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Anti-Resolution Stance

My dear friends, as we head into the New Year, I want to wish you only the best of the best for 2016.

By this I mean: first do no harm.  Especially to yourself.

You can start off 2016 on a fabulous note by NOT making resolutions.

Winter is possibly the crappiest time to launch big shifts (hence the fact that most resolutions go kaput within weeks). ‘Tis the season of yin (yay!),  and of the most mysterious of the four directions, the North, which the ancient Hebrews called Tsafon, or the place of concealment, where things are hidden — not so much scary as soulful, as in the dark night of.

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Starkness lets us see more sky

You can instead birth your new self much more effectively in the spring, when the cycle of regeneration is living and breathing all around us.  (Shameless promotion: we’ll be doing a passion-infused goal setting session at our Mexican Jungle Yin Yang Yoga Retreat.)

For now, consider focusing on a longer term intention, what the ancient yogis called a sankalpah — which you might think of as a affirmation of how you want to show up in the world. Judaism has a similar tradition which Benjamin Franklin followed, that of adopting one of the 48 middot, or qualities you want to embody.  Pick something you want to work with over a period of time (such as until the daffodils peak their sunny little cupolas past the topsoil) and find an easy way that you can say it to yourself over and over again, like: “I’m the calm in the center of the storm” or “I’m generous with myself and others, knowing the returns I’ll receive will be better than Facebook stock.”

If mantras and affirmations are too woo-woo, choose a theme word. (Mine will be “upgrade”: Yael 2.0 coming to studio near you.)

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Why don’t all my Christmas-celebrating friends have a bottle tree?

It’s not that I don’t think it’s important to have goals, it’s that it’s important to have goals that totally fire you up. The best goals — meaning the ones you’ll achieve — require a lot of agni, Sanskrit for fire which brings us the word “ignite.”

Agni is a fundamental principle of Ayurveda, which is understood as both digestive fire — the metabolic force that turns matter (food) into energy (calories) — as well the spiritual phenomena of transformation. With all the stimuli in our world, we have an awful lot to digest, both literally (Christmas dinner!) and metaphorically (information, conversations, relationships).

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My two honeys enjoying a wintry rest

One of the best ways to light your agni up is to pre-select things to digest, which we can think of as elimination on the front end. Even the good stuff — the purest of fruit, the most high-cultured forays — is not going anywhere if your body can’t assimilate it. So this winter, let go of what you can, keep yourself warm on the outside (fuzzy slippah time! self-massage-with-warm-oil-after-shower time) and inside (switch your salads for nourishing soups and stews), and make sure you take it easy, and press pause as often as you can.

(ps For those that want to start 2016 with a reflective practice space that interweaves yoga and writing, consider coming to my next Pen & Pose workshop, offered in DC on January 9th.)

With love,

Yael

 

 

 

How to Let Go

It’s hard to leave that with which we’re familiar — places, lovers, careers — or just calendar years, as we will soon do, relearning how to write the right date on simple forms.

WIS tree

Like this tree in DC’s Tregaron Park, you can take your sweet time to let go. But it’s the only way to regenerate fabulous plumage in the spring.

In colder months, the call to let go and leave behind gets louder and louder. Sometimes, we have no choice but to heed that call — but not before checking out whether we’re simply caught up in boredom, wanting things to be different than they are, not appreciating all the stark beauty that is our eternal travel companion.

To me, December carries anticipation of awkward holiday gatherings — the awkward describing how I feel in the midst of families celebrating each other, having not had a family for most of my life.  I feel that familiar pull to dwell on that which has gone less than magically in my life — the losses and my insufficient responses to them, the healing paths or pleasure trips or books I think I should have taken or written.

This is when I’m thankful for modern psychology for making me remember I’m not alone. As Martin Seligman (the father of positive psychology) writes:

For sound evolutionary reasons, most of us are not nearly as good at dwelling on good events as we are at analyzing bad events. Those of our ancestors who spent a lot of time basking in the sunshine of good events, when they should have been preparing for disaster, did not survive the Ice Age. So to overcome our brains’ natural catastrophic bent, we need to work on and practice this skill of thinking about what went well.

I’ve written here before about my own gratitude practice. Every single day, I write what is working well in my life, what I’m grateful for, what surprises and blessings have come my way without any effort on my part — or as a culmination of months of behind-the-scenes activity. I review my gratitude at the end of the year, taking stock of forgotten goodness, and list out who I need to forgive (hint: I’m always at the top of the list)

It’s only after I view my life through the lens of appreciation that I get clear on what I am ready to walk away from.

Try it.

You can bet I’ll be doing this end-of-the-year ritual in the coming weeks, dear reader, so we can start 2016 poised for greatness. And by  great, I mean full-throttle living, along the lines of Elizabeth Gilbert’s wisdom in her recent book Big Magic: “Do whatever brings you to life, then. Follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart.”  We are here for such a short time together, and there’s no better way to do this life than to live it and feel it, in all its variations and hues.

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Letting go helps your wings grow

I have wonderful things planned for us in 2016, some of which I’m wrapping in a pretty bow, and can’t quite yet share with you.

But (shameless pitch here), I promise you that every night, at our beautiful retreat in Mexico in February. I will ask you “what went well today and why.” Because Seligman promises that doing so will result in our being “less depressed, happier, and addicted to this exercise six months from now.” Appreciation creates happiness.  And happiness creates the space to let go of things that are just helping to get by.

I’ll leave you with a “found poem”taken entirely from an interview Ysaye Barnwell held on National Public Radio about her decision to leave Sweet Honey in the Rock, an all-women’s African American acapella group she had been part of since 1979.

Becoming Free

 The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion. – Albert Camus

Don’t know how my people survived.
I was beginning to struggle.
It’s always tied to what I’m traveling to,
with how to do everything.
And the reason I’m traveling?
To Play with Time.
And the people you meet!
Now was that time
Door-opening-door-closing
Come?

Cleansing Your Way to Strength

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Fall on a West Virginia lake

In Ayurvedic practice, fall is an opportune season to gently cleanse.  Unlike a spring cleanse, which focuses on removing toxins built up over the winter, its autumn sister is all about strengthening digestion and metabolism to help us prepare for the colder, more sedentary season ahead.

Strengthening happens when we gather our energy back into our own centers from its tendency to go wandering all over the place, which we can call FOMO or computer-generated ADHD or monkey mind. Turning inwards sounds easy, but it can’t usually happen until we do something both significant and temporary that helps us decrease, or at least qualitatively shift, our consumption.  By tuning down the velocity of ingestion, we find we can better taste particular flavors — the intuitive ingredients that helps us find our way into just desserts — our purpose and place within the world.

In his book Silence, Thich Nhat Hanh (the Zen monk who was nominated to the Nobel Peace Prize by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.) argues that we should not just look at food we eat, but what he calls “sensory food” when looking to shift our habitual patterns of consumption. Sensory food includes “what we take in with our senses and our mind—everything we see, smell, touch, taste, and hear. External noise falls into this category, such as conversations, entertainment, and music. What we read and the information we absorb is also sensory food.  Perhaps even more than edible food, the sensory food we consume affects how we feel.”

Just this morning, a friend emailed to say that she had deactivated her facebook account because she needed “to step back from life distractions and focus more on inner work.”  This isn’t to say that inner work precludes an attention to the other — in my own life, the best inner has happened with the support of a beloved community — but so many of us are finding out all over again, that we need our circles to be more intentional, less social-swarming.

My first sensory food detox coincided with my first season of consistent yoga practice, about 20 years ago. I always have loved the feeling of a leisurely morning, holding a mug of coffee around its trunk, the liquid heat entering the soft underbelly of my hand directly, it seemed, into my heart. In the other hand, the whooshing sound of the newspaper as it swished from story to story, neighborhood to enclave to character, on its best days, opening up the possibility for me to choose a different way to live my own life.

Perhaps because of my yoga practice which invites us to notice absolutely everything, despite myself I began to observe my sunrise reverie was interrupted — more frequently than not — by a rising anger at the industry which had gotten less investigative, more headline-grabbing.  The daughter of a printer who would often read two or three newspapers each day,  I would never had imagined not reading a daily paper. But after several experiments with newspaper detoxing, I discovered that there was indeed better sources of news, and my own ability to critique had to do a great deal with maintaining my fundamental nature of curiosity rather than slipping into the comfort of easy cynicism.

In her bestselling book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying , Maria Kondo proposes a radical decluttering protocol that is both very strict (no more than 30 books! all clothes must be folded like so!) and exuberant.  She writes:

The process of assessing how you feel about the things you own, identifying those that have fulfilled their purpose, expressing your gratitude, and bidding them farewell, is really about examining your inner self, a rite of passage to a new life…

Two of Kondo’s big ideas are:

  1. Focus more on what you want to keep rather than what you can live without. She says “the question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.” Therefore hold each item close to you and ask if it “sparks joy” — not if its functional or brings back memories or a smart thing to hold onto.
  2. Your inanimate objects deserve your gratitude. When you take off your crimson cowboy boots and put them in their spot in the closet, thank them for protecting your feet and making you feel bad-ass. Thank your keys for getting you home safe and your cell for allowing you to tell your mom you love her.  Thank the scarf you wore every day over three winters straight for giving you warmth — and then put in a bag for Goodwill. You might find yourself less envious of other people’s stuff when you take time to realize your own shit is so awesome.
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Fall can mean letting the past float away

This time of year, we cleanse to strengthen. By cleansing our belongings, by narrowing that which we consume through the sense doors of vision and hearing and taste and touch, we may begin to feel life flowing in a new, unobstructed way. We may decide to bring a jasmine plant into our living room, so we can smell sweetness as we curl up to a good novel in our favorite flannel pjs, or to paint that white wall tangerine orange or create a space in our home with a large easel and no clock. We may decide, as one of my coaching clients did earlier this week, to start studying something new, and while she’s at it, to shore up her finances before she quits that job that was once exactly what she aspired to; after a cleanse, she saw her colleagues and bosses and realized: Not Me.

(By the way, yes, I’ve tidied up my clothes. And — as a Jew (and teacher), I can’t imagine having only 30 books, but I have twiddled down my collection by about 50, placing novels I’ll never read again in a free library. My personal journals, I can’t yet bare to touch.  It’s not about perfection, but about clarity, and I’m hoping that my fall cleanse will give me more of that.)

Friends, may you be clean and clear and strong as an ox as we enter this season of soup and cocoa.   If I can support you as you go through your process, please be in touch!  And if you want to plan ahead and go straight into tropical fantasies, consider joining me in February on the Mexican coast.

Turning inwards

 

I find it easier to reflect where I can see nature doing the same

I find it easier to reflect in places where I see nature doing the same (photo by Juan Carlos Enciso)

Today is Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the year according to the Jewish calendar, when a ram’s horn is blown to announce the possibility to begin again.

Each new month — and the new year — launches with a new moon, the first lunar phase when the moon is invisible.  (Although I grew up believing that the Jewish calendar was lunar, I just learned that it’s actually lunisolar — somewhat in between the purely lunar Muslim calendar and solar Gregorian one. This ensures that Rosh Hashana always falls in the autumn, and other holidays in their season. Cool!)

One of my favorite teachers, Gershon Winkler (rabbi, shaman and all-around troublemaker) offers a way of looking at the new year:

“Shanah” literally translates not only as “year” in Hebrew but at its root connotes “transformation, ” and indeed as autumn approaches so does the challenge of personal and communal transformation. Outside, the colors of the leaves are beginning to change, as is the temperature, and the aroma in the air. The twelfth-century Kabbalist Rabbi Avraham ben Dovid taught: “With change in the seasons of Nature comes as well change in the seasons of the soul.”

Seasonal changes, Judaism teaches, are not phenomena confined to what goes on outside of us in what we glibly refer to as Nature, but they affect us just as dramatically deep inside our hearts. The purpose of the High Holyday services, then, are not to torture congregants with hours of prayer but to help them midwife new paradigms in their lives, spiritual, physical, emotional and otherwise; to help coach the birthing of something magically new and refreshingly alive in the year to come.

Autumn with its brisk breezes and abundant harvests begins the turning inward and grounding down that is necessary to digest the richness of our lives. For that reason, ’tis the season of the element of earth in Chinese medicine (and air, or vata, in Ayurveda and yoga, which wants grounding to bring in a sense of harmonic balance to things we’re trying to get done before winter makes us settle in for a while).

As we find ourselves on the precipice of a new season, you might commit to making time in your day to be in nature daily — it could be something as simple as caring for a houseplant, playing with a dog, doing pigeon pose, or meditating on what and whom it is that you belong to.  Turning inwards — toward the earth, toward that solid, stable self within you will often surprise you with how much more integrity you can be in when you find yourself outwardly focused.  Along those lines, I leave you with a poem about the new year and about reflecting within to act clearly and courageously without.

All my best! Yael

 

The Birthday of the World
— Marge Piercy

On the birthday of the world
I begin to contemplate
what I have done and left
undone, but this year
not so much rebuilding
of my perennially damaged
psyche, shoring up eroding
friendships, digging out
stumps of old resentments
that refuse to rot on their own.
No, this year I want to call
myself to task for what
I have done and not done
for peace. How much have
I dared in opposition?
How much have I put
on the line for freedom?
For mine and others?
As these freedoms are pared,
sliced and diced, where
have I spoken out? Who
have I tried to move? In
this holy season, I stand
self-convicted of sloth
in a time when lies choke
the mind and rhetoric
bends reason to slithering
choking pythons. Here
I stand before the gates
opening, the fire dazzling
my eyes, and as I approach
what judges me, I judge
myself. Give me weapons
of minute destruction. Let
my words turn into sparks.

Happy Summer!

We are just past the solstice, the apex of light in the northern hemisphere.

Some say that during the solstice, the veil between the living and the spirit world lifts, much like in the Biblical dream scene known as Jacob’s Ladder – in which angels ascend and descend a staircase connecting heaven and earth.

The solstice is a magical moment in our calendar. Since Juan Carlos and I were married on the winter solstice, it’s our half-anniversary, a signpost where I like to pause and reflect on the quality of our relationship and how it’s igniting my own spiritual growth, difficult as it can be at times. The summer solstice is also the anniversary of my mother’s suicide, containing that bittersweet edge when I can see how my perceptions have continued to unfolded since her death.

This solstice started out early on the back deck, coffee with cardamom in hand. JC and I spotted white butterflies fluttering around our zinnia bed. The first piece of writing I published was called White Butterflies, since they were surrounding my mother’s body at the moment of her death. This time, they made me smile.

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Happiness on a stem

Later in the day, we hiked to my favorite place to meditate in Rock Creek Park with our dear friend John. Along the way, we spotted a barred owl as it flew to a higher branch, the better to check us out.

My meditation spot

My meditation spot

After meditating to the sound of water running over boulders in the creek, the storm began. The warm rain that poured for the next half hour cleansed us of any dry pores or strands of hair. To me, it felt like a literal and metaphorical bath, a mikvah of mayim chayim (living waters). The lightening made the energy of the woods around us vibrate; I felt fully alive after days of swampy heat.

Last fall, I completed 800 hours of studies in yoga therapy. It was only when I was finished that I was able to see how hard I had been working the previous few years — on these studies, on helping my honey acculturate to these United States, on trying to support us financially and psychologically, on trying to do better in the world and in my career. Meditating with a group last December, though I was feeling all that I should be working on, I intuited that 2015 would be a year not of doing, but of integrating. One thing that I knew I immediately had to drop for the time being was this blog.

So far, all I can say is hallelujah!

In January, JC and I began a nine-month long shamanic apprenticeship as a way of enjoying shared spiritual practice. At the same time, I was asked to be a part of the yoga teaching team at the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington, which integrated two of my core identities in a way that was both challenging and playful. I’ve been able to delve more deeply into my own practices without worrying about where they will lead or what I ought to be doing. As refreshing as a good long summer rain.

I’m not done. I intend to take this season to enjoy being in my garden and the woods, visiting friends, and engaging my heart more than my mind.

I’ll be back. I’m beginning baby steps on improving this website, and am fixing to write regularly again beginning Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year that takes place in early autumn. At the same leisurely pace, I’m also planning a retreat in the Mexican jungle, yin yoga and myofacial release workshops, a yin yoga teacher training, a six-week yoga and writing course for those experiencing grief, and maybe, much more. I’ll keep you posted.

Enjoy this glorious summer — may it be one of endless lazy days and inspired living for you! — and keep in touch!

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Yoga & Grief

When I teach, just like in other parts of my life, I tend to talk.  When there’s a natural catastrophe, a bomb or nuclear explosion goes off, or someone famous dies of old age or heroin or hanging, I’m likely to talk about it in class.  Death (especially) becomes me. So perhaps you’re not surprised to learn that I’m a big believer in the power of yoga during the process of grief.

That said, I was recently asked to write an article about yoga and grief.  It’s just been published in the September 2014 issue of the DC edition of Natural Awakenings.  You can read it by clicking here.

I’m grateful to all the people who’ve lost loved ones and are willing to talk with me about it — I’ve learned a tremendous amount from watching how people choose to live in the face of death. Though I’ve also had my own experiences, it’s humbling to remember that grief — like anything else — happens in many shades and how I handle things might be vastly different than the next person.

Thank you for reading and sharing any thoughts you have!

Coffee Talk

Meg & Bill Scofield are two delightful (and faithful) members of a weekly therapeutic yoga class I facilitate in downtown DC, close to the George Washington University Hospital. In the wake of what they call “medical upheaval,” they’ve been blogging about their intentional lifestyle — which has meant what most of us would consider radical downsizing and simple living. In fact, next month they will pack it even further down into what fits in a large backpack each, and take off — starting in Mexico, and seeing where life draws them afterwards.

They have an occasional interview series with other DC dwellers who’ve touched their lives. Juan Carlos and I sat down with them over strong Americanos, which might account for the good-natured rambling we did about everything from the Holocaust to how Juan Carlos and I met and got married to what we like about DC. Enjoy!

 

Therapeutic husband-and-wife team Yael Flusberg and Juan Carlos Enciso (c) Bill Scofield