The monkey and I have moved to a new location. skiptomyloumydharma.wordpress.com . You can follow us there!
Today as I ran through the park saying “Good Morning” to everyone I passed, a song came into my head. (Earworm Alert) If you were a child of the 1950s, 60s or even 70s you may remember this song from the Cerebral Palsy telethons.
“Look at us, we’re walking,
Look at us, we’re talking,
We who never walked or talked before.
Look at us, we’re laughing,
We’re happy and we’re laughing,
Thank you from our hearts forevermore…”
This song stuck with my family. I can remember my grandmother standing behind me, holding my hands and singing her own version of it to me as I learned to walk. It was just the one line, “Look at me I’m walking. Look at me I’m walking” over and over and over… I, in turn sang it with her to all of my younger cousins and my brother as they learned how to walk.
It was a celebratory song. Look at you! You’re walking! Isn‘t it amazing? Look what your body can do! How awesome is this walking thing?!
And it was filled with hope. Wait til you see what else you can do! Your body will do so many phenomenal things! You will jump and run and dance and play and skip!
Somewhere along the way everyone starts to take the awesome walking thing for granted. Usually it’s about one month into it. No one celebrates it anymore. They move on to the next thing; holding our hands and saying “Jump! Jump! Two feet! Jump!” The wonder of walking is gone.
We should never forget the wonder of each and every thing our body does. Each thing we can do is amazing. Just the fact that we are breathing is amazing. Our bodies, these miracles of science; our hearts beat, our lungs take in air, our legs propel us around.
Near the end of every yoga class, when everyone rolls onto their right side after savasana, I ask them to take a moment to simply be grateful for their body and their breath. I also do this to remind myself every day, to be grateful, just grateful, for whatever my body can do today. Not concerned about what it can’t do. Not judgmental about how it looks. Just grateful.
These legs of mine, with their cellulite and stretch marks and spider veins are phenomenal works of art that carry me through this life. Miraculous machines that get me from place to place. This walking thing, is awesome.
As I continued through the park with the song in my head, I flashed a huge smile at each person I passed. Look at us! We’re walking!
Next week, John and I will celebrate our 20th Anniversary. Twenty years which have gone so quickly, and pretty darn smoothly.
He’s away for the weekend, and he sent me an e-mail early this morning. It read “What a day so far…7:04am!” and had a photo attachment. When I opened the photo I saw two dead turkeys in a wheelbarrow. Yup. That’s right. Two dead turkeys.
A few months ago, he started reading books like “Mountain Man” and “Crow Killer”. He got so involved in them that he decided he wanted to BE a mountain man. He started searching on e-bay for a coonskin hat. He watched YouTube videos about skinning beavers. And he told me that he was thinking about taking the test for a hunting license.
I’m a vegetarian, by the way. An ahimsa-practicing-yogi-vegetarian. Anyway, he took the hunting test. Got his license. Got himself invited to go hunting. And now, apparently, he has killed a turkey.
So what do I say? Good for him! This is what he wanted to do. He made a decision, followed through, and fulfilled a dream. Does it matter that the dream doesn’t fit in with MY way of thinking? Nope. Not at all. It’s his path, not mine.
Just as he barely blinked when I started bringing elephant statues and incense into the house; when I gave up a stable job to pursue the life of a yogi-teacher; when I began to sing Om Namah Shivaya in the shower; I congratulate him on his first (gulp) kill.
Okay, it’s a little hard to actually say it. But I will, anyway.
This life of ours is a road trip. We’ve been traveling along the highway together in separate vehicles for over twenty years now. Sometimes one of us wants to make a pit stop at a point of interest along the way, and the other does not. No matter. We know we’ll meet back up a little further along the road, talk of our off-road adventures, and continue on.
[Happy Anniversary, Johnny. And Congratulations on your first (and maybe only??) kill.]
For the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the weather. It has been very inconsistent as spring makes its attempt to atone for the long, hard winter we had this year. We’ve had some sunny 70-degree days, a frost warning, and a bunch of chilly rain. It’s a topic of conversation everywhere I go. “How about this weather?”
Last week, I drove to the yoga studio in a torrential downpour. As people ran in from the wind and rain to greet me, I heard things like “What a gloomy day!” “It’s so lousy out there!” “I almost didn’t come because of this weather”.
If I let the endless barrage of negativity affect me, it might’ve brought me down. So I just smiled and said things like “At least it’s not snowing!” Or “But it’s sunny in my heart!” Even though I felt like saying “Duuude. Don’t be such a bummer! It’s only a little rain.”
So I decided to talk about it before class that day. Why is it that we let the weather affect us so much? Why do we let it determine whether we think the day is lovely or lousy? The weather is external, but we let it get inside of us, on top of us. We even say we are under the weather. But we’re not, we’re above it. The weather may change, but our outlook can remain bright, if we let it.
It’s the same with the people and events around us; they can be just like the weather. We say things like, “That makes my blood boil”, or “I lost my cool”. Why do we let people and events change the way we see things, and affect the way we feel?
When we’re on the yoga mat, we do our best to block out all external influences, to be in the moment, and not let anything else in. And then we hope to do this when we step off of our mats; remain constant, content, and unaffected by external things.
This contentment and constancy seems to be an ongoing theme for me lately, and I’m always looking for different ways to say it, to get my point across. And then Monday, someone said it much more eloquently than I have been.
I had the amazing opportunity to teach and practice yoga with Corey Booker, the Mayor of Newark. He came into the classroom full of 7th graders when we were in the middle of flowing with our breath, and he joined us in our circle. After a while, we stopped flowing and he began to talk about yoga and breathing, and stress management. Then he took a few questions.
One student asked him if he ever had to go places, do things, or deal with people that he didn’t want to deal with. And he answered with a story.
When he was a boy and he was faced with a challenge, his father told him that he could be a thermometer or a thermostat. A thermometer responds to the weather all around it. When the temperatures go up, it rises. When the temperatures go down, it falls. But a thermostat controls the temperatures around it. And so, he said, he decided to be a thermostat. He tries his best not to let the events and people around him change his “temperature”. He tries to be that person who is always constant, and in control of his reactions to things, even when he has to deal with difficult situations.
I think perhaps this is the analogy I had been looking for. Why should you care about the weather? You are not a thermometer.
In all things, be a thermostat.
There have been many times (many) when I was in a less than pleasant mood as I stepped onto my yoga mat. But every time I step off my mat (really, every single time) I feel better. I know this. I know it works. But sometimes I still don’t get on my mat.
I should do it more often. I really should.
Something shifts inside of me while I’m practicing. My mind clears, my burdens become lighter, my heart lifts. It’s physical activity, endorphins, anandamide. Some days it’s yogic bliss, some days it’s just a slight lifting of the spirit.
When I teach in yoga studios I can sometimes see the shifts in people. If I’m very lucky, they will tell me about them. But more often than not, I have no idea how students are feeling. I can only hope that the practice has been beneficial in some way.
But when I teach children it is different. They don’t have the level of self control that we (most of us) have. Their energy can be easily seen and heard and felt.
Yesterday I walked into a roomful of noisy, rowdy fifth graders. They were all wound up. Full of restless energy. Moving in all different directions. Completely disconnected.
The teacher was clearly frustrated and approaching the end of her rope. When she saw me walk in, she waved a hand towards me and told me to “Go on” (it sort of sounded like a dare) and she walked out of the room. She didn’t go too far, she stood right outside of the door with her head in her hands.
I began talking about the standardized state test that was coming up, and how yoga could help them with test taking. Some of them listened. Some did not. We worked on a couple of deep breathing exercises and a few seated stretches. A few more of them started paying attention, but others were still off in their own heads.
Then we stood up and began to do some Sun Breaths. I cued the movements and the breaths for them. I think we did about five, before everyone was participating. Then I told them that I knew they could do them without me, so I would stop cueing.
We began moving silently. And after two rounds, I felt something happen. It was as if all of the restless energy in the room had been sucked out. I looked up and saw 23 kids, moving in synch, silently, and I heard all of them inhaling and exhaling. It was pretty awesome. I told them to close their eyes, and keep flowing. Every single child in the room was moving, breathing, flowing, focusing, it was truly amazing.
Now this, right here, is what yoga is all about. The connection of breath and movement. The shared connection of our breath with the breath of those around us. The deeper connection we can all have to ourselves, and to each other.
Somewhere in the middle of these sun breaths, the teacher had come back into the room. She stood by her desk and looked at the kids. Then she took a deep breath in and joined us.
I asked the class how they felt when we were finished. They all described being calm and relaxed and happy. One boy said “I feel like I could just float away.”
When the class was over and we said our Namastes, the teacher followed me to the door.
“That was amazing” she said.
“Did you feel it?” I asked her “The shift?”
“I did,” she said “and we should really do this more often.”
We should. We really should.
How to do Sun Breaths
Stand up straight and tall like a mountain. Arms at your side, feet close together.
Inhale, sweep your arms out to the side and reach up over head. Look up.
Exhale as you fold at your waist, dive over into a forward fold, hands toward the floor.
Inhale, as you rise halfway up, bring your hands to your knees flatten your back.
Exhale as you fold back down, reaching towards the floor.
Inhale as you sweep your arms out to the sides and up over your head, and slowly rise up to stand. Look up.
Exhale as you look forward, bring your hands together in a prayer down through your center to your heart.
Take a deep breath in and out. Think about how you feel.
“There is something inside of you that is bigger and brighter. And there is something inside of me that is bigger and brighter. And that part of me, honors that part of you. Namaste. “
This is how I end every yoga class I teach. It is what the word “Namaste” means to me. And every time I say it, I am reinforcing the idea in my mind that we are all fundamentally, the same.
There is something, that one thing, inside of us that is bigger and brighter. You can call it universal energy, love, peace, or light. You can call it Divinity or Allah, or Goddess or Christ. You can call it soul. You can call it humanity. You can call it whatever you like.
I just call it something, because honestly, I don’t know what it is. I would not even pretend to know what it is. But I do know, it is there.
There is a spark of light inside of you, an energy and a power, and that same spark is in me. And that energy comes from the same source. Deep down, inside, we are exactly the same. And when I look at you, in this context, sitting here on your mat, I see it. We are exactly the same.
You may not look like me at all. Your face, your body is nothing like mine. The lifestyle you choose to live may be nothing like mine. The belief system you have, may be nothing like mine. Your politics and your yoga practice may be nothing like mine.
These external illusions can make us seem so different. But on a cellular level, we are exactly the same, you and I, and everyone else in the room.
And I say this each time, because I want it to become a mantra that I can carry everywhere I go. I want the idea to sink in and become a part of me. I want to be able to look at each person I come across in my life and think “Namaste. We really are the same”. The woman behind the counter at the store, the gas station attendant, the horrible driver in front of me, the person on the news who has been victimized, and the person who is the victimizer. All the same, deep down.
Each time I say or think “Namaste” I am honoring the fundamental sameness of all human beings, in fact of all living things, on a molecular level. I am tapping into that energy, that light. And if I don’t lose sight of the fact that we are all the same, I can use that energy, and I can continue to become more open to people, more understanding, and more compassionate. And maybe I can pass it on.
There is something inside of us that is bigger. And brighter.
Today, I ran for the first time since my tragic skipping accident. After only a minute or two, I hit my stride. It was pretty awesome. Birds singing, river rising, ground thawing, and me, sailing through the park.
Then I came to my first uphill climb. There was a slight tingle in the ankle, but I powered through it.
Jogging in place at the top of the hill waiting for the cars to pass, I was feeling all right. Sun shining, sweat beading, and a smile on my face.
Near the one-mile mark, on my favorite downhill, I picked up the pace. I was practically flying, I was feeling so good! I crossed over to that place, where everything slips away, and there is nothing but breeze and lightness.
Then I felt that twinge in the ankle again.
And then I heard that little voice in my head. Keep going. You’re in the zone. It’s just a twinge. Don’t be a wimp! Run faster.
Isn’t it funny? On my best running days, this little monkey tries to talk me out of things. He tells me to walk instead of run. Or to go home, do laundry, clean the house. He tries to make up aches and pains that aren’t even there. And today, when I have a legitimate reason to back off, he has the audacity to tell me to keep going.
I am seriously beginning to think that this monkey cannot be trusted!
After only a few more paces, I realized that the twinge had escalated. It wasn’t exactly painful, but it was definitely noticeable. And my little monkey got louder.
I know you’re thinking about stopping, Quitter! He said as he stomped his feet. Don’t stop! Keep running! Push through the pain, you big sissy!
Now, I know there are times in life when we have to push ourselves, when we have to keep on going even if we’re in pain. I’ve been there before. We all have.
But if we really listen to our bodies, and not the monkey in our heads, our bodies will tell us what to do. We just need to know the difference between real pain, and the monkey-made kind. I cannot tell you how many times I felt a slight muscle pull in a class, but pushed through it for my monkey’s sake, only to be in pain for the next few days.
We need to know that sometimes our body is telling us to back off just a little and go easy on ourselves, rather than to risk re-injury and make things worse down the road.
And I think this was one of those times. So I told that ego-maniacal monkey that I was not going to push through the pain!
“This is not childbirth!” I told him. “There is no other human being depending on me getting to the other side of this. I can walk if I want to! You are not the boss of me!”
Then I turned myself around and I walked myself back home. I left that monkey sulking in the park. I think he’s still there. I haven’t heard from him yet.
And we do. Don’t we? But that’s okay, as long as we are mindful of when we are doing it.
Whenever we aren’t focused and present in a pose. When our monkey mind is off and running, and we’re not concentrating on our breath. When we’re thinking about what the pose felt like yesterday, or what it could look like four months from now. Cheating.
And the more we know about a yoga pose, the more likely we are to cheat.
When we’re first introduced to yoga, we learn to stand at the top of our mat in Tadasana, Mountain Pose. Now, just about anyone can stand at the top of a mat in Mountain Pose, and look like a Damn Fine Mountain. Simple, right?
But if we are not standing as tall as we can, with the top of the head reaching to the ceiling, if the shoulders are not traveling down our backs, if the side body is not extended and long, if the fingers aren’t shooting energy down to the ground, if the tailbone isn’t slightly tucked, if the knee caps aren’t lifted, and the thigh muscles are not engaged, if all four corners of the feet aren’t grounded into the earth, we are cheating.
Mountain Pose is A LOT of freakin’ work!
Every time we take a yoga class, our teachers regurgitate these same cues, in different words, in different voices. We hear them so often, that we sometimes don’t listen to them. But they are there to remind us of the rules of the game, to keep us honest. To stop us from cheating.
We have a choice. We can move through the poses, go through the motions, doing our time on our mats, or we can be actively engaged, present, and mindful every step of the way. We can reap the benefits of a mindful practice in our bodies and in our minds, or we can settle for a little exercise.
We can choose to listen to the cues, with a beginner’s mind. Focus all of our attention on the breath. Engage all of the muscles that we can. Do all of the work that is necessary. Honor the poses. Give it our all, and try our absolute best, whatever our personal best is in that very moment.
Or we can choose not to. And when we choose not to, we should at least be mindful of the fact that we are cheating ourselves.
I went back to the store today and bought the magnet.
It’s on my fridge.
Another great place for mindfulness.
If you ever want to feel a little silly, try a few Lion’s Breaths.
Inhale deeply through your nose.
Open your eyes as wide as you can.
Open your mouth as wide as you can.
Stick your tongue out as far as you possibly can and curl it down towards your chin.
Exhale through your open mouth, while you constrict the back of your throat as if you were fogging up glasses, and make a long “Haaaa” (as in hat) sound.
It looks silly. And when used in conjunction with up-stretched arms and hands like bear claws, it can look even sillier.
Little kids love it. When I teach it to kindergarteners, first or second graders, it is always followed by uncontrollable giggles that last for a few minutes. Third, fourth, fifth and sixth graders turn and “haaaa” in each others’ faces and laugh out loud.
I love to teach it. It sets a tone of fun and brings so much positive energy into the room. When combined with poses, it helps the kids to release any negativity they might be feeling. It allows them to be silly, to be kids, to just let go.
I’ve noticed that when I try to teach this to the seventh and eight graders, something entirely different happens. Most of the kids look at me like I’m a crazy person (don’t say it). They look around the room to see if anyone else is going to do it. They are cautious, and afraid to try it. They don’t want to look silly. One or two of them might follow me, but then the others laugh at them, and they feel embarrassed.
They are a little bit older and have lived a little bit longer. They’re on the verge of adulthood, in the biological sense. The silly is almost gone, and it has been replaced by a concern for how they look to other people. The little kid inside of them is slowly being covered up with layers of things that they have seen and heard and felt. A suit of grown-up armor is being been built up all around that child, and they dare not show anyone the chinks.
It is here on the edge of adulthood, that I try remove the armor, if only for a few breaths. I try to allow them to be silly, I encourage it and remind them how good silly feels.
“Hold on to it!” I want to scream to them. “Hold on to this little bit of silly! Your life is about to get all too serious. And all too soon, those sillies will be few and far between!”
So, I explain to them that it’s not about how we look in a pose, but rather how we feel in it. It is not about what anyone else thinks about us, and our choices, it is how we feel about our own selves, and the choices that we make. It’s not at all about how we look in these clothes of ours, this skin of ours. It is all about how we feel in this life of ours. If we worry about what other people think, we will miss out on all of the fun. And Lion’s Breath is fun!
Then we try again. And this time, almost everyone does it, and a few of them even laugh a little. And that makes me smile, for them, and for me. Because no one should ever let what others might think cause them to miss out on something that might truly make them happy.
I know I don’t want to miss out on it. Not ever. I always want to be that kid. The one who turns to her friend with bugged out eyes and stretched out tongue and roars like a lion. That kid who giggles uncontrollably for a full five minutes after. The kid who laughs out loud again later in the day when recalling the scene.
I think I’m still that kid. There are so many chinks in this armor. And I really don’t care what anyone else thinks. Haaaaa!
Much to my daughters’ embarrassment, when we are walking to or from school, I often break out into spontaneous skipping. I think the Skip Center of the brain releases stronger endorphins than the walking or running centers. It really is hard not to smile when you’re skipping. You should try it. Carefully.
The other day, we were walking home from school, and Shannon said, “Mom, I have no math homework today.” And for me, that is great news! I let out a big “Woo Hoo!” and commenced skipping!
Three skips into it, I slipped into a small divot between the sidewalk and grass. My foot turned on its side, I HEARD a snap, and I felt a pop somewhere deep inside my ankle. It took my breath away.
In that instant my brain flashed with images of incapacitation. How would daily life be for me and for my family if I were laid up? Challenging, to say the least. We were only four houses away from ours, so I bit the bullet and limped home, where I immediately elevated and iced my ankle.
It’s now three days later, and it feels much better. I won’t be running for a while, and my Tadasana Feet are a little off balance. I was fortunate. It could have been so much worse. But that is a judgment, and judgment is what tripped me up in the first place.
Through the practice of yoga, I attempt to bring myself to a physical and mental state of non-judgment and equanimity. All things are equal. I work towards an evenness of mind, trying to keep myself balanced, somewhere right in the center of elation and depression.
…Like those people. You know those people? The ones who never seem flustered? Calm cool and collected? They always seem to have it under control without being in control? That is what a practice of equanimity can do. And it really is essential for us if we want to live a life of peace and contentment.
So, I witness the world as it unfolds before me, and I try not to judge anything. I am very conscious of this equanimity when bad things happen. I try not to react from an emotional place. When I see other people in bad situations, I do my best not to judge. When something I would judge as bad happens to me, I try not to overreact. I try to make it better, and I look for the lesson in it.
On the other hand, when good things happen, (things I judge as good) I openly rejoice! I laugh out loud. I let out Woo-Hoos! I spontaneously skip! Celebrate good times, come on!
And even though it feels good, this is not equanimity. Not at all.
I am reminded of the old story of the farmer and the horse. When his plow horse broke his leg, people said “Oh that is terrible for you!” and the farmer said, “We shall see”. When he got a gift of a new horse, everyone exclaimed, “That is wonderful!” and he said, “We shall see”. When the horse ran away, everyone said “How awful for you!” and he said, “We shall see”. The horse found his way home and people said, “What a lucky man!” and he replied “We shall see”. When his son broke his leg after a fall from the horse, people said “How terrible!” He again said, “We shall see”. When his son did not have to serve in the army because of his broken leg everyone exclaimed “How fortunate!” and his reply, “We shall see”.
We have to remember that non-judgment works both ways, for the things we would call good, and the things we would call bad. Things that seem unfortunate can turn out to be blessings. And things that seem wonderful may turn out to be our toughest life lessons. To find peace and contentment, we should work towards a state of stability and composure.
We should try our best not to overreact to any of the events in our everyday life. Take a breath and let it sink in, good or bad, and try not to label it. Try to remain undisturbed by the events, and unattached to the expected outcome. The Self as the eternal observer. Allowing things to unfold. We see what is happening. We shall see what happens next.
My twisted ankle has reminded me that equanimity and non-judgment have to go both ways. Shannon says that this is clearly another reason for me stop the embarrassing skipping. I see it as a reminder that until I achieve a life of equanimity, I should breathe before I react, and look before I skip.