Tag Archives: meditation

This week, I’m taking a couple of days away from teaching and my regular life. This choice is both part of my practice and a result of my practice. In fact, times like these are why I practice.

A cancelled vacation in January and the addition of new activities and responsibilities have drained my battery. What I need is a couple of days in Nature with my best friend being astonished by spring.

One part of the way that I know I need a break is mindfulness practice. The daily practice of listening to my body and mind gives me clues when something is out of balance. Which is not to say that I always listen with complete purity to said clues. In fact, I often ignore them.

And that leads to the second part of the way I know that I need a break: my friend suggested it.

Based on her observations, she thought I needed some time away. “Do you feel at all like you did before you went on Sabbatical?” she asks.

“Yes,” I say surprisingly, even alarmingly, quickly. “Yes, that’s how I feel.”

At which point she offers to teach for me and that was that.

Both of these things happen in my formal practices: on my cushion, on my mat, on the dance floor. I practice paying attention. I do my best to listen to subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) signals and sensations and respond to them. And when I either don’t notice something or when I ignore what I’m noticing, I am lucky enough to have teachers to help shine light on what I can’t see.

Why do I practice?
It’s not to get better at meditation.
It’s not to get better and doing yoga postures.
It’s not even to get better at dancing.
I practice to get better at life.

So, Anne will be teaching for me on Monday at 10:45am at acac Albemarle Square and Mary Linn on Tuesday at 8:40am at acac Downtown. I’ll be back on Wednesday at the Square and Thursday Downtown.

If you’re interested in this topic, you might enjoy reading these fanglorious posts:

Voluntary Discomfort from November 11, 2013


Why I Meditate, Part 2 from February 27, 2015


what makes it a practice 050916

Art in Action is a weekly post: a simple, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

What does it mean to have a practice? By its very nature, a practice is personal, so I suspect there are as many definitions as there are people practicing. Based on my own experience and conversations with other practicers, here are four distinguishing characteristics of a practice:

1. Do it regularly no matter how you feel or how it’s going

A practice is about showing up ~ even if (or especially if) your day is busy or your body feels creaky or it’s not coming out the way you think it should. If I only meditate when I’m on retreat or only when I feel relaxed, it’s not really a practice. A practice is about the consistent attention to the process, not the outcome.

2. Devote yourself to the activity for its own sake

Immerse yourself in the specificity of the activity and commit to it. Learning how to do Crow Pose or a Cross-Front-Cha-Cha-Cha might not seem to have any direct applications to your life. Trust that the gifts lie within the details of the practice. Avoid autopilot: do your heartfelt best every time you practice. Some days you’ll be sharper than others, of course, but keep aliveness in the activity. And especially if you have been doing it for a while, be willing to learn something new. Zen monk, Shunryu Suzuki, said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”

3. What you learn and do in the activity informs and supports the rest of your life

A practice can provide you both foundation and guidance. A practice gives you support that you can rely on and guides your choices especially in unfamiliar or difficult situations. Not long ago a customer at my friend’s restaurant cut himself deeply on a broken plate. My friend stayed centered in the midst of the panic and blood – and she saved his life. After it was over, she realized that it was the presence that she cultivated in her practice that allowed her to keep calm in the midst of chaos.

4. Your practice brings out the best in you

Notice if what you think is a practice is (or becomes) an obsession or a compulsion. It’s not a practice if it takes over and leaves you out of balance. A true practice allows you to step into your true potential. A question I often ask is, Am I leaving the place (be that my body, my life, the world) better than I found it?

That being said, lots of activities can be a practice. Anything from prayer to running, writing to gardening, making art to preparing food are all practices for some people and not for others.

If you don’t have a practice and you want one:

Go shopping. A practice doesn’t have to be formal or religious or fancy. It does have to be something that you are interested enough in to commit to doing it regularly. Working in the garden can be a chore done just for the resulting vegetables or a practice of connection with yourself, nature, your creativity and your impact on the environment.

If you used to have a practice but you’ve fallen away from it:

Begin again. Your practice is a most forgiving friend. She’s always ready to meet you where you are and start again.

If you have an active practice:

Notice what parts of your life are impacted by what you practice. Does your practice change the way you talk to your teenager, what you notice on the way to work, or what you buy at the grocery store? Do you feel more grounded or less rattled by the unexpected? Oddly, it may be challenging for you to see the effects of your practice since change is often incremental. One of my teachers reports that his children notice first when he isn’t meditating regularly. “Dad,” they say, “Time to get back on the cushion!”

practice practice practice 050516

Walking out of the yoga studio with my friend, Hannah, I said what I always say whenever she parks her mat and her amazing self near me in class:

“It was great to practice with you.”

She graciously said, “You, too!” And then she paused and said, “It took me a while to say ‘I practice yoga’ instead of ‘I do yoga.’”

Her comment got me to thinking: what does it mean to have a practice? How is a practice different than a hobby, or an exercise class that I go to? Is calling it a practice pretentious woo-woo lululemon doohockey?

While I was noodling on it, I asked some friends what they thought about having a practice. Here’s what Amy, Sarah and Gina said:

Practice means coming back…coming back into the pose…coming back to the present moment…coming back to intention…coming back even when it’s difficult or uncomfortable. It is the ability to stay with what is uncomfortable and breathe. ~ Amy Kidd

I have days that practice is painful. I have days when practice is hyperactive and unfocused and days where I’m downright lazy. I keep coming back because most of the time it makes me better than I was before. ~ Sarah Creef Baugher

A practice means … wanting always to do better but learning that some days your best may not be what it was yesterday or what it may be tomorrow. Having the ability to be ok with whatever it is today. ~ Gina Williams

A practice is something that I do whether I am in the mood for it or not. I hike when I am in the mood to hike. I read when I feel like reading. But I practice mindful movement – on the mat or the dancefloor – even when I’m cranky or tired or sad or angry. I sit in stillness whether I’m up for it or not.

A practice is a commitment. My job is to show up the best I can. Sometimes that looks like a pretty decent standing bow and sometimes it looks like a broken umbrella. Sometimes that looks like a solid 20-30 minutes of sitting and sometimes it looks like a squirmy 5 minutes. The outcome is not my business. Showing up is.

(P.S. Sometimes I don’t show up for my practice for a while. Sometimes a long while. The cool thing is, it’s waiting for me whenever I’m ready to come back. The most forgiving friend ever.)

Then this is what Deborah and Melissa and Lisa said:

The practice of yoga [helps me] look for calm and strength on my mat and off. I can look for lessons in asana and find stillness in the crazy around me. ~ Deborah Barry

My yoga practice is something I do to improve my skills at being alive, being present, and being human. ~ Melissa Simmons

My practice is a time to do exactly that – to practice things I want to implement in the rest of my life. A hobby is pure enjoyment in the moment, and I do enjoy the physical act of yoga postures, but my practice goes deeper to remind me of my core values and intentions for life off the mat. ~ Lisa Jakub

A practice extends beyond the activity itself. A practice informs everything else. I do a series of core exercises and stretches most every day, but when I’m not doing them, I’m not doing them. When I finish a yoga class or step out of a Nia class, the principles continue to affect how and what I do. I love riding my bike but riding bike isn’t something that rudders my choices. A practice expands until it is happening all the time.

(P.S. And sometimes my connection to my practice in the course of my life is intermittent at best. It’s okay, it’s a practice not a perfect. I just keep coming back as best I can.)

And finally:

My practice is a conversation with my higher self. It is recognizing how powerful and deserving I am individually because I am connected to everything else. This practice is self-empowering and allows me to see that same potential everywhere I look. ~ Sarah Creef Baugher

[My practice] is a structure that is done consistently and keeps me connected to a soulful intension. In this I try to stay more open to what emerges and it typically is unexpected. It has become a spiritual discipline that keeps me connected and more self-aware. ~ Hilary Nagel

A practice means taking care of my soul. ~ Gina Williams

Having a practice is a way of connecting to my highest values and my greatest potential. Having a practice isn’t necessarily a religious act (it isn’t for me) but it is a spiritual one. A practice connects me with that which is larger than myself.

A practice can be really any activity as long as it has these qualities: I do it whether I feel like it or not, it informs everything else I do and it connects me with something bigger than me.

Mahatma Gandhi (who was not my friend) said “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”* While my practice certainly is a way that I make my own life happier, it is also my best attempt at leaving the world better than I found it.

*As it turns out, Gandhi never said “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

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Art in Action is a weekly post: a short, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

If we never really go completely or stop completely, our batteries are constantly drained leaving us chronically tired. Can we allow ourselves to be fully engaged and to sustain effort even when things get challenging or uncomfortable? Can we allow ourselves to fully stop and relax even when the urge to fidget and figure out comes up?

By going when we go and stopping when we stop, we give our bodies, minds and hearts a chance to energize and recuperate, so it’s worth practicing. Here are 4 simple ways to go and 4 simple ways to stop.


1. Do little things all the way through. Take on small tasks and do them fully without multi-tasking or leaving them partially finished. Make the phone call. Pick up the front hall. Write the email. From start to finish, stay focused on doing it all the way through.

2. Make big things smaller. For bigger tasks, break them into smaller pieces. I love playing with the Pomodoro Technique of setting a timer for 25 minutes and working in a focused way, taking a 5 minute break, and then either continuing on for another 25 minutes on that task or bringing my full attention to something else. Often, I find that even for the most dreaded things on my To Do list, once I get started, I want to keep going!

3. Notice what pulls you away. Pay attention to when you get distracted or when you “run” from what you are doing. Is it when you aren’t sure what to do? Or when it gets difficult or uncomfortable? Ask yourself, when I pull myself away, what is happening? Noticing this can help calm the nervous system so when the urge to run comes up, you can remind yourself that it’s just an urge to pull away, that’s all.

4. Notice where you go. And when you “run” what do you do instead? Do you go online or get something to eat? Do you check email or send a text? In Nia or yoga or any physical practice, do you drink water, fix your hair or start chatting with someone? Notice the difference between taking a mindful, intentional break and escaping or running away.


1. Take small stops all day. Make the intentional choice to stop even for brief periods during the day. As you sit down to a meal, take a full breath before eating or drinking or speaking. Before or after starting a task, pause fully and completely – for five breaths or five minutes (The Pomodoro Technique has a time for this nicely built in!). Sitting still for five minutes has tremendous calming benefits that extend through the day.

2. Stop at the end of the day. Give yourself a little time to be quiet and screen-free before going to sleep. Whether this is meditation or just closing your eyes and being still, your body and mind will get the idea that it’s time to power down. (I sometimes lie on a foam roller for a few minutes to passively stretch my chest and shoulders and get out of the doing mode.)

3. Notice body sensation before sleep.  When you lie down to sleep, take a few deep breaths and notice your body. Even as you begin to relax, some parts of your body will likely hold chronic tension. These are the places you are likely holding on all. the. time. Exhale and let even those places fully relax. The more you practice noticing and letting go, the more your body will do it on its own.

4. Pause when stuff goes down.  Play with getting still in the face of small irritations and upsets. If the water glass goes over or traffic is gridlocked, give yourself a moment to be still before you do or say anything. Taking even one breath gives the helpful part of your brain that can reason and articulate come online. Practicing with little things when the stakes are low prepares your brain and body to do the same when big frustrations come along.

extraordinary life maple blossom“Rejoicing in ordinary things is not sentimental or trite. It actually takes guts. Each time we drop our complaints and allow everyday good fortune to inspire us, we enter the warrior’s world.”― Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times

Thank you for spending the week walking in the warrior’s world of paying extraordinary attention to ordinary things. It’s a practice that can change everything just by deepening our attention. I’d love to hear about your experiences with it this week and moving forward.

Below is all the music from the week … and if you go to Spotify and follow me at “susanmcculley” you can find my public playlists there, too! As long as I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve wanted to give you instant access to the music we use in class. I’m experimenting with this site so you can just listen – no fuss, no muss! Some people are finding that a search on my name turns up my lists, others don’t find me. If you’re having trouble, please let me know. I’d love to figure it out together. Please note also that Spotify doesn’t have all the music I have, so sometimes I’ll put up a different version of a song or skip it all together. Please let me know what you think and if it is working for you!

Before the playlists, some announce-y type things:

dance. sit. write. April 18, 845am-4pm at Buck Mountain Episcopal Church Parish Hall in Earlysville. Spend a day exploring the interconnection of movement, meditation and creativity. No experience in any of the three practices is needed. We’ll provide what you need including incredible food from Rebecca George’s Dragonfly Kitchen. Find all the details here and email me for a registration form ( I’ve been working on this for years. I would love to share it with you.

Practice Your ROAR! Friday, April 24, 6 to 8 p.m., Parish Hall ~ I’ll be teaching a class in recognition of April as Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. This powerful, energizing class will include songs from One Billion Rising, the biggest mass action in history to end violence against women. We’ll also work with Ann Cuddy’s groundbreaking research about how power stances held for just two minutes can actually change your body and mind, in addition to communicating confidence to people around you. Following the class, will be a self-defense demonstration for women only with an instructor from SARA (Charlottesville’s Sexual Assault Resource Agency). The event is FREE with requests to donations to the BMEC Health and Wellness Committee. Please invite your friends, neighbors, and colleagues to this important and empowering evening.

Richmond Nia is excited to welcome back Portland-based Nia Faculty Trainers Vickie Saito and Allison Wright for three special Nia classes and two playshops. Take advantage of early bird pricing and join us for an exciting weekend of Nia! Get all the information here… and the facebook

As always, please let me know if you have questions or how I can help more.

Dance on. Shine on.

Susan sig

*** PLAYLIST NOTE: My playlists can also be found on Spotify by following “susanmcculley” (no space) and look for Public Playlists. Sometimes music is not available on Spotify so I may replace with another version or skip songs. What you find below is exactly what I used in class. ***

Monday, Mar 23, 2015, 1045am ~ Extraordinary Attention

Healing Senses 8:27 Parijat
Tears From The Moon 4:18 Conjure One Feat. Sinéad O’ Connor
Riptide 3:22 Vance Joy
Water Down the Ganges 7:10 Prem Joshua & Manish Vyas
Love and Hope 4:24 Ozomatli
Freedom 2:50 Tyrone Wells
I’m Alive (Life Sounds Like) 3:52 Michael Franti & Spearhead
The Basement 3:35 Eric Hutchinson
Proud 4:30 Heather Small
Same As It Ever Was (Start Today) [feat. Agape Choir] 3:56 Michael Franti & Spearhead
Just Breathe 3:36 Pearl Jam
I See Fire 5:01 Ed Sheeran
The Garden of Mirrors (Pt. 2) [Passing Cloud] 5:18 Stephan Micus

Tuesday, Mar 24, 2015, 9am ~ Extraordinary Attention

Turn On, Tune In, Find Joy 5:04 Freakpower
Inlakesh 3:58 Lou Rhodes
Listen to the Music (DJ Malibu Mix) 5:01 The Doobie Brothers
Heal Me 3:39 Melissa Etheridge
Riptide 3:22 Vance Joy
Look Up 5:56 Zero 7
Release It [Instrumental] 6:27 Afro Celt Sound System
The Basement 3:35 Eric Hutchinson
Proud 4:30 Heather Small
Same As It Ever Was (Start Today) [feat. Agape Choir] 3:56 Michael Franti & Spearhead
Just Breathe 3:36 Pearl Jam
I See Fire 5:01 Ed Sheeran
Bach: Cello Suite #4 In E Flat, BWV 1010 – 1. Sarabande 5:03 Yo-Yo Ma

Wednesday, Mar 25, 2015, 1055am ~ Extraordinary Attention

Inlakesh 3:58 Lou Rhodes
Kissing 6:05 Bliss
Listen to the Music (DJ Malibu Mix) 5:01 The Doobie Brothers
Heal Me 3:39 Melissa Etheridge
Just Say Yes 4:41 Snow Patrol
Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You) 3:42 Kelly Clarkson
Release It [Instrumental] 6:27 Afro Celt Sound System
Whirl-Y-Reel 2 5:28 Afro Celt Sound System
Sorrento Moon 4:56 Tina Arena
Solo Flying Mystery Man [1999] 3:29 Pauline Taylor
Beautiful 4:06 India.Arie
A Sound Meditation 5:30 Benjamin Iobst

Thursday, Mar 26, 2015, 9am ~ Extraordinary Attention

Damascus 2:03 Conjure One Feat. Chemda
Center Of The Sun 5:01 Conjure One Feat. Poe
Tears From The Moon 4:18 Conjure One Feat. Sinéad O’ Connor
Water Down the Ganges 7:10 Prem Joshua & Manish Vyas
Just Say Yes 4:41 Snow Patrol
Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You) 3:42 Kelly Clarkson
Roll With It 5:18 Steve Winwood
Sheikh 4:01 Loop Guru
Amma 6:26 James Asher & Sivamani
Solo Flying Mystery Man [1999] 3:29 Pauline Taylor
Downtown 4:52 Purekane
Hallelujah (feat. Charlie Sexton) 4:16 Justin Timberlake & Matt Morris
First Impressions 4:08 Yo Yo Ma, Mark O’Connor, Edgar Meyer

Friday, Mar 27, 2015, 6pm at Buck Mountain Parish Hall ~ Movement & Metta (Loving Kindness)

Plazza [Base Mix] 4:02 Dust
A New Day 4:03 Laya Project
Biene Maya 4:06 Daniel Levez
Resolution (Rewound By Thievery Corporation) 4:02 Thievery Corporation
Look Up 5:56 Zero 7
Release It [Instrumental] 6:27 Afro Celt Sound System
Shisha 5:20 Naked Rhythm
Curried Ripples 5:03 Ganga Girl
Outro 6:24 Hang Massive
Wishful Thinking 5:32 The Album Leaf


For more information about Nia and this rich system of training and learning? Everything Nia is at…

If you’re traveling or moving, you can find a teacher or classes wherever you’re going.

Interested in teaching or deepening your practice? Check out the Nia White Belt Training. They are offered all around the world so you can find one near you or where you may want to go!

In February, meditation teacher and author, Sharon Salzberg sponsors a 28-Day Meditation Challenge. Everybody is invited to commit to meditating every day for the month and join the mindfulness community. As part of the challenge, I’ll be blogging throughout the month (along with other meditator/bloggers) about the experience. You can find the posts on Sharon’s site and I’ll share mine on Focus Pocus.

28-Day Meditation Challenge ~ Day 1
Sunday, February 1, 2015

28 Day Challenge aspen leaf pub dom

First day, first thing.
Get up and go. Brush things. Then sit.

What an excellent start I’m making.

I’m breathing and spacious and focused annnnd…

What shall I write about today and I must remember to email Nancy and I’d like to go for a walk but not if it’s raining and I need to make a playlist for Monday but I can rework the one from last week for Tuesday and I really must do some laundry and take out the trash and maybe this meditation would go better if I just did all those things first and then sat.

Breathing in. Breathing out.

I did manage not to get up and do the laundry. As best I could kept coming back when my mind wanted to tackle my To Do list. This is not unfamiliar territory. My mind loves to plan and organize and figure out what needs doing when. There is comfort in doing the little things that I know how to do rather than to face the space and whatever is happening in my body, mind, and emotions.

My dance of resistance and my mind machinations remind me of a talk John Cleese gave about creativity in which he describes creativity not as a talent but as a way of operating. He describes setting aside time for creative work: closing the door and setting a timer. And then a flood of minutia descends, begging to be cleaned up and sorted out before attempting the unknown of the creative project.

An interesting connection ~ meditation and creativity ~ neither of them talents but rather ways of operating. In both we intentionally set aside time to make space for whatever is arising, feel the pull of comfortable and familiar distractions. In both meditation and creative work, we never know what will happen. The practice is to be present for whatever comes up.

core support swamped boat

There are days. Sometimes it’s the cold, gray bluster of winter. Sometimes it’s worries about a fragile friend or a limping relationship or the fracking in the Marcellus Shale. Sometimes it’s a long stream of sadnesses flowing dangerously close to home.

Whatever it is, there are days that swamp my little boat.

I feel it in my gut like wet rags: a soggy center that folds in on itself.

Lucky for me, I have a most excellent loving partner and a bevy of kind, understanding friends who stand at the ready to shore me up. Thank the goodnesses since some days I feel like I need someone to hold my hand to get me through breakfast.

I am also blessed with a damn fine therapist who helps me find ways of supporting my very own self. He encourages me to ask for help and support and also reminds me that I can’t control anybody but me (dammit!). So when things feel tough and I’ve got rags in my tummy and my little boat is filled to the gunnels, he suggests that I do things to support myself. A cup of my favorite decaf genmaicha tea. A walk in nature. Music (even better with videos that include bunnies and hedgehogs and Brits in their undies).

Support from the inside. It’s the way our physical bodies are designed: strength from center. Of the two lower leg bones, the tibia and fibula, the stronger is on the inside of the leg. The strongest toe is the one closest to the mid-line. The strongest part of the rib cage is the sternum, the section that runs front and center.

It’s essential to know what my external resources are. Who can I call in the middle of the night? How much do we really have in savings? Where did I put that extra chocolate?

Even more, though, how can I support myself from the inside ~ body, mind and emotions.


Since starting a practice of hot yoga in 2013 and more recently Power Vinyasa with Kelly Stine, my core awareness has dramatically increased. I can feel the balance and grace that is (a little more) available I engage the support available in my core muscles, particularly my low core. As I move and lift and dance, I can buoy myself from the inside. (Yogis call this internal engagement bandhas or locks.) Beyond my belly, when I walk and balance, I can root through the strength of my big toe and inner leg. And when I push into downward facing dog or high plank (or heaven help me, crow), I can press into the strength of my thumb and inner hand. Support is at the core.


For my mind, nothing offers internal support like meditation. In the rush and tumble of busy-ness, my mind can easily lose its bearings. Taking a few minutes to watch my thoughts instead of being carried away by them, is a way I can support myself ~ even if my mind is as wild as a drunken monkey being bitten by a scorpion. (My new favorite app is Insight Timer which not only offers a meditation timer, but a wide selection of guided meditations and ways to connect with other meditators in your area and around the world.)  Support comes from inside.


Emotional support can look different depending on what’s happening: movement and meditation are both helpful, as is writing, creative expression and spending time out under the open sky. Talking to compassionate listeners like the aforementioned partner, friends and damned fine therapist helps me move emotional energy, too. And as an act of core support, I choose those people with care.

How is your little boat these days? When you find yourself submerged by a major tsunami or a series of rolling breakers, definitely get clear on what external support you can tap into. But also ask yourself how you can create internal support for you from you.

The best way to bail the boat is from the inside out.

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