Playing Small

Jan 20 2018 by Allison English

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Playing Small

At the end of last year I added something to my week that I have been trying to get into for many years: a dance class. Despite years of figure skating competitively (or maybe because of that), I feel like I have a really difficult time expressing myself through movement. I’m shy (even though I am very extroverted). I feel stupid (even though I know myself to be intelligent). Those of you that know me as a yoga teacher might beg to differ about the quality of my movements as you see them in class, but yoga postures like figure skating are carefully calculated in every way. I’ve studied the alignment and feeling of yoga postures in the same way that I memorized the feeling of triple jumps.

Dance is different. Dance for me does not feel calculated even when it is choreographed. Dance feels expressive and more in the moment than anything else I have ever experienced. It has emotion and responsiveness in a way that I do not experience in yoga and that I never experienced in figure skating.

About 8 years ago when I knew I wanted to explore a style of movement through dance so different from anything I had ever done, I researched Hip Hip dance classes. In its powerful moves and sharp lines I feel a really distinct beauty. Hip Hop music sounds like poetry to me. This seemed like a type of dance I would enjoy and that would challenge me as something so different from the gracefulness and stationary nature of yoga and figure skating. I found only one class that I could make with my teaching schedule. It was a beginner level and I was so excited to try it. I anticipated that evening class all week!

It ended up being absolutely awful. I barely made it to the end and was crying on the way home in my car. The teacher did not explain anything. He went super fast through showing the choreography and chose very fast music. He picked on those of us (about 5 including myself in a room full of 40 people) who could not keep up. It was obvious the other 35 people were not beginners. He broke us into groups at the end of class and made us do the choreography in front of everyone. He put the 5 newbies together and laughed when we couldn’t do what he asked. Perhaps worst of all: at the end he told me I had no rhythm and that I shouldn’t come back. My deepest fear confirmed – point blank – I couldn’t dance. I, of course, didn’t go back.

Ever since then I’ve looked every now and then at dance classes and thought about going back to try again. I always found an excuse: I was too busy, the time was too close to one of my classes, it was too expensive, etc. Really I was just scared that I would repeat the terrible experience of my last dance class. This is ironic because I spend most of my days coaching other people through things they are scared of or feel they are not good at (think of being a beginner at a yoga class or any tight yoga pose and you get the idea). I’m also usually really good at approaching things I fear and using that experience to grow. There was something about dance that really got to me from the beginning.

Last Fall something changed. I got an email from the Old Town School of Folk Music – I think I had signed up for their mailing list at a local music event over the summer – and they listed dance classes as one of their class categories. I clicked through and noticed that they had a beginner Hip Hop dance class at a time I could actually do. I called and checked – yes it was for sure a class where beginners and non-dancers were welcomed. “The teacher is amazing,” they said, “You should try it.” I don’t really know why, but I registered as soon as I hung up the phone…for an 8 week course. I justified it as needing something new, fun and non-yoga in my week. Really I think my Spirit knew there was something deep for me here.

I was so nervous when the first class rolled around. My stomach churned. I was also excited and hopeful that this might be different. When I arrived the class was small and the other students were so nice. They talked and chatted with everyone like me who was new. It was a completely different vibe right from the beginning. The teacher came in super low-key and so nice. He led us through a warm up and some choreography. I felt awkward and stiff and out of place. He was supportive and funny. The other students helped and encouraged one another. It was a completely different experience than my last dance class. At the end of every class we got time just to free move and it was so fun. The whole thing was fun – something that had been really lacking in my life.

After a few weeks we had settled into something of a rhythm and while I still felt nervous and awkward, I didn’t ever feel judged or ashamed. Around the 3rd or 4th class our teacher said something that I will never forget. He said, “No small movements! I want to see big movements! Exaggerate it! Make it huge!” as he stepped, moved his arms and shifted his shoulders to the beat of the music in singularly sharp, rhythmic and fantastic ways. When I went through the choreography that day, I felt like for sure I was moving in an equally enormous way.

We recorded ourselves at the end of this class and when a fellow student emailed us the recording I watched in dismay. What had felt to me like huge movements of my arms, hips, shoulders and legs were in fact TINY! I barely moved and most of the time I looked at the floor as if afraid to see myself in the mirror. It was an interesting experience. I suddenly felt inside, “How long have I been playing small?” and “Where else am I playing this small and tiny in my life?”

These simple questions unlocked an enormous amount of wisdom to me. I realized that in so many ways I had been playing small for most of my life. I had worried for so long about other people that I forgot to bring my Self to the the live I’m living. I tamped down my smarts because I was “intimidating.” I stomped out my creativity in skating to please my coaches. I quieted my emotions to assuage my family. I shut my mouth out of fear of retribution from my attackers. I let fear of more hazing and harm keep me from reporting it. I “took it for the team” when attacked by colleagues instead of standing up for myself. I let bosses push me into doing things I didn’t actually support instead of sticking to my beliefs. I sidelined my own ideas to support others in their dreams. In this moment of inquiry I realized I’ve spent most of my life being so much smaller than I actually am. And I have no good reason why. I haven’t found the origin point yet of this pattern, but I realize it has dominated so much of what I do and who I am.

An old picture from my skating days when I trained at the Lake Placid Olympic Arena one summer. I remember feeling stifled and boxed in by my training – my body revolting to the grueling hours on the ice and the relentless coaching.

I’m a planner so as soon as these realizations came to the surface, I made some internal agreements about how to move forward to keep the ball rolling. I made a commitment to start practicing being “big” in my dance class. Even if I felt foolish I challenged myself each week to go a little wild. I watched our video recordings and practiced at home. I started moving to music in front of mirrors at home and actually began to (sometimes) watch myself in the mirror at dance class. From each of these small steps, huge openings started happening elsewhere in my life. I have no idea if my dancing changed at all on the outside or if anyone noticed anything different about me, but on the inside it was like a dam broke open.

Traveling to Australia and looking out at the vastness of the coastline, I remember a glimpse of this quality of Being Big.

I started to feel like I was angry at my coaches in skating for trimming me down all those years. I felt the need to reach out to high school friends that had either hurt me or tried to help me just to reconnect. I wanted to find the people who attacked me so long ago and rip them to shreds (and I am not a violent person). I wanted to talk about how many times I “bit my tongue” out of fear of how my expression would be received. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs about all the “spiritual” people who had verbally maligned me. I had an outpouring of brilliant, creative ideas that have filled pages – book outlines, poems, business plans, website ideas and so much more. I started moving/dancing all over the house. I think the arrival of the #MeToo movement around this time pushed some of my internal dam breakage as well.

This outpouring made me think: how many of us are unintentionally playing small? How many of us regularly avoid the things that make us uncomfortable? How long have we let our conditioning to please others over our self hold us back? How many times have we all ignored the evidence that we are so much greater than someone else would have us believe? I think this happens so much more than we would like to admit. I keep wondering how I missed it in myself for so long. I’m so happy that I came back to a dance class so these triggers could be brought to the surface again – perhaps with better tools and wisdom on my side at this point in my life to approach working through them.

What about you? Could you pick something that scares you – but also excites you? And then do it. Maybe it’s a new job, a new relationship, a new type of exercise, a yoga pose or a place you have always wanted to travel to. Recognize how it makes you feel and all the threads of excuses that keep you tied back from actually doing it. Tell me what you find out about yourself when you take even one step into that great “Bigness” of life. For the love of all things important in this one wild beautiful crazy life you get, please play big for all of us to see.

5 Simple Ways to Bring Silence Home

Aug 01 2017 by Allison English

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5 Simple Ways to Bring Silence Home

I am just getting back into my life here in Chicago – my home life and my teaching life – after a really intense but really enjoyable 10 day advanced silent meditation retreat with Richard Miller and Stephanie Lopez at Santa Sabina Center in San Rafael, California. There are so many gems of wisdom and experience that I want to share about this retreat with you. To do so all at once would be overwhelming – for both of us!!

To give you an idea of what this retreat was like, I think you should know about our general schedule. Our daily sessions began with an hour of chanting, pranayama and meditation in the early morning. Then we had a mid-morning 4 hour practice of seated meditation, bodysensing and a full length yoga nidra meditation. There was an afternoon break to digest our lunch and then a later afternoon 3 hour session of more seated meditation, co-meditation (meditation with a partner), walking and nature meditations, and some lecture periods. Surprise surprise I am sure – our evening sessions were 2 hours of seated meditation and sometimes more chanting, lecture, sky gazing meditations or Q&A periods. It was a lot of information and personal inquiry. We covered so many different types of meditation exercises that layered on the lessons of the day before.

Our silence was with the following agreements: no talking to one another at any time (this meant no whispering or gesturing or note writing – all creative ways to “talk” without actually speaking), no talking on cell phones (no cell phones period), no email or computer use, no numbing out with watching videos or reading fiction (we were allowed to read some of the texts that address the types of meditation we were doing), and in general we were to proceed about the retreat center with a quietness to our movements that belied our conscious awareness at all we were passing through in each moment. We were allowed at designated times to ask questions of our two teachers. We could also leave questions and notes in folders for our teachers and set up times to talk with them one on one when particularly serious things arose – and they did and I needed to!

I found myself feeling extremely creative, awake and clear during this retreat. I did not sleep very much and yet I never felt tired. My appetite and cravings completely changed and I ate a fraction of what I normally do at home. I wrote multiple blogs, almost an entire journal worth of notes and reflections, a bunch of poems and a quarter of a book I am working on – in 10 days time. I dug up some repressed emotional experiences and worked with them in the meditation setting head on. I welcomed, met and greeted all the thoughts I had not been thinking, all the emotions I had not been feeling and all the energy I had not been moving in my daily life back home. It was a tremendously therapeutic experience – so much so that I am sure to be unpacking the insights for many months to come…until I go back next year for more!

There was so much insightful learning sandwiched into every single meditation, yoga nidra and lecture session that I was almost a bit overcome with how to describe it to anyone or even take its wisdom with me into life. Being back at home I took my first weekend in Chicago to distill 5 simple practices that were really important tools from these 10 days. I wrote them down for myself and now I want to share them with you. I think these are 5 ways that ANYONE can bring the benefits of silence, meditation and quiet awareness into everyday life.

1. Take at least one meal per day where you don’t talk, email, multi-task, watch anything or communicate in any way. Uplevel by doing this in the presence of other humans. Eating in silence at first feels quite strange because the action of eating food is typically such a communal and social affair. Once you take those aspects out of eating you are left with two things: yourself and food. When it’s only you and your food you start to realize whether you eat fast or slow, do you taste your food, what do different foods feel like when you chew and swallow, how does your belly really feel after you eat certain things (especially interesting for “healthy foods” that are eating habits you might have inherited that don’t actually work for you), and do you feel distracted or agitated without the commotion of talking and sharing space with other humans socially. I’d love to hear what you learn from this one!

2. At least once per day significantly slow down the way you walk and take in all of your surroundings in detail. Without even realizing it many of us “walk” through our days at a rapid pace. We never feel the ground beneath us in its many forms. What does concrete versus grass versus asphalt versus sand versus gravel feel like? We may not pay attention to how different a bus, car and airplane feel to our bodies and minds. It is so easy in the fast pace of our modern daily life to not even see the surroundings. By the end of the 10 days at Santa Sabina I could tell you in detail where all the different trees, bushes and flower varieties were – and the gardens are extensive. We really took the time to absorb ourselves in our surroundings. I also knew the patterns of the sky and the changing levels of light as each day passed. When you slow down one of your walking or moving routes each day, you’ll start to not only see amazing things but feel a different state of mind or mood in relationship to those things.

3. Give longer periods of “free time” for contemplative practices and Being. In a culture that praises productivity and busyness it is rare to find people who just “hang out.” Without this crucial free time, humans are completely stressed out and fried mentally, physically and emotionally. We actually lose our creativity in direct proportion to our busyness. Making time for “doing nothing” and being everything is one of the most important takeaways I got from my silent retreat. Maybe you sit in silent meditation or feel some yoga poses pass through without a goal or sequence in mind. Perhaps you write free-form following the stream of your consciousness or lie down and take a nap. I dare you to pick an inanimate object and just stare at it for 30 minutes. Try any of these and let me know what happens. I think you might be surprised what opens up when you start to tune in to yourself rather than your “doing.”

Someone walked around our retreat center everyday and lit candles, turned pages and replaced gorgeous flower arrangements. The daily pages were inspiring! Here’s one from my other favorite meditation teacher Jack Kornfield.

4. Turn the technology off. Our technological advances are amazing and incredibly useful, but in so many ways they have overtaken our lives. How would you feel if you left your cell phone in a locked drawer for 10 days? How about 1 day? What if you didn’t check any of your social media for a week? Can you go a day without tv or miss an entire season of Game of Thrones? How long could you refrain from checking the news? I couldn’t believe how much energy and time was freed up to me through the simple actions that were required of me in this capacity at the retreat – no cell phones, no email, no television, no news and no internet. I lost nothing and gained an incredible amount. I also felt better about myself not looking at social media at all. I can decide what news sources I look at and how frequently, and still be highly educated about what is going on in the world. Can we check out entirely? No. Can we limit our time on these devices and set regular office hours for screen time and news time? Yes! And to great personal satisfaction and eventually with deep relaxation.

5. Be flexible with what practices you choose to do each day to sustain yourself in a state of Being and Awareness. I loved the moment when Richard Miller said something along the line of “if you are meditating every day and sitting really long, that’s not it.” What he meant was that we fixate and latch onto external practices to “give” us something when really the entire purpose of meditation is simply to remember our natural state of Being out of the essential nature of everything. This fixation on external practices turns into a vicious cycle that can make us quite rigid. Instead he offered up the insight of feeling each day what actually helps us to stay connected to a state of Being, Oneness and Awareness. Sometimes that is walking the dog, sometimes that is sitting on your meditation cushion for an hour and sometimes that is eating ice-cream watching a sunset.

One night – really late – when I couldn’t sleep – I wandered in to the chapel and saw this wonderful quote from Thomas Merton and the contemplative life. So true!

It can be incredibly uncomfortable to be silent and more aware. It means you will come face to face with whatever may be lurking underneath your physical, mental, emotional and energetic surfaces. It often feels like a case of the “Princess and the Pea” – we didn’t realize things were bothering us so much until we started paying attention and then suddenly every little thing becomes a bit of a bother for a while until there is a natural quieting down. Isn’t it so much more rewarding to welcome all these stirrings and let them come up instead of supressing them or numbing out? I think so! I know so! I hope you will take some time each day to try out these 5 simple ways you can experience some of the insights I found in my time in silence. Let me know how it goes. I’ll share more insights and practices from this retreat experience in the weeks to come to keep you exploring.

In Loving Silence

Oct 25 2016 by Allison English

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In Loving Silence

I am just returning home from a silent meditation retreat – the third one I have done in a few years. I have been meaning to write about my experiences being silent for two years – but it had been difficult before this last retreat to put into words what really happened to me when I went silent. Here is the beginning of a multi-part blog series I want to share with you about why silence is so powerful…and why I think everyone should go into silence at some point in their life.

Two years ago in November of 2014 I went on my first silent meditation retreat – four days with an iRest teacher named Anne Douglas who I didn’t know very well. She was leading a weekend retreat from a Friday evening to a Monday midday in Dayton, Ohio. It was close, a cheap flight, I liked her the one time I met her at an iRest Teacher Training and the retreat was part of the requirements for my five year foray into becoming a Certified iRest Yoga Nidra Teacher. I signed up figuring four days was an easy start, and committed to silence. Inside I felt really nervous about the whole thing.

You see, I’m a talker – a chatter. I come from a long line of mothers, daughters, aunts, sisters, cousins, nieces and grandmothers who have the gift for gab. One of my favorite verbs that I learned while studying abroad in Italy is chiacchierare (to chat). The thought of being silent for four days – not even four full days – really sent me into a spin of internal discomfort. And there is one thing I’ve learned about discomfort over the years: facing it head on has always brought me to amazing places I never knew existed.

When I arrived at Bergamo Center in Dayton, Ohio for the weekend, we signed in and got our room keys. Everyone around me either knew one another or was getting to know one another. They were all talking loudly in a little lounge area near the front door. As I signed in the woman behind the registration table got me my room key, my map of the building, a schedule, my name tag and noted that I had registered to be silent. She gave me a second tag that said, “In Loving Silence” and told me to wear it so everyone knew I was being silent for the weekend.

The tag that started it all "In Loving Silence."

The tag that started it all “In Loving Silence.”

It was in that moment I realized that not everyone had chosen to do this weekend silent…in fact only two of us had registered to be silent. I felt a ball in my throat start to form. Being quiet when everyone else was also being quiet was bad enough but absolutely do-able. Being quiet when everyone else was talking incessantly?? Not possible.

I made my way to my room and unpacked. I had a bit of time before dinner and the opening session. I made an agreement with myself to stick with my intention of being quiet even if everyone else was talking. I made my way to the loud dining hall and got some food. I sat alone because it felt weird to sit with everyone else who was talking. I’m typically very social so it felt difficult to sit alone with my food. I raced through my meal to avoid the discomfort. It was evident before the retreat sessions even began that being silent set me apart, made other people uncomfortable and was not really understood.

When we settled in to the first evening session and Anne oriented us to the weekend, she talked about why silence is such a beautiful thing – it gives us a break, it brings us up against our internal dialogue, it is a sacred space we rarely get in our everyday life. I think she had noticed during dinner that the two of us with our “In Loving Silence” badges felt a bit out of it. As a result, she decided to make periods of the entire retreat silent. She chose different meal times, different session times and a couple of evenings when EVERYONE was supposed to be silent. This was to help everyone understand the gift of silence.

I found this shift in the retreat really supportive to my endeavor to be quiet. I found it deepened my meditation and made my silence easier. I also found that the rest of the group had a terrible time with being quiet. Every silent meal people would ask for things like, “Can you pass the salt?” Or comment on the food, “Doesn’t this taste amazing?” Invariably they would then say, “Oh shoot, sorry we aren’t supposed to be talking.” As soon as everyone was out of Anne’s watchful eye, they all started talking and complaining about being quiet.

Our daily schedule included pranayama, silent meditation, guided meditation, intuitive movement/body sensing yoga practices and iRest Yoga Nidra practices. There were breaks for meals and naps. It was a steady and nourishing schedule – one that felt so far from the fast paced hectic life I led back home. It was very interesting to be a silent observer of the dynamic of other participants’ responses to the schedule, silent periods, meals and meditations. And because I was quiet, I really got to take in what was going on around me in much deeper ways than when I was normally distracted by the social chitter chatter of daily life.

At one point another participant held the door as I walked into our meditation room with her and when I didn’t say anything she said, “Well you could at least say thank you!” With a huge harrumph she stormed off. At another point in the weekend I was sitting in my room journaling and a group of other students was outside my door lamenting how me and the other woman who was in silence were being so weird and strange. I felt really judged and really unwelcome, but I held my silence and I learned so much from all of the experiences that weekend. During the meditations I noticed how many of the other participants could not sit still in the quiet – they constantly had to be sighing, mumbling, moving props around, slurping water or tea, or apologizing out loud for making noise. My own silence made every other sound around me amplified. It was fascinating!

Here are the TOP 5 of many things I learned on this retreat while being silent.

  1. My silence made others uncomfortable because they had to confront their own loudness. It can be really a challenge to meet and greet our less desirable characteristics so we often use things like talking to gloss over going inside ourselves for self-discovery.
  2. My discomfort at making others uncomfortable was a challenge. I realized I really like to people please and fix things.
  3. When you are silent for extended periods you can really examine your motivations for talking – you feel the urge to speak come up and because you don’t act on it you can study it instead. I found that I always wanted to chime in because I wanted to be viewed as smart, worthy and/or likable. Because I couldn’t chime in all weekend, I had to meet and greet those feelings and stories inside me about being stupid, unworthy and unloveable. A few days of silence gave me more than years of talk therapy in those arenas!
  4. Being alone and silent was also a particular gift of this retreat. Because I wasn’t making social connections, I was often in my room by myself. And without email or internet or social media, I truly felt “cut off” and alone in the best sense of the word. I am almost never alone in my regular life – there is always someone around me or some technology calling me to check in. Spending time silent and alone without technology brought up huge insights into my desires to write again, a longing to ice skate and a feeling of wanting to go back to a spiritual setting each week (like church!!). These were strange longings. I dreamed in poems. I frantically scribbled out nearly a dozen book ideas in those four days. And without having the quiet silence alone, I don’t think I would have gotten back into writing or taken myself ice skating more often or picked up my spiritual practices again.
  5. Being silent makes you a great listener and observer. There is so much more to the minutiae of daily life that gets lost in the hustle and bustle of our noise.

I left my time with Anne feeling inspired and quite rested. I didn’t want to talk. On the plane ride home and for several days after the retreat, I really spoke very little. Silence left me feeling introspective, raw and vulnerable. I loved it and knew that it needed to be a bigger part of my life, but I wasn’t sure how it fit as a piece into my daily schedule and yearly calendar. I let everyone know when I got back just how refreshing silence was, and how much easier it was than I thought it would be. This first foray into silence began a journey that has continued and influenced so much of my life in wider rippling circles. I’m excited for this series of blogs to share that journey with you and hopefully to inspire you to get quiet and experience your Self and the world around you in a profoundly different way.

Start small: 10 minutes of silence (verbally and technologically) starting now. Report back on how it goes!

 

The Warrior’s Heart

May 31 2016 by Allison English

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The Warrior’s Heart

This morning in my Memorial Day yoga class at Equinox, the intent was to practice from a Forrest Yoga concept called “Building Your Warrior’s Heart.” This practice relates to using backbending poses to release hardening in the areas of the chest, shoulders, upper back and ribs – bringing in a fresh new energy and resiliency to the area around the heart. When the backlog of hardness around the heart is opened there is an ability for deep breaths to penetrate long held layers of emotion and release long dormant waves of feeling. As these energies release there is a clearing of emotional stuckness and a meeting of the experiences of life from a distinct softness, freshness and strength. The purpose of building a warrior’s heart is to remind Spirit of the counsel of heart energy in life decisions and actions – to help give the energy of the heart a strong set of legs, a clear head and wide reaching pair of wings so that it can fly through all avenues of the life path. When your Spirit feels the freedom of your heart to experience life, you are able to more readily absorb the sweetness and Beauty around you, and to take action from the preciousness of the life by which you are surrounded. This practice felt important on this day when we pause to honor and remember the warriors in our culture who have died so that we may live out our lives in freedom.

Both of the lineages that I work in – Forrest Yoga and iRest Yoga Nidra – have made strong headways into working with veterans, and lately I have been feeling a call in similar directions. I’ve been thinking a lot these days about veterans in general and specifically about a Grandfather that I never met. I’ve been curious about the stories of the lives of veterans after they come home from serving our country, and recently I came across some rather remarkable information related to this particular Grandfather I never knew. His story has been fascinating me – I think in part because I have been thinking so much about how cycles in history seem to repeat themselves. Our time right now feels like certain aspects of his time are being repeated – tragically. Genocide, repression, fear, power struggles. He was a celebrated World War II veteran and did some extraordinary things overseas…and then he quietly returned home to raise his family and support them through their lives without really ever talking about the remarkable things he did during the war. His service was tremendous – as was that of thousands of other servicemen and women in that war and countless others – and then coming home it feels like part of that incredible service is forgotten or unknown. Our country and so many others are built upon the belief, conviction and service of these members of our military. At times I think we forget or misunderstand their incredible sacrifice that has brought about our way of life. I feel drawn to know more about their stories and to play a part in remembering them not just one day a year, but each and every day I get to live a life in a free country.

Grandpa, Austria 1945

Grandpa, Austria 1945

So today as I am thinking of him and so many others like him past and present, I’m also feeling the importance of developing our own warrior’s heart as a way of honoring the gift their service has given us – as a way of honoring our own freedom. When we sit in counsel with the wisdom of our heart, we know our own values, we can process our life experiences better and we can move into the world in a really powerful way without being bound by our old emotions or our troublesome experiences. We each have the power and responsibility not only to honor those who have fought to protect and serve our country, but also to develop within ourselves the strength and suppleness of heart to move forward in the world with compassion, self-awareness, softness and strength. We have an incredible capacity as humans to care and tend for things – this is the wisdom I hope we bring forth from our warrior’s heart. May we care for each other, tend to the garden of humanity and grow a world we can be really proud of.