What Can I Do?

Jun 20 2017 by Allison English

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What Can I Do?

It’s really easy these days to wake up and feel some sort of despair. There is violence erupting all around the world. Hunger, starvation, illness, conflict, hatred, income inequality and political woes are rampant worldwide. Closer to home in Chicago we are not immune to the divisiveness and brutality of what has seemingly become daily life. And so when another day passes and two more mass shootings pile up on the news like last week or another terrorist attack happens like today, it is not inconceivable that I feel a bit hopeless.

Last week and then again today as the news updates flashed across my phone, I was thinking about my teacher, Ana Forrest, and a really common question she has asked me and hundreds of other students over the the years, “What part of this can you do?” She is usually talking about a complex or challenging yoga pose or emotional moment of practice, but the question could be used anywhere. It brings to the surface of awareness in a moment of overwhelm the reminder to seek out the pieces (however great or small) of an experience we can handle. This particular question has become one of my favorite Forrest Yoga-isms over the years both internally and in my classes, and I find myself this evening reminding my own Spirit of its wisdom.

When I exited class last week, a couple of students were chatting in the locker room and I joined in. In no more than 10 minutes of chatting we covered all the hopeless things happening around the world: religious strife, conflict, war, violence, gun legislation, health care legislation concerns, political questions, international conflict, poverty, hunger, dissociation of human beings from each other and so much more. And we each said something so simple. One said: “Let’s each just be like that Tim McGraw song says, humble and kind.” A second said: “Let’s each continue to connect with one another and other people in person and bring others into that connection.” And a third of us said: “Let’s remember all that we CAN do in the face of what feels lost.”

We need these reminders: there are a myriad number of ways we can help, and it is good to start small with our own lives and communities. We need to ask ourselves each day, “What part of this can I do for the greater good?” What follows is a brief form of one part of a list of my own ideas that I have come up (actually since the election in November when I first thought about writing this blog) in a few areas of life in which I feel particularly passionate. They are my reminders and I hope they get your wheels thinking about what reminders you need in your own life. I encourage you to make your own lists! My values and priorities are not yours. What I find disconcerting these days may not be what you do. The key is to identify what you value and support it with your small daily actions – because that is really many parts of what you can do.

Environment

– Bring a re-usable mug and water bottle everywhere so as never to use a plastic bottle or disposable cup (Check out this infographic on why this is a good idea and a simple switch)

– Always have re-usable bags with you! I have them in my car and in every purse or backpack I carry. I make sure to use cloth bags for produce or to meticulously re-use plastic bags that I clean until they can’t be used anymore and need to be recycled. I do not pick up new plastic bags.

– Consider riding my bike or taking public transportation instead of driving when possible – limit mileage on my car (which is a hybrid and uses less gas and makes fewer emissions)

– Replace bulbs in the house with LED ones to limit consumption of power even further – be cognizant of turning off lights and appliances when not needed

– Take shorter and less frequent showers to conserve on water (we have low flow shower heads and water filters in the showers – all of our appliances are also Energy Star rated or higher)

– Research and select power sources that are 100% renewable energy for the delivery of home electricity

– Make purchases locally for as many goods as possible and support local businesses while also cutting down on shipping

– Purchase carbon offsets for EVERY flight I take this year and moving forward (these offsets can purchase endangered forest land, contribute to projects reducing dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, and develop renewable energy projects around the world with a focus on dramatically reducing future carbon emissions – check out Terrapass for some info on this)

 

My list of causes and ideas is upwards of 12 pages long at this point, and I keep adding to it. I don’t want to put it all here and bore you because you need to go and make your own! Mine has tons of specific charities, articles and research to support what I most want to see in my world. It is an inspirational document. Why do I have these lists? Well every day that I feel hopeless about something (which is everyday!!) I turn to these lists and pick two things – just two things out of 12 pages – and I do them. Start small. Break things down. Do something – anything. Don’t let the cynic inside you or the cynics outside of you tell you your little something doesn’t matter. It does! What part of this can you do?

Hope is, by definition, the faith to meet the moment with belief that things will get better even when EVERY indication is to the opposite. We are, therefore, right now in the midst of a worldwide hope campaign. Every news story and daily event seems to tell us that all is lost, but we know in our hearts to have hope that we can make things better. One small action at a time. Start with a change in your day – something small. Then work your way up to something you can do on your block. Then work your way up to something you can do in your neighborhood. Move up to your city, state, region, country…the world is just around the corner. Start too big and this is overwhelming, but start small with what you honestly can do and change will happen. Humans have amazing capacity for destruction, greed, violence and hatred, but I also have the hope and knowledge that our equally powerful forces of love, compassion, creation and generosity can prevail. Will you join me in this mission?

Loving-kindness

Jan 09 2017 by Allison English

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Loving-kindness

At the beginning of 2016, I felt the need to look and feel dramatically at my life. I was unhappy and confused. I felt “off” nearly everyday. I had nothing specific bothering me: I love my job, my health was good, I was (and am) in a great relationship, I had a huge year of incredible work ahead of me, a roof over my head, food in my belly, a loving family…Why then did I wake up at the beginning of each day in the start of 2016 and just feel blah? I didn’t know the answer. My Spirit had gone silent. I knew I had to find out why.

I embarked on a year long journey of self-discovery guided by my Shaman, Bridget Boland. This incredible woman helped me pick a focus for every month of 2016. She helped me first to see and then to change a huge backlog of beliefs that were holding me back. Better yet, she gave me the tools to rewrite my life in the most beautiful way. We systematically, week by week, through meditations, journaling exercises, conversations and ceremonies, figured out what was at the root of my Spirit’s silence and learned how to bring my voice back. Ironically sending me into periods of deep silence was the only way to help my Spirit speak again.

Part of my yearlong 2016 homework from Bridget was to pick 12 individuals in my entire life with whom I’d had “difficult” interactions or relationships and to bring about an end to what corded or connected me to them so that I could move on from their influence on the arc of my path. A big part of the way I cut the cord with each of these individuals was to say the loving-kindness prayer to them every day for at least 15 minutes for a month. These were people who had wronged me, who I had wronged, who I hated, who sucked so much of my energy because I worried about what they thought of me. These were individuals I’d worked with, been abused by, been friends with, managed and been managed by, taught or learned from. It was a diverse and eclectic list from many eras of my life. Each month I moved from one person to the next and did a month of loving-kindness meditation for each one.

Loving-kindness, or metta meditation, was one of the first meditation practices to which I was introduced. It is the systematic direction of kindness and wellbeing towards oneself or another. Long ago when I started learning about meditation around the age of 13 or 14, I went to a Buddhist meditation center (unbeknownst to my parents – I rode my bike there!). In the little shop at this center was a book called “A Path with Heart” by Jack Kornfield. I bought it – it had a pretty pink cover and something about the “heart” word in the title drew me in. I’ve kept it with me ever since and have read it more times than I can count. The very first chapter is called “Did I Love Well?” At the time I felt very little love for much of anything in my life and I felt a calling from that chapter. Inside I learned about self-love as a ground for spiritual development and the meditation exercise at the end of the chapter is Jack Kornfield’s script for the loving-kindness meditation:

“May I be filled with loving-kindness.

May I be well.

May I be peaceful and at ease.

May I be happy.”

My well-loved and well-worn copy of Jack's book.

My well-loved and well-worn copy of Jack’s book.

For a while back then I did this simple meditation for myself, to build up a reservoir of much needed self-love – of kindness directed at my own Being. That in and of itself was a very powerful stepping stone on my pathway. Somewhere along the way another meditation technique and then another took over as I moved from tradition to tradition. When Bridget gave me this homework, it felt familiar and powerful all at the same time.

The first name on my list was a tough one. The first few days – probably the first week – the words of the prayer felt like ash on my tongue. I physically felt like I was choking on the words to get them out in my mind’s eye. None of this meditation was done out loud – all internally. Still, I had a serious choking sensation as I began this process. It was challenging internally to wish this person well. They hurt me – terribly. I realized I clung to the hurt righteously even though it didn’t serve me in the least to feel any better. Each day it got a little easier to repeat the words over and over again. Slowly, day by day, the 15 minutes no longer felt like an eternity. Even more interesting was the sensation of lightness related to all the experiences of my life tied to this person. I palpably sensed the release of emotions, energy, thoughts, memories and stories related to this person.

A new month would begin and the process would start all over again. The feelings of dry mouth; the gagging on the words of loving-kindness. And each month, no matter the person on the list, the gagging would fade and the lightness would take over. Even for the REALLY rough people on the list – the ones I never thought I would ever wish well – a lightness always prevailed through the simple action of repeating the words of the prayer.

I thought this homework was assigned to me so that I might learn how be kind to those who had hurt me, or I might magically meet each one again and get to hash out our problems and solve everything. That was not the reason Bridget gave me this homework at all. I will likely never see any individual on my 2016 list again. It’s highly unlikely even if I did see these people that we would ever come to some happy resolution or have an epic fight or showdown that would make me feel any better. The purpose of the prayer as I see it now was to help me release all the energy I had unknowingly tied up in hatred, regret, worry, fear, and anxiety towards these people and towards myself in relationship with each one of them. In sending them loving-kindness, I was finally able to forgive myself for the role I played in the relationships I had with each one. At the same time I really wished each one of them well-being and peace and hope that they were able to feel it in some way.

Perhaps you have people you have wronged or feel wronged by in your history. I hope you can use this simple meditation to bring about some lightness to all the ways those wrongs may have tied you up in mind, body and Spirit along the way. There is no reason to stay bound up in misery to someone else – we all want to live happy, prosperous, loved lives. What a waste of our precious life force to remain stuck in old agony – our own or someone else’s.

Does my year of meditation mean these people didn’t wrong me? No, it does not. Some of them committed serious crimes against me. Others stabbed my Spirit with their actions hoping to kill her off. None of the reality of those wrongs goes away with this process, but almost miraculously I no longer feel any tie to the wrongness or my responses to it. I know its truth but I am not tied down by it any longer.

Write your list. Start tonight. Four simple lines. 15 minutes. Are you ready to let them go yet?

Should I Stay or Should I Go

Oct 01 2016 by Allison English

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Should I Stay or Should I Go

Last year at this time I was just finishing up assisting a monthlong teacher training course alongside my teacher, Ana Forrest. It was an enlightening and grueling month of 4am mornings, intense learning and inspiring work. I oscillated all month between feeling completely in the “right place” as a yoga teacher and feeling like running away entirely. I felt alternately like a highly skilled instructor and total fraud. At the end of the month, I began a year of questioning whether I should continue being a yoga teacher at all. This wasn’t a matter of whether I “could” be a yoga teacher – I have been a yoga teacher for 14 years and the skills to do so successfully are there for me to grow from. This was more a question of whether I “should” continue being a yoga teacher or whether my Spirit was feeling restless and looking in a different direction.

For a while before assisting this teacher training I had been feeling lackluster. The politics of the “yoga world” were bringing me down. Teachers speaking badly of one another, seeing teachers with the right “look” move ahead even as their students were getting injured, the general competitiveness of a community that outwardly “supported” one another but inwardly exposed a deeply ingrained scarcity complex. I felt unappreciated for my really hard work. I spent (and spend) hours working on sequences, doing my own practice to stay inspired, educating myself to be a better and better teacher and so much more. I was feeling like all that meant nothing. Then festivals and workshop venues started questioning the number of Facebook and Instagram followers I had – as if this was a better litmus test of what kind of instructor I was than my actual teaching skills and training. Falling compensation rates, festivals not paying at all, and potential clients balking at the price of private sessions all compounded my feelings. At this time last year I had come off some comments through the grapevine about how I was getting “old” not in age but in teaching techniques, and fears of being irrelevant in the changing yoga atmosphere toward fast-paced flashy vinyasa sequences were at the forefront of my mind.

Through my work with Ana Forrest last September, each day I questioned what I was doing and why. She pushed my boundaries physically, mentally and emotionally, and questioned me about my ethics and values – not to be mean but to get me to hone in on what I really wanted from my life and to cut out the extraneous. She revealed to me as no one else could these glaring blind spots in my life and in my teaching. She has known me longer than anyone except my family, partner and a few close friends – she knows me inside and out better than I do sometimes. She can see me without the veil of my limiting beliefs and from a lifetime of her own experiences in the deep dark places. She was willing to go with me into those feelings of inadequacy and fear – to understand where they were really coming from. I’m a graceful navigator of life – a fact she reminded me of daily – and she knew better than I did that these feelings of not belonging in the yoga world were merely an indicator of another much deeper Spiritual malady and discomfort.

I was there to assist a teacher training, but she assigned me to write poems and read them out loud in front of everyone with a trembling voice. She sat with me when everyone else had partnered up for an exercise, set a timer and asked me to tell her all the secrets I had kept bottled up for so long. She listened openly about how cramped my Spirit felt in my current life. She threw me in front of the crowds coming to her intensives and encouraged me to speak in ways that I never had. Ana Forrest told me repeatedly in whispers throughout the month to, “Let the Poet speak, she has important things to say.” She left me at the end of the month with the note below: “Please schedule in writing as a daily spiritual responsibility. It’s time. Spiritual Fulfillment.”

Notes from my teacher.

Notes from my teacher.

Because while I have found tremendous fulfillment, delight and financial success as a yoga teacher, it was at the expense of some other really important dreams of my Spirit. I put on hold my ideas for books and the stories that passed by in dreams. I closed off the whispers of poems that passed through my ears while I cued elbow to knee or drove down Lake Shore Drive. I came to believe that the thing I was best at was teaching yoga. I forgot that there was a time not long ago that I did write every day. I remembered a time in my life when I lived in a internal world of magical stories made real on the page. My discomfort with my current career and all the signs around it were simply redirecting me back to the magic of these stories. The stories have been bubbling up louder and louder each year, and the roar could no longer be ignored.

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My encouraging wisdom keeping team of fellow assistants

One of the most fantastic parts of Forrest Yoga is just this: the reclaiming of our whole Self, not just the accepted one. Breath by breath, practice by practice, the tools of Forrest Yoga infiltrate life off the mat to bring about the most amazing epiphanies. From the memory of the magic of those stories I went forward and hired a shaman – Bridget Boland – to help me on the process of calling in my other parts of Spirit that needed attention. We have spent the better part of this year doing the work necessary to clear limiting beliefs, work with past mistakes, forgive myself and move ahead with a guidance from wisdom-keepers beyond my daily life.

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Having fun being our crazy selves – me and my fellow assistants September 2015.

I likely will not have the biggest Instagram following at any time. I don’t teach or sequence “traditionally” – I’m like me. I am still teaching. I decided not to go, but I made an agreement about staying. If I was going to continue teaching it had to be unapologetically on my terms. I re-cultivated my own voice and took some big risks in the topics, sequences and methods I taught from. I included more ceremonial work and anatomical instruction this year publicly than ever before. I talked about my dark spots. I read poems in class (not one of my own yet). I wrote blogs like this and journal entries more frequently than in the previous 10 years of teaching yoga full time. I stopped comparing myself to other yoga teachers and focused on what I was doing. I chose to spend time with those who really inspire me in different areas of my life. Moving into next year I turned down any work that didn’t actually support me in the teacher and person I most want to be. I made space in my schedule for writing. And I am happier for it.

Many students have stay or go questions: marriages, jobs, having children and so much more. I’m not a therapist – I have no training in that arena – but through the practices of Forrest Yoga I can help you listen to the voice of your Spirit more clearly. And through the voice of your Spirit you can feel when it is time to stay, go or simply change the balance of power of elements in your life. So a year later and a lot of reflection from whirlwind experiences over the past 12 months, I’ve decided to stay but, as many of you have noticed, with some big changes in my teaching. I hope that those changes continue so that the pieces of me long held in storage can finally get more air than my Ujjayi breathing.

Distractions

May 19 2016 by Allison English

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Distractions

We live in a world full of distractions. Texting, social media, new television shows, new movies, the next “big” life drama…the list goes on and on. As a yoga teacher for the past 14 years and a practitioner for the past 18, I have seen the state of the distracted mind get seemingly worse and worse. It was challenging for students to hold their attention through five rounds of pranayama back in 2004, now it is nearly impossible to get my newest students through even three rounds without someone checking their phone (no phones are allowed in class), looking at the clock several times or staring down everyone around them.

Just this week several students spent an entire 90 minute class texting, checking their Facebook pages and talking to one another during class – even when asked to refrain from doing these activities. They just couldn’t stop themselves from pushing the button on their phone and seeing who had texted them even though their phones were off. And this morning’s commute was snarled by a four car fender bender that happened because two of the drivers were texting and on the internet while driving in traffic. In some ways these situations bring up in me the thought that it is not entirely their fault – our culture and society have created a world of distractions and encouraged us to use them!

This state of being in the modern world has taught me to be more patient with my students as they learn how to re-train their attention to be present with one thing at a time. I continuously focus my classes on guiding students into the present moment through feeling the movement of their breath and the sensations in their body. But it has also left me curious about the nature of distractions and how we can work to improve our attention.

Every year for the past 5 or so years I have taught a class on January 1 to kick off the year. I’ve set a yearly intent to guide us through our practices as a community along the course of 12 months. We revisit the intent of the year in a few practices every month to stay connected and track how it is changing our perceptions and actions across a whole year. Several years ago I came across the Sanskrit word avikaritvam as I was reading an article about the Bhagavata Purana (a classical Indian text about Krishna). Translated as either “clarity” or “freedom from all distraction,” this word really stuck with me. It felt at the time, as it does now, like something my community needed more connection to. I set it as our yearly intent when I came across it…and it fell flat on its face. Every mention of it made my students fidgety, uncomfortable and, well, more distracted! I felt at the time like it failed to inspire anyone.

Enter today. I have returned to teaching about this concept more and more – perhaps this time around more skillfully myself. I started with my own life to inspire the teaching. Instead of just using a concept I was interested in and a word that felt wise, I looked at the distractions in my own life as a place to study this in action so that I could teach about it better. What I found alarmed me.

My social media habits were a major distraction. I love Facebook. I used to check that thing all the time. And I got into a nasty habit of comparing myself to every other yoga teacher in my feed, feeling most days like a total failure. Instagram? Love it. Who doesn’t love a cute puppy photo? Twitter…I have no idea why it is important, but I was addicted to scanning through those little snippets. I used to justify my time spent on social media as “a place I went to for inspiration” or “the way I kept in contact with friends from afar.” The truth: it was a major distraction. Nowadays I’ve broken that distraction cycle by only looking at social media sites once per day and for a time allowance. I unfriended or stopped following people that genuinely made me unhappy. I wrote down and redefined my own rules of what I post on social media, when I post it and why. I revisit those rules every few months to see if they need updating. And when I am working on something that needs my attention, I close off everything else that could distract me. I leave my phone away from me so I am not tempted to look at it.

My work habits were a major distraction. I used to book myself solid. 14 hours a day for 7 days a week? No problem! Running from client to client through traffic in rush hour at opposite ends of the city? No problem! … Wait! HUGE problem. In keeping myself so booked with work engagements, I left myself zero time (or energy) to engage with the really important things in my life. I essentially distracted myself from my own growth and delight in life by being unnecessarily busy. Today I’ve hired a “coach” and re-evaluated my schedule really honestly. I’ve let go of clients and classes in the last year – many of them. I no longer take a client when I can’t actually teach them well. I have opened up my schedule to have stretches of time for writing, being with my partner, walking my dog and hanging out with friends – activities I used to “distract” myself away from.

My mind’s creation of dramatic stories about my life was a major distraction. Unless you know me really well, you might not know that beneath the surface inside my mind used to be an incessant string of dramatic critical stories about myself and others. I could waste hours of sleep time, yoga practice time and even loved-one time by re-hashing gossip, failures, mistakes and stories I had created about who I was that I didn’t like. Talk about exhausting! And also a huge distraction away from the things that are going well in my life, that are near and dear to me, that I want to grow into and that are the actual reality of the world around me. This one was a bit harder to get around. The mind is a slippery place and gets so settled in its ways. I started by letting go of the people in my life who gossip and who want me to engage in gossip. This was easier than expected! They didn’t actually like me – they just wanted someone to collude with. Then I started recognizing when I was talking in stories that were not actually true – mostly about myself but sometimes about others. Every time I caught myself in this action, I stopped, rewarded myself for catching the behavior and moved on to something in the new habit I wanted to cultivate. Finally, the best way out of this distraction was to get back into a daily meditation practice every single morning. It’s amazing how we can rewrite our stories, untangle them and quiet our critic with just a small meditation time each day.

I’m sure there are many more ways I encounter distractions in my everyday life. These stuck out for me! When you look to your life: where do you sink into distractions? Sit with the fact that as they exist now, they are sapping your power, energy and focus. Channeling your focus through small changes in your social media habits, putting your phone completely away when you drive, re-evaluating how you keep yourself so busy, cutting out the gossip from your conversations, adding in some daily meditation and cultivating healthier habits for your mind can make all the difference. It’s so worth it! Every day feels more fresh, clear and spacious without my distractions.

Planned Spontaneity

May 02 2016 by Allison English

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Planned Spontaneity

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.” 🙂

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My 24-hour per day planners…maybe time for an inspiring upgrade from this!

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!