The Greatest Love Affair You’ll Ever Have

It’s February.  So we’re going on the obligatory love story trip.  But instead of getting stuck in the commercialism of Valentine’s Day that reinforces everything we lack, lets turn the paradigm on its head.  Let’s look at the life-long love affair that each of us can develop: the one with ourselves.

Before you throw up in your mouth a little, just go with me for a minute.


I once gave a friend some unsolicited advice (bad habits die hard).  Our own history was a little checkered: we dated briefly, he admitted he wasn’t looking for a relationship, and we continued to spend… time together. (Mom reads the blog sometime, so I’ll leave it at that).  Some months after we had gone fully platonic, he was bemoaning his romantic life and psyche in general.  I said to him: “How can you expect anyone else to love you if you don’t love yourself?”  He stopped, dead in his tracks, looked at me with a pained expression and said “That is the cruelest thing anyone has ever said to me.”

It was clear in that moment that he was so far from loving himself he didn’t even think it was possible.  He thought I was sentencing him to a loveless life — without realizing it was he who did that.


Self-love is perhaps the most difficult affirmation practice, and not just because it makes us feel like heading straight for self-help aisles in bookstores and resigning ourselves to being new-agey and wearing organic, hand-knit, alpaca sweaters and magnetic bracelets.  My friend is a great example of why.

Try it for a minute and see.  Go stand in front of your bathroom mirror (or any wall mirror) and stand close enough that you can see all the details of your face.  Take a good look – examining the ridge of your nose, that place in your eyebrows where the hairs change direction, the pores on your chin, the flecks of color in your eyes, the curve of your lips.

Notice the thought patterns that come up when you do this.  You don’t have to even try to think something — you just look at your face and you think something.  Notice that.

Do you admire your latest wax job? Love the color of your eyes? Or, like me, do you see all the things you wish were different? Do you see the roundness at the end of your nose that you wish were sleeker? Wonder how anyone can stand looking at those pore-craters? Maybe you see things you hate, things you’ve hated for so many years that that hate has grown into resentment.

Imagine: resenting your own face.  The impact of a realization like this — and the genuine pain of it — is incredibly powerful, and can be overwhelming.

In case you aren’t feeling awkward enough, now comes the really hard part.  Look at yourself dead in the eye, and say “I love you.”  Now say it again, like you mean it.  Say it until it doesn’t feel awkward or like a lie or like you belong on a 1980s meditation tape.  Say it until you can fill it with enough back-up and texture as when you say it to your best friend, your mom, or your lover.

If that sounds like an impossible assignment, you aren’t alone.  This is one of the most difficult spiritual practices there is.

There are five ways of showing someone you love them, according to a dude named Gary Chapman.  The basic theory is that we each learn how to give and receive love in some combination of the five ways:  Gifts, Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Acts of Service, or Physical Affection.  (If you’re curious to read more or to discover your primary ways check it here).  You probably already have a hunch, based on the fights you’ve had with exes about they don’t (touch you / talk to you / spend time with you) enough.

So here is your assignment: pick one example from each of the five “languages,” this week, and do/give that to yourself.  Do this especially if the mirror exercise is hard for you.  Sometimes the best way to learn how to do something is by doing it.

– What small gift can you give yourself that would make you smile each time you saw it/touched it/heard it?  What would you want someone to give you for this Valentine’s Day?  Or what would you give to your significant other to show them exactly how much you love them?

– What words can you say to yourself to reinforce this love? What do you love most about yourself? Conjure up a powerful compliment. Again, remember the quick displacement exercise: what would you tell your lover to show them how much you care? What would you want them to tell you?

– What event could you take yourself out to this week? It could be something fancy like dinner out or a live music show, or it could be something simple like a post-prandial walk.  What would you usually be doing while holding hands with your boo?  Do that.  You can hold your own hand, but only if you have a marsupial sweatshirt – it freaks out strangers otherwise.

– What tedious task do you put off because you hate to do for yourself that you would do for someone else in a heartbeat? Fold their laundry? Change their oil? Cook dinner? Wash the dishes? Do that thing, but for you.

– Giving ourselves physical affection is weird.  I know.  There is one very common practice that we all do that we tend not to talk about in yoga classes or other “enlightened” gatherings.  When you do that, watch your mind.  Are you thinking “Let me get this over with,” or even, “I feel so guilty/dirty doing this?”  What if you were with someone who was thinking that when they touched you?  How can we cultivate the same physical passion with ourselves as we share with someone else?  If that feels hard, there’s an Ayurvedic practice called Abhyanga — it’s just self massage.  Google it if you need more instruction, but it can be a powerful practice.  It’s the same challenge as before — watch your thoughts, be mindful of what you tell yourself about touching yourself.

We grow the most when we’re doing something we don’t know how to do.  When it feels weird and awkward and wrong and all we can think is “I’ll never be able to…”  – remember that you are growing the most in that moment.

And you are growing the most important relationship you have  in your life – the one with yourself.  You are the one you can’t escape, you can’t dump, you can’t estrange, you can’t divorce,  you can’t emancipate.  Instead, you can begin to learn how to fall in love with yourself – one awkward, painful moment at a time.

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Come practice this in your body with me at Wild Lotus Yoga.

Playlist on Spotify here.

Everyday Gods and Goddesses

Things are a little crazy down here in New Orleans.

We are hosting one of the biggest parties in the U.S. just a week before Mardi Gras, the other biggest party in the U.S.  Everything is a little out of control.  And now the tourists are coming.

And this party is here to watch two teams of grown men aggress each other for three hours over an oblong ball, which is also crazy.  It doesn’t even bounce.  And there are so many rules!  I have to admit, I’ve become quite the Saints fan in the past 10 years, and I know the difference between a flea flicker and play-action, but really?  Really?

And on top of that, our society idolizes these men.  It worships them.  They become role models for upper-classes and poor kids alike.  Their physical prowess is amazing, certainly. Their training and dedication is inspirational.  But god-like?

How often have we seen these players fall and fail and be human? Their humanity has expressed itself in scope from Michael Vick’s tremendous ethical lapse to our dear Steve Gleason who suffers with ALS.  We put these athletes on pedestals, leaving them that much further to fall.  It’s a delicate business.

So we must be cautious who we honor, worship, and devote our lives to.  (Mom will hate that sentence-ending preposition.) We must be thoughtful.  Here’s the thing: we can idolize anyone.  We get to choose in whom we put that faith. (Welcome, mom.) (She’s a grammar goddess, y’all.)  We can bequeath any person superhuman powers if we believe what they do is MORE than we think humans can do.  What if you decided to put that faith in yourself?

Just for today: how do you idolize yourself? What do you do that’s MORE than humans do? How can you live your life in devotion to yourself? What’s your superhuman power?

If it’s surviving traffic and crowds and patience, you’re in luck.  Because I think these next couple weeks are gonna be crazy.

Mantra:  Om Nama Shivaya

We honor Shiva, and the divine power inside us that transforms and transcends.

Playlist forthcoming.

Sankalpa

So after a month of teaching, I’m going to finally offer an explanation of Sankalpa — feel free to comment below where I err.

Martin Luther King, Jr. – The Original Spiritual Gangster

My teacher wears an array of clever yoga t-shirts.  One says Spiritual Gangster.  I’ve often wondered what that actually means. Does he intimidate with his vast spirituality?  Takes karma as payment for not yoga-ing you to death? Or that being spiritual doesn’t automatically mean being well-behaved?

In the frame of Sankalpa, I have been meditating today on Rev. King and the work he did.  Sankalpa is a deep intention – if your dharma could talk, it would be a sankalpa.  If you’re a yoga nerd, that may make sense to you; but how many yoga nerds are really out there?

Each of us has a deep seated belief about who we are and what we are here to do.  It’s specific and unique to each of us, although on the surface it may seem similar.  Sometimes it’s possible to ferret out that purpose (or dharma), and to explain it in words.  Sometimes it’s so deep that we cannot find a way to express it verbally, and it only comes out in our actions and our values and the decisions we make.

One of the things that made MLK so very special was his ability to simply yet eloquently express his Sankalpa: “I have a dream.”  His dream, his belief, of black children and white children playing together with no knowledge of race was so important and so central to his own existence that he pursued it mercilessly.  

Marianne Williamson says, “as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”  Dr. King was liberated.  He was liberated from any fear by this deep desire, this deep intention, his Sankalpa.  And by simply living, he liberated each of us — he inspires us to follow the deep knowledge we have about what is right and what is just.

 

So today, in his honor, ask yourself: What do I believe so deeply?  What is this deep desire that is so central to my existence?  And how can I use it to liberate myself from the fear of pursuing it?

Starting Again

How many of us set the same resolution year after year?  How many years have you made a commitment to lose 10 pounds or get back to the gym?  How many times have you promised yourself you really WOULD start sticking to that budget?  How often do you recommit to starting again?

You may not think of this way, but when you practice yoga, you start over ever week.  Every time you walk into the studio, come to your mat, sit in Sukhasana and chant that opening Om – you start again.

At the beginning of this year, I have found myself in a similar position that I have found myself in other years: 15 or 20 pounds heavier than I would like to be, not doing exactly what I want to be doing at work, single.  I have been struggling lately with the fact that this is not the first time I have found myself here.  The committee in my head tells me I’m a failure because I have faced this same struggles, similar challenges, over and over again – if not my whole life.  There must be something “wrong” with me if I haven’t figured this out by now, right?

What I’ve just given myself is an excuse to feel lousy, feel sorry for myself, and give up before I’ve even started.  I don’t know about you, but I’m an expert at this.  As one of my yoga teachers says: you get good at what you show up for.

But my asana practice offers me an alternative.  How often have I come to a mat, knowing that the practice wouldn’t be “perfect?”  How many times have I tried to hop up into handstand and failed?  And fallen from Bakasana right onto my face?

Every time you start your practice, you do the same thing over again.  Your Sun Salutations are exactly the same every single time.  You follow the same ritual every time and find something new.  Perhaps your practice has evolved over time; you’ve tried inhaling in different or opposite poses.  Your practice is just that.  An experiment.  A constant rehearsal, with no final performance.  And yet it doesn’t seem anti-climactic, does it?

Today, use your practice as the standard for your life off the mat.  Use your yoga as a mirror.  Come to this life –  with all its challenges, frustrations, setbacks, repeated failures – with the same childlike enthusiasm that you bring to your practice.

After 10+ years, I still can’t hop into handstand. That doesn’t mean I stop trying with the same enthusiasm, light-heartedness, and spirit of “practice not perfection.”  Why don’t I approach these 15 pounds the same way?

Desire

In the beginning of things – a new year, a new job, a new relationship – we find ourselves anticipating the middle and the end.  We crave an outcome, and develop expectations, hopes and desires for those results.  We begin to live in next week, next month, next year.

So often we are told by “self-help” media: stay in the moment. Release expectation. That’s easier said than done – I often experience the exact opposite of this when I try to “let go.” My mind instead focuses on “what am I holding onto?”

So perhaps, in the beginning of this new year — with all its hopes, expectations and desires — you can begin to cherish that hope and desire. Nurture this deep craving, not for outside things to come to you, but for what happens when you bring your inside out to meet them.

Instead of holding on so tightly to this desired outcome, cling to the desire itself — swim in it. Bathe yourself in this deep longing. In the anusara tradition, it is believed the universe created itself out deep desire for its own delight and wonder. If pure creation is the result of deep desire, how can we tell ourselves that desire is bad?

The attachment to the object of desire is where the downward spiral begins — we focus then on what we are missing. Instead, dive deep into this feeling of wanting, and let it enliven you, empassion you, and empower you.

 

“Just as a desire leaps up,
And you perceive the flash, the sparkle,
Quit from its play,
And maintain awareness
In that clear and shining place
From which all desire springs.”

– 73. The Radiance Sutras
A new translation of the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra by Lorin Roche.

The Challenge of a yogi

Nearly a year ago, almost to the day, I started my yoga teacher training. “Soul School” at Wild Lotus Yoga, in New Orleans.

Yes, it’s really called Soul School.  I’m not making that up.  Yes, you’re allowed to make fun of me.

I make fun of me, and laugh a lot about being “woo-woo,” and am self-conscious and self-aware, and simultaneously feel the pressure of being an evolved spiritual being.  Twice a week (or more, if I’m lucky) a handful of trusting folks sit in a room with me while I tell them to contort their bodies into odd shapes, and try to inspire them to live their lives in ways that make them the most fulfilled.

No pressure.

The past year has been the best and hardest and most inspiring year of my life.  But let me begin at the beginning:

I’m a smart cookie.  As a kid, I realized that if I couldn’t be pretty I could be smart.  As I got older, I hid behind “smart” — using it as protection from relationships, vulnerability, and other parts of life.  The trick about “smart” is that spirituality and smart don’t really go well together.  It’s tough to think about god, you can’t reason your way into faith.  God isn’t logical.  Faith doesn’t make sense.

I was a militant atheist in high school.  My lack of faith was a point of pride.  Nothing annoyed me more than the smug self-confidence of Believers.

In college, I found my depression.  Two years of sitting on the couch watching reruns of Law & Order when I wasn’t in class or at work finally sent me to therapy.  I had always been happy, cheerful, loved life.  Depression is an illness that strips away your joy — but that’s another topic of another entry.

I lucked out and found an amazing therapist who trained at the Jung Institute.  Over five years, I had the joy of being guided through reconnecting with all the aspects of myself — discovering that I didn’t have to be just “smart.”

About the same time, I started practicing yoga.  First, it was just “exercise.”  It was a good way to sweat, and I had a knack for it — I was naturally flexible, expressive, and introspective.  I was not interested in all the woo-woo Atman nonsense.

And then The Thing happened.  Everything I had believed about the way things work (governments, families, disasters, life…) was undermined in one fell swoop when the levees breached and my city flooded.  Faith is mandatory in situations like that.  Faith is what’s left when your beliefs are stripped away.

My practice continued.  I began hearing my teachers talk about things like “non-violence” and “lovingkindness.”  I learned sanskrit mantras and sang at kirtans.  My practice continued.  And after some length of time, I realized my practice was stalled.  I was stuck.  I knew I needed a boost, and I hoped that Soul School would do it.

Over eight months, I learned about my physical practice, I learned about my breathing, but I also learned about grace.  I learned some pretty simple ways to engage with my own spiritual side.  I learned about my faith.

I didn’t know what faith looked like, for me.  I still don’t know what god is, to me.  But now, I get to explore it, for myself, for the rest of my life.

Yoga means “to yoke.” It’s connection. Relationship.

Soul School taught me to yoke myself to faith, and to discover my spirituality.  It asked me questions about what’s really important, what brought me joy, where my power was.

This is not an essay about how you should go take a yoga class, or why God is good.  This is an essay about self-discovery.  And learning about yourself is the hardest and most inspiring thing you get to do in your life.  The best part?  You get to do it for the rest of your life.

Katrina + 6

It’s been a quiet week here in New Orleans, my home town…

That’s all I could think today, driving home from yoga.  “It’s been a quiet week here in Lake Wobegon, my home town…” I grew up listening to Garrison Keillor.  I grew up falling asleep to tapes of A Prairie Home Companion.  If you didn’t already realize I was raised by liberal recovering-hippies, well… now you know.

It’s been a quiet week.  And today just happened.  Again.  Six years ago there was The Thing that happened. On the Fifth Anniversary everybody still talked about it and did their mourning and mooning and moaning about how people should stop talking about the The Thing.  But today, on the Sixth Anniversary, nothing happened.

It’s been a quiet week in New Orleans, my home town… the girls and I got together on Saturday, with late brunch drinks (Champagne + Blueberry-Pomegranate is just as delightful as it sounds) and watched My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding (which is actually far more disturbing than it sounds), and I got day drunk and fell asleep at 8pm.  Sunday I made groceries and went to the grand opening of the New Orleans Healing Center.

This morning, I woke up, stopped by the coffee shop, and went to work.  The air’s a little smoky, but other than that it was just another day.  Just another Monday.  It wasn’t even manic.  Our staff meeting was practically calm.

It’s been a quiet week.

And yet, today still feels like the beginning of a new year.  It’s been (whatever 365 times 6 is… 1900 or so) days since Katrina hit and then the levees and all that.  I wonder: will it always be like this?  Will today always be a sacred day, no matter what?  Is this what it feels like when you lose a child or a spouse and their death-day passes and you get mad at everybody who doesn’t remember? And will I always feel guilty about being angry about that?

When will I start measuring years again from January 1?  Or at least from my birthday? Will that ever happen?  My life is still divided into BK and AK.

As I drove to work this morning, I realized 80% of the people I work with didn’t live here during The Thing.  There’s one kid who was in college at the time… But otherwise, it’s a bunch of folks who all lived out of harm’s way who work there.  Even the handful that lived in New Orleans didn’t live *in it*.  I hate that I care about that.  I am on my way to becoming that 70 year-old lady who talks about The Big One, and how none of y’all kids really understand.

But in reality, they don’t really understand.

It was a quiet week in New Orleans, my home town… I suppose I should be thankful for that.