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.
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.
Well, it’s April, and I’ve finally come up with my word/concept/idea for 2013: gratitude.
It seems like such a simple little thing, practically a cliché. Why exactly did it take me so long to come to it? I sat with a few other things: softness, stillness, here-ness. I’ll come back to those again in the coming months.
But something about the spring sun and some purple crocuses I saw blooming in an ordinary suburban strip-mall parking lot this morning made me think: I’m grateful.
I’m grateful for the health and happiness of my loved ones–especially my daughters, who are smart and funny and thriving and simply glorious creatures. I’m grateful that I get to have something to do with their lives and their upbringing.
I’m grateful that my husband likes his new job, enjoys being a part of community theater, and just seems more content lately than he has in quite a while.
I’m grateful for the amazing community I live in, full of some of the smartest, coolest, most interesting, talented, engaged and committed people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. I’m especially grateful for the network of fellow parents–if ever there was a village, SOMA is it.
I’m grateful for friends who let me be myself, who truly get me, and allow me to give the same gift back to them.
I’m grateful for my self-awareness, which I’ve cultivated with a lot of blood, sweat and tears over the past five years or so. I’m especially grateful for the realization that physical awareness and wellness makes a huge impact on psychological, emotional and spiritual awareness and wellness.
I’m grateful that I have a beautiful, natural place where I go to run and enjoy the weather (good or bad) and the quiet and the light and the stillness and the familiar faces I pass regularly each time I’m there.
I’m grateful for yoga and all the ways it’s helped me to fall into place.
I’m grateful for words to read and write and for music to hear and sing and dance to.
I’m grateful to be more clear than I’ve ever been about what’s important.
A half marathon is 13.1 miles, and that’s how far I was supposed to run on November 4, in the Princeton Half. Hurricane Sandy cancelled it — among lots of other things, including the New York City Marathon, Halloween, and, of course, school, work, NJ Transit, and thousands of families’ power. A week and a half later, some of my friends still have cold, dark homes.
I’ve been training since August, running three times a week and going to yoga at least twice (for me, at least, there is no running without yoga). Slowly I built up distance, and I got to a little bit over 11 miles a few weeks ago, the farthest I’ve ever gone. I did it in a little over two hours, which for me is pretty respectable.
I was feeling great mentally. I could go with the ebb and flow during the run, knowing that if I started to feel tired, in another mile or two I’d get in a zone where things opened up and I felt good and strong. I got to the point where it felt better to keep going than to stop, even at 9 or 10 miles. I didn’t ever get to the point where I thought I’d ever be able to run 26.2 — that still sounds torturous. But I do know that I can run 13.1.
Enter the storm, and the cancellation. And add to that a pinched nerve in my left leg. I’d been feeling a little bit of burning and tingling in my thigh, and honestly, I was ignoring it. But this past week it’s been bothering me a little more, so I finally looked into what it might be. My left hip, though it’s been really good throughout my training, is slightly off — I had dysplasia as a baby and only through yoga have I come to realize that the head of my left thigh bone doesn’t fit exactly into the hip socket. While this is usually not a big deal — it’s just annoying during certain poses — I suspect it’s what led to the nerve thing.
So. Life is still slowly getting back to normal after Sandy (and this weird snowstorm we had yesterday). I haven’t run since it hit. I’m not sure I should — I think I need to take care of this nerve. But I don’t want to stop running — even if long distances isn’t a good idea, I want to at least go back to my 4-, 5- or 6-mile runs.
I must admit to feeling a little apprehensive. I hope that if I just rest and take care of my leg I can go back to running again. It’s funny — I was never, ever a runner until about four years ago, and now I know I’d really miss it.
Strangely, I’m not too disappointed about the actual event being cancelled, or postponed, or whatever it turns out to be. I didn’t want to actually race — I just wanted to run and finish. The training was really gratifying — I got a lot of satisfaction out of the process, out of slowly working through it, out of feeling so good while doing it. My lungs are strong and sure. My muscles and joints can carry me through. I was patient through the tough parts (uphills!) and exhilarated during the coasts (downhills). I may even have lost some weight, or at least firmed up.
So even if I don’t get to run my 13.1 anytime soon — I know that I’m able, and that I can prepare again.
Most of all, I appreciated the practice in being present. That’s always valuable.
You’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.
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’s been a while since I raved about the book The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz. Last year I wrote about the first agreement, Be impeccable with your word, and the second, Don’t take anything personally.
The third of the Four Agreements is Don’t make assumptions.
Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.
Once again, it sounds simple, but it’s not, quite. It can be scary to be straight with someone, especially if they’re wound up tight. But consider how much grief you could avoid, for yourself and for others. Think about how often you get bogged down in things because you assumed someone meant something by a look, or a comment, or an email. Think about how many times a friend has told you another friend did this, said this, and asked you what you make of it, or urged to you agree that the other person is a jerk. It’s also true that we often make assumptions about other people’s actions based on our own issues and feelings, though we may not even be aware of it.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just look one another in the eye and say “What did you mean by that?” or “I was hurt by what you said” or “It made me angry when you took credit for the work I did”? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could just clarify complicated things? In so many instances, a potentially charged situation could be quickly diffused.
I just did a workshop with my older daughter through the Girls Leadership Institute, an organization co-founded by Rachel Simmons, who wrote The Curse of the Good Girl, which you should read if you’re the parent of a girl, if you used to be a girl, or if you’ve ever met a girl or a woman. If you are female, I guarantee that you’ll see yourself in this book: as a schoolgirl, a teenager, a college girl, a woman. It’s about how girls communicate (or fail to), how we often sabotage ourselves and our friendships by not expressing our feelings or even letting ourselves feel them, by not letting others know what we need and want.
This workshop, for second and third grade girls and their moms, met for a month, once a week. The girls (and we) came away excited about their new pals and empowered to communicate better with their friends, their siblings, and their parents. The workshop literally gave them tools for standing up for themselves and being the wonderful, beautiful, authentic girls they are. Things like:
Say how I feel.
Ask for what I need.
Make eye contact.
Stand on both feet.
Use a firm, clear tone of voice.
Ask a question.
Apologize if you’ve done something to make the situation worse.
Remind the other person what it means to be a friend.
Instead of assuming a friend was “just kidding,” didn’t mean to hurt them, or that their hurt or sad feeling doesn’t matter–that they’re “too sensitive” or that they overreacted–they are now able to identify how something made them feel, talk about it, and do something about it.
Needless to say, these are skills for everyone, not just 8- and 9-year-old girls. I’m so grateful that Kate is starting to learn about this now, though, because it takes many of us a lifetime to figure it out. A lifetime of unnecessary anger, resentment, and hurt.
It’s so easy to see how learning not to make assumptions can indeed transform your life.