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perception

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.

The Unofficial Guide

to the 13 Nia Principles

~ Practical, Nia-or-Not Applications for EveryBody

(Wondering what in the Sam Hill the Unofficial Guide is and why I’m writing this series of posts? Click here!)

13 moon calendar glif

Principle 2 (Part I) – Natural Time

Excerpt from the Official Nia Headquarters Description:

Natural Time is fluid, non-linear, radial, and expansive. It is centered in now; not tomorrow, not yesterday, not on deadlines, but Now. It reconnects us to the cyclical rhythms of nature, the rhythms that unite all life forms. The same basic movement of rising and falling, inhaling and exhaling, of birth and death, runs through every body of life. We are connected by cyclical rhythms. In Nia, we refer to Natural Time as 13/20, a code recognized and recorded by the Mayans. The Mayans understood 13 moons complete one year, and taught us that there are ongoing cycles in the Universe made up of 13 and 20. In Nia, 13 represents the number of joints in your body; 20 the number of digits.

Unofficial Practical Nia-or-Not Application for EveryBody:

The flowy, easy-breezy notion of Natural Time made me crazy in my early days (okay, years) of doing Nia. Natural time is all well and good for, who?, maybe an independently wealthy artist working alone in her studio?  In my life there are appointments, meetings, classes that need to start on linear, precise, chronological time. The world that I live in isn’t particularly forgiving about a “non-linear, radial and expansive” approach to these things. Even Nia trainings have an elaborate bell system to make sure that everybody is ready to start on time. So how does that square with Natural Time?

When I presented my disgruntlement about Natural Time to my teacher, Carlos, he talked to me about balance, about body and mind, and about listening deeply. He pointed out that we are often so entrained by the clock and calendar that we make choices based on WHEN it is rather than on what we really need.

Carlos was right. As a kid, I remember being scolded for eating lunch early because it wasn’t time for lunch – even though I was hungry. And I know I’ve felt a certain way on a Monday and Friday just because it’s a Monday or a Friday. In school, in sports and in business, it was important to keep up, regardless of my own natural rhythms or skills. In all those arenas, I had experiences of being chastised for going too slow and too fast.

My conversation with Carlos reminded me of following the freedom within the form. Show up to class on time, and release attachment to getting the choreography right. Be punctual to the meeting, and have the courage to think beyond the agenda. Set aside time for writing and creativity and if I sometimes stare blankly out the window, well, that’s just the way it goes.

As a practice of art, intention and creativity, I love following the 13-Moon Calendar to shake up my attachment to the 12-month Gregorian calendar. The 13-Moon calendar is both simple and complex and I only understand its most basic underpinnings. Even so, following it shifts my perspective on time. The calendar tracks 260-day cycles in which every day is a unique combination of four colors, 13 tones and 20 tribes. You can find your personal signature by decoding your birthdate which might give you some non-linear, radial insights about you. You can even get an application on your phone that tells you about the signature of the day (search “13 Moon Calendar”)!

One of my favorite parts about following the 13-Moon Natural Time calendar is that I play with choosing what I wear every day based on the signature of the day. Check it out, you can always tell what the color of the day is by something I’m wearing.*

We all have to live in the world with its timetables, schedules and agendas. Natural Time is the invitation to expand our thinking within that form and to allow our awareness, rather than the calendar, to drive our choices.

Principle 2 has two parts, so stay tuned ~ the second part, the Nine Movement Forms, comes Tuesday!

* FOCUS POCUS NATURAL TIME MUSIC GIVE AWAY:  Email me (sjmnia@gmail.com) a picture of yourself wearing the 13-Moon Calendar color of the day one day this week and I’ll send you (or hand it to you if you’re in Cville) a CD of Nia music!  I’m not going to announce this anywhere else so only Focus Pocus readers are in on this!  [And even though it sounds like a McDonald’s contest disclaimer:  good for the week of Aug 24-28, 2014; US only; limit one per person; while supplies last; void where prohibited.]

2012-10-19 flash mobMy friend Kate and I led three flashmobs in Charlottesville (see them here and here and here).

Once we made a YouTube video of me doing the choreography in Kate’s kitchen so people could learn it and join in.

Someone commented that I looked stupid in my polka-dotted pants and I was too old to be dressing like that.

I must have had some of those voices in my head, since at first it hurt my feelings.

But then Kate turned off the comments on YouTube and I turned off the comments in my head.

What comments are you listening to?

IMG_3417“It takes a very long time to become young.” ~ Pablo Picasso

Today is my 50th birthday.

Damn. That number can make me want to put my head down.

But as a friend recently sang to his turning-50 wife (and the assembled celebrating masses), “we’re younger now than we’ll ever be.”

Depending on where you are on life’s continuum, you may have different responses to the number 50. Born more recently, and you might saying, “Well YEAH, you are OLD.” Or if you were born before me, you might say (as I do to myself when people bemoan turning 30 or 40), “Oh, pul-EASE. You are a babe. A mere child.” Or, if you, too were born in 1964, you might swallow solemnly and say, “Yeah. 50.”

I completely get all of those responses, since age, as it turns out, is mostly about perspective. It is my sincere hope that I will look back on this day, five or ten or twenty-five or even fifty years hence and think “Damn, I was so young in 2014!”

Better yet, what if I could think that right now?

Hazel is 84 years young and is living in the apartment in our basement. She wields a hoe like a demon and has whipped our weedy gardens into well-tended beauty. She still works several days a week “taking care of old people.” Hazel reminds me every day that the way we think of ourselves has a huge impact not just on our attitudes and perspectives, but on our physical body.

In more than three decades of research, Ellen Langer, has discovered that the way we think of ourselves has a powerful effect on our physical health. In her famous 1979 Counter-Clockwise study, she found that elderly men who acted as if they were twenty years younger for a week showed measurable improvements in their height, weight, gait, posture, vision, joint flexibility, and intelligence. They even looked younger.

Our youth-loving culture wants us to think that after we’ve lived a certain number of years, we should act and look and feel a certain way. Sometimes I find myself rejecting an outfit or an activity because I think I’m too old. When I notice this belief pop up, I take the opportunity to consider where that thought is coming from. Is that the voice of my parents or my children or a magazine? If I want to wear polka dotted pants or a two-piece bathing suit or my hair in pig tails, who is telling me I shouldn’t? According to whom am I too old?

Especially when see Hazel out in the garden or I recall Dr. Langer’s Counter-Clockwise study, I figure the younger I act, the younger I’ll be.

savoring seeing signsRecently, I got a speeding ticket in a construction area. The officer said I’d been going 40 in a 25 zone.

“25?!” I said. “I didn’t see any signs that said that.”

The patient officer sighed and pointed to a huge sign that said

WORK ZONE
25 MPH

It had two big orange flags on it.

I hadn’t expected it, I wasn’t looking for it, so I hadn’t seen it.

I want to savor what I see, not just look for what I expect.

For fun, watch this video about looking and seeing. In the comments, please share what you notice!

socks on socks off housekeeperHow I perceive the movement I do has a powerful impact on my health. In Ellen Langer’s study of hotel housekeepers, those that saw the work they did as exercise got markedly healthier.

The movements these housekeepers did at work increased their fitness – but only when they saw themselves as exercising while they vacuumed and made beds.

Functional fitness can work both ways: the exercise in our practice can make everyday movements easier, and the everyday movements we do can make our practice richer and deeper.

Experiment with seeing every movement as a choice for more health and well-being.

brave clogsI teach barefoot, practice yoga barefoot, and live in a shoe-free house. Most days, I wear clogs that I can kick off easily even with my hands full. A while ago I noticed that whenever I take off my shoes, I take my right shoe off first. Every time. Right shoe first.

This may not strike you as an earth-shattering news flash. That’s because it isn’t. Who cares, right? What difference does it make? None. No difference. It doesn’t matter.

But here’s what’s more interesting to me. For about two years, I’ve said to myself, “When you take your shoes off, take your left one off first.” For the fun of it, I set an intention to break my right-shoe-first habit. And here’s the thing: in two years and hundreds of unshoddings, I’ve managed to take my left shoe off first all of three, maybe four, times. I’ll be standing in the mud room and before I can stop myself, I’m taking my right shoe off. I walk into yoga and – whoops – it’s my right clog that slides off first.

Mindful practices of Nia, yoga, and meditation have helped me notice how I do what I do. This is always the first step toward change: paying attention and noticing what’s actually happening. Awareness alone is challenging: much of what we do is so deeply entrained in our bodies and minds that we do it automatically. Once we struggled and puzzled out how to brush teeth, drive, touch type, pour coffee. Then for efficiency’s sake, the brain flips into auto-pilot for those things and saves its gray cells for complicated tasks like refolding road maps and figuring out which TV remote to use.

Habits are not just physical, though. Since adolescence, I have wobbled under the weight of a debilitating negative body image. I have spent years judging (what I saw as) too-big thighs, too-soft belly, too-wiggly arms, too-thick ankles and in general the not-enoughness of my body. I have a deeply ingrained habit of obsessing about my body and basing my worthiness and value on what I look like. This habit has scuttled me with a wake of shame, despair, fury, and grief.

Untold amounts of time, energy, emotion, and resources have gone toward my negative body image habit. I’ve done every workout imaginable, dabbled in dozens of diets, and habitually beat myself up for the character flaw that is my physical form.

Unlike taking my right shoe off first, this habit matters. It is exhausting and humiliating. It feels isolating and hopeless. It has filled me with misery and has distracted me away from the people and pursuits that I love. It is a habit of madness.

Just like the right shoe off first habit, however, even when I realized I had a body-hating habit, even when I could see how damaging and painful it was, I kept finding myself in my old patterns. I told myself and others that I wanted to stop obsessing about my body. I made a commitment to love myself and be kind to myself. But no matter how many times I reminded myself that I didn’t want to do it anymore, I kept finding myself caught in the same loop of body-hating thoughts and feelings.

This week, I launch a new routine called Brave — a routine that I have been working on in one way or another since I was 14 years old. Brave began with the title Body Love. I wanted to create a routine to embody a new habit of loving my body.

Even grown in the weak soil of years of body-loathing, it has blossomed into much more than that.

It is an act of courage to love my body. To love my physical form as I am right now with no changes is, as Brene Brown says, to dare greatly. Second, these body image habits are so old and this pain is so deep that I (and I posit that none of us) can do this alone. We need to stand up for ourselves and we need to stand up for each other. We need to gently but firmly tug each other out of painful patterns and to remind each other of our respective and collective awesomeness. And as I play with each song, as I weep over lyrics, as I uncover movements to tell this story, I see that proudly being ourselves, completely and fully, without apology, is the bravest thing any human being can do. To be myself without hiding the not-so-pretty bits, to be myself with gratitude and pleasure, to be myself without pretending and masking is Brave.

I still slip my right shoe off first almost all of the time. And I still fall into my habits of criticizing and judging my body and wanting it to be different than it is. But I do recognize now what I’ve been doing to my body and myself. My body is my oldest friend and my most loyal companion. I have never done a single thing without her. She has stuck with me through everything and she has always done her very best for me. When I can remember and celebrate this, I break a long-held habit and start the healing.

I know it will take a long time, probably all the rest of the time I have. I know I will fall back into my old habits, of course I will. And I want to make a commitment to pay attention and make a different choice. Who’s with me?

* I am indebted to many for helping me create the playlist for Brave, including but not limited to: Christine Bergland, Jane Belisle, Joy Brown, Tamy Eustis Audrey Gelb, Pam Gibson, Kimber Hawkey, Virginia Hill, Beth Kariel, Anna Mairs, Sara Marks, Lynette Meynig, Laura Parsons, June Rivers, Kellie Silico, Joy Tanksley, Todd Waters. Especially since I’ve been on radio silence for most of the past year, I could never have found all this music without you. Thank you!

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