Wednesday, March 12, 2014
My family and I are currently living as expats in China (if you didn't know that already). This fact has afforded us the opportunity to travel quite a bit within Asia. We recently spent a week in India visiting Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. I am a yoga teacher and have been fascinated with India (where yoga comes from) for many years now, so I always thought my travel to India would be with a yoga group or to stay at an ashram in order to dive deeply into my practice. As it turns out though, my husband Stephen and I decided that for the Chinese New Year holiday we would do a more cultural trip with our kids and India guaranteed to be a unique adventure for our family.
In consideration of our kids, and in an attempt to avoid any gastrointestinal disasters, we booked into the nicest hotels that cater to Westerners. Stephen created an ambitious itinerary, packing in the places to go and sites to visit. We landed in Delhi and the learning began almost immediately.
The hotel car picked us up at the airport and the first thing we saw as we pulled out from the airport parking lot was several women dressed in brightly colored orange and red saris laying in a dirt field along with several emaciated dogs. We knew that poverty would be rampant in India and we discussed this quite a bit with the kids leading up to the trip, but seeing it up close is another thing entirely.
On our first full day in Delhi we headed out early, in a day of dense smog, to visit several famous sites. We saw the Bahai Lotus Temple, Red Fort, Humayun's Tomb and Gandhi Smriti. Each of these places had so much beauty and history. How amazing to stand in the spot where Gandhi took his last steps, or to see the impressive and beautiful fort built by Shah Jahan, all of it was stunning and awe inspiring. A stand out memory of that day though, is a moment when we were caught in a huge snarl of traffic, our hired driver who spoke next to no English was seemingly lost in his own city. We were at a stand still in the middle of a vortex of chaos. There were people everywhere, cars trying to eek through any way they could, hundreds of these green and yellow tuk tuk taxis, a symphony of horns honking, and of course the occasional cow, horse or goat just ambling on by. At one point a cow strolled by within touching distance of my daughter Avery's window. She was sitting in the seat next to me and I could see a look of curiosity meets disbelief on her face. She turned to me and said, "Well Mom, I didn't think there could be a place crazier than China, but you found it!" This made me laugh, and she smirked a bit herself. I had to admit she was correct. This place, from the first moment, presented itself as truly foreign and otherworldly for us. It would continuously challenge our concepts of the world and fill our senses with every possible nuance of color, texture, smell, flavor, and leave us all altered in some way.
The week was a whirlwind of hotels, highways, temples and palaces. We were constantly taking in astounding and marvelous places; the Taj Mahal, Amber Fort, City Palace in Jaipur, and Akshradam Temple to name a few. The architecture and artistry of every place we visited was beautiful and stirring. Holiness hung in the air in each temple. The palaces were opulent and rich in both artistry and history. These places hold the stories and legends of India, vessels of what has come and gone, and what remains. What remains is a people, a culture, now with multitudes embroiled in deep suffering, but holding fast to hope, but even more than that devotion.
India, much like China, is a country that, despite a growing middle class, still has a significant part of its population living in poverty. The disparity between classes is considerable and the haves have extreme wealth and the have nots often times have little or nothing. In India the have nots are everywhere. The poverty we saw was a shocking and brutal assault on our reality and sensibilities. You can't look away from the poverty and suffering in India because it is everywhere. You can turn your head , but there it is. There were children with beautiful pleading eyes and faces tapping on the windows of our car, raising their fingers to their mouths in a plea for food, and when we gestured that we had none to offer they still would smile generously as we moved on. We saw people on nearly every street, in every city, sleeping on the sidewalks, picking through the garbage. We saw people with serious physical deformities languishing on the pavement. We saw whole families living in filth and famine. At the end of each day we retreated to our hotel oasis and I was immersed in deep gratitude for how blessed a life I have, and so thankful that my children have everything they need and so much more, but my heart ached for the people who would sleep on the pavement that night, especially the children.
India holds up to the light of day the reality of human suffering by revealing its most extreme forms.
What was stunning and touching to me was seeing the depth of devotion that lives along side the suffering. Spirituality is woven into even the roughest cloth, faith rising even where there is the deepest despair. I saw over and over people greeting each other with hands enfolded in prayer position, looking at each other and offering a namaste or namaskar. Almost every block boasted at least a small temple and the quality of bhakti or devotion was clear in every city we visited.
It was so evident to me there that we are all connected in this reality of human suffering and we all live in a family of the human spirit. What I saw, in a powerful heart centered way, was God in the face of every person I encountered, and I was humbled. I saw, how even in what seems to be impenetrable darkness, that light can shine forth when faith is nourished and when spirit is sustained. I saw this clearly in the shining smiles of children, mothers holding their babies, in street side communities where people could be seen sharing both hardship and laughter.
India was at once heartbreaking and breathtaking. It was a hand outstretched offering a view of all human experience; rich and poor, joy and sorrow, devotion and despair and it ultimately pointed toward an awareness of the most powerful forces we all encounter, life and death. The poor of India walk on the razor's edge of life and death every day. I sense in that relationship with death the deep roots of this feeling of sacred presence and spiritual focus. In the West we try to deny aging and death. We view death as taboo, a dark enemy force that maybe we can somehow avoid. We get sucked into a life of delay and denial, and we focus on superficial and unimportant things. We take our time here for granted. Maybe that is why spiritual life is at the forefront of daily living in India. So many people there have nothing, so they take nothing for granted. They live from faith, they live on faith.
India has a certain peace in the midst of the most profound chaos. It is beauty and grace dancing with despair. India is light meeting darkness. In my yogic studies I have wrangled with the idea that divinity is all encompassing, that there is nothing that is not an expression of God. This is so opposite to the Western notions of good versus evil, this is God and that is the devil, black and white views on human experience. Going to India helped me better understand this idea of everything arising from a cosmic intelligence which we might call God or divinity, in my lineage of Kripalu Yoga we might just call it love. Love leads us away from fear, love is the essence of faith, love is the birthright of all beings no matter the circumstances of the life they were born into.
I am still in the beginning stages of my studies and these are observations that are mere seeds that I am planting and I will see what grows from them. A week in India proved to be a great teacher and I feel I am changed. I know the direction I have been taking in my life is the direction my soul wants to travel. I seek to live a life dedicated to yoga, a creative, spirit centered life. I hope to go back to India. I would love to take that yoga trip, go on a pilgrimage, do some service work. My heart has found yet another home.
A few pictures.
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
I have found that over the last few years I feel more and more bombarded by messages about dreaming big, shooting for the stars, being more, aiming high. I do appreciate these ideas and the sentiment, I do. I agree that we all have one life to live and we should all be using our talents and passions to live fully and deeply. I think life brings each of us gifts and callings and it is up to each of us to travel a path of self discovery in order to live with purpose. In the yoga world we refer to this as dharma or finding our life's soul work.
I am also completely on board with the concept of moving beyond one's comfort zone, as well as the actions of moving through fear, taking risks and really owning our inner power and brilliance, which we all have. I think we are all put here to shine bright and be bold in our own particular ways and I have experienced first hand the need to challenge my fears and insecurities in order to step forward and grow. The world needs each of us to be courageous and even outrageous in our quest to be fully expressed in our lives. I do see a lot of fear, lethargy and stagnation in our culture. I have experienced periods of all these in my life too. It is hard work to break through, but it is worth it. After all, now is the time. Life can't wait.
I also think there is a shadow side to this dream big mentality. I have noticed that when I see all these messages coming at me through social media, magazine articles, self help books, television shows and all the other possible sources, I start to feel anxious and agitated, sometimes I start to sink towards depression. I find that I am judging myself too harshly and comparing myself with others who seem to be out there living the dream, making amazing things happen and changing the world. I start to feel very insecure and find myself thinking obsessively about what great, outstanding, bigger and better things I should be doing, or at least planning to do. I fall down an emotional hole of "I am not enough as I am." I feel life passing me by and an urgency that I better get to it. I better define this big dream, this achievement of grand proportions I am supposed to create, and then I better succeed. In reality I have a very interesting life and I have accomplished more than I ever thought I would or could, and yet there is this pressure.
I am only speaking for myself here. I am confident though, that if I am feeling this way, others probably are too. I was recently watching a video by Brene Brown on worthiness and she said it has gotten to a point where an ordinary life is not acceptable. That rang so true for me. There is a pressure, I feel, to be extraordinary. This high ideal steals the value from all the beautiful, and yes, ordinary things that I do and experience each day. It takes me out of being present in this moment, because it keeps pulling my awareness to a future me. It makes the present day me not ok, not enough.
What I have realized is that this is an issue of balance. When I let these messages affect me in a way that creates a feeling of lack, and a pressure to be more, I am pulled out of my center. My energy gets disrupted and my mind becomes agitated and unstable. My heart closes and my walls of defense go up. My ego gets triggered and a snowball effect ensues.
I want to dream big. I do dream big, but I also want to be calm, centered and grateful for today. I don't want to miss out on noticing and deeply appreciating the small and ordinary wonders of my day to day life as it is right now.
I have taken on a practice to create more balance around this issue. Some people do a gratitude journal which is powerful too, but can focus too much on externals in my opinion. My practice is a small victories or worthiness journal. Every day I list at least five things that I did, or qualities I see in myself that I want to acknowledge and appreciate. On a day when I am particularly down I might acknowledge the mere fact of getting out of bed and taking on the day. I am crediting myself for making healthy food for my family, having necessary conversations with my kids, doing my daily meditation, yoga and dance practices, getting out for my runs, working on writing. I am also setting small victory goals for myself that will contribute to my bigger dreams, things like saying yes to teaching opportunities, making suggestions for new workshops I can try at the yoga studio, sending that email, brainstorming or making a vision board. I am looking forward with an openness to all possibility and a desire to say "Yes" to life, and at the same time I aim to keep myself anchored in today, in the present moment where life is actually happening.
True happiness and fulfillment come from creating deep internal connection and being joyful about being alive. The small things are not small at all. The best things in life are simple; hugs and smiles, flowers and trees, being with each other in this world, and most of all love.
Dream big and celebrate the all the amazing ordinary things each day.
Monday, February 17, 2014
A year ago today my family and I moved to Shanghai China. I will write here about my perspectives, experiences and learning. I am sure my husband Stephen and each of our three children who live here with us would have an entirely different take on it all.
When we found out we were moving here we all experienced excitement, fear, interest and a whole lot of anticipation over the unknown expanding in front of us. We all new that this would be life changing, amazing and assuredly challenging, but we didn't know how; how it would look, feel, sound, taste, we knew next to nothing.
The move, as all our moves have been, was most challenging for me (that is my opinion of course). I say that because for Stephen and the kids there was some continuity of experience. Stephen has his job to structure and fill his days, the kids have school. Yes, their transition has also had its highs and lows, bumps in the road, but they have had some immediate structure and familiarity.
For those of us called "trailing spouses" it is a bit like being thrown out of an airplane into unknown territory without a map or compass. We land, look around, and begin to fumble about like fish out of water trying to figure out what the hell we are supposed to do now. The first few weeks for me were a wake up call. I quickly realized that I am an immigrant here. I didn't know how to achieve the most basic things like get food, pay a bill, set up my cell phone or bank account. On top of that I am completely illiterate here. It is one of the scariest things I have ever confronted, being unable to communicate, speak, read, write. Nothing. Talk about feeling vulnerable, helpless, exposed. I still feel that way quite often, even after a year and learning some basic Mandarin.
Most of us trailing spouses are wives who have followed husbands here for job opportunities. We are the "tai tais". Tai tai is Mandarin for wife, there are some "guy tais" as well to be fair. We live in what we call "the bubble", areas that cater to foreigners and are really an oasis, a kind of tamed down China. I really like going out of the bubble and into old neighborhoods, exploring interesting sites and taking in the culture and the people. It is nice to have the bubble to go back to though, as I sometimes find the experience here can get overwhelming and produce sensory overload.
A great part of this experience is the friends to be made. We expats are a collective, all on this ride, this walk on the wild side and so we all have that in common. Even with my introvert nature and tendency toward social awkwardness, I have met many amazing people and grown some beautiful friendships. The painful part of this is losing people. After only a year here I am faced with saying goodbye to several friends who are repatriating. The fact of the temporary and fleeting nature of expat life has a lot to teach about impermanence and the practice of non attachment. It is a tough one. Really it is just a mirror of life anywhere, everywhere. People come and people go. Life is transitory and fleeting. There is so much opportunity in that respect to explore how I deal with change, how I relate with loss, how I grieve or resist grief. The full on experience will come at the end of the school year, but I am feeling into it even now.
After not too long a time being here I ventured into teaching yoga part time at a big Shanghai yoga studio, and what lessons I would learn there! Teaching there was very difficult because the culture of the studio was very rigid around what yoga is and what it should look like. My teaching, which emphasizes the spiritual over the physical, was not valued or embraced at the studio. I had a choice to be authentic and true to myself, or try to fit the mold and teach within the desired parameters. Despite the pain it caused me I chose to be me, to go against the grain. My classes were not very popular, but I know I reached a number of people, and if even one student gained insight or depth from my teaching then it is a victory. My confidence was shaken and my ego bruised, but it was very powerful for me to stand my ground and walk my truth when under pressure to conform. In the end I found a new studio that has new vision, and that is a journey yet to come.
Some of the biggest lessons I have learned here are about what I have taken for granted in my life. Clean air, water and food to start. The biggest concern of these is air. I can get bottled water and pay more for import or higher quality foods, but you can't buy clean air. What is more vital than the air you breathe? There have been days when the air has just made me angry and left me wondering how a people, a country, could ever have gotten to this point, allowed it to get this bad. I realize now that this is a reactivity I go to often, blaming. The truth is the pollution is a complex problem involving many factors and there is not a quick or easy solution. What I have learned is that people here do care, they do notice, but they have little recourse and no time or energy to spare to engage in activism. They are busy getting the days food on the table, working very hard to get by. Besides, activism is not such a welcome concept here, the people must tread lightly.
That brings up another thing I am more grateful for because of my experiences here. There is so much to be valued and recognized about personal freedom, the ability to express my opinions without fear or hesitation. There is extreme government control here over the media including social media. Facebook, YouTube, even Blogger, which I am writing this on, are blocked in China. All of us expats get around this with use of a vpn. Censorship is just a fact of life.
Another fact of life here is having no privacy. People here know the government is watching and just accept it. As I have watched, from the vantage point of a country with such an invasive government, the discovery of my home country's NSA spying programs, I can only think that it would be a mistake to ignore it or trust that it is all fine. The saying "You don't know what you've got til it's gone." comes to mind.
Treasure what you have. Enjoy every bite of healthy food you eat, pause when you are near rivers, streams, lakes or the ocean and give thanks. Cherish a breath of clean air. Make a conscious choice to value your freedoms and rights, work to keep them by speaking out and voting wisely.
The most important thing I am learning though is about honoring people. Even with a language barrier, cultural differences and sensory overload, despite all the challenges I have confronted, I know now, more than ever, that a smile is really the only language we need. No matter how different a people might seem, we are all searching for the same things; to have what we need to be safe and secure, to be accepted and understood, and most of all to be loved. I believe that love can conquer all and by reaching out with an intention of loving kindness I find that condition increasing within myself.
The culture and history of this country and its people is rich and deep. I have barely scratched the surface of learning about these things. When I am out and about in the city of Shanghai, I marvel at the mix of old and new, the industriousness and ingenuity required to build the impressive skyscrapers, the beauty of the old neighborhoods, the sculptures and the temples. I most love to see the people, playing cards on the street, doing tai chi or dancing in the park where I run, riding their bicycles, out with their kids. I am glad that through my teaching I have the chance to share my Kripalu Yoga practice and Let Your Yoga Dance with local students. I intend to continue to explore, study, teach and connect with people. I want to savor each day and experience fully.
I look forward to all the learning and growing yet to come.
Monday, February 10, 2014
Resistance. I have been feeling it, pressing up against it, running away from it, trying to find a way over it, around it, under it, to no avail. I realize I have to go through it.
Even getting on here to write this is a moving into it, moving through it. I knew I wanted to get back to writing, but what to write about? Honestly, thinking about it, I was feeling scared, paralyzed. I want to write about India, but I feel I need more time to process. So if not that, then what is even interesting right now or valuable? I noticed the strong resistance and then it hit me. Resistance has been showing up for me all over the place, in articles, on vlogs, in books, and in my life. So many flags, neon signs, billboards pointing to it like "HEY, look over here! Here is what you are working with!"
Over the last few months in my China experience I have met resistance and fear head on. I quit teaching at the biggest most sparkly shiny yoga studio in all of Shanghai because I was not valued, not seen, not respected. I have been struggling in parenting, we now have two teenagers and one very high energy, big personality eight year old. I struggle here, as always, to find my social footing. Many factors have come into play that were putting me in a space of recoil. I became very shut down, wanting to build some big walls and a moat and hide for a long time. The resistance shows up for me in the impulse that arises to come out and move forward, to risk vulnerability again. I question my value and I am deeply afraid of rejection. This is some deep, murky, old stuff and it is rich with possibility for growth and evolution, but the only way is through it, into its very heart, which seems to me at times to be endless darkness, but my inner knowing detects light. Fear versus faith, what will it be? I know the shift happens by reaching out into that darkness and taking a big leap of faith. I find it hard to leap, and yet I am writing this now, a leap in and of itself .
I run as part of my regimen to fight depression and also find it to be an integral part of my spiritual practice. Yesterday I was out running and it was very cold for Shanghai, windy and flurries of snow coming down. I run on a path along the river to escape the traffic and to feel connected to nature. As I ran, initially I had the wind to my back and could see the current of the river going along with me, but then as I made the turn around to go back the wind slapped me in the face and its force was like a wall. The mere sight of the river current seemed to press me back as well. I felt my effort increase and I began to tire quickly. I realized that I was fighting, muscling against it, trying so hard to break through. It occurred to me then that there might be another way. What if I just leaned in and relaxed? I played with this and my pace was slowed a bit but not that much and the effort was halved, I found ease. I thought now about the wind as my ally who would catch me if I was falling. It is just like the yoga saying, "What we resist persists." I was still running against the wind, but now with grace and peace.
I think working with resistance is like that. Yes, you have to go through it, take that leap of faith, but with the understanding that the resistance becomes a gift, not an enemy, when we take the steps to transform it. Swami Kripalu often referred to "the angel of struggle", the angel of resistance ushers us towards our greatest growth. Ultimately it lies in that shift from fear to faith, and we will go through it again and again. We will forget, go into hiding again and another journey is born.
Every experience comes as a wise teacher, leading us to ourselves. I remember now, and I will have to learn again. Beautiful.
Since my run this song has been playing in my head, so a music bonus, from a legendary musician who we will miss.
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Shanghai on a Cold Morning
breathing into the cold morning
first catches in my throat
then quickly clears as it bathes deep
its arctic wave into my heart
I let go and smokey tendrils
lift and uncoil
my prayers infused into vapor
expanding until they rise
out of sight
to the crystal moon floating
sleepy in the crisp
putting hope in my bones
with every shivering
beacon of breath
i learn to soften into
the sharp edge of chill
moving through to acceptance
here and now in this life
on a cold blessed morning
Monday, December 9, 2013
I love the show "The Walking Dead". Yes, it is a zombie apocalypse show, but it is also a show about the strength of the human spirit when confronted by the most dangerous, scary, death filled conditions. It is a show about human relationships, community, conflict, loyalty, betrayal. It depicts through its various characters, the best of human nature and the worst as well. It confronts the essence of love meeting violence and hatred, courage in the midst of terror and the overwhelming will to survive, to carry on. Life and death are front and center.
I was watching an episode the other day and was struck to my very core. Hershel, who is the archetypal sage medicine man, a doctor and the wise elder in the show, complete with long white beard, gives a short but heart touching, very powerful speech about risk and purpose in life. (To watch the scene click this link)
Hershel says, " You step outside, you risk your life. You take a drink of water, you risk your life. And nowadays you breathe and you risk your life. Every moment now, you don't have a choice. The only thing you can choose is what you're risking it for."
My heart, my whole body, every part of me felt the power of this statement. It touched me so deeply, because I understood it so well. I wanted to jump out of my seat, give a standing ovation, and say, "YES!!!" I understood its simple truth, and it jolted me awake, reminded me to be here, to live while the living is good. His words are words I have heard, seen and read before in varying forms, but in this moment, for Hershel's expression of it, I was ready and I got it. Message received.
Here is what I got from it.
Life is risky. Any one of us, on any given day, may or may not be confronted with the reality of life's impermanence. Sure, we are not in the zombie apocalypse, but life is unpredictable and we are not guaranteed tomorrow. Safety is an illusion. To live is to risk in its essence. As Hershel says, "Every moment now, you don't have a choice. The only thing you can choose is what you're risking it for."
A life well lived is one where we have lived with intention and purpose. This is the question we each must ask every day to live a life of purpose. "What am I risking it for?" The answer to that question might be different from one day to the next, or it may shift and change over time. The important thing is that we ask it.
When we ask the question, then we must feel the answer. The answer won't come from our thinking or stories, it will come from the depths of our hearts and souls, it will come through our blood and bones. It will most likely be the thing we fear, but feel a compulsion to do. It is that thing we feel pulled toward, but hesitate to step into. Success or failure is not the measure, the value is the risk and what we have risked this day, this moment, this precious life for.
Mary Oliver in her poem "The Summer Day" asks, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"
This risking does not mean to be reckless, to the contrary it means to be awake and mindful. This risk includes a deep honoring and gratitude for the life we have been given and to have the same honor and respect for all other lives. This risk is about being bold of heart, courageous and giving in love and compassion, authentic and true to one's self and the soul calling of this lifetime. This risk is about truth and vulnerability, taking a chance to be fully expressed, to be all of who we are called to be.
Hershel wants to be free to live his purpose, and to give of himself to fill that purpose, even if it means he might die. To stay small and safe in this life is a prison, and a life lived in the confines of that safety is another kind of death, a worse kind of death. We must step through fear over and over again to grow into ourselves fully. We must look fear square in the eyes and step forward. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, "You must do the thing you think you cannot do."
We are all here in this life together, in the risk. We must help each other, hold each other, open doors for each other, show each other the way. We must risk to love, most of all, we must risk to love. To love even in the face of hurt, to forgive and risk loving once again. A life well lived is a life of love.
"With life as short as a half-taken breath, don't plant anything but love." ~ Rumi
Thursday, November 28, 2013
This is my first Thanksgiving with my family in China. It feels a bit odd, diffuse and awkward.The kids had school and Stephen had work, we have no extended family to feast with and, given the time difference, Thanksgiving here will have nearly come and gone before it starts for my family and friends back in the USA.
It is a bit lonely and making my heart a bit achy. I have been feeling that kind of ache and pain for awhile now. Life has been throwing some major curve balls at me and my family, everything from head lice to bullying, missing homework and academic struggles, to witnessing oppression, dealing with culture shock, working in an unsupportive and challenging teaching environment, language barriers and sensory overload. This is aside from the normal adjustments and challenges of moving which are always hard for me, a socially awkward and extremely sensitive type, trying to find friends, places of belonging and a system of support.
All of this brings me to write about what seems to be my theme of the year (or my life), struggle.
I might sound whiny, but hey, I feel like after all this I am allowed. I am allowed to be honest and open, to be vulnerable and share what is on my doorstep and in my heart.
There it is, despite all this I can keep coming back to my doorstep, the experience of what is showing up in this moment right in front of me and then also what is steady and true in my heart.
All these experiences of struggle and turmoil are helping me grow, making me stronger, cracking me open. I feel such deep compassion along with my frustrations. I have been fierce at times and in that warrior stance sometimes skillful and sometimes not. I have been angry and deeply loving. I am growing and in growth there are often growing pains.
For all this amazing, chaotic, soul shaking, heart breaking, emptying out and filling up, in my face and piercing my soul experience I give thanks. I am always blessed, as we all are, by a birthright of breath. No matter what a person's circumstance might be, we all live in this family of breath, this kinship of experience. In this moment of loneliness I feel immense joy and gratitude as I think how every person on this earth is breathing with me now. I am held in every moment by an ocean of infinite breath, by the beating of billions of drumming hearts. We are all in the dance, beautiful, messy and painful. Together.
I give thanks on this day and every day for the miracle of life and love, from China to the USA to Australia and all the places where I have friends and family, as well as all the places where I know no one as of yet. We are all one family of the human spirit. May we all serve to uplift each other, understand one another, and when we lose our way may we light lanterns of forgiveness and compassion for one another.
Bless this beautiful mess! All love and Happy Thanksgiving!