Forgive Yourself

I’ve spent a significant portion of my adult life agonizing and lamenting some awful decisions I made. Thankfully as time continues to pass, I’ve been able to gain the space I needed to find perspective. Eventually we are able too look back on our younger selves with compassion rather than shame and regret. We begin to realize that we have to forgive ourselves for not knowing what we didn’t know.

As a child, my family had five dogs at one time. We lived out in the countryside and a lot of our dogs ended up with us because people would drive down our road and abandon them there. Ultimately we were being kind in taking care of them, feeding them, making sure they had all their shots, etc. But my parents would not allow them to live inside the house. It still haunts me to know that those dogs spent so many cold winter days and nights with only a plastic dog house filled with hay to keep them warm, chained in one small area for most of their lives. I still live with a lot of guilt about this which manifests itself in the form of reoccurring dreams where dozens of animals are confined, sick, dying, starving, and forgotten in dirty cramped cages.

I had always blamed myself for the way those dogs lived. Although my sister and I constantly pleaded with my parents to let them live inside, their response was always that if we were so concerned about it, we could give them away. Given this decision I always felt I should have allowed them to find new homes that would have treated them more properly. I was too selfish to do what was right. One day my sister made me realize something though. She said, “That was not our fault. We were children. We shouldn’t have been expected to make such a difficult decision. We loved those dogs and we did our best.” Until that conversation with my sister, I had never really considered the fact that we were merely children. I still have to remind myself of that fact from time to time. Now I’ve even begun to look back at my adolescent mistakes and realize that I was just a kid.

Only since finding another person that I truly love deeply and unconditionally, have I been able to look back at my time in college without immense pain and regret. For a very long time I thought I had destroyed my life. Even though the boyfriend I had back then was incredible and still one of the greatest loves of my life, I cheated on him. Not only that I cheated on him with two different people. Neither of which gave a single shit about me. Ultimately I broke up with that boyfriend in order to continue to explore what else was out there without guilt.

I can’t say what might have happened if I had stayed. All I know is that the years that followed were filled with disappointment, frustration, and heartache. But with my extremely limited romantic experience, how could I have known what I would find? How could I have known that the relationship I had was so uncommon and wonderful? If I hadn’t made the mistakes that I did, I may still be unaware of that. In the end, I’m grateful for the painful lessons I’ve learned through my mistakes. They have allowed me to become the person I am today and to be with another amazing person whom I love dearly.

I’m sure that I will continue to stumble and fall as I move along this path called life. There will be many more difficult lessons for me to learn. I only hope that part of me can remember that despite the pain, time will transform it into something worthwhile. I can recover from my mistakes, learn from them, even be grateful for them one day. But we don’t have to wait for that shift of time and perspective to be kind to ourselves. Punishing or belittling ourselves over our mistakes does not serve us. If nothing else, mistakes are an opportunity to practice self-compassion, self-acceptance, and self-love. It is also a reminder to be gentle with others as they make their own mistakes.

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Fond Farewells

Today’s yoga class is the last one I’ll ever have the pleasure of seeing one of my favorite regular students. She is an older woman named Carol. I felt a strong connection to her right away and was always pleased to see she would basically only come to the studio on Saturdays for my class. We would always stay and chat for a few minutes after class about our practice or about politics. She was truly a delight. There was a palpable absence when she didn’t come to class.

A few weeks ago I found out that she was moving back to her home state. I was quite sad knowing that soon I’d have to say goodbye to one of my students and a good friend. As I prepared my class for this week, I decided to design it specifically for Carol. At the end of practice she always works on her bakasana (crow pose) and urdhva dhanurasana (upward facing bow pose.) As a special treat for her I made the whole class a build up to get us ready for those exact poses. I was happy to talk with her after class to discover that she noticed and appreciated this gesture of mine. I also gave her a small farewell gift. I had planned to give her one of my many hag stones since they are supposed to be good luck. However, I forgot them when I left this morning. Fortunately, I had a lucky howlite crystal keychain I decided to give to her instead.

If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you know that I am not very good with people. I’ve never really understood how to appropriately approach different social situations. So while these kind gestures may seem second nature to a lot of you reading this post, know that for me it took a great deal of consideration and effort. To be honest, I don’t really know if that was “normal” or not when saying goodbye to someone you care about. I often worry that I am being over the top. As I was contemplating what type of small gift I could give her, I even second guessed doing anything special at all. She is just someone I see once a week for an hour or so that I probably won’t ever see again. I’ve certainly parted from people that were more integral in my life with less fanfare, sometimes without as much as a goodbye. I noticed that I was asking myself if it was “worth it.”

Most people seem to interact with others in the way they do simply because it comes naturally. For me, each interaction requires a lot of thought and careful consideration. I spend my mental and emotional energy very sparingly. So when I thought about the fact that I would never see this person again, the cold, logical side of my brain told me it would be a waste to exert any energy making an effort for a relationship that was inevitably ending. Normally I will justify kind gestures by telling myself it will end up being a benefit to me in the future. Even though that may sound heartless and selfish, it’s just the way my brain works even when I do genuinely care about the person involved. It’s usually the only way I can keep myself from avoiding the interaction all together.

I decided to just ignore that icy, calculating side of myself this time though. I felt like I wanted to do something for Carol, so I did. It felt right, and that was enough. Then, as I saw how much my small gestures meant to her, as I saw her teary eyes above her mask as she thanked me for everything, I knew I made the right decision. It doesn’t matter if I don’t see or hear from her again. It doesn’t matter if ten years from now I don’t even remember she exists. Sometimes it’s okay to just be grateful for the fleeting moments in life. Today was about honoring the meaningful connection I made with another human being if only for a brief period in time.

I am always so focused on the future, that sometimes it can be hard for me to find value in the temporary. Yet, nothing lasts forever. Today was a reminder of that. It was a reminder that each moment must be appreciated for what it is, without worrying about what it could be or what it will mean for the future. Isn’t is good enough to be happy just for the sake of being happy? It doesn’t have to last indefinitely for it to mean something. There is truly a lesson in everything if you care to look for it. I am grateful for Carol and the many lessons I’ve learned thanks to having her in my life for the time that I did. I hope she has gained as much from our time together as I have.

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Lessons from Childhood

I find it very interesting to see the way the children I work with interact with the world around them. Although their problems and emotions are often less complex than those that come with adulthood, they can be surprisingly similar in other ways. I find myself specifically fascinated with those common toddler tantrums. It may sound ridiculous coming from an adult, but I identify with their unmanageable emotional states more than you’d think.

It used to make me panic when a little one would start freaking out, but now I see it as an important opportunity. I’m so used to seeing parents only responding with more threats and yelling. Which obviously only makes the child freak out even more. I have no idea what they hope to accomplish with that. Perhaps it’s just an example of the parents having little to no control over their own emotional state while dealing with the child’s.

For me these moments relate back to my dilemma about helping people when they seem stuck in thinking and seeing things a certain way. One of the many wonderful things about children is how malleable their minds are. When a toddler is pouting, I see it as a great opportunity to test out different methods of helping them escape that unpleasant mindset. What works? You really have nothing to lose because even if nothing works, they tend to come out of it on their own quite quickly.

I still haven’t been able to make any super significant progress. But yesterday I did think of something that I’ll definitely try again. A little four-year-old girl was pouting because we took away a box of things she was ripping up. As she stood their, arms crossed, teary-eyed, I tried to come up with a way to show her that it was a waste of time to be angry and upset. Their time at our center was almost over and I wanted her to see that her time would be better spent further enjoying all the toys we have instead of pouting. One question, did seem to make her pause.

I eventually thought to ask her if she liked feeling upset. After a stunned moment of silent thought, she stubbornly answered yes. While it didn’t go exactly as I’d planned, she did seem to see a glimmer of humor in this blatant lie. What I was actually getting at though, and what I hope to be able to show more kids, is that it’s our choice whether to be upset or happy. It seems like I didn’t learn that until a few years ago myself.

When these strong emotions come up inside of us, especially when we are young, it feels like they must be right. That we must be supposed to feel this way, because of whatever has happened. It seems impossible to feel any other way. Then we become indignant, latching on to these negative feelings, insisting on the truth of them. Little ones luckily don’t have the willpower or attention span to hold onto them for very long. But as we grow older, rather than learning how to let go of these feelings quicker, we seem to learn how to hold onto them for far longer instead.

It’s funny how we all agree the things children throw fits about are ridiculous, but as adults we feel our inner tantrums are fully justified. Yet in the grand scheme of things, they are all just as silly. And even if they aren’t, it never helps to harbor negative feelings and sour even more moments in response to things not going our way. Maybe part of the reason I am so interested to figure out ways to help kids with these feelings, is so that maybe I can gain some insight into how to better help myself with them as well.

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Balance

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Once again it was teacher training weekend at my yoga studio. This month they are learning about balancing postures. I think these poses have the potential to be particularly special teaching tools. We are able to learn so much about ourselves through them. They help us build strong stabilizing muscles. They allow us to connect with our center. They help us develop focus, perseverance, and grace. They help us create beautiful shapes with the body. And they also lead to profound insights about who we are and how we deal with life on and off our mats.

One of my favorite sayings in yoga is: the mat is a mirror. Our yoga practice is a little microcosm of life. When we are performing our asanas, when we allow the mind to be still, when we watch our thoughts, our reactions, we are able to learn a lot. One of the most important things balancing postures showed me is how I deal with frustration. I can still remember following along with challenging advanced yoga videos online and getting absolutely infuriated when I wasn’t able to keep up or move through the poses in time with the video. I was literally almost in tears I was so angry. One day I was able to pause long enough and find enough space to see this. Then I couldn’t help but laugh at myself. Why on earth was I getting so mad? Why was I acting so vicious and serious? Why was I being so hard on myself? It all seemed so absurd.

This lesson has stayed with me ever since. I still catch myself becoming upset sometimes when I keep falling out of a balancing pose, but now it just makes me smile. It’s just a reminder to be gentle with myself, to come back to my breath, to remember why I’m here. Falling out of a handstand is just as important as holding one. Maybe even more important. What does doing a pose perfectly teach you? “Failing” to reach your goal is much more helpful for our internal and external growth. When we fall, we learn to fall safely. We learn where are limits are, when to honor and when to challenge those limits. We learn how to keep trying. We learn new things to focus on. We learn how to forgive ourselves. Aren’t these the reasons we keep coming back to our practice? Isn’t that why it’s called a practice? All of these things are so much more valuable to our lives than being able to balance on our hands upside down.

Yoga is a constant reminder that this life is truly about the journey, not the destination. It reminds me of something I saw recently online. It was commenting about how messed up those posters are in schools that say things like: Failure is not an option! How silly that sounds. Failure is always an option. Failure is just another part of the journey, not the end. Failure is full of lessons. It’s an opportunity for growth. It’s not something we should fear or try to avoid. It is necessary. And it’s a perfectly acceptable part of life, no matter what stage of it you find yourself in. We shouldn’t be teaching our children to fear failure but how to embrace it and learn from it. There are so many poses I am able to do now with ease that I never would have imagined I’d be capable of a few years ago. If I wouldn’t have allowed myself to try and fail dozens if not hundreds of times, I would never have found out what amazing things my body could learn to do.

It makes me wonder how many opportunities for growth I’ve already passed up in this life simply because I was too afraid of failure to try. It is these types of thoughts that make me believe that yoga is the best gift I have ever been given in this life. Yoga allows you to realize that you are holding your life in your own hands. It is a soft lump of clay that you can form anything you want out of. Hardships, suffering, failure. Things that once seemed so impossible to face, I now see as lessons, puzzles, mysteries, or riddles. What can I learn from this? Can I find the glimmer of light on the horizon of the darkest night? Can I learn to accept and fully experience whatever this life presents to me? Can I find joy and ease even when it’s hard? If you’re someone who loves to learn like me, you’ll be happy to know that there is a lesson in everything if you look for one. Better still, when you are looking for your own lessons, you will find exactly what you need most.

There is still so much left for me to learn and discover in my yoga practice as well as my life. I’m sure there are even more things like what I’ve discussed today that I will encounter along this strange and beautiful journey. Things that will change me forever. Things that will challenge me, surprise me, test me, and remold me in ways I am unable to imagine as I am now. I can’t wait to keep practicing, to keep searching, learning, finding balance, falling, failing, laughing, and getting back up.

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Community & Isolation

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it should be that solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment. It feels like a huge portion of the human race has been suffering from a less intense version of this type of isolation for over a year now. Even introverts like me have started to feel the effects of spending days upon days alone and cut off from social settings. People’s mental health started to deteriorate after only a few months of lockdown. And that is in our own homes, with access to the internet, television, books, often our pets, roommates, and/or family. Imagine being locked away in just one small room with nothing and no one. With no idea when or if you will ever be allowed to leave or even how much time has passed.

The strange consequences of prolonged separation from others is a humbling testament to how much we really need one another. For me this is quite frustrating and difficult to wrap my head around. How can I simultaneously have social anxiety and need to interact with others regularly to be mentally healthy? Before the lockdowns a year ago, I would have thought I would be my happiest alone in a hut in the woods. But now I see that what we want and what is good for us are often two very different things. I guess we never really stop being children in some ways. Needing someone else to look out for our best interests. I suppose that’s just another benefit of the communal life humans once had that we’ve now strayed from.

Most children would prefer not to go to school, even me, someone who’s always loved learning. I can remember dreading every moment of it. Even signing myself out early a lot of days once I was 18. But looking back, I would love to go to school again. I didn’t realize what a blessing it was to be put in a fishbowl everyday with dozens of other people my age. I didn’t know how difficult life would be once that was no longer a normal part of it. Now I am so grateful for all of those years where I got to spend everyday with my friends, growing and learning and playing together.

Some people are really good at managing themselves. People that create and run their own small businesses or are otherwise self-employed for example. I realized a few years ago that even though I’ve always wanted to break away from normal 9-5 work, there is really no way I would be able to make it on my own without having structure of some kind forced upon me. Given the opportunity, I will always procrastinate and get lazy. It’s quite bizarre given that I’m so rigid about other things in my life.

I’ve always hated the pressure of having someone else to answer to whether it was my parents, my teachers, my peers, or my boss. I thought without this constant stress I would find freedom. However, I’m starting to learn to be grateful for that stress. It seems that without it I fall to ruin. I become utterly lost. Yet even though I’ve realized this strange paradox, it doesn’t make it any easier to help myself.

I often mull over the idea of joining a book club or even starting my own group of some kind. Perhaps a hiking group or a vegan support group. But the eventuality of being held to account by these people, being expected to follow through with plans, etc. is overwhelming. It feels easier and less stressful to just forget about it all together. How frustrating it is to know choosing the path of least resistance is likely not the path to happiness. Even though I don’t necessarily like it, we humans need one another. We need each other for support and love, but also to hold one another accountable so that we may all continue to grow and blossom into the very best versions of ourselves.

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Mental Illness & Culpability

Earlier this week, I did something awful at work which I immediately felt sick with regret and remorse over. Despite, by the grace of God, managing to get away with it, I have spent a lot of time thinking it over. I keep asking myself why did I do it?

Part of me says I did it because I am selfish and callous, cruel even. I didn’t want to have to stay late. I didn’t care about anyone but myself in that moment. Not the client that I could have helped, not my friends and coworkers, not the organization that I’ve come to love. It was more important that I got home on time and maintained my meticulous schedule. Me, me, me. I am just an despicable person.

But another part of me challenges that explanation. If I don’t care, why do I feel so wretched about my actions? Do I only feel guilty because I was worried I’d get caught? I didn’t get caught though. And I still feel terribly ashamed. I also know that logically my actions weren’t even in my best interest. While taking a different path may have still caused me anxiety it wouldn’t have been anywhere near the amount I inflicted on myself by making the choices I did.

Part of me wants to say it isn’t my fault. That I am mentally ill. That I am simply unable to control myself sometimes because of this. I have severe anxiety. I have intense OCD behaviors. These things are manifested in poor decisions and inexplicable actions. I am unwell. This feels more true to me than the idea that I’m just a shitty person who doesn’t care about anyone. But is that only because I’d rather it be true?

I want to take responsibility for my actions though. I don’t want to make up excuses for myself. But I also want people to understand why I sometimes behave in these unforgivable ways. I don’t want it to be a justification, but an acknowledgement that I need help. I guess the culpability comes in when you consider that I know I need help, yet I haven’t made an effort to go ask for it.

After all this thinking though, I started to wonder about other people. Are there even any truly bad people? Or are they just displaying symptoms of mental illness like me? It’s impossible to really know what they are experiencing inside themselves. Many may not even understand what they are experiencing. I don’t think there are evil people in the end. Just sick people that need help. Whether they understand that or not.

I hope I can keep this lesson close to my heart. I hope it can help me do better in the future. Help me be more forgiving, more understanding, less angry, not as quick to pass judgement. Likewise I can only hope others will be able to understand and forgive me for my shortcomings, for my mistakes. And ultimately, I hope I will be able to forgive myself too.

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Breathing Through Discomfort

As my yoga practice continues to grow deeper, it is slowly saturating every corner of my life. It is amazing to be able to integrate this knowledge into my day. One of the invaluable things that yoga has brought to my life is an awareness and connection with the breath. There is so much power in the breath.

At first I began to concentrate on my breathing during my daily workout. Just like in yoga postures, I am often able to find a beautiful balance of effort and ease (sthira and sukha) as I am doing vigorous exercises. The connection to my breath assures that my muscles receive all the oxygen they need. Instead of focusing on how difficult my workout is, I am able to focus on full, deep, and steady breaths. I experience less discomfort (often even finding pleasure) as I push my body to its limits. In addition, time seems to fly by as I find a flow-like state. I find excitement and gratitude for what my body is capable of.

After seeing the benefits mindful breathing could have in my physical experiences, I began to utilize it to benefit my mental state throughout my day as well. I started to notice my breath in moments when I was experiencing something emotionally difficult. I realized that when I am feeling extremely stressed my breath is very shallow. Sometimes it even feels as if I am holding my breath! Once my mind has shifted to my breathing and I begin to breathe slowly and fully, I immediately feel much calmer and less overwhelmed. It’s incredible how much this has helped me cope with challenging emotions. Even my experience of mundane daily tasks, like vacuuming and doing the dishes, has become more pleasant.

I am still struggling with and improving my awareness of my breath every day. I am so grateful that my yoga journey continues to give me new perspectives and new things to focus on in each moment. I am so excited to be able to share the things I learn and give my future students the life changing gifts that yoga has given me. I am so lucky that in a few months I will be certified to teach this ancient, beautiful, and profound practice. Until then I am going to continue learning and growing and enjoying this beautiful journey.

Just breathe. ♥