All posts by Kate

Insider trading tips for your life.

I’m not sure when it started, and I don’t think I even knew I was doing it at the time, but as I look back on the major life decisions I have made, I realize that I am an investor. I don’t have stocks. I don’t have bonds. I have far more in student loan debt than I have in savings, but I have been playing the market of life and experiencing a positive ROI for as long as I can remember. I have been investing in myself.

My current career does not reveal a direct path from my chosen field of study in undergraduate and graduate school. I remember coming home from Colorado in 2010 after I finished my MFA program, and besides the fancy folder holding my degree, I also had a giant plastic tupperware tub that contained all of my notebooks and scripts and handouts from grad school. “This tub is worth $40,000!” I exclaimed as I dug out a dignified place for it in my basement. This tub made me nervous. It made me nervous because I knew that it was actually worthless, that in fact every penny of debt I had accrued (and continue to accrue) from the decision for higher education was invested IN ME. There is nothing else to show for it. Me. That’s it. It is up to me to create a return on the investment I made. Am I a bad debt or a solid bet?

I have been thinking about this again recently for two reasons:

1) I am going to do it all over again. My work with private yoga therapy clients in the last couple of years has been deeply fulfilling and inspiring, and has revealed to me that I have a strong calling to become a life coach. So yep, I’m biting the bullet and making another big investment to go to coaching school this year. And it doesn’t make me sweat, not even a little.  I am learning to trust in the value of my investments in myself.

2) We are about to launch the second year of Yoga Conservatory, the 200-hour yoga teacher training that I created out of all of the knowledge I have invested in over the last 15 years. Naturally, there are many people who are interested in the program, but who are nervous about the investment. I understand this, because I understand the internal conflict this brings up: Am I worth investing in? What do I need to do to prove that my investment “worked”?

We live in a society that seems to consider it selfish to learn for the sake of personal development, that demands an economic justification for all personal investment. So be it. Such justifications are easy to come by if you look at the economic impact of health, happiness, fulfillment and (most importantly, in my opinion) the removal of self-limiting beliefs that can occur when a teacher gives you the skills, guidance and permission to grow into your full potential.

It’s difficult for me to quantify which of the trainings or experiences that I invested in have helped me transition from a life of slinging noodles at the Old Spaghetti Factory (my first job after moving to Portland) to owning my own dream business, owning a beautiful home, being able to actually afford preschool for my two awesome kids (no small feat!) working with an amazing team of Portland’s best yoga teachers and launching an innovative and transformative teacher training program of my own. Like any investment, it’s a slow process that requires patience, faith and the courage to brave the ups and downs. But I will say it feels pretty darn good to take stock of my life today and realize that I made a great investment, and that is why I will keep pouring more of my money, time and energy into myself, because it HAS paid off.

If you are one of the people circling the idea of a yoga teacher training program, or even just a yoga membership, and hesitating because of the cost, I would urge you to remember the iconic scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which Harrison Ford is faced with the dark abyss of the unknown and must make a leap of faith.

How much are you willing to bet on yourself? And does the betting change the outcome? There’s only one way to find out…

P.S. Seriously though, if you want to learn about the potentially life changing experience of Yoga Conservatory (a program that is likely to turn you into a personal investor and a metaphorical cliff jumper, as well as a yoga teacher) please schedule a one-on-one meeting with me ASAP and nab one of the last spots before enrollment closes on 9/1. You are worth it!

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Getting past my yoga savior complex…

Two weeks ago, the yoga community was shocked and saddened by the news that the well-loved and very talented teacher of yoga and Buddhism, Michael Stone, died of an overdose related to his bipolar disorder. I never met Michael, though I had begun to dabble in his work. I recently completed one of his online courses, and listened with curiosity as some of my favorite colleagues praised his teachings, shared his recordings and invited me to his gatherings.

His death struck a chord in me, as it did for many in my direct community of yoga teachers and spiritual wayfinders. He was just a few years older than I am, with young kids at home and a baby on the way. He seemed to be at the prime of his life, achieving an impressive level of success in a field where few can make a living. While it is always a tragedy to lose somebody so young, made more tragic by the sheer number of people affected by this loss, there is something particularly haunting about Michael’s passing that must be named:

Yoga did not save him.

Buddhism did not save him.

Knowing how to breathe in a way that would regulate his nervous system did not save him.

This is hard to accept because, you see, yoga did save me once, and it has saved me again and again since. I thought I could count on this. I thought I was looking forward to a lifetime of improved wellness each year as my practice advanced and my wisdom grew.

During my high school and college years I was plagued by depression, and I self-medicated with daily pot use for many years. Every member of my direct family also struggled with mental illness to varying degrees, some were diagnosed “treatment resistant”. My grandparents on my father’s side died at their own hands. Depression was like a dark cloud that I was born into, and it was my impression that it would only get worse as I got older, that it was an inescapable part of my destiny. When I felt the warm glow of my natural optimism and joy, it was always coupled with a nagging fear that the feeling would not last, could not last, and I had no control over it.

When I started going to yoga as a 20-year-old college student, I found incredible relief in the reliable sense of peace that came after every savasana. The consistency of this feeling allowed me to develop trust for the goodness, wholeness and joy that was already in me, and it created a framework for me to understand that I had choices, and my choices impacted my mental health. Yoga put me back in the driver’s seat in my own life, and the last 17 years have been profoundly better than the years that preceded this discovery. Not just that, but it has been more or less an upward trajectory of growth, wellness, wisdom and self-development. Every year truly has been better than the one before it.

Having had this experience, I confess I am one of those annoying yoga evangelists that secretly believes yoga can save everyone, even though I know better. I know that when I tell a severely depressed person yoga can save them, it is much like somebody telling me that a spoonful of local honey each day completely got rid of their seasonal allergies, and maybe that will work for me too! When somebody says this to me, my eyes roll to the very top of my lids and I say (in between sneeze attacks) “Yeah, you don’t have seasonal allergies.”

I met with a client yesterday who has been in pain for the last year. She is getting older, and her pain is impacting her ability to enjoy retirement. As an optimistic yoga evangelist, I was thinking “Yes! I can help her!”. She told me that her chiropractor had warned her that she might never heal, might never get better. I paused for a moment, considering that there might be some wisdom in this, and concluded “That is true. But I feel very confidant that we can make it better for you than it would be without yoga.”

At the end of the day, this is really where I place my faith. I don’t know if yoga will heal or cure anybody’s mental illness, chronic pain, or general malaise that comes from living in a technology saturated culture of isolation and sedentarism. What I do know is that it is very likely to make it better than it would be without some form of mindfulness, wisdom teaching and health-oriented movement. I invest in learning as much as I can about how to deliver yoga in a way that will always leave people better than I found them. I change the way I teach and practice when I learn about yoga injuries, when I hear about trauma triggers, I adapt and I try to always do more good, do less harm.

In the end, I am reminded that my great life is due mostly to my great luck. I am lucky that the mental illness which plagued me was not so far gone that I couldn’t start yoga to begin with. I am lucky that it worked for me. I am lucky that I have had the resources to continue pursuing yoga. I am lucky that I am naturally joyful, optimistic and resilient. I did not earn these things, though I have made choices that reinforced them over time. I am lucky that during the years when I was smoking pot every day I was a white, middle-class young woman living in a liberal college town and thus I did not suffer long-term legal consequences for those choices. I am so, so lucky.

With this, I feel a responsibility to help anyone who has not had my luck to the best of my ability, but I am also aware that I can only be truly present when I let go of my judgements and expectations, when I remember that I can’t possibly know what it’s like to be somebody else, but I can hear them and trust them when they tell me what it’s like. This helping must come from knowing that I can’t save anybody, but I can show them how I saved myself.

Lauren LaBarre Photoraphy

Kate Holly is a yoga therapist, artist, founder of  Yoga Refuge, and the creator of our teacher training program, Yoga Conservatory. She currently writes for the Yoga Refuge blog and her obscure online memoir, Facebook.

Resilience for the Resistance.

I know I am not the only person in Portland who is heartbroken this week after the tragic and senseless loss of two local heroes: Rick Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche. I have found myself experiencing grief, fear, anger and blame in the days following the hateful act that took their lives. I have found myself succumbing to the familiar sympathetic nervous system response: Fight or Flight. I have had thoughts of rage and thoughts of moving to Canada. Through all of this, there is that ever present part of myself that observes, and calmly reminds me that I can pause, experience these feelings and simply hold space for them before I react or let the feelings turn to a toxic emotional sludge inside of me. There is always something underneath blame, shame and anger. It is a simple kind of pain that is so uncomfortable that we rush to turn it into something we can throw back out. I return to a simple practice that I learned from my Tibetan Buddhist teachers called Tonglen, which I find profoundly useful in times like this. There are different variations on this practice, but this is the one I find most useful. If you’d like to try it, take a moment here:

Tonglen Practice for staying present with pain:
-Sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes. Think of a feeling or experience that has happened in recent days that is very difficult for you to stay present and non-reactive with.
-On the inhale breath: Feel what is there, and allow yourself to go fully into this feeling.
-On the exhale breath: Offer this feeling up to be held by the heart of the world, and all of the others who also feel as you do.
-Do this several times, and notice if the feeling transforms. How does it change? What is different? Take a few minutes to write down what you experienced in a journal.

I am aware that what I am feeling as a person who experiences many levels of privilege is nothing compared to the stress of living every day as a member of a marginalized or targeted community. I am aware that those of us who have always believed we would stand up to hate if and when we saw it in front of us are now feeling the real stakes of this. I am aware of the courage, strength and resilience that is asked of us in these times, to continue to hold space for love over fear.

In honor of the sacrifice of our local heroes and their families, I am offering a free restorative yoga and self-care workshop on Saturday, June 17th from 2:30-4pm. Donations will be accepted but are not required, and will go to the fundraising campaign for the victims of the Trimet stabbings. This event is open to all who seek peace.

I hope to see some of you at our community events this month.

In Love and Service,

Kate Holly, ERYT-500, MFA
Director of Yoga Refuge

Everyone carries a shadow.

Last night I bolted upright in my bed at 4am, after having one of the worst dreams of my life. In it, I received news that my 4-year-old son was dying, and within moments he was gone. I experienced a heart-wrenching grief that felt as real as any in waking life. I clung to his favorite stuffed animal, wailing, and I begged to understand why this had happened. There came a moment when I suddenly realized I was dreaming, and I tore myself from sleep with immense relief. I laid in bed awake for some time, ruminating on my dream and the very real emotions it had elicited in me. I was reminded of the workshop I had taught a few days earlier in our yoga teacher training, on the subject of Yin Yoga.
Yin (in yoga and in life) is the shadow side of our striving world. Yin is associated with darkness, depth, passivity, mystery and nighttime, whereas Yang is associated with light, heat, activity, daytime, and what is outwardly seen and obvious. Much like the image of the Yin/Yang symbol, Yin contains Yang (and vice versa) and exists in relationship to it. For example, a cup of warm tea is yin compared to a pot of boiling water. A Hatha Flow practice is Yin compared to a Crossfit workout, but Yang compared to a Restorative Yoga practice.
Yin becomes Yang, and vice versa, and these transformations can occur slowly over time, or quite suddenly. We see this in the rapidly changing weather patterns this week, as the weather zigzags from cool rain to extreme heat overnight, and then back again.
So what does all of this have to do with my dream? The final factor in talking about Yin Yoga that has been sticking with me all week: Yin controls Yang. Balance between the two will occur, whether we invite it or not. With our Yang-dominant culture, we reward those who overcome obstacles and exhibit strength, but we undervalue the need to rest, restore, be still and experience silence. We push ourselves to do more, get more, be more, while putting off our innate need for mystery, passivity, slow processing and inner quiet. I hear story after story of people pushing themselves to the point of injury or illness–that breaking point is yin controlling yang. The need for rest was there all along, and by ignoring it we force it to take us over. Carl Jung wrote, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”
For me, becoming a parent brought an onslaught of Yang energy into my life: high levels of activity, the warmth of small children who give and receive love so easily, the noise, hustle and bustle. I spend most of my day on the bright surface of life with my children, reflecting to them the safety and abundance of the world so that they might develop resilience and an inherent trust in themselves and others. What is unseen and ever-present (the Yin side of raising young children) is the constant vulnerability. The more we love, the more we fear losing what we love. My husband took my 4-year-old to school on our big cargo bike yesterday and, sensing my nervousness, sent me a photo after he had safely arrived. We did not speak of my fear, but he intuited it, because he feels it too.
My dream last night was the shadow of my experience as a parent needing to be seen and felt. It was Yin controlling Yang.
Yoga practice for your shadow:
Whether you practice Yin Yoga or not, we can all benefit from welcoming our shadow side to the yoga mat. Who are you striving to become? In that striving, which parts of yourself have you ignored or banished? Can you invite your whole self to the yoga mat, warts and all? Can you let your lazy self have a yoga practice this week? What about your incompetent self? Can you be willing to explore the mystery of your yoga practice rather than go in with an expectation of what it is? What is happening on a deeper, slower and more subtle level in your practice?

If your practice includes journaling, try this prompt:
What is present in the shadow that I am carrying right now?

Try a Yin or Restorative yoga class:
We offer 2 weekly Yin classes: Tuesdays at 7:30pm and Wednesdays at 7:15pm. Restorative yoga has a different lineage than Yin, but is an excellent practice for increasing Yin energy in your life. We offer 2 weekly Restorative yoga classes: Thursdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 4pm.
Also, join me on Saturday, June 24th for a special Summer Solstice Yin practice in the evening! You can register here.

Why I love Yoga Conservatory.

There are a lot of Yoga Teacher Training programs out there, which is why I want to make sure that if you are looking for one, you find the RIGHT one out of all the noise. Here at Yoga Refuge, our teacher training program is unlike any other, and its also important to us that we find the right candidates who are a perfect fit for what we are doing. I wrote a little ode to the things about Yoga Conservatory that make me swoon, which I hope will help you prospective trainees make an informed decision.

World Class Anatomy Training.
Yoga Alliance requires teacher training programs to spend 10 contact hours on anatomy. Our program provides 20 contact hours, in addition to extremely thorough homework assignments. Our anatomy section is led by Todd Jackson, who is a sought after master teacher of yoga, biodynamic massage and craniosacral therapy. Todd assembles a knowledgeable team of yoga teachers, massage therapists, acupuncturists, and bodyworkers to assist in this training, and his approach integrates hands on palpation, experiential anatomy inside of asana practice, and detailed lecture and demonstration.

Emphasis on creative process and skillful inquiry over dogma and methodology.
Like life, teaching yoga is complex and nuanced, and most of the real work happens in the moment of doing, rather than in the theories around doing. A skillful yoga practice is not about learning “right” from “wrong”, so much as it is about learning which inquiries are meaningful and useful, and how to listen for the answers. A skillful yoga practice (and therefore a skillful yoga teacher) will integrate the wisdom of the body, the understanding that the body and all things are constantly changing and therefore the answers will change over time, and the ability to stay present with what is.
There are some programs which try to make the process of training teachers more efficient by creating simplified methodologies. At Yoga Conservatory, we examine issues from a variety of perspectives, we teach tools for self-inquiry and personal practice as a primary reference point for trainees, and we work to help students develop their own voice and have the willingness to share it. We empower new yoga teachers to hone their own unique skills and interests, and to participate in creative process in order to craft an authentic teaching practice.

Performative Presence.
Performer training techniques are integrated throughout the Yoga Conservatory curriculum, and bring a unique perspective on the relationship between performance and facilitating yoga. Some components include:
-Improvised Movement, drawing from Body-Mind Centering, Viewpoints and other contemporary movement techniques. This content is helpful in discovering new ways of embodiment, sequencing a class and creating inventive transitions.
-Embodied Voice Practice, drawing from the work of Roy Hart. Teachers use their voice as one of their primary tools, and rarely get the training to understand the power of their voice. This work helps students to explore the relationship between their body, voice and spirit, and can lead to a new understanding of how the body speaks to us, and how the voice can shift self-limiting beliefs.
-Contemplative Arts Practice, drawing from the work of Barbara Dilley and Chogyum Trungpa Rinpoche. By cultivating curiosity and awareness about space, architecture and objects, we can better understand how to craft meaningful ritual and intentional use of design elements in yoga classes.

Yoga as a healing art.
There are many approaches to yoga practice and teaching, and it is helpful to define your intention when pursuing a Yoga Teacher Training certification. Some schools are more focused on yoga as exercise, others on spiritual or religious pursuits. At Yoga Conservatory, we are practicing and teaching yoga primarily as a healing art. Some subjects include:
-An introduction to Ayurveda
-Pranayama
-Mindfulness and Meditation
-Yoga for the Right Brain
-Introduction to the Nervous System
-Skillful use of language in teaching yoga
-Techniques for safe, sustainable asana practice

Yoga as way of building community and activating social change.
Yoga is increasingly becoming a popular way to connect communities, heal trauma and introduce tools for personal resilience where they are needed most. Whether you aspire to teach yoga in unconventional settings (such as prisons, addiction treatment centers and the like) or you simply want to know how to teach to the general population in a way that is inclusive and accessible, Yoga Conservatory covers the most vital subjects for using yoga as a tool for community and social justice, including:
-Trauma-informed teaching
-Ethics
-Examination of diversity and cultural barriers to yoga
-Body-positivity in yoga
-Resources for learning to work with special populations

Apprenticeship Opportunities after graduating.
A 200-hr program is just the beginning of the journey to becoming a skillful yoga teacher. Many students feel satisfied with a 200-hr program for the personal growth they experience and the basic tools for bringing yoga into their work and communities. For those who aspire to teach yoga professionally, or who want to continue to refine their teaching skills, Yoga Conservatory offers apprenticeship opportunities for graduates who show passion and promise. Our apprenticeship program includes opportunities to:
-Teach to peers and receive regular feedback from a mentor teacher.
-Teach to the general public in a yoga studio setting at Yoga Refuge.
-Teach to underserved communities through our outreach program.
-Develop business and administrative skills relevant to yoga teachers, such as using Mindbody Online software.
-Learn the skills of entrepreneurship to grow your yoga business.

Yoga Conservatory is for you if:

-You want to integrate yoga as a tool for personal healing and empowerment.
-You want to use yoga as a way of helping other people to heal and become empowered.
-You are willing to keep asking questions even when there are no easy answers.
-You are ready to “get in the arena” of being vulnerable.
-You are curious, creative and open to innovation in the field of yoga.
-You like to be challenged, to grow and to learn about yourself.
-You are motivated by the question “How can I be of service?”

Lauren LaBarre Photoraphy

Fundraiser focus: Ghost Ship Oakland fire

I have always believed that a yoga studio is fundamentally a community gathering space, and in these times of political upheaval, I also believe a yoga studio can be a community organizing space and change agent.  Many of the practices of yoga are specifically designed to help us open to compassion and empathy, but compassion and empathy can all too often lead to emotional overwhelm and hopelessness if we don’t take action to serve others.  We can funnel our collective compassion into advocacy, education and action through our practice.  With the intention of giving as much as I can to preserving and cultivating the things in the world that I believe in (some of which are currently hanging on by a thread), I have decided to hold a monthly fundraiser class for a specific cause or organization that supports inter-cultural understanding, human rights, social justice, environmental justice and the arts.

Last month, we raised $900 for Standing Rock, in a packed class of joyful faces on Thanksgiving morning.  I am truly grateful for the generosity of this community!  For December, I had originally planned a fundraiser for Unite Oregon, but we will be pushing that one forward for a more timely need.  I have decided to dedicate our December fundraiser to victims of the Ghost Ship Oakland Fire.  

When I read about the space and the tragedy that occurred there, it struck very close to home for me.  In the days when yoga was my day job and theater was my night job, my theater company and I would set up shop at any space where we could afford the rent.  We made contemporary work, and preferred performing in warehouses and site-specific environments anyway.  We were part of the low-cost-of-living/high quality-of-life movement that made Portland such a desirable place for young creatives to relocate to in the early 2000’s.  During those years, we rented space at a variety of warehouses and buildings in Portland that were not up to code.  The landlords were just sitting on the buildings until their property was worth more, and in the meantime they allowed low rent artists to work there, most likely because of the culture change it would create in the neighborhood.  

One of the buildings was home to many artists besides us, all of us with leases that described what we were doing as “storage”, because the building was not safe for the level of work and occupancy it had.  There seemed to be an unspoken agreement that this is just how artists and landlords make things work in cities like this.  It was due to our public performances that the fire marshall finally shut that building down, and all of the artists were evicted.  

Many of those buildings have since been renovated (or demolished and turned into parking lots), and are charging 3-4 times what we paid.  They are no longer homes to the kind of artists that worked there before.  As the cost of rent continues to skyrocket in Portland, I worry for the future of the arts here.  I worry for the lack of safe, affordable spaces for the artistic leaders of our community, which make this city such a special and valuable place to be.  

I’m sharing this story because I think it could be easy for some to dismiss the tragedy that occurred in Oakland as something that is not relevant to our city, or to blame it on the victims for being in a space that was not up to code.  If you are a homeowner or landlord in Portland, chances are you have profited quite a bit from the gentrification and growth of our city.  The increase in property value here will all go to property owners and landlords, but we have the artists to thank for that increase in value.  If it was not for the artists and their willingness to work in dilapidated buildings and develop a culture of intrigue in our ignored neighborhoods, Portland would not be what it is today.  Whether we like the changes that have occurred in our city or not is a loaded subject of its own, and obviously there are some serious problems of inequity caused by gentrification that are worthy of substantial discussion, but I’ll just end by reminding you to appreciate the artists in your city and the value they bring, to consider how we might structure public policy to support affordable and safe working spaces for artists here as the city continues to grow and gentrify, and encourage you to join our fundraiser class as an act of gratitude to them and compassion for the families and victims of those irreplaceable souls in the Oakland arts community.   

Action:  Join us on Sunday, Dec. 18th from 6-7:30pm for a fundraiser Stretch and Sketch class.  This class is open to both artists and yogis–some will stretch and some will sketch! $10-25 sliding scale.   Followed by holiday party/potluck from 7:30-9:30pm, open to all.  

How to Trust the Friendliness of the Universe (even when Disaster is Imminent)

The other day I was listening to a podcast from one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, and was inspired to bring her question into my Wednesday morning yoga class: Can we trust in the friendliness of the Universe? Even just saying the phrase the friendliness of the Universe makes me breathe a sigh of relief, so I have been staying with this powerful inquiry over the last few weeks.

Her suggestion, which we practiced in my class that day, was to start with cultivating awareness and appreciation for the goodness that is inherent in our own basic nature, for if we are basically good and if we can locate and reside in our place of basic goodness, it is easier to believe that the world also possesses that basic goodness.

This weekend I drove with my two little kids and my husband to the Oregon Coast to visit my in-laws. They live in a beautiful, well cared for home just steps from the ocean. I have always enjoyed the luxury of staying here during holidays and visits, but in the last year I have become more acutely aware of another phrase that describes where they live: The Inundation Zone. If you look on a map of the inundation zone, the place where my in-laws live is saturated with a deep red line, the area in which the devastation will be almost total when the long expected major earthquake (and ensuing tsunami) hits. I try to put this fact somewhere in the back of my mind, but before we fell asleep on our first night there my husband said wake me up if you feel an earthquake and we will jump right in the car, like turning over a fresh pile of soil to feed my stagnant paranoia. As I tried to fall asleep, my brain wrestled to imprint some basic facts: The car key is on the table. My shoes are by the door. The baby’s car seat is close to the door but maybe we shouldn’t bother with that. I nicely ask my brain to shut it so I can get some sleep. Soon, my mind was recalling some of the images from a devastating memoir that I started to read a few years ago, about a woman who had lost her entire family in the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 but had miraculously survived it herself. I was not able to read past the first chapter, which overwhelmed me with grief and fear. Why did I read that book? I chide myself. Now I will never get those images out of my head!.

My monkey mind eventually gave way to sleep.

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The next day I watched as my 3.5 year old learned to play chase with the ocean. He would creep towards the water, and when a wave began to roll in he would run screaming towards the shore, yelling between peals of laughter run for your lives! Sometimes if he was a little too slow his ankles would get licked with the foamy residue before the wave retreated, which would thrill him even more. I hung back, trying to laugh and smile and enjoy his delight, but I could never relax fully. I could not bring myself to return to trusting in the friendliness of the ocean, which used to come so easily to me.

Later, I decided to go for a run by myself on the beach–I have always loved the feeling of running on the wet sand towards the vast landscape where the sky meets the sea, and I don’t get the opportunity very often. I noticed that the planning was still happening in my brain: If I feel an earthquake, I will run towards the house and…

As I ran, I thought about the odds. The odds were very, very low that I would be here, running on the beach when the big one hit. The odds were probably lower than me winning the powerball and becoming a billionaire. Another way to think of that is that I am kind of winning the lottery for every moment I continue to enjoy running on this beach, NOT getting killed in a devastating tsunami. In fact, all of us here on this beach today, we have won this lottery over and over and over again. True, some people will not be so lucky, and some people have not been so lucky, but if a tsunami is a sign of unfriendliness from the universe (and of course that’s a simplified and human-centric way of seeing it), then actually the great majority of the time we are being treated to unquestionable friendliness. I trust in my own basic goodness, and yet I know that I am unfriendly at least as much as the universe is. After all, I get irritable when I am stressed or under-resourced, and I can’t be friendly all of the time. Yet, people generally don’t find me threatening, so why should I find the universe, or this ocean, threatening?

Finally, I settled back to the main teaching of all wisdom traditions: All you can do is enjoy being alive in this moment. You can’t control the future. You can’t fix what happened in the past. You can’t save the world from tsunamis. But you can feel the saltwater breeze pressing against your face and stay present with the sensation of your fear, which is really just your tender heart that loves your life so much, loves your family so much, loves other people so much that you would do anything to keep them from suffering. Trusting in the friendliness of the universe, like any trusting relationship, can’t be built on denial. It is not a helpful strategy for me to ignore my fear, or blame myself for having it. It’s also not a helpful strategy to avoid information completely, like those who deny climate change or refuse to evacuate their homes when they have been given plenty of warning that a natural disaster is imminent. Everybody has different boundaries around the information they can take in before they become overwhelmed, and it’s healthy to set those boundaries, but I also challenge people to increase their tolerance for uncomfortable or painful realities, which ultimately develops a greater capacity for empathy and the strength and inner resources to create positive change in the world. Part of the friendliness of the Universe comes from us participating in it with an open heart.

On my final day at the coast I took my son back to the edge of the waves, and we played until he was covered in sand and surf. I allowed my fear to transform into a feeling of aliveness. Living fully is risky. I might get swept away, right here in this moment, along with my funny, sweet, wild child. We might experience our last moments on Earth, clinging to each other with complete love and surrender. Or we might walk away unscathed and go get a hamburger.

Knowing that a trip to the coast is a slightly more risky endeavor than staying home will not keep me from doing it, but it does heighten my appreciation for each precious moment we spend there.

I think it is worthwhile to participate in planning and self-preservation. I am slowly working on earthquake preparedness in my home. But the day that such planning gets in the way of my ability to trust in the friendliness of the Universe is the day that I must question whether it is doing more harm than good in my life. We can’t choose much when it comes to the myriad possible dangers of being alive, but we can choose to live a life without constant stress, with a willingness to feel a little fear in order to be rewarded with a meaningful exchange with life, with nature, and with being human. I knew this was a risk I took when I decided to have kids. To be honest, I didn’t feel a lot of fear when I thought of myself being swept away into the ocean. I know I will die one day, one way or another. It’s the immense vulnerability of having children that did me in. I can’t bear the thought of losing them or of seeing them suffer unspeakable tragedy. I traded in a life without fear the moment I had them, but it’s worth it. Now I get to experience vulnerability in all of its raw, bleeding glory every damn day.

So yes, I believe I can trust in the friendliness of the Universe, and I can do this without denial, ignorance or unnecessary risks. I encourage you to notice moments this week when you might be feeling stress or dread because of a sense that the Universe is not friendly to you, and inquire into your own basic goodness in search of a different view.

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Talk to me like the Rain, and let me Listen…

(A love letter to my patient and wise body.)

About two weeks ago, amidst the endless flow of work and childcare and work and childcare and a little bit of sleep and work and childcare and work and childcare, I caught a cold. The cold had been in my house, making the rounds amongst the toddler, the husband and the baby, and my body held off for as long as it could. Through nights of harrowed and broken sleep (sick baby), through days when no meals were planned and no yoga was done, through weeks of making almost every decision based on what somebody else needed, or where I was supposed to be, my body held out against all odds. When I did catch the cold, it wasn’t as bad for me as it was for the boys of my house. It never knocked me right off my feet, and so of course I kept going. Work and childcare and work and childcare and a little bit of sleep. Here we are, weeks later, and last night I am suddenly very stuffed up again, but I carry on. I get to work today to complete my back to back meetings, and about halfway through my work day suddenly I have no speaking voice. Just a frog with a very low tone who has taken residence in my throat. 

It’s frustrating, isn’t it, to have a cold just hanging on like that, after days of feeling better? Yet, as I thought carefully back on it, there was nothing surprising at all about the return of my symptoms. My body had been lightly tapping me on the shoulder for weeks. Ahem, it seemed to say, if you wouldn’t mind, we sure could use some deep rest. Ahem, a few days later, these shoulders certainly are tired of the load they have been carrying. Would you mind taking the time for a few stretches? Ahem…sorry to bother you again, but you haven’t been home in weeks!, and finally, today NO. MORE. When my body is fed up with my behavior, it literally goes for the throat. Losing my voice is an instant mindfulness tool. I choose my words very carefully. I work less. I exert less effort in parenting my children, and I communicate in slower and more patient tones.

Driving home from work tonight with my swollen glands, I was listening to an interview and the woman on the radio was talking about honesty, and how it all starts with being willing to accept what is. I was overcome with the realization, Oh. I don’t feel well. I feel like crap! That is what is! I thought of all the moments in the last few weeks my body has tried to communicate with me, through sniffles and coughs, through knots in my shoulders and pain in my neck, through the grumpy and impatient tones I have taken with my family. I have soldiered on, unwilling to listen, perhaps on a subconscious level afraid of the message itself. It’s the shadow side of positive thinking, to pretend that inconvenient truths will just magically disappear if we ignore them.

This realization opened something inside me, my ability to turn a self-nurturing gaze upon myself, and I felt relief and warmth inside. Instead of being upset with my body for being sick, I feel so grateful for the immense patience and wisdom and fortitude of this body. What a jerk I have been these last few weeks! Yet my body welcomes me back, always with unconditional love. Is it weird that I think my body loves me? Maybe, but even weirder how many times in my life I have not loved it, and yet it patiently sustains me, processes the junk I put through it, adapts to my lifestyle choices, carries my babies, wakes when I need it to wake, sleeps when I need it to sleep.  I have made many foolish choices in the care of my body and even more reckless choices in the way I have thought about it, critical or even contemptuous at times. The beautiful thing that my yoga practice has given me is an open line of communication with this body who loves me and serves me so well. I know now how to speak the language of the body, when I am willing to listen.  I will now rest my voices, both the one in my head and the one in my throat, and allow the body to speak.

Why should I Care? On bridging the gap between Self-Care and Societal Care

I have noticed a distinct difference between those in my community who are healers, practitioners and nurturing personalities who advocate Self Care, and those in my community who are more connected to practical, political and legislative solutions to the problems of the world, an emphasis on what I will call Societal Care. There is an unfortunate and false dichotomy that often arises between the priorities of these two communities, and I am on a mission to advocate for a more intentional collaboration between Self Care and Societal Care.

As a yoga therapist, it is in my training and scope of practice to advise on Self Care, but when clients or students are in a demographic of marginalized people that more deeply experience societal or structural inequity, Societal Care is also a fundamental part of the strategy for symptom relief.

The group of marginalized people whose struggles I know most intimately are mothers living in the United States. While I am aware that many mothers in the United States live very privileged lives, the fact remains that the gender pay gap is significantly higher for mothers than it is for childless women, and mothers of all socio-economic backgrounds experience less time for themselves than their male counterparts. Many of the extreme stressors mothers are facing are unique to the United States, which is the only country in the world that has neglected to insure paid maternity leave for its mothers, and one of the only industrialized countries that has no policy in place to make quality childcare affordable to all. There is also a significant cultural stigma that mothers here face. While many other cultures believe it is the job of the community to raise children, American culture puts immense pressure specifically on mothers to meet an unattainable ideal of perfection in parenting and keep their kids behaving well in all public spheres. I have seen this pressure internalized in many of the mothers I have known or worked with, who are plagued by guilt and regularly use the phrase I’m a bad mom, or more jokingly use the hashtag #badmom as a way of punctuating their parenting anecdotes on social media. Motherhood has become the ultimate test of American Individualism.

It is because of this framework that I find the concept of Self-Care to be delicate, and a potential trigger for a host of self-critical thoughts in the mother community. Knowing how to take care of yourself does not replace the basic human need to live in a society that knows how to take care of its members, particularly its most vulnerable citizens, which postnatal women and their infants certainly are. Furthermore, knowing how to take care of yourself is of little use if you never have the time or resources to do it. When I teach Self-Care, I want to make sure my clients and students understand this larger framework and do not feel guilty or like they are failing when they fall behind on Self-Care. I want them to know that Self-Care does not exist in an isolated bubble”other people must provide support for it to occur, and the Selves who are entitled to this care must demand that support.

I’ll give you an example of the way that Self Care can sometimes be misused as an escape from the more difficult and complicated conversation of Societal Care. The other day I saw a comment on a local Facebook group for mothers, where the poster shared how much she is struggling to keep up with the demands of working full-time, caring for her infant and toddler, the daycare drop-off and pick-ups, the suffocating cost of childcare, the chaos of trying to do dinner and bedtimes for everyone after getting home from a long work day and the exhaustion of having no alone time before dropping into bed and doing it all over again the next day. Many of the mothers who responded to the post were sympathetic, having been in the same circumstances. Many of them tried to be helpful by suggesting that perhaps she could find a daycare that is open later or closer to home, and I was surprised to see several people recommend that she start taking Vitamin D supplements.

I am not an expert on nutrition, but I can assure you that Vitamin D deficiency is not the root cause of this woman’s stress. The situation she was suffering through could rightly be described as a public health epidemic, a host of systemic issues that are causing unbearable levels of stress on countless families across the United States.

Most cultures would find the conditions this mom described to be inhumane, unhealthy and untenable, and have already developed policies and entitlements to support families in the early years of childhood. In other words, the solutions to these problems are well known and well documented, and have nothing to do with Vitamin D, so why are we not talking about them?

My goal in teaching Self-Care to moms is that they feel empowered in body, mind and spirit, and that this empowerment turns into action that will erode the current and unacceptable status quo, one mother at a time.  I think mothers should feel entitled to a life that includes the resources to care for their families well, and care for themselves well too. That we have accepted these two as being mutually exclusive is merely another American myth.

It was a Dark and Stormy Night…

And after a day of fun snowflakes the ice took over, and the power line snapped in my neighborhood. From 4:30pm until 2am my family was thrust into the camping life (let’s be honest, it was really more like “glamping”.) We made fresh pasta by candlelight, we played “treasure hunters” with our headlamps, but underneath the surface was a tension at the radical shift in our lifestyle. Its very uncomfortable to change habits, isn’t it? We had all of our needs met, but the routine that we had all become accustomed to was out the window. How to get the baby to sleep in his cold, dark crib without a white noise machine? How to get the 3-year-old to sleep in the downstairs room, which was a bit warmer than his normal bedroom? There was no Netflix to tempt me into staying up too late, so suddenly my goal of going to bed earlier became just the most reasonable next step.

Then, the most surreal thing happened: The power came back on: the merry christmas lights returned, the classical station boomed through the radio, the washing machine began to churn, the baby monitors began to beep,and I was shocked at how much power we had been using when we lost it. My husband had a look of incredible relief on his face. We plugged in our phones and cranked up the furnace. One minute later, the power went out again, and stayed out for the rest of the evening. In this moment, I felt the huge distance between these worlds: The world of technology, electricity and convenience that we take for granted, and the more organic, animalistic life that was all about survival, staying warm and waiting for the sun to rise.

I felt how different things would be in my body and my brain if I didn’t have the hum of modern life to gloss over the wildly fast pace and over-stimulation of day to day living. When I was younger I used to romanticize a more primitive lifestyle, but now that I have two little children I see how vulnerable it is, and I am thankful for the comforts that humans have built over the years.

However, it is important to remember that these comforts have side effects.  For me, the side effects include: eating more than I need to just because I can, spending more time than I should browsing the internet or checking in with social media, staying up too late and staring at screens or bright lights until right before I try to sleep, which results in a longer transition to deep sleep and less reliable sleep and dream cycles. I can only imagine how the intensity of our modern lifestyle impacts the sleep cycles of my 6-month-old baby, who suddenly seemed ready for bed the very moment we lost power.

I am really curious about the resistance that I have noticed to the traditional New Year’s Resolutions. I get that people are tired of letting themselves down, but I also think it is so important to take every opportunity to examine our habits and conditioning, and ask “Is this really what I want? Is this really what is helping me to thrive?” I am thankful for those hours of lost power, because it forced me to look at our habits more closely. I suggest using the transition into the New Year as a moment of possibility. If the power line did not force a pause in your life, you may just have to create one. Turn down the noise and tune in to your inner life for a moment. Change something, anything, just to see what happens. Sit with your discomfort for a bit longer than you normally would. If you want more info on self-examination and habit change, pop in for one of our many exciting workshops and series this month.