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Art in Action is a weekly post: a short, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

Watch any political debate these days and what you see is a whole lot of black and white. It’s all or nothing, you are with us or against us. Gray is not a color that politicians readily sport.

Which is unfortunate, since real life is full of everything: good fortune and loss, gratitude and sadness, grief and joy. And while it is a cultural tendency to avoid the dark and make the light fluorescent, whole-hearted living requires that we are able to contain all of it, not just the happy bits. What’s more, life asks us to allow the contrasts to concurrently coexist.

Especially in the holly-jolly, jingle-bell-rock, Christmas-sweaters-that-light-up season, it can be a radical act to allow contrasts of sensation, thought, and emotion to reside together. In fact, it is a radical act that takes practice. Here are 4 ways to allow yourself to hang out in the Both/And.

1. Heart & Breath
Right now, or in any moment, slowly take a breath in and feel your heart beating at the same time. Notice the physical contrast of the pulse of heart and the flow of breath as they happen together. You might begin to feel the pulse in places other than your chest – perhaps your hands or face or belly. And you may notice, too that your breath can flow beyond your chest and into your hips, your neck, your feet. Both pulse and flow are always happening simultaneously, right in your own skin.

2. Heavy & Light
A wonderful meditation on Insight Timer by Jennifer Piercy called Yoga Nidra for Sleep invites awareness of heavy and light at the same time. Begin by inhaling and feeling the sense of lightness, even floating or dissolving. Then exhale and feel a grounded heaviness, a rooted density. Alternate with the breath: inhale, light; exhale, heavy. Then continue to breathe and feel both at the same time.

3. Rhythm & Melody
Slide on a favorite set of headphones, get relaxed and alert, and listen to a piece of music. Notice first the rhythmic patterns and then the melodic flow. Notice how rhythm and melody weave and together to create a harmony that does not exist without the other. See if you can feel the melody within the rhythm and the rhythm within the melody.

4. Emotional Investigation
Whenever you are feeling a strong emotion, pause and allow yourself to feel the nuances. Whether you are listening to beloved music of the season, watching a child open a gift, feeling irritation at the dinner table or bereft because someone is missing – give yourself a moment and really feel everything about the emotion. It’s rare that any emotion stands alone: happiness can intertwine with wistfulness, anger and fear often stand together, grief and gratitude can nestle against each other. Whatever it is, notice the contrasts and generously allow them all to coexist.

Give yourself the gift of experiencing concurrent contrasts rather than the black/white, good/bad, us/them paradigm. How do you hold the contrasts of the season (or any time)? Share your experience in the comments below or at the Focus Pocus Facebook page (I’m offering a gift of art therapy to all commenters)!

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What is up with me and this time of year? I find myself feeling all awkward and wonky like clapping off the beat and tripping over the curb.

I’m not one for organized religion but even my odd spiritual amalgam does allow me to see that this is a special season in many ways. It’s just that I feel out of sync and clumsy for most of it.

Perhaps more than any other time of year, there are a whole tangle forces at work: nature and culture, sacred and secular, light and dark, giving and receiving, grief and celebration. Life is always full of everything but in December, there is a lot more of everything. In fact, part of the reason I feel buffeted by the holidays is that this is the season of contrasts and contradictions.

For example,

  • Our side of the earth will be its darkest in just a few days. Nature’s natural cycle lends itself to nurturing introspection and healing rest now. And yet, flash-sparkly lights are strung on everything that doesn’t move and some things that do. The artificial pop and shimmer can be fun, breath-taking, delightful… and disorienting.
  • Temperatures drop (usually) into the windshield-scraping zone which makes me want to snug-bundle by the fire with an unending pot of tea and the warm, quiet company of cat and man. And yet, we have more parties and gatherings and high-heel-wearing occasions in the next two weeks than in any other time.
  • Gratitude and generosity are at the heart of the season. I love offering gifts of love to the people for whom I am thankful all year. And yet, it is also now when empty chairs are painfully obvious. Whether separated by distance or death, anger or the Army, feelings of loss stand fully alongside those of connection.

With all these wildly contrasting forces at work, it’s no wonder I feel a little scrambled up inside: I’m swinging between life’s extremes and after a while, that swinging makes me want to put my head down.

Instead of swaying back and forth between contradictory conditions, what happens if I opened enough to feel both at the same time? Appreciate the inky depths of the solstice sky and the simultaneously glowing moon. Snuggle into the warmth and nurture of company and community. Fully feel the complicated love for those who are here and those who aren’t.

Simultaneously light and heavy, bright and dark. Giving and receiving. Grateful and grieving.

A tricky balance, I grant you, but perhaps less confusing and unsettling to feel it together.

Contrasts coexisting concurrently.


LEAVE A COMMENT, GET A GIFT ~ ‘Tis the season of appreciation for Focus Pocus readers! Please add a comment below or at the Focus Pocus Facebook page and I’ll send you a gift for creative meditation! You can choose from the super-cool one from last week about The Gap (it’s got a hidden message!) or a new one for this week (which I haven’t made yet so who knows what it will be!). <3


Art in Action is a weekly post: a short, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

In the London underground, there are reminders on the platform to “Mind the Gap.” In American, that means don’t fall and get squished by a train. Our practice is actually to Find the Gap: even in the midst of a harried season, to find the spaces of peace that are always available.

mind the gapAt this time of year particularly, I need this reminder. When I find myself wrapping presents while watching basketball with my husband and preparing for my classes while working in the kitchen and squeezing one more errand in on the way home, I can forget that peace and stillness really are right there with me.

In Nia, we call it Living Meditation: the ability to notice what is still in the midst of movement, what is silent in the midst of noise, what is resting in the midst of effort. It’s part of why mindfulness is a super power and here are 5 ways to practice finding the gaps that are all around us.

1. Pause
Take a handful of deliberate pauses during the day. In the midst of whatever you are doing, stop and take three deep breaths. See if you can simply be present to what is happening internally and externally. Maybe as you stand at the sink or wait at a red light or while you are walking: pause, breathe, feel the sensation of the gap.

2. Labeling meditation – Sensation, Image, Thought…
One of my meditation sisters taught me a labeling meditation that is particularly helpful when my mind and life is over-busy or stressful. Simply sit quietly and when something comes into your awareness, make gentle mental labels of Sensations, Images and Thoughts. If your feet are cold or you knee is sore, gently say to yourself “Sensation.” If you see visions of sugar plums or maybe piles of laundry, quietly note, “Image.” If you start planning how to attack your to-do list or worrying how the holiday dinner is going to go, make a mental note of “Thought.” Sometimes, you might also notice when none of the three are happening … and that is the gap.

3. Listen to the Music
Put on a piece of music that features multiple musicians – a band or orchestra or chorus – and listen for when a musician is playing and when she isn’t. This is also fun to do while watching musicians play (even better when live!): watch the one that isn’t playing. Listen for the gap.

4. Watch the Non-Speaker
Similarly while watching movies or plays, pay careful attention to the actors who are not speaking. Notice that it’s not that they are doing nothing, but they are leaving a gap for another player’s words to be spoken. You can do this in your own conversations, too, by dropping into the listening gap when someone else is speaking and being aware of the other person when they are in the gap.

5. Zone out
Give yourself a few minutes to do nothing. Crazy as it may sound, just stop and zone out. Watch a bird fly or a cat watch a bird fly. Gaze at the fire. Let the warm water of a shower flow over you. Slide into the gap.

find the gap

What are other ways you find the gap? Share them in the comments below or at the Focus Pocus Facebook page!

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Peace is all around us….It is not a matter of faith; it is a matter of practice. ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

‘Tis the season of speed. December feels like teetering at the top of a black diamond slope when I don’t feel particularly confident on my skis. Big breath. And. Here. We. Go.

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It doesn’t matter what traditions you follow or holidays you celebrate (or don’t). At this time of year, the glittery figgy pudding layer of tinselly, ornamental cacophony isn’t an option. In December, it’s the water we swim in. I resist the superficial, consumerist, cheap-feeling noise, but I’m sure it will change and slow down as soon as money isn’t a driving force in our culture.

So never. It’s going to change never.

Along with the crunchy sugar plum coating of Christmas all around us, often comes an extra layer of happenings at home. Sending cards greeting the season (family photos with color-coordinated outfits and Over-Cheerful-Holiday-Letters optional) need addresses to find and notes to write and adorable snowman stamps to buy. There are presents, of course, for children and family and friends and co-workers and wrapping and tagging and mailing or cheerfully hand-delivering. There are special meals and do we make what we always make or do we have something different or do we order sides from the grocery store or go out? And there are outfits for special church services and concerts and parties and does that jacket still fit him and does she need new tights and I should probably get a haircut but when?

I’m not being a Grinchtastic, Scroogey, grumpy pants here, really. (Even though I sometimes fit that description, that’s not my point in this particular instance.) If we presume that you totally love this time of year and you don’t have any stress about the shopping and preparation and dealing with Auntie Susan at the dinner table, if we presume that you’ve never lost anyone or you aren’t missing anyone, if we presume that this time of year for you is simply a feeling of home and love and connection and family and sacredness, well, if we presume all of that, then you’re probably 6.

So if you’re 6, this doesn’t (necessarily) apply to you.

But if you’re not 6, even if there is nothing but joy for you in this season, all of those special things about this time of year are layered on top of the life you already have. There is still work to do (and if you’re in retail or e-commerce there is an unending truck-load of work) and meals to make and laundry to fold and kids to get to hockey practice or the swim meet or (shudder) The Frost Bite Soccer Tourney.

The holiday jolliday time of year piles a layer of activity and busy-ness on top of our already busy, full lives. And those busy, full lives are really a reflection of our busy internal lives. Like a relentless ticker-tape of news running along the bottom of the screen, our minds are thinking and remembering and planning all the time (numbers vary, but we think somewhere between 20,000 and 70,000 thoughts a day).

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In this time of year particularly, we are squashed under layers of internal and external complexity and movement and urgency and expectation. Some people love the energy and excitement, some feel frayed and frenzied, some feel down and depressed by it all. Many of us feel a sloppy cocktail of all of it.

Wherever you fall on the holiday spectrum, peace and space and calm is not only possible, it is always available, always happening. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, it’s just a matter of practice.

Meditation teachers call it The Gap: the space between. In sitting practice, we bring attention to a space between inhaling and exhaling – a little place of neither breathing in nor breathing out. The Gap is the (sometimes teeny tiny) space between thoughts – a neither/nor place of rest.*

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What is so in the mind is so in the world: there are gaps everywhere if we know where to look.

In language there are spaces between words. Without it, we could understand nothing.

words require gaps

Music is both silence and sound. Notes play and stop. Instruments sound and quiet, vocalists tone and stop, percussionists strike and hold.

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A film looks like fluid movement but is actually a succession of still pictures.

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Practicing mindfulness — on the cushion, in the studio, on the mat, behind the wheel — helps us slow things down so we notice the gaps all around us. Even in the midst of a world-class sprint or an all-out hip-hop dance or a holiday shopping season, there is always something at rest.

Always a gap.

It’s just a matter of seeing it, and sliding in.



If you like this post, you might also enjoy this one! Go ahead, you have time.

* For more on The Gap from a meditative perspective, see Meditation Myth #2 in Deepak Chopra’s short piece and the transcript of a (longer) talk by Osho.]

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How bout no longer being masochistic
How bout remembering your divinity
How bout unabashedly bawling your eyes out
How bout not equating death with stopping
~ Alanis Morissette, Thank you

It’s crazy. For 15 years I’ve been teaching and practicing movement and mindfulness but sometimes, I just don’t pay attention.

Last week, I taught some extra classes. Then I taught my regular classes and a (super fun) day-long retreat. I took a day “off” but worked on follow up and class preparation and did yoga and played catch up at my desk. Then I taught my regular classes again. By Wednesday, my battery felt not just drained but like someone had ripped it out and stomped on it.

On a Monday morning, I overhear two colleagues chatting in an office at the gym where I teach:
— Oh man, I am so tired. Are you tired?
— Me? I’m always tired.

About three-quarters through a 90-minute yoga class, I’m on my belly, doing my best to slow down my breathing. I can feel the sweat dripping off me and I can see a drop of it quivering at the tip of my nose. Take a deep breath, says Kelly. Let yourself really rest.

As she says this, I realize that the muscles in my hands and belly and feet are tense. I know class isn’t even close to being over. I’m bracing for what is coming.

Much of the time, she says, we don’t give it our all when we’re working and we don’t really stop and rest when we’re stopping. That’s why we’re tired all the time. Work when you’re working. Stop when you’re stopping.

At a Nia training years ago, my trainer asked us to choose a simple piece of choreography for a self-observation exercise. I chose something in which the base movements were only Closed Stance and A-Stance. The idea was to observe how we did the moves and to clean up our form, and here I’d gone and picked the simplest thing ever.

And yet.

When I paid attention to what I was doing, I realized I was wiggling my toes and adjusting my feet and not ever landing and stopping in my stances at all. My stances never rested.

The most common complaint of new Nia students is that they develop blisters on the soles of their feet (it happened to me when I started). Blisters usually appear when movers repeatedly slide, shuffle, or twist on their feet. When they are stepping, they aren’t really stepping but “dragging their feet.”

When I’m wrestling with an essay or a tricky post for my blog and I hit a lull in inspiration, I will often stop and check email or troll Facebook or send a text. When I work, I’m not really working.

After a full day, I feel exhausted, but when finally roll into bed, I find myself rolling through what I accomplished and planning what to do tomorrow. When I stop, I’m not really stopping.

Last week I had a dream about a student. He’s been coming to my classes for a decade and I don’t think he’s ever been in the room for the first song. He always comes once we’re moving and jumps right in. At the end of class when I invite everybody into stillness, he usually does some sit ups or leg lifts and often he leaves early. In my dream, he was in class doing his thing and a voice asked, When does he stop?

For some reason (overriding the creepiness of “I had a dream about you” intro), I awkwardly mention this to him after class. He laughs uncomfortably and then says, Huh, that’s funny. I’m 75 and I’m still working. I can’t seem to figure out when to retire.

Go when you go. Stop when you stop.

anything & everything yin yang
The first time I hear the it, I am popped awake in a 615am yoga class at Kripalu. I’ve been on the road for a week. I haven’t slept well for days. It is, as I mentioned, just after 6am. I am fuzzily foggy at best but as soon as the instructor says it, I snap to attention:

How you do anything is how you do everything.

She says it and I think, Wait a minute, no, wait. That’s not right. Is it? We have only just started the class. I am only in Child’s Pose. How is it possible that I am doing Child’s Pose in the same way I do Wheel pose or teach my classes or hug my husband or write my blog?

For an hour, it ricochets around in my head: my argument that it couldn’t be true that how I do anything is how I do everything.

A few years later, I hear it again in another yoga class with an added phrase that also wakes me up:

How you do anything is how you do everything. Let your practice be a metaphor for your life.

The intervening time — that has included a sabbatical from and then a reinvigorated return to teaching as well as a reinvigorated yoga practice — has me more receptive to the idea. I begin to get it that the qualities, the intentions, the habits I bring along with me onto the mat are the same ones I bring everywhere else.

But not just that: Let your practice be a metaphor for your life. I have a choice about how I do everything I do. It’s not about getting it right or being perfect, but about writing my own story. It’s about showing up the way I want to show up.

The whole concept is intriguing enough that I want to investigate. It seems that the laboratory of the yoga studio is a good place to start. My first step is a down-to-the-bones honest observation. When I think about my yoga practice, I go quickly to the distortions of I-suck-beat-myself-up or well-hey-I’m-pretty-darn-good-at-that – which is neither accurate nor helpful. Instead, I honestly observe myself as I’m doing my practice and ask myself How do I do this?

This is what I find:
1. I put in a good deal of effort – sometimes more than necessary.
2. I am dedicated to the point of obsession.
3. I am easily distracted until I get in the groove and then I’m focused.
4. I love learning but can get frustrated at the beginning when things are awkward.
5. I compare myself to others (especially in the distracted stage of #3).
6. I am strong and open in some ways, weak and resistant in others.
7. I tend to rush through and want to get to the next part.
8. For better or for worse, I easily fall into habit.
9. Interruptions (especially once I’m in the groove of #3) and the unexpected can upset me.

I’m sure there are other things that are also observable and true about my practice but Yes. That is how I do yoga. But is it how I do everything? Really?

I take my How I Do Yoga list and run aspects of my life through it: Writing, teaching, meditation, relationships, art, cooking.

Gosh, would you look at that? Spot on. Every one. Every. Single. One.


This is somehow simultaneously humbling and comforting. There I am. On the yoga mat, on the dance floor, at my desk, in my kitchen, in my life.

So the question is, what do I do with this metaphor for my life? I look at how I do yoga and ask, Is this how I want to do yoga? Is that how I want to teach? And write? And draw? And make dinner? And love people?

Some of it yes and some of it not so much.

But I’m not stuck with it. It’s not just “how I am.” I can take the current metaphor and I can edit it. Just like I rework sentences and paragraphs in my posts so they are in closer alignment with what I want to say, I can choose to adjust my practice to be in closer alignment to how I want to live. Those edits on the mat will expand into everything I do.

Aristotle, widely remembered as an extremely clever guy, said

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

I have a choice about the habits I cultivate on the mat and in my classes and in my writing and everywhere. As I make even small changes to doing anything, how I do everything will change, too.

Like an essay that I am reworking or a routine I’ve taught many times: Observe. Edit. Repeat.

So. (And you knew this was coming, didn’t you?)

How do you practice? How do you do the chores? How do you drive? How do you talk to people? What are your habits? Are they what you want them to be? Observe. Edit. Repeat.

How you do anything is how you do everything.

March is Meditation Month. It’s a great time to begin a sitting practice or to come back to a neglected cushion. I’ll be offering occasional posts from and about my own practice. May they be of benefit.


“Do you feel that tingling? Right below the surface of your skin? That tingling is more who you are than bones or blood or skin.” ~ Kelly Stine

Mindfulness practice, at its core, is a gratitude practice. If I really take it in, if I really pay attention to life, it’s breath-taking. Amazing. If I really notice the world, I cannot help but be grateful (for all of it, even lost earrings and taxes and reality TV).

Most of the time, though, we just blithely move through our days without noticing how flipping incredible the world is. Mostly, we’re outrageously casual about the miracles that are unfolding in and around us. Strawberries in February? Of course. Airplanes that can get us to the other side of the world in a day? Sure, but does it have WiFi? The warm roughness of my best friend’s hand? Nice, but did he take out the trash? The fizzy, bubbling-over feeling of a sneeze. Yeah, but it’s such a goofy sound.

Mindfulness helps me truly receive the amazingness of living ~ even when it’s difficult or painful. Being fully present to what is on offer in the moment, is an act of waking up to the gifts of life. I mean, right now I’m wearing a sweater that was made in Iceland! Iceland, people! And there are pine trees and butterscotch (I don’t even like butterscotch, but still!) and Japanese Wallpaper. Incredible.

And then there is the mystery. What about that tingle just under your skin? What is that? Is it what keeps my heart beating year after year? Is it what makes my breath and blood flow? Or is it something else? Is that tingle what makes me me?

Out in the world, in my day, mindfulness helps me fully receive the gifts of living. The tangible, present moment wonderment of smells and tastes and color and sound. The amazement of art and technology and Nature.

And on my cushion, I can feel that tingle. On my cushion, I can feel the enormous mystery of it all. That which we can see and touch and taste and that which is invisible and we know nothing about.

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