The Alchemist is full of crap

Yeah, I said it.

The Alchemist with its message of the universe conspiring to make our dreams come true is (in my humble opinion) a bunch of baloney. When I first read the book 10 years ago, I was totally on board. I wanted to believe it. I bought it hook, line and sinker.

So did everyone else apparently. As of 2012, this book has been translated into at least 56 languages and has sold over 30 million copies.

Universe in a teardrop

But my feelings about it over the years have changed. Why? Because we don’t function in a vacuum. Our actions have consequences and affect others. If one person wins, it means there are losers. Picture this scenario: What if your goal is to win a baseball game or be the best team ever? Well, the universe conspiring to make that happen for you means it’s working against the other team. And all I can say to that is “WTF?!? Not cool, Universe.” That kind of arbitrariness is not something I want to live with. Not to mention that karma will tell you that wishing that kind of bad juju on someone else is going to land you in a whole heap of trouble. (Disclaimer: I am not necessarily a believer of the machinations of karma either).

So what do I believe? Personally, I take huge comfort in the idea that the universe is neither working for me or against me. Things just are – whether they’re beautiful or ugly. Imagine how much better it would feel for everyone if we were all prepared for and accepted whatever life threw our way? I don’t mean settling or compromising but more like doing our best and if things don’t go well despite our efforts, then so be it. That’s just how it’s going to be. Peace and coming to terms with unpleasant things happens so much more quickly when I don’t spend time trying to analyze and re-analyze everything. Ultimately, we will never know the “why” behind the events in our lives anyway. Though I guess you could then argue that it doesn’t matter what you believe or what rationalization you attach to life events… (If that works for you, why not?)

We are all so caught up in trying to find the meaning of life or trying to figure out how the universe works. Whether things happen for a reason… Or whether if we behaved in some terrible way (in this life or a past one) and simply “got what was coming to us…” I don’t know if spending time trying to figure that out serves a purpose when the truth will never be known. Why can’t we just be good to ourselves and others?

Like the Staple Singers sing in their song “Respect yourself:”

If you’re walkin’ round think’n that the world
owes you something ’cause you’re here,
You goin’ out the world backwards like you did
when you first come here…

But in case I am wrong and the Universe really is paying attention, then I would like him to know that I am still interested in, nay, dedicated to winning the lottery. And that I’m being good, praying to him every night and I have left him some milk and cookies for when he comes down my chimney. 🙂

Photo via Flickr (Creative Commons) by H.Koppdelaney.

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On the other side of the alcohol fast

I have seen and soaked in the light at the end of the tunnel!

Giant hand

My husband and I went alcohol-free for 43 straight days. It started on February 1 and ended, fittingly enough, at a St. Patrick’s Day party (in case you were wondering about the random number). Together we do this fast annually.

Despite not being a heavy/binge drinker (less than 2 – 3 beers a week if that), I slogged through this year’s second annual alcohol fast. There were many moments that reminded me of how prevalent alcohol was in my life. Especially my social life. I didn’t go out much during the fast. Without alcohol I just didn’t feel like it. Why put myself in the path of temptation, right? Not that it was considerably easier to avoid at home… At the end of the week, my husband and I like to sit back with a beer after dinner, talk, laugh and let the absurdities of the work week slide away. One Friday night my husband and I were playing music that we liked for each other and halfway through the night I paused and blurted out, “I miss beer. Are we crazy for doing this?” The few times I did go out with friends, including to attend a Super Bowl party, involved people who were light drinkers so there was no pressure to drink. It was still hard but we survived and even had a really good time.

Now that I am free to drink again I am feeling a little anxious. A little hesitant to start again. Maybe even a little guilty…

You see, during this year’s fast, a friend invited me to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting with him. He thought that maybe I would appreciate and benefit from the solidarity. I was nervous – not knowing what to expect. But I found the meeting to be very powerful. Somehow. Some way. Not sure why. It seemed like a straightforward enough formula. Just people meeting everyday and talking about their experience with alcohol recovery. There were no counselors or other “professionals.” It was a meeting for alcoholics – run BY alcoholics. And yet, this simple act of gathering with others and talking is helping a lot of people cope with alcohol addiction.

Listening to their stories made me think about my own relationship with alcohol. They didn’t seem so different from me and yet I am not an alcoholic. (Yet?) But I realized then that the only reason I can do these alcohol fasts is that at the end of the 30 days (or however many days I decide to abstain) an ice-cold beer is waiting for me. It’s not forever. Not even close. That is not the future that these people see. If you told me I couldn’t have alcohol ever again, I don’t know how successful I would be. I just don’t know if I could give up something forever… not willingly anyway. And now that I’m drinking again I feel a little bit like a coward. Even though I know their battle is so very different from mine.

Ultimately, I am tremendously ill-equipped to grasp the struggles of recovering alcoholics. I could try but not without coming off as patronizing or just plain stupid. There are people out there with problems bigger than my own. And I walked away from that meeting immeasurably moved but also feeling small and petty. And a little silly for thinking that my few weeks of abstaining had some sort of meaning in the larger scheme of life. But I’m not sure it has to. Maybe it’s enough that it has meaning for me…

We don’t have an understanding of addiction. Let alone a solution for recovery. We try a hundred different ways including acupuncture and for some people it works. But for others it’s back to square one.

As for me, I will continue to abstain for a few weeks every year, in the hopes of learning something – maybe about myself – maybe about others. And I encourage you to do the same. It doesn’t have to be alcohol. Anything really that you think you can’t live without. You will learn so much about yourself – good or bad. Maybe, like me, you already have…

What would you give up temporarily if you were to embark on your own experiment?

Your yoga will change…

Or maybe it won’t. Either way, it’s okay.

When I started doing yoga, I was at a low point in my life. I was directionless. Uninspired. Lost. Depressed.

My sister took pity on me and magnanimously bought me a full year’s membership to the local gym which offered free yoga classes. And then she dragged me to one. (I think she was tired of seeing me moping around the house).

At first, yoga was purely a workout for me. I had an emotional attachment to it but only in the sense that it made me feel good (and look good!).

It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized that yoga had become this physical AND mental practice for me. I mean I always knew that yoga was so much bigger than me doing poses. I was starting to benefit from yoga beyond the mat. I was using breathing techniques learned in class during stressful situations. I could channel into the good feeling that resulted from my practice even when I wasn’t on my mat. I was also starting to follow yogic principles of practicing self-care and non-violence. I was no longer just a gym rat who happened to be in a yoga class. I felt like a yogi. I had finally (maybe accidentally?) tapped into the larger fabric of yoga. Despite myself I had moved beyond yoga as a workout to yoga as a way of life. And HOLY HELL I liked it! I could not get enough. My heart felt bigger than my chest. I was calmer. I was happier. I didn’t feel so alone.

One of the more beautiful things about yoga is its independent existence. Whether or not I believed in yoga, it just was. When I stepped on to the mat, I was joining the millions of other people who have done the same poses for hundreds of years and sharing in the cosmic energy. I didn’t have to be special. I didn’t need to be able to do certain poses to gain access to its full potential. In whatever measure that I wanted to take it on, it was enough and there for me. I don’t even have to be vegetarian (though some would argue with that – but that’s for another blog post).

One of my teachers spent over ten years trying to define “his yoga” and he finally concluded that yoga was anything good that he was doing for himself. It could be anything from practicing, meditating, going to bed earlier or choosing a healthier meal to eat.

And so maybe like my journey with yoga, your relationship with yoga might change as well. Or maybe it won’t. It’s okay. You will get there when you get there.

So tell me, has your yoga changed?

Yogitastic on the beach

My yoga class playlist

VolumeI believe in the magic of music.

Music is an easy way to channel something inside or outside of myself. When I have emotions I can’t quite put words to, there is definitely a song that can do it for me. Some songs can take me right out of my current experience while others are completely grounding. Naturally, I use music in my yoga classes as a quick way to get students “in the mood.” Below is one of my favorite playlists:

The Mystic’s Dream by Loreena McKennitt

Moment of Surrender by U2

Eminence Front by the Who

A Different Drum by Peter Gabriel

Empty by Ray LaMontagne

For What It’s Worth (Stop, Hey, What’s That Sound) by Buffalo Springfield

Strength, Courage and Wisdom by India.Arie

Fly by Steve Winwood

I Shall Believe by Sheryl Crow

By Your Grace/Jai Gurudev by Krishna Das

By This River by Brian Eno

Life and Death by Deeper Connexions

Gymnopédie No. 1 by Erik Satie

Do you have any songs you love hearing in yoga class or would love to hear in class? Please share them here!

(Thanks to Teachasana for the inspiration to share my playlist!)

Getting hurt while doing yoga…

Lorin at The Vegan Asana recently wrote about yoga sometimes hurting. In it she says, pain is okay

as long as the pain is not extreme, is not unusual, is not unbearable, does not produce dizziness or nausea, and is not in areas of the body that are very easily injured (e.g. knees) or where injuries could be quite dangerous (e.g. neck).

Great things to keep in mind with any physical activity. At the beginning of my class and throughout class, I remind students that though they should feel challenged within the poses, they should not feel any sharp pain and if they do, then they need to slowly and carefully come out of the pose. Additionally, I emphasize modified versions of poses by demonstrating that first then showing the more advanced positions before returning to the other version to encourage students not to push beyond what they are capable of at the present. (Yes, more often than not, I can tell when a student is not ready for a pose).

Despite all of that I still see plenty of students who push harder than they should at the risk of getting hurt.

But I encourage them to come back because I want them to learn that a great thing about yoga is that it provides an opportunity to tune in to your body while it is in action. Whether you are moving into the warrior poses, holding them or coming out, you are mindfully going slowly enough to listen to your body. You can ask: what felt good? What didn’t? Did adjusting one way make it better or worse? You will learn so much about your body during a yoga practice.

That is, if you are listening…

The key to avoiding getting hurt inside and outside of yoga is knowing where your edges are. Your physical edge is that line in your body right before the benefit of exertion becomes harmful and injury is likely. Like a cliff, you approach your edge slowly and carefully so that you don’t fall over. Knowing where solid ground ends and free fall begins is important to preventing injury.

For example, in a seated forward fold, a student with tight hamstrings shouldn’t grab his feet, jerk his torso towards his legs and pull as hard as he can to get his chest as close to his thighs as possible. This can cause a serious tear and take him out of commission for weeks. The fold should be approached slowly, bending from the hip creases while using the breath to gradually lower the chest towards the legs to deepen the stretch. Done carelessly, it’s not just your legs that you can hurt but your back as well.

The mentality of pushing past pain does more harm than good. Pain, after all, is your body telling you that it is not okay. Ignoring pain comes with a price that can easily be avoided if we spent just a little more time listening to our bodies and being kinder to ourselves. There is, of course, a difference between pain and intensity. In a stretch, it changes from intensity to pain when you are no longer enjoying the movement. At that point, pulling back is recommended.

It is up to us to define our own edges – physically and psychologically. It is the only sure-fire way to stay safe. If you have any wisdom to share about your experience with injury, please leave them here!

Smarter than you are

On being here…

Ever feel like maybe you are exactly where you need to be?

That circumstances and decisions made in the past have all led to your being here at this exact place and moment in time…

That maybe we shouldn’t be rushing off to or worrying about the next thing because this moment has its own value to impart…

That you wouldn’t have the great things that you have now if it weren’t for less than desirable situations in the past…

That maybe rough times are up ahead and we need to appreciate the present so that we can thrive in the future…

That this present though far from perfect is still good in its own unique way…

In the spiritual practice of yoga, one of the guiding principles is Santosha. Simply put, it is the practice of contentment. There are many ways to interpret that. For me, it’s living in the moment and spending more time recognizing what I have rather than lamenting over things that I don’t. I am where I need to be and I have what I need.

Does it mean that I don’t wonder how differently life would have been if I had decided to go to a different college? (Or other similar life-altering decisions?) I still do but rather than thinking it might have been better I simply acknowledge that all I can ever really know for sure is that it would have been different.

I am here now. In my current job. With my husband. In our cozy apartment. With good friends living nearby. With my gaze turned towards the future but my feet firmly rooted into the present ground.

Outerbanks Sunrise

Namaste.

I believe…

…that there is no such thing as a panacea (not even yoga). That to be better takes concerted effort using a myriad of solutions and tools.

…that suffering is a necessary evil. We are better people for it.

…that denying yourself builds character but occasionally giving in generates more happiness.

…that you can never be too kind to yourself.

…that you can have happiness NOW.. not when you’re thinner, richer or partnered up.

…that being happy doesn’t mean never being sad (or angry).

…that gratitude will change your perspective. Every. Single. Time.

…that embracing the unknown can be incredibly liberating.

…that surrounding yourself with people and things you love is medicine for the soul.

…that it’s up to us to define and shape our lives. Not societal precepts.

Sunset

“…above all treasure love, moderation and humility. Love begets courage, moderation creates abundance and humility generates power. Courage without love is brutish. Abundance without moderation leads to over-indulgence and decay. Power without humility breeds arrogance and tyranny.” – B. K. S. Iyengar

What do YOU believe?

Photo via Flickr (Creative Commons) by DavidYuWeb.