Yoga

Putting A Lid On My Monkey Barrel

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Bowls so full they almost look solid

(Snapped this photo quickly on my way out of my first Buddhist meditation class tonight. It’s not an impressive photo or anything, but I was drawn to these glass offering bowls from the moment I saw them. How did they fill them so precisely? They remind me a bit of the offering candles in the Catholic church we attended while I was growing up. I’m not sure if the intentions are the same behind both, but I find it intriguing where different traditions intersect.)

The idea of physically attending meditation classes, rather than attempting to learn meditation solely through an iPhone app I bought, came to me through my incredible drum instructor, who also happens to be a Buddhist monk. He is a calm, centered person who listens intently, thinks before he speaks, and is a perfect antidote to my nervous personality. He has talked to me about how mindfulness can help me get into a better mental state for my drumming, and I certainly could use any help I can get. But, beyond that, I noticed recently that I have been letting my mind run away with me too often. It’s embarrassing what the lawless monkeys in my head will get into if I leave them unattended.

Before Christmas, I was speaking with my father about world religion and he said, “Buddha is good for personal improvement, but I don’t need it.” While I appreciate his self-assurance about not needing help with personal improvement, I don’t have that same certitude. I openly admit that my head is a mess in need of a maid. If I want to overcome negativity and increase happiness, if I want to foster the mental fortitude for writing a book, then I need to rein in those damn monkeys and harness their energy for later use. Given how active they’ve been lately, this may prove a harder task than I imagined. And given that I was also born in the Year of the Monkey, perhaps I was doomed from the start?

Still, hope springs eternal so Steve and I drove to the Kadampa Meditation Center downtown where tonight’s theme at the beginner’s class was New Year, New You. Ruth first spoke a bit about New Year’s Resolutions and how people (myself included) think that by changing external things in our lives, like getting a new job, finding a significant other, or getting fit, for example, we will find happiness. She then burst our bubble by telling us something we probably already knew…happiness only comes from within. So, all our work running around trying to establish new habits or make changes to create a better sense of self are more or less worthless if we don’t change our minds at the same time. We can create the illusion of happiness externally but, the minute something derails, our minds will still freak out and remind us we aren’t really happy after all.

After speaking to us for a while about meditations and Buddhist teachings, she guided us through a short meditation. I have meditated before, mostly for short periods of time, and I’ve some experience with conscious breathing courtesy of yoga practice, so I didn’t find the exercise altogether impossible. I was able to redirect the monkeys that began jumping around when my legs got twitchy and even shut up the ones that started chattering when my phone vibrated in my bag courtesy of an unexpected, ill-timed Facetime call from my sister, although Steve did mention he could hear my yoga breathing get louder during that episode. Hey…wait a minute. He shouldn’t have been focusing on my breathing. He was supposed to be paying attention to his own breath and keeping his mind on his meditation. Hmmmmm….guess it’s a good thing we both attended this class.

Before we left, I took a moment to notice where my mind was. I felt relaxed, focused, and confident, which is the way I usually feel after a yoga class. I thoroughly enjoyed my evening and learned a thing or two as well. I’m ready to train my mind not to fly off the handle or to become overwhelmed by negative thoughts. I think I’ve got the timing right on this journey too. If the current media reporting is any indication, this country is on the precipice of major upheaval. I’d best begin taking lots of meditation classes and getting a lid on my monkeys. 2017 may be a bumpy ride.

Zen and the Art of Bunniness

In the Galapagos, Luke and a Nazca booby enter into each other's inherent bunniness.

In the Galapagos, Luke and a Nazca booby take a moment to appreciate each others’ unique and meaningful existence.

Like many people these days, I practice yoga. My journey began a little over four years ago and, even in the times that I don’t practice regularly, I find it is always with me. Yoga is a hard thing to explain to those who haven’t yet experienced it. Before I practiced, people who knew me well would tell me that I needed it. I resented that statement, but mostly I resembled it. I moved from one thing to the next without stopping to be present in my own life. I didn’t know how to sit in stillness or look around in awareness. A hamster on a perpetual wheel, I rarely paused to notice or enjoy anything. I was too busy looking ahead to see the little moments slipping by in my peripheral vision.

In vinyasa yoga, you flow through the different postures syncing one breath to one movement in a moving meditation. You breathe in to settle into one pose and breathe out to transition into another, consciously aware of each inhalation and exhalation. So when I found this quote in my Bunny Buddhism book, I knew exactly what it was for. It is a mantra for meditation.

Breathing in, I know I am a bunny. Breathing out, I know a bunny is all I have to be.

In my late thirties, I was somewhat depressed. Not in that can’t-get-out-of-bed-and-need-Zoloft way, but in the way that I was unhappy without being awake enough to realize it. I had young children who had boundless energy and myriad personal struggles and I didn’t have a clue how to help them settle and grow. I was continually exhausted, surviving on caffeine and mindless, reality television. I was stalled out. When my early forties hit, midlife began urging me to shake off my slump and make something out of my life. This was both a good thing (because I began to wake up and seek out life-affirming events, which made me buck up a little) and a bad thing (because in seeking out new experiences I managed to remain too busy to truly enjoy anything).

That was when yoga found me. I began to understand that I didn’t have to become anything to prove anything. Through yoga, I began accepting that there are things that I am good at and things that I will never be good at. It doesn’t matter. It’s part of the uniqueness that is me, and it is enough. That thought continues to blow my mind. I am enough. Period. If I finish the book I’ve been writing in my head for years, great. If not, that’s fine too. I’m exactly where I need to be, being the person I am becoming. At the end of my life, a full and well-rounded curriculum vitae will say everything about what I accomplished but nothing about who I was because we are not the sum total of what we do. Good thing too because on most days what I do is laundry.

Breathing in. I know I am a bunny. Breathing out. I know a bunny is all I have to be.

Can you let go of what you think you need to do to be important and accept that you already are?

 

Mondays Are For Practicing Grace

I think I should start every Monday in a garden like this one.

I think I should start every Monday in a garden like this one.

Monday. Not my favorite word. Not my favorite day of the week. At 6:40 a.m., before my alarm had the opportunity to interrupt my sleep, youngest son busts into my room ready to beat his brother to the first shower of the day. I knew this was trouble because the first shower has traditionally gone to our unusually early-rising Joe, but honestly I was in denial that the weekend was over and not quite awake enough yet to deal with him so I let it slide. I remained in bed, trying to savor the last few minutes of relative peace before my week had to begin in an official capacity. After about five minutes, Luke exited the shower still giddy about his triumph.

“I can’t believe I beat Joe to the first shower. I’m going to hurry and get dressed before he gets in here. I want to beat him downstairs,” he announced to me from the bathroom.

“It’s not a race,” I reminded him.

“I know,” came the rejoinder. “I just never get to be first.”

This is true. He’s the youngest. He’s acutely aware that he is forever behind the curve of his older brother. He’s been in second place his entire life. He gets the hand-me-downs. He has to wait until he’s bigger to do things his brother is already allowed to do. Any chance to be first is a treat. I get that. I also knew Joe would be annoyed because the first shower of the day is a big deal to him for some reason. Sure enough I was right. Just a minute later, Joe burst into my room, saw Luke fully dressed with wet hair, and started yelling.

I get first shower of the day. I always get first shower, Luke! Why did you do that?”

At this point, the boys began bickering loudly and I began slowly coming into reality. Lovely way to start a week. I rolled out of bed, hoping to minimize the damage to the morning. I told Luke to get downstairs and out of the way and snapped at Joe to get over it and get into the shower, which he did. Less than 30 seconds later, I heard the water shut off. Was he kidding me? All that fuss for a 30-second shower? There’s no way he actually used soap. The kid barely had time to get wet.

“What are you doing?” I asked, striding into the room in full-on, overtired annoyance.

“I’m done,” he replied.

“Oh no you’re not. No way. You didn’t wash your hair.”

“Yes, I did,” he retorted.

“That’s not possible,” I said, raising my voice and upping the ante.

“I did, Mom,” he insisted.

“You threw a complete fit because you didn’t get the first shower. You started my morning with screaming, and now you take a 30-second shower after all that commotion? Nuh uh. Get back in there.”

From there, things rapidly shot downhill like an Olympic bobsled team gaining momentum. Joe was mad I thought he was lying about washing his hair. I was mad that he had made such a huge issue out of his shower time and then didn’t even bother to take it. He began crying and I was beyond irritated that this was the inauspicious beginning to my week. I sent him downstairs while I worked on my frustration by stomping and banging around upstairs. Childish, I know, but I was exhausted. I thought everyone in my house understood that you don’t wake this sleeping dragon beast by screaming in my lair.

When I had finally chilled enough to arrive downstairs, Luke was busily getting water bottles and lunches ready (feeling a bit guilty, I suppose, for knowingly starting a war for the sake of being first). Joe was sitting on the living room sofa crying. I tried to pull myself together and regain control of the situation. I could not understand why he was making such a big deal out of missing the first shower. Then I started to wonder why I was making an even bigger deal about his big deal. I certainly wasn’t helping anything with my histrionics. I stopped, took a long, deep, yoga breath to the count of ten, and went over to hug Joe. I told him I was sorry for yelling at him and for not believing he’d washed his hair. He hugged back and told me he was sorry for starting our day with a fight. He was starting to calm down. I looked at the clock and realized we had 15 minutes before we had to leave. I went off to fix him some breakfast, satisfied that once he had some food we’d get beyond the ugliness. Quietly I berated myself for acting like such a brat.

When breakfast was ready, I called Joe into the kitchen. He came to the counter, sat down to the gluten-free waffle in front of him, looked up at me with a smile and pleasantly said, “Good morning, Mom.”

My 12 year old was schooling me in how to deal with setbacks. He’d decided to leave the mistakes of the morning behind. Yes. Monday had started out badly, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t change it. We could simply declare a do-over and move on. So, we did. I decided right then that do-overs should be my theme for the week. This came in handy a bit later in my Monday morning when I got to the Corepower studio for my flow-yoga class only to discover I’d gone to the wrong studio. Oops. Guess I’d be attending afternoon yoga instead.

Of all the days of the week, Mondays rejoice the most in providing me with multiple opportunities to practice grace.

Find Your Bliss Any Way You Can

Guess which set belongs to the lone female in this family.

At least I will be easy to spot.

“If you want to reach a state of bliss, then go beyond your ego and the internal dialogue. Make a decision to relinquish the need to control, the need to be approved, and the need to judge.”      – Deepak Chopra

Yesterday, in the peaceful falling snow of an early evening in January, the UPS delivery truck stopped in front of our house. As it pulled away, it left behind a box filled with things not meant for the snow at all. The large box contained snorkel gear for our entire family. I laugh at the absurdity of our family purchasing snorkel gear when we live in the middle of an already landlocked state, 1o00 miles away from the nearest beach which is a nearly 17-hour drive away in Malibu, California. We selected the gear while we were in snowy Steamboat Springs a week and a half ago. In spite of the wintery landscape there, we were absorbed with the notion that in two months we will be in Hawaii. So, in between cross-country skiing and trekking through a castle made entirely of ice, in front of a glowing fireplace we perused travel books and made mental notes of beaches we wanted to stand on. And, we ordered snorkel gear.

This morning, after an icy drive to deliver the boys at school, I took the next step in preparing for our upcoming spring break trip. I stopped to try on swimsuits. Buoyed by weeks of relentless work in yoga class, I felt fairly confident about my chances swimsuit shopping. I have a little less than two months left to finish whipping myself into vacation shape, and a swimsuit is exactly the motivation I need to keep my eye on the prize. I know it will be a bit odd to have it secured into place on the door of our stainless steel refrigerator in the middle of winter, but you do what you have to. For me, it’s yoga, fruit, and the fear of the suit.

And, as I stood in the fitting room today staring at my half-naked figure in the mirror, for the first time I faced the truth. My body is what it is, and what it is is a vessel that carried two children. It is strong and healthy. With nearly 45 years behind it and with a steady exercise routine, it endures more and is more flexible and balanced than it has ever been. It does things now that it couldn’t do a decade or two ago, like push ups. My body is powerful and capable. What it is not, however, is 20 years old. No matter how hard I work or how well I eat, I will never look the way I used to. Evolving over time, enduring childbirth and abdominal surgeries, my body has morphed to become something entirely different. It’s not bad. It’s simply not the same.

On the way home, I battled the negative self-talk that was bullying me into believing that I’m too old for the bikini I had just purchased. I told myself that as old as I am, I will never be this young again. And, if I am going to Hawaii for the first time and want to swim and snorkel in a two-piece suit, well…the rest of the world can suck it. I want to find bliss, and I will never find it if I’m judging myself or worrying about what others judge in me. I have only so much control over how the aging process will affect my body. Despite my best efforts, things will pucker and wrinkle and head in a southern direction. It’s inevitable. But, if cleaning grains of sand out of my navel makes me feel alive and happy, then that is what I must do. With each passing year I’m closer to peace and self-acceptance than I have yet been in my life. Maybe it’s blissfully naive of me to assume it’s not positively gauche for a woman of my mature age to appear in public in a bikini. At this point, though, I’ll take my bliss any way I can get it.

George Of The Jungle Gym

Never too old for the playground!

Never too old for the playground!

I determined a little over a week ago that I would participate in a promotion at the yoga studio I belong to. The challenge is to attend 20 classes in 30 days. If you complete the challenge, you get $20 in retail credit toward yoga clothes. Now, my local studio has issued similar challenges over the three years I’ve been a member. I’ve never been able to convince myself to complete one, though. The reason is simple. I’ve always thought yoga was a few times a week proposition at most. Even though I know there are people who practice every day or nearly every day, I was certain I was not meant to be one of those people. I think it’s important to take days off from exercise (especially when you’re not 20 anymore) to give your body a chance to recuperate, regroup, and come back stronger. I’ve often found that when I don’t take breaks, I’m more prone to wimp out by my fourth of fifth workout. And, as you might have guessed, I’m an all-or-nothing sort of gal so this does not work for me.

But, it’s a new year and I was up for a challenge. So, right after I signed up for a 7k run and a 5k snowshoe event and the MS150 ride, I decided what the hell? I mean, there are people far older than me doing yoga every day of the week. I can handle it, right? What have I got to lose? (Well, for starters, there’s the inch I put on in my waistline after eating cookies and sitting on my butt for the entire month of December, I guess.) What’s the worst that could happen? Well, I’m 7 days into the challenge, which is on its 9th day, and I know now what doing so much yoga will do to a person when they haven’t exercised for a month. I am sore. Really sore. My abs are so sore that it hurts to sneeze or laugh. My triceps are killing me from lowing from plank to the floor repeatedly. And, even my usually strong and quiet quads are a little squeaky. The one reason I continue to practice yoga is because it’s what keeps me from getting sore when I cross train. Yoga makes it so that I can bike one day, ski the next, and skate the day after that without ever feeling sore. So, this is new. I’m not so sure I like it.

Tonight, I went to a beginner class. It’s so-called because it’s a foundational class. The heat is lower and the instructor breaks down the poses to ensure everyone is holding the postures correctly. Consequently, you spend much longer in a pose than you might in a more advanced class. So, you’re in a lunge and you’re holding it while she talks. And you’re holding it. And you’re thinking oh good God shut up already, but she keeps talking so that 55 seconds into holding this wretched lunge your legs are quivering and you’re certain you will topple over and start a domino effect of destruction down the entire length of the room. You don’t, but you’re envisioning it and at the same time mentally strangling the instructor. I go to the beginner classes because I always learn something new there and that’s what yoga is about. It’s a practice, not a destination.

So, as she’s got us holding a position, Maria instructs us to repeat this mantra: “My practice is like the monkey bars. I have to let go to move forward.” We repeat it three times. I’m wondering, at this point, if she’s been reading my mind. Ever since I started this challenge, I’ve been resistant to it. I’m not entirely sure I will be able to complete it. I suspect I might have bitten off more than I can chew here. But then, as I’m repeating the phrase about the monkey bars, it hits me. This is what I have to let go of to move forward. I have to let go of the notion that yoga is a few times a week endeavor. To move forward in my practice, I have to let go of my preconceived idea about what my practice should be so I can see what it might become. That Maria is brilliant!

And, this is why I go to yoga and take different classes with different instructors. This way, I learn something new every single time I go. Sometimes it’s about yoga. Sometimes it’s about life. Sometimes it’s about me. I never know what I’m going to get. Tonight, one-third of the way through my challenge, I got some validation that I’m doing the right thing. I may not be thoroughly enjoying the soreness of the situation, but I’m letting go and moving forward. Maybe I’ll go a little wild tomorrow morning and toss some banana into my oatmeal.

Ten Things Yoga Teaches Me About Life

Life, like yoga, is all about the here and now.

Another night and the clock is rapidly approaching 10:30. Nearly a year ago when I started this blog, I promised myself one entry per day, sometime between midnight and 11:59 p.m. The minutes on the clock are dwindling down to my self-imposed deadline, and I sit here with an empty brain. An empty brain is good when you’re trying to fall asleep, which is what I should be doing. An empty brain is a bad thing, however, when you’re 1.5 hours from your writing deadline and no inspiration has arrived all day. Some days, it’s simply a struggle to get through. On those days, when I should be writing, I want nothing more than sleep. Today is one of those days.

To ensure that I get some sleep tonight, I’m going to go back to my mindset 1.5 hours when I was in yoga class. At the end of this coming January, I will have completed my fourth year as a practicing yogi. Hard to believe that four years ago I was so afraid to attempt yoga that I made my sister come with me to my first class. True story. Now, I can’t imagine going through the rest of my days without it. It’s not just exercise. It’s a metaphor for my life. I’m flexible and can bend over backwards, but I’m still not open. I’m strong and can stand on my head if I set my mind to it, but some days I am incredibly off balance. Yoga helps me find the peace I lack.

As I was cleaning up after class tonight, my mind was racing through the valuable life lessons yoga has taught me. So, I think I will share those tidbits here because…well, I need something to write about.

Ten Things Yoga Continues To Teach Me About Life (and trust me…I need the frequent reminders)

  1. The most important thing is to show up.
  2. When something doesn’t feel quite right, don’t force it. You’ll only end up hurt.
  3. Everyone is wrapped up in their own world. No one is paying attention to you, so let go and be free of ego.
  4. When things get tough, just breathe.
  5. We all have our struggles and our gifts. Mind your own.
  6. Try something new. It might not be your thing or it could be your new favorite thing. You’ll never know until you try.
  7. If something doesn’t serve you, let it go. No sense in lugging around worthless baggage.
  8. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Instead of criticizing yourself for what you can’t do, be grateful for all that you can.
  9. Discomfort is okay. Acknowledge it and let it go. It’s in discomfort that you find opportunity for growth.
  10. Wherever you are, be there.

Namasté.