5 Ways to Cultivate Serenity, Now!

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It sometimes seems as though we spend much of our time searching for peace and serenity in our lives.  But are they really sensations we need to grasp for?  If we could just finish this project or complete that task, would we finally be more at peace?  Or are they intrinsic qualities each of us possess, but perhaps have simply gotten buried under every day stress and the busyness of life?
This week, do NOT attempt to solve the mystery or fix anything in hopes of finding SERENITY NOW.  Make a conscious shift towards cultivating existing serenity and peace.  Awaken to your innate serenity.
  1. Find a space that already exists in your life that creates a sense of peace.  Remember, we are not fixing anything, so no effort has to go into creating this space.  Rather, can you remember or take note of where this place is for you?   Try to spend at minimum 5 minutes in this space.  Maybe close your eyes and breathe deeply and slowly.
  2. Take note of rituals which calm and nourish you.  Do you love the smell of your morning coffee or the warmth of a mug of tea?  Do you find a meditation in your daily walk or preparing dinner?  Notice how even the seemingly mundane rituals such as brushing your teeth, washing the dishes or putting laundry away can nourish our souls.
  3. Cultivate moments of connection and community throughout the day. We often meander through our days coming into contact with others without truly connecting and acknowledging them.  Remember, we can put down our devices and look people in the eyes.  Smiles are free.  Asking someone about their day or sharing a story are opportunities to feel part of a bigger community and thus more at peace with the world.
  4. Eat mindfully and move each day.  Even if we have very few resources it is possible to eat our food consciously and nourish our bodies with movement.  Finding gratitude for our bodies, despite challenges, can bring peace into our lives.
  5. Find stillness and rest each day.  Allowing ourselves time to restore and relax does not require visits to fancy salons or exotic resorts (although, wouldn’t that be nice?)  Take time each day to find moments of stillness. When we pause to take deep breaths or find stillness, we begin to form the habit of coming back to our center and finding our foundation.
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Out of the Blues. . . Into the Light

imageLast week was a struggle for me.  My husband and I call it the “blues”.  It creeps up, in a slow, stealth way, not easily explained by any particular event or life stressor and covers me like a heavy blanket.   Generally, when I slip into this mood, it is marked with lethargy and crushing self-doubt.  I seem utterly unable to accomplish what I desire to, question my abilities and fall into a pattern of self-criticism. I am always surprised when I fall into this state.  I tend to be an optimistic person, seeing the good in most things.  I am able to maintain a sunny outlook towards and for everyone else except myself during this blue mood.  Interestingly,  in the most stressful times of my life, I have been able to muster the strength I’ve needed to survive, pooling resources and support from friends, family, faith and practice.  When the “blues” strike, I am caught off guard, dumbfounded, my reaction is to retreat into myself, which is in those periods, a hostile environment.
Great concern befalls me when this mood arrives, as depression and anxiety run rampant in my family.  I lost a grandparent to suicide and many of my relatives have at some point been treated for depression/anxiety.  In my estimation, I do not suffer from serious anxiety or depression.  Due to my family history however, I tend to take notice when one “off” day turns into several bad days, or perhaps a week marked with feelings of self-doubt, criticism and tears.
Four years ago, when I first sat in one of Tommy Rosen’s workshops at Hanuman Festival, a light bulb went off!  He sat quietly in front of us in all white, calmly glowing with the radiance.  (That may seem like an overstatement, until you’ve been in a room with he and his wife, Kia Miller – they radiate joy and kindness.)  After greeting us, he asked, “What are you addicted to?”  Naturally, I thought, “nothing”.  He then went on to name the usual addictions we are familiar with; drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling. . . still nothing.  Next he mentioned shopping and I thought. . . well, maybe at a point in my life. . . to some degree.  He then said, “What about the Four Aggravations; negative thinking, self-doubt, procrastination and resentment?” BINGO!
It came over me in a wave of recognition.  Not only were these thought patterns I routinly found myself stuck in, they were hallmarks of my family history.  Rosen will say that there is resistance from some in labeling the Four Aggravations as addictive behavior, afterall, these are thoughts and not a chosen elixor to stiffle pain. His response is that an “addiction” is any behavior which produces negative consequences in which we continue to participate.  It is worth noting, many of us may struggle with persistant self-doubt, negative thinking, procrastination or resentment and never fall into abusing drugs and alcohol.  Yet these thought patterns can be destructive all the same.
I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones.  My yoga practice and the self-awareness I have been able to cultivate, I believe has saved my life.  It has helped me recognize and come to terms with negative thought and behavior patterns and given me the space and time to observe them and make better choices.  I remain deeply curious as to the cause of these times of blue-ness, however, my practice has allowed me to let go of the “whys”. Perhaps just the right combination of things created a perfect storm and a dark mood, perhaps it is simply a pattern or habit created by my ego or mind.   My priority remains in developing the skills to deminish these patterns.
Eventually, I feel my blue mood lifts almost as gently and quietly as it arrived without explanation.  What I do know is that through my practice, I have tools to move through these periods.  The following is the toolbox I have created for myself.
1. Communication and connection 
When I can’t shake negative feelings about myself, I tell my husband – who happens to be my best friend and cheerleader.  He also happens to struggle with the same tendencies, so there is no judgment and always lots understanding and hugs, which incidentally can help increase Oxyitocin, our bodies “love hormone”.
Connect with friends and colleagues who may struggle with the same self-doubt around work or personal life.  It always helps to hear that you are not alone in your fears or anxiety.
2. Movement
Often, the first thing I want to do when feeling this way is to melt into my couch, but movement releases important hormones to help counteract depressed mood such as; Seratonin, our bodies natural anti-depressant.  Last week, I had fallen out of my yoga routine and my husband encouraged me to get back on my mat.
If yoga is not your movement of choice – walk, run, cycle or even dance.
3. Eat and sleep well
Returning to healthy eating and sleeping patterns can aid in mood recovery.  Our bodies need  fuel and rest, continually running at a deficit can contribute to negative moods and anxiety.  The more aware I become, I can see the direct connection between good rest and food to my overall well-being and happiness.
4. Just Do It
Nike has a brilliant slogan – because sometimes you just have to do it.  With energy low, it is often hard to accomplish or finish tasks on my long lists and which tends to feed the cycle of self-criticism and doubt.  To-do lists are often a set up for unreasonable expectations in my life.  Taking on a few tasks and pushing through to completion, despite my negative mood often helps reverse my depleted sense of accomplishment.  Simply put, I like to feel useful and as though I am caring for my family.
5.  The silent treatment
Meditation and stillness can be the most challenging part of the yoga practice for those of us who struggle with constant negative mind chatter, the Four Aggravations.  It is not so much that physical stillness does not feel good, I love stillness – ask my couch.  Rather, it is that in stillness,  that the negative chatter gets louder as I am no longer distracted by physical movement.  Sitting in stillness and trying to meditate then seem to be ill-advised if it produces opportunities to further deminish oneself.  However, although not easy in the beginning, mediation provides us with the opportunity to observe our thoughts, identify patterns and then choose a different reaction.   If you struggle with the process, let go of the label and judgement.  When you first begin, it will be a battle with the loud voices constantly interrupting your attempts to be quiet in your mind.  I use the “silent treatment” – you know, that thing you used to do to your siblings when you were young?  Or maybe you do it to your partner when you are in a fight (horrible by the way, just horrible)?  Have a sense of humor and use it when you are meditating.  Ignore the obnoxious thoughts that continually interupt your attempts to find space.  Cross your imaginary arms, turn up your nose and ignore them until they begin to deminish.
If you are struggling, perhaps these tools will help, however they are not the only or even the best answer for every situation.  The “blues” as I identify them, lasting longer than a week or two or behavior patterns resulting in negative outcomes in your work or personal life should be addressed.  Seek help and advice from professionals and support groups if you are concerned about yourself or others. The links below may be helpful.
Support for Anxiety and Depression
Addiction Recovery Groups
Yoga and Recovery
Recovery 2.0
Yoga of 12-step Recovery
 Keep Practicing!

What Is Yoga?

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This is NOT yoga, this is an asana (pose). It is also months of hard work, mindful breathing and focus. More importantly, this is a beautiful evening spent running around the quirky allies of my beloved Bloomington with my light and love, my daughter – NOW THAT IS YOGA. Photo Credit: Stella Eibling

 

I love Russell’s way of relating the meaning of yoga.  When teaching, I’ve often compared the state of Samadhi to the moments of pure joy or pure grief in our lives.  The moments when things literally seem to stand still, our usual attachments drop away and our busy minds stop chattering.  Yoga is simply the practice of breathing more space in between the craziness of our thoughts in an effort to expand these moments of stillness.

Often, we feel this is something out of our control.  We allow ourselves to be swept up into the flow of life.  We say there isn’t enough time for stillness.  We question whether true peace of mind is possible.  It is.  It is a practice.  We have all had glimpses of Samadhi or pure consciousness, the times when it is abundantly clear that most of what we busy our minds with is not necessary and often the cause of our suffering.  Tap into this knowledge and practice expanding the space between the thoughts in your head. This can be done with the breath, a mindfully done task, meditation, listening to others, or meaningful work.  The possibilities are endless.  The mat is unnecessary.  Intention a must.

Russell Simmons: What Is Yoga?

Russell Simmons: The Connection Between Yoga and Success

Sit. . . Stay. . . Repeat!

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“Separate the mind from the body and unite it with the supreme soul. When your consciousness is free from its different state, know that to be Samadhi.”

– Hatha Yoga Pradipika 7:3

 The physicality of asana gives us a glimpse of what is possible. It allows us to relinquish control to our teacher, our guide. It gives us a physical task to focus our mind upon. Asana allows us to let go and release.

But it is in learning to be still and to sit in our own presence where the real magic happens and the proverbial “shit” hits the fan.   This is where all of our crap comes up; all of the thoughts, the crazy monkey mind, the negativity, the judgments – we no longer have the controlled distraction of our asana practice, the community, the music, the voice of our teachers – we are alone with ourselves.

Learning to sit in stillness teaches us to know our true selves. It teaches us to look beyond the delusion of the chatty, gossipy, bullying and unruly little customs agent, our ego, and truly see who we are. To see our selves is to turn the light on. Enlightenment isn’t some unreachable goal. Our path to greater awareness and presence requires us to clear away all that masks our true selves. It requires us to stop believing the customs agent. It requires us to walk through the dark spaces in our minds and hearts instead of turning and running.

The practice of sitting, while simplistic is not simple. It is not easy to sit and listen to our own thoughts. We have had much practice in distracting our minds. We are expert multi-takers, and because we so embrace the concept that busy is accomplished, we make the excuse that “sitting” is not something we have time for.   The work we do in our asana and pranayama is mindfulness in action. Through this physical effort, we cultivate focus and concentration. However, perhaps it is in sitting that we know our true selves. It is in the stillness of the body and the release of manipulated breath that the mind can truly be observed. It is in this place that the harder work can begin.

Our task is to release the idea that sitting requires anything more than our willingness to observe, to become the seer. To focus our awareness away from the running dialog of our minds and our tendencies to analyze and engage those thoughts imagine that you are a teacher that has walked into a room of unruly children. The children are running about, acting crazy, talking incessantly and screaming. Now imagine that rather than trying to take control of the room by force, by yelling, explaining, reasoning or lecturing, you simply arrive in the room and calmly sit down in the middle.   Eventually, the children relent. Many of us have experienced this before. We have been in the presence of a teacher who sits calmly at the front of the room waiting for the chatter to calm so that they may begin their lesson.

As we move through the 8-limbs, we learn from our external teachers and gurus, we begin to acknowledge the lessons of our own behavior and tendencies, to cultivate mindfulness in action, and to be present in our bodies and aware of our breath. As we pivot towards the internal, and practice our ability to remain physically and mentally still, we move through the darkness and all that it masks. With effort and repetition, with courage and resolve, the light within us begins to burn brighter.  We are able to become the seer, to shed light on our lives, to become enlightened. Through this we realize that we are our own teachers and gurus. All we have to do is turn on the lights.

There is NOTHING wrong with you!

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When I was younger, my husband and I worked different schedules. My days off were during the week. I remember sitting in our house and feeling dissatisfied with not being able to afford new furniture, decorations, clothes, etc. We were being good, working hard and paying off debt. It wasn’t always a pleasure to be responsible. I found that I would spend my days running errands and staying out of the house to avoid marinating in my discontent and to distract myself from feelings of lack.

Ultimately I lacked nothing –  I know that those were wonderful years! I had a supportive and loving husband, who was and is still my best friend, a great rental home in a hip neighborhood, and a good job that ultimately helped erradicate our debt.  We met some of the most fantastic people and built tremendous life-long friendships.  

The discontentment I felt during that time, was a waste. I now recognize that I filled my days with meaningless busyness to distract from learning to find peace and contentment with what I had and who I was. How much fuller could my world have been then if I had not pined away for material things and distractions?

Many years later, and a constantly deepening yoga practice has taught me that our task in yoga is to peel away at the many layers of discontent in which we have clothed ourselves. Do not mis-use your feelings of discontentment and lack, your desires for material things, or your need to perfect your body as motivation to change yourself from the outside.   Contentment and peace gradually come when we work to find the stillness that already exists within.

 

There is NOTHING wrong with you!

 

You have EVERYTHING you need!

 

Nothing you acquire,

 

Nothing you lose,

 

Nothing you “fix” on the outside

 

Will give you peace!

 

Sit quietly and listen.

 

Turn off the tv,

 

Close your laptop,

 

Put down your phone

 

And sit.

 

And then. . . Repeat!

 

Don’t Change a thing.