The only thing to fear, is fear itself. 

Long ago, when my first baby, was still learning to walk without a wobble, I was semi sleeping resting on the couch after a very long day alone with my sweet baby. I hadn’t yet fully taken in the lesson that day’s can be long, but time in those innocent moments is so short, I should savor it, regardless of the sleep deprivation. My husband was away on business and I was missing him, longing for, not just his companionship, but teamwork with the young one. Single parenting is hard, especially when you’re a young novice. 

So there I was, eyes closing, letting go of conscious thoughts as I was too spent to shift to my bed, when suddenly I heard a loud electronic BAA right behind me. I startled awake wondering as I glanced around if I really heard anything. The couch was in a curved shape, big and cozy for a New York City apartment. I liked the curve as I could store things behind it, the clutter of large plastic brightly colored toddler gadgets had become my latest decorating style, but I hadn’t fully adapted the look, so I liked to pretend it wasn’t there, hence behind the curvy couch for my feigned feng shui. I decided I had dreamt the noise, my baby was quietly sleeping ( so shocking at that stage!) as was my dog, it was just a nightmare of weird sounds, so I shook my head, repositioned and closed my eyes, again, a loud BAA! Oh. My. God. My heart almost lept right out of my chest with fear, how could this be happening? It was coming from right behind me, as was the hallway to my front door. My imagination had completely taken over, as I envisioned a psychotic 6’4″ killer standing right behind me, machete raised overhead to strike while he pressed on the sheep button at the kiddie play table hidden by the curve in the couch. 

I have no idea, how I didn’t have a heart attack, or how long it took me to get the courage to look behind me and peak behind the couch. There was nothing there except the big plastic garden containing the farm play table. I’m pretty sure, in looking at the buttons, my realization that the table had a a moo, quack, oink, but no BAA, helped me reach around and grab it. I turned it upside down to the on/off buttons, where in small print, it clearly said, when the batteries need replacing, a curtesy sound of sheep will play randomly. I closed my eyes in relief while manically laughing over the fact Mr. Clean hadn’t broken in to torture me with inane eclectric animal sounds before hacking me to pieces. 

Why do I share this insanity? What is the significance? Well it’s ridiculous and funny, but it also shows just how potent fear can become. Fear can paralyze and take away all rational thought, fear can be stored from past moments and be triggered as if it’s happening again. Fear can make us believe we shouldn’t try, fear takes our breath away if we let it. Fear sucks big time. 

I did turn around though. I did get the courage to look,(though in that time lapse perspective of fear, it could have been a ten second pause or two hours, I’m fascinated how time gets warped with adrenaline) and see it was all just smoke and mirrors of one too many Steven King or Dean Koontz novels in my youth. My chicken little moment of panic had passed. I still see that same fear rise in me, at times. A blessing of my yoga practice, is that my body and breath awareness lets me feel it more mindfully now. No, I haven’t found a magic switch to make it just disappear,nor should it,  but I can at least pause more now, even when my body still physically reacts, I can take a compassionate approach and grasp better choices, with more realistic odds of truth.

This past winter, I walked in on a couple of guys robbing my house at 10 in the morning. It was shocking, it was scary, but they ran off without hurting me or my dogs. They broke a cabinet and my feeling of safety briefly. The police were wonderful, I was surprisingly calm. It was a Thursday and I thought a nice Friday led Ashtanga primary would be just the ticket to soothe my rattled soul. I was mistaken.  Don’t get me wrong, I went through all the right motions, it was right to be there, to try, but my breathing was on high alert, stability was an elusive joke and savassana was a torturous attempt to be still and relax… My body couldn’t release the fear yet, I had used up all its coping mechanisms the day before. 

Because we are all human and have bad days, my teacher, a dear friend, stopped me as I was leaving and  yelled at me for not even trying to surrender my breath during rest. I don’t think yelling at someone to rest is beneficial.   I was so stunned by his anger, I couldn’t explain what had transpired the day before. I just simply stated, I did try, I tried really hard. I’d love to say we recovered from this horrid moment in time, but alas, with a culmination of closeness breeding contempt, I left a few weeks later midway through my practice, realizing I had lost trust and faith. There was more to it, as it’s never just one reason, but it was the right decision even though it hurt to do it. I knew I was hurting myself more by staying. I don’t blame either of us, just the circumstances of where we each had been in on our own bullshit, I didn’t even like to practice anymore. 

Communication isn’t always easy when fear is part of the equation, but we can always communicate with prayer, especially the Buddhist Prayer of Forgiveness.

“If I have harmed any one in any way,

either knowingly or unknowingly

through my own confusions,

I ask their forgiveness.

If any one has harmed me in any way,

either knowingly or unknowingly

through their own confusions,

I forgive them.

And if there is a situation

I am not yet ready to forgive,

I forgive myself for that.

For all the ways that I harm myself,

negate, doubt, belittle myself,

judge or be unkind to myself,

through my own confusions,

I forgive myself.” 

 The practice of yoga transcends individual frailties. I realized I had to put things into perspective and move on. 

I’m back home again, at least that’s how it feels, back where I first started practicing Ashtanga. I’m very lucky to have my first teacher take me in and advise me to just learn to enjoy it again.  It has been very healing, for both my body and mind, like comfort food for the soul. I’m smiling during practice again, enjoying chuckling when I screw something up, knowing the practice will take all the time it needs to find the steadiness, and hopefully now, I will have a bit more patience, and let go of the fear, and take rest. 

What’s your hurry? 

Sometimes in an asana, I notice something seems off, tight, unstable, or just not as deep as I know I’ve felt it go before. The beauty in these moments occurs when I allow myself to notice it without too much angst or frustration . Not that I’m completely letting it go, but instead just trying to figure out why it’s happening from a point of no ego. (Is there such a place? Ha..I don’t know. Maybe minimal ego…) 

I had it happen this week. My up dogs just felt funky lately. My back bend didn’t seem as comfortable and pinched slightly in my low back, going into my legs. Nothing too major, but it seemed to flow throughout practice. I couldn’t tell if it was physical, and where it was possibly originating. A mystery that I hoped wasn’t the start of anything bigger. My other back bends were fine, at least as far as not being painful or restrictive, even if not always as deep as I like. 

The first day or two it happened, I just went with it, noticing the change, but not really figuring out the mystery. Sometimes, these things just slowly ebb away, the same way they creep in. However, I decided to not just fixate on my up dog, but instead feel how each movement of my sun salutations and  vinyasas were feeling. I found the answer. It was all about chaturanga. 

If you’ve ever practiced with Sharath, he has this terrifying way of saying, “what’s your hurry?”, meaning to stay there. It’s especially challenging while everyone is in chatarunga. He greatly dislikes, I thought at least, when someone during led class moves faster than his count in sun salutations and vinyasas. Sharath will hold everyone in chaturanga until the perpetrator comes back to the asana…oh the pain of chilling out in a low plank. I will admit, as I’ve experienced this hold for what seems like an eternity. I’m usually breathing intensely by the end of it, possibly cursing whomever this hapless creature is that has gone out of sync, grateful at the same time that I don’t know, because then I can’t lash out at them to get with the program as my body is shaking from the lengthened hold.

As I was flowing though my first sun salutation, trying to uncover my mystery,  I hit into chaturanga and boom, his expression popped in my head. What’s your hurry? Exactly. I realized in my efficiency of jumping right into my low plank, I wasn’t giving myself time to take a complete exhale. I admit, it was subtle, but yet in concentrating on the basics in each asana of breath, bundha, and dristhi, I realized how fast that component had become and I wasn’t giving myself the few extra seconds of time holding in the asana to finish exhaling. I was so full of stale air, I wasn’t able to take a full inhale in my up dog to allow it to fully express. I started laughing because I finally understood Sharath’s point, it really wasn’t about him wanting us to stay in synch on his count, but to breathe properly in order to do it right. In any case, I haven’t cured cancer or discovered the secret to world peace, but hey, I’m taking a full exhale in chaturanga  now, and I can attest, the difference is quite remarkable, regardless of it being noticible to anyone else. 

Sometimes in practice, these pieces of the puzzle become rote. It’s not so much taken for granted, as just focus has shifted and slowly, insidiously, we start making changes that eventually detract versus enhance progress. There is never such a thing as perfecting the process, just evolving, and noticing with more relaxed but still active intention. I always set intentions before practice, sometimes intellectually or spiritually, but as well physically. I will occasionally put more focus on bundhas, or dristhi, alignment, how high I’m getting my jump back, there is always something to improve or study. So, for now, I’ve decided to notice my exhales, and inhales for that matter, throughout practice when I remember too at least, for now., in how fully I’m capable of breathing. Each side is equally important. Trying to witness the power each breath can enhance in an asana, the exhale of surrender and the inhale of strength and energy. Still learning to breathe…The journey never ends, but awareness is always the first part of change. 

If at first you don’t succeed…

“A person who never made a mistake, never tried anything new”
― Albert Einstein

Stepping out of a comfort zone is scary. I know there are adrenal junkies out there who live for that type of sensation or rush, but I’m pretty sure, I can confidently state, that I am not that person. However, I also know I can push myself, ideally with compassion, to find my edge, to work past fear, and try something new. Granted, it is also important to know your capabilities and limitations. For instance, though I love to sing, my debut on American Idol would only showcase a delusional mad woman with no musical talent what so ever. I always wonder why someone with a terrible voice auditions, do they not know? Are they attempting comedy? Their fifteen minutes of fame? I’d love to see a psychological study that helps me to understand this phenomenon of self harm.

In any case, I tried to push myself this last week by signing up for led intermediate series with Sharath. I’m by no means fully capable in intermediate. I have only just starting finding balance in pinchu, my latest asana. It is quite nice when it happens, especially in one try, like today, but yesterday, it took three and a half tries. In the Mysore room, I’ve got all the time in the world, just battling my own head as I try to get my body and breath to be steady. In led intermediate, it’s one try, no breaks, no extra breaths in down dog, no fidgeting or sitting, just go and do.

Nadi shodana, aka, intermediate series, is a nerve cleansing sequence. Even in the Mysore setting, it, at least for me, completely jacks up my nervous system. Fight or flight mode used to kick in every single time I tried kapotasana. Mercifully, it does slowly start to either diminish or you get used to it and learn to control your breath enough to stave off the urge to run off and curl in a ball in the corner rocking and sobbing. ( I’ve never actually done that, but I have been tempted! ) I don’t know how it feels for anyone else specifically, but in full disclosure I have PTSD and this sequence has brought many past demons to the surface. Learning to channel my energy in a positive and compassionate way through my breath has been immensely beneficial….but I will save that for another day.

So there I was, in led intermediate. The first day of it was intense and filled with unknowns. I was stopped before my end for a toe drag in bakasana b, at least that’s what I thought. The second day of it, I progressed further through the twists, but Eddie Stern came by me and gently touched my shoulder, and said, hey don’t over do it. I was barely breathing as the count was long and yet painfully consistent. I agreed with him and stopped soon after to watch the rest of the magic until joining back in at closing. My mind had not been as hijacked as the previous day and I was able to truly observe and appreciate the rest of the sequence. I grasped that the intensity of intermediate naturally picks up your own breath count so the hold lasts less time as my breath quickens, but alas Sharath’s count does not, so for instance, in bakasana, the hold in my breath count was probably ten, though the actual count was a slow five, this was true throughout. It made me realize I was stopped more because I just wasn’t grasping how to keep the postures steady and comfortable at such a relentless pace. Yoga Sutra 2:46 sthira-sukham asanam, the posture should be steady and comfortable.

I went home feeling good, regardless of how my practice looked on the outside, I was trying to the best of my capability. I was pushing beyond my slower fidgety Mysore pace and figuring out how to keep my stamina steady enough to persevere with my breathing and longer holds until my last asana on Sharath’s steady and slow count.

In returning on the last day of intermediate, I really just wanted to enjoy the experience. I ended up next to the same lovely Canadian woman from the day before. We had done Supta Vajrasana together. I hate that asana. Truly. One I dread more than most. I think it’s because, before I ever tried it, it looked somehow relaxing or soothing to me. I was completely wrong, and laugh now at the irony of how much I looked forward to finally getting it. Comically it was the one close up picture of me taken over the course of Sharath’s New York tour. IMG_0759.JPGphoto curtesy of Sonia Jones

So, same bat time same bat channel, on my mat, prayers of gratitude before our opening chant, just thinking about trying my best without worrying about it. It was easier! It was no less dynamic or difficult, but my mind wasn’t freaking out saying what’s going to happen?! I had two days of it to get under my skin and into a perspective of concentrating on my breath while letting go and listening to Sharath. I finally made it up to and into Pinchu Mayurasana, my last asana. When I landed, Sharath was standing right in front of me smiling. I smiled too. He asked me if I go further, and I laughed and said not yet. He nodded and said, “good job, now rest and watch.”

Did I need that bit of encouragement? No, that’s not why I practice, but it felt really great to hear all the same. I wasn’t able to attend the last day back at led primary, I was abruptly awoken by a very sick puppy instead. My little Rocky boy had been fed treats by my children that greatly upset his delicate tummy and so taking care of him took precedence.

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He’s lucky he’s so cute!

We never know where tomorrow leads and I’m just grateful I was able to do this now. I am trying to quicken my pace in the Mysore room, and yet not lose focus on working to improve everyday, one step at a time.

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Just breathe

Yesterday morning, after led primary, the woman next to me asked, “Where did you learn to breath like that?!” I smiled, and thought of my teacher, and told her it’s taken hard work. Someone once said to me breathing is the most intimate relationship we have throughout our lives. The very first thing we do in this body, as well, the very last, is take a breath. Coming to terms with and surrendering to our breath, or fighting it, is a daily battle for many of us. You would think, as something we usually take for granted and in most parts of our days, the breathing process is just automatic and therefore we are experts. Throw activity, irritants, heat, cold, anxiety, fear, pain, laughter, hiccups, sickness, deviated septums, and choking among others I’m most certainly forgetting right now, into the mix and breathing can go haywire. However learning to control your breath can completely change your life, bringing relaxation, calm, mindfulness, and serenity.

I admit, I wasn’t very good at it. Health issues, fear and just my basic constitution had all inhibited my ability to breath right. I’m still no expert..everyday brings it’s own new struggles and moments to learn from.

Ashtanga yoga is all about the breath. When I first started ashtanga, I could barely keep my mouth closed, that was enough of a struggle, and yet I was also trying to control my breath count as well, in led classes I would even feel as if I was just holding my breath, and never could get enough back inside. It was an immensely masochistic activity. So much intensity and effort went into to each and every inhale and exhale. I shudder at the memory, yet I kept coming back to the mat. I had moments where all went well for a nanosecond but backbending and the traditional pachimottanasa afterwards were a combo one two punch for all the good work I had done leading up to it. My past impressions of fear of suffocation would seize my brain making me hyperventilate..I cringe feeling sorry for whomever was practicing nearby me in those moments.

I had teachers always working with me on it. To me, I felt It was the weakest link of my asana practice. No prana no true asana. Sometimes if I let myself get too quickly paced, which I’m naturally inclined to do, I still can lose it in parts of practice, but I’m usually able to reset back down a notch or two. A favorite thought is imagining my breath as calm but powerful waves on the ocean, ebbing and flowing. Melting in an asana and staying until there is equilibrium between inhale and exhale helps, but the key for me is exhaling fully, enjoying the natural pause, then inhaling, ideally, as deeply.

Getting there has been a physical as well as mental part of practice. Aristotle so wisely said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Stop believing the false impressions. Surrender, faith, letting go, and ultimately relaxing in the knowledge that the worst case scenario is that I’d pass out so my autonomic function could reset, in a computer like reboot..I’m quite happy that has never actually happened! But all learned from practice, from guidance of a highly skilled teacher. I was taught to practice sutra neti as well. (Don’t mock it till you try it!) The intimacy of breath and vulnerability of the fear that losing your breath can bring forth are intense aspects of the practice, at least for me. I can say now, I’m immensely grateful for all those assists, by every teacher, past and present, more so than for help in any asana. The power of breath, and learning to control it versus being controlled by it, is central to practice. Yoga Sutra 1.34 prachchhardana vidharanabhyam va pranayama. The mind is (also) calmed by regulating the breath, particularly attending to exhalation and the natural stilling of breath that comes from such practice. I’m grateful for the meditative state and calm it brings to me everyday, especially when it works!