So Many Tips for Dealing with Body Image Angst Over the Holidays! I can’t even count the tips.

So Many Tips for Dealing with Body Image Angst Over the Holidays! I can’t even count the tips.

A meal that was not fraught. What a delight. But YEAH, that’s a lot of prawn.

There are a few times of the year when our body image anxieties reach a high pitch, and the holidays is one of them.

Why? A few weighty reasons.

  1. You’re gonna see people you haven’t seen in a while, and they are gonna see you. People may have changed! (Gasp!) How will everyone react?!
  2. Food, food, so much food. And, booze. And dessert. So much: TOO MUCH!
  3. Gossip. People talking about how other people look, behind their backs, usually not in a very nice way.

Let’s take a look at each of these in succession.

How we look. It’s beyond natural to want to really make a good impression on friends and family that you’ve not seen in a long time. Perhaps you’ve gained some weight (not that I personally think that it a problem, but other people seem to still think it is). Perhaps you’ve been sick, and it shows (again–cause for compassion, not for judgement). You know you’re not at your physical best. And you worry, because, not only does that dent your self esteem when you’re already feeling down, but now on top of that, you’ve forced into a situation where you’re worried about what other people will think, and what they will say–to your face–and what they will say behind your back. It sucks.

Here are some suggestions.

IN PREPARATION:

Black gloves and an updo. Oh, yes. Go to great lengths if you must. Lessons learned from Lady Gaga.
  • Dress your best. Take the time to find something to wear that you feel really good about, shopping, borrowing. Make it fun. In-character. Fashionable. Get a sympathetic friend to help you out, if you HATE figuring out what to wear alone. Be relentless in your determination to make the holidays feel good to you, so you emerge victorious, at least knowing that you took the best care of yourself.
  • Wear a smile. You ALWAYS are well-dressed when you do.
  • Rehearse gracious, de-escalating responses to incendiary remarks, like the following:
    • “It looks like you’ve gained weight!” Haha! Maybe!–My body does what it does. By the way: You look wonderful! I love you so much, and I’m so happy to see you. What is something really terrific that has happened to you recently? 
    • “You look so great! Have you lost weight?” I’m not sure! I don’t weigh myself. I really try to not get caught up in that: it makes me crazy and ends up taking up so much of my mental space, space that I want to spend thinking about truly important things. Speaking of really important things, how is your (fill in the blank, choose something you know is really important to that person in their life) going? 

 

AT THE EVENT:

  • Take deep breaths, and feel free to spend some time alone in the bathroom to regroup.
  • Bring your compassion for yourself along. If someone says something less than kind, breathe, smile, say something that shows your own self-compassion, and encourages that in them, even complimenting them as a retort. Use your rehearsed responses. Trust yourself to be your own advocate, and to do so in a way that is gracious, and instructive, even if the people you are talking to don’t or can’t understand.
I wish all bathrooms had such helpful reminders. This is a message in the bathroom at the Blue Hills Monastery in Upstate New York.

How other people look. Basic rule: it is none of your business. If you don’t have something kind or gracious to say, then you best not say it! There is no real reason to comment on another’s appearance. You can focus on their person. After all, the body is just an aspect of the person. Say something honest, about them. Say: I love you, and I’m so happy to see you! Or if that isn’t honest: It’s been so long! We have so much to catch up on. Tell me, what has been the highlight of the last year for you? 

FOOD, FOOD, FOOD. SO MUCH FOOD! 

If part of your body image anxieties revolve around food (how could they not??!) make an honest assessment of where you are with this issue, and then make a plan.

THE PLAN. Here’s my general plan. It might not work for you, we are different people with different histories and growth trajectories, but I offer mine as a sort of guidepost. Eat “normally.” Meaning: don’t NOT eat because there’s going to me SO MUCH FOOD at dinner. No, no. That suggests a restrict/binge cycle. Have breakfast. Have lunch. Then: eat “normal” portions at dinner. Not bird portions. Not THREE helpings. Like, one plate. There will be leftovers. Plan on enjoying those in the days ahead. Or not. There will be another scrumptious meal in your near future.

THE ENERGETICS. Here’s something interesting I learned from my yoga teacher, Ana Forrest. Our energetic anatomy and our physical anatomy overlap. So, if the part of you that is busy taking in conversation, or energy from another person, the corresponding physical apparatus will be partially or fully offline. At these parties, there are often many people, and the energetic input is like a flood. Because of that, it makes it even harder for us to connect to the feelings of our actual stomach. When I can’t detect my stomach, I make the decision not to eat too much, because I can’t feel what’s happening. This is the ONLY reason I will personally accept for not eating much at such events. Often people bombard their stomachs with too much food, in order to ground, or in order to get pulled back into the reality of the situation, or to try to feel something. Pay close attention. Take a break, in the bathroom to regroup, if you loose the capability to pay attention.

THE SOCIAL ANXIETY. Recently, I’ve noticed that I eat too fast when I’m experiencing an energetic situation that I feel uncomfortable with. It’s like, somewhere deep inside I’m thinking “when the meal is over, I can leave!” because that’s the way it worked as a kid. When the plate was clean, then I might be excused from the table. I don’t like the conversation: I eat fast. I’m tired: I eat fast. I JUST WANT TO GET AWAY! GAH! Oh, my. This is very disconnected patterning.

This past Thanksgiving I commented on the “speed eating” phenomenon to my cousin, and she laughed saying at a friend’s dinner, they clocked it at fifteen minutes. FIFTEEN MINUTES! Ya spent all day cooking, and sit down to eat for FIFTEEN MINUTES?! Did anyone even CHEW?!

Tips to slow down:

  • Take one bite.
  • Put down your cutlery.
  • Chew.
  • Taste.
  • Swallow.
  • Taste.
  • Breathe.
  • Taste your food.
  • Consider how fast you want to take the next bite. Or if you even want to. Sometimes the food is not as tasty as you anticipated. You don’t have to finish it if you’re not actually enjoying it! But, if you’re not paying attention, you won’t actually KNOW if you’re enjoying it or not…
  • How much of your attention is on enjoying your food? How much of it is one the conversation? Can you pay attention to both? I have a hard time with that, actually…

Recognizing your anxieties and handling them head-on is an advanced, ADULT skill. Mostly we’ve been taught to ignore/deflect/numb, and at the holidays, we are confronted uncomfortably with so many of our boogeymen. Uncomfortable, fraught relationships with people who are unkind or judgmental. Our own unkind thoughts about other people. People’s assessments of us, and ours of them. Good grief. Of course I just want to eat fast and go home! It’s fucking exhausting! Adulting is hard. But, we can do it!

Before I got better at really noticing that large groups of people–not even necessarily family, just PEOPLE!–make me uncomfortable, I would just position myself by the cheese plate, and eat the whole thing. The only people I ended up talking to were other people who loved cheese. So, they were already pre-approved. Haha.

Before I got good at noticing that I was eating away my loneliness and my desire for other, safe, human contact, I would eat entire cheesecakes in solitude, by myself. So huge was my appetite and its need to be filled. The problem seemed so intractable, it was easier just to solve with food. At least cheesecake is reliable. And safe.

The trouble with holidays, is the seem to be referendums on our entire life for the past year. And, often, when we’re not working on ourselves, they catch us by surprise. Even if we ARE working on ourselves, and somehow feel like we’ve fallen short of our goals (always a setup for disappointment…try “setting intents” instead), they will catch us by surprise as we administer a hearty dose of flagellation.

The holidays don’t have to be a referendum. It’s just a yearly blip on the calendar. We can choose to cruise through them as such.

Or–and I’m not necessarily advocating this approach–you can use them as a yearly check-in on how you’re growing, changing, becoming more resilient. I started to know that I was getting better at it all when I could sit quietly with a glass of water and talk to people and “sort of” enjoy myself. No more cheese plate stakeouts. Huzzah!

But that progress relied on a steady, year-in-year-out self-study and examination using the tools of yoga and therapy. If you don’t have some tools, or support in place, the holidays will surely be as painful as they were last year. I think that’s a shame, and wouldn’t want that for you!

Which is why I put together a worksheet for you, to help you get started making a better relationship with your body. I call it The 5 Adoring Core Competencies. CLICK HERE to get your free copy! 

NEXT POINT.

The Gossip. UGH. We’ve all experienced it. You go into the kitchen, innocently looking for a glass of water, and there are your (fill in the blank relatives) talking about another relative. WHAT A DRAG.

“Did you see what she was wearing…?”

“Did you see how much she ate…?”

Sometimes, sometimes, people are talking about another out of true concern. But–does the talk really help them? Probably not.

A gentle reminder, again from the Blue Hills Monastery bathroom. I’m gonna start putting things like this in bathrooms. Positive vandalism! One of my favorite passtimes…

When I hear these sorts of conversations, or am involved personally in these conversations, what I’m feeling for is the place of HELP for the person. If it isn’t there, then I start to wonder what purpose this conversation is actually serving. Is it making the participants feel better about themselves by comparison? Is it creating a point of bonding for the people in the conversation, like they have something to concern themselves about together? Both of these are not good reasons to gossip, but they also show a deficit in social skills, specifically how to connect without doing it on the back of, or at the expense of others. This moment can be a teaching opportunity. A chance to elevate the awareness and basic decency in the world.

If the people try to drag me into the conversation, the only way I will get involved is if they can answer these questions: Is our conversation actually helping the situation? Does the person in question desire help in this regard? If the answer is NO to both, then the conversation is a waste of time, and I would say as much. 

Gossip does nothing but harm. 

HERE ARE SOME BASIC TIPS:

  • Pull your energy back into the present moment, with the people present
  • Insist on talking about only the people present in the room: their lives, their concerns 
  • If you are talking about another person, make sure it is used to help you have insights into your own life and experiences
  • Make it part of your ethics to only speak well of people when they are not around, particularly if they have done nothing to harm you personally
  • Combat gossip by countering with kind, generous, compassionate statements. Insist that you do not know they entire story as to why a person speaks or behaves the way they do. Never rob another person of their autonomy. Make space for them to speak for themselves.

OK. Good luck, soldiers of love! Go forth, and spread good cheer! And, remember, it’s O.K. to make holidays that YOU love, and feel good about. You don’t have to spend them with people who make you uncomfortable about yourself. In fact, that might be the healthiest thing you could choose for yourself, and your sweet, tender body.

Love to you!

Erica

 

What is Vinyasa?

What is Vinyasa?

Photo by Ray Tamarra
The beginning of a Sun Salutation.

I think that it might be prudent to begin with an orientation. My views and perspectives on vinyasa are in part tempered by an historical moment (2004-2017) and a region of the world: New York City. What vinyasa is here today, is probably different than it was 20 years ago, and is probably different than what it is in other regions and cities.

A brief history: Vinyasa was invented by Krishnamacharya. Among many things, he made two contributions to our understanding of “vinyasa” yoga: breath connected to movement, and “pose counter pose” theory. Pattabi Jois, who studied with Krishnamacharya went on to develop Ashtanga Yoga, which is formally named Ashtanga Vinaysa Yoga. Most modern practices generally called vinyasa have Ashtanga as a parent practice.

From The Heart of Yoga, Krishnamacharya’s son, Desikachar, writes:

“Developing a yoga practice according to the ideas expressed in the Yoga Sutra is an action referred to as vinyasa krama. Krama is the step or literally “stages,” nyasa means “to place,” and the prefix vi –translates as “in a special way.” The concept of vinyasa krama tells us that it is not enough to simply take a step; that step needs to take us in the right direction and be made in the right way.” (The Heart of Yoga, pg. 25)

These days, this definition of vinyasa floats around and is commonly cited: to place in a special way. It is sourced from this book. “To place in a special way” is partially correct. If you read carefully, in the quote, Desikachar is also very clear about two things:

  1. The step must be in the right direction
  2. It must be made in the right way
Arms overhead

Consider this. You have a candy bar, a key, and a watch. You place these things in a special way upon your dresser. Have you done vinyasa?

I jest, of course, but I do so to point out the other crucial aspects of vinyasa. You gotta know where you’re going. You gotta go in that direction. The step you make needs to be done in the right way. If you’re headed towards advanced OCD, then maybe putting your candy bar, key, and watch in a special way on your dresser is exactly correct, and then yeah, you’re doing vinyasa. Have fun!

In the interview section of The Heart of Yoga Desikachar applies these two ideas—that you need to go in the right direction, and you must take the right action—to yoga more directly. He answers an open-ended request from the interviewer to say something about “structuring your yoga practice intelligently—the concept of vinyasa karma.” Quoting at length:

“First I must ask: what do you mean by “intelligently”? You are probably familiar with the argument that doing the headstand brings more blood into the head. Somebody who has the feeling that the blood supply to the head is not good enough then comes to the conclusion that the headstand is the best asana for them. But first we should think this through. Do we all suffer from a deficient supply of the blood to the head simply because we stand and walk upright? Suppose that someone is haunted by this idea so much that he begin to practice the headstand every day, if possible first thing in the morning, perhaps as the first and only asana. Our experience in working with all kinds of people has taught us that people who do this eventually suffer from enormous problems in the neck, that then result in great tension and stiffness in that area and a decreased supply of blood to the whole musculature of the neck—precisely the opposite of what they hoped they would achieve.

An intelligent approach to yoga practice means that, before you begin, you are clear about the various aspects of the asana you wish to practice, and know how to prepare for them in such a way that you reduce or negate any undesired effects. With regard to the headstand, for example, the questions are: is my neck prepared for this? Can I breathe well in the asana? Is my back strong enough to raise the entire weight of my legs? To approach your practice intelligently means that you know the implications of what you want to do, whether that be asana or pranayama, and to make appropriate preparations and adjustments. It is not enough to jump if you want to reach the sky. Taking an intelligent approach means working toward your goal step-by-step. If you want to travel overseas, the first thing you need is a passport. Then you need visas for the countries you intend to visit, and so forth. The simple fact that you want to go there does not make the trip possible. All learning follows this pattern.” (ibid, xx)

Forward fold. Sort of. Mostly.

In modern yoga, we may at any time be working with these four basic definitions of vinyasa (I’ve ranked them from most common understanding to least-known):

  1. A type of yoga class—now-a-days sometimes even assumed to be a “flow” class.
  2. A specific sequence of breath-synchronized movements to transition between sustained postures, a shorthand for: plank, chatturanga, upward-facing dog, downward-facing dog
  3. The linking of body movement with breath
  4. Setting an intention for one’s personal yoga practice and taking the necessary steps towards reaching that goal

“Vinyasa means a gradual progression or a step-by-step approach that systematically and appropriately takes a student from one point and safely lands them at the next point. It is sometimes described as the “breathing system,” or the union of breath and movement that make up the steps.” Maty Ezraty

Styles of yoga that a commonly considered to be vinyasa based on their relationship to Ashtanga yoga include Baptiste Yoga, Jivamukti, Power Yoga, and Prana Flow. I also consider my home lineage, Forrest Yoga, to be a vinyasa practice for two main reasons:

  1. How strongly we link the breath to motions. Not always “big” movements, as are often expected, but smaller more internal actions as well.
  2. How we always set a strong intent for the practice with a specified asana goal, as well as a goal for internal work, and then set about creating an intelligent pathway towards success.

Often, in my classes, students find that they are able to accomplish things that they previously had never done before. These results are the effects of skillful vinyasa—it’s the responsibility of the teacher to help guide our students towards successful outcomes, in the form of asana accomplishments and internal breakthroughs.

Half Lift

Often in my classes, students have the experience of breathing more, and more deeply than they ever have. This is the result of vinyasa—the deep union of breath with actions small and large.

The aspect of vinyasa that intrigues me the most, is the potential for teaching people about how to reach their own goals in their lives. Step by step, intelligent action towards an asana goal feels a certain way. It contains elements of making a decision about where you want to go, studying the possible routes, deciding on a course, taking deliberate action, making course corrections on the way, cultivating patience and determination together, faith in the process, surrender to the mystery, and celebration upon arrival.

If we teach our people about these things in class, and dissuade them from the things that will impede their progress—impatience, ego, lack of a plan, use of undo force, giving up, just to name a few—then we will be giving them incredible life skills. This is part of why teaching yoga can be so powerful: you have an opportunity to model for your students decisions and actions that will lead them down a path to success, and then encourage them to find similar experiences on their own.

Vinyasa is so much more than it seems on the surface. Vinyasa is a way of living life. Vinyasa is a form of critical thinking that will help people move towards their successes. Vinyasa is a about skillful teaching, learning, and the process of living feeling empowered.

Make THIS definition of vinyasa the one that comes to the fore whenever you hear the word, and it will change your perspective forever:

Setting an intention for one’s personal yoga practice and taking the necessary steps towards reaching that goal.

Downward Facing Dog

For those of you that don’t live in our fair city of New York, I hope that you’ll check out my Sound Cloud channel, where I have many, many “Forrest Inspired Vinyasa” classes up for you to take. On friendly online “stalker” made my day by writing this about me: You have teaching perfected. Seriously. Tone of voice and perfect blend of seriousness and humor. Like hanging out with a friend that will call you on your shit.  DANG GIRL! MY WORK HERE IS DONE: PERFECTION ATTAINED! haha. Click HERE to see of you agree with her! 

And, if you’re on the East Coast, I and my buddy Leslie Pearlman teach a weekend module about Forrest Yoga & Forrest Inspired Vinyasa. We’re available to teach it at your studio, or if you’re free the first weekend in March (2017), join us at her studio for what will be an incredible weekend of knowledge. Click HERE to read about the modular  300 hour training of which this weekend is a part. If you want a description of the module, just reach out in the comments, and I’ll email it to you.

Bye for now. Keep being awesome.

~E

 

The True Power of Yoga

The True Power of Yoga

IMG_4294Every now and again, as a yoga teacher, I think to myself what in the world am I aspiring to accomplish by teaching yoga???

These sorts of questions are, I think, healthy ones.

They keep me honest. They keep me on track. They keep me on my toes…

In the end, the questions with which I torment myself benefit my students. Because the clearer I am about what I want my students to learn from me, the better I will be at conveying those lessons.

It gets muddled. Am I just teaching how to do poses?

No…that’s not it…

My longing and aspiration through teaching yoga is to teach the magic of transformation. Before you roll your eyes and stop reading because I used some fluffy language…hang on for a moment. Hear me out.

IMG_4309

I believe that people have a deep desire for change. We are scared of it, to be sure, but we also long for adventure, and, well, it’s hard to deny that change is adventurous.

For me, magic IS change. Change IS magic. Think about it. When was the last time that a person you knew really changed, and for the better? Did you wonder how they did it? Did you have a longing to experience something similar? Probably, even if you asked that person to describe the process they might glance away and shrug their shoulders and say something like, well, I couldn’t really describe exactly how I did it, but…

Even for the person who has experienced the change, it is a mystery. A mysterious, yet REAL change: that is magic. And “transformation” is just a fancy word for change.

Now, transformation suggests that there was a before and after. And the HOW, the thing in between “before” and “after” is part of the mystery. But, I have an answer for the question what is the magic that got you from “here” to “there”?

I know. You’ve already guessed, right?

Yoga.

And, so when I ask myself, what in the world am I aspiring to accomplish by teaching yoga??? This is it. My heartfelt answer, is:

If I can show just ONE person how to become the kind of person they MOST want to be, that would be a good deed.

And now I ask you this.

What is more difficult a task than to change a person? Think about the people around you who you wish would change, even just in little ways. Good luck. There are better ways to spend your time than to try to change people, right?

But, what if a person really WANTS to change? What would you advise them to do?

You might not think to suggest to them “go to yoga.” And, personally, I wouldn’t blame you. It’s not like yoga teachers these days are known of as change agents.

  • You wanna gain some flexibility? Go to yoga.
  • You wanna decrease your experience of stress? Go to yoga.
  • You wanna get a cute butt, and learn to handstand? Go to yoga.
  • Maybe even, someone might suggest yoga for your back pain.
  • Maybe even, someone might suggest yoga to help you lose weight.
Yoga portraits at JR Studio on December 12, 2015 in NYC. (Photo by Ray Tamarra)
Photo by Ray Tamarra

But, if you had a serious, elusive change you wanted to make? A quirk in your personality that keeps sabotaging you? A dark memory that you can’t seem to get out from under? A false belief about yourself that, no matter how many times people tell you otherwise, you cannot disabuse yourself of?

People might suggest therapy. But yoga? Probably not.

I get it. It’s not well-explained, nor well-taught HOW yoga can help you become a better version of yourself.

And, this is the quest that keeps me teaching yoga. Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE teaching the physical aspects of yoga.

But THIS is a lesson of value. If you can learn to change, you now have acquired a super-power.

Shall I show you how? 🙂 

IMG_3248

What does yoga have to say about freedom?

What does yoga have to say about freedom?

Erica_9894_FINALWhen I came to yoga, I was suffering. Quite literally. I experience migraine headaches, and had heard that yoga could reduce stress, and therefore reduce my migraines.

Many people come to yoga, to free themselves from physical suffering. I was one of them.

Yoga is described as the path of liberation. If you are seeking to become liberated, the question is, from what?

The overarching answer, says yoga, is suffering.

People suffer in all kinds of ways. They suffer most obviously from physical pain, like back pain. Carpal tunnel. Migraines. Acid reflux.

Physical suffering is just the first layer.

Dive underneath that, and you’ll locate the next layer of suffering: Emotional. These things manifest most prominently as depression and anxiety. Depression is described as melancholy about the past. Anxiety is fear over the future. Both keep us away from the moment that can actually change us: now.

Yoga teaches that all kinds of emotional suffering arises from your perceptions, which are clouded by ego, attachment, refusal, and fear. This was before it was known that emotions can also be modulated through our internal chemical environment.

As I practiced more, my physical suffering changed, and through it I could see that much of it was also affected by my emotional suffering.

This realization alone is a kind of liberation, which leads to an increasing experience of freedom.

In retrospect I realized one of the very first fundamental kinds of freedom is the ability to understand yourself, and your situation.

This brings us to the third layer of suffering: the kind generated by our thoughts. And, our thoughts are mostly dictated by our perceptions. Often, it is the way that we perceive things that causes our suffering.

This is true. But.

Where I think yoga falls short for us, sometimes, because our teachers haven’t reached for real teachings, is in how these ideas and philosophies were developed for ascetics, not for householders. Not for modern people who really are actually, legitimately trapped in circumstances that limit their freedom.

The freedom that yogis taught about was really intended for people of a certain caste. It wasn’t for everyone.

As a woman committed to humanism, free thinking, writing, and expression for all, I want to know how yoga can teach me about soci-economic freedom. Racial injustice. Extricating ourselves from the the kinds of religious,sexual, and reproductive confinements that we see circling in around us.

How will yogis define freedom now? What kind of liberation can we offer people whose actual civil liberties are being threatened and taken away?

Freedom is the ability to change your circumstances—internal and external. No one can ever rob you of your internal freedom, its true. But, it’s sure nice not to have to console yourself with that fact in the face of human rights atrocities.

Suffering also arises from entrapment in binaries. When you speak of freedom, it immediately introduces the opposite. There is only ONE way for freedom to truly exist: for everyone to be free. Which would mean that no one would have any knowledge of freedom, or its opposite.

Can you imagine a world where everyone experiences freedom, and the people—and all living beings—are so immersed in freedom, just swimming in it, breathing it, that they don’t even know what it is? Or that it exists?

So what does this have to do with the picture I posted? I was asked recently “what does freedom LOOK like?” because, ya know, we live in this digital, visual, social media world. I posted this picture, because, sidebends feel like freedom to me. They were one of the first experiences of freedom I had, in my body.

And yet.

A sidebend will NEVER substitute for things like reproductive rights, the right to earn the same wage for the same work, the right to vote free of harassment or intimidation, the right to love who you want, have sex with who you want, marry who you want, worship the god you want, die when and how you want. These things can only be written about, talked about, argued about, debated. But. In the end, we must remember this: for you to be truly free, ALL beings must be free. Everywhere. Always.

What does it mean to “Adore Your Body?”

What does it mean to “Adore Your Body?”

Screen-shot-2014-01-29-at-10-1.39.03-PM-960x474A couple of years ago I crafted a Signature System to help men and women get over their body image challenges. I named it “Adore Your Body.”

I was looking for some words that were “gender neutral” but still encompassed the mission. For me, the word “love” is over-used, misunderstood, and also has some sexual connotations. I didn’t want people to think the program is about masturbation! And yet, I know that some recoiled from the title. For many, to adore your body is a far stretch, already out of reach. For more people than you might think the starting point was “I hate my body”—it was for me!—and from that low, low point a step up would be, well, to hate it just a little less. Maybe, “loathe,” or “despise,” or even “tolerate” would be a really great place to move into!

When I crafted the course title, the body positive movement was just gaining steam. Since that time in 2013, the movement seems to have plateaued a bit: there’s far less writing on the topic, and I think perhaps thanks to Tess Holiday attention has pivoted to acceptance of fat bodies, which is in-and-of-itself a good thing! In the intervening couple of years, there was a lot of writing that I think transformed the project of bolstering your body confidence into yet another female social obligation, one where, if you fell short, it was just yet another task to fail. Bummer. In response to that new social pressure, some people decided to opt out. Why should I have to love my body? They asked? Isn’t it enough just to call a truce?

Yes it can be, and to my point, reaching a neutral place with your body is a terrific place that falls along this spectrum that I’m talking about, where HATE lies at one end, and well, I’m proposing that “adore” lies at the other.

Another critique of the movement was around the project of “body improvement.” So, if you want to improve your body, is that necessarily a form of body hatred, or could it possibly be another form of body love? My answer: it all depends on the intent behind the action. And, the only person who can really be honest about that is YOU. So you want to loose weight because you enjoy the project of working out, eating well, being at the gym, and having measurable results? Cool! But, I ask you this: would you be able to feel good about yourself if you were unable to do all those things? Would you be cool with an extra 10 pounds? Because if you can’t, then you’re probably not really adoring your body.

Why? Here’s the thing. In my mind “adoring” is an unconditional kind of gig. As best as fallible humans can pull of “unconditional.” “Adoring” means, I respect and honor you through thick and thin, through good times, and bad, though health and illness. You don’t have to do anything, achieve anything to be awarded my love. It is enough that you ARE, and for that I adore you.

Adoring is not the kind of emotion that says: I only approve of you IF you look a certain way, behave a certain way, achieve certain things, HAVE certain things. Those are the hallmarks of a conditional kind of love. That is not “adoring.” And, I believe, that is not even love. It is a cage.

O.K. that’s all well and good, you might be thinking, but, what does adoring look like in practice? When I slam up against all the difficulty and messiness of life: then what???

I have ideas for you, and some of them have to do with how do you practice yoga, because on the mat is the place where I began to unravel my own body hatred. If you don’t practice yoga yet reach out to me, and I’ll help you find a good teacher to work with. It’s important that you get some guidance in this department, because not all yoga instructors are trained around how to promote body positivity in the classroom.

If your body is injured, ill, or tired, respond to that accordingly. The demands of our daily lives often seem to take precedence over, well, everything, including the body that houses all other parts of us. Over centuries, we have come to treat the body like it is a machine, but it is not. The body is a mysterious, complex, and intelligent organism. What would it feel like to treat it with that kind of due respect?

Yoga portraits at JR Studio on December 12, 2015 in NYC. (Photo by Ray Tamarra)
Lounge Lunge is like my favorite pose ever. (Photo by Ray Tamarra)

Here are a few thoughts:

If you’re injured and continuing your yoga practice, you need to modify the postures. If you’re not sure how, find a skilled instructor who can help you figure out what to do in the poses that threaten your injury.

If you are sick (like a cold, or a headache, or something like that): don’t go to work! Don’t “push through.” Rest. If you are tired, notice that, and adjust your routine accordingly. Can you go to sleep earlier? Can you catch a 20-minute nap? Could you put your legs up the wall at your office?

The ways that we are cruel to our bodies begin here with small, daily occurrences. And, we have an opportunity to alter that relationship, every day, through small behavior adjustments.

If you gain some weight. Wait. Don’t do anything. Often people gain weight and freak out. They think it’s a bad thing to gain weight. And why wouldn’t they? Everything about our society tells us that to be thin is to be virtuous and to be fat is to be reviled. But, I ask you, why do you buy into this? Have you really thought it through? Where did this construct come from? How does it fit into a historical context? What is the function of this ideology? There was a time when being thin was unattractive and being fat was IT. These ideals as not inherently “good” or “bad.” We have decided that they are. And we can “un-decide.”

So, if you gain three pounds or five, or twenty, refrain from:

  • Putting yourself on a diet, cleanse, juice fast
  • Doubling down on your exercise regime
  • Thinking doomsday thoughts

Instead, get curious about what your body is doing, and why. Is it responding to the season? Is it building new hair, bones, or fingernails? When your body puts on some pounds, its not “doing it to you.” It has its own agenda, which you mostly know nothing about. So, get curious. Curiosity is part of “adoring.”

Watch the way you talk about your body. Watch the way you THINK about other people’s bodies.

Very often we think and say derogatory things about our bodies. There are so very many reasons that we do this. I’m not gonna get into it. I’ve got one thing to say: STOP IT.

Often we think ill thoughts about other people: Why did she think wearing that was O.K.? Fashion FAIL! Looks like she’s put on a few pounds. Getting wrinkles! She’s aged badly…

Take your pick of cruel thoughts. But here’s the deal: those are fears about yourself that you have projected onto other people. So, instead of doing a silent mental laceration of another human being, shift into a place of curiosity and compassion. Try these thoughts instead:

Wow, what an original outfit! I wonder what made her think to put those things together today. Or, maybe she was just down to the very last clean items. Haha! I know what that feels like!

 She’s got such a cute look: no matter whether she’s a little thinner or a little heavier, I just adore everything about her.

Wrinkles are so great. They show a life-line on the face. Hopefully there’s a lot of laughs there! I hope that the past few years haven’t been too hard on her…Maybe I should check in…

A word or twelve about food: We live in a “diet culture.” What does that mean, you ask? It means that in our society, dieting is considered compulsory and a sign of virtue, especially for women. Here’s what I’ve got to say about that. No one knows better than your body does what it needs to eat. The entire process of undoing ideas of “I should eat this” or “I shouldn’t eat that” can take many years. But in the end, no book, no other human or “authority figure” can figure out for you what you need to eat. It’s a private and intimate conversation between you and your body. And, believe me, your body WANTS to eat nutritious, yummy food! So, consider “adoring” to include going on a quest to find out what your body really wants, when, and how much. No one likes to be starved. Don’t do it. Don’t do it ever again.

Finally, be sweet, and gentle, and generous with touch. When you touch your own body—if you pay attention carefully—you might be surprised to discover that you poke, prod, pinch, twist, scratch. Most of these are probably not experiences that a person would submit to as a form of receiving love. Begin the process of building an adoring relationship with your body by touching it in ways that it responds to favorably. Be respectful. Be gentle. Be kind. These are ideals that can go along with “adoring.”

Start with the practices. And, if you’d like to go deeper, hop on my mailing list at www.ericamather.com, and you’ll hear all the news, including when I roll out my next body confidence coaching program. I hope to have to opportunity to work with you! I’m passionate about this project, and view it as a lifelong adventure, building a positive relationship with the body so that you can stop wasting time in the energy drain of body hatred and instead use your life for your own good, and for the good of everyone around you. I hope to hear from you soon!

#BeautyObsessed

#BeautyObsessed

DSCF8080 F1 red dress, with purse, crouching
I hope you realize it’s ironic that I’m putting these fashion portfolio shots into my post.

Recently I lead my third annual retreat “Connect to Your Spirit,” at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. Each time I lead a retreat (I only lead two a year. The other is called “Practice Gratitude, Receive Grace, at LuxYoga) I rethink what the theme means to me and design an entirely new curriculum. It’s the only way I know how to teach. Even if I’m teaching a workshop title, I’ll pull out the class, and re-write the whole thing. I’m constantly evolving, therefore how and what I teach will too.

This past year, while thinking about what it means to connect to your Spirit, I felt inside, and realized without an open heart connection to spirit will be very difficult. Near impossible.

I know, I know. This is nothing original. Christians have been using this language for years, beseeching us to open our hearts to Jesus Christ.

But, the framing here is different.

Isn’t it enough to say a hardened heart keeps us from connecting to ourselves? A closed heart is a closed eye that cannot see the beauty all around us, and therefore prevents us from enjoying our lives? This sort of framing is so much easier for people of all faiths and persuasions to connect to. It says nothing about God. It doesn’t even strive to answer the question “what is Spirit?” This framing orients you towards appreciating your time here on earth. That’s all.

DSCF8145 F1 black dress, side body shot
I was wearing so much makeup that my boyfriend did not recognize me when I got home from the shoot.

The key connecting concept between opening your heart and connecting to your spirit, as I found myself articulating it at the retreat, is experiencing Beauty. The moment I uttered those words, I knew I had entered into an intellectual conundrum.

“Beauty” as we think of it in our media-obsessed culture means something that it pleasing to the eye. And from a feminist perspective “beauty” is an elusive standard that keeps women disempowered. In the body positive movement, we are spending enormous amounts of time repositioning the idea of “beauty” to include everyone. And, as Melissa A. Fabello points out, this is incredibly helpful and healing to people who have never before considered themselves beautiful (just take a look at this video to see something amazing). BUT. She goes on to say:

“…deconstructing beauty’s value – not necessarily to eradicate it, but at least to examine it – would likely serve us better in the long run.”

Amen! Why spend so much time working with an idea that was flawed from the outset? Let’s take it apart, and redefine it. Beauty itself is valuable. How we have come to define it is the problem.

What I’m aiming to write about here, is this deconstruction and redefinition with a framing that comes from my own background, Forrest Yoga, and my teacher’s grounding in Native American medicine. I am and always will be a student of this way of thinking, because I am not a First Nation individual. Thanks to Ana Forrest, I’ve been introduced to a way of viewing Sanctity in the world that doesn’t rely on deities, Gods, or even children of God. To me, the things I’ve learned about Native ways of thinking, it bears resemblance to Taoism. In Taoism, there is no God. There is only “the way.”

Tao #1 says: “The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”

In Native philosophy it is called The-Spirit-That-Moves-Through-All-Things. I’m no expert in the lineage of these ideas, but they strike me as similar.

What I said at the Kripalu retreat is: Beauty is a feeling. I don’t mean “I feel beautiful.” No: “beauty is a feeling” means that you can sense when something from the outside world has touched your heart, and in that moment, it has changed you. Even if it just cast a little ripple in the pond of your soul, and that ripple then quickly disperses: that’s still Beauty. It is the Spirit moving through you. It is a feeling.

At its lowest common denominator, in my own homemade understanding of it, Beauty is when there is an energetic shift, from a lower vibration, to a higher one.

Here’s some beauty that I’ve experienced in my own life.

  • The beauty of one person generously helping another
  • Experiencing loyalty
  • A person relieving the suffering of another person or living being, animal, or plant
  • Comprehension filling the space where confusion and misunderstanding previously existed
  • Epiphany, insight, and intuition
  • Experiencing a healing moment within yourself , where a difficult thought, emotion, or experience is transformed into something with clarity and spaciousness
  • Finding a creative solution to a problem: or seeing an opportunity where you previously only perceived an obstacle.
  • Being touched so deeply that it brings tears to your eyes
  • Experiencing kismet, serendipity or coincidence
  • Suddenly being struck with the speandour of our natural surroundings, and having that touch your heart
  • Spontaneous fun and laughter

Interestingly, some Beauty ties in directly with Magic. Magic, itself, I believe is Change. Think about it for a moment. How did the baby that you once were become a full-grown human. Magic. How does anyone grow in their thinking about the world, or change their own mind? Magic.

DSCF9057 F2 black dress headshot hair down
I actually like this shot a lot.

But, back to Beauty.

In my life, I’m aiming for Big Beauty. The kind of resolution that when I’m on my deathbed, I can look back and think I made a lot of Beauty here in this world. I may have just left this place a tiny bit better than I found it.

In an interview my teacher Ana Forrest wrote:

“I first heard about Walking in Beauty from the Dine (Navajo) Native Americans. It comes from a ceremony called ‘Beautyway,’ which helps ‘the patient’ to re-establish the balance in their life when they are ill, depleted, sad.

To Walk in Beauty means to walk in harmony with all things—not only physically, but also with feelings and our inner wilderness. Also with people, objects, animals…with life!”

Her brief discussion provides many more questions about Beauty than it does answers. What is harmony? How do we come into it with our feelings? What is “inner wilderness?” After spending time with her, listening and doing my best to learn from her, I’ve developed the hypothesis that I’ve elaborated above. It’s about opening your heart, transmuting energy from lower vibrations to higher ones, seeing with your own eyes that can see beyond the physical The-Spirit-That-Moves-In-All-Things everywhere.

Ana talks about Beauty Reports, which is, in her words “when we see or experience something that dances in our heart.” Many of her Beauty Reports include what she also calls “Sweet Medicine,” (a topic worthy of its own, full-length article), which, in brief, is where a challenging or difficult experience reveals a silver lining, or is midwifed through by assistance from the spirit or animal world, or shows its own vision of Beauty that you otherwise would not had the opportunity to see.

And so, I have a call-to-action. In 2016 I would like to disrupt the common idea of “beauty.” Join me this year in a hunt for Beauty. Find our what “dances in your heart.” When you see it, when you feel it, when you have and experience of Beauty, share it. Tell us about it. And be sure to tag it. We’ll redefine the hashtags #beautyobsessed and #beautyobsession.

I think that this practice is crucial. An open heart is key to so very many things. In closing, here is a powerful quote from one of our modern writers about the experience of yoga, Stephen Cope:

A true contemplative is one who lives with a broken heart. A heart that is open to the world must be willing to be broken at any time. This brokenness produces the kind of grief that expands the heart so that it can love more and more.

Her’s to living with a heart wide open. To being touched, and broken, so that our hearts are broken bigger. I am Beauty Obsessed. Will you join me in my #beautyobsession?

bali sky ship
Nothing can match the Beauty of a sunset. And a ship in the sky.

 

The Yoga Diaries–a Book Review

The Yoga Diaries–a Book Review

yoga diariesI remember when I saw a request going around on Facebook, for a project called “The Yoga Diaries.” A young woman I didn’t really know was asking for people’s accounts of how yoga has changed their lives. Eventually, this person circulated into my consciousness also as the social media manager for one of my very favorite authors, Stephen Cope. She and I shared some sweet exchanges on Twitter, mostly about our mutual admiration of Stephen and how to get him in front of more and more people. And then, years later, as these things happen, again I saw her pop up on Facebook, now with Forrest Yoga colleagues of mine—for a book launch! The Yoga Diaries: Stories of Transformations Through Yoga had manifest in the world! My friend and colleague and fellow Forrest Yoga Guardian, Colleen Millen was among the contributors. Colleen has been writing for years about using yoga to help her with depression, and is a remarkably thoughtful, caring person. I was happy to see that she contributed! The book’s editor, Jeannie Page, reached out to me personally to ask me to write a review. I was delighted to receive this request, and even more so when I received in the mail a signed copy of the book.

 Jeannie’s kindness is all over this project. From the concept itself, to the graceful introduction that Stephen Cope wrote her, and the various wonderful endorsements from yoga luminaries like Ana Forrest and Elena Brower. The book drips with good karma.

The The Yoga Diaries is divided into categories that will help the reader seek out the areas focus that interest them the most. The sections are: physical healing, emotional healing, overcoming adversity, and living your purpose.

In the section Physical Healing there are stories of low bone density, weight loss, lupus, disc herniation, car crash, and stroke. In part 2, “Emotional Healing,” there are accounts of overcoming depression, the suicide attempts of a parent, insomnia with panic attacks and anxiety, trying to live up to your family’s expectations, the early death of a parent, and more. In “Overcoming Adversity” contributors tell about a myriad of tragedies including the murder of a child, surmounting drug addiction, unexpectedly birthing a child with severe disabilities, the divorce of one’s parents, the early death of a parent, becoming blind, and recovering from the kind of injury that robs you of your life’s dream. Finally, in the section “Living Your Purpose,” yogis recount stories of how yoga helped them move from a life and lifestyle that was unfulfilling and unhappy into ones that are filled with happiness and enthusiasm about their day-to-day activities, and the vision of their futures.

There is something here for everyone, and I read many a story that moved me to tears. Among the contributors were people I’ve known for years, like teachers Desiree Rumbaugh and J Brown, but people whose “back stories” I didn’t know. So often these kinds of stories go untold, because they are too personal or too painful or they aren’t really the kind of thing that you share with your yoga students at a random Tuesday evening yoga class, or even with friends at a dinner party. But they are the stories that really have value. In fact, these kinds of stories are invaluable because they tell about how people change. What kind of a price tag can you put on change for the better? This is the promise of yoga, and these stories help us to really establish the value proposition of yoga itself.

This is the kind of book that I might give to a person in my life who is thinking about doing yoga, but doesn’t really know what it is about, or who thinks that you already need to be fit and flexible to go to class. The stories are short: some no more than two pages. The writing skill of each contributor varies widely. Some are accomplished and published authors. Others are writing in their second language. And I think that this format and variety works to the book’s advantage: I envision it as accessible, and even attractive, to a variety of people. The contributors are men and women and of a wide range of ages and from around the world. Jeannie did a wonderful job curating this collection.

If anything my only critique is that the brevity of the stories often left me wanting more. This says more about me, than it does about any shortcoming of the project or the writers, and certainly I understand that Jeannie needed to put a container around the writing. The story of “how to we change, and how did yoga do it?” is a remarkably complex one with a slow story-line that often unfolds over years and decades. It’s a difficult tale to even contemplate telling, and the skill of the writer must be expert level to make it understandable and compelling. This, I think, is what makes Stephen Cope’s writing so very remarkable, and as an understudy and apprentice to him, I certainly hope that we can look forward to more in-depth, detailed projects from Jeannie Page.