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.

 

Four ways to practice pratyahara in the modern age

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Eighties movies set me up for disappointment. Whenever the main character had to transform in some way there was this awesome music montage. A power ballad played as the plucky girl got a makeover, got into the college of her dreams, got the man of her dreams, and so forth. Change was visible and fast and pretty. When I arrived at adulthood seeking to transform, I wondered: Where is my Air Supply? OK, I"ll settle for Boston. Nothing? Transformation is not always observable from the outside. You can't always write the fiercest, proudest moments in the holiday card. You can rarely see them.

This is highlighted as we approach the darkest day of the year. Traditionally, this has been a time when humans throughout the centuries have drawn inward: the harvest is done and it's time to reflect on the year behind and the year ahead. It's a time to be close to those we love. It's a time to un-do and maybe even move into the dark places a bit more bravely.

We might have lost that connection to this quiet, introspective time in the modern era of blinking lights and screens brighter than the sun. However, I'd like to suggest that it's important to take some time to go inside. Into the quiet parts. Into the dark parts. I have experienced beauty, awakening, and transformation that no Cyndi Lauper montage can emulate. Seriously.

In yoga we call this pratyahara (drawing the senses inward). It is one of the eight limbs of the yoga practice. I'd like to offer you four ways to take a little time to draw into the quiet, even as we have a holly jolly time over the next few weeks.

1. Turn off the phone. No, really. Turn it off. My husband and I have a saying around the Brommel abode. When we are with each other and one of us is absorbed in Buzzfeed's funniest cats wearing Santa hats (totally hypothetical...totally didn't happen...last night), the other says, "Hello, I'm a real human. Want to go on airplane mode and talk to me?" When you're with your family and friends, see if you can really be with them. Maybe it's just for a few hours, but take the time to unplug and really be there. Use your breath as an anchor to the present moment and cultivate the attitude of explorer (I wonder what Aunt Bertha might say next...). I have the intention of turning off my phone at 9pm so I can light some candles and enjoy some restorative practices before bed. This is a nice time to check in with any residue from the day and perhaps meditate. (Tips on how to do that here.)

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2. Wrap your head. It's really as simple as that. You want a clean, breathable bandage that you can wrap around your head comfortably. I like the Indian-made bandages from the Iyengar tradition, but I hear ACE wraps work just as well. After you wrap, sit or lie comfortably and focus on lengthening and smoothing your breath. The slight pressure on your eyes helps to activate the parasympathetic (rest and digest) part of your nervous system. It's amazing how immediately restorative this practice is, and it gets special points for helping with those holiday headaches. This is something you can do absolutely anywhere you don't mind looking like a mummy, too. (I'd do it on an airplane. Don't think I wouldn't.)

3. Allow time for un-doing.  Maybe you have to say "no" to a holiday party invitation or two. I have. That's OK. Find space and time to un-do. Maybe for you it's watching a movie, reading a book, going to yoga practice, watching the moon rise, or taking a hot bath. Use your mindfulness practice to assess when you are ready for more activity and when you need to just...be.

4. Meditate on the koshas. The koshas in yoga are the layers of our beings. Think of a Russian doll, with one inside the other. Seated quietly (anywhere will do... passenger side of a car works!), move through the layers of your being with the simple goal of sensing and feeling how that part of you feels today. Use the breath to air out any sensations that feel stagnate and send compassion to yourself as you move through. Systematically move through with an attitude of curiosity.

  •  Annamayakosha (physical sheath): How does your physical body feel? What sensations do you notice?
  • Pranamayakosha (breath sheath): How is your breath moving? Where does it fill your body? What is the texture like?
  • Manomayakosha (mental/emotional sheath): What patterns of mind are you experiencing? What emotions are with you? Where do you feel those emotions in your body?
  • Vijnanamayakosha (wisdom sheath): Can you connect with the part of you that feels the wisest? What does this part of you feel like? Does this part of you have anything to say?
  • Anandamayakosha (bliss sheath): What are you most grateful for in your life?

How do you get better at drawing inward and allowing space in the quiet? You practice, of course. Come practice with me this weekend, as we explore various yogic techniques which will allow us to savor some quiet space and prepare for a powerful 2014.

Saturday, 8:30a

Sunday, 2pm

Sunday, 6pm

Monday, 10am

All details here.

 

Resilience takes practice. Practice takes planning.

Sutra 1.14: sah tu dirgha kala nairantaira satkara asevitah dridha bhumih

One of my greatest joys as a teacher is when a student shares with me how the practices of yoga are working (or not working) in daily life. That's where it really counts, right? One of my students approached me last week with a question we all (including yours truly) struggle with to some degree, I suspect. She says, "I have a daily practice and a regular class schedule...and then the holidays happen. How do I keep my practice going through the holiday hubbub?" I'm here to help you. You can do it.

I love to strategize with students to see how the practices can best fit into the everyday.  This way, the benefits can continue throughout the week until we see each other next. It's true that yoga has tremendous power to transform. It's also true that a little goes a long way. But do you know what I've found to be the most important ingredient? Consistency. I didn't come up with that one. Patanjali was all over this a few thousand years ago. He writes in the first book of yoga sutras that a firmly established practice occurs when (1) we practice over the course of years; (2) we practice with enthusiasm; (3) we practice without break. In my observation, the first two qualities are easier to come by and the last quality tends to derail when life gets sticky (ie when we need the practice most).

Alright, a confession. I found developing a sadhana (daily practice) to be really, really (really) challenging to implement daily. It took me years to find my rhythm. I have a very active mind which sometimes gets restless in routine. However, with some experimentation, I did find what works for me---and so can you. Believe me, I know. You're busy. Your routine is off. You are bored of sitting in meditation (is it even doing anything, I remember thinking, just sitting here?!). There are shiny things and cookies everywhere. I know.

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So as the holidays come bounding at us with all their fun and chaos, my goal this season is to give you very simple yogic practices you can implement on a daily basis to stay centered through it all. After all, when you're centered you can enjoy the wonderful gifts the season has to offer with a healthy body and mind. This holiday season, I'm teaching four times each week at Moksha Yoga Center (with classes for everyone).  As usual, each class will be a balanced practice, but I will take extra care to focus on the areas which often get out of balance during the holiday rush. We will discuss ways to incorporate the techniques into daily routine, and each class will also include a small handout of practices you can try throughout the week to find what daily rituals help you stay at your best. As always, I will be available for questions and brainstorming sessions---so don't be afraid to start a dialogue.

See you on the mat this week for part one of...many. Put a class on your calendar (with me or someone else) and make a commitment to your well-being. You are worth it.

Howling at the moon in the modern age

Nothing makes me feel more new-agey than my intense love of the moon cycle. I make a point to look at the moon every night, and I plan my activities to some degree around the cycle of the moon. I know what you're thinking, extended family, scientists I went to high school and college with, those of you who know me as a nitpicky book editor: weirdo. But I don't just moon-gaze to be the weirdest one at the Thanksgiving table (achieved that years ago, thank you very much, and the moon had almost nothing to do with it). I give you three reasons why I love knowing it's a full moon tonight.

1. It gives me perspective. Nothing like staring up at the night sky to remember that the world does not revolve around me (what?!). I'm on a giant ball of earth and water that is slowly rotating. It's been doing this daily and yearly rotation for about 4.5 billion years. Around that spins this huge rock with giant craters. These craters have existed for about 2 billion years and were mostly created by HUGE impacts. Many of the estimated 108 billion people who have lived on Earth over the course of its history have gazed up at this same moon. They also had hopes, dreams, worries, annoyances, fears, great loves. Now, what was that tiny insignificant matter I was stuck on? Don't remember.

2. It helps me check in with the natural world. I love my home, but sometimes I feel a bit like I'm in a filing cabinet, along with all the others who are neatly filed away in urban buildings. Let's face it, our modern urban life leaves not as much time for communing with nature. (It is my theory this is one reason our beloved pets are so important...but that's another post.) Looking at the moon helps me to remember that I'm an animal living in nature, no matter how many structures are erected in my environment. I'm a part of the cyclical ebb and flow of the natural world, just like the squirrel in the tree or the fish in the sea. I'm just more likely to need reminders in my giant concrete palace with my eyes glued to a glowing screen.

3. It reminds me to draw inward and value the intuition that emerges. There is a lot of focus on doing in our world. Even as a yoga teacher, the sheer volume of articles, information, images, and so forth are enough to make the mind scatter in a million directions. The full moon reminds us to slow down. Savor. Allow. Simplify. Rest. Intuit. In yoga, these qualities are associated with the left energy channel, ida. In a balanced body, this feminine energy is balanced with the more masculine pingala, or sun energy on the right side. We need both. However, in modern society we are often encouraged to cultivate pingala. So the full moon is a time to remember that we are not just walking talking brains. We are bodies and energy, too. That part of us needs care, too. The intuition that emerges from this deep nurturing and care can be truly remarkable. It doesn't come from the same part of your brain that learned calculus, though. So I believe we need to tap into it differently: moving body and breath together is a very good start.

Tonight, I'm lucky enough to teach a yoga practice as the full moon rises. We'll focus on drawing inward and restoring. Expect moon salutes, hip openers, balancing nadi shodana, and guided visualization. Slow down before the week begins. Set a powerful intention and flow with the intuition of your body. See you tonight, Moksha Riverwest, 6pm, live music included.

 

Made of stardust with a case of the Mondays

"Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. And this is the most poetic thing I know about physics. You are all stardust." --Lawrence Krauss, physicist

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I have a whiteboard in my kitchen on which I've written, "Remember that you are on a giant ball of rock and water, slowly rotating. This has been happening for as long as you can imagine." I look at it at least once a day and really think about that fact. All my problems and dramas and hopes and neuroses seem a little smaller...and then my email pings... Oh, the life of a modern yogi. That elusive balance between the profound and the practical.

We have a distinct challenge living in the world we do, trying to be conscious, thoughtful and yet practical.  I know many powerful, centered yogis, but I don't know anyone who doesn't have to work, pay parking tickets, deal with their grumpy coworker or client, or live in a fallible body. This is why I believe in yoga--it is the only practice I know that has the capacity to nourish us at all the levels of our experience. If you're coming to the mat overwhelmed and with low back pain, class is for you. If you're coming with existential angst, class is for you. If you're coming to relax before a busy week at work, class is for you. It occurred to me recently that to manage this really difficult balance of profound and practical we have to practice consistently.

Practice means different things on different days. Sometimes we need to be reminded we're stardust. Sometimes we need to loosen the tension in our neck so we can sit at our desk comfortably. Sometimes we need to learn how to use the breath so we don't yell at that guy who just cut us off in traffic. Sometimes we need to go into our practice deeply enough to chart a new sankalpa (intention) that will change the course of our lives and the lives of those around us. Most times we need a combination of profound and practical.

This is why when we practice, it's critical that we utilize all the 8 limbs of this ancient science. I'm serious about offering you a full, balanced yoga practice every time you come to class. I want to help you be kind to yourself so that you can nurture your mind and body in just the way that works for this moment. You are stardust. You are the dirty diaper changer. You can practice yoga in eiter

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I can't wait to see you on the mat tonight, 6pm at Moksha Riverwest. Thoughtful instrumental music will combine with the practice of asana, pranayama, and meditation to release and refresh. We'll get you ready to take on your week, you cosmic wonder you.