Touching Your Toes Has Nothing to Do with It

What would you think if I told you that a paraplegic could become a sophisticated and very advanced yogi?

You might do a mental double-take: What? Don’t you have to be able to twist yourself into some insane human pretzel to be considered an advanced yogi? Don’t you at least have to be able to touch your toes?

No way, José.

The truth is, what we in the West consider to be “yoga” — the part where you move your body and stretch and strengthen and balance — is only a fraction of the full practice of yoga. One eighth, to be precise.

The Yoga Sutras, written by an author named Patanjali perhaps over 2,000 years ago, is considered to be one of yoga’s most sacred texts. In it, Patanjali lays out an eightfold path to attaining a higher state of consciousness, one in which the practitioner learns to still the craziness of his or her mind.

This path is yoga.

It’s often called the Eight Limbs of Yoga, but I like to envision it as a flower with eight petals. Below you’ll find my original interpretation (it’s really big so you can print one out for your fridge). If you like it, you’ll have to thank my teachers for passing on the lessons so very well.

patanjali's eight limbs of yoga

You’ll notice that the practice of asana, or the physical postures of the body, doesn’t even come along until the third petal! Furthermore, yoga scholar Chip Hartranft says to practice asana means to cultivate “profound physical steadiness and effortlessness in meditation.” So, really… touching your toes has very little (if anything) do with it.

I hope you enjoy looking over the eight petals of a flower I’m becoming increasingly infatuated with. Each of the individual pieces of information — each petal, each yama, each niyama — could be explored infinitely. This infographic barely scrapes the surface.

Which of the eight limbs (or petals) surprised you the most? Do any of them speak to you in some way? If you were already familiar with the eight limbs, I’d love to know your interpretations of the original Sanskrit. Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments below!

Advertisements

What does perfection look like?

Last week I was expecting the delivery of an important package. I knew the delivery window began at 11am, and I also knew that I had time to get to the gym and back before then.

But just in case it comes early, I thought, I’ll leave a note on my door.

The next thing I knew, I looked down at the coffee table and saw this:

please leave package with doorman

Ohforchristssake.

It happened like lightning. In the blink of an eye, I had written a note for the delivery person not once, not twice, but three times, all to get it just right. The first one was spaced wrong, the second one was a disaster, and the third one — well, I wasn’t happy with that one either, but by that point I realized how weird this all was and acquiesced.

And why — why had I wasted all that ink and paper, all that time? Was it because I thought the random stranger delivering the package would like me better if my note was polite and well-spaced, so that they might send me goodwill and treat my package with the tiniest bit of extra care? Or because I was thinking about all the people who live on my apartment building floor and all of the conclusions they might draw about me based on the color and cadence of my post-it note?

Well, yes; actually, yes.

And oh man, doesn’t that speak volumes about all the time I’ve spent in my life, all the tiny moments I’ve wasted, worrying about what other people think of me? It makes me exhausted just thinking about it. I may have made some pretty beautiful progress so far, but it’s little post-it moments like these that reveal to me how much work there is to be done.

If you could call it perfection Leza LowitzWould I have even known what the perfect version of that post-it note looked like when I saw it? Probably not. And that’s the trap of perfectionism. As long as I’m striving for some standard of perfection that does not actually exist, then my writing will never be perfect, my body will never be perfect, my relationships will never be perfect…

But if I can learn to embrace things as they are, flaws and all, and just call that perfection, then I’m side-stepping a whole lot of suffering.

So in honor of the theme of this post, I’m just going to publish it without sleeping on it or spending multiple days editing it. It might not be my best post ever, but that’s okay. It’s more than enough.

What are you going to do this week to eschew the flawed ideal of perfection? In your yoga class are you going to resist the temptation to take a pose into its more advanced variation, even if it’s accessible to you? When you notice a typo you’ve made in a social media post, will you resist the urge to edit it? Will you look at yourself in the mirror and call what you see perfection, knowing that right now it is really enough?

National Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2015

February is usually the most hectic month for me – more hectic than even the holiday season! Between my husband’s birthday, my birthday, AND our wedding anniversary, there’s plenty of celebration to be planned (and enjoyed), but it’s also the time of the year when perhaps the gusto with which I attack each January starts to catch up with me. Like, tell me again why I planned to start training for a half marathon while juggling a half dozen private clients, a brand new nutrition group, five public yoga classes a week, two non-profit jobs, and the mounting of a cabaret? In the dead of winter?!

No complaining here though. I feel invigorated, if a little frazzled, and I’m taking it one day at a time, one breath at a time, one break from the computer at a time — and always keeping an eye out for my MBP Daily Three.

NEDAwareness_2015_Shareable_IllusionsFebruary 22nd through the 28th is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, in which people across the country come together to “put the spotlight on the seriousness of eating disorders and to improve public understanding of their causes, triggers and treatments.”

One of my favorite offerings from NEDA so far this week is this Media Literacy Toolkit, which includes, among other awesome info, a quiz to help you determine your digital body image and examples of how to send your feedback to advertisers.

Also included in the toolkit is a pledge designed to “let people know where you stand on picture-perfect body images in the media.”

What do you think — would you take the pledge?

NEDA’s Body Positive Pledge:

  • I promise to move beyond society’s ideal body standards and embrace my own body.
  • I promise to tell myself one positive thing about my body every time I look in the mirror and appreciate that I am original and there’s only one me.
  • I pledge to respect my body and not try to fit media’s image of attractiveness.
  • I promise to keep a healthy and active lifestyle for myself and no one else.
  • I pledge not to judge people based on their body shape and size, especially if they do not fit the cultural body ideal.
  • I pledge to be proactive about negative body images and challenge unrealistic and demeaning body talk.
  • I pledge to advocate for positive body image messages—that includes not to buy from companies or support organizations that use unrealistic and unattainable body ideals to sell a product or promote a cause.
  • I pledge not to retouch my photos in order to enhance my appearance online.
  • I pledge to become more media literate and think critically about what I see, hear and read, especially on social media.
  • Finally, I pledge to love my body unconditionally.

If I’m totally honest with myself, holding to this pledge in its entirety would be a serious challenge. This is not easy stuff here, folks; we’re talking about reversing years of negative conditioning. But what a goal to work towards! Which of the above pledges will you work towards this Eating Disorder Awareness Week? Let me know in the comments below.

My Graffiti Mantra

When traveling from Brooklyn into Manhattan on the B train, there are a few minutes during which the subway cars emerge from the dark underground into the sunlight. It happens as the train crosses over the East River by way of the Manhattan Bridge, and the views can be pretty spectacular.

First you see the rooftops and water towers of Brooklyn; then the view looking north up the river, with Manhattan to the left, Brooklyn to the right, Queens and the Bronx beyond; and finally the train submerges once more, dipping into the crammed and colorful tenements of Chinatown and the Lower East Side. And this is only the view to the north – the view to the south is unbeatable:

Beautiful it may be, but whenever the train comes up for air on its journey over the East River, you can count on one thing: every single passenger will whip out their smart phone.

It is, after all, the only moment for many of us to get cellular service during our commute. And though it speaks to our collective dependency on techno gadgets, not to mention a certain jaded disposition toward the splendor of NYC, ultimately it’s kind of fun to see everyone – even the little old ladies – refreshing their Facebook feeds so they’ll have something to peruse for the remainder of their underground trip.

A few weeks ago, I happened to look up from my iPhone just as the train was coming up on the Brooklyn side, and I spied a bit of graffiti that hit me like a ton of bricks.

Jim Joe my heart is proud of its painOn the side of a building near the rooftop, clear as day, were the following words: My heart is proud of its pain. It was followed by a smiley face. I too was smiling. I spent the rest of my ride thinking about the pain we all endure just by virtue of being alive, but also of how we overcome, how we grow, and how we can build upon old patterns of suffering to create something better.

My heart is proud of its pain.

As far as I can tell, that piece of work is from an elusive street artist called Jim Joe, who’s been on the scene in NYC since 2010. Not all of his work is so straightforward, but it is typically clever, and often makes you think. Consider me a fan.

Now whenever I cross the bridge, I take a moment to find that scrawl before checking my phone. It reminds me to pause and check in with myself, to breathe a bit. It reminds me that suffering comes up for all of us, but that we have some control in how we respond to that suffering.

no mud no lotus thich nhat hanh

Can you think back on a time of real suffering and cultivate a sense of warm, loving pride that you were able to endure it? Imagine the beautiful lotus blossoms that bloom out of the mud and the muck; we are all capable of creating beauty and cultivating love, even in response to the most painful circumstances.

Happy New Year from MBP

When the sun sets on December 31st and the hours tick away into the night, nothing really happens. I mean, nothing cosmic happens.

new-years-roosterIt’s not like the planets align, or like it’s the longest night of the year. Father Time will not stop by to count your wrinkles, and Baby New Year is certainly not going to ignite a champagne bottle canon while a rooster crows in approval (if I’m wrong, I want to be at that party).

December 31st is just an arbitrary date; a natural conclusion to the Gregorian calendar.

Yet it means something to us. And since the collective consciousness accepts New Year’s Eve as a global reset button, perhaps it does hold a bit of magic.

I’ve never been one for New Year’s Resolutions, but a few years ago I wrote some things I wanted to let go of on little slips of paper and then watched them burn up and turn to ash in a cooking pot on a New York City fire escape. I liked that ritual. I still do.

Letting go is healthy. It’s important. The question of “What is no longer serving me?” is helpful to ask on December 31st and every other night of the year, for that matter.

I guess what I’m getting at here is that when it comes to this New Year’s Eve, you do you. If you feel inspired to set new goals and make sweeping changes, that’s great. But remember that there’s nothing stopping you from doing that right now, or on January 2nd, or on August 13th.

Every single moment is a new gift, a new opportunity to make choices in self-love and self-care, to let go of what is no longer serving you. Every breath is a chance to start over. You don’t need a calendar for that.

Thank you so much for being a part of the MindBodPlate community. Here’s to a New Year filled with love, joy… and consistent blog posts!

How do you feel about New Year’s Resolutions? Do you have any meaningful NYE rituals? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!

Attitude of Gratitude

leaves that look like heartsHappy Thanksgiving to you!

I have chosen to stay away from social media today as a way to enhance my mindfulness practice and focus on gratitude. But I wanted to say a quick hello.

There’s so much to talk about at Thanksgiving time: food, eating habits, family, and even politics (I urge you to check out this thoughtful post from Desire Yoga that manages to tie in the troubling events in Ferguson, MO with the themes of Thanksgiving and yoga).

However, all I want to do today is to repeat to you what my favorite doorman, Carlos, shared with me last night, after I asked what he’d be doing for Thanksgiving.

Carlos smiled and said, “Every day is Thanksgiving.”

Rock on, Carlos.

May you all have a mindful evening filled with gratitude. And may you continue to live in this rich spirit of thanks tomorrow, and the next day, and the one after that…

 

 

The Tender Heart or: Sociopaths Aren’t All That

2006 was kind of a rock bottom year for me. Or the year that everything started to turn around, depending on how you look at it. I was in college, feeling helpless against my eating disorder, and lost in a pretty deep, dark depression.

One of the things I remember most from that period was what my paternal grandmother told me when she found out I had been struggling. Holding me in her arms and shaking me a little for emphasis, she said, “We’re survivors.

She said, “Every facet of your being, and of your hurt and pain, make you who you are.

She said, “Russians — we just feel, emote, to such a great extent; we’re very emotional people. Very happy or very sad; laughing one moment, crying the next.

She was half Russian. Me? Only an eighth. But I guess a little goes a long way.

A hug from Grandma on my wedding day | Credit: Briana Cichuniec

That was eight years ago, and she’s been gone for two summers. But I remember the things she said because I copied them into my diary right away. I knew then that they were important, that they held some very simple but very profound answers for me.

See, Grandma was what some people would call a sensitive person. I guess I am too.

Now, I’m not saying that I’m a textbook Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). I just mean that I really internalize whatever’s being dished out around me, you know?

When someone else in my general vicinity is not right, I definitely do not feel right. Just a whiff of conflict and my body goes into full fight or flight. I get anxious — a lot. A gruff interaction with a stranger on the subway will stay with me for hours. If one of my mistakes adversely affects another, I can assure you that I’ll have sleepless nights over it for years. And yes, I can go from laughing to crying at the drop of a hat.

All too often, my first instinct is to assume that any unpleasantness is my fault. I’ve done something wrong. They’re mad at me. I need to fix this.

Which of course is rarely the case! First of all, not everything is about me (thank the universe). And second, everything can’t be perfect all the time (thank the universe).

Still, it’s overwhelming to feel this much, and it can’t just be turned off, however hard I try.

I’ve known a person or two whose dispositions trend towards sociopathy, and I’d be lying if I said I’d never once wished that I were more like them. I mean, it must feel pretty freeing, in a way, to have no concept of other people’s feelings whatsoever. But who would really want that?

I was talking about all of this with the incredible soul that is my aunt. See, my grandma is her mother, and she too knows something about being a sensitive person. Then she said this:

high cost for a tender heart | MindBodyPlateThere’s a high cost for a tender heart; but it’s worth it.

And you guys, she’s totally right. I may struggle sometimes with the kind of pain that tends to seep through thin skin, but I’ll be damned if I’m not squeezing every inch of feeling out of this one life I have to live.

And let’s not forget that the sensitivity causing me trouble is the very same sensitivity that makes me an empathetic listener; a helpful coach; an intuitive yoga teacher; a kind leader, and a caring and thoughtful friend to those I love.

Every piece of art I’ve ever created, on stage or on paper, has been informed by my ability to feel things deeply — to feel sad like I never thought I could feel sad; to feel joy like I never thought was possible.

And for that I am grateful. Even for the pain.

What about you guys: Do you sometimes wish that you had a thicker skin? Has anyone ever told you that you were being “too sensitive”? What are the overlooked benefits of being you, exactly as you are, tender heart and all?

Why I’m Giving Up On My Dreams

A stage; a.k.a. "home"

A stage; a.k.a. “home”

When I moved from San Francisco to New York City, I definitely imagined myself on a stage in front of hundreds of people. After all, I had been doing it my whole life. I was the lead in an opera before I was ten years old. In 2010, just before leaving the Bay Area, SF Weekly readers generously voted me San Francisco’s Best Stage Actor. So I knew I’d make my way to a New York City stage eventually.

I just couldn’t have guessed what kind of stage.

Last Sunday morning I took the subway down to New York City’s Foley Square, right across from City Hall. The fountain had been turned into a stage, and I waited on it as hundreds of people crowded around to listen to an opening ceremony. It was the day of the annual New York City NEDA Walk, raising money and awareness for the mission of the National Eating Disorders Association, and after raising nearly $150,000.00, this huge group was about to walk the Brooklyn Bridge.

Then I heard my name:

Sarah Kit Farrell is a yoga teacher and health coach who recently celebrated 6 years of recovery. She is a program facilitator for mentalfitness, inc., an organization that builds mental fitness in all youth through arts-based awareness and prevention programs…

It was time for me to take the mic, though I wouldn’t be singing. Instead, I spent the next several moments leading all those hundreds of people in a yoga-inspired warm-up.

Just a slice of the immense crowd in Foley Square

Just a slice of the immense crowd in Foley Square

Lemmie tell ya – I wish I had been asked to sing, ’cause I wouldn’t have been nearly as nervous. Singing I know how to do. But playing the part of an inspirational yoga teacher? Now that made me shake in my running shoes.

Performing is in my heart and it always will be, but a few years back I stopped spending the bulk of my free time on preparing for auditions and memorizing monologues. I basically stopped living the “actor’s life”. It just sort of happened. And when I realized that it was happening, I used every weapon I could think of to punish myself for my transgression.

How could you? I thought to myself, everyone will think you’re giving up — you ARE giving up! Have you wasted your entire life trying to perform only to find that you’re not good enough? That you don’t have what it takes? Or maybe you are good enough and you’re just too lazy to make it. If that’s the case, then you deserve to fail. You’re worthless, in fact. You’re a goddamn disgrace. Get it together, SKF!

Wow, right? Um, self-abuse, party of two?

But no matter how many times I told myself to get back on track, how I should be doing this and that, I just didn’t. The truth was, I didn’t want to. It wasn’t enjoyable to me. That lifestyle wasn’t making me happy.

All the while, little by little, I was giving in to these interests and activities that have fascinated me all along: nutrition, mindfulness, yoga, eating disorders… and I felt awful about it. Each time I gave attention to one of these alternative areas, a little gremlin in my head told me I was betraying my destiny, betraying my true “purpose” in coming to NYC, betraying the goals set out for me by my younger self.

For a while now, I’ve made an effort not to “should” on myself (I should do this and I should have done that). But if I’m honest with myself, for the last few years, my life has essentially been one big SHOULD. I’ve been clinging to this idea that my life was supposed to go one way, and refusing to accept that it might go somewhere else.

This all reminds me of a metaphor used by author Esther Hicks, who says that life is a swift-moving river and we’re all conditioned to think that we’ll be rewarded by fighting to get upstream. But in all actuality, nothing that you want is upstream. In fact, the stream itself is a stream of well-being, and the second you accept the current of your life and learn to move with it, to sway with it, to go with the flow, joyful things begin to happen — and they happen fast.

With my amazingly supportive friends at the 2014 NEDA Walk

With my amazingly supportive friends at the 2014 NEDA Walk

So on the one hand, I’m flabbergasted that I, of all people, would end up leading stretches for this year’s NEDA Walk, but on the other hand, I’m not surprised at all. It’s the same reason that I was hired at the very first yoga studio I applied to, the same reason my coaching practice took off the moment I decided take it seriously.

Because the current of my life is headed that way. The more I trust that current, and the more I can let go of my preconceptions about how my life in NYC should turn out, the farther I’ll be able to go.

Of course I’ll never stop performing, don’t be silly; it’s in my bones. In fact, I’m planning a New York City debut of my one woman show about food, body image, and appetites unchecked. But it may not be the most important thing. As far as those earlier dreams go, the ones in part constructed by a thirteen year old Sarah, consumed by her eating disorder, rigid in her perfectionism, and desperate for approval, well… maybe I don’t need those specific dreams anymore.

I think I passed that fork in the stream a long time ago. And thank goodness.

So what about you? Are you swimming upstream against the dominant current of well-being in your life? What do you think would happen if you stopped fighting in order to go with the flow?

My Lips are Sealed

my lips are sealed | MindBodyPlateI’ve been running in the mornings with my husband, and I’m trying something new. I’m trying not to breathe through my mouth.

Come again?

I’m trying not to breathe through my mouth. In fact, I’m attempting to sustain my morning runs breathing in and out through my nose and my nose alone.

Specifically, I’m utilizing a style of nasal breathing called ujjayi pranayama or ‘victorious breathing’, a slow and controlled style of yogic breathing which produces oceanic (or Darth Vader-like) sounds due to a slight constriction of the throat. Why? Well, it’s an experiment.

It’s based on some research I heard about, research conducted by Ayurvedic physician Dr. John Douillard in his book Body, Mind & Sport: the Mind Body Guide to Lifelong Fitness and Your Personal Best.

Basically, when you participate in strenuous exercise and start huffing and puffing through your mouth, your brain recognizes it as the same kind of breathing you do when you get surprised, or stressed… or scared. And it registers that you might just have a reason to be stressed or scared.

running huffing and puffing | MindBodyPlateNasal breathing, on the other hand, allows for deeper diaphragmatic breathing, which stimulates the vagus nerve, which stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system — in other words, breathing through your nose makes you feel less stressed. It lowers cortisol levels. It sets you up for ‘rest and digest’.

And I want the very act of running to feel relaxing to me. I never want running to feel any more strenuous than a few sun salutations. I don’t want any small part of my subconscious to think that there’s something wrong when I hit the pavement at 6:45 AM every morning, that I’m running from something, that there’s an emergency. Because ultimately I think that will sabotage my goals. In some small way, I think it will set my mind against doing it.

When I was a kid, and let’s face it, pretty much up until the age of 25 or so, I hated running. And it wasn’t just because my cheeks turned a particularly Irish shade of beet red when I exerted myself. It was because it felt awful.

And I think it felt awful because it was something I just didn’t do on a regular basis. I rarely ran for fun, let alone for relaxation, and then all of a sudden, my PE teacher would bark out orders to run a mile, and my body was like, exsqueeze me? So infrequently was I asked to run, that whenever I did it felt like torture. My body wasn’t prepared for it, so it felt like death.

And the more I came to associate running with, you know, feeling like death, the more my distaste for it grew.

I’m trying to rewire that distaste. I won’t settle for just feeling proud because I pushed myself to run and I did — I want to want to run, because it feels good. I want every cell of my body to feel joyous when I run, so for now I’m breathing through my nose.

Now I can’t run as far or as fast when I keep my lips sealed, but I know that’s not permanent. My endurance will get stronger and stronger. Two years ago I ran a 10k, achieving something I never thought I would or could do, and it was a very proud moment for me. My next goal is to run a 10k while breathing through my nose.

breathe deeply kitty | MindBodyPlate

So if you’re not a runner, or even an aspiring runner (which is okay, by the way), how does this all apply to you?

Start paying attention to the way you’re breathing when you engage in any kind of activity. Even just walking to the car or the subway. If you find that you’re taking shallow, non-diaphragmatic breaths, or even holding your breath, you’re not alone; it’s pretty common. Spend some time thinking about the subconscious messages that kind of breath could be sending to your brain.

Imagine the deep, slow, relaxed and luxurious breaths you take when you’re, I dunno… getting a massage. What would it be like to breathe like that throughout the day? Or while you were exercising?

I’m interested to hear from my more experienced runner friends. Do you have a pattern of breathing or an approach to breathing that makes your experience more enjoyable or otherwise fruitful? Can’t wait to hear about what works for you!

B.K.S. Iyengar

B.K.S. Iyengar passed away today. His influence on the practice of yoga, especially as we know it in the West, is truly immeasurable. If you don’t know him too well and you have the time, I highly recommend Google searching his most memorable quotes to get a feel for his immense wisdom. There’s also a mini documentary about him here.

A great teacher has departed, but he hasn’t truly left us. As Iyengar himself said, “Life moves. There’s no death. There’s no birth. Life is like a river… moving without any stop.”

BKS Iyengar on yoga | MindBodyPlate