Trust the Process

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A day or two after my last post, one of the pages I follow on Facebook posted the above picture (my apologies that I don’t remember which page it was).  Seems very appropriate, except in my case I am trusting the process to find the vision.  I know the vision will continue to involve yoga, both as a personal practice as something I share through teaching.  But what will that look like for me?  I’m not sure.

Teaching around temporary disabilities — fatigue brought on by heat, an exacerbation involving vision issues that would eventually resolve, a few weeks of shaky legs, etc. — was doable for years.  I came to yoga already living with MS.  I came to teaching with MS and fibromyalgia.  I would adapt.  Students knew that on any given week I might have to cancel; that an exacerbation effecting driving abilities would result in several weeks without classes. But, those temporary things were the exception, not the rule.  In many ways I was able to continue teaching like a teacher without a disability. Not so anymore.  

So, I have taken a hiatus from teaching all but one class — the class I teach for women who’ve experienced domestic and sexual violence.  I became a teacher to share the practice with these women and it has felt right to continue there.  Part of the break is to recharge.  Part is to let the vision form.  I don’t expect it to magically appear without effort on my part.  Nope, its gonna take trusting the process, which for me, is yoga.  All Eight Limbs of It.  Doing more meditation.  Reclaiming my mat/chair/asana practice one practice at a time (guided by my inner wisdom and quotes like the ones below). 

asana

More breath work and some serious Svadhyaya (study of oneself).  Along with that I feel drawn to learn more about subtle energy and how I can use it in my personal practice.  I know that one of yoga’s functions is to move around the prana (energy), opening blockages, aligning chakras, etc.  But, my knowledge of that aspect is pretty shallow.  I’ve always approached it as, do the asana and pranayama and it will happen. Now its time to learn how the sausage is made.

There is no timetable for this journey.  I’m excited to see where it goes.

 

 

 

 

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Reality Check

I’ve never believed nor expected yoga to cure the multiple sclerosis I live with.  I know there are a few yogis who swear that yoga has cured them or alleviated their symptoms to the point of appearing cured. But, that’s not why I started yoga. For me, yoga has been about managing the symptoms of both MS and fibromyalgia.  Something to soothe both body and spirit. Maybe even to mitigate some of the symptoms. So, imagine my surprise when I recently realized that somewhere, deep down in my subconscious, a part of me had been expecting yoga to delay the progression of the MS — and was maybe even a little ticked off that it hadn’t.reality-check

That realization has been a long time coming.  I haven’t written in a while because the last year has been challenging and its taken some time to figure stuff out.  The fatigue that came with last summer’s flare up took forever to go away — in part because I didn’t want to listen to what my body was telling me.  Instead, I began teaching additional yoga classes in the fall because students in the Modified Yoga Classes wanted yoga more than once a week.  YAY!  What yoga teacher doesn’t want their students clamoring for more classes?  After a month, I began getting sick — I had some type of cold every month last October through April.  And I was always tired.  Still I didn’t listen.

Last Fall was about the same time I began to experience an emotional roller coaster ride every time I came to my mat to practice.  During the first few weeks of this ride, I would get about half way into my asana practice before the strong emotions would arise. Then I’d become either very angry or end up sobbing.  I’ve experienced tears on my mat in the past (but never anger) and when I did, I’d use my breath to ride them out.  THIS was different. Riding it out wasn’t working for either emotion..  As the weeks progressed, the emotions surfaced earlier and earlier in my practice until I couldn’t step onto my mat without instantly becoming either angry or sad.  So, I stopped practicing.

Seriously, that was my solution. I just stopped. My excuse to myself was that I was too tired or in too much pain to figure out what was going on.  And, that was partially true. But, looking back, I was also avoiding messages I didn’t want to hear.

I quietly told two good friends about what was happening, but continued to ignore my mat. Then this negativity began to creep into my teaching.  I would wake up on teaching days and find myself wanting to do anything but teach. [If you are one of my students, please know this lack of desire had nothing to do with you.] The feeling would pass once I got to class. But the drive there was long and painful. I knew I had to do something.  But the holidays were upon me and with them came the grief of saying good-bye to our 11-year-old cat, Tasha.  Sweetest cat that ever lived, bar none.

Eventually I reconnected with a therapist I’d worked with in the past. And with her help, I am finally at a point where I am willing to hear what my body has been saying: the MS is progressing and change has to happen.  

There hasn’t been major progression — no canes or walkers or permanent vision or cognitive loss. But little by little abilities are diminishing.  The emotional roller coaster ride on my mat came from two things: (1) my daily asana practice is where the changes in my physical abilities has been most noticeable, and (2) as my therapist says, my mat is my Place of Truth. On my mat, I couldn’t lie to myself about changes I’ve had to make in the way I do a particular asana or the time I’m in a pose or even the fact that these days, a lot of my physical practice is done from a chair instead of a mat. I also couldn’t ignore that I was feeling a bit betrayed that my practice hadn’t kept these changes from happening (who knew?). How dare the practice that was supposed to be my refuge, instead be the magnifying glass through which loss in ability/energy would be most visible!  It’s been a while, but I believe my last post hinted at the possibility of a “dark side” to transformation on your mat. This was it, baby.

For the first time since being diagnosed in January of 2005, I have more than just moments of not wanting this disease; more than a passing fear now and again of what the future will bring; frustration that now I can count on my body even less than I have in the past. It has felt like MS was taking my practice and my ability to share it through teaching. Even though neither would be the first things I’ve lost to this disease, the grief and anger felt as fresh as the first time I had to alter my way of living to accommodate symptoms.

Two weeks ago what was supposed to be an evening of yoga and dinner with several gal pals turned into a reiki session and dinner with 2 of my dearest friends.  Reiki replaced yoga because I’d been dealing with headaches that were exacerbated by moving my arms or bending forward and the friend that could get to my house before dinner is a reiki healer (my term for her). We’ve worked together before and sessions with her have always been healing.  This was no different.Reiki_CloseToHome_005

Thanks to things that came up during the reiki session, I now realize I have been trying to fit my practice and teaching into my idea of what these things SHOULD BE — how a yoga teacher’s personal practice SHOULD LOOK; what a career as a yoga teacher SHOULD BE.  And that’s another thing.  Somewhere during the last 2 years, as I began to teach more classes for pay, teaching yoga has moved from a calling or service to a career.  Not that it can’t be both.  It can. But I had turned it into an either-or as I followed the “shoulds” in my head. I’m always telling students not to worry about how the pose looks, but how it feels; to find the version of the pose that fits their abilities in that moment. Apparently, I haven’t been following my own advice on or off my mat.

Yesterday, I experienced another reiki session with a different healer.  This time I received confirmation of several things I’ve been feeling I needed to do/work on since the session with my friend. The path ahead is not all clear.  But, I do feel like I’m back on the path the universe has for me instead of the one in the “should” center of my brain.  To paraphrase country music singer Lynn Anderson (and apparently also Martina McBride and Suicide Machine), “I beg your pardon, yoga never promises a rose garden.  Along with the sunshine, there’s got to be a little rain sometimes.”  And if you’ve ever walked through a rose garden, a few thorns as well.

 

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

Gratitude, even in the Midst of Challenge

gratitude

If you are in the midst of a Health Challenge — newly diagnosed, dealing with an exacerbation/flare up, in pain or just generally having a “why me”/”this sucks” moment or day (we all have them) —  I understand that you may not be feeling much gratitude.  But, keep reading because gratitude plays an important role in happiness and health.  And, while this post is mostly about finding gratitude in spite of a health challenge, I think there is something here for everyone.

Research has found that gratitude has several benefits:

  • increases happiness and life
  • boosts feelings of optimism, joy, pleasure, enthusiasm
  • reduces anxiety and depression
  • strengthens the immune system, lowers blood pressure, reduces symptoms of illness, and makes us less bothered by aches and pains
  • better sleep
  • makes us more resilient
  • strengthens relationships

These results were found even when studying individuals with health conditions such as neuromuscular diseases and breast cancer.

Several sites recommend cultivating gratitude by keeping a gratitude journal, writing a “gratitude letter” to someone important to you, staying present/mindful of moments that bring you joy and hope, meditating on gratitude, writing a gratitude list, and focusing on what’s right instead of what’s wrong (especially before falling asleep).2010-05-19-gratitudepic  

When you are dealing with a health challenge (or any other life-changing situation), that last suggestion can be difficult.  It’s so easy to slip into worrying about the future or spend time wishing you could turn back the clock to before you became sick. But focusing on those things will get you no where. I’m not saying be a Pollyanna or Suzy Sunshine.  Nor am I suggesting you live in denial about what you are facing.  There are times when you need to get a little angry and belligerent with the illness.  The trick is to not let the anger consume you or become the only emotion you feel.  I have found that taking time to remember what’s working helps(and being grateful there are things that are working) diffuses the “I don’t want to be sick” internal tantrum pretty quickly.

Illness can bring gifts into your life.  If you haven’t gotten to this point yet, I understand this sentence may make you want to puke.  When I was first diagnosed with MS, I sought out stories of inspiration.  I kept coming across articles about people who said that if it wasn’t for their illness they never would have found the rewarding work they were now doing.  At the time, those stories really chaffed me.  I was already doing meaningful work — raising funds for a nonprofit serving individuals who had experienced domestic/sexual abuse or sexual assault.  I didn’t need MS to find meaningful work.  But, the truth is, if it hadn’t been for the MS, and later the fibromyalgia, I wouldn’t be practicing yoga on a regular basis, let alone teaching it.  And as regular readers know, yoga has been a gift for me and led to mental and emotional healing I don’t know I would have found elsewhere.

Let’s look at a couple of the suggestions for cultivating gratitude:

If you like the idea of meditating on gratitude,  The Mentors Channel is running a FREE meditation event called “21 Days of Gratitude”. You can join via Facebook or create a user name.  It started November 4th, but it looks like the meditations will continue to be available throughout the event.  A good thing since I didn’t get this post out as early as I’d planned.

Lake Michigan, photo by Lisa DeShantz-Cook

Lake Michigan, photo by Lisa DeShantz-Cook

photo by Lisa DeShantz-Cook

photo by Lisa DeShantz-Cook

Enjoying the moment — or as one site refered to it, savoring life. This is about awareness. It’s the old cliché of “stop and smell the roses.”  Take time to notice the beauty around you and the beauty that resides in those you love and value. Or maybe you are inspired by that which is interesting and different in life — what some may call hidden beauty. What is it that stops you in your tracks? Or makes you pause and ponder the universe? Not only does this help cultivate gratitude, it takes your mind off whatever else is going on in life.  Images that inspire you are a great last image to hold in your mind as you go to sleep. Want to see other great photos, check out the cedar suite entries blog.

To help you get started on your gratitude list, I’ll share some of what’s on mine:

  • my husband, family and friends, who accept me as I am, even as my abilities ebb and flow
  • researchers working hard to find a cure for MS and fibromyalgia, as well as new medications to slow their progress or ease their symptoms
  • those who fund this research
  • my 3 cats, each of whom can make me laugh even on a bad day
  • my yoga practice
  • the people who attend my classes and allow me to share this awesome practice with them — and who are patient and understanding if I have to cancel a class due to a flare up

My own suggestion for those of you who practice yoga is to take some time, either at the beginning or end of your practice to express gratitude for your practice. Don’t focus on what you were or weren’t able to do. Instead, just feel what yoga does for you and extend a thank you to the universe, God, etc. for its existence.  Also thank yourself for taking the time to come to your practice. This is something I learned from my mentor and I end all of my classes by inviting students to partake in this moment of gratitude.

Last November I created a “Gratitude Playlist” for the classes I taught the week before Thanksgiving (kind of corny, I know).  In the process of looking for songs I discovered this one from Racheal Brady.  Hope you enjoy it.

Namaste,
Deb

 

What’s Your Value?

Lately I’ve been coming across things about self-value.  A week or so ago this was shared on Peace Begins with Me (a small BIG Peace Project)’s Facebook page:
Value

This past Sunday, yoga instructor, Judith Hanson Lasater was interviewed by Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D.,Managing Editor for YogaUOnline.com.  The interview was part of Yoga U Online’s Free Sadhana Sunday Series.  The topic was “Alone by Myself: Developing a Home Practice in the Midst of a Busy Life.”  Here is an excerpt of the interview that was shared on The Huffington Post’s website:

Q: Why is it when we love yoga (as much as many of us do, at least) that it’s still a struggle for many people to get to their mats?

Judith Hanson Lasater: I’ve heard this sentence, as you can imagine, many hundreds of times: “I don’t have time for this.” But I think that that’s an excuse. I really don’t think that’s the issue. I think we’re looking in the wrong places for why we don’t practice. We need to look at our thoughts and our beliefs about ourselves.

It has to do with self-nurturing. It has to do with valuing yourself. I believe it’s related to refusing on some level and used in the broadest sense of the word to see our own divinity.

One of the mantras that I like a lot is — specially when things start getting busy or conflicted — what is the most important thing right now? It’s usually to remember myself and what I’m feeling. And that centers me.

That’s quite an answer!

What does it mean to “see our own divinity?”  Yoga philosophy teaches that we are all inherently good. We may lose sight of, or contact with that inherent goodness due to life experiences.  But underneath these layers of experience, the goodness is still there. This inherent goodness exists not because of anything we have done, but just because we exist.  We are, as described by yoga teacher and author, Erich Schiffman, “made of God Substance, Consciousness, Love . .  . creative energy, Spirit, a unique expression of God’s infinite Self-Expression.” If this is confusing or you just want to know more, check out Chapter 2 of Schiffman’s book, Moving Into Stillness here.  It’s one of the best explanations I’ve read on the topic.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Westerners in particular have trouble with this concept.  I’m sure that’s due to a combination of factors from the theology of original sin to our “what have you done for me lately” culture to, as Schiffman describes, the fact that we spend very little time with ourselves in stillness.  The result is that our self-identity comes from our external world instead of our internal one.

But what if we truly took to heart the idea of our inherent goodness? Our divinity?  How would that change our actions towards ourselves?  Actions that we take for ourselves? This is something I’ve been mulling over since hearing the interview.  I’ve come a long way in valuing myself.  I no longer struggle with feelings of being unlovable or unworthy.  I am better at doing what I need to do to take care of me, rather than doing what I feel obligated by others to do.  But, I can’t say I’m living in a way that fully recognizes my divinity. And if I’m not fully recognizing my divinity, then I’m not fully valuing myself.

I’m not talking about becoming a diva.  Well, at least not the “obnoxious, self-absorbed, I am better than you” type of diva that comes to mind when people hear that word.  I prefer the queenly, goddess sort of diva that goes back to the word’s origin (from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary), which is:

Italian, literally, goddess, from Latin, feminine of divus divine, god

I’m talking about making life choices that affirm my divinity and full value.  Choices with what I do with my time, what I put in my body, what I put into my mind.  The traditional medicine and alternative/complementary health options I undertake.  Would it make the difficult choices/actions easier?  And the easy path more difficult to take?

One of my favorite mantras is “om namaha shivaya” (discovered it reading Eat, Pray, Love — book wayyyy better than the movie).  A simple translation is “I honor the divine within myself.”  I’ve used this many times in both my yoga and meditation practice and it played a role in healing from emotional abuse.  I thought I knew what it meant for me.  But, as I sit here typing, I realize there are depths to its meaning I haven’t fully realized.

This, my friends, is my new area of self-study and exploration.  I invite you to join me by exploring what recognizing and fully engaging in your own divinity means for your life.

Namaste,
Deb