Monday, May 6, 2013

Yoga Drill Sergeant

This morning started like many other Monday mornings—grudgingly dragging my feet from the bedroom to the bathroom.  Stepping over the cat that is always in my way, grabbing my gym bag, but not my coat, and heading out into the barely-started day.  My body operates as a programmed transport for my brain as I park my car, walk down the street, and into the yoga room.  Then, as the students begin to arrive I finally start to feel awake.

While the class kicks off a bit stiff and disjointed, before long the class has transformed into a body of completely focused energy.  I can see my students eyes fixated on the mirror, checking their alignment and struggling to hold on just a moment longer while balancing.  This morning it occurred to me—in a big and bright way, not unlike times before—that yoga is anything but an escape.  It is, if nothing else, an experience of your life, challenged, slowed down and in high definition.  It’s intense.

I've had people approach me to say to me that they want to begin a yoga practice because they want “an escape.”   I’m super stressed and I just need to not think and just relax. They may come into a class with this image of trance-like music, a beautiful teacher with airy words and a soft touch, and students moving effortlessly into spectacular poses.   Welp, sweetheart, that sounds wonderful but that ain’t how it’s going to go.  There will be a lot going on that you may not expect, so you better hang on for the ride.

The truth is, for most people beginning a yoga practice is a large undertaking.  First step is always stepping through the door.  Then once you’re in the room, chaos happens.  You’re looking into the mirror not just at yourself, but at yourself amid a sea of others.  Combine your already stressed state, with not knowing what the teacher will say, what to do with your hands, and wondering why the heck you’re so sweaty already and you have a jumbo-size mental mess.  Of course there will be moments when you must come to terms with all the physical postures you may not be able to do.  There will be moments of ego, where you must wrestle with your urge to critique and judge your physical abilities. What?! I can’t balance on one foot?  This is bullshit!  It’s not simply a physical practice, but a mind and body experience that will challenge all parts of you, even to points of discomfort.

You will face moments that have pushed many to quit in the past, because they wanted something easy and dammit it’s not.  Because yoga is not a single experience, a serene and isolated beach that will remain the same each time you come to it.  No, each time you step on your mat it’s a whole different ballgame.  From the moment you left your mat to the moment you’ve come back, you’re carrying new baggage, new experiences, everything that you put into your body since then.   And if you’re not paying attention you may end up on your ass—literally and figuratively.

So why does this image of peaceful and stress-free yoga sessions keep taunting all the brand new beginners, as if the jokes on them?  Does it ever become easy? Last week I had a student tell me, “Wow, you’re a slave driver—I like it.  You’ll see me next week.” What?! That doesn't sound like a yoga teacher I want to go to!  You should know, yoga was not by any means easy for this man.  He is well past his 50s, had to use the wall for balance, took modifications of most poses, and sweats enough to create his own, private pool.   But he had over an hour to wrestle his demons head on and he came out alive--smiling even.  Really, I just helped guide him from one point to the other, with gentle reminders in between.   You are challenged to meet yourself exactly where you are, both mentally and physically, and then willingly let go of disillusion. Following every sweaty torture of holding dreaded eagle pose, is the opportunity to release.   So no, I’m not the slave driver, you are—but you’re welcome anyway.

The calm, tranquil, serene beach of paradise can be found in yoga or any other activity you find to be challenging because it forces us to let go of the false image of ourselves.  We must rise to the occasion to get through what we are doing.  We must be better than we think we are.  And that is a wonderful feeling.  That is the moment of Ahhh.  That is why my students get up every morning and get on their mats--to face themselves in the mirror and come out victorious.
Cat savasana

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Feed the Wolf

Often I hear people saying that they want to recreate themselves.  They are coming to yoga to recreate their mind-body connection or getting healthy to recreate their sexy and more youthful self, or the oh-so-cliché post-relationship total image overhaul—recreate, recreate, recreate.  I am guilty of very much the same; feeling an urge to recreate myself into the woman I thought I should be by now.  There is an image of the me that I am and the image I want to be.  I can get stuck believing that because I sit at a desk answering phones, opening doors, and directing people to offices that I am somehow morphing into a one-dimensional secretary from a 1950s sitcom.   It’s easy to latch onto anything that I’ve done in my past and use it to define who I am—label myself a blah.  Then in sheer fear of the person I created, I search to strip down and recreate.

But, the idea of recreating me suggests that I somehow created myself wrong.  And I don’t like that—not one bit. 

In yoga, the belief is that we are all already whole and complete beings.  We have all that be need to be great within ourselves, in the same place where we keep our struggles and our fears.  Everything is inside.  A Native American proverb says it simply,
A fight is going on inside me, he said to the boy. It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil - he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good - he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. This same fight is going on inside you - and inside every other person, too.The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, Which wolf will win?
The old Cherokee simply replied, The one you feed.
I posted before about how there are no “wrong steps,” for without what we perceive as mistakes, we would never be where we are today.  In the same way, some of the things we’ve done do not define who we are, but rather help shape who we are becoming.  When I practice yoga, I need to remember that I am connecting to my true self, not getting rid of a version I don’t like.  In the same way, when I push really hard in a CrossFit workout or challenge myself to try something new and scary, I am not recreating myself.  Instead, I am finding a part of me that was left unattended and unfed.  Over time, in the moments that we allow, we can see ourselves as whole and complete human beings.  This reminder comes at a perfect time, as I am faced with some tough choices.  One is daunting, fresh, yet exciting; while the other is safe, boring and tiresome.  

We have the choice of which wolf to feed.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Moments of Happy

Thanks to my wonderful friend Randi, who helped in inspiring this post (which happens to be a perfect compliment to the last one.)  Both of the following videos bring to light those small moments of happy--the moments when we are entirely present in our humble pleasures.  Short, sweet, and full of life.


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Tides of March

Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike. J. K. Rowling 

The month of March has lived up to its reputation; it has felt like nothing less than unrelenting madness.  The days of “in like a lion and out like a lamb” are long gone, replaced by schizophrenic weather and unsure predictions of tomorrow.  In Delaware, the school kids have gone through a winter without a snow day, and the rest of us have been shuffling into the new year with our heads down.  It feels like just now we are lifting our gazes to realize that the third month of 2013 is nearly over.  “On edge” would be describing my last few weeks lightly.

March brought some changes to my schedule, as I now start my day Monday through Thursday by teaching yoga, in addition to teaching two nights a week.  Then the CrossFit Games’ Open began and I have been competing in that.  And that’s just my workout schedule!  My hours in-between are spent, often feeling more like a deposit into a life account that I will never see rather than a progression towards something.  Lately by the time my head hits the pillow at night, I realize I barely had time to think during the day.  It’s then that all the thoughts come rushing in waves and the moments tick by without any real relation to conventional time.  I cannot do anything but think.  Then, it begins again.

I recently wrote a post about setting intentions, about having a purpose to practicing, training, moving, living.  While I still find that setting an intention is challenging, I find it just as difficult to keep that intention in mind—staying completely present in whatever it is I am doing.  Part of the problem is that days are filled with lots of doing—minutes defined by actions, what I need to do to get through.  My time is propelled by what others need me to do.  I will be in class practicing yoga and instead of being present for me, I am thinking about what postures or poses I would like my students to experience.  Before I know it, the hour or so that I dedicated to myself is gone and I am back on someone else’s schedule. 

This may seem like just distractions, but it is actually a form of neglecting myself.  Yes, I am distracted by what others need and want me to do—but worse—I am ho-hum towards me. “Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike,” (J. K. Rowling.)  If I am floating through my day without mindfulness or true feelings, then I pretty much neglected precious moments that I will never get back. If at the very least I dislike something, I usually work harder to move to something that I do enjoy.  Feelings of dislike can be catalyst of change, whereas indifference is a life sentence of static.  

March may almost be over, but it’s not over yet.  So I have vowed to change!  While my routine has not changed, my perspective has.  On Monday morning I got up and taught my small class, not because I have to, but because I enjoy seeing my students evolve.  Then I was fully engaged in a staff meeting because I was there, so why not?  I was thankful to get out of work early, danced around my house, went to yoga, and then ate cake.  It’s not easy, especially in the morning, but I have been reminding myself today that I am here, so just be here.   

Life moving fast is definitely nothing new and it will not change. The days will tick on and the responsibilities will pile up.  People will tell you what to do and you won’t always have a choice.  So I propose the intention to simply be present.  Notice what you’re feeling, especially if it is unpleasant, and work towards something better.  That way as we move forward, we can drop away the tasks, the people, the jobs, and our own thoughts and feelings that are not serving us.  Spring is the perfect time to walk forward with your head held high—winter is leaving and the sun is shining the way into summer.   

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Competing with Me

I am excited and still surprised to announce that this weekend my husband and I are competing in our very first CrossFit competition.  It’s only been about four months of “CrossFitting” but we decided to dive head first into the challenge.  In some ways, it makes perfect sense.  Since joining our box (CrossFit gym affiliation) in early November, we've grown so much; each day we’re getting stronger and more confident.  So, when less than two months ago the opportunity to compete was presented, it would only make sense that I would immediately jump on it.  But, I had a minor internal struggle about whether or not I would compete.  When I came to the box, it was not my intention to train to compete; rather I saw an opportunity to challenge myself.  (And if we are being perfectly honest, I watched the CrossFit Games on TV and I wanted to look as fit as those ladies!)

So why not compete?

I had come to a point in my life, where I believed competition was behind me.  This was not because I felt “too old” or out of shape or was scared I wouldn't do well.  There was something else, much deeper inside, which I would have to come to terms with.  Growing up I was always involved in athletics—and  not just-for-fun athletics—every sport I played was on a very competitive level.   I went to the Junior Olympics as a sprinter, I was on various state champion teams for track, was the captain for various teams, and played almost every sport under the sun.  And I loved it.  I loved the “do or die,” “go hard or go home,” win, win, win feeling.  Then, when I graduated from college and entered the “work world,” I left behind my team sports.  It wasn’t long before I found myself channeling my competitive mind to my professional and personal identity.  Unlike in sports, when a competitive drive can be productive and even necessary, my instinctive competition became self-hurting.

It was at a time of pain that I came to begin my yoga practice.  In many ways I was going through a quarter-life crisis.  I was deciding what to do and where to go, and how to be okay with my choices.  (If you want to learn more, just read some of my older posts!)  Basically, I was hurting both physically and emotionally, as my stress slowly took hold of me.  Luckily for me, I had my youth and developed my yoga practice at a perfect time.  In the beginning, I continued to struggle with competitive feelings.  During class I would stare at myself and others in the mirror, comparing my ability to theirs.  I always wanted to push harder, “do better at yoga,” and was continually frustrated with myself.  It took some time, but through practice I realized that there was no “winning” yoga.  There would be no end to my effort, it’s continuing, it’s constant, it’s forever.  Coming to that realization was not only freeing, it was humbling.  When I let go of my need to push, I finally moved forward.  My mind’s constant judgment resulted in my body being stuck.  Once that powerful hold was gone, balance and flexibility came easy.  Poses became beautiful and my mind felt light.

So, am I taking a step back by training at a CrossFit gym and—even worse—competing again?

No.  I have decided to think about life as stepping stones, and whether or not you begin something that you’ve already done before—it will never be the same, because you are not the same.  If I had started CrossFit instead of yoga three years ago, I would be a completely different person today.  My guess is that I would be extremely critical, unforgiving, and aggressive.  This is not because CrossFit makes you so, but because of where I was in my life.  Having built a foundation in yoga instead, I came to CrossFit with an entirely different mindset.  I would not be stepping back to the blindly competitive 18-year-old, because I am no longer that girl.  Having forgiven myself, I can now train with a much clearer mind.  Not only that, but now I can see how we're all in this together.  Everyone is challenging themselves, in their own way, at their own pace.  I can only ever compete with myself, so either I win or I lose.

Don’t get me wrong, it ain’t easy.  

I always have to check in with myself, remind myself to be weary of old habits, and be open to move forward.  As yoga has taught me, you are never “good to go;” you are never done growing.  Pushing yourself forward is part of life—progress—but is not the only way you grow.
I practice yoga for my mental strength and clarity, and I train at CrossFit for my physical and mental challenge.  To me, they are intertwined and not mutually exclusive.  So when I compete this weekend I know that with each moment, I have an opportunity to grow.  And with each breath out, I begin again.  

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Setting Intentions

At the beginning of every yoga class I take, there is an opportunity to create a personal intention.  It’s the moment when you are able to ask yourself, why am I here right now?  Each time I come on to my mat, I have the wonderful opportunity to rediscover my motivation for being there, as it can always change.   The teacher usually instructs us to think of a simple word, a virtue, or a dedication and then gives us space to think.  However, more often than not, before coming onto my mat I’ve had a long day at work, a stressful drive during rush-hour, and a lingering feeling of annoyance that all together leaves me rather fatigued.  It’s all I can do to muster up the mental energy to be fully engaged in the first three minutes of class, let alone dig deep and remind myself of the real reason I showed up that day.   Sometimes, before I know it we’ve began class and I somehow missed the moment when I should have made an intention.  It may sound silly, but it’s no easy task to come up with an intention. 

When I first began, my intentions were simple: learn what I was doing, pay attention, and (gasp) lose weight.  My motivation was coming from my brain, not my body, and often led to so-so feelings at the end of class.  However, as I practiced more and let a lot of my insecurities go, my intentions became clearer.  I would feel them arise inside way before I stepped onto my mat.  When I would become frustrated at work, I would know that I would practice yoga to bring me back to calm.  Each movement and breath became less about what I looked like in the mirror, and more about how I spoke to myself inside.  Yoga became the main thing that filled my mind when I had space in my day.  It was the primary source of physical movement in my days and weeks.  It became part of my every day.

But as it often happens when life becomes routine, my mind and body began to feel “stale.”  There wasn’t much stimulation or challenge either on the mat and or off—and if there was—yoga had made me so calm that it barely struck a single cord of adrenalin. I had lost my umft, my grit, my drive somewhere along the way.  I was always a competitive athlete, so what was nice about yoga was that it calmed down that aggression.  At the same time, it nearly took it all away and in many ways, I was lost without it.

Then, I got engaged.  During the early months of engagement—despite  my original assumptions about myself—my  thoughts became all. about. wedding.  (Rest assured, not in a bridezilla type of way, but oh-my-god-I-love-everything, sort of way.)  I continued to go to yoga (which kept me sane), but my days and nights become infinitely more busy.  Then at the same time, my parents began an awful and bitter separation, which obviously could not have come at a worse time.  My mind became all jacked up again.  However, as a good friend always does, yoga kept me grounded.  When it was time to set an intention, I would dedicate my practice to my mother, whose heart was breaking; or to my sister who needed support and love.  I would allow virtues such as patience, forgiveness, kindness, and love to lead me through practice.  Yoga, in a quick and effortless swoop, became my therapy.  Intentions came easy again.

Yet, as with all wounds, time passes and healing occurs.  Now here I am, married and happy and nothing immediate on the horizon, and I am once again struggling with intention struggling with coming up with an intention for my yoga practice.  I have (as mentioned in my last post) began training with CrossFit and am set to compete in my first competition.   In CrossFit, I set intentions as well, albeit they are usually different than those set on my yoga mat.  I have goals to get stronger, improve certain Olympic lifts, and move more efficiently.  CrossFit has helped me fill the void that was left when I stopped competing in sports and has really brought a spark back inside.  (Of course it helps that the hubby loves it as well, so it has become something we love to do together!)  I think about getting to the next workout and I am excited when I leave.  Having a competition to work towards motivates me to do my best each and every time.

So, how do I come up for intentions for both?  On the surface, they seem like two very different animals, yet ultimately they are one in the same.  When I first came to CrossFit, my intentions were similar to those I had when I started yoga: learn what I was doing, pay attention, and (gasp again) lose weight.  (Did I learn nothing from years of yoga practice?!)  But now, just as was with yoga, at CrossFit I am striving to be a better person, push myself, give it my all, and see what I am made of.  Like yoga, CrossFit is ultimately a practice to strengthen your mind.   

After coming to that realization, last night I had the most fulfilling yoga class that I’ve had in at least a month.  When it came time to set an intention, I challenged myself to be present, be in tune, and to try my best.  And really, what more can we ask of ourselves?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Back. So fresh and so ready!

So, I’ve had this blog for a long time and for the past year it has been left dormant.  It’s not because I don’t love it, or I ran out of things to say, but rather, life happened.  In the past year and a half, I got engaged, switched jobs, planned a wedding, my parents separated, I married my love, and I started teaching and training at an amazing CrossFit affiliate in addition to staying loyal to my other yoga center, Empowered Yoga.  So I mean…I had things to do.

By starting so many different things and new stages in my life, I am learning heaps and it’s tremendously exciting.  Even more exciting, is the amount of questions I have.   So, my dream is to use this blog again as an opportunity to explore all this with you all again. 

I hope I am not alone here, but I thrive on curiosity.  I need stimulation and speculation, doubt and fear.  And nothing tests that like walking into a situation as a brand-spanking-new beginner.  Trying something new forces me to test my mental and physical strength, and nothing is more eye-opening and humbling.  It’s uncomfortable to walk into a room full of people who (whether assumed or not) are not as brand new as me.   I go through the stages of thinking, will I be decent at this, will this be uncomfortable, will people be nice to me, and of course, why the heck did I want to do this again?!  My first time walking into the CrossFit gym, I did so knowing that I had committed to teaching—so I had to do it.  (Don’t get me wrong, I really wanted to be awesome at all those crazy lifts and upside-down things, and I wanted to look really good.) But when I walked into a room with a ton of buff, good-looking guys grunting and lifting heavy things and ladies cranking out pull-up after pull-up, there was that moment of ‘OOPS,’ and mapping out the quickest exit route.  That moment when you say to yourself, ‘Nevermind, I am okay just the way I am.’

But we’re not. 

That’s why we wanted to try something new.  We can see our potential deep down and wanted to give that awesome self a chance to shine.  The only thing standing in our way is our mind.  We all know the first time at anything is a little terrifying, but we can allow that fear of the unknown to light a spark deep inside.  

Over the weekend, I took a friend from CrossFit to a workshop on asana and mediation.  She is one of the veteran CrossFitters; being there from the very beginning and feels very comfortable lifting heavy things.  I, on the other hand, am now a veteran yogini and still feel more comfortable on my mat.  We take each other out of our comfort zone and have been teaching each other a lot.  The added benefit of seeing someone going through something we went through for the first time is enlightening and humbling all at the same time.  But, I digress.  So in this workshop we revisited the principles of meditation and I was reminded of the way the mind works and how often it stands in our way.  Meditation is not about thinking of nothing, but rather just noticing your own habits of thought and working to create a calm and peaceful mind.

When you let your body remain still and you begin to notice the mind, it doesn’t take long to realize the mind is a noisy, noisy place.  While practicing meditation in the workshop, I envisioned my mind as a sky, with my thoughts being these swirling clouds of noise.  It’s here in the clouds that I have my thoughts of mediocrity, doubt, asking what’s for dinner, am I going to like this and of course, when is this over (just to name a few.)  I notice that my thoughts circle back, even when I notice them and try to “put them out.” 

It took time, but by the last sitting in meditation, I found my breath.  For a brief moment, it was calm.  I could hear the breath in my lungs and it felt like energy.  I was calm and relaxed and the best part, I felt open.  But then I thought, ‘this is awesome!’ and it was all downhill from there.  The thoughts were back, but this time they were positive.

Where am I going with this?  I’m almost there—patience, santosha.

January is a great time for people to decide to change their life’s path, exchange old habits for new, and to set goals to be better people in the New Year.  It’s usually a combination of our minds and bodies telling us what we want and deserve to be, and we set forth with our New Year’s Resolutions.  We set A LOT of goals and we intend on keeping them.  But come February, the mind begins to grow tired with all our big plans and high hopes—learning something new is hard!  The mind begins to quit before the body ever does.  In between workouts we give our body rest, but we never really thing about our brain. 

Therefore, I propose that in order to reach our new goals (physical or not—give your mind a break—and meditate.  We need our mind to push us, to give us motivation, and to drive us.  But if overworked, its influence begins to backfire.  So maybe try something new and different—try sitting and breathing.