Yup. I. Failed.

This summer, I had the privilege to attend Failure Lab, an event where successful people share their stories of their greatest failures with the hopes of empowering others and de-stigmatizing failure. It was a powerful, thought-provoking evening that made me contemplate my own failures and what I've learned from them.

When I started writing this post, I was going to make a list of funny fails, many of which happened in the course of teaching yoga. Like the time I lit my notes on fire while guiding a candlelight meditation (no damage done, except to my ego). Or the time I was guiding students to become very aware of the sounds within this room at the exact moment that someone began loudly urinating in the bathroom at the back of the studio. One class I got really into it, building dramatically to our opening OM: The yogis recognized a deep light of awareness within that they called the Atman. You might experience this as the wisest part, the one who watches and knows what's true for you. We will now chant the ancient mantra representing this deep wisdom, the sound of OM. Inhale. And then I started leading the chant with a lot of enthusiasm and vigor (not to mention VOLUME) and my voice completely cracked like a 13-year-old boy. OOOACKKKKKKKKCOUGHCOUGHKKKKKKMMMMM. Hopefully this is not really what my deepest wisdom sounds like.

But owning up to those cute, funny fails would be just a cop-out. That's not the real stuff. No serious consequences. No real vulnerability.

What about the real messy stuff? What about the yoga teacher who should know wayyyyy better than to: Neglect her own well-being. Bring her life out of balance. Abandon the self-care measures that she wishes for her students. Ignore the return of the pain and panic attacks that had been long gone. 

Well, that's my greatest failure. I was sitting in Failure Lab this summer listening to others' stories in the midst of my greatest failure. And I'd like to share how I got there, what I learned from it, and how yoga helped me pick myself back up. 

There is nothing I'm more passionate about than helping others be kinder to themselves: mind, body, spirit. I believe each of us has a deep wisdom that can be a true guide. I became a yoga teacher to facilitate the time and space to connect with and explore that wisdom. However, I soon remembered that I still have bills to pay and so (as is common), I took on a lot of jobs. Some yoga related, some not. It's exciting to see yoga gain popularity, and thrilling to be asked to teach more and expand this reach. And I'm absolutely intent on continually engaging in rigorous training so that my students have the very best I can offer. And so that's where this started. An excited yoga teacher a few years in, starting to get some momentum, seizing every awesome opportunity. Oh, and I have a personal life too, did I mention that? Lots of stuff happens in it, especially this year. 

So, earlier this year, I set myself a strict schedule. I ran my mind like a drill sergeant, even as I was planning programming to help other people do the exact opposite. That doesn't apply to me right now. It's for them, not for me. I thought I could sacrifice myself. I. Know. Better.

Peach the cat is not impressed with my lack of balance.

Peach the cat is not impressed with my lack of balance.

You see where this is going. My practice fell stale. I went through the motions, mind racing. That inner voice that I'd always counted on fell silent. Without it, I was lost. So I reverted to old habits: I pushed harder.

The body doesn't lie, and my body doesn't take any crap. In the face of this constant pressure and lack of balance, it keeps the score. Soon, some of my old ghosts insidiously creeped back: my chronic pain, panic attacks, and, worst of all, a complicated endocrine disorder I had well-controlled got worse...way, way worse. 

This would be a logical time to step back and learn from it all, right? Not yet. This is what makes it a failure. I knew better. I was aware it was too much and I continued on anyway. My setbacks made me more frantic and more certain that I needed to do all the things. The more I felt like I was failing, the more I refused to accept reality and the more I scrambled and forced. The more I lost connection with my wisdom, the more the drill sergeant took over. Soon, this part was just straight up running the show. Every day. Every night. Every weekend. All the time. You can fight with reality, but as Richard Miller says, reality always wins.

And so the inevitable collapse. I can't take it today. Soon, I was under the watchful gaze of my best friend. She studied me for a minute before speaking. She didn't sugar-coat it. I know you, and I know that this is very, very dangerous, she said gravely. Her intensity surprised me. The internal sergeant sat down and was quiet. And that's when I realized it. The gig was up. I had somehow unlearned the greatest lesson of my life: balance comes first. And that was just not OK.

I failed. But failing isn't the end. It's a normal part of life that literally everyone on the planet experiences. The question is, what do we do next? Here's what I learned:

My accountability partner and best friend, Lindsay.

1. Ask for help. You know how it makes you feel good to help others? Well, guess what, other people feel that way too! We forget this a lot of the time. Reach out. If you're struggling, the people close to you want to know. They want to help. You would do that for them. Let them do it for you.

Haven't taken class with Erin Cowan? Why not?   Remedy that now at Moksha Yoga Center.

Haven't taken class with Erin Cowan? Why not?  Remedy that now at Moksha Yoga Center.

2. Practice. But don't just go through the motions. What I need from my practice changes constantly. This is why I utilize a range of styles in my practice. If your current regimen is making you more harsh and agitated, mix it up a little. The first thing I did when I knew I needed to take it down a notch? Called my good friend, the amazing Erin Cowan, who teaches truly outstanding yoga and is now incorporating somatics yoga into her practice. A couple sessions with her and I could hear that inner voice once again.

3. Schedule self-care first. I learned to make a list of things that are essential for my well-being. My list takes up more daily time than I find ideal (or maybe it's the drill sergeant who doesn't find it ideal). Nevertheless, it is not a luxury, it's essential time. That's reality. 

 

4. 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 exactly as planned. 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 philosophy, you are being trained for bigger things and everything is running right on schedule. Trust.

5. Practice pratyahara (drawing the senses inward). 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 stress headaches. Plus, you can't look at your phone. Bonus.

6. Just breathe. Make your exhales longer than your inhales. Allow your breath to be smooth. You'll cue the nervous system that it's time to simmer down, regroup, and replenish.

Poem by nayyirah waheed from salt.

So there you have it, yogis. I failed and lived to tell the tale. And just that realization doesn't make it all magically better. Finding balance and finding it again takes work and a lot of trial and error. More failure might come. Life challenges us and when we accept those challenges, sometimes we fail. It's OK. We all do and we're in this together.

 

Namaste!

 

A List for When Things Fall Apart

"We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy." Pema Chodron
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I won't lie to you, my friends. It's been a challenging 2015. And I won't be opaque. Like many women in the world, I am struggling with the painful effects of infertility and the loss that comes with it. As is par for the course in this arena, there have already been a few heartbreaks along the way. In the process of confronting this, I've had to visit with some ghosts from the past and goblins from the world of reproductive endocrinology, not to mention endure the long expanses of waiting ( so much waiting ) for our family to be together finally. Here comes the yoga. This is one of those experiences that tests if I mean what I say. Do I believe it's all unfolding as it should? Do I have the faith to let go of the way it all turns out? Can I connect with who I truly am: not this body, not these worried thoughts... but the wisdom within? What will I do when things fall apart?

I created this list for how the practice can support you for those times when you need to put one foot in front of the other and take it day by day. It comes from how the practice has been supporting me. My rule for myself is no matter how I feel, no matter how much time I think I don't have, no matter how strong the lure of the couch, I will spend 10 minutes per day with a practice that deeply nourishes me. I will light a candle and sit by my altar and probably do one of the things on this list. 

In November when I last saw my teacher Gary Kraftsow he told me to take all the extra energy I spend overdoing it on any one occasion and put it into being consistent. I'm passing it on to you with the hopes that it worms its way into your mind as it has mine, taunting you in the best way to practice. 

Without further ado, A List for When Things Fall Apart 

You have the time nourish yourself for 10 minutes per day. Your body and mind deserve a chance to rest in this moment. It will make a difference to your mind, body, and spirit. 

If you have 10 minutes...

  • Breathe. Consciously. It does not have to be fancy. It can simply be soft, deep breathing hearing So on the inhale and Hum on the exhale (translation: I am that). If you want to get fancier, practice pranayama. Depending on the technique you use, you can help to build strength and power, release tension, or stabilize your nervous system. I'd recommend my teacher's book on the subject over any other. 
  • Contemplate this quote:  "We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy." Pema Chodron. Then get yourself one of her books and read a chapter each time you practice. I'd highly recommend The Places That Scare You and Getting Unstuck.
  • Practice legs up the wall pose, or viparita karani. It's my go-to for instant stress relief. Some instructions, photos, and other simple postures to consider here. 
  • Practice aromatherapy. My favorite stress reliever lately has been Tara Incense, a favorite of the monks of Tibet.
  • Practice guided mindfulness meditation. I've found a great app for that called Headspace. This app features meditation instruction for beginners and experienced meditators alike. You can download it here, and it's free to start. 
  • Dance. Here's my latest jam for rocking it out in my living room. Shake your bones. Act wild and crazy. See if you don't feel better afterward.
  • Sing. Here is a healing way to incorporate mantra and singing: kirtan. This is a practice of call-and-response singing. Krishna Das is a great place to start. Try his album Pilgrim Heart. I especially love "Om Nama Shivaya."
  • Do some big picture dreaming. I love to journal to plan for the future and remember that I'm making my way toward my big goals. I've been having fun with the "Create Your Shining Year" journal this year. Taking stock of how far you've come can really help to give you the courage to keep going.
  • Contemplate the Yoga Sutras. Did you know that the yoga sutras are an ancient guidebook to how to be happier and more free? True story. Some translations are super-dense, but I love this one by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait Ph.D.
  • Make a list of everything you are grateful for. It will make you 70 percent happier. It's science, baby.

If you have more time... 

Come to a yoga class! I've got one almost every day of the week, and we'll incorporate many of the above with the support of other yogis just like you. 

We've got this, yogis. One breath at a time.

Love,

Serena

Good friends and good laughs make it all so much easier.


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!)