Monday, May 15, 2017

Expansion

In conjunction with my graduate school studies I provided a bedside yoga therapy session as a clinical intern at Howard County General Hospital (HCGH) in Maryland yesterday.  My first in a hospital. Untethered. Left alone to help another human who was in the midst of some next level suffering. Big stuff.
Thrust into an acute inpatient clinic I was planning to sit in as an observer of a yoga therapy session for my virgin experience. As you can imagine I was hesitant to jump right in as it was something new for me, and it was a hospital, and those aren't typically fun places, and these are real people with real not so good shit happening in their lives, and I have not so fond memories of my three week stay in Tripler Army Hospital in Hawaii after being seriously burned 20 years ago.  In HCGH nobody (except for my ride or die MUIH yoga therapy crew) had a smile on their face.
Setting the scene I was on campus in the morning and had a session with a client that went super well. Not having a scheduled session in the afternoon I decided it was time to head over to the hospital where roughly eight of my fellow students were since 10am.  So when I arrived at the hospital at 2:30 p.m. I found a seat at the break room table next to my yoga therapy crew and said not much. I wanted to observe what was going on, what the general vibe of the place was and to get my bearings. I learned many of the patients didn’t want yoga therapy and my first instinct was “What?! Who doesn’t want to feel better?  I mean, you’re in a hospital, you need this shit. I need to go talk with them and make this right.”  And guess what folks, you reading this who are outside of the hospital probably need this shit. Let me go out there on a limb and say you definitely need this shit. Feeling me yet?  
So one of my fellow students and dear friends says. “Jeff, there is this guy who I think you’d be a great fit for. None of us have gone in there yet, but we thought you’d be great with him.”  It was then I started to feel pressure from the clinic supervisor that I needed to get in there with this guy.  After a few minutes of deliberation about wanting to first be an observer of a session before being a primary I was like “Screw it, let’s do this. I’m here, I’m good at this, let’s see what happens.”  So I grabbed my clipboard and headed down to his room… knocked on the door and introduced myself with a smile. “Hi, I’m Jeff, a yoga therapist and would love a few minutes with you.” He nodded and granted me entry to the room. He was sitting on a little sofa by the window, the sun was shining and there were beautiful green trees outside. It was a gorgeous day in Maryland.


I walked over, humbled by the whole experience. Poor guy sitting there in his hospital gown holding a crappy styrofoam bowl of “some kind of yellow” soup with a plastic spoon.  Dude had been in there a couple of days and was experiencing an extremely painful condition. He was on a Deluded IV, but still in a lot of pain. He’d slept 3 hours in the last two days and was feeling quite a bit of anxiety about his health and life in general.  So we chatted for a few minutes and I asked him if he would like some yoga. He said he’d love it. Bam, I was in.
I helped him into his bed and put a pillow (makeshift bolster) under his lower spine for support. He hated that bed, and I can’t blame him. The damn thing inflated and deflated on its’ own every couple of minutes.
Over the next 20 or so minutes I led him through a practice with breath, visualization, mudra, and intention that - according this him - blew his mind. When it was over he opened his eyes and said “Wow, that was awesome, you are really good! For a while there I felt no pain. Why don’t I do this more often?” I smiled and started to choke up a little bit with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude of being thankful to be able to help another human in this way. I shed a bit of a tear now just writing about it.  Every time I jump in there I’m reminded this work I’m doing is so needed. Who wants some? Who want’s to help me keep expanding? Who wants to expand themselves? #onelove

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Ready or Not



Yesterday I was chatting with a friend via Messenger, who happens to be a very experienced yoga therapist, about yoga things and she mentioned perhaps I should consider trying to take my work into some pretty well known yoga centers.  My reaction was to pull back and my response was. “I guess I don't consider myself one of those big time teachers who can get into those kind of places.”  Feelings of inadequacy in my abilities started to arise.  I struggle with this on the regular even though I know I am fully capable to take on pretty much any task at hand if I put my mind to it, but still, it’s a struggle. Being a yoga teacher and now a yoga therapist means it’s just a fact of life I have to continue to allow myself to be vulnerable enough to put myself out there to help people who are struggling with sometimes serious and heavy issues, yet doing so without over extending and expending my energy reserves.  


Being an experienced teacher and therapist she sensed exactly where I was coming from and replied...


“Sometimes we are so connected to what feels like our limits, that it is hard to imagine a readiness...OH YES.”  


That really hit home with me, like really. I thought back to all of the hard stuff I had to do in the Army. Like joining and going off to boot camp in what seems like a lifetime ago, going off to war, being responsible for the training, health, welfare, of a hundred Soldiers, being accountable for tens of millions of dollars worth of property and equipment, being handed giant shit sandwiches tasks to "handle" and having no clue as where to start. I handled my duties each and every time, excelled even, but sometimes it feels like I was never completely ready for pretty much any of it when I embarked on whatever it was.  It reminds me of when I used to race competitively; I put in the miles, the speed work, the long runs, the diet, and all the other things you need to do in order to be able to race well and cross the finish line respectably. I knew I’d done the work to prepare, but still, there’s that feeling that comes, and everyone can surely relate. Maybe it’s the night before the race. Maybe it’s when you lace up your shoes. Maybe it’s at mile 21.7. Maybe it’s when you stand up to give that big presentation. Maybe it's during final exams. It's THAT feeling when you sell yourself short and think you aren't ready for what lies ahead. You haven't studied enough, haven't researched enough, haven't put in enough time on the training or studying or whatever. There’s an inkling of doubt, that naysayer telling you you’re not worthy of your dreams or success. Times like these are when we tend to shrink, quit, make excuses, seek external validation to tell us we are good enough, etc. They are also when can choose to rise up and tackle whatever faces us to the best of our abilities and that's enough. Because it is. Enough. I love humor, and I think it’s something I need to gravitate to more often. I’m usually one to see the comedy in a situation or topic; I love laughing, but know when it's time for business. That said, I’m a forever funny finder in things and I hope that never changes. It’s served me well throughout my life; perhaps I need to remember that more often when I’m dealing with personal feelings of inadequacy, but I digress.
My friend went on...

“Rising above it works for me...meet the sense of inadequacy where it is; we don't have to live There.”

Okay...yeah...I like that.  Basically it’s like “Hey there, Mr. NotGoodEnough, how the hell are you? Glad you could stop by for a chat, I’d love to hear what you have to say, let’s have some coffee and conversation, but then I gotta peace out because I have business to take care of. Cool? Cool.”
altar.jpg So I sat down to meditate this morning to have the coffee and conversation with whatever popped up.  I lit the Palo Santo wood and settled in.  Then I noticed my mudra book sitting to the left of my altar; it’s an amazing book by Joseph LePage I would highly recommend those interested in the healing properties of hand gestures. I turned it open to a random page and there is was...Vajra Mudra, which he tells us is primarily used to balance our third chakra - Manipura. Oh how familiar I am with this one, it’s what I struggled with through all those years tackling an eating disorder.
So I started to read the page and, well, here’s what the author tells us about Manipura Chakra:
“The main theme of the third chakra is clarifying our life purpose and manifesting it completely. When the third chakra is balanced, we find a natural harmony between our own needs and our ability to serve the community. When this chakra is out of balance, we may experience a lack of personal power and self-esteem and a subsequent decrease in motivation and energy. Third chakra imbalance can also manifest as an inflated sense of self and a need for success at all costs which is a reflection of a deep sense of insufficiency. Third chakra balance is supported by integrating its essential qualities, including inherent self-esteem, clear life purpose, determination, vitality, conscious action and conservation of energy, resulting in inner and outer harmony.”
Oh. Shit. Ouch.
So yeah, okay.  I’ve found the root of the issue I began this blog with. I’ve indeed found my life’s purpose with being a yoga therapist, but I’m starting later in life than the masters have.  So I’m dealing, again, with that sense of not feeling prepared, not being good enough, a bit of imposter syndrome if you will.  Knowing what our issues are can be the most important step to growth, so yeah, let’s do this, Jeff. Let’s go help people and remember to keep finding the humor in everything. Ready or not...




References: Le Page, J., Le Page, L., Rezek, S., & Barbosa, C. (2013). Mudras (1st ed.). Sebastopol, California: Integrative Yoga Therapy.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

One Love.

This photo was taken in 2004 during my time in Baghdad, Iraq during an actual war. 127mm rockets (those are not small btw) crashed into our compound less than 100 meters from where I was standing within days of this. Ali Hashimi is an Iraqi, a Muslim, and one of the most kind and good hearted men I have been fortunate to know in this world. Last I heard he and his family has fled Iraq to the UK where his sister was living with her British husband; basically he became an Iraqi refugee. Every single day he braved the ever dangerous streets of the capital to bring much needed supplies and goods to our unit to help improve our quality of life. 
I'll never forget the day he rolled up to our headquarters with a washing machine tied to the roof of his little car. Finally, after months of washing clothes by hand in buckets we could at least have somewhat fresh uniforms to wear. The washers sucked, but at least they were 10x better than sloshing around clothes in a bucket like Little House on the Prairie. The good part was it was so hot and dry over in July and August everything line dried in about 30 minutes (albeit dusty; sand was a big problem). Ali also brought legit Iraqi food to our unit on several occasions, once even introducing us to his family. 
 As the unit's intelligence officer I was tasked with "vetting" this man to ensure he wasn't a threat to our security. I had a list of questions to ask him, but I had known him for a while and had no doubt about his intentions. We went through the process anyway. He had been a low level Baath party guy (all males were Baath party guys in Saddam's regime). Long story short: Trump's cabinet has more dirt on them than my homie Ali. 
 Where am I going with my random Tuesday night writing? I don't know, it's cathartic for me to let this stuff out every now and then. I'm saddened by the state of fear that exists in our nation today. There is a growing sense of being easily offended and attacking anyone with a differing belief system than our own. We are afraid of our neighbors, other races, religions, beliefs, anyone with contradictory values, and we have a regime... I mean adminiTwitterstration that flies off the handle with every damn thing. The lines separating us as humans are becoming ever so remarkably clear, and it's got. to. stop. There are two choices people. Love (or) Fear. That simple. Pick one. Look at life through the lens of love and you'll probably be much happier. Look at it through the lens of fear and you'll doubt everyone and everything. Even the hashtag #resist going around right now has negative connotations. It strikes a confrontational chord. We can do better than resisting. We can broaden. We can reach out. We can lend a hand. We can give. We can love. We can teach. We can soften. We can. We can. 
Bottom-line is people are people are people. We connect on a heart level, we all want to be happy, healthy, safe, and free. My heart goes out to those who suffer, in any of its' manifestations. May your thoughts be pure, may your words be kind, may your hearts be free from pain, may your actions be good, and may all beings everywhere know peace. One Love.

Friday, September 2, 2016

I'm still not a New England Patriots fan

So, two days after arriving in Costa Rica I found myself standing atop a 40ft, roughly 12 meter, cliff seriously contemplating whether or not to jump off.  I'd been to this cliff/waterfall several times during previous trips to Montezuma, but never mustered up the courage to take the jump.  To put this in perspective, I’ve freefall parachuted from planes at 14,000 feet and have quite a few static line parachute jumps and high altitude rappels under my belt during my Army days, so it wasn’t the fear of heights or anything like that.  I’ve seen dozens of people jump off this cliff, hell, even Tom Brady did it in 2015.  I stood in the same exact spot shown in the video clip at the link. Also, for anyone who doesn't know, Tom Brady is one of the most successful quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL.
Same falls I jumped from - Dude unknown
Side note, this waterfall, shown on the right, is about 30 feet shorter than the largest falls in Montezuma, which the one I find myself perched atop flows directly into.  I've heard stories of people dying, mostly while climbing up the cliff, but I’ve also seen Tico’s (local Costa Rican boys) scale the cliff and jump from the top of the big one.  I’m convinced the only reason they can do it is because their gigantic balls would cushion any semblance of a bad landing.
Anyways, I finally mustered up the guts, despite April’s insistence to for me to abstain, and took the giant step off. And they lived happily ever after. The End. I wish.
I’m not sure what kind of thing happened when I hit the water. I mean, I was pretty much vertical upon landing, didn’t do a back flop or anything like that, but my body was at just enough of an angle that it felt like whiplash.  Yeah, that’s it, I got waterfall jump induced whiplash. We'll leave it saying I had a somewhat less than optimal landing experience.  Like we used say in the Army Paratroopers, “Falling out of the sky doesn’t scare me, but the sudden stop on the ground if my parachute doesn’t open terrifies the shit out of me.”  The pain in my back was instant and very intense, but I gave April and the ten or so other people watching a thumbs up to indicate I was okay.  Truth be told I was barely able to pull myself out of the water and April tells me I was white as a sheet.  Nonetheless I continued the vacation doing everything as normal, that is if you call horseback riding through rugged terrain, hiking in the “ruggediest” of terrain, ATV driving in very ruggedish terrain, and boat trips on choppy seas normal.  I wasn't able to go to yoga classes or surf, the two things I really wanted to do down there...I was even planning on teaching some yoga at a studio in town.  I’ve had my share of back pain over the years, but this particular pain has been pretty intense, especially in the morning when getting out of bed...and anytime I bend over. Yesterday I went to my doctor here in Virginia as soon as I got back from the trip. Doctor told me it was just a bad muscle strain, but sent me for x-rays to rule out worse. This morning I received the telephone call from the same doc telling me the x-rays show two spinal column compression fractures in T-8 and T-12, with some other compression thing going on with T-9 and T-10. Basically I broke my back.  Great.  The radiologist compared this film with one of my chest x-rays from a couple years ago to confirm the damage was recent.  I’m going to see an orthopedic doc next week, probably for CT scans and perhaps an MRI.  I’m a pretty active and healthy guy for the most part, so I imagine I’ll heal fine, so all I have to do is take it easy and hug a bottle of Motrin, right?  No, I think my work here is to use this whole thing as a learning experience.  What if I’d not jumped?  What if I’d just stepped back and said (spoken in the voice of Dana Carvey doing George Bush) “Nope, not gonna do it, wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture.”  I’d certainly not be sitting here writing about my broken back, but I’d also not have had the experience of doing a jump I’d wanted to try for several years.  Would I do it again if I knew what the outcome would be?  Uh...hell no.  I’m too old to be playing around with spinal fractures and am just grateful there was no nerve damage.  The great part about life is that we never know exactly how things will play out.  Challenging times like these are the very reason I believe mindfulness practices such as yoga help us in the first place.  It’s not about finding calm waters in order to be happy, it’s about remaining calm and allowing peace and happiness when we hit the rough waters, being present with whatever experience we find ourselves in.  Desiring to not be in pain only makes us focus on the pain even more.  Thinking about the pain, the sadness, or the things we’re missing out on only serve to bring us further away from what actually IS.  Taking that giant leap, from a cliff, to a new job, new relationship, going back to college, or whatever is calling you, is a personal choice. Thing is, we never know what the outcome will be, but if we trust in our abilities to handle whatever challenges life throws at us we can rest in the fact we have made it this far, and that being present with whatever that is goes a long way towards reaching our goals.  Hey life, take my hand, let’s jump.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Space to Grow

     Sometimes the toughest thing to do is to let go of the need to control every aspect of our lives and to trust the process of living, especially when we don't know what that process will entail.  The human tendency is to be restless with what is, which explains why it is sometimes so very difficult to be able to just sit and do nothing, to remain the observer, the experiencer, with mindfulness - to meditate.  We LOVE to put labels of description on everything, "That was a great party!"  "That vacation was awesome." "Dinner was delicious." but as my teacher Doug Keller explains so perfectly in his book Heart of the Yogi, once we define the 'experience' we have already moved out of experiencing. To be in the moment, with what is in all of its' pretty and ugly parts, is what experiencing is.  I truly believe that when we wholeheartedly embrace the subtleties in the spaces between those labels we craftily assign we begin to truly live.  
     Most of you have probably read "The Power of Now", but if you haven't I can't recommend it enough.  Tolle teaches us that for pain to exist it has to have a past and a future.  While physical pain in the moment can often be a very real thing, the pain he is getting at is the mental and emotional pain we allow to have a life in the present moment.  We take on the identities of the bad things that have happened to us in the past, giving ourselves labels, not unlike the labels we ascribe to our experiences.  We wear the badges of our illnesses, the beliefs we were raised with, the breakups and divorces -  the physical and emotional injuries.  By the same token we should spend much less time worrying about potential pain in the future. I mean seriously, what is future pain anyway? It's a myth, that's what it is. We can't have pain in the present moment over something that doesn't even exist yet. Observe your thoughts the next time you start to worry about something, an undesired outcome, and see if you can let go, to simply sit with the sensations you are feeling about that unlikely reality you are unnecessarily stressing over.  When we make the decision to not allow unmanifested pain to exist it loses its' power to be.  It's certainly not an easy task to assimilate the teachings of Tolle into our lives, to disallow those things the power to exist in the moment, but it's in doing so that we find the peace that is always available. In fact it's the only way we can ever find that stillness. 
     While at the Sivananda Ashram in the Bahamas last month I was fortunate to hear a talk by a brilliant individual, Dr. Richard Moss. He spoke about how being there amidst all of the positive energy helped us to exist on a higher frequency, say 1500 (to assign an arbitrary numerical value to it), and that when we jumped on the boat and returned to the 'real world' that was operating at say, between 200-300, it would be painfully obvious to us how so many people exist unconsciously. Even our 'stuff' begins to lose its' value as we realize how little we need in order to be truly happy.  So we begin to downsize, to declutter, to simplify, but somewhere in that process we feel the need to get back on the boat to the ashram, to recharge our frequency battery. This cycle continues until we realize the only lasting recharge available to us has existed within us all along, so we start to tear off chunks of the boat that is taking us there and throw them into the furnace. We realize we don't need the boat anymore - we can fuel our own fire.  So instead of worrying about arbitrary questions such as "Does he care about me or not?", it's better to have the mindset of "Screw it, throw it all in the fire."  Hell, he may not even care about himself, so what good does it serve to eat yourself up with those questions?  I greatly paraphrased his talk, but seriously, anything by Richard Moss should be on your reading or listening list. 
     Almost two years ago I left the United Arab Emirates and headed off to Costa Rica to enter yoga teacher training. The two places could not possibly be more different from each other, but each was and is beautiful in their own right.  I experienced tremendous personal breakthroughs in my life during that period that would have never happened had I not taken the leap to venture off 7,000 miles away, to remain in the "safety" of my life before that time. Between you and me what I had was a lot of financial debt and a lack of peace in my life. After venturing back to the states to set up 'camp' in Norfolk I wasn't quite sure exactly what I was going to do with myself, which was a very new experience for me having lived within the confines of the structure of a 20 year career in the military.  It has served to be quite a liberating experience as I've been able to develop meaningful relationships in community that, unlike being stationed somewhere in the military, truly feels like a home.  I've heard a lot of people speak ill this town for many different reasons, and while all of them are not unfounded, it always leaves me questioning what they are doing to make it a better place to live. That's a subject for another blog, but I love living here


     While in Costa Rica I saw many beautiful things, one of them was this little plant sprouting out of a very large boulder along a stream located at Piedra Colorada, a sacred little spot along the coast outside the village of Montezuma.  This little guy kinda sums up the spirit of this post - sitting with what is, with what you have to work with, and make the absolute damn best of the situation.  It also reminds me of some very wise words from Pema Chodron in her book The Places That Scare You.  "At the beginning joy is just a feeling that our own situation is workable. We stop looking for a more suitable place to be. We've discovered that the continual search for something better does not work out. This doesn't mean that there are suddenly flowers growing where before there were only rocks. It means we have confidence that something will grow here."
     Trust the process, give yourself space to grow. 




Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Let Life Polish Your Edges...

Found this rock down on the shore of the sea. It is constantly being bombarded by the waves, rarely finding points of not being affected by the realities of the natural world. Like this rock, we too face continual challenging situations in life. The goal of yoga isn't about taking us to a place where we can finally arrive at peace, no, yoga helps us to be able to navigate situations in life off of our mats, finding stillness amidst the raging waters we find ourselves in.

Given all this, adversity is what polishes the stone. The rough edges are worn away as resistance to living with the groundlessness life offers is accepted. Like the stone, we are polished by our adversity; the beauty that has been underneath the surface all along is able to shine when we stop resisting what life is essentially comprised of. Equanimity is the intention to take away from this

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Feed your flame

     
Much of the yoga practiced in the west is heavily focused on asana - the physical postures.  Students often come to yoga with broken bodies and broken spirits with the hopes it might reduce their lower back pain and maybe one day they will be able to touch their toes, which often happens dramatically fast.  The physical aspects of yoga are most often what initially lure aspirants to a mat, but somewhere along the way we start to notice a difference in our mood, our outlook on life, and our increased abilities to handle stressful situations with a sense of equanimity.  
     I have participated in many fitness activities over the years, and just prior to yoga was a six day a week swimmer putting in an average of 2500 meters a day in the pool. After time, like many things we do repetitively, I developed a nagging shoulder injury that made my daily slog in the lap pool a chore.  It also mentally affected me with frustration leading to stress and anxiety.  The way I typically went about injuries was to just take some Motrin, maybe ice it from time to time, but to just push through it.  Yoga has taught me that I need to listen more closely to my body, for the pain we often suffer is an indication of something deeper.  For instance, if someone is struggling with feelings of self worth it can often express itself in the way they physically carry their bodies. Shoulders and neck may droop forward, which affects the breath and physiological structure of the body.  Sore shoulders and back, weak abdominals, and decreased lung function can result. I mean, who wants that mess?!  
     One of the messages of this post is to serve as a reminder to receive guidance from the inner wisdom of our divine Self.  That Self, purusha, is the divine unchanging presence within us all.  It is our inner wisdom, and it is sacred.  I'm not a religious person, but my studies into yoga have helped me come to terms with what god means to me.  I believe there is a god within us all, and that god is that divine and wise Self. It is in this sense we are all connected as human beings. One of my teachers often says something in class which I'll paraphrase.  "We are not human beings who have spiritual experiences. We are spiritual beings having a human experience."  Simple. Profound.
Photo by Mei Ling, one of my classmates,
a nurse who left her home in Taiwan to attend the Yoga Therapy
masters program in the US for two years. 
    This past weekend in yoga grad school, "Yoga College" I like to call it, we all performed simple version of Puja, which is "the act of showing reverence to a god, a spirit, or another aspect of the divine through invocations, prayers, songs, and rituals." (Learn more about puja here.  We each sat facing the wall in front of  our little makeshift altars constructed of two yoga blocks stacked with a mirror on top. In front of us there were placed several items, including incense, flower petals, uncooked rice, water, a tangerine, and a candle.  We offered each item in a little ceremony, first holding it in front of our hearts and taking in the wisdom of what the object represented to us, then sending it out towards the little altar and back to our hearts three times in a circular motion.  It's a simple yet powerful practice to try. 
     In closing I'll share this thought that came to mind during the puja. The act of holding a flame close to the heart reminded me of the inner light within me, within you...that purusha I mentioned.  Sending it out in circles to the altar and then back towards the heart sent me a powerful message, and that message is that a flame gives so much. It gives light to see, heat to warm our bodies and cook with, enables us to create glass and metal, and even nature uses it to purify and renew the land.  But for fire to exist is must receive oxygen, otherwise it would cease to be fire.  Just like that fire, we as people need to remember to allow ourselves to receive loving kindness and compassion, to listen to our body when it's trying to send us a message that change is needed. It's often harder to receive than it is to give, but remember, you will quickly extinguish the flame within you if you do not allow this to happen.  So keep sharing your light with the world, but do remember to allow others to share their light with you, and most importantly to share your own light with yourself.  It is in this sense we all feed the flame of collective divine Self, which is something the world desperately needs today. 
My little home altar