A vacation – inside and out.

Last week, David and I took advantage of a week off and took a cruise to the Bahamas to celebrate his birthday. David has never been on a cruise and even though I knew floating along in a vessel packed with hundreds of strangers was unlikely to be his ideal trip, we agreed everyone should experience this floating resort type of travel at least once. The sailing date and the timing was perfect for us, which made it a practical choice for our short sabbatical.  

As expected, we enjoyed our time together surrounded by water, sunsets and breezes. We read and slept and listened to violin players every afternoon and ate a four-course lobster dinner with wine pairings that felt indulgent and romantic. We went to the comedy club a few times, laughing at the crass standup acts, admiring the boldness required to crossed politically correct barriers. We especially loved an excursion to snorkel and sail. We held hands while floating in the cold seawater, watching a squid for the longest time. The world slipped away as we viewed coral reefs and watched brilliantly colored fish silently going about their business. We purchased souvenirs from outdoor vendors in colorful tents, trying to support the locals as we struck up conversations to learn about their lives in the Bahamas.  

IMG_1384

But despite these lovely moments, we experienced dissatisfaction too, and we agree we are unlikely to choose such a vacation again because we are quiet people and a cruise of this nature is filled with people and partying and activity that we find more overstimulating than soothing. Perhaps we are getting old, but the kids running around, intoxicated spring breakers working too hard to impress, and the loud announcements and even louder patrons on the boat was a bit much. Luckily, the activity going on around us was not enough to disturb what was going on within us, which was taking a pause from our day to day life to just spend time together. We no doubt appeared a dull, older couple to others, but the thrill of exterior amusements or a need to be entertained has long since passed us in this “seasoned” stage of life.

At Freeport, we took an excursion to see the Garden of the Groves, a tropical garden. David and I always try to see regional gardens when traveling. In Ireland, our favorite moments were visiting the Japanese gardens or the garden of exotic trees from around the world. We were as delighted and enthralled by Ireland’s overgrown hedges that span the edges of roads miles on end and the rolling hills of deep, lush green as we were by castles, museums, or pubs. We both agreed that exploring gardens was the favorite part of that vacation.

As gardeners and nature lovers we enjoy seeing different designs and displays of gardens and we are fascinated by the unique flora and fauna of different regions. I am always jealous when I see thriving plants I cannot grow myself in Florida, and I deeply appreciate the fountains, waterfalls and other majestic landscaping of great gardens that supersede anything we can do with our meek budget.

The gardens in the Bahamas, however, were not very exciting to us, mostly because the islands share the basic growing climate and soil type of Florida. The gardens were filled with the very same plants we have all around Heartwood, and frankly, ours are better maintained.  Our conversation turned to what we would do to improve the garden, rather than appreciating the attraction’s accomplishment or creativity. We didn’t want to say it out loud, but both of us thought the simple, barely groomed garden barely qualified as an “attraction” compared to others we have visited.

Then, in the midst of this mishmash of bromeliads and tropical palms, there was a labyrinth. This perked me up quite a bit. I am always fascinated to find labyrinths. I like to see how organizations set them up, what they are made of, and how people respond to them. Our guide tried to explain what a labyrinth is and how one walks the path to find peace, but she didn’t know much about the practice or history. I caught eyes with David, and his look reminded me that the proper thing to do was to not hijack the tour to give my own lecture about labyrinths. So, I kept my labyrinth knowledge to myself, silently giving my own lecture to the group in my head.

We were not afforded time to walk the path, but I didn’t feel a need to. I just liked knowing someone had bothered to raise money and organize the effort required to build a labyrinth in a quiet garden that otherwise, was not very original. There was a large statue plaque nearby carved with the names of the many patrons who had contributed to the project.  David’s one comment was, “Do you see how many people paid money to build this thing? And to think, we did ours by ourselves.”  

 Naturally, we began comparing this labyrinth to our own. The size was the same. Both are copies of the 11 circuit Chartres Cathedral in France. We are planning to redo our labyrinth soon because the design is getting weathered and worn, so we checked to see how this well-funded project affixed the design to the concrete slab. We touched the surface, kicked a bit at the edges, and contemplated what materials were used in case we could follow suit. This slid into the typical judgmental conversation about whether or not the landscaping around the labyrinth was all it could be, and we ended with a bit of self-congratulations on just how lovely our own lowly labyrinth, made by our own hands with little resources, stood up to this one.

Heartwood Labyrinth
Heartwood Labyrinth

Funny, how we (meaning people in general) do that. We see something, pausing because we admire the basic element of it’s existence. Then we start comparing that person, place or thing to our own experience or state. Our gut reaction is a glimmer of competitiveness because we all want to meet, or exceed, the standard set by others. So, instead of enjoying external things, we automatically start to measure up, contemplating whether we are better or worse. We wonder if we should up our game if we feel slacking by comparison, or in some cases, we feel validated if, in our assessment, we are in the “lead” of the unspoken competition. Of course, if what we encounter is way beyond our reach, we don’t feel the pull of competition. In that case, we chalk up the vast distance between us and them as “inspiration”. These grand people, places or things show us what is possible “if only” (we had the luck, resources, money or time).  Perhaps competition is a good thing. Witnessing greater possibilities  certainly keeps us on our toes, striving to evolve and grow. But constantly trying to one up others distracts as well, keeping us feeling as if we are in an endless race against an invisible opponent.

My deep appreciation for yoga hinges on the awareness I’ve developed, not because yoga makes me so profoundly enlightened that I don’t feel or think in ways that are rooted in my “small selfish self.” Of course, I still get urges of competitiveness or judgement as most people do, but when I feel these urges, the witness within recognized them for what they are. I can then do the personal work necessary to tamp down any drives to behave in less than a respectful or honorable way to others (or self or planet.) I can recognize  and fight off ego or intimidation or attitude, and any other energy that stands in the way of feeling balanced and in harmony with the world beyond my skin.

Yoga doesn’t make any of us perfect. But is sure does allow us to see ourselves more clearly. Thanks to yoga I recognize that I may not like a cruise today as much as yesterday due to my age and changing energies (rather than blaming the cruise line or the patrons on the cruise because I am attached to some expectation of what my time off should look and feel like and how dare others ruin it for me!) Thanks to yoga, I can see a garden that doesn’t excite me, and rather than think of this little swatch of nature as a lousy garden, I recognize that this garden is simply too similar to my own for me to feel that deep awe I might feel at a garden that is filled with a different ambiance. If I see a labyrinth and I start comparing this path to my own, I recognize that my competitive streak is pushing to the surface, and I have to watch that baby, for she interferes with me living in a state of acceptance and harmony with others. My own inner peace would certainly be upset if I allowed myself to feel “less than” what I can or should be every time I came across any person, place, or thing and believed a gauntlet had been thrown at my feet demanding I prove my own worth.

Thanks to yoga, I can say my vacation was perfect in every way. Not only did I relax and enjoy time with my husband, but each experience, whether the moment was what I expected or something I was not hoping for, gave me opportunity to flex my yoga muscles (NOT the ones used for postures, I’m talking about the yoga of the mind) because all the different emotions and reactions unfolding at each leg of the trip provided me with a chance to explore how I am wired. This journey of self-knowing is by far a more exciting adventure than any place a plane, boat or car can take me. In this way, my vacation was a meaningful trip inward, as well as outward.

I came home grateful for the change of pace, but also grateful for the lessons infused in every experience. Each hour of our lives is a precious blank slate onto which we can ponder, write about, and embrace softly the world with the open ideals of yoga. And what we learn gives life a new, positive perspective, no matter how things unfold around us.

Let go and let be

In my forties, I decided to reinvent my life to carve out more time for things that were meaningful. I was over saturated with the stress of parenting, working, running a business, keeping a home, and living with a partner who was perpetually discontent with all of the above. I sold my business and my home to fund an early retirement and set off on the grand adventure of a lifetime. We were going to live an organic, simple lifestyle in the mountains where, at long last, those I lived with would be happy, fulfilled and grateful for our abundant life. Anyone who knows my story knows that the plan didn’t turn out well. I lost everything in my attempt to gain something. But the story has a happy ending, because while I set off to reinvent my life in a way I thought I could control, I actually ended up reinventing my life through a totally unexpected series of choices and events that would fall under the category of “the best I could do under the circumstances.”

The road was not easy or fun but led me to that coveted reinvented life. My world is now filled with all the things that have meaning to me, such as deeper connections to the world and self, work that has profound purpose and fulfillment, and a partner who is fulfilled and deeply happy with our business, home, grand-parenting and most importantly, me.  I actually did get everything I was aiming for when I began seeking change. It just came in a package different than I had imagined.

For everything lost, something is gained, and the reverse is also true. For everything gained, something must be retired or left behind to make room for whatever abundance you are making space for. You just can’t keep adding to a life indefinitely and not eventually drown in the layers of responsibilities that come with having, being, or doing “more”.  The law of diminishing returns isn’t just a business construct, but a theory that applies to all of life.

One of the things I mourned losing when I moved away from Georgia and my 50-acre dream, was my newfound relationship to the land. My time in the garden, exploring animal husbandry, and just spending time in nature was blissful and fed my soul in profound ways. When I moved back to Florida out of practical necessity, I found myself trying to hang on to some of the wondrous joy I found in farming, caring for livestock, walking the mountains and exploring nature. The fact that bad choices had forced me to return to the suburban life I originally left was devastating, because returning to my old life felt like a setback, spiritually and personally. I had been changed from my mountain adventure and assuming life could go back to what once was, clearly was impossible. In subtle ways I began preserving what little I could of my Georgia lifestyle, just to prove to myself that what I had learned and loved in my brief stint of freedom in Georgia was still a part of me.

I began my life recovery (and my financial recovery) in a small apartment. Though I had no lawn to walk barefoot in, I visited local farmer’s markets and dragged home flats of strawberries. I filled my kitchen with dozens of jars of organic, homemade jam even though I no longer had a family to feed them to.  Once life got a bit more stable, I moved to a small house, and I started growing herbs and tomatoes in the backyard. Eventually, as my business prospered, I moved to 7 acres to begin the journey of Heartwood. In the first five years, while planting yoga roots to develop a business, My new husband and I also planted a chakra garden and a permaculture garden filled with tropical produce. We now grow papayas, starfruit, oranges and limes, herbs and other eatables. I’ve had over 100 chickens here too. Before even moving in, I ordered chicks from a poultry company, so excited was I to own agricultural land again. I raised a crop of chicks, decided they were too much work and sold them, then bought more chicks (which meant David had to build us a better chicken house) but then decided the flock was too much work and sold them again, only to buy some fancy chicks the next season and, as you might guess, months later, decided to let them go. I am now presently chickenless.

Let go and let be

Adjusting to change is never easy, and often, we do so in stages. It took time, but eventually I came to understand that I wanted chickens for the wrong reasons. I was attached to them for what they symbolized (I lost the farm but wanted to prove that I could keep the joy of farming in my life) rather than for the fact that they added pleasure, entertainment, or meaning to my life now. I loved chickens in Georgia because they were a part of the grand adventure of building a more intimate relationship with nature, but they are not a good fit for me as owner of a retreat center in steamy hot Florida. In Georgia, taking care of the land was the only work I had on my agenda other than raising a family and writing. Chickens were a part of my country education. Now my work is teaching and running a business again, (plus caring for a family, and writing when and if I can possibly carve out time) so taking care of chickens demands time that might be better allocated in the new configuration of my world. Florida is filled with opportunity to explore life in new ways intellectually and experientially. Here, the act of keeping chickens isn’t as stimulating. Actually, it pales in comparison to the many opportunities for growth and entertainment available in my holistic, creative community. If I want the freedom to step away from Heartwood for occasional trips or have a day off that doesn’t include the drudgery of chicken maintenance or if I just want time to devote to a new interest, I have to let the chicken responsibility go.

Learning to let go is a process and one I been working on a great deal of late. It took several years for me to let go of teaching dance totally because being engaged in music, movement and choreography was a part of my identity and I didn’t know how to redefine myself without dance humming in the background of my life.  But Oh, how freeing it was to let go and retire that engrossing role. Not that I don’t miss dance. I do. But I realize that what was a perfect fit for me for the first 50 years of life, is now meant to be something I can be grateful to have had (past tense), rather than something I must cling to because I am unable or unwilling to admit that time and circumstance changes your relationship to all things, even the art you’ve devoted your life to.

All things change. Life changes. I change. The world changes. Being adaptable and flowing with change is necessary to live in harmony with the ever-unfolding shifts of our world.  This simple truth is easy to grasp intellectually, but practicing non-attachment is much harder, not because of our unwillingness to do so, but because we are so often blind to our own patterns and the deep levels of conditioning life designs. Chickens are a good start, but I plan to continue flexing my “letting go muscles” to build the strength required to be liberated from the boundaries of mind, habit, and self-identity in this, and every, stage of life. As space opens up from the removal of each non-serving element, I feel the thrill of new beginnings.  

The Happiness Jar

A new year often inspires us to take stock, get organized, and make positive changes.  For me, a New Year calls for a clean desk. The clutter and piles of “to do” stacks all about my workstation make me feel as if I’m drowning, and if I am to accomplish anything on my resolution list, a clean desk is necessary to set the stage for productivity. I began by cleaning drawers and tossing flyers, notes and coupons that were obsolete. I collected technology gadgets, extra mouses and staplers and carted them to David’s office. Eventually I moved on to the surface of the desk where an extra monitor, printer and other devices fight for prime-time space.

On one corner of the desk sat a dusty, large yellow jar that I assigned my “happiness jar” on Jan. 1, 2017. We made Happiness jars as an art project in a New Year’s Day retreat and I decided to practice what I preach and placed mine prominently on my then clean desk. When inspired, I’d write on a note pad a quick message to acknowledge a moment in time that brought me happiness, then fold and drop the little secret into the jar. As the months rolled by, the jar filled with dozens of little folded notes expressing positive waves of emotion. But the jar has been long since forgotten because I stopped adding content somewhere in early 2018. Over time, my happiness jar stopped serving as a beacon to remind me of my full and satisfying life and the little yellow jar became just one more thing that was taking up space on my desk, detracting from my functionality.

Glancing at that dusty glass vase, I decided to toss the thing, but considering the time I devoted to writing each of those little notes stuffed inside, unceremoniously dumping it in the trash felt wrong. And how inauthentic would a teacher be who lectured students about the value of a happiness jar, telling them that revisiting the messages was as important as the affirmation of writing them, yet too lazy to fulfill the intention of the project herself? Feeling duty bound to check at least a few of the notes within, I unfolded one message and smiled. I’d written about the day I received my first phone call from my daughter in Air force boot camp. She had gushed about her feelings of accomplishment and pride, and I was so relieved and delighted that she was happy with her choice of career path, I honored the moment with a “happiness note”.

Might as well check out another note, I thought. Now, a bit more eagerly, I unfolded another paper. This one was penned on the day I made reservations to take my husband to Key West for a much-needed short vacation. I wowed in that note to change our life and put “us” in priority more often. That little weekend away was symbolic of my resolution to try to travel a bit to escape the constant on-call duty that is a part of running a retreat center. I smiled, remembering the romance and relaxation we enjoyed on that trip, and reveled in the fact that we’ve taken several other vacations since then– to Ireland, to Texas, to San Francisco with all my children, and even a few quiet, nature filled RV camping trips. I actually stuck to the intention I made that day, and here in my hand was testament to the exact moment I made the commitment to bring more balance into our world. Cool.

I would never get to my desk if I just sat here fooling with little notes, but I decided to read just one more and then throw the dang jar out and continue my cleaning project. The next personal message discussed my deep appreciation and gratitude for our yoga community, inspired by individuals who came to aid us in cleanup after Hurricane Irma. There were other notes following that described moments of love and appreciation for my staff, customers and what I do for a living. I had captured memories of visitors walking the labyrinth, sharing poignant personal stories of healing, or thanking us for creating a Chakra garden. Here I was, feeling put out and drained by the endless drudgery of running Heartwood, with nothing but a messy desk to show for it, yet proof that moments of joy and a deepening of my purpose were embedded in every day. I had proof right at my fingertips in the form of little notes jotted down in a hurry and stuffed unceremoniously into a jar.

My messy desk looked differently to me suddenly. Perhaps what at first appears to be chaos is less a sign of someone drowning in work and more a testament to an active life. I work hard, yet I live my purpose and my world is filled with endless diversity and unexpected connections that are a part of this place of healing and learning.

At this point, I couldn’t resist revisiting every single note just to look back and recall last season’s small pleasures. The notes served as inspiration and opportunity to realign my attitude. For an hour, I unfolded notes, reliving moments of happiness or poignant joy that had long since been forgotten.

I don’t know exactly when or why I stopped filling the happiness jar. Joyful moments didn’t disappear from my life, but busy with the daily drudgery of tasks, I think I simply felt too overwhelmed to take even the few seconds needed to jot a sentence down to stuff in a jar. I now began imagining all the wonderful moments I didn’t capture just because I got too busy to reflect, even in a small “happiness jar” project sort of way.

Crouched at my messy desk on a cold afternoon with students passing to and fro behind me as they went about their training, I finished reading all the notes. Perhaps I should have made more of a ceremonial event out of the reading endeavor, going over them with a glass of wine on New Year’s eve sitting in the center of the labyrinth or something.  Nowadays, the big reveal of the contents of a happiness jar is the fodder of an Instagram worthy event, romanticized and captured with a selfie to show the world how very spiritually evolved one is. But rather than trying to capture the moment as it occurred, I just experienced it, quietly, alone in my thoughts at a messy desk, learning something about myself.

I never did throw the jar away. I didn’t get around to cleaning my desk either. At this time, my desk is still a mess, and lo and behold, the empty jar has been placed back in the corner. I must be making progress, because I did manage to dust it off. The jar sits empty, awaiting another round of captured moments which I am ready and willing to collect once again. We all need reminders that life is filled with blessings big and small. All we need is to acknowledge them now and again, mindfully and with an understanding that sometimes we are truly aware and awake. At other times our awareness slips away as distractions separate us from our true nature. What is important is to acknowledge our slips and get back on the path. Happiness doesn’t really live in little notes in a jar, but in our hearts, always at the ready for another unfolding.        

The gift of pages to be filled.

As a new year crests, I find myself preparing for upcoming programs and new students, wondering how I might enhance the yoga experience to make each individual’s personal journey at Heartwood more poignant and everlasting.  While the programs evolve and get better and better, I can’t help but notice that the students still wrestle with obstacles and mental obstructions that keep them interacting with yoga on the surface level, rather than really soaking themselves in the deeper dimensions of the practice. Perhaps I am too ambitious with what I hope to accomplish in only 200 or 300 hours, but I can’t help but notice that eager students arrive for formal yoga trainings with a preconceived idea of what yoga is, how they will implement a YA certification into their lives, and a huge attachment to yoga as practiced in the standard one hour class. This very understandable enthusiasm makes introducing a new perspective difficult as I attempt to shift the trajectory of their studies to a more authentic version of yoga.

Leading eager yogis in a new direction without snuffing out their passion for the practice is difficult, because frankly, growing stronger as you master arm balances or complicated sequences feels like such an accomplishment. The non-performance part of yoga is dull and unsatisfactory compared to the gratification of mastering physical challenges and feeling so alive in your skin as you practice. That said, somehow students must learn that the uneventful archaic approaches to yoga is what sets the stage for really remarkable things to happen. Looking at life under the surface and facing yourself be scary and sad, but liberation begins here.

In a world of instant feedback, short attention spans and life unfolding quickly, how does one sell the importance of putting off short term “yoga advancement” and the fun stuff for a painfully slow unfolding relationship with our spiritual potential that can only be found in stillness, solitude & honest contemplation?

Of course, with all the lectures, slideshows, practices, visual aids, and formal building blocks of yoga education we squeeze into our trainings, its no wonder students get stuck in the intellect. There is so much information to grasp to feel competent sharing yoga with others.  They must worry about testing, and teaching, and being able to retain all this dense information. They have to consider the details of starting a business as an independent yoga teacher to pay off this yoga teacher training investment. They also want more of what inspired them to come in the first place – that great high you get when doing yoga asana class. Why would they want to take their yoga another direction, when physical yoga was the inspiration that brought them to teacher’s training in the first place?

I see huge transformations and a broadening of knowledge in every student after 200 hours of study. We all start the journey at the beginning, and these yoga practitioners are exactly where they are meant to be at this stage so I don’t mean to imply there is anything missing in the students. The problem is, I worry that when my graduates leave Heartwood, they may continue to add to their experience and understanding outwardly (more certifications, more workshops, more yoga retreat experiences) and not continue to grow inwardly (a deeper understanding of core concepts and a poignant self-knowing that comes with a commitment to exploring yoga’s full potential in quiet introspection.) They don’t know what they don’t know, and frankly, nether did I when I first completed my 200 hour certification. I keep trying to pinpoint how and why I evolved beyond those early stages of yoga infatuation, because the answer will no doubt help me guide others.

I find myself pondering the question: How can I respect a student’s understandable focus on the practical application of yoga education, such as who, what and where they will teach this stuff and at the same time instill a desire to sit with themselves in a quiet way to move towards a heart-based understanding of the element of yoga that can’t be measured or used to support a teaching career? True spiritual evolution isn’t Instagram worthy, and for some people, if something can’t be shared on social media, it never happened. In a world where people seem to need an audience for their lives, how can I encourage them to not be seduced by a yoga culture that is in some ways a distraction from yoga?

I suppose I can continue to lecture, bemoan the decline of commercialized yoga, and throw the gauntlet of “serious yoga” to their feet, hoping ego or a drive to be the real deal will get students to slow down and sit with themselves – not just as homework in meditation or formal practices to  “out-yoga” the next guy, but in a true state of curiosity and sincere desire to make space for a deeper sense of self-knowing. But you can’t force a student to embrace spirituality any more than you can force a flower to bloom.

Wait a minute. I am a gardener, and the fact is, when you create the right circumstances, you CAN get a flower to bloom – even out of season. All you need is the right environmental conditions, a little work and careful planning.

The fact is, there are no bad students – only bad teachers, and if I truly believe yoga students are missing something as we race to memorize the history, practices, theory, anatomy and technical elements of yoga , I dang well better figure out how to make the “non-doing” part of yoga interesting enough that aspiring yoga teachers will embrace the quiet, immeasurable, time consuming process of learning who they are and what makes them tick to unfold their relationship with self, earth, and God.

For me, writing has always been a way to deepen my awareness and learn personal truths. Writing is a conversation with self (or something higher than self) that is private, personal and deeply engaging. You sit with the blank page and let it speak to you and once that conversation begins, get lost in words that seem to come from a place of honesty and knowing.

Considering this, I recently ordered dozens of beautiful, hand tooled and hand bound leather journals from India embossed with symbols such as Om, Ganesh, Dancing Shiva, the Buddha and the Tree of Life on the cover. Each journal is filled with pages and pages of hand made paper infused with flower petals and natural fibers. No lines – just blank space. I plan to give these books to my students with writing prompts designed to help them process the yoga sutras and other concepts we introduce in our yoga trainings. Anyone who is “into yoga” will appreciate both the look and the representative utility of the journals, but my true hope is that these books will serve as an invitation to seek  introspection and bring joy to the process of Svadhyaya (self study). What begins as “homework” will hopefully become habit.

The gift from me will be a journal, but the gift each student can give themselves is actually the potential that lies within the blank pages.

If you’ve never tried journaling, perhaps you too should try writing as a yoga practice beyond the mat.