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!

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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?

Without Judgement

Do you consider yourself to be a “spiritual” person? If this quote by Swami Kripalu is to be believed, then I hope we can all someday consider ourselves to be “spiritual” people:

without judgment

Do you remember the last time you looked in the mirror and took in your own radiant awesomeness without judgement?

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

Whatever you do, don’t try to meditate

Have you ever taken time to meditate or sit quietly in the hopes that it would help you through a stressful time, only to find yourself even more wound up afterword? What went wrong?

Or how about this: have you ever said something along the lines of, “I’d love to meditate more often, but I’m just so bad at it. I can’t get my mind to stop thinking about things!”?

buddha statue - MindBodyPlate

Well, I’ve been reading an excellent translation the Yoga Sutra of Patañjali by Chip Hartranft, and he has something to say about the process of stilling the mind that I think addresses some of these meditation issues pretty well.

Hartranft tells us that, “as we sit in stillness – meditation – we inevitably find ourselves struggling to acquire more power over some aspect of our lives. Without necessarily knowing it, we are trying to feel happy or to conquer a physical or emotional problem or to become more attractive to others or simply to do a better job of meditating than we did last time. Each of these types of effort arises from attachment to previous thoughts or actions. Even our desire to let go of all this is mired in concepts about what letting go should feel like or what it might bring us.”

In other words, it’s natural for us to get somewhat tangled when we attempt to still our mind, because the very act of trying to still the mind is – paradoxically – the opposite of stilling the mind.

So what the heck are you supposed to do when you meditate, then? I mean, if you can’t try to still the mind and the mind is going crazy, with thoughts zigzagging across your consciousness like a bad laser show, what then?

Luckily, Hartranft doesn’t leave us hanging.

He explains that “exerting the will to arrest or blockade thought… [is] unlikely to succeed though certain to perpetuate suffering.” Instead, he says, one should try “repeatedly relaxing back to the ever present object. Concentration (dhāraṇā) builds spontaneously as the yogi softens and opens to experience, not through steely attempts at mind control.”

Did you catch that? When we meditate, our aim isn’t to do anything at all; our aim is to relax into the present moment, to stay soft, and to open to experience

That means just noticing those thoughts as they ping pong inside your head – just noticing them: hm, isn’t that interesting. That means giving yourself space to be “not good” at meditating. That means accepting that there is nothing wrong with whatever you are experiencing at this very moment.  And again in this new moment. And again in this one. And again and again.

Not so intimidating after all, when you break it down like that.

So, whaddya say? You up for 5 minutes? xo

Happy & Free

As this weekend comes to a close, I hope you feel happy, free, and full of love. The following image features a mantra I’ve become rather fond of over the last few months. Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu – may all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all. It’s big translation for just four words, right? But that’s the richness of Sanskrit for you.

And remember – “all beings everywhere” includes yourself. So as you head into next week, check in to make sure that your thoughts, words, and actions are in line with creating happiness and freedom for yourself. If you’d like to get a sense of what it sounds like when it’s being chanted, check it out here. I dare you to sit and focus on your breath with your eyes closed while you listen to it – dare you!

lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu - MindBodyPlate

What do you love? / 7 posts in 7 days

nyc metro card and birdcage - mindbodyplate

So there I was, making perfect time on my way to yoga when, upon arriving at the bus stop, I realized my unlimited metro card was expired. I wouldn’t have time to trek to the subway stop a quarter mile away to get a new one. Shit. I dug around in my purse and retrieved three dollar bills. Yesss. When the bus pulled up and its doors opened, the sign next to the driver was clear: no bills, exact change only. In other words, if you want to take the bus the old fashioned way, you need $2.50 in quarters. Yikes. As I stepped backwards away from the doors to let more prepared Brooklynites board, my right foot landed smack dab in a foot-deep, greasy and grimy New York City gutter puddle. Double shit.

Dejected, I turned around and started to head back home. I guess there’s no yoga class for me this morning, I thought; maybe I can catch a class later, or buckle down and do a sufficient home practice.

But I didn’t get far.

Wait a minute, I thought, you love this yoga class. Are you really going to let the fact that your sock is saturated with what is likely sewer water stop you from getting there? Resolved, I waited for the better part of ten minutes for a cab, soggy foot and all, and I raced to the studio.

Class was twice as packed as usual, and the air in the place was filled with a jovial and generous spirit that immediately redeemed my journey there.

Carla, a true teacher among teachers, began class with a characteristically casual dharma talk. She reflected on a passage of the Bhagavad Gita regarding dharma itself (you might translate it to mean duty). The passage suggests that we don’t perform our dharma to get something in return, we do it for love. She touched on our collective tendency to focus on all of our problems, our hangups, our issues; and how the problem is, that list is never-ending. “The question isn’t what are your issues,” Carla concluded, “the question is what do you love?”

The view from a bridge in Brooklyn's Prospect Park

The view from a bridge in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park

See, recently, out of either busyness, writer’s block, or just plain perfectionist paralysis, I’ve been neglecting the MindBodyPlate blog. Part of me expects that the blog has to be something special, which of course is a surefire way to guarantee I’ll avoid doing it. I’ve also caught myself dwelling once or twice on the unfathomable number of people with health and wellness blogs or coaching businesses these days. I mean, what’s one more? Plus, the cranky counterculture teenager inside of me is embarassed that I would allow myself to be a part of such an overwhelming zeitgeist. Like, jeeze SKF, a wellness blog? How original. Good luck being a needle in an organic, non-GMO haystack.

But the question isn’t what are your issues, the question is what do you love?

And I have thoughts about what it is to be alive in a physical body in twenty first century America every single day. And maybe like, two people will care to read them. But most importantly, I love having these conversations. And I think it’s my dharma to do so.

Which is why, as a way to kick start a new chapter of the MBP blog, I am committing to a week-long, blog-writing challenge. Get ready for at least a little bit of blog every day, for the next six days. They probably won’t all be home runs, but they will get written.

gazing at prospect park lake - mindbodyplate

My new yoga buddy gazing out over Prospect Park Lake in Brooklyn

Oh, and the rest of my day? Well, after yoga, the very same willing attitude that allowed me to turn around and get to yoga against the odds allowed me the opportunity for an impromptu summer day with a brand new friend from the studio. We talked about IUDs and family and love over perfectly chilled grüner veltliner and deviled eggs at a sidewalk cafe. Then a walk around the lake in prospect park turned into an afternoon of roller skating at the outdoor rink. It was beautiful. And I never even washed my foot off.

Are you letting your issues get in the way of doing what you love? Are they worth it? Can you name your dharma, your virtuous duty in the cosmic order of things?