“I’ve got an elastic heart….” - Sia
Just the other day, my mother’s cousin was visiting from North Carolina, where she has retired after living most of her life between the DR and NYC. She’s my mother’s “prima hermana” or cousin-sister, as they grew up together, and like a second mother to me since I spent a year of my very young life in her care in Santiago, and bonded so much with her that apparently I started calling her Mami. She was a support system to my mother during the last, very stressful, very sad year of my grandmother’s life. I share this to drive home the point that she is a beloved member of my very small family, a wonderful woman, and someone I appreciate deeply.
She is also a conservative. During dinner, despite best efforts, our conversation inevitably turned to the upcoming election, and all the issues that are on the table for our collective consideration. Our view on all of them were polar opposite- and that was not new, but the intensity of the opinions expressed was so much harsher. As things intensified, my heart beat furiously in my chest, every thud aching with disappointment and sadness. This is a common story these days.
Our heart is the hardest working organ in our body, on average pumping 6000 liters of blood through our veins and beats about 100,000 beats a day. Metaphysically, it is the keeper of our most intimate emotions, the home of our soul.
And as such…sometimes it aches and breaks.
We are living in particularly heart-achy times, our minds in disturbia, spinning from the constant barrage of twitter feeds, strongly divided opinions, newly licensed hate and bigotry, and so much self righteousness on all sides.
How do we love in these times?
The reality is, despite all the rose colored, Instagram worthy quotes about love being the answer, love is also some real work. It’s easy to love those who think like us, and are good to us, but how do we love people that we don’t agree with, or even dislike? And if you want to really get deep with it, how do we love ourselves in the face of our shortcomings, mistakes and regrets? I’m convinced cultivating this kind of love, the hardest kind, is the answer to every existential question about life. We are here to love: beyond the romantic and easy kind too- we are here to love it all back into love.
I’m also convinced that now more than ever, there is an urgency, you might even say a pressure to explore this loving business. We are being put to the test, I feel. And I know one thing to be true, every heartbreak and loss I’ve ever experienced has left a scar and a crack, but has expanded my heart, given it the super power of elasticity to hold more.
So as I sat there at dinner, considering how someone I loved, someone who lived with so much love in so many areas of her life, could see things so differently, in my opinion, so love-lessly, I practiced something I like to call compassionate indifference. I listened to the degree that I could, and I stated my feelings and views and drew boundaries around what I would tolerate, and then agreed to disagree, respectfully. That’s the indifference part- not getting caught up and torn up by the differences and staying connected to the compassion.
It was awkward. It was messy. But it was my best expression of love in that moment.
It isn’t always rainbows and hearts. Tough love is love too. Speaking your truth. Not backing down but not putting down either. This business of being human is a life’s work and love is its teacher and its main practice.
And I think that’s why I believe in other lives, because I don’t know that we get there in one lifetime…but the point is to keep striving.
Even when I look at the place we are in history, we’ve been here before, and each time we expose the shadows that are still lurking around our collective psyche (fear, bigotry, otherness, mysogyny), that will always lurk because we are light and we are dark, but if we don’t look and have that awareness we can’t act from our more loving, higher selves. So in many ways, we’re in a time of reexamination, which is necessary.
What I love about yoga practice is that basically: at its heart, is this act of cultivating awareness through examination be that asana or meditation or practicing the yamas and niyamas. Beyond these shapes we make, often over and over again on our mats, we’re being asked to examine them each time, honestly and lovingly, and sometimes they aren’t pretty or smooth, but if we’re in that work, we’re expanding our capacities physically and metaphysically. And an expansion of that capacity to build awareness, to be mindful, often spills into other areas of our life and beyond into the world. It is not about perfection, or achieving the pose, but about that striving with awareness. Same for everything else we’re holding in these times: it doesn’t have to look perfect, we don’t have to agree, but can we strive for unity and mutual respect?
We may get there, or we may come very close. Either way, we’re developing elastic hearts, integrated souls, and embodied existences. And that’s how we grow collectively beyond this place and time, which will shift. That’s how we keep moving the needle towards the real hope and prize: universal love.
“Authenticity is the alignment of head, mouth, heart, and feet - thinking, saying, feeling, and doing the same thing - consistently.” - Lane Secretan, Inspirational Teacher and Leader
I’ve been taking a group boxing class and I love it. Sometimes you need to sweat and have a place to let your rage out. Yes, I have rage sometimes y’all. Some triggers are Trump’s America, dogfighting rings, old trauma, senseless fires raging across Mama Earth. And it has to get out so that the sadness underneath can then come up, and the yoga mat works to a point but not all the way. Sometimes, ya gotta hit a bag or a pillow or scream at the top of your lungs or headbang to Metallica- whatever works, ya know?
But I digress. At my second class, the instructor came over because my arms were flailing a bit on contact with the bag, and he said, “Get your stance down first”, as he demo’d for me, gloves up, arms locked in, legs in a lunge, knees bent. “Organize yourself, get your balance, stand solid and then your swings are gonna feel so much sturdier and strong.” This of course sounded super familiar: alignment anyone?
I would say that for half the years I've been practicing yoga, I wasn't very interested in working on alignment. It felt like way too much instruction and thinking, which I was trying to get away from as I did a lot of it already, and it took away from my main reason for going to class which was to breathe and get to that heavenly savasana part at the end. And so I really do relate to students who aren’t into it. And there are lifetime practitioners who are reaping amazing benefits and joy from this way of practicing yoga. That’s the beauty of yoga, there is something for everyone. And so it isn’t about right way or wrong way, just your way, and mine was more chill for a very long time.
I was also naturally flexible so I felt like I was rocking it anyway, not realizing there is a strength component to practice as well, which I developed once I started becoming more interested in alignment.
The first time I considered the benefits of alignment in yoga asana was in an Anusara class at Sal Anthony’s Movement Salon. I started to connect patterns in the way I was moving on my mat — what interested me and what didn’t, my resistance to move into more intermediate or advanced postures in my practice -- to patterns in my life. It was the first time I started to realize that yoga could be, beyond a place to decompress from a hectic life in the city, a very important tool for self reflection and growth.
Through my exploration, I have found that for me, alignment feels like an awareness of sensation, a sense of clarity, of organization and of integration. Misalignment feels to me like a sense of disconnect, uncertainty and confusion, and disorder.
Obviously when you do yoga teacher training, there is a huge focus on alignment. Understandably, that is a great foundation for practice and teaching. As I often say to students though, there is universal alignment that is helpful for all of us in bodies aspiring to make these shapes, and then there is our own work of exploring alignment within our individual physicality. For example, I have carrier angle arms which make many asanas (Downward Dog, Handstand to name a few), incredibly challenging or at times completely inaccessible (I was confused about down dog for 10 years, and I'm just now, 20 years into practice, starting to feel Handstand is a possibility), but help me in poses like wheel, bow, even chaturunga.
This is where alignment gets interesting, in its exploration aspect. So there are poses that we align in very easily (for me anything backbend-y) and other poses we work harder at aligning in and as we do, they become more accessible, and then there are poses that are really tough, and maybe even inaccessible depending on our anatomical challenges around them (long or short arms, long or short torso, long or short legs, injuries, carrier arms) not to mention perhaps mental or emotional blockages around them (fear, overwhelming sensation/emotion).
I think of relationships, jobs, situations that flow easily. It usually feels like right places, right time, right opportunities, connections and a healthy dose of Grace. Those are obviously the best, and what we crave all the time. Then there are the ones that require more effort through adjusting perspectives, compromising, accepting and learning from difficulty, and where there’s work needed to find more alignment. Honestly, these are my favorites in both yoga practice and in life because they are the opportunities to grow, to test our mettle so to speak, and they cultivate qualities that enrich our lives like patience, faith, compassion, and integrity. They feel like they move us forward. And then there are the situations that are just extremely challenging to align with, if not impossible: the round peg in a square hole ones that leave you feeling out of sorts, fragmented and literally and figuratively bent out of shape. These are clear indicators that we are out of alignment, and have moved away from our authenticity and there is power in being able to identify and recognize that, because from this place we can re-align.
As we enter this new decade, at a time that feels fraught with an increasing sense of mis-alignment in the environment, in our governments and legislation; one in which we are more connected to technology than ever, and at times even more than with our own surroundings, one in which we are grappling with heartache and fear about the evidence of climate change, one that, in the US where I am, can feel politically worrisome to say the least and terrifying to say the worst, full of growing Nationalism disguised as Patriotism, I want to believe that as far as misalignment goes, we fall somewhere between the testing our mettle stage and the bent out of shape stage. And I am hopeful that through continued exploration towards finding common ground we can all align behind, we can steer this ship back on course.
I do believe that no matter what comes our way, we can always re-align, both individually and collectively.
I’m simplifying and there is much gray area you could find, and of course as my alignment teacher, Christina Sell, often reminds us, as soon as you get one thing aligned, something else shifts and needs to be looked at, but I think this is generally the gist of it. We strive towards it, not for the perfection, but for --as she would also say-- the wholeness and authenticity. So I have come to define alignment as an organizing, and sometimes, especially when things are in major transition or totally chaotic and uncertain, a re-organizing of our bodies, minds and hearts into the truth of the present moment, that supports us in moving forward with more clarity, integrity and compassion.
And I think that’s where I would say, if the place you find yourself now is similar to the one I found myself in at the start of my yoga journey, the benefits of exploring alignment in asana are important in how they build intelligent awareness, and could be supportive to your practice and your life and even beyond. And if exploring this on your mat remains uninteresting to you forever, that is totally fine too. The principle of alignment practice does not belong to yoga. You might consider examining it via the lens of other vehicles like therapy, dance or running, the arts, activism, or any other forms of self exploration.
Ironically, I now teach alignment focused yoga. I love it and feel passionate about it because I have seen how it has created new awareness in me both on and off the mat, and because in my teaching, when I observe students connect with the tools of being in this process, it is deeply rewarding and gives me hope for our world- that if enough of us can come into this awareness, can check in and ask, “ is this in alignment with this time and place in my life? With this time and place in my community? In my country? In the world? Am I flowing, am I growing, or am I forcing? How do I organize myself from this place, wherever it might be, to proceed mindfully and lovingly?”, then we will continue the work of moving forward with a world that is evolving towards the greater good, and not away from it.
As we enter this new year and new decade, to me, it is the intention that will keep on giving.
"None of us knows what might happen even the next minute, yet still we go forward. Because we trust. Because we have Faith.”
― Paulo Coelho
Confession: I still believe in Santa. Not literally, but… like… I can close my eyes and call up the FEELING of believing in Santa VERY easily. And holiday lights and music take me back to being 7 years old, and the anticipation of the night before Christmas. I think the main reason is amidst chaotic famiy dynamics, the holidays were the one time all sides got their shit together. There was always a tree. There was always amazing food and joyful music, and somehow everyone toned their brand of dysfunction down. I loved the ritual of decorating, cooking, and storytelling. I loved that everyone tried their best for the kids this time of year. And so into adulthood, it has continued to carry a magical energy for me.
Faith is like that. It isn’t about whether something is true or not: does God exist? This is the question for the ages: but the real power of its answer lies in what we believe.
What we believe, the choices we make based on these beliefs, which thoughts we give power to, and what gets us through when things are hard. This is the realm of faith.
The Yoga Sutras classifies faith under the Niyamas, as Ishvara Pranidhana. Loosely translated it means “surrender to the divine”. It is the last of the Niyamas, the “ethical observances”, which come after the Yamas “the restraints”, I think appropriately because the idea is: do all the things, all the practices, do your best and then LET GO. Trust and believe it is enough. Have faith. That’s the last of these “practices”, because if we didn’t believe, what would be the point of any of them?
Faith is the voice inside of ourselves that says: keep going.
I’ve struggled with anxiety and low grade depression most of my life, with some deep dives into dark holes courtesy of this thing called life. When I reflect back to how I got through those times that felt utterly hopeless and sometimes completely empty and just devoid: it was through the practice of faith. Putting one foot in front of the other. Seeking help even when it felt pointless. Praying when I felt deeply disconnected, meditating and getting on my mat in intense resistance and often amidst boredom. Faith has always helped me piece myself back together, sometimes excruciatingly, peeling myself off a floor or a bed and just following that gentle command: keep going.
True story: the last couple of years, I haven’t felt that connection to the magic of the holidays and Christmas. When I closed my eyes, when I listened to the music, there was numbness. I hit a rough patch with my mental and emotional health which was extra challenging because I thought all the yoga and meditation and “wellness” stuff would be enough to keep me from ever feeling anxious or depressed again. And there was a reality check waiting for me in that this is not true. No man, no child, no friend, no family member, no job, no practice, no dress, no shoes, no apartment, no trip, no goal, no teacher…nothing outside of myself, will ever be the thing that finally fills me up with so much joy and happiness and security and peace that I will never feel anxious or sad again. And this time, the depression manifested as numbness, apathy, a sense of being disinterested. It was brutal and scary for a while.
The way out is always through, and I’ve learned that cultivating faith in ourselves, even in the face of despair, is the only ticket.
I kept getting on my mat. On my cushion. I prayed. I journaled. I asked for help. I sought out the support of spiritual teachers who I trust. I went to acupuncture. I went to therapy again for a while. I took CBD and supplements. I was open to medication but it didn’t come to that this time for me. I went to study with my teacher at yoga intensives. I fed myself. I rested. I practiced self care. As things got clearer, I changed the things I could control and accepted the ones I couldn’t. And then I surrendered.
I’m happy to report that I am feeling much better this year and as the holiday season approaches, when I close my eyes, I can once again see through the twinkling eyes of that 7 year old kid in me.
I think this is what faith practice looks like. It is hardest when we are in struggle, but this is what Ishvara Pranidhana is asking us to practice and observe. We do the things, and then we say: I’ve done what I can, I now let go and trust. And the doing of the things carries us through to the clarity and the outcome. It carries us through the dark time, to the light.
We do the things with faith, and trust the outcome will be as it should be.
It’s true on our mats. It’s true off our mats.
I recently had nature back me up, as she is wont to do.
One of my teachers, my first one, gifted me a plant two years ago without much information regarding the plant itself. It was large and leafy green and she instructed me to water it every other day, which I’ve done, more or less for two years. Last month, this plant, which I now know is called Dracaena or Song of India, started blooming the most rare, lush, sweetly fragrant white flowers I’ve seen outside of Honeysuckle. When I spotted the flowers, it felt like Christmas morning: I was like that 7 year old kid who believed in Santa again, delighted and giddy with surprise and wonder. I had this plant for two years, doing nothing other than what I was instructed to do to keep it healthy and support its growth, watering it everyday like a ritual, and without any expectation of it ever blooming: and yet, here it was, two years later, in its fragrant blossomed glory.
From my observation, halfway into this living thing, life’s like that too.
We go through joyful cycles, we go through dark cycles and we go through static cycles when not much seems to be happening. But if we keep practicing the things that water our hearts and souls, that nourish our bodies and minds, even when everything feels doubtful, and when obstacles keep arising, if we keep going, choosing to believe, we not only get through, but we can reconnect to our inner magic and wonder, and in time, we can even bloom too.
"The basic story of the hero's journey involves giving up where you are, going into the realm of adventure, coming to some kind of symbolically rendered realization, and then returning to the field of normal life." – Joseph Campbell
When I was a little girl, my mother and her best friends would hang out in the living room listening to bolero, a genre of Latin American music that I would best categorize as blues meets Michael Bolton love songs on crack. They would sit on the floor, drink Hennessy and Coke, smoke cigarettes, share secrets, laugh, cry, all to record after record (and I do mean vinyl) of Jose Jose, Julio Iglesias, Rocio Durcal to name a few of the stars of bolero. They would also clean the house to this music on FULL BLAST, as if doing so was somehow a bit of brujeria, or magic, that would purge their toxic love affairs from their hearts. The songs were about love, hate, hope, loss, betrayal, revenge. Sometimes the lyrics were about sex, veiled in the most romantic metaphors …honestly the stuff was and still is hawt!, and subconsciously, it was a huge part of my formative years and who I became and still am to this day.
The first book on Eastern Philosophy I ever read was “My Lord Loves a Pure Heart” by Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. It BLEW.ME.AWAY. And also intimidated the hell out of me. It is still one of the most important spiritual books I’ve ever read; one of those that flips a switch in your mind about another way to think and be and changes how you see everything. But it is literally about "divine virtues" and its message, while amazing, felt SOOO lofty and out of reach.
At the time, circa 2004, I had already been practicing yoga on and off for about 7 years, and it was recommended to me by an Anusara teacher named Cari Friedman, who I totally idolized. Lying in savasana at the end of her classes, I’d have these huge insights and aha moments, linking patterns in my practice with patterns in my life. Sharing the experience and insights from class and the book with a friend, she suggested I consider yoga teacher training but I waved it away immediately: ME? No way.
I should pause here to say that by this point, my life had become a bolero song. It was now me sitting in my studio apartment kitchen, listening to Jose Jose or Luis Miguel, smoking cigarettes and polishing off a full bottle of cheap merlot, calling my best friend crying about my toxic love affair. This is part of what had brought me to Cari’s classes in the first place. Wanting a respite from my mind and my overwhelming emotions.
So, in my head, to be a yoga teacher, you had to be gentle and zen like Cari…or lofty and "good" , full of the virtues Swami Chidvilasananda described. Definitely not the hot mess, passionate, romantic Latina child of bolero I identified as: reactive, emotional, addicted to drama, attached to material things, to my love affairs, to my habit of binge drinking among other things- and really just TOO MUCH. And even though the promises of yoga- peace and enlightenment for starters- definitely pulled at my soul strings, I could not see how I could ever reach them, let alone teach them.
Full disclosure: I wasn’t ready. I needed to hit rock bottom, and that wouldn’t happen for another 8 or 9 years or so of total attachment to this idea of myself as the Latina Carrie Bradshaw, looking for love in a lot of wrong places, partying to escape any hint of my traumas, and honestly, having a good time for a lot of it which is why the rock bottom took so long.
When it arrived, I was so, so lucky that the universe pushed me back on my mat again. It was one of the only places that allowed me to get away from the darkness that threatened to swallow me whole. And it placed me before teachers who were authentic and encouraging, like Sarah Granato…and later in teacher training, ones who were transparent about their flaws and yet so so brilliant- like Kelly Morris who I ride hard with for life because she changed mine, and then Livia Shapiro whose work nourished me so profoundly and continues to inspire me on the daily, and now Christina Sell, whose teachings challenge me physically, but more than that, the real challenge her teaching offers me is to embrace wholeness instead of perfection, a feat easier said than done, but one that saves me literally everyday. (read her book https://hohmpress.com/books-hohm-press/A-Deeper-Yoga.html and have your life changed).
Thanks to the grace of the divine forces that led my heart to want to learn from these amazing women, I learned that contrary to what I had thought for so long, it isn't about being one thing or another, or about yoga as a cure to all that is "wrong" (and please insert any other spiritual path or word in place of yoga, as I think we do it with many things in life). I learned that while you may experience states of nirvana, periods of “zen” and may even come very close to moments of perfection on the spiritual path, there is no arrival at some permanent state of any of these and in the end, the real work and gift and blessing is in finding, amidst regular everyday life, with its regular every day cycles and ups and downs, that wholeness my teachers talked about, that integration or union that is the definition of the word yoga; that coming back to "normal" life after the hero's journey, that Joseph Campbell describes.
I learned that there isn't some road to “good enough”, because we are, innately, already there. And more importantly, I learned that I could still be the passionate, romantic Latina I had always been, in fact I could be her more fully, more wholly, and more lovingly because of the tools of this practice. That I didn't have to be one or the other- but could integrate both.
That enlightenment can be many things and among them, it is as simple as, what Tara Brach calls, Radical Acceptance of ourselves and our lives in the moment, with deep compassion. That the heart of this practice lies there. Not in standing on our heads or meditating for an hour- not in some temporary “zen” state, though there is great wisdom and skill to be explored in those practices and experiences- but that without the acceptance and compassion for self, they are empty. And ultimately, that I DID have something to offer others in my teaching: example and service. That same example and help I’ve gotten from my teachers and from this practice, I can now, as a Latina yoga teacher, offer to others, and especially to other people of color who might also be thinking: “that’s not for me…I’m too______(fill in the blanks).”
So here I am. 20+ years of practice, and 5 years of teaching later, and I have been known to give a really crazy aggressive driver the finger a time or 2 as opposed to all the time, which is what it would have been years ago. I’ve been known to react at the Thanksgiving table when I get triggered, but I’m no longer storming out with a giant chip on my shoulder and a closed heart. Sometimes I have one more drink than I should have on nights out but that happens less and less. I still believe in big love and hope it finds me, and I still listen to bolero music on rainy nights and remember my love affairs with rose colored glasses.
I also recover more quickly from bouts of depression and think a hell of a lot more before I speak. I ask for help when I need it. I give help when I can. I try to choose more carefully and considerately. I forgive more easily. I try really hard to be kind. I fail more than I'd like, but I don't punish myself for it and I keep trying. I let go A LOT. Over and over. And I find gratitude constantly.
So am I zen? Nah! But I like to think that I'm better than zen: I'm real...I'm whole.
"You do not need to seek freedom in a different land,
for it exists with your own body, heart, mind, and soul.”- BKS Iyengar
"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price,
bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend,
oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty. "- John F. Kennedy
When I was a little girl, my mom would proudly declare to any one of her Dominican friends who asked where I was born that I was “…born here, in NY. She’s American!” I found myself thinking about that this year a lot as America celebrated her 242nd year of freedom. How it was a source of joy and a “bragging right” that I was a US citizen, born in this great nation where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was the motto, especially for a family who had lived in and survived the Dominican Republic of Trujillo. She is also a naturalized citizen now as are most of my family who immigrated here in 1968.
Being a first generation American is layered. My experience is so different than say my niece and nephew- second generation citizens by birth who identify completely as Americans. I was raised between two cultures: one that I existed in at school, through books and TV, and with my friends and one that was heavily influenced by Dominican customs, music, food and language that was kept very much alive in our homes with pride and purpose. Looking back now, I realize the gift of being first generation American is this amazing freedom to move between these two worlds, to express these two sides of myself. But this vague understanding that my relatives had left and come here because they were free here in a way they couldn’t be back in the DR, whether that freedom was physical financial, emotional, mental, or spiritual- was always part of the fabric of my childhood and as such of my identity. My parents left, to come to a place that was free so that I could be born into that freedom.
As such, I reflected a lot yesterday on Freedom. What is it? What are its components? What does it look and feel like? Personally speaking, coming into this year it has been my mantra word, my intention: freeing myself of my dysfunctional patterns, relationships, limiting beliefs and fears. It has been a lonely ride because the work of freedom is HARD. Sometimes you have to say goodbye to that person just as an immigrant seeking asylum has to say goodbye to their land, maybe even their families. Freedom is not something anyone seeks lightheartedly whether its a fresh start in a new country or a new way of being.
I've found, personally speaking, that it requires brutal honesty, radical acceptance AND forgiveness, and then of course an ocean of compassion and courage to keep doing its work: to keep trying and changing negative behaviors, thought patterns that are so insidious you don’t even know they dictated any of your choices until after the fact, to keep working, doing better, believing, and going. The stuff all the sacred texts, all the guru’s, sages, bodhisattva’s, wise ones preach and teach. My deepening of my yoga practice sent me on this quest because this practice awakens the spirit-the very essence of freedom, our birthright- and asks us to go deeper, to invite our truth to surface and to live from that place, and one of the ingredients of freedom is truth.
It's been a process filled with a lot of desperate stumbling in the dark, before moving into clear open fields, where in the sweetest of moments I have met myself over and over as Rumi would say, beyond ideas of right and wrong, of past and future, of should’s and should nots, in the light of divinity and love. The time spent stumbling always feels SO much longer than the time in the field. The stumbling is when I fall back inadvertently into another old pattern, or am triggered by family dynamics and have a relapse, hear the words “Not. This. Again.” repeat in my head and heart and I really wonder what the point of it all is. The time in the field of clarity and love feels brief...it feels like a deep trust and softening, like an acceptance that comes from truth, that makes room for all the parts of me to be heard, seen, cared for...that invites forgiveness and inspires gratitude, and bathes me in the warm glow of divine love. It is powerful and affirming enough to get me through the next bout of stumbling because I KNOW the clarity, the light of the field will be there if I just keep working at it, hang in a little longer. And in that way, I know another ingredient of freedom is faith.
As I think about where we are as a nation right now, where we came from and where we might be headed, I can’t help but relate it to my personal exploration of freedom. We’ve been stumbling in the dark really since our nation was born. Our history is steeped in trial and horrifically cruel error (slavery, segregation, KKK, Japanese internment camps, continuous mysogyny, homophobia) but the truth is none of those things are exclusive to the US. We aren’t the only ones who have made similar mistakes and are still making them now. We are however unique, special and great because our foundational principles, our intention as delineated by our founding fathers was life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That liberty part, that Freedom, is the big kahuna of that US holy trilogy of ideals. We have failed it many times but we have never stopped fighting for it. We are a nation who has literally fought throughout our history, with outside forces and with each other on our own soil for the right of all beings to be free.
As things stand right now we are fighting amongst ourselves again ideologically and the worry is that the fight could become literal as well if we don’t find a way to come together around the issues that are tearing us apart, many of which are centered around human and civil rights and liberties. We have had moments of hard earned clarity and meeting in that field in willingness and love: emancipation, the civil rights movement, the women's rights movement, the legalization of gay marriage…but the work isn’t done. Once freedom is won, it must be maintained. Whether that’s in our personal lives through the integrity of our practices or on the national stage. Watching as the current leadership of this country promotes division, delights in lying and incites the public to question the pursuit of truth, weakens compassion, and talks about building walls, allows immigrant children some yet without language to be separated from their mothers without any plan or process to bring them back together again …and all of this coming from the highest and most powerful place of power in our land…really is the biggest internal threat to our freedom I have ever known in my lifetime and scares me and rocks me to my core sometimes, but it also inspires me to keep doing my work - both personally and collectively and to protect and fight for freedom.
And here’s how the two are linked: the work of personal freedom, as in when we are courageous enough to be able to look at ourselves and our choices truthfully, even and especially if that truth isn’t so pretty, even and especially if its to say: “I can be greedy, selfish, biased, unfair…I am afraid of what and who I don’t understand, afraid to lose all I have or have it taken by “them”, afraid there isn’t enough for us all, afraid I maybe don’t deserve it…BUT I want to do better, and I want to be free from those ways and ingrained systemic beliefs that bog me down and in turn keep me bogging others down”…if enough of us start there, doing that work on ourselves, then freedom IS practiced and protected. Freedom isn’t just BBQ’s and a flag waving in your front yard, and it isn't just being able to do what we want…it is ensuring that everyone else has that same right even when we don’t understand the “other” or even agree with them. Its working deeper and fairly and doing our own work. Because when a person working on the freedom of their soul sees injustices on the larger world stage and platform, they don’t justify or support it- they fight it, resist it. Freedom is a spiritual battle: this is why the greatest freedom fighters have also been mystics like Joan of Arc or ministers like Dr. King Jr., or visionaries like Ghandi: immersed in their own inner work, in their internal striving for freedom and able to then offer those lessons, principles, courage, hope to us.
When you love yourself you want what’s best for others because you understand how hard this human business can be and you have compassion and you CARE. That’s how it was done in our past: first a persons mind and heart was changed, and enough people’s perspectives were shifted, that the country and even the world changed. This something to consider now again, and maybe more than ever. It is not easy, and the stumbling in the dark requires faith that we will get to the field and meet each other beyond our limitations, beyond our apparent differences in the tireless but honorable pursuit, maintenance and support of our freedom… which feels like the most important ingredient of all: love.
“I live my life in growing orbits which move out over this wondrous world, I am circling around God, around ancient towers and I have been circling for a thousand years. And I still don't know if I am an eagle or a storm or a great song.” Rainer Maria Rilke (From Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God)
Every year, when winter arrives, I find myself having the same conversation with people: “Can you believe how DARK it is and so EARLY? I mean…it’s only 4:30pm! Ugh, winter is here!”, we say, in resigned shock. As if, we, North Easterners, had never experienced the season before. As if, this was something new and unnatural and somehow we expected the following year to be different. As if, the Earth didn’t move through her timeless spiral dance with the sun since the beginning of time, way before any of us even dreamed of existing.
The truth is, though, we are always surprised when the seasons change. We feel those energetic shifts as both, familiar, and yet new and different because it IS a new cycle, a new year, a new phase on the journey of our lives however they unfold.
I’ve been on a path of commitment to living from a place of spirit for the past 5 years, ever since I dove into the teachings of yoga to become a teacher myself. It has been the single most beautiful and challenging decision of my life thus far. And so…I find myself having a similar reaction when I feel I fall short from the teachings, or the ideals I’ve set for myself about who I “should” be. Kind. Compassionate. Patient. Loving. Non-judgemental.
When I experience annoyance, anger, impatience, dislike, judgement…and more importantly, when I REACT from those places, I’m always stunned and disappointed in myself. Much like the darkness returning in Winter, the behavior is familiar, but I am different- have more tools, and so it feels surprising when it happens. “Ay, ay, ay! Why did I say that? Why did I DO that? I KNOW better. I’m a yoga teacher for goddess sake! I… MEDITATE! I’ve had transcendental experiences of connection to spirit and I know the answer is LOVE always. So…how can I still be struggling with all this BS!?!?”
The answer is, it’s a circle, not a line.
The circle as a symbol of life and God is found in almost every ancient civilization and teaching and for good reason. Our lives both personally and collectively move not in a neat, linear formation…but honestly often in a chaotic, rounding of the bases returning over and over to home, to the place where we begin and end, to our trauma and our healing, where the truth of who we are in all our messy perfection revisits itself and if we’re doing our work, repeats the lessons of forgiveness, acceptance and love that, day by day, season by season, breath by breath and trip around and around that spiral of energy we call life, have been shifting to evolve and elevate us both personally, and collectively, to our highest and best.
Its round, not flat.
The shape of this great mother, her movements and cycles over and over again reflect our individual process, our collective process. She’s got hills and valleys, still deep waters and rolling oceans, hot dense deserts and unimaginable jungles of wilderness. She create and destroys. And it’s ALL a valid and a necessary part of her wholeness. The seasons revisiting us, familiar and new… every year that flower dies and is reborn. When it returns that bloom has a slight variation in color, size, fragrance…it isn’t the same flower it was the season before even if it grows in the same place.
When I think of our current political and cultural landscape here in the US: Trump, Black Lives Matter, Me Too, Social Media and the Wellness cultures…it is jarring and feels new and revolutionary as indeed it is. But 40 years ago, there was: Nixon, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Right Movement, Television, and “hippies”. So it is that we’re just in the next cycle, evolution, circle…the next phase of growth, revisiting our wounds and our healing to take another leap closer to more light and love…like a checking in… and it feels…familiar, and yet is brand spanking new.
On a personal level, when I snap at someone because I’m tired, drained or n the desert of my emotions and soul, hot, dense and dry…so that I fall off my practices or my hopes for who I want to be in that moment, it does not erase the 10 other times I’ve wanted to snap but instead found my breath, my still water of calm centeredness and responded with patience or compassion. Every time around those emotions, if I’m going consciously, I’m evolving and learning and growing. And also, it’s ok to be the desert AND the river because that is wholeness…and it’s precisely the duality of that essence of who we are which keeps us compassionate and forgiving.
If I never snapped I wouldn't understand when someone snaps at me. But because I do, I can instead remember when I snapped at someone, and see beyond the moment to what might be really going on with them with compassion, forgiveness, and love. So my annoyance and my kindness are both necessary. Because they define each other, they keep me connected.
Yoga, is this way too. Downdog feels different every time I come to the mat, and yet familiar. Old physical habits can creep up, and the inhale just reminds me to be in the moment, to do the pose from the now. My mind sometimes wants to check out or check ahead...and that exhale empties all the clutter and invites me back to the weight in my hands and the energy in my legs. Each time, familiar, because I've been in this shape before, and yet its the first time that day, in that moment, which is new. And there was a time I thought I was going no where in it, and now it is finally, a rest pose...progress through circling back over and over to the shape and fine tuning.
I find, as I continue on this path, that this is why practice is SO important. Whatever yours is. Because we easily forget. We forget how dark it gets in winter. We forget that winter passes, and Spring returns again. That this too shall pass...whatever it may be for you right now- joy or pain...everything shifts, and goes around and through itself. That we are all on the same journey and want the same thing-to be loved, to matter, and be witnessed. Practice, whatever it may be- yoga, writing, painting, singing, praying, knitting, running- is our way to remember as we ride this wheel of life.
It’s a circle, not a line. It’s round, not flat. Its a remembering. A coming home over and over again to ourselves to each other…JUST AS WE ARE.
Keep circling back to yourself with forgiveness, acceptance and love. Offer it to others as they dance with their light and their shadows. That pure unconditional love is what lies at the heart of the spiral, and what, whether we know it or see it or believe it, keeps us here, and saves and will continue to save us, over and over and over again.
“Change is not something that we should fear. Rather, it is something that we should welcome. For without change, nothing in this world would ever grow or blossom, and no one in this world would ever move forward to become the person they're meant to be. Transformation is sustained change, and it is achieved through practice.“ - BKS Iyengar
Tibetan Buddhist World View One: Everything is always changing. It is obvious and undeniable. Some change we seek, and some happens to us whether we want it or not, but what is our relationship to change? How do we respond and navigate the route, especially when the destination feels uncertain?
The older I get, the more I feel this is the heart of life, the essence of reality. Just when we think we’ve got it, something new arises. Just as we think we’re about to touch land after a long journey, a hurricane comes and blows us back out to sea. The scales are always dancing as they strive to create balance. When we start to live that, world view one makes deep sense: accept that everything is always changing and you’ve got the compass to sail through life in all it’s flowing beauty as well as through it’s chaos and storms.
The accepting part is where it can get slippery. Even when the change is sought, welcome and joyful, we might still worry (will we lose it?) or sabotage it (are we worthy?). Sometimes it is easier to stay with what we know, even if it is not for our highest and best. It’s safe. And when the change is not sought or pleasant or perhaps is full of risk and uncertainty, we can create a cozy little home for fear, anxiety and negativity to burrow in. And we chase our tails trying to control and guarantee the outcome. Finally, and this is the toughest one, when the change is completely unexpected and unexplainable (illness, loss, death), the darkness comes and climbing out of it’s hopelessness can feel impossible.
The main ingredient of the recipe of change is uncertainty. Will it last? Will it work out? Will I be ok?
Looking back at my life at the places where I’ve been the happiest and the places I’ve been the most wretched as a result of change, I’ve experienced all of those scenarios and asked all those questions. I’ve sabotaged relationships and opportunities out of fear of losing them down the line anyway. I’ve experienced loss in various forms, but none as painful as the precious parts of myself I cannot get back. And yet…
I’ve learned from my mistakes. And this doesn’t mean I don’t still make them. I just make them much less frequently and I catch myself while I’m in them sooner so I don’t prolong and extend the problem. And I feel wiser. Wisdom stems from change.
And those parts of myself that I can’t get back, I’ve mourned them, blessed them, and thanked them for coming and for going because in their place, new skin and flesh and limbs and breath and perspectives and heart rhythms have grown and flourished that nourish and are strong and supple and adaptable. Alchemy stems from change.
Finally, change that involves trauma and loss can be the most challenging to transmute. And my experiences in this area are still in process, my healing still evolving. But I think healing sometimes can look like living “with” our pain and grief and not “from” them. And this builds strength. Endurance stems from change.
Our body holds these lessons for us as well in it’s bones and in the energetic realm. Just when I think I've got an asana down, I realize there are more nuances to it...or a new one rises up in it's place that calls me to explore and let it change me from the outside in. Much like life- we figure out one thing and another mystery moves in to solve or explore or get through. If this wasn't the case, the rhythm of the universe always changing beat, how stale and predictable the dance would be.
My yoga practice has been an invaluable metaphor for change and it’s transformative powers. I’ve been practicing for almost 19 years now on and off. When I began, I had no interest in challenging poses. I wanted the relaxed movements. I loved Hatha and Restorative and I wanted to bliss out in Savasana. And so I did and that led my bodies (physical, mental and energetic) to Kundalini yoga, which expanded my awareness and consciousness and self connection to understand that I was ready for Vinyasa and Ashtanga. And without realizing it, I had a yoga practice that ranged from Supta Baddha Konasana to Kriyas to headstand and crow. This did not happen overnight and the journey was fraught with self doubt, resistance, stopping and giving up, and then starting over again. There were some injuries to both body and ego: 19 years worth of unearthing and dragging up and out all the complicated emotions, thoughts and patterns of my being through movement and breath and meditation. Sometimes without me being cognizant - I just showed up and trusted the process and the work happened almost behind the scenes until one day, the ultimate transformation came by way of life and commitment to my practice when I became a teacher. Transformation as practice.
It is not easy. It is life’s eternal practice this acceptance of change as inevitable and reality as uncontrollable but if we can sustain the trust that it is all happening as it should for our highest and best transformative experience; if we can keep showing up and opening to a willingness to make space for it to be whatever it needs to be, we will have one of the keys to living with more peace and ultimately joy.
In Spanish, when a woman gives birth, we refer to it as “dar a luz” or “ to give to the light”. I never thought about the significance much until I got more in depth with my prenatal yoga studies, and for the past few months, my soul has been singing that phrase to my mind and heart like a soundtrack on repeat in both languages “Give to the light, dar a luz…give to the light, dar a luz…give to the light, dar a luz…”
The reason behind the use of this phrase is layered. Some explanations say it has religious connotations around the birth of Jesus and how he was the light of the world. Others say it’s because of the darkness of the womb, and the baby emerging into light. And still another perspective is that children are lights in the world and specifically in the life of their parents and loved ones.
My own interpretation is that a baby is a new soul, entering the world as a spark of divinity, and adding its unique brilliance and gifts to the big collective light, the source, the big kahuna- God, Universe, I really don’t care what you call it (see my December 2016 blog for more on this topic).
I don’t have children and when I was doing my prenatal studies, I worried about how my students would receive that, until a very wise teacher and doula reminded me that most OB-GYN’s are men. This cured me immediately and forever of any concern. I was also reminded that giving birth is something that isn’t taught or learned- it is just KNOWN, natural and innate, and that whether I have children or not, I know how to do it. It was such an empowering thing to hear since usually, women are trained to believe birth is this mystery and terror the pain of which their frail sensibilities will not be able to bear, so they must load up on epidurals or better yet, schedule the c-section in advance. How liberating and amazing to know that in fact the opposite is true: we have this incredible and powerful privilege, this exclusive ability and otherworldly strength to bring life forth.
The training tapped into something primal in me, as a woman but more importantly as a divine spark in my own right. There are so many ways to give to the light, and never a more important time to do it than now. In these times that feel mad, uncertain and opaque.
We can feed the darkness of this new reality through doubt and fear, or we can nurture our creativity and compassion and give to the light.
All you need to give to the light is the courage to march in protest, raising your voice in support of love and equality. You can give to the light with pen to paper, or fingers to keypad, or camera to image, brush to canvas, hands to drums, feet to rhythm, body to mat, knees to altar, voice to chant, words to speech, hearts and souls in hand. You can give to the light by putting down the drink, choosing the kind word, doing the right thing, taking time to help, smiling, forgiving, apologizing, listening, and starting over again and again and again. Each time you start over, you give to the light. Birth is not just a physical experience, and in this way it is not exclusive to any gender. It is creativity, it is kindness, it is moment to moment, choice by choice, breath by breath.
Unfortunately much like the powerful experience of giving birth has been demonized and dramatized negatively by the entertainment industry and media, so too have creativity, compassion and the courage to start over been viewed as weak, unglamorous and unrewarding in our culture. Even though they too are our true, natural states; even though from the moment we are born, everything we do is looking to find our way back to that innate simplicity of being. As long as I can remember, we’ve been told and taught to be right, win at all costs, be perfect or at least pretend you are, make more money, buy a bigger house, and get a good zinger in on that asshole who crossed you and if you can do it in public and cause humiliation even better. The heartbreaking, terrifying and deeply demoralizing thing is that it this is now being propagated from the very highest office in our country and arguably the world.
So we MUST give to the light. NOW MORE THAN EVER, this must be our continual work. To re-birth ourselves through the awakening these recent events in history have stirred. We all came into this world as these crystal, clear rays of brilliance with our own kind of loving and beauty to contribute- and maybe life trauma or the narrative of our families, or the times we live in have buried or dimmed that offering…it’s time to find it again, time to heal and do the work to restore our radiance and SHINE it out like gangbusters. Tiempo de dar a luz. Because the only way out of this mess is through it with a high-beam flashlight to illuminate the way out of the stench and into a new era of justice, peace and love. We can and must do it together. GIVE TO THE LIGHT.
"There is only one reality, but there are many ways that reality can be interpreted." BKS Iyengar
I was raised between the Catholic church on my mom's side, and a protestant Menonite church on my dad's side. Also, I liked church. I liked the Catholic church's rituals, architecture, art and color but most importantly that mass was short! When I went to church with my father, it was a whole day event starting around 9 and ending at 3pm. But what I liked about that church was bible study and the sermons. When there was a good preacher, usually a guest preacher from another church or sometimes from another city, I was riveted: moved to my very core and often to tears of hope and faith. To this day, I LOVE a good sermon.
In bible study, I was always somewhat of a troublemaker though because I COULD NOT accept the idea that only Christians would be saved and everyone else would burn in fire and brimstone. It depressed me deeply because I had friends who were not Christian and were, in my young estimation at the time, good people and I often said to the teacher that I couldn't believe in a God that would condemn good people. I was lucky that our teacher was young allowed for open discussion. And I was lucky to grow up in this great city, New York, where I had friends in school that were Jewish, Muslim, Jehova Witnesses, and even what at the time we called Wiccan.
I always believed in Jesus (and still do in his teachings and his love) and I always believed in God because...I felt her energetically, but I was also always curious about how other people believed and why everyone felt they had it right without any clear evidence one way or the other. I always felt so sad at how much judgement and sometimes hate or disdain was expressed between different religions. To me, intuitively, God was God was love. I remember hearing about Ramadan with fascination, and about Yum Kippur with reverence...when my best friend began to explore the feminine divine aspect of God through the old religion, or what at the time was called Wicca or Pagan, I was resistant (that Christian fear and guilt) and yet also totally fascinated by the idea of God as a woman.
When Yoga came into my life, it resonated so deeply with me that it opened up my spiritual heart in a way that I began to see that it doesn't matter what you believe- every path has commonality and every belief system, value, and they all lead to the same place: a universal source that is part of us as much as we are a part of it. Whether you call that Jesus, Mary, Ganesh, Buddha, Mohammed, Jehova, Durga...doesn't much matter to me because they all tap into that same center of love and compassion.
During teacher training, my teachers would explain and educate us on the Sutras and Tibetan buddhist philosophy and even Shamanistic principles and our discussions reminded me so much of bible study in church with my cool, young and open teacher, except without the condemnation. My teacher, Kelly Morris, would give us dharma talks about the subtle body and the feminine divine that were so eloquent, passionate and heartfelt, they would move me to tears of faith and hope, not unlike those sermons I used to hear as a young girl. And we would often burn sage and create nature mandalas and chant, remininding me of the ritual of the Catholic church my mother had baptised me in.
I know many people who don't believe in God, some who only believe in fact and science and evidence so vehemently and emphatically, that it reminds me of the fervor and fanaticism of those who do believe in a higher source. And so in the end, they too believe in something larger than themselves and in that way, have more in common with religion and spirituality than they realize.
One of the best trips I've ever taken in my life was to Spain. I visited Toledo when I was there and left with the energetic imprint of tolerance of that place where once upon a time, three major religions, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism coexisted in peace for hundreds of years. To see mosques besides temples besides churches was for me, a feast for the soul.
I find myself praying a lot these days and thinking about how and what we believe and what that means given the current state of affairs of our country, and the world. I find myself examining my own prejudices and fears, and shifting out of them to love. 9/11 created a lot of fear and bias in our country, including in me, but I'm releasing it because what I've learned since then is that working from fear only leads to more fear. And I worry about our country and how much fear is ruling our choices and how much it might even rule our government.
I look at the horror in Syria, the conflict in the Middle East, and the fear and judgement against Muslims now right here in our own backyard and I pray that we all find tolerance and respect for each other. That we try to listen and open our hearts and see that all of us are just trying to love and be loved. That if our belief system is tinged with fear or the need to be "right", we reassess because God is not fear- God is ALL love and love doesn't deal with right or wrong, it just is. Love is an energy we can tap into...and that energy is what I personally believe God IS. When we are attuned and aligned with it...we grow and thrive and present ourselves in the world from a divine center that is infectious and connects us all. I think that if we can do this more, we can save each other. If we can align with that energy of love, that universal divinity in our own way and through our own paths and respecting that different things resonate and move us closer to that divine source, then peace on Earth and goodwill toward men (and women) will actually not just be something we say, but something we live.
“Do not fear ‘not knowing.’ In various phases and periods of our lives, this is as it should be….So maybe we stumble around in the dark for a while trying to find what calls us, but because we have managed to not talk ourselves out of being summoned by the wild one, we invariably stumble over the soulskin. When we breathe up that soul-state, we automatically enter the feeling state of “This is right. I know what I need.” -Clarissa Pinkola Estes, from Women Who Run with the Wolves
"Strictly speaking, no one has ever 'healed' anyone else. A true 'healer' simply remains present, providing a safe field in which unfamiliar and intense energies can be felt, bound-up emotions can be released, and we can come out of time, out of the drama and chaos of 'My Life', and breathe into our bodies, fall into our own presence, simplify. Healing is not a destination, nor a special power in the hands of a few, it is the re-contacting of that which is healed, already whole, beyond the healer and the healed - our true nature." - Jeff Foster
Reflecting on the anniversary of 9/11, I remember the whole city (and probably the whole country) was suffering from collective PTSD. It was thick in the air -our shock and grief- and yet I was working triple time to escape it. Clubbing, drinking, partying as much as possible- putting a band-aid over the gash which only fueled my anger, hate and pain. I remember the uncertainty- wondering what the world would look like next collectively and individually for myself. Not knowing felt unbearable. I've never been good at it despite the fact that my greatest growth, clarity and healing has always come from surrendering into that space with faith and hope (after resisting like a two year old of course). The world made no sense then and didn't seem like it ever would again.
And yet 15 years later- for the first time- I feel ready to visit the memorial and even the museum. For the first time, I watched the images from that gruesome day on the news and felt the sadness, reflected and mourned again without needing to go meet my friend at Coogan’s for shots and beers to take the edge off. A testament to the process of healing that started for me when I began this journey three years ago- a process that continues today and everyday of committing to this yoga thing, this meditation thing, this exploration of the divine thing.
Don’t get me wrong. I still struggle with escapism daily (one of the main culprits now is Netflix!) and I’m not knocking and actually quite enjoy a beer on a cold summer day, and a scotch on a cold winter night along with the company of good friends. But it's not about running away anymore; it’s now actually about being present. And when I am escaping, I’m aware that I’m doing it (most of the time anyway).
I still struggle with the "not knowing" stuff. The last three years have been a practice of learning to live with the discomfort of going from a stable corporate job with all the fixin's to the extremely rewarding but much more unpredictable calling of teaching yoga. Everyday I have to check in with myself, and trust that following the summoning of the wild flow will take me where I need to be.
I was talking with my best friend and soul sister the other day after she experienced a big loss about grief and making peace and how one day there is relief and comprehension, and the next day we are sitting in the wound again- throbbing, questioning, maybe regretting...and then the next day relief again. And how it goes on that way (sometimes for years) until the throbbing is less and the relief more. Or on the flip side one day we feel so in love with our partner, work, craft that our hearts are soaring and bursting out of our chest and the next day it may be more tempered, less heightened or it may feel downright hard and impossible. It applies to the lows AND the highs and the best we can do is stay curious, ride it with courage and faith, compassion and acceptance remembering that the one thing that is constant and steady is always accessible within each of us...that true nature we all share.
It's ALL a process. Healing. Growth. Forgiveness. Trusting. Loving. Grieving. Rejoicing. Making peace with not knowing, even when things are good and full of potential, our nature is to want to know where it’s going NEXT and every detail of how it’s going to play out robbing us of whatever “good” is in the moment.
I’m learning to BE with the processes. To let them take me IN and help me connect to my true nature. To embrace the exquisite possibilities of not knowing, and to see that my grief and pain are the keys to wisdom and healing if I move through, them instead of running around them.