Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Christmas Train: What to Get Your Yoga Teacher for Christmas

This is not a shameless ask for Christmas gifts, so it's ok to keep reading.

I've been asked by a couple of students, "What can I get you for Christmas?"

It got me thinking about what I have given to my yoga teachers in the past, because I've never considered that I should get anything from my students for the holidays. As someone who has practiced yoga for dozens of years (literally, that's a weird thing to say) I've had dozens of teachers. Two stories immediately come to mind.

Story 1:
Several years ago I made a regular habit of joining my mother for her yoga classes when I was visiting. I would go to the class with her, and then stay for the "advanced" yoga class, because at the time I liked to consider myself "advanced." The instructor was truly amazing. He was a semi-retired engineer who had found yoga later in life and then been trained by some of the most well-known instructors in the now booming industry. His English was good, but his accent so strong I had a lot of difficulty understanding him. My visits were sporadic, as my visits to my parents' town were sporadic.

In one year I visited at Thanksgiving and then again at Christmas, and was surprised when I was greeted with, "Oh! Karen! I've made something special for you. I've made you soup/soap." I was thrilled and a little scared. Had he made me soup? Soap? And why me?!

Luck was with me as after class he presented me with two bars of soap he had recently made. He was in a soap-making class and really honing his skills by making all sorts of delicious scents.

He did not give soap to the other students, nor did he give them soup.

I do not know what the lesson was that I was supposed to learn from this experience, so those two bars of soap have sat in my bathroom, wrapped carefully in the brown paper they came in, waiting for the lesson to bubble up.

Story 2:
A few years ago I was working in a job that I'm so grateful to have outgrown and we were barely making ends meet financially as my husband was in school full time. Our only spending money was used to pay for a Netflix subscription and two meals at the local college cafeteria a week ($3 per person per meal).

As I was leaving work and heading to my yoga class one of my coworkers gave me two amazing-looking homemade and gift wrapped cookies to sample, in case I would want to order some for the holidays for my family. I thanked her and told her I wouldn't have the extra money to pay for them, so perhaps she should give them to someone else. She said I was crazy and I should take the cookies and enjoy them, and then maybe tell someone else how delicious they were.

Truly, I looked forward to eating both of these cookies. They looked amazing (I wish she had a little website so you could see them/order them for yourself!). As I pulled into the fitness center parking lot I was struck by the idea that I was supposed to give one of these cookies to my yoga teacher.

I was not happy with this idea. I had a really hard time with it, particularly because I was enjoying my pity party.

I took both cookies into the gym in my purse and went through the entire class. At the end, I felt like an absolute imbecile, I approached the instructor with one of the cookies and said, "I have this overwhelming sense that I'm supposed to give this to you." To her credit, she looked at me like I might be slightly nuts. But she thanked me for the cookie.

I went home with one cookie that I planned to share with my husband, and I felt pretty good about whatever this mysterious urge had been. I checked the mail and found three unsolicited, unexpected checks waiting for me. They totaled more than a thousand dollars and came from people to whom I had lent money in the past or overpaid and forgotten about.

I nearly fell over with my keys still in the mailbox door.

SO: what are you to make of this? Give your yoga teacher cookies and The Universe will send you some fat checks? No. I don't think so. I mean, it couldn't hurt to try it, but I make no guarantees.

In fact, I believe the point I'm desperately trying to make, is that gift giving should well up in you. Rather than an obligation precipitated by a particular day on the calendar, you should consider getting quiet and letting someone else be in charge, like the You who is on the inside. The quiet You. The one who returns to yoga not because your butt looks so sweet in those pants, but because the outer you cracks a little bit more each time, revealing the inner you.

If you are not compelled by an inner force to provide a particular gift, then the best gifts you can give any teacher are participation and feedback. If someone has made an impact on you, tell them. Continue to support them so they can support you.

And if all else fails, give them mystery soup/soap and cookies.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Perfect Failure

I've been planning this retreat for months now, and it isn't quite shaping up in the way that I had thought it would. A series of truly unfortunate events have befallen some of my guests in the weeks leading up to this culmination of my hard work and lunacy, and so our mighty group has shrunken, a tad.

I have braced for failure. In fact, I've meandered all the way through the entire retreat, visualizing the perfect failure at each step. Failure one: terrible weather. Failure two: hungover retreatants. Failure three: verbal diarrhea (this is what my mother calls my inability to hold my tongue).

It was a sweet ol' pity party I had with myself, complete with sulking and a steady amount of dark chocolate (as it turns out, I'm a great hostess).

Now you know this isn't my first rodeo... I've failed in some extraordinarily creative ways in the past. So I started doing the "enlightened yoga teacher dance/grumble" which went something like this: "Where is the lesson?" "What is the lesson" "Can I please fast-track through the lesson I'm supposed to learn from this so that I don't royally suck tomorrow?"

(this does not work, in case you're keeping score at home).

So I went about packing as though I were Cassandra boarding the Titanic when the lesson hit me in the back of the head (at the same time as the cupboard door, in fact).

Seven months ago, in April, I was in conversation with the retreat center about booking the venues for this retreat. We were going back and forth, and right in the middle of a forth, I got some pretty scary news from my doctor. All of a sudden putting down a deposit on something months in the future felt impossible, because I stood on unsteady ground and couldn't see beyond my toe tips. At the time I remember thinking, "what if I'm stuck at home, undergoing chemo or recovering from surgery in six months? What if the future ends before November?"

And so, kittens, my revelation is simple: I have stepped beyond the edge of what I thought was possible, through dark waters, and tomorrow I head into a day that I am grateful to have. Whether or not the retreat looks as I expected it to or not, the fact that it exists at all is a sign. A gift. And if it is a failure, then it will be a perfect failure.

And I will hope for the opportunity to do it again.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

O Whole-y Night

I'm scared for Tuesday.

Last election I was too busy to focus on the mud-flinging, and too detached from Facebook to be hit in the face with every third post. Also, I think the world was slightly less crazy four years ago. Or maybe the crazy is just relative... I was closer to totally nuts, making the world seem sane. Sane-er.

It seems that even in my media-deprived state, I have become the monkey in the middle between opposing forces who throw my sanity (and theirs, too) over my head. Back, and forth. Back. And. Forth.

In Texas last week I visited a small town diner where the "community table" forbade "commie socialist Obama loving expletives." The community table. My parents (who had both already voted, as had I) had a rousing debate about economics and reproductive rights while I sat wide-eyed and horrified at the other end of the table. My parents never argued while I was growing up, and rarely debated. Part of my terror came from my realization that they both wanted the same things, but had somehow landed on opposite sides of the fence.

Has this happened to you? Have you forgotten the goals we share? The COMMON good? You don't have to be a socialist or even believe that everyone has the inborn rights to pursue life, liberty and happiness to know that if you and your neighbor both want the same thing, it makes sense to work together for that thing. (or you can kill them and TAKE IT, in which case I strongly recommend season four of Dexter).

I believe that there is a disturbance in the force. A short in our circular logic that fools us into believing that there will never be enough, that there is only one right way, and that the right way happens to be my way. We take on the superhero mentality and assume that the other guys are therefore the bad guys.

Yoga can offer some perspective here. First, aparigraha. Non-grasping. Think you have all of the answers? If you're holding onto them tightly with your teeth and two hands, then there is no room for any more answers, even if they are better. Second, satya: telling the whole truth about what you know. Do you know how many jobs have/have not been created by this or that person? Is what you are saying YOUR truth, or the truth of some other person or entity. Have you thought critically about why you are speaking the truth that you are, or whether or not you believe it fully? Third, saucha: cleanliness in body, mind and thought (which I'll also interpret as clearing out the mental garbage of grudges, real or imagined).

As my friend and teacher Jessica Patterson says, "You are already whole and perfect." And so is everyone else, regardless of their political affiliation, voting history, fundamental beliefs and $#it flinging.

It isn't easy to be the Yogi in the Middle, and it isn't easy to watch two people who love each other yell across an arbitrary fence about something they agree on. But it is our role as yogi(ni)s, as yoga teachers, to hold up a mirror first for ourselves and then for our friends and flingers. We must speak our truth and we must hear the truths of others. Never would I suggest that we compromise our values or allow others to decide how we must live, but I will suggest (and am suggesting, I suppose) that we always do so in a dialogue. Which involves as much listening as speaking.

Be cautious, dear friends, as you sit down to watch the country turn red and blue. Be aware of your tendencies and aggressions. Remember that on this night above all nights that all people are whole. And perfect.

(and apparently you have to have a completely unusual name to run for president)

Do what you can. Do what you must. Keep one ear open. Isvara pranidhana.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Borrowed Time

For the past fifteen years I have relished the extra hour that came with the loss of daylight. I have spent this hour sleeping in, taking a nap, or gazing softly out the window (for sixteen seconds until I was overcome by The Sleep).

Since my retirement eleven months ago, I've slowly but surely caught up on sleep. I've learned to nap without regret, to sleep later, and even to go to bed earlier. Sure, I still pass out on the couch or the patio occasionally, but I'm no longer compelled to lie down wherever I happen to be (the floor of the airport, the backseat of my car, the line for Space Mountain).

So this year I will use my extra hour for good. I will (try to) transition myself to an earlier schedule, enabling myself to explore the world of early breakfast appointments and the fabled 7 o'clock hour.

I have this vision of waking before the sun, taking my time to get ready, reading or practicing yoga before I leave in the morning. I've heard of people who go to the gym, come home, shower, and eat a full breakfast before going to work. Some people wake up without alarms. I do not know how this works, physiologically.

This sacred hour that we are about to receive is a cosmic gift. We are about to travel through time simply because we agree that time travel is normal, possible, and expected. We may be more hesitant in six months when we travel back, but for now we are all on board.

It is so strange to me that we can argue on concrete issues like foreign policy, reproductive rights, human goodness, and the errs of our leaders and so quickly agree to take a leap of faith and relive an hour of our lives, or jump full-speed into the future. Perhaps we disagree, argue, and even fight because we know that once an idea becomes law, it quickly becomes the norm, accepted by everyone.

Adopted without question.

Even when it defies the laws of basic physics.

Be careful this weekend, dear friend. Use your hour and your vote like both are borrowed from the future.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Dhyana: the yoga of voting

A student asked me how yogis decide how to vote. How yoga could help them make the best decision and do the greatest good for the most people?

First, I have no idea. I am one lone yogini, representing only myself and my deranged, neurotic birds. Their interests are (usually) met equally well by all candidates, and they are less than helpful when election time rolls around.

Second, Patanjali said some interesting things about voting. Mainly, you have to be in your right mind in order to make good decisions. You have to be sure you're not affected by one of the other four states of consciousness: illusion, imagination, sleep, and memory. (I.8-11).

That's a big one. And that's how everyone tries to catch your vote.

Illusion is something you perceive that isn't the truth, either because someone wants you to believe it or because you aren't receiving the information correctly. Attack ads rely on illusion to make you question your personal truth or reaffirm something you would like to believe that you know isn't true. Do you remember the birth certificate fiasco? It wasn't newsworthy for one second ever, and I just wasted another one. Sorry.

Imagination is where candidates try to capture your heart. Pandering to your ability to imagine the world in a better state than it is, they paint pictures with babies, puppies, and money that comes from outer space. Or the Middle East. Or the 1%.

Thankfully, sleep infiltration is still the stuff of science fiction. Rest easily my friends. Easily and often.

Memory is so insidious, because it is completely inaccurate. We never remember things the way they were, because that doesn't make for happy stories or nice endings. We remember the best of everything, and the advertisers prey on our vulnerability. Nostalgia lifts candidates onto the shoulders of earlier greats, creating new associations that are often undeserved and irrelevant.

So... how do yogis vote?

I'm telling you, I only speak for the three of us, but I think yogis see voting like slot machines and dance cards: something invented to distract you from the work that wants to be done, or to push you into the crowd when you'd rather rest your feet. I think yogis jump in with both feet, focus on what they can in the moment, and cozy up for as long as possible to that right-mind. They let the stats and the soundbites swirl through their hair and drop into the place where the object of meditation and the meditator become one. Like the 14th hour of a solo road trip, when the road becomes the driver and time dissolves, they find the voting zone and just get it done.

What don't they do?

When practicing yoga, it is impossible to coerce another person, berate them, post nasty commentary on their Facebook walls. Yogis cultivate the right-mind and say nice things that are their personal truth, without the goal of distancing themselves from others. Defaming or degrading another person makes as much sense to the yogini as slapping her own hand.

A yogini votes each time she comes to her mat, sits silently in the leaves, or breathes deeply. She votes for more people to use their right-mind more often and for higher levels of compassion. And she vote for the calmness of mind that allows email chains to be deleted and nasty comments to sit unanswered.

But above all, a yogini votes.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

El Fuego

My most distinctive memory in college was the night the dorm caught on fire. It was around 10pm and the alarm went off for probably the sixth time that week. I groaned, slipped on my leopard-print slippers (because I was very hip), looked at my cell phone, and called security from my dorm phone.

"The fire alarm is going off in Slocum"


So commonplace was this interaction that they didn't ask any questions and I didn't have to say anymore. I locked my room and started down the stairs.

My residents from the previous year were yelling as loudly as they could that this was a real fire. On the fourth floor. And these weren't the kinds of f*ckers who would joke around about a thing like this.

I turned around and ran up the stairs. The fourth floor was empty, but smoke billowed out of the top of one door and water poured out of the bottom. My fellow RA was at the other end of the hall, and we both ran towards the fire.


This week I ran from fire. The Waldo Canyon Fire started on Saturday about five miles west of my home. People laughed at me for packing my suitcases and gathering my papers, but Tuesday evening a change in the wind brought the fire down the mountain and 1/3 of a mile from my back porch. I watched a normal Colorado wildfire become a monster that poured like lava down the hillside in thirty minutes. In five minutes the ash cloud surrounded my house, and I grabbed my packed bags, my birds, and left.

What has changed in me that once I ran towards the fire, and now I run from it?

I've been asking myself that very question.

Sitting in a friend's home with a complex wardrobe of three pairs of yoga clothes, one swim suit and one wedding dress I contemplated my reaction.

I don't have an answer yet.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Things to Do When the Sky Falls

I dreamt of water last night. Soft drizzle, summer rainbows.

A fire is burning near my house. Many of my friends have evacuated from their homes as this fire is less than 24 hours old and is already more than 2,000 acres strong.

The irony is not lost on me.

In your dreams, your house represents your life. And even in my sleep, I'm fighting for mine.

In situations like this, where you are not evacuated but are not a fire fighter, are not a nurse or care provider, are not a mother or otherwise responsible for the lives of others, this time can feel the worst. Watching. Waiting. Hoping. Offering help, asking for ways to help, and twiddling your thumbs.

If you are evacuated, you are similarly idle. Perhaps worried and unable to rest, or riding the emotional roller coaster of an unplanned and undesired shift in your life.

If you are safely out of the evacuation zone for any crisis (and feel free to extrapolate this into areas of your life that are perhaps more relevant) I suggest any of the following:

1. Check in with the news media periodically, but not constantly. It can drain your energy to hear only the most sensational news. Set a time when you will check in, and take time away. Perhaps trade duties with friends if you are near the evacuation zone. You listen from 1-2, I'll listen from 2-3 etc.

2. Find and support your people. If you are part of a community, a book club, a social circle, an alumni support network, check in with those folks first and see if they need your help.

3. Hone your skill and look for ways to use it. Do you have a way to offer your service? This might be easy if you own an animal shelter or restaurant, but look for other ways to support. Perhaps you can offer your service to those providing direct service?

4. Fill your birdbath with water. Refill your bird seed. Be kind to displaced and frustrated animals.

5. Call your mother (or other friend/relative who is probably worrying about you or just misses you and will keep your mind occupied). This counts as doing something.

6. Imagine what you might take with you if faced to leave. Notice everything that remains. These are the things that others left behind. Offer what you can if you are living in a state of overwhelm and find you have too many water glasses or sandals.

7. Take some time to cultivate quiet energy. Maybe this means meditation, prayer, or simply thinking good thoughts or listening to inspiring and calming music. I believe that we can affect the energy around us, because I believe in physics.

8. Prepare your home as though you are having guests (because maybe you will). Make ice. Make up the spare bed. Plan some meals. Maybe you'll get a guest and maybe you'll just be able to take meals to those who are helping others.

9. Do not detach from the crisis around you, turn to alcohol or cable television. Be aware and cultivate the calm you can by practicing yoga, running, crafting, or otherwise being mindful.

10. Dream of rain.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The tree

I don't actually remember my grandfather, I just know that we spent time together. I've heard descriptions of our interactions, which are the closest things I have to memories of him. Case in point: the tree. Apparently, my grandfather could grow anything. Even in Colorado, even under the haphazard care and erratic watering that is the Kwinn Homestead. When I was three years old, he brought a mountain ash tree from Tennessee and we planted it in the front yard. He and my parents let me choose where to plant the tree, which ended up being too close to the blue spruce that was planted by the original owner and/or landscape architect.

This was my tree.

I always thought of it as my tree. When I was five, I thought it would grow quickly enough that I would soon climb it like kids in the movies would climb trees. As it turns out, trees don't grow that well in Colorado and it never really took off in that way. Also, it was crowded by the blue spruce. They snuggled well on cold nights and meant that there was almost no grass that needed trimming in the front yard.

My grandfather died four years after we planted that tree, so it isn't a big surprise that it didn't grow straight and tall. It divided into four mini-trunks too close to the ground.

When I turned sixteen I parked my car underneath that tree. Sometimes it would protect it from snow, but more often it would drop orange berries and tiny leaves in the fall. It was ok, though, because it was my tree.

It got nuts after college and started to really take over the driveway, so much that it was a little difficult trying to squeeze in underneath it when parking. It would get caught in my hair when I would roll in late at night and couldn't avoid all of the branches.

Then this past fall a big storm came through town and split my tree in half. A neighbor came over with a chain saw to cut it away from the driveway so my parents could drive out. They hired a landscaper to evaluate the remaining parts of the tree, and he said what we knew all along: it was planted too close to the blue spruce.

And it wasn't going to make it.

I think I cried more when I heard about my tree than I did about my grandfather, but to be fair I was only seven when he died and had no experience grieving. Now at 31, I have lots more experience with loss (and am an excellent crier).

But as sad as I am, no one mourns that little tree more than the blue spruce. It grew around the ash and now has it's own scar: a hole where the ash used to be.

I think we have a lot in common.

So now there's a big chunk of my tree sitting behind my couch. I begged my parents to save some of it for me so I could make something out of it, like a photo frame or coasters or whatever else people make out of pieces of ash. Something new.

I don't remember my grandfather, but I remember my tree. It was something we grew together; a description of one interaction. Our story.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Strong as a Bear, Wise as a Fox

The first time I packed my bags for New York, I felt very powerful. I carefully included only what I thought I would need for the trip, and saved a little room for a souvenir or gift for my husband.

When I loaded my bag into the car, I felt powerful. I had perfectly scheduled each activity in the following 48 hours to include more fun and relaxation that I'd actively planned in a long time. Shopping with my parents. Dinner with friends. Coffee dates. Connection.

When my doctor's office called me ten minutes from my destination, I panicked. I rearranged. I began to breathe one breath at a time.

I changed my plans and drove back home. I cried. I worried.

The next morning I decided to live as though the worst reality were already realized and did only what I could: go for a walk, eat blueberries, and cry.

The morning was beautiful. After months of nothing but a dusting of snow, it had started to drizzle. The plants were eager for the moisture after doing their best with what limited resources they could find. When I walked into the park I saw a skeleton. The bottom half of a deer, fully picked of every scrap of sustenance and left in my path.

I stopped.

I turned around.

I cried as I walked home, taking this moment as a sign. A SIGN. A bad sign.

Listening to my book club book and taking in the world around me, I wondered why I hadn't taken this walk before. Why I had retired three months ago and yet never stepped out to walk alone? My book buzzed by as my mind wandered elsewhere, considering my appointment. The direness of the diagnosis. The urgency. And I remembered the bears.

The bears came in 2008. A mama and two babies wandered onto my deck after the neighbors assured us that no bears had been spotted in years in our neck of the woods. At the time I took this signal as the impetus to Get Off My Ass and follow my dreams. I was also in the midst of a health-scare then. In my solitude, the vulnerable place between the doctor's appointment and the doctor's phone call, alone in the island of inland Ohio, I found my way to the Columbus Zoo. I needed to see the bears.

It happened to be a high holy day in the Jewish faith, so the schools were closed and the zoo was well-populated with local muslims who had the day off of school. It was surreal. They cast their eyes down as I cried silently, searching for the bears.

I found sun bears there, and next to them a coin press into which I could deposit my coin and create a little emblem of the sun bear. I did. I kept it with me, rolling it between my fingers and worrying its impression into the folds of my skin.

This realization came to be half-way home from my walk. Rather than seeing the skeleton as a bad omen, I decided to see it as a symbol of my bear friends doing what they needed to do to survive in these dry times.

I found my sun-bear totem. And the gorilla totem I'd made the last year in a visit to the zoo with my husband. And the coin-shaped carving of a bear I had bought in Seattle just this December. On the one side, a native carving of a bear. The other, the world "strength."

I held these tokens in my hand as the doctor cut and sampled and cut and sampled. I pressed their images into my palm. I held my husband's hand, and I breathed.

Repacking for New York, I didn't feel powerful. I felt the intense sourness of packing to leave. Of leaving behind.

Jesus drove me to the airport. I'm not kidding. I'm not partial to any particular faith despite being a confirmed Catholic, but the significance of my shuttle driver's name was not lost on me. I took it as a good omen.

On the plane I read an article about aging and how fantastic it is. The entire magazine, which I had originally packed in the first-packing, is all about aging well and gracefully. For the most part, I'm having difficulty relating right now. I've never considered life without a calendar or watch, but right now the sense of planning anything in the future, including aging gracefully, is not inside the scope of my clouded mind.

But one little poem, one little love-note made me reconsider my concept of future. In the infinite wisdom that Michael J. Fox shared to his younger self was a lesson that I needed to hear. "When the unexpected and inconceivable intrudes on life, and it will, deal with life's actual events-don't obsess about perceived eventualities."

And I opened my laptop. And I felt powerful.

"The pain which has not yet come can be avoided." ~ Sutras of Patanjali 2.16

Monday, May 28, 2012

Remember-ies or More Footprints, Please

In the Western Way of thinking, we strive to make our mark. Whether we drunkenly etch the plaster of a gas station restroom, buy a $250 brick at the zoo, or chisel a relocated hunk of super-hard stone, we want a permanent record of our time. We want the world to know:

I. Was. Here.

Which is a thought that depends on the concept of "I."

And who are you, really? What do you suppose we think when we read "Stinky was here" or "Josephine and Bruno love hippos" or "Custer last stood here"? We wonder why you took the time to memorialize that moment. Was that the best BM you ever had, Stinky? Were you so busy loving hippos that you wanted us to know how you spent your Sundays? Or a really bass-ackwards memory of what happened in battle, memorialized from the loser's point of view (and obviously not by him?). Do you suppose we get a well-rounded sense of who you are/were?

We don't really do this with important memories, otherwise sites of important rituals would be graffitied like an elementary school desk. I can't imagine going back to the chapel where I was married and carving 'I was married here,' nor to a grocery store where I witnessed a crime as a child 'I saw my first gun here.' Is it about reminding us of who we are and how we are supposed to feel? Tricking ourselves into a sense of permanence?

Now through various forms of social media, we let everyone know where we are all the time. Did you forget about me? I'm at Denny's now! Now I'm getting an oil change! Now I'm going to yoga! Think of me as: a yogi who cares for her car and also appreciates Slams of all sorts.

Is that how we want to live our lives? Spending so much time telling everyone all of our insignificant blather that we can't make time to actually DO anything? Maybe that is how detectives want us to live our lives, and if you have the sense that your life is evolving into an episode of Unsolved Mysteries, please check in. At the fire station.

I want to know the stories behind who you are. The photos. I want to see that you climbed something fabulous, or spent a weekend learning how to lay carpeting, or reconnected with family you haven't seen in awhile. I want to see that you stood up for something you believed in, not that you "shared this if you think cancer stinks, too!" Perhaps it is the anthropologist in me, but I'd rather see a photo you left near the edge of a cliff to commemorate someone special. I'd rather find wisps of prayer flags and wonder who put them up and whether their grief is as tattered as the remaining flags. I'd like to see what you did, hear what you believed, and feel how you felt. Knowing you were here makes me feel a bit more confident as I wander willy-nilly through the strangeness of life.

Nothing gives me more confidence in living this life than the Laetoli footprints, left in sand or muck some odd million years ago by two beings, walking on two legs, hand in hand.

Maybe they loved hippos, or Slams, or futuristic battle stories. We'll never know. But their footprints tell us even more.

That they would rather walk together than wander alone.

And, that they were here. Sutras, 1.40.

Thursday, April 12, 2012


My own impermanence is weighing heavily on me tonight. My role. My life. My impact.

For someone who has always struggled to share and shed emotion, I'm making up for lost time. The rain feels very appropriate tonight. Dry for months, now drowned.

For a long time I felt my responsibility as a teacher was to force or impart The Right Way. Then I questioned whether I knew enough and took a little time off. In this incarnation people keep sharing how I've helped them recognize a part of themselves. I've helped them see deeper or bring light to a subject that was previously murky or overshadowed. Perhaps I am a light?

In college I took a brief foray into the theatre, where I learned a thing about light: when light mixes, it creates different hues than you expect. Forget everything you ever knew about a color wheel and learn a whole new way of thinking. Red and blue no longer make purple. They create a mood (or when improperly aimed, a mess).

Am I creating a mess out of my other students? The 97% who never come to me with thanks? Are they wondering why the world now seems sinister or even more jumbled than before? I don't think so.

When I started teaching yoga, I added my own spin to the end of my class. I say Namaste (and students repeat if they are so inclined). It is an acknowledgement of our shared existence. An "I see you." When I started teaching, I added "The light in me sees, honors, and reflects the light in you." Which is silly, because light doesn't reflect light, it just clashes and creates weird pools and shadows.

But the reflection part makes sense. In this difficult night full of worry and fear, drowned in emotion, I've realized that I do not shine my light on anything. I reflect. I am an empty room full of mirrors.

What do you see?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Tall Tales and Personal Fables

There is a story I sometimes tell myself. It goes like this:

"I was born into a loving family at a time in the world when I could have been anything. I was supposed to be a doctor. For many years I followed the 'right' path and got all the way through the first semester of organic chemistry, when I synthesized green caffeine, decided that I was an abject failure, and gave up on my dreams. Now I teach yoga and am the embarrassment of my family."

Sometimes I tell the story this way:

"I come from a family of healers. I am very fortunate to live and breathe today. Most days I'm lucky enough to make someone laugh. Sometimes I also make them cry. Mostly I help them realize something they had forgotten about themselves. More often they help me remember something I've forgotten about myself."

I think that I might be a good yoga teacher because I've spent a lot of time being really mad at myself. And unnamed political parties and their leaders, various extremists who have strong opinions about my lady-parts, and unknown spam artists who have vulgar suggestions about parts I don't even have. I'm intimately familiar with exactly how imperfect I am. Many voices have shared their explicit commentary about the way that I drive, flirt, sleep, spell 'theatre,' and am crippled by most hours of the morning.

It took me many years to realize that most of these voices were inside my head. My Greek Chorus morosely narrates the most mundane of my daily activities. For a long time I tried to shut them out. I would point the other way "Oh look, cream puffs!" and sneak into my yoga class all put-together and self-righteous. All the shiny stuff without the bitter old baggage.

And those classes sucked.

When bad things happened in my day and I couldn't out-smart the Chorus, I taught a much better class.

After teaching many, many squeaky-clean and polished classes, I realized that students don't come to see the Disney version of me (in fact, they don't come to see me at all). But that they are not served by smiley ceramic mask. They are there because they have their own baggage, strewn haphazardly about their mats, dripping down their chins and ankles. I think they feel safer knowing my demons dance around me in every class.

Sometimes when we dance in the presence of our demons, one slips out the back door.

The melody of the old story fades away and we can hear the faintest notion of a new song. Closer to the truth. Close enough that the lead can say it out loud instead of waiting for the chorus to explain.

Perhaps because their mouths are full of cream puffs.

The power of pure consciousness settles in its own pure nature. ~ The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 4.34

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Box

About a year ago I made a commitment to myself that I would no longer expect myself to be in two places at once. Perhaps your calendar looks as mine once did, with three simultaneous items listed in the same time slot. I used to have lofty goals of concurrent dental appointments, phone conferences, and yoga classes, and it will not surprise you to learn that I never managed to juggle those particular tasks at once.

Last week, my husband spent four days Communing In the Woods and left me in the big ol' house with my big ol' self. This is the first time in my (new) life that he has been gone and I have not had a fully jam packed schedule.

To be fair, I did try to fill my schedule. I scheduled roughly six hours of work each of the first three days, and four hours of work on the fourth day. I made some rather flailing attempts at filling my social calendar, but was luckily unable to schedule each blessed minute. And the strangest thing happened.

In a day filled with emptiness, I managed to stay away from the computer and the TV. I didn't even crack a book. Instead, I pulled up my boots and started digging.

For the last few years, I've let some things pile up. Like clothes. Paid utility bills. Free song downloads from Starbucks and a truly unreasonable amount of return address labels. In the fray that was my former life, I became well versed at shoving. Do you shove things? I think about the old infomercials about kitchen appliances that you "press one button and walk away" and return to a full turkey dinner, or smoothies and salsa, or whatever. These appliances never worked as they were supposed to (because you had to actually buy a turkey, or freeze fruit, or otherwise obtain odd ingredients and figure out how to set the machine). Turns out when you shove clothes and bills (and possibly an answering machine, music stand, ones mortgage closing documents, assorted cords and a box of oatmeal) into a box, they don't magically turn into a turkey dinner, nor do they vanish or magically become something useful. Each year I have addressed one particular box (some of the contents may be listed above) by simply placing the Christmas ornament box in front of/beside it.

I'm not writing to tell you that the box is empty. It is not. It still has the items listed above, plus a heaping helping of guilt (four years worth, to be precise). The reason I'm writing to you, is to tell you that I intend not to open it. This past weekend, I learned that I'm quite effective at cleaning around it. And so in this way it has become my cleaning altar. A shrine to the imperfection in myself and in my life. And a monument to the progress that is happening around it.

Tomorrow reminds me of this box. For four years we have waited for an extra day, and now we have it. Don't worry about squeezing the most out of every extra precious minute. Instead, consider this day a shrine. A monument to the life around it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Little Voices

There is a little girl who lives in the back of my mind. She's quiet, but firm. Confident. Her voice is pervasive.

Before you alert the authorities, I'm not crazy. She's not telling me to crochet tea cozies out of human hair, or to sell everything and move to Paraguay, or even to howl at the moon. She is not, however, rational. And for that, I'm grateful.

Tonight I was supposed to head home (a two hour drive) during rather good weather, already well rested and overcaffinated. And yet, she does not want me to go. After spending the better part of a day arguing with her, rationalizing away her pesky fears, her voice only intensified until the reflection looking back at me was just one shade shy of terror.

I am not nervous.

I am not worried.

I am afraid to listen to her.

I am afraid not to.

Is there a voice in your head who you would prefer to ignore? Does some backseat driver ever spring from the depths and grope for the wheel? Do you listen? What does she say?

Maybe for you this is the voice of God. Perhaps you call this intuition. More often, I fear, you quiet this voice with rational explanations, obligations, or helpings of guilt. I spent most of my day telling this voice to go eat a cookie and take a nap, and not to come back until she had something nice to say. It is possible that I also threatened to call her mother (who also happens to be my mother) and let her sort this squishy nonsense out over the phone.

In the end, I know I believe wholeheartedly in heeding this inner voice, and I do so because she is not afraid. She is calm. Firm. Confident. Right.

Isvara Pranidhana. Heyam duhkham anagatam. Surrender. The pain that has not yet come is avoidable.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


If you've ever hung around the front desk while yoga students register for their first class, you've probably heard them explain why they wish to practice yoga with the following expression:

"I'm so inflexible, I can't even reach my toes! I'm here so you can fix that."

There are many other reasons people come to the class, to be sure. A few of my favorites:

- To observe attractive people in tight pants attempt awkward positions

- To show other people how attractive they look in hot pants

- To change the way their bodies look/feel

- Because everything else is falling apart

I haven't been anywhere else where people so openly share the stories that have been cooking in their heads. Even if the story isn't verbalized, you can see the grudge match on the mat: me vs. myself. Me vs. tight pants. Me vs. mirror. Whatever the matchup is for this week, people arrive when they need to do battle with part of themselves, or part of their experience.

Please understand that I am not excluded from this melee. I have wrestled many classes against one particularly insidious pair of pants, the untimely death of a friendship, or my newest adversary: The Thirties. Whatever our battle or inspiration, we come to the mat and ask the teacher to help us solve this puzzle.

There are two ways to fix the student who longs to touch their toes/fit into their pants/rewind ten years:

The novice teacher bends, pulls, stretches, and sometimes breaks the body to get the fingers to the toes.

The experienced teacher helps the student release the want.

photo credit: Love Roots Photography

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dungeons and Dragons

When my husband and I go for walks around our neighborhood, we frequently see rabbits doing rock impressions. They hold very still, flatten their floppy ears onto their backs and hold their breath. Because we are far from normal, we always compliment them as we walk by:

"What a great rock impression."


"Look at that rock in the middle of that yard."

If we see them about on a sunny day with updrafts and skydancers, we warn them.

"Get into the shade, or the skydancers will see you!"

This describes, in terrifying detail, how I have been living my life for the past four years. Not the walking and talking to rabbits part, but the hiding, freezing, and breath-holding. In this past year, The Year of the Iron Rabbit, (according to the lunar calendar) I have been hunkering down and waiting for the storm to pass.

Yesterday on our walk through the native space behind our house, my husband and I noticed... a pelt. He recoiled and said "what does that to a rabbit?"

"A predator. And time," I answered.

The thing about predators is they have nothing but time. They wait, gliding on updrafts, resting on warm air.


As I think forwards to this New Year, the Year of the Dragon, I'm still inside my stone-rabbit cell. I've never seen a dragon, have you?

It is the only mythical creature on the 12 year cycle in the Chinese system. Dragons are fierce and powerful. They breathe fire. They fly. Dragons only exist within the context of the human imagination. In the West, we slay dragons. In the East, we become them.

I read this as an invitation to tap into the deepest sense of power and reinvent ourselves. This is a year beyond resolutions and goals, outside of weight loss and closet organization. This is a year to cast off shackles and fly.

After a year of turning inwards, focusing on the nature of ourselves, we launch into liberation.

From dharana to dhyana to samadhi.

Are you ready?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

To Seethe or Not To Seethe

Today was not one of my better days, yogicly speaking. I was invited to an upscale event in the fancy part of town and experienced a fair degree of social awkwardness. As an anthropologist, you would think I would relish these fleeting opportunities to observe another social class in their natural environment. I could scribble small notes about unique greeting patterns involving partial hugs, or describe the ceremonial scarves and belts brought to you by specific and highly regarded individuals (such as Marc Jacobs or someone named Coach). Perhaps I would include a diagram of the various areas of the room populated by persons of each respective social class, to the best of my ability, as an outsider.

Instead, I triumphantly marched in carrying my fair-trade bag, my unpolished nails balled into my unadorned hands, and spent the good part of an afternoon making myself feel like crap.

I have spent a goodly amount of time exploring my own psyche/seeking my own North star/communicating with my inner wildebeest, and yet it took me fewer than three seconds to realize that:

a) I spend far less time on personal grooming than these new friends might find acceptable

b) A significant quantity of the 'things' that I own have either been owned previously, were extracted from the garbage, or were created by a person in a far away country who is working for a fair wage and making things out of garbage

c) I had never ranked snorkeling in gobs of money among my top ten life values


d) that I was not six years old.

What is it about these situations that makes us feel so small? Why are my hard-earned values so easy to discard? And how does anyone get floors and windows that clean???

As you may have guessed, I cozied up with the irrational side of myself and had my own little two part conversation.

Alpaca-Kari: "Why didn't I become an investment banker/doctor/mob boss?"

Yogini-Kari: "Because you don't realistically know what any of those people actually do for a living, but you're pretty sure none of them get to teach yoga or play with puppies on a regular basis."

Alpaca-Kari: "Ok, so why didn't I marry someone who was one of those things?"

Yogini-Kari: "Because you didn't want your identity to be wrapped up in the occupation of someone else... you wanted to live freely and guided by your own actions, with a partner who didn't rely on you to host cocktail parties or bury people in cement."

Alpaca-Kari: "So then why did I think I had any business coming to this part of town? I'm obviously not like these people at all."

Yogini-Kari: "You came because you are a good friend and clearly had no idea that you would stick out like an elephant."

Alpaca-Kari: "Ok, fine. But why didn't I at least go buy a brand new outfit for this shindig, wherever these people buy their clothes?"

Yogini-Kari: "Because on some level you wanted them to know that you are comfortable in your own skin. You know that teaching yoga means more than telling people when and how to balance on their elbows, and that non-grasping is a good thing. Also you have no idea where these people shop and would probably have to sell your car to buy a scarf."

Alpaca-Kari: "Wow, Yogini-Kari, you seem to have all of the answers. Now will you please unlock the bathroom door and get out here with me?"

I would like to tell you that I've transcended these petty feelings, or that I'm immune to grasping for status. I would like to say that after practicing yoga for 26 years that I have these yamas down and I'm just working on experiencing a samadhi-like state of bliss 80 or more percent of the time. The reality is that Yogini-Kari often locks herself into the bathroom when she feels uncomfortable and leaves the anxiety-prone and skittish Kari out on her own. Alpaca-Kari forgets that she could simply pretend to be an anthropologist and observe this unusual behavior and instead begins to sound various social alarms by dropping food onto people, accidentally discussing socially inappropriate topics, like human reproduction, and possibly gnawing through the rim of her paper cup.

The best advice I have for all of us is to become aware of the grasping the alpaca side does and allow the yogi(ni) side to peel the fingers back from the object of our infatuation.

Perhaps the lesson isn't to avoid grasping, but to learn how to ungrasp.