Lifting my Voice


I don’t have a lot of memories of worship, but the ones I do linger indelibly, like scars that never fade: I was maybe 14. For some reason I’d joined the youth choir: I don’t know why, I hated singing, everything always seemed to be too high or too low, and I’d wind up screeching like a wounded bird or bellowing like cattle. Not only this, but I was painfully shy. I hated drawing attention to myself, and as an only child, I was often put on the spot to perform for friends and relatives, to be impressive. Singing was the absolute worst.

My mother and I were in church together, my father was somewhere, working. The pastor got up to speak, and before he did, he asked if the youth choir would get up and sing something.

Never have I wished so fervently for a trap door to open and swallow me up. Horror seized me, clamping its fist around my stomach. I darted my eyes around the sanctuary: there weren’t many of us “youth” there, so I could tell that my thin, scared voice would not be well-masked, but that people would be able to hear me.

I turned to my mother. “Don’t make me go,” I whispered as she poked my leg.

“Go on, Jessica, you’re part of the youth choir,” she whispered back.

“Please, I don’t want to, please, please don’t make me go,” I grabbed her hand, my eyes begging.

She likely hissed at me that I was embarrassing her—my representing well was of crucial importance because my behavior was always a reflection on her—and I reluctantly stepped out of our pew and plodded up to the front of our small sanctuary.

I don’t remember what we sang, but I remember that it felt like it would never end. I’m sure the anguish of singing, and the fear of being heard, was written all over my face.

When I returned to my seat, she let me have it, her face a contorted mask of rage, her voice a laser-like, acidic whisper: what a disappointment I was, why I couldn’t just act right, how humiliated she was by me. I sat beside her, weeping silently, furious with her that she would make me put myself in such a difficult position so she could feel good about herself, and even more angry that she didn’t understand how scary it was for me to open up my mouth and sing anything. I knew I hadn’t done well, she shouldn’t have made me go in the first place because it was clear I was going to suck out loud—and I had!—and somehow that was my fault too.

Just another worship experience.


As a yoga teacher, I have to use my voice all the time: it’s easier now to project around the room when I need to so that folks can hear me as I remind them to use their breath; I don’t even mind finding a note to let OM begin to ring through me, hopeful (but not demanding) that others join me in the sound. I’ve been able to overcome my shyness—or maybe the desire to teach and hold space for other people is stronger than the desire to be swallowed up by burnt orange Berber carpet—so that speaking up is easier to do. Chanting is the easiest part of class, both as a student and a teacher. My teacher practices a chant at the start of every class he teaches. He says he does it to center himself, to ask for guidance and clarity, wisdom and light, in the endeavor he’s about to make in teaching, and that even if no one else joined him, he’d still belt it out full force. When I started training with both my senior teachers, they taught me a mantra that I try to practice every day. The first time I heard it, I got chills: not sure if it was the circle-as-container, the deep vibration of their voices together, or just the intersection of Sanskrit, my body, and my heart. But whatever it was, it landed on me in a big way.

In class as a practitioner whenever I open my mouth, I work to listen to the voice of my teacher, and the voices of the others around me, in pursuit of a kind of blending of vibrations. When I’m teaching, I make sound that I hope will seal and affirm the energy of the room, and give the students a foundation on which they can allow their own voices to be raised, trembling or clear, flat pitch or true.


My friend Allegra, who’s the executive director of Sharing Notes invited me to take part in something called the #MusicMakesItBetter challenge: you record an image or video of yourself singing or playing an instrument, as a way to shine a light on how music is a tool for healing, and deepening experiences. This morning I sat with my shruthi box, which many of you have asked about, and chanted a few verses of the Sri Sukta on camera. This was not easy. I know what it is to chant, and still, there was no small amount of anxiety as I sat down in front of my phone.

Singing worship music (with the exception of some sacred Christmas carols) still doesn’t make me feel much of anything except dread. But now, learning Sanskrit and using it as a tool for physical and spiritual practice is lovely. It’s powerful. My body, being made of so much water, and other, stronger, denser tissues and open spaces, vibrates beautifully when I open my mouth and let Sanskrit prayer come out of it. Unlike when I was a girl, I worry less about how I sound, or what others will think of me, and I let my body make the sound; and when I want to be silent, I keep my mouth closed allow the inner voice to make the sound that communes with the divine. What a great gift.

I can’t say anything magical to 14-year-old me that makes that painful memory of singing in public any easier. I can only say that more than twenty years later, I feel grateful to engage in a worship experience on my own terms, and excited that even though my voice isn’t really any better, I’m at least able to use it as an instrument for divine connection. You can check it out here. Hope you’ll share your #MusicMakesItBetter experiences too.

The Breaking of the Shell


On weekends I prepare for a work day. I rise early, I try to sit quietly, when there’s enough time, I eat a breakfast—usually liquid, so I don’t run the risk of it backing up on me during inversions or uddiyana kriya—that will sustain me through the morning, and I get dressed and walk the half-mile from my home to the yoga studio where I practice and teach. I plan what sequence I’ll be providing, I scribble a couple of fast notes, and then I practice. I almost always take class. It’s hard sometimes for folks, even my partner, to conceive that a yoga class is a part of my work day, but on this day it is. This is one of few days where my schedule permits me to study with my teacher before I have to teach, and I can think of few things better as a means of preparation for teaching. Joining his class allows me to practice without having to think so hard, to hold my own space: I get to surrender myself to his sequence and his energy, and contribute to, and ride, the wave of prana that I’m creating with others in the room. I get a chance to get my mind right, and to relax the clinching or desire of being able to do a pose well enough. When something pressing comes up, like a day-job meeting or a family obligation, I’ll sacrifice that early class, but I hate doing so. Not practicing before I teach changes the class I’m able to provide on that day.

One Saturday morning, I arrived early. The studio is often a popular place on weekends, buzzing with laughter and gossip from folks who have the time to come out and socialize before and after their practice. I found a friend in a quiet corner, and sat down beside him. As we started talking, I began to take my jacket off, and noticed, quite out of the blue, that my neck was tingling, just this side of an ache. It was as if I’d somehow gotten whiplash in the ten seconds it had taken me to unzip my burgundy hoodie: in 360 degrees, my neck was buzzing. It wasn’t quite pain, but it wasn’t pleasant, as if it was trying to decide if it wanted to hurt.

As surprising as it was, I kept chatting with my friend for a while, and then prepared for class. As we began, the tingling began to change, to deepen and sharpen. My muscles began to tighten, and during class my range of motion became smaller and smaller.

During the practice, my teacher coached us as we moved from chaturanga dandāsana to urdva mukha śvanāsana, “Press the tops of the feet down, open the heart, let the head drop back so you’re upward facing…” I tried it, and my body, clear as a bell, responded, nah girl, we ain’t doin’ that shit. My neck gripped, my traps clenched, and I couldn't move. The voice of my body was so clear, I looked around the room,  sure someone else had heard it. But the rest of the room continued onward, tucking toes under, lifting hips up, and lengthening spines into adhō mukha śvanāsana.

I suppose I should count myself lucky that my body sometimes communicates so clearly. But on this day it just felt obstinate. The next time we did a sun salutation, I attempted to jump back, and as safely and as lightly as I landed, I felt a tremor run up my spine and my neck spasmed. Okay, no more jumping today, I said to myself with a frown. I tried to shake my head gently and release tension, but even that was painful. By the end of class, the pain was real. I could barely turn my neck to look over one shoulder, lift my eyes to the ceiling, or let my chin drop toward my chest. Everything had seized up. I was angry. I really wanted a strong practice, wanted to enjoy the wide range of movements I move my body through, even when in my teacher’s class, I often find myself banging into my own limitations. I really wanted to feel like I was doing something! But the pain in my body restricted that range of motion to quite a narrow path.  When my teacher put us in śavasana, I stepped out of the room and took a quick dose of Arnica Montana. I returned to the classroom and rolled up a blanket behind my neck, hoping that the extra height would give my neck a place to loosen and relax a little gripping. No dice. I taught the next class class that way, unable to swivel my head in any direction, feeling tense, tight, achy, and struggling to breathe deeply.

This is an old pain, a pain I’m familiar with, that I’ve struggled with on and off for close to 20 years. I’m not sure when it began. I wish I could chalk it up to something, like a car accident, or a traumatic injury, but nothing I’ve experienced is so profound that it would make sense. I have noticed that when I feel overheated, or when find myself in situations of conflict, when I feel my buttons of abandonment or overwhelm being pressed, that it tends to flare up. I used to wish for healing, to be free forever of this pain. It makes it difficult for me to practice headstand and feel safe. I’m not so worried about whether or not I can balance; instead I’m worried about taking too much weight on my head and doing myself significant, permanent damage. My relationship to this pain is enduring, for better or for worse.

I’d love to be able to tell you that the practice of yoga teaches you to work with your body as an ally, a partner in your life and how you move through the world, and not as a resource to be mined, or an object of oppression, or an obstacle to manipulate into submission, to overcome. I’d love to tell you that, but I'm not sure it's true. When I look closely around the classrooms I practice in, I see some bodies that are longing, that are striving, working as hard as possible. Some of us come to yoga seeking healing from pain, looking to build strength and grow our capacity. For some of us, the physical practice of yoga is another place where we push push push, go go go, demand 110%. There is no ease in this kind of practice, there is only effort.

Pain has been a big part of my practice. I don’t have any complex diagnoses, I don’t have an autoimmune disorder. But I also have been taught to demand excellence from my body. I have learned that with enough effort, stringency, demand, and the sheer, brutal power of my will, I can make my body what I want it to be. This doesn’t feel like an accurate context for knowing my body. My body doesn’t like it when I demand from it; it tends to rebel. I’ve tried to demand postures from my body, like Urdvha Dhanurāsana or Pincha Mayurāsana, I wind up with injury that causes me to back off and rest. But this demand from the body is what our world teaches us: our body is under our control, and is an object to be controlled, rather than a partner in our existence. As a woman, my body is not a temple, nor a manifestation of the divine that I can explore and enjoy for all the things it can do, all the ways it can change, not a gift for me to enjoy and share as I deem right. It is a tool for attracting attention--usually from men, whether or not I’m attracted to them, or even heterosexual—and it’s a tool I have limited ownership over; it's an incubator for breeding the next generation, and if I can't breed, then what use am I? How I adorn my body dictates how others treat me, and if they treat me like shit it must be because I did something that indicated that I wanted to be treated like shit, that I thought I deserved to be treated like shit. This can include walking, smiling, not smiling, drinking in public, drinking in private, laughing, being alone, being with friends, wearing short skirts, long skirts, being covered from head to toe, being single, being married, being young or old, being poor, being wealthy, being friendly, being nice, being mean, being quiet, basically just being.

Marginalized bodies, bodies living with or recovering from trauma, bodies dealing with disease, sometimes these aren't the safest, easiest bodies to live in. But when we are able to bring our bodies to the mat, without judgment, with observation, with one eye on discipline and one eye on compassion, we can learn and grow to love ourselves more deeply and completely, and to care for ourselves in a way that serves us continuously.

I want to move my body with delight and safety and ease through the world, but sometimes it's hard to; sometimes the threat to my ease and safety feels outside my body, and sometimes it feels inside. Wrestling my mind away from judgment and self-loathing can be just as challenging as being brave enough to feel free to walk down the street. (Because, this is not an exaggeration, some days, it really does feel threatening as a woman of color, to walk down the street. I resent it, and I demand the right to be free in my country, in my city, in my neighborhood; and I also feel, at times, at risk.) Resisting the external demand I feel on my body, and working with the pain that I feel, sometimes my practice changes shape. I can't always count on being able to unroll my mat and throw down: sometimes I come to practice hurting, and I don't want to push through the pain. I want to work with it, because it may be temporary, but so is ease. 

If your practice is anything like mine, sometimes you have trouble staying present in it. Sometimes you get distracted thinking about what else you have to do today, or (my personal fave) what you're going to eat when this is over, or maybe how that last pose went for you, or what pose is coming next. Pain brings you immediately to the present moment. it won't let you move away, it won't let the balloon of your mind drift away from the steady grasp of your hands into the sky or down the road. It holds you present, it Keeps You Here. 

I tell students not to practice to the point of pain, not to push through pain, and I mean it. When something hurts me, I don't want to do it, and I believe that if we blind ourselves to the messages of our body (I'm hungry, I have to pee, Ouch!), that we position ourselves for greater and more lasting discomfort, dysfunction, and potentially, disease. Practicing with pain is something different. In a monograph of guidelines and practices written by the Ashtanga Vinyasa Ann Arbor community, led in some part by Angela Jamison, she writes, "It's a practice, not a performance. Modify for pain or fatigue if they actually arise. You might be surprised: they may have just been in your head."  

(Just as a sidenote, I need to take a moment here and totally fangirl over Angela Jamison. Though I'm familiar with Primary Series (and respect it deeply) I'm not an Ashtangi, but if I were and if she'd have me, I'd make an annual pilgrimage to Ann Arbor to practice with her. I have learned so much from her about practice, about paying close attention and what we do and why, and I LOVE the way she writes about the intersections of yoga, economy and society. Her work consistently asks me to step up my game. Deep, deep bow.)

She continues, "....For what it is worth to you, here is my personal practice. When I have been injured or ill, I still roll out the mat. I sit, lie or gently move, focus on the breathing, remain calm, and feel the energy in my body. This (1) maintains the practice habit. It also (2) focuses attention on perceiving energetic and physical experience, teasing this apart for emotional reactions, and thus significantly alleviating my suffering. (Shinzen Young says Suffering = Pain x Resistance.) This practice of coming to the mat even when there is great difficulty is (3) often fascinating, and sets a new baseline for future gratitude for my body. I sense that (4) doing this helps me recuperate faster. Studying pain with curiosity and care, not pushing to try to make it disappear: this is what I mean when I saw that it is OK to practice during injury or illness."

This is the energy I try to bring to my practice when I'm hurting, and though it complicates my life, I'm grateful for pain because it has lessons to teach me: about how to rest, how to practice, and how to listen closely. When I'm not hurting, I take ease in my body for granted and pay less attention and push more. 

(I've been talking pretty exclusively about physical pain in this context, and it's important to acknowledge that emotional, mental, and psychic/spiritual pain is as real--and as prevalent--as achy knees and shoulders. They're often connected to one another. I highlight physical pain in this post because it's what's been taking my attention most clearly. I think perhaps the same kind of discipline, compassion and curiosity could yield meaningful results when dealing with pain located in the mind, heart, or soul. It often has for me. )

All this to say that the body is not a traitor, even when it behaves in ways we wish it wouldn't. Your illness or injury is a meaningful teacher just like mine is for me. So don't be mad that your body won't do what you wish it would. Marvel at what it will do. Be grateful for what it has to say, and listen closely. Work together. Work cooperatively. Be patient. Release attachment to results and for gawd's sakes who cares if you can do dwi pada sirsasana. Can you spend a week with your family without wanting to kill them your yourself; can you acknowledge your privilege and use it for someone else's good; can you say you're sorry; can you forgive? When these practices come with more ease and less effort, we'll know the yoga is doing something.


And a woman spoke, saying, "Tell us of Pain.

And he said:

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. 
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain. 
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy; 
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields. 
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief. 
Much of your pain is self-chosen. 
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self. 
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquillity: 
For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen, 
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears. 

Kahlil Gibran, "On Pain"

On Binding, Commitment, and the Teacher that Is Struggle

Baddha Parsvakonasa because I had some things to work out in my spine and side bodies, in my heart and mind. Also, Go Warriors.

Baddha Parsvakonasa because I had some things to work out in my spine and side bodies, in my heart and mind. Also, Go Warriors.

I tell my students that our practice of yoga is seldom about all the fancy and interesting shapes we can but out body into; but instead is about putting our body into shapes, and then practicing being present there. Sometimes the shapes are striking, or lovely, or impressive, at least on the outside. Sometimes they're easy; sometimes they're quite complicated. 

This morning I found myself craving practices that would require a bit more effort, would on appearance, confine and prevent expansion, but would have an effect of creating more space, more energy, more movement and expansion and rest. So I found myself in the shape above and some others: twisting, binding, contortions that are (for me) challenging. There isn't any great, cool epiphany that I experience in bound side angle pose; I practice expanding into integrity in this shape, I make sure the bind isn't inhibiting my alignment; I enjoy breathing into the shape, and trying to make sure that I'm dwelling with my breath, listening to it, and staying present in the posture and sensation. 

This kind of practice is important to me because of how often it mirrors day-to-day. Professional challenges, relationships, desires, even attempts at personal growth, can all be fraught with struggle and obstacle. This week I celebrated my seventh wedding anniversary with my husband. I sometimes want to use the word struggle, along with words like laughter, joy, affection, intimacy, connection, to describe the last seven (to ten) years. They haven't been consistently easy: we've fought, and sometimes quite ugly; each of us has experienced personal struggle that has required a lot of the other. I believe deeply in the personal, admirable, and brave choice to commit one's life to another person, because there's a lot in our current world that seeks to supersede, compromise, or even destroy that commitment. I think we're still married not because we're scared of being apart from the other, or because we're lazy, or because we won't let the bastards get our marriage. I think we're still here because each day, with all of its snares and vines, we'd still rather do life together than apart.

So, in marriage, like at work, like in yoga practice, like when I'm faced with fear or a journey that feels so uphill as to seem perfectly vertical, I put myself in the shape, and I take it one breath at a time. This isn't really a post about marriage; commitment to another, like any yoga posture, is just an opportunity to look closely at yourself in a particular shape, and see where we are gripping or holding, where we're working too hard, where we might need a bit more integrity or discipline, or where an adjustment from a pair of loving hands might be in order. The challenge of the posture, like the challenge of relationship--work, platonic, romantic, and individual--serves us as a mirror to show us our tendencies, our blind or weak spots, our successes and growths, and allows us to continue to seek openness, non judgment and equanimity, one breath at a time. 

I won't say anything quite so hackneyed as, embrace the struggle. (It's in the yoga teacher handbook, but I want to roll my eyes at that one.) But I will say sometimes a shape you find yourself in is hard, and that struggle has something to teach you. It can't teach us if we're too busy complaining about how hard it is, or if we're trying to force it, or backing off it because we're scared. All we can do is find the deepest shape we have access to, breathe and witness.

Beginner's Mind: Tips for the New Yogini

These are some of the tools I used as a beginner in the Ashtanga Yoga practice. While I don't identify as an Ashtanga Yogini, I've said before what a deep and enduring respect and gratitude I have for the practice. It's been a tool for great healing for me, and every now and then, there's nothing else that will do.

These are some of the tools I used as a beginner in the Ashtanga Yoga practice. While I don't identify as an Ashtanga Yogini, I've said before what a deep and enduring respect and gratitude I have for the practice. It's been a tool for great healing for me, and every now and then, there's nothing else that will do.

I love the new year: all that fresh, new-beginning energy that feels like it rolls around just as winter is really settling in. Much like what Christmas and the Winter Soltice have for me, there's a quality of bright, clear light in concert with warm, nourishing darkness that I really respond to.

I love less (a lot less) all the "New Year, New You) rhetoric that descends out of the relationship-self-image-fitness-self-improvement industrial complex every January 1. The new year is a great time for taking stock of how we're doing life, and maybe of choosing to make changes. But I hate how often so many of us feel manipulated by all the marketing, and we do not engineer ourselves for success. If we want to make a change, let's do it right. Seldom will someone selling you something be able to help.

You seldom find any posture instruction around these parts. As big a part of my practice asana is, I don't think too much about what I can and can't do unless I'm on the mat. While I'm fascinated by my body's ability to grow into postures, by the reality that some days a complex pose feels effortless and other days it feels like hauling a baby grand up ten flights of stairs, I think more about what the physical work helps me manifest in the rest of my life. I think more about the intersection of physical practices and mental patterns, and behavioral habits. I don't wanna talk about how long it's taken me to touch my toes, or why I face plant every time I lift up into ashtavakrasana, or if my neck will ever be healthy enough for anything more than the occasional headstand. I have other priorities.

Still, in the analog world, one of those priorities is helping others with their physical practice. I meet lots of students who are new-ish to yoga, and even more for whom yoga is an on again-off again relationship. As a teacher, my job is to create a space for others to build strength and flexibility, to walk the balance of challenge and comfort. With that in mind, there's probably  a post or two I can be writing that are helpful. So here's the first.

Tips for Beginning, Returning and Prodigal Yoginis*

(*or yogis, you know, whatever pronoun suits you)

First tip: Own Your Practice. I had a teacher who would often remind us, practice with the body you  have today. I remind myself of that frequently, and it's great advice for all of us. Whether you're brand new, recovering from injury or surgery, or post-partum, or hungover, give yourself permission to be where you are. This is no one's practice but your own. It doesn't have to look like the girl on Pinterest doing the crazy arm balance shit, or the girl on the magazine cover with the fancy clothes, or like any girl at all.  Yoga culture definitely has put a narrative out in the zeitgeist of what yoga is "supposed to look like", and you don't have to opt into it. Notice if you're feeling pressure to perform, to conform, to some standard set by anything other than your own need, and if so, opt out. If what you need is to lie down and breathe, then let that be your practice; if what you need is to sweat, and to work toward a complicated posture, then let that be your practice. If you need to make noise, and struggle, and to laugh and to cry, do it. Don't hold yourself to anyone else's standard. Be safe, be patient, be honest with your limitations AND your strengths, and practice in a way that serves your day-to-day life.

Second tip: Keep It Simple. My teacher says when establishing a home practice, don't try to do everything at once. When you get a taste of how good yoga can make you feel, you wanna do it all, all the time. You might feel like you need to practice at home for 60 minutes, or even 90. You don't. Sometimes less is more: a physical practice that puts your spine and joints through their ranges of motion, that deepens your breath, and allows you more comfort in your body to do life is really all you need, especially when you're starting out. You can get that in twenty minutes. Keep your expectations of yourself, your time, and practice, manageable. If you're not sure what to do, find a teacher you trust, and ask for some simple sequences that can help you get started.

Third tip: Home Practice Is Good, but Include a Studio. If you can find a practice studio or yoga community that makes you feel safe, challenged and supported, keep it. Look for a place/community (sometimes it's virtual, not brick-and-mortar) that prioritizes and teaches subtle work--breathwork, meditation--as much as it does physical postures. There is no substitute for a teacher who is steeped in tradition; you're not likely to find that in any corporate or trademarked studio. Woke yoga is good for you and for your community, if you can get it. If anyone tells you your body is wrong, or adjusts you in a way that you feel bad about, run like hell in the opposite direction. 

Fourth Tip: Minimize Your Swag. According to Yoga Journal, Americans spent $16 billion on yoga clothes, equipment, classes and accessories in the last year. Sometimes this is money well spent; some of us earn a living through yoga, and while even gifted, devoted teachers seldom earn what they're worth, it's nice to, you know, be able to afford food and rent and health insurance and that kind of stuff. Some of the stuff we buy to practice--like quality instruction--is essential. Some of the stuff we buy to practice--like a quality mat--is useful, but not a deal breaker.  Some of the stuff we buy--designer workout pants that make your butt look good, that go effortlessly from day to night and are that perfect shade of wine red/gray/black, etc.--is just a waste of your money. Think carefully about how you invest, and don't get distracted by stuff you don't need.

Fourth Tip: Keep It Clean. This isn't a tip about washing tank-tops or sports bras. As your practice advances, you'll want to make sure you're not collecting teachers like a grandma collects thimbles. ("This is the teacher I studied with in Big Sur, and This is the teacher I met at the conference in the mountains, and This teacher...") A certain amount of this is necessary, as you're seeking a tradition that resonates with you, with the right blend of grounding to feel established and heights to keep climbing. But be mindful that you're not grasping for all the instruction from all the sources you can get. At a certain point your teaching will feel muddy, and that's not just about posture specifics. Pick a tradition you trust and honor it. 

Final tip: Practice Process Over Product. Let go of the desire for "results". So many of us start yoga because we want to manifest something in our physical body--weight loss, more strength, more flexibility. These things take time, and it's easy to get impatient. When you think you should be making progress faster than you are, you can get discouraged. This is ego, combined with the western "go-go-go, do better/be better" mentality. Turn the volume on that down. Practice with the body you have today, and delight in a new body every time you step to the mat. Practice with curiosity and compassion, and without expectation.

So there you have it! Five tips for anyone who is starting yoga or returning to a practice that we shelved weeks, months, even years ago. May our practice feel fresh, and may we continue to look at our work with beginner's eyes and minds, open to the lessons practicing has for all of us. 

One Yogi's Guide to Self-Care

Taken mid-run on a gray morning when I was thinking about what possessed me to start running in the first place. There are moments when I hate it, but more moments when I am surprised by how strong, clear, and capable I feel.

Taken mid-run on a gray morning when I was thinking about what possessed me to start running in the first place. There are moments when I hate it, but more moments when I am surprised by how strong, clear, and capable I feel.

[white people] are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it they cannot be released from it... if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.
— James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Initially I started this post with some confessions about my shitty self-care routine, but after some reflection, I realized that was just dumb and shallow. If you wanna know about my "guilty pleasures", you can ask, but we have some real talk to get on with. Things are different now, our work is different, and our self-care game needs to be as tight as our self-education, self-study, ally and advocacy game.

Shit just got real for some of us, right? Some of us have known the ugliness, the contagion, the destructive power of white supremacy and patriarchy for some time; others are only now just beginning to see how silent, insidious and dangerous it is. Our priorities are shifting. Many of us are feeling a sense of urgency. Hopefully, for all our sake's, rather than dissolving into myopic apathy, that urgency is being galvanized into a change that, one drop at a time, will rain down justice on all of us, washing away the fascism and corruption that is a real, credible, and determined threat to our lives and future generations. 

I am not exaggerating.

So some of us are doing the work, right? We're putting safety pins on our shirts and writing checks and hopefully we're calling our congresspeople and our president; we're organizing, we're marching, we're learning, we're thinking and digging and having deep conversations. But this work is fatiguing. For those of us new to advocacy and resistance, without resources, we can burn out fast. And don't let me front, I'm as new to resistance as any of us; I am less new to reflection, self-study and self-care. With that in mind, I wanna encourage us to enact some real, healthful self-care rituals, and to reflect on what self-care actually means.


Self Care Increases Awareness

We have all had the day/week/month/season where we just wanted to shut the world out, pull the covers over our heads, and come out when the storm has passed. Pain is real, and sometimes it feels intolerable: makes it hard to speak, hard to breathe, and feels like it will never go away. When that pain comes day after day after day, sometimes all you want is whatever will allow you not to feel it. Maybe it's weed, or chocolate, or anonymous sex, or online poker, or carbs, or bourbon, or gossip, or cruelty. Maybe it seems victimless or harmless. Whatever that practice is, it's not self-care, it's anesthesia. (And make no mistake: you engage in a behavior--gossip, junk food, avoidance, attachment, contempt, disgust, self-hatred--often enough and it becomes practice. Patterns establish ruts in the mind, and crawling out of those ruts and building new ones takes effort.)

Anesthesia does not make you feel better. It makes you feel nothing. It deadens your sensations. Some part of this is appealing in your pain, or fatigue, and you want it to be over. But underneath all that fatigue and pain is a tiny voice that says, I don't want to give up, but I need help! I need a break! Pay attention to that voice: it's not asking to be abused or numbed or silenced; it's asking for care and generosity. If you feel like that little voice is gone, and you can't hear it anymore, call someone

The difference between anesthesia and self-care is that self-care is generous. It gives something to you: rest, energy, a needed change in perspective, a chance to stretch and grow. It doesn't turn the volume down on all the things, and take from you. It gives you the strength, resources and resilience to keep doing the work.


Yoga is not Anesthesia

Feeling is the essence of life. Without feeling, we are not quite human. The real value of our asana practice is that, as we do pose after pose with awareness, we are inviting more sensitivity into our bodies and our lives. We are learning to tune in and feel. So we not only feel BETTER, but we FEEL better.
— Aadil Palkhivala

Self-care doesn't make you feel less, or nothing. It sometimes doesn't make even make you feel better. In my experience, self-care provides me with the tools I need for processing, for resting, and for understanding who I am in any particular context, so that I can show up from a more whole place within myself, even if that place is flawed, broken, vulnerable. While self-care can include pleasure, for me it takes a lot of conversations with myself about what would the best practice be that will help me be a better more whole version of myself as I move toward the work of providing spaces for healing, growth and compassion.

I know a lot of folks who go to yoga so they can tune out. Yoga class somehow seems less self-involved to us than playing online poker for countless hours, or holier than picking up a stranger to crawl into bed with us so we don't have to be alone. But underneath the Sanskrit and the talk of moving prana, when we use yoga as a means of not-feeling, we might as well be popping a Xanax with a white wine chaser.

Here's the thing: yoga wasn't designed as anesthesia. It's true, you can use it literally as pain relief: you can heal an aching back, or strengthen weak joints, you can lose weight and build strength and muscle tone. But the physical practice is just one of eight elements, and while yoga's goal is to "still the fluctuations of the mind", that stillness is not in pursuit of forgetfulness, numbness, and distance. 

"Yoga applies endurance, learning and commitment. It reduces alienation and cultivates empathy." Endurance, learning, commitment, empathy: what part of that sounds like, you won't feel quite as bad anymore? If this really is what our practice is--not (just) a strong back, flexible hips and the ability to strike an Instagram-worthy pose--if our practice is about reducing alienation (so you can connect with others, even those you feel aversion for) and cultivating empathy (especially with those you feel aversion for), then if we're using it as pain relief or as a bliss booster shot, we're missing something. We may be engaging in a practice of physical fitness, we may be infusing our body with fresh oxygen, and we all know how good that can feel. But we can grow our yoga beyond that. 

In threads of yoga, quoted above, Matthew Remski names the eight limbs of yoga: "relationship to other, relationship to self, poise, freedom of breath, freedom of senses, focus, contemplation and integration." (Can you spot asana in there somewhere?) He writes, "Contact with the other (yama) establishes your personhood (niyama), which is enhanced by groundedness (asana). Silent reverie upon the internal space of selfhood (pranayama through samyama) prepares you for a richer experience of otherness." This isn't what we usually hear from the solitary, ascetic practice of withdrawal in pursuit of Divinity. Even with our pocket computers and earbuds and all the ways we have to simulate connection with each other that practice certain and powerful alienation, the yoga practice at its most useful for us now can be one of a constant dance of moving in and down into ourselves, to more efficiently, fully and compassionately reach up and out to our community.

All this to say: when you feel shitty, go to yoga. If nothing else, the breathing and the moving will do you some good. Even so, be mindful of how you use the practice. If you find yourself craving the hard sweat and the pushpushpush when the shit is on top of you, remember: the most challenging physical practice that will make you forget may not be the right one for you. Those of us who consistently gravitate toward a vigorous practice should ask ourselves, am I using the practice as a distraction from something else? If you need not to think about the work, the problem, the stress for an hour, bless you. I understand. Leave it at the door, do your practice, and step back to it with renewed clarity and compassion. But be careful with the instinct to practice in pursuit of feeling less. If your practice is doing its job, you may be feeling more.

Self-Care is a Strategy for Resistance

We are committed to collectively, lovingly and courageously working vigorously for freedom and justice for all Black people, and by extension all people. As we forge our path, we intentionally build and nurture a beloved community that is bonded together through a beautiful struggle that is restorative, not depleting.
— "Restorative Justice", Guiding Principles of Black Lives Matter movement

For the long-term, you'll want to establish a useful, sustainable self-care schedule/ritual that will ultimately be feeding and nourishing for you. You will know it's working when you can Show Up in the world for others without feeling overextended or exhausted. So often we spend our time slinging our feelings all over one another and then to cope we collapse and act out; I invite you to step into a self-care practice that is more supportive, useful, and sustainable.

As our energy starts to go out more often--as we're advocating for others, doing deep, and sometimes painful, self-study, as we're showing up more fully in the world--we find a struggle to strike a balance between putting resources in so we can put resources out. In some sense, your self-care ritual, like social justice, like self-improvement, like yamasvadhyaya and samyama, doesn't end, you're ever done; some days or seasons it feels easier to pursue than others. But we must do our best to stay consistent with our practices. Our community depends on us. 

So, important things to remember about self-care practices:

1. breath

This can't be surprising coming from a yogi. Prioritize your breath. You don't have to know a bunch of fancy techniques; even a few slow, conscious, deep breaths can go a long way toward bringing your awareness in with compassion. The time to take a breath gives us a chance to assess what it is we're feeling. If you can't do it in one, take another. Then take another. Use the breath to help teach you about what's going on in/with you, and if/when you're feeling especially triggered, make it dark and quiet (pratyahara: sanmukhi mudra, anyone?) and listen to your breath. Whether you're active or still, working gently or vigorously, study and care for your breath, and let it take precedence. The more I engage in the physical practice of yoga, the more I learn that for all of the fancy posture pyrotechnics that are a part of the yoga zeitgeist, the Oldheads had it right: pranayama is where the power, the gifts, the fruits really are.

2. bravery

Self-care takes bravery. Most people opt out of real, radical care for themselves. It's the reason that we lack the physical, energetic and relational resources to Show Up. It's easier to smoke Camel lights and eat Hot Fries (true story) than it is to examine what goes into us and how it effects what goes out. We're too scared to make the effort. It's hard to make yourself vulnerable by standing up for people who need allies, or to educate people who are too afraid to acknowledge their own ignorance. Think of self-care as an opportunity to practice behavior that will make it easier for you to be the person you want to be in community with others. A 20-minute nap or yoga nidra practice is powerful compared to an hour of video games. Foods and supplements that help you build muscle and release toxins are more effective long-term than a red-eye at the coffee shop or a 5-hour energy drink from the 7-11. If you are anything like me, choosing positive, nourishing habits over ones that feel easier but also depleting, this practice takes effort, and might not always be fun. But consider the bravery you're showing by making this choice. Don't abandon yourself. Your health and life are important enough for you to care for, and not to treat cavalierly. You need you, and we need you too. 

3. joy

Let it feel good: not the junk-food/anesthesia/acting out good, but genuinely good, the good you feel when you've accomplished something challenging, when you've gotten restorative body work done, at the end of a nourishing savasana. Learn to discern between the plastic-y, false sheen of "good" that frankenfood and habitual negativity can offer, and the clear, light, joyous freedom that sleep, movement, and laughter have in store. Laughter is key, do not forsake it. Laughter softens your belly, deepens your breath, improves your immunity, and releases hormones into your bloodstream that lower stress. Baby goats in pajamas, episodes of Too Cute, Kevin Hart, Russell Peters, Ali Wong, reruns of CarTalk, whatever does it for you: let laughter be a part of your ritual. Nature is also good: sunshine, dirt, damp pellets that fall from the sky. Water is life. The Earth is your mother. Spend time with her.

4. stillness

I am generous with definitions of this world, but I'll tell you this: it just about never has a screen involved. The world is pulling at you, seeking, craving, demanding your attention, so much so that it will lie to you without shame. (again, not exaggeration. don't be scared or confused. be informed.) Your attention is in small supply and high demand. You must carve time out of whatever else you're doing for stillness. For real: the legit, no-distractions full presence to be with yourself. Sleep is important, but sleep does not count. It's harder than it sounds, and it sounds hard. Be compassionate, but be vigilant. Your mind will run away, will throw anything up in front of you so you don't have to dwell in the stillness and quiet. Don't get pulled down the path of cognitive or analytical thought. With love and determination, pull your mind away from the distraction and back to the stillness. Maybe you need a mantra to repeat, maybe you need a place to rest your gaze, maybe you need a sound, whatever. Make it analog, make it consistent, and make it still.

5. humanity

In a workshop I took with Eric Shaw, he taught us that technologies of renunciation build tapas, remove us from our patterns and clarify us. That's fancy yogaspeak for the idea that giving up some of the day-to-day luxuries we take for granted can shake us up enough to allow clarity and lightness be present within us. Sounds good, right? I take it with a grain of salt, though, because I think that sometimes, some of us (and my hand is in the air here) can get carried away on the track in pursuit of "self-care" and wind up back in a pattern of monastic self-righteousness and judgement. So, stay human with yours, don't take this too seriously. 

Sometimes You Need Anesthesia

There's a reason the doc knocks you unconscious before she slices you open: there are some thresholds of pain that are simply unsafe and unwise for the body to experience. You know and I don't what your thresholds for pain and trauma are; I'm not going to tell you that you have to feel all the feels all the time. It's fucking exhausting. So: what you need is online poker? Okay. Set a timer for how long you'll play, how much you'll win or lose, and stick to it. What you need is anonymous sex? I get it. Be safe: ask the right questions of your partner (you don't need to know their name, but you do need to know when they were last tested for Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, and HIV), and use a barrier. And if you need more conversation about what safer sex means, come talk to me or one of my colleagues. What you need is shitty food and shittier tv? I understand. Eat out of a bowl, not out of the container or the bag, and set an alarm, so you don't blink and six hours has gone by. We all need to act out sometimes, and if you do, do it and bless it; but put some boundaries on that shit, and keep your word. Make a choice for the future you that the present you will act out wisely. Be willing to accept the consequences of your anesthesia. They can sometimes be quite costly.

I'll say one final thing about self-care, especially for those of us who tend to output more than we input. A consistent, sustainable routine is indispensable. Burnout is real and dangerous. Do not abandon others because you could not take care of yourself. Word of that shit gets around. Your community needs you; better to give what you can and not more, than overdo it and leave someone who's depending on you holding the bag. We gotta keep taking care of ourselves so we can keep taking care of each other. 


Bonus: what does my self-care look like? I practice. I seldom do fancy shit that would look good on a magazine cover. I often do postures that move my spine through a full range of motion, deepen my breath and allow me to feel more at ease in my body, about 30 minutes, if I'm lucky. I run. I sit with my breath. I read. As often as I can, I practice this: it is everything. If I could, I'd do it daily. I chant: the body is 70% water. Sound moves more efficiently through water than air; I repeat sounds and words that are life-giving. When I have time, I engage the world around me and I light candles and throw cards and make a little magic.