Monday, October 5, 2015

What Yoga Taught Me About Discomfort

 As I continue my path as a practicing yogi, life continues to illuminate. It turns out that knowing oneself is infinitely harder when deadlines, bills and relationship-upkeep loom on the horizon. My passion and my patience undergo yet another reconstruction and instead of existing in the moment, I find the frequent desire to escape my life altogether. Why am I still here? I have learned to lean into my discomfort.

In yoga, this is the moment we all know well - the one that has us concentrating so hard that our muscles, twitching and begging for rest, are drowned out only by the realization that sweat is beginning to bead directly into our eyes. And, yet, we stay.

Why do we dutifully follow the instructor's request to squat a little lower, bend a little deeper and breathe fully into the pain? Because we can. Because as we practice, we begin to realize that most discomfort is within our bounds to endure. It improves us. It reveals capabilities previous unknown and allows us to perfect them. We already have the tools within us, we just need practice using them.

What are these tools?

Quite simply, breath and patience; the concentration and the effort to find a focus and endure the discomfort. Knowing that digging deeper is a choice more than an ability and making the choice to stay put. Even when it means stepping out, losing balance or needing ample time to recover (aka. cry) from a particularly difficult pose. Having faith that we can succeed pushes open that door, even through moments of extreme self-doubt (or moments that only wedge it open, inch by inch).

This is the whole point of yoga, really: proving that limits exist in one's mind and that our bodies are fully capable of carrying us through them. This is the pay-off of breathing through our absolute certainty of failure - we succeed, even when we fail. But how does this lesson apply to real life?

This is the difficult part. It depends on the willingness to fail outside of class, away from a soft mat and an instructor who encourages you to fall (and often). It depends on vulnerability. Leaning into discomfort is a terrifying choice when applied to one's life - our instinct is to run away to protect ourselves. Like a yoga class, however, we must accept this feeling and breathe through it. We must allow it to pass. It will take time, of course, and practice. But I can honestly say this has been the most meaningful lesson I have taken from my practice. It has strengthened my tenacity, both mentally and physically. It has encouraged me to seek out the challenge of self-improvement and lean into the immense discomfort I find there. Even if it leaves me a slobbery mess at the end of the day, unsure of whether to cry or celebrate - I have survived and I am stronger for it. Tomorrow I can lean in a little deeper.

As you embark upon your own path of resistance, remember to lean in. It will get better, if only because you are getting stronger. (You will get stronger.)


Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Luxury of Patience

It isn't just something Yoda talks about; patience is a luxury. It's the money-making investment most of us wish we'd made, the vacation to top off a mediocre year, the healthy meal we know we should eat but struggle to pick over the deliciously fried alternative listed to its right.

We stand in lines frustrated at their pace, opt for altered food devoid of nutrition, twist our cars through close traffic and blame our accidents, our cholesterol, our anger on someone else. We get trapped in the thought that we, alone, exist in the world. We become impatient for better/faster/stronger/more, for everything inherent in mindfulness without the practice of being mindful.

It came to me while I sat in traffic, unmercifully dissecting the inability of most drivers to (1) merge, (2) allow others to merge, and (3) thank those around them for any quick, ninja-like reflexes when bumpers come dangerously close to connecting. I realized that if there was any place the yogi practice of mindfulness could be applied, it was in the driver's seat of a moving vehicle.

Every morning and every night, I am surrounded by people willing to risk bodily harm because traffic isn't moving fast enough in the direction they've decided to go. I even find myself irrationally annoyed. I've written about this before - our society's deep longing to be 'other than' (other than where we are, who we are, what we look like, who we're with, where we work). It's a presence all around us, even in our cars, and it often translates into harmful behavior.

Sometimes it's an inability to sit in traffic without endangering other people, sometimes it's the choice to be unfaithful or unkind. And as I watch people react to life, watch them refuse to be active in their choices, I've realized the necessity in making small, mindful steps to pay attention, to be present in my work, to accept my monkey brain during meditation and move through my life as I do my yoga poses.

Because no matter where I find myself, I am there. I spend my time there, I exist within those moments. And maybe it's not ideal (it will never be ideal), but wishing it away, rushing into anything else, will only recreate the impatience that led me there to begin with. Which is not to say that I shouldn't take risks, but rather that I be mindful of the risks I take.

Because I'm here. Because I'm responsible for my half. Because being present allows for the luxury of patience. Because Yoda was right - this is the nature of life. Be present.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

10 Things To Do to Avoid Getting Older (Once You Realize You Are, in fact, Getting Older)

Have you recently found yourself in a stable job? Signed up for Healthcare? Are you making a significant dent in your student loans? Is everything your parents said starting to make sense?

Have no fear - here are ten simple steps to avoid getting older (now that you've realized you're not getting younger):

1. Shake your head back and forth periodically throughout the day (because nothing screams 'youngster' like random, denial-fueled, emotional tantrums).

2. Eat dessert for breakfast, lunch and dinner (because, though the privilege may be distinctly grown-up, the act - the sheer audacity against a well-working heart - will surely make you feel young again).

3. Two words: Instagram. Selfies. (Pointless ones with at least fourteen hashtags that hashtag each other. INCEPTION.)

4. One word: Naps. (What is a lunch break if not a self-initiated time-out spent curled impressively underneath your desk? A waste of time, that's what.)

5. Refuse to order anything that isn't a chicken nugget or shaped like a dinosaur. Commence dinosaur plate-war. ("RAWR. RAWR. Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!")

6. Get lost in something, like the world of wizardry or a pillow fort. (Because, why not?)

7. Pick a superhero, don a cape, and pretend that you just payed off an overlord, thus saving the world (and not just your credit score) today.

8. The floor is lava. (Oh, I'm sorry, I thought standing on top of your desk meant I was in a safe zone ... I'll go back to my office, now.)

9. Fling yourself down a hill and roll around until you can't stand up. (It beats throwing yourself into on-coming traffic any day.)

10.  GO OUTSIDE (because your desk isn't doing you any favors).

Need more inspiration? Sing at the top of your lungs, laugh with abandon, hug because you want to, dance because you feel like it and forget that anyone else exists in the world but you. Candy, Disney movies, running barefoot and the ability to plug your ears in the event of bad news. Box mazes, finger puppets, ridiculously sugary cereals that cannot possibly have any nutritional value and an imagination with the ability take you anywhere at anytime.

Because you really are only as old as you feel, everything else is just noise.


Monday, April 28, 2014

Of Loss and Love

I still remember the day I met Dani. She was a tiny thing, but only in body. She was fascinating and beautiful and I regarded her with curious awe. She spoke of ballet and neuroscience, of an obsession with Dr. Pepper and McDonald's, of Korea and Haiti and her journey, just beginning, at Peace Corps Ghana. And I thought to myself, with an ounce of jealousy that I wasn't enjoying Dr. Pepper or McDonald's in that moment, that this tiny woman and I were going to be friends.

Today marks the one year anniversary of her death, a life given in service and taken away by Malaria. My prediction was right, by the way. She became a sister to me - bonded by music and dance and a streak of independence that left us drooling after Beyonce and declaring one another a 'boss.' As in, 'If he ain't steppin' up, drop it like a boss.' We were fierce.

I remember her death like it were yesterday, clamoring to keep myself together and failing miserably. I remember planning her memorial and showing up with endless cakes and cupcakes because, I half-joked, I was baking my feelings. It wasn't the baking that helped, of course, but the loving support of countless people Dani had managed to touch. The sorrow we felt was deep, but the love we felt much deeper. The day we said goodbye was the day each of us began a new life dedicated to living a little more like Dani every day.

Without a doubt, Dani changed me; she changed everyone she met. She was the kind of person I was grateful to know in life, whose passing wasn't necessary to the recognition of her importance. I wish I'd had more time, that I'd been able to visit her in Atlanta and witness what would have been an amazing life. I would have liked to have grown old with her; I celebrated three birthdays in Ghana and Dani was there for each one. Whether she was writing me into the Ghana AIDS Project constitution or explaining the finer points of twerking, she was always a surprise - a delightful, thoughtful, intelligent role model for anyone within arm's reach.

In her memory I strive to have compassion at all times, to greet everyone I meet with love and laughter, to dance when I want to dance and to own my strength without apology. We used to talk about forgiveness and empathy, about the heart's struggle with the ego, and now that those conversations exist only in memory I try, each day, to be the person we discussed so often. She managed to make me a better human being, to inspire me to live up to my potential, and her legacy, taken and held by those who loved and knew her, only continues to grow.

My thoughts are with her family today, with each of us facing the bittersweet combination of welling eyes and quivering smiles. Sadness comes in waves, but mostly I feel love - an incredible lightness of being - because she continues to shape a world she left much better. She lives through us, through our actions and our words, through our endless dedication to her memory, which means that she still lives. She may only be one tiny, Dr. Pepper drinking, independent, Beyonce loving part of me, but she's there always.

We miss you, baby girl.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

7 Things Yoga Taught Me About Life

Every day people flock into yoga class and they seek. They seek relaxation, they seek detoxification and they most definitely seek an enviable beach body. I speak from experience. When I decided to get my teaching certificate I did it because I wanted to get paid for a work out I love. It was, quite simply, a physical regime.

As it turns out, the course wasn't about poses or teaching sequences, but approaching yoga as a practice. I was deemed certifiable, but I'm not going to approach my first class as expected. In honor of the practice, I'd like to challenge your understanding of a session and share my first lesson with you here. No poses, no meditation, no cute spandex outfits with secret pockets and impressive lift - just a few ways yoga is actually applicable to everyday life.

1. Show up:

It might sound painfully obvious, but it's often the hardest choice to make. If you want to improve your health, you have to show up; if you want to switch careers, you have to show up; if you want to change your mindset, you have show up. You have to be willing to take leaps, hold yourself accountable and face your fears without giving in to a very strong urge to run. Quite literally it means making the choice to walk through the door and attend yoga class; it is the first step. When your mind is ready to follow - to listen, to learn, to change, to be, to love - it will show up, too.

2. Be kind to yourself:

We call this the practice of non-violence and it's usually included in the intent of every session. It asks you to listen to your body, to be aware of your limits and to honor your 'edge.' Because yoga isn't about competing with the life-size Gumby to your left (or feeling superior to the inflexible beginner to your right); your practice is already perfect. If your reason for doing yoga is to impress everyone in the class then you're not practicing yoga, you are practicing the art of gaining approval. Of course, everyone's capabilities are different and some yogis can do amazing things, but if you push yourself to the point of breaking, if your yoga practice is colored with fear or insecurity, then you will be distracted from your potential.

3. Accept possibility:

Anything can happen and it isn't always what you expect. Some days you will walk in and find a substitute teacher, maybe your favorite teacher leads a different kind of class, maybe a certain pose makes you feel emotional, maybe you reach farther into your stretch or maybe you aren't feeling flexible at all ... Dwelling on these details will throw off an entire yoga session. You cannot reach peace through dwelling. Being flexible in yoga isn't just a literal concept. If you can accept change when it occurs you may be presented with a unique opportunity to learn more about yourself and your body. The ego always wants to control, but the yogi understands there is none.

4. Breathe:

Breathing is something we take for granted, but it is the most important healing aspect of yoga. The average person's lungs has the capacity for 6-7 liters of air, but the average amount taken in per breath is one. Studies on meditation and breathing show that it lowers heart rate, lowers blood pressure, improves brain function and reduces stress. When breath and movement are synchronized we refer to it as a dance. Breathing helps focus the mind, push through pain and brings clarity to the body. It is the key, the lock and the safe.

5. Be present:

Though being present is directly related to showing up they are not the same. When you show up to a class there is a large margin for error - you're preparing for a meeting tomorrow, you're still having an argument with your partner, you're criticizing your yoga teacher ... basically you're everywhere but your yoga class. You aren't paying attention to your breathing, you aren't acknowledging what the poses are doing for you and you aren't relaxing at all. You are perfect in your practice, even in its flaws, but wouldn't it be nice to use the time to disconnect from the world; to leave the past in past, the future in the future, and take one hour in the day to honor yourself? People are rarely present, if ever, but once you practice the art of being present you will find that it is a gift.

6. Let go:

We carry a lot of things around - pressure, expectation, guilt, anxiety, anger, disappointment, loneliness ... They weigh us down, they are exhausting and they cause a disconnect between the the body and mind that can, quite literally, shorten the length and happiness of our lives. It may take years of practice and sometimes it may seem like letting go is as remote to you as the ability to walk on water, but when the day arrives and you find yourself ready to be completely vulnerable to that tiny moment, your yoga practice will be realized. You will be free.

7. It's all about Savasana:

Some people think this is a waste of time, that it's awkward and intrusive. Lying down in the middle of a room, exposing your heart to the sky and dedicating five minutes to being silent with yourself is kind of terrifying. We spend our days tweeting, scrolling through Facebook posts and distracting ourselves from this exact act; we no longer know how to just be with ourselves. But I promise you that Savasana is the moment. It is the culmination of your hour, the moment of honesty and the perfect opportunity to act out each of these lessons in one, simultaneous moment. It is your happy place.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that yoga has become a life choice. It follows me everywhere I go and sometimes I find myself in the act of yoga without ever striking a pose. Sure, there are physical benefits, but it has so much more potential than a beach body. Be open to that potential, and the next time you're in class - even if it is your first - think of me, newly bonafide, and take a few steps toward turning your activity into a philosophy.


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Vulnerability is The New Black

I've encountered many a wounded heart in my lifetime; in fact, I owned one. And while I experienced small moments of freedom and clarity, of gratitude and oneness with the world, I often observed a shrinking away from great risk - especially when it came to love.  

The human instinct to protect itself is born of our most painful experiences. In order to keep functioning, to keep living through each betrayal, we shut out the world. We become stubbornly engrained in the belief that our isolation - whether it be physical, spiritual or emotional - is better than the alternative. We punish ourselves continuously, re-living our pain until it turns into fear. We are contained.

Of course, when I tell people to be vulnerable, I know that it isn't easy. It requires forgiveness, patience and honest self-assessment; it can be painful. Committing to kindness and compassion, admitting to our own mistakes (forgiving others for theirs) is against our nature. The mind will rebel. It will say that holding onto the past makes us stronger, it will market towering walls and impenetrable defenses ... but this is fear. We must forgive our mind its shortcomings, we must always move forward. 

And there will be failure. We will not always be a perfect example of vulnerability, compassion or patience, but we must keep trying because it will do something incredible – it will open our hearts. And as the heart opens, as we adopt the possibility of each moment without expectation, our ability to love and receive love will be without limit. There will be boundless joy and adventure, perfection in every smile, and we will find that happiness lived inside us all along.

Yes, the world will still be dark and people will continue to hurt each other. We might even risk seeing all of that through a completely vulnerable heart, but that’s okay. The darkness will contrast the light, the pain will demand more love, and while it will not be easy it will be worth it. Why?

Because you deserve love, you deserve to witness and acknowledge your own perfection. Because compassion is not a weakness, it never has been. Because vulnerability is the new black and unless it is confined within the bindings of a popular book, medieval defense systems are overrated.

Maybe you are not ready today, but one day you will be and you will not be alone.
Be vulnerable.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Be the Spark and Change Your World

If there is one thing you should know about me it is that I have an incredibly strong sense of justice. And though I realize the world is a complicated place, mired in shades of grey, I think it is important to contribute to that world in a positive way, to fight injustices and take every chance to make it better.

I saw many difficult things in the Peace Corps. Not on the news or written in articles, but in front of me every day. As a 'cultural agent' I was forced to combat them creatively because my acceptance within my community was delicate. I was in a difficult position. I was an outsider, a woman and I was often told that I simply misunderstood the issues. Domestic violence was expected as an inevitability of marriage; sexism was an accepted element of a 'properly functioning' society; and assault and rape were seen as an unfortunate symptom of anatomy, a simple truth of life.

I could not accept or ignore these things, things clearly defined in my upbringing and my society as wrong. I fought them carefully and there was purpose there - the ability to do something about the world because I held a position that invited social change, but it didn't stop there.

I came back. And I continued to see the same social wrongs - things international campaigns are started for, but seem to be tacitly ignored at home. And perhaps with all of the distractions, all of the relative comforts of the first world, it's easier for us to avoid eye contact, but I had become sensitive. I possessed a greater awareness of our own social shortcomings, and it grew terribly frustrating to have my focus, my passions, unmet.

I guess with the death of someone like Nelson Mandela and with so many people acknowledging his influence and greatness in the world, I simply hope he will serve as continued inspiration. That he will not be a blip in the radar, someone to be spoken of as an anomaly; because there are great injustices in the world and many of them occur right here in America. And sometimes to simply acknowledge them, to look them in the eye and recognize them as they are is enough to start social change and demand a better future.

You see, of the most valuable lessons I learned in the Peace Corps I learned about the power of one. One person. And that person is you. Because it's not always in someone else's hands to lead - you can make a difference. You can inspire. And by changing one person, affecting one life, you can create an echo that changes many. You must simply use that beautiful voice and put purpose to that brilliant, human mind.

When we are faced with the death of those who represent the best in us it often shocks us into remembering all of the things we wish we could be. Mandela's death reminded me that I have done these things, that it is a possibility for all of us - one that doesn't necessarily involve joining the Peace Corps or becoming an internationally recognized president. And as I struggle to find my place again, to combine the two paths of my life, I hope that Nelson Mandela and perhaps (very humbly) I can remind you that we all have this potential. We all carry this light. To use it is a choice, not a fate. You must only be brave enough to see it.

Set light to the night.