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.



When enough is never enough: brahmacharya as an act of kindness

Student question: How can the practice of brahmacharya be seen as a practice of kindness toward oneself rather than self-denial or austerity?

Fellow yoga teachers will understand why this made my day as a teacher. It's incredibly inspiring to have students engage with the practice on this deep level. So keep questions of all sorts coming my way and I'll do my best to respond based on yogic texts. I will also refer you to relevant resources, which can be a good jumping off point for self-study and inquiry (probably even more useful than my commentary).

That said, my astute student is referring to one item on the ten-item yogi code for living, which we call the yamas and the niyamas (or the restraints and observances). This particular code asks us, as yogis, to respond to our desires in a way that is not excessive. We are asked not to overindulge. (Note that there is another interpretation of brahmacharya that refers to conserving sexual lifeforce, but I find that translation too limiting and impractical for daily life outside a monastery. So I will leave that translation alone and go with the broader one.)

My understanding is that the texts are not asking us to become ascetics and refrain from all pleasurable activities. Yoga is a science of happiness and this would make for a pretty bleak existence if we could never enjoy a sweet strawberry, a glass of wine, or a day in our pajamas. So then we must make a distinction between indulging in a healthy way and overindulging in a way that causes harm. How can we tell the difference? One way, according to my meditation instructor, Pema Chodron, is to observe when enough is never enough.

A personal example. I could live on sugar alone. If not practicing discretion and simply going with my urges, I'd probably eat nothing else. If I have sugar in my home, I eat it, and not in moderation. I just eat all. of. it. Some part of my brain, my inner sugar monster, will invent a thousand seemingly-plausible reasons for why I need one more cookie. Or why that cake at the end of the day will make my anxiety go away. So what's the problem, besides my girlish form? It doesn't work. It's a trick.

Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lindseywb/

Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lindseywb/

I'm imbuing the food with a power that it doesn't have. I'm asking it to make me feel OK. It can't. Nothing outside can. Certainly nothing in cellophane. It is a setup for disappointment over and over and over again. The more power I give it, the more I make it responsible for my happiness or "okay-ness," the more I am addicted. When I'm addicted, I can't see clearly.

From this perspective we all have addictions. They are not all substances. Perhaps it is negative thinking. Gossip. Overworking. Worrying. Micromanaging. Sex. Gambling. Shopping. Selfies. Social media. Pema refers to these as "bubbles." We want to find a Safety Bubble of some kind where we can return to get a certain feeling (most often safety). But the fundamental problem is that these transitory states and situations and substances can't give it to us. They just can't. Ever. Maybe there is short-term symptom relief, but that quickly goes and the underlying issue remains. Some part of us realizes this, right? Some part of us is addicted and truly believes that this time the cookie will really work. Or that new phone. Or a new wardrobe. Or that awesome guy. That great professional success. Except it's fleeting. We are in a constant state of transition and we try to cling on to parts of life like a static oil painting. It doesn't work.

From this perspective, it is not kind to overindulge or become addicted. It creates suffering. An easy example is the tummy ache I got when I ate a piece of cake after a long day. I felt bad about myself. I didn't feel better about the situation I was trying to "solve." And I strengthened the neural pattern feel bad --> get cake (will feel better!)-->don't feel better ---> feel worse than before (maybe need more cake?).

To break this cycle we must learn to be mindful. It is the only way that I know of making kind choices for ourselves and others. That is, we have to learn to observe the mind working in this way so that we can make different choices. New choices take a lot of effort. (I hope this isn't news to you.) But by breaking this cycle of overindulging, we become a little more free. This takes a LOT of practice. So come practice. Consistently.

As for me, I don't keep sugar in the house anymore. I eat it on special occasions a few times per week. And I enjoy it more. The other day I was cleaning out the cupboard and found a stray chocolate chip, probably a year old. Did I consider eating it? Shamefully yes. I know. How gross? That's the nature of strong addiction, though. The urge might not go away. The awareness that a consistent yoga practice cultivates helps us to recognize the harmful patterns and stop them. In the words of Krishamacharya, "Yoga is a process of replacing old patterns with new, more appropriate patterns."

So, you see? Yoga isn't supposed to make you harder on yourself! And you don't have to be a monk that never eats a cupcake. Just become very curious about the things in your life that make you feel like enough is never enough.

References for further reading:

The Yamas and the Niyamas by Deborah Adele

Getting Unstuck by Pema Chodron

I don't think I need you...

 It's Friday night and I'm gathered around a small fire pit in the middle of a yoga studio attending my third Vedic fire ceremony (Agni Hotra). The purpose is to symbolically offer something into the fire for transformation. A brick of cow dung and ghee are lit on fire, symbolizing an offering of the highest and lowest parts of the sacred cow. As the sun sets, we chant and one by one offer rice to the fire, with the gently (yet fiercely) intelligent Nicolai Bachman tending the fire and leading the chant. (Oh, if my grandma could see me now.)

Rewind. A few hours prior (before his remarkable lecture on the origins of yoga), Nicolai gave us time to think of what we'd like to offer to the fire. The question lingers heavy: If you could be rid of anything, what would you be rid of?  There is a part of me that still believes in magic, like Nicolai might pull a genie out of the fire to grant me one wish. But the offering has actually taken a considerable amount of work in my daily practice for several years. And now I know what I need to release. This particular block feels too heavy and unnecessary. I'm ready to let go of the sticky, dark thought that keeps me squirming and unsettled: I am not worthy. (I made the Wayne's World reference too, even in my deeply serious moment.) Whatever I do, it's not good enough.

As we prepare for our offering, Nicolai asks us to finalize what we will offer for transformation. And then he gives a warning: Choose wisely. Once you let it go, you can't get it back. I have a strange moment of panic. You know that record scratching/halting sound? That happened in my brain. Well, maybe I should just focus on surrendering that pie weight from the holidays. That's useful, right?! After all, maybe I NEED a little unworthiness to keep me going! Maybe that's what motivates me to try so hard. Will I still be successful/loveable/kind if I feel worthy of it? Who will I be without this pain?

Why do we do this? I know enough people to know I'm not the only one. Why do we cling to our pain? Why do we resist letting go of what we know full well holds us back?

I sat and stared at that fire and thought about that pretty seriously. I know there is not a simple answer and I can really only speak for myself. But fundamentally, I think we cling to the definitions of ourselves as static. We cling to the idea that this is ME and it's solid and unchanging. It's who I am. And when someone tries to coax us into the idea that we are actually more like a river than solid ground, there is a little panic. Yoga philosophy makes an important distinction between prakriti (what changes) and purusha (what is timeless). The tendency to cling to prakriti as if it is unchanging is a setup for unhappiness. Somewhere along the way, I decided that who I am includes "unworthy"; "not good enough"; "try harder...and harder still...still not good enough." But it's not true. It's an illusion.

As I offered my rice to the fire, I felt a quickening of my heart, like I was about to step into an unfamiliar place. And I guess I was. At exactly sunset, Nicolai began to let the fire die out, and we all watched as the flames subsided.

On the way home, the familiar city seemed new. And some quiet, deep voice spoke a line from a song: I don't think I need you.

So. What are you ready to let go of, reader? No takebacks...

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.

 

Leave some space in your resolution for surrender

Unlike the festive resolution-setters, yogis set intentions (sankalpas) year-round, at the beginning each practice. According to tradition, the student is to work with the same intention consistently until it manifests. For me that means that my intention is present with me at the beginning of each and every day. And I almost never have a glass of champagne in my hand while setting it. Unless you count kombucha, which I sort of do.

This week, as I prepare to present the idea of sankalpa to my students in class, I feel the familiar pull to be a yogic cheerleader. It's par for the course this time of year, right?  I have tales to tell of how yoga helped me climb the mountain, lose the weight, come back from the brink, get my life back on track... you know. I know how to tell those stories, and I do tell them, sometimes. But if I'm being honest about how I'm living my yoga practice at the dawn of 2014, I am compelled to tell a different story.

This year I move into the new year working on an intention that is one of those big, life-sized doozies. You know what I mean, right? We all have those great, closely held hopes that, if realized, would change our lives completely, unimaginably. Many might say it is improbable. If it is to take place, I will have to go into the darkest places and face my greatest fears. I will need unwavering faith and steadiness and maybe a little magic. And, still, it might not happen. That's the reality. The greatest hope I hold might not happen even despite giving everything I have.

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It's uncomfortable times like this where I find my yoga practice is most essential. Each morning, as I sit down on the cushion, I practice ishvara pranidhana. This is a yogic principle that asks us to surrender to something bigger than ourselves. Yoga asks us to set a goal, work hard at it, and then let go of the specific way that it's all going to turn out. We all have a dharma or a purpose for being on the earth. In order to fulfill this purpose, we have to be trained. This training is sometimes easy and sometimes hard and sometimes mundane and sometimes heartbreaking. But whatever happens, it is part of the path; it is part of our training as yogis. Hence, my new mantra throughout my practice and my day, "This is part of the process."

I truly believe that a yoga practice can help us reckon with this seemingly mind-exploding idea of both trying and letting go at the same time. Here are some practices that I do to help create a calm surrender to what arises, even if it arises in the way of my Big Goal.

Six (Practical) Ways to Practice Ishvara Pranidhana

1. Mantra. I use a form of meditation daily that is called japa meditation. During this meditation, you use the mala beads to repeat a mantra 108 times. You may use the mantra of your choice or a traditional one. I like the invocation to Ganesha om gam ganapataye namaha. In yogic mythology, Ganesha represents the remover of obstacles along your path.

2. Write it down. This advice comes directly from Pema Chodron. Write your intention down on special paper and place it somewhere you consider sacred. As you do so, you symbolically surrender this intention to this sacred place.

3. Reach out. My closest yoga friends and I practice for each other in time of need. We dedicate our practice to the other, making each movement a meditation of hope for the other.  If you have a friend who practices yoga, ask that person to dedicate their practice to this intention you're setting. Don't have a friend that practices yoga? Yes you do. You have me. Ask me. You can say your intention or keep it private, but either way you're soliciting the support of another on the path.

4. Be nice to yourself. Please be nice to yourself. It is really, really hard to be happy when someone is constantly berating you. If you don't meet your goals, it is not because you are a bad person. In fact, yoga philosophy completely rejects this idea. At your true core you are wisdom. I didn't make that up. They figured it out a couple thousand years ago. This means you are enough, just as you are. You are enough if you complete your resolution and you are enough if you do not. Treat yourself accordingly.

5. Trust that all is unfolding, just as it should. I have to credit one of my favorite teachers, Daren Friesen, for that one. He often includes this sentiment in his grounding meditation and I still hear these words in his steady voice. Maybe all is going as planned. Maybe everything feels out of control. Maybe you're not meant to get that job. Maybe that guy isn't the right one. Maybe this year's "disaster" is a blessing in disguise, nudging you to something even greater. According to yoga, you are being trained for bigger things and everything is running right on schedule. Trust.

6. Yoga nidra. At least once per week, I practice yoga nidra, a guided form of relaxation. This practice allows the seed of intention to be planted deeply into the fertile ground of the deepest parts of the mind. This helps to facilitate cooperation with the subconscious realms of the mind, which can sometimes undermine the best intentions. I teach this practice as part of my Sunday gentle flow class quite often. Mia Park teaches this practice at the West Bucktown location. Come.

Come to class and practice this year for more. The more effort you put in, the more you will get out of the practice. (Look! There's my yoga cheerleader quote after all!)