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A NOTE about the Focus Pocus art: I am in the middle of a book project called Octabusy: How To Let Go in a Sea of Doing. I’m excited about it and want to focus my art-making energy on it in the next couple of months. So instead of making complex art pieces for the Focus Pocus blog, I make cartoons like this one that feature characters from the book. This week, Octabusy herself is demonstrating Octa-LOVE!

 

“See something in your hands that you love with all your heart. Something that lights you up. Let it sit in your hands without grasping. Let what you love feel your love and also feel free.” ~ Mia Hamza, Yoga Teacher/Genius

When I was in college, many a dorm wall sported a poster (usually with a picture of a white bird flying out of white hands) with the words:

“If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it is yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.”
—Unknown

This always struck me as kind of cheesy and pat. I imagined the Unknown speaker hucking a dove into the air (“Go ahead. GO!”) to see if it would come back around.

Not bloody likely, if you ask me. Why come back to someone who tosses you away?

When my teacher Mia said, “Let what you love feel your love and also feel free” I found myself oriented utterly differently toward the idea of freedom. Not just how do I create it in myself but how I allow it in others.

How can I hold my cat, Phoenix, in my lap with love but without keeping her there? How can I be with my friends so that they feel that I love them and that they can be however they are, not only what is neat and tidy? How can I be with my body as it ages and changes with love and care but without expectation that it will do what it did when I was 25? How can I hold myself with love but also with the space for possibility and growth?

On Fourth of July week, my classes often focus on the sensation of freedom in our movement and in our lives. Instead this week, I invite us to focus on how we can offer the feeling of freedom to whatever and whoever we love. What does it feel like to hold without grasping, wholeheartedly offering both love and freedom?

This week’s post and art are from a couple of years ago. I found the approach to be helpful to revisit. I hope you do, too.

~~ Originally posted October 11, 2015 ~~
The first time I hear the phrase it pops me awake in a 615am yoga class at Kripalu . I’ve been on the road for a week. I haven’t slept well for days. It is, as I mentioned, just after 6am. I am fuzzy foggy at best but as soon as the instructor says it, I snap to attention:

How you do anything is how you do everything.

She says it and I think, Wait a minute, no, wait. That’s not right. Is it? We have only just started the class. I am only in Child’s Pose. How is it possible that I am doing Child’s Pose in the same way I do Wheel pose or teach my classes or hug my husband or write my blog?

For an hour, it ricochets around in my head: my argument about it couldn’t be true that how I do anything is how I do everything.

A few years later, I hear it again in another yoga class with an added phrase that also wakes me up:

How you do anything is how you do everything. Let your practice be a metaphor for your life.

The intervening time — that has included a sabbatical from and then a reinvigorated return to teaching and an equally reinvigorated yoga practice — has me more receptive to the idea. I begin to get it that the qualities, the intentions, the habits I bring along with me onto the mat are the same ones I bring everywhere else.

But not just that: Let your practice be a metaphor for your life. I have a choice about how I do everything I do.

The whole concept is intriguing enough that I want to investigate. It seems that the laboratory of the yoga studio is a good place to start. My first step is a down-to-the-bones honest observation. When I think about my yoga practice in the abstract when I’m off the mat, I go quickly to the distortions of I-suck-beat-myself-up or well-hey-I’m-pretty-darn-good-at-that – which is neither accurate nor helpful. Instead, I honestly observe myself as I’m doing my practice and ask myself How do I do this?

This is what I find:
1. I put in a good deal of effort – sometimes more than necessary.
2. I am dedicated to the point of obsession.
3. I am easily distracted until I get in the groove and then I’m focused.
4. I love learning but can get frustrated at the beginning when things are awkward.
5. I compare myself to others (especially in the distracted stage of #3).
6. I am strong and open in some ways, weak and resistant in others.
7. I tend to rush through and want to get to the next part.
8. For better or for worse, I easily fall into habit.
9. Interruptions (especially once I’m in the groove of #3) and the unexpected can upset me.

I’m sure there are other things that are also observable and true about my practice but Yes. That is how I do yoga. But is it how I do everything? Really?

I take my How I Do Yoga list and start running through my life: Writing, teaching, meditation, relationships, art, cooking. Gosh, would you look at that? Spot on. Every one. Every. Single. One.

Dang.

This is somehow simultaneously humbling and comforting. There I am. On the yoga mat, on the dance floor, at my desk, in my kitchen, in my life.

So the question is, what do I do with this metaphor for my life? I look at how I do yoga and ask, Is this how I want to do yoga? Is that how I want to teach? And write? And draw? And make dinner? And love people?

Some of it yes and some of it not so much. The truth is I can take the current metaphor and I can edit it. Just like I rework sentences and paragraphs in my posts so they are in closer alignment with what I want to say, I can choose to adjust my practice to be in closer alignment to how I’d like to live. And those edits on the mat will expand into everything I do.

Aritostle, widely remembered as an extremely clever guy, said [2019 NOTE: Turns out that not Aristotle, but Will Durant said this. More on that here.]

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

I have a choice about the habits I cultivate on the mat and in my classes and in my writing and everywhere. As I make even small changes to doing anything, how I do everything will change, too.

It’s like an essay that I am reworking or a routine I’ve taught many times: Observe. Edit. Repeat.

So. (And you knew this was coming, didn’t you?)

How do you practice? How do you do the chores? How do you drive? How do you talk to people? What are your habits? Are they what you want them to be? Observe. Edit. Repeat.

How you do anything is how you do everything.

“The best way to prepare for the next pose is to be fully in this one.” – Kelly Stine

When I was in 3rd grade Mrs. Schneider had us do an exercise: write down and then tell the class something that you are good at. That clever Mrs. Schneider was way ahead of her time, assigning self-love to 8-year-olds in the early 1970s. I remember feeling uncomfortable to identify something I thought I did well, but I was nothing if not a direction-follower, so I did it.

Here’s what it was: I am organized.

My 3rd-grade-self loved keeping track of things, keeping my notebook in order and organizing what I was supposed to be doing. Even then, I was a list-making-planner, getting ready for what was coming.

To this day, I like having a plan. I like the neatness of a plan. A plan relaxes me and makes me feel ready. And yes thankyouverymuch, I do recognize that it is a way for me to pretend I have control over everything when I utterly and completely do not. I also recognize that this is a nervous person’s strategy. Thinking back on it, I feel tenderness for my little girl self that was already looking for ways of battening down the anxiety hatches.

These days, when my teachers talk about the almighty present moment and about staying in the Now instead of looking forward or back, I chafe a little. I mean, I get it. I know that Now is where life is happening and “Now is a gift; that’s why we call it the present” and all that. But we have to plan things, otherwise, the kids have no money for college, there is no food in the house at dinner time, and we’re homeless when we retire.

My genius yoga teacher, Kelly Stine says, “The best way to prepare for the next pose is to be fully in this one.”

My mind likes to think that I am already doing that, but my body knows different. I can feel it when I do yoga. Before I’m completely in Warrior I, I’m already beginning to open my hips and arms to get into Warrior II. Then, before I get into Warrior II, I’m flipping my front palm and reaching up and back for Reverse Warrior. If I keep projecting myself into the next pose, I’m never really in any of them.

I can feel it in Nia, too. I know another movement is coming up and I don’t really finish the one I’m doing to get the class ready for the next one. Kelly teaches that instead of mushing the two movements together, or having one dribble out, to be fully in the first right up until I’m in the next.

Like my organized, nervous 3rd grade self, I can see that this tendency to be projecting ahead happens often when I’m anxious about something.

Have you ever been at a cocktail party, having a conversation with someone, but they aren’t really looking at you? With eyes and attention wandering, they are casting around the room to see who is there and who might be the next person to talk to.

It’s possible that my love of planning and organizing is a way for me to get myself ready. It’s also a way to dissipate anxiety (social or otherwise) and disengage from whatever is happening in the moment. Instead, I could see whatever I’m doing right now as my planning. Fully engaged, present … and ready.

I don’t want to be a distracted flitting-ahead yogi. I don’t want to be that preoccupied person at the cocktail party. I want to be the one who is fully up to her eyebrows in the conversation she’s having right now. And when it’s over, it’s over and I have another full-on conversation.

I want to be ready now.


Sometimes, I think I’m doing something and really I’m not.
Or I think I’m not doing something but I actually am.

Lately, I’ve been exploring new music* with the particular intention to expand the variety of what I listen to and use in my classes. I’ve been working on a playlist for weeks: combining a variety of styles and rhythms, tempos and lyrical themes. Satisfied, I sit back, look at what I created…and see that it was a playlist of entirely white artists.

Dang it.

In conversations, I can get excited. I want to share something so I interrupt people. It’s an annoying habit that does nothing to create connection or build relationships. Just ask my husband. So, I pay attention and breathe when I have an urge to jump in and say something. But when I ask Frank how he likes it now I’m not talking over him, he raises his eyebrows, “You mean you were doing something differently?”

Double dang it.

I notice this in Nia and yoga, too. I’ll be moving around the studio, feeling like I’m really breaking into some new moves only to realize that I’m doing the same exact thing I always do with my feet. I think my hips are nice and square in Twisted Triangle (Parivrtta Trikonasana). But when I put my hand on my low back, I can feel that it’s all cattywampus. I catch myself in the mirror, or someone catches me in a photo and there it is: I’m doing what I usually do the way I usually do it.

It’s normal to find a groove and stick to it. Habit is, as an old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon said, the most powerful force in the universe. Habits develop to save energy and allow us to focus on threats and problems that haven’t been solved yet. But if I walk on the same parts of the carpet all the time, those parts get worn down to the nub while others go untouched. It is healthy to break out of habitual patterns and find new pathways in the body and brain.

Habit-breaking is not only healthful for the nervous system, but it give us options when circumstances shift and we are unable to do things in our habitual way. If you never, ever use your non-dominant hand to open doors or brush your hair or eat, what will happen when you injure your dominant arm? (Answer: You will stay in one room with messy hair and be hungry.)

Much of any body~mind practice focuses on us noticing our habits and making different choices. In Nia, many principles focus on creating movement variety and breaking out of our habitual patterns. We use the Principle 2, Part 2, The 9 Movement Forms (and a bevy of other Principles) to create new skills and possibilities in the body.

However, not one of those principles will effect a single pingle thing unless we witness how we do what we do. We have to actually know what we’re doing if we’re going to choose something different. Without that awareness, we are swimming in an unconscious sea of habit. Even after years of practice, I find myself continually going back to doing-it-the-way-I-do-it – and the only way I can make that statement is that I know how I do what I do. It’s only from there that I have a choice.

Whether you dance Nia or garden or chase after toddlers, spend some time and attention on noticing how you do it. Without judgment or criticism, be a witness to your own patterns:
Oh, I tend to step back onto the ball of my foot and lift my elbows when I free dance.
Ah, when I pick up my daughter, I always put her on my right hip.
Hmm, no matter what the time of day, whenever I get home, I have a snack.
Look at that, I interrupt people.

The first step in creating real, actual change is to witness how I do what I do. There is no skipping that step. From there, the possibilities are endless.

* I’m always interested in knowing what you’re listening to and especially what you are dancing to in the car/kitchen/shower. I’d love it if you’d share your current favorites in the comments below, on the Focus Pocus Facebook page, or email me at sjmnia@gmail.com

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

and

Why I Meditate, Part 2 from February 27, 2015

Every once in a while, I’ll be all balled up and struggling with something and a friend will say, “A wise friend of mine once said…” And then they proceed to tell ME something I told THEM when THEY were struggling. I love/hate it when that happens. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been feeling tired and I thought about writing a post about stopping…until I remembered that I’d written this one in 2015. Since I am in the midst of a writing class at Writer House in Charlottesville and I’m working like crazy on pieces for that, I thought it would be a good time to revisit.

go stop 101715

(Originally published on October 18, 2o15)

How bout no longer being masochistic
How bout remembering your divinity
How bout unabashedly bawling your eyes out
How bout not equating death with stopping
~ Alanis Morissette, Thank you

It’s crazy. For 15 years I’ve been teaching and practicing movement and mindfulness but sometimes, I just don’t pay attention.

Last week, I taught some extra classes. Then I taught my regular classes and a (super fun) day-long retreat. I took a day “off” but worked on follow up and class preparation and did yoga and played catch up at my desk. Then I taught my regular classes again. By Wednesday, my battery felt not just drained but like someone had ripped it out and stomped on it.


On a Monday morning, I overhear two colleagues chatting in an office at the gym where I teach:
— Oh man, I am so tired. Are you tired?
— Me? I’m always tired.


About three-quarters through a 90-minute yoga class, I’m on my belly, doing my best to slow down my breathing. I can feel the sweat dripping off me and I can see a drop of it quivering at the tip of my nose. Take a deep breath, says Kelly. Let yourself really rest.

As she says this, I realize that the muscles in my hands and belly and feet are tense. I know class isn’t even close to being over. I’m bracing for what is coming.

Much of the time, she says, we don’t give it our all when we’re working and we don’t really stop and rest when we’re stopping. That’s why we’re tired all the time. Work when you’re working. Stop when you’re stopping.


At a Nia training years ago, my trainer asked us to choose a simple piece of choreography for a self-observation exercise. I chose something in which the base movements were only Closed Stance and A-Stance. The idea was to observe how we did the moves and to clean up our form, and here I’d gone and picked the simplest thing ever.

And yet.

When I paid attention to what I was doing, I realized I was wiggling my toes and adjusting my feet and not ever landing and stopping in my stances at all. My stances never rested.


The most common complaint of new Nia students is that they develop blisters on the soles of their feet (it happened to me when I started). Blisters usually appear when movers repeatedly slide, shuffle, or twist on their feet. When they are stepping, they aren’t really stepping but “dragging their feet.”


When I’m wrestling with an essay or a tricky post for my blog and I hit a lull in inspiration, I will often stop and check email or troll Facebook or send a text. When I work, I’m not really working.

After a full day, I feel exhausted, but when finally roll into bed, I find myself rolling through what I accomplished and planning what to do tomorrow. When I stop, I’m not really stopping.


Last week I had a dream about a student. He’s been coming to my classes for a decade and I don’t think he’s ever been in the room for the first song. He always comes once we’re moving and jumps right in. At the end of class when I invite everybody into stillness, he usually does some sit ups or leg lifts and often he leaves early. In my dream, he was in class doing his thing and a voice asked, When does he stop?

For some reason (overriding the creepiness of “I had a dream about you” intro), I awkwardly mention this to him after class. He laughs uncomfortably and then says, Huh, that’s funny. I’m 75 and I’m still working. I can’t seem to figure out when to retire.


Go when you go. Stop when you stop.

toss-the-computer-010717
It’s a miracle that I never threw my computer out the window when I was building my web site. Not a Mother Theresa kind of miracle, but a miracle nonetheless.

All I needed was a simple site where I could tell people about my teaching and events, showcase my writing and art and maybe, if I wanted to get fancy, take payments for my work. The site-building platform ad said “the simplest way to create a beautiful website.” Simple and beautiful was what I wanted. The ad said I could have a site up in 15 minutes. I’m not a dimwit. I am well aware that I’m a not-tech-savvy middle-aged artist. I figured it would take me 45 minutes. Maybe 50.

It took me weeks. Weeks and weeks. I watched dozens of tutorial videos starring hip groovy people younger than my step kids. I looked at pages and pages of templates. I had an intimate relationship with the help desk. (Those poor people must have seen my facile messages come in and arm wrestled for who had to respond to me. They were always kind and cheerful, bless them.)

I didn’t want to build a web site. I would have preferred to hire someone to build it for me. But my business is small and not only did I not want to spend the money on a designer, I wanted to have the flexibility to make changes and additions on my own.

It took me weeks and weeks to build my site. I swore a lot. And more than once I really really wanted to throw my computer out the window. But I didn’t. And now I have a simple site where I tell people about my teaching and events, showcase my writing and art, and it even takes payments.


Here’s how I like to do Extended Side Angle Pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana): I like to put my elbow on my bent leg and extend my top arm over my head. Annoyingly, my teacher Kelly often has us do the pose differently. Sometimes, she’ll have us “cactus” the top arm so the shoulder blade draws toward the spine, opening the chest. Sometimes, she has us lift the bottom arm so it’s parallel with the top one to build core and side-body strength. I hate it when she does that.

Here’s what she says when I make grumpy faces at her: “Move into skill by moving away from preference.”


In his fascinating book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg says that 40-45% of what we do every day is habit. Many of those things feel like decisions, but they are actually deeply ingrained unconscious patterns.

Habits are the brain’s way of being more efficient and saving energy. But if we want to keep our brains and bodies strong and robust, we have to be willing to recognize and break habits. Or as Kelly says, we have to be willing to move into skill by moving away from preference.

Psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, researcher, author, essayist and poet, Dr. Norman Doidge explains in his book, The Brain that Changes Itself that

…just doing the dances you learned years ago won’t help your brain’s motor cortex stay in shape. To keep the mind alive requires learning something truly new with intense focus. That is what will allow you to both lay down new memories and have a system that can easily access and preserve the older ones. (p. 88)

This is why mindful, attentive movement is more beneficial to the whole body-mind system than mindlessly watching TV or texting while on the treadmill. It’s not just the muscles of the body we want to keep strong and healthy but the “muscles” of the mind/body system.

Feldenkrais, one of the foundational movement forms of The Nia Technique focuses on moving out of habit and preference and into a wider range of possibility. By paying attention to the details of how we do what we do, we can recognize parts of the self that are not moving, efforting unnecessarily, or are out of awareness. As the brain recognizes additional possibilities, the new information is organized and distributed through the whole body leading to overall improvement of ease in the nervous system. Practicing mindful movement like yoga, Feldenkrais and Nia helps us live more fully, comfortably, and effectively by expanding the repertoire of possible ideas, options, and movements.

Paradoxically, moving away from preference (and perhaps through some uncomfortable computer-throwing moments) not only moves us into skill but into greater health and ease. Move into skill by moving away from preference.
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