How to Accept the Unacceptable Part 1—Become Your Own Best Friend

I know I’m not alone when I say the great uncertainties that we now face have manifested in lots of less-than-pleasant emotions. Said simply and personally, I’m a little bit depressed. Others may be handling this differently. Maybe for you it looks like denial, indignation, anxiety or a return to escapist activities that you previously abandoned. Maybe the emotions are stronger, closer to rage and terror. Maybe, like me, you cycle through all of them. 

I want to acknowledge that the election results might not be hard for everyone. The president-elect has millions of supporters, some of whom may even do yoga. And there are lots of people who aren’t happy but aren’t unhappy either. They have the sense that ultimately everything will be okay. If this is you, I applaud you. 

For the rest of us, somehow we have to keep marching on. For one, there are practical actions to take to be sure we are heard. And we also need to continue to experience positive emotions in the face of very troubling times. We need a little spark of optimism or the pull of nihilism will collapse us. We must keep going, but not on a death march. We need our hearts to be warm and full, and we need to continue to find joy in our daily lives.

Your positive emotions are the medicines the world needs. Yoga may or may not heal the world. My guess is stronger medicine is required. But without it (or without whatever it is you do to care for yourself) we will not be able to do our part at all.

Last night, I taught my regular class and the theme was friendliness, particularly toward ourselves. And then the sequence that I designed got away from me. I repeatedly said right when I meant left. I lost my ability to mirror the class. I skipped a side. My students were confused, and it went on for what felt like forever. If you’re not a yoga teacher, these mistakes might not mean much to you. Imagine yourself at work doing something you’ve done hundreds of times before yet over and over you make various rookie mistakes. Imagine doing that with an audience. That was me last night.

I was embarrassed and remorseful. But when I remembered I was teaching maitri, the Sanskrit work for friendliness, I almost laughed aloud. The icky feelings and negative self talk didn’t go away, they're pretty sticky, but they coexisted with some hard-earned self love and the understanding that even with mistakes, I have lots to offer. The friendliness toward myself held me up and allowed to keep going and give what I had available, which is all anyone can ever do.

I believe that we have to be able to handle ourselves with love and care before we can do it for others. Yes, it’s true that we can be nice to others and unkind to ourselves. That happens all the time. But is “nice” the medicine we need? Superficial pleasantries are important but insufficient. We have to cozy up to our own suffering and joy before we can do that for others.

So now more than ever, we must not, as a friend put it, surrender our own well being. We must be our own best friend. We must be willing to care for ourselves so that those of us who are privileged enough to be safe and fed and healthy will be well enough to show up for those who aren’t safe or healthy or fed. Self care has become a moral imperative.

Please, today, be your own best friend. Be your top ally. Be on your own side. If we become firmly established in that, we will be ready for what comes. 

Be the Calm One on the Boat

When the crowded refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if every one panicked, all would be lost. But if even one person stayed calm, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.

–Thich Nhat Hanh

Here are some suggestions that are helping me navigate this complex, raw and unprecedented emotional and political landscape:

1.    Go to yoga class. Yes, practice at home if that’s what you do, but class is special. We get the benefits of practice, and we also get to share space with other like-minded people. We ease each other’s suffering when we practice in community. One of the refuges in Buddhism is Sangha, community. Find yours now.

2.    Several times a day, close your eyes and rest your awareness on five slow breaths. Pay particular attention to the exhalation. Let it be long, smooth and complete.

3.    Take a moment a few times a day to notice that right here, right now, everything is essentially ok. For most of us, our bodies are at least as healthy as they were when we woke up Tuesday morning. There is abundant oxygen, and again, for most of us, plenty of good food and clean water. Think of people who care about you and feel their love. Develop the understanding that right now our needs are met, including the need for love and connection.

4.    Get into nature. Pay attention to the beauty everywhere around us. Soak it up, absorb it. Leave your phone in the car.

5.    Practice noticing Buddha nature in passers-by. For me, neutral people are the easiest ones for this practice. With no emotional threads, it’s easier for me to see that we all carry the seeds of compassion, love and awakening. See if you can sense it in your barista or grocery clerk. It is impossible to be unkind while doing this practice, and kindness is what we all need more than ever.

6.    Try and find one thing about the group of people you feel in opposition to that you can feel compassionate about. For me, I feel real compassion toward fears of living in poverty. There is common ground here. There are common goals we can work toward.

7.    Be alert and ready to act. The world needs us now. Spirituality and passivity do not commingle. Yoga is action, and we must act. When the time comes, I believe we will know what to do if we are open and looking for it. Be ready. Our practice will prime us. Keep at it.

And no matter what, even if the worst happens and all our worst fears are realized, we will go on loving each other, petting our dogs and cats, and being amazed by sunsets and the kindness of strangers. Life will go on, with all its multifaceted and bittersweet beauty.

For now, let’s practice together so that we can be the calm one on the boat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Yogini, Whether She Knows it or Not

Photograph of Leshia Evans by Jonathan Bachman for Reuter's. 

Photograph of Leshia Evans by Jonathan Bachman for Reuter's. 

I've been struck, like many of us, by this photo of an unarmed woman in Baton Rouge standing up to heavily armed, heavily armored men who intend to arrest her. But who is knocking over whom? Who has all the real power in the photo? Who stands steady and full of grace? Who, in her very vulnerability, displays infinite internal strength?

I'm not interested in debating here who is "right." What I'm really interested in is Leshia Evans' posture, this posture that I work so hard for by aligning my heels with my hips with my shoulders with the crown of my head in yoga class. 

I want the posture because I believe it's healthy and will prevent and cure back pain, but really what I want is the inner strength that the posture is an outer reflection of. 

What strikes me again and again is how the armor that the police wear, what is meant to protect them, is the very thing that is throwing them off. Leshia's wispy dress does nothing to protect her body. Yet nothing can touch her. Her heart is open. She is full of resolve. She knows she is fighting the good fight and, without raising a hand, she blows them all away.  

In yoga, we work from the outside in. We align our ankles and hips and shoulders and strengthen our legs and arms. But it's the softness of her pose that makes it so beautiful. It is her ability to stand simultaneously strong and wide open to the experience of the world that draws us to her. We understand viscerally, no matter how we feel about police and the black lives matter movement, that the person in the image with all of the real power is Leshia Evans.

The image perfectly encapsulates the message of the Bhagavad Gita, as I understand it. You cannot truly be harmed if you show up fully for your life with an open heart and complete willingness to do your unique job, to stand in your dharma, to not back away or cower.

It also brings to mind the one and only yoga sutra that addresses the asanas, our physical practice. The sutra is sthira sukham asanam. At the heart of the sutra is idea that for our posture to be a yoga asana, it has to have the qualities of both steadiness and ease simultaneously.

Steadiness without ease is rigidity. Like the officers in this image, if we are not supple, if we are overburdened with our literal or metaphoric armor, we will be knocked over easily by real power and grace. And ease without steadiness is collapse, is giving up and giving in. It's not showing up at all.

May we all show up today for our lives and our battles, large and small. May we stand as Leshia Evans does, strong and steady in our purpose, yet soft and open to life. May every pose be a yoga asana and, as my teacher says, may we live as the lotus flower, at home in the muddied waters.

Beginner's Mind

The best time of my yoga life was definitely when I was a beginner. Each pose was a mystery. Every cue by every teacher was an invitation to explore. The feelings that came up were largely new too: the cathartic cries in savasana, the blissful walk home after class when the birds sang a little louder, the wind blew warmer, and the sun shone brighter.

For the next year, I went to classes five or six times a week. I went on retreats. I read books about yoga. I found teachers that I really loved. My body changed and I accomplished things with my arms and legs and bones and muscles that I never dreamed I could do. I kicked into a handstand after a childhood of being the only girl who couldn't do a cartwheel. I was strong and full of enthusiasm. I was happy and excited. I was a beginner.

Then I became a teacher and I started to know a little bit. I developed opinions about what was safe and what was not. I had preferences about language and music and sequencing. I quit enjoying every class I went to, although I still enjoyed some. I practiced more at home and became more selective about my teachers. 

My opinions and preferences have only grown in severity and number since I was a new teacher.

Since then, I've auditioned hundreds of yoga teachers. My job is to judge them. I take groups of students through teacher training and attempt to pass along those preferences and beliefs that I hold most dear. I evaluate their teaching and offer feedback.

I live and work and breathe through the solidly crafted lens of what I think I know.

And when I take class, my brain is on. What the teacher says, the poses, the music, the sequence are all passed through a nauseating evaluation process as I try to enjoy a little yoga. 

Experience and "expertise" have, over several years, drained much of the pleasure out of taking yoga and turned it into work.

A student of mine showed up to class one day different. Her face was relaxed and smiling. She stood up straighter, yet her posture was full of ease and confidence. I mentioned the change to her and she said, "Well, I've been coming to your studio almost every day for about a month."

Right. That's what yoga does. I was very happy for her, and also a little sad for myself. I have really missed that.

So I'm back. My goal is 40 classes in 40 days. As it happens, I turn 40 next month, so it all seems fitting.

For all of these classes, my intention is the same. Beginner's mind. I am not there to evaluate, judge or defend anything. I'm just there to practice yoga and enjoy the benefits of the practice. And the benefits happen regardless of whether my mental checklist of preferences is ticked off to my liking.

As it turns out, all it takes is showing up.