16 Feb 2013 Leave a Comment
Do the words “let’s begin with some seated meditation” cause you to recoil in horror? Do you practice at every studio at town, know every teacher and practice several styles? Are you constantly seeking the thrill of newer, more advanced poses? You might be a yoga thrill seeker.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with variety. I need a certain amount of it, and I know my students do too.
But as a yoga teacher, I sometimes have to resist the urge to entertain my students. I want them to like my class, so I pepper it with humor and try to keep things fresh. And I think that’s ok, as long as I don’t cross the line and actually break into a song and dance routine.
At some point, though, students that have been practicing a while sometimes start to get…bored. They’ve done every possible vinyasa variation. Maybe they can do some really impressive poses. They may have experimented with different styles and different teachers. Even so, sometimes, they’re left with a feeling of, “now what?”.
To these students, I say: you’re bored with yoga? Congratulations. Now the real yoga begins.
If you’re bored, it’s a sure sign that you’ve exhausted the superficial layer of yoga and it’s time to go deeper. Because yoga is so much more than fun party tricks.
Maybe, like me, you have a wandering mind that seeks stimulation – and you may believe that you need that stimulation to feel the joy and inspiration that will keep you coming back to the mat. Sometimes we all need to change our routine or something about our practice to stay motivated. But often these changes are just distractions.
Likewise, emphasizing the purely physical aspect of the practice, and chasing down bigger and more impressive poses can be like a fun thrill ride. And while there’s nothing wrong with taking that ride every now and then, thrills can actually take us further away from ourselves, which I’m pretty sure is not what Patanjali had in mind.
Boredom is sometimes your ego’s way of letting you know it wants more cool stuff to feel good about – like being able to do chaturanga on 2 fingers. Very impressive. And very distracting.
But take heart. We all get bored sometimes. Think of it as a good sign – a sign that you’re ready to go to the next level. Boredom is a sure sign that you haven’t dived deep down into the practice, with full attention on the breath and in your body. Because that breath and that body are an infinite source of information, inspiration and even entertainment, if you pay close enough attention.
Of course, just like the body, attention needs to be trained. Just as the physical practice becomes more nuanced and refined with time, so will the mental – if you make it a part of your practice.
One way to go deeper in your practice is by developing your mindfulness. “Mindfulness” is a word that is used a lot, but I have a feeling a lot of people don’t really know what it means. To me, mindfulness means paying attention to what’s going on in the present moment, in a deliberate, inquisitive, and non-judgmental way. It means being an observer to your experience – being aware of what you are doing, seeing, feeling, and thinking – without getting caught up in reactions, judgments, and story lines.
In yoga, and meditation, we can use the breath as a vehicle for practicing mindfulness. We practice bringing our attention back to our breath time, and time, and time again -whenever we find our minds wandering off. We can also use our bodies – keeping our awareness attuned to the ever changing flow of sensations and energy that we feel as we practice.
Working with our attention, we can begin to observe and witness what goes on in our minds without getting caught up in thoughts and stories we tell ourselves – like “if only I could do that pose.” We learn, through experience, not to take all of our thoughts and feelings so seriously, because they are ultimately fleeting and formless, like that sensation in your thighs in Warrior 2.
Practicing this way, you can use boredom as a a sort of red flag – a signal that you’ve lost your mindfulness – or maybe that you are resisting the present moment in some way. Because when you are truly mindful, when you are paying full attention to the present moment, nothing is boring.
So what to do when boredom – or resistance arise? Acknowledge them. Recognize that you are seeking distraction, stimulation, comfort, whatever. Remember that we all have those moments and try to accept that those moments are part of the practice – but that they too are temporary. Then gently pull your attention back to the breath and back into your body, without judgment or self-criticism.
Like your muscles, mindfulness gets stronger the more you practice it, and it will transform your practice, and your life, if you practice it diligently.
And that, I believe, is more worthwhile than any thrill ride!
15 Jan 2013 Leave a Comment
Check out our latest album – Vivadati! (that means “sing” in Sanskrit) – it’s a collection of mantras and chants set to our own original music. It’s available on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, and a bunch of other places I’ve never heard of. I hope you like it!
This link will let you sample some of the tracks…click on “See More Tracks” to hear the rest, or find it on one of the other sites…
31 Dec 2012 Leave a Comment
Check it out! My writing is featured in the YOGANONYMOUS Year in Review: Top 12 Posts of 2012! I’m in excellent company – click this link to see what I mean…
And Happy New Year everyone!!!
12 Oct 2012 Leave a Comment
My latest on YOGANONYMOUS….
05 Sep 2012 Leave a Comment
My lovely yoga friend Victoria wrote this article about our music for Elephant Journal. It’s a treat to read, and we are so honored she wrote it. Check it out!
Jimmy and I are working on an album of rockin’ kirtan music right now….we hope to have it finished before the end of the year so stay tuned!
Oh…and by the way…in addition to being a wonderful writer, Victoria is an amazing artist. The real deal. You can check out some of her work at:
25 Jul 2012 Leave a Comment
I wrote this latest article about my struggle with a recent injury. It was a difficult piece to write, but I hope it’s useful. It’s on YOGANONYMOUS…a great site for all sorts of yoga information. Check it out!
05 Jul 2012 Leave a Comment
My latest article is up at Elephant Journal – check it out!
14 Jun 2012 Leave a Comment
You’ve probably heard a lot of good things about meditation. Maybe you’ve tried it and maybe you’ve found it helpful – or difficult. Maybe you’ve felt like you should meditate but don’t know where or how to start. I believe virtually everyone can benefit from meditation, but here’s the thing: it’s not always easy. It’s not a quick fix. It doesn’t work as quickly as a beer or a Xanax. But if you want to make an invaluable longer-term investment in your physical, mental and spiritual health, you should give it a try. I often describe meditation as a mental counterpart to physical exercise. When you begin, both may be difficult, frustrating at times, and even discouraging. But just as your body starts to adapt and change as you exercise, so does your brain as you meditate. Just as the benefits of exercise (increased energy, better sleep, improved mood) are mostly found when you’re not exercising, the payoffs for meditating are found “off the cushion” as you start to experience more clarity, more restraint when you need it, more compassion, and less anxiety.
If you need more motivation to meditate, check out one of Herb Benson’s many books on the subject. In Relaxation Revolution he provides data that a mere 12 minutes per day of meditation has the ability to change us at the genetic level. Research has also supported the use of meditation as a treatment for just about every malady you can imagine: insomnia, stress and anxiety, depression, pain, menopause, high blood pressure, even infertility. How can this be? Probably because meditation lowers our body’s stress response, and stress is involved in all of the leading causes of death, 90% of visits to primary care doctors, and probably even more visits to mental health professionals.
There are many, many types of meditation out there from which to choose. Some are guided, in which the meditator listens to instructions along the way. I practice mindfulness meditation as it is taught in some buddhist traditions, and in many stress management programs. Of course, you need not be (or become) a buddhist to practice this technique; it is just that, a technique. Anyone from any religious or philosophical background can practice it. Here’s a quick guide to get you started.
Sit down where you can be comfortable and undisturbed. It’s best if you can sit up with a straight spine to stay alert (try to meditate lying down and just see how long you stay awake). If this is difficult for you because of physical limitations, you can use a chair. If sitting cross-legged is uncomfortable, try sitting on a cushion so that your hips are higher than your knees. I have a nice zafu/zabuton set that I got from Dharma Crafts but your set up doesn’t have to be anything fancy. If space allows, it’s nice to light some incense or a candle but this isn’t necessary either.
Take a few moments to settle in and get comfortable. Make a quick scan of your body and relax whatever tension you find. Be thorough: you will come to notice certain places in which you are habitually tight, like your shoulders or jaw. Be on the lookout for this tension and let it go when it creeps in.
Start to focus your attention onto your breath. Notice when your mind wanders off (which will be almost immediately), and just come back. Sometimes your attention will wander for 10 minutes as you plan your next vacation (or write a blog article!) before you notice, and that’s ok. Simply say to yourself, “oh well” and come back to your breath.
Sometimes your mind may be so busy and active that trying to pay attention to the breath alone is challenging or even overwhelming. At those times you can try a technique to focus the mind more directly, such as counting the breath. Inhale and silently count “one”, exhale for “two” and so on, until you get to 10, then begin again. You may also wish to use a mantra, or a gatha such as Thich Nhat Hanh describes here. The important thing is to focus your attention and notice when it strays. If or when you lose your place, simply start over. Notice how you react when you lose your place. If you are a perfectionist, you may get frustrated at times (how hard can it be to count to 10?). Remind yourself that this is just a practice, nobody is keeping track, and practice being gentle with yourself.
Sometimes troubling thoughts and emotions will surface when you meditate; this is just part of the practice. Keep your seat and watch your breath as best you can. If you find yourself very distracted, don’t fight what’s going on: investigate the sensations with a curious mind and notice how truly fleeting and insubstantial feelings and thoughts are. Where do you feel them in your body? Where are they located? Usually, when we are willing to meet them head on this way, they dissipate and leave us alone. Sometimes I use the image of an (emotional) wave crashing over me; I sit still and let it move through me. It takes a lot of courage to sit with our “stuff” sometimes, but it beats the alternative (suppression and denial – not good long term strategies).
Start by sitting for 10-12 minutes/day. If even that proves too difficult, do as I did and start with 5 – or even 2! When you can easily sit for 12 minutes, start increasing your time until you can sit for 30 minutes or longer. If you sit longer than that, give your body a break and stretch your legs.
It helps to have support, too. Going to a meditation center may be daunting at first, but sitting with other people is helpful, and you may be able to meet with a teacher who can give you guidance. There are online groups, and even apps for your iPhone that show you who else is meditating at the same time (I love the Insight Timer app). If you are on Facebook, consider joining our meditation group, an online source of support. And let me know how it goes for you!
31 May 2012 1 Comment
I once heard a story about Neil Young. Apparently, when he goes into the studio to record, if “the muse” is not there, he leaves. That is to say, if he doesn’t feel inspired, he doesn’t try to force creativity to happen. Good for him. If I took that approach, though, I’d never get anything accomplished. The muse and I don’t have that kind of relationship – as grateful to her as I am, I don’t depend on her making an appearance to get something done.
It seems to me that creativity is like surfing. Sometimes a nice big wave of inspiration comes your way and you ride it for all it’s worth. Anyone who’s had this experience knows how exhilarating it can be. But what if the surf is calm that day? Are you going to sink without the wave? No, you’re going to swim, walk, wade, whatever, back to shore. Creative work is like that for me. Sometimes, without any effort on my part, inspiration strikes. Other times – nada. When inspiration is lacking, I just get started anyway. I start going through the motions, allowing myself to make lame attempts at whatever I’m doing until something starts to develop. Almost inevitably, just by making attempts and sticking with the process, something worthwhile emerges. Even if inspiration never strikes, I get something done.
It doesn’t matter if you’re involved in a creative endeavor or not, though: the psychological premise is the same. Often we wait to feel “right” or “ready” to do something, but in truth, we don’t have to feel like doing something in order to do it. I’ll ask for a raise once I get my courage up. I’ll talk to my husband about x/y/z when it’s a good time. We think we need to feel right in order to do something, and this holds us back from getting anything done. The truth is, you don’t need to feel a certain way to do anything. Sure, it may not be pleasant to ask for a raise, but it’s probably never going to be. Don’t wait for the right time, the right feeling, or the right inspiration. Take action and then see how you feel.
I’m borrowing here from a philosophy called Constructive Living, which combines aspects of Japanese psychology and Zen in a way that is understandable to westerners. Constructive Living encourages you to: know your purpose (what needs to be done), accept your emotions (even if you don’t like them), and do what needs to be done. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It would be, if we didn’t make things so complicated by needing to feel a certain way before taking action.
It’s not that we should ignore or avoid our feelings; suppression and denial don’t help either. Instead, we try to acknowledge and accept our emotions – and coexist with them. Constructive Living views feelings as much like the weather – natural, changeable, and somewhat uncontrollable. Behavior, on the other hand, is controllable – so we focus on that. We do what needs to be done, regardless of whether we feel anxious/depressed/angry. And you know what? When we do what needs to be done, we feel better! Often, changing your behavior is the best way to change the way you feel. Confidence follows success; it’s not a requirement for it.
But back to the muse. She visits me fairly often as I write, but not today. Today I’ve searched my mind and my heart for something helpful to convey and nothing has come up. So I start typing anyway. Trusting the process, I write about my experience and try to put a helpful slant on it. I take inspiration from the people in my life and my surroundings. I remind myself that this is my one day of the week to devote to writing, and I stick with the process despite a distinct lack of inspiration. And, an article gets written, despite the muse’s conspicuous absence. In Constructive Living, they’re fond of reminding us that we have a limited amount of time here on earth: about 30,000 days for many of us. For me, that means I have to really focus on the things I want to do, because there are so many of them and so little time. How are you going to spend your time?
For more information: The ToDo Institute
24 May 2012 1 Comment
I believe in meditation. I teach it, I recommend it, and I practice it- just not as much as I used to. And when I do practice, my mind is so busy you’d think I was being paid by the thought. I fidget. I check the timer. I am a lousy meditator. And you know what? I’m ok with it.
It wasn’t always like this. Years ago, I meditated for 30 minutes a day, faithfully. Even on vacations. I spent countless hours at the meditation center, practicing evenings, weekends, in retreats and workshops. Meditation changed my life in ways I can only begin to describe. And yet, so many of those hours on the cushion were spent in white-knuckled struggle, gritting my teeth and gutting it out. Every time I caught my mind wandering into thought (which was approximately every 5 seconds), my internal taskmaster would scold me back into submission. Stay focused. You should be able to do this. It’s just meditation. Count your breath. It’ll be over soon, surely. Oh, what a relief when the bell would ring and I could move around and feel free again. Ironically, what I needed to be free from was myself.
My practice eventually began to slide, however: most notably, after I took a new job requiring me to work with the criminally insane, and commute 3 hours/day. In doing so, I gave up my private practice and kissed my flexible schedule goodbye for the promise of a steady paycheck and health insurance. At first, I dutifully got up at 5:30am every morning so that I could get in my 30 minutes of meditation. Over time, though, those 30 minutes transformed into 20 minutes of yoga/10 minutes sitting, and eventually into 30 minutes of just yoga. I felt guilty letting my sitting meditation practice slide, but I was simply too exhausted at the end of the day to get around to it. I ventured to a Zen day-sit and struggled to get through the half-hour sessions, my mind full of angst and strife. I berated myself for letting all my hard earned progress slip away. During my meeting with the teacher, she innocently asked, “How’s your practice?” and all my sins came tumbling out in a rambling tangle of a confession. Her response, so full of kindness and compassion, caught me off guard. “Maybe you need a moving practice right now. Yoga is a practice too. Sit when you can. And thank you for your service.” She let me off the hook, I thought. What if I could do the same?
It’s taken me a long time to learn to be kind to myself, and I’m still working on it. Letting myself off the hook is an ongoing practice, and one that’s hard to navigate, because I have a stubborn lazy streak and really need to be on the hook sometimes. But I am finding that what works is discipline – not scolding. Commitment with compassion. And a lighter touch. I’ve given up needing to be “good” at meditation – which is terrifically freeing. My failure at meditation is, perhaps, my biggest success – because I’m ok with it.
So these days, when I make it onto the cushion, my mind still wanders and I still wonder when the bell will ring. The difference is that I don’t beat myself up about it anymore. All those hours of judgment, self-criticism and scolding myself have burned out like a stick of incense. I realize I will probably not achieve enlightenment in this lifetime and you know what? It’s kind of a relief. Can I do better? Yes. Am I trying? Yes. But is my best right now good enough? YES.
In Buddhism, the practice is sometimes described in terms of ground, path, and fruition. For me, they have all melded. The path of practice is the same, though in my (seated) meditation practice I may have taken a few detours and slowed the pace down a bit. But because of this path, the ground underneath my feet is much more compassionate and flexible – and that’s some major fruition. So I will keep at it, but given the choice between “success” in white-knuckled meditation and “failure,” I’ll take the latter.
Maybe I’ll see you on the cushion. Just do me a favor – wear a watch that I can see from where I’m seated so I don’t have to wonder when that damn bell is going to ring. _/\_
17 May 2012 4 Comments
I’ve had a long, tumultuous relationship with yoga. We first met in the early 90s and were inseparable, until a misguided physical therapist told me yoga was bad for my neck (boy was he wrong). After going our separate ways, we reunited several years later and had a series of torrid on-again off-again affairs until about 10 years ago, when we finally settled down. Like any relationship, we’ve had our share of ups and downs, but things have improved since I learned to navigate the ‘downs.’ Perhaps the trickiest part of a relationship is when the initial burst of bliss and excitement is over and the mundane sets in – that is, when the honeymoon’s over.
Maybe you’ve experienced this yourself. You discover (or re-discover) yoga and it makes you feel good. You wonder – where has yoga been all my life? You fall in love with the practice, the lifestyle – maybe you fantasize about becoming a teacher (or actually become one!). All you want to do is yoga. You commit to practicing X times a week, and you do it, happily. You resent things like work that get in the way of practice. Then one day when nothing in particular is wrong, you don’t really feel like practicing. Maybe you talk yourself into it – and maybe it turns out to be a great practice, or maybe it doesn’t. Even your favorite teacher starts to seem a bit stale. You’ve hit a wall – the honeymoon is over. At this point in the relationship, many people bail out in search of greener pastures (pilates anyone?). But if you can steer through this tricky period you will be rewarded with a deeper, more rewarding relationship.
Women’s magazines are full of articles about how to “keep the magic alive” in your marriage/bedroom/etc. How do you do this with yoga? Unlike your romantic partner, yoga doesn’t care about fidelity. A great way to renew your enthusiasm is to try different classes and different styles of yoga. Go to a workshop. Sometimes this sparks a new interest – other times, it makes you happy to return to your routine. Either way, getting out of your comfort zone is rarely a bad idea.
Another tactic is to learn something new. If you haven’t studied anatomy, check it out. Read (or re-read) the yoga sutras. The Bhagavad Gita. Meditate. Learn something new and let it inform your practice, off and on the mat.
Of course, sometimes you find yourself truly, deeply saturated and sick of yoga, and you need to take a break (there, I said it). Give yourself permission to take a week or so off. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and you may actually miss your time on the mat. Yoga isn’t going anywhere – it will be there for you when you get back. Just don’t stay away too long or your body will start complaining.
As with any long-term relationship, though, there are going to be good times and bad times. There are going to be days you don’t feel like practicing and you do it anyway, days in which nothing goes right in practice, times of injury, and times of complacency. Sickness and health. Viewing your relationship with yoga as a long-term one, and getting clear on your motivation to practice will help you steer through these times. What does yoga do for you? Why do you practice? Clarifying your motivation helps you see that the relationship is, indeed a two-way street. Be clear on what yoga does for you, and you will be more likely to reciprocate.
In the end, though, there is no Mr./Ms. Yoga – yoga is not a thing, a person or entity outside of yourself. It is an expression of your relationship with yourself and your commitment to your own well-being. All of the energy you put into your yoga relationship goes right back into YOU, and can then get directed to your loved ones and to making the world a better place. So take the plunge! And who knows, a second honeymoon may be right around the corner.
11 May 2012 3 Comments
I haven’t done much blogging lately. Ok, I haven’t done any at all. I have a good excuse, though: rather than writing, I’ve been making music. A lifelong dabbler, I recently made a commitment to actually practice music, much like I do yoga, pretty much every day. So while it’s taken away some of my writing time, it’s giving me a whole new view of practice, and a new set of insights. Turns out yoga and music (and writing!) are not so separate after all. Here are a few things I’ve been figuring out off the mat and on the (piano) bench:
1. It’s all yoga – including music. The process of practicing music is just like practicing yoga! We have to show up, do the work, pay attention, put our egos aside, and just let it happen. Some days we slog through practice, making progress even when it doesn’t feel like it. Other days – pure bliss! But just as in yoga, to make progress in music we have to learn to relax and focus on what we’re doing, letting thoughts and feelings come and go without getting caught up in them. This is a skill that takes a lot of practice but I have yet to find an area of life for which it is not truly transformative. The mindfulness we practice in yoga helps us be truly present for the things we do and for the people in our life. When we bring that quality of attention and connection to our lives off the mat, transformation (and bliss!) happen. There doesn’t need to be distinction between on and off the mat – mindfulness is a 24/7 practice.
2. Change is possible. Sure, today you may be awkward kicking up to a handstand or playing the drums, but little by little, step by step, change happens. Your nervous system is built to learn, and is remarkably adaptable, making real change possible. It may not happen as quickly as you’d like. I may not be able to play a complicated piece on the sitar *today*, but then again, I don’t have to. All I have to do is show up and make an effort on a regular basis and trust the process. Change happens. In order for change to happen in the right direction, though, repetition is necessary, which brings us to:
3. Practice, and all is coming (thank you Pattabhi Jois)! Nowhere is it more true than when practicing a musical instrument. Some days you don’t feel like practicing, some days it’s pure bliss. Either way, show up and put in the time. It’s amazing how practice really pays off. Things that used to be hard get easier. Things you couldn’t do before become attainable – be they Mozart, Side Crow, or that career change you’ve thought about. All of this happens in tiny increments: we chip away at those goals bit by bit and eventually they start to add up. However, they may not happen today, so:
4. Patience is worth practicing too. Sometimes we want to be able to do something so badly we can taste it – and the frustration that comes with being unable to do it (yet) is intense! At times like this we have to make patience a part of our practice (yes, really – it gets better with practice too) and, again, trust the process. That is to say, trust that if you show up and make an effort every day (or almost every day), progress will happen. It may not happen as quickly as you’d like, but it will happen. And sometimes it helps to remind ourselves there really is no timeline to get into crow pose – it’s all in our minds. Let go of your agenda and just do what needs to be done today. And finally, perhaps the biggest lesson for me:
5. It doesn’t help to worry about whether you’re doing it right or put pressure on yourself. Some days, as I start practicing the piano, I begin to hear the same sort of thoughts that come up in my yoga practice sometimes: “I don’t want to do it today. Will I ever be able to do this? Do I have what it takes? Am I good enough?” Mind you, these thought come up during daily practice, not preparing for Carnegie Hall. I’ve come to recognize a very subtle undercurrent of doubt and insecurity – and to see how much it can distract me from actually playing. Fortunately, I’ve learned to see these thoughts for what they are (NOT truths), let them go, and then really get into the flow of playing. Most of the time, anyway.
I think many of us put pressure on ourselves in such subtle ways, we’re often not even aware of it. Or if we realize it, we’re afraid to let go of it, because we think we need to put pressure on ourselves in order to succeed. Forget it. Get out of your own way and just do IT. Whatever IT is, you’ll be better off giving it your undivided attention. And finally…
6. When all else fails, keep a sense of humor. And breathe. To keep things in perspective, think of how fortunate you are to be able to practice yoga, piano, or whatever it is you’re doing, and lighten up already!! When we devote our attention to practicing something, we can get awfully serious about it. I’m reminded of Judith Lasater, who says something to the effect of, ‘yoga is far too important to take seriously.’ So is music. And most of life.
And with that, the piano bench is calling me. Who knows what new lessons it has for me today!
Shameless plug: check out the CD my husband and I recorded – it’s on iTunes, among other places: