Blog

TIME FOR SOMETHING NEW

I woke this morning to rain, a rare and wonderful novelty for March in Southern California. The air was fresh and crisp. I could hear the birds chirping. I could feel a sense of gratitude flood my heart at the possibility of growth, newness, cleansing! Today is the Spring Equinox, a reminder to those of us in the northern hemisphere that we are coming out of darkness and into light. 

For many, this winter has been especially challenging. We are still living with the harsh realities of a global pandemic. Many of us continue to watch in horror the atrocities unfolding in Ukraine. Climate disasters and gun violence make daily headlines. The coming of spring, the long warm days, the new beginnings and new opportunities are almost here and we welcome them. 
Nature is a wonderful guide through all seasons of life. Essentially, we recognize that nature is reflected within us and we are reflected in nature. I think it’s why we are naturally so excited about spring. We can feel the warmth of the sun, see the budding trees, notice the tulips and daffodils pushing their way through still somewhat chilly ground. The Earth is literally alive with new energy and so are we. Spring invites us to gently awake from our winter hibernation. Look around at the vibrant, optimistic colors that promise the coming of warmth and consider shedding what is no longer needed as you venture back out into the world. Spring is a time for dusting ourselves off and stepping into the new, whatever that may be. 
So what does that look like in practice? Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Commit to compassion. Spring does not bring an end to violence, disease or destruction. But we can individually and collectively plant seeds of compassion by committing to non-violence, non-judgment, forgiveness & mindfulness.
  • Practice a cleansing breath technique before a yoga practice or meditation, such as Kapalabhati Pranayama, to invigorate the body, mind and the senses. Note: Do NOT practice during pregnancy.
  • Plant some actual seeds. The plants/shoots/blooms will serve as visual reminders of your spring intentions. Don’t let space be a deterrent, many things can grow indoors and in small pots. You could choose from:

Beautiful flowers
Cooking herbs
Edible vegetables
A tree you’ll nurture over the years

  • Go for a walking meditation. Walk SLOWLY. Leave your phone at home. Get quiet. Breathe in the spring air, feel the sensation of the wind on your face, notice what’s in bloom. End with a seated meditation, perhaps outside in nature.
  • Create some space for the new, by carving out time for some good ‘ol Spring cleaning. Get rid of anything that does not serve a purpose or bring you joy. Open your windows and let a fresh breeze blow through your house. 
  • Join me for yoga during the month of April as we learn more & practice these seeds of compassion on our mats. Sign up here.

DARKNESS & LIGHT

It happens every year, the days get shorter and darkness is drawn out. As we approach the Winter Solstice this year (coming up Dec. 21) let’s consider the lessons it may teach us. Historically this time of the year has been celebrated with an understanding of the necessity of rest and descent.  It calls us to go within our homes, within ourselves. Nature is always a great teacher, the trees have been laid bare, the animal kingdom is hibernating. What might happen, as this year comes to a close, if we stop and really take in all that we have been through, all that has come and gone this past year? Can we acknowledge if our bodies are tired, our minds overwhelmed?

The distractions this time of year, are plentiful: overworking, overspending, shopping, alcohol, parties & lights, comfort food and consumerism. Don’t let cultural pressure and expectations dictate what you do or don’t do these next few weeks.

I think sometimes winter has a reputation for being hard. Depending on where you live, the weather can be bitter (I see you Freeport, IL). And depending on your situation this season can be lonely and isolating. But in reality, winter is so kind. She lovingly points us inward, in a quiet soft way. She invites us to stillness and peace, to embrace the darkness and to reflect on the light within.

“Winter takes away the distractions, the buzz, and presents us with the perfect time to rest and withdraw into a womb like love, bringing fire and light to our hearth,” Bridget Anna McNeil

In the midst of this annual, earthly darkness, it’s remarkable to consider the emphasis many faith traditions place on light during this time. Hindus across the world recently celebrated Diwali, a five-day festival emphasizing the victory of light over darkness.  Hanukkah means “dedication” but is often referred to as the Festival of Lights, remembering and celebrating the miracle of only having a days supply of oil but the menorah remaining lit for 8 days. Christians are in the season of Advent, a season of hopeful anticipation for the arrival of Jesus, the Light of the World. Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, but a cultural one with an inherent spiritual quality,” Karenga writes. “Thus, Africans of all faiths can and do celebrate Kwanzaa, i.e. Muslims, Christians, Black Hebrews, Jews, Buddhists, Baha’i and Hindus, as well as those who follow the ancient traditions of Maat, Yoruba, Ashanti, Dogon, etc.” Those who celebrate Kwanzaa light a kinara with 7 candles: three are red, representing the struggle; three are green, representing the land and hope for the future; and one is Black, representing people of African descent. It may indeed be dark but we are not without light.

In some yogic traditions and Ayurveda you’ll find the terms brhmana and langhana. Simply put, brhmana means “vast expanse” and langhana means contraction or reduction. Consider your breath… the inhalation of air is brhmana, while the exhale is langhana. Winter feels like langhana to me. This brings me back to all those hibernating animals…tucked away in dens, withdrawn from activity. It feels like the right time to acknowledge the influence, power and necessity of contraction, reduction and withdrawal.

Artwork by Jessica Boehman

As we approach the longest, darkest night of the year I invite you to set aside some time, even just a few moments, to light a candle and reflect on the divine light that exists throughout all of creation, including the divinity within you.

If you’re local and looking for a unique Winter Solstice experience, consider visiting San Diego’s “mini Stonehenge” off Highway 75 in Coronado. Learn more here.

And if in your “wintering” you have time and space to practice with me, I’d love to see you in-person or on Zoom. Check out the schedule.

FALLING FOR FALL

Do you feel it? There’s just something about September that signals the start of something new for me. Maybe it’s because the majority of my life has been spent on a school calendar — first as a student and now being married to an educator. Or maybe it’s the fond memories of growing up in the Midwest where the weather creates a tangible shift you can really sense during this time of year.

I’ve mentioned before my aversion to change. I love rhythm, ritual and routine. I like predictability, constancy and consistency. Life has shown me things are always changing and though I have very little (if any) control over many changes, I do have the power to choose how I will react to the changes life presents. And I desire more and more to approach such transitions with grace, patience and hope.

Creation is an excellent source of wisdom and a wonderful model of how to orient our lives and cope with change. This week marks a big seasonal shift, the Autumn Equinox. Equinox comes from Latin and means “equal night,” which is what happens twice a year. On an equinox, the sun is visible right above the planet’s equator, splitting it down the middle in a precise astronomical alignment. This leads to perfectly divided amounts of sunshine.

The equinoxes are the points of balance between the two solstices: the Summer Solstice, when the days are longest, and the Winter Solstice, when the nights are longest. At the Spring and Autumn Equinox, day and night are equal lengths: 12 hours each. The Autumn Equinox is the point at which we are about to turn toward the darkest time of the year, as nighttime gradually starts to outlast the day. This is often not a welcome change. There have already been grumblings in my house about the shorter daylight. However, instead of seeing this gradual shift as a miserable plunge into cold darkness, maybe nature is reminding us to slow down.

Shorter days have historically meant less time for doing. More time for being still; being quiet. The increased darkness is our invitation to turn toward the light within.

Seasonal changes also remind us that the only constant in life is change. As such, we must learn to let go of anything we no longer need and embrace that change.

And just as the equinox is the planet’s point of balance between light and dark, hot and cold, we are invited to find balance in ourselves and our lives.

The Autumnal Equinox is the perfect time to reflect on what hasn’t served us and to practice letting go. Consider setting new intentions for the season ahead, and to spend some time grounding and finding balance – balance between movement and stillness, between strength and surrender.

Personally, I will be welcoming this season of change by fulfilling a life-long dream of visiting New England and assuming the role of “leaf peeper” for 2 full weeks. My heart is bursting just thinking about it: breathing in fresh forest air, basking in the cool breezes (fingers crossed it will be cool), fixing my eyes on those glorious leaves and being still to hear all the woodland critters. Making the time and space for such an adventure means simplifying my teaching schedule. I recognize my choices impact you as well. I encourage you to continue using that time for your personal practice (trust your body) or maybe meditate or journal on one of the prompts here.

Let me know how you feel about seasonal changes and any practices that help you transition with grace, patience and hope in the comments below. 

A LIMINAL SPACE

I celebrated my second pandemic birthday this past week. A year ago the world was just starting to acknowledge the harsh reality of being shut down. Gary was working from home and I was essentially unemployed since teaching yoga was prohibited. Our days were mostly quiet, venturing out for short walks with the dogs and the occasional grocery run. I was grateful for the birthday cards, texts and phone calls from near and far. Gary made a homemade gift and we ordered take out for the first time since the pandemic started (it wasn’t very good). And so the year continued without much change. This year, however, there was a marked difference. Being fully vaccinated, we felt free to take more calculated risks. We enjoyed an outdoor celebration, eating cake with friends (also vaccinated), a lovely beach walk and even visited a restaurant for the first time in over 13 months (and were the only people sitting on the patio). What a treat! The week also included some outdoor, socially distanced visits with friends and a return to what has become a favorite birthday tradition, ice cream cake with my Syrian birthday buddies. What a difference a year can make!

I’ve thought many times this past year about liminal spaces. The term “limen” comes from the Latin for threshold; it is literally the threshold separating one space from another. In architecture, liminal spaces are defined as “the physical spaces between one destination and the next.” In anthropology, liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete.

Life is full of thresholds, some of our choosing, some not. I think about my experiences transitioning from fiancé to spouse, student to graduate. These were exciting and celebratory times, full of expectation and possibility. Some undesired and harder transitions include my parents divorce, leaving a job I once loved and the death of my father. I would characterize these liminal spaces as confusing, unsettling and doubt-filled.

In her book, Open the Door, Joyce Rupp says, “The term liminality indicates the uncomfortable ambiguity that develops when we are standing in the middle of a juncture of significant change. Liminality implies a disoriented vagueness in which we wander about searching for what seems out of reach. We lose a sense of clear identity, question what seems to be a dissolving relationship with our self” and perhaps others and the Divine. 

Uncomfortable ambiguity? Check. Disoriented vagueness? Check. Wandering? Check. Searching? Check.

I’m fairly confident none of us would have willingly signed up for this past year, living through a global pandemic as well as all the other social, political and environmental issues we’ve been facing. Who would deliberately seek this kind of discomfort? The liminal space of the pandemic has been a long one. And while it is not over yet, it feels as though we are on the cusp of a new threshold. Whether the liminal space is one chosen or is thrust upon us, each provides an opportunity for growth, self-examination, reflection and ultimately transformation. Full of mystery and requiring trust, liminality challenges us to surrender to the process of change while being unsure of what the future holds. 

Doris Klein offers some good advice when we find ourselves on a threshold:

When these times of mystery seem endless and our souls become weary of the stretch to believe, our prayer must be a simple request—that we be reminded that we have not been abandoned in this place to wander forever alone…for it is often a silent flicker in our heart, the tiny voice within, that whispers wordlessly, “You are always loved. You are never alone.”

May you be filled with peace as you remember those whispered words today.

SELF COMPASSION & YOGA RETREAT

What does it take to live a life of compassion? One doesn’t have to look very far in today’s world to see the needs are many and great. But what is compassion, really? Translated from Latin, it means “to suffer with.” Compassion is not the same as sympathy or pity. It’s not just the emotional response we feel when we see or hear stories of great suffering. The movement of compassion begins with awareness, causes us to discern our attitude and ultimately moves us to action, to enter into suffering, to get involved, to become vulnerable and to engage in the suffering of others. The four seeds of compassion are: non-judgment, non-violence (in thought, word and deed), forgiveness and mindfulness.

“In your relationship to your pain and sorrow, you cultivate the patience, forgiveness, and understanding that inform your relationship with all pain and sorrow. It would be naïve to believe that profound compassion could be found to meet the great sorrow in life if you do not hold yourself in the same light,” Christine Feldman.

The goal of the Self Compassion & Yoga Retreat is to help us recognize how our attitude and approach to self affects our ability to be a compassionate presence with and for others. We will explore what it means to be compassionate toward oneself, become aware of the continuum of compassion fatigue and strategize plans for compassionate self care.

All of this will be put into immediate action through the practice of yoga. We will live out the seeds of compassion: non-judgment, non-violence, forgiveness and mindfulness through our bodies, recognizing that the care and attention we give on our mats can be lessons of how to live off our mats. 

Join me April 30 (5-7 PM PDT) -May 1 (9 AM- 4 PM PDT), 2021, online via Zoom for this unique opportunity. Registration is now open. Early Bird Registration ($60) ends April 9thand price increases to $75. Teachers and healthcare workers receive $10 discount.

REGISTER NOW!

Heather Smith is a Yoga Alliance Certified RYT 200 and certified Boundless Compassion Facilitator. She spent years developing programs for refugees and immigrants, advocating for populations experiencing homelessness and as a bereavement coordinator with hospice.