Sunday, October 13, 2013

Keep Your Eyes On Your Own Mat

My yoga teacher Anne starts each class with this simple, but important instruction: "Keep your eyes on your own mat. There are varying levels, but you are here to focus on your own practice."

I hear her voice telling me to keep my eyes on my own mat, almost every single day. This is advice to live by.

I used to spend so much time reacting and getting upset about what other people were doing, and not even TO me, just what they were doing in general. All over the internet, we are constantly bombarded with social media blasting our friends every move, celebrity gossip pages, and reactivist news articles.

I stopped reading my Facebook feed. Something about reading what a friend had for lunch every day made me like my friends less as people. I was constantly forced to judge others by what they posted, and I didn't like feeling the way Facebook made me feel. I want to enjoy people for who they are in person, not for what they choose to share on a constant feed, day in and day out. Social media is too much of a good thing. It's taken sharing to an inappropriate lack of privacy. While I do still keep in touch, and I find the business referrals quite valuable, overall I try to avoid its tendency to overkill the sharing of personal information. And honestly, I don't care what you had for lunch.

I am now focused on improving me. By improving me, I can be of service to others.

In yoga class, there exists a double-edged sword. There are those more advanced physically, who are worried about competing with others. I was one of these yoga assholes (see my previous blog post). But I've also found that those who are less experienced with asana also judge those who are more flexible. I've noticed the stares and judging looks when I am the only one in class doing an arm balance. I've read the yoga articles that shun the more advanced poses, as not to make anyone uncomfortable.

I call bullshit. Everyone, advanced or beginner, should only worry about their body on their own mat. I should be able to bend myself in whichever way I like in a handstand without looking like a show off. A beginner should be able to struggle through downward dog without feeling intimidated by the touching of my head to the mat in the same pose. I assure you, while I'm on my mat, I could care less about what you are doing on yours. It's hard enough to deal with my own shit, much less yours added with it.

Yoga is for YOU. It doesn't matter what I'm doing next to you. If you are worried about my asana, then how can you improve your own practice? Should more advanced students be segregated from beginners to make them feel more comfortable? No, because you don't learn how to carry your yoga outside of class, living it, by always being comfortable. In this life, there is always someone "better" than you at something. You can choose to either use them as inspiration, or you can ignore them and do your thing. Anything else is a complete waste of your precious energy.

Every advanced yoga pose I've learned was from someone who knew more than I did at the time. And I am grateful to them, because they made my practice better and gave me something to strive for.

Advanced asana or beginner, the only right practice is that which is working.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Whose Standards Are They Anyway?!

I was a chunky. In 2008 and I'd let myself go and was eating McDonald's chocolate chip cookies from the Drive-Thru. I was newly single and found dating nearly impossible because I had low self-esteem. At the time, I thought I was getting all of the losers because I was 30 lbs overweight. Now I know it was self perception, not the number on the scale or my muffin top.

I found running. I'd always had an athletic inclination since track in middle and high school, so I knew what I needed to do lose weight and feel better. So I did. I ran- a lot. The weight fell off. I carb starved and more weight fell off. I joined Crossfit and while running 30 miles a week, beginning an obsession with my self image that was anything but healthy.

I became the "ripped chick". It was who I became and never wanted to not be.

 I didn't eat bread or pasta for two years. I weighed myself daily. I worked out 6 days a week, sometimes twice. So much suffering- the mood swings from lack of carbohydrates, the over training from running several half marathons a year, knee and shoulder injuries that wouldn't go away... it all became not fun anymore. It became a monster that I had to feed in order to keep it happy. It was never happy. There were fleeting moments, in a bikini, that I was glad I'd suffered so much, but overall I was just hungry.

I'd become so wrapped up in my self image as the "ripped chick" that I didn't care if it was making me miserable. The sight of those abdominal lines made it all worth it, or so I'd convinced myself... so much pride.

Then came yoga, the resetting of priorities, and the eye opening self realizations about what is important. Sustainability is important. Happiness is important. Healthiness is important.
I'm asking myself a lot of questions now: Why did I need to starve myself and keep a six pack? Who's standard was I trying to reach? I have no answer to these questions. Somewhere I decided that I wasn't worth much if I wasn't of the suffering fittest. I have no idea where this came from, but it was deluded and wrong. I had something to prove, and I have no idea to whom or why.

I've started eating carbs again, but I still maintain a healthy diet of whole foods. I don't weigh myself if I can help it, but if I do, my weight hasn't changed at all from when I was starving myself.
You mean I subjected myself all of that suffering for no reason?! Yes. If only I'd known I could maintain a trim, healthy weight without the struggle. There is a law of diminishing returns with most things that are good for you. The more of anything, in excess, actually stops becoming beneficial after a certain point. So yes, I am sustaining the same level of fitness with half of the effort.

The ab lines are still there, but not as sharp. There is a little layer of softness. My muscles are getting longer and leaner with less bulk. My shrunken breasts are filling out a bra again. My shirts used to tightly fit around my biceps and my pants barely went over my thighs; my clothes now fit. I eat a piece of dark chocolate every day. I don't train to exhaustion. I have no idea what my body fat percentage is. I am much, much happier.

I'm writing this because my ego is telling me that I'm not a bad ass anymore. I am losing all of my hard earned muscle, and my edge along with it. Lies. All lies. My ego wants me to look a certain way that is an illusion. It wants me to stay injured for the sake of vanity. It wants me to base my worth on how many pounds I weigh, weight I can bench, or miles I can run. My ego is such a liar, and I'm not listening..

I just want to be healthy and happy.

I still run every week around Stone Mountain, but only once instead of 3 times. I still lift weights, but not to exhaustion and injury. I do yoga the rest of my days, unless my body tells me it is tired. If I am in need of rest, I rest. I am still active six days a week, but I'm not over training. My injuries are gone. I am happy with me, presently. I will keep learning my lessons, and only focus on what is real.

You Aren't As Busy As You Think You Are

Busy is a state of mind, and can be controlled. My brain is prone to rattling off the long list of things I need to do, even as I write this.

So what? There will always be tons of things that need to be done. Don't they always get done, anyway? What good is telling myself and everyone around me how busy I am? Somehow, no matter how busy we think we are, things get taken care of.  And if they don't, it's not the end of the world.

I've been a college student most of my adult life. The current degree is an Online MBA in Accounting. Add this to a teenage daughter, training a Doberman puppy, running a small accounting business, working out every day, yoga practice, blah, blah blah. We all have this running list of shit we have going on.

While doing group work in this Master's level class, my classmates constantly use the excuse of how busy they are to make up for the crappy or late submission made to our work. 
Really? You are so busy? Don't you have the same 24 hours in a day that I do? Then why do I do enough work for the both of us?

Some interesting statistics:

-- Working parents, who are usually (and understandably) at the top of the list of people who claim to "have no time," spend only one hour less on leisure activities per day than do those without the same child-care concerns.
-- People making $100,000 or more spend far more time web surfing and consuming other media than do those making less.
-- Everyone (statistically speaking) watches at least 2-3 hours of TV per day. That's 10% of our 24 hour daily gift of time, and a much higher percentage if you measure it only against the time we're awake. 
-- People who earn $1,200 or more per week do not work more, on average, than those who earn $540 per week.
-- Self-employed people (which, of course, includes most of us who own businesses) do not work more hours, on average, than wage or salary workers.
Two to three hours of TV a DAY??!! Most people could do that thing they were bitching about not having time for in two to three hours a day, including MBA class work, exercise or answering an email. 
I was in this thought-trap in the Tax Season 2012. It was my first tax season and I was not yet a yogi. I was studying for my EA license and attempting an MBA course during the busiest time of my career. Somehow I still found a way to run or get some form of exercise, while  I was the busiest I'd ever been, working 12 hours a day. Even though I was getting all of these things done, I was miserable because I kept thinking about how busy I was. The actual work wasn't what was stressing me out; the thought if it was.
A few ways to be less busy:
Stop thinking about it and do it. You are fine; let go and quit worrying. If you stop this negative cycle of thoughts, you will actually get more done.
Prioritize. If you have all of these responsibilities, maybe several  hours of TV a night isn't a good idea. Do the thing that is the most important for today. The rest can wait.
Stop bitching. Saying you are too busy means that you will be.
I practice what I preach. I don't watch TV until all of my responsibilities are taken care of. I don't complain about how busy I am, and I am a highly productive, happy person. We all have the same 24 hours per day, and we all have the same ability to get shit done.

Just do it.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Easiest Meditation Practice Ever

Just do it. Nah, just kidding; if it were that easy then there wouldn't exist the thousands of books and articles doling out advice on how to meditate. I've read some of these books, and they all say pretty much the same thing. Meditation is like eating healthy or exercising. It's one of those things that you know is good for you, and you'd really like to do it regularly, but you just can't quite muster whatever it takes to make it happen.

Fine. I get it. But you wouldn't be reading very far into this particular blog article, if you weren't at least interested in meditation in some way. Meditation is proven to make you smarter, measurably decrease your stress levels, and noticeably makes you feel so much better.

To make anything good for you really work, you are going to have to make it habitual. The way to do this is to trick yourself into integrating it into your daily life. 10, 20 or 30 day challenges are great for this. Make it as easy as possible. I started several months ago with "Meditate 5 Minutes a Day for One Month". Easy. And I'm still doing it.

With regular practice of any activity that is "good for you", a noticeable change begins to happen after several days. This magical transition makes activities like running, yoga and eating right completely unimaginable to quit after you've reaped the benefits. You remember what life was like before, when you felt much worse, and you don't want to go back. Remembering this feeling will keep you going.

I don't want to give you any more rules except these two crucial points:

1. Sit up straight. It can be on a bus, your couch, or on the floor. There exists a fallacy in yoga that because savasana is practiced at the end of every session, meditation isn't necessary. While savasana can help prepare you on how to clear your mind for meditation, there is a difference between laying down to clear your mind, and sitting up. Maybe it's chakras, energy alignment, or intention. I don't know or care what it is (you can google it), but savasana is not like meditation nor is it a substitute.

2. Just breathe. Think to yourself- "Breathe In, Breathe Out". Always come back to the breath.

My cat scratches on the door, "Breathe In, Breathe Out".
The neighbor starts his leaf blower, "Breathe In, Breathe Out".
MOMMMMMM!!!!!!..."Breathe In, Breathe Out".

Nothing matters. Sit there, and breathe.

I usually set a phone timer. This gives me a goal to reach. Over time, you will be surprised that 20 minutes isn't a big deal any more. I recall when 5 minutes was excruciating. Just keep doing it until you feel like you can add more time. There are some days when the timer is my savior.

As for any other details, it doesn't matter. How long, where to sit, how to sit, what time of day, eyes opened or closed, it doesn't matter. Do it at your desk, in the bathroom, in a closet. It doesn't matter. All of that will come as you practice. All you have to do is show up, for five minutes a day, sit upright, breathe, then watch yourself transform. You got this.

Monday, September 23, 2013

How I Learned, and Finally Got, Pincha Mayurasana (kind of)

I really like inversions. I get a little thrill off of being upside down. When my legs kick up and my vision turns around, I get this feeling like I'm a kid going down the really big slide.

Did I mention that I am mortally afraid of falling? I am. It crosses my mind that every damned time I go upside down that I could, *GASP*, fall. Yes, I realize that I am only 5 feet tall, and that it really isn't that far.The worst thing that could rationally happen is that I hit the floor with a little thud, and then get back up again.
My fear of falling isn't rational. And to be fair, it is just as present when I try to jump off a 20 ft. platform into a lake during Tough Mudder, or when rock climbing at 30 ft.

I don't want to fall, EVER.

Maybe it's a control issue. Maybe it's that I don't want to break my neck or hurt myself. Maybe it's just a stupid hang up that I'd really like to get over.

I first decided I wanted to do Pincha when I saw the Michelle Marchildon doing it on the cover of "Finding More on the Mat: How I Grew Better, Stronger and Wiser Through Yoga". I recall thinking, if she can do that, I totally can. It has to be easier than handstand, which I've been on the cusp of (with my wall firmly in place), for months.

It looks a lot easier...

It isn't.

In class I started playing around in Dolphin, trying to kick my legs up. No dice.
I thought I was stronger than this. Self doubt crept in. Maybe I'm not as strong as I thought.

I asked a few of my teachers for advice. One said "What's the worst that could happen if you fall?". The other said, "I want you to stop using the wall as a crutch".


But, I can do it against the wall, where it's nice and safe. I know this isn't the right way.
I promised myself that every single day, I was going to go down to my basement gym where the floor was padded, get as far away from the wall as I felt sane to do, and keep trying.
I did it every day. Or at least I tried to. Sometimes I would use the wall just to feel what it could be like if I were doing it right. My ass felt like it weighed 100 lbs. I just couldn't. Get it. Up.

Ok, I need another trick. I talked to one of my yoga teachers more. She mentioned there were tutorials on YogaGlo that were pretty informative. I watched. And yes, they were. I drank several of them in, watching as intently as possible and comparing what they were doing to what I was doing (wrong).

My face wasn't looking down at the floor, it was looking out. You can't get your legs over your head while looking out. Not at my skill level, anyway. And my hands were spaced wrong. If you use a block  between your hands, nestled in the angle of your thumb and index finger, the space is just right to allow your shoulders to balance you, as they were intended.

Off to my gym I went, armed with new information and vigor. This went on a for a few more days. I practiced my inversions in between sets of weightlifting, during led yoga class, during the day in my living room between clients.

Then it happened. After two days of using the block, as far away from the wall as I felt comfortable, it happened.

One leg up. Then two. Pincha Mayurasana.

The feeling was pure joy. I was really, completely, proud of myself. So I did it again and again until my arms couldn't hold me. I showed my family. I took a photo.
I tried it in class again, and I did it. But, I needed the wall nearby in front of me (you know, just in case). I still need the wall at least 3 ft. in front of me for my sanity. I don't really use it, except for in my mind.

One day I won't need the wall anywhere around, even if I'm not really touching it. One day it won't be my security blanket. One day I will know it is okay to fall, and get right back up.

This one day will be very soon, because I will practice Pincha every day until I get the pose in exactly the manner it deserves. In the way I deserve. These poses aren't just asana. Pincha Mayurasana is teaching me about what I need to learn in my life. I need to let go more often. To trust that if I fall, I will get back up, and it's all going to be okay.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

I was a competitive yoga asshole.

I am a recovering competitive yogi.

It all started with heated Power Yoga. I was good at it and I knew it. I took to it like a fish to water. I have a Crossfit and long distance running background, and I was already(and am) quite fit when I started this journey. There are times in my not so distant past where I rocked a six pack proudly. I carb starved and compared myself to others.

A year ago I thought I needed some stretching. I was getting injured from my intense training, and I'd read that yoga was great for such injuries. I found a Power/Bikram studio and went, and went again, and couldn't stop going.

The room was heated to a cozy 100 degrees. Big deal; I ran my last half marathon in the sweltering August heat of Atlanta. There were inversions, arm balances, difficult asana and vinyasa flow that kept my heart pumping through my chest. Perfect.

There were wall to wall mirrors and a room full of people I knew I was better at yoga than.

I looked around at the few more advanced yogis, busting out a bind I'd never seen, keeping an audible ujayii breath the entire practice, or easily going up in an inversion I'd never tried before. Hey, I could do these things, so I did. In less than a year, I was adding every difficult variation to every pose I possibly could.

And then things got real. I don't know exactly when the change happened, but it did.

I started to read yoga philosophy. I went to even more yoga, and starting feeling an ease and love for myself and others that I'd never felt before. I began a daily meditation practice.

All of the sudden, I didn't care if I was in the front of the room so everyone could see how bad ass I was. I stopped looking around. Hell, my eyes were closed if they weren't fuzzily focused on some random spot on the floor. I didn't care what the chick next to me was doing. I began to add other studios to my practice, and regularly visited a studio with no mirrors and a slow practice that focused on pranayama with chanting. I was practicing slowly with old ladies and it was okay. It was still yoga, maybe even more so. I needed yoga or meditation each day to feel right. Asana became about moving meditation; not about how I can do side crow like a rock star.

I got it. Yoga changed me, as it does everyone it touches.

I read somewhere that when you know better, you do better. There are still tons of people out there that don't "get it". They may never, and that's totally okay. Maybe yoga isn't their thing. We are all on our own journey. Wherever you are, is exactly where you are supposed to be. If I see an egocentric competitive yogi, I giggle to myself and say "Been there, done that".

I can also say that I am really glad that my heart opened up. I am glad that I'm not over training, under eating, and striving for a level of athletic perfection that was created for who knows what purpose.

This is a much happier place, and I am so grateful to be here.

I still run Tough Mudder every year. I still run trails every weekend, and lift heavy weights. But now, I know when to stop. Now I do it with an open heart and mind.
Now I run and lift, as a Yogi.

On caffeine.

A double espresso every morning. I've been on the hard stuff for years. In my line of work, attention to detail is a requirement. I can't afford to make mistakes. I have to be alert, awake and on task. I have to drink coffee, right?

Wrong. All I needed was sleep. The right amount, when I needed it, and of high quality.

I thought I was getting it; I wasn't.

I'd noticed the more yoga I did, the more meditation I practiced, the more agitated caffeine made me. It completely reversed my calm and harshed my mellow. Not cool, man. So, I cut back from two shots each morning and two shots each afternoon, to one shot each morning. I experienced none of the terrible side effects normally felt with quitting cold turkey, and it took a few days to notice any positive changes.

The more yoga and meditation I practiced, the less caffeine I wanted.

My sleep quality noticeably improved, and suddenly I was awake and alert without all of those extra mg. of caffeine. I suddenly had more control of my moods and thought processes, instead of the caffeine telling me how I felt.

You see yoga does thing to you- It slows your mind and body down. In my little Type- A world of success this is a terrible thing. I have client meetings, tax returns to file, emails to send and an MBA to study for. I'm busy, dammit!

Until slow isn't terrible anymore. Slow is the state to achieve.

Slowing down has actually made me smarter, in a happier and less agitated way. I see more, notice more, and can do more. All in a calm, much happier way. I swear slowing down has made me smarter. When you are calm and smart, you see things you hadn't taken the time to notice before. My clients don't irritate me like they used to. I just notice things and watch them float by without reaction.
Sure I still get mad and I still get upset. But much, much less.

Maybe one day I will quit my one shot of espresso in the morning. But I don't feel the need to just yet. I still love its creamy, bold flavor. I love the ritual of sitting down each morning with a steaming cup, allowing my mind to wake up slowly.
I order decaf if I am at Starbucks for an afternoon meeting (which I may need to stop doing because I swear I can feel it). If I am tired and feel the need for a pick- me- up, I take a nap, or I tough it out and slow down.

Slower is better, and in this crazy fast world we live in, that is a strange lesson to learn. Slow doesn't mean stupid. And multitasking isn't a good thing.

So it begins.. A Blog.

After months of lucid dreaming on the subject, here I am, staring at a blank page. Okay, so now it isn't blank. The words spill out easily. Catharsis.

I am a different person than last year. Aren't we all you say? Yes, but this journey with yoga has been such a marked change that I feel the need to record it... to type out words to sort it out in my mind. To make it available for others to read. To share as all of those on the hundreds of blogs have shared with me. All of those bloggers, going through exactly what I am, making it more real and understandable.

I lay in bed this morning, as with many others, thinking I'd like to just get all of this down somewhere. A private journal? No, the thought of writing as quickly as my brain thinks makes my hand cramp. I have terrible handwriting. A blog, yes. Somewhere I can work this all out, and share with others as they've shared with me. The thought of sharing inner thoughts with complete strangers makes some cringe. Not me. Show me yours and I'll show you mine. We can learn from each other. There is nothing to hide.

Why Yoga and Taxes? Because I am a tax accountant, but I am not my job, I am a Yogi...I think. Not sure about that one either, since it's only been a year in this love affair with yoga. These things take up most of my time, but directly oppose each other, making me a walking dichotomy. I think this makes for a very interesting story to tell. And so I've begun to tell it.