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.

4fe707388c77223ce932e2cb1d692105.jpg

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.

Seek to purify

"A jerk can walk into a meditation hall and emerge a more focused jerk." --Gary Kraftsow

You probably know by now that I love me some inspirational quotes. I have found, in my love affair with glittery words, that they often come and go, often forgotten before they have a chance to seed. Not always. I have thought of the above quote at least once a week since the time I heard it three years ago. It has staying power. It takes on the voice of my conscience now, asking me if I'm practicing and teaching with integrity. As I say in class a lot, it matters a whole lot more how  you are doing the practices of yoga than which practices you are actually doing and what words you are using to define your practice and how many beads you are wearing (guilty, here). If your perception is a glass window, how are you cleaning it off so that you can see more clearly, beyond ego, beyond pleasure/pain dynamics, beyond all the roles you have assumed you need to fill?

In its long history, yoga has offered many ways to purify, some quite extreme. Thanks to the magic of YouTube, you can see some of them for yourself. I highly doubt (though never say never, I suppose) I will partake in dhoti kriya (video not for the squeamish). So what is a modern, urban yogi to do? This was a question posed to the ever-wise Gabriel Halpern during a recent class. He said that the ancients were pointing clearly toward an important truth: seek to purify. Seek to weed out what is holding you back. Seek to clear the shadows and ghosts and shiny things that prevent you from seeing clearly and conducting yourself with integrity.

images.jpg

A jerk can walk into a meditation hall and emerge a more focused jerk. I know. I've seen it happen. I've felt it happen, at times.

As a student of yoga, I seek to purify. As a teacher of yoga, I must always assess what in my life and in my mind is preventing me from communicating this practice in the best way that I possibly can with all the limitations of being human.

So let's get practical. One thing remains clear: I spend too much time plugged in, flitting from one electronic device to another. This week, until Friday, I will do a media fast: iPhone set up to only be a phone, computer stowed, only essential work emails answered once a day, Facebook mercifully quiet. It's not much. It's not extreme. But it's my way to purify for the time being.

See you in a little while, my online friends.  

The wisdom in me sees and honors the wisdom in you. 

With love, 

Serena

My Visit with Pema Chodron

Seven years ago, I was lost. I knew exactly one thing about my life: I loved my husband. I had very little idea how to be in a real adult relationship however, and, probably relatedly, I had only very dim analyses of where I’d been, where I was going, or which version of my carefully curated presentations was the real me (if any?). On one fateful trip to my local bookstore, I just so happened to wander from my usual stomping grounds (among books about how to firm my butt, color my parachute, attract money through the ether, and organize my closet) into the spirituality section. There, on a bottom shelf, totally out of the way, Pema Chodron’s book The Places that Scare You called to me. I didn’t even really look it over or open it. I just impulsively took it to the cash register and bought it.

In some ways, my path started on that day. The rest is history (and a longer story, to be sure). Seven years later, I find myself living, teaching, and dreaming the practices of yoga (which, by the way, are influenced by the practices of Buddhism, among other traditions, and I am proof that you do not need to be Buddhist or Hindu or Jain or Taoist to find huge benefits in these teachings). And seven years later, I found myself in a little Subaru heading out from Chicago to a small town in New York to study with the woman that set the whole grand, messy thing into motion. When I returned, many of my friends asked me, excitedly, how was it?! and seemed a little disappointed when I looked at them slightly blankly. Two months later, I can finally write this. This is some of what I learned from that trip. My intention is to write about a few of Pema's teachings and share how they are at work in my life and my practice as an example. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

(All credit for these teachings goes to Ani Pema Chodron and her teachers. All misunderstandings, confusions, and so forth are my own.)

“The whole mechanism of trying to get strong by avoiding disappointment is destined to fail.” After settling into our cabins and excitedly filing into the lecture hall, this was what we heard first. You could almost hear the mutual halting scratching record sound in the room. Wait…it is? I mean, I know that I guess, but why do we have to talk about it? I want to feel peaceful not afraid. What if I’ve built my whole life around trying to eat right, be pleasant to others, get my checkups, take my medicine, move my body, free my mind, and so forth, all to feel as though I could outrun or outsmart disappointment, failure, sickness, loss, death, even (OK, I know that one is a little silly, but I can't help myself)? For an hour, my whole schtick (Buddhists would call it ego-structure) felt like it was sinking into quicksand.
    Here’s the important point. This philosophy makes a distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is inevitable. Pain will happen. You will get sick. Things will sometimes fall apart. It’s hard to think about and it can lead to some morbid philosophy. But ultimately, it’s true. Resisting reality, pretending we can control reality, pretending there is some final destination of perfection to arrive at, this is what leads to suffering according to this philosophy. Suffering compounds pain. Suffering is the force that has the power to rob us of our happiness even when life is good, propelling us unendingly into the past and future and robbing us of our present. The alternative, as presented by Ani Pema, is to recognize that life is more like flowing in a river than standing on solid ground. As the old saying goes, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” It’s like that in life, right? There is a fluidity and, once accepted, it can be very liberating. Things fall apart and they come back together.
   How I Practice: I basically have daily opportunities to practice this.  Every time I get a difficult work email or feel the jealousy or anger of a friend, or have an off day with my beloved, I pause. If possible, I go to my meditation cushion. I tighten up a little around whatever feeling it is: hurt, anger, sadness, pity, a parade on Mt. Ego, boredom. With my inhale, I take in the situation in BIG way, almost asking it to come forward even more. I tighten my eyes. I clench my body. I feel the weight and constriction of that feeling of wanting reality to be other than it is or of wanting reality to stay just like this. I call forward the crushing feeling that there is not some final destination sans disappointment. Ever. And then in one breath I exhale through the mouth, open my eyes, and let it go. I repeat this as necessary. For me, this does not eliminate the pain, but it does help to eliminate the resistance to the pain.  From there, I drop the storyline of whatever is going on and simply feel the feeling. Let it be what it is. Sit with it. Give it a voice and then listen to it, without pushing it away or making up some story about why it’s so-and-so’s fault or unfair or final in some way.

“Harshness is an obstacle to enlightenment.” In my experience, there is a tendency to hear the above and want to escape it. There are many ways that I've experienced of doing so, and I went through a few of them on retreat. First: a Nietzsche-inspired depression. I can almost imagine myself as Eeyore the sad donkey (he was a donkey , right?). I guess I can’t control anything, so why try? It’s all going to end in pain. Why try to build something? Next, I moved on to what I like to call whoa...man territory. The surrealist bubble: This might as well just be a dream. What is reality anyway? What does it matter if this is all a dream? Third, would you like to meet my inner football coach? I'm on a retreat, I need to BRING MY A-GAME. 99 PERCENT PERSPIRATION. Do better. Get better. No more wandering off. Focus. GO TEAM GO. EYE ON THE BALL. IT'S JUST FOCUSING ON THE BREATH, YOU CAN DO THIS. TOUCHDOWN!!
    I say this with love and having been to those places: Nope. That’s not it. Those are too blunt of thinking tools. We need to sharpen that thinking a little. Those are ways of escaping the questions that we need to address.
    Harshness, or any other form of escapism, is not the way to enlightenment, per Pema. I remember starting a meditation practice years ago. I practiced simple breath mindfulness meditation. The instruction was to 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 Elmer Fudd hunting wabbits. Every time a thought even dared to peek around the tree, I was there firing off my bazooka and yelling THINKING. THAT’S THINKING. BAD. This harshness did not take me further into peace when I practiced this way. 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.
    Pema taught us that pain need not be our only mode of operation or our only teacher or our default state. If we’re stuck in traffic and getting frustrated and there is an off-ramp, she said, take it. (Someone asked if this was a metaphor, causing one of the many group giggles. Yes, she said, it is.) If a relationship is doing more harm than good, set new boundaries. If a practice, medication, therapist, yoga practice, breath technique, or good old-fashioned break will help us be more present, it can be a healthy part of our routine. However, during those times where there is no off-ramp, or when the off-ramp is a form of self-destructive behavior, we are asked to work with the situation rather than resisting it.
    How I Practice: The instruction is to find some “unconditional friendliness,” as Pema puts it. The practice that I’ve found to be most helpful on my cushion? Smiling. That’s it. When I get an old familiar feeling that I’d usually push away or berate myself for, I just smile. I assign this feeling a form and I embrace it. Sometimes I will tease it a little, almost making a caricature of it. Here's an example of such a caricature of myself that I found helped me create lightness. All with love. I will acknowledge that it is a part of what makes my life rich. Tasting sour is a part of why I can taste sweet.
     
“Everything in life is a vehicle for awakening. Nothing needs to be rejected.” 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, to create greater understanding of ourselves and of others. So, worry not. You need not retreat to a cave or monastery. Your ordinary life will do just fine. These practices are meant to help us in the real world, not necessarily to make us the eccentric one at the Thanksgiving dinner table (though, I must say, I took that prize years ago). Life is a big messy proposition and we’re not usually in complete control. We can choose to think of it like one problem after another or we can choose to think of it as life coming along to teach us some lessons (we call this karma in both yoga and Buddhist thought).
    How I Practice: When something I don’t like comes up, I consciously choose to regard it as my teacher. When something good comes up that I enjoy and savor, I consciously choose to regard it as my teacher. When boredom comes up, I consciously choose to regard it as my teacher. You get the picture. It’s simple: it’s just a cognitive task, but it works for me.

Thank you for reading my thoughts here. I’d love to hear yours, too. How do you incorporate yoga and meditation into your daily life? There are lots and lots of ways to do so.

If you’d like to go deeper, some possible journaling or reflective questions to inspire more thought follow.

  • How open are you to the inevitability of change?
  • Is the “you” that started reading this article the same as the “you” that is reading this sentence? Is there a core “you”?
  • Do you feel as though your life is more like floating on a river or more like standing on solid ground?
  • How can you bring more gentleness and friendliness into your life? What would it mean to drop some of the harsh commentary?
  • Do you have a daily meditation practice? Would you like to start one? (My students should feel very free to approach me for resources and support.)

Shattering the Mirror

"You are quite perfect, Miss Fairfax!"

"I hope I'm not that. It would leave no room for developments, and I intend to develop in many directions!"

~ The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde

 

Last night I had a dream in which I was looking at myself in front of a giant mirror and for some reason felt compelled to shatter it to pieces. It was very vivid, but I wasn't sure what it meant until now. I feel inspired to write this after a wonderful talk with a kindred spirit. I am thankful for those people with whom talking comes easily and giggles mix with struggles and aspirations and all the stuff in between. I think this is what life is really about.

But I digress. We were talking about Facebook. The exuberant celebrations of life (AMAZING this and AMAZING that), thinly veiled personal promotions and ego blasts, and filtered pictures are wonderful a lot of the time. (And I'm guilty of all of the above, don't get me wrong.) I love to see my friends doing well and being happy. I truly mean that. I have many darker tendencies, but begrudging others' happiness is not one. (I tend to turn the aggression inward.)

But here's the thing: There's a shadow side. The part of me that trolls Facebook longer than is healthy. The part of me that assumes that all those shiny happy people are so much shinier, more together, more alive, more successful, more beautiful, just... better than I am. The part that compares and feels bad for where I am ... and sometimes even WHO I am. Do you ever feel this way?

Yoga asks us to tell the truth. We call this "satya" in Sanskrit. The ultimate goal of the yoga practice is to see reality clearly. That's also where we start, ironically. We start simple. See what you're bringing with you to practice. See how your breath moves. See how judgement comes up in this pose or that meditation. And so forth. Just take a look. Maybe just a peek at first. Stay with it for as long as you can and then try again tomorrow.  

I realized a few weeks ago that I do a disservice to my friends and my students when I filter reality, whether it is on Instagram or with my words. Yes, my life is beautiful and I have been given so much. It's also hard and messy and frustrating. And if I present only one part, if I push away the messiness, I'm not doing my job. I'm not teaching yoga because I can't teach what I don't practice. Not that you need to know every gory detail of my personal life, that's not what I mean. But there must be someplace in between a photo finish and a confessional...right?

Photo on 5-12-13 at 7.50 AM.jpg

So I'm going to rebel a little. And I'm going to post my rebellion on Facebook. If you feel comfortable, maybe you can join me. Here are five of the messy bits. This is not a confessional. This is just filling in the gaps a little.

 (1) I hurt my shoulder because I pushed in a yoga class. I forced in class because I felt I wasn't good enough.

(2)  My first fight with my beloved husband was over Lindsay Lohan's performance in Mean Girls. I absolutely kid you not. We yelled at each other. It was serious...like unfunny at the time. Over Lindsay Lohan. That is not necessarily our most ridiculous fight. One of my shadow parts is a bad temper, so, let's be honest, I probably started it. Yoga has helped me work with it, but I'm still on the spicy side, and, if I'm not really conscious and mindful, I'm often unreasonable.

 (3) I do try to live healthfully and naturally, but I do the following taboo things: (a) use normal deodorant... not crystals or salts or tea tree oil or unicorn dust...otherwise I stink; (b) use too many paper towels; (c) eat Fannie May candies (a tradition started with my grandma and continued to this day... and, no, I cannot pronounce any of the ingredients).

(4) I struggle with anxiety every day of my life. It has gotten more manageable with yoga and therapy. It was disabling before these wonderful tools entered into my life. I've learned from it too---it is one of my many gurus. But it is still there and it hurts a lot sometimes.

(5)  I love power ballads. Not ironically. Just straight up love power ballads. Air Supply, Celine Dion, Heart. I'm ashamed of this, and so I go into "secret" mode on Spotify and rock it out. Yes, that's right. I actually filter my Spotify to hide my dirty little secret. How silly.

Laugh at me, think of your own. However you do it, be real, acknowledge the shadow side. It's a part of you, too! Be you. I think it's worth it, even the messy bits.  You are braver and more beautiful than you know.

 

Three Simple Rituals to Inspire the State of Yoga

Did you know that "yoga" does not mean contortionist postures? It's easy to conflate "yoga" and " yoga asana" (physical postures). But actually "yoga" means "to unite." There are many ways of interpreting this concept. For me, in a state of yoga I unite my mind, my body, and my inner wisdom. This wisest part of each of us is known as "atman" in yoga texts, and basically means your highest self. You know the voice that stays above the fray? The voice that urges you do take care of yourself and those around you? The part of you that knows best? That's the one. That's what we're up to during yoga practice: trying to quiet down the chitter chatter of the fluctuations of the mind enough to hear that wisdom. That's why it doesn't necessarily matter what exactly you're doing during yoga practice... it more matters how you are doing it.

All yoga practices (including yoga asana) aim to foster a greater connection with this part of you. And regular practice is essential. Yoga asana is very important, in that it helps keep your body healthy, flexible, and strong, introduces your mind to your body (in case you forgot that you're more than a brain), and encourages you to confront your "mindstuff" on the mat. However, there are many daily practices that can bring you into this state, even between classes. I find that the simplest practices are the easiest to actually do each day. Here are three of my favorites. Comment with yours.

47146732a69411e28b3522000a1f9867_6.jpg

1. Look up. When you're walking outside, take a moment to look up at the sky. Even the simple act of turning off your iPhone and connecting with the ever-shifting nature of our sky can broaden your perspective.

2. Meditate. Anywhere. Think you have to be on a cushion in lotus pose to practice meditation? Think again. Some of the simplest of daily tasks can become meditation practices with a big dose of mindfulness. All you need is a simple task and one of your senses. How about focusing on the sensation the cool water on your hands as you wash your veggies for dinner? Or the smell of your soap or the feeling of the water during your daily shower? What about sending out kindness to those you encounter on your commute, wishing them happiness and freedom? How about thinking of five things you're grateful for as you wait for your tea to steep? Can you direct all of your attention to the sound of the rain outside? Or the sensation of the cold? Or the feeling of your feet as you walk down the sidewalk? Notice the mind's tendency to wander and make judgments, but with compassion. Gently guide your mind back to the focal point. Do this for a month. I bet it changes you.

3. Surround yourself with beauty. This doesn't mean your apartment needs to look like the Crate&Barrel catalog. It really doesn't. But finding small ways to bring beautiful things into your life can lift your spirits. Buy a plant. Make a photo collage. Light a candle. Watch the grace with which your cat moves. Get the pretty Kleenex box. Keep items around you that you feel are personally meaningful. Hang inspirational quotes or pictures around your home. Treat your home like a sacred space. Learn to see and cultivate beauty in the everyday. As Rumi says, "Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you truly love. It will not lead you astray."