Letting ourselves emerge

One of the things I love about attending a yoga class is being prompted to think in new ways. In addition to queuing the different poses, a teacher will usually weave in a particular “theme” or “language” meant to elucidate a certain concept or idea typically related to the philosophy of yoga. In essence, the goal of yoga is becoming more in tune with your true self.

Today, we were invited to consider how much of our “true selves” we actually show to the world on a regular basis. True, there are probably parts of ourselves that are easy to share, certain qualities, beliefs, manners of being. Perhaps even truer are other parts of ourselves more easily kept hidden. Perhaps they fall beyond what is considered “the norm” or maybe we are afraid that if we show who we really are or what we really believe in, we won’t be accepted by others. We are afraid to stand in our own truth for fear of being judged and rejected.

When we are mindful, we can usually start to notice how we only allow certain parts of ourselves to show, depending upon the situation we find ourselves in.

What’s interesting about a yoga practice is that we explore such topics through breath and movement. We take a look at these “more subtle notions” through tangible things like breathing and moving our bodies.

Today, we were encouraged to embrace the totality of ourselves, flaws and weaknesses, in all. Strengths too. By observing our mind as we move from pose to pose, we learn to lean into the discomfort of simply being ourselves, just as we are. We have lots of “stories” we tell about ourselves. We aren’t good at this, we aren’t good at that. This happened and so I’m this way because of that.

Today in our yoga practice, we were encouraged to let go of these stories (that “ticker tape” constantly running in our heads), and instead, embrace the present moment of who we are. Right now. At this moment.

Can I stand in my own truth of who I am as an individual?

Maybe.

The real opportunity comes from challenging those stories, or in many cases, “limiting beliefs,” we hold so dear. Today our practice culminated with a pretty challenging pose. Immediately, my internal “ticker tape” began saying, it would be easier to just stick with the simpler version of this, you probably can’t get your leg up like that anyway, it might be too strenuous.

Instead of listening to that ticker tape, I tried it. It didn’t look pretty, especially in relation to the two beautiful teachers surrounding me and going into the fully realized version of it, but I tried it. Then I refined how I tried it, on the second side, with feedback from my teacher.

It was probably a “smidge” better on that second side, but the deal is, it was *my version* of that pose for today. Sure, my teachers’ versions still appeared “more better” (vocab from my 8-year-old, smile) in my mind’s eye; but I dropped that story, if just for the moment, and recognized myself for having tried and having accomplished “my version” of that more advanced yoga pose, for today.

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Heather doing “the pose” quite beautifully. This is “her version” of the pose.

I’m doing this in CrossFit too. Just yesterday I back-squatted 120 pounds. Five more pounds than I did last week. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I tried it. I focused and leaned into the discomfort involved in trying something I hadn’t done before; something I, in the back of my head, was already second guessing I could do. Darn ticker tape running and doing its job, like it always does.

And so I did that too. And maybe it wasn’t perfect, but I did it. And as a result, I inserted this notion of being able to do it, into my brain. Cool thing is, next time around, my “ticker tape” might just resurrect this belief instead!

My teacher then read an excerpt from The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo:

“Like many of us, I seem to be continually challenged not to hide who I am. Over and over, I keep finding myself in situations that require me to be all of who I am in order to make my way through. Whether breaking a pattern of imbalance with a lifelong friend, or admitting my impatience to listen to my lover, or owning my envy of a colleague, or even confronting the self-centeredness of strangers stealing parking spaces, I find I must be present – even if I say nothing. I find I must not suppress my full nature, or my life doesn’t emerge.

Aside from the feeling of integrity or satisfaction that comes over me when I can fully be myself, I am finding that being who I am – not hiding any of myself – is a necessary threshold that I must meet or my life will not evolve. It is a doorway I must make my way to or nothing happens. My life just stalls.”

What it comes down to is leaning into the discomfort of new territory and discovering who you really are, even if it’s scary and even if it’s easier to stay right where we are. When we do this (especially on a regular basis), we expose, more and more, our true selves and who we really are as individuals.

It’s how we grow.

It’s how we shed our stories and allow ourselves to evolve.

<3

The Gift of Yoga

What’s the gutsiest move I’ve ever made and how does it inspire my life and work today? That would have to be deciding to extend the gift of yoga to my students what is now over five years ago. This decision is significant because it signifies my stepping into what I’m truly passionate about. I’m passionate about helping people take care of themselves and I deeply believe that yoga is probably one of the best tools out there to do just that.

I work with low income, first generation, underrepresented students and help prepare them for graduate school, so when I had this idea, I immediately thought people would think … what does yoga have to do with getting into graduate school? I judge myself enough as it is, but I forecasted people judging this decision even more. I envisioned people thinking I’m taking away from the focus of the program. I envisioned people thinking that I’m wasting resources. I envisioned people thinking this kind of activity to be entirely too woo woo. And for that matter, I risked people thinking that I was a little off my rocker! Crazy girl!

I did it anyways and never looked back.

I had scholars talk about never feeling *as alive* as they did after that first session (think: senses on fire!) and I had scholars think they were being coerced into giving up their religion. I’ve had scholars puke (just once). I’ve had scholars get profound relief from back pain and mental anguish (all the same). I’ve had scholars joke around during classes and I’ve had scholars take the opportunity uber-seriously.

Perhaps I should note that we never *force* our scholars to do yoga. That would certainly be un-yoga-like now wouldn’t it? We *might* strongly encourage, role model, even incentivize them during the summer, but never force. Thank goodness, huh?

This is the thing. Yoga opened the door to having a conversation about how to take care of ourselves so that we can do awesome things in our lives on a daily basis. We’ve all got some goals and plans for our lives. We want to feel good while we are striving to achieve them (I’m assuming here). That pretty much means we need to figure out a way to keep ourselves in tip-top-shape (body, mind, spirit anyone?) so that we are in full-operational mode as much as we can.

So there’s the trick.

It’s not so easy to do that on a regular basis, is it? We might start off in a nice groove, say at the beginning of a new semester (great time to set our intentions), packing a healthy lunch when we’re on the go, getting that workout in before class, making sure to get to sleep at a decent hour. Then the semester *really starts to happen* and those plans sail right out the window.

It sucks! And I understand why.

It’s the daily pressures of all of our responsibilities that we’ve chosen to take on (key word being *chosen* as in *we choose* what is on our plates). It’s the pressure of making enough money to live while we go after our dreams (really thinking about my students here). It’s the pressures of wanting and having to do well in order to achieve our goals. It’s the pressures of all those other “little nuggets of life” that can surface in the most in opportune times and make our heads spin.

So getting back to yoga. I think yoga is one of the best tools for self-care because it gives us an opportunity to slow down, completely pause even, in our busy lives. It allows us to go inward and focus on our bodies and on ourselves in a way that we don’t really do that often. The physical postures in yoga make us feel good. We stretch and we strengthen.

But I would argue that yoga is so much more than that.

It’s the work that we do with our breath and our minds. It’s focusing on our breath and just listening, instead of having our minds constantly be in “doing-mode” and stressing about all of the things we still need to get done. It’s taking some time for ourselves (doesn’t have to be a ton of time either) and slowing down enough to get a read on how we’re really doing. Of course, there’s much much more to it, but I think this encapsulates why yoga can be so good for our students and good for everyone.

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McNair scholars unwinding with some summer yoga.

I think back to that first yoga session quite often and I smile. I think about how far we’ve come since then. We’ve definitely “upped” things by incorporating other wellness-oriented workshops + activities through the years, but in my mind, it still comes down to yoga. I love to give the gift of yoga, and by that, I mean inviting others to explore how yoga might create small, even huge, shifts in their lives for the better. It’s about having an open mind, creating the time + space to doing something special for yourself, it’s about experimenting with all different kinds of tools to see what really works for you.

 

 

The Gift of Yoga

This past Friday I got to do what I love to do the most – expose people to the wonderful gift of yoga. Had the studio at OmBodies filled with “old” and “new” CMU McNair Scholars. I feel blessed that I’m in a position to actually do this in my work, in addition to “planting seeds” with pretty much any person I meet or talk to. I took a risk and started incorporating yoga into our scholar programming almost five years ago now. You see, we strive to support our students in ways that go far beyond academics.

When I talk about McNair, I like to say that we’re in the business of developing confident individuals who have the wherewithal to achieve an advanced degree if they so choose. I also like to say that no matter what you have for a goal, you aren’t going to be busting out anything of any real magnitude if you don’t have yourself together with baseline self-care. I call it EAT SLEEP MOVE. If you aren’t taking care of how you are doing each, you’re not going to be in any shape to really flourish in your life.

The fact is, our scholars spend a lot of time working very hard in their classes, many have jobs in addition, and they just have really full schedules that sometimes don’t allow for things like downtime, exercise, healthy eating, etc.

So where does yoga fit into this picture? And what makes yoga special?

Most logically it fits into the MOVE category of self-care, but it’s so much more than just exercise. It’s a type of exercise that offers physical benefits like strength and flexibility, but it also incorporates things like breath work and present moment awareness that can really lead to significant shifts in the way we exist and move through our daily lives.

It’s really a “practice” that one develops over time that usually starts with the physical postures, but often ends up becoming a way to feel more connection among your mind, body and spirit. The physical practice becomes more like a “moving meditation” and allows you to become more in tune with yourself. Some people even say that yoga can help you discover your true self.

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Yoga helps me get rid of things that don’t really matter.

When you practice yoga, you begin to develop an “inner stature” or state of being in which your mind is at ease (thus, yoga is great for stress management). By going inward and focusing on the breath while engaging in the physical postures, you can, in a sense, train your mind to be more aware – more aware of how you might be feeling, more aware of external circumstances, aware of the constant flow of thought. The thing is, at the same time yoga teaches us how to become more aware, the goal is to not attach to any sort of outcome or desire. The goal of the moving meditation is simply to acknowledge what comes up and let it go – let it just float on by.

In talking with one of our scholars about what makes yoga great – she said, “It’s like cardio for the mind.” Brilliant.

This is where the real beauty is – as you go deeper inside yourself, you become clear on your intentions in life and who you are as a person. You also start to de-clutter the mind, getting rid of “stuff” that doesn’t really matter. Things in the past, things that might stress you out (that you can’t control), things that might not really matter all that much in the long run. You simplify. You simplify on lots of levels.

After I do yoga, I always feel wrung out. Wrung out on a physical level, but on the level of my mind too. It’s as if I’m getting down to the very nitty gritty of life, stripping away all the layers of bullshit that accumulate and getting down to my very core. Somehow, as I develop a sense of mindfulness, I’m finding myself letting go of things that don’t really matter. That might mean, something that someone said offhandedly that might have rubbed me the wrong way, to festering about the quiz that I didn’t do as good as I could have on, to being okay with where I’m at in my life, today. I think sometimes we can become so swept up in our daily responsibilities, our problems, our goals, that we can lose sight of the sweetness of life, that is, what is right at this very moment, right now.

That, in my mind, is the true gift of yoga.

lmc

Getting Stronger

Funny thing happened while taking on the 30-day Yoga Challenge with Debbie Williamson this past month – you know that when you’re consistent and work on improving something everyday – you get stronger. I say this in a “sorta” joking way since that’s a pretty obvious thing. BUT, at least for me, I rarely get myself into that mindset where I’m (really, really) committed to doing “a little something” everyday so that I can grow my skills, my knowledge, my writing, my whatever. So doing this challenge really nailed this concept down for me firsthand. It’s also pretty damn cool connecting with fellow yogis across the country (granted, a good portion of Debbie’s tribe are Wisconsinites, of which, I am also one!) – sharing our goals, our challenges, our small steps being made, the funny things that might happen along the way, perhaps even our deeper observations of self and how this journey might really be striking a cord at the moment. A breath of fresh air.

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30-Day Yoga Challenge

I didn’t do “my challenge” EVERY SINGLE DAY but of the 30 days, I probably hit it for 25. That’s pretty damn good in my book and for those days I didn’t, I decided not to beat myself up about it. Maybe my arms really needed a rest or maybe I just needed not to be accountable that day. The point is that – overall – I really rocked it! Since I’ve been wanting to jump back into chaturanga from crow (see pic below) for a while now, I decided that my daily goal would be to hold crow 2x for a minute each time. Since I really don’t enjoy L-shaped handstand (thus the real challenge) but know it really builds strength, I also held L-shaped handstand 2x daily for a minute each time. I “threw in” holding a forearm plank and high plank too just for kicks and giggles. Now believe me – while holding these poses did get easier, I would still be squirming, losing focus, stopping my breath and itching for the final 30 seconds to GET DONE pretty much every time I held L-shaped. A great practice in patience, perseverance and “breathing through” any real challenge that might arise – on the mat or in life.

bakasanatochaturanga

This was my goal – which I have now achieved – jumping back from crow into chaturanga. Now I’ve got to work on having enough arm strength to float into up dog.

I’m inspired to continue with my “daily challenge” and I’m thinking about expanding and getting a little crazy creative – maybe even starting to hold my full handstand (still against the wall, of course). I tried it out the other day and did a 30-second hold 2x. I even brought my feet from against the wall and challenged my balance, holding in mid-air for like 3 seconds. As my yoga teacher, Heather, always says — milliseconds count! So, I’ll have to keep you updated on my progress. In the meantime, I challenge you to think about stepping up and exploring with something like this – especially if you are already a yogi or even if you aren’t and are interested in seeing what yoga can possibly bring to your life. Start with a simple down dog. Holding and breathing deeply in down dog, even for 20 seconds or so, can help release tension and get the blood moving, just like that. Simple simple! It’s a start that can open the door to a life-changing practice.

Samskaras

The other day in yoga class, my teacher Heather, brought up this notion of samskara. It’s something I hadn’t heard of, but as I’m exploring, I’m finding that it’s something that I’m thinking about all of the time. And pretty much have for most of my life.

Samskara is a Sanskrit term that refers to our natural tendencies to be, act and feel in certain ways. Whether it stems from our conditioning, experiences or deeply rooted ideas about life, samskaras are grooves that we fall into on a regular basis. They can be positive or negative.

One example for me is feeling overwhelmed when I have too much stimuli coming at me or too many details/items to organize and take care of (both of these usually relate to our kiddos). I’m not sure if it’s because I tend to be overly anal, controlling, or thrive on peace, order and calm, but that’s likely it.

I’ve always been that way. I’m guessing it’s partly genetic as my mom and grandma both exhibit these tendencies, although one might argue to an even greater extent. It’s probably related to being the oldest child and being an “only child” until the age of five when my sister Patty was born. Any way you slice it, I’ve always needed to feel in control of my environment.

So what does yoga have to do with this and why is Heather bringing it up this concept of samskara in class? Because yoga has the power to dissolve our samskaras that might not be in our best interests. We use our experience of intense heat and focus (which happens during our asanas) to train ourselves to not attach and instead be open to new pathways and possibilities. Modes of being. Through the practice we turn inward and begin to drill down through some of these blockages, these tendencies that no longer serve us. By setting our intention we begin to create new tendencies that take root and grow.

This week I’m paying special attention to samskaras I wish to create in my life. I can already feel a spark happening on several fronts. I’m developing “less tight and constrained” ways of being. I’m developing healthier habits when it comes to nourishing my body. I’m starting to cut a groove in “upping” my game when it comes to creating and writing and moving onward and upward.