Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Gym Class Hero...

How many people went to school in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s ? I’m positive that other Generation X’ers (as we are known, in addition to the post-Baby Boomers) will remember Gym Class, before the days when it morphed into P.E. Some people will smile and remember fondly games of Dodge Ball and Capture the Flag. Others may even still have their Presidential Physical Fitness test awards proudly displayed. I have very different memories. I hated Gym. I created such a variety of made up illnesses, I’m sure my Gym Class teacher was convinced I was ready for hospice care by 9th grade. I didn’t like getting dirty. I couldn’t climb a rope. I was terrified of balls, both big and small. And, even if I had to stand in the batter’s box, I’m not sure if I ever actually connected bat to ball once in softball. Most of all, I was terrified of embarrassing myself. I knew I was not coordinated, and rather than continue to subject myself to further ridicule and humiliation, my friend Maryann and I decided to make our first political statement: we refused, “on personal grounds” to take the timed running test in 6th grade. We called ourselves “Conscientious Objectors”. In fact, we just stunk at running and didn’t want anyone to know. So, while the other kids were running circles around us, literally, Maryann and I slowly walked around the track, not even moving up to a jog, as the Gym teacher shook his head and berated us.

What I hadn’t learned, at this young age, was that no matter what other people said, I failed to challenge myself. I may have thought I was getting out of an obligation in a pseudo-cool way. In reality, I short changed myself. I failed to try because I was afraid of failure. In doing so, I received more than a low mark in that class: I received a low mark in my self-esteem because I let other people dictate how I felt about myself. I thought I’d be a bad runner, so I didn’t bother. I mocked it, and took the opposing view. Sometimes, challenges are our own measure of ourselves. We can choose to run away (or in my case, walk slowly away), or we can choose to face them head on. Other than Maryann, who is still a dear friend, I can’t think of another person in that 6th grade Gym class. So, I had nothing to lose by trying my best. And, yet, I let fear of failure hold me back.

Not long ago, I rented “The Bucket List” with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, two of my favorite actors. I had expected somewhat of a comedy about two men crossing off the most unbelievable feats of bravery from their ‘to do before I die’ list. In reality, this moving was much more heart warming and life affirming than I’d ever imagined. The most surprising experience the two men found, as they journeyed around the globe, looking for the next ‘big thing’, was the depth of their friendship. And, that wasn’t even on the list. This film taught me to look challenges square in the face, and even if I don’t make my goals, at least I will have tried, rather than mocked.

It never ceases to amaze me that life’s journey took me down the path to become a Yoga Instructor. How I went from Gym Class Wallflower to the teacher of a busy practice still baffles me. What I realized is that my own personal journey was not about climbing Mt. Everest, or standing on the Great Pyramids, but gaining in strength of body, mind and spirit. When another friend, Tammie, invited me to take a Yoga class with her almost 10 years ago, I went along to be a good sport. Little by little Yoga was able to strip away my own personal defense mechanisms of “I can’t” and “I won’t” to “I can” and “I will”. I believe that, because I came from a place, deep inside me, of deep reserve and a lack of self-confidence, I’ve been able to empower my own students to try asanas they didn’t believe they could do. Not long ago, I helped a student into her first headstand. Not only was I able to demonstrate with ease, but I was able to encourage and assist her in her own growth in her strength, and in her practice. It was far more gratifying to celebrate Alexandra’s success than my own. Why ? Because I not only faced my own fear, but I helped someone else do the same.

Challenges don’t have to be enormous, life changing events. For some people, it can be scarier to begin a conversation with a stranger than it is to go rock climbing. For others, even trying foods out of their ‘comfort zone’ can be problematic. Challenges don’t have mean bungee jumping or helicopter-skiing. Challenges mean facing something within ourselves that we would rather hide away. It’s much easier to scoff about not going to a party, than it is to cross that big room, look someone you don’t know in the eye and start talking. Yet, the only person we short change is ourselves. It’s okay not to cliff dive. But, what about taking on one challenge this coming year, and seeing if you meet it ? You don’t have to run in the Boston Marathon, but what about trying to jog around the block ? You don’t have to be the next Martha Stewart, but you can try to shake things up for dinners when company comes over. What about just inviting someone you don’t know well out for coffee ?

We all have our mountains to climb. They just appear in different forms to each of us. I wish each of you a wonderful journey as you create your own personal life list. It doesn't matter if we don't reach the top of our mountain. What matters is that we stopped scoffing, and started trying.

Panic at the thought of doing a thing is a challenge to do it. ~Henry S. Haskins

Monday, December 29, 2008

De-clutter and discover

Like many families, my husband and I have made a goal to become more organized in the year ahead. We want to create a streamlined system in our house, in which we can find exactly what we need at a moment’s notice. We want to open our closets without being attacked by sporting equipment and old coats. We want to be able to have drop in guests arrive without our frantically storing miscellaneous ‘piles’ in boxes, hidden away. We want to clean sweep our home, and make sure that we’re efficient, organized, tidy and attractive…at any moment. It’s a noble goal, isn’t it ?

Unfortunately, this goal just isn’t as easy as it sounds. We have far too much ‘stuff’. Even though we’ve been married for more than 20 years, and have two children, and three pets, it seems as if we have enough stuff to last a lifetime, and yet, I can’t seem to fathom where it all came from! The first step in our reorganization has been to really take a critical look at what we have and why we have it. It’s much easier to be organized if there is a place for everything. And, it’s much easier to create a place for everything without clutter. I’m a purger…I am happy to create bags of items for the next yard sale, or to donate to our church’s thrift shop. Jeff is a self-described pack rat. He would keep everything, except for trash, if he could fit it into our basement. I’ve learned that some of the things Jeff’s salvaged from my “we don’t need this !” pile have come in handy, and he’s come to see the light that perhaps we don’t need a dozen out of date lamps on the cellar shelves. We’ve learned to appreciate one another’s strengths, and areas of weakness, as we move on with this project. TV shows like “Clean House” and “Mission Organization” have been great inspiration and sources for ideas.

For my Christmas present, Jeff built me custom shelving for the dining room cupboards. I now have plate racks that I can hold all my platters and service pieces upright upon. And, I see them, and reach for them without risking my life each time I try to get one out. I had thought I had too many, and yet, now that they’re organized, I see that each one has a special use. It’s much easier to use what I have (and not want to buy yet another dish) when I can see it. It’s almost like Christmas every morning when I open my cupboard now, as I rediscover what I already own, and am thrilled to see them. We hope to have this same kind of clean sweep and organizational approach beyond the dining room. We want to stay on top of smaller budget. We want to keep clutter from accumulating daily in the front hall. We want to feel more in control of our home, and all that’s in it.

Getting a handle on clutter and organization isn’t just about our homes. Of course, discovering my laundry room has a floor has been a fantastic expedition. But, in truth, we all need to focus on decluttering our minds and spirits too. Far too often, we let our thoughts, our hearts and our concerns rest on things that don’t really matter in the long run. We worry about what the neighbors will think if the dog gets out again. We worry that our children won’t get into a good enough college. We worry that our guests won’t like what we’ve cooked. We worry that we are alone in the world. The fact is, none of these things can be changed by worrying. I love the way Jesus puts this in the Gospel of Matthew “Can any of you add a single hour to the length of your life by worrying?”. The Dalai Lama also wrote “If a problem can be solved, there is nothing to worry about. If it can't be solved, worrying will do no good.” The wisdom from both of these teachers is compelling.

Yet as a worrier, I have a hard time focusing on what truly matters, at times. It’s hard to focus on what I can do, when my thoughts are so filled with overwhelming thoughts of what I can’t do. So, what to do next ? Practicing breathing meditation can help. Sitting and taking time to be fully relaxed and completely at peace, each day, can create ‘space’ in your mind. Additionally, I use mantras and imagery to create positive pathways of good thoughts. When I fill my mind with worry, there is no room to create beauty. When I open up space by practicing Yoga, by reading, by volunteering in the community and by helping others, I find that the clutter problem in my mind seems to solve itself. I am learning to place my concerns in their own compartments, without letting take over, making my thoughts a big mess. It’s all about creating space…and just as we can create space in our laundry rooms, we can create it in our hearts and minds, as well. One book I found to be incredibly helpful in this is Sarah Ban Breathnach’s “Romancing the Ordinary”. I hope you will also find it to be a wonderful companion on your journey. The author has an amazing way of cutting through the clutter of every day "outer" life, so that we have the time, space and energy to create a beautiful inner life.

So, go forth and de-clutter ! You never know what you may find when you have the space to see it.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Snow Day

"When it snows, you have two choices: shovel or make Snow Angels"
Snow day ! Is there anything that brings greater joy to most children than having a ‘free day’ off from school ? On a snowy morning, the children watch the TV, listen to the radio, or nowadays, even check online to see if school is cancelled. When that announcement is made, is there any other kind of merriment that takes place in homes in the “snow belt”? Every family has their own ritual: my children used to sleep with their pajamas on inside out to ‘bring good luck’ on a night in which snow has been forecasted, and then we’ve feasted on pancakes the next morning when the big announcement is made. A snow day feels like a “Get out jail free” card from Monopoly. It seems to be a day completely free of commitments, obligations, and everyday routine. It’s a day to play in the snow, drink hot chocolate, build forts and take a break from reality.

Is it any wonder that, even as grown ups, we long for those days off ? Snow days aren’t like vacation days, or planned personal days. All too often we have our vacations and personal days booked solidly. We try to fit in household chores and big home improvement projects. We book appointments to the dentist or the doctor. We run errands we don’t normally have time to do. Even our ‘days off’, as grown ups, involve planning, structure and commitments. Snow days often have a different meaning to us, as adults. It means rearranging our own schedules to fit our children’s time off from school. This often adds even more stress to our already hectic lives. My husband and I are as guilty of this as any couple: we use days off to do yard work, fix fences, steam clean the carpets, paint rooms, take trips to the dump, we wash the cars, reorganize drawers and closets and clean out the refrigerator. We pay bills, we catch up on “Honey Do” items we’ve missed. We lose the magic.

While I’m not advocating allowing garbage to pile up by missing dump runs, or skipping bill paying, what I’d like to propose is a grown up Snow Day. The world we live in is a very stressful place. We are barraged by overwhelming information, day and night. When we were little, listening to the radio on snow days, brought us the fantastic news of a day off ! Now, as adults, we’re more likely to focus on the scary aspects of the news; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, government corruption, a failing economy and local crime. It can be crushing. For your Grown Up Snow Day, I advocate turning off the radio, not going online and call screening (in case of emergency, do make sure you *are* available). Remember, this is only for one day ! Instead of listening to the news, put on music on CD. Instead of watching the news, how about turning on old movies or TV shows ? I still love watching old episodes of “Bewitched” and “I Dream of Jeannie”. My husband gets a kick out of watching the Boston Bruins Classic games, from when he was a boy. It you want to watch television, put on a program that will bring back memories of lighter times. Channel your “Inner Samantha” and twitch your nose to create a true day off: no responsibilities, no commitments. Create a snow day that will make you laugh, help you to relax…and do your best to laugh as much as you can. Rest is lovely, but a day of laughter can be even more healing.

One way I cultivate joy on a Snow Day is to watch my dogs. While Mackenzie, my 6 year old German Shepherd, is the Queen of Dignity and Serious Thought most of the time, a snow day turns her in frolicking, goofy and uninhibited puppy. She digs, she rolls, she tunnels her way through the giant mounds of fresh Maine powder. When she would ordinarily want to heel at my side and behave with the utmost of authority, Mackenzie sinks into complete abandon in the snow. My perspective is “If Mackenzie can do it, so can I!”. If Mackenzie can let go of all of her discipline, I can let loose and just enjoy myself for a day too. In Yoga, the pose that best represents this is Extended Puppy Pose. A cross between Child’s Pose and Downward Facing Dog, it looks silly, but it feels fantastic. It’s a wonderful way to relieve stress, as well as to open up your back. Extended Puppy Pose is also great for people who have wrist issues, and find Down Dog to be painful.

So, let the snow fall ! Pop the popcorn ! Go outside and make snow angels ! Watch old movies ! Most of all, let the world revolve outside without you. Whatever is there…it can wait. Don’t waste your time feeling useful. Just have fun and let tomorrow come soon enough.

"Oh, the weather outside is frightful. But, the fire is so delightful...and since we've no place to go, let it snow ! Let it snow, let it snow !"...Holiday Carol

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dance, the great communicator

To watch us dance is to hear our hearts speak. ~Hopi Indian Saying

Did you know that dance is among the oldest forms of artistic expression ? Archeologists have found evidence of man’s love for dance, to express emotion, since the earliest cave paintings. I’m not surprised. Dance is innate within us. It’s among our first impulses as babies. Look at any toddler when you put on music. She’ll instantly begin to move ! I, too, love to dance. As a matter of fact, I can’t remember a time, when I didn’t dance. I can remember myself twirling and dancing when I was as young as 4. Because of this love for dance, it’s still amazing to me that I have absolutely no talent, and even less of a sense of rhythm. I am the equivalent of a tone deaf person who fancies herself a Mezzo-Soprano. But, with every love for the arts, must come patrons. I have learned that I can be a great appreciator, even if I will never be a great dancer.

My daughter, Caroline, on the other hand, is a wonderful dancer. She has been taking dance lessons since her 3rd birthday. And, unlike her beat challenged mother, she can convey rhythm, emotion, grace and skill. In addition to taking both of my children to see the Nutcracker every year, we have gone to Broadway and seen countless musical theatre productions. So, I know it’s not a mystery as to why Caroline understands the undercurrent of dance. She has not only studied, but has been exposed to everything from African dance to street hip hop and classical ballet. This is the first year, in the past 5 years, that she wasn’t in our local production of the Nutcracker Suite. I can tell that she missed being a part of it….despite long rehearsals, aching arches from hours on pointe and crowded dressing rooms, there was a piece of her performances that fed her soul. Dance can do that: it can reach into our very being and release endorphins, as well as self-expression and passion.

One of my favorite hymns in Church is “Lord of the Dance”. All reference to Michael Flatley and his Riverdance flying feet aside, it’s a beautiful song of reverence and faith. This little known hymn is perfectly sung at Christmastime. While it has never had the popularity of “Silent Night” at church services, “Lord of the Dance” should rightly be sung. It’s a beautiful hymn speaking of God’s place in the world, using dance as the medium. The first verse and chorus are as follows, and are sung to the melody of “ ‘Tis if a gift to simple”:

I danced in the morning when the world was begun
I danced in the Moon and the stars and the Sun
I came down from Heaven and I danced on the Earth
At Bethlehem I had my birth:
Dance then, wherever you may be
I am the Lord of the Dance, said He!
And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be
And I'll lead you all in the Dance, said He!

It’s a wonderful image, isn’t it ? As a traditional woman, who believes in, and loves, the power of dance, I can’t think of a love letter to God that could be more from my heart. Additionally, this hymn captures the essence of the esoteric and reverent aspect of dance. In Yoga, the Asana of “the Pose of the Dancer” is, understandably, one of my comfort poses. Not only is the pose a wonderful method for practicing disciplined balance and for stretching out one’s upper back and hips, but the asana itself invokes the spirit of the dancer within each of us.

I have a challenge for everyone this holiday season: dance. Don’t worry about what you look like. Don't worry if it's not the Tango. I seem to channel “Elaine” from the infamous Seinfeld Christmas party episode, and her jerky, frenzied motions. But, the fact is, she loved it. And, so do I. Dancing releases tension and can create an extraordinary sense of well being.
Just take my advice: don’t dance in front of your teenagers. They have the oddest habit of turning off the music just when you’re getting going. I wonder why ?

Nobody cares if you can't dance well. Just get up and dance. ~Dave Barry

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Power of a Smile

It’s Christmas time ! This means shopping, food, visiting, greeting cards, decorating, music…and my favorite, Christmas movies. I happen to be a sucker for all holiday films. It’s very close to impossible to name my favorite. I have wonderful memories associated with each one….from the original “Miracle on 34th Street” (still a great film) to the “Grinch” to “The Santa Clause”. I adore the original “Charlie Brown’s Christmas”, and can’t imagine the weeks leading up to Christmas without the jazz strains of that soundtrack playing.

But, in the most recent (and by this, I date myself) batch of Christmas movies, I have to say that Will Ferrell’s “Elf” is a new classic. I adore his character of Buddy the Elf. Buddy approaches life with a great honesty, a loving innocence and a sense of deep caring for others…not to mention a spirit of Christmas as big as New York, and passion for maple syrup on everything and anything. Buddy tries to build a relationship with his jaded father, played by James Caan, while still maintaining his true Elf identity and zest for life. There are far too many wonderful, goofy lines in the movie to quote them all, but one of my favorites is, “I like smiling ! Smiling’s the best !”

The wonderful thought behind this line is the truth of it: smiling IS the best ! Did you know that smiling can help improve your overall well being ? Study after study has shown that smiling, even when you don’t feel like it, can have a remarkable effect on your mood. Both allopathic and homeopathic doctors agree, in fact, that if you smile at another person, make eye contact and “put on a happy face”, the mood is contagious. You will feel better by smiling when you’re sad. It does like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it ? It also has a “close your eyes and think of England” element. And yet, the irresistible part of the equation is that it works. When you smile, you look happy, well grounded, and joyful. People will respond in kind. You smile, they smile back, and before you know it, you feel happy that someone has smiled at you. The results are exponential. The harried salesperson you made a kind comment to, instead of a snarky one, may well treat her next customer with great customer service, who, in turn, may feel well obliged to donate to a charity on her way out of the store. The “pay it forward” aspect of a simple smile, a kind gesture and a positive attitude, when we least feel like it, can even be returned to us when we least expect it. Additionally, smiling has been shown to increase your immune system’s resistance to illness and to lower high blood pressure.

In Yoga and the path of mindfulness, there is a wonderful tradition from extraordinary Vietnamese Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh. In his life changing book, “Peace is every step”, Thich Nhat Hanh discusses smiling at great lengths, and its benefits to calm the body and mind. In one seated meditation, the Master uses this mantra: “Breathing in, I calm my body.Breathing out, I smile.” I have used this technique not only in the classes I teach, but in line at a returns desk, stuck in traffic and during interminable parent conferences at school. It’s not just a gimmick. It truly works, and many cultures believe in the power of the smile. I love Mother Theresa’s thoughts on the subject, as well: “Peace begins with a smile.”

So, today, smile. It really is the best !

Let us always meet each other with smile, for the smile is the beginning of love. ~ Mother Theresa

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Passionate about food

I love food with great passion. I also love to read. My blog has expounded on both of these points ad nauseum. However, I can’t let the holidays pass without suggesting one of my favorite books: The Soprano Family cookbook. I realize that I have only reviewed and derived articles from literary novels until this point. But, this cookbook is a novel. Rather, it reads like one. As a fan of the HBO series, the Sopranos, I was thrilled when my friend, Debra, gave me the cookbook one Christmas. Since then, I’ve pulled it out every holiday, and frankly, whenever I need a good laugh. It’s hilariously funny. The characters not only give their favorite recipes, but also bits and pieces into their lives. Because I’m not Italian-American, it would be easy to let dishes like Ziti Al-Forno or Roasted Sausage and Peppers slide remain off the radar. And yet, because of this wonderful cookbook, I can make these dishes with confidence, and laugh as I’m reading the recipes because they’re written “in character”.

My favorite chapter is entitled, “If I couldn’t eat, I’d fu**ing die!”. I simply love the title. It’s Bobby Bacala’s view on food, and some fabulous recipes. But, the sentiment, in so uncertain terms, remains the same. Food, to me, is meant to be savored to point of immense joy. If you don’t love what you’re eating, why bother? My husband, a former Army Ranger, takes a different view. During times in the field, you ate what you could, even MRE’s that tasted like sawdust. I haven’t had Jeff’s experience in food deprivation, so I can’t fully appreciate his impassioned plea for Kentucky Fried Chicken the moment he was released from that part of his training. But, I could certainly see his appreciation for what he craved, those long months he was away. I’ve been incredibly blessed in my life: I’ve been surrounded by delicious food most of the time. And, if I didn’t have it immediately, I wasn’t far from it. I also am fortunate that I have a strong resolve. I rarely eat something if it’s not exactly “it”. It’s not that I have developed the most incredible discipline, I’m just a picky eater when it comes to the taste-factor. The fact is, I want to love what I eat. Otherwise, it’s simply not worth my time. Or, the places it’ll end up on my thighs.

In Yoga, there are different philosophies about eating. Many serious yogis and yoginis are vegetarians. Others believe that eating meat is sacred, as long as you appreciate the animal, for lack of a better term that you’re eating. Still others will adhere to strict diets, macrobiotic, ayurvedic or another health-conscious traditions. These movements believe in focusing on the season on the food, the combinations of foods, and the right food for your body type. Honestly, I believe in all of it. I do eat (and appreciate) meat, but I also choose many meals to be vegetarian. I enjoy the freshness of many macrobiotic meals, and love brown rice and sushi. I also understand that eating for my Ayurvedic Dosha, which happens to be “Kapha”, involves avoiding fatty foods, and focusing on light, even spicy meals, to provide balance in my system. What most yogis will encourage you to do about food is to eat healthfully, and listen to your body when you have had enough. Pasta isn’t off limits (or I really would fu***ing die), but I eat it in moderation, with fresh ingredients for balanced meals.

As the holidays are here, so many of us will make unhealthy choices. We’ll feel these in body and in spirit (the guilty conscience never rests !). Enjoy your food, make a wonderful Italian dish, have a glass of red wine and savor it. Investigate new ways to approach food that may help you feel better physically. But, always remember that taste comes first!

"To eat is a necessity, but to eat intellligently is an art". ~ La Rouchfoucauld

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


One of my favorite movies from the ‘80’s is Tom Hanks’ “Big”. His character, Josh Baskin, makes a wish on a bewitched arcade game to ‘be big’. This comes only after he, as a 12 year old boy, is given the brush off by a girl he likes, who is going on a carnival ride with a taller (and older) guy. I think many of us can relate to that feeling of anguish, and that moment in which we wish, with all of our heart and all of our soul, that our circumstances could be different. We hoped that we could wake up and magically become taller, smarter, thinner or with more curves. We wished we could run the race faster, score a winning goal or just manage to get through a day without adolescent humiliation. We long for more money, a nicer home or a ‘dream date’. We crave an instantaneous solution to our present life situation. Like Josh Baskin, we wish for an enchantment to make our heartbreak heal, and our lives perfect.

At the end of the movie, Tom Hanks’ love interest, played by Elizabeth Perkins, is invited to ‘come with him’, back to childhood. What I enjoy most about this scene is the expression on Tom Hanks’ face when she sadly says “no….I can’t go through that again…”. His character truly doesn’t understand that overcoming these trials is a part of life. No matter how big we get, there will always be someone smarter, someone wealthier or someone more talented. Part of our lives’ meaning is to learn to work through these complications and disappointments. Overcoming is rarely fun, and not often easy, but it does add to the sweetness of life. Because we learn our life lessons bit by bit, we have time to process each new step. We also have time to figure out what’s really worth worrying about. When I think back to the heartache I felt as a teenager, I wish I could go back: not to relive that part of my life, but to talk some sense into my younger self. Yet, at the same time, I know I wouldn’t have listened to ‘me’. It takes the journey to learn the lesson. And, it takes a life of learning to continue to gain insight into each new step of the journey. Just when we think we’ve made it, that we’re ‘there’, life throws us a curve ball: we graduate, we begin a new job, we get married, we become parents, our children grow up, we find ourselves with an empty nest. We become “freshmen” all over again.

In India, Ganesha is the God of Overcoming Obstacles. While I’m neither Buddhist nor Hindi, I have always found Ganesha to be a fascinating cultural study. His elephant head is clearly recognizable and adorns many places, from homes to businesses. Ganesha is not only the Remover of Obstacles but is also the God of Arts & Sciences, as well as, in Buddhist tradition, the God of letters and learning. Unlike Judeo-Christian traditions, Ganesha isn’t prayed to with the same monotheistic belief system we have here in the west. He is invited to join the seeker, as a helper, an aide and a friend. It seems to intruiging to have a God-friend who may miraculously remove the obstacles in our path. This thought makes me smile when I imagine Tom Hanks’ character going to a Hindi shrine and asking Ganesha for help, lighting incense and chanting. Does Ganesha really help those who ask him? I can’t answer that. It’s not my tradition. But, do I believe that there is a higher power who will walk with us every step of the way on our own journey, the answer is yes. He doesn’t look like an elephant. He doesn’t need elaborate rituals. I do believe that asking the God of your heart to stand with you through trying times, over hurtles in the road and during times of heartbreak is beneficial for all. But, will he magically solve all my problems ? No. But, I believe with my own heart in the right place, I walk in the direction that will bring about the most benefit.

So, if I had a wish, would it be to be young again ? Would I say “No !”, vehemently as Elizabeth Perkins did ? Would I wish myself older, and through these teen years ? I think one of the greatest experiences of my own life has been to appreciate right now for what it is. It may not be perfect. It may not always be pretty. My hair may have a little more gray, and my step might be a bit slower. But, I wouldn’t trade right now, pains and all, for anything. I appreciate how far I have come. But, more importantly, I appreciate all I have yet to do. And, I don’t want to skip over any of it. I want to experience every single moment of it. When we wish ourselvse out of the stage we're in, we're skipping over the sweetest parts; the good memories along with the bad, the sense of perspective we gain and the precious times we realize how fortunate we've been.

However, if you happen to see a Zoltan machine, make a wish. Just be careful what you wish for....

"Seek not that things which happen should happen as you wish; but wish that the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life." ~ Epictetus

Monday, December 8, 2008

Family Time, Games and Stacking the Deck

"Life is the only game in which the object of the game is to learn the rules..." Ashleigh Brilliant

One of the downsides of the holiday season is how quickly it seems to pass. Parties to attend, presents to shop for and wrap, out of town guests to entertain and clean up for all the festivities. We rush and we toil and we spend time doing many things for people outside our homes. Giving our time is generally a positive experience if we see our energies blessing other people. But, what happens when our reserves our depleted and those we love most, our immediate family, get the short end of the stick? For too many holidays, when my daughter has danced in “The Nutcracker” and my son has had hockey games all over Maine, we’ve spread ourselves too thin. We go from one event to the next, barely catching our breath and chugging coffee to just get us to the point in which we can come home and collapse. It leaves our home celebrations to be low-key affairs. Low-key isn’t necessarily a negative thing, if that’s what we intend. But, if our time together is sporadic and exhausted, then our family holiday interactions will be grumpy and distracted.

This year, I’ve made a conscious effort for our family to remain cognizant of our time together, and to place our priority on one another, rather than on all the many choices pulling us apart. Now that my children are older, and my daughter goes to school out of state, this goal is even more difficult…but, it’s also never been more important. Our time together is precious and finite. I am both grateful for, and honored by, the fact that our teens have wonderful friends with whom they like to spend time. But, I’m also thankful when they want to spend time with us. I want to make these moments ‘count’. It’s tricky, however, to find the balance between actually making a difference in the time we spend together, and forcing it down their throats with “enforced family togetherness”, telling to them to “like it or else !”. Most parents of teens know that ‘togetherness’ is often a double-edged sword: we do spend time together, but the kids are straining to pull away. Or, the whole situation feels “forced”.

This is one of the reasons why I’ve taken a step back on my approach to family time. No more forced togetherness, no more “you will do this and like”…just figuring out what makes each of us “tick” and finding a way to feed that sense of enjoyment. For many families, board games are a great way to relax and have fun. In our family, however, competitiveness rears its ugly head too often over Monopoly or Sorry. My kids have even argued over spinning the dreidel! When my daughter was very young, we used to have the stack the deck playing “Candyland", or else there was hell to pay. She have to get “Queen Frostine” as a card she drew. That aside, my family loves to play cards. Everything from Pitch to Hearts to Poker to Spit, our family loves to use card games as times to laugh and enjoy ourselves. One of the aspects that I’ve enjoyed most about having ‘big kids’ now, is that they come home from school or camp or hockey trips having picked up new card games. For an evening that teen gets to be the ‘teacher’ and everyone gets to learn the new games they’ve picked up on the road. We have never made pronouncements, such “Now, Josh will teach us the game he learned in Quebec”. We just let the experiences unfold.

For my family, unwrapping a new deck of cards is a conversation starter. When we take a new set out of the box, it gives someone an excuse to say “Let me show you how to play International!”. It’s one of the reasons my mother in law gives us cards every holiday season. Each set is different, and I can remember different holidays by the different decks we’ve used. As we begin to play a new game, I realize how much my children have grown, and how much I enjoy learning from them. But, I can also still sink back into the memories of their small childhood, and the very first time I taught them how to play Crazy Eights and Uno. I remember seeing the wonder on their faces when they were down to one card and proudly called out “Uno !” the first time. Playing cards, for us, may bring out competitiveness, at times, but with cards in hand, it also seems to be a good time to talk…as we pick up and lay down cards, I can hear about their ideas, their thoughts, and what’s made them laugh lately.
So, this holiday season, take some time to play a game, one that has everyone sitting down at the same place, in the same time, but with the same frame of mind. For those reluctant family members, sit down with whomever you can grab. I’ll guarantee that, when the feet-dragger sees how much fun you’re having, he’ll want to join in too. Most of all, just enjoy the conversation that flows from your game.

But, don’t be too proud to stack the deck, if needed.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

December 4th

It’s my birthday ! 43 years ago today, my mom and I met for the first time. I get a wonderful picture when I think of that image ! In any case, I happen to love birthdays. Please don’t misunderstand: I have rarely had perfect birthdays. Several milestones were spent alone in my dorm rooms. I was very ill for another. My husband, who is a truly good man, is simply missing the “holiday gene” in his personality. But, despite rotten days, and disappointments, I still get giddy over the fact that December 4th has rolled around again. I think that, even on the forgotten years, it’s still given me an opportunity to think “I’m here ! I’m alive !” with a new sense of appreciation at the blessing of life itself. It breaks my heart that birthdays are the one of the leading days to commit suicide, second only to Christmas. I truly believe that, no matter what, we have been gifted with the honor of our very selves, and to be able to internally appreciate that, is the biggest blessing a birthday can bring. Yes, it’s nice to receive a card or some flowers, and it’s definitely a joy to not have to cook for an evening. I do like to feel appreciated, of course. But, waking up this morning, knowing that I’d completed 43 years on this planet gave me a sense of awe and thankfulness to just be ‘here’, right now. Being alone on a birthday isn’t the worst thing in the world. Not “being” at all would be far worse.

I look at birthdays the way many people feel on New Year’s: as a chance to begin again, to start fresh, to release bad habits and pick up new ones. I think it’s much more fitting, on a birthday, to begin anew because, after all, it’s our own personal ‘new year’. Every December 4th, I take stock in what I’ve done well in the past year…and honestly look at where I’ve made mistakes. I try to look back without judgment and figure out ways in which I can improve. This reflection may include everything from keeping track of finances to organization to the vast amounts of coffee I consume. And, while this year, my level of organization doesn’t seem to have improved, and my coffee habit seems to be worse, I can look at the methods I tried and remind myself not to repeat them. Thomas Edison once wrote “I haven’t failed. I’ve simply found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” I love that philosophy, and I am inspired by that sentiment. I can look at different ways to try to achieve my goals, and stop wasting time berating myself over not having done so sooner. By taking time to reflect on what I’ve done well, and where I can improve, I can make my birthday not only meaningful to myself, but to those I live with, as well. I try to take time out of my day to build a bridge, mentally, between my past year, and the year ahead, setting my goals as I go.

An excellent Yoga asana along these lines is Bridge Pose. Bridge brings you up onto your shoulders, placing all your weight balanced between your feet and shoulders. Bridge is excellent for clearing the mind and maintaining focus. It also happens to be a fantastic shoulder strengthener. I offer Bridge Pose in my classes towards the end of the class, after we’ve worked very hard, but before our relaxation time. Metaphorically, the asana offers yoginis time to reflect and allow their bodies and minds to wind down. Physically, it has many of the same attributes. When I teach my Restorative Yoga class this evening, I’ll be inviting my students to use this asana to help slow down the breath, quiet the mind, and gain strength in both.

While I wish I could offer pearls of wisdom on being 43 years old, I can only offer up my own confusion that I simply don’t feel like a grown up yet. I realize how very much I have yet to learn, to do and to experience. I also realize how incredibly blessed I’ve been…not only in the good things that have happened along the way, but in the lessons I’ve learned from the trying times most of all. We don’t learn in ease, but in overcoming adversity, according to Helen Keller. I hope that I have many years in which to learn !

And, just one final tip: send your mom flowers your birthday. Thank her for getting you here safely !

"Man's main task in life is to give birth to himself, to become what he potentially is. The most important product of his effort is his own personality. " Erich Fromm

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Present Presents

The holiday rush is upon us. I am amazed at the sales and deals to be had this holiday season. It seems as if almost every television commercial, radio ad, or flyer in the mail has to do with slashing prices on gifts for the whole family. I have talked to a number of people who got up as early as 4 am to be at the sales when the store doors opened on “Black Friday”. In this troubled economy, it’s not surprising that even more people than usual hit these ‘door busters’ the day after Thanksgiving. Our budget, like many, is stretched to the limit, and finding ways to save money on gifts is definitely important to me. However, whether we’re living in “bull” or “bear” markets, buying Christmas presents can tend to take on a life of its own. We get enticed by quantity over quality, and a great deal, rather than a great match. In our fear of ‘ruining Christmas’, we overspend, we overextend our stress levels and we buy too many things. Package after package comes home, and we don’t even realize that these impulse buys have taken on a life of their own. My worst habit is buying gifts early, when I see something that’s ‘perfect’, but then forgetting I have it stocked away, only to buy another item. Christmas can easily go overload…even for the best of bargain hunters and least materialistic, we can find ourselves surrounding by ‘stuff’. Yet, the ‘stuff’ doesn’t necessarily mean the perfect gift.

So, what is the perfect gift for someone ? Does such a thing even exist ? Or, is it a myth ? I do believe that presents we buy or we make with great intention are far more meaningful than throwing yet another thing onto the cart in the check out aisle. Being present in your purchasing (or in your creating) can make a phenomenal difference in how you ‘do’ the holidays. Instead of being so focused on ‘getting it now’, take some time to really analyze the person you’re gifting. Think of their loves, their tastes, their passions, their sense of humor and their dreams. Try to take your own ego out of the equation. There may well be a gift you think is hilarious or just amazing, but if it doesn’t fit that loved one’s OWN sense of self, then who is the gift really for ? Is it for you…to make you feel good, or is it meant to be meaningful for someone else. All too often we let our egos and our own personalities dictate what other people receive. This isn’t a crime, but it does show a lack of thoughtfulness because it means that our taste is “right”. It’s not about the other person. It’s about us. So, in honoring your giftees, think about them, and what makes them tick. Quite literally imagine yourself in their skin…how do you feel? Be fully aware and fully present in each decision you make about gifts. Don’t shop impulsively, and try not to do too much all at once.

Frenzied shopping is rarely thoughtful. Mountains of gifts can be daunting, and yet, that one simple gift, that shows our love and deep connection with another person, can mean a great deal to them. One year, I made my friend, Tammie, chocolate covered strawberries. I have never felt so blessed by anyone’s response to a present. I truly thought of her, what she would like, and tried to imagine her reaction. This was not an expensive gift to make, but as I made them, I remembered our conversations about her love of these treats, and I felt honored that her reaction was so heartfelt and real. Because of that experience, I have tried to truly imagine how another person feels when I pick out a gift for them. I remember memories we’ve shared and think of ideas that really seem to ‘click’. This isn’t to say I hit the mark every time! But, by being fully cognizant, less rushed and more thoughtful, we can truly make a difference in the way our presents are received.

In Yoga, we call to mind living in the present moment and honoring those around us. At the conclusion of every yoga class I teach, I wish my students “Namaste”, which loosely translated means “I honor the light within you”. I encourage my students to honor one another with this same greeting. Like “Aloha” or “Shalom”, it can be said “coming or going”. But, in honoring one another as we leave, we also honor the experience we have just shared and we call to mind being fully present for the rest of our day. Imagine cultivating that kind of thoughtful intention throughout our lives!

And, so as you begin the holiday shopping rush, take time to slow down. Appreciate those you love, and “honor the light within them”. Namaste.

(The wonderful Shiva Rae concluding a class with Namaste...)

The greatest gift you can give another is the purity of your attention. ~ Richard Moss

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Twisting Paths

Have you ever wondered if something in your life is ‘meant to be?’ or fate ? Have you wondered if actions, no matter how random they seem, work together to create a path in your life that was destined to exist ? Perhaps, do you believe that we are blindly headed any which way, and yet, we still emerge in a way that is serendipitous? I love this idea, and while I often can’t help but view life as a series of forks in the road in which we must choose one direction or the other, I still can’t keep the idea that whichever fork (or many forks) I take, I will still end up where my destiny lies. I look at big events, such as where I went to school, and realize that I would not have my children had I not made that decision. Even little choices can sometimes turn into something larger…striking up a conversation with a nice person at the library, who will ultimately become a best friend.

Because I do believe that our choices do, in fact, lead us to the destination at which we are meant to arrive, I read “A Stopover In Venice”, by Kathryn Walker, with great enthusiasm. This wonderful novel of literary fiction involves two of my favorite ideas: fate and Venice. Although I’ve only spent one week of my life in Venice, I feel such a love for the city that, in some ways, it feels like a bit of me will always be there. As one walks around tiny alleyways, opening into piazzas, one can’t help but imagine something magical around every turn. Venice, in and of itself, in many aspects feels like fate. After all, it’s a city of great mystery, great beauty and great history. The fact that it was created by a people who simply hoped to defend themselves by living on the water only further illustrates its mystique. In “A Stopover in Venice”, Kathryn Walker tells two stories, side by side, both with their fates intertwined; one of a modern day woman fleeing an unhappy marriage, and the other of a Venetian woman of the Renaissance, who had a loving marriage. Yet, the twists and turns of both Venice, and the stories plots, create a serendipitous existence of them both. This novel illustrates that, even when we are experiencing a negative situation, ultimately, we will learn a lesson from that unfortunate experience that will lead us to further enlightenment. After all, what would inspire us to grow into the men and women we are capable of being, without challenge ?

During times of great change in the world, it’s often difficult to truly process this concept. And, it’s also hard to imagine how a tragedy can be meant to be. When a dear friend of mine lost a baby a week after his much wanted birth, I had no idea how to even find the words to comfort her, let alone picture a way in which this situation might bring about ‘good’ in the end. To be honest, I still don’t know the answer to that dilemma. I can say that my friend has grown into one of the most compassionate people I know…and yet, couldn’t this have happened without her losing her child ? Fate is not always pretty…and it’s not always understandable. I wish I understand why there is misery in the world. I wish I understood why my own children feel hurt by the meanness that exists in their every day lives. If I could take the pain they feel onto myself, I would. And yet, a rational part of me understands that each one of us must feel our own frailties to grow. It’s finding those edges of our personality, our gifts, our strengths and our weaknesses, and then exploring the boundaries beyond them, that do help us to push into the next fork in the road of our own fates.

An illustration I often use in my yoga classes is that of a treasure map. While we’re walking on the map, we can’t see it. We are on the very roadways themselves, and too close to the map’s surface to grasp the overall view. It’s only when our lives are complete that we will be able to look down, see each pathway, each twist and turn, and each fork in the road, and ultimately, view the lessons we learned along the way as the ‘gold’ at the journey’s end. My wish for each of you is a prosperous trip as you discover your own life’s treasured meaning.

As we move through life, the force of fate creates events that we only appreciate when we reflect on our existence. ~ Ronald Harmon

Monday, November 24, 2008

Thankfulness vs. Appreciation

During Thanksgiving week, most columnists, essayists and those who simply like to hear themselves speak, like to use thankfulness as a topic. It’s not surprising. The holiday industry of enforced merriment over Thanksgiving makes greeting card topics at the forefront of everyone’s consciousness. And yet, thankfulness is not bad a subject to discuss. It’s just overused in November every year. People are forced to say what they’re “thankful for” around the Thanksgiving table, putting one on the spot to come up with something original that will entertain their guests, make a profound point, or just avoid drawing a complete blank when called upon. There are only so many times you can “good health” or “an A on my Biology quiz” at this moment in the judgment seat.

Instead of thankfulness as a trite, sugary notion we trot out alongside the turkey, I hope to incorporate a spirit of appreciation, rather than thankfulness. Most people would say “But they’re the same thing !” and roll their eyes at me. I beg to differ. I believe that thankfulness is something we feel internally. Appreciation, however, is something we share. The emotions and ideas are similar, but truly, the execution is different. Thankfulness is often about a ‘thing’, be it that test in school, a roof over your head or being grateful that the sweet potatoes didn’t catch on fire. Appreciation is usually generated towards another person: the stranger who smiled and cheered you up on a bad day, a friend who’s willing to come lend a hand to help you move or your family willing to fly across country to visit you in the hospital. Appreciation means going outside of your own box of emotions and expressing those feelings of gratitude to another human being. Maybe it’s simply a smile back at the kind, and patient, shopper behind you who isn’t hissing at you to hurry up when you can’t find your wallet. Perhaps, it’s telling your friend all the things about her that you love. What about expressing all the little things your mom has done for you over the years that have added up to a lifetime of blessings ? Appreciation goes beyond thankfulness. It places the responsibility of sharing how much we truly value that other person’s place in our lives. For many of us, there is also no greater gift than knowing we’ve made a difference, no matter how small, in the life of another.

In Yoga, cultivating gratitude is part of the daily practice. As we sit and focus on nothing but the breath, we draw inside ourselves, quiet our minds, and let go of all the extraneous, external concerns, or ‘mind trash’, that we have accumulated. The breath brings with it all good things, and a seated, peace-filled, meditative breath can leave the yogini feeling a deep sense of appreciation those who have made a difference in her life. Sometimes, I believe we aren’t being selfish by our lack of expressed appreciation. We are simply overwhelmed by the day to day toll that life takes on us. We worry about deadlines, bills and finances. We are concerned about the war, the economy and the fact that our dog just ran away. We stress over gaining 5 (or 20) pounds and know that the holiday season isn’t going to help our waistlines much. With all these thoughts pulling us in a thousand directions, is it any wonder that we often forget to express gratitude ? Often, we’re just so grateful when something does go ‘right’ that we forget the appreciation part of it ! But, bringing yourself back to the breath, every day, even for a few minutes, can help move away the clutter and bring forward the sense of appreciation you do feel…and do want to share.

There are endlessly creative ways to share appreciation with people. For someone who helped you long ago, I can’t think of a more remarkable gift than a letter expressing the moment that person touched your life. For a friend who has picked up your children more times than you can count, a bottle of wine, and gift certificate to her favorite restaurant---or even a home cooked meal, delivered to her door, might be just what she needs to know her actions were felt by you. For someone you love deeply, listening to them….really listening, not just nodding along, can be create a deep impact….making eye contact, asking questions about him (instead of rambling on about you !), can show your love, as well as your appreciation. The more you think about the person whom you’d like to shower with gratitude, the more you place are out of yourself and into them. The right path of expressing your thanks will make itself known.

So, ring your neighbor’s doorbell and leave cookies on her porch, or hug a friend who is having a bad day. Hire a sky writer to thank someone who saved your life or shout it from the rooftops (metaphorically or otherwise)! Appreciate those around you…and I promise, the world will be a better place.

Silent gratitude isn't much use to anyone. ~G.B. Stern