On Discomfort

"Yoga is the practice of tolerating the consequences of being yourself." 

~ one translation of a line from the Bhagavad Gita

At this moment, I could not agree more. It's that, and then it's also more, and more. I'm here at the Kripalu Yoga, Meditation and Addiction Recovery Conference. Each year this community converges for a week of brave, compassionate fellowship and personal work. I'm honored not only to assist, but most definitely even more so to participate. 

I'm not a flowery writer. My style probably echoes how my mind works- in fits and starts, with sometimes just not the right word. And usually, there's a bit of a bite in there. It's just how I roll. So, I appreciate the starkness of the above quote- however uncomfortable it made me feel a few years ago when I first saw it. 

I've been thinking about the practice of turning inward and toward suffering a lot as I've been writing more, whether on a blog, or in a writing group, or in a journal- and feeling into my voice, learning to write about these things. It's been a great inquiry. When I was a kid, very sensitive, quite emotional, a young budding addict, my mother used to say, "You need to get a thicker skin." What I eventually learned that this really meant was that she was uncomfortable meeting me where I was and teaching me how to be resilient. How does a child gain emotional intelligence? But that was where she was, and so I've needed in adulthood to recover my sensitivity and develop compassion- not only for her, but for myself. And I think that sensitivity and compassion are skills that help me consider deeply what I write about- and how. But they came in time, through steady effort and a willingness to let go a little into creative flow. 

Pretty much across the board, when I listen at 12-step meetings, I hear people in recovery reporting feelings very early on of being "not quite right" inside or feeling "different." Though the specific circumstances vary, I can say that yes, that was my experience. I felt and saw and knew that the adults in my life were not well regulated. We had lots of joy in our household- I'd hate to make anyone think our family life was all bad- not at all. But somehow, even those moments of joy were punctuated by a sense that This is not real. This will end very soon. The other shoe will drop. 

Around the ages of 7-9, a series of personal and family traumas set our home dynamic on its end. My mother began her slow decline into her addiction and from about 1982 to 1999 her disease worsened and eventually took her life. My parents bounced off each other- unable to find the comfort with one another each desperately needed- until 1989 when my mother finally jumped ship. The years in between and even after the split were hard- for a lot of reasons that are too complicated for this post (that's a story for another day, or maybe my sponsor). 

It's not a very comfortable way to live- not for long, anyway. Just like wearing those itchy sweaters my 11-year-old niece hates, staying in an uncomfortable place- without tools- can make you feel that your skin is on fire. Welts break out, panic sets in, and you'd do anything- just about anything at all- to get out of that situation. 

I found alcohol pretty early- at the age of 13, I figured out how to sneak wine coolers to school in a thermos and skim liquor off the top of the bottles in my parents' cabinet. My mom never noticed the incremental amounts of wine that disappeared from the large grocery-store jug of white zinfandel (horrors!)- and so I got away with it. I'd sneak out, or go to a party under the auspices that the parents would be there only to return vomiting uncontrollably. My mother would later cover for me since she knew the rage that would follow once my dad found out- so then she had the dirt on me, and round and round we'd go. That was the psychological backdrop for my habit- but moreover, alcohol made me feel warm and relaxed in a way nothing else did. 

But this is not meant to be a drunk-a-log. We know what happens when people are substance abusers: relationships suffer, often-preventable accidents happen, health, employment status, and finances are ruined, and legal consequences ensue. I didn't have all of those yet, but enough had happened over my 25 year career of binge drinking (and later daily maintenance drinking) to finally give in. I surrendered on September 1, 2012 under a starry sky, calling out to the universe to please take this away from me. I can't say I've really looked back, ever- but I've had to look deeper and deeper to stay on this path. That's the way it works- once you commit to recovery it has to be complete (read: not perfect). Otherwise, as my teacher and mentor Nikki says, in the way only she can, "you may be dry, but you're still a miserable asshole." 

Over time I've learned to sit with more and more discomfort and with greater and greater ease. If it weren't for the principles of the 12 steps: rigorous honesty, open mindedness, willingness (or at least, the willingness to be willing), humility, surrender, trust, dedication, introspection, devotion, consistency and service; along with the practices of yoga (sitting in meditation, with a mind that is open and a heart that knows the way, embodying steadiness and ease, breathing in the present moment, self-study and compassion) there's a decent chance I wouldn't still be sober and those other "not yets" would begin to materialize.

To "tolerate the consequences" of being myself, I had to first be willing to look. I thank the god of my understanding every day for the teachers who came before me- and before my sobriety date- as well as those teachers who still guide me today, for showing me through their lives and through their wisdom how to hold myself in compassion so that I could take that first look, and then a second, and a third... 

(Part 2 coming... stay tuned.) 


On Activism (part IV)

I was heartened after the 2016 Presidential election to see that so many of my friends donated to the ACLU and NRDC and other extremely worthy organizations- I did too. I follow these organizations on Instagram and try to stay abreast of the positive anti-Trump administration work they are all doing. Our people and our planet depend on it. What good is a "Great" America if basic human rights for all are destroyed in the process? And what good are "jobs" and "borders" if our planet as we know it is not around for future generations? 

I'm grateful for the new breed of activism that has arisen (under the threat of very ancient racism and insidious greed that's been given a new face in this administration). And yet, there's a sense that this same new breed of activism has the potential to be counter-productive if we don't know our own motives and commit to fully examining and grounding the roots of our activism in ethical practices.  

For example, in my case, as a white person I attempt to remain extremely aware of how my comments and actions might be heard and experienced by people of color. I thus make the effort to speak and to act with intention. I recently saw the hilarious (yet scarily real) film "Get Out" and I was not at all surprised at the conversations that film has started around so-called well-meaning liberalism. Are we passively liberal just to make ourselves feel better and maintain the status quo (keeping folks of color in "the sunken place")? Or are we truly allies doing meaningful, grounded work to level the playing field and ultimately elevate consciousness and empowerment for all? 

(In this post, I really just want to weigh in on where I sit at this moment amidst an ongoing exploration of activism.) 

I've been exploring justice work for some time now- and have learned and grown a bit already. Just a few years back I found myself challenged a lot by the new ways I was being asked to think and consider the "-ist" (sex-, race- age- able- etc...) structures of our society many of us have come to accept as business as usual. I'm forever grateful to the Yoga Service Council (Project Yoga Richmond is a member organization) for helping ground my practice and teaching in the context of justice. After spending even just a little time in that world, I'm beginning to feel my horizons widening, and the expanding opportunities to play a meaningful, albeit small, part in true liberation for all. 

To that end, Up Dog Yoga, LLC is now a member of the Business Coalition for Justice, a coalition of businesses working together to raise awareness of and combat the structural causes of racial inequity in the U.S. I'm honored to serve on the steering committee for BCJ.

I also joined SURJ-RVA, the local chapter of Showing Up For Racial Justice. "Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) believes in collective liberation -- and that none of us can be free until we end white supremacy." I especially appreciate SURJ's accountability to people of color as a core tenet of the organization's primary action initiatives. 

I've written in the past about how any action I take toward awareness and strength within myself ultimately strengthens my connection to those around me and increases my need for justice- my own liberation is making it more and more important for me to work for the liberation of all. If that transformation truly happens on every level within me, that seems an inevitable result. Shame blocks us from taking action because it makes us hide our authentic selves. We play small. Or, we overcompensate. Or I think worst of all, we just play along in a system that is harmful for many, many people, often the most vulnerable. None of this is especially good, from an actual or a karmic standpoint. 

I've said before that as my own recovery unfolded and layers of shame lifted, I ultimately uncovered my own deeply held dormant value system. I'm grateful to have had teachers very open about how their recovery has led to the birth of ethics- as my teacher Rolf Gates says, "We maintain our freedom through healthy self-boundaries." The most effective ethical systems are grounded in self-compassion. How will I suffer the effects of treating someone in less than a kind manner? A moment of resentment or meanness on my part often results in hours of personal pain and guilt. This is because I suffer when I cause suffering and I desire not to create pain and suffering- for myself or others. This, for me, is ahimsa in its deepest expression. I have more freedom, more peace, more space in my life and in my relationships because of the effort I take to do no harm.

These days I try my utmost to act with kindness, honesty, non-violence and generosity. It generally makes most of my decisions on what actions to take much easier. Often this means I need to remain silent-- that, too, is an action. Can we sit in the presence of suffering and not try to fix it? This is a critical question- another teacher, Matthew Sanford, says that if we try to fix another person's suffering we unintentionally dis-empower them. 

I may never fully understand what forces had to come together for me that both of my primary teachers, Rolf Gates and Nikki Myers, would end up being very vocal, awakened people of color (unlike me) and in recovery from addiction (like me). I consider myself very fortunate to attempt to follow their lead in recovery and in activism. Nikki often quotes her teacher, saying, "How you do anything is how you do everything." In 12 Step programs we say "practice these principles in all our affairs" and "stick with the winners" and that we have to be "willing to go to any length" for our recovery. 

I say we need to be willing to go to any depth as well. 

On Mondays

I'll admit it- I'm not usually a Monday person. I love what I do- and anyway, there is no real significance to Mondays in the life of a self-employed yoga teacher- so it's a completely irrational dis-like. 

On any day or with any occasion though, it really only takes a few things to make a "bad" time more pleasant. Often it's a shift in attitude, or meditation, or some nutrition to boost mood, or exercise, or journaling or something like that. 

Today was sort of an "all of the above" morning. It was a day for

  • lemon water
  • meditation (just 10 minutes today)
  • coffee 
  • a long run with a dear friend
  • good tunes on the way home
  • a delicious protein and nutrition-packed smoothie, so pretty I had to take a fancy photo of it (recipe below) 
  • some time writing

Often any one of these is enough to shift me from energy-draining inaction and negative thinking to increased focus, purpose and whole-heartedness. Today I was lucky enough to start the week on a light note and able to do them all. It sure ain't always that way! 

The aforementioned smoothie: 

1/2 frozen banana 

3/4 cup filtered water

1/4 cup raw almonds

3 large organic strawberries

big scoop Vega protein powder, chocolate

2 tbsp chia seeds (I've written before about my love for them

Blend all of the above til a smooth puree, pour into a pretty glass and top with raw cacao nibs and coconut flakes. Vegan, protein packed and super delicious. 


On Wholeness

"Yoga is a system of practices and attitudes that ground us in our inherent wholeness."


At age 21-22 and reeling from my own unhealed childhood trauma, not to mention living under the oppressive regime of addiction, I could not have fully understood the power that yoga would eventually have in my life. But I eventually learned. 

In those early days- my first class was sometime in 1994, when I was in my sophomore or junior year at VCU- I remember sensing something very potent but very foreign to me. I looked around- as newcomers often do- and saw a lot of people who seemed to know just what to do. I, on the other hand, did not. In fact, I left my first vinyasa class crying because I felt something very wrong inside me, very out of step with something everyone else seemed to know. That experience stuck with me. But I'm so grateful I went back.

A while later I sat in my Zen Buddhism class and we studied the concept of touching the earth. This would come up over a decade later in my study with Rolf Gates who frequently tells the "touch the earth" story as a message of awakening now, here, in the moment- the only moment we have. It's always the perfect time and place to awaken. (The above link sends you to a free podcast during which Rolf discusses this subject.) 

For many of us drawn to study self-improvement (though I prefer the term self-acceptance), the body, life, the circumstances we find ourselves in have been something to be endured. Life is something to be tolerated rather than enjoyed and the journey of self-improvement or self-acceptance is despite all of that. This was the case for me. "Resting in the felt experience of the now" is not always easy or even possible when you're nine years old and drinks are getting hurled across the room and doors are getting slammed. 

But I digress. 

Self-acceptance for me has been a journey of subtraction- rather than add what I think I need to be right with the world I usually need to subtract anything that stands in the way of trusting that I'm already there. The practice of meditation has helped me find the frequency where that subtraction can happen. When I'm not practicing presence, I'm prone to seek all sorts of approval or fulfillment from something that I probably don't need- and by the way, probably already have, without the thing I'm seeking. 

So this "practicing presence"- what does it look like? 

1. Notice you're not present. This takes practice. In fact it all takes practice. 

2. Notice what it felt like to be not present. 

3. Get a sense of your feet on the ground/seat on the cushion/back on the chair. (Touch the earth.)

4. Listen externally for sounds, look around at the room and the place you're in, to just get a sense of what's here in the moment. 

5. With eyes either open or closed, get a sense of your center. What feels like your center right now? It might be your belly, it might be your heart, or your forehead... connect to that center and feel for a moment what it's like to breathe into your center and breathe out of your center. Breath going in, breath going out. Breath going in, breath going out. 

6. Wait a while until the "not present" feeling passes. Feel what you feel now. Feel the temperature of the air, the dryness or dampness of your palms, the texture of the clothing you're wearing, the feeling of your body breathing, a sense of heaviness or buoyancy. This is YOU in the present moment. Just you. 

7. Repeat these practices often enough that you are able to do them with as little effort as possible (meaning, they come naturally, as you are talking to someone, or preparing a meal, or writing a speech). And practice them especially when things are good, when it's easy, so you have the skills to use when things are not so easy. I do it daily as part of my meditation practice.

Wholeness is a practice. It's not pushing away experiences or striving for them. It's being there, with the body and the breath, seeking only present moment awareness. 

Try it! 

For me, most of the time, when I practice presence I find myself needing to do, be, or accomplish less in order to feel successful and fulfilled. The simpler answer comes. Usually it's characterized by kindness, non-violence, generosity, and honesty. That feels good- and it tends to grow. Most good things in my life, in fact, come from practicing presence. This feels something like wholeness. And it's already there, waiting for you. 


On Women

I recently became obsessed with two series: "The People vs OJ Simpson," the dramatized series centered on the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in June of 1994 and the subsequent trial and acquittal of Nicole's ex-husband, OJ Simpson; and "OJ: Made In America," the Academy Award-winning five part ESPN documentary focusing on not only the criminal trial, but also race, sports, fame, money, power, and the context of these in which those involved found themselves. 

The dramatized series is just so-so; the documentary is amazing and makes a great point that how we define ourselves is important in determining not only, obviously, our identity, but also our place, our in-groups, and how we experience success and failure. OJ from very early on was very pointed in his remarks about his identity, saying he wanted to be known as OJ and for his accomplishments as an athlete. He rarely spoke out on behalf of issues of race or gender or income, focusing almost solely on his abilities. He had found tremendous success and likability among white society, and was heralded for the success that he had rightfully earned. Of course, as we know, that was not the end of the story. 

My point in bringing this up is that I realized while watching it that I have never really thought of myself as a woman. Oh, I've always identified as female- but truth be told, I never put a lot of energy or thought into being female.  And as a friend said today, on International Women's Day, "I realized I had spent most of my life learning how to succeed among men." Our identity is often contextualized by the dominant part of society. "Girl power" was always something for tweens and teens to get some confidence, so they could kick ass in a man's world. I can only imagine that it's a similar experience for many if the word "sex" is replaced by "race" or "class" or "gender identity" or "ability." It's something to sit back and realize that this is the case- I think at some level I always conceptualized identity as a unique, distinct thing- but this notion is naive at best.  

Over the past year or so, I've come to identify more and more as a woman and to understand what that really means. I probably can't articulate it all here, but it definitely involves the expression of female-ness in every day life and in the places where I derive most satisfaction- from caring for others, from providing food and nourishment and affection to my dogs, giving a listening ear to my friends, offering partnership and a welcoming home for and with my husband, and building opportunities and support to those in my community. There is a strength that comes in actively forming vital connections characterized by mutual support and respect. These are aspects of embracing femininity- even if I don't identify them as such as often as I should. And motherhood expresses itself in many ways. Of course many men express these same traits and have these needs as expression of their own inborn femininity- a good thing! But as a very fearful young woman, much of my energy was put in to self-preservation in a very volatile world and thus these very nurturing qualities were often put away. I had to put away much of what it meant for me to be female in a male-dominated world. I replaced that with other, inauthentic forms of that similar need- taking care of unavailable men, taking on the pain of others, and masking my own pain with food and alcohol and especially when I was younger, drugs. 

My own mother was also a nurturer, and a loving, sensitive, creative soul- she made it easy to like her. On her best days I felt so lucky to be her daughter. On other days I was so afraid that I'd lose her. And on the worst days, I was afraid of her. And most of the time I think she was afraid of her greatness. She shined so bright, loved so hard, put herself out there, took so many risks, made things so complicated, and was so hard on herself when others didn't fully appreciate her efforts. She receded to a very dark place. She didn't have "the capacity to be honest" about this and succumbed to the inevitable deterioration that comes when we don't find our way to the light. 

I sat down recently to write a little about her death. It's been almost 18 years since she died from cirrhosis of the liver brought on by chronic alcohol abuse and dependence, at the age of only 50, when I was 25. (I'll be publishing that story soon and will be sure to post a link here when that happens.) That painful chapter hung a very heavy shroud over me for something like 13 years, until I realized I needed to step out into the light and live my own "woman's story." And thanks to the living example of women making a different choice about their own disease, I feel I am just beginning to touch what it means to truly live the life of a woman.  And it's an amazing thing. 

I'm not an accomplished feminist- I don't even know all the lingo- but what I do understand is that as we liberate ourselves, our capacity to liberate others grows. I wrote in an earlier post about how as I found recovery my own buried value system began to recover too. What was left was a deep need, as my teacher Rolf often says, to live "with an open heart and an open mind, seeking only to know what is true." 

These days I'm leaning in- taking in as much information as I can about what it means to be marginalized, to be in a place in society where your very real human experience is denied, minimized, trivialized, tokenized, or silenced.

“My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit!”


I saw the above on a sign (it's actually a spirited oldie-but-goodie article) at the Women's March on Washington on January 21. Yes, I actually put a pink knitted cap on my head and walked with the thousands upon thousands of others, men, women, trans, old, young, white, people of color- walking and smiling and shouting and speaking out on behalf of the environment, LGBTQ rights, immigration reform, reproductive rights, income equality- all of which are women's rights too. It was amazing. I felt more like a woman that day than ever.

There's a lot more to say about this, of course. But mainly here I want to say out loud that I stand with you- whatever your struggle or challenge or identity might be. I'm a woman, dammit, I nurture and support and love and I know the strength that comes from knowing someone has your back. I know I was born to live a life that "gives voice to the great heart within." I recently wrote that for so long it was the addict's heart that beat inside my chest- but that heart is growing fainter and fainter and is now being summarily ousted by a deeper heart that knows and trusts and seeks the truth, always. There's a steadiness and strength that was always there- though I lost the ability to access it for a long time- it's back for good. I wish that for every person, female-identified or not. Will it be messy? Will I screw it up? Undoubtedly. But I will not forget that my place is with you, speaking from that "great heart within," aiming for a world that respects and honors every one of us. May it be so. 


On Chia

I'm the type of person to get really hooked on one food and eat it so often I can't stand the thought of it anymore. It's been that way since I can remember. I was thinking the other day how as a kid I used to eat Tang (powdered, before it's been added to water) by the heaping spoonful in secret. Or I'd heat up tuna fish in tin foil with melted cheese on it and eat that as a snack. I have always had a weird relationship with food. I blame it on the addict's DNA I was born with. We simply seem unable to feel, comprehend, and follow natural urges to feel satiated. 

I write in present tense here-- just the other day I was eating peanut butter by the heaping spoonful right before bed. Old habits die hard-- when I was a heavy drinker especially back in my 20's, we'd hit the Hardee's drive thru after midnight for half price burgers. I now cringe at the thought of fast food meat co-mingling in my belly with Jaegermeister. 

The more things change, the more they stay the same-- isn't that the saying? 

A few years ago when I started looking really closely at my diet and how food affects everything-- mood, digestion, elimination, skin clarity, hair and nail growth, muscle tone, stress, brain function-- everything-- I started trying super foods. These nutrient dense and protein-packed edible wonders make healthy eating more of a no-brainer and for someone like me, that's a pretty enticing proposition. 

I think chia seeds were one of the first super foods I got hooked on. I put them in and on everything. Then it was cacao powder, acai, goji berries, kale... the list grew. I got bored of all of it but chia is something I have circled back to over and over again. They add protein (almost 5 g per ounce) plus they are rich in magnesium, calcium, and iron and add 10 g dietary fiber per ounce. 

I use chia seeds most often in small quantities in smoothies or on oatmeal or cereal. Although I had heard about it for years, I'd never tried chia pudding until recently. So on a whim and with an abundance of bananas and chia seeds I made banana chia pudding. It makes a yummy snack or dessert. Here's the recipe I used which was just off the top of my head-- makes two servings: 

2 bananas, blended till a thick liquid with an immersion blender

4 tsp chia seeds, added by stirring into banana (if you blend with blender they will break down and the dish will not have the same consistency, but no harm is done) 

2 tsp raw local honey (optional- only necessary if you prefer more sweetness), mixed in 

Pour the above into two glasses or cups or small dishes

2 tbsp raw cacao nibs (which also contain protein and magnesium), divided in half and sprinkled on top of each serving (in the photo below, I drizzled honey on top too because why not? 

Let sit for about 30 minutes. Refrigeration will speed up the process. 

Finding foods that make me feel clear headed, strong and balanced-- especially when they are delicious-- is something of a super power. When I indulge in too much starch, refined sugar, salt, or dairy (which I don't eat very much of these days-- slowly weaning off) I feel foggy, lazy, achy, bloated, and irritable-- not exactly my most kick-ass state to be in. It's a process of trial and error to find out which foods have that rock star effect on my psyche and body. I only know it when I feel it. Have fun exploring and enjoy! 

Photo Mar 06, 8 00 50 PM.jpg

This is so delicious I can't even stand it.