It’s Not You, It’s Me (for real)

Until-you-make-theSometimes the best way to figure out where there may be room for some deep inner healing is to examine patterns in your life. Patterns frequently show up in romantic relationships. If you have not experienced peace and steadiness in your personal life, maybe it’s the time to look back and see if there’s a theme threading through your history. Are you always trying to save people? Are you attracted to partners who are unavailable in some way? Do you go after people who don’t treat you well? Or, are you the one sabotaging your chances for love? Do you run? Do you “check out”? Do you keep finding yourself in the very situation you were trying to avoid?

If you’re getting a yes to any of these, or you recognize other patterns, chances are, you have found the thread that can lead you back to some very old, very deep pain. It seems to be a human tendency to try to “rewrite history”. Even in day to day life, the mind will get snagged on a conversation that has already happened and try to re-do it, to come up with the “perfect” thing to say. But, there’s no potential in the past, it is done, it cannot be rewritten. It’s good to examine it, though, particularly if you feel you might be dragging your past into your present.

If you can identify the “original why” of any patterns you detect, you can take the unconscious repetition out of your future. (Not that it’s easy, speaking from my own experience). Grooves that we repeat are known as “samskaras” in yoga. But your past does not have to determine your present or your future. If you can bring the source (or sources) of your pain into your consciousness, into your awareness, you take the power away from that inner wiring that may be attracting you to the very situations bound to result in more pain. You can “catch yourself”, identify that “old, familiar feeling” that can be mistaken for love (this feels so reminiscent, this must be it!! uh, no), and sit with yourself instead of acting out. Acknowledging and leaning into your pain takes the “heat” out of it, and that old fire that pulls you to act, even when you know you’re heading straight into a brick wall, will start to subside and cool.

Loving yourself is soothing for your soul, it’s a salve, and it’s a relief. The process of rewiring your system will probably be uncomfortable at best, and it’s very easy to slip back into that old groove as you try to head toward something different. Don’t beat yourself up if you feel like you “must” head into another brick wall. Your awareness alone is huge, and beating yourself up will just make the crash even worse. Eventually, the wall will lose it’s power over you. There are other paths to take that lead toward love. Sending you some right now, Ally Hamilton

Be A Leaf, Why Don’t You?

In-the-depth-of-winter-IIf you were a leaf, everyone would want to look at you and celebrate you in the Fall, when your color was the most vibrant, and you were expressing the fullness of all your experiences. But we cling to the green. People spend a ton of time and energy trying to look green, and we romanticize the idea of wiping the slate clean and being innocent again, having everything ahead of us again.

The truth is, you can retain your innocence if you walk into each experience with curiosity. Nature is teaching us all the time that everything is always changing. Nothing living is exactly the same twice, so you can always walk into a situation with open eyes and an open mind and an open heart. And you can wipe the slate clean at any time. You don’t have to keep your past alive by feeding it too much energy. You can continually, “start again”, allowing yourself to open and grow and embrace your experience as it’s happening. Surprise yourself. You don’t have to put yourself in a box. You don’t have to decide you are “THIS” kind of person, or you would never do “THAT”. Allow other people and experiences to surprise you, too. Examine sweeping generalizations carefully.

When we are “green” we are working it out…our time of greenness usually involves some confusion and loneliness and flailing about. The wind can really whip us around as we try to figure out our purpose, and what it is that’s going to allow our Fall to be full of color. Why cling to that? And as hard as we cling to the green, we also resist our Winter, the time when everything hardens, and gets brittle and cold. We forget to acknowledge and honor and celebrate the wisdom that usually comes when someone is granted a long and healthy life, and that frequently, although the body may harden, the heart can be at its’ softest and most open state.

There’s nothing to cling to, and nothing to resist, it is happening. And if you consider areas in your life where you may be suffering, underneath that pain there is almost certainly a craving for something, or an aversion to something; craving and aversion are at the root of all suffering. At our core, if we keep craving the green and feeling aversion about the inevitable Winter, we will certainly suffer. If you can live your life celebrating all its seasons, rejoicing in your own growth, your expanding potential to spread love, and living in a way that recognizes your experience is fleeting, then you will truly want to be alive and present and open to each moment, you won’t want to miss or minimize or resist anything. You will want to embrace each breath, each conversation, each smile, each tear, each hug, each breeze, each rain, each sunrise, each heartbreak, each joy. Of course it’s human to fear the unknown, but if a leaf eventually falls to the forest floor, and is gently blown into the river, and that water ends up feeding the very tree the leaf grew upon, I think it’s pretty likely we all keep feeding the whole, feeding the LOVE.

Sending you some right now, Ally Hamilton

You make me feel so…nothing.

Freedom-begins-theRecently I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who happens to be a Jungian therapist. And very casually he said, “Well, no one can MAKE you feel anything.” And I happen to believe that’s true, although not necessarily obvious. It’s another way of describing “Vairagya”, or non-attachment. But I think most of us have to wrestle with that idea for a bit, and I think if you’d like to achieve that state you’re going to have to have a lot of patience (with yourself and with others), desire and discipline. Particularly if we’re talking in the context of any close (intimate or familial) relationship, let alone a guy on the freeway who cuts you off.

I remember years ago when I was at my first Vipassana Meditation retreat, I stayed one night to speak to one of the teachers. The night’s discourse had been about non-attachment and I was left feeling troubled. Even though I’d committed to not speaking or making eye contact with anyone for 10 days, we were allowed to ask questions of the teachers and I decided this was pressing enough that I didn’t want to wait almost a week to have some input. I told her I never wanted to be someone who was so non-attached that if, let’s say, my friend got hit by a bus, I would just accept that must be the natural order of things, and go on my way. She assured me that no one was looking for that level of detachment. The idea was to not be so attached to possessions, ideas, our plans. She went on to say that as human beings we will be attached to our loved ones, and as a result we will suffer. We’ll suffer when they don’t do what we want (think significant others, parents, children), we’ll suffer when we lose people we love through misunderstandings, break-ups, and ultimately, through death.

Most of us practicing yoga today are not living the life of a monk in a cave. I spend a lot of time considering how to teach the spiritual limbs of the yoga practice in a practical way. How do we apply these ideas to our fast-paced, technology-saturated, “house-dweller” lives? How does someone who has a job of some kind, checks Facebook regularly, carries an iPhone or an Android or whatever, stops to tweet something now and then, has responsibilities and pressures to meet, how does someone who is IN and OF this crazy world practice YOGA? I’m not talking about the 90 minutes on your mat, I’m talking about the eight-limbed path. I know you dig it. Check Georg Feuerstein from “The Shambala Guide to Yoga”:

“…if we truly understand that our material life is inherently limited and that the pleasures we can derive from our body and mind are likewise limited, merely temporary, and certainly not ultimately fulfilling, then we can open ourselves to the possibility of a new perception: that happiness is independent of our nervous system and the stimuli that can excite it. This is indeed the great message of all forms of Yoga: Happiness is our essential nature, and our perpetual quest for happiness is fulfilled only when we realize who we truly are. This realization is awakening to our Selfhood, which transcends the body-mind, the ego-personality, and the horizon of the world reflected in our ordinary experience. All this, and more, is captured in the word yoga.”

Practically speaking, the idea is to attain and then maintain (and that’s the tricky part), this level of balance, or steadiness, or inner peace, or happiness, or realizing, or whatever you’d like to call it. Now, I just brushed over some serious work, because if you want to get back to your natural state (which Georg calls happiness and I call love), you’re going to have to examine the relationship you’re having with yourself, and heal what needs to be healed. I think one of the greatest gifts of a seated meditation practice is that it helps to connect us to our “witness” or our “watchman”. If we can start to observe our own experiences as they’re happening during seated meditation, we can also start to observe our experiences as they’re happening when we are out in the world.

The implications of ,”No one can MAKE you feel anything” are huge. Most of us in relationships, whether they be with family members, significant others, close friends, or our dogs…most of us have a story that we tell ourselves. We look back on the relationship and we dwell on the history. First this happened, and then this, and then this. And almost always, we are the hero or the victim, or sometimes the heroic victim. Our history explains our current state with this person, and if it isn’t good, well, it is almost definitely the other person’s fault. But, um. If no one can MAKE you feel anything, then what do you do with your story? If you were to suddenly drop all your stories, what would be left? Or, if it’s not the other person’s fault, if, in fact, only you are responsible for the way you feel, then what do you do? Consider Eckhart Tolle on this subject, “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation, but your thoughts about it.” I think you have to own the fact that you participate or have participated in any relationship that has gone, or is going, in a direction that does not feel healthy, or good, or growing. And then figure out what you brought to the situation, the lens you’re looking through, the way you feel about yourself, and the choices you make, or have made. If you’re in a balanced state, you’ll move toward people or situations or experiences that are naturally soothing to you, that bring you laughter, and light, and a sense that you are understood and seen and appreciated. But if you aren’t feeling good about yourself, all kinds of unhealthy choices might be made.

Please understand I realize there are many situations and circumstances in this world, and perhaps in your own life, that are incomprehensibly heartbreaking. In this context I’m talking mostly about day-to-day interactions with people, whether they be casual and “in passing”, or with people close to you. We all have a lens we look through, which is shaped by our experiences, and the conclusions we choose to retain as a result of our experiences. It’s very important to be familiar with your particular lens. Your Rx might read, “Everyone Leaves”, or, “Everyone Cheats”, or , “I Never Get Any Breaks”, or, fill-in-the-blank.

In any meditation practice, whether it be a moving meditation like the asana practice, or a seated meditation, the idea is to drop the lens, to witness without judging, naming, categorizing. Osho says a reaction comes out of the past and a response comes out of the present. Hopefully when you’re practicing any kind of meditation that speaks to you (and for some people it’s windsurfing, or horseback riding, or hiking), hopefully it offers you the experience of being more responsive and less reactive. How can I show up in THIS moment, fully open and awake and aware? Let me learn to listen and to breathe and to be curious, without being attached to any particular outcome.

That’s a good state of mind on your mat, and I think it’s also a good state of mind in any relationship. That opens some huge windows. Maya Angelou says, “When people show you who they are, believe them, the first time”. The ability to listen and be open and allow the person to unfold to you, rather than to project a list of attributes you hope to exist within them. The ability to let the relationship breathe and grow without an agenda, without trying to shape it or force it along a certain trajectory. To be able to cultivate that listening in the context of a disagreement. Let me fully listen to this other person. Let me drop my defenses and hear what’s being said. Let me be aware of my own ability or inability to do that. If I’m having trouble, let me just state that out loud and try again to listen. Often in relationships, especially if there’s conflict, we don’t listen, we just wait for our turn to speak so we can present our point of view. So we can “win”, so we can be “right”. Sometimes we have the “feeling” without any real understanding of what’s actually being communicated. We “jump” to the feeling and immediately blame the other person for our heightened state, our quickening heart-rate, that sensation in the pit of our bellies. We are in fight or flight, and chances are, we are bringing something old into the present. In other words, WE are bringing a lot of the feeling into the situation. Maybe there’s an opportunity to witness your experience as it’s happening. To notice your breath and the way you’re holding your body. To direct your attention to what the other person is saying, and to try to reflect it back to them, so that you’re both clear about what’s being said. Maybe you’ll do all that, and still feel very hurt by something that was said to you. Then you have an opportunity to explore why it hurts so much. Is it true? Do you believe it to be true? If not, why feed it so much energy? If yes, examine why. Because you may have just uncovered a deep pool of pain that could use some attention, compassion and healing. Your feelings are yours.

What I’m talking about is very different than what I consider to be an “abuse” or a total misrepresentation of the yoga practice. Maybe we can all agree that no one can make you feel anything (and maybe we can’t all agree on that!), but that does not negate each person’s own accountability. In other words, I can’t do something hurtful to someone, and then tell them when they feel badly that it’s their own “negativity”. And boy, is there a lot of that garbage floating around in the water sometimes.  There’s a famous story about Buddha which I’m going to condense. Basically, he became a threatening force to an elder in a community where he was starting to teach meditation. This man showed up and insulted and berated the Buddha during one of his meditation sessions. The Buddha asked the man if people ever visited him in his home. The man was confused and thrown off center and he said yes. The Buddha asked if his visitors ever brought gifts, and again, the man said yes. Then the Buddha asked what would happen if the man refused the gifts. The man answered that the gifts would still belong to the visitors who brought them. And Buddha said, exactly. You came here today with your gift of anger, but I do not want it, it is not mine. So take your gift away with you, or join us and learn to meditate.  Or so the story goes. Well, some people have taken this story, and run with it, a great distance. Their idea goes something like, “I have to honor what I feel in each moment, and if you’re hurt or upset by that, that’s your stuff to deal with”. Or something. But that’s not yoga, that’s self-absorption. Totally different practice. Dr. Wayne Dyer has a quote, “How people treat you is their karma; how you react is yours”.  So while no one may be able to make you feel anything, I think the world would be a more loving and happy place if everyone tried to remember that we are all in this together, that we are more similar than we are different, that we could all use more compassion and less judgment, and that we will all make mistakes. I think it’s also essential to be able to receive and accept an apology, to work on the ability to forgive. If you want to take ownership of your feelings, you’ll also want to add a healthy side of compassion.

In one sense, accepting ownership of your feelings creates a lot more work for you. The “blame game”, or the victim stance may seem easier, and it may also be habitual. If that’s the case, it will take a lot of effort, a new way of thinking, and a willingness to witness your experience as conflicts arise, in order to make some changes. But in a very real way, if you accept responsibility for your feelings in any given moment, you also become empowered. There are opportunities to practice this way of being every day, in small ways and usually in big ways, too. S.N.Goenka, who is the primary Vipassana meditation teacher, talks about how the mind loves to “boil itself”. He’s talking about those times when something unwanted has happened, and we obsessively replay it in our minds. Sylvia Boorstein, another highly revered mediation teacher talks about how the mind seems to get hooked or snagged on those negative instances. Someone says or does something hurtful, and the mind goes into a tailspin. It might be an interaction, a conversation, or a situation we’ve been a part of that did not go the way we wanted it to, and now we’re in a state of turmoil.

Have you ever replayed a conversation in your mind, and rewritten your responses? Maybe you’ve experienced hours, or an entire day going by when you are just caught in this awful web of negativity, re-writing this interaction, and at the same time feeling worse and worse. Of course, because you are feeding this beast, and the more energy you feed it, the bigger it gets. These are the moments when you have an exceptional opportunity to practice picking the mind up and bringing it back to the present moment. The past is over, the conversation cannot be redone (but perhaps it can be revisited with more clarity and calmness, or maybe you won’t need to revisit it, maybe you can find your own closure). Observe your state of mind, and observe the way it’s affecting your physical body. First of all, can you take several deep breaths and be really aware of each one? Can you scan your body for tension, checking the hinge of your jaw, your neck, your shoulders? From there, can you find some compassion for yourself? Maybe you can start to examine what has you so tweaked. Undoubtedly something has pushed a button in you, and you might as well get to know your buttons.

At the root of any spiritual practice is the idea, “know yourself”. Maybe the other person has stuff to own, but you cannot control whether they will or won’t. If it’s circumstances that have you down, if you’re angry at the world, or shaking your fist at the sky, it is almost definitely a time to shift your perspective inward. Ultimately, you are left with your own state of mind, and your own internal dialogue. You can’t change the world around you without changing the world within you, first. None of us are perfect. None of us will show up as our highest selves in every moment of every day. Sometimes life will feel really unfair. Sometimes, we will all struggle to find the path, and even after we’ve found it, we will all experience dark times when we lose our way. The person you will spend the most time with in this life is you. If you can start to tap into the reality that although you are having this somewhat isolated personal experience, you are also a part of something much larger than yourself, if you assume responsibility for your feelings (and in so doing, your actions, and the energy you’re spreading as you travel about the world), you may begin to experience a little more peace. Just a little less focus on the “I, ME, MINE” (the STORY), and a little more on the great potential you have within you to spread some love, will help a lot. The more peaceful it is within you, the more peaceful it will be around you. And if you can keep working toward a peaceful inner state, it will become less and less likely that something as small as a stranger driving like a maniac will rob you of that peace.

Perhaps eventually you will be able to send compassion to anyone in your life who might be suffering, who might not be showing up in the kindest way, who might be “off the path” for a bit, without losing your own inner balance, even when they do something or say something that upsets you, or confuses you, or disappoints you. And someday, maybe you can work toward compassion for all people who are suffering, in any kind of way, physically or emotionally, or violently, whether they be known to you or not, whether they are doing things you agree with, or not. What I’m saying is, the possibilities for inner peace are pretty limitless if you decide to steer your own ship. And if everybody got on board with that plan, I think the possibilities for outward peace would also be pretty limitless. I think even working toward this in small ways, a little at a time, leads to a very positive result. Your feelings are yours, but I wish you feelings of peace, and love, and the strength to find those things, Ally Hamilton

Yoga Modifications for Pregnant Mamas with a Strong Vinyasa Flow Practice

I thought I’d post a blog for all those pregnant mamas out there who’ve been practicing yoga for years and now find themselves “in a family way” ;-). I get emails on a very frequent basis from new moms who want to continue their vinyasa flow practice but are unsure how to modify safely. I always tell any new mom who has never done yoga, or is new to yoga, Prenatal Yoga classes are the only way to go. And even if you’ve been practicing for years, you may find it very helpful to surround yourself with women who are going through the same experience at the same time. If you’re having a pregnancy with any extenuating circumstances (high risk), you should discuss with your doctor what is appropriate for you and your baby. However, if none of that applies to you and you’d like to continue to attend your regular flow class, (and again, you’ve been practicing consistently for years and feel confident that you are in tune with your body, that you know where your edge is, and that your ego will not get the better of you), here are the guidelines I worked with through both of my (totally healthy!) pregnancies.

First trimester:

1. You don’t want to overheat…you can sweat to cool off, but the baby can’t. It’s fine for you to get a good sweat, but you should not get to the point where your cheeks are flushed. Stand near a door or window if possible, and step outside if you feel like you’re getting too warm. Bring cool water, and rest to control your temperature as you need to…breathe in and out through your mouth, but continue to drag the breath along the back of your throat, and to fill and empty your lungs completely (ujayii breath through the nose will increase your internal temperature, and when you’re pregnant you’re already running a few degrees warmer. Also, do not practice breath retention or “breath of fire”)

2. No deep twists or backbends…the baby is attaching to the side of the uterus, and even though the uterus is “free-floating”, it is still attached to ligaments, etc…ustrasana (camel) is a great backbend if it’s one you usually take…twisting triangle with a block to the inside of your front foot and no “cranking”…twisting crescent the same way…..

2nd trimester:

1.You can go back to whatever backbends you did before you were pregnant. Be aware that all your ligaments will be a bit looser throughout your pregnancy due to “relaxin” (the body produces this during pregnancy because the bones and ligaments need to “soften” for childbirth…ligaments need to open around the hips so you can push the baby out, but your body doesn’t differentiate between ligaments in your hips and every other part of your body. Therefore, you may be able to “go deeper” in some poses, but don’t do it because you can injure yourself, and an over-stretched ligament does not heal easily. Still no deep twists (this continues throughout the pregnancy)…

2. Once you start to “show” (your belly pops out at all), do not lie down on your belly anymore…eventually you’ll have to modify your vinyasas to “knees, chest and chin”…you can also do cat-cows instead. When your belly pops, you’ll need to separate your legs hips distance for utkatasana, forward folding, etc.

3. it’s fine to invert but do it at the wall….getting upside down is good for you and the baby, but falling isn’t good for either one of you.  You’ll be carrying more weight, so be mindful of your wrists and listen to your body. Viparita karani is a great inversion (running your legs up the wall) throughout your pregnancy, although once you begin your second trimester your doctor may advise you not to lie on your back for long periods of time. I experienced no trouble in this regard and ran my legs up the wall every day of both pregnancies, but some women will become light-headed because the weight of the baby and the uterus press on major blood vessels restricting blood flow. You will know if this is happening for you, and in that case, this isn’t the pose for you, and you will also start to take savasana lying on your left side with a couple of bolsters.

3rd trimester

Same as 2nd trimester, but  once you hit 34 weeks, stop any inversions EXCEPT viparita karani(as long as being on your back feels good to you)…the baby should start to “descend” at this point, and you want to encourage that descent. This is also a great time to start doing a LOT of squatting, so if you’re in a class and they do inversions, spend your time in a squat instead

Lastly, as far as “ab work” goes some teachers advise none at all, but i did navasana sit-ups throughout both pregnancies (navasana to ardha navasana with knees bent on the way up)….i think it’s good to keep those “pushing muscles”  strong 😉

Lastly, listen to your intuition. This is a time to be sure you’re practicing compassion for yourself, and to make sure you are filling your home, and your baby’s home (your body), with LOVE!! I felt very in tune with both my babies while I practiced, and I often talked to them (with my “inside voice, of course, lol) as i was moving. I felt especially connected to them in Savasana; it was clear to me that we were both having an experience together. Make your practice about that, and you will have a beautiful time ;-). Hope this is helpful to you and that you have an easy and comfortable pregnancy!

Love to you and your beautiful baby (or babies!),

Ally

IMPORTANT NOTE:  Always consult a physician before beginning a yoga practice or any other form of physical exercise!

To Love and Die in LA

To-the-wellorganizedIn Savasana tonight I had a vision of myself as a very old woman coming close to the end of breaths in this body.  At first I got scared and rejected this idea and almost came out of Savasana to start thinking, but instead I decided to just be with it and open to it. I saw my children as people in their fifties with children of their own. I saw that they were sad to lose me and i realized my only hesitation about leaving this realm was that i worried for their happiness. I told them that they had been the absolute lights of my life, the greatest of gifts, that I had had a beautiful, fulfilling life, and that I would always be with them every step of the way. I assured them that they couldn’t lose me because I would live in their hearts, and that I was sure we would be together again.

When I came out of Savasana I was emotional and felt fragile. Usually Savasana is so peaceful, I feel so connected and open and quiet, so this was a very different experience. And it wasn’t a dream because I was awake, and it wasn’t a thought tangent because I actually saw this scene unfold like a movie. I wasn’t even terribly troubled at the idea of dying since it seemed I had made it a good long way, and my children were grown and seemed like happy people.

I love my life. I love my children beyond words, and I love teaching yoga and being with people and being of service and being in nature and feeling in the flow of things even when they aren’t unfolding exactly as I would like or might have expected. I love to learn and open and deepen and surrender, and sometimes be scared or sad or lonely or angry, because I know then that I am awake to my own experience. I have no interest in drama, or who’s fu*%king who, or what someone said or did, or who’s doing better or worse because life is just too precious and too short, and I’m pretty sure it’s about learning to love one another. I’m in a relationship for a long time, and it is full of history and complication and love and memories and hurt and anguish and joy and birth and work and so I don’t judge other people in relationships because I know the terrain is steep and sometimes full of rocks slipping underfoot and hail hitting you in the face, and sometimes it’s like a soft breeze on an untouched stretch of beach.

If we accept that energy does not die, it just changes form, then death does not seem so scary. I believe in a collective unconscious, I think we are all flowing to and from the same source, I believe that source is love. And yet, there are souls we cherish in bodies we love and want to touch and hold, there are voices we yearn to hear. Goodbyes are hard, they are like a knife through the heart, and death is the most definitive goodbye we know, not that we know it. Most people are afraid of the unknown, and what happens after we leave our bodies seems something we will never be able to discover until we experience it. But I meet people from time to time, and they seem so familiar, I think, “I know you, we have traveled together before”, and I find this comforting. Who knows if my vision is real. I hope to live to be one of those ninety-year-old yoga teachers with long white hair and twinkling eyes and deep laugh lines. Maybe it will happen that way.

In the meantime i want to celebrate this life and every person i meet and every experience i have and do my best to allow things to unfold, to cling less and to surrender more, to judge less and to love more, to speak less and to listen more because there is so much happening around us all the time, but there is a deep well of wisdom in the body, in the heart, in the soul. An atheist might say there is no soul, there is just the limbic region in the brain. A Jew might say there is no Jesus, and a follower of Jesus might say anyone who doesn’t believe will burn in Hell. I’m pretty sure my job is to find a way to love everyone, even the people who feel completely differently about things than I do, maybe especially them. I think love is the source. It’s not about making money or being right, love is the currency. How much do you have and how much can you give, how far can you fling it and share it and spread it. And to acknowledge that the body I’m in is borrowed, it will not last forever, and that goodbyes in the form of changes or deaths are part of this experience. So that I can fully appreciate every breath, every moment, every light in every eye I love. So that I don’t miss chances to tell the people in my life that I love them, not just on holidays, but every chance I get. So that a “normal day” is never taken for granted. We want to deny the reality that everything is temporary, that we are even temporary, but that is probably the very thing to acknowledge and accept so we can WAKE UP to each moment. If you love full on, full force, full blast, I think you might just take the fear out of death, out of goodbyes, out of change.

Sending you love, Ally Hamilton

When the Old Way Stops Working

Yoga-quiets-theThere is usually a reason people come to the mat. I started practicing my senior year at Columbia University when I found myself at a real crossroads in my life. Without going into too much personal detail, a series of events forced me to look carefully at the choices, the big choices, I had been making. I realized with some alarm that none of them had anything to do with me, at least not in any real way. I had been making decisions based on other people’s needs, mostly, or on what I thought I should do, but I had no real understanding of what I wanted. I was an adult, but I didn’t really know myself. Just the basic things, even–what makes me happy? What do I need, or want? What am I here to do?

I took my first yoga class with Dharma Mittra at the Dharma Yoga Center in New York City, where I grew up. At first, I kind of kept sticking my toe in the pool, practicing once or twice a week. It wasn’t an instantaneous light-bulb experience, it was just that little by little, I began to realize that my moments of clarity, of awareness, of feeling really myself, were happening on the mat. And so my practice became a sort of lighthouse, a beacon, it just kept drawing me in, and soon I was practicing six days a week. My stairmaster collected dust, became a coatrack, and was eventually put out with the trash. I had no desire to go to step class, or an abs class, or to lift weights while listening to my walkman. I did not want to plug in, tune out, and focus on aesthetics, I wanted to tune in and find out who I was.

I have always been blessed with phenomenal teachers, people who have shown up at the perfect time. I do not believe this is coincidence. There is the saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears”; I have found this to be true, both as a student, and as a teacher. The best teachers I have had have taught by example, just by the way they lead their lives. At a certain point, my practice kind of took hold of me, and began to fill more and more of my time, and the deeper I went, the more I committed, the more there was to learn. And every time I looked up, there was someone there to illuminate something else for me. Some of my biggest influences have come from Dharma Mittra, Bryan Kest (at whose studio I taught for over 5 years, and for whom I will always feel enormous gratitude), Jorgen Christiansson (I began practicing Ashtanga yoga with Jorgen in 2001, and eventually assisted him), Baron Baptiste, Max Strom, and Saul David Raye.

The gratitude I feel for my teachers surpasses anything I could write, but truthfully, the practice itself is your best teacher, just showing up on the mat. In 2009 I felt moved to open my own space, and fill it with amazing teachers. It wasn’t part of my long-term plan, but sometimes the universe gives you a huge kick in the ass (which is usually preceded by several smaller ones you may have ignored), and as a result, Yogis Anonymous and my daughter were born on the same day. They joined my then almost three year old son. So I had a plethora of teachers arrive all at once.

Any yoga practice begins as an internal journey, and often students ask about this. It’s true, you have to turn your attention inward…..my breath, what is happening in my body, in each and every moment? The most amazing thing, though, is that this internal journey will eventually lead you back to your connection with everyone and everything else. There are countless benefits to any regular yoga practice, one of which is just getting comfortable in your own skin, both physically and emotionally. What is the truth? Not what do I want it to be, or what do I think it should be, but just, what is? This is a practice that has Eastern roots, and here I am, this Westerner. We live in this hyper-commercialized society, where so much value is placed on the external. Three minutes of commercials is all it will take to convince you that you don’t look right (you should try this diet), you don’t smell right (better buy this deodorant), and apparently, you don’t feel right, either (better call your doctor to get this medication, quick). So many people suffer as a result, always in search of those external factors to make things right–“I’ll be happy when I lose 10 pounds, find my soulmate, have that giant house, or new car, or better job, or fill-in-the-blank”, and there will ALWAYS be something else, and happiness will be this hummingbird, always in sight, but just out of reach.

It takes so much energy to fight the truth, whatever it is. We grow up, and even those of us with the most loving parents are told, “Don’t be sad”, or ,”Don’t be angry”, and so we are taught that only certain feelings and behaviors are all right, are acceptable. And little by little, we lose the ability to even identify what we are feeling, let alone sit with those feelings. I have a vague sense something is wrong…let me, quick, turn on the television (“you don’t look right or smell right or feel right!!!!), or the internet,(Facebook, anyone?) or pick up the phone, or race to a movie (where I will likely be convinced that if I could just find my soulmate, I’d be happy), because I don’t want to FEEL anything but good, and here comes life with all it’s ups and downs, and I just don’t know how to deal with feelings of loneliness, or rage, or boredom.

And so we fight the truth of what we’re feeling, but this takes so much energy. And suddenly everyone’s got chronic fatigue syndrome, and it makes you wonder whether that even existed 100 years ago. Whether it’s possible that all of our so-called advances have actually set us back. There are so many awesome facets to a yoga practice, and one of them is just that. Identifying the truth of the moment, even if it is challenging, confusing, confrontational, painful, and being all right with it; learning how to breathe through it calmly, with compassion, staying grounded and centered. This morning I am in Ardha Chandrasana, and I feel that I could hold it forever. Tomorrow, I am falling all over the place, convinced someone has replaced my mat with a surfboard. So be it. This is the truth of the moment, and either way, I am breathing. So many opportunities, microcosms on the mat, and little by little this stuff starts to seep off the mat and into your life. I am in love, the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, I am breathing. I got dumped, it’s freezing out, and those same birds just crapped on my shoulder, I am still breathing. The truth is, there is no way to control anything. Great things will happen, sad things will happen, things I want to happen, won’t, and things I don’t want to happen will, and this thing, this happiness of which we are all in search, is nothing more and nothing less than just steadiness through it all. Inner peace, serenity, wisdom, gratitude, call it what you will. They cannot bottle it, and you cannot buy it. But you can absolutely find it, have it and hold it, and the best and only place I’ve found to start is on your mat.

Peace,

Ally Hamilton

Confessions of a YogiLatte

It-is-inhumane-in-myI accept the fact that you may judge me, but I drink coffee and at this particular moment I have no intention of stopping.  I was on a successful coffee fast for over a decade when evil forces disguised as the guy behind the counter at The Coffee Bean sucked me back in, and I could not be more grateful. This happened about 18 months ago, when I was seven months pregnant with my daughter, and I was chasing my then 2.5 year old son around while my husband was in Berlin working for a month. Oh, and I was teaching 10 yoga classes a week, and felt, well…exhausted.

I stood there with my son and my belly and ordered a chai latte. It was about 11am, and as I was moments away from running all over the playground, I thought a little boost was in order. Although I knew the answer, I asked Evil Forces if there was a decent amount of caffeine in the chai. He said yes, but he could make me a “dirty chai” if I wanted more. I didn’t ask what was in it, I just nodded. And I drank that dirty chai and I felt the strength of at least two super-heroes coursing through my veins. Or, maybe it was the shot of espresso which is what makes the chai “dirty” which I found out the next day when I went back for more. I had a moment of anguish when I realized my coffee fast had been unknowingly broken, and then, in a way only someone who has been 7 months pregnant can understand, a moment of “fu#k it, too late now”. I remembered my doctor had said one cup a day was okay, and I figured desperate times and all…so, I was and am back on the sauce.

Lest you think less of me, I will share that I eat local organic fruits and vegetables, no gluten, and no processed food. But here I am over a year later, with an almost four-year old, a tiny toddler, a new yoga studio, and a full teaching schedule. So if you want to judge me for the coffee, bring it on, suckas, cuz the yerba matte ain’t gonna cut it. Now I begin my day by grinding organic beans and making a delicious cup of coffee so I can be a happy functioning mommy at the crack of dawn. And at 11am, at which point I’ve already had half a busy day, I can usually be found (gasp) at the Starbuck’s drive-thru for my guilty pleasure, a latte (yes, if you’re counting, hit two of the coffee magic) . Why the drive-thru? Because that way I can get my boost without having to take my two kids in and out of their car-seats on our way to the beach, the park, Main Street, or wherever it is we’re headed. Here’s the funny thing. Because I go at about the same time every day, I usually order from the same guy. I had been referring to him as “our friend” to my son for months, as in, “mommy is getting a latte from our friend, and then we’re going to play”…and one day I asked him his name. Now when we pull into the drive-thru, my son yells, “Hi, Damon!!!” and Damon, who turns out to be an incredibly nice human being, knows my drink before I order. He knows my kids names, and I know he has a niece and nephew but no kids of his own yet because he hasn’t found that special someone (single ladies, take note). He knows I teach yoga, and I think he may eventually come to class. I share all of this with you because:

1. I think it is only fair you understand the killer core sequence is being powered by caffeine, and

2. These little connections in life which are so easy to miss can really enhance the experience of any given day

We are energetic beings and we are always spreading energy wherever we go. One of the great gifts of practicing yoga is just becoming more and more accountable for the energy we’re spreading. You could make someone’s day, and possibly even save someone’s life by offering a genuine smile at the right moment, and on the flip side, you could probably ruin someone’s afternoon (or however much time they decide to give it), with a thoughtless comment. So, really, this isn’t about coffee at all, it’s just about being awake 😉

More power to you,

Ally Hamilton