Masterpiece

11817183_10206405009697407_8440405729264954038_nWhen 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.

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Means to an End

teachers“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” — Joan Didion, Goodbye to All That

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.


A Meditation on Meditation

305983_4473619951943_132189164_nOne of the things I love the most about the style of yoga I do — that I’m now trained in — is the alignment principles upon which it’s based. They are amazingly simple when you break them down, and they make perfect sense in the body. They make every pose feel better, deeper, even easier. The best thing about them, however, is that they are more than just physical actions; they also translate mentally, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.

I urge you to check them out or ask me more about them. They truly changed my life.

It’s been a tough few months for the Anusara community, to put it mildly. Much has been abruptly changed, knocked off-balance, destroyed. In such a situation, the only thing to do is find the center again — to focus on the practice.

I’m somehow in a place where I’m really in love with my practice and deepening it in new ways. I’ve made a few breakthroughs lately that are really exciting. I’ve been practicing more consistently with a few new teachers, even while I miss the influence of a teacher whose schedule changed and whom I don’t get to see as often. I feel like I’m kind of riding things out right now, and it actually feels good. But there’s more, and I think I’m ready to focus on something that it’s taken me a while to really look at — meditation.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and paging through Sally Kempton’s book Meditation for the Love of It, which my yogi sister lent me. I found an amazing and inspiring section about madhya, or the space between the breaths. I’m going to sit down with this book and take notes on it in my own meditation journal, and then see how I can translate what I learn into a meditation practice.

I just finished reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which, despite its reputation as an “obscene” book with shockingly dirty words in it, turns out to be pretty interesting and relevant. D.H. Lawrence feels it’s vital for men and women to find the balance between their body and mind — when it comes to sex, yes, but also in general. The society of 1928 is diseased, out of touch, and “counterfeit,” he says in his notes on the book. People are getting away from what’s important, which is connecting with themselves so that they can truly connect with others. “Life is only bearable when the mind and body are in harmony, and there is a natural balance between them, and each has a natural respect for the other,” he writes. (It reminds me of the mantra of another of my favorite writers, E.M. Forster: “Only connect.”)

Now that I’m fairly adept at finding my calm, quiet, steady center through asana, I’d like to focus on being there in meditation and really finding that balance in a new way. I’m open to advice and encouragement. And I’ll let you know how it goes.


My Om Tattoo, Redux

This is far and away the most popular post on my blog, and one of my favorites too. It’s almost exactly a year old, which seems auspicious. So I’m reposting it today.

Tattoo number two is a done deal. It’s a simple black Om, on my inner right forearm. (The other one is on the inside of my left ankle; it’s a yin-yang-ish version of my zodiac sign, Cancer.) It took the guy 10 minutes, and the pain was completely bearable. We had a nice chat, and I even watched him put the ink in.

It looks gorgeous.

I felt kind of badass.

My lovely friend Miriam came with me, and we had lunch, a great walk around Montclair, and a browse around a used bookstore, too. Om, indeed.

Om (or Aum) is a sacred and mystical syllable in Indian religions. It is very often the first word of Hindu texts, because it’s an incantation to be intoned before (and after) a reading. It’s considered the name of God, or — and I love this — the vibration of the Supreme.

Om is the sound you chant at the beginning and end of yoga class. It’s a mantra. When everyone’s in sync, it sounds like a beautiful harmonic.

One of the things I really love about Om is the idea that it is “the primordial hum of the universe.” It’s the sound in the background, the constant buzz of life. I love that in a spiritual way, because for a long time I’ve considered God to be the higher order in the universe. The utter elegance of mathematics, all the symmetry in nature, and even the way analogies work in words are all proof to me that the universe is ordered on some level. That there’s a diffusion of spirit that keeps things going. Whether or not it has a consciousness, I have no idea, but it doesn’t matter to me. I like to think of it as disembodied, actually, as energy. And Om is the sound it makes.

For a while I was hesitant to get an Om tattoo. I wondered, is it kind of cliché? But then I started to think about it the way I think of my older daughter’s name. Kate is a very popular name, but I love it, and I’ve always loved it, and there was no question in my mind once we found out that she was a girl that it would be her name. Everyone else could have named their kid Kate too, and I’d still have chosen it. I didn’t get an Om just because I’m into yoga now. It really speaks to what I’ve believed for most of my life but didn’t really have a name for until I truly came to yoga and learned more about it.

When I was first considering it and tossing it around, a woman I know told me I should think about the fact that it would be there on my arm when my girls get married and I’m the mother of the bride. Like that would be a bad thing. I can’t remember if I asked her or just thought this: Why is it okay to wear a cross or a star around your neck but not to have an Om tattooed on your arm?

In the book Om Chanting and Meditation, author Amit Ray says:

Om is not just a sound or vibration. It is not just a symbol. It is the entire cosmos, whatever we can see, touch, hear and feel. Moreover, it is all that is within our perception and all that is beyond our perception. It is the core of our very existence. If you think of Om only as a sound, a technique or a symbol of the Divine, you will miss it altogether…. It is the eternal song of the Divine. It is continuously resounding in silence on the background of everything that exists.

I can’t really improve upon that.

One of my teachers said recently that chanting Om validates your place in the universe; it’s a way of saying I am here. What better reminder to have on the inside of my forearm?


Alone

It’s been a relatively quiet beginning of 2012 for me. Especially in the last six weeks, I’ve had time for silence. To be with myself.

Yes, I’ve spent plenty of that time online, and on my new obsession, Pinterest (don’t get me going; even now, I’m tempted to click over and do some pinning to my boards). I’ve watched Downton Abbey from the beginning — which I can tell you is an outstanding and honorable way to spend one’s time. I’ve read a lot of books and listened to a lot of music. I even spent a few days nursing a cold.

I’ve done some work, driven my kids around, and played my role on the PTA. But I’ve also enjoyed being alone.

I’m someone who loves being around people and craves connection (if we’re Facebook friends, or friends at all, you know this well). But I’ve also always been able to hang out by myself quite happily. I’m rarely lonely or bored when on my own. Of course, as the mother of small children who are now not quite as small (and so are in school all day), I feel I’ve earned the exquisiteness of alone time. But even before I had them, I liked it. I became a freelancer in 1998 with no qualms whatsoever about my ability to work at home all by myself. I can manage blocks of hours on end and get done what I need to while also appreciating the silence. I know that about myself.

So it seems my center has always been there, even in those recent years when I couldn’t find it, thought I’d lost it, didn’t even remember what it felt like to be in it.

This week my yoga teachers Emma and Julie talked a lot about the “teacher within.” Your inner teacher is sovereign, the one with the most wisdom and knowledge about you. Even if you don’t know it or trust it — even if you’re in denial about it — you are the one who knows yourself best.

The first line of the Anusara invocation, which we sing at the beginning of every practice, is

Om Namah Shivaya Gurave

Which means

I offer myself to the Light, the Auspicious One, who is the True Teacher within and without.

We all have teachers, and we all are teachers, my teachers said. But your true teacher is you.

To reap the benefits your inner teacher can offer you, you need to listen to her or him. Which means having a clear connection to yourself. It means being able to sit in that inner silence and hear what you have to say — your thoughts, feelings, fears, defense mechanisms, arguments, justifications. The idea of doing this can be downright frightening. But if you try it, you find that it’s ultimately empowering. It’s really the source of all your power as a human being, to know yourself and be connected with yourself. It’s the only place from which you’ll be able to create genuine bonds with the people around you.

It’s possible — it’s necessary — to really luxuriate in aloneness.


Short but Sweet: November

To me, this is the most beautiful part of the fall. When almost all the leaves are off of the trees and everything is stark against the sky, whether it happens to be blue or white on a given day. The air is crisp, and the light has a certain special luster — not the warm, honeyed hue of the spring or summer, but a clear, white gleam, like diamonds. At twilight everything glows — the colors of the leaves are vivid as night comes on. There’s a hush, but the breeze is full of intimate whispers.

This month used to just pass me by as I looked forward to Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday. It always has been and it remains so. It used to be just because I loved the food and the simplicity of the day (as opposed to the insanity of the December holidays — my parents owned a retail store, so it wasn’t an especially fun time of the year). As I get older, there’s something I find necessary and right about coming together with friends and family in gratitude when the year is winding down and the world is preparing for its deep sleep.

Now November is also my daughters’ birth month, so it has a special vibration for me. It’s the month when, in 2003 and in 2005, I curled up with a newborn girl. The time when I began to nurture a new life, just as nature snuggled up around us. It feels sacred now, each year.


Starting with What You Know

I started yoga teacher training this past weekend. It’s something I never thought I’d do, but it was the natural next step in my yoga practice. The concept of teaching is something I’ve always considered slightly out of my comfort zone, and I’ve also always thought of myself too impatient and inarticulate to be a teacher, of anything. But I’m starting to feel less like that, and more like someone who possibly could communicate all this to another person, who could help show them the way to the awesomeness that is Anusara yoga.

We’ll see about that. In the meantime, I get to hang out with a group of wonderful people — including my Dharma girls, Rachel, Dari, Miriam and Denise — and also our fantastic teacher, Emma, about whom not enough fabulous things can be said.

Emma’s theme for our first weekend was to “start with what we know.” As it turns out, far from starting at square one, we all know a decent amount about this yoga thing already. We know how to align our bodies in each pose. We know how to melt our hearts. We’re pretty confident about how to assist one another in poses, and about being assisted. We know many of the Sanskrit terms for the different asana (that’s Sanskrit for “pose”), though my pronunciation still leaves a lot to be desired.

We spent one afternoon learning about bones and muscles. I’ve never taken an anatomy class in my life, but I was surprised to find that I had a pretty good sense of where most things are.

We practiced telling each other what looked good about our downward dogs, and then found one aspect of the pose the other person could adjust. We sort of knew what we were talking about.

So after the weekend was over, we left feeling like we weren’t clueless. We already had a base of knowledge to match our interest and passion. We weren’t flailing in the wind.

What a brilliant way for Emma to begin. And it’s a lesson to apply to all sorts of subjects and situations, every day. Even when you feel clueless, stupid, confused, helpless — chances are good that if you think about it, if you stop, take a breath, and make a mental list of what does feel okay, positive, certain — there are things you do know, and know well. And they will get you started, help you maintain your confidence or strength even when the going gets rough, or seems impossible. What you know can and will see you through.