Self-development (Grow)

My Yoga is Not For Show

January 29, 2016

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I love visuals. I love sharing and celebrating moments in my life with photographs. I love films, colourful books and artwork, well-illustrated magazines and cookbooks. I love anatomy drawings and the diagram I have of a skeleton from an old French schoolroom that is mounted on my wall. I love to see things explained and stories told pictorially.

But not everything can be seen.

I love my iphone camera and Instagram, just as I loved my old point-and-shoot cameras, the first battery-operated Kodak camera that preceded them, and the old photo albums and scrapbooks I used to keep. I love capturing beauty, light, life and landscapes through the lens to share with others in real time (or to keep for myself for later viewing on a rainy day).

But not everything can be shown.

I love watching dance, acrobatics, gymnastics, the Olympics and all the movement arts that display the limitless abilities of our majestic bodies. I love gasping in awe when a body defies gravity, sighing with relief when someone lands on their feet, yearning from every cell in my body to dance and move my hips, and feel the spring of foot against floor the way those who have trained their bodies through relentless practice do with grace and ease. I can imagine how it would feel in my own body because yoga has connected me with my movement centre, the inner dancer who has always been there.

But not everything is meant to be performed.

And because I have no interest in harming myself to achieve something my limbs are not ready for (and may not ever have been designed to do) in an attempt to emulate what has come before or imitate what might appear on the cover of a yoga magazine, I have to remind myself to keep my practice inside.  This is and has been my yoga philosophy since injuring myself during practice over seven years ago: Focus on the feeling, not the display. Go for the subtle, not the intense. Use yoga to heal, not to harm. Listen, don’t look. Practice for me and no one else. Because yoga is not for show.

The above is a little ‘matifesto’ (I believe this term was coined by the clever Alexandra Franzen) I wrote to myself last year following an experience doing yoga in a display window for a popular yoga clothing brand (more on that below). It is something I have to revisit from time to time to keep my practice safe and to keep my teaching sincere. While the physical practice of yoga asana can challenge our bodies as it invites our fascial matrix (connective tissue) to bend, fold, twist, turn, and lengthen in the way a dancer’s body does effortlessly, the ability to practice difficult poses is NOT criteria for being a ‘yogi.’ And while becoming more flexible and bouncy in our bodies can inspire us to be more expressive and more daring with our movement, there is a fine line to cross before pushing it too far to the extreme. What is essential to practice yoga is the abandonment of any kind of perfectionism, the self-discipline to go only so deep into a pose to trigger subtle sensations, a willingness to listen, a commitment to being patient, and a certain amount of humility or humbleness to keep at one with the true aim of yoga practice, which has little to do with what you look like.

I once read an article somewhere that said the sign of a good yoga teacher is someone who shares, doesn’t show. It rang so true but I also thought, what a challenge! Could I explain movement to someone without demonstration or synchronization of my movement with theirs?

Yes. And perhaps more profoundly so.

I’ve been teaching large, flow-style studio yoga classes for almost four solid years now and over this time I have slowly developed my yoga teaching voice – its cadence, its clarity, and its connection with ‘the moves.’ I have also developed an awareness of the vast variety of people who come to practice yoga, their physical limitations, hang-ups and insecurities. They are mostly shy, like I was, but a little voice has told them yoga may hold an answer they’ve been seeking, may bring relief to an aching body that just wants to dance, and so they have braved the first step of walking into the classroom. And would my way of encouraging them be to lift myself up into a challenging arm balance or flip myself upside down in an inversion? To show off rock-hard abs and a Lycra clad body? No. Why? Because while that may motivate some, it would probably scare off others who can’t even imagine reaching their toes with their fingertips. I like to ease my students into their practice. I love teaching beginners (who naturally have the essential ‘beginners mind’) because they are willing to take it slow. My number one goal in teaching is to have everyone leave the classroom feeling good, feeling calmer, warmer and more alive in their bodies, not deflated, achy, or worried they may have hurt themselves. I’ve been there. Many times. And it’s a discouraging place.

I’ve probably led you to think I teach in a cloak curled up in a ball in the middle of the classroom, but in fact I do wear figure fitting yoga clothes and demonstrate some of the postures because, in the beginning, it does help to see. During my training my teachers explained to me the different levels or ‘limbs’ of yoga – they start with the physical and evolve into the deeper, yet more subtle practice of meditation. The physical is the entry point into the less tangible world of eliminating one’s inner chatter to find inner peace. We have to start with what we can see and then we can move on to address those things we can’t.

So, in teaching, I keep to occasional demonstrations and soft adjustments. I look at each person as an individual. I encourage everyone to make yoga work for them, not the other way around. I don’t try to be a model for my students, instead I am a facilitator and guide. I admit my limitations in arm binds, inversions, and other asanas that my body has not found yet and remind students that the prep work for advanced poses is where it’s at. I don’t look for perfect bodies, flat stomachs, or long limbs. I look for soft smiles, uncreased brows, lifted hearts, relaxed shoulders, focused gazes and all the true physical manifestations of a body that has found its home on the mat.

Do I think all of the yoga images we see today are bad? Of course not – they are simply images. It’s all down to how you interpret them and how they are used to market yoga. The human body is a remarkable thing and it’s lovely to see it expressed in different ways. Yoga poses and mudras make for great expressions. Clothing is also a fun way to externally express your inner colour so if you feel beautiful in a certain outfit and in a certain pose and you want to capture that moment, then why not? I’ve had rare moments where I have simultaneously felt beautiful and in the mood for some self-portraiture and done just this. I’ve had more moments sitting in meditation in my pjs with bed-head where I’ve felt equally gorgeous, but not necessarily camera ready. What has never felt and never will feel right is practicing yoga or posing for yoga with a large, scrutinizing audience waiting for my next trick.

Occasionally I get lured back into the ego space of wanting to look a certain way. Last year I was asked to do ‘yoga in the window’ for a popular clothing brand. I agreed on the condition that I would not allow myself to ‘perform’ for the passersby, that instead I would take on the task of representing the less lean ‘yoga body’ that is excluded from most yoga marketing and would demonstrate a softer practice. Maybe I would even just sit there and meditate. But when I arrived on the scene and observed the preceding model (a trained dancer like most of those chosen) bobbing her head up and down to the beats of a live DJ whilst holding her right leg up in Paschimotonasa, I started feeling inferior and completely not up for the job. I wanted to run; I wanted to hide, but there was a voice that said – follow through with this Kate, there is a lesson here. So, heart racing, insecurities abounding, I chose an outfit to model and got in the window display. I took three deep breaths and tried hard to centre myself but the thumping music and amassing crowd of pedestrians gathering around the window had my nervous system in overdrive. I was worried about the sweat dripping off my face, but did everything I could to keep my cool and stick to the plan. Did I stay true to my intention?

No. How could I? I was completely disconnected from me. I was clothed in brand new yoga bottoms and top but I felt naked. My senses were heightened so much as a means of protection that I couldn’t find my breath. I ignored but could feel impatient eyes upon me. One gentleman even decided to come into the shop and stand behind me as he stared at my bottom in a forward fold so his mates outside could take a picture. And why wouldn’t he? I was a moving mannequin advertising an outfit in public. I ended my 1- hour window (which felt like an eternity) ten minutes early. They allowed me to keep the free outfit, which I have since given away. For the next day, no the next week, my body got back at me with stiffness and pain. My nerves were so revved up that I hardly slept a wink that night. I woke up and journaled for an hour. I didn’t regret the experience, instead I felt immense gratitude to the Universe for showing me that my approach was right all along. That cemented it for me.  True yoga practice requires deep connection with your breath, full immersion in your being and humbleness.  The rest is just for show.

Memory and Time

January 26, 2016

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Time itself may be inexorable, indifferent, but we can personalize our own little segment: this is where I was, this is what I did. – Penelope Lively

Every winter for the past ten years, I have returned to my hometown near Boston to spend Christmas with my family.  While the house my parents live in is not my childhood home (they moved to a bigger home when I went off to University), I am nevertheless confronted by an accumulation of relics from my past.  No matter how far I’ve traveled or how many life-changing experiences I’ve had since moving to Europe, the objects I’ve saved in my parents’ home trigger crystal clear memories of an earlier Kate and the American life that I left behind.

And while for the past few years I’ve been completely absorbed in the process of de-cluttering and reducing the amount of physical objects in my possession, I have found that there are certain objects so infused with memory that they deserve some kind of formal farewell or testimonial before sending them off to a new home.  It’s true that the memories mean more than the actual things and I do hope that my memory stays strong and clear until I die, but just in case it doesn’t or just in case future generations want to know a little about the lives that preceded them, I thought I would write a story for each object I came across that seemed to play an important role in shaping who I am today.

I don’t mean to dwell on the past.  Quite the contrary – I’m good at closing doors and moving on.  But I’ve always loved learning about people and their pasts and reading memoirs, and I thought this could be a stepping stone to a potentially larger project.  I also realized that the most valuable relics from my past that I came across were hand-written letters, poems, post-cards – things that oozed the nature and character of the person behind the pen.  Words are a powerful means of conveying a life and a time lost and I want to continue in that tradition, even if I must do so digitally.  Some of these relics I will save, but others I can write about and then let go.

I might also add that I’ve always been intrigued by how we human beings unconsciously or quite consciously document our lives.  This was the topic of my Master’s dissertation for my Media Studies course, completed just ten years ago at a time when social media and digital photography were just starting to eclipse less public forms of documentation.  Instagram didn’t exist then and neither did iPhones.  I predicted, based on ethnographic research, that people would not entirely abandon traditional self-documentation via traditional media like scrapbooks, photo albums, SLR cameras and diaries, but would continue to combine them with digital forms of self-documentation.  I was somewhat right, but I didn’t realize just how much things would change over the next decade.  I didn’t realize that nearly every photograph I took would be on my phone and shared in ‘real’ time and that photo albums would become a thing of my past.

Part of me really loves this reduction in the need to keep physical reminders of my past (so long DVDs, farewell CDs, goodbye to boxes of photo ‘doubles’ that will never be looked at) – I feel lighter and more free with every possession I shred or release back into the world for someone else to explore.  But another part of me relishes the smell of old photographs and the connection I feel to my former self when turning the pages of an old coloring book or reading poems I wrote as a confused teenager.  It is perhaps my parents’ keepsakes that are the most meaningful and precious – an anniversary card my mom wrote to my father back in the seventies when they were younger than me, a signed copy of a book of poetry by Robert Frost, black-and-white photos of my dad and his brother dressed in cowboy costumes in the late forties that my now deceased grandfather took with his cherished camera.  They give a tangible sense of a life well-lived, a journey and consistent change.

So let this be the beginning of a series of posts on the topic of memory and the past and celebrating a life well-lived (so far).  I’ll theme them ‘Objects from my Life.’  And I’ll decide what items will stay and which can go.

And before I close this post, I have provided a passage below from a book by Penelope Lively called ‘Ammonites & Leaping Fish: A Life in Time’, which found me at the new Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road one day as I was having a wander around after teaching.  I didn’t purchase the book at that moment because I was trying to reduce the number of books I own.  I nearly bought it as a Christmas gift for my parents (the book is described as a ‘view from old age’ rather than a memoir) but I didn’t want them to think I was hinting at their growing old or unknowingly gift them a depressing read.  So the book sat in my Amazon shopping cart so I wouldn’t forget the title.  Until one day (New Year’s Eve – my first day back in London), I was pulled into one of the charity shops on the way to the train station in Twickenham and low and behold, there it was sitting on the shelf in sparking new condition for 2 quid.  So I bought it.  I was meant to read it.  And I just finished reading the section on Memory and must share these brilliant words:

“The past can be conjured up by the appropriate aroma, much as supermarkets seek to induce a spending appetite with the smell of newly baked bread, and house agents urge us to woo prospective buyers with a waft of fresh coffee.

But it is not that memory is scented, rather – if the Proust phenomenon exists – that smells evoke a time, a place.  That moment has not gone, can be recovered, because an experience in the present brings it back; my London garden is tenuously linked to what was in 1942 a Palestinian hillside.  This is the sense in which memory is the mind’s triumph over time.  The same has been said of history, and I relish both concepts; it is as though individually and collectively, we succeed  in seizing hold of what is no longer there, that which should be unavailable, and making it miraculously permanent and accessible because it matters so much, because we need it.

We are robust about time, linguistically, we are positively cavalier about it – we make it, we spend it, we have it, we find it, we serve it, we mark it.  Last time, next time, in time, half-time – one of the most flexible words going, one of the most reached for, a concept for all purposes.  Time is of the essence, or it is quality, or time will tell.  We talk about it…all the time, I find myself writing.  There.  But when I think about time, I am awed.  I am more afraid of time than of death – its inexorability, its infinitude.  It is unthinkable as space – another word we tame by making every use of it.  And in old age I am time made manifest; sitting here, writing this on a summer afternoon, twelve minutes past three, the watch hand moving relentlessly round, my weathered body is the physical demonstration of passing time, of the fact that eighty years have had their way with it, that I ain’t what I used to be.  I have lived with time, in time, in this particular stretch of time, but before too long time will dump me; it has far to go, and we don’t keep up with it.  None of us, ever.

Fifteen minutes past three.

Impersonal, indifferent; it neither knowns nor cares .  It sweeps us along, the ever-rolling stream and all that, nothing to be done about it, but we do have this one, majestic, sustaining weapon, this small triumph over time – memory.  We know where we have been in time, and not only do we know, but we can go back, revisit.  When I was nine, I was on a Palestinian hill-side, smelling rosemary (and collecting a wild tortoise, but that is another story).  Time itself may be inexorable, indifferent, but we can personalize our own little segment: this is where I was, this is what I did.”

(pp. 157-158, ‘Ammonites & Leaping Fish: A Life in Time,’ by Penelope Lively).

Clearing Out

December 31, 2015

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As much as I adore the old photos I have of my parents and the smell of old books, I love how my current life documentation doesn’t infringe upon my limited living space.

At the beginning of every new year, I set intentions as a way to celebrate a blank canvas and build upon the foundations I set the year prior.  In the past I set resolutions that were more like punishments for what I didn’t achieve in the preceding year – usually some kind of unnecessary weight loss or exercise regimen or list of books to read that I had bought and not touched.  Of course those were never very fun or motivating so I stopped that tradition and turned it around by allowing myself to truly hit the reset button and ask for meaningful change in my life.  An intention should come from a clear space in your mind, from a humming in your heart, from a fresh new perspective that feels exciting and unknown.  It should thrill you and challenge you but also feel right and doable.  It should guide all your actions and inspire new paths.  Does ‘lose five kilos’ do that for you? Probably not.

I don’t have to think hard about intentions – visions for new ventures start to percolate in my head throughout the preceding year.  In the past I would try to act upon them immediately or stress if I didn’t have time to manage them all, but over time I’ve learned that some ideas that come to you are just seeds that need time to grow or pieces of fruit that need to ripen and thus I’ve learned to save them for a later date or more appropriate timing when they are ready to be birthed.  That’s why every new year is like a gift – sometimes it gives the green light to that thing that’s been whispering to you for a while and still feels meaningful.  Sometimes it’s just the vibe of those days between Christmas and New Years that allow you to step back and have a clearer vision of what needs to happen to create positive change ahead.  While getting ideas for intentions isn’t a challenge to me, what can be hard is harnessing all those ideas and finding the common ground – why are these ideas coming to me?  What are they ultimately guiding me towards? Why bother?

Therefore, to assist in the process of giving thanks to the past year (I don’t like goodbyes) and greeting the new year with welcome arms (sources tell me 2016 is going to need a hug), I also choose a word to define each year and what I sense it will be/desire it to be about and that helps me to create an action plan.  For 2015, my word was CLEARING.

Perhaps it was my boyfriend moving in with me in a flat with no storage space or the threat of possibly having to move flat completely, or maybe my life was just feeling heavy, but I had this overwhelming desire to shed the items I own and to do another massive de-clutter.  I had already started the process when moving flats in 2013 but I was craving more space and a simpler life and I knew that physical matter was getting in the way.  So I set an intention to confront what was clogging not only my flat but my life to create more flow.  Verdict?  Pretty successful.

Not only did I commit myself to culling items, but my friends caught wind and also started packing irrelevant objects and passing them on to friends, charity shops, etc.  It’s probably no coincidence that the best-selling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, came into my life around February and has been making its rounds in my social circle.  Marie’s one critical piece of advice to only keep items that ‘bring you joy’ has been the fog horn in my head every time I nearly lapse back into a hoarder’s mindset of what if this will be useful in the future? or what if ‘so-and-so’ would be upset if I gave away this gift they gave to me that I hate and never use?  KATE – but WILL IT BRING YOU JOY???? I could imagine Marie asking.  Usually the answer is no.  And the action?  It goes!

Obviously ‘joy’ may not apply to practical items like utensils – that being said, I only have four butter knives and four forks from a fancy set I found on sale that I LOVE and use repeatedly to eat delicious food that I make so actually I am getting joy from silverware and crockery.  But it absolutely works when considering items that have more emotional weight or aesthetic appeal.  And it works when it relates to objects from the distant past, which feel more like relics from a lost time that will never repeat itself.  What resonated for me from Marie’s philosophy was that it wasn’t about getting rid of everything extraneous to live a minimalist life.  It allowed you to keep objects that create a little glow inside you (that’s what joy feels like to me).

I just returned from my family home near Boston after a week there away from my real home in London.  I still have a room there and two closets and lots of belongings from my former life as an American child/teenager/college student trying to find her identity and her passions and alternately failing/succeeding in doing so.  I also come from a gift-giving family.  That’s how we show love, even to the detriment of our wallets.  Every time I return to Boston to visit my parents (usually about twice a year), I go through old items (New Kids on the Block paraphernalia, dolphin-inspired jewelry, dinosaur books, Brad Pitt posters, course notebooks from all my studies, prom dresses, etc.) and separate them into bags for either ‘shredding’, sending to ‘charity’ or passing on to my nieces. Every year the process becomes more refined.  In the beginning, there was a lot of junk to go through, but the items that remain are now mostly glow-worthy or sell on Ebay-worthy.

I wasn’t sure what my energy would be like when I was visiting my parents or how much time I wanted to spend with dusty boxes and old memories, but it turns out I was primed for a productive week of weeding out.  I was like a machine – once I got stuck in, I was on a mission to leave for London knowing I left my parents home ‘clearer’ than it was before.  I am finally feeling that the end is in sight but I still have a little ways further to go.  Even all the items that bring me joy are unlikely to follow me through an itinerant life.  At the end of the day, possessions are a burden.

Ironically, one of the boxes I had to clear out was the one containing notes and rough drafts of my Master’s dissertation on the topic of how people store memories and their lives using traditional and virtual media (this was 10 years ago when Facebook and online photography was just getting more popular and I had returned to my parents home for the summer from London to finish up my degree work).  Let’s just say as an avid photographer, collector and scrapbooker as a kid, I have amassed a mighty collection of keepsakes in tangible form but later years have seen me move most of my memories into the digital realm (big fan of Instagram).  As much as I adore the old photos I have of my parents and the smell of old books, I love how my current life documentation doesn’t infringe upon my limited living space.

If I could change the prediction I made about the future of self-documentation I made while studying Media (which was that most people will maintain tangible and virtual forms of documentation instead of new replacing the old), I would say that, for someone like me, the first 25 years of his/her life will be reflected in physical items but the later half is likely to be contained significantly online – not simply because we’re not paying attention to how digital activity is taking over our lives but perhaps it’s even a concerted effort to lighten up life and not hoard, to never have to de-clutter ever again in the future – because it’s TIRING and TIME CONSUMING and probably a lot worse when it’s not your stuff.  So when going through relics of my past, I asked the question – is this something that will help future generations learn something meaningful about me?  Is it really a special item that is unique to me and my background?  Are my softball trophies bringing me joyful memories of my childhood?  No.  I never even liked playing softball.  I wasn’t good at it either – my mom confessed that she convinced the coach to give us all trophies one year because she thought it was unfair the same kids got the same ones every year (um, probably because they were good at sports and I wasn’t?).  Thanks Mom.  And no thanks all at once.  I love you.  I’ve kept one of the four trophies I earned 🙂 For now.

So here I am at the end of 2015 and I’m looking back proudly about how much I LET GO OF.  And this went beyond just physical clutter.  I realized I was really tired and that an early morning yoga class I was teaching wasn’t working with my schedule so I let go of that – the lack of sleep was over-powering the joy the class brought to me teaching it for the first three years.  I also let go of over-planning for a year and passed the torch to my boyfriend to plan a holiday for us in Thailand.  This was a beautiful experience – both seeing a new country and also allowing someone else to hold the reigns.  Did everything go the way I would have wanted it to?  Mostly yes.  Some things no.  But it didn’t matter – I let go of control.  I let go of trying to please everyone and do everything and had two working ‘holidays’ teaching abroad to grow my experience as a yoga teacher.  I let go of ‘needing’ to have a piano in my flat (for now) and embraced a smaller shruti box instrument to keep my musical side going.

So what does this mean for 2016?  Well, there’s a reason why ‘de-clutter’ or ‘clean’ weren’t my words for 2015, I chose ‘clearing’ because it needed to go somewhere and I really feel that I have cleared abundant space and a path towards more creativity in the year up ahead.  I want to write more, share more, teach more, build more, collaborate more – I want to stamp my nice new logo on more things that I hope will bring joy into others’ lives (and not take up room in their closets).  And I wouldn’t be feeling this way if I hadn’t committed to my word for 2015 – if I had forgotten this guiding force as I chose how to spend my time, where to focus my energy and what to let go of in my life.

So for 2016 I encourage you to think of a word that will be your foghorn.  What will ring LOUD AND CLEAR and keep you from slipping into old habits.  What needs to define your actions?  What will set the foundation for 2017?

If you think Clearing is a good word for you (or you just need to get rid of crap), then you might want to read on for a short summary of my de-cluttering experience:

  • Get a copy of Marie Kondo’s book to inspire you (better yet, download it to your Kindle).  Wish I had written it myself.  In fact, that was an ‘idea’ I had a long time ago, but I’m glad Marie manifested it.  I can tick that off my list and I’m not sure I would have hit the nail on the head with the ‘joy’ thing – very helpful.
  • One area where I disagree with Marie Kondo is in her philosophy that all de-cluttering must be done at once.  I say de-clutter in sections and allow for breaks.  I agree that you have to be 100% into it and stay focused but I also think you need to break it down by room or object and give yourself a good span of time because it’s DRAINING to go through old shit – especially if you’re doing it mindfully.  It can be emotional.
  • Which leads me to this one – de-clutter MINDFULLY.  That doesn’t mean you should spend 5 minutes deliberating over every item.  No way – don’t over-think it.  If something brings you joy, you should feel it instantly.  But then don’t just chuck things you don’t want in the rubbish.  Landfills don’t need your clutter either.  Who could turn your redundant object into something wonderful? Who could breathe life back into it?  Who might really NEED this item?  For example, sleeping bags, old coats, gloves etc. – there are a lot of homeless people approaching a cold winter.  Maybe you could even lend out items that you aren’t using but might want to use one day when you have the space/time?  Why let it sit there dormant?
  • What brought the most joy to me when going through old items?  Pieces of WRITING.  Honestly – write out your life if you want to hold on to memories.  My journal entries from third grade are a goldmine of insight into my younger self and also HILARIOUS.  I was a funny kid.  Other things?  My parents’ old photos and items they saved from a much less itinerant but no less interesting life than mine.  And most of it fits into one box. But especially anything with their handwriting on it.  I mean penmanship was a different thing back then and and even my third grade handwriting is superior to my present handwriting.  Most priceless item?  A romantic anniversary card my mom wrote to my dad with a real ‘seventies’ style photo on the front of it on the occasion of their first anniversary.  I also had to laugh when I came across this ‘About Me’ page I found in an old journal (to think how it compares to the one on my website now!  and I was totally lying – I did not like playing softball!)

‘I love animals.  I would like to be a arciologest when I grow up.  I love chocolate.  My favorite food is ice cream.  I love science.  I like to play softball.  I like to play games on the computer.  I like to color.  I was born in Boston.’

 

 

 

Big Magic

November 27, 2015

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This week I was lucky enough to go see Elizabeth Gilbert, one of my favourite authors, speak live in London at an event through the How To Academy. Elizabeth was here to promote her latest book, Big Magic – Creative Living Beyond Fear, which has received a lot of media attention.  I’ve had the privilege of hearing Elizabeth speak live in London before several years ago after she had written the ‘sequel’ to Eat, Pray, Love called Committed.  I remembered fishing feverishly around in my purse for a piece of scrap paper to record the exuberantly and graciously delivered pearls of wisdom that flowed effortlessly from her lips.   It was the same experience for me reading Eat, Pray, Love – endless underlining and highlighting, savouring quotable passage after passage written by someone who seemed to speak the language of my soul.  When another opportunity arose to listen to her live, there was no doubt in my mind it would be time and money well spent.  I was right.

As part of my ticket purchase, I received a free copy of Big Magic, which I have had to try very hard not to buy another copy of before the event so I could sneak a peek.  The book in all its colourful glory is waiting for me to delve in (perhaps this evening),  but before I even get started on it, I thought I would share some of the insight Elizabeth gave at this talk that already has me beaming with excitement for the year up head and ready to fully embrace my word for the year – Creativity.  This means that I will be giving more energy to the part of my life that gets my creative juices flowing, the part of my life that is about fulfilling my unique purpose and birthing projects that come from the heart.  Currently my creative calling is coming from yoga teaching, photography, writing, music and cooking but I want to hone in one special project and take things to the next level.  I have a feeling that ‘creativity’ will be high on the agenda for many of us in 2016.  There seems to be a real buzz of inspiration in the air, so here are a few nuggets of wisdom I took home from Elizabeth’s talk, which have reminded me why it’s important to focus on this area of our lives:

Ideas find us, we don’t find them – ‘have one foot in the real world and one foot with the faeries’ to find your calling

While I haven’t read the book yet, the title (and cover) lends one to think that it’s going to be fun.  It’s likely going to be an imaginative read rather than a how-to on writing your first book or starting a creative project.  This is precisely why it interests me.  Elizabeth had me at the get-go when she spoke of how several book critics have tried to downplay the lightness of her approach (for example, the way she personifies ideas, suggesting they have souls of their own and choose us) and referring to her illustrations as ‘metaphors.’  There’s no doubt that Elizabeth is a serious writer, but she is also a believer with a deep connection to the mystical.  She knows how to put her finger on those moments in life that defy logical explanation and press the pause button so we can delve deeper.  Believing that ideas have lives of their own and choose through whom they will be manifested makes the process of creation (not to mention life!) so much more inspiring, exciting, and yes – magical.  It reminds us to abandon projects that ‘lose their pulse’ quickly and respond to the ones that beg for our attention.  Don’t let anyone suck the magic out of your passion or your interpretation of how creativity works – let the faeries in.

Screw perfection and embrace the fact that ‘I’m just doing what I can with what I have’

After posting a question on Facebook asking her fans what stands in the way of the pursuit of creative projects, Elizabeth found that two major things came up: Fear and Lack of Time.  We fear criticism and judgement or we think we’re not ‘good enough’ to do the creative things we’re drawn to (probably because someone told us that once) so we abandon them.  I know that I felt this way for a long time about writing and sometimes even feel this way about teaching.  I was a good student at school, but often it only takes one teacher to criticize your work and deflate your passion balloon.  I had a real interest in minerals and gems and collected them as a kid but my 5th grade geology teacher managed to squash that curiosity by testing me in front of the class on rock formations in a mathematical fashion I didn’t understand.   My 30th birthday, however, was a real turning point in my life and is precisely when I decided that I could be ‘good enough’ at something to make a difference.  Could I use an editor for my writing?  Absolutely – and that’s what authors do.  But what if I just started writing again, from my heart, and see what happens? Could I be more advanced at yoga postures?  Absolutely – but I’ve got a handle on the essentials and ten years of personal experience and training that make me a great teacher so why not start spreading the joy of the practice?  And who better than a best-selling author who still gets harshly criticized to drive this point in even further? Thank you Liz for the reminder to not abandon ideas because we’re afraid we can’t be ‘the best’ or when we think we could offer more – you probably already have a lot to share and bring into the world hiding behind your fear.  Just get started.

Sometimes making time for creativity means saying no to the things you want to do, not just the things you don’t want to do

So that other issue to do with time?  It’s about setting boundaries and carving out space to prioritize your creative projects.  But setting boundaries comes with a cost.  A lot of us have trouble saying ‘no’ full stop but I have found that saying no to some (but not all!) fun social engagements and putting down a few of my beloved hobbies like piano to focus on others (maybe just temporarily), has been the only way to stay focused.  And when you feed a part of your life that has been asking for water, fully and with passion, you are so rewarded that you often forget about all the other stuff you’re not doing.

You know you’ve found your calling when you’re prepared to eat the ‘shit sandwich’ that comes with it

This wasn’t the first time I heard Liz speak about the ‘shit sandwich’ that comes with the decision to pursue your creative passion as a kind of test of your dedication.  If you want to write but can’t handle the ‘shit sandwich’ of criticism or endless editing or long days spent at the computer screen, etc. that comes with it, then you might not get very far.  If you really want something, you’ll eat the ‘shit sandwich’ that comes with it and sometimes that’s saying no to things that will eat into the time you need spend on that creative idea begging for your attention (which will probably feed your soul more than anything else).  So ask yourself, ‘how are you going to navigate the part that is not satisfying?’

It’s OK to indulge yourself – your creative pursuits are not FOR anyone

You don’t need to make money from your creative project or justify it.  You don’t need to refer to it as a guilty pleasure.  It’s OK to take time to do the creative things that bring you joy simply because they bring you joy.  Indulge yourself.  It’s really OK.  And it will probably make you a better person to all those around you.

Your creativity might come from a dark place – it’s not all roses

When asked about her experience of depression (described beautifully in Eat, Pray, Love) and how that has shaped her life, Elizabeth reminded us of the blessings in life that often come in disguise and the need to be thankful for the good and the bad.  She said that her ‘journey’ out of depression was ‘creative, spiritual and psychological’ and required her to become a ‘scientist of her own experience’ because ‘anxiety and depression BEG you to think creatively.’  She reminded us of the importance of ‘looking for cells of light within the darkness’ and ‘turning your own life into a work of art.’

Your parents can give you something, but they can’t give you everything 

Just a few weeks prior to this event, I completed a teacher training for pregnancy yoga, a form of yoga that celebrates the female body, embraces a softer approach to movement and honours the absolutely magical qualities of the womb not only to create life but also to symbolize and bring awareness to the energetic home of our creative centers.  I kept thinking – it must be the most magical experience to bring life into the world and to then nurture that life, but then what?  Liz talked about how her parents gave her a beautiful childhood.  Not every child in the world gets that.  But if we managed to survive and grow into adults, that’s already something pretty special.  Because, as Liz said, our parents can’t give us the whole picture.  They can give us a lot, but then we have to fill in the missing parts, which is what makes us unique individuals.  This is exactly what she did (and what I did) by traveling and seeking out teachers.  Don’t give up on life – even if you’ve had a rough start.  Things can change and we change.  I too had loving parents whose passion for their careers no doubt encouraged me to pursue a job I love, but who I am today is not only because of them, it’s because of all the experiences I subjected myself to and all those teachers I attracted to feed my curiosity about the world beyond my hometown and beyond this planet.

Oprah really is amazing

Elizabeth gets to work with Oprah a lot so the interviewer asked her – what’s she like? I have been a big fan of Oprah ever since I was little so I was bemused.  When Oprah was on TV, she had our undivided attention and often our hearts.  She provided real topics to discuss at the dinner table.  She allowed us to get emotional. Turns out she’s as cool as she appears on her show, with a unique ability to shine the light on the creative souls that others may not see and to give them hope and encouragement to pursue their dreams.

Thanks for sharing your stories and your beautiful wisdom Liz.  I can’t wait to read your book.

Oh – and how do you know when you’ve found your creative outlet?  Elizabeth explained ‘big magic’ as ‘the happiness that comes when your genius is working well for you,’ when you are ‘in the zone.’  For me, that’s teaching yoga, that’s writing, that’s photography, that’s engaging with music – I can’t wait to keep playing and creating.  If you haven’t found yours yet, don’t give up.  Look for the things that bring you alive and maybe get a copy of this book…I have a feeling it’s going to be great.

 

Letting Go

November 13, 2015

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Here we are again it seems at the beginning of another cold season, nearing the beginning of another new year. I’m getting ready to start over and I’m writing this blog about that.

At the beginning of 2015 I decided that my word for the year would be CLEARING. It dawned upon me that it’s because ‘clearing’ is a natural precursor to next year’s word…CREATING. And then it occurred to me that I always will be (and want to be) in a cycle of clearing and creating because the two concepts are symbiotic. I have slowly adopted a clutter-free maintenance system of one item in/one item out when acquiring new things, and the same should go for projects. I can only spin so many plates at once, and some projects might be best shelved really. We simply cannot carry an entire past of unfinished or outdated projects with us through life – it gets too heavy – and I am sure that weight is not good for creating something new.

I got thinking about this on one of those days teaching abroad in Mallorca that was supposed to be a writing day but insisted on being a beach day. I was sitting by the water watching the waves roll in and out. At the same time, there was a small boy working hard to build a sandcastle. He was 100% focused; nothing was going to distract him from his methodical construction. Until a big, angry wave did just that and wiped away his entire creation.

Was he upset? Oh you better believe it. Inconsolable, hysterical and furious would describe what he was. He lashed out at his parents; he kicked the remnants of his fortress down; he could not believe how unfair the ocean was, especially when he was so close to finishing. Well, clearly this boy needs a good lesson in non-attachment I smugly thought, as if being a yoga teacher (and master de-clutterer in the making) makes me an expert in this field. Not true. Not yet at least. I felt his pain – it was such a nice castle he had built.

I had a similar experience the next day, however this time it wasn’t a sandcastle getting washed to sea, it was nearly myself, in a non-yogic panic, failing to swim stronger than the mounting waves which had seductively carried me a bit too far away from the shore. I’m pretty sure I was a mermaid in a past life, but still, my breast stroke has never inspired confidence. I managed to get back to the beach, but it was enough of a taste of the power of nature and the vulnerability of being alive to remind me that I’ve got some control over how my life pans out, but I have clearly not got control over everything.

So where am I going with this? Well, we’re approaching American Thanksgiving at the end of the month and it’s always a great occasion to be thankful for the things we normally take for granted, and this year after my incident in the ocean and a rocky flight following that, I am especially happy to have more time to write and play on this planet. But before that I want to note that we are also at a good time of year for letting go as Autumn helps us transition from summer to winter by turning the leaves miraculous colours and then helping them to let go to decompose and make room for new leaves for next year (and pretty pictures for my Instagram).

During what has now effectively been about three years of de-cluttering and simplifying my surroundings, it’s the letting go bit that gets in the way of clearing out thoroughly. Not letting go is also something that can make us quite miserable. Holding on to resentment, harbouring ill feelings, regretting past mistakes – these are obviously toxic ways of holding on. But I also hold on to things I spent money on and feel bad I haven’t used/worn enough and projects I started that I want to complete but just haven’t found the time for – and these things can also disrupt our flow. And so I have to constantly remind myself that when I get rid of something old (and that can be an obsolete possession or a negative thought), I am actually making space for something new, something unknown, a surprise. And I am embracing the present moment.

To add to this, I promise myself that there will always be new things to acquire, to inspire, to fill my days (and I avoid watching any films or TV series with post-Apocalyptic themes to convince me otherwise). Because the day after I nearly got washed away by a wave, I went back out into the ocean and kept swimming. And on that same day the little boy got his shovel and pail (‘bucket and spade’) back out and started digging up new sand. And my friend who lost all her digital photos on her phone from the past three years? Well, she started taking new ones (and now her storage is maxed out again). So I am asking you to ask yourself these questions this month – what are my most meaningful projects, possessions, and passions? How can I make more room for them and get rid of the things that simply aren’t serving me anymore/in this moment/now? Who might actually really use/benefit from/enjoy these things? What might I be blocking from entering into my life by clinging to the past?

Chances are that when you put less on your plate, less on your schedule, and less in your closet, you will make the most of those things you have and will be more focused, so you will also waste less over time and feel more grateful for what you’ve got. This is what is really driving me to let go. This weekend I tackled under the bed where I was storing a perfectly good duvet, pillows, towels and sheets (for what? my future mansion in London?!) when I know there are people collecting such items for people without homes this winter. Those are getting donated. I put a battery in an old watch I haven’t worn for two years and brought it to a second-hand shop who sold it to a person delighted to find an affordable birthday gift for someone (I imagine). I have shredded old diaries (the kind that are just calendars), passed on books I haven’t read that I know are more relevant to someone else’s current situation than my own and I cut half my hair off to remind myself that change is good (it’s grown back better and faster than ever before). I am accepting that I don’t have to drag my past through my life with me to validate my existence and things are starting to flow.

I appreciate that I am not the first person to discover the joy and peace that can come from letting go (or the catchiness of that phrase). It’s been written about a lot (before Frozen), and perhaps no where more beautifully than in texts like the Tao Te Ching and the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali so here’s a quote to keep you thinking:

All life is a passing show. If we want to hold it, even for a minute, we feel tension. Nature will try to run away; we will try to pull it back and keep it. When we want to keep it, we put up barriers which ultimately cause us pain. Even with our own bodies, if we don’t want them to change, trouble will come. We will buy all kinds of make-up, creams and wigs to retain our “youth.” If only we learn to enjoy each change, we can recognize the beauty even in aging. A ripe fruit has its own beautiful taste. When we just allow things to pass, we are free. Things will just come and go while we retain our peace. – p.106, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali translated by Sri Swami Satchidananda

Refresh and Reframe

April 20, 2015

Refresh and Reframe

How are you feeling this month?  It’s the middle of March and we’ve got one foot in winter and one foot in spring and if you’re feeling like me, then your energy is being pulled in two opposite directions.

Today I am writing from the front room of my flat where I can see treetops out the window.  I’m wrapped up in the cozy seventies Scandinavian cardigan I happened upon in a vintage shop on my stroll home yesterday from teaching.  The view is absolutely grey and it looks as if it’s about to snow any second despite the pink cherry blossoms across the street rejoicing spring.  Today it’s definitely winter and, as I sip my home-made healthy hot chocolate, I’m loving it rather than resisting it.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been casually tracking my energy shifts according to the season and lunar calendar as a constant reminder of how the macrocosm parallels the microcosm.  The patterns of my moods never cease to amaze me.  Beginning to understand the effects that grand seasonal and lunar changes have on little old me and how I feel has helped me to honour my body and tune into my instinctive needs, as well as predict how changes in the weather and light up ahead will make me feel so I know better what to put into place to transition with ease and grace.

Honouring my body in the winter months often means surrendering to quieter, introspective moods and resting and staying in rather than committing to lots of social engagements.  As I showed in my last newsletter, it means slow starts in the morning with warm beverages, restorative yoga and preparing bone broths to accompany lunch and dinner and keep my immune system strong.  It means cozy jumpers and warm meals and taking every opportunity to read and hibernate in my flat.  I appreciate that, with children, carving out downtime can be more of a challenge.  It’s not every morning that I can keep that routine either, but when I can I do, and I don’t allow myself to feel guilty for not doing something more ‘productive.’ I love winter for this – I really enjoy the opportunity to do less and stay in (which is important for someone naturally prone to writing unattainable to-do lists and squeezing too many events/chores/actions into one day).

Honouring my body in the spring means cleansing and eating light, moving more and getting out in the sun.  It means less meat, more greens, and taking every opportunity to walk outside and observe the blossoms and crocuses (the birds beckon me to do so every morning).  At the moment, there are signs of spring everywhere (image above from a recent walk by the river), reminding me what’s just around the corner.  But before we ‘spring ahead’ and come out of that darkness and into the light, I am focusing on planning ahead for the transition and adjusting my eating, exercising and general lifestyle habits accordingly.

If you read my last post, you’re aware that I’ve been in the process of de-cluttering my living space. Again.  Big time.  And for the final time, I hope, ever in my life.  Yes – I did just buy a new cardigan.  BUT, I have brought bags full of clothing, books, and other paraphernalia to friends and the many local charity shops around me that I simply wasn’t wearing, reading, or sharing with others, so what was the point of holding on?  I mentioned a de-cluttering book my Marie Kondo that is all about this.  Since then I’ve read a few critiques and some mockery of her work and I’m not surprised.  It feels extreme to effortlessly let go of things you once cherished, things that helped to make your home and your current you, and not look back simply because they no longer bring you joy (her main criteria).  For me the hardest thing to get rid of was all my photocopies and notes from my last degree before training to teach yoga.  I hadn’t touched them for nearly 10 years but thought I needed them to prove those hours of studying and achieving my degree with visual evidence.  Silly.  But they’re gone now because those papers were a burden to store and making me unhappy.  It feels GREAT to be free of them! They weren’t proving a thing other than that we have nothing to prove at all – we are not what we own. What Marie doesn’t tell you is that de-cluttering is slightly addictive.  The more I get rid of, the more I find to get rid of so that now there is really space to breathe in my storage-less flat.   This was a necessary first step to making springtime 2015 one of true, focused action and CLEARING (my word for the year) out.  So far I do not miss a thing.

But then there’s that space within me too.  I’m talking about my tummy and my brain.

Like unwanted pieces of clothing, there are some less than ideal habits I may have accumulated over the winter. Let’s not call them bad habits, because one thing I don’t like to do is feel guilty when I don’t do the things I know I should do or eat the way I know I should eat or think the way I know I should think (and there are a lot of shoulds in there because I have studied a lot about nutrition and psychology to know what is conducive to optimum physical and mental health). Feeling guilty wouldn’t be helpful, but neutrally observing my pitfalls and reflecting upon them might help me find creative ways of working around them and preventing them in the future.  Constantly monitoring myself and over-thinking my choices (especially food choices) with my brain rather than my gut has not helped me in the past. Being aware of the effects certain foods or habits have on me (too much refined carbohydrate makes me feel tired/staying up too late makes me feel groggy the next morning and crave sweet foods), making informed choices and sometimes loosening the reins and reminding myself why I avoid those foods is something I can maintain without stress and trains me to think with my belly brain instead.

Because winter gives me stronger digestion and thus a stronger appetite, I let myself enjoy stodgier meals, more healthy fats, even more carbohydrates in the form of sourdough bread and whole grains, and my body loves this.  I gain a couple of pounds and stay fit, but I know that this kind of eating in excess throughout the year could lead to too much sluggishness so I am starting to think of ways I will cleanse and lighten things up when the weather gets warmer and I can enjoy raw foods again.  This is why cleansing is particularly good around the spring equinox (and not January).  My organic food delivery box starts surprising me with less root vegetables and more greens so everything lends itself to eating greener and leaner.

Last year I led a workshop called the Spring Clean Kick-start to help give people a deeper understanding of cleansing rituals and practices beyond the most marketed kind like juicing and ‘detox diets’ and simpler ways to cleanse to renew energy.  In the past I’ve done pretty intense (well-researched and sometimes monitored) juice cleanses for periods of 3-7 days, which I wrote about here in my blog. They have taught me a lot and always leave me feeling great.  This year I may skip or shorten the juice cleanse and opt to focus on increasing more sustainable ways to cleanse that we can even work into our routines easily throughout the year.  Here are a few things I’ll be doing that you can try and that don’t require a juicer or taking time off work:

  • Aim to finish eating before 8PM every night (ideally 6PM if you can) to leave time for a proper 12-hour over-night fast so your digestive system can start the day strong!
  • Eliminate snacking between meals so there are at least 4 hours between each meal to allow your digestive system to properly do its thing before taking on more (if you’re prone to blood-sugar crashes, this may take some practice and perhaps light, healthy snacks to get you from one meal to the next)
  • Focus on eating more alkaline rather than acidic foods (think more fruit and veg and less dairy, meat, and alcohol for starters) and keep your meals simple in ingredients
  • Make every meal a mindful meal.  Eat slowly.  Don’t multitask.  Chew carefully.  Use chopsticks (with a special thank you to friend Niki here for reminding me that I have chopsticks and love how eating with them makes me slow down!)
  • Incorporate skin brushing and epsom balts into your weekly beauty routine and avoid products with lots of chemicals in them (get a big old tub of coconut oil and use that for multiple things…like deodorant)
  • Focus on how much water versus coffee/alcohol/juice/soda you drink per day.  Try to drink only water and herbal teas for a week if you have a strong addiction to caffeine and observe how different levels of hydration/stimulants make you feel

The first thing I’ve done is freeze my gym membership for April, which may seem odd since I’ll have more energy to exercise.  I started going to the gym because I wanted a little extra cardio to add to my weekly routine and I love spinning/cycling classes, but boy oh boy, the toxic products the other girls use in the changing room – I need a break!  With all the hairspray and Aerosol deodorant, I don’t know how these girls breathe!  It also never ceases to amaze me how much time we girls spend on primping and how very little moisturizing.  It really makes me appreciate the numerous yoga studios where I have taught and attended classes who usually have signs up asking for people NOT to use harsh smelling products.   Think about what you’re putting on your body (yes, even perfume) as well as in your body, because it all gets absorbed through our biggest organ – the skin!

And then finally how do I clear out some of that gunk in my mind?  Well, this is an ongoing project, good for any time of year really, but I think spring gives us a great opportunity to focus on the bright side of things – the sun is shining and my thoughts turn lighter and naturally more optimistic. Just because I’m a yoga teacher, doesn’t mean I have a pure and blissed-out mind all the time.  Far from it.  I still have moments, although much less than before, when I struggle with over-thinking, anxiety, all those things that brought me to yoga in the first place.  Over the winter I’ve been contemplating the concept of ‘reframing’ (as opposed to ‘awfulizing’) and how helpful that has been in the past when unexpected change happens and I start to freak out.  We tend to focus on what we’ll lose, how we’ll suffer and all the negative stuff that could happen to us if something changes, if we make a wrong choice.  We can add stress to a situation that doesn’t need to be that stressful.  So I am practicing letting go, accepting, and framing things in a positive light to suffer less. Here’s an example:

The other weekend my beloved boyfriend decided to move the furniture around in our flat. He completely changed the arrangement of the entire front room.  My first reaction was – eek!  It’s different!!!  And then I saw all the things that wouldn’t work with the new set-up. But then I took a few breaths, looked around and saw lots of benefits to the new layout.  I made a few tweaks and improved the ‘feng shui’ (to the best of my very little knowledge) and it works.  It really works.  And best of all?  It helped me get rid of more stuff (including the cobwebs that had been hiding behind the couch).  That’s a soft example and bigger changes are harder, but try it.  Try to focus on the gain, not the loss.

So all in all, I’m glad it’s still winter because I have a few more things to shed, a few more chickens to roast, a few more movies to watch and the need for more cozy evenings in my new jumper before I start to prolong my evenings, stay out late, travel and take on new projects.  It’s about truly enjoying the present whilst gently thinking and dreaming of what’s ahead, and doing a little planning. To quote Liz Gilbert’s Mom (from Elizabeth’s FB page), I really like doing things now to make life easier for ‘my future self.’ And that’s what the rest of this month is all about: clearing out my kitchen for some light, healthy cooking and juicing, giving away more stuff, gradually eliminating acidic foods, going to bed earlier, getting ready to launch my new website (ooh can’t wait!), etc.

Reflect: what can you do for yourself that will help you refresh and start anew in April? What situation could you reframe to see the positive?  Have a think, write down some objectives and then enjoy some warm stew and curl up on the sofa while you’ve got a bit more winter left!

Expect the Unexpected

December 14, 2014

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I am so grateful for my life in London. I feel like I won the lottery of best cities in the world to live in and I have felt this way everyday for the past few years. I am thankful for that feeling of being in the right place for me at this time in my life especially since I migrated so far from my family and spent so many years jumping through hoops, doing work I didn’t enjoy, learning the ways of a new culture, to earn my right to live and work in a city that has fed me culturally, emotionally and spiritually, forever and ever if I so wish.

But certainty is not a feeling I have experienced that frequently. I used to get stuck in indecision, fearful of the repercussions of my choices. There were two angels on either shoulder – one saying – no matter what you do everything will be okay and the other ‘WHAT IF’ angel urging me to think of every possible worst case scenario that could lead to failure on some level (that would be my fault of course because I chose it).

Over time I have learned that both of these voices (trust vs. fear/doubt) are important and the secret is not to get caught up in what my teacher Alex Filmer-Lorch would call the ‘pendulum swing’ between two opposing ideas. It’s dizzying, tiring, unproductive and falls under the category of unnecessary and unhealthy worry. At the end of the day, decision-making stress is a byproduct of the freedom that I have to build my own life and I have to remember to see it that way.

A colleague of mine said the other day, you can’t choose where you were born, but you can choose where you live, and this is an incredible thing. But that wasn’t always true and still isn’t for many nor is it always an easy or affordable journey to relocate yourself on a map. I don’t follow politics too closely, but I’m well aware of recent debates over overcrowding in England due to immigration and resulting prejudices. It’s a shame because when I attended my citizenship ceremony last year I felt so proud to stand amongst a group of people from all over the world who were finally granted the right to call England home. I was also very aware that many of these people were leaving behind countries with grim situations and had likely been through far more harrowing times to get to where they were than me. Undoubtedly this would lead them to make the most of their new home and pursue opportunities otherwise not available to them with more passion and determination – isn’t that what planting new seeds is all about? So I am thankful for the opportunity to make choices, however stressful it may be, and I am thankful for the possibility to start over and offer something up to a new city, a new country, a new place to call home.

Sometimes things in life feel just right. Sometimes they feel not quite right. Sometimes very wrong. But that doesn’t mean you’ve messed up. The friction is what keeps us on our toes and challenges us to find our strengths and hidden mechanisms for survival. For every one year that I feel certain about things, there were probably five of uncertainty in between, and this is where the work began. During my first few years in London I wasn’t sure what the driving force was keeping me abroad, although I did feel certain that I belonged on this side of the pond. I had no idea what was awaiting me, where my studies would take me, how much I would earn, who I would meet, but something told me this was the place where things would happen. It didn’t always feel like the most logical decision but once I had made the choice, I was sticking to it. And right now, nine years later, I am so thankful I did even though it wasn’t always smooth sailing.

London will always be hugely significant to me because it’s the place where I cultivated my passion for yoga and teaching, and consequently how I developed many coping mechanisms to get me through times of doubt. It’s where I got stronger. They say to only expect the unexpected and this is sage advice. I had no idea when I moved here that I would be teaching yoga part-time in a studio that didn’t even exist yet just two blocks away from my original student housing. I had no idea that this studio would be a stone’s throw away from the theatre where the musical adaptation of my favourite childhood book “Matilda” plays every night and that I would go there with my wonderful boyfriend on his 34th (we’re always kids) birthday. I had no idea, until a fellow student in my meditation training sung it for us, that this musical holds a song that sums up what it means to find peace and strength when all around us feels like chaos and doesn’t seem to make much sense. And suddenly there is a tiny thread stringing everything together in hindsight.

The voice of doubt still likes to creep up when I am making decisions, such as planning travel. What if there’s a snowstorm and I get stuck and miss the connection? What if a cheaper ticket becomes available tomorrow for a better route? I know that voice is there to test me and so I listen for a second and then say – hey you – CHILL OUT. Because even if we make all the ‘right’ decisions, there are outside factors that we cannot control and in one way or another, we’re going to have to be creative. Unexpected stuff is going to happen and change things no matter how carefully we pave our path. Deep down I believe that we can turn every situation on its head and make the most of it – otherwise we submit to suffering. We submit to being the victim when we should strive to be the victor. So my motto for the new year? Plow through the What Ifs and don’t look back. What’s my other way to stop over-thinking my choices and their possible consequences? Take the focus off me and think of how I can help someone else instead.

In November I celebrated Thanksgiving both in London and the U.S. I woke up on Thanksgiving day and taught a gratitude-themed yoga class to 21 people in a cozy, heated studio tucked into a very peaceful Covent Garden. The next day I flew to Boston and was greeted by my nieces for a belated Thanksgiving meal hosted by my parents. At school in the States, we learn that when the first Pilgrims arrived in America, they were in quite a pickle. It took several winters, several deaths and finally help from the Native Americans to get them back on their feet and thriving in a new territory that would soon become home to hundreds of millions, including me. When I arrive at Logan airport, my family is there with the Subaru and a warm meal is usually waiting for me within an hour. Despite those comforts, I inherited the Pilgrim gene and while I don’t enjoy frequent air travel nor promote it for the toll it takes on our health and the planet’s, it has provided me with my present life, living perhaps not so far from my roots in England. It has deepened my understanding of what it means to be a citizen of the world, a small part of a vast humanity.

On a less happy note, once the Pilgrims thanked the Native Americans with a bountiful feast, they later got greedy and murderous and took rather than shared what wasn’t theirs to begin with. On Thanksgiving, Americans celebrate the nice bit of the story and continue the traditions of giving thanks for our lives and those who help us. We remember, as is repeated at Christmas time, that life is beautiful and there are many things to celebrate that we normally take for granted. Hopefully we all decide that it’s better not to be so greedy and to give back a little but I’m not so sure this is true for the majority.

I love the tradition of giving thanks and every morning that I walk over Waterloo bridge and look upon the Thames, the Southbank, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, I am so thankful for all the ups and downs that London has given me, for the person it has shaped me into today. I’m even thankful for the feeling of being a ‘familiar stranger’, to quote my friend Jen, when I return to Boston – it means I’ve discovered a new part of myself and there’s no going back. Expressing gratitude and drawing your attention to what is positive about the present is a great way to see through the muck. I have been going Instagram crazy this past month taking photos of Covent Garden in the wee hours of the morning before I teach, capturing pink skies, gorgeous Christmas decorations, dreamy London scapes. But I won’t lie. For every beautiful thing that catches my eye, there’s also a pile of sick I need to mind not step in (Londoners love to drink…especially this time of year). It’s not all roses.

So what are you thankful for? When times are tough, what gets you through it? Where do you find beauty and hope? Who do you turn to? What do you read? Watch? Listen to? Have you created your toolkit for unexpected times? Something that makes sense and feels right when nothing else does? Who might you write a note to this holiday season to let them know they made a difference to you?

I hope you’ve made it this far, because the most important thing I want to mention is the charity yoga class promoted in the opening image on December 20th, which is what’s got me on this giving gratitude high.  10 years ago many Brits left London to holiday around the Indian ocean in places like Thailand and Sri Lanka. Their plan was to have a blissful time in the sun with friends and loved ones.  Instead they witnessed an unimaginable tragedy and many did not survive.  One of the survivors was student and friend Niki Medlik who also designed the beautiful graphic images you can see on this newsletter.  Together we decided to organize a charity yoga class in honour of the 10th anniversary of the Tsunami to remind people of the tragic event that affected so many people, taking the lives of nearly 300,000.  Niki chose a wonderful charity that is the Sri Lankan Women’s Swimming Project helping to teach women how to breathe and float given that they were the majority who lost their lives from drowning.  We love this charity because it is providing ongoing support to the communities that were effected the most and empowering people with new skills for survival.  The idea is that we will get together to celebrate life in the safe haven that is the yoga studio where I teach and where I have been blessed to meet so many incredible people who come to yoga to feel better.

Surrender to Simplification

October 4, 2014

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If you’re a frequent traveler like me, you’ll have heard the following announcement at the beginning of most flights: please turn off all electronic devices, followed by: flight attendants, prepare for take-off. Which makes you more nervous?

My guess is that, unless you have a fear of flying, your palms are more likely to sweat when you have to put away your portable entertainment.

Some airlines now allow you to keep your mobile phone on airplane mode in case you fear withdrawal symptoms from this or some other kind of distraction enabling device for the duration of your journey. However, being both a student and teacher of yoga and meditation, I am all too happy to completely power off the most stress-inducing item I own and surrender to simplification.

Believe it or not, life is often better without pocket-size technology.

Of course there are other places where we’re asked to partially digitally disconnect such as museums, classical concert halls or movie theatres. But while we might not choose to have a long chat with grandma who lives an ocean away during these visits, we may still want the perk of tweeting about a piece of art we’re enjoying at the Matisse exhibit or checking work emails during a film just in case we can resolve an issue that would otherwise end up on our plate the next day.

We’re a generation of multi-taskers who have emotional connections to the devices that enable this. We want to see and share at the same time. We want the ability to be in three places at once. We want to get more done faster. We want to have our cake and eat it too (but instagram it first). And these are all marvels of modern day technology. But what we forget in all this excitement and momentum is that there is such a thing as too much of a good thing and digital delight can soon turn to digital indigestion.

Luckily there’s one place where we can cultivate an actual desire to be away from technology and that’s the yoga classroom. If you walk into a yoga class with your mobile phone, you’re going to get dirty looks. But I rarely see this as a teacher. Why? Because yoga time is off-limits time. It’s self-imposed take-a-break time. And just like some popular Apps, it’s a little addictive.

When I teach I like to think of the classroom as a sanctuary or haven from the stresses of modern-day life that we impose upon ourselves. While rolling out a mat and practicing yoga postures can work wonders for your body, it’s the time we spend during class cultivating awareness, being present, and connecting with our breath that works the magic we need to keep a balanced life.

We shouldn’t need an air stewardess to tell us to switch off our phones. We shouldn’t need a reminder to turn them to silent at the cinema. What we need is to remind ourselves that it’s okay NOT to be connected 24/7, to allow ourselves to be in one place at a time, to focus on a single item and take things at a slower pace. While the initial reaction may be resistance, the mind will migrate towards a place that is less cluttered and more centred. The result? You’ll be a much more focused, energized, attentive person to be around and work with and that can only help you stay ahead.

So here are five simple things you may want to try this week to find more balance with your digital routine and keep a clear mind:

  • Transport Timeout – most of us have some kind of public transport commute that involves waiting. What do we do? We start checking emails, waste hours on social media, play around with Apps. What if for one week your transport time became a digital time-out?   Would you read more? Breathe more? Look at the scenery? Give it a try and surrender to simplicity.
  • Get an old fashioned Alarm Clock – if you’re checking emails first thing in the morning and going to bed staring at a screen, maybe it’s time to make your bedroom a digital-free sanctuary. Instead of exiting and entering your day by cluttering your mind, what if you did 10 minutes of yoga or meditation? Give it a try and see what happens.
  • Pick up a Book – remember those things? They’re sad; they miss you. You used to take them on holiday but now hotels offer wi-fi and you’re sucked back into the Internet even when poolside. Give your books a front seat and respect them as elders to your tablets. Focus on one story rather than ten news flashes at a time and observe the delight in being in one world at a time.
  • Pick Up an Old Hobby – could it be knitting? Drawing? Cooking? What’s something you can do that doesn’t involve screen time? That requires focusing on the task at hand. Multitasking is an art, but it’s not art. You know what I mean? Create something. Spend time getting better at it. Don’t worry about what the rest of the world is doing and you’ll produce something great.
  • Start a Yoga Practice – okay so this is an obvious one, but I credit yoga for calming my monkey mind and creating a craving for detoxification. When you become more aware of your body, your energy levels and the way you breathe, you start to notice how technology as a negative impact on your well-being and you’re much more likely to moderate and feel justified and confident in doing so.

Take a break

July 5, 2014

Take A Break

This summer I hope you’ve given yourself permission to have a treat, take a break, do something totally indulgent and unproductive.  That’s right, I’m encouraging you to idle away some time.

Maybe it’s a holiday you’ve planned by the beach.  Maybe it’s wrapping up work before 6PM so you can take advantage of happy hour al fresco or catch a World Cup match.  Maybe it’s taking a longer lunch or a longer walk or a bit of a nap in the grass when you have a spare moment because it really would be a crime not to with such nice weather.

Now I’m a hard worker by nature and far from what anyone would call lazy, but if there is one time of year that I don’t need a reminder to play, it’s most certainly July and August.

Behaving any differently would just feel wrong, disrespectful even, to mother nature and the generous gifts she is handing us: an opportunity to connect more with nature by getting your feet in the grass, submerging them in sand and salt water and letting your hair dance in the breeze.  July and August are open invitations to surrender your senses to the sweetness of summer and let go.  So will you accept?

If the idea of letting go already has you nervous and twitchy, then maybe you need to book yourself a trip to Italy.  Seriously.

Italy – land that I love.  I studied Italian and French at University in hopes that learning the languages would one day take me to these foreign countries so often depicted in glorious films about summer.  There were the adaptations of Marcel Pagnol novels – Chateau de ma mère (My Mother’s Castle) and La Gloire do mon père (My Father’s Glory) to make me dream of Southern France, and then Stealing Beauty (and more recently I am love) that left me wanting to run through wild grass and flowers in the Italian countryside.

I’ve spent many summer weeks in Italy since then when my dreams were realised.  One summer I spent studying art history in Florence and another I spent two months living in the Abruzzo region of Italy volunteering on different organic farms.  One taste of Italy in the summer and I knew it would become an ongoing love affair.  Returning to Italy whenever possible would become a priority to remind myself of the importance of la dolce vita the Italians live so well.  To remind me (a juggling to-do lister) to slow down and enjoy life.

Motorbikes are fast in Italy.  But life is slow.  Italians speak at high velocity, but linger over a meal for hours.  A day in Italy is full of unknowns and ‘possiblies’, but never void of some kind of pleasure.  You must be patient, playful and passive and that’s when you see the beauty (same rules often apply to yoga…).

I remember there was a gelateria in Florence called Perche non? (Why not?) and it’s an expression I think of a lot when I’m muddled with indecision – most often confronted with an opportunity to treat myself, indulge in something ‘naughty’, let go a little but I feel too guilty.  Then I hear it in my head – why not?  And my excuses are usually pretty lame.  This is a great way of eliminating the fears, the worries, the what-ifs that accompany my impatience to complete a project and embracing the ‘live a little’ attitude Italians demonstrate so well.

Over time I have learned that taking a break and spending time ‘idle’ can actually yield huge benefits.  It makes me more productive when I return to work, more focused and able to prioritise, and more present to all those and all things around me.  It makes me more human, less self-centered and simply healthier.  This is also why I meditate.

I’m not the only one who has caught on to this marvel.  Just this week an article in the Evening Standard magazine highlighted changes happening in the workplace to allow people more freedom with their work schedules in an effort to prevent ‘workaholics’ and increase motivation.  New legislation around this could mean more flexible work hours, nap rooms in office buildings and company pets in the future.

Some people have no issues with ‘not doing’.  And they may take it too far to the opposite extreme.  As with anything, it’s all about balance.  There is time to rest and time to work and both feed off each other.  But definitely take time to rest.  Ideally away from a screen.  And look around.  Notice the man who plays accordion by the train station every day on your commute and thank him; hold doors open and give your seat up because you notice people around you.  Be part of the world, not just your world.

So in case you ignored the first invitation, summer and I (and Italy too) would like to invite you again to let your hair down a little.  Run around a bit.  Eat some gelato (there’s a fantastic place in Richmond if you want to stay local Londoners – even with dairy free varieties 🙂 Do ‘nothing’ for at least 30 minutes every day and stop checking your iphone so darn much.

If you can’t get to Italy or are minding your carbon footprint, then do rent a film on Italy (or some other glorious and warm location).  It might be just what you need to finally convince yourself you need a break, that a break will yield good things and that life is simply too short to keep fixating on work that could get done, problems that could get solved, money that could be made.

Meditation plays a big role in my life and when summer weather comes, I take my meditation outdoors by taking meditation walks, pottering in a garden, staring at a body of water, shelling broad beans in the kitchen, etc.  There are so many ways to meditate that don’t require sitting still (see more inspiration below).  Can you think of your way?

Ways I slowed down, treated myself and enjoyed summer in June:

  • Row row row your boat – Moving flat a lot in one city can be a big nuisance, but it also means discovering more, exploring more and getting to know all of London’s little nooks and crannies more intimately.  Since moving out towards Richmond nearly a year ago, I have been determined to get myself out on a row boat for a paddle down the Thames.  And in June I finally did. What did it feel like?  Being hugged my nature and sunshine – idling time away in the most pleasant way possible.  A synonym for ‘idle’ is to ‘rest on one’s oars’ so if you need an activity to help you slow down and take in summer, get yourself to Richmond ‘beach’ for a bit of paddling (beware potential blisters and summer breezes offering your hat to the swans).
  • Got snapping – photography has always been a hobby of mine.  I was inspired my my father who always had a camera in hand, always lagged behind us on walks in Maine to capture scenery through a lens.  My first camera was a yellow Kodak kids camera and then I eventually graduated to a high-tech Canon SLR and assorted appariti; I started using a Polaroid and then even a twin-lens reflex camera before transitioning to digital. Nowadays my photography is mostly limited to the trillion shots I take and store on my iphone, but nonetheless, it still delivers the kind of satisfaction I crave from ‘taking pictures’: capturing beauty I see to revisit again later, looking for beauty, colour and light all around me and then curating my creations.  It’s my favourite ‘do nothing’ activity that results in something. This June I wanted to fully return to my photography hobby so enrolled in yet another beautiful e-course by Susannah Conway called Photo Meditations– you’ll see some photos in this post (from my short trip to Italy).
  • Made some kitchen creations  – I’m always rolling up my sleeves and making a mess in the kitchen in one way or another.  This month, inspired by London-based raw chocolatiere Amy Levin and her many free and friendly resources, I got back into making raw chocolate at home for two reasons: 1) to cut down on the cost of buying raw chocolate and 2) to make the EXACT texture, shape and size of chocolate I want.  Raw chocolate is highly nutritious, has the perfect bitter/sweet balance and because of its potency, should be moderated.  Raw chocolate has helped me cut down on store bought chocolate (sugar) consumption and save it for a special post-meal treat. There are 3 simple ingredients for a base: raw cacao butter, raw cacao powder and a non-refined sweetener like coconut palm sugar.  For more info on raw chocolate, how to make it, and it’s benefits, visit her website Oosha.
  • Had a cuppa  – a World Cuppa that is.  Now I am NOT a spectator sport fan (see note above re: upbringing by photographer/musician father who was not into sport).  BUT, since moving to Europe 10 years ago, I have made it a point to try new things, to get involved in the local culture and see what happens when you embrace the things you want to resist the most.  I have fond memories of the first World Cup I experienced in London – I was studying with an internationally diverse group of students at the LSE and countries playing against each other took on real significance and meaning. There was so much lively, communal energy in the streets.  So now with a boyfriend who is a major football fanatic, I have surrendered again to the charm of a good old cuppa football.  Best brew yet was the U.S. vs. Belgium game – not only did it keep me on the edge of my sofa, it also had me tearing up at the display of good sportmanship, camaraderie and pure passion often unseen in England matches.  As I type this I am also half-watching the Wimbledon Men’s Final – when in Rome…:)

Take A Break 2

Pastures New

January 1, 2014

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Every year at Christmas I migrate back to the East Coast of America to spend time with my family.  Every year I find it hard to leave my home and friends in London when the city is so festive but feel equally excited to wrap my arms around my loving parents.  While the house I return to is not my childhood home, it still holds many relics from my adolescent and teenage years, tangible reminders that who I am is no longer who I used to be.

Sometimes these reminders trigger humorous embarrassment or regret.  Oh man – was I really that obsessed with dolphins and dinosaurs?  What on earth convinced me Joey from New Kids on the Block was special enough to merit a mention in my diary (and once a place on my wall)?  Sometimes they are painfully embarrassing – photographs of a less vibrant version of myself (recalling those awkward years when I lacked self-esteem) or disappointing test scores and rejection letters from universities that once made me feel inadequate.

But they are also reminders that things change.  And that is hugely powerful and comforting knowledge. Accepting that nothing is permanent can make us feel vulnerable, but if you look at it on the flip-side it’s hallelujah refreshing.  Why?  Because it means we’re never stuck.  There is always an opportunity for a new beginning on the horizon.  There is always time for growth and cultivating a sense of ourselves and the roles we’re meant to fulfill in life.

The past was merely a dress rehearsal for the future, which is the present (the pre-sent), which tomorrow will be the past and so on and so forth.

Along with that is the understanding that life is a journey of learning and sometimes we take wrong turns or have to test the waters in one pond before we realize we’re more suited to the ocean.  I have to laugh when I look at a collection of softball trophies (the kind you get just for participating), my old neglected and dented saxophone, and horse-back riding gear I used less than ten times. To the person I am now, it’s no wonder these hobbies were short-lived or abandoned as soon as I became an adult.  And while I could regret the time ‘wasted’ pursuing avenues not suited to my personality, strengths or more importantly my true passions, I know this foggy, confused time existed for a reason.

You wouldn’t start a trek at the top of a mountain, would you?  I suppose you could parachute from a helicopter to catch the view and start your descent, but what would happen to the adventure of getting there?  What of the bumps and bruises, the callused feet, the pitfalls that nearly made you quit but that you overcame with persistence?  While we can admire the view of what we see from the top, it hardly has any meaning if we don’t look behind us and acknowledge where we came from.

So as much as I cringe at the sight of those old photos, embarrassing diary entries, things I wish I never said or did, it’s important that I acknowledge them, forgive myself for not knowing better and feel blessed for what life has taught me along the way to bring me to where I am now.

To pass on just a fraction of these valuable learnings:

  • Do what you love and not what you feel you should do or everyone else is doing 
  • Get out and see the world – you will find yourself in the most strange places
  • Move your body – it’s the best way to get unstuck and fit!
  • Don’t buy so many souvenirs – you don’t always need physical reminders from every experience you’ve had (and you’ll save money)!

Which brings me back to the theme of ‘de-cluttering.’  Just like personal growth (there’s never really a summit to that mountain), it seems my mission to de-clutter is also never ending.  I am, however, a great deal closer to that ending than I was at the beginning of the year!  And now I am ready to shred those old test scores, give away the riding helmet and boots to my nieces, perhaps save one softball trophy for my mother’s sake.

The more technology advances, the easier it is to deem things redundant.  I’ve held on to a collection of CDs thinking I might want save them to show my grandchildren one day, but I haven’t played them for years and doubt I will in the next ten, so they go in the charity box. Music fulfills a different purpose for me and now I am mostly interested in finding transportable tracks I can play in my yoga classes.  The classical music CDs? Those stay. New Year’s resolution? More live music, more creating music, less plastic cases.

So on this occasion of the New Year (or whenever you might read this), I invite you to embrace even just the concept of the possibility for renewal and change and give thanks to 2013 (or the past 12 months) for what it taught you.  I’m sure you can already think of a few positive changes you made this year that have left you somewhere different than you began.

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