The yogi cat: lessons on stillness

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Several months ago, I started volunteering at my local no-kill animal shelter. Spending time there has now become one of the great joys of my life. How can it not be when I am greeted by a sweet face like this when I go into work?

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Darla

At first I was rather intimidated by the whole thing. I was scared it was going to be depressing. Plus, the shelter needed the most help with the cats, and I’ve always been firmly planted in Camp Dog. The night before volunteer orientation, I stared at the ceiling at 3 am, convinced that this whole shelter idea was going to be too hard and just wasn’t my thing.

I’m so glad I try things that I’m convinced aren’t my thing. (See also: doing yoga in a really hot room.)

I immediately fell in love with my new gig and found myself a niche. I now tend to work with the … um … “difficult” cats. For unknown reasons, I gravitate to these troubled souls. I love the ones who have just recently come into the shelter, the ones who are not cute nor cuddly. They are freaked out and terrified and just a tiny bit evil-looking.

Usually, with lots of patience, love and salmon-flavored treats, they get more comfortable. They slowly relax and become sweet creatures who can be adopted to their new forever homes. It’s incredibly rewarding to watch a cat under my care transform from holy terror to purring lap companion.

The other day, I was working with a cat that has been exceptionally challenging – Xena. I was just talking to her for about 20 minutes while she was in her cage. I attempted to slowly scratch her ears but she kept backing away and giving me that wide-eyed killer cat look, and so I just talked to her more. I hate to admit it but at a certain point, hearing myself blabbering on to her – without seeming to give her any comfort – got a little tedious.

My mind wandered. I thought about checking my phone, I wondered if we had food in the house for dinner…when WHAM! SLASH! Out came Xena’s claws and suddenly my hand was a bloody mess. I was shocked: she had felt me mentally wandering away and my lack of mindfulness had made her nervous and defensive.

By the time I stopped swearing and pouring hand sanitizer all over my shredded fingers, it all struck me as pretty fascinating.

Animals are much more in tune with things like this, but anyone can see it when we are really being aware. Xena’s behavior exemplified something that happens everywhere in my life - when I forget to stay in the present moment, life gets much more uncomfortable and challenging.

Another place I can see that very clearly is the hot room. I can be doing a perfectly acceptable Standing Bow, but when I let my mind go off to write that email and recreate that misunderstanding with my friend…I fall on my face. It’s all about balance and when my monkey-mind is in charge, the balance is off. When I’m truly present in my yoga practice, I can connect with each muscle and tendon and cell in my body.

When I’m present with the shelter cats, I can be totally attuned to the nuance of the connection with them. I can feel when they are overwhelmed and need to crawl back into their beds to be alone. I can feel when they are ready to surrender a little and that sweet, warm motor inside them starts to purr. I can feel when they are ready be held for a little while and I can walk them up and down the aisles of the shelter so they can observe the bustling activity from the safety of my arms. I can connect with both myself and the world around me when I’m not distracted by my own thoughts.

But when I’m lamenting about the fact that I need to go return that thing at Home Depot, I miss all that beauty. I overlook all the potential in Xena, the potential in me and the potential in life itself.

And living that kind of life that is even more painful than Purelle on a cat scratch.

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Travel yoga and humidity humility

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miami

Bikram Yoga Brickell in Miami

Recently, Husband had a work trip in Florida. He asked me if I wanted to go with him to Fort Myers and it was February and I’m not stupid so I said yes.

While he did work stuff, I took a little road trip to Miami to see a dear friend of mine who now lives there. She is a Bikramite but had not practiced in a while, since she was expecting her cutie-pie son. He was 9-weeks old and Mama needed the hot room. I was honored to be able to go with her to her first class back.

Understandably, she was nervous about returning to yoga. She wondered if anyone would remember her (they did) and if she would spend the whole class crying on the floor (she didn’t). But I was nervous, too. I always get nervous before travel yoga. I was anxious about what the room/teacher/students/temperature would be like.

This is the paragraph where I explain what all the problems were. Like, it was vacation yoga and I had been eating vacation food (fried artichoke and goat cheese po’boy, anyone?) and I’m not used to practicing that late in the evening (we were doing our first sit up around the time that I usually go to bed) and I had cramps and it’s really humid in Florida and …yeah.

I can come up with a lot of reasons why it wasn’t totally my fault that the woman who was still recovering from a c-section was pretty much kicking my ass.

But I realized during the second set of bow pose I had to take my own advice and sit down before I passed out.

Doing yoga in Miami is a little different than in Virginia. It was just a little…showier. There were modified breasts and rippling abs. Even in February there were a lot of tans. So, I had to dig extra deep into my pasty white soul to feel good about collapsing on my mat while everyone else locked out their knees.

I looked in the mirror, attempting to sit stoically. That annoying little part of me that wanted my friend/the teacher/Miss Boob Job to think I was a great yogi: that’s all just ego. That’s not helpful to me or anyone. This is the practice. But still, it flared up and tested me.

So, looked at that reflection of myself – an exhausted, wrung-out yogi on the floor – and tried to be kind. I tried to be present and breathe. Eventually, I got off the floor and back to the postures.

And when class was over I was so proud of my brave friend. As we walked to Publix and bought Coconut waters and cut up watermelon, she said she had been struck by the teacher’s comment that the mirror was “for alignment, not for judgement” and how she was grateful for the freedom to remove self-criticism completely.

I nodded, and it occurred to me for the first time that it’s not just alignment of your hips, it’s about alignment with the truth. Alignment with the moment. Alignment with your authentic self. Alignment with what is possible, and not possible, that day.

And then my friend got teary-eyed and said that even though class was hard, it was the first time in a long while that she had just taken a deep breath.

And she reminded me what this whole thing is about.

Thanks, L.

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Dear new yoga bra:

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Hello, my darling.

Hello, my darling.

Dear new yoga bra,

I shouldn’t be having these kinds of feelings for you. It’s too much.

But the way I feel when we are together — it’s magic. When I wear you, I show enough cleavage that I feel perky and cute, but not so much that I look like a dancer by the airport.

You make me feel supported.

And even in those rough, humid, almost-want-to-vomit classes, you are there for me. 

But I’m overcome with guilt about my feelings. I should be a wise enough yogi that the top I bought on sale at Target three years ago should make me just as happy as you do. You know…equanimity and detachment and all that.

I shouldn’t feel like my backbends are just a little deeper when I’m enveloped by your slim little straps. I shouldn’t feel that my grip is just a little bit tighter in rabbit pose when you hold me close.

But I do.

I can’t deny it any more.

And every time someone comments that you are adorable (which they do, because you are) I can only nod in agreement and say “thanks” – as if I had anything to do with it.

So, new yoga bra, I feel better now that I have confessed my obsession. I hope we can just keep this love affair between the two of us. There are a lot of other tops in the drawer, and I don’t want anyone to get hurt.

Until we sweat again,

~Lisa

Backbending in 2014: New year’s eve yoga

Ridiculous sparkly Buddha wishes you a happy new year!

Ridiculous sparkly Buddha wishes you a happy new year!

Happy 2014, yogis!

I hope you were able to peacefully close out last year and are feeling ready for all the good stuff that is to come.

Since I’m a classic introvert, I’m really not into big parties. Just seeing the Times Square ball-drop insanity gives me heart palpitations. Our usual December 31st appointment with sweatpants, the couch and a bottle of Champagne suits us just fine.

But, we did something a little different to celebrate this time around – Husband and I spent new years in the hot room! We attended a special class that started at 10:45 pm. Our teacher practiced with us and played music in place of the dialogue. We welcomed the new year in savasana.

It was blissful.

There was no pressure to drink or be loud or wear high heels. We got to be with friends, doing something we love, setting a healthy, peaceful intention for this new beginning.

In hindsight, I don’t know why we’d do anything else for new years, but at about 10 pm, I totally didn’t want to go.

I was nervous about going out. Our studio is located downtown and I was intimidated by the mere thought of drunken drivers and overly-enthusiastic partiers. That kind of chaos is the perfect storm for my anxiety and it made me want to throw the covers over my head.

But I had heard other yogis talking about this special class and how it was such a beautiful start to the year. I knew we needed to try it. So, we packed up our water bottles and dragged ourselves out of the house, leaving as few claw marks on the door frame as possible.

About 40 other folks came to sweat in the new year, a couple of brave souls were there for their very first class! The classical music our teacher played was such a nice change. Us Bikram yogis are not used to hearing music during yoga, but I found that I was able to just get lost in it. Having something else to engage my senses other than the dialogue brought a different dimension to class. (Since then, I’ve added some music to my home practice, and I’m loving that. I just prefer to totally hippie-out with some Jai Utal instead of classical.)

Our teacher counted down to midnight while we were in savasana and the air filled with this blissed out celebration. We were all bathed in gratitude for a fresh new year of opportunities.

After all the sweaty hugging of fellow yogis, we were ready to go home and wish the dog a happy new year. When we emerged from the studio at 12:30 am – much to my surprise – the world was so beautiful. Downtown was alive with flashing lights and and thumping music. The streets were full of joyful people embracing each other and rows of taxis transporting the tipsy.

I found I was able to enjoy the chaos and not feel overwhelmed. And that is what yoga always does for me. It enables me to take a step back, take a moment and put some space between me and the rest of the world. I can enjoy the inner stillness and smile at the craziness, without feeling dragged into the middle of it.

I’m sure that as the year wears on, life will creep in and I will get flustered and wrapped up in nonsense. But the fact that I started 2014 with this deep sense of presence and calm makes me hope I can find it more often this year.

And it made the satisfaction of going home and putting on sweatpants even sweeter.

I wish you all a year full of peace, love and backbends!

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I can’t do everything

(I posted this yesterday on my other blog, but since it deals with that pesky concept of suffering – something that mindful/yogi/Buddhist types generally spend some time thinking about – I thought it might be appropriate here. I hope you enjoy it, and happy holidays, yogis! Here’s to another year of backbending!!)

I’ve always been one of those people who gets overwhelmed by the world.

I think my emotional nature is a left-over occupational hazard from being an actor during my formative years. For 18 years I needed to be able to cry on cue, and it seems those floodgates just never closed. Suffering of any kind leaves me weak in the knees and injustice makes me feel like clawing my skin off.

I still have a touch of the drama, apparently.

But I realized that I can’t just shut my eyes to the suffering in the world. I tried putting my hands over my ears and singing until it went away. That didn’t work. So, instead of crying about it, I’ve decided there might be a little something I can do. But what? And how do I handle the fact that I can’t fix everything? How do I save the whales and cure hunger and stop global warming? I’m one small person so how do I make a dent? How do I pick just one thing in this sea of need? It’s useless, right?

But then I read this:

I am only one,
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something;
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

- Edward Everett Hale

Hells yes, Mr. Hale.

I started volunteering at my local non-kill animal shelter. Which happens to be the place where we met our darling girl, Grace. I figure that I owe them, big time.

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So, I cuddle cats and clean litter boxes and let puppies chew on my fingers. I address thank you notes and fill out donation forms. I thought it would be too sad to work in a shelter. It’s not. It’s joyful. Even the photocopying is joyful. And it is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. They are short-staffed during the holidays, so I’ll be there to try to fill in the gaps.

The other day, I was opening up their mail and organizing the checks that came in. When donations arrived for $200 or $300, my heart leapt. That would buy so many treats! New beds! Pay for more surgeries!

But when I opened the checks for $5. That’s when I lost my shit. That’s when I cried.

Because those people understand so much better than I do that even a little bit helps. Those people, regardless of their financial situation, made the decision to do what they can and speak up for what they believe in.

I want to hug every one of them. Because they remind me of something that I don’t want to ever forget. It’s good to have empathy, but it’s not so good when I drown in it and apathetically throw up my hands in defeat. The whole point of life is to wake up and do something meaningful. Make the moment count.

I can’t cure cancer and I can’t make sure every animal is in a forever home for Christmas. But I can spend twenty minutes talking to the new scared kitten that just came in and encouraging her to eat some food. I can write a note to the man who donated $5 and tell him that his donation meant something. That he means something.

And if I can do that in this season – this season that at its core is about love and giving – that’s all I really need.

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Hippos on the floor

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After a yoga class the other day, a woman went up to our teacher and said,

“I was kind of surprised that you referred to us as hippos. It seemed mean and unlike you.”

Our teacher was horrified. “What? When??”

In floor bow, you said “arms up, legs up, everything up. Only hippos are still on the floor.”

Our teacher smiled and reassured her that she had said “only hip bones are still on the floor. Not hippos.”

And everyone laughed because it was a cute misunderstanding and we went on our way.

But something startling occurred to me. How ready are we to hear something terrible about ourselves? How quick are we to assume the worst and only hear the negative?

I am guilty of this. Give me 100 complements and I’ll only remember the one thing that was not so glowing. That’s the one that will wake me up in the night and leave me cringing and sweating at 2AM.

This is something that I am trying to change. It’s easy to go out of my way to see the best aspects of other people, but when it comes to myself, I tend to be deaf to any praise that might be aimed at me. I’m much more likely to assume someone just called me a hippo.

I love the Three Jewels and it’s part of my daily meditation and gratitude prayers. I especially love this part:

I take refuge in the dharma, the spiritual teachings. I commit myself to the truth as it is.

Because dharma can mean the words of the Buddha and it can also mean the absolutely clear nature of reality. We can make up all kinds of drama to go along with life, we can imagine that he gave me a nasty look or she called me the third largest land mammal on the planet. We can put a negative spin on experiences and get all worked up about them – or we can remove that lens and see the truth as it is.

Acknowledge, accept and then let it go.

It’s a choice.

And when I’m being mindful, I chose that joyful surrender to the truth. It’s way better than being called a hippo.

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Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end

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bikram sign

My yoga studio is moving to a new location.

It’s just a few blocks from the current place, but many of us students seem to be dealing with this like stereotypical Bikram yogis. The change is freaking us out. We love our same 26 postures and setting up in the same spot in the hot room. Although we are learning flexibility, when it comes to changing up our studio space, we are getting slightly bent out of shape.

We are also excited for a new adventure. An adventure with nicer showers.

But first, we must say goodbye to our old place, and for some of us, that is proving difficult.

The old place is where I wandered in one day, not knowing a thing about Bikram yoga. It’s a place that I came to rely on to fix my aching body and screw-loose brain. It’s where I made wonderful friends and did poses I never thought were possible for my clumsy, 30-something body. It’s where I went on my birthday, on the anniversary of the day I broke my back, on the day that my dog passed away. I went and cried and healed and then finally, I laughed.

It is sweaty, hallowed ground.

So, I’m having a hard time letting go (admits the yogi-in-progress).

Of course the new space will be wonderful. It will become the place where new things happen. There will be new experiences in the hot room and deepening friendships on the benches after class. But at first, I will walk into the studio like a person entering a random party, looking for anything familiar and wondering where the bathroom is. We will be strangers, that place and I.

Our brilliant studio owner, Lizzie, put a vase on the front desk at the current studio. The sign says if there is something – some energy, some feeling – that we want to come with us to the new studio, we should write it on a piece of paper and put it in the vase. This vessel will travel with us, with all the good wishes inside, to the new studio where it will not be opened.

I tried to figure out what to say to this vase. How do I express all of my hopes for this next phase of my practice and my life? How do I capture all that gratitude on a Sticky Note?

I was having a hard time putting it into words (admits the writer-in-progress).

So, I wrote:

Peace, love and acceptance – for myself and everyone else. Thank you for everything.

As I wrote it, a tear slipped from my eye, wrinkling the paper and smudging the ink. My message is so incomplete…but in a way, anything would be. So, I accepted the imperfectness of my words and placed the note in the vase.

I’ll be there for the last class at the current studio. I’ll be there for the first class at the new studio. I’ll figure out where I like to leave my shoes and where the hot spots are. I’ll open my heart and introduce myself to this next part of the path.

Hello.

(*Yes. I totally quoted Semisonic in the title of this post.)

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My life without yoga

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A little while ago, I bought a Living Social deal for Pure Barre. I’ve gone 7 times now and like it. I just don’t love it. I like feeling a little like a ballerina (since I am so far from one) and I like the fact that it works some muscles that yoga doesn’t get to. I know this for a fact, because after my first class I was limping around for 2 days.

But, for me at least, it’s no yoga.

I get the physical burn, but I don’t get the mental cleanse that I get from the hot room. Maybe some people do get that from Barre, but I never felt it. This was a good reminder that for me – yoga really is special.

It makes me think back to my pre-yoga existence.

In the summer of 2009, I wandered into a Bikram yoga studio with no idea what to expect. I’d done yoga before, but I’d never had a serious practice. It was mostly just a couple of Rodney Yee tapes (yes, actual VHS tapes) that I’d dust off once in a while.

I’d been a meditator for a couple of years, so it seemed to make sense that I would try out yoga. A friend had heard great things about our local Bikram studio and she thought I might like it.

I will forever be indebted to Rachel for this suggestion.

I had just come home from a month of studying at Oxford and it wasn’t all I expected it to be. I felt mildly depressed and mildly fat. I don’t mean to jump on the bandwagon and bash the Brits for their food, but let’s just say the vegetarian-on-a-budget experience was not great.

I needed to get my life back on track. I figured yoga couldn’t hurt.

Now, thinking about life without yoga is just crazy. If I didn’t do yoga, my life would be totally different.

~ I wouldn’t have the support of such a wonderful yogi community.

~ I wouldn’t eat such healthy foods.

~ I wouldn’t have such deep and healing meditations.

~ I would not sleep as well.

~ I would not be as strong, mentally, physical, spiritually.

 ~ I would still have panic attacks.

 ~ I would not have such a strong connection with my husband.

 ~ I would be less comfortable with my body.

~ I would be shorter. (Seriously, I grew an inch.)

~ I would not have had the experience of doing yoga in a foreign country.

~ I would struggle more with depression.

~ I would have continuing back problems from my injury.

So, yeah, some days it’s hard to get myself to the studio. Some days it feels extra hot and humid and the yoga truck runs me over. Some days I feel stiff and my backbend is not as pretty as I want it to be. Some days I just want to sit on the couch and watch re-runs of Top Chef.

But when I look at it all cumulatively, the only logical thing to do is to go put on those tiny shorts.

Namaste.

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New post at Elephant Journal: Learning to be still

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Screen shot 2013-09-04 at 8.17.19 AM

Hello, yogis!

I hope all of you North American readers had a lovely Labor Day weekend.

I wanted to share my brand new article about meditation, which was just published in Elephant Journal!

Learning to be still

“It’s funny,” my therapist said, “most people get panic attacks about things that will never happen. You get panic attacks about something that happens pretty often.”

I didn’t think it was that funny.

Please click here to read more.

And as always, thank you so much for all your support – it’s never easy talking about anxiety and panic attacks in a public forum. But the open-heartedness I’ve felt here has made it possible for me to share and hopefully, be of use to someone who is dealing with similar challenges.

I hope you enjoy the article.

Peace,

Lisa

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I love gratitude and I love lists

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journal

I have several bad habits. Chewing on ice is one of them. But I have another bad habit that is even more dangerous than the possibility of a cracked molar.

I have a habit of thinking that the moment I say “Wow – things are good!” that a vengeful god with a head shaped like a yin-yang symbol is going to appear and hand-deliver pancreatic cancer to everyone I love. I don’t know why I think this, but I’m perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop. (Brene Brown talks a lot about this – and apparently I’m not alone with this horrible habit.)

But here’s the thing I’m trying to realize. Bad things might happen. Or they might not. Regardless, I don’t think it makes sense to go through life ignoring the good things in a feeble attempt to keep the bad things at bay. I’m just happier when I am grateful and when I recognize all the joyful things in my life. So, come what may – and I’ll say thank you for it.

So, that’s why it’s important for me to keep a gratitude journal. With everything that’s been going on, it’s easy to get caught up, overwhelmed and forget about the little things that are so integral to my happiness.

I’ve been writing a lot recently. I spend most of my life in my home office, typing away, with Grace at my feet. (As I write this, I have not left my house in FOUR days, with the exception of walking the dog.)

Lest this sound like complaining, let me assure you that I am totally thrilled about this situation. Lots of awesome writing-related things are going on and it’s downright dreamy.

However, at the end of the day, the last thing I want to do is more writing. I’m drained.

But you know what I’m never too tired for? Lists. I love lists.

Lists make everything so clean and clear and uncomplicated. And if there is any way for that list to be numbered??? Fantastic. It rights my world and makes me feel like I can handle anything – as long as it’s in list form.

Since writing a journal seems like more energy than I can muster before bed, so I’ve been keeping a gratitude LIST! Perfect. The basic outline looks like this:

8/27/13 – Today I am grateful for: 

1.

2.

3.

4. 

5. 

Isn’t that easy?

So, I’d like to offer up this idea to anyone who might be feeling a little stuck or ungrounded. It settles my heart right before going to sleep when I write out 5 things that I’m grateful for in that moment. It’s often the health of my family. Sometimes it’s that the Chinese place delivers. It tends to be mixture of the profound and the practical.

But it always makes me feel good to know that I am ending my day with one solid thought – a heartfelt thank you for this life.

And I’m slowly learning that I don’t have to get nervous and look over my shoulder after I say it.

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