Archive

Relaxation

ice-to-water-to-steam-012217
With a new administration taking over in the US this week, I thought it would be a good time to revisit this post about expectations from December 2014. “From Ice to Water, from Water to Steam.” – SJM

Melting Expectations (originally posted December 7, 2014)

“Expectations are resentments under construction.”
~ Anne Lamott

‘Tis the season of expectation. I mean, honestly, it’s practically what December in the U.S. is about. What with the Christian season of advent (complete with an expecting mother and expectation of salvation), children everywhere writing lists of expected gifts, and all of us expecting the light and warmth to return to our side of the planet, expectation is woven into everything.

Desire and intention are one thing … but expectation has teeth. Expectation has an edge. There are inevitable consequences if expectations aren’t met. An expectation means that somebody is attached to an outcome and as a Buddhist teacher once pointed out, “Attachment to outcome: BEEEG problem.”

Especially at this time of year, it seems we have expectations for everything. We have expectations for meals and decorations and celebrations. For the way our friends and families should behave. For the way our children should respond. For way this time of year should feel. And Lord knows we have expectations of ourselves: to give a certain kind of gift, to look a certain way, and to be calm or cheerful or reverent or jolly.

Expectations are tricky and sticky. Trained as we are to gain approval and love from outside sources, most of us are programmed to do whatever we can to live up to expectations. But striving to get love for meeting someone’s expectations (including our own) is the prelude to resentment.

“The genius Taoists constantly give their full presence to scanning their whole body, locating any blocked or hard-to-describe discomforts, whereupon they say ‘Ice to Water, Water to Steam’ and literally use their imagination to SEE that place dissolve and the steam leave their body”. ~ Jamie Catto (see his full post here)

Expectations are the way we think things should be and that feels tight. There is next to no wiggle room in an expectation. Expectations are breath-holding brittleness and they are such a part of our lives that we often don’t realize they are there.

Expectations create tension in our activities, our meals, our parties, in our bodies. Expectations constrict. Something that started out as “I like to do it this way” (or “our family/religion/country likes to do it this way”) can morph into “I always do it this way” and then can mutate into “I have to do it this way.”

Stop reading for a second and notice anywhere where you feel tension in your body. Tension is where energy is stuck. Whether it is in your hamstrings or your heart, your thighs or your throat, tension is the body’s way of signaling to release and let flow. Release tension and more energy is available.

Especially at this time of year, our bodies and our minds can feel tight and dry. Mindful movement is a way of melting the dry tightness and introduces more liquid warmth to our experience. Whether mental, physical, or emotional tension, movement can allow the bristly edges of expectation soften.

Physicality affects the mind and emotions. Even just getting up from your desk to stretch and clear your mind can break up and melt the brittle hardness.

Our thoughts and imaginations affect the physical body. Imagining breathing space around you or light and love in and out of you can relax tension wherever it is lodged.

Sweat and tears and imagination all lend themselves to melting the hard edges of expectation and by extension, reducing the inevitable resentment that follows.

Let your intention be the hot skillet to icy expectation…Ice to water, water to steam.

Advertisements

from brave to home 050116

On the wall of the studio where I taught my first Nia classes hung a small print that read:

Come home to yourself.

Home: a place where you are accepted and loved for who you are. A place where you can relax. I’m sure that was the artist’s intent.

But every time I looked at it, I thought, what if home isn’t a relaxed place where you can be yourself? What if there is tension at home? Struggle? What if there is anger, resentment, criticism, bullying or even violence at home? What then? Then where do you go?


In a scene from Beyoncé’s visual album, Lemonade, a circle of women move (are they dancing or writhing?). They wear white dresses with long sleeves that extend far past their hands. Their sleeves are tied together.

Poetry is tied to the music and images:
“I tried to change, closed my mouth more.
Tried to be soft, prettier, less …awake.”


Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live. — Jim Rohn

If your body is your house, it’s a rental.
A rental that you didn’t choose.
And you can’t move. It’s the only rental you’ll ever have.

There is no landlord to fix things up if you go on a rampage and break the windows and tear down the walls. There is no cleaning crew that will come in if you neglect the place for decades and fill it with hoarded up bacon and chocolate bars.

It’s up to you to do your best and take care of this place you’ve landed but even that can go too far. You can obsess about how clean it is or what kind of paint you put on it. You can decorate it with expensive boots and dangly bangles but that doesn’t make it a healthier happier place to live.

Some people will judge you by the house you live in. And while it may be an important place, it isn’t who you are.
As Nutritionist Michelle Allison says,

…your body is the space within which you exist. It’s the material assertion that you have the right to exist in this world, that you have a place in it. It’s the concept of ‘home’ — not a house, a thing to be remodeled at whim, bought and sold — but a cherished, adored, childhood home comprising memories both sad and sweet.

The physical structure needs care, of course, but it is the feeling of home that matters the most.


Two years ago, I created the routine Brave, focusing on body love and gratitude. Your body. As it is. Right now. Loving and valuing everything it allows you to do. As I said at the time (you can read my original post about it here), I’ve been working on this routine since I was 14.

And my work on it is evolving. While I appreciate what I’ve done so far on the Brave routine, already I want to change the name… and the approach.

The word Brave feels girded and armored. Brave feels tight, like an inhale with no exhale. Brave feels tough and defiant.

If I were to name it again, I’d call it Home ~ a place where you feel at ease, relaxed and secure.

We are given these “houses” to live our days in and my invitation as we return to this routine is to create a home in your own bones. Imagine yourself as an 8-year-old getting off the school bus to go home. Is she walking into a place of kindness or criticism? Can he relax there or is he not allowed to eat a cookie while sitting on the couch? Is it a place where she feels loved and important or ignored and annoying?

Take care of the structure, absolutely. Care for your body-house in a way that honors all that it allows you do to and feel and be. But more than that, create a feeling of welcome and ease in that place. Create a home. Pay (at least) as much attention to the thoughts and foods and activities and relationships you allow into your body-home as you would choosing the art or dishes or carpeting for your house.

Consciously create the home that you want inside yourself, the kind of environment you want to live in. You can’t choose the structure, but you can choose what it feels like within that structure.

Make the space inside your skin a home that you love to be in. Make it yours. Make it a place that you would run into from the bus.

If we’re gonna heal, let it be glorious. ~ Beyoncé, Lemonade

home 003What is home?
What do I do when I “make myself at home”?

“Home is not a place but a feeling.”
Making myself at home is making choices that create that feeling.
And choosing the people, too.

How do I feel at home wherever I am? no matter who I am with? in my very own skin?

A Great Need by Hafiz

(for Sara and everybody making home wherever they are)

Out
Of a great need
We are all holding hands
And climbing.
Not loving is a letting go.
Listen,
The terrain around here
Is
Far too
Dangerous
For
That.

home 004
“Make the pose feel like home.” ~ Liz Reynolds, yoga teacher

In a few days, Frank and I leave a house we love and step out into the next part of our life together. There are countless things in this house that I love: all the light and the windows and the arched openings, the view to the woods behind us, the front door that I refinished and the knocker we bought in Guatemala. And the kitchen. It has been just the most lovely kitchen to be in.

As good as these things feel, they aren’t what make it home. When Liz suggested making my yoga pose feel like home, it got me thinking. What is home really anyway?

“Home isn’t a place, it’s a feeling.” ~ Cecelia Ahern

I’ve felt at home in houses that were not my own and in many natural places with no walls and recently in a very small camper pulled by a big red truck. And there have been times in my life when my own house hasn’t felt like home to me. Ultimately, it is the feeling, the ease and peace and connection that I feel there that make a home. Circumstances and other people may contribute to those feelings, but the one who has the greatest impact on the hominess of any situation is me. It’s up to me to make myself at home.

“Just keep coming home to yourself. You are the one you have been waiting for.” ~ Byron Katie

I have laughed a lot in this house. I’ve cried, too. I’ve felt calm and relaxed and I’ve felt rattled to my very bones. In the five years that we’ve lived here, I’ve deepened my practices, my marriage has gotten stronger, and made better friends with myself. One of the main reasons I get on the cushion, on the mat, in the studio, at the computer is to cultivate more ease and friendliness with my body, my mind and my emotions. Whenever my (multiple and easily accessible) buttons get pushed, I ask myself, how can I be easy and peaceful with whatever is happening in or around me?

“Be grateful for the home you have, knowing that at this moment, all you have is all you need.” ~ Sarah Ban Breathnach

The coming weeks will be a slow motion transplanting, with our roots hovering in the air for a while until our next house is ready. As we’ve prepared for a summer of peripatetic adventures, we’ve talked a good deal about the difference between “need” and “want.”

When I’ve felt most upset by the uncertainty, that’s when I’ve been most attached to what I “need.” I get tight and make lists: my favorite sundresses, my yoga mat, blue tea cup, my computer, my four-color pens. I need my pillows, my hiking boots, my decaffeinated green tea and all my earrings.

The more I can relax and be present, the more I can trust that everything will work out, and that I have the power to change what I need to, the less attached I am to what I “need.” The less I need, the freer, the more peaceful, the more content I am. And the more at home I feel.

“I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.” ~ Maya Angelou

This is my intention for the summer and beyond. May it be so for you. Make yourself at home wherever you are and however you are.

809 last days 007

P.S. For more on this topic, read Rick Hanson’s post Be Home from Just One Thing

keep relaxing standingTension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.” ~ Chinese Proverb

We’re moving house. Every day, we pack more things into boxes. Little by little, Frank trucks our belongings into storage. Every day, as I thread my way through echo-y rooms full of boxes and packing paper, I say to myself, “Keep relaxing.” Sometimes, when I feel really stirred up, I imagine myself leaning back into a soft bed or dissolving into the earth. “Keep relaxing. Keep relaxing.”

So far, it seems to be working. I haven’t yelled or growled at anybody yet. I’ve hardly even snapped at a hard-working, well-meaning husband.

Hardly.

Stress is everywhere. No news flash there. We all know all about it.

Even if you aren’t in the middle of a stressy mess, we all have ongoing situations that get us twisted up. For you it might be raising children or caring for an aging parent or managing a team of co-workers (and/or a difficult boss). On top of those daily things, we’re also confronted with immediate, short-term anxieties like being stuck in traffic or waiting for the doctor to call back or languishing on hold listening to loud static-y Musak.

We all know the situations and we all know the sensations, too.

When I’m stressed, I get a familiar tightening in my eyes and jaw, my heart throbs and either I breathe faster or I hold it. {CURLY BRACKET NOTE: We have the breath-holding reaction so our lungs can pull as much oxygen as possible to the muscles so they can leap into action.} When I’m under pressure, I feel a tightening, a narrowing of my perspective and a laser focus on whatever I think will make the stress go away.

Stress puts the lizard brain in action: flight, fight or freeze. Neurologically speaking, these sensations are my Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) turning on in the presence of a threat. Neuroscientist and Buddhist teacher, Rick Hanson, explains

Danger, pain, upsetting feelings, low blood sugar, excitement – and stress in general – all activate the sympathetic nervous system. And so does the anticipation of something bad (or really wonderful) . . . even if that anticipation is exaggerated or flat wrong. (from Wise Brain Bulletin, Vol 1, #5)

Fascinating, right? It doesn’t matter to the brain if the danger is a real or perceived. Either way, for the SNS, it’s game on.

[RESOURCE NOTE: Dr. Hanson’s prolific work is a brilliant resource for understanding neurological biology of the brain and body and for practical approaches for developing inner skills that promote balance and well-being. In particular, I highly recommend his book Just One Thing and in particular from that, I recommend the section called Relax on pp. 26-28.]

The good news is that I have a choice. We all do. We have the ability to consciously unhook the grip of the SNS when it isn’t helping us.

“You cannot relax too often.” ~ Tara Brach

The SNS helps me kick into high gear when I need to but often (and habitually) I spend entirely too much time there: over-scheduling, focusing on what isn’t working, rushing from one (apparently) urgent thing to another. If I let it, my modern life feeds on the edgy rush of stress. The problem is, I tend to be a big cranky pants when my SNS is over-active. Just ask the people who helped me move 5 years ago. It’s a wonder I have a single friend (or family member) left.

{CURLY BRACKET NOTE: An over-achieving SNS isn’t just bad for relationships, it’s bad for your body. Rick Hanson explains that,

Bottom-line, lighting up your SNS is not just a fleeting experience, but something that has a real stickiness to it, a lasting impact. For example, chronic activation of the SNS burdens five major systems of your body: gastrointestinal, immune, cardiovascular, endocrine, and nervous. (from Wise Brain Bulletin Vol 1, #6)}

My unskillful behavior and general tendency toward irritability are main reasons I dance, do yoga, meditate and write. Mindfulness, it turns out, is one of the activities that turns on the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS): the part that is calming and relaxing and that which allows us to digest (both food and experiences), reason, and recover.

In a recent guided meditation, Tara Brach offers the instruction, “You cannot relax often enough.” More and more, if I don’t know what to do, I do something to help myself relax. Especially these days, when I’m routinely looking for something that is snugly packed away in storage, I keep saying it to myself over and over. You cannot relax often enough.

[RESOURCE NOTE: Tara Brach is also an incredible source of great writing — her book, Radical Acceptance, was a breakthrough for me – and Tara Brach meditation teaching]

“The more relaxed you are, the better you are at everything.” ~ Bill Murray

New Nia teachers sometimes ask me what I recommend they do to get ready for teaching. The first thing, I always say it that their relaxation is the greatest gift they can give their students. No matter what I’m doing, the more I can relax, the more skillful I will be. That’s because relaxation, the PNS, is who we are. Amazingly, if you were to disconnect your SNS, you would live just fine (although a bit lethargically) but if you disconnected the PNS, you would die almost immediately.

The key is knowing that you have the ability to turn on your PNS and then practicing doing it. Simple things like deep breathing (particularly emphasizing the exhalation), mindfulness on the body, meditation and even yawning will slow your heart rate and get your PNS on line.

It’s not difficult to trigger relaxation, we only have to remember to do it (especially when we’re caught up in the swirl of SNS). So while it’s a brilliant move to relax when something tense is happening, it’s also a great idea to practice when things are chill and the stakes aren’t so high.

Practicing relaxation is essential for our health and well-being — and it helps us do everything better. Turning on the PNS is actually bringing us into our true nature. Again, Rick Hanson explains that

The PNS is wallpaper, sky, taken for granted, undramatic, in the background. Human culture, and definitely the modern media of television and movies, are largely about the SNS. Action, conflict, sex, million dollar moments, death, crisis, fairy-tale endings, etc. are different and dramatic. It’s therefore easy to start thinking that chronic stress and living awash in the SNS are what’s really natural, the bedrock of existence. But in reality, cooperation, relaxation, and equilibrium are the hub of the great wheel of life.

So keep relaxing. As the Chinese proverb says, “relaxation is who you are.”

whole hearted brene brownWhat’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done? It may be something physical like jumping out of a plane or running a marathon or speaking in front of a crowd. It might be something more intimate like telling the truth in a tender situation or telling the doctor that’s not the treatment you want or saying gently but firmly that enough is enough.

Whatever it is, think of the bravest thing you’ve ever done and recall the sensation. What did it feel like in your body? What emotions did you feel? What thoughts ran through your head?

Brave feels both scary and exciting. There is often push/pull sensation of “Yes, I really want to do this” and “Holy Crap, what if I do?” Making the brave choice by its very nature means that you are allowing yourself to be vulnerable.

Brené Brown’s ground-breaking TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability (2010) explains that connection is essential to the human experience. Connection is why we’re here and it is what gives our lives purpose and meaning. Her research demonstrates that in order to truly connect with others, we be vulnerable. Vulnerability is absolutely not weakness (a common misconception) but means that we allow ourselves to be seen, to love without guarantee, to risk failure, and to believe we are enough.

For most of my life, vulnerability scared the bejeezus out of me. Sometimes it still does.

In her talk, Dr. Brown also identifies shame – an epidemic in our culture – as the fear of disconnection. Shame is the fear that if someone sees this about me or knows this about me, I will not be worthy of connection, love, and belonging. Shame is the belief that something is intrinsically wrong with me. Shame is different than guilt. Guilt is “I’ve made a mistake.” Shame is “I am a mistake.”

Shame, I get. Since adolescence, I have been ashamed of my body. I thought it wasn’t thin or beautiful enough for me to be worthy of love and connection. My body felt like a character flaw and I was sure something was seriously wrong with me.

I’ve done a number of brave things in my life: marrying a man with two young children, teaching Nia, taking a sabbatical from teaching Nia, sharing my writing, walking all the way to the top of a fire tower. But when it comes to my relationship with my body, the bravest thing I’ve done is to relax.

At the height of my disordered body relationship, I was doing whatever I could to tighten up. Aerobic exercise, weight lifting, obsessive food monitoring — all of my energy was poured into having nothing soft or flabby or pooching out or sagging. I was always, ALWAYS walking around sucking in my stomach. I believed that if I was thin enough and lean enough and tight enough that I would be confident, safe from criticism, that I would be loved, that I would be happy and whole.

I thought that if I looked just right, no one (including me) would judge me. I would be invulnerable.

I wanted to be thin so I wouldn’t be vulnerable … so I wouldn’t have to be brave.

Of course, this totally didn’t work. Having my internal experience (feeling love and belonging) be dependent on an external circumstance (my physical appearance) will never work. I kept thinking that the reason I didn’t feel confident and relaxed in myself was because I wasn’t perfect enough and that if I just worked a little harder, I would be. On a good day, this circular logic makes me laugh; on a bad day, it can have me twisted up and tripping over myself.

Even when I lost weight, got leaner, and sucked in my tummy all the time, I didn’t feel any more worthy or connected or loved. I thought perfection was the way to those feelings but it’s actually the path away from them. Real love and connection requires that we be seen with all our imperfect softness showing.

Brené Brown calls it whole-heartedness. I am living whole-heartedly when I am willing to be vulnerable and when I believe I am worthy of love and belonging. Whole-heartedness means taking emotional risks, telling the truth with no guarantees. It means not sucking in my stomach and relaxing into being my brilliant, messy, beautiful, spazzy self.

What’s the bravest thing you’ve done today? How about making the courageous choice to be imperfect? Be kind to yourself first, then to others. Let go of who you think you should be so you can be who you are.

Take a breath, relax your belly. Brave feels both exciting and scary. When you feel it, you’re on the right track.

open yoga olw october 2011 020“Relax as much as you can in the pose without losing the shape of the pose,” says Jacquie The Yoga Teacher*.

When new teachers ask me for guidance, I say, “Your own relaxation is the greatest gift you can give your students. Relax then focus.” 

Someone overheard me saying this and she said, “That’s true for parents, too!” 

The more I play with it, the more I think it is the key to everything. 

Relax and stay engaged. 
Both/And.
Shazamm!

* Jacquie teaches yoga in Seattle, so if you’re in that neck of the woods, go take a class with her!  http://www.every-bodiesyoga.massageplanet.com/

%d bloggers like this: