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!

Life (and Yoga) by the Numbers

What do you try to get accomplished in the short span of 24 hours each day? Wake up at 5, gym at 5:30, so many miles on the treadmill at such and such pace, step on the scale and have a specific number flash at you as a reassurance that all is well in the world. We judge ourselves by the amount of money made, project deadlines met, number of pushups done. Chasing numbers: it’s like the NY Stock Exchange ticker rolling through the brain.

It wasn’t until my injury that I realized how closely I tied my own feeling of self-worth to my accomplishments. I had goals to meet, so an injury was most certainly not on the to do list for me. And yet there is was, staring me in the face every time I tried to put my left foot down, slowly eroding my feeling of self-worth, unraveling my idea of who I thought I was (how long can I take a break from running for and still consider my self a runner?). The foot pain and the existential crisis kept me up at night.

The epiphany came when I realized that I couldn’t care less about friends’ PR’s, their incomes, or whether or not they could do a handstand: unlike self-love, my love for them was unconditional. What I valued in others was kindness, compassion, generosity, empathy. They laughed with me, cried with me, listened to me complain about my injury, and I thought they were the best thing to ever happen to me, regardless of any other accomplishments they may or may not have.

It is a long journey for me. I try and catch myself when the negativity starts rearing its ugly head. I try to hang on to that warmth of having a student thank me at the end of class. My newly adjusted (or adjusting, I should say) sense of self-worth comes from knowing that maybe I helped someone breathe a little easier today, maybe I gave someone a reason to smile. These are the things that are truly valuable at the end of the day. Numbers only go so far…

Movement is Life

Nari Kripalu Dancer PoseMy whole body has ached since my injury nearly 6 weeks ago. A tiny, invisible, undetectable thing, this stress fracture, has completely upended my life: it has changed my daily habits and eating preferences; it has made me anxious and irritable, unable to burn off the excess energy; and has made me question the essence of my own being (can I still qualify myself a runner and a yogi if I cannot do either of these activities?). Every day I wake up ready to lace up and got for a run. Every day my body feels like a prison. And the inactivity makes the pain all the worse.

But then 2 weeks ago I went to Kripalu on a yoga retreat for my birthday. Even though I had always been more inclined to practice more vigorous and energetic styles of yoga, I was starting to dabble in Yin and Restorative practices, since that was what my achy body had been calling for. So when we got there, and I saw plenty of Restorative classes being offered, I knew, I was in for a treat.

Here I was, after weeks of being trapped in my own body, waking up on my mat at 6:30 in the morning. And then returning to the mat after breakfast again at 9:30. Then there was dance with live drumming. As the beat flowed right through me and resonated inside me, I couldn’t help but move. More a shuffle than a dance, but my soul was jubilant: I was discovering that there still were ways in which my body could move pain-free. I dabbled in some kayaking, some hiking (my doctor would potentially disapprove), and all the yoga I could cram into 2 already full days.

However different from my usual practice, it was really my time on the mat that made me feel at home in my body again. It gave me the awareness of when to move and when to back off so as not to hinder the healing process. It allowed me to begin addressing all the imbalances that contributed to the stress fracture in the first place. It helped me find a pain-free space for my body, where both my body and mind could find peace.

Since that weekend at Kripalu my doctor has cleared me for non-impact cardio, and even though I still cannot run, I am back at it swimming, spinning, and lifting weights to strengthen my body. But most importantly, I am back on my mat: still gingerly and cautiously, but I am flowing, and it makes the energy flow. Yoga returned me to movement again, and movement is essentially life.

Yoga for Runners – Tree Pose

SNari Tree Posetrengthens: Feet, ankles, calves. Quadriceps, piriformis, gluteus. Postural muscles. Improves sense of balance.

Stretches: Hip of the lifted leg, groin.

Main Focus: Press the foot of the standing leg into the mat and press the foot of the lifted leg into the standing leg (avoid the knee!). The engagement of both legs will make balancing easier.

As runners, proprioception, our internal sense of our body position and motion, is incredibly important, as we dodge pot holes and puddles, gawking pedestrians in the city, and roots and rocks on the trails. Balance training is a good way of improving one’s proprioception and coordination and preventing injuries, such as ankle sprains.

Tree pose tackles it all: it strengthens the foot, ankle, and calf of the standing leg as well as the postural muscles; it allows you to stretch the groin and the hip of the lifted leg; and it challenges and improves your balance, helping you OM to your PR. Read more for aligment cues and modifications.