Experience

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I’ve been teaching my yoga class at the studio where I practice, and where I trained to teach, for about three months now. Usually I enjoy it — I always love the creative challenge of coming up with a sequence and embellishing the asana with some thoughts and ideas that make it more significant than just exercise. Often, it works. Often it works really well, and I feel it as we’re going along, and I can tell the students feel it, too.

It isn’t always related to the amount of time I’ve put into preparing the class; sometimes a sequence I jotted down quickly and taught on the fly (or at least it feels that way) really connects. Other times the ideas I felt strongly about and the sequence I thought was effective falls flat. Or at least it feels like it does to me.

The upside is that I don’t get particularly frustrated when I have a “bad” week. I know that there are all sorts of variables that might make things go not as well as I’d like, and that I won’t always be able to put my finger on them — just as there are all sorts of reasons why a class really works, and it’s impossible to pinpoint all of them, either. So I try not to linger there too long.

Also, good or bad, effective or just so-so, it is all experience.

I was talking about this to my sister, who’s been a yoga teacher for more than a decade, and who is also a dance/movement therapist and a Ph.D candidate — i.e., she has a ton more experience than I do. I was telling her about a particular class I’d just taught that I really felt kind of, well, sucked. The sequence didn’t really fall together, and there was also the issue of wildly varying levels of experience among the students, from a mom who hadn’t been to yoga in more than five years to a teacher who’d actually taught at the studio (I had not yet met her and didn’t figure out who she was until about halfway through the class, when it was obvious she was a far more advanced yogi than I). I left feeling a bit discouraged.

“But you don’t have any idea what the students’ experience was,” my sister said. “Think about when you take a yoga class — you have your own experience of it, on that day, no matter who the teacher is or how ‘good’ the class is, right?”

She also told me about how she’d had the college students she taught yoga to at a university in the city keep journals about their experience with the asana, and how what they wrote about always blew her away — that she never could have predicted their experience.

It’s one of those concepts that should be obvious but isn’t, always — everyone has their own experience of everything. Even things as simple as tasting a flavor — vanilla, say. I taste vanilla and I have my experience of tasting vanilla, and you taste it and have your experience of it. I can never have your experience of that flavor. I can only have mine.

I don’t know about you, but I find that idea incredibly comforting.

Last weekend I attended a series of lectures on the Bhagavad Gita by Douglas Brooks, who is a noted scholar of the text and a teacher several of my own yoga teachers revere. It was an interesting and complicated weekend, with lots of ideas flying around. Many of them really aligned with my own thoughts about yoga and the nature of the universe and how to live. Which was comforting, in itself.

He talked about the idea that we are all the same “stuff”: that everything in the universe is made of the same thing, that DNA — the very evidence of the Self — is present in everything.

But, the sameness is just where we begin, in the Tantric/Hindu line of thinking. We take shape in different ways — different inanimate things, different living things, different animals, different people.

Your Self is your experience, and your Self is your experience.

The gift of life, of being embodied, is that you get to have your own experience of the world, and that no one else can truly touch that, at its core. The Self cannot be violated — no one can steal you from you.

Intimacy, then, is that the people who love you most can come right up to that boundary of your Self and savor the difference that is You — they recognize that they are not you, and they love who you are. They honor and protect your Self; that is their job as your loved ones. And you do the same for them.

Some may find this concept incredibly depressing, alienating, even scary. But I find it beautiful, freeing — frankly, a relief.

Our task in life is to have our own experience of it. To savor that experience — to revel in it. And to support others in that endeavor.

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Knowing

616217_4075993291525_1647459565_oYou’ve heard the phrase “knowledge is power.” I’ve been thinking about this. Information is a useful thing. Especially information about yourself and how you handle things, react to things. Knowing yourself makes life easier and nicer. It helps you engage more deeply with the world, to want to engage more deeply. It helps you avoid pitfalls and obstacles, or at least accept them and move through them more gracefully. Even things you don’t really want to know, the stuff you avoid knowing, is necessary to look at, finally.

Most of what you know, you find out through experience. When you do something again and again, when you have a routine, you start to notice patterns. You start to notice whether or not these patterns are working, whether they make you feel good or bad. Just being aware of the pattern and how it feels might help you start to change it.

Sometimes you realize something out of the blue, and it seems so obvious, you don’t know why you didn’t see it before. Or someone tells you, and you can’t believe you needed someone to tell you. Or you didn’t realize it until you heard it in just those words. Or you finally admit something to yourself and see that it feels better to know it than to pretend you didn’t know.

Sometimes you need to do the work of finding out. You need to go to the doctor, or to therapy, or to AA. It’s not always fun, but ultimately it’s a relief to understand. And to have some guidance about what to do next.

Because once you know things, you can’t just sit around and know them. You need to use them, to apply them. That, I believe, is living fully.

Here a few things I know about myself:

— I am not a morning person.

— I’m funny.

— I’m a little boy-crazy, even at 41 (see Simon Le Bon, Robert Downey Jr., et. al.).

— I get snappish when I’m frustrated or distracted.

— I get quiet when I’m tired.

— I get skinny when I’m sad.

— I love being with people, but I’m also a homebody.

— I like to feel on top of things, and to have things in order.

— I’m a recovering perfectionist.

— I couldn’t live without books and music.

— I’m stronger than I used to think I was.

— I subscribe to The Four Agreements.

— I think there’s some higher, divine order to the universe. I don’t really need to know more than that.

Here are a few things I know about myself and yoga:

— I am not afraid of backbends and never have been, even though opening your chest and heart brings all sorts of emotions to the surface.

— Lately, I actually love them, because I finally figured out how to really get my shoulder blades down my back.

— My left thigh bone doesn’t fit perfectly into the hip socket. The right one absolutely does. Things that feel great on my right sometimes hurt on the left. It’s frustrating, but I can work with it.

— I have a bit of scoliosis in my lumbar spine. It curves out to the left a bit. This makes me tip that way sometimes. I can work with that.

— My Achilles tendons get tight, and pressing down through my outer foot helps in poses like triangle.

— I tend to tuck my chin into my chest, and I have to remember (or be reminded) to lift it. This makes breathing easier and nicer.

— I can’t yet kick up into a handstand, but one day I will.

— I really don’t enjoy utkatasana (chair pose) or warrior 1  (seriously, what is with the placement of the back foot?). I adore ustrasana  (camel), and I also really love and appreciate ardha chandrasana  (half moon).

— The Universal Principles of Alignment are key, no matter what we’re calling them these days or who made them up. In yoga and in life.

Here are a few things I know about myself and running:

— I don’t do well in humidity. I prefer 35 degrees to 75 degrees.

— I like to run in the morning, but not too early in the morning (in the summer, this is going to have to change).

— I love running outside and detest the treadmill.

— I can run in a snowstorm or a rainstorm.

— I need to drink a lot of water before and after, because otherwise I get dehydrated, and I also get a horrible headache.

—  If my knees or ankles start to hurt, it helps to pull in to the midline (yoga trick).

— I can go six miles, which means I can probably go 12 miles. Or maybe even 13.1.

Today on my run I decided that when I’m going downhill, I really feel like a runner. (And I’m from the Midwest, so every slight rise is a hill.) Uphill, not so much. Of course, I know the reason for this: gravity. Downhill, I can go faster, my form is better, and I just feel good, strong, capable. Uphill, I struggle, slow down, breathing is tougher. I feel like I’m puttering along, and I certainly don’t feel masterful.

However, I do know that the hill won’t last forever, and that I can do it. I will make it to the top.

And then I’ll get to coast down again.


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.


The Bliss of the Everyday

601676_10200878821106146_792732510_nShiva Sutras, 3:27: katha japah/Ordinary talk of life is the recitation of mantra.

I’ve always been a homebody. It’s part of my sign—Cancer—and though I wouldn’t call myself “domestic” (cleaning is not my forte) I can definitely identify with the idea of the crab’s shell as its protection. Home is safety, protection, comfort. My own private space is my refuge. Every time I’ve moved, and it’s pretty much always been into a bigger, better place, I’ve mourned leaving the old one. I always walk through all the empty rooms one last time.

Seemingly “momentous” occasions don’t generally happen at home, but if you think about it, everything that’s most important does. Home is the place where our relationships with loved ones play out, where we really allow ourselves to feel our emotions, where everything that makes up day-to-day life happens. The rhythm of our regular days might not always seem exciting or memorable, but we depend upon it. According to the Shiva Sutras, which was a required text for my yoga teacher training: Ordinary talk of life is the recitation of mantra.

If you start with the concept that the divine stuff of the universe is everywhere, in everything and everyone, moving through the seemingly mundane tasks of everyday life becomes the process of reciting mantra, of connecting with yourself and with the energy of the universe every day. The things that feel ordinary and foundational to our lives are actually the things that can transport us to the divine—at any moment at all. Being grounded in the ordinariness of life is the very thing that can help us attain the bliss that is already within us.


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.


Tangible

In the past few days, I’ve been going through June and July pictures. What I try to do is download everything off my camera each month and upload it to Kodak in a folder named for that month. I go through and edit them down, add some captions, and send an email to a list of friends and family who might want to see them (or who can just delete the email if they don’t). The last step, ideally, is ordering prints of all the photos and putting them in an album.

On that part, I’m about nine months behind.

I know it might sound archaic to actually get prints and assemble them in a real photo album, not a virtual one. But as much as I appreciate the easy access to pictures online (and the ability to just delete all the bad shots), I really love having a book of them in my hands to look through. Instead of firing up the computer and going to the folder of pictures of when Sara was born, for example, we can find the book, cuddle up on the couch together, and turn the pages. Call me a Luddite, but I still like that.

I’m the same way about books I read. I’m holding out as long as I can on e-readers. Again, it’s not that I don’t think they’re cool and handy and easy. I just like turning pages, being able to underline things or write notes in the margins (or see what the readers before me have written), slipping in a bookmark and being able to see when the book is closed how far into it I actually am. I find that satisfying. I don’t want to give it up.

I think (and I hope) there will always be a place for books (and magazines, and newspapers) that we hold in our hands. I like to sit on the train or subway and see what other people are reading — I’ve even had conversations with strangers about books. If they’re reading on a Kindle, you can’t tell. (One thing I adore about New York City is that subway riders don’t leave big, hardcover books at home — they tote them along in little shopping bags if need be.) When I’m lying on the couch or in bed with a book, the weight of it in my hands is comforting. When I read with my kids, they snuggle next to me, tuck themselves under my arms, and reach out to touch the book a lot. Sometimes pages get torn, and we have to tape them back together. The tape shows we’ve been there — we’ve read this, enjoyed it, had a reaction to it.

Tangible means “capable of being perceived, especially by the sense of touch.” I like that. Putting pictures and books on screens can take away our sense of touch, our physical connection to what we’re seeing and reading.

I’m not ready to let that happen. So I’m going to slowly catch up on ordering my prints and gently slide them into the plastic sleeves of some pretty photo albums.