Monday, June 29, 2015

My Mat is a Liferaft

My mat is a liferaft...a beautiful vessel that keeps me grounded, even on water. My sweat (and often tears) keep the tide below me high enough to keep my raft afloat. My mat is a "liferaft" is the best thing I heard this week. Thank you Jen Portman! I've made the statement "yoga saved my life" on many occasions, yet I have never made this analogy. As my busy life has been swirling around me over the last few weeks, I was away from my consistent, daily practice. Before I drifted too far, I knew I had to get back to that which always makes me feel most stable and strong in mind, body and spirit.

I have felt stuck and stiff and not sure how to free myself.  Daily practice relieves me from this bodily tension, but daily practice had been a challenge. While joyful, personal events of the past few weeks have left my energy store depleted, my body unyielding, my head congested and my heart achey. Knowing it's all connected, I'm forced to examine how they can work as a team supporting each other. I believe that the body is a messenger for the soul. As I feel aches and pains, how am I addressing this tension in the body, or am I flat out ignoring it? Allowing it to deepen, worsen...and what does that say about emotional pain? How I am treating that? Am I ignoring that too? What can I let go of to lighten the load and become more buoyant?

The last few weeks have been hectic in my house with end-of-school-year events and celebrations, birthdays, a lot of extra teaching gigs, father's day and weekend guests. While I have managed to get on my mat each day, the level of practice to which I've grown accustomed and to which I count on for balance in all aspects of my life has definitely been lacking.  Most of my energy was going to others and I was not balancing that by fortifying my own reserve. As soon as I could I dove back into my daily practice. The first few classes found me really in tune to how my physical body was feeling: stiff, achey, stagnant, congested and exhausted, just to name a few. And as has been my learned behavior after this many years of consistent practice, I thought about what my physical body was telling me about my heart and mind. Sure enough, I encountered more of the same aches, stagnation and exhaustion. I found the stiffness, the lack of lift and buoyancy, completely reflective of what was going on off my "liferaft".

On my mat, healing happens. It's my liferaft. On it I first consider all that affects my physical body. What steps do I take to ease these feelings, and can the same strategy be applied to managing the mental, emotional, spiritual health? As in the way physical pain can signal the need to dial down your physical efforts, I could ease up on myself mentally and emotionally, allowing a break from pressure and the guilt that so often accompanies it. I can deepen the breath. There is always an option for a specific breathing exercise, but at the very least, make a conscious, attentive effort to breathe with intention. The effectiveness of breath to calm the mind as well as the body is well documented. I wonder if I am sleeping enough, and what the quality of that sleep is. I could meditate more often.

I am back on track with nine consecutive days of strong dedicated practice, and as my body has responded with beautiful pliability, so have my heart, mind and spirit. As my body returns to a state of greater openness and freedom, the rest are eager to follow. I'm learning that despite whatever chaos invades, at the least I have to maintain this dedication and devotion to my practice for all the benefits it provides. Recognizing that yes, sometimes life gets in the way, but in order to stay afloat we must have that liferaft nearby. On it we are able to ride the waves of prana, within our practice and within our lives.

Monday, June 15, 2015


On day one of my teacher training program, Ann told us that personal boundaries are important and apply to both teachers and students. She went further to explain that energy exchange can be a powerful thing, and it's important to protect ourselves, as teachers, from allowing too much of our energy to be drained at any given time. It was an easy enough concept to comprehend at the time, but I've grown to expand my mind on this subject. Sure it definitely applies inside the yoga room when I am teaching, but it has far deeper meaning outside.

As teachers, as yogis, as women, as mothers, we give so much of ourselves to others. It's vital to identify ways we can conserve and hold on to a bit of that energy. That's where yoga has played such an important role for me personally. Maybe it isn't yoga for everyone, but find that passion, that activity that can rejuvenate you. First loving, caring and protecting ourselves from harm is the only way we can do so for others in our lives.

This ideal calls to mind the yoga posture savasana, or "corpse" pose. I've referred to savasana in other posts on letting go and surrendering, but there are many other useful benefits which come from finding a peaceful resting pose. In the bikram series, we rest in savasana for about two minutes between the standing and the floor series, and then take another savasana for much shorter periods of time between all of our floor sets and postures. One reference I make to students is that this posture is meant to be a fueling station for the body, an opportunity to refuel, rest, recharge before taking on the next pose. So with regard to today's post, savasana is really a microcosm for what we must find off of our mats...that chance to recharge the batteries, reenergize ourselves for whatever lies ahead.

As a mom to three school-age children, this time of year is always met with mixed emotions...a break from dragging tired kids out of bed, packing lunches and ushering them to and from extra-curricular activities, but at the same time there is a slight panic that sets in when I realize that I will no longer have the hours of 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for myself. The last couple of years, since all three girls have been in school full-time, I've cherished the last few weeks of school and made sure to carve out time for myself to enjoy the world around me, rather than get sucked into the daily minutia of managing a household.

When I am able (and weather permits!), I head down to the read, to write, to practice yoga...or simply to find peace and calm. Much like my yoga practice has served me, I use this time as a healthy escape. Yoga on the beach is especially calming as I can so easily channel the sound of the ocean with my breath, timing the inhales and exhales with the ebb and flow of the tide. Using your "ujayi" or "victorious" breath, which refers to that which can be felt in the back of the throat and heard like an ocean sound in the ears, is proven to be calming to the central nervous system. So what better place to utilize this yoga gift than when I am literally oceanside?!

While practicing on the beach one day last week I looked out to the ocean to see a friend on her paddle board, and at the precise moment that I looked up a huge pod of dolphins was passing her. It was a really cool sight that caught the attention of everyone on the beach. When she got out of the water, we spoke and she described her encounter as "a gift." It was a gift to me to witness, I can only imagine how she felt to experience it. I'm sure I can speak for both of us when I say that moment at the beach had far greater value than staying home to fold laundry or going to the grocery store.

I'm grateful to be able to recognize this, as it is all too easy to be consumed with our service to others. Allowing that service to take over, without replenishing or respecting the level of our own energy store, can potentially breed unhappiness or worse, resentment. There are always things to pull us in various directions, things to easily distract us. Whether it is actively pursuing something that makes your heart sing-just for you-or simply adopting the mindset that you will embrace and focus on the positive things in life as opposed to the negative, find a way to establish and preserve your personal boundaries. Learn to enable your energy to serve your needs first. Only then can you best serve others.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Mylar, Marcus and More-GOTR Seaside Stopover

If you're a fan of humanity, you're a fan of Mumford & Sons and their Gentleman of the Road tour. I had the good fortune to attend the Seaside Heights "Stopover" this past weekend and while I am nowhere qualified to write a review of the show, I have to devote a post to highlighting this very special music festival...and maybe even link it to yoga while I'm at it. Mumford & Sons defines "stopover" as "a celebration of a real place, with real people. It's a bridge between the culture of a music festival and actual culture as lived by real-life people. We bring the music, the stage, the flags and the fans; everything else belongs to the town. Their energy and enthusiasm, their civic pride...their favorite local beer. We've found it to be a beautiful thing - maybe the most beautiful thing that we do."

The goals and mission of the tour itself, from the opportunities provided to young, lesser-known bands to the contribution it makes to the host city, are truly inspirational. Yoga has afforded me a keener ability to live in the moment, to truly absorb my surroundings and recognize and appreciate the gifts. That gift of inspiration through passion, creativity and generosity was plentiful throughout my weekend, and not just limited to the great music.

I was inspired on a visit to ReFind, an art studio in nearby Bay Head, NJ. Zsa Zsa Stackles opened this eclectic gem to supply local artists with opportunities to showcase their work, as well as fuel her own passion for art and its importance in society. It was a gift to see passion in action as we listened to several stories behind the artists and their amazing works in the shop (including a gorgeous charcoal nude by Zsa Zsa herself!). She uses her influence to expand the world of local artists by displaying their work, as well as the world of future generations through her classes, camps and workshops. I was grateful to encounter and notice the difference between passion and salesmanship, recognition of which led to a purchase of a super cool Melissa Hood piece now hanging happily in our family room.

I was inspired at the witness of the joy of just doing something you love. The Flaming Lips' (who have been captivating crowds for over thirty years) pleasingly and naturally bizarre performance was great example of this. A gigantic cape made of mylar balloons and crowd surfing inside a giant bubble are just two of the creative elements layered into their turn on stage. If you were lucky enough to see the show and weren't entertained, check your pulse.

My favorite M & S album is the one they recorded at the Red Rocks Ampitheatre in Colorado. I love to hear the purity in Marcus Mumford's voice without the influence of studio recording. Hearing them perform in person so far exceeded my expectations in every way, putting this show in my all-time top three. I had goosebumps from the opener "Snake Eyes," to the encore, which covered a fellow storytelling rocker, Jersey Shore icon Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City" (no doubt a nod to the host city), and included all musicians who played that day. They show the beauty in finding what moves you in life and taking hold of it.  I feel grateful to have not only been a part of something rooted in such passion and doing so much good while they're at it, but also to have the mindful awareness to recognize it. There is an anonymous quote I love, "Yoga takes you into the present moment. The only place where life exists."

If there is a GOTR Stopover near you (or even not so near), GO! Here are the "rules" before you do:

"Arrive early, stay late; Don't miss out on camping; Hear as many bands as you can; Take the party from the stage to the town; Eat the local food, drink the local drink; Say a friendly hello to new faces; Have as much fun as humanly possible."

So if the mission isn't enough to move you, luckily the music will. If you're still not convinced, at least in Seaside Heights there was a guy giving out free hugs.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Gift of Letting Go, Part Three-Competition and Judgement

I am not, by nature, a competitive person. The spirit of competition has its place and purpose, but generally speaking I have never really been driven by comparing myself to others. One of the many reasons yoga drew me in is because it places so little focus on competition; and as a result promotes a nonjudgmental atmosphere and attitude, which I am constantly striving to uphold.

In a society driven by competition, it is so comforting to have a place where I don't have to think about how I stack up against others. Most other areas of fitness or athletics are measured by score, time, rank, points, etc...when I discovered yoga, realized that it is indeed a "practice," I felt immediately at home on my mat. As a beginner, it is natural to think in comparative terms because there is nothing on which to base your experience. In time with consistent practice we learn how to abandon the motives of the ego and embrace the here and now. In "Yoga Beyond Belief," Ganga White dictates, "Yoga is a field where everyone can win, because winning is not about who does the best asana but about learning to  do the best asana for your body in each moment." (p. 59)

I encourage my students to use the mirrors, especially as a tool for correction and alignment, but NEVER as a critical tool. The same principal applies to observing other students in the room, particularly those who may be more experienced or advanced. We should look to our fellow yogis as a source of inspiration, not comparison or competition. On page 59 White adds, "Watching a more advanced student can be a source of inspiration and instruction. Practice to learn and grow, not to win or defeat."

Once we are able to let go of competition and judgement of oneself, we are able to extend that behavior outward towards others. There is not one other person who will ever inhabit your body. And your own experience is ever changing. Day to day your practice can feel and be very different. When we can accept, as students, that we are always learning and life is always changing, it becomes easier to remove the pressures of competition and judgement. In my yoga journey I have not established a fixed start or end point, nor do I think either even exists. When I begin any given practice, I know it is about being in the moment and doing the best that I can. I am grateful to have been gifted the wherewithal to take that attitude with me off the mat, removing not only the insecurity involved with comparing myself to other people, but the judgement that comes with it, both of myself and towards others.

It is highly difficult to remove the notion of competition and comparing to any activity, and yoga is no exception. But as yoga philosophy will encourage, it is less about comparing ourselves to others and more about removing the pressure that we are inferior (or superior) to others, on or off the mat. Being a good yogi isn't about having the best standing split in the room. It's about knowing that on any given day, you are doing your best with what you've been given...acknowledging the pros and cons. Some days energy and flexibility are strong...other days fatigue, soreness or injury can interfere. Again recognizing that yoga is not a linear path enables us to appreciate the many gifts yoga can provide. I'll close with another Ganga White quote, "Your practice is for you--for your growth, development, and well-being." (p. 59)

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Gift of Letting Go, Part Two-Expectations and Goal-Orientation

I expected to sweat. I had a goal to drop some lingering baby weight. Beyond that expectation and goal, when I found hot yoga I had no idea what I would come to discover on my mat...and later off of it. I released my expectations of what a yoga practice could provide me, physically and emotionally, and created space to let it come. In "Yoga Beyond Believe," Ganga White states, "Asanas are tools, used to work on our bodies, to heal or to build strength, flexibility, and endurance, much more than asanas are goals." (p. 44) As my body was discovering how to heal itself, release physical tension with my breath, my mind was following suit. Early on I found this practice of yoga had gifted me with benefits far beyond what my goals or expectations could've imagined.

Creating expectations which are a struggle to attain will be counterproductive by increasing mind/body tension and frustration, rather than enabling your practice to release it. Work within your limits and be aware that yoga isn't necessarily a linear path. Letting go of expectations in the yoga room and accepting that non-linear nature of my yoga practice allows me to honor where it takes me on any given day based on any number of circumstances. Our universe is ever-changing. Increasing flexibility in my body naturally increased the flexibility in my heart and mind, something I am grateful to for keeping me from clinging to fixed expectations or setting goals which would remove me from the joy of the present moment. Ganga adds, "Softening our goal orientation can help overcome aggressiveness and effort in yoga practice so we are more able to enjoy the journey." (p. 45)

I expected to practice a certain number of hours last week. In an effort to let go of my attachment to this number in my mind, rather than practice those maximum hours, I spent time with two friends who both needed a distraction, and a listening ear. I also led class in two very different environments, to two very different populations. In one day I led an intimate non-hot vinyasa class at the beautiful boutique gym Fuel Fitness, and later led 20 first-graders in an "animal-inspired" yoga lesson for career week in my daughter's class. Both were not only big breaks from the norm of my usual gigs, but also experiences that brought me to a different frame of mind, a heightened state of awareness. The space created by letting go of my expectations was filled with joy and gratitude. And with some luck, a new crop of little yogis was born.

Other than combining two things I'd grown to love so much, I had no specific goal when I started this blog, but I did expect to feel exposed, vulnerable. I called upon, and trusted in, all I'd learned through my yoga practice to overcome and let go of those expectations, embrace that vulnerability. I decided to put myself out there even further by participating in an Instagram yoga challenge for the first time last month (I actually did two!).  In "The Path of the Yoga Sutras," Nicolai Bachman states, "Action based on inspiration and not bound by expectation is truly free." (p. 202)

Inside of a month, my blog has served as the vehicle for expression I've been waiting for, with yoga as my perfect muse. The purity in the cathartic exercise of writing has made this a personal success already, and I've been gifted the added benefit of touching the lives of many others, with perhaps not all, but some of my words resonating. My immersion into the Instagram yoga culture with the participation in two challenges has taught me a lot about my physical practice as I'm getting the opportunity to see poses photographed, sometimes from several angles. It's reminded me that I am always learning, and that is a gift. I was also asked to join an ambassador team for an awesome female-owned and -operated company that makes some DOPE leggings. And my cup runneth over when I was selected as a winner in one of May's challenges, a lucky recipient of a beautiful handmade yoga mat bag.

Learning to let go of expectations has taught me a great deal about my life on and off the mat. Doing things for the joy of them, remaining in the present moment, will have a calming effect on you-mind, body and spirit. The deeper you dig to discard what doesn't serve you, what comes to rest in it's place may even yield unexpected rewards, pleasantly surprising you. Start with the body and as it becomes pliable, observe and embrace the pliability in the heart and soul, mind and spirit. For when all is open, free of expectation, the beauty of life is expansive and limitless.