Letting Ourselves Feel Joy

Via Flickr User Danila Bedyaev

O blog, how I hath forsaken you. The past few weeks have been insane in the very best of ways. Since summer began, I’ve been able to enjoy Austin a bit more, soak in some delicious summer-ness, and work on some projects (I’m slowly learning some HTML/CSS). And quite unexpectedly, I met a great guy and began a new relationship.

So life is pretty damn good right now. Of course, the only downside to contentment is that there isn’t as much to write about, or at least not the immediate motivation to write about it.

But since I’ve written and reflected on depression quite a bit, perhaps I can now also write and reflect on joy. You would think feeling joy would be simple and easy, but it requires a willingness to be vulnerable that can be very difficult. When good things happen to us, it’s a lovely feeling, but then enters the fear that now we have something to lose. This can create a huge amount of anxiety that can lead otherwise stable people to self-sabotage. With the chance for happiness comes the chance for heartbreak later on–which is why there are a significant number of people who never allow themselves to take emotional risks. They protect themselves from sorrow and pain, but they also shield themselves from joy and love. Because to feel joy and love, you must make yourself vulnerable; you must be willing to accept both the darkness and the light in life because there is not one without the other. It can be immensely uncomfortable to extend ourselves beyond baseline emotions in any direction.

But if we want to love, to learn, to cry, to laugh, to explore, to discover, to try, to speak, to write, to move, to grow, we must take risks. Each one of these things is a risk in and of itself. But look at what they can give us.

So the challenge is letting yourself feel joy and trying to free yourself from the anxiety that surrounds it. Brené Brown’s suggested method is gratitude: being thankful for what you have when you start to feel that sense of anxiety emerging. Reminding yourself that you are right here, right now, and you will always have this moment regardless of what happens in the future.

Yoga, of course, can help. It gives us the chance to pause to just be in our bodies and our minds and focus on the present moment. If you’re anything like me, you suck at being in the present moment. But I’ve found that even just trying has made a difference, just taking the time to go to the studio and do nothing but move my body and breathe for an hour and fifteen minutes, even when I can’t get my mind to quiet down.

There is also the yoga of resting, though, which is what I’m (mostly) doing today. And there’s a lovely, simple joy in that too.

Summer Begins

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Via Flickr User FreeWine

It’s beginning to feel like summer. The spring semester has ended, the plants look full and rich and green, and the days have been hot and the nights warm.

Honestly, when I moved to Texas, I hoped it would feel like perpetual summer here, but I’ve found that not to be true. There were a lot of nice, warm days in the fall, winter, and spring, but they didn’t have the same feel as summer days. Why exactly, I’m not sure. In summer, there’s just a sweet scent in the air and a buzzing of new energy in everything. 

So I guess I can’t live in perpetual summer in Texas. But if I did, I wouldn’t get to experience this sense of joy at feeling this transition into my favorite season. Hopefully it’s still my favorite season by the time I’ve experienced the many 105-degree days that characterize a Texas summer.

I suppose this all feels especially meaningful right now because the last few months have been incredibly transformative for me.

At the beginning of the semester, I was a mess. I was depressed and felt like I couldn’t accomplish even the most basic tasks. I wasn’t sure I would be able to make it through my classes and was considering withdrawing for the semester or even altogether. 

But, out of pure, desperate need, I returned to yoga. The first month or two of classes were some of the most challenging experiences of my life, both physically and emotionally. But I kept going, even as things fell apart around me. And that, as well as other tools I began to use to help myself, made all the difference. I actually managed to not only make it through the semester but get A’s in all of my classes, which feels pretty miraculous given where I was a few months ago. 

I always fear that when I write something like this, I’ll imply that everything is perfect now. I’ve read accounts of life progress that sometimes felt alienating to me because the authors seemed to have reached some impossible level of unshakable happiness. Life is still life; there is still the darkness as well as the light. And the future is always a big, scary unknown. 

But now, right now, in this moment, I feel peace. And god dammit that’s a nice feeling.

 

Talking about Depression

So, let’s talk about depression! Wait, come back…

So ok, it’s not the most pleasant of topics. It can be uncomfortable at best to talk about depression (or any other mental illness), whether you’ve experienced it or not. And I know this is a (sort of) yoga-themed blog, but depression is what compelled me to try yoga and to keep trying it. For me, yoga has been a strong antidepressant, and thusly, the two topics are very much related for me, in the best of ways.

So why the sudden desire to talk about depression? I just read this post on Hyperbole and a Half, one of my favorite blog/comics (comic blogs?) ever. The author, Allie, has been absent for a long period of time due to depression but just made a new post today. And instead of making a lighthearted comic about her crazy dog or a story from her childhood (some of her previous topics), she posted a comic about her experience with depression.

Yes, a comic about depression. And it’s fantastic. It manages to be painful and hilarious at the same time (though, I suppose that’s really what comedy is).

After reading it, I decided the following:

  • When someone has the courage to talk about depression (or something like it), it has the potential to help and even enlighten other people. Some of the commenters and Facebook sharers have said things like, “This is my life,” or “Thank you for being brave enough to share this,” and “I think I understand depression a little better now.”
  • Everyone is different and thusly experiences depression differently. In the past I’ve had periods of depression that varied between the kind of numbed-out blackness Allie describes and floods of intense sadness.
  • It’s important that we try to talk about depression, when we can. Humor and openness can be invaluable tools for doing so (though they’re not the only ones).

I recently spoke to a friend about having had struggles with depression in the past. I feared that he might judge me or misunderstand, but instead revealed that he thought he might have some depression himself. It’s not like we instantly embraced and cried together or anything–the moment was much more subtle and casual than that–but I realized later how significant it was, because it encapsulates exactly why it’s important to share our experiences. I’m not saying we should all go out and scream it to the world, but having the courage to talk about it even just to a friend is something that can contribute to the larger shift I hope is occurring (or will occur) around the topic of mental illness.

And just talking about it can help. It’s an isolating enough experience already, so to feel like you have to keep it hush-hush can be very detrimental. I always feel an immediate sense of relief when I can talk to someone about the topic, regardless of how deep the conversation goes.

I also have a friend I email regularly and see in person when we have the chance to meet up with whom (side note: can we just stop using whom? Is that ok?) I can openly talk about mental illness. It doesn’t really matter that we’ve experienced it in different forms and different levels of severity. Our conversations are some of the best I’ve ever had, just because…well, we can just talk about shit, and we do.

As well I’ve been emailing with a friend of my mom who is having some trouble withdrawing from an antidepressant, an issue I became all too familiar with several years ago. She has thanked me for talking to her, but I’ve gotten just as much if out of our exchanges as she has.

I wish these kinds of experiences for everyone who has ever faced even the mildest mental illness. Knowing you are not alone is one of the most powerful causes for hope.

Not that we need to gather around in a circle and say, “I am Jeana, and I have depression,” but Allie Brosh has reminded me how significant it is to try to contribute to the conversation.

And you, no matter who you are: Your story is important.

Gratitude…Thursday?

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Via Flickr User David Spencer

Well, I seem to have missed Gratitude Tuesday. Which means…today is Gratitude Thursday!

Things I am grateful for this week:

  • Being finished with school for the semester! Yayayay. I just sent in my term paper for one of my classes, which means I’m all done. Now the only problem is: what do I do with myself now?
  • All the beauty in the world (see photo above. Amazeballs)
  • Technology. Sure, it has its faults, but I love the ability to send my mom a quick message at any time and exchange videos with my faraway friends.

In yoga news: I’ve been making a little bit of progress on inversions, which is kind of exciting. Though the descriptions of said progress won’t exactly sound thrilling. Example: This week pincha mayurasana (forearm stand) for about a second and handstand for a few seconds. It may not seem like much, but I think most yogis will agree that it’s exhilarating to be able to hold a pose at all when you’ve been working on it for months–even if it’s just for a quick moment!

I’m becoming more stable in headstand as well. Slowly but surely. I have to remind myself every so often to be grateful for the progress I’ve made–physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually–in yoga; it’s so easy to get caught up in Things You Can’t Do Yet. 

A year or so ago, I never thought I would be able to balance on my head in the middle of the room. It seemed impossible

Yoga has made a tremendous amount of difference in my life, particularly in the last few months. It saved me, really. Or maybe it just helped me save myself.

 

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Home Yoga Practices

Via Houzz

Via Houzz

(I know the Dr. Strangelove reference is vastly overused, but I couldn’t resist it this time)

There are many reasons to do a home practice. Maybe you usually go to a studio but today nothing fits into your schedule. Or perhaps you’re feeling a little off and need to go at your own pace. Maybe going to a studio provokes a lot of anxiety for you, and you’d rather enjoy the comfort of your own home when you’re doing yoga.

Whatever the case may be, it can be difficult to build a home practice. Our homes are full of so many potential distractions, many of which can seem much more comfortable and appealing then moving through a bunch of sweaty vinyasas or holding plank until your arms are shaking.

Shockingly, telling myself “No, you can’t do that” has never proven an effective method for drawing myself away from distractions. Even when I managed to get myself to turn everything off and get onto the mat, I would practice for a short amount of time and give up. Don’t get me wrong, short practices can definitely qualify as good and full practices, but I rarely benefitted from them because I always stopped as soon as I got moderately uncomfortable.

I’m certainly not an at-home-practice guru or anything now, but recently I’ve discovered some things that have helped me immensely in improving my yoga sessions at home. So here is a list of things to try–of course, they’re only suggestions, and what works for me might not work so well for others. But I’ve found that simply trying different things has been the most effective way to find enjoyment in my home practices.

  1. Break the rules. For me, this means playing music while I’m practicing. Loud music. No, I can’t hear my Ujjayi breath as well this way, but I find I’m able to connect my breath and my movements to the rhythm of the music. Rather than distracting me, it helps me get into my body and be in the present moment. Do whatever helps you feel a little more at ease, even if you’ve been told you’re not supposed to.
  2. Let your body tell you what it wants to do. In other words, move however the hell you want, or even don’t move at all. I used to feel like I had to follow a certain sequence of postures during my at-home practices. This compulsion completely hindered my connection to my practice. The great thing about practicing at home is that you can do anything you want! For me this often includes adding in random dance moves and poses that I completely make up on the spot–because it just feels good. Maybe for you, just sitting still and breathing feels amazing. Don’t worry about whether or not you’re doing “real yoga”–as long as you’re breathing, you’re doing your yoga.
  3. It’s ok if you get distracted–just try to come back. So maybe you remember that you need to make a trip to the grocery store later, or that you need to respond to an email, or that you haven’t set a DVR timer for that show that’s coming on later. Try to release the thought first–imagine you’re sending it away on a cloud or releasing it through a trap door from your mind (concepts from two of my favorite yoga teachers). But if you just can’t seem to get it out of your head, do what you need to do and don’t worry about it. Maybe take a few seconds to jot down a reminder note and then return to your mat. I always thought this would ruin my practice, but I’ve found that just “going with the flow,” even if that means temporarily stopping what I’m doing to make another adjustment, serves me best.
  4. Don’t be so hard on yourself. So you’re feeling like you can’t even make it through one sun salutation today, or you’re noticing that you can’t balance in tree pose for more than two seconds. Your ego is bound to act up and tell you to get it together. Tell it thanks, but you’re good. Remember that this is exactly where you need to be. It’s all a part of your personal journey, which is one that is unique from everyone else’s. You are enough, no matter what happens on or off the mat.
  5. Get InspiredMaybe put a picture on the wall. Wear some mala beads around your wrist. Light some incense or diffuse some essential oils. Repeat a mantra (I’ve been using “Patience, hope, and healing”). Make your practice, and your practice space, feel special–it doesn’t have to be much. Sometimes just putting on some crazy/colorful yoga pants is enough to make me feel like practicing. Think of what makes you feel good and then try to incorporate that into your practice somehow (and I’d be happy to help you come up with some ideas!).

Perhaps some of these guidelines might work for you; some might not. Just remember that there is something that will work for you, and you will find it if you keep trying.

If you’ve found anything else that has helped you cultivate your at-home practice, please share! I would love to add to the list.

Namaste, friends.

Gentle Hatha

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I try to make it to a slower class once a week, one that’s not at my usual studio. It’s taught by an instructor who specializes in yoga therapy, and she’s very empathetic, easy to talk to, and compassionate. Her class is mellow and slow-paced, at least compared to my usual vinyasa flow classes.

So you would think going to these gentle hatha sessions would calm me down, zen me out, give me a refuge from the sweaty workout I endure in my other classes.

Ultimately, they do. But first, I get angry.

Yes, gentle yoga pisses me off.

After my first yin class, I swore off slower-paced yoga. It’s so dull, I whined. But that wasn’t really the issue. The issue was that it forced me to be with my thoughts and my emotions. Vinyasa can do that too, but in that case I can use the physical intensity of the asanas to quiet down my mind. With a slower-paced, gentler class, I cannot escape into the flow. Often we hold poses for a longer amount of time–“easy” poses which, as it turns out, aren’t so easy at all.

This is how gentle yoga brings me face-to-face with my ego. When you go into anything assuming it will be easy but end up contending with some struggles instead, your ego suffers.

This is a good thing. It makes you more aware of your preconceptions, your insecurities, your fears. Eventually, if you let it, it can serve to help you let go of things you need not be holding onto.

But it also kicks your ass a little bit. Or a lot. What’s that Gloria Steinem quote? 

“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

Yoga brings me to my truth. And sometimes, it really does piss me off.

And I couldn’t be more thankful for that. Though vinyasa is still my favorite type of yoga, gentle hatha has also given me more than I ever expected.

Since today is Tuesday (meaning it’s Gratitude Tuesday, in Jeana world), here are also two more things I am grateful for:

  • Music. Somehow I forget sometimes how much music can help me, but it’s always a wonderful feeling to remember. In particular, it’s been helping me grow my at-home yoga practice a little more.
  • This semester of grad school. Though I’m still not sure there’s a place for me within the journalism world, I have come so much closer to realizing what my true passions are, and I’ve accomplished more than I thought that I could. At the beginning, I didn’t even know if I would be able to make it through one week of classes.

What are you thankful for this week?

I’ve been a bit out of the loop recently due to the end-of-the-semester schoolwork insanity, but I look forward to catching up on some blogs.

Namaste, friends!

Gratitude Tuesday #2

I’ve been meaning to update this thing for the past few days, but school has been pretty crazy. There are only weeks left in the semester, which means story and paper deadlines are approaching quickly. I’ve also been working on an iPad app all semester that my group and I will be demoing to about 300 people next week. Ah!

I’ve still been managing to get my yoga in, though, at least for the most part. I missed my gentle hatha class this morning, unfortunately, but I made it to a vinyasa class last night, and a vinyasa/Kundalini fusion workshop on Saturday. I had never done Kundalini before but was curious what it was all about. That portion of the workshop involved some chanting, meditation, and a CRAP TON of ab work, which was both great and a tad tortuous. I’ve been told that flexible lower backs and weaker cores tend to go hand-in-hand, which is definitely true for me. I can rock a lot of backbends, but when it comes to holding a pose like boat, I seriously struggle. So all of that core was a challenge, but as they say, your hardest pose is the one you need the most.

I would love to say that’s total crap and just avoid all of the poses I dislike, but I’ve had too many experiences that indicate otherwise.

It’s also Tuesday again, which means another three things I am grateful for:

  • YOGA. I know that’s just a tad obvious, but especially in these times of high stress, I feel so fortunate to have it as a tool to help me let go, calm down my ego, and believe in my own potential.
  • Having food to eat, clean water to drink, and a solid roof over my head.
  • This one today especially: the good in humanity. Yesterday’s tragedy in Boston bespeaks the darker side of humanity, the evil that grows from shame and misunderstanding and hatred. Though the lives that were lost are irreplaceable, and acts like this will weigh on all of our spirits, goodness and love are still alive: “When you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, ‘The good outnumber you, and we always will'” (Patton Oswalt). I’ve always had a difficult time hearing about terrible events like this one, and they’ve quite easily led me to believe that any faith I had in humanity was delusional. But the good is there, and I am so grateful for reminders of that fact. This is not to belittle the pain that so many are feeling in the wake of all of this. There is nothing that can compensate for lives being lost to violence. But we must not give up on humanity; we must remember what we are fighting for and know that it’s not in vain.

Much love to Boston and to all of you.