The Seasons Change and So Must I

All we are is dust in the wind…

small_wind

…or at least it can feel this way during the fall months. As I start to transition from the heat and play-filled summer months to the fall, I often feel like I’m in danger of being blown over by the smallest gusts of wind. For example, my husband likes to press my buttons when I’m taking life too seriously, but his jabs last night reduced me to tears. Never before had I felt so easily knocked off center.

Just as our physical world becomes more susceptible to windy days and cooler air temperatures, so too are we. We cling to the memory of warm weather and long days like the trees cling to their leaves. But as the leaves begin to shed their green color, turning to warmer, richer hues, we too must dig out our warmer layers and prepare for the fall.

The ayurvedic element of the fall is Vata, meaning Air. As we enter into the airy season, our attention must shift toward reconnecting to our roots.  Like a tree whose soil is dry and crumbly from months of summer sun, we get the sense that our roots aren’t as firmly planted as they could be. This leaves us feeling unrooted, unsure of ourselves and disconnected.

This fall, we have to till the soil and plant seeds for the upcoming year. This allows us to pull the weeds that have grown throughout the summer and add them to the compost pile. That regret over missing a friends’ wedding or that extra 5 pounds we put on at all the other weddings; any self-defeating thoughts about the things that didn’t end up getting accomplished this summer; or all the things to do this fall–all of those are weeds to be plucked from the ground and used to cultivate the soil for our roots.

Now you’ve set the stage for your yoga practice, which will only further connect you to the earth, sending your roots deep into the soil to support you through the windy Vata season.

Choose poses with a warming and grounding energy, like warrior poses and arm balances. These poses cultivate heat in the body from the inside out, important as the temperatures outside start to drop. They also help you connect back to the earth. In Warrior II for example, the more depth you invite into the front leg, the more your tailbone grounds toward the mat while you create more heat in the front thigh. Try floating your toes away from the mat in warriors, Chair Pose, or Bridge. This immediately sits the weight into your heels, stabilizing you to sink more into your roots. Stay in each pose for 20 seconds to a minute, taking deep controlled breaths through your nose. Arm balances like Dolphin or Crow are miraculous ways to create heat while connecting you to the downward motion of rooting yourself. In either of these inversions try pressing into the ground and notice where your energy goes. Strangely enough, by pressing the ground away, the ground does the same to us and we take flight. Who knew that planting such deep roots would cultivate growth?

Whatever the pose may be, send your roots deep into the earth and you may just find that the only wind to have an effect on your branches this fall will be your own breath.

Namaste.

Sarah

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On Turning Away Counter-Productive Thoughts

ON TURNING AWAY COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE THOUGHTS:

I repeat this vow about 700 times a day: “I will not harbor unhealthy thoughts anymore.” Every time a diminishing thought arises, I repeat the vow. I will not harbor unhealthy thoughts anymore. The first time I heard myself say this, my inner ear perked up at the word “harbor”, which is a noun as well as a verb. A harbor, of course, is a place of refuge, a port of entry. I pictured the harbor of my mind – a little beat-up perhaps, a little storm-worn, but well situated and with a nice depth. The harbor of my mind is an open bay, the only access to the island of my Self (which is a young and volcanic island, yes, but fertile and promising). This island has been through some wars, it is true, but is now committed to peace, under a new leader (me) who has instituted new policies to protect the place. And now – let the word go out across the seven seas – there are much, much stricter laws on the books about who may enter this harbor.

You may not come here anymore with your hard and abusive thoughts, with your plague ships of thoughts, with your slave ships of thoughts, with your warships of thoughts – all these will be turned away. Likewise any thoughts that are filled with angry or starving exiles, with malcontent and pamphleteers, mutineers and violent assassins, desperate prostitutes, pimps and seditious stowaways – you may not come here anymore either. Cannibalistic thoughts, for obvious reasons, will no longer be received. Even missionaries will be carefully screened, for sincerity. This is a peaceful harbor, the entryway to a fine and proud island that is only now beginning to cultivate tranquility. If you can abide by these new laws, my dear thoughts, then you are welcome in my mind – otherwise I shall turn you back toward the sea from whence you came.

That is my mission, and it will never end.

– Elizabeth Gilbert

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Presence–Our Greatest Gift

Before you read this, let me ask you a question. How many activities are going on around you? Is the TV on? Do you have multiple tabs open on your computer? Are there conversations going on (either in person or electronically) that require your attention? Do you have kids or a dog running around? If you answered no to all of these questions…well, I’m coming over to hang out.

We spend so much of our lives with split attention–especially this time of year as we prepare for the Holidays, which inevitably involve trips, travels, family and food prep. It’s so easy to feel like a successful day is one in which we complete the most tasks in the least amount of time.

But my dear friend Troy reminded me lately that my yoga practice is a perfect opportunity to break that mold. After his class last week he talked about the benefit of slowing down. We were speaking strictly about yoga–staying with a pose long enough to see what it brings up. Oftentimes I find in a vinyasa class, I’m in such a hurry to move to the next pose that I overlook what is occurring in the present moment. But when Troy had us milk the poses in his class, I really started to feel certain areas open up and recognize the areas that were more resistant.

And here is where my two dots connected. I spend so much of my life jumping from one thing to the next, that I don’t know if I’m ever truly present in the present! I finish people’s sentences because I’m eager to talk; I send text messages while I walk or drive; I never have fewer than 6 tabs open on my computer at one time; I eat while I drive while I talk on the phone while I listen to the radio while I check off my to do list while I plan my next errand while I put on chapstick…you get the point. No wonder I feel like I’m going crazy sometimes. I’m lucky to not be lying in a ditch!

So today I tried slowing down and being present. To be honest, it wasn’t dramatic. But I started to notice little things that normally would slip through the cracks. On Dexter there are 12 trees with yellow leaves and one right in the middle is completly red; my banker has amazing green eyes; my left knee has a bit of a hiccup in its giddyup; I have really amazing people in my life. I hate to admit that these are things that I don’t often attend to. I might even go as fas as to say that I take them for granted.

Hopefully this isn’t something you can relate to, but in all likelihood, it is to some degree. So here is my challenge: whether or not you practice yogasana (the physical poses of yoga) you can still practice the most important lesson that yoga teaches–presence. Practice presence with your thoughts. Practice presence with your family. Practice presence with your workouts or asana. Practice presence while you walk, jog, bike or even drive. Rely on your senses. What does the outside air smell like this time of year? Look at the colors around you–the fall provides such a vibrant pallet. Enjoy a rich meal. Pick out individual flavors and take your time. What sounds surround you? How often do you actually experience silence?

We may DO a lot of the things on our list. But how many things do we miss in our every day lives because we are so eager to move on to the next thing? There is so much going on that we are unaware of. So slow down, ease off and tune in. It may be the hardest thing you are asked to do all day, but I guarantee you it’s the greatest gift.

Namaste

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What IS

I’m finally doing it–sitting back down at my computer to write a post. It has been months and I’ve spent the better part of those months thinking about how I should be writing on my blog. But I find that during the summer in Seattle my anxiety is directly proportionate to the amount of time I spend inside. It is so hard here from July to September to justify more than enough time inside to go to the bathroom.

But as I harp on myself for the lack of blogging, the ever-growing to do list and layer of dust on the appliances inside, I remember one of yoga’s major tenets. It states that much of human suffering stems from resistance. We actually suffer from resisting what is happening, what we think “should” be happening and what we want to be happening. The irony is that there is a natural flow to things that works inherently because it’s what IS.

My dear friend Kimmi tells a story of an activity she did in tracker school in Vermont. She floated a river without floatation device, without aid and attempting to do so without resistance. She found that when she tried to slow down or speed up; avoid an obstacle or tensed with fear, she knocked her knees and elbows against sticks and rocks; she scraped against branches and bumped along the bottom. But when she gave herself to the natural flow of the river and accepted what IS, she floated through unscathed. She may have taken a course through the river that was unplanned and unexpected, but she was perfectly taken care of.

And so we live this life like the river–often resisting the natural path of things. It is so easy to get caught up in apprehension about all of the obstacles in our way, living in fear of knocking against them. And maybe sometimes we do. The water may come to a head near a large rock, but inevitably it moves around it. Life has its flow; although sometimes delayed or redirected, we are always moving forward. And I’m starting to find that the less I resist it, the more life redirects me around those obstacles.

So now here I am, back inside as rain drips from the eaves outside my work, writing on this blog again. And it feels good. I’m not doing it because it’s what I “should” do. It’s what I want to do. In fact, it’s what I need to do. I have a reminder of this on my body, because I need to be reminded of it so frequently.

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This is my right food with the Sanskrit word Ahimsa. Most people recognize the concept from Martin Luther King Jr. and Ghandi’s non-violent protests. This is, of course, an appropriate use for the word, but for me it’s a reminder of non-resistance. I use the reminder every single day. When in Janu Sirsasana, if I can’t touch my nose to me knee, fortunately my right foot is close enough to remind me that I needn’t overstretch. When I have an employee who is moving on to another stage in life, rather than being frustrated at the inconvenience of hiring someone new, I can rejoice with them in their forward movement. When my body is sick, sore and tired, being stuck to a workout regimen isn’t what I need.

Today, let what is, be what is.

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Our Body: A Piggy-bank of Emotions

You’re on your way to work in the morning and someone cuts right in front of you. You slam on your brakes and swerve out of the way so you don’t hit them. What a jerk! You are immediately angry and feel wronged–who is this Lexus-driving dummy? Who does he think he is? But you’re running late, so rather than paying your anger any mind, you deposit it into the emotional piggy-bank.

Once you finally get to work (dang traffic–another emotional coin added to the bank) your boss is riding your ass right away about your project. “No, Mr(s). Whosie-Whatsie, it’s not done yet because I just walked in the door. I’ll get it to you as soon as I can.” Stress swells in your shoulders; another coin in the bank.

You’re stuck at work late working on the project for Boss (Wo)Man and end up getting stuck in traffic on the way home too. Your body is antsy from the stress of the day and you feel guilty because you may not be able to squeeze in a workout before you have to get dinner on the table. Shoulders: scrunch. Belly: tighten. Stomach: clench. Legs: Fidget.

This is a story we all most likely know too well. Nothing special or terrible happened in this hypothetical day, but our poor subject is arriving home in a ball of knots with emotional coins up to her eyeballs–only to go to bed and most likely do it all over again the following day. What a dismal thought. No wonder we are proned to stress, anxiety, illness and weight-gain as a society.

But there are ways to work through this stress and anxiety. The first step is recognizing that we store emotions in our bodies the way a Piggy-bank stores coins. Our body is different, however, in that specific emotions tend manifest themselves in specific parts of the body. Herein lies the hope of our situation. If we can identify where those emotions tend to be stored, we can work on moving them through. Yoga provides a phenomenal platform for doing this, but is by no means the only way.

First let’s work with the idea that emotions are stored in the body. For some this is a strange idea. Emotions are felt and feelings come from the heart, right? Well, not necessarily. That is the tip of the iceberg. Think of how your body feels when you are stressed. Take a moment to close your eyes and imagine a stressful situation. What does your body look like? What does it feel like? What parts of your body constrict or feel sensation when you are stressed? You probably look something like this:

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Notice how her chest is closed off, shoulders crunched to the ears and the whole front body is hunched inward. This puts stress on all of the vital organs in the front body, most notably the heart, lungs, intestines and reproductive organs.

So what can you do to counter this action? There are a number of poses that can open the front body, immediately alleviating some of the stress stored there. But first, and I’ll repeat this again and again and again: breathe. Breathe into the spaces where you feel that emotion. If you are stressed, send your inhale into the front body: the jaw, neck, chest and belly. That is always the first step. From there, here are a few poses you can do to counteract this stress-body:

Bhujangasana or Cobra Pose is a nice easy way of opening the heart, shoulders and belly. If you’re looking for something a little juicier try Ustrasana or Camel Pose. Camel will give you an intense stretch through the entire front side of the body. In each pose, as with any spinal extension, please keep length in the low back and breathe into the front of the body as you release.

Now that you have tools to deal with the stress of your day, what about anger? After all, you never know when Mr(s). Lexus is going to assert his/her way on the road. So let’s use the same process. First, are you angry? NO! You feel anger. Very first step–don’t let the feeling define you. Second, breathe. This is particularly important when it comes to anger. If nothing else, it makes you take an extra moment to think about whether you really do want to ram the back of the the $50,000 car in front of you. But breathing is also going to oxygenate your body, taking you out of “fight or flight” mode and enable you to think more clearly. Now you can step back and observe what’s going on in your body. You feel anger. Where do you feel anger? What is the quality and intensity of that feeling?

Another silly cartoon:

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Puffed up chest, clenched fists, tight jaw. This fella needs to surrender. Immediately I think of Garudasana or Eagle Pose. This pose lengthens across the upper back, creating more space for breath (hard to do when you’re really ticked off!) and softens the chest. More importantly, it’s a balancing posture so it gets you out of your head and grounded, feeling the connection to your core and to the earth. Finally, it’s hard! It’s hard to think about what’s pissing you off when you’re trying not to fall over.

Another great set of postures when trying to work with some anger is the Warriors (I, II and III). If you’ve practiced much yoga you have most likely encountered these poses. And you most likely haven’t had an angry experience with them (other than having your legs quiver). But these are fantastic poses to get you grounded and to bring you out of your head. Look at our angry little man up above. His center of gravity is well above his midline. The poses will allow you to literally sit back with your anger-body and go to battle with it.

All of our emotions can be matched with poses this way. And it’s not just yoga poses, although many of them are designed to target specific areas of the body where we store emotions. But however it works for you, if there is a predominant emotion that is troubling you:

1) Identify where in your body you feel it

2) Breathe into that space

3) Pick a counter pose–something to work against the energy of that feeling.

4) Breathe into that space again.

As you perform these poses, emotions may come up. Don’t judge them or even try to name them. Observe them; let them pass. After all, look at the etmyology of the word: e – motion: to be in motion. So let those feelings do what they do–move through. Don’t store them in the piggy-bank.

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Order vs Chaos

I have been reading A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. Although often frustrating and very heady, it is a fascinating book. He discusses this idea of Chaos vs Higher Order, giving the example of a forest that has been untouched by man versus a landscaped park. What part of us is it that finds calm in the landscaped park and which part of us finds calm in the forest? They are two very different parts of who we are.

We spend so much time in our heads that I think that the thinking part of our minds craves linearity and order, like that which is found in a landscaped park. However, we have very different definitions of order in our minds as we do in our bodies. I think of the forest like a Magic Eye Puzzle. Remember those? The Cinnamon Toast Crunch box always had one growing up!

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On first glance they look like a bunch of lines, in no apparent order. But as you blur your eyes and look below that surface level of apparent chaos, an image appears to pop out of the puzzle. Amazingly once you see it you can’t go back to not-seeing. The forest may seem like chaos at first glance: trees are scattered haphazardly with fallen pine cones and branches; streams and rivers follow random paths; animals live and die based on some hierarchical rule that we can’t exactly define.

However, when we let our eyes blur, or in this case, quiet the thinking mind, we come to see that there is far more order than originally perceived. Everything is governed by a higher order for a greater purpose of the whole. Fallen branches and pine cones lend themselves to fires, clearing dead trees and germinating the cones for new growth; water follows a path of least resistance, always leading to the lowest point; the food chain lends itself to evolution of species. And like the Magic Eye, once you see this deeper order of things, you can’t go back to not-seeing.

Just because we aren’t able to initially perceive the order of the forest—or even of the world that we live in—doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. The paradox lies in that the harder we try to see it—the Magic Eye or the forest or our egoic self or even our true essence—the harder it is to see. It takes a quieting of the mind in order to notice the subtler levels of order that exist around us.

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Balance

Imagine this tight rope walker: he has his staff for balance. As he takes each step, he makes miniscule adjustments in his grip to keep the weight equal on either side, so as to not plummet to a rocky death below. The stick must be long enough to provide him with balance, but short enough that it doesn’t pull him too far away from center. As he walks across the tight rope, he must be sure  to make small adjustments, careful to not put too much weight to one side, forcing himself to over-correct in the opposite direction.

Today I feel overwhelmingly like a tight rope walker. I am performing a delicate balancing act of working full time, going to school, traveling to and from Salt Lake, volunteer teaching, playing soccer, being a good girlfriend, a good dog owner and a good friend. As I scamper across the tight rope that is my life, I have started to collect tasks which are adding length to my staff (and my day!). Today I added my student teaching–volunteer teaching for the staff and students at Renton Academy. Although I am excited and grateful for the opportunity, I can’t help but feel that it adds length to my staff, drawing me away from center–drawing me off balance. I am fearful that there will come a time when this horizontal representation of my to-do list gets too long and knocks me off the rope.

So what is a girl to do to spin these plates? What better way to bring me back into balance that to come back to my discipline? I am planning my first classes for the staff and students and I think this may just be my theme: balance. Tree Pose, Warrior III, Half Moon, Crow and Eagle. Each pose in its own way requires us to adjust our bodies to maintain balance. Oftentimes, whether in a pose or walking the tight rope of life, it is uncomfortable and we may shake; we may, in fact, fall over. But we touch a hand to the ground and come back to the pose. I’m sure there will be times when I falter in my busy schedule, getting overwhelmed or frustrated. But I am committing to acknowledging that, and then coming back to my mat, back to the pose, back to the tight rope. And ultimately, I commit to the mantra that this too shall pass. It always does.

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