Tapping into Your Inner Fire

Amy’s one-year transformation

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the word “discipline?” I used to think of misery, pain, boredom, and lack of energy. However, my understanding changed in the last year.

At the beginning of 2019, I had reached a significant goal. I had lost a total of 70 pounds, 25% body fat, and I had done it all with a smile on my face and with an ease I never thought possible. When I talked about my journey, people thought I was joking when I said it was fun. The idea of eating clean, exercising routinely, and creating healthy habits is so often associated with pain, suffering, and sacrifice. This is exactly the attitude I had most of my life. However, something in me shifted and I felt driven and guided by an inner force. I would wake up every day excited to see what the day had in store for me. My new lifestyle took little thought – it was just part who I was. The word “discipline” never dawned on me because I never felt miserable, bored, drained of energy, or like I was suffering.

A few months ago, a yoga friend pointed out that my tapas practice was strong. Tapas is one of the five niyamas of yoga in which our focus is on ourselves and living a positive life. The mere mention of tapas was all that I needed to help me realize that my practice had shifted. I love studying the Yoga Sutras and teaching what I can about them in an accessible way, but tapas always eluded me. I had never truly known what it was like to have the energy of tapas propelling me forward in life.

My first introduction to tapas was in 2001 and the description used was “austerity.” Is austerity in your vocabulary? To me, it provokes images of monks flailing themselves or a practice of living sparsely. I understood in yoga the concept meant discipline. I used to explain “it’s something you know is good for you, so you do it every day whether you are in the mood or not. You get on your yoga mat and practice every day because you know it will help your spiritual development.” What do you think? Does this description inspire you? No? I don’t blame you.

When teaching all the niyamas, I would give this description and quickly try to move onto the next niyama because I honestly had no life experience with tapas. I had little to no understanding, try as I might, from reading many books with many great commentaries. I just couldn’t connect it to my life.

Tapas’ first job is to move us out of inertia. So, my limited understanding in the past was partially correct. The trick is to stick with whatever new discipline you are cultivating. But the fun part starts AFTER you just “stick with it.” The fun comes when tapas builds and starts to burn inside of us. What felt like a fight to dig myself out of inertia, changed into feelings of determination, fierce action, and unwavering commitment. Tapas starts to build on itself and we can feed off this energy. I found myself more confident, feeling self-esteem, seeing results from my practice, and it was all due to the energy of tapas burning away the things that held me back. It can actually detox impurities in the body, clear our minds of the mental impurities that held us back for so long, and lift our energy and spirits upward.

The initial work isn’t easy. It’s damn hard. I had hit my bottom in October 2017 and was determined to make the changes needed. That determination drove me until tapas started to burn in me. Tapas fueled my fire and passion for my new life and it still drives me and gives me the enthusiasm and love of life. I still wake up every day excited about what’s to come and in fact, I love this feeling of tapas so much that now I find myself looking for new disciplines to add into my life.

Pandit Rajmani Tigunait discusses tapas in his book The Practice of the Yoga Sutras. He explains that tapas is “Practice that ignites our inner fire, brings out our inner radiance, and makes us vibrant and energetic… enables us to recapture the joy and spontaneity of childhood and the enthusiasm and stamina of youth.” So, how does this description make you feel? More inspired, I hope!

Keeping a Student’s Mind

I had the pleasure of speaking with Megan Ridge Morris about why I’ve decided to work towards my 500-Hour Yoga Certification. I share here because it speaks towards my love of the practice and my love of teaching.

Click on the Image to Read the Interview

What the Bees Tell Us

honeybee2013DKirk
Photo by Douglas Kirk

Who or what in your life reminds you that you aren’t alone? Is it your spouse, your pet, a family member, or long-time friend?

The other day a friend shared an article about an old tradition of “Telling the Bees.” As the granddaughter, and also sister, of two beekeepers, the article piqued my interest. I feel lucky to be part of a small group of people who grew up around beekeeping. It’s a labor of love and a large responsibility.

There are people who are afraid of bees and don’t like them buzzing around their heads, but there is an unmistakable twinkle in the eye of almost everyone when they hear about beekeeping or think about honey. I grew up watching my maternal grandfather keep bees. He taught us not to fear them but also to have a healthy respect for them. I’d watch him at the hives completely dressed from head to toe in a delicate white suit, using a devise to pour smoke into the hives. Then a day or two later, we’d have honey for sale in front of our house.

Reading the article, I couldn’t help but wonder that my grandpop must have known something that we didn’t know. My grandparents were tough farm-folks and never struck me as the type to anthropomorphize bees. But, as I get older, I’m starting to think that farmers know more about universal energy than anyone else. The tradition of “telling of the bees” is fascinating and reminds me a little of how Michele and I talk to our dogs. We make sure they know of everything going on in our lives.

Grandparents1984
Amy with her brothers and grandparents in 1984

I wonder if my grandfather talked to his bees. When he passed away, my grandmom had enough respect for the bees to take care in finding the hives a new home. With so much going on – losing a husband of 50+ years, dealing with grief, being alone in a large house, dealing with what was left of my grandpop’s tools, etc. – the bees could have easily fallen to the bottom of the list and ended up dying off, but my grandmom found them a new home.

Unlike my conversations with my dogs, the tradition of telling the bees seems almost sacred. We know their value in our ecosystem, see them pollinating flowers during the warmer months, and know that the honey and wax they produce cannot be manufactured or recreated. And we have a healthy respect for them, knowing that they will sting us if we try to take advantage or harm them.

It make sense to me that those who have created a home for bees would include them in such traditions as telling them of major life events – deaths, births, marriages, or a prolonged outing by a family member. The belief seems to be that if the news wasn’t shared with the bees, there would be repercussions. In yoga, there is a saying that what happens in the microcosm, also happens in the macrocosm. What’s going on internally shows up all around us and vice versa. As we grieve, so will the bees. As we celebrate, so can the bees.

The tradition may have started based on superstition. But it seems that beekeepers were really just tapping into that universal connection – that whatever may be happening on a smaller scale could also affect the colony. We must all work together to get through this life. The bees are happy to live in harmony with us. They allow their keepers to take the fruit of their own labor, but only if done with respect and care.

It’s such a sweet tradition because it reminds us that we are not alone. The internet has helped us connect with people from all around the globe and be informed of events and news. But our connection to the ones buzzing around us in our day to day lives is where we begin to make the shift. In our grief, in our joy, our times of struggle or triumph, we have the opportunity to reach out and share. We have hundreds of friends around us (some with wings, some with two legs, or four legs) that can listen to and understand us. And by connecting and sharing – not isolating – we are stronger and will not only preserver but blossom and grow.

Prenatal Yoga

I cut open this gorgeous pepper today for my lunch and was gifted with this little baby pepper inside. I immediately had to show Michele, and we whispered to each other (as if we were going to wake a sleeping baby) how cute it was. I don’t believe in coincidences and I fully believe the universe has a sense of humor.

As my 45th birthday is quickly approaching, thoughts of family and my parents and how fast time has gone by have been on my mind. It also seemed fitting, so close to my own birthday, that I would spend this past weekend learning about childbirth and motherhood.

Hold on to your hats! No, I’m not announcing a pregnancy on my blog. This past weekend, I had the pleasure of completing the Childlight Foundations of Prenatal Yoga teacher training at The Yoga Loft in Bethlehem. This training was long overdue for me. In all my years of teaching, I’ve never had formal training in prenatal yoga.

The 25-hour training was compassionately and skillfully led by Megan Ridge Morris. Megan has a natural gift of creating community and holding a space that feels safe and almost like a womb. Surrounded by 10 incredible women, I had the opportunity to learn all about what happens to a woman’s body during pregnancy, why yoga is beneficial during pregnancy, as well as what should be avoided. There are a lot of myths out there about what to do and not do during a yoga class, and I’m happy to know the facts now.

A fun part of the weekend was hearing everyone tell their birth stories. Megan loves to hear and read these stories and has even started a website to allow others to submit and share their own stories. You can read some beautiful stories here. It is amazing how different each story is and how we all enter the world in our own unique way.

My mom recently recounted my own birth story and filled in some details that I didn’t know. Her emphasis seemed to be that I was safe and loved and truly wanted. I fully acknowledge how privileged I am to have this start to my life. Not everyone is this lucky.

Yoga is an incredible benefit for a pregnant woman. The movement in a safe environment, the “me time,” the relaxation, breathwork, and most of all community with other pregnant women are all what make these classes so special. And while it’s nice to have the training and information now to keep a pregnant woman safe should she enter one of my classes, I do not feel drawn to teach prenatal yoga classes. I do, however, now know 10 incredibly caring and nurturing women who can skillfully provide a prenatal class. If you know anyone looking for this kind of yoga experience, drop me a note and I’ll put you in touch with one of them.

Improve Your Performance

Sometimes the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word massage is “relaxation.” Sometimes it’s “stress release.” Or maybe even “luxury.” Of all the images conjured by massage, an often forgotten benefit of massage is improvement with your performance.

I recently visited Warriorfit Performance in Easton, PA, partnering with the athletes to improve their performance and help prevent injuries. Watch these two videos to get an idea of the what and why, and call me today to schedule your appointment!

Pre-Workout Massage

The Secret to Longevity?

Charlie Gubish’s 100th Birthday Cake

Earlier this month, on Ground Hog day, my grandfather turned 100 years old.  Amy’s grandmother passed-on at the age of 104.  With those genetics on our side, we are both planning on being here a while.  If you think about it, we really haven’t even lived half of our lives yet if we do live as long as our grandparents.  That is a bit scary to think about for too long.

It struck me that there is a common bond amongst our grandparents; they both grew up on farms.  I don’t know the details of farm life, but I imagine it involves waking up early, doing a lot of physical work out in the sun and other elements, eating good food produced on the farm, and retiring to bed at an early hour – likely not long after the sun goes down.  After all, you literally have to get up early with the chickens the next day.  And, in the present day my grandfather still acts like he’s getting up with those chickens (or maybe even before!) to do calisthenics and use the resistance machines in the center he lives in as early as 3:30-4:00 am. 

I was thinking about the past when there were no gyms.  People just moved and got their “exercise” doing normal everyday tasks.  Amy and I do go to the gym but shun the automation of today as much as we can.  This allows us to get more movement into our day.  While the neighbors are using snow blowers to clear a mere 40-feet of sidewalk, we are using the shovel; they use the leaf blower in the fall for leaves (and on light snow days), we are using the rake and the shovel or even a broom.  And dare I mention the last unbelievable sight I saw of a man cleaning the snow off of his car with the leaf blower?  How lazy can you get?  And then onto summer and grass cutting–until recently we did cut our grass with an old reel push mower.  We finally got an electric push mower.  Granted our yard is not that big, but if it were, I’m pretty sure we would NOT be using a riding mower.  No robot vacuum in our house, and we’ve never used the dishwasher in our house. 

One of the keys to living long and healthy is just keep MOVING.  First, move in any way you can.  It is better than not moving.  However, it is also good to do some lifting of heavier objects to not only remain strong, but also to maintain and even gain bone mass.  This article discusses a study among women concerning bone density.  Please read the article for the full effect, but the gist is: the women who did light weight resistance training LOST bone density, but the group that used higher resistance of 80%-85% of the weight they could lift only one time actually GAINED bone density most notably in their low back and hip which is huge for preventing a fracture that could be debilitating.

Another favorite of mine, Dan John, writes in this article how he keeps it simple with only 5 moves that could make a great impact as they are based on moves we need to complete in everyday life. Also called “functional training” which is a buzz phrase that people toss around a lot these days. 

You can read more about the commonalities amongst people with the longest longevity here

You’ll notice that “move naturally” is at the top of the list.  So, turn off the electronics and go move; lift something, carry something, clean something, take your dog for a walk or walk with your kids, whatever it is just move, and move often.

Comfortable with Stress?

Shoelace Pose

As my body has gotten stronger, I’ve found a more physical asana practice a little less challenging and a lot more fun. So, it seems fitting that Yin Yoga would show up in my life right now. Two weeks ago, I completed the first segment of my Yin Yoga Teacher Training weekend at the Yoga Loft in Bethlehem. Under the guidance of the amazing Deanna Nagle and Sally Delisle, I gained a huge appreciation for this style of yoga. The foundation in Chinese Medicine and working with the meridians is fascinating. But it was the focus of applying stress to the tendons, fascia, and ligaments that really had me hooked.

One of the bigger lessons we can learn from yoga is how to be less reactive. The physical practice of yoga – putting our bodies in shapes called asanas – is good at teaching this lesson. We come into a posture and it may be challenging or uncomfortable, but we are instructed to stick with it, breathe and notice – unless of course we are feeling true physical pain, not just discomfort.

The same lessons of patience, equanimity, and perseverance can be learned from a meditation practice. Honestly, so far in my journey, this has been the MAIN reason I practice meditation. The ability to sit with the discomfort, boredom, and restlessness of my mind no matter what situation I’m in all come from my meditation practice.

Stress has gotten a bad rap from our overworked and overstimulated society. Yes, chronic stress does damage our whole being. But, not all stress is bad and in-fact, I’ve found that without a good dose of eustress I become dull and may actually have difficulty dealing with challenges when they do show up.

Yin Yoga reminds me a little bit of the yoga I was first introduced to in the mid-90s. That type of yoga was slow-paced, without flows or fancy sequences, and poses were held for a long time. While there are similarities, there are some big differences. I was immediately reminded that no matter how good I think I’ve gotten at having equanimity during challenging situations, I still have work to do!

Yin Yoga pushed me to my limit. Not because I was in danger of hurting myself or because any posture was complicated. I was pushed because of my mind/ego. As the ladies skillfully led us through just a handful of poses, the mental battle was waged within me. I went from blaming the pose to blaming myself for being so stiff to finally blaming myself for not being “good enough.” And then finally, when it all got to be too overwhelming, I just wanted to escape and get out of the pose and even the room!

Honestly, if it hadn’t been a training weekend, I may not have gone back for more. But after the 5 or so Yin practices that weekend, I started to soften. With each class, I started to recognize habits I have with creating drama and stress during situations that are challenging. With each class, I felt safer and less like I had to be in control. And I reaped the benefits of the practice! I slept amazingly well the whole weekend and my body felt more subtle and lighter. I felt at ease and happier overall.

I find myself craving another class and will be making Yin part of my life. Not only do I feel the physical benefits in my body, but I’m reminded of my life journey of learning to surrender and let go. I’m looking forward to the last two segments of this training and to offering Yin Yoga to you in 2020!

Staying Power

Amy with her Mom and Grandmom at her 100th Birthday celebration

For the holidays, Michele and I gifted ourselves one of those popular genetic tests. We were happy to find out that the stories of our lineage were true, but the real reason to do the test was to get the genetic health information.

The multitude of longevity genes didn’t come as much of a surprise, given that my grandmother lived to the age of 104 and Michele’s grandfather just celebrated his 100th birthday. Michele’s grandfather is still active and even still drives. What was surprising was finding out that only 35% of people actually have the longevity genes.

A quick internet search will show just how hot the topic of longevity has become. It would seem that everyone wants to live forever. Search results include everything from new books being published (The Longevity Paradox or The Longevity Code), to studies on the giant tortoise genome, and tips for 100 ways to increase longevity. The Bible talks about longevity, there are Buddhist sutras on longevity, and ways of eating that help extend life.

But, even if you were born with these genes, having them doesn’t guarantee anything. Lifestyle factors determine whether these genes will express or be inhibited. Managing everything from stress, eating, movement, sleep, and socialization can help turn on or off genes.

The idea of a long life is the first thing I think of when I hear the word longevity. In fact, if you look up the definition, it’s the first thing that comes up across all the dictionary platforms. But longevity applies to actions as well.

As someone who has never been athletic, the fact that I’ve made exercise and a healthy diet part of my lifestyle still surprise me. I sometimes say to myself “Who are you!?” when I’m choosing to go to the gym over staying home on a cold rainy morning. The trick for me was connection to an activity that had staying power.

Zone 2 training is practiced by endurance athletes the world over. It is a long slow process, but it gets results. Learning about this type of training gave me permission to slow down and take my time. It satisfied my appreciation for delayed gratification because it took months to really see the changes that were occurring. But during those long periods of time I built a habit and routine of doing something that I’ve come to love and I didn’t get burned out.

I tried HIIT workouts, the hyper intense exercise that aims to get you super sweaty in a short amount of time. Those workouts only ended up jacking up my nervous system and making me worry that I was going to “live fast and die young.” They definitely were not for me or sustainable in my life. There was little to no longevity in this type of work for me.

I can say the same for the yoga practices I’ve tried over the years. The faster flow classes are fun and entertaining, but they don’t have much staying power for me. I usually feel like I’m missing something and often times I end up hurting myself. I always go back to my slower paced practice where I can connect with my breath, alignments, and my spirit feels nourished. And to be honest, not even the asana practice alone has had staying power for me. There are eight limbs of yoga after all, and when my interest or desire in the physical practice wanes, I have a solid foundation of other yoga to work on.

There really is no “one size fits all” with anything in life. But dreaming of living a long time or just reading about it aren’t enough. Even being born with the genes isn’t enough. Just as unhealthy lifestyle choices can inhibit the very genes that can help us live a long time, choosing an activity that doesn’t resonate with you will not last. The key to finding longevity of life or activities is to nurture yourself rather than deplete yourself. Find something that lifts you up rather than pulls you down. Don’t be so drawn in by the latest and greatest thing that you overlook whether the activity has staying power. We want to give OURSELVES the power to stick around and live for a very long time so we can leave our positive mark on the world – no matter how long that takes!

Poet Mary Oliver as my yoga teacher?

With the passing of poet Mary Oliver, there were so many quotes posted on social media from her poetry as well as other great information about her life. Amy’s former colleague posted this article about her views on concentration and the creative self and couldn’t help but to see similarities between Oliver’s thoughts on creativity and what Amy’s learned of meditation:

As a yogi who has always dreamed of one day writing the great American novel, I loved reading this long article and learning from Oliver about how I can use principals from yoga to stoke my creative fire.

In the article, the first words from Oliver are “It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits. Reluctantly I rise…”

Sounds like my meditation practice! I commit myself to sit, bring my awareness to my breath, embody a sense of gratitude, and then start my mantra practice. Inevitably, my cat, Shanti, decides this would be the perfect time to eat (noisily!), or to show the rare affection. Or one of my three rescued Golden Retrievers starts barking. Yet, I sit, notice the distraction, and go back to the mantra. These are the easy distractions.

Oliver says: “But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself…”

Yes! This is the more likely scenario. The mantra is there as my anchor, but my mind wants to problem solve or gets bored or simply wants attention, and its unrelenting!

Oliver talks of three different selves, with the 3rd self being where the creativity lies and, in this article at least, seems to be the “self” she was most interested in. This creative self she describes as having a “hunger for eternity.”

From a yogic perspective, the Self (capital “S”) informs our ordinary mind and is who we truly are. We operate from an ordinary place, reacting to our 10 active and inactive senses and those reactions come from survival or from a place of habit (our samskaras). Its only with the practice of meditation, of training the mind to ignore the distractions, that our bodhi (higher discerning mind) can shine through. We experience these sweet moments as moments of clarity.

My ego would love to take credit for all the great ideas I’ve had in my life, but this yogic principal shows me that creative or “great ideas” are moments of clarity where my bodhi has routed past all the distractions. Bodhi is understood to be a universal source, something we all share. So, if my great ideas aren’t coming from me, then why wouldn’t every other person have the same ideas?

Oliver argues that the creative self cannot be separated from the artist’s whole life. She wisely states “…there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come — for his adventures are all unknown. In truth, the work itself is the adventure. And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration.”

Learning from Oliver has given me a new outlook and new energy towards my meditation practice. Those moments of clarity may or may not come, but the training alone is needed. I believe that each of us has something unique to offer the world, so living our fullest lives and making connection to this higher self can facilitate our unique gift to the world. Let your own unique life color the message that you can bring from that universal source.

Her message is clear: prepare yourself for the work at hand, concentrate, practice, and don’t let distractions from yourself or others get in the way. I’ll keep meditating every day, keep sitting to write, keep being me, and perhaps one day I’ll have written that great American novel!

“Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity.”

Getting joy by giving?

Getting joy by giving? There is some research stating joy last longer by giving than getting alone. Michele agrees and wanted to share a recent client experience who exemplifies generosity:

Anyone who knows me well would say I’m “frugal” or just plain “cheap”. That trait has helped me to be debt-free (yes, the house mortgage and cars are all paid off!). However, every time I give to someone, it doesn’t take long to get it back. And its nice to see how this happens to other’s as well. During the past holiday season, I decided to gift a free massage.

I had in mind a former physical therapy patient who is always enthusiastic, followed her treatment plan, and did her homework. In the beginning of Tracy’s therapy, her treatment was focused on manual massage techniques and later progressed to more exercise than massage. She’s in a very “giving” occupation (Certified Occupational Therapist Assistant-Licensed) and logs a lot of hours volunteering for various organizations.  She does a lot of work for Veterans, and being a Navy Veteran myself, I appreciate anyone who helps us out, especially if they are not a Veteran themselves. Tracy was also kind enough to remember me and send a note of thanks for my service last Veterans’ Day.

I think you can probably see why I picked her. Tracy’s a great person who does good for others and was more than deserving of the gift. She even made a point of telling me how much she appreciated the offer when she arrived for her massage.  Afterward, she told me she wanted to gift a massage to a deserving friend as well as booking another massage for herself. The extra business was unexpected, but just goes to show, once again, that you can gain a lot by giving a lot. Something tells me that Tracy’s life is full of abundance! You can read more of her story on her physical therapy treatment here.

Whether your New Year’s resolutions has fizzled out or you just want a fresh start this year, try giving some time or money away and feel the joy.