I laugh on my yoga mat. (Really, I do!)

Do not kill the instinct of the body for the glory of the pose.  Do not look at your body like a stranger but adopt a friendly approach towards it.  Watch it, listen to it, observe its needs, its requests, and even have fun.  To be sensitive is to be alive…

To twist, stretch, and move around, is pleasant and enjoyable, a body holiday.

There is an unexpected delight in meeting earth and sky at the same moment!

-Vanda Scaravelli in Awakening the Spine

My last post described yoga as a feeling practice. When I read this quote by Vanda Scaravelli many years ago it resonated deeply, and I began to explore the idea of the practice being “an unexpected delight.” The result is that my yoga mat has become a really fun place to be. A place to be tired and energized; a place to be terrified and gleeful; a place to struggle and a place to find ease; a place to laugh.

Peter Levine, who developed Somatic Experiencing, says you can’t be curious and traumatized at the same time. And what is that if not the yogic principle of self-study (svadhyaya) combined with santosha (being with what is)? So for me, engaging curiosity on the mat has meant noticing what feels freeing and what feels constricting. The magic unfolds on my mat as I get curious about what feels right versus what is an imposed should – an external idea of how my body should be. Where is the prana (life energy) moving freely, where is it not, and how can I allow it to be free?

Every summer, in Chicago, I teach yoga to girls from West Africa who are in the US as part of Expanding Lives, an amazing leadership and empowerment program for young women. The girls have a blast on their yoga mats. They groan and exclaim when a pose is hard, they sigh and smile when it feels good, they bliss out when we’re “just breathing.” They have no sense that they should be serious and self-contained, so they just experience the practice.

When I started letting go of the shoulds on my mat, I began to also experience my practice as fun! Instead of struggling to make a difficult pose “right,” I decided to get curious and relax, and often the pose would feel better and a smile would spontaneously emerge. Eventually I chose to smile rather than struggle, and before I knew it I was laughing from the sheer joy of moving my body in space (or even just holding still).

Sometimes I laugh because it’s hard! It’s exhilarating to be able to hold a pose until my muscles shake and my heart beats fast – listening for when my body says “Ok my dear, that’s quite enough.” My heart delights at the lyricism of a slow vinyasa. It’s fun to fall out of a balance pose, giggling like I did as a kid. It’s exquisite sensory bliss to lay in savasana (the rest pose at the end of class) with yoni mudra (a hand position) over my navel and feel prana move.

The body is a sensory instrument. How much we miss when we don’t befriend it.

I do have to admit it’s a bit of a challenge in group classes – I have to giggle softly to myself or risk disturbing the class. I’m told I have a particular way of laughing, so busting out in class the way I do sometimes on my mat at home might not be appreciated. I’m not suggesting we turn group classes into a free-for-all, but this holiday season, I wish for you that your practice can be a “body holiday.”

Do you laugh on your yoga mat?

Namaste.

 

Are you feeling your yoga? Or just thinking about it?

Photo credit: Jacqui Damasco

Many years ago I met a yoga teacher who said that “yoga is a feeling practice.” That resonated with me, and at the time I realized that I was only feeling my practice some of the time. The rest of the time I was so involved with my thoughts that I was barely present with what my body was experiencing until my muscles started to protest.

On Thanksgiving this year I had the rare opportunity to spend the day alone and in silence. No talking. And the first thing I noticed was how much time and energy I spend thinking. So many words! Planning, contemplating, analyzing, theorizing, prognosticating about what other people might be thinking… On a silent retreat I wanted silence, but my mind had other ideas.

The endless rambling of the mind is easy to get caught up in, and for a lot of people, this constant spinning of the mind is what causes the bulk of their anxiety.  Don’t get me wrong – we want the mind to be able to do the work it needs to do, but when it is just spinning in circles and causing anxiety, that is not effective.

The same thing can happen in our yoga practice. We may be moving our bodies, but our minds may be miles away in space or in time – or we may be judging ourselves. We end up doing the practice for its residual effects, missing out on the experience each pose can generate. Or, we move our bodies around with little regard for what the body is telling us it needs – we aren’t actually listening or collaborating with our bodies.

Photo credit: Jacqui Damasco

In any given moment, thinking is accompanied by our sensory experience. The physical body is a sensory instrument. Sights, sounds, smells, sensations on our skin, all this is happening at this very moment – even as you’re reading these words. Can you feel your fingers touching whatever they are now touching? What are you hearing at this moment? What are you smelling? What do you see with your actual eyes (versus your internal landscape)? What emotions arise as you pay attention to your senses?

On the yoga mat, while in a pose or even while resting, what do you experience with your sense of touch? What do you hear, see, smell, sense, feel? What is the immediate experience of now? How does it feel to be present here and now? Very often, when we come back to the present moment, we actually feel more relaxed, more “here.” When we quiet the endless rambling of the mind, we have a chance to experience what is actually ok in the present moment.

If the mind really wants to get involved, you might occupy it with the question: “Is this pleasant or unpleasant?” or “What feels good about this pose?” Let the mind be in service to the experience rather than spiraling out with judgments, shoulds, associations, plans or other elements that aren’t directly related to the experience you’re having now. Of course that spiraling might still happen, and you have the choice to follow, or to do something different. Instead of jumping on the “thought train,” you could acknowledge the mind, give thanks that it can do what it does, and then gently direct your attention back to the sensory experience of the moment.

Who knows? You may begin to notice that your yoga practice actually feels good. Before you know it, you might find yourself smiling or even laughing on your mat. (Yes, that’s allowed!)

Namaste.

Holiday SOS Toolkit

The holidays are fast approaching and one of the challenges for lots of folks is how to handle all the gatherings of different sorts that may seem more like obligations than fun.

I’m lucky that I actually like my family and colleagues, but in case you happen to fall into the “obligations” category, Susan Auman (my friend and business partner at CBW), and I have come up with 10 tips for a Holiday SOS Toolkit. Here goes…

(1) Remember it’s temporary. One of my unfortunate college summer jobs was selling educational books door-to-door in California.  One of the phrases I learned was Og Mandino’s “This too shall pass.”  Pretty much all social events are time limited, or you can set your own time limit by deciding how long you’re going to stay.

(2) Orient to safe others. When arriving at your destination, look around for familiar and/or friendly faces. If there’s someone you know you prefer over the others, spend time talking with that person. Make a new friend, or bring someone along you know you enjoy being with. Continue to check for people who seem friendly or inviting. Sometimes those safe “others” might be 4-legged or leaf covered!

(3) Choose to notice what’s pleasant. In any holiday gathering there’s likely something that qualifies as pleasant – or at any rate less unpleasant than the rest. Maybe the food smells and tastes good? Is there a real live Christmas tree that smells like an evergreen forest? Maybe the holiday music is cheerful? Or maybe there are pleasing pictures on the wall or friendly pets to play with? Even small things can shift a generally unpleasant experience, but you have to look for them or they might pass you by.

(4) Notice body tension and let it go. Difficult situations can make the body tense. Anxiety and stress generally show up as muscle tension in the body. Knowing the places you generally get tense can be helpful. If not, check for tension in your brow, jaw, shoulders, abdomen, pelvic floor or arms. You can choose to let go of tension in these areas. If your body’s not keen on letting go of tension you might have to consciously tense a little more (I know that sounds contrary), then stop your conscious tensing. Usually the muscles will let go – at least more than they did before.A little tip: your tongue can be an indicator of how tense you are. Tongue pressed fiercely up against the roof of your mouth? You’re probably revved up. Relax/soften your tongue and notice what happens in the rest of you…

(5) Move around!  Bodies actually become more tense when forced to sit still. Moving around can ease some of the tension (freeze) in the body and help you to relax. Sometimes just stretching in place or moving at the joints can help. For example, rolling the shoulders, wrists and ankles or gently stretching the sides of your neck might not appear too strange and can relieve some tension in those areas. Less tension means the brain thinks you’re more relaxed!

(6) Take breaks. If you’re like me, your inner introvert gets a bit overwhelmed by all those nervous systems in one place. Or maybe you just get overstimulated by lots of activity, color & noise? Removing yourself may be as easy as taking a trip to the loo! (That’s the restroom btw). While you’re there, check on your muscle tension, do some breathing with nice long exhales to relax the body and maybe even check for something pleasant – magazines? nice soap? interesting wall art? :-)Depending on where you are, going outside “for some fresh air” might also be and ok way to escape for a while.

(7) Pre-plan for contact with the sane world. If you know you’re going to be in the midst of a chaotic or highly unpleasant crowd, plan with a friend you can text or call (on those trips to the loo or when you’re breathing fresh air). Sometimes you need someone else to remind you to breathe.

(8) Get helpful.  I’ve found that purposeful activity can be very rewarding. Probably due to all that dopamine that gets created when you feel productive? Hosts are often happy for help and it’s sometimes also a way you can meet other people who are also helping.

(9) Plan an activity for the group. Directing the group in an activity can be a fun way of interacting, and also setting the tone of the gathering. Susan suggested the post-it note game. To play, you draw different characters on post-it notes and without the person knowing who the character is, each person gets a post-it on their back. Other people give people clues and each person has to try to figure out what their character is.

(10) Bring or wear something soothing. If all else fails, this is a back-up plan. Maybe you have a smooth stone that soothes you that you can keep in your pocket? Maybe there’s a lotion you like the smell of? Maybe a scarf with a texture you enjoy? Maybe your favorite colored shirt or tie or comfy shoes? Maybe your favorite tea?  Maybe you can check in with your favorite meme or funny YouTube video on one of those trips to the loo.

Whichever activity you choose, make sure you’re mindful and focused on that. Leave any aggravation, frustration or stress behind and stay as much in the present moment as you can. Much of what we experience comes from what we choose to focus on.   Whatever you celebrate, wishing you a wonderful, mindful, pleasurable Thanksgiving and very Happy Holidays.

The Trauma Brain Project

I recently had the honor of being on a panel of body-centered therapists following the reading of a play by Dayle Ann Hunt titled The Trauma Brain Project.

This play is powerful, moving, intense. It is the story of a woman’s journey to heal from the repressed memories of early childhood sexual abuse. Dayle takes us on this journey of her own life experience as someone who was diagnosed with Epilepsy as a child, who was also experiencing paralyzing migraines, unexplained nausea, psoriasis, sinus growths and a string of inexplicable conditions that followed her throughout her life; all of which led her (in her 50s) to shadowed memories of what had happened and to eventual healing with somatic therapy.

The cast is amazing. The direction is expert. We the audience were riveted for the duration of the piece.

This play is a must-see for anyone who works with diagnosing illness. Dayle Ann is passionate about medical professionals, therapists, and trauma survivors knowing that their symptoms may be trauma-related. The body and mind do actually influence each other.

 

If you’re interested in this topic and have any ideas on how this play can be more widely disseminated, please contact D
ayle Ann at www.thetraumabrainproject.com

After the play I led the audience through a few basic exercises to help with regulation since watching anything traumatic can have an impact on our bodies. And it struck home to me again tonight that we are being inundated daily with news of traumatic events. This doesn’t mean we are all traumatized by this, but we are more than likely affected. So I thought I’d quickly share one of the techniques that I shared with the audience in the hopes that you might be able to use it in your day-to-day. It’s called 3-2-1

  1. Look around and notice and briefly describe (e.g. “orange mouse pad”) three (3) things you see
  2. Now listen and name two (2) sounds you hear
  3. And now notice one (1) thing you’re feeling with your sense of touch.

How are you feeling now? You can repeat that sequence one more time if you’re feeling a little more focused or settled than you were before you started.

Namaste.

Letting Go – In The Present

I have some of my best insights in the shower.  Recently I’ve been thinking about my own resistance and this morning in the shower it came to me that our views about the future are shaped by experiences in the past, but we can only work to overcome any of that it in the present.  Not rocket science, I’ve read Eckhart Tolle too, but I’d never stated this fact so simply in my own mind.

We talk all the time about letting go of the past, but how can you let go of something that has already happened?  Really all you can work with is the residue of the past that still exists in the present.  That said, some of that residue can feel pretty darn close to the original experience.  As an example, you’re having a memory of a car accident, and it brings up anxiety, fear, maybe even panic.  That anxiety exists now.  Yes, it comes from a memory of something that happened in the past, but it is the present experience that colors your reality now.  This is the only thing that you can really work with.  The past is over, the future hasn’t yet happened.  All we can really explore is our present experience.

Sometimes the way we remember and therefore experience an event now is not even the same as what happened in the past.  That is why trying to let go of the past through “understanding the past” is not always effective.  If anything needs to be “understood” it is the present experience, and even then, ‘understanding’ tends to be an analysis we do in our heads, and this process can also prevent us from really being present with the experience.  The yogis talk about samskaras – the latent impressions (scars if you will) that influence our perceptions in the present.  The more mindful we can become of our present experience, the more likely that these samskaras can be recognized and released.

There are so many ways that we resist or avoid our present moment experience.  I personally have a tendency to dissociate into my head by thinking and analyzing – trying to ‘understand’ the experience – essentially making up a story about it.  Or I might close my eyes and dissociate inside by blocking out the world outside.  Another way is to deflect the intensity of the experience by blaming someone else (another story), or to escape into a distraction. Computers, TVs, cell phones, mp3 players –all these gadgets can provide us with distractions and allow us to separate from being mindful of what we are experiencing in the ‘real world.’  Addictions can be born of the constant need to separate from what might be a painful emotional experience of the present.  The past is not what is being avoided, but the experience that lives now.

The future is shaped by the past through our continued experience of the present.  The future can be shaped by the past through our continued avoidance of the present. Pema Chodron talks about the baby bird in the nest and the nest is getting dirty but the bird won’t fly out.  Look around baby bird, it’s time to fly.

Letting Go: Part I – Forgiveness

A few weeks ago I sat down to write about forgiveness and ended up writing about being in the body in a way that allows for flow to happen – in an attitude of receiving. This is not so odd as it might seem. Forgiveness, in my view, is allowing yourself to be in the flow of Love. Judgement, anger, self-righteousness, malice, resentment, hatred are all resistance to that flow. Forgiveness is the letting go of resistance and allowing the flow to continue.

One of the biggest tricks of human emotion is the charge we get out of negative emotions (and positive ones too, but that’s for later). I’ve been known to have a temper, and I don’t know about you, but when I get really angry I can practically feel the steam rushing out of my eyes. A while ago I also noticed that I could feel my body constrict, especially in the area of my heart. I also noticed that after an outburst, the skin on my neck would crawl and I’d feel really, really low in energy – this after the big charge of energy that occurred while I was venting my self-righteous indignation at whomever had the misfortune of incurring my wrath. This big charge of energy is exhilarating, but it requires energy to maintain. It creates an internal black hole that sucks away energy from other “primary system.” Let’s not forget that since the event has already occurred, to maintain a connection to it one must essentially keep the past alive – no small task. Is it any wonder that my skin would crawl and that I’d feel spent? Who’s got that kind of energy? What would be the payoff?

Often we hold on to our anger because we’re determined to hurt the other person – to make them suffer like we’re suffering. So here I’d be, with my blood pressure raised, stress level high, immune system compromised, tired and with a headache from throwing a tantrum… Who was I trying to hurt again? Newsflash! The main person being hurt is you. And the net effect? More anger in the world.

The realization that my anger was more about me than it was about the other person came from A Course In Miracles (ACIM). One of the understandings I’ve gained from ACIM is that the world you see is the manifestation of your inner world. If something/someone is really getting to you then they represent that within you which needs to be released – i.e. forgiven. How do you do that? By letting it go so that you can free yourself from it. By releasing it in the outer world as if it never happened.

Many of us have learned to forgive by “being the better person” and acting as if everything is okay. But inside we still hold on to what was done to us, we keep it alive in a memory that is still emotionally charged. We make ourselves feel superior to the person we’ve “forgiven.” If one is to accept the premise of ACIM though, that person is actually the messenger of our own freedom, showing us vulnerable parts of ourselves which we would otherwise not be able to see, emotional blind spots, if you will. True forgiveness – letting it go as if it never happened – really allows us to forgive and free ourselves.

Driving is great forgiveness practice for me. I’ve incorporated a physical release into this practice. I feel myself harden inside as I become judgmental or angry (or hurt by someone else’s anger) and I gently instruct myself to “soften.” There is an internal feeling of quiet and a sense of coming back into my body, rather than a buildup of emotion and an outward projection of angry energy. Of course this might need to be done a few times depending on what happened – I never said it was easy to do, only necessary. Also, nowadays, when somebody really irritates me, it only takes a second to remember doing something equally inane myself. It’s easy to let go when you remember you’ve done the same thing. Thankfully, after practicing for a while, I’ve also learned to forgive myself. This is a hard lesson.

A few months ago I did something that was very hard for me to forgive: I forgot an appointment with a new client. It was a cold day and my phone was off, so they waited outside the studio for me and I came to my senses an hour later. Of course they had left in disgust. I was horrified, devastated, ashamed, and angry at myself all at the same time. I can be absent-minded at times, but this was a new level of inefficiency for me, perhaps fueled by some emotional issues I was dealing with at the time. I was scared that something was really wrong with me, but instead of being compassionate with myself, I began to berate myself in the car in front of my husband and kids. Nothing my husband said to console me was effective, but when we got home my son gently said to me: “Mommy, it’s okay, you’re not bad. You didn’t mean to do it.” That was the turning point on my journey of self-compassion. In that moment, something inside me softened toward my Self – seen through my child’s eyes. I let go. I let go of the anger and the fear and held myself in compassion. “You’re not bad.” And I got a smartphone with an alarm!

My story also brings up a key element that I think is a must when dealing with the anger that often prevents us from forgiving. I’ve learned that underneath anger, resentment, judgment, even annoyance, is fear. It is as if somehow we know that it is really about us and not about them, but it is easier to get indignant than it is to look below the surface at the real problem: our fear of facing ourselves. What if we looked deeper and found that we really felt not good enough? What if we uncovered some selfishness, neediness, fear of failure, fear of being found out for being a fraud – not a great parent or not as cultured or as brilliant as we appear? What if we uncovered a basic fear of not being able to do this life thing the right way? What if we realized we were just like the person we despise? Then what? If we couldn’t meet this realization with compassion, that would be a rough road. But if we could let go of our stories about ourselves, and other people, and acknowledge that we’re all basically doing the best we can with what we’ve got, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

In the end, no-one can hurt you unless you allow them to. So instead of saying that “So and so pissed me off,” we might do as so many teachers I’ve been reading recently recommend, and instead recognize: “I chose to be pissed off by So-and-so.” Then what’s to forgive? It becomes all about compassionately investigating why you allowed that to happen and uncovering your blind spot so it can’t happen again – or just letting it go.

Becoming Strength

Several years into my yoga practice it occurred to me that I am strong. This was a revelation. At 5ft tall and 100lbs, I had always viewed myself as something of a whisp. Other people were strong, I was flexible maybe, but not strong. Later I realized that strength was more about letting go that it was about armoring. What caused my shift in perspective? Amazing teachers & my own willingness to look deeper.

Roger Eischens was an amazing teacher whose presence inspired confidence and whose work was as brilliant as it was challenging. His work was based on affecting the core through the periphery of the body, and I guess it worked for me.

Roger passed away before I realized the full effects of his work on my body and on my psyche. When I realized my upper body was strong, it was more than just a sense of physical strength. It was accompanied by a sense of power and possibility that I had never felt before in this diminutive body. People had said to me in the past: “You’re all muscle, aren’t you?” But I had never felt strong. This is when I realized that strength is much more than muscles that are well developed, but a sense of deep connection.

When I work in class on upper body strength, we work on feeling the strength of the arms from the press of the palms into the floor to the upper arm bones pressing back. This engages the lattissimus dorsi and the muscles across the shoulder blades and releases the tense activation of the trapezius muscles and the muscles of the neck. What I realized was that in my own practice I was also affecting my heart chakra with all this upper body work, and that the challenge was not to armor more, but to strengthen and support in order to open.

Sometimes we armor our bodies in ways we don’t realize when we don’t feel strong. This armoring translates into habits in the body that speak louder than our own perceptions of ourselves. A few months into this work, and feeling very confident about my strength and balance, I took a workshop with Kim Schwartz – another amazing teacher. Kim adjusted me in Half Moon. Saying “You’re going to feel as if you’re bowing” he adjusted my upper spine so that my lower ribs moved back and my shoulders forward. This simple adjustment took away that amazing feeling that I thought was strength, and brought with it a feeling of softness that was a little disturbing. Later Kim spoke of the thrusting forward of the lower ribs as indicative or arrogance, which was really was disturbing to me. Arrogance? Me? No way! I was not arrogant, I was actually shy – and here he was stripping me of the little confidence I had finally gained. He had to be wrong this time. Or maybe it was just the other people he’d adjusted who had that problem.

The magic of yoga is what the practice can reveal to you if you are willing to see. It is often the revelations that are most disturbing that contain the greatest wisdom. I couldn’t let go of that notion of arrogance, and when my resistance finally burned itself out, I had to admit to myself that he was right. I was very opinionated, and tended to become annoyed with people who didn’t hold the same opinions. And in many ways I was very pleased with myself at what I had ‘accomplished’ with my yoga practice. What also became clear was that this arrogance was the flip side of a deep sense of insecurity. The feeling of ‘bowing’ brought with it a feeling of being vulnerable.  My armor had been taken away, and I wasn’t sure if what was left was sufficient.  What was clear, however was that this place was much more open, much more receptive, and allowed more freedom than where I had been before.

In the body we thrust the lower ribs forward when there is a lack of strength across the lower thoracic spine – the third chakra/personal power area. This thrusting forward of the lower ribs is of accompanied by a lack of mobility in the side ribs, a closing in to protect the heart that also restricts the breath. When we can release the side ribs and allow the breath into the back body, the low ribs can settle into place and strength is accompanied by and inner sense of ease, a settling into the body, rather than a need to push forward. This, I believe, is true confidence – the ability to allow. I suspect this is also the place from which we develop the courage to truly see ourselves with compassion.

Being In the Flow

Ever since I first heard of “going with the flow” as a girl, I’ve known that is what I want. As a child I imagined a cosmic river and me riding on it – no boat – just me and this flow. Intuitively I sensed the power of this state – a glimmer of the bliss that must ensue from this total surrender. But even then, just the thought of riding this wave with total surrender was as terrifying as it was beguiling.

As an adult I realize that my life thus far has been a search for this place of letting go. It seems the more I read that all the esoteric teachings point to the same truth – this letting go is not a giving up, but a returning to the source of what we already are. So then why is it so darn scary to me? And if not scary, then definitely elusive. (I can only speak for myself – but I’m guessing I’m not the only one who feels this way…?).

Perhaps my fear has to do with viewing the whole thing as a quantum leap from Here to There. Instead, maybe I need to just be taking it in smaller increments. Like maybe if I can give up today my attachment to my opinions by not judging another person’s actions, then I’m moving a little more into the Flow. Maybe if I can give up my worry about one small thing and instead trust that it will be taken care of, I’m moving a little more into the Flow. Maybe if I can be open to the wisdom that comes from a bumper sticker in traffic or the answer that pops off the page of an already-opened book, then I’m moving a little more into the Flow. Maybe if I can give thanks for a chance meeting with an old friend, or a new friend, then I’m moving a little more into the Flow. Maybe I’m already more in the Flow than I thought… maybe it isn’t something to achieve, but a state being more aware of what already is. Hmmm.