Awareness is good. Tools to do something about it is life changing.

Sylvia Colle, 1954 oil-on-canvas.  Balthus (French 1908-2001), collection of the St. Louis Art Museum

Balthus (French 1908-2001). “Sylvia Colle”, 1954 oil-on-canvas. , collection of the St. Louis Art Museum 

Differentiation: The ability to be in emotional contact with others yet still autonomous in one’s emotional functioning.*

I wish that when I was a kid—a ‘sensitive, moody, emotional’ kid, someone had talked to me about this idea of differentiation. I think it would have been so helpful to know that some people can be especially affected by the moods and energy of other people and that sensitive people can learn healthy ways to hold onto themselves during those interactions.

Having the language to describe something like this along with the awareness of what happens is usfeul. Having practices that help to establish one’s emotional autonomy is life changing. It’s empowering. Practice is where we develop tools to use in all sorts of challenging moments that help regognize when we are getting pulled in a difficult direction and can do something about it. Regular practice can also influence and change what we believe to be our relationship to ourself and to others. We can go from distrust or fear in these relationships to something more secure and even joyful. This pursuit has been central to the work I’ve been doing through yoga.

When I began, I participated in group yoga classes. These experiences laid the groundwork for this work. The biggest change came with individualized practice and a relationship with my yoga mentor. Regular individual practice, with the guide of a yoga teacher, provides the method and the support for personal growth. The practices and philosophy of yoga can take us a very long way toward becoming the kind of person each of us wants to be.

If you’d like to know more, contact me. I offer a 20-min call to anyone who has questions about individual vs. group yoga or wonders if it’s the right time to begin a guided personal practice.

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*I came across this definition in the book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Close Encounters with Addiction by Gabor Mate. It’s an excellent book, though it’s not an easy one. There are stories of people who have suffered terrible tragedy and trauma and whose addictions have cost them greatly. Reading this has also provided plenty of opportunities to look at my own addictive behaviors (not easy either). Mate paints a very thorough picture of the different biological and psychosocial aspects of addiction and gives us hope for those who want to recover and heal. The book has stirred a lot in me. I highly recommend it.

 

Unconditional Positive Regard

carlrogers

 

Last week, I blogged about a really special kind of love and appreciation that isn’t tied to things that I do or say. It isn’t given on the condition that I’m in a good mood or recently showered or productive. It just is. I’ve been thinking a lot about this – how sweet unconditional love and acceptance is and how important it is for healing and change. I’ve also been wondering how to get there. How do I offer this love to myself and to others even when someone is being shitty and difficult? How do I do this for myself when I have a really strong samskara or habit of seeing myself through a different lens? How do I hold onto this kind of unconditional acceptance when a situation feels incredibly dark? All this has been swimming inside of me and then I came across something so relevant in the book I’m reading! The Humanistic American psychologist, Carl Rogers (1902-1987), believed that when we are accepted and appreciated for what we are rather than what we do or say, then we are more able to take risks, accept occasional failure, and be open with people. He calls this Unconditional positive regard. That’s it! That’s another, less sappy way, of talking about accepting ourself and others!!! Rogers says our sense of self-worth is related to receiving this kind of acceptance. Self-worth is key to facing challenges and achieving goals and it’s this special combo that allows us to become who we are meant to be. Unconditional positive regard is a key component of self-actualization. Yoga agrees.

Yoga says the ability to hold unconditional positive regard for others is a question of identity. If we identify ourselves and others as a beings that are, in essence, full of light, then all the other stuff that we do, think, feel, and say is something else. It is behavior, but not who we are. It’s thinking, but we aren’t our thoughts. It’s a feeling, and feelings change. When we have the perspective that each person is good, wise, and light-filled, even when their behavior sucks, we can connect to that.  From this place, the efforts we make to improve ourselves become a way of removing the obstacles to clear perception. It isn’t about how horrible we are as a person, but about letting go or changing the things that are keeping us from perceiving or knowing the light within. Cultivating a perspective that lets us get to know this light inside, puruṣa, can make it easier to hold this unconditional positive regard for our self and each other.

Am I doing the things I need to do to be a good person?

je-8888

self-acceptance stud-muffin who also sings karaoke.

I was driving to work today and I was thinking about waking up with my husband, Dave, and the class I was about to teach, and my car on the road, and the big white fluffy clouds in the very blue sky, when I caught a glimpse of this unpleasant story that was running in my head. It was going on in the background, mostly undetected, until I had this small, bad feeling come up. Kind of like tuning the radio to get better reception, I tuned into to this stream of thoughts. As the static cleared, I could feel what was happening just under the surface of my conscious thought, “Sometimes I feel like I’m not doing the things I need to do to be a good person.” I was worried because I didn’t reply to a student about scheduling and I failed to complete some paperwork for my yoga therapy program that I really wanted to finish. I didn’t feel bad and think, “I’ll take care of these things this afternoon,” I felt bad about myself. I realized, When I don’t accomplish certain things, then I can start to feel low. A little less worthy.  A little less loveable. 

Then I thought about Dave. Being with him is a good way to get some self-acceptance beamed right through me. I can sit around all day and not accomplish any tasks or projects, and Dave doesn’t give off any hint that my lack of productivity makes me a less valuable part of the family. If I suggest that I’m having a hard time accepting how little I got done, he might point out a few simple things that I did or comment that resting is good and we all need it. There are days when I accomplish a ton of stuff. On those days, Dave sincerely appreciates what I do, but he doesn’t love me more because of it. I get the feeling that he just loves me. Sick or well. Happy or Sad. Productive or not. He’s glad I’m on the planet.

It’s a very special gift to be on the receiving end of this kind of love.

I turned into the parking lot and the icky feeling I had earlier was gone. In its place was relief: I don’t have to work so hard at justifying my place on the planet. Openness: Neither does anyone else. And beneath it all, I was aware of another story playing through the brain-frequency of radio waves: Nobody has to change. There isn’t anything wrong with who we are. There isn’t anything that we must do to be worthy of love. We are all good. We are all lovable. We are all worthy. 

 

 

The help of a good teacher

Alexander Technique work at the Ojai Women's Retreat.

Itsuko and Carol offer hands on help with Alexander Technique at the Ojai Women’s Retreat 2016.

I have a pretty good sense of what is going on in my body and I think a lot about what is happening in my spine, so it’s so wonderful when someone can help me to see or understand something that I haven’t felt before. This happened during my retreat experience in Ojai, California last week.

The retreat was interdisciplinary. I taught a daily yoga practice and yoga sūtras and Carol, my wonderful teaching colleague, presented the parts of the workshop on Āyurveda and the Alexander Technique. I didn’t have any experience or expectations of the Alexander Technique, though I knew it had something to do with improving posture and letting go of tension in the body. Carol did a great job introducing the technique and giving us ways to practice the principles of the method. We had language to help us remember and stay with the main concepts, and with the help of another wonderful AT teacher, we each received some skillful and gentle hands on work.

It was during this part of the classes that I had a remarkable experience. Itsuko worked with me and as she gently slid her open hand across my lower back, it was able to let go a little bit. It felt easier and lighter there. Her soft and skillful touch at the back of my neck let me feel that I could move my head forward and up and let go of some of the holding and tension there. I could sense the length come. And then her hand went toward my mid-back. She said something like, “you don’t have to work so much here” and I felt, for the first time, the reaching and straining that was coming from that place. I made some subtle adjustments and noticed the back of my spine round slightly toward her hand. This was fine and pleasant. Something also happened in the front of my spine. In a place tucked in behind organs and protected by the lower ribs I began to release. But this time I didn’t feel ease. I had the ache of letting go of something that I’ve been gripping for decades and whatever was being held in started to spread. I imagined a jar that’s been sitting at the very darkest spot under the sink catching years worth of drips from a very slow leak… I had knocked it over and it was spilling into me. I felt relief, but I also felt some sadness and confusion. I had to sit still for a few minutes and notice that.

There’s so much we can learn with the help of books, stories, self-observation and reflection. It is a valuable and essential part of the work that we do. But having the support and guidance of a knowledgeable and attune teacher is also very important – even essential. There are things that we can’t see about ourselves because we’ve been with them for so long that they no longer operate at a conscious level. Kind of like the joke where one fish asks his fish friend, “how’s the water?” The other fish says, “what the heck is water?” The help of a teacher or someone who can help us to see our own structures or patterns in a kind and truthful way is an invaluable part of our learning and growth. I’m greatful for Carol and Itusuko for being those teachers for me this week.

 

The air we breathe

Nora in a pink wig


On Saturday morning, I was sitting for my morning practice. Nora was up early and she came over to me wearing a bright pink wig and a belted tunic to announce that she was going outside. She walked to the door and as soon as she opened it, this damp, warm, earthy air pushed its way into the room and enveloped me. With my eyes closed, I could almost see this blanket of air moving in. This outside air was such a contrast to the cool, dry, climate controlled stuff I had been in. It brought with it all the wonderful smells that come after a rain and with the morning. I widened my nostrils to breathe it in and softened to better feel it on my skin. I was sad that it only lasted a few breaths. But I reflected on what was really gone — the delicious smells and the feeling of the moisture and the tangibility of the air. But, of course, the actual life-sustaining part still surrounded me and was in me. The air wasn’t gone, but my appreciation and awareness of it had changed.

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RAGA: The Kleśa that has us going back for more

I'm now enjoying chai in the mornings...

I’m now enjoying chai in the mornings…

Coffee is one of my favorite things but when I drink it, over time it starts to have this cumulative effect of gradually increasing my anxiety. I’ve tried to will this side-effect away, to ignore it, or to pretend that it isn’t all that bad, but after a few months steady coffee intake, the anxiety reaches a point where I can no longer deny the problems it causes me and I resolve to quit. Again.

The kleśas are five ‘afflictions’ or ways that our perception can cause us problems. In a nutshell? We suffer because we don’t see things as they are but instead, misperceive. This isn’t ignorance. If I’m unsure what time the appointment is, then I’ll open up the calendar and see that it is scheduled for 10:00am. But if I know that the appointment is at 1:00, then I leave the house at 12:15 and drive to the office. I miss the appointment because of my avidyā, misperception. We knew incorrectly. Because we believe that the way we see it is the right way, we take action based on that misperception. This causes us all sorts of problems.

Patañjali describes particular ways in which we misperceive.

  • We misidentify, confusing what is happening in the mind.  We say, “I am angry.”  “I am sad” etc.  We think we are these emotions and if we act from this place, this is Asmitā.  It would be better expressed if we said, I feel angry or I feel sad, giving space to observe the experience rather than identify with it. (*Edited 8/28/16 see below)
  • We have a positive or pleasant experience and want to repeat that experience of pleasure so we go after it even if it may no longer be appropriate or helpful. I think of this as also misidentifying what it is that will be truly satisfying. Raga!!!!
  • We have an unpleasant or negative experience so we avoid the thing that we associate with the problem. Dveṣa
  • Fear makes us see things in ways that may not be accurate or correct. We all know that when we are afraid, many things can seem threatening or dangerous even when they may not be. Abhiniveśā.

Why do I struggle with coffee, so? .

Patañjali nails it with raga. When I’m out of balance, underslept, or over-committed, then the attraction to the morning bev can overwhelm the more practical voice in my head. “I waaaaant it” is the beginning of the story I start to tell myself. “I like it. I like the routine. I like the little jolt and I want to repeat it every morning of every day. Why not? My parents drink coffee. My husband drinks coffee. It’s for sale everywhere.“

This is how I’ve known it to start. It seems good at first, but inevitably, unpleasant effects show themselves. If we see a kleśa at the foundation of any action, Patañjali advises that we take action early when they are small. If we don’t, the suffering may eventually be great enough, and provides motivation to change.

 

** read more about the Kleśas in the second chapter of the yoga Sutras or join us NEXT WEEK in Ojai, CA for our women’s retreat and get in on some great discussions on how this applies to daily living. http://handson-retreats.com!

Edit 8/28/16: When I originally published this post, I confused asmita and moha YS.II.32 “We think we are “wife” or “mother” or “yoga teacher” but then something changes and that role is no more or needs to adapt in some way and this can be very painful.” This is moha.  Asmita is something that happens with how we are thinking… confusion in the mind with how we are perceiving. (see above)

I’ve got that burnin’ fire in me

torch flame

When we have a lot of drive, that’s often described as ‘fire’. I know the feeling. There are times when I’ll have a really strong desire to get something done or to find out more or to talk to a particular friend. It’s a burning desire or a consuming thought. The fire metaphors are a-plenty.

This summer in Austin has been oppressively hot. Going outside after 10am is unpleasant, and by 1 in the afternoon, torture. My system might have spontaneously combusted if I generated any more heat so instead my internal fire just gave up. In the face of the summer heat I’ve been lethargic and unmotivated. It’s difficult to call my friends back or accomplish extra tasks. It’s not my favorite way to be, but the funny thing about this state is how the unpleasant thing is also the thing that makes it difficult to change. Without drive, energy, or motivation it’s hard to change the fact that you don’t have drive, energy or motivation.

Wildfires are consuming parts of California. When it’s really windy, that wind moves and fuels the fire, making it hard to contain. This relationship between air and fire also happens in my internal system. I can feel that my lack of focus and the tendency for my attention to jump from one thing to another is fueling this heat in my system.

You’ve probably heard about the terrible flooding in Louisiana.  Austin is on the edge of that storm and we’ve gotten a lot of rain here over the last week. It has cooled us off and brought some much needed water to our environment, though I think about the people who were flooded out of their homes at the same time that I am grateful for the water here.

With the change in weather, I’m starting to feel like my old self. Not totally, but enough that I can commit to a few steps to manage the heat in my system so that element, along with the others, are more in balance. I like to remind myself that little manageable steps lead to big change over time.

 

One simple thing to help manage fire:

Pitta balancing TEA

¼ tsp Cumin seeds

¼ tsp Coriander seeds

¼ tsp Fennel Seeds

place seeds at bottom of cup or in a tea ball

  • pour boiling water over seeds
  • let steep
  • remove seeds and let tea cool
  • enjoy.

 

Sending love and support to those in CA and LA.  xo

 

Thank you, Mr. TKV Desikachar

tkv-desikachar-1938-2016-500x333

Some of the things that have the most fascination for me are things that can not possibly be grasped in one lifetime. I feel that way about ceramics. During my undergrad I had a teacher, Professor Veerkamp, who was not only a great teacher, but totally engaged with clay and the creative process. With thanks to him, I went on to spend 10 years as a ceramic artist and teacher. In that time, I became aware of the multitude of elements when working with clay. I knew early on that I’d never exhaust the creative possibilities or test all the variables. I could make the same form 100 times and it wouldn’t be the same because I’d change along the way.

I feel this way about yoga. I started coming for the physical practice, but as that started to work on me I opened to learning more. I read lots of books and went to lots of classes, but it wasn’t until I met my teacher, Chase Bossart, and through him came to know the work of his teacher Mr. TKV Desikachar, that this learning started to work on me and my relationships. I can see that the well from which these teachings come and the possibilities of personal transformation are profound that I’m not even close to exhausting the possibilities of all there is to learn. The things I learned years ago keep coming back around in more meaningful ways. I’m so grateful to the long tradition of practitioners and teachers who help to make this so meaningful to me.

Five essential elements needed to make something wonderful manifest in your life

IMG_8632

There’s a creation story  that comes from the Samkhya philosophy – one that describes how the material elements came to be. This story informs both Yoga and Āyurveda. The simple version goes something like this:

First there was unified consciousness, puruṣa.

From the cosmic vibration oṁ came ETHER or SPACE, the background or void in which other things could exist.

The ether began to move and there was AIR.

As the air moved and created friction, there was light and FIRE.

Fire transformed and liquefied what was there and then there was WATER.

Particles of water became solid. That was EARTH.

The story is Āyurveda’s foundation for many of its ideas about how we are in the world. It is from this story that we can begin to understand the doṣas (vāta, pitta, kapha) and why something we eat or the season of the year has an effect on how we feel and what kinds of problems or emotions come to the forefront of our experience. But the thing that strikes me today is the possibility that this is not only a story of the material and manifest world at the beginning of time, or even how the world around us can affect us. This is a story that describes how each of us can create and make something manifest in our lives now.

So here it is…

Five essential elements needed to make something wonderful manifest in your life:

  1. We need space. If our days, minds, or hearts are completely full, there won’t be the necessary space to start something new. If I am convinced that my partner is totally wrong, and there’s no space in my heart and mind to hold the possibility that he could be right in some way, then it’s not going to be productive. If I want to begin a daily yoga practice, but my schedule is packed, then it’s not going to happen. So first, we need space.
  1. Once we have the space, we take action. The way in which we feel the air or notice it’s presence in the world is when it moves and we feel it across our skin or we see it blow the leaves in the tree. Movement in some direction is required in order to get to the next step. Even if the first attempts aren’t in the perfect direction, you’ll find it out by trying and sticking with it.
  1. From movement comes fire: light of knowing and the process of transformation. Fire is represented in our world with the sun, which gives us light and makes it possible to see.  We can also think of the campfire, which transforms the logs into fuel and leaves them different then they were before. Transformation is possible because of the element of fire.
  1. From this transformation comes a flow. Water carries something from one place to another. Think of the fluids circulating in the body or the movement of the waves in the ocean. Think of the minerals that build up around the kitchen faucet and become hard and solid. The solid stuff is carried in the water.
  1. When something is in us, and the thing we desire is part of us and of our lives, then this is earth. It’s solid. It has some weight. It’s the minerals depositing themselves inside of us becoming our new habit, our new way of talking to our partner, our better way of caring for ourselves.

Part of the richness of this creation story is the map it lays out for bringing something wonderful into our lives. Even though this is presented as a list of one through five, what we really should have is 1a. 1b. 1c. etc, because all the elements, all the things we need in order for something to come to be in our lives, comes from space/ether. Space moves and there’s air. Air, which is made up of ether, is the fire. The fire becomes the water. The water becomes the earth, but it is all made up of the #1 essential element: space!  Space is where it all begins.

 

 

It’s not too late to join us for the Ojai Women’s Retreat. http://handson-retreats.com

If you’ve been considering it, now’s the time! Give yourself the time and the space to create something new in your life.

Conversion

Willie

On Sunday mornings, our local radio show has a great gospel music hour. The host plays an hour of really moving hymns, Willie or Dolly singing spirituals or some old recordings on a scratchy record player. I’m always happy when I’m in the car at the right time to catch a few songs.

This Sunday, I heard the song, “I saw the light” and it made me think about conversion and about the moment when something is clear – something seems possible that didn’t before or something changes and you can’t (or really don’t want to) go back from this light-filled peace and knowing. You want to eat well, you want to change the way you relate to your partner, you want peace all the time. You want the perks of conversion.

I saw the light, I saw the light

No more darkness, no more night

Now I’m so happy no sorrow in sight

Praise the Lord I saw the light

This song might give the impression that once converted, once you see the light, then that’s it. The event is done and then there’s no more darkness, no sorrow in sight and perhaps at some level this is true. Maybe, with a spiritual conversion, you can feel held by a higher power in a way you didn’t before and that brings great comfort and does, indeed, relieve some existential darkness. But that’s not really all that’s required.

If your conversion is of the ‘healthy eating’ variety, then true conversion, real life change, would come from the day to day eating choices that you make. You might see that eating cheetos and icecream in front of the tv every night is having a negative impact on your life. You might see the light, but if you don’t implement the change, then there will still be sorrow and darkness in the form of declining mental and physical health.

If I realize that the relationship I’m in isn’t good for me and have this light of knowing but I don’t take steps to change the problematic stuff in the relationship, then the knowing doesn’t lead to the end of that particular source of sorrow either.

I fully believe that we can lessen our suffering and that of others. It can be born of our own choices and actions and it can come through grace. I’ve seen it happen in my life. But this idea that we can have an experience, even one that truly changes how we behave and how we see, and then there’s no more night ever, is misleading.

At the end of the day, there’s still night. We need it. We need the time to rest and digest and to experience the other stuff that happens in those dark quiet hours. Bats, opossums and many other phylum of creatures do their best work at night. If we try to convince ourselves that it no longer exists, there will be some serious cognitive dissonance.

Maybe seeing the light means that we see more clearly how things are. We see that darkness comes at the end of the day, and we accept it for what it is. We know that some suffering is a part of human experience and rather than pretending it should no longer exist, we approach it with deference. We are kind to ourselves when we feel sorrow and support others when they are going through dark days. Instead of continuing to exist in this dual-idea of light or dark, we can relate to the darkness and through this, we really do see the light.