You Are Not Your Bad Thoughts

“The beginning of freedom is the realization that you are not the thinker.”

– Eckhart Tolle

Many of us go through life believing that our thoughts are who we are. Thinking is so familiar to us, so much part of our moment-to-moment reality, that we can’t imagine who or what we would be without it. 

Of course, we need thinking in order to navigate our lives. Reflective thoughts enable us to learn from our experiences and hopefully make wiser choices moving forwards. Thinking about the future means we can plan the lives we wish to live. As a species, our ability to think creatively has allowed us to increase our comfort, improve our life expectancy and fashion everything from skyscrapers to silicon chips.

But what happens when we are overtaken by thoughts that seem to be working against us? What happens when the same thoughts loop round in our minds on repeat and we feel powerless to stop them? What do we do when our thoughts are telling us that we are worthless, unlovable, destined to fail, or even that the world would be a better place without us?

The Secret Self

I struggled with my own thinking patterns a lot in my 20’s. I was my own worst critic, believing I was not good enough, not smart enough, not interesting enough for the world around me. Inconsequential problems would lodge themselves in my head and refuse to leave me alone.  I did what I could to escape them but even if I found a temporary reprieve they were destined to bounce back more aggressively at some point.

At times my thoughts could be dark, random and even disturbing. Because I believed I was my thoughts, it followed that I must be a bad person.

Not wanting to let anyone in on this secret self, I attempted to contain it and fake normality. I tried to be nice on the outside and just hoped that no one would notice otherwise. Needless to say this was a lonely and imprisoning experience.

Awakening The Witness

I remember the first time I tried meditation in my 20’s. It did not feel at all helpful. In fact it felt like being in confinement with my worst thoughts. The experience only added to my feeling that there was something wrong with me. How come meditation could work for other people but only made things worse for me? What was I missing?

It wasn’t until I came across The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle that I experienced the ability to step back from my thoughts and observe them. Here is an exercise from the book that stays in my mind:

“Try a little experiment. Close your eyes and say to yourself: “I wonder what my next thought is going to be.” Then become very alert and wait for the next thought. Be like a cat watching a mouse hole. What thought is going to come out of the mouse hole? Try it now.”

In waiting for the next thought to come, I found that a gap opened up in my mind. In this gap there were no thoughts and yet there was something alive that felt like me. It was peaceful, spacious and clear. By practicing the exercises in the book, I continued to access this thoughtless place. With time, I found I could shift into it more readily, without needing to do anything in particular.

What I had come across in The Power of Now was ‘the witness’ – the part of us that sits beyond the thoughts, is able to observe them and know it is not them. It was life-changing for me because I now knew I was something more than my thinking mind.

The Power To Choose

As I practiced more yoga, I discovered that the concept of the witness (Sakshi) is central to yoga. The witness enables us to observe not only thoughts but physical sensations and emotions too. We discover from this observing place that thoughts, sensations and emotions come and go whilst the witness is always there, unchanging. The analogy that is often used for this is a clear open sky (the witness) with clouds passing through it (thoughts and sensations).

There are many ways that yoga helps us to access this witnessing capacity. Whether we are meditating or moving through our asana practice, focusing our attention on a particular object such as the breath makes it easier to notice when our mind wanders and thoughts arise. The more we get used to doing this on our mats, the more it becomes natural in our everyday lives.

Over time, we start to notice our habitual patterns of thinking and find we have a choice as to how we engage with them. We might, for example, choose to challenge self-criticism by reminding ourselves of our positive qualities. Other thoughts we might observe but allow them to just pass on by. And when we notice the kind of thoughts that support the vision we have for lives, we can choose to engage with them and act upon them.

This act of witnessing our thoughts also helps us to change our behaviour. So if I’ve decided I don’t want to drink alcohol every night, rather than just going along with the voice that says ‘it’s the end of a long day, you deserve it’, I can observe this as a thought that’s not serving my best interests. Then I have some space to weigh up my decision – do I actually want to have a drink tonight or might I make a different choice?

The witness gives us the gift of the gap; the space in which choice becomes possible.

Gateway To Freedom

The important thing about witnessing is that we are not trying to push anything away. Dark thoughts may arise and we notice them but we learn not to react to them. We discover that just as the sky can accommodate a myriad of clouds, we can make space for a whole range of thoughts.

In fact, difficult thoughts can even become a gift.

It’s easy to be complacent with a continuous stream of thoughts when they are mostly peaceful and pleasant, but when our thoughts start to trouble us, it can remind us to take a step back from them.

In stepping back, we release ourselves from the limitations of the thinking mind – the belief we are trapped, separate and alone. We find a gateway to our true nature which is expansive, peaceful and free.

In the words of the late spiritual teacher Ram Dass:

“Eventually, floating in that subjective awareness, the objects of awareness dissolve, and you will come into the spiritual Self, the Atmān, which is pure consciousness, joy, compassion, the One.”

– Ram Dass

Putting It Into Practice

Here are a few ideas for accessing the witness:

  1. Take your awareness to your breath as it moves in and out of your nostrils. Feel the sensation and temperature of each breath. When a thought pops up, notice it and return to the sensation of the breath. Notice your ability to notice the thoughts
  2. Try free-flow writing. Write three A4 sides of whatever is going through your mind, without judging, analyzing or stopping. When the thoughts are on paper, it creates a sense of separation from them and it’s easier to see that they are not us. (This technique is taken from Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. She recommends doing it first thing in the morning and it’s therefore known as Morning Pages.)
  3. Practice witnessing sensations in your body, both during your yoga practice and throughout the day. Let go of the labels (‘my achey hip’, ‘my indigestion’) and bring a sense of curiosity to the sensation. Notice the part of you that’s doing the noticing and see if you can rest in it for a time.

Did you enjoy this article? You may also like Not everyone who practices yoga is happy; and that’s okay.

Types of Meditation

Hi all! I liked this sweet little infographic from Health Perch; it’s a nice quick reference for meditation styles and tips:

“If someone says “meditation” to you, what do you think of? You might think of Buddhist monks, chanting together. Or you might recall a bunch of yoga devotees sitting together in silence and thinking deep thoughts. But meditation can benefit everyone, even if you’re not an expert and even if you just tackle some sort of meditation for a few minutes a day. And you might be more encouraged to tackle meditation if you know that there are various kinds of it and that you can probably find the type that best fits your personality and your goals.

For example, Kundalini meditation is inspired by the yoga practice of the same name. And in fact, it integrates a physical approach with breath work, with thoughtful approach to moving up the spine and connecting mind and body. Want to learn more about why meditation may be a good thing for you and what types you want to try? This graphic has some ideas.”

Link to original article.

Just Like the Ocean: A Yoga Journey For Parent And Baby

baby book for yoga

A decade ago, I was a new mother, trying desperately to make the most of my maternity leave before returning to my job in the creative field. I was living in San Francisco at the time, a city regarded as one of the best for maternal care and resources. I had my pick of plenty of mommy-and-me classes and I dove into them, dreaming of bonding and entertaining my daughter while I recovered some semblance of my pre-baby body. 

Time after time, my experiences fell into two categories — a class focused almost entirely on my baby (fun for her, but not much use for me), or focused entirely on me (useful for me, but missing the opportunity to bond.) Let me be clear — mothers NEED classes expressly for mothers. It’s a wonderful service to moms allowing infants to come to fitness classes. Through my journey of motherhood I have relied on the community I have found in mother-centered fitness. But — as my return to the workplace loomed, I found myself longing to pick up my daughter, to interact with her and engage her while I was exercising. And as a new mom with an aching back, diastisis recti, incontinence issues and emotional overwhelm, yoga seemed the best way to attend to my mind and body. My prenatal practice became my postnatal savior. 

Bringing My Baby Into My Practice

As a result, I started looking for ways to bring my daughter into my postures. Over time, we developed a little routine together and in an inspired moment, I jotted down a few rhyming verses about our playtime. Lightbulbs flashed above my head and I realized I could share this sweet interaction with other mothers and fathers; the idea for Just Like the Ocean was born. 

Creating This Book

What happened next can only be described as life … my return to work, a cross country move, several launched businesses, a failed marriage, and continually adjusting to my daughters’ (I have two now) evolving stages. I developed illustrations, had the poses evaluated and approved by a prenatal yoga expert, and submitted my book to publishers. And … nothing. As a first time author, it’s very hard to get a foot in the door with well-known publishers. But I kept pushing, believing that someone, somewhere would see the value in a partnered yoga flow benefiting both mom and baby. And so, I waited. And waited. And finally, finally, I found a boutique publisher who loved my book, and they were ready to help me share it with the world. A full decade had passed since I’d started this journey, and when I held it at last in my hands, I cried. I am thrilled beyond words to see my book available to share with other parents!

About The Book

The book itself is 19 interactive yoga poses, paired with a rhyming story about exploring a jungle island. There are poses to help ease back pain related to bending over a nursing baby, poses to strengthen the pelvic floor, exercises to mend diastisis and poses to bring mindfulness and relaxation. Each pose is accompanied by simple illustrations and instruction for those new to yoga. Perfect as a gift for a new mom or dad, Just Like the Ocean allows parent and baby to bond while building physical strength and balance, engaging with baby to share the emotional and physical benefits of yoga. 

Just Like the Ocean can be purchased on Amazon here.

The Power of Mala Beads & Sacred Rudraksha

A mala or japamala is a string of prayer beads used in Hinduism and Buddhism for the spiritual practice known in Sanskrit as Japa. They are similar to other forms of prayer beads used in various religions often known as a “rosary”. While you may have seen many yogis and fashionistas alike rocking them in a Yoga class or in a magazine, a mala or mala necklace is not just a beautiful piece of jewelry.  It’s important to remember their origin and how they can help those on a spiritual path.

Mala: A piece of jewelry? What are they really for? 

Malas are traditionally used to aid in meditation or chanting. The practitioner uses the mala to track how many recitations they have completed. The main body of a mala is made of 108 beads and a Guru bead; the 109th bead is often of a distinct size or colour, and a tassel. Sometimes a mala may include additional decorative beads. An authentic mala is hand-knotted, and every knot in between each bead is there to help you keep count while reciting, chanting, or mentally repeating a mantra. Even though rudraksha are known to be the oldest prayer beads in India, Nepal and Bali, many other beads are often used. In India for example, they also use sandalwood whereas in Nepal and Tibet, they use bodhi or lotus seeds.   

Traditionally, Japa is the repetition of a mantra or a divine name in a meditation practice. However, a Japa practice can also be as simple as chanting Om or taking a full breath cycle for each bead on the mala. You can also softly recite an affirmation or an intention in your own words or in your mind. 

What are rudraksha and why are they so magical?

While some modern mala necklaces or bracelets are made entirely of gemstones, traditional malas beads are made of more environmentally friendly materials like rudraksha, sandalwood or bodhi.

Unlike gemstones and crystals (which are sourced from mining), rudraksha are 100% sustainable. They are seeds found in a vibrant blueberry-like fruit of the evergreen Elaeocarpus ganitrus trees, also known as rudraksha trees. This tree flourishes in Southeast Asia and can be found in the Himalayas across India and Nepal as well as in Indonesia where the volcanic soil is favorable to its growth.

Rudraksha literally means “the tears of Shiva” in Sanskrit and you’ll often see rudraksha mala necklaces worn by Lord Shiva in images. 

  • Rudra: one of Shiva’s vedic names
  • Aksa: teardrops

It is said that Shiva emerged from a long meditation on mankind and began to cry tears of compassion. When his tears reached Earth, they transformed into divine seeds for the benefit of humanity, to help them be more at peace and alleviate their suffering.  

Rudraksha malas are said to be the most powerful tool in the quest of self-realization. They can help calm the nervous system, reduce stress, and dissipate fear. At OhanaTribe we closely work with the artisans of Aum Rudraksha Designs to make and create our exclusive designs. It is important for me to encourage the local economy of Bali where the rudraksha we use in our designs are harvested, blessed and hand knotted. With each mala necklace and bracelet we help them spread their mission to make our world more peaceful with the healing power of rudraksha beads.  

How do I use a mala in my meditation practice?

By now you’ve come to understand that mala beads are meant to help you quiet your monkey mind and feel more at peace. If you would like to use your mala to help you feel calmer and more peaceful, start with finding a mantra, an intention, or an affirmation that supports this state of mind. You can also simply take a full breath cycle (inhale and exhale) as you hold each bead. 

  • Find a comfortable seat and hold your mala necklace or bracelet in one hand. 
  • Close your eyes if it feels comfortable.
  • Start off with three deep, clearing breaths. 
  • Once you are ready, simply start turning each bead between your thumb and middle finger. 
  • Stop at each bead to recite your mantra. 
  • If you are using a bracelet, simply stop whenever you feel like you’ve reached the state of peacefulness you desire. 
  • If you are meditating with a mala necklace, you’ll be reciting your mantra 108 times and then when you reach the Guru bead, you take a pause to give thanks to your Guru or to dedicate your meditation to someone. And you can also start all over if you wish to meditate longer. 

If meditation is not yet part of your practice or some days you are running out of time, you can simply wear your mala necklace or bracelet as a reminder to reconnect to your breath. Wear them close to you. During your day when you inadvertently reach to your neck or wrist and feel your mala, you can use these tiny moments to serve as a reminder to come back to your breath and become aware of the present moment.

How should I choose a mala for myself or as a gift for someone?

Choosing a mala for yourself is as simple as following your intuition and choosing the one you are spontaneously drawn to. Once you’ve chosen a mala based on your intuition, then investigate the meaning of the gemstones and intention with which the mala was designed.  Often you’ll notice that the one you selected has the qualities you may be working on or trying to cultivate into your life. The mala that you are attracted to is the one for you; it’s as simple as that. 

When choosing a mala for someone else, think of what they are going through in their lives. Are they going through a break-up, a grief, or starting a new job? Look for the mala that would be the best one for helping them get through their life event or cultivate the energies they are trying to amplify in their lives. 

How do I care for my mala?

Rudraksha are very sacred and should be treated with care. When not in use, store your mala beads in a special space and keep them off the ground. 

In order to cleanse your mala beads you can: 

  • Gently wash them with a gentle natural soap and warm water.
  • Bathe them in the natural light of the full moon. 
  • Smudge them with either sage, incense or Palo Santo. 

While malas are very beautiful and visually appealing, they are also intended to be an aid to your personal spiritual journey. When you are choosing your mala, select one that is made with intention, made sustainably, and resonates intuitively with you. 

Even if you begin wearing your mala for its appeal as jewelry, as you wear it you may be inspired to explore its deeper potential as a tool for your own meditation practice. 


I have been part of Rachel’s community of students for many years and would like to give back. If you wish to explore the malas I have designed, visit OhanaTribe’s Mala beads and make sure to use the Promo Code “RachelYoga20” at check out to get a 20% discount on your choice of any Mala Necklace! 

Much love and peace to everyone.

– Namaste

Reimagining the Yamas and Niyamas

sutra - threads

In The Yoga Sutra (sutra = “thread”), the yamas and niyamas are often translated as “external” and “internal observances,” or guidelines for conducting ourselves with others and ourselves. My first teacher suggested that the yamas and niyamas were, “yoga’s version of the Ten Commandments.”

The yamas (external observances) are:

  • non-violence
  • truthfulness
  • non-stealing
  • celibacy
  • non-grasping

The niyamas (internal observances) are:

  • willingness to endure intensity (tapas)
  • self-study/ study of spiritual books
  • surrender to the highest
  • cleanliness
  • contentment

However, a more powerful perspective is that the yamas and niyamas aren’t rules at all; they are practical and invaluable signposts that help us investigate our spiritual and emotional progress.

The Purpose of Yoga

Patanjali (compiler of the sturas) was not interested in yoga practitioners being “good.” His primary objective was to help practitioners deepen their connection to the true Self. The objective of the sutras is explicitly outlined in sutra 1.2-1.4:

  • Yoga is the restraint of the fluctuations of the mindsutff.
  • The the Seer (Witness/ Self/ Purusha/ Consciousness) resides in its own nature.
  • Otherwise it assumes all the modifications of the mindstuff.

In other words, yoga occurs when we calm our minds enough to experience our own Presence. This is the true Self. Otherwise, we are attached to the thoughts, feelings, and identifications that we have learned from our conditioning. It’s a little like our mind is a lake. When disturbed by wind (thoughts and feelings), the surface of the lack is choppy and unclear. But when the lake is calm, then the lake can reflect the sky (Pure Consciousness).

Reimagining the Yamas and Niyamas

Rather than viewing the yamas and niyamas as rules, they can be seen as valuable signposts that indicate when we have strayed from our connection to the true Self. In other words, the surface of our lake is choppy. When we don’t feel aligned with the yamas/niyamas, it’s usually because we are not seated in our Presence, but have gotten caught in our minds again.

I recently had an experience where I felt very misunderstood. I felt accused unfairly, yet I had no recourse to share my point of view or defend myself. My reaction? I was incredibly pissed off.

When I recognized my response, I realized that I was of out alignment with the first yama of non-violence. Rather than berate myself for my feelings, I got curious about what was hanging me up. I started to see that I was very attached to my reputation (how others perceived me). My reliance on something outside of myself to feel okay was exposed. The experience was a reminder to practice (practice, practice!) trusting my own worthiness.

Spiritual growth isn’t about turning the other cheek or suppressing our feelings. Instead, we can use our reactions as vital clues into our unresolved attachments and conditioning. Here are some ways that it works for me:

  • Ahimsa: When I want to lash out, I am usually invested in protecting my ego from insult or harm.
  • Satya: When I want to lie, I am often protecting my conditioned personality from dislike, disappointment, or conflict.
  • Sauca: When I want to be “unclean” and eat a lot of sugar or drink a lot of wine, I’m often avoiding uncomfortable feelings.
  • Aparigraha: When I am grasping onto something (a person, material stuff, ideas), I’m usually connecting to a feeling that I’m not enough.

Seeing the yamas and niyamas as useful signposts – rather than rules – gives us accountability for our own spiritual growth. Rather than dutifully following a behavioural prescription, we are instead invited to watch our natural reactions with curiosity. Rather than feel shame or judgement about “non-yogic reactions,” we can instead greet each reaction with fresh curiosity. In this way, our relationship with our emotions and reactions can become a vital, organic opportunity for self-acceptance, accountability, and growth.

Welcoming Uncertainty: A Spiritual Path For Challenging Times

Hands holding flower

When the floor falls out from under me, I tend to lose my poise: I become anxious, contracted, and my mind starts to “hamster wheel” about worst case scenarios. I experienced this when my marriage disintegrated from alcoholism, when I agonized over trying to get pregnant (on my ow at 42), and again with the rolling escalation of the Covid-19 crisis.

Even without a global pandemic, we experience these moments of panic and uncertainty in our lives: we feel it when we fall in love, have our hearts broken, fail exams, have a sick pet, move change jobs, lose a loved one, have a baby, get divorced (to name a few). It’s no wonder that these strange times have led us into a tailspin – especially when so many of us are contract workers wondering how we will make ends meet.

Friend, in times like these, I take courage (heart) from my favorite author, Pema Chodron, who counsels, “Chaos should be regarded as very good news.” When everything falls apart, Pema nods with encouragement and tells us to lean in: “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation, can that which is indestructible in us be found.”

We don’t like to be uncomfortable. We resist uncertainty. And when the world shifts, our attachment to stability and consistency is exposed.

This is the perfect time to cultivate our inner resilience. To recognize the wholeness of the space within us.

Without ignoring practicalities, we can ask ourselves,

  • “Is my mind making this worse?”
  • “What is real, in this moment?”
  • “How can I be of service?”

In these times – when we can so clearly see our mind’s ability to spin out and create stories – we have the perfect opportunity to recognize our inner resources. One breath at a time, we can lean into this moment – where we feel so incredibly vulnerable – and breathe rather than react. Give, rather than hoard. Soften, rather than harden. Connect, rather than collapse.

And while we can’t control the world, we can control how we watch and believe our minds. This is our living yoga practice: staying present so that we can open our hearts to be loving, aware, and available to this very moment. And to each other.

This is the path of a spiritual warrior.

And I’m honored to meet you here.

Week 6: Gratitude

gratitude

It’s easy to get grumpy.

We live in a culture of “get more!” and “look good” and “get more likes on Instagram!” When we’re in a hustle-hustle life, we can often feel like we’re constantly falling short. Our culture’s cult of celebrity and the shininess of social media makes it harder than to stay grounded reality. After all, how easy is it to feel happy in our own less than perfect lives when we are inundated with images of vibrant, healthy couples oozing romance while on an exotic vacation? Or – for the yogis out there – when we see image after image of sunk-kissed, windswept yogis performing impossible arm balances on a beach?

We start to believe that we are lacking something that everyone else seems to have.

First of all, friends, let’s start by understanding that the perfect lives on social media are a fabrication. Now, I know we know this in our minds. We are smart critters. But even though we intellectually understand that social media is often “life advertising,” there’s an emotional part of our brain that doesn’t register this intellectual insight. Social media targets our emotional center, where we can be susceptible to feelings of unworthiness, loneliness, and isolation. So if you’re wondering why Instagram is making you feel bad (even when you know better), know that you’re not alone…and that’s kind of what it’s designed to do.

But lucky for us, there is an antidote. It’s super simple, and it’s free.

It’s gratitude.

When we start focusing on what we have, rather than what we don’t, our emotional perspective almost instantaneously shifts. It’s like one of those negative space drawings, where all of a sudden you see two faces rather than a vase. Although our situation hasn’t changed, we can see it from a different perspective. And all the good stuff that we have suddenly comes into view.

I was reading the Yoga Sutra earlier, and there is a niyama (guidelines for living) that resonates: santosha, or contentment. Patanjali writes that, “By contentment, supreme joy is gained.” (Translation: Swami Satchidananda). Practicing gratitude is a radical act of self-care and self-validation.

“By contentment, supreme joy is gained.”

Translation by Swami Satchidananda

This week, your task: Create a daily gratitude practice.

For me, I do this practice by writing out at least five things for which I’m grateful before bed. It can be simple: I have been grateful for my breath, grateful for my morning coffee, and grateful that I live in an era of antibiotics.

You may choose to do your practice when you first get up, or to put things for which you are grateful on sticky notes and put them around the house to be reminded of them throughout the day. It may be a simple meditation, in which you reflect on your gratitude list internally. However you decide to do it, the idea is to spend at least two minutes to bring all the good stuff in your life into the light.

Ready…and….Go!

As a treat, here is my non-Instaglamourous morning face 😉

Rachel before full coffee.

Week 4: No sugar

Say no to sugar

Greetings from Berlin! Week 4 of our 52 weeks of health: no sugar.

You can take this as strictly as you want: anything from “I won’t eat the cool whip directly from the container,” to “no sugars at all, including simple carbs like sugar, pasta, wheat…” Choose your spectrum of health!

Too much simple sugar is a huge health danger. One of my friends (recovered from cancer), said his doc told him that “sugar was cancer’s friend.” Yikes. Getting our blood glucose regulated and resilient is a huge step in the right direction. Sugar can be medicine, or poison just like anything else, and sometimes it takes us retraining our body and taste buds to get back on track. The last time I fasted from sugar, my ability to taste completely changed. All of a sudden, carrots were like candy!

Starting on Monday. Ready, set….Week 4.

#smalldailyacts #52weeksofhealth

Week 3: Meditate

meditate

Meditation.
We’re gonna make this really accessible.
At least two minutes a day.

Meditation has shown to be incredibly beneficial for your mental state and for stress. Getting into the practice of mindfulness is a relatively low hanging fruit in the health world. We just have to shut off the monkey mind (“one more thing to do!”) and get our butts into those chair (or meditation cushions).
Now, you can do as long as you want, but I’m going to propose that you have a dedicated sit for at least two minutes a day. That means, butt in chair (or on floor) and setting a timer.

Grossly speaking, you can meditate in two different ways: open meditation or focus meditation.

I recommend a focus meditation, in which you choose something (word, your breath, sensation, etc.) to bring your attention to. When your attention drifts, you return back to that object of attention.

Open meditation is where you create a loose awareness of the present moment. (Attention may be prone to wander in this kind.)

Apps can help: 10%, Calm.

I have a bunch of meditations on this site you’re welcome to use.

There are also free meditations online, and at DoYogaWithMe.

Gather your resource and let’s get busy being still!


The Spiritual Perks of Falling Apart

A broken glass with sun shining through

I really like control.

As in…really like it.

When the world starts to slide, my impulse is to batten down the hatches. I make lists, design spreadsheets, and straight jacket anything that feels shaky. With steely-eyed determination, I impose order on chaos and bring entropy to its knees!

Naturally, this doesn’t always turn out very well.

The biggest shake up of my life occurred when my world came crashing down in 2006. I left a blooming life in New York City to get married and move to Vancouver, Canada. I’d never been to Vancouver before, but my boyfriend was Canadian and wanted to return home for our future together. My leap of faith felt romantic, exciting and inspiring. What joy to leap into the unknown!

However, my leap ended with a plunge into an abyss.  

Just before we arrived in Canada, my husband – an alcoholic who had been dry for more than a decade – experienced a shattering loss when his mother died and started drinking on our honeymoon.

My life suddenly got very wobbly.

Before the move, I had identified myself as a empowered and successful woman. I had a rising career in my community, a happy home, and was proud to be a New Yorker. In the space of a few months, I had moved to a new country, changed jobs, and was witnessing the unravelling of my marriage. As my husband continued to drink, I became frozen in uncertainty. I lacked the tools and resources to support his grief, and became shut down in the spotlight of his anger. He mistook my silence for apathy, and our spiral of miscommunication drove the marriage to its breaking point.

All the identifications to which I had been anchored (New Yorker, “strong” woman, good person, committed partner) fell apart. The external labels that had given me my sense of self dissolved. And at the same time, my weaknesses were crowbarred open and exposed. It was like pulling up the floorboards of my own internal basement; a lot of dark, slimy corners were suddenly exposed to light. Who was this enabling, wimpy, silent, contracted shell of a woman? Where had the devoted partner and strong feminist gone? I was a crab out of my shell: vulnerable, raw, weak, and exposed.

That year was also one of the best things that has ever happened to me.

When my life fell apart, I simply couldn’t pretend that I had it all together any longer. Nothing in the outer world was steady. No amount of list making could bandage up the reality that I was standing in ruins.

When my outer world fell apart, the inner world started to become visible. 

“Chaos should be regarded as very good news.”

– Pema Chodron

When something comes along to rock our lives and challenge our sense of self, we get scared and angry. We often stuff our feelings with Netflix, potato chips, or – as Brene Brown so insightfully notes in her Ted talk – “a few beers and a banana nut muffin.” When my world fell apart, I buried myself in work and started going to raves to avoid feeling the void. Being a workaholic felt productive and validating. Dance parties and drugs were a quick fix where I could feel exciting, loved, and connected.

But eventually, I was caught out. I couldn’t stay high forever. I’m one of the lucky ones that isn’t prone to addiction and – at some point – I had to stop running from my own emptiness. When I finally sat down in my shakiness, I realized that I hadn’t disappeared. Even though I was no longer a wife or a New Yorker, there was something else within me that was still safe and whole. But I could only feel this steadiness – my own Presence – when my control strategies fell apart.

My yoga practice became a doorway through which I began to heal. On the yoga mat, I could unclench my fists from manhandling my life, and practice staying present moment to moment. No matter how shaky I felt, yoga invited me to be in my body – and stay there one breath at a time. On the mat, I didn’t have to be strong, happy, optimistic, perfect, or even courageous. I only had to be. My yoga practice didn’t care if I had my outer life together; it only asked that I be present and feel.

Yoga philosophy has recognized our tendency to misidentify ourselves with the outer world for thousands of years. In the opening of the seminal yoga text, The Yoga Sutra, Patanjali explicitly lays out his definition for yoga. Here’s a rough paraphrase: “Yoga is the quieting of the fluctuations of your mind. When you do this, you can experience your Presence. Otherwise, you think you’re all the stuff in your head!”

Before I moved to Vancouver, my sense of self was intrinsically tied to how I was thinking about myself. Was I smart? Pretty? Hard-working? A failure? Accomplished? My sense of “Rachel” was defined by my achievements and shortcomings. When those identifications fell apart, something else had the opportunity to be seen.

When we quiet our minds, our true self – our Presence – becomes visible. But usually we’re so caught up in protecting these identities that we can’t experience our own depths. When our identifications get shaken, a space cracks open where we can question our stories. You have probably experienced this during a career change, relationship shift, or a conflict. The shakiness gives us the opportunity to rediscover who we are.

“Only the extent the we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.”

– Pema Chodron

So here’s the good news: our lives don’t have to be completely annihilated in order to reconnect to Presence. Thank goodness! By engaging in some consciously self-imposed wobbling, we can practice reconnecting to our Presence every day. Yoga is a great place to start.

When we wobble physically on our mats, our instinct is to cover it up. The ego takes over, and we want to hide from seeming imperfect. For example, if we feel wobbly in tree pose, we may grab the wall or rigidly brace ourselves. If we fall, we look around to see if anyone caught us out.

Perfect.

In that moment, we can notice our attachment to getting it right or looking good. Here’s another time when we are defining our worth by something external! When our minds create stories and the ego gets flustered (“I’m a loser,” “My balance sucks!”), we can recognize that we are still intrinsically okay. In my yoga classes, I invite my students to embrace their wobbles and reframe their experience: “If you fall out of the pose,” I say, “the first thing I want you to think is, ‘I’m sexy!’ Falling is sexy. Being shaky is sexy. Because it means that you’re willing to go someplace that is uncertain. And that’s a so much more wonderful than being afraid to move out of your comfort zone!” The mini wobbles that we experience on our mat can help create space to reconnect to a deeper identification with who we really are.

When we meditate in our yoga practice (whether it’s a formal meditation, or a mindfulness practice), we have the perfect opportunity to witness our minds in action. As the thoughts arise, we can begin to notice that they are not reality. When we see how much flotsam and jetsam is coming and going all the time across our consciousness, we can begin to not take what the mind tells us quite so seriously. Instead, we can begin to settle into the space that lies between the fluctuations of our thoughts.

When we can practice questioning the mind on the mat, we have more space to question our stories off the mat. When our egos are threatened, there is greater grace and deeper resources to recognize that we – and those around us – are still intrinsically worthy. When life falls apart (new job, new relationship, broken heart or loss of a loved one), it gets easier to pick up the pieces. Or we may even realize that we can leave the pieces where they lay, because we don’t need them to experience who we truly are.

Embrace your wobbles. Shake your own tree. And in the midst of that shakiness, discover the unshaking ground that lies within you.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.”

― Rumi

PS: If you like this blog, you may enjoy checking out some of my books. XO

How To Make A Habit Of Resolutions

New Years Resolutions

As the clocks strike midnight at New Year, if not before, attention quickly turns towards setting resolutions. Resolutions are often pitched as an opportunity for new beginnings, a new you, as though the old you just wasn’t quite good enough. Setting resolutions is big business, for example, a diet regime; gym membership or such like are marketed as being worth every cent to change your life forever.

I think it’s great that we use a new year to take stock, re-assess and make changes. We need to do so in a way, however, where we are bought into this change, and not just following the latest craze or fad that society expects of us. Think about any resolutions you have set in the past. Did they stick? You would be in the minority if they did.

Setting resolutions that make dramatic changes are challenging to sustain. The initial enthusiasm soon dwindles, with ‘quitters day’ on 12th January being the day most are likely to give up on their resolutions.

I know all too well the challenges of setting resolutions that stick. I remember setting a resolution to stop eating all foods with added sugar. I would pour over ingredient lists in supermarkets, making my own no added sugar dishes. This was a time consuming exercise, however, and being a time poor Dad of twins, coupled with the lure of leftover festive sugary foods, I soon fell off the wagon.

One resolution that really stuck for me was when I ramped up my yoga practice. I remember it well. It was six months after my boys were born, and I was knackered. I organised weekly Do Yoga With Me classes for work colleagues and had seen DYWM advertise its first 30-day challenges in the run up to new year. I signed up, with this ultimately becoming the catalyst for a life-long yoga journey.

Why did this resolution stick where so many other resolutions have failed?

Here are four tips from my experience that can help you make your resolutions a habit.

1. Do something you enjoy

It’s easy to fall into the trap of setting resolutions that don’t necessarily resonate with you. A new year provides the perfect opportunity for self-reflection. Use the time wisely to think about what you enjoy doing or would love to do. Discuss with family and friends, and write down any ideas. I love practicing yoga, and thoroughly enjoyed Do Yoga With Me classes, so signing up to a challenge felt like the logical next step in deepening my practice. If you struggle for inspiration, Rachel has had a fantastic idea for 2020, where every week, we choose something that we want to do better. Preferably something small, that we may have been meaning to do for a long time, but never got round to it. For example, drink more water, not use single-use plastics or to make contact with a friend.

2. Set realistic expectations

Having figured out what you enjoy, it’s easy to get carried away, and be overly optimistic on what can be achieved. Setting unrealistic expectations increases the likelihood that the resolution will fail. With the Do Yoga With Me 30-day challenge, I had no idea where it would lead beyond the 30 days, certainly not becoming the yoga teacher I am today. Applying the principles of yoga, I set an intention each day to practice yoga, and that was enough to start the ball rolling.

When setting resolutions, consider what’s achievable and over what timescales. Consider what success looks like for you, and the incremental steps to get there.

3. Establish a new routine

Finding time to follow through on a resolution can be challenging. We are creatures of habit, and making any changes to a routine can be disruptive. When I signed up to the Do Yoga With Me challenge, my routine was eat, sleep, work, bottle feed, wind twins, repeat. Squeezing yoga in was going to be a challenge.

What I figured though was that the boys were often restless early morning, with me often laid in bed waiting for them to wake. I found that by getting up earlier, and doing the 30-day challenge, with one ear to the baby monitor worked well. I was able to use my time more productively, and by practicing yoga, I rediscovered my identity and felt a sense of control, equipped for daily life. When setting resolutions, consider the practicalities. Is this something you can do at home, or will you need to travel, and if so, how far? Are there any pockets of time available, and will you need to reprioritize or let go of tasks that don’t serve you?

4. Embrace change in all its glory

Having done the groundwork, you’re now ready to get started. Don’t think that this needs to start on 1st January, and if not, it doesn’t constitute a resolution. In the context of yoga, I set a resolution every day I arrive onto the mat, for example, framed by how I feel in body and mind on a given day. Taking stock of your personal situation means that the resolution best reflects you at that time. The beauty of the Do Yoga With Me 30-day challenge was that I could dip in and out of classes,. This meant that this didn’t become a chore. Once the 30-day challenge was over, I wanted more. As a yogi, we aspire to be flexible in both body and mind, so embrace change, and be excited by where this may take you.

Week 2: Chew Your Food

Chew your food

Here’s our challenge for this week. Chew your food.

Now, I am a human hoover. I can suck down a salad like it’s a lukewarm milkshake. I think my need to rush through eating comes from some sense that life must be constantly in a hurry. I have an underlying anxiety that I must constantly be getting things done. So…eat on the run, eat at the desk, eat in the car, and always eat as quickly as possible.

According to some of my lazy ass Google searching, on “How much should we chew our food,” we should chew anywhere from 5-32 times for each bite. Five times for something like oatmeal, 32 for something like a raw carrot or piece of steak.

Why?


Well, the physical benefits for your digestion are a no-brainer (your saliva helps you to start to digest, having smaller stuff in your stomach can reduce bloating, triggers the satiety response, chewing well can reduce acid reflux, etc), but I am actually a bit more inspired by the spiritual and mental benefits. Slowing down to chew helps us to slow down, and enjoy a sensory pleasure. We relax, get more connected to the present moment and the physical world, and can downshift our nervous system. So for some of us (ahem, me), this may require some practice. I’m likely going to have to pause, take a few breaths, and create an energetic state change so I don’t automatically gobble up my food like Cookie Monster NOM NOM NOM.

via GIPHY

For those of you turning in, this invitation is part of “52 weeks of small daily habits”, in which we do something small every day for a week that can move our dial in health and wellness. Last week was “drink enough water.” Join us on this mini-resolution, or make your own.

So here you go heroes! This week: chew every bite at least five times.

Week 2…and….GO. (I’m gonna go practice. Where are the cookies?)

Week 1: Drink Water

week 1 drink water

Here’s the idea: every week in 2020, we choose something that we want to do better. Something small. You know, probably one of those things that we’ve been “meaning” to do for a long time, but somehow didn’t manage to quite make a habit out of it. I have a whole bunch of them.

For week one, it’s time to get hydrated.

The first “small daily act” that we’ll take on in 2020 is drinking enough water. Opinions vary, but generally speaking 8×8 (8 glasses x 8 oz) seems like a good way to go. Herbal teas count. Vodka doesn’t.

These small daily acts are the little things that form the fabric of our lives. But even though they’re small, they move our health and wellness dial. For me, these behaviours nudge me from “anxious, depressive, unhealthy” mess into “connected, empowered, resilient” human being.

But here’s the rule: if you fail, you try again the next day. We are practicing resilience as much as we are trying to reap the benefits of “the good thing.”

And naturally, you can set your own small daily acts if mine don’t work for you.

This first week is a little different: it’s only 4 days long so that we can start our new daily act on a Monday. Just seems a little more intuitive that way as we move forward.

Ready? Here we go.

#smalldailyacts #liveyourvalues2020 #52weeksofchange

52 Weeks of Living Our Values: 2020

2020

Do you want to get better at living your values in 2020?

I do. So here’s my idea.

Every week in 2020, we choose something that we want to do better. Something small. You know, probably one of those things that we’ve been “meaning” to do for a long time, but somehow didn’t manage to quite make a habit out of it. I have a bunch of them.

Here are a few of my personal examples:

  • drink more water
  • get 8 hours of sleep
  • journal
  • practice gratitude
  • do my physiotherapy exercises
  • meditate
  • don’t use any single use plastics
  • connect with a friend

These are the little things, you know, those small daily acts, that form the fabric of our lives. They usually take less than ten minutes.

For me, these behaviours nudge me from “anxious, depressive, unhealthy” mess into “connected, empowered, resilient” human being.

When I was younger, I used to think that making a change (or a new year’s resolution) involved explosive, mind-blowing determination. Change was like an earthquake: tectonic and sudden. As I’ve gotten older, I believe that true change gets nudged forward in tiny, small, humble steps. It is our consistency and our resilience that helps us to truly change ourselves, and therefore, the world.

Each week for 2020, I’m going to set myself a goal. Something small that will nudge my dial. I’ll do that thing – just that thing – every day for a week. I’ll do my best. The next week I’ll move onto another small daily act. Something else that moves my dial. Maybe the behavior from the previous week will stick, maybe not. That’s okay. But I have a feeling that something will be different.

Want to join me?

#smalldailyacts #liveyourvalues2020

Path of Love: A 7 Day Transformation Process That Changes Your Life

So many of us feel disconnected, sad, or stuck in our lives (I certainly have). Over the last twenty years, I’ve participated in a variety of processes – therapy, self-development courses, even cults (yes, cults!) – in my ongoing search to reconnect “home.” My work as both and actor and yoga teacher has been part of this desire to unpack my human nature and find my way towards increased connection and joy.

Path of Love is a process that has really worked for me.

Described as “the most intensive and life-changing meditation and personal development processes in the world today,” this 7-day experience consists of deep somatic housecleaning, personal inquiry, and coached small group work. The combination of these elements, supported by a profound commitment to support, caring and safety, creates a rare environment where deep exposure work and processing can be safely held. In other words, you get to work on some of your very deep shit.

This was my second time at the retreat. I first participated in POL about a year and a half ago when I attended as a participant. At the time, my life looked pretty good. I had a solid career, great family, and was blessed with supportive friends. However, I was struggling in my intimate relationships and sense of purpose. I had recently come through a two year process of trying to have a baby on my own and was grieving the end of that dream. I had some deep, old hurts that had never been fully mourned, and was continually castigating myself with “woulda, shoulda, coulda” been’s. My mind woudn’t shut off. I felt disconnected from my heart, vibrancy, and vulnerability.

Path of Love delivered on its mission. By the end of that week, I felt more open, alive, and true. I had danced with my ghosts: alternatively raging and embracing them – and made peace with some old pains. I felt more embodied and awake in my own skin. I felt like I had seen the true, shining face of humanity – both in myself and others. Most importantly, I put a big crack in my own armor, experienced my own vulnerability, and felt true self-love.

This year, I returned to the process to act as support staff. When you staff, you have the opportunity to support the participants, connect with the community, and engage in a mini Path of Love again of your own.

During this time, I had the privilege of witnessing what happens when we are courageous enough to embrace our vulnerability and crack open our own masks. We usually walk around in the world guarded by our personalities and defensive structures. While they keep us safe, these masks also prevent us from fully connecting with others – and ourselves. Beneath every mask is vibrant, innocent, and shining Presence. When we are safe enough – and courageous enough – to drop our defences, we can reconnect to this fundamental, radiant core.

Here is what I learned, or remembered:

  • Humans are innately good. When we drop our various masks of protection, we all seek love and connection.
  • Our radiance shines through us when we are no longer afraid of being judged or pushed away.
  • We are all the same. The stories may be different, but the fundamental human experience – replete with loss, agony, shame, anguish, anxiety, armour, laughter, love, joy – is universal. We are far more connected than our minds think.
  • We can’t do it alone. Together, we heal.
  • Your body knows all your secrets. Move your body, and heal your Self.
  • Being witnessed in compassionate presence heals very deep wounds.
  • We are very resilient. When we don’t hide, we can heal.
  • When in doubt, slow down.
  • The heart and the head don’t always have to agree.
  • You can’t reason with your inner critic; you just gotta say, Fuck Off.
  • Prayer – no matter who you are praying to – will nourish your soul.
  • Connection lies through your exquisite vulnerability.
  • You belong.

If you are interested in shifting something in your life, I highly recommend this process as a resource. You will not be the same.

Lessons for Change

Image of a cyclone

Twelve tips for self-care during times of transition.

The uncertainty that is involved in a big life change – death, divorce, moving, illness, job loss, marriage, kids, to name a few – doesn’t get settled all at once. And stress, though it may feel like it’s all in your head, can have profound effects on your physical well-being, affecting your sleep, your immune system, digestion, anxiety, and levels of inflammation.

However, there are many small, practical steps that you can take that can make a profound difference in your stress and sense of well-being. Here are twelve of my favorites tools to manage stress, build your resilience, and practice self-care when life gets shaky.

1. Find a yoga studio.

Finding a local yoga studio can be an anchor that can help you feel more connected to people, get you grounded in your body, and create a place to go for self-care and stress reduction. While the at-home apps are helpful, I recommend going to a studio if possible so that you can connect to other people.

2. Find a coffee shop.

This is a pillar for me, at least, because I love love love coffee! For you, it may be a local bar, tea shop, or knitting room. Find your favorite watering hole, and start to make friends with some of the folks there. Before long, you’ll be a regular.

3. Connect with loved ones.

Now is not the time to be a reclusive turtle. Reach out to your friends and loved ones and stay connected to people that support you.

4. Express yourself.

I write in my journal. You may paint, sing, create poetry, or do pottery. Find a creative outlet for your feelings. Don’t worry about the result. While your art might turn into something interesting, the goal of being creative in this context is to help you express and clear out your emotional and mental experience.

5. Exercise. And have a dance party.

Getting in your body gets you out of your head, and remind you that you are present and safe moment to moment. Whether you use yoga, weights, jogging, or biking, do something every day to get physical. In addition to getting you into the present moment, exercise can help you feel strong, resourceful, and capable. And have a daily dance party. It doesn’t matter how you look. Having a private dance party to your favorite music is an immediate mood booster.

6. Sleep.

When you’re stressed, your immune system is compromised. Sleep is the great rest and repair time for your body and mind. If you’re having trouble sleeping, look into some of the strategies that you can use to support good sleep hygiene.

7. Eat Good Stuff.

Treat yourself like a prince or princess. Eat nourishing, wholesome food that supports your self-care. Both the food – and the care that you are showing yourself – help you to feel valued and grounded.

8. Don’t Be A Hero.

This is not necessarily the time to quit smoking, go off of caffeine, or commit to a big work project. When possible, make self-care your priority. Acknowledge that transitions can be challenging, and give yourself permission to rest, process, and feel.

9. Use TMC’s, but with discretion.

A temporary mood changer (TMC) is a substance or activity (alcohol, Netflix, chocolate, or flirting on dating apps) that provides a quick pick me up…but may come with a physical or emotional hangover. Oh, I’ve been there! While these treats may provide temporary relief, they may leave us feeling worse and can ultimately undermine our health and stability. Use your TMC’s with awareness and discretion.

10. Breathe.

There’s nothing like five good, deep breaths to help you reset your nervous system, get embodied, and give you a reset. Enjoy anytime, anywhere.

11. Meditate.

Don’t have a meditation practice? No problem. Start with two minutes of conscious breathing as a daily practice and voila! You are now a meditator. Meditating is a way to put a wedge in our daily habits and create a little space where you can experience the “you” that is there beneath all the thoughts, feelings, and life fluctuations. Consider it a touchstone. And don’t be surprised if your mind is full of stuff; the point is to watch. If you need help getting started, check out an app like 10% Happier as a resource. I’ve also got a bunch of 5-minute meditations on this site you can try.

12. Drink Water.

Water is the ultimate rinse. When we are in transition, we are digesting and processing our experiences – physically and emotionally. Support your body’s elimination functions by staying well-hydrated.

Bonus: Remember your why

A transition is an opportunity to reconnect with our values. When everything is in the air, we can be mindful about how we want to place the pieces that come back down. Volitional transitions (divorce, separation, moving) become opportunities to reassert our own highest values, and remember our highest “why.”

And finally, a transition can be a spiritual opportunity to reconnect with our internal resources. We can view the transition as a reminder that we are not everything that we think or feel. We are not our jobs, our roles, or our possessions. In the midst of transition, we can find unexpected space to breathe, feel, and be.

Lessons From The Heart: Feed Yourself First

image of three carved hearts

In my recent dissection experience, I spent some time handling a human heart. To literally hold someone’s heart in your hands is a humbling and awe-inspiring experience. Even though its owner had passed and the life force had left, the heart retained a poignant and palpable vibration.

Your heart is your lifelong companion. The medical community would say that we can begin to detect a heartbeat around six weeks; some yogis would offer that this fundamental pulsation begins from the moment that conception produces a unique vibration. The feeling of a heartbeat touches us deeply: babies rest their heads against against it to be comforted and lovers place their hands on it to feel a soulful connection.

More than just a physical organ, many cultures honor the heart as the seat of the soul. In Sanskrit, hridaya is the “spiritual heart,” in which atman (the soul) is believed to reside. The word heart has become synonymous with courage (from the French word coeur, or heart), as well as “soul, spirit, will, desire; courage; mind, intellect,” (retrieved from https://www.etymonline.com/word/heart).

The heart is composed of special muscles cells called cardiac cells. Not only will a group of these cells sync up together to pulse rhythmically, but they are also indefatigable. To appreciate your heart’s special capacity for endurance, try opening and closing your first fist 60 times in a minute and see what happens.

During the lab last week, I learned another wonderful fact about this magical organ: the heart feeds itself first.

The Coronary Arteries

Your coronary arteries (named coronary for their “crown” like wreathing shape) wrap your heart like delicate garden vines. Both the left and right coronary (you have two) connect to the aorta. You may know the aorta: it’s the blood vessel that connects from your heart and spirals freshly oxygenated blood up to your brain and out through your body. What you may not truly grasp about the aorta (I certainly didn’t until I saw it) is that it is massive. As in, bigger than either your esophagus or trachea, sometimes as big as both combined (average about 2.7 cm wide).

As the newly oxygenated blood whooshes from heart out into the aorta, the coronary arteries divert some of this formidable gush back to the heart directly to provide it with oxygen.

The Heart’s Invitation

The heart feeds itself first.

The human body has many lessons for us. By observing what is true in the body, we can be reminded of natural principles that our intellectual minds may have forgotten or obscured.

For example, many of us have been taught to believe that our own needs must come last; that self-care is an act of selfishness. We compromise our own resources – whether it’s getting enough sleep, taking the time to eat well, or sacrificing our personal time – in a kind but misguided attempt to be a good person.

In the coronary arteries, we can see that Nature offers us a different lesson: nourish yourself first. Ensure that you give yourself the energy and resources that you need to thrive.

The heart shows us that self-care doesn’t adversely affect the rest of the system: the coronary arteries are small vessels that do not impede the abundance of blood from supplying the rest of the body. In other words, a small amount of self-care can be profoundly nourishing. Your hour-long yoga class or twenty minute walk provide benefits that far exceed the time they take.

The heart also teaches us that your act of self-care is essential to the well-being of your entire system (in this case, your system may include your family, your friends, and your community). Ultimately, the rest of the body depends on the heart’s health to live. The “self-serving” aspect of the heart is a loving act that ensures that the rest of system thrives.

As you consider your own self-care, remember the heart’s lesson in compassion: feed yourself first. Then share the fruits of your vibrancy.

The Power of Self-Healing in Yin Yoga

Child's pose

When I practice Yin Yoga, I become myself completely and experience a deep feeling of peace within myself— I am fully myself and do not have to please anyone else—either proverbially or in reality. While some types of yoga specify precisely how certain positions should look, and many practitioners do their best to emulate this ideal image, Yin Yoga is oriented towards the person practicing it—you can’t go wrong. Our inner teacher is the most important yoga teacher and only considers this one individual body. I believe there is great healing potential within this as only we ourselves sense what is best for us.

I do not consider it wise to seek out a doctor just to have a medicine prescribed for current complaints—and to hope that everything will be fine again—without any further questioning. Unfortunately, essential conventional medicine increasingly focuses on combating symptoms and less on looking for the cause. Also, very few doctors have enough time to concentrate intensively on the history of the individual patient. Alternative medical practitioners, on the other hand, tend to look for the origin of the complaints, and they view people more on a holistic level, taking more things into consideration which might have caused the issue in the first place.

In order to better understand our particular ailments and issues, we need rest periods, and  some kind of regular practice, for example something like a regular Yin Yoga practice, which directs the senses inwards and can bring us into deep contact with ourselves. The mind speaks very softly, and these periods of withdrawal are absolutely vital to  understand it and to find out what the body can express with symptoms. It is said that when the mind is not being listened to, the body sounds the alarm through illness, thereby making the person slow down.

Ideally our energies are in balance when we both integrate Yin and Yang energies into our life. Yin corresponds to a female, more receptive, and yang to a male, more outgoing energy. In our current age we oftentimes have a surplus of Yang in our environment, which can trouble us at a physical level. Never before have there been so many hyperactive children as there are today—I tend to find the term “hyperactive” unsuitable, and I am only using it here for the ease of understanding—and “burnout” is just named as a fashionable complaint, without due respect for its incredibly harmful effect on our lives. In my experience, I find an important cause is anxiety, which can be worsened due to an excess of intense Yang-energies.

Think for a moment how everything has changed over the years: Barely anybody takes time out to rest in the early afternoon nowadays; due to mobile accessibility we receive calls or text messages late in the evening when we should actually be resting; the TV is on all day in some households, even when nobody is consciously following it; there are fewer family meals; the performance mentality at school and at work is ever-present; attentive conversations without glancing at your mobile phone have also become rare. All these things exhaust our Yin. Yin and Yang are then no longer in balance, which has adverse consequences. If these energies fall out of their dynamic balance, energy can no longer flow harmoniously and this creates the circumstances for illnesses to occur.

Yin Yoga practice gives us the peace that we so urgently need in this noisy world. We can use it to get in touch with our inner selves once again, as well as find release in our stuck places. Our body awareness is trained and intensified through long and deep stretches, but these also provide us with calm so that memories or emotions can emerge again. If we become our own quiet observer and look and listen carefully to what it is showing us, it is quite possible that we will even be able to trace the causes of certain complaints in time.

Our body communicates with us constantly, but many of us have forgotten how to listen to it and interpret its signs. For example, if we experienced emotional damage in childhood, we often carry this into our adult lives. Symptoms often appear—such as nervousness, anxiety, depressive malaise, or sleep disturbances—which can be treated quickly with medicines, but the actual causes of the complaints remain unrecognized and untreated. It is therefore important to become aware of what is going on inside us, no matter whether it is pleasant or painful. If we identify what is causing us stress, then we can accept it, process it, and ultimately let it go. This progression can be very liberating and is a complete contrast to the repression of unpleasant experiences or memories. A repression mechanism never works in the long term. Whatever is behind it will keep occurring until it is accepted, understood, and released.

Yin Yoga practice, with its passive stretches that last for 3-5 minutes, we can learn,  in a wonderful way about the process of letting go. If we have learned to let go physically, we can then also let go better emotionally and mentally. The peaceful and introverted Yin Yoga practice gives us sufficient space to question pain or illnesses and find out what the body is trying to tell us.

We know today that our self-healing capacities are most powerful in the parasympathetic state which you can reach during a yin yoga practice. But always remember that YOUR path might be very different from that of your partner, your friends, or your family. Please be mindful with yourself, so you can experience the power of self-healing in early states if your body is out of balance and trying to tell you something. Then you have a good chance of getting back on track again soon.

Here is a yin yoga sequence which focuses on stretching all meridians and ends with a tapping massage so that you can start refreshed into the day! 

Enjoy your practice!

***

Adapted from Be Healthy with Yin Yoga: The Gentle Way to Free Your Body of Everyday Ailments and Emotional Stresses by Stefanie Arend (She Writes Press, August 2019).  

Photo credit:  Forster & Martin Fotografie, Munich

Lessons From A Human Dissection

Conch shell

Last week, I went into the lab with Gil Hedley. I experienced my previous 6-day human dissection course with Gil back in 2012, so it’s been awhile since I shared space with the dead.

The dead are magical teachers.

Back in 2012, my steely-eyed intent was to “get” anatomy. I wanted to see the insertions of muscles, touch a hip joint, and palpate the knee ligaments. This time, I entered the space with less agenda. I spent time marvelling over tattoo ink on the reverse side of the skin, staring at chunks of fibrin that had condensed out of blood (a reminder that blood is actually a connective tissue), and turning over a human heart in my hand to admire the extraordinary size and swirl of its vessels.

Here are my top five wows from the week.

1. The body is fractal, not mechanical.

You know the movie Aliens? The alien ships are always looking strangely fractal, swirly, and everything gets coated in goo? Well…that’s actually more like real life! For some reason (“Euclidean geometry,” says Gil), we build our human environment in boxes and squares. We make walls and floors at perfect right angles. We apply this mechanistic metaphor to the body, thinking of it as a machine with parts that work, or don’t work. Our model skeletons look boxy and clean. But the reality is that the human body is full of swirls, whorls, and spirals. I don’t think there’s a right angle anywhere in the human form. Bones twist, arteries meander, nerves snake.

No wonder we get cranky in cubicles.

2. Stability is more than muscles.

As a yoga teacher, I’m a huge fan of muscles. (Oooo, and fascia! We LOVE fascia.) Give me tendons, bones, and ligaments and I’d think, “There, that’s stability!” This week, I became acutely aware of how much of our stability is provided by the tree like branching structures of our blood vessels and nerves. These vessels penetrate and snake through all of our tissue layers, anchoring us in some places and gliding easily in others. When muscle tissue disintegrates with barely a swipe of the finger, and you can lift a whole body by tugging on the celiac plexus, you start to get the idea that these structures are integral to holding us together.

3. Skeletal variation is just the beginning.

In recent years, we’ve all been very excited about skeletal variation. But this is only part of the story. What about when two livers look radically different from each other? When lungs can have different number of lobes? When the digestive system can be completely rotated around relative to where it “should” be? Human variation is the norm. So next time you’re in a twist, perhaps contemplate that the sensations in your posture could be about your spleen.

4. Your heart is a conch shell.

I didn’t say that. Gil said that. And it’s such a good reframe that I have to share it here. Your heart spirals on itself. I spent a couple hours with a heart, tracing its curves and figuring out how the blood flows through it. It’s not point A to point B, my friends. The best distance between two points is not the shortest, thank goodness (insert metaphor for life here!). Your heart is like the curving interior of an alien vessel, spinning blood into sinuous meander. Curves. Not lines.

5. You are one thing.

We think we’re many things. We pull stuff apart, name the pieces, and decide that that is reality.

The biggest lesson came from the physical labor that it required (six days with five people on each table) to take apart a human form. Why did it take so long? Because the human body is one thing. We are connected; no part is separate. Everything that is pulled apart, swept away and set aside is an artificial imposition. Sure, it’s useful to “dissect,” as long as we don’t lose sight of the fact that we are the ones creating the pieces.

My brain didn’t learn this lesson intellectually; my body absorbed this truth from the ass in chair/scalpel in hand labor it took to create parts from something unified.

Final thoughts

The greatest gift from spending a week in the lab is that the mystery is not solved. We may be able to locate and name these wondrous structures (pineal gland, aorta, vagus nerve, mammary bodies), but the mystery of our “aliveness” remains as awe-inspiring as ever. Peering our complexity and the crazy intelligence of the body only serves to highlight how jaw droppingly weird it is that we are alive. Right now, as I type these words, my brain is coordinating some kind of wild chemical thunderstorm to make my hands move (how? I have no idea!?).

Some answers can only be felt. And some mysteries can only be admired. And that includes looking in the mirror.

*After my first lab, I was inspired to write a rather sexy poem that you’re welcome to read. There’s something about spending time with mystery that inspires some juiciness.

Why Chaos Is Good News: How To Navigate Change

Man in Free Fall

I have uprooted my life in Vancouver, BC to follow my heart on a grand adventure. YAY! Fun, excitement and grand romance!

And….terrifying.

In taking this wild ride, I kicked out the support struts from under my own foundation. I’ve uprooted my job, access to friends, familiar surroundings, material possessions, and my happy routines.

Despite the romance of adventure, I feel like a cat in a strange house: ears back, tail down, looking for corner in which to hide.

We all know this space: let’s call it free fall.

Free fall happens when we change jobs, fall in love, break up, move across the country, get a divorce, get married, have kids, or undergo any manner of “major change.” Free fall also happens in little ways in our daily lives. We feel it when we screw up at work, fight with a loved one, fall short as a parent, or lose our sense of self-worth.

“Fear of death carries its own essence and predominates [the consciousness of] even the wise.”

Patanjali Sutra 2.9, Yoga International

Yoga philosophy tells us that fear of death (abhinivesa) is natural, even in the wise. (We can understand this “death” as both literal and metaphorical.) However, to live the soulful lives that we deeply want, we must be willing to face death again and again. We must risk dying to our ego, our attachments, our perceptions, and our habits.

“Chaos should be regarded as very good news.”

Pema Chodron

When we enter free fall – whether it’s a major upheaval or a minor tremor – we can regard it as good news. Free fall exposes our dependence on the external world – possessions, job titles, other people’s opinions, or even relationships – for our sense of wholeness. When the “bottom falls out,” we have the opportunity to recognize that there is in fact, another bottom. Beyond our ego, there is something that lies within us that is stable, consistent, loving, and whole. But usually we are so busy fortifying our sense of safety with the immediate stuff (jobs, possessions, praise) that we don’t recognize and our deeper Reserves.

“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.”

Pema Chodron

When we practice yoga, we are – in a sense – practicing free fall. We come to our mats to create a space where we can exist – for a time – beyond the habitual identifications with our jobs, habits, and even family dynamics. We look across the room at other travellers practicing on the mat; we don’t need to know what they do or even their names: we are simply fellow travellers in Presence. When we give ourselves this breathing room – in a sense, creating our own “little death” – we create a space to arrive freshly in our lives as if for the first time.

It takes enormous courage to willingly come into Free Fall, to brush against death in order to dismantle the comfortable structures that can obfuscate our deeper selves. The next time that you find yourself in a Free Fall, can you – with sweetness and self-care – breathe into that wide open space of uncertainty?

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

TS Eliot