It's a Doozy

It’s been a doozy of a couple weeks for Shaw Yoga. Exciting and momentous things are happening on many fronts. Parker is marrying her wonderful partner John next weekend, Ben and I are a month and a little more away from having a baby girl, and we’re very close to a step to make the Shaw Yoga experience more accessible and meaningful for all our beloved yogis (teachers and students alike). More on that excitement very soon!

I’d wager that it’s also a doozy of a time for the city and the country at large, and I do mean, primarily, the momentous election cycle upon us.

Some of you know that I am a high school English teacher. I love words, and I love looking words up—even, or especially, words I already know and use. Because we can forget the origins, the original intent, of a word. It can get tied up in associations and misunderstandings. I just looked “doozy” up as I used it here. It’s OED definition is “something outstanding or unique of its kind.” Now, that’s spectacular, I think. The definition is so much more positive than I thought it might be. How wonderful to come back to the origin of something and discover it was brighter than you thought.

Perhaps like many of you, it’s hurt my heart to witness the partisanship, the animosity, the mudslinging that this election cycle has engendered. My 11th grade English classes read Hillary and Donald’s respective convention speeches, thinking about the rhetorical appeals each candidate used to make their speech persuasive, and I cautioned the students against virulent judgment of the side they didn’t agree with. It chastened them in the moment, and for the class period, but I doubt it had any lasting effects on how the students feel. I’ve had to stop listening to NPR on my morning commute to work. I had been telling my husband how it set such a troubling tone for my morning, and he asked me, “Why do you listen to it, then?” My instinctual response was, “Because it’s the truth,” and in reflecting on this later, I couldn’t help but chuckle at my own silliness, my disconnect from the spiritual teachings and the wisdom that yoga has offered me. Election cycle bickering, jostling, and vitriol is not the truth. It couldn’t be farther from it. It’s what is happening, and it’s only what is happening because we don’t know of another way to get at what is right.

Today I read an article entitled something like “Trump’s Violent Innuendo against Hillary Becomes More Blatant,” and then I was sad for a few minutes. Then I flipped open my “Pocket Thich Nhat Hanh,” and of course immediately found solace in his wisdom.

Here’s what it said:

“Societies and nations that are locked in conflict need to learn the practice of inclusiveness if they really want to find a way to live together in peace. Can our side accept that the other side also needs a place to live and needs the safety and stability that can guarantee a peaceful and prosperous society?”

The answer is simple. What is true is recognizing that very, very few people actually have bad intentions. We are all trying for the same thing: safety, peace, and prosperity for ourselves and our families. Accept that as truth, and let the rest of the noise and the misunderstanding and yes, even the violence, pass you by as mildly as it can, because it is not the truth. Pray for the country and its would and could-be leaders; dedicate your good energy to the world. Pray for reconciliation and peace.

And give this a try: anytime you encounter something about the election, think of someone you know, ideally someone you love, who stands on the other side of the political spectrum from you. Send them your love and your trust and your empathy. Think about how their intentions are good. What are they motivated by? Concern for their loved ones, love for the country, hope for a peaceful world. Pray for the candidates on both sides. I’m not asking that you support or even forgive the one (or both!) that you don’t agree with. I’m suggesting that there’s something bigger and truer and older and much more important than politics that you can devote some of your attention to, instead.

Meditate on this: “what is good is what is true.” And accept that we don’t know all the answers, and we don’t know the future. But loving our neighbor as ourselves is a charge that we will never be sorry we’ve fulfilled.

  • Elizabeth

The Annoyance Mantra

Well, I have this super silly thing that annoys me. Though “getting annoyed” would be cited by my family members as high on my list of faults, this one was Big.

It was an event, really, and then after happening, it transferred into a reality, a memory, and a possible future menace. I can’t be more specific, unfortunately, but I think you’ll get the gist here without the details of *exactly what happened*.

Alternatively, depending on how you wanted to look at The Annoying Thing, when it happened, one could see it as either really big or really small. I’ve gotten validation from all whom I’ve told that it’s very big. My husband thinks it’s fight-worthy. My co-workers think it’s egregious. My family definitely sympathizes. None of this made me feel any better. In fact, it made me feel worse, because The Annoying Thing, in this case, was unalterable. It was a (somewhat or very) frustrating, yet unchangeable, reality. None of the sympathy in the world could change it. And, this Annoying Thing seemed to fascinate all whom I told. To them, it was a good story. But to me, it was my mental enemy.

The Thing had a room in my mind, maybe a whole wing. It had a shape and a taste and past and future fears and anxieties. Thinking of it triggered specific physical feelings: slightly clammy hands, increased heart rate, racing mind, swirling frustration and doubt. It was not painful. It was not life-threatening. It might not have affected the quality of another’s life as much as it did mine. (And when I thought of this, I only sunk deeper.) Simply but, the Thing was Just Annoying. To me. And it lived with me.

A few months ago, a development occurred that meant that the Annoying Thing would be staring me more in the face very soon. It would become more unavoidable. It loomed in the future, ready to face me. There was also nothing I could do about this reality. But I took it in stride. I tried to be game. I was ready to face it.

I made it my summer meditation goal to get past The Annoying Thing. Just last week, taking a divine yoga class at Euphoria Yoga in Woodstock, NY, I had a meditation breakthrough. The teacher talked about what we need freedom from, and I realized, without a missed beat, that I needed freedom from The Annoying Thing. Two mantras came to me: “It’s not personal” and “Life isn’t fair.” The annoying thing had gotten too much power over me. I needed to depersonalize. I needed to reset my expectations. I knew these mantras constituted the path to success and release from The Annoying Thing, but I knew a lot of meditation time still lay between me and true release. But I was ready for it.

Then, disaster struck. Outside forces took the Thing out of my path. (Outside forces were the only thing, outside of meditation, capable of doing that.) Due to the actions of others, over which I have no control, it was gone. And then, gone too, was the focus of so much of my grief and grumbling, so much meditation and so many attempts to let go, mantras, hours of meditation. Some people might think or say that Karma came around, (my husband included). More devout spiritualists might say that the meditation had worked. But I am a realist and I know myself and I knew the Annoying Thing, and I knew that it went away for none of those reasons. A vicissitude of life that carried it away; there was no wherefore, cosmic payback, or Great Scheme.

I’m two days now into the awareness that The Thing has gone away, not through my mental meditative triumphs, but through outside forces, and I feel a little lonely. This was an important mental block for me to vanquish. I can’t just smile at my fortune and pretend The Annoying Thing never existed in the first place. And I won’t. And the main reason why I won’t is that I know the lessons that came to me in Woodstock still remain true. They are true. Life isn’t fair, and it isn’t personal. Annoying Things, no matter how many beset me, aren’t out to get me. It isn’t about me. And it’s not my job to right the scales of justice in the universe. I’m probably not even right about how I think they should be leveled.

So, I’m lonely at July’s end without my meditation goal, without my Most Annoying (but really not that important) Thing. But I’ll keep to my mantras, because they were the meaning behind this whole experience. Even when poetic justice surges in to right the annoying wrongs the world has done you, you know you can’t trust poetic justice or fortune. They are fickle creatures; they don't rescue you every time.

If you told me when The Annoying Thing first surfaced in my life, roughly 2 years ago, that it would help my meditation years later, I would have been wary. But it taught me some mantras, and now I’m on the way to learning the real substance behind the mantras. The substance will come to me eventually. Maybe just in time for the next Annoying Thing to happen to me. Because more Annoying Things are coming. And all I hope is that next time, in this upward spiral journey, I’ll do a little better.

  • Elizabeth

I'm No Smarter Than My Cat

I’m pretty sure my cat has a crush on my dog. Let me explain why this is an interesting conclusion.

Nunzio is around 10 years old, and epically anti-social. (There was a purple sign denoting “anti-social cats” hanging on his cage in the New Orleans animal shelter in which I found him – the sign really indicated his crate-mate, Bombadil – Nunzio didn’t even register on the social scales. He didn’t earn the high rank of anti-social. He was a harmless, but accomplished, Feral.) He spent the first two years of his co-habitation with Dexter expressing his profound distaste for him by urinating on Ben’s clothing. It was very specifically Ben’s: in the approximately 50 soak-and-then-washes I enacted to get cat urine out of clothing items, not one of the affected clothing items were mine. Ben, Nunzio accurately registered, had brought Dexter into his life. Nunz had lived 3 tolerable years with me before meeting Dexter. (If Dexter had clothing, I can only imagine what Nunz would have done to it.)

We spend our lives acting on things that we think are true. We act believing we are right, without even registering that our actions are based on a personal, stubborn, and imperfect view of the world. We don’t realize that our actions in most moments could be narrated by a smug voice saying, “Elizabeth thinks she’s right, that’s why she’s acting this way. Little does she know, she’s wrong.” That’s what Nunzio does with Dexter. He thinks Dexter’s harmful, and he acts accordingly. Nunzio is wrong, and Ben and I laugh (lovingly) at him about it, but the joke is really on us, because we’re not superior. We do it all the time.

Good examples of this for me, and for many of us who live in congested Washington, D.C., come while driving. When I’m in my car, and someone does something I deem annoying, my seemingly involuntary reaction is to denounce them as a fundamentally, quintessentially irritating and problematic human being. Anger surges through me. My sudden sole purpose in existing is to annoy them back in some way, perhaps with a stern look that they can see in their rearview mirror, or something of the like. Now, if I encountered that person walking by while I was sipping a glass of white wine at an outdoor restaurant on a mild May afternoon, I would feel quite differently about them. I’d likely notice something charming, fascinating, or at the very least, relatably human about them.

Am I right in the driving situation? Or am I right with the white wine? In most moments, I’m inclined to believe that people are fundamentally good, so I'm inclined to say the way I see them in the restaurant situation is right. But if you’re not that optimistic in your opinions of humanity, then the more logical answer is that you’re right in neither situation: they are neither as awful as they seem while they drive annoyingly, nor as wonderful as they seem when you’re sitting with a breeze and Pinot Grigio.

Yoga has a remedy for this pattern, this wasting time on things we think are true. It’s called non-reaction, or non-attachment, and it challenges us to step back from our quick, intense, habitual reactions to things, and to recognize that when we have negative reactions, we are likely at the mercy of one of the kleshas: in yoga, these are the five mental states that result in our negative reaction and cause our suffering (ignorance, egoism, likes and dislikes, and clinging to mundane life). We have to pull ourselves up short from reacting habitually to be able to notice when we are about to fall victim to one of these. My sister went to a leadership conference that worked with non-reaction concepts. She came back from it ready to tell me about “triggers” in our lives, and eager to point out a couple of mine. (This may or may not have been a trigger for me itself, when someone points out my flaws. Perhaps you can relate.)

We waste time on negative things that we think are true. We can stop this. It behooves us to take a lesson from my cat. Nunzio thinks Dexter is harmful, but he’s wrong. And the only way that humans have a slight edge over other animals is our ability to use our self-consciousness, our reason, to reflect on our actions and then improve. If I could reason with my cat, I’d use my ability to reflect and analyze to tell him that he probably has a fascination, or more likely a crush, on Dexter that he’s misinterpreted as fear of him. And while I often feel superior to Nunzio, seeing as I’ve got this all figured out, I may be much better at giving than taking advice. I have some of my own misperceptions to work on, too. J

  • Elizabeth

The Slow Creep of Belief

There’s a quote I’ve encountered in curious frequency, in a curious number of settings. It seems to keep coming back to me. It’s from Marianne Williamson. Maybe you’ve heard it, too.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

The first time I heard it was somewhere in Dartmouth College’s wonderful theater world. I didn’t do theater myself; a good friend did, though, which immersed me somewhat in the world, and I loved reading plays and watching theater. I also stage-managed a few shows (including one my friend wrote), and I took one very amusing acting class, which confirmed for me that I wasn’t meant for straightforward acting-as-such. I think I first encountered the quote in Cliff’s play that I stage-managed. At any rate, as 20-year old, student Liz encountered it, I appreciated its confidence, its logic and its leaps of faith, its mystical assurance, and certainly the individual jewels of its diction: liberate, shine, gorgeous, talented, deep, fear, powerful (beyond measure). All of these things sounded good, and if I didn’t understand and believe it completely, I was glad someone did, and that it existed, the way I’m glad religions exist, even if I don’t personally believe in or follow them.

The next encounter worth mentioning was in yoga teacher training, flashing forward 10 years. A teacher trainer was presenting some of his favorite quotes to us, and this flashed across the screen. I felt a confusing surge of irritated disquiet upon seeing it. It was like something I meant to finish or figure out, and hadn’t, and seeing it reminded me that I still hadn’t developed the faith in it that 20-year old me had vaguely entrusted to my future self. I asked some sort of question about it, hoping for this individual to explain it to me in that moment, demanding immediate proof. He seemed (reasonably) a bit taken aback by my intensity, and nothing was resolved in that moment. (It couldn’t have been.)

Every now and then, recently, individual parts of the quote have been floating across my consciousness, unbidden, and I’ve noticed that I’m making my peace with it, finding my belief in it. Particularly the line, “We are all meant to shine, as children do,” strikes me as deeply true, axiomatic. I wrote last week about my niece and my dog and their simple, unquestionable beauty and synchronicity. Of course we are all meant to shine, and yoga reminds us, over and over again of this, that “[We] are [children] of God,” or whatever bigger force we believe God to be.

That’s about enough for today. It’s a meaty quote, and each of its lines deserves consideration and meditation. And the lesson that encountering it at different stages over the years has taught me, that faith, belief, and comprehension are lifelong journeys, is one of the greatest gifts of all.

Children and Dogs

“Yoga is the attempt to get back to the state that children and dogs exist in naturally.” – Paul Akema, yoga teacher and liver extraordinaire

Recently, I was blessed to spend a weekend with a dog and a child that I know: Dexter, my 10-year old black lab mix, and June, my 7-year old niece. They are symbiotic beings (as you can see from the picture). We romped around the monuments, watched The Princess Bride, went to the zoo (from which Dexter was, of course, cruelly disallowed), and took regular old walks around the block.

The monument-romp started around 8:30 on Sunday morning. The car temperature gage read 52 degrees, and it was whippingly windy, to boot. June wore a skort, a thin blue jacket, and flip-flops, her parents having reasonably packed her for late May in D.C. Ben and I were still recovering from an inevitable tiff after our inaugural 16-hours of parenting a 7-year old. I worried about June’s exposed legs, my own discomfort in the wind and National Mall crowds, whether I’d get annoyed at Ben again, Dexter’s propensity to tire himself out 20-minutes into an excursion, and whether any of us had eaten enough breakfast beforehand to keep us away from crabbiness and the hot dog carts.

The thing about dogs and children, of course, is that they are happy and sad at the right times, uncomplicatedly. They don’t worry much about why they are feeling what they’re feeling, and they don’t pretend to feel things. And, they live mostly in the present. They feel excitement through every fiber of their being, til they veritably (or literally) quiver with it. (When Ben ran 3 blocks back to the car to get the doggie bags, it was all I could do to keep unleashed June and leashed Dexter from vibrating out of my grasp and into Constitution Avenue.)

This kind of bare and unpretentious joy is unavoidably contagious. I can’t pinpoint the moment when I went from being apprehensive and vaguely apathetic to equally infected with joy, but it was definitely before we got to the Washington Monument, our first stop. June and Ben raced the distance from the Washington Monument to the World War II Memorial, flip-flops and all, and the whipping wind had started to feel warmer and sympathetic to our hopes.

I know why adults pretend to feel things they don’t, and of course, I pretend, too, but it doesn’t mean that I like it. Experiences like this remind us that we don’t have to accept this tendency. When June and I took Dexter on walks around the block back at home, she held the leash, and she let him stop every time he wanted to smell the fire hydrant, the tree root protection bag (his favorite), the cement corner, the ice cream wrapper. By the third block walk we took, I finally succumbed to this completely, and stopped hurrying them along. Where was I trying to get us to? Living near the patient symbiosis of these two for the weekend, I think I caught some of it, too. And I finally felt the lesson that I might not be able to put into words. We had nowhere to be but there, examining the treasures that the wind had loosed from the trashcan.

  • Elizabeth

You Had a Bad Day

With our thoughts we make the world.

Sometimes that yoga truism sounds wonderful. Sometimes we want to sock it in right in the kisser. Sometimes, we have bad days.

Yoga is full of ideas like that one: ideas super-simple, that sound great and totally right when you hear them during a blissful moment of a yoga class, yet nevertheless challenging to apply fully to life.

In a recent post I wrote about yoga’s magic. Most of us who’d bother to be reading this blog must have some personal experience with yoga’s magic.

If you made a list of all the things you’d like yourself to feel and be today, it would be a pretty inspiring list to read. In the wrong mood, it could also come across as quite daunting, I imagine. Another candidate for a punch in the nose. A tall order.

But here’s another opportunity for yoga’s special brand of magic. Because that list you could make – of the best possibilities for yourself on any given day – is also true. That’s what yoga tells us. We are all the most beautiful possibility, most beautiful manifestation. Every day, it is. You are that amazing. You just aren’t always able to see it.

Yoga encourages us to remember that we are not our thoughts; we are greater, better, more permanent, more beautiful, and deeper than even our loveliest thoughts. In moments of the most profound joy and highest achievement, we are not thinking or piecing together words. We are feeling and being. Anton Chekhov, the great short story writer, knew this. He writes that “dumbness” (as in temporary inability to think or speak) is the most predominant mental quality in the greatest moments of human life.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about thoughts and routines. Like many of us, I have lots of routines in my life. Routines can be great; certainly the good ones have good uses. But they also have pernicious effects. Routines can deaden our senses, pattern our reactions and our thoughts, drag us to places where we aren’t our best. For instance, there is a place on my drive home from work where I almost always start hating every driver around me, and even disliking most pedestrians, and that same point tends to lure my arm towards the glovebox, where I often have a bag of M & Ms hidden. Sigh. These are not my most amazing manifestations.

Yoga is amazing because its a reinvention, a repurposing of routines. Yoga poses become familiar very quickly, and even though you learn new poses and new sequences and the idiosyncrasies of a particular school of yoga, teacher, time of day, you are repeating the same postures over and over again, but with joy, peace, and awareness. Yoga can teach us a new way to look at our routines. With deep breathing. With patience and playfulness. With curiosity. With an eye to finding joy in what our cynical selves could otherwise consider mundane.

If we can apply what we learn in our yoga routines to our daily lives, we will feel that magic spread. With our yoga we learn to let more peace and joy into our thoughts. Tomorrow, maybe the most beautiful moment of my day will be that moment on my drive home. Or, tomorrow, maybe I’ll walk home. Sometimes circumventing a bad day is within our control.

  • Elizabeth

Yoga's Magic

Do you remember the first time you did yoga and thought, what is this magic that’s happening? If you continue into a long-term, lifelong yoga journey, and especially if you undertake any kinds of trainings or workshops towards teaching yoga, you’ll likely find yourself searching for the spell behind that magic. What’s its source? How can I recreate it at will? At this point in my yoga journey, I have been delighted to learn (and continue learning) that the magic of yoga bubbles up from many sources. Every small component that goes into the movements and experience you have in a typical yoga class is a portion of the magic. And something especially liberating and transformative can be transferring much of that magic, that transcendence, into the rest of your daily life: yoga off-the-mat, as it can be called.

Some great places to start can be, as many yogis put it, releasing “things that no longer serve you.” I love the “no longer” part, because it’s so forgiving. I have a cynical side, and I can find myself tempted to believe that things that don’t serve me now probably never did, but crept into my life due to my vices: laziness, selfishness, carelessness, vacillating self-esteem, so on. But there is another way to look at it. I’ve heard therapists talk about the parts of the self, and how some of the “negative” parts might be there to protect other, vulnerable parts of us. That’s a way to understand the forgiveness and truth inherent in the “no longer serving us.” It’s harder to get rid of a bad habit if we get tripped up being mad at ourselves for having the bad habit in the first place. There needs to be a period of acceptance and calm assessment of it, a befriending of the bad habit, before we can move it into the waiting room to board the ship to then leave our lives.

So, pick a habit that’s no longer serving you. Think about when the habit tends to rear up. What are its triggers, its favorite times of the day, week, its favorite situations? Try to be gently reflective about the habit as it approaches, and then try repeating a mantra that you’ve prepared for the occasion, along with some breathing and perhaps separation from society, or the triggers of the habit. The mantra “I am not my thoughts” can be a powerful one, or, if you prefer a positive spin on it, “I am peace. Peace is in me” (or any positive, neutral, universal-connection type word can be substituted for “peace” there).

This week I’m taking on my stubborn, patterned reaction to small communication mishaps with my spouse. It’s a small thing but pernicious habit that definitely no longer serves me. I won’t judge myself, and I won’t get mad at myself. I will try breath and mantra. I will try to let the magic work.

Sutras to the Rescue!

I re-read the first twenty or so Sutras of the Yoga Sutras this morning. The Yoga Sutras are 196 pieces of ancient yoga wisdom, collected around the year 400 by the sage Patanjali. They’re an excellent read, any and all of them; not long, not complicated, not weird – even if you haven’t bought entirely into the notion of yoga as a complete system for living.

The thing I like best about reading them is the feeling of clean, simple lightness and truth I’m left with afterwards. That, and how succinct they are. There is so much room to extrapolate and muse, to uncover and form a meaning that stays personally with you. The best thing to do after reading a Sutra or two or ten is to stare out a window for a while, no phone checking allowed. The first two dozen Sutras contain simple and yet wildly useful and rejuvenating ideas like, “Improvement takes faith.” “Faith varies from person to person, but any and all can improve their discipline and thereby their faith.” I’m paraphrasing here, but that’s some of the good stuff.

A great gem of the first several Sutras is 1.5, the Sutra that defines the five actions of the mind: comprehension, misapprehension, deep sleep, memory, and imagination. And then in the following Sutras, each activity of the mind is defined further. It might seem cynical or mistrustful of humanity that the mind activity designated as most frequent and common is the most palpably negative of the Sutras, but I think most of us would guess it: it’s misapprehension. But it doesn’t surprise most of us, and acknowledging it is extraordinarily liberating. You may have heard a version of the yoga aphorism, “You are not your thoughts.” The activities of the mind, (even the most frequent, misapprehension), do not express something deeply true and unchangeable about ourselves. I allege that the majority of negative emotions, experiences, relationships, moments, etc. that we have in our lives stem quite directly from this errant mind activity of misapprehension. It’s an error in perception, and it’s mercifully resolvable.

When I can employ the good sense to notice misperception in the moment of misperceiving, (and this is not the majority of the time, I’m afraid), I can usually locate it as rooted in some kind of fear. If I can stop myself, and trace the misperception to its root in past experience, I can usually find a point of deeply-held fear. Others might name it as something different than fear, but the word deeply resonates and moves things for me. Once I unearth the fear’s origin, I can almost always laugh with deep relief, and the misperception goes up in a puff of satisfyingly wispy smoke. Many fears are wisps of nonsense!

An example: I was once, as many of us probably were, a slightly (at least slightly) socially awkward person. One particularly harrowing set of experiences was in CCD, an acronym that signified Sunday School for my siblings and me at our childhood Catholic church. The church stood in a neighboring county, and therefore none of my CCD classmates were schoolmates of mine. When things got bad, I was occupying the merciless pre-teen years of 12 and 13. In CCD class, I never spoke to anyone, never answered questions, never made anything close to a friend. I sat in excruciating self-consciousness and self-judgment for the duration of the 90 minutes every Sunday morning, inventing all kinds of plotlines wherein the youngsters around me might have appeared to be discussing the answer to the teacher’s question, but were actually discussing my awkwardness and strangeness and awfulness. On at least two Sunday mornings, I developed ingenious hiding techniques to obviate Sunday school attendance. Once, I hid in my mother’s clothes hamper. I guess I wasn’t claustrophobic. It was excruciating. I was a pre-teen. It was understandable. But it was a harrowing couple of years.

(An interesting sidenote: in the Sutra that defines memory, it states that there is no way to tell whether a memory is true or false, real or imagined. You could take this a bit too far – there’s no question I went to CCD most Sundays, and that I hated it. But it also has a ring of liberating truth – I don’t know whether any of those kids were making fun of me. I imagine it wasn’t as bad as I thought was, even at the very worst. There’s just no reconstructing the “truth” of that memory.)

Back to the present, and potential for present misapprehensions: even as 33-year old, no longer socially-awkward me, I’m still seized my moments where I feel or fear the tide of a social interaction turning against me. Covert conversations might be festering anywhere, discussing the unsuitability of my person and presence in that particular situation. It happens a couple times a month. And it’s not real. It’s rooted in a fear of inadequacy, of unsuitability, of social pariah status. And because I have a handling pattern for this misperception type, I can often avert its negative reaction in the moment of its occurrence. That’s the goal of understanding the five types of mental activities: to be able to sort through them and mitigate the damaging effects of any of them, but mostly of misapprehension.

So, it’s my suggested formula for tackling misperceptions. When a negative feeling surfaces, question yourself about its root. What are you afraid of? If fear isn’t the right word there, see what negative emotion or quality is accurate. Test a few out. Then, question that something’s origin and validity. Trust that it's a misperception, and then you can free yourself from it.

I’ve got at least one misperception category worked out. Others, beware!

  • Elizabeth

Windy Today!

It’s windy today. I’m glad, though my feelings on wind are not simple.

We’re entering that transition time again. Good riddance, many will say, to the zipping, nippy, unfriendly, shovel-y winter! But we don’t get spring without paying some penance first. We have to weather that transition from winter to spring, and though I think we might gloss over it in our memories from year to year (especially because it doesn’t have a set seasonal name, but rather wedges between two), it can really ruffle your hair. (Literally and figuratively. I’ll try not to make this a post of puns! Eek.) Common trademarks of transitions: they’re exciting, challenging, nerve-wracking. Some transitions are remarkable and unique: moving one job to another, getting into new relationships, moving to a new place, changing careers entirely, shedding old habits. These are understandably nerve-wracking. (And understandably exciting.) But it’s possible even to become nerve-wracked over transitions that come around frequently, even, say, yearly, like the changing of the seasons. Do you remember that clever video about the wind as a man in a hat, who walks around annoying people? It’s a German video for wind energy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2mTLO2F_ERY I identify with that anger at the wind, but also want to give that man who plays the wind a hug. While I have a love-hate relationship with wind, I respect its heralding of the transition of winter into spring. We can’t just go from cold, icy, and gray to warm, soft, and sunny without some kind of appreciative ceremonial salute to what’s past and tantalizingly slow approach to the coveted “what’s to come.”

I think there should be a name for the in-betweens of seasons, more than just a name we can cobble together whenever the need presents itself, more than just “transition season” or “winter into spring.” Things that have names wind up (see the wind pun! I didn’t even mean that one, ahhh…) staying in our mind better. Periods of time will pass in which I forget about those yoga poses that don’t have roundly agreed-upon names. Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentinian poet and general man of letters, wrote about how it’s arbitrary, what we name and what we don’t. He suggested that perhaps there should be a name for the way that the sunlight hits a field, when a cow bell is ringing in the distance. (It might have been a church bell. Some kind of bell.) But there isn’t a name for that. At least not in any of the seven or so languages that Borges spoke, so I’m taking his word for it.

While I can’t think of a reasonable one today, I think there should be a name for the transitions between periods, between jobs, between relationships, between seasons, because so much of life happens in them. They are times that require the most bravery, the most self-knowledge, times that create our character, times that fill a big percentage of our lives. But our memory can be crowded by things that have names. “Last Christmas.” “When I was dating [so-and-so.]” “In college.” “When I worked for [that company.]” What about “last blustery March?” “When I wasn’t dating anyone?” “When I job searched and walked everywhere?” “When I didn’t have any idea what I should do with my life and slept until 11am every day?” Those things are harder to name, but they mean something. And transition times exist even more elusive than this, ones that elude even my ability to capture them in general phrases here.

The uncertainty of transition brings a richness, a stash of dormant potential, raw matter to be formed, infinite possibilities, infinite lessons and little side secrets. For a while, when I think of it, I would like to look at and live the in-betweens, the transitions, more closely than I do the obvious moments, the chapter headings. Yoga gives us an opening for this. Every time you come to your mat, you are somewhere. You are in a full, present, real, sensational moment of your life. You can’t always name what part you’re in. But you’re in it. And as you explore your breath and your mind and your body in the poses that are so familiar to you, you discover what has changed about the you that is arriving, this time, at the same familiar poses. You discover where you are now. Even if where you are now is on the way to somewhere else, and even if you arrive to that somewhere else and are still not able name what it is, it deserves attention. Call it the Windy Time. Call it March.

- Elizabeth

Simplicity

When yoga teachers think about how to dedicate the tone of a class, what sort of theme or particular focus to imbue it with, they have lots of choices. Yoga encompasses and nurtures all the virtuous qualities you can imagine. Settling on a dedication can feel as daunting as any of the choices we have in modern urban life, surrounded by tantalizing and mind-boggling options everywhere from the coffee shop, to the lunch spot, to the T.V. program menu. We love choice, but also can feel that we’re drowning in it, and simplicity has its virtues.

I lived in the Marshall Islands for two years right after college. The Marshalls are a tiny island (or, truly, atoll) chain in the central Pacific, about a 4-hour plane trip on from Hawaii. I taught English as a Second Language there, made wonderful friends, and spent some of the most *content *days I’ve lived thus far. One of the most relaxing and luxurious things about life in the RMI was the simplicity of it. Upon waking, instant coffee was the first choice, and you didn’t mind that it was “bad” compared to Starbucks, because you didn’t have another choice, and you were simply grateful for a warm beverage and caffeine. A selection between 4 or 5 different “guam dresses” was the second choice, a walk along a palm-tree-lined path to school was the only next option, and lunch offered usually just two options: a pouch of steaming hot ramen (literally pour the hot water *into *the ramen bag) or eat some breadfruit and white rice, maybe along with some fresh tuna. After school / work, you could read, bwebwenato (chit-chat, story-tell) with your fellow village dwellers, or stroll along the road or beach as you watched a humblingly beautiful sunset. The darkness dropped like a blanket when it came, with the exactness of the sea as horizon, and then most of us were asleep not too soon after. Most families did have electricity, but it wasn’t reliable, and the natural rhythms life occupied there meant you weren’t too reliant on using electric light to keep yourself awake into the wee hours of the morning.

Maybe starting my adult life in the Marshalls spoiled me for the complexities of American cities, but I believe one of the reasons I’ve always loved yoga is that it simplifies life quite a bit. You can answer the big questions of life in several different ways, but they all agree with each other and are somewhat interchangeable. What is the purpose of life? To distance oneself from the ego. Or to love everyone (nearly) equally. Or to be healthy and happy, so that you can fulfill your dharma, your purpose. Three different answers, (and there are many others), but they all intersect and heavily support one another. Succeeding at one helps to unlock the others.

The past few weeks I’ve been thinking about how the core of the yoga way can be understood as self-respect. Self-respect, in its true form, frees you to empathize with and respect all others. It frees you from a tendency to judge or rank the life choices of others. It gives you a quiet contentment. It isn’t easy to achieve, but to evaluate your life patterns through the prism of self-respect allows you to clarify what is beneficial and what isn’t. Sitting down on your yoga mat is a ceremony of self-respect for your body, and rising from your physical yoga practice with a sense of calm and love is your passport to respect all others in the world. Consider using self-respect as a prism to clarify your life this week. I wish you rich and simple discoveries.

  • Elizabeth

New Year's Irresolution

Ahh, here we are. The season of perpetual hope; a new year! 2016. I've always liked even-numbered years better. I've got a good feeling about this one.

So, I didn't set a new year's resolution. I have in years past, and the only one (in 33 years of life) I stuck to was to do one month of CrossFit, two years ago, with my sister-in-law. Certainly the concrete length and buddy system helped me in sticking to it. There's something in that! My CrossFit month was an unforgettable and strange experience. (My brother is a CrossFit instructor, and I have a lot of respect for it, but it isn't my fitness of choice.) I've also made the normal "eat less of this, call this person more, do 10 push ups a day" tangible types of resolutions. But resolutions of the heart, of the spirit, I've never made, or at least not to my memory. But I am reflective as a new calendar year dawns, as many of us can't help being. How wonderful it is!

Today Ben and Dexter and I engaged in one of our favorite activities, a City Hike (as we've termed them). We wound from our house in Bloomingdale, up through Howard University's campus, through Meridian Hill Park, across to Rock Creek Park. We did some more serious hiking there, taking some off-the-path trails. We admired the fitness endeavors of dozens of determined joggers, walkers, bikers, admired the crisp air (is winter weather finally here?), the opportunity to think, pump our legs, talk, and observe Dexter trying to pick up sticks 2 times his size. We twined up a rocky upsweep that led us out by Oak Hill Cemetery, a beautiful, undulating, sprawling, old cemetery boasting famous inhabitants, before depositing us back into the city on the streets of Georgetown. I had never seen the cemetery before; I was surprised. I became a runner in DC, at age 25, and have pounded what I thought were most of the paths and pavements of DC. As we spied the cemetery, I felt younger again, discovering something quaint, beautiful, hidden, new to me. As we emerged past the cemetery onto R Street, through a charming park, I lost my bearings. Many times I've been on R Street, but I'd never come at it from this angle, with this particular set of steps having preceded my entrance. Emerging from the woods into a manicured park, then the comely rowhouses of upper Georgetown, I felt exhilarated. That feeling of being surprised, when you weren't expecting to be surprised, is blissful, and instructive. It reminded me, or taught me, rather, of something not always easy to remember: that we don't know as much as we sometimes think we do.

Perhaps our lives are made up of cycles. Today made me think of certainty and uncertainty, wisdom and naivete, feeling old and feeling new. There are certain times in life that fall indisputably into the category of new: first day at a new school, a new job, in a new relationship, in a new place. And perhaps there are periods of time in life, too, that feel delightfully old: a rendezvous with an old friend, a repetition of a family holiday tradition, a viewing of a favorite movie or rereading of a favorite book, a holding of a familiar yoga pose. And then there are whole sets of times, years, in life that feel more certain or less certain. As I was dazzled by the surprise cemetery and the new perspective on an old place, I realized that I had been in a cycle of certainty, of expectedness, of oldness. I was feeling I knew more than I didn't know; I wasn't expecting to be surprised. Now, I didn't feel this in a conscious way. I had never said it aloud to a friend, to Ben, to myself. But from the combination of the January 1st date and scaling the exhilarating hilltop cemetery from a strange angle, I noticed my sense of stasis, my sense of believing I knew the answers, knew everything around me, and then I watched it evaporate instantly. I was delighted and relieved to discover it. The mysteries of the city, of the country, of the world, the universe, of ourselves, are infinite. This, in its inexactitude, in its visceral nature, is my New Year's Resolution. To encounter life with this freshness, this naivete; this I had once known, and had temporarily forgotten. I want to Remember that every day of life is a mysterious miracle.

Yoga knows this. Yoga is about this. Remember what you once knew: as a child, as a younger iteration of yourself. Everything is beautiful. Nothing is boring. Life is an investigation, a treasure hunt, a parade of wonderment.

  • Elizabeth

"Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Monday's Majestic Teachers

It’s been at least 6 months since I’ve written a reminder of the glories of each of our teachers. I thought it was time to refresh your memories of the wonders of our teachers, especially at this time of year, when a heartwarming yoga class can be just the antidote to holiday stress, or the tempering factor to holiday joy, travel, and indulgence. Parker and I find ourselves warm and tingly from top of head to toes when thinking of the experiences that Shaw Yoga teachers provide yogis every day of the week. Let me regale you with Monday’s teachers (rest to follow)…

Starting Monday morning, Jade’s loving essence will waft towards you (along with her daily incense choice). Jade’s cueing envelopes you with acceptance, clarity, and smooth challenge. Jade allows you to be relaxed while working hard, and her sequences remind you of the meaning of flow. You’ll never leave undelighted.

Erika at 6pm Monday evening excels at explanatory, alignment and anatomy based yoga. She will leave you feeling encouraged and balanced, with muscles sore and happy. You’ll learn something new and illuminating in each class. Her monthly sequences build towards greater understanding of particular body parts and greater mastery of pose sets. She doesn’t overdo the anatomy talk, but interweaves it in a way that makes poses click.

Michelle at 7:30pm Monday will delight you with yoga that is challenging and flowing. You will follow her experienced explanations and direct manner, trusting her decades of experience and knowing cueing, and suddenly find yourself in a pose that you’d never known existed or believed yourself capable of. She sprinkles a dab of yoga philosophy in most classes, offering inspiration for your focus for that class, and for life. She teaches you something new about the body, about breath, about flow.

There’s nowhere wrong to steer on Monday. See you on the mat!

10 Minutes of Meditation

The easiest way to take yoga off-the-mat is to choose a few moments a day to be still. We may be familiar with this concept in different forms in our everyday life – count to ten before reacting, generally pause before responding to a question, embrace silences in conversations; for teachers, count to ten after asking a question. The stillness I strive for in my everyday life is this: I take ten minutes a day to be quiet and still, usually with a cup of coffee or tea, usually on my favorite big, comfy blue chair, usually when my husband isn’t around and bustling and interacting with me (but sometimes even when he is). I like it a lot in the mornings, pre-6 a.m., when the world feels secretive and most conducive to such activities. But if I can’t get it in then, between 3 and 5pm is a great time for me to do it (or repeat it), as those hours are the black hole of the day for me, where I do the fiercest battle with the forces of apathy, aimless snacking, ambling social media scrolling, and general bleakness. (We all have the difficult times of day for us –if you don’t know when yours are already, do some sketching out of your general patterns and moods – knowing and developing strategies for dealing with difficult day times for you is the best self-care work to be accomplished!)

Meditation, Dhyana, is the second-to-last (i.e., second-to-highest!) limb of yoga, and a tall order to do “fully.” I visited my mother, a lifelong yogi, in New Jersey recently, and we attended a meditation workshop at her neighborhood yoga studio. The talented, humorous, and longtime teacher, Dehlia (teaching yoga for over thirty years!) started the workshop by reminding us that most mortals don’t achieve what Patanajali meant by Dhyana in our lifetimes. Rather than be dampened by this limitation, we should strive for realistic strategies. The sixth and fifth limbs of yoga are more reachable, and more what we are talking about when we bandy about the word “meditate” in talking about our daily practices. The sixth is Dharana, which translates to something like concentration, and the fifth is Pratyahara, which translates to a retreat of the senses. My 10-minute sitting meditation is more like a combination of Dharana and Pratyahara and Pranayama (breathing practices, fourth limb). My process is this:

  1. Distance self from devices.

  2. Sit with warm beverage (can be on a yoga mat in Sukhasana, easy seated pose, but doesn't have to be).

  3. Close eyes.

  4. Draw to mind a word, person, image to direct attention towards.

  5. Engage in calming breath (even inhales and exhales) while musing on the chosen object (word, person, image).

This week I’ve been meditating on contentment, one of the Niyamas (personal observances, second limb of yoga). A joy of life: there is an endless list of beautiful realities to “meditate” on. You could even sit down without a particular object in mind, without a number 4 on the above list, and see what comes. Stillness is magical. Silence is magical. Our devices do a lot for us (content with and grateful for the computer on which I type this, the iPhone that tracks my runs and reminds me how to spell Dharana), but when it comes to happiness, stability, and self-reliance, stillness and detachment from devices do wonders, are indispensable. (Remember, we are running a Karma Yoga Discount until January 1st – if you do good for yourself or another, and then tell us about it, we’ll give you a free class to use yourself, or give to another. This 10-minute meditation is an example of good for yourself. Do it, and let us know.) I wish you some quiet and stillness this week, in whatever form.

Come, come, whoever you are.

Wanderer, worshiperer, lover of leaving.

It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair.

Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.

Come, yet again, come, come.

  • Rumi

Karma Yoga Discount

Karma Yoga Discount: November 15th-January 1st, Do Good, Get Good!

Many of us practice yoga with a goal for both physical health and mental and perhaps even spiritual health. Shaw Yoga is initiating a campaign to close out 2015 by committing, inspiring, and celebrating good. Starting November 15th through January 1st, Shaw Yoga will offer a Karma Yoga Discount. Karma Yoga is yoga of service. The process is simple:

1) do good, for yourself or another, inspired by your own moral compass of goodness, or more specifically, one of the Yamas or Niyamas of the 8 Limbs of yoga,

2) snap a photo to represent the good you’ve done (you don’t have to be in it, but you could be!), (this part is optional, but encouraged)

3) write up a caption / blurb explaining what you did,

4) share it with us! You can email us at info@shawyogadc.com, post it on our Facebook page (facebook.com/shawyoga), tag us on Twitter @shawyoga, or tag us on your Instagram. Tag #shawkarmayoga, #shawkarmayogaproject, #shawyogadc. For your photo / caption pair, we’ll add a free class to your account. We’ll pick one karma action each week, and give that yogi a free class, and a class to give a friend, too!!

the attachment paradox

the attachment paradox

As ours is a world (and a city) chock-full of information, and distractions, and informational (or information-less) distractions, it can be useful to distract ourselves towards what’s most important. Sounds like a bit of a paradox, but I stand by it. One method I have is a lovely little app on the smartphone (again, a paradox: the smartphone, locus of mindlessness). The app is named “Buddha” or “Buddha Thoughts” or something similarly simple and enjoyable. It provides daily mindfulness quotes, set against a tranquil backdrop of birds and reedy plants. Once a day, I look down to see the icon of Buddha with a notification. Unlike my email, the notification number mercifully never rises above 1. The thoughts are usually not listed as having a particular author, probably because they belong to a fount of wisdom arising from many traditions. Generally, I feel calmed even before reading it.

Today’s thought was, “We only lose what we cling to.” Ahh, non-attachment. There are many times in life, maybe even most, when this yama seems a tall order. Our lives are, to an extent, formed around attachments. Who we are, what we do, who we love: all the things that define us can also confine us, in a gripping love for the things that we consider an essential part of an identity. We cling to romantic relationships, pet ownerships, personality quirks, even food preferences. I am scandalized by a caramelized onion anywhere near my plate, and dismayed if expected to eat rice without soy sauce.

My recent major non-attachment challenge has been, of course, opening a yoga business. Attachment and focus are required for successful business launching, even if the business’s intended business is to help promote non-attachment in its clients (getting into yet another paradox, indeed). Once you see students walking through the door, you are lovingly attached to them immediately. And, of course, you want the business to succeed, all the more so when you know that the service it provides is uncomplicatedly good. (Parker and I repeated this over and over to each other as we got closer to the opening week: “Opening a yoga studio doesn’t hurt anyone. All it could do is some good.”)

Despite all my yogic intentions, the first two weeks we were open, I exuded attachment to Shaw Yoga. I checked email every ten minutes, dreamt about blocks, blankets, bolsters, and missing music speaker cords. I mused on success and failure. I obsessed over what made us distinctive, whether we were distinctive enough, and generally kept a worrying, whistling teakettle on the back burner each minute that I wasn’t doing something specifically for the studio. The poor little Buddha app didn’t stand a chance of yanking me back to the right perspective.

Three months later, I’m not sure exactly when things changed, but they have. I still want the studio to do well. It is doing well. We remain dazzled by the independence and diversity of our teachers: we’ve loved seeing cosmic Aqeel join the teaching line-up, we’re delighted by the addition of a Sunday morning prenatal class with the effervescent Jeanette, and a midday Monday class taught by the radiant Gina. We relish the friendly camaraderie with neighbor businesses like Lost & Found, Wagtime, Longview Gallery, Reformation Fitness, La Colombe, Xtend Barre DC, Pekoe Acupuncture, Calabash Teas, Dacha Beer Garden, Jrink Juicery, and others. Most of all, we love meeting new students every day. We love being part of a neighborhood, and have learned what it means to be a neighborhood business. It means you are offered a microcosmic slice of the world-- for us, the neighborhood of Shaw. In it you see an example of the variety, struggle, inventiveness, industry, and loveliness of humankind. It’s an utter gift to be wedged here in the midst of our bustling 1240 9th Street building, in the midst of this bustling city, upon this bustling planet.

I still want the business to do well. But now, more specifically, I know that I am focused on a desire for Shaw Yoga to do well by spurring positive change in the lives of our neighborhood folk, and I believe we’re off to a good start.

  • Elizabeth

what glorious abundance

what glorious abundance

Yoga is a beautiful system that, at its best and most effective, one can enact for oneself. Eventually, it is individually sustainable. But until we get to self-realization, and for most of us that’s a big until, we benefit from wonderful teachers of the science and art of yoga to guide us in our practice on the way. In Shaw Yoga’s first two weeks, Parker and I have practiced with almost each Shaw Yoga teacher once (or even twice or three times!). Here’s how lucky we are…

In the opening class with Gina, Parker and I discovered a new side of Ashtanga-inspired flow, (which is a school of yoga that neither of us had jived with before.) Gina’s sturdy yet gentle cues are accessible to anyone, and her contagious love of the practice had us sweating and smiling throughout.

Erika’s style is perhaps best compared to an orchestra conductor; her class was the fullest of the Monday night classes, and she guided practitioners of diverse ranges of experience through a strengthening practice, infused with light humor and attention to alignment and particular body parts.

Michelle Mae’s class came and went fast, though it lasted the whole hour; to practice with Michelle is to forget exactly what you are doing and then find yourself in savasana, happy and bettered. (The next day you’re sore and grateful.)

Parker’s class is slated as “for runners,” and what that means is that she breaks down yoga in a way that is refreshingly new, tolerant to inflexibility, and inventive in its ways of strengthening and extending muscle groups. Her loving voice and open demeanor inspire euphoria throughout the experience.

Lisa describes poses you’ve done a hundred times in a way that makes them feel entirely new. You will sweat in poses you had never considered sweat-inducing before. Who knew, for example, that you could begin sweating while in Parighasana / Gate pose?

Lauren’s peaceful cueing matches beautifully with her magical assists. Magical is actually too common a word for the way it feels to have Lauren adjust you in a pose; alchemy might be more appropriate. The combination of massage-like deepening assists and energizing, challenging poses give you the best combination of what physical yoga practice can be.

John H’s class will elevate your soul. In unusual and refreshing ways, he interweaves meditations with rare and satisfying asanas. You will be challenged mentally and physically.

Grace’s class is intensely demanding, but she ensures that each practitioner feels cared for and supported. If you haven’t experienced a “yoga burpee” before, you should come to Grace’s class to understand how she makes them feel awesome.

Parker described Jeanette’s class as an hour and fifteen minutes where you feel you’re just hanging out with a wonderful person, and happen to be doing yoga. She is laidback, humorous, loving, and so knowledgeable.

MK starts her morning class off with music that will make you forget how early it is. Parker and I have yet to spend the magical hour with her, but the way she sweeps into the studio and greets each of her students has us eagerly awaiting our first experience with her.

To be in Heather’s class is to feel utterly certain that you have found someone who loves yoga more than anything in the world. Her love and dedication is infectious, and her humor and huge heart fill her cueing.

During Jenny’s first Thursday night class, I felt more supported (“support” was, indeed, her theme) than perhaps ever before in a yoga class. The challenging and vibrant asana sequence of the first 50 minutes is followed seamlessly by 25 minutes of loving restorative poses. Jenny makes it abundantly clear in her classes how much she cares about the community-development potential of yoga.

Caitlin’s longstanding love and practice of yoga reveals itself in her teaching. The most humble and generous of spirits, she is nonetheless the teacher to get you to try to overcome fear or reticence towards a certain pose.

There isn’t a teacher in the bunch we don’t offer with shining confidence. We feel so grateful to be in their vicinity (and often in their classes)!