How to Live in the Present and Ditch Your Stress

Left to its own devices, the mind loves to time travel. It will pull you into the past, often with regret or longing and frequently resulting in feelings of depression, or into your future, inventing situations that may never come to pass, and leading to feelings of fear and anxiety. Ever geared yourself up for a problem that never arose, or spent time rewriting a conversation that already took place? Me, too! That’s time we can never have back.

A lot of people swing from one state to another, though–dwelling on the past and feeling depressed, or careening into the future and feeling anxious. Not a very davidmbaderfun ride! The ticket off that ride is free, simple, and available to you at all times, and it is called your breath.

How Does Breathing Help You Be Present?

When you become aware of your inhales and exhales, you’re also training your mind to focus on something that is happening right here, right now, in your present. Any sensation you become aware of is happening right now, which is why the yoga practice, including seated meditation, is so powerful. The trick is to catch yourself when the mind starts spinning, and to do it quickly; essentially, you want to stop the tape before it gets going.

Ending Prolonged Stress

There’s something called “negativity bias”, and it’s part of our wiring. Back when we had to worry about things like sabertooth tigers eating us for lunch, or whether there’d be enough food to eat for the next few days, or if a storm was coming, this made sense for our survival. Biologically, we’re wired to worry, but most of us don’t have to worry about being eaten by tigers or whether we have shelter for the night. We are also not built for prolonged stress–ten minutes while we’re running from said tiger? That we can do. Ten months when we’re obsessing over relationship or financial stress? Not so much. Rewiring the mind takes desire, effort and determination, but like anything, it gets easier over time, and with practice. Instead of allowing yourself to be wired for worry, you can decide you’d rather be wired for gratitude, and focused on all the things that could go right.

Start the Process with Seated Meditation

When you first start to sit and meditate, it’s likely the mind will continue its habitual pattern of heading into the past and future. You may tell yourself to focus on your breath, and find after three seconds that you’re having a sexual fantasy, or thinking about dinner. That is okay! Over time, the space between your thoughts will increase. You just pick the mind up, and come back to your next inhale. You, “begin again”. When you keep working on one-pointed focus, you are also working on the same skill you’ll use eventually to choose one thought over another. Whatever you feed will grow and strengthen, so why feed your worries? You can make a conscious decision to feed your peace instead. Ready to give it a shot? Let’s practice together.

Sending you love,

Ally Hamilton

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Be Where You Are

The-greatest-weaponAny time you can change your perspective from, “Why is this happening to me?”, to simply, “This is happening”, you do yourself a great favor.

Every so often, I tell the story of the frog and the scorpion. If you’ve never heard it, it goes something like this:

Once, there was a frog on the side of a river, and a scorpion called out to her, asking for a ride to the other side. The frog, being a smart frog, declined. She said, “If I give you a ride, you’ll sting me, and I’ll die.” The scorpion, being a scorpion, said, “If I sting you, we’ll both drown, because I can’t swim.” This made sense to the frog, so she agreed to give the scorpion a lift. Halfway across the river, the scorpion stung the frog. With her dying breath she said, “Why have you done this to us?!” And the scorpion said, “Dude, I’m a f&cking scorpion.”

Whenever I find myself taking something personally, I think of this story, and it always makes me feel better. Most people are not setting out to hurt you, or me. Most people are doing the best they can with what they’ve got. Also, there is no boogeyman, there is no plot against you, so if you feel the “universe” is out to get you, or “you never get any breaks”, those are ideas you’ll want to ditch as soon as possible. One definition of stress is being in one place, while wanting to be in another. This state causes dis-ease. It happens anytime we try to argue with the reality of a situation. It happens anytime we compare our situation, life, relationship, or handstand to someone else’s. It happens when we numb, run or deny. These are all forms of being in one place, wanting to be somewhere else.

Accepting things as they are does not mean we have to like them or agree with them. You may have noticed there are things that happen in life whether you agree with them or you don’t. “Should” is one of the more dangerous words in the English language. Anytime I catch myself thinking or saying that word, I put the brakes on and check myself. There are only a few places where you don’t have to worry about your should. Here’s one: Everyone should floss. Here’s another: People should pick up after their dogs. Last one: If you have children, you should teach them about being kind and compassionate by being those things yourself, because that’s the important stuff in life, and because we could use more kind and compassionate people in the world. After that, I’m stumped.

A couple of months ago, I was teaching and a regular student of mine grabbed a bolster and put it at the front of her mat while we were practicing an arm balance. She has a (rational) fear of falling on her face, and her fear was stopping her from attempting the pose at all, so I’d gotten her a bolster one day, and presto, feet off the floor, huge smiles for both of us. When you work with your fear, when you acknowledge the truth of what you’re feeling and figure out what you need to be at ease so you can move forward, it’s amazing what happens. But I digress. The guy next to her, who has plenty of stuff to work on just managing his own practice, state of being, journey, and so on, turned to her and loudly said, “You can’t do a headstand on a bolster!” I told him she wasn’t attempting a headstand and he should stay on his own mat. (There’s another acceptable “should” for you).

People do this all the time. They get caught up in what other people are doing or not doing, or they tell stories about what’s happening, or they get entangled with someone else’s experience, needs, wants, or drama. Anytime you get swept away in someone else’s adventure, you’ve exited your own. You probably have plenty to manage keeping your side of the street clean, anyway. You can’t control what other people do or want or say or need or feel, nor is it your job to try. You manage your own situation, your own response to what you’re being given, to what you’re experiencing from moment to moment, and that is plenty.

There are a lot of things in life that shouldn’t happen. People shouldn’t up and leave one another with no explanation and no communication, but it happens all the time and maybe it’s happened to you. Is that fair? Is that right? Did you deserve that? Does anyone? No, no, no, no, but so what? These things happen and this is the stuff of life sometimes. What is the point in getting caught up with the unfairness of it? Things happen and some of them break your heart wide open, and you get to decide, once you’ve grieved, raged, cried until you thought there couldn’t be a tear left inside you, how you are going to rise up like a phoenix from the ashes. That is what you get to do. You get to offer up your gorgeous heart again and again. If you have the insight of knowing what it is like to not want to go on, you get to offer a hand to other people when they face those same dark nights, and there is beauty in that. You get to know what it means to love fully and deeply, with everything you have, and there’s incredible beauty in that; some people will live to one hundred and never feel that.

Understand that sometimes hope will make you sick. I know that might sound strange; we’re always taught to hold onto hope. The thing is, hope can be seductive and delusional, and if you hope too much it can cloud your vision. You might hope with your whole heart for someone to love you, and maybe they say they do, but if they don’t show that, your hope is a poison. You might hope that someone makes a shift, but if your hope is making it impossible for you to move on, it’s a poison. Life can be so sweet when we stop kidding ourselves, when we stop clinging to some picture we have of how things should be. Most of our pictures come from things we’ve been fed culturally from the time we could reason…”And they lived happily ever after”…oh, yeah? Did they have a great therapist? Did they struggle to pay the mortgage? Did they have fertility issues, problems with in-laws, confusion about how to balance work and romance? The pictures we’ve been sold are so surface-level. Life is messy and complex, and so are people. The truth is better than any fiction, even if it breaks your heart because it’s real, and that is what we are here to be. Sending you so much love, Ally Hamilton

Surprise!

A-mind-is-like-aLife always has plenty of surprises in store for us. We make our plans, and then, BAM! Something totally unforeseen happens. Sometimes these are good surprises–perhaps we meet someone who amazes us in every way, on a random Tuesday when we were just going about our business. Other times they’re challenging–we lose a job, or even worse, a whole person. We are given opportunities to practice for the unexpected every day, so that when the big twists and turns come, we aren’t knocked over by life.

The birth of anything is the death of something else. Each moment comes to an end so a new moment can arise. We contract against change, we fear the unknown, and yet, this is the one constant in life: everything is always in a state of flux. Things change, people change, our feelings change, the seasons change, you have already changed while reading this.

I try to experience the unwelcome surprises in my life as invitations to open and breathe. I don’t always succeed, of course, but I try. And I’m grateful to my yoga practice for that, because that’s less time spent suffering. There is always something to learn, and there’s no doubt challenge helps us grow. That doesn’t mean we have to be grateful for everything that happens along the way; some things will rip your heart out of your chest and bring you to your knees. But always, we have the opportunity to learn and evolve and open.

There is no pain-free birthing process, whether we’re birthing a person into this world, or we’re struggling toward a new way of being. Let the pain open you. Pause, breathe, acknowledge. When you’re ready, get up. There’s a lot of beauty in life. This is why we don’t want to resist the difficult parts. What we resist, persists, as the saying goes. Persist in love. Life feels better that way. Sending you some right now, and wishing you strength, grace and ease as you open to the surprises around the corner, Ally Hamilton

Take Down Your Inner Critic

Its-hard-to-fight-anIf you’re suffering from self-loathing and a loud inner critic, you’re in the worst kind of prison. You can’t evict your inner voice, so if it’s harsh, shaming and unforgiving, there’s nowhere to run. If you’d categorize the way you’re speaking to yourself as abusive, were you to hear the same words coming from someone else’s mouth, then it’s time to stage a take-down. Because that’s no way to live.

Where Does Your Inner Critic Come From?

Sometimes we absorb the way we were spoken to growing up. Not everyone is received with love, not everyone is nurtured. Peggy O’Mara has a quote, “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” I think there’s a lot of truth to that, but it isn’t the whole truth. You may have come from an incredibly loving home, but suffered unkindness at school. Scared and confused children can be mean, as can those who feel powerless at home. Events may have occurred that made you doubt yourself, or question your ideas about your own worth. Sometimes we’re going along just fine, and then we’re completely derailed by a romantic relationship, or an interaction with someone who has power over us, and it’s a game-changer.

Other times, we learn and we grow and we look back and feel intense shame for certain choices we made, or ways we let ourselves or others down. There are all kinds of reasons that voice in our head can become critical and unrelenting. Coming out of abuse is another one. Feeling like love is conditional and can be withdrawn at any time will also do it, because any time you fail to meet your own unrealistic expectations of perfection, you’ve set yourself up for the punishing sting of pain and disappointment. There are all kinds of ways we can betray our own tender hearts.

We Are All in the Same Boat…

The thing is, in order to shine and to share, you have to have some belief in yourself. And to be straight with you, not believing in yourself is the worst kind of hubris. It’s not a level playing field, but we’ve all been given the gift of a body, some time here on earth, and the ability to love deeply. Squandering those gifts is the equivalent of hijacking your experience here. You can look back and rant and rave and point fingers. You can write a dissertation about why you are the way you are, and why it isn’t your fault, but time will keep on ticking. And you can’t have it back.

We all make mistakes. We’ve all suffered loss to some degree or another, along with heartache, grief, regret, fear, confusion, shame, doubt and longing. If we’re lucky, we’ve also tasted joy and gratitude, love, kindness and connection. It’s a mixed bag here on planet earth, but it’s a wildly interesting ride. Getting bogged down in rage is no way to travel. There are so many tools available, so many paths of liberation, so many ways to enjoy the gifts we’ve been given. You really don’t want to rob yourself of all the beauty available here.

How Do You Starve Your Inner Critic & Feed a Loving Voice?

How do you starve an inner critic and feed a loving voice? I’m sure there are many tools, but the ones I’ve tested personally are the physical yoga practice, and seated meditation. There’s a saying, “How you do anything is how you do everything”, and I believe that to be the truth. If you’re critical of yourself out in the world, the same will hold true when you’re on your yoga mat. But if you stick with it and make it about breathing deeply and consciously, and not about how you look or what’s happening around you, a miraculous thing will happen. You’ll start to take the road marked “Inward”, so you can take a look around and start dealing with anything that isn’t serving you. You can start to observe yourself from the inside out, and build the muscle called compassion. You can work on the quality of patience. You can calm your nervous system with your breath. You can create enough space between your thoughts to get a taste of something called peace. And you can develop the ability to witness your tendencies, your thoughts and your feelings. You can start to recognize that you don’t have to believe everything you think, as the saying goes. You can start to choose better thoughts. Over time, you can feed a loving voice so it grows and strengthens and takes over your life. It just takes work and determination. Feel free to reach out if you need a little nudge.

Sending you love,
Ally Hamilton

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Don’t Die on the Inside

A-coward-is-incapable-ofIf you want people to know you, you have to be willing to show yourself. You can’t lie, deflect, manipulate or play games, and also expect to feel close to anyone. But for so many people, fear seems to get in the way. Most of us long for connection, for shared experiences, for genuine intimacy, but then we sabotage any hope for those things by hiding our true selves, our real needs and desires. People do it in relationships all the time. They fall in love with someone, or they get hooked on an unhealthy dynamic and think it’s love. And they accept far less than what they truly want, and pretend to themselves and to their partners that it’s okay. That less is enough. That all is well.

A lot of people struggle with self-doubt. I’d say that’s a normal part of being human, and if you never doubt yourself, you’re probably in some trouble. Uninterrupted confidence that you’ve got everything figured out is not a great sign. But if doubt is an overriding issue, if you aren’t sure you’re lovable, if you fear you might not be worthy of respect or consideration, or you ask yourself questions like, “Who am I to do anything extraordinary?”, then you’re going to have a very hard time being close to people. Because in order to be close, you also have to be brave enough to expose the parts of yourself that aren’t pretty. If you fear you aren’t good enough, that you don’t measure up in some important ways, you’re going to be motivated to hide those deficiencies, not highlight them. Fear doesn’t make you brave. Of course, what you really need to do is puncture a hole in the idea that you’re less than. Because that is not real. Sometimes we learn things because they’re taught to us, and sometimes we learn things because those around us don’t have the tools to love us well. We internalize the lack as our own. Those are all lies you’ll need to unlearn if you want to free yourself from ideas that imprison you. How can anyone get in if you’ve blocked them with walls?

We all have our stuff. Our histories, our pain, our tendencies, and the way that we deal with them. If you’re constantly trying to put up a good front, or be the way you think people want you to be, then you’re going to feel alone, and rightly so. Before you can feel comfortable sharing who you really are, you have to feel comfortable with yourself. People avoid that work for years sometimes, and some people avoid it for their whole lives. You can’t solve it from the outside. No relationship will fix it if you think you might be broken. No job will ease your fears, no amount of money, no house or car or dress size. If your main house is not in order, you will take that mess with you wherever you go.

I know people who spend an inordinate amount of time promoting themselves, but underneath it, right underneath the surface, you can feel the need. “Love me, see me, tell me I’m here and I’m wonderful.” If you need that affirmation every second of every day, you are in pain. And no amount of external reassurance will solve that, because that’s what you call an inside job. No one can crash your internal hard drive but you, and that’s what you’ll need to do if you want to rewire your system. Of course that sounds scary. Most people try to keep the system running, even if they have to shore it up with denial, or numb out or keep themselves so distracted they don’t realize the system is failing. Better off to let it fail, and start doing things a different way. Some of the best stuff in life includes connection. Feeling comfortable in your own skin. Being able to love and live with your heart wide open. There are so many tools available if you need to create a new way of being, and start living your life in a way that feels good. Doing this work won’t kill you, but avoiding it makes you die on the inside, and life is too short for that. Sending you love and a hug, Ally Hamilton

Color-Blindness

You-must-love-in-such-aYou are the sum of all your actions, and so is everyone else. That doesn’t mean you can’t and won’t make mistakes, or that your poor choices stay on your “permanent record” forever; it’s just that what we do, the things we say, and the choices we make define us. As long as we learn and grow along the way, as long as we do our very best not to hurt other people intentionally, we’ll all do just fine.

The thing is, sometimes we want something so much, we refuse to look at a person’s actions or hear their words. Maybe what they’re saying is shocking to us, or disappointing, or hurtful, or just not at all what we’d expected. Maybe the choices they’re making are confounding. You really don’t want to brush these things under the rug, or try to talk a person out of feeling the way they do. If, for example, your partner tells you he or she is not happy in your relationship, you have to hear that. Telling a person that the way s/he feels doesn’t make sense is not the same thing as taking in what was said. It’s not.

If your loved ones say they don’t feel heard, and you respond with all the evidence about what a great listener you are, don’t expect them to feel like you’re getting it. You can’t tell someone that what he feels isn’t valid, because feelings don’t have to be true, and they don’t have to make sense. That doesn’t mean you have to agree, but if you want people who are close to you to feel like you understand them, you have to try to wrap your head around the idea that what’s clear to you may not be to other people.

Did you know that one in twelve men suffer from some degree of color-blindness? That means if you grabbed a guy off the street, there’s a one-in-twelve chance he won’t see what you’re seeing when you look around. Now, when we’re talking about being color blind, we get that there’s a real difference in perception that can’t be helped, but we’re all color blind to each other to some degree. We’ll never fully be able to look through someone else’s eyes, or live in someone else’s head. We will only know people to the extent that they allow us access to their interior worlds. And the same is true for us. How honest are you with the people in your life? You can be in a relationship and still be totally alone. You can be alone without being lonely at all.

It’s hard enough to embrace the vulnerability of this gig. The worst thing you can do is make your life and your relationships murkier and more fragile by running from what’s true for you, or what’s true for others. If someone wants to leave you, you have to let them. If someone feels unheard and it’s a someone you love, you have to hear that, and see if you can learn to listen in a different way. Sweeping things under the rug, grasping to the reality you want when it isn’t real, clinging to people who want to run, none of that is living. That’s grasping, and it’s exhausting. Open hands. Open eyes. Open mind. And most of all, open heart. Sending you love and a huge hug, Ally Hamilton

Not This, Not That

buckminsterfullerIn yoga practice, so much of what we’re doing is about stripping away. It’s very possible, and quite common, to reach adulthood and have no clue who we are or what we need to be at peace. Culturally we’re taught to look outward for happiness; if we just meet certain “markers”, if we can look right and have the right job and the right partner and the right house and car, then we’ll be good to go. A lot of people are so focused on attaining these outer signs of happiness, they pass right by the signs that would actually lead them there.

Also, there’s the way you grew up. Maybe you were taught, in word or through actions, that your worth as a human being was based on your performance; if you did well in school, if you were a good boy or girl, then all would be well. If you screwed up or failed to reach the bar, love was withdrawn and the disapproval was palpable. Maybe punishment was swift and intense. That’s just one example, of course. There are many. Maybe you grew up in a house where you felt unsafe, and you learned to be indispensable or invisible depending on the moment. Maybe you were spoiled rotten and taught that you were the center of everything, and that other people existed in order to orbit around your needs and wants. Perhaps you were taught that your needs and wants were something you were supposed to swallow, and that your fears and dreams had very little impact on the world around you. Maybe you were parentified and got a huge lesson in care-taking and people-pleasing. It’s a huge spectrum, but the chances for knowing yourself are slim in any of these scenarios.

This is why we have so many people who reach adulthood and have no idea which way to turn. The house doesn’t do it, the diet doesn’t do it, the right partner doesn’t do it. What’s the point? Where have they gone wrong, why isn’t the formula working? The formula doesn’t work because it’s based on the stuff around us, not the stuff within us. I know someone who’s been searching for the “perfect house” for years. Money isn’t an issue, the location could be anywhere. No matter where he goes or what kind of house he buys, it’s never the right one. It never does the trick. If you want to be at peace, you have to get your true house in order. Your body is your home. If things are not well within you, they won’t be well around you, even if you buy a mansion in Bali and have people on hand to feed you fresh mango at your every whim. There’s no escaping yourself.

In the yoga practice, we’re looking for “vidya” or “clear-seeing”; being able to identify what is real from what is unreal, what is permanent from what is impermanent. You have to question everything you think you know, because you may have accepted things along the way, decades ago, that turn out not to be true for you. You may have adopted ways of being that don’t serve you, that dis-empower you, or block you from receiving love and joy. You may have a lot of unlearning to do. Maybe you’ve come to believe you aren’t lovable, or that you’re broken in some un-fixable way. Maybe you think you can’t trust anyone, or everyone lies and cheats. There are all kinds of ideas you might have developed that just aren’t true, and so you have to dig. You have to unearth. You have to do the work to heal your deepest wounds so they don’t direct your entire life. The way to peace is inside, not outside, and the sooner you start, the faster you get to a place where life feels good. Avoiding this work is the surest way to suffer. You aren’t here to suffer, although it’s part of life sometimes. You’re here to shine. I wouldn’t wait.

Sending you love,

Ally Hamilton