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Everyone is doing their best, even if it hurts you

Félicien_Rops_-_Selbstverliebt.jpg

If you had asked me in the 7th grade what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have told you that I wanted to be the psychiatrist on the first manned mission to Mars.

The MD didn't happen, nor did mars, but Western Australia is about as Mars as you can get. Perth is the closest thing to an antipole my stateside home has.

Today is Mother's Day; I've chosen to spend it in reflection on family. There are so few times I can count where I actually felt I fit in with my own. Times I felt resented for being there and equally resented for not being there. I was an effeminate and sensitive child, compounded by a palpable aura of weird awkwardness that comes from a lifetime of side glances you get for not fitting the mold. I had no redeeming athleticism or hand eye coordination. The only part of me that was celebrated were good grades and doing my chores- also known as not rocking the boat. People in my life found ways to keep me in check, offering me polite suggestions on how to hold my limp wrists when I walk and telling me at age 8 the way I danced to Celine Dion was "of the devil." For years I didn't move my arms when I walked because I didn't want to attract attention to myself. That is, until in 8th grade, when my stiff arms started attracting attention and I started moving them.

At 17 I packed up and left to Virginia on full scholarship, and my mom offered this insightful question: 
"Have you ever thought that they're giving you a full scholarship because everyone at that school is dumb and you're the best they can do?"

I went anyway. Resented for going and resented for staying. If being the first to go out of state for college didn't help, then moving to D.C. at 22 only created more space. Now in Australia, there's no place I could go further away- except for the moon or mars.

And the truth is, I still feel incredibly awkward about my body. I love dancing alone with my dog but going out dancing with friends is not fun for me- it's uncomfortable for a long time before I can start enjoying myself. But I know it's good for me so I go anyway. When I practice asana, which for some reason I excel at, I have 75 minutes of conscious movement where I don't feel ashamed, but instead empowered and capable. And this is a feeling I can find anywhere in the universe, a feeling I have inside of me.

One of the greatest challenges of my life but also the most liberating realization is that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have. As hard as that is to learn it's so easy to forget.

I am flawed, but I am also certainly trying my best. And on this Mother's Day, I am publicly offering out the intention to remember, even if for a day, that your mother tried her best. And I follow that up with a mantra of gratitude for all the men and women who celebrated you and filled in the gaps in the moments that her best wasn't enough.

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Healing is a lifelong journey

 Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are

I was 24 when he was diagnosed, I was 27 when we lost him. The morning he left I remember walking into am empty bedroom across the hall and sobbing uncontrollably. The next few days and weeks I "held it together" and only last year did I realize a deep and unresolved need to grieve.

Australia has been diving from one unknown to the other, sitting with my unrelenting and merciless emotions. I left because I missed the relaxed feeling I had around my father, the way my shoulders dropped when I walked into his house after a long journey, recognized the scent of his fabric softener, how he always had milk in his fridge and drip coffee in the morning, how he saved the grass for me to mow because he knew I liked to do it...I missed that distinct feeling of home, not having experienced it for seven years, since I was 24, since dad was diagnosed and my world fell apart.

As much as I rail against hollywood's use of sitcoms to spoon feed us mores of a heteronormative framework, the TV shows I do watch happen to be ones about loving nuclear families (The Middle, Blackish, Bob's Burgers), because I long for that sense of belonging and unconditional love.

Today, after months of conscious unearthing of emotions, after abandoning vehicles for bypassing discomfort, I watched this video, on the anniversary of his death, and had the biggest, ugliest, messiest cry over him. I loved seeing his life and his love for his family, particularly his children and nieces, who he loved as his own. He was badass, he knew how to fix things, he was annoyingly cheap but taught me how to be thrifty, loved Led Zeppelin and Dwight Yoakam, he let us be wild and climb on roofs, he didn't mind that I was weird or gay and loved me just the same, he always made sure I had a cell phone so I'd be safe, and if I wanted to earn money he'd give me the most boring jobs at his office. He loved his family so, so, so much.

I feel incredibly gauche making this so public, but I do it because people of the same generation tend to share events in waves: getting the first cars, getting married, having children, parents dying. Unfortunately I was early in the last one, and years later I'm seeing the first wave of my peers lose their's. It is heartbreaking. Please love the ones you've got, and make sure they know it.

Healing is a lifelong journey...

"I felt that the world was no longer safe if my young handsome lively father could be so suddenly dead. It felt like it was a shooting gallery out there. And I felt like my heart had been so thoroughly and irreparably broken that there could be no real joy again, that at best there might eventually be a little contentment. Everyone wanted me to get help and rejoin life, pick up the pieces and move on, and I tried to, I wanted to, but I just had to lie in the mud with my arms wrapped around myself, eyes closed, grieving, until I didn't have to anymore. And then over time I became more or less okay: I did feel joy again, and I feel it now sometimes bigger than I ever thought possible." - Anne Lamott

I have almost no memory of making this video.  I made a similar one for my uncle exactly one month before, and while looking through images, I sorted ones out that featured my father, because I knew.

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Move with Integrity

 Running in South Fremantle

Running in South Fremantle

My first two weeks in Australia I maintained a daily movement practice, but the past week all I've wanted to do was eat, sleep, and drink coffee. I'd move a little bit here and there, but without enthusiasm.

Today the energy came back, and I had a great workout at my new gym, pictured below. It's a trail along the beach and some rings I brought over in my carry-on from the states.

When I ran my first big race- the Austin Freescale Half Marathon when I was 19 years old, I was averaging a 10 minute mile. I later switched to Vibram Five Fingers, and my pace dropped to 9min/mile. I became injured and started taking yoga, and as my hamstrings and hips opened, down it came to 8min/mile.

From over stretching and postural balances, my relationship with running was off and on. I shifted more to indoor cycling and loved the community of the shared experience.

Now I know more about the body than ever, and am retraining my body with a lot of awareness on my pelvic floor. The way I'm running now is faster than ever, and I'm rapidly approaching a 7min/mile. Before, this pace would have been an all out sprint, flinging my body forward. Now it feels controlled, I am shocked when I look down and see my pace. It feels like 9min/mile, but it's so much more sustainable and quite a bit faster.

I'm not even trying to move quickly, just trying to move with integrity.

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Sitting with Ganesh and a Mexican Dentist

On my last month of teaching in DC I frequently shared a message I received, that was playing louder and louder:

When faced with a challenge, do you contract or expand? This is wisdom. 

I've been paying for, but not using, dental insurance for 18 months (Thanks, Obama! Sincerely, thank you. You, too, Pelosi), and in the twilight of my time in the states I went in for a cleaning and to fill a cavity I've had longer than I'd care to admit. The cleaning was covered, but the rest of the work costed over $1,000 and there was no way I could afford that.

Since I grew up on the US/Mexico border, I knew I could get affordable dental work on my upcoming visit to the family.

Immediately after walking across the international bridge, there are at least a hundred dental offices within a square mile. The first one I walked into had a sign out front, "We speak English," but no availability.  A nice man with gang tattoos, bright blue eyes, and incredible English overheard I needed fillings and walked me to a dentist he knew.

 Walking across the international border the morning of December 26th 

Walking across the international border the morning of December 26th 

This dentist didn't speak English, but his equipment was more modern than the dentist I saw in Northeast DC and he at least has a hygienist to suck the excess saliva out of my mouth. I've had incredibly positive experiences with my dental work in Mexico over the years. When I suffered from TMJ 10 years ago, all the US dentists I saw wanted with either break my jaw and surgically reattach it, or put me back in braces for two years. I visited a Dr. Alatorre in Mexico once a week, and he slowly adjusted my mouth guard until the chronic jaw pain finally relented. And it was a tenth, probably less, of the cost of a dramatic and painful US intervention.

The DC dentist told me I had two cavities, the one today said I had four. I didn't have time for a second opinion and all I could say was "fill em up."

In the chair with the bright light in my face the dentist performed the most questionable dental work I'd ever received and I was worried my teeth would be irreparably damaged, I would have to pay big bucks to a dentist on the US side, or more realistically, live with the consequences for a few years until I could afford to fix it. We could barely communicate and I felt vulnerable, helpless, scared, even angry.

My fingers slipped from one mala bead to another as I chanted a mantra for Ganesh. Remove my obstacles. But instead the sneaky Lord gave me the very wisdom I had been teaching.

This experience happens every day in the US. We have millions of non-English in our country who have no idea what kind of service they are receiving because of language and economic barriers. I'm fairly educated, I've had money before, I know what it's like to be rich - but for a moment I knew what it was like to be fearful about my health because I had to make decisions driven by financial scarcity. The fear in my heart was no longer alone, alongside it compassion. I continued to thumb my mala, taking a full inhale and exhale for every bead, looping around once, coming back, and then forward again. Om gam ganapataye namaha. Through this experience, I expanded.

Jai Ganesh!  Thank you for the wisdom. 

And I am so fucking excited about all of the opportunities I will have to expand from this next adventure, the greatest of my life

(thus far)

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What the fuck, Abby?!

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What the fuck, Abby?!

Emotions are energy in motion.  If they are not expressed, the energy is repressed.  As energy it has to go somewhere.  Emotional energy moves us, as does all energy...To deny energy is to deny the ground and vital energy of our life.” - John Bradshaw

Yoga teachers don’t always know when you’re having a bad day.  Sometimes it's hectic before class.  We don’t often know how you look in different emotional states.  We’re pretty good and telling when you’re relaxed in savasana.  We don’t care if you cry for sixty minutes.  In fact, we think it’s brave.

But yesterday everyone was having a bad day.  I spent the morning thinking about the three classes I would teach that night.  By 11am, an above average amount of people signed up for all three classes.

What would I tell my own students to do when faced with uncertainty and fear? The answer is clear - practice, whatever that means to you.  Asana, pranayama, meditation.  Practice.  Even if the answer remains unclear, you will be clearer.  But yesterday I could not bring myself to practice, I could not even close my eyes.  By 1140am I made the call that it was time to surrender and turn myself into the capable hands of a yoga teacher and take a public noon class.  Self practice is beautiful, but sometimes you need someone to hold your head up when you’re too broken to do it yourself.

We sat silently as the teacher locked the door and took her seat at the front of class.  Before she could speak, someone in the back shouted, “What the fuck, Abby?!” He said what everyone in the packed room was feeling.  People were looking for something, and they wanted her to guide them.

I’ve never felt so much empathy for another yoga teacher.  These were her dedicated and loving students and she was about to do what I was too sad and too helpless to do.  She showed herself; she was raw, thoughtful, and present.  I doubt I’ll ever forget that class - her words, where my mat was, that I hadn’t showered, that I could barely sit up, that moving from down dog to warrior pose was exhausting and there were times I didn’t think I would make it up, viloma pranayama, the crying.  We’re more likely to remember things in highly emotional states, and the entire room was palpably emotional.

After class, I told her she was a first responder. I’ve talked to other yoga teachers about what it meant and felt like to teach on November 9th.  Energy workers will always remember this day similarly.  It’s the same for massage therapists, personal trainers, coaches, psychotherapists, etc.  Imagine massaging crying clients all day while feeling your own burden of sadness, or motivating someone to lift weights when you can’t even lift your own head.

I am so thankful for that class and admire that she held space when things were at their rawest. I felt selfish for moving to Australia, because I knew I’d be needed in DC more than ever (I’m still going).

The task of teaching a triple header seemed less like Everest and more like Kilimanjaro.  Leading a class about Lord Shiva floated around in the back of my mind, but I felt it was “too soon” to explain why the destruction of the universe is actually a good thing.

I began class by with the five stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance.  They aren’t necessarily linear and you can move in and out them.  When I didn’t have words, I brought out my book of quotes so that others could speak for me. Anne Lamott, Melissa Gilbert, and Pema Chodron showed up, and so did Sutra 2.33.

"When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite (positive) ones should be thought of. This is pratipaksha bhavana." (translated by Sw. Satchidananda)

The space was a container for tears, anger, fear.  We did lots of lion’s breath, audible exhales, sighing. They were to bravely feel what is in the heart, and after learning from it, cultivate the opposite.

The 5pm class had the most years, and as I watched over them in savasana, many were twitching, fidgeting, and visibly uncomfortable.  I thought I failed.  

The next class at 630 was meant to be an alignment class, but I taught a steady flow.  Nobody needed to be staring at their toes and shortening the outer ankle while contemplating the end of the world.  There were less tears, and the savasana was sweeter and stiller.

By 8pm, the numbers dwindled, we moved more slowly, no tears, and we shared tender hugs after drinking the nectar of savasana.  As the arc of the day went on, students were collectively processing in tandem.  The shellshock was wearing off.

The journey ahead is long, and there will be many who step forward and answer the call of duty.  But today, I say thank you to all the first responders out there (Thank you, Abby).  If you have a first responder in your life that held space for you, show your gratitude.  You can nourish the body (food, massage), the heart (a note, a hug), the mind (a book, run an errand).

Through all of this, I received a brutally delivered and expected gift.  Having dove into sadness, I swam out with the capacity to love the entire human race.  My chest is lighter, wider, longer, and my arms swing effortlessly as they are balanced in my midline.  Tuesday’s sledgehammer crashed down onto my armored heart, and after the shock wore off, a new ray of light shown through.

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The Bio and Spiritual Mechanics of Walking

The Bio and Spiritual Mechanics of Walking

On a weekly basis, students share with me an ailment that could easily be fixed by deepening your relationship with the Earth.  These ailments show up as either physical (gross body) or otherwise (subtle body).  Here we examine what it means to Earth.

Most of the conversations about feet start with a student sharing her discomfort.  I’ll ask about footwear, and usually there a story about helpful orthotics or arch support.

Remember when your elementary school rented a parachute and the students formed a perimeter? The parachute would lift up and down, dome and depress, the circumference in constant flux with every little movement.  Rather than think about the arches in your feet like the solid shape of a bridge, think of them like the elementary school parachute - as malleable and dynamic.

Now that we’ve reframed our perception of arches, how can we increase this malleability?

Mobility is like a non-native language: If you don’t use it, you lose it.  The more support your shoes have, the less work your aches have to do.  I can already hear some of you saying, “But I have…” high arches, flat feet, am uncomfortable in minimal shoes.  I have two anecdotes to then share.

When I was a middle school teacher, the principal instituted a policy that teachers should be standing the entire time, as a mechanism to engage the students.  Philosophically, I agreed then and still do.  However, my feet were killing me.  The first thing I’d do when I got home - at 23 years old - was put my feet up.  Wasn’t that what old men did?  So I saw a podiatrist and had custom inserts made.  My feet felt great and I could stand comfortably for hours.  A short term goal was met, and at the time it was fine.  Now I know better.

Sitting is fine - standing is fine - squatting is fine.  But our bodies are not suited to be stationary or excessively maintain a single shape.  Doing too much of anything is rarely good for the body.

One time my mom wanted to dodge out of eye surgery so she ate carrots, more carrots, and then some more carrots.  Her skin eventually turned orange.  The same lense can be applied to movement: a healthy body it isn’t so much about the shapes in which we organize our body, but the variety of shapes we assume and the frequency which we assume them.  Asana in the West, which typically has more standing poses, is more suitable for non-squatting cultures.  In the East, a lot more of the asana is seated, largely in part because seated poses are accessible to squatting cultures.

I’ve learned a lot about feet since teaching 8th grade.  Using an insert to support my high arches is not what I needed.  What I needed was movement and footwear that was less supportive and allowed for the body’s natural biomechanics to support me.  The pain I felt from standing was an internal alarm saying “MOVE!”  I didn’t understand the language at the time, nor did I think I had agency over the issues, so I paid $200 for custom inserts.  This was like taking Advil for a dehydration headache, when I could have just had water in the first place.

Since she says it way better than I ever could (in fact, she literally wrote the book on this, three times), check out Katy Bowman’s guide to shoes.  I bought Earth Runners and wear them every day.  My runs are more fun, faster, longer, and I feel so sore after.  The soreness is a reminder that I’m recruiting muscles that had previously been ignored.

 My trusty Earth Runners on a DC bus.

My trusty Earth Runners on a DC bus.

The second story involves a beach camping trip and one of my best friend’s attempts at transitioning to minimal footwear.  If your parachute has been underutilized for years, be thoughtful about your transition.  He slipped on his minimal shoes, ran his usual 4-5 miles, and came back to camp.  He was initially fine, but as the weekend of sleeping in tents moved along, his pain increased.  On the drive home, we stopped at urgent care and he was medicated to unlock and soften his muscles.  For him, minimal running was too much too soon.  Ease your way in, walk barefoot when you can, even if it is just around the house or to the mailbox. Gradually give up support as you transition to minimal shoes.  Trust the resilience of your anatomy. Walk more.  The more you walk in minimal or no shoes, the more mobile your ankles, arches, and toes become.

If you’re still not convinced, make a fist with your hand.  Lifting one finger at a time, find an open palm.  Then, make a new fist with the same hand.  Extend your thumb, then bring it back to the fist.  Extend your index finger, then bring it back to a fist.  Do this with all fingers.  This likely won’t be too difficult.  We’re used to our fingers having this mobility, but did you know your toes have the capacity for similar movement? If you don’t use it, you lose it.  When we walk through life accepting that our feet will always be a struggle, that part of us is limited, we miss out on so much.  Take a different perspective and realize that your feet are a blessing that move you around and are capable of so much more than they are given credit for.

Spiritual Mechanics of Walking

Some of the most revelational experiences I’ve had in recent years involve walking.  If you find meditation confrontational, mindful walking can cultivate a similar effect. One of the most famous pilgrimages in the world - El Camino de Santiago - has pilgrims walking 30-45 kilometers each day. While we don't always overtly label major hikes in the United States as spiritual journeys, anyone who as hiked the Appalachian or Pacific Northwest Trails will share their own revelational experiences. Many of them write books about it.

If you are sad, a long walk increases circulation and creates a safe space for processing your thoughts and feelings.  If you’re anxious, a slow walk with mindful breathing can drop your vibrations. If you want to improve mindfulness, pay attention to every step. My friend Dahlia swears by her 30-45 minute walk every morning.

You can use this time to call relatives of friends.  You can walk with a friend, have a business meeting with a colleague.  You’ll be shocked at how much easier communication flows when the body is in natural movement.  

You can increase your learning.  Even if you don’t identify as a calisthenic learning, that part of you is in there somewhere.  Download a podcast or book on tape, and if you want to up the spiritual mechanics, select material that will grow you in this direction.  Walking unlocks and opens the mind and heart.

In the same way walking helps the feet, walking helps the soul.  When confronted with a negative experience, our mind will scream, “How can I bypass this feeling?”  Just like the arches of the feet, if we bypass the spirit’s “parachute” malleability, the soul becomes increasingly rigid.  The combination of fresh air, endorphins, sunlight, moonlight, and variety in sensations are all forms of embodiment that enhance our spiritual malleability.

Even though it rarely feels this way, there is always a choice.  When you’re in the mud, do you deny it, or do you acknowledge it?  Do you stay rigid or do you grow?  Growth is not always easy.  The lotus flower is born in the mud and pushes through it before blooming, and only then does it reveal its beautiful petals.

 Lotus flower I saw in Bangkok. 2015.

Lotus flower I saw in Bangkok. 2015.

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THANK YOU!

 Me at about sixteen.  I am not known for being a winner. I was an awkward, gangly, kid.

Me at about sixteen.  I am not known for being a winner. I was an awkward, gangly, kid.

When I was younger, I don’t remember being particularly good at anything.  I wasn’t in the GT (gifted and talented program), was horrible at sports, and had zero self confidence.  My GPA was 33rd percentile in my graduating class.  My family couldn’t afford trendy clothes for me and I had very few friends.  I remember most of my childhood being spent alone.

Things picked up in college but I went on to become a mediocre graduate student and an equally mediocre federal employee. My life was out of alignment in many ways, one of which is that I was not living my dharma.  Within six months of finishing yoga teacher training, I left the USDA to pursue the craft full time.  I was completely prepared to work insane hours for little pay, schlepping all over the DC Metro for whomever would hire an inexperienced teacher.

Three years later - I won Washington City’ Papers Reader Poll for Best Yoga Instructor in Washington, DC.  It was a beautiful recognition of love from the community to which I’ve wholly dedicated.  

From the bottom of my heart, thank you to everyone.  Thank you for those who voted for me.  Thank you for those who thanked me.  Thank you to those who laughed at my dad jokes.  Thank you to those who were vulnerable enough to cry in my classes.  To those who brought their friends.  To those who came back even after I messed up sequences, skipped poses, and took way too long to realize my playlist was on shuffle.  Thank you to those who humbled me, who encouraged me, who took me down a few notches.  

I would also like to thank my teachers, in no particular order, for sharing their wisdom and love.

Chanda Creasy - Chanda taught the second class I attended at the Studio DC - a place I’ve called home for the past four years.  Thank you Chanda, for modeling to me compassion at every turn.  Thank you for inviting me to co-lead what would be my first retreat.  Your classes are drinking nectar from the moon.  For hugging sincerely, plentifully, and enthusiastically.  For showing me there is beauty in everything, for showing me the true nature of the heart is bliss.  For teaching me to show up and unapologetically be myself.

Natasha Rizopolous - Natasha was guest faculty in my first teacher training, and primary faculty in my 500-hr program.  Thank you, Natasha, for showing me that I am not my thoughts and feelings.  Thank you for showing me the marriage between spirituality and asana.  Thank you for healing my body and strengthening my soul.  Thank you for refining my teaching and enabling me to help others in a way I never thought possible.

Jo Tatsula - I found Jo on yogaglo.com, and traveled to India to study with her for two weeks in Rishikesh, India.  Jo, thank you for teaching the importance of tending to the sacred flame.  Thank you for inspiring me to be creative, for teaching me about the breath between the breath, for awakening my heart.

Barbara Benagh - I stumbled upon Barbara via Natasha at Down Under Yoga in Brookline, MA.  She was primary faculty on my advanced yoga training.  Thank you, Barbara, for teaching me how to listen to my body and to observe my breath.  For teaching me that yoga isn’t sweating, it’s paying attention.  Without you, I wouldn’t have sampled the subtleties and softness of yoga.  Learning breath from you was learning a new language, I will always hear it around me and within me.

John Schumacher - I consider John to be one of the most senior teachers on the planet and we are fortunate enough to have him in the DC Metro area at Unity Woods Yoga.  Even after finishing yoga teacher training, I took his beginner series twice and learned every single class.  Thank you, John, for showing me that there is yoga for everyone, and that tough and caring are not mutually exclusive.

Katya Brandis - Katya taught the first class I took at the Studio DC and inspired me to leave my comfort zone.  It was through her that I realized my love of teaching.  I now know that yoga can be fun, funny, and more challenging than I ever thought before.  I am certain that I would not be a yoga teacher at all without her support, encouragement, and mentoring.  Not only did she lead my initial teacher training, but she mentored me after graduation.  I still remember her taking my Friday 630am classes while in her third trimester.  Without her guidance and support in the early infancy of my teaching I would not be teaching at all.

One of the key points I’ve learned from yoga is to not identify with the external/temporary (prakriti), to identify with the internal/eternal (purusha).  The external is always changing.  Natalie Portman, winner of the best actress Oscar for Black Swan, cautions winners to remain grounded, saying: "When you start valuing yourself based on other people's accolades, it is a little dangerous, because then you have to start valuing yourself based on other people's insults, too.”

I see this less as an award for being gifted, but more so a validation for listening to my inner compass, and teaching from a place that is authentic to me in that moment. With time, my pedagogy will shift, my delivery will change, and my offerings will adapt.  Like so many teachers, I am shifting away from sweat and power and exploring the softer, subtler sides of movement.  My orientation and priorities are kindness and introspection, less handstands and heart rates.  This is less popular, but more important.  The role of a yoga teacher is not to offer what the student wants - but what the student needs.

The light in me bows to the light in you.  Namaste.

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Breathing life into compassion: Three practical tips.

one human family

“Ahimsa and Truth are as my two lungs. I cannot live without them.” - Mahatma Gandhi

After a multi-year relationship ended, I finally got up the courage to not only go on dates, but also open my heart.  Seeking consolation after a particularly memorable bee sting to my heart, a good friend told me, “Of course things didn’t work out.  He is not only way too smart for you, but also more interesting. Not to mention your hair looks like a rat’s nest and your biceps are too small.”

A bit harsh, yeah? In truth, this was no friend at all, but actually the voice of my inner critic.  When explained in this context, the story is more believable.  Not only are we harsh to ourselves, but we normalize the behavior.

Ahimsa, a well known precept in Jainism and Yoga Philosophy, is an observance of non-violence or compassion.  This observance is universal, meaning an outward practice towards the world is equally important as an inward practice to oneself.  In other words, abate the negative self talk.

We say things to ourselves we would never consider saying to anyone else.  The habit of being self punitive is the most opposite act of Ahimsa we can do.  A relative of mine suffers from leg and foot ulcers as a result of a genetic condition called lymphedema.  She is also a farmer, and often walks through knee-high stagnant canal water to tend to the land.  When I heard this, I literally cringed, thinking of the risk and harm to her body.  But we lack the same visceral response and disparagement when we learn of negative self talk, such as, “I’m not cool enough to be friends with them.”  Negative self talk is walking your vulnerable emotional body through stagnant canal water.

Ahimsa is very much a practice.  Like asana (yoga poses), playing the piano, sewing, or any other tactile skill - it must be continually practiced to develop and improve.  Admittedly, I have come a long way in my own Ahimsa practice.  Brian Kest offers a wonderful, refined, and accessible, dharma talk before his class on negative self talk. I heard it in 2012 and the vibrations of his message shape me every day.

One thing I did not expect to encounter from my Ahimsa practice was resistance and confusion from those around me.  Let me preface this by revealing a deep, dark, secret: I am fallible.  In another life, I booked a photographer for some promotional material, but neglected to confirm the time with one of the models, who subsequently could not come.  I was in the doghouse with my boss for a while, and neither time nor apologies could get me out of there.  It wasn’t until I feigned harsh criticism towards myself that I was forgiven.  My boss interpreted my lack of negative self-talk as apathy.

To be absolutely clear, Ahimsa is not the outright rejection of negative thoughts and feelings.  Rather, it is a decision to not actively produce them.  Think about it this way: Volcanoes release carbon emissions (greenhouse gases), but they are naturally occurring and in moderation. When humans dig deep down into the earth, extract fossil fuels, burn them, and release carbon emissions into the sky - it is a very conscious process that humans actively repeat again and again. Negative thoughts are a part of the human experience, but we certainly don’t need to create more of them, spewing them up into the atmosphere of our lives.

So, now what? Here are three tips on a practicing Ahimsa.

1. An impartial quest for truth (Satya).

Acknowledge what went right (“What did I do well?”).  Acknowledge what went wrong (“What can I do differently?”).  View mistakes as hurdles to get around, rather than reasons to stop.  Be as impartial about it as possible, and then move on.  If worrying about the future causes anxiety, dwelling on past causes depression.  Being in the present prevents one from running forward without reflection, and it also prevents tethering to previous mistakes.  Yoga is being present.

2. Gratitude Practice

When people hear gratitude practice, they imagine deep contemplation or journaling about the seismic gifts of our lives.  This is fine, but unnecessary.  The act of practicing gratitude is far more important than the list you produce.  If our ambition is too lofty, we are more inclined to drop out or avoid the practice.  It is best to keep it simple, sitting quietly for 5 minutes a day contemplating anything that could possibly bring you gratitude.  For example, “I am thankful for this chair.  I am thankful for the tree that bore the wood for this chair.  I am thankful for the water that nourished the tree.  I am thankful for the man who crafted this chair.  I am thankful for the people who loved him.”  It may be daunting at first, but just like any muscle, with practice, it gets easier.

3. Pratipaksha Bhavana (Yoga Sutra II.33: vitarka bhadhane pratipaksa bhavanam.  When you are disturbed by unwholesome negative thoughts or emotions, cultivate their opposites).

Pratipaksha Bhavana is a practice that becomes more adept with time.  There is no need to deny negative thoughts, but through observation and reflection, they lose their grip.  In addition to introspection, plant some flowers in your garden- offer opposite (positive, supportive) thoughts.  It seems hokey at first, but this wisdom works.

We get flu shots and vaccinations, wash our hands, brush our teeth, and take vitamins.  These practices keep us alive longer and increase the length, or quantity, of human life.  The practice of Ahimsa improves quality of life.

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Naan- attachment: How an Indian diet taught me aparigraha

 Baking naan in a Tandur oven.

Baking naan in a Tandur oven.

“You are not your body, senses, and mind; body, senses, and mind, are expressions of your timeless awareness.” Jean Klein

The practice of non-attachment (aparigraha) creates equanimity in our lives leading ultimately to greater harmony and peace.

My diet in India was largely different iterations of the same thing: white rice with curry on top.  The curry would change, but the white rice was the same.  I don’t eat gluten, which ruled out naan.  I would occasionally have dosa or chapathi (breads made of rice flour), but I was still eating different iterations of white rice.  It eventually tasted bland or made me ill.  I felt as if my body was rejecting the food and I would be full after a few bites.  Most of this I’ll own as my unknowing or ignorance.  I’m sure I could have found the right nutritional diversity if I was empowered enough to seek what was around me, but at the time, I didn’t particularly see it as a problem.  Also, I was told by many travel guides to stick to the food offered in the hotel, because it was safer and more sanitary.  Not that it mattered, because my rice diet ultimately coincided with what I’ve determined to be a record setting marathon of not one, not two, not three, but four bouts of dysentery during my seven week pilgrimage.  In short, I was unable to replace the calories to compensate for the rate at which I was losing them.

Did I mention India is hot during the summer? Like really, really hot? It doesn’t take long before you stop checking the temperature, because you know it will be blistering no matter what.  One of the last times I checked the weather app on my phone it was 110F.  Given the heat and my diet, I threw out the idea of my routine high intensity interval training.  My asana practice shifted to gentler and more introspective poses.  One fabulous, and unexpected dimension, of these long holds in softer poses  is that I am more flexible than I’ve ever been, able to do poses I could never do before.

I knew I lost weight, and I knew I would lose weight before I even left for India.  What I did not know was how much, and how shocking my physical appearance would be for some when I returned to the states.  “You lost weight,” I would hear.  

Politely, I would respond, “Yes, I lost a few pounds.  But I am slowly gaining it back.”

“No, but, like, a lot of weight.”

“The diet was different, and I got sick a few times.”

“You look completely different. Are you getting enough to eat?”

The same conversation happened over and over again.  Friends with feet in their mouth, and me sheepishly trying to shift the conversation as quickly as possible.  I lost something.  I lost my body, my shape, my corporal identity.  Kali, the goddess of benevolent destruction, took away something on which I relied a little too much.  I had to remember that she was not destroying me, but destroying something dangerous to me.  She is like a mother punishing her child for misbehaving.  In the short term, the child views the mother as cruel, but ultimately learns that she is shaping him to be a more complete person.

She reminded me that knowing the text isn’t the same as living the text.  Of course I know attachment breeds suffering, but I will occasionally buy that face cream that I want but don’t need.  When my body is 29 years-old and in peak physical form, it is easy to talk about aparigraha.  When your body has betrayed you after giardia exposure and you can’t get a break from diarrhea or vomiting, that is when the real learning begins.  Giardia isn’t an ideal teacher, but it's effective.  That is typical of the goddess Kali:  Swift, brutal, and effective.

She also reminded me that so little of yoga is about the body.  I’ve questioned Ashtanga teachers about this before.  I’ve questioned Mark Whitwell about this before.  Asana is great - but what if you are confined to bed, unable to move, debilitated by extreme pain from spinal cancer, as my father was for many months before he, to quote BKS Iyengar, “changed his clothes” ?  Mark Whitwell said my pops should move his arms and breath as if he was in a vinyasa class - but that didn’t satisfy me, it was still too much about the body.   I’m more inclined to agree with Tara Fraser, who, like Whitwell, is a student of Desikachar, posits that, “Yoga is essentially a practice for your soul, working through the medium of your body.”

I was liberated from my preoccupation from the size of my biceps, the altitude of my glutes, of would people would think of me, of what I would think of myself.   It mattered less than ever, because for the first time, I realized I didn’t have control over it.  In fact, I never did.  You can manage your diet and supplement with protein shakes, you can balance cardio with strength training, but no matter what, you’re always one bike accident away from being paraplegic, one stomach flu away from losing your figure, one cancer diagnosis away from separating from your physical body completely.   I was freed from the idea that yoga, while dimensional and meaningful, begins with the body.  The body can be an illuminating and rewarding aspect of a yoga practice, but is neither the doorway to, nor a mandatory component of, yoga.

It was not directly from losing my physical mass, but rather my attachment to it, my spiritual body grew to be so much stronger.  Suddenly, there was more room for the things I value the most - kindness, authenticity, and joy.  Even though I look different in a swimsuit, there is less distance between my conscious mind and my inner guru; my heart feels more vibrant than ever.  

For me, this was a new path of yoga.

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Namaste from Rishikesh, India, the yoga capital of the world. Themighty Ganga rages here as it receives melted ice from the nearby Himalayas. It is said that Mother Ganga is so sacred, one drop can wash away the bad karma of a thousand lifetimes.

I am halfway through my India pilgrimage, having previously visited Rajasthan, Varanasi, and Vrindavan. From Rishikesh, I will travel south to Goa and Kerala. In Goa I will study at Shri Kali Ashram, a place of special significance to me as it is where my teacher and dear friend, Chanda Creasy, once immersed in Tantric traditions.  I am excited to feel the vibrations of her spiritual home. 

Cars, mopeds, and pedestrians zip through narrow streets and every second seems like another collision narrowly avoided. It reminds me of a massive school of fish in the ocean, every organism moving in harmony and never colliding. It indicates what life is like in a country of 1.28 billion people, where 80,000 are born daily and each year the country inflates more than the current populations of Australia and New Zealand combined. Utter chaos is in fact a refined dance as movement becomes liquid and continuous.  The most astounding piece of it all is that they do it with a smile and without any sense of competition. Perhaps that is why it works so well: they collectively understand the only way to survive is through cooperation.

I have been blessed to spend part of my journey with fellow teacher Charlotte Healy, who I met in Varanasi after her Seva in Bihar, the poorest region of India. She spent two weeks volunteering at an eye clinic. We sneak off to roof tops to practice asana and have separately concluded that the best, and perhaps only, way to thrive in India is to dissolve any expectations or attachment to outcomes.  Only when the illusion of control is humbly surrendered can one receive the gifts of Incredible India. 

Together, we stumbled upon an ashram in Vrindivan while in search of an Ayurvedic Cafe. We never found the cafe, but we did find a peaceful paradise and one of our favorite places this far. We were invited to stay for breakfast, given a room to nap through midday heat, offered spiritual counseling, taken to a witness a Vedic fire ritual on the Yamuna River, and once again fed dinner before being driven home in an air conditioned car. Before founding the ashram, the guru spent 3 years and 108 days in a cave meditating without a single disturbance from the outside world. When he emerged, a swelling crowd pronounced him "Yogi Raj" - king of the yogis! Even the sick showed up to be cured by his touch.  He renounced this title on the grounds that all beings are equal, with no single person of more or less value than any other. In a country of caste systems and profound economic disparity, I found this both refreshing and inspiring. When asked about the cave, he calmly said, "that was a really good time in my life."

Everywhere I visit I wish I could stay much, much, longer. When locals ask me the difference between India and Washington, the most accurate and effective way I can explain is by saying India is my mother and Washington, DC is my father. 

My heart is full of gratitude for all the love and support of my kula across the world. Much love to all! ~Eric~

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