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. When your mind is ready to follow it will show up, too.

2. Be kind to yourself:

We call this the practice of non-violence. It asks you to listen to your body, to be aware of your limits and to honor your 'edge.' 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 yoga is to impress everyone in the class then you're not practicing yoga, you are practicing the art of  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 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 a certain pose makes you feel emotional or 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 and 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're being offered a unique opportunity to learn more about yourself and your body. The ego always wants 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 class there is a large margin for error. Sometimes your brain will go everywhere, but with you to yoga. You won't pay attention to your breathing, you won't acknowledge what the poses are doing for you and you won't feel relaxed at all. Though you are perfect in your practice, even in its flaws, wouldn't it be nice to use that time to disconnect from the world and honor yourself? People are rarely present, but once you practice the art of being mindful 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 ... it's exhausting. Our pressures weigh us down, they create 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 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 Savasana 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 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 explore each 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 my 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.