It seems revolutionary in the yoga and wellness industry to say this, but here it goes: I officially declare that I want to be comfortable. I want to be comfortable in body (self/community), mind, and heart.
A hundred times a day
I remind myself
that my inner and outer life
depend on the labors of other people
living and dead,
and that I must exert myself
in order to give
in the full measure I have received
and am still giving.
~ Deborah Adele, The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice
I drop it all the time. Sometimes it’s a deflection. Sometimes it means I don’t have all the words together to describe how I really feel. Sometimes it’s just the easiest thing to say.
The f-word I’m talking about? It’s “fine” and I use it like this:
Person: How are you?
Me: I’m fine. (translations: I’m keeping it together, I could be better, I’m functioning and really need a nap, I need space.)
Can you relate?
There are lessons in the river - I think of this since Sacramento is at the confluence of two rivers. We show our children the smooth, glistening surfaces of the rivers and warn them to be wary of the depths. It may look peaceful on the surface, but there are strong currents underneath. Each year people are swept away by the current and caught in snags. Each year, the river takes lives as bodies become tangled up in branches and detritus that lie underneath the smooth surface of our rivers.
What does this have to do with the f-word?
Saying “fine” just keeps us moving, showing only the smooth, glistening surface without acknowledging the currents and snags that need acknowledgement and untangling. Without opportunity to rest and reset, without safety to ask and receive help, the snags just get bigger and bigger.
We run the risk of drowning in ourselves. We run the risk of snagging our unsuspecting loved ones and acquaintances. We run the risk of staying on the surface, a beautiful yet false smoothness.
I don’t know about you, but I want to be better than fine. I don’t want to walk through life just being okay or just using the f-word. I want to be well. I want to honestly say, “I’m doing well,” with a feeling of wellness in my heart and bones.
When I find myself overwhelmed, what I often need is quiet time to simply untangle my thoughts and emotions. It is hard to find the space and permission to simply check in, slow down, and untangle myself. This has always been why I go to yoga and guides the way I teach.
This leads me to the question:
Does my wellness start and end with me?
No. Absolutely not. One of the foundational teachings of yoga from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, is Asteya, non-stealing. Simply focusing on individual feel-goodness is a type of stealing. It is a stealing from our community and, as a result, ourselves.
We are not truly well if our standard of living is detrimental to our community.
Like it or not, we are part of a vast ecosystem on a biological level as well as a social, ancestral level. Our individual wellness is directly tied to the wellness of our community and world.
Though we may not be responsible for the actions of our ancestors, we are responsible for using our positions and opportunities to untangle the messes that have been made and the harm that has been inflicted. We are responsible for continuing work that is healing and repairing harm that has been inflicted. Every moment, we are called to be aware of privilege and power dynamics, it calls us to be mindful of the impacts of our decisions and actions.
Consider this - if our neighbors do not have the same access to wellness as we do in things as basic as clean drinking water, public safety, education, fresh food, access to health care, isn’t it stealing to not acknowledge and act in ways to lift one another up?
Is it enough for this world to be fine?
What currents are flowing under the glistening, smooth surface?
What snags need untangling?
What can we do together to be well, to be a thriving vibrant community?
The world needs you well. The world needs us all to be well.
When we are well as an individual, we are grounded and clear. We can respond rather than react. To heal ourselves and our world, we need clear responses to challenges and clear commitment to continued healing. We must take care of ourselves so we may take care of others, be of service, in ways that challenge us without depleting us.
So take care of yourself. Find the time and space to untangle your thoughts and feelings. Take care of your body. Be well, not just fine, and be of service to our community.
May our efforts and commitment to wellness help end suffering for ourselves and our community.
Do you know that you are hardwired to respond to, react to, and process stress?
Yes, process stress.
It is entirely possible to not be stressed-out all the time.
Stress is not a competitive sport
Stress is an inevitable part of life. How we experience and mindfully work with stress impacts everything from our physical health to our relationships. We are living in a culture that seems to value being stressed - a glorification of busy, an overemphasis on effort. Those who are the busiest tend to be valued as those who are the most important - they must be important if there is so much to do! We are often overworked, overstimulated, and still thinking we need to do more.
The result of all of this? Our nervous systems are involuntarily working overtime to help us recover.
Addiction to stress is unhealthy and unsustainable
I know this intimately. I was addicted to stress for years, caught up in a whirl of constant busy-ness. I found validation in always having a million things to do and having two million things unfinished. I dealt with this stress in unhealthy ways. I would forget to eat and lose too much weight. I would drink too much coffee in the morning and too much alcohol at night. My sleep schedule was a disaster. There were times my hair fell out, my skin broke out in hives, my stomach cramped, and my head ached.
I did not know how to make the connection between the symptoms of constant stress and the simple fact that I was not healthily processing stress.
Then I found yoga. I cleaned up my act. I started saying no more often. I started sleeping through the night. I started finding a balance between stress and relaxation.
I am by no means always healthily processing my stress (I still wake up at 3 a.m. sometimes in an irrational panic), but yoga has given me a set of tools to help me set reset. I can now notice the times that I need a break. Instead of fighting the messengers of anxiety, anger, and discomfort, I can start to listen and respond.
I am better equipped to take care of myself and others.
Yoga is, afterall, a series of practices to help us embody a balance of ease and effort.
It’s all a balancing act
The human body is literally wired to respond to stress and recover in relaxation. It’s called the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and it is always on alert and working. Comprised primarily of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, the ANS connects the brain and body - heart, guts, muscles, etc. - to facilitate involuntary physical responses to stress.
The sympathetic nervous system responds to stress in a number of ways. It can trigger a complex release of hormones, can change your blood pressure, and can even change the dilation of your eyes. It is our primal survival response, often expressed as:
- Fight When you snap into action, like immediately calling 911 or using a fire extinguisher when there is a fire.
- Flight When you flee the scene, like running from an armed gunman or avoiding a conversation.
- Freeze Think of the deer in the headlights. In extreme situations, you may be literally immobilized by fear. Usually, at least in my world, it can be mindlessly stress-eating chips instead of doing something.
- Tend-and-Befriend Due to a big shot of oxytocin (the hormone), you gather and watch over those around you.
The parasympathetic nervous system is in place to assure body that the stress is over. When the parasympathetic nervous system is working, our body regulates (hormone levels normalize, heart rate drops, breath becomes fuller) and we feel safe. Deep breaths, sighs, and yawns are tell-tale signs of the parasympathetic nervous system trying to set us straight. In extreme cases, the whole body can start shaking uncontrollably to try to settle the nerves.
Unfortunately, unless we specifically make space for it, our parasympathetic nervous system is rarely given the opportunity to do its job. In addition to the glorification of busy, modern life is full of an unprecedented amount of stimuli - background music, news alerts on our smartphones, screens, artificial lighting, and more - that have our bodies involuntarily on alert. (Even some of the ways we often choose to "unwind" can contribute to stress - sitting in front of the television, checking in on social media, and drinking alcohol, to name a few!)
To process stress, we have to make conscious decisions to unplug and let ourselves rest.
It's a practice.....like a yoga practice.
When was the last time you let yourself be quiet?
One of the things I love most about teaching yoga is being able to hold space for the nervous system to reset. I truly feel that I am serving my community when I am teaching a class that is slow, intentional, with minimal(ist) music, and in natural light. It is why I often open the invitation to take rest for the duration of class and assure those attending Yoga Nidra that it is okay to fall asleep. If you fall asleep it just means your really needed to rest.
Yoga teaching Insight:
You know how great you feel after yoga class? We plan it before you even put down your mat. The right balance of conscious breath, movement, and rest in a safe space sends a message to your ANS that all is well, come out to rest and refresh.
Convinced that our modern life can be a bit imbalanced? What do we do about it?
We need more quiet, mindful spaces.
We need kid-friendly spaces that are not all about being loud and overstimulating.
We need a quiet revolution.
We need to ease up on ourselves.
We need to ease up on others....more on that in the next post.
For now, put away the computer, put the phone on “Do Not Disturb”, and have some deep breaths. Maybe try turning off the overhead lights more often and consider ways you can quiet the background noise of your environment.
Better yet, head to a yoga class.
Interested in this sort of thing? Here are some books you might enjoy:
Yoga Nidra for Complete Relaxation and Stress Relief by Julie Lusk
Relax and Renew by Judith Hanson Lasater
Yoga is a conversation with body, mind, and spirit. Listen carefully and equally to the agreements, gaps in reasoning, silent pauses, and outright disagreements in this conversation. Let assumptions and questions ignite a passion to research and explore while remaining open to a new path that may unexpectedly appear.
Simultaneous separation & embodiment
Yoga has become my discipline of choice along this path of life. It has been an avenue of exploration and creative expression. Yoga is a practice of embodiment that has shown me how to be very present to the shifts of body, mind, and spirit.
Having two children has changed my body and life. In terms of life, one of the key shifts has been a change in engagement with community. Though a majority of yoga practitioners are women, yoga studios do not offer childcare. To be honest, babysitters make more watching my kids than I do teaching my classes. A majority of teacher training programs do not inform teachers how to address pregnant and postpartum bodies. As a result, I have developed a home practice and relatively small teaching schedule. I have felt very separated, at times, from our local yoga community where I once felt so immersed and connected.
What has happened, in this simultaneous separation from community and increased personal embodiment, is a peeling away of what does not serve. It has shown external attachments masked in spiritual-looking accoutrements. It has been a painful and relieving process of satya (truth and integrity). I have realized my devotion to the craft of teaching. I have become deeply inspired by developing a practice that, rooted in tradition, continues to branch and flower thanks to the fertile ground of modern science, intuition, experience, poetry, and all the amazing information we have access to in this modern era.
Yoga as a guide
Yoga is a key part of an overall wellness plan, a guide on the path to simply being well. An example from my experience: I have hip pain and have never had much external rotation. If I were to put myself in lotus pose on the regular, I would likely need a new left hip. This does not mean I have deep emotional problems (you know, because some guruji once said “Hips are where we hold emotions”) and it does not mean I need more pigeon pose or need to push my body to what someone has diagrammed as what a pose should look like. No, it means that my path to wellness includes physical therapy, strength training, and help from body rolling. It means sitting on a cushions in sukhasana instead of lotus. Following this path to wellness gives me the opportunity to pick up experience, insights, and knowledge from other branches of physical engagement and weave them into the classes I craft. (Yoga with Balls, Balls Out Yoga….I’m sure I’m onto something that could be really trendy here.)
Permission to be free
I share my personal experience here to give you permission to be curious and explore. Be free to find freedom. Do not be tethered by the dogma of a teacher or tradition. Do not feel limited by the number of “followers” you have on social media or how many people you know at the studio. If you feel limited by ability, community, or opportunity, know that each and every one of us has a little patch of creative space. Maybe it is five minutes, maybe it is five hours. Maybe it is in a studio, maybe it is in your imagination for now. Just know that you do have creative space and in your space, “you have a right to your own particular variety of fulfillment and joy.”
P.S. Are you following the conversation on the Yogaland podcast? There is an incredibly honest, informed conversation going on about how yoga can evolve from an ancient practice to a modern practice. I am deeply grateful for Andrea Ferretti’s work - we need these conversations in the yoga community. If you’re not listening, get on over to iTunes and jump in the conversation.
My prayers are simple:
Fill me and surround me with love.
I often do not know what to say in prayer. When I was a kid, it was just me chatting away to God. I eventually stopped talking. Now, prayer is a practice of intimate listening, of being comforted by and surrendering to Silence.
Dissolving into Silence.
In May 2016, I was asked, “If you could do one big thing and know you would not fail, what would it be?”
I had no idea.
I heard nothing but Silence.
I felt nothing but Silence.
Here I was, the yoga teacher, being asked one of the most clichéd questions ever to make the rounds of hippydom. Isn’t everyone supposed to just have an answer ready along with a vision board, a full journal, a set of crystals charging on a sacred cloth infused with essential oils, and big declarations of manifesting this and manifesting that?
I simply did not have an answer. I am not sure if I have an answer now, to tell the truth.
Not having an answer is a good thing for me. Having that Silence, instead, is best because I have spent too much of this lifetime chasing “goals” in ways that, more often than not, brought disappointment. Over and over again, I set unrealistic expectations and set the rigid goals I thought I was supposed to have. Each time disappointment paid a visit, I was utterly heartbroken.
The origin story of each disappointment is rooted in my insecurities. The pushing of goals and unrealistic expectations has been a way for me to succumb to my fears of being really seen and actually taking up space. Perhaps this is rooted in hearing my whole life that I am too emotional, intense, bossy, and all the things thinking, feeling women hear along a career path.
In that moment of being asked, I had a brief moment of panic - that panic that you feel in your throat. Rather than fight it, I met that panic and realized it was more about being seen as someone without a vision rather than just someone who has yet to share her answer.
I realize it is time to listen and trust.
It’s time to listen and just be me.
Really, just be me.
I am being held by Silence. In yoga, this is ishvara pranidhana, divine surrender.
What would I do if I could never fail? I think I’m starting to do it* now.
I’ve been on such a winding path, the whole idea of failure seems a little less frightening than it once had, so maybe that question just does not seem so big to me right now.
I share this in case there are others out there who think everyone else has it all figured out. It can seem like that in the yoga and wellness industry sometimes. I share this to give all permission to not have the vision board finished, the business plan done, and to not be dropping the word “manifest” into every conversation.
Insecurities, thank you for showing me my fears.
Fears, thank you for showing me my potential.
Silence, thank you for holding me as I dissolve.
Fill me and surround me with love.
*Okay, I’ll admit it - whatever it is, there will be travel involved. Just putting it out there, my passport is always ready.