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Gifts Where You Least Expect Them

27 Jun

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness….It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.”
—Mary Oliver

“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.”
-Pema Chondron

“This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”

-Rumi

I chose all of three of these quotes as they reflect similar themes to me: the theme of finding gifts where we least expect them. It can be so difficult when you are in the midst of dealing with something difficult to hold onto the hope that there is a higher purpose and a reason for this happening.

As someone who is admittedly a teensy bit type A, I struggle with the idea of not being in control. I want to be able to control and plan and have things go the way I think they should. Somehow, this rarely turns out to be the case… One would think that as a yoga teacher and a therapist, I would be better at this. One would be wrong.

A good friend of mine recently told me that we just have to trust that our angels know better than we do. I have been trying to take this advice to heart and not worry as much when things seem to be going awry and just have faith that it will all work out in the end.

When I reflect back on my life, I can find numerous examples of not receiving what I thought I wanted, which turned out to be better for me at the end. For instance, I really wanted to go to one of the Ivy League schools for undergrad. I didn’t get into any. Instead, I ended up attending Amherst College. A Division III school in New England was perfect for me. It allowed me to continue swimming competitively and be a contributor to my team, while still protecting my time for studying (among other things). After graduating, I applied to and was rejected from a few teaching jobs before obtaining a job at an educational policy think tank. This job helped shape my decision to pursue my doctorate in clinical psychology. When applying for graduate programs, I desperately wanted to attend the psychology program at UCLA. Not only was it prestigious and ranked number one, but it would have meant I could have moved home to my friends and family. When I had my visit and interview however, my gut told me this was not my best match on numerous levels. Fate made the decision for me and I did not get in. Instead, I remained in DC and attended a program that more closely aligned with my career needs and allowed me to stay near my friends in DC. Had I been accepted, I’m not sure that I would have listened to my gut.

Yet I still get so frustrated when things are not going my way in a given moment. My yoga practice has been a huge help in allowing me to observe the emotions, sit with them, and let them go without just burying them and hoping they go away only to fester and pop up later. The Pema Chodron quote above reminds me that I seem to have yet mastered this lesson as life seems to keep presenting it to me 😉

Recently I found myself confronted with a situation in which I finally had to acknowledge I had received one bright and shiny box full of darkness, addressed to Kristin. I ignored my gut feeling and intuition and was distracted by the fun wrapping and package and the allure of a gift. After all, it promised just what I thought I wanted! I refused to listen to those that could see past the shiny wrapping paper and tried to warn me, insisting that I knew the true contents and they were not looking hard enough. I had bought into the slick design and packaging and was unable to see the truth. I tried hard to believe that if I only changed or tried harder, somehow the darkness would go away and the true gift would reveal itself to match the packing. I fed the darkness, giving it opportinities to change and prove itself. All it ever proved was that it continued to be a box of darkness. After the fact, I struggled to understand the purpose in having an experience that hurt so badly. Why would anyone want to give me such a gift?

I have to believe that it is true that this will turn out to be a gift, that I am learning my lesson so that it no longer needs to be repeated, and that it is clearing me out for some new delight. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it 🙂

“When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”

-Helen Keller

PS – My beautiful and talented friend Halle wrote a blog post about a gift of darkness years ago. It has stayed me all of these years, so I’ll share it in the spirit of this post as well. She is a much more poetic writer than me 🙂

 

 

Letting Go of Expectations

14 Mar

Handstanding in Brazil

Each morning when I open my eyes I say to myself: I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it.
—Groucho Marx

Last Thursday night I finally made it back to Flight Club at Yogis Anonymous with one of my favorite teachers, Brock Cahill. I hadn’t been able to practice as much as I prefer due to a host of reasons (house sitting, adjusting to work being busy, getting locked on a rooftop and rescued by firemen… you know, the usual lol).  I was exhausted from being sick and a stressful week at work. Clearly, I was making excuses for myself before I could begin class. For those of you who have never taken a class with Brock, he teaches one of the hardest classes I’ve ever taken, and even when I bring my A game, it kicks my butt every time.

 

I found myself on my mat starting to list all of these excuses as to why I wouldn’t be able to have a good practice or keep up. I caught the stream of chatter flowing through my mind, and was able to recognize what was going on. I gave myself a little pep talk and reminded myself the practice was not about mastering every trick pose or transition, and it didn’t really matter what I could or could not do. What mattered was attempting class with an open mind and just being present to how I felt in the moment instead of telling myself before I even started that it would hurt and I couldn’t do it anymore.

 

I did my best to clear my mind and let go of all of the negative self-talk and doubt while centering during class. And it actually worked! Maybe I was too exhausted to keep up my usual running commentary during class. I suddenly felt truly present and open to each moment as it unfolded. I felt my tension and exhaustion begin to melt away as I poured my focus into my present. When I realized my expectations about my ability to do hard poses, suddenly I found myself holding my handstands much longer than I usually can without much effort. I startled myself so much at one point I fell out of the pose.

 

Even though I went into class super tired and stressed and feeling out of practice, I actually had a stronger practice because I was able to let go of my expectations and just be 🙂

 

Maybe the key is to be too exhausted to over-think 😉

 

 

 

Is Ignorance Really Bliss? (Or in Defense of Planning)

23 Feb

Tripod headstand splits. Copyright Jasper Johal 2011

I wanted a perfect ending.
Now I’ve learned, the hard way,
that some poems don’t rhyme,
and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end.
Life is about not knowing, having to change,
…taking the moment and making the best of it,
without knowing what’s going to happen next.
Delicious Ambiguity.
—Gilda Radner

OK, so I know that in yoga we’re supposed to do like the above quote says. We’re supposed to be ok with ambiguity, with not having a plan and just living in the moment.

I don’t totally buy it.

I mean, I’m all for trying to stay present and appreciate the moment. Intellectually and philosophically, I comprehend how it is a lovely idea to not be attached to an outcome and to not need a plan. This would mean you’re never disappointed because you never had an expectation. You could live completely in the moment and no longer spend time obsessing over what your boss meant by that comment yesterday or how your upcoming date will go. You’d probably be calm and happy and worry-free and all that good stuff.

Again, I don’t totally buy it. I don’t think it’s human nature. Nor do I think it’s an ideal way to get through life in our modern world. Here’s my argument.

Evolutionarily speaking, being able to anticipate danger and plan accordingly is crucial to survival. If you were unable to think about your future hunting expedition enough to know how to avoid being someone else’s dinner, you wouldn’t live long enough to pass on your genes.

Bringing it to the present, for a large number of people who have jobs that involve lots of tasks and scheduling, you cannot succeed (or avoid being fired) if you are unable to plan things and anticipate. I will use myself as an example. I don’t think I could have completed my doctorate had I not been able to juggle a full-time student schedule, 3 part-time jobs (yoga teacher, teaching assistant, and therapy trainee), my dissertation research, exercise,and my social life. I really probably could never have finished all of those tasks without an insane ability to schedule, plan, anticipate deadlines and work, and prioritize. I definitely would not have been able to squeeze in time for self-care (yoga, alone time, etc.) or time with my friends if I hadn’t been able to maximize time in my schedule. In addition, I’d argue that having a goal (an outcome) and working towards it is a useful thing.

That being said, I was able to be flexible when things didn’t go according to plan (especially when I worked at a residential treatment center with adolescent boys where crises constantly erupted). I learned to not be completely attached to outcome (our motto in grad school was B = Ph.D., which is a hard motto for a group of overachievers). It’s true, I couldn’t always know what would happen in the future (would I be a teaching assistant or a research assistant in the fall), but trying to schedule and control what I could let me do the best I could do in school, taking the minimum amount of time to complete it that was possible for me, and maximizing the fun I could have in that time.

To temper my point at the beginning, I am the first to admit I can be overly anxious and waste unnecessary energy stressing about stuff I can’t change. I find that when you have to nurture certain qualities (e.g., organization, planning, being detail oriented) in your professional life, it can be a challenge to turn them off when you’re not at work.  THAT I think would be a great thing to work on (and stress about how I’m not doing it right lol). I also agree it is good to be flexible and not too rigid with planning and to be able to be spontaneous at times. I just don’t think that never planning, never committing, and never hoping for things should be a lifestyle that one necessarily strives for.

Some psychologists argue that a certain amount of tension is necessary to obtain goals. We can all think of an iconic character, like Sean Penn’s character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Sure, he’s not stressing about anything and he totally lives in the moment. However, he’s not achieving any goals either (aside from getting laughs from fellow students). A little stress is a good thing. It keeps you on your toes and moving towards the things you want. Goals don’t have to be materialistic. They’re not inherently bad to have. It’s good to know what you want and align your life accordingly.

In addition, I think anticipation and hoping is part of the fun! I love looking forward to something and thinking about how fun it could be. Sure, sometimes the reality isn’t as good as my fantasy, but sometimes it’s just as good or better. It’s kind of like the saying, “’tis a far better thing to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Sometimes you  risk disappointment, but it can be good to put the energy out there and think about what you would like to happen. When the event is done, it’s fun to reminisce about the good times (within reason).

Finally, as a psychologist, I have to say that it can be helpful to think about the past and how it impacts your experience of the present and possibly your future. No, ruminating and obsessing and living in the past does not help. But I think that being self-aware, accepting responsibility for what you did in the past and letting it inform your future actions is definitely helpful. It’s important to learn from your mistakes so that history doesn’t repeat itself.

In sum, I think that planning and having goals is often helpful and necessary to be able to survive in today’s world. I think the trick is to maintain flexibility and accept that even with planning and hoping, the outcome is not within our control. We don’t get to know what will happen. All we can do is try our best to prepare, know we’ve done our best, and hang on for the ride.

Good thing we have yoga 😉

You Can’t Always Get What You Want…

7 Feb

Me being a rockstar 😉

So this Rolling Stones quote popped into my head after class tonight. I went to Exhale tonight, thinking I was going to take class with Annie Carpenter. When I arrived, the staff informed me that Micheline Berry would be teaching instead. Both teachers are very popular and quite well known, though have very different teaching styles (in my past experience).  Annie is known for focus on alignment and intelligently sequenced classes that help you move safely and deeply into advanced postures (e.g., scorpion). Micheline teaches a Prana Flow style that is focused on fluidity and movement. Sometimes there is trance dance in class. Both master teachers, just very different styles.

When I first learned the teacher I expected to be teaching wouldn’t be there, I wasn’t sure what to do. Going with the flow is not my strongest point (bad pun intended). A number of students left. I decided that even though the class wasn’t what I had planned (and I hate it when things don’t go according to plan), I’d stick it out and see what class had to offer. Prana Flow is hugely popular, but it isn’t the style I typically practice. I sometimes have trouble maintaining my alignment and can hurt myself, so I tend towards the more structured classes where you hold poses a little bit more. Also, I’m totally shy about trance dance. I love dancing in a club, but for some reason I have trouble letting go in yoga. Weird, I know… I like to blame the music (I prefer hip hop to trance) but I don’t REALLY think that’s the reason. 😛 But I digress… It’s easy to get stuck in a yoga rut and just take the teachers you know like and practice the style of yoga you think you like the best. I’m totally guilty of it myself. Pushing the boundaries can be good, right?

 

Wheel on a sunny day

I came to class expecting to hold poses and focus on alignment. Micheline’s class was PERFECT for what I needed for the night. We had a little bit of Prana Flow to get nice and warm, and we went really deeply into our hips and into backbends.  She gave fantastic alignment cues and adjustments. We did what I think might be my new favorite sequence after a day of sitting at a desk behind a computer: warrior 1, revolved side angle, anjane asana, lizard, hanumanasana, anahatasana, vinyasa. Twisted the spine out from sitting and helped counter the rounding over the computer. Delicious! 🙂 We ended class with a little restorative poses. Funny enough, when I signed up online for class earlier in the day, I saw there was a restorative/yin class offered later in the evening. I thought it sounded fantastic but I have trouble getting myself into those classes since they’re not “a workout” though I love when teachers throw the poses at the end of a class. Somehow, the universe knew that was just what I needed. (Side note: we didn’t trance dance. I guess the universe didn’t think I needed that lol 😉 )

I’ll leave you with the Rolling Stones lyrics (and music in the link): You can’t always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes you might find you get what you need

Namaste!

Quote about enlightenment

9 Jan

There are various ways in which you can talk about enlightenment—or oneness.
If you are a neuroscientist, you will say it is a shutting down of the parietal lobes.
If you are a psychologist, you will say it is the loss of the sense of self.
If you are a philosopher you will say the sense of separation is gone.
A mystic would say, “I am experiencing reality as it is.”
A spiritual person would say I have achieved unity-consciousness.
There is one single state common to all of mankind— it is not certain!
The experience is different for different people.
For some people it is like a noise generator that suddenly comes to a halt.
There is immense silence; a silence, which is not simply the absence of noise.
Such a person would say, “I am silence.”
Yet another would be a total witness—witness to thought and life at large.
Some others would land in a state of such compassion and oneness that there is no separation from others whatsoever.
Another person will experience causeless love and limitless joy,
yet others would experience cosmic consciousness, a state of higher awareness.
Whatever the experience, the common denominator is the absence of personal suffering.
Problems could still be there, but they would not affect you anymore.
Because there is no person, there cannot be personal suffering.
You would never the less sense the suffering of the world.
—Enzo Buono & Alfi Martins (from the song, Age of Enlightenment)


I really loved this quote as I am always attempting to bridge my experiences in yoga with my training as a clinical psychologist. I’m  a huge believer in the concept that often we all have the same idea, but it gets lost in translation because everyone wants to define it in different ways.

 


Image taken at Fred Segal Yoga in Santa Monica