Is Your Body Image Holding You Hostage?

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(this post first appeared on www.jujaactive.com/blogs/mat-chat)

I’ve been a health, fitness and yoga teacher for more than 20 years and I’ve always been in great shape — strong, flexible, and falling within a healthy weight range. Still, I’ve never had the proverbial “Instagram” body. Over the years, my struggles with compulsive eating have resulted in pounds alternatively piling on and dropping off, accompanied by feelings of self-consciousness, shame and debilitating worries about body image that felt like they were holding me hostage.

As a result, I dressed for my classes accordingly. When I was “feeling thin,” I’d wear closer fitting tops that revealed my frame. When I wasn’t, I’d wear billowy tops over my leotards that hid my belly, hips and thighs. Once, when I was trying to demonstrate a yoga posture to my class, I realized my oversize tank top completely obscured my body and prevented my students from seeing what I was doing. I paused, had a moment of terror, then pulled the tank off over my head. The earth didn’t swallow me up and the students didn’t run from the room screaming. With a giddy mix of freedom and fear, I continued my demonstration, realizing that this body image thing was something I needed to get a handle on.

Despite the rise and evolution of the feminist movement, body image continues to be an issue for the majority of girls and women in the United States and worldwide. According to recent statistics compiled by The Body Image Center in Washington, D.C., 89 percent of girls have dieted by age 17, and 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. Interviews conducted with 10,500 females across 13 countries for the 2016 Dove Global Beauty and Confidence Report found that “women’s confidence in their bodies is on a steady decline, with low body esteem becoming a unifying challenge shared by women and girls around the world – regardless of age or geography.”1 Recent years have seen progress, like a broader spectrum of women’s images portrayed in the media, and a wave of pushback against magazines and advertisers that routinely airbrush and Photoshop out “flaws” in appearance; however, it takes constant vigilance not to fall prey to the pressure of unrealistic norms. Loving and accepting ourselves completely is an ideal that many of us have not even come close to.

If you’re not sure where you stand with your body image, think about it for a moment. You might look at yourself in the mirror and determine whether there are things you feel like you need to hide, or that somehow make you less than you think you could be. Now, flip that script — simply state the opposite out loud. Can you do it? Can you actually feel it? The degree of resistance you have to changing your perspective may indicate just how deeply rooted your beliefs are.

Of course, body image isn’t only about weight and about the images we see. Difficulty expressing emotions, sexual objectification, physical and sexual abuse and trauma can all result in a fraught relationship with our bodies, and may result in addictions or eating disorders that affect both our actual appearance and our self-perception. Women who have been objectified or assaulted might come to see their body as something evil that needs to be controlled, hidden or denied. The “me” that we see might look perfectly lovely to an outside observer, but when we look in the mirror, we see a surface layer that is hiding pain, rage, shame and all the shadows of our experience from the rest of the world. It keeps us safe, but it also holds us hostage.

Enter the healing power of yoga — not an approach centered around perfecting forms and achieving extreme flexibility and strength, but yoga that teaches us to be present in each moment, noticing the sensations we feel and honoring our experience. When we practice, first and foremost we witness what is there, releasing judgment and even relinquishing the desire to change. As we stretch, move and breathe with mindful awareness, we come to understand ourselves on a deeper level. Practicing in this way loosens the grip of our habitual ways of being, allowing for greater self-trust and making room for a new perspective.

For many of us, this takes time. Patterns can run deep, especially when they’ve served to protect us for so long. When we’re used to feeling bad, feeling better can be scary, and as much as we want freedom, we might not know what to do with it when we find it. That’s why it’s important to be consistent with our practice, but gentle with ourselves as well. I practiced and taught for years before I began to understand yoga in this way, and to develop a compassionate relationship with my body that opened the doorway to greater freedom.

The beauty is that you can begin any time. As a start, next time you put on your yoga clothes, step in front of your mirror and pause. Is the voice in your head rushing to judgment? Try closing your eyes and doing some movement. Are you comfortable? Can you breathe and stretch freely? Do you begin to feel more spacious inside? Yoga gives us a new touchstone, one that focuses on the feeling inside. Try taking that risk — like an oversized tank top, you can pull off that outer layer and let your true self shine through.

1 http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/new-dove-research-finds-beauty-pressures-up-and-women-and-girls-calling-for-change-583743391.html

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What’s Your Story?

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Recently I got an email from a young woman interested in working with me. She left a phone number, but as I prefer to arrange set times for conversation, I emailed her back and gave her a number of times I might be available, asking her to call me and to let me know if there was a time other than those that might be better.

When I didn’t hear back from her over the next couple of days, I became curious first, then concerned. I reread my email and immediately began questioning myself. Was my tone too formal? (I didn’t think so.) Was I too “businesslike” in giving her windows of time we might speak? (Again, it didn’t feel that way.) Should I be more casual, less structured, should I have offered to call her? Perhaps I needed to rethink my whole approach to doing business…

This went on in my mind for some time. I’ve always struggled with a sense of perfectionism (ironic, because I’m SO not perfect!) and beaten myself up considerably for making “mistakes.” In this case, I decided I would not beat myself up, I’d just take it as a lesson learned and perhaps think differently about how I responded to someone in the future. A few days later, however, I followed up and said, “Just wanted to make sure you got my email — let me know if you still want to connect.” She responded, saying no, she hadn’t, and yes, she did.

Oh.

My lesson here is that despite initially feeling fine about my response, and having absolutely no information about how it was received, I created a story about all of it and clung to it. It’s a lesson I learn over and over, as I continually create stories where I’m responsible for (read: in control of) the way things have or haven’t happened, and make myself crazy until I (hopefully) find out the truth.

As a mindfulness practitioner, it amuses me (in a sort of painful, chagrined way) to watch this endless repetition loop. In mindfulness we’re taught to “drop the story” in order to recognize the truth in any given moment. That goes not only for the stories we create around various events, but, ultimately, the stories that shape our identities. It requires knowing our narratives, recognizing our attachment to them, and being willing to see people and events through a clearer lens. If you’ve ever tried this, you might have found that it’s one of the hardest things to do, but I think it also might be the most revolutionary.

For example, prior to the Women’s March, I read a lot of opinion pieces from women who didn’t want to participate. Many were women of color and non-cisgender women who were fed up. They felt the march was self-serving, not inclusive, that it was for white women, especially those who’d previously been too comfortable to care about the many issues affecting women all over the world, and that it was too little too late.
I felt sad to see these women disconnect from an opportunity to be part of something that turned out to be so much more, and something that I think may actually serve as a gateway to the kind of communication and change they seek. Indeed, there were many other women who felt the same but who used the event as an entry point into that part of the conversation.

Disappointment notwithstanding, I understand (I believe) the concerns of those who felt disconnected. How can we ask people to drop their story when their story hasn’t been fully heard? And in order to actually hear someone’s story, we have to be willing to drop our own, at least for long enough to really be open to someone else’s experience, with all of its pain, suffering and joy. It is in this opening, with its potential for empathy and shared authentic experience, that our consciousness about who we are, and, subsequently, how we relate to the world, can shift.

Whether we are survivors of interpersonal trauma or of systemic oppression, people of privilege or anything else in the human spectrum of experience, we have a story, or several, and an identity that defines us, creating a potential boundary between us and the world. A dedicated mindfulness practice ultimately brings us to the place where we must look honestly at our beliefs, our prejudices, and the stories that shape our lives. Having stories and a sense of identity isn’t bad — very often, they give our lives great meaning. Sometimes, though, they outlive their usefulness. When we realize this, we have a choice: we can continue to live out our old narratives, or we might find it time to create new ones, perhaps with less rigid boundaries, that leave us with some space. Space for growth. Space for evolution. Space for real feeling. Space for that which is real. Space for love.

One of my favorite aphorisms is, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” That’s obvious enough when we look at the events in our world today and the intense reactions they cause. A truly mindful approach helps us pause long enough to notice. It gives us the opportunity to drop the stories, and really see and feel the truth of each “other.” It requires great courage, and maybe even a leap of faith — but it might just be the thing to move us forward and beyond.

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Donald Trump Inspires Me

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Donald Trump inspires me.

I know.

Let me explain.

Way before the election, I was already deep in the abyss of darkness and despair into which so many others plunged right after that fateful night. Through my spiritual seeking and questioning, I’d gotten to the point where I was looking at the vast reality of human experience — the incredible good that we are capable of feeling, being and doing, as well as the depths of our brutality, and everything in between — and wondering not just how it all came to be, but why.

I’ve been taught that everyone has “basic goodness,” and that we all come from one source and that source is Love. I always believed that and I always strove to find and create that experience. I believe in compassion and trying to understand others without passing judgment. I understand duality (I think) — but what I can’t understand is why it came to be in the first place. Why the extremes of darkness and light? And can spiritual practices like those that I’ve been studying and practicing ever eradicate those extremes?

Depressingly, I came to the conclusion that they can’t. We human animals seem to have a fundamental need for power that results in sustained inequality, and fears of the unknown (including death) that result in a desperate grab for control. Combine that with the scars (samskaras) of past experience (whether in this life or another, if you believe in that) and the neurobiological functions that produce psychopaths and sociopaths, and the prognosis for a happy, healthy, unified planet begins to feel very bleak indeed. I imagine there will never be an end to the dualism till death — a return to unified source energy.

Aligning with that perspective made things feel even worse. I saw the things I didn’t like or agree with in others and I judged them, harshly. I felt intolerant and angry. I blamed them for my negative feelings. I felt the profound sense of “other”-ness which contributes to that divide between those of us with differing beliefs. Teach yoga? Teach peace? Please. Call it the proverbial existential crisis, but really, it felt like crap.

Then came the stupendous rise of the president-elect, whose election I admit I believed could never happen. So many of us found our sense of reality turned on its head. Racism, hatred and vitriol that was simmering all along boiled over, blindsiding many Americans who had faith in the social progress we’ve made over the years. Immediately after the election, friends of mine plunged into that dark, disbelieving despair through which I’d already been slogging for some time. They were angry, afraid, dispirited. They didn’t know what to do.

After the initial shock, I noticed a strange shift. I began feeling lighter, more upbeat, even inspired. Wrestling with those big questions of why it all came to be and whether we can ever fundamentally change suddenly took a backseat. Instead, I knew exactly what to do, and — as I told my suffering friends — what we all need to do. Those of us who know right from wrong need to do the right thing. We need to uphold the values we hold dear and the way of life we cherish. We need to raise our voices in support of the causes that move us most. We need to “be the change.” The cancer of hatred is more widespread than we wanted to believe, but at least now it’s visible — we know what we’re dealing with and we can target it more effectively. And it’s happening — people are contacting their representatives, they’re protesting the pipeline, they’re speaking up against discrimination against Muslims…and that’s just the beginning. Will any of this serve to have an impact on the interplay of darkness and light? I don’t know, but the urgency of now is the thing that matters most.

I would never have chosen this outcome but I’m grateful for the resurgence of passion it has generated in me and in so many others.

Donald Trump inspires me.

That motherf*cker.

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On Teaching and Power, Part II

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In my last post, I promised to follow up with suggestions on how we can explore our relationship to power and how it plays out in our teaching. I’ve been ruminating on this ever since and, as with many big topics, one answer tends to lead to other questions. Vichara, or self-inquiry, is a central tenet of yoga practice, so I consider this a good thing. As Einstein said, “The important thing is to not stop questioning.” Here are just a few questions we can ask ourselves that can shed light on how we relate to having power and help us avoid abusing it. While this is written with yoga teachers in mind, I think it is relevant to any kind of teaching, supervision or mentoring relationship. I welcome your feedback and thoughts

What am I actually teaching?

To me, all roads lead back to this. Your understanding of yoga can and should inform everything you teach. Postures, breathing exercises, meditation techniques, philosophy, scriptures, ethics and even values are often conveyed as ends unto themselves. However, what is the overall context? If you believe yoga is a system of beliefs and practices, you will likely need your students to agree with you. Even if the concepts you teach appear to serve the greater good, communicating them as essential beliefs can undermine everything.

Personally, I believe yoga is the freedom that results from the inquiry into the truth underlying our very existence. It is an experiential understanding that we are all essentially connected to the same source and, hence, to each other. If I truly believe I am teaching people to be free, how can I try to “make” them do, think or feel anything? I see my role as facilitator of an experience in which students can recognize their own patterns, and discover new options and possibilities. I support their journey but it is up to them to decide how far they want to go and what they are ready for at any given time.

How do I relate to authority and control?

One of my favorite recent memes is a take on the popular “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster. It says, “Keep Calm, and Don’t You Dare Fucking Walk Out In The Middle of Savasana.” The kindest, most easygoing instructor can see red when someone gets up and disrupts the final relaxation, especially when the class has been instructed to stay till the end (that’s been me, more than once). The same holds true when students do postures the “wrong” way, or do different postures from those we’re teaching. While we often need to guide individual behavior in service of the group, the degree to which we feel enraged or upset can clue us in to how hooked we are to needing authority in that moment.

The fact is, most of us are educated within a hierarchical system that automatically creates a power imbalance. Our students often see us as authorities and are highly sensitive to our words and behavior. Once, I had a student who would fall asleep immediately after lying down for the final relaxation, every single time. I had never seen this before and jokingly commented on it, saying it was “weird.” Regardless of my intent, the student felt judged and self-conscious by my careless choice of words, and he never allowed himself to fully relax in my class again. Maybe this wasn’t an abuse of power, but it was certainly unskillful. I realized I had become too casual, underestimating the impact of my authority, and needed to be more sensitive.

Can I tolerate doubt and uncertainty?

At the core, life is inherently uncertain. We don’t know what’s going to happen next, or when. This reality can produce an existential angst that we’re constantly trying to overcome. Many spiritual teachings are meant to help us cope with this reality, but, ironically, are often met with the same need for control. Consider your teaching style and whether it makes room for your own uncertainty. For example, do you believe there is a “right” way? Do you believe the traditions and substance of your teachings are incontrovertible truths? How much do you need to be right yourself? In the beginning, I taught in a more rigid and fixed way because what I learned was new to me and my context was limited. This is a particular danger with inexperienced teachers or those who subscribe to a defined system. As I continued to study and learn from different approaches, I became comfortable saying, “This is what I believe and why, but you can try it on for size and feel free to find your own way.”

Have I experienced healing through yoga?

Some of the most effective teachers are those who have experienced yoga’s healing properties firsthand, but it is essential to understand that each person is unique and the same approach doesn’t work for everyone. Taking a prescriptive approach is at best simplistic (e.g., “5 Poses to Heal Depression”) and at worst a kind of therapeutic colonialism that implies that what is best for someone else is what was best for you. This devalues the individual experience and is potentially damaging when someone doesn’t achieve healing by following the prescription.

Another potential risk is that as you work through your own issues, you might become inappropriately invested in the progress of your students. This is a common pitfall in mental health treatment, and it is well worth considering here. There is a saying that goes, “We teach what we need to know.” Most of us teach the concepts and practices that resonate with us, but we need to be able to differentiate our own needs from those of our students, meeting them where they are rather than where we are. In this way, we empower our students to develop a complex, nuanced, authentic practice.

Have I been abused?

While you might think that being abused naturally results in a desire to uplift others, this isn’t always the case. It is said that “hurt people hurt people.” Many abused individuals develop an unconscious coping mechanism called the “internalized abuser,” in which they find their own stolen sense of empowerment through the abuse and oppression others. If we have been abused and not yet come to find our own power, then even if our intent is to uplift, we are at risk of becoming the very abuser we could not escape by utilizing the same techniques.

Do I respect my students’ boundaries?

Most teachers learn that adjusting students’ postures — i.e., touching their students — is an integral part of teaching. I believe it’s time to reconsider the function of hands-on adjustments and our approach to them. I can think of no clearer violation of a student’s personal boundaries than to push, pull or physically manipulate their body without asking permission first. It’s important to let our students know in advance if we will be moving around the room and offering adjustments, and imperative that we create an atmosphere in which a student can feel safe in saying no. More studios and teachers are thinking now about how to do this and that’s great, because even when people want to say no, they often don’t feel empowered enough to do it. I also think it’s worth considering the purpose and context of adjustments — remember “all roads leading back” to what you’re actually teaching? If I adjust a student in a posture, it could help them find better alignment or move through some resistance, opening them up to more freedom and energy flow — but if I do, then I become part of the experience. That may be fine but again, it should be made explicit and put in context.

Do I allow myself to be lionized?

Our students can also play a role in creating unhealthy dynamics by empowering us far too much because of their own histories and relationship to authority. Sometimes they inflate our egos by calling us a healer or talking about how much we’ve done for them. They even try to emulate us, and certain traditions say they should. When we take our role seriously and get a lot of our identity from teaching, this can be very seductive. I find “Follow the teachings, not the teacher” to be a good rule of thumb. We also need to be careful when sexuality comes into play. Genuine, egalitarian relationships between teachers and students can certainly develop, but it is incumbent upon us to be as mindful as possible about what our students are seeking so that we don’t find ourselves in an unhealthy mess.

A final thought: the people who abuse their power are likely not the ones who are going to be asking themselves these questions. Empowering our students to maintain a healthy sense of self wherever they find themselves studying will go a long way towards mitigating the abusive effects of the unconscious or downright deliberately power-hungry “gurus” out there. Om shanti.

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On Teaching and Power — Part I

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In case you haven’t heard, there’s a new scandal rocking the New York City yoga scene. A longtime teacher at a prominent yoga school has been accused of sexual harassment by a teacher trainee/apprentice. The school is standing behind the teacher; some people support the accuser. Many acknowledge that they don’t know the truth, but agree that it is necessary to confront this issue head-on and figure out how to prevent it from happening in the first place. This isn’t the first time this kind of scenario has played out in the yoga world and garnered a similar reaction. It seems to me that if we are to address the issue of abuse honestly, we need to acknowledge the power dynamics inherent within the student-teacher relationship, and take a good hard look at our own attitudes.

One of the primary definitions of power is the ability to act or produce an effect. The student-teacher relationship is generally a hierarchy, with a power differential in which the teacher, as an authority figure, has the potential to wield influence over the student. The degree to which this influence occurs depends on many factors, including both the teacher’s and the student’s conscious and unconscious relationship to authority. As yoga teachers, part of our svadhyaya, or rigorous self-study, needs to include an ongoing assessment of our own feelings about power and authority and how we act them out. For example, how do we we feel when students don’t follow our instructions? Do we present the teachings as sacrosanct or do we leave room for questioning? Are we open to feedback? How invested are we in whether students believe us or not?

Having power can feed any teacher’s ego or tap into their unmet psychological needs, but when sexuality comes into play, this honest self-assessment is even more critical. Hatha yoga works expressly with people’s bodies, often through touch — and not just a gentle tap on the shoulder but frequently through full-body contact that can be reminiscent of a wrestling move. Since the body, mind and emotions are all being accessed consciously and unconsciously, we really have no idea what the impact of our interventions will be.

There is often talk of how the accusers did not listen to their own instinct, intuition, inner knowing, or the like. There is often a strong undercurrent of blaming the victim, or at least a need to underscore the victim/accuser’s role in the relationship. It is true that there are always different sides to a story and two people (if it is only two) involved. It is true that sometimes people lie. Hopefully under scrutiny the truth will bear out. However, it is critical to understand that even if someone feels they are in danger or “knows better,” he or she may not feel powerful enough to stop it. This is so often the case with abuse survivors, and it adds a layer of guilt and shame to the pain they already experience. Regarding this recent case, one well known teacher (not related to this particular school), said that this accuser was a consenting adult who “gave” her mentor this power. Just because power is given to us does not give us the right to abuse it.

Doctors and mental health practitioners are two groups of professionals, entrusted with caring for people’s health and well-being, who agree to subscribe to ethical codes that hold them to a high standard of behavior. We are are similarly obligated when we take on the mantle of yoga teacher. In Part II, I will offer some suggestions on how we can explore our own relationship to power and how it plays out in our teaching.

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Those Scary Halloween Costumes

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I’ve never been a Halloween person.

When I was little, I wasn’t allowed to go trick-or-treating. My mother claimed it was a Christian holiday (I think she meant pagan) so we didn’t celebrate it, but I think the truth is that the neighborhood was getting a little dangerous. A few years before, my father had answered the door to give out some candy, and a kid about his height was standing there with an axe. That was the end of that. I couldn’t go outside, so I would don my fake leather, fringed Davy Crockett vest and stand by the kitchen window watching the other children in their costumes going by. When the latch was lifted, the peephole to our apartment door was actually open to the outside, so I took single wrapped pieces of Trident gum and tossed them through the opening, hoping kids would pick them up.

As a result, I never really got into costumes (though at sleepaway camp I painted my face, put aluminum foil on my platform shoes, stuck out my exceptionally long tongue and did a mean version of Gene Simmons from KISS), but the question of identity has always fascinated me. In yoga and meditation, we spend our time pursuing, exploring and trying to understand the truth of who we are — the energy that not only enlivens us but is in fact the thing that connects us with everyone else. That includes those walking around in, as my teacher Erich Schiffman said recently, “their scary Halloween costumes.” When he said that, it gave me pause. I suddenly thought that seeing people as merely costumed beings, masking their true selves, might make it easier for me to feel love and compassion for them — because let me tell you, here in New York City, it’s hard.

People are everywhere here, pushing their costumed selves right up against you. The mean-spirited, angry, always-ready-to-fight types. The inconsiderate ones who won’t take a simple step to the side and make it easier for others to board the train or bus. The ones who know their religion is better than yours and need to tell you about it, loudly. Kids acting rudely. Aggressive people. Misogynists. Thieves. Murderers, even. These people wear their costumes so well, they’ve come to believe themselves that it’s who they are, and they make me believe it too. I get angry, frustrated and I judge, constantly. It doesn’t feel good.

It can be hard to remember that these scary, aggravating or off-putting costumes are often covering up unimaginable pain. Fear, loss and anxiety. Trauma, abuse, and neglect. Abandonment. Lives of poverty and unfulfilled promise. These costumes become a survival technique, and a way of life. It takes an awful lot practice for me to “live in the light,” and keep my cool when the heat turns up, to say nothing of feeling compassion and love.

Still, there are moments. A young man offers me a seat on the train. Another helps a young woman up the steps with her stroller. Random conversations with strangers about everyday events. It helps.

This year, the New York City Marathon came the day after Halloween. I know of no other event that serves so effectively to strip away the feeling of disconnection between us and others. Thousands are running and thousands are cheering, all strangers but all united in a way you can almost touch. That is inspiring. The costumes are off and everyone can see, and there’s nothing scary about it.

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The Blessing and the Curse and the Blessing of Mindfulness

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I never thought I’d ever quote a Britney Spears song but, “Oops! I did it again.”

Last night I went to a workshop on relationships, empathy and communication. A friend had invited me and I wanted to attend, more for the opportunity to connect with her than to actually participate. It was the only social event I had scheduled for the day, so I was looking forward to it.

Unfortunately, the early part of the day was an emotional disaster. It was a beautiful summer day, the kind I live for, but I had nothing to do and no one to see. This being NYC, there were any number of things I could have done, but I didn’t want to do them alone. I did my best to be grateful and boost my mood but the loneliness was overwhelming and overtook me. When it came time for the workshop, I was in a real funk. I felt like a kid in the back of the classroom, wearing a hoodie zipped up tight and covering my face in shadows so I would barely be seen.

There were a couple of people there that I knew, and one of them was even happy to see me because she was hoping I would add something to the conversation. I don’t know her well, but in the brief conversations we’ve had, she seems to have been impressed with my perspective and wants to hear more from me. It was flattering and an honor. I wanted to oblige, and as the workshop progressed there were things I wanted to say, but my hoodie was pulled too tight and I couldn’t — or wouldn’t — take it off and give myself a chance to speak. I was aware of the internal tug of war taking place as I recognized both my impulse and my resistance meeting in a stalemate, my relentless pattern of holding back that happens even when I’m conscious of it. I convinced myself it didn’t matter if I didn’t say anything, and afterwards simply went home, with the residue of the day and my unexpressed thoughts wrapped around me.

This morning, as I sat in meditation, yesterday washed over me. I’d been miserable being on my own, but when the chance for connection came, I withdrew. I’ve been seeking opportunities to teach and let my voice be heard, but when a moment presented itself — not just presented, but was invited! — I was so wrapped up in my armor that I told myself it didn’t matter. But as I confronted this defense, I had to admit that I know better. Every opportunity to change a pattern is significant, like when you gradually exercise a weak muscle until it’s strong enough to take on a much greater weight.

Mindfulness feels like a blessing when we come to understand ourselves, recognizing our patterns and their roots, and creating opportunities to choose new ways of being. It can also feel like a curse because when we find ourselves repeating old patterns, we have to confront them head-on, realizing “Oops! I did it again.” This can be really painful, and for me it’s usually accompanied by a hearty dose of self-bashing. Fortunately, I reached out to my friend to thank her for inviting me and to apologize for my obvious ill humor. She provided the kindness and understanding I couldn’t offer myself, buoying me enough to remember another fundamental blessing of mindfulness practice — no matter how hard or how far we fall, or how often we have to get up, we can always, without exception, begin again.

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Mindfulness vs. Law Of Attraction

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I’ll let you in on a little secret. I’m a big fan of the Abraham-Hicks “Law of Attraction” stuff.

I know, I know! But before you dismiss me out of hand, let me explain. The truth is, it requires careful listening to understand what this theory is really all about.

The surface premise is that we can have anything we want in life if we think positively and align ourselves with it vibrationally. The instructions are to imagine the feeling of what you want as if it already exists, to make yourself feel good regardless of your circumstances, and to not get hung up on when (or if) your desire ever arrives. When you do that, you become a “vibrational match” and your desire manifests, at (of course) the perfect time.

The brilliant underlying assumption here is that what we really want is to feel good and be happy, and that we have the capacity for this regardless of our outside conditions. If we’re already happy, then getting the things we want doesn’t matter so much. Not only that, but tuning into the positive rather than the negative can make it seem like more good things are manifesting, so…do you get it? It’s like a money-back guarantee!

But while it might appear to be a slick, bait-and-switch kind of sell, the truth is that it taps into the heart of spiritual practice. You see, the way we become this vibrational match is by cultivating positive thoughts and practicing gratitude for the things we already have. If that sounds familiar, it should — cultivating our thoughts is one of the fundamental elements of mindfulness, and practicing gratitude is roundly acknowledged as a spiritual cornerstone.

There are, however, some important differences between LOA and mindfulness. First, mindfulness and meditation don’t use attainment as a hook. While we are more likely to “get” things that we want when we align with them, in mindfulness it’s not our expectation or our goal. Rather, we seek stability, clarity and awareness, and how we relate to our experiences becomes our primary focus.

Also, mindfulness doesn’t sugar-coat it. While feeling good and cultivating positive thoughts is important, mindfulness practice is right there with us when we find ourselves feeling lost, confused, uncomfortable and in pain. We might pull ourselves into the light for a while, but we can easily slip back into darkness, especially the more persistent our patterns and the less supportive our environment is of change. LOA reminds us to be grateful and to think of what’s good, and this is essential; but mindfulness sits right beside us letting us know that even if we’re not there yet, we can still find some spaciousness to ease our pain while remembering the truth that things will change because everything does. And while slogging through the muck of psychological baggage can be painful, it may indicate that we are on the right track just as much as feeling good or manifesting desires can. It’s important to realize this in order to avoid adopting a “blame the victim” mentality when we’re struggling or when circumstances aren’t how we’d like them to be.

Finally, there can be a gravitas to mindfulness that arises when applying the principles to our larger social and political issues. At its best, LOA is similar to Gandhi’s advice to “be the change you wish to see in the world,” particularly when we combine it with compassion. However, when what we desire is social justice and political and economic change, we need ways to acknowledge and deal with the depths of the hurt and rage that we inevitably feel when confronting existing reality. Mindfulness goes that distance with us.

Law Of Attraction is an inspiring and fulfilling metaphysical philosophy that can help us find freedom and flow in life, and I think it’s a great complement to mindfulness. I think of it as the cheerleader that can give us wings and lift us up, while mindfulness is the coach who’s played the game and knows how to keep pace with us on the ground.

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A Mindful Mother’s Day

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For many years, I didn’t like Mother’s Day. After my mother’s death, living in a family that never really talked about her afterwards, I buried my feelings and pretended this day didn’t exist. The advent of Facebook and its accompanying explosion of commemorative photos and sentiments made it harder to ignore, though I tried, by not checking in much and rarely acknowledging anyone’s posts.

As I’ve worked to come to terms with my own family history, it’s become a little easier to acknowledge the happiness of others. This year, I posted some photos of my own, both of my mother before I knew her, and one from the years when I did. I always wished I knew her as she was when she was young. A beautiful dancer and singer who went to modeling school and believed in behaving like a lady, she was robbed of her grace by trauma that left her with a core of fear and, most likely, shame and regret. While she was a good mother, I always wished she could have modeled for me the ease of being the center of attention, and been someone I wanted to emulate instead of keep in the background, loving her but wishing she could somehow be different.

If she had, I might have been a performer myself, studying ballet as she wanted me to and maybe sticking with piano, for which I had talent. Instead, I took karate lessons, played softball, and channeled my energy into more aggressive pursuits. Had I not tried so hard to do the opposite of what she wanted, then when I finally discovered my own love for dance, I could have had the foundation to make much more of it than simply teaching aerobics and hip-hop at the gym.

Still, she was loving and nurturing, and supported my academic achievements without placing undue pressure on me. I started reading at the age of 4, and was easily ahead of all my classmates at school until the second grade, when I began to fall behind. At a parent-teacher conference, my mother asked the teacher what could be done about this, to which the teacher responded, “she’ll grow out of it.” Unsatisfied with this, my mother bought language arts workbooks and made me work with her every day after school — when I would much rather have been playing outside — until she figured out the problem: I was reading so fast (probably to stay ahead of everyone), that I wasn’t comprehending the material. She forced me to slow down until I regained a natural (still fast!) pace where I was again understanding and, again, able to excel.

That kind of love and support is some of the best you can hope for from a mother, and despite the wall of unspoken truths that always existed between us, I’m glad that I’ve reached a point in my life where I can feel truly grateful. For her sake, I wish her life could have been more fulfilling — but while my own life might have been different as a result, it has guided me instead towards becoming a teacher and a guide for healing. That’s a legacy I’ll gladly embrace.

Happy Mother’s Day to all.

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Mindfulness and Fear

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Ah, fear…my old friend. I mean, fear…my old nemesis. I mean…what?

Fear has been living with me for so long, it’s like a part of the family — that abrasive relative you never talk back to but who holds everyone in their grip. You might sidestep, placate, appease, even confront, but still, they never really back down. Sometimes they’re sweet and charming and you get lulled into a false security, then…wham! Knocked down once again.

If you’re like me, your fear masquerades in many disguises. It often takes the form of disinterest. For example, I’ve had many job opportunities where I’ve given a dynamic first interview and gotten close to a new challenge. Then somehow I’d decide I wasn’t so interested anymore. I’d give a weak second interview, and instead of being the one to make the decision, it was made for me, in the form of no offer. Of course I’d tell myself I didn’t really want it anyway, and maybe I really didn’t. Or, I’d imagine the job was really too hard for me and who knows, it might have been. It took a long time to learn that the important thing wasn’t whether or not I could have done it, but that I gave up my power, and usually way too soon.

Fear of failure is certainly common, but fear of success can be equally strong. Getting closer to experiencing your own power can be a scary thing if you’re used to keeping it in check. I see it happen all the time with yoga students who are making great progress in their physical practice and suddenly get sidelined by injury, or somehow their schedule changes and they can no longer make it to class. The first time it happened to me, I was attending classes consistently and practicing diligently. One day I was practicing a headstand at the wall and brought my legs straight down and held them in a half-staff position — this was something I thought I’d never be able to do and it was exhilarating. What happened next? I found reasons to stop going to class. Progress halted. Again, it took me a long time to understand what was actually going on.

Using mindfulness to deal with fear is both effective and challenging. It requires the patience to sit with the many different faces of fear until your awareness is keen enough to recognize each. There can be a process of decoding the language of your own relationship to fear. It often manifests as physical symptoms, hiding unconsciously in the body. Mine has been lodged in my lower back for years, a literal “holding back.” This is why it’s important to avoid aggressive yoga practice. You might be working with more than just a tight muscle, and the whole body-mind continuum needs to work together to release something deeper.

It takes fortitude to recognize, tolerate and accept the role fear has played in your life. Luckily, there’s courage. No one likes the idea of being afraid, but we love the idea of having courage — which, by definition, includes feeling our fear, so it’s a winning concept. Lately, I’ve been feeling fear directly in my gut, where I believe it’s supposed to be. I’m pleased about this shift. I’m not always sure what I’m afraid of but at least I know what I’m dealing with, which makes it a lot easier to decide what to do.

Eventually, we’ve got to tell our fear to move out. Sure, it can visit — sometimes we actually need it to let us know what real danger is all about. But when we determine that there’s no real threat, or that the threat is in the past, it’s time to show fear the door. Then it’s more like a distant relative you’re glad you got to know, but you’re relieved it’s gone back home. Next time, maybe it can just phone.

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