Saturday, October 30, 2010

Wielding the Sword of Self Responsibility

I am currently reading, "Strong and Fearless, The Quest for Personal Power," by Phil Nuernberger, Ph.D. I seem to always shift around in my seat uncomfortably a bit when the topic of self responsibility is on the table. I tell myself that I am self responsible and then end up confused when I confront feelings of insecurity or blame.

Phil says that it is our skill level that makes us feel powerless and ineffective, dissatisfied and cynical. Instead of responding to life with skill and confidence, we react and can then find ourselves playing the role of the victim; the place where everything is someone or something else's fault. "Self mastery means that we have the knowledge and skill to use all dimensions of our humanity-physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual-in a conscious and skillful way." (p.22)

He further says to look at self responsibility as two distinct concepts "response" and "ability," the capacity to respond rather than react. As I read this I began to think about my own ability to respond rather than act out of habit.

When I am feeling unhappy I am quick to blame something outside of myself rather than look inward at my own choices. This causes conflict in my relationships and in my environment, and that is never very fun.

Phil says that to take charge of our lives, we must take charge of ourselves.

It is both compelling and uncomfortable to look inward at how I create my own circumstances and situations. And it is precisely staying with that uncomfortable feeling that lead to new senses of awareness and personal growth, which in turn lead to more self mastery and the ability to make conscious choices.

Today I sit stewing in a pot of patience and discomfort. At least this time I have my sword.

For more on Dr. Phil Nuernberger, visit:

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

No Pain, No Gain? or The Day My Ego Got Busted

My first day at teacher training at Yoga North went something like this...

Anne, one of the instructors asks me to do a downward facing dog in front of the training group. My ego smiles, I know I've got this. I move into the triangle like posture, palms on the ground, heels all the way to the ground behind me. I feel so good about "how far" I can go into this posture. I am a good Yogi.

Anne begins to point out to the class that I am not breathing. My neck is straining. My hips are not aligned. My knees are pushed back into a double jointed bracing position. My triangle looks more like a lumpy half circle and as I break into the awareness of my complete and utter lack of body awareness, my face begins to burn. I realize that I am actually not breathing. I realize that I am actually in pain. I realize that I am confused, aren't I supposed to be in pain? Even just a little bit?

The answer to that question dear friends, is no.


Turns out, I can't do triangle pose the way that it is often portrayed on the cover of Yoga Journal. Turns out, I can't do many of the yoga postures as portrayed on posters, in magazines and as demonstrated by other Yogi's. Turns out, postures are unique to the person doing them, depending on their level of core strength, flexibility and body awareness.

WHAT?! But this doesn't make sense Hilary! What about "No pain, no gain?!"

Straining and pushing our bodies into postures or positions that we are not ready for can create MORE tension, MORE tightness and MORE dysfunction in the body (and the mind). These are the very benefits one is supposed to glean from a yoga practice; less tension, less tightness and less musco-skeletal dysfunction.

It is my experience in my body that if I cannot breathe in a pose or if I exhibit any of the other symptoms of having an obsession with what the external body "looks like" vs. "feels like" - red face, straining tendons and ligaments, and pinched, crunched muscles- then I have probably fallen into the Pushing Through the Pain to Glory camp.

Pushing Through the Pain to Glory can be associated with the western view of exercise. Yoga often gets lumped into this category, as simply or only exercise and as exercise that one should push, strain, sweat and muscle through.

My experiences at Yoga North have led me to believe differently, that perhaps there is another way, a way beyond the ego's obsession with externalities, a way into more ease, spaciousness and functional movement in my body.

The fable of the Tortoise and the Hare really nails it; patience vs. ego. It is my experience that slow and steady really does win the race. Cultivating body awareness and pure movement in the joints of our body is slow and steady work. Learning to breathe into a posture or through a movement is slow and steady work. Learning to relax into a pose with stability is slow and steady work. The Tortoise vs. the Hare, homeostasis in the bodily systems vs. dysfunction and pain.

I invite you as I invite all students to find the places in your body and in your life where you can breathe comfortably, without strain or pain. I invite you to make room for spaciousness and ease in your joints, in your mind and in your yoga experiences. I invite you to experiment with the possibility of having less pain and tightness in your body. I invite you to experiment with having less pain and tightness in your life..

And take a lesson from me, who learned it the hard way and ask yourself, with the current state of your yoga practice or exercise regimen, what will your bodie's level of functioning be like when you are 70 or 80?

Happy exploring!


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Letters From Jamaica: Trespassing in Babylon

I tend to learn a lot from two things: traveling and retrospect. I stumbled across some old travel journals while cleaning and thought I would share. This entry is from my trip to Jamaica in March of 2010.


On a flight destined for Miami, I contemplate my privileged life. At the Minneapolis airport this morning, immigrants staffed the counter at Caribou Coffee, so gracious at 5am; ready with smiling faces and paper sacks to hold my turkey sandwich and fruit cup wrapped in plastic. They are serving coffee and I am about to leave for Jamaica, a land of extremes; tropical beaches, gang warfare, coconuts, resorts and poverty. I am the requisite Spring breaker in white linen pants toting sunglasses and an IPOD.

I observe my fellow Minnesotans as I wait for the flight attendant to begin the safety briefing. The man seated next to me is going to Haiti, probably to help out with the relief effort. Me, I'm going to a tropical "paradise" to recharge and relax; a sea of salt and pepper pin heads spanning the seats in front of me, bound for Florida.

Travelers Resort, Negril, Westmoreland, Jamaica:

It took nearly 24 hours to get here. Errol's, the place we were going to stay on the beach has fallen into ill repute. No one appears to be staying there and the restauraunt is not functioning. We are cajoled and serenaded anyway but decide that it may be too risky for a newly pregnant lady and head next door.

Corruption holds hands with poverty in this tiny island nation. Shanty towns, goats, Rastafarians, hustlers. We quickly realize that relaxation is not easily attained in this tropical paradise. The hustlers are relentless and we attract undo attention with our dreadlocks. Islanders dance jigs for vacationers trying to make a buck. Slavery is alive and well, a post-colonial hang over. It keeps our brains busy, too busy to relax.

The beach is beautiful, the sun is warm and the mangoes are to die for. We are handed joint after joint in this land of ganja and know that these "gifts" will come back to haunt us today on the beach. The hustlers have grafted exquisite tactics of manipulation including physically stuffing pot in your pockets, demanding payment and all the while regaling Bob Marley, singing "Roots, Rock, Reggae," playing on the ignorance of tourists whose only knowledge of Jamaica is in fact, Mr. Iron Lion Zion himself.

Trust has fallen by the wayside in this land of corrugated shanty huts and palacious homes in the hillsides. Gates, security, police officers, fat pink tourists; these things all guarantee that the circle will not end. "One Love" appears to be lost on all of us. Tourists buy cheap towels imprinted with these powerful words and have no idea that it is meant to be taken into the heart. Likewise for the folks selling them, trying to survive.

Later in a car riding through Sheffield, I meet my entitlement.

After witnessing a domestic dispute in the country in which a man and a woman chased another woman down a hill and smashed her head in with a bamboo pole and a three ring circus at a waterfall where a nine year old boy was put in charge of hustling us, I wanted two things and two things only: safety and security, topped with a dash of detachment and fuzzy denial. I wanted to reject my ability to see. I wanted to check out.

At the hotel afterwards, I promptly ate a cheeseburger and drank two beers. Ah, the good life. The right to participate as I "choose." The right to see when I feel like it. The right to ignore the reality of the place where I am half guest, half interloper. The right to purchase security guards, out of range of the hustle.

Fantasy vs. reality. Entitlement. Arrogance. Checking out. The precious jewels of wisdom hidden within. Short tennuous connections are easily broken by fear and greed, the strands of common humanness so fragile, nearly invisible in the tropical sun. It appears that we are all lost children of Zion, that spiritual point from which reality emerges culminating in unity, peace and freedom.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Staying Present in the Messes


Sometimes I remember why numbing myself used to be so much fun. Not fun in the really fulfilling sense of course, more so in that "I'm going to check out on reality for a while," sense.

In our Western lifestyles we seem to avoid pain and unpleasantness at all costs. I've got Ibuprofen, Ben and Jerry's and a nice bottle of red wine. It seems to be more the standard than the exception to self soothe with food, alcohol, pharmaceuticals and consumption. Why is this so?

Is it the smiling faces on sit coms, the lack of war coverage, the advertisements urging us to consume that enable us to bumble a long resisting the dual nature of our existance? Isn't it true that life is both ugly and beautiful, good and bad, painful and pleasurable?

Why is it so damn hard to just sit still in the unpleasantness?

The Yogis say that if we can accept the dual nature of reality that it will ease our suffering. In other words, if we can learn to not get too attached to the "good," and not get too used to resisting the "bad," we will naturally move into contentment, peace, ease and wholeness. Pain as it is, pleasure as it is.

Typically, when something feels good, I want more of it. And when something feels bad I want a pint of Chunky Monkey and re-runs of Northern Exposure. And if that doesn't work, an entire bag of peanut butter M & M's usually does the trick.

Our attachments, expectations and desires can be real assholes.

I have come to realize that trying to fix and control my pain sticks a nice little thorn in my side that constricts movement and flow, while worrying becomes a hamster on a wheel, it gives my mind something to do but there are no results. The real kicker is that we can't be any kinder to others than what we are feeling on the inside. This is where the messes happen because we end up releasing our demons out on to the general populace, and usually, those that are closest to us.

So it happens, a big fat mess. Now what??

Chunky Monkey or breathing? Frustration or tolerance? Tension or ease?

Perhaps it is enough to simply stay present to the experience, knowing that like all things the mess will change and morph and grow into something new, perhaps even something beautiful.

Perhaps the mess is merely an opportunity to come closer to our true nature, to clear out some clutter, to grow closer in intimacy. I have a sense that if we resist the mess, we run the risk of throwing more crap onto the pile. Embracing and staying present with it on the other hand, is trusting the journey...and in the end nurturing further self awareness and fulfillment.

In this way we are provided with insights and tools; patience, love, compassion, fortitude and discernment; flowers grown and fertilized in the mess. And let's be honest, those tools and insights stack up quite nicely against the endless barrels of Chunky Monkey and sit com re-runs.

I think that today, I'll choose the former.