A Yogi’s Perspective on Christmas

 

1C5298957-TZ-Star-of-Bethlehem-1.fit-760w

 

Christmas is always a challenging time for me. Over the years I have shifted out of the old family patterns of dysfunction and instability that I grew up with and have found my own traditions around Christmas. However, my main difficulty now with the season is a spiritual one: How do I fit in with this thing called Christmas?

For years, I have gone to Christian churches, but I do not consider myself a Christian, by the usual defining standards of declaring Jesus to “be my lord and savior” and believing that he “died for my sins.” I just don’t buy this and never have. I honor and respect that these are sacred truths for others, but it’s simply not my truth. I consider Jesus to be an awakened master, an enlightened teacher, my yogi brother, who was as fully human and divine as you and me and everyone and everything else. For me, like many masters who have walked this earth, he represents what we, too, can be if we choose to identify with and live from the center of our most powerful truth: We are The Divine, being Itself as us. The way that I understand being in this mystery of embodiment in this cross section of space and time, is that there is God only, infinitely expressed as everything. There is nothing else. The goal for me as a human, a yogi, a teacher, a mother, a partner, a friend – is to reside in this truth and ripple it outward in all that I do and in all that I am.

I’ve attended many different types of churches over the years, and it’s been important to me to be able to change words so that I stay connected in underlying meaning and don’t get caught up in differences in semantics. For example, I inwardly substitute words like “the devil” for words that make sense to me, like “separation mindstate.” I don’t believe in “sin,” especially original sin, but instead can instead easily understand “forgetfulness” and being born into this world with a tendency to forget who we are, which extends into hurtful actions, to others and ourselves.

But when Christmas rolls around, it’s a little harder. For me, the birth story of Jesus is a myth, a metaphor. I don’t believe in the virgin birth as a literal fact, I don’t think Dec 25 is likely Jesus’ actual birthday, and I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t have blond hair, blue eyes, and white skin. This story has never been about “Happy Birthdays, Jesus” for me. Rather, I see the elements of the story more as a teaching parable; something to help us go deeper into a truth that lies within ourselves.  This is hard for me because this story is mostly presented as stone cold fact and that, somehow, I should be believing it as such. I often feel like a spiritual fish out of water most of the time, but at Christmas, this feeling of “I don’t belong” is heightened. Usually the emotional effects of that for me are quite strong: isolation, depression, and an overall sense of never quite fitting in. Not only is all of this difficult, but if I take my seasonal cues from nature, as I do, Winter Solstice calls us to slow down, pare down, simplify, and be still. Far different from what society is calling us to do at Christmas time.

This year is different for me for two reasons. The first is that I have almost completely let go of what society says I should be doing and am, instead, letting nature fully lead me. I am spending most of my time in contemplation, in quiet, and am sitting or walking in nature as much as I can. When I have to go into a store, I go on an off day or early in the morning, when it will be quietest. I’m spending very little time on social media, which cuts my habitual pattern of comparison to almost zero. Facebook is off my phone and I don’t have Messenger installed on my phone, so everything is desktop only. I pop into Facebook for a quick check of notifications or messages, then I log out. I declined an invitation to a Christmas party because I knew it would be too much for me – too loud, too many people. I’m not watching any violent or agitating tv shows or movies and, since Thanksgiving, I’ve been working on jigsaw puzzles. It’s so nice.

Reason number two: Richard Rohr. I’ve been listening to Richard’s podcast and reading his books for a while. He is a contemplative, modern day mystic (which I identify with)  who comes to know God through direct, personal experience. His YouTube videos are excellent. He talks about the Universal Christ, which is very meaningful and resonant for me. He teaches that Christ is not Jesus’ last name, but rather a word that describes the place where Spirit and matter meet. In other words, Christ is the visible, tangible place where God is expressing and manifesting God’s self. Therefore, Christ, is the fundamental center and truth of all things, of everyone, everywhere. This also happens to be what Yoga is about; the very same truth I teach and endeavor to live everyday.

I am so incredibly grateful to have stumbled upon Richard’s video on Christmas a couple of weeks ago. Instead of my usual depressive feelings of being a spiritual outcast starting to creep in, for the first time ever, I feel a total inclusivity with no need to change any words to connect with the meaning of the season. He describes Christmas as the celebration of the Christ – God incarnate over and over and over again, as a constant act of immaculate conception and miraculous birth of The Divine as everything, as you and me. This didn’t happen just with the birth of Jesus, but rather started with the Big Bang, when God decided to become manifest. Therefore, according to Richard, Christmas is the celebration of the ever-unfolding Incarnation. Now that I can get on board with! With this perspective I can even stand in agreement with the virgin birth. For me, it’s a metaphor for all incarnation, not just one person’s incarnation. God only is the creator. Nothing else is required because nothing else exists. And, according to Richard, the season is about making room in the inn of our hearts to welcome the recognition, the “come and see” of The Divine in ourselves and in all things, right there where we least expect to find it – in the humble simplicity and quiet wonder of a barn on a silent night.

As I write, this is the first day after solstice, the birth of the new light. No matter how dark it gets, the light always comes. Each day, the light increases, getting brighter and brighter. I invite us to take our cue from nature, from stories, from our insights and let our light shine fully as we go into 2020 together, recognizing that very same light in all things and all people. Wishing you peace, joy, and a newfound sense of wonder this Christmas. May the new year fill you with hope and expectation of good things to come.

 

Flowers on the Path

crepe_myrtle_not_blooming_x1

 

I took my dog out for a walk today. Duke, is a 16-year old dachshund and lives an increasingly leisurely life these days. When we go for a walk, he still occasionally runs, trots often, but has really perfected the slow, stop-and-smell-everything saunter. We’re not in a hurry, we’re not focused on getting anywhere; we just meander. But, because I am so much bigger than he is and my stride is so much longer, my meandering pace is often a complete standstill as I wait for him to catch up.

These walks with Duke have taught me to slow down, to be patient, to notice things –  like the light dancing on the grass or the song of a migrating bird lilting through the air that I hadn’t heard before. Gems like these are unnoticeable the faster I go. Warp speed living is like fast driving: the field of vision narrows the more we accelerate. When we slow down, the field expands and opens up again, increasing what we are able to take in and experience.

The noticing was just glorious today as we walked. The Crape Myrtles are on the downside of their epic full blooms. These are trees that love the Texas heat. When most everything has succumbed to the summer swelter, they are busy blooming big poofs of clustered flowers in bright red, pink, lavender, or white. Their show is on display for a long time; several weeks.

But a really beautiful thing happens right about now, when the trees start to drop their blooms. The sidewalks, streets, and grass become strewn with the individual little flowers. It’s as if these trees are inviting me into the sweet remembrance that the place I am standing upon, as well as every space in every place, is holy ground. Every time we passed under one of these trees today, I felt like The Universe was scattering my path with flowers, honoring me, saying, “Keep walking forward, I’m with you, and I’m celebrating your path with you.”

IMG_5701 2Every few hundred feet, when we came to the next tree, I was reminded of the lover/beloved themes in Bhakti Yoga, the Yoga of the heart. On the bhakti path (which consists of things like poetry, chanting, dance, art) Yoga – that is, experiencing our conscious unity with Infinity – is often talked about like a wedding celebration, the uniting of the lover and the beloved. With every step I took under these trees, I became the bride, walking down the flower-scattered aisle again and again in union with The Divine.

It got me thinking about my path and about the path that each of us is on in our lives. Our path is ours alone; no one can walk it for us. No one can tell us what it is or how to navigate it. Walking the path is a curvy, windy, tangled up journey and we can usually only see a few paces ahead, at best. We’ve walked through a lot of things; moments when the path was clear and the footing was sure, and moments when the path was obscured and overgrown with brambles. Some of these steps were under the sunny, cloudless blue sky and some of there were in the dark, stormy nights. But all of our steps are sacred, even the ones we wish we hadn’t taken. Each step has led us to the next step and into a brand new place we haven’t been before.

If every place is holy ground, as I was reminded of today, then that means that there’s no spot where God is not. And that means that everything is part of the sacred path, the sunny places and the dark places. Not only is everything part of the path, but everything IS the path. We’re on the path, we’re creating it with every step, and no matter what, it’s impossible to fall off of it. We’re constantly walking down the aisle with The Beloved in all we do, co-creating each moment; but the more we speed up, the more we forget.

What if, at least for just one standstill moment today, we would be willing to scatter flowers of remembrance on our path? What if we took a few sacred seconds of conscious pause to honor our limited time on this Earth, to remind ourselves to walk in beauty, to walk humbly, with love and with divine purpose; to slow down and savor this journey? It could change everything about our next step.

~ namaste

 

Creativity Takes Courage

creativity takes courage.jpg

 

About a year ago, a dear friend gave me a piece of art for my yoga room. It’s a tiny little painting, beautiful and intensely vibrant, made by one of my favorite local artists, framed by white mat board. Underneath the painting is a quote from Henri Matisse: “Creativity takes courage.” It’s so perfect. It hangs on my wall and when I walk by it every day, I have a heartfelt reminder that what I do takes courage.

Creativity is everything to me; it’s the very foundation of how I practice and teach and live my life. To me, being creative is about being willing to be in the place where Creation – the spontaneous creative energy of The Universe, God, Source, or whatever name we have for it – is moving through me, unimpeded and unobstructed, like a free-flowing river. What comes through is always a surprise and ever new. In fact, it’s never been seen before; it’s a fresh creation.

My soul craves being in this creative space. The energy of it is like breath to me; it’s necessary for my survival. When I’m in the creative flow it often looks like making art in various forms: intuitive painting, dancing, setting mantra and chants to music I have written, letting myself color outside the lines of traditional yoga poses and inventing new ones.

For me, the secret ingredient to being creative is complete surrender. It’s crucial to let go of any sort of destination or final product and, instead, be completely open to the process of creating, daring to go wherever it takes me. In order to really let the creativity come through, that means I have to release my grip of control, of trying to be the one in charge of it, and do my best to rest in and trust in the total uncertainty of it all. There is something so incredibly freeing about being in that zone of creative flow; not thinking, not planning, but just being the open vessel for Creation to pour out into the world.

But even more than making art, creativity is about being the art, consciously allowing ourselves to be divine art in motion. This means that we bravely say “yes” to Spirit moving fully through us, animating us, and guiding us in all that we do and everywhere we go. Being the art takes so much more courage than making the art. It’s scary enough to stare at a blank white canvas or paper, not knowing which colors or words to begin with. What if I do it wrong, what if it doesn’t work, and what if it looks stupid? And oh God, what if someone else see it or reads it and thinks it’s awful? But…to be the living art? To be in that creative flow and actually do what we’re guided to do in daily life? Now we’re getting into real vulnerability, the risk of looking stupid, or failing, or being seen. Vulnerability is the doorway into creativity and it takes a huge amount of courage to stay in that space, boldy moving past the fear into freedom.

The picture I have at the top of the page is from a workshop I did last year called Soul Food. We spent a whole weekend doing creative Yoga things to feed our souls. It was so incredible. (In homage to that experience, I’m using the same title for our June retreat in Montana. Details below.) But in planning it and facilitating it, I had to get into the space of risk and uncertainty and drop anchor there. As a teacher, it’s crucial for me to be in this place of creative surrender. The Freedom Yoga practice has has helped me build a strong foundation of trust in this creative process. Scary as it still is most of the time, I know that the ideas and words that come through will be utterly right for the situation, perfect, and will always work out way better than I planned or even thought possible.

One of the things I envisioned us doing during one of the workshop sessions was honoring our path by painting it with our feet. I covered the whole floor with white paper and had paper plates of various paint colors all around the perimeter of the paper. The idea was, we’d dip our feet in the colors and walk our own unique paths together ( to an awesome playlist) as we reflected on where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going.

Now, I’ve never done this before. I’ve never seen it before. But the vision and guidance was so strong, that I had to follow it. Turns out, it didn’t work so well, initially. The paper began to tear pretty quickly from the friction of our feet. So, instead of dipping our feet into the perimeter plates, we began to spontaneously pick up the bottles of paint and start squirting them all over the floor, making a more slippery surface on which to walk and spread the paint. Wow, here came the art!! People began to really let go and get into it, swinging the paint, dripping the paint. Some started painting with their hands, too.

We made a beautiful collective piece of art together that reflected a convergence of paths into this one moment, this one creation. It was just amazing and was so much better than what I thought would happen. One of the activities for the next day was making a soul collage, a visual representation of our truth and who we are. So, we decided to take that giant piece of art outside so it could dry in the sun, then we used the beautiful paper to make our collages. I hadn’t planned that at all! And in the sunshine of the glorious blue-sky day, I took this picture of some of our feet, because the beauty of the art didn’t stop at the paper. It kept going. It’s still going as I write this blog, actually.

Creativity takes so much courage, indeed. I’m grateful to Matisse for the quote and all the incredible art that he was brave enough to express and share with the world. And thanks to my friend for the art reminder to be brave, to stay in the creative place, and keep trusting it in all that I do.

 

~ Join me June 22-29 at the Feathered Pipe Ranch in Montana for a weeklong Freedom Yoga retreat called Soul Food: A Creative Celebration of Freedom and Authenticity.  This is a sublime and soulful week of laughter, community, creativity, and open-hearted authenticity. Freedom Yoga is the art of living a guided-from-within life and is built on the foundation of inner listening, courage, and deep self-trust. It’s a creative practice that involves following the feeling of rightness wherever it leads, daring to do as each of us is guided to do, both on the mat, and most importantly, in our lives. Our sessions will be an inspiring and creative blend of Freedom Yoga, art, journaling, mantra and chanting, storytelling, deep relaxation, and a soul-freeing dance-fusion practice I created called Bhakti Moves. We will play, color outside the lines, release comparison, and bravely celebrate who we really are. It’s going to be a great week.

An Invitation to Silence

IMG_5453

 

As I write, I’m sitting in the bedroom of a beautiful house in central Texas, right on the Balcones Fault. We’re in the rolling hills that begin their gentle crescendo into the spectacular Texas hill country to the west. There is a beautiful patch of bluebonnets that can be seen from the floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room. Yesterday, I followed the bluebonnets down a dirt road that led to a quietly flowing green river. Small, delicate wildflowers were beginning to bloom their soft shades of lavender and white and the huge oaks flanking the river and the path I was taking were bursting out in leaves that were every shade of green. It’s glorious here.

I’m on a spiritual retreat called Inviting Silence, led by a dear friend of mine. My bedroom window is open and all I can hear at the moment is the breeze blowing through these Technicolor trees. Since lunch and until dinner, we have all entered into silence. It is heavenly to be in the quiet space of this room and hear absolutely no voices at all. The silence grounds me and pulls me into my center unlike anything else. I had completely forgotten about the healing power of it.

I really needed this retreat. I needed it more than I knew, actually. This is the first time in a long time that I’m on retreat and not teaching in some capacity. For the past couple of months, from January through late March, I had been in what is often called a dark night of the soul, a spiritual depression, of sorts. On January 8 we had to put our almost 16-year old dachshund, Daisy, down. It was a hard time. I was grieving, it was winter, and the days were so cold and dark. I’ve experienced these so-called dark nights of the soul before. For me, they always come before big moments of spiritual growth. But this one was the longest – two months. I felt like I was in a spiritual desert. I couldn’t hear God or feel God like I usually do. None of my spiritual practices were doing anything to restore the feeling of Source flowing through me and I was completely out of touch with divine guidance; the very cornerstone of everything I practice and teach and live. My faith was waning and my trust felt like it was evaporating. And yet, I knew that this was about learning how to increase my faith, to stretch outside of my comfort zone, rest in the uncertainty of not knowing, and to trust The Divine even more than ever before. I was in the middle of a spiritual wasteland and the only person who could get me out of it was me.

My friend told me about this retreat and I signed up to go. I needed a change in scenery, I needed to be in nature, and I needed to not be teaching. I needed to rekindle my devotional heart, re-ignite my inner mysticism that feeds on experiencing The Divine instead of intellectualizing it from the head only. Basically, I needed the time and space to just shut the eff up.

“In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions. When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence?”

~Angeles Arrien, author of The Four-Fold Way & Signs of Life, from the foreword of the book Maps to Ecstasy by Gabrielle Roth

For nearly 10 years now, I have been sharing this quote in my classes. Heart and feeling is at the center of my teaching, which is highly creative and infused with elements of bhakti (BOCK-tee). Bhakti is the yoga of the heart, the yoga of devotion, and encompasses art, music, dance, poetry. We use the heart’s longing for divine connection as the very pathway for connection. We welcome and feel “all the feels.” And being creative in this experience means we open to infinite possibilities in all we do (on the mat and in life), which means resting in not-knowing, letting go of advanced planning, being present and open to Divine Flow…however that looks and sounds. Movement begins to become more dance-like, a fluid and flowing morph of inner guidance made manifest. What we say becomes more song-like as our voices open to speak our truth with a newfound clarity and resonance. Courage and self-trust wells up in us and empowers us to tell our own unique stories, letting ourselves be seen, as we listen to others’ stories and see them, too.

And, last but not least, there’s the silence. Ahhh…resting in the moments of silent pause, the space between movement, between words, between thoughts. It’s primal, the silence. As they say, “in the beginning was the Word,” or “in the beginning was Om,” but before that there was a pause, a breath in, a moment of formless silence before the word was spoken into existence.

I hadn’t realized until this weekend that I had been neglecting silence in my life. My soul needed a pause. Not just the pauses throughout my day, not just the pauses in my daily practices, not just sitting on the deck with a cool drink. This heavy dark night of the soul required a long, deep pause. It required silence. This neglect is interesting to me because I am so comfortable with silence. My soul craves it, just like dance, song, and story; yet, I had slowly let it move to the back burner and eventually, off the stove altogether. Silence is not a part of our society. It constantly beckons us with a momentary gift of stopping to be present, yet we refuse it, replacing the sacred space with more talking, more sounds – a conditioned state of absence that feels normal. We’re uncomfortable with silence. I had grown mindlessly unintentional about keeping it. It’s only in the silence will I be completely present with myself and it’s only then will I hear, feel, and see God. Somehow, I had totally forgotten about the sweet territory of silence.

This is my first time to be on a silent retreat. We will break silence at dinner, but for now, I am savoring this delicious and exquisite silence. For the first hour, I went out for a walk in the solitude. I knew how badly I needed this silence immersion when it took almost that whole hour for me to shut up inside. When I got back to the house and my room here, the words had all cleared from inside my head. The house is silent. There are no voices outside my door. No one is dominating conversations, no one is speaking loudly, nobody is finishing other’s thoughts for them or interrupting or talking over anyone else. This is the way conversations often go without the honoring of the space between words. Without the intention of sacred space, we are busy formulating our responses and comments while another is talking. No real listening is happening. It’s the same with spiritual communication. It’s no wonder I couldn’t hear a thing.

After dinner we broke the silence, but I really needed more. The next morning, I ate my breakfast outside instead of joining the group at the table. There was too much talking and I had to be back in that sweet silence all by myself. The dam had broken open, the flow was coming in, and I felt the pull of God – that magnetic pull to “follow me” that had been absent for months – beckoning me back to the river. As I got up and walked down the road, following that grateful pull, I asked the awakened masters, my guides, my angels to walk with me; something I hadn’t done in months. I felt them all with me. All the questions of “What’s wrong with me?” “Why haven’t I been able to hear you or feel you?” flooding out of my mouth. I walked way down the road and then suddenly stopped in the middle of it, turned around, and sat down. “Can you please show yourself to me?” I asked. It felt so good to be back in this sort of dialog, this communication and presence that I had longed to drop back into. There was no one in any direction I looked; it was just me and Spirit. And then in the quietness of my being I heard, “I am right here. All you have to do is look around.”

So, I laid down in the middle of the quiet road, on my back in the cosmic grounded shape, with my knees bent, feet flat, and palm open to the cosmos. And my whole visual field shifted. I saw God in the unending shades of green, sprinkled all around me. I saw God in the way these giant oak trees could hold themselves up, leaning their branches way out over me. “This is in you,” I silently heard from within my depths. The shapes of the branches and leaves were the same as the bronchial tree in my lungs. The path I was lying on was an artery in my body. The wind, my breath. Then my vision telescoped outward into the cosmos. The tiny spaces between the leaves where the silver overcast sky was showing through became stars in the night sky. The flood gate was open and I could feel an energy like I have never felt before pouring into me and filling me up. It felt like Heaven. Maybe it was.

I don’t know how long I stayed there, but I knew this was the reason for my being here. After a while, I sat up and everything around me seemed to be glowing. Colors were brighter, sounds were sharper, and I felt the Oneness that I had been craving for these months I was in the drought. As I slowly walked back toward the house, I heard something rustling on the embankment to the left. I looked down, thinking there was a little animal on the ground, and suddenly two huge black birds appeared, sitting at eye level in a tree. One flew right across my path to a tree on the right side. I couldn’t believe it. (If you come to Montana with me this summer, I will tell you the incredible raven story that happened to me when I was at Feathered Pipe in 2017. It involved two huge ravens.) As I did in Montana, I asked these two, “What do you want to tell me?” And the other one took off and flew several big circles above me and then flew off. “Let my gifts take flight,” I thought.

Smiling in awe, I headed back to the house. This spiritual infusion I just received was bringing every part of me back to life, like the way a desert plant blooms when it rains. My understanding of silence has changed. My soul needs solitude and quiet. It needs nature. It needs a long, deep drink of pause in addition to the short sips that I take throughout each day in my practices. I plan to be more intentional about taking these deep drinks and building more silence into my day and into my classes. It feels so wonderful to be out of the desert and back on the bank of the river. But I know that, at some point, it’s pretty likely that I will forget my current state of remembrance and find myself back in the desert. When that happens, silence, solitude, and nature will be the first thing I do when I feel the beginnings of forgetfulness creeping back in.

 

 

 

The Necessity of Receiving

Skye Farm Gayle-7099 copy 2

 

Stress. We all experience it. We know what it does to us, yet it continues to be the standard state of mind, body, and spirit for many of us. Anxiety keeps us gripped in a strait jacket; incessant multi-tasking locks us into warp speed and scatters our energy; and depletion leaves us feeling like there’s never enough (time, money, sleep, happiness, ease, you name it). We run on the hamster wheel faster and faster, speeding up to keep up, doing more to get it all done, and taking care of everyone and everything else.

Giving is wonderful. Extending ourselves in service to others, sharing our gifts, wisdom, and time is very important. The world is in need of what we have to give. But, if we keep giving and giving, doing and doing, without plugging into our true source and replenishing ourselves, we will run dry. Our souls can become depleted.

We can run on spiritual depletion for a while, because the effect is not too noticeable at first. It might feel like a lack of inspiration, feeling out of sync, a restlessness, a sense of uncertainty about life, a longing for something more but we don’t know quite what. Unfortunately, this initial feedback usually doesn’t get our attention to slow down and replenish ourselves. If we keep plowing through these outer red flags, we’ll hit the mental ones: overreaction to things, mind racing, quick to anger, feeling on edge, crying for no apparent reason, resenting the fact that we keep giving and others don’t appreciate it. Most of the time, we barge through these flags, too, and the soul depletion will try to get our attention through the physical body. We start feeling run down, we get sick more often, the body hurts and aches, we can’t sleep well.

Instead of recognizing these signs of spiritual depletion as feedback to refill ourselves, the tendency is to keep on going and somehow try to feel better through quick fixes. The Band-Aids of comfort food, cocktails, Netflix binging, and endless internet scrolling don’t help for very long; they come off and we’ve got to find another one to put on. Unless we go back to the source of the real depletion, anything we try to fill ourselves up with falls straight through our tank just like nothingness.

What’s needed is to stop the doing. Stop the depleting outward flow, and allow for a receiving inward flow.

Allowing is the art of receiving.
Receiving is the secret of giving.
Giving is the process of manifestation.
Manifestation is the road to prosperity.
~author unknown

These four sentences have changed my life. They were shared with me by a dear friend a couple of years ago. In order to manifest things, in order for them to come into fruition, we must give of ourselves in some way. That makes sense and we would probably all agree with that. But look at that second sentence: Receiving is the secret of giving. What? That turns the idea that many of us have been taught of “it’s better to give than receive” right on its head. And then the first sentence: Allowing is the art of receiving.  Wow. Allowing myself to receive is the foundation for giving, which is the building block for manifestation, which is the way, the road, to abundance.

Allowing and receiving. It’s the antidote to depletion and all the stress we experience. We’ve got to put the oxygen mask on ourselves first and breathe deeply before we put the mask on others. This is not selfish. This is self-care at the very important, fundamental level. Soul care is health care. We must allow our souls to be filled up, replenished, fed…before we can fill up, replenish, and feed others.

The feeding of our soul is crucial, especially for those of us who are dedicated to taking care of and serving others. Yet, is it one of the hardest things to actually do. We are maxed out, run down, on edge, depleted, looking for a better way. And yet, our response to allowing ourselves to receive and replenish is often “I’m too busy,” “I don’t have enough time,” or “I feel guilty doing something for myself.”

If we want a different experience, and most of us do, then we must actually do something different. If we want to take care of ourselves, then we have to actually make the time to do it. Souls hurt, minds hurt, bodies hurt, yet making a change to take care of ourselves seems monumental; another thing to add to the list of things to do. It’s not easy to carve out meditation time when the sink is full of dishes, the laundry needs to be done, the kids have to go to soccer, and what in the world are we going to have for dinner?

Something that really helps is a retreat. A retreat is a strategic withdrawal from all the externals, the act of retiring or drawing back in, as into safety or seclusion. The word retreat comes from the Latin word retrahere which means retract; to draw back in, to take back.

A day retreat is good, a weekend retreat is really nice, and a week-long retreat can restore your soul. Many of you know that I lead a retreat in Montana at the Feathered Pipe Ranch. Being at the ranch for a whole week is medicine. It’s soul food. If you are experiencing the feedback of soul depletion and know you need some self-care but just can’t carve it out for yourself anywhere, I invite you to come with me to the ranch this summer. Physically putting yourself in a new place really helps jumpstart the new pattern of self-care and allowing yourself to receive. When you’re away from the dishes, the laundry, the cooking, the job – away from all the externals – you can begin to really slow down and slide into the conscious pause, the space, the present, and step off that hamster wheel of constant doing. Once you do that, you start being. The garden hose of soul depletion becomes unkinked and energy, light, love, calm, radiance, peace, and healing begin to pour back into you. “Oh yeah!” becomes the mantra as you remember who you really are and your truth comes to the surface and starts shining out, with a new brightness and brilliance.

The great thing about going on retreat for a week is that it takes a few days to settle and really begin to let go of the warp speed living.  A weekend, though wonderful, usually isn’t long enough to allow for this shedding process. When I am in Montana, I notice that after a couple of days, I have finally let go of that speed and have dropped into a river of delicious slowness. My energy has increased to the sweet state of calm. When I look in the mirror, the lines in my face go away and I start to look more radiant, more glowy. I really noticed this “ranch effect” last year. When I arrived to teach my week, my friend Anne was there, just finishing her week of teaching.  There I was, getting off the van, all spazzy and excited, with warp speed all over me. I saw her walking down the trail, ran up to her (because I hadn’t seen her in a whole year), and man, she had The Glow. For years, she and I had always been at the ranch together, shedding and glowing at the same time. But wow, what a contrast to see myself, just arriving, and her, after a whole week of transformation. Of course, after a few days of settling, we had The Glow too.

Think about joining me June 22-29 for Soul Food: A Creative Celebration of Freedom and Authenticity. If you’re in need of replenishment, I can’t think of a better recommendation to fill your tank all the way back up to full and overflowing. Immerse and ground yourself in nature, which reduces the production of cortisol, the stress hormone. Fill your lungs with pristine mountain air and drink fresh spring water. Slow down and savor some of the most delicious food you’ve ever had, made with love. Detox from digital media and from incessant multi-tasking.  Internet is there, if you need it, but you’ll find sitting in an Adirondack chair on the grassy meadow under the aspen, looking at the big sky ever so much more appealing. And healing. Feed your mind with the silence of meditation, meaningful conversations, and thought-provoking group discussions. Rejuvenate your body with mindful movement: Freedom Yoga accessible for every single body, and a meditative dance practice I created called Bhakti Moves. Open your voice and tune to into your resonance through song and chanting. The inner talking will go way down and your listening ears will go up, bringing your intuition and inspiration back into full flow. Come with me. Allow yourself to receive. Feed your soul and come alive.

Retreat details are here at the Feathered Pipe website. 

 

Yogis Doing Yoga, For Real

IMG_20180822_135727 copy

I’ve been teaching yoga for over 20 years now. One the one hand, that’s barely any time at all; just a blink of an eye. I’m still in beginner mind, filled with awe and wonder over how much I don’t know and how much I am still growing and unfolding into who I am. On the other hand, two decades plus a few more years is a long time. The teachings have taken root in such a way that the fruits of the practice are my now normal: Yoga is a way of life for me.

What? Dog pose is my way of life?? No. Yoga is my way of life, not asana. There is a distinction between the two.

When I first started out in yoga, I didn’t have a clue about this. Since there were no studios here then and I had never been to a class, I was completely self-taught. I was a long-time group exercise instructor and had gotten introduced to yoga at an international fitness conference in the mid 90’s, when mind/body disciplines began to appear on the “aerobics” circuit. I decided I wanted to bring some of this stuff into the cool-down portions of my classes, so I started reading lots of books and studying some VHS tapes. The internet wasn’t even a thing then, which is so hard to picture. But none of the books or tapes I had mentioned anything about yoga being a way of life, it was all about how to do the poses, the asanas. I didn’t know there was anything more yoga than asana specifics until The Universe blindsided me with a bizarre series of events that would lead me to my one and only teacher, Erich Schiffmann. When I miraculously crossed paths with Erich, my learning and my life started to rocket off into a whole new realm, to say the least.

I began to learn that Yoga is not synonymous with asana, as I had originally thought, and as most people think. The two are not necessarily the same thing. Again, the books and the tapes I had weren’t saying this. Yoga is about the experience of unity consciousness, our deepest truth; feeling the experiential fact that we’re not separate from God, never have been, never could be, and never can be. We are the specific and unique manifestation and expression of The Divine, and so is everyone and everything else. And it’s not just about experiencing this truth, but it’s about how we live our lives when we’re centered in that experience. Yoga is a spiritual lifestyle, such that we are inwardly guided by God/Source/The Infinite in every single thing we do, in every single moment of every single day.

The problem is that we have forgotten the truth of who we are. We think we’re all by ourselves, alone, separate from Spirit and everyone and everything else. Why is this a problem? Because mindstate (how we’re choosing to use our mind) is everything. Mindstate doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it causes ripples of effects that that flow through our body and out into the world. Being in Yoga mindstate (experiencing our truth and inseparable unity with Source) naturally ripples out effects of calm. A tension-free mind ripples outward into a tension-free body, and outward into actions that are inwardly guided and healing in every moment. Being in separation mindstate (mired in a false sense of separation) ripples out effects of conflict and tension in the same sort of way – mind, then body, and then ultimately out into actions that are hurtful and inappropriate. Those actions finally get our attention and we think, “There’s got to be something I can do, some sort of practice, so I can make a change in myself and start living a life that’s in the flow, so I can start feeling better.”

Yoga is a something we can do. It’s both a practice of bringing ourselves back into the experience of the truth and it’s also the state of experiencing the truth that has been here all along while we were off forgetting. So, this experience of feeling our conscious unity with All That Is, and letting it guide us through our daily lives is called Yoga and the practices that we can do in order to get back into that mindstate of truth is also called Yoga. Yoga is anything we do to bring ourselves back into the experience of Yoga. There are many ways and practices to do this, most of which don’t even have anything to with a yoga pose. In fact, everything we do can become a practice, a means, of feeling Unity Consciousness.

But here’s the thing: It’s not about the practices. The practices are simply a means to a greater end. The practices are only there to get us back into the remembrance of the experience of truth so we can live it. If we pledge allegiance to the practices only, if we glorify the means only, then we’ll miss the whole point of what the practices are for. You can do asana all day long and never do any actual Yoga. You can do Yoga all day long (which is the whole point of all the practices) and never do any asana.

This idea was not well represented in the books and video tapes I studied back in the 90’s, and it doesn’t seem well represented in the way most people learn about yoga today: the internet. A quick search on “yoga” brings up studios in my town, articles on best poses for beginners, yoga for weight loss, and image after image of people doing asana, mostly highly contorted asana. With yoga gaining such huge popularity, which is wonderful, I wonder if these images – often of white, thin women in expensive outfits doing what looks like gymnastics on a sunset beach – is representative of what yoga really is about?

I love JP Sears’ videos. In his video called “How to Meditate” he says this about meditation, though it can be easily applied to asana: “You’ve got to post pictures of yourself meditating on social media… 100% of all people will rightfully assume that an innocent bystander was walking by and they were so taken aback by the powerful tranquility of your meditation that they couldn’t help themselves but to take a picture of this natural wonder… If a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s there to hear it, does it make a sound? If you meditate and nobody sees a picture of it, did you really meditate?”

Since our world is becoming increasingly visual, I think it would be so great to have some accurate representations of real people doing Yoga, for real, not people just doing asana for the camera. What would that look like? Certainly not glamorous, exciting, or sexy enough to get many Instagram likes. From the outside, living the Yoga looks just like doing the ordinary things that you do in your day – drinking coffee, eating lunch, being at your job, picking up the kids, working things out with your spouse or partner, laughing, crying, looking at the sunset, feeding the dog. However, on the inside, it’s radically different. It feels like living a life that’s in the flow of universal harmony. It feels like being tuned into the listening state as we go about our daily live, following the feeling of rightness in every morphing moment. It feels vulnerable, finding the courage to rest in uncertainty and trust things that we cannot yet see. Someone scrolling through images of that in a news feed likely wouldn’t even stop.

I’m not saying that pictures of asana aren’t helpful or interesting to look at, because they certainly can be, but asana is just one of an infinite array of means, not an end unto itself. It would be so wonderful to see the means less glorified and the end – living a spiritually guided life – more talked about and represented and elevated. Completely unexciting on the outside, but man, what an incredible inner experience.

IMG_5302 2Here’s my first ever Yoga selfie. I took it this morning. Here I am, doing Yoga, for real. I’m centered in it, feeling the unity, feeling my truth, listening ears open for what I need to know, looking out at the light in the back yard. I’m drinking coffee from my Bob Ross mug. I often use Bob Ross analogies when teaching and a student gifted me with this mug and a box of Bob Ross bandaids that say “No mistakes, just happy accidents.” I’m wearing my robe. No makeup. I haven’t even brushed my hair or my teeth. That’s Yoga? Oh yeah… that’s Yoga.

 

 

The Fertile Ground of Questions: “How Do You Let Go of a Grudge?”

plant in hands - grass background

At the beginning of every class or workshop that I’m teaching, I always start with something like this: “Does anyone have a question or anything they’d like to talk about?”

This is an homage to my teacher, dear friend, and Freedom Yoga pioneer, Erich Schiffmann. When Erich had just turned 20, he was in India studying with TKV Desikachar, the son of Krishnamacharya, who was perhaps the most influential yoga teacher of our time. Krishnamacharya was the teacher of Pattabhi Jois (who founded the Ashtanga system), teacher of BKS Iyengar (who founded the Iyengar system), and, of course, teacher of Desikachar (who founded the Viniyoga system). Erich would ride his bike to Krishnamacharya’s house, salute the guru himself on the front porch, and continue inside for is private lesson with Desikachar. Can you imagine that? It gives me chills just thinking about it.

Their sessions would open with Desikachar apparently engaging in “small talk,” until one day Erich finally realized the lessons would not really begin until he asked a Yoga-related question of Desikachar. Once he did, the teachings opened and flowed directly from what Erich wanted to learn, what he was interested in. The teachings became pertinent to the moment, rather than planned in advance; something that would carry through Erich’s own teachings and become a foundational element for what would later become known as Freedom Yoga.

So, this is how I began all of my classes. I love it because it keeps the tradition of the lineage alive, but more importantly, it creates a fertile ground and organic space for Spirit-led spontaneity to occur. The discussions that result are incredible; rich with gems of learning and insights that none of us could have orchestrated by ourselves.

Yesterday in class, I asked the question, as I always do. These questions don’t revolve around asana specifics – how to put our arms or legs in a yoga pose. We’re interested in talking about how to live the Yoga, which is the whole point of all the Yoga practices, mat and non-mat based. The deeper you go into living the Yoga, the more questions arise, as they should: “What’s really going on? What’s the truth?” After I asked the question, there was some silence, as there often is, as we ponder what’s on our hearts. I thought it might be a day where no one wanted to say anything, because sometimes that happens. Then a student asked,” How do you let go of holding a grudge?”

What a great question.

We hear a lot in the so-called yoga world and a whole lot in the religious world about “just let it go.” Turn the other cheek. Be humble. Forgive. Love. Just be the light. Be the bliss. Send peace to everyone. Yes, all that sounds great, but what are we to do with intense feelings of anger and resentment as they arise? Because they will. Emotions – the ones we like and the ones we don’t like – are the water to our souls; a necessary element to our inner fluidity. They shift in and out, like the weather, and arise to help us take a particular action in a situation. We’re often told that anger is a useless emotions and is just plain wrong to feel – it’s not lady-like, not yoga-like, not Christian-like, or whatever-like. So when anger arises and resentment stirs, the tendency is to think that we’re just not good enough at yoga or good enough at fill-in-the-blank to be able to rise above the so-called “negative emotions” and live in the constancy of bliss and peace.

What I know with my years of boundary work is that anger and resentment are always clear signs that we need to strengthen a boundary somewhere. That means we need to say “no” to something so that we say “yes” to the important something that we value and need to protect. And here’s the big insight for me: if my boundary is weak, then my power is draining away from me. Anger and resentment are signs of disempowerment. If I’m in the space of resentment, churning around about what that one did to me, thinking about all the ways it was wrong and all the ways I want to get back at them…then I have let that person become my higher power. Instead of keeping the focus on myself, my thoughts, my feelings, my behaviors, and my higher power (all of which keeps me empowered), I let my energy seep out to the person that I’m resenting. It becomes an obsession and all focus and power shifts away from me onto the other.

In my view, getting better at yoga means not rising above emotions into some heady idealized platitude, but coming down from the head into the heart…and being willing to stay and listen to what the heart wants to tell us. It means getting our hands dirty in the messiness of being divinely human, of being perfectly imperfect. It means shifting out of thinking and going deep into feeling.

So, how to get from the heady “let it go” to an actual action of letting it go? In other words, how can we get into the space of real forgiveness – not condoning what the other did, necessarily, but releasing the grip that it has over us? The heart is the space where true forgiveness happens…not the head. A little mantra I’ve learned over the years that really helps me is this: “The only way out is through.”We’ve got to come down and feel. That’s the only way through.

What helps me come down from the head and into the heart, into the healing, feeling space, is to immerse myself in anything creative, and not hold back at all. I recently dealt with a situation where I was in the place of resentment, thinking I had been wronged, and the state of victim-hood was eating me alive. I wasn’t sleeping, I was on edge; I felt horrible. Finally, I remembered…ah, creativity. I got out a canvas and some paints and painted exactly what I felt. I let my heart pour what it wanted to say onto the canvas without thinking about it. It wasn’t a pretty painting – it was mostly black with very dark colors – but it was such a satisfying and cathartic painting to make. The heart doesn’t tell itself that if it were a better yogi, it wouldn’t be feeling this or that. The heart is always true. Even if the reaction of the resentment is not logically accurate, it’s real to the heart. After I finished painting, I picked up my guitar, went into my yoga room, and wrote a song called “I’m not over it.” I wasn’t over it, like I thought I was. I couldn’t “head” my way out of it. The only way out was through and the only way to find movement through was to feel.

Honest journaling is another great tool. When I feel jealousy creeping in, resentment starting to swirl, or any other red flag of powerlessness starting to arise, I get my journal. In the safety and privacy of those pages, I pour out all the petty grievances and ways that I’ve been wronged, how “this always happens to me,” and how I am a total victim. I pull no punches of writing down exactly how I feel, as petty and kindergarten-level as it usually is. I don’t edit anything; this is simply an exercise in letting the heart be heard. No one ever sees these entries. This is deep heart work just for me. When I put the grievances (as embarrassing it is to read) on paper – or on a canvas or in a song – they move, they flow, they exit. And once they are given expression in a healthy way, I can then begin to use my executive functions of thinking to look at what’s happened: what was really going on here and what is important for me to learn? I can’t truly get to that place until I feel first. Any attempt to circumvent feeling and try to rationalize the feelings away only result in my being caught in an eddy that keeps me from flowing onward.

This process feels to me like weeding an overgrown garden: getting down on my knees, with my hands in the dirt, feeling the coolness of the earth, pulling up the weeds from the roots, and making space for something new to grow. From there, I can plant the seeds of something different, water it, and watch it sprout and eventually flower into something that is always a beautiful surprise. To me, that’s Yoga; being present to this ever-changing process of presence, in this body, on this planet – and creating the space to really wonder about it all, question it, discuss it, and formulate new questions. That keeps the Yoga real for me. It keeps me in an ongoing state of learning, open to infinite possibilities, grounded in inner guidance, and anchored in courage and self-trust so I can inch more closely into the full expression of the real me.

Not My Chicken: Reclaiming Your Power

ac550965bc81d183c286cff303ae159f--rooster-images-rooster-photos (2)

“Summer Camp for Adults”; “Not My Chicken”; “You Are Sooo Good Looking!”…  just 3 of the things that come to mind often after attending Carie’s 2018 Be The Real You retreat at Feathered Pipe Ranch. You had to be there to know, to feel, to grow. Carie has hit her stride.  2019 will be awesome! Soul Food for sure!”

 ~ CM, Washington, 2018 retreat attendee

 

I am so grateful this testimonial from one of my Feathered Pipe friends. I really love it because it speaks to the often unconventional nature of my teaching style and to the kind of fun that we have together in Montana. “Summer Camp for Adults” is something that folks were saying at our retreat last August that stuck during our week. That one is pretty straightforward, but the other two sayings require some explanation.

“You are soooo good looking” is a little Seinfeld joke that I use in class. In one of the episodes of the show, Jerry thought how nice it would be instead of saying “bless you” when someone sneezes, to say, “You are soooo good looking.” I mean, we just don’t hear it enough, right? So I do that in class when someone sneezes and now, my students do it to me when I sneeze. At Feathered Pipe last summer, we were all saying it in unison to the designated sneezer. It’s funny, we all laugh, and it lifts us out of the “yoga should be serious business” attitude, bringing us back to a place of natural lightness and childlike fun.

And what’s this about “not my chicken?”  Ah. This one is good.

Back in 2009, I began a life-changing addition to my yoga journey: 12-step recovery from co-dependency. Over these past 10 years I have learned to empower myself from within, instead of looking outward to others to provide my worth and my truth. I’ve learned how to own my voice and my opinions, especially when they differ from others’ voices and opinions. Most importantly, I’ve learned what boundaries are and how to set them. I now clearly know where I end and someone else begins, which helps me to know what I’m responsible for: my feelings and my choices only; not anyone else’s. And one of the biggest things I’ve learned about boundaries is that others’ problems are not mine to fix.

When I started this work, I had never heard the word “boundaries” before. When I was deep into my co-dependent patterns, I became entangled in everyone else’s issues, such that it felt like everything was my problem to fix. I felt responsible for other people’s feelings. If someone was angry with me, it was my fault. If someone was sad, it was my job to cheer them up. If someone was going through a hard time, it was up to me to figure out their solutions for them. Living with weak and/or non-existent boundaries is completely dis-empowering; I gave my power over to everyone and everything else.

Through recovery, I learned a very important phrase that changed everything for me: “It’s not my problem.” The healing and self-affirming words of “it’s not my problem” allowed me to put the pause on the pattern I was mired in, step back and detach, and realize that this issue is someone else’s and not mine.

I now have another phrase for “It’s not my problem.” I’ve taught it to my students and use it in class all the time. I’ve taught it to my friends, my kids, and my husband, Bill. It’s a perfect, incognito, boundary-needed-now phrase: “It’s not my chicken.”

But you have to know the story.

In 2011, I think it was, I was in Ojai, California with my dear friend, Stacie for the Ojai Yoga Crib, a lovely weekend yoga event. We were on our way to the Saturday evening kirtan with Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band. I had done an 8-day bhakti immersion with Sean and the band in New Orleans that spring and had been telling Stacie and another dear friend, Pat, how fabulous the kirtan was going to be. I was super excited about it. The three of us were off to grab a quick dinner before the kirtan and stopped in at the local hippy health food store, Rainbow Bridge.

We got some dinner from the store deli and sat down at a table near a big window that looked out onto the sidewalk and street. A woman wearing a long coat, looking quite disheveled, was walking back and forth carrying a chicken. Now this would not be the norm for Texas, but hey, when I’m in California I see all sorts of things, so I kind of brushed it off: “Ok…a woman with a chicken is walking back and forth in front of my window while I’m eating dinner. Right, I’m in California.” My initial thought, though, was that she was probably homeless.

Well, a few minutes later, she appeared in the store with a man and sat at a table right next to us. With the chicken. And she was petting the chicken. When I tell this story live, I grit my teeth when I say “petting” because she was really gripping the chicken and petting him (or her?) with quite a lot of force. More force than I would use when petting a chicken. If I were to pet a chicken while seated in a restaurant, that is…

At this point, I was really trying to ignore her and stay grounded. I was fearful that I might witness something awful happen to the chicken. Mostly, I was trying to avoid eye contact with Stacie because if that happened, even for a microsecond, we would break out in uncontrollable laughter. I didn’t want to be rude. I didn’t want to make a scene. But it was just so weird. I mean, here I am in California, in this hippy store, and there’s a bizarre lady right there with a chicken in her lap. What was she going to do? “Focus on the kirtan, Carie” I thought. “Stacie and Pat aren’t even noticing the chicken anyway.”

We finished our dinner and walked silently to the car, parked just a few feet away. We got in, Stacie started the car and said the line worth a million dollars: “Whew… I’m glad that’s not my chicken.” Then the uncontrollable laughter started. We realized it was the perfect code phrase to “it’s not my problem!” “It’s not my chicken!!”

“Not my chicken.” It’s so funny, it makes me laugh – I’m even laughing now as I’m writing. It’s such an ideal, light-hearted way to tell myself I need to set a boundary, and it’s an easy way to remind someone that I care about to set a boundary. Bill uses it with me all the time: “Carie, it’s not your chicken.” He will even say to me, “Carie…you’re looking for a chicken,” when I start to get entangled in someone else’s problem. It’s not my chicken. It’s just not.

And I pull these things into class because Yoga isn’t about getting better at dog pose, or taking a better picture of yourself in dog pose, or getting a cuter outfit for your better picture of dog pose. Yoga is a way of life, being consciously connected to Spirit as we walk through our lives, listening for guidance on how to do all that we do. And all that we do is not always easy. It’s important for me as a teacher to share my struggles as well as my strengths. I’m still learning and growing; we’re all doing that together. I surely don’t have it all figured out. Nobody does. And when I forget that and start thinking I have all the answers, I can slide in the words “it’s not my chicken” and quickly shift into the space of allowing someone else the dignity of being on their own path.

 

If you’re interested in coming on retreat with us in 2019, we’ll be at the Feathered Pipe Ranch in Montana June 22-29 for a week called Soul Food:  A Celebration of Freedom and Authenticity. All the information and retreat details are here. It’s going to be an incredible week and I’d love to have you be a part. 

 

 

 

 

Soft Peace and Childlike Wonder

outdoor-christmas-tree-decorated-with-glowing-holiday-toys-among-snow-covered-fir-forest-at-winter-night-with-slight-snowfall-3d-animation-rendered-in-4k_h8grbhkmmx_thumbnail-full01

As I write, it’s December 23, 2019. We’re fully into the “holiday season” and the big day is almost upon us. And, I think for the first time ever in my entire life, I am calm, completely at peace, and immersed in joyful simplicity.

Typically, what I call the “holiday season,” the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, is the hardest time of the year for me. It’s historically been the season of getting together with dysfunctional family members that I would ordinarily never choose to spend time with, and being around all the chaos that comes with that. In order to quell the inevitable turmoil, my old pattern of controlling perfectionism kicks into high gear, agonizing over the absolute best presents for people, wrapping them in the most beautiful paper and ribbons, having a fully decorated house, a gorgeous tree, and flawless family portraits to send out. It’s so ridiculous. And stressful and tense and awful. And then, to top it off, there is the issue of the incongruous square-peg-in-a-round-hole fit of my spirituality into religious dogma. I’ve never believed the Christmas story of Jesus’ birth to be actual fact, but rather a metaphorical and mythological story, somehow pointing the way to something much deeper than the “facts” presented in various churches I have attended.

So, every year, right before Thanksgiving, the “here we go again” brain grooves of the holiday season start running. Even though many of those dysfunctional family members have passed on and aren’t even in my current holiday season experience, the grooves are so deep that they’re still there and my awareness slides easily into them, like a needle on a vinyl record, playing the same tune the same way.

This year, I decided to create some new brain grooves.

I decided to have a 4-week “calm and centered for the holidays” class; 4 weeks of discussions, study, and practices to keep us anchored and grounded in this difficult time for many. I wanted to be intentional in walking through these holiday weeks in the spirit of exploration and change and wanted to walk through them in the divine company of the amazing people in my Freedom Yoga community. We began the Monday right after Thanksgiving and finished last week.

When I decided to create the class, I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do. Over my 20-plus years of being involved with Yoga, I have learned that “I don’t know” is the preferred place, the desired space I want to occupy when I’m opening myself to guidance and allowing something new to be created. Letting go of what I think I know is paramount to creation flowing in. And what came in really surprised me.

The vision came to revolve the 4-week class around the 4 weeks of Advent, as told in the Godly Play Advent story. Godly Play is an early childhood Montessori-based curriculum that I taught in the Episcopal Church a long time ago when my children were very young. It involves mystery and wondering, with the knowledge that children are still very close to their innate sense of the presence of God all around them.

The guidance communicated to me was that in order to create new brain grooves for the holiday season, I would need to enter into the mystery of this holiday season like a little child. I would need to let go of everything I thought I knew and dive fully into the gift of the present…the now…and be taught anew.

I had forgotten how special the Godly Play Advent story is. I borrowed the materials from the Episcopal school where I teach pre-K and shared the story with my new “calm and centered for the holidays” class and also one of my restorative classes, as well as two pre-K classes at school. This story is deep and profound, full of childlike mystery and wonder.

The story opens with this sentence: “Everything is changed.” It’s about the journey toward Bethlehem from four points of view: the prophets, the holy family, the shepherds, and the magi. The beauty of storytelling in the Godly Play way opens each child (or each yogi!)  to individual interpretation and deep wondering. For me, this journey toward Bethlehem represents the journey that each of us makes toward the re-emergence of the light inside ourselves, the birth of the light after a winter solstice season of darkness, quiet, and gestation. Each of us is a prophet on a hope journey, someone who listens to God and points the way for others; each of us is Joseph and Mary on a faith journey, staying the course even though it’s rough and we get tired; each of us is the shepherd, being terrified when we hear messengers of God, yet joyfully following the message; each of us is a magi, someone through whom deep spiritual wisdom flows; and…each of us is the Christ child, a gift from God to help light the world.

You can watch a beautiful version of the story here.

Week one of our class series was the prophet theme of hope and expectation. Prophets know what matter most; they look, listen, notice, and point the way for others to notice that something amazing is happening. Good things are happening and good things are coming, if only we stop and pay attention. What do you want to experience this holiday, this the new year, with a certain event? Get clear on it, make a mini vision board, draw a picture, write words, whatever it takes, and put this up where you can see it every day. Take time to do a noticing practice – pause all movement and thoughts and listen to a piece of music, light a candle and really watch the light, or simply get outside and look at the world like a little kid would, being wowed by everything. One night during the prophet week, I was sitting outside on my porch, noticing the world, looking at the light on the leaves, the shadows, the colors, and just before I went inside, a great horned owl swooped down in front of me and landed in the top of the tree beside me. I couldn’t believe it. I never would have seen her if I hadn’t been out there sitting quietly, noticing the world in soft peace…which were my hope/expectation words for what I wanted to experience this holiday season.

Week two was the holy family week of faith.When we know what we’re looking for and expecting good things, then our faith becomes strong. We begin to have confidence that good things are gestating, coming our way. We’re able to rest in the expectation and hope, even when things are hard or don’t make sense. We’re able to persevere and keep going with trust and patience. Part of this faith journey involves knowing when you need to stop and rest and feed your soul. What kinds of things feed your soul? What things do you love doing that help you draw strength from Spirit? During this week, we incorporated a few practices to feed the soul: simplicity – make one batch of cookies instead of 10; do one thing at a time, get out in nature every day, immerse in silence at some point every day. This year, I put up the tree only. My husband and I agreed to give one gift only, under $20. Instead of presents everywhere under the tree, like usual, there is one present only for each recipient. It’s enough. It’s so nice. Oh, and that flawless Christmas portrait this year? It was taken on a phone in the spur of the moment, before we left to take my son and his girlfriend to the airport. I’m wearing sweats and my hair had been up in a ponytail all day. It’s fine and I didn’t stress one little bit about it. In fact, soft peace was happening.

Week three of our journey was the shepherd week of joy. When the hope is clear, the faith is strong. When the faith is strong, we experience a feeling of subtle joy; a sense of well-being and a beautiful feeling of oneness with everything. We have the image of the shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch over their sheep when suddenly a bright light appears in the sky that scared them half to death and voices, which scared them even more. “Don’t be afraid,” the angels said. “Run and go see what has happened and tell the world.” These themes of staying awake and being present are hugely important in allowing joy to flow through us. If the shepherds were out in their fields on their phones, texting away like most of us do constantly, they would have missed everything, the whole mysterious miracle. Not only that, but this joy journey of the shepherds, and this place everyone was traveling toward, wasn’t a palace or the Hilton. It was a barn with a dirt floor and animals all around. What could be simpler? As much as we chase joy and try to find it “out there,” as soon as we slow down, become present, notice the more of what’s in our experience, and simplify…there it is…because joy is our natural state. And when you know what to look for, when you know the state of mind required to feel it, you’ll see and feel more of it. I was certainly feeling more of it.

Week four was the magi week of wisdom. Plato once said, “I am the wisest man alive…for I know one thing and that is that I know nothing.” Wisdom has everything to do with surrender, with letting go of that which we hold onto so tightly: knowing and being right. It’s only when we are able to rest in the place of “I don’t know” that they mystery of divine wisdom flows into our awareness. Spiritual wisdom is mystical; that is, it only comes from direct experience. It’s soft and quiet, like snow falling. Simple. Natural. And the whole point of spiritual wisdom, inner guidance, intuition, is to dare to follow it, to put it into action. So take time to meditate, to pay attention to what The Universe is guiding you to do. Nothing could be more important. Week four of the holiday season and I couldn’t believe how good I was feeling.

Of course, the last part of the story is the birth of the Christ light. Our light. The light of The Infinite as it comes up through us, guiding us, giving us joy, faith to rest in the mystery, and so much hope.

Presenting this child’s version of the Christmas story to my yoga class and revolving the class series around it was completely unexpected. Somehow, it allowed me to bypass the religious story that I never really identified with and helped me enter into the mystery of something so deep and profound: the light within myself. New brain grooves have definitely been created and I feel amazing; clear, buoyant, and just fully me. I never would have thought it possible to experience such a new thing at this time of year: real hope, strong faith, actual joy, deep wisdom and, of course, soft peace.   

The Georgia Blessing

When our daughter was a senior in high school in 2015, a friend of hers had a cat that had kittens. I knew what was coming the day we went over there to look at those adorable little kitties. We finally gave into the begging and pleading to bring one of the kittens home: the sweet little Addie Cat.

We love cats, but we have two dachshunds, Duke and Daisy, who would really enjoy killing a cat, as well as any other animal that might come into the yard, much less the house. We worked out a system for Addie to stay upstairs and to come downstairs only when the dogs were out. Then we trained Addie to start being able to go outside into the world. She would come right away when we called her name, usually dropping down from one of the huge oak trees in our yard. The dogs constantly barked at her through the doors and partitions that always separated them. And there was the time when she jumped out of our arms and, like supercharged lightening, Duke chased her up the stairs and had her pinned to a wall with his teeth. It was a bit stressful at times, but we grew to love Addie and she was part of our family.

When she neared her first birthday, she started getting sick. She would meow strangely when I picked her up and she soon began to be in a lot of pain. The vet did tests and noticed her white blood cells were oddly high. None of the medicines seemed to help and she was getting worse – not eating, not drinking, and not wanting to be touched at all. We finally took her to the vet school here and she was diagnosed with lymphoma. It was such a sad day. We ended up deciding to free her from the intense pain she was living with and chose to let her go on from this life. It was gut-wrenching awful. She was the sweetest, most loving little kitty girl we had ever known.

For weeks I cried and cried and sobbed and sobbed. I even made a grief altar, with pictures of her on it, her favorite toys, her collar, and some candles. That really helped me dive into the grief and let it move through me.

Interestingly, just a couple of days after Addie passed, I noticed some cats appearing in the yard. They would just sit in the grass, looking out at the world, like little sentries keeping watch. It was almost as though they knew what happened and were showing up to give me some comfort that Addie was okay. They seemed to be telling me very clearly that Addie thanks us for freeing her and sends her love. It did not seem coincidental at all, to me.

One cat, in particular, a little black and white kitty with gorgeous amber eyes (whose
markings are called a tuxedo cat, I later learned) started showing up next to the house, behind the shrubs near the front porch. She was a little ragged-looking and even had a bit of her ear missing, which I guessed was from a fight of some sort. She was so fearful and skittish; when she saw me in the window she would look terrified and run away. She also looked really hungry. Of course, I still had lots of cat food – even several cans of the epic primo wet food that we gave Addie. So I put some of that out on a little dish and put it out for her. Peeking out of the window, I could see her creep up anxiously and scarf down the food. Every time she’d see me, though, she would bolt.

After a few months, she was coming up to the back porch to eat, and after a couple more months, she would even come up when I was sitting there. I’ll never forget the day when she let me reach over and put my hand on her while she ate. She did nip at me quite a bit at first– not too hard – but would tug on my clothes with her teeth, which earned her the name “Bitey.” It wasn’t the most endearing name, so I finally decided to call her Georgia. She would come when I called her and, very interestingly, she’d often drop down out of one of the big oaks.

IMG_4836 (1)

Georgia this afternoon, happy to have her picture taken.

She brought another friend along, a cat that looks so nearly identical to Addie that I named her Grace (aka Gracie). Interestingly, she had a ragged ear, too. A friend told me that these cats were ferals and had been part of a trap/neuter/release program in town. The ear nick was a sign that the cats had been spayed or neutered. In spite of my firm insistence of feeding and loving two cats only and no more, soon we were feeding Sandstorm, then Melon, then Black Jack, then Little Jack Black. We have six ferals now that we feed and love. But Georgia is my favorite.

I was thinking about all of this today because just a few minutes ago, Georgia and I were sitting out on my deck and she was sleeping in my lap. I noticed she was walking around out back, so I went out, sat down in the chair, and she jumped up in my lap, curled up, and started the purr motor. She has no idea what a blessing she is to me. That little one has healed all the holes in my heart that were gaping open when Addie left us. I never, ever take these moments when she sits with me for granted. Every time she comes when I call her and every time she sits in my lap it just feels like I’ve been sprinkled with the magic dust of remembering and knowing, without a doubt, that Spirit/God/Source is real, that there is an Infinite Love at work, and that miracles really do happen. All I have to do is look around to experience it. It’s usually in the simple things right in front of me.

We sat there together for a good half hour. I was a little cold, but it was so lovely to just be there with her, looking at the changing leaves, breathing in the air, feeling our sweet connection. Nowhere to go and nothing else to do, except receive the miracle of divine love, right here on my lap and all around me all the time.

I am grateful for so many things, but especially today for this blessing of simplicity, this blessing of Georgia, My Georgia. A normal, everyday occurrence in the world like a cat on a lap doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but wow – it’s a huge deal, for me. I’m so glad I said “yes” to the invitation to slow down and feel that wow and remember that there is so much more going on that I’m aware of most of the time, and that the magic dust is actually always sprinkling…if only I slow down to notice it.