Rebecca Pacheco, creator of OmGal.com, is a writer, yoga teacher, marathon finisher, and health nut, who enjoys sharing her wellness knowledge and creative insight with others. She began practicing yoga at the age of 16 and teaching others at age 20. For the past decade, Rebecca has worked with students of all levels, including beginners and experienced yogis, professional and amateur athletes, ballet dancers; CEOs and corporations; children and teens; people with injuries or disabilities, and more.
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My morning meditation was fairly half-assed. I didn’t ride my bike at sunrise to my preferred Buddhist center in Cambridge, over the Mass Ave. bridge with the elegant crew boats manned by chiseled athletes sculling the Charles River below, sit in silence for 45-minutes, and emerge a more kind, patient, and productive person afterward. Sometimes, my meditation is like this, but not today.
Today, it was 5-minutes, dutifully timed by my iPhone. I sat on my loveseat, which is not hippie code-speak for a special form of cushion or zafu. It’s just a loveseat from West Elm. I didn’t even light a candle. No time. No need, really.
It’s tempting to judge this juxtaposition of experiences. One looks, sounds, and feels more Zen. The other looks, sounds, and feels like nothing much. My reason for mentioning any of this is that, in my experience doing yoga and meditating since the age of 16 (I’m now 34), it’s become clear that people genuinely want to meditate. They may even go so far as to get a routine going, perhaps started on a retreat or with the help of a guided program by a local teacher or remote one via the Internet or audio files by Deepak Chopra (friends raved about his 30-day program with Oprah earlier this year) or Jon Kabat-Zinn, to whom I introduce all new meditators (his resources are so lovely and accessible).
Then, we fall off the wagon. It’s not as easy back home as it was in Tulum with the ocean waves crashing outside and only pressing responsibility being to get to the dining hall for fresh fruit and herbal tea afterward. We don’t have much space at home and no real cushion or seat meant for meditating. It’s trash day, and the damn truck outside is so noisy. We’re already late for work. We didn’t get enough sleep. We overslept. I just don’t wanna we mentally whine, or we forget altogether. It happens.
Alternatively, some never try (for any length of time, at least). They mean to. They want to. They hear meditation would be good for them. It reduces stress, relieves anxiety, increases focus, combats depression, and on and on. Many people can practically recite the benefits by heart despite never encountering them. It’s just so hard, they lament, gamely resigned to an immutable fate. They’re just “not good at it.”
Here’s the good news: it’s not possible to be bad at meditation. There’s doing it and not doing it. That’s all. If you want to try: try. And be assured that it doesn’t always look, sound, or feel Zen. Sometimes, it feels wretched or boring or like nothing much at all. It doesn’t matter how long or where you sit, whether roused by an antique Buddhist gong or iPhone.
All experiences of meditation are good and valuable because they cultivate the skill of being present, of strengthening the mind. How many other skills would we expect to master without much practice, especially life-altering ones? Even your chaturanga took a while, didn’t it? Moreover, it’s not only the immediate results of meditation from which we benefit. They accumulate over time, whether 45-minutes here or 5-minutes there. Like modern yoga, depictions and descriptions of meditation can be very skewed, prioritizing the beautiful, effortless, and happy–no itchy noses or furrowed brows– which is why it’s important to gently remind ourselves that these are images.
Forget the images. Forget how other people do it. Grab a spot, set a timer, close your eyes, and breathe. That’s all. It might not look like much, but when it amounts to you being less dominated by your thoughts, emotions, agenda, and judgments and more at peace with yourself, it’s everything you need.
The first time I was exposed to well-known Buddhist monk, peace activist, and author Thich Nhat Hanh, who visited Boston over the weekend, was when I read his book, Miracle of Mindfulness in a college course on Buddhism. I still recall one of our homework assignments for the class. We had to wash the dishes…which was awesome for my roommates. I’d pulled dish duty. A monk said so.
But, the assignment wasn’t to wash the dishes the way any of us typically wash the dishes, dashing off a chore so that we can move on to something better. Instead, the assignment required us to wash the dishes while being fully present and mindful. Never mind what happens next. We were learning through real-life practice that the powerful moment–the only one over which we have any guarantee or influence–is the one happening now. Don’t wait until later to be compassionate or kind, attentive and aware. A mind does not get stronger that way. It stays distracted and anxious about what comes next… And after that?… And then what?
On Sunday, in Copley Square, I was again reminded how miraculous mindfulness can be. I went with the expectation that I’d sit quietly, among hundreds of other people, in the presence of a revered Zen master, but didn’t anticipate much more. I knew it would feel meaningful and maybe solemn. I imagined we’d hear car horns or passing Duck Tours as we meditated. Quack, quack! I hoped he’d speak a little bit. Hopefully, we could hear and understand him. I momentarily wondered if it was unsafe to congregate in an open and vulnerable public space doing something spiritual, possibly viewed as religious. After all, we were in front of a church, among hundreds of Buddhists, yards from the Boston Marathon finish line, where two bombs went off five months ago to the date.
Trinity Church’s Reverend Dr. William Rich acknowledged this fact as he introduced Thich Nhat Hanh, who was now sitting under the hot sun clad in a knit hat and multiple layers of robes and meditations shawls. Wasn’t he melting? It struck me that it couldn’t be a coincidence, this event to sit in peace and healing near an area subjected to so much suffering a short time ago. The week before had also marked the anniversary of 9/11, the reverend noted. We were still at war and now considering military action in Syria. The day before marked the Jewish holiday of atoning for sins, Yom Kippur. In any number of ways, no matter who you were, the message of the day was clear. We are here to be together in peace. We’re here to practice greater awareness and compassion because the world needs both right now.
Small and centered, the 85-year-old Vietnamese monk in a knitted hat.
Following his introduction, Thich Nhat Hanh did something surprising to some. He said nothing. He didn’t even open his eyes. Instead, he sat silently and meditated, signaling for a typically pulsing cross-section of the city to join him. I don’t recall car horns. Definitely no quacking. A few small children giggled or cried briefly in the crowd, but mostly, it was very quiet.
When he eventually spoke, about 25-minutes later, the famous monk said only this: Breathing in, I am aware of my breath. Breathing out, I am aware of my breath, a simple mantra to set the stage for a talk that would succinctly and poetically teach a diverse group what it means to be mindful and how it creates peace. Next, he said: Breathing in, I enjoy breathing in. Breathing out, I enjoy breathing out.
The mantras and teachings gained momentum from there. We breathed in and out qualities of a mountain’s solidity and stability, water’s stillness and reflection, a flower’s freshness and beauty, and space. Breathing in, I have the element of space within me. Breathing out, I feel free… Space: free. Nothing was too heady. No one was left out. It was the most simple yet moving talk I’ve ever witnessed on meditation or Buddhism. If I was exposed to this teacher first in college, I was now getting schooled in a whole new way.
Then, the talk dovetailed into territory I would not have predicted for an 85-year-old celibate monk: love. It could have easily represented love for a family member or friend, but to hear a monk use the word darling in three different types of mantras suggested romantic love, and it made everyone smile. Darling, I am here. Darling, I know you are here. Darling, I know that you suffer, and I am here for you.
“The most precious thing you can offer your loved one is your presence,” he said. “To be present means to be there. How can you love, if you are not there?” His voice was gentle, but the message reverberated. Love (romantic or otherwise) doesn’t work if we’re distracted or hiding– behind suffering, the TV, iPhone, alcohol, who knows. We all have our means of avoiding reality, some healthier than others. To love means to understand suffering, our own and our darling’s.
He linked the two segments of the talk seamlessly– the meditation, breathing, and mantras– with his thoughts on love. We practice meditation so that we can restore our presence and feel more stable, free, fresh, and beautiful. “You cannot buy it in a market,” the adorable monk cautioned in his sing-song accent, of the level of presence needed for true love. “You have to produce it yourself.”
Somewhere along the way, my tear ducts started producing an abundance of water. I was overwhelmed. It was too beautiful maybe, the day, his words, the fact that my present moment looked, felt, and sounded the way it did, and I was sharing it with hundreds of other people, some of whom must have been having a similar experience. Their suffering was all around, their love, too. I felt a hand on my arm, which startled me. It was a kind woman offering a tissue. I could hear others nearby also weeping. Monks and nuns were chanting now, singing the name of Avalokiteshvara, the saint of compassion, and a cello played. Damn cello, gets me every time. Vast blue sky space stretched overhead, and the ground on which we sat felt solid and stable. We were being restored.
The Buddhist monks and nuns chanting… also the cello. Sniff.
Life will always contain suffering, and it will offer opportunities to cultivate compassion, grow love, and strengthen our minds through presence and practice. Copley Square will always be the place where we went after the marathon to leave flowers, candles, sneakers, and letters. It’s where people cried and prayed Often, they felt hopeless. Today, a proper memorial resides in the same spot, on the periphery of where Thich Nhat Hanh’s meditation event occurred. The earth, there, hugging the edge of the space where so many people sat in peace and thought about love.
I still hurry through the dishes most of the time, and while writing this post, I wolfed down an apple and peanut butter so fast, I barely tasted either of them. My spoon scrapped the bottom of the bowl, and I thought, heyyy, who ate my snack? But, then, a teacher or moment reminds me of the miracle of mindfulness and skill of being present. How I can always practice, beginning simply with breathing in and breathing out. And, sometimes, the expectations in my mind are blown away by the real-life experience.
Labor Day Weekend in Boston means two things. Most working people with the day off flee, emptying the streets, taking to the highways, and soaking up the long weekend somewhere outside city environs, preferably with ocean or mountains and without discarded couches littering the sidewalks.
Meanwhile, most students from the city’s many universities (and recent grads from schools everywhere) are moving in, bloating the streets with their moving trucks and subjecting their dads to too many flights of stairs. (A retroactive and eternal thank you to my own father who did this countless times, including when he hoisted a table through a window to fit into a tiny Cambridge apartment, after cutting my box spring in half so that we could maneuver it up the stairway and reassemble it once in my new room. One could say I learned a thing or two about patience and problem-solving from that guy).
This year, I fell into neither category. I’m a long way from college, and I just moved this winter and don’t plan to do it again anytime soon. I no longer subject Dad to being Macgyver on moving days; I spring for movers. I also labored on Labor Day, teaching yoga to a packed house of enthusiastic, sweaty, come-and-get-me-September yogis at Inner Strength Studio. I planned for a video shoot with Runner’s World magazine this weekend. I did a little writing.
Yet, the momentum around me got me thinking about labor and the best and worse advice I got about work while in college. Two key moments come to mind, both of which occurred while I was choosing my major. English.
And I’d choose the same way if I were to do it all over again. Despite getting advice like the following, from the father of a young girl I tutored regularly as a side job. I remember the scene in their impressive Virginia home well. The older son was on the verge of an exciting milestone: his bar mitzvah, and the living room in which I helped his younger sister with reading and writing was overrun by elaborate party favors. I wouldn’t see this many gift bags again until my time as a marketing executive at Boston magazine, while planning massive events like its annual Best of Boston party.
“You have to think about the things you want to have and figure out the job you can do to get those things.”
At this, he motioned around the beautiful home at the things his work had materialized. I didn’t argue. He made a valid point. It was a beautiful home, and they were a lovely family. They seemed happy. If you want a nice home, you have to work to get it. This much I knew, and it’s in my DNA to work hard anyway. But I disagreed with other aspects of his statement. The pursuit of things wasn’t going to inspire me to study subjects about which I didn’t care or in which I didn’t excel. And who’s to say that once I got these things, I’d be happy?
Thank you, sir. Have a wonderful time at the bar mitvah. Little Sally, nail that spelling test, girlfriend.
Needless to say, this was the worst advice I ever got.
The best came from my friend, Doc, one year behind me in school but infinitely wiser in many ways. He became a bit of an urban legend in the English department at the University of Richmond. First, he was male, and they were hard to come by in our course of study. Second, his memory borders on photographic. For the first few weeks of September during the fall that we met, I thought he was a total slacker. He never took notes, while I busily detailed everything our professor said. He seemed a little aloof, sitting back in his chair and occasionally glancing out the window at the blossoming trees outside. Why was he even in this class, I thought, my body pitched forward so that I wouldn’t miss anything. Craning myself closer to the Shakespeare lecture would obviously implant the information into my brain more effectively.
When we ended up in a study group together, the other girls and I expressed skepticism before his arrival… until he showed up and schooled the sh** out of us by remembering pretty much every lecture, quotation, theme, historical context, cross-reference, and footnote we’d covered that semester. Thus, Doc became my new best friend—and the source of the best work advice I ever got in college.
“College is not job training. When you get a job, they’ll train you. College is for studying what you love, enjoy, and want to think critically about. It’s about learning and learning how to learn—so that you can learn to be an expert at what you choose to do.”
I’m paraphrasing of course. I don’t have Doc’s memory.
So, I chose English. I minored in Women’s Studies. I was a class shy of an Economics minor, and if there’d been a major in Eastern Philosophy and Religion at the time, I’d probably have that too. I loved these courses, and they led me to work in industries I enjoyed, including education, marketing, media, and, yes, yoga, until merging what I enjoyed most and was best at into my work today.
The way my brain functions is no doubt influenced by how it learned to organize and convey information learned in college. However, the world changes drastically over a lifetime, and the best career investment one can make is the desire to work hard and tirelessly on a chosen path.The quickest way to burn out and become miserable is to work at something you don’t like for things that can’t make you happy.
I don’t have a lot of things, but I have all the things I need, which means that in a weird way both pieces of advice worked for me. Or, better yet, I worked for them.
What do you think? What’s the best or worst career advice you’ve ever gotten? What did you study in college, and how has it moved you through life?
Yesterday, I made two disturbing discoveries. One: I was living with a mouse. Specifically, this unwanted house guest ravaged one of my cabinets in a binge that included gnawing through 2 packages of polenta, 1 large bag of organic Irish steel cut oats (which are expensive by the way), leaving bite marks on the cap of a bottle of cooking oil, and then, running around throwing handfuls of cocoa powder in the air like he was having some kind of 1 mouse, 1 shade of chocolate brown, Color Run. I even heard the little jerk over the weekend and reasoned with myself I was imagining things. I think the lesson here is: trust thyself… and store your grains in glass jars.
Two: the trackpad of my computer stopped functioning last night. The trackpad, as you likely know, serves as a computer’s mouse on laptops So, yes, I have a mouse in my home and faulty mouse on my computer.
I have a mouse problem.
Laugh it up, everyone.
I couldn’t believe how scared and angry one little mouse could make me. (To be fair, he chewed some massive holes, so I thought he must be a hideous rat, initially). I stared at his mess for a good 10-minutes before taking a deep breath, rolling up my dish gloves, and saying to my salad tongs, “We’re going in.” I removed the food, cleaned up, and lined the empty shelves with Bounce dryer sheets for the meantime. The Internet says mice do not like the smell of them. Ditto peppermint, cloves, or cayenne pepper. Such dummies, cayenne is awesome for boosting metabolism, fighting inflammation, and strengthening immunity.
I put my writing on hold and proceeded to the Apple store this morning with its lack of mice and abundance of mouses to sit patiently on the sidewalk with all the other people standing outside before it opens, like we were waiting to buy tickets for some kind of mini concert for nerds inside. I couldn’t part with my machine today, so I made an appointment to return later.
Thankfully, both nuisances will be remedied soon. My boyfriend bought me a mouse—the computer kind—so that I could write today and pledged to help ward off the other mouse tonight. I can’t even take credit for the joke about having a mouse problem. He made the quip while I was still seeing red, err, cocoa. Witty, isn’t he?
If misery loves company, I’m pretty sure it loves a good pun and a guy who will save you from said mouse problems even more. It makes me realize that these problems aren’t so bad after all, and the disturbances in a given day don’t reveal only the precious time or steel cut oats that get eaten up but, also, the people, places, and things that help us restock our shelves, reboot our computers, and reframe our perspective.
Yoga is great for stretching. If you do it enough, you can touch your toes and improve your parallel parking skills by twisting to see behind you.
But, it’s also great for stretching and expanding things beyond your muscles—namely your mind. Through concentration and meditation, in particular, the mind becomes stronger and more agile, in the same way our muscles are strengthened by a Vinyasa class or trip to the gym.
Another way to stretch our minds is through svadhyaya or self-study, which encourages yogis to be students of their practice and the world. One easy way to do this is to read. Since you’re reading this now, you’re off to a smashing start. BRAVO!
I recently had a request to share my favorite yoga and meditation books, so here’s a quick sampling of the ones I turn to most.
Modern yoga resources:
Living Your Yoga (Judith Lasater)
Eastern Body, Western Mind (Anodea Judith)
Yoga for Emotional Balance by my friend Bo Forbes
Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga by the late Georg Feuerstein
Mudras: Yoga in your Hands (Gertrud Hirschi)
Anything by B.K.S. Iyengar…
Classical yoga texts (each with multiple translations):
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Wherever You Go There You Are by mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn (and dad to one my dearest friends).
When Things Fall Apart by no nonsense Buddhist nun Pema Chodron
As an English major, former English teacher, writer, and proud nerd founder of the Om Gal Book Club, it’s no secret that I’m a major bookworm. I even have the knots in my shoulder and neck to prove it from lugging 2-3 books in my handbag at all times. I think it’s time for an e-reader…
And since they’re not all yoga books (not even close), I’ll share what else I’ve been reading lately and what I plan to read next.
Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers by the inimitable Anne Lamott
Lean In by Facebook COO and feminist superhero Sheryl Sandberg
Daring Greatly by Brene Brown, also known as the book that changed my life most this year. (If you don’t have time to read the book, watch her TED Talk).
Love is a Mixtape by Rob Sheffield
Buddy: How a Rooster Made me a Family Man by my friend and editor of the Boston Globe, Brian McGrory.
Are you vegan?
Have you heard of this juice cleanse?
Are you gluten free?
Have you heard of that juice cleanse?
What do you do for cardio?
How often do you run?
Do you do Pilates?
What do you think of Crossfit?
Do you lift weights?
Do you wear a heart rate monitor, Nike Fuel Band, Jawbone, etc.?
Which yoga poses will strengthen my core?
And lift my butt?
Do you think I should do a juice cleanse?
I get a lot of questions about my personal and professional approach to fitness, including those above and many more. Each time I’m asked by a reader, yoga student, Om Athlete, curious media type, or casual acquaintance at, say, a dinner party, I’m delighted to – forgive me – weigh in. I enjoy the fact that people trust me; it means I’m doing work I’m meant to do, helping people become more healthy and mindful, and I’m happy to share knowledge acquired over the years. I’ve studied a lot, experienced a lot, and been exposed to a lot, through a lifetime of playing sports, 18 years of practicing yoga, 13 years of teaching it, and the privilege of working with some of the fittest and fastest athletes in the world about what it means to look, feel, and perform your best.
But my favorite piece of advice is the same for everyone, and it has nothing to do with explicitly choosing a diet or type of exercise. It’s about choosing a mindset or, possibly, a heart set. Because the truth is not about what you do, but rather, why you do it.
I believe the intention behind anything colors everything, which is why my diet advice is not a diet. My most killer workout secret is not some grand secret. I’m not hiding stealth spa procedures or supplements in my bicycle basket. I’m not fired up by fitness fads or new technology that tracks my every calorie taken in or burned off. (I respect that many people like and benefit from health trends and technology; I just don’t think they’re essential to my point or your wellness).
Personally, I do a lot of yoga. I run a lot. I eat a lot. What I eat has read like Michael Pollan’s advice long before he wrote In Defense of Food and other books widely regarded as manifestos for eating mindfully: eat real food, not too much. Mostly plants. But, sometimes, chocolate covered salted caramels. (I added that last part). Professionally, I’m like a sherpa for surpassing mind/body limitations, and my approach to yoga might cause your kid to turn to you and say, “Wow, Mom, you’re STRONG! You’re stronger than Daddy,” as the child of one of my clients did at the beach over the weekend when she tossed him high in the air so that he landed in the ocean with delight like it was no big deal.
In the past, I’ve been too thin and too heavy. I ended up too thin by accident, at a time when I felt very heavy—as in emotionally. I wasn’t trying to lose weight. It just happened as a result of the stress of what was happening in my life. I couldn’t have cared less about scales or pant sizes. Ironically, I was too heavy while trying too hard to be thin. Roughly around college, as the current often pulls women that age. It was my personal heyday of low fat frozen yogurt, Diet Coke, and other fake foods about which I didn’t know better and were the diet de rigueur of the time. Now, I know better, and I stay away from that stuff. It’s not a diet. It’s chemical junk that messes with your hormones and doesn’t add any nutritional value anywhere. I don’t eat other non-food stuff like Play-Doh or glue. That’s not a diet. It’s common sense.
And, ultimately, that’s the secret weapon I want people to rediscover. Good sense. Stop cleansing. Start sensing. Ask yourself this one essential question:
What do you want to embody?
Seriously. Think about it. Because the answer will be telling, and the actions needed to achieve your desired state will be clear. If you know how you want to feel, you’ll intuitively know what to do to get there. You don’t want to embody artificial colors, flavors, or feelings. You don’t want to embody scarcity and deprivation.
If you want to embody strength or confidence, you can’t choose diets, fitness inspirations, or yoga teachers that encourage diminishing or depletion. It’s that simple. If you want to feel joyful and light, you can’t choose workouts that are drudgery or self-talk that is demoralizing. Maybe you’ll lose weight on a certain diet, cleanse, or workout regime, but will you feel light? Will it last? Or, will it dissipate—like anyone’s capacity to stay on a diet or regime, and you’ll have to search for the next fitness fix during the next dinner party conversation. If you want to embody speed or endurance, your workouts must prioritize the same. If you want to feel energetic and endorphin-drunk, then you’ve got to get up and move like your life depends on it (because it does). If you want to embody beauty, you’ll have to do things that genuinely make you feel beautiful. They are not usually available in stores. They frequently include smiling or laughing. Remember: mindset. Heart set.
The way we move our bodies and how we nourish them are beautiful opportunities every day. Meanwhile, getting too caught up in how we label ourselves according to what we eat (i.e. vegan, paleo, gluten-free, etc.) and forgetting that the best wellness resource we have is our own mind only leads to more of the same. Change how you think. Start with what you want to embody, and let that word, feeling, or mantra dictate the health choices you make.
Embody grace. Eat energy for breakfast. Run with heart-pumping, leg burning, soul exhilarating speed. Balance with confidence. Breathe with love. Put on your clothes with joy. Take them off with acceptance. Embody yourself fully. It’s a beautiful thing.
My bike is olive green, and apropos of this, his name is Oliver. I bought him about two years ago, and it was one of the best purchases I’ve ever made. Suddenly, ho-hum commutes became joy rides, and parking anywhere in the city was a breeze. He even has a quaint little basket. See:
The problem is that more times than I can count, someone uses my basket as his or her personal garbage receptacle. (9 times out of 10 the trash is from Dunkin Donuts; I’m just reporting the facts here). It happened this morning, while I was at Equinox taking a Long & Lean fitness class with bright light and big OG supporter Lauren Hefez, and the ire prompted this tweet.
Grrr, I was mad.
Arriving to teach this evening at Inner Strength, one of my students mentioned that the tweet made him laugh. He also shared that he has a pick-up truck.
“You can’t imagine the sh*t people throw in there… I’ve found chicken wings…”
Seriously? What is wrong with people, I thought.
Until I realized that it isn’t so outlandish, really. People try to put their junk on others all the time. And while it might not be fair that we should have to throw out other people’s crap, what else can you do—leave it in your basket? Let someone else’s garbage weigh you down? Hell, no.
Whether it’s a limiting belief about yourself or the world, unnecessary drama, or garden variety emotionally petrified rubbish, some people don’t know how to dispose of it properly. It’s not your job, but if it lands in your bike basket, pick-up truck, relationship, or office environment, then your best bet is to take the trash out. Make it swift, let it go, and move on to the next thing. (I understand this is easier when it’s a coffee cup or half-eaten egg sandwich). But the bottom line is that you can’t carry around other people’s crap for them. We’ve all learned this the hard way, and today was a gentler reminder for me (metaphorically speaking).
We have better things with which to fill our baskets and lives, and handling our own thoughts and actions is tough enough (not to mention the only things we can control). I wasn’t happy about the trash, but it made for a welcome reminder that a lighter load always makes for a more joyful journey.
I can tell it’s going to be a good day because Priscilla Warner, best-selling co-author of The Faith Club (her new book Learning to Breathe is an OG Book Club read for the fall), has said “f*ck it” three times before we make it from the ferry boat where she picks me up to the farmer’s market, where we buy radishes and baby carrots and marvel at a zucchini that is just too big to talk about politely.
The man selling the massive zucchini is of the natural, sea salty, walk-on-the-earth types which Martha’s Vineyard attracts as locals. He has longish sun-bleached hair tucked under a hat and wears a shirt that says downward facing dog, which is not actually a yoga reference. (Thank god; that would be too obvious). It depicts a dog salmon, swimming downstream. Get it?
Priscilla is a new friend who feels a lot like an old friend, which is nothing to say of her being older than I am at age 60 (about which she wrote in “Why 60 is the New 60” for the Huffington Post) and more to do with the fact that the connection between us has been quick and easy, like synapses in a brain that’s doing what it’s wired to do, the Pop Rocks candy fizzle of a friendship that exists before the two parties get there, so that when they show up, there’s not much work to be done. Oh, hello. So, we are friends. This is how it is.
In a spirit of generosity that I am barely able to fathom, Priscilla invited me to the Vineyard (a short boat ride from where I grew up and my parents still live, on the same ferry on which I worked as a deckhand as a teenager) to enjoy the effervescence of new friendship and put our heads together professionally. Specifically, she offered to read some of my manuscript and provide feedback.
She did. It was genius.
But it was the sparkle in her eye each time she said “f*ck it” and gracious welcoming into her beautiful home, with its old Buddha statue and less old and more precious photos of her sons– one taken by their Dad in which they are little and leaning against massive trees– that inspired me even more. I leaned on her experience, adored her lack of a filter, and felt the comfort of a home in which love hangs from the walls and hides in the garden. It helped me share my writing.
In the past year, I’ve learned what many writers say: we live on islands sometimes. We work alone, tapping at keys, words for company, in an unpredictable creative climate. It can be harsh or mild or aglow with a moon that lights up your brain so you can write for hours as it watches over you. Sometimes, though, the climate is itchy and hot, with gnats buzzing in your mind. You can barely string together a sentence. You’re in a doubt storm without an umbrella.
Not without the help of people like Priscilla, I’m learning to survive the elements. I know that inspiration can come from any direction, without much notice, but when it arrives, you know it like an old friend, or a new one who feels like an old one.
DON’T SAVE ANYTHING. Priscilla tells me in the car. Don’t save it for later. Don’t save it for another book. Write everything. Put it all in there. You never know what will happen next or if there will be another book.
She’s right, and this advice applies to anything.
Whether it’s writing a book, starting a business, sharing something we’ve created, professing our love, or beginning an exercise program after being inactive for a long time: anything worth anything takes courage. But, how often we hold back. How often people tell me that they’d do yoga if they were more flexible or meditate when they weren’t so busy. When it’s the weekend, on a beach, when the weather is right, then we can relax and appreciate the moment. We can all relate.
And we can learn to say f*ck it. We can venture off our islands, to find a friend, farmer’s market, and a very good day on the opposite shore.
I could hear the shrieking of five-year-olds in the bouncy fortress from the driveway as I arrived at my goddaughter’s birthday. When they saw me, she and her best friend, Mia, ran to the mesh lookout windows to say hello, clinging to the strings and mushing their noses against the material, still bouncing lightly as they spoke. Adrianna climbed out to hug me and noticed a necklace I was wearing.
“Who’s that?” she inquired, fingering the bright blue pendant.
“That’s the Buddha,” I responded, figuring this would be sufficient. It didn’t seem like the time to delve into spirituality, even for a wacky 20-somerthing godmother who taught yoga for a living.
“Oh.” Adrianna said, satisfied enough. Until she wasn’t…“Is he coming to my party?”
I wish I could tell you that I said something meaningful, from which my goddaughter then gleaned a childhood twinkle of wisdom. Instead, I ummed & I-don’t-know-ed until another five-year-old shrieked with glee, and her attention was needed elsewhere. She ran away.
Next week, she turns 13, signaling inevitable changes in our bond. I no longer have to pretend to sleep beside her to convince her to nap. She no longer naps, obviously. How many times I’d open my eyes, thinking she’d fallen for my ruse, only to see her tiny face inches from mine, awaiting whatever was next. I still stock her favorite healthy foods before she visits; cherry tomatoes have always been like candy to her— ‘matoes, she used to call them.
I no longer carry her anywhere, but sometimes we link arms through a crowded street or T station. I remember tripping once in the Davis Square station while holding her when she was very small. Fear shot through me so fast that I barely noticed I’d landed squarely on my kneecap, tearing my favorite pair of jeans. My knee bled and began to bruise as we boarded the train, but I didn’t care. I was shaken and grateful that I didn’t drop her, and she didn’t notice how terrified I was.
My friend, Abigail, a mother of two adult children and one teen and a standout high school English teacher, once told me what teenagers most want from their parents: beige couch.
“I’m sorry; I don’t understand. They want new furniture?”
“Beige couch,” she repeated. “Comforting. Supportive. Blends in. Doesn’t stand out. Always there when needed.”
Being a godparent is nowhere close to the same realm as parenting, but we all know it takes a village, and I’ve been thinking about how I can be most useful to Adrianna, while she leaves childhood and enters adolescence. I keep recalling the women who helped me navigate through the quagmire of junior high and high school—older cousins like Louisa and Celia who laughed so easily; family friends like our childhood nanny, Emma, who was studying to become a lawyer and so smart and the opposite of boy crazy and Linda, who made not wearing the same cool clothes as everyone else seem even cooler; teachers like Mrs. Hess who honed in like a hawk on the fact that I could identify any author by a sentence of his or her work. I was like a nerd sniper of writing styles in my accuracy, but I didn’t rate the highest on standardized tests like the SATs, and I sometimes thought that this meant I couldn’t be a writer. Other teachers sometimes hinted at this.
And, then, my coaches—too many tough, dedicated, big-hearted, hard-pushing, whistle-wielding women to count. Coach Robertson, who first taught me to end even the most frustrating days by thinking of one small thing for which I am grateful. Coach Smurl, who was the first same-sex relationship, pregnant woman, and parent I’d ever witnessed. When DOMA fell last month, I thought of her. I am forever grateful to her for helping to shape my view of family, marriage, and love. Coach Marini, my original swim coach, who simply would not let us use the word can’t. It was like a swear word to her.
I know that I can’t be any of them (in this context, I think Mrs. Marini would be OK with it), nor can I be a beige couch. I can only be myself, to the best of my ability and hope that somehow the joy and satisfaction in that glints in my goddaughter’s direction. I want her to know that she’s strong, bright, kind, and unstoppable. I don’t want her worrying about her weight already. I want her to know the difference between liking Kanye West’s music and seeing him as a role model of any kind other than working hard at a job you love. I want her to know about love—that it is supportive and comfortable, a little like a couch. But it also dazzles, lifts you up, amplifies what’s best about you, is tender with what’s worst, and would never dream of making you smaller or less than you dare to become. Because being yourself will require daring—not the kind that jumps off things but the kind that forgoes the opinion of the crowd, the popular, too often, the mean girls. Now and always.
Adrianna visited last week, her last as a twelve-year-old. We went for a walk through Christian Science Park, past the reflection pool and had dinner on my deck. The arugula salad was her favorite, and she thinks she might like to run track & field next year. These were both of her volition. I swear. We listened to hip-hop after dinner and looked at old photos. The photo below was one of her favorites, from that birthday party when she turned 5 and asked if the Buddha would be there.
I didn’t mention that the Buddha is no longer a single living person who comes to parties or eats cake. Instead, he’s a symbol of the best, brightest, and most peaceful core within each of us.
We went to a well-known bakery in my neighborhood, and I told her about its chef and owner, Joanne Chang. For her birthday, I bought her a pair of Nike Frees, her first proper running shoes. It was oppressively hot that day, as we walked toward her mom’s office, but she didn’t want me to carry them for her. She held them close on her lap as we rode the T.
She taught me something, about handstands, too. I do them for yoga, and she does them for gymnastics. Mine are often short-lived if I’m not near a wall for support.
“How do they teach you to stay up without a wall,” I asked?
“Oh, I can’t do it yet, but people say you have to press down really hard, to push your legs up higher… You have to lift yourself up,” she explained.
Days later, during a workout at the gym, I read the latest issue of Vogue on the elliptical machine with an article about Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu member of congress, a woman from Hawaii who served in Iraq, recently sworn in using the Bhagavad Gita, and jumped rope, marveling at how hard it is after you don’t do it for a while. Then, I fluttered in and out of handstands, practicing without an agenda, just having fun On the last one, I thought of Adrianna’s advice, and I pushed down harder into the ground, until I felt buoyant and steady.
As I hovered longer than usual, I thought of my goddaughter’s face, not the baby face I used to see after fake napping but the young adult face, with its bright, dark eyes sparkling and watching, ready for whatever comes next. I smiled at how high she might soar knowing already how to lift herself up. I walked home by the street with a community garden, which I explained means that each person has their own plot of land, and they can grow whatever they want. She liked this idea, and as we walked ahead, she was quiet, thinking about the possibilities.
A few months ago, one of my oldest friends, Alex (we’ve been friends since age 13), set me up on a friend date with Toni Nagy, the bold and bright voice behind the Toni Balogna blog.
We met for tea and a hot yoga class at my old stomping grounds of the Baptiste Power Yoga Institute. Ten-minutes underway, I realized Toni mentioned she wasn’t accustomed to heated yoga and was likely melting on the mat next to me. It was absurdly hot, even for me, someone who previously spent upwards of 6-hours a day teaching and practicing in the same soupy environment (sort of like the weather in Boston today). I was bombing on our first date. Toni probably hates me, I thought.
That’s my version. Here’s hers, for the she said/she said perspective.
To make matters worse, I had returned from Asia the day before, so life during this period of jet lag (and for the following near two weeks it took to recover) is a bit foggy. From what I can recall, Toni and I hit it off at tea. I’d even say there were friend fireworks. She made it through yoga, possibly enjoying it– at least the part when it was over, and she was still alive. We parted ways with the familiarity of two people who gainfully assume: I love our friend Alex. You love our friend Alex. We shall love each other as friends!
And what do you do with people you love? You make crazy Internet videos with them.
For our first blog buddy collaboration, I sharpened my acting chops as– wait for it– a yoga teacher! The subject matter hits close to home, too. It’s called Competitive Yoga Chick, referencing a familiar breed of yogi that Toni brings to light in a very funny way. We all know this yogi or have behaved like this yogi (in our less enlightened days, naturally…), and I think the video does a great job of parodying the temptation to develop a “more than you” mentality through yoga.
Take a peek, and please share your laughable or lovable competitive yogi moments, especially if you have an all out I-AM-SO-MUCH-MORE-SPIRITUAL-THAN-YOU tirade like the talented Bridget Barkan, who plays our over-the-top Competitive Yoga Chick. Alex also makes an appearance. She’s the blonde with nice alignment in Warrior I.
To close, I’d just like to reiterate that I was acting, and if anyone tried this crap in a real class, I’d have to regulate. Check out Toni’s blog for Elephant Journal on being a recovering competitive yoga chick. It’s so good, you’ll want to go on a friend date with her, too. But, remember, I was friends with her first.