Tune in to the news, read the paper, talk to other people and you can easily find something to worry about or be afraid of. It’s worldwide. It’s the human condition. All humans have stress in their lives and feel afraid at times. Sometimes fear is actually appropriate and necessary in order to keep us safe. A certain amount of good stress is necessary in our lives as it keeps us growing and learning,
I first heard of this course in the late 90’s, but wasn’t inspired to do it until about 15 years later when I had the experience of meeting 5 different people within the time span of one month who raved about it. That seemed like a sure sign, it was my time to go.
Taking ten (actually 12 with the arrival and departure dates) days off from work, family and daily life is not easy for householders. For many there is no way they could even consider such a thing at this time in their life.
Should you do it? I don’t know.
It depends a lot on your level of desire. It is a very rigorous commitment, definitely not for wimps. Upon arriving at one of the 164 worldwide Vipassana centers, you are first asked to turn in your valuables, cell phone and other electronics. They are stored in a safe until the day of departure. If that idea seems daunting or impossible to you, you may not be ready. I was relieved to have a break from technology for almost two weeks.
Are you ready to spend 10 days in complete silence and surrender to the rigorous schedule of only 2 simple vegetarian meals per day and up to 10 hours per day of sitting meditation? They discourage you from doing yoga or exercise but they do have a quarter mile loop where I managed to put in 4 miles per day of power walking.
The most difficult part of this for me was all the hours of meditation. I don’t even like meditation that much, but I know I need it. I’ve heard this from countless teachers for over 30 years. I have tried to meditate, but honestly, compared to what I’ve experienced in yoga and other courses such as Landmark Education or hundreds of hours with my therapist, meditation never really made sense to me. Sitting on a pillow with my eyes closed only gave my already very quick mind license to race around like a crazed stallion. My mind is like Netflix on speed, constantly bringing me old and new movies to watch. I would get up after meditating and my head would be spinning. I would have felt much more peaceful had I just read a good book. At least that would have kept my crazy mind focused on only one story at a time! As a true extrovert and verbal processor, I much preferred talking with my therapist or a wise friend whenever I felt the need to get back on track.
My final take away has been gaining another way to deal with my own self-generated misery around my real loss and pain, using meditation as a tool. Many of you know of my story. I am a trauma survivor, and I have been dealing with my pain/suffering for about 16 years now, beginning with a difficult divorce in 2000 compounded by the loss of my 20-year-old son in 2003. Losing a child is such a deep pain that it colors one’s experience, tying any present threat of loss back to the past “big one”, causing us to re-experience the gut-wrenching pain fairly regularly. Getting to the root of this suffering has captured my curiosity. Of course I know that I will always live with the remembrance of this loss. Can I learn though to free myself from this high-level suffering around my attachment to my first-born child? The more I can surrender my ego identification as the mother of “my” son, the less misery I will spin in stories of blame and shame. I want to learn how to do this for myself so that I can also help others who have experienced similar losses. I feel this now in many ways to be my life’s work.
Grueling as these 10 days were, they have forever changed my understanding of yoga as well as meditation. I now see this practice as a way of training the mind into an awareness that can allow and accept all that might be happening in the moment with equanimity. The idea of this skill is not new to me, but the Vipassana technique as presented in a clear, repetitive and sometimes even humorous way is digestible and transformational. In the past, I have been led through guided meditations, the “success” of quieting my mind depending on the skill of the teacher. Now I understand how to guide myself and do my own work to train my mind into a state of peaceful ease. It is very similar to training a dog to heel or sit rather than jump all over people.
The course is available to everyone and anyone who is interested in doing the work. The majority of the attendees were under the age of 40, which was a surprise as I had expected an older, more seasoned crowd. Many of them had no prior experience with meditation or any type of mind/body training. Our course had 30 men and 30 women, some had done the course before.
The course is not easy and it’s not fun. Many times I felt like leaving. At times, it took all of my willpower to stay with the program, so please remember to pack that in your suitcase. Meditation is not an escape or a form of entertainment. It is not always a feel good experience; that is not its aim. Andrew and I came home with a more grounded and spacious feeling. We felt more patient and present and joyful for no apparent reason.
The Southern California center that Andrew and I attended has small private rooms for older students and a dormitory for younger students. There is no cost. Students are encouraged to make donations to the not-for-profit organization www.dhamma.org. None of the teachers or servers are paid as this is a volunteer, pay-it-forward model. The teachings are elegantly and clearly presented, and are based on the ancient teachings of Gautama Buddha.
The instructor/guide, S.N. Goenka, (1924-2013) a brilliant, compassionate and humorous Burmese man, deeply understands the workings of both the conscious and unconscious mind. His talks during the daily video program take a beginner from point A (in my case kicking and screaming) to point B (meditating in a very healing, purifying way) and he knows exactly where in the process a new student will be, every step of the way. I found it very reassuring to know that my mind’s resistance to this process is textbook human behavior.
May all of us…. be happy, be peaceful and be liberated from our suffering.
My daughter got married this weekend, Valentine’s Day and it was perfect. Everyone was healthy and happy and the sun was shining. The day couldn’t have gone any better and all of our family and friends were there to witness the sweet and sacred moment.
What made this day so successful for me was not the hours of planning and preparation around flowers, dresses and food, but the hours I have spent with her over the years discussing and exploring life.
Our children look up to us from the day they are born. They observe us very closely and they imitate us (for better or for worse). They inherit not just our DNA, but our beliefs and our values too.
As I watched my daughter marry, I reflected back over our years together and suddenly, I felt deeply grateful for two courageous things I did in our relationship; two things I now believe made a big, positive difference for her.
The first thing I did was this: I showed her what it looks like to be true to yourself — even when it was really hard, and looked like failure to others. More specifically, I left my marriage to her father when she was 14, because even though we co-parented well enough, and everything looked fine from the outside, we were never able to achieve any sort of true intimacy in our 18 years of marriage, and I longed for that.
This was a very scary time for me, but I knew deep inside I had to do it. Often, I hear people say they stay together “for the kids,” and perhaps that works for them. But for me, the gift for myself and my daughter was to leave. When I was courageous enough to leave, she no longer had to witness her father and I living in an uncomfortable tension-filled relationship. And more importantly, she no longer had to witness our less-than-ideal relationship as her primary example of what marriage is supposed to look like.
The relationship I now have with her father is cordial and friendly enough and we both exhibited stellar behavior at the wedding this weekend as we mutually gave her away. Our attempts at communication are still a bit awkward, but at least, we’re no longer pretending that we’re fine or trying to fix what probably cannot be fixed in this lifetime.
And I’m now very happily re-married to a man I resonate with on every level (yes, they’re out there and that possibility truly exists)! My new husband and I have had to work though our issues and deal with our fears. That’s a normal part of any committed intimate relationship. Everything I have read about marriage says that we marry someone who stimulates the places in us that need healing and I know from experience how true that is. But when you’re with the right person, you want to do the work. There’s a sort of underlying joy in it and a huge reward as the intimacy deepens every time you work through a painful issue.
The second courageous thing I did for my daughter came about 10 years after the divorce. When I turned 50, and my daughter was 23, I asked her to tell me what, if any, traits of mine she would not like to inherit. Tears flowed from each of us, as she shared a few things with me that were painful to hear, but well worth it. It was the best birthday present I received, because it forged a new road to trust and intimacy that made our bond deeper than ever before.
I asked her this question because I wanted to know if there was anything in my behavior that I could change while I was still alive. There was, and I did, and I’m actually a lot happier and more comfortable in my own life because of it. I’m so proud of my daughter and grateful to her for being courageous enough to reveal her truth to me and for allowing me to face my fear of not looking perfect in her eyes (thank you, sweetheart).
I think all of us parents want be role models for our children, but what’s most important is that we be brave enough to be honest and authentic above all else. When we offer our offspring our deepest truth, we inspire them to live from theirs. I saw this in my daughter as she married this weekend, and to me, that was the most beautiful thing to witness.
I urge you to take the time to ask this question of your children when you feel they’re at the appropriate age. Of course they will inherit your traits, but wouldn’t you like to know which ones they have observed that are not inspiring to them? That way, you can decide if you want to shift some of your behaviors. Remember, when you keep evolving well past “middle age,” you’re modeling that for them as well.
Tune in to the news, read the paper, talk to other people and you can easily find something to worry about or be afraid of. It’s worldwide. It’s the human condition. All humans have stress in their lives and feel afraid at times. Sometimes fear is actually appropriate and necessary in order to keep us safe. A certain amount of good stress is necessary in our lives as it keeps us growing and learning, but a build up of worry and fear is not good for us in any way and yet so many people seem to feed and thrive on a steady diet of fear!
Fear is at the root of chronic stress. Pain is another cause. We fear that we are not enough, that we made a big mistake in our life, that we’re not going to be okay in the future or that we will fall apart if we lose what we have.
The truth is, we are powerful spirits living human lives, we’re capable of much more than we know. No one, at the highest level of understanding is a victim. If that doesn’t ring true to you, read Victor Frankl’s account of his time in the concentration camp or study the lives of great leaders such as Mahatma Ghandi or Nelson Mandela.
In the bigger picture there are no mistakes, only lessons learned that lead to wisdom. And we will always be okay in the future if we pay full attention right here in the present moment, because this is where our future is being created.
How do we learn to deal more effectively with fear? With roving anxiety? With bitterness and regret? We can push it down and many of us do that for years. Yet that’s only a band-aid solution, because it just keeps coming back up.
Here is my 5-step formula for releasing fear and cultivating more love:
1. Identify the fear. Call your anger, upset, bitterness, regret or anxiety by its real name: FEAR
2. Ask yourself why you are afraid. Who or what are you afraid of? And is the fear truly founded on an event? Are you actually in danger in this moment?
3. If you are in actual danger, do something to help yourself, or ask someone for help. Change the situation any way you can. If you’re not in harm’s way, continue asking yourself questions about the stress.
4. Breathe, meditate, pray. Take some time out by yourself.
5. Change your view. Look at the person or situation you are afraid of with new eyes; the eyes of your heart and soul. Practice compassionate understanding. It may be helpful to talk with someone you trust to get an objective outside opinion (witness consciousness). People who are not emotionally invested in our problems often have much clearer vision.
Experiencing even the smallest victory of love over fear gives us strength and nurtures our warrior spirit.
Every time I feel negative emotion and begin to spin my tales of woe, I now recognize it as a call to look deeper. When I look deeper, I always come back to the same answer: Love. It’s stronger than fear. The loving response feels more empowering to me. The eyes of compassion lead to the expanded and healthier heart.
What are you waiting for? Love is always available. Relief is just a perspective shift away.
Do you remember how awesome it was to be a kid? Every day was a new opportunity to play, every person was a potential playmate, and every household item had the ability to be turned into something cool and fun, like a few blankets and chairs becoming a secret fort.
As adults, we can still access that kid inside us and by doing so, infuse our days with joyful, creative energy. One of the well-known principles of yoga, or really any ongoing repetitive endeavor, is to keep a fresh perspective; a beginner’s mind. Because it’s such a simple idea, the importance and depth of it sometimes gets underestimated and overlooked.
Here are seven ways you can keep a child-like freshness in your yoga practice or any other area of your life.
1. Be willing to try and try again and laugh when you “fail.” There really is no such thing as failure. What many people label failure is really only feedback on how to try again and do it even better. To see the truth of this, just watch an infant trying to walk. There’s no concept of failure, just a joyful exuberance to try and try again.
2. Believe you can do anything, and speak to yourself accordingly. Kids believe in superheroes because kids believe that anything is possible. And truly, with the right attitude (and the willingness to try and try again – see #1) anything is!
3. Be willing to be seen as silly by others. Kids are usually having too much fun to care how they look. Make joy and learning more important than your image, and you’ll inspire others to be goofy too (they really wish they could be, so set an example and give them permission).
4. Be your unique, amazing self. Don’t edit yourself. That is such a grown up thing to do. Kids just ARE. They invite you to take them “as is.” So spend some time really discovering who you are and wear your style boldly and proudly.
5. Shake it up. Don’t get caught in routines. Do things differently. Walk backwards. Brush your teeth with the “other” hand, try new routes, speak pig latin, eat your (healthy) dessert first.
6. Observe kids playing and join in whenever possible. They’re pros at playing. And you were once upon a time. Engage in the light, buoyant, physical games like hop scotch, tag, jump rope and monkey bars to stimulate your childlike perspective.
7. Learn a new, playful skill like hula hooping, square dancing or drawing which turn on the right side of the brain. Learning keeps the mind open and flexible.
This is just a starter list, of course. There are endless ways we can stay young in mind and heart. But none of those ways will come to us until we choose to make keeping a childlike perspective a priority. Consider shaking your life up a little right now. Make a commitment to throw out your old, worn-out patterns and begin cultivating a fresh, new perspective that will infuse your life with playfulness and joy.
My usual morning routine begins with putting a teaspoon of coconut oil in my mouth and swishing it around for 15-20 min. Andrew actually likes it when I do this because the house is so much quieter.
Next would be to drink a glass of warm water with some lemon juice, followed by at least one liter of fresh water from our purification system. I drink another 1 or 2 liters throughout the day. Depending on my schedule, I have breakfast and do some work before my yoga practice, or get the practice done first thing before breakfast and work.
Lifting weights with www.jessicarumbaugh.com is also a part of my morning routine when I am home and can use my dumbbells, mini-trampoline, hula hoop and jumprope. I like a lot of variety in my workouts.
When I am traveling, I still drink the water, and I now have made a habit of doing 30 min. of aerobic exercise with videos from www.bradgouthrofitness.com. I really like the 15 min. programs called Live Lean 15. They are super simple to follow, target both the upper and lower body and I can do two of them in a row for 30 min. of sweat before I need to get ready to teach a class.
I know this seems like a lot to do in the morning, but it is an investment in self love that brings many returns. Even 30 min. per morning of any type of exercise is so much better than none!
Finally, I incorporate 10 min. of seated meditation and pranayama at either the beginning or the end of my yoga practice. I feel very blessed and grateful to have the opportunity to teach yoga for my career. Taking good care of my body and mind so that I can offer some inspiration to others is one of the best investments I could ever make.
If we are always in pursuit of happiness, how do we manage in the face of sadness, regret, loss or disappointment? What are we to do with these shadowed, uncomfortable and sometimes frightening emotions? It seems that our culture, and our yoga embedded within it, is held hostage to notions that happiness, passion, adventure and pleasure are to be pursued and celebrated as the highest values of human existence. And without doubt, most pyschotherapeutic, meditative, yogic and other transformative practices are intended, ultimately, to help us move from contraction to expansion, from darkness to light, from enslavement to freedom.
I myself have always been a strong advocate of the belief, now proven with scientific understanding of the workings of the brain, that we get to choose our thoughts. We now know that whatever groove of thought we allow ourselves to entertain we will have and experience the resulting essence of those thoughts in our lives. With intention, discipline, creativity and imagination we can change our thought patterns, thereby changing our responses, transforming our behavior and our lives.
And yet, do we miss something profound and important if we effort too forcefully and quickly in the direction of this metamorphosis? As the Buddhists remind us, our human nature is to grasp at pleasure and to push away from pain. They would suggest that it is our running away from what we perceive as unwelcome and frightening emotions which leads us down the path of suffering. The Buddhist teaching is that simply by touching into these scary places with curiosity and compassion we can learn to be more open and at ease. In this view then the question is not how do we manage in the face of pain but rather can we softly and gracefully be with it as it is.
It appears then we have these two conflicting approaches in dealing with the mechanisms of the human mind. One suggests that we can change our lives (and have greater joy, happiness, peace and ease) by imagining thoughts and behavior that support us in this direction. The other guides us to feel more deeply into what’s moving without trying to change it, thereby opening and empowering ourselves with a broader view.
I believe that something opens within us when we invite inquiry and curiosity regarding our patterns and our pain. I don’t want to shy away from the difficult feelings, but rather encourage myself toward a gentle and courageous observation of what’s there. I also ask myself, “What can I do now, today, to shift out of this stuck place?” Both are important approaches, and one doesn’t have to discount or devalue the other. We all know that some of us need to toughen up while others need to soften. Most of us need both, depending upon the context. The best we can do in any given day is seek out the place in the middle, holding these qualities in balance.
My intention is to continue to learn to soften into the difficult feelings, allowing what IS to pass through me with acceptance and loving-kindness. Concurrently, my intention is to set my course in the direction away from self-defeating, dis-ease provoking thoughts by carving out a new groove of thinking that supports and expands me. Love truly is stronger than fear. And as it happens, when we allow ourselves to touch it tenderly, it turns out that fear isn’t all that scary after all.
I remember many times in the past when I have regretted letting my anger get the best of me, or when I’ve allowed my frustration to spill out onto the pages of an e-mail or a letter. When I reflect upon it now, I see that it was my fear of not getting my needs met, or that I might be taken advantage of, or that my voice wouldn’t be heard, that made me reactive and defensive in the moment. Each and every time afterward I felt I had done damage to the relationship I was engaging and that I had sullied my own integrity. I was often left feeling bruised and beaten by my own words. Usually this meant going back to clean up the mess I had created, apologizing for my behavior, and completing the interaction with more softness, compassion and understanding. The reason I came on so strong in the first place was because I felt weak inside myself.
We are hard-wired to survey the environment for signs of danger and to react quickly to protect and defend ourselves. This served us well out on the Serengeti and continues to protect us now when we have an intuitive hit that someone means to do us harm. Being quick to react is genetically woven into the fabric of our nervous system as the fight or flight response to danger. It’s no wonder that at the first sign of what appears like an attack on our person, our business, or our ego structure we either run away or lash out.
I continue to learn that there is a more evolved path. I can override my brain’s tendencies to reactivity. I can stay true to my own perspective, set boundaries where necessary, say no if required, stay on my own spot, stand my ground. And simultaneously with this, perhaps because of it, I can allow the other to be other, different from me. This means doing my best to step into the shoes of the other, even joining her with understanding and empathy. Being spacious is actually easy when I know deep in my bones that there is a spot from which I will not move. I have nothing to fear, no defended stance to take, if at the center of my being is my truth. I might even soften so much that I can give and take, negotiate from some absolute view, when I know that I’m safe in myself, staying true to that which is most important to me.
I know it is my job to be able to soften enough to listen to another person’s point of view even when they are not skillful in delivering it. If I operate in the world waiting for other people to be skillful before I am skillful, I could be waiting a long time.
Lately, I have been reading quite a bit of commentary online reminding us all that the practice of yoga is about more than just doing the poses. At the same time, there has been an increase in posts of beautiful poses on FB and Instagram. Yogis these days are very adept and proud of it. We seem to love showing off our accomplishments, and clearly people love to see them. With these two seemingly contradictory messages, one can only imagine how confusing this could be for students who want to learn more about yoga. Do I have to be thin, fit, acrobatic? Will I get hurt if I go to a class? Can everybody do handstands? What is the purpose of yoga anyway?
I feel that it is ultimately up to us, the teachers, the ones who offer this great practice to others, to do our part to help steer the perception of yoga on to a more balanced course. Most of us come to teaching from a place of overflowing gratitude. Yoga has changed our lives in some way, and from that place of gratitude we desire to give back, to pass that possibility on to others so they can find their own transformation. Amidst all the gorgeous pose photos and festivals and colorful clothing that draw students in in the first place, there is something that yoga offers that is unique and the most beneficial in the long run. What is that something? It is probably a bit different for each individual. For me, it has been developing the ability to listen to, trust in and follow my own inner wisdom. My personal GPS. My higher Self. Beyond all the poses and the physical benefits of the practice lies this true gem.
We teachers have the power to convey this deeper wisdom to our students by incorporating simple spiritual themes when we teach our classes. There are many different types of yoga offered these days in all types of venues. Some classes are only 1 hour long and do not include time for chanting or discussion of any kind. Some classes barely have time for any quiet sitting such as meditation, deep breathing or savasana. Still, there is a way to offer some spiritual wisdom and inspiration to hungry students.
Find inspiration and bring it to your classes. You may know a poem that inspires you, or a book that you are finding helpful. Perhaps there is a story you saw posted on Facebook that touches your heart. I feel that the juiciest themes come from one’s own personal experiences. That said, we need to be cautious about turning our classes into therapy sessions. Students do not appreciate or learn from having to listen to us vent or share our problems all the time.
Are you interested in developing your teaching to the point where you can inspire your students spiritually as well as physically? If so, take some time to ponder whatever is happening in your life and then see if you can find the lessons that Life is asking you to learn from that experience. Study the teachings of great ones such as the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron, Byron Katie, Maya Angelou, Jack Kornfield and Eckhart Tolle. Their wisdom is offered in a way that is succinct, timeless and powerful.
Some examples of teachings that are applicable to yoga are:
Take personal responsibility for one’s life in all ways.
If you argue with reality, you lose.
Rise up from victimhood and be the change you want to see.
Learn how to be the observer so you can come from a place of responding rather than reacting.
Become aware of your tendency toward Fight or Flight syndrome that is often stress related.
These topics are just the tip of the iceberg as far as what is available to us online and in books. If you can learn how to deliver a message without sounding like a preacher, people will appreciate it. They took the time to come to class, let’s give them a complete experience: body, mind and soul.
Today, I want to talk about using props in yoga practice.
I have noticed that some newer students, and even more seasoned yogis, are sometimes bashful about using props in their yoga practice. They might think that to use a block or strap is to display inexperience with a pose, inability or weakness. Early in my practice, in my late twenties, I too had the “I’m fine, I can do it myself, I don’t need props” attitude. The truth is that props have nothing to do with weakness or lack of experience. The use of props is about 3 things: building strength, understanding one’s anatomy and honestly accepting where you are right now in your yoga practice.
I use props often, but not in ways other people might expect to use them. I use them to train my legs to stay strong during back bends or inversions (like a headstand) by placing a block between my upper inner thighs and squeezing it.
I use three blankets to get my neck and shoulders into a better position for a shoulder stand.
Here are some creative ways to use straps.
But props don’t stop at blocks and straps. I often use a wall to make sure I am straight and fully connected between my ribcage and pelvis, poses like camel or standing drop backs.
Here are some creative ways to use a chair to learn how to do back bends properly.
Most people need to use props at some point in their life to train them to be strong and honest in their practice. In many ways, anatomy is destiny with yoga. Some body proportions are very challenging to work with. Props can “level the playing field” and help us achieve better balance and ease rather than compensating, which leads to strain and over work.
It is important to note, however, that props should not be used as a crutch. Relying too heavily on a block or strap to complete a pose can hinder our real progress. I can’t stress enough, especially to newer students, that it takes a lot of work and a lot of physical strength to establish and then keep a practice going for a lifetime. Props are not just for older or weaker people. They are very useful tools for everyone! All the advanced yogis I have ever known make great use of props and bodywork to help them open their stiff spots and relax their tight spots.
It is so easy to cheat or compensate in yoga, so the wise use of props is really the only way I know to stay honest in a practice. Cheating leads to imbalance and injury because we never really know when we are overcompensating or slightly out of alignment. Even an expert teacher cannot watch us every second during our practice. If we don’t learn to do the exercise in correct alignment, it can eventually lead to getting hurt. Your instructor will help you as much as he or she can, but in a class of 10 students or more, it just isn’t possible for your teacher to watch you like a hawk.
If you are a yogi that doesn’t know how to use props and your instructor doesn’t explain it during class, you might want to investigate and seek out an alignment based teacher in a more fully equipped studio. It is good to be informed about all the possibilities that exist for learning this great art. If you are an instructor, don’t assume that your students will grab a block when they need one – and don’t wait for the challenging poses to start explaining it. If the studio you teach at doesn’t supply blocks and straps for everyone, that would be a very good investment for the owner to consider. Blankets and chairs are a real plus and a godsend if the studio can afford to purchase and store them.
Honesty, or Satya, is one of the Yamas, or ethical guidelines of Yoga. Be honest with yourself about your body’s proportions and don’t be ashamed of or afraid of knowing about your limitations. We all have limits! Some people are more bendy than others, some are stronger, but we all have places where we need to grow. It’s okay to get a bit of help from a block, a strap, a wall when you need it- even from another human being. It is not a sign of weakness but rather a sign of intelligence.