By Laura Mills
The Beatles recorded a song called “The Long and Winding Road,” which I admit—even as one of my generation’s most enthusiastic Beatles fans—I usually skip when it rolls around on an album or collection. To be fair, the song is a stylistic masterpiece; much like the long and winding road they describe, the melody and lyrics curve back and forth, up and down, meandering from beginning to end. Style points aside, though, the plodding tempo makes me downright antsy after just a few moments.
Ironically, when I’ve attempted to meditate lately the image of a long and winding road has come to mind. Stretching infinitely ahead, curving into the distance, my heart tells me it’s my road. This image doesn’t surprise me, really, this being May… it’s the month in which I encounter my most notable life “landmarks.” Last week, for example, was the one-year anniversary of the day I first met my daughter. My second Mother’s Day was this past Sunday. My birthday occurs in May, as does my wedding anniversary. This month more than any other, I can’t help but feel a profound sense of time passing and of change. I also feel gratitude for the distance already traveled, as well as anxiety about the unexplored terrain ahead.
I know the experience of a long and winding road, quite literally, as many times in the middle of a long walk or hike I’ve looked into a distance that both invited and frightened me. This translates so well into a metaphor for life, which leads me back to that Beatles song…which perhaps at some level, like the month of May, reminds me that plodding or no I am always on the move. It’s not always easy, and it’s not always pretty, but one foot in front of the other, my calling is to make every footfall count.
Happy Earth Week! It’s hard to believe it’s that time again, I know…the one week we celebrate you and during which all life seems a little “greener.” My yard is sure greener these days, with all the rain. I’m really looking forward to the flowers finally blooming once you warm up for the season!
Anyway, enough small talk. I know you haven’t been feeling that great, but I hope you are managing well enough. I’ve been thinking about you, especially this week. Actually, I’ve been thinking about you a lot more overall these last few years—funny how practicing yoga and becoming a parent have totally increased my concern for you! I am so sorry you’ve had to deal with the stress we’ve put upon you. We’ve added toxins to your air and water while we’ve removed trees and other resources; we’ve ruined much of what we’ve touched and wasted a good part of the rest…no wonder you’ve been out-of-sorts lately. I don’t blame you at all. Like so many others I’ve taken you for granted most of my life. And even though I’ve recently tried to make a little difference, like using mostly CFL bulbs, buying more organic, recycling everything I can, so much more needs to be done.
I know it hurts, Earth, but please don’t give up. Hang on as long as you can. True, the situation is bleak now and no one knows how or even if things will shift. But know that you are loved. Know that you are needed. We don’t tell you or show you often enough, I know—one week a year?—but the fact is, of course, that none of us would be here without you.
Your strength inspires me.
Namaste, Laura Mills
You, Me, and Seeds
By Laura Mills
One of my favorite ways to begin a class is to have students sit with feet planted on the mat, arms hugging around knees. It’s sort of a seated fetal position; I’ve actually heard this referred to as Seed Pose. I love this pose, and I love the analogy of a seed, for to me few images speak more loudly to what we bring to our mats every time we approach them.
If a seed could emote and communicate in a way we understood, I believe it would tell us of its fears as it’s placed in dark, cold ground. Yet that seed, small and dormant as it is, contains tremendous potential for growth and change, service and grace. Given water, a little warmth, and time, that seed will germinate; the embryo will emerge (While perhaps still fearful, imagine how exhilarated it feels now!) and thus continue its journey.
All of us begin each yoga practice with a little bit of fear, I think…. What poses will we do today? My hamstring is killing me. Will I EVER nail that headstand? I’m never going to get that project done. She still hasn’t called. How am I going to pay for that? Yet in spite of our fears all of us, like seeds, contain potential for growth, change, service, and grace. And time on the mat is always a journey. As we tune in to our breath and then link breath with movement, we travel deeper into the place where our outer shell falls away and the inner “us” emerges. Like any journey, it can be both frightening and exhilarating. Like any journey, it requires effort, maybe even some sweat, and most definitely patience.
Seeds likely have no inkling of, and definitely no control over, what awaits them once they break the surface. Neither do we truly know or have control over what awaits us as we step off our mats each time. But with our roots grounded and our senses turned to the light, hope drives us onward. Someday, we may even realize our potential and become whatever we are destined to be.
Mantra for March
By Laura Mills
Gloves, hats, and scarves in March? Maybe…but so late in March? With spring’s arrival, spring break approaching, and Passover and Easter right around the corner, the extra-frosty air and brutal wind seem quite out of place. Sure, we had a stretch of really mild weather back in December when we expected cold…now that the weather is “supposed” to be warming up, though, the cold just doesn’t seem to want to leave.
But yogis, take heart! 2013’s weather so far has much to teach us. The lingering cold invites us to continue our practice beyond our mats, as unexpected challenges like this lead us—if we’re open and accepting—into new ways of approaching life, into places where we need to return to our breath and revisit our intentions. We slow down, look inside ourselves, and observe what’s there at the present moment. Meanwhile, the spring kept at bay invites us to step up our practice of patience. Not the strained patience of a parent or teacher begging Mother Nature to ease up so the kids can play outside, but rather the patience of a seed just under the earth, frozen, dormant, waiting for the perfect moment. This is a patience that reaches deep beyond the choice of how to respond; it reaches into the realm of following nature’s cues, of letting nature lead. To the seed, when it’s time, it’s time.
Remember that, no matter how we perceive our weather and its changes, winter never just gives up and spring never just takes over from there. Instead, winter flows away, and spring flows in. Any given year—when it’s time, it’s time. The planet breathes and moves in a practice all its own; no matter how long it holds any pose, it always encourages us to join in.
One Hour Less...Of What?
By Laura Mills
The anticipation of “springing forward” was very stressful for me. Just prior to changing my clocks I have always felt rushed and tired, as my to-do list always looks longer than usual and I can never stop thinking about that hour’s loss of sleep. In addition, as a new parent this year, I was terribly concerned about the time change’s immediate effects on my daughter’s sleep schedule. I felt bleak and unsettled even as the world was getting lighter and coming together....
At times like this I believe what helps is focus on extension, the idea that in order to get past unsettledness we must extend like never before—but NOT by adding to the to-do list or working extra hard to cram everything in. Instead, extension in this context means approaching a situation with a more open attitude. Maybe it involves actually removing something from the to-do list, or tossing that particular list altogether…or else maybe it means adding in a bit of impromptu rest. Maybe extension means breathing better, not necessarily bigger or deeper, but only with more focus. Maybe it involves seeking something unique in the “same-old” Child’s Pose or Downward Facing Dog. Maybe extension means just approaching the day not as one hour shorter, for example, but as 23 hours more of opportunity.
Like the practice of asanas, extension of this kind requires dedication and patience…the fruits of which are balance and peace. It’s off-the-mat yoga of the highest order as we suspend resistance and instead just flow, realizing that 23 hours is still a lot of time to make the moments count.
Wise Little One
By Laura Mills
I turned around at the sink and locked eyes with my two-year-old. She sat straight up at the kitchen table, pointing to my empty chair, glaring at me. It was one of those mornings where I had hustled her out of bed and down to breakfast, my plan being to grocery shop and run a few additional errands and then make it home in time to take advantage of her naptime window. I had eaten my breakfast and now, while she scooped the last pieces of cereal up from her bowl, buzzed around the kitchen washing dirty dishes and sorting clean ones.
That morning she had told me to sit a few times before, but not quite so emphatically. Each previous time I had answered her with something like, “I can’t right now, I have to finish cleaning the kitchen.” This time, though, I just stopped. Manners, Honey. We don’t talk to other people like that, I thought, and the words were nearly on my lips when I stopped again….
How many times while teaching yoga had I instructed my students to slow down, to pause, to just breathe? How many times had I preached that what seems important in a frazzled moment may not really matter? How many times had I reminded my students to cherish the blessings of everyday life, to tune in to what’s right in front of them, to remember the spaces between the lines on their to-do lists?
Holding my daughter’s eyes another moment, now I took a deep breath. I took my teacup from the counter, pulled out my chair, and sat next to her at the table. She held her sippy cup out to me, and I clinked my teacup against it in salute. Never having trained to teach yoga, never having even attended one yoga class…she still knew, still possessed the inherent wisdom I had lost with the years.
“You’re right, Honey,” I said. “Thank you for reminding me.”
Start Fresh, Again
By Laura Mills
This Sunday traditional Chinese families will celebrate Chinese New Year, a holiday of abundant symbolism that honors family unity, joy, and peace. One of the customs observed in preparation for the 15-day-long celebration is the thorough cleaning of the family home; sweeping, scrubbing, polishing and painting represent the departure of bad fortune and an invitation to good. In the physical sense the cleaning clears dirt and clutter. In the mental sense it bestows the promise of a new beginning and indicates the first step towards greater things to come.
I adore this tie between literal house cleaning and metaphorical starting over. For one, I have always found activities like vacuuming and scrubbing—while not always enjoyable—extremely therapeutic for stress and sadness, so the idea of cleaning to obtain something more than sparkling countertops really resonates. But also, it’s a very yogic concept. As we practice yoga postures we bend, twist, stretch and invert the physical body; we also inhale and exhale, three-dimensionally expanding and contracting the torso as well as infusing fresh nutrients all throughout. Physically speaking, among other things, this practice strengthens, tones, detoxifies, and heals.
But much, much more occurs with the physical act of putting body and breath through yoga. At the very least, we “just feel good” as we rise from our mats after practice. Yes, body and breath move more freely, but this feeling also includes a lightness of mind that wasn’t present before. Sincere and heart-felt yoga practice graces us with restoration of calm, heightening of confidence, and clearance of blockages that we may not have even known existed. Many of us rise from the mat with fresh perspective and newfound positivity; some of us even rise with a little more self-love.
One might say that yoga invites us towards a new beginning every time we practice. How fortunate we are, really, that peace and joy are only a breath away!
"If it ain't broke...."
By Laura Mills
My two-year-old loves crayons. On our coffee table we have a box full of them, the usual eight colors plus various offspring hues. As the months have passed the box has lost most of its whole crayons and accumulated more and more half-crayons, third-crayons, quarter-crayons, and even smaller bits…my daughter doesn’t discriminate, though, and draws and colors with all of them.
My guess is in a few years she’ll be less likely to enjoy coloring with worn-down nubs, instead realizing she prefers pointed pristine crayons. As we age we place greater emphasis on something’s “whole-” or “broken-ness,” often allowing our perception of such to influence our positivity or negativity. Ironically, as we age we ourselves acquire our own broken-ness—broken health, broken hopes, broken dreams, broken hearts—which leaves us worn down, much like a well-used bit of crayon. Some days we may even feel little more than a nub, lost in the box.
But remember that a crayon’s broken-ness indicates the fulfillment of its purpose; the crayons that remain pristine the longest are the ones that are just “ho-hum,” the ones rarely sought out. Watching my two-year-old joyfully color with even the smallest bits of crayon—which in her tiny hands are often more useful than the larger pieces anyway—reminds me that on the days I feel most broken, somewhere my light still shines. In fact, my broken-ness may be just the perfect instrument to complete another person’s beautiful picture.
By Laura Mills
Ah, mid-January…the time of year when we drag the last of the holiday decorations into the crawlspace, vacuum the remaining tinsel and tree needles out of the carpet, and add up and file away all those holiday receipts. The wind is cold and suddenly not so festive; vacation days once again need saving; we’re hearing the first advertisements related to tax time….
Some days, the smallest bit of enthusiasm is totally absent. Accomplishing anything—from merely getting out of bed to productively working, or even just stepping on a yoga mat—requires considerable effort. We all have those days, during the worst of which we feel hollow and numb, like a robot squeaking through the motions of the next item on our to-do list. On such days I’ve found it futile to try to force myself to do anything; rather, I just stop for a little while. I close my eyes and turn my attention to my breath—the inhale fills my torso from bottom to top, lifting my heart, and the exhale releases anything that needs releasing at that moment. I focus on the space between and just above my eyebrows, and after a little while I almost feel like my breath is entering and exiting my body through that point. For at least a few minutes, all is right.
And from there I find it’s not so hard to stand up and move on. I’m a little sharper mentally and more tuned in to the energies and rhythms of things around me. I might get something done, like cleaning my kitchen or planning my next class; I might even realize an entirely new—and better—direction for the day. And the next time any un-enthusiasm creeps back, I will probably stop and breathe again. Life’s just too short and precious to live any moment in a state of numbness. Any time spent cultivating awareness is time well spent. The house may be messier and the wallet lighter, but those “ordinary” days may really be amazing.
Do You Really Need That?
By Laura Mills
My husband, daughter and I recently drove up to Wisconsin Dells where we spent a weekend on our first vacation together as a family. The only other time the three of us had traveled together was when we actually adopted my daughter in China, a trip that had demanded a new degree of packing logistics as we prepared to live with a toddler we had never met for 11 days in a hotel in another hemisphere. Since I had survived that, I figured I could survive any trip…but just like the morning we left for China, the morning we left for the Dells I ran around the house counting diapers, stuffing toys in every spare space, and triple-checking my list to make sure I wasn’t missing a single item. As we left the house that Friday morning, the three of us hefted six bags for a two-night trip during which we’d spend half the time wearing swimsuits and another quarter of the time wearing pajamas.
How often have you traveled with extra baggage? I’ve done it often, and that extra baggage hasn’t been limited to trips by car or plane. Throughout my life I’ve spent a great deal of time “packing”—remembering past upsets, stewing and smoldering over hurts, grasping apathy, holding fear—which has made many steps along the journey not only tedious but also exhausting. Only over the last few years, as my yoga practice has deepened and I’ve grown to appreciate more moment-to-moment, have I tried to eliminate as I go and not bring too much baggage with me along the way. Sometimes I’m successful. Sometimes I’m not. Always I’m practicing.
As my family returned from the Dells that Sunday night, we walked into the house with the majority of our luggage still packed…untouched, unused, unneeded. If we had been flying home instead of driving I’m sure we would have left many items behind—after all, who wants to pay a fee for baggage unneeded in the first place? And goodness knows we pay a great deal for all that extra “stuff” we carry, refusing to let it go just in case, thinking it will somehow serve us….
Happiest New Year to everyone, and as we move forward, may all our travels be light!
By Laura Mills
Today I’m feeling that life and the world are heading out of control. I don’t think I’m alone; even if one hasn’t been paying attention to the news of late, it’s normal, I believe, for many to feel this way in December. At the best of times we run around finishing holiday shopping and other errands; our routines flip-flop for better or worse as we schedule and attend parties and host out-of-towners; we overindulge to the point of actually believing we’ll never touch a sweet or cocktail again. But this isn’t the best of times. The usual “December frenzy” seems ridiculously irrelevant in the shadow of the state of the world today…thus, I feel more than ever that life and the world are careening into an unspeakably frightening tailspin.
It was at times like this that I used to go to my yoga mat looking for answers. “When will this end?” “Why do these things happen?” “What can I do?” And I was always disappointed, as I never stepped off my mat at the end of a practice with any more answers than I had at the beginning. With time and reflection I came to believe no answers exist…at least none that any of us can fathom with our human understanding. If we keep searching for answers we will search all our lives, asking the same questions over and over while the world continues to careen ahead.
Each of us has an inner light. When things happen that set our world uncontrollably spinning, fear, confusion, sadness and grief smother our light. Today, I believe the power of yoga exists not in showing us answers but in reigniting and reclaiming our light. And that’s all we can do—reignite and reclaim our light, and then shine out, for the brighter our light the more we are able to sustain ourselves and support each other.
May we all find peace in the new year, and may we now more than ever let our lights shine to illuminate the way forward.
By Laura Mills
“Time” just doesn’t mean what it used to in my house; every spare moment during which I can wipe the kitchen counter or (on the best days) sip some tea has dramatically increased in value. These days, I compose my classes and write my blogs during my daughter’s naptime—when she naps, that is—so of course I usually find myself trying to take advantage of every minute.
One day shortly after Thanksgiving festivities had upset our usual routine, my daughter started crying as soon as I put her down and didn’t stop as usual. I waited a few minutes outside her door; I went downstairs and set up my computer; optimistically, I even filled my teapot. But the crying intensified, so I returned to her room to check in. Suffice it to say she did NOT want to nap in her crib that day; half an hour later I was sitting in the middle of her floor, rocking her as she sniffled and snuggled into me. Finally, she fell asleep, and not knowing how to return her to her crib without waking her and beginning the process over again, I stayed put.
My mind wandered, but before long my back hurt and my legs numbed, which drew my attention to my body. I knew my options for changing position were limited, but I was able to pull my belly in, extend my spine, and draw my shoulders slowly up and then back and down. I lengthened the crown of my head to the ceiling, tucked my chin a little more, and then begun to coordinate my body’s rocking with slow and measured breaths. After a little while my daughter’s breaths seemed to synch with mine, and for over an hour that afternoon she slept while I held her…both of us at peace.
Yoga doesn’t get much better than that.
Lessons From the Slow Cooker
By Laura Mills
In addition to holiday decorating, one of my favorite rituals at this time of year is making chili in my slow cooker. The day before, I chop and prepare the ingredients; the morning of, I empty everything into the cooker, add the appropriate spices, and turn the switch to “Low.” Every time I lift the lid to stir throughout the day, a wave of smells spreads across my kitchen, and by dinnertime the chili has transformed from a cold mass into a simmering stew. The whole process—from preparation, through cooking and dinnertime, and even through packing leftovers—proves itself quite the event. It is, I believe, an occasion that sets the mood for a cozy, happy, and festive transition from fall to winter.
Isn’t that the best thing about comfort food, the fact that we not only enjoy the flavor itself but also the total experience of it? Eating our favorite comfort foods seems to reset our ability to notice things that enhance our existence, like warmth, heartiness, the coziness of settling in, and the closeness we experience with others and ourselves. Comfort food, in a way, is like salt we add to the moments in which we anticipate it, prepare it, eat it, and clean up after it. It doesn’t change life’s flavor, just heightens our awareness of its tastiness.
The Good Kind of Emptiness
By Laura Mills
With Thanksgiving approaching, many of us are probably thinking about where we’re going, whom we’ll see, what we’ll wear, and what we’ll do the day after. And maybe we’re also relishing how the holiday will be an opportunity to slow our lightning-paced lives and recall the blessings that enrich them. While such activities and remembrances are sweet, this year I challenge all of us to add one more item to our holiday festivities: consideration of the things that are NOT part of our lives.
Think of the locations around the world in which you do not live, for example. Then think of the times in history during which you were not born. Consider your life situation—the many challenges you never had to face, the illnesses and conditions you never had to deal with, the surprises that never turned your life upside down in an instant. Consider all the choices you never had to make, the tears you never cried. And consider so, so much more that never touched your life.
This Thanksgiving, in addition to enumerating our blessings, let’s remember how unfortunate we are NOT. Then we can raise our glasses higher and bow our heads more deeply in the spirit of even more profound gratitude.
Best Costume Ever
By Laura Mills
With Halloween just past I’ve been thinking about disguises. Like most kids I loved October 31. Over the course of my younger years I disguised myself as, among other things, Pebbles Flintstone, Raggedy Ann, a princess, a witch, a hippie (several times!), and a cat. But Halloween, of course, isn’t just for kids; for plenty of adults, dressing up as someone or something else is just...FUN.
Putting the festiveness of Halloween aside, I’m wondering why we love disguises so much. 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.
Help for the Holidays
By Laura Mills
I’m sure I’m not the only person who shudders at seeing winter holiday merchandise in stores even before Halloween. I understand that, in the retail world, this is the year’s most lucrative season. But aside from the benefit of “early bird” sales, I wonder why so much of the rest of the world and I usually run with such great speed into the final fraction of the year. So many of us claim these months as our favorites, why do we rush so anxiously to their culmination?
I would really like to wake up January 2nd, 2013, NOT as disorganized and disheveled as if I just staggered off a two-month-long roller coaster. So today, as October nears its end, I am setting the intention (and I enthusiastically invite you to join me) to take my time through 2012’s last months, to experience each day as a special entity. The holiday season and all its trappings, both genuinely festive and truthfully un-festive, is just about here whether I like it or not…. But this year I want to experience it differently. I want to choose, every day, not to relapse into the usual frazzling, over-committed, exhausted state of being that the season brings.
No, I don’t expect this to be easy, and I don’t have any great strategy for accomplishing it, but I’m definitely up for the challenge. By now, I’ve learned I’m worth it. And just in case you haven’t: so are you.
Look to the Sippy Cups
By Laura Mills
As the parent of an almost-two-year-old, my kitchen is home to a collection of sippy cups. Because my daughter didn’t initially get the hang of the common “spout” ones, early this summer over a period of several weeks I searched out sippy cups with straws, covered cups from which a child can sip along the rim, and additional cups with spouts that were at least slightly different from the ones we started with.
Contrary to what I assumed before my search, our collection of sippy cups today is much more than a bunch of cups with different drinking mechanisms. Looking along our kitchen counter, I see tall thin cups, short squat ones, square-ish cups with handles, and hourglass cups with gripping treads. I see cups that are clear pink, clear blue, clear green, pink with flowers, and green with butterflies. I see cups with tops that disassemble completely for washing, and cups with tops that have a sliding open-close. And each of these cups, in its own way, enables my daughter to easily and cleanly sip her water or milk.
To me, this is pretty amazing. The world, I know, contains great variety within categories of inanimate objects—one need only walk through a department store to see—but I guess I rush around so often that I needed a vivid example on my kitchen counter before I thought about it. If a manufactured product like a sippy cup can exist in so many varieties, all of which dutifully serve their purpose, in the same kitchen…how much more can human beings do?
How much more….
By Laura Mills
Even though I enjoy the fall, at this time of year I notice a tremendous decrease in my energy. Yes, I do believe that to feel my best I should attend to nature and follow its cues on cycling with the world around me. However, in spite of this and in spite of my sentiment for fall, I find I hold tightly to summer; among other things, I still eat lots of cold foods and drink many cold beverages, and I don’t always utilize the extent of my fall outerwear. No wonder that this year so far I’ve felt cold and sluggish inside and out. Even though fall is in full swing, I have yet to “change my colors.”
I don’t believe that choosing hot soup for lunch or bundling up to run errands will instantly improve my energy. But I do believe I would benefit if I stopped fighting myself and instead, as nature does with seasonal change, flowed along with it. Am I tired? Then I should breathe and slow down. Am I cold? Then I should change clothes. Am I hungry? Then I should ask myself what my body really wants. And to assist in all these areas, I should re-think my yoga practice. I know I cheat myself on the days I push my cold and tired body through vigorous Vinyasa…I also know I can nurture myself with gentle practices and meditation on the days when energetic asana isn’t the way to go.
I’ve heard it said that much of living involves finding comfort with where we are, not reaching a different place. I believe it, and I'm trying.
Balance in Grilled Cheese
By Laura Mills
I try to eat as healthfully as possible, and in an ideal world I would feed my daughter only good-for-you foods like fresh veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins. But since most children’s menus I’ve so far seen haven’t offered much besides chicken fingers, burgers, or corn dogs, when we’ve gone out I’ve usually just given her some of my own entrée. The last time we went out, I settled for grilled cheese off the children’s menu—with carrots instead of fries, in my mind redeeming her dinner at least a little. When the meal arrived my daughter ate a few nibbles…and I wound up devouring the greasy, gooey, oh-so-delicious remainder.
So often I’ve found myself at one extreme of an all-or-nothing spectrum, such as thinking foods are either “good-for-you” or “bad-for-you.” I either want to finish a task or I don’t want to start. I either eagerly anticipate an event or despairingly dread it. But since becoming a parent I’ve noticed the need to consciously search out more middle destinations…. It’s a concept I learned at the beginning of my yoga practice: the finding of a comfortable, peaceful rhythm during a dance of up and down, inhale and exhale, hold and release, strength and softness. I’ve practiced it in my body for years but only recently have begun to adapt it to my life.
While preparing for my daughter ‘s adoption, I knew becoming the parent of a toddler literally overnight would be tricky. And since her arrival I’ve had to redefine pretty much every expectation I had of myself, as I’ve learned no way exists to maintain each and every ideal one-hundred percent of the time. Instead, life has a new and much more dynamic rhythm…. I put as much time into my classes as I can; I write my blogs and articles when—if—my daughter naps; my house is reasonably clean and inarguably could be cleaner; another load of laundry will always be waiting; I try to eat as healthfully as possible, but yes, good old-fashioned grilled cheese IS delicious. It’s almost as if each day is a separate yoga practice, really. And with balance and a little self-love, I find peace.
By Laura Mills
Recently my husband and I discussed the change in seasons and agreed we’re both partial to the fall—and I know we’re in the majority at least among people we know. Why does fall delight so many? I’m sure the color changes evident in this part of the country are a major source of sentiment, but after considering the question, I thought of a few additional possibilities….
First, by the end of September more frequent cooler temperatures bring a unique excitement. While winter transitions to spring so gradually I barely notice it, summer transitions to fall seemingly overnight. And it inspires an annual ritual in my house: the digging out of sweatshirts and jeans, socks and blankets. Of course, we do experience that occasional unseasonable warmth well into the season, but overall fall distinguishes itself from summer quite dramatically.
Second, fall is particularly fun. It involves back-to-school, the culmination of baseball, the beginning of college and pro-football, and of course the anticipation of year-end holidays. Which prefaces the third possibility: fall lends itself to my most favorite comfort foods like soups, casseroles, and various pumpkin and apple goodies. More than at any other time of year, I can taste the effort and nurturing that went into growing and preparing what I eat.
Finally, and definitely most profoundly, watching the natural world progress into its final yearly stage makes me pause. The act of passing into dormancy, of drawing back into the earth, reminds me of life’s transience. And that in turn, more than anything during any other season, reminds me how blessed I am to be here.
Tricks to Treat Myself
By Laura Mills
Okay, September’s here. Fall has barely begun, but before we blink Halloween will arrive. Not far on Halloween’s other side: the winter holidays. These thoughts scare me, for along with celebration comes miscellaneous commotion that flusters me so much I end up exhausted and cheerless. So this year, I hope to rise above the holiday mayhem with the help of a few intentions….
First, I will pick up my phone and actually call someone with it. I have several old friends whom I regularly email but whose voices I haven’t heard in years. How cool to un-electronically chat like we used to! Second, I will sort through my kitchen cabinets. Not only have I not cleaned them in ages, but also I can’t even remember what’s in some of them anymore. I don’t believe a faster way of cultivating both gratitude and humility exists than to immerse myself elbow-deep in my own stuff. Then third, I will donate all I can spare—which I already know is a lot.
Fourth, I will dedicate at least ONE day during the season to just staying home, wearing my sweatpants, playing with my daughter, catching up on magazines or watching a movie, and doing whatever else feels good that day. And fifth, I will create something I can give to someone else. I don’t know what yet—some kind of recipe or craft, perhaps—and I don’t know to whom I’ll give it. But sometime before the season ends I’ll think of something and someone, for sure. And hopefully when I present the gift, I’ll do so with a genuine, full-of-holiday-cheer-like-never-before smile, too!
By Laura Mills
This summer, as a new mom, I registered for gifts at two stores. Each gave me a catalog of suggested items prior to composing my own wish list. Some of the items I knew I couldn’t or didn’t want to do without, but also a good number seemed either extravagant or useless. In composing my own list, I spent serious time considering the questions “What do I need?” and “What do I want?” By the end of the process, my list looked quite different from either pre-printed registry guide.
When was the last time you asked yourself either “What do I need?” or “What do I want?” My guess is, like me, it was more recent than you initially think—going out for lunch, treating a headache, stopping for gas—yet most of the time we process the questions and our answers so quickly we don’t notice. For me, actually considering each question highlighted the fact that I’ve confused “need” and “want” many times. In fact, I believe discerning the difference has been one of the most difficult tasks of my adulthood. My needs and wants frequently differ, sometimes dramatically—and as my life experience grows, the more aware I become of the not-always-palatable discrepancy between the two.
A spiritual person once told me that we often don’t end up with what we think we want, but somehow, in some way, the higher power always provides what we need. I didn’t believe this until quite recently, when I looked back at years of ups and downs and realized “Aha! Now I get it!” What about you? The next time you ask yourself either “What do I need?” or “What do I want?” consider if the question is indeed the correct one. Whether you are composing a gift registry or navigating the profound stuff of life, the concept is the same. You might just get to know yourself better; you might just glimpse the tremendous gifts you’ve already received.
That August Feeling
By Laura Mills
No matter how much I complained about school any given year, I always adored the first few days. Early on, I loved entering my classroom, finding my desk and greeting my friends; later, I was always excited to receive each class’s syllabus and meet teachers and professors. Then as a schoolteacher, I eagerly anticipated getting to know new students and parents as well as diving in to fresh material.
I know I’m not alone in my thoughts about August’s end. Whether we ourselves go back to school, or we have kids that do, or we just nostalgically observe the busses lumbering through our neighborhoods, this time of year is abuzz with starting over. Wouldn’t it be great if we could cultivate that positivity—that “first day of school” excitement—for other, more every-day moments?
This year, as the last few days of August pass, I invite all of us to make this our intention. Perhaps it’s far-fetched, the idea of awakening daily as excited as a kindergartener with a new box of crayons, but I don’t think it’s impossible. True…thoughts of work, chores, obligations, appointments, and everything else often dishearten. And yes: it’s usually difficult to be excited about traffic, bills and grocery shopping. But we can start simply. We can consider each day as a whole, at first, and practice seeing each as a chance to start over. With time, positivity may flow more smoothly into a greater number of moments; eventually, the most seemingly insignificant moments may resonate with newness. And from there, our entire perspective may change….
One Way or Another
By Laura Mills
I was feeling great, better than ever, about yoga at the beginning of this year, for I had recently discovered deeper places in both my physical and mental practices. But over the next months a variety of ups and downs lured me away from my mat…and when I returned to a regular practice in July, the challenges I met overwhelmed me. Something I had thought as simple as a Basic Vinyasa, for example, actually HURT, and even Low Lunges wouldn’t happen without aches and wobbles. I nearly cried on my way home from my first class back, and as my “yoga mood” fell, so did my confidence.
Only after a few weeks did I see that before me lay a chance to live one of my favorite yogic teachings. I often theme my classes around it, in fact: the importance of accepting ourselves as we are. It’s a choice we make, when things change or don’t turn out the way we want, at that dynamic point between utter despair and genuine “Ah, whatever.”
I chose acceptance. Which didn’t mean I was any more thrilled to be sore after sequences that hadn’t challenged me a few months before, or that I laughed when I pulled out of Side Angle or toppled out of Tree. But it did mean that I no longer measured that day’s practice against that of any previous day. It also meant that with every breath I restored peace to my heart, and that when I rolled my mat at the end of practice I did so with self-love.
I choose acceptance, as many times as I possibly can when I need to make that choice.
Easy? No. But then most of life’s most worthwhile choices aren’t easy at all, are they?
By Laura Mills
The other day, while driving to an appointment for which I was nearly late, I found myself coasting behind a car traveling way under the speed limit. While I normally would have switched lanes and passed, on this day a police car traveled immediately behind me...so I stayed in my lane, squeezing the wheel, gritting my teeth and watching the clock.
Something that surprises people—including me, when I first began my practice—is that yogis still get stressed. And we get stressed about more than only life’s greatest challenges. The simplest, everyday things like running late, needing to drive more slowly than desired, misplacing keys, realizing the cat avoided the litter box again…no matter how advanced in yoga our practice, by virtue of our humanness we still experience stressful moments. And for me, such moments include the rise in blood pressure and quickening of the heart that I used to believe I practiced yoga to eliminate. In fact, in the wake of such moments I used to think, “What kind of yogi am I? What’s going on?”
Thankfully, today I know a lot more about what yoga really is…most definitely not a collection of poses and breathing exercises that automatically fortifies one against stress. Rather, yoga is a method of opening body and mind, both on the mat and off, to make space within for the present. Yoga won’t keep me from experiencing stressful moments, but the space yoga creates frees up my awareness and reveals that I will survive regardless of them. Processing stress is, I believe, a practice as much as taking any series of asanas. And while even the most physically capable yogi can always go deeper, so can even the most stressed-out.
Remembering that—eventually—I relax my grip and enjoy the ride.
By Laura Mills
I’ve never been very active in conservation or environmental activism. Sure, I recycle, I try not to waste paper, I only turn on the washing machine and dishwasher when they’re full…but I’ve never done anything out of the ordinary to lessen my impact on the planet. This summer, though, as the hotter-than-usual temperatures kept appearing on the weather outlook, I started to think more and more about my impact.
I know if I really wanted, I could take any of a number of actions like joining an environmental group or “greening” my daily routine as much as possible. But I wanted to do something IMMEDIATE, like in the ten minutes before I left for class one particular afternoon. So, remembering a few suggestions from a magazine, I closed all curtains to keep the house cooler and unplugged all unnecessary appliances and electronics to conserve energy.
No, I’m not congratulating myself on single-handedly ending climate change; I didn’t for a minute believe I would save the planet by darkening my living room or unplugging my bedside lamp. But I did survive just fine without conveniences ready at a moment’s notice, which as a human being today IS a very big deal. The planet may not be better off from my efforts, but I am, as I added just a little more simplicity—not to mention what I believe is good karma—to the world around me.
And besides, first steps are often pretty small, anyway.
To Yoga or Not To Yoga
By Laura Mills
“Like a kid at the beginning of a new school year,” I told my friend, describing myself the night before my return to teaching after a two-month leave. “I double- and triple-checked my yoga bag and worried about how out-of-shape I felt. I’d barely done any yoga since April.”
When I thought about it later, though, I wondered…. True, during my leave I hadn’t practiced asana more than a handful of times. I’d hardly even stretched. And I didn’t meditate at all, or even sit quietly, for that matter.
Still, I wasn’t idle. I did travel halfway around the world and experience a mind-opening mini-immersion in an unfamiliar culture. I also became a mother through the miracle of adoption. I held my daughter for the first time and unveiled within myself—in an almost frighteningly short period—new dimensions of love and gratitude that I hadn’t known existed. I accepted without question total responsibility for another person, another life. And since our return home I’ve let go of my past and rebuilt my present, moment by priceless moment.
No, I didn’t practice much asana. But I believe I did quite a lot of yoga during my leave—all without too many Downward Dogs or Sun Salutations.
When was the last time you did yoga?
It might be more recent than you think.
Treasure in Disguise
By Laura Mills
Picture yourself standing before a pile of clean laundry, just out of the dryer. How do you arrange the socks—do you ball the pairs, for example, or do you fold them? How do you fold casual tees and shorts? How do you determine which items you hang and which items you fold? Then ask yourself: if another person arranged your laundry for you, one time, but that person arranged your items differently, would you rearrange them YOUR WAY later?
I am no expert at analyzing people’s laundry practices. But I do find great interest in the fact that so many of us, perhaps not even bona fide “fussy people,” maintain very particular standards about a few specific aspects of life—if not laundry perhaps the way we arrange our closets, place paper money in our wallets, store food in our refrigerators, or organize books on our shelves. Maybe it’s something else entirely. Or maybe it’s nothing at all, a particularity in itself.
I offer this as but one tiny, tiny example of just how remarkable each of us really is. We’ve all been told before, I’m sure, but I believe it’s imperative to remember—constantly—that each of us is a vast accumulation of subtle wonders. Picture yourself and all those “little things” about you. Then picture your partner or closest friend, then the last stranger you saw yesterday before going home….
The net time you find yourself face to face with someone new, remember that there’s always something to talk about. Not that you have to talk about your laundry, but only that you are amazing, as is everyone you meet. Then relax and let the good vibes flow.
By Laura Mills
Last week I attended a 75-minute class that left me with achy hips and legs 24 hours later. I loved the class—it was one of those fast-flowing, core-centered sweaty practices—but the challenge caught me a little off-guard and left me wincing with every step long after Savasana ended.
Every yogi encounters moments like these on the mat. We struggle where we usually don’t and think, “Wait, I can usually do this without a problem. What’s wrong?” One of the most difficult things to do—on the mat as well as off—is to remain kind to and accepting of ourselves as we are. Until about ten years ago, I was used to surpassing most challenges with determination and hard work. But the challenges grew more difficult than I could handle, and I broke down…which is when yoga, thankfully, provided a safe place within which I could struggle but still ultimately find peace. I learned that all challenges, large and small, on the mat and off, eventually either pass or deepen into something that serves.
I believe there’s no safer place for a little bit of struggle than a yoga mat. It’s okay; we never push to the point of pain, but we learn to gradually accept struggle as a teacher while we mindfully assess, align and adjust our way towards more positive tomorrows.
An Exercise in Awareness
By Laura Mills
For several years I made a habit of drinking one diet soda every afternoon. It was my pick-me-up, my simple indulgence in the middle of the day to add a little flavor to the hours that followed. I enjoyed diet soda and never considered my one daily can a terribly unhealthy habit. But what bothered me is that I often pulled one out of the fridge just because the clock said 4:00 pm. I didn’t contemplate whether I wanted it or not; it was just something I had gotten used to doing.
Completely eliminating my afternoon pick-me-up just left me irritated, so to remedy the situation I sought a more gentle approach and switched from diet soda to something less automatic: tea. I had always kept a few varieties of tea on hand, but now I stocked up. I reasoned that tea requires intention, that I would never be able to pull a hot, ready-to-drink cup out of the cabinet at 4:00 pm or any other time. I would instead have to gather the tea-making items, wait at least a few minutes for the water to boil, and then wait another few minutes for the tea to brew. In other words, I would have to REALLY want that tea.
So far, my new approach is working well. I still keep a few emergency sodas in the fridge and pull one out every now and then, but I’m noticing that the more I drink tea the more I enjoy it. In addition to tea’s flavor and warmth, I appreciate the experience of consciously choosing my afternoon pick-me-up, another small way of savoring even the simplest moments.
By Laura Mills
In the process of organizing recent vacation photos, I revisited and fondly remembered each moment. But of course, regardless of the feelings generated by the photos, my actual experience on the trip was far more spectacular. No matter how hard we try to capture our experiences on film, I don’t believe any photo is ever totally accurate. A stunning vista may awe and a world-famous site may impress, but as soon as we lift our cameras to our eyes we separate ourselves from the moment. Clicking the shutter captures merely a two-dimensional view; later, when we review the photo, something’s missing. What would happen if we put down the camera and experienced the world with our senses, as we were meant to experience it, in real time right in front of us as it happens?
On a day-to-day basis, yoga helps us put down our mental cameras, the ones through which we analyze days gone by and attempt to compose “perfect” snapshots. We’ve all heard it said that dwelling in the past removes us from the present; speaking for myself, I wonder how different my life would be if I always lived it looking forward, without reviewing the mental snapshots I’ve taken all along….
Maybe it’s time to close the album, once and for all, and keep my eyes directed in front of me.
Is It Time to Remodel?
By Laura Mills
With the approach of spring it’s usual, I think, for us to establish a new course for ourselves. Almost like re-opening our lives after a renovation, we set an intention to change our outlook or update our approach. Then, we seal that intention with rituals that refresh: cleaning out closets and garages, rearranging desks and living rooms, scrubbing kitchens and floors, and, of course, shopping.
As yogis, why not include among our projects a renewal of commitment to our practices? Recommitting honors the distances we’ve traveled towards this moment in our yoga journeys; it also blesses the courses that stretch ahead. And though the prospect of recommitting—whatever it might entail for each of us—might seem daunting, no yogi practices alone. After all, while our individual experiences on and off the mat vary, we all share the openness of heart and mind that brought us to yoga in the first place.
So whatever your yoga practice is and has been in the past, celebrate it this spring. Be renewed and refreshed as you recommit, buoyed by the knowledge that an entire community of yogis stands behind you.
Congratulations to us all for arriving here, and best wishes as we move forward together!
A Wish for the Skeptics
By Laura Mills
This past weekend my husband swam in another meet. He’s been swimming his whole life—club team, high school, college, and now Masters. He’s also been running and core strengthening to help balance his training and keep him all-over fit. But he only recently began practicing yoga.
I’ve met many people skeptical about yoga as a complement to an exercise program. Most commonly, they cite the fact that yoga’s “not active enough” or “not really a workout” as the reason they’re just not interested. And I’ve found it’s nearly impossible to convince a non-believer of yoga’s benefits if that non-believer doesn’t at first see beyond stationary pretzel poses and chanted “Ohms.”
With regards to swimming, my husband—who started out as a curious half-believer—says yoga’s greatest help has been in enabling him to calm himself before a race, to better control rapid breathing into something that serves, and to guide him into a focused mindset for the mental and physical efforts ahead. But he also now understands that yoga’s benefits reach far beyond the starting block. Stronger shoulders, hips and ankles; greater flexibility; higher confidence…with time, little by little the effects of his yoga practice have positively revealed themselves in the nuances of his other activities.
My hope is that at least some of the non-believers out there will glimpse yoga’s positive effects in others. And whether or not that encourages them to venture a little further into the practice, they might at least embrace the process of opening their minds, the first step in ANY program that leads us closer to where we want to be.
Fourth Toe Blues
By Laura Mills
Since I started practicing yoga I’ve developed a keen appreciation for parts of me that I never thought much about before: the muscles between my ribs, for example, and the joint between my palm and first finger. Recently, I discovered the importance of the fourth toe on my right foot.
It happened when I opened a heavy door into my foot. Since I was barefoot, and with the way I was standing at the time, the door scraped the top of that particular toe. It wasn’t a huge injury; a few extra minutes and paper towels later, I thought the ordeal over. But I attended a yoga class the next day, and I winced the first time I breathed forward from Downward Dog into Plank. Other than not clenching my toes, I’ve never thought much about them during a yoga practice…but that day I started. In fact, I thought about my fourth toe every Plank, every Upward Dog-into-Downward Dog, pretty much throughout every Vinyasa. And I thought about it every time I stepped my right foot back to a lunge. And of course, I thought about it as it throbbed all during Savasana, too.
We talk a lot in yoga about honoring ourselves and awakening the divine within. Sometimes I have a hard time seeing anything about myself as divine, but on this occasion, my toe reminded me not to forget it.
Calling All Yogis....
By Laura Mills
Sometimes, we just itch to pull out our mats. Like when sitting in the middle of a less-than-productive meeting; or driving a carpool of chattering, wriggling kids; or sorting a deep pile of dirty laundry. And the mat is definitely the place we’d rather be instead of at the kitchen table paying bills, the pharmacy picking up a prescription, or the yard cleaning after our pets. But yoga cravings also occur at other less -stressful moments. Many of us have felt the urge to breathe and flow, for example, while in the grocery store cereal aisle, the stands at a little league game, or the stylist’s chair.
And of course, we yogis know that yoga also calls at our more profound moments. After a hike, perhaps, as we look down through fog at a winding river…or early in the morning as we gaze at our still-sleeping child…or on the road home from work as we listen to an inspirational song. Yes, yoga calls at pretty much all those moments in which we have difficulty finding words, when all we know is feeling.
So let’s remember, Yogis, that every place and time is a perfectly yogic opportunity. Whether circumstances actually do permit us to pull out our mats, or the most we can do is savor a deep breath or two, we’re practicing. And every time we do, no matter how short or small the practice, through our yoga we bless ourselves and the world.
Thoughts on Flexibility
By Laura Mills
A common theme in yoga classes is moving forward, how we need to open ourselves to new paths if we want to grow. But even in the smallest, day-to-day sense, and even as a serious yogi, I have always been one who struggles whenever my routine changes. Whether it occurs by necessity or the suggestion of my husband or a friend—even if it’s a tiny, pleasant deviation like foregoing laundry for hiking on a Saturday afternoon or reading a good book for an extra half-hour before bed—I experience aggravation at whatever remains unfinished, which at some level prohibits me from totally enjoying myself.
Thankfully, little by little I am still moving forward. IF I breathe; IF I take a moment to reassure myself that the world won’t end if I don’t finish the laundry (for example) in the next two hours; IF I recall a moment on my mat when I felt my practice deepen because I stayed present…. If I take these actions, I find much more ease in balancing the new with the “same old.” Trying alternate paths, such as getting to that extra yoga class, accompanying my husband on a surprise lunch out, or joining a friend for a last-minute conversation, not only makes the present more pleasant, but it also adds to my store of happy times to treasure as I grow.
Have a wonderful, flexible day today.
By Laura Mills
I recently heard about the passing of a person in his mid-50s. It happened at home; as far as I know, he hadn’t been sick and hadn’t shown signs of trouble before one night his heart just stopped beating. The grief, the shock, the inexplicable emotions of his family and friends, I can only imagine….
We all know that the circumstances of life often defy explanation. We can plan, schedule, and prepare; we can visit our doctors or healers on a regular basis, eat all organic, and never touch alcohol or caffeine; we can bathe in hand sanitizer, run twenty miles a day, and use chemical-free cleaners at home. But in the end, of course, we don’t know. We never know; at some point, no matter what, life WILL take us by surprise and—perhaps, for some of us, quite literally—leave us breathless.
If it’s not already part of your practice, discern what really matters to you today, and embrace it. Then do the same thing tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. Especially as Valentine’s Day approaches…what better time to start gifting yourself with a sincere appreciation of the value of your unique and precious life? And remember: even along the timeline of this one chance we’ve got, it’s never too late to try again. Start now.
One of the Finer Things
By Laura Mills
Remember that friend from 2nd grade, that “best friend” who sat next to you and sometimes accompanied you to the park after school? Remember also that friend from high school, that one you sat with at lunch and ran track with, whom you thought had the coolest parents? And then remember that friend from college, that one who studied US History with you and played cards with you on Saturday afternoons?
Obviously, our friends and friendships change as we get older and our lives fill with more commitments and larger concerns. We have less time for playing, hanging out, and catching up. We lose touch with many; how many times have we thought, “I wonder what happened to so-and-so…,” or driven home from restaurants thinking, “She sure looked familiar—I wonder if she was from such-and-such….” And even among the friendships we do keep through the years, many of us maintain a large part of them technologically these days and devote less time to in-person contact.
It’s almost scary how quickly people pass through our lives, like shells we pass while walking on a beach: they’re there and then gone, with only a few remaining in our pockets for us to treasure long-term. Each particular moment with each particular friend never repeats itself, no matter how significant or wonderful, dramatic or memorable. So take a moment right now to mentally bless a friend. Then make an intention to seek out that person, and when together, look that person in the eyes and say, “Thank you.”
"No Sitting" Syndrome
By Laura Mills
One Saturday, finding myself with a few hours free before dinner, I walked in the door looking forward to reading. But before my legs touched the couch, I thought of the folder in the kitchen drawer, the one storing the take-out menus, and how I had been meaning to reorganize it but hadn’t yet done so. So I put down my book, pulled out the folder, and weeded out the oldest menus. Then, I figured as long as I was standing at the kitchen counter, I would put away the dishes that had been drying beside the sink. After that—I was already in the kitchen, anyway—I thought I might as well get a head start on dinner….
In the end, before dinner, I read for about 5 minutes.
This is not unusual for me. Looking back at that afternoon as an example, I wonder why I carve my days into the tiniest increments of productive time. Is my goal to be able to sit—SOMEDAY—and congratulate myself on how good it feels to finally have everything just perfect? The more I think about that, the more futile it seems. I’m not sure such a point even exists, and if it does, I don’t think I would recognize it when I arrived there anyway.
Maybe that’s the trick: learning how not to struggle with perfecting life at the expense of life itself.
By Laura Mills
Those who know me best know the size of my sweet tooth, particularly my fondness for anything heavily frosted. Most cakes (especially corner pieces with lots of flowers) and giant frosted cookies hold special places in my heart. My closest friends readily joke about my gargantuan smile at spotting a bakery, and in delicious fun I laugh with them because, trust me, me plus frosting equals pure bliss.
While the idea is tempting, I don’t keep emergency cake in my car or cookies in my purse. Yet I often wish I could transfer my “frosting bliss” to other parts of life. Of course, I don’t spend all day eating desserts; however, why can’t I experience the same delight, or even something close to it, when I do laundry? What about when I grocery shop? And when I clean the house? What if I could somehow figure out how to infuse more contentment into those activities and make them as blissful as enjoying my favorite desserts?
And so, my quest has become to bring something close to “blissfully happy” to as many moments as possible. Practicing yoga is a great start because it continuously reminds me that a lot of life—more than I ever thought possible, in fact—can actually be pretty sweet. But among the secrets, I think, and something I desperately need to work on, is slowing down and allowing myself to actually taste it. From there…who knows?
May the moments of your life be “Cookie Moments,” too.
By Laura Mills
A question non-yogis often ask me upon learning I teach yoga is: “Do you meditate?” And when I answer yes, they seem either impressed or scared. I guess much like asana practice, or even the yogic lifestyle itself, many non-yogis maintain a preconceived notion of what meditation is or involves. Since as many definitions of meditation, techniques for meditation, and opinions of meditation exist as there are meditating people out there, just for the record here’s my current take on it….
When I sit to meditate, I sit comfortably in a peaceful place—not necessarily a quiet place—with my eyes closed. I slow my breathing. I focus my attention on the place between my eyebrows. When I walk to meditate, I focus my attention on each step, the feeling of the earth beneath my feet.
And that’s it.
More often than not, staying focused challenges me, especially if I’m rattled, afraid, or even excited about something. And at those times—if I even notice my attention has strayed in the first place—I keep encouraging my attention back. Happily, practice over time has brought me more ease in staying focused. And with focus, the sensation is one of having put my “busy brain” on a shelf. It’s a relief.
I don’t meditate every day. I intend to, all the time, but I admit it’s one of those practices I move aside as my days fill with other things. Making the time to meditate is, I think, just as much a practice as meditation itself, and something I need to continue to work on.
My take on meditation may change tomorrow, or next year, or never. But at this moment, here I am.
MYSTERIOUS REMEDY, POWERFUL ROLE BY GUEST BLOGGER LAURA MILLS
Mysterious Remedy, Powerful Role By Laura Mills
Too many times I’ve attended a yoga class and exited feeling I received just what I needed. Yes, when in the mood for a yogic “butt kicking” I’ve purposely chosen a class that would especially challenge me, or when craving an easeful flow I’ve found a restorative or beginners’ class. But even when I’ve gone to a class without any idea of what I needed, most of the time I’ve still left with humility and gratitude, feeling as if the teacher had tailored the class to me.
When training to teach yoga, short of paying attention to weather, time of year, and events in the news, or else asking students before class, I didn’t learn any mystical secret for determining students’ practice needs. Yet after nearly every class—regardless of day, time or level—at least one student tells me, “That was great, just what I needed today,” or something like that. My amazement never fails; somehow, whatever I plan for a particular class finds at least one person in the right place at the right time. I don’t understand and can’t explain how it happens, but the fact that it does happen assures me I don’t need to understand something in order to experience positivity in it.
And, it humbles me to know I help make such positivity possible for others.
Oh, I knew of yoga’s ability to humble long before I started teaching. Time and again I’ve struggled in my own practice, tiring long before the ends of classes, sweating through head- and handstand preparations and other—to me—scary asana work, struggling through a hamstring injury. The further my practice developed the more help I realized I needed. I asked more questions, accepted more instruction, and with my teachers’ guidance eventually discovered a yoga practice all my own.
But now, as a teacher myself, my humility exists in a whole new dimension. When I look out into the studio before class I see students whom I know are working through physical pain or emotional turmoil or both, and many of whom are daily building deeper practices and incorporating yoga further into their lives. I can’t help but feel tremendous respect for my students, choosing yoga as their means of healing and enrichment, putting their trust into something so powerful and mysterious. And I can’t help but feel small and even a bit scared by the knowledge that, if my own experience as a student indicates anything, as their practices deepen students look to me more and more as their guide. Yes, I’ve trained 200+ hours to teach yoga, but I’m still a student myself, still feel I need yoga for my own ongoing healing and enrichment, still haven’t approached understanding what yoga is and can be in my life’s big picture. Yet in the classes I teach, when I see a student close his or her eyes during meditation, smile during Surya Namaskar, or cry in Savasana, I realize that somehow what I’ve planned for that day is doing just what it’s supposed to do….
No yoga teacher should underestimate his or her impact on students. We consciously write classes to the best of our ability, but somehow a deeper guidance takes place that leads individual, unique students into individual, unique practices where they find whatever they need at a particular moment. This is why all of us have chosen yoga, I think; we can’t explain exactly how it works, but it works, and this ultimately brings comfort and peace to teachers and students alike because it confirms our membership in something greater than ourselves. The contentment I see when I look out into the studio during Savasana confirms this for me, every class…and reaffirms what a tremendous privilege, what an incredible experience, what an utter joy it is to teach.
GUEST BLOGGER LAURA MILLS IMPRESSIONS OF A NEW YOGA TEACHER
Practice Never Perfect…Thank Goodness By Laura Mills
My first yoga teacher suggested I practice balance daily, even if only to lift one foot an inch at a time. But at the beginning of my yoga life, I barely practiced anything outside my once-a-week class. I tried to fit in a little balance here and there, but only after many random and frustrating foot-lifts did I successfully incorporate it into every day. Eventually, as my yoga life progressed, I understood that balance isn’t something to be learned once and then mastered, like tying a shoe, but instead is a process that continues throughout one’s life. As is yoga itself, so much more than a “thing to do” on a daily basis. I still get frustrated on occasion—with balance as well as other aspects of yoga—but now I recognize those frustrations as merely steps along the way on which I travel.
When I consider my own yogic frustrations, my heart goes out to my students, both beginners and seasoned yogis alike. Occasionally I notice a look cross a face; I know the look well, and I wonder what particular frustration causes it. Perhaps it’s frustration with a constantly-chattering mind or a certain pose. Speaking from my own experience: very likely.
On such occasions I wish I could tell the student my own yoga story, but in a 60- or 75-minute class those details have little place. If time allowed, though, I would share how I’ve always struggled to quiet my mind, and that even now both on and off the mat I often can’t do it. I would share how I couldn’t always touch the floor in Forward Fold or bend my knee 90 degrees in Warrior 2, and how even now on some days doing either of those seems impossible. And, while many students have already heard about my tight hamstrings, here I would add how last year those hamstrings forced me to pull back from my practice and learn modified techniques while they healed from an injury. I would also divulge that I haven’t taught Handstand yet, since I just did my first one less than a year ago, as well as that no student should expect to learn Headstand from me since in anything beyond Tripod I have yet to lift my feet off the ground.
But still, while frustrations occur, the difference between me at the beginning of my yoga life and me now is I understand that no end point or final level exists, and as a result today I am much more content in my practice. Though I continue to struggle with certain aspects of yoga, I realize that doors open and roads unfold constantly—as long as I keep practicing.
I’ve been wondering, then, how best to teach the yogic process to my students. We already convey the idea when we teach preparatory poses before full or more challenging versions, for example, or when we focus on one particular sutra or limb out of many as a class theme. And we always encourage students to “begin where they’re at” and move forward from there. Little by little, even as frustrations occur, all dedicated students grow in their practices. But in the midst of chattering minds and challenging poses, do they realize they are growing? I didn’t realize it, at least not right away.
But, thanks to my first teacher, I started to learn.
And I’m still practicing…balance, and everything else besides.
My best teaching method might then be to continue being myself—as I believe my first teacher was, and as I believe most of my teachers since have been. Like them, I am someone who adores sharing yoga with others and someone whose life yoga has changed. I have faith in yoga, and its process, with my entire being. And with this faith I practice; alongside my students, I grow while doors open and roads unfold.
DO OVER BY GUEST BLOGGER LAURA MILLS
Do Over By Laura Mills
Whether writing a yoga class or an essay, I never erase. Not that I don’t make mistakes, but when I do I scratch them out, content with the messier route in my urgency to shape what I feel is better work. People who glimpse my notes and journals don’t believe I make sense of them, littered as they are with scribbles and swirls. But somehow I do, moving forward after difficult moments to produce something that satisfies me.
I wish moving forward were that easy for me off-paper.
In eight months of teaching yoga, I’ve frequently finished a class feeling less-than-100%. Maybe the sequence didn’t flow as smoothly as I intended, maybe I left too little time for Savasana, maybe the music didn’t compliment the flow, maybe I philosophized too much. And immediately after such a class, I‘ve struggled not to say to my students, “No, wait! Come back! I can do better!” I want to try again, to produce a better version, and I want to do it right away—but of course, I can only hope the same students attend my next class and see me in what I vow will be better form.
I don’t believe this feeling is unique to new yoga teachers, but I do hope it occurs less frequently with time. I wonder how long I will teach before I rarely second-guess myself. I wonder how long I will teach before the chance is excellent that at the end of my next class I’ll be satisfied. For now, while I grapple with my confidence, I remind myself that when challenged on the mat we slow down, breathe and re-center. It's a familiar, easier-said-than-done practice, one that my own yoga teachers have taught me over and over and one that I now teach my students. Instead of pushing ahead in a hurry, we pause and tune back in, return to our natural rhythm, and then move forward refreshed. This lesson impacted me hugely when I first started practicing, a few years ago at a time when I was urgently—and unsuccessfully—attempting to push my way through the effects of a personal tragedy. Like so many yogis before me, the patience and self-care I met on the mat flowed into the rest of my life, and with time and practice, eventually I was able to gently start again and progress towards the future with a newly-centered spirit.
Now, in my role as yoga teacher, after any less-than-100% class I experience that same initial urgency. I want so badly to serve my students in the best way possible, to live up to the credentials I now possess. When I feel a class falls short, I want to go back and improve it immediately…but instead, like I do on the mat, I know I must remember to slow down and re-center, tapping into that patience and self-care that has served me so well in yoga practice and elsewhere.
I know I have everything I need to teach yoga well; I also know I judge myself more critically than anyone else ever could. As 2011 begins, I will work on tending my confidence and encouraging it to thrive. I will also remind myself with love that every yoga teacher, new or otherwise, experiences difficult moments now and then. Unlike in writing, we can’t erase those moments even if we want to—but if we slow down and re-center we can, at least in a way, scratch them out and make them not matter so much. Then we can move forward, refreshed, into our next class, onto a fresh page.
MY "BEST" PRACTICE BY GUEST BLOGGER LAURA MILLS
December 1, 2101 My "Best" Practice? By Laura Mills, in the words of a New Yoga Teacher
When I was little, someone I admired advised me to achieve two objectives with my future: first, I must choose an endeavor that brings me happiness; and second, no matter what the endeavor, I must be my very best at it. Very shortly after I began teaching yoga, I knew this particular role model would be proud, for no endeavor of my past had shown me so much joy. But even now, more than six months into my teaching experience, the second objective trails a question mark.... Am I truly the best yoga teacher I can be at this point? And if not, how can I become so?
It's not a question of spending more time on class preparation. A yoga teacher can literally spend every moment sequencing poses and developing themes. Realistically, of course, that can't happen--and at this point, I believe I've found a place at which I reasonably weave together yoga teaching and practice with the other strands that together form my complete life, including the eating and sleeping, errands and chores, writing and reading, and other pursuits with which I enrich my time.
If I'm already reading, then, perhaps I should read more about yoga and yoga-related topics. Material abounds, for sure; one of the first things that struck me about teacher training, in fact, was the amount of reading material. Books about the fundamentals of yoga poses and the teaching of them, books on yogic philosophy, books on human anatomy, books on how to incorporate yoga into life off the mat...I confess that even now, six months after teacher training's end, I have yet to make my way through every last page. But even after I complete my first pass through this resource library, much more will remain to be read. Not long ago, for example, at a local bookstore I spotted shelf after shelf of translations of the Yoga Sutras (all different from the three I already own), the Upanisads, and the Bhagavad Gita, as well as books on different styles of yoga, yoga for various ailments and ages, and others. Yes, keeping the pages moving will always be an option.
But really, even while a stack of still-unread yoga books is never far away, I know that yoga-in-writing is really only a small part of what's left for me to learn. The more yoga I practice and the more yoga I teach, the more I feel as if I stand only at the beginning of a path that stretches infinitely ahead. Just connecting with other teachers and students teaches me new lessons all the time, like there's always one more way to sequence a class, one more way to incorporate a theme, one more reason why people come to yoga in the first place, and one more inspiration that brings them back class after class. In six months of teaching I have yet to leave the studio with the same mind with which I entered; at the very least, after every class I am strengthened in my knowledge that I don't know all that exists to know about yoga. And that I never will.
And actually, now that I think about it, perhaps keeping this very point at heart--with the greatest humility and the firmest commitment to yoga as a lifelong practice--is the essence of truly being my very best at this endeavor. Yes, I can continue putting my efforts into preparing classes, and I can pursue yoga-related reading whenever time allows. But I can also reaffirm my intention again and again to embrace my own studentship, letting myself just BE TAUGHT as life as a yoga teacher and everything else that I am unfolds. I can keep my heart open to the practice with the faith that, no matter how long I've been teaching, yoga will always have something left to teach me.
THE CRUCIAL STEP BY GUEST BLOGGER LAURA MILLS
I unrolled my mat and made sure the music I wanted was ready to go. Greatly anticipated, it was to be a quiet hour of yoga with a friend at my home, and thus I took great care in creating the perfect atmosphere and space. As I waited for my friend to arrive, I sat down with a jotted sequence of poses; reading over it, somewhere between Tadasana and Uttanasana the words "I love yoga" floated through my mind. I paused, struck by the words' abrupt appearance, their simplicity, and the fact that my thinking them didn't surprise me at all.
Indeed, as my practice has deepened, but most especially in the last six months as I've embraced the role of yoga teacher, such incidents have occurred more and more often--not always in the form of an unbidden thought, but definitely in a way that integrates seamlessly with the flow of the moment. One evening, for example, while mentally reviewing a class I was to teach the next day, I found myself suddenly up on my feet, moving from Virabhadrasana I to Humble Warrior to Virabhadrasana I to Plank...with joy, I had sprung out of my chair and into the sequence. With nothing in my mind except the love of the practice, my body had just started flowing.
And this tendency, for lack of a better description, hasn't restricted itself to acute incidents, either, but sometimes occurs in the form of a new pattern. One of them I notice during my early-morning home practices.... Without fail, every practice, my body and mind fight the 5:30 am clock chime, the first glow of candlelight and hint of incense, the extra effort coupled with the creaks and cracks of those initial stretches. But by the end of the first wave, my body and mind pulse with peace, content with the flow and happy in the practice. And by the end of the 60 or 75 minutes, I don't want to stop.
Another new pattern occurs each evening, when I attempt to fall asleep. Whereas I used to try to take deep breaths while I replayed the day's events and convinced myself not to let anything bother me, now I settle myself by releasing one long, deep exhale and opening myself to a rush of gratitude. No matter what occurred during the day, I truly believe I am blessed with the privilege of just breathing, of having had another day to live...no mater what. The day's events, whatever they were, don't matter nearly as much.
I definitely didn't feel this way before.
When I first started practicing yoga, it was something I set out to do on a regular schedule--go to class, then go home, then pick up the day where I left off. And though I enjoyed yoga from the beginning, knowing I did something so, so good for me in so, so many ways, with time I began to actually feel yoga: the unbidden thoughts, the joy in the practice, the peace in knowing I am, as yoga teaches, only a small part of something much greater. Feeling yoga like this is what, for me, especially since I began teaching, has distinguished between yoga as a hobby and yoga as a defining quality of who I am. And significantly, because of the yoga I love so much, little by little I've learned to love myself so much better. I hope that now, in the role of yoga teacher, I might inspire others to learn the same for themselves.
May you feel your yoga, too... Laura
THIS PLACE OF MINE BY GUEST BLOGGER LAURA MILLS
October 12, 2010 This Place of Mine.... (Thoughts of a Beginning Yoga Teacher) By Laura Mills
The need to put things in their place is what initially drew me to yoga. After some difficult years during which my life's flow drastically changed course, yoga proved itself a paddle with which I continued sailing forward. Yoga felt right; it made ME feel right, or at least more right than before...which made pursuing my teaching credentials feel especially right, so I could ultimately help others do the same.
And so, eager to teach others about re-establishing life's peace--about putting things in their place--I immersed myself in a teacher training program. And then, sooner than expected, a teaching opportunity arose, and into my first class I jumped. I'm glad it all happened quickly; if I had had more time to think before I accepted the commitment, I likely would have talked myself out of it. And true to my nature, after I accepted I struggled daily with the thought, "What have I gotten myself into?" Terrified, I wrote my first class, then practiced it at least once a day for an entire week. I mentally rehearsed it again and again. I even took the class plan to bed with me.
Was this what "right" should feel like?
The morning of the class I woke up sick-to-my-stomach nervous, and throughout the early hours I forced myself to stay busy at the risk of otherwise panicking. In fact, up to the moment the class began I focused so intently on NOT panicking that I can't explain too much else of what happened that day--all I know is that after the class I felt a surge of relief. And exhilaration, for it had gone well...which surprised me, because again true to my nature I had expected something to go wrong. Still, even with my initial happiness, afterwards I mentally replayed the class: did I cue everything correctly? Did I make eye contact? Did I speak clearly? Was my music too loud? What's landscape vision again? Was this really the right course for my life?
As my second, third, fourth and subsequent classes passed with the same anxieties and the same questions, something else emerged: a new dimension to the respect I held for my own yoga teachers. The effort in sequencing a class, the thought in developing a theme, the creativity in compiling a playlist...the amount of work involved, which I now undertook myself, revealed my teachers' love of and dedication to the practice. The thought of all they had done for me as their student humbled me. But even more than that, my realization of their faith inspired me anew...faith that, at some point, a teacher just has to let go of each class and trust that she or he has prepared enough and the rest will somehow come together.
The anxieties and the questions began to diminish...a little.
And then, a bit further along, an old feeling arose within me--a really, really good feeling that felt stronger with each class. I hadn't felt it in a long time, but here it was, back again. I recognized it when I realized I felt more excitement than nervousness before class; I recognized it when I realized I greatly looked forward to interacting with my students, many of whom I now knew by name. I recognized it when I realized I wasn't just another yoga teacher working with just another group of students, but part of a unique and beautiful yoga studio family.
And, I recognized it when I realized I was totally overwhelmed with blessings. With my attention lately so focused on yoga, my yoga-related blessings in particular were in mind.... My yoga teachers who enriched my practice and inspired me; my fellow trainees who shared so many of their gifts; my students who put their faith in me to guide them through each practice, each class; my husband who supported me in every possible way on my yoga journey. And God, the Universe, the Divine Being, who made certain that yoga and yoga teaching found me, and thus put me in my place...which is, in light of all this I am growing more certain, the right one.
Wishing you peace in recognizing your place, Laura