metaphorical undertow has you in its grips? Can you see a way to surrender to it? Don’t be afraid. It can be surprisingly (and suddenly) freeing.