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.
Shift. The word came into my head this morning as I was contemplating names for a new blog. But then I realized (okay, after fighting with WordPress for domain names for a while) that perhaps I don’t need a new space. I can simply shift my thinking about this one.
(Also, the word shift is one of those that if you look at it for too long, it looks like nonsense. And there’s the inevitable misread, which is kind of the exact opposite of what I want to get at.)
It was in yoga, not surprisingly, that the idea arrived. The poses ask you to constantly shift — your balance, your breath, your focus. To make those shifts safely, you need to slow down and be intentional. But then you need to act as well — move into the next pose.
And I’ve been feeling a deep shift in my yoga practice lately. I can’t quite articulate it yet, but it feels like I’ve reached a new threshold and I’m about to cross it.
Yesterday I was on the train into the city and this thought came into my head: “I want to be a writer.”
It’s something I call myself professionally, along with “editor” — I am paid to work with words. But am I “a writer”? I’ve spent a lot of time lately doubting my ability to form words into stories, or to say anything useful or meaningful with them. It’s one thing to write a sentence correctly, or write a “pretty” one using “beautiful” language; it’s another thing completely to be able to put those sentences together to tell a story that conveys emotion, that makes the person reading it feel something.
That’s the place where I’m hovering in uncertainty. It’s a threshold that I’m unsure about.
It’s not that I don’t think I have the ability to do it. I know I do. But I want to create something bigger. And, well — sometimes it feels like words fail me.
For me, stories are everything. They are everywhere. Everyone, every thing, every place has a story. Hearing, watching, and reading these stories feels like what I’m supposed to be doing, what I want to be doing. But when it comes down to sitting with a blank page and writing my own, I get muddled. What is it I want to say? Is it worth saying? I’ve got this idea, these emotions I want to get across — how to do that? What is the story? Where’s the plot? (Is there one?)
I’m trying to shift myself out of this mind-set and just do it. Just write. See what happens. It’s a practice, like anything else, and I’ve grown better and better at understanding that in the rest of my life. Everything is in process, and all you can do is show up, again and again. Some days it will all fall into place and be practically perfect. Other days you will literally fall on your face. Most days will be somewhere in between.
As I said to a friend this morning, during those practically perfect times, everything feels aligned. The vibration is right, like the sound of a harmonic on a guitar. That’s the place you strive to get to and stay in for as long as possible. But you have to follow the path that leads you there; it’s not in plain sight. (And I suppose it wouldn’t feel so satisfying to arrive and linger there if it was.)
And here’s the thing: Writing gets me there. I’ve just written this piece about how I’m trying to write, and I’ve written myself into that feeling, that high. I’m there.
Another friend recently wrote this line: “In order to write, I need to write.” Circular and true. It’s the harmonic.
So. I’m going to consider this post a shift, and I’m going to come here more often. And write.
“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.
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.
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.