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.
Never Too Old….
By Laura Mills
Me: “I have to clean the table.”
H (my daughter, age 3): “Why?”
Me: “Because there’s applesauce smeared all over it.”
Me: “Because you were finger painting with your snack.”
Me: “Because you like to make pictures.”
Me (still scrubbing): “Because that’s one of the things that’s special about you.”
Me: “Because that’s how God made you.”
Me (pause): “Because that’s what the universe needed.”
H (pause): “I go play now.”
A gold-medal parenting moment? Maybe not. But nonetheless a moment that reminded me of life’s very elusively hidden simplicity.
In the last two years or so the ups and downs of my life have marched a series of “whys” through my heart...with the response to each being just another why-inducing statement. As I continue asking “Why?,” the dissection of my life continues. Only when I pause, and I breathe away the layers of doubt and uncertainty, does the truth emerge as obvious as an applesauce fingerprint on clear glass: that everything is, indeed, as it should be.
Perhaps, then, the more correct response to every why-inducing statement over the course of each day is a bow of the head and a confident “Okay,” or an emphatic “Yes.” Or maybe, putting all trust in the unfathomable intelligence of the universe, even a joyful “I go play now” and a smile.
By Laura Mills
I love calendars. Something about putting up a pristine, empty calendar at the beginning of a new year—I guess it overwhelms me with possibility. It reminds me that, regardless of my intentions or plans for the time ahead, the future remains unwritten (and, truly, what a relief THAT is!). An empty calendar at the beginning of a new year, far more than being a collection of days or months at-a-glance, is a visual representation of one of my all-time favorite words: maybe.
Maybe…. Maybe my family, friends, and self will stay healthy in 2014? Maybe I’ll finally get my hair cut short? Maybe I’ll add a few more yoga classes to my teaching schedule? Maybe I’ll actually write a blog every other week again? Maybe I’ll find a way to remove that watermark from the dining room table? Maybe my friend will find a job that fulfills her? Maybe my daughter will be potty-trained? Maybe I’ll really do a headstand in the middle of the room? Maybe I’ll fall I love? Maybe I’ll look back on 2014 and say, “What a fantastic year….”?
But as long as I’m looking at empty calendar pages, the answer to every question is a very clear, “Maybe.”
And that totally refreshes me. I was relieved to reach the end of 2013, a year which for me—at its best—was difficult. And now I’m looking at my empty 2014 calendar with a mixture of that relief plus excitement, anxiety, dread, anticipation…all with an echo of “maybe.” Some answers will be “yes,” some answers will be “no,” and some answers will be a gray in-between, I’m sure. But, as I look ahead to whatever 2014 brings, I believe somewhere among the "maybes" will be where the miracles happen.
By Laura Mills
The other night at dinner, my almost three-year-old pointed straight ahead of her and proclaimed, “My shadow!” I followed her finger and saw an image of her in the side of my glass. I explained to her—as I had done many times when we had looked into mirrors—that what she was seeing wasn’t a shadow, but a reflection.
She blinked at me. “What dat?”
In the past she had just made a face in the mirror and we had moved on. But now, for some reason, she wanted information. I thought for a moment and then explained: when we see a reflection we see a person or thing as it really is, how it really looks, and when we see a shadow we see a person or thing’s dark shape. She seemed to mull this over for a few moments, and then she continued eating, apparently satisfied.
But I wasn’t. The idea of confusing a reflection with a shadow struck me…. My daughter has been very interested in shadows lately, stopping here and there to observe hers or mine, orienting her body so she could see herself walk on my “head” or dance with “herself.” She understands shadows, images we see because our bodies block light coming from the opposite side. But reflections…they’re a more difficult—and more intimidating—concept. We see them because the light bouncing off our bodies hits a surface and then bounces back to our eyes. Where shadows leave room for interpretation and imagination, reflections show it like it is.
I wonder now how many times I’ve confused a reflection with a shadow…my own, someone else’s, or that of a circumstance. In general, as adults I think we believe we know—or tell ourselves we know—what we’re looking at, what we’re dealing with. But after this conversation with my daughter, I’ve been feeling that we might need to pay a little more attention to the workings of the light around us….
Best Costume Ever, Part 2
By Laura Mills
Just after Halloween 2012 I posted a blog that asked why, as human beings, we love disguises so much. With Halloween 2013 just around the corner, I thought at least part of that blog worth posting again….
“[And we disguise ourselves not] only on Halloween—after all, a disguise doesn’t require a mask, whiskers and a tail, or even unfamiliar clothes. However we go about it, we find comfort in fooling others about our identity, in others’ not knowing whom we really are. Think about it…as children, who among us didn’t at one time or another want to be invisible? Then, with time dawned the knowledge that we couldn’t make ourselves disappear, but we could do anything but. Now, short of donning fake fangs or a wig, we devise countless ways of hiding the person we are on the inside. Maybe it’s the tremendous relief from self-consciousness….
“Years ago, when I taught high school science, every October at least one student would ask me about my upcoming Halloween costume. I would always joke, ‘I’m going to be a chemistry teacher.’ Today, I see the actual seriousness of that statement. The most difficult disguise to wear is no disguise at all. Appearing as the real you—heart, soul, and everything in between, within and without—is more frightening than dressing up in even the scariest Halloween costume. But I have no doubt it’s also the most worthwhile way to let the world see you.”
This year, let me add that although it’s difficult—so, so difficult—to shed our disguises, every time we come to our mats we make progress. By its nature, yoga practice dissolves such things as fear, self-consciousness, and other obstructions of our true nature…and after the debris melts away, what’s left is an ever-brighter being, so much more than the costumed individual that first unrolled the mat.
Soup and Then Some
By Laura Mills
Something that says fall to me, nearly as much as leaves, pumpkins and Halloween, is soup. In my youngest days I loved good old canned tomato and chicken noodle. But my mom created countless amazing concoctions, too, the ingredients of which varied from pot to pot, and the older I got the more I grew to love what I now think of as “real” soup. Other than opening a can or reheating Mom’s care-packages, though, I have yet to make soup at home. In the past the process—the finding, chopping and otherwise preparing of ingredients, as well as the simmering of them all together—seemed to require more time and therefore more patience than I was willing to spare. But this year I’m thinking differently.
I need to make soup this year. I think it will do me a great deal of good. 2013 has so far been my craziest year yet; at this moment, as I think about it, my life could be said to resemble an array of cold, odd-sized pieces of different-colored vegetables strewn throughout a kitchen. Some pieces are already beautiful and tasty, but some pieces in their current state are also very coarse, and some are particularly bitter. Unless I allow these pieces to simmer together—slowly—and stir and season them with just the right loving touch, they will remain as they are: cold, odd, and messy.
So what better way to slow myself down and let things simmer than spending a day making soup? I don’t want a recipe. I’m going to make my soup the old-fashioned way: I’m going to wander around the produce section, choose some vegetables and anything else soup-worthy, prepare at my kitchen counter, and then stand at my stove with a big pot of water and my serving spoon. How reassuring, how healing to watch care and time transform a cold collection of odd pieces into something warm and uniquely delicious...the perfect comfort food, indeed.