What are you going to be when you grow up?

nov_blogMED

Do you remember being asked the question, “What are you going to be when you grow up?”

I have noticed that many people are enamored by watching babies – little people who are far away from being ‘grown up.’ For babies, everything is new; sights, sounds, smells, touch. Babies continuously explore the things around them while experimenting with how their bodies can move. When we watch babies we get to partake in their curiosity and joy of continuous discovery in the present moment.

And then, a baby reaches an age when she is considered to be a child. Adults in her life begin to think about her long-term future. Invariably she is asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Up until now life had been a continuous exploration of new things but this question suggests an endpoint- a time when we are all done, all grown up; when we’ve got it all figured out. I wonder, how does asking this question or thinking this way, shape one’s sense of self? I know for me, it created a sense that at some point in time, I would be ‘grown up’ and would have it all figured out.

I think many of us bring this same attitude of being ‘grown up’ to how we live in and with our bodies. As babies and young children we run and play and explore in all sorts of directions. We don’t even really think about it. And then, we begin our steps towards being grown up. We wear shoes, we sit in chairs often, we wear restrictive clothes. Instead of enjoying our natural movement throughout the day, we schedule specific times for exercise and often choose movements or use machines that restrict our range of motion. In our quest to be ‘grown up,’ we unconsciously limit how we move and experience the world.

The cultural norms that prevail in the society that I, along with most of us who read this blog reside, encourage us to turn our bodies and our being into a product –something that looks a specific way and produces specific results. This time of year we are especially bombarded with these messages. We are supposed to buy products that will make us look a certain way and at the same time we must be productive so that we can reach an elusive endpoint that the smiling faces in the advertisements tell us is happiness.

But there is no endpoint – except perhaps death. Our bodies and our minds are continuously changing and I think these changes are endlessly fascinating. At different stages of life we have different abilities that we can continue to explore with delight and curiosity. We continually have the opportunity to grow and move in new ways.

There is a well-known dialogue in the biblical book of Exodus where two characters in the story – Elohim (God) and Moshe (Moses) – have an intense and direct conversation:

Moshe asks Elohim how he should answer when the Israelites ask what is Elohim’s name. Elohim replies, “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh.”

Most English renditions of the bible translate God’s reply as, “I am what I am.” However, verb tenses in Hebrew don’t always correlate directly to English and I think a more accurate translation is “I am becoming what I am becoming.”

I like to consider how life could be if we embrace the second translation.

One Large Ball of Twine. One Tiny Bite.

twine4blogMED

I was recently in the town of Darwin, Minnesota, which is world famous for having the largest ball of twine. The twine museum was closed that day and I discovered that I was not the only one disappointed by the lack of access to the twine. I heard a steady meowing sound, followed my ears and soon found a tiny black-and-white kitten. The kitten was clearly hungry and didn’t seem to a home, so I decided to take it upon myself to rescue it. I was in a hurry to pick up a friend from the airport so I did what I should not have done; I reached down and tried to pick up the cat. While the cat had been willing to stand a foot away from me while I chatted with him, he was not willing to be picked up by me and bit my hand.

It didn’t hurt much but it did break the skin. I spent the next hour trying to catch the kitten and after asking my waiting friend to bide her time by taking the light rail to the Mall of America.

I then decided upon new tactic. I tried to throw a blanket over the kitten but he was too quick. As it was Sunday afternoon in a small rural town, I couldn’t locate a box. Finally, I left and went to pick up my friend.

I felt bad about leaving the kitten. With regard to the bite, I wanted to forget about it. I thought I would be all right because it was so tiny. But the possibility of rabies or infection still nagged at me. Rabies is almost, if not always, always fatal.

To be on the safe side I went to the local urgent care. The doctor was very concerned and immediately called the CDC and verified that antibiotics and rabies shots were absolutely necessary. (I can now attest to the fact that the rabies shot series is not as bad as the stories I have heard. It’s four brief shots in the arm spaced out over a period of two weeks.)

Once I started on my medical care, I kept thinking about the little kitten. I kept feeling that I could have done more to help him. He didn’t have the resources to walk into an urgent care center, and the harsh mid-western winter was coming.

I kept questioning myself. What could I have done differently? I should have done this…I should have done that… I definitely could have done something different. Did I fail as a yoga practitioner because I wasn’t ‘mindful’ enough in the process?

A few days later, I decided to return to Darwin, which is about a 75 minute drive from Minneapolis. My mom came with me and we enjoyed driving past the brown drying cornfields under a beautiful blue sky. The air was fresh and crisp. We had a nice time chatting together in the car.

This time I brought proper supplies; food, gloves, two cat carriers. Unfortunately, we could not find the kitten.

Now is the part of the blog where I feel I am supposed to share some profound and amazing revelation or analysis. I admit to being influenced by the plethora of social media postings that testify to how to overcome adversity; amazing stories about how breathing or yoga or meditation can change one’s life. However, that wasn’t my experience. With all the tools I have, I still don’t know what I should have done. I just wanted to share the story.

Returning to Darwin did alleviate some of my guilt. However, I will always wonder what happened to the kitten. I hope that someone else found him and will provide a good home. I also feel more appreciative of life-saving vaccines and happy that I can tell my friends that rabies shots are not that bad. From now on, I will keep a pair of thick gloves along with a blanket in my car.

On the way back to Minneapolis, my mom and I stopped at Dairy Queen for ice cream. My mom surprised me by ordering a large cone along with french fries. Perhaps there is a profound way to interpret that!

I welcome your thoughts.

Healing

healingMED

Today is the 23rd of the month and it’s also the end of Yom Kippur, a Jewish observance of contemplation and reflection. Last night I stood in front of over 1000 people and guided them in silent meditation. Today, I had the honor of leading a healing gathering. On both occasions I invited everyone to cultivate a connection with our bodies as a way to enter into a contemplative healing space.

In my understanding, healing does not meaning “fixing.” It’s about coming to know ourselves as whole, even in the midst of brokenness.

While we may yearn or pray for particular outcomes and movement in our lives, healing can also be about opening to the resources within us and around us, that help us experience greater equanimity with what IS. (this doesn’t mean that we accept injustice)

Some of us are deeply aware of what kind of healing we want or need. We know that we are seeking more wholeness in body, mind, heart, or spirit, or any combination of those, Others may feel some kind of brokenness, disconnection or dis-ease that is hard to define or articulate. Still others may be focused on gratitude for how our journey towards healing is unfolding. Some of us need to just cry or turn inwards. Sometimes dancing with wild abandon is what we need. Some of us may not feel the need or desire for healing or may have difficulty with this term. Sometimes we may need to take some time to not feel our bodies. However, I have found that taking a moment to cultivate a loving connection with our bodies is often very healing. Whatever discomfort or frustration we may experience in our relationship with our bodies, it IS the vessel that houses our soul; the vehicle from which we experience life.

I share with you a few simple instructions to enter into a healing space:

Sitting or standing, sway a little bit and feel your body move and flow in space.

Lift your toes, leaving the ball of your toes and your heels on the ground. Take a moment to notice how the lifting of your toes encourages your feet to take root; helps us to ground down and connect with the earth.

As an alternative, you may do this with your hands – place your palm on a surface and lift your fingers so the base edges of your palms ground down.

From this sense of grounding, encourage your spine to lengthen upwards so that you become the connection between earth and sky.

Then take your legs wide apart, lift your arms shoulder height and reach them wide away from each other.

Inhale gently and deeply. Let your heart open expansively in all directions as you breathe in the sustenance of life.

As you exhale, let go of one layer that you don’t need to hold onto. Let your eyes soften and be here for a few breaths.

May we all to find ways to honor our bodies and our entire being. May we all experience the feeling of wholeness that is our birthright.

Habits and a Bench by the Lake

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I recently walked past a park bench that I remember sitting on about 25 years ago. The wood is a little worn but the bench is still sturdy and the neighboring tree has grown into a lush protective canopy that exudes stable magnificent splendor.

I didn’t feel like sitting on the bench. Instead I chose to let my mind wander as I walked around the lake – a habit that is also one of my all-time favorite things to do.

As I walked around the big circle of water I began to contemplate how our habits shape our lives. I also pondered how common it is to view our accomplishments (or lack thereof) as a measure of our value in the world and the harbinger of who we are becoming.

How does this relate to yoga?

It is a fact that no matter what patterns and habits we choose, what asanas we practice and ‘accomplish,’ our bodies are going to change as our biological age increases. How our bodies will change is not as clear.

For the past few years, I’ve been really curious to see what a long-term study of the physical effects of different kinds of yoga asana would reveal. At present, evidence-based research is scarce. Perhaps 20 or 30 years from now there will be some sound longitudinal studies on the effects of inversions such as headstand and shoulderstand, as well as extreme hip openers, deep backbends and repetitive chaturangas and lunges.

Many of us, myself included, don’t need an evidence-based study to tell us the short-term positive effects of asana: pain reduction and injury prevention; mood enhancement; increased range of movement, strength, and energy, etc. A sense of accomplishment is another important factor to include in this list. However, I wonder how short-term accomplishments in asana serve us if we are concurrently developing or reinforcing habitual movements that could lead to long-term harm?

For example, if we habitually move into a backbend by creating an extreme movement in the lower lumbar spine, we may feel momentary exhilaration. But over time, that habit of movement may lead to injury and pain.

At the same time, this sense of immediate accomplishment can give us a boost of confidence that may guide us to take on challenges in other aspects of our lives that may serve us well long-term. Do the short-term positive effects of accomplishment override the possible negative long-term effects of developing physical habits that are harmful? Do we want to do a cost-benefit analysis of our yoga practice? These are questions I continue to explore.

Many of us practice yoga asana because it makes us feel better and we believe that it will serve us well in the present and over the long-term. As we practice, we explore habits and patterns. We toss some aside, reinforce others and create new ones. Ideally, we do this with an increasing sense of awareness and consciousness. I believe that both our current habits and how we view our accomplishments shape our experience of the moment and guide our future much more than the actual accomplishments.

In my work as a synagogue leader, I have the honor of sharing blessings, and I’d like to share one now:
As we continue on our paths, may we maintain and develop habits that serve us well. May we reflect with tenderness on past actions and habits that may have caused harm or are no longer needed. May we revel with appreciation and gratitude for those habits which have enhanced and continue to enhance or lives.

I don’t remember thinking about my habits and patterns when I sat on that bench 25 years ago. If I have the good fortune to be able to sit there 25 years from now, I wonder if it will be my habit to do so.

Why Flexibility?

I’ve been thinking a lot about flexibility lately and thought I’d share some of my preliminary musings. I’ve been randomly asking people the question, “Why are we so often awed by flexibility? Why do so many asana practitioners want to be more and more flexible?”

Often, the first response is a moment of silence or an upturned eyebrow. Sometimes – especially when it’s early in the morning – that silence is followed by more silence.

Other responses include:
It looks cool.
I think would feel good to be able to do it.
It’s a beautiful aspect of the human form.
It connotes a sense of freedom.
I want to be flexible so my body is not in the way.

A response I found especially interesting was from an athletic person who has practiced yoga for a long time. She suggested that because becoming flexible feels good, becoming more flexible would feel even better.*

But is more flexibility always better?

Lately I’ve been feeling rather negative about the emphasis on flexibility that I see and hear in social media. There are so many Instagram pictures of people in performative pretzel poses that many people I speak with are adverse to yoga because they simply think they are not flexible enough to do it.

But the real reason that I’ve been critical about the focus on flexibility is that I’m seeing how it hurts people. Along with the damage it can do to one’s body image, the emphasis on flexibility can cause bodily harm.

Feeling tightness is not necessarily a bad thing. Often it is our body giving a signal that we have reached the limits of our range of motion and perhaps should not go further. Sometimes it’s tricky to determine when we should accept these limits. If we didn’t have the sensation of tightness in our bodies we would be able to walk as well as a wet noodle.

Everyone I know has places in their body where they are more flexible and places where they are less flexible. For example, it’s very common for people to have extreme flexibility in the lower lumbar spine and very little in the upper thoracic spine. Without conscious awareness or training, our body movements often follow the path of least resistance. Without careful attention it is easy to feel that one is going deeper into a pose, but instead one may actually be creating greater imbalances by increasing the range of movement in the most flexible places and while stagnating in the other places. This pattern is especially common in backward bending positions. Over time, this kind of imbalance often leads to instability dysfunction, and pain.

Instead of trying to get one’s nose to one’s toes or one’s heels behind one’s head, I think it’s useful to consider what are the true benefits of developing and maintaining a certain level of flexibility.

It can be incredibly frustrating to not be able to sit on the floor, bend over to tie one’s shoes, or reach for a can of soup in an overhead cupboard.

Having the flexibility in our pelvis to sit on the front edge of our sit bones on the floor or on a chair gives us the ability to sit in a way that brings the natural curves of our spine into an alignment where our head is supported, our organs have space to function, we can breathe more deeply, and we can sit comfortably for the duration of a luxurious dinner or movie.

Having the flexibility to hinge at our hips and straighten our legs in downward facing dog gives us the ability to lengthen our spines and create more space between the vertebrae, which feels great after a long day or work or after a night of fitful sleep.

Having the flexibility to hinge at the hips in a standing or seated forward bend, gives us the flexibility to release our spine forward, which can enhance deep relaxation.

Having flexibility in our shoulders, wrists, rib cage and quadriceps, allows us to transition safely from being in a reclined position on the floor to lifting up into a backward bending position that opens the front of the spine – a movement that can be very energizing and often exhilarating.

All of these examples share a common theme: flexibility gives access to the spine and the opportunity to safely move it in a multitude of directions.

Whenever I see someone lengthen their spine after a long day of sitting, their eyes light up, the breath flows more freely and they often smile.

I suggest that asana practice should not focus on getting rid of feelings of tightness but rather on developing mobility so we can more easily access our spine. And since ‘flexibility’ is such a loaded term, perhaps substituting the term ‘mobility’ in its place will help guide this process.

One of my goals for teaching and practicing modern asana is to explore habits of movement as a way to cultivate balance. I am especially interested in the balance of strength and flexibility, and the balance of suppleness and stability. My belief is that these kinds of explorations can help us experience moments of comfort, ease and freedom in our bodies, which can permeate our entire being.

*There were a few responses that suggested a socio-political critique of modern yoga such as, “It’s a symbol of the privilege and power of the leisure class” and “it’s a sign of success.” I might discuss these comments at a later time.

The Joy and Shame of Double Dipping

Recently, while at a brunch I saw a delightful sight. A young boy with a big spoon reached into a big tub of creamy white yogurt and with utter glee brought the yogurt to his mouth and licked the spoon clean. His smile was wider than his face. His eyes brightened as he prepared to launch in for a second time. Just as his spoon was about to reach the container, a woman near him exclaimed in a commanding voice, “Stop! You can’t do that! That’s double dipping.”

All of a sudden his wide eyes constricted, his shoulders sagged and his chest caved in. He slumped towards the floor and turned his back away from the yogurt tub with what seemed to me to be a look of confusion. My own heart shriveled a bit as I saw what seemed to be shame – new and unfamiliar- began to creep in.

The boy’s mother, seeing his facial expression, quickly gave him a hug, spooned some of the yogurt into a bowl and gently explained to him what had happened. He cautiously spooned up some more yogurt and brought it to his mouth. She may have protected him from internalizing the shame and he may have enjoyed the taste, but the moment of utter joyful abandon was gone.

As I watched this young boy, I had been sharing his delight and enthusiasm. I was with him in that wonderful moment of anticipation as he dived in for that second spoonful of yogurt. I reveled in the beauty of his simple joy. And then it was all taken away. His mother’s attempt to retrieve it, albeit thoughtful, could not make up for the violent loss.

At first I was angry at the woman who cried out “double dipping.” I wanted to make a pithy retort but words failed me. Later, I realized I wasn’t really angry at her. I was angry for all those moments when wonder is squelched–whether intentional or not.

And then I reflected about how quickly and often do we do this to ourselves? How quickly do we turn a moment of joy into an aeon of judgment? How many of us no longer need an adult to wipe away our wonder because we do it to ourselves?

Sometimes in asana we may experience freedom, joy and delight but then suddenly a voice in our mind cries out, “You should be more flexible! You should be stronger! You should know how to do it right!” When I hear this voice, I do tell it to stop but that voice is stubborn. Silencing it just pushes it to another place. I need to acknowledge it’s there but also recognize that it’s just one of many voices.

So I continue to practice asana amidst chattering voices. Eventually, my mind quiets as I feel the different parts of my body become more integrated. And once in a while in triangle pose, I enjoy a heaping spoon of creamy yogurt.

Thoughts on the Trapezius and Charismatic Leadership

I find that paying attention to the patterns of our bodies is a fascinating adventure in and of itself. In addition, I am often intrigued by how lessons I’ve learned from my body can be a metaphor for my own life, my relationships with others and my understanding of global dynamics.

One day, while teaching a yoga class a thought came to me: the trapezius is like a charismatic leader! I said this out loud to the amusement of my students. It sounded intriguing, but now I needed to explain it.

The trapezius is a large superficial muscle. In anatomical language, superficial means that it is closer to the skin. It begins in the back of the head and continues downward to the part of the spine that connects to the rib cage. It also connects horizontally to the shoulder. Its main function is to move the shoulder blades and support the arms. It also moves the head backwards.

In short, the trapezius is a big muscle that covers a lot of space in a part of the body that we cannot see with our eyes.

Charismatic leaders often appear larger-than-life. They can enter a room and quickly become the center of attention. They have strong personalities and appear confident. Often, one can feel a sense of relief just by being in their presence; they seem to know all the answers. Their strong, assertive presence can lead us to believe that they will take care of things so we don’t have to work so hard.

At first, things feel great. Sometimes they remain that way. Charismatic leaders such as Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi have made noteworthy contributions to society. However, there are many examples throughout history where charismatic leaders take control to serve their own inner needs and not the needs of their followers. Sometimes this happens gradually. Followers slowly give up their initiative and inner power. Then one day, as if out of the blue, pain appears. But actually, it’s been brewing for a long time.

Am I talking about people or muscles right now? Both!

We may be sitting at our computer, happily writing a story or surfing the web. We begin to lean our head forward and our shoulders round. The trapezius engages and the rhomboids, which stabilize the shoulder blades along with the serratus and a team of other muscles, don’t need to make much effort. After repeating this action many times, the rhomboids realize, “That trapezius is nice and big and strong. I can let it do the work; I can relax. I don’t need to be active.” Then the serratus and the rest of the team of muscles follow suit, and before we know it, our shoulders stay rounded, our head juts forward and we experience a searing pain in our neck or between our shoulder blades. Someone, perhaps in a yoga class or physical therapy says, “Soften the base of your neck” and you realize that you can’t do it. You have lost the ability to move some of the muscles in your back. The team of muscles that used to work together to support your head and neck has atrophied and the trapezius has taken over!

It’s a big step to make this realization and it can be very painful.

Max Weber, often heralded as one of the founders of Sociology, understood charismatic leadership to be less about the distinguishing traits of the leaders and more about the relationship between the leaders and their followers.

Once we have acknowledged the pain, we have a choice about how to be in relationship with it. We can accept the pain and continue on the same path, resigning ourselves to our loss of power and control. Or, we can begin to nurture the atrophied areas and slowly come back to a more integrated whole where our muscles work together as a team. Bringing vision and consciousness to the back of our hearts (the theme of my classes this past April) is a good place to start.

Handstands and Wonder

kids4blogMED

One afternoon, after teaching a class on handstands I was sitting on the grass while some kids were playing. They put their hands on the ground, kicked their legs up in the air and then immediately fell down. They were trying to do handstands without giving them any label. After doing this a number of times one of them squealed in delight, it’s so much fun, “we jump up and then fall down again.” I was awed. She didn’t care that she couldn’t hold her legs up in the air. She didn’t care that she kept falling down. She just continued to jump up and fall down.

I could have interpreted her actions as a story of perseverance but I think I would have been mistaken. Perseverance is an admirable quality. There is a lot to say about the importance of striving towards one’s goals but I was awed by something else. This little girl just loved what she was doing. She loved the movement, She reveled in the sheer joy of the moment. She embodied a total sense of wonder.

I believe that this sense of wonder is our birthright. All children, no matter the difficulty of their circumstances can tap into it. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way of entering into adulthood many of us lose it. The experience of wonder becomes a dim memory as we take on responsibilities and focus on building our future and/or lament our past.

But I also have hope that the dim memory of wonder can be ignited. The practice of yoga is one way to re-find the path to wonder and keep the channel open. As adults, we may not find our way there by kicking our legs up in the air and falling on the grass. Our path might be something as simple as wiggling our toes for the first time in 10 years or taking our arms and legs wide in what I call “bigasana.” It may be doing a handstand against a wall or breathing deeply and discovering that some Irises smell like purple.

No matter the path, may each and every one of us find our way there.