To every heartbreak...

Note: The sentiments below do not come to me often authentically. They happen in little glimpses during or after my meditation practice (which is often an exercise in having my demons sit down for tea). I can only access this feeling for a few seconds, but I believe it is what freedom feels like. I want to capture it here, but know that fingers pointing at the moon are not the moon.

To every heartbreak, empty room, every impossible situation. To every person who has let me down. To what tried to break me. To the times when no one could understand and the times when I could not describe.  To every night I felt alone. To the feeling of being at the very end. To the inyourface pain. To the times I quit and failed and stumbled and canceled plans and screwed up. To when I lost my temper and took the easy way out. To the times I took it out on my body and to the hateful thoughts I unleashed on myself. To the crap I ate and drank and watched and thought and believed.

Thank you. 

I thought of you as "bad" and hated you. I wished you away and I tried to exile you. I blamed you for my unhappiness. I didn't know I needed absolutely every single one of you. I couldn't see it then, but I needed you to be as blaringly loud and disruptive and impossible as you were. The truth is you shook me awake when I would have just been content to sleep. I see that now; it's so clear. (Why is it not always this clear?) You have made me strong. You have made me who I am. You have been my training.

The awareness that came with meditation made me observe myself when I'd rather look away. It made it harder at first. Like that part in the movie when it's gory and gross and you want to cover your eyes. And with practice,  I'd hear the voice of my teacher in my mind not only on the cushion but in the fire: Hold your seat. No matter what happens, hold your seat.

And it changed everything.



I am happy. No, really. I am.

Why do I so often start my blog posts with a personal confession? I guess I want to illustrate that this is a living practice for me. Anyway. I was not always a happy person. In fact, I was once actively UNhappy. It was active in that I was annoyed by those who were happy. A moment that stands out to me is when I went to a therapist for help with my oft-debilitating anxiety and depression. He was attractive, put together, smiley, friendly, and he had this coffee mug that was always affixed to his hand that read, in big letters, LIFE IS GOOD. That mug was the undoing of our time together. I sat and stared at it as I rambled on about how unhappy I was, how clearly NOT GOOD my life currently was, his big toothy smile nodding and bobbing sympathetically. He doesn't get it.  One channel of my brain was in therapy with him, seeking help authentically. One channel was repeating, as if on a loop. It should say FOR YOU. Life is good FOR YOU. Not for me. I had destructive thoughts about that mug. My relationship with Dr. Smiley ended soon after. I pretended to be cured. All that positive thinking really did help!

When I first started practicing yoga, I entered a phase where I pretended to be happy all the time. I wrangled gratitude out of myself. I professed to not care about postures while secretly berating myself for not getting into certain postures. I sat in meditation and became better and distracting and entertaining myself and slapping my thoughts over the head. As my teacher says, "A jerk can walk into a meditation hall and become a more focused jerk." I did this for a while, out of a genuine lack of understanding of how to be nice to myself. I was learning.

But I kept practicing. I kept up with my daily meditation practice. I kept learning from people who really "walk the walk." I surrounded myself with those who inspire me and limited time with those who drain me. I kept going to therapy (not with Dr. Smiley; I have my limits). Years later, I was being introduced by a friend and mentor to a couple of fellow yogis. As part of summarizing who I am, she said, "You can tell Serena really loves life." I opened my mouth to correct her, some old part of me objecting reflexively. But then I stopped. It's true. The realization nearly knocked me over. I do. I really, really do enjoy life.  No, it's not always perfect. Yes, there is pain and disappointment. Sure, I still struggle with my demons. But I am happy to be alive to it all. I'm happy to be alive. I love and enjoy life. LIFE IS GOOD! THAT MUG HAS COME TRUE?! What? Rewind, please.

The simple answer of how I became really, truly happy is a combination of the brilliant, ancient science of yoga and modern advances in psychological care and well-being. I believe both matter. I'm a yoga teacher, so I'll address the former. Here are three things yoga taught me about how to be happy. Really happy.

1. Denying emotions makes me unhappy. Allowing emotions to flow makes me happier in the long run. I remember very well when certain emotions were off-limits. The truth is, bottling up my emotions, outlawing certain emotions, berating myself for certain emotions... it made me really, really unhappy. As I learned to be in the present moment with what arises, authentically and without judgement, I learned to tolerate the "slings and arrows" life throws out constantly. As I learned to flow with my breath, I learned that feelings, sensations, and emotions are constantly changing and evolving. These feelings can become hardened in the body (brilliant clip on how that happens) or they can be allowed to move with the breath. Simplest thing in the world, but it takes practice. "Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final." Yoga taught me how to do this.

2. It is really, really (really!) hard to be happy when someone is mean to you all the time. Someone used to be really, really mean to me. All the time. Day and night. You know who. Me. Oof did I berate myself. I've never been as mean to anyone as I was to myself nearly constantly. In yoga, the VERY first instruction we are given is ahimsa. Be nice. Don't do harm. This starts with oneself. As I learned through my practice to listen to the "tone of voice of the inner monologue" (pretty sure that's my teacher Gary Kraftsow's phrase), I realized how unkind I was being in my thoughts. As I started to practice ahimsa, I got happier. But this took serious practice. A lot of practice.

3. External circumstances matter less than you think they do. Want to have your mind blown in 20 minutes? Watch this video where Harvard-scientist Dan Gilbert explains what really makes us happy. I know, I know. You're busy. I'm here for you. The gist is that it doesn't really matter what happens TO YOU.  Gilbert studied two groups of people. Those who won the lottery (event A) and those who lost the use of their legs (event B). After a year, the event had no bearing on an individual's happiness. Yogis have known this for thousands of years, and this is why the practices of santosha (contentment) and gratitude are so much a part of the yoga practice. Yoga taught me that the bad always comes with a little good. Yoga taught me that the most challenging people and situations are my greatest teachers. Yoga philosophy also consistently makes a distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is inevitable if you plan to live life. It will come up. Suffering is compounding pain by resisting it, denying it, telling stories about it, and so forth (more on that from Pema Chodron here). Pain cannot be avoided, it is part of the human experience. Suffering can be avoided. It takes practice.

What do these lessons have in common? They all take wholehearted practice---regular, committed practice with someone who is rooting for you (me). Join me to do so this week: Saturday morning, Sunday afternoon, Sunday evening, or Monday morning. Details here. We'll open the heart, strengthen and stretch the shoulders, rinse the body with the breath, and explore how yoga is truly a science of happiness.

 

Five Key Ingredients for a Sustainable Meditation Practice

I’ve had a busy seven years since first beginning my mindfulness meditation practice. I’ve overcome chronic physical pain and debilitating anxiety and depression. I’ve learned to love a diet rich in plant-based whole foods, and I’ve learned to recognize when I’m eating emotionally. (Oh, and I’ve lost 65 pounds in the process.) I’ve changed my career from something I was not passionate about to something I absolutely love: teaching yoga. And, perhaps most difficult to quantify but most important: I’ve become really (really) happy. I personally believe that a combination of Western modalities and Eastern wisdom has been crucial to my health (and I use many tools to foster health for myself). However, one thing stands apart as a critical ingredient for my wellbeing: every day I sit quietly for at least 10 minutes and I focus my attention on my breath. Inevitably, at least a few hundred times, my attention will stray and I will smile and take a deeper breath and return to the present moment. This has profoundly changed my life in ways I cannot even begin to comprehend.

And it’s not just me. You can find hundreds upon hundreds of studies citing the benefits of this simple practice. The short list? Meditation: regulates stress hormones, increases mental resilience (including after trauma), improves cognitive function, improves focus, decreases loneliness, increases immunity, helps improve sleep quality, aids in the treatment of depression and anxiety, reduces blood pressure, helps relieve pain, and helps you be nicer to those around you. Whew. Still, I believe that the profundity of this experience cannot be described in words or captured in studies; it must be experienced.

Convinced and ready to try it? It’s challenging to set up a sustainable practice and even many long-time yoga practitioners I know have a hard time making the time every day. Here are my five top ingredients for a successful, sustainable meditation practice. I have given them a good run for their money. See the reference list below or come to class for more information. All credit for this knowledge goes to my teachers, especially Ani Pema Chodron.

1. Planning. OK, I’ll admit it. I had a lot of false starts. This did not come easily to me. At all. Part of creating a new habit (or samskara as we’d say in yoga) involved learning how to outsmart that lazier part of myself that rebelled at the idea of … just sitting there. Practice suggestions:

  • Set the space. Create a special spot in your home for your practice. If possible, adorn it with inspirational images or objects. Place it in a prominent location where you are reminded of the importance of your practice
  • RPM: Rise, pee, meditate. Do not pass go; do not go for the coffee. It works for many yogis, including me. Try it out.
  • You might not feel like it. I rarely do, and I talk about how great meditation is to anyone who will listen. That’s OK. That’s an old samskara resisting the new. Resolve to practice, whether you feel like it or not. Even if you’re just sitting there not counting a single breath, you have made the commitment to your new practice.

2. Compassion. My main meditation teacher, Ani Pema Chodron, emphasizes time and time again, “Harshness is an obstacle to meditation.” Harshness, or any other form of escapism, is not the way to enlightenment. It’s moving in the opposite direction of connection with the true self. When I started, I received basic mindfulness meditation instruction: notice the thoughts as they arrive, acknowledge them with the word thinking, and return to the breath. Well, it wasn’t long before I became like that old cartoon of Elmer Fudd hunting rabbits. Every time a thought even dared to peek around the tree, I was there firing off my bazooka and yelling THINKING. I gotcha! BAD. Which spiraled into I’m a bad meditator. I can’t do anything right. I quit. This harshness did not take me further into peace (surprised?). It took me further into anger and confusion and self-aggression for several years. As one of my teachers says, “A jerk can walk into a meditation hall and emerge a more focused jerk.” That was pretty much what I did for a while. It's possible, even with the best of intentions, to use these practices to become harsher, more narrow minded, and profoundly unhappy. Practice suggestions:

  • Smile. When you get distracted, regard your mind as you would a child you love very much. Smile, take its hand, and guide it back to the breath. It’s really hard to be happy if you are mean to yourself all the time. Trust me.
  • Be realistic. You are not trying to eliminate your thoughts. You’d probably have to sever a part of your brain off to do that. I’ve never been given that instruction in any of the traditions I’ve studied. Thoughts will come and go. Soften and allow that process. Use gentle persistence and lighten up a little.

3. Curiosity. Ram Dass says, “Everything changes once we identify with being the witness to the story, instead of the actor in it.” Learning to be mindful is the process of learning to take a step back and become the observer. This means that we practice realizing that we are not any of the endless streams of thoughts and emotions that parade through our minds. We cultivate the witness by becoming curious about what’s happening. As Ani Pema teaches, whatever is happening (even the most terrifying of emotions) is an opportunity to become more aware of what goes on in our minds and in turn more compassionate for ourselves and for others. Practice suggestion:

  • “Isn’t that interesting.” This is my favorite phrase of all time. When you catch yourself getting caught by a thought or emotion, step back, take on the role of the curious observer, refrain from judgment, and say to yourself, “That’s interesting.”

4. Bravery. One of the most profound misunderstandings about mindfulness meditation is that it’s a “relaxing” activity. Some forms of meditation I do find to be relaxing, but sitting quietly and attending to the various thoughts that vie for my attention? I don’t find that relaxing all the time. Ultimately, it leads to greater overall relaxation through a greater ability to stay in the present moment. So it’s more like training, really, and sometimes training in mindfulness can feel uncomfortable, boring, or even downright scary. All that we have been trying to avoid, repress, keep quiet, annihilate resurfaces; it all comes up because it never really went away. So, my dear friends, we must be very, very brave to be meditators. We must be powerful warriors to sit in stillness. Practice suggestion:

  • “Everything in life is a vehicle for awakening. Nothing needs to be rejected.” Pema Chodron.  That flat tire? Your outburst of frustration? Yay, a promotion! That grand moment of forgiveness? Uh, oh, rejection! That “fantastic” meditation session? The friendship that ended in betrayal? It’s all part of the path. All of it. Pema teaches that every event, however big or small, is a chance to wake up. This is because all of it is a chance to soften, to find compassion for ourselves, and ultimately to create greater understanding of ourselves and of others.

5. Community. I truly believe that we were meant to work toward our goals of peace together. This is why the community at Moksha Yoga Center has been such an important aspect of keeping my practice sustainable. As a student, I find that the support of an entire room holding space for meditation is incredibly powerful. I also find so much guidance and support from my friends and teachers in the community. As a teacher at Moksha, I want you to know that I’m happy to help you develop a practice in whatever way I can. I always incorporate mindfulness meditation into my public yoga classes, and I have a new class specifically focusing on guiding you in meditation. Check out my schedule here and commit to a regular practice with me or another teacher of your choosing.

This practice has tremendous power for transformation, but you absolutely have to put in the work and commitment. I wish you really well on your path, and I hope to see you soon.

 

Resources and Recommended Reading

Holiday Season Yoga

Daily practice tips for those who don't have time for a daily practice.

*       Identify the minimum amount of time you are able to spend each day. Start small, perhaps five minutes to begin. A little bit goes a long way. Something is better than nothing.

*       Identify a period you already spend waiting. Maybe it’s while you’re waiting for the bus, waiting for your tea to steep or your toast to cook. This is a perfectly good time for self-care and daily practice and you know you already have the time.

*       What self-care strategies are essential to you? What daily rituals remind of you of your center and allow you to stay grounded? Some common ones that work for many: expressing gratitude, reading inspirational books, pranayama, visualization, mindfulness meditation, self-massage, gentle asana, aromatherapy. We’ll practice all of these and more in class---so jot down what feels the best to you.

*       Create a beginning/ending ritual to mark this time as special. You may chant OM (out loud or silently), repeat a personal mantra, centering thought, or take a whiff of some soothing essential oils. In some way, set the space for practice, even if you are at the bus stop.

*       Set an intention for your day during your practice. Intention is a powerful tool to focus your mind and energy throughout the day.

*       Be open to experimenting. What works for one person does not work for everyone. Give yourself permission to experiment a bit and be gentle with yourself. This is not easy!

Meditation: A cup of tea. Engage the senses and focus in on the present moment with this simple and enjoyable mindfulness meditation. Meditation and daily routine need not be separate!

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*       Smell. Choose a tea. Take the time to smell the aroma and focus all your attention on discovering the subtle smells of the tea.

*       Hear. As the water boils, focus your mindful attention on sound. First perceive sounds in the distance and gradually move closer toward where you are, eventually focusing all of your attention on the sound of the water beginning to boil on the stove.

*       Steep. Take this time to check in with your breath. Focus on smoothing the breath and creating equal length inhales and exhales (samavritti).

*       Feel. Allow the steam from the teacup to moisturize your skin. Allow the cup to warm your hands and feel each sensation with mindful attention.

*      Taste. As you take your first sips of tea, allow your attention to explore the subtle taste of the tea. What flavors do you notice? Can you be attentive enough to taste each flavor in the tea?

Practice with me this week and warm up from the inside out while preparing to enjoy your holiday! All the details here.

Saturday, 8:30a-10a, mindful vinyasa

Sunday, 6p-7:30p, mindful vinyasa + live music

Monday, 10a-11:30a, mindful vinyasa