I really thought if I had anything figured out it was the value of hard work.
Hard work, after all, was how I achieved all of my youthful successes. I may not have been the best kid on the tennis court, I may not have been the smartest kid in the classroom and I may not have had the most raw talent at the piano, but, boy!, I was a hard worker. And, again and again, I found that hard work paid off. I made the varsity squad, I was accepted to a top tier college and, somehow, received honors each time my teacher entered me into a piano competition.
Over the years (decades, actually), my faith and trust in the power of hard work continued to deepen. It became part of my self-identity. “I am a hard worker,” I would think, standing a little straighter and holding my head a little higher, “I can do it.”
When I discovered yoga, hard work had a place of honor in my tool belt. Which, in the beginning, was a good thing. A very good thing. I was not limber. I was not strong. I was not particularly graceful. In short, I didn’t walk into my first yoga class with many of the skills you would expect in a natural yogi.
Perhaps for someone who didn’t believe in the power of hard work, this would have been daunting. But my lack of natural aptitude left me unfazed. “I’ll just have to work a little harder than most beginners,” I thought.
So I did. I worked hard at yoga. As my practice developed, so did my confidence. I started to attend workshops with visiting teachers. My sense of self-assurance continued to blossom and I decided to take my first yoga “field trip” – two private lessons with a teacher in Vermont.
I was excited to see what new yoga “tricks” I would bring home with me. I daydreamed about learning a fancy posture or two. Or being taught exotic breathing practices. Or maybe even getting some guidance in meditation. I think I somehow thought that this weekend in Vermont would be the thing that transformed me into a “real” yogi.
Imagine my confusion when, after two days together, the primary advice this teacher offered me was that I was working too hard in my postures. I needed to “lighten up and have more fun.” Honestly, as I drove home, I was crushed. Without knowing what she was doing, she had suggested that the attribute I pretty much viewed as my superpower was a weakness. She had suggested that, if I wanted my practice to develop, I was going to need to find another way of being.
Though a teeny, tiny part of my brain suspected there could be something here that I was missing, mostly I was in a huff. I puffed out my chest and wholly rejected her advice. “She doesn’t know me. She doesn’t know that hard work gets me everywhere I want to go.” Day after day, I unrolled my mat and I worked hard. Slowly, but surely, some of those “fancy” postures I wanted to learn became part of my practice. I was certain that it was my strong-willed determination and commitment to the practice that made me a “real” yogi. “Hard work for the win!,” I thought jubilantly.
Then, years later, out of the clear blue, I understood. I unrolled my mat as exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally as I have ever been. I’m sure, in part, that I chose to practice that morning simply because my daily routine involved doing yoga. Looking back, however, it is obvious to me that a bigger reason I unrolled my mat that morning was that I needed some nurturing and didn’t know where else to turn.
Either way, I was just too drained to work hard, so I didn’t. Lightly, gently, lovingly, I moved through the series. I focused on my breath, making sure it was soft, yet rhythmic. I spent more time than usual in savasana, the rest at the end of my practice. When I reflected on my practice as I rolled up my mat, I realized that everything I did had felt good and right. Postures that I typically struggled with had felt almost effortless. “Huh.” I thought.
The next morning, though I was feeling better, I decided to see if I could recreate the tenor of my previous practice. Again, I focused on the quality of my breath. More importantly, I sought the gentle, light ease of movement I had stumbled into out of sheer necessity the day before. Again, everything felt profoundly good. Actually, everything felt right. It crossed my mind that this was, perhaps, the way yoga was meant to feel.
A split second later, it crossed my mind that this was the type of practice that long-ago teacher had been inviting me to seek. What I believe she missed when she tried to share this lesson with me was what a beginner I still was. When we’re new to something, after all, hard work is what is needed. It’s only when gain some expertise that we can even begin to figure out how to work less hard. In fact, ever since that pivotal practice, I have been learning to work less hard.
Paradoxically, I do still need to use my superpower, hard work, on my mat. This is what makes my practices energizing and warming. In part, it is this level of intensity that helps focus my wandering mind. But the nature of my work has changed. I am no longer constantly pushing myself to work harder. I am now trying to work smarter. Because of this shift, my practice is as nurturing, centering and restorative as it is energizing. This shift, I believe, will be the key to maintaining my practice for the rest of my life.
By the way, I still consider my ability to work hard to be one of my superpowers. It comes in handy every single time I learn something new. But I now know that the ability to work smarter is also a powerful skill, especially when I’m doing something I want to keep doing for years and years.
Learning how to work smarter rather than harder on your yoga mat takes practice. Buy a Yoga With Spirit class pass and start practicing.
Most people understand gratitude as an emotion. We feel gratitude on the heels of something good happening to us – when we get a surprising bonus at work or the sun shines on our birthday. Better yet, we feel grateful when we’ve dodged a bullet – narrowly missed being hit by a speeding car or when our doctor rules out a frightening disease.
Some people understand gratitude as a perspective or a change in perspective. We experience gratitude when we’re watching the news and realize how fortunate we are to live in relative safety while so many others live in daily mortal danger in war-torn lands. Or when we’re walking through the city to meet friends for dinner and, along the way, witness people navigating their lives without homes or food.
Fewer people have grasped that gratitude can be a practice. We practice gratitude when we wake up in the morning – no matter what is happening in our lives – and make the deliberate, mindful choice to say some version of “Thank you.”
This is possible during even your greatest struggles. In fact, it may be most powerful on days when you’re navigating the illness of a loved one, or the morning after the loss of a pet, or when your job is in jeopardy, or when you’ve just learned that you have to move away. Yes, even on a day when it seems that life is battering you, it is possible to make the choice to be grateful.
On a day like that, choosing to look around your life with an eye to something (anything!) for which you feel grateful can provide an instant shift in perspective and an immediate lift in spirits. I promise. The old saying, “It is not happy people who are grateful, but grateful people who are happy.” is 100% true.
How can you start such a practice? Maya Angelou penned the most brilliant version of such a “thank you” that I have ever read:
I love how she seems to be approaching her day as a traveler in a foreign land. My family and I have noticed that when we are “somewhere else,” everything we see looks exotic and beautiful. For instance, we took dozens of pictures of street signs in Bangkok. And we barely made it to our destination on our first excursion from Reykjavik because we stopped so often on the side of the road to take pictures of the countryside that commuting Icelanders whiz past without a second glance.
You don’t have to leave home to slip into “tourist mode.” I think I first realized this when a dear friend came to visit from southern California. Seeing the natural beauty – rolling hills, lush foliage, winding country roads – that surrounds my home through her eyes as we took drives I take all the time made me feel profoundly grateful that I live where I live. In fact, pretending I’m a tourist has become one of my “tricks” to practicing gratitude as I move around my daily life.
But the reality is that Maya Angelou is making a more important point. We don’t have to be somewhere else (or even pretend that we’re somewhere else) to be able to say with astonishment, “Look! I’ve never seen that before!” Because this is true every single day when we wake up.
What blinds us to the new-ness and surprise of each day is our assumptions about how “just another” Tuesday is going to go. If we can set these expectations aside, it is possible to experience our day (even a typical Tuesday) with the same curiosity that my family felt walking to the bank to change money on our first day Thailand or on the drive to the sights in Iceland.
Saying a little “thank you” like this as we start our day is a quick and power way to begin to practice gratitude in your life. So, repeat after me: “Thank you for this wonderful day. I’ve never seen it before.”
Happy Thanksgiving! May you look around your life and be astonished at the abundance of blessings you see.
“When you release expectation, you are free to enjoy things for what they are instead of what you think they should be.” – Mandy Hale
Just at the top of an steep hill on the hike my dogs and I take each day is a long, flat straightaway. It may be the part of the walk I most love. It’s here that my dogs each throw themselves into their favorite activity. As I crest the hill, to my right I will see Pax zig-zagging across the trail with a huge doggy smile on his face. He dives into the underbrush with unbridled passion, he leaps back and forth over fallen trees, all in joyful chase of a chipmunk or bird. The best part of all is that Pax’s joy is unfazed by the fact that he never catches a thing. He is chasing without a single expectation of success. He is chasing simply because he loves the chase.
If I look to my left at the top of the hill, I will see Bodhi frozen in a perfect point, like a painting of an English setter. He will stay in this pose for a remarkably long time as I head down the path after Pax. When I’m about halfway to the curve in the trail, I’ll hear him coming – and it sounds like a freight train. Each time he blows past me – muscles rippling – I am astonished at his speed. You can tell just by looking that he is having the time of his life. He is going as fast as he possibly can, not because he expects to set a personal record, but solely because speed makes him happy.
Watching them each so freely enjoy things for what they are leaves me with a smile on my face. Watching them feels like a message of hope from “beyond.” Watching them makes me wonder if I, too, could embrace this type of expectation-less “doing.”
It’s easiest for me to sink into expectation-free “doing” on my yoga mat. A downward facing dog is a richer, more enjoyable posture if I’m focused on making my heels “heavy” instead of striving to get them to the floor. If I’m focused on the finish line of the floor, everything along the way feels like it’s not good enough. If I’m focused on the journey toward the floor, however, each micro-millimeter further that my heels drop feels like a victory. Each tiny success inspires me to luxuriate in the stretch, to reach my belly back toward my spine, to roll my shoulders open, to shake my head gently to release my neck and jaw. Done this way, downward facing dog can feel as tender and nurturing as the very best massage.
Over the weekend, I decided to try this same exercise as I cooked. Faced with a quiet afternoon, I decided to make gumbo from a recipe I had never used before. Gumbo is always complicated. It seems to me that how delicious it tastes is in direct proportion to how long it takes to prepare. As I prepared the ingredients – chopping, dicing and measuring – I felt my expectations soar. Suddenly I was way out ahead of myself and, consequently, distracted from the journey I’d chosen to take.
I reined myself back in. Typically, these days, I cook from necessity, cramming meal prep into already jam-packed days, not enjoying the process at all. But this particular day, I had all the time in the world. I reminded myself that I had chosen to experiment with this new recipe because it would be fun to stretch myself as I rose to the challenge of it. So I determinedly set aside my expectations and stopped thinking about whether my husband and daughter would enjoy the meal and chose, instead, to simply enjoy the process.
I chopped away. I carefully peeled the shrimp, reserving the shells to make a stock that was a surprising, pretty pink. I experimented with the best tool to mince parsley. I watched the roux with curiosity as it slowly thinned. I was patient and brave about turning the heat off and on, allowing time for the roux to gradually darken to a deep, rich brown. I enjoyed the rich, sweet aroma as I added the vegetables and spices. I sang along to music as the stock simmered, staying engaged with the cooking process by regularly skimming foam from the surface of the pot. By the time I added the shrimp, I was thrilled with my creation. I had had a great afternoon. I was happy. And I hadn’t yet had even a bite. (It was delicious, by the way.)
The success of this experiment has left me hungry for more. (No, not for more gumbo.) What if I could, like my dogs, do whatever I was doing for the simple joy of doing it? Could it work when I am changing the sheets? Can I enjoy the act of smoothing warm sheets fresh from the dryer onto my bed with no expectation of crawling into them later? Could it work as I read and study for the class I’m taking? Can I embrace the act of learning without the expectation of success? Could it work as I pray? Can I enjoy connecting to the Divine with no expectation of what will come from it?
The short answer is, “YES.” Unlike Pax and Bodhi, I’ve found that it can take me a couple of tries to fully release my expectations. But just like Pax and Bodhi, when I manage to set aside my expectations, choosing instead to enjoy what is for what it is, I enjoy what I’m doing rather profoundly. While my smile will never be as big (nor as goofy) as Pax’s, I’ve certainly caught myself grinning unselfconsciously more often since I started my experiment in expectation-free “doing.”
Go ahead, give it a try!
Non-Violence (Ahimsa): When we are firmly established in non-violence, all beings around us cease to feel hostility. – Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras 2:35
Non-violence is the first of yoga’s ten moral tenets. It is typical for yoga students, when pondering this sutra, to first focus on the ways they are or are not violent. This is fruitful study, as all of us (even nice people like you and me) act violently way more often than we would ever suspect. For example, consider all the mosquitos you swatted this summer. In fact, the process of developing awareness of all the subtle ways we can cause harm in the world can continue for a very long time – a lifetime even.
That said, to get stuck in self-study is to miss the promise of the sutra. Just as we are not practicing yoga to develop perfection in any of the postures we do on our mats, we are not practicing non-violence to become perfectly non-violent people. Neither is possible. Both a perfect posture and the ideals of a sutra are intended to draw us along in our journey of becoming the kind of person we hope to be.
The promise we miss if we get hung up on achieving perfection is that the changes we make in our own behavior as we try to become less violent can change the people (and therefore the world) around us. Now that’s quite a promise! To think that we can actually change the world! It’s a promise I know you’ve seen come to fruition every time you disengage in an argument with someone you love, every time you choose to smile rather than snarl back at a grouchy cashier, and every time you have ever hugged a child in the midst of a tantrum. These are all acts of peace and love and they have the power to defuse situations teetering toward violence.
Every time I teach the principle of non-violence, the discussion turns toward the fact that there will always be arguments to be had, grouchy people to encountered and out of control three-year-old’s in the world. Since this is the case, does all of our hard work to manage our own reactions really change the world? I’d like to share a little story of my own that I believe answers this question.
There I was, doing my best impersonation of a yoga teacher – in the moment, mindful, grateful and serene. I was driving through beautiful countryside on Sunday afternoon, feeling grateful and fortunate to live where I do. The sun was dropping toward the horizon, sending golden rays through foliage, making the trees around me look like they were glowing red and orange and gold. A song I loved was on the radio and the breeze through the open windows of my car smelled like cut grass. It was a perfect drive. Actually, it was a perfect moment.
Until it wasn’t.
I was jarred from my moment of bliss by the aggressive sound of a car horn being repeatedly honked behind me. I jerked my eyes to the rearview mirror to see that a car was right up my tail pipe. I looked down at the speedometer to see if, in my haze of nature-loving, I’d dropped below the speed limit, but I was going a reasonable speed. Then the driver yanked her car across the yellow line, accelerated to a ridiculous speed on that country road, and passed me, all the while honking. As she whipped back in front of me, I saw the silhouette of her middle finger shaking at me in her back window.
I’m not going to lie. I was shaken. My emotions skittered from flustered to indignant in about two seconds. I wasted another few minutes crafting the story of this crazy woman that I was going to tell when I arrived at my destination.
That’s when I caught myself.
Was that the story I wanted to share? The story of an angry, aggressive stranger who I somehow managed to upset simply by being in front of her on a road and who managed to upset me in return? Or did I want to share the story of the beauty I had experienced as I drove? The choice was mine to make.
Let me tell you, the upset energy churned up in me by that driver made what now seems an obvious decision a hard one. A part of me yearned to have someone validate my outrage and join me in scathing commentary about what had happened. But the yoga teacher in me stirred and I thought, “This is an interesting opportunity to practice non-violence.”
While I could do nothing about the violence the driver had wreaked upon me, I did have the power to prevent her act from rippling onward. By telling her story, I would allow her negative energy to touch my listeners, impacting their moments. Or, I could choose to take a breath. I could choose to recognize that (fortunately) no real harm had been done other than the ruffling of a few of my proverbial feathers. I could choose to rebound – to refocus my awareness on the peace and beauty I’d been experiencing just prior to her hostile actions.
And so that’s what I did. I chose non-violence or ahimsa.
I spent the last minutes of my drive smiling as I thought about sharing the beauty I had noticed in the world around me. As I pulled into the parking lot, I realized that my choice of non-violence had, before I even had the chance to tell my story, already worked its “magic,” but in an unexpected way. While I did prevent the spread of violence in the world around me, and I had been the immediate and grateful recipient of the gifts of my own non-violence.
With that, I walked into my meeting restored to my serene, in the moment, mindful, grateful, yoga teacher self.
A hard beginning maketh a good ending. – John Heywood
One of the curtain rods in the living room started to pull out of the wall at least two months ago. Sadly, it is one of the two that are directly in my line of sight when I sit in my favorite chair in that room. Because, in our marriage, tasks involving drills and hammers typically fall in the “blue” rather than the “pink” column, I asked my husband if he would please fix it and proceeded to wait.
And wait. And wait. When the waiting began to seem endless, I asked again. And again. (I’m pretty sure he would tell you that I was nagging.)
Last Friday night, with no fanfare whatsoever, I noticed the curtain was neatly draped over the back of the bench in the living room and the rod was down. For fear of jinxing things, I didn’t say a word. When my husband announced that he was headed to the hardware store on Saturday morning before yoga class, I succumbed and asked, “Whatcha up to?” “I’ve got to get something for the curtain rod,” he replied, as if that were a perfectly normal thing for him to be doing at 8:00 on a Saturday morning.
By 10:30 (class ended at 10:15), the curtain and rod were back in place. He had spent $0.30 at the hardware store and had not uttered even one expletive (which means it was an easy-peasy-lemon squeezy fix). Beginning to ending – including the trip to the hardware store – the whole job took him under 30 minutes. I gave him a huge hug and did a little happy dance in front of the window. To let him savor his moment of glory, I decided to wait a few days to ask what the hold-up had been.
When I did ask, he said, “I just knew it was going to be a pain in the neck. Things like that always are with our stupid plaster walls.”
As we talked, he admitted that the project had grown more and more loathsome the longer he waited to begin. Procrastinating gave him time to imagine the gaping hole he would certainly make in the wall. He imagined having to fill the hole, let the spackle dry, sand, paint, re-sand and add a second coat. He even imagined that the new paint wouldn’t match the old, so we’d end up having to paint the whole room. He wondered if I would make him clean the plaster dust off all the picture frames under the window.
With all that built-up dread, it’s no wonder it took him so long to take the first step. It was a hard beginning, indeed! But, in the wise words of Mr. Heywood, my husband’s hard beginning made for a good ending. In fact, perhaps because the beginning was so hard, the ending exceeded his wildest expectations.
The immortal words from the movie Groundhog Day (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrYe-ezyegY) prove that my husband isn’t alone. The first step in any project can be a real doozy. What makes my husband’s story an especially good example is that his doozy of a first step wasn’t actually the first step. The first step, taking the curtain and rod down from the wall, was no big deal. It was the lead-up to actually beginning that practically paralyzed him for weeks and weeks.
I suspect this is true for many of us. In fact, as I type, I know I need to empty our linen closet, clean the walls and repaint it. The relentless dampness of our summer caused some mold to grow in there. (Full disclosure: I’ve actually known about this for longer than my husband knew about the falling curtain rod.) Yet, to date, I haven’t removed even one towel. It’s not just huge projects that paralyze me. Just letting the laundry go a day or two too long creates a bigger than usual pile that makes it tempting to put off the job for another day. I remember this happening in school before I started almost every term paper. Beginning – more precisely, getting myself to begin – is hard.
Probably, for me, the most frequent example of such doozies is the simple act of unrolling my yoga mat on days when I’m fighting a case of the “I-Don’t-Wannas.” Even all these years later, with mounds of evidence that I will not regret practicing, beginning on such a day is incredibly daunting. But here’s the thing: the harder it is to begin, the better the practice always is. Really. Every single time hard beginnings maketh good endings.
How do we surmount the paralyzing lead-up to hard beginnings? As obnoxious as I know it is going to sound, we must simply begin. We must learn to recognize when we’re turning a beginning into a doozy. If this awareness develops after we’re already paralyzed ourselves with over-thinking and manufactured dread, then we must take a breath. We must dig deep for the trust that reality is rarely as catastrophic as we imagine it will be. We must remind ourselves that the second and third and fourth steps are never as hard as the first.
In short, we must have faith in the good ending that is bound to come from yet another hard beginning — and go for it.