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Awareness

I told myself not to say it. I think I actually bit my tongue. But suddenly, I heard the unkind, impatient thing fly right out of my mouth. I saw the words, sludgy and dripping, hang in the air between us and immediately, I regretted them.

I saw his face and shoulders fall. He responded with his feelings and I did my best, I really did, to feel my feet and my breath, to reflect back what he’d said, to be present.

Instead, I was swamped with pain and regret and a mind-flood of talk about what a bitchy jerk I am and how I always do this and how the people I admire would never say such a thing. In a heart beat, in a breath, the discomfort was so strong that I unplugged and split from my body.

Embodied presence – connecting mind and body, being in the present moment – sounds simple and easy enough. We’re living in these bodies all the time, after all, so how tough can it be to be in there? The truth is that it’s a huge challenge for most of us even when we’re sitting quietly on a cushion with sunlight in our hair and flower petals falling around us. When we are upset, angry, tired, hungry, in pain, afraid, or uncomfortable in any way, the practice of keeping body and mind in the same place at the same time can feel utterly impossible.

In her two dharma talks about Embodied Presence (which you can find here and here), Tara Brach invites us to explore the unpredictable wilderness of the body. The mind does what it can to control the uncontrollable and tuck in all the loose edges but that neatness is a false refuge. The body in all its messiness is the only place to connect to empathy, love, freedom and unfolding of life itself. The only place. She suggests that whenever we leave the body, when we vacate the premises, it comes down to one thing: there is something we are unwilling to feel. We find ourselves disconnected and separated from direct experience because there is something that feels scary or dangerous or uncomfortable and on some level we think we can’t handle it. So we run.

Last week, we focused on Embodied Presence and the practice of getting body and mind in the same place at the same time. This week, we continue this exploration by looking at the ways we take ourselves out of the body and how to get back in.

It’s such a common state, to be up in the control tower of our heads that we might not even realize we’re doing it. Tara Brach offers four signs of being in trance and out of the body:

  1. obsessive thoughts on a loop often as a way to prepare to avoid something bad,
  2. negative judgment about myself or others (see above example of me thinkingthinkingthinking about being an impatient jerky pants),
  3. distraction of any kind especially on screens or online (like habitually reaching to check my phone when I feel nervous, for example),
  4. speeding around and rushing, as if getting more done will keep the difficult feelings at bay

When you see this list, do any of these feel familiar? Perhaps you’re like me and they ALL feel familiar. When we are in this auto-pilot, sleepwalking state, we are intentionally (although often subconsciously) avoiding feeling something edgy or uncomfortable. Mindfulness – in movement, in meditation, or in the moment – invites us back into the lush wilderness of the body.

Brach teaches that the intensity of any of these states is in direct proportion to our unwillingness to feel what’s in our bodies. In order to come into embodied presence, we have to make the courageous and intentional choice to wake up. She teaches that first, we must notice what’s happening (ah, I have hurt someone’s feelings and that feels wretched), then name it (pain in my heart and heaviness in my stomach), and breathe (amazingly difficult when I’m suffering) and interrupt the pattern – even briefly – by allowing ourselves to feel whatever it is.

This practice leads to what is sometimes called The Lion’s Roar which is the ability to be with, to roll with anything, ANYTHING that happens. The Lion’s Roar is the fearless proclamation that everything that happens is workable and that I have the ability to handle and feel anything. Imagine the freedom of trusting in our capacity to be with whatever life delivers.

Notice that this state of presence is not called “The Roaring Lion” which feels startling, fierce, and threatening. Instead, the Lion’s Roar is the energy of confidence. It is the knowledge that this power is available no matter what arrives. When we practice, The Lion’s Roar is a strength that infuses life like an aura, a light that allows me to face anything.

Few of us will be able to claim the Lion’s Roar as our way of being all the time, but the practice of noticing, naming, breathing and interrupting the well-worn sleepwalking pattern offers glimpses into the possibility of freedom.

The next time you find yourself caught in one of the signs of being out of the body, ask yourself, “What am I unwilling to feel?” This question alone is the first step toward finding your Roar.

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“Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.” – James Joyce

This famous line from The Dubliners amuses me. I can see him: dressed in gray, buttoned to neck, eyes looking back warily. I feel sad for poor, sorry, gray Mr. Duffy. When I think about it, though, am I any different? I’ve spend much of my days in my head, on my screen, out of my body, out of natural rhythms. Who of us, in the past day, hour, or even minute hasn’t lived a short distance from our bodies?

At the core of it, the mindful movement practice we do together is about getting our minds and bodies to be together in the same place at the same time. The mind loves being in the past and future but the body can only reside in the present. So if we want them to be together, the only way is for the mind to join the body in the present moment.

The problem is that our culture, habits and neurology train us to do anything but.

A few years ago, my friend and colleague, Bev Wann and I taught classes on embodied presence to federal executives. These were high level managers in an intensive leadership program which required them to examine their habits and patterns in regards to their professional lives, their management style, and their health. They were intelligent and ambitious with long, successful careers. Many had intense, driven personalities and had challenging relationships and interactions with employees, peers and managers. Most of them didn’t exercise at all, ate poorly, slept worse and were under intense stress. Almost all of them lived almost exclusively in their heads.

Bev and I focused on teaching the execs practices that could help them be present and attend mindfully to their colleagues and their work rather than bulldozing through from their heads and habits. In one session, I’d been leading a group in mindful movement: breathing and feeling their feet as we walked slowly. I suggested that connecting the mind and body in this way is a way to release thinking and drop into sensing.

One man looked at me with annoyance, impatience and exasperation and said, “Why in the world would I ever want to stop thinking?”

Teaching a reluctant and skeptical student has to be one of the biggest challenges a teacher faces. I rarely have an involuntary student but here I was faced with someone who didn’t buy a word I was saying. He stood there in his new white athletic socks utterly fed up with this woo-woo story I was telling. Every achievement he’d ever had in his long career had been because of his thinking. Why, indeed, would he ever want to stop? Even though I’d been sharing the science and benefits of mindfulness, he was having none of it. I felt ill-equipped for the situation. I was embarrassed and I was speechless.

I’ve regretted my inability to reach that man ever since. I wish I’d had words that would have made sense to him. If I could do it again, I would say that thinking is a great tool but we’re addicted to it and use it for everything. (As the carpenters say, if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And life is not a nail.) If I could do it again, I’d say that our brains reside not just in our heads but in our bodies and that sensing gives us access to a different kind of intelligence. If I could do it again, I would say that everything that really matters in life – love, connection, creativity, compassion – are experienced in the body, not the mind. If I could do it again, I’d say that being in the body is the only way to be fully alive.

If I could do it again, I’d also share some of the genius wisdom of Tara Brach’s two talks on Embodied Presence. (You can find them here and here.) But since I can’t share them with him, I’m sharing them with you. They are so full of goodness. I truly hope you’ll listen to them. And if you can’t, I’ll bring threads from them into class and the blog for the next couple of weeks.

For now, I invite you to contemplate this question: What’s between me and being at home in my body at this moment? Allow your body and mind to be together in the same place and the same time and see what you notice*.

*The complete Kurt Vonnegut quote is “Life is a garden, not a road. We enter and exit through the same gate. Wandering, it matters less where we go and more what we notice.”


When I was a girl, my Nana had a wooden toy box in her living room full of old, unusual, fascinating things. There was an antique tin top with a plunger that would spin like crazy. There was an old set of tiddlywinks that were worth playing with just to say the word out loud. There was a classic set of Barrel Full of Monkeys.

But my favorite toy in Nana’s box was a kaleidoscope.

I could sit in the sun on her scratchy orange sofa and look through that thing for hours. (If you’ve never played with a kaleidoscope, here’s what it looks like when you look into it and turn it.)

“Life is like an ever-shifting kaleidoscope – a slight change, and all patterns alter.” – Sharon Salzberg

Our mindful movement practice reveals that all parts of the human body are connected. A movement in any part impacts them all. A misalignment in one place reverberates through your whole form. If one part of the body is in pain, instead of narrowing our attention only to that one part, the real practice and healing come from expanding our attention to the whole system. Sharon Salzberg reminds us that life is the same way.

Unbeknownst to us, when parking our beloved Le Que camper last fall, the roof got a crack in it that has left it open to the elements…for the whole winter. Which was, here in Virginia, the wettest winter on record. The inside of the framing is utterly soaked and ruined. The insurance company confirmed that it is a total loss.

It felt like a punch in the stomach. Traveling together in Le Que has been an adventurous joy. Despite the wretchedness of the discovery, I watched Frank turn the kaleidoscope of the situation. We talked about what we love about Le Que…and some of the things we don’t. We started to look into possible replacements and maybe even possible uses for the injured Le Que. What felt like a mess is shifting into a slew of interesting possibilities.

Kaleidoscope perspective isn’t necessarily one of sunny optimism (although that can be a happy side effect). Kaleidoscope perspective is about seeing the large and the small and all the ever-changing parts. Wayne Dyer suggests “if you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” If you are in a disagreement, can you see perhaps the fear behind your side and the unmet needs behind theirs? If you are looking at a sunset, can you see both the expansive swash of colors and the details in the silhouetted branches of the trees? If your team loses in the basketball tournament, can you see the joy in the other team’s faces? (Nope, I can’t do that, either.)

Sarah Susanka, in her wonderful book, The Not So Big Life writes about this phenomenon and how the kaleidoscope shift requires a spacious attention to whatever is happening. Rather than narrowing our focus on one particular thing, we can open our peripheral vision to see more. She writes,

The flow of moments and synchronous happenings occurs whether or not we are present, but it is only when we are present that those dynamics are observable. (p. 145)

Our bodies, minds, emotions, and lives are full of kaleidoscopic changes. Nudging any situation – even a little – can change a simple handful of beads and colored glass into a fascinating, radiant rainbow. All we have to do is stay present and open and see what there is to see.

CALL FOR KALEIDOSCOPES! If you come to classes this week and have a kaleidoscope you’d be willing to share, bring it for show and tell! 

Years ago, I saw a cartoon that has stuck with me (and darn it, I cannot find it now for the life of me even with The Google). It is a father and son sitting in a field looking at the night sky. The boy asks, “Dad, what’s the most powerful force in the universe?” and the father replies, “The force of habit.”

The very fact that you are reading this post indicates that you are interested in mindfulness. At some level, you want to stop sleepwalking through your time and be conscious of how you are living. You may practice in class with me or another teacher and you may have your own practice to support your longing for awareness.

Whatever your practice is, use it as an opportunity to wake up. Use that awakening as an opportunity to practice more.

As much as I want my practice to be my habit, it’s amazing how quickly I lose its thread. After an hour of yoga, I’ll be all Zen and peaceful and Om-shakalaka but nine minutes after walking out of class, I’ll be impatient and irritated in traffic. I’ll absorb the wisdom of a lovingkindness meditation but all it takes is one headline and I turn into a hater. I’ll take a mindful walk by the river, but as soon as I get back in the house, I’m not paying attention to anything but my river of thought.

Use your practice as an opportunity to wake up. Use that awakening as an opportunity to practice more.

Little by little, waking up begins to spill out beyond the formal practice times and spaces. I can choose to practice and choose to be awake and that awakeness leads to more like it. Once I experience aliveness and presence, the more I endeavor to expand that into other areas of my life. I can be present and awake while I’m making dinner or folding laundry, having a conversation with a friend or discussing finances with my partner. The more I can wake up in those situations, the more I am inspired to practice so I can stay present when I feel upset or angry or afraid. The more I practice the more I want to wake up and the more I wake up the more I want to practice.

“The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you
Don’t go back to sleep!
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep!
People are going back and forth
across the doorsill where the two worlds touch,
The door is round and open
Don’t go back to sleep!” ~ Rumi

Regular practice slowly begins to shift long-held patterns. Regular practice softens our lizard brain edges and connects us to our humanity. Regular practice allows us to expand what we do in the studio, on the mat, on the cushion into how we show up in our work, our homes and in our relationships. And ultimately, isn’t that what it’s all about?

Use your practice as an opportunity to wake up. Use that awakening as an opportunity to practice more.


I had a dream that I died. Or that I was about to die. I had gotten some kind of diagnosis and (true to my food-centric, vegetarian form) the plan was to eat my lunch salad, then take a pill that would end my life.

This might sound like a bummer of a dream but it wasn’t. First, I was overjoyed to wake up. Then I was intensely aware of the unspeakable sweetness of living…and of its impermanence.

Since The Dream, I’ve been renegotiating my relationship to time. I’ve been paying attention to when I rush through, scrabble over, gobble up my life. I’m doing my best to slow down, savor more, embody presence.

Sometimes it goes better than others.

Last week, I was having a rough go of it when I came across two dharma talks by meditation teacher and author, Tara Brach. Her words often inspire me but these connected straight to everything I’ve been feeling about transience. The two talks are Impermanence: Awakening Through Insecurity, Part 1 & Part 2, and I strongly recommend them both. Listening to them brought me to tears and to laughter. Her stories and words reverberate in my heart and mind still. (These two talks have planted seeds for a whole slew of focuses for our movement together, so stay tuned for more on them in coming weeks.)

In the second talk, Tara tells the story of a woman who’s been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer with the prognosis of one year to live. She has a 2-year-old daughter. Her mantra, her mission becomes this:

No Time To Rush.

When we are truly aware, not in an intellectual way but in a heart and soul way, that our lives will one day be over, what becomes important? What matters? Perhaps counterintuitively, all my hurrying to accomplish things, all my squeezing as much as I possibly can into every single day suddenly seems like the opposite of what is important.

Yesterday, at the busy, noisy grocery store, I waited in the cashier’s line to pay for a cart full of vegetables. When it was my turn, the cashier hastily picked up my reusable bags, “I’m sorry, hold on, please,” he said as he set them up on the counter, “Let me get your bags ready to load.” With the dharma talk words moving around in me, I looked at him and said, “It’s no rush. Take your time.”

He stopped propping the bags up and look straight at me.
“Did you say, ‘It’s no rush’?” he asked.
“I did.”
“Well, let me take a sip of coffee then,” he smiled and stopped long enough for a swig from his travel cup.
He took a breath and so did I.

Rushing is contagious. I wonder about the countless times I’ve impatiently checked out of grocery stores, silently urging the cashier to go faster. In all those hurry-up encounters, the humanness of the moment, and actually, the moment itself was lost. In our Get ‘Er Done culture, it is a gift to give each other a little time, a little breathing room, a sip of coffee.

It’s been a curious exploration to slow down my rushing. Coincidentally (if you believe in those things), I am reading Sarah Susanka’s book The Not So Big Life. In it, she invites the exploration of priorities, questioning of choices and an examination how we spend our time. She writes,

Now is experienced not as time but as presence and although we are aware of flow, it’s as if its duration is incidental, it barely touches us, much as a leaf floating along on a stream would barely be aware of the water’s movement. (p. 147)

This is the dance of No Time To Rush. Allow time to be a flow rather than a commodity. Allow myself to be the leaf floating effortlessly rather than the dam trying to control it.

It is inexpressibly precious, this life. Even with all its messiness and pain and confusion, it is exquisite and worth savoring. None of us has time to rush.

“Tone your core and let the tension go from your face,” says every yoga teacher I’ve ever had whenever they watch me practice.

Mindfulness notices what’s happening. Mindfulness notices what I mean to be doing and what I don’t.

Sense yourself right now.
Where in your body are you holding unnecessarily? That’s tension.
Where are you intentionally engaged? That’s tone.
Both are muscle contractions but they have different sensations and impact the body differently.

Joseph Campbell’s model of the human psyche is a circle with a horizontal line running through it. Everything above the line is conscious, what we know is happening. Tone is above the line. Everything below the line is unconscious. It’s in the dark. Tension is below the line. (In the art above, notice the difference in the definitions of the two words!)

Our practice of mindful movement is an opportunity to get more of our experience above the line.

As we practice noticing, we discern between the sensations of tension and tone. Tension is rooted in habit and anxiety. Tension is a feeling of bracing for some nameless unknown dangerous thing. Tone is rooted in awareness and intention. Tone is a feeling of strength, support and purpose.

Tension and tone happen in our minds and hearts, too. As you move through your days, play with discerning between the tone and tension. See about moving more moments above the line.

WANT TO EXPLORE MORE? A few months ago, we practiced noticing where we grip and inquiring into what it has to teach us. (You can find the post here.)

As much as I love dancing in my kitchen (livingroom/office/car, etc.), I teach because it feels better to dance together. Way better.

Something happens when we move together. Something shifts when we are sharing the space, the music, and the experience. It happens over and over, I walk into the studio feeling stuck or tired or low, and walk out feeling…well.

Years ago, Integral Yoga founder Swami Satchidananda was asked at a health conference what the difference was between illness and wellness. In answer, he wordlessly walked to a blackboard, wrote the two words and circled the “I” and the “We.”

When we isolate and separate ourselves, when we put our attention on the “I,” the result is a kind of illness. The recipe for wellness, on the other hand, is when we connect and recognize ourselves as part of the larger community, the integrated whole.

It’s my limbic or lizard brain that cramps my focus and convinces me that I am separate and alone. When I say (or more often, think), “No one is as injured / sad / crazy / lonley / (fill in the blank) as I am,” it’s my limbic brain is driving the train. This separation creates a tightness, a narrow tension that is itself a kind of illness.

No matter what I am experiencing, I am connected to the wider community of life. No matter what is happening, there are millions and millions of others experiencing the same thing. No matter how difficult my circumstances, I am never alone. Expanding and softening into this truth is a step toward wellness.

In the body, one of the most important places of connection is the psoas muscle. These two deep-set muscles start on either side of the lumbar spine at the low back and connect to the inside of the femurs, the thigh bones. Since it is the only muscle to connect the core and the legs, a healthy functioning psoas allows fluid, easeful, pain-free movement and allows stability while moving, bending, and sitting.

More than the postural and kinetic importance of this deepest core muscle, the psoas also connects through the fascia to the diaphragm. This means that a healthy psoas muscle directly impacts your breath and your sense of calm or stress. (Dr. Christiane Northrup has a great article about this here. )

All of which means that a tight or weak psoas is often the source of low back or hip pain, as well as digestive trouble and a hyper-alert nervous system. (Remember our focus a couple of weeks ago about looking around the pain to find what needs healing?) Tending to psoas health, then, is integral to overall health. But instead of thinking of the psoas as a tight, weak place that needs stretching like a brittle rope or a dried-out bungee cord, imagine healing the psoas as a chance to hydrate, soften, and juice this deep connection. Liz Koch’s Core Awareness work uses the approach of “unraveling” the tissue of the psoas. I strongly recommend her teaching and you can learn more here.

Clinical Psychiatry professor, Daniel J. Siegel defines health as integration. In any system – whether it’s a weather system or a human body, a company or a relationship – when the parts are integrated and connected, there is flow and health. When they are disconnected, there is “disintegration.”

Wellness is “we.” Integration is health. In the studio, in the body, and in the world, let’s unravel the tight focus on “I” and instead open to the soft, juicy wellness of connection.

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