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 Shavasana:

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 Shavasana 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.


Thursday, December 26, 2013

An Open Letter

Being home for the holidays is surreal and, as I surround myself with laughter and chocolate, I feel this incredible gratitude for the life I've been able to lead. And so, I would like to present a letter. Maybe it's not personally written to each person it is meant to reach, but I hope it will be read and understood by anyone who chances upon it. A little reminder that love travels continents and changes lives, a little note from me:

Dear you,

Yes, you. You, who supported me and inspired me, who pushed me to keep going ... you know who you are:

I want you to know your support did not go unnoticed. I want you to know that on the hardest days when I doubted my work, my success, my achievements and my impact - you brought me back. You made me smile, you made me laugh, you reminded me that I wasn't alone, that I was loved. You pushed me. You tugged on my sleeve when all I wanted to do was hide. You forgave me for hiding. You held my hand when I struggled and when I failed to understand things, you opened my heart and reminded me of its compassion. 

You were my soil and my sun, the rain in my sky; you were the persistent wind bending my leaves, whispering encouragement in my ears. Without you I might have failed, but you believed in me and because you believed in me I began to believe in myself. When I discovered the voice of doubt in my head, however faint, your voice was always stronger. I became a King and a Mandela, a Gandhi and Sandburg, a Nightingale and a Lincoln, an O'Connor and a Bhutto. I became me.

Your friendship has been more than a comfort - it has been the air that I breathe. I don't feel alone or disconnected from any single part of my past or any possible future; I feel infinite somehow, that all things are possible. 

And I may not know where I'm going next, but knowing that I am loved and supported is my motivation. I am who I am because of you - a reflection of the best parts in you, parts you gave and shared willingly, parts I cherish daily. 

Thank you. From the very edges of my being, from the ever expanding universe that is my heart, thank you. Without you I would not be.

Happy Christmas


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 acceptance within the community was delicate. I was in a difficult position; I was an outsider and 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, to 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 us - 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 - believe in yourself.


Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Few of My Universal Truths

(Because spending three years in introspection has its perks ...)

1. People deserve to be loved:
And I mean everyone. Whether they're asking for change, serving you drinks or happen to be your closest friend - loving other people brings you closer to loving yourself. (And what's not to love about that?)

2. Love yourself:
Be your own biggest fan. It's not vain, it's learning to spend the rest of your life with someone you truly enjoy. (And truly enjoying the person you'll be spending the rest of your life with.)

3. It's okay to be vulnerable:
In fact, it's pretty brave. Opening yourself up to the world is not something you will likely ever regret. You will not break, I promise; you will learn to bend.

4. Always do the right thing, even if it's the hard thing:
If I can make two promises, back to back, I will say this - you will never regret doing the right thing. It conveys respect and deference to any number of situations, persons and emotional truths; I only ask that you do it with kindness in your heart.

5. Happiness is a choice (and it's a damn good one).

6. Be honest, always:
Coupled with kindness, love or respect, it is a rare quality and it is refreshing. We have too little of it in our lives and too many expectations as a result. And people will respect you for it because even if you act a fool, you'll have the courage to admit it (and the forethought to apologize).

7. Never, ever, turn down a dance. Ever.

8. Smile often and mean it.

9. Find optimism:
There is an art to finding the silver lining in situations. It takes practice before it becomes habit and it takes effort, but if you can find that sliver of light you can hold onto it in the darkest of times (and one day it might be your saving grace).

10. A good life will make you work for it:
It's like any good catch; you have to work hard to earn and deserve it, to keep it and make it your personal best. Living a good life is just as much your responsibility as it is your circumstance. Own it.

11. Feed your passions:
Take adventures, soul-search, make your existence mean something to someone other than yourself; leap into thin air and learn to love your life.

12. Hug more (it doesn't count unless it's at least ten seconds).

13. Love more:
And do it unconditionally. It heals wounds, it fortifies, it is every question and every answer; if there's one thing Ghana taught me, it is unconditional, unbound love and, with it, forgiveness.

14. Forgive:
The world can be a heavy place when anger and guilt take up their watch on your shoulders. It may take work and it may be painful, but being able to let go of that pain will free up so much space in your heart that you won't know what to do with it.

15. Be kind to yourself:
Psychologically, we only allow other people to treat us as badly as we treat ourselves; the only problem with this is that most of us insult ourselves often. Even if it's something simple, like calling yourself stupid for a small mistake, it is a terrible habit. Make kindness your habit. Say one kind thing into the mirror every day and start to believe it.

16. Laugh often. And laugh from your toes.

17. Cry more (because it's okay to feel).

18. Listen more:
In fact, make it your goal to become a good listener; because only good things can come from being a better partner/friend/child/colleague/person. And if someone is willing to open up to you, you should respect that.

19. Make the people you love a priority:
It's easy to become distracted in a world where an app exists for every possible interaction, question and desire, but an app won't come over after a break up and it won't help you plan a baby shower or dress up with you for a late-night cult-classic at the local movie theater. Appreciate those people, love on those people like every day is their last day and you will learn what it means to live without regret.

20. Say thank you more often:
And don't wait for a national holiday to do it. Find something to be grateful for every day, make that appreciation known, rinse and repeat. Simple.

Happy Thanksgiving everybody,

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Leaving the Peace Corps Behind ...

Re-acclimating to normal life is going to be more difficult than I thought, but not for the reasons you would assume.

I want to start by saying that leaving anything 'behind' is a myth. Experiences shape you, they affect you long after they end, and they usually take up their residence without your notice. They will shift opinions, change behaviors, and continue to pepper your vocabulary with their influence. It's evolution in the simplest form.

The way we close our service brings the expectation that once our service has 'closed' it has ended; it is a chapter in a book that is set firmly in the past. We are left with anecdotes, pictures, and the kind of wistful memories shared with other friends struggling to reintegrate. We end up focusing on the separation of experiences, but why do we feel so strange if our experiences are so separate?

The Peace Corps, by nature, forces people out of their comfort zones. It forces relationships to be made and middle ground to be found. We recognize that, despite the many annoyances of culture shock, our expectations (based on a context completely separate from our current experiences) are unfair. We become compassionate and forgive the faults we see because we understand that our job is not to change, but to affect change. It is an important distinction. And so we create relationships, start conversations, and try to empower those within our adopted cultures to make the changes they wish to see.

It is an art and it is incredibly difficult to do. It takes a level of self-awareness that is hard to adopt, but is  necessary when one exists so far out of context; most of the time we do it without thinking.

Having adopted a new form of interpersonal interaction we return to America changed, but we aren't used to this. We aren't used to applying obvious cultural differences to a place we call home. We assume we understand America completely and this perceived comfort zone comes with expectations that no longer apply. We are different; we operate at a different level; we see things from an outside perspective. We observe because, for two years, observation meant the difference between success and failure and, suddenly, we start to see things we didn't recognize before the Peace Corps opened our eyes. It can be incredibly frustrating.

The thought that we 'close' our service, end a chapter and move forward, is a misrepresentation of our experience and the lessons that we worked so hard to apply. It isn't a 'separate' experience, it doesn't exist somewhere outside of us - what we learned about were people; what we did was adapt.

What I've found over the last two weeks is that I notice more; I notice things about people that probably always existed but didn't seem out of the ordinary when it worked within my context. And it seems difficult to fit those people back into my life - people who no longer see the world like I do, who have faults I clearly recognize, who, astonishingly enough, require the lesson I learned in Africa to be applied to them in America. It's disconcerting; it takes patience.

And it's not that America has changed and become more disappointing, but that I've changed and have become more aware. And I have to remind myself that it would be incredibly unfair not to apply the universal understanding and compassion I adopted in the Peace Corps to my life in America, or to idolize Ghana and my experiences when I know, full well, that people everywhere have the exact same potential to impress and disappoint.

I cannot run away from these things, they will exist wherever I go. I can, however, accept that I will always have a unique perspective and that it's okay that America isn't perfect. My Peace Corps experience is not somewhere behind me because it lives at my side. I will notice things now, and some of them will disappoint, but maybe - just maybe - I can begin to apply my experience as a volunteer and affect change where it really matters: in America, in my context.

So, happy hunting, my fellow change agents and remember to keep an open mind.


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Haunted Streets

I rarely ran into my past in Ghana. Even Facebook, with its endless possibilities, was avoidable; containable. I could focus. I could assess and improve; I could quantify. And I could do it all with the clarity of a safe distance, which I now understand was a unique opportunity.

I've been home for just over one week and there are so many stories to catch up on, so many faces to see (both the anticipated and the unexpected). Some of them belong to distant paths, ancient things; others walk a faint trail, their paths just emerging. It turns out to be a very large pile to sift through, to organize in my mind, to find a place for in my life - a life I'm only beginning to figure out again.

This is obviously a work in progress, the attempted management of a readjustment they warned me about. Except it's not exactly the kind of culture shock I thought it would be; turns out I can totally handle incredibly high-tech bathrooms, grocery stores (to a degree), and the ability to understand every conversation around me without needing to listen in like a lonely ex-pat creeper. What seems to be the struggle now is re-fitting all of the pieces. Actually, just plain fitting in.

And I guess it sounds silly to admit that my biggest problem is finding room for all of the people interested in catching up, in showing appreciation for the things I've done, even if briefly. I guess it's just the fact that things simultaneously seem to have changed completely and not at all, that in the same week I can go without recognizing a single face to recognizing entirely too many to process. It's apparently no easy feat to step out of your life for three years and walk back in, having had so many unbelievably important, but completely separate experiences, without difficulty. It's a little like waking from a dream.

These are my haunted streets. All ghosts welcome.