Soul Work

To get right to the point, Why are you here?

Let’s put our learned answers aside for a moment because I’m interested in your answer, not something you learned from a doctrine or a book or an authority figure.

And I’m not even that interested in your answer. I’m interested in your asking the question and sitting with that space in between the asking and the answering.

That space, that’s what I’m after. For you, for me, for all of us soul-seekers and truth-speakers.

A few weeks ago my teacher posed that question to a room full of yogis high on meditation and asana: Why are you here?

Tonight I ended up at this same question oddly enough through what I thought was a very innocent analysis of why Rich and Strong are so sought-after in our society. To put it another way, why Weak and Vulnerable are what we try to hide away from the world. Not what we try to deny – because deep within, in our most private of moments all of us surrender to weak and vulnerable. What is interesting to me is why we try to hide it away.

Here’s what I came up with (non-scientifically speaking):
If we reveal to the world that we are weak or vulnerable there are a few things we fear will happen:

We will get hurt.
We will be outcast and not accepted.
We will feel embarrassed.
We will look pitiful.

Wrap these up into one line and it sounds a lot like this: We will not be loved.

Follow me into this hypothetical world of We are not loved. What are our options then?
Some people avoid their reality.
Some people kill themselves.
Some people confront their reality.

Why do these drastic measures seem the only option in a world where we don’t feel loved? Because many of us would ask in that moment, Why am I here if I am not loved?

Feeling loved is powerful, healing, and vital to our thriving. But in our hypothetical world of not being loved we aren’t concerned with thriving.

We are concerned with surviving.

So the more important question in that moment seems to be not do we feel loved, but Do we love ourselves?

What I observe is that most of us don’t wrestle with these two questions – Do I love myself and Why am I here – until we have no other choice. Until life takes everything away from us that matters and strips us of every label, identity, and story we ever had.

Then all we’re left with is that question, why are we here, and the haunting echo of nothingness.

Our minds will give us answers, just as they do with the other powerful question – Who Am I? – but while the answer would be helpful, I believe the transformation happens in between the question and the answer, in the darkness. In the silence.

In the absence of knowing we bathe in pure being. The answer doesn’t matter and the question doesn’t matter. This matters. This being. This wholeness.

If we are lucky enough to get an answer, to learn our dharma, then we are both privileged and tasked with the obligation to live it.

Maybe that’s why we don’t ask the question in the first place until it’s the only thing we have left to hold onto. Maybe it’s why we cling to what we know and what other people think of us. Maybe it’s why we spend our lives trying to prove we’re strong enough, good enough, and just plain enough. Because if the world takes away its good impression of us what do we have left?

We have ourselves. And we have questions. Questions that have no answers. Darkness everywhere we turn until we look within. There we find the ember of being that is the only light that ever mattered.

Stoke that ember. Stoke it like your life depends on it.

Because it does.

I Don’t Want to Know What Kind of Yoga You Practice

I don’t want to know if you feel strong after yoga.
I want to know if you feel softened, receptive, and open to grace.

I don’t want to know if you can touch your toes.
I want to know if you can touch your heart, my heart and the world with your truth.

I don’t want to know if you can reach the sky as you rise.
I want to know if you can kiss the earth in mourning, in joy and in between.

I don’t want to know if you can balance on your head.
I want to know if you can shake and wobble and not give up.

I don’t want to know how often you practice.
I want to know how often you cry at the sheer beauty of your own heartbeat.

I don’t want to know what brand of clothes you’re wearing.
I want to know if you’re comfortable in your own skin and how it stretches over your bones just perfectly.

I don’t want to know how yoga has fixed you.
I want to know if you know you weren’t broken to begin with.

I don’t want to know if you meditate or not.
I want to know if you can look in the mirror and see who you really are.

I don’t want to know what kind of yoga you practice.
I want to know what kind of life you live.

What I Know About An Open Heart

heartMy uncle had open-heart surgery last week.

In my good-sized extended family our reunions tend to take place at hospitals instead of at holidays. It’s an interesting dynamic trying to stretch my heart open wide enough to hold both the joy at seeing my family and the sadness or stress because of why we’re at the hospital.

It feels scary to do that—to stretch my heart wide open.

It makes me feel vulnerable which makes me feel protective and afraid I won’t be able to handle it. But mostly it makes me feel open. And when I’m open love can not only flow in, it can also flow out.

I did a little research on open-heart surgery and here’s what my non-med-school mind gathered: It’s a big deal.

It can vary from procedure to procedure but in many cases the chest is opened. While the surgeon works on the stopped heart, a heart-lung machine continues to send blood to the brain and other organs.

Healing happens in phases, the first of which lasts six to eight weeks.

The medical advances and science that are required to accomplish this is amazing. What’s equally amazing to me is the findings of the HeartMath Research Center, an institute devoted to decoding the heart-mind connection physiologically and how that affects our quality of life.

Without going into too much detail, some of what they’ve found is this:

“The heart affects mental clarity, creativity, emotional balance and personal effectiveness. Our research and that of others indicate that the heart is far more than a simple pump. The heart is, in fact, a highly complex, self-organized information processing center with its own functional ‘brain’ that communicates with and influences the cranial brain via the nervous system, hormonal system and other pathways. These influences profoundly affect brain function and most of the body’s major organs, and ultimately determine the quality of life.”

This gives us a major incentive to take care of our hearts both figuratively and literally.

When was the last time we had a heart-to-heart with our heart?

These aren’t always easy conversations. I find the only time I can truly enter my heart is when I am completely present, which requires radical attention and focus. Otherwise I’m not entering my heart. I’m entering my mind. I’m entering my mind’s representation of what my heart holds, but not my actual heart itself.

My mind likes to tell me a lot about my heart, kind of like a know-it-all friend likes to give us the low-down on everyone else. But that is often not the truth of the matter.

We find what’s really going on in our hearts by stepping into our bodies (quite literally into our body and out of our mind) and thus into our present moment.

Here is where the heart-to-heart happens. Like any authentic conversation, expect some powerful clearing to come from it.

What I know about my heart is that it’s a muscle. Physically and emotionally it’s a muscle. It needs to pump to work and it needs to love to work. Not just once or twice but every moment of every day for my entire life.

Life will perform open-heart surgery on all of us many times over in our lifetime.

It will feel like our chest is being ripped open.

It will feel like our heart has stopped beating.

It will take us time to heal. When we heal, our heart will beat better than ever and it will love better than ever.

Over and over again our hearts will get broken. When they heal we will find they can hold a little more love than they could before. When we can hold a little more love, we can give a little more love.

And that’s what makes the world go round.

Originally published on elephantjournal.

photo via Pinterest

What I Learned in 2014

I learned that love is like cotton candy. It stretches with you, it sticks to you, it’s messy and delicious and makes life more fun. I learned to tread softer on my heart and in my life. I learned the cleanest line can be found not only on a wave or on a rock but in life as well. I learned how it feels to say no to myself because I’m saying yes to someone else. I learned how selfish I really am. I learned how generous I can be. I learned that I didn’t know who I married until I had a child with him and found out how lucky I really am. And that I didn’t really know who I was until I had a child. I learned that a little bit of silence can go a long way {same thing with yoga}. I learned the reason everyone loves babies, even old grumpy men, is because we see ourselves reflected in their eyes {our truest, purest self without our labels and habits and scars}. I learned my best friends are the butterflies and the bees and the trees and the leaves. I learned gratitude is a state of being {not doing}. I learned this being human is the hardest work in the world if we’re doing it right. I learned endings are the box beginnings come wrapped in. I learned to be a little more courageous and a little less controlling. I learned to ask the hard questions and listen to the hard answers. I learned to trust the universe and myself. I learned if I stretch my heart a little wider it won’t break. It will just hold a little more love.

What did you learn in 2014?

The Art of Decompressing

To quote yoga teacher Darren Rhodes: “You’ve got to be able to handle compression.”

He likens this concept to the air inside a tire. There’s a lot of compression in that tire, but because of the way it handles it, it isn’t crushed. It can roll with it, if you will.

I’m in the midst of learning how I handle compression on a new level. It’s been a challenging year full of twists, turns and transitions that seem to go on forever. My old resources for staying full and balanced have been mostly unavailable, so I’m navigating new territory in a new way and quickly finding holes in my tires so to speak.

The idea of managing compression reminds me of scuba diving. Divers can dive deep fairly quickly, but they must surface much slower. The diving compresses their lungs and the rising to the surface decompresses them, but this decompression takes time.

The compression that happens in many yoga poses is often supported by an inner buoyancy that supports our inner body even as our outer body becomes compressed. When backbending, for example, we keep our back body full energetically to support the compression of bending backwards.

We get better at handling these polar opposites – staying full while under pressure – through practice, practice, practice. In yoga we practice the same poses over and over, not to get better at them but to get better at us; to get better at staying attentive to what happens as we move into poses we like and poses we don’t like, poses that feel liberating and poses that feel compressed.

In life we practice staying attentive to what happens when we move into situations we like and situations we don’t like, situations that feel free and situations that feel compressed.

This begs the question, what supports us when we’re compressed? The air supports the tire. The air is what re-inflates the diver’s lungs as they rise to the surface. For us humans it’s Prana, or our vital life force, that supports us when life begins to get intense. That’s the air in our tires.

I find love to be a great source of Prana, both the giving it, the receiving it, and the embodying it. It’s so healing, so filling, and so powerful yet unassuming. Ironically when we feel compressed (read stressed, burdened, or tired) love is sometimes the last thing we feel we can tap into.

Thankfully it often comes tapping on the window of our soul and asks to come in. When I soften to that invitation I fill myself up, find I feel more alive and, like that diver rising to the surface, I learn that decompressing is often more a practice of allowing than one of forcing.

As I continue on my journey of learning to handle compression I hope love keeps tapping at the window of my soul, reminding me that receiving, giving and embodying love is what will support my inner being when my outer being feels compressed; and that embracing these polar opposites is what will allow me to ride through life come what may.

Everyday Enlightenment

yogaAt yoga recently the teacher suggested this intention for our practice:

I will not take things personally.

This didn’t really resonate with me, so I chose an intention that rang more true to me:

I will take things personally.

As in I will get up close and personal with my dreams, my loves, my life and my fears. I will smell their sweat and place their sticky cheek next to mine and breathe in their outbreath. I will inhabit every ounce of this human body as I rest in the hammock of being and awareness that holds it up.

I sometimes get the sense in the yoga world we’re all trying to detach and be perfectly balanced, enlightened beings. I’m all for enlightenment, but in striving for that perfect state we can miss a lot of wonderful imperfection along the way because we consider it “in the way.”

For a long time I approached my practice and my life as if it were in the way of where I was going. I wanted to get “there” because getting there seemed to mean I wouldn’t have to suffer anymore. I envisioned a state of being where stress wouldn’t sway me, family wouldn’t bother me, loss wouldn’t shake me, and life wouldn’t hurt me.

What I was doing was detaching from my reality and skipping out on my own life. I was missing the point Peter Rhodes makes when he says:

“We make a mistake when we wait for heaven, wait for enlightenment, wait for change. It is not going to happen in the future. It is happening. It is within our experience. Now is the time.”

Yoga and meditation are tools that help us bring a quality of awareness to our lives so that we don’t suffer unnecessarily. It is just so easy to use these valuable tools to bypass what’s happening right now, what’s living and thriving in our bones and bodies and lives right now; the good, the bad, and the ugly. Life is not always love and light. Sometimes it’s pain and darkness. They are the two poles of life that together light up our lives as the full experience it is.

It’s easy to fall into a practice of seeking enlightenment on a mountain top while the everyday enlightenment passes us by. Lorin Roche reminds us of this in The Radiance Sutras:

Wherever, whenever you feel carried away,
Rejoicing in every breath,
There, there is your meditation hall.
Cherish those times of absorption—
Rocking the baby in the silence of the night
Pouring water into a crystal glass
Tending the logs in the crackling fire
Sharing a meal with a circle of friends.
Embrace these pleasures and know,
This is my true body.
Nowhere is more holy than this.
Right here is the sacred pilgrimage.

I’m so grateful to that yoga teacher for her offering and for sharing an intention that was relevant in her life. It helped shed light on my own process and revealed to me an intention that has been marinating in me all year.

I will take things personally. I will live life fully. I will love more than ever before.

Originally published on YogaOneBlog.

An Experiment in Gratitude

I committed the last 30 days to finding something to be thankful for every day.

It seems like a no-brainer because aren’t all of us finding the gratitude in our lives every day? I thought so but was surprised to find some days it was very easy and other days extremely challenging.

IMG_2803I obligated myself to posting each day on Twitter and was grateful for the accountability that came with that obligation.

As the days passed I began to realize my little experiment was taking me somewhere I didn’t expect. It was taking me deeper into my daily grind and my thankless attitude that often accompanied it.

Every day gave me an opportunity to find the beauty in the ordinary and even in the ugly. It allowed me to reflect on the small things that light up my world. It challenged me to see where I was taking life for granted and begin to create a seismic shift within myself that will change the landscape of my life for the better.

Gratitude is not just an attitude. It’s a state of being that softens the edges around our energetic body and our physical hearts and lungs, allowing us to expand to our full capacity. From that place of fullness, of enoughness, we begin to offer ourselves and our gifts to the world a little more generously. Not surprisingly it also allows us to receive more than ever before.

Here’s what I found to be grateful for the last 30 days. If you have any to add or your own list I’d love to see it.

{gratitude list}

Day 1: I am grateful for my failures because they make me try harder.

Day 2: I am grateful for the thumping in my chest that allows me to enjoy another day.

Day 3: I am grateful for that first sliver of sunlight that kisses my cheek and warms my soul.

Day 4: I am grateful to the universe for providing what I need before I even ask.

Day 5: I am grateful for my legs that support me, lift me, and move me.

Day 6: Thank you SEA for your salt and your spray and your crash and your roar and your whisper that calls me home.

Day 7: Thankful for my laugh lines that get deeper and more wrinkly each year.

Day 8: Thankful for today’s new moon that reminds me everything has a shadow side, a yin, a pause, a time to look within.

Day 9: Thankful for the days I am very very tired. It means I am very very alive.

Day 10: Grateful for relationship {the state of being connected} to myself, to my loved ones, to all living things, to all human beings.

Day 11: Thankful for this compass {my heart} that I can turn to when I get lost and find my way back to true north.

Day 12: Grateful for my health: physical, mental, emotional.

Day 13: Grateful for family who acts as a mirror and reflects back to me what I need to work on.

Day 14: Grateful for all the aliveness that throbs in and around me.

Day 15: Thankful to yOgA for improving the relationship between my head and my heart.

Day 16: Grateful for Sound: palm leaves scratching at my window, church bells in the distance, an airplane above. The sounds of Now.

Day 17: Thank you ARMS for holding love, reaching out, and pulling life closer.

Day 18: Grateful to my friend A.R. who once upon a time said: “I think you’re ready for The Power of Now.”

Day 19: Grateful for the steam that rises from my tea and warms my face.

Day 20: Thank you Today for giving me opportunities to learn, grow, thrive, love and live deeper.

Day 21: Grateful for the roof over my head and the love in my heart.

Day 22: Thank you Mother Nature for today’s full moon and her radiant energy.

Day 23: Grateful for conversations that go where we’re afraid to go and unearth true connection.

Day 24: Grateful for the questions that have no answers, but in their place a quiet knowing that the question itself is what matters.

Day 25: Thankful for Laughter {giggles, belly laughs, heart roars, and those weird laugh/cry combos}.

Day 26: Thankful for Hope {that small ember of light within that never dies out}.

Day 27: Grateful for Breath {that helps us turn the impossible into the possible one breath at a time}.

Day 28: Thank you Today for giving me the gift of the Present.

Day 29: Thankful for pain. It’s one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.

Day 30: Grateful for Endings {the wrapping paper for Beginnings which we only find when we look inside}.

4 Ways to Go Deeper in Yoga

aumI attended an amazing yoga teacher training a couple years ago. Among the many things I learned from it was this:

A yoga teacher training may deepen your knowledge of yoga, but only you can deepen your practice of yoga.

That deepening, sifting, observing, and growing happens subtly, over time, and often through your own home practice. The doorway to a deeper practice may turn out to be your own and not the one into a yoga studio.

Here are four practices  I routinely return to when I feel the need to dive deeper, long to feel connected or want to jumpstart my heart and soul.

Skip the Music

Music is a powerful addition to yoga, but so is subtracting it. When I practice without music I have to hear my bones creak and crack. I have to hear my breath start out uneven and slowly deepen, slowly lengthen. I have to hear both the silence and the noise that I often try to escape. In short, I have to practice alongside myself as the yogi I am and not the yogi I hope to emerge as after my practice.

Practicing without music gives my heart the space to speak up, and when my heart speaks I want to be able to hear it loud and clear.

Try: Noticing the natural noises in your surroundings. The birds, the traffic, the fan, the dishwasher, the silence between your inhale/exhale, and eventually the beating of your own heart. Follow those sounds into the present moment. Linger here, you the teacher, you the student.

Slow it Down

Slowing down our yoga practice means allowing the poses to work on us instead of us working so much on the poses. A more deliberate, slow practice lets us find and focus on gems that are easy to miss when we move quickly. Our breath gets to become our endoscope, exploring our insides for tightness, patterns of holding, and muscles locked in fear and habit.

Try: Holding each pose for at least a minute after warming up. Pay close attention that each movement corresponds with a complete inhale and exhale. Instead of letting your exhale taper off at the end focus on keeping it strong and steady the entire time. Notice when and how your internal dialogue kicks in. Allow what already is to rise to the surface.

Practice When You Don’t Feel Like It

Reasons I often hear (and use myself) for skipping yoga, especially a home practice, is I’m tired, I’m too busy, or I don’t feel like it today. Ironically, these are the most fertile times for us to practice. These are the times we can observe our internal dialogue as we practice and start doing the deeper work of yoga; that being unifying our mind and body and stepping into a more honest relationship with our true self.

If time is the problem, commit to a 10-minute practice once a day. A consistent practice doesn’t have to be a long one. The consistency is the important thing.

Try: Starting with an exhale instead of an inhale. Empty yourself out completely. Now there is space to begin. Instead of “adding” breath and movement, try observing the layers of stress evaporate until all that’s left is breath and movement. Stay focused on linking your breath with your movement instead of trying to get through a certain routine or number of poses.

Explore Mantra

Some of the most revealing insights I’ve experienced in yoga have come through mantra. There are a multitude of mantras to choose from, but let’s focus on the most common one we hear in yoga, om.

Om, or aum, is a sanskrit syllable also called pranava or “deep sound.”

The three letters correspond to three states of being. The A being the waking state, the U being a dream state, and the M being a state of deep sleep. The ensuing silence is referred to as a fourth state, Turiya, or consciousness itself.

Try: Beginning and ending your practice with an aum. Notice how each feels different. Observe how the sound physically emerges from you, with the A beginning at the back of your throat, the U rising to the roof of your mouth, and the M holding steady with the lips closed.

Deepening our yoga practice doesn’t always mean mastering a harder pose, taking a teacher training, or practicing more. Often it just means opening the door to your heart and courageously choosing to enter with awareness, commitment, and compassion.

 

Originally published on elephantjournal.

Rewriting The Story of More

This month I had to choose between my life and my livelihood.

The details don’t matter anymore, but in the end I had to choose between keeping a job that would require me to work 50 to 60 hours a week or losing that job.

I chose my life over my livelihood because if I fast-forward 40 years and ask my 80-year-old self which choice I should have made, I know the 80-year-old me will put more value on the hours I spent with my loved ones than the hours I spent making money.

The hard part wasn’t making my decision. The hard part was standing up and saying no to a society that routinely asks us to choose making a living over living our life; that gives greater weight to money and things than it does our health, our families, and our well-being; that values how we look over how we are, how we function over how we feel, and insinuates that those should be our values as well by praising us when we spend more, buy more, do more, achieve more, and subscribe to The Story of More.

We’re told this story our whole lives and often don’t realize we are fully capable of writing our own story and our own happy ending.

The Story of More undercuts our inherent enoughness. It tells us we are empty without more. More things, more activities, more money. It’s not enough to have enough. We must have more than enough. When we buy into The Story of More we slowly lose touch with our true needs because we are up to our heads in our wants.

I ask myself and I ask you, how much is enough? If commercials, magazines, and friends didn’t tell us we needed that bigger house, that new car, that better job, that new outfit, would we think we were lacking anything?

After getting to know indigenous people in sync with their habitat, photographer Cristina Mlttermeier distills it down to this:

“If you have clean water, a net full of fish, and a warm fire, that’s basically all people need to be quite content.”

We make a mistake thinking we have a lifetime when the reality is we only have this moment. We only have Now. Hopefully we’ll have 80 years of Now if we’re lucky, but it often happens that we only have 20 years of Now or 40 years of Now or even less.

The Story of More keeps gaining momentum and it’s hard not to get swept along with it. I experienced how difficult it is to swim against the stream in my work situation, but how can I teach my son to stand up for what he believes in if I don’t stand up for what I believe in? How can I ask him to walk his talk if I don’t walk my talk? How can I expect him to follow an example I don’t set? If I only stand on principle when it’s convenient how can I say I stand for anything at all?

At some point in our lifetime we will all be asked if we’re ready to walk our talk. The question might come from an employer as mine did or it might come through an illness or loss or some other radical life circumstance that sobers us up to the brevity and fragility of our lives.

I believe if we’re asked the question it’s because we’re ready to answer YES.

If I’m lucky, in 40 years when I look in the mirror at my 80-year-old self we will smile at each other knowing we wrote our own life story one precious moment at a time.

 

Originally published on elephantjournal.

Still.

IMG_2143If I sit very still
(as still as a stone)
I can almost see the growth happening
in me, in the soil around me

as the first green stems push up
un-earthing

Such is growth.
un-earthing what is possible
what is unknown
what is to be

I can almost sense the earth’s rotation
and my rotation
around my heart,
my axis

If I sit alone
(for longer than I like)
I can almost hear my voice
small and uncertain
daring to speak up and break the silence

like a bird’s song at dawn
rousing me from sleep
inviting me to listen
to the silence that follows
to the beat of the universe

If I walk slowly
(as slow as the sun sets)
I can almost hear my blood swishing through my veins
and my heart pumping
thump thump thump
and my breath swooshing
inandout inandout inandout inandout

The symphony of Life
I am the conductor
and I am the spectator

So here I sit very still
(as still as the moon)
watching it all
being it all
allowing it all
remembering it all

So that even when I move
(quicker than I should)
and break the spell
some of the magic lingers

like morning dew
or the smell of rain

proof of what was
and what is
and what will be.