How yoga empowers you

“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”– Nora Ephron

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The late writer Nora Ephron said this: “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” When I happened upon that quote years ago, I instantly connected to it. I was at the confluence of several life-altering events, and I was feeling hurt and injured by circumstances that were not in my control. I had been victimized.

Around that same time, I was beginning my yoga journey.

Ephron’s quote resonated because it, like yoga, gave me a chance to see that victimhood is often a choice—a way we’re choosing to frame our personal narrative. Her quote reminded me that I could choose to be the master of my life, despite what was thrown my way. Her quote became a personal intention. I wrote it in my journal and often recited it to myself in meditation or at the start of my yoga practice. It was my mantra.

Victimization is very real. In our society, we’re having an important discussion right now about the myriad of ways white culture victimizes minorities. Women have talked for 100+ years about the ways that patriarchy oppresses. LGBT citizens can now legally wed in the United States, but they still aren’t protected by equal anti-discrimination laws in every state. Not all oppression is equal, and I’m not suggesting we make light of systematic, cultural oppression. Being victimized is a great equalizer, though: it isn’t a unique circumstance. Everyone is a victim at some point: a victim of interpersonal cruelty, infidelity, abuse, neglect, dishonesty, or poverty. It’s not a pleasant, comfortable, or safe role. But it also doesn’t have to be a defining one.

“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim,” because despite circumstances, despite limited power over much of your life, despite your family, wealth, health, or background, the perspective you choose becomes your narrative. Your perspective, your personal choice, determines if you’re going to be the victim or hero of your life story. You get to choose.

Yoga helps us see this choice, too.

In The Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines yoga as the ability to control the mind. In Sutra 1.2, we’re told yogas chitta vritti nirodha: yoga is the quieting of the fluctuations of the mind. The Sutras continue, and a path (and potential obstacles) are explained. But what’s clear immediately is this:

Your meandering, anxious mind causes suffering.

There is a way to quiet your mind and find peace.

The steady and dedicated practice of yoga is that way.

You can choose to be a victim of the internal pushing and pulling or you can choose to forge another path. The root of your suffering is within you. The path to contentment and peace is within you, too. It’s you, yoga says. It’s all you. Whether you suffer or you find peace, the choice is yours. Whatever happens outside your mind, you can cultivate control of your mind and your perspective. What could be more empowering ?

“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”

You get to choose.

 

 

 

 

The push and pull of attachment and aversion

Raga and dvesha are at the heart of your suffering.

In yoga, the self-derived causes of suffering are called kleshas. There are five of them, but the two I’ve been thinking a lot about lately are raga and dvesha: attachment and aversion.

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Raga

Raga—attachment—means, essentially, attachment to pleasant things. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying life and all the sweet parts of it. Raga occurs, though, when you suffer because you want pleasant things. At the heart of raga is unmet desire: raga occurs when you experience suffering because you can’t have what you want. The enjoyment of good things is fine; the attachment to good things is problematic.

When I think about raga, I recognize a particular (routine) moment in my life: Sunday night. Without fail, on Sunday night I feel down, mournful, cranky. On Monday, the week begins again, which means less time with my family and more time doing work. Even though I enjoy my job, I’d still rather be experiencing leisure. I’m attached to the pleasant experience of the weekend. I suffer because I can’t have more of what I desire: the sweetness and ease of lazy, connected family time.

Dvesha

Dvesha—aversion—is the inverse. You probably have things, experiences, and people that you find unpleasant. Like any normal person, you generally try to avoid these things, of course. You probably don’t enjoy having to come face-to-face with unpleasantness. But because life inevitably makes you confront sources of displeasure, you suffer. You experience suffering because you are averse to these particular aspects of life.

When I think about dvesha, I think of the tasks that have remained forever at the bottom of my to-do list. I keep avoiding them; I keep putting them off. I find more enjoyable tasks to complete whenever I’m doing work. But these unpleasant things really need to be done; these things I don’t want to deal with must eventually be dealt with. I suffer because I have created an aversion to these necessary, normal tasks. The problem is with me and my attitude.

So, what’s to be done?

At the heart of most change is this: awareness. Recognizing the cycle you’re in begins to change the cycle. That’s the miracle of mindfulness. You get to slow down and see what’s really pulling and pushing you in various directions.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali tells us that the way out of the kleshas is through meditation. Sitting in stillness, choosing to let go of the thoughts that come into your mind isn’t easy. But practicing meditation is just that: a practice. It takes time to get comfortable with sitting in quiet, but the effects continue long after you leave your seat. Whether you choose a formal meditation practice or you just take some time to sit quietly, observe and breathe, this little bit of space will allow you to get more perspective on the pushing and pulling of your mind. The next time you experience suffering connected to the idea of “I want” or “I don’t want,” you might find a little buffer: that’s your chance to choose a different path than the habits of raga and dvesha. It’s your choice to choose not to suffer.

 

LIFELONG YOGA, coming summer 2017

Yoga is an important tool for living a long life of health and vitality.

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Sage on the left, me on the right. Same hair everywhere.

When I started doing yoga, I loved the fast and hard stuff: flow yoga, power yoga, hot yoga, Prana yoga. I liked moving, sweating, heaving (ujayyi) breath, and feeling like I’d arrive in savasana physically taxed after a killer workout. I still really enjoy this type of yoga from time to time—it’s fun! But as my weekly running and gym hours stacked up, and years and injuries came and went, I realized that in the long run, my yoga practice needed to complement my already-active life. My yoga practice needed to be something sustaining; something that would nurture me as I continued to run, and as I continued to value all sorts of movement practices: dancing, hiking, and racing.

And so, my yoga practice changed. I started doing and teaching yoga for healthy aging and yoga for aging athletes—and both focused on how yoga is the key for injury-prevention and aging well.

I started talking to my mentor, friend, and yoga for athletes expert Sage Rountree about this new approach. Her interest in yoga had taken a turn in this direction, too.

Collaboration makes things more fun. It gives you a fresh perspective and as Sage puts it, it reduces the workload by more than half. She generously suggested we collaborate. First on a blog, then on a book, and who knows what will come after that! The joy of working with Sage is that she’s knowledgeable, patient, and really wickedly funny. We both get to bring our interests and strengths to the table, and because Sage is more experienced in writing about yoga and has more teaching under her belt, I get to learn from her along the way.

So, the exciting news: North Atlantic Books is publishing Lifelong Yoga next summer.

This is a book for anyone who wants to continue or begin a yoga practice at any stage of life. The emphasis, though, is on how yoga can be a boon for the changes we experience as we move into our 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond. It looks at yoga as a complement for an already-active life and sees yoga as a tool for living a long life of health and vitality. You can expect a lot of what you find on our blog, only in even more detail and with more explanation. We’ll have chapters devoted to the common ailments of aging (and how yoga can help!), sequences that will help you solve problems (“What’s the best yoga before a golf game?,” “How can I prepare for a weekend with my grandkids?”), and photographs of the most useful poses for healthy aging.

I promise to let you know when preordering is possible! I hope you’re as excited as we are.

 

Reblog: your yoga through the years

Yoga is beautiful at every age.

My yoga practice has really changed from my twenties to now. I wrote a little something about the changes that take place (and the way yoga can always be a balm and a boon) for Wanderlust this week.

Yoga may be the fountain of youth, but it’s definitely not just for youth. Some yogis come to yoga when they’re young, fit, and healthy. But as our bodies change with injury and the passing of time, yoga can serve us even more and help us maintain health and vitality into our golden years. Our practice should change and evolve with our body’s needs. So what poses and movements are best as we age? Read more…

 

Be gentle

When I tell my daughter to be gentle, I’m asking her to begin a lifelong practice of kindness, politeness, civility, patience. I’m asking her to start working on the things that I continue to work on in adulthood.

This month, my sweet and silly 11-month-old baby has developed a new habit of swatting. She does it when she’s tired, excited, or frustrated, and it’s her way of communicating that emotion or need to us. Regardless, being swatted in the face isn’t pleasant, so 3-4 times a day my husband and I lightly redirect her hands and encourage her to be gentle.

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That’s a powerful little hand.

Be gentle. I’ve repeated that phrase so often lately: patiently, calmly again and again.

I’m not always the most patient. I don’t always communicate my needs with grace. I can be downright demanding. I can approach a disagreement with a certain amount of righteousness. I’m often quick to judge and quick to speak, and the result is sometimes that I say things I wish I’d said kindlier—or not at all.

When I tell my daughter to be gentle, I’m asking her to begin a lifelong practice of kindness, politeness, civility, patience. I’m asking her to start working on the things that I continue to work on in adulthood. When I think of it this way, I feel humbled. I also feel tremendous empathy for my swatting little daughter at the start of her life-long journey toward impulse control and gentleness. Her lesson—at 11 months—is a lesson for us all. It’s a reminder to cultivate more empathy, more patience. It’s a reminder to continue to strive for kindness toward others.

Be gentle. Be gentle when communicating: your loved ones will more easily remain open to your needs if you tread lightly.

Be gentle. Be gentle in your approach to others. They may have had a hard day, a long day. Give them a buffer, too.

Be gentle. Be gentle with your family and friends. They are the ones you’re closest to.  Don’t take their presence for granted. Treat them with love.

Be gentle. Be gentle with others—and be gentle with yourself, too. The way you treat others often mirrors the way you treat yourself. Whenever you can, be kinder, be gentler, be more loving.

Be gentle.

 

Satya: truth and authenticity

The deeper aspect of satya is being authentic and operating from your place of truth.

Satya is the second of the yamas, the yogic laws of universal morality. It translates from Sanskrit as “truth.” The basic principle is honesty: practicing satya means being honest, not lying, and not omitting information.

But the deeper aspect of satya is being authentic and operating from your place of truth.

Being authentic means that you are who you are, whether people like it or not.

How does that sit with you? Do you feel any deep-belly, queasy sensations?  If you’re having a visceral reaction to the idea of disregarding the opinion of others, it may be because you’ve spent a lot of your life trying to make sure people like you. And that, my friend, is bullsh*t.

Now let’s pause there: I’m not advocating that you make no effort to be connected to your fellow mankind. Community is one of the most important and powerful aspects of our lives. We need others.

But we have to balance our need for community and connection with our responsibility to ourselves. We have to be who we are, authentically. You do you, as the current prescription goes.

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I love this picture because I’m not posing for the camera. The image captures connection, honesty, authenticity, truth. It shows my unbridled joy at my daughter’s smile. And also my hair looks amazing.

When we are ourselves, when we operate from a place of deep truth and honesty, our true community will emerge. We will find our tribe.

But in the interim, it can be scary to speak up, act, and choose things that those around us may be startled by or not approve of. It is an act of tremendous bravery, especially if you’ve made a habit of putting others before yourself. But it’s a requirement of living a full, true life. There is no other choice.

 

 

When feeling is the only answer

I am slowly learning to be present to the uncomfortable emotions that are a very hard (and very necessary and very normal) part of life’s journey. I don’t have to like it, though.

Several months ago, I had a falling out with one of my dearest friends. The experience sent me into a tailspin. I spent months talking to other friends, my husband, family. I’d recount the situation again and again, looking at it from various perspectives. I tried to make sense of the friendship loss through the lens of all the changing relationships from my past. I tried to situate the loss in the grand scheme of all losses that have ever occurred in my life. I tried various assignments of fault (mine, hers, ours). I tried to take blame and place blame and understand all the causes. I tried to figure out what could have gone differently. I tried to find a thesis, a theme, a clear point. I tried to sum it up logically, analyze it until the truth arose to the surface, pack it away neatly in my brain.

In short, I drove everyone around me a little crazy. A lot crazy.

Until finally, a very good and wise soul listened to me discuss the situation (again) and said, simply, “It sounds like you’re experiencing deep grief.”

Oh. Right.

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This looks like how I’m feeling.

Here’s how my brain works: when something goes awry, I try to find the logical thread. I want to understand why things happen, and in my desire for clarity, for cause-and-effect, I try to fit a grid of order on to anything that feels like chaos. This logical approach has its value: I am able to help others work through situations that challenge them. I am a sense-maker, often taking senselessness and ordering it in a way that feels fulfilling, that helps me understand the waves of the world. But this ability to be so logical is often a safety device: my ability to detach and start calculating in the face of pain and vulnerability have kept me very safe. I can hide from suffering under the guise of problem-solving.

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This looks like how I want to feel.

That is, until all my words and sense-making and analytical constructing (and deconstructing) add up to naught. Because sometimes, oftentimes, there is no sense to be made out of the chaos of life. Painful, awful things happen for no reason, with no reason, with no sense.

In those times, when there is hurt, suffering, loss, grief, I am learning slowly, slowly, slowly to feel what I am feeling, rather than think away what I am feeling. I am learning to be present to the uncomfortable emotions that are a very hard (and very necessary and very normal) part of life’s journey.

So. I am very sad. I feel deep loss and grief that has lasted months and has peaks and valleys where the suffering wanes and then rises to squeeze my heart again.

And while I would like to reason my way out of this, there is no reasoning, only feeling. Only breathing, and being present to this pain, and remembering that the beauty of suffering is that it does relent. It does pass. Even if the shadow of loss sticks around (forever, it seems), we can eventually move on to joy.

Several months ago, I lost a friend. And I am grieving that loss. And there is not much sense to be made of it. And one day it will hurt a little less.