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What does “safe” really mean?

The year before last was a doozy in my little world. That year helped me see that safety is relative.

My beloved husband herniated a disc when he unloaded a bunch of shingles onto a roof and then carried a big fat piece of granite. There is risk in physical work.

Laid low by the herniated disc, my husband was only able to sleep on one side. He then developed excruciating bursitis in the shoulder he slept on. There is risk in sleeping.

An acquaintance who was my very age died in a mountain biking accident. There is risk in riding.

A father of a friend died on his way to the kitchen. The six-year-old daughter of another friend was killed in a car accident on the way to her Daddy’s house. There is risk in living.

Risk can make me want to avoid the “causes”: don’t carry heavy things, don’t sleep in one position, don’t ride mountain bikes. But this risk avoidance starts to break down: don’t go to the kitchen? don’t ride in cars? don’t live? It occurs to me that nothing is really safe.

We can’t avoid risk. Risk is implicit in living. In fact, it’s risky to attempt to live a risk-free life. Debbie Rosas, one of Nia’s co-founders, often says that the most dangerous thing you can do is sit (and the Sitting is the New Smoking movement agrees with her). While Debbie is referring, I think, to the physical implications of a sedentary life, I would go further to argue that avoiding risk is detrimental to the mind, emotions and spirit, too.

So how do we find the balance between safety and adventure, carefulness and exploration, caution and growth?

Helen Terry, my Nia mentor calls it taking safe risks. Lizzie Clark, my hot yoga guru says, “Be fearless, never reckless.”

This is the balance I want to strike in my work, my practice, my life.

A safe risk, a fearless but not reckless choice is both deeply personal and always changing. For some people, just showing up in one of my classes or going to a yoga class in a hot room is a huge risk. For others it may be wearing bright colors or making sound. What feels easy peasy to you, might feel terrifying to me.

Part of what I love about practicing together is that we can all find our own edge to dance on. Each of us can, moment to moment, find the place of aliveness and possibility without carelessness. By choosing safe risks, we are moving into our potential.

The challenge is that we live in community, in a society full of people with differing opinions about what is safe and what is reckless. Even in my classes, the conversation about the safety of the temperature in the room and the volume of the music can get heated in a hurry.

As in the studio, so in the larger world. Politicians talk about “keeping America safe” but honestly, what does that even mean? For a country of our size and diversity, safety seems like a hollow promise. Does “keeping America safe” mean mass deportations and military operations around the globe? Does it mean legalizing drugs or not? Does it mean using chemicals in order to grow enough food or does it mean growing organically so the food we eat doesn’t have chemicals in it?

Yesterday, I saw a customer in Whole Foods carrying a gun. Why in the world someone would need a pistol in the produce department is a bafflement to me. I can tell you for sure that I did not feel safe shopping with him. Did I really think he was going to use it? No. But the potential that he could rattled me more than I expected.

I didn’t bolt the store as some said they would have. I finished my shopping, said hello to a friend, waited to check out. I asked the cashier and manager about the firearms policy. I’ve written to the store to tell them I think it’s a truly dreadful idea to have guns in a grocery store. I plan to contact Whole Foods Headquarters to learn more.

Here’s the thing: I think many things we think are dangerous actually aren’t and many things we think are safe actually aren’t. If that’s true, then feelings of both danger and safety are at least nebulous and perhaps illusory. Even within our complex culture, all any of us can do is listen to our own inner wisdom about choosing what we risk doing and what we don’t.

I will continue to do hot yoga, wear my crazy pants and make sound in class. I will continue to drive and go into the kitchen and ride my bike. But perhaps I will change where I shop.

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Civil Rights Confrontation
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

My life is ridiculously comfortable and convenient. The extraordinary good fortune that has been heaped upon my head would be enough to up the quality of life of an entire island nation. It’s incredible, really.

And yet, that’s not enough to stop me from behaving badly when iTunes crashes or I spill a quart of coconut water on the kitchen floor or my new password manager is wonky.

Yep, that’s all it took: a wonky password manager.

After a security breach on my husband’s computer, the two of us agreed to put all our passwords into a password manager. An excellent idea since I am more than a little lax in the computer security department and the scrap of paper with all my passwords on it (that I’ve had since 2002) was getting a difficult to read.

Only I’m impatient when learning new computer stuff and when the program wasn’t working the way I thought it would and I got locked out of my Twitter account, I got irritated (irkitated, even). I went on a rant about how dishonest and malicious people require us to invest time, money and energy into these stupid programs and the only person it really keeps out of my accounts is me and then I slammed a couple of doors.

A ridiculously first-world problem, up to my armpits in comfort and convenience, and I’m acting like a four-year-old.

Which brings me to hot yoga.

Wonky computer programs notwithstanding, choosing to spend time in a challenging and uncomfortable environment helps me build resources to draw on when challenge and controversy show up uninvited.

When I started hot yoga in December 2012, I thought it would be a physical challenge and a new way to keep my body healthy. It is that, for sure, but the biggest benefit I’ve gotten from yoga is its effect on my mind. After 467 90-minute classes in a humid, 100+ degree studio, more and more I’m able to stay calm in times of challenge and controversy.

My teachers often talk about breathing calmly and steadily even when the body is under stress or concentrated effort. By focusing on the steady, even flow of breath, my nervous system is less anxious and startled by the discomfort.  I’m able to literally and figuratively stay in the room.

After practicing hot yoga, I have higher tolerance for other uncomfortable situations.

In the past couple of years, I’ve had unpleasant and alarming experiences, I’ve had friends upset with and disappointed in me, and I’ve taught classes under emotional and stressful circumstances. In all those situations, I’ve shown up more relaxed, more present, calmer than I used to.

Obviously, it doesn’t work all the time. Sometimes, I still get twisted up over things and stomp around. But spending time in the hot room or sitting in meditation even when my back hurts or staying low in sumo stance until my legs shake, gives me confidence that translates into my life. My mind learns I can do this. Choosing challenge helps me stay calm or regain my calm quicker when things go awry.

When I think about the challenge and controversy endured by brave people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and those who participated in the civil rights movement (and people today who are fighting diligently for civil and human rights, environmental protection, and social equality), I wonder how they managed to behave so well when under such duress. I wonder how they built their resources to be steady and calm in the face of so much hatred.

Given my track record, I suspect I wouldn’t have had the strength or courage for it. I think I would have slammed a lot of doors in Alabama. But perhaps, in some small way, by choosing to challenge myself, I can rise to some of the challenging occasions in my life … and maybe even be a force for love.

change bell and penI’m often asked why I love doing the hot yoga series (26 postures & 2 breathing exercises). “It’s the same every time! Doesn’t it get boring?”

Truth is, it’s never the same.

The Bell & The Pen suggests sitting on the front porch and writing about what you see. I only have a back porch that overlooks the garden and chicken coop which I figured wouldn’t work since my view would always be the same ~ no cars, no people. I do it anyway. I sit with tea and journal and write about what I see and hear and smell and taste.

Funny, it’s never the same.

“Change.” ~ the cue between every single yoga posture in the hot yoga series

change half moon pose

The sweat is already running down my arms in the first set of Half Moon pose (Ardha Chandrasana). I’m lifting out of my waist and pulling in my core and firming my legs, lifting up, out and over while keeping my hips and shoulders square to the mirror. My breathing is shallow but steady. I’m not sure how much longer I can do this. It all feels impossible and unsustainable, but I press my feet into the floor and the teacher says, “Change.”

* * *

He is curled up on the bed, his breath ragged, tears running down his face. Through gulps of air he looks at me pleadingly, “What is wrong with me?” I stand by the bed with my hands on his back and his shoulder. I look at him, helpless. My precious man, my love, my partner. I tell him I don’t know. My breathing is shallow. I’m not sure how much longer I can do this. It all feels impossible and unsustainable. I feel my feet on the floor and get him some ice and some medicine and slowly, his face softens and changes.

* * *

change savasanaIn the middle of the practice, we take two minutes in Corpse Pose (Savasana) to let the body rest and prepare for the rest of the series. My mind, which is often open and quiet, today is darting right and left into a variety of futures.

* * *

He’s hobbling into the bathroom like a six foot Yoda, complete with gnarled walking stick. I close my eyes and swallow hard. What was once the straight line of his spine is now curving right, then left.

* * *

change spinal twistThe last pose of the series is a complete spinal twist (Ardha-Matsyendrasana) – the ultimate in human pretzel poses. Once I get my arms and legs oriented, I inhale and sit as tall as I can, then reach around my body with the idea of hooking my fingers into my inner thigh. For about 20 months, this has only been an idea, but today, I inhale, sit tall, reach around, and – whoa! – my little finger hooks neatly around my thigh muscle. Change was happening all the time. There was an untapped reservoir of strength and flexibility that feels available now.

* * *

I’m a little startled when I see him standing in the kitchen without his Yoda walking stick. He shows me how much more he can move his shoulder today. I look at him, with his new haircut (a friend brought her scissors and soon the front porch was covered in silver and brown) and my heart feels like it will burst from my ribs. I loved him before, I really did. Something has changed. There was a deep reservoir of love and care that had been untapped before this. That reservoir is open now and flowing fast. The new currents are changing the contours of our connection.

eyebrow yoga cobra guy“He was thinking that in nearly every person there was some special physical part kept always guarded. With the mute his hands. The kid Mick picked at the front of her blouse to keep the cloth from rubbing the new, tender nipples beginning to come out on her breast. With Alice it was her hair; she used never to let him sleep with her when he rubbed oil in his scalp. And with himself?”

~ Carson McCullers, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter

1. Notice

I take my right shoe off before my left.
When I step forward, my little toe comes down before my big toe.
When coasting on my bike, I usually have my right foot in front.
When he’s absorbed in reading, he clicks his fingernail against his tooth.
She almost always wears navy blue.
There is a picture of purple and yellow flowers above the Martha Jefferson MRI machine.

2. Notice What You Notice

Sometimes all I see are the flowers. Sometimes, I only see the weeds.

Sometimes I put all my attention on what is working well. Teaching the same focus during the week with different routines for each class. Making meals like tacos and salads and sandwiches that everyone can customize for themselves. Following the 13 Moon Calendar and wearing the color of the day. Feeling the ease in my feet and neck.

Other times my focus is on what’s not working. My cueing is too late. I’m procrastinating around writing. I’m not sleeping well. My right shoulder aches.

I have good reasons for noticing both. And for noticing what I’m noticing.

3. Notice What You Don’t Notice

A dear, wise friend gave me a book, The Pen and The Bell by Brenda Miller and Holly J. Hughes. I love it.  It’s like Nia for writing!  The chapter I read last night suggests:

Each day, try to look closely at something you think you already know well….Observe it for longer than a few seconds. Can you pick up on any forgotten or unexpected details?

I love this idea but I don’t have time for that these days.

Later, stroking the hair I’ve stroked for 16 years I notice that it’s grayer than I realized near his temples, almost completely dark brown at the back. He hasn’t gotten it cut since he’s been hurt, so now it curls around his ears and along his neck.

* * *

As I lift up into Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana), Sara says, “Look up with your eyes, not your eyebrows.” Oh my gosh.  I realize I’m straining so hard with my eyebrows, they’re practically up under my hair. I’d never noticed that before.  And then in every pose, I realize I’m almost always lifting my eyebrows. And when I’m brushing my teeth and trolling through the grocery store and talking and watching soccer…

* * *

“Swing your arms, sweetie!” says Frank as we’re hiking through a pine forest. I am often unaware that I’m walking with only my lower body and I’m not letting my arms swing free. Hmm. I wonder if that’s why my shoulder hurts?

savoring living meditation rock cairns 3“It doesn’t matter how many times you fall out. It only matters how many times you get back in.”
~ Amy, Susan’s yoga teacher

Savoring is direct experience.
Savoring is being with what is …not what I remember or what I wish for.
Savoring is available in all situations.
Savoring is heightened awareness.
Savoring is living meditation.

Student: My whole life, every single thing I do can be a meditation!
Teacher: Yes. But is it?

I forget to savor. Then I remember.
I come in and out.
The practice is choosing to come back, to start again, over and over.

savoring nourishment kundalini paintingI can hear you.

“A month of savoring. Right. Nice for you. We’d all like to slow down to vacation pace, but I have too much to do. I have three kids (a full-time job / an ailing family member / your thing here). I’m a single parent (an entrepreneur, on a mission, your other thing here) and I can’t slow down. If I don’t rush, if I don’t hurry, nothing will get done. Savoring schmavoring.

“And don’t try to con me with your new age happy horse hooey ‘Less is More’ stuff, either. I wasn’t born yesterday. Less is less. More is more. Obviously.”

I can hear you because that’s what’s in my head, too.

* * *

About half way through the 26-posture yoga series that I practice, we do two minutes of savasana (corpse pose). After 50 minutes of active standing postures in a room that is more than 100 degrees, two minutes lying down doesn’t seem like it would do squat. But it does. Those two minutes nourish my muscles and joints, calm my heart and nervous system and let my mind go blank (sometimes). They are two incredibly nourishing minutes (always).

During the second half of the practice, we do 20-second savasanas in between each posture. Just 20 seconds but like little phone chargers, each savasana gives me rest and space and energy for the next pose. (A curse of locusts on the teacher who only gives us 15 seconds, by the way.)

And in the midst of even the most challenging posture, the breath is always there flowing in and out calmly through the nose, nourishing the body in the midst of everything.

It doesn’t take long to recharge and nourish even a depleted body~mind.

* * *

I love lists. I mean, love. At any given moment, I’ve got a slew of them going. (Hold on, let me do a count: five on my desk, two on the kitchen table, two on the kitchen counter, and a spread sheet on my laptop.) I use them to remind me of tasks and ideas and chores. I use them to get control of almost any situation or solve almost any problem. Feeling overwhelmed? Make a list. Not sure what to do next? Make a list. Have a scary health issue happening? Make a list.

I also use lists to give me a rush of satisfaction as I lustily cross out items. If I really need a boost, I don’t just draw a line but vigorously scribble out what I’ve done. Accomplishment feels good to me.

I’m noticing there is a difference, though, between just doing something to cross it off the list and doing something with my full attention and care. My attachment to getting things done can land thin and hollow if I’m just doing something to cross (or scribble) it off the list.  An empty slavery to my lists.

I can choose to let my lists stress me out about everything that needs to get done or allow them to nourish me with perspective and possibility. When I am savoring, I can look at a list, take a breath and set my priorities. What matters to me the most? What feels important or time-sensitive? What will nurture and nourish me and my people? What can only I do? What can be done later or can I delegate to someone else? Which leads me to…

* * *

… the nourishment of asking for help.

If I look at what needs doing and find myself saying, “It all needs to be done now and I need to do it all.” I know that is a time to stop, take a breath, and get over damn myself. When life feels scary or painful or like a whole lot of everything, and someone asks if they can help, I’m practicing saying “Yes, yes you can.” We need each other and any idea that we can do it all on our own is an illusion. The greatest nourishment is love.

* * *

Life is full-to-bursting with things that need doing and people who need attention and deadlines that need meeting. There will always, ALWAYS be more to do than time to do it in. Rushing to get it done leaves me as malnourished and empty. Savoring doesn’t take more time, just more attention. Savoring nourishes.

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