by Lynn Theodose

Serene Tips for Designing an at Home Yoga Space

As many of us still work from home and the world is ever-changing, some of us feel like there’s no escape from home. You might be looking for a way to relieve some stress with some peace and serenity in your home. The answer could be as simple as finding the perfect place in your house for a yoga space.

Whether you live in a studio apartment in Seattle, WA or a large home in Dallas, TX, all you need is a little space and some calming decor for the perfect at home yoga space. We’ve reached out to yoga experts across the country for their easiest and most serene tips for designing the perfect at home yoga space for your practice.

Have the right space. To create the ideal at-home yoga space you’ll want to pick a room with enough space. You should be able to stretch your hands up and all around without touching any walls or furniture. Then place your laptop or tablet about 9 feet away from your mat, so your online teacher can see you from head to toe, even when you’re standing. – Will Allen, Co-Founder of myYogaTeacher

Find the place with the most serene energy. Scan your house for any potential inside or outside areas that have the most serene energy. Sometimes, that is not as easy as it may seem, but it just takes dropping in and really feeling the energy of each space. Quiet is key, but also the sounds of the birds can be really beautiful. Add some design elements and nature to the space like beautiful plants or flowers, some crystals or put up some inspiring art. Just make sure everything you choose has calming, focused energy. You don’t want to put up a chaotic, red painting for example. It’s important to have the space and mat feel clean before beginning a practice. Listening to classical music or something soothing can also help to calm the nervous system and focus. – Erica Simone, Sacred Yoga Shop (use coupon REDFIN10 for $10 OFF any mat)

Limit the noise in favor of soothing sounds. When you are creating a space in your home to practice yoga you want to focus on creating peace and limiting distractions. I suggest using a space in your house where you won’t hear a lot of noise or be disturbed easily by those who live with you. It is a great idea to use soft lighting, include a little water feature or find some pretty candles to set the mood- whatever will help bring you peace and joy. – Jessica R. Fuller, The Hot Yoga Spot

Having a private space will limit distractions. Make sure to find a space where you can close a door or create privacy so that there are no interruptions.  Also try to find a place that is non-carpeted so you don’t slip. – Amy Vetter, Owner, eRYT-200 DRISHTIQ Yoga

Have everything nearby so there’s less distractions. Before I practice Yoga, I make sure my space is clean, smells good (I burn incense or a candle), have appropriate props (blanket or bolster),a glass of water nearby, and silence my phone. That way there’s less reason for me to have to pause my practice because I have everything I need surrounding me, with no distractions. – The Pure Bag

Store your yoga props where you can see them. If you’re short on space and don’t have the luxury of a yoga room keep all your yoga props in an easy to access bin, box, or basket where you can see it. The key is, where you can see it. This way you’ll always have the reminder to get on your mat. Plus, yoga props nowadays are pretty beautiful with bright colors and designs, no need to store them in a closet where they may not see the light of day. – Sarah Bodnar, Co-owner of Three Birds Yoga Studio

Keep your yoga mat rolled out. Our top recommendation for new yogis trying to create a healthy yoga habit is to always keep your yoga mat rolled out. If the yoga mat is rolled up in your closet, it’s easy to forget about it. Having it out in the open means that practicing yoga is always just a few steps away. – Shayna Hasson, Yoga Beyond the Studio

Get the whole household involved. If you have kids, creating the yoga space together encourages them to practice yoga with you and/or by themselves, as well as to respect the yoga room or corner as a special place of calm in your house. Give it a fun name like Relaxation Station, or Zen Den, and have everyone place a unique object in the space that represents love, peace, and happiness. – Sünje O’Clancy, MA, E-RYT, RCYT Founder of Yoga Rascals

Choose calming colors and a clean space. 
If you are able to dedicate an entire room to your home yoga space, consider a repaint of the walls with a natural earth tone or calming color. If you need to dedicate a space in a room versus the entire room, try to get the space around you as clean as you can so you are able to come back to that consistent space each day. Simplify and declutter to make the space feel calming. Accent your space with plants or any meaningful object you would like such as a singing bowl and your favorite props. Make it feel clean and cleanse the space with fresh air, sage, vibrations from a singing bowl and sunlight. Create a special area where you can relax and enjoy your practice. – Keala & Nicole, In Balance Yoga Studio

Make it all about simplicity. Since I both practice yoga and teach yoga classes online, I see lots of spaces via video. Some look cluttered and others are almost the picture-perfect setup with a place for yoga props, a couple of mats, and beautiful decorative elements, like a Ganesha painting or tapestry in the background. You don’t need to go out of your way to create a ‘perfect’ yoga space at home. All you need is a clear section of a room – enough space for your mat, and your computer or screen. I recommend doing away with clutter to create a more peaceful atmosphere – a space you can carve out just for you. From there, you can add in a plant or two, a designated corner for your props and perhaps a ring light to cast more light on your space. As I like to tell my teachers: Less is more – Robyn Parets, Founder of Pretzel Kids yoga

Natural light brings peace to your space. Our #1 tip for creating the perfect yoga space at home is to find an area with abundant natural lighting. Natural light is soothing for the nervous system for all times of day – energizing you in the mornings and quieting the mind in the evenings. – Tiffany Pridgen, Glow Yoga

Make sure you have lots of light and air. Set up your mat in a comfortable space with as much light and air as possible and room to move comfortably. That sometimes means moving a few pieces of smaller furniture around, especially in smaller New York City apartments. Since many people don’t have practice at home I often recommend having rolls of paper towels or large boxes around that can be used as yoga blocks. And when I teach my Pilates classes if people don’t have small weights they can use soup cans. – Harlem Yoga Studio

Keep your space clear and clutter-free. When creating a home yoga space you want to make it clutter-free and clean. You need a space where you can breathe deeply, turn your awareness in and move freely. Sweep away the dust and roll out your favorite yoga mat and get started – Tarra J. Madore, Smart Asana Yoga

Determine what items resonate & inspire calm in your space. Maybe your yoga/meditation room is full of your favorite books, colorful crystals, totems, candles, and small ritual items thoughtfully placed throughout the space, or tucked away on a shelf for when you feel called to use them. Test out taking items in and out of your space because sometimes it’s best to look at what you need to take away that will distract you from turning your gaze inward while you practice. – Mala Yoga

Incorporate all the elements: water, fire, earth, air. An ideal yoga space includes connection with all of the elements, such as using the element of water to infuse cleanliness and aroma through essential oils. The stimulating element of fire can be enhanced through yellow dimming adjustable lights, candles, or a large window to bring in sunlight, moonlight, and starlight. Grounding through the element of earth can be found by mounting a soothing artwork on one wall, placing a tall house plant in the corner, and leaving one wall empty for stability in handstand and headstand prep. Finally, the element of Air carries healing chimes from singing bowls or vibrations of worldly meditation music (like Karunesh) on a surround sound stereo. – Hannah Faulkner Roman, Half Moon Yoga and Art

Three elements will maintain the sacredness of your practice. Clear as much physical and visual distraction as possible to keep your mind present to your body. Collect your mat and props in a basket for easy access. Create a small altar or a tray that holds two or three meaningful things such as a candle to hold your drishti or gaze, incense to engage your senses with aromatherapy, and a small plant as a reminder to breathe deeply. Rolling out your mat and routinely lighting your candle and incense as a ritual to signify the start of your practice will help your journey to your mat feel purposeful. – Wildlight Yoga

Make your space bright and full of color. Create a colorful sanctuary that makes you excited to get moving. Brighten up your space with a bold yoga mat that doubles as a gorgeous accessory to your at-home setup. – Courtney, MySolMat

Less is more, but choose items you like. A yoga space should be clutter free. Infusing a sense of calm as you step on your mat. You don’t need an elaborate space for your yoga, but it’s fun to add something that brings you joy like your favorite plant, a picture of a dog doing yoga, or a candle. Create one dedicated space in your home for your yoga and watch it become your favorite spot. – Aham Yoga

Your space just needs to be intentional. Setting up a dedicated yoga space doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive; it just needs to be intentional.  #1- Turn Off Your Phone:  we need to disconnect to reconnect. Want music? Just put your phone on ‘do not disturb’  #2- Clear the energy in your space: burn Palo Santo, Sage, favorite incense, or light a candle.  #3- Create an Altar: turn to what inspires you. A photograph of a loved one to dedicate your practice to, a picture of the mountains to focus on grounding, a rose quartz crystal to tune into self love, a statue of Ganesha: The Remover of Obstacles – Marybeth Brady, Owner/ Director of Wild Heart Yoga

Your yoga space should be a place that is relaxing and inviting to you. A place that makes you want to practice yoga. I have a ton of candles and incense that I light and a small altar off to the right that I place a crystal, mala necklace for meditation, and a picture of my late grandmother (symbolically reminding me to always be strong no matter what life throws at you). Next to your mat keep a block, strap and yoga blanket for use during class. And lastly a journal for reflection, my mind is so much clearer after a practice. – Alyson Leinbach, Owner of Serenity Yoga Studio

Originally published by Redfin

Make More Love

“My body is my temple, and asanas are my prayers”- BKS Iyengar

Everything is crazy, right? It feels like we are living in a Star Wars movie, and the Evil Empire cannot be quelled. The events of last week are shocking, terrifying, and downright disheartening. I consciously surround myself with kind, compassionate people. I rarely interact with people consumed with rage and hatred, so it’s easy to convince myself that they are just a tiny cross-section of extremist who marinate in hate and racism, and traffic in conspiracy theories…pissed off, gun toting, whack jobs who slink around in the shadows. I am not naïve, but I am intentional in where I place my attention. I try so hard to focus on the good. But lately it seems like the forces of evil and hate are gaining strength and expanding, and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it except watch in horror as darkness strives to snuff out the light. I can’t imagine I’m the only one.

Yoga teaches us that we all have a shadow…those base thoughts and feelings that hide in the depths of our unconscious…the yucky stuff we don’t want to look at. The work of the practice is to drag the demons out from under the bed and into the light of our awareness. We cannot evaluate or change what we fail to acknowledge. Well, the dark underbelly of our collective distortions has been exposed, and it ain’t pretty. Fear, anger, hate, intolerance, and bloodlust are wide-awake, and on full display, right here at home. We can’t wish or reason it away. But we also can’t let it go unchecked. We must work like hell to embolden the light. We must challenge the anger and fear we feel in response to the anger and fear we’re seeing in the world. We must dig deeper than ever to liberate the wellspring of love within. To quote Dr. King, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”  We are made of love. We are all connected in love – even those who have lost sight of it beneath the debris of fear and rage. Let us stoke the flames of love and compassion in our own hearts, until they light up the world, devouring the darkness. We are not powerless. Here are a few practices to explore in these frightening times:

It is very profound to begin each yoga practice with an intention, and end each practice with a dedication. Remember that we do this practice not only for ourselves, but to help raise the collective vibration, and heal all sentient beings. When we set our intention, – “I use my breath and body as instruments of peace.” – every moment on the mat serves that aim. Our actions advance our intentions. Our movement becomes a prayer and benediction. I always end my practice with an offering. I bow my head to the earth and say, “May my efforts here today help to ease the world’s suffering, including my own.” In this way my practice becomes a gift to all.
In this meditation, we slowly expand our sphere of loving kindness to include everyone, everywhere. To begin, sit comfortably, close your eyes, and breathe deeply into your belly. Picture yourself, maybe as an innocent child, and offer yourself this blessing, “May I be happy. May I be healthy, May I be at peace. May I be free.” Repeat this for a few moments. Then invite in someone you love (your child, partner, pet, friend, etc…) Offer this person the same blessing, “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be at peace. May you be free.” Next, picture somebody you feel neutral about (a neighbor, the cashier at the grocery store, a coworker, etc…) Extend the prayer to her. Finally, welcome somebody you feel animosity towards (your nemesis, your ex, an enraged neo-nazi, etc…). Look this wounded person in the eye, and tell him, “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be at peace. May you be free.” This may not be easy, and you may not feel sincere. But keep practicing and reaching for those same heartfelt feelings of love and compassion you extended to your nearest and dearest.
In this practice we use our breath and loving attention to transmute negativity into positivity, and suffering into love. We offer ourselves as vessels of healing. Sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes, and focus on your breath. As you inhale, draw in pain, fear and darkness. You might visualize it as a black stream flowing in. Pause and sit with it for a moment, lovingly. On the out breath, offer love and compassion in its place. Maybe your exhale is golden or sparkly. Repeat. Tonglen is a brave and radical practice, and it can be very uncomfortable at first. It encourages us to welcome, examine, and ultimately heal, those feelings we spend so much time trying to avoid. This practice greatly expands our compassion for ourselves, and the universal suffering of all humanity.
Please don’t lose hope! Remember how powerful you are. Be fiercely loving, and fearless in your efforts to help heal the pains of this world. We are peaceful warriors, tender-hearted heroes, and we are needed now more than ever. Charge!!!

Mute the Commentary

I don’t know if you saw it, but last spring a British sportscaster began commentating his dogs’ daily interactions. With sporting events suspended due to Covid, the poor guy found himself at a loss. He was a sports announcer with nothing to report. It was his job, his lifeblood, and he needed something to call. It’s hilarious. And it got me thinking about how we all have an inner commentator who’s always on the job. It’s that pesky voice in the skybox, watching and analyzing our every move. And I don’t know about you, but my commentator is awfully judgey.

I clearly remember the moment she arrived. It was one of those awkward 7th grade dances. Boys and girls stood in their neutral corners for much of the evening. And then a song came on that couldn’t be denied (probably Journey or Foreigner), so my girlfriends and I hit the dance floor en mass and boogied with wild abandon. A bit later, a very cute boy boldly told me, “I was watching you dance out there. I love the way you move.” And it dawned on me with growing horror that I had been watched and evaluated. And although the judgment was positive, it was also soul crushing. Self-consciousness was born, kicking and screaming. The ecstasy of moving to the music, and being free inside my body was forever tainted by the awareness of potential scrutiny. And once this watcher and judge woke up, she moved right into my head. She put on her jacket, clipped on her microphone, and settled in to report and dissect my every waking move. “It’s a beautiful day in Lynn’s World, Folks! I’ll be bringing you all the action…Live!” 

Sportscasters often work in pairs. You’ve got the play-by-play guy reporting the action, and the color man, who’s there to provide context, analysis and background. The duo in my head sounds something like this:

Play-by-play: “Wow, She’s really crumbling in down dog today…yep, there she goes into child’s pose!”

Color: “Well, you hate to see that, although this shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone. She is getting a bit older, and has only been on the mat a couple times this week. I’m not sure she’ll be able to recover from this one!”

Play-by-play: “Ouch! That joke certainly fell flat. The silence is deafening.”

Color: “That’s true! You know she’s feeling the sting from that one. She might want to think about keeping her mouth shut a little more often! Remember that time back in college…”

Play-by-play: “She just taught a lovely yoga class that really seemed to resonate with her students.”

Color: “Yes, this was a good one, but considering that she was an early round draft pick, you’d think we’d see her succeed with more regularity. While we’ve seen a hint of her potential today, she rarely seems to live up to the initial hype.”

These two are snarky and rude. They comprise the Internal Critic, whose only job is to analyze and disparage all things ME. They speak with such authority on the subject, and like our bored British sportscaster will find things to report on, even in the off-season, “Seems like she could be using this Covid time to get more things accomplished. What’s with all the resting?” Thankfully, I also have an Inner Cheerleader, but she’s often relegated to the sidelines, and it can be hard to hear her megaphone over the Critic’s booming mic. We all have countless contradictory thoughts and ideas vying for our attention. For some of us the Critic is turned up way too loud. So, how do we turn it off?

We PRACTICE. Yoga and meditation are designed to bring us into the stillness and quiet needed to sift through the crowd of thoughts swirling through our minds. When we familiarize ourselves with our habitual thought patterns, we learn to recognize all the different voices clamoring to be heard. The voice of the critic is subtly different from the voice that truly knows when we’re veering off course, or living contrary to our deepest values. It’s a voice born from all the unflattering messages we’ve absorbed from external sources – society, family, media…all the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts”.  Once we know what our Internal Critic sounds like, we can pause when we hear that grating voice, and tell ourselves, “Oh, there’s the critic again. I don’t need to listen to that drivel.” And every time we catch, identify, and discard the critic’s unwelcome commentary, we turn the volume down just the tiniest bit, until one day, God willing, we can’t hear it at all.

Sports announcers exist for the fans. They provide insight and entertainment for the spectators. But their constant chatter is nothing but a distraction for the players. The players are on the field to play. We come to the mat to learn about ourselves, and reconnect with the goodness and authenticity we tend to lose sight of in the noise of the day to day. We come to experience the wonder of living inside our bodies. Evaluating our performance pulls us out of the game and deposits us up in the stands, removed from the action. We come into existence to learn, to feel, to remember our divinity, and to experience the miracle of being alive in human form. Why waste our precious time listening to some inner “expert” who’s convinced that we’re doing it all wrong? Let’s mute the commentary, and Play Ball!

Begin Again

So, here we are at another New Year. For most of us, it is a time of reflections and resolutions… a moment to look back at the year behind us – the challenges, victories, missteps, and lessons. And gaze into the year ahead – identify opportunities for positive change, reassess our goals and priorities, and imagine what we might become. Although it is an arbitrary moment on a man-made calendar, New Years Day is considered a reset point. After the year we’ve had, it certainly feels like a poignant moment of possibility and optimism…and a much needed return to hope.

Unfortunately, we’re not going to wake up on January 1st to find the pandemic eradicated, or the economy fully recovered, but as we turn the page on another year, the possibilities seem closer somehow. It is the perfect moment to explore the first teaching of the Patanjali Yoga Sutra. Atha Yoga Anushasanam– Now the process of yoga is explained (PYS 1.1). The 196 sacred seeds of yoga wisdom open with an invitation. I like to translate this sutra “And now the yoga begins again…” The very first word “Atha” or “Now”, is a prayer found at the beginning of many spiritual texts. It indicates an auspicious moment of readiness, a continuation, a next step, a fresh start. This first sutra rolls out the red carpet for anyone interested in following along with the teachings, right now, regardless of whether we have explored them before. No beginning takes place in a vacuum, but rather follows that which has led up to it. We can choose more of the same, or move towards a pivot or reversal. Even the tiniest shift can lead to great change down the line. Imagine you are preparing to walk a hundred miles. If you turn even one degree to the right or left as you start out, you will end up somewhere very different at the end of your journey. Atha is a ripe opportunity to move in the direction of a more authentic and peaceful future.

Whether or not we’re aware of it, we are constantly shaping our future. Our thoughts are the architects of our actions. Our actions are the building blocks for our experiences. Yoga teaches us to familiarize ourselves with the thoughts that drive us, so we can decide which ones align with the future we desire. When we put in the work to uncover our unconscious triggers and biases, we stop reacting and lashing out in ways that damage our relationships and wound our sense of self. As we clear away the cobwebs of our unexamined beliefs, we begin to move through the world with clarity, and learn to avoid kneejerk reactions that can lead to unnecessary suffering. Yoga is a tool for cultivating peace, and a time tested method for reuniting with source. The yoga path is always there, just waiting for us to take a step. How wonderful that we don’t have to wait another 365 days to begin again! The possibility for the smallest shift in behavior, thought patterns, or perspective is available any time. We can recommit again and again…

Every Practice – “As I set my intention and chant “Om” to plug into universal assistance, I listen to what my body is asking for, prioritize my breath, remain on the lookout for self-criticism, and cultivate gratitude for all of my blessings.”

Every Asana – “I focus on my own practice with honesty and curiosity. I build this pose from the ground up, with loving attention to detail, mindful of where I am pushing too hard or holding back out of fear.”

Every Interaction – “I remain open, patient, and compassionate. I understand that everyone is battling demons I cannot see. I seek out the best in everyone, and excuse any unkindness as a manifestation of unattended pain or fear.”

Every Breath – “I draw this breath deep into the places of tension in my body, pause in fullness, and invite release. I let this breathe go with faith, and surrender into the emptiness that follows…confident that the next breath will come”

Every Moment – “I choose to stay present, accepting the reality of this moment. I investigate my inner landscape, and recognize the urge to react. I pause & consider the most appropriate and loving response.”

Yoga teaches us that we always have a choice in how we meet each moment. Every second we are alive is another opportunity to choose love, peace, kindness, forgiveness, tolerance, patience, and acceptance. Even if we have never made those choices before. The past is behind us, and the future lies ahead. The direction we face NOW determines where we will end up. 

Happy New Year, Everyone! Celebrate a new chapter. Embrace the transition between past and present, old and new. Bid adieu to what you’re leaving behind, and welcome what you’re moving towards. And in this stillness between what was and what will be, remember to take a deep breath and marinate in the brief beauty of what is.

A Christmas Wish

2020 – What a year. The Yogis believe that we come to the Earth School to learn, evolve, and enjoy the adventure of our unfolding. As it turns out, it is often the times of greatest discomfort that lead to the deepest insights. Comfort is just so darn comfortable, and sometimes circumstances beyond our control are necessary to shake us out of our complacency, and guide us to new ways of seeing ourselves, and the world. The yoga mat is microcosm of life, so it’s unsurprising that this difficult year has taught us many of the same lessons gleaned from a challenging yoga practice. And while I will be as happy as anyone to see 2020 in the rearview mirror, I’ve learned a few things along the way, and I hope you have, too… 

We Can Do Hard Things– Do you remember back in March, when it all began? How we couldn’t imagine staying at home, not seeing loved ones, wearing masks all the time, online school? And yet, we’re doing it. I am astounded by the way my low-tech husband has mastered online teaching, and my stepchildren have adapted to remote learning. I’m surprised by how connected I can feel to friends by just keeping a group text thread going. It turns out we are incredibly adaptable. It’s why yoga poses have modifications, and bricks, belts, and bolsters are available for extra support. While this past year has looked nothing like what most of us expected, we are getting through it, and may be better for it in the end.

Respect Your Limits– I tend towards nervousness, and recognized immediately that in order to come through this pandemic with my mental health intact, I needed to err on the side of caution. At first it was hard to turn down invitations– Everyone has varying comfort levels regarding risk, and I would wonder if I was overreacting…or just being a weenie. Maybe. But it’s what works for me, and I no longer apologize. As we gain a deeper understanding of ourselves through our yoga practice, we learn not to push past our limits, to respect our boundaries. It’s how we avoid injury, exhaustion and burnout. When we let go of our ideals about what a pose, or a year, should look like, we develop acceptance, patience and fortitude, and discover the relief found in surrender.

The Importance Of Rest– We often tend to gauge our worth by how busy & productive we are…how much we can get done. On the mat, we learn to rest in child’s pose when our breath becomes labored, signaling that our nervous systems are over-taxed. In a year of collective grief, fear, and trauma, we may have found ourselves requiring extra rest. Hopefully we’ve discovered that downtime, those hours spent reading, resting, binge watching Netflix, sleeping more than usual, or simply sitting with our breath, is not a waste of time, but absolutely necessary. We cannot sustain ourselves on high alert for long periods of time. We must pause and recharge to be able to fight again another day.

Don’t Miss The Point– Talk about perspective. The point of deep backbend is not an Instagram worthy pose, but rather to practice relaxing into fear, finding peace in the midst of uncertainty, and learning a bit about ourselves along the way. During this trying time I’ve rediscovered what’s truly important. I’ve come to prioritize my closest relationships. I have remembered the significance of a small gesture…a moment of commiseration with a neighbor on a dog walk, a quick check-in with a friend. I have doubled down on self-care: rest, home-cooked meals, long walks, snuggle time with my man and my dog. Instead of worrying that our kids are falling behind, I’ve found inspiration in watching them rise to the occasion, learn the power of adaptability, and recognize that personal sacrifices are worth making for the greater good. While I miss restaurants and live music and girls’ outings, I appreciate a good dinner in my warm home more than ever…and the beauty found in simple moments.  

Community Is Powerful– My teacher often says, “Together we can do so much more than we ever could alone.” As we go through this global crisis, it has been so inspiring to see countless displays of courage, compassion, and communion: Italians singing on their balconies during lock down. Doctors and nurses working horrific hours, risking their lives everyday. Neighbors running errands for each other. Thousands of volunteers running food banks. The Wall of Moms.  Young children raising money for Covid relief…and endless other examples of heroism.  And to all of the people around the world who have set aside their personal desires, and made hard choices to help keep everyone safe… Thank you.

So, my Christmas Wish is that, as we go forward, we continue to integrate the lessons we have learned this year. May we always remember that we are stronger than we think we are, more adaptable than previously imagined, infinitely capable of peace, and above all, we are ALL IN THIS TOGETHER. 

Wishing you all a peaceful and joyful holiday.

Eye of the Hurricane

Batten down the hatches!!! In addition to all its other unexpected developments, 2020 has emerged as a record-breaking year for hurricanes. Hurricanes are rude and inelegant. They sweep in, loud and chaotic, trampling everything in their path. They are unpredictable, frightening, and unstoppable. And for those who are forced to ride them out, the only option is to tuck in, hunker down, and pray for deliverance. Sounds a bit like everything this unique year has served up – the pandemic, a completely new way of living-working-learning, financial hardship, social unrest, political chaos…(add your personal challenges here). And now, just when we are drenched and exhausted, and can’t possibly deal with anything else, here comes the annual Holiday Hurricane! While this time of year can be Merry and Bright, it can also be hectic, expensive, and stressful. It is fraught with unrealistic expectations of how it’s supposed to look and how it’s supposed to feel. You might feel the added pressure of trying to create holiday magic in a season that looks very different from previous years. Many of you are already experiencing the force of this latest storm. But let’s not forget that within the maelstrom of every hurricane lies a calm and quiet eye. What if we could live there?

Patanjali tells us we can. According to the Yoga Sutra, the state of yoga is accessed through a combination of effort and release. The word for release, Vairagya, refers to dispassion, acceptance, and surrender. We let go of our attachment to a particular outcome, and meet every moment with openhearted curiosity. We embrace the adventure of experiencing everything, while learning how to tap into our center, regardless of the situation. When we have mastered the art of detachment, we become so firmly grounded in our inner strength and divinity that we are no longer affected by the forces around and within us (PYS 1.16). We stand firm and unflappable in the eye of the hurricane. Sounds great, right? So how do we get there?

We practice. It is much easier to find peace in a silent temple, quiet yoga studio, or tranquil forest than in the noise and frenetic activity of everyday life. In moments of peace, and within the controlled experiment of our yoga practice, we can work to build, and continually reinforce, a fortress of wisdom and stillness within. The mat is the perfect place to learn to calm ourselves. Backbends and inversions teach us how to move through fear. Deep lunges show us we can survive, and even relax into, discomfort. As we work towards challenging poses, we learn that we can do hard things, and reach our goals by working carefully and methodically. And our favorite asanas can teach us the lesson of fortitude. These are the poses that feel great…at least during the honeymoon phase. Adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog) can feel wonderful at first…the lengthening of tight hamstrings, the unfurling of the spine. It’s easy to relax when it feels good. But if we can continue to stay and breath deeply when our arms begin to shake and our shoulders begin to burn, then we slowly expand the boundaries of our comfort zones. In meditation we learn to identify our habitual thoughts, emotional patterns, and hidden resistances, and discover how to investigate and release them without being triggered or hijacked. As we grow more familiar with our tendencies and more adept at relaxing into discomfort, we shore ourselves up to withstand any future turmoil (inner and outer) that may threaten to throw us off center. We learn to assess a situation, take a deep breath, and respond instead of react. The more we practice inhabiting our inner stillness, the more proficient we become at accessing it…until, eventually, we live there fulltime. My teacher likes to say, “There is very little worth losing your peace of mind over.” As we continue to practice surrender and release, we recognize that while we may not be able to control everything that happens in our lives, we hold the key to an inner refuge. From the safety of this sanctuary we can meet each challenge with grace and clarity.  

So, even as this year continues to challenge us, please keep practicing…whatever that looks like for you right now. Grab onto moments of quiet when you find them. Be willing to put yourself in uncomfortable positions. Let go of the myth of perfection and do the best you can on any given day. Invite your fears, worries, and sorrows to come a little closer so you can get a good look at them. And them thank them for coming and show them the door. All hurricanes pass eventually. When the sun comes back out, assess the damage, clean up the debris, and fortify the foundation….so the next time the weather turns, you are calm, prepared, and ready to withstand whatever comes your way.

My Christmas wish is that we all learn to live in the eye of the hurricane. To stand still, serene, and self-contained as the howling winds of our ceaseless thoughts and the driving rain of outer circumstances rage around us. May we all stay safe and calm and warm and dry inside the peaceful shelter of our hearts.

Falling From Grace

It happens. Sometimes we fall off the mat. Life gets busy or hard or complicated, and our yoga practice falls by the wayside. Maybe it’s due to a major life shift – having a baby, relocating, a job change, getting married or divorced, injury or illness, a death in the family…etc. Or sometimes something as simple as your schedule changing, your favorite class being cancelled, travel plans, or good old -fashioned exhaustion and overwhelm can come between you and your practice. Maybe it happens slowly…you start practicing less and less frequently until you realize that weeks, months, or years have gone by, or maybe it happens all at once. Either way, it can be very discouraging, and quite a shock!

The Covid pandemic has certainly been a hurdle for many of us. Some studio classes aren’t available, or we don’t feel comfortable interacting in public. Many of our lives are disrupted and regular schedules are skewed. Maybe everyone is home all the time now, and it’s challenging to find a quiet time and space to go inward. Maybe you’re extra busy home schooling your kids. Maybe your nerves are simply frayed and you find yourself paralyzed by all the fear and worry and muddling through. Add in the extra pressure of the holidays, and we can end up feeling like something’s got to give. If you have found yourself disconnected from your yoga practice, I just want to let you know that it is natural and normal and okay. And I want to reassure you that it is possible to get it back.

In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali reminds us that it takes a very, very long time of uninterrupted practice, with earnestness and heart-felt devotion, to become firmly grounded in our practice. (PYS 1.14) Backsliding is often part of the journey. So, if you’ve abandoned your practice and are grieving the loss, forgive yourself, keep the faith, and begin again!

The good news it that taking a break from our practice can come with an unexpected bonus. When we return to yoga after time away, we often rediscover the power of the Beginner’s Mind, that sense of openness and wonder we felt when we first came to the practice. As we reacquaint ourselves with our bodies, which may be very different than the last time we were on the mat, everything feels new again. We get to rediscover our strengths and weaknesses, and re-examine the stories we tell ourselves about our challenges and abilities. It is common to bemoan what we have lost in our time away – flexibility, strength, endurance. But these things will return. Our bodies remember. And we might find that what we gain – a fresh perspective and a new appreciation for our practice and ourselves – is even more valuable.

Here are a few suggestions for getting back into your practice:

Start Slow – With yoga, a little goes a long way, and you want to set yourself up for success. If you tell yourself you have to get up at 5am and practice for 90 minutes, five days a week, you are bound to encounter resistance. Maybe you start with a modest goal – 3 sun salutations and five minutes of sitting quietly every other day. Maybe you just commit to one class a week, or lying with your legs up the wall for a few minutes each evening before bed. It often takes the gentlest of nudges for inertia to give way to momentum.

Or Dive In – You know yourself best. Maybe you’re the kind of person who needs to jump in with both feet to get things rolling. They say it takes at least 21 days to establish a new habit. Maybe you commit to a month of consecutive daily Zoom or in-studio classes. Chances are good you’ll be right back in your yoga groove by the end of the run.

Re-evaluate – It’s entirely possible that your past practice no longer fits your present needs. Perhaps you need something more gentle and nourishing right now, or maybe it’s time to crank things up. Maybe you want to consider trying a new teacher or a completely different style of yoga. Make it an adventure, and try to have some fun. You might discover new things about yourself or an unexpected practice that feels just right.

Buddy Up –It is more important than ever to find ways to connect with the people we love. You and a friend could try the same online class, or explore something totally different, like Ariel Yoga, together. Perhaps you just both commit to a 30- minute home practice most days, and hold one another accountable. Meanwhile you can send each other inspiring yoga articles and videos to reignite your love of the practice.

One of the beautiful truths about yoga is that it is always there, waiting for us. Let’s leave the past in the past and come into the beauty of the present. NOW is the only time that matters. Remember that Ahimsa (loving kindness) is vital to the process. Please don’t use yoga as another opportunity to give yourself a hard time. If you’ve fallen off the mat for a bit, let the shame and self-judgment go, and just climb back on. It doesn’t matter how long it has taken for you to return, you are welcome, you are home.

Give Thanks

It’s going to be a very different Thanksgiving for many of us this year. I’m going to miss seeing my dad before heading down to Roanoke for a raucous afternoon with my husband’s extended family, cheering on the family football game, and meeting the new baby. I will miss my traditional post-Thanksgiving weekend in Blacksburg with friends and a Hokie game. My mom will spend the day alone with her dog. The temptation is strong to bemoan everything we have lost this year…to lament the traditions that mark the season, to miss reconnecting with the people we don’t see often enough. It is natural and normal to feel disappointed and a little cheated. 

I challenge us all to dig a little deeper this year…to recognize that all is not lost, and to shift our attention to the things we are grateful for. Let us be thankful for the simple things, big and small. Let us change our perspective and recognize our countless blessings. I give thanks for the food that will grace my table, my husband and stepchildren and dog, my continued health, the doctors and nurses who are risking their lives to help others, the brilliant scientists who have created vaccines, the angels at the food banks, my warm home, Zoom and Facetime. And Yoga…I am so grateful for Yoga. 

Yoga is the gift that keeps on giving. It is available to us anywhere and anytime. As long as there is a breath in your body, you can rest your attention upon it and reconnect with deeper truths…that we are all connected beyond the plane of time and space. That love transcends geography. That it is a sacred duty and honor to sacrifice our personal desires for the greater good. Yoga gives us so much, and asks only that we keep showing up and doing our best. Let us be thankful for its many gifts: 

Physical Health: Yoga keeps us strong and flexible. It is a full-body practice that strengthens and purifies. A consistent yoga practice can keep us vital and healthy deep into old age. A pliable body helps us avoid injury, and the practices can help us heal many of the things that ail us. It improves balance and organ function, lubricates the joints, increases respiratory and circulatory performance, and prevents diseases caused by stagnation. 

Mental Health: Yoga quiets our minds. It helps us establish intimacy with our self-limiting thought patterns. It gives us the opportunity to question the thoughts we feed ourselves on a daily basis. It shows us where we are blind or stuck, and encourages us to take control of our own mind stuff. It hands us the key to the cage of unnecessary suffering. 

Emotional Health: We do not have to be slaves to our emotions! Emotions rise and fall like waves. As we turn inward and begin to track the lifespan of our emotions, we discover that we can let them come and go without getting hijacked. We become observers instead of victims of our varying emotional states. As we take a small step back and watch the waves roll in and out (Isn’t it fascinating?!), we gain equanimity and perspective, and finally freedom from the rollercoaster.  

Personal Responsibility: Victimhood can be very seductive. “Poor me…this painful thing happened to me and now I am entitled to wallow in misery.” And we certainly can choose to wallow…but what a wasted opportunity! Yoga teaches us to play the cards we have been dealt. To start from where we are…injured, ill, heart-broken, disenfranchised, traumatized, or whatever challenges we might be facing. “It’s not FAIR!!!!”, but so what. Regardless of our circumstances, yoga invites us to pick up the reins of responsibility for our health and our lives. YOU are in control of your own healing. YOU have the ability to take your power back. Get radically honest with yourself to identify what you need to thrive…and then get busy making it happen!! Helen Keller, Stephen Hawking, Nelson Mandela, kids with cancer in their blood and joy in their hearts…and so many countless others who have gotten a “raw deal”, can inspire us to move out of victimhood and into greatness!! 

Community:It’s been said that 99% of spiritual advancement is who we hang out with. The yoga path is a lifelong journey, and I am forever grateful for the fellow pilgrims I have met along the way! Those of us seeker deeper meaning in life, and the most authentic and loving center of ourselves, need each other now more than ever. It seems the world is getting more divided and shallow all the time. Distractions are everywhere as we are encouraged to worship at the altars of busy, successful, attractive, outraged, and relevant. Let us come together on the mat…in the studio, on the internet, in the park or our living rooms, in our hearts and minds. Let us remind each other of our inner beauty and inherent worth. Let us love and support each other on the quest for peace and self- acceptance. Let us stoke one another’s flames so we can shine our collective brilliance out into the darkened corners of the world. It is our life’s work and a priceless gift.

Wishing you all a blessed holiday, whatever it looks like this year. Thank you, Yoga!!! Thank you, Yoga Community! I am so grateful for YOU!!

Push and Pull

Wherever you go, there you are. No matter how old, wise, mature, disciplined, or spiritually advanced you are today, the toddler you once were still lives inside you. This little person wants what she wants when she wants it. And this little person has no interest in things that are unpleasant or uncomfortable. Your inner toddler has no problem wreaking havoc to get her way. She will happily create chaos in your house, the grocery store, the park…etc, until concerned bystanders start wondering if they should call child protective services. 

Our inner toddlers are the embodiment of Raga and Dvesha (attachment and aversion). These natural human tendencies are two of the five mental disturbances, called Klesha, that are most often responsible for taking us out of the present moment and into unnecessary suffering, for ourselves and everyone around us.  

Let’s look at Raga (attachment to pleasure) (PYS 2.7). Of course we enjoy pleasant experiences. It feels good to feel good! And the yoga teachings encourage us to enjoy ourselves along the way to self-realization. It’s not the pleasant experience itself that gets us into trouble, but rather the immediate desire to repeat it. I know that I am powerless against peanut M & M’s, and will never be able to eat one potato chip. But I also know that if I blindly follow these delicious cravings wherever they lead, I will end up obese, diabetic, and toothless. That does not match my long-term goals. How often do extra-marital affairs lead to peace and harmony? Most of us are old enough to recognize that the indiscriminate pursuit of pleasure can result in future suffering – guilt, regret, indigestion, hangover, STDs, addiction…etc. But how easy it is to forget in a moment of burning desire! 

And then there’s Dvesha (aversion to pain) (PYS 2.8). Unfortunately, uncomfortable situations and feelings are part of the human experience. For those of us on the yogic path, they are vital to our growth and awareness. On the mat, it’s often the poses we avoid that we need the most. Again, the problem is not this tendency to avoid discomfort, but the fact that it’s immediately followed by the desire to never repeat it again. When we avoid discomfort at all costs, we end up suffering more. Have you ever stayed in an unfulfilling job to avoid the fear of the unknown on the other side? Or continued to beat the dead horse of a bad relationship rather than have a tough conversation or face the pain of loneliness? And then did you spend weeks, months or years marinating in your misery? Listen, I HATE going to the dentist. But honestly, it’s 2 hours out of the year for routine maintenance. But sometimes I start thinking and worrying about it days before my appointment. So instead of being uncomfortable for a few brief moments in the chair, I waste hours in the discomfort of dread…much unnecessary suffering! Meanwhile I miss the moment I’m in. 

It is a vital part of the spiritual maturation process to acknowledge Raga and Dvesha when they arise, examine them, and decide the best way to respond. We are not looking to ignore or eradicate our natural impulses. Often they serve us…the urge to recreate the high we get from a good workout, learning not to touch a hot stove…the key is to learn to recognize them (they can be sneaky), and pause to question before reacting to every urge. Enter Viveka Khyati – the sword of discriminative awareness that pierces through illusion and goes straight to the truth. In that poignant pause between the desire to advance or retreat, and the knee-jerk reactions that follow, draw your sword and ask the question, “Will this truly serve my growth and lead to lasting contentment, or rather lead me further from self-awareness and peace of mind?” We can spend our lives running towards what feels good and away from what feels bad, but we’re only going to end up exhausted and ultimately unsatisfied. 

Pay close attention – Every action has a consequence. Am I caught in a spiral of pleasure seeking? Am I trying to mask or avoid discomfort? If you want to get off of autopilot and take control of your own thoughts and actions…and their fallout…you need to move from reaction to response. When your inner toddler screams, “I want a piece of chocolate cake!!” ask yourself WHY? Are you just bored and looking for a quick sugar high? Are you feeling unloved and unappreciated, and trying to fill an emotional hole with baked goods? (We’ve all done it!) Or maybe you’d just really enjoy a delicious piece of cake. If you’re looking for the high, it will be short-lived and followed by a crash, possibly accompanied by guilt and self-loathing. If you’re trying to use cake as emotional nourishment, you’ll be disappointed to find that the band-aid won’t stay on. If you’d just like a piece of cake because it’s a wonderful thing to have from time to time (and proof that God loves us!), then enjoy every single bite…and get on with your life.

This Little Light of Mine

Here’s how I view the yoga process: Imagine a bright, clear light buried beneath a pile of rubble. This light is the pure beacon of divinity that resides in each of us. It is kindness, clarity, compassion, wisdom, and bliss. It is where the myth of separation falls away, and we feel our connection to the love that forms the matrix of the universe. It is always shining brightly beneath the confusion, neuroses, thought patterns, and emotional habits that keep us shrouded in darkness. It wants to be free! We use the yoga practices to identify and examine the debris of our misconceptions. It is only through investigation that we can locate, refine, and remove that which buries our light. With each piece of rubble we remove, the light within escapes through the cracks created and shines out into the world.

Sometimes we remove pebbles – Maybe you catch yourself judging your process on the mat and choose to question the unkind thought. Sometimes we remove boulders – Perhaps during meditation you uncover that the root of a long held belief that you are unlovable originates from a family dynamic that requires dismantling. The yoga path is an endless process of discovering and discarding thoughts, beliefs, and tendencies that keep us separated from our inherent goodness and worth. It is long, hard work. Expect blood, sweat and tears, but the pay off is phenomenal. As we cart away the junk that fails to resonate with our highest good, we begin to vibrate with clarity and calm. And the light we unearth illuminates everyone around us. 

Recognize that the love labor of liberating your brilliance is a priceless gift to humanity. The personal flame we ignite sparks the light of awareness in others. As the spotlight of our knowing shines on those around us, it helps them locate the flicker within themselves…one candle lighting another. We are all energetically linked. Just think of how grounded and loved we feel around people who have found love and grounding within themselves…how drawn we are to true teachers and gurus who radiate peace and acceptance. My friend, Mike, once told me a beautiful story of flying home from Thailand. The moment he walked into the crowded and chaotic Bangkok airport he felt enveloped in love and peace. The feeling stayed with him as he stood in a long, loud line to check his bags. As he was making his way to his gate, he came to a railing where he could look down over the swarming crowd. Among the masses he spotted a small sea of orange. It turns out that the Dalai Lama, along with his attendants, was travelling that day also. The light emanating from His Holiness and his entourage was so warm and bright it flooded the entire bustling airport, drenching my friend in happiness and calm. 

We expose our inner light, little by little, by adhering to our practice and questioning everything. The asanas (yoga postures), pranayama (breathing practices), and meditation help us focus inward enough to become familiar with our distortions. The poses show us where resistance and trauma is imbedded in our bodies, and meditation exercises reveal habitual thought patterns that need closer examination. Breath restraint can expose everything. The beautiful thing about practice is that it only requires us to ask the questions, not formulate the answers. We use these ancient yoga disciplines to turn down our intellect enough to hear the whispers of our deepest wisdom. This is where the answers are born. We set aside the need to figure it all out, and trust the practice to ignite the inner knowing that surpasses understanding. We do our work and keep our eyes on the prize, so to speak. We discipline ourselves to keep returning to the anchor of our practice, surrender to the process, and keep the faith that our inner light is always shining, guiding us home, even when we cannot see it through the fog of our confusion. Sometimes we get glimpses of our inner brilliance, and other times it is shrouded in darkness, but remember it is always there, just waiting to be excavated. Remain committed, curious, and tirelessly optimistic!!

Always keep the goal in mind. The first chapter of the Yoga Sutra offers six possible points of focus for meditation. (One of them says you can meditate on anything, lest you think six is too limiting!) My favorite instructs us to focus on the supreme, ever-blissful light within. (PYS 1.36) This is a profound and soothing exercise. We know that whatever we give our loving attention to tends to flourish. So perhaps you might spend a few moments each day envisioning the bright flame within…see it flicker, feel its warmth, bask in its glow, and watch it grow. Just as a well-tended seed buried beneath the frozen ground contains the promise of a beautiful flower…even if we can’t see it until spring, so does the eternal light of our unblemished spirit blaze brightly inside of our tender hearts. Always. Let it shine!!

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