The Lively Dance

What is wellness? How do we awaken this astonishing vitality within us?

Abundant health! Optimum wellness! Today, these terms get tossed around incessantly. But what do they actually mean? We all have such different definitions of wellness, distinct ideas of how to create it and of how it manifests in us and in others. Yet, I believe we fundamentally agree on the feeling that wellness evokes, the sense of profound systemic fluency that arises in its wake, a feel good, vibrant, wonderfully delicious experience.

My simple definition of wellness is the harmony of body, mind, and spirit in conjunction with the characteristics of a literal well. In other words, wellness embodies a well’s receptivity and collectivity, where we become our own reservoirs of physical exuberance, emotional stability, and energetic awareness. This, and I am not denying it, is a tall order. So where do we begin?

Many of us start with the physical body. Indeed great zealousness and intensity of effort are palpable when it comes to the collective push towards physical wellness. In response to this, there are growing numbers of brilliant integrative doctors, nutritionists, and health pioneers who offer incredible wisdom on living optimally well in body. No doubt, given that the body is our most immediate place of worship, it is of great import.

Interestingly, the Indian sage Krishnamacharya felt that wellness, or what his son T.K.V. Desikachar calls self-harmony, begins with the physical body and mind, but extends beyond a feeling of wellbeing, and is in essence a matter of one’s relationship to the divine. In further describing his father’s belief, Desikachar writes, “It is this relationship that brings us to wholeness.” The subtler side of wellness is when our innate divinity is illumined as an out-flowering of a sound body and a steady mind. Wellness then ultimately means to live in rhythm with the sacred.

In truth, I’ve been a life-long wellness seeker. My journey has stemmed from my physical vulnerabilities as an allergic baby, through my childhood of emotional upheaval, and into my adolescence riddled by self-destructive relationships, drugs, and body struggles. I have also had a desperate, scary brush with my body completely falling apart as an adult. The root spiritual practices of Zen Buddhism and Iyengar yoga, that I began in my late teens, are still the practices that blessedly enable profound wellness today, no matter how uncooperative my belly, my skin, or my erratic mind.

Of course we all aspire to live in wellness in perpetuity, and we can. However, this is not because our bodies and minds stay in supreme health at all times, but instead because our stance is such that we are aligned with wellness (or wholeness) in our hearts. We believe in the spirit, the holiness of wellness. This dynamic dance of body, mind, and the divine continues whether we are center stage or in the wings. The gist is simply to show up for the lively dance.

One Mindful Moment

What is all the hype about mindfulness? What does it actually mean? How can we practice it and how does this practice inform and improve our lives?

I like to think of mindfulness, or careful attention, as a process of clarification, where the muddy veil of residual habit lifts off of and separates from the essence of who we are. Sounds great, right? But how to begin? We start with becoming intensely aware of the body. By becoming aware, I mean we recognize through and through the sensations of being embodied here on earth, within these formidable structures of bone, blood, and tissue.

Too often however, our bodies serve as our biggest aggravators, the tethers that bind, disappoint, and make us feel lousy and unsure of ourselves. True, we are a body-conscious society, but this type of consciousness is more fixation than awareness, and has little to do with experiencing the depths of the body as host to the spirit. Here is where mindfulness practice comes in. When we stop and give our astute attention to the body and the breath—and we do this over and over again—we cultivate subtle awareness, and awaken joy.

This is much more difficult than it sounds. Stranger still is that given our cultural preoccupation with body betterment, we so consistently check out of them. In the past 4 months I have had to put on close to 20 pounds to get my body back in balance after more than a year of nursing my second child. There’s been tremendous discomfort in this for me, and many moments when I’ve wanted to jump ship. I’ve also recognized the process as ripe for sitting down, burrowing in, and directing sensitive attention to my body and my breath in the midst of changing shape.

Still, it takes tremendous courage to trust in the resonant calm that paying a different sort of attention, wiser and more endearing, lends itself to. Sitting meditation both hones and is an excellent way to invite this attentiveness in. Yet the beauty of mindfulness is that it can be applied anywhere, to all that is, in every action.

We can mindfully eat an apple, mindfully walk to work, and mindfully wash our hair. In fact, if meditation cushions scare you, the simplest everyday tasks are some of the most reliable places to practice. The sage yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar says, “Consciousness is everywhere in the body…[it] is as long as your body is tall. But awareness is small. …The yogis say that by practicing asanas, you can bring your awareness to an extension equal to that of consciousness. This is total awareness.”  In other words, this practice of body awareness, or mindfulness, can be exercised in yoga postures too, giving all the more credence to mindfulness in motion.

Whether in action or in stillness, mindfulness invites deep acceptance, deep spaciousness and understanding. Through our bodies, we behold with quiet focus the beauty beyond the threadbare patterns of our thoughts. We learn to meet life with less strain, less angst, less resistance. Attentively, we step towards expressing more whole, realized ways of being, one mindful moment at a time.

Awakened Hearing

What does it mean to listen deeply? How does deep listening steer us towards a truer expression of who we really are?

We have, as a culture, grown increasingly deaf to our inner selves. With frenzied minds, surface attachments, and noise levels on the rise, we are moving ever further from tuning in to the temples of our bodies.

In response to this loss, I’d like to make a counter plea for the cultivation of deep listening, as an act of dropping the brain, sinking into a subtle quiet place, and awakening receptive awareness. Dropping the brain is no small feat. Still, we must get out of our ego-driven ways to become open to the divine messages within us. The irony here is that we so often reel from the pain of not having been heard in our lives, yet we do such lousy jobs of hearing our innate wisdom. I do however believe that when quiet, we instinctively trust in the guidance of sacred voices far more profound than what our bullying heads would have us heed.

It has taken me many painful, searching years to fully appreciate deep listening as the nexus or tie to witnessing what is really going on inside, and to tapping the intuitive broadcasts from the subterranean. Deep listening often requires silence and stillness, or movement imbued with such mindful grace that it holds stillness within itself.

Hence, sitting and yoga practice are for me, the two venues that enable dropping in, and from this drop, the glowing connection with the rhythmic heart and cavernous belly. For you, it may be something entirely different. What’s important is to identify and put into play the practices that sink you in to your receptive self, and that allow for deep listening to occur.

Some call the gift of awakened hearing intuition. I call it translating the language of spirit. Regardless of names, deep listening cultivates our attention to the present moment and teaches us to open to the vastness of our inner lives and also to the clamor of the outer world. This presence in essence yields compassion; and compassion, as any aspirant to saving the suffering can attest, is the answer. I am reminded of this daily by the serene face of the large Buddha on the altar at which I sit, his long wise curvaceous ears at once loving and open to the woes of the world.

Imagine our own trained energetic ears ballooning and stretching to hear the cries of the beleaguered children dying of starvation in Somalia, and all the other cries for help from around the globe, including our own. Imagine our skillful listening springing us collectively into conscious action. Isn’t this subtle dialogue between the inside and outside really what living is all about?

It all hinges on listening, deep tranquil listening.

The Steadiness of Now

What are we to do with anxiety? How can we both accept and smooth it down?

Anxiety is tricky. Deeply intertwined with fear, this perturbing disquiet is insidious to the core. It can come on really suddenly, like a short-lived violent storm, or can carry on more chronically, like seemingly endless rain, sometimes easing into a barely-there drizzle of fine mist or sometimes turning to hail, and pelting us wickedly. Whether struck by the long or short version, it is always rattling, destabilizing, and at times precariously suffocating.

In Ayurveda, the ancient Indian science of life, the cold, windy, and dry qualities of the fall and winter months are when vata, the basic energy of movement that presides over the nervous system, is the most likely to become aggravated and out of balance. When this happens, excesses of fear and edginess take roost. Doesn’t it make sense? In this season of holiday push and pressure, the flighty, airy, nervous qualities of vata come out to play. Lurking anxiety gets kicked up into inflated vortices of spinning brittle leaves.

Negotiating personal anxiety is an arduous enterprise. I am still in the thick of figuring this one out for myself. The summer I turned 18 was when I first experienced what I call my adult version of such alienating stress. I was living alone in a small California bungalow, and began to have unnerving anxiety, the symptoms of which were insomnia coupled with wild skin eruptions. For me, it had a great deal to do with lack of safety.

I was also at that time seriously starting my yoga and meditation practices. How frustrating it was to try to be peaceful in such discomfort. Sitting still with that turbulent anxiety, incorrigible! Lying in savasana, or final relaxation, where we are encouraged to ultimately let go, was even more upsetting. I was so wound up I literally couldn’t keep my eyes closed, my eyelids in constant flutter. Nor could I settle my muscles into my mat. But slowly, diligently things began to change.

In my intimate study over these past 15 or so years, I have also learned that anxiety can make us enormously difficult to be around. While rending us numb, it often makes us act insensitive and quite dumb. Most vital is to identify what is at our anxiety’s source; be it a deep displeasure or dissatisfaction, a prehistoric sense that things are not OK, a lack of security, a gripping fear of our future based on lodged fear from our past, or an inflicted shame.

What’s crucial too is that once excavated, we keep the expression of these tense torrents flowing out. Talking is key. Sometimes drawing a visual diagram of our stressors can help. Seeing them positioned on paper frees up valuable space in our bodies and minds.

Namely, we can sit down to meditate and begin to make peace with our overwhelm. Focusing on the belly is a great place to start, by letting it be a soft placid pool, and feeling the supple rise and fall in every present breath. Beautifully enough, on any given day, we can calm ourselves in this way, and become kinder more compassionate people, with less high-strung impact. It simply requires residing in the loveliness of the moment, existing in the steadiness of the always available now, again and again and again.

Finding Peace In Anger

Isn’t it time we considered our personal relationships to anger, and acknowledged its karmic impact?

Anger is slippery, fascinating, unnerving, and maniacal. It blinds us and makes us hot. Though it is powerful, it is also mercurial and fleeting. Once it is gone, it seems like a dream, its intensity at least. What is often not gone is the palpable hurt and travail created in how we have released it, using hurtful words in furious attack. These word-wounds are much longer lasting and far more devastating than the anger itself. Still, like a thunderbolt, anger can shake us with such insistence that we lose control.

This is incredibly tough material. The thing is, anger is human, and a necessary part of our emotional repertoire. Babies cry hard and sort of sob-yell when they get angry. Kids throw fits and act crazy. We make room for this behavior, because children are incredibly big-hearted and raw, and getting angry is essential to their development. The problem for many of us grown-ups is that long before entering adulthood our expressive growth gets stunted. Very few of us, unless born under lucky stars with emotionally evolved guides, have been taught how to exist and interact consciously with anger.

Quite wonderfully however, we can learn a lot about ourselves in how we get angry. Everyone has a personal anger stamp. Through my teens and into my early twenties, my style was corrosive and at times explosive. It has taken upward of ten years, and inordinate amounts of work, to dissolve that combustive heat and to transfigure my relationship to it. Today I handle anger much differently.

First, I say I am angry, once and only once. Then I give myself space. I sit down on my meditation cushion, roll out my yoga mat, or take a walk. I experience the anger in my body. I watch it boil over for a while. I breathe. I focus on the rise and fall of my belly, and on the simplicity of my spine and its natural curve. This helps me get quiet and clear on what has hurt me enough to warrant an indignant reaction. I begin to get some distance from the anger, to be detached enough to say internally, I am wishing you well fury and I am letting you go. On great days, when I am really mindful, no matter how maddening something unexpectedly becomes, my intention is immediately one of dispersal. Before I even walk away, I discharge the anger like a spray of perfume, not back into someone’s face, but out into the magnanimous air.

When the ability to process anger changes, it is revelatory. If you let yourself examine it enough, you’ll find that anger has very little to do with the provocateur. Instead, feel where it registers in your body, say a courteous hello, then sit as neutrally beside it as you can, while it travels its natural flaring course. This is not to encourage passivity or inaction, but intelligent action. When you are calm, and the time presents to discuss what happened, treat the person who triggered the anger with respect. However weird it sounds, be angry with sensitivity. Speak carefully and tactfully. In this way the recipient can actually hear what you have to say without an ugly confrontation or loud dramatic fight erupting.

Because whatever we emit into the universe inevitably comes back to us, we best learn to channel and unearth tranquility in our anger. Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. did this with unparalleled brilliance, and they had plenty to be angry about. Wisely and prophetically, they transformed the energy of their outrage into inspired nonviolent stands for social justice that will forever resonate around the world. In a time of such war, turmoil, bloodshed, seething hatred, and misconduct, let’s take these legends’ cues and treat anger as opportunity for internal and global peace.

Balancing Immunity

What does it mean to be thick or thin-skinned? Is it possible to exist in a way where both of these traits can simultaneously be in play?

We exist in a landscape of extremes, where we are quick to separate the thick from the thin. The modern age, with all its astonishing revelations, also carries with it the burden of this divide. You know the types. Those with super thick skin shrug everything off, have uber immunity, act utterly unbothered, and are lacking in vulnerability when it comes to themselves and to others. Those with ultra thin skin lack resilience, have limitless fragility and very little immunity, are delicate to a fault, and take everything too personally.

What we are really talking about here is the distortion of our personal levels of sensitivity, the blunting of our keen and innate abilities to quietly discern when it is time to be more receptive and unguarded, and when it is best not to be. It starts young, this penchant towards under or over susceptibility. In our kids we see more and more the embodiment of these hypo and hyper extremes. Both are destabilizing. In a time of heightened violence and sensationalism, we are not meant to be so impervious or numb. Nor are we meant to be so penetrable that it makes it hard to come through difficulties in tact.

I am notoriously thin-skinned. If skin were paper, mine would be wispy like tracing paper, or like tender decorative tissue paper, the kind where you have to use five sheets just so the present you are wrapping is actually hidden. For the bulk of my life, I have regarded this thin skin of mine as a flaw. Yet in the past several years, I’ve begun to look upon my intense sensitivity with more detachment, as both a gift and a hindrance, and as a tendency that is in fact amendable.

We could all use to either stimulate our sensitivity or to soothe and stroke it down. I like to call this fine-tuning the balancing of immunity. Some of us need to toughen up and respond less, while others need to soften down and respond more. The goal is to be semi-pervious, in a truce between thick and thin, so that neither dominates, nor competes with the other. Instead, we learn to sense precisely, intuitively, consciously, and appropriately, taking in and keeping out just enough, censoring our loads of input and output, setting our own limits, and creating appropriate boundaries. Sculpting our immunity inevitably invokes wellness, by changing our connection to our nutrition, our work, and to self-care. It affects our relationships with our selves, our loved ones and not so loved ones, and with everything else we interact with.

In yoga, my understanding of restorative poses, especially savasana, or final relaxation, is that they are non-effortful practices in sensory disengagement. In these postures, we gently recede from the bombardment of sensory information. We take a break from hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and feeling. This doesn’t mean we become insensitive at all. Rather, we sink into a place absent of the need to differentiate between too much or too little, a place where dualism dissolves. There is no thick, nor thin, just skin, and pulsing energy, and the breath. The head grows heavy and engorged with peace. The back of the skull becomes a collecting pool, gathering insight into beautifully proportioned sensitivity.

The world is so polarized, so caffeinated and decaffeinated. When we experience the removal of this separation, the sweetness and supple bliss of simply being in the moment, devoid of extremes, arise. We are after all of one common earth. We share one amazing, breathing, pliable, and enduring skin. Spanning and stretching across our planet, the biggest organ of our global body, we had better learn to take good care of it.

Honoring Our Feet

How many of us ever take the time to truly appreciate our feet? I know this might sound crazy, but really, do we ever sit down and actually go inside to feel and experience them?

Other than wanting an amazing foot rub, great looking pedicure, or perfect shoe to house them in, we rarely as a culture give our feet the time of day. Yet, there is a great deal to be learned from our feet. Humor me here, and take a minute to contemplate yours.

Two weeks ago, I did a grandiose and in hindsight, stupid thing. I took a dance class that was way too high impact and aerobic for my four-month post-partum, hormonally ridden joints. Not surprisingly, I ended up with two badly bruised heels, and a possible stress fracture in my left foot.

What is intensely aggravating about all of this is that up until this point I had been doing a really good job of gradually getting myself stronger after the baby, moving steadily, in my own quiet way, into a daily cardio routine. Still, I got ahead of myself. Even though my intuition told me that it wasn’t time yet, that I’d put all this effort into building myself up, and that I could get injured in the class because I wasn’t ready, I didn’t listen and went anyways.

Where had my awareness gone? My sense of center, balance, and planted poise? Truth be told, in the moments leading up to and during that class, I completely abandoned my ground, and the reality of my present. I was too busy chasing the shell of a body I imagined as the one I’d like to have, leaving my feet totally empty, devoid of my attention.

Quite beautifully, the body always seems to speak out, at times creating palpable physical obstacles to get us to absorb the deeper implications of what we are failing to do. For me, it was failing to engage with my present ground. Now, I am being forced to studiously live inside my heels, my soles, my arches, and toes, and to experience the roots that I stand on, that keep me upright and sturdy. I am literally being brought to earth, and being made to slow way down, to take every step as walking meditation.

Given how easy it is in this overly complex world to fly up into our heads, and be preoccupied with our multi-dimensional selves, I am also currently mesmerized by our four-month-old taking delight in discovering and grabbing her feet–in yoga this is called happy baby pose—and it is the most natural, essential, and elementary of endeavors. We could all benefit from this sort of scaling back, from being guided once again to our beginnings, our roots, and to the basic building blocks of what make our bodies sound.

In many traditions, kissing the feet of another is interpreted as the ultimate sign of worship, an offering up of oneself in heartfelt surrender to a sage, or holy person of whom one is in awe. It is an act of utter receptivity, gratitude, and submission to a nobler truth as represented by that sublime creature. Imagine, when next you get swept up from your ground, metaphorically kissing your own feet, in worshipful egoless reverence. Surrendering to your feet will inevitably teach you how to emit this same egoless love out into the world.

For the moment at least, simply feel your feet. Breathe life into them, and accept where you are. Don’t fixate on where you need or want to be. Just stride forward consciously, and give from the ground up, one soft mindful step at a time.

The Virtues of Rest

How many of us regularly experience such exhaustion that by day’s end we don’t know which way is up? And why then do we make excuses for taking extra time to rest when we are so overextended?

In the United States, especially here in New York, we too often think something’s wrong if anyone around us needs rest. We act like choosing to rest in our everyday lives, when not reserved for a destination spa or vacation, connotes a problem, feebleness, or an illness demanding special explanation.

This doesn’t make any sense. It is seriously time to reshape how we approach rest.

A brilliant nutritionist I know likens our energy supplies to barrels of apples. Some of us, if we’re lucky, run around with our barrels half full. But the majority of us keep our barrels dangerously close to empty. We are so used to being in deficit, the notion of surplus energy is reserved for the one or two bubbly super humans we know.

Think of rest as actually putting apples back into our barrels, think of it as energetic food. Rest is after all the most natural thing in the world. Animals do it. Babies do it, A LOT. Kids do it too. Even our blackberries, phones, and computers require it. Why, as adults, can’t we?

This past winter, during the last trimester of my pregnancy, I was put on part-time bed rest. After the initial shock and fear of not being able to run all over the place wore off, what I realized was this: Rest is not a punishment. It is a practice, a gift, and a huge opportunity. In rest, there is no weakness or resignation, but insight, fortitude, resilience, mental tranquility and deep ease. Rest also does a lot more than we give it credit for. In my case, it literally grew my baby.

Still, last week I drove myself into the ground. I was drained to the core, so tired and worn out that I just wanted to cry. I simply had to stop. I put myself on minor league bed rest for the weekend, and reminded myself yet again of everything I’m writing about right now.

In yoga, savasana, or corpse pose, is by far the hardest of the asanas. The real practice, in my limited understanding, is to imbue every pose with this sense of tranquil awareness. To stretch further, imagine applying this to your life by making rest a rhythmic part of your every day. Imagine filling every action with flowing repose, every movement with the quietude and floating peace inherent to it.

You can call resting anything you like: recharging, refueling, refreshing, resetting, restoring, recalibrating, replenishing, resuscitating, restocking, restoring, rebooting. No matter the name, shine with wonderful radiant repose.

Especially now, in high hot summer, why not practice rest? This season of long drawn out siestas is the perfect time to prepare for the inevitable and exciting tumult of the fall. I’ll do it with you. Let’s make ourselves, dare I say, legitimate candidates for abundant overflowing barrels. Let’s find out together what a difference this sensibility makes in how we give of ourselves to the world, and in how we are of use to everyone we touch.