life of m

Sustaining the Self and Beyond


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Ready. Set. Zen.

Every night, my husband and I sit down for a 20-minute sit before bed. I use an app to keep track of the timing. As we prepare to sit, I unlock my phone, open the app, and turn off the light.

 

Before I tap the start button to begin our sit, I say the words, Ready. Set. Zen.

 

The ritual began after I attended an initiation for Neelakantha, mantra-based meditation. We had driven up to Colorado for the event and spent the weekend at the Naropa Institute. I learned about meditation in the Tantric tradition, while my husband sat in the lobby, working on applications for doctoral programs in Europe.

 

I had been attempting meditation on and off for a year with minimal success. After our return from Colorado, I began sitting for 20 minutes every night and every morning. Eventually, I asked my husband if he wanted to sit with me.

 

I learned from a meditation teacher that it can take anywhere from 30 to 40 days of regular practice to create a new habit. While I can’t say that I ever feel like sitting for 20 minutes, I do it anyway. I don’t know that I am any more enlightened that I was a year ago, but I don’t think it can hurt me, either.

 

I know from experience that even after taking the time to create a habit, it only takes one day of not doing it to lose the practice altogether. Even if I know I will feel better, more balanced, and joyful if I commit to even five minutes of creative practice every day—be it music, yoga, or writing—I still find it incredibly difficult to actually do it. I might get seven days into creating a regular practice and then a visitor, illness, or excuse weasels its way in, and that is that for a while. I stopped sitting every morning when my dad came to visit us last summer, and I have only been able to intermittently work it back into my daily rhythm.

 

The idea of practice, particularly yoga and meditation, is to honor ourselves where we are and celebrate (rather than negate) our progress; however small it may seem, it is a step toward balance.

 

I wrote an entire dissertation on the subject of self-sustainability. I spent months immersed in my own story of four years in a doctoral program, reviewing every moment in excruciating detail, in order to gain insight into the steps I took to create a more balanced, healthy existence. I know firsthand what I need to create joy in my life, but I still struggle to engage in those practices on any kind of regular basis.

 

I find it much easier to fixate on things that I know will not bring me joy but that offer distraction. One week it might be trying to find the exact right jacket that will keep me warm and dry and also not make me feel like a frumpy hobbit while among around fashionable Europeans (seriously, were they born to look graceful and stylish, no matter what they do? I have tried tossing a scarf around my neck in a haphazard fashion, and I still feel American and unattractive).

 

But I digress.

My husband reminds me, time and again, that there is no way to find the exact perfect anything because once we get it, we will realize that there is something else even better. It’s never ending.

 

Even my big camera lens didn’t come anywhere near the expectations I had for it, he told me.

 

I hear what he is saying, and I clearly understand, but it is still difficult to curb my propensity for fixation.

 

 

I finally gave up on the jacket, practicing acceptance of the perfectly adequate jackets I already own and repeating my husband’s mantra: It’s good enough. It’s good enough.

 

I spent an entire day without obsessively looking for the perfect jacket. I knew it didn’t exist and that buying another jacket wouldn’t bring me happiness. I would just wind up with the karmic weight of another material possession and feel guilty for spending money needlessly.

 

Even knowing all of this, I didn’t like what happened as a result of ceasing my search. Without something to fixate on, I was left with the emptiness I had so desperately been grasping to fill.

 

A day later, I am back to feeling an aching emptiness in my heart, the loss of my beloved soul mate wolf dog still so close to surface that tears well in my eyes at the slightest thought of those amber gold eyes and the memory of his head snuggled into my lap, paws wrapped securely around my legs.

 

I have fixated plenty on all of the choices I could have made differently that might have kept him in my life. What if I had taken him to the vet the moment I noticed something was wrong? What if I had taken him to a different vet for a second opinion when I first sensed that the vet we had taken him to might not have a firm grasp on medical practice? What ifs and questions take me round and round in infinite circles. When I finally stop fixating, I don’t feel any better. He is still gone, and the darkness is ever present.

 

I’m not a super fan of the void, I have to say, and I have no idea how to fill it. I have friends that appear to live a life full of gratitude and joy. When I ask them how they did it, they tell me, I just decided to be happy.

 

Huh, I think to my self. Maybe I am too just jaded for this to work, figuratively scratching my head.

 

I know that my own suffering is quite minimal when compared with all the levels of suffering in the world, but I feel it acutely nonetheless. A meditation teacher once told my class, suffering is suffering. I think he was onto something.

 

I move through phases where I work hard to lift my spirits and practice my it’s good enough intention, and then something beyond my control will happen that throws my system so far out of whack I lose my tenuous hold.

 

This past weekend, I attended the second of a series of all weekend trainings for learning to teach Anusara yoga. I was relatively relaxed as I walked to the tram on my way home when I received a text from my husband.

 

I had sent him a message asking how he was doing.

 

Hanging in there. E just told me that our rugs and the trunks are gone from the loft area of the house.

 

I texted an expletive in response and then followed with, Those are all of my original childhood photos. They are irreplaceable.

 

I really don’t understand why someone would take photo albums…it doesn’t add up…they are so heavy and worthless…to whoever took them. Any yes, priceless to us.

 

I stepped onto the tram in a trance and stared through the window into the reflection of receding light.

 

I have experienced theft several times in the past few years, and each time it is like a punch in the gut. I feel the wind knocked out of me, disbelief that someone could violate sacred space and take things so precious to me—my grandmother’s jewelry, family photos.

 

I sat on the tram until it stopped, walked down the steps and through the darkness toward the next tram stop. Halfway through the second portion of the trip, the tram came to a halt. Everything was still for a long time before I realized we had sat through several light changes and still had not moved forward. I stood up and leaned into the windows on the right side of the car, straining to try to see what was going on outside. Blue and red lights shifted back and forth in blur. An accident. I guess it can always be worse.

 

We finally started moving and crawled between parked police cars and toward home.

 

Standing in the kitchen later that evening, a glass of whisky in my hand, I tried to make sense of what had happened.

 

It’s like the universe is slowly taking away everything that is important to me, I said to my husband. First Okami. Then, my grandmother’s ring. Now, my photos. My meditation teacher says there is a Buddhist who believes that everything bad that happens to us happens because of a seed we planted long ago. What kind of heinous act could I have done in this life to be experiencing such horrible karma?

 

Well, when you start going into this kind of stuff, you may be looking at regressive lives. It could have been from many lives ago, and you chose this life to process it all.

 

But I don’t want to process it in this life, I protested. I want it to stop. I want my photos and my Okami back!

 

I know, love.

 

As we sat down to sit before bed, I watched one of my cats saunter over to the scratching pad we had gotten for them. He lay down on the pad and started to dig into it with both feet. It looked pretty good to me.

 

Maybe, I don’t need meditation, I just need my own scratching post, I suggested to my husband.

 

Maybe.

 

I picked up my phone, opened the meditation app, and turned off the light.

 

Ready. Set. Zen.

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Change has its own timeline

I studied yoga in a 200-hour teacher train from March through September 2015. Along with the nine other women in my kula (community), I was asked to come up with my goals and intentions for the course. My main desire was to stop taking medication for my anxiety. When I started taking them, I had always thought that it would be a temporary solution. Medication would help create enough of a grounding to give me a nudge to find more natural methods to replace a temporary chemical solution.

 

However, the couple of times I attempted to go off the chemicals cold turkey had not gone particularly well. Each time, I had difficulty breathing, pain in my chest, and panic that came rushing in like a full force flood.

 

I knew from experience that breath work, meditation, and yoga could help me to feel more calm and grounded, so it seemed reasonable to set my aforementioned goal at the start of my teacher training. However, September arrived and I still had not weaned myself from my chemical balancing act. I felt like a failure, and I was frustrated.

 

I don’t like being dependent on medication, I told my husband. What if there is a nuclear holocaust and I can’t get my prescription filled? What then?

 

Of course, I imagine that if a nuclear holocaust were to occur, I would be so focused on survival that I might not have time to be anxiety-riddled, but still. I hated having to see a doctor to get my prescription filled every year. I had even had one doctor refuse to take me as a new patient because of my medication. I felt like there was something wrong with me that I could not find a way to create balance on my own.

 

What if you try going off of your medication gradually? my husband suggested.

 

I decided to follow his suggestion and began cutting my pills in half. I tried the each reduction for a few weeks to a month before cutting the half of a pill in half once more.

 

This gradual process met with far more approval from my body’s internal compass, and I realized a couple of weeks ago that the tiny morsels of pills had grown too small to cut in half without turning into powder.

 

And so here I sit, western medicine no longer courses through my veins. I am able to breath, I feel grounded and calm (except while driving…Prescott drivers make me crazy, but one step at a time, right?). I still feel some panic arise, mainly as I am getting under the covers for sleep, but this may be residual familiarity from a lifetime of worrying about having trouble falling asleep. It takes practice to create new behavior patterns around the ones that have become engrained over time.

 

I hadn’t really thought too much about this new place of spaciousness until I mentioned it to a few of my yogi friends while we were out practicing in a local downtown park.

 

They reflected back to me love, amazement, and support, and I realized that it really was a big deal. Sometimes, I find, it is easy to focus on the things that are not happening for me rather than to recognize the remarkable feats I accomplish each day, however small. It can take having a behavior reflected back to me from a friend or loved one. It can also take my own intention of sifting through memories to see where I was at this time in my life a year ago, two years ago, and beyond.

 

As they like to say, You have come a long way, baby!

 

And I have!

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I hear that train a comin’

Sometimes life is so full, it is difficult to know where to begin. How to blend meditation in Colorado in the driving rain and snow with the richness of a Boston accent that fills my heart?

 

I think it can be easier to love a place from a distance. Massachusetts may just be a place I love in this way. Time in one place tends to wear me down. Perhaps, this is why I move so often. I crave variety. I want to experience new places. At the same time, I feel the tug for home and to stay put. Certainly, my digestive tract would prefer it I ate the same bland foods every day. Its just easier that way, though it takes a toll on my soul.

 

There is just no way to have it all, unless I redefine the all.

 

In the last year and a half since leaving Massachusetts, I have spent many hours reflecting on the ideas of success and happiness. Having it all may simply entail rethinking how much needs to fit in the all. I can admire much without needing to possess it, and in fact I feel lighter without the burden of it all weighing me down, physically and psychologically.

 

As one of my yoga teachers told my class recently, I don’t want too much stuff because I don’t want to have to dust it all.

 

Agreed. Anything (im)material requires some responsibility on my part. I have to care for all of those skeletons in my closet, lest they slip out if I shirk my watch responsibilities. More and more, I am beginning to wonder if maybe I should just let them out altogether. So, letting go is becoming my practice.

 

Beside me sits my third bag to replace the two before it that have been stolen in house and car break-ins on this continent and in France I have slowly replaced all the little odds and ends I like to keep inside a bag I carry around with me when I travel. I am hoping this one will stick around, but I am also preparing myself to not feel too terribly despondent should it grow little legs and carry on its way with someone else.

 

Some beings simply long to see the world. I know. I am one of them.

 

May has been a full month. As a friend told me, What’s for you won’t go by you, and I seem to be catching hold of many of the opportunities as they pass me by. As I sit on a train bound for Lowell, I realize that I have always wanted to be a part of the passing rather than being left behind.

 

It comes with a price. I have been reflecting on the idea that the path to enlightenment is expensive—literally and figuratively. A recent meditation retreat in Boulder, Colorado became a reality for me only with financial aid, for which I am forever grateful. It is ironic to have created the spaciousness in my life to be open to opportunity but not have the economic ability to take hold of many that pass by me with all of their glittering possibility.

 

I know that I can follow the yogic path without selling the farm. I also know that some things are worth pinching pennies for. A friend recently told me, People can always find the money to pay for something they really want.

 

Working now as a self-employed artist and editor, I realize that the services I offer fall under the category of luxury for many, so I can relate to the predicament of those who offer trainings in yoga, meditation, and beyond. We all need to eat, and it would be nice to eat well, which is more expensive in this country than makes sense. I think we all deserve peace and the alternative kind of prosperity that comes with it.

 

And so, I chant my mantra every morning and night for 20 minutes at a time, following the fluidity of my mind’s digressions, always returning to the breath and the mantra. This, I know, is where the true prosperity lies, and I don’t want to miss it when it comes hurtling along the tracks toward me as I stand on the platform, waiting and ready.

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Sit. Stop. Start Again. Repeat

THEY say that there is a first step for every journey, but I cannot say that seems to fit for all of the journeys I have taken over the years. Particularly, when it comes to meditation, I feel like I have taken dozens of first steps over the years.

 

My first foray into the realm of meditation was in my last semester in undergraduate school. I took a course with a greatly admired professor who was recommended to me by several peers. He was a German studies professor, who introduced the works of Goethe, Nietzsche, and Kafka through the lens of the individual versus the state. He encouraged his students to identify as individuals, to pay for things in cash instead of credit card, to refrain from eating unrefined sugar, and to meditate.

 

I can vividly recall reading a story he had shared with us from a woman who had felt so overwhelmed in her life that one afternoon she had just sat down under a tree and refused to get up. As an undergraduate student with dozens of assignments on an unending syllabi horizon, I could relate to her story.

 

Even today, as a self-employed graduate of a doctoral program, I still can feel the wave of anxiety that flows over me when I set up too much to do with too little time to do it.

 

My foray into meditation this first time around was more a flirtation. I tried again several years later while taking an independent study course in a doctoral program for Sustainability Education, which I had designed in concert with this same German Studies professor. I would sit on my kitchen table in Alaska and close my eyes for fifteen minutes each morning, trying to focus on the air moving in and out of my nostrils. But after a short period, I found that I could not (or would not) maintain the pattern. I was going through a painful separation from my husband in a community on the edge of the earth at the onset of winter. My heart was not in it, and I quickly gave up the practice.

 

This past year has seen me once again take a few more steps toward developing a meditation routine. Each Sunday morning of the once a month weekend for my 200hour yoga teacher training, I would sit quietly for a half an hour in the company of fellow yogis. I welcomed these moments and felt calm and grounded when they were over.

 

I briefly attempted the meditation practice shared with me by a friend from my PhD cohort at Prescott College, but after a couple of weeks I abandoned the practice because it just did not feel like my own. I felt like I was practicing something that was a good fit for someone else. I still needed to find my own meditation path.

 

I took a 10-week Ayurveda and began meditating for two minutes each night before bed. My teacher had told us that we could certainly spare at least two minutes a day for meditation, and I knew she was right. Two minutes did not seem scary or too terribly daunting as a way to ease in to the practice.

 

I sat for two minutes every sat for several months. Then one day, I realized I could not remember the last time I had sat before bed. I had simply forgotten. I was the only one to remind myself, and I had forgotten to do so.

 

This past month, I have once again embarked on a continuation of my meditation journey through an ongoing class with Will Duncan (I wrote several posts inspired by a talk Will gave at Prescott College just over a year ago about his three years, three months, and three days of silent retreat in the Chiricahua Mountains of Southeast Arizona). At Will’s request to the class, I have been sitting for up to six minutes every morning. Sometimes, I am able to stay focused on the sensation of the air moving in and out of nostrils, but mostly my mind wanders, and I attempt to bring it back to focusing on the breath.

 

This weekend, I expand upon my month of meditation to travel up to Boulder, Colorado for a mantra-based meditation retreat with Paul Muller-Ortega. One of my yoga teachers has sung his praises and spoken consistently about the incredibly shift she experienced in her own life in beginning to study with Paul. So, while I am finding that the path to enlightenment (yoga study, meditation, Ayurveda, and beyond) is not an inexpensive endeavor, it does seem to be one that is worthwhile. And in the end, it’s only money, right?

 

How much would you pay for directions to the path to Enlightenment?


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My fingernails preferred France

IMG_7431My hair did not like France. The water was very hard, and my thick curls were in a constant tangle. I finally figured out that I could rip through it with my comb while it was dry just before taking a shower, which minimized the frustration. Prior to that, however, I would basically threaten to cut it all off several times each day, much to the chagrin of my husband.

 

Don’t worry, I would tell him. I will make you a wig with my hair, and YOU can wear it if you love it so much!

 

He would just roll his eyes at me. Apparently, my threats were not as intimidating as I would have liked.

 

My fingernails adored France! In the united states, I have spent many years with my hands close to my face. Any slight anxiety or fear, a need for control in an otherwise unpredictable existence, it never took much to keep the habit going. I have always wanted to stop and periodically have had temporary success in doing so. I tried bad tasting nail police, gloves, brightly colored nail polish, the list goes on and on.

 

My greatest triumphs over the obsession were during my travels in Africa and Russia. There is nothing like traveling to a foreign land to create new behavior patterns. I have long since given up attempting new habits with New Year’s resolutions, but I have had much success in ceasing from biting my nails and picking at my cuticles when traveling. It just takes one cold to realize I probably should not be putting my hands anywhere near my mouth. Plus, with the colder weather in France while traveling in December and January, my hands spent most of their time in pockets staying warm.

 

My husband has attempted to correct this behavior in two languages, often blended into one.

 

Ne pick pas, he will say, and Ne mange pas, when he sees me going at it.

 

I have appreciated his efforts, though I am afraid it hasn’t done much good. It is such an engrained habit that I often don’t even realize I am doing it.

 

Somehow, I was able to cease and desist with regard to my fingernails. Even with my cuticle clipper disappearing with my shoulder bag when our car was broken into in a remote location in Provence, I kept quite vigilant in keeping my hands far from my face. Just one look at them, and it would take all of my control not to want to try to fix them, even though time and experience has told me that there is no fixing when it comes to nails and cuticles. Any attention beyond that of a professional manicurist typically tends to make them worse.

 

IMG_7381But France was good for my fingernails! It was the return home that has been the real challenge. Without the distraction of foreign architecture, croissants, birds, and all the pleasures of travel in my beloved France, I find it incredibly difficult to avoid my hands. They are always around, and if I take even one look at the state of my cuticles, it is next to impossible to keep myself from trying to fix them.

 

Just one little nibble and that’s it, I can hear a voice coax from within.

 

No! That’s how it starts, I plea.

 

Oh, come on. You have done so well. Why not reward yourself with a bite?

 

I tell my husband how much easier it was in France to outwit this habit.

 

Hm, he responds. I think it’s easy in Paris to have your attention focused outward, on all the exciting things around you. We were also constantly doing things. It’s that old phrase about it being easier to be human doings than human beings (I really don’t know if that is a phrase, but I’ve heard something like it before). However, back at home there is downtime. The external distractions are lessened and we find ourselves back with our selves. Without distractions, habits (like nail biting) are easy to slip into. We can use this as a flag in our meditation…whenever we fall into some habit that we wish to stop, we can use that as a flag to stop and be…and be okay with just being.

 

I know he is right. He is a wise one and has been my guide and guru for some time. Yet for just once, it would be nice to have it easy in this realm, but I will take all of the beauty and love that does seem to come so easily in exchange for the concerted effort and work in others.

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Another day, another void

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Most weekday mornings, I go for a short swim at a community college pool near my home. Swimming has become for me a meditation not unlike that of writing, singing, or practicing yoga asana and pranayama; however, swimming has the added benefit of regular aerobic movement, which offers a temporary respite for my irrational negative body image and helps to assuage the bubbling anxiety that I experience on a fairly regular basis.

Do you feel the anxiety and melancholia rising in your own body as well? These days in particular, the more I listen to the news on NPR or read something online, the more out of balance and irrational the fear and panic I experience.

This morning, I walked down the hallway toward the women’s locker room. On my way, I passed a tall white single male. I smiled, but he did not make eye contact.

What was he doing there? I wondered. Immediately, I started to envision scenarios where a shooter would come into the pool area and open fire. How would I escape? I imagined myself hauling ass out of the pool and running down the road until I arrived at the library where my beloved worked. What about my car keys and cell phone tucked snuggly away in my locker? There wasn’t time to get them. I simply had to get out.

Once in the pool, the motion of the water and my body moving with it helped to soothe these visions.

As I left the locker room and began my return trip down the same hallway, I saw the young man in an office, meeting with one of the faculty. He was just another young person finding his way in an oft-unforgiving world. Perhaps, he had not made eye contact because he was struggling with his own irrational fears of being valued and loved by his academic guides and beyond.

So what to do with these fears? Tucking them away does not seem to ameliorate the problem. I feel that I am living in a world that is shrinking while succumbing to the rising tides of fear and violence. If the moon dictates the rising, as well as the falling tide, what then can I do to draw back this tide I bear witness to each and everyday yet feel helpless to curb or control?

I’m afraid I do not have the answer. I know that the world will go on, with or without us. This morning, I think that I will begin by picking up an instrument and singing the pain from inside, transforming it into something beautiful on its way out.

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The power of story

When I tore my ACL tendon and dislocated my shoulder in a freak ultimate Frisbee accident on April 1, 2001, I imagined that many activities were simply no longer available to me. I tried to run here and there after corrective knee surgery, but I would experience sharp pains in my knee and dull, aching in my shoulder.

I didn’t let the pain stop me from getting outside and being active. I went on hikes and long walks. I tried a few times to play ultimate but felt unstable in my body and more nervous than I had before the accident.

Before the accident, I didn’t even know I had an ACL tendon. I didn’t realize how easily my body could break. I also didn’t realize the remarkable ability for a body to heal. It was difficult and also empowering to learn to use my right leg again after surgery. It was like learning to walk all over again. The atrophied muscles in my right leg took years to build up to match the stronger, more defined muscles in my left leg. It was not until I moved out to Washington state after graduating from college and hiking as many mountain trails as possible that I began to see the difference (or the lack of difference, in this case).

In injuring my body, a new seed of doubt had been planted, however. I was not invincible. My body was fragile and could easily break.

I hurt my back while studying abroad and another seed was planted.

The summer after college, I worked at the Audubon, leading kids on trails around New England. On the final hike of the season, I twisted my ankle while descending Mount Washington. Even as I type, my ankle is achy.

Another seed.

I began telling a story about my body to people. When invited to play a soft ball, volley ball, or pick up game of ultimate Frisbee, I would respond, “I’m not allowed. I break too easily.

I told this story so often that I came to believe it. It was a story born of fear. I was afraid of injuring myself again, needing surgery, being bed ridden, and having to undergo weeks upon weeks of physical therapy and strength training.

So I stayed away from any kind of activity that might possibility do me in.

Until I found yoga.

I was teaching English in elementary schools in the northwest corner of France and a fellow teaching assistant asked if I might be interested in joining a yoga class with her and a few other teachers.

Yoga, I mused. My only memory of yoga was taking a Bikram class and walking around in a dizzy, dehydrated fog for several days after.

I joined the class. It was Ashtanga with a strong focus on breathing and meditation. And there was the added bonus that it was all in French. Very relaxing. As I moved through the poses from one class to the next, I found that the shoulder I had dislocated began to move more easily. I felt less nervous to move it, too.

Magic?

Perhaps. I might go so far as to say that yoga really is magic, but I think the magic is within those who practice anything for which they hold true passion.

When I returned to the United States, I could not find room in my life or my transient living spaces for yoga. There was too much noise and commotion going on all the time.

Years passed, and I fell back into a rhythm of telling myself that I really was broken.

I threw my back out on multiple occasions when my stress level rose to extreme levels during times of transition and by way of reminding my mind to slow down and reevaluate my life choices and the path I was following.

I think my return to yoga a decade later was because I was looking for it. It was not an accident. I was desperately treading water and wondering how to find healthy ways to deal with the inevitable surprises the universe sent my way.

It was not a completely smooth transition. Yoga intensive studies requires long hours of sitting between asana practice, and this sitting was difficult for my back. My body expressed the stress from my transition into yoga from a part-time job that was not serving my soul through pain.

I was uncomfortable in my body. I was worried that maybe I was too broken even for yoga.

But something happened. I changed my story. I decided that there was no way I was going to let myself be too broken for something that was quickly taking on deep meaning for me.

And as I shifted my story, the pain in my body began to dissipate.

It hasn’t disappeared altogether. My ankle still aches, I get sore from practice and from sitting during weekend trainings.

But every once in a while, I detach just enough from my concentration on an asana to notice how much has changed in my body in just a few short months.

This morning, I was poised in plank pose, which is similar to a push up position above the ground. A push up was something I had long since given up on after my shoulder injury. There was no way my shoulders and arms were strong enough to hold me up.

Yet there I was, holding myself up, strong and confident.

When my teacher invited us to lower with steadiness and control into chataranga toward the floor, I did just that. Only a few months ago, when I first began teaching myself the series of asana for sun salutation, I would simply put my stomach down to the mat in a quick, easy motion. There was no slow and steady.

I was using my body in ways I had told myself I would never experience again in my life.

I guess that old phrase never say never still holds true.

I will do my best to never say never again.