Philosophy

Unconditional Gratitude

I have mixed feelings about gratitude lists.

Yes, I know that they can help me stay positive, and help me to keep my focus on what I do have, on the good things in my life.

However, most “gratitude” is comparative.  We look around and are grateful that we have it better than the next person.

I might have a low income, but at least I’m not homeless like the man under the overpass.

I might have a child with autism, but at least she doesn’t have health problems like my friend’s child.

I might have experienced trauma, but at least I don’t have debilitating PTSD like the guy down the street.

Being grateful that our suffering is not as bad as someone else’s, does not seem like true gratitude, to me.  At the very least, it is negative and pitying.

Another issue I have with gratitude lists, is that they cherry-pick which of our experiences we approve of, and which ones we banish from our minds.

For example, I could write this gratitude list:

  1.  I have a loving family and a very intelligent daughter.
  2. I finally have a career that I not only enjoy, but LOVE!
  3. My parents live close and are very involved in Iliana’s life.
  4. Iliana goes to a wonderful school, in an excellent program.
  5. I have many close friends down here, including two good friends from Michigan

However, that is not the entire story.  Simply focusing on the positives, denies the other, less pleasant aspects of my life, which are still just as real and just as relevant:

  1.  I am a sexual assault survivor.
  2. I have dealt with significant emotional challenges, including self-harm and a suicide attempt.
  3. My daughter has a disability  that impacts every aspect of her life.
  4. We are still getting back on our feet financially, after the events of last year, and are using public assistance to help us do that.
  5. I have a strong tendency toward co-dependent relationships and tend to run away from people before we can get too close.

One list grabs your attention more, but they both are equally true and relevant in my life!  And before you fall into the trap of comparative gratitude and start feeling sorry for me, know this:  I am grateful for the items on both lists!

You can’t choose which experiences to be grateful for, and which experiences to reject.  Because they all happened.  And you have the opportunity to grow from all of them, if you choose to accept it.

Here is an example.

Some time ago, I was in therapy, processing a traumatic event from adolescence.  The details don’t matter.  What matters is that this was a story I had only told to two other people, and my therapist and I were both emotionally spent by the time I was done.  I said, “I’ve thought about this every day for the past 25 years, and there has to be something good that has come from it.”  My therapist, remaining professional but definitely affected, said very quietly, “Yes, there has to be something.”

At my next session, we were discussing self-esteem, and she asked me what I liked about myself.  I said that a lot of my strengths had come from that traumatic time in my life.  Through tears, I then passionately listed everything I love about myself, and how it had come from that painful time.  I was finding true gratitude.

While comparative gratitude leads us to separate others from ourselves and use pity to distance ourselves from suffering, true gratitude can help us feel more connected to those around us and make us more able to help them through their journies.  While selective gratitude leads us to deny a significant aspect of our situation, true gratitude helps us to remain hopeful and stay strong through the most difficult of times.

The past year was one of the most difficult experiences of my life, and it was through that trial that I learned the power of true gratitude.

While I was in the thick of the situation, it was not helpful for me to compare my situation to those that other people faced.  My brain was stuck in survival mode, and thinking about other people’s suffering only led me to feel more hopeless.  I tried to cherry pick things to be grateful for, but doing so just ignored the elephant in the room.  I tried to even find hope that my situation would eventually be over, but I was unable to do so.

It was at one of our 6 am conversations, when I told my yoga teacher about my hopelessness.  Her response was, “Don’t look for the light at the end of the tunnel.  Look for the lessons that you are supposed to learn.”

Shifting this mindset, helped me to shift into a mindset of true gratitude.  I did learn lessons–valuable, powerful lessons.  While it is true that I could have learned the lessons differently, the reality is that I did not.  I learned them through my journey, and at this point I would not change a thing about it.

So today, in honor of Thanksgiving in the US, I am sharing with you, my gratitude list.  These are the lessons I learned through my journey over the past year:

1.   We are all in this together.

From my yoga teacher, who kept getting up early enough to go to class at 6 am, to the friend who got me involved with union that could actually help me…to the union rep who did what she could, to the co-workers who heard about my situation and offered their support…to the administators and co-workers from my former job back in Michigan, who helped me make the changes in this next leg of my journey…to all of my new bosses and co-workers, who have been nothing but supportive.  We don’t live in a vacuum, and we are all here to support each other.  When I was in the thick of my situation, I once commented that I had never felt more connected.

2.  There is a danger in not understanding your gifts.

There was one person involved in my situation, who very much had a mentor role in my life.  I definitely had a “friend crush” on her, and with good reason!  She could light up a room, just by entering it, and she always listened, then said just the right thing to make everything better.  I felt so relieved when I saw her as my situation was worsening, because I knew she had been an ally in the past and could help me.

However, this person reacted out of fear.  She did all she could to “protect” herself, often at my expense.  Any relationship we had was destroyed, and her actions led to my situation continuing and spiralling out of hand.

The tragedy is that this person has a gift.  Her passion, and her ability to brighten a room and put people at ease, could help her in any job, in any situation.  However, she shrunk away and fell into survival mode, because she did not realize how powerful these gifts are.  Instead of shining her light to the world, she is fighting to keep herself employed in a job that likely does not even allow her to fully express her gifts.

3.  The way others treat us is often a reflection of the way we treat ourselves.

My situation is not my “fault.”  It is not my fault that I was hurt.

However, I never believed that I was capable, mature, or socially aware.  As a result, I started a pattern of allowing people to throw me under the bus, long before I ended up in the situation that I was in last year.  I did not self-advocate, because I did not believe I was worthy of being heard.  I did not walk away from my situation, because I did not believe that I could make it.

It wasn’t my fault.  But the situation would have played out very differently if I had believed in and valued myself.

4.  I have a voice.

Prior to my situation, I always believed that everyone else’s truth was more valid than my own. If someone disagreed with me, I would concede, because I assumed they were automatically “right.”  This led to a lot of the issues in #3.

5.  The path is easier when you clarify what you want.

Before the last school year started, we talked about the Law of Attraction in my 6 am yoga class.  I dove straight in, meditating on my “goal” everyday.  I wrote out a manifesto, proclaiming that I would be successful professionally, that my classroom would be a model classroom, and I would be teacher of the year.  I set out to make this a reality: I bought a number of new items for my classroom, got a more professional haircut and color, and bought a new wardrobe.  I took my job much more seriously, going into the new school year, and I was ready to make it happen!

It didn’t happen.

And that is okay, because the scenario I thought I wanted, really was not what I wanted.  I assumed that because I have a Master’s degree, I should want to be a high-powered professional.  The reality is that I do not.  What I want is to eat dinner with my family every night.  I want to spend a lot of time with my daughter, while she is still at an age where she wants to spend time with me.  I want a slower lifestyle, where I have time to tend to my home and create a calm, love-filled space. I want to have the energy to cook.  I want a flexible job, where my unique skill set and personality are an asset and are valued.  I want a job where I am free from the “rat race.”

I did not think I was “allowed” to desire all of that.  And now all of that is what I have.

6.  You learn more from those who speak up, than from those who are silent.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”  And sure enough, it did hurt when people I had thought were friends, simply averted their eyes and ignored what was going on.  And yet, at the same time, I understood.  They were afraid of making waves, afraid of engaging in a losing battle.  They were simply trying to keep their heads down and do their jobs.  It hurt, but I can’t say that I would not have done the same in their situation.

What I will remember more, are the friends who were not silent.  The friends who did all they could to help me stay hopeful throughout the nightmare.  The friends who spoke up, who advocated for me.  These friends are amazing human beings, and we should all aspire to be more like them.

7.  It is okay to feel however you feel.

Being able to sit with difficult emotions was one of the major lessons I learned last year.  Going through trauma is akin to going through the stages of grief.  During and after the situation, I would become angry, depressed, determined, exhausted, anxious and so on.  I learned to simply allow the waves of emotion to pass, letting go of them when the time was right.  If I needed to process it with someone, I would, and I would also allow time for me to process the emotions alone.

We are so quick to label, pathologize, and numb emotions.  Feeling upset–even fluctuating between emotions–is a completely “normal” response to trauma.  It is not a mental illness.  It is not anxiety, depression, or PTSD.  In fact, I am pretty sure that by allowing my emotions and processing them, I helped keep myself from developing more serious mental health issues.

8.  There is no such thing as “security.”

This lesson has repeated itself many times in my life.  I thought I had let go of the notion of “security” when I got rid of my house and traveled to Houston with a Volvo station wagon filled with possessions.  I thought moving onto a boat would lead to freedom.

And yet, there I was, spending 5 years in a job that I didn’t love, plagued by the same fears and caught up in the same drama.  Why did I do this?  Because the job seemed secure.  I thought we needed the income.  I feared the consequences of leaving under bad circumstances.  I was afraid of becoming unemployable.

And yet, after losing the income, we still made it.  I found references, and I created a new, wonderful reality that is better than anything I could have hoped for.  If there is “security,” it is in our own ability to survive and to make the best out of any situation.

9.  Everyone learns lessons the “hard” way, so there is no room for pity or judgement.

I have a confession to make.  I had reservations about writing this post.  Not because I think that my situation was “worse” than anyone else’s.  Not because I am ashamed of my experiences.  But because I was afraid that readers would respond with pity.

The problem with pity is that it separates us.  It is a way of distancing those who have faced challenges, because we are afraid to be too close to suffering (or past suffering).

There is no reason to feel sorry for anyone.  We’re all doing the best job that we can, playing the hand that we are dealt.  And when we pity a friend who is going through a hard time, we enable them to pity themselves.  And nothing is more paralyzing than self-pity.

When we refuse to react with pity, we trust in our friends’ abilities to make it through difficult situations.  We acknowledge that suffering is a part of the human condition, and that difficult stuff happens to all of us, at some point or another.  We fearlessly hold their hand and accompany them across the emotional minefield, and all the while, we refuse to let them sit down and wallow, because we trust in their ability to make it through.

Thank you, Cresting the Hill, for allowing me to crash your link party!  If you enjoyed this post, please take a look at some of the other links on that site!

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Health

Namaste

Today’s post is one that have been thinking about a great deal, and I will probably spend a lot of time writing it.  Because it is about something that is extremely near and dear to me.  And that something is my yoga practice.

When I tell people that I practice yoga daily, they make a few assumptions.  They assume I can do this:

Yoga

Or maybe this:

yoga2

Or at least this:

yoga3

They will tell me, “You’re so lucky to be flexible!  I could never do yoga.”

But the first time I walked into a yoga class, I could touch my knees when I folded forward, if I were warmed up.  My shoulders were hunched forward, my left leg was shorter than my right leg, I didn’t even know that you were supposed to be able to move your hips, and I was unable to sit or stand up straight.  I not only lacked flexibility, but strength as well.

I had intended to lose weight before going to my first class, but that did not seem to be happening quickly, and my curiosity finally won out.  My best friend in Michigan loved yoga and kept talking about how great it was, and how nobody judges you.  So I had to see for myself.

jocelyn
Jocelyn is moving across the country, just so she can go to yoga with me more often!

Adventures at the Gym

I wrote about that first yoga class, and a very inexpensive gym, here.  I made my baby steps for over a year, going through spurts of consistent practice.  After I moved from the apartment to the boat, I missed class for quite a few weeks.

When I went back, we had a different teacher.  She moved a lot faster and did more complicated poses.  I was unable to keep up, and unable to figure out how to modify them.  She did not offer any suggestions, and I felt like I did not belong.  When I got home, I texted our previous teacher, who said that she was no longer teaching at that gym.  She suggested that I try the gym where she practiced, which happened to be very close to the marina.

The good part about living on a teeny tiny boat is that you often have more disposable income.  So we paid to join this very fancy gym.  They had a separate room just for the yoga classes.  They had mats we could borrow–which was great, because the cat had destroyed mine–and something I had never seen before: props.

There were blocks that brought the floor up to my hands when I could not reach it, straps that helped me hold my legs up in the air, and these weird wedge things.  I asked a girl in the class what those were for, and she said she thought they were for sitting on (they are not).  So we both began every class by sitting on a wedge thing.

wedge

I don’t think the teacher had any idea what to do with me, but she often encouraged me to be creative with my use of the props.  I felt welcome, and my flexibility improved a little while I was going there.

Then that teacher moved to Arizona, and the gym reduced their yoga classes to one evening a week.  We had one teacher I really liked–a young new mother who passionately taught us about something called vinyasa.  She encouraged us to practice with our eyes closed, which I loved and still do, and to move at our own pace.  As we did those first sun salutations, I felt like I was dancing.  She had no individual advice for me, but we often talked after class, about listening to my body, not being self-conscious, and about letting go and moving with the breath.

Motherhood quickly called her away, and we had an older lady teaching our class.  I set up my mat in my usual space, in the front of the room, off to the left.  The teacher–she never even told us her name–came in and set up her mat to the left of where I was sitting.

“We face this direction in my class,” she told me.  I nodded and turned my mat to face the left side of the room.

“I am telling you, in case you don’t want to be in the front,” she said.

“Okay,” I replied, and continued setting up my props.

“You might want to go to the back, so you can watch everyone else,” she said.

“Thanks, but I’m okay,” was my response.

“Go to the back of the room,” she insisted.

Embarrassed, I took my mat to the back of the room.  I did not watch everyone else, because I preferred to practice with my eyes closed.  Being in the front of the room was important to me at that time, because I was still working through body image issues.  It was my way of telling myself that I belonged.  Maybe this teacher was just trying to help me, but I did not take it that way at the time.

I was acknowledged one other time during the class.  We were supposed to clasp our hands together behind our back and lift our arms.  The teacher suggested that we might want to use our strap for this.  My shoulders were extremely tight at the time, and I had a previous injury to my left shoulder.  I tried it with the strap, but it hurt a lot.  It was much more comfortable without it, even though I couldn’t lift my arms very high.

The teacher walked to the back of the room and told me to use my strap.  I said that it made my shoulders hurt, but she just handed it to me and repeated that I needed to use it.  So it did, even though my shoulders complained, loudly.

The funny thing is that I didn’t even stay until the end of class.  On the schedule, the class was supposed to be one hour.   Iliana was allowed to stay in the childcare room for up to two hours, so I had come and hour early to run on the track.

When we first started, the teacher said that, by the way, her classes were always 90 minutes.  I did not have that much childcare time left, so I was not unhappy to pack up my mat and props and leave the class 30 minutes early.

That was the last time I set foot in the yoga room at that gym.

dancer
My favorite balance pose!

It Starts…

I went a few months without yoga, and after we bought a new boat, we could no longer afford the fancy gym membership.  So when I decided to start working out again, I was looking for less expensive options.

I found a free Zumba class at a nearby apartment complex, and I began pricing out yoga classes.  There were a lot of studios in our area, but they were all more expensive than the gym had been.  I googled “donation yoga class,” and much to my surprise, got a hit.  A small studio, not far from the marina, was temporarily offering class for a donation, one night a week.

I had no idea what to expect at a yoga studio.  I had such mixed experiences at the gyms, and I wondered if someone as tight and weak as me would even be welcome somewhere specifically dedicated to yoga.  I pictured a room full of people doing handstands.  But the price was right, and I was eager to start practicing again.

So on February 1, 2016, I ventured in to Moonlight Yoga and met the person who would change my life forever.

I was used to being invisible in the large gym classes, and I really did not want to draw a lot of attention to myself, since I didn’t exactly have a “yoga body.”  So I quietly made my way into the studio, deposited my money into the box, and was drawn like a moth to a flame, over to the vast prop rack.

blocks

It was like Christmas!  I grabbed myself a blanket, a strap, a couple blocks, a strange-looking cushion to sit on, a bolster, and a sandbag.  The mysterious wedge was also there, but I left it.  I found myself a spot kind of in the middle of the small room, next to a table that I could use to help me balance.

As I was getting settled in, a petite woman with the bounciest curly hair I have ever seen, approached me with a disarming smile, and introduced herself as Cass.  She asked me my name, and if I had practiced before.

I said, “I look like a beginner, but I’m not.  My muscles are very weak, but there is nothing wrong with them.”

Cass said we could work with that.  I told her the names of the gyms where I had practiced, and said the problem was that the teachers I liked kept leaving.  I joked that I had yoga teacher abandonment issues!

Cass laughed and said, “Well, I have been here for years and I am not going anywhere.”

Maybe it was because only one of my previous teachers even knew my name, but I felt anything but invisible during that first class at Moonlight.  Cass very quietly helped me to modify nearly every pose we did, using my multitude of props.  I didn’t just feel like I was not in the way–I actually felt welcome.

That night, Cass messaged me on Facebook, thanking me for coming to class.  We chatted a bit, and discovered that we both had experience working in special education.  She didn’t say anything about my wonky muscles, and I came back to class again the next week.  And the week after that.

One time in class, my shoulders hurt too much for me to hold downward dog at all.  Cass stopped the flow we were doing, and had all of us do shoulder stretches.  It felt amazing, and I had no more pain for the rest of the class.  I tucked that away in my mind, because I knew that I now had a tool I could use, whenever my shoulders were sore.

One night on Facebook, Cass posted that she had helped someone get into a handstand.  I jokingly commented that I wanted to do a handstand.  Cass surprised me by responding, “If you are determined, then I can get you there.”

She messaged me and said that her favorite quote was, “She believed she could, so she did.”  I got that printed on a tank top, upside down, so it will read rightside up when the time comes!

handstand

Well, if I wanted to do a handstand, then I would need to find it in my budget to go to class more than once a week.  So I told Cass that I would be going on Thursdays too.  She said, “I don’t teach that class, but CJ does.  You will like her.”

So off I went, not nearly as defensive as I had been at my first class with Cass.  CJ was very quiet and calm, and I told her all about my wonky muscles.  She said that was fine, and throughout the class, she encouraged us to be curious about what we can do, rather than being judgemental of our bodies or focusing on our limitations.  Every time she had the class do a pose, she would work with my individually to help me modify it.

After class, I noticed that CJ had a book by Ekhart Tolle.  I asked her about it, and we ended up spending the next 30 minutes discussing our favorite books and authors.  I only left because I was almost late taking Iliana to her scheduled activity that evening!

What evolved was a friendship defined by books, coffee, smoothies at the food co-op, and tales of unusual misadventures (that we both seem to have!).  CJ introduced me to yoga nidra, which did more to teach me about my own mind, than anything else.

Increasing Awareness and Beginning to do the Impossible

As I began attending yoga class 3 days a week, I learned more about my wonky muscles.  I built strength and learned that my challenges with flexibility were due to tight shoulders, hips, and hamstrings.  With regular practice, I made slow but consistent progress.

One of my first major milestones happened during the summer of 2016.  A lot of people liked ending class by going “legs up the wall.”  My legs did not want to go up the wall, but I could kind of convince them to, if I put something under my bottom.

legsupwall

Then one day, I happened to be sitting in front of the room in class, right next to Cass.  I mentioned that I was able to get my legs up the wall more easily there, probably because I was in a corner.  Cass said, “No, the corner has nothing to do with it.  It’s easier, because your hamstrings are lengthening.”

After savasana was over, I noticed that all of my props had been put away.  Cass gave me a huge grin and said she was proud of me.

The shape of my legs changed.  They had always been square on the back, like Ball Park hot dogs.  Now they were becoming more rounded, as my hamstrings became more defined.

From a very early age, I had been told that my legs were 1 1/8 inches uneven.  I wore a lift in my shoe for awhile.  But one day that summer, I noticed that walking felt different.  More balanced.  I sat on the ground, stretched out my legs, and noticed that they were the same length.  I had stretched out my hip muscles a lot, and that affected the way the length of my legs appeared.

My legs were looking different, feeling different, and hurting a lot less.  I decided it was time to have another go at a goal of mine: running a 5k.

I began training with my neighbor and best friend, Deanna.  We would wake up early, run around Clear Lake Shores island, shower, then ride to yoga together.  We noticed that we felt a lot more limber during yoga class, after running.

 

5k
My tiara didn’t make it through the race!

And so I ran my first 5k…and second, and third.  Each time I set a new personal record.

Tools for the Journey

I faced a lot of growth and challenges during the past 2 years, and yoga was my rock through all of it.

During the 2016-17 school year, I lost contact with a very close friend and mentee, and yoga helped me to sit with the difficult emotions, rather than stuffing them down or numbing.  During a yoga nidra class with CJ, after the guided meditation was over, I found a way, using visualization, to say good-bye to this friend.  After class, I told CJ about it, and she sat with me, holding my hands, while I cried.  Not trying to fix anything, not worrying about coming up with words, but just being with me while I processed.  It was one of the most beautiful things anyone has ever done for me.

After Hurricane Harvey,  Cass got the studio open as soon as possible, and a large group of us met, with fans still running to dry the flood water.  Cass lovingly led us through a restorative class, and at that moment it seemed to all of us that everything was going to be okay.  Being back with my second family was a return to normalcy.

As soon as Harvey ended, my challenges begun.  Yoga was the one constant through my difficult year.  There were evenings when I spent most of the class in child’s pose, with a blanket over my head.  I felt safe.  I felt protected.  And I knew that I could sit with my emotions, undisturbed.  Other times, I threw myself into my sun salutations and felt strong.

Yoga saw me through a shoulder injury that put me on leave for 3 weeks.  I took off my sling when I got to class, and promised not to put any weight on my shoulder or do anything that hurt.  Cass and CJ both helped me do stretches to relieve the pain and to maintain my range of motion.  In spite of constant fighting with my insurance company and doctor’s office, which led to me getting neither a diagnosis nor treatment, my shoulder recovered fully.

sling

The most important yoga class during this past school year, was the 6 am class.  This class met twice a week, and during the school year, I was the only student, at least once a week.  Cass and I had many conversations during these classes–sometimes while doing poses and sometimes while sitting on our mats.  She absolutely refused to let me fall into self-pity, even when it could be argued that I was entitled to it.

It was from these conversations that I learned to count my blessings, even when the world felt like it was falling down around me.  I learned to find reasons to be grateful, regardless of my circumstances.  I learned to stay hopeful, and I learned that I still had choices.  I always had choices.

The most important lesson I learned from those early-morning conversations was that I had value.  I saw how a pattern of not valuing myself had led me into my current situation, and that if I was going to get out of it, I would need to see my own worth.

When I look back on the past year, what stands out is not the pain and abuse I suffered, but the love I experienced.  It was a rare time, when I was able to see how many people loved me, and how much.  I will always remember those 6 am conversations with great fondness.

The most beautiful part of the story is that after I was able to get out of my situation, when things improved for me, the 6 am classes began filling up again.  I don’t know what you believe about God or anything being at the center of the universe, but it seems like more than a coincidence to me.

mat

Triumphs and Victories

I still had a Facebook account when I started going to classes at Moonlight, and it was helpful if we checked in.  I tried to do this frequently, but I always wanted to say something different and witty.

One time I said that I was training for the Yoga World Championships.  Then I googled it and found out this was a thing.  It seemed so wrong, since yoga is my nature non-competitive.  I then decided that my event would be savasana.

One time when I checked in, I said that I would be triumphant.  Another time, I was excited that I was able to do deer pose in class.  Deer is a restorative shape, but at that time it was challenging with my tight hips.

deer_pose_twist
It’s not challenging for me anymore!

I posted on Facebook that night that I was victorious for accomplishing this.  Cass responded with, “Everytime you come to class, it is a victory.”

Truer words have never been spoken.

yogainpark
From left: Cass, Deanna, me, CJ

Note:  Please visit Cass’s website.  And if you are on Facebook and would like more positivity in your newsfeed, you can follow her page here!