This weekend I taught a Forrest Yoga class themed around internal dialogue. Our internal dialogue is the running speech going on inside our heads all the time – and often it’s quite a harsh monologue! This intention for class struck a cord with the students and many realized that behind the scenes a litany of devastating stories were passing by at any given moment. If left unconscious, the stories we tell our selves can be detrimental to our well-being. Once brought to light, there is often an uncomfortable period of acknowledging the havoc these stories have wreaked on our life choices and path. So what are we to do about the stories we tell ourselves internally?
I’m no stranger to storytelling! One of the first things that brought me into the practice of Forrest Yoga was Ana Forrest asking me the simple questions, “Do you believe your injury can heal?” “What can you do in this moment?” and “Who is the person you most want to become?” My answers when I met her were something along the lines of: my injury cannot heal this is just how it will be for me forever, I can’t do anything in this moment or any other moment because I am totally and completely incompetent, and I don’t want to be anyone because there is nothing noteworthy about me that matters. WHOA! Holy harsh internal dialogue! Ana could sense this tendency in me from the get-go. None of these stories were true and she had seemingly magical methods to get me to the truth: healing is always a possibility, there is always a choice we can make in each moment to move towards our own path of healing, and Spirit can help us to uncover the person we most want to become through an exciting and fascinating journey into our Self.
Perhaps you too are currently plagued by a nasty internal dialogue of stories like mine. Here are the tools I’ve learned through Forrest Yoga and through my other teacher, Bridget Boland, to rewrite the stories running inside so that they are supportive of the person I most want to become.
Identify where you hold the story physically. Every story in your internal dialogue lives in your body. When you come across a story you’ve been running with, FEEL where it lives. Take the first area that shows up in your awareness when you repeat this story. You must feel where it lives in your body – you can’t think about this one! Once you find the home of your story in your physical body, do things that reach that area and shift its perspective. Take deep breaths that stir the energy of this spot. Do poses that affect the spaciousness this area holds. Flip yourself upside down and sense what happens to this house of your story. Changing the physical home of your troubling story changes how you are able to see, feel, understand and rewrite an inner tale you’ve been telling yourself.
Align with your wisdom centers. Our head is only one of many wisdom centers in our toolbox – and it’s the one that gets too much stage time! Practicing physical postures where you align your head with your heart and gut can help you glean insight from the wise cave of your heart and the intuition of your gut. Experimenting with simple breathing exercises and traditional pranayama can help you draw on the wisdom of your breath. Meditating on the areas of the 7 major chakras – pelvic floor, pelvic bowl, middle abdomen, heart center, throat, middle brain and top of head – can help you pull in understanding from your sources of emotion, creation, digestion, relationship and so much more! As you get more information, the old story begins to feel small and you realize it doesn’t actually fit you anymore.
Ask someone you trust outside of your mind. Sometimes a trusted ally or friend can be the light that pierces through a damaging story. I trust my shaman, Bridget, a lot. I’ve known her since I was 21 and she assisted Ana in my Forrest Yoga Foundation Teacher Training course. When I get stuck on a story that I think is true, but feel is limiting me – she is an ally who can reflect to me how kooky some of my internal dialogues are. It’s important to have these mirrors outside of yourself to remind you of what is helping you forward and what is holding you back. A trusted outside source can help you to become conscious of the stories you tell yourself that are not, in fact, true. The same sources can then inspire you to see the actual. We have a practice in Forrest Yoga that is similar whereby two teachers sit together and tell each other “what’s great about you.” There’s never a dry eye! Again and again our stories have limited our ability to see our own Beauty – we just need to be reminded of it now and then!
See all the possibilities. Oftentimes when we get stuck in our lives it is because a limiting story has taken up roots inside us. Our limiting stories may relate to our physical abilities, our career paths, financial situation, relationships and so much more. We get accustomed to seeing only what we think we know and excluding all the other possibilities. Ana was able to model to me through her injury journey the possibility of recovery from my own injury. When I would ask her questions about her injuries and how she worked to promote healing in her own body, her answers would inspire a curiosity in me to seek out how I might also experience healing. Seeing another possibility and being curious about it reminds our mind that there is not only one way things can go. This reminder sets us up for re-crafting the visions we have about our Self.
Write them and read them out loud. This is perhaps the most difficult tool I’ve used to help rewrite my internal stories: I physically wrote them out on a piece of paper and read them out loud to myself. Feeling the downtrodden, sad, depressed or angry feelings that arose in me when I read my internal dialogue out loud helped me to understand how damaging these stories were to my physical, mental, emotional, energetic and spiritual well-being. I started writing out what I wanted to believe about myself, what I wanted to foster in myself and the way I intended things to happen. Reading these statements, while also very uncomfortable in a different way, brought on feelings of hope, happiness and excitement. Now I know that when a thought comes up that heavily weighs me down, I have to return to the drawing board to find a new one that helps to lift me up.
Take the time to explore what your internal dialogue is talking about inside you all the time. Feel, do you like the conversation that is being spoken? If not, take the time to bring in these tools so that you can build up your own inner champion and experience your life from a place of truthful affirmations. I know that some of you may worry that without your negative internal critic, you’ll never get anywhere in life. The truth is that you will evolve beyond your wildest imagination as you let go of that critic and tell yourself some more truthful and compelling stories.
I am an avid planner. I love to-do lists and schedule books. I spend some time every day planning the next day. When I travel, I make a file of pertinent documents and contact numbers so that I have them in case I need them. I plan my yoga classes and my workshops, I plan when to sleep and when to eat. As a result of my love of planning, I am a bit stingy with this thing called “spontaneity.” It was recently suggested by one of my mentor teachers that I “put down the to-do list.” 🙂
I joke, but it is actually a real problem. I want so much to plan and control everything in my day and schedule that it leaves no wiggle room for when a friend calls up and wants to have dinner last minute, or when my partner wants to run and grab a movie spur of the moment. My planning actually cuts out some really fun stuff from my life!
I decided that this is another habit (one of those branches off my “overworking” habit tree) that needs some pruning. I’m not one for huge change (shocking I’m sure given my love of planning and may I say ahem “control.”) I decided to take this one on slowly: once per week I would not plan any of my classes for a full day. I could think about them all I wanted, but not write out anything. The result: some really amazing classes and I’m told no one could tell the difference.
When I write my classes out it does absolutely prepare me and help me hone in on some sequencing skills – it also gives me a record of what I taught. When I let go of writing things out, I didn’t lose any of the sequencing skills and I recorded what I taught after the fact. What I gained was an ability to jump into setting themes and intents, working pose sequences in the moment to different students’ needs and a lightness in my energy. I found my inspiration going in all new directions and my Spirit picking poses out of my internal yoga lexicon that I don’t gravitate towards when I’m actively planning.
The irony is not lost on me that I’m still actually “planning” my “spontaneity.” I had to start somewhere! This little shift has helped open me up to accepting the random invitation to an evening gala even though I would “normally” teach. It has made me aware of some of the many blind spots that have developed in my teaching career because of my planning obsessions. This little once per week change has made a big difference in my willingness to break out of my control box – I feel the changes seeping outside of yoga teaching.
What if one small change to a pose that you have resisted could make all the difference in how it feels or how it effects you? What if one different step in your daily routine could really help you out of a controlling habit? Would you do it? Pick something that has been challenging you habit-wise this season: a thought, action, recurring emotion, food choice, pathway you take to get to work, etc. Decide one small thing you could do ONE TIME this week that would take you off this habit hamster wheel. For example: you always take the Red Line downtown to work because it’s closer to home. So one day this week you give yourself some extra time, walk the extra blocks to the nearest Brown Line Station, ride around the Loop and get off at a different station – feeling what’s different about your routine and how you respond. Then run the experiment again another day next week and take the bus!
If we learn how to make change fun we can become our own inspiration for evolution. Identifying our own habits and then playfully working with them teaches us how to be our own best life guide. It gives us independence in our process of development. These types of exercises for the Spirit also help remind us how important PLAY is to our ability to create meaningful shifts in our life. When we are in a state of playfulness we are not attached to the outcome – this allows us to consider, choose and work with so many different options – stoking our creativity and insights. Pick your experiment and let me know how it goes and what you learn!
Many years ago a best friend gave me a small journal as a gift. I decided to use it as a quote journal, and I wrote within its pages the many small words and longer passages that felt inspiring along the pathways my life has taken. I still write in it when something strikes me – although I must admit its pages are dwindling and I’m writing smaller and smaller to cram things into its margins. I’m not sure what I’ll do once it’s full! Written upon one of first several pages is a small and simple quote from Anais Nin: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
I’ve looked upon those words so many times, but recently they have been ringing ever more true for me. I’m in the midst of a yearlong mentoring process as a part of my training through the lineage of Forrest Yoga. This mentorship program has been a course of study under a Forrest Yoga Guardian named Sandra Robinson – owner of Equilibrium Yoga Studio in Peterborough, England. She was absolutely the best choice for me: encouraging, wise, kind and insightful in all the ways I needed at this point in my journey. Through the weekends of work with her guidance and in a small group of other mentees, I realized that my life has made me see the world around me and within me in quite a critical way. As a result of this practiced critical world view, I don’t see things as they really are, I see them as I can criticize them or pick them apart for being imperfect.
From a young age I was a figure skater. I’ve written about my skating before and what a huge part of my life it was up until about age 16. It was a marvelous and challenging sport to grow up in. It cultivated in me great physical and mental discipline, strength, focus and perseverance. It also planted the seeds of perfectionism, ruthless pursuit of achievement, isolationism and severe physical injury. I can distinctly remember so many of the private coaching sessions being a list of every single thing I did incorrectly and directions to repeat movements over and over again until they were “perfect.” One coach in particular chose one element each session and I just repeated it over and over again for a whole hour – each repetition a new error was found. There was never a time I did the movement well enough – there was always something wrong with it. There was little praise – even as a young child. I learned to pick apart every edge, every glance and every turn, searching for any minute problem that would lose me points or bring the criticism of my coaches upon me. Competitive programs were recorded, dissected and then compared to fellow students. I felt pitted against the other students my coaches worked with, and they against me – we were all pitted against all the other skaters. This was supposed to foster some sort of healthy advancement, but really it just made all of us see the world as broken, imperfect, hostile in some way and with success and achievement always just beyond our reach because someone always skated better or because something always needed more work. Even when I won first place, a competition would end with details on what needed to be improved for next time.
I remember watching a random figure skating competition on television many years after I left skating myself. I was sitting with my partner and as each performer took to the ice my partner would say things like, “Wow! How graceful!” “That was an amazing jump” “Look at how fast she is spinning!” To these comments I would reply, “Her coaches told her to smile there. It’s not real” “She actually cheated the rotation of that jump and won’t get credit for it” “That spin traveled” (‘traveled’ is figure skater speak for a spin that doesn’t balance well on the blade). He noted long before I really understood it how totally and completely crazy it is that I could not appreciate the beauty in any of their movements – I could only see what they had done “incorrectly” or “not well enough.”
So we don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are. And I have for a very long time seen the world through the eyes of that child who could never do any movement “right” and who had to remain hyper-vigilant about where the next criticism was coming from. I’ve built years into a habit of being hyper-critical of myself and those around me. I’ve held myself to standards that are unreachable and downright unhealthy both in my careers and in my personal life. All of this because my early world view was one of extraordinary criticism, rigidity and perfectionism.
I like to say nowadays that I’m a recovering perfectionist. I’m learning how to soften my inner critic (and some days just plain steal her megaphone and shut her up). I’ve spent a long time coming to an understanding of why I saw the world as such a harsh place where good things couldn’t happen. Working with Sandra peeled back another layer for me – a layer of forgiveness. I couldn’t know how to see the world any other way, and allowing myself to acknowledge I’ve done the best I could with what I was given has brought a playful lightness to my continued exploration out of the old way I saw things. Our teacher, Ana Forrest, has a funny and very true saying, “We don’t evolve by punishment. If we did, we’d all be fucking enlightened.” If I punish myself for the way I’ve seen the world, for being “stupid enough” to follow my coaches, I get stuck back in that perfectionist-“I’m not enough”-nothing ever works out mentality. When I offer up to myself a forgiveness and really deep compassion for where I am now and what I have been through, change happens so much more effortlessly! I become a person who is enough just as I am. Now I can see the world as an inviting place, mistakes as realms of growth and discovery, and the beautiful things happening in and around me.
This journey into my own different world views also helps me to understand those around me with so much more compassion. A person may be seeing the world around them through a really tough pair of glasses. I feel more understanding of that now than ever before. When you read these words, what do you feel about the way you see the world? And is that the pair of glasses you want to see everything through? What if you decided it was time to try on a new pair? I leave you with some final words from Sandra that I’ve been silently repeating inside my head with every person I meet and that has been imbibing the way I see things these days, “We don’t love you for being perfect; we love you for being you!”
I’ve always been something of a loner. I’ve never spent a long period of time with the same circle of friends. I was never popular or very social. I spent much of high school and college extraordinarily reserved. No one ever asked me to a dance or out on a date until much later in life. As a figure skater I spent a lot of my childhood with myself on the ice practicing alongside coaches or with headphones covering my ears practicing my moves on my rollerblades when I couldn’t get to the rink. I ran for my high school’s track and cross country teams – also very solo experiences. I was more comfortable with my nose in a book than I was socializing. These patterns followed me into my first jobs out of college and eventually into my teaching career in yoga. It’s not that I avoided social activities or didn’t have friends…I just found it more than challenging to sustain relationships with others because of my own fears, habits and choices. This has always been an interesting predicament for me because I am in fact quite extroverted.
Flash forward to a comment I remember as clear as if it were yesterday – maybe because I have recently returned to the place, to the very room where it occurred, or maybe because I have been thinking of it since the day it was muttered. Years ago I came to Kripalu, where I was recently teaching, to take a course with my teacher, Ana Forrest. We were doing a group sequencing exercise and I was holding back. I didn’t want to offend anyone. I didn’t want to be wrong. I didn’t want to make waves. And as Ana watched us deliberating as a group, she noted that I was quiet despite having taken more of her trainings than anyone else in the group. As the day ended and we went our own ways she rest her hand on my arm and said very quietly but very strongly, “Allison, the time of the lone wolf is over.” And then she walked off. (Some day I’ll tell you more about the wolf analogy and why she chose that metaphor for me.)
This was her way of telling me that holding out, that isolating myself out of fear, that not risking sharing what I knew was a habit that needed to end. She was encouraging me to share my gifts and work with the community around me without fear. I took this comment to heart and for the next several years I threw myself into a project and job that required close collaboration with colleagues – hoping to make friends, to build community, to break out of my shell and trust others as I never had before to co-create something magical. I put all my wisdom and efforts out in the open. I revealed myself professionally as I never had before. I tried really hard to be a great teacher, a great colleague, to work well with others and learn from them. It went horribly. I will spare you the messy details – no one needs to hear them here – but needless to say that I went back to being a lone wolf licking its wounds rather quickly after the experiences I went through trying to reach out of my shell.
I armored myself back up. I locked up my heart. I internalized the messages that I was unlovable, untalented, stupid, a fake, a failure, manipulative, a thief, unkind, screwed up and unworthy of anything good in life. In fact these were just some of the words hurled at me by those I tried to co-create with. And I believed every word hook, line and sinker. This was another of my patterns: to believe what others thought of me over my own knowledge of my Self. I went back to being just me – I stopped trusting other people or even reaching out to them. I “did my own thing.” That’s all I could do – I was so destroyed inside. Colleagues would ask me to share a tea date or take a class together, and I found every reason in the book to avoid them.
For years I prayed and asked for a personal understanding of what had gone wrong – of what had happened, of what went awry and what I was supposed to learn from it. I did some work with healers, shamans, business mentors and medicine people. Magical things happened. I learned a lot about myself – and about others. I came to some very deep understandings about my personal responsibility in situations, but perhaps more importantly that others had a responsibility for their actions too. Somewhere in my heart there was a longing to be in the world with others – not just to teach others or be taught, but to have a community with my peers and colleagues built upon relationships of trust. I couldn’t yet ask for a friendship, but I realize now that I was looking for that too.
Fast forward to now – back to Kripalu. I was there with a team of colleagues co-teaching and co-creating the most beautiful week of Forrest Yoga ceremonies, practices and specialty classes in all the things that we are passionate about. We shared meals and conversations, practices and delightful hands on assists. We shared our wisdom and we shared our fears. And some place deep inside me smiles because it feels like the time of the lone wolf actually is over. These members of my tribe don’t care if I’m good enough, smart enough, worthy enough…they already know that I am and so much more. Like a yoga teacher spotting a new student in a handstand, I feel it in my very bones that these individuals would spot me through any misstep even if I offended them, coach me through my fears, laugh with me when I screw up, comfort me when I’m sad and offer up an understanding of heart I never realized I was longing for. They know that I am more than enough just as I am – perfectly imperfect – and they want to remind me of this fact with every interaction. And they reflect back to me that I do the same for them – that I can spot them through their rough spots and remind them how worthy they are just as well as they do for me. This is the type of community connection I’ve been longing for – and I think a lot of other people are looking for it too. Having met many people as a teacher and as a human, I can feel a collective craving for an understanding and supportive community that is often lacking in our day to day lives.
Surround yourself with people like these gems – those who see your value, who will hold you up no matter what, those who would tell you when you are wrong but stay by your side anyway to figure out a pathway forward. Be with those who know the messy truth of all there is to you and share in it. Let go of the people in your life or your past who make you feel like you have no value, like you are not enough. Release the influences that tie up your heart in knots, cast doubt on your Self, and refuse to work with you when things go down the troubled path. They are not worthy of your effort. Risk revealing yourself – the rewards far outweigh the possible pain or sorrow. We gain nothing from holding back except a sense of loneliness. There is so much to gain from reaching out to those around us and sharing of our experience with those we come across. Now more than ever these connections to see, hear, feel and touch one another are so important. The time of the lone wolf really is over, and if we are to survive as a human race we must learn how to strengthen the ties that bind us to each other lovingly over all the potential things that pull us apart from one another.
And just so you know: wolves are some of the most social and behaviorally sophisticated animals on the planet – without their pack they wouldn’t make it very long. We humans are much the same: we need each other to survive the joys and trials of everyday life. I hope that as a teacher, friend, woman, sister, aunt, and human, I can start to help you find your pack to support your thriving life and Spirit so you don’t feel as alone too. I hope to be a beacon for those who have felt a bereftness of community in their life – that they may come to know others who can spot them through their perfectly imperfect moments. If this calls to your heart, I hope to connect with you soon to keep this work going! I see more collaboration with my colleagues in the future – and instead of being afraid of it, I’m excited for it.
In my last blog I recounted a synchronous occurrence a few weeks back on my flight home, when I met Bhupendra Badhe, MD, and we spoke about yoga philosophy. He let me know that his teacher’s name, the one who taught him about the formula for happiness, is Vedic scholar and teacher Jaya Row of Vedanta Vision. She spends her time interpreting and teaching ancient Vedic wisdom so that the current, modern populations of the world can understand and use its immense wisdom in everyday life. I’m so happy to have learned more from Bhupendra (who is now a friend on Facebook – thank you social network for connecting us even though we live on opposite sides of the planet) and to be able to share the source of some of the wisdom of my last blog with you.
Apparently what I wrote was a HOT topic! I have heard from many of you readers in emails, comments, and conversations at class about how much you liked the last blog and wanted to know more. Shortly after my last post, I taught a series of classes and sessions here in Chicago themed around desire and happiness. I wanted to explore with yoga postures and breathing exercises the conscious connection to the formula for happiness in my last blog via Jaya Row and Vedanta Vision – happiness = number of desires achieved divided by number of desires total. What came up from the student perspective was incredible.
Some students said it was inappropriate of me to speak about desire in a yoga class – that it was a topic not spiritual enough to be associated with yoga practice. I think they might have only associated desire with sexual intimacy and not in any greater realm or definition.
Other students said they left classes feeling completely and utterly empowered to go after long hidden wants in their life. That feeling into their desires on the mats led them to great insight and motivation into desire in their life that they had not previously recognized.
Still other students said the classes left them feeling hollow because they had no idea what they desired truly in any arena of their life. They realized that what they went after in their poses, practice and life had nothing to do with what they really wanted, but rather more to do with what was expected of them or what was “correct.”
This really affected me – and made me think about the extreme power of desire to shape our lives. As a follow up to my last blog, I wanted to share with you some ideas on harnessing the potent force of what you most desire, refining it into a smaller number of big true desires, and then going after them!
Desire is not a dirty word. As living creatures we are highly motivated by desire – and if we do not consciously examine what and why we desire, then these wants will control us mindlessly. By studying and examining what we want, when we want it, and distilling the pieces of why we want it, we can learn how to use desire to propel in a direction of delight. If we suppress or avoid desire, maligning it as something “unspiritual” or “wrong,” we risk cutting off a piece of our personal power, a piece of our motivation, and really a huge chunk of our Spirit. When refined, desire can become delicious Spirit food.
My own teacher, Ana Forrest, creatrix of Forrest Yoga, speaks often about desire. She does so in a very particular way. In her work with me, she has had me very clearly imagine, visualize, and write about the person I most desire to be. In doing so, she has taught me how to see whom I most want to be and then to craft steps to become that person – even as that person is evolving. This exercise has also shown me “false desires” – those desires like having a certain amount of money, or owning a big house, that are not my own but are ingrained in me from outside influences like culture and upbringing. By envisioning the qualities of the person you most want to be, you can quite literally sculpt a future self out of your current experience base and take steps to be anyone and anything. Without acknowledging who you deeply yearn to be, you simple absorb the desires marketed around you and take them up as your life. This taking on of someone else’s desires chokes off the voice of your Spirit and the wisdom of your deepest self. As an example, the person I most desire to be is a healer, kind, honest, full of integrity, compassionate, passionate, teacher, inspiring, among many other qualities. Because I consciously know that I desire these qualities in myself, I take action in my everyday life to practice healing, to be kind, to speak the truth, to act within the boundaries of my own integrity, to define and embody compassion in my own way, to stoke passion, to practice teaching, to create ways of inspiring and being inspired, etc.
“To discover what we truly desire we must first strip away what we’ve been taught to desire: a certain weight, a certain clothing, a certain mate, all the things that mean we are successful and happy. Out of love and concern, your parents might have inadvertently imposed their desires on you to become a doctor or to make a certain amount of money rather than follow your innate gifts and skills. We have to look beyond surfaces and discern a true desire. Perhaps you think you want to be really rich, but what you really desire is to live free from the fear of want.” – Ana Forrest
Ana also guides her students deeper into desire by exploring all the facets of a seemingly simple desire in daily life – like food, sleep habits, book choices. I’ll give you an example. Some of you who know me well know that I love chocolate – borderline crazy about chocolate. Several times over the course of the last 10 years, I’ve experimented with not eating any chocolate for significant chunks of time even though I desire to eat it all the time. Now this may seem like I’m thwarting my own happiness according to the desire formula above, but really what it has afforded me is a view into what I REALLY desire. And what I really desire is not a caffeinated combination of sweetness and antioxidants wrapped in a brown package, but a physical manifestation of a delicious way of combining bitterness and sweetness in a desirable way. My life has had a lot of bitter moments (whose hasn’t!!) and a lot of incredibly sweet moments, but one of my challenges – and one of my deep desires in life – has been to evolve enough to combine them into a meaningful life. Chocolate was a physical way I was expressing that desire. And now that I know this about my great desire, I still enjoy chocolate but I do not crave it or need it in the way I used to. Maybe you have a sleep desire or a TV show you always desire to watch that holds for a you an actual deeper desire – a much bigger desire that encompasses not only the TV show but something greater in your life. Learn the bigger desire that houses all the other little desires, go after it and knock it off your leaderboard, and a different kind of happiness will surely abound.
The next time you feel desire tugging at your mind-strings, or your heart-strings, take a deep breath and listen. Feel inside – what does that desire really ask of you? What do you really want from your moment or life? Acknowledging and welcoming desire, harnessing its powerful ability to motivate and inspire you is an important part of your development of Self. “Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.” – Rumi