All of Life's Coconuts

Just last week I was rushing around my villa in Ubud, Bali, finishing a work email, cleaning up gecko poop on my porch, and packing a change of clothes in my purse. I was hurrying to leave so that I could get in line at the Yoga Barn for Friday night ecstatic dance. See, you need to arrive two hours early for tickets (but it’s totally worth it).

As a New Yorker, even in paradise, I am perpetually living in a busy and neurotic state of mind. Or rather, how we New Yorker’s like to call ourselves, “productive.” I was so wrapped up in my tasks, in fact, that I’d forgotten about a coconut my Balinese landlord, Wiji, had opened for me earlier that morning that was still sitting on my table untouched.

Note: I fucking love coconuts. Highlight of this year’s trip to Bali, hands down, was the unlimited coconuts gifted to me daily from my landlord’s palm tree. 

So, it was unusual that I’d let this one slip. 

Just then, Wiji had entered my garden with a small machete with which to chop open the coconut for me…(the good stuff’s on this inside).

“Elliiee” he sang as he entered. He’s a small Balinese man: no shoes, always wearing the same t-shirt that says “Chicago” written across the front, un-kept hair and a huge smile. 

Seeing him, I thought,“Shit! My coconut!” 

I quickly grabbed the coconut and my bamboo straw and started chugging. (I’m sort of an expert coconut-chugger, and also I just really wanted the snack before dancing.)

Seeing me do this, Wiji laughed. “Ooooh,” he said, “No worry. Slowly, slowly!”

He then sat at the bottom of my steps, set down the mini machete and patiently waited for me to finish, looking silently off into the distance of the garden. And I sat at the top of the steps, still slurping. (Listen, it was a big coconut). 

But then, quite suddenly, I stopped. You know when you unintentionally sort of drop into full awareness of the present moment? That happened. And, for the first time in quite some time, I released a long (yet still somewhat neurotic) exhale. 

I observed Wiji and I, quietly sitting together, barefoot on the steps of a humble Balinese villa. The only common language we shared was a love of coconuts. Birds were chirping. 

The Russian couple living across the fence were having their daily 5pm argument that always sounded more violent than [I’d like to think] it actually was. The sun was nearly setting. Wiji was in no rush, and I, well, envied him for it. In that moment, a wave of emotion surged in my gut, traveled to my eyes, and silently started to drip out of them in slow tears. (But I tried to play it cool, so, like, don’t tell Wiji, okay?)

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d allowed myself to “slow down.” See, I’ve spent the last decade hustling hard as an entrepreneur in New York City, working sleeplessly to figure out a sustainable way to earn a living via my only passions--performance and yoga. And, in a nutshell, what I’ve learned is that being a successful entrepreneur in performance and yoga boils down to one thing: Instagram. 

It’s tragic, but true. Now as I work on building my digital platforms, I am constantly brainstorming Insta-worthy photos and intelligent captions that manage to achieve that sort of “oops-look-at-me-I’m-so-enlightened-but-sort-of-accidentally-sexy-at-the-same-time.”

Embarrassingly, even in that heartwarming moment with Wiji, I thought, “Oh, this would make a great blog post.” 

Fast-forward to last night. I was struggling to fall asleep because of jet-lag, and so I got up to take a hot bath with some lavender oil, as this technique usually does the trick.

It was about 1am, and there was a blizzard outside. As such, there was a snowy thickness to the silence in my studio. The only sounds that I could hear, after I turned off the bathtub faucet, of course, were the sporadic scratching and squeaking of my apartment building’s old furnace pipes. 

In this moment of solace--sans phone, or the energy to worry about much of anything--I found myself enjoying my own company. “Wait, what?” I asked myself. “You heard me,” I responded to myself. “You’re enjoying a quality moment with yourself, so deal with it.” (Jet lag + lavender oil = mild forms of multiple personality disorder). 

Admittedly, it was a familiar feeling, (the enjoying myself part, not the personality disorder), because I used to sneak these moments all of the time: as a child, alone in my room reciting monologues to my sleeping cat that I’d make up from the perspective of my Spice Girl doll. In middle school, watching the sunset over the infinite expanse of Wisconsin farmland on my backyard trampoline while daydreaming about my boy crushes and getting cast as the lead in the school musical (the latter being of greater importance). And in high school, coming home late at night from one of my many luxurious summer jobs (washing dishes at a local brew pub, refilling the salad bar at Pizza Hut, and car-hopping at A&W). Smelling like grease and root beer, I’d lay face-up on the front yard picnic table to steal a long moment staring at the stars, blanketed by the warm summer air, and wondering if I’d still be able to see the stars when I moved  to New York City. Even as a freshman at NYU, before I got my first smartphone, I would religiously finish my homework early (cough, nerd, cough cough) so I could spend hours on Sunday afternoons aimlessly wandering around the streets of Manhattan while listening to my iPod nano, loving everything about everything.

Now, when I occasionally have a moment to myself, I turn to my phone and open Instagram, so I can, ahem, “be productive.” Perhaps it is a habit, but, if I’m honest, it could also be out of fear of feeling. More often than not, it’s uncomfortable to be present, because, well, being human is uncomfortable. 

Having had the privilege to be able to turn my passions into my career, I have clearly sacrificed the value of my own presence that I once revered so greatly.

Still, as a professional yoga teacher, it is my unfortunate duty to post competitive photos of me “practicing” and “preaching” yoga on social media. 

But recently, sitting on those steps with Wiji, unexpected tears spilling out of my eyes (sshhhh!), I realized that if I don’t value quality time with myself, I’m living a rather wasted life.

Forgetting how to enjoy your own company won’t make living a life any less traumatic, but it will certainly make it less fulfilling.

So, the reflection is this: yogi or non-yogi, in order to live a fully awakened life--one of meaning and joy--we must learn to embody our experiences with full appreciation for all that being a human being entails. My advice? Challenge yourself to stop turning to your social media persona as an escape route, and take time to enjoy all of life’s coconuts--figuratively speaking.

...And also literally, if you’re in Bali. 

Feelings Aren't Real

Originally published by Shut Up & Yoga - January 2018

“Feelings aren’t real because they change with new information.”

The first time I heard this statement from my teacher, Nevine Michaan, creator of Katonah Yoga, I was a little offended, to be honest.

“What do you mean my ‘feelings aren’t ‘real’?” I thought. They’re real to me…and they MATTER, damnit.

But, after she elaborated, my own little personal planet I’d been living on for 27 years shifted on its axis. From that point forward, I started to realize that feelings are incredibly important, yes. They contribute a lot of insight into our moment-to-moment experiences and interactions with others. However, emotions embody the archetype of a wave waving. Just like the changing tides, emotions, too, ebb and flow. Anything that is by nature ever-changing, is not a universal truth. In other words, your feelings are true, but they are not the only truth. So then, to measure the quality of one’s life, or to write one’s life story in direct response to fleeting emotions, is not only unproductive but naive and reckless.

Emotion, in fact, is chemical and often based on past experience and conditioning. In fact, we often cling to what we know, even if it is uncomfortable, because unconsciously we like to surround ourselves with the “known.”

Most people are dissatisfied in life because they are stuck recycling the same emotional responses that lead them to familiar patterns of behavior, which do not direct them to where they need to be or even want to be.

That is to say, what most people need to do in order to achieve personal happiness is not what they know. (If they knew it, they’d do it already.) So, the magic of yoga is that it provides the opportunity for one to see another angle, or a new perspective, that might take one’s experience beyond the personal and into the universal, where infinite possibilities for happiness are available.

The question is not,“is this true or is that true?” It’s all true. All of it. The question is, “why are you seeing this truth and not that truth?

Because of this, when I’m in a yoga class and I hear a teacher preach something to the effect of, “Follow your feelings,” or, “Do what feels good,” I want to jump off my mat, grab them by the shoulders and scream, “No! Feelings don’t take you where you need to go! YOU do!”

You see, a deadly error we often make is to think that our feelings are out of our control, and that they come from an external source – that they happen TO us, rather than because of us. Negative.

Nothing is happening to you. Things happen in your awareness and through awareness, you can make things happen.

Personally, I teach that you should follow your feelings until you find the source of them, which is always you. Then you can redirect your feelings to tell whatever story you want.

Taoism, as well as many other esoteric practices and religions, play with the idea of “trinity” as a tool to understand personal empowerment. In the middle of every polarity, there is a center (you) mediating your experience of it. (Ex: For every up, there is a down. For every left, there is a right. For every front, a back, and for every circumference, there is a center.) You, the sutra atman (the threaded self), have the power and pleasure to decide how much up to how much down. How much left to how much right. How much yes to know, good to bad, happy to sad, etc. You write your life story by playing polarity, whether you’re conscious of it or not. (Here’s a good video of my teacher Nevine explaining this.)

All of this said, I do encourage my students to explore their feelings, because “every piece of you is a part of your narrative,” and creating space to explore one’s own interior landscape is at the core of why we do yoga in the first place. However, I also challenge them to consider that these feelings could easily change with new information – a new perspective. Change the direction you are looking, and you’ll change the memories behind you. Shift your focus and you’ll change your narrative. Churn up your body’s alchemy through movement, breath, laughter, and healthy food, and you’ll begin to hone the skill that is responding to your circumstances consciously, rather than reacting to them as if your immediate truth is the only reality that exists.

Now, let’s recap. What did we learn today, readers?

Ahem. Learn to feel your feelings, wholly and completely! Explore them, move them, and be enriched by the insight that they give you about your experience in this life. But do NOT “follow” them under the delusion that they will take you to where you need to go. Don’t let your feelings tell you what to do. Don’t let them rule your work, your relationships, or your yoga practice.

You decide what truth you would like to subscribe to in each and every moment. Because, after all, you are the author of your own story.

Rituals: "Doing is Believing"

Published by Happy Girl Yoga August 6th, 2016. 

I’ve never been one for rituals. Not for bedtime, not for the morning, not for any time in between. I’ve always done what I wanted, when I wanted. I’m a “live-in-the-moment” kinda lady. (I am an Aries rising, after all.) Rituals and traditions always seemed so arbitrary to me. Consistency never served me because I never let it. 

It wasn’t until I returned from backpacking across Asia and had to start my life back in New York from the ground up that I began to appreciate the value in creating routines like boundaries, or a figurative structure, like a house to live in. 

Routine has become essential to my recovery. And although it took me a while to develop... behold, my newly found bedtime ritual:  (Ahem.)

  1. Light an incense stick with an intention for the next day
  2. Meditate for at least five minutes
  3. Journal at least one page + gratitude list
  4. Place a healing stone of my choice under my pillow after giving it a prayer
  5. Spray pillow with lavender essential oil
  6. Turn out the lights.

This routine is now the difference between 8 hours of peaceful, rejuvenating sleep vs. a night of restless, erratic sleep that leaves me pulling my past behind me like a bag of bricks for the rest of the week. 

To be honest, there’s a part of me that resents the dependency I have for this “consistency.” To me, living in the moment is contrary to all things tradition. Tradition is living in the past. It’s blindly following guidelines someone else wrote, even if it was you...yesterday. 

But, but, but...then why is it helping me heal so quickly? I’m sleeping better, feeling better, working better and I feel happier and more "whole" when I remember my rituals. And damnit, if I don’t write in my gratitude journal for AT LEAST two minutes each night, my sleep schedule goes to hell. 

So I started to think about this idea of ritual more. Where did it come from? Why do humans and other animals feel so inclined to ritualize events? Making ceremony out of life, death, love and ideologies? 
And when the answer didn’t come to me quickly enough (cough, Aries rising, cough cough), I googled it.
That’s when I found this little nugget on Wikipedia:

The performance of ritual creates a theatrical-like frame around the activities, symbols and events that shape participant's experience and cognitive ordering of the world, simplifying the chaos of life and imposing a more or less coherent system of categories of meaning onto it. As Barbara Myerhoff put it, "not only is seeing believing, doing is believing."

Of course! Performance. The ritual of acting. Something I can relate to. 

For the same reason we act, watch theatre, and go to the movies--we tell stories so that we can better understand our human condition. It’s like looking at life in a mirror, so that we can sit in the seat of the observer and reflect on what’s important. Who we are, how we got here, where we’re going. 

And that’s when I realized, routines/rituals/traditions etc. are not about reliving what is already past in order to somehow dodge what’s really the present, but in fact, lays the foundation for us to absorb the present moment even more profoundly.

In other words, rituals are a homecoming. A safe haven from your journey, to touch base with where you’ve been, where you are now, and a place in which to situate yourself, with conscious deliberation, in order to succeed in where you’d like to go.