River Rocks.

My room is filled with piles. A stack of workbooks here, several binders in a corner, folders filled with handouts and small posters… and a grading grid, half finished, next to my bed.

I’m spending this summer teaching Chinese to 7th and 8th graders. Two sections of some of the most vibrant and enthusiastic middle schoolers I’ve ever met, students who surprise and inspire me with their curiosity and passion. Students who surprise and inspire me in so many ways. This is my very first time teaching, so every turn brings something new and intriguing around the bend. It’s definitely been an interesting experience for me, trying to write engaging lesson plans and carry them out in spirit while still saving a bit of energy to hop in the pool with the students during athletics at the end of the day. It’s been really exciting and invigorating.

But at the same time, it’s like a juggling act. One item, the new, large item – the teaching commitment – demands most of my constant attention. Then there are the familiar items, of various size, that have always been around – getting together with friends, keeping my room organized, sleeping…

And then there’s yoga. I wish it weren’t the case, but I admit, on several occasions, I’ve let the yoga ball drop a few times. Sometimes it sits on the ground for days, while I run around trying to keep the other items in the air and prevent them from falling, breaking. And then, one day, coming home late after spending many, many hours drafting lesson plans, I realized that I missed my yoga. Dearly. And as I trudged up the stairs, I realized that I was tired. Exhausted, in fact. I wondered if I would be able to ever reach a balance where I don’t feel like all my life items are up in the air, a balance where I can hold on, tightly, to my commitments, breathe assured knowing they are safely within my grasp.

Balance. We hear about it in yoga class all the time. We balance in poses, 50-50, kicking and stretching simultaneous, equal. We balance “kill your self” and “total relaxation.” And beyond the yoga mat, beyond the studio, we balance commitments in life. Balance. the concept of balance in my mind was like a pound on a drum, reverberating long after the initial strike. Sitting at the top of my stairs that night, I realized…

Maybe it – life – is not all about finding that place of ideal balance. Maybe it’s about finding the lopsided proportions that work for YOU. Just look outside – mother nature is pretty brilliant, arranging items untampered, as they were meant to be. Look at the rocks on the beach. at the bottom of the river. in the edges of the parking lot gravel pile. Never do you ever see perfectly round spheres that are completely smooth on the outside. Instead, the rocks are all different shapes – some are oval; some are completely unequally weighted. But together, all together, they mesh and form one rock body. And they fit well. Because where there is an empty space formed by two rocks, another rock can fill it in with what it has. This is diversity.

This is acceptance.

For the past few years, I’ve tried to find that ideal “balance” that everyone seems to be talking about – between school, friends, yoga, all of these commitments. Everyone seems to be striving for it, for this place of equilibrium… but really, what is it?

And in desperately trying to mold my commitments to fit that balance that is idealized, have I been untrue to myself and who I really am?

Because, really, if everyone were totally “balanced,” we would all be like spherical rocks. We’d all roll perfectly well on our own, but together, there’s a lot of empty space. Dump a jar of marbles on the floor and they disperse, roll away. But dump a jar of river rocks, those imbalanced river rocks with no uniform center of gravity?

Those rocks stay put. Their friction holds them closer together. And in the end, they’re a pile of river rocks, together, not apart.

Maybe we could take a lesson from those river rocks, from mother nature. It’s impossible to define the ideal “balanced lifestyle” because everyone, EVERYONE is different, and we need those differences to form a cohesive unit. Perfection individually is no use if, when put all together, there is no stability and everything separates.

Maybe, just maybe, the whole idea of “balance” was pushed so strongly by people who never really found balance themselves. Balance of the purest, deepest, most internal kind. Balance of self, of acceptance, of loving who you are for who you truly, naturally are, every curve and dimple in that river rock.

Because those curves, those dimples, that uniqueness…

They carry the greatest significance.

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Post-class savasana. The room is silent; the lights are off; students quietly gather their things and exit the hot room. I walk to the back of the room, stand with my back to the wall, about two feet away, and take a deep breath. I bend backwards and place my hands on the wall. Slowly, I place one palm a few inches lower on the wall. Then the other palm. Repeat. So I’m essentially “walking” down the wall. Soon, I’m less than a foot away from the floor. I’ve never been this far down before. I am terrified.

It is interesting to think about how I’ve gotten here. To this point. Now.

My yoga journey, though just barely over two years, has taken me through some interesting paths. Some parts have been wide open, clear, straight-forward, like a lush grassy field beneath a calming blue sky. Some have been rather stagnant, like a field of mud – I’m stuck, trying to wade through, but not making much progress. And some have been absolutely unexpected, in a bad way. Like taking a step only to have the ground give way beneath my feet.

Yes, at one point in my yoga journey, about a year into it, I fell through. I wasn’t watching where I was going; I had no idea that I was using the practice to push my body past its limits until my mind was numb, drowning out the disappointment and regret left by past empty holes in my life. I wasn’t using the yoga practice to cultivate awareness; rather, I was using it to shove the past into a corner out of sight instead of dealing with it directly. Yes, I fell through in my yoga practice, and landed in a crumpled pile, scarred, scared.

I didn’t return to the yoga room for month after month after month. I couldn’t bear the thought of stepping into that hot room, for fear of my mind once again non-stop racing through those criticisms and negative reinforcement that the practice brought up. The practice forced me to accept reality and be present… but I didn’t want to do that. So I just stopped practicing. It was interesting to experience (with sadness) how my physical practice, all the stamina and endurance, all the strength and flexibility that I had worked so hard for, slowly disappeared. There was a point when I would wake up every day in pain. I didn’t believe that my body, which once carried me to the stage at the National Bikram Yoga Championships in LA, was really mine. It certainly didn’t feel like it.

What was interesting, though, is that as so many aspects of my physical practice became inaccessible, my backbend did not change. It was still as strong and deep as it had always been. At the time, it was the only thing that reassured me that not every part of my yoga practice was slipping through my fingers and shattering on the ground…

But really, I love the yoga so much. It pained me not to practice, it tore both at my body and my soul. The process of returning to my yoga practice was a long one and certainly not easy. I was so emotionally attached to so many things (both positive and negative) and yoga forced me to realize that if I wanted to move on, with my yoga practice and with everything else, I had to let go of those attachments that were only holding me back.

Yoga introduced me to self-acceptance. At first, I hated it… but I grew to realize that self-acceptance is the only way to make progress in certain situations. Yoga taught me not to judge so much, not be so critical of myself.

Yoga taught me not to fear. Not to fear my possibilities.

Today, I think I took a huge leap in letting go of that fear. In that backbend, my hands less than a foot away from that floor… I decided to let all inhibitions aside and take the final step, the final step of taking my hand off the wall and trusting that I can place it on the floor without collapsing.

I did it. I backward bended and touched the floor. I trusted myself. I didn’t collapse.

Letting go of fear… it’s very powerful.

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The Final Day.

Can you believe that it is already day 101 of the challenge? At first, the number 101 days seemed so daunting, but now, it is April 11, and we’re HERE! Congratulations, everyone!

Maybe you did 101 classes; maybe you didn’t. But really, a number is just a number; what’s most important is that we strove for something great – and we did the best we could. “It doesn’t matter what you did, all that matters is that you tried.”

Tried the right way. (Or tried to try the right way…)

Tried with good intention.

Tried with a willingness to challenge yourself to push past your comfort zone. This could be physical –  endurance or stamina. Or it could be mental – it is only human to hold our beliefs tightly (whether those beliefs help us or not) – and it is when we let go of the beliefs that hold us back and open ourselves to new possibilities, that we grow. We gain courage. We become wiser.

This challenge is different for everyone, so no two people’s results are the same, or even similar. Though tempting, there is no need to compare yourself or beat yourself up about what you did or didn’t do. Whatever you did is what YOU needed. As my studio owner likes to close each class, “Whatever you did is perfect.”

Because it is. It is perfect. We did what we could, we challenged ourselves, we persevered, we strove to be present and let go of judgment and mental chatter. It is so easy to view perfection as this strict ideal – but think about this:

Maybe, just maybe… perfection is just purely giving all you can, in the moment.

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No Wheels Turning!

“Come on, everybody, just grab your foot!” Amy, the teacher says, for the second time. Yep, it’s those first few seconds of standing head to knee – hesitation to get in the pose because it seems difficult or whatever other reason, so we stall for a moment. You know what I’m talking about. We’ve all been there.

Then Amy directs the class to kick out, but much of the class was hesitant again.

“Don’t think about it,” Amy instructs. “Just do it. No wheels turning!”

What a fabulous line! I smiled so much that I lost my balance and fell out of the pose. Amy is so awesome.

But beneath the uplifting humor, Amy actually raised a very strong, significant point. It’s so easy to get caught up in our mental chatter – oh, I’ve never been good at this pose and I probably won’t be able to do it, I’m too tired today, the humidity of the room is way off and is really irritating me, etc etc. But that mental chatter only gets in our way. What purpose does it serve? Nothing productive, really. Hesitation, stripped to its core, is just our own method of discouraging ourselves and talking ourselves out of just doing the posture and simply listening to the directions.

So we’re not actually following directions.

The Bikram yoga class is fundamentally so, so simple: as Bikram says, “my mind, your body.” All we have to do is show up, listen to the dialogue, and try the right way. To get maximum benefit, we clearly should do no less than that, but what some may not realize is that we also should do no more. If you become too consumed with how your body feels stiff today or because you don’t like the way your arms look or because the person next to you seems to be having a way easier time – that’s a guaranteed way to feel unsatisfied, irritated, maybe even very upset because one negative thought can easily lead to another – and soon you’ve got a recipe for frustration. But nowhere in the dialogue does it say to judge ourselves, or set expectations, or compare our practice with those of the people around us. Nowhere in the dialogue does it say to criticize ourselves for having a bad day, for sleeping too late the night before, for not finishing a piece or work to our liking, etc, etc.

Expectations and judgment only hold us back. Just accept what comes up, and realize that whatever happens in the yoga room is whatever you need. Just do it. Don’t think about it.

Don’t let those wheels turn, and you’ll pleasantly surprise yourself.

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Old-Fashioned Goodness :)

Recently, things have been rather frustrating emotionally. I’ve always found free-writing to be a good stress-reliever because it never fails to make me feel better; however, I’ve found it nearly impossible to write anything these past few days. Sigh. Anyways, earlier today, I found myself with a block of waiting time (outside, in the cold, to add), so I took out a piece of lined paper, a pencil, and began to write. Longhand! Since typing on the computer has become increasingly widely-used, it had been so long since I physically wrote a draft on actual lined paper! That’s some old-fashioned goodness. Anyways, I wasn’t really writing with a purpose, just to get my thoughts out about a topic that came to mind. Perhaps you could call it a rant, or just an opinion. Because it’s the only piece of free-writing I’ve done in the past two weeks, well, here it is, on the blog in typed form… 🙂


“See a Doctor”

(Or psychologist, therapist, nutritionist, counselor… any of those professions which have the claimed purpose of helping your physical or mental health.) A person confides to their friend a state they struggle with, which could be anything from stomachaches to a threat of suicide, and their friend offers the three words in this message’s subject, in whichever tense or form. The friend, using the phrase in whichever tense or form, probably thinks that they are only trying to help. But I think, in the given situation, those three words are most unhelpful and most unsatisfying anyone can ever say.

First of all, dear friend, why are they telling you this personal frustration in the first place? If they really wanted a mental or physical health professional’s words, wouldn’t they have directly gone for it? Why are they even telling you?…

…because they want you to care. They are telling you something significant to them (I mean, your body and mind are aspects of your life that hold great significance–your body supports you and enables you to have a full range of motion; your mind is the frame through which you perceive everything that occurs in your life.) They are aware you are not a medical professional with a degree–you are their friend, presumably a friend who they trust to some degree. So when they tell you about their situation, they know what they’re looking for: from you, they hope for consolation or sympathy or understanding on an emotional level.

I suppose many people immediately come up with the curt “see a doctor” response because logically, they think it’s the most responsible: specialists in those fields have been through training and have experience; thus, they must be my friend’s best bet! But through telling your friend these three words, you are seeing things one-dimensionally; you are missing this whole other aspect to it: the emotional aspect. Humans are emotional beings; we all want to feel cared about in some way. But doctors and therapists — why do they do what they do? Their purpose is to communicate knowledge and information to people, and their profession is their source of income — they need to see patients in order to support their own family. But put yourself in the doctor’s shoes: when you see a patient walk through the door, how do you approach their situation? They are someone whom you’ve never met, and they have no emotional connection to you. Obviously, you’re going to approach them with the knowledge you’ve been taught and have used in the past – something from the books, or your former boss or teacher, or whomever.

My point is, the doctor doesn’t connect to the patients on a personal emotional level; they can only offer advice and suggestions based on their many years of study. The patients walk in the door, and later walk out; maybe they return at some point in the future. But they are separated from the doctor through professional duty, which overwhelms the potential for personal friendship to be forged between patient and doctor.

So why does your friend talk to you about their situation? Because they trust you enough and think you’ll care. They think you’ll have something of value to share — consolation out of friendship. Take it as an honor that your friend trusts you; rather than an opportunity to end the discussion with “see a doctor.” No matter what you say, try to make it sympathetic, understanding, or consoling, or otherwise helpful on an emotional level. Because a simple “see a doctor” translates as, “I don’t care/aren’t willing to think hard enough to give an answer of substance, so I’ll take the easy way out.” And that’s most likely not the message you want to give your friend!

…though, now that I think about it, “Go take a Bikram Yoga class!” phrased in an appropriate manner, preceded and followed by some thoughtful and compassionate explanation, might just be the best response of all. Hehe. Anyways, that concludes lz’s random piece of the day. Thanks for bearing with me, if you even kept reading this far! 🙂

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Always Will Have

Driving up to Massachusetts tomorrow for a math exam at Harvard, which means a 4am wakeup call.  Makes for a very bright and early morning…
It’s a significant exam, so to say I’m not a little nervous… well, that wouldn’t be quite it.  Though I’m trying to not worry about it.  In the midst of my studies today, I suddenly had a fabulous idea: to take a run on this nearby gorgeous, gorgeous trail loop.  I’m a pretty spontaneous person, so next thing I know — despite the snow, ice,  and the fact that I haven’t traversed this loop in two years — I headed out on the path.

The first few steps took a bit of getting used to, I’ll admit — adjusting to the snow underfoot into which my foot sank a good 4 or 5 inches with every step.  ground underfoot which periodically changed from snowy to slushy to muddy and back.  And I had to think several times to recall exactly where that crucial downhill turn was.  But once I was a good distance into the woods, it started to feel marvelous.  There is something so calming about the simplicity of nature – just the sun, and the evergreen trees, and the pinecones beneath your feet.  It is so reassuring, so rejeuvenating, to be able to let go of the daily commotion, put the work aside, and just be truly in tune with your breath and the beauty of your surroundings.

And then, I reached the section where the trail runs right along the side of the lake.  The water was so blue, reflecting the pure color of the sky.  On the edges of the lake, there were sections of ice where the water had frozen over.  The clear glimmer of the ice, the soft whiteness of the snow, the fresh and earthy scent of the pine needles.  I stopped, mesmerized in the sereneness — everything so beautifully connected, in harmony.

The path did look a little different when blanketed with several inches of snow.  When I used to run this loop almost every day years ago, I began to distinguish the different sections by which type of ground was beneath my feet – soft dirt, or grass, or that uphill section of blue-gray gravel which meant that the end was soon.  Now that all the surfaces appeared the same – snowy white – there were some moments of temporary hesitancy, where I wasn’t entirely sure which section came next, or if this is the place to turn.  But I told myself to just listen to my instincts, because despite not having run on it for two years, I knew this trail – backwards and forwards, literally – I’ve run it so many times in both directions.

So I trusted myself.  I went down the long hill so smoothly and effortlessly, it felt like I was gliding.  I felt so free.  And soon, I was back at the trailhead, perfectly satisfied.  It was refreshing.  It was exhilarating.

Later, in yoga class, in one of the standing postures where your heart is pounding and you’re trying to catch your breath, I had a moment of worry.  Oh man this is tough, how will I make it through this posture without sitting down?  Then I thought back to my run.  And I realized a common chord was struck, connecting my yoga class and my earlier run.  There are times in the yoga room when we don’t know what’s going to happen next – how will we feel, will we be able to balance without falling out, will the teacher just open that door… but that uncertainty is just like those few inches of snow blanketing the woodsy trail.  Deep down, we know this yoga.  We’ve gone through the series of postures many, many times; it’s ingrained in our muscle memory.  So there’s no need to doubt ourselves; there’s no need to worry.  Just trust.  Just breathe.  Know that you have, have always had, and always will have, the courage and determination it takes.

Perhaps I could apply that concept to my math exam tomorrow: sure, the test will be challenging, each problem on the surface appears to be a new question that I’ve never seen before.  But deep down, all questions, no matter how difficult, are based off the same fundamental principles.  And I know those fundamental principles; I’ve used them many times.  So I should just trust.  Just breathe.  And know that I have, have always had, and always will have, the courage and determination it takes.

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My Yoga Lollipop

Hi I’m lz and I admit that I am a perfectionist.

I guess it started in first grade when my mom used to go through lists of vocabulary words from school, testing me on the spellings, and her harsh reaction when I got any wrong was absolutely terrifying to my six-year-old self. It had to be completely right… or else it wasn’t good enough. Fear of making mistakes (academically) drove me to demand a lot from myself in my classes; I was unwilling to hand an assignment in without having put in my best effort.

Beyond the walls of an elementary school classroom, life is a little more complicated. Life doesn’t always follow a straight linear path; it throws unexpected curves, brick walls, and slippery muddy slopes at us. In life, perfectionism is a strong desire to have situations turn out the way we intend them to.

Perfectionist tendencies inspire us to be more willing to put in effort to increase the chances of our desired outcome; they can motivate us to take action to improve. But now that I think about it… perfectionism, in itself, just seems like a whole lot of expectations that we set.

Within the yoga room, expectations… we all know how that goes. We pressure ourselves and want our class to be a certain way. We want the room to be a certain balance of heat and humidity. We want our bodies to be flexible and strong and not fall out of triangle pose. And we are disappointed or frustrated when our 90-minute experience falls short, not meeting our hopes.

These expectations also cause a constant stream of mental chatter… worry, anticipation, all the “what if’s.” It’s an internal voice, like that of a clingy child in tantrum, that nags us and demands our attention and energy, unwilling to be satisfied and quieted with the emotional-lollipop-equivalent of “don’t stress so much; everything will be fine.”

Over time, though, in the yoga room, I’ve found one moment that I can depend on to quiet my mind: the final part of standing head to knee. Everything that happened earlier in the day, or during eagle pose, or during the first part of standing head to knee… all of that disappears. The mental chatter, the heat, the sweat dripping up my nose when my head is upside down… all that falls away. I am so focused on what I am doing and nothing else; I am completely immersed in the moment. My mind is quiet, every time, without fail.

I’m trying to let go of my perfectionism, one standing head to knee at a time…

(me, 2009)
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