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Yoga

Cultivating sacred space

March 2, 2017

No matter what your political views, I think it’s safe to say the past few months have been exhausting. It’s so hard to disconnect from what is happening in Washington, or even at a state or local level, and the onslaught on information, meetings, phone calls, who said what can you believe it is never ending. (Also, after reading this short piece in the New Yorker, the last statement hit home, and shifted my perspective that our political situation is not catastrophic, it is “just a problem”).

That’s why, this past weekend, I was beyond excited for YogaFest. YogaFest is an event some co-workers and I put on, and this was our second one. It’s a day full of workshops from yoga teachers in Rochester and the surrounding areas, plus vendors that support a healthy lifestyle, and this time we even had a cooking demo (And before I go any further, I need to shout out to Kristy, Ryan and Brandi, because this was far from a solo endeavor, and you three are an integral part of making this day happen).

Even though I was working most of the day and only got to do a bit of yoga and meditation, it was everything I needed. Being surrounded by people from my community who care about themselves enough to take an entire Saturday to do yoga spoke to me. Some of these people I knew, but most of them I did not. And to be together in one space, sharing a day of meditation, self-love and yoga was exactly what I needed.

We closed the day with a singing bowl meditation from one local instructor. I adore the sound of singing bowls, I love the way you can feel the vibrations in your body, and hear them reverberating throughout the room. For whatever reason, I feel an ancient connection when I hear singing bowls. As the meditation was drawing to an end, I became quite emotional. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. All of the people in the room were there because of work that I had done, an idea that formed in my head. And to be able to give them the opportunity to take care of themselves, and that they had taken the opportunity, was overwhelming. I don’t think my heart has ever been so full, and I don’t say that lightly. Full of joy, of happiness, of thankfulness and love for every single person in that room.

That’s what I love about yoga. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you look like, what you believe in. All that matters is that you show up for yourself, that you take time to cultivate your own sacred space.

Yoga

Making a mala

January 10, 2017

Growing up Catholic, we used to pray the rosary a lot. As I’ve grown, I’ve fallen out of the habit for a number of reasons. After becoming more involved in yoga and meditation the past few years, I’ve started hearing and seeing these things called malas. Similar to a rosary in the fact they are made up of beads, they are a tool to use to guide a meditation practice.

I was a bit resistant to malas at first; they seemed “pagan” versions of a rosary, but as I’ve expanded my knowledge of meditation, mindfulness and awareness, I’ve realized the two are merely different ways to attain a similar goal. Rosarys are used for specific prayers, yes, but they are also meant to be a connection to the Lord by using the prayers as a sort of mantra. Similarly, malas are used to guide you through not prayers, necessary, but through words or phrases or mantras, to connect you to a higher state of mindfulness or meditation.

This year, one of my intentions/resolutions/goals/whatever you want to call them, is to continue my meditation and yoga journey, and malas are one form of meditation I’m ready to try. Instead of buying a mala, I decided to make my own. Bonus, it was really easy! Check out instructions below the photo.

Materials

  • 108 beads
  • 108 spacer beads
  • 3 marker beads
  • 1 guru bead
  • Tassel
  • Nylon thread or cord

I followed these instructions for making a tassel, and these instructions for my basic mala, though I supplemented with these as well.

I was a bit confused with the tassel, so here are a few photos to help guide you through if you need more images, like I did.

Yoga

Cultivating joy through fear

November 14, 2016

I’ve been mulling through my thoughts in the past week, trying to determine an equilibrium. I move quite seamlessly from anger to frustration to hope and back. As time passes, I find my anger receding, and hope settling in. This weekend, I read a chapter from Pema Chodron’s book “The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times.” I started this book a few weeks ago, and have been slowly enjoying her sage words, savoring them like a good cup of coffee on a Saturday morning. And wouldn’t you know, sometimes things hit you right when they need to. The chapter I read this weekend was titled “Finding the Ability to Rejoice.”

It was perfect timing. The chapter looks at one type of meditation, and how we can cultivate a place in our hearts for joy to expand.

The basic premise is thus: Think first of yourself and find reason to rejoice, even if it’s in the smallest thing, like you didn’t burn the toast this morning, or there was a cardinal outside your bedroom window when you woke up. Then, once you have fully appreciated the ordinary joy in your life, move toward a loved one. Take time to appreciate their good fortune, their everyday joys, try to be glad for them. Next up is a friend, then move to someone neutral, someone you do not know but harbor no true feelings toward. Appreciate their good fortune, and wish them joy.

Then comes the hard part. Think of someone you dislike, someone who brings difficulty into your life. The practice here is to still wish them joy and appreciate their good fortunes. Finally, expand out to every human living today, and feel their ordinary joys.

Woof, right? Not an easy task.

As I was reading her words, for the first time I felt I really had someone I truly disliked for the final practice. And as I read, her words hit home more and more.

“Difficult people are, as usual, the greatest teachers,” she writes. “Aspiring to rejoice in their good fortune is a good opportunity to investigate our reactions and our strategies. How do we react to their good luck, good health, good news? With envy? With anger? With fear? What is our strategy for moving away from what we feel? What stories do we tell ourselves?…These reactions, strategies, and story lines are what cocoons and prison walls are made of.” (emphasis mine)

Fear, man. She hit it right on the head. Much of what I heard after the election stemmed from fear. And I won’t lie, I’m afraid too. But seeing this fear, recognizing it, and learning to live with it and, one day, possibly move beyond it, is how we begin to expand our joy.

We cannot let fear get in the way of our innate goodness. Even through the fear I read in social media posts, and text messages exchanged with friends, there were threads of goodness. The day after the election, when many were suffering from a political hangover, I saw goodness and hope. And this is what we need to cling to.

No, it won’t be easy. But by seeing fear, and finding ways to soften our hearts to fear without condemning the fact that we are fearful, we can begin to make change. It’s okay to be afraid, but find a way to bring joy to your fear. If you are afraid of Planned Parenthood being defunded, send a donation, or buy a Nasty Woman t-shirt.

Worried the appointment of Myron Ebell to the EPA could lead to environmental ruin? Sign a petition and let your voice be heard.

The point is, there can be fear in our lives. But from fear, we can learn to find joy. It may be painful, it may be hard, but we can do it. And from what I’ve seen in the last week, the joy that comes from fear is sweet, because it’s come through struggle.

Yoga

On knowing yourself

October 19, 2016

Last weekend, a professor and mentor of mine posted a link to an article titled “I Used to Be a Human Being.” The author discusses his dependence on, his addiction to, the internet and the constant stream of “content” being created (Sidenote: I absolutely loved his statement of photography, writing and video being lumped together and called “content” which, upon reflection, belittles the creation and the work that goes into making it).

There are so many things I would like to pull from and quote from the article, but I’ll let you read it yourself. Suffice it to say, I was struck by the way the author felt unable to disengage from the online world we have created. We’ve become a society addicted to the online world, and our true world, our physical reality, seems secondary.

I had the great fortune of interviewing my yoga and meditation instructor for an upcoming article on meditation I’m writing, and she had some incredible insight. In working with her for the past two years, she has opened my eyes and my heart to the incredible power of meditation and mindfulness, of being truly present in the moment. One thing she said in the interview was as humans, we think our thoughts are special, our feelings are unique when, in reality, everyone else is also having similar feelings. But, because of the online world we now live in and our nature as humans to pre-judge, we create this persona for people that is not their reality.

Take, for example, my yoga instructor. Every time I get on the mat, she is there to lead me through practice. I may assume that she has perfected yoga and meditation, that every pose she does she does perfectly every time, that every time she sits to meditate, she is able to do so effortlessly.

But that’s not true. She shared that while she has been practicing meditation for many years, only in the last two or three has she been able to release some of her past emotions, let her walls down, and is able to sit with her thoughts with less struggle. She has shoulder pain, so she does not do certain poses because they hurt her body. But it is only by interacting with her on a personal and human level that I was able to learn these things; I could have spent the rest of my life assuming things about her, rather than learning she’s a human being just like I am, with flaws and feelings. I was opened to the reality of her humanness. By leaving pre-judgement behind, you leave that person open to be whomever they truly are instead of who you think they should be.

The lives people portray on social media are not real. Photos are posed and edited; they offer a tiny little snapshot into someone’s life. And it’s affecting our ability to connect with our friends and family in a real and meaningful way. We “like” a photo on our Facebook feed and if we happen to see our friend who posted it, we may comment on it. But that doesn’t constitute a conversation, an intimate connection between two people. Unless we take the time to ask them what they were doing before the photo, what happened after, what is really going on in their life, our interaction is surface-level at best.

And while our potential inability to connect with other people is disturbing, it’s not near as disturbing as the fact that we are no longer connecting with our own self.

The author of the article talks about going to a meditation conference, and having to give up his phone. Can you imagine going without your phone for one day, let alone an entire conference? I’ve often forgotten my phone at home and have felt incomplete all day at work: what if someone needs me, what if I miss a phone call, how can I check my Instagram?

But the reality is, if someone needs me, they can call me at work. They can send me an email. They will get a hold of me. We’ve become so attached to our phones we forget what it is like to be without them.

At any given downtime during the day, our automatic reaction is to reach for our phone. Waiting for a pot of rice to boil? Phone. Waiting for a meeting? Phone. Even watching tv, when the ads come on, we reach for our phone. We are quickly losing our ability to sit with ourselves and our thoughts and to just be.

What does it mean that we struggle so badly to let our thoughts happen? We spend so much of our day trying to keep ourselves distracted so we don’t have to listen to our inner self. But that is the reality of who you are. And if you don’t take the time to listen, you’re losing the depth of your person.

When going for a walk, how many times do you stop to take a picture of something rather than simply stopping and enjoying it? Last weekend, I spent an afternoon hiking in the woods, and it was really hard not to take pictures every other minute. I mean, it’s the peak of fall color season here in southern Minnesota, and I was overwhelmed by the glorious colors surrounding me. I was so accustomed to taking photos that I even started coming up with captions for the images I wasn’t even taking!

It took a while, but by the end of my hike, I was finally comfortable not grabbing my phone at every beautiful thing I saw and instead, taking time in the moment to simply see it.

Our online world is taking over our physical reality. And while this may not be a bad thing (only time will tell, though I believe it is certainly not a good thing), we need to be aware of it. By being aware, we are able to react to the situation.

Our thoughts are scary. But they don’t define us. They are part of us, but not all of us. So yes, it is unnerving to sit and listen to your thoughts, to truly be alone with yourself. But that is an important part of what it means to be human. If we lose this ability, what will we become?

Yoga

Living in the moment

September 20, 2016

Since my half marathon is over, I have made it back to the yoga studio more and more. And every time I’ve been, I’ve felt enlightened. Not that I’ve learned something new necessarily, but that I’ve been reminded of a fundamental piece of life that I forgot or took for granted. I’ve been mulling these thoughts in my brain for a while, and thought I’d share them here, in hopes they inspire or enlighten someone else.

My first insight came at one of my first classes back. For whatever reason, instead of rushing through trying to get from one pose to the next as quickly as possible, I took my time. I breathed slower, moved slower, and concentrated on the transition. I let my breathe guide me, let myself feel how each movement was different from the one before and the one after.

Yoga isn’t about hitting the pose. It’s about finding your breath and moving with your breath, your teacher, your guide. The transition from one pose to the next is just as important as the pose itself. Sometimes even more important, I would guess, as it teaches you acceptance of the in-between.

My self-talk was different. I found, after consciously choosing positive self-talk at the end of my half-marathon, I’m speaking to myself differently. I don’t feel I ever used overtly negative self-talk before, but it was never inherently positive. In this class, for the first time, I told myself “I am beautiful and strong.” Over and over, I repeated this mantra. Self-speak is so incredibly important, and even though I don’t feel I was ever berating myself, in yoga or in life, I never was fully uplifting myself either. I think it was mostly a “good job, you did it, now what’s next” type of self-talk. I’ve noticed a change in myself, a conscious effort to recognize the wild within, the strength within, the endurance, the ability of my own flesh and soul, and to celebrate that within myself.

A second insight happened yesterday right in the middle of class. It was time for ab work. Our instructor changed the music, brought the jams, told us our task: crunches, bicycle, break. Crunches, bicycle, break. And one more set, crunches, bicycle, done. Sounded easy enough. I got to it. I crunched, and crunched, and crunched. And she said nothing, leaving us crunching. It seemed like forever, why weren’t we moving on to bicycle yet?

And then, as we continued crunching, she spoke. “We are promised nothing,” she said. “Not next week, not tomorrow, not even tonight. All you have is this moment. And in this moment you are on your yoga mat. Are you giving this moment your all? If not, why not?”

And holy shit, did it light a fire within me. We talk all the time in yoga of living for the moment, giving full attention to each breath. But despite that, our minds continue to wander. And we practice bringing them back. For some reason, those words, in this moment you are on your yoga mat, were so simple and so powerful, I almost felt punched in the gut.

Partway through the second set of crunches, she asked the class, “Why aren’t you sitting all the way up?” And I thought, “Because I can’t, duh.” And then it hit me—I’m the only one saying I can’t. Why can’t I? No one else in the class is watching me, it’s only me telling me I can’t. My self-talk immediately shifted, and I remembered the fact that my body, the same one doing crunches, had completed a half marathon, had hiked the Rocky Mountains, had carried me through the wilderness on Voyageurs. If I could do all that, I could do these crunches. And I crunched harder (though I definitely could not completely sit up. I’m not that much of a baller). I told myself I was a bad ass, I ran 13.1 miles, I could do a few sit ups. Because I was a bad ass. And I repeated my mantra and I did it. That moment was all that mattered.

And sure, I’m sore as heck today. But the feeling of giving my everything to that moment, to every crunch I did, made it worth it. And every time I wince today, I remember that feeling of finishing, and remember that in this moment, my body is sore because of what I have accomplished.

That’s all well and good, but how does any of that translate into real life?

I’ll tell you my experience how. Today was a really tough day at work. So many projects are all happening at once, I feel as if I’ll never get my head above water. But hour after hour, I kept telling myself, be in this moment. Take whatever you are working on, and give it your all. There will always be more work to do, but you only get to do this project once. So do it to the best of your ability.

And I tried. It definitely didn’t work all the time, and there were a few hours when I was definitely stressed out to the max and that yogi wisdom was the last thing on my mind. But I always returned to that moment yesterday on the yoga mat, giving my all to those stupid crunches. And if I could do that, I could do whatever task was at hand.

Yoga has been such a rock in my life the past few years. As I’ve built a regular practice, I find it has begun to penetrate into my daily life. I can hear my instructor’s voice and wisdom as I go about my day, recognizing situations in life that I have encountered on the mat as well. One of my favorite things about yoga is that it is considered “practice.” I have a yoga practice. I am not a yoga expert; every time I get on my mat, it is to simply practice. Some days, practice goes better than others. But it’s okay, because there is no judgement, only the fact that I showed up for myself.

And isn’t life a bit like that? We never truly master is, but day in and day out, we practice. Some days are better than others, but all that matters is that we show up, we give our all, and we try. Every breath, every moment, is another chance to show up for yourself, and to practice being alive.­

Blog life Yoga

Disappointment

April 2, 2016

At this point in my life, I should know that life usually doesn’t turn out how I plan. Sometimes to get to where you need to be, you need to go through disappointments. How you deal with them says a lot about who you are.

Recently I was dealt a disappointment. I had set my sights on the easy path and was let down. Was it the best path? Probably not, but it was the easiest. It hurt when it didn’t work, it hurt badly. It took a while to recover, I will be honest. But thankfully I have an incredibly supportive partner in my husband and before the morning was over, I had the infamous Chumbawuma song on repeat [I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never going to keep me down].

That’s not to say it hasn’t been a struggle since then. I’ve had more letdowns since that first disappointment. None of them have hurt as badly, but I also didn’t have as much skin in the game with any of these. My thoughts have been bouncing around, rubber banding as I like to say, as I try to wrestle with waiting and disappointment.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from yoga, it’s that we’re right where we’re supposed to be. It might be uncomfortable, it might feel stagnant, but see it, honor it and respect it.

And I was fine with all of it. Until this past weekend.

Because that’s when the door of opportunity closed. This disappointment really hurt. Actually, it’s still hurting. Thankfully, it’s a bittersweet disappointment, so while it’s upsetting, at least I have the sweet part to comfort me. I know it will be okay. As my yoga instructor reminded the class multiple times this week, all is as it should be.

So here’s to today, wherever it finds you. Whether you’re up, down, sideways or somewhere in between. You are where you are supposed to be.

Blog life Yoga

Fear

November 16, 2015

Fear is a powerful emotion. It can keep us stuck, too afraid to move on or try something new. It amazes me how something intangible can have such a strong effect, can hold you back, keep you from change or progress.

And it comes in so many forms! Things I fear are not the same things you fear, and our fear manifests itself differently in everyone. For being such a broad emotion, it’s a little strange we only have one word to describe it.

Elizabeth Gilbert, in her new book Big Magic, writes wrestles with the relationship between fear and creativity. I’ve been slowly working my way through this book, and, as life is want to do, my recent yoga practice has been focused on fear as well.

In one class last week, the teacher began class with a thought: fear is an emotion. We should acknowledge its presence but don’t let it rule us.

Both the book and yoga come at the emotion of fear in a similar way—fear is real, fear is necessary, but fear shouldn’t stop you. See the fear but give it space. Let it be and don’t let it hold you back.

True life story.

My yoga classmates can do beautiful poses. I’m talking handstands, headstands, binds, crazy beautiful poses I can only dream of doing. I’ve always admired their ability but, until recently, had never tried some of the poses for myself. Why? I was afraid of falling.

In the middle of class one day, during a difficult pose, my teacher paused and offered a gentle reminder that there is nothing to fear. If you fall out of a pose, who cares?

You’ll never know if you can do it if you let the fear of falling stop you from trying.

For whatever reason, her comments struck a chord, and I tried the pose, whatever it was. And ever since then, when there is a pose I “can’t” do, I do it anyway. Even though my feet feel like they’re stuck in cement every time I contemplate trying a new pose, I try. And every time I try it again, my feet lift easier and easier. Sure, I fall out of poses all the time. But I get back into it and try again.

It feels so good every time I see my fear and to keep going. And while it’s easier to do this in yoga than, say, going to the top of the Eiffel Tower (I didn’t let my fear of heights stop me, even though I was afraid) practicing dealing with your fear in any way helps you in every other way. By facing fear in a safe place, like on your yoga mat, you can become comfortable with it. This makes it easier to face fear in other situations.

As Elizabeth Gilbert says, fear may be the passenger in the car, but no way in hell will you ever let it drive (or even read the map).

If you let it, fear will rule your life. It will keep you stagnant, never letting you dream big or reach for the stars. But it’s just an emotion, same as happiness, sadness and joy. It’s not better, it’s not worse, it just is. And we need to let it be okay to feel fear but know we need to move past it to truly continue living and life full of wonder and creativity.

Yoga

Hitting reset

October 6, 2015

Sometimes you don’t realize what you’ve been doing until you stop. This past weekend, my husband and I went camping to celebrate our first anniversary. I had grand plans: watch the sunrise, go for a long hike, canoe in the early afternoon, make a delicious meal over the fire.

We did wake up early and hike to the beach to watch the sun rise. It was a beautiful, albeit chilly, moment, as we’ve tried many times before but always failed to catch the sun. This morning, however, we were there early, the sky was cloudless, and we got to witness a beautiful sunrise.

A fire was in order when we got back, not only for breakfast but for warmth. We sat for a few hours, then ventured out for a hike.

camping_hike1

It turned out to be more of a leisurely walk. Sure, we could have hiked quickly, gotten our hearts pumping, used the time for a workout, but instead, we wandered through the woods, weaving in and out of view of the beautiful Mississippi River. We stopped, talked, and enjoyed every moment.

camping hike2

Back to the fire we went. And we could have rushed to get ready to make it to the lake to have enough time to canoe, but instead, we decided to just…pause. Relax. Hit the reset button.

Sitting in front of a fire has never been so necessary.

I sat there and, for the first time in I don’t know how long, I wasn’t thinking about what else I had to do that day or what was coming up during the week.

I just sat, watching the flames surround the logs, embers glowing red and white.

And it was beautiful.

“Treat every moment as your last. It is not preparation for something else.”

Shunryu Suzuki

I was reminded in yoga yesterday just how often we rush through our lives. My teacher talked about rushing through elementary school to get to high school where we rush through to get to college where we rush through to get a job. Then we rush through to get to retirement so we can finally…

Listening to her resonated with my weekend experience. We spend so much time looking toward the next big thing, the next weekend, the next month, the next thing on our to-do list.

But what about what we’re doing right now?

Take some time today to slow down. Think about each task as you do it. Commit fully to your day, whatever it brings. Let your mind be fully engulfed in the moment instead of always straining to look ahead. Live now, for what if today is your last day? And if it’s not, you can sleep well tonight knowing that you gave today your all. Because what else do we have to offer except our whole selves?

So go ahead, give yourself permission to hit your reset button in whatever way calls to you. You might not realize just how badly you need it.

Yoga

Occupy the present

February 26, 2015

My gym always has really inspirational quotes on a board as you enter. This was the one that greeted me as I walked into yoga on Wednesday. It hit close to home that day.

I entered the yoga studio, unrolled my mat and tried to focus. I was in the advanced class for the first time, and I was nervous.

As we began, the instructor sat at the front of the room and relayed a story to us:

When she was little, she would go up to Valleyfair and visit the petting zoo. As in most petting zoos, you could pay to get food to feed some of the animals. She got a handful of feed and brought it over to the billy goats.

Being a fair child, she wanted to make sure each goat got the same amount. But one greedy goat kept pushing and butting in for more. She kept ignoring him, which he didn’t like, and before long he head-butted her in the stomach. Don’t worry, she assured us, she was fine. But it did take her by surprise.

Our thoughts are like those billy goats, she explained. There will always be pushy thoughts, ones that try to grab all your attention. If you ignore them, they’ll build and build and become a monster, but if you pay too much attention to them, they’ll get even more clingy and become a different kind of monster.

The trick is to find balance. Recognize your pushy thoughts and then let them pass. Let your quiet thoughts and ideas have freedom to be.

As she’s explaining this, it all is making sense to me, but in a very general way. Yes, recognize your thoughts and let them go, don’t let something overwhelm you, yaddah yaddah yaddah.

But then she struck a cord. “I am giving my all, and that is enough.” Don’t let these poses intimidate you, she said. Bring your whole self to the mat, and that is enough.

 DING! It all clicked. Don’t be intimidated by the others in the class; don’t let the poses be a pushy billy goat. Do the pose, find your limitation, and find the balance.

Occupy the present.

It was a fulfilling class. No, I couldn’t do all of the poses, but I did modifications that worked for my body. No, I wasn’t the most graceful, but I was there, giving my all, and that was enough.

Yoga

Beyond the edge

January 26, 2015

Do you ever have those moments when everything feels right? You’re in the place you’re supposed to be, everything else melts away and you’re left feeling like ‘yes, this is good.’

I had one such feeling last week.

After neglecting my yoga practice during the holidays (always a bad idea), I finally got back on the mat. As we started to flow through our warm up poses, my body fell back into rhythm with the familiar stretched. Everything was right.

I had the same feeling last night. It had been a very busy (and very fulfilling) weekend. After a late afternoon nap, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to spend an hour at yoga when there were dishes to be done and dinner to be made.

But I went, and I’m so thankful that I did because it reminded me to push past my edge.

You see, I’d gotten comfortable. I’ve started doing warm yoga fusion which takes place in a heated room (about 90 degrees) and flows through about 26 poses. The flow is the same each class, and I had become comfortable with each pose, simply going through the motions.

At the class two weeks ago, the instructor came over during one of the poses and simply held my feet. With her one small action, I could feel how the pose was supposed to feel, I could feel my muscles working hard, stretching and moving. It was the gentle nudge I needed to really heed the advice of all instructors: find your comfort level, find the edge, and push beyond.

So last night, taking the words to heart, I pushed myself, finding the edge of my capability and pushing past it. Yes, I fell out of many poses, but I also deepened each stretch. Only by pushing beyond where I was comfortable could I see what I was truly capable of accomplishing.

As I worked through the poses last night, I had another one of those moments where everything felt right. My mind was clear, my breath matched my movements, and my body was active.

I want to make yoga my lifestyle. One day, I want to become certified to instruct others, to walk them through their own practice. But for now, I want to learn from the yogis of the past, to fully understand each pose, to embrace falling when I’m pushing myself beyond my edge to find just how capable I am.