The highest compliment my daughter Sara can pay is that something is “so soft!” Whether it’s the cat, her favorite blanket, pajamas, or a shirt she covets at the mall, it just doesn’t get better than that.
We tease her about it, but you know, she’s on to something. Softness is underrated. Everything is about being harder, tougher, sharper. Everyone strives for a hard body, not a soft one.
But really, we all need more softness.
I was thinking about this today because I woke up stressed about everything I needed to accomplish. I imagined myself surging through the day like a battering ram.
But then I realized that wasn’t going to work. If I’ve learned anything in this life, it’s that rigidity will get you nothing but hurt. When you steel yourself, something is bound to snap.
The way to real stability is through introducing something soft. You need to be supple and flexible in order to be strong.
So I tried that as I moved through my day. I sat in front of the screen working for an hour, but then I went to yoga, which got my blood flowing again and my mind refocused. I took a break for lunch and let my mind wander while I ate instead of trying to multitask on my phone. Then I turned my favorite music up loud in the car on my way to an appointment.
And now I’m sitting here working again, but I’ve stolen away from the copy to write this.
It would seem to make sense that you should “buck up” when you need to get through something, and maybe sometimes that does work, because being rigid does protect you from feeling things. If that’s what you want. But if you remind yourself to be soft and open, at least some of the time, you have a chance at feeling something.
I am nothing if not sentimental. I love photographs, letters and yearbooks, old school awards and report cards, ticket stubs from national monuments and museums and programs from theater productions. A huge cardboard box of Duran Duran posters, pins, books, magazine pictures, and even stories I wrote about the members of the band (never mind) is still tucked away in the closet of my bedroom in the house where I grew up.
When it comes to my children — I still have certain tiny outfits they wore as babies that I won’t get rid of. Scraps of paper upon which they scrawled their first drawings, then letters and words. Video clips of them singing together where I hardly recognize them, they’re so little. Art projects from preschool and kindergarten.
As they move through elementary school, I keep fewer of the papers that pile up. But I still treat some of the things that pass through their hands (and backpacks) as relics. And I put my phone in their faces to snap pictures every chance I get.
It’s important to me to document life in these ways.
All that said, I can also be ruthless about getting rid of things. Clothes that no longer fit? Bye. I’d say the same about clothes I just haven’t worn in decades, but I never keep them long enough. When I finally got around to going through a cabinet of old bills and other files a few years ago, I relished the task of getting rid of all that paper. Even books, items I thoroughly love — if it’s something I didn’t like, or just thought was okay, I am happy to let it go, to make room for future tomes I might treasure and keep forever.
So. Sentimental, yes, most definitely. But a clean slate also appeals.
I am a homebody — I inhabit a space thoroughly when I’m in it. But as it turns out, I am also able to move to the next place fairly easily. Each time we’ve moved since we came to the East Coast — from our Hoboken apartment to one in Brooklyn, then to two other places in Brooklyn and finally to the little South Orange house where we’ve thus far raised our daughters — I have made a point to take one last walk through the empty space and acknowledge that I loved it there before closing the front door for the last time. It doesn’t feel painful to do that; it feels wonderful, a beautiful ritual. I actually look forward to doing it when we move from here, whenever that might be.
Somehow along the way I’ve understood that the buildings where so much of our lives happen aren’t really dependent on brick and mortar for their significance. I can truly say I’ve loved all of my homes, from the very first one on North Bernard Street in Chicago to my college dorm rooms (okay, maybe not the freshman year one so much, though I did love my roommate) and apartments, to all the places I’ve lived as an adult. But despite being someone who cherishes symbols in a lot of ways, I have been able to locate myself where I am, and not necessarily in the places I’ve been.
Yet, there is a learning curve. And I’m still very much on that curve. As much as I’m confident, even exhilarated, about moving from one physical space to another, moving away from circumstances, situations, feelings and people can be a different story.
Still, the example of moving house helps me to navigate those more complicated leavetakings.
If you imagine yourself as a tortoise, with your home on your back, it becomes a little easier — or at least less scary — to think about moving on. Everything you need, you take with you. The things you don’t — they can go.
I like to think about the neighborhoods and towns where I’ve lived the way I think of my college town — even though I’m not there anymore, it’s still there, and it’s still mine.
Everything is like that, I think. Everything you cherish, everything you find significant, the things you want to remember: You carry them with you. Whether or not you’ve got hard evidence — photographs or letters, the people who shared those things with you still in your life — it’s all there.
Did you ever read the last chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses? It’s Molly Bloom’s chapter, and it features a generous helping of that word: Yes.
We’re often taught that we need to learn to say no. But it’s just as important to your mental health, I think, to know when to say yes.
I was in yoga this morning. My teacher Emma’s 10:45 intermediate class is really fun. It’s small, and most of the people who come are pretty experienced yogis, so she challenges us.
Today we sat down and right before we closed our eyes she said we were going to practice handstand against the wall, with a chair, and we were going to backbend so our feet touched the chair.
I fear that I gave her an incredulous look before I closed my eyes. But once I did, I thought, Okay. We’re going to do that.
A few years ago the mere thought of having to do an inversion (the dreaded handstand, which I’ve since made friends with) or a backbend would fill me with dread. It would harden me up instantly. I’d start saying to myself, No. I can’t. I’m not strong enough. I’m scared. No.
Today, even while in the back of my mind I thought, Won’t that hurt my back? What if I fall? I also said to myself, Okay. I’ll see how it goes. I’ll do what I can do.
While we sat there opening and softening (which is what you do at the beginning of each and every yoga class), Emma talked about how being vulnerable means taking a risk. Is it scary to think of getting into a handstand and then sending your feet down the wall toward a backbend? Hell yes. It means dipping into the unknown. The question is, do you want to? Are you willing to try? Do you feel capable of trying? Do you know how far is far enough for you, where it still feels safe, and do you know where to stop?
My answer now is: Yes.
I’ve never particularly had a problem with being vulnerable. I actually adore backbends, which scare a lot of people because the intense opening through your chest can let a lot of emotion bubble to the surface. And once I figured out that they are about bending through your upper back, not your lower, and gained strength in my upper body, I became a lot less scared of full backbends.
My issue was always with reining in that openness — with finding the boundaries, slowing down, engaging before opening. (Yes, in life, not just yoga.) I’ve since learned a lot about engaging and grounding, about opening up from a safer place. I used to throw myself into a handstand attempt and hope for the best. Now I know how to properly get there, and to ask for help when I need it, and to move slowly, step by step, and see where the opening feels good.
So we did a lot of backstand prep. We did a thigh stretch, and I felt myself deeper in it than I used to be — I’ve made progress there (yoga is the very best way I’ve ever found to see and feel your progress). We did a handstand against the wall with bent knees and open heart, which I’ve done lots of times before and feel fine about. We did ustrasana, my very favorite pose, with our pubic bones pressed against blocks at the wall. We held it a long time. It felt great.
Then it came time to try. Emma helped me up. I bent my knees and pressed my feet against the wall. My arms felt good, strong, firm — not at all like they would buckle, as I’d feared. In fact, as I started to think about my legs, about letting one move down toward the chair back, I completely forgot about my arms. They didn’t need my attention.
They were a big, strong yes.
I was afraid the pose would strain my back. But as I let the toes of one foot move down toward the chair, I realized that my back felt fine. In fact, it felt good. I touched the back of the chair with my foot and breathed. Then I moved that foot up the wall and tried with the other.
Got it. Yes.
Both feet down? Not this time. That was my boundary for today. But I felt exhilarated.
The quieter you become, the more you are able to hear.
A friend posted that on Facebook this morning, and it is sticking with me as I move through the day.
This is the time of the year when everything starts to move faster, and gets crazier. Every year around December 1 I try to consciously shut that down for myself.
We celebrate a secular Christmas (tree, gifts) and Hanukkah (lighting the menorah). What I love about both tree and menorah is the lights. As much as Christmas is not my favorite holiday (my parents worked in retail when I was growing up, so December was synonymous with stress), I’ve always liked the lights. I love decorating the tree and then darkening the room to watch it glow. I like that about the Hanukkah candles as well (that and the sound of my girls reciting the prayers, which they learned in preschool at a temple, and which I think my dad, who was Jewish, would appreciate).
If I focus on that glow and the quiet, and let that be the central idea of the December holidays, I’m able to stay with the peaceful part of it, and not get caught up in the low roar that starts now and goes on for the next five weeks. I’m able to better consider what it means to celebrate the end of another year.
In fact, I’ve found that being still is a great way to handle any stressful or negative situation. It goes against my nature — or what I’ve always assumed my nature to be — not to have an instant, passionate emotional reaction when something intense is going on. With practice, I’m learning to rein in the reactive part — even if I feel the emotion like a punch in the stomach. As it turns out, being still and letting others react instead, or letting situations come untangled on their own, actually works — just about every single time.
It’s not that you’re being passive or avoiding things. You just don’t have to jump on a feeling of anger or frustration or desperation right then and there. In fact, it’s often a really bad idea to do so. When I look back at the moments in my life where I did something I wish I hadn’t, I see that it’s because I reacted in a knee-jerk way, when it would have been smarter to take a step back, pause, breathe, and take time to get some perspective on what was happening and how I felt about it.
The times I’ve reacted in the heat of the moment, I did so because I had some sort of need that I imagined must be satisfied right then. I wanted the other person to justify what I was feeling, or I wanted them to feel as bad as I did. Or maybe I just didn’t want to feel it at all, so by trying to connect, I was attempting to get rid of it. Either way, I didn’t give myself time to really get a handle on the situation. I didn’t hear all I needed to hear.
Lots of emotions feel bad to sit with, but pushing them away doesn’t make them go away. Letting myself be uncomfortable often results in my moving through whatever it is, hearing its truth, and leaving it behind.
So. This is a good time of year to practice being still, to imagine a nice, porous boundary around you, one that gives you a little breathing space. It doesn’t shut people or feelings out — it lets in what’s useful and what serves you. It allows you to maintain the stillness needed to engage with everything, and everyone, in a more graceful way.
Two Sundays ago I taught my first class at the studio where I did my teacher training. We’re all taking turns teaching this free community class, now that we’re done with the training process. I was excited. I was prepared. My husband came, my yoga-teacher sister came, some of my fellow trainees were there. And friends. That room was full. And hot — it was 90 degrees outside, and the air conditioning felt like a cynical nod to coolness.
And wow, was I — overwhelmed. I felt like my energy was all over the place, bouncing off the ceilings and the walls and the students. I felt like I had so much to say and no time to say it — Surya Namaskar B and I was already a half hour into the class? I’d been concerned about going too short, and instead it became clear pretty quickly that I had far too much written into my sequence. I had to start editing on my feet.
I was so thrilled and grateful for the outpouring of support, that so many people showed up — and grateful for the six or seven friends who couldn’t make it at the last minute, too — but it meant there was no way I could focus for very long on any individual student. I felt backed up against the windows! I focused on giving good alignment instructions and hoped it would make a difference for those who might be less experienced.
Things I did right:
My theme rocked (see below). The whole engagement and expansion, boundaries and freedom, muscular and organic energy, spanda (pulsation) concept is one that really resonates with me, the thing that really made me fall in love with this yoga. And I know my strength is here, in the ideas. I think it was clear and effective.
I really thought out my sequence. It was a full-on standing poses class — I included every major standing pose. I love standing poses, and I felt like they really demonstrated my theme. I had good, resonant poses to prepare the class for the apexes — ardha chandrasana and warrior 3.
I was willing to deviate from my plan. I was able to improvise when I realized my hour-long class was going to be an hour and 15 even with some cuts. I was sort of impressed with myself.
I was funny. I didn’t feel super comfortable up there, but I still managed to say a few witty things.
What I learned:
Teach what you love. Ideas and poses. I did this, and I plan to do it next time I teach at South Mountain Yoga in October, and in the class I’m teaching at the local park district starting in September (more on that later). If I’m enthusiastic about it, the students will pick up on that. And that’s the whole reason I’m interested in teaching yoga.
Keep it simple. It’s good to be prepared, but I really ended up packing stuff into my sequence because I was afraid of having too little. Between the fact that I talk a lot (which I need to try to temper, but hey, it takes up minutes) and the fact that you need to give the students time to actually get into the poses and experience them, I’ll have plenty for the hour I’ll teach in the fall. And hey — no one ever complained about an extra-long savasana.
Keep it short. I tend to write long and speak long. I need to really refine and distill my ideas into a few sentences at the beginning and get things moving.
I can do this. Although I felt like a crazy person up there — I was literally thinking, Oh my god, did I really sign up to do this every week?? — the feedback I got from the students was good. They thought the pace was good, the class was challenging yet accessible, and that I sounded totally on top of it. Even my sister, from whom I asked for unvarnished criticism, said it was an effective class.
In all, it was more challenging than I expected it be. But I handled it gracefully, and I didn’t leave in despair that it wasn’t perfect. I took it, and take it, for what it was — a first time, a learning experience.
My theme and sequence notes, if you’re interested:
Apex: Ardha chandrasana/Warrior 3
Virtues: Engage and Expand
Actions: ME and OE
Passage from the book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
“I think you should learn, of course, and some days you should learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them.”
Experience, allowing yourself to be moved by something, what we take in/soak up from it. More than just knowledge. Like reading about a place versus visiting it, or trying a delicious morsel of food instead of just hearing a description of what it tastes like. Really having an all-encompassing, sensory experience. Feeling it. And the idea of what is already in you – instead of accumulating more and more and more, look inside and see what’s already there, and let that fill you up.
That’s what yoga does – it allows you that access, to have a deeper experience of yourself. The physical poses are one way to do that. We don’t just check all the poses off the list – we engage in each one, we move into it in order to have a deep experience of it. The poses don’t exist except in our bodies, when we do them. So today we’re going to focus on standing poses, working on engaging our muscles in each pose and then stretching and expanding from that, filling up, so that each of you can have your deepest experience of every pose.
Close your eyes.
The first thing you need to do to experience something, whether it’s trying a new food or bungee-jumping, or deciding to have a child, is to be open to it, receptive. That’s how we begin in yoga – we sit down and open. We try on the idea of being in this moment, of being present. A great way to be in the moment? Listen to your breath.
Press your palms together in front of your heart. Doing this isn’t a gesture of prayer, but a reminder that your deepest self resides in your heart. That’s where yoga allows you to go. Even touch your sternum with your thumbs as a reminder that this is about your heart.
We’re going to open our practice by chanting three Oms. “Om” isn’t a prayer, either. It’s the sound of the universe, the hum of everything there is. We chant it to align ourselves with the energy of everything, and also to align with one another, so we can begin this important endeavor together. See if you can really feel the vibration in your chest when you chant – experience it.
BEND KNEES, DOWNHILL SKIIER
TOUCH GROUND, STRAIGHTEN LEGS, LIFT SPINE FORWARD, FOLD
REACH UP TO SKY, ARM STRETCHES, CRESCENTS TO SIDES
SUN BREATHS/DOWNWARD FACING DOG/UTTANASANA
SURYA NAMASKAR A (4 times, low lunge, low lunge twist, then high lunge, high lunge twist)
Feel how your body feels different, something is awakening and filling inside
SURYA NAMASKAR B (3-4 times)
Stand and breathe.
CHAIR POSE AT WALL
(stay there to feel the difference between enduring something uncomfortable and engaging with it)
PARSVAKONASANA, BOTH SIDES
WARRIOR 2, BOTH SIDES
PARSVA K INTO WARRIOR 2, BOTH SIDES (cut this out)
PRASARITA PADOTTANASANA WITH TWIST – ARM STRAIGHT UP TO SKY
PRASARITA PADOTTANASANA ON OTHER SIDE, PARSVA K LEGS AND DOWNDOG ARMS ON ANGLE
PARSVA K INTO WARRIOR II,REVERSE WARRIOR, BOTH SIDES WITH DOWN DOG IN BETWEEN
ANJALIASANA/THIGH STRETCH (ELBOWS DOWN ON GROUND INSIDE KNEE, BACK KNEE DOWN OR UP)
PARSVA K LEGS INTO TRIANGLE
TRIANGLE AGAIN; TAKE HAND OFF GROUND AND ENGAGE LEGS (cut this out)
ARDHA CHANDRASANA W/ASSIST (PARTNER HOLDING FOOT)
DOWN DOG INTO
PARSVOTTANASANA/STANDING SPLIT/WARRIOR III, BOTH SIDES
PARTNER STRETCH — DOWNDOG W/PUSH ON LOWER BACK (cut this)
CIRCLE OF VRKSASANA (engage and then expand into the support of your friends) (cut this)
DOWNWARD FACING DOG
PIGEON – ENGAGE AND THEN REST ON FOREARMS
ON BACK — SURCIRANDRASANA
SUPINE TWIST, BOTH LEGS GOING SAME WAY FOR SIDE STRETCH
HAPPY BABY (cut)
HUG KNEES TO CHEST
(talk about how important this pose is b/c all the experience you’ve just had is sinking into your body, and it will be there the next time you come to the mat; “corpse” pose is not a nothing pose, there’s a lot going on; just let your bones sink into the ground and let go. All the engagement you did in class generated all this energy, or prana, that is filling you up right now. Your only job in this final pose is to let go, let your body sink down into the ground, and enjoy it.)
You should have days where you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything.
When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece. — John Ruskin
I’ve been thinking about how we are each responsible for our own care.
So often, so many other things and people come first: boss, kids, spouse, parents, friends. We beat ourselves up for not hitting the mark, for not being everything we can to them, not realizing that we can’t even come near that (unrealistic) goal if our focus veers so very far away from ourselves.
We pay lip service to the “Take some me time” concept. But in general we put ourselves at the bottom of the to-do list. “Me” is the line item we let slide, the one that can wait.
We treat hearts, our minds, our bodies like a tin can or a paper bag: disposable, temporary, unimportant. We should treat ourselves like a masterpiece — fragile, rare, special — and care for ourselves in kind.
This takes two things: love and skill.
The first step is being kind to yourself.
Most people are used to being hard on themselves, noticing every flaw and every slip-up and then punishing themselves for it, over and over and over. They’re so willing to let other people pile on with their actions and comments — so willing to let other people’s issues cut to their quick. They eschew boundaries completely and leave themselves open to any hurt that might float their way, or they build a wall so tall and strong that nothing is getting in or out. They dismiss their feelings and opinions as worthless, not valuable. They work so hard to make others happy that there’s nothing left for them.
Being kind to yourself is a choice. You can decide to take care of yourself, to love yourself, to know yourself better. There are lots of ways to do it. Eating better. Exercise. Therapy. Meditation. Books. Music. Friends with a ready shoulder and ear. Taking real, quality time away from work and other responsibilities. Considering what you love and what makes you happy, and making it a priority to get more of that into your life. Making all of these things a priority — scheduling them in like you do everything else, all the meetings and errands and things that don’t matter nearly as much.
Then you need skill. Tools for creating the proper boundaries — ones that leave space around your protected center, your heart, but that are also porous, allowing you be open to other people, to life. Tools for identifying your emotions and learning how to engage with them and move through them instead of letting them control and hurt you. Tools for learning how to let go and believe that the universe has your back. Tools for learning to engage with yourself, the people around you, and the world, so that you can feel real joy and freedom.
The most important part? Engaging with yourself. That’s what we let ourselves look at the least, what we’re least practiced at.
It’s a huge responsibility, but we need to take it on if we want our experience here on earth to be as full and deep as it can be. And truth be told, shouldering it is not nearly as exhausting as avoiding it.
You don’t have to do it alone. There are people around you who love you and will be happy to remind you of it, who will tell you in minute detail exactly what’s amazing about you, whenever you need them to. (To that end, I highly recommend a regular Dharma Dinner.) All you need to do is reach out and ask.
All the work will be worth it. Feeling yourself transformed into a masterpiece is true bliss.
It is easy and obvious to see a beginning — you feel nervous, excited, awkward, sometimes downright terrified. It’s a new year, a new relationship, a new school, a new home, a new career. It’s huge and momentous and heavy with meaning and the thrill of the unknown. You’re embarking on something new and different and potentially life-changing. You’re putting something out there. You’re taking a risk.
It’s not that beginnings are necessarily easy, but they’re easy to see, to mark. They’re black and white. Endings are harder, hazy, often grey. Sometimes things end abruptly, when you don’t expect them to, before you’re ready, and you’re surprised by how difficult the change is, how much it feels like a loss. Sometimes they end organically and sweetly and it all seems right and good. Often an ending is hard to see — and hard to accept — because something you don’t want to end is coming to a close, so it’s difficult to witness. And beyond the ending lies the unknown, again — that space where something new can begin.
I’ve never been particularly good at beginnings or endings. Growing up I was generally afraid to venture outside my comfort zone, so there were probably many things I never tried or experienced because I was actually scared to attempt them (how I regret that now!). Change always threw me for a loop — I think I came home and sobbed on the first day of school every single year, even years that ended up being fantastic, like my senior year of high school. When things were different, new, when I didn’t feel completely and absolultely comfortable (as if you ever can), it threw me, in a major way. It upended me every time.
As I get older and wiser and more experienced, more self-aware, I’m able to handle change — beginnings and endings — more gracefully. I’m also more willing now to embark on new things, which means I also encounter more endings.
Almost four years ago I first stepped foot into South Mountain Yoga. It was 30 seconds from my daughters’ preschool, and my younger one was starting her first year. I could finally go back to yoga. I was a mess in just about every way. I desperately needed a new beginning; I didn’t even have the energy to be unnerved by that fact. There was nowhere to go but forward.
I thought I simply wanted to stretch and de-stress. Instead I found a life-changing method of moving my body and healing my mind and heart. It was like the teachers were speaking expressly to me in those first classes, and I felt all the wisdom course through me as I learned to move into the poses in such a way that I created boundaries and freedom for myself in ways I’d never even known I could. I can remember lying in savasana that first week plotting out how I could get myself back into that room again as soon as possible, as often as possible.
So, about two and a half years ago, I signed up for an immersion at the studio. I did it all on my own, without knowing whether there would be a familiar face in the room. Now my fellow immersion-ers are some of my dearest friends (see Dharma Dinner), and we’ve just finished teacher training.
These past few days were our final weekend together, and it was sad and wonderful at once. Over the past several weeks we all taught one another, and it was really fantastic to witness the way all these wonderful people had transformed into wise, masterful yoga teachers. All the trauma in the yoga community over the past several months did something for our group — it bound us together in a unique way. I think that’s actually been a gift.
It’s hard to see this ending, because my weekends in my yoga studio have been a steady part of my life for almost three years. I’ve looked forward to them, to spending time with my fellow trainees, to the way yoga and learning more about it makes me feel: strong, centered, content. Though this ending is really a beginning — now we can go out and actually teach yoga to other people, which is a bit mind-blowing, honestly. I didn’t go into this thinking I’d actually teach. But amazingly, I’m feeling like I want to. I want my friends and loved ones and people I haven’t met yet to feel this way too.
Perhaps it’s hard to see this ending because it’s really a beginning. I know there’s a lot of promise in that, however scary it might feel. So I’ll try to flow gracefully into whatever’s next.