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.
“You are very grounded lately!” my friend Jennie remarked while we were texting about something mutually frustrating. It was nice to hear. I feel it, but it’s always good when someone else notices it, too.
I am grounded. Even with lots of complicated stuff going on in my life that could easily knock me off balance — and sometimes does — I feel pretty solid. I know that no matter what happens, I can handle it. I’ll be okay. Maybe even more than okay.
Here’s the thing I’ve learned about being grounded: It’s not as much of an effort as you think. Some effort and engagement are required, sure. But more than that, you just have to let it happen. It’s counterintuitive (like so much of life): You actually need to do some opening up and letting go in order to root down and find your grounding.
Here’s the best way I can describe it, courtesy of my yoga practice today and every day. When I lie on my back at the end of class in that final resting pose we call savasana, I always take note of my lower back, which more often than not is curved slightly up and away from the floor. I take note of it, and then I forget about it. I concentrate on my breath, noticing as it enters and leaves my chest. I feel the up and down motion, and I feel the support of the floor underneath me.
A few minutes later, when we start to come back to ourselves, I take note of my lower back again. Always, it has moved gently down to the floor, nice and flat against it. It doesn’t feel like an effort, and there’s no arching or straining at all. My breath and the support of the ground (gravity!) have helped it to release.
That’s being grounded. It doesn’t have to be forced: If you just slow down, let go, and breathe, it can happen.
Easier said than done? Yes. But still easier than you’d expect. And how comforting to know that just by breathing you can support yourself.
This month used to just be the time between Halloween and Thanksgiving. I don’t know how much I ever really noticed it. Gone are the warm, vivid days of early fall; the leaves are almost all off the trees, and the wind turns colder. Before, I guess, I didn’t think there was much to see or feel about it. It was a trudge toward my favorite holiday, that day of gratitude and good food, after which it would just get cold and dark and miserable for at least three months.
Perhaps it was growing up in Chicago that made me hate the cold so much. Of course I enjoyed being out in the snow as a kid; I can remember making huge forts during some of the blizzards of my childhood. But as I got older I mostly just hurried myself from inside to inside, getting through the bitter, icy outdoors as quickly as I could. Huddling under a layer of blankets so heavy in my cold, dark bedroom that I almost couldn’t breathe. Biding my time until it got warm again and I could emerge.
Then, in November of 2003, I had a baby. It was November 5, to be exact. The day before she was born, it was warm enough that I could walk to the nail salon in my Brooklyn neighborhood in flip-flops for my last pedicure before motherhood, the leaves on the sidewalk crunching around my bare toes. A few days later, when we took her home, it was cold enough to see your breath, and I worried that the heaters in our apartment building had not yet kicked on, that she’d freeze to death.
Two years later I had another baby, this time in late November, on the 23rd — the day before Thanksgiving. She was born in Hawaii (you can read about that here), where it was, of course, hot and sunny; her first beach day was when she was only a few days old. Then we swaddled her in blankets and got back on the plane, went home to the cold, where I could see the skeletal branches of the tree outside my bedroom window while I nursed my new daughter.
Becoming a mother made me notice the passage of time in a new way. Those early days were measured in minutes and hours, and going outside into the fresh, brisk air was a relief after being cocooned inside with a newborn, or — worse — a newborn and a toddler.
The month of things curling into themselves, moving back toward the earth to sleep, became for me the time when new life began. I took my first daughter out for long walks in her stroller, in Prospect Park; no longer did I barricade myself inside for the duration. I not only went outside; I stayed outside, for hours. I looked around me. The bare branches of the trees were sharp and angular against the sky; the leaves still clinging to them were lovely in their starkness. I noticed how the sunlight was whiter and clearer — purer — and how the breath moved more easily through my lungs. In late afternoon, the early twilight felt thrilling and heartbreaking. It often brought tears to my eyes (sometimes it still does).
November became a sacred space for me.
This year my older daughter turned 10; my younger one is almost 8. Each year I honor this month as the time I came alive to the cold seasons and saw them for what they are — a beautiful, contemplative time when the earth takes its rest.
I also honor this month as the time I became a mother, which taught me to see everything differently.
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.
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.