Quit the drama, find your strength

My boyfriend Alex and I talk a lot about how people have become soft. How nothing is really hard to do anymore because of all the luxuries we have, how people now are so used to living the easy life.

This conversation usually takes place in a well air-conditioned coffee shop as we sip on coffee and tea while having a waiter bring us our lunch. : )

Being alive is easier than it ever has been. There are services, products, devices and machines to ease the oh-so-difficult task of living. This morning I ordered a book off of Amazon in about thirty seconds—I typed in the book title, bought it with the “one-click” option and hit confirm with my already saved credit card information and shipping address. I didn’t even have to get dressed.

Dinner can be ready in five minutes. Or, if putting something into the microwave is too much work, we can call for delivery. A gourmet meal, brought to our doorstep, in less than twenty minutes. Dish washers wash the dishes for us. Or, if this proves to be too tiring, we can use paper plates and simply throw them away. No work. No hassle. No stress of any kind.

What the hell?

When did we become so good at being catered to? When did making dinner or going to a bookstore become some horrible, gut-wrenchingly stressful endeavour? Even with all of the ease that the technological world has provided us with, we still act like our daily errands, chores, and lives in general are so extremely stressful. This is funny, because we truly do live in the easiest of times.

Sometimes I see this happening in yoga classes. I see students constantly using the wall for headstand, even though they’ve been practicing for years and could do it in the middle of the room just fine. As soon as I give the option of bent knees in navasana, students take it. People look at me like I’ve just killed their first born child if I make them hold a pose for more than ten breaths. I get death stares during the core-strengthening sequences of class.

Of course, they could just be having a shitty day where they feel like taking it easy–I don’t know what’s going on in my student’s lives that may be making them bend their knees in navasana. I don’t judge them. I’m just seeing a trend, and when I ask them “why are you using the wall for headstand” they usually say, “I’ve never tried it without the wall.”

Hmm.

I have never been the ooey-gooey, soft voiced, melt your heart and take-a-child’s-pose-if-it-feels-better kind of yoga teacher. This just isn’t me–first of all because I don’t understand what it means to “melt your heart” (I do, however, understand “take your sternum closer to the floor”).  Second of all, let’s face it–child’s pose ALWAYS feels better. I know that resting is necessary and shows a great deal of control over the ego, but not when you rest every time you feel slightly challenged. I urge my students not to use the wall for their inversions because if you can’t come into headstand in the middle of the room then you probably shouldn’t be doing it at all. This is a sign that you are not yet strong enough, and that is just fine.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m not a drill sergeant yoga teacher–I still laugh, talk about love and compassion, and say the word shit, but I am not about to let my students leave without feeling like they did some physical, mental, and spiritual work.

I feel like part of my job as a yoga teacher is to remind my students of their strength by creating a challenge, either physically or mentally. Physically, I’ll have students hold poses for longer than is comfortable, urge them to try something difficult, to get out of their comfort zones. But even when I’m teaching very relaxing classes, like yin or restorative, I still feel that my job of presenting a challenge is the same. It is a different challenge though, that of staying with the breath, being still, noticing thoughts, being present. These things are just as challenging, if not more so, than the physical stuff. Yin yoga still proves to be the most challenging of all yoga practices for me.

I went to Gentle yoga this morning with the always hilarious and lovely Sue Finkle. She knows well how to keep challenging us, either by reminding us to breathe deep, keep our thoughts from taking over, or to let go of tension–all while teaching an extremely relaxing, gentle class. If you ever have the chance, go to her class. Your day will be made.

I have gone to a yoga class before where the teacher presented no challenge to us at all. Not physically, emotionally, or spiritually. The best word to describe how I felt after that class is empty.

Empty is how I feel, too, when I find myself stressed about something that is actually not stressful at all. Damn, I have to unload the dish washer…laundry to fold…errands to run…groceries to buy. In reality, all of these things are quite the luxuries.

We have become very soft as a culture.

This transfers over into other areas of our lives as well. When someone cuts us off on the freeway, we get so offended, so angry, take it so personally. If a friend forgets to call us back we take it as if they hate our guts. When the guy making our coffee doesn’t smile and ask how our day is, we don’t go back to that cafe.

Drama, drama, drama.

The irony is that we all have been through real bad times, actual horrible situations, times when stress and drama are justified. And during those moments, we have proved that we are brave and strong, incredibly strong. Somehow though, we forget this, and all the sudden when our friend bails on lunch it’s like our life is completely over.

So do something out of your comfort zone, something that seems oh-so-stress-inducing that actually isn’t, something that maybe even irritates you. Push yourself. This can be done in the most gentle of ways, like deciding to sit still and close your eyes for five minutes. Go deeper, make it count, be brave. Toughen up. Let it go. Make dinner from scratch. Do something to remind yourself of your inner strength. It’s been there all along.

Yoga, a spiritually transmitted disease (when devoted correctly)

Can't imagine a better place to practice than on that little rock.

“You’ve been teaching differently,” they say. They, my students, say that it’s different, but that they like it.

The asana sequences that I teach haven’t changed. I give the same cues, play similar music, and use the same jokes that my regulars have probably heard too many times. What has changed is something deeper.

The reason for this change wasn’t conscious. I started teaching differently because I started practicing differently.

When I first started practicing yoga, it was all about me. The small me, the disconnected me, the me that has shit to do and hips to open and a core that needs strengthening and a mind to clear. And although practicing yoga for solely yourself is absolutely fine, it can get…old. It starts to feel stale. On top of that, it also takes a very egoless, gentle person to practice me-centered yoga and get any benefit out of it. In my experience, when we practice just for ourselves and the ego is inflamed even in the slightest bit, it leads to internal negativity. We think, why can’t I twist any deeper, why doesn’t my head touch my shin, why can that person do a handstand and I can’t, why am I thinking about what to make for dinner later, and why, oh why, do I suck so bad at yoga and life in general? On some days (or months), I’m egotistical and not so gentle with myself, so a practice that’s geared towards opening MY hips and finally getting MY body into this one pose and clearing MY mind doesn’t really work so well.

Obviously.

So, when I’m feeling ego-ey, or even if I’m not, I dedicate my yoga practice that day to someone or something outside of myself. I started doing this when I lived in Statesboro, not really knowing what I was doing. I remember feeling so connected to the other students in my yoga classes, so much that I would pick some person at random in class with me and devote my practice to them. Then I started dedicating to someone who was sad or troubled that day, or needed extra love. Sometimes it would be my roommate, or my Mom, or a friend I hadn’t seen in a while, or my pet turtle. It didn’t matter who or what I dedicated my yoga to–it worked, every time. It transitioned me out of “me” mode and into The Big Picture. It felt really, really good.

It started becoming second nature to devote my practice to something outside of me, not even a certain person or thing. It was just an overall feeling of external devotion and dedication.

Recently I’ve been practicing Ashtanga yoga, a lot, and a few weeks ago I started to feel the slight tug of ego, seducing me back into me-centered yoga. Being able to do some of the more challenging poses made me feel like I was super yogi, and not being able to do the “easy”, seated hip-openers made me feel like sucky yogi. This time, I knew that this was not a path that I wanted to go down. So I started the conscious dedicating again. To someone in the class, my teacher, a friend, the candle in the front of the room. Anything.

Now I encourage my students to do the same. Not usually in an in-your-face kind of way, but in subtle ways.

When we practice keeping someone or something else in mind, we realize that the person or thing just wants us to be happy. They want us to work hard if working hard will make us happy, and back off when it feels right. They want us to have fun and be gentle and easy. They don’t give a damn about how open our hips are or how long we can stay in headstand. These are things that only our ego cares about. So when we practice for them, we stop caring too. We start having fun and being light and getting some real work done. Spiritual kind of work.

Some days I can practice without dedicating, but again, it takes a very special day to do that and a very deliberate suppression of ego.

I strive to take all of the lessons I learn and discoveries I make on my yoga mat and apply them to the other twenty two and a half hours of my day. What I speak of today is no different. When I feel like I’m rushing, or half-assing, or being otherwise unmindful of being alive, I again, do a conscious dedication. Maybe a whole day is devoted to something outside of me, or maybe just washing the dishes or making dinner. Whatever it is, it helps me get out of my head and my little life and connect to the Big Stuff.

So try it. Dedicate. Devote. Marvel at something or someone other than yourself. Celebrate it, open up a bottle of champagne for it. Love it with all your heart. Doing this, is actually, not selfless, it will come back to you, in the best of ways. Maybe it will even catch on–yoga is, after all, a spiritually transmitted disease.

The truth is that when we do this, we are actually not devoting to something external, outside of ourselves, something “other”. We are recognizing our connection to that person or thing. We are seeing ourselves in something outside of ourselves. We are seeing the internal in the external.

This will make you fall in love with the whole world.

What Summer Does to me

Springtime is over in Savannah. We had the most pleasant of all Springs, everything bloomed within a few weeks of each other and it made the air smell sweet, like that subtle fragrance released after brushing up against a lavender bush. In the mornings the light was so cool and golden that it could taste like a pear.

I listened to a lot of Ani Difranco and went to bed early, dreaming of colors, scents, pine trees, and people who I admired.

I felt light. Arm balances and inversions were accompanied with a sense of ease.

But now, Springtime is over. More than ever. Summer is here, not quite its fullest form, but almost. Georgia heat is different from other places, it doesn’t cool off at night time or early morning–it lingers. It’s still eighty five at 3am and the air is dense, juicy, you can almost slice into it as you would a tomato. The light has changed, too, it’s more compact and opaque, like the orange of a bitten-into peach, its nectar spilling over, drooling down your hand and into the creases of your wrist.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Neil Young and I sleep without blankets, dreaming of redwoods, the ocean, dancing.

My practice has become slow and intentional and intense. I feel strong, rooted down. I crave standing sequences that require balance.

Summertime in Savannah has slowed me way, way down. And it feels damn good.

We live in a fast culture, and it keeps getting faster. It is easy to be swept away in the oblivion of instant communication–through email, texting, Facebook…as well as the pressure to make quick decisions, fast driving, fast conversations and even faster food. We feel accomplished when we get a high amount of productivity in a low amount of time.

Why?

I am the queen of multitasking. I am damn good at it. I’ve learned little shortcuts to get things done faster, like putting a pot of tea on the stove and then cleaning the kitchen while it steeps. I answer emails on my phone while I walk to work. Sometimes I brush my teeth in the shower.

Yes, multitasking is something that we have all mastered. But the day never feels right when I do this. It doesn’t feel like I’m really there, really soaking it all in. Multitasking pulls me physically and mentally in different, opposing directions. Centered is the last thing I feel. There is no flow to my day.

Summertime has helped me learn to be slow. How to dedicate myself to one task at a time, to one thought at a time, how to be aware. Things take me longer to complete–making dinner, walking to work, doing laundry, driving. And I’m finally learning how to be okay with being slow.

How often do we get anxious when we get stuck behind a slow car on a single lane road? Since when did fifty five become not fast enough? When did dinner become something that can be cooked in a microwave in under five minutes? Why isn’t it okay to spend an entire day cleaning the house? Or reading? Or drawing? Or doing cartwheels?

And since when did it become so incredibly, unspeakably painful for us to do absolutely nothing at all?

Guilt. That is what we feel when we don’t do anything. We feel like we are wasting time, being irresponsible, boring, and lazy. Surely, we don’t deserve even five minutes anymore of doing nothing.

Doing nothing is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Sometimes I have to force myself to just sit, or lay, or be still, just for a few minutes. The guilt starts to happen quickly…you start making a mental to-do list, and things just keep piling on and on, weighing you down so much that you have to get up and be productive before one more second goes by. Or, if you can keep the mental to-do list at bay, you start to realize…hmm…this whole “doing nothing” thing doesn’t feel good. All I have to do is hang out with myself, with my breath, with my emotions. This can scare most people shitless.

For whatever reason, slowing down has proven to be something that we as a culture can’t seem to do. Just try it. Take three hours to make dinner, cut each vegetable with care, measure everything out, make it perfect, and stop–frequently–to sip on a glass of wine and look out the window or kiss your sweetheart (human, dog, cat, the back of your own hand, whatever you’re in love with in that moment). Eat each bite slow. Even slower. Taste what you have created. After you’re done eating, sit at the dinner table for an hour, either with yourself or someone else. Talk. Don’t talk. Just sit. Drink wine. Wash the dishes, by hand, treat each dish as if it were a sacred artifact from history. Dry them too.

Drive the speed limit. Take a few days to respond to an email that isn’t urgent (most of them aren’t). Take time to thoughtfully write them back. Talk to someone for hours. Take longer than usual at the grocery store. Linger (without being creepy) when someone hugs you.

Do nothing.

And have a sweet, slow summer.