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“When we protect ourselves so we won’t feel pain, that protection becomes like armor, like armor that imprisons the softness of the heart.”
― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

Has anyone ever told you that you’re too sensitive?
That you’re touchy? Or overreacting?
Or that you shouldn’t feel as much as you do?
Whenever I’ve heard this, it was never a compliment.
It was a judgment. A criticism.

Too sensitive?
I say there is no such thing.

 In a world that moves fast, rewards hardness and runs roughshod, the willingness, the choice, the ability to be soft and tender is extraordinarily courageous.

The softer we can stay in the face of everything that life gives us, the stronger we are.
It’s a paradox of living that most people never even consider, let alone practice.

Many of us were told to toughen up when we were kids. We were taught that the world was a mean place and you’ve got to grow thick skin so you can take it. But what if the opposite is actually true? What if, in a mean world, the way to make it through is to stay tender and open and willing to feel? What if bullying and lashing out is the ultimate weakness? What if sensitivity is the ultimate strength?

In the body, we can start with the skin. Experiment with feeling details and nuance with every cell of your skin. Feel not just with your palms and fingers but with the backs of your hands, the spaces between your fingers. Feel with your wrists and the backs of your knees. Feel with your cheeks and your shoulders. Feel all of it with all of your sensitive skin.

Practice sensitivity with your imagination: let your dreaming mind explore and create something. Draw or write or sing or dance or just think up something you’ve never thought up before. It’s a tender place, the imagining place. Spend some time there, it’s a seriously brave move.

In every day, there are opportunities for softening your heart. Talk to a friend who’s struggling. Watch the aching ebb and flow of Nature. Read a headline or two. Whatever you choose, stay open and soft and take it in. Without trying to fix it or change it or look away or pretend it’s not happening, stay open and soft.

It’s challenging stuff, sensitivity. Most people armor up and build a hard protective coating around them in an attempt to avoid the discomfort of staying tender. The paradox is that only softening strengthens us to live deeply and fully.

“When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality.”
― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times

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le que high bridge state park 101813 024SPACIOUS is my word in 2013. Every year, I pick a word, focus on it in varying degrees of intensity, and follow it where it leads. Airborne, the routine I’m launching this week, was inspired by my experience with SPACIOUS.

This is how it came to be.

For me, winter can be like wearing a too-tight, too-short turtleneck. I tend to be little cold, fidgety, and cranky in winter. This year is no exception. So as I start 2013, I am feeling constricted, itchy, and goosebumpy. SPACIOUS? Yes, please, I’d like some of that.

I start with the sky. No matter the weather, whenever I look at the sky, my body relaxes and my breath deepens. (Go look and see if it’s true for you.) Even though I know that sky gazing helps me, especially in winter, I sit at my desk, drive my car, teach in the studio. I live boxed in most of my days. So in 2013, I make a point to look at the sky every day to encourage myself to relax and to remind myself how much space there really is all the time.

Years ago, my Nia teacher Carlos Rosas, created a routine called SkyDancing. Given the name, I always imagined Carlos up in the air, dancing in the clouds. But as I look at the SPACIOUS sky every day, I realize that the sky isn’t “up there.” The sky comes all the way down to the ground, all the way to me. Wherever we are, we are moving and living and dancing in the sky. I like this and feel far less cranky.

Every human life begins with an inhalation and ends with an exhalation. Breath means alive. In January, I begin a Bikram yoga practice. Deep, conscious breath is a big part of it. Breath work in yoga — pranayama in Sanskrit – expands the space in the lungs by increasing their elasticity. In my first few months of practice, I can feel my breath lengthen and deepen. The little intercostal muscles between my ribs stretch and feel more pliable. One afternoon, while doing Nia on my back deck, find myself blending my two practices: as I dance, I breathe in the sky. “Sky Breathing” feels physically SPACIOUS inside my chest and lungs. It also opens up space in my heart and mind. My breath stretches gaps between my thoughts and (sometimes) allows me to be with whatever happens to be happening.

Spring arrives, and I notice the essential, life-giving power of air. Humans can live three weeks without food, and three days without water but not three minutes without air. As flowers bloom and the garden sprouts, I notice that every element needs air. Earth without air is too hard to grow anything. Water without oxygen is just hydrogen gas. And fire without air sputters and dies. Air breathes life into everything.

le que high bridge state park 101813 021All of this is swirling around in my days: the spaciousness of the sky, dancing in the sky, breathing space in, the essential quality of air. And then, in August, my husband gives me a new, red bike for my birthday. Huzzah! I start riding it to yoga. Sweet Sweaty Summer Sensations, my friends! Let me tell you what! Coming out of the hot yoga studio, flushed with heat and wet with sweat, I get on my bike and fly home down Locust Avenue. It is beyond breathtakingly glorious. (And the day it rains on my way home? Durn near orgasmic.) With the wind in my face and on my skin, I feel expansive, free. I ride every chance I get: on trails, on the beach, in nature preserves, on gravel roads, to teach, to run errands, and, of course, to yoga – especially if it’s raining.

All together, focusing on the word SPACIOUS this year leads me to create the routine Airborne. The music is about sky and earth and wind and water. The movements are designed to expand breath and space inside the body and accentuate the external sensation of air on skin. The magic of aliveness that emerges from awareness, breath, and space runs all the way through.

We are born of air. There is no life without air. As long as we are alive, we are airborne.

Why not a human lobster body?  Protect tenderness with armor and claws!  Impervious!  But no, skin is on the outside, bones are in.

Our human design invites feeling it all and responding.  Practice paying attention to all sensations.

Physically, emotionally; outside, inside — we are tender and sensitive.

Ever defend yourself from emotional pain with humor, bullying, or anger?  Yeah.  Me, too.  Like a rock lobster shell, defending allows blundering through life — oblivious to pain felt or caused.

Skin and emotions beg for attention: listen deeply, respond mindfully.

Feel it all and respond with sensitivity, awareness, gentleness, and kindness.  Inside and out.

If I had been in charge of building the human body, I might very well have built a lobster.  With such tender preciousness inside, why not protect it with a sturdy armor and a big-ass set of claws?  Instead, we are built with a sensitive suit of skin, wrapped around pliable, strong, but bruise-able muscles, which attach to and move, finally, the solid structure of bones.  Seems a little bass-ackward, doesn’t it?

For sure, there are days I wish I was a rock lobster:  impervious.  What a relief not to feel the pinch of tight jeans, the hardness of the chair, the coldness of the wind.  If I had a suit of heavy armor, I wouldn’t notice the stone in my shoe, my knee smacking the table leg, or the hot pan on my forearm.  And those big claws might be helpful when someone cuts in line at Kroger.

But, alas.  We aren’t lobsters.  We are humans.  With our soft, skin tenderness on the outside.

Funny, though.  Somehow it works, to be so alive and sensitive to our surroundings, to receive so much information through our skin, and then to manipulate our 200 bones with our 700 muscles to make infinite numbers of movements.  Our design invites us to feel it all and respond.  To receive the information and make a choice:  jump up and wave to hail a cab, sidestep gracefully to avoid a collision, reach out a hand when someone falls, or walk away when we need to.

So I get it.  I see the wisdom in our design even though the world can pinch and burn and smart sometimes.  I’m glad to be soft on the outside.  I’m grateful to have the chance to feel the full spectrum of sensation in my body.  It is a practice, no doubt, to really pay attention rather than tune out what my body is telling me.  It is the gift of our physical design to feel it and allow ourselves to move accordingly.

Physically, our tenderness and sensitivity is on the outside.  Emotionally, our tenderness and sensitivity is on the inside.  And many of us throw up all kinds of protection for our tender tender insides.  As Paul Simon sings in Something So Right,

They’ve got a wall in China
It’s a thousand miles long
To keep out the foreigners
They made it 
strong
I’ve got a wall around me
You can’t even see
It took a little time
To get next to me

We all know someone who defends themselves from emotional pain with humor or bullying or anger.  I’ve defended myself that way sometimes.  I’ve created an illusion of safety by armoring myself against the pain of vulnerability, embarrassment, or fear.  There is a way that these defenses act as a rock lobster shell – allowing us to blunder through life not noticing the pain we feel or cause.  Our human emotionality, so sensitive on the inside, invites us to feel it and respond.  Just like our skin on the outside, our emotions beg for us to pay attention to the inside, to listen deeply and to respond with awareness.  It is the gift of our emotional design to feel it all and allow ourselves to be moved accordingly.

This week, in your body, notice what you feel through your skin.  Notice and respond with sensitivity and awareness.  Emotionally, notice what you feel and respond with gentleness and kindness.  And even if they cut in line at Kroger, do your best not to pinch them.

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