The Company You Keep

Aug 22 2016 by Allison English

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The Company You Keep

While I was away traveling and teaching yoga, I missed a dear friend’s birthday. I was in Peterborough teaching a part of the Forrest Yoga Foundation Teacher Training for a couple of days and then I visited my family in London. One afternoon during my time in London we decided to go to a proper afternoon tea sitting at Fortnum and Mason – a really old, iconic department store with a beautiful tea room. It was an incredible experience – so delicious and so filling. They were even able to accommodate my gluten free diet.

The beautiful tea setting at Fortnum and Mason.

The beautiful tea setting at Fortnum and Mason.

When I got home I asked my friend and another if they wanted to go out to an afternoon tea here in Chicago at the Peninsula Hotel to celebrate Friend #1’s birthday. I’m so happy they agreed! We met up today and sat around for a couple of hours sipping on delicious teas, eating finger sandwiches and tiny cakes. We sang a really quiet happy birthday to our friend so as not to alarm the calm tea room. We talked about our lives and laughed and smiled. I left feeling totally reset and uplifted.

My gluten free tower of tea treats at Peninsula Hotel Chicago. YUM!

My gluten free tower of tea treats at Peninsula Hotel Chicago. YUM!

Here’s the thing: each one of us could have spent those two hours complaining, whining or otherwise reminiscing about some of the really hard, challenging and awful things we are passing through these days (or have passed through). We each have them – really intense things that are the stuff of our life now and before. Instead each one of us spoke about our current wins, our delights and joys, the challenges we have overcome and who helped us. We talked about role models and inspirations that kept us going on days that felt tough. We encouraged one another on current paths that are really uncharted territory. In short, we had our own little empowerment tea meet-up – and it was glorious. We each got to be ourselves full on – vulnerable and raw – and to feel the support of the two others in that open state. We simply and yet very profoundly delighted in each others company. And because of that lovely company, we only have pictures of food!

I came home to see a post from a new Forrest Yoga Teacher who was traveling with a friend and realized she used to be a “misery loves company” kind of gal – and now she couldn’t stand it. I thought back to the many times in the not so distant past that I would dramatically change myself in desperate attempts to get people to like me or commiserate with coworkers complaining endlessly about this or that – our negativity and my inauthenticity fueling a downward spiral. I would hope to find community by fitting in or “doing the right thing” only to feel left out and alone. And I got to thinking about how far I’ve come with the company I keep as a result of my internal practices of inquiry. What a difference it has made in the quality of my life to actively filter the influences around me so they support the person I most want to become. Also how accountable I have become of my own actions in sustaining my energy and purpose.

There were many times in my life when I had little choice about the company I kept. As a figure skater I was placed around other figure skaters who trained at my same level. We were all so competitive with one another that nothing ever felt friendly or real. As a really nerdy high school student I never felt like I fit in anywhere so I didn’t really keep much company – I moved around between many groups never really staying long enough for anyone to get to know me. In college I received a scholarship contingent upon me living in a house full of other scholarship recipients and I didn’t even get to choose a roommate. It constantly felt like house full of strangers with a few exceptions. It was not until recently that I made the company I keep a conscious act.

The people we are surrounded by day in and day out have a real affect on how we feel. We have some choices about who we spend the majority of our time around. I know that we can’t always choose family situations or work colleagues, but we can profoundly support ourselves by monitoring who we let “in.” I used to think I had to let everyone in. As a result, I put forth a really diluted version of myself – I think one of my fellow Forrest Yoga colleagues called it my vanilla version! When I made it an active endeavor to fill my life with the kind of people I most wanted to be in my field of energy and in my heart, I felt different. Suddenly it was as if the world was in color again and the energy of life around me was on fire.

To be vulnerable, open and authentic around people and to feel their love and support is a magical gift. I decided that I wanted to surround myself with those kind of people – the ones who saw me just as I am: a perfectly imperfect human and love me anyway. The people who I can talk to about major screw ups without feeling like I’ll lose them. The people who inspire me to be a better version of myself, who help me on the days I lose my path, who remind me of my inherent goodness. And these people are the ones that I can also love as perfectly imperfect beings and reciprocate back to.

One of my favorite poems, “The Invitation,” by Oriah Mountain Dreamer has a line: “I want to know if you will stand in the centre of the fire with me and not shrink back.” And each and every time I reach into the question if I’m keeping the best company that will propel me forward, I ask internally if this person would stand with me in my own personal fire of life. If the answer is yes, I know I’ve found my person. If the answer is no, I move on now.

I’m thankful for the presence of really supportive people in my life these days. I send prayers and blessings of lovingkindness to those I had to let go of or part ways with over the years for various reasons. The process has made me more comfortable in my own skin and stronger in my life path. So now I ask you, do you like the company you keep? And if not, where is it time to make a change? And if yes, can you say a thank you for those that bolster you up just for being you? I’m thanking my two friends for not only a glorious tea date, but also just the inspiration I needed in a laughter, cake-filled, conversational afternoon.

The Path of Passion

Jul 16 2016 by Allison English

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The Path of Passion

As part of my birthday celebration, a dear student and friend gifted me a ticket to see the incredible Adele perform at the United Center last Monday. I’ve lived in the Chicagoland area my whole life, and I love music, but I had never been to the United Center nor had I ever seen a “big” show like this one. I was excited and nervous all at the same time! Walking into that huge space surrounded by so many excited people was overwhelming and beautiful.

I love Adele’s music and I have all her albums, but I wouldn’t say that I am a superfan or anything. I don’t know the words to every song. I don’t know her whole story. I guess I should say, “I didn’t” because now I am a superfan, have been binge listening to her songs all week and have tried to learn more about her.

To say I left her concert inspired is a gross understatement – I left her concert moved very deeply into my very core. From the glorious first moment when her voice suddenly said a melodic “Hello” to us as she rose from the floor to the stage to the final lyrics of a third encore and an explosion of confetti spilled out over the crowds, I was struck by her raw passion. This is a woman who not only wrote and performed incredible music, but also relayed to us between songs the humanity of her experience raising her son, losing and finding her creativity again after taking a “break” to be a Mum, and her trials with love over the years. She joked about how she only has two happy songs and the rest were there for us to cry together about. She told us about how she loved our city and what she did while here. She pulled people up from the crowd and sang with them, hugged them and took selfies with them.

Rising up from below the stage as she sang "Hello" - the one and only Adele.

Rising up from below the stage as she sang “Hello” – the one and only Adele.

In short, she spoke to a crowd of thousands – and me – as if we were close friends catching up over dinner at the end of the week. With every song, the richness and emotion of every note came pouring out of her. Just thinking about it again, I get goosebumps. She was an example of passion made into real life. Adele never downplayed the hard work or the challenges it took to get where she is today – she spoke about them eloquently. Behind every story you could hear a determination, an open heart and a strong Spirit, and that passion comes through in her music – it’s probably one of the reasons we love her so much! For myself and so many others, I think that living a life on our path of passion can be such a challenge and we need people like Adele to remind us how much energy is released and uplifted when we let our passions move through our lives.

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Seeing the emotion in her every facial expression on the big screen during the concert was incredible.

I’ve spent the better part of the past 14 years teaching my students through Forrest Yoga to follow their passions – to play on their long hidden talents, strengths and desires both on and off the mat. I’ve helped people to completely change their life paths to more passionate and fulfilling ones – whether their yoga practice has helped with a job change, relationship change or the birth of a new child. It is such rewarding work and so beautiful to see Spirit unfold as students really listen and feel their inner heartfelt desires for their lives come forth. All the while, I’ve been able to do something that I love: teach. I have a really full and rewarding career teaching yoga.

But somewhere along the way, I buried some of my other passions. I have let myself get consumed with teaching and with helping others to find their life paths. My busyness helped me cope with the “messy side” of some of my passions. If I just kept looking outside to the work I was doing with others, I thought I could just move through my life without having to work through the unpredictability that my creative side embodied. The science-brain, Type A, perfectionist side of my personality really likes predictable schedules, sequences, order and answers. My passionately creative side honors no schedule (she usually chimes in late at night when I like to sleep), does not give me things in any order or sequence (line 20 of the poem arrives before line 1), and usually offers up very cryptic answers if any at all.

So all the while the poems, stories, characters and books kept knocking inside my head. For many years now – probably since I was about 14 and started doing yoga – I would find myself scribbling words on scratch paper while sitting in class or more recently at a stoplight. I would wake up at night having had conversations with characters who don’t exist yet. I dreamed during long savasanas at Ana Forrest workshops in rhymes, only to have the words leave me as soon as I woke up. I would go through periods after buying my first Kindle of devouring books every couple of days – completely absorbed in the stories I was reading. When I was younger I would spend the summers reading more than 50 books in three months.

You see, one of my paths to passion is through words. I have kept journals since I was really young. The old ones have stories and poems throughout them. I wrote for contests all the way up into high school. And then when I was injured figure skating, and that whole part of my life was abruptly taken away from me – something changed. I lost my passion. I channeled myself into AP classes, working as a caddie, going to college – I channeled myself into what I thought success was. I finished two Bachelor’s degrees and a whole lot of engineering curriculum (without a degree) in just four years. I studied and taught yoga. I worked at the Field Museum after college. I then threw myself into teaching yoga full time, managing at a gym, working on teacher training and building an incredible life with my partner (and pets). I started a blog because “that’s what yoga teachers do.” Really, I essentially stopped writing for my creative heart after my skating injury. Skating had been a huge path of passion and it was so unceremoniously destroyed by a big fall. Deep inside I think I worried that would happen with my other passions if I kept letting them out to play so why not lock them away? Surely my writing would never be “good enough” anyway…

I’ve written about this in my newsletter and mentioned it in a few blogs, but I have spent the past 6 months working in depth with a shaman. My shaman is also a published author and all around incredible woman (you are Bridget Boland). We opened up a bunch of old boxes inside me full of lots of things to work on: limiting beliefs, tendencies towards overworking, old emotions I hadn’t processed…And once out of the box I started to realize that one of the biggest things missing in my life was my creative side. One of the biggest things I boxed away was a huge passion of my heart.

I’ve taken up writing in my journal again. I’ve been blogging more regularly (and with more vulnerability). I’ve been writing poems again. I started to write down those characters that come to me at night in my dreams. It’s messy. It’s scary. It will ask of me – and is asking of me – that I change a lot about how I have set up my life. I feel a whole host of strange shifts happening. And when my shaman said to me on a phone check up today, “What is the priority now?” There were a whole jumble of answers yelling back and forth between my heart and my brain to that question.

Confetti from the concert - copies of handwritten lyrics and sayings from Adele

Confetti from the concert – copies of handwritten lyrics and sayings from Adele

So I’m thinking of Adele, and her stories about the risks and tribulations she passed through to be this force of nature with her music. I’m thinking of her stage fright, her inner critic, the messiness she expressed about her own life path – and how she went after her passion anyways. Even when it made other people uncomfortable (she talked about her ex not being able to handle her success), even when she thought she had lost her way (she talked about her post-partum feelings affecting her music writing), even when she thought no one might like her new music (and then she sold a bag-gillion albums). I feel more inspired to go after mine. Not that I’ll be anything near an Adele-force, but something passionate is brewing and I need to walk its path to see where it leads. There are too many “what ifs” if I don’t. I hope that you will risk taking your passions out into the open too and making them a part of your life. The more we each bring of our whole Self to this world, the better and more beautiful it becomes.

Weaving Our Web

Jul 07 2016 by Allison English

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Weaving Our Web

This summer the spiders outside our home have been busily weaving the most beautiful webs all over our deck and windows. I don’t actually like spiders – they scare me a little bit! But their glistening, strong webs have had me thinking lately about the weaving of the web of humanity – and its strength and fragility of late.

When I came to practice Forrest Yoga, Ana Forrest spoke often about the mission of her methodology of yoga to teach in a way that helped “Mend the Hoop of the People.” At the time, I was a teenager and I didn’t understand much of what she meant when she used that phrase. As I practiced with her longer, I came to more clearly comprehend her deep personal commitment to help heal the broken connections between individuals, cultures, countries and inside each person’s own Spirit as a way of strengthening the web of humanity – one person, one class, one yoga pose, one breath at a time. The depth of this mission has never felt so pressing to me as of late.

As we spent a weekend celebrating our country’s Independence Day this 4th of July, I kept thinking of one of the oldest motto’s of the United States – E pluribus unum – Out of many, one. If my AP US History still serves me, this original motto was a description of the colonies joining together to become one nation and how much stronger they were as a united front. I understand that their bonding together pitted them against other nations in wars and violence, but I still feel there is an importance foreshadowed by these words – an importance bigger than just our country.

This is time when divisiveness is at an all time high: socially, politically, economically and even individually. We are many faiths, political systems, economies, communities and people – and yet we make up one country here in the US and one world if you take this post to a global level. Our human people are not only divided against each other, but also can carry within their own minds and hearts deep personal disconnects. Our web – our hoop of people – feels broken and fractured. In her book, Fierce Medicine, that is exactly how Ana describes the story of Black Elk – a Lakota medicine man who spoke of a vision of the hoop of the people – as inspiring her personal mission. I understand my teacher’s urgency to help people learn how to breathe deeply, to meditate, to connect with their Spirit’s wisdom and to live a life according to the delicate balance and harmony of everything’s interconnectedness. There are lights in the darkness when I see children being raised differently and more openly, when I see my yoga students developing new insights and connections to their own Spirits, when I see other humans providing random acts of kindness and gratitude, and when I focus on the people who are doing really healing things for humanity all over the globe.

I have friends, colleagues and even family members of many different religions, political parties, socioeconomic groups and corners of the world. As someone who has the absolute privilege to travel and see different parts of the world, I often marvel at how similar we are despite vast differences in food, religion, political opinions and ways of life. For some reason I can see and feel the similarities more strongly than the differences. When I studied anthropology and worked for several years as a museum anthropologist, I felt this curiosity for other ways of life continue to grow. I would look at a basket woven in North America and see the same shape in some pottery from Asia, all the while thinking about how really different expressions had common bases. Sometimes I am overcome with the feeling that not everyone is as curious or as able to see similarities in the midst of difference.

Lately I have been sensing a deeply held cynicism in many news reports and social media postings about the state of the world – it is really easy to be beat down by what I hear and what I read. Countries oppressing their people or worse torturing them. Wars around the globe. Vast income inequality growing by the day. Racism. Distrust. Terrorism. Disease. Hunger. Suffering on so many levels. There are a lot of things to be concerned about. But each day that I’ve been meditating recently, all that comes up is this feeling of “Out of many, we are one.” This is, in addition to a national motto, also a foundational yogic principle in several non-dual philosophical lineages. Where yogic philosophy might have spoken about breath, mind and body relating together as one, or the Witness and the Witnessed as one, today it feels like what happens in Turkey, the United Kingdom, Iraq, Bangladesh and the United States is all connected. Where one part of our human web is suffering, the whole is suffering.

The opposite also arises as true: as one of us learns to be understanding, it ripples out along the web of humanity. As another of us chooses love over hatred, it sends a signal out to others to choose love. When we choose to live the life of our deepest wisdom – our Spirit – and not our fear – we inspire others to seek out their deepest wisdom and Spirit. If we can feel and see each person on this planet as an integral part of a bigger picture – if we can all start to see out of the many, we are one – then the ripples get a little bigger and things start to change. Does this mean our differences go away? No – absolutely it does not. It means that we find a deep sense of peace in connecting to one another profoundly in spite of our differences.

If I worry about having an effect half a world away, but I ignore my own health or the issues of my community – my worry doesn’t do much. When I choose to take action in my own life and in the communities I am a part of, the impact can be tremendous. So here is my suggestion: let’s take inspiration from our forefathers and put back into action the idea that out of many, we are one people. Start small. Pick one action in your daily life that makes a difference in how you openly and clearly experience the world around. Pick an issue that a community you are a part of is facing and take some action related to it. As your interconnectedness with your own Self and the world you live in grows, expand your reach outside your state or outside your country.

Here are some ideas for yourself, your community, your state, your country and your world:

  1. Meditate, Pray, Do Yoga, Take Tai Chi or Qi Gong, Go for a Long Walk in Quiet – feel how contemplative practices of all varieties connect you back into yourself
  2. Volunteer in your community – spend an afternoon at a food pantry or soup kitchen, visit a senior citizen’s home, read books to kids
  3. Make a donation of time, gently used items or money that benefits a different community outside of your own – remember that even the smallest ripples spread out far and wide so don’t worry about “how much” you donate or give
  4. Write your government representatives about what is important to you and the changes you would like to see supported
  5. Get a pen pal – you can sign up for programs where you write letters to armed service personnel on overseas deployment, you can also write to students who are learning in English in other countries
  6. Go travel – whether it is within your local area or beyond, learn how other people live outside of your regular daily life
  7. Read sources of news and information from other countries – this might lend you different lenses for understanding similar stories
  8. Remind yourself to stay open in the midst of people who have vastly different ways of life or belief

This week as I am celebrating my country, I’m also reminding myself of a greater community I’m a part of – humanity. I’m looking for ways big and small, daily and beyond to help feel more connected and strong as a part of this web of human beings. I’m recommitting myself to a vision of a world where there is a more supportive and woven web throughout humanity across borders and differences – and I hope I can inspire you to come with me in that vision!