Transformation Part 1

Tree of Transformation by HeavenonEarthSilks

Tree of Transformation by HeavenonEarthSilks

If you approach your yoga (asana) practice as a mind-body connecting activity — that’s to say as more than an aerobic workout — it has the power to transform.  And I don’t mean just by improving physical flexibility and strength.  It can change the way you relate to yourself and the world around you.  Your mat/chair becomes your personal laboratory where you can watch and learn about your patterns of thought, belief and behavior. A common yogi-ism is that “the way we react on the mat is often a reflection of how we react off it.” For example:

  • Let’s say there’s a pose you dislike — maybe its uncomfortable or maybe you feel awkward when attempting it.  You can tell when the teacher is building up to it and lo and behold, just before the class moves into it, you suddenly find you are in need of a bathroom break.  A break that, by the way, lasts only as long as you estimate the class will stay in the pose.  Realizing you’ve got your bladder on speed dial for the purpose of escaping a situation where you feel uncomfortable, tells you something about how you probably deal with similar situations in life.
  • Or, maybe rather than running off to the bathroom, you stay in class, attempt the pose “unsuccessfully” and then berate yourself for not being able to do it “as good as the person next to you.”  Were you truly unsuccessful, or was that just your judgement of your effort? How often do you berate yourself off the mat, rather than giving yourself props for trying something, even if the outcome isn’t “perfect” (in reality or in your mind)? Did you feel unsuccessful because your version of the pose didn’t compare well with your neighbor’s?

When you observe with self-compassion and non-judgement, you begin to notice the internal chain of events that, in this example, lead to fleeing discomfort.  You will also begin to understand the source of your inner critic. According to vipassana meditation teacher, Phillip Moffet, , “It’s quite common for the voice of judgment in your head to not be your own, but someone’s from your past, like a parent or teacher. Sometimes, this voice of judgment doesn’t even reflect your current values.” Awareness gives you the opportunity to begin to make changes, or to at least, pause and respond, rather than just reacting.

As regular readers know, I became a consistent practitioner of the physical part of yoga to stretch tight, aching, somewhat spastic muscles.  What I’ve barely written about is that my long-term commitment to yoga began the day my true internal voice appeared and told the critical voice of my mother to “shut up.”  I was on my mat, in the midst of practice and struggling with feelings of unworthiness.  Until that moment I hadn’t realized the inner critic I’d accepted as my own voice, was actually my mother’s.

paradigm-shift-cartoonMy mother was often abusive — physically, mentally and emotionally.  Something she denies to this day.  I learned early how to avoid much of the physical abuse.  But, the price I paid was swallowing my own needs, thoughts and desires.  I became a Pleaser, thinking that if I could just do everything “right” she wouldn’t get mad.  There was no way for a child to understand that abuse is about the abuser, not the victim. The abuse wasn’t 24/7. There were times she was very loving and a lot of fun.  But, I never knew “how the wind would blow.”  So, I became good at blending into the woodwork until I knew what mood she was in and trying to guess what she would want, need or think, before she did.  I accepted that everything she said about me, my father and the way the world worked was true. Though my values and beliefs about the world shifted as I became an adult, I continued to carry the self-image she’d created and to unknowingly operate from a place of self-protection — with behaviors and coping skills that had kept me safe as a child, but weren’t very helpful in forming healthy relationships or a healthy self-view.

I didn’t meet my true voice the first time I stepped onto my mat or even the third or fourth.  I had been practicing for months — probably 3 times a week — and had begun seeing a therapist because I was struggling with MS-related cognitive impairment. I knew that yoga was  helping my body and reducing sensations of stress.  But, I’d had no idea that all the mindfulness and paying attention I’d been doing on my mat was leading to that moment.

The moment didn’t immediately make life perfect (spoiler alert: yoga doesn’t ever make life perfect).  I continued to struggle with the inner critic and other patterns that growing up with an abusive parent creates.  But, each time I returned to my mat, I knew it was an opportunity to work with these feelings and thought patterns.  To develop a relationship with my true inner voice.  To get to know myself from a perspective that didn’t begin with my mom. And that, my friends, is transformational.

However, transformation isn’t always sunshine and light with ah-ha moments that suddenly make everything better. As the quote that introduces this post says, the process can involve moments of darkness.  That’s something I’ll be addressing in my next post.

Be good to yourselves today.  If you liked the “Tree of Transformation” image above, please check out HeavenonEarthSilks on Etsy.  There are many beautiful pieces there.

Namaste,
Deb

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When “It is what it is” Isn’t What You Want

For the last 10 days or so I’ve been dealing with a lot of fatigue and muscle weakness in my legs. I’ve been describing the weakness as having quad muscles of jello.  I’ve become used to dealing with periodic fatigue — if one ever really becomes used to waking up only to find even a shower requires too much energy.  But this type of leg thing doesn’t happen very often.  My “usual” leg issues involve restless leg in the evening (medication mostly controls it), muscles tightness/”mild” spasticity (what I call Twisty Leg because it feels like it feels like I’ve got on pantyhose with one leg that has gotten really twisted) and Legs of Lead for when it feels like I’m walking through cement.

When I’m in a fatigue phase, Legs of Lead are not uncommon.  But, this weakness in the quads is rare.  Had it once very early on the MS path and again during a flare up involving saddle anesthesia.  Unlike Twisty Leg or Legs of Lead, Jello Quads requires me to really pay attention when I’m going down stairs or walking longer distances.  Yesterday, I was the woman in the crosswalk at the store who looked like she was taking her sweet time when, in fact, I was hurrying as much as my legs would let me.  As a driver, I am notorious for letting pedestrians cross (in crosswalks, at corners or driveways) and then complaining when they appear to continue sauntering instead of “putting a little giddy-up” in their step.  After yesterday, I will be more kind in my thoughts — at least I hope I will.

Except for this past Monday, Quads of Jello hasn’t been a constant state.  Sometime I wake up with it.  Other times it hits later in the day.  Even had a few 24 hour periods without it.  But on Monday things were different.  I was both exhausted and untrusting of my ability to walk much.  Taking the cat for her daily outside excursion involved two separate trips around the yard and nothing more.

For the most part, I’ve come to terms with the usual stuff.  Sure, I still have my days of frustration, especially when all the usual stuff hits at the same time or when medication that helped in the past isn’t helping now.  But thanks to my yoga and meditation practice, the frustration and accompanying funk doesn’t last long.  Eventually I remember, “it is what it is.”  By that, I mean, I may not like the current symptoms, but I cannot wish them away.  The only thing I can change is my relationship with/response to what is happening.

Problems-do-not-cause-suffering-quotes

Practicing “it is what it is” has been more difficult lately.  I had to cancel all my yoga classes on Monday.  I HATE cancelling classes and this was particularly difficult since I knew there’s be no classes next week (Memorial Day).  I have flowers that need to get into containers or the ground.  But lifting the bag of potting soil seemed outrageous.  Suffering isIt isn’t even that they needed to be planted.  It was that I wanted to plant them  I LOVE playing in the garden almost as much as I LOVE practicing and teaching yoga. These disappointments get intensified by the fatigue and although Monday wasn’t an entire day of “woe is me,” there were moments — no hours where even remembering “it is what it is” wasn’t helpful.  Because what is was, wasn’t what I was wanting.  Behold, the definition of suffering, at least from the Buddhist perspective.

I think the difficulty in finding solace in this concept this time is because Quads of Jello is new and thus, unknown: How long will it last? Will it get worse? Is this something that is going to become a “usual”? Crap, is this going to effect my teaching more than just this past Monday?  All questions that reflect fear and worry about the future.  Fears and worries that I’ve had years to come to peace with when it comes to the usual stuff. Fears and worries I came to peace with via my yoga mat and meditation.

So, even though Quads of Jello isn’t what I ordered, I’m going to continue my yogic and meditation practice.  Trusting that eventually, the peace will come.

Acceptance Part 2

In my last post I wrote about the concept of acceptance — acknowledging reality as it is, not as we want it to be.  In my experience, acceptance begins with the practice of mindfulness.  In his book, Mindfulness Yoga: The Awakened Union of Breath, Body, and Mind, Frank Jude Boccio defines mindfulness as:

“observing of things as they are, without choosing, without comparing and judging, without evaluating, and without laying or adding any of our projections or expectations onto what is happening.”

He goes on to provide the following visual aid:

“One image used to describe this quality of mind is to imagine awareness to be like the sky.  All the thoughts, feelings, and sensations — indeed all our experiences, both physical and psychological — are like clouds passing through the sky.  We tend to identify with the clouds of thought, projection, craving and aversion and ignore the sky.  Our practice is to cultivate ‘big sky mind’ and to allow all the changing phenomena to pass through awareness, without being swept away or entangled in any of it.” 

The way we respond to things on our yoga mat is a reflection of how we respond in life: Do we rise to the challenge or run away?  Do we push beyond our limits and pay a price later or do we work within boundaries that will keep us healthy?  How concerned are we with what others think of us?  Can we enjoy the moment or are we already regretting that it will soon be over?  This makes the mat a great laboratory for practicing mindful acceptance.

Imagine you have tight hamstrings.  As you bend into a standing forward fold, do you strain to reach the floor or do you make an adjustment such as bending your knees until you can reach the floor or stopping when you feel the beginning of a pulling sensation in your hamstring, resting your hands on your legs/a block?  If you allow yourself to make an adjustment that keeps your hamstrings safe, what happens in your mind?  Do you criticize yourself for “giving in” or “wimping out”? Can you remain focused on the sensations in your body or are you envious of the person on the mat next to you with their hands flat on the floor?  And if you realize that you are in envy of the person next to you, do you beat yourself up for doing so?  Or can you laugh at being human and refocus your thoughts on what is happening with you?

As a teacher I have watched time and time again as students who need to use a prop or make a physical adjustment to safely experience a pose refuse to do so.  Instead they struggle, adding unneeded stress and sometimes getting injured.  I can empathize because one of my own challenges to acceptance comes on days when my hands, wrists and forearms are in too much pain to practice the traditional version of Downward Facing Dog.  It is one of my favorite asanas (poses) and there are days when I find myself beginning to grumble as I move onto my hands and knees and feel the pain that says “No Down Dog today.”  I know its variations and I know they are just as beneficial.  Still, I sometimes find myself resistant to using them or even angry that I can’t do the “regular” pose.  This coming from a yoga teacher who encourages EVERYONE to do the version of an asana that is right for them in that moment. 

I don’t analyze why this is happening while I’m on the mat.  That’s an activity for later.  On the mat is where I practice making choices that can lead to acceptance or away from it. In that moment of resistance I can choose to continue resisting and do the regular version — the consequences of which will be even more pain now and later — or I can accept that whether I like it or not, its a variation or nothing.  Mindfulness is what helps me recognize that I’m in the midst of resistance sooner rather than later (noticing the tightening in my jaw or chest; the feelings of resentment; the urge to just skip my practice like the petulant child who would rather take their ball and go home than play by another’s rules).  It keeps me from moving without thinking into more pain.

Just like on the mat, the addition of mindfulness in our life gives us the option to make a choice between working with reality (through acceptance) or continued resistance, which eventually leads to unnecessary pain/struggle/irritation, etc.

The meditation cushion is another place to practice mindful acceptance.  The simple act of watching your breath and the flow of your thoughts without trying to change anything is often extremely challenging for beginning meditators.  Friends have told me, “I can’t meditate.  My mind won’t slow down.”  That’s the first lesson: recognizing that our minds are like monkeys or happy puppies.  They are all over the place.  Dashing from one thought to another as they arise.  It is a sensation we don’t like so we decide we can’t do meditation.  Until we accept that our minds are like a toddler on a sugar high (or Dori from Finding Nemo), we will always feel that we are failing at meditation.

Don’t think that this is all easy for me.  There is a reason we say yoga ‘practice’ and meditation ‘practice’ — even acceptance ‘practice.’  Yoga and meditation don’t lead to a life of roses.  But they are handy tools to know how to use when you are faced with the reality of a stem filled with thorns.

Whatever your current reality, may you hold it with a compassionate heart of acceptance.

Acceptance isn’t Surrender

When we are told something we don’t want to hear or are confronted by a situation we cannot face, our reaction is often one of denial, refusal or resistance.  It may take the form of a shouted or whispered “NOOOOOO!”  or a deep sigh and shake of the head.  Our inner teenager may stomp her feet and storm from the room.  Or we may simply turn our back, pretending that what was said or done, never happened.  Problem is, while denial can be a great, and even helpful place to visit.  Its not someplace to take up permanent residence.  Doing so takes an enormous amount of energy, and eventually, reality comes knocking.  And when it does, denial and illusion no longer hold up.  When it comes to reality, The Borg* had it right, “Resistance is futile.”

You might be familiar with the five stages of grief associated with the death of a loved one: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  These same stages apply to other forms of loss including the end of a relationship, being fired or laid off, or receiving the diagnosis of a chronic or life-threatening disease.  Unfortunately, i
n the world of chronic illness “acceptance” is often synonymous with “surrender.”  It may be thought of as passive and without fight.  But to practice true acceptance is no easy feat.  It requires courage.

Acceptance, simply put, is acknowledging the situation for what it is, not for what we want it to be.  We many not like it.  We may not agree with it.  We may wish things were different.  But none of that matters.  Whatever the truth of the moment is, you can only move forward by acknowledging it. The following is a quote from Yoga for Pain Relief by yoga therapist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.  Although it speaks to working with pain, you could substitute with any challenge you are having difficulty accepting.

“Acceptance doesn’t mean embracing your pain or identifying yourself only as a person with pain.  It means a willingness to experience pain as a part of life and a willingness to move on with your life even if your pain persists.”


This doesn’t mean you become passive, held hostage to the situation. Quite the opposite. It is by accepting things as they are that we can then decide the most skillful way to proceed.  We can operate without blinders, reviewing options with a critical eye to whether or not they fit our reality.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” ~ James Baldwin


I’m not sure why, but I had no problem accepting the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.  Maybe that was because I had googled my symptoms and an overwhelming number of the results had come back MS.  Maybe it was because I was relieved that the visual problems I was experiencing weren’t permanent.  Maybe it was the amazing support I received from my future husband and immediate family. Their general reaction was “There’s no cure.  We can’t change it.  It could be worse.  So, where do we go from here.”

Whatever the reason, I am glad I was able to so easily accept the diagnosis, because my acceptance practice is continually challenged by flare-ups (periodic vision loss, weakness in one or more extremities, cognitive functioning issues) and day-to-day symptoms (muscle pain, permanent night vision loss, fatigue).  Yep, just like life, acceptance is an ongoing activity.  And that’s where yoga and meditation are a HUGE help.  I’ll discuss how in Acceptance Part 2 (coming soon).  


* The Borg were featured on several episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and the movie “Star Trek First Contact.”  While The Borg are eventually defeated, the crew of the Enterprise had to face their reality to make it so. If you are unfamiliar with the series or in the mood for a flashback, here’s a brief clip.