“Everything’s gonna be alright.” David Lee Murphy and Kenny Chesney
My youngest child is in Mexico City right now creating a library for a school that didn’t have one. She and her friend spent a year planning this – writing emails, asking friends and family to post about their project on social media and collecting books. Lots and lots of books.
The fact that she actually took this idea from daydream status to reality makes me beam with pride. They went beyond simply asking people for books. They met with their elementary school librarian to learn how to put protective sleeves on hardcovers, they found an app that is helping them catalogue the books into a proper library, they worked out a system for keeping track of who borrowed which title and when it’s due back. It really seemed like they had thought through every little detail.
Except for one.
My girl doesn’t speak Spanish. And her friend’s large, friendly, loving extended family, with whom they are staying, doesn’t speak English. While she knew this, she had not thought through what it would mean to sit at a table filled with people chatting happily and not be able to follow the conversation. To be limited to a smile, a nod and some hand gestures as her options to participate. To be meeting meaningful strangers – people she would like to like her – and not be able to behave as the bright, funny person she is.
Let’s say there may have been an initial meltdown that left me lying in bed worrying more than sleeping. Yet the next morning she sent a text that we could all learn from.
“Just going with the flow. Not understanding. Not comfortable. But I’m alright.”
Not only is this a profoundly pithy and brilliant lesson in how to travel well, but it is sound, simple-to-follow advice on how to navigate the crazy twists and turns that life can take on any given day.
Reflect back to your first yoga class (or feel free to choose another “first” that resonates with you). Most firsts are not comfortable. My first yoga class certainly was not and I can vouch for every one of my students that neither was theirs. I didn’t know what to wear. I didn’t know where to put my mat. It turned out that my mat was not the right mat, so I had to borrow the teacher’s which I somehow decided was embarrassing. I didn’t know how to do anything that she asked us to do except lie down on my mat at the end of class with my eyes shut. Plus everything we did hurt.
Was I comfortable? Heck no. Did I want to go back? For some inexplicable reason, I could not wait to try again!
It is safe to say that I did not understand most of what my teacher was teaching in that same class. Truly, all I grasped were rudimentary instructions such as “step your right foot forward.” It was evident that there was much more going on. My first clue was that she was speaking in another language (Sanskrit), but that wasn’t all I wasn’t understanding. Talk about the breath sailed right past me. Talk about a gaze point confused me. Talk about quieting the mind? Well, it’s conceivable that I was actually laughing out loud at my own ineptness when she mentioned that, so I didn’t even hear it.
Yet I understood the blessing she shared at the end of class. In fact it touched me so deeply that I still use it in my own classes today. “May you be filled with loving kindness. May you be well. May you be peaceful and at ease. May you be happy.” I didn’t understand most of what happened in that class, but I was more than alright. I felt kind of blessed.
To this day, I am grateful that I chose to “go with the flow” in that first yoga class. In the purest sense of the words, resistance that day would have been futile. If I had resisted, I would have missed the whole thing – plus I would have missed much of the next 16 years of my life.
Believe you me, there were plenty of uncomfortable and unclear moments when it would have been perfectly natural for me to choose resistance. The music was “weird.” I didn’t know any of the people. The teacher was using another language. It turned out I was “not a natural” at the movements – in fact it reminded me of the first and last time I tried aerobics. I wasn’t bendy, and this seemed to be critically important.
Instead, something deeper inside of me than my madly spinning brain and hyper-reactive emotions, spoke up. Somehow, as my daughter did when she woke up on her second day in Mexico City, I chose to go with the flow. Because I did, I had an experience that changed me. I had an experience that would inspire me to grow and become, both subtly and dramatically, perhaps for the rest of my life.
First times and new experiences are gifts of potential. But, because they are often gift-wrapped in discomfort and confusion, we often resist them. The pointless futility of this resistance is that we miss out on a million unknown possibilities and opportunities. In the wise words of my girl, even when you don’t understand and you’re wildly uncomfortable, just go with the flow. You’ll be better than alright.
P.S. If you feel moved to help Sally’s project, she and her friend are now collecting donations that will help purchase bookshelves for the classrooms at Mano Amiga in Mexico City. Checks should be made out to Sally’s friend’s mom, Zulema Barcelata and mailed to 219 Ravenscliff, St. David’s, PA 19087. Please include a note with your name and address so Sally can thank you!
For most of my life, I would have argued vehemently against the saying “Rules are made to be broken.” As a child, this meant that it was somehow OK for my next door neighbor to break the rules and beat me at checkers. In high school it felt like validation of the girl who cheated her way through all the “smart kid” classes and “stole” an acceptance at an Ivy League college from my incredibly brilliant and driven friend. My best friend in college tried to teach me that following the rules (in mini-golf at least) made me less fun than I could be, but I firmly ignored her and swiped control of the score card back from her.
To this day, I believe that it was by following the rules that I achieved academic success. When my teachers gave assignments, I did them – and, because I was serious about following instructions (and somewhat bright), I did them well. Following the rules also helped me as a young professional as I struggled to navigate an unfamiliar and somewhat byzantine corporate world. At the time, it seemed to me that following the rules ensured that my first pregnancy was a healthy one. Even as I headed into the first months of motherhood, following the rules was still working for me. I lived and breathed by instructions in a book that guaranteed your baby would sleep through the night within weeks – and my baby did just that.
But my second pregnancy taught me that, even if you eat all the good foods and drink none of the bad drinks and do all the right things, sometimes there are problems. And my third baby taught me that even if you follow all the rules in the baby book, sometimes babies don’t sleep through the night for almost two years. (Which led to the soul-shaking realization that perhaps my rule-following had nothing to do with my first two super-star-sleeper babies.)
Interestingly, it was falling in love with ashtanga yoga (arguably yoga’s most rule-laden branch) that has given me the most comfort and sense of freedom to break the rules. In ashtanga yoga, you are traditionally not invited to begin a more “advanced” posture until you’ve mastered the previous ones. Yet two of my teachers and I agree that had I not broken the rules and started to work in the opening postures of the “intermediate” series, my body would never have opened up to find success in many of the “primary” series postures.
In classic ashtanga yoga classrooms, there is no music playing so that students can better hear the sound of the breath. Yet I have found, on days when I am deeply disturbed or upset, that playing music while I practice gives me another anchor for my wandering mind. So I sometimes (not often, but sometimes) break the rules and play music. (And not just “yoga music.” I particularly love practicing to play lists of all kinds of music that my students and kids have made for me.)
Ashtanga prescribes a six-day-per-week practice. Mostly, I follow this rule. But sometimes I don’t. Sometimes the best thing in the world for me is to *not* unroll my mat. The decision to skip my practice is almost always filled with a surprising degree of angst. Perhaps it is because I don’t take this choice lightly that I can honestly say that I have never regretted honoring my need or desire for an extra rest day. In fact, breaking the rules and taking an extra day off often leaves me reinvigorated and yearning to return to my mat the following day.
I guess you could say that I was a bit of a late bloomer in understanding that “rules are made to be broken.” But years of respecting rules – of working to understand each of the systems in which I found myself, of seeing the benefits of following rules, of taking the time to witness the safety and security that can follow when a community is based on a mutually agreed upon code – also made me slow to break them. Therefore when I do break them, it is typically a well-considered, mindful choice rather than a heedless attempt to get ahead or a simple act of rebellion.
And, I think this is actually what the saying is trying to convey – that you need to understand the rules (and well at that) in order to know when and how to break them. If that is the case, for me at least, the saying could be improved by adding the word “sometimes.”
“Rules are made to be broken sometimes.” Or “Sometimes rules are made to be broken.”
Have you given yourself the freedom to break the rules sometimes?
“Maybe you are searching among the branches for what only appears in the roots.” Rumi
The chance to share my yoga practice with a friend is always a happy thing. Not too long ago, as a friend and I were rolling up our mats after a great, especially bendy practice, she said, “Wow! Your breath sounded so strong today.”
Because we had both had some physical successes during the practice, I was a little surprised by her comment. Typically, after we finish moving and breathing side by side, we rehash a posture that went surprisingly well, have a little laugh about one that did not or talk almost academically (yoga geeks) about a new posture that one or both of us is working on. I took a moment to think and then replied, “Maybe that’s because for so much of the winter the breath was all I could count on when I practiced. I guess maybe I’ve been refocusing on the basics.”
Thinking a little more afterwards, I see that this is true. My body was so unreliable all winter that I never knew what to expect from it each time I unrolled my mat. But day after day, no matter what was going on with me physically, I could count on my breath to be there. While it’s always been a critical part of my practice, it’s been a long time since I’ve invested time really working with it – keeping it both strong and smooth, maintaining its pace when I’m surrendering to a stretch and preventing it from becoming overly harsh or forced when I’m working hard. And, without a conscious decision to do so, this is precisely the work I’ve been doing for the last several months.
What is more fascinating is the way this time spent refocused on the basics has changed my physical practice. Without a lot of fanfare or advance planning, I am again working on postures that I wasn’t sure would reappear after months of “Granny yoga.” Not only have they made a return to my practice, but some that have not shifted in literally years are suddenly opening up to me. If you’d asked me, these physical advances are what I would have thought my friend and I would be talking about that day rather than the breath that we both mastered nearly 20 years ago.
To borrow from Rumi’s language, these challenging postures are the tippy top branches of yoga’s tree. They are eye catching. They are inspiring. Because they are just a little out of reach, they draw us to keep practicing in the hopes that we will one day figure them out. They are a large part of what lures us back to our mats day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year.
But, as Rumi implies, we have to be careful when reaching for these alluring branches. Searching way up there can lead us astray. And not only on a yoga mat.
Think about all the things you do that get more complicated, fancier, or flashier the more “advanced” you become. Last night I embarked on an elaborate, gourmet macaroni and cheese that took way too long to make. What was my biggest take away from that project? It wasn’t anything fancy or advanced. I learned (well, re-learned) that the most important step is way back at the beginning of the process when combining the ingredients for the sauce. You have to go slowly and be super patient to ensure that the milk and flour combine for the creamy texture you really want in mac & cheese. In other words, my gourmet adventure took me back to the basics – roots that developed slowly with every meal I’ve cooked for the last 25 years.
My daughter has been playing the piano again. When she first sat down, she pulled out the book of sonatinas that she was working on when she decided to stop taking lessons five years ago. She said the all those tiny notes and super-fast tempos used to make her feel like a piano-playing-superhero. While she found she could still fumble her way through these pieces, her return taught her a powerful lesson. All those tiny notes are the same as the notes she was playing when she first picked out “Hot Cross Buns” at the age of three. Just hitting them isn’t enough. What makes them sound like a superhero is playing the song is working on fingering, phrasing, the right touch and expression. She, like me, had to go back to her “roots” in order to stretch back up into the “branches” of her music.
This holds true for whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re stretching toward, whatever is challenging you. Pause for a moment. Check in with your intentions. Have you become distracted by the beautiful, alluring branches all the up there at the tippy top of your particular “tree?” Whether you are raising children, learning how to practice a martial art, working to stay happily married to the person you’ve already loved through countless stages of life, or striving for the next step in your career, a look down (maybe a serious, studious, long look down) at the foundational elements of your work will pay great dividends.
Get back to basics. Reacquaint yourself with the roots of whatever you’re working on. When you do, as happened to me on my mat, you might look up to realize there is no need to continue to search for the branches. You may find that you have already reached them.
A long time ago, in a land far away, I swiped a book off my mom’s bedside table called “If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing In the Pits?” Though I was far from motherhood (and perhaps womanhood) when I read it, I remember bursting into laughter as I read Erma Bombeck’s essays on families, marriage and raising children. Today, though, it’s her fabulous title that keeps ricocheting through my mind.
Because life isn’t just a bowl of cherries. Never has been and never will be. Sometimes we are happily frolicking in the cherries and sometimes we find ourselves in the pits.
Life is a mix of good and bad, successes and failures, challenges and cake-walks. Bad things do happen to good people. But so do good things. I don’t believe in complaining when you’re in “the pits.” Sure, a good cry or two may be in order. But these cries are designed to be cathartic, to clear out the clouds of despair and frustration. When you find yourself in the pits, I believe in digging deep for the wherewithal to navigate your challenges, losses or failures. I believe you need to find the strength to fight to change the things you can change. I believe you need even more strength to find the inner peace to surrender and accept the things you cannot change.
The hard part, as the Serenity Prayer (written by American theologian Reinhold Neibuhr) so beautifully states, is developing the wisdom to know the difference between the two.
As many of you know, I have had some fairly serious health issues over the last several months. Your messages of concern and well wishes have brightened my days during what has been a confusing and somewhat scary time. Last week, after the last of many appointments with many doctors, it is clear that this odyssey is over. While I had fervently hoped and prayed that these doctors could make me “all better,” that is not going to happen. Instead I am going to be “mostly OK.”
It is what it is. And, as I surrender to that reality, I am somewhat surprised to find, it is actually fine.
Many years of delving into spiritual teachings (yoga, contemplatives, theologians) have taught me that one way to peace of mind is to stop seeing the world in stark shades of black and white. (For the record, psychologists agree.) This, however, is easier to read about than to do. Humans seem to be naturally wired to automatically label experiences as “good” and “bad.” To arrange the world into categories of “things I like” and “things I dislike.” To strive for the former and avoid-like-the-plague the latter.
Avoiding-like-the-plague is really, really hard. It takes a profound amount of energy, which is good and fine until you realize (probably on a day that you’re feeling more exhausted than you ever dreamed you could feel) that all of your running and fighting is fruitless. Because sometimes it is. Sometimes, you have to stop running and fighting. You have to surrender and accept reality.
Again, the wisdom to know when to fight and when to accept can be elusive. (That’s why millions pray for it every single day.) But, in my experience, it’s only elusive when it’s not yet time to surrender. If you’re taking the time throughout your long fight to check in with your heart and soul, your state of mind, and your ever-shifting reality, you will (just as every OB-GYN has said to every woman waiting for her first child to be born) “just know” when it’s time.
What does this “checking in” look like? Prayer. Meditation. Writing in a journal. Practicing yoga. (You knew I was going to say that, right?) Taking long walks with your dogs. Whatever helps you sift through everything you know – opinions, facts, research, ideas, advice, and so on. Whatever helps you get clarity on everything you feel – scared, mad, hopeful, sad, excited, panicked, etc. Whatever helps you tune in to how you’re actually feeling and doing.
When you’re regularly doing whatever it is that helps you “check in,” I assure you that there will be a moment when you “just know” that it’s time to surrender. In that moment, acceptance will be effortless. In that instant, as your perspective shifts, almost magically your experience of your reality changes too.
Despite the fact that nothing has changed, everything has changed. Which is to say that YOU have changed. You will relax. You will brighten. You will suddenly be able to see nuance in the “bad thing” or the “thing you dislike” or the thing you’ve been avoiding-like-the-plague. Basically, you will realize that you’re not in the pits at all. You’re actually in the cherries and they have pits. Because, like life, that’s just the way they are.
I often teach that one of yoga’s most life-changing gifts is the ability to choose to act rather than react in any and all of life’s situations. While this statement is typically met with a lot of vigorous nodding, I usually follow it up with an anecdote as I believe that real life examples make for powerful teaching tools, especially with philosophy. Over the holiday weekend, “real life” provided me with yet another example of this concept for my arsenal.
We landed in San Diego Thursday evening a little earlier than expected. While we were tired from a full day of work and the long cross-country flight, we were also very excited to see our dear friends for the first time in almost a year. Despite an interminable wait for our baggage, they said “Check in at the hotel and come on over!” We happily agreed.
Traffic was light and the drive to the hotel was easy. I think I actually said, “Man! This trip is going like clockwork!” (We all know that pronouncements like that are never a good idea.) As we got out of the car in the hotel parking lot, we heard a loud hissing sound like a balloon makes when you let out the air. My husband spun around and then let out a string of expletives. The front tire of our rental car was already completely flat.
This moment could have gone one of two ways:
1. We could get on the phone with the car rental folks and sort out the flat tire.
2. We could walk down the block to our friends’ house to have a beer and a much-needed and a long-awaited laugh.
In moments like this it often feels like time slows down. In our particular moment, exhaustion, adrenaline and the anticipation of some long-awaited fun collided in both of us. My husband immediately swung into irritable action, choosing option A. He scrambled around for the rental agreement, slammed the door of the car and was already storming toward the hotel to call Alamo before I could speak.
I called out, “Wait!” and he stopped and barked at me, “What?”
I took a deep breath, said a little prayer to have my happy, on-vacation husband back, and plunged ahead proposing option B. “We don’t actually have to deal with the tire just this minute.” And it was true. We weren’t in the middle of the highway as we easily could have been. The car was safely parked at our hotel. We were also within walking distance of our friends’ house and didn’t need the car until morning. Upon reflection, if you’re going to get a flat tire, this was about as good as it gets.
He paused. (It was a long pause.) Then he said, “You’re right.” (Sigh of relief.) We headed across the street for that beer and a laugh.
The choice between reacting and acting is not always crystal clear. In this instance, my husband reacted while I acted. (For the record, I am not at all implying that these are the roles into which we always or even regularly fall.) In many ways, his reaction was the mature and responsible one. We had a damaged rental car that needed fixing. We had plans the next morning that required the car. We had nothing pressing to do right at the moment and both tend to live by the maxim “No better time than the present” when approaching odious tasks.
My choice could be seen as irresponsible and immature. After all, I was choosing to ignore a real problem because there was fun to be had. While this would not always be the best choice, in our case, for many reasons, it was. First, our day had already been a long one and we were wiped out. Second, because they had a lot to do to prepare for their son’s bar mitzvah and had visiting family to entertain, that evening was truly the only time that we would be able to be alone with our friends over the weekend. Third, we really did have total flexibility with no schedule that we needed to adhere to at all the next day.
In short, a brief pause for reflection revealed that, in that moment, not only could we afford to put off the “yucky” to embrace the “yay,” but it was actually smarter to do so.
Our mindful choice to act rather than react salvaged more than just our night. We went to bed after a great visit with our friends, happy to be away for a long weekend. We woke up refreshed and ready not only to tackle our flat tire but to enjoy a day of sightseeing in a city that was new to us. While I don’t believe our choice the night before had anything to do with the sunny day that presented itself despite a dreary forecast, I do believe the bright smiles on our faces and in our tones helped influenced the rental care folks to be delightful and helpful. It was a breeze to swap our car for another and we were wandering through the zoo shortly after it opened.
No matter what’s happening in your life, give yourself the gift of a pause. It doesn’t have to be a long one. Just enough time to take a deep breath. That’s really, truly enough time to act mindfully rather than automatically reacting. While it always pays off to be mindful, as our example proves, sometimes the mindful choice also pays extra dividends by being more fun!