Sunday, February 28, 2010

Dementia Reveals the Swirling of Real and Unreal

I've just been spending time with a dear old friend who has dementia. Her condition is reflected in significant memory losses, some anxiety and paranoia, with some deeply emotional and personality magnifications, and occasional confusions about words. One of the aspects of her behavior that is startling and evocative, is her way of asking the simplest questions, the answers to which reveal the substrate of human relationships. She asks, "Whose house is this?" as she walks up the stairs in the house in which she has lived for many decades. She looks around her, discovering everything with delight and pleasure, but when told "This is your house," her face darkens in confusion. She meets my gaze and asks, "Really? How can that be?" Of course I can tell her the story of how this house came to be hers, but her questions ask something so much deeper. She often simply asks, "Where am I?" and for that the answer is also simple and deeply complex.

Much of the time she seeks a sense of safety, some reassurance within the boundaries she feels and sees, that she is protected and secure. This can be physical but is often much more than that. She seeks protection for her heart, and of the transitional spaces in which she now functions. Beautifully dressed for an occasion honoring her partner, surrounded by guests she has known for years, she will engage each person with charm and standing quite close, offer sotto voce intimations of shared secrets. "Only you know exactly how that happened!" she might say with an endearing smile and light touch on the arm, without giving any more of a reference. Each guest receives her gift of intimacy with grace and honor, to be brought in close, and treated with such trust. Substance has receded into the most essential materials with which we connect and sustain each other.

When tired or anxious, she grasps at a defense and holds firm, while some around her try to distract her and others speak directly to the underlying causes of the fear or anxiety. There are no more corrections, when people say, "No, you were not there that time," or "I didn't say that," "You never did learn to do that," or any other denials of her momentary realities. She will move on, taking each moment fully as it is, creating the network of supporting evidence she needs to convince her self, or others, in that moment. The purity with which she asks, "Would you like my cup?" or "Are you staying?" makes each moment so full of grace.

I can't help but wonder why we spend so much time trying to convince ourselves and others to agree about data and facts between us that may well be simply illusion. We put way too much meaning and false value in controlling and manipulating this fluid surface and its meanings. It seems so clear to me now that when my friend joyfully exclaims "That's my son!" there is really no longer any need for him to ask her, "So what's my name?" as if that is a test of her memory. She clasps his middle-aged face in her hands and says with a voice saturated with love and longing, "You were a beautiful baby boy." What more is there to say about anything, other than "I love you?"

Saturday, February 27, 2010

On the Mat: Being Where You Find Yourself

It is no surprise that sitting on a yoga mat can be much more than a physical experience. Discovering that your neck is stiff, or that one hip is crankier than the other is one way of getting to know yourself with more honesty and attention than usual, but something else happens too. The stillness we allow on the mat in order to pay attention to that hip is often uncomfortable in and of itself. In that space, with attention focused on breathing, we begin to see ourselves in vast and discrete ways simultaneously. All the efforting to adjust the hips, the stream of judgments about the tensions in the breath, the constant remembering to release the seemingly continuous tightening of the neck muscles and the realization that attention has wandered yet again to the person next to us... provides an unfiltered experience of our own being.

So much energy goes into making ourselves over, wishing we were different than we are, covering, editing or erasing parts of ourselves we don't like or can't figure out. This way of operating creates layers and patterns, puts some of our most authentic qualities and understandings out of reach, and makes it hard to connect deeply and honestly to other people. So often even in intimate relationships there is a sense of not being known, or of disbelief when it comes to accepting appreciation or love. If we can not see and accept ourselves, we cannot believe anyone else can know or love that self either. Often our self acceptance is with reservations and exclusionary clauses that we have come to consider part of the self.

There is something uncanny, magical and simple about training our attention on the breath. When we soften our physical effort around the breath, we set aside some of the basic resistance to being who we are. Not concerned with what our faces are doing, letting go of preconceived ideas of what that hip can or cannot do, we can approach our own inhaling and exhaling with curiosity. We develop more acute observational skills as we discover things about its texture or length, seeing the variety of efforts we make to control or direct it, and accepting quite basically that it is just what it is and that the breath, as itself, can be trusted. Trusting the breath is a profound step towards accepting oneself and finding a safe space, in some ways a very sacred space, in which to explore just being.

We find that there is no need to judge our breathing. Letting that idea permeate us for even a moment makes space to let go of judging ourselves generally. Curiosity about the breath leads to a genuine awakening of curiosity about the self: exactly how is this rib cage situated around the inhale, moving on the exhale, releasing and empowering a sense of being. Centering attention, maintaining focus without judging, directly nurtures a sense of well-being. It is remarkable to discover that we, along with every other living being, are breathing and being in each moment. We make space for ourselves on the mat and this space goes with us off the mat. If we open to finding ourselves as we are - breathing, being, curious and whole - we have the ultimate freedom to accept ourselves (and others) as worthy of happiness in all its forms. Without judgment and with awareness, we no longer need to manipulate ourselves into being worthy, we find that we are naturally worthy of being.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Worst or The Best Yoga Class

I just enjoyed a taste of yoga yesterday at Integral Yoga in the West Village, NYC. It was my first time there, and I was offered a free second class if I filled out an evaluation form of my first class. So I did. But as I got to the second side of the form, I was asked to rate the teacher, and in some ways, the teaching. This was funny to me since the experience of a yoga practice is not something I usually rate or judge in terms of "E=Excellent," "G=Good!"

Then today I happened to skim through Elizabeth Gilbert's short article in the recent Yoga Journal relating her discovery that yoga was neither gym class nor religion. She describes the moment when she realizes, suddenly, deeply and somehow permanently that her being is opening and healing through this simple combination of moving the body, stilling the mind and breathing. She mentions that she now takes yoga all over the world, wherever she is, and writes, " And you know what? It doesn't even have to be a good yoga class. Garrison Keillor once said that the worst pumpkin pie he ever ate wasn't that much different from the best pumpkin pie he ever ate, and I feel exactly that way about yoga classes -- that even the sloppiest or most rudimentary studios have provided me with the opportunity for transformation."

This thrilled me, because I, too, have found this to be true. I've come to understand that every teacher is offering a guide and a space within which it is my own breath and prana that emerges. If I chafe against the words being used, or my hip criticizes the sequence introduced, or perhaps my heart fails me as others leap into a place my body dares not go, I can only gain. Surely as I feel the earth below me in savasana, I can open to the possibilities offered to me in any class. Perhaps it is a power yoga class, perhaps it is a meditation and hatha class, but they each open the gates to awareness.

I remember feeling unsure in classes, and even having strong negative reactions to some teachers who did not seem to be on the same wavelength as I wanted to be. It is that "wanting to be" that is illuminated. Yet even with someone shouting and counting breaths, urging me to "do it-push it-hold-it" in ways that felt like a workout and nothing like yoga, it was my own response that I investigated, and my own breath that I used for support and softness. A class can be very quiet and not rev up the engines that burn off the toxins of the day, but that quiet space is where strength of focus can surely be nurtured, and the distracting mind seen fully.

So I rated everything "E" for excellent on my form, smiling at how even that exercise gave me a new look at myself and my yoga practice. I'm not sure when I will make it back for that second class, but I am sure to learn something from it whenever I do go.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Chanting - Finding a Shared Voice

There's this funny country song, that I've heard done by Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodgriguez, called "Don't Speak in English." It reminds me a lot of how I reacted to chanting in Sanskrit when I first ran into that in yoga classes. The main deal is that we can talk about anything and everything but if we do so in a language that we don't understand it has a totally different effect. The lyrics of the song go along covering many emotionally difficult things, such as "You can talk politics, get your political fix, but don't say words that I understand, 'cuz I've had enough, of that kind of stuff, for a long long time." Using words like "God" and "blessing," "surrender" and "transformation" can raise hairs on many necks and would feel inappropriate in many contexts in which I teach yoga, yet chanting "Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya" is simply felt to be moving and compassionate. It's meaning is "may I surrender to that which sustains me," which can be turned and turned and turned as we come to explore ourselves, our foundation, and our breath.

I did not gravitate to yoga in order to find a religion or to have anyone else tell me what to believe and what not to believe. Part of what melted my boundaries in yoga was the fact that the exploration was at once entirely mine, and totally shared by all beings in some aspects. So to be asked to repeat and chant something in a language I didn't understand felt strangely liberating to me. I was not being asked to accept the long litany of stories that might accompany the Hindu god to whom we chanted, nor even to understand the significance of that deity in that belief structure. Like chanting "AOM," the experience was vibrational, emotional, intrinsically unifying and helped me make the journey out of embarrassment or self-consciousness.

Before I taught any public classes, I secretly wondered how I would ever manage to open my mouth and guide any chanting. Nothing is routine for me in yoga, each moment is new, so it was a total surprise to find myself softly chanting to my classes in Savasana (corpse pose/relaxation), offering them prayers and encouragement to be, to open, to feel safe, to know themselves as the divine eternal beings they may come to recognize in themselves. It was as though something soft and vast was moving through me and into their sweet soft breathing, there on the floor.

I cannot even always translate the chants that come out of me in Sanskrit! Part of my own practice is to attempt the words in English, so that I feel the language is not the allure, but the meaning itself. Yet I do think that it is the vibrational quality and rhythmic nature of the Sanskrit syllables themselves that open us to the experience of chanting together.

So my class can happily chant the name of the great protector and remover of obstacles from an ancient tradition not their own (Ganeesha!), louder and softer, in major and minor melodic intervals, finding their own voices and at the same moment losing their singular selves into the beauty of merged sound. For those who do not sing, this can be a unique and deeply new experience; it has encouraged some to take up singing. Finding our voice is part of finding our self. Stumbling over syllables like children singing grown up songs and making the words our own (some of us did this with the Pledge of Allegiance as children in school...), we can investigate our own ego, the question of knowing and not knowing and how we judge ourselves and others. This all happens in an instant!

Watching a fairly random group turn into a swaying, harmonizing, energy field is a most remarkable experience ... if I separate myself enough to open my eyes while chanting right along.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Living the Life I Have

I've been reading through letters and papers of family members who have passed on. My grandparents, some of their generation and earlier, and my maternal uncle who died in his early 60s. Some of these papers are deeply touching, like my grandmother's school papers from her English class in 1915; some beyond imagining, like my uncle's theoretical mathematical papers. One thing comes through from the collections of cards, letters, newspaper clippings, photos and notes, it is the saturation of character and personality in all this ephemera. I felt as though I was visiting with these people in ways that were unavailable to me even with those I knew when they were alive. There is such a pulse or rhythm of their own in each person's materials.

It is so clear from these papers that we live until we don't. My uncle developed his musical talents, his brilliant mathematical thinking, his wry humor and satirical writing, his teaching, his travels, his interests in wildflowers and education. All of this ended when he stopped breathing. His friendships, intellectual exchanges, musical partners, lovers, and family seem alive in his papers, and show how fully he was living in the days he had. There is no doubt he suffered along the way. I won't get into the details here, but he also lived with a vividness and commitment to using what was in him, and exploring that in many directions. Even though he's been dead for many years, he is very much alive in the moment he wrote the letters and that comes through.

The same is true for the other people slipping out of these papers. Each, whether they intended to or not, clearly engaged in the exploration of who they might be, here in a world where they learned new languages, took on intellectual and social roles, forged alliances and relationships, and withstood the trials and stumbling blocks of immigration and political turmoil throughout the 1900s. In most cases they were unconscious of this deep personal development, they were busy living flat out in the context of the day. The phrase, "make something of yourself," applies to them all. And yet, they were busy being themselves, for the most part without focusing upon that.

The inquiry is the same great undercurrent in my life too. At each phase of my life I've been fully myself, consciously or unconsciously. My yoga practice brings this into focus. I can develop an awareness of the process, and this allows me to continue reaching into the substance of self and enables me to live in consonance with that. I know that my own character and personality saturate the choices I make, while my practice gives me a way to accept more fully who that is. I am simply and literally able to operate from a deeper place.

I feel hugely like cleaning up my act! These boxes full of handwriting and onion skin typed pages remind me that I, too, have only this string of moments in which to do what I am here to do.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Listening to Your Body's Wisdom

Yoga can be adapted to bring benefits to any body. When I first began my practice, every part of me had something to say after each yoga class! I discovered spaces and muscles in them between my ribs that I had just never known before. My legs would shake in standing poses, and my breathing would be slower than that which the teacher was directing. My shoulders were chronically tight. Gradually my body began to find its way into the patterns of breath and movements. After 8 years of experience, my yoga practice always begins with awakening of this deep coordination of breath and muscular activity. My hips stiffen every night, my shoulders need to respond to an exploration of their range of motion before I ask any thing else of them. Though my legs have flexibility, the big hamstrings need to warm up before going for a full forward bend.

The first aspect of a safe and healthy practice is to let the judgments of yourself go. In order to listen to my own body and use it fully as the vehicle for my practice, I have to be willing to notice its actual condition without the overlay of pre-set ideas about myself. My students quickly discover that it is their own knee and hamstring combination that will tell them how long a stride to take in their warrior pose (Virabhadrasana I). Whether long or short, it is the knee over the ankle that will protect their joints, softening the shoulders, finding the breath deeply moving through, and this is what will allow them to continue to explore the openness in their hips, and the ease of their spine. It is through this process of finding their foundation that begins to release into the support that allows longer holding of the asana and movement within it. Overriding their own needs, and over-reaching cuts off all the possibilities. As the body opens, so does the stride. Taking a posture to look a certain way without listening to your own body is not yoga.

So it's great to take a beginning class, a slow flow class or a more technical take-the-asana-apart workshop in order to work with a teacher who can offer the adaptations and reasons why using a block or a blanket will help you gain the benefits of a posture. Teachers usually explore a series of postures and preparatory actions that help open your body, your breath and your mind for the more advanced asana to come. At each step along the way, noticing what you can relax and release, noticing the source of your foundational support, and keeping your attention on the breath will help bring you deeper and deeper into your practice, no matter what "shape" you are in.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Just As it Is

I've just returned from traveling for a few days, taking my monthly visit to check in with my elderly family members in another state. These trips are squeezed in between my teaching commitments, and packed with emotional, administrative, and unexpected events. This trip I found that I managed to check off all the to-do items, and stayed available and open for the relational parts of the visiting. Lately I've been finding it easier and easier to take things as they are, to see the excuses and simply not make them. This has felt really good. Accepting that I have made choices, rather than finding ways to explain to myself (or others) the why or why nots of all the resulting situations or conditions. Who knew that this would also save me a lot of energy, making me feel less weary and more available even when I am just as "busy?" It has also reduced the sense of pressure on me, results in much less of the emotional backlash behaviors like argumentativeness or over eating, and helps me keep myself rested and ready for what is there to be done or felt.

This new sense of freedom has evolved recently even more as I've been exploring the Niyama of Tapas (discipline and purification through inner heat), one of the principles of yoga (see recent blogs on this subject). I find that I can act upon my intentions, giving myself what I need, without making excuses or needing any rationales. I was able to simply include a short yoga practice in every day even with travel and many demands on my time. This helped me to be more rested, more receptive, and much less judgmental. It was as though I've been strengthening and developing my muscles of action rather than those qualities of judgmental mind that bring endless comparisons and projections. This seems to also liberate my ability to work within much more realistic time frames, and establish more achievable goals. I am amazed.

Openness to inner discipline also directly relates to all the other yogic principles of the Yamas and Niyamas (see recent blogs)... Saucha (purity) and Asteya (non-stealing), Satya (truth) and of course Santosha too (contentment). When we let ourselves be truthful rather than explaining, restrain from taking that which is not ours to take (like the attention of others to our point of view), clear out the clutter of misrepresentation and judgment (all the justifications and should, would, coulds) and allow contentment with what actually is (finding gratitude and joy), well, we no longer need to hide behind the excuses and rationales that explain the choices we make. We know that we are responsible for the choice and act, even if it is a correction of a prior act.

I could also title this thought "Trkonasana," since triangle pose embodies a combination of truth, discipline, nonjudgment and awareness. Like life itself, it is a balancing act, a serious stretch, opening on one side making new internal space, and by necessity yielding into the strength required. Finding triangle can begin in any moment, since it evolves out of a steady foundation, an elongated, integrated and soft spine, and a steady and unified sense of energy in the breath that moves between earth and sky. In any given day my body opens to Trkonasana to its own degree, the breath flows the length of me, my spine releases or clenches, my feet feel firm and easy on the earth or I may be shaky and off balance. I love discovering my true self in this way, never knowing what the moment will be until I am that moment. Triangle offers every possibility boiled down, what actually is so in that breath. And even the one inhale does not predict what might be possible in the next. I laugh at the joy of discovering revolved triangle emerging - twisted and reversed - or at literally falling to the mat out of triangle on one side as though the world was turning just a little too fast for me that day. Simply being makes self criticism unnecessary. Any asana can offer the same exploration; and endless understandings come through the practice.

Discipline and honesty are a beautiful combination on the path to truth and contentment, but you can take the path from any direction. Exploring contentment will take you perhaps by different turns and twists, to clarity and ease of judgment. I've learned to be curious rather than afraid of these big concepts. They are just what you discover in them. And the more I explore, the more I discover. I don't spend time worrying about what I don't know, because the vastness of that would paralyze me. I simply keep wondering "what is this?" and investigate, finding that the inquiry itself is liberating me to see more and more "just as it is."

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why Does Yoga Change Us?

I think of someone telling me to pay attention. This normally would come from outside me and is a request to attend to something outside me. In yoga, this is not so, but a simple question - "Can you be attentive?" - with encouragement to just try it, just be attentive. This is so different from "pay attention." We start wherever we are, with whatever our past history or opinions might be about anything or everything. Our yoga teacher simply asks us to begin to draw our attention towards something directly, and in this process, begin to explore how to direct your mind, what the myriad reactions are to that activity, and just notice how incredibly hard it is to keep your attention on anything for more than a few seconds, really. This is amazing, and reveals so much about the way we function in a most basic sense.

Yoga is not a series of lectures or principles. It is an ongoing direct experience that is unpredictable, open ended, and, in a way totally constructivist to use jargon from the educational world. We build our own knowledge base, one breath, one realization, one move at a time. Each of us takes our own time, our own path.

Just sitting is new and reveals stories about us. How many times did I sit down in a class, in a meeting, at a meal, on a couch and not give a single fleeting thought to the act of sitting? Yet the first yoga class I taught, I was asking people in the room to bring themselves to a seat and observe the act itself of finding themselves sitting. I asked them to explore this totally common position, noticing whatever they might notice. To loosen and tighten their lens and see if they could focus, and if so, on what? the hip joint? the knee? the inhale? the way the rib cage spreads with breathing?

Our attention brings with it all the layers that we have learned about our human experiences until we learn to see them as such and let them go. So just sitting brings up our feelings about ourselves and the people next to us, about our bodies, about our wounds and our goals, about being in the room at all, about our stiff neck and our thoughts. Alertness at this level is new and can be tiring, but it is also energizing and raises our curiosity at the same time. The stunning thing we realize is that we cannot stay alert for long.

"Let your attention follow your breath. If it wanders,just notice that and bring it back to your breath." Wander is hardly the word. When we begin practice we can hardly notice that our attention has shifted. Even noticing that is new and strange. To remain so focused, to be entirely engaged in this very moment is extraordinary for most of us until we encounter yoga practice.

The authenticity of the experience has a ripple effect that is both subtle and enormously obvious. What we feel in our bodies after a yoga class is easiest to remember in a way, since our muscles and joints remind us of that fluidity, that flexing, that strength building practice. Maybe even the new shapes and uses of feet and hands will remain in the way we move. Remembering the intensity and open space of the mind in practice is another matter. Perhaps it comes back as we remember to draw our attention to our breath as we wait for our morning oatmeal to be ready, just noticing that we are standing there breathing. Maybe we feel ourselves making the choice as we take a big exhale after one phone call, before inhaling and looking up the next number as we work. Yet it is this reality of existence that transforms us off the mat. The way we can see beyond the wandering mind, bringing our focus into our awareness, learning how to direct this attention as we simultaneously learn to release unnecessary effort. It becomes clear that we must release in order to focus, and as our actions become less and less effortful, we find ourselves changed in relation to much of the story we have previously told ourselves about ourselves and everything else.

Compared to all the times I have mindlessly just sat, this new awareness is totally transformational. I am in my body, I am directing my mind, my awareness is active and alert. I am directly experiencing the moment I am living. Even as my mind searches for words and my fingers type, I feel the energy from my core, the earth and air supporting me, the movement in my cells, the endless possibilities. I am not judging myself or anyone else. I am clear of the inner obstacles that might hunch my shoulders, strain my back, overuse my wrists. My thoughts are available to me, and I am free to choose my words with care that I not load them with unwanted meanings and assumptions. This freedom lives in my body as a way of being, reinvented every time I remember my breath. My yoga practice continues to wake me up, even after 8 years, to be authentically experiencing this moment.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Tapas -the Niyama of Heat, Cleansing & Discipline

Tapas may mean small amounts of amazingly delicious foods to some, or heat and effort to others, but to a yoga practice Tapas is one of the observances, one of five Niyamas, and part of the underlying structure of the practice. What does this mean? It represents the cleansing qualities of heat in the body, an openness to being beyond what might seem to be one's limitations, and the commitment to the discipline of our practice. It is a particularly delicious idea for the middle of winter, the way that we can build heat within us, sustain our practice with the integrity of our commitment, and find new space, understanding and peace as we burn off the impurities and lean more deeply into what is available to us. It is a way of guiding our exploration on the mat in the context of transformation and changes our sense of ourselves off the mat. If you haven't run into yourself blocking and weaving on the mat before, you will now. Recognizing and breathing through those obstacles in yourself, you can access what lies beyond them in your practice and in your life.

The pieces of the puzzle of yoga are called the eight limbs or the eight-fold path, representing principles and stages of being. The Asana practice is one of these limbs, as is Pranayama, the breath practice. The abstinences (Yamas) and observances (Niyamas) represent two of the limbs. Sensory withdrawal and the interior qualities of the mind is Pratyahara, single-pointed focus and concentration is Dharana. Meditation and being one with contemplative nature is Dhyana and the identification with the infinite that is bliss or nirvana is Samadhi. That's the eight fold path, short version! Patanjali, the ancient sage, describes the practices and stages of yoga in detail in his Yoga Sutras. There are many translations from the Sanskrit out there if you want to go deeper.

The cold wind, the blowing snow flurries seem to encourage beginning with Tapas. Shake off the lethargy, reignite your inner fires, give yourself a few more minutes to call out the heat of the sun in your own asana practice! Perhaps it is through a moving meditation in honor of your spine or the sun, perhaps it is through a layer of Kapalabhati breathing in Utkatasana (chair/fierce pose) or in a backbend like Ustrasana (camel) or Setu Bhandasana (Bridge), or just in taking on the challenge of making space for ten minutes of meditation morning and evening, you can raise the heat, raise the internal bar, observe the barriers you find as you allow them to become transparent and eventually burn away in the heat of your own prana (life energy). This is not competitive, nor is it aggressive energy. Discover the depth of your own quiet pool of strength in the middle of a cold winter day.

The two limbs of the Yamas and Niyamas each have five concepts, yet they all lead to one another. It really doesn't matter which one you begin to explore, you will find your way through them all eventually. Tapas leads to purity (Saucha) and truth (Satya), cannot really exist without letting go of gripping (Aparigrapha) or leaving be that which is not really yours (Asteya); must be nonviolent at its core (Ahimsa), observing of the true self (Svadhyaya), evolving a deep and abiding contentment (Santosha), connecting to the divine and eternal (Ishvarapranidhana) and even provoking a sense of conservation of deep energy and restraint (Bramacharya). These are the rest of the abstinences and observances. See if you can feel out which are abstinences that direct your relational behaviors, and those which are observances that apply to your internal structures. Tapas is one of the latter. (You can also revisit my blog entry from 12/25/2009 "Yamas & Niyamas: One Thing Leads to Another" to help sort this out.)

In Patanjali's Sutras he specifies that there are obstacles in the path of a yoga practitioner. Perhaps you can imagine that you see these obstacles in your path and step over some of them, yet you stub your toe on another. To take them on, try investigating Tapas, allowing your inner heat to sweat out illness, your breath to cleanse a negative attitude and recharge. As you practice Tapas, you may stop feeling sorry for yourself, or doubting your abilities. Perhaps your tendency to distraction or impatience will release into the fires of holding a pose or staying in meditation. Stay with it, let the puppy off the lease and wait til she comes back to lie down by the door. False concepts of self, like arrogance or its partner insecurity, will let go as you find the breath can support you as you actually are. In order to focus the mind, open to the fullness that is emptiness in meditation, and become one with your own essential nature and life energy, something has to change from just sitting in your chair wondering what you will have for the next meal, or figuring out when you have to leave in order to get to the next yoga class.

What is it like to throw yourself into the practice without judgment? Can you identify the tendency towards measuring and assessment and let that go? Allow yourself to go deeper, opening beyond the dualistic messages of can and cannot into the realm of being? Put yourself willfully into the practice (Tapas!) and once in it, surrender.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

As the Sea to the Shore Love Is

"First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is." Donovan song

How do we celebrate love? Our culture makes quite a commercial show of objectifying this story. Yet we cannot measure love, nor hold on to it, nor even make good on promises we make about it. We can say we love, and then turn around in disappointment towards that same person in the next moment. We can offer love and find that which we extend to another is met with conditions and assumptions. This causes such suffering!

Imagine the ocean eternally lapping upon the sandy shore, or crashing in spattering froth against the rocky ledges. Each time the wave begins its rise, powerful and urgent, it meets the infinite patience and solidity of the shore. Whether it is in the form of grains of sand or a wall of rock, the shore receives the wash of the wave, and returns it to itself. Perhaps gradually over time the distinctness shifts a bit, as the sand filters into the ocean, moving the shore, or the rock slowly disintegrates into the sandy ocean floor. Perhaps this is the interaction of love. Water is not stone, stone is not water, yet both hold steady for one another, simply being in ways that do not interfere with the basic being of the other substance. They interact as is their nature, and create beauty beyond description for those who witness their relationship.

We can change the stories we make about love. We are no longer stuck with princes who rescue distressed princesses, or mermaids who turn themselves into foam rather than stand up as the true beloved, or knights in shining armor who must take on one deadly adversary after another to prove their feelings are true.

I can allow my love to be the space in which my loved ones can breathe. My love can condense down like maple syrup from the sap of trees, over long years of slow reductions, purifying and deepening until transformed. I feel the most growth from letting go of the definitions and expectations, the requirements and misplaced check lists. My parents have no criteria they must meet for me to measure their love, it is enough that we have been present for one another, with all our messy ways, in all these years; my husband can simply meet my gaze day after day and I feel at home on the planet; my children and friends, students and neighbors by finding their own hearts can fill mine.

Happy Valentine's Day. First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is. And so with love.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Nobody's Perfect - Really?

True Confessions: I do not always do yoga every day.

Can I count it if I teach several practices in one day? My mind grasps at ways to make the grade, to position myself so that I, and everyone else, can judge me more favorably. Obviously there is favor or status, admiration or expertise attached to how this may look to myself and others. In my life whether I am "doing yoga every day" is not really relevant. I can choose to get to the mat every day, or choose to practice in any number of other ways. In fact I do contemplate yoga and yoga principles pretty much every day, and more often than not find my way to an asana practice. Yet, as an example to my students shouldn't I be on that mat every day? This is a natural way of thinking, but establishes a framework constrained by a false idea of self based on judgments of good and bad. This way of thinking equates consistency in one behavior with my value and worth.

It seems to me that the goals we set are best seen as general understandings. It can certainly make sense to establish a sketch for an action plan to get something done, or to acknowledge steps and stages that might be useful in a process. In my opinion though, it is perhaps even more important to see how we use self judgment, take a look at when we hold ourselves up to scrutiny and what criteria we apply as we take a position about our progress or behavior, appearance, or state of being. Judging ourselves can be the least honest assessment of what is happening, and can actually lead to creating a false sense of self to protect against what may be the "truth." There is great pain and suffering caused in this attachment to judgment.

Nobody's perfect yet we are all whole. That's the mantra I use to remind myself to separate things I might have done or thought from defining the core of my self. This was actually visible in my children as they grew. They may have lacked sensitivity in an area that caused harm or a different decision than I might have wished, but it did not mean that they themselves were fatally flawed. As they grew they came to understand such a wide variety of matters in different ways. Taking on and shedding understandings like snakes do their skin. In fact their bodies changed in much the same way. If they were to be judged by how they appeared in one single moment, they would have been condemned to struggle against their own growth to maintain that moment artificially. This continues til the end of breath, and I see that at any given moment they were completely whole and ever-changing. No longer thinking in judgmental terms that they were incomplete... simply that they were fully themselves in the moment, subject to the conditional world, using the ways they were learning to do and be. The goal was not perfection, but rather awareness that brings understanding. This remains so for them and for me even as childhood recedes into the past.

Subject to the conditional world around us, that illusion of how things are and what they mean, we all make choices based on what we have learned about cause and effect, about our own abilities or preferences, about our fears and anxieties, and about our feelings. A lot of this can remain forceful in an invisible way, that can make us feel like the object rather than the subject of our lives. All of these factors can change in a moment, not just what we know, but actually how we act based on that.

A few minutes of meditation can illuminate a great deal. It may begin with what it actually is to be your human body sitting, never mind the enormous effort of sitting still! It can change your way of understanding yourself and the world if you give yourself the opportunity to drop your attachments to your thoughts and feelings even for a short time. Allowing your attention to follow your breath, to notice the way this body receives information and transmits that to this mind, you can watch the way your mind processes information and translates it into feelings, and urges behaviors. Continue sitting through the urges to move your knees or to judge your thoughts, watching how these impulses rise and fall, and begin to investigate how you have attached to these impulses. Begin to let that go. Notice how what was comfortable becomes uncomfortable, becomes comfortable, becomes uncomfortable. Watch how emotions rise and fall in relation to this, the story begins to unfold. You can label the feelings as feelings, or the thoughts as thoughts. You can let the story go too, smile and call it what it is, the story.

The simple act of sitting 5-10 minutes can start to release your judgmental mind. You may feel the flood of dis-ease and ease, the moments of movement and stillness, that open space where nobody's perfect and everything just is. Perhaps this lasts only a fraction of a second before the thoughts come galloping in again, but give yourself a few opportunities to practice with a willingness to make the inquiry. Simply allow the possibilities to continue opening.

You are already whole. You are present right now. You will continue to change. There is a sense of joy and sorrow, fullness and emptiness that comes with understanding how this is, to just be. It is the same feeling that comes when you realize that there is nothing imperfect in you, that you just are in this moment, formed by your understandings and enabled by the openness you can give yourself. We can release the duality of judgment that forces us into defining ourselves as anything other than perfect. Nobody's perfect? Really?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Breathing In a Large Body

Some of my students are hoping to lose weight when they begin taking yoga classes. Many of my students are hoping to feel better, and some of my students are taking a courageous step into their own bodies after many hurtful experiences, from medical issues and negative self image.

To stay alive one must breathe no matter how out of shape, or large, one's body. To maintain health in one's joints, one must lubricate them with a range of movements, strengthen them with muscular flexibility, and nurture their structural integration. To move in the world one must find ways to accept the body one lives in, and to honor its fundamental needs. All of this is approachable through a yoga practice in ways that are safe, progressively responsive to changing conditions, and available truly anywhere. I like to say that anyone breathing can be doing yoga.

Yoga does not require that you believe in a religion, nor pay a gym membership. Yoga does not hold you to a competitive arrangement where you count how many times you can push what level of weight. Your yoga asks only that you be truly present, open yourself to the possibilities of your own breath, and observe with curiosity that which actually happens in the moment you are in! It sounds so simplistic, but can be totally engaging, an adventure beyond imagining, and transformational in its effects.

Any seat can be your yoga seat. Allow your attention to find your breath. Where do you feel it? In your throat? In your ribs? Can you soften your belly and allow the breath to begin deep in your belly, spreading your ribs wider under your skin, feeling your ribs spread and ease, noticing your collarbones rise and fall? It makes no difference how large your body is, you can find your breath within it. This attention will help to deepen the breath, flooding your cells with the oxygen they all require to be healthy.

Next begin to allow movement in the breath. Perhaps just turning your palms up on the inhale and down on the exhale. This may move to the elbows, and then to the shoulders themselves, extending the arm, palm up on the inhale as far as your pain free range of motion, and floating them down, palm down on the exhale. Explore! Try spreading your arms outward, or up, perhaps make circles with your elbows! While you are breathing, you are at peace. Your shoulders are moving, your neck can release. Your body is gaining flexibility, gaining access to its own grace, gaining fresh oxygen in the inhale and eliminating waste in the exhale. The expansion of your ribs, the movement of the intercostal muscles of the ribcage may even feel achy in a day or so -- from the unusual exercise. But gradually your practice will feel more and more natural.

As you sit, you might quietly put both hands on one knee and allow your ribs to begin a gentle rotation to that side, hips settled and balanced below you. Inhale to center and exhale your hands onto the other knee. Settle there. This simple rotation will go deeper and deeper, allowing you to reinvent the way your spine rises, the way your deep stomach muscles flex and contract. You are gently massaging your internal organs with your twisting motion. You can draw your attention to the way your ribs wrap around you, making yourself more aware of your 3-dimensional self, feeling your side ribs moving around the front body, the way the ribs on the other side begin to rotate towards the back body. Your arms may move beyond the knee to hook the back arm on the back of the chair. You can try breathing the body open, and twist. Open and twist. Perhaps you will feel like lifting one arm as you open and lower it as you twist, increasing strength and flexibility in your shoulders, your transverse muscles and general core muscles.

You can explore your hip joints by slowly moving your knees from side to side while keeping your feet centered under your knees. It might feel good to have a pillow behind your back so that you can sit with your spine erect, not leaning back on the back of a chair. Imagine drawing your inner abdominal muscles up and in as though moving your belly button towards your spine, while letting your tailbone gradually relax towards the earth under you. You might lift and lower one foot and then the other, as though walking in place in your chair, and make small circles with your ankles while holding one leg up even a few inches. See if you can find a sense of rising and falling energy in the breath as you do these movements, opening and shifting your hip joints, strengthening your legs and abdominal muscles, making space in your spine. And do relax your neck! You don't need all that muscular effort in your neck in order to move your hip!

All this can happen in a few minutes any time as you sit at a computer, a desk, a table, or on cushions on a mat. In her introduction to The Breathing Book Donna Farhi writes, "Breathing fully is not a matter of adding anything, of acquiring some new technique, or of striving to improve oneself. Discovering the naturalness of our breaths has to do with uncovering or removing the obstacles that we have constructed to the breath, both consciously and unconsciously."

You are nurturing your inner self the entire time that your attention is focused on this inhale and this exhale. You are strengthening the core of your physical health, and expanding your potential in every moment. There is a natural feeling of well being that results from oxygenating the body, a genuine feeling of self respect evolves from tending to the health of your major joints, and deep peace arises from knowing that you already have within you the tools to live a healthy life.

You might look for yoga classes with names like "Nice & Easy," "Gentle," "Beginning Yoga," "Chair Yoga" or "Yoga for Every Body." Your yoga practice can begin with your next breath.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Yoga & Weathering the Storms of Suffering

A friend of mine has lost her husband to a short and intense battle with cancer. We understand the salient features of a story like this, that there is sorrow and readjustment, grief and even anger perhaps, but also relief at the end of the suffering, and loneliness. So many times it is suffering that brings people to the practice of yoga and the spiritual practices of meditation. It took me a while to understand that, just as with joy, this suffering is part of what binds humans together, holds us on earth in a way, and reflects the deepest resources of my compassionate heart. No matter what a person may look like, or what experiences they have had, they exist in the moment itself with choices as to what they grip, what they release, and how they continue to inhale and exhale.

When I began practicing, I read many different kinds of books to get a grip on the insights and meanings in the bits and pieces of philosophy and Sanskrit, as well as the physical experiences, that I encountered. My shelves and surfaces are still accumulating resource materials about Zen, Buddhism, Patanjali's Sutras and other ancient texts, and the practical perspectives of an ever longer string of American yogis, like Donna Farhi, Stephen Cope and Sarah Powers, as well as the revered elders in the field, like Iyengar, Krishnamurti and such.

I reinforce my compassion-based yoga practice with poetry, with music, with long walks, with writing. When I heard the news that my friend had released his breath after the long travail of illness and treatments, I felt joy that he was free, and sorrow for his family and for the new absence of his smiling, earnest, intelligence on earth. Yet I do not feel him to be gone. It is as though his human suffering has ended and he has found a way to transform into the deep true energy that always lived in him.

It seems that we can worry ourselves sick over what might happen, but the practice of yoga helps me understand deeply that we will all make this transformation out of the familiar flesh and bones into the energy and bliss body. In practice, I encourage this understanding by centering in the breath itself, that air moved by energy, that which literally sustains my life itself. As I told my students just yesterday, you can live a lot longer without water than you can without air. In fact, you cannot live without air at all. So connecting to the breath is a connection to life, and even in the fiercest storms I can lean into my breath and allow it to support me.

The emotions do not disappear, the sorrows do not evaporate, the pain is real. We can let our attachment to our reactive nature go a little and ease the suffering. Perhaps it helps to imagine that the breath is like the deepest ocean water, waves on the surface change with wind and temperature, which makes it quite choppy and difficult to keep an even keel. Yet the powerful support beneath that surface remains unperturbed, moving in every cell, and containing the most profound stillness. Perhaps the practice is to soften, to let go of resistance. Like a twig riding the surface, I can rise and fall, even occasionally dip below the surface, but I will bob up once more and float as the surface calms. Using the breath, I can feel the feelings, that surface texture, and feel wholeness in the simplicity of the inhale and exhale.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Connecting in the dark

My 88 year old dad called me in the middle of the snowstorm to tell me that the electricity was out but that he and his wife were fine. He told me that he wasn't sure how long his cell phone charge would last. He told me that a kind neighbor had shoveled their stoop and that, although the street was not plowed, he could at least walk to it. He said it was cold in the house, but the stove and plumbing were still working fine.

I am 350 miles away. There was a flood of feelings at his call. I heard the exuberance in his voice over the beauty of the storm, the slight edge of anxiety over the unknown duration of the power outage and its implications, and the pleasure that he could share his adventure with me even so far away. Whether I had been concerned about him or not, his reaching out to me brought me into his experience and placed him solidly in my day. I told him to turn off his phone to save charge, and that I would like to hear from him later to get a progress report.

The blizzard opens that energy channel of compassion that connects us. Sharing food, a fireplace, shovels and playfulness, people in my father's neighborhood feel a natural inclination to connect to one another, be helpful, and even to ask for help. His call to me spread this even deeper into our relationship, allowing us to feel the closeness of people who care for and support one another from any distance. It was not always so.

The freedom in this relationship has evolved in the same space that the neighborhood snowstorm connections have grown. Understanding that we share a set of conditions by being human beings, whereby we suffer more without one another than we suffer with each others' open hand and steady gaze. The position or stature of father-daughter became irrelevant when the channels opened. Past history, inner turmoils, what I call "the story" faded away. It is the release of judgment, the end of the attachment to the roles of the past and the projections of the future that liberated us. Just as in the snowstorm, from miles away I can help him shovel and throw a snowball from his front stoop. Not warning him of this or that, nor directing his attention here or there, I can just let him feel my presence beside and in him, my willingness to include his wellbeing in my own heart.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

On the mat as it is in life

When my legs begin shaking in utkatasana (chair or fierce pose) I deepen my breathing. I draw my attention to my feet and notice where my weight is resting. I let a little ease open my upper back, relax my shoulders and open my heart with my exhale. The intensity of heat in my thighs begins to scream at me and I take in a longer inhale, pressing out my exhale with deliberate evenness. I might roll my wrists, or lift my toes. The shaking does not stop, but my panic has left me. The shaking does not stop, but my body understands that this is a moment of possibility. I am not hurting myself. I will feel no ill effects. I am simply breathing through the hard stuff, to strengthen and to help release my tendencies to effort where I do not need to exert energy, like in my shoulders.

The gratitude I feel as I fold into uttanasana (standing forward fold) is a combination of amazement at the flood of sensations from the physical change of pose, and a deep rush of joy that I am able to be in utkatasana and to shift into uttanasana.

I can clearly remember that when I began practicing yoga even holding utkatasana for 3 breaths made "fierce pose" an apt name for the asana. Teachers would say, sit back as though you were resting in a chair, and I would reach desperately at the word "resting" and "chair" as if they would save my wildly aching leg muscles. The concept of resting in a posture that is strenuous was quite new to me. It still amazes me, every time. I may feel the shaking after a longer period of time, but I will always continue to have those moments on the mat that ask me to reinvent myself, to investigate how I approach my own life in that moment.

The breath illuminates the moment and brings awareness into my life off the mat. A friend recently gave me driving instructions, saying, "Now remember this is a country road and it will wind, there will be turns and pieces that go off in other directions. It is a simpler way. Just stay on the road and when it feels confusing, just breathe into it, and you will get to where you see the signs. The signs are large and clear."

How well that describes the practice! The fear rises, the legs shake, the worst appears in the mind, the emotions ask for sympathy, the mind doubts and portrays all the obvious shortcomings or devastating consequences. Breathing in and breathing out I can let all that go and see the signs, so large and clear. Yes the path will turn, will twist, will splinter off; and I continue to explore the simpler way.

Friday, February 5, 2010

going deep - the exploration

I just spent some time studying deeper poses and the process of preparing the body, muscles, joints, mind and heart, for safely entering the unknown. The people offering the sessions had backgrounds in everything from body work therapies to acrobatics. They have recovered from injuries and regained incredible strengths and flexibilities through exploration. They taught with joy and no mercy, we all go through the fire.

In the same period of days I took a couple of early morning "gentle" yoga classes (before the fierce and very advanced sessions) in which the concept of exploration was also deeply embedded in the experience of practice. Profound awareness of the clutching mind and the ways in which we release its hold gave these sessions a deeply peaceful progression to find awareness through the body and breath.

It seems striking to me that in both approaches, the core of yoga is the same: inhale and exhale, strengthen and release, explore the unknown with curiosity and discover yourself and the vastness of the heart.

I am filled with gratitude that I am living in this moment, where I can push against my own thigh for strength, where I can push against the sky for length, where I can smile and weep as my life energy turns to light. Who knew this would be my daily practice? Inquiry and openness, leaving the judgment and limitations of mind, using the power of mind to support rather than detract, and finding that attachment to bliss and hell can both be released. Being fully is not about this or that. It is just this. Getting there can be an instantaneous open space in which to breathe.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Night at the Opera

Yesterday a friend asked if I would accompany her to the Opera, since her original companion's plans had fallen through and there was an extra ticket. It has been years since I've been to an opera at the Met, and it was to be Carmen by Bizet, an opera in which I actually participated years ago as a child in the chorus. So I said yes, informed my family, shifted out of the plan to have dinner together, scavenged my closet and headed out just as everyone else was coming home.

As disruptive as this was, it was a joyful change in my day. I rarely get out for entertainment of an evening, as a fair amount of my work takes place then, and I've cultivated a pattern of family dinners since I first had children (24 years ago!). As my friend spoke to me on the phone, I felt a moment of hesitation, as my mind scanned how I felt about disappointing other people, adding to their responsibilities and burdens, and missing out on an opportunity for closeness before heading out of town for a few days. Discarding these projections only took a few seconds. I was totally open to the idea of dropping everything and heading out for the unknown in the form of an experience with the Metropolitan Opera.

Shunryu Suzuki, a revered Zen master and teacher who came to the United States in the late 1950's, put beginner's mind at the core of practice. It may seem strange to equate this profound concept with my decision to go to the opera, but my choice came out of the understanding that the mind contains everything. Beginner's mind is an empty mind, an open mind, a mind that holds all the possibilities. He described that "If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. ... If you discriminate too much, you limit yourself. If you are too demanding or too greedy, your mind is not rich and self-sufficient. If we lose our original self-sufficient mind, we will lose all precepts. When your mind becomes demanding, when you long for something, you will end up violating your own precepts: not to tell lies, not to steal, not to kill, not to be immoral, and so forth. If you keep your original mind, the precepts will keep themselves."

My scan of false concepts and my acceptance of a new path took place in a space of non-judgment and non-attachment. I could have been happy or resentful having dinner with my family and catching the news analysis of the day, thrilled or guilty sitting high above the beautiful set designs, peering into the orchestra pit and floating on the vibrations of the human voices filling the hall. Neither of these experiences could actually be predicted. Both offered the full range of possibilities. The open space of an empty mind gave me room to be fully in that moment of choice-making. I was able to eliminate the "should" and "shouldn't" from the equation, and by letting go of my "if-this-then-that mind," the dualistic mind, I was free to make a real choice, to act honestly. My early morning obligations did not cost me any more dearly for having rolled in late the night before, since I was not weighting them down with that mental/emotional baggage. I did not have to charge myself something in exchange for my choices.

When Suzuki-roshi spoke of lies and stealing, at first I thought, "I don't do that." But in the act of choosing the opera, I noticed that flashing impulse to support saying no by making an excuse to my friend. I sensed a desire to feel important in my family structure, as if I was critical to the evening. In this way, I felt myself denying my family members respect for their three-dimensional selves, in essence stealing their freedom to be whole and self-determining and binding them into the falseness of my own projections, just as I was inflating my own sense of self by making myself indispensable. In a matter of seconds, beginner's mind released me from those patterns that limit my own life, and deny others' their possibilities as well.

I have learned this from my yoga on the mat, where there is always this possibility of beginner's mind. The clarity that comes from not assigning value has given me freedom to be more fully myself. I urge my students to eliminate "hard" and "easy," "good" and "bad" from their way of thinking about asana and themselves, and give themselves the space for the inquiry "what is this?" and "who is this?" I rarely second guess my choices anymore, perhaps because I am free now to take responsibility for them. Just as I place my foot in alignment with my knee in an asana, the emptiness of non-attachment/non-judgment supports my mental clarity.

It is no small consequence that I had a great time at the opera, enjoying the late night trains coming home and walking under the waning moon, sneaking into my apartment of sleeping people, and sleeping with a heart full of song.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Step Away from the Trap!

Patterns of behavior and reactions! We all have them. In my yoga practice, I've discovered that allowing myself to see these patterns and recognize a reaction as just that, let's me shift my attention and escape from the trap. Sometimes I have already stepped in it by the time I see it, but more and more often I can see it, and walk a different way, or at least put my foot some place else. This happens on an intellectual level, an emotional level, and sometimes physically in relation to an action connected to other people. It can often result in using different words, or not speaking, or perhaps doing something differently or feeling a new feeling in a similar situation that would have brought up pain or anger.

Sitting on the mat in a cross-legged position is a simple place to notice that we tend to put one leg under more often and the other over in a certain way. When we shift this, and cross the other way, even a "comfortable" seat can seem strange and awkward. Smile at this as you acknowledge that the first way, that other way, is your dominant tendency. With enough practice you might even get confused as to which was your "normal" way... and actually choose how you cross your legs and be actively aware of the approach you are taking in that moment of "sitting on the mat." A more developed consciousness is not all ethereal! It can be seen and felt just in the action of crossing your legs on the mat!

Tangling ourselves up is a common pattern, and it causes pain (suffering) as well as wastes energy and attention. I know that if I start projecting how something may or may not happen, I can spin wheel upon wheel of what-if constructions until that vehicle has spun out of control and takes me so far from where I am and what I'm doing that I hardly know what's going on. This is a deeply anxious procedure too, using up my attention and my energy on things that may well never even happen. I'm not saying there is no point in planning...When I need to get somewhere I look at the map, but if the road is blocked or the train is not running, well, I remain flexible to change my plan. I can check on some of those aspects first, but not all of them. Things happen. Things change. Especially when there are other people involved, lots of things change. The more rigidly I attach to my version of the plan, the more likely it is that plan will become a trap, with shunted and frustrated expectations, perhaps even judgments about my choices and fears about being judged for being late. It is also possible that I inflate my sense of ego with my success and brilliant thinking should my plan work out well, without realizing or recognizing that the trap has caught me after all. I may be left living in this illusion without acknowledging that it took all the other conditions and people and choices around me to make "my plan" work out. I now know that no one is a solitary operator, in control and fully to blame or to praise for any thing that happens. Step away from the trap!

So I suggest to my students that they acknowledge themselves as having all that they need right where they are, not letting their thoughts drag them too far off into the future or back to the past to tell or retell a story. Watching the way the thoughts spiral and move reveals many things about being human, as we share these attributes with everyone else. The traps raise emotions unrelated to the present, and severely limit a person's ability to experience what is happening in the moment where they do exist, living and breathing. One of my students confided in me that she often seems to put herself in traps like this that spin her off into anxious and frantic patterns, rarely of any use to anyone; exhausting her and causing fear and pain. This acknowledgment is the beginning of awareness that will help her see before she steps. She then shyly asked if that ever still happens to me. It sure does! More often than not, though, I now see the pattern or trap without stepping right into it, knowing that even if I do step there, I can acknowledge it, and turn my attention to be in the moment I am living, rather than giving over my life to the spiraling of my mind or tangling threads of anxiety and reaction.

These are parts of the practice of mindfulness, of being awake, of allowing yourself to be present without judging and without attaching to outcome. Seeing the patterns that have pushed you around can liberate you from them. Each time you notice a reaction rather than confusing your self with the reaction, you have taken a step away from the trap.