Listen well to those still, small voices

Sometimes in yoga class I hear voices in my head. No, I’m not losing my mind – rather, I keep being reminded of lessons I’ve absorbed from my teachers over the years, both the ones I loved and the ones I didn’t. Their “voices” trigger muscle memory, but also something more – a deeply ingrained wisdom.

We’re nearing the end of the traditional school year; my semester of teaching is already over. I often whether my  students have taken anything away with them from our short time together. Sometimes I tell them straight out what I hope they will remember: pay attention, don’t lose sight of your strengths, remember to breathe. But once they’re gone from my sphere, what do they recall? Have I given them anything that serves them in their future?

Current pedagogy tells us that teachers talk too much, that if students are really going to learn and internalize concepts, they need to be the ones generating the ideas and doing more of the talking. But it takes a special kind of teacher to pose the right questions, the challenging statements, or even the metaphors that prompt students to think critically and come up with valuable ideas.

When we take the responsibility for our own learning, it doesn’t necessarily matter if  what we hear from one teacher contradicts what we were told by another. This happens sometimes in yoga class. One teacher will instruct that the position of the feet be just so for a certain posture; another will say something different. Or one will say the hand should rest just here, another will say no, it shouldn’t. That used to annoy me, now it just makes me smile, because I know I can count on the wisdom of my body to position feet, hands or whatever just where I need them to be. At the same time, I’m still hearing the voices of teachers saying things like “Don’t collapse into the posture,” or “Imagine that your shoulder blades are the temple doors,” and their whispers tell me what adjustments I need to make in that moment.3-Co. Kerry-Slea Head loop (35)

Most of us talk too much, and listen not nearly enough. What if we were to see ourselves as being both teachers and students, simultaneously? Instead of passively taking in information, students also need to be able share and teach it, but they need tools and the right environment for that shift to happen. Otherwise the wisdom – whether it’s the teacher’s voice or our own — doesn’t stick. My younger sister, who just received her doctorate in education, has mastered the creation of that kind of environment. It doesn’t matter whether she is sitting with a class of sixth graders or with a group of adult learners — she raises everyone up by the respect she shows them and the joy she brings to the process. She perfectly embodies the concept of taking your work very seriously, but not taking yourself too seriously. She is humble enough to know that she has as much to learn from the sixth graders as from her professors.

Last week, my sister shared a reflective practice on her professional blog that came out of a course for educators. The first two questions of it could (and perhaps should) be used by anyone who aspires to be a lifelong learner:

What have you learned this week?

How have you learned this week?

Her point is that to incorporate learning into practice, we need reflection. We have to be able to articulate not only what we learned, but how we learned it. Whether that’s kinetically, through practicing postures in yoga, or through the use of a metaphor, like the temple doors, reflection on the process reinforces learning and stores those voices in memory.

A couple of years ago, I heard from a former student unexpectedly. He wasn’t a particularly stellar student, nor had I been that close to him. It had been at least a year, maybe more, since he was in my class. But he emailed me to say that he was using the breathing techniques that he learned in my class and they were really helping him. I guess he was hearing voices too.

 

This January, don’t resolve — repose

 

It’s interesting that January 1st brings on a frenzy of promises to eat better, exercise more, stop smoking and similar action-oriented resolutions when I always feel like all I want to do is hibernate like a bear. So I was happy to find out when I went to my yoga studio last week that the pose of the month is Savasana.

Savasana (shah-VAHS-anna), also called Corpse Pose, usually is done at the end of every yoga practice, and it looks deceptively easy. After all, what could be that hard about lying flat on one’s back with arms and legs stretched out away from the body, and closing the eyes for 10 minutes or so? But I say “deceptive” because Savasana can be the most difficult yoga pose of all — first, because it’s hard for many of us to truly relax, and second because Savasana is about relaxing “with attention”. Yoga Journal says that in Savasana we attempt to “quiet the physical body and pacify the sense organs”, so we need to pay particular attention to relaxing the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. It asks us to surrender to the point where the boundaries of the body begin to dissolve, where we can symbolically “die” to old ways of thinking and doing. savasana_in_yoga_gembira_community

Savasana is the bridge that allows you to take the benefits of class into your everyday life. This is why yoga teachers tell people who have to leave class early that they should plan to stop the regular practice with enough time left to take a few minutes in the pose before going. As Jon Kabat Zinn says, “Not forcing anything, we just do our best to line up with the warp and woof of body and mind, floor, and world, staying in touch.” Savasana brings together all the disparate pieces of the yoga class and gives you time for processing them and absorbing their benefits.

Sleep, which we tend to crave during the cold winter months, is like Savasana in that it is important for integrating the separate pieces of our days. We can be more effective the next day if we’ve spent time in sleep, regrouping and consolidating everything that we learned and experienced during the day. In addition, sleep sometimes helps us problem-solve because the useless information that came in during the day is forgotten, and only the crux remains. While there is still much to learn about the purposes of sleep, some researchers theorize that it helps the brain be “plastic”, to dial down synaptic activity for a while and use less energy. We are literally resting the brain, perhaps more so than resting the body.

Animals hibernate in the winter as a way of saving energy too, because food resources are scarce. Most of us don’t have that problem, but there’s still a case to be made for looking at January as a month of repose. It’s the coldest month of the year in the northern hemisphere and has some of the shortest days, so why not sleep a little more and yes, get down on the mat in Savasana? Use the darkness to gather energy, reflect on where you’re going and prepare for the longer days ahead. The word “January” comes from the Latin word meaning “door”. Consider opening the door to the new year slowly rather than abruptly. Take the time to first figure out what’s on the other side.

Indira Gandhi said that, “You must learn to be still in the midst of activity and to be vibrantly alive in repose.” That’s not only the challenge of Savasana, but also the way we manifest it in our everyday lives.

 

Now what?

What do you with what you know, what you’ve learned, the gifts you have? Is having it all enough for you, or does meaning only accrue when you act on what you have? In “The Illuminations” by Andrew O’Hagan, one character says to another, “People who read books aren’t reading them properly if they stop with the books. You’ve got to go out eventually and test it all against reality.”

Several days ago, I went to a yoga workshop billed as “Yoga: The Advanced Practices”. Now that title might make you think that I’m someone who can do a headstand with ease, or twist my leg around neck, or any number of other challenging yoga postures, but nothing could be farther from the truth. And, in fact, the workshop’s “advanced practices” weren’t about asana (physical postures) at all. They were about the real “meat” of yoga — pranayama (breathwork) and meditation. We spent only about 40 minutes of the three hours doing asana.

Why do the other practices matter so much more? As our teacher, Greg, said, they provide the answer to the question, “Now what?” As in, “I’ve mastered a handstand. Now what?” Or, “I’ll never master a handstand. Now what?” Breath and meditation give you the space, the way, to take the yoga off the mat and into the world. As you grow in emotional awareness and focus, they help you be the person who can give back to the community, who can be the better spouse, the better friend, the better parent.

The very next day after the yoga workshop happened to be the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. As I was reading through the prayerbook, I came across this meditation: “Why be concerned with meaning? Why not be content with satisfaction of desires and needs? The vital drives of food, sex and power…are as characteristic of animals as they are of us. Being human is a characteristic of a being who faces the question: After satisfaction, what?

Now what?

The world we see reflects who we are. Sometimes we need to correct our course or re-affirm our best qualities and intentions so that they are manifested in that reflection. Any kind of meditation helps us do that, as does the meditative practice of affirmative writing, part of the “Writing to Heal” program. Affirmative writing can crystallize values and create a vision for one’s life; it helps us identify our gifts and be grateful for them; and it can be a guide to living a life where you flourish and grow.

So take paper and pen, find somewhere to sit quietly, and answer these questions in writing (resist the urge to self-edit):

  1. What are your gifts? You best qualities, what you offer to others?
  2. What gift do you feel is ready to emerge, evolve or resurface?
  3. How have you denied or hidden any gift in the past?
  4. How is your life and others impacted when you withhold your gift?
  5. How might your life and others be impacted if you offered your gift?
  6. What might living with this gift look like and feel like?
  7. What support from others do you need to develop your gift?
  8. What does your gift need from you?

Naming your gifts, and thinking about how others are impacted when you offer them, is a powerful way to answer the question, “Now what?” When I did this exercise, and I responded to question 6, how would living this gift look and feel, the words I wrote were, “spacious, exciting, vibrant.”

An authentic life is an examined life. Living with questions like these can sometimes make us uncomfortable. But eventually, if we want the answer to “now what?” we’ve got to go out and test the answers against reality.

How to take a time-in

My breath slowed as I rolled out my mat and sat down to await the start of yoga class. I looked around at the mostly-young group of people there for the 5 pm class. Had they left work early? Do they have flexible hours? Do they work part-time? Were they going back to work later?

As I silently congratulated all of us on taking time out of the day to do something good for ourselves, I realized that it wasn’t really a “time out” – it was very much a “time in”. It might even have been the most time I’d really spent “in” and engaged all day.

What is “time in”? It’s not just time spent looking inward, though that could be a part of it. It’s time being fully present, and in the moment. It’s time when our brains get a rest from the over stimulating environment that we’re exposed to most of the day. It’s time when we pay attention to our senses, stop multitasking, and regain focus and concentration.

Spending time in meditation, for instance, leads to a restful, yet awake, state where we have more alpha wave activity in the brain. This brings greater mental clarity, fosters creativity and enhances memory. Research shows that regular meditators can stay on task longer and are less distracted even when they are in a multitasking situation.

Less formal meditative experiences happen in yoga, where the sequence of postures commands focused attention, or in exercise such as running, when the sounds of the breath or footfalls become a focal point. Such activities have a beneficial effect on the brain, making us alert to what’s happening in the moment, and sometimes opening a window to better directions or opportunities.

I’m continually surprised by the way that an idea will just pop into my head when I’m in a yoga class or out for a run. Even when I’ve been blocked creatively about something for days, allowing some mental space from it and taking “time in” almost always helps. That must be why companies such as Google, Nike, Ben & Jerry’s and Zappo’s have on-site meditation classes or nap rooms for their employees. Resting the brain can have surprisingly productive results (like new ice cream flavors!)

Being able to bring intense focus and concentration to a project is a necessary element of what is called a “flow” experience in positive psychology. Flow is “a joyful state” that we experience when “we are actively involved in trying to reach a goal, or an activity that is challenging but well suited to our skills”. During “flow”, we lose track of time and self-consciousness. People who are “high-flow” generally demonstrate better performance, commitment to goals, and greater long-term happiness. Without the motivation or ability to focus, however, high-flow activities seem too hard. We choose the easier low-flow activities (like watching TV) that might provide immediate gratification but don’t really lead to long-term satisfaction. That’s why it is so important to well-being that we strengthen the capacity to focus through “time in” pursuits.

Instead of saying we don’t have time to meditate or exercise, we should be saying there’s no time to waste before starting. Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, says that “Our daily decisions and habits have a huge impact upon both our levels of happiness and success.” Maybe today’s decision to spend “time in” will be the start of a recurring pattern for you – one with a far-reaching effect on your fulfillment in life.

Intentional living

Many yoga teachers suggest setting an intention at the beginning of a practice. It helps ground you in the moment and keeps you focused on why you are there. But an intention is not the same thing as a goal. Philip Merrill wrote about the difference in Yoga Journal: “It is not oriented toward a future outcome. Instead, it is a path or practice that is focused on how you are “being” in the present moment…You set your intentions based on understanding what matters most to you and make a commitment to align your worldly actions with your inner values.”

Life has been busy and stressful for me lately. Luckily, most of the stress is the good kind: getting ready for an upcoming vacation, planning a move. But as much as I want and look forward to those events, they have upended my life a bit, and made me anxious at times. So two weeks ago I began to set intentions as I woke up each morning. Working with an intention has helped keep the stress at bay and provide clarity about what is important.

Some of my daily intentions have been:

Joy. Waking in the morning and setting a simple intention of being joyful that day has been very powerful for me. So many times our days are spent dealing with problems and mistakes, and things that go wrong. We lose the feeling of innate joy that we are born with. Setting an intention of joy helps me laugh with people, find humor in bad situations, and stay focused on the overall happiness of my life even on a bad day.

Organization. While this sounds more like a goal than an intention, my purpose was very immediate on the day I woke and this word came to mind. I think at that moment it was about having an organized mind as much as an organized life; about acting in an organized way rather than jumping from task to task, and worry to worry.

Equanimity. Like organization, the intention of equanimity is about how I react to what’s going on in my life. It’s easy when we’re under stress to overreact, to catastrophize, to overlook the solutions or silver linings. Setting an intention to foster equanimity in my life helps me recognize that while I cannot control what happens, I can control how I react to what happens. It’s my choice of reaction that will lead to either suffering or happiness.

Kindness. It seems to me that kindness is deeply connected to mindfulness. It’s hard to act kindly without being present to what is happening around me and noticing what others are experiencing. Practicing kindness and compassion gets us out of the mind and into the heart. We forget our own problems for a while to focus on someone else. It’s a win-win for all.

Setting an intention for each day helps guide my actions. The Chopra Center quotes from the Hindu Upanishads to explain the connection between intentions and actions:

“You are what your deepest desire is.
As your desire is, so is your intention. 
As your intention is, so is your will.
As your will is, so is your deed.
As your deed is, so is your destiny.”IMG_0648

When we set intentions, we direct our will in such a way that all our actions take the course we have chosen. If my intention is kindness, and I choose to act kindly, then I have set myself on that path for the day. It becomes my destiny.

Winston Churchill said that, “It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link of the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.” In that sense, setting a new intention each day keeps us present-focused, touching just the one link that will lead to the next.

Expanding my circle of comfort

“Change is gonna do me good,” goes the lyric of Elton John’s song “Honky Cat”. I’m one of those people who has to say things like that to myself, to force myself to stretch a little. No matter how much there is to gain outside what’s familiar and comfortable, most of us have to be convinced and cajoled, or forced by circumstance, out of our comfort zones.

 Because I’m traveling this week, I tried a yoga class at an out-of-town yoga studio yesterday. It was a good class, and I’m glad I went, but there was still the point in class when the teacher told me to do something in a way completely opposite to what I’ve been taught.Was her way right or wrong? Is there a right way? Does it matter? Those were the questions I asked myself as I mentally resisted what she was telling me. My comfort zone was definitely being challenged.
Six months ago, my two favorite yoga teachers shut down their studio and stopped teaching. The studio, my yoga “home”, was gone, forcing me to change whether I wanted to or not. It hasn’t been easy. Sometimes I can take a class  with one of the teachers I liked from the old place, but mostly I was forced to try new teachers. Some I’ve enjoyed and some I haven’t. But I have learned to appreciate at least a few things about each of them. I realize now that in leaving, my former teachers gave me a great gift —a lesson in practicing yoga off the mat. Staying focused. Breathing through change and uncertainty. Accepting what I cannot change. Expanding my circle of comfort.
Often when I see friends from the old yoga studio, we talk about which teachers we are practicing with now, but we always finish by saying, “It’s not the same as…” And it’s not, it can never be, the “same”. Nothing stays the same, everything changes.  And luckily, we humans have an amazing ability to adapt to new conditions; the question is do you adapt with resistance, or adapt with acceptance? How much energy do you expend denying and complaining before you acknowledge the new reality?
Like the mice in the fable, Who Moved my Cheese?, we can either respond to unwelcome change by spending our time looking for someone to blame, hoping that everything is going to go back to “normal,” or we can go look for new opportunities. Relatively small changes, like finding new yoga teachers, train us for the bigger life events. If you learn to keep your balance in the shifting sands of everyday life, it’s easier to embrace the idea that  “change is gonna do you good.”

My summer reading club

The local library was one of my favorite places during childhood. Even today, when I enter a library and get a whiff of that familiar smell of books, glue, and something undefined, I feel at home. It was, and is, a place of quiet discovery.

During every summer growing up, I was an avid member of the library’s summer reading program. The end of the school year didn’t signify a break from books to me – instead, it meant that I could dive into even more. I loved going into the cool, silent library (so different from the heat and noise outside!) and coming out filled with anticipation of what awaited me between the covers I held in my arms. Whatever the program entailed – number of books, stamps or stickers, charts or check-offs, I didn’t hesitate to sign up. Not only did I love the reading, my competitive nature kicked in as my book count got higher each week.books3

Those lazy days of reading for hours on end are mostly gone from my summers now, except for a few days at the beach each year. My reading takes place at odd moments here and there – subway rides, waiting rooms, or the time it takes me to fall asleep at night. Nobody but me is tracking the number of books I read – I’m in a book club of one. I’ll receive no stickers or prizes. My name won’t go on any list. Nevertheless, I feel richly rewarded.

The characters I’ve met this summer have invited me into their lives and made me care about what happens to them. Their stories are sometimes funny, but often sad; some of them are clever, others bizarre; most of them end with hopefulness, others with just a bleak sense of resignation. But all of them teach me something about life.

archerThe importance of breath came into play in two novels I read. In The Garden of Evening Mists, a damaged young woman is learning archery, while in The Sojourn, a teenager becomes a sharpshooter during World War I. Both learn to “Feel your body expanding as you breathe: that is where we live, in the moments between inhalation and exhalation.” I loved the images of connecting breath and movement, just like yoga. No matter what we are aiming for, the breath is what takes us there, and the space between breaths is like a doorway.

My passion for books was affirmed by reading Will Schwalbe’s  The End of Your Life Book Club. Schwalbe and his mother, both keen readers all their lives, formed an informal book “club” while she was undergoing treatment for cancer. They would read and discuss books as they sat in waiting or treatment rooms. Schwalbe’s loving memoir chronicles the time by connecting it to the books. He remembers his mother’s friendships with people she had met around the world, and her insistence “that books are the most powerful tool in the human arsenal.” She was passionate about getting a library built in Afghanistan before she died. About one novel, she said, “That’s one of the amazing things great books like this do – they don’t just get you to see the world differently, they get you to look at people, the people all around you, differently.”

I may never visit Malaysia or Sri Lanka, settings for three of this summer’s books, and I can’t relive the World Wars which featured in others, but reading about them has given me an expanded view of what those places and times are all about. I’m so grateful that reading has given me eyes to see the world, increasing my compassion for and connection with people everywhere. That’s the power of summer reading!