Balance, space and compost

I’m a great fan of Danielle LaPorte‘s writing, and the moment when I fell in love with her work was when she said this about balance, arguing instead for passion:

Life balance. Low fat cheese. Walking shoes. Small talk.
Life balance. The term makes me feel bloated and late for my own party.
Life balance. Stressful.

Simple laboratory scales for balancing tubes

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And this is, of course, what I think about when I teach “balance poses” in yoga. What’s the difference between “life balance” and “balancing”? Do I want to balance? How do I balance? and Why?

I think we persist in thinking and talking about balance as if it were a thing, but we want the ability to practice balancing, and this demands its own intense (yes, even passionate) focus. When we practice balancing in yoga poses, part of what it provides us is an intense, in the moment experience of riding a wave, uniting opposing forces and standing on a razor’s delicious edge. And it demands we have space around us, because if we’re truly engaged in a practice of balancing, we will fall.

English: Vrksasana, the tree position, a Yoga ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And that’s the mistake we make in seeking “balance” in life. We are looking for a way not to fall. Not to get caught up, caught in or dragged under. We want association without engagement. In balancing, such as Tree pose, your entire body mind is dynamically adjusting, micromovements, microexpansions and contractions, different in every body, every moment, completely engaging and releasing your mind.

I recently realized that I had slipped into seeking “balance” because one of my projects has outlived my passion. I’ve never been one to have harsh demarcations between “work” and “personal” life. I write on vacations, I adore people with whom I work. My work  – from Philosophy graduate student to Paramedic to maid to consultant at various times – has always been the rocks in the tumbler of my soul. Work + meditation = growth. At least in my life.

When I started marking out times and places and feeling incredibly defensive about this project staying in those bounds I realized something was amiss. Was I hiding from total engagement? Or did this project simply not fit anymore?

I’m finding that as I deny this project (and the chorus of voices and fears and hopes and shenpa around it) claim on my attention, I’m realizing that I feel restricted by it because I was investing in it for a myriad of sad girl reasons (substitute family, need for recognition, approval, a broken notion of “service” and hopes that things weren’t they way they are).

The project itself is exciting and the work honorable, good work. But I’ve known for months I’m not the one who should be doing it – for my own good. My aims seem counter to the culture of the place. I actually accepted this project as a way of “changing the culture.” Why? How? The reason I stepped out of the culture to begin with was that it rings my bells in an old, broken tune and I want none of it. As a very wise woman, Kris Roush, recently said to me, (and I paraphrase) Isn’t it a kind of madness to wonder why you don’t smell like roses when you’re swimming in shit? You can put on all the rose water you want before you dive in, you still have dung up your nose when you surface.

When I find myself trying to balance gripping tightness with equal parts hot baths and yoga, just so I can return to the gripping, I know I’m seeking balance as  a thing in my life and not actively balancing all the opposing forces of rosewater and compost, meetings and solitude, building and tearing apart. I know that what I need, instead, is the space to fall and the surface to land on without wounding. I need to move toward and with passion, and away from sacrifice and misguided, ancient, stultifying notions of loyalty.

One of the phrases that came to me over the holiday while canvassing the year we’d had and dreaming the year we want to invest in was “You don’t need to save anyone. Not even yourself.” Balance is trying to save others while you drown. Space is loving and seeing that it’s all a play between drowning and swimming. Bullshit is what you make it. It can either be a nuisance and a pestilence  or the nutritive bed for plunging roots that suck up everything they need to produce wild beauty. The difference is time, darkness and ability to stand the heat.

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Detoxing from detox-mind

One of the most tired words used in “the yoga community” is “detox.” One of the

detoxification

detoxification (Photo credit: sillydog)

most tiring emotions and states of mind is fear, and paradoxically, talk of detoxification plays on, rather than reducing, fear. Detoxification regimes are, by nature, temporary and focused on ridding ourselves of negativity.

While reduction of bad things seems like a no-brainer winner, there are two fatal flaws in this plan. There is no end of “bad things” from which to rid our body-minds, and so the pursuit is really never ending, while the regimes are of necessity temporary.  The entire mindset and methodology are actually anti-yogic. While the Sutras talk about purification, the suggestions we are given there on purification have to do with care, love and adding more of what supports us, not forgoing specific substances or actions.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there are no such things as toxins, or that they can’t cause disease (as one of the articles below asserts). Free radicals (ions) damage the body and can be lessened by yogic practices. Chemicals in our food irritate bowels and derange hormones. Mindfulness in how we source and prepare our food can lessen our exposure to these things. However, we will never be rid of free radicals or additives to the growing process or preparation of our foods. Our bodies are not dirty and do not need radical cleanses simply from being in the world. And the cult of negation doesn’t offer a wholesome way of living, only a wholesale way of marketing.

The Sutras offer suggestions on how to lessen suffering, frustration, restlessness and disturbance. Not so much instructions as strategies:

“I,32 In order to prevent [obstacles to self-knowledge]…habituate yourself to meditation on a single principle.

I,33 By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward happiness, compassion toward suffering, delight toward virtue, and equanimity toward vice, thoughts become purified, and the obstacles to self-knowledge are lessened.

I,34 OR the obstacles can be lessened by forcibly exhaling, then retaining the prana during the pause following the exhalation.

I,35 OR another way to steady the mind is by binding to higher, subtler sense perceptions.

I,36 OR the mind can also find peace by contemplating the luminous light, arising from the heart which is the source of true serenity.

I,37 OR….

The suggestions go on. Not one instructs us to avoid, wring out or rid ourselves of a single thing. While they are instructing us on how to lessen “the obstacles” (= things that hurt us like disease, dullness, doubt, delusion), they suggest positive actions. Focus on this. Keep that. Increase this.

What if instead of denying ourselves anything (ok, the short list of exceptions includes crack, meth and murder, but you get the idea… and if not having this level of distracting substance is “denying” yourself, then you do, indeed, require a medical detox program before you return to simple instructions for everyday life. Not judging, just sayin.) So, how about instead of denying, we add more goodness to our lives. Instead of resolution we expand. Instead of fearing we love. Instead of subtracting we add so much of what feeds and sustains us there’s little time or space left for what we would subtract?

meyer lemon chiffon cake, lavender honey poach...

meyer lemon chiffon cake, lavender honey poached lemons, whipped cream and candied lemon dipped in chocolate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And when we have those “toxins” (sugar, wine, <gasp!>

Layer Cake (film)

Yes, that’s Daniel Craig. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

cigarettes, <insert your choice of perceived vice>) how about we bring as much presence and enjoyment to our double chocolate layer cake slathered in mousse and drenched in brandy lit on fire with a cigar as we do to prayer? How about noticing the desires this satisfies as well as those it creates, the memories, ideas and feelings it soothes, evokes and inflames.  Bringing the same presence to the underbelly of our lives (I’ll let your imagination supply the less seemly examples) as we do the mat and the cushion is all we are required to do.

III,14 Our nature has a common source – the substratum out of which all latent, manifest, and unmanifested properties of consciousness arise.

Move in the direction of what you desire, everything you desire. The chocolate alongside your yoga and lots of fruit and veg (10 servings a day anyone?) and water and green tea and goji berries… whatever your good things are. The brilliant thing is that there are so very many. Good things. And the more we ingest (literally, figuratively, mindfully) the better we feel, the less room we have for “toxins” or what would produce them, and the less time we have to worry about how toxic we are or might be. We are too busy enjoying all the awesome. When’s the last time you had to turn down something fantastic because there were just too many other, more fantastic things in your life?

Eat enough spinach and a little whip cream doesn’t matter. Enjoy enough yoga and a late night of catching up on Downton Abbey doesn’t matter (ok, maybe a little. But not for long.) While the output may be the same – fewer “bad” things – the result is quite different. The result is part and parcel of the path, of choosing love over fear, abundance over denial, desire over rejection. Move in the direction of your dreams. Not out of the messy, sticky, ambiguous, ambitious, delicious stream of life. Yoga is about extreme engagement, not about running away.

 

Reflections on self retreat

 

As many of you know, I head out into the desert for a week every August, to spend time listening and wandering among the ruins and hoodoos.
English: Fritz Swanson took this picture of th...

English: Fritz Swanson took this picture of the Fajada Butte in the summer of 2005. The Butte stands at the entrance to Chaco Canyon in the northwest New Mexico. Chaco Culture National Historical Park. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

How can you create your own retreat, even if you can’t get away for an entire week?

 

 

Retreat isn’t about moving away from your life, but toward your core values, personal truth and definite best. While we retreat from distractions and energy drains, we embrace the practices and habits that give us sustenance and allow us to bring it in our everyday life.

 

 

To create your very own retreat, decide on a time and a set of core practices that you know fill your heart. Start with three days. If you can take three days off from obligations of work and social life that’s great, but if you want to have a retreat in concert with your everyday life that’s great, too. Either way, mark this time as special: you might begin with a massage, an extra special yoga class or simply a solo hike. Let the people in your everyday life know that during these days you won’t be taking on extra tasks. Consider taking an email and phone break, if only before and after work.

 

 

Consider changing your routine and surroundings regardless of whether you plan to take time off. Make the house extra neat and clean, enlist a family member to have quiet coffee or tea with you in the morning. Set your space up with the books you want and any other resources you desire: yoga mats, blocks, blankets, bolsters, DVDs or streaming videos, special bath salts. Make sure the cupboards are stocked with food that will make you feel good. You might decide to eat lightly during this time.

 

 

Decide which distractions to eliminate and what practices to embrace during this time. Begin by considering your “ideal day.” If you could have anything and everything you wanted for 24 hours, what would that look like? Would you sleep for 10 hours and have a luxurious yoga practice with meditation upon wakening? Spend the afternoon reading inspiring, soul-filling books or go on a challenging hike? Would you eat all vegetarian or buy extra special wine to go with dinner? Think minimal distraction, maximum practice. What would feed your soul?

 

 

Finally, design how you will avoid the inevitable distractions. On my retreat trips, I go as far away from civilization as I can get in the contiguous 48… and recently, I was able to get cell service. I’ve learned that I have to turn the phone off and make it inaccessible to maintain my chosen discipline. If I bring my computer for writing, I disable the wi-fi. The point is to go inward, cultivate silence and listen for what comes from deep within.

 

 

Make this a pampering time as much as one of discipline. Have your favorite healthy food, best bath salts and linens, go to your favorite location. If you take time literally away, expect the first three days to be an emptying out. Journal, draw, walk, record the insights and fears… but always relate to them as interesting products of your thinking, not necessarily as reality. Reality is here and now, this breath, this sigh. Keep coming back to your breath. If you’re taking more than three days, you can anticipate a great calm after you’ve cleaned the pipes.

 

 

How do you connect with your core truths and self? A retreat – whether on your own or joining a planned event – is a great way to reset and restore your factory settings. Do you remember what those are? Find out! Treat yourself to your own retreat.

 

 

Hip Replacement, Recovery and the yoga of healing

This page will be the very opposite of cool, so if that’s the sort of yoga you’re

 

English: Hip replacement using cementless impl...

English: Hip replacement using cementless implants. 16 days post-surgery. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

seeking, I’m going to save you some time and encourage you to surf on. No hard feelings.

Hip replacements involve walkers and drains and quite often severe limitations, and having had one just prior to my 43rd birthday, I can tell you they feel the subterranean opposite of cool.

But like so many other things in life, the  truth is that while the process is tedious, the problem solved painful and deeply limiting, and the daily recovery mundane and filled with potential frustration, the result and even the path leading to it are cooler than cool, the stratospheric pinnacle of awesomeness.

During the process – the bits leading up to the surgery (a right total hip replacement), the pain and shame and self-blame (I know, what a crock, right?), the fear of all the what-ifs leading into a surgery (a paramedic knows far too much about what might go wrong and how ugly it might be), the recovery (avec le walker, complete with yellow tennis balls), the limitation and then the daunting task of regaining new optimal functioning, I wanted to write, I considered writing, I wrote in my head and in my journal, but I didn’t cross the threshold of public sharing, my blog. Part acceding to shame monsters and part simple self-protection during a time of deep vulnerability, I kept this part to myself – mostly. I did publish a reflection on imperfection and what it means for teachers, probably more revelatory than I’d like, but there all the same. And a few bits and pieces.

Now I’d like to share what I learned about disability, surgery, recovery, hips and yoga in the process.  The overarching message my soul was sending me had to do with challenges and their meaning, ability and self-concept and how stories can heal or hurt depending on how stuck inside us they get.

Here are some facts: I was born with a mild birth defect of my hip joints that made them susceptible to injury, even after the best treatment available in the late 60’s and early 70’s in the US. As a result, in combination with a desperate need for self-mastery born of other unhappy events, I sustained two (yes, I learn slowly) stress fractures of the femoral shaft and neck setting me up for degenerative joint disease. Docs at the time of the first injury told me to stop running (it was my religion at the time) and that I would need a hip replacement by the time I was 30. Figuring I might as well as smoke it while I got it, I kept running and weight lifting like the competitive madwoman I can be, hence the second injury.

Over the past 5 years the pain in my hip from lack of cartilage and bones grinding one another down had led to a pronounced limp, postural imbalance and worst of all, inability to hike or walk very far. Miserable in this one respect, I kept hopping out of ambulances (gingerly, impact was a bitch), practicing and teaching  yoga and avoiding the hip replacement. Maybe I could heal myself. Maybe I could make it one more year. Maybe I couldn’t get pregnant after a hip replacement (turns out, easier because less inflammation in the body). Maybe… I was scared. Scared to go forward, scared to stay put, couldn’t go back. Back to what?

Turns out, I had no idea what it felt like to have a properly working joint. When we moved temoprarily to Silicon Valley for Dear Hubs’ career, my plan was to write and teach. My plan was side-tracked when I was put in contact with a surgeon who was not only wise and kind, but performs the procedure in a way that obviates hip precautions. That’s right: no limitation post recovery. Think about that.

It didn’t take me long to think about it. Having worked hip dislocations enough as a paramedic that I could do it in my sleep, I knew all too well what awaited me in terms not only of limitation, but of consequence regardless of how careful I might be. Some of my patients’ hips dislocated when they stepped from a sidewalk to the grass. A procedure that avoided this? Sign me up!

That didn’t take away the fear prior to surgery: I’d also transported people whose joint appliances had gone wrong somehow – there are myriad ways, as it turns out. I knew of hip sockets gone empty and bodies confined to bed for lack of skeletal support when the implant had to be removed. I had witnessed the surgery when intubating in the OR and knew they would saw off the top of my leg bone, bore it to make way for a 7 inch metal spike and screw a cup into my pelvis. None of that sounded fun.

The anterior approach that Dr. Kliman in Palto Alto used left me feeling like I’d been kicked in the upper quad for about 9 months, but also means they don’t sever a single muscle or disrupt the joint capsule. Translation? Essentially the same risk of dislocation that I had before. I could do yoga, ski, dance, hike, cross my legs and anything else I wanted with abandon. Once I’d recovered.

Even in the weeks leading up to the replacement I was exercising about 2 hours a day, when you include dog walks, yoga and gym visits. Because the quadriceps muscles are stretched quite to their limits for joint access, the post surgery window requires nearly total rest so that the muscles can recover and regain their functional shape. Clearly you don’t want to be abed the entire time – the body would seize up. But my limit was around the block with a walker for nearly a month. Then two, three… up to five blocks. For a full three months, no yoga asana, no weights, no craziness, no abandon. Two miles were my max limit. And even swimming was verboten until the scar had fully healed. I was a basket case. And not a well-woven one.

When the three month mark hit, I was ecstatic… then deflated. Turns out, my hip had been so non-conformist from the very beginning that having an anatomically “correct” appliance in there was a wholly different experience. It was wonderful – riding bikes made sense for the very first time in my life! – and my muscles had to re-learn everything. Add to that a degradation in my sense of balance, an inability to lead up stairs with my right leg and feeling like I was learning to live again. I was re-weaving my basket.

As I write this, my surgery was 1 year, 1 week and 3 days ago. I’ve had my first year surveillance X-ray and all is hunky dory. I can lead up stairs with my right leg, my balance is restored, I can walk – I revel in walking and hiking – miles without pain.

I do not run, jog, do plyometrics (jumping exercises), carry a heavy pack or do anything that could wear my appliance out more quickly than regular living. I can do Sun Salutations with ease again (that just happened a couple of months ago) and understand so much more the yoga of pain, of limitation and of modification. I will never tell another yogi that what feels aligned in their own body is not aligned because it’s not symmetrical to my eye. I will never push a student’s limb into the place that looks right to me. I listen deeply to what my students tell me feels right in their bodies and invite them to explore alternatives, or sometimes to simply go deeper into where they are.

It turns out my limitation was a great gift, but one I had to struggle with mightily until I wore myself out enough to listen to what it was teaching. I still listen and am still learning from the experience. I enjoy more rest now than ever before in my life. I care less about deadlines, consequences and what other people think. I care more about the integrity of movement, work, meaning and expression and know that these win out every time.

I’ll write more about modifications, asana, practices and meditations that helped me and arose from this experience. They all come down to this: be still, even with pain. Pain really doesn’t entail suffering; we can make suffering without pain and skip suffering with pain. In the stillness, listen. Listen into sensation, past judgement (your own), past fear and trust what comes to you. Even when it seems simple. Too simple. Just follow the inner teacher.

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Focus, concentration, things that masquerade as them and spiritual bypassing

Seal of Good Practice as it appeared in 1958

Seal of Good Practice as it appeared in 1958 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Practice is called “practice” because it is just that. The mechanism by which yoga and meditation practice work on us is repetition despite fluctuating desire and facility, and this repetition is called practice.  And you’ve no doubt heard and experienced that the point of showing up day after day, desire or no, and despite how easy or hard it is on any given day, is that we are practicing for life.

Meditation is described in yoga by the sixth and seventh of the “Eight Limbs” described by Patanjali. Dharana and Dhyana together describe meditation: concentration + focus. Concentration is the ability to stay present to the field of awareness, while focus is the ability to select and moderate that field. Focus, put simply, is the ability to choose your object of meditation while concentration is the ability to remain with it.

Meditation Sticker

Meditation Sticker (Photo credit: Sanne Schijn)

Dear Hubs and I often refer to one another’s quirky abilities  – you know, the character traits and capacities that can be endearing or annoying depending on how you relate to them – as special secret super powers. Organizing and focus are two of mine.

Any superhero will tell you that their super power can also create their biggest problems, and is usually the repository for the bits of experience they want to avoid. So how can a mere mortal avoid the pitfalls of special secret super powers if the chicks and dudes of flight and steel can’t avoid them?

So perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised the other day when my laser focus and persistent concentration were revealed to me not as super powers, but the armor with which I gird myself and fend off the demands of body and home.

When the mix of focus and concentration is out of balance, it’s pretty easy for me to catch myself using these capacities to live in my head rather than whole body and to snap at people who ask me to change the range or object of my focus. When Dear Hubs came in to ask how I’d like to be served breakfast, I’d become so absorbed in my focus that I snapped (not a proud moment, to be sure).

Like Gollum with the Ring, I had mistaken the object of attention for the value.

CG depiction of Gollum created by Weta Digital...

CG depiction of Gollum created by Weta Digital for the Lord of the Rings film trilogy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The object is only valuable for what it reveals about the field of awareness in which it resides.

Using my special secret super power as a shield from the world, I was so far in my head I had ceased to feel hungry, notice my posture and breathing or respond to the person I admire most in the world as the wonderful human being he is.

The balance of focus and concentration is part of what I need to practice when I arrive on the cushion or mat. My personal tendency is to fall into over focus, which can be a sort of spiritual bypassing, when we use our practices to escape the world rather than find equanimity in it.

How do the components of meditation show up in your day-to-day world? Have you ever noticed that you “leave your body” during your day-to-day life? How do you use what you learn on the mat and cushion to adjust how you relate to your work and love?

Yoga of hidden goals, redux + applied

There’s a beautiful book launch today over at Curvy Yoga, where the name of the game is “body positive yoga,” which you might hope would be a redundant phrase.

For that reason, I was fascinated with the interview Roseanne highlighted in her blog post over at It’s All Yoga: a quick (11 minute) chat about photo-shoots, body image and loving life with Kathryn Budig of ToeSox ad fame.

NiNJA a'SCAREDY CAT

(Photo credit: aJ GAZMEN ツ GucciBeaR)

Budig sounds like so many of us reflecting on our vulnerability and body image (deeply intertwined) and a million yogis who depend on their practice to sculpt their image of a yoga body. The interview (11 minutes) didn’t allow for deep exploration of the junction where external and internal judgment meet, much less our collective concept of “goddess body” (can anyone say Venus of Willendorf?)

Deutsch: Venus von Willendorf

Deutsch: Venus von Willendorf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I guess that what this short conversation reveals is that there are many possibilities rattling in our collective consciousness.

What the juxtaposition of this book launch and this interview say to me is that there are plenty of hidden goals rolling around in many of our assumptions about yoga, bodies, health and beauty.

Brava for Guest-Jelley (most especially today) and for Budig for putting it out there, for Roseanne over at It’s All Yoga for asking the question.

The yoga of hidden goals that rearrange your life

Rearrange

Rearrange (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Svadyaya, self-study, is one of the guiding practices or values of yoga, one of the niyamas, and is often taken to mean the study of texts or of the breath.

Studying habits and patterns, though, can make tectonic shifts how you live your life. This kind of study, though, has to be courted; it can’t be undertaken on a schedule. You have to be ready when the text opens itself and clear enough to see what it’s telling you.

Yoga, you’ve heard over and over, means “yoking.” Yoga is the union of seeming opposites – sun & moon, light & dark, active & inactive, inbreath & outbreath, effort and surrender. Yoga also happens when we’re able to see how opposites intersect in our own bodies, lives and psyches and not take sides. Like that moment when you realize that you really can be happy for someone else and sad for yourself (or visa versa) at the same time, and they’re not like matter and anti-matter, canceling one another or causing your very substance to blink out of existence from the seeming contradiction.

“Yoga” refers to the internal logic of life. When you begin to listen to your life and view it from a place of expansive consciousness, it gets a little Joseph Campbell on you. The deeper reality that allows the seeming contradictions to co-exist begins to surface like artifacts in the desert after a rain and the thing that’s always bugged you about how you live your life, react to stress or talk to yourself in between the words you say out loud becomes utterly clear, obvious and undeniable, like a skeleton bleached under the sun on a vast landscape of air and sky.

Only when you make space for these seeming revelations (the truth has been there all along) can you begin to see how your own internal logic has been using all your well-planned, deeply cherished goals to weave its own fabric from your life.

This is the reason I come to the mat. Not because this will happen on any given day, or because I can make it happen or force understanding where, right now, there is only longing. But because without this time alone, quiet, in movement and stillness, the internal logic of my life – the thing that’s trying to work itself out, the call that I can almost hear in everything I do, the voice that might be calling out for help and for care, or might be driving me forward – won’t surface through the sands of time, won’t be heard, made scrutable and understood. Without taking this time, the voice in the desert continues calling, unheeded, unheard, mistaking itself for alone.