Friday, November 3, 2017

Aparigraha and presence

I thoroughly enjoy nerding on yoga philosophy— which is some of why I’ve prioritized my own practice of physical yoga asana to balance out my own tendencies to only live in my thoughts and never in my own body.

In training other yoga teachers, I get to indulge much of my nerdery. This year’s class of Yogawood 200 hour vinyasa teacher trainees are approaching yogic ethics in the yamas and niyamas. These are codes of behaviors with others and oneself written down in the earliest yogic text, The Sutras. The distinction between behaviors with others and oneself is often emphasized— for example, the first Yama is ahimsa or non-harming. It’s pretty common to hear modern day yogis write or say, “I’m practicing ahimsa by not pushing myself too hard and doing every chaturanga. I’m not harming myself.”

The yamas aren’t really about you with you. Being nice to yourself is important, but it’s not ahimsa. Ahimsa is very clearly not harming others. From there, the yamas instruct us to be honest (satya), not to steal (asteya), to be respectful and careful with our sexual energy and behavior (brahmacarya), and to not grasp (aparigraha).

The last one, aparigraha, non-grasping fascinates me. I think it’s so illuminating in this current age. I read about it lots. I write about it too. It’s so comforting that for thousands of years millions of people have struggled with grasping after too many experiences, too many things, too many titles, jobs, relationships, trainings, accreditations, achievements, and more. I remember reading a Buddhist article on aparigraha (the idea shows up there too) reminding the reader that we grasp when we feel insufficient. The author’s antidote was to focus on feeling enough, to see where we have enough, and are enough. Then the grasping tendency abates.

As I revisited aparigraha recently I was struck that this is a yama, not a niyama, meaning aparigraha is very explicitly an instruction of our behavior in the context of others. I feel pretty clear on ahimsa, or brahmacarya for that matter (the sexual responsibility one!), but this felt different... grasping feels so detrimental to ourselves. If, like the Buddhist article suggested, it stems from a feeling of lacking the behavior is a bandaid or a distraction. How does it impact others?

I started looking out for it. My husband and I have amazing conversations and very different conversational styles. Conversations are combat sports for me. I want to parry the words and defeat my opponent. Kevin wants to learn something. Novel. We’re learned a lot from one another both in the content of our discussions as well as from our styles. I’ve urged Kevin to be more passionate and assertive. He’s shown me that listening is, perhaps, worthwhile.

My trained habit in conversations is grasping— I like to grasp after my response (“I will dazzle you!”) or find the perfect anecdote (“you will be charmed!”) so I’m usually hunting in my own brain rather than actually hearing the other person. Aparigraha. Grasping.

I realized that this causes me to not be present to the person I’m with. By practicing ahimsa, I no longer harm another. By practicing aparigraha, I’m actually present to them.

Aparigraha is absolutely a yama. It has everything to do with how we engage with those we perceive as other to us. It is inviting us to actually be with one another.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Feel your feet.

My feet are often purple. Poor circulation runs in my family. One particularly bad winter I got chilblains! I didn’t even know what they were. Kevin googled “swollen, itchy toes” and we discovered that I had more in common with those living at the turn of the century than originally suspected.

Recently, Kevin listened to a Gurdjieff lecture. An audience member posed a particularly combative question to Gurdjieff. Gurdjieff roared back, “where are your feet?” The audience member continued contesting. Gurdjieff asked again, “where are your feet?” The audience member heard, slowed, felt. The tenor of their exchange shifted radically to one of more mutual understanding.

Kevin relayed the exchange to me. I tried to feel my feet. I’ve taught yoga for more than 7 years and I’m not sure that I’ve felt them even in that time. Even teaching body awareness most days of the week.

And I am comparatively in my body. And my practice has landed me more deeply in my body than I lived prior.

And I rarely feel my feet.

So I now continuously ask myself, “where are your feet?” And the funny thing is that I start to feel sensation almost like pins and needles after the limb having fallen asleep. My attention is acting shifting circulation.

In yoga there’s a saying that “prana flows where citta goes” meaning energy flows in the direction of your attention. I’ve seen this again and again. When Kevin and I pay attention to each other, there is a flourishing in our marriage. When we first adopted our rescue cats they were a bit haggard— they’d been through a lot! As we attended to their safety, comfort, and fun they blossomed. Their eyes grew brighter, their fur shiny, and their sweet, authentic selves emerged. When I attend to my aloe plants the stems plump up and the green skin shines. I neglected my house for awhile and it showed. Now that I’m putting more care in painting a wall here, or replacing this appliance, or adding or removing a decoration there’s a different buzz in the walls and feeling in the air. Energy flows.

Feet are an interesting place to numb. It means that it’s also hard to feel where you are on the earth. I’m paying attention to all of my shoes— which shoes more contain me and which shoes offer a bit more breath.

Not feeling feet means less balance. Less ability to spread toes and nuance ones stance.

This energy flow is an overall inhabitation. Where I am that I am not? How often am I at home but mentally at work? How often am I in a conversation but actually talking to my high school teacher? How often for any of us?

We know presence is a practice. That understanding unfolds.

I wonder, too, at the fictions that convince us that presence is taxing. What feels simpler about checking out than staying in? What fear underpins numbness?

My body is proving a very trustworthy gauge. It’s a compass. It’s a locator. It’s a vessel. It’s a world unto itself.

I heard an interview recently where a young writer shared her frustration at working in a cubicle. She wanted to be “free” to write and her pragmatic 9-5 was other than her passion. In the course of the conversation her mantra emerged: “this is where the action is.”

I remembered all the times my life seemed other than where it was. The bored hours waiting tables, itching to get on the road. High school droning endlessly on until my life could begin. All the moments when I felt on the outside of my own life.

When I didn’t feel my feet.

Prana flows where citta goes.

I’m very invested in my life.

It’s amazing.

I am feeding it. I am paying attention to it. I am feeling it. I am grateful for it. It is where the action is.

I am in my feet.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Patron Saints of Lisbon

Upon landing in Lisbon, I wrote this and posted it on social media:

"All Hail the Lisbon Grannies! They are converting me to the Church of the Granny-Who-Gives-No-Fs. Their heads hang out open windows. They stare. They walk reeaaal slow on the cobblestones and you need to just match their pace. The old men try to please them. The babies climb on their laps. The Lisbon Grannies MESS with those in their midst. Ask Granny for directions at the bus stop and she waves you off-- she does not wish to be bothered.

They sell you shot glasses of moonshine on the street corner assuring, 'the alcohol is not too much!' 

The keepers of secrets. The secret fun.

These Grannies are everywhere reminding me how invisible elder women are in some parts of the world. The Lisbon Grannies are alive and do not care. A reminder that the play and the mischief can keep you in your power. That the Grannies create the magic."

The visibility of old women in Lisbon reminded me of how invisible older women are in most of the world. Also, how isolated they often are. The Lisbon grannies ran in packs. They met one another on the street and blocked the corner while they gabbed. They spread table cloths for one another's side hustles in the tourist district. They gave SEVERE side eye that caused you to clutch your pearls. They smoked cigarettes and used canes on tiled sidewalks that were basically vertical on Lisbon's steep hills. The grannies ran the streets.

The grannies also didn't seem overly preoccupied with the tropes of old womanhood that I know at home. They weren't particularly affectionate to babies. They didn't seem all that interested in knitting. In other words, they seemed like actual people. Not charicatures.

When did we make old women ideas instead of people?

They gave me such hope that I, as a woman, can keep living. That I, as a woman, can stay deep in my magic and my mischief at every stage of my life. That I get to be a little girl, a young woman, a full woman, and an old crone and that each stage doesn't have to be predetermined. I can decide what it means. Maybe I'll decide to be an old burlesque dancer. Why not?

Maybe it's the old world charm of Lisbon that preserved these women's humanity. Maybe they made some type of pact. I don't know what it is. At one point Kevin asked, "where are all the old men?" We went into a little cafe selling pastries, coffee, and liquor while a soccer game played on a TV. They were all there.

They gathered around the table, talking shit, and gratefully accepting round after round of espresso from the young waitresses. They keep living too.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Allow Play

On the Portugal retreat, we woke up to horses neighing (or one allergic horse coughing) and the breeze whispering the pines. We got coffee or tea and wandered up to the studio for breath practice and meditation sits. Returning to the common area, we found breakfast displays full of home made seed breads, fresh juices and smoothies, more coffee and teas, herbal infused waters, fruits, local European cheeses, and protein and fiber rich bowls like the one below.

Our retreat site was a 45 minute hike, or shorter run, down to Praia Amado and Praia da Bodera. These are two of the best surf beaches in Europe. They're also on something like a Portuguese Appalachian trail, a beautiful coastal hike through Portugal's south.

If you didn't want to hike, the drive took about 10 minutes.

Surf schools had lessons on the sand. Rented campers parked in the lots while road trippers read novels in the open backs. Snack stands sold cappuccinos in addition to beer.

The cliffs created coves of natural shade. Additionally, one of our retreat participants had been gifted an umbrella. Portugal's west coast hit a COLD current of Atlantic. The little river tributary provided a warmer swim and shallow waters for kids.

After mornings spent in practice we spent afternoons hiking, swimming, sunning, watching.

From our retreat vantage in the hills, the beaches looked inches away. From our height we could watch the sun drop into the water each night. The ocean stayed with us.

As we hiked near, all the hills and valleys clarified perspective. Praia Amado and Praia da Bodeira, so near as the crow flies, were not so near!

Long hikes called for cold beers. And taxis back so we could make it to the retreat in time for evening Yin and meditation practice!

Our group was pretty adventurous, so we had a few days of piling into cars together and trekking to major points throughout the Algarve. South of our home in Carrapateira, we visited the famous beaches of Lagos. Praia Dona Ana is the stuff of post cards.

Little beach side restaurants sold grilled sardines and Portuguese baguettes in the shade.

Some of the beautiful women of our retreat.

Among many many topless women. Some of us joined them. 

Still in Lagos, the Benagil caves are accessible by boat or swimming from some beaches. We decided to get on a little boat tour to visit some of the beautiful grottoes.

We had SUPER fun captains who did wheelies in the water and took us to private coves to swim.

The hidden treasures of the Algarve, the southwestern-most cape of Sao Vicente, the grottoes and smiles...

Lauren was the CAPTAIN'S FAVORITE! This chick knows how to play along and have fun!

My favorite part of a yoga retreat is remembering that yoga is not so serious. Meditation and practice don't have to be austere. Let your well-being swell with joy.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Allow Yourself: Longing Retreat to Portugal

I have a database of thousands of retreat centers all over the world. I consult it when a client asks me to scout a retreat for them. I filter through their perimeters to find an ideal fit.

I also have a short list of my own ideal fits.

Monte Velho Retreat on the Western Algarve, Portugal was a short list. People always want to go to to Europe. I'm down but people often don't want to pay European prices. Portugal and Greece are currently two of the most affordable destinations (for unfortunate reasons to do with the Euro and economic destabilization).

Portugal is safe and an easy connect for US travelers.

It was also the last retreat I have planned for myself for the foreseeable future.

When Yogawood transitioned ownership this past year there was a lot of work to do. I usually plan retreats well over a year out to secure best dates, negotiate rates, budget tuitions, and set a marketing strategy. I couldn't do it all. There was enough change in the air so I decided to let it happen. Let this be my last retreat for the foreseeable future and see where there was flow, movement, and growth.

I don't ever feel like you should do something because you do it.

Do it because it's aligned. Do it because it serves. Do it because it works.

When I do plan a retreat I look at what I know of that particular place or what that place tells of itself. Costa Rica has an environmental tourism campaign around reanimating the world-- reminding visitors that the land needs to rest, that animals need a break from human interference. Cuba tells the story of the joy of rebellion. Alaska reminds humans that we are small in the perspective of nature's grandeur.

Places have an identity.

I look at the place and where it might illuminate a facet of yoga. We practice yoga all over the world. What is the intersection of place and practice? What do we learn? How does yoga help us land where we are? How does yoga help us see a place as it is and not be blinded by our own expectations? How does yoga help us see ourselves and not be blinded by our own delusions?

As I started learning about this windswept coast of Portugal I read about the cliffs sailors saw before they sailed away and the songs of lament and longing both they and their loved ones sang. I listened to Fado, birthed in fishing villages and working class neighborhoods of Lisbon, and sung in very ritualized ways to lean into our own longing.

Saudade. Longing. Yoga works with longing. Bhaktis use yearning to reach for God, worshipping God, singing to God. The stories of Radha and Krishna in Vrindavan are filled with reaching.

After having such a wonderful time working with Colleen Seng for the Belize retreat, I worked with her again to develop material for this retreat. We filled it with poems from Leonard Cohen, Sanskrit yogic chants, traditional Portuguese Fado lyrics, meditations from Tara Brach and Thich Nhat Hanh, and notes from Rumi, Hafez and more. I created meditations and consciousness practices to use the retreat to work with place, practice, and feeling.

And we went in.

You can plan retreats until you're blue in the face but like any yoga class, it is co-creative. Any retreat worth it's salt will shift to meet the participants where they are.

In yoga we work with our bodies and our thoughts. Longing, bhakti, reminds us to work with the material of our feelings. Follow the feeling. What is the information?

The beautiful experience was a group of people who were willing. Who didn't feel ashamed of taking a break to step into their own experience. They didn't apologize for going on retreat-- instead, they excitedly talked about other ways to build in breaks, experiences, and celebrations. While we tuned in to events at home and with our loved ones, there was equal space to turn in to the breadth of our own experience.

Allowing joy, allowing longing-- where we reach towards integration-- allows ourselves. It means we're not banishing a part of ourselves as unacceptable, thereby giving it the power to control and influence us in unforeseen ways. Allowing our desires, our feelings, the scope of who we are allows us. Allows us to be. To exist.

So we lived. Together. In a very beautiful place.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Allow Joy

Let yourself enjoy it.


I lingered over coffee and watched the light. I did nothing with my time. It felt still and luxurious. Some little thought nagged at me-- "I should apologize for this." Or, "I should justify this." "This relaxation will produce some later writing. Or it will prompt an idea. For work."

Because everything is work.

I know people who won't share the joy in their life. If they take a vacation, they keep it quiet to not seem to brag, or to not seem to ignore the problems of the world.

Post-empire Portugal reminded me that it all ends. Enjoy it.

I lingered over coffee in cafes with reminders of Portugal's one time power. I'm not trying to romanticize nor justify that power but it was there. Influence and wealth that seemed permanent. I sat in the ruins of Portuguese power watching my birth place, the United States, dissolve in its own pool of unrestrained grasping. For awhile now I've been reading historians who chart the US rise and fall of power and comparing it to other fallen empires, like that of Rome for example. Many signals point to those of us living in the US living through it's decline. The future will confirm which prophets got it right.

We know that some people survive empire's collapse. Portugal is an example of that. What is life like after empire?


There is so much I love about Portugal. One big piece: enjoy it.

It's a very European attitude to prioritize one's life potentially more than one's work. The United States tends to produce the opposite affect: work justifies your life.

Again and again, we learned Portuguese history of slave trade, navel power, colonization, conquest, without apology. The monks who sought to atone, the Templar Knights who avenged the church, the white knuckled explorers sailing uncharted seas. Their descendents pour coffee and live in the ruins. They live in life's inevitable cycle. And they do not apologize for their joy.

I often wonder about that-- why do we have to hide our joy? Does our joy exacerbate another's suffering? Is my suffering soothed by other's shared suffering? Isn't the cycle about the whole of it? Do we get to have capacity to allow ourselves it all?

Not all of us gets to travel. I readily acknowledge the realities of privilege and access.

We all get range. Within our experiences, there is a range of feeling and experience.

I want to live it all. I'm not going to apologize for it.

I wish you all the experiences. I wish you thrills, sunsets, late nights with friends. I wish you the big mile stone moments and the small gentle ones. And I don't need your apologies. Your existence entitles you to it all.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017


I burped a lot.

Not loud, aggressive belches but tiny windpipe burps. As a dedicated yoga student, this became tricky. I’d try to open my breath smooth and even. Instead, my breath would catch around air bubbles, burps, some type of disruption that I couldn’t fully resolve.

I met a myofascial release body worker at a party and thought it couldn’t work. As I laid down on her table, she began to lightly run her fingers through the sheaths of fascia around my throat, shoulders, and neck. I felt points of tension that ran from my thumb to my ears; she tugged and pulled and softened. She asked me, “Were you ever in a car accident?” “No,” I replied. “Huh.” More pulling, head turned, hair brushed away. “Were you ever choked?” “Thankfully no!” I waited while she moved her thumb deeper into my body’s webbing. “Why do you ask?” “Well… your body shows patterns as though your head whipped back. That can sometimes occur with people who had whiplash from a car accident. It also occurs if someone choked-- swam and swallowed water or was abused.”

She’s not the first person to ask me this. Body workers continually read this pattern in my body.

I went home thinking about it. I couldn’t shake the only story I knew in my line that fit that pattern: my maternal great grandmother. When her daughter, my grandmother, was away at Tennessee State Teachers College in the 1930s, my great-grandmother, the bookish, quiet, smart mother of 5 children, went into the barn and hung herself.

Throughout her life my grandmother said her mother had died from the “change,” a nickname for “change of life” a euphemism for menopause.

I’ve never known a woman to hang herself due to menopause.

I started looking into epigenetics, the study of how trauma is passed in DNA in surprising and seemingly improbable ways. I really have no way of knowing if I somehow, God knows how, inherited my great-grandmother’s hanging. I know that I have lived through so much of the trauma and tragedy written into her family line.

I grew up in homogeneously white, wealthy suburbs. Public schools funded by a strong tax base, well kept lawns, regular dental visits. The story told out there was that hardship lived in cities and refugee camps. We should be the nice wealthy white people who volunteered here and there.

In college, still safely inoculated from responsibility, I had enough distance to study systemic oppression, the web we all live within whether acknowledged or not. I began to notice the myth of the safety of suburbs-- as if there was a way to protect ourselves from one another, to let the fences allow some in and some out. I started to be able to name some of the ways we structured our relationships to one another and the embedded pain.

I studied systemic racism, sexism, oppression.

I became close to women of color as we had intense, painful conversations about the lived reality of racism. As I learned a level of accountability for my complicity in racial blindness I simultaneously felt waves of jealousy. Part of their path through understanding racism involved the lived details of resiliency. They poured over the lives of their ancestors who passed knowledge in food, music, and language. They investigated lost spiritualities, reviving them in their own lives as they lit candles to those who had passed, honoring them, and uttering their words.

Later, I traveled to Vietnam. In the corner of every shop and every home, a small altar held lit incense, small deities, money, and fruit. I asked people about these altars. They always said, “they are for our ancestors. They protect us.”

In the suburbs, I did not know my ancestors.

My paternal grandmother told me that I came from governors and governor’s wives. I should be the same-- I should aim high for a marriage that wielded political clout and power. I should learn to be a sparkling conversationalist to advance my husband.

These same people were slave-holders. After the Emancipation Proclamation these same people institutionally fought restitution. They voted for conservative politicians. They supported tough crime laws that resurrected structures of slavery in modern day prison industry.

My ancestors frighten me.

Their legacy frightens me.

As I walked in marches against police brutality and spoke out on behalf of political prisoners, I wondered if I could ever be “good” and what good meant. I knew I couldn’t ignore who I come from but I also didn’t know what to do with their memory.

I searched out for tender memories, memories of my grandmother braiding my hair or telling me stories. There were some… and the stories were racist. I remember my maternal grandmother laying in bed and telling me brair rabbit and the story of tar baby. Her voice still had the gentle Tennessee lilt. She’d never lost some of those colloquialisms like “hell’s bells” and “my stars.”

I hunted for the riches but they were always embedded with the shame.

My grandfather was a quietly hilarious man. He was really attractive, sharp, and mischievous. After his father died when he was a child, he held many jobs while going to school to help his mother and two younger brothers. He went to Georgia Tech and would take me to the Varsity, an Atlanta hot dog joint opened by a Tech drop-out. When we came home with greasy hands from onion rings, I’d go into the bathroom to wash up. I remember on the wall a framed picture with a caricature of a Black man captioned “I’ze a rambling reck from Gawgia tech and a helluva engineer!”

I still miss my grandparents. I don’t know what I would light incense to.

When my friend started exploring the tight tissues constricting my throat, possibly contributing to my burps, I thought of my maternal grandmother. My mother’s mother. I never got the sense that she was very motherly. My grandmother made it seem like her mother hid from her children, taking books into the barn or some other space of some seclusion.

My grandmother felt motherly towards her younger sister especially. She told me that they held dances in the barn and her mother would, on occasion, play piano as they danced.

My grandmother too, was bookish. She tried to help her father with farming one time. She took in the seed potatoes and cut all of them through the eyes. Her father came in seeing that the whole seed crop was ruined. He was kind with her and patiently explained her mistake. She remembered that with relief-- 80 years later.

That was a myth too-- they did have a farm but my great-grandfather hired white sharecroppers to work it. He was on the board of the local bank there in Sweetwater, Tennessee. I asked, reluctantly, if they had Black servants.

“Oh no.” My grandmother answered quickly. “They wouldn’t work for my family. On our property, there was an old slave auction block and when it rained, the Black folks said it turned red from the blood of the slaves. They wouldn’t work for us. We hired poor whites.”

Her mother, hid in the barn with her books, from her children, her husband, the slave auction block. Or did she? Did she think of it? What did she think?

As her eldest daughter studied to be a teacher, the next soon to follow, and three younger children still at home, she went into the barn and hung herself.

For the ensuing months my great-grandfather tried to keep his remaining children at home. And then he suffered a heart attack and died. Each remaining child was sent to a different relative, one as far away as Chicago.

One daughter died on her honeymoon in Niagara Falls.

Theirs was a Southern tragedy.

My great-grandmother dying of the change. Her daughter, my grandmother who went on to be a wonderful teacher and a wildly independent woman. During the age of Donna Reed, my grandmother embarassed my mother by wearing pants and refinishing furniture, less bound to the standards of white womanhood of the day. Her spirit influenced my mother. After bearing three children my mother went back for her master’s degree and started her career as I, her fourth, was a young child.

The women in my family are complicated and strange and I love them.

When I look at my family’s history there is mental illness, abuse, and dysfunction-- the ingredients for many of our families. They kept slaves, lived by slave auction blocks, and neglected their children. The stresses of power flowed out and in their homes. The weight of shame wound into repressed stories and half-lived lives.

I look back and wonder how long until I see people who belonged to a tract of land, to one another, to themselves?

And perhaps that’s the invitation. I’m steadily working on belonging to myself. Noticing where these histories choke me, force me to look at my own shame. The privilege I haven’t earned. The trauma not named.

My husband and I talk a lot about race. We still march against mass incarceration. We still visit our friends who are incarcerated-- Black men and women living in modern day plantations. We talk openly about race, about the access we have that is denied many. We talk about what it denies us-- a sense of kinship and closeness to our community.

And from my friends of color I hear their complicated ancestries too-- the white blood in their veins that came from rape, the African ancestors who sold their cousins to slavery, the compromises and negotiations of survival. It’s written in us all. Perhaps people of color don’t have the same insulating myth of amnesia.

I am a white woman who descends from slave holders and racists and I am naming it. My hope is that that I create space in the naming. This is what I come from. This is what I’ve lived. This is who I am. And I am working to be more.