Learning to Take It Easy

This is Lacy Larue, my sweet little bichon frise. Don’t let the creampuff looks fool you. She’s all dog.

Right now, Lacy is recovering from ACL surgery so she hasn’t been quite her animated self. How, you may ask, does a ten-pound cutie like Lacy wind up with a football injury? Our veterinarian thinks her being very bowlegged put undue strain on the ligament, but he’s never seen her fly off the sofa in a frenzy to menace the UPS man. So I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s been darned near impossible to keep her still and quiet while her knee heals.

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Hiding Klondike bar wrappers in her bed

Little dog, big personality

Like most small dogs, Lacy’s personality is larger than life. My mom calls her the little cheerleader because of her infectious buoyancy. She’s a few months away from her tenth birthday; while she naps a lot these days, she still embodies the youthful exuberance of her puppyhood. A fluffy white ball of kisses and willfulness, one minute she’s snuggled up next to you to watch TV (she’s a football fan) and the next she’s prancing on hind legs, insisting you share your ice cream. She has an uncanny ability to communicate without words, using little grunts, squeaks and a sound I can only describe as a snort to let you know exactly what she wants, and she’s quick to give you the side-eye if she doesn’t like something you’ve said.

Did I mention that it’s been a challenge to moderate all this craziness? The first few days after her surgery, she was a curled-up, pitiful little thing, but as the days went by and the effects of the anesthesia faded, Lacy regained her happy vigor. She was born with an anomaly called luxating patella, which causes her kneecap to shift out of position at times. Luxating patella is a fairly common problem with small breed dogs and both of Lacy’s back legs are affected. It doesn’t seem to bother her much. She can be happily dashing across the yard, and then suddenly she’ll raise a back leg and continue on without breaking stride. Thanks to a lifetime of three-legged running experience, this knee surgery is just no big deal. She can tear off behind Tanner the border collie in pursuit of a squirrel without a second thought.

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Sweet baby, just home from the hospital
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Biker dog? No! She’s having laser therapy treatment to help heal her little knee.
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The cone of shame…

Except, of course, I can’t allow her do that right now, because sometimes she forgets herself and puts that leg down as she runs. Lacy disregards her knee to jump up and down like a pogo stick when she wants something, like my dinner. And if we’re sitting on the sofa together and the doorbell rings, it’s all I can do to catch her before she launches herself to the floor to bark at the intruder. So it’s my job to protect my little buddy from herself, to somehow contain all this wildness so she doesn’t wreck. Dr. Bink’s good work.

Don’t push too hard

Do you know any people like that? People who push too hard, who rush headlong into every experience? There’s nothing inherently wrong with striving, obviously. But sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between challenging yourself and abusing yourself.

This tendency to overdo it shows up in so many areas of life, like being consumed with your job to the exclusion of everything else, or depriving your body with a crash diet. Why is moderation so hard for many of us to achieve?

I note this tendency in some of my yoga students, and sometimes myself, right on the mat. Adopting a yoga practice is one of the most nourishing gifts you can give yourself, but as in everything else in life, there’s a balance. The Sanskrit word asana, which is the name for the physical poses in yoga, loosely translated means “steady and comfortable seat.” According to Sri Swami Satchidananda, the goal of Integral Yoga®, the style of yoga I teach, is to develop an easeful body, peaceful mind and useful life. This means practicing the poses with a relaxed body, smooth breath and calm mind. But when you’re panting, straining or otherwise in a state of unease, you may be exercising, but it’s not yoga anymore.

This doesn’t mean we should show up on our sticky mats in sloppy apathy. One of my teachers likes to caution her students to “take it easy, but don’t be lazy.” So muscling your way into an arm balance, a headstand, a deep backbend, etc. when you’re fatigued, injured or new to the practice is not a good idea. However, challenging yourself to hold a pose for a few more breaths, or to attempt something new with caution and full awareness develops greater strength, flexibility and resilience. It’s a balance of effort and ease that fosters growth in our yoga practice — and everywhere else, too. It makes me cringe to see people in a seated forward bend gripping their feet with white-knuckled intensity and clenched teeth instead of allowing their hamstrings to lengthen gradually, safely and naturally. We benefit most when we choose the right action, reach for our limit, and allow the rest to unfold.

Back to Lacy, who is relaxing happily next to me on the sofa as I peck out these closing words. Yes, in her zest for life, she gets carried away sometimes. She doesn’t understand anatomical principles or the healing process, so that’s why she needs me. But she’s always known there’s a time to snuggle and a time to bark. A time to play and a time to rest. And we need to enjoy it all.

lacy-relaxing

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Watch Your Language When You’re Talking to Yourself

Yes, I admit it: I laughed out loud when I first saw this meme. I’m not sure what made me laugh, whether it’s the Boston’s almost human expression of disdain or the feeling that this dog has been spying on my morning weigh-ins. As much as I’d like to blame the indulgence of the holiday season, the real reason I’m feeling a little bit like a dumpling right now is my flagging discipline over the past few months.

Then I thought, mean little dog! And I wonder how many people’s inner dialogue sounds just like this.

There’s a petty, judgmental tyrant living between my ears, too. She points out every flaw. My mistakes never escape her notice. Worst of all, she compares me to everyone else and finds me lacking. Sometimes hers is the loudest voice in the boardroom of my mind.

A wonderfully wise and playful swami taught me this lesson several years ago. Now I am sharing it with you. Try this:

Please close your eyes and imagine that I am placing a fresh, juicy wedge of lemon in your hand. Picture it in your mind’s eye as completely as you can, using all your senses – see the bright yellow color, feel the coolness in your palm, smell the citrusy freshness. Now imagine yourself taking a bite. I’ll wait right here while you try it.

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Did you salivate?

If you did, you’re not alone. Every time I do this exercise with a group of students in my yoga or stress management classes, my body responds too.

Even without a real lemon in sight, your body reacted to the thought. Your mind is that powerful.

Can it be that the body responds to our mental messages all the time, even below our level of awareness? Consider how much damage we could do to ourselves without even knowing it. So often we give our body the message that it’s not important or doesn’t measure up. We deprive it of sleep. We starve it or feed it nutritionally depleted food. Some of us cram our feet into impossible shoes or squash our bellies in Spanx. (Honestly, I thought girdles went out with bra burning in the 70s!) So if our bodies stage a rebellion once in a while, who could blame them?

You would think we could give our bodies the respect they deserve, rather than calling them fat, clumsy or otherwise undesirable. These messages show up in our bodies, in the slump of our shoulders and the collapse in our chests. Really, we should be fascinated by the body’s marvelous, innate wisdom. It always knows what it needs. It’s the mind that causes all the trouble.

For example, as I sit at my laptop pecking out this message, my body is giving me distinct signals that it’s time for bed. It’s after 10 p.m. and I am feeling sleepy. I have a choice. I can listen to my body – it’s pretty smart about these things – or I can follow the directive of my mind and keep working. Knowing that I don’t function well when my sleep is poor, the right choice should be obvious.

My mind is also reminding me about the vanilla ice cream in the freezer and hinting that it would be really fun to have some. Never mind that it’s a little chilly in my house right now, and the last thing I need (see the dumpling reference in the first paragraph), is a fat-laden, sugary bowl of empty calories right before I go to bed. My body is not asking for food right now; it’s not hungry. And when my body does crave something, it’s usually virtuous – cool water, fresh greens, sweet berries.

Here’s the thing: If I indulge my mind by staying up past my bedtime to eat ice cream, not only will my sleep be disturbed while my body tries to digest all that dairy, but my mind will also berate me for it in the morning when I awaken feeling sluggish and heavy.

In a culture obsessed with physical appearance, it’s easy to focus on the numbers on the scale or the date on a birth certificate. We forget that the body is an instrument of the Divine. The Vedas of ancient India and St. Paul’s epistle in the New Testament tell us that the body is the temple of God. Rather than obsession, adulation or abuse, the right relationship with the bodies we are given is one of acceptance, respect and care.

Out of respect for my very own temple, I’m getting ready for bed now.

I let Ret polish off the ice cream.

My Permission Slip

I am embarrassed to show up here today after an absence of two months. However, I have several excellent excuses.

Wow, that’s pathetic. Actually, pathetic is how I’ve been feeling lately. This time I can’t even blame it on my job, which has been only moderately crazy. The real challenge has come from my personal life, where a pressing family matter has been bubbling for months. The details are too sensitive to share in these pages, out of respect for the beloved ones involved, but the stress has been extreme and ongoing. And try as I might to avoid it, I’ve found myself embedded in the drama. Frankly, this has taken a real toll on me.

There are lucky ones who can compartmentalize their lives in such a way that what happens in one arena stays confined and doesn’t spill over into the other aspects of their lives. I don’t know how they do it. I am a single, complex organism and all of my parts go everywhere with me. I can’t put my heart aside when it’s time to use my stomach, for example. The heart gets in the middle of everything.

Fight, flight or freeze

The result of all this is that I’ve allowed a difficult situation to take center stage in my life and consume more than its share of my energy. I always thought I was cool in a crisis, but now I see what really happens. In the lexicon of stress management, the body’s reaction to a situation the mind perceives as threatening is called fight or flight, or its new name, fight, flight or freeze. That’s what I do: freeze. I function, sort of, existing in a blubbery state in which I somehow manage to go through the motions and do what has to be done, believing that only I can do it, but it’s a thin façade of competency. Behind closed doors, I am running on fumes. Once the storm passes, I collapse, depleted.

I hit the collapsed, depleted stage last Tuesday when I got clobbered by the flu. Burning with fever, weak and exhausted, I found myself confined to either the bed or the living room sofa for eight solid days. On the plus side, I lost six pounds and now actually like the number on my bathroom scale.

My husband Ret immediately declared that my emotionally drained condition made me vulnerable to the nasty virus that assaulted me. Maybe he’s right. This man knows how to relax. One Sunday last winter, we both decided to have a lazy day, which is something I have very little experience doing. Ret read the paper, watched football on TV and lavished attention on our dogs. I watched football with him – and washed a few loads of laundry, made a quick trip to the grocery and fixed dinner. At the end of the day, we compared the number of steps recorded on our Fitbits: Lee, 5,352. Ret, 623. He says I don’t know how to have a lazy day.

Not practicing what I preach

I encourage my yoga students to practice self-compassion on the mat and not to compare themselves with anyone else. I remind them that they are human beings, not human doings, and that even God rested on the seventh day. And yet I struggle mightily to grant myself the same consideration. My to-do list most weekends is two pages long, and if I don’t scratch off every item I’m tempted to look at the weekend as a failure. I’m not sure who invited this taskmaster into my brain, but I think it’s time to fire her.

News flash: I am not responsible for everything

While lying on my sofa last week, coughing up a lung, it dawned on me that resting was the only thing I needed to be doing. (It was literally the only thing I could do.) And it was OK. The earth did not slip off its orbit. My family managed to muddle through their days without any help from me whatsoever. My employer stayed in business, the sun came up every day and my dogs loved me even without makeup. Although my ego doesn’t like to admit this, I am really just not that important in the grand scheme of things. What a relief.

And so, in the spirit of this new-found freedom, here is my official weekend Permission Slip:

Lee has permission to do absolutely nothing this weekend. NOTHING. No-thing. Nada. Zip. Zero. Nil… Unless she decides to go shopping.

A Resolution Worth Keeping

The parking lot at my local YMCA was jam-packed this evening when I drove past it on my way home from work. It’s like this every January, as swarms of the well intentioned seek fulfillment by weight loss. By Valentine’s Day, most of them will be in their recliners watching TV.

I really can’t criticize them; I’ve done the same thing so many times. For me it’s always been a bit demoralizing to set sky-high goals and feel worthless when I can’t meet them in a week or two. Dramatic change is certainly possible, especially when ushered in by dramatic circumstances – a heart attack, for example, can turn many die-hard couch potatoes into health nuts. But for most mere mortals, long-lasting change takes a long time.

Why do we do this to ourselves? We look into our fun house mirrors every morning and see a distorted image. We’re too fat, too short, too broke, too tired, too something. Whatever we are, we need to fix it. Right now. Deep in our hearts we believe we aren’t good enough. Movies, TV and magazines prove this to us over and over. The beautiful people in the media looking back at us are talented, wealthy, fit, well dressed and enviably successful. And if our self-esteem still has a shred left, a quick browse through Facebook will take care of that. In this sanitized, storybook land, everyone is having a better time than you. They’re vacationing in the Caribbean and cooking fabulous meals with organic produce. They’re in passionate relationships with stunning partners or proudly attending their child’s graduation from medical school. No one on Facebook ever posts their status from the checkout line at Walmart or lets you see their children in their natural state, throwing food at each other.

Sometimes I need a vacation from these plastic images so I can like myself.

I am fortunate to have a really nice life: wonderful family and friends, good health, a successful career and a comfortable home. I recognize how much I’ve been blessed and I’m deeply grateful. But years of hard work have helped build this life, too. My dad always said hard work never killed anyone. I don’t know about that, but a work ethic is a wonderful thing. The desire to succeed, to set goals and achieve them, is vitally necessary in any society. It becomes a problem when relentless striving turns into unfulfilling perfectionism. Too bad we don’t always recognize it.

What if, instead of an oppressive list of resolutions to face in 2016, we change the game altogether? What if we choose to pursue that which feeds our souls?

Can you transform that inner taskmaster into a nurturing parent?

Instead of a weight loss goal, seek to truly nourish your body.

Instead of finding a way to acquire more, find real gratitude in what you already have.

Instead of getting in shape, stretch and move and live joyfully in your body. 

Instead of pursuing achievements, pursue stronger relationships with the people who matter most.

Maybe the rest will take care of itself.

 

Taking Care – Of You

Patrick (not his real name) is a student in my Monday after-work yoga class. He’s an earnest guy, hardworking and devoted to his family, just a genuinely nice man with a humble demeanor and ready smile. He’s always expressed great interest in all elements of yoga; he wants to learn about meditation, the chakras, the Yoga Sutras, everything. His curiosity and willingness to try new things inspire me to be a better teacher.

This class is for fellow employees of the corporation where I spend a large chunk of my waking life. It’s an intense, demanding environment, and because of the product we manufacture, perfection is considered a completely reasonable expectation. My goal for this particular group of students is to undo what the workday does to them – they arrive barely breathing with their shoulders tucked under their ears. I know how it is; I work there, too. So, before we begin, I always ask whether anyone has any aches, pains or psychoses we should address in class.

Pushing through pain

Patrick, like so many other people, struggles with back pain, but at first he didn’t talk about it. When he first joined the class, he refused to let his back get in the way of his practice. He embraced every asana, determined to master them. When we sat on the floor for meditation, his tight hips troubled him, but he assumed the cross-legged position anyway. However, after a while I noticed a change: Patrick began to practically limp into class, wincing with pain. In true overachiever fashion, he would soldier through class anyway, always gung-ho to do the most challenging poses possible.

Ardha Chandrasana - Half Moon Pose
Ardha Chandrasana – Half Moon Pose

Once when my back was turned he kicked his leg up into Half Moon Pose, a challenging asana that involves balancing on one leg and bending sideways to place a hand on the floor while lifting the opposite leg parallel to the floor. It’s a really fun pose that makes you feel like you can leap tall buildings, and I teach modifications to make it more accessible to my students. Patrick chose to perform the more difficult variation, which was very bad news for his back. His drive, so essential in his work, was detrimental to his wellbeing.

This event caused Patrick to confess that he had been working tirelessly on renovations to his home to make it ready for his elderly mother who was coming to live with him. Her advanced age and declining health had made it too difficult for her to continue to live alone, so Patrick had been spending his weekends moving furniture, painting, building, improving – and this strenuous work had taken its toll on his back, especially when the Mr. Fix-It weekend was followed by ten hours sitting at a desk the next day. He agreed to my suggestions for modifications in yoga but was resolute about his home improvement projects. And so, no matter how gentle or therapeutic Monday’s yoga class may be, it is not enough to counter the abuse inflicted the weekend before. At least I can keep an eye on him during class to make sure he doesn’t overdo it on my watch.

I need some TLC too

I think a lot of us are just like Patrick. At least, I know I am. I woke up yesterday morning with a whopping migraine, the kind that amplifies every sound, nauseates me and distorts my view of the world – everything is too bright and a little bit blurry. There was a time when I had these nightmare headaches for days on end, week after week, but mercifully it’s been much better lately. Now I only get one every month or so, with much less severity. Until yesterday.

I might have seen it coming. My job has been hectic and exhausting lately. Travel always wears me out, and over the last three months I’ve visited eight cities. My sleep schedule and normally healthy diet have gone out the window, and my usually regular yoga practice has spent some time out the window, too. And of course, the holiday rush has added its own dimension to the insanity. Yoga teacher that I am, you might expect me to know exactly how to nurture myself when I am fatigued to this degree.

You would be wrong. Well, not exactly wrong; I know how to take care of myself. The problem is that I, like my friend Patrick, don’t always do it. I’ll admit that when I am feeling depleted, I often choose to run on fumes rather than refuel. After all, the whole world would implode if I took a day off.

Some nights I crawl through my front door, drop my bag and collapse on the sofa, swimming in fatigue so heavy that even my hair is tired. But five minutes later, I’m in the kitchen throwing dinner together, feeding the dogs, opening the mail and running a load of laundry at the same time.

Don’t be impressed. This characteristic is not a good thing.

I’m not sure how I became such a martyr, except that I come from an impressive line of long-suffering Sicilian women. Plus most of my schoolteachers were nuns. In any case, I find it easy to talk to my students about self-care but hard to practice it myself. Our driven, competitive, achievement-oriented society seems to reward this kind of behavior, and it isn’t doing us any good.

Think about it. Most people would never treat a friend the way they treat their own bodies. You’re tired? You’re hungry? Too bad – we have work to do! Say that to a friend and you won’t have that friend for long. But we do it to ourselves all the time.

Well, I’m learning that my body won’t stand for that nonsense too long. It rebels. If I ignore the signals it gives me by pushing through headaches, working when I’m sick, etc., my body retaliates by shutting down and forcing me to rest. That’s what happened yesterday with the monster migraine. I was pretty much down for the count and had no choice but to give in. Not surprisingly, I feel better today.

Ahimsa means don’t hurt anybody, including you

And here’s the yoga lesson for today. Ahimsa is the first of the five principles of yama, which are yoga’s ethical precepts. It’s a Sanskrit word that means non-violence. I am continually fascinated by the similarities in the world’s religions. Right living is the same in any language and whatever your conception of God.

Anyway, the concept of ahimsa is often a new yogi’s introduction to this side of yoga. It sometimes comes up when discussing vegetarianism, as many yoga practitioners choose to abstain from meat for compassionate reasons, but diet is not the only ahimsa application. It’s choosing kindness toward all beings, even the ones that get on your nerves. It’s treating things gently – slamming doors is not a demonstration of ahimsa.

Beating yourself up, physically or emotionally, is violence toward oneself. If we cannot treat ourselves with kindness, how can we extend it to anyone else?

Mini-meditation

Whatever you might be tackling right now, whether it’s housework, studying, shopping or anything else that feels like work – pause. Bring your full awareness to your breath. Breathe deeply and notice the way cool air flows into your nostrils and warm air flows out. Allow your abdomen to expand with each inhale, and as you exhale, try to exhale a little more slowly, more completely. Imagine that every inhale fills your body with soft healing light, and every exhale sweeps away all tension, pain and worry. Continue this breath for a few minutes and notice the immediate response of your nervous system.

Slow down. Close your eyes and allow your shoulders to lower and your shoulder blades to slide down your back. Feel happy to be alive, right now, in this moment. Soften your jaw and that little line between your eyebrows and think about what you could do for yourself that would bring you peace. Maybe it’s indulging in a long soak in the tub, lighting candles or listening to soft music – or all three. (That’s what I’m going to do.) Add this pleasurable activity to your to-do list and do it today. It is every bit as important as all those other tasks on your list, possibly more important. You are not a machine. And even if you were, all machines need maintenance sometimes.

Know that by taking care of yourself, you take care of everyone else in your life because you have more to give. Find the peace within and it always radiates outward. It can’t be contained.

OM Shanthi. Peace.