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.


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?

Leaning Back

278424_2171695125261_379018_oIn yoga, the front of the body is associated with the individual, and the back of the body is associated with the universal. When we curl into ourselves, we tend to hunch our shoulders forward, cross our arms and bow our head, protecting the heart. When we’re able to open up, we melt our heart forward, pull our shoulders back, and lean back, unafraid.

It’s a tall order. It can be a hugely emotional undertaking. It takes strength, courage, and trust.

And it’s a process. I’ve been practicing yoga steadily now for almost four years, and I feel like I’m just starting to really and truly be in my back body (see A Tool for the Box and A Shift).

My shoulder blades move more easily and smoothly down my back; I’m more conscious of keeping the sides of my body long. I can melt my heart down toward the floor or out toward the front of the room. I’ve never really been afraid of the leaning back part (how I adore ustrasana!), but it feels a lot better when you’ve got everything else aligned properly.

And I suspect — no, I know — that staying in my back body is the key to being able to kick up into a handstand (the Holy Grail of my practice). What happens, I’ve realized, is that when I get scared, I pull into myself, into my front body, and all the lengthening of my sides and melting of my heart and muscular energy I’ve cultivated in my arms comes with me. If I could just keep all that, I could get up. I need to trust in the fact that I can keep all that, and that it will keep me safe.

But I see now that all the back body work I’ve been doing lately — the way I’ve been feeling it differently — is work on the way to that goal. Today we did some binds and they felt better to me than ever before: so much more open, because I’m lengthening, and my shoulders and blades are in the right place. So much freer. (I love the contradictions in yoga — you get yourself into a bound pose and experience freedom. How crazy is that?)

I’m finding that I can lean back into poses more deeply now. I can keep my foundation strong, put my shoulders in the right place, and go. It’s very exciting, perhaps because the letting go part has always been difficult for me. I’m choosing to take this as a sign that I’m feeling confident enough in my center that I’m willing to trust myself and the universe more and lean into it.

I’ve got support — my family, my friends, my kula, the universe. It’s good.


These past few weeks, as things have sort of exploded into chaos in the Anusara yoga world, I’ve been thinking a lot about being still.

My pattern my whole life, when things got painful or uncomfortable or crazy, was to freak out. Just fall apart. Respond immediately in a rush of whatever emotion was present. To grasp on desperately if something was ending or someone was leaving, without stopping to take a breath, to think, to get my head around what was going on.

This didn’t serve me well.

So finally, in my late 30s and early 40s, I’ve learned to take that breath. To feel my emotions without giving in to the intense need to do something about them, or about the situation — which I’ve realized really amounts to trying to avoid sitting with the feelings. Because it’s not fun to sit with icky feelings.

But what it comes down to is that if you don’t take the time to be still, to fortify, to find your bearings, you’ll just make the chaos worse. You might think an unbridled emotional outburst will make you feel better. Sometimes it does, I suppose, but my experience has largely been that in the long term, it really won’t.

Being still doesn’t mean doing nothing. It’s a conscious decision. It also doesn’t mean you’re not engaging; it is a boundary you create to protect yourself, to give yourself the space you need to think clearly, and to show other parties that there’s a line you’re not letting them cross just now. But it’s a line that protects them, too, because you’re going to be able to have an authentic response if you slow down and become still. You’re changing the quality of the energy between you and the other person, or you and the situation.

And ironically, though it might feel, look and seem like you’re building a wall (which perhaps, temporarily, you are), this is what will allow you to maintain your connection, if you choose. It will let you become more receptive. Instead of lashing out blindly or desperately, possibly with pain and anger, you’ll be able to process, sit with the emotions, and then reach out voluntarily, with clarity.

Though the organization called Anusara is in a period of intense upheaval right now, I would bet that all the yogis involved are still holding to their midline, the Universal Principles of Alignment. And there it is: First be still. Then you can be receptive to what comes next.

Last Post of 2011

So the year is ending. It hasn’t been the best for the Guth family. My father died in March — it still feels a little surreal to me. Maybe I haven’t fully processed it. Though I know that I handled it as best I could, kept my wits about me and my center within me, and hopefully I was there for the rest of my family. Then my widowed mom had surgery this fall to remove a tumor on her intestine. Thankfully it was benign, but it’s been a tough road for her, and it was difficult for my sister and me to be so far away. She’s recovering nicely now. But I think we’re all glad that a new year is about to begin.

Still, I can’t say I had a horrible year. Even with these huge, life-changing events. Even with some issues in my personal life that were quite difficult at times, and that I hope we can make progress on in 2012. I think it’s because the way I handle things now is so hugely different from the way I handled them four or five years ago. Or even in 2010.

There’s nothing more important than keeping yourself centered, knowing you have that strength there, and then trusting that you are going to be able to weather what comes. That and knowing that your loved ones — family and friends, your kula — have your back, that they will be there to catch you if you happen to fall. It’s a very safe place to be, and one that allows me to be with my feelings instead of just reacting to them, or recoiling from things that might cause pain.

And I have a lot to be grateful for. My incredible daughters, my husband, all the other people in my life whom I love, and the things that sustain me: yoga, books, writing, music, running, playing tennis. These days, even on a day when I don’t have a lot going on, I take pleasure in knowing that something is going to come up that will make me feel happy, or fascinated, or interested, or just emotional (and that’s a good thing). On a hectic day, I kind of enjoy the running to and fro, feeling productive, crossing things off of my list. Stopping for a chai latte.

Life is good. And I’m hoping 2012 will offer lots of evidence of that fact.

I’m going to make my word for this next year love. Simple as that.

Opening to Grace

I spent the weekend in Montclair attending my first-ever workshop with John Friend, the founder of Anusara yoga. I had no idea what to expect. I came away delighted. Far from being your typical stereotypical “guru,” he was amazingly — normal. Down to earth. Funny. Smart. So smart. This is the guy who came up with the Universal Principles of Alignment. And though they map on to emotional and spiritual freedom, far from being loosey-goosey spiritual babble, they are based on decades of scientific observation and study by John himself. I was impressed, and grateful for the opportunity to learn firsthand from him.

In Anusara, the Universal Principles of Alignment are applied physically to every pose. If you learn to do this, you’ll always be aligned properly — and not just with your skeleton. Mentally, emotionally, energetically. Tiny little adjustments can make amazing differences to how a pose feels, to your body and to your spirit. When it all comes together, when you find that sweet spot, it almost seems too easy.

The idea is to align with the flow of nature, with the rest of the universe. And it’s not at all passive. Far from it. You need to actively work your muscles, to engage, and then you get to experience bliss, to shine.

To be open to doing so is the first and perhaps most important principle, because none of it is possible without this: Opening to grace. This means setting your foundation and your intention to align your mind and heart with the energy of the universe. You soften your boundaries, stay present, and become more aware and receptive. Anusara teachers like to say “outer body soft, inner body bright.”

Grace is something I’ve been thinking about lately. Being graceful, going through life with grace — those are things I aspire to, that I work toward. One definition of the word grace is “ease and suppleness of movement or bearing.” That goes deeper than just looking nice or being attractive. It goes beyond physical suppleness and ease, though I’ve come to believe that having those things physically is necessary before you can have them in any other way. There’s a comfort with oneself involved, a center that’s strong and free simultaneously. There’s a mastery of doing something else that got mentioned this weekend: facing uncertainty with certainty. Coming at everything from a place of security and surety, even if you have no idea what’s going on outside or around you.

Of course, grace also has major spiritual and religious connotations. Several other definitions: “divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification”; a state of sanctification enjoyed through divine grace”;  and also “a virtue coming from God.” Depending on how you define the Divine, grace can be something sacred that’s inherent in yourself, not just something granted to you by a deity. I like to think about the energy all around us and in us as being the Divine, and in that sense, we really are in the flow of grace, all the time. We get to choose whether to engage with it or not. And it feels really, really good to engage with it.

There are also the Graces, three sister goddesses in Greek mythology who are the givers of charm and beauty. That makes me think of our lovely teacher Emma Magenta, our hostess for the weekend and an all-around amazing yogi and person. If anyone I know epitomizes grace, it’s her.

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.