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Friday, March 14, 2014

Practice

The hardest part of yoga, perhaps, is the thing that's always tripped me up when starting something new: practice. As a noun, I love the practice of yoga. I love attending a class, trying new postures, meditating, reading and writing about yogic philosophy and anatomy.

“Practice,” as a verb, however, reminds me that I have to be bad at it for a while. Nevermind that judging my asanas or breath or meditation or choices as “bad” is a very non-yoga thing to do. I want to be good at it. To feel successful. Like I can actually deepen my stretches, like my meditation really is peacefully transcendent.

I've never liked to practice. When I was a kid and my mom signed my brother and I up for piano lessons, I hated practicing. My kind older neighbor would remark on occasion how lovely it was to hear us playing when the windows were open. I recoiled from her perfectly gracious words. Someone hearing me mess up?!

Beyond the perfectionism, I think it also has to do with earnestness. Despite my goofball ways, I was a pretty serious kid. One of the worst things to me was, and still is, to be laughed at when I'm being dead-serious. Even when people aren't laughing out of meanness at all, I feel patronized. It takes me tons of self-talk to remember that others are coming from a kindly perspective. That when they're amused, they're really seeing me through the lens of their own experience. (The good ones, at least. Sometimes people really are dumb and mean.)

I've adjusted for this by developing a goofy sense of humor. By constantly cracking jokes, and certainly making fun of myself whenever I can. I do like making people laugh, but the side effect is that when I make fun of myself, other people don't get to. If I'm busy calling my outfit loud and crazy, other people don't have the chance to ask why I'm wearing weird clothes. If I put on a voice to mock mushy-sentimentality, then I don't run the risk of being misunderstood or made fun for my own romantic notions. It's a nice shield, really. It prevents me from being subject to the dismissals of “That's dumb!” or “Why are you doing that?” when sharing the things I truly care about.

It's hard for me to practice yoga in our tiny apartment when my partner is around. He respects my practice, and is glad for anything that makes me happy and fulfilled. But he doesn't share my love for it the same way, so it's hard for me to share it. In the same sense, it's a big deal for me to share my absolute favorite books, or movies, or shows, or music. Those works that truly transport me to another space. When other people say it's crappy music, or even just point out, “Oh, what a nice plot element,” it seems less like an opinion or observation, and more of a comment on the very center of myself. What I'm lost in the splendor of Oz, and they start pointing out the lovely brocade of the curtain? Or worse, if they laugh at the thought I could be taken in by such a display.


So to practice yoga, is for me, a practice in failure. Or, rather, a practice in letting go of the outcome and finding my breath and my peace in the attempt. Letting go of others' experience and fully embracing my own truth. I am allowed to try. To earnestly love yoga and care about my yoga practice. I may reach farther than I did yesterday. I may not. My mat doesn't give a damn. After all, it's only practice.  

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Not my circus. Not my monkeys.

This Polish proverb I came across on Pinterest, “Not my circus, not my monkeys” became my mantra over the last few weeks of January. To me, it meant: I did not create this situation, therefore I will not take on the negativity derived from it, nor spend my energy trying to put out its fires. Immersed in a negative environment, it was essential to me that I hold strong boundaries to keep the negativity from settling inside me. Not only is it extraordinarily easy to take on others' negative energy, it's also easy to fall into the pattern of constantly expending time and effort to mitigate the damage.

During yoga training this past weekend, we explored this idea further through our discussion of breath work, or pranayama. Through our breath, our energy, even our heartbeats, we're connected to the life around us. If that sounds a little hippy-trippy for you, think about it this way: when a barista is rude while serving your coffee, do you think of sharp comebacks or reprimands for their service? Why not accept that this person may be having a bad day, and continue to be kind and courteous in response? In every situation, we retain control over our own behavior. If my first thought is to snap back in an “I'll show her” kind of way, I only feed the negativity. Whereas if I simply maintain my courtesy or even go so far as to wish the barista a better day, I've cut off the spread of negativity, and added some light into the situation.

Energy waves are palpable. The human heart creates a magnetic field with every beat that can be detected beyond the boundaries of the body. The significance of this fact increases with the knowledge that heart rhythms change according to one's emotional state. Negative people can drag down everyone around them. Likewise, however, upbeat people can lift everyone's mood. Though it's easy to fall in with someone else's negative energy, the fact remains that you have control over your own breath and your own body. And thank goodness that's true. No matter the situation- work, family holidays, household accounting, whatever- our breath is our own. Returning to your own breath to calm your body has a myriad of positive outcomes. Your mind feels more calm because it's actually firing different neurons when stressed. Your body can let go of its physiological fight or flight status, and operate normally: digesting well, eliminating toxins, sending oxygen to all cells. It's certainly not always an easy choice (which is why it's called a “practice”), but we can choose not to ride other people's negative energy waves.

For me, not riding the negative wave meant releasing the need to “win” the battle. I took the steps I needed to in an attempt to follow my own conscience and guard my energy. In the end, I didn't prove to the other party I was right. I didn't change anybody's mind to see my way. Someone else made the final call, and it wasn't the way I wanted it to go. But you know what? I don't need to win. I don't need to fight. I don't need to fan the flame of drama. Being right is not as important as being calm, centered, and sane. I didn't get my way, but I still have my health, my sanity, my breath. What's even better is letting go of the situation entirely. I can recount the situation to my loved ones, whom I'd like to keep informed, but it feels so much better to stop talking about it, to never revisit the subject and move on to happier topics. When you relive situations or recount experiences, your body reacts as though you're actually experiencing the same thing again. Try this: envision very clearly picking up a piece of lemon candy, unwrapping it, then placing the candy in your mouth. Feel the tartness spread over your tongue. Now tell me: did your lips actually pucker? Similarly, to continue recounting that awful thing your boss/mom/friend/acquaintance said to you is to relive the experience, sending all the same stress hormones into your body, putting yourself on edge over and over again. Instead, let go and refuse to dragged along.


It's not your circus, so stop letting the monkeys invade your life.  

Friday, November 1, 2013

A Month Gone By



I can hardly believe how October has rolled right by. Tonight starts my second weekend of yoga training, so of course I'm spending my afternoon doing all my homework, completely last minute. Here's where practicing ahimsa is a challenge. I started out the month with great intentions, to finish my homework a little at a time and to really spend quality time studying. While I did do some reading and writing, I largely didn't meet my goal. And that's okay. A little bit is better than none at all (and even none at all is okay). So I'm trying to be kind to myself while holding space for improvement next month.

What's really held me up this month has been job stress. It's been a major period of adjustment for me at work, and the business itself is going through a lot of transition, which all adds up to no solid daily routine for me yet. Starting next week, I expect to be on a much more stable schedule, and I've made some decisions about my daily life to help me feel less rushed and to take back some power over my days. Mon-Thurs, I start work at 1pm. I'd love to have a great, productive morning every day, but it's become obvious that waking up at 8am is not going to happen on a regular basis right now. Instead, I'm resolving to save all of my errands for Fridays, when I generally have the day off. Mornings before work will be reserved for yoga, reading, writing, and preparing food. By taking the pressure off myself to Get Everything Done (because I have so much free time! Not.), I can go to work feeling relaxed and ready for the day, rather than like I've already squandered time. In other words, I'm resolving to be kinder to myself at least four days out of every week.

The other (and frankly, a bit larger) challenge to my month of kindness has been my boss. When she gets stressed out, or makes decisions I don't agree with, my thoughts are very much less than kind. I vent with a couple of my coworkers, or complain to my partner when I get home, and I think a certain level of release is okay. That frustration can't stay inside me. But still, as calm as I stay on the outside (because I will not feed into stress, panic, or negativity), I need to bring that calmness and kindness inside. Judging my boss' decisions get me nowhere, even if I'm right. She's another human being, and as such, I can practice being kind (and truly, I need practice) in my thoughts as well as my actions.

Here's to practice making better.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Ahimsa

True to my self-avowal, on Tuesday night I made a decision about which yama to focus on and journal about for the next month (well, two weeks).

Ahimsa

The decision came about after work, when I met my man to see a local band. The band was awesome. They sounded even better than the last time we had heard them play. As we finished our drinks, the next band came on stage, and I was ready to politely listen until I finished my rum and ginger ale. Wouldn't you know, the man loved this band. This band of three people- vocalist, bass player, keyboardist- and a drum machine. This vocalist of extreme energy, vocal stylings ranging from a smooth baritone to rough yelling, and interpretive dancing. As I looked at my partner radiating in enjoyment, I thought "He would like these weirdos."

Aha. I could probably use some gentleness in my life. Not that I was using "weirdo" to be derogatory- I really think embracing the weirdness is a good thing, if not always my thing. But that thought was not far from my usual judgmental thoughts. I started with a nice long journal entry today, in hopes of getting down all the various ways I think this exercise will be helpful and challenging to me, and I'll share my thoughts along the way. Every time I think "this will be the hardest part," I come up with a new "hardest part" that will challenge me. Oh, lifelong learning.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Unbridled

One of my pieces of homework for the month is to pick a yama to focus on, then journal about it. The assignment is proving more difficult than I first imagined.

To explain, the yamas are one of the eight branches of Yogic philosophy. Translated as "restraints" or "bridles," the yamas are five principles that guide us to live in harmony with others. They include gentleness (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), abundance/non-stealing (asteya), moderation (brahmacharya), and simplicity/non-attachment (aparigraha). As with other life principles, they each have layers of meaning. For example, asteya, or non-stealing, doesn't just mean don't shoplift. It also means don't rob others of their experiences or their words. To an impatient spotlight-lover like myself, it's hard not to finish other people's sentences.

The difficulty I'm having is in picking just one to work on. I mean, the month is half over and I've not started journaling about any of these yet. I'm not indecisive, it's just that in the past two weeks, ALL of these have seemed hard to me. Every day seems to bring a new challenge with my latest job transition, meaning that I've often not had the energy to even be nice to others, much less to focus on being particularly harmonious. Incredibly obvious here is that when the yamas are hardest to practice is probably when you need them the most. And indeed, I'm pretty sure that journaling, meditating, or even just focusing on one of these principles on a daily basis would help me get out of my own head and fuel myself with some positive interaction.

I can at least narrow it down to three, and hopefully make a decision from there. My top contenders are:

  • gentleness (which would include having only kind thoughts toward myself when I don't get my homework done, toward other drivers when they don't use turn signals, and toward the bagger at the grocery store who can't keep cold stuff all together)
  • non-stealing (which would include not robbing my partner of his down time, and not being envious of people who have houses and dogs and their shit together in general)
  • simplicity and non-attachment (which would include valuing memories over souvenirs or heirlooms, and remembering that an extra object, no matter its function, will not make me happier. The story of how I struggled with our exercise in aparigraha during the first weekend is yet to come)
By the end of the day, I'll have my first entry written. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Diversity

As my classmates and I settled into the studio on Friday evening, one of the first things I took note of was the diversity in the room- or lack thereof. Immediately noticeable were the wide range of ages and body types gathered together. Also immediately noticeable? All women (or appearing to be so, at least). While I'm on-board with girl-time and hanging with a bunch of smart, cool, women once a month, I'm still a little sad that there were no stereotype-bashing men signed up for class. Yoga has this rap that it's just for white chicks, but you know who yoga is good for? Bodies. All bodies, any body, every body. Other genders have bodies, too.

I did remind myself, as I made a mental survey of the faces ranged before me, that diversity isn't always visible. Every single person in the room brings their own set of experiences to the group, adding richness to our discussions. Making assumptions about people's lives (present or past) damages everyone, and subtracts richness as group members feel marginalized.

Later in the year, we'll be taking field trips as a class to three different religious sites: a Hindu temple, a Buddhist temple, and a Catholic shrine. Our instructor gave us this information and reiterated that yoga is not a religion, and the intention is not to convert anybody from their chosen faith, but to enrich their faith and allow us to feel the energy (that illusive "it") in each of these spiritual places. I'm really excited for these trips. I have very little knowledge or or contact with Hinduism or Buddhism, and I will be intensely curious about their traditions and rituals. The Catholic shrine is a site I've been meaning to visit for the past two years- set on a hill visible from the interstate, this shrine is all glass and exposed wooden beams. Beyond gorgeous, even from afar.

Gandhi has said that "all religions are true," which I firmly believe as well. Practicing yoga or learning about other religious traditions is not about conversion, but about further understanding. A fellow student shared some insight from a recorded talk Gandhi gave in NYC, where he explained that the religion you choose is right for you. Being accepting of other religions doesn't mean we should all be practicing the exact same one. It means there's room for different expressions of similar understandings. That's definitely something I want to keep exploring in my writing. I have a hard time putting to words the breadth of Truth I believe in. As soon as words come into play, humans put their own meanings to them. If I use the word God or Universe or Mother Nature, a reader can come up with three different pictures, the same picture for each, different pictures with the same meaning. . . and on and on. No wonder each human being is on his or her own journey of understanding- our means of communication are too flawed to carry such expression.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Nine Month Goal

This past weekend, I began what seems to be a nine month process, but will likely be a lifelong journey of learning and growing. I started the process to become certified as a yoga instructor. Before the weekend even started, I was excited for where this certification process could take me personally and professionally, but I also had the feeling that I had thus far only understood the very surface of a deep river. Now that the weekend is over, my professional excitement remains, and my personal excitement has doubled.

I've had the blog on hiatus for a while, unsure what I really wanted to share, what thoughts I had that were important enough for a platform on the world wide web. That internal debate on content will continue, I'm sure, especially considering my recent job transition, which yielded a lifestyle transition, and has thrown me back into the self-reflection cycle. With this new endeavor, however, I think working through my thoughts in writing will help me express myself better as a teacher, understand the yogic philosophy better, and if it helps another person in their exploration of yoga- or of life in general- then huzzah for them.

The writers I admire always espouse writing for yourself first, and the audience will come. Well, this born spotlight-grabber has a hard time with that. I think by focusing on writing about my yoga training for the next few months will also train me to write for my own sake first, and for the sake of my life off-line, and let the online chatter happen or not as it will.