Lessons Abroad – Part I – Letting Go

Wawwojeong Temple

Wawwojeong Temple

Our time here is very quickly drawing to a close despite my best efforts to pretend otherwise. Each time I’ve sat down intent on writing about and reflecting on all I’ve learned while living here, I am overcome with sadness and  a deep desire for more time. I’ve known since we arrived that my time here would be limited and yet I am still having a very hard time accepting that these really are the final weeks.

This strikes me as amusing, to say the least. I sit here struggling to let go of my experience here, even as most, if not all, of what I’ve learned here can be summed up as learning the art of letting go. The past three years have been an exercise in nothing less.

From letting go of control and daily involvement in the studio back home, to letting go of the plans and expectations I had about birthing in the US, to letting go of close contact with my friends and community, the whole process of moving here was a long series of goodbyes and releasing of control and facing the unknown.

After arrival, my first big lesson in letting go was saying goodbye to my perfectly imperfect dog Fletcher.

Weeks later I was moving into motherhood and letting go, not only of all of my (completely wrong) ideas about motherhood, but also the very specific identity that I hadn’t realized meant so much to me. I struggled for a long time to see my new role as mother as an enhancement or addition to who I previously was, rather than a replacement of who I had been. As months passed and I began to have more time and space to reconnect with myself, I discovered that while I was still there, the experience had changed me deeply. This required further letting go of what was and concentrated effort to accept new realities. (An ongoing process)

Living as an expat among other expats provides ample opportunity to practice letting go. The shared experience of navigating a culture that is not your own makes for quick formation of intimate friendships that are, by nature, completely temporary. You make a friend, become close, and with little to no warning, they receive another assignment and are off to the next locale.

And, of course, the backdrop to all of these opportunities for growth has been Korea, a unique place with a unique culture that I had never experienced before coming here. There has been a lot of letting go of preconceived notions and ideas I had about Asia and Asian culture and society as well as a great deal of learning about and adopting new customs and social rituals as best I can as an outsider. Within this context, I’ve had to become very aware of the ways I am distinctly western and how this affects the way I see the world. In order to enjoy my time here, I’ve had to, at least temporarily, let go of the western way of doing most things. At times I’ve done so willingly, at times kicking and screaming.

And now I am struggling to let go of the life we’ve built here and all that I love about it. Korea has been good to me and overall I have been very comfortable and happy living here. (Plus, I really love our apartment! How will I ever live without floor-to-ceiling windows again?) The trick now is to cherish and be grateful for the experience, the memories, the lessons and let go of the desire for more.

I’m working on it.

Namaste, yogis.

Advertisements

Ought To, Got To, Like To

In a letter to a little girl dated 3 April 1949, C. S. Lewis wrote:

“Remember that there are only three kinds of things anyone need ever do. (1) Things we ought to do (2) Things we’ve got to do (3) Things we like doing. I say this because some people seem to spend so much of their time doing things for none of the three reasons, things like reading books they don’t like because other people read them. Things you ought to do are things like doing one’s school work or being nice to people. Things one has got to do are things like dressing and undressing, or household shopping. Things one likes doing — but of course I don’t know what you like. Perhaps you’ll write and tell me one day.”

Reading this I had to ask myself: what are the things that I spend time doing, not because I ought to, got to, or like to, but because other people do or because I am expected to? And what is it that I like to do? As the mother of a young child I also realize that it has been a while since I have asked myself what I would like to do as there is always plenty of things I’ve ought to and got to do.

Of course, having a lot that needs to be done is hardly a good excuse for not doing what we like, what makes us happy. And in fact, not doing what we like to do because we have so many other things that we need to do is a bit of a recipe for disaster. It is very tempting, as a mother, to throw one self onto the sacrificial altar of duty. After all, we love our children and want to be everything that they need, even if that means ignoring our own needs. What children need, though, more than anything, are happy and fulfilled parents who can set a good example of self-care.

A good friend said to me yesterday: you can’t foster your child’s creativity and nurture their gifts if you are not fostering and nurturing your own creativity and gifts.

I really needed to hear this. Through my yoga study and practice and through my life experience I know this to be true. Our stores of energy need to be replenished regularly if we are going to have enough for others.  Parenting requires vast amounts of energy, more than anything else I’ve ever done. To be fair, it also fills me up in a way I didn’t know I needed, so it gives much more than it takes. But, obviously, it doesn’t fulfill all of my needs, nor should it. It would be very unfair to my sweet son to expect all of my happiness and fulfillment to come from the privilege of mothering him.

I have been aware of this from the moment I discovered I was going to be a mother, and I have done my best in these past 14 months to nurture myself, but this has been a good reminder for me. The little one is becoming more and more independent of me, and more able to spend time with others away from me, which can free me up to do more things that I like to do.

I often find that when I have a few moments to myself I end up doing things on the “got to” and “ought to” lists, rather than the “like to”  list. I think it’s time to change that.

What do you like to do?

 

 

 

 

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.

Downward Facing Peekaboo

April 15 was my one year anniversary of living in Korea.  Try as I might, I simply cannot believe we’ve been here that long. If it weren’t for the physical evidence of the littlest yogi being less than 8 weeks shy of his first birthday, I may be able to deny it altogether. I love living here and am very comfortable in many ways, but in other ways am still completely clueless. It seems I should know or understand more about this country. And what I wouldn’t give to be able to communicate more fully. If it weren’t for that darn baby! He takes up all my time! Thank goodness we have a few more years which will bring many more opportunities for learning.

Reflecting on this first year, I may not have gained all of the knowledge that I desire, but I have most certainly learned some very important lessons. Lessons in letting go, lessons in humility, lessons in adaptability, lessons in patience … honestly the list could go on and on.

One of the lessons I am most grateful for, and one that would have been learned no matter where I was this past year, is the importance of play. I consider myself a pretty easy-going person, but I’m not terribly playful. This past year has given me some time to a) accept that about myself, rather than despise it, which I have done in the past, b) figure out why I value playfulness and why I don’t seem to be playful, and c) give myself the space to explore playing. A little Yogi certainly helps with all of this.

Downward Facing Peekaboo

Downward Facing Peekaboo

The Hindu deity Hanuman, depicted as a monkey, is described in Hindu scripture as mischievous and playful. Interestingly, his namesake posture, Hanumanasana (the splits) feels not at all playful. Not for this yogini anyway. More like torture. Or at least, that’s how I used to feel. I made a decision, when practicing Hanumanasana, that I would only go as far in the pose as I could while still being able to enjoy a good belly laugh. At first, this meant barely getting into the pose at all, as my smile would usually disappear as soon as I moved past a runner’s stretch. But, little by little, I’m getting deeper and deeper into the pose. My hips and hamstrings are releasing, and the laughter is coming much easier. I’m still a far way from the fullest expression of the pose, but the feelings I have associated with it have completely shifted. And more importantly, every time I begin to move into Hanumanasana, I have a good laugh and am reminded of the necessity of play.

My son is at the age where he mimics everything I do, so when I laugh, he laughs. When I am playful and joyous, he is playful and joyous. There are times to be serious, of course, but the realization that I have been taking myself a bit too seriously has been a profound one. One of the great things about Hanuman is that even with his playful, silly and mischievous nature, he is also incredibly powerful. He was reminded by Jambavantha:

 

You are powerful as the wind;

You are intelligent, illustrious and an inventor.

There is nothing in this world that is too difficult for you;

Whenever stuck, you are the one who can help.

Reading that, it is exactly the message I’d like to impart to my son and to myself.  I can’t teach it to him if I don’t believe it is true for me. Especially the part about knowing that when you are stuck, you have what is necessary within to get unstuck. Sometimes this means being serious, but as I’m learning, often times, getting unstuck is simply a matter of letting go and having a good belly laugh.

Namaste, yogis and yoginis!

Be 여기 Now

So, guess how you say here in Korea?

Yogi!

I’m not kidding. The word for here is yogi. Well, I should say, it is pronounced yogi, since the word is actually 여기. How great is that? Could there be any better coincidence for this yoga geek? I don’t think so!

If there were ever a yogi who needed a constant reminder to “be here now”, it’s this one. Motherhood has made my efforts to be present easier in some ways and more difficult in others. On the one hand, my son is the ultimate example of what it means to be present. He is always completely attuned to the moment and as we move through our day together, I very often find myself in the flow, completely present to our experiences. Other times I find myself going over the laundry list of things I have to get done when he takes a nap or the list of things I didn’t get done when I had free time the day before. While sometimes I catch myself doing this and am able to notice without judgement and bring myself back to the moment at hand, other times when I catch myself I immediately begin the negative self-talk. This inner dialogue is full of  shaming talk and accusations of failure. I convince myself in these moments that I am not only completely useless in terms of productivity but am also a terrible mother for worrying about these things when I should be in the moment, wholly and completely present to my son.

I’m working very hard on banning the word should from my self-talk. In that context, it is completely useless. Any energy I spend thinking about what I should be doing or thinking or feeling is energy wasted not actually doing, thinking or feeling. Essentially, not living Life. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, ” Life is only available in the present moment”.

So, being yogi now, is what I’m working on.

An easy moment to be present

How about you? What are your challenges to being present and how are you overcoming them?

 

Balance

This perhaps goes without saying, but I really love Yoga.

Ever since pregnancy drastically changed my body, I’ve found many new challenges to my practice. I’m no longer pregnant, but my body did not go back to the way it was before. This makes for a very interesting asana practice. On the one hand, through years of practice, I know my body well. On the other hand, because of pregnancy and childbirth, I have to get to know it all over again. The great thing about Yoga is that it teaches us the mental flexibility necessary to do this – to flow easily through changes without fear and attachment. One of the things I’ve been really working on is balance. It seems my whole center of gravity has shifted and balancing poses feel completely different in this new body.


Balancing postures build strength and mental focus, while also teaching us how to find stability. When we’re standing on one leg, in Vrksasana (tree pose), for example, we have no choice but to focus on that standing leg, as the root of the posture. Trees can only grow and remain upright with a strong root system, and the same is true of tree pose.

The thing is, if we never tried to stand on just one leg, we would never be challenged to invest in our foundation so that we could do it. It is only by attempting to balance that we learn what is necessary to achieve it. We cannot know it by reading it in a book or being told how to do it. We have to experience it.

Focusing on our root system, that which keeps us grounded, strong, and flexible, in asana practice and in life practice, helps us to achieve balance. For me, finding my balance is not just about working with the changes in my body, but also the changes in my mind and spirit that inevitably come with the result of pregnancy and childbirth – motherhood! We’re four months in and while it is the most wonderful and amazing thing I’ve experienced in life, it is not without its challenges. Particularly in the area of balance.

How do I maintain my balance? How do I give the right amount of myself to my child? To my husband? And what about me? How do I take care of me? These are all issues of balance and the only answer I can come up with is the same answer I have for tree pose – by investing in my foundation. Knowing what keeps me grounded and connected and flexible and then investing time and energy into those things.

For me, Yoga is a big part of that and this is why I love it so much. Yoga not only gives me the tools to achieve balance but it is what gave me the courage to attempt a life that would require balance in the first place. If it weren’t for my Yoga practice, I don’t know that I would have ever opened myself to the life I have – a wonderful husband, a beautiful baby, fulfilling work.

The idea of standing on one foot can be scary – I might fall! I might hurt myself! I might look silly! All of these things are true.

But you also might establish a connection to the earth, to your foundation, and from there you will most certainly grow strong and flexible, poised and balanced.

Maybe

One of my dear students, before I left Tacoma, gave me a book: Zen Shorts by Jon Muth. It has quickly become my favorite book, children’s or otherwise. We read it to Elden even though he is too young to absorb the content just yet, knowing that part of it is sinking in, but also knowing that the lessons contained within are so essential for us as well.

In one of the short stories, Stillwater the bear teaches a little boy about equanimity. Equanimity: mental composure, calmness, stability. I like to say it is the ability to not be shaken or stirred when things come up; to be able to see that everything is not good or bad, everything simply is. Very easily said, not so easily done.

Stillwater teaches this lesson through a story in which the main character, a farmer, despite those around him making judgements about the goodness or badness of happenings in his life, always responds with one simple word: maybe. When his son breaks his leg, they remark on how awful, what bad luck. He says maybe. When the government comes to enlist young men for the armed forces and his son is spared due to his leg injury they remark on how wonderful, what great luck. He says maybe. And so the story goes … the same exact happening or situation can be seen as awful one moment, wonderful the next, all in relation to everything else that happens. But the nature of the initial thing hasn’t changed, which shows that it was neither awful nor wonderful to being with. It simply was. A broken leg is a broken leg and that is all it is.

Again, easier to say and to know intellectually than to do and believe. So often throughout the day as things happen I catch myself immediately deciding if this is a good turn of events or a bad turn of events. As I move each day more fully into this role of Mother I am very aware of the danger of this thought pattern. The need to categorize everything as positive or negative can be very exhausting! With my limited capacity for clear thought these days, due to lack of sleep, why waste any of my precious brain power on categorizing things that will happen no matter which category I put them in? Especially since my idea about whether or not something is good or bad will certainly shift as the day wears on.

I want my son to have mental calmness and stability, equilibrium. I want him to be able to see the world and the happenings around him as things that simply are, that require no judgement. And I know that in order to teach him this, I must be demonstrating it through my own behavior. And so, this is what I am working on right now.

Am I succeeding? Maybe. Am I failing? Maybe. It all depends on the day and the moment, which is to say that I am neither succeeding nor failing; I simply am.

Maybe.

Reflections on Birthing

Wow! Just … wow!

Little Elden is three weeks old and I am still basking in post-birth awe. It’s hard to believe that this little person was inside of me just a few weeks ago.  He is thriving and we are learning, as all new parents do.

During the last few weeks before he was born, as we were waiting, waiting, waiting, struggling to find patience, I kept reminding myself of something that Kundalini yogini Gurmukh wrote in her book Bountiful, Beautiful, Blissful. She says there is a month of grace surrounding a baby’s due date and all babies are born at exactly the moment they are meant to. Reflecting on our birthing experience, I know this to be true. Elden could not have been born anywhere else, anytime else, to anyone else.

There is much I could say about our birthing experience, and I could talk about it for much longer than anyone would care to hear, but if I had to sum it up in one word that word would be healing. To experience the depth of what my body is capable of was incredibly profound. The only other time or place I’ve experienced such a healing has been through my Yoga practice. Yoga does amazing things for body image issues. Not only do we learn through the philosophy of Yoga that we are more than our body, but through asana we learn to appreciate our bodies and all they can do. We build strength and flexibility while simultaneously learning to let go of the illusion of perfection and damaging self-talk. We learn to accept what is, including our bodies, and to love ourselves as a reflection of the Divine.

Even after my years of Yoga practice, having experienced this healing over and over again, I still struggle with body image issues. It is very difficult not to in our air-brushed society which puts so much pressure on women to live up to impossible ideals of beauty.  And, I have to take responsibility for my own inner voice, which doesn’t always dismiss these pressures but rather internalizes them. (Thank goodness we call Yoga a “practice”. Means we can keep working on it for a long time.)

My birthing experience, much like my first Yoga experiences did, has once again shifted my self-image. After 27 hours of active natural labor and childbirth, I feel like there is nothing my body cannot do. I look at my son and I cannot believe that my body nurtured him, protected him, gave him all he needed to grow, and then delivered him into this world.  Doctors don’t “deliver” babies, women’s bodies do. And they do it so perfectly. It is not easy, but a woman’s body is meant to do it. Knowing this, how can I now look at my reflection in the mirror and find fault in my arms or my midsection? How can I complain about my thighs? It seems so frivolous compared to the incredible power that I now know is housed deep within each limb and body part.

And yet, I know that I will still have those moments. I won’t always love my reflection, and I’ll probably still find myself criticizing something about my body. But hopefully, this will happen less and less. Hopefully, I will internalize what I learned through birthing: I am woman, hear me roar.