It’s been 108 days since I last taught a public yoga class. Prior to that day, I was in 5 or 6 different places every day of the week except Friday teaching my heart out. I spent my hours planning connection with other humans and then fulfilling that connection through my teaching career. I love working with people and it is one of the many reasons I so love teaching yoga. If you have attended a live class with me, you know that I pride myself on providing individualized attention in a group setting and hands-on-corrections where they are wanted to support the practice. I enjoy chatting with students about what is going on in their lives and how their yoga practices can help with whatever they are passing through. For many years I have taught in corporate environments and privately to clients from all walks of life. To help build a stronger business, I developed an international wellness retreat company from scratch. I’ve spent many a week over the past 8 years taking groups all over the world to learn about new cultures, eat great food and do yoga together. I had never imagined the sudden and jarring end to all of that – in a 24 hour period nonetheless.
When our shutdown due to the pandemic spread of Covid-19 happened in Chicago on March 16, I didn’t stop and think – I just designed a new way to connect. There was no time to stop and think. It was pivot the entire business or fail. I had a lot of money invested in a huge retreat outside the United States – failure on that end would have meant bankruptcy. I drew the majority of my income from a location that had just closed its doors indefinitely – I needed to find a new way to teach classes and make a viable income. I received most of the rest of my income from teaching private yoga sessions in private homes – I could no longer be in people’s homes safely and needed a new way to work with clients from my own home. I knew I had to do something and fast before this crisis paralyzed my business and my life in ways I could not anticipate or plan for. I jumped off the proverbial ledge of comfort of teaching in person and switched everything online within a week. New scheduling system. Website integrations. Zoom tutorials. YouTube tutorials. New equipment purchases from a savings account of funds for just such an emergency. Updating email addresses. The works. I haven’t taken a day off since before the shutdown (I am not proud of this – it has been a necessary sacrifice to build a business from scratch). I have taught every single day since then just to make ends meet and figure out all this new business as best I can.
I was terrified at the time of the shutdown and switching to digital content connection. What if it didn’t work? What if people didn’t like it? What if no one came to class or booked a private? Those first few classes I taught through the screen were nerve-wracking. The first time I shared a recorded class, I was petrified about all the things that could go wrong. I realized I was re-creating a new way of connecting with people and it felt weird! Change always feels weird. Remember how I often speak to this when we change the interlace of our fingers during our yoga practice? Well I was neck deep into some radical changes.
Some of you started emailing me with check-ins a couple weeks in to these big changes. You felt closer to me through the screen than in class. You told me I looked more at ease (TRUTH: I’ve never been so well-rested and well-fed as in the past 3+ months). The stress you felt to perform in a group class disappeared in your home and you found your yoga. You stopped worrying about doing the hardest variations and “being the best in class,” and just did the easy ones – and now your aches and pains are gone. My teaching took on depth and meaning you had not heard from me before because I could teach however I wanted now – these were truly my own classes. You learned from watching me demonstrate poses during the online classes in ways I had not spent as much time in the poses during live teaching, and these demonstrations helped you feel the poses in your own body differently. Some of you hated my classes and let me know. You told me I was a greedy sell-out for charging for my yoga classes or that I was boring. Connection took on whole new meanings.
When I taught live, I was subjected to a daily (often multiple times daily) barrage of criticism. Do it this way. Don’t teach it that way. You’re too skinny. You’re getting heavier – better watch out. Your hair is going grey – no one will want to take your class anymore. It’s not a real yoga class without headstand, shoulderstand and wheel – you obviously have never taken a teacher training. Your clothing is weird. If you want to be more popular and attract more students do XYZ. That was too long of a savasana. That was too short of a savasana….Seriously – it was starting to feel like an endless tunnel that I was lost in. I have a good filter and a strong sense of self, but even for me – after 18 years of teaching – this type of daily interaction with people was taking it’s toll. I was bullied by colleagues and told off by students. I was attacked several times and stalked online. When I reported things I was told I was the problem. And then it all disappeared and I was so scared…and so free.
The shutdown freed me to connect with you all in whatever ways I wanted to. I designed the classes and the schedule that I offered. I ready poetry to you and taught poses I learned in physical therapy. We did long pranayama exercises and awesome meditations. Sometimes we did entire classes resting on our back and it was glorious. I remembered how to be me while I’m teaching, and boy does that feel like the best connection of all. I also remembered how to read books that were not related to yoga. How to cook and eat meals with my husband every day. I remembered how to take long walks with my dog and get lost in the trees or notice the flowers growing differently each day of Spring. In the midst of the craziness at keeping my fledgling business afloat, I would suddenly be struck by a poem and have to write it down or outline a short story. In short I reconnected with you in new ways and with myself in ways I had long forgotten.
I’m still teaching virtually and will be from now on. I want to reach people beyond my city and grow connections with those who find a home in the way I teach movement and breath. I will be returning to live classes on a limited basis during the pandemic and probably beyond. I’m teaching a few clients in person and the majority online for the time being. When I teach in public I am in full mask mode – and in some places I wear even more personal protective equipment to keep myself and my clients safe. I realized during this last 108 day period how much of myself got left behind running around 14 hours a day 6 days a week. That isn’t really me. I’m not sure who that woman was. The running around and fitting into everyone else’s life was a necessity to make my living, but I lost my life. I remember now that I have something so unique to offer and that this essence can come through the digital realm, and also that there is so much more to me than being a yoga teacher. Thank you for connecting with me in new ways during such a difficult time – your support has been incredible. To those of you who have taken a ton of online classes, booked private sessions, reached out to make sure I’m ok, donated money to help me give free yoga to those who are unemployed and so much more – THANK YOU. And thank you for recognizing the many ways that I feel freer teaching you now than ever, and the ways I am rebuilding my life through this crisis.
The decade between 2010 and the start of this New Year – 2020 – was quite a ride. A dream job that opened so many doors I was seeking. A terrible chronic pain and illness began. Meaningful connections unfolded. I left a dream job that nearly destroyed me. Called a fraud and hack. Built a business from scratch. Dealt with the ongoing chronic pain. Experienced challenging work relationships. Got married unexpectedly to the most incredible man. Rebuilt my yoga teaching style six or seven times over as I continued to educate myself. Got knocked down by gossip and bullying time and time again. Built a warm and friendly community of practitioners in my city. Expanded my community globally. Learned how to take vacation. Lost my hair multiple times. Had days I could barely stand from the amount of pain in my abdomen. Attended teacher trainings and education courses every year. Was told my chronic pain and symptoms were “all in my head.” Overworked to try and make ends meet. Crumbled under the pressure of external judgment. Finally someone listened to me about my chronic pain and symptoms. Overhauled my entire life and retreated from social and work experiences to figure out how to feel better. Delved into multiple types of physical therapy and medical care to feel better. A proper diagnosis and team put all the pieces together. Learned how to rest, move, sleep, work, and eat in ways that truly nourish me. And now, a fresh start from a really incredible foundation of all these paths I walked in the last decade. I feel more myself now than I have in a really long time.
Through all of these challenges and joys, my practices of yoga and meditation were a sanctuary. I could go to my meditation cushion or my yoga mat and come home. Home to myself, home to my breath, home to my Spirit, and home to my Being. Learning the skillfulness to remember a steady home-ground at any moment – a feeling of being centered that was independent of external circumstances – helped to amplify my joys at the really exciting, good times, and helped to navigate the rock-bottom fearful times. I don’t think I could be where I am right now without my practices.
As we enter this New Year together, part of my intention is to help others to feel their own connection to their own home-ground. I truly believe that we all find that feeling in different ways and along diverse pathways. There’s no “right” way to move or practice – there’s the way that works for you where you are now. Our language to describe this feeling of an internal home might be really distinct. A doorway for one person might be a distraction for another. As we have already started practicing in classes and sessions in the first two days of this year, it takes an openness to all the possibilities before us and a radical shift in opening perspective in new directions to feel, “How do I remember my home-ground in this moment?” I hope that I can be a resource in helping you go on your own journey to find the answer to this question – in helping you to come home more fully to yourself.
I’d love to share just one of the simple but profound exercises I’ve interwoven into my yoga and meditation in the last decade. It is the practice of welcoming. So often it’s possible to arrive at our practice with an agenda for how we want to feel or what we want to achieve – a checklist so to speak. This often leaves us with little space to feel what is already present or wanting to arrive. Welcoming, for me, is making space while I meditate and practice yoga for whatever decides to show up in each moment. Whether a feeling, a sensation, a thought, an energy, a memory – whatever – I give it some attention and some time. I let it know that I know it’s there. In this way, even the most chaotic of days when I’ve felt really awful started to become “home.” If my own attention and awareness could be a welcoming presence no matter what arrived, I suddenly started to feel myself coming home any time I had attention to what was arising. This deep shift has had wide and healing ramifications for me.
Wherever you are reading this, just stay there. Close your eyes if you are able and if you feel comfortable. Leave your eyes open if you need to – your sense of sight might feel important to welcoming what is arriving for you. Invite your attention to notice whatever may be present around you – sounds, movement of breath, a feeling in your body, a thought wandering through. Just welcome for even a few seconds whatever shows up. Sometimes the invitation to welcome opens the flood gates and all sorts of things arrive at once. Sometimes the invitation to welcome opens up to an eerie unexpected emptiness – a nothing-ness arriving. Regardless of what does or does not come into your attention, just continue to welcome what is present. Continue for perhaps 3-5 minutes. Set a timer if it helps.
Let me know if you get even a hint of your own home-ground – a flavor of something you remember as steady, grounded, omnipresent even when nothing arrives. If this felt good, try weaving it into your practices to strengthen a connection to Being a Welcoming Presence and to Being at home with yourself. If it didn’t work for you, leave it behind. May we all find ways of coming home to our Selves this year (and every year).
Yesterday was the Spring Equinox and the official start of this new season…I don’t think Chicago got the memo 🙂 There is a still a blustery, coldness to the air here today, and a huge winter snowstorm on the East Coast. We all know the wild oscillations in the weather are probable in the upcoming weeks of this new season. We can also feel the changing light levels: the sun rises earlier and sets later giving an expanding quality to each day. The first green things are just starting to show themselves out of the brittle soil even with the cold temperatures.
These are precisely the qualities that are so prevalent in Spring: a mutability of temperatures, a broadening growth of all things and a sort of beautiful chaos as nature remembers how to move again after the Winter – clumsy and slow at first, but then gathering steam. It is essential because of these qualities that we turn to our grounding practices and feel the ways we are growing in new directions too so as not to get swept up in the chaos or lost in the fast expansion of energy in the environment.
My yoga practice come springtime takes on a whole new energy. I find myself lingering in long standing sequences, opening my hips and exploring balance poses. I am drawn to deep almost vigorous breathing exercises that help me remember my own expansion into this new season. My quiet, restful stretches of long, bundled up winter savasana give way to a certain eagerness to spread out at the end of my practice. I awaken at the end of my savasana these days completely splayed out with arms and legs wide as if to say with my whole body, “I’m ready to move and grow again!”
As a result of these tendencies of springtime energy, it is so easy to feel anxious, fidgety and even a bit spacey and lost. Energy around us is expanding rapidly and without a proper ground, that expansion dissipates or confuses. Consider a seed. It really needs to root itself down into the ground in order to grow up into a plant. You, your energy and your new directions of growth are no different!
So how can you bring a grounded growth into your springtime routine? Here are 5 simple practices to stay balanced all throughout the dynamic nature of Spring.
1. Practice the variations of the breathing technique Sama Vritti
Sama Vritti is a name given to many variations of breathing exercises that cultivate even, steady breath patterns. The most basic of these techniques is to inhale and count your inhalation and then to exhale for the same count. If you inhale for 5 seconds, exhale for 5 seconds. The next round of breath might be inhalation 8 and exhalation 8. The number is not important and need not stay the same for each round of breath, just balance the inhalation length to the exhalation length. The result is a certain steadiness – neither totally relaxed nor stressed out but somewhere at the equilibrium point.
Another variation of this technique is commonly called 4 Part Breathing and involves an inhalation for 4 seconds, holding the inhalation for 4 seconds, exhalation for 4 seconds, and holding the exhalation out for 4 seconds. It works with breath retention to deepen feelings of balance and equilibrium.
Both of these breathing techniques are great at revealing where you may be out of balance. Let’s say that simply cannot lengthen your exhalation to match your inhalation – you run out of breath too soon. This lets you know that you are holding on to a lot very tightly and having some difficulty releasing it. Similarly if you can exhale for hours but have difficulty inhaling you may be in a period of releasing a lot and re-learning how to nourish yourself. Either tidbit of information can tell how what to focus on more in your own practice to balance yourself out.
2. Incorporate longer, slower holds of standing postures in your yoga practice
Standing poses are wonderful physical mediums for grounded energy. They help you connect with your feet, your legs and the way the ground feels underneath you. Consider adding in longer holds of simple standing poses like Warrior 1, Lunge, Warrior 2 and Triangle to your home practice. Take your time to really feel the alignment of your feet and the strength of your legs. Put your energy into your legs – feel them as your root system. Get a sense of how you can grow up and out of your legs and hips when you are more grounded through your feet. Slower practices and standing poses also help you face what can feel chaotic about Spring and all the rapid changes it brings to the world around you.
3. Open your chest, your shoulders and your lungs!
The cold, dry winter air can make our chest so tight and our posture so slouchy. To practice that expansive quality of Spring, bring in more chest openers and shoulder work to your practice. I love Extended Warrior variations, Chest Opener at the Wall, Shoulder Shrugs, Eagle Arms, Twisting Table
and so many others to pick up my posture. When our posture is supported and upright, it is so much easier to take a deep, full, refreshing breath which helps us feel more energized entering Spring.
4. Bring in balance poses to your daily life.
Everyone loves to hate on balance poses like Tree Pose, Standing Leg Reach, Standing Pigeon (or as some of you like to call it: Falling Pigeon Pile) in my classes. They ARE challenging, but they are also physically, mentally and emotionally beneficial. Physical balance requires focus, grounding through the standing leg, core engagement, hip strength and the ability to respond to small movements without getting totally knocked over. All of those lessons apply to Spring! Standing in Tree Pose even if your foot is shifting from inner to outer edge demands that you adapt in the moment and respond. The same thing happens when perhaps it is warm in the afternoon and then an evening cold front comes through and you have on a light jacket – you need to grab your scarf, put on an extra layer and stay warm without cursing the return of the cold. Even if you fall out of standing balance poses in your practice, keep putting them into your routine. You won’t learn how to balance by avoiding. Be like a baby and when you fall, give a good little chuckle and crawl back up to try again. These poses will build your resiliency and balance in the midst of the mutability Spring often brings.
5. Write down your action steps for your dreams and how to make them reality.
Winter for me is a dreamtime – it’s when I reach into the vastness of the dark and pull out a few bright morsels. But I know that as my energy is in hibernation and recharge mode in Winter, I don’t have the juice to act on those bright morsels yet. When Spring arrives, the energy is finally free and moving to take action on things I’ve been dreaming about. This is why I don’t set New Year’s resolutions anymore – I just use Winter to rest and dream. Now when Spring arrives I have a huge amount of ideas to pare down and select from. Write down a list of your dreams and wishes and desires. Pick the ones that feel the most important. Identify steps you can now start taking to making those dreams a reality. This will also help you harness the expanding energy of Spring to carry you into what you want in your life path.
If you are in class with me regularly, you will probably notice that these themes and techniques are coming back around! Some of you have already commented that we have been doing too much Tree Pose 🙂 Expect that and the balanced breathing techniques, standing poses and rootedness of the practice to continue to help you through Spring.
May you also remember at this wonderful and at times confusing junction of the year the wisdom of one of my favorite quotes from author Cynthia Occelli, “For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out, and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.” Just when you think everything has gone to hell in a hand-basket, consider that maybe your life needed to be upended to feed your next growth. Stay grounded in your own body and energy and the chaotic expansion of the Spring season can be exciting, beautiful growth rather than angst over warmth not arriving fast enough for you. One person sees growth and another destruction – you get to choose what you see and what you connect with in this season. I hope these ideas give you some guidance into a fresh view this season! Happy Spring!
At the end of last year I added something to my week that I have been trying to get into for many years: a dance class. Despite years of figure skating competitively (or maybe because of that), I feel like I have a really difficult time expressing myself through movement. I’m shy (even though I am very extroverted). I feel stupid (even though I know myself to be intelligent). Those of you that know me as a yoga teacher might beg to differ about the quality of my movements as you see them in class, but yoga postures like figure skating are carefully calculated in every way. I’ve studied the alignment and feeling of yoga postures in the same way that I memorized the feeling of triple jumps.
Dance is different. Dance for me does not feel calculated even when it is choreographed. Dance feels expressive and more in the moment than anything else I have ever experienced. It has emotion and responsiveness in a way that I do not experience in yoga and that I never experienced in figure skating.
About 8 years ago when I knew I wanted to explore a style of movement through dance so different from anything I had ever done, I researched Hip Hip dance classes. In its powerful moves and sharp lines I feel a really distinct beauty. Hip Hop music sounds like poetry to me. This seemed like a type of dance I would enjoy and that would challenge me as something so different from the gracefulness and stationary nature of yoga and figure skating. I found only one class that I could make with my teaching schedule. It was a beginner level and I was so excited to try it. I anticipated that evening class all week!
It ended up being absolutely awful. I barely made it to the end and was crying on the way home in my car. The teacher did not explain anything. He went super fast through showing the choreography and chose very fast music. He picked on those of us (about 5 including myself in a room full of 40 people) who could not keep up. It was obvious the other 35 people were not beginners. He broke us into groups at the end of class and made us do the choreography in front of everyone. He put the 5 newbies together and laughed when we couldn’t do what he asked. Perhaps worst of all: at the end he told me I had no rhythm and that I shouldn’t come back. My deepest fear confirmed – point blank – I couldn’t dance. I, of course, didn’t go back.
Ever since then I’ve looked every now and then at dance classes and thought about going back to try again. I always found an excuse: I was too busy, the time was too close to one of my classes, it was too expensive, etc. Really I was just scared that I would repeat the terrible experience of my last dance class. This is ironic because I spend most of my days coaching other people through things they are scared of or feel they are not good at (think of being a beginner at a yoga class or any tight yoga pose and you get the idea). I’m also usually really good at approaching things I fear and using that experience to grow. There was something about dance that really got to me from the beginning.
Last Fall something changed. I got an email from the Old Town School of Folk Music – I think I had signed up for their mailing list at a local music event over the summer – and they listed dance classes as one of their class categories. I clicked through and noticed that they had a beginner Hip Hop dance class at a time I could actually do. I called and checked – yes it was for sure a class where beginners and non-dancers were welcomed. “The teacher is amazing,” they said, “You should try it.” I don’t really know why, but I registered as soon as I hung up the phone…for an 8 week course. I justified it as needing something new, fun and non-yoga in my week. Really I think my Spirit knew there was something deep for me here.
I was so nervous when the first class rolled around. My stomach churned. I was also excited and hopeful that this might be different. When I arrived the class was small and the other students were so nice. They talked and chatted with everyone like me who was new. It was a completely different vibe right from the beginning. The teacher came in super low-key and so nice. He led us through a warm up and some choreography. I felt awkward and stiff and out of place. He was supportive and funny. The other students helped and encouraged one another. It was a completely different experience than my last dance class. At the end of every class we got time just to free move and it was so fun. The whole thing was fun – something that had been really lacking in my life.
After a few weeks we had settled into something of a rhythm and while I still felt nervous and awkward, I didn’t ever feel judged or ashamed. Around the 3rd or 4th class our teacher said something that I will never forget. He said, “No small movements! I want to see big movements! Exaggerate it! Make it huge!” as he stepped, moved his arms and shifted his shoulders to the beat of the music in singularly sharp, rhythmic and fantastic ways. When I went through the choreography that day, I felt like for sure I was moving in an equally enormous way.
We recorded ourselves at the end of this class and when a fellow student emailed us the recording I watched in dismay. What had felt to me like huge movements of my arms, hips, shoulders and legs were in fact TINY! I barely moved and most of the time I looked at the floor as if afraid to see myself in the mirror. It was an interesting experience. I suddenly felt inside, “How long have I been playing small?” and “Where else am I playing this small and tiny in my life?”
These simple questions unlocked an enormous amount of wisdom to me. I realized that in so many ways I had been playing small for most of my life. I had worried for so long about other people that I forgot to bring my Self to the the live I’m living. I tamped down my smarts because I was “intimidating.” I stomped out my creativity in skating to please my coaches. I quieted my emotions to assuage my family. I shut my mouth out of fear of retribution from my attackers. I let fear of more hazing and harm keep me from reporting it. I “took it for the team” when attacked by colleagues instead of standing up for myself. I let bosses push me into doing things I didn’t actually support instead of sticking to my beliefs. I sidelined my own ideas to support others in their dreams. In this moment of inquiry I realized I’ve spent most of my life being so much smaller than I actually am. And I have no good reason why. I haven’t found the origin point yet of this pattern, but I realize it has dominated so much of what I do and who I am.
I’m a planner so as soon as these realizations came to the surface, I made some internal agreements about how to move forward to keep the ball rolling. I made a commitment to start practicing being “big” in my dance class. Even if I felt foolish I challenged myself each week to go a little wild. I watched our video recordings and practiced at home. I started moving to music in front of mirrors at home and actually began to (sometimes) watch myself in the mirror at dance class. From each of these small steps, huge openings started happening elsewhere in my life. I have no idea if my dancing changed at all on the outside or if anyone noticed anything different about me, but on the inside it was like a dam broke open.
I started to feel like I was angry at my coaches in skating for trimming me down all those years. I felt the need to reach out to high school friends that had either hurt me or tried to help me just to reconnect. I wanted to find the people who attacked me so long ago and rip them to shreds (and I am not a violent person). I wanted to talk about how many times I “bit my tongue” out of fear of how my expression would be received. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs about all the “spiritual” people who had verbally maligned me. I had an outpouring of brilliant, creative ideas that have filled pages – book outlines, poems, business plans, website ideas and so much more. I started moving/dancing all over the house. I think the arrival of the #MeToo movement around this time pushed some of my internal dam breakage as well.
This outpouring made me think: how many of us are unintentionally playing small? How many of us regularly avoid the things that make us uncomfortable? How long have we let our conditioning to please others over our self hold us back? How many times have we all ignored the evidence that we are so much greater than someone else would have us believe? I think this happens so much more than we would like to admit. I keep wondering how I missed it in myself for so long. I’m so happy that I came back to a dance class so these triggers could be brought to the surface again – perhaps with better tools and wisdom on my side at this point in my life to approach working through them.
What about you? Could you pick something that scares you – but also excites you? And then do it. Maybe it’s a new job, a new relationship, a new type of exercise, a yoga pose or a place you have always wanted to travel to. Recognize how it makes you feel and all the threads of excuses that keep you tied back from actually doing it. Tell me what you find out about yourself when you take even one step into that great “Bigness” of life. For the love of all things important in this one wild beautiful crazy life you get, please play big for all of us to see.
I decided to write some blogs about the real life problems of being a yoga teacher as a career. We face a lot of issues and because we are in a wellness profession, things are often glossed over in favor of making everything about our lives and work appear shiny even if it’s fake. I want you to know the inside scoop about being a teacher and I have a whole series of posts about the good and challenging aspects of being a yoga instructor as a career. These are meant to be illuminating and compassion provoking posts for your yoga teachers – so you have some insights into the complexity of their jobs – not so you can attack the places they work at. And fellow yoga teachers, I hope these posts help support you in navigating an even better lifestyle and career for yourself! I also recognize that yoga teachers are not the only people who face these challenges and although I do not know all industries, I can imagine that what I’m writing about also impacts many freelancers and even “regular” employees in the current corporate environment and culture.
This post idea began not long ago when I got violently and suddenly sick in front of my students. I was fine one second and completely sick to my stomach and near passing out from dizziness the next. It was a scary experience. The students were amazing – they brought me water, checked in on me, made sure I had a ride home and even started up my iTunes app so they could keep practicing as I sat in the corner nearly fainting. To make matters more intense, I could only think of one person who worked nearby my class who might be able to come and pick me up (with my car I couldn’t drive in my vertigo state). This person is a student and it was really hard to call her. As a teacher I’m used to doing the helping and it was hard to be the one asking for help. She of course came to help me without even a second thought and I’m so thankful she drove my sick self home! It was a real reminder in our common human vulnerability and the need to care for one another.
I also had to reach out to my manager at another club where I was scheduled to teach in less than an hour and tell her I was sick. Stressful! Classes don’t get canceled and certainly not without penalty. One place I used to teach at would bill you if you missed a class. Other places write you up and you can be terminated from your employment after three write ups. Stressful part two! Luckily in this instance the teacher before me was able to stay for the class I taught and everything worked out. Also the manager on the other end of that line was incredibly compassionate and helpful in every way possible – even checking in on me through the evening hours once I got home to make sure I was ok. Even with that, it weighs on me each time I have an emergency situation that I might lose one or several of my jobs because of an illness.
You might be asking why I’m writing about this. Well, I’m not sure people know how hard it is to be a yoga instructor and deal with something “simple” like getting sick – especially when it comes on suddenly. We have to find coverage for our classes which means reaching out to a large substitute instructor list, getting approval for our subs from managers and doing so in a timely manner. Up until a month ago, I never had ANY sick time. A new Chicago city ordinance has enabled me, for the first time in 15 years of teaching, to accrue a small amount of sick time for every hour I work (1 hour sick time for every 40 hours work). That meant every time I missed a class for any health related issue before this ordinance, I didn’t get paid and had no way to recoup income. When I contracted pneumonia over the winter and missed over a week of work, I lost more than 25% of my monthly earnings. When I had a serious surgery and was told by my medical professional to take at least a week off of any work that involved talking or moving my body (ahem my whole job involves talking and moving my body), I took 3 days because that was all I could afford and came back to teaching with a mouth full of stitches.
Even with an egg of savings, what if I am injured or seriously ill and unable to teach for months? Most disability insurance is extremely expensive and does not cover all situations. In fact many situations that would regularly take me out of work were not covered by the disability insurance plans I looked at. It also can take two weeks or more to even begin paying. I simply can’t afford to buy both disability insurance and health insurance – I had to pick one and chose to keep my health insurance. There is always a lingering worry in the back of my head that I will be physically unable to teach and my savings will run out and perhaps even worse that I will have no job to return to when I get better.
I’m ashamed to say that I’ve had to teach with a cold, the flu virus and a stomach bug because coverage could not be found for my class in time and “a class can’t be canceled.” I’m not the only one. If you knew how many of your fitness and yoga teachers come to teach their classes deathly ill and fake being “ok,” you would be shocked and dismayed. Without paid sick time to cover outages, we are really in a bind when we get sick. Take the time off if you can get a sub, but miss out on necessary income. Or teach while you are sick and potentially get everyone around you sick. Neither one a great option. There is also often the feeling of letting the students down if you don’t come in and teach. The new city ordinance helps somewhat, but consider that some of your yoga teachers may only be employed 4 or 6 hours a week and it could take them 8-10 weeks of work to accrue just one hour of sick time. And they are only accruing sick time at places where they are employees. Most yoga studios hire all their teachers as contractors and therefore this ordinance would not apply to any of those classes. Crazy, I know!
I’ve also been told in the past that I “get sick too much,” as if that is something under my control. I am never away from work unless absolutely necessary. I not only love my job but also care deeply for the student experience and consistency in my teaching. I am exposed to nearly 100 people a day in close proximity and I work in locations considered community health settings where germs and bugs flourish. Just Google some of the swab tests that have been done on yoga mats in studios and gyms. You will 1. forever bring your own mat to props to class and 2. understand the onslaught my immune system is under every day. It’s almost like being a school teacher! To add to this, teaching private clients in their homes when children are potentially sick or have been sick exposes me to even more opportunities to pick up illnesses. Who gets to determine how many times I get sick or need health procedures done? Before this city ordinance, I worried every single time I took a sick day that I would lose my jobs. I only have one day off per week and all of my health related appointments had to be scheduled on that day which is also hard. I still feel on tenuous ground even though I am now legally accruing sick time. If I am already perceived as “sick too much” does that mean another sick day will put me out of a job?
There is also a student perception here. Yoga teachers are often seen as bastions of “health” and “vitality.” When I had this recent sick day emergency, I came back to several students saying things like, “But you’re a yoga teacher, you aren’t supposed to get sick” and “Isn’t yoga supposed to heal all that illness stuff?” Ummmm…no. Yoga teachers are human beings with immune systems susceptible to viruses and bacteria just like regular humans. Yes, practicing yoga has been shown to improve immune system response, but that doesn’t make your teachers infallible. Yoga is not a cure all! We are not superheroes! It feels really awful when we are judged for getting sick – as if that is something that doesn’t happen to “spiritual” or “good” yoga teachers.
I wish there was an easy answer here, but alas I think that many working professionals in many disciplines have similar issues. The freelance economy that many industries are increasingly moving towards suffer from many of the same problems. I believe that many employees in corporate environments feel similar pressures even if they do have a bank of sick time. Don’t even get me started on true mental health days. Some of your yoga teachers have worked 40 and 50 day periods straight without ever having a day off. One local teacher recently bragged about 100 straight days of teaching nearly 12 hour days with commutes and free special events alongside regular classes and clients. The next post put up on their page was about the physical crash that followed and a serious bout of illness. Yoga teachers need to learn to take sick days when they are sick and to better balance their schedules to allow for down time and self-care. One of my next posts addresses why in the heck that is SO HARD to do when you work in this field (Hint: it’s often financial tied in with the strong tendency to want to give to others).
Yoga teachers take care of their students in physical, mental, emotional and spiritual ways. We are (and I know this is going to be a controversial statement) integrative health care professionals. As such we need to be supported in working fair hours (see my upcoming post about how our working hours are not just in-studio teaching time) and in getting well when we get sick. The next time your yoga teacher is out sick, love up their sub and tell the managers how thrilled you are that your yoga teacher got time off. Ask if they are getting paid for getting well. You pay a lot of money for your yoga classes, gym memberships and the studio packages. Why not make sure more of that is shared as a benefit to your teachers? Thanks to all the beautiful students who text me, call me, check in on me, delight in the subs who cover my classes and generally rock being caring and compassionate humans in this regard when I am not well. Thanks to all the managers who do help out and are supportive when I have been sick or needed help in the past. Thanks to all the colleagues who have stepped in when I needed to cover a class to get well – your help does not go unnoticed or unappreciated. I wouldn’t be doing what I love for this many years (going on 15!!) without all of you and your support.
I am just getting back into my life here in Chicago – my home life and my teaching life – after a really intense but really enjoyable 10 day advanced silent meditation retreat with Richard Miller and Stephanie Lopez at Santa Sabina Center in San Rafael, California. There are so many gems of wisdom and experience that I want to share about this retreat with you. To do so all at once would be overwhelming – for both of us!!
To give you an idea of what this retreat was like, I think you should know about our general schedule. Our daily sessions began with an hour of chanting, pranayama and meditation in the early morning. Then we had a mid-morning 4 hour practice of seated meditation, bodysensing and a full length yoga nidra meditation. There was an afternoon break to digest our lunch and then a later afternoon 3 hour session of more seated meditation, co-meditation (meditation with a partner), walking and nature meditations, and some lecture periods. Surprise surprise I am sure – our evening sessions were 2 hours of seated meditation and sometimes more chanting, lecture, sky gazing meditations or Q&A periods. It was a lot of information and personal inquiry. We covered so many different types of meditation exercises that layered on the lessons of the day before.
Our silence was with the following agreements: no talking to one another at any time (this meant no whispering or gesturing or note writing – all creative ways to “talk” without actually speaking), no talking on cell phones (no cell phones period), no email or computer use, no numbing out with watching videos or reading fiction (we were allowed to read some of the texts that address the types of meditation we were doing), and in general we were to proceed about the retreat center with a quietness to our movements that belied our conscious awareness at all we were passing through in each moment. We were allowed at designated times to ask questions of our two teachers. We could also leave questions and notes in folders for our teachers and set up times to talk with them one on one when particularly serious things arose – and they did and I needed to!
I found myself feeling extremely creative, awake and clear during this retreat. I did not sleep very much and yet I never felt tired. My appetite and cravings completely changed and I ate a fraction of what I normally do at home. I wrote multiple blogs, almost an entire journal worth of notes and reflections, a bunch of poems and a quarter of a book I am working on – in 10 days time. I dug up some repressed emotional experiences and worked with them in the meditation setting head on. I welcomed, met and greeted all the thoughts I had not been thinking, all the emotions I had not been feeling and all the energy I had not been moving in my daily life back home. It was a tremendously therapeutic experience – so much so that I am sure to be unpacking the insights for many months to come…until I go back next year for more!
There was so much insightful learning sandwiched into every single meditation, yoga nidra and lecture session that I was almost a bit overcome with how to describe it to anyone or even take its wisdom with me into life. Being back at home I took my first weekend in Chicago to distill 5 simple practices that were really important tools from these 10 days. I wrote them down for myself and now I want to share them with you. I think these are 5 ways that ANYONE can bring the benefits of silence, meditation and quiet awareness into everyday life.
1. Take at least one meal per day where you don’t talk, email, multi-task, watch anything or communicate in any way. Uplevel by doing this in the presence of other humans. Eating in silence at first feels quite strange because the action of eating food is typically such a communal and social affair. Once you take those aspects out of eating you are left with two things: yourself and food. When it’s only you and your food you start to realize whether you eat fast or slow, do you taste your food, what do different foods feel like when you chew and swallow, how does your belly really feel after you eat certain things (especially interesting for “healthy foods” that are eating habits you might have inherited that don’t actually work for you), and do you feel distracted or agitated without the commotion of talking and sharing space with other humans socially. I’d love to hear what you learn from this one!
2. At least once per day significantly slow down the way you walk and take in all of your surroundings in detail. Without even realizing it many of us “walk” through our days at a rapid pace. We never feel the ground beneath us in its many forms. What does concrete versus grass versus asphalt versus sand versus gravel feel like? We may not pay attention to how different a bus, car and airplane feel to our bodies and minds. It is so easy in the fast pace of our modern daily life to not even see the surroundings. By the end of the 10 days at Santa Sabina I could tell you in detail where all the different trees, bushes and flower varieties were – and the gardens are extensive. We really took the time to absorb ourselves in our surroundings. I also knew the patterns of the sky and the changing levels of light as each day passed. When you slow down one of your walking or moving routes each day, you’ll start to not only see amazing things but feel a different state of mind or mood in relationship to those things.
3. Give longer periods of “free time” for contemplative practices and Being. In a culture that praises productivity and busyness it is rare to find people who just “hang out.” Without this crucial free time, humans are completely stressed out and fried mentally, physically and emotionally. We actually lose our creativity in direct proportion to our busyness. Making time for “doing nothing” and being everything is one of the most important takeaways I got from my silent retreat. Maybe you sit in silent meditation or feel some yoga poses pass through without a goal or sequence in mind. Perhaps you write free-form following the stream of your consciousness or lie down and take a nap. I dare you to pick an inanimate object and just stare at it for 30 minutes. Try any of these and let me know what happens. I think you might be surprised what opens up when you start to tune in to yourself rather than your “doing.”
4. Turn the technology off. Our technological advances are amazing and incredibly useful, but in so many ways they have overtaken our lives. How would you feel if you left your cell phone in a locked drawer for 10 days? How about 1 day? What if you didn’t check any of your social media for a week? Can you go a day without tv or miss an entire season of Game of Thrones? How long could you refrain from checking the news? I couldn’t believe how much energy and time was freed up to me through the simple actions that were required of me in this capacity at the retreat – no cell phones, no email, no television, no news and no internet. I lost nothing and gained an incredible amount. I also felt better about myself not looking at social media at all. I can decide what news sources I look at and how frequently, and still be highly educated about what is going on in the world. Can we check out entirely? No. Can we limit our time on these devices and set regular office hours for screen time and news time? Yes! And to great personal satisfaction and eventually with deep relaxation.
5. Be flexible with what practices you choose to do each day to sustain yourself in a state of Being and Awareness. I loved the moment when Richard Miller said something along the line of “if you are meditating every day and sitting really long, that’s not it.” What he meant was that we fixate and latch onto external practices to “give” us something when really the entire purpose of meditation is simply to remember our natural state of Being out of the essential nature of everything. This fixation on external practices turns into a vicious cycle that can make us quite rigid. Instead he offered up the insight of feeling each day what actually helps us to stay connected to a state of Being, Oneness and Awareness. Sometimes that is walking the dog, sometimes that is sitting on your meditation cushion for an hour and sometimes that is eating ice-cream watching a sunset.
It can be incredibly uncomfortable to be silent and more aware. It means you will come face to face with whatever may be lurking underneath your physical, mental, emotional and energetic surfaces. It often feels like a case of the “Princess and the Pea” – we didn’t realize things were bothering us so much until we started paying attention and then suddenly every little thing becomes a bit of a bother for a while until there is a natural quieting down. Isn’t it so much more rewarding to welcome all these stirrings and let them come up instead of supressing them or numbing out? I think so! I know so! I hope you will take some time each day to try out these 5 simple ways you can experience some of the insights I found in my time in silence. Let me know how it goes. I’ll share more insights and practices from this retreat experience in the weeks to come to keep you exploring.
It’s really easy these days to wake up and feel some sort of despair. There is violence erupting all around the world. Hunger, starvation, illness, conflict, hatred, income inequality and political woes are rampant worldwide. Closer to home in Chicago we are not immune to the divisiveness and brutality of what has seemingly become daily life. And so when another day passes and two more mass shootings pile up on the news like last week or another terrorist attack happens like today, it is not inconceivable that I feel a bit hopeless.
Last week and then again today as the news updates flashed across my phone, I was thinking about a question I’ve asked myself and hundreds of other students over the the years, “What part of this can you do?” I’m usually talking about a complex or challenging yoga pose or emotional moment of practice, but the question could be used anywhere. It brings to the surface of awareness in a moment of overwhelm the reminder to seek out the pieces (however great or small) of an experience we can handle. This particular question has become one of my favorite over the years both internally and in my classes, and I find myself this evening reminding my own Spirit of its wisdom.
When I exited class last week, a couple of students were chatting in the locker room and I joined in. In no more than 10 minutes of chatting we covered all the hopeless things happening around the world: religious strife, conflict, war, violence, gun legislation, health care legislation concerns, political questions, international conflict, poverty, hunger, dissociation of human beings from each other and so much more. And we each said something so simple. One said: “Let’s each just be like that Tim McGraw song says, humble and kind.” A second said: “Let’s each continue to connect with one another and other people in person and bring others into that connection.” And a third of us said: “Let’s remember all that we CAN do in the face of what feels lost.”
We need these reminders: there are a myriad number of ways we can help, and it is good to start small with our own lives and communities. We need to ask ourselves each day, “What part of this can I do for the greater good?” What follows is a brief form of one part of a list of my own ideas that I have come up (actually since the election in November when I first thought about writing this blog) in a few areas of life in which I feel particularly passionate. They are my reminders and I hope they get your wheels thinking about what reminders you need in your own life. I encourage you to make your own lists! My values and priorities are not yours. What I find disconcerting these days may not be what you do. The key is to identify what you value and support it with your small daily actions – because that is really many parts of what you can do.
– Bring a re-usable mug and water bottle everywhere so as never to use a plastic bottle or disposable cup (Check out this infographic on why this is a good idea and a simple switch)
– Always have re-usable bags with you! I have them in my car and in every purse or backpack I carry. I make sure to use cloth bags for produce or to meticulously re-use plastic bags that I clean until they can’t be used anymore and need to be recycled. I do not pick up new plastic bags.
– Consider riding my bike or taking public transportation instead of driving when possible – limit mileage on my car (which is a hybrid and uses less gas and makes fewer emissions)
– Replace bulbs in the house with LED ones to limit consumption of power even further – be cognizant of turning off lights and appliances when not needed
– Take shorter and less frequent showers to conserve on water (we have low flow shower heads and water filters in the showers – all of our appliances are also Energy Star rated or higher)
– Research and select power sources that are 100% renewable energy for the delivery of home electricity
– Make purchases locally for as many goods as possible and support local businesses while also cutting down on shipping
– Purchase carbon offsets for EVERY flight I take this year and moving forward (these offsets can purchase endangered forest land, contribute to projects reducing dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, and develop renewable energy projects around the world with a focus on dramatically reducing future carbon emissions – check out Terrapass for some info on this)
My list of causes and ideas is upwards of 12 pages long at this point, and I keep adding to it. I don’t want to put it all here and bore you because you need to go and make your own! Mine has tons of specific charities, articles and research to support what I most want to see in my world. It is an inspirational document. Why do I have these lists? Well every day that I feel hopeless about something (which is everyday!!) I turn to these lists and pick two things – just two things out of 12 pages – and I do them. Start small. Break things down. Do something – anything. Don’t let the cynic inside you or the cynics outside of you tell you your little something doesn’t matter. It does! What part of this can you do?
Hope is, by definition, the faith to meet the moment with belief that things will get better even when EVERY indication is to the opposite. We are, therefore, right now in the midst of a worldwide hope campaign. Every news story and daily event seems to tell us that all is lost, but we know in our hearts to have hope that we can make things better. One small action at a time. Start with a change in your day – something small. Then work your way up to something you can do on your block. Then work your way up to something you can do in your neighborhood. Move up to your city, state, region, country…the world is just around the corner. Start too big and this is overwhelming, but start small with what you honestly can do and change will happen. Humans have amazing capacity for destruction, greed, violence and hatred, but I also have the hope and knowledge that our equally powerful forces of love, compassion, creation and generosity can prevail. Will you join me in this mission?
I am an Auntie Allison to one beautiful little being in the world: my niece. She is the most incredible little human I’ve ever met. She plays, is creative, signs words, talks and has imagination. She laughs with her whole body (and sounds just like her Dad, my brother). She sees the world around her with curiosity and engagement. She pays attention – for better or worse – to absolutely everything that is happening around her. When I’m with her, I feel more present than at any other time. Perhaps this is how parents feel on the best of days.
Spending time with my niece last Fall when she was just learning how to walk was a stark reminder of how to be here now – in the present. She would pull herself up and wobble around on her little zebra walking cart or along a wall. She couldn’t yet let go of her support. But you saw in every single moment of her trying to pull herself up, in her simple steps – the fact that she was completely present just with that moment and nothing else. And if I was with her feeling that moment, I was so fully present as well. And time flew by. I had just a few days with her and it seemed like they were gone in the blink of an eye and suddenly I was back on the plane coming home.
This weekend I got to see her again for two long stretches of play time. She now runs around, talks, eats with silverware and closely watches everyone around her and imitates them. Hours become minutes when you are playing with her. This time around she was holding a teddy bear and pretend crying – then she would rock the bear and comfort him. She hears music wherever it is playing and dances to the beat. She tries to play every musical instrument she can find – or improvises one out of a table 🙂 It is amazing to be present to her learning emotions and more advanced movements, and expressing them through play. She saw her other cousins running and she went right after them. She saw how someone played with a wind-up race car and within moments she had mastered it herself. Through play she was completely present focused, albeit in different ways this time around. I was with her in each of those moments of play!
When we are in the moment of now it feels easier to delight and play. Time becomes timelessness and we merge with being awareness rather than doing something. I slept less in those few days last Fall than my regular schedule (my brother would drop my niece on my sleeping chest each morning when she woke up so I would wake up too), and yet I felt more rested than ever. This weekend I ran around a bit crazy driving here and there to make it to all the family functions, and yet I did not feel exhausted. There is something about being aware in the present moment that charges our human-being-ness like nothing else. I also felt a tremendous drive of creativity and insight upon coming back to my regular life.
In our current world that moves faster than ever before, it feels like we have very little time to “be here now.” Everyone I know is thinking about tomorrow, their 10 year plan, their life list and goals. I know that making plans and having dreams is such a great thing – I’ve written about it on this blog and I just taught a full weekend at Kripalu about moving from past through present into future Self with Forrest Yoga self-care practices. But I think sometimes we get so caught in our development and evolution that we forget to be here now and enjoy the simple moments – like walking our niece with her little shopping cart toy.
There’s nothing radical about this blog post. You’ve probably heard it a million times that being present is a gift. Heck if you were in class last week and over the weekend with me, we had the intention of being clear and present about eight different ways (and as one of your pointed out, with a lot of variations of splits thrown in). Perhaps you have felt the same present focus around a child or activity in your life that does bring you more fully into the moment. Take this as just a gentle reminder to get to those children, activities or triggers that bring you into your present moments more often. Use each one as a fuel for your soulfulness and your Being. As our news and world events these days keep reminding us, our time here is precious and unpredictable. May you delight in every moment. I’m not ready to share my niece, but maybe a yoga class playing around could be a good compromise 🙂
In the summer of 2015 I unexpectedly found myself in one of the most magical and spiritual places I have ever visited: Assisi, Italy. I had no preconceived notion that I would feel this way about this place. Eric and I decided to visit this city because we had never been to Umbria and we were hosting a yoga retreat nearby the week before. We try and visit a new part of the country we travel to each year. Recently I was reminded of just how magical this trip was when scanning through the television channels and coming upon a Rick Steves episode all about Assisi.
As soon as we arrived in Assisi and checked into our quaint and quiet little apartment, we felt different. Settled. It was a searingly hot summer with temperatures in the high 90s up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit the whole time we were there. There was no air conditioning and absolutely no breeze, just the pink stones covering the winding walkways of this mystical old city and hours of blistering sunlight. We wandered from church to church, each one a dark and cool respite from the heat. Many of the churches did not allow any photography or talking. This too felt soothing to the mental and emotional heat I had to adjust to after coming down off leading an intense retreat experience.
Assisi is the city where Saint Francis was born and founded the Franciscan religious order in the early 1200s. This order was (and is) dedicated to helping the poor, to seeing the joyous nature of life on Earth, to social justice and to living simply. All throughout our walks we would see friars, visiting priests and nuns walking amongst the tourists and residents – many of them emanating a kind and peaceful presence of Being. With such a historical significance, Assisi is equal parts Catholic churches and silent monasteries (and tourist shops!). We went in every one to explore this energy we felt all through the town.
We hiked up to the hermitage rooms and caves in Eremo delle Carceri used by many a monk to commune with Self and God. We hiked down into the catacombs of many churches and visited the resting places of Santa Clara and other historical figures. We even visited Portiuncula – a tiny, ancient and powerful feeling church with a huge Basilica built around it on the outskirts of Assisi. We spent hours in the two main churches of Assisi – collectively called the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi – scouring the intricate artwork and appreciating the dark and light shapes of the lower and upper churches.
In each of these holy places, Eric and I (who are not necessarily “religious” people) could feel a pull of something deep and silent. Thousands upon thousands of people had prayed, convened, made pilgrimages to and worked from these spaces for many years. They left an imprint. The tiny little hermitage rooms with their one small bench felt soothing even though there was nothing about their physical shape to soothe us. The cool quiet tombs had a certain whisper of wisdom in their old air even though physically they only contained bones. The churches covered in beautiful paintings and tile work inspired our hearts even if we didn’t know who the artists were. One church even had this incredible tile mural of Saint Francis preaching to a sea of fishes – all handpainted – that we will never forget! (Saint Francis is sometimes called a patron saint of animals.)
Perhaps what struck both of us so much was that most of these churches and tombs had signs in nearly a dozen languages with two simple directives: No Photos and Silence. (Hence the no pictures of any of these sites in this blog.) Seems easy enough, and yet in every site we went and felt such a pull of silence, everyone else ignored these two simple rules and proceeded to talk loudly, point at and remark about things they saw, touch painted surfaces, photograph every little detail and disregard what felt natural to us in these places – to simply be quiet, observe, absorb and be with the experience of the space. Periodically over the loudspeaker as the din of people talking grew louder, a kind but exasperated deep voice would say, “Silenzio SHH!” or “Silence SHH!” and for a few moments a hush would come over the crowds. (Eric said it sounded like Sister Mary Elephant from Cheech and Chong – the reference is lost on me.) Not long after, the talking and photographing would start up again and the frustrated friars would look on with dismay. This repeated all day every day.
At times I wish I could be the voice over the loudspeaker saying a simple “Silenzio, SHH” reminder in many a circumstance of modern life. To the person talking to their neighbor during savasana. To the people having loud conversations in public spaces on speaker phone. To the person blasting music loud enough for all to hear through their headphones as they run around the beautiful corner of Chicago’s lakefront path. To the people taking a million selfies on the beach but missing the beautiful waves just before them. It is so easy for us to be distracted and to give in to the urge to busily log everything in picture form on our phones to share on social media instead of actually experiencing the place we are in, to speak about everything out loud instead of listening to another person or the energy of a space fully, to wrap ourselves in music/television/internet instead of sitting with the world around us.
Every place in the world from your home city to a remote island in the Pacific has its own energy and special feeling. Assisi is not alone in this! It just happened to be a powerful place where I could really find a connection to this principle of being absorbed in the unique energy of a location through quietude. Could you take the time to put your phone away, to sit or stand quietly, and to listen with all your Being to what is around you? You might be surprised at the Beauty that wells up from the silence.
At the beginning of 2016, I felt the need to look and feel dramatically at my life. I was unhappy and confused. I felt “off” nearly everyday. I had nothing specific bothering me: I love my job, my health was good, I was (and am) in a great relationship, I had a huge year of incredible work ahead of me, a roof over my head, food in my belly, a loving family…Why then did I wake up at the beginning of each day in the start of 2016 and just feel blah? I didn’t know the answer. My Spirit had gone silent. I knew I had to find out why.
I embarked on a year long journey of self-discovery guided by my Shaman, Bridget Boland. This incredible woman helped me pick a focus for every month of 2016. She helped me first to see and then to change a huge backlog of beliefs that were holding me back. Better yet, she gave me the tools to rewrite my life in the most beautiful way. We systematically, week by week, through meditations, journaling exercises, conversations and ceremonies, figured out what was at the root of my Spirit’s silence and learned how to bring my voice back. Ironically sending me into periods of deep silence was the only way to help my Spirit speak again.
Part of my yearlong 2016 homework from Bridget was to pick 12 individuals in my entire life with whom I’d had “difficult” interactions or relationships and to bring about an end to what corded or connected me to them so that I could move on from their influence on the arc of my path. A big part of the way I cut the cord with each of these individuals was to say the loving-kindness prayer to them every day for at least 15 minutes for a month. These were people who had wronged me, who I had wronged, who I hated, who sucked so much of my energy because I worried about what they thought of me. These were individuals I’d worked with, been abused by, been friends with, managed and been managed by, taught or learned from. It was a diverse and eclectic list from many eras of my life. Each month I moved from one person to the next and did a month of loving-kindness meditation for each one.
Loving-kindness, or metta meditation, was one of the first meditation practices to which I was introduced. It is the systematic direction of kindness and wellbeing towards oneself or another. Long ago when I started learning about meditation around the age of 13 or 14, I went to a Buddhist meditation center (unbeknownst to my parents – I rode my bike there!). In the little shop at this center was a book called “A Path with Heart” by Jack Kornfield. I bought it – it had a pretty pink cover and something about the “heart” word in the title drew me in. I’ve kept it with me ever since and have read it more times than I can count. The very first chapter is called “Did I Love Well?” At the time I felt very little love for much of anything in my life and I felt a calling from that chapter. Inside I learned about self-love as a ground for spiritual development and the meditation exercise at the end of the chapter is Jack Kornfield’s script for the loving-kindness meditation:
“May I be filled with loving-kindness.
May I be well.
May I be peaceful and at ease.
May I be happy.”
For a while back then I did this simple meditation for myself, to build up a reservoir of much needed self-love – of kindness directed at my own Being. That in and of itself was a very powerful stepping stone on my pathway. Somewhere along the way another meditation technique and then another took over as I moved from tradition to tradition. When Bridget gave me this homework, it felt familiar and powerful all at the same time.
The first name on my list was a tough one. The first few days – probably the first week – the words of the prayer felt like ash on my tongue. I physically felt like I was choking on the words to get them out in my mind’s eye. None of this meditation was done out loud – all internally. Still, I had a serious choking sensation as I began this process. It was challenging internally to wish this person well. They hurt me – terribly. I realized I clung to the hurt righteously even though it didn’t serve me in the least to feel any better. Each day it got a little easier to repeat the words over and over again. Slowly, day by day, the 15 minutes no longer felt like an eternity. Even more interesting was the sensation of lightness related to all the experiences of my life tied to this person. I palpably sensed the release of emotions, energy, thoughts, memories and stories related to this person.
A new month would begin and the process would start all over again. The feelings of dry mouth; the gagging on the words of loving-kindness. And each month, no matter the person on the list, the gagging would fade and the lightness would take over. Even for the REALLY rough people on the list – the ones I never thought I would ever wish well – a lightness always prevailed through the simple action of repeating the words of the prayer.
I thought this homework was assigned to me so that I might learn how be kind to those who had hurt me, or I might magically meet each one again and get to hash out our problems and solve everything. That was not the reason Bridget gave me this homework at all. I will likely never see any individual on my 2016 list again. It’s highly unlikely even if I did see these people that we would ever come to some happy resolution or have an epic fight or showdown that would make me feel any better. The purpose of the prayer as I see it now was to help me release all the energy I had unknowingly tied up in hatred, regret, worry, fear, and anxiety towards these people and towards myself in relationship with each one of them. In sending them loving-kindness, I was finally able to forgive myself for the role I played in the relationships I had with each one. At the same time I really wished each one of them well-being and peace and hope that they were able to feel it in some way.
Perhaps you have people you have wronged or feel wronged by in your history. I hope you can use this simple meditation to bring about some lightness to all the ways those wrongs may have tied you up in mind, body and Spirit along the way. There is no reason to stay bound up in misery to someone else – we all want to live happy, prosperous, loved lives. What a waste of our precious life force to remain stuck in old agony – our own or someone else’s.
Does my year of meditation mean these people didn’t wrong me? No, it does not. Some of them committed serious crimes against me. Others stabbed my Spirit with their actions hoping to kill her off. None of the reality of those wrongs goes away with this process, but almost miraculously I no longer feel any tie to the wrongness or my responses to it. I know its truth but I am not tied down by it any longer.
Write your list. Start tonight. Four simple lines. 15 minutes. Are you ready to let them go yet?