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.

 

Every emotion has an attendant breath

With every breath, you have the power to change the way you feel.

When you’re sad, you breathe a certain way. When you’re angry, anxious, or fearful, you breathe a certain way. And when you’re surprised, joyful, happy—there’s a corresponding breath for each of those, too. Whatever emotion you’re experiencing, your breath reveals it and mirrors it. Your breath informs it and reflects it. There is a relationship between the two: what you feel and how you breathe.

(And just to bring it home, pause here and try it. How do you breathe when you’re happy? Okay, how about when you’re angry? What about when you’re worried? Take a moment to tap into the breath you automatically go to for each emotion.)

Once we realize that our breath and our emotional state have a connection, we can start to shift our emotions by noticing (and changing) our breathing. Truthfully, you already know to do that: consider that when you encounter a friend who is upset, you instinctively offer support to your friend by saying “just breathe” or “take a breath.” You know attending to the breath can help someone regain a sense of groundedness when their emotional state feels out of control.

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Close your eyes and breathe, deeply and slowly, for 5 full breaths. Powerful stuff.

In yoga, breath practices are called “pranayama,” which translates to “breath control.” There are many types of breathing offered by yogic philosophy: breathing through one nostril to calm (left nostril) or energize (right nostril); breathing equally through each nostril to balance (called nadi shodhana or anuloma viloma); taking short rapid breaths to feel more awake and encourage core awareness, big exhalations through the mouth to cool and calm (simhasana, or lion’s breath, accomplishes that.) These are just a few types of pranayama. There are many more.

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Here I’m practicing simhasana  (lion’s breath), which is cooling and calming. (With those sunglasses, though, I don’t need much more coolness, am I right?)

There are many breaths to learn about and study, if that interests you. It’s fascinating!

But in my own practice, I find that simply deepening and slowing my breathing can have big results.

Deep and slow breathing changes things physiologically: we bring more oxygen into our lungs, our parasympathetic nervous system turns on, and as a result we feel calmer and more in control. We have more spaciousness in our emotional landscape. We relax a little more. Our emotions shift.

Yoga poses and meditation are super important practices, but breathwork can be done regardless of circumstances: it’s ninja-like. You can do it anywhere and no one knows. You can change your breath mid-meeting, mid-argument, mid-presentation—you don’t need special props or a yoga mat.

The next time you’re flooded with emotions, go to your breath and see what’s happening there. Slow it down. Deepen it. Then watch the power, magic, and beauty of just breathing.

 

The art of not wanting stuff

We’re subtly taught to believe that buying something will fix something else.

Aparigraha is fifth of the yoga yamas. The yamas constitute the ethical rules of yoga, and as the last of them, aparigraha is focused on non-attachment to stuff. Non-greediness, non-grasping, non-coveting.

When we break the word down to its Sanskrit roots, the meaning gets even clearer: the a at the beginning negates—it’s sort of like adding “not” at the beginning of a phrase. Pari means essentially from “all sides” and graha means “to take.” All together: don’t take from all sides. Don’t take more than you need. Don’t be greedy.

That’s hard, particularly in a culture that constantly sings the siren song of more is better. There’s hope though: in recent years there’s been more interest in the concept of non-attachment to stuff. There’s the Marie Kondo-inspired movement of decluttering and a focus on simple, clean living that flies in the face of the dominant culture messaging that says buy, buy, buy.

The most insidious part of that consumerist message is the advertising that encourages us to see products as a solution. We’re taught to believe that buying something will fix something else. (And we fall for this message again and again, despite the fact that the previous product—and the previous one before that—was not the fix.)

At the heart, then, of our modern-day grasping at stuff is our erroneous belief that we need to be fixed. We need something, anything. We are flawed,  broken, or problematic, and the stuff we buy can solve that. Ahem.

If that’s the message we’re fighting, then obviously just telling ourselves to be less greedy or to let go of material possessions isn’t going to do much.

We have to begin by recognizing that we are enough. We have enough. We are whole.

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You are enough. You are balanced. You are whole.

We have to begin by seeing that the pattern of need-buy-repeat doesn’t offer any solution or make life any better.

We have to begin by seeing the limitation of material goods.

Now, hang on. I like to buy stuff sometimes. Do I have to give up all shopping as enjoyment? No new lipstick? No new earrings? No new *insert your happy purchase here*?

I’m not a monster, you guys.

We have to examine our intentions around buying and collecting and owning, not cease to do these things altogether.

When the impulse to buy something arises, look at it closely. If it’s an honest need or a healthy desire, you’ll know if you look closely and stay with that desire for a few moments. But if the desire to buy is there because you think on some subtle level that the purchase and ownership of this item will bring it all together, make it all okay, solve it all… well, then, it’s probably time to go to your mat and breathe and settle into a mantra like I am whole.

You are whole. Nothing else needed.

 

Have 20 minutes? Do some yoga!

Balance Your Body and Your Mind and Twist It All Away Sequence

  • Begin on hands and knees (Table) and move through Cat-Cow for 3-5 breaths.
  • From Table, move to Thread the Needle, beginning with the right arm. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
  • Repeat Thread the Needle, beginning with the left arm. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
  • Return to Table and on an Exhale, move to Downward-Facing Dog. Move arouna dn squirm in Down-Dog for 10-15 breaths.
  • From Downward-Facing Dog, walk your way to the front of the mat.
  • Inhale, rise into Mountain Pose. Exhale to arrive.
  • Inhale and raise your arms overhead.
  • Exhale and bend your knees to Fierce / Chair Pose. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
  • Inhale and draw your hands to your heart center.
  • Exhale and twist right, hook your left elbow on the outside of your right knee, if possible. This is Revolved Fierce Pose. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
  • Inhale and draw your hands back to heart center.
  • Exhale and twist left, hook your right elbow on the outside of your left knee, if possible. This is Revolved Fierce Pose. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
  • Inhale and draw your hands back to heart center. Exhale to land.
  • Inhale, reach your arms overhead, returning to Fierce Pose.
  • Exhale, straighten your legs and release your arms and return to Mountain Pose.
  • Move into Tree Pose, balancing on right foot. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
  • Move into Tree Pose, balancing on left foot. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
  • Return to Mountain Pose.
  • Step into Warrior 2 with your right foot forward. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
  • Return to Mountain Pose and shift weight into your right foot.
  • Move into Eagle Pose, balancing on your right foot. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
  • Return to Mountain Pose.
  • Step into Warrior 2 with your left foot forward. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
  • Return to Mountain Pose and shift weight into your left foot.
  • Move into Eagle Pose, balancing on your left foot. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
  • Come to your back on the mat and bend your knees. Drop your knees to the right. Hold for 30 breaths. Drop your knees to the left. Hope for 30 breaths.
  • Rest in Savasana for 5-10 minutes.

 

Ahimsa: compassion starts within

Ahimsa is the yogic notion of non-violence. Even when our actions are non-violent, we might feel violence in our hearts.

Ahimsa is the yogic notion of non-violence or non-harming. It’s the first of the Yamas, the yogic ethical precepts that suggest the right path for a yogi.

When I teach the concept of ahimsa, I often joke that it’s an obvious one: if you’ve showed up in a yoga class, you’re probably not a violent person. You’re probably already on a path toward kindness. You’re probably already seeking to be more compassionate in your actions toward others.

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Open your heart! Even when it’s cold and snowy, open your heart!

But while external manifestations of violence certainly belie a violent heart, the reverse is not always true. We think of violence as grandiose, but internal violence can be quite subtle: we might be walking around with a lot of violence in our hearts—resentment, guilt, anger, fear, shame.  That internal violence may never manifest as an outward expression. That’s a good thing, of course, but it doesn’t mean we should leave that internal violence to rage on without check or change.

Indeed, it’s only by ceasing to struggle internally that we can cease to struggle externally—as individuals and as a collective society. That’s the true teaching of ahimsa: non-harming, non-violence starting internally. Starting with ourselves. Moving from the internal to the external. True compassion for ourselves to true compassion for others.

This is where the practice of yoga comes in: yoga allows us to acknowledge, confront, and address inner brutality. The practice of arriving in your body, moving with grace, accepting your body’s limitations; this is the practice of compassion. Being present with discomfort, being honest about your thoughts, being aware of what you’re feeling; this is the practice of compassion. Accepting yourself as you are: the most radical practice of compassion. Accepting others as they are. Even more radical, I know.

Acknowledging that inner violence exists is not the same as expressing that violence. When we act from a space of violence we cause violence to others. The destructive cycle continues. But when we acknowledge the pain in our heart, we are often amazed to see how quickly it melts away and how easily we become free of it. And more: we see then how big and full and beautiful the heart can be when the little thorn of himsa (violence) is removed.

 

Have 20 minutes? Do some yoga!

Heart-Opening and Super-Stretchy Seated Pose Sequence

  • Begin on your hands and knees in Table Pose; move your spine and stretch your body, finding what feels good
  • Slowly root through your feet and move to Downward Facing Dog; stay here for 3-5 breaths
  • Move back to Table Pose and slide onto your belly for Sphinx Pose; stay in Sphinx Pose for 3-5 breaths
  • Rest in Child’s Pose for as long as needed
  • Slowly root through your feet and move to Downward Facing Dog; stay here for 3-5 breaths
  • Rest in Child’s Pose for as long as needed
  • Slide onto your belly and as you inhale float into Locust Pose; stay in Locust Pose for 3-5 breaths
  • Rest in Child’s Pose for as long as needed
  • Slowly root through your feet and move to Downward Facing Dog; stay here for 3-5 breaths
  • Transition to hands and knees in Table position and stretch your spine with Cat-Cow for a breath or two
  • Sit down and move to Seated Forward Fold; stay here for 3-5 breaths
  • Cross your legs into Cow-Faced Pose; stay here for 3-5 breaths; switch the cross of your legs; stay for 3-5 breaths
  • Draw your feet together for Bound Angle Pose; stay here for 3-5 breaths
  • Lower onto your back and practice Bridge Pose 3 times; hold each pose 3-5 breaths; rest in between
  • Rest in Corpse Pose for 5-10 minutes

On taking life less seriously

We have all the basic tenants of a happy life. So why do we get so uptight about things?

If you’re anything like me, you spend a really absurd amount of time in your week feeling anxious or frustrated or burdened by things that just don’t matter all that much. Or at all.

When you press the zoom out button on your life, a lot of what weighs on you on Monday is irrelevant by Friday. By the end of the month you probably won’t even remember why you were so serious and intense a few short weeks back.

Sometimes big things DO go down, and when they do, we should respond appropriately.

But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about when life is pretty good and we’re floating along in that good part. I’m talking about when we have all the basic tenants of a happy life: We’re safe and healthy. We have comfortable shelter and enough to eat. We have people we care for and who care about us. We have the financial security and available time to read yoga blogs. There is ease and sweetness in abundance in our lives.

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Baby S. does not take life too seriously. She just giggles. All. The. Time.

So how do we live with more ease and less consternation? How do we take life less seriously? How can we let go of the little meaningless anxieties, fears, and frustrations? How can we laugh off the moments of annoyance?

I don’t know really.

Maybe the first step is just to remember we have it good.

Maybe the second step is to remember that not much matters.

The last step always for me is to go to my mat. Move and breathe.

In my classes this week, I read a poem by the Sufi mystic poet Hafiz. Enjoy.

 

TRIPPING OVER JOY

What is the difference

Between your experience of existence

And that of a saint?

The saint knows

That the spiritual path

Is a sublime chess game with God

And that the beloved

Has just made such a fantastic move

That the saint is now continually

Tripping over joy

And bursting out in laughter

And saying, “I surrender!”

Whereas, my dear,

I am afraid you still think

You have a thousand serious moves.

 

Hungry for emotional popcorn?

Emotions pop up as quickly as a kernel of popcorn goes from inedible to fluffy goodness.

Every day, all day we’re inundated by emotional responses. Some of these are groovy, sweet emotions and some of these are lame, annoying emotions. (And sometimes all the lame emotions flood in at once, like when you’re on one of those customer service phone calls from hell. Just the worst.)

These little jabs of feeling? I like to think of them as emotional popcorn. Yep.

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I ate all of that. Every bite.

I really like popcorn. At least once a week, I make it on the stove the old-fashioned way: in a pan with salt and oil. It’s a pretty fun snack to eat, and it’s just as much fun to cook. The kernels heat up, the sizzling starts, and then anticipation builds until ping! pop!—the popping begins.

Emotions often come over us as quickly as a kernel of corn goes from inedible to fluffy goodness. Ping! Anger. Pop! Frustration. Ping! Anxiety. Ping! Pop! Pop! When we feel the emotions start to pop up, we get to make a choice: are we going to eat the popcorn?

Much of the practice of yoga centers on this idea—noticing that there IS actually space between provocation and reaction. You can feel an emotion (anger, for instance) and not eat that emotional popcorn. You can feel it and see it and choose not to engage it at the moment. The starting point is to be aware. To notice. To feel the emotion begin and then choose whether or not you’re going to shove it in your mouth. (Sometimes it’s just too damn tempting. Sometimes you eat a big bowl of popcorn, handful after handful. And that’s okay, too.)

But that space? That pause? That path between action and reaction? That comes from breathing while you move. From staying in a pose a smidge longer than your quads want you to. That comes from being present, even in challenging poses. And then really letting go in savasana. Your practice on the mat is a microcosm for your life.

So this week, whether you’re on your mat or on the phone call with Time Warner, just notice. Just notice the pop of emotion. And see what happens next.

Have 10 minutes? Do some yoga:

Simple Yoga Sequence for Waking Up the Body

  • Begin on your hands and knees in Table Pose; play in Cat-Cow: move your spine and stretch your body, finding what feels good
  • Slowly root through your feet and move to Downward Facing Dog; squirm around in this pose, and stay here for 5-10 breaths
  • Move back to Table Pose
  • Rest in Child’s Pose
  • Move to standing and come to Mountain Pose
  • Inhale, lift arms overhead; exhale, clasp your hands and lean to one side. Take 3 breaths. Inhale through center and exhale, lean to the other side. Take 3 more breaths. Inhale through center and exhale, release your arms to your side.
  • Inhale, lift arms overhead; exhale, fold forward
  • Inhale, lift halfway (hands can come to shins or higher; lengthen your spine); exhale, fold forward
  • With your next inhalation return to Mountain Pose
  • Inhale, step your left foot back and move to Warrior I; stay in Warrior I for 3-5 breaths
  • Shift to Warrior II; stay in Warrior II for 3-5 breaths
  • Return to Mountain Pose and repeat Warrior I and II, this time stepping your right foot back
  • Return to Downward-Facing Dog and and move your spine again, stretching any places that still need to stretch, 5-10 breaths
  • Rest in Child’s Pose or transition to Resting Pose (Savasana Pose) for at least 2 minutes.