Thursday, November 29, 2012

Decadent/Detox/Dreaded/Delightful December

Oh, December.  You're not even here yet and you're already stressing me out.

There's the usual insane glut of holiday parties, December babies having birthday parties (including not only me but my fiance - born two days after me!), amazing movies and shows opening, and of course, the holidays.  Whichever holiday you celebrate, and whether you're traveling or staying home, the anxiety and pressure to crank out a zillion Christmas cards or buy the perfect gift without breaking your bank is enough to make you forget the point of the holidays in the first place.

Alongside all of these lovely problems to have, I've also got a wedding dress to squeeze into the day after Christmas for a fitting (and did I mention I'll be having Christmas dinner with my butter-and-bacon-lovin' southern Grandma who cooks like nobody's business?) and my cousin's wedding to attend on the 29th.  And my own wedding that I honestly haven't really done a thing to plan for in the last couple of months that edges closer every day.

My goal is to have this month be more about detoxing than decadence, more about delight than dread.

We'll see how it works out...but here are a couple of things I hope to employ to help me survive the month.  Each and every one will be a challenge!

1. Saucha

A niyama meaning purity or cleanliness, this is how I'm hopefully going to avoid the ever-present decadent temptations of the season.  December is probably the most ridiculous time to start counting calories and expect to lose weight...but I think it's an interesting challenge.  This principle can apply to external - our homes, our clothes, our skin - or it can apply to the internal.

Along with invoking this principle to choose to stick to just one glass of wine or pass up the amazing free cake, it's also something you can apply mentally and emotionally.  Purify your internal state before bed to get a better night's sleep - a few minutes of stretching, reading, or just not texting can do wonders for your quality of rest, helping you avoid burnout.

2. Aparigraha

A yama meaning non-hoarding or abundance, this can help stave off the inevitable materialism of this month.  Giving and getting gifts is exciting and fabulous, but is it me or has Black Friday and everything it represents gotten beyond ridiculous?  A hand written card is always, always going to mean more than a new gadget.  Not that you can't want or buy the gadget, but just keep in mind - we all already have everything we really need.  Everything else is just cake.

3. Santosha

A niyama meaning contentment, this is a really important one to remember once you get into the groove of constantly having to answer the question of what you want for the holidays.  You can get locked into the loop of constantly looking to the external world for your needs met - once you start to make a list, it's hard to stop (for me, anyway!).  Even if it feels a bit false at first, practice being content with where you are, what you have, and who you are.

4. This!  A must read for introverts or anyone who finds themselves feeling burned out by the holiday party circuit.

5. Prioritizing - and Letting Go

Some things are inevitably going to fall by the wayside.  Writing this blog, keeping up with my budget, and cleaning my floors are three things that are really important to me that I do every week (which I'm aware makes me sound like the most boring person ever) and it's often a challenge to find the time.  There are going to be weeks that one or all three might just not happen - and I'm resolving to recognize that 9 times out of 10, it's for a damn good reason, like a birthday party or extra work opportunity (everyone loves holiday yoga).  What am I going to remember a month from now - vacuuming or a friend's Christmas party?  If you're somewhat type A, this is probably the most important tip.  Prioritize what's iron-clad important, and sacrifice an opportunity to go out or a particular shopping trip to get it done.  If it's not top on the priority list...let it go.

6. Do Less

If you're overwhelmed, take something off the table.  Whether it be declining a party invite, slacking a bit on chores, or passing on a workout in favor of restorative rest, it's okay to create some space to breathe.

As I said, all of this will be a challenge and is much easier said than done.  Despite all my high minded ideas and yogic principles, I get stressed out very, very easily, so I'll be referring back to this list quite a bit this month.  It's already been helping me this week - I hope it can help you too!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Gratitude Practice

When Thanksgiving comes around and someone inevitably asks you what you're thankful for (at least I hope everyone gets asked this question!), it's very easy to pull from the basics - family, friends, health, home, relative safety and security.  It's pretty much a given that those are the things that will be at the top of our gratitude list.

What about the things you regret in life?  Heartaches that still provoke pain that you wish had just plain never happened, or had happened differently.  Periods of depression or health issues.  Even a situation currently going on in your life can be something you wish would just go away.

I had tea with an old friend who was an intern with me at Florida Studio Theatre four years ago, who I haven't seen since that time in my life.  We had a blast catching up, reminiscing, shuddering at past behaviors and events.  I went back later that night and reread some of my journal entries from that period and was brought back so vividly to how sad I was at that time in my life and what ridiculously intense feelings of sadness I so often felt.  It tapped in to a lot of fear, shame, and other lovely things of that sort to the point where I wished so much of it had never happened.

By the same token, though, it's exactly those feelings and those experiences that I've learned the most from and have shaped me the most profoundly as a person.  It's important to give the dark times our acknowledgment in gratitude, too.

Try a new gratitude practice this Thanksgiving.  Take something - it can be the worst regret of your life or a current tiff with a family member, or anything that you'd paint with a negative brush at first glance - and at least for one moment, see if it's possible to be grateful for it.  It's easy to feel gratitude for the obvious blessings and things going right all the time, but let's work that gratitude muscle a little harder and go deeper.  How did that dark moment make you stronger?  How did that heartache make you more independent?  How have embarrassing moments made you more aware of your flaws?  Turning darkness into light is definitely something we can use more of this time of year.

Happy Turkey or Tofurkey Day, everyone, and I'll see you next week!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Life Plugged in, Life Unplugged

Ever since I wrote that post back in August about creating more space - and I'm sure before then - I've thought about how rarely I have moments in the day where I'm not reading something, listening to something, watching something, or doing something.  Idleness.  Moments where my mind can just go where it'll go.

Too often the only time that happens is when I'm meditating for my 7 or so minutes in the morning - and then I wonder why I can't seem to turn my brain off or turn my interest inward.

Reading Kris Carr's weekly blog, she quoted a friend of hers, Cheryl Richardson, as saying something that really struck a nerve:  "When we lose connection to our spirit, the outer world and all its stimulating distractions become more alluring."

(Can you say iPhone?)

The very next morning, I was reading a passage from Rolf Gates's Meditations from the Mat in which he quoted Henri J. M. Nouwen, who Google kindly tells me was a respected Dutch priest who published many books on spirituality.  Nouwen wrote, "When the deepest currents of our life no longer have any influence on the waves at the surface, then our vitality will eventually ebb, and we will end up listless and bored even when we are busy."

The final inspiration was this New York Times article called "Hurricane Sandy Reveals a Life Unplugged," about how people who were mercifully unaffected by the hurricane in any life threatening way dealt with their power loss - most notably, how their children and family unit coped with loss of power.

Reading the article, I found myself feeling all high and mighty and more than a little judgmental of this upcoming generation's frankly frightening addiction to phones, iPads, and computers...and then I checked Facebook.

When I got back to being introspective, I realized that for all my lofty goals and expectations of how I'll be someday as a parent in terms of setting technology limits (no cell phones for kindergarteners, for God's sake), I was addicted to our mouseless Dos computer as a kid, playing games and writing short stories.  You couldn't tear me away from Windows 95, Microsoft Word, and America Online (remember instant messaging??) as a middle schooler.  In high school, I was obsessed with an online message board and counted my online friends as some of my best.  In fact, I met my oldest friend through the Internet.

As for today?  My iPhone is never too far from my grasp and Facebook never goes unchecked for too long.  Although I like to let myself off the hook by using the excuse that it's imperative for my work (and it is), it's also my responsibility to set limits for myself.

As Cheryl Richardson so eloquently and simply stated, the more we're distracted by or reaching for outside things, the less we're satisfied with our most basic relationship with our spirit.  In yoga, the yama aparigraha and the niyama santosha are huge, huge factors in this particular spiritual struggle.

Aparigraha is often defined as "non-grasping" or "greedlessness."  Nischala Joy Devil in The Secret Power of Yoga: A Woman's Guide to the Heart and Spirit of the Yoga Sutras interprets it as "abundance."  By acknowledging the abundance we already possess, we have the ability to say "Enough" and resist waste and over-accumulation.

Santosha is a bit easier to define - most sources agree on the translation of "contentment" or "I am content."  Easy to define, hard to practice each day.

New York City in particular is a really challenging place to practice these two principles.  Nearly every single street you walk down houses a clothing store, a convenience store, a delicious restaurant or pastry shop or food truck or Halal cart.  Opportunity and temptation to spend money and acquire new things are everywhere you look - not to mention you can have essentially anything you want delivered to your door at anytime.  It's tough to stay a sensible spender or remember that you don't actually need 47 more pairs of yoga pants.  It's also tough to feel content when you're in a city that's filled with some of the most driven, ambitious workaholics on the planet always seeking more success, more validation, more accomplishments, more money.  It's one of the things I love so much about the city, but it's also one of the ways in which it can be exhausting - in every possible way.

It's one of the oldest cliches in the book and it's absolutely true:  Money doesn't buy happiness.  Money very often buys regret.  It can certainly afford you and your family a certain amount of stability, standard of living, and security, but as we most recently learned from Sandy, all of that can be wiped away in the blink of an eye.

Just as money doesn't buy happiness, the bursts of dopamine your brain releases when you get a new email, text, or Facebook notification don't give it to you either.

What I've come to believe is this:  The more constantly plugged in you are to the external world, the more unplugged you will likely be from your internal strength of spirit.  The more plugged in you are to your spirit, the less you need that constant plug-in to the outside world.

I'm not saying throw your iPhone on the subway tracks and move to a cabin in Vermont - although that does sound nice some days.  I'm not saying shirk your responsibilities by any means to this external world, or that the external world is intrinsically evil.  But set some limits for yourself.  Be your own guardian just as parents are (or should be) guardians of what their children are exposed to.  You know how every single study on how to fall asleep more easily says no electronics a half hour before bed?  Try that.  (It's harder than it sounds, at least for me)  Don't check your email while you're still laying in bed in the morning having just woken up.  Give yourself a little space throughout the day, and just be with you.  Let that be enough.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Compassion, Gratitude, and Lightness

Sitting down to write today's blog is very intimidating.  So much has happened the last week and a half.  So many peoples' lives are completely uprooted, homes and livelihoods destroyed, there was so much controversy and intense emotion about the NYC marathon, there was a monumentally emotional presidential election, and oh yes - a snowstorm in the tri-state area yesterday.  In-sane.

Compassion, Gratitude, and Lightness are the three most positive yoga-y words that come to mind when I think about this last week and a half.  There are plenty of other words - fear, stress, power, MTA, mother nature, climate change, suffering, volunteer, voting, freedom, donate, misery, trauma, sadness, cold...this week and a half could be an endless exercise in free association and freewriting.

I want to keep things short and sweet, though, if that's possible (it may not be!).  My head has been spinning as I've been absolutely addicted to the news and facebook to get updates on Sandy, the marathon madness, the election, and the nor'easter.  I've read more articles in the last two weeks than probably the last two months!  I just have this to say:

For the victims of the extreme weather, for people disappointed in the election's outcome, for the person who rushes to get on the crowded subway without letting you off first or the person who cuts you off in traffic.  Compassion.

This one almost feels like a no-brainer.  Especially with Thanksgiving (my favorite holiday!) just around the corner, gratitude is already on my brain in November.  But sitting here at my desk, with my window open showing a gorgeous sky and a few gorgeous, hardy fall leaves who have survived the last couple of weeks, and feeling warm and sheltered...I'm overhwelmed with gratitude.

Instead of handing out water to marathoners approaching Mile 25, Marc and I instead spent Sunday heading to Staten Island.  We sorted through donated clothes, brought donations of our own, and before we left took a walk down to the beach and saw a devastated neighborhood.  It was overhwelming.  There's grief, there's misery, there's so much pain - and there's also so much selfless, incredible mobilization on the part of government programs, nonprofits, and citizens to donate their time, money, and anything they can spare.  The gratitude from the victims for the outpouring of support (not to mention the canceling of the marathon - too late, but thank god the call was made), and the gratitude those of us unaffected or less affected are currently feeling for our blessed situation is everywhere.

We "went dark" last Sunday with Daylight Savings Time.  At a time when the city and tri-state area - as well as many around the country having major anxiety about the election, no matter who you were voting for - were suffering so much, it was already feeling pretty damn dark.  The burden of all this added stress and madness has made everyone feel incredibly weighed down with worry or suffering.

It all made me think of a quote I became familiar with after reading The Happiness Project, one attributed to G K Chesterson:

"It is easy to be heavy, hard to be light."

It's so true and it's important to recognize the value of cultivating lightness.  It's not about caring less, and it's not just about painting on a false smile or forcing an affect of cheerfulness.  It's constant work to free your heart and mind from whatever negativity - whether it be anxiety over your candidate or no longer having a roof over your head - is facing you.  When we are light, we are better equipped to help ourselves and to help others.  We are more inclined to take positive, concrete action.

I don't write this to seem glib or to imply that just by adopting a sunny attitude everything's going to get easier, and don't worry, it'll all be okay!  I write this to acknowledge that it's one of the hardest possible things to do, but it's worth it.  It's often something worth reminding yourself of a billion times a day, and sometimes you just have to live in the darkness or the heavy, heavy burden and just be there.  That's okay, too.  But there will always, always be a light at the end of the tunnel as long as you're alive.

With that, I'm cribbing a list of ways to help from a fellow yoga blogger.  Keep spreading the word, keep spreading your light, keep spreading your gratitude, and keep spreading compassion!

Occupy Sandy Relief - This is a fantastic online resource of relief/volunteer information in our area. You can sign up for texts or emails to stay informed. There's also a volunteer update page that tells you what's happening on the ground and how you can help. - An online community that allows neighborhoods to efficiently come together to help those in need. There are pages for Red HookAstoria, the Lower East Side, and Staten Island.

Red Cross - You can text REDCROSS to 90999 and instantly donate $10 to Disaster Relief. Or you can donate online. For other ways to make a financial donation, click here.

NYC Service - An amazing resource for up-to-date opportunities to help.

The Salvation Army - To make a monetary donation. There are also separate websites specific for NY and NJ

The Humane Society - It's totally inconceivable to me that many people were rescued from their homes but were not allowed to take their pets. You can make a donation to help the Humane Society's efforts in recovering animals after the storm.

Benefit Yoga Classes - Many of the NYC/NJ studios are offering benefit classes to support relief efforts. Check your local studio.

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