Loving and Leaving New York

Photo by paulrommer/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by paulrommer/iStock / Getty Images

When I first moved to New York I arrived with everything I owned tightly packed into two suitcases, one big and one small.  I got a job at a gallery just across the street from the Whitney Museum and somehow survived on a salary below the poverty line while living in Manhattan, as was required by my new boss.   With all of my closest friends heading off to graduate school, I was virtually alone in my new city after graduation.  My boyfriend at the time came with me, but as soon as his summer internship ended he was gone too.  I bounced from sublet to sublet six times in that first year and when I was finally able to scrape together enough to afford a lease of my own (this cozy brick-walled gem on Crosby, truly mythical) I naively chose the wrong friend to share it with.  I found myself packing up and moving for the seventh time soon after. 

After each set back I could feel the eyes of even the most supportive family and friends wondering if I might finally return to my senses and come home to Michigan.  But despite all of the heartaches and challenges, there was nowhere else I could imagine myself.  In my mind, I had made it.  I came to New York pursue a career in the arts, and I did that. But really I came for New York, and just being there was enough.   It’s the longest relationship I’ve had to date, and if you asked me eight years ago, I would have told you that I would never leave.  

I’ve heard the theory that for the non-native New Yorker five years is just enough time for the city to chew you up and spit you out. And that’s for the strong ones.  I wear my eight glorious years as some kind of badge of honor, in gratitude that the city embraced me for longer than most and I left on my own terms.  I worked hard for her, I appreciated her for who she was, and even though I left, I love her still.  I had dreamed of her since I was young, but old enough to know I needed to get out of my small town in Michigan.  The first time I came to visit the energy was palpable; it almost lifted you off the ground.  I turned to my friend, a fellow Michigander, and said, “I will live here one day.”   We spent the afternoon pointing to buildings we hoped to inhabit.  So cliché, but equally true.

That lofty addicting energy.  It’s a constant hum.  And when you tap into it for the first time no other feeling ever matches it.  And so, you chase the dragon.  My time in New York was filled with my highest highs and my lowest lows.  There were big loves lost and bigger loves found.  There were horrific days, saved by extraordinary “only in New York” moments.  There were wild nights out and rough mornings at work the next day.  There were many mistakes and a few triumphs.  There were delusions followed by harsh snaps to reality. There was everything. There was loneliness, there was lots of seeking, and ultimately there was finding myself, harnessing my own energy, and realizing that I am not defined by the job I have, the person I’m with, or even the city I live in. At a certain point, I started to recognize that the exchange of energy between me and my beloved city had reversed.  I was giving a lot more than I was getting, and just like in any relationship, that imbalance is the first sign that it’s time to go.  I no longer wanted to be lifted by her humming vibrations.  I wanted to feel grounded, and connected. 

And so it goes in life.  We plan and work hard towards one thing, growing and evolving along the way, usually without even realizing it.  Our desires change and suddenly we recognize that that one thing is also constantly growing and evolving.   We’re chasing an idea, not reality.  When we realize that our truest reality, is within us, and has been waiting for us to find it, the journey becomes much easier and undefined by our surroundings. 

So, I left New York.  What started as two suitcases turned into thirty-two boxes, eight years, and one husband later.  We’ve moved to New York’s arch nemesis, Los Angeles, and traded the hum of the city for the sound of the Pacific.  Venice is not exactly the middle of nowhere, but it’s our transition, our halfway house for now.   There are new lessons to learn, new chapters to write, and new stages to live.  Instead of feeling lifted by powerful City vibrations, I’m lifted by sunshine and sunsets, year round bike rides, my yard (what a concept!), my lemon tree, avocados, our lovely friendly neighbors (also a new concept), and the overall happy energy I find all around me.  You might even call it joyful.  

As Joan Didion writes, “I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again.”  Ours was at times a tumultuous relationship, which forms the worst kind of attachment.  It’s hard to let go of all of the effort and energy you’ve put towards making it work.  But all of that attachment only creates suffering, and the only way to relieve the suffering is to let go, to practice non-attachment.  

Saying goodbye to New York means a lot of things for me.  In many of the most important ways, I grew up there, and I am so grateful for the experience.  I didn’t leave because I became bitter and jaded.  I didn’t leave because I couldn’t take it anymore, or because I was no longer up for the challenge.  I left to avoid all of those things.  I left because I knew it was inevitable and why not, for once, have a healthy break up where we can both wish each other well with no hard feelings.  Maybe even stay friends.  Los Angeles will be a new adventure, with new challenges I’m sure.  I’m still a foreigner here.  But I’ll learn the language soon enough and find my feet all over again.  This time firmly planted on the ground…or in the sand.

The Battle with Busy

Is it just me, or has small talk become a subtle calendar competition disguised as conversation?  When someone asks you “What are you up to this weekend?” we feel obligated to tell them all the ways in which we’re “busy”.  It’s no longer socially acceptable to say, nothing, “I’m doing nothing this weekend.”  We live in fear of nothing because nothing might mean we’re perceived as uninteresting, or anti-social, or worse, it might imply that we have no life.  Because after a week full of busy, if you’re not also busy on the weekend, than clearly you have no life!   And when we’re not busy doing what we do, we’re busy talking about what we do, and busy sharing it through 5 forms of social media.   This edited version of only the rosiest most photogenic parts of our lives serves as proof of our busy-ness, proof of “who we are.”  It creates an altered reality that is all to tempting for us to allow ourselves to reside and identify ourselves in.  I call this new dilemma the Battle with Busy. 

I recently read that as religious commitment has receded over the years, the “busier than thou” ethic arose to answer questions like “who am I?” and “why do I exist?” Apparently, we no longer exist to be the best version of ourselves; we exist to be the busiest version of ourselves.  We’re judged, and therefore judge each other, not by what we do, but how much we do.  

Out of all of the crazy pretzel asanas in yoga, savasana (final resting pose) is still the most difficult.  In savasana we’re asked to let everything go, even the breath, and to do less, to be still.   To be still means to reflect, and to reflect means to face reality, a scary concept to most of us.  It’s the real reality, un-altered, full of insecurities, and sometimes ugly.   I feel it arise in myself as a student, and I see it in class all the time…we are so averse to stillness!  Just laying on the ground has become so hard for us.  We fidget, we start thinking about how long we’ll be lying here, what time is it?, let me just crack my eyes open and look at the clock, ugh, I NEED to adjust my shirt RIGHT NOW…it’s crazy.  We’ll do almost anything to avoid stillness.  Imagine the difficulty if we started class with savasana! Before getting our ya-yas out!  

But stillness also offers us a great opportunity to understand ourselves (and therefore each other) better.  To recognize the parts we don’t like and to change them.  To go out and be productive in our lives, not just busy.  Productive in our relationships, productive in recognizing and seeking our dreams, and productive in producing the life we want for ourselves, without being driven by insecurities and the need to paint a pretty picture with our busy brush.   In fact, the only way to achieve this productive perspective is through stillness, or what we call santosha in yoga.  Santosha is one of the niyamas in yoga, as listed by Patangjali.  It is described as contentment.  As not requiring more than you have to achieve a state of contentment. 

I’ve had my own Battle with Busy over the years.  It was only just a few years ago that the opportunity to be still came into my life for the first time since I was 14.  Even in college I worked two part-time jobs and when it came time to graduate I started working in the city two weeks before commencement.  No break.  No pause in between the undergraduate bubble and real life.  Who was I? I was Busy!  When I left my 9 to 5 almost two years ago, I had three months off until I was scheduled to start my yoga teacher training.  I thought I would love the freedom, but I felt so insecure and more vulnerable than I’ve ever felt in my life.  I realized how much I was defining who I am, by what I do.  Even though I was incredibly unhappy in my previous job, it was a title that sounded interesting on paper and provided ample small talk topics…it gave me security, and losing that security when I left was not something that I expected.  I thought I had myself pretty well figured out, but when I didn’t wake up with a full day ahead of me the stillness stripped me naked and left me questioning everything. 

Relaxing in Mexico

What I realize now is that all of those questions were always there. They were always a part of my reality, but in my stillness I had the time to explore and answer them.  At first I resisted, and I still struggle with managing the balance of being productive without getting caught up in the busy, but I’ve come to appreciate the stillness.  To relish in it even.  I took my first ever solo vacation a few months ago, and even though my tendency towards feeling guilty or judged (if only by myself) arose, I took advantage of the time to reflect.  I took long walks on the beach by myself, woke up to see the sunrise over the mountains every morning, and did lots, and lots of reading.  I learned a lot about myself on that trip, and learned a lot about the importance of giving myself the opportunity to cultivate stillness, whether it’s laying on my back for a few minutes in savasana, or spending a week where the desert meets the Pacific in Mexico (a much easier place to reflect, I must admit). 

One of the many beautiful sunsets at Prana del Mar

The Battle with Busy will always exist.  It will always be there, tempting us with ways in which to fill our stillness and avoid the questions we aren’t ready to answer about ourselves.  The real battle lies in resisting the urge to define ourselves, and even our happiness, by what we do.  As we enter May and I start to fill my calendar for the summer, I’m making an effort to leave space for blank weekends, with nothing to do.  To be unafraid of nothing and give myself, and my husband, the opportunity for stillness.    

Cultivating an at Home Practice

As a yoga instructor people often ask me, “Do you practice everyday?!”.  The simple answer is, yes, I practice yoga everyday.  The more we practice, the more we understand that the awareness we first learn to cultivate in class extends far beyond our mat and way out into every part of our life.  To quote one of my lovely teacher’s Jeanmarie Paolillo, “I practice yoga every minute of every day.”  Some minutes more successfully than others, but that’s why it’s called a “practice”.  For me, the first step towards gaining this understanding was bringing my mat out of the studio and into my home. 

Outside of making the effort to get into a Daily Down Dog much easier, having your mat in the comfort of your living room (or bedroom, or kitchen, or maybe parts of all three of those rooms if you live in New York) opens the door to something much more profound.  In yoga, we call this opportunity svadhyaya, or self study.  Practicing on your own, without the distraction of an instructor’s voice, without other students to compare or compete with, is a much different experience.  For some of us it’s liberating, and for others of us it can actually be quite scary.  Practicing alone means the chatter in our mind might have space to grow louder than normal, the judgment starts to rage, we find ourselves unmotivated without the feeling of the eyes of our teacher or other students on us.  Ahhhhh!  It’s scary!  But if we look through the fear, and turn our own eyes inward we can see the opportunity to learn, to pay attention to the kind of chatter that arises and to find within ourselves the motivation to move forward and grow.

At some point in our lives we’ve all experienced the feeling of hiding from ourselves.  It’s a natural defense mechanism and makes life feel a whole lot “easier”.  Taking the first step toward looking in the mirror and deep into our own eyes, flaws and all, requires courage.  So, if you’re feeling courageous, or ready to take your practice to a new level, here are 5 tips for cultivating an at home practice:

My home office.

1.     Props.  Get yourself a mat you like, a few blocks, a blanket or two, and a strap…and if you really feel like spoiling yourself, a bolster.  Having new props to play with (or staring at you in the corner of your room) provides a little extra motivation and encourages you to give it a go.  In this sense, they not only provide physical support, but emotional support as well.  Lean on them.  Use that block in trikonasana that you usually snub.  Sprawl out across them in a yummy supta baddha konasana and give yourself a break.  Props are amazing tools and they teach us a lot about accepting support and being kind to ourselves. 

 

2.     Do what you can, when you can.  You don’t need to be an “advanced” yogi to start practicing at home and you don’t need to set aside hours in your day for practice.  Some days you might be able to set aside only 10 or 15 minutes, and good for you!  There are tons of online resources, including my new Videos section, where you can find quick simple sequences.  But I also encourage you to explore on your own, with your own guidance and body…you know much more than you think you do. 

3.    Turn off your phone while you practice.  And I don’t mean put away your phone, turn it OFF.  Whoever is calling, emailing, texting, instagram-ing you, can wait.  This is your time.

4.     Disignate a “Yoga Spot.”  Choose a spot in your home where you feel comfortable and at ease and make that the space you practice in.  Having this consistency will help inspire your practice and quiet the mind.  My spot is my living/dining room.  Surrounded by books that inspire me, cool calming colors, and art that I admire.

5.     Practice compassion towards yourself.  It’s so cliché to say “love yourself”.  But yeah, love yourself!  You’re going to be stuck with yourself for a very long time so you might as well learn now.  For most of us, it’s much easier to have compassion for others than to turn that kindness on ourselves.  We judge and compare and decide whether we’re worthy of our own compassion.  When we can tap into that part of ourselves that connects all of us, we realize that we’re all worthy of compassion.  Taking quiet moments to explore yourself, and your practice, facilitates the awareness of that connection. In yoga, we call that Yoga. 

I hope these five tips will encourage you to take the time to tap in.  Yoga is a practice in which perfect does not exist.  We’re always changing, always evolving, always growing.  When we set aside moments to tap in it makes the journey much more enJOYable.  

A Yogi's Guide to Surviving Winter

New York is a city so full of moment that even in the most arctic of temperatures the puddles don’t freeze.  They grow a little solid around the edges, but the incessant stomping of passersby and the wheeling of hasty cabs leaves them forever liquid, usually just slushy enough to have you guessing whether it’s safe to leave the house in real shoes or you’ll need your wellies.   It’s a subtle reminder that indeed, the city does never sleep.  

In fact a recent sleepless night provided case and point. I woke up at the wee hour of 3 am just as the city was receiving its 1029388353 snow blanket of the year.  The slow, quiet fall of the snow, twinkling in the orange light of the street lamp on my block lasted approximately 22 minutes before the plows started passing by every 15, the bars let out and the usual star-crossed-lovers-brawl began below my window, and the landlords of every building busted out their shovels to begin clearing the sidewalks. 

Nothing stops New York.  As a New Yorker, it’s a fact that feels empowering at first.  It’s extremely motivating to live in a machine that never hits pause.  You feel lifted and high from it. But as the years pass, you find yourself chasing the dragon, and a bit scared of the machine.  Your excitement turns to adaptation, and you begin to question your beloved city.  This questioning becomes even more chronic in the winter months when your usual pick-me-ups are covered in grey slush and walking ten blocks requires the mustering up of superhuman powers.  

It’s rough, but before you decide to throw me a pity party let’s talk about what we can do to counteract the SAD.  Here are five tips to get you (and me) through the rest of winter:

1.     Find and force quiet moments to yourself, away from the machine of life.  Sometimes all it takes is a little perspective to get us out of our funk.  I’ve made a new effort to wake up earlier and enjoy a warm cup of tea in the morning.   When I wake up, all I want to do is stay in my cozy bed for as long as possible, but if I do, it throws my whole day off and I find myself playing catch-up until it’s time to get back in bed.  Finding a happy medium by starting slowly and quietly, literally just sitting in silence with my tea, has made even the short, dark days of winter feel longer and fuller.  I greet the day on my terms. 

2.     Turn your frown upside down.  I have a body that requires movement.  It’s part of how I express myself, work through emotions, and quiet my mind.  There is no better way to immediately change my mood than by going upside down.  Most of us hear the word “inversions” and we automatically think “advanced”.  The truth is, an inversion is any position in which the head is below the heart.  Yes, Down Dog counts, as does lying on your back with a few blankets underneath you and your legs up a wall.   Enjoy it!

3.     Bundle up, find a park, and go for a walk.  For the most part, winter is ugly in New York, but finding a park or even getting out of the city to witness a real winter wonderland is a beautiful reminder that not all of winter is ugly.  It can in fact be quite lovely and serene when you experience it in it’s unpolluted form.

4.     Practice Loving Kindness meditation.  Practice what? Loving Kindness meditation is the practice of wishing oneself and others to be happy, content and at ease.  In the yoga tradition, loving-kindness is seen as an opportunity to "cultivate the opposite." It’s the first of a series of meditations that produce four qualities of love: Friendliness (metta), Compassion (karuna), Appreciative Joy (mudita) and Equanimity (upekkha).  You can find guided Loving Kindness meditations online (my favorite is by my teacher, Elizabeth, and can be found here on her website) and you don’t have to be seated and silent to practice.  You can do it while your freezing your buns of walking from one place to another, in your car, or on the subway.  Trust me, you’ll feel happier about life and a little warmer inside afterwards.

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5.     Recognize that the situation is temporary.  My Dad has always been a big fan of the phrase “This too shall pass” and never is this more true than when it comes to seasons.  It shall pass, and before we know it Spring will have sprung and the depths of winter will be a distant memory.  In the meantime, add a little green to your apartment  and count down the days...

Lessons Learned in My First Year of Teaching

The culmination of both the new year and the finish of my six month long 500 hour teacher training through YogaWorks has caused a double whammy of reflection as of late.  At the end of the month my happy yoga bubble, full of fellow newbie teachers, mentors, and yoga friends, will burst and I’ll be thrust out into the unknown on my own.   Though I’ve been teaching since the end of my initial training last January, I’ve been mostly (and happily) occupied by workshop obligations, taking classes, assisting classes, meeting with my mentor and fellow mentees, and lots and lots of reading, reflection, and at home practice.   My training has been directing my path for the last year, but come February I’ll find myself fully planted in the driver’s seat.  Yikes!  It’s all at once terrifying and exciting.  Am I ready for the road?  And, hey, where’s the map?!

As I reflect on 2013 and my first year of teaching I can’t help being confronted with the many lessons I’ve learned along the way.   I left the comfort and stability of my full time job, became my own boss, learned from my most admired teachers, taught my first classes (with lots of gulps and deep breaths before and after…), lead workshops exploring the relationship between acupuncture and yoga, assisted enormous outdoor classes in Bryant Park, got my very first weekly class on the schedule at Yoga & Pilates in Tribeca (thank you lovely yogis!), became certified and honored to teach mommas-to-be, and learned more about myself in a year than I have in the past five.  In no particular order, here are my top ten “Life of a Yoga Teacher” lessons learned in 2013:

1.     First and foremost, there is no map

2.     Learning to teach is like learning a new language, and having the same expectation is important.  Don’t expect to be fluent after a year, and know that the only way to truly learn is full immersion.  Getting the words out is always the hardest part for me, whether it’s yoga, French, Portuguese, or most recently, Hebrew.  Your insecurities get the best of you and even if you’ve learned the vocabulary, stringing them into comprehensive sentences is something else entirely.  So teach often, to whomever is willing to listen.  Even if it’s just you and your mat having a conversation in your living room. 

3.     Don’t expect your friends to be as interested in what you’re doing as you are.  If they like you, they’ll try, but steer clear of trying to convert anyone.  Most of the time, they just don’t get it, and that’s OK.  Which brings me to my next doozy of a lesson…

4.     Be prepared for judgment.  From yourself and from others.  Quitting your full-time job to pursue something as unstable as teaching yoga will seem crazy to most people, and will probably even leave you wondering yourself at times.  The fluff of the average New Yorker’s “Where do you live?/What do you do?” small talk will become even fluffier the moment you mention you’re a yoga teacher.  Get ready for quizzical looks, and comments like, “Oh, that’s nice.”  But rest assured, all that judgment is great preparation for your studio auditions!  It forces you to become very clear in your intentions as a teacher, and confident in your decisions.

5.     Practice what you preach, and practice while you teach.  Remember, you’re first a yogi and second a teacher, so stay flexible and present.  It’s easy to lose your awareness if you’re plotting your next move three steps ahead in a class.  I used to spend hours writing out sequences before going in to teach.  I learned quickly that not only is it a sure way to make your teaching feel rigid, unaware, and disconnected from your students, you also never have any idea what you’re walking into.  You might have planned an entire sequence geared towards back bending only to discover that half of your students are complaining of low back pain. 

6.     Teachers are human too.  One of the biggest surprises of the last year was the new expectation that because I teach yoga I am now a fully enlightened, perfectly calm, and all knowing being…oh, and I’m Vegan too.  I’m sorry to disappoint, but I am still very much human, full of attachment, ugly moments of stress, struggles, and I do enjoy the occasional grass-fed burger.  I’m riding the same imperfect path as everyone else, trying to do no harm and hopefully leave a happy mark on the earth.

7.     Being a yoga teacher is actually quite lonely.  You are your own boss, co-worker, and administrative assistant.  There is no team effort, no pat-on-the-back for a job well done, and no outlined schedule.  You’re on your own kid.

8.     I am not a teacher.  I use the word “teacher” only because it’s the most universal and understandable term to describe what I do.  To label myself as a “yoga teacher” feels heavy and too large, like a child playing dress-up in her mother’s beaded gown.  Teachers know much, much more than I do.  What I do is share: I share what I’ve learned and I guide fellow students.  But Yoga Sharer doesn’t have a very nice ring to it. 

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9.     Make sure you and your partner are on the same page.  Not only was this my first year of teaching, it was also the first year of my marriage. Why I decided to combine two massive life changes, I’m not quite sure…but I do know this past year would have been impossible without the full support of my handsome hubby, David.  Thanks, babaganoush, for always having my back.

10. Get ready to be constantly confronted with your “self”.  Yes, becoming a yoga teacher demands lots of technical knowledge in anatomy and alignment, philosophical study, and physical practice.  But the most exhausting, and even daunting, (but also amazing) part of becoming a yoga teacher is the requirement that you study and explore your self.  I can’t think of any other occupation that entails so much constant self-work and improvement.

So, there you have it, my top ten.  There were many more where these came from, like “Never demo forward bends in Lululemon pants”, but these are my most significant, and hopefully most relatable.  Taken out of the context of yoga, almost all of these lessons are also extremely applicable in life.  Taking leaps and risks is scary, especially when you have no idea where you’re landing, and you’ll always face judgment and insecurities, no matter what you’re doing.  I feel very lucky to be on this path, not only pursuing something that I love, but also pursuing something that has the potential to have such a positive impact in the lives of others.  It’s an honor and a privilege and I hope to be a good steward in the lineage of yoga as it continues to grow and evolve.  With the New Year comes a new set of challenges, but I’m entering 2014 with awareness and flexibility.  We’ll see what the next year brings…

About Time

The people in my life have generally fallen into one of two categories, those who love The Princess Bride as much as I do, and those who do not.  Anybody wan-a-peanut? If you giggled to yourself just now you fall into the former.  Luckily for him, my husband does too.  He doesn’t know every line quite the way I do, but he was equally excited about my walking down the aisle to the theme song from the movie at our wedding (nerd alert!).  But his tolerance for a good romantic comedy, riddled of course with wit and sarcasm, only goes so far.  And so, when he travels out of town for work, I take advantage of sneaking in a girlie movie and eating all the junk food I don’t want him to ever know that I actually consume. 

His most recent trip away gave me the opportunity to see an adorable little film called About Time (from the makers of another favorite you may have heard of, Love Actually).   In the film, Tim, a romantically challenged but incredibly charming Brit discovers that the men in his family are able to travel through time.  They can’t change history, but they can change what happens in their own life- so, he decides to use his new found powers for the greater good by getting himself a girlfriend.  Enter a nerdy but beautiful Rachel McAdams.  Throughout the film, he learns the ripple effect of small acts and the harsh reality that some things are just simply outside of our own control.   

You might be starting to ask yourself what on earth all of this has to do with yoga.  Well, riddle me this: How many times have you wished you could relive a particular moment in time? Whether it was to change an outcome or just experience its joy over and over again?  For most of us, it’s an inner monologue that happens almost daily, usually starting with the words, “If only…”. "If only I could be Princess Buttercup…" It pulls at us, stealing us from contentment and driving us further and further from the present.

As yogis, we often get caught up in the idea that a particular pose will somehow bring us closer to enlightenment, that mastering handstand will unlock the secrets of the universe and give us magical powers.   The reality is, poses, like life, change daily.  Some days the flow is effortless and others days the road is rocky.  But the poses don’t hold the power, we do.

As the movie progresses, Tim discovers a pitfall in his powers (which I’ll avoid spoiling for you), and he learns the biggest secret of them all:  You don’t need magical time traveling powers to in order to live life fully, you just need to be aware and present and allow yourself to receive the beauty in even the most mundane moments…and smiling at strangers helps too.

So, as Inigo would say, lemme sum up.   Though it can sometimes seem inconceivable, every moment and every pose is already perfect just as it is, so long as we allow ourselves to be present in the experience of it.

Bruised Elbows and Egos

Many an article have been written on the subject of Yoga injuries.  Yoga Basics author Mara Carrico writes, "Sometimes it seems that the only thing growing more quickly than the number of yoga classes offered in fitness facilities is the number of injuries sustained by eager participants."  With this flood of injuries comes of course criticism, of both teachers and Yoga as a whole (some of them fair),  fearful students, and a plethora of “new” ways to avoid injury.  One of the fairer arguments criticizes newbie teachers as being too inexperienced to handle students coming into class with pre-existing injuries and low fitness levels.  It takes practice to learn the difference between pain and sensation in our bodies.  Both are speaking to us, but learning their language can leave beginners lost in translation, creating new injuries or worsening old ones.  

My own body was familiar with bumps and bruises, sore muscles, and broken bones long before I came to yoga.  I’ve broken fingers and toes, my right wrist, my left clavicle, and learned the limits of my pain tolerance when a fly ball at a baseball game made a line drive for my face at over 90 mph (ouch!).   As a consequence, my endurance for pain was informing my yoga practice much more than any desire to develop awareness.  That poorly set left clavicle giving you trouble?  No worries, bind your way through that pain Chelsea!  I never once raised my hand to inform a teacher I had an injury.  In fact, it took me two years to realize that the tightness in my shoulders might stem from that injured left clavicle.

Ultimately, we are responsible for ourselves.  Our teachers are there to guide us, but just like any relationship, communication is key. 

The other side of this high pain tolerance spectrum is the fear of sensation.  Without an understanding of what it’s like to feel pain in our bodies, we interpret any sensation as pain.  As the lovely and renowned Iyengar teacher Carrie Owerko would say, we have to know our maximum as well as our minimum in order to find our optimum.  I had the pleasure of learning from her this past weekend and we spent all of Saturday and Sunday discussing how to work with injuries from the ground up, making space for the body and mind to begin the healing process.   

Just as every body is different, so is every injury specific to that body.  Learning how to practice in a way that promotes healing for yours takes time, and sometimes requires trying many different methods until you find what works for you.   It’s our job as teachers and students to recognize that symptoms are the body’s way of telling us that something needs to change and that we need to give ourselves the opportunity for variation in our practice. 

For me, this variation meant being gentle, giving myself support (in the form of props and people), and learning to communicate what I needed to both my self and my teachers.  For others it might mean letting go of their fear and learning safe ways to discover their limits.  As always, these ups and downs in our practice teach us even more about life than they do about our bodies.   As my teacher Jeanmarie often says in class, “How we do one thing is how we do everything.” We have to be open to exploring, to admitting we might be doing something wrong, and to finding strength in our vulnerability.   

Our goal as yogis, and more importantly as human beings, is not to be so unaffected by pain that we charge through life without any compassion, or to be so passive that we never discover the courage to challenge ourselves, but to live somewhere in the middle.  In our own personal optimum.  

 

A New Kind of Jet Lag

Anyone who flies knows the feeling, to some degree, of having to accept mortality each and every time you step on a plane.  Historically for me, the feeling was infrequent and fleeting.  It came only in dips that sent my heart into my stomach, or bumpy rides when it felt as though we were traveling over a gravel covered dirt road.  The truth is, statistically speaking, our own mortality is much more at risk every time we get into a car, hop on the subway, take a bus, or live in New York City for that matter, than it is when we’re flying through the air. 

Anxiety about flying is a lot like jet lag.  There are ways to avoid it, but once the ball is rolling it can completely knock you out.  So why now?  Why after decades of flying without issue (in fact previously flying with pure enjoyment and excitement) is this new fear rearing its ugly head?  Is this yet another lovely side effect of growing older? Like grey hair and wrinkles?  Or am I seriously losing it?

It’s questions like these that brought me to yoga in the first place.   No one likes having stress or anxieties, and I am especially allergic.  It’s not that yoga magically erases these issues from our lives; stress is a reality for all of us.   But it has, for me, provided a practice in searching for contentment no matter what is taking place around me.

By contentment supreme joy is gained.
— Sutra 2.42

As with most things leading towards joy, finding contentment seems to become harder and harder as we grow older.  As kids, most of us are lucky enough to be carefree and easily content.  It’s our parents’ job to worry.  My own childhood in the idyllic Midwest, was filled with soccer games, happily hopping from lake to boat to lake in perfect Michigan summers, and turtle catching with my siblings and friends.  Our biggest concern was what to name the day’s catch and where they should live.  Joyful little “bumpkins” (as my husband likes to call me).

Fast forward 20 years and you'll find me struggling to find my way in New York City with little to no financial support from my parents (who thought I was crazy), barely making enough to get by working 24/7 at an art gallery, jumping from apartment to apartment with no real home (a New Yorkers right of passage), and heartbroken over a relationship I had become so attached to it felt as though I lost a limb when it ended.  It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.  I found my resilience, my independence, and most importantly, I found gratitude. 

When I look at my life today, by comparison, I should be extremely joyful.  And I am very happy.  But I find myself less content than I was in those years of madness in my early twenties.  My thoughts relate almost entirely towards my future and what's to come of it.  Some of it wrapped in worry, some in excitement, but all in the "when" and very far from the "now."  What's more is that I've become so attached to the happiness I have in my life now, that I'm overly concerned with what life would be without it.  Leading up to my wedding I became so attached to the desire to be married and start our life together that every time I, or he, or we got on a plane I thought to myself "What if this is it? What if we never make it to our beautiful wedding? What if we never get to start our life and make a family together?"  Now that we've lived to see our wedding day, my thoughts have moved on to the "What Ifs" of starting a family, when and if we'll move from New York, what will/should I be doing with myself now that I've left my career in the arts behind me...and the cycle continues.

I’ve made the mistake of thinking that having gratitude is enough to find contentment.  That simply being grateful for the things we receive in life is enough to keep us grounded and happy.  The truth is, it’s really only half the battle.  The other half lays in remaining unattached (or practicing “non-attachment” as we yogis say) to our blessings and letting go of the desire to control…well, everything.  I want to be content, joyful, and present.  It’s my daily practice and it’s hard!  I think it not only makes our lives as individuals more meaningful, it also deeply affects the way in which we impact the world around us. 

Being able to fly is a massive blessing.  I’m still amazed by it.  Eating dinner in one place and waking up to breakfast across the ocean. It’s crazy in the most fantastic way.  A recent trip required four anxious plane rides:  New York to Madrid, 4 days later Madrid to Athens, Athens to Santorini, and then Athens back to New York.   I was extremely anxious before leaving.   I didn’t sleep at all on the overnight flight to Madrid, and barely slept the night before.  Talk about jet lag! I went through the same thing on the next flight. 

And then we arrived in Santorini.  Staring out over the vast deep blue waters of the Caldera juxtaposed against white rooftops spilling down the cliff side, I felt as though I had just landed on another planet.   This could not be Earth.   In that moment, I thought of what I would have missed had I let my anxiety get the best of me.   If I allowed my desire to “preserve” a state of happiness override the chance to experience something new and beautiful, and truly add to my joy. 

I wish I could say my flight home was carefree and lovely.  It wasn’t.  But the first step is admitting you have a problem, right?  My anxiety shows its face when I’m flying, but the reality is it’s always there, hiding in the shadows of other emotions.   Letting go of those anxieties will be much harder than overcoming a fear of flying.  It’s a practice, and for now I’m working them out on and off the mat…and when I’m lucky, in far off places like Santorini.

Vibing with Jeanmarie

“What you perceive, you receive.”  Wise words from the wise and wonderful Jeanmarie Paolillo, whom I have been fortunate enough to have as my teacher. Her recent “Vibe-a-Thon” workshop at YogaWorks, Soho was good vibes all around and offered great insight into that pesky mind stuff we all strive to quiet in one way or another. She’s been researching what she’s coined “the art of vibing” for years now, and what-do-ya-know, science backs her up.  

So, what is a “Vibe-a-Thon” anyways?  Outside of being the title of Jeanmarie’s new book (out September of this year), it’s basically learning how to think differently, operate more intuitively and move in the direction of what you’d like to create in your life. Sounds great, right?!

As yogis, we’re familiar with concepts like Samskaras and Kleshas that wreak havoc on the chatter in our minds, but quite honestly, how much time are we spending really diving into these areas, reversing patterns, and changing our perception?  

I think the answer for most of us is “not enough.”  It’s work.  Hard work!  But Jeanmarie is on a mission to show us all it’s worth it, and I don’t think I was the only one converted last Sunday.   

We can all agree that by nature, as humans, we are creative beings.   (Creative in the truest sense of the word, in that we seek to create, not in the artistic sense of the word, in that we all have the potential to become the next Picasso).  Creativity starts in the mind, so a quiet mind free of chatter is essential to creating.  And not just in physically creating things, in creating our relationships, our careers, our families, our joy, and beyond. 

What keeps us from thinking more clearly in a positive direction?  Jeanmarie has a few answers.  Part of it stems from conditioning. How we’re taught to think based on the confines of our circumstances.  Part of it stems from bad habits in our thought patterns, like continually telling ourselves we’re not worth it.  But, the most interesting part stems from what researchers call “The Negativity Bias”. We actually get an endorphin boost when we think negatively!  Crazy.  This explains so much.  Not only is it easier for us to think negatively, we actually (momentarily) feel better when we do it!  

The endorphin boost comes from our instinctual “fight or flight” reaction. We think we’re preparing ourselves, and therefore our bodies, for the worst, when in reality we’re just creating more parameters, which keep us from thinking clearly and therefore creatively.  This was a light bulb moment for me.  What would happen if we focused on expecting something great instead of protecting ourselves from a negative possibility that often times probably won’t happen?  I think the possibilities are endless, for our own lives and the lives we’re in contact with everyday.   

Learning how to combat our negativity bias, conditioning, and habitual thoughts (good and bad) allows us to live our lives more mindfully with the freedom to create something better for ourselves.  As Jeanmarie says, the more we create what we want in life, the more we give permission to others to do the same. So, here’s to spreading the good vibes and taking charge of our creativity!

To learn more about Vibing check out Jeanmarie’s website at www.vibeathon.com, which will be loaded with videos from her workshops and other great stuff starting in July 2013.