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.
My daughter Kate learned how to crochet in summer camp. She loves it. I’m impressed, because I’m fairly useless at anything involving yarn or thread.
The actual class she took was entitled “Crochet Scrumble.” She explained “scrumble” to me this way: to work on a project or craft with no clear idea of the outcome. The enjoyment and challenge are in the process, in the satisfaction and rhythm of doing the work, in looking forward to finding out what you’ll get in the end.
I looked the word up, and the “official” definition is “to scrape or scratch something out or from.” To take what you have and create something from it.
It occurred to me that “scrumbling” is an important thing to know how to do, and an important thing to enjoy doing. Because it’s really all we can do in this life — be where we are, engage with what’s in front of us, and see where it all leads.
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.
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.
Shiva 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.
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.