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. 

These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.

Perception and preconceived ideas can be beneficial, like knowing fire is hot, however, there are times we take past knowledge or fears and make assumptions that are not true, creating a false narrative in the psyche. Just as the placebo effect can do wonders in helping, the nocebo effect can do just as much damage. The mind can lead us down dark paths and dead ends. Just this morning, I heard more than one student say,” I can’t do it.” It doesn’t matter if it is a third backbend, lotus, Mari D, or something else. Trusting errant thoughts of frustration or fear only creates tension and a sure set up for failure. The only failure is in not trying. Its never about the can not, or the final aspects of fulling getting into the asana, it’s about trying, giving it a shot, seeing if today anything works better than yesterday. 

I’ve been figuring this out in my own mind lately as well. I have been bemoaning what I thought was a flare of RA since I came back from India over a year ago. I came home sick, and was treated by a great infectious disease specialist, but I failed to really follow up on my aches and exhaustion, because I thought it was my rheumatoid arthritis.  My hands have been pretty bad, so I thought why bother, just keep up all my usual routine. I avoided going to the rheumotologist because I didn’t want to know how bad it was, but finally relented about a month ago, figuring it’s better to have an idea of what is going on as I was dealing with such terrible pain in my hands. Tests, X-rays, blood work, hurry up and wait ten days for all the results…

The good news was this was not RA. I am quite happily still in full remission, to the point that if my X-rays and past tests didn’t show it, the doctor wouldn’t believe that I have had an auto immune disorder. The bad news was the illness I had in India could take up to 18 months to fully work out of my system, and most of the symptoms were tied to that. Quite exciting to know its not permanent and just some lasting repercussions that will go away, except for my hands. My hands are a different beast, from my own creation, yes I have residual damage in some joints, yes I have some pain from the illness last year, but as well, somewhere in this point of pushing past the aches, I gave myself avulsion fractures in my knuckles of both middle fingers which snowballed into hurting other parts of my hands as I was unaware but physically avoiding putting any weight of length in my middle fingers. The X-rays show the breaks happened, most likely last summer from over gripping somewhere. In this as well, was the mindset, that this was how my hands were, and what I don’t know, is by compensating for the nocebo effect going on in my head, I made it worse and created the tension and restrictions in my body because my mind told me that was how it had to be. 

So, I’ve been pondering my assumptions of thinking I had a flare, versus a pain level of fractured fingers that I ignored because my preconceived thoughts deduced the worst case scenario instead of the possibility of something else entirely.  Far less frightening to me, though still screwed up, because who breaks their own fingers and doesn’t know it?!? I’m hoping for no long term repercussions, beyond bone chips. I am seeing a hand specialist just to make sure I won’t do more harm as it continues to resolve. 

In any case, I was wrong. I keep thinking about it, because of how much my mind had led me to believe everything was a symptom of RA. If I was tired, if my stamina was off, if anything hurt, my stomach, my eyes, you name it, it was RA, not even a remote possibility of anything else. Yes, everything I felt was real, but was it as dramatic and helpless as I rigidly made it into in my mindset of trying to persevere to the point of fracturing my fingers? I, in retrospect, had needed to follow up with my infectious disease specialist further and also taken it more easy in my initial recovery. But hey hindsight is always 20/20. Though I still trust myself, I have made a conscientious decision not to self diagnose and create limits, especially ones that lead me to injury!  Might I have been easier on myself gripping, I’m guessing my mat trying to creep into kapo, if I felt it was weakness from my illness, and had more patience than I obviously do for a flare. How much extra tension had the simmering fear created? How much excessive muscle tension went into my movements instead of the reverse relaxing to explore the possibilities of today being unique, of each day just getting to the mat and seeing what could be stabile and calm instead of feared, whether on a conscious level or nor, the mind stores our Samskaras and feeds us a narrative that does not always match the truth. 

It comes and goes

What’s your motivation? Like most people I vacillate between various states, I’d say there are really just two underlying everything, love and fear. When love is in charge, all is good, even when it’s not, because there is empathy, compassion, clarity, understanding, among other positive points, however, fear, though at times helpful, brings out worry, anger, irrational thoughts, impulsive choices, and stress. Firefighters are helpful when needed but they break doors and windows to get the job done…in other words you don’t need to pull out the cannons to get rid of the anthill, keep perspective! 

About three weeks ago, I started noticing a new pain in the top of my hands. It came on suddenly one morning, so badly I couldn’t put any weight into them, especially the right. I couldn’t do a sun salutation at all, and I panicked. I knew aging and my Rheumotoid arthritis could alter my practice, but I never thought I’d lose a basic down dog. It scared me, badly. I mean, seriously, yoga helped me through my worst, first starting out, what could I do without being able to put any weight in my hands? I freaked out inside because if a flare could take away this, I just wanted to give up…..( fear negating rational and compassionate thought!) 

I went into denial on the outside. I wrapped my right hand for support, went back to practice and teaching the next day popping a couple of Advil. But I wasn’t ok, I was afraid. Afraid of losing control, and as a recovering control freak, this was unpleasant at best. I haven’t always been so kind to myself, everyone is their own worst critic usually, and I can admit, my self loathing had been a consistent piece of who I was, until I found peace on the mat and forgiveness in my failures. I clearly remember the first moment that sensation of compassion filled my heart, ( yet even as I write that statement, I hear Arnold Schwarzenegger in my head from The Terminator talking about skynet becoming self aware..lol) it was overwhelming in the best way…yet as a human being, I forgot to remember it’s ok to still fail at times in things we don’t usually fail. Oh the joys of a monkey brain! 

The most remarkable part of this is I didn’t figure out why I was being such a crazed impatient psycho until I was quietly suffering from a massive panic attack during intense turbulence on a flight down to the Caribbean for a family vacation last week. I was breathing through it, knowing the competence of the pilot, knowing the logic of the safety of air travel, when it dawned on me, I wasn’t in control of the plane, just like I felt I wasn’t in control of my illness.  I had forgotten to have faith because I had let fear be my motivator for the past few weeks in just about everything, instead of love. 

What’s funny is about a month prior I had reached out to anatomy guru, David Keil, for insight on how to keep my grips with a crappy pincher grasp due to this on going flare, his response was awesome, but at the time I wanted something more concrete: 

I think you know the answer to your own questions. But just in case you need to hear it from someone else…. Modify as necessary when you’re flaring. More importantly, work on the inner judge who is having a problem with the modifications when they’re necessary. Look at the frustration, which of course is anger. Be compassionate to yourself.

The asanas themselves are not that important, but how you relate to doing them is critical for growth.

Om shanti,

David

Yes, how I relate to doing them. In other words, motivation through love of trying not fear of failing. Thank you David! 

The week away of vitamin D did me well to soothe my soul, relax and let go of the fear…the view didn’t hurt either!  

 

As for practice on vacation? Everyday, nice and smooth, I’m happy to say, with the toughest part in picking where…the tile floor of the hotel room or the “sanctuary” room off the gym, that had the uncanny ability to blast Party Rock Anthem while attempting kapotasana:) I went for the music distractions over the cement floor. 

 

Give me a sign, any old sign

Yesterday was my father’s birthday. He died 6 years ago from complications of alpha-1. It’s a terrible genetic flaw that causes lung disease and I wouldn’t wish it on a single soul. In some ways he was lucky as his symptoms didn’t really effect him until the last ten years of his life, for many others, by their 30’s it’s already in full swing of suffocation mode. He was 77 when his lungs finally gave out.

I still miss him, that doesn’t ever go away. My grief and obviously the rawness have diminished with time. Its such a strange experience to watch someone you love in such extreme pain and discomfort that you pray for it to end, but when their body finally surrenders to illness, your relief is eclipsed by missing them and selfishly wanting one more hug, or joke, or phone call.

The first year and birthday were tough. I kept wanting a sign that he was ok. I had this irrational perception that he would let me know in some profound way at some point, I decided that should be his birthday. My father had been stoic in his plight, his will to live had been strong. I had grown up with an appreciation for the occult and supernatural, but that had been my mothers influence, my dad had not said much on the subject. My husband took my children to a Mets game the night of his birthday that first year. I thought I was better off at home just reminiscing and willing a glimpse of his life force.

There I was, home alone, 7:30 at night, just thinking of my father, when suddenly my dogs went crazy. My Luna, a golden doodle, was just 2 and beating the basement door with her paws. I foolishly opened it and chased after her in my own curiosity. Unbeknownst to me, a skunk had somehow gone into my garage, ripped through the drywall and had gone into my utility room where my furnace and well are located…he immediately was afraid of us and used his primary weapon of defense, spraying the air, Luna, myself, and my home with his noxious musk. The horror was instant and unrelenting. Poor Luna was howling as the vapors burned her nose and eyes. I was screaming at the universe, yelling though my tears that this, most definitely, was not the sign of life I was hoping to find.

The next few hours of triage for Luna and I were probably more hellish than you can possibly imagine, and yet I kept, between my tears, cackling with laughter as I spoke to my father, saying ” Really dad! Really! A skunk!?” I was no longer sane, and was quite relieved my family had not been there for the worst of it. Alas, my sense of smell was ruined for weeks if not longer. The walls had to be ripped out of the basement and much of what had been stored there was ruined. I was broken but yet in the fallout of mass destruction, I found a spark back to life, a mission to ensure my children’s home environment was livable and secure took over my self pity and forced me to choose the present moment over missing the past.

It’s not always comfortable or easy to just be present, or to accept those bizarre and painful moments that just happen. Death is the biggest loss any of us face, but by fearing, worrying, self pity, and yes even reminiscing the past, we are kept from living and having the potential for more joy, more love, more growth, and less skunks. I don’t need anymore signs dad, Happy birthday xo.

Going rogue

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
― Marie Curie

I cheated on my ashtanga practice yesterday. It felt really good. I highly recommend it. I’m only half joking in my choice of words as I am a pretty devoted student. However, as a student, I also think it’s important to see outside of the box we each carefully construct for ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, I would never say ashtanga is easy, far from it, I’m challenged every single time I get on the mat, but the difference between trying a new yoga style versus ashtanga is that in my own practice, pretty much the sequence is for the most part, un changing. The differences arise in who I am that day, how I feel both physically and emotionally, the weather, my teachers choices in where to push me and the types of adjustments I may get, or gulp, a new asana to tack on, but I still usually have the comfort of my shala, the usual suspects in the room with me, sustaining our energy together, a comfort zone to anchor me. In another style, well, I may as well be in a foreign country with a guide map written in a language I’ve never seen before. I hadn’t tried any other type of yoga when I first went in an ashtanga room, only when I decided to do a teacher training student immersion, that my teacher told me to venture off the tribe and not just read about other types and styles of yoga but to try them, so I did, for awhile at least. I tried quite a few, some I liked, some, I just didn’t but at some point about two years ago, I just really stuck with my tried and true first love, ashtanga.

My sister in law is not just a fabulous person, but as well a fantastic yoga instructor. She teaches vinyasa flow and trained as well as is mentored by a highly regarded instructor. At his shala, they have started teaching a new style called sridaiva. I met her there last night to take an all in hour and a half class. Though, I’m not changing faiths, I must admit, I really enjoyed it and found it vigorous but also restorative and uplifting. I honestly was as sweaty as the most intense Mysore session but had an noticeable boost of energy and sense like I could fly when I was done. It was awesome and fun.

Sridaiva, was not just rearranging a sequence, as I sometimes refer to flow styles as ashtanga improv, but a whole different way to hold your body and stay up on your toes, big toe and pinky toe to be exact, ideally with your heels lifted and a bounce thrown in, or not, up to you to find your edge. The posturing engaged bundhas merely through the action in your glutes, spinal curve, rib cage fully open and subtle but active pulling in of the femurs through the glute and thigh action. Everything looked wonky and felt so odd at first, but alas it kicked my asana in the best way, completely new, unknowns, uncertainty, fears, but yet taught and communicated in such a thoughtful, precise, fun, and compassionate way that failures didn’t matter, ego went out the window and some yummy soul soothing vulnerability in such a trusting and guided way was able to manifest within me. What a gift.

I was afraid I would be sore and achy today, not because it hurt, but just because it was so different and new, I wasn’t sure if I had awakened any new muscle points, but was happily surprised to feel really good, better, in fact than my old, sore body had felt in quite awhile, my normal twinges were quiet, but I did feel some minor soreness in my lower lats and obliques, in that sweet way of new strength and release of facia.

Samskaras…why does the past haunt us so?

We all have scars, some visible, some not. Some, I think we are able to wear with pride of survival, others, well, it’s not always so easy. About 3 years ago, almost to the day, I was bit on the thigh by a friend’s dog. I have always been an animal lover, I have two dogs of my own. I was just walking up to her door and the dog came out and just attacked me. I knew the dog, had played with him and pet him before, one of my kids spent the night there all the time. It was scary, painful, bloody and unprovoked.

The intensive bruising, two punctures and one inch long rip all healed up nicely. My friend whom I didn’t turn in, felt terrible. I tried to go around Hugo again, but literally shake every time I’m near him, alas, I still tremble anytime I’m around new big dogs now. I wish I could control it, but it’s hard. I’m rational, I thankfully haven’t let my fear overtake me, but it’s there.

In my yoga practice, about a year later, I switched to wearing shorts on the mat. (It makes everything harder for me except garba pindasana, no more fabric to help with my binds!) As I practiced one day, all of a sudden, the faint scars on my right thigh were glaringly obvious to me. It made the memory stronger again. At first I was upset, I wanted it to be the past, I wanted to be able to pet a big dog again without shaking fingers and prayers in my head begging the dog to not assault me. I wanted to not visualize that horrible day. I wanted to be stable! Chitta vritti nirodahah and all. How could I master that?

Compassion. At first, I just tried to pretend I didn’t see the scars, that didn’t work at all. My next approach was repeating a mantra, that helped a bit, but I could still feel the extra adrenaline running through me. I was frustrated. It dawned on me, that I blamed myself, at least partially for the bite. As silly as it sounds, when the bite occurred I was going through a really rough patch, my friend had actually said she thought the dog bit me because it picked up on my vulnerability. It was a ridiculous rationalization and only revictimized me, done to spread the fault away from the dog that obviously shouldn’t be around people. Why is it so hard to own responsibility? I get that now, but at the time, I was in shock and injured.

I decided instead not to dwell on it, but if I saw it, and the fears arose in me, I acknowledged it. I said to myself, it’s ok, it was scary, and thankfully you healed. I utilized what I had learned in meditation. Ask yourself why, exactly, do these thoughts come to you or cross your mind. Don’t push it away but don’t obsess over it either. Observe and examine, but do not make any judgement in the sense of good or bad. Relax. Whatever appears has to be dealt with in your thoughts and emotion. Look with kindness and understanding on your own reality. (This all took place probably in a matter of seconds sitting in dandasana and then drifted subconsciously and consciously throughout the rest of practice) This mindset really works regardless of what comes up on the mat. I had one teacher word it a little differently, but as I was in some turmoil one day, he said, just get on the mat and send your thoughts out to your inner committee, they will figure it out for you. By reacting with compassion, I honestly don’t fear the fading scars anymore, and hopefully new big dogs will get a firm rub from me soon, versus my tentative touch. If all else fails, well, a hand gently placed over the heart can do wonders to soothe and heal. 💜

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Me and my Luna:-)