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This is the sign that hangs by our front door.

peace-sign-on-wall-122516It says:

Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.

As I walk out into my days, I appreciate the reminder that skillful thought and action does not come from a state of panic. Relaxing my eyes, mind, and heart does not mean acquiescence, surrender or blind obedience, but rather finding the true power of calm and peace.

This week’s post revisits one I wrote on November 1, 2015. In these days of darkness, it’s helpful for me to reconnect with how I’m using my eyes and my vision — both literally and figuratively. As we look toward a new year, I’m practicing staying peaceful even in the face of discomfort, fear, and anger. Since it is only from peace that peace will happen.


It’s my favorite yoga class of the week: Sunday noon, 90 minutes of Power with Kelly. But I walk in all jumbly and rattly. As I pull out a block and unroll my thick blue mat, even as friends walk in, I feel jagged around the edges. I can feel my eyes strain as they dart around the room. Who’s that? Ooh, that’s a cute top. I wonder what the story is behind that tattoo?

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Oh girl, I think. If you keep up with the darty eyes, there will be no peace for you today.

I see it in my students sometimes, too. They walk in and look around to figure out if they belong or not. Did I wear the right thing? Am I the right age? Is this a thing for hippies and weirdies?

Oh friend, I think to the nervous newbie, relax your eyes or there will be no peace for you today.

In yoga, it’s called the drishti, the gaze, where we set the eyes and align the head, but more than that, how we direct our energy and attention. Every posture has a particular place to focus the eyes: Downward Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana), between the big toes; Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II), front middle finger; Triangle (Utthita Trikonasana), up at the thumb. We practice steadying the drishti on something unmoving. By letting the eyes rest on one spot, the body and mind can focus letting our alarmed busy-ness drop like fall leaves.

Yogis know that when the eyes dart around, so does the mind. By settling the gaze on a steady point, we have a deeper access to our internal experience. When in the midst of an uncomfortable situation, whether it’s a long hold in Side Plank, (Vasisthasana) venturing into a new class, or driving in a downpour, my darting eyes only rattle me, stir up my mind, disperse my attention. Settling and relaxing my eyes invites patience with what’s actually happening instead of the distractions around me and in my own little head.

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One of my favorite online yoga teachers, Philip Urso, says that yoga helps us practice “going from panic to patience and from patience to peace.”

We are such visual creatures – from the moment we awaken, we are taking in the visual scene around us. We use our eyes so much that we are rarely even conscious of them (until we get something under our contact or we can’t read the print on the menu). Intentionally using the eyes instantly offers a way to connect the body and mind, and break the pattern of unconscious looking.

A soft eye relaxes both ocular muscles and active brain to allow the literal and figurative peripheral vision to expand. Suddenly, I can see that I’m really okay, that any intensity is temporary, and that I am part of a larger experience. An intentional gaze allows us to be fascinated with what is happening without becoming bewitched.

Like in yoga, in Nia we use the eyes to integrate body and mind as well as to stimulate healthful alignment and safe head movement. Perhaps more essentially, intentional use of the eyes trains us to go beyond superficial looking to seeing deeper, to what is so. Intentionally seeing the space, the other movers, and ourselves in the mirror allows us to shift from the panicky small mind through the patience of presence to the peace that really is available in every moment.

No matter what your practice – whether it is yoga or cycling or gardening or parenting – you can use the physical eyes to relax the brain and shift toward peace. Look with intention, to both relax the physical and mental bodies.

And in a bigger way, when we vision our lives and our world, we can also set our gaze on something unmoving, something steady. By setting our drishti on that which matters to us most, we can find a steadiness that moves from panic to patience, and from patience to peace.

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The grumbling inside my head gets loud.

“How long is he going to keep us doing this?” it says, all cranky and indignant.

The Nia training was more than a decade ago but I can feel it clearly right now. I’m standing in a room full of Nia teachers, learning the 52 basic moves of the practice by doing each one for a minute. We’ve gone through the stances and steps, and now we’re on Spinal Rolls.* I feel my body temperature and heart rate go up and I’m sure Carlos has made a mistake.

The minute has to be up by now.

We’re all fitness professionals, after all. And we’re all breathing heavier and starting to sweat. But no, in his calmly precise way, Carlos was exactly on time. We had done Spinal Rolls for exactly a minute. You’ve heard of people who are head strong. Turns out, moving the heart up and down and around in a big circle makes us heart strong.

One of the powerful benefits about the Nia Technique is that it builds cardiovascular strength by moving the heart in relationship to gravity instead of jumping and pounding on the joints. By taking the heart through the three planes of movement – high, middle and low – the heart gets stronger. The more we move the heart around, the more heart strong we get.

In both my Nia and Vinyasa Yoga practices, we use the Power of the Three Planes to build the heart’s strength and fitness. By lifting high and dropping low, by folding down and unfolding up, we increase the heart’s capacity. Over time, as I move my heart through the three planes, I can adapt to larger ranges of movement and greater overall health and fitness.

What is true for my physical heart is also true for my emotional heart. My willingness to feel my “lower”emotions of sadness, grief and anger expands my capacity to feel my “higher” emotions of joy, love and passion.

While our culture puts tremendous focus on positive thinking, Tori Rodriguez wrote in the 2013 Scientific American article:

In fact, anger and sadness are an important part of life, and new research shows that experiencing and accepting such emotions are vital to our mental health. Attempting to suppress thoughts can backfire and even diminish our sense of contentment. (Negative Emotions Are Key to Well-Being, May 1, 2013)

This is not about manufacturing drama to create higher highs and lower lows (Life tends to do that without our help). This is about feeling what is there in the moment. Just as I resist getting up and down off the floor or doing a minute of spinal rolls, I can resist feeling the full anger I feel about injustice, or the full grief over the loss of a friend, or the full sadness at the death of a dream. Instead, if I can allow myself to feel it all, I’m stretching my heart muscles to allow in the full range of life.

It may feel more comfortable to stay in the half-way middle ground, but literally and figuratively such mushy middle-ism is the ticket to a slow death. Get heart strong: allow yourself to go low, middle and high.


*How to do a Spinal Roll:
Standing in “A” Stance, inhale deeply and look up and sense the front of your body lengthening and opening. Use your hands for support and slide them down your legs, keep looking up while sinking to a point at which your body says, “Enough, I can’t go farther.” Then gently drop your head and look down, exhale and round up, pushing your heels into the floor, while sliding your hands back up your legs to return to a standing posture. Do the whole movement smoothly, and coordinate your leg and spine mobility. You can also do spinal rolls going in the opposite direction, by tucking your chin and dropping the crown of your head straight down, then at the bottom of the movement, look up and dive back up. Benefits: Practicing Spinal Roll keeps your spine strong and flexible. It’s terrific for self-healing the spine and back and it improves cardiovascular strength while warming up the whole body.


Other Posts about the 3 Planes of Movement are here and here.

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Friday 8am. Julia’s yoga class. We’re in a wide-legged forward fold called
Prasarita Padottanasana. No surprise, we do it in most classes.

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“From here,” she says, “Why not take Firefly?”

Firefly? I’ve experimented with several arm balance poses with little success but Firefly? An arm balance with the legs wide and lifted off the floor? But, shazam, why not? It’s Friday morning with Julia!

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I lower my hips, bend my arms and gingerly lift my toes. For a second, just like its namesake, I hover over the ground…and then tip over and dump awkwardly onto my butt. I snort because, butt-falling.

Julia is all for it. “Yeah! Falling is great! Yoga can be so intense, serious and challenging, it’s important to bring a sense of playfulness to it.”

“Samuel L. JACKson,” I think. “LIFE can be so intense, serious and challenging. It’s important to bring a sense of play to everything!”

Years ago, I read Stuart Brown’s book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul and it profoundly changed the way I think about play in my work and in my life. We’ve all experienced the State of Play at some point. Executives call it The Flow. Athletes call it The Zone. No matter what you call it, according to Dr. Brown’s research, some characteristics of play are:

  • Purposelessness, that is, the activity is done for its own sake. It is intrinsically rewarding.
  • Timelessness – an engrossing activity in which the player loses her sense of time (you know, “time flies when you’re having fun”).
  • Safe – In the state of play, we are incapable of failing.
  • Pleasurable – of course, play is fun!

Our culture tells us that play outside of childhood is silly and pointless but research shows that it is essential to people of all ages. Part of the reason the practice of Nia has been consistently interesting to me for more than 16 years is this element of playfulness. It’s also a big reason I love my husband (and cat) so much.

In Nia we use play to train, condition and heal the body and by practicing play we develop an effective way of learning, improving processes, increasing creativity and solving problems. In his May 2, 2016, post “Thoughts on Play” Todd Hargrove defines play as repetitive movement with variations. This definition gets directly to the integrated nature of play.

Imagine seeing someone doing a repetitive movement with no variation. This would look rigid, like work, not like play.

Now imagine seeing someone doing movement that had no repetition at all and was only variation. This would look like crazy chaos, not play.

But if you saw someone repeatedly doing something with slight tweaks and variations – like throwing a ball or skipping rope. That would look and feel like play.

Dr. Dan Siegel, UCLA professor of psychiatry and overall neuroscientific badass says, “Integration is health.” Without integration, a person, group, system, or organization swings either to rigidity or chaos. Play, then, is a healthy place to be.

Playing with play is the human way of learning, creating, and healing. How can you play today? In anything you do ~ from dreaded chores, tricky conversations, creative conundrums or physical challenges ~ incorporate playful tinkering to see what happens.

Integration is health and play is integration so go play.

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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!”

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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 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.

As I walk into the memorial service for a 23-year-old friend, I see an image of his beautiful face on the wall, and I felt my heart buckle. I put my had on my friend’s arm. I don’t think I can do this, I said. I can’t bear it. She takes my hand and says, Our ability to feel grief and sadness is directly proportional to our ability to feel love and joy. Stretch your heart. You can do it.

At the most basic level, why are we here? Why are we in these bodies, on this planet, in this life? Why do we connect with each other, why do we work, why do we create things, why are art and music and stories are so important to us?

Why? We are here to feel. The reason we are here is to feel it all.

And yet in the ultimate irony, we avoid or minimize how much we feel. We create environments that are not too hot and not too cold. We resist intensity of all kinds, go on auto-pilot and hang out mainly in a neutral, not-feeling-much-of-anything space.

Staying in sensation is an investment in life. By paying attention, I have the chance to actually be present for my days. It’s a matter of bravely stretching our hearts, minds, and nervous systems to be able to sustain awareness and presence – even when life gets intense.

It’s a practice that’s as simple and profound as one single question:

What sensation am I feeling now?

In any moment, I can pay attention and ask the question in regards to my body, my mind, my emotions, my life:

  • Monday morning yoga class: I’m in Warrior II pose. When I ask, What sensation am I feeling now? I realize that I’m a little checked out. I don’t feel much in my legs and my arms are noodly.

By asking the question, I stop thinking about my to-do list and how my yoga top has ridden up over my belly. I can drop into the intensity of Warrior II. My legs get stronger when I make this choice and my nervous system gets stronger, too.

  • It’s a Tuesday evening, and I’ve spent the day doing all the things I always do on Tuesday. I’ve done chores around the house, I’ve taught a class, I’ve run the errands, I’ve written a post, I’ve gotten dinner ready.

When I ask, What sensation am I feeling now? I realize that much of the day, I’ve been habitually doing what I do and I feel a fuzzy, cotton-wool-in-the-head feeling.

By asking the question, I can choose to drop into sensation and engage. Instead of zoning out in front of the TV or scrolling through Facebook, I can read an interesting article or listen to some jazz or watch a film that challenges me. Waking up with something unfamiliar and unexpected expands my mind and in general makes me more open to whatever arises.

  • Out of nowhere, memory of my step-son at age 6 comes to me. He’s on the edge of the auditorium seat at kindergarten orientation radiating excitement. The teacher leads a song and he sings and smiles and my heart could break for loving him. In just over a month, this boy who still radiates excitement about learning, will graduate from college.

When I ask, What sensation am I feeling now? I realize I have set aside his graduation in my heart. I haven’t felt it.

By asking the question, I can feel how happy I am for him, how amazed I am by all he has accomplished and the man he is becoming. And I can feel how sad I will be when he’s far away. By asking the question, I feel my love for him.

In May, when I see him in cap and gown, and I am inevitably in tears, I will be able to feel them instead of holding them back or setting them aside.

Staying in sensation is the edge at which change and transformation happen. It’s where I build the strength, endurance and presence that allow me to feel my life. Life will give us intensity one way or the other. We can practice being with it by being in sensation now.

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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.

Want to do anything better? Introduce the concepts of sthira and sukha to anything you do. (You can read more about sthira and sukha here.) These Sanskrit terms can be translated in lots of ways but my favorite is that offered by master yoga teacher, T.K.V. Desikachar:

Sthira is alertness without tension.
Sukha is relaxation without dullness.

Here are 5 steps to doing anything with more skill and ease by using sthira and sukha:

1. Identify a Thing you want to do More Skillfully

It can be anything.

Your Thing can be a physical endeavor like running or yoga or healing an injury. It can be an activity like studying for an exam, giving a presentation, or writing an essay. It can be creating (or letting go of) a habit like driving or eating or shopping more mindfully, exercising every day or flossing. Your Thing can be a relationship issue like reaching out to friends more, listening more attentively to your child or partner, or being kinder to yourself.

Whatever it is you want to do better, identify it clearly. Whatever it is, we’ll call this Your Thing.

2. Observe with Curiosity

Notice how you do Your Thing. Get curious about the details. At this point, make no effort to change anything, just see how you do your do.

Do you run with grim determination in all weathers regardless of how you feel? Do you put off studying until the last minute and then casually read your notes? Do you start popping cookies as soon as the kids go to bed? Do you zone out when your partner starts telling you about her hapless coworker?

Without judgement or criticism, get curious about your tendencies when you do Your Thing.

3. Tweak by adding Sthira

The next time you do Your Thing, experiment with adding some sthira: alertness without tension.

Drive to work with awareness but without gripping the wheel. As you put your PowerPoint slides together, do it with focus and attention but without hyperventilating about what the boss will think. Invite a friend over to lunch without winding yourself into a perfectionist knot about the Caesar dressing.

See what happens when you add more sthira tension-free alertness to Your Thing.

4. Tweak by adding Sukha

Do Your Thing again and this time focus on adding sukha: relaxation without dullness.

In yoga class, notice what you can relax (eyes, jaw, eyebrows?) and still keep the form of the posture. At the dinner table, take time between bites to pause and breathe without zoning out and shoveling in. When your child wants to tell you a story, see if you can soften your eyes and hands while still listening.

Again, get curious about what happens when you add some sukha relaxation without lifelessness as you do Your Thing.

5. Repeat steps 2-4 as needed

We all have tendencies and we all sometimes swing to alert hyper-vigilance or floaty numbed-out. It’s about practice, not perfection. Like the levels on a stereo, adjust the dials of sthira and sukha depending on the moment and the Thing at hand. Have fun tossing a little Sanskrit wisdom into the mix of your day.

BONUS: Compassion Boost

When I pay close attention to my own habits I have the opportunity to make more skillful, happier choices. An added bonus is that my awareness of my tendencies ups my compassion for others.

When a hurried driver passes me, zigging into the lane in front of me, I can recognize myself in their tension and stress (and I can up my own sthira to stay clear of them on the road). When my teen is zoning out on the Internet instead of doing their midterm paper, I can connect to times when I’ve relaxed myself into a stupor.

More kindness to me allows me more kindness to those around me. The practice is a gift to yourself and to your relationship with the world.

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