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The following post was written by Liz Beres, a NYC-based dancer, dance teacher, and yoga teacher certified by The Perri Institute for Mind and Body. Liz currently teaches yoga privately and at various gyms, including that of the Federal Reserve Bank of NY through Plus One. She is continually intrigued by and appreciative of the power of mind/body practices, and is grateful for the chance to share her musings on MindBodyBrew’s digital platform.
Mindfulness meditation, especially when it is understood as being a way of living life as if it really mattered, moment by moment, rather than as a technique…is one powerful vehicle for realizing such transformative and healing possibilities.
-Jon Kabat Zinn, founder of MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction)
A month ago, I closed one of my yoga classes with the quote above. We had been focused that hour on moving slower, settling into most of our asana for longer durations, purposefully drawing forth distractions and barreling streams of thought. This welcoming of a busy mind set the stage for our application of mindfulness, of attempting to replace the rush with a steady attention on each moment, each breath, and the subtler facets of our movement. After class, a regular student of mine requested to hear the quote once more, as he was getting married in a few hours and hoped to carry the message with him into his day. This definitely was one of my most thrilling exchanges with a student. And yet, what generated even more excitement in me was his story upon his return to class weeks later—how he had felt so inspired by our mindfulness work that morning that he had incorporated mindfulness as a way of living into his marital vows. To commit with such depth, he told me, seems to require a persevering presence, one that must be continually cultivated so that the connection and love between two people in such an intimate relationship can survive, and ideally grow, as the years pass by.
My student’s integration of our work on the mat into a milestone of his life touched me rather profoundly. What a way to enter into a marriage, with such thoughtfulness and trust in the process of building a life together. His pull toward mindfulness in the midst of such a momentous event so vividly illustrated to me the power of this practice. The ways it can deepen our life experiences personally and in relationships with others is unfathomable.
I find its impact difficult to comprehend mostly because of the magnitude of choices we are faced with every day. I read an article recently that regarded every thought, feeling, word, and action as health creating or health negating. To consider this turns mindfulness into a real ally. Without thoughtfulness in our words and actions, we can rapidly spiral away from our values and goals, being swayed instead by convenience, peer pressure, and a host of other persuasive elements. It’s not to say that we should expect perfection from a stronger adherence to mindfulness, but in living in closer contact with each and every moment, we can spin our lives’ tales into ones that are much more centered around the core of our being. Mindfulness meditation offers tools that can break a habit of getting swept up in life’s rush; it can slow us down and steady us, so that we can recognize what reality is in front of us and what options forward from that real moment exist. The act of being mindful very much impacts our relationship to time—not getting lured by past affairs or imagined future happenings—and to our core. From a sharpened attention can come more specific, deliberate actions that ground us in our essences.
But to really tap into the power of mindfulness, to draw it off our yoga mats or meditation cushions as my student did, requires an honest understanding of ourselves: flaws and all. A recognition and trust of our intuition must exist too in order to believe what we feel and ‘know’ to be right, and from there, to accomplish feats that fulfill our deepest needs and desires.
The last few months, I’ve been working with a friend as she establishes her life coaching practice. One exercise from our sessions that has especially stuck with me is what she calls the ‘distilling of essence.’ Without giving away her prized methods, the distillation process went something like this: She requested that I ask ten family members, friends, mentors, those who know me best, what qualities I bring to a space. From there, she sifted through that mass of information to arrive at five words: love, compassion, curiosity, joy, and radiance. To brew on these words is fascinating in and of itself, but to use them alongside our mindfulness ally hugely elevates their value in my eyes. Within our essences live answers to who we are and who we can become if we can stand by that irrefutable core. Since offering me these words, my friend has encouraged me to meet difficult and easier matters with the question: Am I living by my essence? How powerfully and directly can essence guide our choices and the course of our lives— or at least the pieces that lie somewhat under our control.
Now of course the tricky part of all this is the fact that we are constantly evolving beings, so to fully know ourselves at any given moment is probably an impossible task. But as the saying goes, you don’t have to have it all figured out to move forward. If that’s the case, then is it not worthwhile to try to slow down, to try to interact with those people and elements in our surrounding environments on a more palpable level? To take the risk of deriving choices from a place of mindfulness, even if those choices lead us down unfamiliar, and perhaps intimidating paths? As author Erica Jong wrote, “[T]he trouble is, if you don’t risk anything, you risk even more.”
To hear of my student charging into marriage with such an appreciation for and comprehension of the value of smaller moments is insanely beautiful and inspiring to me. But I don’t think it should take a momentous event to draw mindfulness to the forefront of our life experience. How can we, even amongst the mundane activities of an average day, cultivate the tenets of mindfulness? How could these practices, even on a smaller scale, shift our world—our visions of ourselves, our relationships with others, our care of the planet and the world beyond? The power of choice is an unbelievably remarkable opportunity we humans possess. Let’s use it to create good, and to propel even more goodness into our world.
The following piece was written by Kathy Hartsell, a fellow yoga instructor and mind-body practitioner who studies alongside the Mind Body Dancer® community. She writes from Boston, MA.
This past week, trotting through a familiar city path, my eyes parked on a pair of beautifully crafted doors that I had somehow grazed by hundreds of times without noticing. I leaned curiously toward these hearty panels of bronze, and as their presence swallowed my shadow, my attention tumbled through inscriptions spread across the doors' chest that nod to the history of Ceylon tea trade. Upon learning that these Salada Tea Doors have stood there tall in tadasana since 1917, I marveled at the blind spot I had been toting with me, oblivious to doors of beauty in a space I assumed I knew so well.
With one palm, I sheepishly shake hands with the fact that I have countless times floated past what I now perceive as central and defining to this block's landscape. But in the other palm, I gather from this moment deeper respect for attention and its boundaries. I experience directly what the field of cognitive psychology has to say about the things we see and miss at any given moment. I’m reminded that, of course, awareness cannot be wholly and simultaneously available for all things, and that, by design, our brains will filter the world’s stream of stimuli to extract what feels most relevant for survival. This process is a curtsy to our cognitive limits, an expression of our innate energy conservation and an example of how our attention molds our understanding of reality. Such blind spots are undoubtedly useful in numerous ways. They are also humbling in many respects. But mostly, I find them to be a call to action. Knowing that the default brain will grab only the information that seems “essential” to human survival or excessively shiny and entertaining, I’m moved to actively seek mind-spirit nourishment—the mind-stretching, soul-lifting stuff I might just miss otherwise. Exploring life beyond the obvious or expected is always an option, but it requires a continual opening of our senses and nurturing of our awareness.
Attention’s mobile nature can be challenging to sit still with, when its slippery texture and flighty rhythm can feel like the sun streaming in a bit too directly. But this same fluid quality, once stabilized, is also what enables us to choose where we move and hold our attention, whether climbing high onto the right shoulder blade or sinking low into the floor of the pelvis. This mobility is what allows me to fall in love with new things about old relationships, or recognize a habit that I could be tempted to conveniently “not see.” Both cognitive research and everyday experience assert that there is always something we have missed... and therefore, always something new to see, hear, feel, or think. This echoes with truth in all the spaces I frequent, whether walking a familiar block and noticing doors that were always there, or landing in seasoned yoga postures where fresh forms of embodiment always await.
The new year can often be overloaded on the front end with an aggressive assessment of self and life, resulting in a daunting list of expectations and aspirations that weight one’s first steps through January. But, while I’ve always valued the art of reflection and the shaping of intention at any time, I also feel the new year is best left open. Through such openness, we might just discover that in both familiar streets and new territories, there are already doors standing by, inviting awareness in.
Photograph of Salada Tea Doors by Kathy Hartsell
The following post was originally published on November 17, 2013. As we find ourselves once again nearing the busy holiday season, this post becomes relevant to return to. Katherine Moore has been teaching for The Perri Institute for Mind and Body since 2013. You can find her running all over New York City, working as a teacher, choreographer, freelance dancer, and writer. Relax with her at Steps on Broadway on Friday nights at 6:30pm for restorative yoga.
It is at this time of year that I tend to feel especially tired and overwhelmed. Various projects and work commitments seem to move at lightning speed, and everyone I know (including myself) seems to be in some show or hosting some event at opposite ends of the city that make it impossible for me to attend all of them. Meanwhile, the holiday season approaches at breakneck speed, and as usual, promises to be both a lovely, yet hectic time of year. I find that my thoughts have left the present, jumped to the encroaching New Year, and before I know it, I’ve convinced myself that the year is over and I haven’t done half of the things I meant to do.
This, of course, is not true. Many, many, many days are left in the year – many days that can be used productively or leisurely, as I deem appropriate. In my life, I find that it is my creative endeavors that suffer the most when I become overwhelmed and over-booked. As a “sometimes” choreographer, my motivation lacks at these times and inspiration seems hard to find. Even as I thought about what to write this week for this blog, I found myself coming up empty, distracted by other commitments and worries.
What I try to remind myself at these times is the importance of ritual and practice in the creative process. Research has long shown that talent alone does not produce the best work. The most successful artists of any genre excel in their field due to discipline and the constant rigor of trial and error, in addition their natural talents and inspiration. Creativity is a practice that needs exercise to blossom.
The next book on my reading list is Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Curry. Curry spent over six years compiling information on the daily habits of the world’s most successful artists, composers, and writers. In an article for Slate, Curry writes:
“This doesn’t mean that inspiration doesn’t exist, or that some work is not more inspired than others. It merely means that you should work each day regardless of whether you feel the urge to; it is the process of working itself that will give rise to new ideas. And with steady application, you can expect to hit inspired patches from time to time.”
When I was going through the MBD teacher training and first setting up a regular yoga practice and study patterns, one of the most striking changes I felt in my life was the upswing of creative, critical, and connected thinking. The rituals of practicing, writing, and weekend sessions somehow allowed the varied facets of my life to fall under one umbrella that felt more connected and therefore, more fruitful. After all, a literal translation of “yoga” in Sanskrit can mean “union” or “yoke”.
I understand the teachings of yoga to be just as much a creative pursuit as writing, choreographing, composing, and similar endeavors. The yoga practice allows us to make connections between our bodies and our minds, between nature and art, between science and the shape of our hands on the mat. It has been said that good art is art that makes connections between ideas we wouldn’t normally expect. While yoga isn’t “art” in the sense that we don’t end up with a finished product, I think that the creative thinking involved is closely aligned with the artistic process. Practicing and teaching yoga gives us the ritualized time and space to think creatively about the world and make connections about our experience in it.
I think where I’m going with this is that those moments of feeling empty and uninspired, especially when we’re snowed under with other work, are perfect opportunities for more practice, and that practice will yield creative thought. Yes, sometimes we have to take a break, step away, and return to our work refreshed, but sometimes we can use that emptiness, that writer’s block, to our advantage. For any trainees out there who are feeling overwhelmed with all the things you think you don’t know, for any teachers who are feeling uninspired, take some time to really be in that void of not knowing. Take yourself back to being a truly empty cup. Get to know that place and then, infuse it with practice.
I think I’ll leave off with one of my favorite quotes by Ira Glass:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
– Katherine Moore
The following piece was written by Brianna Goodman, copy and features editor for MindBodyBrew. Brianna teaches yoga with The Perri Institute for Mind and Body in New York City. She currently attends Fordham University, where she is pursuing a degree in English and Creative Writing, with a minor in Communications. Catch her class Sunday and Wednesday mornings at Steps on Broadway.
I’ve often found that reading, more than any other activity, implores the task of self-reflection. Lately, I seem to be reading book after book that demands readers to be more honest. This pattern has forced me to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth—I’m not always so great at being honest.
I don’t think of myself as a particularly dishonest person. I avoid embellishing resumes, I don’t round up when calculating my roommate’s half of the groceries; I told my Mom about the dent in her car the day I acquired it (although, scout’s honor, I am still convinced that this dent was the result of a hit and run, and not from the pile of snow that I bumped into). I do, however, often employ the ‘little white lie.’ I do it in situations that are arguably harmless, and I do it in order to make people feel—or at least what I believe will make them feel—comfortable. I am a people pleaser who will stop at almost nothing to avoid confrontation. It’s why I tend to apologize to strangers on the street when they’ve hit me with their bags, or why I tell friends it’s no problem that they’re perpetually late even though it makes me anxious. The other day I caught myself reassuring a friend that I, too, cannot refrain from consuming an entire bag of chips in one sitting… what? Cookies maybe, but definitely not chips. (Even that was a lie. One or two cookies is really enough.)
These are small instances that hardly seem to matter. But the more I catch myself tossing out little white lies, the more I realize that the compulsion to ‘put people at ease’ is kind of problematic. I lie because I choose comfort over truth, and not only does this violate the non-duality principle of Buddhist philosophy that I know and admire, but it also doesn’t make for a particularly productive existence. Telling these little untruths presumes the haughty assumption that those I’m speaking to require me to put them at ease—I’d certainly be upset if others thought the same of me. It also assumes that there is a fundamental essence to comfort, and that this essence is inherently good. As a yoga teacher, I implore students weekly not to place value judgments on their practices, or on themselves. I encourage them to embrace that concept of non-duality, and to observe and acknowledge the present moment without labeling it as good or bad, as success or failure. And yet here I go, clinging to comfort and running from discomfort, unwilling to acknowledge that embracing the discomfort that the truth can bring is sometimes exactly what is needed. Discomfort is a tool that lets us know when something deserves our attention. It’s an incredibly important tool that should not be avoided.
As I look closer at the conditions under which I lie, I’m discovering that it’s about more than just me trying to make people feel good. It’s a lot about me wanting other people to feel good about me. I apologize to the bag-bearing strangers because I fear they’ll think I’m rude. I assure friends that their lateness is fine because I’m worried they’ll think I’m uptight. I agree that chips are impossible to put down because I don’t want people to think I’m judgmental, or a snob. It’s all about me, and my desire to be liked—even by people I’ll likely never see again, and who probably didn’t notice, let alone think about, me at all. But the authors, thinkers, and teachers whom I admire aren’t the ones suppressing their feelings to avoid discomfort; they’re the ones who speak their truths, whatever they may be, accepting that this might garner them a critic or two.
I recently finished Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, and loved it for dozens of reasons I never expected to. It was compassionate, reflective, funny, and most importantly, honest. More than once, Poehler described her own self-check for ensuring the truth:
“You put your hand on your heart and feel it beating and decide if what you wrote feels true.”
This exercise is so simple, so direct, and yet it has kept me pondering for weeks. Sit back, place your hand on your heart, and ask yourself if what you’ve written—or in many cases, said—is true. How often do we breeze through conversations without pause for reflection? It’s nothing new to say that our culture favors the quick: quick typers, quick thinkers, quick food preparers, etc. But accomplishing the quick often comes at the expense of the truth. Media outlets are constantly retracting previous statements published hastily, apologizing for whatever untruth they’ve unwittingly presented. Text messages are sent to unintended recipients because we neglect to take the time to confirm our receiver. Insensitive tweets, inappropriate Instagrams, misspelled emails—the list of unlikeable byproducts of our faster! faster! nation is unending. Poehler’s simple exercise, I believe, has the power to be revolutionary. How much more effective could we be, both individually and collectively, if we paused and gave ourselves the space to confirm our honesty?
In Ethan Nichtern’s wise and approachable book, The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path, a section on ‘Mindful Expression’ also implores practitioners to seek honesty:
“In the Buddhist teachings on appropriate speech, the first lesson is always to try to express ourselves truthfully, without twisting the meaning of what we are saying. This does not mean we have to disclose everything to everyone. When we choose to share things, the question is whether we can do so without changing or sugar-coating what we are saying. For me, the most important aspect of this piece of skillful speech is the willingness to be open and authentic.”
The phrase “when we choose to share things” is incredibly important here, because there is always a choice. We must be able to acknowledge the moments when we know we cannot—or should not—tell all, and recognize that it is perfectly okay to be quiet, and to listen. If my little white lies derive from the feeling that the truth would be unwelcome, then maybe it’s okay to be quiet, and support whoever is making their own confessions (so long as staying silent isn’t a cop out for a truth that is harmful, and at times immoral, to suppress). I also like the reminder to acknowledge when we’re twisting our truths, because these twists can signal to us that we’re avoiding the heart of the matter—perhaps because we’re afraid of how the real truth will be received. Maybe these fears are warranted, but often times I’d argue that they are not. We don’t give our friends and loved ones even half the credit they deserve; they can handle a little awkwardness. We all can.
As I finish Stephen King’s On Writing, I am once again confronted with the immediate need to speak the truth. In answer to the question, ‘What should I write?’ King is quite blunt:
“Anything you damn well want. Anything at all…as long as you tell the truth.”
For King, if it isn’t truthful, it’s basically worthless. If a writer isn’t truthful, then they aren’t serious about their craft:
“This isn’t a popularity contest, it’s not the morality Olympics, and it’s not church. But it’s writing, damn it…If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can’t, or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book and do something else.”
That last sentence in particular struck a chord—how often have I rejected stories before I’ve even written them, for fear they might offend someone I know? I fear writing something too political, because I worry I’ll burn bridges. I fear the permanence of the Internet age, and worry that a published piece will later haunt me with its flaws. These fears and hesitations seem to me to be a less-obvious mode of hoarding—in this instance, a hoarding of the truth. But King writes frankly about books he’s written that he’s not too fond of—he doesn’t obsess or regret, just acknowledges and moves on. He has his critics, but they don’t devastate him. He doesn’t worry that he’ll crumble under the weight of one bad review, and I think many of us—certainly me—could take after his lead.
We can’t derive our satisfaction from the praise of others; it’s an unreliable, unproductive tactic for reassuring ourselves of our worth. We can’t silence our truths because someone might not like them. We can’t please everyone, and trying to do so only holds us back from the progress we can make, and the stories we can share. In the end, we have our ability to self-reflect, and our ability to know, for ourselves and ourselves alone, what is honest and authentic. That, and not the compliments of others, should be our driving force.
So before I press send, before I quickly blurt out an ‘innocent’ half-truth, before I discard a piece of writing because I fear criticism, I’ll take my lead from Amy, and these other truth-tellers:
I’ll place my hand on my heart, I’ll feel its beat, and I’ll determine if what I’m about to say feels true.