Ultimately, as I reflect, the greatest obstacles I have faced in life have molded me in to the person I am. Injuries have made me a clearer and safer teacher, times of financial hardship have given me insight into the value of money and empathy toward others who struggle with it, experience both first and second-hand with depression has gifted me with the ability to hold space for myself and others at their lowest. Moving to a new land where I do not speak the language or understand the cultural nuances gives me a small glimpse into what it feels like to be invisible or powerless. It has also given me a greater appreciation for the ways in which I am incredibly privileged. When I offer gratitude to my challenges, when I meet my "enemies" with thankfulness and compassion, it transforms me. Even if the person or situation is not changed at all, I am. How I see and feel and taste hardship changes. And, in my limited but real experience, it makes a profound difference.Read More
I am a wholly different being, I feel, when I step onto my mat. My belly is softer. My biceps are stronger perhaps from holding Miya, but everything else feels weaker. My skin is stretchier. I hold some more weight, and I try not to stress about it, which is hard for someone who spent her early 20s battling bulimia as a dancer and the rest of the time since reworking the notion of what it is to feel at home in her body.
But one thing is also for certain: my heart is way more open. My patience has crested to the surface of every moment and overflowed into my reality in a way that it never has before. I move slower. I pay more attention to many things that I do, like how quietly I can put away dishes while my daughter sleeps.Read More
You want to be human. Be angry, it’s okay. But not to practice is not okay. To be angry, that is very human. And to learn how to smile at your anger and make peace with your anger is very nice. That is the whole thing—the meaning of the practice, of the learning. By taking a look at your anger it can be transformed into the kind of energy that you need—understanding and compassion. It is with negative energy that you can make the positive energy. A flower, although beautiful, will become compost someday, but if you know how to transform the compost back into the flower, then you don’t have to worry. You don’t have to worry about your anger because you know how to handle it—to embrace, to recognize, and to transform it. So this is what is possible.Read More
Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In the process we become liberated from very ancient patterns of selfishness. We begin to feel love for both ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others. Tonglen awakens our compassion and introduces us to a far bigger view of reality.Read More
As my career has evolved as a yoga teacher, I have become acutely aware of the underlying hipocrisy of how the body (and control of the body) is portrayed in mass-media and what is viewed as “beautiful” or “yogic" in our culture: everything from billboards to food trends to subtle dynamics inside of our studios. In my days as a dancer, I faced many of my own battles with body image and disordered eating, a common story for many in the industry. While yoga has been incredibly healing for me in a variety of ways, I would be lying if I told you that remnants of these issues don’t still haunt me and that this has been exacerbated at times by a need to emulate what is idealized or lauded in parts of pop yogic culture: body subjugation and strict dietary restrictions to mention a couple of hot buttons.
You see it on the cover of mass publications, in advertising for anything from soymilk to booty shorts. Yoga has been made into a free-for-all for anyone wanting to jump on the OM bandwagon: "Eat this and you’ll be blissful and skinny while you consume highly processed food"stuff”!“ "Wear this top and show off abs that you’ll have to starve yourself to get”. Unfortunately you may also hear it from teachers or practitioners who may think they mean well but ultimately contribute to an environment of control and fixation. I’m not here to shit on the media, the culture that consumes it or anyone trying to share and teach what they think is correct, but I’m asking all of us to pause a little more often and ask some hard questions.
I absolutely think it is vital to the health of each individual and to our society as a whole that we have good tools to eat well, move regularly, learn to work with our minds to shift suffering, and overall create strong and skillful relationships with others. I’m here to say that a mindful movement and meditation practice can help you acheive those things in part, but yoga is not a panacea. And using yoga as a way of viciously submitting the body or mind to “no pain no gain” training is an ultimate disregard of the first yama of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and one of the basic precepts of Buddhism.
Ahimsa traditionally means non-harming and is often used to promote a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. It also should and must start with our own personal regard for ourselves. How often do we make a choice that has a very subtle undertone of self-aggression?
The ways that we work with ahimsa on and off the mat can be multi-layered and very subtle. Does buying highly processed vegetarian meat-substitute filled with synthesized ingredients shipped from halfway around the globe constitute a more ethical decision than locally raised meat? Maybe. Maybe not. Is buying incredibly expensive “natural” and “organic” food a more honorable choice if you can’t afford to make rent? Probably not. 108 chaturangas and straining and forcing your body into postures that you are either not warm or prepared for does not a yoga practice make. Running on empty or overworking yourself at the expense of nourishing self-care is a detriment to yourself and those around you.
I am not here to espouse what makes a practice for any individual. That is a journey we all must take on our own (hopefully with the guidance of a compassionate and knowledgable teacher). The place where we inevitably run into trouble, however, is when we fixate or grasp at things (body type, lifestyle, products, postures) in the name of “bettering ourselves”. The part that makes this so tricky is that all of this fixation and self-aggression is beautifully cloaked in the shroud of “self-improvement” or “yoga”.
Enter humor, compassion and self-inquiry.
I am a firm believer that a practice must be both disciplined and lighthearted. We can snicker at the aisle with 75 different kinds of soy milk and the idea of a “simpler life”. We can giggle when we wobble or teeter in a posture as we strive to find the balance between alignment, effort, and surrender. Every time we misstep a bit we are allowed to grin. As Pema Chodron says, we can smile at our fear.
In addition to humor, we must be curious and open-hearted in the quest to weed out those subtleties that point toward self-aggression and fixation. This is a lifelong process, not an overnight cure as some might like you to think. It is a wonderful task that we have been given to find the places where we hold on too tightly. Not only are we learning how to be more skillful in our own self-care, but we are empowering ourselves to be the blueprint for every relationship we have or create, and ultimately our relationship with the planet. We need this work more than ever now, and so it is great news that we have all the tools we need to start RIGHT NOW.
So as I’ve said before, lighten up a bit… be curious about your choices and more curious about what choices other people tell you to make. Aspire to be more open in your heart. And more kind. And patient. Smile when you misstep and start again. It’s not a race, it’s a path.
I am working on a new project highlighting stories of people in yoga and wellness who have worked with self-aggression and subjugation (in the name of yoga or wellness) skillfully. Got a story? Please email me at ap [at] anyaporter.com
I recently completed my third weekend of buddhist studies immersion and meditation instructor training with the Interdpendence Project. This weekend was comprised of roughly twelve hours of instructing, receiving instruction or discussion on compassion and loving-kindness meditation. A lot can touch your heart when a group of people come together and focus two and a half days on these practices. As the weekend slowly fades in the distance of my “busy” New York life, I am left with a sense that what transpired was a dance of the heart. It was a dance to help us all remember that even in the darkness of our worst self-aggression, glimmers of true happiness arise. And even in the shadows of ourselves where envy, ill-will and judgement dwell, the opportunity to see the light that casts the shadow is ever greater….
Compassion practices take us home to the tenderness of our hearts, which is both incredibly powerful and quite jarring at times. Practices like metta (loving-kindness) ask us to work with not only those people who inspire and support us, but also those with whom we may have conflict or challenge us in some way. Metta doesn’t stop there. It further looks at the ways in which we move away from the open heart, ways that we cling to or create conditions for the love we give to ourselves and others.
So nothing about Metta is fluffy. It is not all love and light, and that is what makes it such profound work. One of the things I appreciate about this work, is that it very much forces us to keep it real, to look at our shadows with great gentleness and work with the things that bar us from the vast capacity of our own heart.
Dancing is also not just fluff. It is gritty, sexy, light, fluid, graceful, sometimes awkward, still or frenetic, intensely sad or humorous. While remaining a serious discipline it also evokes all of the hues and saturations that color a life.
As we sit down to open our hearts, we might contemplate our work as a dance. We can approach it with a real sense of discipline, but we will not be surprised when it evokes tears or tightness in our throats or deep longing. We can work with these emotions just as we work with the heart: with gentleness, openness and hopefully an occasional giggle or fit of laughter.
“…Life is just a moment in time
And we go round and round
(if you’re listening)… ”
- Pharcyde, Moment in Time
I went home recently to visit one of my dearest and oldest friends, Zoe, to check in with her and support her as she courageously fights stage four breast cancer. There is no one I know who embodies and embraces life more than Zoe, and to honor her fearlessness and zeal, I am beginning to rethink the way I live and work every day. Consider it a matching pledge drive; as she dedicates herself to raw food, juicing, and natural healing modalities in the face of a very scary disease, I will dedicate myself to my work, relationships, and life in general with more fervor, courage and compassion. When something scares me or makes me worry, I think of her and it moves me to be fearless. When I feel myself harden and close off in reaction to discomfort, I remember Zoe’s open heart and free spirit and it moves me to be more compassionate and open.
Zoe has been through cancer before, and when she was diagnosed this time, back in the fall, she felt very strongly that she did not wish to go through all the chemo, radiation and surgery that she had to endure through the last episode. While it was a very hard decision to make and share with her loved ones, I recognized her unbelievable bravery in the face of this disease and in the face of all of the people who supporterd her but hoped she would take a different route. She has made amazing strides in her journey, converting to a raw food diet, juicing, supplementing, reiki, acupuncture, biofeedback and more… and what is most amazing is that she has done this all through the support of loved ones and even strangers. Zoe works for herself and did not have the money to do this on her own, but through fundraising and the immense generosity of everyone from her neighbors to her healers, she has been able to make this journey.
Zoe’s story embodies two tenets of buddhist thought that I hold dear to my heart: compassion and interdependence. Nothing, NOTHING, not one thing can exist independently on its own in this unvierse. We cannot experience our life in a vacuum, and our interdependence in life is part of what makes it so amazing and grand (and scary). Without the support of others, we would not exist. And without supporting others, we negate the natural flow of life. This is the law of interdependence.
Compassion can be a tricky word. Sometimes it seems too touchy-feely. Sometimes we cannot muster up any tenderness in the face of the horrible things that go on every day in our world, our country, our city, our block. Yet compassion is innate within us, it is our basic nature. When we know someone close to us who is suffering or we hear stories about people like Zoe, it touches our heart. It awakens this innate capacity for fearlessness and love and draws it up from within us like water from a deep cool well.
Zoe’s journey to heal herself through diet and natural medicine has been supported through the interdependence of her many friends and loved ones, and those inspired by her story. The compassion of many has united for the cause of one. This moment is the perfect one to draw up from your well and engage with your life in a way that honors these tenets of compassion and interdependence. I invite you to help me in my pledge drive, matching Zoe’s courage and absolute love of life with your own. Care to join? Now is the time.
I’ll finish with a quote from one of my favorite authors and Buddhist teachers, Pema Chodron.
“…feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.”
(this was excerpted from my newsletter. if you’d like to read more, please click here.)