Meant to Be: Me and Yoga, an Unexpected Love Story (1/2016)

I walked into my first yoga class at 19. It was strip mall yoga. I remember being told to relax and breathe while in poses where breath, and relaxation were the last things I imagined possible. WTF was muttered under my breath repeatedly as I contorted myself into painful poses I'd never done before. I worked hard and tried to keep up with a flow that felt like it was created by a sadist. I remember feeling really angry and hateful when the class was over. No bliss. No peace of mind.  I walked away from my first experience of asana wondering what the hell my straight-edge, vegan friends getting into yoga and joining the Hari Krishnas were thinking. Nuts. They were nuts.

But like many ultimately great relationships mine with yoga started with distaste and confusion. What the hell was this practice that pushed my buttons so deeply? Why would I want to chaturanga 20 times and then hold down dog while watching my brain spin? Not willing to quit right away I tried out some DVDs by yoga-lebrity teachers and disliked those too. Some were too fitness class like, some too New Agey. And just like the woman who runs from that guy at the party who sips seltzer and challenges her mind with interesting thoughts rather than telling her how hot she is, I ran from yoga.

Flash forward by 9 years. My back hurt. It hurt bad. I had herniated discs during labor and the road to recovery was filled with intense lightning bolts of pain. Every doctor I had encouraged me to try yoga. "It's good for a bad back," they said. "It'll be relaxing," they said. With my initial experience of yoga with the sadist and boring DVDs it was hard to believe what I was hearing so I ignored the advice. After a year of limping through physical therapy, cortisone injections, and ever more pain I saw a flyer in my town for free yoga classes...this yoga had a weird name....Kripalu Yoga. Incredulous. Exasperated. I decided that I would try this yoga with the strange name.

I walked into the tiny rec center with a stinky carpet and cardio machines jammed against the wall and my tiny chunk of hope shrank even smaller. There were 10 or so people jammed into a room that only 6 people on yoga mats would fit comfortably...I was about to leave when my teacher Laura immediately sprang to help me find a spot. Everyone shifted a little left, a little right, and suddenly there was a place for me...it felt nice. My hope grew a smidge.

There was gentle chanting playing from a tiny radio. She had a sweet little altar with sacred objects I didn't recognize and this little chime that she struck right before she began to speak. After the chime sounded everyone stopped stretching and the room fell silent. We were old, young, fit, and fat people all gathered together. Looking around the room I felt a sense of ease. I felt that we each belonged there on that mat, in that place, with each other. I felt myself settle.

When Laura spoke her voice resounded through the small space, sounding like warm honey tastes...nourishing and sweet. She encouraged us to turn our gaze inward and sense our breath and body as it was in the moment. Then for about 10 minutes we breathed and noticed that practice. We began simply, just filling our bellies with breath, then breath moved up a bit higher, all the way to the collarbone. We exhaled generously, squeezing the belly. I felt my self sink deep into my body. I felt my busy mind slow way down. I felt the muscles in my body soften a little. I felt peace beginning to bubble up from inside. Suddenly my heart and brain screamed from inside of me, THIS IS YOGA!

Though the rest of the practice was challenging and again I found myself in poses I didn't know that I could do and breathe simultaneously, again I felt angry about my body's limitations, however there was a big difference between that night and my other experiences. This time I had space for it all. With my teacher's gentle cues, encouragements, and lots of reminders to notice and accept the thoughts and sensations I was having I made it through the 90 minutes of yoga without letting my frustration sweep me away, off the mat and out of the class. At the end of class I felt a sense of accomplishment, and my body felt better. Tensions were softened. Tissues lengthened. Though the flow was intense I felt like I was learning something beyond exercise for a sore back, I was learning something really important about noticing my experience and not letting it carry me away.

That was 11 years ago and I haven't looked back. I've been practicing Kripalu Yoga ever since. Not to say that this mad affair has been all wine and roses, true yoga practice isn't. I've cried, sweated, blown apart, come back together, blown apart again and got back on that mat many times. I've learned that what I experience on my mat I can take into my life...noticing the hard feelings and not becoming overtaken by them. Bringing acceptance to my limitations, celebrating my growing ability to become conscious of feelings and thoughts. Over the past decade I've had the opportunity to study with a number of yoga teachers, some true masters of Kripalu Yoga but none will ever capture my gratitude and heart like my first teacher, Laura Lin. Thank you Laura, wherever you are now. Your spirit lit the candle in my soul and I will be ever blessed for that. Jai Bhagwan!

Lost and Found: The Dance of My Soul (2/2015)

I think I danced my way out of the womb--arriving two full months early in September, 1975. From the stories I've been told, and what I can remember, I was birthed and didn't stop moving from there. I walked young and my preferred mode of walking was dancing. I danced in the living room. I pranced and twirled during West Side Story and countless other movie musicals. I sang and danced with Gene Kelly, Patrick Swayze, and Fred Astaire. Cheek to cheek...heart and body ablaze with life. When I got older I practiced the choreography from MTV videos and then took what I learned to make my own little dances set to Janet Jackson and Madonna. Life was meant to be danced through.  

In my early 20's I essentially stopped dancing, at least in organized classes and performances. I stopped imagining choreography to every song I heard. I know part of this was due to the fact that in my teens and early twenties I began to feel pressure to be a GOOD dancer. Loving dance was no longer enough. To be a REAL dancer I needed to have pointed toes, pretty body lines, my angled head aimed perfectly. I fixated on how I got pulled up to the front when I was good. I got sent to the back of the pack when my turned in, pigeon toes showed. I got pulled to the front when I got skinny, felt horrible when I was the biggest person in the room...including the classes with men. My love affair with dance became this pressurized experience of learning how to hate my body and wishing myself into another one. I grew afraid that my wild dancing ways were sloppy, lacked control, and poise. I gave up. 

Then I turned to writing. I could write and write and write and write and it didn't matter how big or small my body was. I could, in fact, forget that I even had a body. Meh. Who needs a body when you can live in your mind? Time to use my artistry in a new way. Why...I'd write THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL. So that's what I aimed to do. All of the passion I'd put into dance I transferred to writing.

While in college I could easily share my stories. Short stories, essays, screenplay treatments, anything. I'd write, share, get feedback, edit, show, have my voice. In school it was all part of the learning process. I didn't need to be good at it yet, I was a new writer. I was learning how to do it. I felt free from high expectations. 

So it flowed for a while. I wrote. I learned. I still occasionally danced, just did it in night clubs that blared 1990's house music instead of in classes and small stages. I felt alive, vibrant. Then a funny thing happened...I graduated. And, welcome, my darling pressure. 

Like the Queen song, pressure, it came down on me...hard. Suddenly my new creative outlet, my way of living had to become a way to earn a living. My ability to continue to write and share my work shriveled. I imagined a world of rejection opening up before me, ready to swallow me whole, ready to pull me into a pit of NOT GOOD ENOUGH. Suddenly I started feeling like my writing wasn't good enough. I was boring. My stories lacked complexity. Simple musings about every day life and heart are lame. I was no Paul Auster or E.E. Cummings, how was I supposed to make a go of this?

I wrote, published, and got paid for exactly 3 pieces of writing. They were movie reviews for a free Boston newspaper. Unfortunately my insecurity got the best of me and caused me to quit. Yes. That's right. I quit. In my head, I was about to be fired. I was convinced of it, so I quit before they gave me the boot. Turns out my internal pressure also caused paranoia.

If you've been in the self-help arena for a while you may be sensing something important about me here. "Why, she's pressuring herself!" Yes, you'd be right. That critical, perfectionist, nagging feeling that I'd never measure up, that was all coming from inside of me, and yet I imagined that it was what awaited me in the world. Sure, there were a few teachers, colleagues, and classmates who were critical and perfectionist but none of them matched what I could (and can) do to me, none of them believed as little in my ability as I did. 

That's a powerful awareness. When we can own the parts our psyche that can take someone down, that know how to be cruel. That can cause us to feel absolutely worthless, that's the ticket to our freedom. That's how we stop projecting the evil critics and haters onto the world around us and see that we are doing it to ourselves.

Of all people, it was Dr. Phil that I first learned this lesson from. I was about 25, had just quit yet another job and was watching Dr. Phil while chain-smoking when he said to a young woman (who was in the same unemployed boat as me), "What's the common denominator, here?" in his incredulous, Texan drawl. Light-bulb moment. I'm the common denominator, there's something about me that I need to understand here. 

Flash forward 14 years. After thousands of dollars worth of therapy, countless somatic psychology and Gestalt training programs, yoga, and meditation I have discovered that the monster in the dark recesses waiting to get me, is me. I feel liberated, this I can do something about. Don't get me wrong, times can still feel really hard, but now I know how to support myself through the terror, the insecurity, and doubt. I call a friend. I call my therapist and get in for some session work. I know that my feelings of being worthless are feelings, not the truth of who I am.

I've returned to dance, five years now, and I also teach, Shake Your Soul and Kripalu Yogadance--a form of dance that is about love, spirit, feeling good in the body, not about pressure to perform or be a great dancer. And slowly over the past few years I've returned to writing. Mostly ghost writing and editing for other writers. However, this blog marks my triumphant debut back on the scene. As I write that I feel the echoes of that critic, and pressure, "Will anybody even read this?" "You better edit this before you share it!" "You know, maybe this is just a waste of your time." I notice this voice. I breathe. I know that this message, it isn't the truth. I know that it means something to me to share my thoughts, my voice, with the world. I know that my soul is aching to be heard. So I breathe again and click publish.