Sunday, August 12, 2018

Reflections on Weekend Three of Yoga Teacher Training

A week before weekend three of yoga teacher training, I had a bit of a fit. My daughter enthusiastically agreed to test me on my recitation. I had been studying by various improved methods since the previous month. We sat on my bed. She gave me the sign that she was ready. I opened my mouth and nothing came out. It was a terrifying moment. Where were all the words?

My daughter encouraged me, gave me a few prompts. I can't remember which happened next. I know that she prayed for me and that I jumped off my bed in a flash of melodrama and started folding laundry.  Startled, she asked, “Mommy, do you regret spending lots of money on this training?”

Honestly, honey, I don't know right now. I'm really frustrated because I have been studying and the words just won't come.”

We all walked into the studio Friday night and there was a palpable stressed-out vibe among us all.

Our amazing teacher read the room with precision and gave us a pep talk. She explained the concept of tapas, a sanskrit word meaning a psycho-physical heat that starts an internal transformation.

She also read to us from a presentation by a Westerner named Svoboda. The words that resonated for me and that I copied down were: "The road will not get tired...choose your pace...align with your own proper gate."

After this talk and a session of round robin student teaching and yoga practice, she gave us a few minutes before our test. In savasana, I felt the tears flow. As my classmates started moving around the room, I remained on my mat. I lowered my forehead to the floor and felt the tears stream down my face. My chest heaved and I let myself sob.

The day after my anxiety tantrum with my daughter, I had asked myself the hardest question: What would it look like if I took teaching yoga off the table and simply completed the training? My answer was: I would feel relief. I would also feel disappointment, sadness, humiliation, and embarrassment, but those four big emotions together didn't match the relief. And so I spent the final days before weekend three letting go of my dream to teach. The anxiety receded and the words I'd memorized returned.

This seemed like a good, though unexpected, answer.

I performed better during this test. I didn't get to everything I wanted to cover, but I recited it with more confidence and speed than the month before.

I returned to my mat on day two and told my teacher, “If I haven't completely turned the corner, I know that I've made a strong pivot in the right direction.”

Even when I was in a fever of stress and anxiety, I knew that this process was a good one for me to go through regardless of the result. Learning the word and meaning of tapas gave me language and a framework from which to view this difficult process. It vented the steam and heat that had built up, and gave me the sense that if I trusted the process, even in the midst of the difficulties, that I could achieve what I want. Yoga presents the same lessons on and off the mat.

What I've figured out is that I actually do not want to teach the particular brand of yoga I am learning, but that I can still get certified to teach yoga. So I don't have to throw in the towel completely. I've also learned that the material I am learning is unique in yoga teacher trainings and that the material will benefit my teaching no matter what kind I teach. 

This decision still feels like the right one at the end of the weekend. More relief.

Here are the other takeaways from this weekend:

Like my writing and my newfound love of gardening, yoga is presenting me with a mirror that reflects back to me things I need to see, assess, and continue to reflect on.

Yoga is showing me in real time precisely how afraid I am to make mistakes. No matter how much I have let go of perfectionist tendencies, I still do not like making mistakes. This inclination causes me to take myself far too seriously and to take fewer risks. Yoga is teaching me to embrace a more playful approach. I can't change what I'm not aware of, so I am deeply grateful that this insight has revisited me.

Our teacher also read the following passage. 

“I suggest that you, individually, seriously consider relaxing and cultivating the skills to meet what arises as it arises without this compulsive need to have everything all planned out...The future is highly unstable, unknown and both mercurial and in fact not here yet, so why try to have it all figured out? Develop skillful means, lightness of movement, creative ways of dealing with unexpected happenstances. You may well need such abilities, such a capacity...So you'll have to dive in and move with Faith and Devotion, and a willingness to adjust to the situation as it presents itself. I know you can do it. The question is will you?”  -Lee Lozowick

Growing more comfortable with the unknown and relaxing in and through it has become a regular practice this past three years.

Over the course of the two two-plus hour yoga practices and the teaching drills that were intense in their own ways, I know that my answer to Lozowick's question is a resounding yes.

Here's to another month of more memorization, writing, gardening... with relaxation, lightness, and creativity.

...blooming where I am planted...

Thursday, August 9, 2018

First Day of Middle School and a Mom Moment

The moment of maternal closeness came this morning as I braided my middle-schooler's hair in boxer french braids. She chose this hairstyle because it showed some effort made without being “too extra.” I'm proving myself a solid braider for this girl's high expectations, and this morning's offering passed the test again.

The braiding took enough time that we had to rush to make our way outside for the annual first-day-of-school photo and to make it to the bus stop with a few minutes to spare.

She was very clear that her expectation was that she would stand alone at the bus stop, but that I could stand on the sidewalk in front of our house while we waited for the bus.

She looked back my way a few times and we volleyed a few sentences back and forth. The final one came right before the bus arrived.

I'm a little scared, Mom.”

The first thing out of my mouth was, “There's nothing to be scared of.”

And then I followed up with this, “Actually, of course you're scared. This is a big moment, but you did it beautifully yesterday, and I know you can do it again today.”

What I'm learning eleven years into this parenting gig is that we do a great disservice to our children when, in an attempt to comfort, we brush off the moment's emotion. Why wouldn't she be scared? She's getting on a bus alone, (with EIGHTH graders!) and going to a new building with unfamiliar adults and students. With unknown expectations and requirements.

Of course the brushing off of these feelings is our attempt at making things better, but the truth is, that's not what my middle-schooler needs. She needs to know that she's capable of walking through whatever middle school sends her way. And one of the first ways her confidence grows, is for me to reaffirm my belief in her ability. Even if I get a catch in my throat as I yell the words from two houses away.

Moments later the bus approached. The doors opened, and my girl walked onto the bus, without looking back. The next few steps away from me and into the life she'll create for herself year-by-year. Exactly as she's designed, and proving that she's prepared, to do.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Oatmeal and Meditation

I've been on an oatmeal-for-breakfast kick for the past month. I load it up with too much brown sugar, coconut, pecans, and a splash of milk. Most mornings, I race against the timer as the oatmeal bubbles to wash dishes, change out the laundry, pack my lunch.

I know and have experienced the benefits of meditation. But most of the time, I find that moving meditation works best for me. You know, like yoga, taking a walk, or walking the labyrinth.

I also like to find the sacred in the most common, mundane moments of my day—brushing my teeth, blow drying my hair. Those moments are always short enough that I can't get rankled if my chattery, monkey mind takes over.

As I've been writing about, my yoga teacher training is testing the limits of my anxiety coping skills. I feel low-grade panic when I'm doing other things besides study, and then the low-grade rachets up to higher intensity when I do study and it's not going smoothly.

One morning this week, when I was feeling particularly frenzied (it wasn't even 8:00 am!), I decided to meditate over my cooking oatmeal. I set the timer for five minutes and watched the water and oatmeal do their thing. As the mixture bubbled I let the thoughts that arose flicker across the front of my mind like headlines at the bottom of a news broadcast. I saw them and then returned to the oatmeal. What am I going to say in this blog post? Let it go. Are you sure about the leopard print dress and turquoise cardigan you're wearing? Yes, now let it go. I really need to wipe down the stove surface. Yep, let it go.

You get the idea.

I stood there watching my breakfast cook. I stirred the pot occasionally as per the directions, and I rocked slowly on my left foot, thigh into oven door, and back to my heel. But otherwise, I did not move. I did not even look at the timer. I gazed at the stove top knowing the five minutes would end—eventually. When the timer dinged, I turned it off, removed the pot from the heat, placed the lid over it, turned off the burner, and reset the timer.

The meditation continued at the kitchen table where I sat down and closed my eyes. When the timer went off three minutes later, my chattery mind was quieter. I didn't feel so frenzied, and I knew I was on to something. Eight minutes, that's all it took for me to re-center, to ground myself for the day ahead.

I have learned that in eight minutes a kitchen can be tidied. But I have also learned that what looks unproductive—moments of quiet stillness—can also be the best way to start a day.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Labyrinth visits: Christmas, May, and July

Sunday morning I sat quietly in church. While the sanctuary was still, my head was active. Banging around inside it were the voices of Panic and Anxiety distracting me about how I am ever going to learn and recite by memory all the yoga poses I need for certification.

I call what's happening low-grade panic. I study, but I also find a million other things to do that help to calm me down from the panicky voices. For instance, since beginning this post, I have watered my flowers, tested myself on the order of poses that make up this month's study, and sorted through the clutter on my desk.

I kept sitting quietly asking myself, and Calliope my gut, what it is I can do to calm myself, study more effectively, and walk into the next test with more confidence. I thought of a few things and landed on visiting the labyrinth.

The labyrinth has been physical space that signals to my brain that I am safe to feel all my feelings and to explore what needs exploring.

This time was no different. Armed with an umbrella, I walked toward the labyrinth. I thought about the past two times I've approached the labyrinth. Once on Christmas day late in the afternoon before attending Christmas dinner with two other single friends. That day was cold and snow blocked much of the path. I persevered as I used my boots to clear the path making it easier to figure out where my next step should land. I made it to the center and was lulled into a peaceful place by the way the snow muffled all the sounds around me. It felt good to feel the cold and to know that I would only feel it for a short time before I was welcomed into the warmth and mirth of a friend's home.

The next time I visited the labyrinth was on World Labyrinth Day in May. My cousins were in town and they were willing to join me on my visit. My cousin started the walk and then decided to take their young boys out into the open field beyond the labyrinth. He gave his wife and I space for a few moments' contemplation and it was lovely. A much different experience than six months before.

Each time I visit the labyrinth, I go with the best kind of expectation. The kind that says, enter with an open heart and be ready to receive something you need to remember or hear, perhaps for the first time.

This latest visit did not disappoint. I wore a pink hoodie to keep me warm from the unseasonably cool and damp early evening. I always carry my phone for photos when I reach the center and held on to the umbrella.

My evening was completely open, so there was no need to rush through the walk to the center. Barefoot, I made each footstep slowly and with intention. I walked gingerly over the few acorns I encountered and made sure I didn't miss a puddle. This is a playful way to help my serious-minded head loosen up. I began praying: I know this yoga thing is supposed to be hard and I don't mind it being hard, but could I please not struggle so much?

I asked for peace, confidence, and the trust in my own ability. I prayed that I wouldn't self-sabotage and that I would be kind about making mistakes knowing that in the mistakes are where the real learning will take place.

When I made it to the middle, I took some photos from different vantage points and then I sat on my umbrella and settled into listening. For awhile nothing came to mind, but I continued sitting. I thought about the prayer I'd voiced moments before and analyzed my words, looking for insight, something profound I could take with me.




Then I heard it: let this time of agitation and struggle be what it is. You don't get to pick and choose when and where you struggle. What you get to do is decide how you're going to react to the struggles that come your way. I smiled knowing this was what I needed to hear. I sat for a few moments longer, and then soul at ease, I began the walk back out.

It's too early to know exactly how this struggle I am having in learning the poses will shape me, my practice, and my future ability to teach. But what I do know is that if I embrace the struggle, and stop resisting, that in December I will have become a stronger, more resilient person. I also know that if I keep breaking down this big, scary goal into smaller pieces, I'll be able to ward off the panic and paralysis with more success.

Here's to letting go.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018


Today was an ordinary Wednesday morning.

I woke up just after five o'clock intending to read only a chapter or two of the book on my nightstand, but got on such a roll, I couldn't stop, and finished it with time to still clean out my purse, water my flowers, shower, and make oatmeal for the road.

Not long after, the day began turning extraordinary.

A couple miles from work I took a detour. “Are you up for a hug? I'm in your driveway.” This was the text I sent to a friend who's hurting. I sat in the driveway hoping I was giving her enough time to respond before I had to head on to work. “Yes!” came her reply.

I left my car running and walked up her front sidewalk to her door. She opened the door smiling. I enveloped her in a hug and held her for a long time. I told her I loved her and that I was hurting for her. There isn't anything I can do to fix her woes, but to remind her she's not alone. We both got choked up and kept hugging.

As I drove away, I thought about all the times a friend had swooped in and through kind words and actions had helped me feel less alone and capable of weathering the present storm. I felt gratitude for the end of that season, for the lessons it taught me, and for the presence of mind to follow this morning's impulse where it led.

That would have been the highlight of my day, but there was more to come. I had a spontaneous and non-small-talk conversation with a colleague from a different department when we ran into each other in the cafeteria. Our conversation took us to a variety of places: raising resilient only daughters, finding work-life-creative balance, how we believe that our Christian faiths are best lived out through our actions rather than our words, a book recommendation, and plans to go to lunch when her big deadline passes. You know, standard water cooler fare.

We parted, and I headed outside to eat my now-cold hot lunch and to take a quick walk. I took off the denim blouse I wore over a sleeveless top in my freezing office and tied it around my waist as I hit the pavement. 

I welcomed the sunshine that warmed my bare arms and noted a lovely breeze and low humidity—so uncommon for St. Louis Julys. The conversation with my colleague had filled most of my lunch hour, so I planned on a truncated walk. I'd take the public path that cut through the neighborhood rather than going all the way to the park and sitting on my bench.

A few blocks into the walk, woman got out of her parked car next to the curb. We exchanged hellos as I passed. She commented on how cool I looked, a testament to the shade, the cooler temperatures, and the breeze. 

I am my father's daughter. I don't know a stranger, and so I didn't keep moving. I learned in about eight minutes that I was speaking to Margaret Ann, who had just returned from getting her hair trimmed at Great Clips. This seemed a big outing for her given that she was struggling with some sort of respiratory something. We discussed my walking route, where I worked and lived, why it's important that we fund raise for the university I work at. She told me she'd discuss their giving to the university with her alumni husband after she heard my explanation. She confessed that her husband, who had retired nine months ago, was driving her crazy and that she wanted him to find a job, to find something that he'd lost—a sense of importance or purpose. 

“I'm keeping you,” she repeated a few times. I stood firmly on the sidewalk. I get a sense from people sometimes. She needed this conversation. I did too. We exchanged names and wished each other well, and I resumed my walk.

Because I love people so much, this day kept filling me up. It helped to take the edge off the low-grade anxiety I feel about all the studying I have for my next yoga test.

I cannot bear to pass up a lemonade stand when I see one. A few weeks ago, I had just pulled out of the parking garage when I saw a lemonade stand across the street from a construction site. I pulled over and asked for a cup. An industrious entrepreneur and his little brother had set up shop wisely to catch the construction workers on their way home from the job site. I was impressed with the older boy's ability to speak to adults and the way he mentored his little brother in the transaction.

Today, I saw this same boy solo on the opposite corner this time selling snow cones. I'm not a fan of snow cones, but I didn't pass up the chance to help his business.

I drove home reflecting on all of this and how grateful I am that I have become proficient at being a human who pays attention, who stops and pauses, and makes moments out of seemingly nothing. This is as much a creative act as is my writing. It nourishes me as does my writing.

When I pulled into my driveway, I noticed a box on my front porch. Yes! I was pretty sure I knew who it was from and I was right! Inside I found: a beautiful technicolor dream-scarf for me to wear in my freezing office, a frog statue in a yoga pose to put in my garden, a sachet, a pencil bag for my daughter, a yoga memoir, and a card with this sentiment:

The one thing all famous authors, world class athletes, business tycoons, singers, actors, and celebrated achievers in any field have in common is that they all began their journeys when they were none of these things.” – Mike Dooley

This soul sister knows me and the gifts she chooses for me prove it. There's nothing sweeter than when one's actions match their words.

Now I sit at my writing spot watching the sunlight change the sky's colors. Soon I'll have to turn on a lamp. I have a few things on my to-do list that I've been putting off. They don't feel so pesky now after this good day. Not every day will feel this extraordinary, but no day will if I live it with my eyes and heart closed.

Here's to open eyes and open hearts.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

More proof that the grief is lifting

For more than a year, this old mattress and rolled up rug were propped up against the wall in my garage—among the last vestiges of my old life. With the help of friends, we'd removed this mattress and built an IKEA platform bed. This event on a Saturday afternoon in April felt like another milestone. The mattress and platform bed were purchased with that year's tax return, so I didn't add to the present credit card debt balance.

A few days later the Casper mattress arrived, and I'd power lifted the box up my stairs by myself. I'd also removed the shrink wrap and managed to get the bed onto the platform.

My mettle had been tested, and I'd proved to myself again that I was up for the present challenge. It felt so good to sleep in a new bed free of the sadness and disappointment that the old mattress had come to symbolize. I also felt super adulty to finally have a proper bed—with head and foot board for the first time.

But that jolt of energy soon dissipated, and again, I felt overwhelmed. This is what grief does. It strikes one's energy like the insects who fly into a bug zapper. My garage is over-sized, and I only have one vehicle, so it wasn't really in my way.

What I know now after I dragged that mattress down the driveway on pick-up day is that there was more grieving to be done and sometimes a call to schedule a bulk waste pick-up feels too heavy, too much. In the midst of grief, one must learn to prioritize and conserve energy, and in doing so, only essentials get accomplished. Even then, sometimes the essentials get benched.

A week later with the garage cleared of the stock pile of items I deemed no longer needed, I feel so light. I feel a surge of energy. What I also realize is that that sense of overwhelm has been a life-long weight I've carried on my slim shoulders.

My divorce kicked up so much dust that wasn't directly related to my marriage. It was a catalyst for excavating and examining older artifacts from earlier periods of my life. By the time I felt energized to make the call to 'please come carry away that mattress' I was able to kick other things to the proverbial curb.

Besides being an energy zapper, if done with patience and grace, grief can also be a healer. There is no magic number, but the three years I have sat with my sadness, disappointment, frustration, disbelief, and exhaustion have healed me. With the power of a magnifying glass, I have examined the things that hurt and weighed me down. And with thorough analysis, I am ready to let go of them and move forward, to live a new and fuller life.

It is a remarkable feeling to feel so light, so capable of weathering the emotions that cross my path from day to day, and to not feel like I'm going to suffocate anymore. Nearly every corner of my home feels renewed. I own the space that used to be shared. As I have physically moved and removed my belongings, I have also rearranged the mental furniture. My thoughts and habits better reflect who I choose to be today and who I am working to become tomorrow. I no longer bump my shins into patterns that harm me or obstacles that keep me from my dreams and my goals.

It's remarkable what one sweaty trip down the driveway dragging a heavy, memory-laden mattress can do for one's outlook. I sleep so much better these days. Sweet dreams, indeed.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Yoga Teacher Training - Month Two Reflection

On the yoga mat, when the poses get difficult, one can return to downward dog to catch a breath and reset before resuming the practice. Off the mat, my reset button is my writing. This weekend of yoga teacher training necessitated some writing time.

Friday night was test night when we had to recite the first ten poses of the yogahour sequence to a student proctor. Over the course of the day, I developed heart burn and stomach upset. I was agitated and so upset. I knew that the preparation I had made was not enough. Life had set up obstacles throughout the month between weekend one and weekend two. This isn't an excuse, but a reality. Plus, I was freaked by the prospect of having to memorize so much. It's not my strong suit, so a little seed of doubt planted itself inside my brain and try as I might, I couldn't weed it from the mental garden.

I delivered my recitation to a kind student named Joe, who was encouraging and put me at ease. I honestly don't know if I recited enough of each pose to constitute passing the test. But, the relief I felt after the test was over was palpable, and I decided to move forward and not get stuck on my test performance and result.

A friend reminded me that yoga is about being calm and breathing. “Julie you are literally doing the opposite,” he said. I knew he was right. I even laughed as I read his words. My reaction was absolutely ridiculous and outsized, and yet, it took so much energy to rein that mess in.

What was powerful about my pre-test reaction, and why I am ultimately glad that it happened, is the awareness I had, even in the midst of my reaction, was that I was inflicting this on myself. I wasn't catching a bug. I had worked myself into such a frenzy that my body was reacting.

The takeaway for me was that in the past, these reactions were fairly common without my awareness of exactly how I was bringing them on myself. By suffering this dramatically, I was able to see how far I have come, and was motivated again to keep working to not self-sabotage as I have in the past.

Before this weekend, I called myself a recovering perfectionist. The label recognized that while I still had tendencies for high expectations for myself and wanted things to be perfect, I was no longer dominated by that impulse.

This test and the entire weekend of teaching the “memorized” poses to my classmates proved that there was more perfectionism guiding my behavior and thoughts than I cared to confront. This was a disappointing truth to sit with.

Since I am still getting to know this beautiful group of people I am learning with, I found myself saying repeatedly, tearing up is a stress response for me and I am really close to crying. Multiple times. Each time, the people I confessed this to encouraged me and reminded me that I could do what seems impossible.

I was frustrated and overwhelmed much of the weekend. There were a few points when I heard myself say, “Well, I am not quitting this training, but perhaps I won't teach after all. I don't think I have it in me. This is too hard.”

What meditation and leaning into discomfort have taught me is to separate these thoughts from my reality. Let them pass by me and then float away without changing anything or reacting to them. As I talked and confided in other students, I realized a number of them were feeling that same sense of overwhelm. So it wasn't just me. That thought was a comfort.

Friday night's Word of the Day was 'Next', and our teacher explained that when life gets too overwhelming the best and sometimes only thing to do is simply the next thing. To not worry about getting to the end of class, but to simply do the next pose and then the next. And off the mat, to consider not the steps toward a goal that are a month or a year away, but the very next thing. During training, that meant to test my memorization as I taught my training partners. Not to worry about the outcome, but to simply start and finish the exercise before us. I did the next thing, and then the next, and so on.

Now it's late Monday evening. I survived the training weekend. I have the new sequence to learn and I am armed with new strategies, new friends who will practice with me, and a quieter schedule on my side.

This training is presenting an advanced version of practicing how to stay in the moment and to extend myself grace. No matter what I do when the training is over, I know I will be stronger—metaphorically and physically.

My starting point

Ready for Yoga Teacher Training - Saturday

The beautiful studio where weekend 2 was hosted.