Self-Improvement vs. Growth

IMG_8005There is an incredible push in our society to “always keep improving.” “Be yourself, only better.” The messages, sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious, are beaming at us from everywhere. How many perfectly airbrushed bodies do you have to walk by on your way to the register to pay for your pint of ice cream (and how much guilt will you feel on your way)? Isn’t this insistent call for betterment also a constant nagging voice in our ears reminding us that we are “less than”?

Shockingly, these messages aren’t coming from our friends and loved ones, who, incidentally happen to love our apparently “less than” selves. They are coming from companies, big and small, intent on selling us their goods, services, a lifestyle, a promise of a better future if only we finally just buy the product, sign up for the service, lose those last 5 pounds… The list goes on. And really, who benefits from our self-improvement?

What’s worse: we buy into it! If you Google “improve yourself” some of the suggestions that come up are “before dating” and “after breakup”. Because obviously the reason you are still single or single again is that you are not good enough and you need a tune-up.

So this is my wakeup call to you: LOVE yourselves. Do it now! Not after you get to the full expression in Natarajasana, not after you qualify for the Boston marathon, not after you lose the last few pounds, or finally get your kid to soccer practice on time. You are not a project. Love yourself NOW.

It is imperative that our love towards ourselves is unconditional. Only then can we truly love others in a way that does not begrudge and does not hold back.

Having said that: this isn’t a call for stagnation and apathy. I looked up the words in the dictionary to make sure I kept myself honest. And sure enough: one of the top 3 definitions of “improvement” is an addition or change that makes something better or more valuable than before. The way I read that is there is an implication that what we were before needed to be better. I like the word “growth” much better – the process of growing, full development, maturity.

So go, love yourselves and grow into even more magnificent beings you were always meant to be.

Namaste.

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Building a House and Finding a Home

Angie Habitat Nicaragua 2015“You are enough.” As a yoga teacher I must have said those words a dozens if not hundreds of times. And yet I was clueless as to the meaning until my Habitat for Humanity trip to Nicaragua.

I came for what I thought was helping a family in need build a house. Yet, what I was building the whole week was my own heart: a new ability to let love in despite my fears, to take in gratitude when it is given, to accept hugs when my being aches for them.

This was a tiring week of carrying blocks, carting gravel, sifting sand, and mixing mortar and concrete. I was waking up with sore muscles that I didn’t previously know existed. But the physical exhaustion pulled me out of the trap of my own mind. I was too tired to plan, do busy work, and keep myself occupied: behaviors which I learned I use to mask my feelings of vulnerability.  And it was so vulnerable connecting with complete strangers in such an intense and personal way.

My week started with goals and targets: build goals, step goals, calorie goals. I was running first thing in the morning, and walking on the beach after the build, making sure I was meeting my step goals. By the end of the week I was walking on the beach to find calm and stillness, to make space for the emotions that were coming up, and to allow myself the opportunity to reflect. And I had fully embraced the wonders of fried plantains.

I started taking more breaks at the build site. Sometimes to hydrate. Sometimes just because the kids wanted to play. What I learned in this one week was to give my presence fully. I may not have understood what the kids were saying to me, and they may not have understood me, but when we spun and giggled and danced nothing else existed. My mind was not rushing off to the next task, but present, delighting, filled with the resonating laughter of the children.

This week I collapsed on my bed every day after the build, feeling physically and House Habitat Nicaragua 2015emotionally raw. And as I lay there, trying to parse through the emotions that were surfacing, I learned that the love that budded within me towards the people I was connecting with could only be cultivated if I loved and accepted myself. The love would grow only if I gave them my most vulnerable, authentic, and imperfect self, rather than the image of the “best I can be” that I typically try to achieve in my daily life.  I was nothing like “cool” or “perfect”: I was sweaty, dirty, and felt that I could have been doing so much more.  In the face of the apparent need and poverty it was easy to feel “less than”.

And yet, the family that I was building for, the children I was playing with, they didn’t care about my weight, the size of my waist or my paycheck, my pace per mile, or my alignment in some fanciful yoga pose. I was there, giving them my effort, my time, my presence, and my love, and they loved all of me for just that!

And this unconditional love on their end made me realize that I am worthy of love and acceptance just as I am.  I am enough.

I belonged.  There was a home for my heart in the house I had been building.

It’s OK not to be OK

Nari Bound Side AngleDuring the most recent weekend of my yoga mentorship we sat in a circle and my mentor asked us how we were feeling. I couldn’t remember the last time someone asked me that. I knew it wasn’t good but I hadn’t actually stopped to think. People took turns answering. I was last to go. I opened my mouth and my eyes welled up, voice cracked, and nothing came out at first. “Broken” I finally croaked. I hadn’t intended to say that but that felt true.

That was the moment of acceptance. All of a sudden pretense fell away, and just like that, with one word, there was a shift. Feeling broken was hard enough. But how often do we also feel guilty for our feelings? Think of all the stories we tell ourselves about letting ourselves and others down… So if feeling broken wasn’t enough, feeling guilty for it had made it damn near unbearable. Making peace with my own brokenness allowed me to sit with my feelings and be present. There was levity in admission. I was giving permission for the healing process to finally begin.

As I still sit in this place of heartache, I am able to connect with myself. I am learning to care, nourish, and love my perfectly imperfect self. I am learning to ask myself the important questions: how do you feel? And what do you need? I am learning to check in instead of checking out. And as I learn to be kinder to my own self, I am finding new capacity for unlimited kindness I never knew existed within me.

Every crack in an opening, which may make things available within us that weren’t before.

This emotional space is a struggle. Every morning I wake up and it takes me a moment to remember why things feel “off”. But as I honor my feelings I feel empowered to be exactly as I am. I allow myself not to be ok. And that’s ok.

The Problem with Stereotypes

Nari Running NassauI typically don’t get overly emotional at advertisements, however well-made and well-targeted, but the “Run Like a Girl” ad had me tearing up during the Super Bowl. The ad resonated deeply: from a young age I was brought up to challenge the status quo and contest stereotypes. Growing up in a male-dominant culture, I was both the president of my class and aspired to have tattoos. I was bookish and rebellious all at the same time, out to prove that women could have it all.

What I realized only too late was that contesting stereotypes could be as restricting as conforming to them. In either case, you let someone else’s ideas of who you are guide your actions.

Apparently, I didn’t want to have it ALL. Some things were better left behind. It took until my late 20’s, but I shed the bad girl persona, quit smoking, drinking, and realized how much happier I was with a more reasonable bed time. Though I still love tattoos!

My daily mantra now is to tune inward and to listen to my true self. What lights my fire? What makes my eyes twinkle? What can I not wait to do again (eating breakfast doesn’t count)? Shedding expectations, both those of others and your own, is difficult. Especially if you have spent years giving them power over yourself.

Somewhere deep inside is a voice willing to give you all the answers if you can just walk away from the stereotypes instead of trying to prove them wrong.

My Own Worst Critic No More

During my Christmas holiday my best friend and I sat at the kitchen table deep in conversation, while her 2 year old daughter sat on the floor, immersed in her coloring book. Minutes later we realized that she was unusually quiet all of a sudden and soon discovered that she had moved on from coloring in her book to coloring the walls of the living room. To the question of what on earth she was doing she responded with confident “doodling”. Well, fair enough…

I was waiting for my friend to get angry or frustrated or mad. Instead she very calmly explained to her daughter that she wasn’t allowed to color on the walls, took the markers away, and burst out laughing as soon as her husband had ushered the toddler out of the room. This was forgiveness in its purest form: my friend felt there was nothing to forgive.

After our rather futile attempt to wipe the doodles off the wall I walked home in contemplation of what had just happened. How often do we forgive our loved ones but are much tougher on our own selves even for minor transgressions? Why has being “your own worst critic” become acceptable and even encouraged in our society?

Ahimsa, non-violence, is one of the five Yamas, the moral codes of conduct, of classical yoga. As a devoted yogi I try to be non-violent: I do not eat meat, often remind myself to let things go instead of dwelling in negativity and anger, and if all else fails, at least try not honking in traffic. I try to practice Ahimsa to the best of my abilities and find that my life is lighter without the burden of negative energy. But it isn’t rare for me to feel guilty for eating an extra cookie for desert, shame if I gain a pound here or there, or resentment towards myself if I feel I have fallen short of some goal I had set. Somehow the practice of Ahimsa toward my own self has not occurred to me.

So as I look out at the year ahead, one of my resolutions is to embrace the perfectly imperfect me the way my best friend embraced her daughter’s creative outburst, wall doodles and all. Yes, I will continue to set goals for myself and hopefully reach them. But I will not allow them to become my measure as a person. I will love myself unconditionally and will not berate myself for questionable dinner choices. I will give myself self-compassion and self-forgiveness. I might as well, seeing as I am stuck with who it is that I am. I might as well embrace it. Doodles and all.

Stupidly Fearless

Warrior 3Recently every time I find an incredible opportunity in front of me, my immediate reaction is that of excitement, followed closely by trepidation. Over the course of the night the anxiety comes in swells, every possible disastrous scenario plays out in my head, and when I wake up in the morning, I am absolutely certain that there is no point of even trying since it couldn’t possibly end well.

Occasionally I look back to when I was a kid and wonder where that stupidly fearless version of me has gone. There was a time that I was convinced I could fly if only I tried hard enough. I tried flapping my arms and jumping off much-too-high tree branches. There was no way in hell I was giving up. When I learned biology and physics, I just modified the dream of flying slightly: I was willing to settle for being a pilot or an astronaut.

But the older we get the more our experience warns us of potential failures and negative outcomes. And as humans we are programmed to seek safety and stability: if we are safe where we are, why chance it and rock the boat? Yes, the potential reward may seem exciting but is it worth the risk?

Often fear sets off a flurry of negative thoughts, which get out of our control, and then in turn set off a biological fight or flight response, which makes us avoid the thoughts (let alone the actions) that led to the anxiety in the first place. We give up before we even have a chance to get started.

But what if we stop and breathe? What if we face the fear of the unknown instead of running away from it? What if we ask if there is any truth to our anxieties? What if we tell ourselves that most negative outcomes we dread will never happen? What if we remind ourselves what our original motivation was for contemplating the action? What will our lives look like if we practice welcoming the possibilities?

One of my goals for 2015 is to be childishly “stupidly” fearless and say YES to my big scary dreams.

Practice Your Gratitude!

Nari Yogini Recently I made a pact with myself that I would try to go a weekend without complaining, and each time that a negative thought threatened the pact I would think of something I was grateful for. This weekend reminded me just how much I had to be thankful for but just how much I had been taking for granted…

Growing up after the breakup of Soviet Union, when things like electricity, running water, and a square meal were luxuries, gratitude was in abundance. We were thankful for neighbors willing to share their milk and eggs, or that none of the kids got the flu this winter. When I sat with a candle reading yet another Alexander Dumas book, I was grateful for the candlelight that gave me the ability to read and also transformed my world into the shadowy world of the 18th century France, where secrets were whispered in palace hallways by very similar candlelight. I was too busy being happy to give the situation about why it was I needed the candle a second thought.

But the mind craves constant stimulation: anything that isn’t new and exciting (however good it may be) does not register. We take things for granted, and with time we find ourselves completely out of practice of gratitude. Our minds wind up stuck in problem solving mode, too busy or tired to notice much else. But there is a reason we call gratitude a practice: just as with asana practice, the more we come back to it, the easier it becomes. So too, the more we train our minds to tune into things, large and small, that deserve gratitude, the more gratitude and joy there is filling our lives.

We may find it easy to be grateful when things are going well, but can we cultivate gratitude when things aren’t necessarily going our way? Making gratitude dependent on outside factors we rob our lives of joy and happiness, and blackmail the universe to give us what we want, or else… True gratitude is not the denial of life’s difficulties, since these are a fact of life. But rather it allows us to find a new perspective and embrace each moment exactly as it is, without placing demands upon the world and upon ourselves.

So this holiday season spend some time sitting down with your reality and see if you can generate some gratitude for people in your life that make you smile, the things that you have, the passions that drive you, and the inspirations that help you pursue these passions. See if you can be grateful for the challenges too, as these are the best teachers we have in life. And be grateful to yourself and for yourself and everything that you are. You are enough and you are amazing.

Come back to gratitude practice the way you would to your physical practice of yoga. Don’t be afraid to work at it: abundance comes to grateful hearts!