“Because I Can…”

My birthday was last week. I invited several people over for a little gathering because I did not want to spend the day alone (yet again). Because it was a long weekend, many people were unable to attend, but the ones who came made it a very special day for me. I didn’t expect anyone to bring anything except for a little food or drink to share, so I was very surprised and touched at the cards that I received with such loving and meaningful words. And even more surprised that several people wanted to donate to my upcoming five-month long hike! The person that made the biggest donation was a woman who I have known for the least amount of time. I felt stunned and very grateful, and when I thanked her the following day, she reminded me that I was the one who had put the suggestion out there, and that she had given me the donation because she could.

These words, “because I can”, reminded me of something I did for a person I met on my thru-hike of the Colorado Trail. During the time of my hike, there was a mountain bike race from the same starting and ending points of my hike. It was a self-supported race, where the riders sleep as little as possible, and race throughout the night and day. On the tenth morning of my hike, after having hiked alone the entire time, a rider, carrying his bike over the train tracks, walked towards me as I stood on the trail, snacking on a power bar. It turned out that he had started the race two days earlier than the main pack and was doing the race on a time-trial basis. He told me that he was completely broke, and that he had run out of gas money on the way to the trailhead and had to have his brother wire him money from Japan. He said that he was going to try to make it to Durango with the $80 remaining in his pocket. I was completed astounded at what he was telling me. How can someone feed themselves for over 400 miles of effort, on $80? At first, I thought that he was going to ask me for money, but he did not. He ended up walking his bike alongside me for about 2 miles until we came to the trailhead where I would attempt to hitch a ride 11 miles into the town of Leadville for my next resupply. Along the way, we told each other stories about how we feel protected on the trail. When we strip away all of our comforts, and become our most vulnerable and exposed, we discover that our needs are somehow taken care of. He had debated for awhile, whether or not he should do this race with so little money available to him, but he kept receiving the message, “Go and you will be taken care of.” And so he went.

At the trailhead, when it was time to go our separate ways, I offered to give him $20 because I had the money. He declined, telling me that my company was more than enough. We exchanged contact info and he asked if I could take some of the extra food he was carrying, and mail it to him further ahead on the trail. I bought some extra snacks for him in town, wrote him an encouraging postcard, and mailed off the package (although he did not end up picking it up).

We didn’t connect again until I was near the end of my hike. He finally told me why he had no money and I also learned that his 40th birthday was coming up, and that he would be spending it alone. So, upon arriving home, I bought him a (hopefully inspiring) Pema Chodron book, made him several CDs of some of my favorite music, wrote him 2 birthday cards with uplifting quotes, re-sent him the package of food that had been sent back to me, and wrote him a check for $100 so that he could enjoy his birthday and not worry about where he was going to get money to pay his next bills from.

Coming from a family that was always financially strapped, where the word “money” brought such fear to my father that he could not help me with any math homework that involved money, where my siblings and I had to start working jobs at age 11 to help pay my mother’s bills and pay for our own clothes, I have always had to rely solely on myself, knowing that if anything happened to me, I had no one to turn to. (My father has not communicated with me in over seven years, largely because of his irrational fear that I will ever need something from him…). Luckily, I learned to budget my earnings well. I almost never go out to eat, I don’t drink, and I don’t spend money on entertainment, which is what has allowed me over the course of many, many years, to be able to fund my long hikes. I knew at the time of my Colorado Trail hike that I would be losing my job and source of income soon, and that my PCT hike was going to cost a lot of money. My first instinct was (as always) to hold onto the money I have, knowing that I will be spending my savings extremely quickly, with no plan as to how I will earn my next dollars to pay my own bills. But I knew that at that moment, I had enough to share, and I wanted to help a person who was in need. Even though I knew that I might soon be in a position of needing help, at that moment, I understood that I was in a position to give help. I did it because I could.

And then, unexpectedly, when my birthday came around, the universe returned to me exactly what I gave to someone else by way of some amazingly loving people who I met by doing what I love. And so, I am learning that by simply relaxing and releasing my grip and fear around what I think is limited and lacking in my life, only then can I be open enough to receive what has always been around me in abundance.

Thank you so much to each person who has written me a card, offered me a hug, or given me a gift! It all means so much to me and I am very grateful!!

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51 Reasons Why I Love Yoga!

1. One of the first things that fascinated me about the practice of yoga was the realization that you can get a full body workout within a roughly 2 foot by 6 foot rectangular mat! You don’t need a large space in which to move around, nor do you need any equipment to work out every part of your body.

2. Using your entire body weight is much more effective in creating strength than isolating particular muscle groups, as is done with weights. The muscles of the body are interconnected and used together.

3. Your mat is your own private oasis. The edges of your mat mark an area that belongs entirely to you.

4. I love that in the style of yoga that I practice, each class is different and unique. Every class holds something new and inspirational.

5. You are given an opportunity to connect with your true self each time that you step onto your mat- not the self that you think you are, or the one that you have been told that you are, but your true, whole self, that is always waiting for you, filled with peace and patience.

6. Yoga is about so much more than exercising. The movements can be considered a full-body prayer.

7. You don’t need willpower to get through a yoga class. You may experience moments of struggle or discomfort while building strength, but those moments pass by so quickly, and then you find yourself in a resting pose, slowling down, and giving your body a chance to re-gain your energy. (I never see myself willfully pushing myself through a workout on a machine, where my ipod is needed to get me through that hour, ever again!)

8. Yoga teaches you to care for yourself. Before you can truly care for others, you need to take care of yourself first. Self-compassion naturally leads to compassion for others. You can’t spread what are you are not filled up with, yourself.

9. I no longer fight with my weight. Yoga allows a natural balance within my body, so that I can still still eat the sweets that I desire on a daily basis, while maintaining a steady weight. After finishing the Appalachian Trail and quickly gaining many extra pounds, I struggled so much to try to burn off the calories that I was consuming, always unhappy with the numbers that showed on the scale, always fighting. Now, I have no need to weigh myself. There is no struggle.

10. Yoga provides you with an opportunity to examine the self, to explore one’s strengths , weaknesses, and challenges. It gives one an opportunity to observe the mind when it is presented with a situation of discomfort, and gives options for dealing with situations that are uncomfortable, such as observing this state of mind, sitting with it, and returning to the focus of the breath.

11. In every class, you both strengthen and open different parts of the body, leaving you stronger and more flexible.

12. You are reminded of pieces of wisdom that help you make choices that lead to a happier, kinder, and healthier life.

13. You create space in your body and in your mind. New space always feels good. Space invites new possibilities. And creating space in a situation, gives you the opportunity to pause and respond in healthier and kinder ways to unexpected things that come toward you.

14. You learn to let go of the things you can not control.

15. Yoga classes are great places to be introduced to inspirational quotes and poems, and music.

16. There is room for plentiful intelligence and creativity in the sequencing of a yoga class.

17. I have found that a yoga class is one of the rare places in public where it is acceptable and even encouraged to cry and release emotions or things that you have been holding onto which have been holding you back.

18. You learn how to breathe effectively. Most of us breathe only from our upper lungs, inhaling and exhaling rapid, quick breaths, which keeps our sympathetic nervous system active and on alert. Breathing from the base of the spine, allows the body and mind to slow down, and increases the strength of the lungs.

19. You learn breathing techniques ,which help to warm the body when it is cold, cool the body when it is too warm, and which flood the body with energy.

20. You learn to increase your own balance and focus.

21. You learn to accept yourself completely.

22. You learn to stay in the present moment; to let go of all that came before and all that is to come.

23. You learn to connect with what can’t be seen.

24. Going upside down is fun.

25. Arm balances are fun! (I light up inside every time a teacher offers us the opportunity to try an arm balance!)

26. Twisting poses detoxify the body by squeezing out old blood and lymph and allowing fresh oxygen and nutrients to rush in.

27. You learn to set intentions for your practice, which you carry out into your life, reminding yourself of the things that are truly important to you.

28. You learn that you create your life with your thoughts, and start learning to replace negative self -talk with more positive talk.

29. A room full of people chanting and singing sounds beautiful.

30. You learn the parts of your body where you store tension, and by gradually working on relaxing these areas in class, you learn to start relaxing them outside of class as well.

31. Yoga improves your posture and the way you feel about yourself.

32. The practice gives you an arena to conquer your fears. (For me, it is inversions. I am scared about my body’s ability to hold the weight of my hips over my shoulders). Conquering your fears allows you to feel so much stronger and more relaxed with what life presents you.

33. Yoga gives you the opportunity to start undoing habits and patterns that do not serve you.

34. It teaches you that surrendering and softening are just as important (if not more so) than doing and achieving.

35. Teaching yoga allows me the opportunity to connect with others.

36. It turns out that practicing yoga is great preparation for backpacking! Before hiking the Colorado Trail, I did no training other than my regular yoga classes, and was able to start off hiking 17 miles a day with a heavy backpack at high altitude!

37. No one yells at you in yoga class. The practice is yours, and your body always knows much more about what it best for you than any teacher can tell you. Teachers offer you options, but it is always up to you to do what feels right.

38. Good assists feel amazing! We are touched so little nowadays, and touch is so important and healing. Yoga is one place where you receive loving touch that sometimes just feels good, and other times, allows you to move deeper into postures and places that you didn’t even think you could go!

39. Many people that do yoga like to give hugs! It is not unusual for me to receive four hugs when I go to a yoga class. (Whereas a hug at the place that I worked for 16 years seemed like the most foreign thing to my coworkers…)

40. You learn to open your heart in yoga and live your life from a place of openness and truth, as opposed to fear.

41. You meet other people who have opened their hearts and built a loving community.

42. You learn self-massage techniques.

43. Every practice concludes with lying down for several minutes in complete rest for the entire body and mind, giving the body a chance to integrate what was just done for it, as well as recharge for the rest of the day.

44. No one has ever regretted going to yoga class and going to two yoga classes per day allows you to feel even better than going to one!

45. You give your spine a chance to lengthen and bend in all possible directions, which is a very freeing feeling.

46. Every pose can be returned to over and over again as if it was the first time you did it, incorporating new knowledge and realizations!

47. There is no ceiling within this practice. This is one of my favorite things about yoga! You can always improve and reach new places!

48. The feeling of being able to do a new pose that you could not do before is indescribable! Something that was not accessible to you before is now within your realm.

49. The practice of yoga is thousands of years old. Its ability to transform lives has been proven again and again.

50. It feels like you are getting a giant hug from the universe! It makes you feel so happy and so good! One of my teachers often says, “Come and get your love!”.

51. The more I practice, the more reasons I discover why I love yoga so much! (It won’t be hard for me to turn this piece into “101 Reasons Why I Love Yoga!”…)

What is pushed away will always reappear…

One day in middle school, we were all required to go to a makeshift area in the back of the locker rooms, bare our backs, and be examined for scoliosis, as mandated by the state. The entire process was uncomfortable for me, and during the exam, it was discovered that I was one of the people they were searching for. Being diagnosed with a spinal deformity made me feel even more embarrassed and ashamed of my body than I had already been feeling. In gym classes, I was always one of the very last people picked for teams. I had felt weak and unwanted for a long time, and this feeling had greatly increased at the new school I was attending after my family had moved. In the hallways, other students would whisper about me and make fun of the clothes I wore. Now, I was labeled as having a crooked spine, and had no one to tell me what this meant for my life. It only made me feel more ugly.

I don’t remember my diagnosis being brought up again until I had to have my physical exam for entrance to private high school and college. During one of these exams, an x-ray was taken of my back. In the dressing room, when I had a moment to myself, I opened up the envelope that contained the x-ray in case the doctor wouldn’t allow me to view it. I was shocked and horrified to see the shape of my spine. It looked like the letter “S’ and nothing like the linear alignment that is shown on skeletons and in textbooks. I couldn’t understand how I could possibly be living with a spine that was shaped like that! The doctor told me that in a couple of years, I would need to have spinal surgery, in which a steel rod would be inserted in my back, replacing my vertebrae. I knew I wanted no part of this surgery. My mother had already taken so much of my spirit away from me, and now these doctors wanted to replace the bones that made up the core of my body with a metal rod that could not move. NO! I needed to get away from these people. I needed to get the required signatures and never return to this place again.

Throughout high school, I tried to run on both the cross -country and track teams, as we were required to participate in sports each trimester. I was more drawn to individual sports, in which I had only to rely on myself, and where I would not be a disappointment to anyone else. However, each trimester, I inevitably came down with a muscle, or a ligament, or a tendon injury in some part of my lower body, and spent the majority of the practices in the trainer’s room, icing my pain. I did enjoy running when I could, and ran cross-country during the first year of college, even managing to keep up with the top runners on the team during the day that we ran 10 miles in practice. After college, I tried, at various times, to keep in shape by running. However, no matter how slowly I started, I was never able to run for more than a few weeks at a time, still constantly plagued with injuries. It was frustrating to have to listen to other people’s stories about their completions of marathons and other events, while year after year, knowing full-well that I had both the desire and ability to accomplish the same achievements, could not because my body wasn’t allowing me the opportunity.

I eventually turned instead to cardio workouts in the gym and pool, and supplemented them with strength workouts with weights. I still often injured myself in various activities, tearing my Achilles tendon, for example, which caused pain for years even while doing nothing but sitting! I tried several forms of treatment for this injury, eventually undergoing the entire ten sessions of ‘rolfing’ – a series of deep tissue bodywork sessions in which the fascia of the body is shifted to better align the muscles and bones of the body. A couple of years later, I managed to hike the entire Appalachian trail, in part, I believe, because of that connective tissue work. After suffering the effects of hiking for over 2,000 miles up and down mountains with a backpack that was too heavy, for 10 months too long, I finally relented to attending my first yoga class. I loved it and immediately incorporated the three noon-time classes a week that were offered at my gym into my schedule.

Six months into my yoga practice, I tore a muscle in my outer right upper arm. I didn’t realize where I had sustained this injury from for quite awhile. I thought maybe it was from shoveling all that snow that fell in the winter of 2011. It persisted for several months. Soon after, I tore one of my right groin muscles. Again, I did not know what had caused this tear, and even though I could barely rise up into a Warrior I posture without great pain, I was not willing to give up my couple of hours of yoga classes a week, because I loved it too much. So, I continued to muscle my way through the postures, fighting through the pain, and relying on my healthy muscles to carry the extra burden. It was extremely frustrating to not even be able to do the most healthy and gentle form of exercise without getting injured!

As I began a more regular yoga practice at a studio, and went through teacher training, my injuries at times showed signs of healing, but would inevitably start speaking to me again (particularly the groin injury). Other older injuries, such as the torn Achilles tendon would also reappear. I also began experiencing pain in my outer right knee and my back would hurt, even in simple backbends such as cobra pose. I tried a couple of deep tissue bodywork sessions with my main yoga teacher to try to help my groin injury, but those sessions would always leave my groin in even greater pain afterwards.

In late January of 2012, I once again sought the help of a different body worker at my yoga studio for my groin injury. After agreeing that his work could help it heal, once seeing me, he seemed more interested in working on the structure of my collapsed chest. He advised me that if I wanted to correct that problem, I would need to come back to him on a weekly basis. So I agreed to see him for weekly bodywork sessions to help my shoulders open and my chest to lift, reversing a lifelong pattern of folding in on myself. However, after each session with him, injury after injury started showing up in a very pronounced way, mostly along the right side of my body. After my sixth session, my right knee had swollen to twice its size, my Achilles tear had reappeared, my groin was still very torn, my lateral deltoid had torn again, and my rotator cuff was now injured! It felt like my shoulder blade was ripping off of my body! After two weeks of serious swelling in my knee, my main yoga teacher urged me to see a doctor, thinking that I had torn something. I was sent to a physical therapist, who thought scraping the side of my injured knee with her metal tool was the best thing she could do for it! In the meantime, I had asked a friend for a recommendation for a chiropractor, knowing that I had scoliosis, and believing that my bodyworker had caused these injuries to sequentially show up in a such a pronounced way, most likely from working on me as he was taught for a person with a straight spine and 2 symmetrical sides. Because of my scoliosis, I have a tremendous amount of asymmetry in my body, which was revealing itself more in more in my yoga postures over the past months as my body tried to protect the injuries that were occurring.

After my chiropractor’s initial look at my back, he went to retrieve a plastic model of a torso from another room, came back and informed me that my spine was shaped like an ‘S’, and that additionally, there was a deep outward curve in my upper spine and a deepened inward curve in my lower back. Because of the lateral spinal curvature, my right hip was higher than the left and inwardly rotated. I was at first overwhelmed with a dreadful feeling of hopelessness that I would never be able to participate in physical activities without being injured. All I wanted was to be able to practice yoga and teach it to others. But the information also confirmed my intuition that I injured my groin from doing postures such as Warrior 2 or side angle pose, in which the leg is externally rotated. Forming a right angle from a leg that is always inwardly rotated is too much of a stretch. I would have to learn to adjust my poses accordingly and follow the advice of my own body and not the cues that the teacher was giving the rest of the class.

My yoga practice was not allowing me to ignore the abnormal curves in my spine. It was forcing me to acknowledge the different patterns in my body and adjust my postures accordingly. In early June, I had the opportunity to attend a weekend-long workshop on yoga for people with scoliosis, which was taught by a visiting teacher from California. She first presented us with information about the structure of the vertebral curves in a person with scoliosis, the rotational component of scoliosis that goes along with the curvature, and the news that the curves often deepen throughout our lifetime if nothing is done to prevent this from happening. I was shocked at what she was telling us, as I had never before heard any of this information! I had no idea that my bones on one side of my spine were crunched together and spread out along the other, that my ribs formed a similar pattern, that one side of the ribcage was shifted forward, and that one shoulder was more forward of the other. I had no idea that by side bending equally on both sides, I was actually increasing the lateral curves in my spine! Suddenly, the origin of every injury that I had sustained during my life, including the tear in my lateral deltoid became crystal clear. All of them were a direct result of my scoliosis. My arm injury was caused because of the position and rotation of my right shoulder, causing more stress on that arm when I tried to enter into yoga postures with binds. I couldn’t believe that no one had ever informed me about the structure of my spine, ribs, shoulder and pelvis before and what the implications were for my life and the activities that I had tried to participate in. Even the teacher who led my yoga teacher training, who has scoliosis himself, never suggested that I do anything differently on the two sides. I walked away from the scoliosis workshop with many different emotions. I was overwhelmed with the information that I now had to try to incorporate into my practice, angry at the doctors and teachers in my life who never offered any information on how to work with this type of body, and grateful to be, for the first time, in a room full of people who all had this similar struggle, and who were doing everything they could to work with it and live a healthy and happy life. Perhaps most importantly for me, was noticing that I saw only the beauty in each of the individuals in the room, and that there was nothing ugly about the curves in their spines. For my entire life, I viewed my own scoliosis as something that made me more ugly- something that I wanted to hide, push away, and pretend wasn’t there.

The practice of yoga doesn’t allow you to ignore any part of yourself. It centers around uniting each individual with his or her true, whole self. Because the entire body is used in each of the postures, each practitioner is given the opportunity to learn about their own strengths and weaknesses, blockages, habitual patterns, and feelings and experiences that have been pushed away and ignored because they were once too painful to deal with. Had I kept trying to run, I would have only been repeating the same patterns of sustaining injury after injury, trying to heal, and attempting to run again until my body simply wouldn’t allow me to. In my yoga practice, my body spoke loudly to me with the new injuries I was sustaining in both my upper and lower body. Until I understood where these injuries were originating from, my body was going to keep screaming at me, and showing me in new ways that I needed to start listening to what it was asking for.

My yoga practice has taught me that you can’t push anything that presents itself in your life away. What you don’t acknowledge will only come back with a louder voice in the future. Instead, we must learn to softly work with the challenges that have been offered to us, invite them in, sit with them, ask them what is needed, and learn to see the inherent beauty within each of our struggles.