Five years ago, my husband and I bought a small camper (Le Que!) to pull behind our truck. We were excited to explore, to discover state parks around the country and to spend more time in nature. I loved the idea of cooking for ourselves (vegetarians can struggle in the Midwest), of making a home on wheels. I loved the thought of hiking and riding in beautiful new places, of going to sleep seeing the stars and waking up in the forest.

The very idea of driving this rig, however, terrified me. Driving just the truck pushed my edges and I did that as little as possible. The idea of driving both the truck AND the campe scared the bejeebies out of me.

So I got really good at riding in the passenger seat. I provided water and snacks and hand massages. I downloaded interesting podcasts. I programmed the GPS and read the maps. I was an excellent passenger.

Frank assured me that he liked driving and didn’t mind being the only one behind the wheel. The camper is actually smaller than his work trailer, so for him, it wasn’t difficult — even to back into tiny campsites and navigate city traffic.

But in the back of my mind, I knew it wasn’t a great idea for me not to be able to drive the rig. What if Frank got ill or injured? What if he was tired and we needed to cover more miles than he could go? What if he just wanted a break?

On our trip this summer, I thought about it a lot. I had long conversations about it in my head but was afraid to say anything out loud. Half way through the trip I mentioned it casually. We were leaving Itasca State Park in Minnesota, and I said that maybe-sometime-maybe-on-this-trip-maybe-next-summer I should try driving. Frank said, “How about right now?”

I immediately regretted saying anything. It was one thing to think of doing it sometime in the misty future. Another thing entirely to think about doing it now. But that’s what happened. Frank pulled over, gave me a couple of (incredibly helpful) things to think about, and I hoisted myself into the driver’s seat.

We were in rural Northern Minnesota so there was no traffic. There were hardly any towns. Hell, there were hardly any curves in the road. But I did it. For nearly two hours, I drove the rig.

At first I was tight as a wire, with eyes darting and hands gripping. But as I drove some every day, I got more relaxed, more aware, more confident. I can’t back the thing up to save my life. That’s something for another summer. But for now, I can drive the rig. As scary as it was at first, it’s one of the most empowering things I’ve done in a long time.

Who is driving your days?

Are you letting your spouse, your child, your work, your expectations, your parents, the news, your fear to drive your choices?

It can be great to sometimes be in the passenger seat, navigating, distributing snacks, providing entertainment and navigation.

And if that’s the only place you sit, if you are afraid to drive, if you are bullied out of driving, if you have a story that you can’t drive or don’t deserve to drive, it’s time to swing yourself up into the rig.

It’s time to sit in the driver’s seat.

My first therapist never rolled her eyes at me or sighed dramatically but I wouldn’t have blamed her if she had.

In my early 30s, recently divorced, then quickly into first one then another messy relationship, eating and exercise disorders, financial straights: I had it all. And I had not a single clue about the monkey mind mayhem that I was constantly brewing. Not one clue.

I think of that poor therapist often and cringe my apologies.

One conversation I remember with her went something like this:

ME: So I’ve been pretty stressed since my boyfriend moved in with me last week.

POOR BELEAGUERED THERAPIST: He doesn’t have a job, right? And he’s depressed and dependent on you both financially and socially?

ME: Well, yes. But he asked if he could move in with me.

POOR BELEAGUERED THERAPIST: And you thought that was a good idea?

ME: Well, no, but what else could I say when he asked?


Saying “no” wasn’t even anywhere near my radar. I didn’t think I had a choice in the situation. I thought I had to take him in. I’ve spent many of my years afraid of saying the wrong thing or being unkind or making a “stink” (as my mom used to say). It’s taken me a long time to begin to find my voice and to recognize that no matter what is happening, I actually do have a choice.

I have a choice to say yes to eating a vegetarian diet. I have a choice to say no to having guns in my workplace. I have a choice to not say a single thing or lovingly state my complaint when a certain someone walks through the house with muddy boots. I have choices. Listening to a dharma talk by spiritual teacher Adyashanti recently, I was reminded that I even have a choice about whether or not I am overtaken by my emotions.

In Nia we call it making choices for personal power. That’s what choice gives us: power.

When a high school friend posts some absurdly misinformed statement on Facebook, I ask myself, “Do I have the personal power to respond mindfully?”

When presented with a bowl of salt & vinegar potato chips, I ask myself, “Do I have the personal power to have one handful?”

When I am sitting in meditation and I feel antsy, I ask myself, “Do I have the personal power to not peek at the timer?”

Sometimes the answer is yes and I patiently wait for the chime to ring. Sometimes the answer is no and I write a snotty response to my misinformed high school friend. I have yet to find the power over the salt & vinegar potato chip.

Whatever I choose, though, this framing reminds me that I am choosing it. I’m not a leaf being whipped around by the winds of life. I am making a choice. Some choices take more energy than others to make. Sometimes I have that energy and sometimes I don’t. But they are all still choices.

If I was to go back to that first therapist’s office, it might have been interesting if the conversation had gone something like this:

ME: So I’ve been pretty stressed since my boyfriend moved in with me last week.

THERAPIST: He doesn’t have a job, right? And he’s depressed and dependent on you both financially and socially?

ME: Well, yes. But he asked if he could move in and even though I didn’t think it was a good idea, I didn’t have the personal power to say No.

THERAPIST: Ah, so you chose to say Yes. Let’s talk about ways that you can increase your personal power in those situations….

Thank you for reading!

If you liked this post, please share it!
And you may also like this one: Push. Pull. Put it Down.

Wonder_WomanAirports are emotional places.  Lots of people saying good-bye, anxious about catching a flight (or storing their carry-on, or making their meeting, or the TSA finding their 4.5 oz bottle of shampoo).  People worrying about what they’re missing and anticipating coming back.  Just a whole stew of emotions.  When I’m traveling, I love to watch people interact.  I’m not a big eavesdropper, but I love watching the physical language of conversation.  Even without hearing the words, I can often see what is being said:  the sharp hand gestures speak anger, the outstretched arms show longing, the bowed head displays disappointment, and the hands to heart reveal tenderness.

What I see at the airport is how our bodies communicate to each other.  And it’s true:  research shows that more than half of what we communicate comes from our body language and gestures rather than our words.  That’s really interesting, but did you know that  my body language also communicates with me?

In her brilliant TED Talk, Amy Cuddy talks about the science behind how powerful body postures actually make you more powerful.  Dr. Cuddy tells her own story about how she changed the way she felt about herself by acting as if she deserved to be where she was (I cry every time I watch it).  By consciously using body language, we change the way we feel and … the way we ARE.  She speaks about the “impostor syndrome”:  the common feeling that we don’t belong or that we’ll be found out as a fraud.  (I know a woman who was a gifted and beloved teacher for 35 years.  Every September, she would be in her room and she would think, “This is it.  This is the year they will come in here and say, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing!’ and I’ll be found out.”  I’ve had that feeling many times in my life.  Have you?)  Dr. Cuddy’s experiments show that we can empower ourselves by the way we hold our bodies.  She doesn’t believe in “fake it ‘til you make it,” her research shows that body language allows you to “fake it ‘til you become it.”

So do watch Dr. Cuddy’s wonderful talk (it’s so well worth the time!) and when you do, try out her experiment:  stand in a powerful pose for two minutes (my favorite is The Wonder Woman pose – feet wide, standing tall with hands on hips) and see how you feel!  The idea is not to do the pose for others but to communicate with your own nervous system and actually feel — become — more powerful!

What’s supercool to me is that Nia has been doing this for 30 years!  Tomorrow, I’ll post about how.  Come back and play!

obr logo 1“A society is judged by its treatment of its weakest and most vulnerable members.”

– U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moonin in a 2007 speech which echoed sentiments of Aristotle, Mahatma Gandhi and many others

 Sometimes, I have moments when I realize how extraordinarily lucky – and, at times, naive – I really am.  I had one of those moments this week:  two friends and I were in my kitchen.  I was telling them about the One Billion Rising campaign to raise awareness and inspire action to end violence against women around the world.  I told them the chilling statistic:  one out of three women in their lifetime will be beaten or raped.  “It’s appalling,” I said, “and in our community of wealth, education, and privilege that statistic must be much lower so it must mean that it is higher in other communities!”  They both looked at me steadily.  Unbeknownst to me, both of them had been victims of domestic violence.  Right there at my kitchen table the statistic wasn’t 1 in 3, it was 2 in 3.

Make no mistake.  Violence against women happens everywhere, not just in 3rd world countries and impoverished neighborhoods.  Make no assumption.  Laws don’t always protect:  marital rape is legal in dozens of countries and condoned in far more.  Make it perfectly clear.  Rape and domestic violence happens in every socio-economic stratum, every race, every culture.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” – Fred Rogers

The One Billion Rising campaign and the One Billion Rising routine are designed to raise awareness and inspire action.  Sometimes, when faced with an issue that is this frightening and this widespread, I find myself either turning away or losing heart.  I often feel that I cannot bear it or I feel overwhelmed by the largeness, the pervasiveness of the suffering.  The invitation of this campaign and this routine is to look squarely at the tragedy and terror of violence against women, with a strong, compassionate heart and the resolve to be part of the change.

One of the songs I chose for the One Billion Rising routine, Shaking the Tree by Peter Gabriel and Youssou N’Dour, is one of my favorites (shared with me years ago by one of my favorite friends ~ thank you, Louisa).  The lyrics of the chorus are, “Souma Yergon, Sou Nou Yergon / We are shakin’ the tree.”  The Sengalese words translate to, “If we had known, if only we had known!”  As if they were speaking directly to me, I can now say that I do know and I am strong enough and courageous enough to shake the tree of complacency and ignorance.  I hope you will join me.

Go to the One Billion Rising web site and take the pledge to be part of the wave of love that ends violence against women everywhere.  As Mother Theresa reminds us, “We cannot do great things on this Earth, only small things with great love.”  Commit to doing one small act of great love.

Tomorrow, part two of the One Billion Rising post will look at the heart of the practice for the One Billion Rising routine.

If you need help or if you want to help, please see the list of resources on the One Billion Rising page on the Helpful Info menu to the right.

intention 4When we left off in yesterday’s post, I was saying that when I came back from my sabbatical, I wanted to be clearer about setting intentions in class and for my life.  I wanted to focus on the why/the results I wanted to create as much as the what!  But boy howdy, I’ve been challenged to break my focus-focused habit!

Feel Intention in Movement

Which is a bummer, since intention unleashes a boatload of energy and moves me in the direction I want to go.  In the body, intention delivers immediate shifts in movement and sensation.  Play with me for a minute here:  right now, push your right palm forward and then pull it back.  Do it three or four times noticing the sensation.  Now, push your right palm forward with the intent of cultivating strength.  Do that a few times and see how it feels.  When I do this, I can feel my whole arm and core working in a completely different way once my intention is engaged.  Did that happen for you?  Imagine if we danced a whole class with that kind of directed attention!  Imagine if we lived a whole day like that…or a year!

Setting an Intention

Instead of setting a resolution, the first of the year is a great time to set intentions.  What is the fuel that will energize my year?  What is the destination that I want to plug into the GPS of Life?  Seriously, if I was going on a trip, it’s not likely that I would just say, let’s go “west-ish.”  I’d have a specific address that I was heading for.  That’s what an intention is:  the address where you want to go!

Where Do You Want to Go?

Start by determining what you want your intention to be about.  Think about an aspect of your life where you’d like to see a shift:  your relationships, or your work, your eating habits, or maybe your Nia practice.  Or you might have a specific task or habit you want to form or break.  Or maybe there is an overarching intent you’d like for the coming year or season, like more balance or more kindness or more fun.  Decide what result you’d like to move toward.

Get Clear

Next, clarify your intention. One of the best ways to get clear is to write it down.  It doesn’t have to be grandiose:  in fact, the simpler and clearer, the better.

As you pick up your pen (or keyboard), here are some intention-setting guides:  (1) make your intention something you really want, (2) make it positive and in the present, and (3) put yourself in it, front and center!  First, choose and intent that you really want – if you’re going to harness this energy toward something, best to do it around something that really flips your skirt (or britches)!  Second, write your intent in the present tense as if it has already happened (that is, “I am more balanced in my body and my life” instead of “I will build more balance in my life”).  State your intent in the positive (that is, “I have a wheat-free diet” instead of “I will stop eating wheat”).  And third, make it an “I” statement.  It’s not an abstract intention it is yours.  Put yourself in the center of it.

Share It

A second, excellent way to reinforce your intent is to share it with someone.  Tell a friend or a spouse or a classmate what your intention is and suddenly, it feels a little more real.  Writing it or speaking it doesn’t mean that you absolutely have to do it (you may always change your mind and your intention at any time), but it directs more energy toward what you want to create if you do more than say it inside your little noggin.

Susan’s Intent…Now Yours!

As 2012 winds up, I invite you to step into the new year with intent.  For myself, know that my ultimate goal in everything I do is to help myself and others be happier and healthier.  So with that destination plugged into my GPS of Life, I am recommitting to giving more attention and clearer expression to my intent.  So here are my intentions (one for my teaching and one for my life in 2013).  I’m writing it down and sharing it with you, my blog peeps:

I clearly set the intention at the beginning of every class.

I make space and time for creativity, exploration, play and love.

Your turn!  Direct your energy and attention by setting an intention for yourself.  Write your intention for 2013 and share it below!

And thank you for being part of the first year of Focus Pocus!  I look forward to continuing to explore the “magic” of inquiry and intent with you in 2013.

Straight shooting is overrated.  We are designed with spirals and for spirals.  Find grace, wisdom and power in spirals.

Spirals in the body generate power and stability (forearms, shoulders, hips, spine).

Body in spiral meets and moves energy (Aikido!).

Emily Dickinson (wise like my husband) on spiral communication:

Tell All The Truth

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;

As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

We are all born to spiral. 


“At all times and in all places, always be the first to smile.”  — Mike Dooley, aka The Universe

When I was a teenager, my dad told me a story about when he was a teenager.  He recalled having a dreadful day and feeling decidedly downcast, and as he walked through the hall at school, a girl he didn’t know smiled at him.  As he told me the story, he grinned at the recollection and shook his head incredulously, “It made all the difference.  It’s amazing the power of a smile.”

“Everytime you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.” ― Mother Teresa

 Smile Power works wonders inside and out.  Neuroscience, psychology and experience offer lots of evidence to support that smiling has positive effects to both the smiler and the “smilee” (someone who sees a smile). In his book, Just One Thing, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson highlights several smiling benefits:

  • Calms the stress response and releases feel-good chemicals like dopamine
  • Inclines the smiler to see things positively
  • Enhances “approach behaviors” which allow the smiler to see opportunities and pursue them confidently
  • Mirror neurons in the brain (that are at the root of empathy), allow a “smilee” to feel and act better which then reflects back to the smiler who feels and acts even better, and so on and so on
  • When a smilee sees a smile, their evolutionary inclination to be guarded around others is toned way down, making the smiler more approachable

Just for grins, click here for more on the science of smiling in this great article that sums up much of the smile research.

No kind of smile, not even an authentic one, cures unhappiness or grief.  But if I’m feeling neutral, smiling nudges me into the feel-good (or at least feel-better) zone.  I may not be feeling down or hostile, but when I’m caught up in the doings of my day, focused on the next thing, I may put my head down and LOOK like I am.  (I remember this when I lived in Boston:  dozens and dozens of people walking on a sidewalk, riding a subway, waiting in line at a bank with their heads down and their faces blank.)  Smiling pops me back into connection and helps me feel and act better.  As a double bonus, smiling reverberates out to others, too.

These days, I make it a practice to look at people and smile, reminding myself that everybody just wants to be happy and everybody is carrying a heavy load.  Sometimes people look at me like I’m nuts, others look around as if I must be looking at someone else, but most people smile back.  And when that happens, it is like the sun popping out from behind the clouds. It feels good.

“The world is like a mirror; frown at it, and it frowns at you. Smile and it smiles, too” ― Herbert Samuels

In Nia, students often tell me they hate the mirrors.  I get it:  self-judgment and comparison (aptly called the “killer of all Joy”) can be fierce in the glow of the florescent lights.  Could it be that if we are looking at our own image with criticism, that the scowl is what we see and it feels bad.  What if we smiled and offered friendliness and care to ourselves as we look in those big mirrors?  Interestingly, research shows that seeing myself smile in the mirror has almost a double effect!

Lately, I’ve been playing with smiling not just with my face, but with my body.  Ever see someone smile with just their mouth and not their eyes?  Not terribly convincing, is it?  Or someone whose face smiles, but whose body is contracted or closed.  One of my teachers noticed this in my movement:  that I can be smiling with my face (maybe even an all-out, full wattage grin) and my body doesn’t reflect the smile.  What would it look and feel like to smile with your arms and hands?  With the movement of your core and heart?  With the steps and stances of your base?  Sometimes, when I’m struggling or having a difficult time, if I let my body smile into movement, the genuine feeling moves into my heart and my face.  Smiling is infectious between and within people!

  “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh

This week, play with meeting life with a smile – in your face and your body.  Notice what gets reflected back from yourself and all the lucky others who you see along the way!  Shine on.

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