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.

Find a New Perspective!

This past weekend, Amy spent a lot of time upside down at The Yoga Loft in Bethlehem for a 17-hour training on inversions led skillfully by Carrie Morgan and Sangeeta Vallabhan.

For the first 15+ years of my own personal practice, going upside down only consisted of Downward Dog or legs up the wall.

Inversions can be intimidating, especially as we get older. I remember being a kid walking on my hands or constantly finding some way to do flips, backbends, or hang from the monkey bars. As I got older, I forgot how freeing it felt to hang my head below me and look at the world upside down!

Now, as an adult, inversions are HARD WORK! Not only physically, but mentally and emotionally. Are we held back by fear or self-doubt? I’m comfortable now doing inversions at the wall, but when I tried a double-kick into hand-stand this past weekend, I felt so HEAVY and my mind automatically wanted to go into old negative self-talk. I caught myself before I talked myself into giving up, asked for help, and tried again. I’m not able to do it YET, but I know what’s holding me back is only in my head.

It can be easy to convince ourselves that we are too old, too weak, too big, or just not interested in trying. But, if we can put aside these ego-driven thoughts that push us to stay in our comfort zone, we can experience all the benefits of being upside down!

Still not convinced to try? Read this great article for more on all the benefits of inversions.