Atlas of Yoga
By Laura Mills
Foiled again! Yesterday morning, like clockwork, as soon as I finished my fifth sun salutation my daughter woke up crying. No matter how early I get up and attempt to practice, she knows…. And if it’s not my daughter crying, it’s my cat—sitting on my mat, weaving through my arms and legs, meowing until my daughter wakes up. Or else it’s the laundry…or the messy kitchen…or the bills…. My quest for a workable home practice continues; regardless of my intention, I confess I usually put my home practice last. 8 years a yogi, 5 years a yoga teacher, and I still can’t get the home practice quite right.
Some days I feel lucky if I manage to squeeze in a handful of sun salutations. Most days, no matter how many I’ve squeezed in, I go to bed wishing I had squeezed in at least a few more. I feel heavy, like I’m carrying the weight of my yoga world. I shake my head and chastise myself for not being a more disciplined yogi.
That’s when something inside me whispers, “Put it down.” The weight of my yoga world is heavy, after all—the difference between the yoga I want to do and the yoga I do do seems astronomical. But I remind myself that this “burden” isn’t really a burden at all, but instead the trimmings of a life in which I’m doing the best I can to fill many roles. Time will pass, the roles will evolve…and so will my home practice. Maybe squeezing in a few sun salutations every day—or every few days—is perfect for me in this moment. One way or another, I will find my way and end up in the place that’s right for me. In the meantime I will keep going, finding little bits of success in the effort along the journey.
The Impermanence of Perfect
By Laura Mills
No fingerprints smear the mirrors; no lumps wrinkle the bed. No lint litters the carpet. The laundry, dishes, and toys are put away. I can even navigate my way through the garage without stepping on anything. This place is pretty near perfect—but I must admit, perfection unsettles me.
I had to impress if I hoped to sell my house. Prospective buyers want to see the counters, floors and other features clearly; they want to be able to picture their own belongings, not someone else’s dirty socks or half-dressed dolls, in the nooks and crannies. And I get that, completely. As a buyer myself, when I’ve looked at prospective homes I’ve wanted the same thing.
But near-perfect is more than just hard—it’s RIDICULOUSLY hard. Time and effort achieve an acute moment of it. But then maintaining it is another feat, one that requires constant vigilance. It’s so, so easy to slide from near-perfect toward non-perfect again. The minute the cat misses the litter box, or I forget to straighten the towel, or my daughter spills her cereal…. My attention to one incident allows other incidents to occur, and before long, I’m back to needing more time and effort to rise to near-perfect again.
Which is why, I think, I’ve realized I prefer non-perfect. It’s comfortable, even cozy. Most importantly it’s real. It’s my everyday, on the clock, up-and-down life. Near-perfect is okay for selling a home and buying a new one, but when it comes to present moments—even the messiest and most chaotic ones—non-perfect is perfectly beautiful.
Coffee Shop Dream Collector
By Laura Mills
I’m sitting in my favorite coffee shop, but only because no one showed up to class today. These days I hardly ever find myself sitting with only writing to do for an hour or so—case in point: my last blog post was mid-January. Between teaching (when people come, which thankfully is most of the time), mommy-ing, and attempting to rebuild my life after last year’s changes, sitting in a coffee shop, writing, is an artifact of a time long past. Yet here I am today, because no one showed up to class.
Ten years ago this would have been me every day. I hadn’t yet found yoga or hadn’t yet adopted my daughter, and I had left my job as a high school science teacher to pursue my then-dream job of writing. And I even achieved moderate success: I published essays and articles in magazines and newspapers, and I wrote two complete children’s novels and submitted them to publishers. Of course there were the many rejections—including both novels—and the other frustrations, too. But I still felt I had found a “pot of gold” as I worked at what I loved.
I never would have guessed that THIS version of me would be the one sitting in a coffee shop, writing, ten years later.... The yoga, the yoga teaching, the long wait to adopt, the parenthood, the un-asked-for divorce—ten years of joyous highs and devastating lows color the experience of the me who sits here now. Sitting here now because, ironically, my current “pot of gold” didn’t require me today. The glide of the paper below my hand, the cold of the pen in my fingers, the smell of the coffee—these things light up the corners of my being and reveal that I haven’t abandoned my old dream. Instead I’ve built upon it, continuously creating new dreams day by day and moment by moment as life has evolved. And really, even with the lows mixed in among the highs, that’s pretty cool.
I guess as time goes by, with the pursuit of our own dreams and the effects of others’ dreams, we all become more colorful. Which makes sense…isn’t it always a rainbow that leads to the “pot of gold,” after all?
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.