Gratitude and Generosity

So, it’s December. Already. A_yogi_seated_in_a_garden

After a prolonged illness during which I spent much of September, all of October, and most of November bedridden, I have emerged, having missed an entire season and feeling a bit out of it, among other things.

As I readjust and reacquaint myself with life beyond the confines of my increasingly-uncomfortable-the-longer-I-spent-in-it bed, I am filled with a sense of gratitude. I had never been incapacitated that long, and while I am grateful for my good health now, I am also retroactively grateful for all the good health I’ve enjoyed much of my life.

When I was a young teenager, my sister-in-law, the mother of my two toddler nephews, became suddenly ill with a heart condition that necessitated more than one heart transplant, multiple hospital stays, and a lifetime since of precarious health. At the time, as an inexperienced kid, I was simply incapable of understanding what it must have been like for her to be so ill at a time when her children so desperately needed her. Though I understood the situation was dire and difficult, I did not comprehend fully the emotional turmoil that she and her husband and children must have been experiencing.

My experience pales in comparison to the severity of the situation of my sister-in-law, but I did spend a lot of time thinking about her as I recovered. Being sick is hard. Watching someone you love suffer through illness is hard. Being incapable of caring for your young child is excruciating.

I think it is also hard to be honest about just how miserable we are, so great is the pressure to “stay positive” and “get well soon”. Modern society tends to be uncomfortable with discomfort, with dis-ease, with any forced reminder to be in our bodies, vulnerable as they are. And so we tritely tell folks to focus on the positive and to take good care, reassuring them it will all be better soon.

I have certainly done this with others and I caught myself doing it to myself as well. The first few weeks in bed were spent in disbelief and irritation that I was sick at all. The next few weeks in anger. Finally, as I was forced to accept help and generosity from those who love me most, I was able to feel some compassion and empathy for my own suffering. I could see these things in the eyes and feel it in the hands of those who showed up to care for me. Seeing how willing they were to bear my pain and to hold my hand through it, without saying the things you’re supposed to say, I was finally able to accept what was happening.

It feels impossible to fully express my gratefulness for this lesson and for the people who showed up to teach it to me. It feels impossible to fully describe their selfless giving of spirit, heart, and time. And in this season of thankfulness and sharing I am filled to the brim with both my own gratitude and their generosity. I am grateful to have been forced, once again, to inhabit my body fully and to find acceptance there. I am grateful for the humans who surround me with their love. I am grateful for lessons learned. I am newly aware of how generous life is in its ability to constantly surprise and teach us. I am present to the generosity and kindness that exists in the world.

There are no greater gifts I could ask for this holiday season.

Wishing you and yours a holiday season filled with gratitude and generosity, dear yogis. Namaste.

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The Power of Stories

Brainpickings.org is one of my favorite websites because of things like this:

The Neurochemistry of Empathy, Storytelling, and the Dramatic Arc, Animated. 

I’ve just happened to read or listen to a lot of things recently about brain plasticity. I was particularly struck by a quote from the post on Brainpickings:

 “Stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds but, in doing that, they change the way our brains work and potentially change our brain chemistry — and that’s what it means to be a social creature.”

Our brains are constantly rewiring themselves based on what we consume and what we experience. The stories we read, the stories we listen to, and the stories we tell … all of these have the potential to affect the wiring of our brains. The implications of this are huge.

B0007846 Pyramidal neuronsYogis talk a lot about self-talk, and how the things we tell ourselves can either promote or inhibit our spiritual growth. Is our self-talk damaging or nourishing, critical or compassionate? And are we surrounding ourselves with ideas and images and people who are wiring our brains for love and connection or for separateness and competition?  How are the stories we tell ourselves about our past, our present, our future, our abilities, our successes and our failures affecting the development of our brains?

Big questions worth asking, I think.

Namaste, yogis.

Interdependence Day


The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another. – Thomas Merton

As America celebrates her 236th birthday on the anniversary of her independence from Great Britain, I find myself reflecting on the nature of independence and interdependence.

We may be an independent nation as a whole, but we are, all of us, interdependent on one another to ensure that the freedoms that we hold so dear are upheld. Through active civic engagement each of us influences the direction our nation takes. It doesn’t always feel that way, and for many, it feels as though the establishment holds all the power. It was this same feeling, this disenchantment with the powers that be, that led our forefathers to declare independence in the first place.

These days, rather than a declaration of independence, it seems to me that the citizens of the United States need to create a Declaration of Interdependence. Through the years, the focus on personal liberties has led to an environment in which it feels that each man or woman is only looking out for himself/herself. It is this attitude that has led to great economic inequities, the runaway salaries of Wall Street executives, and divisive partisan politics.

We need to remember what the founding fathers knew: together we stand, divided we fall.

The practice of compassion is one in which we are reminded of this truth. To proceed in the world with compassion is to realize that everything we think, say, and do has an effect in the world, and that we share commonality with every single person we encounter. When we begin to see people as reflections of our own Self, we treat them differently. This is hard to do. It is much easier to see everyone and everything as separate from ourselves. This, however, does not lead to freedom. True freedom comes from knowing who and what we are, and allowing our true inner nature to be reflected in all that we do.

Existing in the world in this way is Yoga. Seeking union rather than division. Seeking truth rather than ease. Using our liberty, not only for personal gain, but to explore our true nature and the true nature of all things. We are fortunate enough to live in a society that allows free expression and exploration. After all, what good is freedom of speech if what we say does not reflect our true inner nature? What good is the freedom to be who and what you are if you don’t know what and who that is?

So, as we celebrate our independence as a sovereign nation, free to govern itself by the will of its people, let us also celebrate our interdependence as citizens of this country. We have the opportunity, through compassion, to work together to build a society that reflects our values. And indeed, we need each other to do so.

Enthusiasm + Compassion

I’m back from Hong Kong and the Asia Yoga Conference, dear yogis. It was a fantastic trip and a great experience.

I spent seven straight hours with Sri Dharma Mittra and, as I imagine many people are, was thoroughly moved to be in his presence. The man is pure heart and a living example of dedication. He imparted many gems of wisdom in those hours and hopefully my quickly-scribbled notes will allow me to share them over time.  (I also spent two wonderful hours with Jason Crandell. More on that as well in future posts)

This man is 73 years old!

Today, though, I wanted to share his most frequent and passionate message: enthusiasm and compassion in your yoga practice and in your life will lead to Realization*. It seems so simple because it is, and yet as anybody who has attempted to be enthusiastic and compassionate in everything they do knows,  we can make simple much more difficult than it needs to be.

Enthusiasm can be defined as “absorbing or controlling possession of the mind by any interest or pursuit”. For me this definition is a bit revelatory as I had never considered the role of controlling the mind in being enthusiastic. According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one definition of Yoga is “the ability to direct and focus mental activity and the ability to still the turning of thought.” Looking at these two definitions, it is clear how interconnected the two are.

Finding and maintaining enthusiasm about our practice and our life requires focus; what do we want? what do we hope to gain? what do we hope to refine? Without this focus, enthusiasm and joy will wane. How can we maintain enthusiasm and focus?

By applying compassion towards ourselves and others. Compassion involves not only commiseration, mercy and tenderness but is a feeling always accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate suffering. The ability to be kind to ourselves, to recognize when we need to move away from the plan we’ve laid out for ourselves and perhaps shift our focus onto other things, as well as to recognize that a loss of enthusiasm and/or focus (i.e. suffering) is not something we should berate ourselves for, but rather an indication that it is time to reassess, time perhaps for a change.

I think sometimes in our culture, specifically in competitive settings, we see focus as an ability to remain fixed on a goal in such a way that we are able to ignore everything else around us. While this may be useful for winning a race or a  job or a contract or a client, we have to ask ourselves, if we focus to the point of exclusion of all other sensations, how holistic and balanced can our approach be to life? And is it possible to maintain enthusiasm if we are ignoring so many other parts of ourselves? Eventually, whatever we’re ignoring – our bodies, our families, our spiritual life – will need to be addressed.

What if instead we see focus,  not as a mental override, but through compassionate eyes as a mental attunement? Something that clarifies our path as we move forward, rather than something that keeps us on a path we may have chosen. After all, we can always change our mind! Changing our mind does not necessarily mean we lack focus. It simply means that we see things differently and/or more clearly than we did before and are making necessary adjustments.  In this way focus allows us to find harmony among our physical, energetic, mental, intellectual, and spiritual bodies.

This is what I’m pondering now, dear yogis. As I said, I have lots more to share from the conference and specifically my time with Dharma Mittra, so stay tuned.

Namaste.

 

*more on Realization in a future post

 

 

I’ve Got a Friend

The amazing and beautiful Elena Brower is a frequent contributor to online classes at YogaGlo. During a practice the other day, she said something I really needed to hear: Teach the world how to treat you by how you treat yourself. As a woman, a mother, a yogini, as a person, this advice was well-timed.

Confession: I’m not always very nice to myself. In fact, I would say that I am, more often than not, my worst critic and greatest adversary. Am I alone in this tendency? Hardly.

This behavior was ingrained well before I had a child, but having a child has provided so many more opportunities to try and fail at  (insert anything here), thus opening the door for a great deal of self-criticism if I allow it. Oh, and how I allow it. I’ve felt plenty of frustration with myself in my life, but the amount since becoming a mother has increased exponentially. This isn’t helped by the societal expectations thrust upon women as mothers, which are indeed impossible to live up to. But, that is a topic for another blog. No matter society’s influence or expectations, I have to take responsibility for my own feelings.

We have a new practice in our home. When we begin to experience frustration we STOP.  (Pretty sure I came across this via Deepak Chopra on Twitter during a late-night feeding … can’t be sure, though. Those late night feedings leave my memory a bit blurry)

Stop

Take three deep breaths

Observe what is happening

Proceed with compassion

We adopted this new practice for the little one, thinking it would be a good and simple way to teach him to deal with frustration. In the process we’ve discovered how incredibly beneficial it has been for us. Especially that last part: proceed with compassion. The first three – stopping, breathing, observing – I was already doing those, mostly with success.  But the final one, well, that one is really the most important and the most difficult, particularly when it comes to feeling compassion for ourselves.

This I know: if I want to be treated compassionately and if I want my son to treat himself and others with compassion,  I must model this behavior. First towards myself, then towards others.

I know this. I teach this. I struggle with this every day. And then I roll out my mat, plop down in front of my computer to do a class on YogaGlo, and Elena Bower says to teach others how to treat me by treating myself well. Sigh. Thank you, Universe, for letting me hear exactly what I need to hear when I need to hear it. Way to drive the point home: Just be nice!

There has been plenty of opportunity to practice this as of late. The little one is going through the 10-month sleep regression  (thus the late night sleepy twitter reading) and my attempts to help him through it have been pure trial and error. You know, just like pretty much everything else with parenting. The difference with this, though, has been that instead of berating myself when something I”m trying isn’t working and thinking I am the worst mother in the world for making him suffer as I figure it out, I am proceeding with compassion. I remind myself:  I’m new at this. This is my first child. I’ve never done this before. Basically, I’m saying all the things that any kind, compassionate friend would say.

Imagine that, I’m being a friend … to me. If this seems obvious and simple that’s because it is. Yet, for me, this feels nothing short of radical.  And good. And right.

Blessings to you and yours, yogis and yoginis. I’ll be traveling to the Asia Yoga Conference in Hong Kong next month. Stay tuned for some (hopefully) inspired posts.

I Change, therefore I Grieve

In 1991, the Grief Resource Foundation of Dallas, Texas found that, for them, a good working and practical definition of Grief was “the total response of the organism to the process of change”. Or, if you’re into equations, Change=Loss=Grief.

As a Yogini, I find this definition makes perfect sense to me. In our Yoga practice, particularly asana, we are doing the work of accepting and moving through change. We learn that the nature of all things is that they change. This lesson is reinforced as we move through our physical practice, changing our bodies breath to breath. Our bodies are the metaphor for everything in the external world – ever evolving.

We are all familiar with the emotions that can bubble up during a Yoga practice.  Before we get to the good stuff – the bliss – we often feel what can be described as discomfort, unease, frustration, perhaps anger, maybe even queasiness. Could these be grief? What if we saw our practice as a means to grieve the loss we are experiencing because of the changes that are occurring as a result of our dedicated practice? Notice, the definition of grief does not specify what kind of change. Just change. Positive or negative, all changes require us to let go of whatever was there before. Loss. We lose whatever our idea of reality was before we adopt a new reality.

So do we allow ourselves the space to grieve our losses, not only in our Yoga practice, but in our life? So often there is a negative connotation to the word grief but perhaps if we shift our perspective. If we apply some equanimity and begin to see grief as simply a part of change. It is good that we lose some things as we change. What if we had to hold on to everything we ever gathered, physically or otherwise? We’d be very weighed down!

In my own personal practice  I’ve been working with this – allowing myself space to grieve that which is changing. For me, it has been a very powerful exercise. It has helped me to be more focused, more aware of what I’m feeling, and ultimately, more compassionate. Grief and loss, like all emotions, are just part of the experience. By accepting and moving through them, rather than resisting, we enhance our entire experience of life.

(Change=Loss=Grief)+(practice +acceptance) = Compassion=Love=Oneness

The Compassionate Edge

So often, in our Yoga practice and in our lives, we try to push ourselves further than we have been before. We want to get a little deeper into that backbend, or run that extra mile, or get that job that will challenge us in new ways. It is this desire to reach beyond our comfort zone that helps  us to change, evolve and grow. Many times, once we’ve pushed ourselves to our perceived “limit”, we discover that we are in fact capable of even more and so we set our sights on a new goal.

Most growth is meant to be done in small amounts, bit by bit. If we reach too far before we have the foundation to support our growth, we crumble. And so as we are doing this dance, this vinyasa flow through life, (breathing growing changing evolving pushing) we need to identify our edge for that day, that moment. How far do I push in this moment? How much is appropriate for where I am right now?

But how do we find our edge? How do we define it? And how do we perceive it once we’ve established the edge for us?  Being driven towards a goal is a wonderful thing, but who or what is doing the driving? Is it judgement? Greed? Ambition?

I have not personally met any human who was ever completely immune to these driving forces. We all have a tendency to see our flaws or shortcomings through judgmental eyes and to wish we could change them immediately. And we have all experienced the overwhelming sensation of greed – wanting more or better of some thing. This is very common in an asana practice – one we’ve mastered a particular pose that we perhaps couldn’t do a month or so before, we immediately want to move into the next, deeper expression of the pose. We want more, more more! And ambition, this desire for success that we’ve all felt, can lead us down all sorts of ego-enhancing paths. It’s not wrong to wish to be successful at something, but do we want to be successful so that we can “have” or “own” success? Or do we want to be successful so that we can relish the satisfaction of having done something well?

This bit by bit growth, slowly and over time, is best driven by compassion. When we can look at ourselves through compassionate eyes, we can easily identify our edge for each day, for each moment.  When our goal becomes to find our own compassionate edge, we can no longer be driven by judgment or greed or ambition. Instead we’ll be driven by a desire to find the absolute best that we have within us for the time being, without any desire or even willingness to risk harm of any kind by pushing beyond that. We know that with each day and each moment within each day, will come a new opportunity for growth. The edge will keep moving further and further, as we discover our full capabilities.

Finding my compassionate edge, as a yogi, as a mother, as a person living my life, is what I’m working on right now, my fellow yogis.