The Truth About Time
By Laura Mills
I admit it: I’m in denial. It should not, cannot possibly be mid-January already. Wasn’t it just Christmas? Some of my decorations are still up. And did I seriously just hear a commercial about taxes? What about my to-do items leftover from 2014…organizing the claim for my car repairs, balancing my checkbook, getting the carpets cleaned, filing away those miscellaneous papers? I refuse, absolutely, to believe we’re halfway through January already….
But I’ve said it before, and I know it to be true now: the calendar on my desk (and the one on my computer, and the one on my phone) doesn’t lie. It is mid-January. And I am overwhelmed. This isn’t a new feeling; actually, I’ve felt overwhelmed with things to do quite often before. After all, the harsh reality of time is that it’s finite—as I’ve been trying to teach my four-year-old lately, we only have so much time and we must make choices as to how we use it (as in, “…you can’t watch TV and play Elsa/Anna and also take your bath all before bedtime.”). I do try to prioritize and focus on what needs to be done NOW at any given moment, but I can only sustain that directed purposefulness so long before my overwhelm returns.
Thankfully, a remedy does exist. Not the kind of remedy that will clean my house, file my papers and pay my bills for me, but rather a remedy that brings me away from overwhelm into peace in spite of my lingering un-accomplished tasks. It’s my memory. I remember I’m a competent, strong person on an incredible journey; I remember that the journey will go on even if I don’t accomplish everything on time; and I remember that while the journey is messy and unpredictable, I always have my breath and my heart to guide me. In fact, to my breath and my heart, time is irrelevant—no matter what’s going on at any given moment I can always breathe, I can always love.
And most of the time, no matter what the calendar says, that’s really only all I need.
"Undo," Not "To Do"
By Laura Mills
It’s easy to put myself last when gift giving. What I give myself is often hardly a gift anyway; stress, that unwelcome yet persistent part of the holidays, sneaks in and gets cozy as I list, decorate, shop, wrap, rush and socialize. Unfortunately, over the years I’ve realized I harbor a certain over-confidence in my ability to manage stress (“Stress? Never! I teach yoga, for goodness’ sake!”); at the end of the most hectic days, I consistently find that the hardest part of stress management is remembering to do it.
Undoubtedly, I keep up with stress management best when I make it a regular part of my day. One habit I’ve developed is just stopping and intentionally breathing—slow and deep, low into my back and belly, and then exhaling completely—for at least a few minutes. I aim to do this just after I wake up, or else just before bed, but sometimes I do it also at my kitchen sink, in my parked car, in line at the grocery store, or any other time I feel stress encroaching in the form of tight shoulders, headache, or a quickening heartbeat. After very little time I notice a difference…at the very least a clearer head with which to approach whatever’s happening in that moment.
Of course, an irony of stress management is that trying to keep up with it might initially cause stress. None of us needs one more thing to do in December, after all…. But stress management, like so many other worthwhile pursuits, is a practice. Therefore it’s something we become more adept at with time. I’ve been approaching it lately not as another “to do” on my list, but rather as a means of undoing the effects of hectic days. I hope you try it, too, for as the days shorten, the nights darken, and the ever-busy holidays approach, it’s more important than ever to take care of ourselves. At the beginning, try just a little…and then, as you become more comfortable and more regular with it, add a little more. Even a small amount of stress management will make a difference, leaving more space in life for cheer, holiday and beyond.
Squirrel in Reverse
By Laura Mills
I plopped into my car after bringing my daughter to a class. 1pm and I was already beat…. And it hadn’t been that extraordinarily busy of a day so far, either—only that after the craziness of the last few weeks I had lost track of the day and the time and, it seemed, life in general. This day I was lucky to have managed my daughter’s drop-off at the correct time in the appropriate place.
While I stared out the window, catching my breath, a squirrel approached my car from across the parking lot—then appeared on the hood! With a sound like fast raindrops it skittered toward the windshield and then up onto the roof; a moment and a few skitters later, its tail waved down onto the windshield, followed by the rest of its body as the squirrel slid back onto the hood. Then it hustled toward the rearview mirror, and it climbed over and all around it. Stopping just a few seconds to stare into the window at me, it then ran back onto the roof and disappeared into, I think, an overhanging tree.
I laughed. Of course I had never encountered a squirrel so “up close and personal” before…but also because I immediately thought that squirrel could really use some yoga. And, I laughed because that squirrel seriously reminded me of myself. Those jerky movements of head and tail, the constant quivering of nose and whiskers, the non-stop motion of legs in different directions…that had for sure been me during the last few weeks. Now, here I was, alone in my parked car—the perfect opportunity to pause, sit a little taller, relax my shoulders, close my eyes and breathe. And that’s exactly what I did.
"You Make Me Feel So Young"
By Laura Mills
Last week I attended a parent meeting at my daughter’s preschool, where I discovered that learning is based on play. I love this philosophy, that children don’t require anything elaborate or high-tech to learn new skills and make solid connections in their minds. Plain and simple: children succeed by doing what they do best, by doing what they do naturally.
Since then I’ve reflected on how often I ignore the “plain and simple” in my own life. I over-think, over-plan, over-do, over-analyze…. It’s common among human beings, I think, as we rush around to check off the next item on our to-do lists. But yoga teaches that one of the ways we can evolve into harmony (Niyama) is through the practice of simplicity (Saucha). Not that we can or should ignore our obligations—but rather, I believe, that we shouldn’t underestimate the value of a little space in our to-do lists…that we shouldn’t pass up any opportunities to refine our days with a little plain-and-simple play.
What if we approached more tasks as if they were lessons in preschool? The humdrum, everyday things we do might begin to give off a positive glow; the most complicated tasks might lose their capacity to intimidate. We might find ourselves waking up looking forward to our day and even smiling more throughout. As summer ends and we head into fall, as the days get shorter and the nights get darker, and as life rushes on at its often-exasperating pace, I’m going to try the “preschool philosophy.” Come play with me!
By Laura Mills
This summer I’ve done all kinds of neat things—like attend a yoga retreat, spend a weekend downtown as a Chicago “tourist,” install granite countertops in my kitchen, reorganize my basement, master Mandarin Chinese, learn to play the banjo, and drive across the country—in my mind. That is to say I’ve daydreamed over and over that I made these things happen. Some of these things I’ve even wistfully discussed with friends, making them all the more delicious. Yet as of this moment each remains, well…unfinished. Some even remain un-attempted.
Yep, I dream big. I make lists with lofty headings like “Things I Want To Do This Year” and “What I Want to Accomplish.” Yet more often than not the items on my list remain on my list. Even the small steps towards accomplishing those items remain. And when I look at or think about my list, I feel sad and silly for being all talk and no action.
It’s not that I’m lazy or unmotivated…far from it. But I am intimidated.
After all, dreams and goals are scary. Not only do they represent the unknown that lies ahead, but also they require that we muster our abilities to act and follow through. And acting on a dream or goal is hard—it requires energy and acceptance of whatever changes the acting sets off. Following through is even harder—it requires loyalty to the dream or goal, even when circumstances get tough and the desired outcome seems impossible. Frankly, for me, these days I feel quite unenergetic and definitely unwilling to persevere with anything that’s not absolutely necessary.
I don’t believe the solution is to dream less or to dream smaller. Rather, the solution is a rethinking of what’s really necessary. Not a cross-country vacation or the mastering of a new language…but dreaming, itself, is necessary. The wish to do more, see more, be more, know more. As long as we have dreams—even unattainable or unrealistic ones—every breath we take brings more hope to the world. Realistically I may never learn to play the banjo, for example, yet my dreams about it cause the opening of doors in my mind that I didn’t know existed and that very well may lead somewhere amazing. Any open door is hope. And hope never, ever hurts.
By Laura Mills
At this midpoint of 2014, consider: how many times this year so far have you asked yourself “What next?” It’s a question that reflects our awareness of life’s constant flow…and whether we ask it with enthusiasm or exasperation reflects whether we feel we’re flowing with life or struggling against it.
Lately, when I’ve thought “What next?” it’s been in the context of life’s flow feeling too fast and too strong. Time has passed, things have happened…. In posing the question again and again with a heavy sigh, I’ve admitted that that time and those things have challenged me and that I expect another challenge from whatever is to come. The question, in this context, is like another tough step through thigh-high mud on a path that reaches into unending distance.
But I don’t want to walk in mud, not anymore. I’m wondering if I can start switching my scene; maybe substitute a mountain for the muddy path. The journey will still be difficult, but if I nurture my enthusiasm for the view at the top, every step—every “What next?”—will at least be one closer to something amazing. It might happen. I’m taking my next breath, getting ready….
Practice to Practice
By Laura Mills
This week I’ve invited my students to consider the word “practice.” Obviously, we refer to every 60 or 75 minutes on our yoga mats as a practice; in a larger sense, some of us refer to our routine of attending classes and maybe other aspects of our lifestyle collectively as our yoga practice. Off the mat, we practice sports, music, dance, and other activities that we’ve made ongoing parts of our lives. And some professionals like doctors, dentists, and lawyers refer to their work as their practice.
Without looking up the word in a dictionary, it’s obvious that both the noun and the verb “practice” connote something that isn’t a singular event or that we don’t do just once. A football player doesn’t just practice until he “gets it”; by the same token, yogis don’t ever reach an endpoint at which no additional depth exists to explore. Practice doesn’t take us to a destination. What practice does, though, is keep us tuned up and tuned in.
I think as human beings it’s natural for us to seek results, to look for the prize at the contest’s end, to find motivation in the attainment of a goal. But it’s humbling—and comforting, when life challenges us—to remember that there is no endpoint to the greatest practice of all, the practice of living. None of us is supposed to arrive at some particular place in life with a great “I made it!” and our own personal claim to the finish line. Instead, we keep moving forward and interacting with life’s constant ups and downs…the “flow” we refer to when we tell someone to “go with” it. Every time we take a breath we begin again, on some level….
And indeed, how sweet it is. How fortunate we are.
Thanksgiving in May
By Laura Mills
The first week of May is one of the year’s most special times for me, being the anniversary of the day I first met my daughter. Two years ago this week I was in China introducing myself to a 17-month-old little girl whom the universe had predestined for my family…. The moment I met her and began my journey as her mommy is the moment of most profound gratitude in my life. And even though the many moments since then—parenting and otherwise—have included innumerable challenges and even great heartache, I can always recall that moment in China and tap into gratitude so big that I can’t help but feel my soul smiling.
This week, at the beginning of each class, I’ve invited my students to bring to mind something that elicits gratitude within them. From there, we’ve practiced heart opening in honor of that gratitude but also to remind us of our ability to shine out our joy. For big or small, we all keep and cherish our moments of gratitude. Sometimes they’re in our conscious thoughts and sometimes they’re in our mind’s quiet places, but always those moments germinate joy. By setting an intention of gratitude for our day-to-day lives, I believe we nurture that joy until it literally shines out of us in the form of expressions, words, actions, and interactions.
Nobody’s life is “perfect” or devoid of sadness and hardship. But everybody’s life, regardless, contains moments of gratitude. Take a moment each and every day, no matter what else is happening in your life, to practice gratitude for SOMETHING. The joy will sprout, grow, and bloom, becoming something beautiful you can then easily give back to the world.
Still Winter? (Part 2)
By Laura Mills
Last week—nearly one month after my blog about first noticing the buds on the tree outside my window—I noticed a few green grass blades poking through the ground. And each day since, I’ve seen more and more. The bare spots in my yard are filling in, and slowly the flat brown patches are giving way to a much-more-lively green spread. This year, as are most of us, I’m sure, after the record-breaking winter, I’m more excited than ever to observe these changes.
But also, I confess: I couldn’t have wished for a more appropriate year for such a brutal winter and long-awaited spring. I’m glad this happened the winter of 2013-2014. One of the lessons of my yoga practice has been to observe connections between Nature and myself, and for me, the past twelve months have been the most difficult of my life. In spite of all the tremendous good still around me, I’ve spent the vast amount of my time confused and sad. Never before has so much felt so barren; some days, regardless of the meteorological season, I’ve woken up in a state of winter that felt like it would never end.
But even Chicago’s harshest winters don’t last forever. And neither does a human being’s—at least, not a human being with the will to re-germinate and blossom again. Spring, in all its forms, does arrive after winter’s cold and dark. And just like the grass poking up in my yard, I am finally waking up, eager to grow, longing to feel the sunshine, and excited to experience a new life.
Looking forward to spring….
By Laura Mills
A tree stands just outside my bedroom window—it’s so close that when it has leaves, they actually press against the glass. One morning last week, while having a particularly difficult time getting out of bed, I happened to glance out the window and see tiny buds. With the weather having yet to consistently approach anything spring-ish, the sight surprised me; my first reaction was to think to the tree, “Put those away! The cold will kill them!”
Weather each season can vary tremendously year to year, of course, but still nature always adheres to its pattern. No matter how cold and long the winter, spring and summer follow; no matter how glorious the sunshine and bounty of summer and autumn, eventually the atmosphere cools, leaves fall, harvest ends and winter returns. As the variations occur nature bides its time—the buds on my tree, for example, have already waited a long time for the end of this winter. Now, it seems, they have heard their cue to appear...as I look at them outside my window, I can almost hear my tree reply to me, “Relax. I know what I’m doing.”
Pause the next time you are outside. Engage your senses…no matter how cold the day or still-snowy the landscape. You might see buds, too. You might smell something unidentifiable but undoubtedly fresh; you might just even hear the snowmelt seeping into the ground, or the first blades of grass pressing up through the earth. Nature’s great lesson to us is one of perseverance, I think—to hang in there and keep heart, no matter what, to never stop believing that dormancy can lead to growth.