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.