darkness & light & everything in between

darkness & light & everything in between
brene brown quote
Photo Source: Pinterest

This week I hit a breaking point. 2½ weeks ago, I moved across the country, with the expectation delusion of having at least a 2-3 month “honeymoon phase” before sh*t got real and I started to realize this isn’t vacation; I actually live here now. I thought the first few months would be filled with fun activities and exploring and writing and taking pictures and just about loving every part of my new life. Well, it has been filled with those things, along with re-learning the hard way (because that might be the only way I learn) that because I am an introvert as well as highly sensitive, trying to keep up with all the adventure without adequate time for rest & recuperation leaves me feeling drained, exhausted, disoriented, anxiety-ridden, you get the gist. Hence my breakdown earlier this week.

But here’s what I’m realizing – those feelings, and the breakdown moments, well, they’re real. And they deserve to be paid attention to.

I think so many of us go through life focusing on the “bright side”. One such bright moment in my week (because even among the darker pits of breaking-down, I experienced many bits of brightness scattered in the mix), was when I learned the difference between sympathy and empathy. A takeaway for me: empathy never begins with the words “at least”. That is sympathy, poking her baby toe into the pool, vague attempt at swimming, before retreating back to the sunny deck where she feels more comfortable.

To live with empathy requires a willingness to take the leap off the high dive, immersing body & soul in the depths beneath. Both the joyful depths as well as the frightening ones.

And if you don’t face your own feelings, tickling the dark, scary monsters living under the bed, you will never be able to truly feel empathetic to someone else’s.

So why do we run from our dark feelings? We are so ingrained in needing-to-stay-positive, write-down-our-three-gratitudes and wake-up-every-day-with-an-attitude of I’m-so-lucky-to-be-alive because everything is good; we fail to recognize that feeling good can be as much of an addiction as alcohol, tobacco, or drugs. It just often goes unrecognized because it’s seen as a “good”, healthy addiction. But addiction is addiction. No goods, bads, ifs, ands or buts about it. And if you’re addicted to feeling good, chances are you are running from whatever you associate with feeling bad.

In yoga practice, I am a fidgeter. My teacher brought my awareness today to a habit I have developed, the infamous “butt scoot”. Instead of just taking the next pose, I literally scoot my butt backwards, like “God forbid I come close to touching my neighbor’s mat, better get out of the way”. 99.9% of the time, I’m nowhere near their mat. The other .1% that I do touch it, guess what? They probably wouldn’t care. And if they did, then that’s where the work in their own practice lies.

So, anyway, I fidget. I pride myself on learning to feel comfortable with discomfort, inviting in sensation in my body, and sitting with what is in my yoga practice. Yet pretending that I do all those things is living in a false sense of delusion because the reality is, that I fidget. I fidget because it’s uncomfortable, and I’d rather invite in the discomfort slowly, gracefully, in my own time, on my own terms. My teacher also pointed out that this isn’t truly practicing Vinyasa. She’s right – it’s not. Vinyasa means linking breath and movement. When I butt-scoot, fidget, get comfortable on my mat, and then take the pose, well, at that point, I’m off my breath count and cruising, doing my own thing.

Mid-breakdown-week, when I was just about at the height of my I-can’t-do-this feeling, I had left the shala, walking my *lovely* route to work, through some kind of warehouse/under-the-highway section of San Francisco, taking in odors of burning rubber and car-repair shops, trying to avoid trash strewn on the sidewalk, when I saw a homeless person step out into the street right in front of me, pull her pants down, and start to pee. Deciding that nobody should have to walk directly by that kind of situation, especially before 7:30, my instinctual reaction took me across the street. It seemed, at the time, jay-walking worthy.

Yet as soon as I crossed to the other side, I recognized one of this city’s awesome no-pedestrian-crosswalks at the next light. Cars whizzing by off the highway exit, I had no choice but to retract my steps, and retreat back across pavement, facing the offender and then continuing my walk, beside her, post public-peeing. I had tried to remove myself from the situation, and San Francisco threw me right back in it.

And then, walking a few paces behind, I started to imagine what her life must be like, for her to resort to public urination, in the street, in broad daylight, in front of other people. What brings someone to that level? I started to feel all sorts of emotions – empathy, sympathy, confusion, despair. All of the feelings I had been avoiding by hiding out on the other side of the road.

The world holds a lot of brokenness in it. And I firmly believe that by looking the other way, we’re not doing anyone a favor. Least of all, ourselves.

The only way to get to the other side of darkness is through. It takes a lot of courage to feel things so deeply, especially if you’re an empath. But I’m beginning to understand I have no other choice. Staying numb or living in delusion is no longer an option. I must stay awake.

Because feeling all the things – the happiness, as well as the pain, the screaming muscles mid-pose, as well as the release and newfound lightness immediately after — it’s all part of living. Wanting to cry and scream and rip my hair out because I feel so frustrated about something is my soul crying out for me to listen. Feeling despair and the brokenness of the world is acknowledgment that human life holds a lot of shadow, and only by shining our light into those shadowy places, do we realize that maybe the darkness wasn’t quite as dark and scary as we once thought it to be. Or maybe it’s still just as dark, and that’s okay too.

In self-reflection, tonight I realized that my writing tends toward the positive, cheery, let’s-find-the-happy-twist-here-together style. Nothing wrong with that. But I will never take away the world’s inherent brokenness with my words. We are all made of light, and to light we shall return. But before that happens, we’re living a life here for a reason. The darkness exists, for a reason. Time to acknowledge that, and face all the feelings fully, because, braveheart, we have been thrust into the fire by life, and we have no other option.

the real reason i started practicing yoga

I have a confession to make. There’s a bio floating out there (somewhere) about my yoga background and it is – get ready for it – a lie. Not a whole lie. A half-truth. And one made unintentionally. But I want to come clean all the same.

I started practicing yoga from a dvd in my bedroom, when I was about 11 or 12 years old. My partial-truth bio claims “as a complement to dance”. Which is true. I was a dancer (a not very good one) and I thought increased flexibility, which I heard I could get from yoga, might make me better. So the way I remembered it, I bought a “yoga for flexibility” dvd. I vividly remember practicing it in my bedroom – for some reason seated twists stand out in my memory. Maybe that dvd had a lot of them.

Memory is a funny little selective animal. Often it cages out the aspects on which we don’t want to focus our attention. Last winter, in the middle of a move, I came across that dvd again. The title was actually “yoga for weight loss”. Not flexibility. Aha – now all the twisting-postures make sense. The reality is, when I was in middle school, I had an eating disorder.

I used to limit myself to less than 1,000 calories a day. I worked out obsessively –running, swimming, dance, and, apparently, yoga, as long as it promised to turn me into a size zero.

The irony of it is – I started practicing because I wanted to be smaller, but instead, yoga had the opposite effect.

I have heard that eating disorders often originate a means for control. Which, in my case, makes sense. As a kid, I was an oddball. I got made fun of, and had a hard time fitting in. I remember one time, riding the bus home from third grade, a girl telling me the clothes I wore were weird and that I should dress more like her. She was wearing blue-jean overall shorts with bright flower patches sewed on in random (“fashionable”) places. That same day, shopping with my mom at Kids R’ Us, I saw those shorts. I asked my mom to buy them for me. That girl and I ended up becoming friends, when she realized I had the same shorts she did. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

We didn’t have cable until I was eleven, and to this day I still don’t know how to play video games. I think those were the kinds of things that made you cool back then, but I’m not entirely sure. I remember making a new friend when we moved in sixth grade who, upon realizing how shy and awkward I was, stopped being my friend. I have always been an introvert – and in middle school, being quiet and shy was just plain not cool.

I think the combination of getting picked on, and my sensitivity, led 12-year-old me to subconsciously realize that I could never control other people and what happened around me. As a means for coping, I gripped at controlling the one thing I thought I could – myself. Namely, my body. I became obsessed with being perfect. I thought perfection equated happiness. Because people who, in my eyes, appeared perfect, also seemed to be happy. I forgot that inherently, I am happy. Always have been. My mom claims she never met a happier baby. And as a child, I may have been a goofy weirdo, but I loved every minute of being a goofy weirdo.

That “yoga for weight loss” dvd led me to my first “real”, instructor-taught yoga class, which I took at my high school. It was taught by the gym teacher, a marathon runner who I doubt had any kind of yoga-teaching credentials. This was back before yoga was all that popular in the US (and a smidgeon of the size it is now in DC). I told someone about this and he told me I’m “like an original hipster of yoga”, because I did it before it was cool. I think that comment will make my family laugh. At the time, armed with a field hockey stick and a slew of pink hair ribbons, I was the epitome of a catholic schoolgirl, and basically the opposite of hipster. I think the most ironic thing I did was go to a Fall Out Boy concert. And, apparently, do yoga.

I have nothing but fond memories of my freshman-year yoga class. I went to a large public school, and felt lost there. I had very few friends, and spent many an open-lunch period wandering the halls by myself, because I couldn’t find anyone to eat with. But in yoga, none of it mattered. Students of all ages and social statuses took the class, and in the “yoga room”, we were all equal. The teacher would write on a chalkboard the poses we were going to learn that day. Every Friday, she put on meditative rainforest-sounding music, and we did savasana (i.e., corpse pose, otherwise known as the yoga version of naptime), for the entire class. It was awesome.

My first yoga teacher did not wear lululemon (if that even existed then). She did not chant or take photos of herself doing fancy poses, or teach us rigorous flow classes with a peak pose (at least, not that I remember). What she did do was offer us a safe space, in which to explore our bodies through the practice of yoga. She read the room, and gave us what we needed (deep rest). She planted the seeds of yoga, which, for me, have since cultivated into a lifelong practice.

That year, I started eating again. I also, unknowingly at the time, learned to listen to my intuition. I made the challenging choice to transfer to a smaller, all-girls school, where I felt less lost and more at home to be myself.

At first, eating again had the opposite effect – I went through bulimic episodes, and frankly, blew up in size. My journey with food has been a long, hard-fought, solitary battle. It took me years to get to a place where I did not count calories or feel guilty about what I ate. Today, I eat a highly intuitive diet that works for my body. I focus on whole, unprocessed, natural foods, and have eliminated foods that don’t serve my body’s health. I have written briefly about my journey with food here.

Exploring my sensitivities, and which foods do and do not work for my body, led me to another version of my former eating-disorder behavior. This time, instead of focusing on loving myself because of how I looked, I turned my focus to loving how good I felt, as a result of practicing yoga and meditating everyday, self-care rituals, and living a clean, healthy lifestyle. Yet I was still missing the point. Because both of those versions of living involve conditional love – loving myself because I look or feel a certain way.

I realized this recently, when several instances of control-related issues emerged in my life. I believe we attract into our lives what our souls require for higher growth and learning. And I needed to learn the ugliness of the control-gripping monster.

Last week, I saw a photo of myself, and I realized that I was viewing it in a different way than I was accustomed to. A great deal of my life, I’ve seen my photo, and immediately began analyzing the parts. But last week, I looked at my face, and saw the whole person. I looked at my image just like I look at other people. I think this is what it means, to love myself unconditionally. Loving myself in entirety, no matter how I look, what I can do, or how I feel.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading about the beginning stages of my yoga journey. I think this is why I love teaching yoga to all ages, but especially kids and pre-teen and teenage girls. I have visions of one day starting a mindful living club for teenage girls, where we practice yoga, meditate, and talk about mind-body health.

For me, yoga is (and was) a game-changer, the gateway to my own healing. I began practicing because I wanted to be a size zero, and I thought “yoga for weight loss” would get me there. I think a lot of us start a yoga practice because we want something specific. Writing this reminds me of the song lyrics – “you can’t always get what you want/ but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need”. I never did become a size zero, from that dvd. Instead, I got exactly what I needed.

I intentionally don't keep photos around from my disorderly phase. Instead here's one from the peak of my "awkward phase" - 15 or 16 years old. Back when I thought it was okay to cut my own bangs. And apparently I really liked pink.
I intentionally don’t keep photos around from my unhealthy-eating period. Instead here’s one from one of my prime “awkward years” – 15 or 16 years old. Back when I thought it was okay to cut my own bangs. And apparently I liked pink.
Ten + years and so much growth later <3

“you’re allowed to jump crooked”

5.7blog quoteThree days ago, I walked into the Mysore room for the first time. Normally it takes me months, years even, to process things and feel like it’s okay to write about it. But right now, I’m reading a book, Scary Close, by Donald Miller, which talks about dropping the act (aka the masks we wear) in order to connect with people and find real intimacy. Through reading, I have discovered that my waiting-till-the-story-plays-out-in-order-to-write-about-my-actual-experience is all part of this idea I have that I am not enough, exactly as I am, in this moment.

So in order to attempt to blast that idea through the roof (or something along those lines), this is me writing about what is happening in my current life, full of judgment about the experience and all, without the nice, fluffy bow wrapped on top of a pretty little story-resolution package. With the full knowledge that it is still super early and I could decide Mysore isn’t for me, like, tomorrow. But who cares? I will never know what is going to happen in the future. It’s enough of a challenge absorbing what’s happening in the present moment.

I am also posting this without obsessing over every comma or begging asking a parent or housemate to read it prior. Yikes.

So my first day practicing Mysore-style, I went through Sun A’s, and my teacher came over and told me to attempt a jump-back. I looked at him and smiled, saying, “I jump crooked”. He told me to do it anyway.

Here’s the thing – I do jump crooked, and I do not know why. I have personal theories that it’s related to my “scoliosis” (my spine is slightly curved) – but really, it’s probably a combination of that and neuromuscular patterns formed from years of moving a certain way. And I honestly don’t even know if I have scoliosis. I’ve heard so many varying explanations for the way my body is from different bodywork practitioners; it’s one of those things that feels pretty impossible to define. It’s easier to put words to it and say “I’m this way” but the truth is that I don’t know and I’m always changing, so why narrow myself like that?

What I do see is the physical evidence that something is out of alignment, because of the simple fact that when I attempt to jump forward, I go to the right. I’ve tried so many different ways to train myself to go straight. I’ve used blocks. I’ve wrapped myself in voodoo bands, done flossing methods, rolled out on lacrosse balls, and used foam rollers. For a period of time, I even focused really intensely (no joke) on always stepping forward with the opposite foot from my default. I tried to re-pattern my body through seeing a chiropractor for years, as well as, more recently, a Thai massage therapist who claimed he could “fix my hip right quick”. But truth be told, it took me years to establish this movement pattern of jumping right, so naturally, it will take some time and a little lot of trial-and-error to un-do the pattern, right?

Anyway, later, he told me these magic words: “You are allowed to fall down. You are allowed to forget what comes next. You are allowed to jump crooked here.”

Later that day, I thought about being allowed to jump crooked, and I started to cry. I had gotten used to other people’s reactions, upon seeing my strange little crooked jump. Often, they laughed with me over it. I’m the first person to laugh at myself. Sometimes they are surprised and ask me what just happened. Sometimes they try to fix me. They are all just trying to help. Somewhere down the road, I created a story about it, and decided to stop jumping until I could get it straight. I learned to hold back to avoid any potential reaction. And consequently, I continued to cloud myself from a point of practice – meeting myself exactly where I am, crooked jumps at all.

A space where I’m allowed to jump crooked? That, to me, feels healing. But then again, no one before ever prevented me from jumping crooked, other than myself. I’ve always been allowed.