Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Thoughts on Veterans Day & more of my story

I have come across a lot of people who ask "what do you do?"  When I tell them I'm a retired Army Major it usually raises an eyebrow and a "Wow!"  Next question is usually "How long were you in the Army?"  My response without hesitation, "Twenty years and six days."  Each Veterans Day causes me to stop and remember what I did, but more importantly to remember the sacrifices so many others have made in the service of the nation.  I'm not writing this to share war stories and photos of me next to Saddam Hussein murals, maybe another time. Today I'm writing to share a bit more of my story. 

I joined the Army in 1986 and made the rank of Staff Sergeant (Yes, I got all the Sergeant Sargent jokes you could imagine), before heading off the the University of Tampa on an ROTC scholarship, graduating in 1996 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Exercise Science.  I'm proud to have served all that time in the military, but deep down my real passion has always been tied to fitness and exercise. I've played competitive soccer (Football to everyone else in the world but us stubborn Americans.) been on swim teams, high school football, little league baseball, high school track, college cross country running. and I was a competitive runner and triathlete for quite a few years before the injuries and wear and tear started to pile up. I had to find something different.  That something eventually found me, it was yoga.  

So why the Army? Why did I at the age of 19 head off across the US to boot camp at Fort Jackson, South Carolina in the winter of 1986?  Well, things weren't great for me during my teens.  From the age of 15 I battled with anorexia and bulimia, and after struggling for 32 years with this illness am amazed it didn't kill me. By the age of 17 I had lost 37 pounds and at 120lb/54kg passed out in front of my mother in the hallway of our house. At the time I was jumping rope for 60 minutes straight everyday.  My parents were at their wits end and had me admitted to the eating disorder clinic at Stanford University.  At Stanford I received counseling and gradually learned how to eat and be okay with it, sort of.  At $1000 a day, medical insurance coverage ran out after three weeks, so I left the hospital quite a while before I actually should have.  It wasn't long before I fell into the same destructive patterns. At 18 my parents made me move out of the house because they just couldn't bear to see me do this to myself.  That, and my Mom was applying some of that "Tough Love" parenting craze that went on back in the 80's.  At this time I was in my second semester at a community college and working a part time job.  School, graveyard shifts at work, and a new girlfriend consumed most of my time, leaving me not enough time to study. Not wanting to fail classes, I dropped out of school mid-term, the girlfriend and I broke up, and I was just working at a damn convenience store while most of my friends were off at college and being productive with their lives.  It was killing me inside that I was letting my dream of a college education slip away. After high school graduation I was supposed to head off to Brigham Young University, but after the eating disorder became so bad there was no way my parents were sending me off to Utah from California.  It was then that I looked towards the Army because they offered the GI Bill that would pay for my college tuition, and I could take classes on base after work.  At first I was medically rejected because of my eating disorder by a doctor recruits nicknamed "The Dragon Lady" due of her harsh manner and proclivity to reject wannabe troops.  She told me to gain weight and come back in six months, and If I showed progress she would approve my packet, thus allowing me to enter the service.  This fired me up, I gained enough weight to satisfy SeƱora Dragon, and headed off to basic training.  

Fast forward many years.  It's been just over five years since I retired, and although I can't say I miss the rigors and transient nature of Army life, I do miss the camaraderie of the men and women who wore the uniform with me, as well as those who didn't wear the uniform, but were out there on the front lines supporting the troops.  Since I retired in 2009 to just this past July I was a government contractor supporting the military as an Intelligence trainer of both US and allied forces.  Again, it was awesome to work with fellow military veterans, and I enjoyed the fact I was helping prepare troops for the challenges they'd be facing during deployments to either Iraq or Afghanistan. Having been to both countries on deployments I was well aware of the dangers and hardships they'd be facing, so anything I could teach them to help make their jobs easier was of great satisfaction to me professionally.    

So why the change?  Why am I off on hanging out in Costa Rica for the better part of the year on what an ex-girlfriend of mine called my "jungle savasana"  Well, for starters I can thank my most recent employer for cutting our contract by 1/3, leaving me without a job in the UAE, thus having to surrender my resident visa and depart the country.   Secondly, I can thank the US government and our income tax laws on expat income.  Basically I have to stay outside the US for 330 of the 365 days this calendar year in order to not be taxed on the money I earned in the UAE from a non US company.  
All those very real reasons why I am here are what gave me the opportunity (kick in the ass) I have needed to follow my real passion and finally become a yoga teacher after all these years not following my heart.  

Why am I telling this story?  I don't know, it's Veterans Day and I promised myself to start writing more frequently.  It's cathartic to my soul to share myself in such a manner.  Seems like a good enough reason to me, but let me get to the point.  

We don't always understand the reason for things, and quite frankly life would be rather boring if we did.  I do understand this, I know that if there is something you have always wanted to do with your life you need to do it. Stop making excuses, stop beating yourself up for not following your dreams in the past.  Stop the negative thoughts, behaviors and self doubt. Simplify, get rid of unnecessary baggage, especially debt. Change. Move. Hate your job? Quit. Go for your dreams and the universe will undoubtedly figure out a way to make it happen.  I'm on this new journey now and not sure where it's headed.  Fact is, we'll all never know exactly where our path is headed, but if we feed the true fire in our hearts good things will eventually happen.  This story shared by one of my yoga teachers comes to mind.

An old Cherokee chief was teaching his grandson about life..."A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy. "It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves."One is evil - he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, self-doubt, and ego."The other is good - he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. "This same fight is going on inside you - and inside every other person, too."The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"The old chief simply replied, "The one you feed."

So now I'm choosing to feed my decades long passion I've had and help others find a better life both physically, mentally, and emotionally through yoga. I am forever grateful for the experiences I've had with the military, and this all has me thinking maybe my calling is to help other veterans through my teaching.  Thank you to all that are serving or who have served. Today, and each Veterans Day I salute you.  

For the time being I'll be hanging out in self imposed exile living the beach life in Costa Rica practicing yoga in paradise and making new friends.  Poor me, I know.  I'll be home for New Years, Norfolk. That said, hang on to those camouflage pants, they make pretty awesome yoga shorts.  

Namaste from the beach.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Sunday afternoon thoughts from a cafe in Norfolk, Virginia

     It's only been a couple weeks since I departed Costa Rica, but feels like ages ago. Amazing how a change in scenery can quickly shift the mind.  Leaving wonderful places, Costa Rica being no exception, is often difficult for us.  We come back to our lives full of everyday responsibilities filled with joy-thieving activities such as sitting in the DMV waiting for number A593 to flash up on the screen, while the warm tropical glow on our skin slowly starts to fade.  That said, after almost two years being away from home, it feels pretty damn good to be back in Norfolk, even if it's only for a short visit.
     I often hear that stillness is not the removal of activity in the mind, it is the removal of inner conflict ~ that "I wish I was back on the beach." kind of conflict.  It is this internal struggle that causes most of our problems when it comes to living with peace within ourselves.  When we allow what was to fade away, and as we continue to strive to be present, it becomes easier to embrace this process with less resistance.  Living present with mindfulness is such a beautiful thing, yet for some reason many of us get trapped into the falsehood of the past and future.  We allow suffering to endure, yearn for a better future, thus existing in a state of angst and uneasiness. To paraphrase Eckhart Tolle, our pain needs time, a past and a future to exist.  Without past or future our suffering can have no reality.
      Bringing mindfulness to how we live in accordance with the Yama Aparigraha, (non-attachment), as well as the Niyama Santosa (Contentment) can help draw us closer to living with the kind of attention to the present moment that will enable us to live a life fulfilled.
Mind, body, and spirit in the now.  Let go, embrace the beauty of this moment, find your inner Om.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Everybody's Free ~ My Yoga Teacher Training Experience and the End of 32 Years of Suffering

Thoughts from a beachfront cafe in Montezuma, Costa Rica... 
How do I sum up the past two and a half months?  So many words come to mind. Amazing, humbling, painful, joyful, inspiring, difficulty, strength, fun, friendship, fear - terrifying at times, connection, truth, transformation, triumph, sadness, loneliness, hope, courage, teamwork, vision, dreams. Anytime you immerse yourself in two back to back intensive yoga teacher training programs with a total of 46 new and amazing people participating/teaching, you better believe something amazing is going to happen in your life. 

I came to Costa Rica planning on becoming a yoga teacher. In fact, my first journal entry from way back when on 26 July says "Today begins the journey of becoming a yoga teacher." It is with great joy and humility after all of this I can say "I am a yoga teacher", or as the locals call it "Professor de Joga."  The truth is, and as you'll read in this somewhat long piece, is that I am leaving Costa Rica (perhaps temporarily) in two weeks with so very much more.  Most importantly, besides a transformed me, are the lifelong close friendships I have made with people from literally all over the world.  It comes as no surprise the weeks have been full of A LOT of yoga, hundreds of hours spent on my mat in the most picturesque of locations overlooking the vast expanse of jungle, sea, and sky that make up this part of the world.  

       There have been mudslides during crazy beautiful rainstorms that dumped so much water it seemed the flood gates of heaven broke open. Lightning has crashed all around causing power outages more times than I can remember.  I experienced at least two earthquakes, participated in a rescue operation in the pitch black of night during my second graduation, and have had exposure to animals ranging from meter long iguanas, snakes, and raccoon looking Kudamundi on the yoga deck, to bats, and hundreds of geckos (who loved to poop on us during yoga classes, and even more during silent/still meditation periods). Howler Monkey encounters via sight and/or sounds were a thing of the norm by the end, as were their loud roars at 5:30 in the morning with the apparent purpose to inform all in the jungle to "WAKE THE HELL UP!!" 
 I've seen humpback whales, dolphins, armadillos, hatching baby sea turtles, and every kind of insect you could imagine.  I've awakened in the morning to an entire army of black ants covering the entire floor and walls.  Apparently I missed their memo that this is the jungle's way of cleaning out all the other little bugs from the house. The ants leave as fast as they come; locals here are happy when the big black ants come through on their rounds.

I've sustained two pretty frustrating injuries here, one was a sprained foot where I rolled it on a step while walking in the dark while mentally visualizing my final class sequence during my first training.  The other a thumb sprain on my left (dominant) hand during the second week of my second training. The sprained thumb is the first acute injury I've had on the mat. It happened in Peacock Pose (an arm balance) where my elbow slipped off my sweaty torso, causing the weight of my body to come squarely down on my thumb as it landed at a really funky angle. Yeah, ouch...  As I type this they are both still pretty tender.  

Part of both trainings involved long talks about yoga philosophy and other topics. I learned Sanskrit chants and names for yoga poses, and our groups discussed books in depth, including The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, The Places that Scare You by Pema Chodron, The Wheels of Life by Anodea Judith (Chakra Book), and Perfect Health by Deepak Chopra (Ayurveda Book).   During this time I learned about the Chakra system  (pronounced chawk-ra) and how it works on the energetic level of our bodies. I learned about Yoga's sister science, Ayurveda, how I am classified as what is known as a Pitta-Vata, and how healthy lifestyle and dietary changes can have dramatic effects on quality of my life. Side note, seriously, everyone needs to start using a tongue scraper, the metal kind that doesn't hoard bacteria. I've sat in many circles, shedding a lot of tears inside and out listening to the most heartbreaking of stories. I've also heard inspiring stories of great triumph over enormous obstacles; there was indeed an amazing gathering of souls at Anamaya Resort over the past couple months.

I learned how to give a 90 minute Thai Yoga Massage,  and work with and teach the use of various Bandhas, or body locks, in a yoga practice.  I learned how to develop and teach well thought out yoga classes with a theme while offering proper alignment queues, assists/adjustments, and how to teach students in moving their bodies through all ranges of motion it was designed to, all the while avoiding injury. (I think I was absent on the day we covered "doing yoga while covered in sweat")  I've taken and taught blindfolded yoga classes, taken yin yoga classes where we held poses for over eight minutes, and been through eye gazing exercises where we had to look into the eyes of another person for 10 minutes straight...It's amazing, try it sometime. I've done exercises where we 23 of us moved in synchronous union doing what could only be described as a slow motion Karate sequence for 30 minutes straight, followed by 15 minutes of spinning in circles.   I've learned several Pranayama (breathing) exercises, and did daily meditation, working up to an hour straight of silent and still sitting. I participated in several Yoga Nidra, or Yoga Sleep, sessions. This was a completely new experience for me and was quite enjoyable, I will likely offer Yoga Nidra to my students in the future. 

During the course of the two trainings I participated in a total of three fire (burning) ceremonies. Fire ceremony number two during the week we spent on the Chakra system was pretty significant to me, more on that in a bit.  Yes, yes, this is all going somewhere.  The week on the Chakras taught me a lot about myself and how my feelings of being ungrounded, unworthy, unwilling, afraid of change and closed off have prevented me from more fully and truthfully enjoying life.  It also prompted a lingering desire to share my story with others that continued to burn within me until they would later not be able to be contained. 

Time went on, days turned into weeks, weeks into months. Time was approaching for my second training to culminate with a 45 minute solo class.  I was selected to teach last, which seemed to be a fitting spot for me, somehow putting a second bookend on the experience.  I decided I would include a blindfolded section, as it was a really cool experience during my first training, and would tie in nicely to my theme of facing our fears and how the four immeasurables in Buddhism - Loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity, can be applied in our lives.  

The day came for my final class, the rain decided to pour, and pour, all day. right up through my class that started at 2:30 in the afternoon. Prior to teaching I spent two hours on the deck by myself preparing as I listened to music to calm my soul. I meditated as the rain poured, and tears streamed down my face as I was overcome with emotions ranging from complete fear to total peace.  I came into this day with very little sleep over the past couple of days from the fear of what I was about to share with the group. I was literally terrified of opening myself up in the way I knew I had to. I know everything is and will be okay, nothing is out of place or wrong.  
The following section of this will include my notes for my final class, including some quotes I found pertinent to what I was trying to teach.  This first section is what I read to the group that had me terrified and sleepless for days.  

        Yoga saves lives. It saved mine.  Upon arrival in this group I had no idea I would let my walls collapse so much.  Joining the group two days after you started, I was the new guy and felt a bit disconnected.  Each of your stories has been immeasurably touching; I am in awe of the courage and love I have witnessed within you all. So much so that I cannot, and will not leave this training without being completely raw with you. There are less than ten people in the world that know this. My family and good friends have no idea that for the past 32 years (I am 47) I was in the grip of the eating disorder known as bulimia. For those that don't know what this is, basically I ate food and threw it up. It has worked to destroy everything about me.  It wreaked havoc both on my physical and emotional self, and on my relationships. It was so bad I have had nearly all of my top teeth replaced.... twice. Why I lived with this is a story for another time, perhaps I need to write a book.
    A few short weeks ago in this hallowed space we gathered together, chanted, played drums, and crumpled up pieces of paper where we had written letters to things we were going to let go of, then threw them in the fire. This monster of an illness is what I threw away once and for all.  I threw away the behaviors, fears and negative emotions that have taken me to the darkest of places. 
During this class it is not my goal to drag you through my shit.  My first wish for you is that you take something away from this whole experience, right here, right now. And secondly, to be able to help others boldly walk into the dark places in their lives. For we cannot teach where we have not been. 
All of us have faced our fears here and overcome obstacles we may have never dreamed possible. While we have learned an enormous amount of meticulous information about the body, how it moves, and how we can assist in that process, the most important thing we will take away from Anamaya and from our beloved teacher is written right on the cover of our manuals.  "Transformational Yoga Program" Let us take from here our own transformation and share it with the world.  

       When I first started practicing yoga one of my teachers talked about four qualities to strive to maintain in our practice on and off the mat.  In Buddhism They are known as the "Four Immeasurables."  The first of these is Loving Kindness.  In the beginning, many of us come to our mats due to some type of injury, whether it be physical or emotional, in search of something to help fix our broken selves. This is an act of loving kindness.  Equated to a mother hen and her chicks Pema Chodron asks the question “Who am I in this image—the mother or the chicks?” The answer is we’re both: both the loving mother and those ugly little chicks.”  Our mats are the place we lovingly gift ourselves that space to grow; remember this as you approach your practice.  
       The second immeasurable is Compassion for ourselves. Having compassion for ourselves when we work to face our fears, knowing it will be difficult, and it may hurt, we still carry on, following our hearts.  Pema Chodren writes in the book When Things Fall Apart. “I once attended a lecture about a man’s spiritual experiences in India in the 1960s. He said he was determined to get rid of his negative emotions. He struggled against anger and lust; he struggled against laziness and pride. But mostly he wanted to get rid of his fear. His meditation teacher kept telling him to stop struggling, but he took that as just another way of explaining how to overcome his obstacles.  Finally the teacher sent him off to meditate in a tiny hut in the foothills. He shut the door and settled down to practice, and when it got dark he lit three small candles. Around midnight he heard a noise in the corner of the room, and in the darkness he saw a very large snake. It looked to him like a king cobra. It was right in front of him, swaying. All night he stayed totally alert, keeping his eyes on the snake. He was so afraid that he couldn’t move. There was just the snake and himself and fear.  Just before dawn the last candle went out, and he began to cry. He cried not in despair but from tenderness. He felt the longing. “He felt so much gratitude that in the total darkness he stood up, walked toward the snake, and bowed. Then he fell sound asleep on the floor. When he awoke, the snake was gone. He never knew if it was his imagination or if it had really been there, and it didn’t seem to matter. As he put it at the end of the lecture, that much intimacy with fear caused his dramas to collapse, and the world around him finally got through.”  

       I then led the group through the blindfolded section of the practice. It was truly amazing to witness.

       The third immeasurable is Joy.  Pema Chodron, speaking about joy reminds us “We stay with our own little plot of earth and trust that it can be cultivated, that cultivation will bring it to its full potential. Even though it’s full of rocks and the soil is dry, we begin to plow this plot with patience. We let the process evolve naturally.  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.” 

       The fourth immeasurable is Equanimity At first I didn't understand the meaning of this word, and in fact went home from that practice and looked it up. One definition (Wikipedia) states "Having an even mind, a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind." Basically, to me it means we need to take all things in stride.  In the simplest of examples, there are poses we like, and those we like less. What we must remember is to remain unattached from the either the good or the bad, letting go of expectations of what the outcome is supposed to be. It is in embracing all of them equally that our practice begins to grow. 

       After guiding the class through one of the most amazing experiences of my life I had them all lie down in Savasana (flat on their backs) and carefully placed small pieces of wood in each of their hands as Baz Luhrman's Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen) streamed through the air while rain was falling in the jungle all around.  Indeed one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever been a part of. After doing this I sat down cross legged in front of the class and read the following.  What lies in the palm of your hand is a piece of the Anamaya yoga deck. It is the place we began our journey over the past month to become teachers. This piece of wood will mean different things to each one of you. Your hopes, dreams, sweat, fears, and tears. Laughter and music, sights, sounds, but there is no denying what is at the heart of it all. LOVE.  

       I then instructed everyone to slowly come to a seated position with eyes closed, holding the piece of wood between their hands held together in prayer, and feel the life inside of it. "Some of all of us, as well as hundreds of our kindred yogis exists within the fibers of this wood. While each piece is separate, there is a groove and a raised part on each one. Let this feature remind you that while each piece is separate, they can at any time join together to create something even stronger

Let us humbly bow to each other, the souls of those we share our yoga with, and to the greatest teacher of them all, our divine self."

And just like that, I felt free. Today, I feel free.  I started healing the day I touched down in Costa Rica. Thank you to all who shared this experience with me both in person and in spirit, and also to my beautiful and amazing teachers Jacqueline and Peter.  I am forever grateful for your love and support, and humbly bow to you all. The world is a brighter place in which It is now my turn to commit myself to helping others through the practice of yoga, the union of body and mind.  What lies next? I have no idea. Hell, I don't even have a place to stay back in Virginia when I get back in two weeks, but I know everything will work out exactly how it is supposed to. We step onto our mats alone, for everything we need is already inside of us.  I have shared this many times before, but I will end this line from one of my favorite movies - The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel "Everything will be alright in the end, and if it is not alright, it is not yet the end."