Once Upon a Time

Mo reflectionOnce upon a time when I was very sad and very alone I would walk a certain stretch of beach for miles and dream of the woman I would like to be and say to myself, over and over:

That woman is worth waiting to meet.

I did that for years. It kept me alive. It kept me sane. It kept me going.

Sometime and somewhere during the last 13 years I became that woman I waited to meet.

Along that path I met many sisters who held me up physically, energetically or spiritually
(in small rooms, in big conversations, in silence, in chaos, with grace and with patience).

They did not offer me refuge or remedies. They offered me presence and acknowledgement.

Along that path I met gurus and sages. They offered me questions, not answers. They pointed me in a direction but did not tell me what I would find.

Along that path I met the moon and the sun. They did not offer me their light. They offered me their consistency, a space in the sky to store my heart and a promise that if I showed up each day and night, so would they.

Along that path I met my small self. At the bottom of wine glasses, in bad poetry, in the arms of the ocean, on the limbs of suicide, in caverns of doubt and in mazes of mirrors, each one reflecting a different side of me.

And I met my true self. At the bottom of wells of silence and reflected in pools of stillness.

Once I met myself I could finally begin to meet you. One by one, online and in person, in yoga classes and coffee houses, in the land of loss and the land of laughter, broken and whole, human being to human being.

Wherever we are and however we are, we are in this thing together. In fact, we are this thing.

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Making Room for Humanity

doorFriday’s new moon was a dark one.

Sandwiched between the two most intense memories of my life (death and birth) it was a kind of doorway I had to walk through.

I tracked the fear and traced the source in my body and in my heart. There, at the bottom of it all, in the emptiness we spend our lives trying to avoid, I surrendered.

That was the key that let me through. Surrendering to the nothingness and the everything-ness. Seeing that clearly and being terrified of it, frozen by it, and eventually freed by it.

Freed to fear less. Freed to love bigger. Freed to move forward.

I used to run and hide when the doors appeared, but now when the doors show up, I knock on them.

When they open, I walk through them.

It is a practice, this living fully, this showing up, this rising to the occasion of my life. Every time I wonder if I have enough courage, and every time I find I have enough heart.

Sometimes stretched, often broken in the process, but always enlarged by facing my own humanity and through that experience finding I have more capacity to hold the world’s.

Finding Our Soul Rhythm

“A child’s natural rhythm is much closer to a soul rhythm than that of most adults.”-Shefali Tsabary

reflectionLately my son has been trying to talk. He curls up his tongue and spits out whatever noises, grunts, or howls he can muster.

Unlike when he was learning to walk, he’s not cautious about it. He just keeps hammering away at sounds until, word by word, he’ll slowly begin to talk.

It’s made me wonder, When did I stop trying that hard?

Because if he tried to talk like I sometimes attempt new things, well, he’d never talk. He’d get frustrated with slow progress or self-conscious at how he appears and stop trying so whole-heartedly.

I love observing his nature and seeing how limitless, curious, and in sync with our natural rhythms we all start out. Somewhere along the line we forget that moving in time with our nature, trusting our five senses and listening to our intuition is how we accomplished amazing feats like crawling, walking, and learning to speak. No one tells babies this is what they should do. They are just naturally propelled forward by an innate drive to grow because it is how they survive and thrive.

I often observe myself reaching out for answers instead of diving in. I know people have been where I am or stuck where I’m stuck or going where I want to go, and so I want them to give me the shortcut so I can skip the hard stuff and get right to the gold.

The self-help empire is booming ($10 billion/year in the U.S. alone) because people are obsessed with getting happy, fixing themselves, self-improvement, and with “getting there.” On the surface this seems like a good thing, but what is being sacrificed in exchange?

Are we letting other people tell us what happy looks like, feels like, tastes like? Are we subscribing to other people’s definition of success, failure, and growth? Have we lost touch with our own version of happy? Have we stopped following our dreams, our instincts and listening to our soul speak?

We are here to support each other as we grow, often in deeply personal and intimate ways, but there is some work we must do alone. If we try to cheat and get the answer from someone else it may get us by for a while, but at the end of our lives we may realize we were walking someone else’s path the whole time and not our own.

Trusting my heart sometimes feels awkward because I spend so much time in my head. Speaking my truth sometimes feels vulnerable because I spend so much time listening to other people’s truth. Then I do the things I do to reconnect, recenter, self-regulate, and suddenly it doesn’t feel so awkward, so vulnerable. It just feels so right.

In those moments I know how my son feels: at home in his body, full of trust for his process and in sync with his soul rhythm.

A New Year’s Resolution

As this year is winding down the phrase New Year’s Resolution has been skipping through my mind.

It occurred to me that there is one approach to new year’s resolutions that most of us don’t take. That being to adjust our resolution. Not as in I resolve to be healthier. Resolution as in the ability to sharpen our focus and adjust our vision so as to see a clearer, more accurate picture of our lives and ourselves just like the resolution on a new computer or TV would be crystal clear.

My 11-month-old baby has been great at guiding me in my effort to enhance my resolution. His face often looks at something and lights up in a fall magicsmile as if he’s just seen the most magical, amazing thing. I turn to see what he’s looking at and I see nothing. It’s a box or a corner of the wall or the ceiling.

However, when I look closer I see that my adult eyes have missed the magic. On closer examination I find a tiny bug crawling on the wall or a swath of light on the floor. A small dancing monkey on the otherwise boring box of diapers. His mind is so in the present that he sees exactly what’s in front of him.

I stopped making new year’s resolutions years ago. They remind me a lot of diets that people start and give up on when they don’t see quick results. I prefer slow, long-lasting growth to quick fixes. Goals are wonderful tools, but I find it’s easy to get so focused on where I want to go that I forget to start where I am. When I step into my present body and mind I can take legitimate steps in my direction of choice because I can see where I’m actually going.

Enhancing the resolution on our life does not happen overnight. It takes continuous effort, consistent focus, honest introspection, and an ability to readjust over and over again. It is not a quick fix and things may get blurrier before they get clearer.

This time of year I renew my resolve to stick with my process, to keep removing the veil of judgement that often obscures my perspective, to step back on the path of presence when I lose my way and to look for the light that transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary and allows me to see clearly what is right in front of me.

A Lesson in Letting Go

Going up.
Going up.

On a recent trip to Lake Mead my rock-climbing nephews invited me to go climbing while the baby was napping. I turned them down immediately because I’m afraid of heights. I’d much rather do yoga or write or nap or anything that’s on the ground level.

Twenty minutes later I was hooked up to ropes and pulleys, climbing up the face of a rock and terrified of falling. I clung to the rock on the outside, but quickly realized dropping into my senses was the only way I would be able to get up the wall. I had to feel with my feet for the next spot to step on sometimes without seeing it. I had to trust that the rock would support me and I had to trust my body in a way I’ve never had to trust it before.

I thought reaching the top was the hard part until I asked how I was to get down. Just lean back, my nephew said, which translated to me as let go of the rock I’d been clinging to the whole way up. The only thing scarier than holding on to a rock 30 feet up was letting go of it.

He repeated what he said and explained that they were going to lower me down, but I had to let go in order to be lowered down without hitting the rock en route.

I fearfully leaned back and let go of the rock. Halfway down I got more comfortable with it and actually kind of enjoyed the ride.

Coming down.
Coming down.

I often think of holding on and letting go as polar opposites, black and white, either-or. I’m either holding on or I’m letting go. My climbing adventure allowed me to explore on a physical plane the seeming polarity of holding on and letting go.

Normally we experience these years apart in our lives, such as getting attached to a partner or child and then having to let them go through a breakup, death, or off to college. In the time it took me to climb up the rock and get back down I saw how graceful, complementary, and fluidly one concept gave way to the next, much like how one season gives way to another. Gracefully, graciously, respectfully.

This experience reinforced something I’ve been trying to welcome into my life as a new mother, which is embracing paradox.

In his book The Courage to Teach, J. Parker Palmer explains it like this:

“The poles of a paradox are like the poles of a battery: hold them together, and they generate the energy of life; pull them apart, and the current stops flowing. When we separate any of the profound truths in our lives, both poles become lifeless specters of themselves-and we become lifeless as well.”

Throughout our lives we often have to switch from holding on to letting go without much notice. My transitions have historically been less than graceful, mostly because I am terrified of the letting go part and have a hard time trusting the unknown.

In reality the letting go we do in life is not the standalone experience we like to paint it as. It’s the other end of holding on and is essential to a complete and deep experience of life.

Taking it a step further one could say the same is true of life and death. When we isolate the less-pleasurable parts of life – the letting go, the death, the loss – we cut ourselves off from the full experience of the part we’re trying desperately to preserve.

Instead of fighting a lifelong battle with letting go as if it was an enemy to conquer, I now try to step into its flow, honor its cycle, and respect its place in the natural rhythm of life.

This week I’m faced with letting go of something I’ve been holding onto for the past 12 years: a great job. As I struggle with the fear of leaning back, away from the rock I’ve clung to for support all these years, I remind myself of Palmer’s words:

view from the top
View from the top.

“The tension that comes when I try to hold a paradox together is not hell-bent on tearing me apart. Instead, it is a power that wants to pull my heart open to something larger than myself… if I can collaborate with the work it is trying to do rather than resist it, the tension will not break my heart- it will make my heart larger.”

As I lean back into the unknown and begin to trust life on a level I’ve never had to before, I realize the time for clinging is over. In my rock-climbing experience if I continued to cling instead of letting go I would hinder my descent, increase my chances of injury and prevent myself from enjoying the ride. In real life if I insist on clinging I hinder what is a natural transition, make the process harder on myself and prevent myself from enjoying the ride.

I don’t know about you, but my life’s too short to not enjoy the ride.

Originally published on elephantjournal.

The Secret to Staying Free

Rachel's skeleton
the spine

My chiropractor once shared with me that he took part in a study that observed what happened to the bones after a chiropractic adjustment.

What he saw was that 30 minutes after being adjusted the muscles pulled the bones back into their old, incorrect spot. Then 30 minutes later the muscles moved the bones back into the correct position.

It’s as if they were reminded of where they were supposed to be and then the body corrected itself.

This reminded me of what happens through yoga. We go to yoga for a metaphorical adjustment. We intentionally adjust our bodies and minds to realign them and we leave feeling great.

But our ingrained habits and traits are very strong. Yogis call these habits samskaras. They’re like the muscle that pulls what we’ve just aligned back into its old patterning over time.

Years of reacting in a certain way can reach out and grab us just when we think we’ve left them behind for good.

Longtime yoga teacher Christina Sell puts it this way: “One fun (and humbling) thing about growing up is seeing how many times I thought I was changed only to realize what I thought was lasting change was simply a moment of freedom.”

Years of practicing yoga, instituting good habits and cleaning house internally can improve our lives externally so much that we sometimes think we’ve been cured. We’re past whatever it was we wanted to get past. We’re free of whatever it was that had us in its grip.

Life has a way of testing the new-and-improved us to see if we’re really walking our talk. How we respond when life meets our expectations is not as revealing as how we respond when it doesn’t.

The practice of yoga is a unifying one, not one of disunity. Through yoga we begin to unveil the inherent unity of our mind and spirit, of our head and heart, of our body and soul.

It’s not that we create the union, it’s that we become present and still enough to observe what’s already there, thumping in our hearts and rushing through our veins.

We are already whole. We are already complete. We are already free.

The more we remind ourselves how to stay aligned, the easier it is to return there when our samskaras pull us out of alignment. This is how we find the freedom hidden in the most compressed situations and how we maintain that freedom when life becomes challenging and intense.

We keep reminding ourselves. We keep creating healthy samskaras. We keep holding space for our self to grow in, whether that means digging through dirt or blossoming in the sunlight.

When our old habits show up we allow for them, we forgive them, and we learn from them. We bathe in the freedom of being ourselves.

The Art of Shedding Our Shell

lobsterEcdysis is a Greek term used to describe “the art of escaping from the old shell.”

A shedding, if you will.

It’s specifically used in reference to lobsters, who undergo a fascinating transformation process throughout their lives so that they can continue to grow.

Because their shells are hard, in order for the lobster to grow its current shell must be broken open and abandoned.

Throughout their lifetime lobsters are continually preparing for or recovering from this molting process because they have unlimited potential for growth.

Not unlike humans, no?

To prepare for this transformation the lobster prepares a new soft shell that will replace the old one. It withdraws blood supply from certain appendages that will be lost in the molting process and any heretofore lost limbs begin to recreate themselves.

The lobster’s water intake just prior to molting causes the new shell to swell, breaking open and pushing away the old one.

Without its old shell the lobster is soft, vulnerable, and exposed. It hides itself while its new shell hardens, allowing transformation and growth to take place in safety.

The last 10 months have felt like a kind of ecdysis for me, as I’ve prepared for the transformation to motherhood. It is one of many transformations we humans are privileged to encounter during our lifetimes. Although an experience unique to women, the process of transformation is common to us all.

We all possess an exoskeleton; a shell, both literal and figurative, from which we engage with our worlds.

In animals their shell is used for protection, allows for sensation, supports and frames their musculature, and provides defense from predators.

This is much the same for us humans. Our shells protect us, create healthy boundaries and structure, and can be used as a defense.

What often happens is that as adults we are still wearing the shells from our childhood. Our emotional scars or losses we experienced in our younger years have never been allowed to regenerate.

We engage with the world from a place of lack or longing, when really what needs to happen is a healing from within.

We humans are unimaginably resilient. Like our lobster friend we can regrow parts of ourselves that were injured or lost: a broken heart, low self-esteem, fear of failure, or losing a loved one.

In order for us to heal and grow we must be willing to change. We must be willing to break out of our old shell, expose our soft, unprotected insides, and through this process grow into a new shape, a new shell, and a new stage of life.

We lose a part of ourselves in this process. We are never the same again because we are transformed from the inside out.

Honoring this process means we honor whatever stage we are in and whatever stage we witness our fellow human beings in, whether that be grieving, growing, or shedding.

Whenever the opportunity for growth presents itself to us, may we courageously rise to this occasion in our lives. May our transformations allow us to explore our unlimited potential for growth and authenticity and our true capacity for love and life.

photo credit: The Ernst Mayr Library

Your Brain on Yoga

yogaI recently overheard a student comment to a teacher before class that “Yoga is the only thing that makes sense right now.”

It was a simple yet powerful statement that most of us can relate to. We’ve all been there at some time in our lives. Life becomes so busy, overwhelming, crazy, problematic, or stressful, and yoga provides a kind of virtual sanctuary that allows us to rest, recharge, and refuel on a deep internal level.

Physiologically, when we experience stress, anxiety, frustration, or other negative emotional states our breathing is impacted. Our breathing rate increases as our depth of breath decreases. This change in our respiration has a direct impact on our heart rhythm, which in turn affects our entire body.

When we go to yoga we are asked to do something very simple. We’re asked to turn our attention to our breath.

When we consciously lengthen and deepen our breath, such as through Ujjayi pranayama, we are actually changing our heart rhythm and thus the neural patterns that are sent to the areas of our brains that regulate our emotional and mental functioning.

Effectuating positive change on the level of the breath, the fourth of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga, we find ourselves better equipped to face our inner and outer worlds after an hour of yoga.

On top of this breath awareness we layer asana, the postures we practice and the third limb of yoga. Asana has been shown to raise our brain’s GABA levels. GABA is a neurotransmitter in our brains that has a calming effect on our central nervous system.

It makes me wonder what would happen if we practiced all eight limbs of yoga instead of just the two most common ones, breath and posture.

The phenomenal thing about yoga is that it never changes. We change.

The poses don’t change, the breathing doesn’t change, the process doesn’t change. Where we are in our lives changes, where our body is at changes, what we’re experiencing on emotional, physical, and spiritual levels changes.

Your first down dog at the beginning of class doesn’t feel like your last one. Tomorrow’s hip or heart openers may be easier or harder than today’s. Each movement and each breath is a doorway into your present moment, your present body, and your present state of being.

Yoga brings us home to our bodies, although I find it’s sometimes more like a vacation home than a real home. I visit it when I do yoga and sometimes leave it uninhabited when I head back (literally head back) out into my “real” world.

“It is through your body that you realize you are a spark of divinity.” – B.K.S. Iyengar

Through our body and through our breath we tap into deeper, freer levels of being that get buried under the stress or busyness of our lives.

This is unmapped and uncharted territory that requires vulnerability, compassion, courage, and a willingness to meet ourselves where we are on any given day.

Our yoga practice brings us to the doorway of our body and welcomes us home. How long we choose to stay is up to us.

Originally published on YogaOneBlog.

The Truth About Yoga Teachers

IMG_1071Not so long ago two of my longtime yoga teachers moved away within months of each other. I felt strangely lost and began looking for a replacement teacher to attach myself to. As I searched I started to practice at home more. I tried a variety of yoga studios and classes. I took a yoga teacher training.

After a while I realized that instead of finding a new teacher, I had found myself. Being “on my own” forced me to trust myself more. There was no one leading the way, so I had to find my own way. I had to learn to be my own cheerleader, my own coach, and my own compass.

Practicing on my own allowed me to spread my wings, listen more deeply to my own body, and connect with my inner teacher. This is challenging because sometimes I go to yoga to get out of my body or to get out of my mind. At times my goal is to get out of my current state of discomfort, disease, or distress, and into an easeful, blissful, serene body and mind.

While these are often wonderful side-effects of yoga, they’re not always present. In the words of Richard Freeman:

“Yoga is almost a way of looking for trouble. You may be feeling pretty good, but then you start doing postures and all of a sudden you discover there is a holding pattern that goes way deeper into your very being. You have to breathe into it and observe it as it is. The postures and the breathing, or pranayama, are like a fine-tooth comb that take out all the buried stuff you don’t need anymore.”

Not long into my practice of yoga I saw this happening. There were poses I liked and poses I didn’t like. In general, I liked the ones I was good at and disliked the ones that made me feel uncomfortable, trapped, or physically inadequate.

I sometimes choose faster classes because I get into a rhythm with my breath and my body and it just feels so good. I feel really accomplished afterwards because I release tension in my body, increase my strength, and feel balanced energetically.

YogaIn contrast, when I do a deep hip-opening practice at home, holding pigeon for three or four minutes with the intention to observe and release deep-seated tension or judgement, the experience is very different. I notice the effect of my practice less in a yoga “high” and more in the way I relate to myself and the people in my life.

One of my teachers would often say, “You know your practice is working when your relationships improve.” This was a philosophical stretch for me early in my practice because I couldn’t grasp how an hour of yoga a few times a week could transform my life.

Thankfully, I just kept practicing. And it did transform my life. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga yoga, said “Do your practice and all is coming.” I find this reminder especially relevant when I don’t feel like practicing.

Like any transformation or growth process, sometimes it’s beautiful and spacious and sometimes it’s uncomfortable and hard-going.

This is the deeper potential of yoga that all of us experience at some point in our practice.

Whether your yoga is clearing up your life or clearing out your life, trust your practice and trust your process. Trust that, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

Don’t be surprised if that teacher turns out to be you. At times our teachers are our injuries or some other limitation. Perhaps your teacher shows up on your doorstep instead of your yoga mat, in the form of a life experience instead of as a yoga teacher.

I like to think of my yoga practice as a path with detours, alleys, and bridges. Sometimes I follow a certain teacher down one path until we reach a fork in the road. When the detour takes me to what seems to be a dead end, I realize it’s not a dead end at all.

It’s time to build a bridge or learn to spread my wings and fly.

May we all travel our unique yogic paths that lead us home to ourselves, connected in our common journey from who we think we are to who we really are.

*Originally published on YogaOneBlog

Good Grief

I’m very interested in grief, loss, and how we approach these topics on an individual and societal level.

It’s a subject that fascinates me largely because of a life path that has given me a magnified, intimate look at death, depression, and suicide.

Our culture and society aren’t too big on death. It’s one of those awkward topics we’d rather be talked about in therapists’ offices and bedrooms.

I recently attended a Yoga for Cancer workshop with a friend who has cancer where the teacher pointed out this sober reality:

“None of us are getting out of this alive.”

Some of us have to face our mortality sooner than others, in the instances of illness or loss of a loved one. For the rest of us, it’s just a matter of time, realistically speaking.

I don’t say that to be morbid or negative. I say it as a wake-up call.

I find it so helpful to learn how other people have coped with loss, death, or averted suicide. Surprisingly, these stories often reveal people who have not just survived, but have thrived.

Many situations are hard to imagine ever recovering from, such as the loss of a child. Yet Desiree Rumbaugh shows it can be done in her story, “Love is Stronger Than Fear.”

Yoga teacher J. Brown shares his experience of losing his mother and his decline towards suicide, penning this poignant line:

“At some point, I got very low, so low that I felt I either needed to kill myself or find another way to live.”

And I was surprised to find such a comprehensive piece on loss as Yoga for Grief and Professor June Gruber’s study on Resilience.

I hope to offer more resources and survival stories in the future.

For now, this is my bottom line:

There is not a way out of loss, pain, or death. But there is a way through.